Friday, April 21, 2006


Less than 2 weeks in and I can feel a criticism coming on

I’m treading around my loved one carefully today, as yesterday he caught me ‘wasting’ his precious cheddar cheese on a recipe for a lunchtime guest. His bottom lip positively trembled, but he manfully pulled himself together and by the end of the day was almost himself again.

When my son Rob was diagnosed with cancer and had to have his tongue taken out last September, it felt like a stalker had come into his life. He’s fought off the first attack but now he'll always be on the run - once a stalker takes an interest in you, he doesn’t give up easily and though you may move house, you're always waiting for that knock on the door that says he’s found you again. Well, he has. New symptoms have meant PET and MRI scans this week for Rob and now we must wait while the doctors assess them and come up with a strategy which might put this loathsome creature away for life.

When someone says “I love them to bits”, like a grammar rule, it must always be followed by BUT – well this is no different. So, those French, love them to bits, BUT oh those public servants, who have their jobs for life… We went to the railway station in Nice to book a trip to Rome for a few days. At one end is a large reservation hall where a woman at the front gives you a numbered ticket and you wait for one of the dozen or so information windows to become available, but she said 'no more tickets', nothing more, just 'no more tickets'. Like obedient children we walk away and then say ‘hang on, what are we supposed to do then’, so go back and this time she tells us the important bit and sends us to the ticket desk at the other end of the station, where we find a notice telling us that this is only for trains leaving that day. Back to the reservation hall where the woman repeats the instruction as though you were a new customer - no extra help, no apology so back again where we spend 20 minutes in a queue and the woman at the window doesn’t bat an eyelid at our request. Oh so it isn’t just for trains that day? – it would have been nice to know that earlier. But this is par for the course apparently – if you want a permit for something, you might need documents A and B which you produce, only to be told that you haven’t got document C. You protest that you weren’t told you needed document C which gets you a shrug as a response plus the repeated demand for said document. You bring back document C and are told you haven’t got document D …..

Saturday, April 15, 2006


A to Z in Sixty (final part)

Water – love looking at it, love reading about it – tales of shipwrecks or unfortunates cast adrift on any old ocean float my boat, but please don’t make me get in it. Once in Mexico, my husband persuaded me that it was worth putting aside my fear for the reward of snorkelling among shoals of gloriously coloured fish, but unfortunately it didn't turn out to be the gentle wade from the beach into the water I'd imagined. We were taken out in a boat and told to swim over to a distant rock. I won’t go into my humiliation that day – just let’s say I panicked (it’s absurd to expect you to breathe, worry about your snorkelling mask and try not to drown at the same time) and had to be towed back to the boat by the young guy in charge of the party. When I was telling someone later how I had jumped off the boat and gone down, down, down, my husband looked amazed and said “no you didn’t, you plopped gently over the side of the boat and bobbed straight back up” – well that's not what it felt like to me and perception is everything.

Words – There’s this giant word warehouse called the English language, the entire contents there for the taking. Some people are content to take out the bare minimum to express themselves, some, not knowing what to do with them, wrestle them into shape like a child using his fists to hammer together an ill-fitting jigsaw puzzle. Others trawl it with skill, or even genius, choosing just the right ones, in just the right quantity and weave them into a masterpiece. But with the right timing and the right celebrity name, you usually only need the most basic language to make the best-seller list.

X-rated films – We had two cinemas in our town when I was young, and as long as one of them was showing a U film there was no problem and not much of one if it was an A – you simply found a sympathetic looking adult, rattled your money so they knew you weren’t looking for a freebie and said “please would you take us in”, but if an X film was showing in both cinemas you were stuffed and went home completely miserable. Looking back, I’ve no idea why we didn’t try to find out what was showing before we went into town.

Youth – Years ago an Italian friend told me a lovely saying they had that sums up the gap between old and young: the young have teeth but no bread and the old, bread but no teeth.

Zealous – why does that word never seem to come along without his mate over? No one is ever under zealous, and rarely just zealous.

Zeugma – meaning the last straw. Okay, it doesn’t, but it was for me when I came across it in a book by William F Buckley Jnr. I was already a bit fed up, after only a couple of chapters, with what seemed like contrived situations just to show off some obscure word he wanted to use (or are they only showing off if you don’t know the word?) and then he hit me with zeugma. I looked it up and found it's: a figure of speech in which a word is used to modify or govern two or more words although appropriate to only one of them or making a different sense with each, as in the sentence Mr Pickwick took his hat and his leave. It’s not really the sort of word you can throw casually into a conversation is it?

Thursday, April 13, 2006


A to Z in Sixty (Part 4)

I regret:
not finding out more about my Dad’s secret disgrace. I know only that he ran away to Canada when he was 14, illegally entered the United States via Niagara Falls sometime later, worked in New York (at what I don’t know, but he was given a tip by David Niven), and that he was discovered and deported. Now of course we’d think it was a bit of a laugh and commendable initiative, but back then, it was the family’s shameful secret. I probably could have asked him about it before he died, but a subject that had been taboo for so long seemed impossible to broach.

that compensate for getting old: sharing the Sunday papers in bed with my husband without feeling guilty for neglecting the housework or the kids; being free to spend a big chunk of time each year in the beautiful little town of Villefranche, just outside Nice, with boats in the bay, perpetual blue skies, lemons by the bucket-load and, as of yesterday, sea bream, normally too expensive in England, on ‘special’ at the local supermarket. If it weren’t for that damn French cheese, dieting here would be a breeze.

I like: wind machines – a blot on the landscape to some, but to me graceful arms spinning straw into gold; ice – frozen ponds or puddles for kids to slide on, vast glaciers and intense blue ice-floes sparkling in the river below and the delicious tinkle of chunks of it in a glass of gin and tonic; open fires – comforting, hypnotic, therapeutic and irresistible.

that drive me mad: people who say “to cut a long story short” and then proceed to tell you the long version.

that I dread: apart from the obvious one of ending up dribbling in an old-people’s home or worse still, not knowing I’m there (oh I don’t know, perhaps that’s better), being called 'spry'. It’s used exclusively for the old and even then, you know they’ve scraped the barrel to come up with the only positive thing they can say about you.

I’m glad I did: have children and experience those heart-bursting feelings of love and enjoy all the funny things they did and said. The family still say my six year old daughter’s gem: “Mummy, which came first, the Romans or the sixties?”

Unattractive Sights – I know we had skirts in the sixties so short as to be practically obscene (tights were invented then to introduce a bit of decency), flares, perms and side burns in the seventies, but could anything look more unflattering than today’s fashion of hipster trousers and crop tops on those with bulging bellies and unlovely ‘love handles’.

Ve haf vays of making you – take your medicine. Yes, the Government plans to compulsorily medicate us all by putting folic acid in our bread to eliminate the few hundred cases of spina bifida that occur every year caused by the lack of it. What happens if a few hundred people die from an allergy to folic acid?

Vietnam – All through the sixties increasing numbers of U.S. troops were sent to prevent South Vietnam from being taken over by the communist North. More than a decade of news stories fed us the daily statistics of killings and bombing raids. Conscientious objectors and cowards alike dodged the draft, students protested and finally in 1973 Nixon kept his promise in exchange for votes and pulled out the U.S. troops, leaving behind chaos, betrayal and their countless children. 30 years on, our reminders of the war are the Washington memorial; the iconic pictures of the naked girl fleeing a napalm attack and the Vietcong prisoner being summarily executed by an officer for the benefit of the cameras; and the unspeakable My Lai massacre, when U.S. troops killed over a hundred men, women and children. So what have we learned: Vietnam is now united, under communism, and the world hasn’t fallen apart, but the U.S. government hasn’t questioned its belief that a government other than the one they support must be removed.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


A to Z in Sixty (Part 3)

I’ve just been attacked by Ps - in the kitchen, out driving or trying to write something else, they just kept popping into my head.

Parlour, parsley sauce, parsimony (sauce without the parsley), priests, perverts, (sorry, same thing), pastry (what you eat), pasty (what you look if you eat too many), petunia (posh pink), pixel, pixie (a baby one), peter (the great and out), pontification (the making of a pope) GO AWAY.
plagiarise (you shouldn’t), penury (what you live in if you do), pimp, pomp, pompous; platitudes (don’t like ‘em), potatoes (love ‘em), pets (don’t want ‘em),

I’m better now – here’s the perfectly sensible one that I wrote before all that started.

Porridge – My Dad ruined it for me. No, not by forcing me to eat it, but by making it inseparable in my mind from a yukky story he liked to tell. He was brought up in an orphanage around 1908 and, having often gone hungry, couldn’t stand to see us kids turn our noses up at anything. When we did, he would drag out his stories of boys fighting over apple cores and such like, but his favourite, guaranteed to produce revulsion (though not the desired gratitude for whatever we’d just turned down), was about one of the boys in the orphanage who found the porridge particularly vile one day, so scooped it into his sock. He was discovered of course and made to turn it out and eat it.

Prohibition – So you think it’s long gone? Try going to Nantucket, where a notice on the ferry warned us that only one alcoholic drink per customer was permitted and on the island itself, our restaurant delivered us from temptation with the same rule.

Quicksand – So all those old films showing terrified victims being sucked to their death in it are rubbish, according to one of those myth busting programmes. Apparently, not only is quicksand rarely more than a few feet deep, but because it’s denser than the human body, you’d float in it and furthermore, you’d have to make a deliberate effort to sink below the surface, as you’re much more buoyant in quicksand than in water and the sand's higher density would gradually push you upward. Of course I believe it and would be quite happy to demonstrate the correct way to get out of it without panicking one little bit.

Royalty – After it was reported that Prince Harry celebrated his passing out parade at Sandhurst by going to a lap dancing club, some wag commented that it must be the first time that a man had been seen stuffing pictures of his grandmother down a girl’s G-string.

Speed-Dating – The only speed thing I knew was speed-writing – a course advertised on the underground, where you whiled away your journey working out the message written in it. But if the dating sort had been available earlier, it could have saved me a lot of evenings sitting through weird dates, like the blind one set up by my ‘friend’ with her work colleague who began the unloading of his emotional baggage by telling me how his wife had undressed at the top of the stairs and screamed “what’s wrong with my body”, and then continued with his experiences with prostitutes; or the man who’d just bought a sewing machine so he could convert his long sleeved shirts into short sleeved ones. So, with this new speed-dating, you spend about five minutes with someone (easily long enough to tell if you fancy them enough to want more) and then, no excuses, no embarrassment - it’s the rule – you move on. Not very romantic? Yeah, well you can’t have everything. Actually, my husband’s just reminded me that we did have a sort of speed-dating – it was called ballroom dancing. A look, a twirl round the dance floor and then back for more if you wanted the chance to walk her home afterwards – not such a good deal for the girl as it wasn’t really the done thing for her to do the asking. So this speed-dating thing is just the modern, minimalist version.

Monday, April 03, 2006


At to Z in Sixty (Part 2)

Indifference – I hate it, but though I take an interest in what’s going on in the world and send my contribution to the current disaster fund, I don’t get off my bum to drive a lorry load of aid through a war zone, knock doors, rattle tins to raise money, or spend a little time with the lonely pensioner in the street, so it’s not a whole lot of comfort to any of those homeless, helpless, friendless souls to know that I’m not indifferent to their plight.

Jazz – When I first met my husband and told him I liked it, I meant the melodic, mellow stuff of Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald, but he meant the crazy cacophony of improvised jazz, where a soloist can bend the rules and your ear for 15 minutes at a stretch, although you are free to applaud at will (not to be confused with the Proms where it’s bad form before the end). But anyway, he was so excited at the prospect of a fellow enthusiast to share his passion that he took me along to hear one of his favourites, McCoy Tyner, who was playing in a small town in northern France. Neither of us has ever recovered from that evening. Me, because I thought I’d been transported back to war-time occupied France where, suspected of spying activities, I was being forced to sit in a hall for six hours (oh I know the programme said two but you know how those time-distortion tricks are a favourite with torturers) while Mr Tyner, using his piano as his chosen instrument of torture, sent a million screeching, grating sound waves to disrupt my brainwave patterns in order to extract my confession. My husband, because he simply could not believe that I’d found the performance anything other than sublime and the look of hurt and bewilderment on his face is something I’ll never forget. Incidentally, I'm sure that all the other ‘suspects’ in the hall had confessed early on in the proceedings and weren’t receiving the sounds on the same frequency as me, because they all sat through the performance looking completely untroubled.

Know-alls – I would love to have thought up a gem like this: I wish I were as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.

Loyalty – I do try to be loyal to my Everton supporting husband, but the problem is that I was introduced to football in the 90’s by a Liverpool supporter and the team was winning everything at the time, so football and Liverpool became synonymous for me. Now I’ve done the Alpha course, and I’m ready to commit wholeheartedly to Everton, but I just can’t help myself – the ugly face of disloyalty shows itself whenever Liverpool play and I find myself instinctively rooting for them.

Myths – When my country-living mother-in-law told me that the best way to stop babies crying was to rub their lips with rabbit’s brains, I thought she was wacko – thank goodness my generation didn’t believe in such nonsense, but it’s surprising how many of those myths are still flying around. I still hear the one about sucking a dummy or thumb over a long period being responsible for extra large lips (for pouty lips, I’d suck a dummy permanently) or cutting a child’s hair makes it grow back thicker – hasn’t anyone noticed the dummy-sucking thin-lipped among us or the frequently cut, wispy-thin haired kids.

My Mum – When I was a kid, I mistook my Mum’s chronic shyness for indifference and it frustrated the hell out of me that she didn’t do the things that other mums did: kiss and cuddle, chat with other mums at the school gates or go to school functions. What a selfish cow I was not to have realised that it wasn’t a lot of fun for her either being locked out of the world, no matter that she’d turned the key herself.

Nostalgia – I’m not affected much by nostalgia – shops and restaurants closed on Sundays, The Archers for entertainment on a weekday, The Black and White Minstrel Show on Sunday evening, waiting patiently in the little local shop while Mrs Caddy gossiped with the shopkeeper, boiling nappies on the gas stove (yes, I know a lot of my contemporaries did use disposables, but I thought that meant you were a bad mother at the time) – no thanks. But some things I do miss are: hedgerows, once teeming with birds and flowers, now almost all cut down to make ploughing easier; kids playing in the street; the freedom to roam, often without another soul in sight, on ‘unheritaged’ sites such as Stonehenge or Lands End, without being forced into orderly queues, through officially designated entrances and exits; and the thrill of festivals and holidays where you got to eat and do things out of bounds for the rest of the year, and now available at any time.

Opinions – Don’t you just hate it when your favourite columnist, whose opinions you respect, dismisses someone contemptuously with things like: “they’re the sort of people who have an avocado bathroom suite” or some other similarly naff thing that you have or do and then you have to spend the next ten minutes either justifying it, convincing yourself that in your case it’s more complex than it appears, or vowing to change your newspaper.

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