Stiff Upper Lip? No, It’s Frozen Solid

•December 20, 2010 • 2 Comments

For the second time in as many weeks, parts of the UK have ground to a halt because of snow. (Snow! In December! Amazing!)  This is causing me much anguish. Not because I am stuck, or cold, or blinded by the glare, but because I am being constantly bombarded by people on the television telling me how dreadful everything is.

Over the weekend, we were subjected to minute-by-minute coverage on rolling news channels as a Virgin Atlantic plane sat, motionless, on a runway at Heathrow Airport. The whole point of the story seemed to be that nothing at all was happening, and yet viewers were repeatedly assured that these were ‘amazing scenes’ when, in fact, the most exciting thing we saw was an arm waving to the news helicopter from the cockpit. Meanwhile, inside the terminal buildings, people huddled under shiny survival blankets and moaned about the lack of mattresses and en-suite bathrooms.  Strangely, although the scenes were reminiscent of those photos of people using Tube stations as air-raid shelters, the famous British ‘Blitz spirit’ was nowhere in sight.

Later, the situation deteriorated dramatically as a little bit of the M25 was shut due to an overturned lorry. (And yes, you guessed it, we had to send a helicopter to film an empty motorway.)  Now, this may be the result of a greasy Northern chip on my shoulder, but since when did a bit of motorway being shut warrant twenty minutes of news coverage, a helicopter, and a ‘BREAKING NEWS’ ticker?

But the absolute final straw, and the real reason for this post, has come today. In a report on the BBC website, a traveller stranded at Heathrow has claimed that ‘we were like the homeless’ after having to sleep at the airport. Now, I realise it’s not the ideal way to spend an evening, but really? Homeless? Is that an appropriate analogy to be using, when you were on your way to Bali for a nice family Christmas while there are real, actual, poor, homeless people spending EVERY night sleeping in far worse conditions than the ones you’ve temporarily experienced?  I’m assuming that, while a night on the floor of Terminal 3 may not be quite the same as a night at the Mandarin Oriental, the majority of those stranded did at least have a) a roof over their heads; b) access to food and drink c) access to a bathroom and d) a suitcase full of clean clothes. And I’m also assuming that most of them will ultimately be awarded some kind of compensation, and that almost none of them will think about giving any of it to Shelter.  Good King Wenceslas must be spinning in his grave.

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Hello!, Is It Us You’re Looking For?

•November 16, 2010 • 1 Comment

I was 11 years old when Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer, Queen of Hearts, the People’s Parable. I got quite excited, as 11-year-old girls will about that kind of thing. I even wrote a song about it, which I can remember to this day. (No, I won’t be singing it for you.)

Today’s announcement that their son Prince William is to marry his girlfriend Kate Middleton next year induces much less enthusiasm. I should stress that the intervening years since 1981 haven’t turned me into a raging republican, but they have washed away much of the conventional middle-Englandiness of my childhood and have made me give a much smaller toss about what colour hat the Queen is wearing and what her corgis are called. Nevertheless, I don’t dislike or object to the Royal family. I would rather have a monarchy that brings tourists in, than a repressive regime that bans foreigners completely… but I digress.

Back in 1981, a Royal Wedding was special. It brought the country together. What brings the country together in 2010 is the X Factor and Heat magazine. The latter will, of course, milk the nuptials for all they’re worth, but I can’t help feeling that William and Kate will just blend right into Katie and Kerry and Peter and Alex and Jude and Sienna on those endless, mind-numbing glossy pages, and that our will to care, if it was ever there in the first place, will be lost. Ironically, Diana probably did a lot to nurture the public’s acceptance of, and need for, a celebrity culture, so if William and Kate get lost in the celebrity crowd, and don’t receive quite the undivided public attention that she did thirty years before, well, they know where to look. Maybe they should book the sparkly pink pumpkin carriage now, just to be on the safe side.

Lest We Forget

•November 11, 2010 • 2 Comments

It seems appropriate at this time of year to be slightly more serious for a moment.  Earlier today, much of the country (with the notable exception of Lord Sugar) observed two minutes of silence in remembrance of those who have fought and died over the years for the freedom we enjoy today.

Each of my grandfathers was involved in a World War.

Ernest in his DLI uniform

My dad’s dad went to the trenches of Northern France in 1917 as a stretcher-bearer in the Durham Light Infantry and, though he was not  injured himself, refused to talk about his experiences for the rest of his life. That lifelong silence, echoed in the brief two minutes we observed today, tells me all I need to know about the horrors that he saw and the memories he brought away with him, and yet by most objective measures, he was lucky. He went on to get married, father a child, and have a long and healthy life. Many of his comrades never had that opportunity.

Stan in his AFS uniform

My mum’s dad, by a stroke of good fortune, was born in 1906, too late to be conscripted for the first world war, and too early for the second, but he still played his part. In 1938, he was enrolled into the Auxiliary Fire Service and spent the war waiting for the bombs to drop on Leeds. When he married my grandma in 1940, he was not allowed to leave the Leeds city boundary for his honeymoon, and they spent it here. Four years later, my mum was born, just before the D-Day landings.  Stan wrote to his wife shortly afterwards: ‘It’s grand to know that everything has got over before the invasions started, because although I hadn’t said anything it was worrying me a lot when I thought what might happen to all the hospitals when the wounded began to come in…’  We take it for granted now that fathers will be on hand when their babies are born. My grandparents seem to have been communicating by letter about the birth of their first child. But again, they were the lucky ones, although the family was not entirely untouched.  In Belfast, my grandma’s aunt, uncle and cousin were killed in their beds in April 1941, in one of the biggest air raids of the war.

So yes, let’s remember the sacrifices made by others so that we can enjoy so much freedom today, but let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the remembrance is all about the history we learned at school. As long as young men and women are still coming home in boxes or in agony, and families are still separated by distance or the scars of conflict, we must never forget.

Any Colour You Like, As Long As It’s Bland

•November 7, 2010 • 1 Comment

Mr SB and I are in the throes of a home makeover. After many years, we’ve finally decided that our increasingly middle-aged spines are not being helped by sleeping on a mattress which, in its texture, resembles nothing more than a Bag For Life full of hamster cages. So we’ve decided to get a new one. And of course, that means we have to decorate the bedroom, and while we’re doing that we might as well buy some proper grown-up wardrobes instead of that ridiculous canvas thing that we bought from Argos just to tide him over when he first moved in five years ago, oh, and we need a new carpet.

Fairly early in the process, we decided that we wanted our bedroom to be ‘like a nice hotel room’. What I’ve subsequently realised is that what this means in practice is this:

It will be beige.

Everywhere we went, the same ‘choices’ were available to us. We quickly discovered that, in order to have a bed of the desired shape and size, it has to be made of brown leather. And the brown has to be referred to throughout negotiations as ‘chocolate’, or they’ll throw you out of the shop once they’ve finished trying to sell you a ‘bespoke’ mattress just because you’ve walked in straight from work and you’re wearing a suit.

how many shades of beige does the world need?

And in order to get a carpet that goes with the bed, the carpet has to be beige. They won’t call it beige, of course, they’ll call it ‘Maxwell Regal’ or ‘Rutland Heritage’, but I guarantee that if you were to walk into your nearest carpet emporium right now, about 80% of the carpets in there would be, in some degree or other, beige, but would be displayed before you as though this were some kaleidoscopic woolly wonderland.

Choosing paint is no better. Despite the best efforts of Dulux, Crown, et al to dress up their offerings as ‘Taffeta Ballgown’ and ‘Irish Cream On The Rocks’, we all know that what they really mean is ‘Might As Well Be Bare Plaster’. My favourite is this one.  I’d like to think that the choice of ‘Avantgarde’ as a name for the world’s most inoffensive colour was the product of a self-knowing, wry-smiling junior marketing executive’s ironic sense of humour, but you and I both know that it wasn’t.

Under Pressure

•October 30, 2010 • 1 Comment

So a couple of days ago I wrote a blog post, for the first time in ages.

Those of you who have been here from the beginning (Hi! How are you both?) will know that, even at the start, I doubted my own ability to keep this up for very long. The reasons for this are many and varied, but include:

  1. outright laziness. I am a slob. When I come home from work, I want to sit on the sofa and have Oompa-Loompas bring me food, wine and entertaining television* until it’s bedtime. I do not want to have to use my brain, or subject my RSI-raddled wrists to further torture. Which brings us to:
  2. work. I often think that maybe I should try to put my mind to writing something during my lunchbreak. The main stumbling block here is that my lunchbreak often only lasts for five minutes, which means that I either have to think at 200 words a minute, or restrict myself to tiny microessays.
  3. a huge inferiority complex. I read other blogs (see blogroll over there → for examples) and think, God, that’s so much funnier / cleverer / more original than anything I could ever write. Maybe I won’t bother.
  4. a very short attention span. I sit down, start writing, and decide after one sentence that this would go much better if only I had A Cup Of Tea. Making the cup of tea turns into Wishing There Were Biscuits turns into Rummaging In The Cupboard turns into Refilling The Muesli Box turns into Taking The Rubbish Out turns into Talking To Him Next Door For Thirty Minutes turns into, oh bollocks, I can’t remember what I was going to put now.

These issues, and a general lack of inspiration and self-discipline, have resulted in a workrate surpassed only in its inadequacy by the staff on the tills at TKMaxx**.

However.

Yesterday, my post was given the oxygen of publicity by a very kind person on Twitter who has 100 followers for every one of mine. In a couple of hours, the hits on my page had gone from an embarrassingly low barely-double-figures type number, to over 300, and people are still visiting even as I write. Which is, of course, amazing and wonderful and lovely and makes me happier than Wayne Rooney’s bank manager.  But now, in the cold light of day, I suddenly feel a whole new level of performance anxiety. People are looking. I need to say something funny and clever and original to prove that it wasn’t a fluke.

Excuse me a moment. I’ve just remembered I need to wash up. Back in a sec.

 

*note: this has never actually happened. But I live in hope.

** I’m sure there must be some good ones somewhere. But I’ve been holding this grudge since 1995, and I’m not putting it down now.

What Am I, A Clanger?

•October 28, 2010 • 4 Comments

Driving home tonight, my attention was caught by a radio discussion of this story, the gist of which is that NASA is seriously considering sending a one-way manned mission to land on Mars within the next twenty years. Volunteers for the mission would be facing the prospect of a nine-month journey across the solar system, with no possibility of returning to Earth should the swimming pool turn out not to be as advertised in the brochure.

The biggest, shoutiest question I had for the radio was, “Who the hell would volunteer for that?”.  I cannot envisage circumstances in which a rational, well-balanced (oh hell, let’s just say ‘normal’ and get it over with) person would see a one-way ticket to Mars as a positive life choice.  I can’t imagine anyone with healthy, positive relationships with their friends and family being willing to put them through what would, effectively, be a bereavement without any prospect of closure; so our field of likely candidates is already narrowed to lonely sociopaths who are not on speaking terms with their relatives, should they have any.  Many of these individuals will not, presumably, wish to be separated from their collections of public transport memorabilia and Star Trek DVDs, which will narrow the field further.  There is (as far as I know) no World of Warcraft in space.  

But even supposing we did manage to draw up a long enough shortlist, what are we proposing to do? We’re proposing to shut half a dozen of these ‘special’ people in a tin can, throw them at the sky, and hope that by the time they get to Mars nine months later, they’ve at least plucked up the courage to find out the others’ names.  Once that tricky initial obstacle is out of the way, the whole ‘colonising a hostile planet’ thing should be a breeze.

My second, slightly less shouty, question was, “What the hell FOR?”.  The argument seems to be that we need a human colony on another planet as a backup for when we’ve finally wrecked this one. There’s a fundamental assumption being made here: the human race is Too Big To Fail, and we must do whatever it takes to ensure our own survival. As a real writer put it recently: ‘What we really mean by “saving the planet” … is “saving the humans”’.

We are one species of millions that have existed, and will exist, on the planet. We evolved, just like all the others did, to live in a specific ecological niche. That niche is made largely of iron, nickel and silicon, with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, plenty of water, a handy gravitational field that stops us accidentally straying too far from home, and an abundance of other delicious species for all those times when we fancy a snack.  Thinking that we could probably make a go of it on Mars is like thinking that a basking shark could probably make a go of it on Mount Everest.

So, in short: please assume that I won’t be volunteering for this one. I’d rather live with my friends, family and 37” plasma screen on a doomed planet, than with a handful of weirdos on a slightly less doomed one 50 million miles from the nearest Costa Coffee.  And I bet Pizza Hut wouldn’t deliver, either.

I Can Give It Up Any Time I Want To

•September 11, 2010 • 4 Comments

One of my favourite Tweeters said this recently:

           “Last Night of the Proms. How the Nuremburg Rallies would have looked if Goebbels had been born in Reigate.”

He’s absolutely right, of course. The Last Night of the Proms, despite being positioned almost diametrically opposite St. George’s Day in the calendar, is the true highlight of the Daily Mail-reading, Classic FM-listening middle Englander’s patriotic year.  It is replicated up and down  the country on a regular basis; hundreds of unsuitably-dressed people flock to these events with their Lakeland hampers and Waitrose scotch eggs, and spend the evening shivering and secretly wishing they were at home watching Ant and Dec with a Lamb Rogan Josh and some Stella.  They wave flags too, just like the real thing, but that’s mainly to ward off the hypothermia.

When I was younger, it was my oft-stated ambition to go to the Last Night, not least because it often falls very close to my birthday. This was never likely to happen anyway, given the entry requirements and the fact that I live 200 miles from the Albert Hall. But in any case, as I’ve got older, the whole thing makes me feel more and more uncomfortable. There’s a growing sense that it isn’t about great music. Elgar himself viewed his Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 – Land of Hope and Glory – as “a damned fine popular tune” but I’m sure he’d be the first to acknowledge that it’s no Cello Concerto.  ‘Rule, Britannia!’ is, frankly, dreadful, although the dramatic soprano in me thinks it’s quite fun to sing.  And it’s blinkered, jingoistic Empire-building nonsense:

            “The nations not so blest as thee

            Must in their turn to tyrants fall

            Whilst thou shalt flourish great and free

            The dread and envy of them all

            …

            All thine shall be the subject main

            And every shore it circles, thine”

So let’s get this straight. In verse two, all the other nations, hapless halfwits that they are, are busy blundering into the arms of wicked empire builders who just want them for their oil reserves and coconuts. By verse five, we’re ruling the waves and owning any country lucky enough to have a coastline.  Why would Britons ever actually be slaves, when it’s much more fun to have some?

I’d like to think that the Last Night was just a fun celebration of Britishness, a kind of British Fourth of July. But every year I find myself watching it and wondering just how many of those people in the Albert Hall would consider voting for the BNP, and it’s usually at that point in the proceedings that I realise there’s a strong chance that I might actually hate being there because I’d have to listen to my fellow concert-goers’ ill-informed witterings all night.

So every year, I decide that this is going to be the year I don’t even watch it on the telly.

And then, every year, I end up standing on the sofa with a glass of wine in my hand, bellowing Jerusalem across the living room with tears running down my face.

The Inevitable Post About Twitter

•August 2, 2010 • 3 Comments

It had to happen. Pretty well everyone reading this has found their way here from a certain well-known social networking site, and so it’s time I acknowledged you, and it.

But first, some history. 

I never saw the point of Facebook to begin with. For years, I sniffed at it and its users as much as any Daily Mail reader.  Only the terminal rubbishness of Friends Reunited, and a desire to nosey at other people’s photos of my own wedding while I was still on my honeymoon, persuaded me to take it at all seriously.  So I signed up, and went through the predictable trawl for schoolfriends, university friends, work colleagues, family members, friends of family members, friends of schoolfriends’ family members, neighbours, and Mary on the checkout in Morrisons.  Having exhausted all of those possibilities, I resorted to adding my ex-husband.  There’s nothing more heartwarming than reading his happy, self-congratulatory tales of how wonderful his life is these days.  He doth protest too much, methinks.

And he isn’t alone in that.  One of my childhood friends seems to have turned into a cross between Lord Sugar, Nigella Lawson, and Wikipedia – or so she would have us all believe.  As soon as one of her friends posts a status update, she can be relied upon to provide an instant response, which is likely to be: a) the benefit of her vastly superior knowledge and experience of Everything In The World Ever; b) a boast about how her five-year-old has just written a doctoral thesis on Ulysses; or c) a photo of a really crap cake that she’s just made.  Surprisingly, the cake pictures are not met with the howls of scorn and derision they deserve, but are always critically acclaimed as only Facebook photos can be (“ur sooooo clever!!!!” “these r amaaaaazin”).  Furthermore, she is one of ‘those’ Facebook friends. You know, the ones who are constantly bombarding you with requests to send them Easter eggs, or harvest their butterfly farm, or work in their brothel in Pimp World.  And no amount of ignoring and declining will ever stem the tide.

You, though, are different.

Twitter is a curious thing. Try explaining it to an elderly relative, and see how far you get before they ask you to start again. (There have, of course, been some notable exceptions to this rule, but sweeping generalisations are always a good idea.)

It was the usual story.  I read an article about Stephen Fry chatting to people on some new social networking site, and naively assumed that all I had to do was join, and he’d be coming round for dinner in no time at all.  Seemed easy enough, and once I’d worked out what the hell this ‘@’ thing meant, it was a matter of moments to send him the invite.  In fact, although he did choose to follow me, I never had so much as a Christmas card in return, so that was that, for a while.  My first impression had been right: Twitter was a pointless, silly fad with no obvious attractions.  I couldn’t even find any of my real life friends to talk to.  I had an inkling that other normal people were out there talking to each other, but I’ve never been one to barge into conversations uninvited, and so I left them all to it and sat quietly in the corner.

But.

I’m not sure how or when it happened, but somehow, eighteen months later, I’ve amassed a group of people who feel an awful lot like friends, even though I’ve never met 99.5% of them, and even though it took me six months to work out whether some of them were male or female.  (That, for me, is one of the best things.  Since many people choose not to include a photograph, or even their name, we talk to each other from the outset as equals, without making assumptions based on superficialities.)  Some are famous; most are not.  We watch TV together; we read the papers together; we drink wine and eat rubbish food together.  In many ways, Twitter is the world’s biggest, squashiest sofa, and I’m proud and happy to share it with you.

There’s more wine in the fridge.  Help yourself.

Somethin’ Stupid

•August 1, 2010 • 5 Comments

WordPress has suggested that I might like to use a thing called Plinky to feed me ideas.  Today’s prompt is “write a poem using only words that start with S.”

Seriously stupid suggestion.

Scenario: someone sits stupefied, sofabound; struggling silently, seeking suitable syllables.

Spouse (Steven) signals starvation, sighs.

Stupendous, scintillating sibilant stream stops, immediately.

Where There’s Blame, There’s A Lawyer

•July 29, 2010 • 4 Comments

Two news stories floated across my bows yesterday. Both of them provide proof, if proof were needed, that the world has finally gone stark, staring mad and needs to be committed to the nearest place of safety as soon as is humanly possible.

The first concerns a 67-year-old woman suing Qantas because she was rendered deaf by a child’s scream while she was sitting on one of their planes. As far as I can ascertain, the child was not employed by Qantas so quite why they should be liable for what came out of his mouth – or any other orifice, for that matter – is beyond me. That might be why I’m not a no-win-no-fee injury lawyer.

And actually I’d argue that the child, as a fare-paying passenger, ought to be entitled to scream every now and again. After all, who among us hasn’t occasionally felt like letting rip with our very best Penelope Pitstop shriek when confronted by an economy-class airline seat in which we’re expected to spend the next four, or eight, or twelve hours?

Anyway. Back to the story. The woman, who is 67, firstly claims that her trip was ruined. I have an issue with this. Suing anybody because your lovely luxury holiday didn’t quite turn out as you expected is taking the piss, frankly. Count yourself lucky that you had the opportunity to go on holiday in the first place, and that you almost certainly will again, especially if you are ‘a senior partner in an international business consultancy’. Shit happens. Deal with it.

Secondly, she was suing because she can no longer work and her earning capacity has been impaired. She is 67 years old. Sixty seven. And, apart from being a bit deaf in one ear, she seems perfectly capable to me; certainly capable of bringing a law suit against a major international company.

Depressingly, Qantas appear to have settled out of court, which makes you wonder who they’re employing as lawyers.

The second case concerns a five-year-old boy suing a supermarket  for defamation of character, slander, assault, false imprisonment, and negligence, and for the ‘distress and inconvenience’ suffered as a result. (His barrister helped him, obviously. Come on. He’s only five.)

Now, you would assume that someone making such serious accusations must have, at the very least, been locked in the meat fridge for a couple of hours while the store’s general manager called him a stupid, whingeing little bastard and threw bits of necrotising liver at him. But no; what had actually happened to the poor child was much, much worse. Someone had Wrongly Accused Him Of Stealing A Bag Of Crisps – and that’s not even the worst of it. In an action which is surely beyond the pale in any civilised society, the same Someone had – look away now if you’re of a delicate disposition – Grabbed His Arm.

I’d be tempted to set up a JustGiving page to help the poor mite through his trauma, but there’d be no point. He’s already got the 7,500 Euros that Lidl gave him, and I’m sure he’s spending every last cent of it on some top-notch post-traumatic counselling.

But if any of you wanted to get cracking on a Something Blonde libel fund, you’d be quite welcome. I’m sure it’ll come in handy very soon.