The Bees – Laline Paull

‘The Bees’ by Laline Paull is the kind of book I dreamt of writing as a child. But rather than Apis, Aves were my infatuation at the time. Hand in hand with my mother, my short walk to school included a stroll along a beck, home to a variety of lower classification birds. I was intrigued by how they moved in flocks, almost regimented in their appearance. Inevitably – as any 6-7 year old boy would do – I saw brutalist potential in this, and began to create warlike scenarios between each species. Battle lines would be drawn, allegiances pledged and… the rest is up to imagination.

The Bees takes on an allegorical narrative of its own, but far afield of what my young mind could have conceived. This earnest tale of the turmoils of a beehive not only highlights the present threats of bee endangerment in rural areas, but provides a much-needed ‘through the looking glass’ account of our own race, and how we are destroying our solitary home through wars and fracases spurred by religious piety, class division and false prophets.

Ironically, it is only through an Orwellian-style societal condition that the hive may maintain its equanimity. Firstly, through the Queen’s pheromone, aptly named ‘Devotion’, which is communicated directly to each bees’ antennae via the intangible ‘Hive Mind’. As in reality, the assurance of the Queen’s presence creates a calming effect throughout the colony, making them more efficient, obedient and resourceful. The mantra ‘Accept. Obey. Serve’ and the highest law ‘Only the Queen may breed’ are frequently used by the upper echelons to maintain dominance over those considered a lesser being, including the protagonist Flora 717, a newly birthed bee genetically geared as a sanitation worker, but whom is seemingly destined for greater things.

The comparisons between The Bees and other totalitarian fiction are numerous, but the concepts are cleverly thought out and logically applied rather than plagiarised. An indication of Thought-Speak is ever present, especially between Flora 717 and Lily 500, a compatriot who’s ethereal influence reaches beyond the boundaries of regular communication.

If these motifs spawned from ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’, then the highly sexualised nature of the book could easily have drawn inspiration from Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. It’s innocent suggestion of innuendo is almost comical at stages, particularly when my girlfriend leant over my shoulder and read the following paragraph, thus coining the term ‘bee-rotica’:

She climbed up and positioned herself over one of the creamy white florets, and the contact of her feet on the flower’s virginial petal made them both tremble. Flora held it softly then sank her tongue into its depths…

There is much more to be said about The Bees, even without exploring the underlying conventions. Each concise chapter covers the different challenges a hive may face, from sickness through neonicotinoid contamination (which has recently become the focus of debate on a parliamentary scale), to the notorious varroa mite which can spread and devastate entire colonies.

Other threats lay closer to home. Aside from the bees’ interdepartmental bickering, the infamous relationship between Apis and Vespula is also explored, with Shakespearean like exchanges taking place between Flora and the fair weather wasps. There is no holding back when describing the savage combat either (this is more Watership Down than Wind in the Willows), which the author accredits to one of the early listeners of the book who ‘advised more violence’.

The Bees can be enjoyed on many different levels, and I particularly admire the none too preachy method of storytelling which Paull has brought to the table. The piece could have easily remained on the topic of neonics, and how lobbyists and the lack of public enlightenment has lead to a critical scenario for our bee population. But if you ask me, the information is there for all to see, and the reality tells a much more harrowing story.

The end of Peep Show: What’s next for British Sitcom?

It may not be the most pressing issue at the moment, but the harsh fact is that Peep Show is kaput, leaving a requiem of great British comedies in its wake.

Admittedly, the long-standing series had run its course, and I think most would agree that the time was right to wrap it up – albeit perhaps a season too late. Either way, the door has been left wide open for the ‘next big thing’ to announce itself on the comedic stage and sweep up the easy pickings.. but from where?

With so many outlets now available, one would expect a plethora of new ideas, battling for viewers’ attention with original and exciting content, but inspiration seems to be lacking.

I feel there are many contributing factors to this, one being the way new shows are critiqued and subsequently lambasted in real-time, creating an almost instant aura of negativity around shows that lack the ability to strike an instant rapport with its audience. Pilots may no longer be an adequate method of forecasting the perceived response of viewers, and with ever-shortening attention spans, writers must make the discourse more exuberant, the scenes more snappy and the conclusions more rewarding. What you end up with is an undaring plot with conspicuous characters who no real substance or back story.

Canned laughter – if used sparingly – can add an extra dimension and compliment a show. This is not the case for this era of British comedies, which instead possess a frustrating commonality, almost insulting to viewers who are being reassured that what is occurring on screen is simply hilarious, and you are a pariah for not joining in. Canned laughter within older sitcoms tend to be more subtle, as if it is the producer’s intention to make you believe that the show was filmed in front of a live audience (incidentally, it is known that the laugh track used in many old shows originated from the live audience recordings of I Love Lucy).

I watch through my fingers and notice that in a post ‘Sachsgate’, post Deayton and post Clarkson universe, such institutions as the BBC have become so embroiled in their own self-censorship that all aspects of racy comedy has been replaced by safer slapstick and/or unfunny one-liners, usually delivered by accomplished stand-up comedians who have tried their hand at situation comedy, such as Lee Mack, Miranda Hart and Tim Vine.

Comedy without controversy is doomed to fail. Ben Elton and Rik Mayall’s ‘The Young Ones’ shares many qualities with Peep Show, not only for identifying with a disassociated youth, but by tangling with sub-cultures, poking fun at political ideas (namely Thatcherism) and putting petty squabbles on a pedestal.

The Young Ones’ postmodernist take on 1980’s London

It’s easy to create a joke out of a subject matter which already carries ridicule, whether it be Catholocism (Father Ted), Parliamentary behaviour (Yes Minister) or social degradation (Phoenix Nights).

If ideology is one thing, then content writing is another. Some of the best British comedies were hampered by restrictive budgets, which often led to confined sets. Whether it be Del and Rodney’s flat in Only Fools and Horses, or the sepia-toned living room in the Royale Family, the show requires an exquisite pen behind the camera, such as John Sullivan or Caroline Aherne (it is no coincidence that these shows lost their spark once they passed on or quit).

Peep Show ran for over 12 years with a captive audience

My biggest peeve is (both in comedy and drama alike), is the inclusion of modern technology within a plot. It’s lazy, unflattering on screen and above all panders to a demographic who cannot focus attention without a popular branded devise being present. At a recent test screening for a sitcom set to feature on Comedy Central, 4 out of 6 of the storylines heavily featured smartphone technology. In one particular episode, two colleagues struggle to explain the concept of ‘Snapchat’ to their boss.

I’m waiting to be impressed by a new and original British comedy (Matt Berry’s ‘Toast of London’ is the only thing coming close at the moment). Until then, I’m happy to revisit the genius of Barker(s), Cleese, Jason and Atkinson, whose prowess is everlasting, and who somehow remain just as prominent and applicable today – how many current comedy characters will you able to say that about in 30 years time?

The King of Spin

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While the public still await the outcome of the ‘Chilcot Inquiry’ into our country’s last illegitimate conflict, and before we have even established the official name of our enemy (is it ISIS, ISL, I.S, Daesh?), the UK have already began their next pursuit into uncharted territory with a fresh bombing campaign in Syria.

You have to applaud Cameron – his powers of persuasion are second to none. Though somewhat taking a passive position behind Philip Hammond and Hilary Benn during the Commons debate last night, you would be forgiven for assuming that the puppet master already had the motions in place for certain success, with key MP’s duly groomed and prepped for the inevitable ‘Yes’ vote.

The significant difference between the two main opposing parties is that the Tory contingent – with the obvious exception of Basildon MP John Baron – appear to be more galvanised during recent debates. They have less rebels to worry about than the Labour Party, and the whips take care of the easily influenced swing-voters.

The 10 hour debate – which largely exists to create the false illusion that a democratic process has taken place – has ended up being centred around the Shadow Foreign Secretary’s impassioned speech endorsing the airstrikes. I can only imagine what his Father would have thought of this, who delivered a dichotomous speech about bombing Iraq over a decade ago.

Although the words received applause from both sides of the house, Benn then had to take up his seat next to a less than impressed Jeremy Corbyn, who many say was upstaged by his counterpart and recent adversary.

It was the kind of mortification Corbyn didn’t need, and one that the Tories were always going to draw attention to. The vote may not have hinged on the participation of a number of disassociated Labour Party members, but it did enforce the case for change within its walls.

Perhaps Cameron’s injudicious comment about none-backers being ‘terrorist sympathisers’ was more geared towards the electorate, but this type of malicious rhetoric is all too common in today’s debates. A pacifist is now a virtual jihadist, a demonstrator is a hooligan and anyone who leans slightly to the left or is concerned for workers’ rights is a staunch Communist.

So quickly we have forgotten about the cause and effect of entering a war without rationale, arming another rebel insurgency, attempting to install an artificial democracy and leaving it to defend for itself against the ‘next big threat to the world’.

Planning your ‘root’

My Grandad was one of the most fascinating, yet innate beings I have ever known. He had an intellectual mystique of which he called upon on demand, sometimes to enlighten one of a particular topic subject, often to contest and correct a previous remark. It was the most sinister form of rhetoric, but usually went untested still.

What I knew of the man was right in front of me and that would never change. The local family would come together each Saturday afternoon till late. I would always find him sat at the table in ‘his chair’, instantly recognisable by the smoggy tobacco stain left on the ceiling directly above, resembling near-on twenty years of pipe smoking activity. Even on the seldom occasions where he wasn’t to be found (usually mid-afternoon before he would retire to his comfort zone) you could tell he wasn’t far away, judging by the thriving activity on the partitioned section of the table. Burning embers and a railway magazine were usually the giveaway. I’d go find him, half out of courteousness, half of intrigue. If the weather flattered, the sun would cast into the garden, illuminating what someone of my age at the time may seem as an unattainable jungle. On closer inspection, it was an intricately kept botanical miracle, compiling of various organisms collected and grown over the years. I had no idea that Lancaster could provide a suitable climate for these types of plantation, but under the rigorous observation of himself and my Nanna, they not only coerced them to docility, but made them feel privileged to be there. Amongst them were either my Nanna or Grandad (the overpopulated environment could not incorporate the presence of both at any one time), and they would sit on a miniature stool or the stone step which led into the kitchen.

I’d talk to them about school, the default subject between family members who don’t see each other often. I was more captivated by the enormous graveyard beyond the wall and across the alleyway, which ran adjacent to the whole of my grandparents’ street. Naturally it was haunted, as was the common opinion of my two Uncles who had grown up under the same roof as my mum. Together they were extremely devilish, and clearly saw me as an impish pawn to whom they could play their dastardly tricks on. In doing so, they planted the seed in my mind, the idea of which was that the only place more haunted than the graveyard was my Grandad’s cellar. The cellar itself was out of bounds when my Grandad himself wasn’t down there. Of course, to a child, ‘out of bounds’ as a statement was nothing but a supplement for daring adventure.

As part of their iniquitous deed, I was told by one of my Uncles that the previous owners of the house had an argument at the entrance of the cellar, which began verbally but ended physically when the husband pushed the wife down the stone stairs and into the bleakness. He left her down there for days, presuming she was either knocked unconsciousness or worser still while his guilt became more and more unbearable. Eventually he ventured down the stairs in a mournful sob, expecting to find his deceased beloved at the bottom. The basement floor scantily came into view as he neared the bottom step, but she wasn’t to be seen anywhere. As his curiosity and panic flooded him, he wandered further into the abyss, unaware that he was about to be struck from behind by the very entity he was opting to seek.

When I first heard the story, I was petrified, but also stumbled into cognitive dissonance over the tale, pondering if it was passed down by my Grandad onto my Uncles to keep them from exploring where they shouldn’t explore. Nonetheless, I wasn’t ready to find out whether my hypothesis was correct, as the iconography was suitably present to convey the realism that my Uncle’s story suggested. The door to the cellar was barely on its hinge, splintered to such a degree that I could have sworn Wendy Torrence was cowering on the other side. The stone stairs had no indication of diligent masonry, wildly varying in width and depth. The walls undecorated and smelled of damp plaster, and above all, it was freezing. The point of any good ghost story is to describe the darkness of the environment, and Stephen Tobolowsky mentioned that darkness is a pretty good indicator of somewhere you don’t wanna be. Well here, at the zenith of the cellar looking down, there was lots of it. Also, like any good basement, the light switch is at the bottom of the stairs, out of sight. This made the decent slightly less agreeable. It was at this point that my atheist-like reflex kicked in, in the form of adaptive preferences. Suddenly I had nothing to prove any nobody to prove wrong. I was the fox who didn’t care for the grapes (only after he couldn’t jump high enough to reach them).

We like to extenuate ghost stories for narrative purposes, to scare our friends and fraternize fundamental unbelievers, but more often than not the results of any given experience are disappointing. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good scare though, I have bags of ghost stories to tell. It’s just that the movie protagonist doesn’t have the rational I possess, so the outcome is generally more gruesome and gratifying. At the end of the movie, I’m the one who always remarks “well if the house was haunted, why didn’t they go stay with their friends?” The person next to me always gives me a daring glare and replies “what kind of movie would that be?”

Canis Majoris

Let me be clear from the start. Dogs can be a handful, especially when those who purchase one have little more than a dewy-eyed reference of what it takes to look after pets. There seems to be a perception that usually comes about through frequent viewings of generic family films where the parents, ‘Daddy’ (wearing his well knitted red cardigan, thick rimmed bifocals and almost certainly smoking a pipe) will bust onto the scene with the surprise final present that gladdens the children into euphoria: “Oh Daddy! You got a PUPPY!” ‘Daddy’ is looking very happy with himself, as the tiff between his love and he is mooted, and she once again dangles agreeably from his arm.

That’s certainly how history recalls it, well, in the idyllic environment anyway. This pastoral facade also expects their to be a period of unwilled realisation, where the seemingly feral creature cannot be tamed, causing mental and physical destruction to all during its wanton phase. Eventually, just before the family reaches breaking point, something drastic happens where the dog’s life almost ends, and everyone pulls together in a beautifully orchestrated, and not to mention convenient, repair, thus resolving the previously disrupted equilibrium. All is well again within the household, and ‘Daddy’ gets the Fischer account.

Believe it or not, reality could not be farther flung. Particularly in a film and television sense, we, as the well-groomed audience, consider it obligatory for all the ends to be neatly tied up for escapism purposes. So when a film like ‘Marley & Me’ bridges the gap between fiction and the more corporeal with its unorthodox ending, we occasionally call foul. As it had been at least a year since its release before I decided to watch, a sultry mystique had manifested itself around the final quarter of the film, so much so that when I exclaimed that I was about to watch it, I was already being consoled by peers and loved ones. Messages of ‘good luck’ and ‘you’re in trouble’ showed that even an utterance of the title was a precursor for distress.

Abi's dogs back in Ireland; Pip, Sassy & Lady

Abi and I watched, sobbed the tearful sob, then began to revel in the harshness of a dog’s lifespan. We are both very much dog advocates, have both lost dogs in the past and currently have dogs living with our respective parents. As we see them infrequently between elongated periods of time, we see the transition in them much more clearly (the Marley & Me crew used twenty-two dogs throughout the film to illustrate this change), and although they have runs of youthful tendencies from time to time, they seem to inexorably retire to the rug sooner each visit.

Our first dog Scruff, in his more youthful days

It’s a saddening inevitability that we have to come to terms with, as my Dad and I have recently uncovered the all too familiar conversation which serves to try to contemplate the size of the void left by the parting of our pooch. It would be right to claim that Jasper does not have the title of ‘family dog’ for a reason, as losing him will be the loss of a family member.

Dogface, biting off more than he can chew

It seems fitting to conclude with John Grogan’s soliloquy at the end of Marley & Me, as few other pieces of discourse have managed to sum up the feeling towards my pet as well as this:

A dog has no use for fancy cars, big homes, or designer clothes. A water log stick will do just fine. A dog doesn’t care if your rich or poor, clever or dull, smart or dumb. Give him your heart and he’ll give you his. How many people can you say that about? How many people can make you feel rare and pure and special? How many people can make you feel extraordinary?