Ethics in public office

Sir Alexander Claud Stuart Allan has resigned. He is the PM’s ethics’ guardian, the Man in charge of Ministerial standards. What he has done today is to set in motion a domino effect that will make the Home office, to start with and possibly the whole of Government, look increasingly dishonourable and therefore untrustworthy. That is not a good recipe for Government. This is so much worse than the Rose-garden Goings-on of Dominic Cummings.

The home office is responsible for setting and policing our standards of behaviour, and we now know that those standards are not upheld by the present incumbent. It was bad enough to watch the feeble attempt to shield the ex prime minister from the fallout of the mess she created over Windrush, but this is much, much worse.

Boris has allowed a document to get out that establishes clearly that Priti Patel is at fault and then, knowing this, he has allowed her to stay in office.

What we have now established is something very worrying indeed.

SMILE FOR ME

Steven Kokkas Releases 7th Album, Hamogela Mou (“Smile for Me”)

Greek-Canadian pianist, singer and songwriter’s newest effort features songs in English and in Greek

IKARIA, GREECE—October 24, 2020—Steven Kokkas, a Greek-Canadian pianist, singer and songwriter, announced today, that they he has released his seventh album, entitled “Hamogela Mou”, which means “Smile for Me” in English. The album, recorded with acoustic and electric instruments and featuring melodic vocals, is performed in a modern rock style. It contains songs in both Greek and English. This is a natural creative approach for Kokkas, who was born in Canada but now lives in Greece.

“This album is primarily about love,” said Kokkas. “Most of its songs are inspired by longing to be with someone you love. Switching from Greek to English here is sort of the point—love is love, no matter what language you speak.” The songs are Hamogela Mou, Omorfi Mera, Happy, Gospel Café, 13, Uncomplicated, Taksidi and I Love You So.

Kokkas was accompanied on the album by Mohammad Rjoub of Palestine on violin, Augusto Mazzoli of Brazil on mandolin, Neoklis of Greence and Joel Sakkari of India on acoustic guitar, Achilleas Valsamis of Greence and Luigi Pistolo of the US on electric guitar. Kokkas produced the album under his Canvas Muzik at his recording studio on the Greek island of Ikaria. The album is available on both Spotify and iTunes.

Kokkas has released seven singles and six albums prior to Hamogela Mou. At the start of his career, he studied music in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music. In parallel, he studied with the conductor Stefanos Karabekos of the New Canadian Symphonic Orchestra. His professional start in Greece came in 1990 when Kokkas joined the rock band “Klaus” in musical theatre. His first maxi single was released in 1995 with Polygram Records. He has performed as one of the original members of the “Beatles tribute project” since 1996.


Ann

Around this time last year, as I came out of THE CIRCLE and realised that we were fast approaching a General election, I was sent a number of proposals. Most of them did not happen but one in particular stood out and I would very much have liked to have pursued it.

This was a “blind date” with a politician. It was rumoured to be Ann Widdicombe and I thought the idea absolutely fantastic.

Some things are never meant to be, though and it disappeared after a few weeks. Today, Ms Widdicombe is back in the news, though, peddling rubbish about same sex couples and how the British public would not want to see this on the telly. What is concerning about this is not so much the possible prejudice that lies behind comment but the complete disregard that she has for history. Same sex couples have been dancing for years. Check out this photo here.

Just to sort out this, anticipate, stop this mumbo-jumbo or to look into the mind of the lady who says this stuff makes one so regret not dining with her.She clearly needs a friend, poor dear. As a matter of fact, I think there would have been quite enough to have kept the evening very jolly indeed.

No man is an island

We are becoming more insular. It is not only Brexit, but that may not help. It is rather a matter that we are simply not listening to others or observing what they are doing; we are certainly not copying best practice.

I was very shocked, for example, to read an article today that was talking about the various vaccines in development around the world. Apparently, there are 150. We only hear of one and that, I am proud to say, has been produced in Oxford; it is based on a SARS-CoV-2 spike protein—which helps the coronavirus invade cells—into a weakened version of an adenovirus, which typically causes the common cold; indeed, alot of work has been done in a small building within the Chruchill hospital complex next to the Haemophilia department that I visited about 10 days’ ago. There was heavy security around the building, hence I have no photo.

A few weeks’ earlier, the trials were suspended because someone fell ill. We were told it was routine and soon we were told the trials were back on. Only this was not really the whole truth.

This is what I read today:

Preliminary results from this candidate’s first two clinical trial phases revealed the vaccine had triggered a strong immune response—including increased antibodies and responses from T-cells—with only minor side effects such as fatigue and headache. It is in phase three of clinical trials, aiming to recruit up to 50,000 volunteers in Brazil, the United Kingdom, the United States, and South Africa. On September 8, AstraZeneca paused the trials for a safety review due to an adverse reaction in one participant in the U.K. The details remain unclear, though the company has described the pause as a “routine action.” After an investigation by independent regulators, the trials resumed in the U.K., Brazil, South Africa, and India but remained on hold in the U.S. as of September 23.

There might be political reasons for the delay in resuming the trials in the US. The US is trying to trial home-produced vaccines (by Johnson) and to establish vaccine distribution sites by November 1, 2020, just days’ before the Presidential elections. Nevertheless, the failure of the British press to record the US continued delay is alarming. There is no place for Nationalism in a Global health crisis.

I am hoping to write more about the British response to Covid in comparison to what other countries are doing. Much of this is about the way things are presented. (What Americans have started to call “optics”) It simply does not look good. Optics matter.

Two fascinating studies

Globally, in the first wave of the pandemic, the UK experienced some of the highest per-capita mortality from covid-19. We are now entering a second spike (I fear not a second wave but a sting in the tail of the first wave). But, there are two studies into COVID 19 that have caught my eye in the last few days and they give me hope. The first suggests that the level of exposure to the disease may determine the severity of the infection (called “the infectious dose”) and the second seems to be linked- that mask wearing is itself not only efficacious in protecting us but, because it prevents the higher forms of infection, it may cause the virus itself to mutate and therefore to become less harmful.

The lancet produced a study last month saying that it was the “viral load at diagnosis” which was an “independent predictor of mortality”. Significantly, it was guarded of course. If this were coupled with an immune trigger for people with asymptomatic and mild forms of COVID then that alone would be enough to halt the pandemic.

Of course, the key is the guarded optimism. We simply do not know. And there is no doubt that ignorance has led to chaos as Prof Carl Heneghan observed a while back for the BBC.

Heneghan said, We need to slow down our thinking. But every time the government sees a rise in cases it seems to panic.” He is right. But simple precautions might well have benefit, and must be better than knee-jerk orders. the simple approach should be to self-isolate where possible and not to party or gather in large numbers unless it is absolutely necessary. I cannot fathom for one minute why pubs should be opening as they are. Now, is surely the time to enrich our society with gatehrings if necessary but outside. Now is the time for continental cafe culture and the wather has been good enough for that. Inbstead, we have gone wild and the virus is back.

The views from the US that suggest masks are going to be the answer are stabs in the dark and it would be unwise to rally behind one particular hypothesis except that, in this case, that hypothesis supports one particular activity that has come into question. I think it cannpot be questioned any longer. It may even be a bit of a silver bullet: it may not be. But anything more we do reinforces our defence if we stick to it.

The theory started in California but has received support from a reseracher, Dr Julian Tang, in Leicester. Dr Monica Gandhi in the San Francisco talks about what she calls, “’Variolation’ – a term originally derived from the smallpox pre-vaccine era – is quite feasible and may add to the protective physical effects of universal masking – by low level stimulation of the wearer’s immune system as it is exposed to low levels of airborne SARS-CoV-2, which can induce an immune response but without any overt infection and disease. This is after all the response to a typical vaccine – where the recipient’s immune systems are stimulated, subclinically, to produce protective immune responses to combat the infection if exposed at a future date. Of course, more formal studies are required to confirm this effect, and there are likely natural experiments ongoing around the world at the moment.”

Many of Dr Gandhi’s observations seem to be based on an Argentinian cruise ship that gave everyone masks and achieved an 80% asymptomatic spread of COVID 19 in contrast to the cruise ships that failed to mask up and reported huge loss of life and highly contageous outbreaks.

We live in hope.

Kismet

There was a ridiculous attempt to re-stage “Kismet” a few years’ ago in the ENO. It is a shame that it went wrong because the original show and the Howard Keel film is wonderful in all ways. When the day is most dull, I find a few minutes of the old Vincente Minnelli film from the 1950s restores a healthy heart.

Even the wooden performance of the prince in the film is enchanting. “Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise.” There is plenty strange in that setting- a very strange cockerel in a bush, a strange white peacock and alot of strange fake grass. The prince is hardly out of place in the strangeness. Who cares! This is simply a glimpse at a 3d version of a persian minature. I am sure it influenced Richard Williams when he set out to devise “the thief and the cobbler”. After all, Williams also used a score overwhelmed by the crypto-Gerogian composer, Alexander Borodin (Бородин).

There was a reworking of the show called Timbuktu! with Eatha Kitt in the late 1970s. It kept many of the big songs, though it lost the song I think is best…

Kismet certainly influenced me in the early 1980s when, in Oxford, there was a production of “Hassan” by James Elroy Flecker. It was the first play I designed for the Oxford Playhouse and the directors (there were two of them) wanted lots of painted backdrops. It was a disaster and the only time I have witnessed the downing of tools by a cast who observed correctly that there were more of them on stage than there were audience in the auditorium.

I remember, though, working day and night in the workshop on a 30 foot painting representing a city slum. In fact, hidden in the slum was a magical golden palace so I sprinked a few peacocks and various fantasy clouds of blue and pink oozing from hookahs. While I was painting, one of my friends came by and I explained this was a picture of a slum. From then on, he assumed that I was so divorced from reality that I believed poverty was a thing of camp glitter. A few terms’ later, in the summer, I think, I designed “the Mikado”. I am still rather pleased with the design actually, and found a few drawings for it the other day. One of the features was a gauze frontdrop that fell half-way through the 1st Act finale separating Katisha from the chorus which was fun to paint and to see.

In the same term, I also designed a garden show of a greek tragedy by Euripides called ION. It was all in Greek with a pastiche of a hadzivakis score by a man called Clive Thomms. He was very talented and I have no idea what happened to him afterwards. I painted the ION sets in the cloisters at my college- it caused a bit of a stir. Later I recreated the look in the dining room of a friend’s house just outside Oxford. It must have been a bit dark- it was a recreation of Red-figure vase painting.

Otherwise, that year in Oxford was dominated by demands from a weary Canadian director for audition after audition of pieces he was proposing to direct in the Oxford Playhouse. I got very good at making cardboard mock-ups of the stage there. I think the list ran something like King Lear, Julius Caesar, Man of La Mancha, Samson Agonistes, Macbeth, the Rivals and Duchess of Malta. I miss those maquettes a bit. In the end, I had a basic model that I rebuilt again and again as desired. It was not until my second year that I started to get a good run of shows and then I was designing sometimes 3 or 4 plays a term and a good many more posters. By the time I got to designing Peter Pan, I think I had working lights on the model.

My favourite song in KISMET is “Not since Nineveh”. It is sublime. And “the fool sat beneath an olive tree..” is pretty good too. “Why be content with the olive when you could have the tree?” I love the irony of seeing the Caliph’s procession going back in the distance behind the main characters…This is simply Minnelli at his best and it is strange that Kismet is one of those films that is almost impossible to access today. Somehow, time has not favoured this classic.

Delores Gray from the film- Not since Nineveh

and another!

I remember seeing Delores Gray in the London production of “Follies”. She had quite a run of British action, appearing in The Good Old days and Dr Who but she also did a stint at RADA and the year she made Kismet, she also made “It’s always fair weather” a great Gene Kelly show. It is odd altogether. She makes “Kismet” sizzle. She is spectacular. In the past, I remember dismissing this film as kitch, but now I realise this is kitch with class. It is high camp as well as kitsch. There’s a good yiddish work (קיטש) by the way, so Shava Tova for today!

Punctuation

Every so often, I read stuff that is badly worded or badly punctuated. The former tells me about error, the latter tells me about ignorance. I worry alot more about the latter.

Punctuation aids sense. It is a teaching tool that tells us not so much what is being written, but how best to read it.

In a world of texting and dictation, however, punctuation is a dying art and it is a shame because it has played a vital part in world history and continues to do so.

It was the comma strike in Tsarist Russia in 1905 that forced through the first Russian constitution, for instance. One wonders if there might not be a further punctuation mark to bring Mr Putin to heel. There are certaily plenty of semi-retired bits of punctaution that could be summoned up to cause a fuss. In the last 30 years, long abandoned squiggles have been re-purposed and re-named. So today, the ubiquitous octothorpe and the arabesque dominate texting (I cannot find the hashtag on my computer so rely on copying and pasting) and, therefore, modern communication. In Greek, the arabesque is called “the little duck” like the plastic device that fits over the bowl and squirts blue liquid into the loo. Vincent Price would have had a field day.

I love punctaution that tells me how to read aloud. The comma used, in other words, as cantillation. It has a long histiory going back to manuscripts of the Torah and both mediaeval and Byzantine psalmody. As a rule of thiumb, when I see a comma coming, I get ready for a quick intake of breath.

The finality of a full stop, on the page if not in the recording studio, can also signal irritation or an over-zealous authority. Today, I received a letter full of curt instructions and peppered with full-stops. Amost spat out at me. In contrast, there are people who seem afraid of the full-stop entirely and it has disappeared in some instances. It would be pedantic to complain or re-insert. It is now missing, for example, from many abbreviations and acronyms. “OK” rarely receives its full stops (it is short for “Ola Kala”, all is well, so it should have full-stops). “Haha” is rarely punctauted. This is the “lol”version, not the enchanted garden deceit.Whatever happened to S.W.A.L.K.? Incidentally, there should never have been a full-stop after “A”.

As a fan of John Milton, I have long recognised that Capitals are decorative. Maube it is time to concede that punctuation is, too.

Drawing Plans

The problem with lockdown is that- while there is time to do things and develop projects- events, as Macmillan would have said, seem to get in the way. I have a number of things I want to finish and some to get started but I have been submerged by requests for drawings, lessons and bits and pieces that have all taken more time than I ever anticipated.

from issue 4, WHYTT magazine. Copies available here: https://whyttmagazine.com/print-editions

However, everything is getting under control and here, to prove the point, is a picture from a new magazine that ran an article about me today, and about my plans for the future of animation. So I feel a bit driven to set out what I hope to be doing over the next year or two.

“I’ll tell you what that is ” As Tevye says, “I don’t know.” Though that should not stop us planning.

At the top of the list is a need to bring proper order to the Reality TV industry. I have had personal experience of this now and have spent a good few months learning more and more and meeting some of the far-from ordinary people who have spiced up these diverse programmes. I worry that this is an unregulated area of entertainment and there is the chance that many people will continue to be hurt. To date, there is a list of about 40 suicides spanning just under 20 years which is an horrific testimony to how badly things can go.

The health minister is on record saying that he wanted more psychological health-care for contestants. This does not deal with the many issues that people have spoken about. Also, I note that various committees have sat in the commons but few reality tv “stars” have been asked for or delivered evidence. We are the authorites on this subject so it seems odd to learn of this omission.

Matt Hancock looks at one problem only. This is what he said,

“The sudden exposure to massive fame … can have significant impacts on people.

“I think that it is a duty on any organisation that is putting people in the position of making them famous overnight, that they should also look after them afterwards.

“I think that people need to take responsibility for their duties to people’s well-being very seriously.”

I am hoping to meet the Arts Minister, Oliver Dowden, to discuss a way forward and to this end I have drawn up for him a “mission statement” calling for three significant changes. The first is independent psychological support, the second is professional representation and the third is union support. The current offer of studio-sponsored psychology , I think, is a cut-price and dangerous route both for the contestants and the studios. It also worries me that, if so many people in Government and across media believe there is so much need for psychological support, then we must judge either (1) that this form of entertainment is inherently unsafe or (2) that the producers are incapable of selecting cast members who are likely to remain genuinely stable. It begins to sound like a predatory situation and no one should be forced to endorse that as they turn on the telly for a relaxing evening.

There is lots to be said for routine and in-house counselling, of course, as there is for emotional support and mental health in all areas of the arts. It is a tough call to perform for a living. But the stories I have heard over the last year about deep misery and personal distress to people who have appeared on reality tv across the world should be the exception, not the rule. Many people who go on these shows will actually have the resilience to survive this, but it should not be an assumed part of the package. Instead, the industry should be brought in line with other forms of entertainment and I think there is a way to do this. There is a simple way to make this safe.

It is only recently that we have seen a relaxing of the demands for equity membership, and only recently that professional access to jobs has been possible without the intervention of a recognised agent. However, it remains very difficult to negotiate the performing arts’ world without either of these, and I think both should be on offer before Reality shows begin filming. Talent can always opt out.

In the meantime, I have got to finish my second film about the Music Hall that brings the story up to the 1960s and also to finish my filmed reading of the first book of PARADISE LOST! Along the way, I would like to see if it is still possible to do animated opera and animated documentaries in some form. I would have thought animation is a grand way to negotiate the rules of COVID!