Sunday, 31 August 2008

T K Maxx

The Social Secretary and I were in T K Maxx last week. As I rounded the end of a display I noticed some attractive, transfer-printed milk jugs.

"Nice jugs" I remarked loudly (the SS was some way behind). And came face to face with a generously built girl and her tattooed, ape-like partner.


Friday, 29 August 2008

Dreams and Band Names

I'd imagine it's against the blogging code to speak of dreams. But the other night my dream featured a team of five acrobats - four women and a boy. Their stage name was 'The Quoits and Anthony'. In my dream it seemed logical that they called themselves 'The Quoits' because the women had been quins, although one had died.

If I ever have my own band, I may name them 'Anthony and the Quoits'. The only band I ever actually named was at school (I wasn't in it; they didn't need a penny whistle player). It was 'Prometheus Unbound', which kind of dates it.

Driving north this year, we evolved a game in which road signs became band names. We felt 'Loose Chippings' had a folksy feel to it, but 'Blind Summits' ran away with the heavy metal award.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Emily's Book

I'm reading 'The Cove Shivering Club' by Michael Curtin. I bought it from the Oxfam book shop. I know buying second-hand is hard on authors, but at least someone is benefitting; anyway, books are too precious to be burnt, and I'm helping to save the planet.

When I opened the book, this note was marking a previous owner's place.

As I looked at it, I felt a strange insight into the girl who wrote it. For a start, it is cut from a Christmas card, and I can relate to people who save their old Christmas cards and cut them up for gift tags. They too have been brought up to smooth and fold wrapping paper so that it can go back in the drawer in the attic for another year. Their mothers before them unpicked the knots in the string from parcels and coiled it round their fingers before storing it in a round tin in the kitchen, beside the square tin of butter wrappers, for greasing baking trays. And their mother's mothers carefully saved the gummed edges of sheets of stamps, secreting them in their writing desks, alongside the pink and green treasury tags and the horn pencil sharpener.

She was pretty and loved, this girl, if disorganised and not terribly bright. It was a girl, no doubt about that. The writing has no backward slope, but there is a feminine fullness to the broad-looped 'o's, and the coquettish tone of the note confirms it. You can tell she was pretty and loved by the self-absorbed confidence of that 'me', and because her grandmother kept the card as a marker, so that she would enjoy it several times a day. She was not a reader, though, and bought the book in a last minute panic on Christmas Eve 1996, because it was prominently displayed, and it was a Sunday and few shops were open and time was running out. If she'd looked inside she'd have noticed the swear words peppering the text, and wondered if it was suitable for Grandma.

Although unfazed by the swearing, she never finished the book, the grandmother. The card lay between pages 198 and 199, in the middle of a single paragraph that continues for three pages without relief. She liked her letters organised. She was readily seduced away from it when someone lent her the latest Jane Gardam ('Faith Fox', I believe it was), and somehow never got round to resuming it.

If the girl was in her early twenties then, she would have been born around in the mid 1970s. The most popular girl's name in England and Wales then was Emily. It fits; I know this was Emily's card. Her grandmother's name may have been Barbara, or even Joan.

Emily had high hopes back then. She was in her final year at Guildford, reading Media Studies. Barbara Joan had been a bit of a bluestocking; head girl at Wycombe Abbey, followed by a Masters in Medieval English at Girton. Then the War came along and she found herself in a chilly hut at Bletchley Park, playing with groups of letters (when Emily saw the film Gosford Park, she imagined Grandma in a cocktail dress in the drawing-room, and felt a sense of connection).

Emily is 34 now. She is married, separated and living with Joseph who is a junior partner in an independent estate agency in Hythe. Business is not good, and what with school fees and Beccie's pony, clearing poor Grandma's house is a priority, although Heaven knows how they're going to sell the place. She didn't recognise the book, as she heaved it with the others into boxes for Oxfam. They've kept the older ones with nice bindings, though.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Simply Red

Life isn't all roses when you're a redhead. For a start, there are the names. As I may have mentioned before, a woggle of Sudanese girl guides once peered into my pram in Khartoum and remarked, 'kabir ahmar tama tim', which means, 'big red tomato' in Arabic. Then there was the master at my prep school who habitually called me 'copperknob'. I don't think he'd be allowed to do that now.

At my next school I was briefly known as 'Hot Rod', which I'm hoping referred to my extraordinarily good looks or my fiery temperament, not to any amoratory qualities (it being an all-boys' establishment).

And there was my first attempt to grow a moustache (Yes, I know what you're thinking. But this was in the days of the Che Guevara poster and the Zapata moustache, and I was trying to look older than twelve and a half). It grew all right, sort of, even if it did list all in one direction like a hedge on the Cornish coast. But it didn't show. Dyeing seemed the obvious answer, until an evening with a bottle of Clairol and a toothbrush left me with red hair, pale eyebrows, a chocolate brown tash with streaks and a wash basin like a prop from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It wasn't a good look for a student on the streets of Tyneside, especially up the Scotswood Road. My toothbrush tasted funny too.

The journal Science reported last year that DNA retrieved from the bones of Neanderthals indicated that they had red hair. In fact there's a theory that we are crossbred throwbacks to that extinct species. Great. So now we're Neanderthals, as well as Ginger Tossers. (I never cared for the term 'ginger' much anyway. It smacks of cats and edible roots. Naming a type of biscuit 'ginger nuts' wasn't helpful either).

Last year someone in New York had the thought; "What would it be like if you got onto a subway car and slowly realized that everyone on the car but you had red hair?" Subsequently, in a well-organised improv, fifty red heads, pretending to be unconnected, boarded a subway car - on the Red line, naturally. I don't know about ordinary monochrome folk; I'd certainly have been pretty freaked out.

(Photo: ImprovEverywhere)

Monday, 25 August 2008

Clinking Glasses

I think I'm set to become the grumpy old man who put the 'tank' in 'cantankerous'. I mean, what could be more jolly and festive than clinking glasses before drinking a toast? Well, nothing; it's a fine tradition, supposedly dating back to a time when hosts exchanged a little wine to show that it was not poisoned. But we used to just clink glasses with the people sitting next to us, and maybe raise our glass and exchange a smile with the people directly opposite. What's with this growing, obsessive compulsive need to clink glasses with everybody in the room? By the time it's finished everyone's forgotten what they were toasting in the first place, and it plays havoc with the Waterford crystal.

Food and wine critic Daniel Rogov believes it's passé and clumsy for everyone to clink glasses, arguing that only lovers should do it. I hope he's wrong about that last bit, or my brother-in-law and I will have to get a whole lot more intimate. Actually, I don't think it was ever appropriate for everyone at a large table to clink glasses. It's fine with a cosy foursome, but after that the number of clinks begin to get out of hand. A gathering of the Social Secretary's immediate family, for example, involves eleven people, requiring fifty-five clinks. As in my classy link diagram below.

If you imagine every line as a pair of outstretched arms, you get an idea of the general chaos. The choleric red blob at 8 o'clock is me. The multi-coloured blob in the middle of the table is a vase of flowers which sometimes doesn't get knocked over.


Saturday, 23 August 2008

Mamma Mia!

Went to see Mamma Mia.


Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Blues

Depression didn't run in our family. It was something that happened to other, less reliable people. It was for cooks and dailies to 'have nerves', not us. If someone felt a bit down it wasn't done to show it.

So when our daughter got it - or rather when we recently realised that this was what she had, and not 'hormones' or adolescent angst or 'going through a phase' or sheer bloody-mindedness - it was a steep learning curve. One we're still coping with.

I think...I hope...that we're doing all right. We somehow avoided, by luck or instinct, coming out with the usual knee-jerk stuff; "Pull yourself together, get a grip, we all go through it, think how lucky you are". When harshly treated we've bitten back the waspish rejoinders that reflect our own inadequacies. We've enlisted the help of a private counsellor/psychotherapist (there is at least a six month waiting list for help on the NHS, even though the potential severity of outcome for depression makes knee and hip surgery seem as crucial as hopscotch). We've seen off the jejune, chauvinistic half-wit who was her employer, and we've tried to provide a lazy, stress-free summer at home, with chocolate and entertainment and riding and laughter and no need for deadlines or decisions.

The thing about depression is that it is not a matter of personal choice; it is almost beyond an individual's control. It is an internal battle of self against self. A Sisyphean struggle, where luck and life erode progress like tide on a sandcastle. Where events and people conspire to undermine. Which no one who has not experienced it can fully understand.

Depression is probably not the result of a chemical imbalance, as is often suggested, but its characteristic cycle of emotional arousal and disappointment wreaks real clinical and hormonal changes which cannot be shrugged off. Cortisol and noradrenaline levels increase; seratonin levels fall; there is a debilitating imbalance between REM and deep sleep. All the manuals warn that the worst outcome is suicide.

K tried to go it alone, with the help of meditation and yoga and shedloads of resolve. For a long time she never even told us, as she cried in her room. She was determined to avoid taking any drugs, but although the therapy helped it wasn't enough on its own, and she eventually changed her mind. The notes for the drug she has now been prescribed include a long list of potential side effects. Chillingly heading the 'likely' side effects is 'suicide'. (This is a likely side effect?)

The treatment package seems to be working. There are still bad days, but these are fewer and less extreme, and the daughter we missed is on her way back to herself and us.

In the last fifty years depression has become ten times more common. Nobody knows why, but this is too large and too fast an increase to be genetic, so it must be related to changes in society and lifestyle. (Me, I'd put the UK's intensive exam regime in general, and AS levels in particular, high on the list of suspects.) Since this has happened to us - and it doesn't just happen to the sufferers, but to their families as well - it seems almost every family we meet has some experience of depression. They've just kept quiet about it.

Whatever, if you do come across someone suffering with depression, whether friend, colleague, employer or employee, unlike them you have a choice; your response can be part of the problem or part of the solution.

How to Make Out with Girls

When I was about seven, Fate threw me a hint that might have been life-changing. Like a fool I forgot it, and it went away.

It happened at a party in a big house, full of unfamiliar furniture and unfamiliar children. I think it was near Thame. In fact, I think it belonged to some people named Viney, connected with the book printers Hazell, Watson and Viney.

I was wearing my kilt, which my mother must have judged appropriate wear for Christmas in Buckinghamshire. We played sardines and postman's knock, and got wildly over-excited. After, there was a meal with jellies and little sausages skewered on sharp sticks.

I am not sure how the business with the cocktail sticks started. I think some of the boys began prodding each other with them. Perhaps being prodded in a kilt gave me the idea, but I started chasing the girls in their party frocks, threatening to prick their legs. As a shy, socially retarded child, this was uncharacteristic; I think I must have been pretty high on jelly.

Anyway, something puzzling began to happen. The girls shrieked and fled, as one might expect, but their eyes shone and I saw little breathless clusters of them laughing and pointing me out to each other. All of a sudden, I was a success. It was a new feeling.

When my mother came to collect me, the hostess made some remark about me having been the life and soul of the party - a comment which may have reflected tight-lipped irritation, but which I took at face value.

Sadly, I didn't absorb the secret that had been revealed - that most girls prefer a brash bastard to a prim goody goody any day. If I had only taken that in, I might have been poking sticks at girls' legs throughout those arid teenage years.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

World Exclusive

Adam Redmond-Hall, bass guitarist with knock-out South-East rock band Cabaret Doll, caught on camera in casual clothing at a secret location last night.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Martin Stephenson and Helen McCookerybook

I came across this You Tube clip of two punk legends, Martin Stephenson (the Daintees) and my nice cousin Helen McCookerybook (Chefs, Helen & the Horns). Helen appears half way through the clip for the second song...looking somehow empty-handed without her guitar.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Man Who Lives in the Woods

The man who lives in the woods knocked on the door yesterday. He is of a type that's becoming rare in Kent now; born and bred in the countryside, with a grizzled face, an ancient cap and a head-down demeanour, as if he doesn't have much self-esteem. He wouldn't be too proud to use bailer twine to hold his trousers up (but then, nor would I).

He had lost his cat again, and wondered if we'd seen it. Last winter when it went missing we managed to catch it and carried it back to him and his wife through the woods in the rain, in a recycling box.

In the course of the conversation he mentioned - diffidently, as though it might be of passing interest - that his wife had died last month. They had been married for 51 years. She hadn't been feeling all that well, but neither of them thought she was all that ill either. Then, one morning at breakfast, she said, "Hold my hand." And he took her hand, and she died.

Then he said something that rather took me aback. "I've buried her in the garden," he said. "My son is there too. That way I can tend them easy."

"That's nice," I said.

After we'd promised to keep an eye out for the cat and he had gone, I went online, and sure enough you are allowed to be buried in a garden. Or almost anywhere for that matter, as long as the hole is deep enough, and you don't affect a water course, and you have the landowner's permission, and the neighbours don't object. You don't even require a coffin, although you do have to keep a register saying which of your friends and relatives are buried, and where. But apparently having relatives buried in the garden may reduce the value of your property by up to 20%, and could put buyers off. Some people are so picky.

You can also be disposed of at sea, although only a dozen or so people in the UK choose this option every year, because there are Rules, and just tipping your loved ones off the side of the Dover-Calais ferry won't do. (I've never been comfortable with the phrase, 'burial at sea'. It conjures up an image of sailors with spades, vigorously shovelling seawater.)

The Social Secretary rather cares for a garden inhumation, although her suggestion that we put her on the bonfire first and then collect up the ashes is not such a great idea. Half the time I can't even get the hedge-clippings to burn, and if we had to relight her over a period of time I'd have to keep checking for hedgehogs.

I admire the funeral arrangements that Meg's friend made for her pet.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Bedtime Story

I once worked with an elegant and statuesque Armenian woman named Mona. She came in giggling to herself one morning. When asked why she explained that she had been saying goodnight to her two sons the previous evening when one of them told her that he was unhappy.

'Why are you unhappy?'

'I'm sad because the boys at school called me a paki.'

Her heart went out to him, and she sat on his bed in the darkness and hugged him. 'You should not mind that they call you that, because they don't know any better. We come from an ancient race that was civilised long before the English learned to eat off plates. We were the first Christian sovereign nation in the world, with our own language and alphabet and culture, and we have survived centuries of invasion and persecution. When they call you that they are acknowledging that you are different, and you should be proud of this difference.'

Her son snuggled down as she tucked him in. 'Thank you Mummy. I feel better now.'

As she got up to leave the room her other son spoke. 'Mummy, I'm unhappy too.'

She crossed to his bed and rested a gentle hand on his head. 'Why are you unhappy?'

'I'm unhappy because the boys at school called me a dickhead.'

'Well that's because you are one,' she said, as she hit him with his pillow.