Wednesday, 1 May 2013

I'm afraid I've ground to a halt. Run out of things to say. Got bored with the sound of my own voice. So I'm formally taking a blog break. I'll be back when I've got some fuel back in my tank...

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Into The Light

A couple of quick cultural recommendations for you, only one of which you will still be able to go to (though if you're quick you can still catch a recording of the other on Radio 3.). Both involved a trip to London's South Bank, the first last Tuesday on a mild, pale grey day which left me wondering if winter might be about to cease hostilities; the second three days later plunged back into deadening damp London leadness, and with more snow just around the corner.

 I know very little about classical music, having been put off by the fearful snobbery attached to it at my school - all those Pony Girls with their piano lessons and flute cases, not to mention the extraordinarily affected music teacher Miss Stonehouse, whose hair was like a cotton wool ball and who would pronounce words like 'arpeggio' in an exaggerated Italian accent. Feeling inadequate against such grandeur, I tended to give the whole genre a miss until relatively recently, when I've made a few cautious forays into the world, kind of going in backwards and trying some of the more modern stuff first. I found some things I quite like, too, though I doubt I'd ever be able to explain why I like them in sufficiently intellectual terms.

So it was that I rolled out for Steve Reich's 'Radio Rewrite' at the Festival Hall; Reich is one of the ones  I keep going back to as I've always found it easy to lose myself in his intricate, repetitive compositions and though I never completely embraced the bookish, fractious Radiohead I was lucky enough to see them in 1997 and surprised myself by being, as they say, blown away by the live experience. I could see how they might well have found one another in later life, especially knowing the two Radiohead songs - Everything in it's Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place - that Reich had deconstructed and given his own treatment. Both are fairly angular songs that lend themselves to his approach, and though I wasn't mesmerised throughout either - they both seemed to wander off into some quite muddy patches at times - it certainly worked as a concept, with motifs and phrases from the core songs appearing, layering, fading, vanishing and reappearing. The two pianos and pair of vibes seemed to be battling it out furiously at times, which made for good watching, and there was huge excitement among the audience (over 80% of whom appeared to be wearing glasses. I've never seen so may bespectacled types in one space.). But the Radiohead pieces didn't quite hold up against the older, established work, especially Double Sextet, which delivered everything I'd wanted and took me off into 'the zone' very nicely.

I was very glad I went, and there was a huge amount of love in the room for Reich - you should have heard the intake of breath when he tripped climbing up on stage to receive his ovation at the end - but though these new numbers are all very well...sigh... they're just not as good as his old stuff. This, by the way, must be how David Gedge feels when people shout out for 'Kennedy' from the start of every gig. I wonder what Steve Reich would do to 'Kennedy'...

So, that was the aural treat and Friday's was the visual. If you hate the winter as much as I do, you must REALLY have hated this one - it's been cold, wet and at least a month too long now - and your pineal gland may be desperate for the stimulation of a little extra light. Cannily timely, the Hayward Gallery's Light Show should give you such a charge of illumination that unless you're in a really bad way, you'll come out feeling lifted and energised. The clue's in the title; all 25 exhibits, some tiny and intricate, but most of them large-scale and bold - take light and bend it, shape it, colour it, stretch it, and fire it back at you, so that your eyes' own rods and cones play an active role in bringing many of the pieces to life. Some are gentle and soothing, like Cerith Wynn Evans' pulsating light cylinders (which I saw mesmerise an entire room when they were used at the De La Warr pavilion last year in conjunction with a live dj doing an ambient set) and others are unsettling and disorientating, like the interconnecting rooms in different vivid colours, which play games with your perception as your eyes struggle to keep up and make sense of what you're seeing. My personal favourite was the last exhibit, which involves water and strobe lights (I won't say too much, you need to experience it) but there's something here for everyone - especially babies, it seems, who appear to be easily hypnotised when placed in front of a shifting light display. Even if you hate conceptual art, you'll almost certainly find something to interest you here - just don't over-think it, and let your eyes have a bit of a party. Everyone seemed to come out smiling, and you don't often see that on a miserable March day in London.

Just another two weeks till the clocks go forward. Just two.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

The Reich of Spring

Having got through most of the winter without succumbing to too many germs, last week saw illness reign at Kibber Towers, necessitating the last-minute sacking off of the long-awaited Damo Suzuki gig last Friday in favour of creeping sweatily off to bed (and not in a good way.) at 8pm. By Sunday a touch of cabin fever had set in, so we embarked on a little gentle countryside exploration around West Sussex, which is generally posher and more agricultural than its Easterly twin. It's always good fun to have a nosey around the mid-war Private Estates that dot the coastline, with their prim grids of bungalows and pervading air of unknowable eccentricity. I  love to imagine what goes on here, prompted by yet another sighting of a tended clump of pampas grass (the traditional method of signifying an interest in 'swinging') waving enticingly outside a pristine 'Little Orchard', or the incongruence of a battered 1971 Pontiac 455 with a bumper sticker saying 'South's Gonna Rise Again' (Confederate flag so presumably not meaning the Home Counties of England) parked on the driveway of a house called 'Bateman's' (which I assume to be a nod to Rudyard Kipling's old pile across the Weald in Burwash.). But not everyone in these parts is a wannabe poet - take a meander around genteel little Felpham, and you'll find yourself pootling past William Blake's house (William Blake! Sorry, but that excites me.).

It's worth detouring into Chichester just for the cathedral (though Pallant House gallery is always worth an afternoon if you have time), which has a memorial to Holst at which you can, if of an immature bent, do your own version the 'Gracelands' scene from Spinal Tap by sticking your finger in your ear and humming an out-of-tune version of 'Mars, The Bringer of War' (I got glared at by a verger.). Don't leave, though, without casting your eyes over the tomb of Richard Fitzallen and his second wife Eleanor, which inspired Philip Larkin to write his poem 'An Arundel Tomb'. It's an unusually tender carving for what were fairly brutal times in which marriage was usually no more than a business transaction, her body turned towards  him and his bare hand - the gauntlet removed for eternal skin-on-skin (or stone-on-stone, if you must) contact, clasping hers. Even the ferociously cynical Larkin was moved to curious exploration of the emotions implied here, while continuing as ever to declare himself consigned to the role of outsider-observer in such matters.

We headed home via Bognor Regis, the embodiment of the deflated and defeated Georgian seaside resort, the one which despite its best efforts never really attracted the glamourous patronage of the society miscreants who took their expensive naughtiness up the coast to Brighton. A reputation for genteel dullness has long since been superseded by a reputation for drug-related crime, poverty and relative squalor, and on a cold afternoon at the end of winter even the appearance of the low yellow sun couldn't enliven it much. Plus, there were posters around advertising a Clown Festival which was due to end that day, so I was especially keen to get out of town as quickly as possible fearing that we might get caught up in some terrible, feverish Clown Carnival as the participants threw off any remaining inhibitions and blocked the main drag with a full-scale, Bacchanalian Clown Orgy (I'm not joking about this. I was genuinely fearful about the possible onset of Clowns.).

We got home safely, feeling better, and happily didn't have to sack off our second hotly-anticpated gig of the week, the premiere of Steve Reich's Radiohead-inspired 'Radio Rewrite' at the Festival Hall on Tuesday night.

About which I shall say more later.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Baby Won't You Please...

Browsing John Medd's blog earlier this morning, I had a small flashback. Not to one of my cherished Jam gigs, though they are fine flashbacks to have, but to an altogether gentler place - a small patch of grass in the centre of the vegetable garden near the chapel at my old school.

 The garden was an oasis of calm in that hive of neuroses and nuns, and even more importantly was one of the few places where you could get perfect reception on your absolutely forbidden, tiny tinny transistor radio at around 1.00pm on a Tuesday when The Charts were broadcast. It was a shining badge of cool to be among the ones who'd heard the new Number One go out LIVE - hearing it third hand on the bus home at 4pm carried no cachet at all. And to be as I was - a possessor of the requisite radio PLUS unusually strong inclusion needs - meant a weekly dance with death as I plotted and planned my way past the sentinel Brides of Christ and bored lay teachers who littered the playground like landmines, to the sacred plot where I and a chosen friend, could hunker down and carry out our rebellious teenage duty.

 On this one particularly warm day we found a cosy spot beneath the runner beans, where we stretched out side-by-side with the radio cradled between our Batiste-smelling heads (perpetual greasy hair was the curse of the average 14-year old in 1978, so copious application of dry shampoo was the only thing that stopped the sebum from running down our necks in hot weather. They don't know how lucky they are these days, with their good shampoo and 'product'.). Sheltered from all sight and pleasantly excited by the progress of the countdown, we began to dance on our backs, twitching gently at first and then gradually beginning to roll and thrash as though we were receiving either the Holy Spirit or a good dose of ECT. By the time John Miles 'Slow Down' came in like a bullet at number eight, we were in free-form interpretive frenzy, flailing our limbs and jerking as we screwed up our eyes and laughed hysterically at the pictures of ourselves we could see in our own heads. "Slow DOWN, Baby...."

 It was when my head spasmed crazily to one side and my eyes opened for a second that I saw the unmistakable, strict black lace up shoe tapping slowly and with incredible menace a foot from my face. Such a shoe could only be cradling a foot that belonged to a nun, and the prominent bone on the skinny ankle confirmed my worst fears that we were being observed by Sister Ignatius Loyola, the pinched, yellowed sadist who had taken holy orders at the age of 14 and consequently held a lifetime grudge against non-ordained females of that very age. My friend was still in ecstatic oblivion and continued to lead us all in the dance (said she) for a good twenty seconds more, until she realised that I had been turned to stone beside her. Her reaction on opening her eyes was more extreme than mine, an exclamation of "Oh, JESUS", which provoked the chillingly calm comment from the nun of "I am afraid not, Gillian. But I AM here on his behalf."

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Oh, oh, the Middle-Aged Ladies...

I had dinner with a female friend last week. I can't really call her a 'girlfriend' with any accuracy, as we're both in ripe middle age so 'girl' doesn't really cut it, and 'lady friend' implies we're somehow sexually involved, which we're not. She's a chum I'm very fond of despite or perhaps because of the wealth of differences between us, not least - as was demonstrated over dinner - in our respective attitudes to our ageing.

 While I'm certainly not blinding myself to where I am in my life (there are certain items of clothing I will never wear again, to my sadness, and the stark hairstyle that was my trademark for many years has been replaced with something softer as I once caught sight of my reflection and realised I looked like a concentration camp guard rather than a gamine) I'm not much given to over-reflection on how I 'feel' about being middle-aged, preferring instead to enjoy getting on with being any age at all. I've stuck with exercise and a decent moisturiser, and prefer to keep any less visible manifestations of 'seasonal changes' between me and my GP.

 This slight preciousness on my part goes back directly to having been the youngest of five sisters and hence prey to continual commentary and interrogation on all my bodily developments, gynaecological and otherwise. How unfondly I recall the announcement of the onset of my menses, made accusingly by my mother in our crowded kitchen which contained at the time all four sisters, various boyfriends and husbands thereof, my horrified father, and two of his cronies from the Catholic Club. My spotty thirteen-year old face was a study in shame as a barrage of supplementary questions were hurled my way on associated topics like cramping, Feminax, and a stern warning to steer clear of Tampax as "you'll never get them in at your age." Add to that the relentless bodily scrutiny undergone and administered by all pupils of single sex convent schools in the 1970's ("She needs a bra." "She doesn't need that bra." "She stuffs her bra." "She needs to trim her pubes". "She told me she masturbates, the dirty cow!") and it comes to feel miraculous that I could ever face my own femininity at all. But I did, and I do, and I generally quite like it - I just don't need to describe it in undue detail.

 So on the afternoon when the Women's Group members were examining (and celebrating) their own cervixes with the aid of some plastic speculums and dental mirrors, I had slunk off to the Library pleading essay commitments. I was not part of the women's drumming group that attempted to percussively mirror and encourage Fran Cosworth's labour pains in 1985 (up to the point at which she went into meltdown and demanded and ambulance and an epidural, to the dismay of The Sisters.). I had to be brought a chair and lowered into it carefully in the hospital as my youngest big sister provided the rest of us with a stitch-by-stitch account of the problematic birth of my nephew. And many years later, I bowed quickly out of a lunchtime chat between two female colleagues (then in their mid-Fifties) which had begun with (look away now if you're as bad as me) "yes, your mid-cycle mucus really DOES change - I sneezed last night and a load shot out!" and was moving unstoppably on to "these days I have to remind Keith to be careful when he's going at it, as it aggravates my scar tissue from when I had the twins...". I'm really not prudish, I just have nothing I want to add.

My chum takes the opposite view, however, and has already signed up for various groups and writing circles in which women get together and share their middle-aged experiences, hopes and fears. And in a good-natured recruitment drive, she quizzed me in the most forthright terms about breast tissue changes, FSH levels, and libido. "When do you think you're going to have your mid-life crisis?" she asked loudly, at one of those choice moments when the rest of the restaurant has fallen into silence. She made it sound like a dental checkup or tax return submission, one of those chores you know you're going to have to attend to at a predetermined time. I reflected briefly, and truthfully replied that I think I had mine in about 2001. "No, no no," my chum assured me. "You weren't even forty then. It doesn't count. You've still got yours to come. And you'll need support." As she talked away about the richness of her encounter groups and the warmth and honesty she finds there, I felt the smallest pang of something like - but not - envy, pleased for her that she can gravitate so easily towards a network of others not only able, but positively keen, to define themselves by their age and gynaecology, but once again feeling that I had no desire whatsoever to join her there. When she jokily mentioned donning "purple and a red hat that doesn't go and doesn't suit me" (my least favourite poem) and my face took on a certain expression, even she knew that she'd lost me. Bless her.

The time may come when I feel differently, but for now I'm getting by on denial and good cosmetics. With any luck, one morning I'll simply wake up and have transmogrified into a rather striking white-haired old lady with a good French pleat and amazing bone structure. I see them around sometimes and the sight always cheers me up. No red hats for those dames. And no red hats for me. Perhaps I need to start a women's group of my own where we get together in a pub, talk highly amusing but emotionally shallow bollocks, check out clumsily how each other's 'doing', and then go home. But would we all have to have sex changes first?

Monday, 18 February 2013


I've got too much work on to write anything at the moment, so in the meantime here's a picture of the sunset taken from the end of my road. It'll have to do.

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Enemy Within

Times are tough, life is stressful, and sometimes the only thing that can make you feel better is to develop an irrational hatred of an everyday passing acquaintance, so that when you're having a hard time you can displace every last fibre of your helpless, impotent rage squarely on to them, like a living breathing voodoo doll just made to hold and embody all you despise and fear in the world around you.

My husband is a fairly benign soul who has never had a physical fight in his life (though he takes it on himself to ask strangers on trains to turn down their iPods, so I'm fairly sure he's on borrowed time there), and who moves through the world in a generally peaceable manner. However, he has a sworn Enemy in the man who runs our local DIY shop, and should the simmering cauldron of tension and mutual loathing that has been bubbling away between them for fifteen years ever erupt into physical life, the resulting explosion will be felt as far away as Krakatoa (East of Java).

It all began when we bought our house, which needed an enormous amount of work. Feeling it was only right to support small local businesses where possible, and pleased to be living in an area that still has a full parade of active, occupied small shops selling proper things that people need like apples, chops and rawl plugs, he headed down to the hardware shop in his overalls, clutching his exciting blokey shopping list and hoping to return laden with goodies like caulk, white spirit and several grades of sandpaper. He came back furious.
"Have you seen that twat in the DIY shop? I mean, have you SEEN him?"
I had seen him; a man slightly older than ourselves with a leather jacket and a "40 but still trying"Peter Perrett hairdo, into which he had invested a great deal of work (still does.). He would often stand outside the shop smoking snouts which he put together on one of those little rolling contraptions, and  always held between forefinger and thumb like Private Walker at the start of Dad's Army. I thought he looked a bit of a poseur but that's hardly unusual down here, and anyway he'd been alright to me when I went in for a mop and some clothes pegs.

Apparently though, this is merely evidence of my failure to identify the Antichrist when confronted with one of his mortal forms. Not only is the man evil incarnate, he's a steaming great hypocrite and prat. What kind of man, for example, toadies round "the real DIY men, the bristle-headed builders with their Three Lions tattoos and their plaster-encusted radios, laughing too loudly at all their stupid "jokes" and talking too loudly about football, saying "mate" every two seconds despite being quite well-spoken himself, and is then sneery and snide to the bloke who's been waiting behind them all for ten minutes just because he perceives this bloke to be a weekend DIY-er who probably does something bourgie and capitalist in an office five days a bloody week and come the Glorious Day will be one of the first up against the wall after being made to eat his own stash of gold and diamonds? What sort of man differentiates between his customers that way? And for good measure  charges at least 30% more than B&Q? My husband went out wanting to support the Small Man, and came home wanting the Small Man's head on a pole.

And so it has gone on for fifteen years; hubby glowering in through the window of the hardware shop each time he passes, making sure that his Enemy is still there doing his phoney Man of the People act behind the counter, with his hair (now dyed a stubborn and unflattering jet black) like a dead crow tacked to his stupid boney head, and nodding along to The Damned which he plays non-stop because Brian James once went in and bought a bath plug off him and he lives in hope that he'll drop by again so he can make out they're mates.

The last time we passed, I looked behind me a few yards along the road. "He's just come out of the shop and he's flicking V's at your back," I told hubby, just to see what might happen. "Oh - he's run back in again. Do you think you need to have a word?" Sadly he didn't fall for it, though I think the arrangement they've evolved actually suits them both perfectly well. If they ever went head-to-head, it'd ruin a good vendetta. Much better to keep glaring at one another through a sheet of plate glass. It probably keeps their blood pressure down and makes them much more amenable in the home.

I think I performed a similar function for a singularly unpleasant bus driver for a few years, and am glad to have been of service. A sour putty-faced individual with urine-coloured hair, this man took against me the very first time I got on his bus and made the mistake of saying 'hello' before asking for my ticket. "Where you going?" he barked, before I'd had time to ask, "Ain't got all day to chat, love."After that it was open warfare; he once threw a 20p piece - my change - on the floor for me to fumble over (I showed him, by walking off and leaving it), and when I once proffered a ten pound note for a four pound fifty fare, it was simply the gift he'd been waiting for since we first had met. I was bawled out in front of a bus full of other passengers, whose initial schadenfreude faces turned gradually to masks of pained embarrassment and finally concern, as he tore into me at top volume about my laziness and inconsiderate, selfish behaviour.

Occasionally his bus would drive past me as I walked along the seafront, and somehow he would always spot me from behind the wheel and I him, so that our eyes would lock in an instant of shared hatred. I swear I could see him deciding whether or not to just turn the wheel hard right, and splatter me against the railings. Our relationship hadn't started off like that for me, of course, but I came to loathe him just as much, perhaps because I had a fairly good idea of what he was thinking (I'm trained in this stuff, folks!). I obviously embodied something for him that was quite intolerable - middle class blonde bitch with her trendy Scandinavian work bag and knotted scarf from a holiday in France, never had a hard moment in her pampered life and then thinking she's Lady bloody Bountiful by saying 'hello' to the mug who drives the bloody bus from one end of the sodding Sussex coast to the other and hates every minute of it, what does she think, a 'hello' from her's going to make his bloody day? I mean, who does she think she is?

After a while I just stopped getting on the bus if I saw he was driving it; I would step away and wait for the next one. Then I saw him in the street at the terminal where the drivers changed shift, and though I quite expected him to try and push me into the oncoming traffic, his response to me was one of instant, shocked embarrassment. He looked shiftily all around him, a brown blush spreading up his pasty face, and though I stared as hard as Paddington Bear at him, he couldn't look me in the face. Without his special cab and big steering wheel to protect him, he simply couldn't pull it off. On the street, we were finally equal.

No wonder the DIY man won't come out from behind that counter when my husband's around.

Friday, 25 January 2013


Having Mums that didn't work outside the home, as many of us did as kids of the Seventies, could cause real problems if you wanted to bunk off school for an afternoon. Sneaking back to my house was out of the question as my own Mum was always there, scrubbing her net curtains in the bath, gassing to our elderly neighbour over the fence or preparing the evening's particular narrow variation on her unique boiled beige cuisine.

Going to Veronica's was out of the question for similar reasons - her Mum was the last one standing who donned a cheery pink apron every morning and appeared to love nothing more than to dance around their house with a feather duster and a bit of James Last on the stereo, possibly stopping to Fight the Flab with Terry Wogan at 10am.  Jo's place was a different prospect, as her mother had died when she was twelve and her father worked all the hours he could, but we never liked going there as the house was a frightening monument to his misery. Between them they just about kept it clean, but the little touches we all recognised from our own Mothers' vigorous input were starkly absent; no background smells of scent or baking, crusts of dust appearing unnoticed on the lampshades, a brass letter box turned black through want of a little Brasso. We didn't want to be reminded of what could happen once a Mother had died, much as we complained about our own.

So that just left Claire's house, which was ideal in every way for a spot of truanting. Claire's Mum was soft and round and smelt just right - sweetly floral perfume, (but nothing disturbingly sexy like Jackie O'Keefe's Mum, who'd been the first woman we ever knew to adopt YSL's Opium.). Claire's Mum baked at weekends - the lingering smell of her fruit scones, combined with traces of her innocent scent, made for an agreeable welcome as we sneaked in through the kitchen door at 2pm. She kept a clean comfortable house with central heating so we wouldn't be cold, and best of all she worked as a school secretary so her hours kept perfect pace with our own. We loved Claire's Mum.

And we quite loved her Dad, too, a well-spoken Barrister's Clerk with a passion for high tech hi-fi and for keeping a fabulously well-stocked home bar. Claire's Dad's bar stood proudly in the corner of the living room, resplendently lagged in a thick tweed fabric which clashed only mildly with their purple shag pile, and from where we stood it seemed to virtually plead with us to taste its wares.

Which was how come we always ended up playing drinking games, with the amazing stereo system enlisted for technical support. Claire's house was a palace of pleasure that was made for nothing else on those illicit afternoons. Our favourite drinking game was called 'Headphones', and was even less sophisticated than the name suggests. You were required to don Claire's Dad's breathtakingly expensive Bang and Olufsen headphones and a record was placed on the turntable, to which you would be required to sing along at the top of your voice. When you stumbled over a lyric or forgot the words, the breathtakingly expensive headphones would be whipped violently off your head by the designated 'Headphone Master', and you would have to drink an eggcup full of their chosen spirit. Advocaat, Cherry Brandy, Ouzo (Claire's parents were so cosmopolitan they took regular foreign holidays) knocked it back in one. If you managed to complete a whole song with no mistakes, you were allowed to give the Headphone Master a dead leg.

Various songs will always take me straight back to that room, and in my mind's ear I will always be able to hear the terrible noise of a half-pissed fifteen year old schoolgirl, either tunelessly intoning the words in a bawled flat monotone (Claire), or labouring foolishly under the illusion that she can actually sing this one properly, and really going for those high notes with her eyes closed, trying to drown out the sounds of her chums' hysterical laughter as she strains for that tricky key change (er, Me.). Top tunes were Radar Love (we liked doing the drum solo), Peter Frampton's 'Show You the Way' (endless fun to be had from miming the mouth-tube thing he used), anything by X-Ray Specs or Ian Dury, and this one here, which was my personal favourite because I really believed I could sing it well. Until those three other bitches presented me with the recording they'd secretly made of me doing it. I still have the cassette somewhere. You'll never hear it.

I'd like to think that wherever you are, whoever you're with, and whatever you're doing, you might just like to stop right now, plug your earbuds into your machine, and give me a good uninhibited rendition of this fantastic song*. And if you get to the end without a mistake, there's an eggcup full of Noilly Prat waiting here at my house for you. My Mum won't be back for ages.
*It's actually very hard to sing. I just tried. Awful.

Thursday, 24 January 2013


First Bloke:"When I worked in the Path. Lab at St Chronic's Hospital, we once got sent a huge flap of skin with the word "TONY" tattooed on it. It was at least nine inches by six."
Second Bloke: "What did you do with it, then?"
First Bloke: "We put it in a specimen jar and laughed at it."

Wednesday, 23 January 2013


January - a time for staying indoors, reading and watching films. The recent snow and cold weather has provided me with even more of an excuse for my antisocial tendencies to flourish (and what's the point of going out when I have to wear so may layers to do it that I can't even bend my arms? As it is, I've got five layers on right now, two of them thermal, I'm in a centrally-heated room, and I'm still cold. Being raised in a house so cold it had frost flowers on the inside of the windows did NOTHING to toughen me up, I'm telling you.). I take the winter very personally.

 Anyway, the sofa's been seeing a lot of my behind. And here are a few selected highlights of my recent viewing, some of which you may already have seen, and others of which may attract your interest if you haven't. Last night's viewing was 'Notorious', one of the weaker Hitchcock thrillers in my opinion; hugely stylish, but with a weak and porous plot. Moreover, goddess Ingrid Bergman's electrically-charged performance as the gutsy, fragile, love-seeking missile who's required to 'put out for Uncle Sam' seems wasted on the balsawood Cary Grant who (inexplicably) awakens her capacity for genuine love. Actually, for all its flaws the whole thing's worth watching for the sight of Ingrid alone...what a woman.

I also watched 'Saving Private Ryan' for the first time ever. I'd given it a wide berth for years, feeling that my father's decision to sit me down when I was ten and gently force me to watch every episode of "The World at War" (seminal UK TV series from 1973, narrated expertly by Larry Olivier and unflinchingly documenting the events of WW2) had given me more insight into and awareness of the horrors of war than Mr Spielberg, with his bangs, crashes and emotional manipulation, could ever hope to do. I mistrusted the corny-sounding premise of a platoon of soldiers being dispatched into ravaged France to rescue the last surviving son of a luckless mother, whose other three had been killed elsewhere in the fighting. For me though the plot device turned out to be the least important thing about the film, which I was forced to admit is something of a masterpiece in its famously visceral and unadorned portrayal of the slaughter of combat. The emotional punch of the famed opening thirty minutes is unequalled by any other film I've ever seen. But beyond that, it faded for me into a patchwork of amiable but fairly one-dimensional characters - decent, introspective platoon leader,  incompetent cowardly intellectual, cocky New Yorker, emotional Italian-American, and then Matt Damon, who as Private Ryan himself displays a curious lack of distinctive qualities either good or bad. And I know I'm not the first kvetching European to make this point, but ahem, lads, there WERE a few British troops on active service in Northern France in 1943, you know? AND a few Canadians, Poles, (whisper - even French)! Anyway, I'm glad to have finally seen it, but I didn't learn anything from it - nothing about World War 2 anyway.

More disturbing and compelling in an entirely different way was 'Project Nim', a real-life post-war horror story from the makers of 'Man on Wire'. "Nim"'s last name was 'Chimpsky', which if you're a sucker for very weak puns should have you rolling in the aisle. "Nim Chimpsky", geddit? Sounds a bit like Noam Chomsky, the renowned linguist and cognitive scientist! So what better name could you give a chimp you're going to raise as - literally - a human child, and teach how to talk?

This was the brainchild of Columbia Prof Herbert Terrace, an unlikely love-god with a classic 70s combover, and a penchant for safari suits and female 'grad students'. Among his ex-lovers was a spectacularly narcissistic East Coast psychotherapist (oh dear...) who having collected a succession of rich hippy husbands and a brood of unboundaried children, now set her mind to nabbing a baby chimp that she might raise as a child. A lady needs a hobby, and Zumba hadn't been invented yet. Luckily Prof Terrace was on hand to oblige, and the tiny Nim was wrenched away from 'chimp Mom' and handed over to 'bitch-solipsist Mom'. Her latest rich hippy husband sulked a bit in the background as she bonded in the most physical sense possible with little Nim, dressing him in fetching lemon knitwear and encouraging him to explore her body in a disturbingly non-filial way. Nim seems to have been widely adored until ugly adolescence kicked in (as with male babies, really), whereupon he began to explode in a cascade of chimpy hormones, and the limited human sign language he had "learned" (or learned to imitate almost randomly) proved an inadequate medium for expressing his inner turmoil. He began to act out, smash things up, nip, gouge, destroy (as in male babies, really). This proved so distasteful to Bitch-solipsist Mom that she did the only thing she could, and packed him off to a research facility where he could have a good think about things while sitting in a small cage with a concrete floor. And that was only the start of Nim's problems.

If you're looking for a redemptive ending where Dr Doolittle parachutes in and whisks Nim off to Happy Chimp Land, you may be disappointed. This is a bleak distressing tale of human arrogance, selfishness and vanity, with the hapless Nim as stooge. For all that, it is truly compelling filmmaking, with the production team standing back and letting the (mainly) ghastly protagonists tell their own tales. And despite the very limited 'progress' made by Nim in his sign language classes, his own descent into neurosis, depression and eventual psychosis is no less eloquently expressed.

So, there's a heartening selection of feel-good winter entertainment for you. Maybe I ought to vary my selection with a little Frank Capra next time...

Friday, 18 January 2013

White On Brighton

Ah, the snow. How we moan about it, how we love to moan about it, how we love it. Hunker down, everybody, hunker down.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A History of the Annual Family Row

I got my Annual Family Christmas Row out of the way the weekend before Christmas, which seemed stylish. I don't see an awful lot of my family - my parents are both long gone (both died around Christmas time, so it's hasn't been my favourite thing for a while), and there's always been a lot of space between me and my four (much) older sisters, partly just due to the expanse of years between us (eldest sister 23 years older than me, youngest sister a mere 13 - yes, I was an Irish Catholic Menopause Baby!), and partly because our upbringings were quite different, despite having parents, and genes, and stuff like that in common. 

My sisters were all  born in pre-trendy Ireland, where my Mum was marooned, living with her parents while my Dad was 'over' (slang of the time for being 'in England') working rather bitterly in a car factory.  He'd started life as a wealthy Irish American colonial brat, but the family fell on Hard Times and he was forced to reduce his station accordingly. Naturally, he never got over the loss of status. Every now and again, he'd head back over the St George's Channel on board the Innisfallen, to reward my Mum's forbearance with another pregnancy. Then it was back to Dagenham and the hated foundry, to earn his wages and drink most of them away in the pubs of Whitechapel and Stepney. My mother was largely reliant on her parents, and on the booty smuggled  home by her father, the gifted Head Gardner at an iconic Irish historical site, to feed her ever-growing brood of little Irish girls. Although my father's meagre contributions were supplemented with what Grandad could pilfer from the greenhouses of the Anglo Irish toffs who employed him, there often wasn't enough food to go round. My sisters grew up knowing genuine poverty and hunger. My grandfather would reputedly weep alone in the kitchen after they had all gone to bed, crushed by responsibility and hopelessness.

By the time I came along, things were a little different. My Mum had upped sticks and hauled her girls 'over', largely to stop my father running off with another women, and partly because if he ran, there was every chance he'd run back to the States, leaving her even more stuffed. He grudgingly offered her the chance to relocate the whole family to New York, so that if he had to suffer the indignity of being tied to a family, he could at least go out drinking and fighting with his brothers to ease the drudgery. She refused.They worked out some kind of uneasy truce, and I was born some years later, by which time he had got a slightly better job. I say only 'sightly' - we had our own house, to be sure, but things were still not easy (my own humiliating memories involve having to regularly drag two heavy bags of empty lemonade bottles back to the off-licence, so my Mum could buy potatoes with the 2d deposit the glowering English owner reluctantly handed over on each one. She would stand at the corner and wait for me, too ashamed to do  it herself. That generally happened on weeks when my Dad had had a bad run at "the bookies".). Let's say I wasn't one of the girls who started school in her wellies because her parents couldn't afford shoes, but we certainly weren't flush.

My sisters were all required to become economically productive as early as possible, and so all left school by 15 and got out to work. They were all left feeling that my Dad was largely indifferent to them, and with some justification. With me it proved to be a slightly different story, though - for once, forced proximity to a growing infant encouraged him to take an interest in the child, and my own limpet-like persistence in demanding his attention wore him down. My sisters stood by and watched astounded, as every Saturday morning he led me up to the Public Library and waited patiently while I picked the four new books that I would devour each week (he then went straight to the pub. You can't have everything.). My education was encouraged. Pains were taken that I went to the snotty local convent school, though I hated it and didn't flourish there. But by dint of will I pursued and passed my A levels at a local college, confounding the nuns, and I left for University nine months after my Dad finally succeeded in drinking himself to death. I got a very ordinary degree from a provincial University, but so far I'm still the only member of my family to have done so. Non-vocational higher education is mistrusted and derided, though (as with many immigrant families) money, and the display of money, are highly respected. But learning for its own sake? Baffling.

And herein lies the quintessence of the row my family and I repeat, again and again, whenever we're together for any length of time. It will find a different form of expression each time, a different peg to hang itself on, whether that be racism, sexism, homophobia, religion, or any of those other dangerous areas that get used for the passing of coded messages within families.

This year it was homophobia's turn. So easy, so very easy. A small grenade, lobbed in knowingly by my youngest sister's husband. "How's Brighton, then - still full of poofs?". He stands back and retires as the room ignites. "Oh for god's sake.." I begin. But another brother-in-law is there to accept the torch. "I tell you what sickens me. You turn on the telly and it's Graham Norton, going on and on and on about men and bums and cocks. So you turn over, and it's Alan Carr, doing the same. Men and bums and cocks. So you turn over again,   and it's that other queer on Strictly Come Dancing, and he's supposed to be judging the dancing but he's leering over the men and their bums..." My sister, his loyal wife, joins in. "The media is run by a Gay Mafia!" She's banging her fists on her knees, her husband is purple-faced and flecks of spit are collecting at the corner of his mouth. I look at the folded copy of the Daily Mail on the coffee table between us.

I can't stop myself from giving them what they want. I launch into my well-practiced liberal defence of sexual freedom, acknowledging that Alan Carr and Graham Norton's tired stereotypical portrayal of gay men is not actually doing anyone any favours these days but (why do I do it, why?) pointing out that they both seem somewhat obsessed with a very narrow and specific aspect of male-male relationships, ie, anal sex, and querying him on whether it's only wrong when gay male couples do it, or would he care to police the bedrooms of the nation and apply the same opprobrium to heterosexual couples who have a taste for it too? And given their all-round distaste for same-sex couplings, how might they react if any of their much-loved grandchildren turn out to be gay? This pushes the argument to its inevitable conclusion: "It would make NO difference at ALL to me if they were gay! I'm pretty sure my own BROTHER is gay, but I still see him, don't I!" (not that often. He emigrated to Germany in 1970 and has never come out. despite a long term 'house mate' called Gunther who obligingly visits his own family in Westphalia when there are fraternal calls.). And then the inevitable, unalterable punch line...

"It offends me! It just offends me! And you're sitting there, attacking me in my own home, and thinking that you're better than us because you've got a fucking degree!"

Maybe we'll get together at the end of this year and do it again, just for old time's sake. Or maybe thirty years is enough, and I'll decline the invitation, or just go along and keep my mouth shut. Though of course, inside I'll be glowing with barely-concealed smugness about my average intelligence, mediocre academic record, and very ordinary career. It's just a bloody good job I never became an over-achiever...

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Step Out of Christmas...

So, how was it for you, she asked a week later than everyone else. You could say I hit the ground running a little last week in the great Return to Normality - perhaps it's not so surprising that the week following Christmas and New Year is always one of the busiest in the Therapist's Diary, as people need to disgorge the emotional impact of too much booze, spending, anticlimax, and enforced family time. Of course I'm not immune from any of it myself. There'll be whole post coming up about my own Annual Family Row later, just so you can see that we therapists basically have no answers whatsoever to deep-rooted family discord (not our own, anyway. I could sort out yours in a flash though.).

Given my own longstanding dislike of Christmas and New Year, we resolved this year to play it all down again, which more or less works, and to sneak off somewhere else for a couple of days in that 'dead' period in between, when everyone seems to sit around snacking fitfully on leftover Stilton, fretting about not being at the gym while simultaneously feeling too lethargic to drag themselves over there. We got on the Eurotunnel instead, very early on the 27th, and we headed for...Belgium!

Belgian culture is much-maligned, but I've been there several times now and always had a blast. As well as being the place that spawned Eddie Merckx, Jacques Brel and Plastic Bertrand, it also nursed the baby Bradley Wiggins, who was born there. The food is good and hearty, the beers are among the best in the world, and the language is comically impenetrable to the Anglophone ear, despite so many of the words being similar. And it's a great country for little cities.

We've been to pretty, chocolate-box Bruges a couple of times, so this time we headed on up the road to its larger neighbour and cultural rival, Ghent. Ghent views Bruges as a fey fop of a little brother, while seeing itself as more sturdy, robust, and practical. Which it very much is - it's a very handsome, less manicured, busy working city. And it takes the prize for being the friendliest place I've ever been to in Europe, which I certainly hadn't expected. In every bar we entered, we'd get a 'hello' from any locals packed round tables or choosing their selection from the 280 offerings on the beer menus. Shop staff were smiley and helpful, restaurant staff were relaxed, amiable and personable. In a town which gets its fair share of tourists, they certainly weren't fatigued, irritated or indifferent to us. People wanted to know where we'd come from, how things 'are' there, and how we liked their city. There was real civic pride around, but no sense at all of preciousness or smugness. The good humour and good will were striking.

We spent two days just happily wandering the cobbled streets with their gabled Flemish merchants' houses, crossing and crisscrossing the canals that lace the city together, and didn't even get to the huge museum quarter on the Northern edge of town, as we were having such a good time and wanted to leave ourselves something for when we go back, which we'll definitely be doing. There's a certain bar where I lost my heart to a terrier called Juliet, for a start.

We brought back beer, Rhubarb gin, and fresh advocaat - a delicious semi-solid, lightly alcoholic custard which I'll be making trifle from this weekend. It all seemed suitably quirky and idiosyncratic. Belgium hasn't had a functioning government for nearly two years now. And it seems to be doing absolutely fine on the back of it.