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Geneva Motor Show: Why it will be electrifying

The Geneva International Motor Show, which gets under way in Switzerland this week, is one of the biggest events on the global auto industry calendar.

At a time when many traditional motor shows seem to be in decline, with manufacturers increasingly wary of spending cash on big set-piece events, Geneva still looks healthy.

Unlike the other major European events, in Frankfurt and Paris, it isn't dominated by one nation's manufacturers. Held on neutral ground, it also attracts many smaller businesses, such as tuning houses and niche sportscar makers.

There's a much greater emphasis on speed and style than you might see elsewhere, and as befits a show that once welcomed concepts for nuclear-powered vehicles, there's a strong focus on innovation.

The glitzy car launches, with their deafening sound and light shows, and the acres of shiny bodywork on display will present a confident image to the world.

But there's no escaping the fact that this is an industry in transition, with many manufacturers struggling to make profits, and apprehensive about the future.

Electrification is likely to be the dominant theme at Geneva this year, and for good reason.

Lagonda All-Terrain ConceptAston Martin Lagonda has been teasing car fans with pictures of its new Lagonda All-Terrain Concept ahead of the official unveiling

New European emissions regulations, which are being phased in from next year, will force manufacturers to reduce drastically the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by their cars, or face steep fines.

Those targets will apply to average emissions across each carmaker's model range. Having low or zero-emissions cars, such as fully electric and plug-in hybrids, in their fleets will help to bring down the average.

"Not only do they have to make electric cars, the way the rules work they actually have to sell them as well," explains James Attwood, deputy editor of Autocar magazine.Small wonder then that carmakers are scrambling to develop new electric vehicles. What we'll see at Geneva, however, is a large number of plug-in hybrids - and an array of fully electric concepts.

These are prototypes designed to show what manufacturers are thinking and gauge the response of consumers, rather than road-ready vehicles.

According to Mr Attwood, "What you're going to see is cars that are designed to get people looking and thinking of electric cars in a different way.

"Lots of manufacturers are now trying to showcase just what you can do with electric cars."

Mercedes and Audi, which are in the process of developing whole new electric ranges, will both have new ideas on show. For Audi, it will be a new compact SUV, while Mercedes is bringing an electric people-carrier.

Paolo PininfarinaPaolo Pininfarina, chairman of the eponymous design house, will be unveiling the firm's new electric hypercar

Aston Martin's new electric sub-brand Lagonda will be showing off what it calls an "all-terrain concept", an upmarket SUV designed to rival the luxury Rolls-Royce Cullinan.

Meanwhile, Korean manufacturer Kia, which has been making waves recently with its more sensibly priced electric e-Niro SUV, will also have a concept. "Designed to not only get your pulse racing, but to also signpost our holistic and emotional approach to electrification," the company says.

That's the kind of language you hear a lot of at motor shows, often at high volume and accompanied by a very expensive but rather cheesy video. In this case, it appears to suggest that electric cars can be both practical and fun.

Not all of them are entirely practical however.

Automobili Pininfarina, an Italian brand backed by the Indian giant Mahindra, will be bringing along three versions of its new Battista.

Named after the founder of the Pininfarina design house, the car is expected to have a top speed of 250mph, and a range of 300 miles, all on battery power. The car itself has yet to be unveiled, but it's fair to say it is unlikely to have much room for your shopping.

ID BuggyVolkswagen's much-anticipated electric buggy concept has arrived, modelled on the legendary American dune buggies from the 60s and 70s

Another major issue affecting the industry - and one which goes far beyond simply how cars are powered - is what the future holds for transport in cities.

Governments and local authorities across Europe are increasingly desperate to cut congestion and improve air quality. Restrictions on petrol and diesel cars, and on private vehicles in general, are likely only to increase.

At the same time technology is developing rapidly, raising the prospect that one day self-driving taxis may become commonplace in town centres. Ride hailing and car sharing are also becoming more popular.

All of this clearly threatens the traditional business models of established carmakers. As a result, deals like those announced recently between BMW and Daimler, on shared-use models and developing self-driving technology, may become more commonplace.

"Carmakers are being pulled in so many directions at the moment," says Anna-Marie Baisden, head of auto research at Fitch Solutions.

"They're investing in new technology, and at the same time seeing slower sales in key markets, such as North America, China and Europe. So with an eye for cost-cutting it makes sense to work together."

Meanwhile, manufacturers are trying to work out what kinds of vehicles we'll actually be using in cities for the next few years.

So at Geneva, we'll see the latest version of Honda's Urban EV, a small electric car designed specifically for use in the city, which is nearly ready to go into production.

There will also be the Ami-One, a little electric box on wheels from the French marque Citroen. Only a concept so far, it's designed specifically for the car-sharing market. With a maximum speed of 28mph, in some countries you wouldn't even need a full licence to drive it, making it a viable option for cash-strapped 16-year-olds.

Ami-OneSales of so-called micro-electric vehicles are growing fast and Citroen hopes its Ami-One will grab a slice of the market

And following a similar stream of creative thinking, Spanish brand Seat has come up with its own super-small city concept, first unveiled at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Named the Minimo, it is half the size of a traditional city car. In fact, it is more of an enclosed scooter. It has a strong resemblance to Renault's existing super-small car, the Twizy.

Like the Ami-One, it is aimed at the car-sharing market. And one day, the manufacturer says, it will be able to drive itself.

It may look rather incongruous alongside the exotic array of super-fast, super-stylish supercars Geneva invariably attracts. But carmakers clearly think machines like this are what many of us will one day use to get around.

Supercars may have the futuristic looks, but super-compacts could be what the future actually holds.

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A look back at the 'debacle' of 1989's hostless Oscars

The 2019 Oscars are set to go ahead without a host for the first time since 1989. But there is perhaps a reason it has taken so long for it to happen again - as 1989's ceremony has gone down as one of the most embarrassing moments in Oscars history.

It took a long time for the footage of that night to re-emerge. When it eventually popped up on YouTube, it attracted a million views in a day.

Here's how it unfolded in real time:

0'01" Army Archerd, a greying columnist for Variety magazine, stands at the entrance to the Oscars and introduces Snow White (played by 22-year-old Eileen Bowman) - dressed exactly like the 1937 Disney depiction of the fairytale princess. Archerd tells her to "follow the Hollywood stars"- people in tights wearing massive sparkly polystyrene stars about their torso.

0'28" With a squeal like sped-up whalesong, Snow White enters from the back; she has to go down a long slope to the front, past actors, directors and producers who already look appalled. Snow White goes to greet some of them; they actively distance themselves as much as possible. None more than Michelle Pfeiffer - when Snow White goes to grab her hand, Pfeiffer pulls it away. This one movement signals to the watching world what the mood is in that theatre, just one minute in.

01'25" The song continues and Snow White tries to engage Tom Hanks, Sigourney Weaver, Dustin Hoffman and Glenn Close. All give her the same frozen smile and 1,000-mile stare of a combat veteran.

02'10" Snow White goes centre stage and the curtain lifts, revealing a set done to look like the Cocoanut Grove nightclub at its peak. Salsa music plays. California native Merv Griffin starts singing I've Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts in a faux Cockney accent. Sitting at the tables of the "Grove" are a selection of veteran stars (Roy Rogers, Vincent Price, Cyd Charisse). One by one, they are taken away by dancing waiters in sequinned trousers.

04'57" Griffin introduces Snow White to her "blind date", Rob Lowe. Lowe looks like he already knows the next few minutes are going to cause grievous bodily harm to his career.

05'21"Lowe and Snow launch into a rewritten version of Proud Mary. Lowe hits a bum note on his first line and never recovers. "Rollin', rollin', keep the camera rollin'", they sing. Everyone else hopes that they will just shut the cameras off. Forever.

06'58" Three women wearing enormous coconuts on their heads enter. One, who has genuine singing talent, takes over from Snow White - which does wonders for the audio but throws Lowe's abilities into somewhat sharper relief. In the background, the tables stand and dance, lamps on their head.

07'37" The routine finishes. The camera cuts to the audience. It is perhaps just unfortunate that it finds Robert Downey Jr, whose face is an unmatched study in contempt. He gives all of three sarcastic handclaps.

08'11" A row of scarlet-clad ushers begin high-kicking to a backing song about the wonderful magic of cinema: "When you're down in the dumps / Try putting on Judy's red pumps."

09'45" Snow White's skirt swells into a 10-metre wide gold peacock-feather contraption, and she is wearing an outsized box office stand on - yes - her head. Hooray For Hollywood, the backing song trills.

10'12" Steps that hide Snow White are moved centre-stage. Her ordeal is over. Lily Tomlin steps out of the box office stand and starts to descend the steps. She loses her shoe on the way down. "I told them I'd be thrilled to do the Oscars if they could only come up with an entrance," she says. There is mild laughter. In the background, Lowe crawls down the steps to throw the missing shoe back to Tomlin. He throws it wide and it falls in the orchestra pit. Lowe flees the stage. "A billion and a half people just watched that," Tomlin adds. The longest 11 minutes in film history are over.

Last year Rob Lowe was asked about the "debacle" of 1989's Oscars by the New York Times.

He said: "It's basically a show that nobody wants to do. It's really sad."

Admitting he made a "huge mistake" by taking part, he added that there had been benefits to taking part.

"In an era when staying in the conversation is as important as anything else, I for sure have gotten more money and acclaim out of being in that Oscar opening number than if I had won an Oscar."

'Break-Out Super Stars of Tomorrow'The "breakout stars" included Patrick Dempsey, Ricki Lake, Chad Lowe, Keith Coogan, Corey Feldman, Christian Slater and Joely Fisher

Later in the show there would be another big routine that flopped - Bob Hope and Lucille Ball introducing a 10-minute-long "stars of tomorrow" song-and-dance bit involving young actors mimicking Michael Jackson, sword-fighting and tap-dancing in MC Hammer-style trousers hoisted up to their throats.

"The 61st Academy Awards ceremony began by creating the impression that there would never be a 62nd," wrote the New York Times's Janet Maslin.

Marvin Hamlisch, Allan Carr and Kenny OrtegaCarr (centre) believed he had masterminded a hit show - until he visited the press room

Hollywood producer Allan Carr - renowned for his lavish parties - had been selected as the ideal antidote to what had become a boring, staid show. He promised "the antithesis of tacky" and "the most beautiful Academy Awards of all time".

The opening 12 minutes were based on a musical revue called Beach Blanket Babylon, which Carr had seen at a nightclub in San Francisco; Carr hired its creator Steve Silver to direct it.

Sitting in the audience, Silver realised immediately how badly it had gone down. But Carr was oblivious until he found the usually supportive newspaper columnist Jeannie Williams in the press room.

She told him it was "over the top" and questioned what Snow White was doing in the Cocoanut Grove.

Carr knew he was in trouble. The morning after the Oscars - when normally a producer's phone would be ringing off the hook with congratulatory messages - there was silence at Carr's home.

But two critical - in both senses - pieces of correspondence did follow.

The first was from the Walt Disney Company. It was a legal case against the Academy for using their Snow White character without permission.

The Academy went on to apologise for the "unauthorised use of Disney's copyrighted Snow White character" and for "unintentionally creating the impression that Disney had participated in or sanctioned the opening production number on the Academy Awards telecast".

The other letter was from some 17 Hollywood figures - including Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, Billy Wilder, Sidney Lumet and former Academy president Gregory Peck - which denounced what happened at the Shrine as "demeaning" and "an embarrassment to both the Academy and the entire motion picture industry."

Some of the signatories were people who had been regulars at Carr's parties.

Martha Plimpton and River Phoenix arrive at the 1989 OscarsMartha Plimpton and River Phoenix arrive at the 1989 Oscars: Carr first saw the potential of screening the red carpet

Carr, whose career highlights had included writing and producing credits for Grease, had his reputation in Hollywood dented. It never fully recovered and he died of liver cancer in 1999 at the age of 62.

But amidst the criticism of the show, which was later described by Hollywood Reporter as "Oscar's biggest goof", Carr had reversed the decline in viewing figures; 42.7m watched across the US. (For context, that is 10m more than watched the 2018 ceremony).

He had also made a number of changes that define the ceremony to this day.

The phrase "and the winner is…" was replaced by "and the Oscar goes to…", which sounded less exclusionary.

The arrival of the stars on the red carpet - which now has its own show - was given much greater prominence. And Bruce Vilanch, hired by Carr, remained the chief writer of the show over the next two decades.

Janice Crystal and Billy CrystalBilly Crystal - here arriving with his wife Janice - got the hosting gig off his star turn in 1989

And indeed Vilanch's gags found their perfect voice in a certain Billy Crystal. Carr had selected him to deliver a monologue at the 1989 Oscars and it went so well that he was asked to be the full-time host for 1990.

His first line? "Is that [applause] for me, or are you just glad I'm not Snow White?"

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Disney fans mock Will Smith's Genie in Aladdin

Disney granted everyone's wish on Sunday when they finally gave a first look at Will Smith's blue Genie in the new live action version of Aladdin.

Unfortunately many fans were not impressed with what they saw and were quick to say so on social media.

"It turns out that Will Smith's Aladdin Genie will haunt my nightmares," tweeted one user.

Another added: "I'll never sleep again and it's all Will Smith's fault."

The trailer for director Guy Ritchie's latest offering was revealed midway through the Grammy Awards, and sees Aladdin approaching the Cave of Wonders in search of the lamp.

When Disney first released images of the upcoming film, Smith admitted it was "always terrifying" whenever "you're doing things that are iconic".

Mena Massoud as Aladdin and Will Smith as the Genie

The actor told Entertainment Weekly he tapped into his roles from Bad Boys and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to shape his Genie.

When teasing what the blue immortal would look like, Ritchie said he wanted a "muscular 1970s dad".

He added: "He was big enough to feel like a force - not so muscular that he looked like he was counting his calories, but formidable enough to look like you knew when he was in the room."

View image on Twitter

However, other film fans said they would wait to make their minds up when the movie is released in May.
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BTS: K-pop idols make first historic Grammy appearance

BTS has made history by becoming the first K-pop group to present at the Grammy Awards.

The group, which was also nominated for an award, presented the Best R&B album to new Grammy winner H.E.R.

The seven band members said that they had always dreamed about "being on the Grammy stage" adding that they would "be back".

They also paid homage to their country, wearing tuxedos designed by South Korean designers.

According to Vogue, JayBaek Couture designed custom suits for Jungkook, Jin, Jimin, Suga, V and RM, while J-Hope's suit was designed by Kim Seo Ryong - something that did not go unnoticed.

The boys also rolled up to the event in a Hyundai - a South Korean car manufacturer.

Twitter post by @Hyundai: The red carpet is where life meets style and @BTS_twt knows a little something about that...Making an entrance at the #GRAMMYs in our first-ever #HyundaiPalisade. #BetterByHyundai

The hashtag #TearItUpBTS also began trending when the boy band arrived at the awards show.

They also started trending in South Korea and were one of the top 20 searches on Naver, one of South Korea's largest search engines.

South Korean boy band BTS attends the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on February 10

BTS has managed to conquer the US

Their fellow celebrities at the Grammys also gave them a shout out.

Anna Kendrick, who was sat next to the band, jokingly said that she would provide them with "a snack or whatever".

BTS' 2018 album "Love Yourself: Tear" was nominated in the category of best recording package but did not win.

The hugely popular K-pop group - one of few that have managed to break into the West- are considered one of the most successful acts of the South Korean music industry.

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Iran revolution: 'I wore a hijab and head-banged to Nirvana'

On my first day of school in Iran we walked down a poorly-lit corridor. I was holding my mother's hand and crying. She was crying too. On my head I had a black hood, known as a maghnaeh, covering my hair. I was six years old and terrified. This was nothing like my kindergarten in Los Angeles.

I was born in the summer of 1979 in California, a few months after Iran's Islamic Revolution; my mother was in her early 20s and my grandmother was 50.

Millions of Iranian women took part in the revolution, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the men, but soon afterwards the tide turned against them. Some of the basic rights women had won during the regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi were revoked immediately.

The Family Protection Act, which had given women the right to divorce, was nullified and a mandatory dress code requiring all women to wear the hijab was introduced.

The uprising against the shah and the revolution had scattered our family across the world.

I moved back to Iran with my parents in 1984, right in the middle of the eight-year war with neighbouring Iraq and one of the most ideologically rigid periods in the country's recent history.

Iranian Revolution: Why what happened in Iran 40 years ago matters

The dress code for women was strict; bright colours, lipstick, nail varnish or showing a strand of hair could get you arrested.

"I think the hardest thing for me was the hijab. I could never accept it," my mother says. "I never followed the strict dress code dictated by the state. I tried hard to have my own style."

My grandmother also struggled with the changes when she returned to Iran from the UK a few years after the revolution.

"I felt like I had moved to a completely different country, it was nothing like before," she recalls.

'Nothing like my school days'

Every morning before class we lined up in the schoolyard, raised our tiny fists in the air and repeated the words of our headmistress, who shouted into a megaphone: "Death to America! Death to Iraq and Saddam Hussein! Death to England!"

"The first day I took you to school I was shocked and disappointed," my mother says.

Feranak Amidi in hijab in ID card aged 6

Feranak, aged 6, wearing a hijab in her ID card photo

It was quite different from her own time as a young girl in Iran. My mother attended a school founded by French Christian missionaries, where the girls wore cute uniforms, played sports and music, sang and danced.

"The environment of your school was depressing and sad," she says. "It was nothing like the playful environment I remembered from my school days."

My grandmother was part of the first generation of girls who attended public schools in Iran in the 1930s. Until then most attempts to open up girls schools had failed due to fierce opposition by the clergy, who believed they would become dens of indecency.

"I was fond of school. It was fun and I can't remember anything unpleasant about it," my grandmother says.

Under the shah religion was a private matter. After the revolution, religion became part of the public sphere.

You were encouraged to show your devotion to Islam as a sign of allegiance to the regime. Women had to dress more modestly, men grew beards and people prayed in work places out of fear of being branded anti-revolutionary. The state controlled the most private aspects of our lives.

Living a double life

At schools, teachers were told to quiz students about their private lives.

We were asked whether our parents drank alcohol, listened to music, owned a video player, played cards, danced or took off their hijabs at mixed-gender family parties; all acts prohibited by law.

Feranak Amidi (c) and two friends

As a teenager, Feranak listened to Western rock music despite it being banned in Iran

Most of our parents encouraged us to lie and I started to learn how to live a double life.

I wore the hijab to class and head-banged to Nirvana in my bedroom at home. I shouted "Death to America!" at school and bought Guns N' Roses cassettes from underground music dealers.

Growing up under the shah my mother had more social freedom.

"I could choose what I wanted to wear, the music I wanted to listen to and so forth, but there were still many limitations for women," she recalls.

Forty years ago, Iranian TV's woman newscaster was not required to cover her hair

My mother married when she was 17, which was not uncommon even under the shah. Women were still expected to conform to rigid social norms and the gender gap in the workforce was wide. Yet the winds of change were blowing.

"The shah was trying to change things and make society more modern," says my mother.

My grandmother grew up in an affluent family and was exposed to Western culture, but she was still very much bound to tradition.

She was married off after school and went on to have six children. She also didn't have many choices in her life. Marriage and motherhood were just about all a woman could do.Feranak says her life has been quite different from that experienced by most Iranian women

Compared to my mother and grandmother I have had more choices in life; I got a university degree, emigrated alone when I was 30, lived with my partner for four years, and got married at 35. But this is not the life experience of an average Iranian woman.

Officials say more than 50% of university students are women and that they are postponing marriage until their late 20s. But women make up only 19% of the workforce. Most women still have little choice but to get married and become housewives.

Female representation in parliament is only 6% and women have next to no rights in marriage. Strict gender roles are propagated by state-run media and women are told that their place is at home with their children.

Four decades after the revolution, it is hard to say whether Iranian women have made any real progress. One thing is clear: for every step forward there have been a few steps back, but the setbacks have never discouraged women to push ahead.

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R Kelly: backlash as singer announces Australia tour

Singer R Kelly has announced a new tour of Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, sparking widespread criticism in light of abuse allegations against him.

The R&B star posted his plans on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but later deleted the posts.

The proposed concerts would come on the heels of a documentary detailing decades of alleged sexual abuse by the artist.

Local politicians have called for him to be barred from entering Australia.

On Tuesday, the 52-year old Grammy-winner tweeted "NEW TOUR ALERT", but without giving concrete dates of when he would play, and where.

View image on Twitter'Physical and emotional abuse'

R Kelly has not been convicted of any crimes in connection with the abuse claims.

The allegations against him were aired in a January documentary, Surviving R Kelly, which featured detailed accounts of his alleged physical and emotional abuse of women.

It claimed the R&B star ran an "abusive cult" in which he is accused of keeping women captive against their wills.

Following the allegations, numerous former music industry colleagues spoke out against R Kelly, and protesters called for a ban on his music and concerts.

A protester holding a #muteRKelly bannerDemonstrators hold a protest near to R Kelly's studio

This is not the first report of a planned R Kelly tour to Australia.

In December, confusion arose when the singer disputed a similar announcement by a tour company, calling it fake news.

At the time, New Zealand victims' advocate Ruth Money and the non-profit group Women's Refuge called for the singer to be banned from performing.

"Popular culture has an immense amount to do with shaping the way people think and the way people behave, and the sort of role models that we hold up, particularly to our young people," she said.

Australia could deny visa

Australia's opposition Labor party released a statement saying the singer should not be permitted to enter the country.

"Labor strongly supports the refusal or cancellation of visas of non-citizens on character or criminal grounds," the document said.

Australia's department of home affairs told the BBC it "does not comment on individual cases", but Australia has previously barred entry to people in similar situations.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather was denied a visa over family violence convictions. Rapper Chris Brown also had his visa denied based on his history of domestic violence.

And in 2014, the country cancelled a visa for US "pick-up artist" Julien Blanc, citing his derogatory views on women.

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Januhairy: What I learned when I stopped shaving

Women all over the world put down their razors and wax strips to grow out their bod?y hair for Januhairy. While some were praised for helping to promote body confidence, others were branded disgusting. This is what four participants took from the experience.

'Telling people seemed intimidating'

Sonia Thakurdesai

Image captionSonia Thakurdesai feels more comfortable in her own skin after taking part

Sonia Thakurdesai was "quite hesitant" about announcing her decision to grow her body hair.

"I remember seeing a lot of tweets around the time Januhairy was getting popular, from both men and women, bashing it [and] saying it's disgusting.

"Despite being happy to take part, the task of posting on social media and telling people seemed intimidating.

"Body hair has always been something I have felt self-conscious about. I always felt people would see me as dirty or gross if I did open up about it."

The 19-year-old, from Heckmondwike in West Yorkshire, said despite the negativity and initial fears, the campaign has improved her confidence.

"It has opened up the topic for discussion - women across the world are sharing their experiences and it is challenging those who feel they have to remove their body hair to think why that is.

"It has made me feel more comfortable in my own skin and accept my body in its natural fuzzy form."

'I'm not doing it for approval'

Sabine Fisher

Image captionSabine Fisher said that her body hair is beautiful

Sabine Fisher was shocked when those close to her expressed disgust at her participation in Januhairy.

"I have had a couple of people tell me its 'disgusting' and 'unnatural', which made me feel hurt and confused as they were close friends, but now I'm OK with people not liking it.

"I'm not doing it for them or their approval - I'm doing it for me."

The 18-year-old from Rotorua in New Zealand said some cultures had been "brainwashed" into thinking body hair is "wrong and weird".

"I think body hair is so beautiful, but when people see my armpit hair they won't make eye contact with me, or they stare at it.

"I don't know if it will be a thing I continue to do forever, but for now it feels good and right.

"My beauty and self worth have nothing to do my body hair - or what other people think about it."

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'I felt feminine'

Crystal Marchand

Image captionCrystal Marchand, 32, said one interaction caused her to shave off her hair

Crystal Marchand is transgender and decided to grow out her body hair for the first time since her transition last year.

"I was called horrible names. I was cursed at in public. Some stared, others wouldn't look at me."

One abusive interaction, halfway through the month, caused her to shave off her facial hair.

But in spite of the negative reaction, the 32-year-old from Montreal in Canada said she learned more about herself through the process.

"There is some danger in pushing the boundaries and that risk worried some of my loved ones.

"But I discovered I could feel feminine despite all my body hair, which has troubled me since its arrival.

"Other people's perceptions of my gender are not as important to me as my own self-awareness, self-acceptance, and my ability to love and express myself freely."

'Less of a monster'

Image captionLaura Jackson has received many messages of support

Laura Jackson never expected Januhairy to blow up like it did. The 21-year-old campaign founder had one simple aim - to encourage women to embrace their body hair while raising money for charity.

She said one woman, who has a beard caused by polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), thanked her for making her feel like "less of a monster".

"I couldn't believe someone could say that about themselves," the Exeter University student said. "It made me tear up a little."

Laura also described how a 13-year-old with excess body hair on her arms and legs contacted her to say the campaign had made cry and helped her realise she is "not alone".

"It gives me a lot more con? copyrightLAURA JACKSONfidence in humanity and the changes this generation can bring to the world.

"But it's not just about me. Women have been inspiring other women with their stories.

"This needed to happen, and I'm just grateful to be a part of it."

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The favourite bold sexual policies are rewriting history

Olivia Colman, an Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner for her performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite, tells the BBC she believes that the historical film has “reinvented the genre. It’s messy and you can almost smell the period it’s set in.”

The reputed love affair between Queen Anne and Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough has become a hot favourite for awards season too – apart from the Globe win, the film has received 10 Oscar nominations and is up for 12 Baftas.

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos’s film The Favourite has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture .

The Favourite has triumphed over an unusually large number of historical films that have been released in recent months. Period pieces can be hard to get off the ground, as costumes, castles and cavalry don’t come cheap: in recent film history, only epics such as Braveheart (1995) and Gladiator (2000) have enjoyed budgets of more than $100 million (£77.5 million). These movies brought home the Oscars, but too often the genre ends up as a noble runner-up, including Elizabeth (1998); The Lion in Winter (1968) and even 1963’s Cleopatra, at the time the most expensive film ever made. And as Ridley Scott discovered, five Oscars for Gladiator and a proven genius for shooting military battle scenes still couldn’t rescue his widely ignored Crusade epic Kingdom of Heaven in 2005.

We are finally getting non-white, non-male perspectives on history – Larushka Ivan-Zadeh

Competing with The Favourite is Josie Rourke’s drama about a better-known monarch, Mary Queen of Scots. Netflix spent $120 million (£93 million) on William Wallace’s rival Robert the Bruce in The Outlaw King, while Mike Leigh devoted over 150 minutes to Peterloo, about a political massacre that took place in Britain in 1819. In France, Pierre Schoeller made Un peuple et son roi, which spans from the storming of the Bastille in 1789 to the execution of King Louis in 1792.

Ironically, it’s recent history that enabled many of these films to be made.

“The focus in history films has typically been through a white male lens with the focus on a white ‘saviour’ figure,” explains Larushka Ivan-Zadeh, chief film critic for the Metro newspaper. “The thrilling change recently is that the lens and focus are changing and we are finally getting non-white, non-male perspectives on history.”

Margot Robbie

Mary Queen of Scots stars Margot Robbie as Queen Elizabeth I and Saoirse Ronan as the titular queen.

The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos backs up this theory, pointing out he was trying to develop the film for nine years, until it finally chimed with the movement to fund stories starring female lead characters.

“The most important thing about it to me is that it’s a story of these three women and it was something you still rarely see on screen; a true story of women who were able to affect the lives of so many people around them,” he tells BBC Culture.

‘Kings are just human too’

The narrative of a lone female wielding power amongst her male contemporaries has found new resonance for a generation concerned about equality – another reason Mary Queen of Scots’ British director Josie Rourke thinks the film is on screens at this point in time. Both queens who feature in the film, Mary of Scotland and Elizabeth of England, played by Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie respectively, suffer everyday sexism from their male contemporaries.

“They were surrounded by only male advisors and the film gives some clue about what they’d have faced on a day-to-day level,” she explains. “There are some fictional elements to the film, such as the physical meeting between the queens that didn’t take place in history, but I really hope no one thinks that we’ve portrayed a fictional misogyny.”

Mary Queen of Scots

Although Ronan has won plaudits for her performance as Mary Queen of Scots, the film has failed to make its mark in awards season .

But though Margot Robbie has a Bafta nomination, and Ronan’s performance has been strongly praised, Mary Queen of Scots has failed to make as much of a dent on the Academy Awards, apart from in the best costume and hair and make-up categories. Ivan-Zadeh thinks The Favourite’s supremacy was inevitable.

The Favourite offers a female-driven perspective on history but it's also a piece of absurdist escapism, powered by not just one female performance, but three, which is unique for any Oscar contender I can think of

“I’m personally most excited about Mary Queen of Scots,” she says, “where a female director reframes and redefines how we see Mary and Elizabeth as powerful rulers, but also gets under their skin as women. But The Favourite is more likely to romp home in the genre as it wears its history so lightly and irreverently.

“It too offers a female-driven perspective on history but it's also a piece of absurdist escapism, powered by not just one female performance, but three, which is unique for any Oscar contender I can think of. It rides the Time's Up zeitgeist, but in a fun, less threatening way to more conservative voters.” 

There might not have been, however, a rethinking of the role of sex in royal history without the power of Game of Thrones. George RR Martin’s novels had certain elements loosely based on English medieval history; the first novel was published in 1996, around the same time Braveheart, another sexy, violent epic based on real history, appeared. Since 2011, viewing figures for the HBO TV series rose to 30 million worldwide. It followed series such as The Tudors in tone, influenced the creation of other series like The Vikings and The Last Kingdom, and Josie Rourke acknowledges it was only a matter of time before it seeped into film culture.

Game of Thrones

Loosely based on medieval history, George RR Martin’s novels and the subsequent hit TV series’ tone have seeped into film culture.

“The way Game of Thrones thinks about sex and sexuality is more truthful to the past instead of the previous sanitisation of period drama we saw,” she says.

“By going back into history in a full-blooded and more honest way, they’ve done things including the ‘de-queering’ of period drama and so now we can tell it more accurately.”

The current crop of historicals has a tone at which even Braveheart would have blushed – Mary Queen of Scots deals with menstruation and Mary’s husband’s bisexuality, whilst The Favourite is centred around Queen Anne’s sexuality and doesn’t shy away from showing it. Meanwhile, The Outlaw King provides a half-a-second shot of full-frontal nudity in the form of Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, which director David Mackenzie explained was necessary to show “kings are just human too” - but which proved to be the film’s biggest talking point on social media.

‘Story above history’

History’s sexual politics might be attractive to audiences in 2019; actual politics less so. The Outlaw King, which Netflix gave a brief cinema release to in Scotland, was developed in the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, and the resurgence in support for Scottish independence, although David Mackenzie confessed he was “nervous about contemporary parallels for obvious reasons. It’s a 700-year-old story.”

The Outlaw King

Netflix’s The Outlaw King was developed following Scotland’s 2014 referendum (Credit: Netflix)


A first cut of The Outlaw King was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, traditionally a launch pad for Oscar season, but it was described by The Scotsman as "having all the characteristics of a sweeping historical epic – glorious camera work, revenge-filled plot twists, lots of speechifying, an English villain with a hipster bowl-haircut - but the film doesn’t feel emotive or romantic.” In other words, Braveheart without heart.

Peterloo, which faithfully recreates hours of real-life speeches given by English workers in search of suffrage, was critically acclaimed, but possibly suffered from being “too historical” according to Larushka Ivan-Zadeh. Un peuple et son roi also focused on the speeches made at the start of France’s modern democracy in 1789, and French audiences stayed away.


Mike Leigh’s historical drama Peterloo centred on a political massacre in Britain in 1819.

It was Irish cinema audiences who found enthusiasm for national history with Black '47, set during the 19th-Century Irish famine. Directed by Lance Daly and starring The Matrix’s Hugo Weaving, the film, partly made in the Irish language and graphic in its depictions of suffering, made more than 1 million euros (£881,000) at the Irish box office in 2018. But Black ‘47 possibly engaged Irish audiences with a plot about a soldier’s killing spree against his English landlords.

“A feature film hasn’t been made about the famine that I know about, and there’s an extraordinary feeling of repressed rage about it. It’s a revenge film yes, and it’s imbued with pain and loss and grief,” its star Hugo Weaving says of Black '47. “It’s not just something out of Hollywood.”


Black 47

Set during the 19th Century Irish famine, Black 47 made more than 1 million euros at the Irish box office in 2018.

We have a relevant message - that people in power, never mind their gender, can alter the lives of thousands of other people around of them because of a decision or a mood they have one day – Yorgos Lanthimos

The ultimate appeal of any period film, including The Favourite, explains Yorgos Lanthimos, is to always put story above history.

“We made a conscious decision we would keep what was interesting to the story, but we make it obvious that it’s not an accurate historical film. You can learn history from it and if you’re intrigued about it you can read up on it. We wanted to explore these female characters in depth, rather than give information.

“We also tried to make something that feels contemporary in a period setting, we used contemporary fabrics and our language, rather than language of the period. And we do have a relevant message – that people in power, never mind their gender, can alter the lives of thousands of other people around of them because of a decision or a mood they have one day.”

Regardless of whether The Favourite triumphs in this year’s awards season or whether it too comes second to a contemporary movie, Larushka Ivan-Zadeh feels that period film-making has been finally dragged into modernity.

“Films set in history such as Lady Macbeth and now Mary Queen of Scots have ‘colour-blind’ casting, and I find it invigorating. History isn’t written in stone. It’s constantly re-written and it’s exhilarating as well as long overdue to have female, LGBTQ and non-white actors, directors and writers being the ones rewriting it now.”

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Acadamy awards 2019 ;how good are the best picture nominees

The Favourite (Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures)


The Favourite

The latest from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) garnered five stars from our critic Nicholas Barber, who described it as “a filthy, violent and outrageous period comedy that drips with bad language and worse behaviour, and will appal anyone who is expecting a more conventional royal drama” – yet is also “strangely touching”. Set in the palace of Queen Anne (played by Olivia Colman, who has received a best actress Oscar nomination for her role) at the dawn of the 18th Century, “this juicy tale of political and sexual intrigue… bends every rule of the carriages-and-country-houses costume drama”. Its “deft script” and “universally superb performances” ensure that none of the characters – including two schemers played by Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, both of whom have just been nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar – are one-dimensional. And while it could be mistaken for a bawdy pantomime, Barber argues it’s actually a kind of tragedy: “If its heroines could only work together instead of against each other, who knows what they might achieve?”


Green Book (Credit: Universal Pictures)


Green Book

Based on actual people and events, the story of a black pianist (Mahershala Ali, nominated for best supporting actor) who hires a nightclub bouncer (Viggo Mortensen, nominated for best actor) as protection when he tours the segregated American South in 1962 only received two stars from our critic Caryn James. She argued that “only someone who has never viewed a movie before… will fail to see where this odd-couple, buddy-comedy road movie is going.” The film’s stars make Green Book “watchable and often entertaining, despite its predictability and glaring flaws” – according to James, “Ali is so strong a presence that he can convey depth and thoughtfulness with a single glance, almost delivering a character where the screenplay doesn’t”. But that isn’t enough to save what James describes as “a warm bath of clichés”: instead, she argues, Green Book “is proof that a film can be awards-ready without actually being very good”.


(Credit: Marvel Studios)


Black Panther

The first superhero movie to be nominated for best picture was also the biggest film of 2018 at the US box office – and was praised by Barber for having a “radical vision in mind – more radical, indeed, than that of any previous Hollywood studio blockbuster”. Director and co-writer, Ryan Coogler (Creed), tells the Marvel story of Wakanda, an ultra-modern utopia hidden in Africa as “an Afrocentric Bond movie” that turns into a sci-fi fantasy. In doing so, Barber argues, he “has taken every genre in which black characters are traditionally sidelined, and then, with considerable flair and boldness, he’s combined those genres and put black characters right at their heart”. With a majority black cast, the blockbuster is a game changer, says Barber. “Ask yourself: when was the last time any feature film, whether or not it was made by a Hollywood studio, posited that an African country might be the happiest, most prosperous and most scientifically advanced place on Earth?”


Roma (Credit: Netflix)



Dedicated to writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s real-life nanny, Roma is “beautiful in every way” argues James, who gave the film five stars. Playing the maid of a family in Mexico City during the 1970s, Yalitza Aparicio (who had never acted before and who has just received a best actress nomination) “displays the layers of emotion that the character grapples with as she finds herself pregnant, then abandoned by her boyfriend” – emerging as “both an ordinary woman and an extraordinary screen heroine, resilient and unsentimental”. Cuarón (who has just received four personal Oscar nominations as producer, director, writer and cinematographer) creates “glorious, complex images” and “moments of everyday naturalism”: he “has taken his own memories, turned them into a dazzling fiction, and handed them to viewers like a gift”. The first Netflix film to be up for best picture, Roma lives up to its hype, believes James, describing it as “simply the most exquisite and artistic film of the year”.


Blackkklansman (Credit: Focus Features)



“Probably Spike Lee’s best film in years,” is Emma Jones’s verdict on the true-life tale of an African-American policeman and his Jewish colleague infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan in the 1970s. “Well-structured, well-scripted, and despite its subject matter, often extremely humorous”, it’s also stylish – “a homage to that suave 1970s African-American detective Shaft”. Lee “clearly feels that the way to deal with racism is to laugh at it” – but the humour doesn’t overwhelm the subject, with moments where the tone changes, such as when Lee contrasts the Black Power and White Power movements. “It’s a blockbuster of an American film,” argues Jones.


Bohemian Rhapsody film (Credit: 20th Century Fox)


Bohemian Rhapsody

Barber gave the Freddie Mercury biopic three stars – but singled out Rami Malek’s performance as Queen’s charismatic frontman for praise. The film “looks like a daytime soap opera and it runs through the same chord progression as every previous rock biopic”, according to Barber. And the 12A / PG13 certificate has drawn complaints when, as Barber points out, “in reality, its hero was so debauched that he could have given Casanova lessons”. Yet the crowd-pleaser does acknowledge this – “Mamma Mia, it ain’t” – and the star deserves his best actor nomination: “Malek makes the role his own: he seems to be possessed by both the pouting, preening showman Mercury was in public and the sulky lost soul he could be in private”.


A Star Is Born (Credit: Warner Bros)


A Star is Born

Another three stars for Bradley Cooper’s remake of the 1937 film of the same name – the fourth remake since the original, which won the Academy Award for best picture (or ‘outstanding production’, as it was then known). According to Barber, “A Star Is Born puts terrific care and attention into depicting the night when the lovers meet and mosey around town together, but after that it flicks cursorily through the rest of their professional and personal lives as if it were glancing at someone else’s holiday photos. It never looks closely at who they are or what they want.” Yet the film hits some high notes, among them the performance of Lady Gaga (nominated for a best actress Oscar) – who is “so appealing, open and down-to-earth in her first major role that she deserves her pick of whichever gangster movies and romantic comedies come along. If nothing else, a film star is born.”


Credit: Alamy



The Dick Cheney biopic from The Big Short director Adam McKay also received three stars from Barber, who argues that there is “plenty of lampooning of male stupidity and over-confidence” as well as “postmodern gimmickry” like “fantasy sequences, fourth wall-breaking monologues, ironic voiceovers and even a burst of cod-Shakespearean dialogue”. Yet Vice is “more focused and engrossing than McKay’s last film because it concentrates on the life of one intriguing, almost legendary man”. Christian Bale (just nominated for a best actor Oscar) undertakes one of his trademark transformations as Cheney – “you soon stop noticing that Bale is buried under layers of latex and accept that he has slowly but surely turned into an enormous egg with glasses perched on the top” – while Sam Rockwell (who’s received a best supporting actor nomination) is “especially entertaining as a goofy Dubya”. It might deliver “sustained volcanic rage”, but McKay’s approach offers limited insight into its leading character, according to Barber. “Vice, for all its wit and flair, comes to reveal the limitations of McKay’s flashy and splashy brand of satirical non-fiction.”

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'My abusive relationship with R Kelly'

For two years, Asante McGee was a girlfriend of the now-disgraced R&B superstar, R Kelly, but in the summer of 2016 she went to live in his house in Georgia. There were other women there, she discovered - and very strict rules.

Whenever I was in my room alone, that was when I would call home to speak to my children, as when I was with Robert, he didn't want us to have our phones and have contact with the outside world.

When I met Robert, or rather R Kelly, it wasn't like meeting Prince Charming who swept me off my feet. He didn't wine and dine me, he was just a warm and funny guy. We did normal stuff; he took me shopping and we enjoyed having dinners together.

But there was a moment during a text exchange in 2014 when I think I should have known things weren't what they seemed. It was really early on in our relationship and I texted him, addressing him as Rob and he said: "No, can you just call me Daddy." There was no discussion - he just told me his demand. When I look back at that moment, reading the text message in my car, I should have questioned it. I should have seen his behaviour in that moment as a red flag.

I was first introduced to R Kelly in September 2013 by a member of his entourage, when he was performing in a club in Atlanta to promote his next tour. However, we had a proper introduction in January 2014.

A member of his entourage invited me to hang out with R Kelly and some of his friends. We went to the mall and we laughed and talked. We just hung out like two old friends. Before I left, he gave me his number and we immediately started texting each other.

We texted for weeks and one day he invited me to his concert in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, which was being held on February 13. After watching him perform on stage, he invited me back to his hotel room and we had our first sexual encounter.

R Kelly in concert

After Valentine's Day, we kept in contact through text messages and he began inviting me to different concerts across America, and when he visited Atlanta, where I lived, I would stay with him from time to time.

While we were in a relationship together, he made it clear that I wasn't the only woman he was seeing. The fact that he told me he was dating and sleeping with other women, it made me feel like he was doing his best to be honest with me, so I accepted that and decided to stay in the relationship.

For the first two years of our relationship, everything was great. I would fly out and see him perform, and we would spend time together - and it worked for both of us.

On the Easter weekend of March 2016, he flew me out to Chicago, but I didn't hear from him for two days and then when I finally heard from him, he had someone come and pick me up to take me to the studio where he was recording.

However, I ended up being locked in a van from 11 o'clock in the morning to eight o'clock at night. When I was let out of the van, by members of his entourage and nephew, I found R Kelly partying in the studio as if nothing had happened. He acted completely normal, but months later, I found out that locking me in a van was a test. He was testing my boundaries and playing mind games.

Then in May 2016, I flew to watch him perform in Dallas. After the concert, one of his assistants said you need to hurry up and get your clothes from the hotel.

I got my clothes and got into the van which was supposed to take me to Oklahoma, so I could catch a flight home to Atlanta, but the bus never stopped. We ended up in a huge house in John's Creek, Georgia. When I got off the bus and walked into the house, Robert said: "Welcome home, baby."

Asante McGee

He gave me a tour of the house, showed me my room. So I thought I'd stay for the summer because my kids were staying with family for the holidays, which happens every year. So with my kids not going back to school until the end of August, I thought, "OK, I can stay and spend some time with him for a few extra weeks." It was never a permanent arrangement in my mind.

As soon as I moved in, he started inflicting both emotional and sexual abuse. No, he didn't force me to have sex with him, but he intimidated me to commit sexual acts and have threesomes with other women when I made it clear that I wasn't comfortable.

If I said I didn't want to do something he would shout at me and call me "stupid". He would tell me that the other girls who were also visiting or living in the house at the time with us had no problem with his sexual requests, so what was my problem? I felt degraded by his actions and his desires.

What caused even more tension between us was his trainer. Her role? Her role was to train me and the other girls how to sexually please and satisfy Robert. According to both Robert and her, they had been sexually involved together for 16 years, since she was 14 years old.

As she had been with him for so long, it was like she was the head girl in school and she used her position to verbally abuse me. I remember one day she and I got into an argument and Robert said I had "black woman syndrome". He said that I didn't like being told what to do by a younger black woman and that he wasn't going to let me, a black woman, tell him what to do.

There is a misconception that R Kelly just preys on younger girls. That isn't true. Yes, he targets young girls more so, because they are more vulnerable, easier to manipulate and more likely to be star struck. I was 35 when I met R Kelly and he knew I had experienced abuse in a previous relationship. He had me exactly where he wanted me, because he made me trust him. He made me believe he would never hurt me by getting me to open up about my history of abuse.

The hurt and pain didn't stop with sexual intimidation and emotional abuse. He was controlling.

A protester calls for Spotify and radio stations to mute R Kelly

Once, he grabbed my arm for wearing the wrong shirt. He had rules that I and the other girls who lived with him or had a sexual relationship with him had to follow.

One day, we were supposed to be going out and I was wearing a top with spaghetti straps and shorts. As soon as he saw me, he grabbed me and told me to change. I went upstairs and changed and instead of going out with the other girls, he made me come to the studio with him. When we got to the studio, he told me that my outfit intimidated the other girls in the house. He said that I needed to dress like the other girls, who were wearing tracksuits - but it was over 100F (38C) outside. When I said this, he didn't care.

He controlled every aspect of my life, while I lived with him. Myself and two other girls who were living with him while I was there could only eat when he said we could eat. Sometimes you could go a whole day without eating because he would simply forget to feed you or he didn't want to eat. I remember buying a bag of snacks when we went out and hiding them in my room, so I always had food. He even controlled when we could use the toilet or come out of our rooms. We would have to text or call and ask for permission to use the bathroom and if he didn't respond, you were allowed to come out of your room and stomp on the floor until he heard you.

The abuse and control was pushing me to my edge, but it wasn't just that. I would have to watch young girls, some as young as 18 years old, perform lewd sex acts on him and I just couldn't take it any more.

I started plotting my escape.

I called a friend who worked in the area and asked if she would pick me up. Later that day, my friend called me but because of the security and gates she wasn't able to drive up to the house. I knew I had to take my chance, so I packed my suitcase and decided to just walk out. Robert was outside talking to his staff and he looked shocked, he even chuckled: "So you are leaving?"

I just said: "Yes, I'm leaving." I carried on walking towards my friend's car and didn't look back.

I stayed with R Kelly for three weeks in total. The week after I left he called me and said that I needed to apologise for walking out and that I had to come back home. I didn't.

A lot of the other women who have suffered abuse from R Kelly have come together and keep each other lifted. I don't have any regrets telling my story and coming forward, not just because of whom my abuser was, but because saying out loud what I went through will help other women in similar situations tell their stories and for others to believe them.

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Loony Dookers chill out for New Year

New Year revellers have braved the cold of the Firth of Forth to take part in the annual Loony Dook in South Queensferry.

Some hardy souls dived into the chilly waters in their swimwear while others donned fancy dress.

Organisers said more than 1,000 people from 23 counties took part in the event, part of Edinburgh's Hogmanay.

Similar new year swims took place across Scotland, including at Dundee, Loch Ness, Kinghorn and Coldingham Bay.

loony dookers

loony dookers

loony dookers

loony dookers

donald trump fancy dress

loony dookers

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The real reason Father Christmas wears red and white

A curious ritual takes place each year in Japan.

"Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii" - or "Kentucky for Christmas", is the habit of eating Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) on 24 December.

It began as an inspired bit of marketing in the 1970s, when KFC noticed that expatriates who craved Christmas turkey turned to fried chicken as the closest available substitute. Now a popular Japanese tradition, customers queue around the block, and some pre-order their meal as early as October.

Christmas, of course, is not a religious holiday in Japan, where a tiny minority of the population is Christian.

But "Kurisumasu ni wa Kentakkii" demonstrates how easily commercial interests can hijack religious festivals - from Diwali in India to Passover in Israel, but most notoriously, Christmas in America.

Why, after all, does Santa Claus wear red and white?

An advertising poster by Haddon Sundblom showing a young boy surprising Santa Claus helping himself to a bottle of Coke

Many people will tell you that the modern Santa is dressed to match the red-and-white colours of a can of Coke, and was popularised by Coca Cola's advertising in the 1930s.

A good story, but the red-and-white Santa himself wasn't created to advertise Coca-Cola - why, he was touting the rival beverage White Rock back in 1923.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was the one who was invented as a marketing gimmick.

The modern Santa Claus is actually much older, a patchwork character woven together from different sources.

These include Saint Nicholas, a 4th Century Greek bishop - who famously wore red robes while giving gifts to the poor, especially children - and the English folk figure "Father Christmas", whose original green robes turned red over time.

The Santa we know also owes much to the Dutch figure Sinterklaas - also based on Saint Nicholas - whose legend flourished in the once-Dutch city of New York, popular with prosperous Manhattanites such as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore in the early 1800s.

Mr Irving and Mr Moore also wanted to turn Christmas Eve from a raucous partying of street gangs into a hushed family affair, everyone tucked up in bed and not a creature stirring - not even a mouse.

Mr Moore - who penned the line "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" in 1823 - did as much as anyone to create the American idea of Santa Claus, the red-robed patron saint of giving presents to everyone whether they want them or not.Presentational white space

A US stamp commemorating "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"

It was in the 1820s, too, that advertisements for Christmas presents became common in the United States. By the 1840s, Santa himself was a frequent commercial icon in advertisements. Retailers, after all, had to find some way to clear their end-of-year stock.

The gift-giving tradition took firm hold.

In Boston in 1867, 10,000 people paid to see Charles Dickens give readings of his Christmas Carol - a story light on biblical details and heavy on the idea of generosity.

Down the coast in New York the same year, Macy's department store decided it was worth keeping the doors open until midnight on Christmas Eve, for last-minute Christmas shoppers.

Crowds view Macy's highly decorated Christmas windows in a wood engraving from an American newspaper in 1884

The next year, Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women was published. Its first line: "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents."

The Christmas blowout, then, is not new.

Prof Joel Waldfogel, an economist and author of Scroogenomics, has been able to track the impact of Santa on the US economy back across the decades.

By comparing retail sales in December with sales in November and January, Prof Waldfogel has estimated the size of the Christmas spending bump all the way back to 1935, the era of the Coca-Cola Santa.

In fact, relative to the size of the economy, Christmas spending was three times bigger then than now. What is an everyday indulgence today would have been a once-a-year treat back in the 1930s.

Prof Waldfogel has also compared the US Christmas boom to other high-income countries around the world. Again, perhaps surprisingly, the US's December spending boom is not particularly large, relative to other countries.

Portugal, Italy, South Africa, Mexico and the United Kingdom have the largest Christmas retail boom relative to the size of their economies; the US is an also-ran.

Programme image for 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy

50 Things That Made the Modern Economy highlights the inventions, ideas and innovations that helped create the economic world.

It is broadcast on the BBC World Service. You can find more information about the programme's sources and listen online or subscribe to the programme podcast.

In the grand scheme of things, Christmas is a modest affair, financially speaking.

In the US, for every $1,000 (£790) spent across the year, only $3 is specifically attributable to Christmas. After all, you would have lunch anyway, pay your rent, fill your car with petrol and buy clothes to wear.

However, for certain retail sectors - notably jewellery, department stores, electronics, and useless tat - Christmas is a very big deal indeed.

A John Lewis department store Christmas window

A small fraction of a big number is still a big number - Prof Waldfogel reckons that at least $60bn or $70bn is spent on Christmas in the United States alone, and perhaps $200bn around the world.

Is that money well spent?

"There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got." So said the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, back in 1850 - an early example of what is now a common complaint.

Economists and moralisers do not often find themselves having common cause, but on the subject of Christmas we do: we agree that a lot of Christmas spending is wasteful.

Time, energy and natural resources are poured into creating Christmas gifts which the recipients often do not much like.

Santa's gifts rarely miss the mark; he is, after all, the world's number one toy expert. The same cannot be said of the rest of us.

Prof Waldfogel's most famous academic paper The Deadweight Loss of Christmas tried to measure the gap between how much various Christmas gifts had cost, and how much the recipients valued them - beyond the warm glow of "the thought that counts".

He concluded that the typical $100 gift was valued at - on average - only $82 by the recipient.

This wastage figure seems to be fairly robust across countries. Two Indian economists who estimated the equivalent "deadweight loss" of Diwalisuggested that $35bn is being wasted around the world in the form of poorly-chosen Christmas gifts.

To put it into context, that is about what the World Bank lends to developing country governments each year.

This is real money and it is really being wasted.

Shoppers at a Black Friday shopping event in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in November 2018

And that is before pondering the strain put on the economy by squeezing the retail spending together in a single month rather than spreading it out - and the time and aggravation devoted to the process of shopping, which is not always pleasant during the December rush.

So other economists have examined alternatives to clumsy gift giving.

Gift cards and vouchers do not help as much as one might hope: they are often unredeemed, or resold online at a discount. If you must buy a gift card, note that vouchers for lingerie sell well below face value on eBay, but vouchers for office supplies and coffee hold up pretty well.

Wishlists fare better. Research suggests that recipients are generally delighted to receive an item they have already specified. Givers may be deceiving themselves to think an off-piste gift will be more welcome.

Santa Claus relies on a polite wishlist from good children. Who are the rest of us to think we can do better?

Ebeneezer Scrooge takes delivery of a turkey in an 1850 illustration from A Christmas Carol

Or we could learn from the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge, who, Dickens declares, "knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge".

On Christmas morning, the only physical gift he gave was a prize turkey. The Christmas spirits had shown him that the turkey was sorely needed.

Other than that, he gave people his company and his money - including a rise for Bob Cratchit.

Money! That's the true spirit of Christmas. God bless us, every one!

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The Spiderman of Paris: What happened next?

Throughout this week, we will be looking back at some of the BBC website's best-read stories of the year and asking: what happened after the news moved on?

Late afternoon on Saturday, 26 May.

Mamadou Gassama was passing through a neighbourhood in northern Paris, on his way to watch the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid on television.

As he walked along the Rue Marx-Dormoy, he spotted a crowd looking up at a residential building.

They were all looking at a small boy dangling from the edge of a fourth-floor balcony, at times by only one hand, while a neighbour tried desperately to reach him over a partition.

Gassama would later say he didn't have time to think: he just acted. He reached the lowest balcony, stood on it and leaped up, somehow without falling back, before grabbing hold of the edge of the next balcony up, and repeating it.

Media captionGassama scrambled up the side of the building in seconds

The crowd below cried "Allez, vas-y, vite!" ("Go, go, fast!") as he made his way up the side of the building, while the boy's grip appeared to start failing.

Within only seconds of the start of his journey, Gassama reached the fourth-floor balcony. He then swept the boy up with one hand, bringing him back down on the safe side of the balcony.

As he did so, the crowd erupted in cheers, and mobile phone footage showed the traffic had stopped as everybody looked up.

Within half a day, that footage was being shared and broadcast around the world.


As the film of the amazing rescue spread around the world, so too did the praise for Gassama's bravery.

When it emerged that Gassama was an illegal migrant, originally from Mali, French President Emmanuel Macron announced he would be made a naturalised citizen, and gave him a medal for courage.

The mayor of Paris did the same, and the city's firefighters went on to offer him an internship, one which he began in early December.

His exploits have even been heralded in song, by the singer and comedian Saga Love. In L'araignée Noire (The Black Spider), he sings "He climbed... first floor, second floor, third floor, fourth floor..." all the way up to an imaginary 12th floor.

The song also references Lassana Bathily, who in January 2015 hid customers from a gunman who attacked the Paris kosher supermarket where he worked.

Like Gassama, Bathily is also from Mali, and was made a French citizen after his brave actions.

The two met in the days after Gassama's rescue, and Bathily was able to give him advice as to how to handle the attention.

"With the way people look at immigrants these days," Bathily said in an interview in June, "acts like Gassama's can change things.

"There were about 1,000 people down there all looking up, doing nothing. He didn't even think about it. His only thought was: 'I have to save that child.' And that's what he did."

Gassama has made a few media appearances over the year, and in June he was handed a humanitarian prize at the Black Entertainment Television awards in Los Angeles (among others to be awarded that night were the cast of Black Panther and Beyonce).

Mamadou Gassama at the BET awards

Naturally shy, Gassama hasn't spoken much publicly since the rescue, and one close friend said he had been a little overawed by the media attention.

But the day before starting his part-time role with the Paris firefighters, he gave a rare interview to Le Parisien newspaper, made easier by the French lessons the 22-year-old has been taking over the past few months.

"I didn't think about all the floors," he told the newspaper. "I didn't think about the danger."

Two weeks after the rescue, Gassama returned to Mali at the president's invitation.

In the capital, Bamako, he saw his father for the first time since 2011, when Gassama had migrated to Europe aged 15, travelling across north Africa and the Mediterranean to seek opportunity. The visit to Bamako was the first time Gassama's father had left his home village.

Gassama is said to have made good progress in his new job, but it's not clear what will happen when his 10-month contract expires.

As his position is only an internship, he will earn only €472 (£426; $534) for 96 hours of work each month.

Malian immigrant in France turned hero, Mamoudou Gassama

Much of the focus after the rescue was on the family of the boy dangling from the balcony, who had fallen down two floors. Some people assumed wrongly that the man seen reaching for him from another balcony was his father.

It would later emerge that the boy's father was not at home at all, and that he had left his son alone to go shopping. The father delayed his return so he could play Pokemon Go, and the boy's mother was on the French island of Réunion, where the family is from.

In September, the boy's father was convicted of neglecting his parental responsibilities and made to take a course in being a better parent.

He and the child have never been publicly identified.

As for Gassama, he has now moved out of the hostel in Montreuil, eastern Paris, in which he was staying at the time of the rescue.

Because he now has all the official paperwork that comes with gaining French citizenship, he has been able to rent an apartment on his own.

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Mary Poppins Returns cast defend 'forgettable' songs

There's only one rule laid down to journalists at the press launch of Mary Poppins Returns.

"Don't ask any of the cast to spell Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."

This point is made by the film's publicists twice over as we arrive and it's clear they aren't joking. Fortunately we think we can live with it.

Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Mortimer and director Rob Marshall are here to talk about the follow-up to the 1964 classic, which is released in the UK this weekend.

Hollywood may be awash with remakes of films like A Star is Born, Tomb Raider and Ghostbusters, but Miranda insists this is a different beast. It is a sequel, not a reboot.

"That's an important distinction because it's not us trying to improve on Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," he tells BBC News.

"You can't improve on that, and we know that. The goal is there are eight books by [author] PL Travers, there are some amazing Mary Poppins stories that haven't made it to the screen."

Still from Mary Poppins Returns


Mary Poppins Returns is set in 1930s London, two decades after the original, with the famous nanny returning to help look after a new generation of Banks children.

Arriving in cinemas 54 years after its predecessor, the reviews for the film have been mainly positive.

The Telegraph's Robbie Collin called it "practically perfect in every way" in his five-star rave, while Empire's Olly Richards said Blunt was "impeccably cast as Poppins".

But some critics have focused on the soundtrack, suggesting it doesn't live up to the original.

"The songs of Mary Poppins Returns are almost shockingly forgettable," wrote Alissa Wilkinson in Vox. "I defy you to hum any of the tunes on your way out of the theatre."

The Hollywood Reporter acknowledged: "There's no song as memorably poignant as Feed the Birds," although it praised The Place Where Lost Things Go for "conveying the film's underlying sorrow with a comforting message of hope".

The new score has been written by lyricist Scott Wittman and composer Marc Shaiman, who are best known for Hairspray.

Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews

Taking on songwriting duties is no small feat, considering that the original Sherman brothers' score is widely regarded as one of the best ever for a screen musical.

"I think it's a fantastic score, I really do," says Marshall, who also directed big-screen musicals Chicago, Nine and Into the Woods. "We didn't set out to make them stand-alone songs, because that doesn't work for a musical.

"What works for a musical is when they're integrated into the story. But I will say they're so tuneful, so clever, so smart. And they're beautiful, so I think the more people hear the songs, the more they'll be part of their lives."

They may well be tuneful and cleverly written, but could they realistically have the same longevity as those in the 1964 film?

"I think so," says Mortimer, who plays the children's aunt Jane. "I remember hearing the [new] soundtrack for the first time, and I was just blown away.

"They were beautiful songs and they're songs that really do stay in your head - and, like the first movie, each song is incredibly wry and funny and sophisticated, with the use of words and storytelling through the songs, and yet they've all got a message that's quite deep about life and how to approach things."

She adds: "I do feel confident that the soundtrack is going to be a big part of people's lives for years to come."

Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns

It seems the Academy Awards music branch agrees. When the Oscars longlist was revealed on Tuesday, Mary Poppins Returns was the only film to have two tunes in the running for best original song.

Miranda similarly thinks the songs will last, but adds: "Of course, only time will tell.

"I think it was an incredibly smart decision to hire [Wittman and Shaiman]... it's just such a love note to the songs in the first one, I'm really proud to sing them."

Music aside, most of the attention with the new film has focused on Blunt herself, who takes over the role made famous by Dame Julie Andrews.

She has received mostly positive reviews - but the BBC's arts editor Will Gompertz said her performance "misses the mark," while others argued the lead role is actually rather limiting for her.

'Stern but generous'

"For someone with her extraordinary range, the part is like a straitjacket," wrote David Edelstein in Vulture.

"Ordering the children about, her Mary puts on a stern face and freezes her scowl in place, then gives a tiny smile when their backs are turned - a shtick she repeats with diminishing returns."

But Blunt tells BBC News in response: "I don't see her as just stern and all of that. She's a woman with a coat of many colours, really. What I love about her is that duality that she has.

"She is stern, she is buttoned-up, poised, holds everything at arm's length. But yet, how generous she must be to come into people's lives and inject it with fantasia and magic and a sense of wonder."

Mary Poppins Returns is part of a musical resurgence on the big screen - something Marshall welcomes.

La La Land, The Greatest Showman and A Star is Born

"I remember when I did Chicago years ago, I was told the genre is dead because audiences weren't accepting people singing on screen," he recalls.

"But I think it's never the genre that's the problem, it's how it's handled. You've got to be very careful when you do a musical because a bad one doesn't work. But when it does, it feels seamlessly created - where you have dialogue move very seamlessly into song and back into dialogue.

"It should feel like one way of telling a story. It shouldn't feel like a piece has been applied and pushed, it should feel like a natural, organic experience."

For Miranda - best known for creating Hamilton, one of the most popular shows in the West End - the more musicals that make it onto the big screen the better.

"I think I'm really proud that we're part of this resurgence. As someone who works really hard to make musicals, it's a win for me," he says.

"And also I think it continues to resurge as long as we continue to innovate in our musicals.

"The Greatest Showman is different from A Star is Born, is different from La La Land, is different from Mary Poppins Returns, and I think as long as we keep pushing the boundaries of the kinds of stories we're supposed to tell, we can continue to enjoy this renaissance."

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The 'wary' #MeToo conversation in Australia

On Monday, Australia was transfixed by fresh sexual misconduct allegations against Geoffrey Rush - one of the nation's most celebrated actors.

Australian actress Yael Stone alleged that Mr Rush behaved inappropriately towards her during a theatre production in Sydney in 2010-11. Mr Rush, 67, has denied her accusations.

Ms Stone, 33, said that she had feared speaking out because of personal and career reasons, echoing concerns raised by many women around the world since the #MeToo movement began last year.

But she also raised concerns that she could face legal consequences - because under Australia's strong defamation laws, people or publications making allegations often face threats of legal action.

Experts say worries like this are a key reason why the #MeToo movement has not gathered as much momentum in Australia as in many other nations.

High-profile cases

Mr Rush is currently suing a Sydney newspaper for defamation after it published allegations against him involving another actress, Eryn Jean Norvill. Mr Rush denies wrongdoing.

Actress Eryn Jean Norvill outside the defamation trial

Ms Norvill did not speak to the newspaper and was not named in its reports, but she was publicly identified in the subsequent legal battle. She later agreed to give testimony in the defamation case.

But like two other women at the centre of prominent Australian cases of alleged sexual misconduct in the past year, Ms Norvill had never wanted her experience to be known publicly.

Last month, Luke Foley resigned as New South Wales state opposition leader over allegations that he groped a woman at a bar in 2016.

They were first raised publicly by a political rival under parliamentary privilege - a method that affords additional legal protection.

But alleged victim Ashleigh Raper, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist, had wanted to remain anonymous. She only identified herself publicly in a bid to help resolve "ongoing media and political interest".

"It is clear to me that a woman who is the subject of such behaviour is often the person who suffers once a complaint is made," Ms Raper wrote in a statement.

Mr Foley speaking to reporters

Mr Foley denies the allegations. He resigned within hours of Ms Raper's statement and said he would begin a defamation action, but later decided against proceeding.

In February a businesswoman, Catherine Marriott, made a confidential complaint about Barnaby Joyce, Australia's former deputy prime minister, accusing him of sexual harassment.

It was later leaked to media outlets when Mr Joyce faced a political storm over his affair with an ex-staffer. Mr Joyce said he considered the allegations "spurious and defamatory", but did not launch legal action.

In another high-profile case, actor Craig McLachlan is suing two Australian media outlets and a former co-star for raising allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

Silencing effect?

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, one in three Australian workers have been sexually harassed in the past five years.

But of those workers, fewer than one in five made a report or a complaint. Experts say that's down to a multitude of reasons.

"Among other concerns, women may be concerned about the security of their jobs, becoming the target of community gossip, being labelled a 'troublemaker' or a 'liar'," says Dr Skye Saunders from the Australian National University.

She says the #MeToo movement has helped to tackle such challenges. But she also believes that Australia's conversation has been muffled by defamation laws.

Australia puts the legal onus on a person making allegations to prove that they are true. This is different to the US, for example, where the onus is on the accused person to prove an allegation was made with malice.

"Women in Australia have to be more wary than our sisters in the United States, given the intersections of defamation laws and the #MeToo movement," Dr Saunders says.

Discrimination law researcher Dr Karen O'Connell calls it "striking" that in the past year, no prominent cases have been brought under Australia's sexual harassment laws.

"Instead, there have been high-profile defamation cases, or other people taking women's situations and running with it themselves. That's really concerning," says Dr O'Connell, from the University of Technology, Sydney.

A MeToo message on a hand

She also believes that the adversarial nature of defamation cases - the "he said, she said" discourse - skews that public conversation.

"Instead of the talk being about how to make people feel safe in workplaces, it becomes instead this narrative about women bringing down men in powerful positions," Dr O'Connell says.

"And that's not what #MeToo is about."


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Wooden clothes on the recycled Christmas list?

If you're struggling for an original Christmas present - how about a wooden dress?

At a recent state gala, Finland's first lady wore a dress made from the country's birch trees.

But there was nothing frivolous about why she chose the dress - she wore it to support a new technology which could reduce the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry.

The dress worn by Jenni Haukio, a poet and wife of the president, was created by academics at Finland's Aalto University using a new sustainable technology called Ioncell.

The academics say the process is more environmentally-friendly than cotton and synthetic fibres and makes use of wood that would otherwise be wasted.

In eastern Finland's forests, there is a thinning process of removing some trees to make room for others to grow - and these smaller birch trees are now becoming the source for clothing.

Off the peg

This process creates textile fibres from materials like wood, recycled newspaper, cardboard and old cotton textiles, which can be turned into dresses, scarves, jackets and even iPad cases.

Finland wooden clothes

Prof Pirjo Kaariainen of Aalto University is pleased with the feedback on the dress.

"It was designed by a young fashion and design student here at Aalto who wanted to give respect to Finnish nature and to the country's tradition of strong women."

Prof Kaariainen says the fibre works well for clothing because it is "soft to touch, it has a lovely sheen and falls beautifully".

There are growing calls for the fashion industry to urgently reduce its damaging effects on the environment.

Sustainable fashion

The industry causes 10% of global carbon emissions and uses nearly 70 million barrels of oil each year to make polyester fibres, which can take more than 200 years to decompose.

Plastic microfibres from synthetic clothing are part of the problem of human-made materials that wash up along ocean shores.

Finland wooden clothes

Campaigners are calling for consumers to buy new clothes less often, but changing consumer behaviour is difficult when fashion companies promote new lines every season.

Making clothes from sustainable materials could be a more realistic alternative.

Although Ioncell was developed by chemists and engineers at Aalto and Helsinki universities, Prof Kaariainen says it was important that the dress was made by designers so that people would want to wear it.

"People want garments that look good and make them feel good, so there is no choice but for the design to be good," she says.

"We need to make a systemic change where sustainable materials are embedded in the system and people can easily buy beautiful and comfortable garments which don't cause environmental problems."

Re-thinking fashion

Finland's first lady is not the first famous wearer of Ioncell - France's President Macron wore a scarf made from recycled blue jeans when he visited Aalto in August.

Macron recycling clothes

Ana Portela, a fashion designer who promotes sustainable fabrics says consumers will be persuaded to try sustainable fashion if it is worn by influential people.

"This dress is not a high street design but it definitely fulfilled its purpose and it is important that people like the first lady advocate for more sustainable options and push new innovations," she says.

She says consumers must "lead the revolution" by using their purchasing power to incentivise companies to produce sustainable clothing lines.

"We need to take a different approach to our understanding of what is fashion," she says.

"This could be buying second hand-products, products with a certified origin, using more efficient natural fibres like hemp, buying a filter bag for your washing machine to stop microfibres entering the water system or pressuring companies to do better."

The Aalto team aim to have a pilot production line for the new fibre by 2020 and hope that such clothing, made from recycled birch trees, will be available to buy for Christmas shopping lists in 2025.

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Dying neighbour leaves girl 14 years' of presents

A family were left shocked to find their late elderly neighbour had left Christmas presents to give to their daughter for the next 14 years.

Ken Watson, who was in his late 80s, lived next to Owen and Caroline Williams in Barry, Vale of Glamorgan, for the last two years.

The couple said Mr Watson "doted" on their two-year-old daughter Cadi.

He died recently and on Monday evening, his daughter knocked on the Williams' home to deliver the presents.

"She was clutching this big bag plastic sack and I thought it was rubbish she was going to ask me to throw out," said Mr Williams.

"But she said it was everything her dad had put away for Cadi. It was all of the Christmas presents he had bought for her.

"I brought it back in and my wife was on FaceTime to her mum in Ireland. My wife started to tear up and I started to tear up, and her mum started to tear up.

Pile of presents

"It's difficult describing it because it was so unexpected. I don't know how long he put them away whether it was over the last two years or whether he bought them towards the end of his life."

Mr Williams said they have opened one of the presents which was a book but were not sure what to do about the rest.

"We can tell there's some books, there's three or four soft toys, maybe some Duplo," he added.

Mr Williams said his neighbour - a retired commercial deep sea diver - was a "real, real character".

In recent years he did skydiving, wing-walking and has completed parachute jumps, and he also played the accordion.

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150 years of seeing red: The traffic light marks a milestone

With more than 1,000 people dying each year on London's horse-and-buggy-clogged roads, city leaders knew they had to do something to control traffic.

Image: A silhouette of the Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower next to a red traffic light

A traffic light next to the Houses of Parliament in London.Yui Mok / PA Wire/AP file

Dec. 10, 2018 / 7:45 AM GMT

By Rachel Elbaum

LONDON — Traffic lights are such a ubiquitous feature of the modern city that no one thinks much about them until you're stuck in a line of cars, impatiently waiting for the light to turn green.

But there was a time when cities were signal-free and traffic was directed by police officers — or not at all. That changed 150 years ago on Monday when the world’s first traffic light was installed in London. Towering 20 feet above the street, the gas-powered signal was placed at the busy intersection outside the Houses of Parliament.

Image: The world's first traffic light was put up on Dec. 10, 1868

The world's first traffic light was put up on Dec. 10, 1868.The British Newspaper Archive

With more than 1,000 people dying each year on London's horse-and-buggy-clogged roads at the time, city leaders knew they had to do something, according to the Transport for London transit authority. Invented by railway engineer J.P. Knight, the traffic light did just that.

Given its inventor's occupation, it's not surprising that it resembled a railway signal and was equipped with both waving arms and gas-powered green and red lights for use at night. A police officer changed the lights manually, using switches.

Despite the British capital's attempt to improve safety, the introduction of this new technology wasn’t without controversy.

“The direct control of our movement — stop now, go now — sat uneasily in Victorian liberal society,” said David Rooney, a researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of a book on this history of traffic congestion.

At the time, London arguably needed more traffic control than ever. Its population had exploded from around 3 million in 1861 to around 7 million by 1910.

However, the reign of the world’s first traffic light was extraordinarily short-lived. A gas leak caused a series of explosions, seriously injuring a policeman, after just a month in action.

The city had to wait nearly six decades for traffic lights to really take off in 1925, when signals with electric lights came to London from the U.S.

Today, there are nearly 9 million people living in the greater London area. It’s the world’s seventh most congested city, behind Los Angeles at No. 1 and New York at 3, according to transport analytics company Inrix’s global traffic scorecard.

Image: Buses pass through traffic lights near the Houses of Parliament in London

Buses pass through traffic lights near the Houses of Parliament in London.Birute / Getty Images file

Parliament Square is now one of the capital’s busiest areas. Tourists, civil servants and politicians cram the sidewalks, while cars and trucks stream over the bridge to South London.

At the intersection where the first traffic light stood, there are now 24 individual lights directing cars and pedestrians, overlooked by a statue of Winston Churchill.

They are among the more than 6,000 lights that control traffic in London, and while they control traffic, they've done little to stem its flow.

“Driving around here is murder," Clive Pearce, a black-cab driver, said as he dropped off passengers outside Westminster Abbey. "I started driving 42 years ago and traffic is now the worst I’ve seen. A journey that used to take me 20 minutes from west to east now takes an hour.”

Although the technology behind the lights has changed over the years — from gas to today’s LED lights — the way we control traffic has altered little since Queen Victoria sat on the throne.

“With such a complex and expensive infrastructure buried under our feet, it seems as if traffic lights are here to stay," Rooney said. "Because despite all efforts to solve the traffic problem, our cities will always be congested."

Rachel Elbaum

Rachel Elbaum is a London-based editor, producer and writer. 


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Strasbourg Christmas market reopens after attack

The Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg has reopened, two days after the attack carried out by a gunman on Tuesday evening.

Cherif Chekatt was killed on Thursday by police on a city street after he opened fire on officers.

Three people died following the shooting at the market and several more are seriously injured.

Interior Minister Christophe Castaner is visiting the market as it reopens, talking to stallholders.

Strasbourg's mayor Roland Ries said security would be tight: "We have restricted the number of entrances with checkpoints, body searches and bag searches. We have reduced [the number of entry points] for greater control, with a better distribution of police forces," he told French radio.

The city had been in lockdown after the attack while more than 700 police and soldiers hunted down the suspected gunman.

Chekatt, 29, had a string of criminal convictions in France and Germany and had become a radical Islamist in jail.

Will Strasbourg's festive crowds come back?

By Gavin Lee, BBC News, Strasbourg

Signs of normal life are returning to the centre of Strasbourg, now the manhunt is over.

As security officials allowed the Christmas Markets to reopen, small groups filtered in.

But the city that promotes itself as the capital of Christmas doesn't feel like that just yet, as the big festive crowds that Strasbourg is famous for have not yet returned.

Traders say the fear factor appears to have put off many tourists, but they're relieved that they are back in business and that the city has moved on quickly.

Embedded videoThe #Strasbourg Christmas markets have just reopened again 2 days after the shooting attack, and the morning after police killed the gunman. Market traders say it’s very quiet, compared to the thousands usually here,packing the streets, but they’re glad to doing business again

In place Kléber, where the gun attack unfolded, people have brought flowers and candles to place underneath the Christmas tree at the market entrance. Armed military police patrol in groups of four.

Three kilometres (two miles) south of here in Neudorf, investigators are attempting to retrace the steps that Cherif Chekatt may have taken as he hid for 48 hours.

The investigation will also look at what mistakeser we made in police surveillance methods after the suspect was released from prison and added to a security watch list of those monitored for extremist behaviour.

How was Chekatt found?

After an appeal for witnesses, the security forces received 800 calls from the public and quickly focused their search on the Neudorf area, where Chekatt was last seen after the attack, France's anti-terror prosecutor, Rémy Heitz, said on Friday.

As a result of two significant reports, an extensive police operation involving a helicopter was launched on Thursday evening at 19:30 local time (18:30 GMT).

At 21:00, officers in a police car noticed a man, whose description matched that of the suspect, walking down rue du Lazaret, Mr Heitz said.

The man noticed the police car and tried to enter a building at number 74, but could not get in. The officers identified themselves, and the man turned around, pointing a gun - similar to the one used in Tuesday's attack - and fired in their direction, hitting their car, he said.

Two of the three officers fired back several times and killed the suspect. He was identified through his fingerprints and declared dead at 21:05.

The officers found an old gun, still loaded, some ammunition and a knife on his body.

Police notice for Cherif ChekattImage copyrightPOLICE NATIONALE 

French President Emmanuel Macron earlier thanked security forces in a tweet, vowing that the country's commitment against terrorism is "total."

Hundreds of French police and security forces had been searching for Chekatt.

A large police operation had taken place in Neudorf earlier on Thursday afternoon, but ended without results.

Seven people have been arrested in connection with the attack: Cherif Chekatt's parents and two of his brothers, as well as three other people close to him, Mr Heitz said.

Mr Ries said that finding Chekatt meant the worried people of his city would now be able to return to a normal life.

Mr Castaner thanked security forces in a tweet:

View image on TwitterView image on TwitterView image on Twitter

How did Tuesday's attack unfold?

At about 20:00 local time (19:00 GMT), a man opened fire close to the famed Christmas market near place Kléber.

Mr Heitz said the man had shouted "Allahu Akbar" ("God is greatest") as he opened fire.

The suspect was armed with a gun and a knife and escaped the area after jumping into a taxi, Mr Heitz said.

Route of Strasbourg attacker map

As he fled he came into contact with four soldiers, Mr Heitz said, and began firing at them. The soldiers fired back, apparently hitting him in the arm.

The attacker told the taxi driver he had killed 10 people, and also said he had been injured during a firefight with soldiers.

He ordered the taxi driver to drop him near the police station in Neudorf. When he got out of the vehicle, he fired at police officers before escaping.

What do we know about the suspect?

Chekatt was born in Strasbourg and was already known to the security services.

He was on the "fiche S" watchlist of people who represent a potential threat to national security.

Bullet holes could be seen in the door where Chekatt had been hiding before he died

He had 27 convictions for crimes including robbery spanning France, Germany and Switzerland, and had spent considerable time in prison as a result.

Police were seeking him on Tuesday morning in connection with another case, but did not find him at home.

A search of his apartment in Neudorf revealed a grenade, a rifle, four knives - two of which were hunting knives - and ammunition.

The Islamic State group's self-styled news agency, Amaq, on Thursday said that Chekatt was "an Islamic State soldier" who had "carried out the operation in response to calls for targeting citizens of coalition countries" fighting its militants in Syria and Iraq.

Who were the victims of the attack?

Three people died in Tuesday's attack, and one has been declared brain-dead, Mr Heitz said on Friday.

The death of Kamal Naghchband, a garage mechanic originally from Afghanistan, was announced on Thursday. The father of three died in hospital. His mosque announced his funeral would take place after Friday prayers. He had been visiting the market with his family and was shot in the head, his cousin told the AFP news agency.View image on Twitter

A retired bank worker aged 61, from Strasbourg, was also killed in the attack, according to media reports.

The third victim was a Thai tourist who was on holiday with his wife.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha sent a letter of condolence to his French counterpart on Thursday that confirmed the man was among the dead, AFP reports.

Anupong Suebsamarn, 45, has been named by Thai media as the victim.

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The cult desinger who influenced a nation

Currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Gio Ponti (1891-1979) occupies an unusual, highly individual place in 20th-Century design history. Extraordinarily prolific throughout a career that spanned six decades – during which he mastered a dizzying spectrum of disciplines, including architecture, industrial design, ceramics, furniture and lighting – Ponti eludes easy classification.

Gio Ponti Archive

Gio Ponti’s interiors were bold and florid.

This could be because he was mainly influenced by two seemingly incompatible styles: the Novecento Italiano – a Milanese, conservative neoclassical movement founded in the 1920s (supported by Mussolini) – and by 1930s modernism.

Gio Ponti x Molteni&C

Ponti’s D.8591 table, originally designed for the auditorium of the 1958 Time & Life building in New York, has been recreated by Molteni&C.

While this Milan-born, mid-century designer espoused the clean lines of modernism, he eschewed its typically restrained palette, embracing bold decorative effects, patterns and exuberant colour. This was evident in the florid interiors for his 1950s, futuristic, butterfly-inspired Villa Planchart, perched on a hill overlooking Caracas. Attached to its façade are additional, partially detached walls. At night, these are backlit to emphasise their contours. And Ponti adorned entire walls in his clifftop hotel Parco dei Principi (1960) in Sorrento with his ultramarine and pearlescent blue ceramic tiles made by Italian firm Ceramica d’Agostino.

Ponti was curious, open-minded and public-spirited

Today’s Ponti’s work is coveted by collectors. At auction house Phillips’ Important Design sale last October, Ponti’s burr walnut-veneered coffee table with a grid pattern and glass top, created around 1951 for the ballroom of the ocean liner Giulio Cesare, fetched £72,500. And high-profile designers, notably India Mahdavi, who owns some of his pieces, admire his work: her plush, blush pink scheme for London restaurant Sketch has an Art Deco-meets-mid-century aesthetic that recalls Ponti’s luxurious interiors and upholstered furniture.

Gio Ponti Archive

Innovative silver homeware was among the work designed by the Italian polymath.

Ponti was curious, open-minded and public-spirited. He was a visionary, indefatigable promoter of avant-garde design in Italy and abroad, via his magazine Domus, which he founded in 1928 and which he edited until 1940 – and again from 1948 to 1979. He also organised exhibitions at the Monza Biennial, an international architecture and industrial design exhibition, which moved to Milan in 1933, and was renamed the Milan Triennial. That year, Ponti exhibited his interior design for the ETR 200 electric train for Italian manufacturer Breda, co-created with rationalist architect Giuseppe Pagano.

Global influence

“Ponti’s versatile, inspirational career was fundamental to the establishment of the Italian identity in modern architecture and design,” says Simon Andrews, international specialist at Christie’s. “Active across all media throughout his career, Ponti revealed an individuality that defined the aesthetics of the moment. Through his editorship of Domus and support of the triennial exhibitions, Ponti supported the communication of the Italian design identity to an appreciative international audience.” 

His Superleggera chair, a skeletal design with a cane seat, it is still in production

This mid-century architect and designer’s heyday was the 1950s: in 1956, he co-created Milan’s slender skyscraper the Pirelli Tower, a key landmark of the city and originally seen as a symbol of the euphoric mood of Italy’s postwar economic boom, in which he played a key role. In 1957, he dreamt up his chair Superleggera, meaning super-light in Italian, for Cassina. A skeletal design with a cane seat, it is still in production. Its astonishing weightlessness was demonstrated by rather surreal photographs of children nonchalantly lifting it with one finger. Ponti considered it elemental, stripped down to its essence, describing it as “the chair-chair – devoid of adjectives.”

Gio Ponti x Molteni&C

Ponti – whose designs have recently been reproduced by Molteni&C – was known for his versatility and open-mindedness.

Inspired by simple seating seen in the coastal town of Chiavara, Liguria, and manufactured with the aid of Cassina’s craftspeople, it embodies a key theme in Ponti’s work – the fusion of tradition with modernity, the machine-made with craft.

Gio Ponti Archive

Flamboyant tiling and mosaic were key elements in Ponti’s vision.

In 1921, the ambitious Ponti graduated in architecture from the Milan Polytechnic, married Giulia Vimercati and established a design studio with Emilio Lancia and Mino Fiocchi. In 1923, he became artistic director of ceramics manufacturer Ricardo Ginori. While his designs for the firm were neoclassical in style, he encouraged its use of high-quality mass-production.    

Gio Ponti Archive

The Superleggera – or superlight – chair, created in the 1950s, is still in production today.

The retrospective of this polymath’s work, entitled Tutto Ponti: Gio Ponti, Archi-Designer, is the first to be held in France, where, the museum claims, his work is little-known. One of its aims is to raise awareness of Ponti’s work there. The word ‘tutto’ reflects the all-embracing scope of the show. “Our intention was that this exhibition be comprehensive, a setting in which all the varied expressions of his long creative career could come together,” says Salvatore Licitra, co-curator and Director of the Gio Ponti Archives.

Gio Ponti x Molteni&C

Current Italian brand Molteni&C has faithfully reproduced some of the designer’s most iconic furniture.

The exhibition is arranged chronologically in the museum’s high-ceilinged main hall – fittingly, since many of Ponti’s glamorous residential interiors boasted double-height spaces. The venue also accommodates a large-scale model of his idiosyncratic Roman Catholic cathedral in Taranto, a naval base in southern Italy, completed in 1970.

Getty Images

Ponti’s idiosyncratic Roman Catholic cathedral in Taranto, Italy, shows his exuberant take on modernism.

Inspired by its maritime context, it illustrates Ponti’s disregard for strictly functionalist modernism: in lieu of a conventional crossing tower, it features a symbolic, sail-like structure comprising two walls perforated with vertical slits. This porous edifice was designed to blend with its natural surroundings; its interior is predominantly green, and Ponti intended creepers to grow up its walls, though this idea never materialised. He was religious but not conventionally Christian: Sophie Bouilhet-Dumas, one of the show’s co-curators, considers the cathedral open to the skies as his personal ‘pantheistic’ vision of architecture.

Gio Ponti x Molteni&C

Chair designs by Ponti have been reproduced by Italian brand Molteni&C.

The Ponti show incorporates a sequence of six room sets showcasing work from each decade of his career. These recreate rooms in several of his projects, including his own home on Via Dezza in Milan, with its diagonally striped walls and flexible sliding walls, where he lived with his family from 1957 onwards. They also feature designs created in collaboration with a wealth of European firms.

Gio Ponti Archive

Ponti was commissioned to create cutlery by silverware manufacturer Christofle.

By chance, he met Tony Bouilhet, director of French silver homeware manuacturer Christofle, while exhibiting Ricardo Ginori’s wares at the 1925 Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels. Soon after they met, Bouilhet commissioned Ponti to design a villa in the suburbs Paris. Later the designer created cutlery and candlesticks for Christofle, and then the angular Aero teapot. In the 1960s he produced furniture for Knoll and lighting for Artemide.

Gio Ponti x Molteni&C

Ponti furniture is proving popular with a new generation interested in mid-century design.

Testament to his growing popularity today is Italian brand Molteni&C’s limited-edition, faithfully reproduced Ponti pieces, which are part of its Heritage collection. These include the monumental D.8591 table, seating up to 10 people, originally designed for the auditiorium of the Time & Life building in New York in 1958.

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