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From Purity’s Drawers: White Shirt Look-ey Like-eys

Purity’s hobby, when not traversing the Kalahari on camel with her faithful companion Mildred, was of course collecting photographs of singers singing opera whilst wearing white shirts. But she had other interests too. Like noticing when said singers look liked other people…

From the Archives.

So we’ve already mused on the fact that Sonia Prina can under certain conditions bear an uncanny resemblance to Joan Jett:

As my old Scottish Mother says - "Careful, you'll put someone's eye out with that thing!"

As my old Scottish Mother says – “Careful, you’ll put someone’s eye out with that thing!”

Joan Jett wielding an entirely different kind of steely length...

Joan Jett wielding an entirely different kind of steely length…

And we’ve even noted that Tuva Semmingsen and Gina Gershon seem to have something going on:

Hard day plumbing Tuva?

Hard day plumbing Tuva?

Tuva Semmingsen, err Gina Gershon, err...

Tuva Semmingsen, err Gina Gershon, err…

But I can’t believe it’s taken me all this time to spot the resemblance between Elina Garanca…

"Tonight Matthew, I'm Annie Lennox!"

“Tonight Matthew, I’m Annie Lennox!”

and Annie Lennox….
I grow weak...

I grow weak…

I mean it’s just *so* obvious. Though I’ve got to say Ms Lennox wins the “how much make up is too much?” challenge I think! And speaking of Annie Lennox, those opera dressers could learn a think from Ms Lennox about how to trouser a female singer!


I rest my case.

Of course, this was all just a not very elaborate excuse for a White-shirt-a-thon. Speaking of which, well you didn’t imagine this would be a Queen Kasarova free zone now did you? Hey, hands up if you think opera singers look better in white shirts…

Black socks in the white wash again VK?

Black socks in the white wash again VK?

The Saddest Lines I Ever Wrote


I imagine we all have that “special person”: the soul guide, the one whose love can’t be easily described, the one for whom our feelings run so deep it can be terrifying.

A year ago today, at just after 1015 on a beautiful sunny day in Edinburgh, I kissed mine for the last time. Afterwards I sat in Princes Street Gardens, in the city he and I both loved deeply, as the Festival madness erupted all around me, and I started to work on the saddest lines I ever wrote – his obituary. The details of his life are astounding enough even in this hugely compressed account. But what was missing was the details of his love – a love I felt from my very earliest days, a love that comforted me and held me up through all my fears and frustrations, successes and failures, a love that accompanied me and grew with me through my entire life. A love that I carry in my heart still.

NORMAN FENTON (1940 – 2012)

The television producer, director and investigative journalist Norman Fenton has died in Edinburgh after a short illness. He was 71.Norman was born and bred in Govan, Glasgow, the son of an Irish father and a Scottish mother. His early career as an alter boy disabused him of any interest in the Catholic Church or religion, but the world around him in Govan bred a life-long commitment to socialism and the Trades Union movement. Benefitting from the social mobility that the UK Labour party had made possible at that time, he read physics at Glasgow University and in 1961 became one of a select band of working-class trainees at the British Broadcasting Corporation. A career in local and network news, principally for Yorkshire Television, followed. During this period he met and married June Notman, a production assistant at the BBC. June shared his love of travel, politics, antiques and music and film until her death from motor neurone disease in 2004.

In 1974 Norman’s career really came into focus with his appointment as a producer/director first on the seminal current affairs tv series “This Week” and then on its replacement “TV Eye”. He embarked on a two decade long period of travel all over the world making films on topics as diverse as the Yorkshire Ripper; the Baader-Meinhof gang; the nuclear accidents at Five Mile Island and Cherynobl; and wars and civil conflicts from Guatemala to the Lebannon the Falklands. As Norman would later frequently lament, few then understood that this was the high-water mark of UK television current affairs programming.

His work frequently put him in personal danger. Filming in the Lebanon he and several other journalists were held down by sniper fire. Seeing a young journalist flee ill-advisedly for cover Norman dashed out, scooped her up over his shoulder and carried her to safety. In Buenos Aires covering the Falklands War in 1982 he and his crew were kidnapped by Argentinian naval intelligence. Upon release they were invited to dinner with President Galtieri, thereby obtaining the only interview he gave to the British media.

He had a gift for getting into the places few Western journalists could. During the Iranian Revolution he filmed and interviewed Ayatollah Khomeini, though was later held prisoner by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard whilst filming the Iran/Iraq war. Covertly entering the Lenin shipyards in Gdansk, Poland, he managed to film the entire Solidarity strike, which many believe heralded the end of the Cold War.

For Norman the starting point was always – what are ‘they’ not asking? He was relentless in his pursuit of the unasked question. On the 15th of February 1974 a trawler ship out of Hull, the Gaul, and its entire crew of 36 men were lost in the Arctic Sea. The UK authorities claimed that the wreck could not be found, quickly abandoning an investigation into its fate. However the families of the crew insisted that the trawler had in fact been spying on the Soviet Northern Fleet. Norman spent several years following the trail of the Gaul until finally in August 1997 the survey vessel he had chartered located it in 920 feet of water off the north coast of Norway. The film forced the UK government to reopen the investigation the following year, which sensationally confirmed that British fishing vessels had indeed been used to spy on the Soviets. More importantly to Norman, his discovery offered the families of the lost seamen some long overdue comfort.

In 1982 the US Navy missile destroyer, the USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranair passenger jet over the Persian Gulf. More innocent passengers died in that incident than were lost when Pan Am 103 was brought down over Lockerbie some months later. Norman made a BBC/US co-production film about that incident, becoming convinced that Libya were not involved in the Scottish disaster.

In 1984 he co-wrote with Jon Blair “The Biko Inquest”, a dramatised television account of the inquest in Pretoria into the murder of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko while in police custody. Their play was later staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London with Ian McKellen as the Biko family lawyer, and subsequently broadcast by Channel 4 with Albert Finney playing the lead.

From 1984 onwards Norman worked as a freelance producer/director. Working for ITV, CBS, the BBC Channel 4 he made films about the “Gaul”, Afghanistan (“Kabul Autumn”), and the “The Sinking of the Scharnhorst”.

His numerous experiences of the world at its very worst never dimmed his love of life or people. He was a wonderful raconteur, drinking companion, and friend. His commitment to the working classes and the oppressed extended far beyond his work. He was National Chairman of the Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians during the 1970s, and bemoaned the death of the unions in TV and the rise of the ‘yuppie intern’ culture, twin forces he believed were largely responsible for the tidal wave of trivia and celebrity “news” that now dominates our screens. For him current affairs TV of late was all too often not about the ‘unasked questions’ but about ‘questions that were not worth asking, still less answering’.

His views are best summed up in this extract from one of his favourite pieces of political rhetoric – Jimmy Reid’s rectorial address to Glasgow University in 1972:

“All that is good in man’s heritage involves recognition of our common humanity, an unashamed acknowledgement that man is good by nature. Burns expressed it in a poem that technically was not his best, yet captured the spirit. In “Why should we idly waste our prime…”:

“The golden age, we’ll then revive, each man shall be a brother,
In harmony we all shall live and till the earth together,
In virtue trained, enlightened youth shall move each fellow creature,
And time shall surely prove the truth that man is good by nature.”

It’s my belief that all the factors to make a practical reality of such a world are maturing now. I would like to think that our generation took mankind some way along the road towards this goal. It’s a goal worth fighting for.”

Norman died in Edinburgh one week to the day after travelling home to Scotland. He greeted his death as he had lived his life – with curiosity, humour, and a great deal of compassion for those around him.


White Shirt Friday: Not Opera, Not Really a White Shirt, But Anyway…


As a woman I regard myself as in one very important way lucky to have grown up in the 70s – it was an era where amongst the majority vapid fare, the film world in Hollywood and beyond gifted us with an amazing range of what would now be deemed “Fierce Women”.

This was the time when there were many actresses who embodied the idea of the strong, involved, passionate woman making her way in what was then, and largely still is now, a deeply misogynist world. And there were a good number of roles for them. One of the actresses who absolutely personified that idea for me was Colleen Dewhurst. I stumbled over this incredible photo of her. Read it anyway you like, but it is hard to avoid concluding “Wow”.

As a tall teenager in the era when that was still quite rare I also clung to the idea that a woman could be big, strong, imposing and not a freak. I was shocked when I found out she was only 5′ 8″ – I was so sure she was my height. Which says so much about her.

Being Normal

The idea of “being normal” has been on my mind a lot recently. I’ve never been particularly normal – taller than normal, unusual interests for my childhood cultural time and place, gay, and now disabled. Like so many people I know, as long as I can remember I have felt “not normal”, in fact I have often actively imposed that definition on myself. And for a fair bit of that time have been told that too – had that definition thrust upon me. Sometimes I have embraced it, sometimes attempted to “pass”, sometimes going from one to the other state in a matter of hours. But is the very idea of being normal valid, useful, acceptable?

As ever the Oxford English Dictionary is a good starting place:

conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected: it’s quite normal for puppies to bolt their food; normal working hours

of a person) free from physical or mental disorders: until her accident Louise had been a perfectly normal little girl; many previously normal people exhibit psychotic symptoms after a few nights without sleep

So right away it’s clear that normality is something used to sort us out – the normal and the abnormal, the conformist and the non-conformist. Of course I don’t imagine many people would when asked if they self-identify as being “perfectly normal” in all regards agree. We all sooner or later feel the burden of being one among many. Personally I have always been more than fully qualified for the abnormal gang on both counts – choice and circumstance. I have no particular inclination towards the norm. My default position has always been “why?”. Why should I dress that way? Why should I obey that rule? Why should I believe that? But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it is less a case of not wanting to be “normal” and more a case of simply living in a world where there are so few “normalities” that I find appealing? I live in a society whose underlying principle – democracy – I deeply believe in. Yet the day to day workings of my society too often leave me feeling depressed. I live in a world that, when it does choose to speak of my life as a lesbian and a mother, chooses to tell me that who I love and my family are unequal, not deserving of the same considerations as straight people and families. I have spent my entire adult life being told by everyone from a thug throwing a brick through my window to the state that I am not equal, recent law changes notwithstanding: to imagine that the right to marry, though not in a church, marks the end of this particular historical policy of discrimination is just plain foolish.

And now I have to navigate this bodily and cognitive “abnormality”. What does it mean that my body does not work to accepted “norms”? What does it mean that my cognition has changed? How do I live like this? My failure to conform in this respect is as much a challenge to my internalised notions of normality as my lesbianism used to be. You couldn’t grow up in 70s small town Scotland without internalising a great deal of homophobia, a legacy I still have to attend to in myself. Disability, of any kind, brings with it an equally heavy burden of fear and self-loathing. Which gets is to the heart of the matter – we may be objectively abnormal (taller than the norm for example) but most abnormality is a subjective matter. For example who decides who is gay and who is straight when most studies indicate most people are on a spectrum and social norms have as much to do with sexual partners as anything else? The power rests with those who get to decide who fits into the category by how it is defined: the tyranny of taxonomy.

During my first recent relapse I was put on a course of high dose steroids for 5 days. As they kicked in I experienced something truly incredible – I felt almost normal. By shutting down my immune system the steroids reduced all the inflammation in my brain, allowing many previously messed up signals to travel normally again.I could feel my feet, sense where my limbs were, move almost normally, smell properly. I felt so “able”. So normal. Of course as soon as the steroids stopped, my real normality returned. When I was a child I often dreamed of being disabled: not able to move, running up a slippery hill, scared but unable to scream, etc. As an adult I often dream of being normal: of running, dancing, swimming, climbing. I dreamt my future as a child, am I dreaming my wishes, my fears or something else as an adult? I have long resisted the idea that I am disabled, not normal. I remember being devastated when a physiotherapist trying for my own good to get me to accept using a stick pointed out that it was not normal for a woman of my then age (mid-30s) to be incapable of walking up stairs without using the bannister. But I have come to believe that those dreams are not so much an expression of my desire to be “normal” as they are an attempt to be at peace with how things are.

The medical profession may have been keen for me to face my physical abnormalities, however the one area I have the found the medical profession as desperate to help us maintain an illusion of normality as the rest of us is with regards to cognitive function. Whist in Charcot’s time, when the disease was being “discovered”, the cognitive aspects of MS were openly recognised, that aspect became a taboo topic in the latter half of the 19th Century. My own experiences of navigating the onset of cognitive problems brought this fully to view. The first thing you notice is the silence. Silence because no one wants to talk about it: not you, not those around you, not even the medics. So we whisper it instead. To ourselves, to others. Something’s not right. Traces appear in the sands of daily life: decisions that seem impossible to make, problems that seem to overwhelm us, the ‘cognitive fog’ that descends on bad days rendering us cognitively paralysed. But as soon as we almost silently mouth the words, we want them back. And others are only too relieved to give them back. This is too hard, too uncomfortable, too close to what we in contemporary Western culture at any rate believe to be the essence of self. And so the silence descends again, smothering that nascent whisper a little while longer. This is not happening.

You know it is of course, and the worry mounts. But even when you occasionally mutter a note of concern you are almost always greeted by a negating “oh but I do that too!”. It’s meant kindly of course. And I would have done it to others myself, if it wasn’t happening to me. An automatic reaction, the desire to make it all go away, rub it better, hush the restless infant. But what they don’t realise is that  I don’t. Not exactly. I can’t tell you how I knew this, but at some point I just knew. This was not ‘normal ageing’ indecisiveness, or everyday harassed full time worker-mother forgetfulness. No this was something else. Something that couldn’t be voiced easily. But something nonetheless.

In fact I had self-diagnosed myself pretty accurately as subsequent medical investigations noted. The patterns of word loss, spelling mistakes, the kinds of cognitive tasks that posed the biggest problem. That was the easy bit. I observed, noted, and eventually actually cataloged almost all of them. It did not take long then for the pattern to emerge, the insight to form. Eventually fear of not knowing trumped fear of knowing and I sought medical opinion and had my own analysis confirmed. The medical opinion should have been re-assuring. Yes there was loss of cognitive function in some important areas but where before I had been “above normal” functioning now I was “in normal range”. So that’s “re-assuring” the opinion said. Which if course it wasn’t – because at the end of the day what really counts is not statistical, objective measures of normality, but my normality, subjective normality. It does not reassure me to know that my cognitive function in those key aspects is within normal range because it’s not normal for me. I notice the difference.

So to return to my opening question, is the idea of being normal valid, useful, acceptable? Well yes and no. Objectivist notions of normality are how society polices us, controls us. I will continue to reject those as I always have. But subjective notions of normality are an ever evolving mechanism for noticing, coping with and ultimately making peace with the circumstances within which I find myself living. From that perspective – normality is something I will strive for. I may not be in the norm, but I can be normal if I choose to.

In My Uncle’s Study


Exactly a year ago today I held my beloved Norman as he told me he was dying. Two weeks later I kissed him goodbye for the last time. I will always be grateful for that two weeks I had with him; for the love we shared. About a year before that I wrote the post below in Purity’s blog and shared it with him. Though we had been incredibly close my whole life, being Scots we rarely talked very openly of what we felt for each other. We did after I posted this. And we did those two weeks. And I am thankful to this day we did, for no one should die without knowing how very very much they were loved.


One of the nicest things about getting older is reconnecting with things from one’s younger days: memories swirling as the trigger (a song, a smell, the feel of some material) rushes you backwards and forwards through time; remembering who you were, who you imagined you would be; contemplating who you are and who you hope to be.

I had an aunt and uncle, my windows on the world. They were glamorous and well travelled: both worked in TV. We would stay with them for a few days every year, their house a treasure trove of ideas, music, imagery. They were everything I wished to be. Where my parents filled us with strong tea laced with vast quantities of sugar, they offered coffee, no sugar. Not instant coffee. Real coffee. From beans ground in front of us kids, who until then had been wildly oblivious to the idea that coffee ‘came’ from anywhere apart from a jar. They had cheeses that bore no relationship to the disgusting bright orange sweaty chunks of stuff that passed for cheese in our house. They served bread that came in large chunks torn from loaves that came whole, not pre-sliced, and that had (shock!) both texture and taste – so unlike our own dear ‘pan loaf’ in its plastic wrapper, as wilted and pale and badly nourished as a Scots kid in winter in the 70s. Their shelves were filled with books, with authors whose names clearly signified otherness. Well worn Penguin paperbacks sat side by side with exotic looking books about art, music, books not even written in English. I was a kid shyly ecstatic in a sweet shop of ideas, of possibilities.

I slept on a camp bed in my uncle’s study, surrounded by things and ideas that kept me up night after night, quietly uncovering a world I could never have imagined. My uncle made documentary films, work that took him from Soviet Russia to apartheid South Africa to Chile. If downstairs was the world of beauty, of pleasure, of delight, his study upstairs was the world of of life’s cruelty and pain and suffering. In scraps of scripts for his films, in piles of newspaper clippings and photographs, letters written in unfamiliar forms, the realities of so many of the world’s population came alive to me for the first time. At first as I secretly explored this world I was horrified; suddenly my gray world of sweaty cheese and wilted white ‘bread’ was a haven when contrasted the townships of Soweto, the Samizdat cellars of Moscow, the football stadiums of Chile. But as I explored further, another story emerged. A story of resistance, of the power of beauty to help us face those horrors, of the incredible strengths that lurk within all of us.I don’t know if my aunt and uncle knew what was happening to their naive provincial niece. They did however help me navigate this strange and scary journey with their willingness to answer questions, to talk. For the first time I learnt that asking questions was alright. For the first time I learnt that thinking, having ideas, defending them, was not just an irritating habit but a requirement for life, for passing into adulthood, and in some instances, for survival itself.

I also learnt in those early years that whilst a beautiful mind and spirit may not always triumph (the stories of Victor Jara and Steve Biko come to mind), knowing that they do exist makes it possible to at least look into the face of pain and see the possibility of hope. And nothing and no-one represented that to the young me more than the voice discovered downstairs in the haven that was my aunt and uncle’s record collection. Miriam Makeba. Mama Africa.

I wasn’t much older than my eldest son is now when this happened. And today I look at him, and wonder when and how he will make his journey. He knows full well that coffee comes from beans, he’s ground them often enough for me. He smells fresh baked bread every morning, lives surrounded by books and ideas and music. And yet, like me, he still has to take this other journey, to Conrad’s ‘heart of darkness’ yes but hopefully beyond too.

My aunt died some years ago, but my uncle lives still in that house. I think it’s time my son spent a few nights in his great uncle’s study.

Friends Of The Journey

“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” — Maya Angelou

Towanda's Window

Fangirling Is Resistance

Lou's Story

Our journey with cancer

Vanessa's War

The wartime memoirs of Lady Vanessa Montague

Equality by lot

The blog of the Kleroterians

Citizen Participation Network

Connecting Research, Policy and Practice on Participatory Democracy

The Eyes Have It

an appreciation


In memory of an inspiring young doctor who mused about life & death through her terminal cancer illness. Her husband, Chris now keeps the page updated.

Critical Dispatches

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @RichyDispatch

opera, innit?

a good Tito/mezzo guide


140 characters aren't enough for this stuff...

Bullet Proof Cardie

A doctor in recovery writes...........

Leisurely Seeking Doctorate

A fifty-something American explores doing a PhD in the UK — and then turns 60 and does it


Stuff about user research and delivery, and stuff

Swimming in Stormy Weather

Fieldnotes from the World of MS, White Shirts & Opera

Content At Large

Notes from the front: Content strategy, development and dissemination ideas from champions and leaders in the field


Debunking pseudo-neuroscience so you don't have to

What I did on my holidays

A week in Ireland. Alone

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