Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Church in the Public Square - Living and Dying Well - three reflections on assisted dying from PCI conference

There is increasing debate in legislatures and civil society around end-of-life issues, terminal illness and euthanasia. While Northern Ireland is behind the curve in discussing the issues, moves in Edinburgh and Westminster are likely to eventually stimulate local debate.

Union Theological College, in co-operation with The Church and Society Committee of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland along with Union Theological College hosted the third of their series of Church in the Public Square conferences.

On Thursday 22 January the topic was Living and Dying Well.
Does medically-assisted death have a place within healthcare? Is medically-assisted death just another end-of-life choice that some people have to make? Would a change in the current legislation put pressure on vulnerable people to consider assisted dying because they were making demands on their carers?
Stafford Carson, principal of the college introduced the event and suggested that the agenda “raised major theological and ethical issues which cause much concern for individuals who are directly affected, as well as for legislators and those in the legal, medical and caring professions”.

You can listen back to the three guest speakers ...

Robert Preston is director of the Living and Dying Well think-tank having worked in Whitehall for 30 years and served as clerk the House of Lords select committee which examined Lord Joffe’s Private Member's Bill “Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill” back in 2004/5.

He asked whether we would “seriously consider licensing other criminal acts for certain groups of people and in specified circumstances?”

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dying Well and is a professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff University and currently President of the British Medical Association.

She made the distinction between “withdrawing treatment when death is inevitable” and “foreshortening life”.

John Wyatt is Emeritus Professor of Ethics and Perinatology at University College London a specialist in the medical care of newborn infants for more than 20 years, and author of Matters of Life and Death: Human dilemmas in the light of the Christian faith.

He disagreed with recent statements of support from prominent Christian leaders that “assistance of suicide can be an expression of compassion” and suggested that society’s trend towards “robust individualism needs to be balanced by a recognition of our mutual dependence and inter-relatedness”.

Three complementary yet distinctive contributions which were significantly more nuanced that some attendees expected and which may be of interest to readers.

Photo credit: Jamie Trimble

Friday, January 16, 2015

Alan's 16-point newbie guide to the Belfast Giants

I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. But unintentionally, I find myself half way through January 2015 and a theme of “trying new things” is developing without much effort on my part.

Tuesday week ago I found myself at a Belfast Giants ice hockey match for the first time. It was the first leg of two against the Cardiff Devils.

1. Wear a jumper. The Odyssey Arena is a huge venue, and together with the freezing lump of ice in the middle and the not quite packed stands, you’ll feel a chill for the first hour or so. This is obviously why so many spectators wear Belfast Giant’s replica shirts sweaters over their clothes in the arena. (If you want your shirt signed, head up to the bar afterwards and many of the Belfast Giants team and coaching staff will appear dressed in their natty suits.)

2. If you have a ticket, you’ll have a block and a door, row and seat number. There is no reason to turn up early. The evening we attended, doors opened at 6pm for a 7pm start. The match – and the entertainment bits in-between the three 20 minute periods of ice-hockey – will stretch out until at least half past nine. Some other newbies at the match were expecting a fourth period ... clues about the rules are few and far between!

3. There’s no perfect seat to get a close-up view of the ice or a good overview of the action. But there are worse seats. At the east end of the Odyssey arena, round towards Door 3, there’s a small elevated platform with four comfy seats on it all on their own: fonacab’s Front Row Seats. The ‘winners’ may look lonely, and slightly uncomfortable with the Subway mascot sits on their knees.

4. You can easily eat your ticket price in food during the evening. You’ve two and a half hours to fill. Some types of food will be exhausted and run out before the evening is over (for instance, no more cheese for the nachos, no more sausages for the hotdogs). That fact shouldn’t encourage you to over-eat too early in proceedings, since you’ll only get hungry again and buy more. Don’t you’re your food down: you’ll sit a long time with your indigestion. But eating is one of the few comforts possible during the moments of tedium while items of food from Subway, Boojum and Pizza hut are thrown at the crowd. Your chances of catching food are increased by sitting near the front and having a small cute child on your shoulders.

5. The music before the game starts will be deafening. A rule forbids music while the game is in progress so you will get some relief … until the referee spots something and stops play. Then the music will crank back up and it feels like the referee waits until the sting finishes before starting play again. At times it will feel like there’s a tune for every kind of foul.

6. If the Belfast Giants score a goal there will be a blast of Belle of Belfast City fiddledeedee music and the crowd will go wild. If the opposition score, the electronic scoreboard will silently increment their goal count and the game will continue without any ceremony. It’s quite possible to miss the opposition scoring a goal: it looks and sounds just like normal play. The Giants’ supporters don’t even boo. How can there be sport without booing?

7. There are drums: it is Northern Ireland after all. You can take the sectarianism out of one local sport, but you can’t get rid of the drums. Thump. Thump. Thump. Go Gi-ants. If the drums are to stay, a bigger repertoire of chants and rhythms are needed. At least reintroduce 2 4 6 8 Who Do We Appreciate? [insert name of sponsor]

8. Irritatingly, while the PA system in the Odyssey Arena seems perfectly tuned for music and adverts, the occasional announcement to tell you that “player mumble has been fowled by mumble and there will now be mumble” are very indistinct. Yet these are the bits of audio newbies desperately want to hear.

9. It’s not obvious which team is which. Take the night – my first time – I was there. The four Cardiff Devil fans sat in their own half of a stand wearing red team shirts. There was a red-shirted team on the ice. (And as the players hunch over with their sticks you can’t see the logo on the front of their shirts.) The local fans – boosted by blow-ins from sponsors and youth organisations offered several hundred freebie tickets – wore shirts (see above) with a white background. And there was a team wearing a white background shirt on the ice. Fooled you. The Belfast Giants were wearing red; the Cardiff Devils white. Go figure.

10. The puck is small and moves fast. You may not see it. The players probably don’t see it a lot of the time either. The puck is either hidden behind the legs and sticks of the biggest bunch of players on the ice, or that is where it used to be.

11. If a local breakfast radio presenter like Citybeat’s Stephen Clements comes onto the ice at half time during one of the intervals and asks spectators to throw their pucks into the centre of the ice, don’t throw a real one in case he hasn’t heeded the warnings on every wall and noticeboard in the Odyssey Arena that “it’s your responsibility to watch out for flying pucks”. He’s only expecting the numbered foam ones that have been handed out, not the odd real one that’s lying under your seat.

12. A blue semicircle sits in front of the goal net. I’m told it’s called the “goal crease”. The goalkeeper often stands in it. But not always. It’s not clear whether the blue semicircle is intended to keep the goalkeeper in, or other players out. It’ll not be the only mystery.

13. Players enjoy a bit of rough and tumble. Not quite full Saturday afternoon wrestling play acting, but not far off at time. Sometimes one of the referees will decide to take action. Often they don’t. If the spectators had voting buttons they could bet on whether particular incidents would be spotted by referees.

14. Despite being played on ice, the players stay upright for a surprising amount of the time. However, they could learn a thing or two about speed from figure skaters. If any camogie or hurling players could adapt to the ice they would speed the game up and give the Canadians a run for their money.

15. Sadly Google Glass has been shelved (in its current incarnation). Apart from the risk of being smashed by an incoming puck that’s flown over the Perspex safety barrier, an augmented reality app to tell you which player is which (you can’t read the back of the shirts at a distance), who’s on the subs bench and random factoids would be incredibly useful. In the meantime, bring an ice hockey nerd with you to the match, or adopt one nearby in the stadium.

16. It was a really friendly experience. The EventSec guys who show you to your seat were a delight and full of information. Long time fans were happy to answer ignorant questions and fill in gaps in our knowledge. The atmosphere was good. The cheering wasn’t that feverish, and the mid-week sides seemed to be playing at less than full power. The score was 4-3 to the Devils, but that’s nearly immaterial.

So how was my first Belfast Giants game?

It’s sport. And quite like the last sporting event I attended, which was a Warriors NBA match in Oakland, San Francisco about eight years ago. [My memories are of foul tasting cheese in the hot dogs, 45 minutes play spread over 3 hours, and a very poor shot-to-basket ratio that amazed me given my notion that they’d be like the Harlem Globetrotters.]

So despite very low expectations, I enjoyed the Giants more than I thought I would.

I think I’d go back – occasionally – armed with a jumper, a printout of the rules, and a flask of hot milky tea. Perhaps even a flask of sausages: you could make a killing selling black market hot dogs when the concession stands run out!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Fathomless Riches - a very public confession from Rev Richard Coles

Fathomless Riches (Or How I Went From Pop To Pulpit) is Rev Richard Coles’ no holds barred public confession. From the early pages through to the end, it’s a shocking book as Coles candidly reveals the hedonistic behaviour and lifestyle that dominated his late teens, twenties and thirties.

Now a parish priest and radio presenter, Coles documents his upbringing and gravely disappointing O-level results at a fee-paying school before transferring to drama school and finding a growing confidence in his sexual identity as well as his first steps in a lasting relationship with drugs.

His musical talent with saxophone and keyboards led to his involvement with band Bronski Beat before forming The Communards with Jimmy Sommerville in 1984, achieving chart success with Don’t Leave Me This Way, touring, partying, arguing and beginning the long slide towards the band’s split in 1988.

While not conscious of it at the time, Coles was often surfing the cultural zeitgeist and throughout the book there are references to familiar events and people. The film Pride and play Pits and Perverts reminded 2014 audiences about the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners movement formed during the Miners’ Strike which left a lasting legacy within the TUC and Labour Party of treating lesbian and gay rights as equality issues. Bronski Beat played a benefit concert for LGSM. Later in the book there’s a photo of Coles staying over at Hillsborough Castle as the guest of Secretary of State Mo Mowlan. A few years later he conducted her funeral.

Amongst the music and partying, about a third of the way through the book a terrible sadness descends as Auntie Ada came to visit and AIDS killed many of Coles friends and acquaintances. The sense of loss, and hopelessness is overwhelming. Chapter after chapter, close friends are infected with HIV and die.
This was to be a common experience over the next few years, meeting in a dead man’s flat for the distribution of their effects, or the concealment of things which needed to be concealed from their families, and sometimes, most awkwardly, negotiating funeral arrangements with a middle–aged couple who had only just learned that their son was gay in time for him to die.

The Communards’ success with their first album was not easily replicated and Coles admits to being jealous that “Jimmy got more attention than me, more credit than me”. Despite staying in larger and larger hotel suites and travelling with an expansive entourage, Coles “sulked about being ignored in interviews” and “hated it that when I was signing an autograph the fan would see [Jimmy Sommerville] and pull their book from my hands leaving a zigzag of biro where my name should be”. Sickness caused Coles to worry about his own health.
… I got a message to call the doctor. ‘Good news,’ he said, ‘I have your test results. They came back negative.’ And that is how I became the only person ever to be disappointed to hear he was not HIV positive.

Having jumped the gun and told colleagues and friends that he was HIV positive, Coles lived with the lie. “I was treated more considerately than I had been and it did mean I now had a leading role in the drama.” Years later he swallowed his pride and made humiliating confessions.

Drug abuse and his ability to fund it took over Coles’ life, while presenting on Radio 3 and some musical commissions kept him in work.

Choral Evensong in Edinburgh and a visit to York Minster (in which he “went in a tourist but came out a participant”) reignited his childhood Anglican experiences and led to a serious flirtation with becoming a monk and a wobbly walk along the Anglo-Catholic tightrope in which he signed up for a theology degree from Kings College London, crossed over to Catholicism, before returning to train for ordained ministry at the Anglican College of the Resurrection at Mirfield in West Yorkshire.

Coles reserves his harshest judgements for himself. While many friends and co-conspirators are named throughout the book, some blushes are spared with enough anonymity granted to shield identities. His honesty and frankness extends to his feelings for the college at Mirfield, calling out the bullying from the year above and his disappointment at the behaviour he and other students experienced.
I don't think I really believed in evil until I went to Mirfield.

Ouch! While his entry into ministry has been unconventional, the emotions, experiences and talents that he brings to his calling are clearly usable by the church.

Romantically, Coles suffered from sustained sadness with his interest and lustful notions not being consistently returned by many of the people he longed for. That frustration extends to institutions as well as people.
I love the BBC. I love the Church of England. But it is not wise to love organisations because they do not love you back. They do what organisations do, sometimes close ranks, lie, betray, disappoint, take you out at dawn and shoot you. All institutions are demonic, a cleric once observed, but the ones that have the clearest sense of their own high calling are most vulnerable to demonic activity. I support it is because where aspirations are high and reach is limited there’s plenty of room of disappointment and frustration to play out and that can curdle one’s feelings for a place.

Coles enjoys the fine things of life. His stint in The Communards has left him with a ‘pension’ that allows him to book into the best hotels, enjoy fine food, wine and clothes. While he has the capacity to appreciate what he can afford, and while he’s happy in the company of those who don’t share his tastes, some of the later anecdotes in the book left this reader with the hope that he discovers freedom in reining in some of these excesses and rediscovers a little of his monastic leanings.

Fathomless Riches was a great Christmas present. Its author’s honesty and ability to shock and sadden makes it an engrossing read. Throughout the darkness there is thread of hope; hope imbued with faith that ultimately ends with Coles’ sense of peace in his new vocation.

Ultimately I hope that Coles will write a follow-up memoir, starting off with settling into parish life of Finedon in Northamptonshire and carrying on to document his journey through ministry, civil partnership and beyond. While he knows “second albums are notoriously difficult”, his capacity to tell a story deserves another outing.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

At times unbearable, yet a truly unmissable film - Testament of Youth - Vera Brittain's war in QFT (16-29 Jan)

Over on Slugger I posted a review of a superb film Testament of Youth that is showing in the Queens Film Theatre between Friday 16 and Thursday 29 January. You should plan to go and see it. (Though bring tissues.)

Unlike most war films that focus on the lives of those who join up, Testament Of Youth's lead is the intelligent, boundary-pushing Vera Brittain (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander) whose early dreams of becoming a writer were shattered by the chaos of World War One.

The film quite brilliantly captures her fighting with her father (Dominic West) in 1914 to be allowed to sit the Oxford Common Entrance Exam. By 1918 her life had been turned upside down and she was struggling to cope with the grief and gaping void left in her heart by the loss of so many close friends and family in the First World War.

This independent film is based on a memoir by Vera Brittain which recounts her wartime experiences. Until Monday night I’d never heard of Vera Brittain or her renowned book. Why given their fascination with Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est did no English teacher at school point us to her work?

While Vera went up to Somerville College in Oxford, her brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and his friend Roland (Kit Harington) joined up. Another friend Victor (played by Northern Ireland actor Colin Morgan) had poor eyesight which hindered his military ambitions.

For Vera, the early nineteen hundreds became a world of chaperones, poetry, and hopes that the war would be over before the new recruits’ training completed. Corresponding with her brother and the dashing Roland – whose mother (Anna Chancellor) was a great role model as a suffragette-supporting writer – Vera reached a point where she could no longer stand back while her friends fought and she postponed her studies to volunteer as an auxiliary nurse, first in England and later behind the bloody battlelines in France.

Eventually assigned to tend to captured Germans – or “filthy Huns” as other British medical staff caustically referred to them – Vera’s language abilities allowed her to comfort the dying. Witnessing the impact on all sides of the conflict as well as families at home, Vera turned towards pacifism. (Is this why her 1933 memoir is ignored by the establishment?)
Mothers, sisters, women: we send our men to war. I fought my father to allow my brother to go because we all think it is the right thing, the honourable thing. But I ask you, is it?
Testament of Youth is not sentimental or jingoistic. It doesn’t hide death or suffering. It doesn’t disguise the masks that young men wore when they returned from the front with inner selves destroyed. At key moments in the film the dialogue simply stops and instead the deportment of the characters set against the often rugged scenery amply portrays the emotion and moves the story on.

A young talented cast portray young people whose potential was tragically cut short by WW1. At times, the cumulative loss made Testament of Youth almost unbearable to watch. More than a day later I’m still haunted by the sound of an off-screen father breaking down at the bad news contained in a telegram.
Why was I ever disappointed you weren’t a boy?
Testament Of Youth isn’t perfect. The nods towards the build-up to the war are delivered via none-to-subtle newspaper headlines referring to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. The screenplay sometimes contrives overly dramatic moments and rather too conveniently brings Vera and brother Edward back together at a crucial point. And I doubt 1914 make-up was so waterproof that coming out of a swim in a lake it would still be flawlessly applied. But these blemishes shrivel away against the formidable and persuasive account of love and loss, conflict and remembrance. And it's a great example of independent cinema, free of the shackles of big studios and backed by a patchwork of bodies and funders.

Given my ignorance of history, this is usefully the first part of a series of film screenings and events that the QFT will be hosting in its Conversations about Cinema: Impact of Conflict strand exploring the repercussions of conflict and the many ways this has been presented in film. Keep an eye on the QFT website for more details when the programme is announced.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Robin Ince with tales of the jelly-stirring Richard Feynman and other scientific marvels to be curious about

Robin Ince is “not a scientist, just interested in science” but that doesn’t limit his ability to hold an audience’s attention for more than an hour as he flits from subject to subject. It’s like watching a science factoid version of Inception, without the time to dream.

Ince is an exponent of the wonder and beauty of science, and a role model for being curious about it. He’s excited by scientists, dead and alive. He has neither time for those who misuse science – other than explaining the error of their ways in his one man show – nor litigious libertarians who try to limit what he can say about science … and them.

This Friday Salon performance was part of the Out to Lunch Festival and a foretaste of the NI Science Festival that runs from 19 February until 1 March. [Some events already announced; full programme to be launched very soon.]

The sold out Friday lunchtime audience chomped pasta while their ears and brains considered anthropomorphised sub-atomic particles and the parallels with children misbehaving unseen in their bedrooms doing “everything” yet collapsing into a single well-behaved static state when their parents walk in on them.

Inquisitive theoretical physicist and jelly-stirrer Richard Feynman is a hero of Ince, along with Darwin who once noted in his diary that “the mind is a chaos of delight, out of which a world of future and more quiet pleasure will arise”.

The Black Box audience walked away with a smattering of experiments we could try at home with worms, marigold gloves and a mirror (though not all at once).

Robin Ince joked that his show once stretched to three and a half hours, so any Friday punters feeling short-changed and longing for more mind-expanding ideas should check out his appearances on The Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4 (with 56 episodes available on iPlayer and in the podcast archive).

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Love and Anger at Cutting Off Kate Bush (Lucy Benson-Brown) - Out to Lunch Festival 2015 #otl15

Cathy is 27 and 'shares' her birthday with Kate Bush, a singer she associates with personal disasters and childhood tragedy.

Vulnerable and living alone surrounded by memories from her mother, Cathy records and uploads a series of videos to YouTube expressing her misery through words, high-pitched singing and dance.

Cutting Off Kate Bush is a dark one-woman show, performed by the talented Lucy Benson-Brown. As the show progresses, the audiences hear voicemails and see comments being left under her videos, and a screen gives us a soft-focus glimpse into Cathy's happier childhood memories.

Manically told anecdotes melt into songs which pepper an hour-long show that is full of surprises: bangs, cartwheels and a neat on-stage wind effect. The audience experience discomfort too as they find themselves laughing out loud at inappropriate deadly situations.

Ultimately, success cannot be measured and happiness cannot be derived from hits on YouTube videos. The ambiguous ending leaves the audience to decide whether Cathy will turn into her mother, or set herself free. Pre-production funded via Kickstarter, this is a novel and well-produced show worth catching.

One helium balloon is sacrificed in the making of this show. And the use of stereo and glitter is to be commended.

There's another chance to see Cutting Off Kate Bush tonight at 8pm in The Black Box as part of the Out To lunch festival. Tickets £9.

And finally a special mention for the fine turkey, pasta and bread lunch that came as part of lunchtime's ticket price, a delicious addition to the January menu.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Autographer: serendipitous photographs of variable quality with buggy software (PS: not waterproof)

Despite the occasional inane tweet may appear on my timeline to suggest otherwise, I’m not really into life-blogging (or lifelogging). But I was curious about the Autographer wearable 5 Megapixel camera, which clips to your clothes or hangs round your neck and takes photographs at a predefined rate without intervention.

A black box 9cm tall x 3.5cm wide x 1cm thick and weighing only 58g, there are sensors at the top left to defect changes in lighting and colour, and others inside to detect shifts in movement, direction and temperature. GPS coordinates are stored for each photograph if the device is outside and can pick up a fix from the satellites above.

The top left has a simple display hidden behind the casing to guide you through the configuration menu, and two buttons to switch the device on and off (and trigger a sequence of nine photographs in a row if you think something noteworthy is about to happen).

The bottom third of the device houses the 136° wide angle lens in behind a rotating lens cover that can be quickly spun to guarantee privacy. With 8MB of memory the Autographer’s capable of storing 27,000 images internally, and the internal battery lasts for 3-10 hours depending on the frequency of shots, though that capacity is greatly reduced if you switch on Bluetooth to connect to an iOS or Android device.

Mac and Windows software is provided and hooking the device up using a USB cable allows you to import your photographs, tag them, and create stop-go films and animated GIFs. I found the Mac version of the software very unintuitive and avoided it at all costs. (Due to the folder hierarchy on the device – a deliberate design decision – the Autographer isn’t detected as a camera when you plug it into a Mac/PC and your favourite photo programme won’t automatically import all the images.)

The iOS app promised everything you’d need to manage the Autographer device. You could preview the pictures, favourite the good ones, delete bad ones, select multiple ones and transfer them into your photostream, as well as create the short film clips.

Vine and Autographer seemed great companions. Up to 50 images could be exported into a short film, 48 at 8 frames a second (24 at 4fps; 12 at 2fps) matches the 6 second Vine limit. Although the app allowed an audio/music track to be added underneath the footage – the Autographer has no mic – I never got round to finding a way to record a short clip on the iPod Touch I used and get it into the music library so that the Autographer app could access it.

Taping the Autographer to a speaker stand at the side of the TEDxStormont stage captured images of the speakers throughout the day. Stick it to the window of a train and you can compress the ride from Lisburn station up to Central in six seconds. Clip it to your car’s sun visor and it records the journey into work.

However Autographer was let down by few things. Firstly as a camera it didn’t consistently capture very good images. Photography's an art and requires practice. But pointing and clicking your smart phone with no thought would often generate better pictures.

The colours and exposure were awful. Everything became blurry in dark or artificial light (ie, everything inside, early morning or in the evening). Wear it inside St George’s Market and one in ten shots might be usable. Here's the best three from the market a couple of days before Christmas and one from Divis mountain last week.

Secondly, Autographer was let down by its Bluetooth. Connectivity would frequently be lost while browsing through captured images or while exporting them to the iPod Touch to make a clip. You’d lose 1 minute or two turning Bluetooth back on on the Autographer, allowing it to reconnect, then manually selecting the photos you wanted to export again.

The Autographer was also let down by the firmware/iOS software. My mode of working managed the device from the iOS app alone. Photos could be marked for deletion through the app and when Bluetooth next disconnected, the Autographer would process the delete requests. However, while the images were deleted from the device, the record of the images was left in the index file. So next time I reconnected it to the iPod Touch, there would be lots of greyed out photos displayed and OMGDeviceErrorFileSystem error messages if I tried to click on them.

A bug that was reproducible and should have been fixable.

Three days into ownership (6 September 2014) I reported this to Autographer Customer Support and we conversed fairly regularly for the next four weeks, supplying screenshots on request. The most helpful suggestion back from Autographer was an auto.ini file that I could copy from the Mac onto the Autographer that would trigger it to reset and reformat itself, removing all images and removing all ghost images too. But if a new picture was deleted, the problem would reoccur.

The last communication from Autographer Customer Support on 30 September said:
Thanks for that information and feedback. I’ve passed this information on to our developers. As soon as we get a response from them, we’ll be in touch.
They never got back in touch, not even when I chased them. New versions of the app didn’t fix the problem; neither was there a firmware upgrade to address it.

Autographer is a great idea, though its maker OMG/Oxford Metrics Group seem to have had a change of heart, or at least a change of direction away from consumers. Half way through this post the tense switched from present to past as I stumbled on the notice on Autographer’s website.
Autographer has been pioneering the wearable camera market since the launch of the world’s first wearable camera in 2012. As a result of the rich user feedback from our community we’ve been rapidly evolving the functionality, product design and applications that are required to bring the benefits of companion cameras to the wider global market. Our dual focus on solving the underlying technical challenges of the category whilst also developing the market and our commercial operations have been gaining strong traction but stretching our resources. Based on our learnings from the last few years we believe we can achieve more for the market by focussing our efforts on creating the enabling technologies for the category and working through large global brand partners to bring future devices and functionality to the market.

This means that we will no longer be manufacturing and selling the Autographer device in its current guise. We remain committed to support our existing Autographer users and collaborators and are very proud of what we have achieved together so far. You’ll see less of us on our social channels for now but rest assured we’re busy acting on all your feedback to enable the next generation of companion devices and services.

Simon Randall, Managing Director
It’s a shame, as capturing serendipitous photographs could be a great application, particularly when out for a long walk where Autographer tended to get its best shots. Or when a rogue firework went horizontally into a tree during a local Halloween display!

But perhaps it’s no real surprise that Autographer have abandoned their current consumer wearable camera form factor and software. Despite good reviews from tech journalists who trialled the camera for an hour or two in London Zoo at its launch, the reality of using it in the wild generated photographs of variable quality and it was a hassle to manage the device.

Autographer’s main competitor was Memoto, renamed Narrative which takes a different approach. Their smaller lighter device with a tiny lens clips onto your clothes and takes a photo ever 30 seconds (or immediately if you tap it twice) but you need a Mac/PC to extract the photos, upload them to Narrative’s cloud, and sync them over the web to your mobile App. All this requires an annual subscription. Their second generation device – Narrative Clip 2 – will launch in 2015 and offers a 86° wider-angle lens with a 8 megapixel sensor, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity and a range of mounting options.

My Autographer days seem to be over.

It was sitting on my knee last night while I used the iPod Touch looked at photographs it had captured while out for walks over Christmas – keeping the two devices as close together as possible to prevent the Bluetooth timeout – and the shiny slid off my knee and plopped head first into the cup of tea sitting beside me. Despite the lens and USB socket not being submerged and despite being fished out within half a second and dried out, I can confirm that while the Autographer is splashproof, liquid obviously leaks in via the buttons and top sensor and it’s not wanting to switch back on or recharge.

Which explains what would have happened if I'd attached it to hang under the dog's collar and it drank from a puddle ... 

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Out to Lunch Festival (2-25 January): bands, books, bards, banter & (Kate) Bush #otl14

2015 will be the tenth January that Sean Kelly and the Out to Lunch festival has brightened up! Lots of workday lunchtimes warmed up with a bowl of stew and a fair few Sunday afternoons listening to glorious live music while the rain pelts outside.

Between 2 and 25 January, music, comedy, poetry, theatre, film and talks will fill venues in Cathedral Quarter six days a week. When did poetry become cool? Every festival programme now seems full of it. And puntastic show titles are definitely on the rise this year.

Tickets for weekday lunchtime shows include lunch and are generally priced at £6.50 (if purchased in advance) or £7 on the door if capacity remains. All shows are in The Black Box on Hill Street unless otherwise stated in the blurb below. Full timetable of Out To Lunch shows on the festival website.

The Whinge, The Nordie and The Geek Ride Again // Friday 2 January at 1pm // Follow-up to last year’s show when these three standups came together. Shane Todd, Ruaidhrí Ward and Lorcan McGrane. The first lunchtime show unusually lasts 75 minutes.

Niamh McGlinchey // Tuesday 6 January at 1pm // Another festival friend returning, the Gulladuff vocalist plays mandolin, tin whistle and guitar and sings folk, country and bluegrass.

Cutting Off Kate Bush // Wednesday 7 January at 1pm and 8pm // Cathy is 27 and having a crisis which she vents on YouTube through the medium of Kate Bush. A one-woman show by Lucy Benson-Brown about family, loss and the musical brilliance of Kate Bush, fresh from Edinburgh Fringe. (Evening performance £9.)

Robin Ince is (In and) Out of his Mind // Friday 9 January at 1pm // Comedian and science enthusiast (Infinite Monkey Cage on Radio 4) presents an unhinged comic lecture looking back on 100 years of psychiatry, psychology and skewiff brain dabblings.

Hollie McNish and Abby Oliveria // Saturday 10 January at 2pm // Labelled as “literary, poetic and pop”, Hollie McNish wowed the CQAF audience in May 2014 and is back with more in January. She’s supported by Derry-based performance poet Abby Oliveria. Tickets £5.

Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? // Sunday 11 January at 7.30pm // An animated documentary from the director of The Science of Sleep (reviewed back in 2007!) on the life of controversial MIT professor, philosopher, linguist, anti-war activist and political firebrand Noam Chomsky. “A dazzling, vital portrait of one of the foremost thinkers of modern times, but also a beautifully animated work of art.” Free but booking required. SOLD OUT!

Shlomo // Sunday 11 January at 8pm // Beatboxer and World Loopstation Champion Shlomo “gave up astrophysics to perform his amazing vocal pyrotechnics”. Having performed with Bjork, Jarvis Cocker, The Specials and the Mighty Boosh, now it’s the turn of a Belfast audience. Tickets £10.

Simon Armitage // Tuesday 13 January at 1pm // Audiences are promised “a relaxed lunchtime reading” from the playwright, novelist and poet who recently published an anthology of his work – Paper Aeroplane: Selected Poems 1989-2014.

Owen Jones // Tuesday 13 January at 8pm // Author of The Establishment: And how they get away with it Owen Jones offers “a biting critique” of the “powerful but unaccountable network of people [behind the UK democracy] who wield enormous power and reap huge profits”. “In claiming to work on our behalf, the people at the top are doing precisely the opposite.” Tickets £7. SOLD OUT!

Austentatious: An Improvised Jane Austen Novel // Wednesday 14 January at 1pm and 8pm // A comedy play spin in the inimitable style of Jane Austen and based entirely on audience suggestions. No two shows are ever the same. Evening tickets £9.

Martina Devlin // Friday 16 January at 1pm // Author Martina Devlin’s tale The House Where It All Happened takes readers back to 1711 Ulster Scots Islandmagee where eight women are accused of being witches by a pretty young newcomer. Ireland’s version of the notorious Salem epidemic.

The Sea Road Sessions // Saturday 17 January at 2pm // With band members from Sweden, Scotland and Ireland, this new six-piece group brings together established traditional/folk musicians with “formidable talents and diverse repitoires”: singer/guitarist Kris Drever (Lau), accordionist Alan Kelly (Eddi Reader), guitarist Ian Carr (Kate Rusby), banjoist Éamonn Coyne (Salsa Celtica), flautist/singer Steph Geremia (Alan Kelly Gang) and bassist Staffan Lindors (Sofia Karlsson). Tickets £10.

John Shuttleworth – A Wee Ken to Remember // Wednesday 21 January at 1pm and 8pm // Intending to share fond memories of his favourite past weekends, a typo on the poster means John is touring with a homage to his next-door neighbour and agent. A brand new show from a comedy great. Evening ticket £10.

Ellie Taylor – Elliementary // Thursday 22 January at 1pm // Another Edinburgh Fringe performer now touring with her show, Ellie Taylor will be tackling feminism, love, life and Matalan as best she can from the perspective as the presenter of BBC Three’s Snog Marry Avoid … Don’t buy a ticket expecting Sherlock Holmes!

Arco String Quartet // Friday 23 January at 1pm // Four members of the Ulster Orchestra, with a wide repertoire of classic, easy listening, jazz, pop and show tunes for a Friday lunchtime.

Oh Susanna // Saturday 24 January at 2pm // Massachusetts-born and Vancouver-raised Suzie Ungerleider mixes folk and country with blues and songs that tell stories of troubled souls who rebel, of small town joys and pains, of simple feelings and strong passions. Tickets £8.

Lots of other great events, including sold out ones featuring restaurant critic Jay Rayner, Tony Law, Young Fathers and many more.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Review: Visit the magical Family Hoffmann Christmas Mystery Palace in the MAC (until 4 January)

Even before the curtain went up, one of the members of the cast – Alexander (played by Hugh Brown) – was shuffling along the rows of families sitting in the MAC’s main theatre, looking lost and sounding confused as he did a few card tricks and amused the audience with his drôle patter.

As the last member of the audience settled into her seat last night, he made sure that Paula took a bow to acknowledge the applause, before heading down to an eclectic drum kit and percussion collection at one side of the stage and began to narrate the show as master of ceremonies. Squeezed over on the other side, Chris Huntley and his band of musicians cranked up the tunes that accompanied the next two hours of action.

Sibling rivalry, badly-treated children, running away, laughing, clapping along, and magic: all the elements of a traditional pantomime were there. But Cahoots NI’s Family Hoffmann Christmas Mystery Palace was no ordinary Christmas show.

The illusions and tricks came thick and fast as Willard Hoffmann (Philip Judge) introduced his performing family who tour the country with a tent and their magical routines. Daughter Marie (Flo Fields) appeared out of nowhere inside a previously empty box, the first of many large scale illusions.

Having muscled his way into seat 22B, orphan Harold (Greg Fossard) astounded Willard by actually vanishing, and Margaret (Abigail McGibbon) from the local workhouse agreed to rent him out to the Hoffmann troupe for her own financial advantage. With the audiences for old-style magic dwindling, Willard knew that he needed a new act to attract punters back from the lure of the new-fangled cinema.

Stephen Bamford’s revolving stage allows the audience to switch from the magical front-of-house to see the behind-the-scenes action. The muted lighting helps build the enigmatic atmosphere. And as it’s the MAC, you’re never quite sure which door an actor will appear through next.

Given the nature of magic routines, there was a lot of superlative dialogue – “now is the hour of destiny” (the ghost of Kenneth Williams is in there somewhere) – as tricks were introduced and mumbo jumbo was threaded around the actual illusion. While Paul Bosco Mc Eneaney introduced some magic to the MAC earlier this year with Nivelli’s War, this festive show is a cut above his previous work, making the conjuring even more central to the plot and the character development, with it all wrapped up in Conor Mitchell’s music.

By the end of the first half, we see Willard Hoffmann as a hard taskmaster; Bess (Kirsty Marie Ayers) as the Cinderella-like sister left to sweep the floor while her older sister Marie performs on stage; and Margaret is the kind of workhouse beadle who sees no need to celebrate Christmas (and has shades of Miss Hannigan [Annie] about her).

But the second half rapidly moves the characters on – perhaps a little too quickly – as they live out Willard’s mantra that “a talent must not stand still, it must travel” and the action shifts to Paris. There’s a softening of relationships, dreams come true, true love blossoms and the show emphasises the importance of family.

The accents were hard to place and some of the singing seemed purposely discordant. It’s a technically complicated show, and together with sound effects and the music from the band, the sound ended up a little muddy and some of the lyrics became indistinct. However, that didn’t spoil the understanding of the plot. And Alexander’s range of percussion instruments meant there was never a dull moment at the front left of the stage. (Now he has mastered playing the saw he could make a fortune busking on Hill Street!)

It’s a noisy production, with some in the young audience experiencing theatre for the first time, tripping in and out to the toilet, and gazing up over their heads in wonder at the spotlight beam piercing the fog and dust. However, it’s a Christmas show for families, and the cast aren’t distracted by the commotion.

The Family Hoffmann’s Christmas Mystery Palace is a great original piece of family entertainment, with a convincing cast, and it’s the only place in Belfast you’ll see two women chopped in half this season!

I can’t begin to fathom how half the big stage magic tricks were performed. You can judge for yourself in The MAC until 4 January with adult tickets ranging from £12–£22 (typically £17) and children £10.

Update - Chris over at Pastie Bap liked it too.

NI Human Rights Festival (8-13 December) drones, Snowdon, film, quizzes & the forces of Fractocracy #NIHRF

The words “human rights” often seem to have special significance – and orange flashing lights around them – when used in Northern Ireland. They’re what people are denied … want … fear … celebrate. If you admit that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights exists, some will assume you have a well-thumbed copy in your back copy ready to beat them with.

And human rights are confused with civil rights: the former being fundamental rights considered necessary for human existence; the latter rights you enjoy by virtue of citizenship of a particular state.

Northern Ireland’s third Human Rights Festival is running next week from 8th to 13th December.

Monday 8 December

Waltz with Bashir // 8pm // Black Box // £3 // An animated documentary exploring the trauma of war and human right violations as Israeli director Ari Folman reconstructs his own memories of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon through interviews with fellow veterans.

Tuesday 9 December

From War to Surveillance: Human Rights and Drones // 7-8pm // St Mary’s University College // Free // Professor Noel Sharkey (University of Sheffield) specialises in robotics and the ethics of military robotics. In his lecture, he’ll discuss what human rights commitments exist under conditions of war and conflict and the use of new technologies such as drones.

Superhero Pub Quiz // 8pm // Black Box // £5 // Combining superheroes of comic books and human rights, this pub quiz will test if you know Batman from Black Panther, Green Lantern from Green Arrow, Desmond Tutu from Mohandas Gandhi or Eleanor Roosevelt from Aung San Suu Kyi. There’s also a competition for the best comic book or human rights hero costume on the night!

Wednesday 10 December

Human Rights: From Conflict to Transitional Justice // 7-8pm // St Mary’s University College / Free / Ulster University’s Dr Louise Mallinder delivers a lecture examining what role human rights can play in post-conflict societies, and their importance in establishing peaceful and just societies with repaired community relations.

From a Republic of Conscience // 8pm // Sunflower Bar // Free // Inspired by Heaney’s poem, poets will share some of their own work as well a poem on a human rights theme that inspires them.

Thursday 11 December

Global Journalism – Fighting the Challenges // 12-3pm // Linen Hall Library // Free // At least 70 journalists lost their lives at work in 2013; scores were imprisoned unjustly. Syria, Iraq and Egypt are currently some of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist. over the years in Northern Ireland, journalists have been attacked, abused, injured and shot dead too. Local and international speakers – Kevin Cooper, Sarah Hunter (a Belfast photojournalist, based in the Lebanon for five years), Ciarán Ó Maoláin and Eamonn McCann – will discuss the dangers of striving to provide honest, accurate and unbiased reporting.

Love Music Hate Racism // 9pm // Whites Tavern // Free but bring a present // Robocobra Quartet (the sound of hip-hop interpreted by two jazz sax players, a punk drummer/vocalists and the FX-pedal-nerd bass player) supported by Scream Blue Murmer and Thomas Annang. Free admission, but you’re asked to bring a Christmas present for the children of refugees, some tinned food or warm clothes which will be distributed by NICRAS to refugees and asylum seekers in Northern Ireland.

Friday 12 December

I’ll see you in court: ten people silenced by our libel laws // 6.30pm-8pm // Crescent Arts Centre // Free but register for a ticket // Simon Singh and the libel Reform Campaign will outline ten discussions you cannot hear “due to the archaic state of the law of libel”: from scientists sued for casting doubt on dubious treatments, to tennis players and oligarchs.

Saturday 13 December

World Zone // 2-5pm // The Dark Horse // Free // Arts workshops, story-telling and music for children and the families with a sense of adventure and curiosity.

The Feminist Photo Booth // 2-5pm // Black Box // Free // Call into the Black Box and use a range of props, costumes and accessories – along with your inner feminist spirit – to be portrayed and photographed as a feminist icon.

Beware the Agents of Frackocracy // 3pm // Hill Street // Free // The forces of Frackocracy will attempt to take over Hill Street. Expect over the top costumes, music, and caricatures of the fossil fuel industry that make JR Ewing look like a cute bunny! You’re encouraged to defend the public realm from “their reckless ambitions”. Street theatre meets civic education.

CITIZENFOUR // 8.20pm / Queen’s Film Theatre // £6.50 // A portrait of Edward Snowdon filmed in secret in his Hong Kong hotel room as he prepared to become one of the most notorious whistleblowers by exposing global mass-surveillance schemes conducted by the NSA in the US as well as other governments. (Also showing at 6.30pm on Monday 15 December.)

There are also events looking at the legacy of the Magna Carta, children and young people, motherhood, reproductive rights, transgender, travellers, migrant culture, Rwanda, Congo, Kenya, and the Campervan of Dreams.

More details on the NI Human Rights Festival website, Facebook and Twitter @NIHRF.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone

Earlier this week I interviewed Julia Paul for a programme that will be broadcast on local community TV station NvTv sometime over the coming months. Perhaps best known locally as a BBC journalist who spent six years on Hearts and Minds, Julia also spent time training journalists in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other countries. Now an academic at Queen’s University in Belfast, she continues to work periodically with women in Afghanistan, encouraging writing and helping build confidence and recognition for their work.

As we chatted in the weeks before the interview, we discussed the subject of working abroad and the tendency for a sub-culture to emerge in foreign countries and trouble spots … perhaps turning people rich with dollars into ex-pats behaving badly. (Though I should add that Julia offered no evidence that she has ever behaved badly!)

It reminded me of Paul Conroy’s book Under the Wire [£7.99 paperback; £4.99 Kindle] which I read after attending the war photographer’s lecture at this year’s Belfast Festival.

It’s a challenging read, mixing selfish stupidity with selfless bravery, though I often wasn’t able to tell the difference. His madcap adventures – often with journalist Marie Colvin, and particularly centred around Syria where Marie was tragically killed in a rocket attack – point to a lifestyle choice that feels fear, suppresses the instinct to do anything about it, and instead finds ways of coping and even enjoying life in the middle of terror.

Julia mentioned another book in the genre that widens out the subject matter from journalism to international aid work and peace-keeping.

Nearly ten years after first been written and published by three relief workers, Emergency Sex (And Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone [£7.19 paperback; £3.95 Kindle] has lost little of its hating challenge.

A New York social worker, a Harvard law graduate and a Red Cross doctor cross paths and forge lasting friendships in Cambodia around the time of the 1993 election. (There are a lot more desperate measures in the book that sex!)

Running away from a failed marriage, Heidi Postlewait finds refuge as a secretary in the United Nations and signs up for an exciting foreign mission posting helping run elections in Cambodia. Ken Cain wants to avoid corporate tax law and starts to conduct human rights surveys in the Khmer Rouge zone. Andrew Thomson saves lives as he negotiates to improve medical conditions in a series of inhumane prisons, yet can also saves lives by abandoning straight medicine and instead arranging the release of some of the men, often being held without due process.

The book alternates between the three authors, sometimes describing a situation from two or more viewpoints as it tracks their service through Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda and Liberia. The writing isn’t lyrical but it’s frank and relates how their daily exposure to death – both those killed as the result of brutal regimes and the targeting of UN peacekeeping staff and their local colleagues and friends – increases with each new mission.
As the sun sets over the Mekong, I down another one and watch mesmerized as pink tracer rounds curve in graceful slow motion over the shimmering water. (Andrew)
Sometimes the authors’ idealism weakens. But the beautiful – if battered – locales revitalise their spirits. A seemingly endless supply of reckless abandon, twinned with deep empathy for the victims and survivors keep them from running away from trouble spots.

So too do the relationships they foster with the wider aid/relief community and the military squads who surround them. The title refers to Heidi’s description of her desire for intimacy – or “emergency sex” – in the immediate aftermath of a near fatal incident with a sniper. To a large extent, like an extended sports team trip, what happens on tour stays on tour … unless your lover’s friend arrives to insist that you become a second wife to avoid bring shame on the family, or you write a book about it.
I’m about to explain that I’m not a licensed Lawyer in the U.S., but it’s anarchy here, that distinction matters in Cambridge [Massachusetts], not Mogadishu. (Ken)
Experience and stamina starts to matter more than qualification. Judgement becomes flawed. Workers start to believe that being there available to help counts the most when lives are at stake, the sick need tending, and vicious slaughter needs to be documented if the perpetrators are ever to be brought to justice.

The 1990s and early 2000s were an age of phone calls and letters in these countries. Reports were faxed up the chain of command. Satellite phones were cutting age. News spread deliberately and didn’t leak out through the internet people hold in their hands today. Families waited for news.

There’s a cost to the work. Colleagues die. Partners die. But the very work that is meant to be doing good can be destructive too.
There is no way for us to win. The more effective we are, the more damage we do. (Ken)
Establishing a justice system is important in a post-conflict regions. The opening ceremony of the new court in Mogadishu came under attack. Ken ended up calling in the raid to a startled Heidi manning the radio back at UN/US base, and arranging for the protection forces to rescue them. The next day a Red Cross worker reminded him “You killed twenty Somalis just to open your stupid American court!” Ken reflected: “I hadn’t thought of that yet. How many we killed.”

The authors are fiercely critical of western policy (particularly the US, through France gets a mention) and the United Nations’ very imperfect manner of operating. Inappropriate risks were taken – sometimes naïve, often deliberate – by local commanders. Valuing its staff more than those they serve, the UN evacuated its own people out of Haiti, abandoning the country’s citizens to certain carnage before returning to clear up the mess. Examples of embezzlement and highly inappropriate behaviour of UN officials went unchallenged despite reporting back to HQ. Why was the genocide allowed to happen in Rwanda?

Andrew led the forensic excavation of mass graves in Kibuye in Rwanda. “On this side of the lake, the newly dead outnumber the living.” Despite being double-gloved, washing parts of corpses from under his fingernails became part of his daily routine. The grave site was next to a Catholic church. Mid-dig, a new priest arrived and …
… insists we pay rent, in cash to him will be just fine, because we have installed our equipment and mobile morgue on church property. It’s to help the survivors he adds, looking me in the eye … [The government] want to return bodies to families for decent burials. The church’s man on the spot asking for money to dig up corpses …

From near the bottom of the grave we pull out the body of a young male dressed in full priest’s regalia. If this is the man we’ve heard about, he was with the people in the church, comforting the soon to be dead and refusing offers to be evacuated by boat at night to safety across the lake … Two priests, same church. One pays with his life, the other wants to be paid for the exhumation. The wrong man is in that body bag.
Andrew moved from Rwanda to more mass graves in Bosnia to gather evidence of the ethnic cleansing. He celebrated when he heard that Slobodan Milosevic was being flown to The Hague to be tried for war crimes that his forensic evidence would support. (Milosevic died before the trial could be concluded and was never found guilty of the charges brought against him.) Andrew reflected on the UN’s role in the tragedy.
If blue helmeted UN peace-keepers show up in your town or village and offer to protect you, run. Or else get weapons. Your lives are worth so much less than theirs. I learned that the day we were evacuated from Haiti.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is never named in the book. Yet it is written clearly between the lines on nearly every page. Returning to New York between missions was incredibly uncomfortable for the workers. The banalities of conversation. The missing camaraderie with relief colleagues. The awareness that their skills could be better used somewhere else in the world. At times the longing to be needed read as self-aggrandisement. Yet their self-criticism, identification of personal weakness and searching assessment of each other in the book and is disconcerting.

As the years stretch out, their lives continue to collide and their friendship deepens. Ken writes:
I watch Heidi play with fire everywhere she goes, and I guess I enjoy watching. But we all understand that one day the romantic adventure won’t end well. And I watch Andrew twist his conscience and faith into a more and more intractable knot with each new impossible mission. They’re both trapped inside their own illusions. It’s all so clear to me. I wonder what’s clear to them.
Is doing their job more important than protecting their own lives? Is doing their job helping those in the countries in which they serve? Over how long a period does ‘good’ have to be measured? Months? Years? Decades?
I don’t know who saved the honor of mankind during my time in the field, but I do know that an ancestral memory of tyranny commands me to keep not silent. There is no ambiguity here. I am a witness. I have a voice. I have to write it down. (Ken)
Often shocking, at times annoying, but frequently heart-breaking, the tale of these three relief workers simultaneously captures the best and worst of human behaviour and experience. It’s a moving book that will make you weep on the train as you read it and catch glimpses of the horrors we so often choose to avoid noticing in our own land, never mind the countries in which the UN operates.
Andrew wanted to bind the wounds of innocent war victims, hoping to find grace. Heidi embraced the freedom-born-of-emergency determined to liberate herself and, in the process, as many women as she could touch. I planned toe harness the power of an ascendant America to personally undo the Holocaust. [Ken is Jewish.] Don’t laugh. We were young. We weren’t the first, and won’t be the last, to venture forth overseas with grand ideas. (Ken)
Believe it or not, this book was the Guardian’s top Christmas gift in its 2013 list of “what to give the aid worker in your life”!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Mistletoe and Crime - securing laughs in Belfast this Christmas at the Lyric (until 11 January)

They may only seem like background noise in a city of hundreds of thousands, but they’re the people Sue and Aileen will be serving this Christmas Eve at the Lyric Theatre.

It’s the night before Christmas and Sue (played by Tara Lynne O’Neill) is starting her last shift in the force. Recently split up from a married colleague with whom she was having an affair, her festive cheer is running low.

Aileen (Katie Tumelty, fresh from playing Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret) is a mature entrant into the PSNI and this is her first night on the beat. Together the pair patrol South Belfast sorting out the homeless, the abused, the lost, the criminal and ultimately themselves.

Mistletoe and Crime has been written by Marie Jones and directed by Dan Gordon. Unlike previous Lyric Christmas shows, this isn’t a sketch show that’s just playing for tinsel-laden laughs. But there was plenty of giggling in the theatre as the packed audience enjoyed the humorous examination of community policing in a familiar city through the eyes of our very own Cagney and Lacey.
That’s my Sue: 22 years in this place and you still believe in fairy tales!
There are no flags, no parades, and no protests. Instead, there’s a newcomer being thrown out on the street by her partner, a spide who hawks fake designer gear, a mother who’s lost and unwanted, a barrister who’s forgotten the Sandy Row bowl he was baked in, and a lovable tramp called Haribo (Ciarán Nolan) who’d like to spend Christmas in the warm cells. And inside the station, there’s a fly fishing-obsessed custody sergeant Mal (Gerard Jordan), a duty solicitor and a family who may be suffering the after effects of their mother’s trip to Turkey. (Maybe she should have gone to Phuket?)

The first act gently introduces the well-drawn characters. Mistletoe and Crime certainly passes the Bechdel Test with its two strong lead women and countless other female roles.
You’re a policewoman, not their mother.
While light-hearted, Mistletoe and Crime gets underneath the flak jackets to expose the humanity of neighbourhood police officers. They bend rules to do the right thing while adopting a no-nonsense approach. It’s clear that the play is inspired by real life officers and incidents. (If the senior command of the Pasty Suppers of NI book the front row of seats at the Lyric some night – can you imagine the reaction of the cast if ‘the Chief’ showed up? – I reckon they’d approve of the skills and attitude being portrayed.)

The play is at its strongest after the interval when the tempo is upped and each character faces up to their own personal predicament and finds resolution. A single beautiful song – performed by a wannabe Duke Special – captures the mood of the city and its theme carries the drama towards a surprisingly mellow conclusion.

Sharing the Lyric main stage with Sleeping Beauty, the set and lighting are relatively simple, but watch out for some great animal shadows, unexpected entrances, the SOS bus and a cameo by the Skiddle Dee Dee one.

In a season when the news is ridden with cynical politicians, cheap shots and historic abuse, Mistletoe and Crime offers an earthy and endearing alternative to pantomime that’s full of kindness and warmth. Catch it in the Lyric Theatre before the run ends on 11 January.