Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Best Blessings of Existence 13

Emma B. .is on holiday, at an undisclosed location.  She has not revealed whether or not she is accompanied by Mr B.  But she has left us an épisode in thé continuing story, in which we hear of other people's children.

She was not maternal, and the metamorphosis from girl about town to stepmother of three was neither natural nor comfortable. She was an only child with no back story of babysitting. This in itself was unfortunate; but not because she liked children. She had hated her dolls and coveted a second hand Scalextric. But her best friend at school had cornered the babysitting market; boosting pocket money and sexual technique from jousting with her boyfriends on the best sofas in the village.

It would have been excellent preparation for Dorlich……

Not that sex was a problem. The County cricketer had done the groundwork and she was a quick learner. Paul was easily satisfied once she had embraced Fiona Richmond as a role model and overlooked his penchant for the Readers’ Wives section of Forum. It was a tacky production and the wives bore a striking resemblance to Philippa Truscott…….

But there were two children and a baby; round the corner and living with Nicola. She was unable to avoid them, and wanted them to like her. because this would make Paul stay.

The sharp-faced child that was Ursula at six still stared from the eyes of the woman who blanked her at the funeral and had married without telling her, five years beforehand. Verity, the middle child, suffered from projectile vomiting as a baby and at two years old had a history of food intolerance, exacerbated by chronic asthma . Jack was – a baby.

At first, Paul saw them alone. He arrived late and returned early. Once he had turned up to be confronted by Ursula as mini virago: And you’re not helping, Daddy, because you’re MAKING IT ALL WORSE.

They began to see the children together.

At first, she waited round the corner until Paul emerged from Nicola’s flat, holding Ursula’s hand and pushing a double buggy. In combat jacket and jeans, he looked too young, at 29, to be a father of three – but perhaps that was the point……. After a couple of months, she joined him on the doorstep to meet a Nicola who was polite; ironic; controlled.
Being inspected by the headmistress……………

Visits assumed a routine: Ursula and Paul at the front; herself dawdling with the buggy. Verity and Jack were in nappies so Nicola provided disposables; wet wipes and nappy cream in gigantic polythene bags suspended from the handles of the striped Maclaren Stroller. She had never changed a nappy, but learned in the toilets of museums; ice cream parlours and zoos, while Paul and Ursula ran, and jumped and bounced and squealed. She watched; awkward.

It was a mismatched unit – a Sunday family, despite her efforts to bind them together with shared experiences: And we saw the coati mundis at the zoo – and the okapi ate Verity’s lolly.

None of it worked; at best some bits were better than others.

She started to buy toys so the children could visit the flat and tried her hand at making children’s tea. They ate the animal spaghetti and chocolate fingers and she chalked up a victory – until the next visit was accompanied by a note from Nicola about Verity’s food allergies: No ‘e’ additives; no sugar. She’s like a Hoover – shovels up EVERYTHING - but then it appears again at intervals throughout the night….
Of course, you weren’t to know…….. She felt like a poisoner. Eventually, tensions eased with the younger two – largely because they were ignored by Paul, who spent the time playing games with Ursula: Kings and Queens; Robbers and Barons; One to Five; The Pedlar. They all merged into one – leaping and bounding and squealing and jumping and crawling and throwing.

Incomparable Daddy…..

Ursula answered her questions but her smiles were for Paul. Occasionally, there were outbursts – like the time in the toyshop. Ursula wanted a Tiny Tears doll for her birthday and insisted that the doll did poos as well as wees: Yes she DOES, you horrible, horrible girl. She DOES, she DOES do poos too! I HATE YOU. She and the child were both red faced and crying.

Paul laughed.

None of it worked; not really.

And neither did calls to Lynne – who listened politely but without interest.
She had moved on – to holidays in Madagascar; dinner at Langans; The Romans in Britain at The National. If you don’t get on with his kids, then don’t see them. Stop beating yourself up.

It wasn’t that simple. She didn’t dislike Paul’shildren – or even Nicola for that matter. She disliked the way Paul treated her when they were there. This was a subtle mix of undermining her in front of them; selecting all the bouncing, squealing games that made her feel awkward and almost encouraging them to goad her. On one occasion, he sat and watched while Ursula cut up her teaching notes to make paper chains.

She had been upset and Paul was scathing: I don’t know why you find it so hard to get on with them. I suppose it’s because of your obsessional jealousy of Nicola. I’m with you, aren’t I?

Her own parents tried their best; hiring a cottage in the Lake District and joining them for a holiday. She had marvelled at the determination and patience of her mother; reading to Verity; baking with Ursula. But Paul put on a gala performance as Super Daddy – even winning praise from her own sceptical father: Well, I’ll give him one thing. He adores those kids and no mistake.

There was nobody to talk to.

Nicola arranged a fortnight in St Helier with Pauls’ friend Jim. He had come to the rescue in France when Paul had abandoned his family - and the two had become close. Now the children would stay with their father.

Ursula, Verity and Jack arrived with their luggage and Verity’s medical notes. She had dreaded their stay – but it went well, helped by the fact that they were accompanied by Perdita the cat; forced to fall back upon her second choice of home. She was thrilled when Jack slept through the night,even though Nicola had forgotten to pack his comfort blanket – and Verity’s sunny nature was a joy. She read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett to Ursula; Paul came and went, and she was happy.

And then Verity had an attack of croup; coughing; wheezing; vomiting; gasping for breath. She rang the doctor at 6am. Paul went to the kitchen to make coffee, grinding the beans in the Spong machine. Verity tottered after him, clambering onto the stool, and grabbed his hand with the kettle of boiling water. It splashed down her neck and her front and her feet.

The doorbell rang. The doctor. Fortuitously. Croup was forgotten as he rushed to the sink and drenched the child with basin after basin of cold water. An ambulance was summoned and arrived. She stayed in the flat with Ursula and Jack whilst Paul accompanied his daughter to the hospital. The hours went by.

He returned, eight hours later. Verity’s clothes had been cut from her body; apart from her sock. She would have to stay in hospital for some time; might need skin grafts and would have permanent scars. Nicola was on her way.

Verity was hospitalised for a month and did not need skin grafts – but the mythology surrounding the accident was devastating. It was assumed that she, not Paul had been making the coffee and that the child had been scalded because of her negligence Somehow the correct version of events had not got through…..

Of course, you’re not used to small children; Gillian had said, when the news reached Picks Norton. Now don’t tell Paul I know! He did so want to protect you.

This was an interesting concept.

Incomparable Daddy.

wonderful to have you back with us again, sir

more from the Reading Chronicle's pisstake:

He said walking through Reading West? on his return was "very weird", and added: "For the first time in 20 plus years, I did not feel this overwhelming sense of responsibility for every pot hole, late bus or infrastructure project going over budget. You don't know until you stop you carry this sense of duty around, it's really quite liberating."

You what? Really?  Late buses?  I can remember complaining on behalf of my elderly constituents who were left waiting in the rain for buses which were very late and sometimes didn't come at all, during one of Reading Buses' periodic bad patches.  The result of this was Mr Salter attending a meeting of the Labour Group, where a resolution was drawn up that I would be "spoken to" by Cllr Sutton to indicate that such remarks should cease to be made, that I would also be "spoken to" by the then chair of the board of Reading Buses Tony Page (who in the event was much the more reasonable of the two) - Mr Salter was heard to say at this meeting, I am told by one who was there, "She'll shut her f***ing mouth or it'll be shut for her.  Permanently."  In seeking the meeting with me the group had agreed would take place, Cllr Sutton informed me by email that there had been "widespread outrage" at my remarks about a bus company which was "owned by the Labour Council".

Sense of duty?

Mr Salter also says in that piece that he thinks Labour have a good chance of winning the Reading West seat back.  Well, possibly.  He acknowledges that the selection of Naz Sarkar for 2010 was not the best choice.  However, he and Tony Page worked furiously to ensure that Sarkar was in fact selected, and that the best potential candidate, Mark Bennett, was not (he is a local man by origins)  so that the seat would be lost, thus ensuring Mr Salter's place in the history books.  That's where their sense of duty leads them.  And now they have an all-woman shortlist for the next election.  Poor boys.  So they are grooming Kelly Edwards to take it on, on condition that she (a) does what they say (b) keeps out of sight during the campaign and (c) does not win.

I don't think Mr Salter even used the phrase "sense of duty".  I think the Chronicle made it up, to ensure their place in the local annals as having got away with the most outrageous fabrication in local journalism.  And that is going some.

Nice one, Chron.

Monday, 29 August 2011

could not resist

thanks (for quite a lot), John Rentoul

wonderful to have you back with us, sir

now, do you have anything you would like to share with our readers?  I am thinking of putting the Chronicle up for Humorous Journalism of the Year, if a thing exists.  Where to begin?  Mr S informed them that he had gone fishing in Arnhem Land:

Mr Salter travelled to Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Darwin, Perth and Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, which required special permission to enter, during his year out

the wonders of Google allowed me to discover, in approximately 12 seconds, that Arnhem Land is in fact this , an area of ecological sensitivity in the north of Australia, which may be visited by anyone who wishes, within the law, but to which visitors are recommended to go with an organised tour with an accredited company.  The Chronicle didn't bother.


Mr Salter told The Chronicle he will not be standing for an elected office no plans at present anyway, hmmm and plans to train as a teacher to begin a PGCE you need to have graduated from university, which Mr S has not.  If you are over the age of 55 you are most unlikely to receive any funding.  The Chronicle did not ask Mr S about this, work as a campaign co-ordinator in the recreational fishing sector and continue his voluntary work when did he last do any?  the Chronicle does not ask with Whitley Excellence Cluster and Aspire2 - particularly on the Ufton Court residential education centre project.

Hilarious.  The Evening Post at its most fawning (several years ago they published that I had gone back to Reading, untrue, and when challenged by me on this the editor said it had been published because "Martin insisted") could not even aspire to this.

he's back!

Oh yes, Martin Salter has left the land Down Under and has given an interview to the Reading Chronicle. That organ has decided, royally, to take the piss. Fed up with previous hagiographic interviews by the Reading Evening Post? This one is better. Watch this space for more.

Thursday, 25 August 2011


is innocent.  That's right.  Innocent.  Not "rich and powerful man got off scot free".  Innocent.  He has never been convicted of any crime, and until this year never accused of one.  He says the whole thing has been a nightmare for him and his family.  Yes.  Undoubtedly.  Being accused of something you didn't do will do that to a person and their family.  Liberal prejudices have not been confirmed here.  Dan Hodges has written excellently, and I think courageously, on the subject.  Because, outside France at least, liberal opinion is with the poor African maid and against the rich and (whisper it not) Jewish financier.  Other things being equal, that is probably as it should be.  Poor African maids not usually being able to hire the finest legal brains and live in secluded luxury while awaiting trial.  But other things were not equal.  Her accusation was not credible.  Some kind of sexual encounter took place in that hotel room, but credible evidence of rape there was not.  Of course it is hard to get a conviction for rape.  Women withdraw their accusations, they destroy evidence, they change their stories.  Not here.  She lied.  Oh yes she did.  She was asked by the prosecutor if she had ever been raped before, and she said she had.  But it was a lie.  Not one made up to get asylum, just a lie.  I posted back at the beginning of July that I thought DSK was innocent and would be freed.

There is plenty more to come out about this.  It appears to be true that the story of the arrest of DSK was broken to the media by a member of staff at the hotel, who happens to be (a) French and (b) personally connected with Sarko's party the UMP.  I strongly suspect dirty tricks by Sarko's people.  And have all along.  DSK will not be a candidate now.  Sarko is likely to be re-elected next year as a result. 

One day, I hope, the truth will be told. 

Sunday, 21 August 2011

off he goes

been on the Silly Boys website, so it must be true, hat-tip Bobby Blanc

Katesgrove Ward

Councillor John Hartley
John is elected until 2012 and and is Lead Councillor for Service Delivery & Improvement.
Tel: 01189263952
email: Jon.Hartley@reading.gov.uk

Saturday, 20 August 2011

film or book?

It is a truism that when yo have read the book you are disappointed with the film.  But it is not always that way round.  Some English teachers counsel their students to watch a good film or mini-series to help them with a text.  And some writers who are self-confessedly (or not) mediocre have their works turned into terrific films.  One of the latter sort is Stephen King, we are told, who calls himself the literary equivalent of Big Mac and Fries.  There is a good piece on this in today's Times (paywall) by John Sutherland.  Another such writer is Alistair Mclean.  But I am inclined to disagree.  I think Stephen King's books are brilliant, in fact it is too long since I read one.  I think I saw one of the films once and it was a bit rubbish.  Grand Guignol.  The Shining, it was.  Much as I love Jack Nicholson, it was dreadful stuff.  King's stories have a grounded ordinariness that makes sense of what happens.  If you live in a world of horror then there is no new horror.  In a small town in Maine horror really is horror.  In "It", which I read about 20 years ago, there is an image which will probably always stay with me, that of a child's toy boat sluicing along a gutter towards a drain after a rainstorm.  After which... The Times piece was notionally pegged to the hugely popular David Nicholls novel "One Day". which I have not yet read and which has now been filmed.  It is hugely popular because the demographic it describes is just now beginning to have mortgages and children and not go out and get wasted every night.  Therefore having more time and inclination to read books than previously.

Anyway, I am a huge fan of Pedro Almodovar.  His latest "La Piel Que Habito" (The Skin I Live In) is just out here.  I don't know if his previous films have been based on books at all, but I happened to read a review of the film in the French media last week which indicated that this was the film of a French novel, "Mygale" ("Tarantula" - didn't someone else once write a book called that?  Never mind).  That book, by the late Thierry Jonquet, was a big success in France at the time, about ten years ago, and was translated into English a few years later.  The review said that fans of the book would be disappointed in the film, so I thought I had better read it before seeing the film.  Regular readers know my feelings about works in translation, but I read a lot faster in English than I do in French, so I got that nice Mr Amazon to fetch me the English translation.  I should have read the French.  It is very short, and is creepy (sort of) misogynist porny horror.  That kind of stuff makes more sense in French, and philosophers often write approving articles about it while wearing black polo-neck sweaters and shacking up with blonde pop princesses (yes you, BHL).  I disliked the book intensely.  So I am hoping and expecting to like the film a lot.  My understanding of Spanish is minimal at best, so I shall have to rely on the French subtitles, which will probably be more appropriate than English ones would be.  If you get my drift.  I increasingly find that watching a film without subtitles feels somehow incomplete.  Even if the film is in British English.  I have taken to watching old episodes of The West Wing with the subtitles, and it surprises me how much of the dialogue I missed first time round.

So - film or book?  And does it matter?  The same applies I guess to plays.  I don't go much to the theatre, and when I do I usually seem to be watching my son on stage in military uniform, but when we were in London in April we made an exception.  "The Children's Hour" by Lillian Hellman.  About reputation and abuse.  A fascinating play.  But Keira Knightley was truly dreadful in it - Keirs, looking tops in a pencil skirt isn't all there is to it you know - so in a way I wish I hadn't seen that production.  Oh and the next night we went to the first night of a hilarious new production of Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen's piss-take of the Gothic novel, featuring, you guessed it, my son in military uniform.

What do readers think?

Oh and on the Amazon link for the English translation, "Tarantula", notice the price?  I wonder why?

Friday, 19 August 2011

first they came for the Arsenal fans,,,

and I did nothing, because I was not an Arsenal fan.  I am not of course, my London team is Tottenham, so I am a Yid, although the accepted wisdom is that Arsenal has more Jewish fans than Tottenham does.  I wouldn't know, nor does it matter really.  But seemingly it does to those who write on the "alternative" Arsenal fan site We Are The Herd - those who fail to make certain financial contributions are getting a Star of David next to their name, because - well, you get the picture.  One "fan" comments thusly:

“Binesy,”… referring to the star next to his name, wrote: “I’m not a Jew. That is as deep a slur as I can imagine. …”

Another fan posted: “The Jews and their accomplices are draining the wealth and expecting the poorer sections of society to repay their thieving.”

update: after this disgrace was exposed by the Jewish Chronicle, this blog and many others, a spokesman for the site said the use of the symbol would be discontinued, although comments like those above were not retracted.  The spokesman, as quoted by the Jewish Chronicle, also said, rather oddly, that 75% of the users of the site were not British, which made them "totally not a racist outfit".

The times we live in...

Thursday, 18 August 2011

The Best Blessings of Existence 12

In which Emma B. enters a little hell, and we encounter Philippa Truscott.

She rang Lynne to discuss the meeting with Sandra and the conversation was stilted, probably because she had vetoed Sunday lunch in Surrey. Lynne would be on home turf. Sandra would be put to the minor inconvenience of a country drive. But she would be forced to negotiate three train changes, a coach and a taxi. The pets were a pain; Greg was a bore and she was damned if she would spend in excess of £120 for the sake of Sandra Milford.

Eventually a compromise was reached: early evening drinks at The Fifth Column in Soho, a week on Wednesday.

She fished out Leisure and Tourism: the Billington Unitary Plan. It would take her roughly six hours to edit this tedious Local Government Document. No-one would read it, which was a very good thing, because it was specious nonsense, tricked out in the usual jargon; fit for purpose; going forward ;hearts and minds and hard-working families.

It was rote work for a mediocre salary.

Not for the first time, she compared herself with Lynne. They had both missed Firsts; Lynne had begun a Civil Service career in London and she had stayed in Dorlich for the MA. She had rejected a PHD offer at York because it was easier (safer?) to join the Postgraduate Teaching course in Dorlich. She was living with Paul and commuting would have been tedious. Or so she had told herself. It had nothing to do with Paul’s wandering eye – and wandering hands.

She had caught him in a clinch with Philippa Truscott at a New Year’s Eve party. Philippa, obscenely drunk on Cherry B, had wilfully misinterpreted his intentions. He’d explained that somebody had to look after poor Philippa, whose own husband was having an on-off affair with the locum doctor…….

After a year with the MOD, Lynne had transferred to Environment and moved swiftly through the ranks. She met Greg Salt from The Lyndhurst Chambers when he advised the Department on a planning matter and they married six months later. It was a calculated risk to branch out with her own consultancy but she had held her nerve, cushioned by Greg’s income. Now their assets included the house in Surrey, a studio in Seville and a pied a terre in Pimlico. Lynne’s book; The Inuit: Man and Myth was runner up for the 2009 Attenborough prize. In the absence of children, dogs reigned supreme. Pork and Scratching were the latest in a line of pampered animals and Lynne in particular was a canine enthusiast, quite insufferable on the topic since Scratching carried off the Bitch Challenge Certificate at Crufts.

In contrast, she had spent eighteen years teaching and eight at Westminster, where she had specialised in suing for libel. She had lost her seat in 2005, and subsequent jobs had been of the Billington type.

We are where we are…………

She had married in 1979, a month after Mrs Thatcher became Prime Minster.

They had both changed their status and Mrs Thatcher was blooming.

After the triumph and novelty of the wedding, her own life was the same except that parts of it were distinctly worse. She suspected that for Mrs Thatcher the opposite applied.

Becoming a teacher was easy; becoming a wife was not. With marriage came responsibilities; cooking; cleaning; doing the washing; entertaining – and frolicking in suspenders whenever required.

There had been gruesome attempts at washing by hand to save money; finally abandoned after Paul noticed his shoes erupting with soap bubbles during a performance review with his Headmaster. She cleaned the cooker, the bath and the toilet; fiercely defensive about all three, and averted culinary humiliation via copious reference to Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson.

Chudleigh College, where Paul was employed as Deputy Head of English, squatted spider-like at the centre of everything. It was a minor public school, with major aspirations, and the Stepford wives would have quailed at the aura of the Chudleigh matrons. She had nothing in common with these wives of Paul’s colleagues, whose conversations began with Chudleigh and concluded with natural childbirth, breastfeeding, toilet training and sibling envy.

During the interminable House Suppers and Bridge Fours she controlled the urge to rip off her knickers and scream, and ended up discussing the television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited and lamenting the Prince of Wales had yet to find the love of a good woman.

Everyone simply adored Nicola and said so.

It was a little hell.

To be fair to Paul, his tolerance level for these events pretty much matched her own, and they began revisiting her old haunts. The Bear and The Bat and Belfry remained solidly student pubs but The Falcon and Bunter’s Restaurant catered for a more cosmopolitan clientele. They began to assemble a social set; one or two of the more bearable Chudleigh couples; her former MA tutor; Percy the law lecturer; Denny and Kay from the BBC, and, naturally, the Truscotts.

Philippa and Roy were in their late thirties and both teachers, although in the state sector rather than Chudleigh. Roy taught Religious Knowledge and had bonded with Paul over rugby. He had been capped for Wales. Once. But Paul was impressed and they established a routine of midweek squash on the Chudleigh courts, followed by drinks in The Falcon with herself and Philippa.

Philippa taught English at an 11-16 Girls’ Secondary Modern School. She was thirty-six, with long blonde Joni Mitchell hair which she wore with a centre parting and a selection of hats. Black velvet trousers and silk shirts completed the look, but the Woodstock effect was at odds with a size 16 figure and a decided double chin. They had a nine year old son who appeared to be toilet trained and weaned. ……..

They began to see a lot of the Truscotts.

But a little went a long way………….

The Truscotts drank, and left a trail of mayhem, usually in other peoples’ houses and marriages, typified by her own dinner party on one of Lynne’s infrequent visits.  Paul disliked Lynne and usually spent the 48 hours between her arrival and departure in the pub. But this time, they were hosting a dinner party. The company of David and Betty from Chudleigh and the Truscotts would offset the froideur between Lynne and Paul. That was the plan.

She opened the Sancerre whilst stuffing ramekins with garlic mushrooms and coating a salmon in puff pastry. Desert was crème brulee, and she was enjoying a cosy reminisce with Lynne, when Paul announced that he was joining Philippa and Roy for a pre-dinner drink at The Falcon.

The worm had entered the bud.

Lynne’s voice buzzed like a fly. Ben Bex-Oliver, fieldwork in Malawi; Natalie Strich, dead in a car crash; Derek Kingsmill, Labour candidate at the Election .

DEREK KINGSMILL -- didn’t you bonk him at a conference?

In another life.

In the here and now, it was 8 pm; David and Betty had arrived and Paul had gone AWOL with the Truscotts. They arrived at 9.15, by which time the mushrooms were crusty and half the wine had been drunk. Not that it mattered. Philippa and Roy came armed with two litres of red which dwarfed the good bottle of Cotes de Rhône supplied by David and Betty.

The mushrooms were eaten, succeeded by a decidedly dry salmon – but the food was not centre stage. That spot had been commandeered by Philippa, whose mission for the evening appeared to be a public character assassination of her husband, intensifying in virulence as glasses were recharged.  Roy maintained an initial composure as Philippa traversed familiar territory; he was disliked by Daddy; drank too much; had no ambition; was a negligent father to Neil and had forced them to holiday in Magaluf when she had wanted to try Ibiza.

David and Betty watched as Philippa emphasised her points by applying a series of illustrative pats to Paul.  But a line had been crossed when she accused Roy of having sex with the locum doctor during after-hours surgery.

He erupted and extinguished his cigarette in the remains of the crème brulee. Philippa was a dirty bitch, who was wetting her knickers for Paul. "Although I wouldn’t bother, mate. It turns me off when she goes to bed with them still round her ankles after she’s been to the toilet."  He then reared up from the table and ran outside, where he proceeded to kick the door of his new Ford Fiesta, denting the side and chipping the paint.

Philippa was by now, nose and make-up streaming, sobbing in the arms of Paul:

"I can’t go on – and Neil is suffering. He’s started to wet the bed. I chucked a scholarship to The Slade because of THAT MAN."

She then slammed The Pretenders on the turntable, selecting Private Lives and scratching the other tracks in the process. After fifteen minutes, David slipped out and managed to persuade Roy to desist from attacking his own property. He then departed with Betty, and the Truscotts were poured into a taxi,  after Philippa had promised to "call straight away if he gets violent".

Paul finished the wine and went to bed.

Lynne said nothing.

She herself lay awake all night rehearsing the essential apology call to David and Betty. At 7.30am. Any later and the evening’s events would be accompanying the muesli at the Chudleigh breakfast tables. David and Betty were about the only decent couple at Chudleigh and had asked them to make up a four on a French camping holiday.

She expected the invitation to be politely withdrawn.

"Oh for God's sake, darling, stop being so provincial. It was the best fun they’d had in ages" said Paul.

She was not convinced.

A week later, they had popped into The Falcon to find Philippa and Roy regaling a delighted crowd with a blow-by-blow account of the dinner party:

And then I said – and then he said!

And he kicked the car!

And I talked about her KNICKERS!!!!!

And life, for the moment, followed its usual pattern. ……….

Monday, 15 August 2011

Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard

Or, if you like, Jesus and Mo.  LOL, as they say. Click to enlarge.


Saturday, 13 August 2011

Pakistani spies in Parliament

blares the Telegraph, here.  Well, of course there are.  And certainly every time there is a visit to Parliament by an important Pakistani figure, and every time there is a meeting of certain All-Party Parliamentary Groups, then oh yes, the ISI, the Pakistani intelligence service, is there in force.  No surprise.  Though what did surprise me was how easy it was for the spooks to get in.  But the Pakistani government using the ISI to channel funds to its fight to regain Kashmir, as it sees it, well dodgy. (CIA Ghost Wars in Afghanistan, anyone?)  But still no surprise.  However, there was, and probably still is, an All-Party Group on Kashmir, which I may have joined at the time, I cannot remember now, but in whose activities I took no part.  Because I did not want to be funded, directly or indirectly, by the government of Pakistan, especially on anything to do with Kashmir.  Others had fewer scruples.  The Telegraph names them, but for ease of reference they are, among others, present and former MPs and Lords Paul Goodman, Lord Ahmed, Humfrey Malins, Khalid Mahmood and Martin Salter.

I did warn him.  But this group was very important to Mr Salter's work as the MP for Reading  
Reading East  Reading West.

Mr S is back in Reading by the way.  Last time he appeared, briefly, HMV declined to report the matter when I informed them of it.  Will they now?  His camper van is parked anew at Gratwicke Road Tilehurst.  He has a lucrative contract in Australia, which he will apparently fulfil at a distance, as you can read here.  Well, he is used to remote working.  He did his parliamentary work at a distance, often citing "speaking engagements" around the country as the reason for not voting on important matters.  When it came to the Iraq war he just lied, and said he had voted against the Government motion, when in fact he had done the whips' bidding and abstained.  He did his constituency work at a distance, spending his time in Reading East and using the megaphone of the Reading Evening Post to communicate with his constituents in Reading West.  His Reading West election campaigns were funded and operated by the machinery of Reading Borough Council.  At your expense, people of the Ding.  Anyway, he is back to pursue his new political ambitions, the lucrative post as chief executive of a national charity he informed us in 2009 was coming his way having failed to materialise.

Coming soon, to a His Master's Voice headline near you.

Best Blessings of Existence 11

in which, as generally in the English novel, houses and property are discussed.  Emma B. continues.  In the meantime I hear some speculation as to the author's true identity, not all of it wild.  What do you think, readers?  TV mini-series?

Her house was back on the market with the original estate agent. Since she had decided  to abandon Fengrove to its indigenous population, all attempts at escape had been fruitless. .Sole agency, multiple agency or auction – the result was the same. She had something to sell that nobody wanted to buy. What they wanted at this price range was a neat modern, faux Georgian box, in the middle of the new township, overlooking an ‘as real’ lake stocked with a flock of Canada geese. They did not want a Victorian edifice in the city centre with water inside the premises, courtesy of a temperamental cellar, rather than  outside, care of a man-made lake.

Of course, pre Paul, she had been oblivious to house styles and tastes. She had lived with her parents and then in various student residences. You woke up in houses and returned to them after you had engaged in the principal activity of going out. The only time she and Lynne had taken a vacuum cleaner to their flat in Dorlich had been prior to a parental visit.  She had decorated her room in the shared student house with posters, and possessed  nothing apart from books, clothes and records. Here she was at odds with Paul, who wanted them to find their own place. He had nowhere to put his wheel backed chair and Welsh dresser, currently in the custody of Nicola, whom he suspected of attempting to hang on to them.  His enforced separation from these items, together with his book collection and Perdita, the Norwegian Forest cat, rankled and it was essential to acquire a residence in which they could be appropriately accommodated.  Perdita had been standoffish when he had visited the children; he suspected Nicola of influencing the cat against him and he dreaded forfeiting a relationship forged when he had rescued her as a kitten from the elderly homosexual   manager of a second hand bookshop in Cambridge.
Paul had regarded this adorable animal (and a first edition of The Letters of Edward Thomas) as an acceptable exchange for a fumble but now felt short-changed by his part of the bargain. So they rented an unfurnished flat in Conyham Crescent, with a garden and a cat flap, round the corner from Nicola in Wellington Parade. Baskets and bowls and catnip were bought and Perdita could visit at leisure,  sometimes - and sometimes not – accompanied by the children. The flat was large and gloomy and when they moved in, she discovered a wig covered with fluff lodged behind the toilet cistern. But Paul was content – for the moment.

 The memory of their first visit to her childhood home still ambushed her  in weak moments – notably during  lunch with Lynne when the waiter had brandished sherry trifle as the special of the day. Likewise, at Westminster, she had avoided debates about The Open University and remained profoundly grateful that, outside Germany, she was unlikely to encounter Liebfraumilch at the table.
Her parents owned a modern four bedroomed  detached house in a small Midlands village. It was her mother’s pride and joy, symbolising  a generational journey from a miner’s cottage with an outside toilet, to membership of the professional classes courtesy of Primary School teaching posts. An L–shaped living room contained an upright piano; a wood panelled wall was decorated  with family photographs and souvenir trinkets and the kitchen opened  into a handkerchief  garden, filled with runner beans and her father’s roses. In the bathroom, her mother’s shower cap hung   on a hook behind the door and a spare toilet roll was concealed beneath a pink crochet cover. 
Seeing it through Paul’s eyes, she had spent the entire weekend in a paroxysm of rage and embarrassment.
He had swooped on the bookshelves, tapping the spines of Lark Rise to Candleford (abridged) and The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady with a questing finger. Then he had turned to the records: The Singing Nun; All Kinds of Everything by Dana; The Best of Nana Mouskouri and A Selection from The Nutcracker Suite.
She said little as they consumed roast beef, roast potatoes, carrots and sprouts followed by home made sherry trifle with double cream. The delicate scoop of pudding on a frosted glass platter she had enjoyed at the bistro with Lynne here metamorphosed into its ghostly ancestor – a   pink and yellow  glory, cosy amidst a mass of glace cherries and chocolate buttons. 
Her mother had talked books with Paul and had attempted to interest him in her Open University assignment on Ted Hughes.  And her father had opened the Liebfraumilch whilst discussing the football season and asking Paul if he followed a team. Not really my game – I went to a rugger school . And then Cambridge of course…
The next day they had lunched at a carvery where you queued for your food  and the evening’s entertainment had been television, with a ‘supper’ of sandwiches, crisps and individual pork pies served on a nest of tables.  

Back home in Dorlich, Paul passed verdict:  Darling, you must be a changeling!! How did you stand it? I mean – terribly sweet but, you know - jumped up working class! And do they ever stop eating? After ‘tea’ or whatever they call it, your mother practically force fed me with chocolates! 
He viewed her parents as Dickensian grotesques – and she hated them for it.
Eric, by contrast, owned a thirties lodge in the South of England. It came with ‘grounds’, a gardener, a ‘handyman’ and a cleaner. The latter, a husband and wife team, were considered 'quaint’. But Dick and Rona were also the recipients of generous Christmas bonuses and the odd obligatory enquiry about their ‘brood’. Paul’s mother, Lilias, was not there ,because she was dead. She had died of a coronary thrombosis at the Royal Opera House in 1967, during the premiere of the Roland Petit ballet, Paradise Lost. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull were  in the audience, though Paul and his mother were not of their party. Lilias had attended in her capacity as Drama Critic for the London Sentinel and Paul was her escort, as so often on these occasions.
She had not returned from the Ladies’ Powder Room and Paul had become concerned. Of course it was highly likely, not to say probable, that she was keeping a tryst with a lover, leaving Paul to take notes on the performance and write the requisite copy. But the sight of a foot in a kitten-heeled sandal protruding from a cubicle had necessitated investigation, and she was discovered in a foetal position at the base of a toilet pedestal. Death had been instantaneous, and presumably painless. 
Life had continued the same, but calmer. Lilias had been known to drink, and, when drunk, to scream. She was now pinioned for eternity within a photograph; wielding a golf club and bearing a remarkable resemblance to Nicol
Eric did not eat trifle, and his cellar bore no trace of Liebfraumilch.  He served smoked salmon, crowns of lamb and braces of pheasant, accompanied by petits pois and wine from ‘a good case of red’. Paul was in charge of the music – Monteverdi with dinner and Dave Brubeck with the single malt and cigars that concluded the evening. Cigarette smoking was not encouraged. 
On occasion, Eric’s assistant Deirdre and her husband Bobo completed the party. Nicola had retained  their affections and Paul received  gifts for her and toys for the kiddies. They would discuss Donald’s career and the pretensions of Gillian; the shortcomings of  Jim Callaghan  and  the new Ercol table.  And they drank real coffee at the hearth of an open log fire. 
Of course, with the hindsight of thirty years, the words of Edward Thomas: If we could see all, all might seem good (As the Team’s Head Brass) could not be applied to Paul’s family.
His wrist retained  the scar, livid in winter, from the time he had smashed it through the French windows after surprising Eric and Deirdre wrestling on the carpet. He had returned early from prep school  and Lilias was working in London.
Aged thirteen, he had acted  as companion to his mother, pouring her drink, lighting her cigarette and making up a third in wine bars and restaurants with Uncle John, Uncle Julian and Uncle Jeff. He sneered at Eric’s career as a cricket commentator but wilted under his father’s settled opinion that Waverley and Cambridge should have opened the door to something better than schoolmastering.
And  Bobo seemed  to promote his wife’s continuing affair with Eric, joining them on holidays  and the golf course and operating  the cine camera  show of the pair  enjoying some ‘down time’ after the West Indies Test match – with Deirdre in  bikini bottoms without a top. There was something distasteful about it all.
But she  became perversely all the more determined to keep Paul. She would consign Nicola to history - she would not  be dismissed as the type of person who would eat an individual pork pie on a nest of tables in a modern four bedroom detached house.
After the death of her father, she had sold her family home at a profit, retaining some cuttings from the rose bushes. The proceeds had been a lifeline when she had lost her Parliamentary seat. Not for the first time, she wished her Fengrove base had been a customised, new build flat. The estate agents had sold three of those last week. So what if their owners ate trifle? 

It was a free country. 
The last laugh had clearly gone to Paul.  

Friday, 12 August 2011

not ferrero rocher

but we all remember that commercial, which, if you had asked me to guess when it was first shown I would have said about 1986, but apparently it was 1993 or so.  Anyway, this is not it, but another commercial, for Betfair.  The dark-haired woman being suggestive about cricket balls is the actress Victoria Strachan and is my son's partner.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

recall is a gesture?

Parliament has been recalled today.  Most of those commenting on this seem to be saying that it is gesture politics, and that MPs cannot do anything about the riots, so why have them there sounding off, it only serves to put the public off politicians even more, etc, etc.  Rob Marchant and many others take this view, across the political spectrum.  I disagree.  The public may take a dim view of politicians, but why then was there so much condemnation when Cameron did not interrupt his holiday straight away?  He couldn't do anything on the spot, after all.  My own take on the events of recent days, such as it is, is that it was an #epicfail on the part of the police.  They just weren't there, and from Saturday evening they should have been.  People saw this and came out on the streets and helped themselves from shops.  Some of those who spoke to camera said as much.  Police presence on the streets deters stuff.  This is a fact.  The Robocop principle - the first broken window will spawn more unless there is instant zero tolerance.  This is what has never existed on the streets of the UK.  Now there is a massive police presence and the rioting has stopped.  At the time of writing.  There are those too who say they are ashamed/embarrassed to be British because, variously, of the conduct of some of those on the streets, of the fact that the looting was acquisitive (is there any other kind?) and not political, because an injured young man was robbed by people pretending to help him, blah blah blah.  No.  People took stuff because they could.  It is crime.  That's it.  We are all capable of committing it, even the Dalai Lama is, and Mother Teresa often did.  Just most of us don't, most of the time.  It's not "complicated", as so many have tried to persuade us it is.  And it is RIGHT that MPs should have a special session to talk about this.  Of course MPs need and deserve a holiday, as everyone does.  But MPs who go to constituency events during the parliamentary recess, especially in summer, usually get accosted with the remark "How are you enjoying your long holiday then?"  and have to bite back the riposte "If I were on f***king holiday I wouldn't be here listening to you, you tedious self-important w***er".

On 9/11 ten years ago I was on a flight to Australia, found out just before Singapore that it had happened, and on arrival in Sydney that parliament had been recalled.  I called the whips' office and said I would come back, but would need someone to buy me a ticket.  They said it would not be necessary.  There are never votes on these occasions.  But given the complexity and the numerous calls on the parliamentary calendar, does it not make sense for an extra opportunity to be given for MPs to debate policing and urban areas, especially if their constituencies have been affected by rioting?  Does it not make sense for Cameron and Clegg (the later has a conviction for arson, ha ha, he set fire to a neighbour's cactus collection, nice chap) to gauge the mood of their backbenchers, the more so as they are in coalition and could easily lose a vote on a crucial matter?  The government may wish to bring in legislation, or police measures.  The Home Secretary should be making a statement to the House.  This is an opportunity for MPs to inform themselves, to contribute to a debate on policing and public safety, to speak up for their constituents who have been affected by, or who have a point of view on, recent events.  They , and the public, deserve this opportunity.  It would be irresponsible to wait possibly until after the early autumn party conferences to resume the business of the House.  Apart from anything else, some of the dimmer and more opportunistic MPs of any party, given enough time, will sell themselves to vested interests.

Some bloggers and twitterers say that "we" do not want to hear from MPs today.  My answer to that is - if not now, when?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Diana Nyad

Just to say, I was inspired.  She didn't make it across the sea, but she did more than a body can usually do.  If anyone has not seen the story, Diana is an endurance swimmer, 61 years old, who tried to swim from Cuba to the USA - she got half way - without a shark cage.  She has done many other major swims, and I salute her for it.  Thank  you Diana.  You are older than me, and I will never do what you have done, but you have inspired me always to try for more.  I'll be at the pool today!  (You look great btw).

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Best Blessings of Existence 10

More from Emma B.  In which water, and other things, flow.

The darkest hour is just before dawn, cried The Mamas and Papas in a hit that Donald had not played at his legendary fortieth bash. Yes it is, she thought, as she made the calls to her children. Richard was icily dismissive with a tinge of irritation. He had not seen his father for ten years and saw no reason to make a change. Must run – Lizzie was launching her citrine line and needed a lift to the station.

Vanessa cancelled her workshop, bought a roadmap and drove to the hospital.

When Paul had left, she and her children had been swept without warning, into a tsunami without a life raft. Within 24 hours he had removed all his possessions and had decamped to a new house, secured on the sly whilst she had been fighting the General Election campaign in Fengrove.

The Crier had led from the front, presenting her as a heartless hussy who had immolated her domestic duties on the pyre of ambition: He was forced to do his own washing and cook the Sunday roast, opined one ‘family member’, whom she strongly suspected of being Gillian. But within weeks, a truer picture emerged,  in the form of Meriel, complete with fringed boots and pet cockatiel, who assumed her place as chatelaine, concubine and custodian of The Collected Works of Basil Bunting.

This had devastated the children, who at 13 and 15 were sentient beings, unlike Nicola’s brood in 1977. Richard had smashed crockery, with particular attention to a Port Merion dinner service, and Vanessa had used a Swiss Army Knife to lacerate Reckoning by The Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma. But then Vanessa had turned her hand to the plough in the form of GCSEs, A levels, a degree and a career in theatrical design.

Richard had renounced education and with it, any recognisable participation in society.  There had been minor tiffs with the law; worrying at the time, but in retrospect well within the bounds of normality for an adolescent who had woken up one day at the apex of Middle England and had gone to bed as a statistic in the figures for family breakdown in the later years of the 20th century.  But then, just as dramatically, he had undergone reincarnation as a successful manager of a boutique hotel and partner of Lizzie, a spirited designer of avant-garde jewellery, with a catalogue, a website and a workshop.

All this, she suspected, was maintained at the cost of tempering certain family relationships. He saw nothing of his father, lots of Vanessa and little of herself. His reaction to the news about Paul was just as expected.

Not so Vanessa, who had made her own break with Paul after chancing upon his diaries, artfully sandwiched between The Tiejans Trilogy by Ford Madox Ford and Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett.  Revolted and fascinated in equal measure, she discovered that Meriel was merely the last in a troupe that numbered Camille from the gift shop; Lesley from the garden centre and Frances, her own godmother. Dates, times, practices and preferences were detailed, alongside prompts for the renewal of car tax and scraps of tawdry verse. The sum total had produced the effect of feasting with panthers, and she had severed all contact with Paul forthwith.

Now she had plunged into the vortex, with an eighty-mile trip twice weekly and regular encounters with Meriel, Ursula, Donald and Gillian that were neither courteous nor cordial. The purpose of such visits remained a mystery. A pattern emerged whereby she herself would be the recipient of calls from Vanessa on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with updates on Paul’s condition.  These were markedly peculiar, being entirely devoid of emotion and sharing a similarity of tone with The Shipping Forecast. Meriel had screamed at the first sight of Vanessa and had attempted to have her forcibly ejected from the ward. But she had been overruled by the male staff nurse and Vanessa was allowed to remain, provided there were no disturbances.

Paul’s immediate family had a history of heart disease (the last to succumb being Eric in ’96), and the initial assumption was that Paul’s illness had been predetermined.  But a blood test had given a more sinister indication and a barium meal succeeded by a full body scan had provided a conclusive diagnosis of colon cancer with secondary tumours in the lungs and lymph glands. This was the reason behind a past year of stomach disorders; the condition was advanced and prognosis terminal.

Paul’s decline had been rapid. He had been discharged from hospital, but the less than professional nursing skills of Meriel made a hospice place a necessity. Ursula had proved equal to the task and had located a private establishment just outside town overlooking the golf course. Paul had been treasurer of the club and it seemed appropriate. According to Donald, who spoke to Vanessa if nobody else was looking, Paul had not wanted to go and there had been an affecting scene as he bade farewell to his study, home to Bunting, Joyce and the nuggets of cannabis he had secreted behind these volumes for use at leisure. At the time of the attack, he had been in the midst of an article: Moby Dick – Mind over Matter – for the main competitor of Brodie’s Notes and insisted on completing it from his bed in the hospice with Meriel a less than able scribe.

But the hospice was accommodating and the nurses were kind. All in all, it was the best possible choice – especially as it would not be for very long.

She had listened to these bulletins from Vanessa with a peculiar combination of fascination and repulsion. She felt no sympathy for Paul and no compassion for his sufferings. But she became increasingly reliant upon her twice-weekly updates, and experienced the type of irritation akin to missing a key episode of The Archers if for any reason, the bulletin was not forthcoming.

One week, Vanessa was laid low with a dose of flu and was unable to visit. The tension was quite unbearable and her relief unbounded when the phone rang again at 9pm on Wednesdays, 6pm on Saturdays with the resumption of the bulletins, delivered with all the emotion of a boa constrictor.  She was a presence at the death bed by proxy and experienced all the frisson of a particularly licentious adulterous affair.

Vanessa did not report the nature of her conversations with Paul – if indeed any took place. But she had developed a wonderful eye for detail; Gillian’s pea green trouser suit; Meriel’s hair extensions and the visible discomfort displayed by the family party at the unexpected arrival of yet another unknown woman visitor and a handful of strange men. But her senses were most keenly aroused as Vanessa described the weekly deterioration of Paul to a state where he could no longer feed himself or visit the toilet in safety. There had been a particularly interesting account of his last attempt to take a shower, when he had clung to the walls in his nightgown, drenched with hot water and unable to stop the flow.

Thereafter he was cleaned in bed behind closed curtains.

He had died on a Monday evening – and Vanessa had made the trip, although it was outside her regular visiting schedule. He had lost consciousness on Saturday.

Vanessa had been present at the end, as had Donald. Gillian and Ursula were in the guest suite with Ursula’s toddler and the baby.

Meriel had gone to the toilet.

Vanessa had phoned with the news on her return. She had extracted every tiny piece of information from the call, like squeezing the juice from a lemon.

When it was over, she felt slightly sick.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Best Blessings of Existence 9

More from |Emma B.  In which darkness falls.

She received, in short order, four texts and an email.
Gas bill ready for viewing online; Lizzie’s new website address; confirmation of agreed reduction in the sale price of her house; Vanessa was staying with friends until the start of rehearsals.
And an email from Lynne saying she’d been called by Sandra Milford – I mean Cornish - who wants to meet.  Can’t face it solo – are you free next week?
It was a shame about the house – but the alternative was arson and a claim on the insurance. Which would mean prison. She had bought it ten years ago at the height of the boom – and had spent as much again on the basement and a loft conversion. It was an elegant Victorian town house in the city centre, adjacent to an award-winning park and had doubled its value in the first five years.
Then she had lost her seat; the economy had nose-dived and she was at risk of negative equity. She had no wish to remain in Fengrove and her work as a proof reader was entirely portable. But now, like Sisyphus – she lingered in infernal motion   as the former MP - a Ghost of Christmas Past without the salary.
Vanessa’s text was welcome.
They would have to discuss Paul – but thankfully, not yet. And surely not even Vanessa could go from a ten year estrangement to a three month vigil – and then   a burial - without taking stock. Of something. Although she had no idea what it was. 
She had not met Paul since their divorce, by which time the overriding emotion was relief that she would not have to begin the Millennium yoked to him.
She had changed her name and nursed disproportionate feelings of resentment towards those who persisted in calling her by her original style – namely Government Whips and the Diary columnist of The Crier who delighted in goading her.
When he re-christened her with a four-barrelled surname – each a progressively obscene variant of the original – she had finally conceded defeat. 
Meriel had converted from mistress to wife – but she herself had remained single, more from accident than design. And for Gillian, Donald, Nicola and the kiddies – the waters had closed over their head.  Until the phone call on Sunday afternoon, nearly four months ago.
Muted; tentative. She had telephoned the switchboard at Westminster but they had refused to release contact details for ex Members. Then she had no joy with a couple of Vanessa’s old numbers. Finally, she had called the Party office in Fengrove and had struck lucky with the Membership Officer. Paul was in hospital. She thought Vanessa and Richard should know. He had been admitted a week ago, after being removed from the house by police, in response to a 999 call.  They had made a forced entrance by smashing the French windows and had found him on the floor; phone in hand, beneath a ten volume set of The Collected Works of Thomas de Quincy. 
He had collapsed at the door of the study and had crawled the length of the room, clawing himself to desk height by grabbing the bookcase shelves.  With a Herculean effort, he had wrenched the phone from its cradle and had dialled Emergency Services before crashing to the ground and waiting for rescue.  
Meriel had returned later that evening from her French Conversation class to a carpet of glass; a houseful of smoke and the corpse of a boeuf bourguignon with Lyonnaise potatoes.  She assumed that they had been burgled, that Paul had absconded to the pub leaving the cooker at full tilt, and that the assailants, who had been watching the house, had seized their opportunity. It seemed strange that they had demolished an entire French window without troubling the neighbours – but it was a singularly unsociable cul de sac. Then she had looked at her phone – on silent mode during French Conversation, and had picked up the messages. Paul was undergoing tests on Men’s Surgical and would be detained for observation.
Nicola would not be visiting, but Ursula had driven from Dorlich and Donald and Gillian were already ensconced. He was stable.
And then Nicola was gone and calls must be made.
 Alone in her house, she drank a vodka and tonic – and then another and a third, re-visiting unbridled mixed feelings. Not because of Paul – she had nothing left for him. Because of Nicola. 
They were both ex wives; rejected by Paul.  But Nicola had managed it better. Cast adrift in Brittany, she had returned to Dorlich where she had removed her footprint from the spacious accommodation that accompanied Paul’s job. She delivered the baby, secured an excellent maintenance deal and purchased an attractive flat at the unfashionable end of Wellington Parade with the lump sum from her divorce settlement. 
A valued sister-in-law to Donald and Gillian, she was Dear Aunty to David and Susan and an adored  daughter-in –law to Eric. Tears were shed in private – if at all. 
Her own position – after twice as long with the same man - was decidedly different.
She was favoured by neither his friends nor his family and had finally severed links when Ursula had married without letting her know. Paul had divested himself of his wives in remarkably similar style.
Nicola had been cashiered in France and she had received the coup de grace after her election to Parliament, on the day of the Queen’s Speech. But whilst Nicola’s restraint had won plaudits, her own outbursts had evoked ridicule, contempt – and reams of derisive newsprint. The stink from this especial fish and chip paper had been pervasive and total, consigning her to the career equivalent of Siberia. And now here was Nicola – having the last laugh. 
Except that she wasn’t. She had been as pleasant and reasonable as ever.  In a world without Paul – and to a lesser extent, Ursula - the two would no doubt have been friends.
And that, she thought, was the worst thing of all. 

Saturday, 6 August 2011

a democratic, secular state

is it too much to ask?  Anywhere in the world?  I live in one,  pretty much, now, and have done so before, when I lived many years ago in Japan.  Although Japan does have a state religion, Shinto, in which the Emperor holds rank, and to which all prime ministers make obeisance on special days.  However.  France is a secular state (though Alsace is the least secular bit of it - Good Friday is a public holiday here, unlike in the rest of France, and there is religious education in schools here, you can choose Catholic or Protestant and in one or two schools even Jewish) which seems to me a Very Good Thing.  I am a communicant Anglican these days, but share (I think) with the Archbishop of Canterbury a wish for the disestablishment of the Church of England.  Oh, and in secular France we have a long weekend coming up - Monday 15th August is a public holiday, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, an illustration I think that while states may try to be secular they are often not very good at it.

I was struck by an editorial by David Hearst in the Guardian (natch) to which my  attention was drawn by Norm and others, in which the wish is expressed for a democratic, secular state of Israel/Palestine, in which no religious or ethnic group has pre-eminence.  Who could be against that?  Not me.  Like many nominally on the Left (which is where I place myself, though others may not) I am not comfortable with the notion of a state based on religion or ethnicity.  Iran, where people get arrested for having water pistol fights because such things are "un-Islamic", and its client Gaza, whose people are human shields against the Jew.  And others.  But where does that lead us?  Back when I was young and foolish there used to be an organisation called the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and although I did not go in for taking positions on the Middle East when I was in my teens, on what I still think is the sensible ground that I didn't know what I was talking about, I did support that organisation.  It doesn't exist any more, and there doesn't seem to be anyone who would like a democratic, secular state in the region.  I have no idea what the majority Jewish people of Israel think about this.  Because I am talking about one state, not two.  And where does that lead us?

Well. you tell me.  Is there any way for one democratic secular state to exist which does not involve the destruction of democratic Israel and the slaughter of its people?  As Hamas and others have pledged to do? Norm and others take the view that what is apparently the start of a move towards one state inevitably means the removal of support for Israel in "the West", which in its turn means destruction and slaughter.  Are they right?  I fear so.  But is there another way?  I don't buy Lush products any more because of their support for Islamist racism (they've taken that off their website now), but it's hardly enough, is it?


The town I live in has a sizeable Muslim population (and a fabby brand-new mosque, partly financed by the local authority, oooh) largely of north African heritage.  Ramadan isn't that noticeable here, but I saw an incident yesterday that reminded me of the some of the things that used to happen in my Reading days.  Ramadan being in summer this year the days are very long, which makes it hard for the people to bear.  The temperature has been about 28 degrees in the afternoons in recent days, and muggy.  I do not think it is healthy to go without water for that long, but still... I went for apero (post-work drinks, a Friday tradition, French people often have a drink with their neighbours early on a Friday evening) with a colleague and partner at their place, and left there in time to watch Plus Belle La Vie at home, obviously (France 3, 2010 weekdays).  I popped into our local supermarket on the way home, just before they closed, the sun was not far off setting, and a significant number of the customers were, apparently, Muslim, and were buying last-minute things before going home to eat and drink.  One middle-aged man, bespectacled and respectable-looking, was rather slow putting his shopping away, and the woman behind him got irascible.  This happens often when the blood sugar is low from fasting.  The woman shouted at the man that he wasn't doing Ramadan properly, he should have done his shopping earlier and shouldn't be holding everyone up.  Clearly offended, the man drew himself up and said that he was not observing Ramadan, that Ramadan was nothing to do with him, and that the woman should look to her own preparations for the feast, which she was clearly not doing properly.  The man might have been a Coptic Egyptian for all I know, or a secular Algerian, or even a Catholic Frenchman.  The woman was even more offended, and shrieked back at the man that she was Jewish, and how dare he, etc etc, all to an audience of hugely entertained teenagers getting their eighty-cent cans of beer to start their Friday night.  The cashier was blonde, her name badge said "Lea", and she kept her eyes down, bored, waiting for it to be over.  The cashier at the next till was dark, and her name badge said "Fatma", and she looked uncomfortable.  I noticed her hands were shaking slightly.

And the moral of this is, probably,  go out and see what people do and how they behave, don't stay at home in front of your TV and decide what people are like.  It's good to have assumptions exploded, though not always easy.

Friday, 5 August 2011

talking to ourselves

Hugo Rifkind in today's Times (£) wonders if Twitter is more than #talkingtoourselves.  I have been on Twitter only for a few months, but when it started I sent emails (quaint, I know) to a bunch of people I wanted to keep in touch with and chat to and asked them to go on it and follow me.  They all either didn't reply or said they didn't think it would catch on/they didn't have time, etc.  One of them was at the time a top-flight national print journalist.  Anyway, I went on a few months ago when I got wind that people were tweeting about my blog.  Rifkind's point (I find him frivolous most of the time, but he is sound on this) is that the print and broadcast media are currently getting some of their knickers in a twist about who owns a journalist's Twitter account, and that they just don't get it.  Nobody owns it, that is the point.  If a journalist moves from one employer to another they will continue to tweet, follow and be followed, and they do it as an individual. Social media give a voice to the voiceless.  That is why I like them.  That is also why older power structures loathe them.  Rifkind notes this as a positive, and notes as a negative that if people who follow you on Twitter don't like what you say they are gone in an instant, while they will continue to read a newspaper column even if it annoys them.  I don't buy that.  I don't spend much of my day on Twitter, and on days when it is particularly tedious none at all, but I especially like following people I don't agree with or find annoying (like the ridiculous and fraudulent Laurie Penny) because it's fun.  And the number of people who comment on my blog who don't agree with me is quite high - they usually start with "Your problem, Jane (they always use my first name in this context, don't know why) is...".  And don't we choose the newspaper we buy (or these days increasingly don't buy) because its editorial line chimes with what we think, at least approximately? So it is not that simple,  We use different media in different ways.  Recently I posted a short piece of fiction, which I hoped would kick off what I thought would be an entertaining memoir.  Which it has, and "Emma B." has been guest posting on my blog regularly since then.  But within moments of posting the first piece I ws tweeted that fiction like that was pointless in the tweeter's view.  So my response was, naturally enough, "don't read it then".  Dialogue like this matters, and creates a more dynamic environment for writers than previously.


Thursday, 4 August 2011

Daisy, Daisy...

first Cllr Daisy Benson used the Salter map of Reading and sought to represent Reading West from Reading East, and now this.    Not going well is it Daze?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Best Blessings of Existence 8

Emma B. continues the story. In which the identity of the deceased is revealed.

                       Tomorrow came, as it must, and she settled her bill at The Claremont after a frugal breakfast of packet granola.  
She had avoided the toast rack. 
In summer vacations at Dorlich, she and Lynne had worked as breakfast waitresses at the five star Pompadour, famed for its conferencing facilities and overlooked by Leslie Potts’s balcony on Wellington Parade. Pay was poor; tips were excellent and perks were variable – to include the County cricketer who had performed such an undistinguished, but necessary service…… However, the Pompadour had proved to be a fount of corruption. Its popularity had exceeded The Claremont’s wildest dreams, and the company practice of secreting  and then reheating - remaindered portions of toast, was quite understandable. The alternative would have been the contravention of time schedules and an extortionate bread bill. But she had been shocked by her own alacrity in embracing the unspoken code; dexterity in pouncing upon the detritus of discarded plates and expertise in scraping the tiniest morsel of dried egg from the corner of a wholemeal triangle, prior to presenting it with a smile, to its new recipient.Since then, toast courtesy of an external provider had been strictly off limits.
She headed for the church. 
It was situated on the outskirts of town, close to a river and opposite the familiar landmark of The Trumpet and Cushion – lynchpin   of the annual visit to Donald and Gillian during the early years of her marriage.   
The prelude to this highlight of the social calendar was unchanging and depressing.
Paul would always not want to go and the fortnight beforehand would be characterised by bouts of bad temper and the suggestion of various ingenious reasons for crying off.  But they would go anyway, bundling Vanessa into her car seat and stuffing the boot with a bumper supply of disposable nappies, changing mats and antiseptic cream for the inevitable nappy rash that a stay at Picks Norton invariably provoked.  Three nights and two days would then ensue in which they would compliment the garden, David and Susan’s special puppet show in honour of   Wicked Uncle Paul and New Aunty,  and Gillian’s chicken Marengo.
Gillian would expand upon the increasing senility of Eric; the vulgarity of Donald’s colleagues,  and how well Nicola and the kiddies had looked when they came to stay last month. Her own shortcomings as a toilet trainer would be paraded for scrutiny:
Oh dear, Vanessa’s done a whoopsie (smack in the middle of the peach velour couch). Didn’t  Mummy tell you that POOS ARE FOR POTTIES? 
This would be followed  by Donald’s slides of  “our little luxury” – a holiday home on the outskirts of Carcassonne – in stark contrast to the humble terrace that was her sole abode  after Paul’s salary had been plundered by monthly maintenance payments to Nicola. 
So the final evening at The Trumpet and Cushion, distinguished by chicken liver pate, scampi-in-the-basket and black forest gateaux on trestle tables beside the river, was the treat of the visit.
Then the drive home, punctuated by desultory rowing; Paul would dive to the pub and Vanessa would go down with a virus.
And that would be that until next year.
The church, like The Trumpet and Cushion, was bound in a time warp.
It resembled a car warehouse and apart from the conduct of business, bore no relation whatsoever to the gothic splendour of Reims with its smiling angel – a particular favourite with Paul. She stepped inside and joined Vanessa who had positioned herself at the back. No sign of Richard, which was understandable, and she did not recognise anybody else, again unsurprising in the circumstances.
The music began and the cortege made its way up the aisle. Meriel headed the procession, followed by Nicola, children and grandchildren, with Donald and Gillian bringing up the rear with their definitive custodial authority. They were remarkably composed, and exuded the quiet satisfaction generally associated with the attainment of a lifetime’s ambition.
Which was probably the case.
They had expended years of their lives  on  the capture of  Paul , typified by   the  Dorlich dawn raid   when they had  wrenched  him, (incapacitated by dysentery)  from the  arms of Sukie, and had returned  him to Nicola and the kiddies. The  worm in the  bud was an 18-year hiatus, courtesy  of  her own marriage to Paul, but her replacement  by  Meriel,  who, like Miss Bates, could be guaranteed  to supply  three things very dull indeed on every imaginable occasion – was immensely gratifying.
As the service progressed, she felt a reluctant twinge of sympathy for Paul.
He had studied at a Parisian Jesuit College and had officiated as a church incense bearer during his first marriage, to Nicola. This had not impeded his career as a serial adulterer, but to spend his last moments on terra firma in a box, at the mercy of Shine Jesus Shine was cruelly ironic.
She fancied she could sense his increasing frustration as matters proceeded relentlessly from sins rather than trespasses in The Lord’s Prayer; through the doggerel of You can shed tears that he is gone, Or you can smile because he has lived, culminating in Meriel’s singular rendition of Desiderata.
A selection from The Death of Ivan Ilych followed by Oh Come oh Come Emmanuel would have been infinitely more suitable, but he was not her husband and it was not her call.
After about fifty minutes, it was over and she followed the intimate party to the graveside. She would  rather have left, but could not abandon Vanessa to the mercy  of aunt and uncle, cousins, stepmothers and half siblings, who had studiously  ignored her very existence for the past five years.  She glanced at the vicar, thankful that he too, betrayed no recognition of their former acquaintance, except perhaps for a hint of vaingloriousness as he intoned We commit it this body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

At which point, her 39-year-old stepdaughter Ursula broke the sound barrier with an incoherent eulogy to incomparable Daddy, whom she remembered tossing her into the air in their childhood games of Kings and Queens, One to Five and Robbers and Barons  And their magical picnics in Kimberley Woods, and learning to float in the sea. She would never forget, and her own children would miss, these games with Grandad Paul.
Vanessa stared straight ahead.
They left without speaking to anybody.