Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Lion in Pinter

























After much kind intervention from my worryingly hypochondriac fellow bloggers, I have discovered that my mysterious unwarranted backache is probably something called a ‘spasm’. I have now smothered the offending malfunction in magical Arnica cream and it is certain to be better by morning. I was able to get out and about today and visit the benignly creepy butcher who claims to have known me for more than twenty years. He may be wearing a garment covered in blood and wielding a knife sharper than Jeremy Paxman but he is stuck behind a counter and therefore unable to morph into a stalker. He does do a very nice Scottish stewing beef so it is hard not to like him, however I may begrudge what I perceive to be his over familiarity with my, er, back story.

The recent news that Martin Amis has accepted an appointment as a professor of creative writing at Manchester University has been greeted with a bizarre sort of delayed delight in the blogosphere. It’s as if people’s immediate reaction was ‘you wha’?’ and then the idea grew on them. Obviously the association with a successful, professional writer of his stature is going to inflate the reputation of the course just as Andrew Motion’s appointment did for Royal Holloway. This could be seen as a high profile effort by the university to demonstrate how serious they are about promoting writing as a profession, but then again, it could be a mega honey trap. Are creative writing courses just another way to part desperate writers from their meagre means? Is it vanity studying? Discuss.


There is also the question of what Martin Amis could conceivably do as a tutor apart from give master classes in being Martin Amis. I am aware that it is the convention these days to have practitioner/teachers in the arts but don’t you have to have at least a passing interest in the work of others and wouldn’t a modicum of empathy with tyros be kind of helpful? I’m also wondering if in the context of a multicultural learning environment, it might be a drawback to be a hysterical neo-con Islamophobe. Just a thought. Perhaps I’m biased as only yesterday I finished reading London Fields. It’s not the best backache book in the world I have to say, in fact I suspect it abetted the problem.

One person I would love to have had as a teacher is Hackney’s own Harold Pinter. Much more therapeutic for my ailing rear elevation than Amis, was the rich serving of the prince of menace available on More 4 last night. The first instalment was a mercifully uninterrupted rendering of the master’s most recent play Celebration (2002). How actors must love to do Pinter. An illustrious cast, headed by Michael Gambon, seemed singularly and collectively possessed by the destructive power of their tableau. A joy.

Just as gripping was the triple-headed discussion between Pinter, his long time friend/collaborator and Hackney Downs Grammar School colleague Henry Woolf and director Harry Burton which followed. The interview was intercut with an acting workshop exploring scenes from No Man’s Land and Old Times, directed by Burton and overseen by Pinter, judiciously sipping wine throughout without showing a single sign of inebriation and laughing at his own lines as if he was hearing them for the first time. Not a hint of self-consciousness nor chink of doubt about whether or not this was really what he meant to say, then or now. To me that is true artistry. I loved it when he proudly claimed that he never revised his plays and the only rewrite he ever made was a necessary adjustment when the main route to Heathrow Airport, the A4 was upgraded to a motorway and had to be recast as the M4.

I first fell in love with Pinter when we studied The Caretaker at university. I did a degree majoring in English literature and journalism with tantalising modules of drama and classics to supplement (or pad out as they used to say). I could argue that this is the perfect degree for a writer as you are delivered the best of literature by people who aren’t famous so you don’t feel obliged to stare at them for the whole time rather than take in what they say and, at least in my day studying journalism, you also learned to touch type. Journalists needed it once. I could do that but actually I’m busy talking about Pinter so you will excuse me while I take myself aside and tell myself to shut the fuck up, I trust. Thank you.

Henry Woolf suggested that the novelty of Pinter’s writing is his understanding that conversations are not just an exchange of information but strategic manoeuvres for emotional territory. Absolutely true but I’d argue that he wasn’t the first cab off that particular rank and that Beckett certainly was all over it and probably many before him. For me the power of Pinter is rooted in something I, as a foreigner, understand very well. As a working class Jew, Pinter was always an outsider. What he so successfully exploits is the subtext of English intercourse. He simply has his characters express what they really think rather than what they would be obliged to say given their position and predicament. In the modern world, there is probably no equivalent societal convergence that still provides this opportunity.

I also love Pinter because, despite his society marriage (to the admittedly adorable Lady Antonia Fraser whose Kings and Queens of England is a favourite of mine) and his Nobel Laureate status, he is still, at 76, a shit-stirrer extraordinaire. When someone who has ready access to people in power says,
 
‘There's a very low anger that resides in any respectable, intelligent person in this society about what goes on, and how impotent we seem to be to correct what goes on, and how we give power to people who don't deserve to possess power because they abuse it, and manipulate it, and treat people with contempt, and treat international law with contempt.’

even when they don’t need to, you know they really mean it.


Harold – you are the king of the urban jungle and I salute you.


Acknowledgement - Brilliant Pinteresquerie from www.seigeicartoons.com

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Taken Aback
















A funny thing happened on the way to the enlightenment…

One of the great weird anomalies of my increasingly daffy existence is that I have only ever had backache three times. The first time was the result of falling from a horse when I was drunk and riding bareback. This was not so much an accident as an inevitability. I'm sure Calamity Jane would have done it differently. The other two times I was doing absolutely nothing to warrant it, honest.

In all the years I trained in Aikido, a martial art in which you fall from shoulder height onto a hard mat approximately fifty times per hour, I never once injured myself. My legendary lack of prowess on the body board has seen me nosedive into the sand at speeds at which I could invite Jeremy Clarkson to eat my board shorts. I may have tumbled from the raging surf with my bikini top wrapped around my neck like a tie after a bar brawl, but I never had more than the odd sand graze to show for my simulated super wash. In my endorphin addicted thirties I was known to do back to back gym classes of Tight Tums And Bums which consisted solely of tortuous crunches. Not a twinge in the lower lumbar department.

My first experience of mysterious backache happened about five years ago. I woke up in the morning and could not move, for no reason. I was alone so you can stop your sniggering in the back. The pain lasted for a couple of days and then disappeared. Then last Tuesday, it occurred again. I had been industriously cleaning the flat in anticipation of a visit from yet another realtor with a shirt made out of tablecloth material and boy band hair when suddenly my back seized up and I have barely been able to move since.

This is really no great inconvenience for me since I like nothing better than to confine myself to my bed but it has meant that sitting at the computer has been impossible. As you know, I don’t like doctors so I have just been taking it easy and it does seem to be getting better. Of course I have self-diagnosed everything from diabetes to bird flu but never seriously entertained anything other than I’m just not very fit and flexible at the moment and cleaning out the cupboard under the sink will never be a good idea.

I did manage to stumble up to irritable Argun, the Stationer on Saturday. I truly felt that my discomfort could only be enhanced by a withering stare from the great man himself. I desperately wanted to buy a new index box and record cards too. I’m sure there’s a fantastic free foolproof indexing system available on the internet that also improves your chess game and makes you a mozzarella, basil and tomato focaccia for lunch but I am very fond of filling out the cards and have been able to lie in bed for the last couple of days getting my fourth draft into order.

The last time I called Argun ‘irritable’ I got into trouble from Dave Hill who said ‘don’t you love Argun?’ to which I replied, ‘of course I love Argun, but he is extraordinarily irritable’. I hasten to report that the rest of the staff at Argun Stationers are unreservedly delightful which is just as well as these are the ones you mostly interact with. Argun stands at the back like a stern Buddha overseeing the photocopier and it was in his capacity as grandmaster of repro that I crumbled in the face of his inscrutable irritability some years ago.

One of my closest friends died and it fell to me to organise the entire funeral. I had just started a new job which was an ‘8’ on the intolerably hideous employment experiences scale and my friend had a vile villain of a partner who infuriatingly conjured a preposterously fake posthumous emotional state where none had existed before, rendering the mere uselessness I had carefully factored in, an untenable liability.

You could say I was a tad stressed when I rushed to the back of the shop with the Order of Service for the imminent funeral to be printed on fancy card to find an implacable Argun lying in wait. Because I hesitated for a nanosecond about the choice of card, he berated, ‘you must be more decisive!’, at which point I pleaded, ‘cut me some slack, my friend just died’. He remained resolutely unmoved by my plight. That man is a reality TV show waiting to happen. It is a lovely shop though and has absolutely everything in it, albeit arranged after the fashion of a Diagon Alley junk shop.

So, officially invalided or maybe that should read invalidated, I shall generously award myself a few more days of taking it easy and continue with the therapeutic task of cataloguing curious events on the Costa del Sol from the comfort of my own bed. Hasta luego!



Cartoon from the incomparable Michael Leunig

Thursday, February 22, 2007

School of Rock





















Tony is a phoney and Gordon is a moron. I don’t care who knows I think it either. I hate them because they killed hope. All through the Thatcher years, you could at least dream that when we finally got rid of the Tories, there would be a golden age of social reform in which the health service would again be the jewel in the crown of the welfare state and actually prioritise the fixing of sick people as opposed to the fudging of planning applications for apartment blocks to be erected on the sites of boarded up hospitals.

The vision of an education system dramatically reversed from its nosedive into wanton illiteracy and innumeracy inspired us to keep darning our frayed ideals with the kind of ‘make do and mend’ spirit and determination that had not been seen since the blitz. There was hope that the crumbling inner cities would be rescued in the nick of time, just before Steven Spielberg managed to buy them up for a neo-nostalgia series of ‘Escape from…’ movies. Kurt Russell was already on standby, as was a hologram of Donald Pleasance.

When the empress of evil imploded in 1990, the Tories were considerably weakened. By 1992 they had been in power for thirteen long years. We knew we just had to hang on a tiny smidge longer. But then there was what Lemony Snickert might have described as a series of unfortunate events. Labour should not have lost the 1992 election. They were up against a man so singularly remiss in the charisma department that his unremittingly grey Spitting Image puppet had absolutely no defining characteristics apart from a dramatic overbite and huge specs. He had never won an election and he was a prime minister without any discernible personality. This turned out to be his saving grace since no personality at all is infinitely preferable to a leader whose public persona falls somewhere considerably further along the eccentricity scale from Basil Brush. Who could forget the beer-curdling disgrace of Neil Kinnock’s rallying war cry,

‘Let me hear you say Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch’

I was never again able to witness someone air punch without calling to mind that horrible sight.

When an everyman by the name of John Smith was elected leader, a glimmer appeared. As an interesting historical curio, he turned out to be the last Labour leader to have a conscience that was demonstrably human but, unfortunately, he didn’t think to bequeath it to anyone before he rather selfishly popped his clogs suddenly in 1994. Then there was the infamous deal struck in the Granita Restaurant between Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown and Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair.

Succession passed to Blah Blah over the Chianti without the bother of a fair and open contest, which brings us up to the present day and a status quo so stalwart, it is of geological interest. In fact, prominent earth scientists are already proposing that the fusion be recognised as Blairite Brownstone. The relationship does seem to obey many of the fundamental principles of geology:-

  • The principle of intrusive relationships – probably don’t need to elaborate too much on this but CCTV, biometric passports, vehicle tracking to name just a few.
  • The principle of uniformitarianism - a shame about the departure from the original spirit which was ‘the present is the key to the past’. I personally think that the Blairite Brownstone take of ‘the present is a gift’ is an over-simplification.
  • The principle of superposition – the only argument here is who is on top?
  • The principle of fawnal succession – didn’t quite go to plan. It appears a certain party felt they fawned a little longer than the penne al forno agreement required.

Having mapped the lie of this land, what is an equality-loving socialist to do? I have to ask the question – why did a government that assumed the mantle of a reassuringly bland Tory prime minister for no other significant reason than the general public fancied a change, feel the need to impose all the worst instruments of state that even the Eastern Bloc abandoned nearly twenty years ago while abandoning every socialist principle ever written that we tea cake eating Fabians might have rather enjoyed conforming to?

This is what pisses people off. A government that can’t articulate, doesn’t like to be criticised, won’t listen to anything other than its own reheated rhetoric and makes it blatantly apparent that it hates us and insists that Britain would be perfect if only we rabble would do what we are told, has clearly lost the plot and needs to be popped into the nearest recycle bin with Danielle Steel’s cast off husbands and plot outlines. It really doesn't matter what badge it's wearing. If it quacks like a McDuck...

I’m sick of lectures from insider journalists like Polly Toynbee and Martin Kettle who self appoint as official 'critical friends' and presume to filter selective criticism to government while wagging a cautionary finger at traditional Labour voters like me and threatening the return of the Tories if we don’t demonstrate unconditional loyalty, no matter how far it departs from morality as we know it. Well Polly put the Kettle on and consider my bluff called. I don’t care if they get voted out. I’m not that afraid of the Tories any more – the will to fight and the will to live are, after all, closely aligned. Whooppee. The rock is the hard place. Anyone for tea cake?



Jack Black in School of Rock - a great moment in personal politics.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Killing Time



















Greetings from the dark place usually known as my mind. Thanks to everyone for all the lovely comments and emails. Things got a bit hairy there for a while, especially after I shot Ben in the head. I wasn’t intending to do so, but well, call it a crime of passion. Do you think I’d get away with temporary insanity in a court of law? Probably not as most people know it to be a permanent state with me. It is surprisingly difficult to convey a story with your narrator in a coma. I suppose I should have thought of that before I fired shots in anger.

Speaking of which I’ve just had a new estate agent around. He is nice enough, a sort of teletubby in Hugo Boss. Can I bear to go through the whole business again? Remembering to take out the garbage, keeping bits of unfinished book and half read research hidden under the sofa bed, arranging DVDs so that no Tom Cruise titles are visible, bleaching the bottoms of my feet (so much easier than doing the floor)? Yes - after the hell in a handcart of a week we’ve had in Mission Impossible UK (this country will self destruct in the foreseeable future).

Last week UNICEF released a report iterating the obvious – that Britain is the worst place in the developed world for growing children. It gave me no cheer. It’s not one of those occasions on which you get oodles of pleasure out of being right. I always hoped that it was just the crazy, dystopic way I viewed the world that made it appear that we’d completely failed young people. Just because every business letter I ever receive is a miasma of misspellings and non sequiturs, does not necessarily mean that education is failing to convey an ability to form proper sentences. It could simply mean the Government has imaginatively met its Gershon cost saving targets by teaching monkeys to type. There is not yet a basic wage agreement for primates as far as I know.

But now all hope that I was just being a sniping misanthrope is lost. We really are just as bad as my wild and frequently flippant pronouncements indicated. At any moment I expect someone to turn up on Dragons’ Den with a Hackney-based business proposal to employ five year olds to sweep chimneys and to witness the distasteful spectacle of the dragons literally breathing fire in each others’ paths to get a piece of it.

So what does Government intend to do about creating a nurturing environment for young people where now exists a huge development black hole? Lock itself away in a room for a year and compose another hand wringing White Paper I shouldn’t wonder. Watching the Parliament Channel (I really must give that up), is not much cause for optimism. The Black Youth and Justice Committee hearings which were held in January are on continuous rotation, like a sadistic mortification ritual, to remind us of just how clueless we are when it comes to doing what every other animal species seems to take in its stride.

The procession of professors and experts in Nehru jackets from organisations with brand consultant inspired names stutter their way through their particular take on what is wrong with society. Interestingly, the shortfalls usually align with the type of ‘services’ they provide. Broadly speaking these all constitute some form of ‘mentoring’ as the perception still persists in Britain that youth disaffection is entirely due to an absence of adequate ‘role models’ for boys. Girls are fine of course because they have Victoria Beckham, Jade Goody and Kate Moss to aspire to.

You would think from the way everyone is talking that there simply aren’t any men around to parent and generally provide a good example to the youth of today. Did I sleep through another war then? Plenty of men seem to be lining up to make accusations but who exactly are the ones not fulfilling their duty? Absentee fathers seem to be carrying the can for the ‘breakdown of society’. So do we assume that every boy that grows up without a father is going to turn to crime? Where does the theory stand on children whose father died nicely, of say, cancer?

What about the other kinds of example men in society used to provide but are now no longer deemed appropriate? A male teacher would be very ill advised to take an interest in an individual pupil for the purpose of encouraging the spark of an ability or talent. Employers no longer take cadets under their wing and show them the ropes. They’re more likely to gripe if they have to spend any time at all on their training and resent every penny they have to pay them. In their spare moments, they speculate on what their recruits might be getting up to the minute their back is turned. I think we can safely say that neither Alice in Wonderland nor Peter Pan would spring from our present social structure.

Young men taking to crime in the absence of an opportunity to get ahead any other way is not entirely new to Britain. London has an especially grand tradition of criminal activity. In fact, there are currently only four routes out of poverty here in the East End – crime, football, music or getting a part on East Enders and/or The Bill. One thing that youth leaders are saying that does actually make sense is that criminal gangs are plugging a hole that used to be occupied by apprenticeships. They operate a merit-based hierarchy and a code of practice that is open and transparent. Work hard, keep your head down, take some risks and you will get rewarded. No one should underestimate the immediate recognition of the advantages of that model.

But joining a gang is often not a matter of choice for young people growing up on our doggedly rough council estates. For all its rhetoric about child protection, this Government and its initiative-loving police service can’t even provide children with enough personal security to get them from home to school and back without them having to swear allegiance to a bandana. Call me an equality-mad socialist, but there’s something not quite right about that.

Anyway, I’m back and I’m hard. I just shot a man in the head after all.



The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

MySpace Cadet






















Q : Where is MySpace?
A : Between MyEars.
Today I realised that I have completely dried up (again) and need to take another blog holiday. I outline my reasons below:-
1. I lay in bed for two hours this morning after I woke up unable to decide whether to have Vegemite or strawberry jam on toast for breakfast and struggling to recall if I used the last of the milk last night in my Green & Black’s Organic chocolate drinking frenzy.
2. I received a phone call from my niece Ms Ruben in Australia halfway through this important contemplation to inform me that she is doing a biography of me. This is not exactly a Boswell/Johnson scale project but I am afraid I was taxed beyond my ability and was completely unable to recall my favourite colour, the names of any of my friends or what I’d like to be when I grow up.
3. I opened an email from our MySpace guru Ms Viv with yet more gruelling inquiries. Musical influences? Does pink tulle and black eyeliner count? What instrument did I play? Stylophone rings a bell for some reason or it could have been NHS specs. It was always so dark in the 80s, who’s going to be able to bring that kind of detail to mind? Someone must be able to locate some CCTV footage, surely.
4. I am completely unable to get excited about Robbie Williams going into rehab, even though the prospect of him now having to beg to get back into Take That seems inevitable. There was a time when I would not have been able to stop writing about such a gem but at the moment I’d rather design an ad for Skodas (in black and white and actually moving) than contemplate the self-inflicted ruination of a world-class twat.
Clue : Novel struggling to emerge in a climate of administrative dysfunction.
I received the new knobs for my hob today (hob knobs as it were), and they don’t fit. Of course they don’t fit. Why would they? What would be the point of that? I knew they wouldn’t fit, even though, incredibly, I still had all the original paperwork with the 115 different 60 digit serial numbers that Brenda at the call centre insisted I sound out clearly and distinctly in my best ‘speaking clock’ voice so that she could efficiently type them into her little order template and whiz that off to dispatch where it could be winged to me like some culinary dark victory in three to five working days.
Marvellous. But my new hob knobs do not fit. They do, however, work so I have decided that is good enough. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. They do sit on the sticky-uppy bit that engages the hotplate. They just don’t slide down it. They do make the hotplates functional. With all four hotplates fully operational again, I can fashion mash with my comically shaped Abel & Cole potatoes to go on the Sosmix bolognaise sauce I made yesterday to produce a lovely vegetarian shepherd’s pie, blanch some spinach and tie-die towels in two different colours. It really doesn’t matter if they look more like mushrooms than hob knobs.
Novel situation report : After last week’s unscheduled massacre, I am on Draft 4 in which 82,992 words survived. Some of these are quite poorly so expect further casualties.
Action Plan : After much contemplation and close examination of EU human rights legislation, I have decided to kill a character for no reason. I bumped off two earlier on but qualified their demise. The master on pointless, gratuitous deaths in fiction as far as I’m concerned is Magnus Mills and I have reread bits of all his books this week to put me in the mood. I’ve also been reading David Nicholls’ Starter For Ten. Although no one has died so far, you get the feeling an innocent could get hit by a frozen moment at any time and buy it, big style. I have seen The Day After Tomorrow so I know these competitions are not just about general knowledge.
Bottom line : I’ll be blogging less often. I’ll probably stay off for a week to get this poor sod killed off humanely and cover my tracks.
Last word :
Morgan Stanley : I take it I was too old, too slow and too female.
Abel & Cole : I so love you guys but what about ‘Jerusalem artichoke is my favourite vegetable’ is not clear? Come on the season will be over before you know it.
Ms Ruben : Sorry – my favourite colour is pink, no green, no pink and green, no, actually it’s black. What do you mean that’s not a colour?
Ms Viv : I was joking. Really, my musical influences are Todd Rundgren, ... no seriously… Viv?


Lovely cartoon from www.savagechickens.com

Monday, February 12, 2007

Lords a Leaping




















For years I worked in local government, sometimes on policy but mostly managing regeneration projects. It always sounded like such a lot of fun to be involved in ‘making a difference for real people’ and ‘changing places, changing lives’. Sometimes people would come up with really good ideas like replacing school buildings before they fell down and killed a lot of children or stocking libraries with books or making sure there was a health centre within a day’s walk.

But, increasingly, the ideas started to get less, well, concrete. Instead of being presented with a proposal to knock down a semi-derelict tower block and replace it with a nice row of houses, you’d find yourself in all day seminars discussing ‘issues around anti-social behaviour’ which would be presented as the main reason why our social housing is in such poor shape – as opposed to a complete lack of maintenance.

Over an executive finger buffet at lunch time, you’d receive a parade of police superintendents and housing association directors telling you that it would be a ‘cool idea’ to erect youth shelters everywhere, presumably to relieve young people of the obligation of carrying an umbrella with them wherever they went. My riposte of suggesting that bus shelters could be renamed did not usually go down all that well.

Eventually I realised that the reason so many of these initiatives end in abject failure is that once the great ideas that come from the ‘grassroots communities’ have been filtered through a plethora of regulations, budget constraints and fixed positions there is very little left of the original concept that caused such a huge buzz. It is not unheard of for a proposal for a marvellous new leisure centre to get negotiated down to an infrequent community newsletter and some pious advice about the perils of obesity.

What we in this country have really failed to grasp is that progress requires openness and a willingness by those who are standing in the way to give themselves a bang on the head and move forward with the rest of us. The proposed reforms in our second chamber of government, the House of Lords, are a classic case in point. Jack ‘Strawman’ Straw, the minister responsible has shied away from suggesting one of the most fundamental meaningful changes, to get rid of the bishops, in his recent White Paper.

This is our problem. We can’t be honest with ourselves about what is the true function of this house. The second chamber reviews the decisions of government. That is its only job. Yet the last possible consideration is to prioritise putting people in it who will do that job most effectively. Instead of reviewing the function of the house and making recommendations for membership based on purpose, the arguments have all been about safeguarding positions and traditions.

Britain is the only modern democracy with religious leaders taking a directive role in government. Rather than recognise this for the anachronism that it is, Strawman is suggesting that other religions are also represented. No! Terry Sanderson writes in the National Secular Society’s Newsletter (also on CiF) that other religions only cover 5% of the population and a resounding 98% of us do not provide the Church of England with its weekly bums on seats. If this Government is sincere about wanting to modernise and engage ordinary people, then the second chamber has to be a genuine microcosm of the general population. You don’t see that many bishops picking up a few bits from Marks & Spencer or attending parents’ evenings at their local school or battling to get a pushchair onto the bus in the rain or agonising over whether their elderly relative is being well treated in their care home.

There is, however, the tentative suggestion that the number of bishops in the Lords be reduced, to predictable consternation. This from the National Secular Society,

The ‘Church Times’ reports that the Bishop of Chelmsford was one of those on the working party who prepared the paper. He said that there was a point below which the number of bishops could not be cut if they were to do their job. “I have got a sticking point. The numbers have still to be worked out, but you need 16 active bishops to make it work, and you need more than that to achieve that number, if some are off ill or away. This is not a settled issue.”

What kind of maths is involved here? Are the bishops also expected to provide a volleyball team?

The very same Lord Bishop of Chelmsford once wrote on his time in their lordship’s house: “I am listened to because of the position I occupy. And if I write to a minister on House of Lords notepaper protocol dictates that I receive a reply, and speedily …most bishops enjoy their time in the Lords. I love it. The privileges are enormous.”

So when did deference end exactly? If they’re really that wedded to the retention of their ermine and ornaments why don’t they just build a theme park? Having said all that, I’m sentimental about the Astronomer Royal being there, although it really should be Patrick Moore, he aligns with my everyman criteria …




Cartoon from www.loc.harpweek.com

Sunday, February 11, 2007

And we can be heroes

When you get rejects from magazines and don’t win competitions, nothing is more infuriating than to read from the judges ‘the standard of entries was extraordinarily high’, but now I know exactly what the phrase means. I have been labouring under the misapprehension that most people write piffle and could never understand why I simply don’t shine by comparison.

Today the scales have fallen from my eyes like ill-fitting contact lenses which is rather a shame because my ‘undiscovered’ fantasy is far preferable to reality. I have this morning read all forty-four of the entries for The Moon Topples short fiction competition and mine is nothing special. All the stories are great. I didn’t even short list myself. I couldn’t. Starting with an initial cull of nine I wheedled it down to three finalists and I cannot decide between them. I don’t even like short stories that much but these, I love.

I don’t want to say anymore in case I get in trouble with Mr Moon Topples. This has happened – to Ms Baroque of all people, who got in trouble for ironically hinting that readers should try to spot her story and vote for it. Mr Topples runs a very tight ship. You can vote on the entries until Wednesday, so please do because it is the competition of the year. I’d love to implore you to vote for mine but it’s not one of the better ones, so don’t, even though it would obviously mean the difference between unsustainable joy and suicidal heartbreak.

Recently, I reported that the band I was in the early 80s is to have releases on iTunes. Now the fourteen year old daughter of one of our members has offered to design us a MySpace page. This is the height of acceptance. A very cool fourteen year old offering to design you a MySpace page means you can’t be that naff, doesn’t it? Of course this is more good luck than good management. I used to look at The Thompson Twins and think – why can’t we be more like them? Imagine! Had we been, Boy George would have been the only thing standing between us and total humiliation, and that’s a very slim crêpe de Chine of credibility. Being in an obscure ‘indy’ band now seems like a great past to have had. One review describes our Messthetics contribution as ‘Marc Almond-meets-the Meat Puppets spookiness’ – that’s good, right?

Because I’m writing a book set in Spain, I’ve been going over my old diaries from the time I actually lived on the Costa del Sol (1994-5) and jointly ran a small hotel with the rest of my family. I’m going to dedicate this book to the writer Thomas Firbank who stayed at our hotel while he was writing the first draft of what became his last book A Country of Memorable Honour which was finally published in 2000. Tom died a year later.

He was the loveliest man and quite old when I met him, 84 I think. We stayed in touch after I left Spain and returned to London and I have several letters of encouragement from him in his wonderful spidery handwriting, encouraging my own writing. Tom (or Ton as he was called by our housekeeper Maria del Mar – a nineteen year old who bore a striking resemblance in looks and tone to Natasha of Boris and Natasha in Rocky & Bullwinkle), lived the classic writer’s life. He took breakfast at 7.30 and was back in his room by 8.00. He wrote steadily in his laborious longhand until midday and then went off to lunch with friends. He worked again from 3.00 until 6.00 and was usually the first at our lovely rooftop bar when it opened at 7.00 where he’d have a beer or two before meeting more friends for supper. I have lots of photos of him somewhere in the loft. My memory of Tom is that he looked a lot like Jimmy Stewart.

My personally signed copy of his debut novel, I Bought a Mountain (published in 1940), is one of my most prized possessions. It chronicles the purchase by Tom and his first wife Esmé of a rugged Welsh farm in Dyffryn Mymbyr in 1933. It is the most beautiful book and it vividly illuminated those rugged Snowdonian hills for me. It was an immediate best seller and has never been out of print. I remember reading it in bed at night and marvelling that the fascinating man who wrote it was lying in the room next door to mine.

Tom was one of life’s great adventurers, someone who took his opportunities as they presented themselves. He’d rallied to the war call, becoming a Lieutenant-Colonel and writing another book about his war experience, I Bought a Star. He told me he’d had a ‘fabulous’ war. I thought of my own poor father, who’d also fought in WW2, surviving the ordeal with dignity but never really overcoming the horrors of six years of battle.

Once, when I was by myself running the hotel, I’d saved a baby House Martin that crash landed on our roof. I learned from the incredibly knowledgeable Spanish that you can revive a baby bird by shoving a peppercorn down its neck – it’s probably a kill or cure thing but, in this instance, it worked. The baby bird which I called Feliz (happy in Spanish) survived for two weeks. I was even teaching it to fly. But then it suddenly keeled over and died. Tom was so compassionate about it. It was only a couple of days earlier that I had been reading about him and Esmé out on the freezing hills trying to find lost lambs.

Sometimes I go through very low times and think will anything I do ever strike a chord with anyone, ever? I do think of Tom a lot and how, although he often seemed very old-fashioned (he totally did leave a message on my answering machine raging ‘infernal machine!’ – I so wish I’d kept it), I would love to think that I’d still be writing to the end of my life as Tom did. Even though he never repeated the great commercial success of his first novel, he just wasn’t bothered by it. He’d had a fabulous life, and so have I.



Cover of I Bought a Star from Barnes and Noble.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Stool Intentions

















You think you have the right/wrong, good/bad thing sorted. It’s not brain surgery after all, is it? Well not exactly but, according to The Guardian today, it could be closer than we imagine,

‘A team of world-leading neuroscientists has developed a powerful technique that allows them to look deep inside a person's brain and read their intentions before they act.

The research breaks controversial new ground in scientists' ability to probe people's minds and eavesdrop on their thoughts, and raises serious ethical issues over how brain-reading technology may be used in the future.’

Yes, they are working on a system to determine if we are planning to do a bad thing. This should be right up the Police Pre-Crime Unit’s street, since they love nothing better than to solve crimes that haven’t happened yet – so much easier than having to be careful with real evidence and relying on the testimony of fallible individuals. So much nicer to be sitting indoors sifting through emails than out in the cold and wet crawling along the ground with tweezers.

Last week we saw three paedophiles who met in a chat room convicted of conspiracy to rape two school girls in what is being described as a ‘landmark case’ because the evidence was solely computer-based. These men are vile and should be in jail for possessing depraved images of children and it is certainly right that police stepped in because the intended victims were real people and a terrible crime could have taken place. But it didn’t and the conviction stretches the definition of ‘conspiracy’ further than it has ever been outside of wartime because these men had never met. Why not trust the law and be satisfied with convicting them of the crimes they did commit, which are serious enough to keep them on the sex offenders register for life?

Last week nine men were arrested in Birmingham under the Terrorism Act. Last night one was released without charge claiming that Britain is a ‘police state for Muslims’. Today five of the remaining eight were charged with ‘terror offences’ and one is accused of plotting to kidnap and kill a Muslim British soldier by beheading him. Yes, it’s a horrific thought, and if police have truly foiled a terror plot then I’ll be first in line to applaud their efforts because they’ll be keeping us safe, which is their main job. In London we know what it’s like to lose 52 innocent people and have hundreds more disabled because four idiots decided to blow themselves up. We’ve faced the horror of having it nearly happen all over again two weeks later when four more stepped up to martyr themselves.

And yes, it’s all led to hand-wringing about why people want to do terrible things to each other but isn’t there a difference between wanting to do them and actually doing them? Wouldn’t Dan Brown and Martina Cole be in chains if thinking up ghoulish ways to kill people was evidence in itself of wrongdoing?

The definition of ‘conspiracy’ needs to be very closely monitored by we ordinary folk lest we end up jack-booting ourselves into an own goal in the liberty cup. Let us never forget that the powers that be are very focused on technology that makes their job easier.

Professor John-Dylan Haynes at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, who led this study on intention mapping with colleagues at University College London and Oxford University explained to The Guardian,

‘These techniques are emerging and we need an ethical debate about the implications, so that one day we're not surprised and overwhelmed and caught on the wrong foot by what they can do. These things are going to come to us in the next few years and we should really be prepared.’

You know what Prof, isn’t it kind of down to you to do the follow up on this? Do you need me to remind you of what happened in the end of Minority Report, or for that matter, what happened to Robert Oppenheimer?



Cartoon from www.utopia.utexas.edu

Friday, February 09, 2007

Snowed On Ya



















Dear World,
I am reporting to you on a day in which nothing happened, at all, anywhere in Britain. This is because 10cm (or 4 inches in the old money) of snow fell all over the kingdom last night, something which compels us all to stop whatever we are doing or had planned to do immediately and utter total banalities to each other like, ‘isn’t this a picture postcard scene then?’
To put this situation into context, 10cms comes to the top of the average adult’s ankle. There are a great many rules in Britain, most of which we residents are unaware until a bailiff comes to take our furniture away. However, one rule that I have always observed is the one which states that every man, woman and child must own a pair of Wellington boots. Being civic minded, I have several pair, most purchased from jumble sales some twenty-five years ago. These I have in case anyone needs to borrow a pair if it should snow during their visit. So, if the three bears should happen to reverse tradition and drop in on Goldilocks, they will be equipped for a stroll on Hackney Marshes if one of our infrequent snowfalls coincides with their arrival.
Above you will see another of my scenes from the bedroom. You may just be able to make out a pair of Canada Geese on the opposite bank. The geese seem not to have altered what they would normally be doing to take account of the fact that it has snowed. They are from Canada, which is, I suppose, explanation enough. Here in Britain, everyone had the day off. I could go on about how easy it is to bring the country grinding to a halt with the slightest inclemency but a) I have done it before, b) everyone else has been doing just that as it is the only news story today, c) it would be thoroughly disingenuous as everyone is having so much fun.
Yes, I could talk about why we don’t have plans ‘in place’ as authorities like to say to deal with a cold snap and why men in orange jackets need to get down on their knees and personally dust off the tracks in order for the trains to run, but, for once, everyone seemed to be smiling. Schools were all closed and children and their parents (after harrumphing unconvincingly for the benefit of copious news cameras about not being able to get to their place of employment), promptly donned their best woolly hats and grabbed the family sized baking tray to make for the nearest gentle slope.
To be honest, it would be pointless for us to bother creating a whole infrastructure to deal with heavy snowfalls when they only happen for one day every five years. Better everyone just stays home for a day and has fun building a snow person in the shape of John ‘Prezzies’ Prescott. It is the nearest to a monument the dear deputy leader is ever going to get. I read somewhere recently that the average British worker only puts in forty-five minutes of actual work a day – the remainder of the day being taken up by one of the following activities:-
  • Looking for a new job
  • Bidding for car parts on eBay
  • Searching lastminute.com for a mini-break
  • Playing Free Cell and/or Minesweeper
  • Deleting Viagra spam from the inbox
  • Making coffee for the entire floor
  • Composing and laminating threatening notes about kitchen slovenliness.
Who can be a loser if everyone gets a couple of days off to bond over frostbite and stir up a bit of that blitz spirit, especially as it’s likely to happen all over again tomorrow bringing the windfall of a four day weekend for most. There could be trouble ahead if boardroom Scrooges miss the point and order staff to deduct the two days from their annual leave but they will be the losers as productivity plummets to fifteen minutes a day.
Although we all benefit from the good will and howdy do-dee that the white stuff brings, the big winners will be the estates of Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne whose 1945 song ‘Let It Snow’ is on continuous rotation on every radio and television network in the land. We may not be able to devise a strategy for dealing with the traffic chaos that a few flurries bring but we might think about expanding the song cycle a little. I suggest ‘Snow Way To Say Goodbye’ by Leonard Cohen. If you want cheering up, Len’s your man…

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Haze'n'Daze



















I don’t know if I’ll be able to post tonight as the internet has been running slow all day which has made me quite paranoid about worms and cyber-theft and all the other things that normally paralyse me into a state of administrative apoplexy. I’ll write it and if you see it, you know I’ve been able to post it, or at the very least, an impostor has. I’ve upgraded to Firefox 2 and applied all my spyware sweeping tools in the hope that will help. It always makes me feel better to have tried something anyway.

I have not had a particularly productive day. The only thing I have managed to achieve apart from schlepping up the road for some milk and bread and taking this wondrous photo of the view from my writing room window, is to order some new knobs for my hob – hob knobs if you will. Inexplicably, I managed to break three of the four knobs while removing them for cleaning the other night. Let that be a lesson to me I say.

One thing I have learned over the years is that the very minute you put your house on the market, almost everything in it will break down. If you have not received any income for nearly a year, you are especially vulnerable and may come in from your morning walk to find your appliances fighting over whose turn it is to blow up. My intercom has already fizzled out this week, meaning that I will probably miss the delivery of my new hob knobs and spend a morning waiting in a long queue in the Bethnal Green sorting office to retrieve them.

I have written those first three paragraphs waiting for Blogger to respond. I type fast but this is ridiculous. Tum te tum. Oh, something else happened today. I used to be in a band that was so far underground that you need a soil survey before I am even allowed to tell you about it. For some years now, a very lovely American man called Chuck Warner (no relation to the Warners as far as I know) has been re-releasing ‘seminal’ garage music from the late 1970s and early 1980s on his Messthetics compilations and the band that I was in is featured on some of them.

We were vinyl so imagine my surprise when asked to sign a licensing agreement for the music to be released on iTunes. Straight from platter to data! The five minutes of elation at the thought of being unearthed by a new generation of musicologists quickly dissipated when the realisation dawned that I would have to trawl through all the old financial records to establish who paid for what in studio time etc, just in case we get approached by Cap'n Birdseye for the use of one of our very catchy, late and lamented John Peel approved (no kidding here), quirky indy tunes. After four hours I found the fading receipts in a file marked ‘art work’. Also turned up the original manuscript of the illustrated epic poem Cleopatra I wrote in 1992. I gave a copy to my mother for Christmas that year. She has been very nervous about me ever since. I’d been looking for that for at least six years. And here’s me thinking it’s been a wasted day…

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Burqini Beach Party














There is just time left for you to enter The Moon Topples story competition which closes tomorrow. I have finished my entry and feel the better for it. I don’t write short stories very often as I find them too, well, short. I have read some in the past – Hardy, Hemingway, Chekov, but came to the conclusion that I preferred the novels of Hardy and Hemingway and the plays of Chekov. The only time I ever missed a station on the tube was when I was reading a Thomas Hardy short story. I was working at what used to be called Twentieth Century Fox in Perivale and ended up in West Ruislip which, I believe is somewhere in The Netherlands. That would explain the windmills of disorientation that were swirling around in my mind anyway. I don’t blame the short story for that though.

The Moon Topples competition has a maximum word length of 500 words. I wasn’t sure if that included the title or not so I played it safe and wrote 499 words of story and one word of title. That’s incredibly short, even for a short story. A believe the term ‘model of economy’ would not be out of place here. In my admittedly verbose world, 500 words is in fact a post-it note. However, it is done and I allowed myself a brief bask in that natural high that one gets from completing a project before plunging into the day's papers online.

David Aaronovitch in The Times is having himself a good old rant about how Britain is not ‘that bad’. At the risk of sparking a debate on cultural relativism, I just want to point out that we do ourselves no favours by:-

  • Claming that every other country is much worse off.
  • Assuming people who criticise the way things are would prefer to live in a fascist dictatorship.
  • Inferring that things would be much better if we all stopped whinging and handed over all spare land to Tescos because they have promised to create jobs.

Aaronovitch suggested that those of us who have certain fears about the steady deterioration of our quality of life might like to go and live:-

In France, perhaps, where the riots in the incomparably bleak suburbs or banlieues of Paris and other cities raged for weeks last year. To Australia maybe, where a mass fight between thousands of white and Middle-Eastern boys took place along the Sydney beach line last winter. Or Atlanta, where historians can be wrestled to the ground, manhandled, and held in chokey, because they’ve crossed the road.

Sorry David, we just didn’t want our hospital to be replaced by a Starbucks.

I have written before about the Sydney riots as I was in Australia at the time and witnessed just how much it rattled everyone – as opposed to quickly being absorbed into the ongoing narrative about how difficult all this multiculturalism really is. Fortunately for everyone, that week of riots in Sydney turned out to be a nadir and now, just a year later, my old home town is showing everyone how possible it is to heal these rifts with a little effort and creative thinking.

Four months ago seventeen young Muslim men and women began training to become life guards on Cronulla Beach where the riots took place and last weekend, they passed their Bronze Medallion exam that qualifies them to patrol the beaches. This was all possible because someone had the common sense to invent a swimming costume that Muslim women can wear which looks very like the traditional life saving uniform. This from The Border Mail,

The “burqini”, which has already been sold to more than 9000 women in Sydney, is suitable for surf life saving patrols and has been endorsed by the Australian Islamic Council and the mufti of Australia.

Unveiling the new Surf Life Saving Australia burqini on Saturday, 20-year-old Mecca Laa Laa (pictured) said the outfit, which covers the head and body, would give Australian Muslim women the freedom to enjoy the beach while fulfilling their religious obligations.

So no messing about with hand-wringing and navel gazing then, just a little bit of compromise, enterprise and lycra. Go surfies.


Photo from Getty Images

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Chance Meat


















Most of the time I go around believing myself to be invisible. This is the way I explain to myself why, when I open the door of the newspaper shop for a woman struggling with two pushchairs and a shopping trolley, some blinkered gorilla barges through without so much as a how do you do, knocking the two of us, three children and several tons of Pampers into the Lotto stand.

My cloak of invisibility allows me to believe that I can go out in the trackies I have slept in topped with a Gore-Tex coat older than Madonna and tuck hair that has not been washed since the Tories were last in power up under a Nike hat I found in the street in 1993 and trawl around the shops with impunity. In Hackney no one expects too much sartorial sophistication.

I have a strong raffia basket older than Madonna’s father that has needed more repairs than John ‘Prezzies’ Prescott’s reputation to keep it fit for purpose. Admittedly it does actually have a job to do so at least has some excuse. I keep fixing the bag because it can carry four bottles of wine. They don’t make bags like that any more.

Today, I had occasion to visit the Homerton Library to return the gratis DVD that I got as a prize for being clever enough to renew my library card. I also returned an unreadable book by Julie Myerson. I thought, because Ms Myerson is so sparklingly erudite on Newsnight Review, that I would also enjoy her novels. Me and the Fat Man is the story of a married woman with a full time job and no drug addiction who prostitutes herself in a blind people’s herb garden for no apparent reason. She does immediately rush off and deposit her earnings in the Nationwide so maybe she is more freaked out about the prospect of growing old in poverty than I am. I’m quite optimistic as I feel certain they would have brought back the workhouse by then.

Shuffling up the high street I popped into various Turkish emporia to buy exotic vegetables and window shop for a new scone cutter and eventually ended up at the butchers. I go to the butcher approximately three times a year. I am fussy about meat and normally only buy at the farmers’ market but this particular butcher has very good Scottish stewing steak and I was in a Hungarian goulash kind of mood. Today, my invisibility cloak doesn’t seem to be working very well.

As I ordered my pound of flesh, I noticed the butcher giggling away to himself in a manner that suggested he had seen my baggiest knickers hanging on the washing line. I naturally enquired as to the nature of his mirth and he said that he was just thinking that I had been coming into his butcher shop for over twenty years and how little I had changed in that time. I might have been flattered if there was any way he could have ascertained that from the three square inches of my face that was exposed to him.

Rather shocked by the directness of this personal exchange, I rushed home to see if the rest of the world and I had finally aligned. The post box was empty save a reminder from the Inland Revenue to do something I have already done and a leaflet from Pizza Au Go-Go. There was evidence that I had received one of those ghost calls from a machine that phones people up during the day just to annoy them and the usual clutch of Viagra emails and notifications that I had won the British National Lottery. The butcher must be some kind of innocent as he does not know that I am invisible…




Cartoon from www.markstivers.com

Monday, February 05, 2007

Blind Justice












Last December I reported that the Government of Fiji, having been rather hastily seized without too much forethought on staffing by one Mr Commander Frank Bainimarama, sent out this international recruitment plea,

‘Applications are sought from qualified members of the public for the positions of cabinet ministers in the interim Government.

Also applicants must be of outstanding character and without any criminal record and each must not have been declared bankrupt.

Applicants must have a minimum of 10 years working experience and or high level of tertiary education. Applicants must indicate the area of interest in which he or she would like to serve in.’

It seems one internationally renowned candidate might have been guilty of speed reading the application, lighting on the words ‘outstanding’ ‘minimum of ten years’ and ‘bankrupt’ and feeling he was fully qualified, hopped the first flight to Suva.

I speak of none other than Peter Foster, famous fraudster and friend to the Blairs. Arrested in Fiji for having lied about his criminal past – now there’s a first – Foster managed to elude the authorities and island hop over to Vanuatu where he was arrested again. Interestingly, the stringent vetting process for positions in the Fiji Government does not seem to incorporate an Interpol check which, you would have thought in the circumstances, would be wise.

What happened next is even stranger. After being picked up in Vanuatu and imprisoned, Foster escaped jail and booked himself into the luxury Chantilly Hotel. This from the Sydney Morning Herald,

‘The conman Peter Foster - sentenced on Friday to two months' jail in Vanuatu after a saga in which he tried to escape by leaping from a window - was allowed to check into a luxury hotel yesterday.

Foster told the Herald by phone he had a "very civilised" lunch with the director of corrective services in Vanuatu, Michael Taun, and other senior officials, during which they agreed that his sentence had been served, under a provision for 50 per cent of a term to be revoked where the sentence was less than 12 months.’

The negotiating skills he picked up while romancing Cherie Blair confidante Carol Caplin have come in very handy obviously. It seems that the Vanuatu prison experience was not quite up to Foster’s exacting standards. Clarifying the reason for releasing himself on his own recognisance, Foster explained,

‘I spent three weeks in solitary confinement in prison conditions not to Australian standards. It was extraordinarily hard.’

He should know, having been imprisoned on at least three continents. If anyone is in a position to compare penal standards, it is Peter Foster. He will shortly be penning his own Lonely Planet guide to world wide correctional facilities and I understand the British Home Office has retained him to oversee the 8,000 new prison places it is planning. Center Parcs has been advised to expect a compulsory purchase order in the next post.

It seems the interview in Suva which led to Foster’s original arrest did not go well. Sounds like one of those nightmare scenarios where the potential employer intends to throw unsuccessful candidates in jail for life to prevent them from instigating grievance claims about failure to strictly adhere to the Nolan Standards for Conduct in Public Life. Equally, it seems Foster had another agenda. According to the Sydney Morning Herald he made,

‘a number of extraordinary claims, including that he secretly taped a meeting with the coup leader Frank Bainimarama, who he predicted would be assassinated within a month.’

Well no prizes for clairvoyance there – although he might have taken into account that February is the shortest month and given himself a bigger leeway, say predicting an assassination by the end of the year, just to be on the safe side. One thing is really puzzling me though. Peter Foster is like THE conman – the one whose face is known throughout the world. I know he’s said to be a charmer, but is there anyone left, besides glamour model Sam Fox, who doesn’t know that he stole his own grandmother’s Odor Eaters to cultivate into his hoax diet product Bai Lin Tea? Sorry Sam, you had to find out sometime. I happen to know a very good psychotherapist and you know you really should talk about that train wreck of a Brit Awards thing you did with Mick Fleetwood in 89. I know, I know but the sooner we confront these things. How’s the diet going by the way?



Photo of Peter Foster from www.bbc.co.uk

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Mentor Memoir











I
’d like to be able to say it’s been a strange week but strange weeks are becoming fairly commonplace so I don’t quite know where to go with that one. Sometimes the only direction to go when you’re feeling a bit besieged, is back. I frequently bemoan the absence of a mentor in my personal and professional life and am often convinced that if only a kindly and experienced person would take me in hand, I would give that Hanif Kureishi (whom I love and worship – don’t get me wrong) a run for his money. I do, very obviously, need looking after and it is much more difficult for a woman to get a devoted partner/carer. That’s my excuse anyway.

Because I’ve been away from Australia for most of the last twenty-five years, I sometimes forget that I was lucky enough to meet and stay with Oodgeroo Noonuccal (or Kath Walker as I knew her), on a number of memorable occasions. Oodgeroo first entered my consciousness at primary school when we studied her poems along with those of her close friend and contemporary, Judith Wright.

I was a student when I first went to stay at Moongalba, on beautiful Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island), Kath’s birthplace. By the time I met her, she had lived about ten lives. She was probably Australia’s most famous Aboriginal personality at the time, neck and neck with tennis champ Yvonne Goolagong maybe. She entered domestic service at 13 and, when the Second World War broke out, joined the army. Returning to housekeeping in the 1950s she worked for the prosperous Cilento family, (Diane Cilento became an actor and married Sean Connery). She was a leading figure in the Aboriginal rights struggles of the 60s and, travelling on a diplomatic passport in the 70s, was a passenger on a hijacked airliner in the Middle East. She loved to tell the story of how confused the hijackers were to see a black woman with blue eyes travelling first class on an Australian diplomatic passport. She was celebrated internationally as a poet, story teller and artist but liked nothing better than to set up a barbeque for visitors and get down to some serious drinking.

Anyway. I’ve been thinking a lot about Kath today, maybe because the sky was so blue, the sunset so bold and gold and the swans, ducks and geese on my canal so loud with life. Below is a poem I wrote about her a couple of years ago. There were always packs of young people staying at Moongalba in tents or one of the old caravans she had set up and she showed us the Aboriginal ways with such loving enthusiasm that I have not forgotten a single word. Since ‘the sieve’ was named after my memory, that isn’t half saying something.

The poem describes a particular trip when four of us sailed over to Minjerribah from Brisbane in a small yacht and stayed for a week. Kath loved the boat because it was an old and much cherished vessel owned by skipper Peter Baillie’s family and she wanted to go out sailing in it every day. She gave Sea Belle the Aboriginal name for Moreton BayQuandamooka. I heard from a friend who’d attended her funeral that two whales came very close to shore during the ceremony and I wasn’t at all surprised by that. She knew all the creatures of the sea and they knew her too. I’m blessed beyond measure to have known this extraordinary and beautiful woman and don’t ever let me forget it please. I give you my poem more precious than luncheon vouchers…


Oodgeroo

There at Moongalba where you sat yourself down
in your circle of caravans, you told us that the bush
has its own economy and showed us how
to count its currency in roots and shells.

We’d sail to you in the English boat you named
Quandamooka and trained to find the fish; you’d
talk to her gently and whisper where they lived and
she would turn stealth at your command and pounce.

You’d show us the patience of a million years of knowing
as we asked you to tell us how the world works and why
we couldn’t get it right no matter how many metals and
minerals we dug and fashioned into bombs and guns.

One time, leaning low and scanning with your old
blue eyes you pointed out a long shadow and said,

look there as a dugong hunkered below us like a
u-boat on the losing side of a long and dirty war.

But you built forgiveness from the homecoming
that made the little things all right and the years
of scrubbing and healing fade to kindness as you
found the heart to return the waves of comrades at the RSL*.

There at Moongalba, when you died and I had long
gone from the reach of your outstretched hand and
forgotten how you dreamt for all of us, I heard that
two whales came; perhaps they even sang for you.


*RSL – Returned and Services League – Australian armed services veterans’ organisation.


Picture from www.oodgeroo.qut.edu.au. I have my own pictures but I have no idea where they are- up in the loft somewhere. This one looks like how I most remember her.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

A big boy did it and claimed parliamentary privilege

Last Friday, our Prime Minister was interviewed by police for the second time about whether or not his Government took money from wealthy friends in return for the promise of ‘honours’, you know, knighthoods – the things you’re supposed to get for a life spent in public service rather than five minutes spent writing out a cheque. Call me an old fuddy duddy but I think being interviewed by the police for what amounts to fraud, is really quite a major incident yet Tony ‘Blah Blah’ Blair didn’t even bother to mention it until a week later. Like a teenager caught with a spliff, he’s defaulted to eye rolling and moaning about everyone making such a big deal out of nothing.

The way he spun it on our BBC this morning you might have deduced that the whole thing was taking place in an episode of The Bill rather than Downing street,

‘It is entirely up to the police when they conclude their inquiry but let us hope that it is soon. When it is I will happily talk about it. But let me say to the public that you should not believe everything that is ricocheting around the media.’

You’d be forgiven for concluding that the police were simply conducting a house to house search of the Westminster area in general to see if anyone had noticed a neighbour popping down to the engravers with all their silverware immediately after depositing a large brown envelope through the letter box at No. 10 Downing Street. The way Blah Blah tells it, it’s really nothing to do with him at all and hasn’t anyone noticed that he has a very important job to do and no time whatever to be playing silly games with mischievous journalists,

‘It is totally understanding that this is very distracting and obsessive for the media but it is not for me. The best thing to do is to wait for it to conclude and get on with my job, he sighed.

I would very much like the public to know that the big pile of dirty dishes in my kitchen is nothing to do with me. If the police find there is a link between me and those duty dishes I will be happy to comment on it then but, until such times as the police turn up some solid evidence that I am responsible for my dirty dishes stockpile, I think the public should give me the benefit of the doubt and the media should be ashamed of themselves and turn their attention to tracking down the real criminals.

Blah Blah seemed to achieve yet another degree of separation with this,

I'm not going to beg for my character in front of anyone... People can make their own minds up.

Perhaps it was not he that was interviewed by the police but Buttons from Cinderella. If he keeps this up he could have a post prime ministerial career as Kevin Bacon.

So, it’s a case of I didn’t do it and anyway I wasn’t there and don’t even know what you’re talking about, besides I didn’t realise that being nice to your friends was against the law or could make you unpopular,

‘I am not going to get into the situation where I am pleading for my integrity, not even in front of the British people... I like to be liked but you realise after a time that you cannot please all the people all the time.’

People simply do not realise how difficult it is to buy back your integrity once you have hocked it. But then he seems to have a change of heart, fessing up and pleading for corporal punishment.

‘You realise that you have a choice of either bending whichever which way or try to do what you think is right and hold to it.’

Give that very naughty boy a jolly good spanking auntie and don’t forget to put on your fishnets…



Tony Blair as played by Nigel Molesworth

Friday, February 02, 2007

Wasted Yoof

The 1960s have gone on far too long. I blame this phenomenon for our failure to mature as a culture. A single decade should not be expected to last the best part of 50 years, yet such is the arrogance of the psychedelic sixties, that they refuse to give up control of either the pop charts or the colour charts. How do you think it feels to see the face of your own teen idol Jim Morrison on the T-shirt of one of your friend’s grandchildren? Don’t bother to answer that. From groovy to gross in a few short letters.

It doesn’t help that our icons all insisted on checking out at around 27 when you even look good as a corpse. How do you think Rimbaud and Shelley endured? If you die in your twenties, thirties, or in exceptional cases, your early forties, you’ll always look young to the young. Whereas they will very rightly go Yuuucccchhh… at the sight of Paul McCartney’s quite literal turtle neck and be only too happy to leave you to your memories, they will fawn over the image of a youthful, prime culled John Lennon and try not to think too much about the elderly Yoko.

You’d need to do some heavy talking to persuade anyone these days that Keith Richards is actually still alive as opposed to existing as an interactive roving exhibit of the Natural History Museum. Yet when Annie Leibovitz photographed him for Rolling Stone Magazine in 1971 (pictured), passed out in Byronic repose on a gruelling US tour, I clipped the photo and later reproduced it in shades of blue and grey oils for my matriculation art exam. I got a distinction. I’m amazed that this was the only reproduction of the photo I could find on the internet as I always thought of it as one of the great iconic images of the time.

Richards might as well have stayed right there, comatose in that hotel room and saved us all a lot of bother. We have tried to advance from the sixties and none of us who were kids then would ever have dreamed that we were witnessing the pinnacle of progress and had nowhere to go but back. I assumed that copying Mary Quant dress designs and running them up on the family Singer while dreaming of getting the white patent platforms off lay-by in time for the summer dance would be something I would be able to write about in my dotage with nostalgia while feeling totally alienated by current fashions. Instead I find myself wishing I’d kept those shoes.

In some ways it’s nice that fashion isn’t such a broad church and, in all honesty, I don’t think I could really have gone for the Star Trek vision of unisex dressing. The shell suit was an experiment too far in that direction and we can all be enormously relieved that it didn’t survive far beyond the Essex boundary. A niche industry continues to thrive in Grays as I understand it. I spend most of my days now in trackies so I don’t suppose I can point the stiletto too stridently. I agree that themed jumpers for men got totally out of hand but, why oh why, did they dive back into their stuffy old dad kit so readily? Black suit, white shirt, striped tie - what is that?

The sixties brought us men in velveteen which was a mixed blessing as it is a fabric that does need a bit of care. Then again we also had the wholesale rejection of the fifties overt hygiene ethic and patchouli oil is very efficient at covering a multitude of odorous sins. It was liberating and I’m sad that men have retreated back into physical uniformity but then again, I don’t know if I could continue to handle those old T-shirt faces leering at me from fifty inch girths. Che Guevara’s lean visage flesh-stretched over Family Guy tends to diffuse the heroica somewhat. Maybe it’s just as well those mantles are passed on to a generation on which they at least look contemporary. I mean, can you really wear the face of a twenty year old when you’re sixty and not look like a bit of a paedo?

Have pity on those of us whose youth has been elongated like a Modigliani map of the world. Why, why, why is Mick Jagger still being taken seriously? Shouldn’t his grandchildren be being kidnapped by revolutionaries? I don’t understand why the sixties are so determined to loom over us like Peter Wingard’s droopy moustache and even droopier hand gestures. What I would really have liked is to be able to look back on the sixties like a quaint precursor to the fine and sophisticated era that I rightly inherited. Bollocks to that. All I’ve ended up with is a faint memory of the promise of the Age of Aquarius and continued longevity of the crocheted poncho my grandmother made me in 1969…



Photo of Annie Leibovitz Rolling Stone Cover from www.crdp.ac-amiens.fr