The X Factor – Do you love it, or hate it?

11 Months, 4 days, still sober

Is the X Factor a modern day variety show?

No lesser personage than Steven Spielberg, one of our greatest living film producers and directors,  said recently in an interview that during his long stay in the UK last year, shooting the movie ‘War Horse’, he and his family became addicted the British talent show, ‘The X Factor’.

So much for the intellectual elite, and even for the affectionados of so-called ‘genuine’ pop music who love to ‘rubbish’ these shows at every possible opportunity.  Hardly a day goes by when a veritable torrent of criticism and loathing is rained down on the show’s producers and its hapless contestants.

The chief among the criticisms being that the contestants are totally lacking in talent, the shows are ‘manufactured, commercial crap’ which are foisted on an unwitting, stupid public by the evil Simon Cowell. Time after time we hear or read the assertion that apparently, it is simply not permissible for a young, aspiring singer to ‘jump the queue’ and get a short cut to super-stardom by winning X Factor.

I was a child of the fifties and a youth of the sixties. One of my sorrows is that my parents never took me to see the variety shows in the music halls that abounded the length and breadth of England during the period when I was growing up.

I have since seen many filmed snippets of the acts who performed during that era, and more recently I watched an excellent two part TV documentary entitled the ‘History of Variety’, narrated by Michael Grade, which contains a wealth of footage of the magic music hall era.

But the fact remains that the music hall era, which probably lasted for over 50 years, until its eventual demise in the late fifties/early sixties with the advent of television, contained, to a large extent, many acts that would probably never survive today.  Sure, some of the ‘Top of the Bill’ singers and comedians would have held their own in any era, but for the vast majority, their talents were not particularly awe-inspiring and throughout the course of their long careers, most of these performers never changed or improved their acts in any way.

In the documentary, in which a host of ex-music hall entertainers are interviewed, contributing  fascinating reminiscences, it becomes clear that most of the music hall acts, were what one might term ‘speciality acts’, (acrobats, jugglers, comedy dancers, aerial acts, female impersonators, knife throwing, sword swallowing, fire eating, strong men, ‘mentalism’ acts, ventriloquists, puppets, flea circuses, animal acts and so on),  and their five minute ‘turns’ remained exactly the same for their entire career. Such was the proliferation of music halls that variety performers could spend their lives moving from town to town; rarely – if ever – returning to a hall they had played before. If they did, there would be a gap of several years between such performances, during which time, there would be a new audience to watch the very same act they had performed all those years before. Anecdotal evidence, together with archive footage suggest that many of them, by today’s exacting standards, would be considered very mediocre and unlikely to get a ‘look in’.

Television finally killed the British music hall, but the memories of that golden age were a long time dying.There were a number of shows on television that used to hark back to the era of the music hall, such as ‘the Good Old Days’ (which recreated the ‘feel’ of the music hall and ran for an incredible 30 years), and even shows such as ‘the Paul Daniels magic show’ and ‘The Muppet Show’ provided a showcase for the speciality acts that were so a much a part of the music hall.

I have always loved variety shows and I was one of countless millions who, from an early age, became a big fan of such shows on television. The ultimate variety show for British audiences from the sixties to the eighties was commercial television’s ‘blue riband weekly event’ the legendary ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium.’

Virtually the whole population of Britain  would turn on their TV sets on a Sunday evening and families throughout Britain would sit down together to watch this fabulous, live variety show, which showcased the very best of British and American talent.

We would see our top comedians, our latest pop stars, along with the longer established singers and all-round performers as well as an incredible array of the very best of speciality acts. We lapped it up – it truly was the big event of the week.

Sunday Night’ wasn’t the only variety show on our television. During the three decades following the demise of the music hall, there were many popular variety television shows that attracted huge audiences. Long running programmes, hosted by ‘household names’, such as Cilla Black, Val Doonican, Rolf Harris, Jimmy Tarbuck and even ‘The Muppet Show’ all followed the familiar ‘variety’ format:  comedy, singing and speciality acts, and these, together with sophisticated American imports, such as ‘The Andy Williams Show’ and ‘Donny and Marie’, continued to garner very high ratings.

But eventually, the format became tired and the public started to turn off. It was inevitable. In the far days of variety music halls, a typical family might go to the theatre once every two or three weeks and would rarely, if ever, see the same act twice. But with television bringing the same few superstars right into our living rooms, week in, week out, it is hardly surprising that the format became stale and past its ‘sell by date’.

I haven’t made a big study of this, (I am writing this almost entirely from memory), but I believe there was quite a long period of time when variety, as such, disappeared entirely from our TV screens. The only time we saw ‘stand-up comedy’, was in tailor-made TV stand up shows, or live broadcasts from theatres, such as the Apollo, and the only time we saw our favourite singers, was either on specialist pop music shows or on the ubiquitous chat shows. Traditional variety, as a TV format, was dead in the water.

For many years, reality shows, along with cooking, gardening, house buying/selling,  DIY and God knows what other reality type nonsense shows ruled the air waves. They were cheap to produce and attracted goods sized audiences.

Then came the new breed of talent shows: ‘Pop idol’, ‘X factor’, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, along with the new concept, initially exploited by the reality shows, of having celebrities performing in an unfamiliar discipline. (By far and away the most popular of these was ‘Strictly Come Dancing.’)

Ironically, one of the principal pioneers of variety on the fledgling TV of the 60’s, was none other than Bruce Forsyth, who hosted ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ for many years, and now in his mid-eighties is back leading the ‘new variety’ charge by hosting ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.

To this old stager, (pardon the pun), the ‘X Factor’, ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ and even ‘Strictly’ are simply an age old format dressed up in a set of new clothes. Sure, we have the added facet of the shows also being competitions, but that only adds to the thrill and to our overall enjoyment.

We are entertained with song and dance and we are cheering on our personal favourites. It is great fun for those of us who are not consumed by the notion that these talent shows are perversion of true popular music.

And yes, it is true that we are watching ‘new’ talent rather than ‘established, proven’ talent, but we already know that if we have to watch shows that only contain established stars, it won’t be long before we are bored to tears with the same old acts being paraded over and over again on our TV screens. And in case you’ve never noticed, we do get a fair share of the top American and British stars also performing regularly for us on these shows, in between the latest batch of hopefuls.

And also, in case you’ve never noticed, these shows are produced to the highest possible production standards. Just take a look at the lighting, staging, dancing, costumes, special effects and musical arrangements and you cannot be less than impressed. It may not be to your particular taste, but clearly no expense is spared to provide us with the highest possible technical quality of entertainment. The production values easily compare with any ‘superstar’ show you will ever see on TV in either the UK or America.

I had watched snippets of ‘America’s Got Talent’ in the past and found the few bits I saw, very amusing, so this year I watched Britain’s got Talent for the very first time. I confess that I much preferred the earlier programmes featuring auditions to the live finals. I thought the auditions were completely hilarious and made me realise that we still have as many ‘nutters’ and gloriously eccentric folk in Britain as we have ever had, despite all the doom and gloom that pervades the land. It is wonderful, escapist, entertainment.

The finals were a bit of a damp squid, but they only lasted a week and I think it was right that they didn’t try to drag them out any longer. What became clear was that just like their variety ancestors of yester-year, the speciality acts were mainly ‘one trick ponies’ and when called upon to perform something different, they frequently fell flat. But overall, an enjoyable and entertaining experience, although I doubt I could watch more than one more series before starting to find it a bit of a ‘turn off, as I get easily bored.

As for ‘Idol’ and ‘X factor’, well I watched the very first ‘Pop Idol’ shows all those years ago, (which was won by Will Young – a pretty good singer who has sung nothing but crap ever since), and enjoyed it immensely, as that was the show that started off the current regeneration of talent shows.

Since then, I have seen a number of ‘American Idol’ shows and have enjoyed them all, but I do believe I have reached the end of the road with them and doubt I will watch the next one.

Last year was my first X Factor, and along with Mr Spielberg and family, enjoyed it immensely. As with ‘Britain’s got Talent’, I actually enjoy the auditions more than the live shows. I think this is because they are held in front of large cheering audiences and it seems to capture a certain infectious, addictive spirit of hilarity mixed with pathos that is frankly, very addictive.

I am getting a bit bored with this year’s X factor, but that is more down to the childish actions of the judges than anything else. I never thought I would admit it, but the absence of Simon Cowell has been a big negative for the current season, and while to start with, I quite liked the slightly serious, ‘cheeky chappie’, Gary Barlow, he has now shown himself to be mean spirited to quite disturbing degree.

Even Cowell, at his worst, would never go as far as Barlow has done in unjustifiably criticising not only singers in the show that he is not personally ‘mentoring’ but even trying to claim that established stars who have perfect pitch sung their greatest hits out of tune. He is not funny or controversial, just plain stupid. And before you all jump in to say what more can you expect of a boy band pop singer, I would answer that a person’s background or their age has no relevance on whether they can make a good judge of talent. They either have it or they don’t. Barlow doesn’t and as such should be fired.

I am also watching the very first American X Factor as I am interested to see how much they have adapted it for American audiences and how it will go down there. The answer is that it virtually a carbon copy of the British version and it seem to be doing pretty well. It is slowly gaining a sizeable audience and has already been commissioned to return next year.

Simon, as ever, is on top form, being one part exceedingly annoying and one part ‘telling it the way it is’. He is still ‘Mr Nasty’ but has more class than Barlow could never possess in his wildest dreams, and he even knows when to apologise and admit he got it all wrong; something I doubt Barlow will never do.

At first, the overall standard of finalists in the American version was far superior to those in the British version, but interestingly, as both shows approach their climaxes, with only 4 or 5 singers remaining in either show, the quality of the contestants in both shows seems to have evened out.

These shows are an endurance test; the winner will be as much the one who is able, week after week to meet the judges challenges and ‘do something completely different’, as it is a search for the best singer.

I think we end up with the most versatile singer, rather than the ‘best’ singer or the one that will eventually go on to have a long and successful recording career. This is a fault of the format. There are many great, successful singers who can only sing songs in one particular style and in a particular genre; but it doesn’t matter, because the way they sing those songs, works for their fans – the record buying public.

In my view, there are some very good singers who have been dumped through the years, simply because they are not versatile. A good example in this year’s batch would be poor Craig Colton, who has a great voice and is a very talented singer, but week after week he was given songs that simply did not suit him at all. We all know – and he knows – the type of song that’s right for him, as on the few occasions when he was allowed to choose for himself, (e.g. his audition and his ‘sing off’) he sang like a bird.

A similar situation, I believe existed for the young, female singer, Drew, in the American show. The judges kept complaining that she wouldn’t sing ‘up tempo’ songs – yet it was screamingly obvious that her voice style just wasn’t suitable for ‘up tempo’ songs. So in the end, the public were taken in by the judges’ constant complaints and she ended in the ‘bottom two’ and the miserable judges threw her off. Yet, she has a unique, very quirky, hauntingly beautiful voice and I’m going to make a bet right now that she becomes a big star.

But I am taking this all far too seriously. These shows are there to entertain us and should be taken as such. We cannot help rooting for our favourites and cannot resist shouting at the judges when our favourites are treated badly or get thrown out. It is all part of the fun, much the same as football fans love to point to the ref or the linesman as the villains when their team loses.

I still love watching them, (BTW this is my first full year of ‘Strictly), and will continue to watch until I grow bored. For me, this is: ‘Variety – 21st Century style’.

I suspect the X factor only has a year or so left in it, but ‘Strictly’ has demonstrated that in getting the right group of celebrity contestants and by  innovating and improving the format, the BBC has probably has extracted a few more years left out the old dog, that originally started life all those decades ago as simply, ‘Come Dancing’.

And to those ‘elite snobs’  who decry these shows as superficial rubbish that is destroying the pop music industry – I say, get an effing life.

Well I like it, and I’m in good company, aren’t I Steven?

Poetry through music

If I need any more justification that sometimes someone really good comes out of X Factor, I only have to go back to last year, when the wonderful Rebecca Ferguson was runner up to the very predictable, ‘generic’ voice of Matt Cardle who has released nothing but the worst possible kind of unoriginal pop trash since he won. (His latest song was written by none other than the above mentioned Gary Barlow – need I say more?)

I was interested to read that in spite of Simon Cowell’s wishes to the contrary, Rebecca insisted on doing her own thing on her debut album. Apparently Cowell’s record label kept sending her songs, which she kept on rejecting. Eventually the label gave in and allowed her to co-write her own material.

If the first single from her album is anything to go by, then Rebecca has a long and successful career ahead of her. She has a wonderful, instantly recognisable and unique voice and this, her first song, ‘Nothing’s Real But Love’ co-written by Rebecca and Eg White  more than qualifies to be featured in my occasional ‘Poetry through Music’ blog feature.

‘Nothing’s Real But Love’ easily wins its place in my very choosy and highly selective list on its own merits.

Nothing’s Real But Love

Standing in a line
Wonder why it don’t move
Trying to get ahead
Watching people break the rules
Maybe the man in charge, doesn’t like my face
But then this world’s not always good
And nothing’s real but love

Nothing’s real but love
No money, no house, no car,
Can beat love

They watch us open-mouthed
As we joke around like fools
See who can be the worst
Watch what I can do
But then the door gets slammed — slammed right in my face
And I guess this world’s not always good
And nothing’s real but love

Nothing’s real but love
No house, no car and no job
Can beat love
They won’t fill you up
No money, no house, no car
Is like love

La-la-la-la

I put it all away
Holding it back for a rainy day
But what if that day don’t come
I need love

No money, no house and no car is like love
It don’t fill you up,
It won’t build you up, it won’t fill you up,
It’s not love

And nothing’s real without love,
No money, no house and no car
Is like love,
Nothing’s real but love
No money, no house, no car, is like love.

Enjoy: Nothing’s Real But Love

BUTT…BUTT…BUTT…I don’t give a hoot

A Lustful Gentleman.

I’ve made a start on the next chapter of ‘Lust’, and here is my  first ‘run’ at sections i & ii of Chapter two. I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter Two

i

Ying turned her little Jazz into her driveway and drove slowly up the long driveway and under the carport. The car stereo was blaring out so loudly that when she opened the front door of the car, it sounded like one of those mobile discos; the ones that drive along Pattaya’s roads at night, blaring out music with such ear-splitting intensity that bystanders can barely even think, let alone hear themselves speak. The deafening pop music reverberated harshly across the peaceful, still night.Until Ying’s abrupt arrival, the only sounds to be heard were those of the toads in a nearby pond, emitting their repetitive mating calls.

She cut the ignition and suddenly the world returned to its state of somnolence and once more the toads held pride of place in the humid night air. Ying unlocked the side door to the house, dumped her handbag on the dining table and then summoned up one last burst of energy to climb up the central staircase, enter her enormous bedroom and collapse, fully clothed, on her bed. She lay there for a few minutes, unable to move. She had been drinking but was not wholly drunk – she had drunk just enough to make her woozy and very sleepy.

It had been a very long day. She had been woken before 8 a.m. that morning by the girl who usually opened her hair dressing salon, with the news that she was sick and would not be able to make it in to work that day. As a result, Ying had only had about four hours sleep and it had taken all her will power to drag herself out of bed, take a quick shower before jumping into her car and make it to her salon before the regular opening time of 9 a.m.

She had spent the whole day there and at around 8 p.m. when the final customer had finally left, she had driven to a friend’s house where they had spent the next seven hours playing cards and sipping Bacardi Breezers. By three a.m, Ying was down about three hundred baht and she decided to call it a night. She would have to get up early, yet again, to open her shop in the morning.

She roused herself briefly – just long enough to pull off her jeans and top before collapsing once more onto her bed in her underwear. She lay there for a few minutes with her eyes closed, but for some reason sleep wouldn’t come, a problem she often encountered when she was over-tired and feeling tipsy. She was so tired but her mind kept going round and round.

What sort of life was this? Living in this huge house virtually all alone? It was far too big and it was a daily battle to keep it in in a half way decent state on a minimal budget, while at the same time trying to start a business that was struggling to break even. It was all a bit of a nightmare; now that her assistant was ill, so she wouldn’t even get a decent night’s sleep.

But the longer she lay there, in her heart she knew that on this day she would never make it to her salon much before noon. She was just too tired. She idly speculated on how many customers she might lose if she had yet another unscheduled closure. It had been difficult enough to attract customers in the first place, and for sure, if any of her regulars came in the morning and found her closed, they would not come back. There were simply too many other hair salons in the vicinity for them to remain faithful to a place that kept closing without warning. What a mess!

She curled up with her favourite cuddly panda in the enormous four- poster bed, but still she couldn’t sleep. It was a strange journey indeed that had brought her to this point in her life: thirty four year’s old, living in a huge house, with a nice car in the driveway, but almost perpetually broke. Her estranged husband, Toby, barely sent her enough money to cover the utility bills; she knew that he was also financially distressed and very soon, even that cash stream would probably dry up. There was no way they were going to be able to sell their jointly owned house in the foreseeable future. The market was dead – no one was buying. It was a veritable ‘albatross’ around both of their necks. If they succeeded in selling it, they could both move on with their lives, but as it was, they were both broke and unable to make the clean break that they both yearned for.

Finally, she dozed off. She drifted into a deep, dreamless sleep for a few exquisite minutes when she was rudely awakened by the screeching sound of a Thai rock song, piercing the blessed silence of the early morning. She slowly regained consciousness, wondering for a moment where the music was coming from. Then she knew; it was coming from her phone – her mobile phone was ringing.

She reached out blindly, grabbed hold of the phone and without looking at who was calling, she put it to her lips. ‘Hello.’

‘Hello, Khun Ying?’

‘Yes. Who is that?’

‘This is Pattaya Police station, I am Lieutenant Somkid. We would like you to come here immediately.’

‘Why? Why? What is it? What have I done?’

‘You have done nothing – it’s your husband. We want you to come here and see us about your husband. He is in a lot of trouble.’

‘My husband! He doesn’t live with me anymore. He left me ages ago! I can’t come – I’m not free!’

‘Khun Ying, if you don’t come here and help your husband, he will be in very serious trouble. He will go to jail.’

‘I don’t care! I don‘t care! Fuck my fucking husband! I don’t care what happens to him. I told him! I warned him! I don’t care what happens to him!’

‘Khun Ying, if you don’t come down her immediately and help him, your husband might even die.’

‘I don’t fucking care!’ Let him fucking die!’

She cut off the call, turned off her phone, and closed her eyes, praying that sleep would come back again and blot out the images in her mind.

‘Fuck Toby. Fuck him…fuck him… fuck him…’

Despite the air-conditioning, she suddenly broke out in a sweat. ‘Oh No, not again!’ she said out aloud. ‘Please not again…’

In spite of her antipathy, she suddenly worried about what horrors may befall her errant husband… her fucking husband. Surely that fucking cop didn’t mean it literally? Why should Toby die? But she continued to fret. Die ? No, surely not…she had already seen too many deaths in her life to contemplate yet another one.

***

ii

Ying was sitting cross legged, at one end of a long, low, roughly hewn wooden table cum workbench, which served as part cooking area part sleeping area, part drinking area and part ‘anything goes’ area; so popular in the rural Thai villages. This particular one was probably around two meters in length by at least one meter wide and encompassed the entire shaded area in front the modest two room single storey wooden house that had been the only home Ying had known for the entire eight years of her young life. It was a home that she shared with her mother, younger sister and two younger brothers.

She had been back home for barely ten minutes following her long, daily walk from school, but already she was hard at it, preparing the vegetables for the family’s evening meal.  She would soon start cooking for the five of them – possibly six – if her father deigned to stay and eat with them.

She looked across to the far end of end table where her father was also sitting cross-legged, in deep, if somewhat drunken conversation with a friend from the village. Both of them were ‘well gone’. Ying had noticed one empty bottle of Mekong whisky on the ground near to them and a second bottle was already over half empty. The two men sat facing each other on the table, the space between them occupied by a whisky bottle, a small ice bucket and some empty soda water bottles.

Her father called across to her, ‘Ying! Get me another bottle of soda!’

She jumped up and ran to the side of the house where a half empty case of soda bottles was standing and grabbed a couple of bottles and quickly delivered them to the two men.

Her father barely acknowledged her existence as she put down the bottles and returned to her cooking chores. Her mother would soon return from the fields just outside the village where she worked her daily back- breaking, twelve hour shift in the flooded paddies – up to her chest in the warm, mosquito-ridden water. Her two brothers and baby sister were inside the crudely built house, watching a small black and white television in the corner of the room. They would all be very hungry.

There weren’t many families in her village who enjoyed the luxury of a television, and on most evenings, a large crowd of villagers would descend on their humble abode for a couple of hours to watch the nightly ‘soap operas’ put out by the only two Thai Channels they were able to tune in to.

Ying wasn’t sure whether she should be grateful or resentful of the fact that her father was one of the ‘big wigs’ in the village and had been able to provide them with a coveted TV. She knew well enough that there were many occasions when they wouldn’t see him for days- sometimes even weeks – when he would disappear, without warning, and during which time, the sparse food money he occasionally gave her mother would dry up completely. Sometimes, they wouldn’t eat for several days. It was for this reason that her mother had recently started to work in the paddy fields, a sort of protection against the vagaries of her common law husband’s pitiful largesse.

A friend in the village had told Ying that her father had several other ‘wives’ in the village and that when he disappeared, he would go and stay with them. She wasn’t sure of the truth of these stories, but suspected they were probably true. She did know for sure that her father was not a very nice person. Often, he would come home drunk and pick a fight with her mother and beat her mercilessly. On more than one occasion her mother had been so badly beaten that they had to call for a doctor to treat her injuries. He had even hit Ying and her brothers on the odd occasion, so whenever they saw that he was particularly drunk, they would do their best to keep out of his way. But no one would dare say a word to him about his brutal behaviour. He was a very powerful, well-connected, ‘mafia-type’ figure and everyone was in awe of him. No one had the courage stand up to him.

Ying could see that her father was getting very drunk and feared that it wouldn’t be too long before trouble started. She wanted to warn her mother to stay away but she didn’t know how. So she sat there, working away and hoped that something would happen to take her father away from their home before her mother arrived.

She couldn’t believe her luck when almost at the very moment when she wished that something would happen, a motorbike drove slowly along the track leading to the house, and she could clearly see one her father’s close friends driving. She didn’t recognise the young man on the back but assumed it was another member of her father’s ‘mafia-gang’. ‘Good,’ she thought, ‘maybe they are all going off to do a ‘job’ somewhere.’ That’s what usually happened when his friends came to see him in the late afternoon.

The bike came to a halt outside the house, less than a meter from where her father and his drinking mate were sitting, but they didn’t get off. In fact, both men remained seated and the engine remained running. As Ying watched, she heard the man on the front shouting something angrily at the two drinkers, but her father, who seemed to barely register what was happening, picked up his whisky glass to take another sip. As he put the glass to his lips, the young pillion passenger lifted his right hand to reveal a handgun, its metal glistening in the late afternoon sun.

Although Ying hated her father, she suddenly felt a jolt of panic and revulsion at what was about to happen. But before she could even shout out a warning, the man fired three shots – one after the other – at almost point blank range, into her father’s head and body. The smoke was still clearing as the driver snapped his bike in gear, raced the accelerator and his tyres skidded on the dusty ground as they sped away, out of the village.

She instinctively rushed over to her father’s body, hoping against hope that he might have survived the violent attack, but one look at his head told her that it was all over. The bullet had taken half of her father’s face away and Ying stood transfixed, aghast at the grisly sight. She started screaming, becoming almost hysterical as the villagers emerged from their nearby homes and rushed over to see what all the noise was about.

Into the midst of this commotion arrived Ying’s mother. Quickly taking in what had happened, her mother grabbed hold of her, and led her towards the house, just as her other children were emerging to see what was going on.

‘Go inside! All of you!’ her mother shouted, ‘and stay there until I say so,’

‘But Mama…’ Ying started to protest.

‘No Ying, go inside and look after your brothers and sister.’ She shouted loudly at her.

Ying’s mother was a kindly woman and loved her children dearly, but her hard life and difficult circumstances had given her a nasty temper. Woe betides anyone who tried to cross her or gainsay her when her ire was roused – except of course, her now deceased husband. But for the young Ying, she always did what she was told when her mother was in this kind of mood, so she led her young siblings back into the room and back to the television, dreading what disastrous effect this tumultuous event may have on their family’s fortunes.

*

In her wildest dreams, Ying couldn’t have imagined quite how catastrophic the after effects of her father’s untimely death would actually turn out to be.

Ying stayed away from school the day following her father’s killing, as had her mother from the rice fields. There were things to sort out, least of which was the cremation of her father’s body. Her mother had no money to pay for a funeral and was wondering what on earth she was going to do when the problem was solved for her by the appearance of her husband’s elder brother and sister, who lived in the next village.

Ying had only seen her ‘in-laws’ once before – when her father had invited them to a big party he held in the village. She doubted her mother had seen them very often either, as on that occasion they had been very unfriendly and had virtually ignored them. So she had expected the worst when they suddenly turned up, but her misgivings were soon assuaged when she heard the brother tell her mother that her father’s family would assume full responsibility for her father’s funeral arrangements.

‘Mama, that’s god news. Now you can stop worrying about it.’

‘Ying, go inside the house, I have some things to discuss with these people,’ she told Ying who once again was being dispatched away from the front line.

She reluctantly walked into the house and tried, without success, to overhear what was being discussed. But it wasn’t long before she realised that whatever they were talking about, it wasn’t good news. She could hear her mother’s raised voice and the responding loud voices of her father’s relatives. She knew that things were not going at all well.

At length, she heard her mother shout in anger and after a long pause, start to cry. She heard the man bark something back at her mother and then there was a long silence. Ying sat, waiting for somebody to say something, becoming ever more fearful at what might have transpired between them, but not a sound could be discerned. Eventually, she gingerly peered out of the house, but all she could see was the sight of her mother, her head in her hands, weeping quietly to herself. There was no sign of the others. They must have gone.

‘Mama, what has happened? Where have they gone? Did they refuse to pay for father’s funeral after all?’

Her mother looked up bleary eyed at her daughter – so old and mature for her young years. ‘Funeral, my love? Why yes, Ying, they will pay for the funeral, don’t worry about that.’

‘Oh that is good news Mama,’ Ying said with a smile. Isn’t it?’

‘Yes, my child, it is good news. But I’m afraid that we have to keep away. They have told me that we are not allowed to go to the Wat. If we do, then they will refuse to pay for it.’

‘That’s terrible Mama, why won’t they let us go? I don’t understand.’

The tired woman looked at her eldest daughter. She wasn’t sure if she would understand. ‘They don’t want us there, my child, because they say that I am not his wife and you and your brothers and sister are not his children. They say that his real wife lives with them in the next village and it would bring a big shame on his family if we go to the funeral. They said that nobody wants us there.’

Ying tried to absorb all this confusing information. ‘What does it mean?’ she asked herself. ‘Why can’t Papa have two wives? I don’t understand. What does it matter if we go to the Wat and pay our respects to our father?’ She considered everything for a few moments, before finally speaking out loud, seeking to reassure her mother.

‘So we can’t say goodbye to Papa. Never mind, Mama, please don’t cry. It doesn’t matter. Anyway, he wasn’t a very nice man, was he?’

Her mother looked at her daughter, lovingly. ‘No Ying, you are right; he wasn’t a very nice man,’ before bursting into a new flood of tears.

‘But Mama, Mama, if he wasn’t very nice, why are you crying? We don’t have to go to the Wat. It’s not so important. Please Mama, please don’t cry.’

After a couple of minutes, her tears stopped and she dried her eyes. ‘Ying, my child, I am not crying about your father’s funeral. Yes I want to go. In spite of everything, he was the only man I ever loved and her bore me four beautiful children – but that is not why I am crying. You don’t understand.’

‘Try me Mama, try me. Why then?

There was an even longer silence before the distressed woman finally explained to her daughter. ‘Because, my child; because Papa’s family have told me that we must leave our home. They say it belongs to them and they want it back.’

‘Leave our home! They can’t do that! Where will we go?

‘Yes, they can, my love. It belongs to your father and I wasn’t married to him – not properly – and they want it back. They don’t care about us. They hate us.’

‘When must we leave?’

‘Tomorrow!’

‘Tomorrow! We can’t leave tomorrow! Where will we go?’

‘I don’t know, my love, I don’t know where we will go. I have no money to go anywhere.’

‘Then you must refuse to leave Mama, you must tell them we have to stay here until we find somewhere to go.’

‘I already told them that. That man – your uncle – he said if we don’t leave by tomorrow evening, he will bring the police and have us thrown out; and he means it, I know he does.’

‘But Mama, where will we go?’

‘I don’t know, Ying, I just don’t know…’

***