Archives for July 2012

Pride versus Prejudice

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:30 UK time, Saturday, 28 July 2012

While writing my piece about the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics I have to strike the right balance.

Fireworks during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games

"We are very good here at building up great expectations, which for shorthand could be called 'Murray wins Wimbledon'..."

If I have learnt a single thing whilst living on this Island of Wonder for the last 18 years - it is this maxim.

I have to strike the balance between still being a freaky foreigner, an obscure Uzbek and slowly turning into a rooted Brit. A balance between what excited me in the ceremony and what annoyed me, between my politeness and sarcasm, between the feeling of involvement and reservedness, between pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility...

Have I started to quote someone?

If you were sitting somewhere in Addis-Ababa, Jakarta, San Paolo or Astana, in front of the TV screen (like myself in London), sometimes baffled with what was happening at the Olympic stadium, shall I try to make sense of that majestic and quirky show as I understood it?

You may be asking why me, isn't it a bit patronising (and you would be right)?

There's a single excuse for that: for the last 18 years I have been writing a never-ending book which I called 'What a burden to be an Englishman' or 'A-Z to Englishness for freaky foreigners like myself'.

So here are 12 points we need to understand the Opening Ceremony:

1. Great Expectations
I don't know what was on your TV screen, but here we were exposed to two hours of a build-up, where the most common words were 'wonderful', 'terrific', 'exciting', all in regards of a forthcoming ceremony and our British sportsmen. We are very good here at building up great expectations, which for shorthand could be called 'Murray wins Wimbledon'...

2. Island of Wonder
I have noticed that all we were talking about during the build up (and in fact throughout the whole Opening Ceremony) was just ourselves - Brits and nobody else. Danny Boyle - the artistic director of the ceremony said himself on my screen about the 'international perspective' of his show, in fact we were celebrating ourselves, not giving a damn about anyone 'overseas' and Danny boldly embodied it in the form of the island within the stadium. But we are a small world in itself, aren't we?

3. Weather is above all

I should have ended with this bit, as we do in our news programmes, saving the most beautiful and artistic weather-girls for the very end as a dessert to sweeten up the misery of what they are talking about. But Danny Boyle started his show with the Maritime Weather Forecast and I bet it was wrong... It started to lazily rain...

4. Really?

It's one of they key English words, to which the usual answer is: No. I thought about it when I had noticed that the show was an interplay between the island built in the stadium and virtual reality of my screen or rather the screens on every side of the stadium. The song about Danny boy which started in the stadium was echoed in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff, striking the right balance between Englishness and Britishness.

5. TT or MMM

We love acronyms. I made up those for 'Teddy-bear Tradition' and 'Muffin & Marmite Moments' which are about different love - love to HH or History and Heritage. To unite those two loves we have our immortal Shakespeare. Thatched houses, geese wandering around. But we are too pragmatic to leave him alone in that idyll. To strike the right balance between the word and act there must be Brunel reading him and urging out the wild forces of the Industrial Revolution.

6. Witchcraft and handicraft

It's the same opposition as Shakespeare vs Brunel, but on the common level. Danny Boyle played this archetype fully through thousands of drums led by what seemed to be a witchy soloist lady. Phallic chimneys came out of the earth and Pandemonium ended with what appeared to be five hand-made steel rings which united into the Olympic symbol over the stadium to pour a golden rain. It's worth becoming a poem of William Blake in itself, right?

7. Organised chaos (a real Englishman would have added 'or Chaotic organisation')

Scenes of Industrial Revolution were mixed up with Sergeant Pepper, suffragettes, immigrants, First World War and some other elements which even the knowledgeable presenters were not able to comment upon. Sometimes overly-prescriptive discipline and order gets to us and to strike the balance we go berserk or a bit anarchic. Boyle made this statement from the very beginning when the pneumatic clouds and balloons all of a sudden started to explode.

8. In an ideal world

We are sceptical about everything apart from our sense of humour. Even our Loyalty to Royalty falls victim of taking the mickey out of our Queen. Bond, James Bond, brought the Queen in the helicopter to the stadium (while instead of missiles positioned on the roofs of estates bottles of champagne fired) and parachuted her to the Royal Lodge. To strike the right balance with the baffling first part of the show, the second became much lighter and funnier.

9. Yes, but...

We never forget the public purpose, the public service. Duty and charity are one of the greatest characteristics of this island. The choir 'Chaos' of deaf children singing 'God Save the Queen', servicemen raising the flag, thousands of volunteers taking part in the event - all were about it.

10. Come on...

Ok, ok, sometimes we are over the top. Usually it's to do with the NHS. I told you about our love for acronyms. We excessively adore our National Health Service. I would even say it's a kind of national disease. Many of our soaps: 'Holby City', 'Casualty' and some others are set up in hospitals. We love the NHS as our single vulnerable child. If there are dark forces in this life they threaten not us, but the NHS. However brave dancing nurses, as it was shown by Danny Boyle, will always prevail. May the force be with them...

11. Those sticking out celebs

We love our fair play, therefore we took the Olympic flame throughout the maze of our country to every street and cul-de-sac, and gave the chance to carry the torch to thousands and thousands of our compatriots, but to strike the right balance we also love to put J.K. Rowling on a hill in the middle of the stadium to read her 'Harry Potter' or Sir Tim Bernes-Lee to type on his Internet to entertain us.

12. Exetera

Rowan Atkinson's comic creation Mr Bean at London 2012 Opening Ceremony

Rowan Atkinson's comic creation Mr Bean made an appearance as a keyboard player at the London 2012 Opening Ceremony

As a matter of fact it should be Et cetera, but we do everything in our own way. We think this word comes from our Exeter. The bit I loved most of all was the 'Chariots of Fire' theme conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and with solo by Mr Bean. If you are not genius like W. Shakespeare or J.K. Rowling and you are sticking out like a sore thumb - you become Mr Bean. We are rather a nation of common sense, common purpose, common people - therefore our rock, cinema and dance are the best in the world. The rest is exetera...

I mentioned the book which I have been writing for so many years. The show which Danny Boyle put for the opening ceremony of the Olympics reminded me of a scene from my Barnet market:

You know, I've got a friend. A very decent person. Extremely nice character. She lives up in Watford. She sells fish in our local market. When several years ago I used to buy another mackerel and some frozen prawns, she would have met me with the warmest exclamation and laughter: 'Hi, luv! The same mackerel and a pound of prawns in weight?'

At that time I used to drive my first Ford Fiesta and my son studied at the next local school. A couple of years on I started to buy four heads of silver trout and another pound of skate knobs. She would have laughed and greeted: "How are you, my dear. Your trout and usual knobs?"

At that time my car was a Ford Escort and my son moved to the church school. Now I buy red mullet and uncooked king-size prawns and I noticed that she says with a smile: "How are you this morning, Sir? Red mullet and a handful of king size?"

I bet, that weighing my regular fish she knows somehow, that I'm driving not less than a Volkswagen Passat and my son goes to the Habs Boys school...

I didn't mention a parallel move from the ex-council house to a semi-detached town house and then to a detached Victorian House, while shifting from 'The Sun' through 'The Guardian' to 'Daily Telegraph' because as a bloody foreigner, who mixes everything up, I still live in my two storey town house and read the 'Metro' in the tube...

Tales from Bush House

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 15:01 UK time, Thursday, 19 July 2012

Last week saw the last radio broadcast from Bush House - the BBC World Service headquarters for the last 72 years.

Now the studios, offices and corridors of that historic building are emptied and Bush House is going to cease as a broadcasting centre.

You may remember that to maintain the best of Bush House last year I appealed to all those who worked or were working in Bush House to send me their stories, tales, anecdotes.

Bush House entrance

Monarchs, presidents and many, many journalists have passed through the entrance to Bush House

As a result of that appeal I received hundreds of memorable, nostalgic, funny stories and with the help of Open University (Prof Marie Gillespie and Anna Aslanyan) we turned them into a book called Tales from Bush House.


This book is out now and on the 18 July we had a launch party for it.

Many generations of 'Bushmen' were present there and the party was a great fun. Just to give a taster of it here are some tales from the book which were shared there.

Who Is the Rabbit?

When I joined the BBC there was a Pashto Service programme called The World of Youth. For it we were supposed to either translate some material about new discoveries or interview Afghans inside Afghanistan or outside. And I proposed to my editor that I could write for children - that was something I thought was lacking, something for five or six-year-olds.

And then a colleague suggested that I use a special machine which would allow me to change my voice to create a character. My character was a rabbit. I would talk to her and read a story, and then she would interrupt me, asking all sorts of silly questions, the kind of questions children usually ask. My daughter was five at that time, so I used to read my stories to her and then put her questions into the rabbit's mouth. I wrote a story about a little girl who lost her mother and she stopped washing her face and brushing her hair. Then she sees her mother in her dream and the mother says, well, I'm still there, I'm still watching you. When she wakes up and starts brushing her hair, it's a step in the right direction.

My colleague went to Kabul. He came back and he said, "Najiba, this big Taliban commander came to me and whispered in my ear, 'Who is this rabbit? Is that a little girl? How old is she?'" I had to change my accent then - that was one way to convince people that it was not me.

Najiba Kasraee

Just a Bloody Minute
Controllers of Radio 4 tremble when they have the impudence to change anything in their schedules. Radio audiences like to own the output they like. The World Service listeners are, of course, much more numerous and far more possessive.

So it was with nervousness that we launched a new English Service schedule for the Indian subcontinent. We had re-jigged the news timings, especially of our flagship Newshour, and moved From Our Own Correspondent and other news-related heavyweights. In a large hall in Chennai we watched as the place filled for our 'Meet the BBC' question and answer session.

After a short introduction we said that we would now like to hear from the audience. No one stirred. A very old gentleman was helped to stand up. He leant on a stick. His acolyte also stood up and announced that this gentleman was the chairman of the BBC Listeners' Club, as well as a professor of English. He would ask the first four questions. We wondered whether this was fair or not, but then decided we could not intercede.

"My first question," said the old man, "is this. Where is Mr Mark Tully? And if he is not among those here present, why is he not present? Does he not understand that here in this city is the very centre and hub of English literature appreciation in the country of which he is supposed to be an expert?"

We mumbled, but the professor was off and running. He was, among many other things, the originator and chairman of the Chennai George Bernard Shaw Society, yet he had never heard anything by Shaw on the BBC. He was also the chairman of the Chennai Tamil Association. Did the BBC not realise the importance of Tamil, one of the five most widely spoken languages in the world, such a beautiful tongue that it was known, internationally, as the Latin of India? Did we not realise that to broadcast less than two hours a day in this pure and chaste language was derisory and insulting?

In vain we tried to ask him to get to the point. In vain we asked how on earth Tamil was one of the... It was useless. The professor would not stop. He used English words with delicious delight, and he used many of them.

At last, as he paused to cough, our chairman stood up and said that we were all delighted to meet and hear from such a distinguished figure, but now a full quarter of our time had been taken up and we would like to move on. Had Professor any views on, say, our handling of Kashmir, or the Middle East, or even the moving of Newshour?

The professor just about managed to master his cough and we caught the words "Just a minute". We waited. "Anyone can cover these wretched unending current affairs and news nonsenses," said the professor, managing to jab with his stick. "But none - none has ever broadcast a programme so amusing, so enlightening, so efficacious in the teaching of the language of Shakespeare as this. And now we find we cannot hear it. It is a disgrace!"

Nicholas Parsons with his stopwatch

Nicholas Parsons - big in India


A susurration of agreement went round the hall. We said we were sorry, but we did not understand. To exactly which BBC programme was Professor referring? Now he jabbed hard: "Just a Minute! Just a Minute, the panel show in which contestants are invited to talk about a subject without hesitation, deviation or repetition!" We sat there dumbfounded. Just a bloody Minute! Had it even been on the original schedule? There was no answer.

The professor turned to show himself to the audience, then addressed us again. "If the wonderful BBC, in all its wisdom, and with all its resources, does not care to bring Mr Mark Tully down to meet us, perhaps next time the BBC could bring here one of the greatest ever broadcasters in the English language. Mr Nicholas Parsons!"

He sat down to huge applause, and we pretended to take notes, and our media persons and our strategy persons nodded at each other, and seemed extremely hot.

Barry Langridge

"I Used to Be an Insomniac Until..."
My favourite listener's letter was from a Norwegian lady who wrote: "Dear Mr House. Thank you so much for those intellectually challenging plays you produce for us on Play of the Week. I used to be an insomniac until I started listening to your dramas. Keep up the good work!"

Gordon House

Dialogue vs Monologue

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:02 UK time, Friday, 13 July 2012

A person who deals in words - be he or she a poet, writer, journalist, politician, etc. - could notice an overall tendency that the world slowly but surely moves from a monologue-dominant model towards dialogue-based communication.

Broadcasters are talking more and more not just about their programmes, but also about their audiences and user-generated content.

Thinking in social sciences is leaning more towards interactivity and co-operation, as opposed to authority and regulation.

A man taking a picture of a burning building with his phone

With the growth of so-called 'user-generated content', we in journalism are engaged in an ever more reciprical conversation with our audiences

Even parenting is more about finding common ground with your children, rather than flogging and smacking them.

As a public we are finding dictators who flex their muscles in international relations increasingly unpalatable and prefer diplomacy and compromises.

In short you understand what I'm talking about.

There's a deal of literature about this tendency and the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin is the foremost representative of this way of thinking. According to him, the novels of Leo Tolstoy are traditionally monophonic, whereas the literature of Fyodor Dostoevsky is based on different principles of polyphony and it is a dialogue constructed of different characters, voices and ideas that plays the main role.

Bakhtin goes further and says that in fact all literature is a form of dialogue. Even a monologue can be interpreted as a dialogue of a person with himself, a kind of autocommunication.

In my last entry we discussed the communication model created by another Russian philologist Roman Jakobson, which also shows that the prerequisites of any communication act are the sender and recipient of a message, the message itself, its reference, channels and code.

As we can see from that, it also supports the notion of an interaction between the sender and the recipient of the message - in other words the notion of a dialogue.

Philosophers like Nietzsche, looking at such tendencies, probably would have concluded or generalised that the world moves from a divine style of message to a man-to-man style, or that hierarchical structures of relationships are being replaced by horizontal ones.

Having described this background I have to say that some forms of word art are more adaptive and flexible towards that tendency than others. Journalism is one of them.

Now the whole pattern of modern journalism is changing to a kind of interactive, dialogical journalism, with the active involvement of the audience. Comments of the readers, calls of the listeners and vox-pops are commonplace in today's journalism and a part of the news coverage or a topical discussion.

Sacha Baron Cohen in character as Borat

Sacha Baron Cohen's character of Borat established a dialogue with the 'real' world

Theatre and comedy also follow the same rules. Sasha Baron Cohen or his Ali G, Borat and Bruno, who mix up staged acts with 'raw reality', is the best example of that movement towards interaction and interplay.

But some genres - especially literature and poetry - still exist very much in the domain of monologue.

I can't say that there are no experiments there. One can argue that every reading by every reader is an act of interaction with and recreation of the text, but I am talking more about the immediacy of that experience.

Reading poetry aloud for listeners is one form, but there must be more revolutionary ways too.

Our experience of writing a short story together, when contributions from five continents come together, or the project of a newspaper of night dreams from all over the world - these are the artistic creations I mean.

The internet offers many opportunities to transform the world of 'I' into that of 'us' and I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

But for the time being, since I have quoted a number of Russians I will finish with a verse from another Russian - a late poet Yuri Kuznetsov:

One day the sun, fading,

Sparks the last flash - and forever...

And in the heart ... in the heart there's a surd moan,

And a man is looking for a man.

Is poetry a type of social activism?

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 10:00 UK time, Friday, 6 July 2012

As you might know from my previous entries I have been a part of Poetry Parnassus - the biggest gathering of poets in modern history.

Nearly 200 poets representing Olympic nations came to London, not just to read their poems but also to share their views on the contemporary world.

There is a famous saying which belongs to the great German poet Heinrich Heine: "If the globe breaks into two pieces, the crack will go through the heart of a poet."

So during the Parnassus, there was lots of discussion about how socially active poetry should be and how poets should express that mega-crack - or many other smaller cracks - that break the modern world into in its various parts.

Rongelap Island, part of the Marshall Islands, which was showered with radioactive fallout in March 1954

Rongelap Island, part of the Marshall Islands, which was showered with radioactive fallout in March 1954

For instance, during the event devoted to ecology a poet from the Marshall Islands, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, not only raised the tragic issues of the former US nuclear site on those islands, but also read her most powerful poem about the human suffering brought about by those explosions.

A poet from Kiribati, Teresia Teaiwa, was tolling the alarm bells for the islands. They are disappearing from the face of the globe, regained by the ocean whose level is rising because of climate change. She talked about the difficulties of finding a relevant or corresponding language to express the scale of that tragedy.

But then she read a poem, which was so distorted sonically that it felt like a cry from a half-dead person, begging the empty air for help.

Following her, a prominent Haitian poet, Evelyne Trouillot, echoed the same thought - that sometimes poets are helpless in the face of tragedy. She gave the example of the Haitian earthquake, which left her poetically speechless for some time.

But then the vocation or the urge of a voice - which is akin to a feeling of responsibility - forced her to write a poem about it...

The Australian poet John Kinsella said without any hesitation that his poetry is about social activism and read out poems about the rights of animals, aborigines, etc....

So how much focus on social activism should poetry have? Is the only justification for its existence in the modern world that it gives a voice to the unheard, the deprived, the humiliated and the insulted?

A great theorist of poetry, Roman Jakobson, came up with a framework for describing the different functions of language.

First he defined a model for communication. He said that for every act of communication there should be a sender, a recipient, a message sent, a reference of that message, a channel through which the communication occurs and a code of the message.

So focusing on the different elements of that model suggests different functions for speech. If the sender concentrates on himself the function of the communication is emotive and the speech is emotional. Prevalence of the referential element is the basis of scientific speech, and so on.

According to Jakobson a poetic function of communication comes out when the message is focused on itself. To re-phrase this, one can say that poetry is a message per se, or a message for its own sake.

However, understanding this model opens up opportunities for many different types of poetry, which existed already as a matter of poetic experience.

One can imagine an emotive poem strongly focusing on the sender of the message, or 'I' of the poet. Poetry can also be appellative, concentrating on the receiver: activist poetry exists in this sphere. The dominance of channels in the message makes the poem ritualistic... and so on.

In a word, poetry might be multifaceted and is not restricted just to a certain mode, and that includes social activism.

That inner freedom and versatility means we can enjoy poetry in so many forms: from the lyrics of protest songs to epics and lullabies.

Islands are disappearing under water
Climate change
Everyone has a right to return to his home,
But what if your home disappeared under ocean tides?
Shadows frantically looking for their vanished bodies
Echo searching its mouth
Breath not finding the lungs
'It's difficult when man has no place to go' - said Dostoevsky...
His words fall past our ears...

You are also a disappearing island
Between your tears
the ocean...

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