Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Happy Feat

Cartoon from

I have lost
the ability to see humour. This is a catastrophe and means I can't even enjoy housework any more. Few things give me as much pleasure as to find an old joke I haven’t seen in years curled up under the piano with several billion dust mites. But now there are no funny faces staring up at me from beneath the Cif foam in the bath or creating themselves out of the ashes of some cooking project I forgot to set the timer for. Piles of building rubble no longer look like John Prescott nor fallen branches like Victoria Beckham. I have spent the afternoon trawling the world’s news for a seed of mirth to no avail. My life is over.

Unfortunately, I am not the focus of a national hate campaign so I could not exactly rush down to Harley Street and get myself referred to The Priory like Jade Goody, so I did the next best thing and completed Psychology Today’s online Do I Need Therapy? test in the hope that The Priory will accept that instead.

The test is a tick-box one so it’s a yes or no to various scenarios. I have to say I found some of the situations extremely difficult to decide upon, like this for example,
I am in a romantic relationship in which either my partner or myself rely on the other as our sole source of emotional well-being and self worth.

I'm not sure what is meant by this. Does it mean that one person is in charge of doing all the tax returns? That would be a very unhealthy relationship, unless of course you were the partner who didn’t do the returns in which case it would be a very good deal indeed.

This one was very easy,
During the past year, for two weeks or more...

The activities that used to interest me no longer provide the same pleasure and enjoyment.

What could be worse than not being able to get a laugh out of the washing machine jumping around the kitchen when it is spinning or the funny gurgling sound the heating makes?

This is patently unfair,
I unintentionally gained or lost more than five per cent of my original body weight.

My original body weight, as I understand it, was 7lb 8oz and I admit that I now weigh considerably more than that which is obviously unintentional because I had no idea until I was fully grown that I should be staying within a five-per-cent range of it. My parents and the hospital were probably both at fault. I believe Victoria Beckham is the only person to have maintained herself at her birth weight. I offer my very grudging congratulations to her for that.

By the time I got to this next scenario, I began to wonder whether this test was not rigged in some way,
During the past year, for at least a week...

Distracting thoughts and ideas popped unwanted or too quickly in my head.

Well, duh! It would be pretty vacant in there if this didn’t happen.

This one was quite alien so I know at least I’m not an out-and-out reprobate,
For at least the past six months, I've had a strong desire...

to rub myself against unsuspecting strangers.

However, I believe I should refer my neighbour’s Pomeranian for urgent attention. I am not sure if The Priory takes dogs.

There was no ducking this one,
I went on drinking or drug binges, using far more alcohol or drugs than originally intended, or for longer than I intended.

In my own defence I would say doesn’t everyone? There is no allowance made for the possibility that these things might be provided unexpectedly and for free and besides, it’s nearly always Mr T’s fault.

I did finally complete the test and my results are as follows:-

  • I have suffered from what appears to be a brief psychotic episode.
  • I appear to suffer from obsessional thoughts and body dysmorphia.
  • I have experienced symptoms of a manic episode, simple phobia, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and borderline personality disorder.
I thought this would certainly earn me a long stay in a padded room so I phoned The Priory full of confidence but they just laughed at me and said that Pete Doherty had achieved higher test results at the age of three weeks. I laughed so hard I cured myself and now I’m as happy as a penguin in Ugg boots…

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

If Shilpa Shetty was Ugly Betty

It has been pointed out to me that I have become entirely too curmudgeonly of late. In the immortal words of Dirk Benedict – I have ‘crossed a line’. Not that he said it to me mind, because it was not me attempting to sit on his face while he was smoking a Cohiba the size of Washington monument. That would be Cleo Rocos, ‘a celebrity’ so universally unknown that even her own family required an introduction to her. However, cross a line I did, even by That’s So Pants standards. So today, before hoeing into the shambles that was Celebrity Big Brother one last time, I will dispense some tokenistic cheerfulness to appease the sensibilities of the status quo.

Firstly, I won £19.20 in the Euromillions Lottery. I personally don’t think it is much of a reward for two numbers and two stars. The stars are incredibly hard to get. I think £19 million would have been more appropriate, but there you go. I would have spent it wisely by getting The A-Team out of retirement to wreak revenge on a certain housing association. They cost a lot more now because George Peppard has to be retrieved from his cryogenic capsule and reactivated. I won’t grumble even though that would have been well within reason.

After collecting my £19.20 I popped into Homerton Library which, although always smells suspiciously like wet dog, has exceptionally nice staff and a wonderfully eclectic fiction collection. For a time John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces was out of print and I’d thrown my only copy at a boyfriend in a fit of pique. It grazed his forehead and then flew through the window straight into the garbage chute where it blended with kitty litter and four day old pizza - an ignominious end for the curmudgeonly Ignatius J Reilly if ever there was one. Homerton Library had a copy and I used to borrow it about once a year until the title finally made its way back into print. I could sidetrack and talk about how pants it was that Toole’s masterpiece was not published until after his suicide and then won the Pulitzer Prize but that would spoil my cosy little story.

I found the two books I’d wanted to read for some time and then I was asked if I would like to choose a new library card from six stylish designs. To my great joy, one of them was a detail of the Hackney Peace Mural on Dalston Lane (pictured). This is a famous Hackney landmark and I will cherish this card long after I have departed for the tropics. For a moment or two it felt as if I had been chosen for Oprah’s Wildest Dreams as I was handed a voucher for a free loan of a DVD as a reward for accepting a new card. My council tax is being put to such good use! I immediately chose Good Night and Good Luck, a film about curmudgeonly news anchor Edward R Murrow. I also saw a blue tit in the garden but the joy was sort of cancelled out by a later sighting of a dead fox on Upper Clapton Road. As they say in Iraq, ‘life can be so sweet on the Sunni side of the street’.

National pride was restored last night when Shilpa Shetty, the Bollywood actor who had been set upon by a pack of our finest chavs, won Celebrity Big Brother and the chavs were booked in for advanced diversity training. I am not in the habit of being fawning about spoiled actors but I will admit to being at least momentarily impressed by Shetty’s Greer Garson-like poise. I certainly hope her flagging film career is revived by this triumph but, if not, she knows she can always come back and teach us our native language, although I doubt we’ll have much use for words like magnanimity in the future. Perhaps she could also give master classes on our core British values of fairness and tolerance since, unlike us, she seems to have a pretty good idea of how they work.

Shetty deserved to win. She had easily the strongest character, although the competition was hardly robust. Much was made of her exceptional beauty and I wonder if she’d not been such a stunner, whether we would have been stumbling all over ourselves to gain her approval in quite the same way. If she’d been Ugly Betty, would she have been so easy to fall for? It’s as if the pre-feminist model of beauty, serenity, culture and deportment by which proper young ladies used to be judged still survives in India long after it was discarded here. There is something uncomfortable about how taken we all are with that retro upper class charm. Would we have found it becoming in Peaches Geldof?

I bring this up because I’m not entirely convinced that this Humpty-Dumpty of a disgrace has been healed. Some deep ugliness was exposed which cannot just be conveniently pinned on three stupid girls with chicken stock cubes where brains should be. And it won’t go away with a resounding telephone vote and a clean sweep of the Sunday supplements. I also don’t buy into the claim that was frequently made that all the conflict in the house was caused by the racism of some of the women. The men were very quick to assert that if it had just been blokes they would have gotten along just jiminy. If men bond so well, how come they are always starting wars and beating six kinds of crap out of each other when the pub closes?

At the risk of returning to my paranoid, conspiracy theorist self, I hope we don’t find out that half the votes cast for Shetty came from the same phone and that it can be traced back to the Foreign Office. Or then again, they could have been made by George Peppard on behalf of his lovesick sidekick Dirk. Damn. They woke him up too early. I’m not paying for all those Cohibas…

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Weak in Politics

I think I might actually be losing the taste for trashing the Government. Shock, horror, probe, call a priest. It isn’t that I am coming around to their way of thinking (and I use the term generously), but rather that they are beginning to look like vulnerable people and I am starting to feel a bit of a bully. Where is the sport in bashing the semi-conscious? Pity because I can’t really think of much to write about today. I toyed with the idea of discussing the global significance of Bratz dolls beating off Barbie in pre-pubescent popularity but all you’d have to do is draw the parallel between Madonna and Beyoncé and it’s game over. Not likely to get me an honorary doctorate from Cambridge and one paragraph does not a column make. Nice picture though.

Who really has the stomach for salivating over Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair’s imminent downfall? Even though we have the bumbliest detectives since the Keystone recruitment crisis of 1926, they have been able to trace back a memo in Blah Blah’s own fine hand directly linking him with the purchase of knighthoods. He might as well have put them on eBay. For all I know he did. Even I’m aware that the next most useful piece of office equipment to master after the Klix drinks machine is the cross-cutting shredder. Where do these people do their work experience and learn how to make frothy cappuccinos?

I’ve laughed until I nearly laid an egg at Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown’s cringing efforts at statesmanship which included getting Celebrity Big Brother contestants mixed up with heroes of democracy. I believe it was the ‘voting’ component that caused all the confusion. It would obviously be easier if democracy was confined to reality television shows and politicians were bought for a pound a piece on eBay by people who want to be called ‘sir’ without having to go through the bother of attending teacher training college for three years and risking their lives in a South London comprehensive. Has anyone else noticed that Scrooge seems to have a rather bad case of OCD? Whenever he reads from a speech he’s constantly lining up the corners of his papers. I’ve heard of creating order from chaos but that’s got to be a hiding to nothing.

John ‘Chopper’ Reid, the (Rest) Home Office Secretary has had a week where hell would be considered an upgrade. I shouldn’t think he’ll be able to get temp work as an office junior now, never mind another secretarial position. He began by instructing judges not to send anyone else to jail as prison places are currently overbooked, although agents are working around the clock to source alternative accommodation on cruise liners. After nipping around to Edward de Bono’s and borrowing six of his best thinking hats, Chopper came up with the idea that those receiving custodial sentences could queue for prison places. A system very like the one currently used by the NHS is proposed and this would have the added benefit of allowing the prisoner to opt for a hip replacement or cataract operation as an alternative punishment.

Chopper ended the week having to concede that police had misplaced over three hundred serious sex offenders who are obliged to drop into their local police station once a week to drink tea with their probation officer. Whilst the Government is able to track my every movement with a GPS system that can hone in on the exact location of my mobile telephone, Oyster card and probably my pedometer, dangerous criminals seem to slip through English fingers like test cricket balls. To borrow 99p DVDs from my local shop I had to provide two proofs of identification containing my address, one of which had to be a utility bill received within the last three months, yet serious offenders on licence need only provide police with a couple of words which sound like a type of place where an earthly organism might reside. Our most reliable Sunday newspaper The News of the World reports that a paedophile was allowed to give his current address as ‘woods’, and previous address as ‘a tent near Guildford Leisure Centre’. If a prisoner were to give his details as ‘P. Bear c/o Mrs Brown, 32 Windsor Gardens’, it may be considered too much information.

This week I also discovered I have been living next door to a nuclear waste dump for the past twenty-two years. On the bright side, I can probably stop worrying about my long term health care needs and start treating every day as a gift. I feel better already. Culture Secretary Tessa ‘The Scowl’ Jowell, who really should be at least looking concerned about the fact that the 2012 Olympics might turn out to be more about radio-activity than sporting activity, chose to turn her attention to threatening super thin models with a ban on appearing at London Fashion Week. It’s not as if they need money for food I suppose but I can’t help thinking it’s a bit mean to pick on girls who weigh less than a javelin.

You know what, I think my appetite has returned. Will someone please pass the salt…

Picture from

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Attitude Complex

I’ve been wondering if we shouldn’t return to basics with theoretical ethics to see if we can find a blueprint for society that makes sense to everyone and can be universally applied without inducing a fear of being killed in the crush at the claims desk for exemptions. It should be so simple a child could understand it. Maybe we should get children to develop it since children don’t tend to regard differences prejudicially but rather with innocent curiosity. I’m suggesting this because it has to be much easier than the convoluted system we currently have for distinguishing right from wrong which seems to involve stumbling from one apparently insurmountable moral dilemma to another with a succession of Government ministers jabbering away about ‘core values’ which none of them seem to be able to list.
Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair has adopted a tactic of starting every sentence on the subject with ‘That is why…’ and then looking fed up. Maybe he thinks he can hoodwink us into believing we have fallen asleep through his salient and crystalline explanation. What is inescapable is that we are expected to live by a behavioural code which it is inferred should be inherent in the vast majority of us decent, hardworking citizens, but no one seems able to frame into a coherent manual.
The template used to be common law but now there are so many laws its impossible to tell if you are abiding by them all. In addition, there are by-laws, those imposed by local authorities or your employer or Tesco which add to the confusion. There are some employers, British Airways for example who do not allow you to be sick. It is not considered a health and safety issue that a pilot suffering from ‘flu might be locked into a tiny cabin with only recycled air and food maintained at a temperature optimum for cultivating E coli for up to twelve hours. Local authorities, on the other hand, have targets for employing people with disabilities so they encourage as many people as possible to have a long-term debilitating illness.
It is easy to see how much trouble everyone is having with working out how to live ethically from a quick scan at the British Social Attitudes Survey, the latest edition of which was published this week. You could be forgiven for thinking that, in the minds of civil servants and social researchers, what you think can have a more corrosive impact on the functionality of society than what you do. For example, no one would say that it is wrong to fake a cab receipt or pretend lunch with your friends is a business meeting on your tax return. This week a large cargo vessel stranded near the Devon coast spilled containers carrying items ranging from BMW bikes to dog food and the shoreline soon had more people on it than a Fat Boy Slim gig, claiming their ‘right’ to loot the booty. These were ordinary, law abiding British citizens who probably give money to the WWF but didn’t seem to care a jot that their quest for free tat was inhibiting the rescue of stranded sea birds.
Officialdom takes no account of all those small acts of civil disobedience committed by ordinary people that make no sense, like chucking a KFC box of chicken bones on the street within a few feet of a rubbish bin. Who doesn’t know that’s an idiot thing to do? Every day I see a couple of people do just that, not all kids and not all distraught mothers with three children under five screaming for the next additive packed course. The people who are paid to fret over why we are so appalling at getting along, ignore the crumbling of trust that occurs when a member of one social group pushes another out of the way to get on the Tube or chucks a firework the size of a cruise missile at their feet while they are carrying the week’s shopping down their grimy street.
It is rather more interesting, apparently to obsess about how we think we might behave in a hypothetical situation than to study the way we do behave in the real world. Last week, The Guardian reported disability campaigners were alarmed that the findings of the British Social Attitudes Survey revealed that most of us had a low awareness of disability and that ‘serious prejudice and misunderstanding still exist.’
One of the statistics causing alarm is this,
More than 70% of people interviewed said they would “not feel comfortable” living next door to someone with schizophrenia, and half would not want someone with depression as a neighbour.’
In an ideal world, we would all want only neighbours who keep a decent bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in their fridge and collect our mail when we are on holidays. What people are afraid of is the potential for imposition. The high number of people who answer honestly that they don’t want a schizophrenic neighbour is likely influenced by high profile cases in which schizophrenics, left without adequate care, have attacked others. That does not mean that these same people would discriminate against a schizophrenic neighbour if they had one.
Given the high incidence of depression in this country, it’s hard to imagine that there can be anyone left who has not had the experience of living or working in close quarters with someone who is or has suffered from depression. It’s a very broad spectrum ranging from people who you only know are sufferers because they have told you so to those about whom you start to worry if you haven’t seen them for twenty-four hours.
The very human responses to the British Social Attitudes Survey in relation to disability may not make very comfortable reading but I think it’s good that people are still being honest about what they think and have not yet been conditioned to respond ‘appropriately’. Whether their response is based on personal experience or popular conception, the most useful conclusion to be drawn is that we are not, as a society, looking after vulnerable people very well, not that 70% of us are arseholes who want people with disabilities to live somewhere else.
So I’m for a discussion on ethics that doesn’t get all caught up in whether our thoughts are falling foul of some legislation or other but whether we really would piss on our neighbour if they were on fire…

Cartoon from

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Down at Davo's

All week I have been trying to work out who this Davo is and why world leaders have congregated at his house. Perhaps he’s just received a new shipment of Cohibas or had a super hot tub installed. Then I read that Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown has gone over there. He doesn’t do pools with water in, preferring to duck dive into a large receptacle full of reassuring, inflation-busting paper money. Not known generally speaking for his congeniality, he’s also put the kybosh on the Cohiba theory announcing according to our BBC that,

‘The days of the smoke-filled room were over and that politicians had to involve the public in decision-making in order to win the arguments for free trade, globalisation and the fight against terrorism.’

So what is going on over at this Davo’s house then? I thought I was pretty much up on world affairs but this one has me stumped. Half the global suits fly to a ski resort at the coldest time of year to work out how best to shame the public into taking our annual holiday in Great Yarmouth instead of Gran Canaria, putting on an extra jumper and turning our heating down one degree to save the planet. Have they not heard of podcasts then? Conference calls? I thought big business and Government were joined at the hip, or at the very least, the cheque book.

Well, Scrooge old chap you can involve me in decision-making any time you like but you won’t be winning any arguments with me about free trade and globalisation. I actually don’t think it’s morally right to charge elderly people a couple of grand a week for the privilege of having flour shoved down their mouth in one of your privatised ‘care facilities’ or pay your benighted supermarket friends to bully and starve small farms. Nor am I prepared to part with my civil liberties on the off chance that someone with a homemade bomb might be standing next to me on one of my infrequent tube train journeys.

Also over at Davo’s pad, the World Economic Forum is meeting to see if we can finally find a way to get coffee around the world without creating famine. Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair is there helping matters along enormously according to his spokesperson who informed SABC,

‘There is now a realisation that a deal is there if people have the will to make a deal. And there is a realisation that people are prepared to move on all sides if all sides are prepared to move.’ (from

Well, that makes perfect sense so, as soon as a starting pistol can be found, I can begin thinking about reallocating the guilt I feel about Fair Trade coffee not being as beneficial to local economies as it’s made out to be. The USA is bound to come around to believing that it need not starve whole nations in order to guarantee the price of orange juice at 1986 levels for the next fifty years, surely. I am not so attached to cut flowers that I would want small children to die in the cause of bringing me fresh tulips.

Meanwhile my own economic crisis tumbles further towards catastrophe. I must face the stark reality that my nice buyer was in fact a phantom. I may have imagined him. Other people have fantasy lovers, I have a fantasy flat buyer. That is how close I am to complete insanity. Please don’t tell anyone though because I am paranoid about being put into care in my own community. It’s bad enough being a free agent in Hackney but to have to rely on the benevolence of others would be unbearable.

After another conversation with dimwit No. 107 at the housing association which tested the boundaries of logic as they have never been tested before, I am left wondering if it’s worth trying to maintain a sense of right and wrong in the hope that it will one day return to common usage. Dimwit No. 107 decided it would be very productive to lecture me on my ethical position in relation to showing good will towards the nice man who indicated in writing that he would buy my flat. According to her moral code, the correct thing to have done in this instance would have been to dishonour our agreement immediately and go in search of more buyers. ‘Don’t put all your eggs in one basket’, she advised me, which is apparently how people who work in housing associations show respect for each other’s word. She shows a remarkable enthusiasm for increasing my bounty suddenly, perhaps as a compensation for wasting so much of it on my behalf in the last ten years through mismanagement and neglect.

I don’t suppose Davo has this problem, all tucked up there in his Swiss chalet with his swish chums puffing on his Cohibas and devising devious ways to screw our pensions and mangle our ideals in several hundred different languages. Davo probably has so many properties, he can’t even remember them all…

Cartoon from

Friday, January 26, 2007

Citizen Strain

Today, yet another report is launched exposing just how clueless we really are when it comes to getting on together. Of course you can’t blame us poor jobbing citizens for not being interested in what our neighbours have for dinner with such a weak example coming from the top. We are continually brow-beaten to participate in something called ‘community cohesion’ which no one has ever bothered to define for us so we are at a loss to know how to do it. We know that our local council is striving to achieve it so that’s a step in the right direction, but we are also constantly being told that we are not very good at it and how disappointing this is for Government ministers. It is a little unfair since the most famous anti-social neighbours in the country are the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. No wonder we can’t get it right.

The report, by an army of ex-teachers, proposes that a new ‘element’ be added to the existing compulsory curriculum subject, Citizenship Education. The Labour Party website explains that it would be called,

'Identity and Diversity: Living Together in the UK'.

And its purpose?

‘This will mean that all pupils, as part of compulsory secondary Citizenship Education, would be taught about shared values and life in the UK. This will be informed by an understanding of contemporary issues and relevant historical context which gave rise to them.’

It seems very radical, but history is going to be introduced into secondary education. Finally someone has worked out that it’s quite difficult to understand how wars start if you don’t know who said what to whom or shot their archduke or nicked their best whisky. Launching the 126 page, dryly titled ‘Diversity and Citizenship Curriculum Review’ – (Ad-4-u must have been having an off day), Education Secretary Alan Johnson explained,

‘I … want schools to play a leading role in creating greater community cohesion. By helping children continue to understand difference, schools can make a difference. Young people need to be engaged in this important debate because the values our children learn at school will shape the kind of country Britain becomes.’

Well that’s cleared that up then, knowing our differences will make a difference. I am sure young people will applaud the clarity of this vision as outlined in the report,

‘In five years, for all schools to be actively engaged in nurturing in pupils the skills to participate in an active and inclusive democracy, appreciating and understanding difference.'

It would probably be churlish to suggest that this doesn’t actually make any sense since the sentiment is so obviously sincere, but it may make the vision more difficult to realise. I suppose that’s a million miles from the minds of any teacher having to implement it as the report also conveniently indicates just how great are the impediments standing in the way of pupils’ chances of receiving this elusive enlightenment.

Since its introduction in 2002, Citizenship Education has persistently been the worst taught subject in British schools and below are just some of the reasons highlighted in the report. My translation skills are a little rusty but I will try my best to interpret,

  • Not all school leaders have bought in fully to the imperative of education for diversity for all schools, and its priority is too low to be effective. (Head Teachers think it’s pants and pretend it’s not there).
  • There is insufficient clarity about the flexibility within the curriculum and how links to education for diversity can be made.(No one has any idea what it is they’re supposed to be teaching).
  • Some teachers lack confidence in engaging with diversity issues and lack the training opportunities to improve in this area.(Teachers are uncomfortable about teaching a subject they know nothing about).
  • Pupils’ voice is not given enough consideration in this area. (The kids all say it’s pants and get told to shut up and get on with it).
  • Links with the community – a rich resource for education for diversity are often tenuous or non-existent. (Local businesses complain all the time that kids from the school steal packets of crisps and scare their customers away).
  • The notion of racial hierarchies has not altogether disappeared and stereotypes still abound in society. (Black on black prejudice is an annoying anomaly which we don’t understand at all and we are very cross that we tell people that not all black people can sing and then find out that they actually can!)
  • There is huge variation in the amount and quality of Citizenship provision in schools, partly attributed to the flexible or ‘light touch’ approach, which schools interpret widely. (schools have been really taking the piss).

I wonder just how easy it will be for schools to reintroduce history after indoctrinating a generation of children that it is boring and irrelevant. Given the inability of Government to clarify what it is they think they are going to achieve by taking the sum total of what we know about the world to date and making some assumptions, based on the times things went horribly wrong, and using them to make some suggestions about behaviours that might be more congenial than others, how, exactly do they propose to present this new curriculum to young people? It’s his story, dude – it rocks? Bill and Ted, there are teaching opportunities in Britain for you. Please do apply.

Cartoon from

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Writer's Bleak

This is the view from my bedroom window this morning. It snowed last night. The interesting thing about snow is that you can’t hear it unless it’s delivered by a blizzard. The type of snow that fell last night did not come by blizzard but crept in and sprinkled itself about like the Easter bunny leaving eggs in the bushes for children to find. When you wake up in the morning after the first winter snow, the world looks different, as if a kindly old dame, perhaps one of our Oscar hopefuls, swept up all the bad people and binned them and said to all of us decent folk that are left, ‘Please start again, and this time, do try to get it right.’

It’s just as well I had the presence of mind to take this photo at 10am, (this so doesn’t usually happen), because by midday the snow had melted away, leaving no indication that it had ever been there. For about two hours, my world was fresh and untainted by the arrival of a much more frequent but equally silent phenomenon – bad news. There was the briefest of respites when I fantasised that this might be the day I finally reach the top of some slush pile in any number of locations in London, W1. And then the phone rang.

The nice man who was going to buy my flat has disappeared off the face of the earth, perhaps buried in snow, perhaps slitting his wrists after failing the audition for X-Factor, perhaps winning Euromillions and deciding to live in Gstaad – where the snow is obviously more reliable. Or he could have discovered that buying into a housing association estate is like using up all your airmiles on the handcart that will take you to hell - economy class.

Needless to say I did no work on my book today. I did think about inserting a massacre, to harness the passion that was brewing in my soul, especially after a conversation with dimwit No. 107 at the housing association. When I was growing up in Australia I used to watch a wonderful soap called No 96, set in a suburban apartment block. It was a thousand times weirder and wonderfuller than Prisoner (Cell Block H), the cardboard caper that captured Britain in the 80s. You could tell if the writers on No 96 were having a bad day because they’d unleash a terrorist attack on Aldo’s Deli or a shark to devour Eileen and Ian or, in the case of a total black dog, a shootout in Dudley’s bar could expunge ninety per cent of the cast. They don’t make them like that any more. I guess the scriptwriters on Coronation Street and Eastenders do a lot of Tae Kwondo to soak up their excess angst.

I probably would say this, wouldn’t I, since I’m at the bottom of the socio-economic pile, but I don’t agree with the concept of ‘leadership’. Out of 300 million people, George W Bush is the best that could be found to lead the ‘free world’? Was there no five year old with ADHD available? There is no greater argument than that, but closer to home, my experience of mentors runs the emotional gamut from, well, Me to Me - messianic (Thatcher) through mediocre (Major) to megalomaniac (Blair). Comparing them would be like mushing up apples, pears and peas and trying to chargrill it. Bon appétit!

My earliest working experiences were in cooperatives. When you’re young and fit, showing restraint while arguing with someone whose brain is a mixture of Marx and lentils is admittedly not easy, but uniquely character building. Not only do you learn a lot about socialist theory, you also gather up some very useful recipes. In these ecologically conscious times, they open cans of chick peas rather than doors, but one does what one can to shrink the ecological footprint. How I miss those days when you knew at least if you had the most powerful position and best argument, you could probably convince the rest of your fellow travellers that the song would sound better in 6/8, and no one would fuck you over, unless of course the engineer was more coked out than you’d anticipated.

Last year, in an attempt to try to organise my paranoia a bit better I instigated a weekly worry timetable, so that I could fret more systematically. For newer readers, here it is again.

  • Mon – Climate Change
  • Tues – ID Theft
  • Weds – World Poverty
  • Thurs – War on Iraq
  • Fri – Terrorism
  • Sat – Crime and the Causes of Crime
  • Sun – Binge Drinking (not mine by the way although the choice of day might tend to indicate a problem on my part – couldn’t be further from the truth – until today at least)

You will see from the above that Wednesday is devoted to concern about world poverty. As much as I would love to have passed the day agonising about the developing world, I am afraid I have rather selfishly frittered it away going spare about how I am going to survive on the tiny amount of savings I still have left. Please pray for my holy slush pile items. I have today bought the cheapest bottle of Sauvignon Blanc it is possible to drink without dying or entering the Guinness Book of World Records for years spent sneezing, and a lottery ticket. Do I really need to ask, unless you have one yourself, in which case good luck (sniff), truly?

Looking at my photo and marvelling at my presence of mind in capturing it on the Kodak, I know that, buyer whereabouts aside, I won’t ever again be able to afford an absolute water frontage and a view like this. I know - it’s a totally English thing. They don’t like to be near the water. They can’t swim you know, AND they’re really scared of sharks, and carp apparently. I will miss this kind of morning. Maybe snow will happen again tomorrow, and who knows, my buyer might come back, battling through the blizzard like Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow… OK. Now you know I’ve totally lost it, don’t we all feel so much better now?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Parent Trap

Searching the internet for interesting perspectives on the gay adoptions row, I came across a statement by MEP Michael Cashman, who used to be an actor in Eastenders. He played Colin, the only real gay character ever to be in the show and by that I mean his choice of a gay partner was intentional and not just because there was no one left in the street of the opposite sex that he hadn’t already slept with. Gay characters since have all been accidentally gay and have usually become aware of their sexuality after drinking too many tequila slammers and finding themselves in the wrong toilet in The Vic, where most intercourse seems to take place.

There are actually a lot of gay people in the real East End. There are also some Asian people and black people who don’t have comic Jamaican accents and one or two people who own their own washing machine. When he was a character in Eastenders, Michael Cashman didn’t actually do much to raise awareness of gay issues except to highlight a worryingly obsessive attachment to one’s Filofax. After he’d left the show, he became a founder member of Stonewall, the group that campaigns to end discrimination against people who can’t manage without personal organisers.

MEP Cashman (not to be confused with cash for honours), has hit out at the Government for trying to create a sneaky little loophole in its anti-discrimination laws which allows their powerful Catholic friends to continue to call gay people evil and stop them from giving homes to orphan children. The Government is making out that this is a very complex issue but, actually, it is quite simple. The Government already thinks that no one in this country is a decent parent so why complicate everything with degrees of inadequacy. Perhaps they think it is good for children to grow up believing that no one ever wanted them and then reach adulthood to find out they could have been living on the South Bank in a massive apartment with a 102 inch plasma TV and spent all weekend clothes shopping.

Catholic Online is a bit like the Monty Python News for Parrots sketch in that it only reports on news that has Catholics in it. For example a section on the Iraq war reports a shortage of rosary beads for soldiers and that a chaplain was slightly wounded and there are advertisements for Vatican – the Board Game where you can get yourself elected Pope. The current edition also carries the full text of a letter from Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor to government ministers sent yesterday. Calling for ‘fair play’ the Cardinal gave a perfectly reasonable explanation for why the Catholic church should be entitled to impose a fantasy inspired by The Bells of St Mary’s as a template for ‘family’ on a secular government service.

We require our agencies to recruit and approve appropriate married and single people to meet the needs of children in local authority care for whom adoption has been identified as being in their best interest. We place significant emphasis on marriage, as it is from the personal union of a man and a woman that new life is born and it is within the loving context of such a relationship that a child can be welcomed and nurtured. Marital love involves an essential complementarity of male and female.

Yes, well. I suppose you could be forgiven for wondering how we ended up with all these unwanted children in the first place if they sprang from the loins of essential ‘complementarity’. I honestly don’t know why Government spends so much time making up rules as, by the time all the possible exemptions have been negotiated, there are only about three people left in the country to abide by them and they immediately start working on their appeal as soon as the rule is announced.

There may be some flexibility in all this so maybe we shouldn’t get our vestments in too much of a tangle. If it should be the case that the Catholic lobby wins the day and there are actually gay people masochistic enough to choose to approach a Catholic adoption agency, I think I may have found a loophole. Simply approach the agency as a single person. As I understand it, the Cardinal is only asking to be allowed to discriminate against gay couples. Get your child first and then find a partner. They’re not so smart as they think they are these Cardinals. I’m off now to see if I’ve been elected Pope or if the smoke coming from the kitchen is just my dinner burning…

Cardinal Cartman from

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Quality of Life - A Two-fingered Approach

Last December our Government announced its intention to create forty ‘respect zones’ in Britain where people would be obliged to tip their hats as opposed to cocking their snooks, as has become the standard form of greeting from Lands End to John O’Groats. Normally these announcements are followed by a period of what Government likes to call ‘consultation’ where it ‘listens to people’. Showing a rather steely resilience, ministers refused to allow the sight of 60 million people crumbled up in hysterics to put them off this latest innovation and those areas were announced today.

Thankfully Hackney is not one of the lucky recipients of ‘respect’ status which is just as well as I don’t think I could handle the thought of irritable Argun at the stationery shop being legally obliged to acknowledge the fact that I am standing in front of him with two hideously expensive pink Pilot Hi-Tecpoint pens in one hand and a tenner in the other. In Hackney, bus drivers will still be allowed to watch in their wing mirrors as you sprint in the pouring rain and against an 80 mph wind and then slam the door in your face just as you reach it. Assistants in Woolworths will still be free to carry on their conversations as you wait in a queue for one of them to put the wrong DVD in a case and charge you the wrong price for it. Cyclists may weave their way through crowded footpaths at will hissing ‘sku me’ and expecting you to leap aside. Builders can still dump their waste in the middle of your street because they are too mean to hire a skip. We in Hackney reserve the right to scowl and sneer at each other for no apparent reason and to dive for any bus seat that an elderly person looks like they may have designs on. Vive La Ponce.

The Prime Minister, Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair launched the initiative today in Brighton, one of the chosen areas. Blah Blah does seem to be getting all the crap gigs these days. No more swanning off to Washington, it’s dud initiatives in the regions for the soon to be ex PM now. Next week he’ll be standing outside KFC in a chicken suit handing out pamphlets on healthy eating. He told our BBC this morning,

‘It is the worst thing that happens in local communities. What happens outside someone's front door where the quality of life is good or bad and where it is intimidating, threatening and unpleasant and where the quality of life has diminished, that's why this is vitally important.’

No one was all that clear about what he meant and it looked for a moment like he’d mislaid the first page of his speech as he seemed to start mid-sentence. Then we all remembered that’s how he always talks. I was interested to discover that this ‘quality of life’ that we’re all so desperate to have these days actually lives on my door mat. I hope it hasn’t minded me wiping my feet on it all these years. It has never been intimidating, threatening or unpleasant to me as far as I can recall so I must be doing something right. Things got a little more confusing as Blah, Blah continued,

‘If you look at the French election, which is happening in the next few months, this is a major issue there, too, as well. It's a major issue everywhere and it's part of the changing nature of modern society, but we have got to make sure that we have the powers and the people in place to make a difference.

I’m still not that clear in my mind about what the ‘it’ is but since Hackney is not a ‘respect zone’ I don’t suppose I need concern myself that much with the nature of ‘it’. Lucky for Blah Blah, he has a ‘respect tsar’ or perhaps tsarina, Louise ‘Hard Case’ Casey. Tsar is an unfortunate choice of words as it means ‘tyrant’. I seem to remember that Hard Case is something of an expert in anti-social behaviour, having displayed quite a bit of it after getting herself sherried up and extolling the virtues of binge drinking to an audience of senior police officers. She told them,

‘I suppose you can't binge drink any more because lots of people have said you can't do it.I don't know who bloody made that up; it's nonsense ... Doing things sober is no way to get things done.’

Respect! She then took a swipe at her own benefactor,

‘If No 10 says bloody 'evidence-based policy' to me one more time I'll deck them,’ she revealed, ‘and probably get unemployed.’

Obviously an exemplar of ‘respect’. As far as clarity goes, she may have spent too much time around Blah Blah because this is Hard Case explaining how the whole thing is going to work,

‘We want the 40 areas to show how we can take the programme forward and point people in the right direction as well as keeping up the unrelenting drive to tackle anti-social behaviour. These are the areas that are doing parenting classes and family projects that tackle the really, really difficult people in our communities.’

‘Family projects tackling really, really difficult people?’ What is this? The Tony Soprano waste management led approach to community relations? Massive respect! Now, if you will excuse me I must go shake the mud out of my quality of life…

Cartoon from The Guardian

Monday, January 22, 2007

Is Goody the Baddy?

We’ve all had our fun this week demonstrating just how fair and tolerant a nation we can be by publicly crucifying a woman so intellectually bereft that, were she to be charged with race hate crimes, she would most likely be deemed unfit to stand trial. We haven’t had so much fun since the Salem witch trials. But what do we do for amusement now that Jade Goody has made a full confession in our most fair and tolerant publication The News of the World? Demolishing a rain forest’s worth of Kleenex in the course of today’s interview, Goody admitted,

‘My race slurs were so wrong – I hate myself.’

OK, so we got what we wanted. We have destroyed the monster we created with the added bonus that we have the perfect ‘escape goat’ in Goody’s own words for that stubborn streak of prejudice that persists in the national psyche despite continual efforts to legislate it away. The lower orders just can’t seem to learn to keep their disgusting gobs shut. With the career Big Brother manufactured for her facing destruction by the same hand, Goody could be forgiven for wondering what the fuck happened. She thought we liked her being thick. What she hadn’t taken account of was ‘thick’ is a broad spectrum. Whereas it is perfectly charming to not know anything about your own culture and deride your own class by referring to yourself and your peers as ‘common’, it is wholly unacceptable to publicly display an ignorance of anyone else’s.

She’ll learn her lesson as her entire future rests on it, and if it means she never again indulges in workplace bullying or racism that will be a good thing. But will her public flogging do much to expand her world view? I doubt it. You can already drive a coach and horses through the holes in our righteous indignation. Goody is as much a victim of our double standards as she is of her own stupidity. Rather than delight in the downfall of someone who lacks the basic instincts to know that it is a very bad idea to verbalise insults based on a person’s nationality on television, we should take a long, hard look at the system that produced her, beginning with education. A lack of knowledge is the active ingredient in prejudice and most of the abuse directed at Shilpa Shetty was the result of anger that couldn’t be articulated sensibly. Shetty’s clear superiority in what is not even her first language incensed Goody.

It’s clear from the NOTW interview that Goody, as ring leader and catalyst for the bullying of Shetty is already getting the blame for things that were said by others. Why? Because the gravity of the situation requires us to collectivise it and find premeditation in it. In all likelihood, it will blow over now that Goody has left the Big Brother house but at least one other participant has a judgement day in her immediate future. Danielle Lloyd has been dumped by boyfriend Teddy Sheringham. By the time she gets out he’ll have replaced her with another bimbo so the world will obviously be a better place.

I’m still not entirely convinced that Goody’s behaviour or those of her ‘coven’ as the papers are now calling the ugly little coterie amounts to serious racism. I’m suspicious of the hysterical response and wonder if it’s all a bit of a copout and an excuse for sidestepping the more serious issues like violence inspired by race hatred and systematic inequalities in housing, public services and education which ghettoise black and ethnic minorities into the poorest parts of the country. Me thinks we might protest too much, perhaps to mask a much deeper flaw.

It’s also important to maintain a calm objectivity and I see an unpleasant pattern of demonising dumb women as the new face of racism in this country developing. The furore over ballet dancer Simone Clarke’s membership of the BNP is another case in point. If we are going to build a society where there is genuine tolerance and not just drive prejudice underground as even the dumbest people learn to keep their bigotry to themselves, it must start with some honesty about who needs to learn what. Goody, Lloyd and O’Meara were by no means the only house members displaying cultural ignorance.

Shilpa Shetty is entirely blameless and certainly handled herself with dignity in a difficult situation but that does not mean that she’s not a spoiled, self-centred pain in the arse. There has been quite a bit of class stereotyping going on in the Big Brother house, the most overt of which was Jermaine Jackson calling Jackiey Budden ‘white trash’ – rich coming from a man who named his child Jermajesty. At one point Shetty asked Jackson if his wife was black to which he replied somewhat indignantly ‘of course’. I’m not saying that was racist, or even offensive but neither does it suggest tolerance exactly. It’s not as if mixed marriages are unprecedented in the USA, or for that matter in his own family – both of brother Michael’s wives were white. It is always better to make sure that your own house is in order before turning up your nose at someone else’s housekeeping.

There are calls this week for schools to teach that ‘racism is wrong.’ Well, school children can learn by rote not to practise racism or they could get into trouble for it. Certainly what’s happened to Goody is as stark a demonstration of actions having consequences as it’s possible to have. But what about giving children an education that expands rather than collapses the world so that they develop an empathy with people from other cultures rather than strategies for not saying the wrong thing? Some history, geography, languages perhaps?

Picture from News of the World

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Natto of Taste

On a visit to Tokyo some years ago, I astonished Japanese friends by enthusiastically devouring a plate of a local specialty called natto. The Times today reports that natto is undergoing something of a renaissance in Japan because it is thought to aid weight loss. Insomuch as it is likely to put most people off eating for several weeks, I can only wonder that this momentous discovery has taken so long. Here’s The Times’ description,

‘It smells like a mixture of overripe Gorgonzola and putrefying mushrooms. Its texture is that of slugs stuffed with mozzarella. It is natto, or rotten soya beans, and is one of the world’s most challenging foods, as loved and loathed in Japan as black puddings are in Britain or rotten herrings in Sweden.’

Although I have never tried slugs stuffed with mozzarella, which sounds delicious, I can verify that the aroma of natto easily surpasses what we used to call ‘tween toes’ as children. Tween toes cheese for example was what your parents rounded off their sophisticated dinner parties with, accompanied by Ritz crackers and tawny port. In the morning, you’d find a mostly untouched lump of tween toes Danish blue curling up in the fridge like a particularly unhygienic elf’s slipper, infecting your apple crumble.

I did quite like natto. It’s surprising how significant quantities of sake can make almost anything appetising – even raw prawns. If I’d known about its weight loss properties, I might have become more of a devotee over the years but I suspect the amount of sake you’d need to drink to get in the natto mood may cancel out its perceived benefits. Sake is extremely fattening. You’re much better off with Sauvignon Blanc and crudités of carrot, celery and courgette dipped in humus light.

The article did make me think about how much our cultural differences are amplified by the food we eat and the etiquette that accompanies it. Almost all the tension in the Celebrity Big Brother house which culminated in serious allegations of racism against several participants, can be traced back to the choosing, preparation, eating and after effects of food and drink. Off the top of my head I can think of twenty scenes in movies in which a character is ‘classed’ by their knowledge of food and its accompanying implements. The golden rule of working your way from the outside in with cutlery is not always applicable. I had one awful experience in Paris there I thought the escargot extractor was an eyelash curler. With the French you just don’t know, do you? Suffice to say that boyfriend never invited me to meet his parents again.

When I first came to London in 1982, I was staggered by the narrow band of culinary experience I encountered. I met adults who had never eaten Chinese or Italian cuisine and thought that curry and chips was Indian food and quite exotic. It was a shock because, like most Australians, I considered my birthplace a cultural outpost and expected London to be a massive menu of cosmopolitan options. Thankfully, these days, our epicurean choices are much expanded but, within the last five years, I have attended a professional dinner at a Japanese restaurant where at least half of my fellow diners did not realise that sushi comprised raw fish. So much for Yo Sushi!

I sometimes think I would have made a great travel correspondent because I have never been to a place I didn’t like. I am lukewarm about Florence, which I have visited three times, and that’s mostly because it’s difficult to find a decent place to eat there. And it wasn’t down to a lack of open-mindedness on my part. One of my favourite places is the Venice fish market because most of the food is still moving. You know that’s fresh.

I’ve always thought I could do a better job than most of those people on holiday programmes because I would at least be prepared to try the food. I’ve seen reporters abroad recoiling at the sight of oysters – a classic British food. I love oysters. My godparents lived near the Hawkesbury River and I can remember picking Sydney rock oysters and eating them, live and fresh. I’ve also picked oysters on Stradbroke Island with the late and legendary Australian poet Oodgeroo. I could do I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, except that I don’t like snakes and spiders and I’m not a celebrity. If anyone wants to offer me a travel gig, I’m fit, packed and ready to go.

If this week has illuminated anything about Britain, it is that we are only too keen to judge people by what they are willing to reveal about their own culinary knowledge of the world. Jade Goody has taken a lot of flak but now her unique diet secret can be shared. OXO cubes are the Jade equivalent of natto. No need to purchase her expensive DVD to emulate her exquisite figure. Simply put three OXO cubes into your pot noodle, pour yourself a large glass of whatever is going and scoff the lot. Belch, fart and then throw up. At least the children’s apple crumble won’t be ruined…

Barbie sushi by

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Scrooge Loose

Watching as Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown fluffs himself up and waddles self-consciously into the international spotlight is almost always a painful experience. With equal parts of David Brent, X-Factor contestant and third choice best man giving a wedding speech, he invariably looks as if he will break down at some point during the delivery of his routine quackery and start blubbering that all he ever wanted to be was a retail marketing manager for a small to medium sized enterprise in Dundee. Pity us world for he is our next leader.

This week he’s in India fielding questions about our perpetual inability to get along with people from other countries following accusations of racist bullying by three of our finest belching and farting chavs on Celebrity Big Brother

‘Yes I know we invaded your country and enslaved your people for several centuries while we systematically stripped your natural wealth, following which we invited your compatriots to live and work in our country and subjected them to appalling bigotry but we still want to be seen as a nation of fairness and tolerance.’

It’s worth a try.

Unfortunately, Scrooge’s trusty moral compass was confiscated at Heathrow Airport due to heightened security threats, (‘I’m sorry sir, they interfere with the aircraft’s ethical guidance system’). This meant he had to hoof it when listing his heroes and went a little off course, citing Winston Churchill as a source of inspiration. Hang on Scroogy old chap, Winnie batted for the other side. Surely you mean Clement Atlee or Harold Wilson – those were your guys. Scrooge told our BBC this morning,

‘I think it was Churchill who said that you cannot meet the challenges of the future by simply building the present in the image of the past. And therefore I'm also seized that we face new challenges, first of all a security challenge, secondly an environmental challenge, and thirdly, of course, the challenge that British people want most of all is the prosperity challenge. And that will need new policies.’

Probably better not to quote Winnie in his ‘vintage’ period, and by that I mean the things he said after his fourth bottle of Pol Roger. Still, it’s nice to see that Scrooge is acquiring his soon-to-be predecessor’s finesse with the non sequitur.

Remembering where he was, Scrooge explained that Mahatma Ghandi had also been one of his great heroes. (When in South Africa, it’s Nelson Mandela. When in Jamaica, it’s Marcus Garvey. When in Germany, it’s Gerh… Yes, well). Scrooge explained to our BBC about Ghandi,

‘… he showed a strength of belief and a strength of willpower, a determination to move for a more just and fair order. And people of courage always inspired me.’

I know I’m nitpicking here, but the thing I remember about Ghandi is that he didn’t move. That’s right isn’t it? Forgive me, but didn’t he sit and meditate? Wasn’t that the whole point and what made it so powerful?

What Scrooge says next indicates that, in conjuring Ghandi, he might have been invoking a particular historic era and perhaps needs to get out more,

‘I think if you look at the shape of the international institutions, you will see they were built for the age of 1945. We are in a new age. Reshaping these institutions can give us an environmental improvement, they can give us a security improvement, and they can give us also greater prosperity.’

If this is true, what’s happening in all those new Norman Foster buildings that we’re paying for? The fashion for neo Bauhaus architecture aside, what is slightly more worrying is Scrooge’s recent repetition of the phrase ‘there is a new world order’ whenever a microphone appears. It’s not a topic that has surfaced in the ‘community conversations’ in which we are encouraged to participate. Perhaps there’s a hint in this,

‘We need to strengthen the alliances we have, a strong alliance with America, a strong alliance in Europe, a strong role in the Commonwealth. But we also need, and I think this is now very clear to people, to reshape the international institutions so that they can meet these challenges of the future.’

I’m not entirely sure what ‘people’ he had in mind to be the recipients of this particular clarity but as a citizen of Britain born in a Commonwealth country, I can tell you I have no idea what these ‘international institutions’ might be, or indeed, what shape they might assume. Could there not be a reality TV show to assist me? How about Colour Your Commonwealth, hosted by Rolf Harris?

It all seems horrifying until you remember that politicians are scary and if all they’re about is trying to work out what will keep them in the positions they don’t even think they’re smart enough to have, then they are probably not that dangerous. Prove me wrong McDuck and you’re paté…

Sources – and my warped imagination.

Picture from Disney Comics

Friday, January 19, 2007

Strangers and Fiction

The Bible is the No 1. most shoplifted book, which leads me to wonder why ‘Thou shalt not nick from Border’s’ is not one of the ten commandments, especially since the original author has the most to lose. To be fair, it is sort of covered by number seven, Thou shalt not steal, as shoplifting is technically a form of theft, unless of course you are a student when it becomes a moral responsibility. Not many students steal The Bible though so it’s hard to credit its No. 1 status. I would have thought the most shoplifted book would be The Da Vinci Code or something by Genet. Not that it crossed my mind before today.
You’d have to have stolen your bible first, in order to read that you have just broken one of the commandments. Imagine the embarrassment on getting to that page. You seek guidance on how to best live your life and the very first step you take in that direction leads you to break one of God’s holy laws. Not the best start. Still, if you are Catholic, you can always pop off to the nearest priest and get it off your chest. If you do this, make sure that the priest understands that you do not wish him to physically remove the burden from your chest. Priests don’t see a lot of action and these misunderstandings are quite common. A priest is going to be hard pressed to devise a suitable punishment for you as absolutions all involve reading something from the book you have just stolen which wouldn’t really be appropriate. He will probably just tell you not to do it again, which is fine because once you have a bible, you are not likely to want to another one. It’s not as if there are new editions coming out all the time.
I discovered this handy fact in an article from Psychology Today which is actually about how people who read fiction exhibit higher levels of sociability. Here’s an excerpt,
‘Reading fiction, it turns out, is a surprisingly social process. A study at the Journal of Research in Personality showed that frequent readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than did readers of expository non-fiction. A follow-up study showed that fiction could actually hone these skills: People assigned to read a ‘New Yorker’ short story did better on a subsequent social-reasoning task than did those who read an essay from the same magazine.’
This makes perfect sense as it’s quite difficult to attack someone with a book in one hand, unless of course you use the book as a weapon. You might want to finish the chapter before engaging in a brawl in which case the other person may well have lost interest in the argument and picked up a book of their own in the meantime. The article doesn’t go into detail about whether what kind of fiction you are reading has a bearing on the sophistication of your social discourse. It’s difficult to imagine that readers of Stephen King would display the same levels of empathy as, say Jane Austen devotees. It is more likely that King fans would want to exorcise you from their house than serve you tea and try to work out whether or not you are good enough to marry one of their daughters.
Lisa Zunshine (seriously), an English professor at the University of Kentucky, suggests that reading fiction helps us to hone the powers of detection we use in everyday life to gauge situations and work out what motivates the people we interact with. By getting into the heads of characters in books and trying to understand what they are doing and why, we practise scenarios that can be applied to real life. Some people take this quite literally, like this reader,
‘Victoria Long of Stockton, California, read Anna Karenina while going through a rough patch with her husband. Thinking of leaving him, she was drawn to the story of Anna running off with her lover. But Anna's eventual suicide, Long says, made her think of the ways that she was taking her life. "It made me realize that I should be happy with my husband, who loves me as much as Anna's husband, but fought for me instead of letting me go.’
It is a slightly risky strategy and we can be grateful that Victoria didn’t throw herself in front of a train. Probably best not to try this with In Cold Blood or anything by Martina Cole. I can’t help thinking that if more people read fiction, we might enjoy more erudite social intercourse, or at the very least, fewer musicals by Andrew Lloyd Webber…

Barbie Photo from

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Big Bovver

Are these people racist or just incredibly thick?

Channel 4 executives must be breaking out the Cubans – point of clarification in these nervous times – I mean to say that they must be unwrapping giant, expensive, hand-rolled smoking sticks rather than assisting residents of the stalwart communist island to choose between selling their soul or their daughters for the slim chance of a decent life. Not a bad idea for a reality TV show if I do say so myself. Sorry.

The Celebrity Big Brother racism row has engulfed the entire of humanity, not the sort of thing that a government or a sponsor might want, but the stuff of minority television legend. Could Channel 4 be the new HBO? Feast your eyes on this wave of destruction,

· 20,000 (and rising) complaints have been received by the television regulator OFCOM so far – dwarfing figures for the previous arbiter of tastelessness, Jerry Springer – The Opera.

· Questions in Parliament resulted in a reassuring ‘We should oppose racism in all its forms’, soundbite from Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair.

· Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown, inadvertently visiting India today, faced down a barrage of accusations with, ‘I want Britain to be seen as a country of fairness and tolerance. Anything detracting from this I condemn.’ Wow – how useful was that!

· Protesters in India are burning effigies to the Channel 4 producers, (not that anyone has any idea who they are). Has no one read the source book?

The four Celebrity Big Brother tenants facing these allegations probably could not convince a neurologist that their collective brain activity is sufficient to justify life support. If only they knew how rich and famous their target Shilpa Shetty really is, they might be more gracious. But last year Big Brother slipped in a fake celebrity who everyone pretended to sort of recognise, so much so that she eventually won. Our smart quartet, whose loyal friendship rests on the fact that they have shared a nail technician, have banded together to make sure no fraud ‘from down the Old Kent Road’ gets the public vote this year. And they are, in no particular order,

· Jade Goody, former Big Brother loser and internationally renowned thicko.

· Jade’s boyfriend Jack Tweed, football manager to no one famous.

· Danielle Lloyd - Scouser ‘glamour’ (for international readers = topless), model and has-been footballer Teddy Sheringham’s (soon to be ex) girlfriend.

· Jo O’Meara, professional smoker and panic attackee, who used to be in some singing group for children, not Teletubbies, although she does bare a strong resemblance to La-La Telebubby.

A house full of ‘celebrities’ who don’t actually recognise each other and are left with neither a role nor a pecking order to conform to, will struggle to recall how humans respond to each other in normal society without personal assistants to explain that it’s probably not a great idea to scream all the time for no apparent reason. Think The Admirable Crichton without Kenneth More standing between the hysterical castaways and cannibalism, and you’ll have some idea of what’s happening in there. Think Post Office queue on pension day if you aren’t old enough to have seen The Admirable Crichton. The hapless housemates have no idea of the furore that is threatening to, well, probably do nothing except occupy news pages until Friday.

So, is it racism if a person with a mental age of two refers to someone who is pissing them off as a ‘dog’ or a ‘cunt’ even? The non British people in the house have had their eyebrows permanently raised by the revelation that it is not only possible to reach adulthood in this country without acquiring any learning, but it’s something that culturally defines and validates you. Welcome to modern Britain. Shilpa Shetty seems genuinely fazed by the fact that half of the people in there can’t speak their native language. Her suggestion to Jade that elocution lessons might aid her communication was bang on the money as an ability to correctly hear and pronounce sounds is fundamental to vocabulary building but she might as well have suggested that Jade take a PhD in linguistics. She clearly has no idea just how dumb dumb can be in this country.

Try this for a barometer – When the housemates realised that Jack had been tasked with completing the group’s shopping list Danielle asked Jade, ‘Can he read?’ AND she wasn’t joking. AND Jade didn’t think it was on odd question. She simply answered ‘yes’, which must have come as an enormous relief to any footballer who has recently entrusted him with his contract negotiations. What has been said to and about Shilpa is clearly offensive but is it conscious racism if it’s an expression of blind ignorance and insecurity made by someone who probably couldn’t point to India or even Britain on a map? What is clear is that we seriously need to examine how these four young people, all of whom grew up in multicultural communities, got through an entire childhood without acquiring any knowledge of the world beyond McDonalds and Topshop. Today’s Daily Mail pointed out that Big Brother contestants would probably face disciplinary action for racist bullying if they were at work, quoting an employment lawyer,

‘Richard Linskell, of law firm Dawsons, said he had "no doubt" that some of the comments made on the TV programme would constitute racial discrimination or harassment if they had been spoken in an office.’

I have news. They are at work. They have a contract of employment and are getting paid so the Big Brother house is ‘a place of work’.

Text from Shilpa to the gang of four in a language they can understand,

C U in crt u cnts?

Picture from