My father’s imprisonment
Sir: Harald Maass’s piece on the plight of Uyghurs in China (‘A cultural genocide’, December 14) captures the grim reality of what has been happening. Articles like this draw vital attention to the crisis. I am an ethnic Uyghur and live in Belgium with my wife and children. My father, a 58-year-old secondary school teacher from Xinjiang, was jailed in China in April 2018. No reason was provided by the authorities as to why, and there was no trial or any other legal procedure. He was obviously imprisoned just because he is a Uyghur.
After 18 months in prison, he was finally released recently and is at home in Xinjiang. Even so, we have only been in touch once — he and all my family members in China are too afraid to be open with me. Imagining the harsh treatment my father might have gone through almost kills me. I fear that I might never be able to see my family again. To me, it is clear what the Chinese government wants to do: eliminate ethnic Uyghurs and exterminate our culture, identity and spirit.
It’s behind you
Sir: I was much taken with the Revd Steve Morris’s encounter with the force of nature known in theatrical circles purely as ‘Biggins’ (‘I’m too pretty to play an Ugly Sister’, 7 December). He is a fine actor in many modes but his panto dames are quintessential Biggins. I speak as one who a) sold tickets for him when I was the number three in the RSC Box Office in 1969; and b) has played opposite him in pantomime. I gave my Abanazar to his Twankey, a bracing but ultimately life-enhancing experience as he first created and then effortlessly dominated huge tsunamis of laughter. His command over the audience was extraordinary, even when a little boy was asked what he’d received from Santa and answered: ‘A toilet.’
Once I got into some trouble. Having informed the audience that I’d been given a ring, I asked what I should do with it. ‘Rub it,’ they dutifully cried. ‘You want me to rub my ring?’ I enquired, aghast. ‘An unusual suggestion, but I suppose I should give it a try’ — at which a stentorian voice from the stalls called out: ‘It’s behind you.’
I was in no shape to continue after that, but Biggins, who directed the show, was in the wings and quickly pulled me together. Panto is a celebration of rampant anarchy, and requires ruthless discipline to bring off.
Sir: Christopher Biggins may be right that pantomime is ‘pure family entertainment’. But it wasn’t always. Two hundred years ago, when Joey Grimaldi starred as Clown in pantomimes featuring the adventures of Harlequin, Columbine and Pantaloon, the intended audience were adults. Only in the Victorian period did pantomime become more moralistic and child-focused — but even then some thought it unsuitable for children. Scantily clad cross-dressed principal boys, remarked one critic, made mothers blush as their sons were exposed to the secrets of female anatomy.
In fact, my first pantomime, at the Bristol Hippodrome in the early 1950s, featured a woman as Mother Goose. And there are other precedents for dames being played by female performers. The current factor most likely to undermine pantomime as family entertainment is perhaps the annual Palladium show with its smutty innuendo, endless variety acts and lack of clear narrative. No wonder one feels nostalgic for the old-fashioned vulgarity and clear-cut storytelling of the traditional family pantomime. But then every generation complains that pantomime is not as good as when they were young!
Professor of theatre studies, University of Warwick
Sir: Should conservatives be worried the Tories have won the election? Sajid Javid says (‘Spending time’, 7 December) he’ll spend more than £100 billion on infrastructure, taking advantage of what he calls the new era of ultra-low interest rates. He might recall Japan’s infamous ‘bridges to nowhere’ experience in the 1980s and 1990s, spending billions on wasteful infrastructure projects which not only failed to stimulate the economy but left the country heavily indebted and crowded out genuine business investment. Japan suffered a ‘lost decade’ of stagnation: it’s not an example that any Tory chancellor should wish to follow.
Sir: Richard Bratby’s elegant article (‘Love train’, 14 December) reminds us
that model railways are increasingly socially credible. My own imagination took off 50-plus years ago with a Hornby Dublo set. Since then, the hobby’s predicted demise just hasn’t happened. Maybe our high-pressure, instant-gratification world needs the slow pleasures of researching, building and running model railways. Building one can be quick or can take a lifetime. At the Model Railway Club in London we have a layout based on our Kings Cross area that is already 36 years
in the making. For sure, the demographic has a grey bias, but I’ll bet that many members of the Young MRC (our youth group) will be opening model railway presents on Christmas Day.
Professor Tim Watson
President, Model Railway Club, London N1
Let’s stand together
Sir: I identify as a gender non-binary and I’ll die fighting for inclusivity. It frustrates me to see another transgender individual erasing the experience of non-binary people (‘Gender division’, 14 December). We should all fight for inclusivity. The transgender community has a lived experience that overlaps with that of many non-binary people, and we should be standing together, not apart.
Carlo Brix Sioting
Central Luzon, Philippines
The gift of Mrs T
Sir: Reading Taki in praise of Mrs Thatcher (14 December), I was taken back to the bleakness of life in the 1970s, when nothing worked. I grew up in a family-run Blackpool guest house. We balanced on a knife-edge of small wealth created by the business, and some winters were hungrier than others. The country’s culture was dismissive of private enterprise, and governments seemed incapable of breaking the ‘groupthink’ of state control and unbounded trade union power. Then came Mrs T. With the courage of a lioness, she changed the world. She shattered union tyranny and gave people the freedom to succeed. I am delighted to live in a post-Thatcher Britain, regardless of our current challenges.
Lower Froyle, Hampshire
Fairy light memory
Sir: I enjoyed James Walton’s review of Elizabeth is Missing (14 December). Sadly I’m now unable to watch television as I have dementia myself, like the character played by Glenda Jackson. While I therefore cannot comment on Walton’s critique, I can stress how happy I am to see dementia getting an airing on national TV.
The disease is one of the biggest social challenges this country, and indeed the world, faces. It is certainly a bummer of a diagnosis and it can strip away your self-esteem. We who have dementia may forget details in the blink of an eye, but emotions remain embedded as they involve a part of our brain often left intact. I’ve already apologised to my daughters for if and when I forget who they are, but I tell them to remember that I’ll always love them.
You may be wondering how I can type this letter. Dementia is a complex disease and experiences of it vary. Imagine the brain as a string of fairy lights, each representing a different function. They flicker on and off; sometimes you can do something one day and not the next. When the lights fail altogether, dementia has won. Until then, the lights turn on and off — that’s why I can type and others can’t; they can cook and I can’t. We’re all different.
I’ve always been a glass-half-full person and I never dwell on what I can’t do. When the fog descends and dementia takes hold, I tell myself: ‘It’s not me, it’s this cruel disease’, and sit quietly until the world makes sense. My mantra is: ‘There’s always a way.’ Dementia may be terminal, but so is life, so I enjoy every moment. If today is a bad day… well, tomorrow may be better.
East Riding, Yorkshire
Sir: Reading Lloyd Evans’s review of Richard III at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (7 December) evoked my own memories of playing the king at the Globe in 2003. It was an all-female cast, though I played Richard as a man with a disability. I used my own disabilities — my limp, my broken limbs, my inherited scoliosis — and borrowed other elements from friends with disabilities. Playing Richard felt like driving a heavy, rather dangerous tank. Despite the gender swap, we put on a fairly traditional production — our costumes were all doublets and hose, for instance. As an actor, I found the seduction scenes to be the easiest, perhaps thanks to personal recall of ‘male’ strategies in seducing!
Sir: I’m pleased to read that bridge clubs are working to engage young people (Bridge, 14 December). I’m in my mid-twenties and have been playing and adoring bridge since I was a child. I’m part of two millennial groups that meet regularly for bridge and wine. We are always trying to rope in newbies who (I’d like to think) are immensely jealous of the fun we have. As Susanna Gross points out, being able to understand a player’s thinking is important but there’s endless pleasure to be had in watching expert friends make silly errors or fall foul of luck.
I’ll be giving the educational videos she mentions a good watch over Christmas — mostly in preparation for when the New Year’s Eve party ends with the usual gang slinking off to a corner table for a few merry and chaotic goulash hands.
A city of trees
Sir: I read Jamie Blackett’s recent article with interest (‘Planting won’t solve climate change’, 7 December). I agree with Blackett’s scepticism of politicians’ far-fetched promises, but I fear he discourages an enthusiasm that should be cultivated.
In London, we have an enviable 21 per cent tree cover (which makes us a forest, according to the UN), while just 13 per cent of the UK is woodland. London’s diversity is uniquely reflected in its trees. There are hundreds of different types to be found in the most unlikely corners: a grapefruit tree in Chelsea, avocado trees in Pimlico and pineapple guavas in Hackney, all of which help make the city feel like an urban arboretum.
The first card
Sir: Marcus Berkmann’s Christmas card etiquette (‘Notes on…’, 7 December) brings to mind the first card that kicked off this festive tradition: a colour print released in 1843 illustrated by John Calcott Horsley. Only 1,000 were printed and it wasn’t a commercial success. But the idea took off a few decades later, and by 1877, Brits were sending 4.5 million cards.
The Charles Dickens Museum has one of the few remaining first Christmas cards on display as part of our current exhibition, Beautiful Books: Dickens and the Business of Christmas — and Marcus will be pleased to know that 176 years ago, before his Christmas rules were written, the first card echoed modern celebrations. The scene on the front looks like 25 December today, full of decorations, feasting, drinking and gathering with friends and family.
Curator, Charles Dickens Museum, London WC1