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.