Thursday, 11 July 2013

Releasing Wadjda

Wadjda is an 11-year old girl living in a grotty part of Riyadh who chafes under the restrictions of life for females in the ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where a strict interpretation of religious dogma permeates every aspect of life.  She is friendly with Abdullah, a boy in the neighbourhood, and desperately wants to own a bicycle so that she can beat him in a race.  Doing small deals isn’t going to bring in the cash she needs to buy the new green bike she covets, but then she hears about the Koran-reciting contest at school, the prize money from which would be more than enough to buy her dream machine.  Unfortunately there are two problems with her scheme.  Firstly, the contest requires a lot of memorisation, and the opposition is tough.  Secondly, even if she wins, girls just don’t cycle, so she will face severe opposition if she tries.  Women must be virtuous, and bicycling falls into the category of immodest actions.  Meanwhile Wadjda’s father, disappointed that her mother cannot give him a son, is thinking of taking another wife and is absent for much of the time to show his displeasure at wife number one’s lack of procreative ability.

In a country which forbids to women human rights taken for granted elsewhere, such as to vote or drive, it is impressive that a woman has managed to make a film, especially as she had to obtain permission to do so from the government.  Not that director Haifaa Al Mansour learned her trade in Saudi Arabia.  She had to study film in Australia, and for her film’s outdoor scenes had to direct from a van, watching on a monitor, because of the prohibition on men and women congregating together in public.

Wadjda is the sort of film that Western liberals will coo over, believing that here is a depiction , in a deeply repressive culture, of a positive female role model.  If young Wadjda can follow her dream, there is hope for other women in Saudi Arabia: it won’t always be the bigoted, misogynistic country it is at present, they‘ll think.  Unfortunately that view is somewhat rosy, and Wadjda, and the director who put her adventure on screen, are very much the exceptions that will prove the iron rule.  The achievement is certainly remarkable, but as a piece of social propaganda it will not make a jot of difference to the everyday lives of ordinary Saudi women.  Even if they were able to see it, something that depends on the will of husbands and fathers, how would they relate it to their own lives, and to what extent would the men viewing it consider the power they wield to be unjust and without moral legitimacy?

What is particularly dispiriting is the way in which women are shown to be complicit in their own repression.  Wadjda’s mother, clearly an intelligent woman, is shocked that a friend is working alongside men at the local hospital, and has her face uncovered.  She initially scoffs at Wadjda’s cycling aspiration, and tells her that girls who cycle can’t have babies.  The head teacher at Wadjda’s school, with her sour face, ensures that her charges internalise the restrictive mores of society.  Even Wadjda’s baseball boots are considered transgressive and she is told by the head to wear conventional black shoes.  Wadjda’s response, to colour the white caps with a black felt-tip, is a very minor act of rebelliousness, one that only works by not being noticed.  Yet the boots are seen as emblematic of her defiance of social norms in the English-language poster.  The Italian-language version seems rather more honest in its summation of the film, though pink is impossibly racy even for Saudi girls who, like their elders, stick to regulation black in public.

 What then of Wadjda, and her yearning for independence in a society that prohibits it for women.  By making her pre-pubescent, her actions can be discounted, because what she can get away with would not be acceptable if she were several years older.  Also the film has an easy way out by having her father away from home most of the time, thereby removing him as an authority figure from the house Wadjda shares with her mother.  Waad Mohammed, who plays Wadjda, turns in a fantastic performance, but you wonder how different her life is from that of the character she plays, and how typical is the freedom she enjoyed, given that she was allowed to act in a film at all, compared to her peers.

In real life, if Wadjda carried on in this way she might be expected to be married off as a troublesome daughter (and one of her classmates, not much older, comes to Koran class and says she has been married to a 20-year old man), or even find herself the victim of an ‘honour’ killing.  This is after all the country where a father murdered his daughter for chatting to a man on Facebook, and where a brother shot dead his two sisters for mixing with men to whom they were not related.  Wadjda is a fantasy, a superficially uplifting film that seems to bear little relationship to lives as they are actually lived.

There is a telling moment when Wadjda is looking at her father’s family tree, which is painted on a large piece of board.  There are no women’s names on it because women don’t count so, refusing to be invisible, she writes her name on a piece of paper and pins it on next to her father’s name.  Later she finds that the paper has been torn off and screwed up.  That acts as a metaphor of the invisibility of women in Saudi society.  The film’s concluding shot is of a triumphant Wadjda looking off into the distance.  But it is the same sort of illusory freedom that Antoine experiences on the beach at the end of Les Quatre Cents Coups, and just as Antoine has not escaped, so Wadjda is still a prisoner of her society, and it will surely eventually crush her individualism.  An uplifting ending to a film does not necessarily translate into a happy fulfilled life.

As an example of this illusory freedom, apparently Saudi women can ride bicycles now – but only in restricted recreational areas.  Wadjda’s mother and other local women have to rely on a boorish male driver to get around, both sides well aware of the power he wields over them.  A bicycle is one means of obtaining some autonomy, but not if you can only use it in an area reserved for recreation, and doubtless segregated.  While the Arab Spring has brought radical changes to other countries in the region, on this evidence Saudi Arabia seems remarkably untouched.  Wadjda is not about change, as al Mansour has claimed, it is about stagnation.  There is a reason why the Saudi government allowed it to be made.  They must have thought the subject safe and unthreatening to the status quo, and they were correct.

Much of the press coverage of the film will undoubtedly use the word ‘optimistic’, but I found the experience of watching it deeply pessimistic and depressing, even while amused at Wadjda’s antics.  Al Mansour said in an interview that “I hope it will inspire many girls in Saudi to become filmmakers … That makes me very proud.”  Well that would be good, and one can only hope that her dream is fulfilled and that she herself goes on to make more films about the experience of being a woman in Saudi Arabia.  But she also said, in a chillingly offhand way, “People have contacted me with death threats, but that doesn't matter to me. Everyone in the media business in Saudi receives death threats.”  Wadjda won’t have to get much older before she starts getting death threats too, if she doesn’t mend her ways and remember her modesty.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Archie Roy obituary

 My obituary of Professor Archie Roy appeared in the ‘Necrolog’ section of Fortean Times No 301, May 2013, p.24.  There were the usual minor editorial alterations, but the editor inserted a short section towards the end relating to several of Archie’s activities which he lifted from the Guardian’s obituary.  Their inclusion in FT almost word for word unfortunately made me look like a plagiarist:

Guardian: “He also played the organ, painted and was an adequate amateur magician. His laconic ability as a raconteur and love of poetry also made him a sought-after speaker at Burns suppers.”

FT: “His love of poetry made him a sought-after speaker at Burns suppers.  He played the organ and painted, and was an adequate amateur magician.”

I’m reprinting my FT obituary here as submitted, plus a follow-up letter which appeared two issues later.  I first knew Archie when he was president of the Society for Psychical Research in 1992-5 and we both attended Council meetings.  He was as genial and knowledgeable as the many tributes indicate, and his talks were always thoroughly enjoyable.  The photograph was taken by me at the 2009 SPR conference at Nottingham; Archie is standing on the right.

Archie Roy

Archie Roy made significant contributions to both astronomy and psychical research.  The son of a draughtsman at the Glasgow shipyards, he was educated at Hillhead high school and Glasgow University, obtaining his PhD in 1954.  After initially teaching school science, he joined the university's department of physics and astronomy in 1958 as a lecturer, rising to professor in 1977. He retired in 1989. 

Professionally, he was a distinguished astronomer, an expert on celestial mechanics and astrodynamics, and with an interest in archaeoastronomy.  In the 1960s he worked as a consultant to NASA, helping to calculate trajectories for the Lunar Orbital Program.  He was a member of the International Astronomical Union, which in 1986 named an asteroid after him, 5806 Archieroy, in recognition of his contributions to astronomy.  Among his many achievements, he was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the British Interplanetary Society, and the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

The fascination with space was matched by one with psychical research.  Roy’s interest in the latter began in the 1950s when, as he told it, he was wandering round the old Glasgow University library and came across shelves devoted to psychical research and Spiritualism.  At first dismissive, he glanced at some of the volumes and saw names he recognised, such as William James, Sir William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge.  His curiosity got the better of him and he was hooked.

He joined the Society for Psychical Research in 1973, becoming a frequent contributor to its publications and conferences.  He was President 1992-1995, and afterwards was elected a vice-president.  In 2004 he was awarded the SPR’s rarely-bestowed Myers Memorial Medal in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the field.  In 1987 he founded and was the first president of the Scottish Society for Psychical Research, remaining its honorary president.

Roy’s interests included consciousness research and the entire range of psychical phenomena, but particularly life after death.  While cautious in assessing the evidence, he felt that survival of bodily death was the most parsimonious explanation for it.  He was a valuable member of the SPR’s Survival Research Committee and sat with a number of mediums, including a visit to Scole in Norfolk to examine the remarkable phenomena being reported by Robin and Sandra Foy’s circle.  While there, he had a complex discussion with an apparent discarnate entity about astronomy at a level he thought would have been beyond all but a handful of specialists in the country.

A major initiative in which he was involved was PRISM (Psychical Research Involving Selected Mediums), a rare collaboration between Spiritualists and psychical researchers.  With his long-term collaborator Tricia Robertson he conducted a five-year study analysing mediums’ readings, publishing three papers in the SPR’s Journal.  These were generally well received, though the methodology and statistical analyses were subjected to some criticism.

Roy also investigated haunted houses and poltergeist cases, notably a poltergeist at Maxwell Park, Glasgow, in 1974-5, the handling of which influenced the approach adopted by Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair at Enfield.  These activities led him to be dubbed “Glasgow's ghostbuster”.  Always concerned about ethics, he balanced a desire for knowledge with his duty towards vulnerable witnesses, and he brought keen psychological insight to the dynamics of a situation.  His down-to-earth approach was indicated by his self-deprecating description of himself as a “paranormal plumber” in his efforts to resolve cases.

A prolific and versatile writer, he published about twenty books, some on astronomy, but also six novels, which usually included a paranormal element; more than seventy scientific papers; and many articles.  His books on psychical research, A Sense of Something Strange: Investigations into the Paranormal (1992) and Archives of the Mind (1996) were influential, but his last major work, The Eager Dead (2008), ten years in the writing, was something of a bombshell.

This is a lengthy examination of the famous cross-correspondences produced by a number of mediums, widely separated geographically, in the first decades of the twentieth century.  The method essentially was for each medium to receive, independently, parts of messages from a group of deceased communicators.  Only when the pieces were combined would a message become clear, indicating the survival of the message’s communicator.

But the aim went beyond proving an ability to transmit complex classical allusions.  Roy’s book outlines The Plan, hatched by the alleged communicators to create a new Messiah who would usher in world peace.  The scheme resulted in a child, Henry, born in 1913 to Winifred Coombe Tennant (the medium Mrs. Willett) and Gerald Balfour, both of whom happened to be married to other people.  While Henry’s paternity had been known to some, this was the first time it had been made public.  Roy details the ins and outs of the cross-correspondences (necessarily simplified) and The Plan, maintaining a remarkably non-judgemental tone.

Roy was always happy to discuss his activities and was a welcome media guest, appearing regularly on BBC Scotland television and radio programmes.  A clear and witty speaker, for many years he and Robertson gave evening classes in psychical research at Glasgow University's Department of Adult and Continuing Education.  He possessed an outgoing personality and was a noted raconteur.  His sense of humour can be gauged by his remark that “if I die and I find out I have not survived, I will be very surprised!"  One hopes that he is not in a state of surprise, and is still examining celestial mechanics.

Archibald Edminston Roy BSc, PhD, FRAS, FRSE, FBIS, astronomer and psychical researcher, born Yoker, Glasgow 24 June 1924; died Drumchapel Hospital, Glasgow 27 December, 2012, aged 88.

– O–

After publication of the obituary, I read Poltergeist over Scotland by Geoff Holder, reviewing it for the SPR website.  Geoff had a section on the 1974-5 ‘Maxwell Park’ case, and I was surprised to find that it did not occur there at all, but at Balornock, on the other side of Glasgow.  The following correction was printed in the letters section of FT, No 303, p.71, under the heading ‘Glasgow Polt’:

My obituary of Professor Archie Roy [FT301:24] contains an inadvertent error.  I noted that “Roy also investigated haunted houses and poltergeist cases, notably a poltergeist at Maxwell Park, Glasgow, in 1974-5….”  The Maxwell Park case is described in his book A Sense of Something Strange: Investigations into the Paranormal (Glasgow: Dog and Bone, 1990, pp.210-21).  He had collaborated with Rev Max Magee, and he stated that apart from his and Magee’s, the names of those concerned had been changed.  He did not, however, say that ‘Maxwell Park’ was a pseudonym.  As recently as 2008, in an interview he gave to researcher Michael Tymn, he still referred to “the Maxwell Park case” (though incorrectly dating it to 1972).  (

Archie had indeed altered the location: it was not at Maxwell Park, on the south side of Glasgow, but in Northgate Quadrant, Balornock, on the opposite side of the city.  Geoff Holder covers the case in his recent Poltergeist over Scotland, Stroud: The History Press, 2013, pp.158-66.  He supplies the real location and the participants’ names, and provides a number of references for those wishing to pursue this fascinating case in further detail.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Ivor Mills and the British Telecom Tower Logo

Ivor Mills, in his prime

I have been reading about the history of the British Telecom Tower, and this reminds me of one of my favourite anecdotes, of which I have a number, from my time working for British Telecom.  At the beginning of 1984 I joined the about-to-be privatised BT as a junior manager.  My first job was in the 150-strong Corporate Relations Department (CRD), which housed the press office, exhibitions, corporate hospitality and various in-house publications (including the unlovely Telecom Today, inevitably referred to generally as Telecom Toady).  I found myself in CRD Administration, and one of my tasks was to write the minutes for both the weekly departmental meeting of the senior managers, held every Tuesday, and the smaller press cuttings meetings which were held every other weekday.  This began before we were all crammed into the spanking new British Telecom Centre in Newgate Street, and I would walk across from our now-demolished office on the corner of Watling Street and New Change to where the nobs were ensconced in rather more comfy quarters in the also now-demolished 2-12 Gresham Street.

The Tuesday meetings were chaired by the Director of Corporate Relations, a rather bland man who was not often to be seen, but the press cuttings meetings were chaired by his deputy, Ivor Mills, a genial and well-regarded figure in the department.  Ivor, often just referred to as ’DDCR’, had been an ITN newsreader in the 1960s and 70s, and was always ready with an anecdote about his time there, which he clearly looked back on with nostalgia.  I quite enjoyed the press cuttings meetings because I heard a lot of gossip, much of it indiscreet, and it gave me a chance to sit in Ivor’s secretary’s office to write the minutes, which often took quite a time for some reason.

The press office was the hub of the department and was full of characters, a peculiar mixture of old hacks inherited from the Post Office (BT had only emerged as separate entity from the Post Office in 1981) and tired-looking graduates who always seemed fed up, as if they had come badly down in the world.  The former possessed a surfeit of self-esteem while the latter I always felt possessed a deficit, for which they compensated by looking down on anybody who didn’t work in the press office.  The Senior Broadcast Officer once found himself the subject of a story in Private Eye because he had taken a female journalist from a national paper to lunch where, by her account, he had got drunk, complimented her on her “outstanding attributes”, and ordered an extra bottle of wine on his expense account to take back to the office.  Long liquid lunches were frequent, and the press office, adhering to traditional Fleet Street ways, was often sparsely staffed well into the afternoon.

The senior press officers had extra lines installed at home to deal with urgent enquiries, and they could choose whichever telephone they liked.  The Senior Technical Press Officer said he wanted a hands-free instrument so that he could take calls while preparing vegetables, which raised the question how many journalists he expected to speak to with his hands in the sink.  In any case, there was a nice little flat nearby which was set aside for the use of a rota of night-time duty officers to take out-of-hours calls, which I’m sure came in very useful.  It was all a bit of a gravy train, soon to hit the buffers of privatisation.

So what is the link between ex-ITN’s Ivor Mills and the BT Tower?  For quite a long time a helicopter shot of the revolving section at the top of the tower featured in the opening credits of ITN‘s nightly ’News at Ten’ bulletins, which was excellent free publicity.  Then in 1985, after privatisation, the company decided to add a ‘British Telecom’ logo to the top of the building.  The matter of the suddenly out-of-date News at Ten footage was raised at a meeting and it was suggested that ITN should be asked to reshoot the tower, including the logo.  Ivor said he would get in touch with his contacts to expedite the matter.  There was no doubt among the senior BT executives present that this was a mere formality.  Ivor did his stuff, and ITN redid the opening credits – dropping the tower shot altogether.  So much for DDCR’s influence.  I sat there, as I often did, wondering how these hotshots could justify their salaries and generous share deals, yet be so ineffectual.

Later I moved from Admin to CRD’s corporate exhibitions unit, where the travel was fairly frequent and I was able to enjoy some decent meals on expenses myself, so I was no longer involved in press cuttings meetings.  BT Tower had been closed to the public for security reasons in 1980, following the 1971 bombing by either the IRA or the Angry Brigade – opinion is divided on which of them was responsible – but the restaurant section re-opened for corporate functions in the late 1980s, albeit with tight security, including metal detectors.  I went up to the revolving restaurant, renamed the Tower Suite, with my children in 1990, by which time I was working in BT’s International division.  We were given certificates to commemorate the building’s 25th anniversary, and I am indebted to Keith Ruffles for providing a scan of his copy, showing the tower sporting the classic dot-dash logo.

BT Tower Silver Anniversary Certificate

Ivor sadly died in 1996 at the early age of 66, and his obituary in the Independent was written by John Egan, another CRD senior manager who knew him well.  Egan acknowledged Ivor’s bonhomie, but paid him rather a backhanded compliment by starting with: “Ivor Mills in his prime was a good-looking fellow.”  And past his prime, John?  Ivor is buried in Highgate Cemetery, and his marker bears the appropriate, if slightly cryptic, inscription:


Journalist, Broadcaster,

Happy memories
of lunch and laughter

Farewell Old Bush