Friday, December 30, 2011

Why did you marry a Brit, Katy?

So there goes another promising Anglo American relationship – Katy Perry and Russell Brand are to divorce after a mere 14 months ending a relationship that had more promise than – I don’t know – Liz Taylor’s marriage to Larry Fortensky.

This one is somewhat shocking because Katy and Russell were seen as the uber cool couple. However, according to the Sun newspaper they had a “huge row,” – a good term that like their marriage, doesn’t translate – and Brand spent Christmas in none so hip Cornwall.

The Sun newspaper said a source told US Weekly mag the pair had a massive row, saying: "She was like, 'F*** you. I'm going to do my own thing'."

The source said that Russell replied: "Fine, f*** you too."

So in such profound terms one of the most talked about relationships of recent years ended…

If there’s a message to come out of this – and who knows if there is or not – it’s don’t marry a Brit. Americans may like the quirky, offbeat humor thing. They may have seen Notting Hill a few times but the reality is we are unreliable and crap and we’re not very funny after a couple of months. And we hate to put out the trash. We start to miss the strangest things like warm beer and fish and chips that don’t taste like cardboard and we realize we’d be happier watching Newcastle United after the fifth pint of Newcastle Brown.

In recent years we have seen a number of these Transatlantic gigs falter as surely as SkyTrain, which is a very old allusion. Take Madonna and Guy Ritchie, a union that straddled all the stereotypes from the obligatory vows in a Scottish castle to Madonna becoming an honorary Brit, owning horses and trotting round her Wiltshire estate blah, blah. For a while we adopted Madonna as real down to earth Londoner ignoring her obvious lack of any discernible sense of humor.

Guy, in contrast, remained being a regular Guy, albeit one from a privileged background, and later said he didn’t have any regrets, especially as the marriage improved his film career. Spoken like a true Brit.

Now I’m on to taking bets about how long Gwyneth Paltrow will remain with the ginger bloke from Coldplay.

While I never had much time for Madonna as an individual, although I have a soft spot for her as a singer, I have a soft spot for Katy Perry as an individual while I have no time for her as a singer.

I didn’t know much about Russell Brand to start with.  In fact I was rather shocked because I thought Katy, who is kind of cute, even if her eyes are a bit close together, was marrying Russell Grant.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Alas and Santa sucked too

As I predicted in my last post about the Tooth Fairy, Santa wasn't really up to scratch either. He forgot to put anti freeze in the sledge, the reindeer entered a parallel universe in which they believed they were workers at a French airport and promptly went on strike at the prospect of visiting x billion kids in just one night.

I wrapped presents with Zara the night before and we put out cookies for Santa; we even sprinkled reindeer food on the lawn late at night which seemed rather surreal with the neighbor's white car rumbling up and down outside as they went out on nocturnal drug deals.

We went to bed with some kind of vague idea of waking up at 4 a.m. to do the Santa thing but it didn't quite happen. The next thing I knew it was 7: 52 a.m. and I heard Zara yelling: "Has he come yet?"

Cue a lot of confused throat clearing and mumbling.

"Houston we have a problem."

Not only was Zara's door wide open but Santa had obviously been a no show and wrapping paper was lying around the floor.

We sprung into containment mode, locking down her room and finding her presents - no mean feat in itself because some were in the car, her new bike was in the shed and quite a few of them have failed to achieve lift off from the store, although to be fair her list amounted to two pages of A4 and contained a veiled threat that reindeer would be decapitated if Santa delivered the wrong kind of Angry Bird.

Still it was another great escape - albeit one without Steve McQueen and motorbikes. Zara fell for the fact Santa had really visited our humble abode and taken a bite out of the cookie, even though I still had the telltale crumbs around my mouth. Had she not heard the hasty rustling of wrapping paper or noticed it was the same stuff we had wrapped around presents the night before?

My colleague Joe who also has a 7-year-old child has an interesting theory on this. It's not actually that interesting and probably quite prosaic for anyone who doesn't have a 7-year-old.

A few months ago, he tells me, his 7-year-old David was asking probing questions as to the existence of Santa. Some of these questions didn't have easy answers such as what aerodynamic forces exactly keep reindeer suspended in mid air and how does Santa visit every kid in the whole world in one night?

But then a few weeks before Christmas David stopped asking questions and became unfaltering again in his belief in Santa. Because he wanted to believe he believed, Joe told me, even though his rapidly developing intellect was telling him otherwise. Kind of like God for grown-ups, I suppose.

Still Joe surmised that this would be the last Christmas his seven-year-old would believe. This made me sad in an indescribable and abstract way; our childhoods are less an awakening than a long series of realizations at how our parents have betrayed us.

Until the final betrayal when they leave us altogether but we have to fill our closets and sheds with their forlorn belongings - just because.

(the house is not ours BTW)

Friday, December 23, 2011

The tooth fairy as a slovenly bag lady

The tooth fairy was shambolic; she was more like a wrinkly old bag lady living in an beaten up car.

"Sparkle me some glitter dust on last night's beef and cheddar wrapper from Arby's will you love?"

Here I am back from another day of ever deceasing circles, orbiting around abstract meaninglessness and the shelves of a supermarket where I forgot to get half of the items texted to me on the list.

"Zara's lost a tooth - a big one at the front."

"Great. I'll check it out," I said persuading her to open her mouth and show me the gap so as I could laugh at the gap toothed effect so beloved of clowns and vagabonds the world over, peddlers of cheap mirth. (I could never see the point of Benny Hill).

"I can't believe you are laughing at her. She's been upset all day," my wife snapped at me.

"Oh." And I declined to reply that if diplomacy was my strong suit I'd probably be hosting Bill Clinton at some reception at the embassy in Laos hoping he didn't reach for the cigar box.

If the downside of losing a tooth is a disfigurement, the upside (at least for kids) is the visit of the tooth fairy. Don't ask me where this tradition came from but it's there and it doesn't seem to apply to the loss of other body parts. If Mike Tyson happens to chew off your ear there is no corresponding ear fairy to make you feel better. If Lorena Bobbit ... well you get the idea.

Zara demanded $20.

"Get out of here. I could fly to Hawaii and stay there for a week," I said somewhat insincerely. But hey - I'm cheap. If you can chase the roaches around the hotel room it saves the cost of a safari.

The morning rolled around, as it tends to round these parts, and my wife was rushing around and tearing apart my wallet. Zara had woken up and the tooth was still under her pillow. The tooth fairy was in serious big shit, banged up in some cell facing a DUI charge and getting unsettling looks from an overweight and brutal looking deputy.

We managed to salvage $3 and a mittful of quarters (which sounds like a low budget remake of a Clint Eastwood Western) that were wedged under some books on the floor. And by a somewhat shambolic sleight of hand the tooth fairy rearranged her dishevelled  dress and slipped the filthy lucre under the pillow.

Zara was none the wiser and swallowed the tale that the tooth fairy leaves behind large teeth for unspecified scientific purposes, but it's to be hoped that Santa puts down the crack pipe long enough to get his act together for Christmas Eve.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Try to remember you're a Womble

I hanker for Britain when I read stories like the one about the Womble removing his head before the cameras stopped rolling and wrecking a lot of kids' dreams. Good old Britain - so progressive and yet so caught in a time warp.

London may have unnerved me last time I was there because everyone was so young and so trendy and so obvioulsy un-British. And yet the Wombles - those loveable rubbish (sorry not garbage guys) collectors from Wimbledon Common are still in vogue.

In fact they are so current that a new generation of children believe they are real. So when Mike Batt removed his head before the cameras had stopped rolling on a recent TV show there was an outcry from children and their parents. It was as if someone had stood up and declared: "Santa Claus is really your dad," and your presents don't arrive in a sledge but a Fort Fiesta.

This story stops me dead in my tracks because I grew up with the Wombles. The song "Underground, overground, Wombling free," was the theme of my childhood in suburbia. And yet the Wombles are not only still living and breathing but kids believe they are real an dthey are in with a shout of being Number One at Christmas - another great tradition that's lost on Americans. But if you are British Mistletoe and Whine is ... well a sort of gawky part of your heritage.

The Wimbledon Guardian reather alarmingly refered to the Womble incident as the "Womble 'severed head' debacle."

The other remarkable thing about this story is the fact that it mentions DJ Simon Mayo; someone who was a fixture of my adolescence if not my childhood. It's extremely reassuring that the likes of Uncle Bulgaria and Orinoco are still ambling around Britain which makes me wonder if Dougal and the Magic Roundabout and Bagbuss are doing the rounds still, although surely not the Clangers, who I tried to introduce to my daughter recently only be be told they were "boring and lame."

And what of Captain Pugwash? - and was it really an urban myth that this show was pulled off air because it contained characters called Master Bates and Seaman Stains.

Of course if you talk to Americans about furry Wombles and Dougal they tend to look at you in a funny way and you can see that look pass over their face as they desperately seek the phne number for social services to dial up a restraining order.

Which is the way I like it, really.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Swept away by the sea - Kitty Hawk pier

I was glad Nancy's memorial service was by the sea because the sea puts life in perspective.

Men and women live and die and the sea simply turns its rounded shoulders, shrugs them and sloughs off, pulling the sand beneath it. About 70 percent of the earth is ocean. As land dwellers we are clinging to the edge of a great watery abyss; we are as insignificant as the grains of sand on the beach.

And as we pass on there are many to take our place. I'd like to say I was moved during the memorial service and I was in places but I spent most of it trying to stop Jax Jax screaming out. BlackBerry therapy only worked to a point - and that was the point where he texted a particularly bad tempered councilman who I had last spoken to on acrimonious terms five years ago.

But beyond the pier house with its Pepsi signs that evoked jaunty times by the sea so many years ago, the great waves crashed on and on, oblivious. They pulled us to the ground where men once made flight.

Funny how our parents always took us to the sea when we were kids. Without fail they would head to the coast as if they had ran out of ideas and wanted to slip off the edge like pre Columbus sailors. And at the first sign of the water my father would strike up the familiar mantra: "I can see the sea through the trees."

And still we see the sea through the trees, although we have long ago departed our childhood selves who would get giddy with excitement at the silvery water and the smell of brine in our nostrils. I wonder if we all remember that time when suddenly we were on the beach with our parents and we didn't want to be there anymore. I recall looking around at the flat dull expanse of the sand and seeing the resort for what it really was, a crumbling piece of nostalgia that I didn't want a part of anymore.

My daughter can spend hours on a chilly beach while I chafe with impatience to leave. But one day she will no longer care about her bucket and spade and something will die inside me. Just like the days when I raced my dad and one day I won and saw him panting and suddenly I was sorry I had won.

Back at the house with the death of Nancy a tie had been broken, a cord that held a bundle of letters has snapped, sending correspondence scattering to the ground.

The order was gone and photograph albums lay haphazard on the floor, some of them spilling pictures - my wife as a kid, paddles and trees and inevitably the sea. And it seemed strange how I felt those childhood days would never end - like the trails I carved in the sand as the sun slipped low over the Cornish coast. Or the day when the fog lay low over the rock pool and I jumped on and on, across briny pools until I came across a huge red crab, magnificent and triumphant as the sun came slanting through the mist.

But to grow up was to lose the randomness of rock hopping and to forget the impetuousness of youth. Yet back at Nancy's house something had slipped; suddenly the children were taking over. There were screams and possies of them and menacing figures in the yard clutching huge plastic guns and whatever they could plunder from the house.

Like a revolution there were forces we could no longer control. It was time to move over or to be swept aside.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Leave it to Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian and Casey Anthony

It's been a tough week following the sudden death of my mother in law and I can't thank my blog followers out there enough for your kind comments that I will respond to shortly.

It's also been a week when I have been rethinking a lot. It occured to me this week that giving 120 percent all the time at work can be rather unproductive. You still end up being kicked around while the people who give 20 percent will be promoted. There was a tale, that may be urban myth, about a worker who died at his desk and nobody noticed for 24 hours. It struck me that this could easily happen to me; in fact people would probably have one sided conversations with a somewhat dead me and not even notice until I failed to comply with a piece of unnecessary paperwork.

So it really is time to revamp my life but how? I have read about people whose blogs make them vast amounts of money but I can't really see how this would happen. Brits experienced something of a spike in readers just over a year ago, and slid down the virtual Matterhorn to level out at a respectable but hardly earth shattering 150 or so views a day.

I think Brits isn't going anywhere fast because I haven't mentioned Justin Bieber enough. I know a bit more about who he is than a year ago and I still can't see the point. But I have forgotten the mantra and neglected Bieber. Have I said I haven't mentioned Justin Bieber enough.

But a lot of people have him on their easily distracted little minds a lot, it seems. A recent survey found Bieber was the most searched person on line in 2011.

And the second most searched person I'm quite mortified to say was Kim Kardashian, a character who gives the Biebs about as much depth as Albert Einstein in comparison. Kim and Justin don't have a lot in common but they do succeed in looking rather like waxworks of themselves.

The most searched news story was the trial of Casey Anthony and somewhat surprisingly the most searched for sports star was Maria Sharapova.

The most searched for musician was - I don't need to say, of course - and the most searched for show was American Idol.

This list is somewhat depressing because it reveals how shallow we have all become; if we weren't that way to begin with. It's the stuff of reality TV junkies and disaffected bloggers desperately seeking a bit more SEO juice guv.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

In Memoriam

I had to get away from it all. So I walked. My gait was halting in last night's shirt and Bill's crocks that were too large for my feet.

But the small beach was close and the weather strangely warm for December. I could hear birds whittering away in the trees, three whispy clouds were painted on a peerless blue sky. Such a cruel day to die, although technically the time of death was the night before and the small neighborhood beach ten worlds away from the sterile room at the back of the hospital.

It was the first time I had stared at the work of death, waxy, yellow and undone and while I was grateful for dodging death for half my life, it had caught up with me. Still the words of John Donne marched around my head.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so:

Death struck me as a sickly and a mean thing, not at all mighty, a hobgoblin panhadler that had stolen the vibrancy and magnificent from her face.

And death left me speechless, weak and wavering. Absent minded and wandering, mouthing at cupboards. I was lost unlike my dear wife who put up with so much but complained so little.

Only the beach drew me with any purpose, away to the small jetty and the drifting blueness of the sound. Souls drift away on such days and we can only watch and wonder at the ebb and the flow. I recalled a sunset when I was here before. Noah threw stones in the water and Rob showed him sticks. Still the distance between us went well beyond the beach. Rob was already drifting away and soon would be a name without a face. And the child was an adolescent now, although I had not seen him for a long while.

From a house on the bay I heard laughter from a yard sale and remembered a similar sale here two years ago when we had laughed as I picked up a bulky JVC camcorder for $1 only to throw it away.

Now these people were separated from me both in time and mood. In a way I wanted to be anonymous as if this small beach was a microcosm of the desert island I longed to be a small black figure on, lost in sunsets, like driftwood on the rocks. My mother-in-law could be difficult but she had a big heart; at least until it packed up.

The occasional spats were as insignificant as fragments of shells in the bigger picture of the world, so why did we let them fester? And the words of one of the saddest songs caught in my throat.

Of all the things I should've said,
That I never said.
All the things we should've done,
That we never did.
All the things I should've given,
But I didn't. 

More than 40 years ago there was a wedding of college sweethearts. I don't know the details but picture a small white, clapperboard church. I picture hope springing from the roadside verges. But they went their separate ways and their paths seldom crossed and only bitterness grew from the verges. At least until they were reunited within the year - walking down a valley where we assume there is no sea. A place from whence no traveler returns.

This woman's Work - Kate Bush

Monday, November 28, 2011

Why I'm still feeling queasy after Thanksgiving

I kept rather a low profile during Thanksgiving. To be honest I’ve never really seen the point of this schmaltzfest, unless you happen to be a turkey farmer in the US who gets to hit pay dirt twice in the space of a month. And what kind of an American expression is pay dirt, anyhow? What does it mean? You get paid so you have to go out and do something really dirty. Which may ensure you don’t get paid again for a while. Apparently it refers to gravel with a high concentration of gold in it; not like any gravel you get round these parts.

In short I didn’t post anything on Facebook saying 'I’m so Thankful.' That’s partly because I’m a curmudgeon, although I am thankful I don’t live in Syria or Somalia, even though I have this recurring dream that I have been transported to a war zone. I'm not even sure if the feeling of peace and thankfulness was enduring because sometime overnight on Thursday it was replaced by the urge to get a cheap flatscreen TV or pair of designer sneakers and not care if it involved trampling a few elderly women half to death to get them the next morning.

But really I don’t like Thanksgiving (apart from the day off work, of course) because it’s one of those glib and smug rewritings of history for the benefit of people of European descent so that we can pat ourselves on the back about how great America is as our stomachs grumble for the rest of the afternoon parked in front of Real Housewives of Atlanta or New York or Redneckysville, Alabama.

So what are the origins of Thanksgiving? According to the Northwest Herald which is, I presume a newspaper in a cold place, it’s….

“The proclaiming of a day of thanksgiving traditionally dates from the autumn of 1621, when Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford invited the local Wampanoag Indians to join the Pilgrims in a three-day celebration of feasting and recreation. The Pilgrims were especially giving thanks for surviving the harsh winter of 1620-1621, during which half of the 102 Mayflower passengers had died, and for the bountiful harvest, which hopefully would help them to meet the challenge of the upcoming winter.”

But there’s also some kind of school lesson plan that does the rounds about how the Indians gave the Pilgrims their corn, that ensured survival, taught them to hunt and they all lived happily ever after. This is surely the tale that prompted my daughter to ask: “If the Indians didn’t have microwaves how did they teach the Pilgrims how to make popcorn?”

This is from the lesson plan.

“Tell first winter the Pilgrims spent in their new home was very cold. Food was in short supply. Some days they had only enough food for each new person to have five kernels of corn for the day. Finally spring came. They planted food and it grew. All the pilgrims did not die. From then on, when a time of Thanksgiving came around, the Pilgrims put five kernels of corn on each plate to remind themselves of their blessings. Let us also remember: (Written on the poster paper).”

Well that’s as clear as mud then. What is clear is that a few years later the Indians weren’t happy bunnies with a valid cause as the settlers took their land and drove them out. Philip, or Metacom, the second son of old Massasoit, the longtime friend of the English, became the head of the Wampanoags in 1662.

King Philip’s War between the Indians and the settlers that was waged from 1675 to 1678 was a bloody affair and the single greatest calamity to occur in seventeenth-century Puritan New England. Nearly half of the region's towns were destroyed, its economy was all but ruined, and much of its population was killed, including one-tenth of all men available for military service. Proportionately this was one of the bloodiest and costliest wars in the history of North America.

For the next 200 years or so the protracted and intermittent genocide of the Indian people continued, as they were pushed west to the badlands of Oklahoma until somebody decided they wanted those lands too, perhaps after hitting pay dirt in those hills.

This is one reason why Thanksgiving leaves a bad taste for me. The other is the way we celebrate the Pilgrims as Godly and goodly when they were religious extremists who used to kill women who acted in a peculiar way as witches. These folks were more extreme than the tea party. In modern America they would probably be going around cutting beards off Amish people (predominantly men folk).

America makes such a big deal about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact, that’s made out like a precursor to the Constitution, that they tend to forget the first successful English speaking colony was in Virginia not New England.

There’s also a certain irony in seeing descendants of these white settlers who drove out the native people arguing for the kids of Mexican immigrants who sneaked into the country, to be sent back south as punishment for their parents’ actions. Just saying.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Preconceptions Gone with the Wind

I have never appreciated the attraction of Gone with the Wind, believing the film to be a cliche of star crossed lovers, garish sunsets, Magnolia trees and the old south. I had seen parts of the movie and knew a couple of the most famous lines "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." and "Tomorrow is another day."

What more did I need to know? What was the point of giving up four hours of my life - more like six when you build in commercial breaks - to watch this predictable mush in overwrought costumes?

But while I was aimlessly channel hopping last night I chanced on Gone with the Wind and decided to stick with it because there was nothing else worth watching. And then a funny thing happened. I got hooked and my old preconceptions were gone with the wind.

Most of all I got drawn into the character of Scarlett O'Hara. It stuck me it's been a long since since I saw such a fascinating character on the silver screen; manipulative, impulsive, scheming, yet charming and despite all her flaws she draws you in, even after all the decades that have passed. There are people we encounter occasionally who burn so brightly that we can't help walking into the flames, even though we know we will come out singed. And Scarlett is one of those people.

Gone with the Wind has been described as one of the greatest love stories ever told. If this is so then love is clearly destined to be one step removed from torture. The relationship between O'Hara and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) is at best dysfunctional and at worst abusive. And yet these two manipulative people are fixated with each other. The only people who don't realize it is themselves, although perhaps they get an inkling at the end when it's too late.

Watching Gone with the Wind made me realize that we have lost at the same time as we have gained at the movies. The backdrops may look crude at times and the sets appear clumsy by today's standards. But while we can create special effects with stunning accuracy somewhere along the line we've lost the raw passion and the emotion.

Back in 1939 there were fewer distractions to shrink the big screen. David Selznick, the producer kept many details of Gone With the Wind secret. Numerous big name actresses were auditioned to play the role of Scarlett O'Hara. The successful candidate Vivien Leigh was an outsider from England who was little known in the USA.

The film was first shown to an audience that did not know what they were about to see.  People were permitted to leave, but the Fox Theater in Riverside, California was sealed with no re-admissions and no phone calls out.

The audience only realized they were part of a grand design when the name of Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind came on the screen. The reception was apparently thunderous and the film ended with standing ovations. This is the classic stuff of a golden age of film that may never be repeated.

Yet while Gone with the Wind can look antique its themes of a nation divided and a conflict that rages between the sexes, are as relevant now as 75 years ago. Gone with the Wind has the flawed motif of ideal love - that felt by Scarlett for her cousin's husband Ashley Wilkes that fades and falters like his character and notions of the old Antebellum South. The roguish Butler copes better with the cut throat world of Atlanta after the Civil War while O'Hara thrives in chaos.

And then there's the strife and the pride and the battles for turf that may not be on the terrifying scale of Gettysburg but can be just as destructive. But more than anything else Gone with the Wind is about the contradictions of the human spirit all bound up in Scarlett who is despicable but admirable, and at turns childlike and scheming. We don't need a Scarlett. Mitchell herself when asked what may have happened to the lovers after the novel ended suggested Rhett Butler may have found someone who was less difficult.

But while he may not have needed a Scarlett life must surely have been a lot less colorful without her.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The last colors of fall - Lake Maury

Pride comes before a fall, or if you live in Virginia, it's a hurricane. And after a fall comes freefall and a nothingness in the darkness.

When I wrote a while back about my dread for October my dread was misplaced because October was crisp and colorful, temperate and beautiful. But by now the gulf between my everyday life under artificial lights and the beauty of nature is growing just as nature goes into hibernation.

It's hard sometimes to deal with the minutiae and the deadly nuances of office politics when there's a vastness out there waiting to swallow us up. Four mind numbing hours of vastness just to get to the mountains and then a world of sweeping wind kissed escarpments, and I spend most of my days starting at a screen or out of the window at the sickly saplings that grow from the asphalt.

From now on in the light will quickly disappear. I'll stand outside the concrete awnings one night and grumble about the endlessness of it all with a colleague and the next time I'll have the same conversation it will still be dark and hopeless and light years until the spring.

It could be worse I'll tell myself. I could be in Wigan. If you ever find yourself in Wigan in November when even the rain looks brown you might want to slip into the nearest pub, ducking the darts that are aimed at your head, and drink yourself into oblivion.

Unbelievably there are probably worse places to be in northern England in November than Wigan. Perhaps Warrington or Middlesbrough. How do people ever get up in the dark in Middlesbrough and make it to their cars without cutting off their heads as an act of mercy?

The fall here has a beauty but it's fading fast. I went out in a hurry to capture it as the leaves danced and buffeted me down the footpath.Mocking, mocking and moving south. No time to go far. Lake Maury again. Just like last year; so we run to stand still like Joyce's character in a Portrait of the Artist his hands pinned by his side as he circles the track.

We laughed at Joyce then. We didn't take him seriously. Until the passage about the walk by the Liffey won us over. Nor could we appreciate the frail beauty of Gerard Manley Hopkins. We couldn't get beyond the pale and wan face and the repressed and unmanly priest, going through the motions to shut out human nature while betraying himself all the time with his pen in the rhythms of the natural world.

Only now can I appreciate it, in a time and place far removed when his words echo back across the years like an old friend whose letter you find after a long absence.

Spring and Fall:

by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The science of stability balls and other stories

I only started to ponder why I found myself staring at stability balls on a Friday night when I was (um) staring at stability balls on a Friday night.

I'd like to say I found myself at the Y because I'm so dedicated to reinventing my body but the reality is less impressive. Nic informed me that Zara was claiming I had promised to take her to the "interactive zone" although my recollection was of a less definite term. I'm not sure when the word "perhaps" had morphed into a promise but by the time I got home it was cast iron.

I have been on my intensive fitness program now for two-and-a-half months and the folks at the Y keep moving the goal posts; or rather they keep fitting new distorting mirrors. I am convinced they bring in a more grotesque mirror every week. How else can I explain the fact all these intensive work outs seem to be having so little impact on my gut?

In saying that these work outs are clearly having an impact on upper arm strength. These days if anyone is handing around babies at work I politely decline for fear I'll accidentally snap off a couple of limbs with my super human strength.

Still I feel like confronting the folks at the Y and telling them I wanted this program to flatten my gut, not to turn me into the Incredible Hulk with a gut. If I had wanted that I could have stayed at home, painted myself green and ripped up my shirts. Believe me people do this kind of thing in my neighborhood. Not for purely altruistic reasons either.

The gym is bearable if a trifle dull. I always forget head phones and find myself watching TV screens from afar. This being American TV there's always a lame show with celebrities trying to dance and another show about two waitresses which is probably better without words, although the brunette can become quite alluring 14 minutes and 24 seconds into the random hill program on the elliptical machine. But who's timing it?

At least I don't feel out of place in most parts of the Y where there are people more out of shape than me. The exception is the weights room downstairs which attracts football players and guys with bulging muscles and eyes. Last week I was pulling down about 50 pounds when I eyed a guy opposite me who seemed to be in direct competition and appeared to want me to know he was pulling 100 pounds.

When I went to walk away he blurted out: "Excuse me." I assumed he was going to inform me he had just out pulled me when he said: "Did you used to teach?"

It dawned on me this was one of my former students. We proceeded into a rapid fire conversation about how bad the rest of his class and all of the teachers (except me) were and by a stroke of luck I recalled his name.

Tonight I encountered another student but he either did not recognize me or did not want to acknowledge me. The last time I spoke to him I reprimanded him for plagiarism. My advice for any students out there who are minded to cheat is this; if you are going to rip off another person's work, don't use word for word the thesis of a leading academic on Macbeth comprising some elaborate and complex theories that have nothing to do with the essay topic when you haven't even mastered the art of tying your shoe laces or keeping your pants up in class. It tends to raise suspicions.

Still Kevin's parents were nice enough, although I did get worried when they emailed me to ask on his progress two months after I had quit.

Although the weight room is scary, it's the stability balls that really do my head in. If the program asks you to do crunches on one it's anything but stable. You find yourself drifting across the running track and coming into conflict with the grumpy, cursing old man who walks round and round every time I'm here whistling for his imaginary dog.

I am enduring the Y but will need to spice things up to keep going. At the moment the only saving grace is Prophet Monster Man, a character with the beard of a crazy preacher, big saggy and potentially soiled track pants and a moss green T Shirt who looks like he swallowed a baby whale for breakfast. Yes Prophet Monster Man makes me feel a lot better about my gut.

But right now I need a plan. I need to invest in the cutting edge of technology - a Sony Walkman perhaps so as I can listen to my tape of The Queen is Dead.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cottonmouth - my arse

I'm always skeptical about those warning signs at nature reserves and the like about bears, mountain lions or escaped T Rexes. Do people ever see these bad creatures I wonder or do the men and women in funny hats just like to scare us?

I have become a bit less skeptical ,though. The first and only time I was in the Everglades at an infernally hot place called Shark something-or-other I asked the warden if we'd see alligators. She shot me one of those "dumb tourist" looks that Brits in London usually reserve for Americans (maybe she had been on the wrong end of this) and informed me it was (obviously) highly unlikely that I'd see one.

We stepped out of the visitor center and peered into a murky pond only to see four reptilian eyes staring at us. Yes there were two gators right there behind the visitor center.

Last week on the day Zara was off school we went to Back Bay in Virginia Beach. It was a gorgeous fall day and the water was glittering a deep azure. The only serpent in our paradise was - well literally that. A prominent sign warned of the presence of deadly cottonmouth snakes. There were also signs about poison ivy, although I was somewhat less concerned about the ivy than the snake and I made sure to watch the path ahead.

The trail led us to a small secluded beach and then back again to the asphalt path, which we set off along. Suddenly Zara drew my attention to something I was about to stand on. I did a double take and thought it was an old tire; then again I started to realise it was a dead snake. Then it moved.

Rather alarmingly the aforementioned deadly snake was right in front of me and it seemed none too happy, opening its white mouth in a menacing way. This was clearly not the time to do a Steve Irwin and wrap the old chap round my neck before heading merrily for the beach.

We beat a retreat but I returned to take a photo of the thing. As you can see I didn't get too close which is why the photo is rather uninspiring. But it was more than close enough for comfort.

We continued to the beach where, Zara did her best to destroy a sensitive coastal ecosystem. I could have yelled at her to get off the dunes but it was such a perfect afternoon I didn't have the heart too. If the truth be told it brought back memories of how much liked to jump around and slither on dunes when I was seven years old or thereabouts.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

My open tripe session at the writer's group

Mike - he's also open to ooh aren't you a big girl's blouse (before running away etc.)

A couple of weeks ago I attended an open mike session for a writer's group. I'm not sure exactly what possessed me but the event popped up on Facebook and while I ignore most of those invitations to crappy events for church pig pickings or to occupy some half empty city center, when I'd rather be occupying my own bed, this one sounded interesting.

I had images of Bohemian folk in a smoke filled bar, dropping their clever verse into a mike. On the way out a literary agent hanging in the shadows would take me by the arm, tell me I was discovered and I was on the way to the $3 million deal for my first novel.

OK that last bit's wishful thinking. I would have settled for a few eclectic Bohemian people. Or just a beer really.

However, by the time I hit the highway with a crumpled up sheet of Mapquest directions in my hand, once again cursing the fact I never got the light fixed in my car, my original enthusiasm melted away with every mile of lumpy interstate. The venue was a library. Libraries don't usually serve beer or serve as hang outs for Bohemian types.

Libraries are usually the haunts of old biddies who read Nora Roberts. Although in the city where I work they tend to attract a fair amount of flashers who like to display their Charles Dickens to the aforementioned old biddies who might even welcome the odd fleshy interlude between chapters of Nora.

This library was in a crumbling suburb on a chilly seafront; we're not talking Greenwich Village.

I followed a sign to an over lit room where a woman asked me to sign a piece of paper. It took me a few seconds after sitting down to survey the new habitat which was little short of dismal. Not only did I appear to be the youngest person in the room - and that's saying something these days - but the folks sat in the hard chairs were a certain type of geriatric. I couldn't quite put my finger on it but they looked like they thought a lot of themselves and ate too many lentils.

The moderator was a white haired man who must have been about 80, although he seemed to have the energy levels of an 18-year-old. In no time at all he was launching into his tedious piece of prose about a military plane landing on an aircraft carrier, banging his fists on the lectern and shouting and screaming for effect.

I'm not really sure if his stuff was any good and I'm hardly an accomplished judge anyway. I was too distracted by his wild hand gestures.

Then a portly middle aged Jewish woman started reading from her recently published book. The material was serious and disturbing, touching on relatives lost in the Holocaust, and yet her delivery was flat and the prose seemed uninspiring. She was talking about the biggest tragedy of the 20th Century like she was reading a recipe for strawberry jam.

One woman was shy about reading, telling the group her material was terrible. They persuaded her to get up and and read it out. They told her it was great but their faces said terrible. It wasn't terrible; awful perhaps.

There was some kind of academic. His writing wasn't at all bad and he seemed to know it. As he read it he puffed up in a self indulgent way and eyed the mere mortals below him hoping to see in their faces recognition of the crushing superiority of his poetry. When a less accomplished writer took the stage after him I could hear him quietly tutting under his voice and making disparaging remarks to the woman next to him.

So the torture under the bright lights dragged on and I found myself developing a neck ache from looking at my clock. To my horror the white haired man finally called my name, his brows knitting when realized I was going to read blog extracts.

(yes folks the best seller is going rather slowly so I was forced to fall back on Brits in the USA).

So I went up to the lectern and read a couple of blogs, succeeding in injecting some feeling into the work when in reality the brightly lit, half empty library room had left me feeling flat. I didn't stumble on my words - I didn't turn into Rick Perry. But neither did I inspire and the elderly people in the room looked at me afterwards as if I had just popped out of a flying saucer, plucked a small aerial out of my head and cried: "Hello earthlings."

At least they clapped politely while one elderly woman said she had been moved by my pseudo poem and subjected me to an unexpected hug that was so intense I feared she's go into cardiac arrest.

Having read a couple of pieces, I declined the opportunity to read again. The door was looking very appealing.

At this point College Lecturer Man took the stage and smugly and slowly read a poem that was probably as long as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner but 100 times more tedious. It made me realize there was a limit to the number of words that can be written about the upper reaches of a river. College Lecturer Man seemed blissfully unaware of this as he slowed down his diction so as each word fell like rocks into the souls of us mere mortals.

I shuffled out of the library, shell shocked - stoned into submission by College Lecturer Man. I didn't hang around for post mortems or to talk about the forthcoming December Grand Poetry and Lentil Eating Slam.

I didn't breathe until I reached my car. I had escaped but something was bothering me under my right arm. With a feeling of mounting horror I realized I had carried out a prosthetic limb that the clutching woman had left behind during her bear hug....

by way of disclaimer there is one rather blatant lie in this posting. Just saying.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Losing Sir Jimmy

It hit me in a strange way. I had not thought about Sir Jimmy Savile for decades but when I read about his death this week it was like a big, gaudy diamond studded medalion had fallen to the ground and shattered into a million tasteless pieces.

That's because I grew up with Jimmy. In the days when we were kids and were subjected to the worst of deprivations - brown floral print wallpaper, chequered flaired trousers from the jumble sale, orange pullovers and three channel TV ( although BBC 2 was a snow storm), Jimmy was often there with us. There he'd be presenting Top of the Pops, hanging out with bands with names like Mud and Slade who came from towns without hairdressers, sporting his bling before bling was invented and trademark fat cigar, a cigar it seems he never smoked.

Some time later the former wrestler underwent an unlikely transformation to fairy godmother when Jim'll Fix it was born. Jimmy became the man who made kids' dreams come true. He'd review their letters and select kids, their experiences would be filmed and they would return to the show to receive their medallions in the 'magic chair.'

Our parents encouraged us to write, but there was much soul searching because we couldn't think of anything we really wanted Jim to do for us. I believe I asked Jim to fix it for me to ride a historic Penny Farthing bicycle. In the event, Jim didn't fix anything for me or my sister and my mother became outraged a few series later when another kid stole my idea and got to ride a Penny Farthing. I didn't really want Jim to fix it for me anyhow. That would involve the whole nation being exposed to my unpleasant brown plaid flared trousers. Nor did I really want Jim to balance me on his knee and say "now, then, now then."

Remarkably Jim'll Fix It ran from 1975 until 1994. Some kids apparently wrote to Jim mistakenly believing his name was Jim'll.  I was interested to read the original Magic Chair was later replaced by a robotic chair designed by Kevin Warwick of Reading University. A few years ago I interviewed Kevin after he wired up his body and house with sensors that meant doors would open when he walked in, lights would go on as well. Kevin told me he was working on a project with his wife in which their thought processes could go automatically onto a computer screen. I thought this wasn't such a good idea.

But I suppose the real lesson of Jim'll Fix it is about how television can distort the young mind. Jimmy, the quintessential radio star who wasn't quite killed off by video, attained this image as a benefactor, a man who was deeply involved in charity and made dreams come true for children.

However, numerous reports suggested other things about Sir Jimmy (in Britain annoying people who do too much high profile charity work are usually knighted). In a recent interview in the Mirror his best friend and personal assistant Janet Cope revealed he hated being around kids.

Sir Jimmy even upstaged her wedding by wearing white and turning up in a Rolls Royce. She recalled: "When the ceremony ­started he lay down across four chairs so people would look at him rather than us. Later he gave a speech which outlasted the best man’s.”

Savile emerged as an egomaniac in a documentary with Louis Theroux which had some sinister undertones. He addressed some of those persistent paedophile rumors in a later interview in the Guardian.

Jimmy died alone. His relationship with women was always unconventional and he claimed he never spent a whole night with a woman. Perhaps he didn't want to make the coffee the next morning. Or he feared she'd be accidentally blugeoned to death by his bling in the night.

"When he talks about women, girls, he often mentions brain damage in the same breath," the Guardian reported. "Nooooaah. That's a generalism," he protests. "My logic has always been to sip at the cup of life and never gulp at it. Now ladies, God bless them. Marvellous . Lovely. If you sip at them. They will enjoy you enormously, you will enjoy them enormously. Then you go to bed on your own and you wake up not disillusioned. You wake up with no brain damage."

In short Sir Jimmy wasn't the kind of guy you'd want to hang out with, although I would have loved to have interviewed him. He was egotistical, flamboyant and strange - he clearly had mother issues. Yet it's the characters who make life a vibrant tapestry and save us from the reality of faded floral wallpaper and Jimmy was certainly different...

According to his personal assistant he didn't get married because he didn't like to be told what to do. There's some saying here involving the words "chord" and "struck," that keeps going round my head.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Day After Halloween

There was a strange lull the day after Halloween
A new shade of gray painted down the street
The tombstones blown and flapping to the earth,
The candy wrappers strewn on straggling lawns
The ghouls drifted directionless in the November breeze
That went out and bought some fine white teeth
at some time during a drizzling night
On the curious rounds of trick or treat.

On the morning by the daycare, by the blasted church
My feet crunched on the bones in the tiny leaves
Oblivious to the once fine filigree,
Oblivious to what lies underneath
There were fine ideas once on this thoroughfare
and elegant ladies on the sunny street
But the homes are now weary and coated in grime
They've seen far too many Halloweens.

We talked about pumpkins, of carving the eyes
and lighting up a memories from another time
But instead another year passed on by
And we left them to rot in the sodden ground
We fool ourselves with these empty ideas
Is there any more empty vessel than this gourd with hollow eyes?
That mocks us from the pumkin patch
and mouths empty words at the November skies.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Dover - then gone

It occurred to me recently that I never did write the final blog about my visit to England. The summer seems distant although there’s no end to it really; no closure. My thoughts meander back and forth and catch on old thoughts and reminiscences and time no longer stands in line but leaps backwards and forwards like the flames around those camp fires when we were young.

There was a fire in the clearing of the forest at first year camp. I still recall the way the hot red embers ate away at the heavy dark log, causing fragments to topple and fizz into the white hot heat below; strange then that I can’t remember breakfast a week ago. I still recall the smell of rubber of those large drafty tents that we shivered in all through the night. I remember being poked: “wake up and watch this, wake up and watch,” – and the face of Andy and his wild eyes as he took me to the door of the tent. Across the dark and dangerous clearing a torch was playing on a tent and we could clearly see the silhouette of Miss Burr the music teacher – undressing.

Some time during the night I spilled coke all over my fellow sleepers but nobody noticed and I suggested it was someone else in the morning. The next day we trudged down an interminable roads that looped and lapped and lasted into the afternoon and while I was proud of my Gola trainers (sneakers) with their sharp yellow stripes, it soon became apparent they were cheap and giving me a big blister. Did that sense of betrayal we all feel from our parents from time to time begin with the Gola trainers? Still I limped up the road as it wound in a vast parabola through the trees of the Forest of Dean, past the strange old ragged mining towns of Cinderford and Coleford and lives only half remembered, places where people lived where their grandparents and parents lived before them, without knowing why.

One night we went on a night hike, our torches dancing off the ghostly branches and I saw a sight I have remembered for the rest of my life, horses running west as the last of the sunset slipped below the escarpment, untethered, their manes flowing in the wind as the clouds drifted to the oblivion of night. What if that was the highlight, if the rest was a sideshow? Deep into the woods we plunged with our flashlights flickering,  the commentary of the Arsenal Liverpool game crackling on Mr. Bartlett’s radio. But the result wasn’t going well; a groan as Arsenal scored and disappointment followed us down the dells and the hoary places below Offa's Dyke. Had it only been an hour earlier since the horses has ran against the clouds at sunset? Somewhere in a town forgotten by time a lonesome clock chimed across a shuttered square.

On another day nearby I surveyed the grey, flat muds of the Severn where the river oozed in the shallows and smelled faintly of sickness. The clouds were low and leaden and we surveyed a vast fossil stuck hard in the black mud. Mr Bartlett was always energetic, always looking for the next find but he seemed as flat that day as the river banks, as flat as the thin northern vowels of his new finance who had come along to see the fossils. Oddly plain and unedifying – not at all like Miss Burr.

I’m thinking now they are all old and the life has flowed out of them like the Severn at low tide. Back now to the same country, but another country. The day we went to Dover as far to the east as the Forest of Dean is to the west.

Time’s winged chariot was at our back, but a hurricane had given us two more days. The morning promised brightness and sunshine and I imagined the gleaming of the cliffs. But as we drove east a heavy banks of clouds moved in. My parents wouldn’t go along for the ride. When I mentioned Dover my father glazed over as if I had said Timbucktu and he didn’t have a camel in the fight. The roads would be clogged by folks going to France. Who goes to Dover these days?

But the motorways were clear. As Dover approached we looked for the perfect pub and were again reminded of how England flatters to deceive, of all the perfect pubs that flit by on the road when you are not seeking one and how all of the pubs you find when in need of pub look like the sort of places where you’ll end up with a dart in your head. Dover approached down, down the hill and down at heel and folks were scurrying between the rainstorms between the damp looking buildings, between jobs. So we drove back up the hill in search of a rural idyll that never existed and found a pub that was passable but not remarkable.

The room behind the pool table was cold – the landlord friendly enough but perturbed when we mentioned food.

“There’s a proper restaurant down the road, you know.”

“Really – this is fine.”

“We don’t take debit cards.”

"it's OK."

We persuaded the landlord to serve us and the food was surprisingly good. The landlord looked bewildered as we headed out without complaining.

So we did the White Cliffs experience but there was the normal family disagreement about where to park. The liquorish allsorts made up for it, but the cliffs were cold and slippery, although still magnificent and another rain cloud drifted into sight.

And we drove up to the castle just before closing and I marched around the ramparts with my daughter and saw the withered lighthouse, the last vestiges of the Romans that went out one day, some time after Christ but before the barbarians who headed across the Channel and the dark ages began.

The light was going out too over the castle and draining from the downs once luminous and green. The flags fluttered but the cold group of medieval reenactors were beyond acting, scowling as we tried to take their picture.

I wonder now if my daughter sees the world as I did back at the camp site, by the forest fire in the clearing. I wonder if we hang onto those memories like dying embers. Yesterday when I found my rain coat, I tugged at something in my pocket. I pulled out the allsorts, deformed and twisted as if reshaped by flame; but a fragment of a half forgotten world nonetheless. I hesitated before throwing them in the trash.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Anna Akhmatova and how art can outlive dictatorship

All our images from that time are gray and industrial - of seven year plans and cold intrigue in the Politburo; of weapons of war being paraded past a faceless leader in Red Square.
It's strange and unreal now to think of Russia in the 20th Century, of those totalitarian days when art, literature and religion were trampled under the jackboots of the paranoid Georgian.

But the land of Tolstoy and Chekhov wasn't going to give in easily to the plunder of its ideas and free expression, to the reduction of all that art and color onto one flat easel that bore the brutish features of Comrade Stalin. Even as the trains bore the dissidents north to the labor camps and salt mines of Siberia, as Collectivisation led to mass slaughter of the peasants and famine, so writers continued to write in the most uncompromising of places.

The life of Anna Akhmatova illustrates how art can triumph over oppression. The poet's first husband was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1921; her son and second husband were deported to the camps. And yet her popularity with the Russian people meant even the all powerful Russian leader did not risk imprisoning her.

In the days since Stalin's death there have been seen many imitators. The Romanian leader Nikolai Chauchesku in 1989, although it appears he can still be friended on Facebook; Saddam Hussein was executed in 2006 and it appears the mob didn't wait for a formal execution in the case of Muammar Gaddafi.

So is this the end of the line for the dictators who paraded in dark glasses and outlandish uniforms while their people suffered. Probably not but it gives hope that art and freedom of expression will overcome in the darkest of places.

Everything is Plundered by Anna Akhmatova

Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,
Death's great black wing scrapes the air,
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?

By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries blow summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.

And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses --
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From Mitt Romney to Octomom - that's entertainment

By 5 p.m. sometimes distraction dogs me. There’s too much of it; too many faces, too many places too many names that pop up on the ticker. People we know, who we do not know. People we don’t want to know. What is the point of Lindsay Lohan; Octomom – why?

These are people who we can fool ourselves that we know, but we really don’t know them at all. Not any more than the audience in the Coliseum knew the Gladiators. But that’s entertainment in a way – and the Jam were entertainment but they haven’t stood the test of time as well as the Who and the Stones.

The Republican debates are entertainment too. Michelle Bachmann clearly had Star Wars on her mind when she showed up in Vegas dressed as a Storm Trooper. And there are few places that scream entertainment more than Vegas. Talking of entertainment and gladiators what about Mitt Romney and Rick Perry? That spat was top entertainment. You can rely on the Republicans for entertainment – so often dwindling and white and narrow minded something seems to have got into them with the tea party suddenly clutching a black contender to their tiny hearts.

At this rate America will soon have a black president. Scratch that it’s already got one. And I now have a photograph of the back end of his bus from my unsuccessful attempts to track him down today. But wouldn’t it be strange if the choice next year is between two black candidates? Nobody would have seen that coming back in the frightening and repressive days half a century ago when blacks were forced to sit at the back of the bus in the deep south. Strange then that we have two potential black presidents but no likely women in the field, although Hillary must feel a bit miffed and believe she could probably have done a better job.

Alas there is now little chance of Sarah Palin leading the free world after a researcher moved next door to her to unearth the dirt from the chilly Alaskan tundra by the spadeful. It was surely the most creepy research job in the world that – far worse than infiltrating the mafia. One hopes the walls were not too thin so as he could hear her weird northern exposure whine. Then again he probably wanted to. For research purposes.

So Palin disappears into the big out box of politicians and celebrities and celebrity-politicians, although an appearance on some woeful celebrity dancing show is, no doubt in order, along with Snooki from Jersey Shore, the more obscure Kardashians, Hulk Hogan’s ex wife, Ron the flaccid ex porn star and Lindsay Lohan, assuming she can put one foot in front of the other.

I’m not sure why this stuff seems so interesting. But, at the final reckoning – that’s entertainment.

Monday, October 17, 2011

More slender days, slim pickings

When I was at university I was rather scrawny. I was probably only 120 pounds which didn’t auger well for the hall rugby team. Unfortunately, we had so many people at my university hall who spent weekends getting over hangovers that I’d be drafted into the rugby team at times. Sometimes I was even asked to be second row, which is rather unfortunate because second rows are among the biggest meat heads in the game. They are the guys with cauliflower ears and legs as big as oak tree trunks.

I’m not exaggerating when I say in one game our scrum was pushed back just about the whole length of the pitch.

When people occasionally remind me of my former self by posting pictures on Facebook, it immediately becomes clear why my college days were rather angst ridden at times due to a lack of success with the opposite sex.

It didn’t help that one of my room mates Mr. P, had the boyish good looks of a catalogue model as well as excelling on both the rugby field and in the classroom. On one memorable occasion, a young woman asked me to meet with her at the students union. I thought my luck was finally changing until I realized she has invited me out to ask me questions about Mr. P and wanted me to act as a matchmaker of sorts.

Mr. P seemed to have it all going for him, even if he seemed to be rather over fond of his Garfield duvet cover. Even this piece of infantilism (is this a word?) from back at home, only served to increase his prowess with the ladies. And he even had a computer. Even if it was an Amstrad.

Needless to say there was a snake in Mr. P’s Eden – a girlfriend from back home called Pam who Mr. P was devoted to, at least up the point before he put down the phone receiver and was off to the dorm room of Miss. S. Needless to say it all ended badly. Mr. P ditched Miss S. after she became too clingy, she went on a bender and threw up on numerous times, thus winning the inaugural throwing up competition that we held amongst ourselves, in just one night. Then, in a spot of poetic justice, Pam went to another university and cheated on Mr. P and ditched him. We used the expression “packed him in” back in Blighty but this expression tends to flummox Americans. “Packed him into what?” my boss once asked. I didn’t bother explaining.

I’m not sure what happened to Mr. P. He may have ended up marrying Pam. They may have divorced. They may have lived an empty existence in an oversized house first. He may have lost his boyish good looks and become overweight.

In this way I gained my revenge on Mr. P, although he never knew it because we didn’t keep in touch. I never had any boyish good looks to lose, so had something of an advantage.

Then there was another room mate Mr. G, a product of a second tier private school who clearly lacked the self confidence to hang out with the proper Sloan rangers who permeated my class system obsessed university.

Mr. G lacked the boyish good looks of Mr. P but he made up for it with a winning arrogance that seemed irresistible to the ladies. Indeed Mr. G’s levels of deception exceeded anything Mr. P was capable of. On one occasion when his longtime girlfriend K. knocked on the door of the flat and he was otherwise engaged with a teenage friend of Miss S. he jumped out of a second floor window to escape the scene. On another occasion he drove the best part of 100 miles home with K. before she turned off down the road her parents live on and Mr. G promptly turned around and headed back to the university to be in the arms of the teenaged friend of Miss. S.

Later I heard through a rather fuzzy grapevine that Mr. P had, in fact, had a sexual liaison with K. which Mr. G would probably have approved of.

I feel I have meandered somewhat from the main point I was trying to make; namely that while I was puny back then, in later life I have struggled with the beer gut and recently signed up to rather an intensive YMCA program that sometimes takes me to a room in which guys with physiques like Michael Vick hang out and grunt.

In many ways I feel as out of place here as I did back at university in the presence of Mr. P and Mr. G. Still I’m not sure if the intensive course in which you walk around with a clipboard and enter your exertions into a machine is paying off much. I can’t say I always wanted to be a contender but I certainly always wanted to be a guy with a clipboard.

Still I wonder if I can keep my resolve after yesterday when I read that diet is more important than fitness in beating a beer gut and I should really be chomping on lentils and kale.

And get this – the skinnier you were when you are young, the more likely you are going to be to get a beer gut because there isn’t anywhere else for it to go. This really doesn’t seem to be fair. Is there anywhere to write this on that clipboard?

By way of disclaimer nobody in that picture is Mr. P or Mr. G, but one of them is me.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Reasons to unfriend - part 3

In a recent post on this blog I argued it was time to give Facebook the big heave ho and unfriend Mark Zuckerberg because he was trampling all over our privacy and generally being a smug and right royal pain in the backside.

Of course true to form I didn't totally kick the Facebook habit, although I have become increasingly estranged from the site. Needless to say I'm not principled like Lidia who gave Mark a swift kick in the goolies and never returned again to the scene of the crime.

If the truth be told I guess Google+ is rather lonely, Linkedin is too corporate and Twitter feels like a vacuum. I did an experiment this week in Tweeting live updates from a council meeting I was reporting on, without any discernible audience reaction.

Although I am still interested in the psychology of the social network as related to Pavlov's dog theory with a modicum of Newton's third law of motion, I am starting to get alienated by the unsociable nature of the concept. With this in mind, I have resolved to have more verbal conversations with folks. Today was a good start, although I might want to build on "A tall Pike Place, please," in terms of my day's conversational quota. Well we can't all write frightening verse to a buck toothed girl in Luxembourg can we?

But the point of this posting is really the issue of unfriending, which applies to social networks but has greater ramifications for society and, who knows, maybe the alignment of the planets.

If someone unfriends us a lot of the time we don't even realize who they are. However, this week I found myself needing to send an email to a photographer who recently departed my company in relation to an outstanding matter from an old story. She didn't depart the company in relation to an outstanding matter. That's why I needed to get hold of her. It's late at night and I don't have a life - OK.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I had been unfriended. This seemed particularly strange because we had normally conspired to squeeze a chuckle out of the bleakest assignment and we had spent a lot of time on godforsaken street corners looking at yellow incident tape.

Fortunately I had not been unfriended by this woman's husband, so I managed to get a message to her via him. Eventually I was able to ask that subtle question so few of us are able to ask, namely "um ... why did I get unfriended?"

The answer turned out to be an unorthodox one and not quite as bad for my self esteem as being told 'because you are a total jerk." I had apparently posted a few stories on my Facebook site and she had an ethical problem with work getting mixed up with social networking. Nevertheless, this is a very gray area, particularly when you work in the media.

I have certainly been unfriended by other people, although I know no official reason why. Still it may be no coincidence that a couple of Republicans unfriended me shortly after I pointed out the striking similarity between Michelle Bachmann and Morticia Addams. That should probably be unfiended.

According to a recent Time magazine article there are actually some good reasons for unfriending; great aunts who get on your case on social networks, people who send you Farmville invites, people who moan a lot etc.

One great reason is people who are in "lurrve" because this truly is the worst. There is actually a girl on my social network who continuously posts how she has the greatest boyfriend in the world, how he's taking her to Paris, how he's showering her with flowers how he even does the vacuuming. There's a limit to how much vomit you can get out of the gaps between the letters on the keyboard.

Will she please unfriend me if I message her to say "I prefered you when you were single, bitter and fed up."

Because let's face it - we know there has to be a downside to this guy; he probably has a crawlspace that makes John Wayne Gacy's look like the Magic Kingdom etc.

Another legitimate reason to unfriend someone is because you don't know them. This may sound obvious but I have people on my network who are total strangers. In fact there's no reason for them to be there. More embarassing still I have 'friends' who I have walked past on the stairway at work and thought they looked familiar before realizing that was, in fact, because they were Facebook friends.

Time to do something radical about my online existence probably.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Goodbye to the TV detectives

Oh there goes George Baker, better known as Inspector Wexford, dead at the age of 80 of pneumonia. Just weeks ago Columbo popped his cloggs, as they say back home, and Inspector Morse, aka John Thaw, went some time ago.

Sadly all the cops who I grew up with appear to be heading off to that great beat in the sky.

And they are taking a part of me with them; that part that watched a small flickering walnut framed TV below brown floral wallpaper in the 1970s. No night growing up was complete without Kojak or Starsky and Hutch, an all action duo who seemed to be incapable of opening the door of their Ford Torino.

Kojak was played by Telly Savalas and I missed some of the subtleties here. For example I realized he was bald but missed the fact he was Greek. Apparently he smoked a lot in the early shows and the trademark lollypops reflected a growing anti smoking sentiment in the American public.

His sidekick Kevin Dobson once recalled: "The lollipops scene took place in the fifth show, when we're in the office and we're about to do the scene, he said, 'I need something, you know?' And here's a guy standing over there with the Tootsie Pop sticking out of his shirt. Give me a Tootsie Pop, huh? Telly, they flipped it to him, doing it like this, unwrapped it, stuck it to him and his head, his mouth and became a lollipop cop."

The guy with the Tootsie Pop had quite a few things to answer for, the loss of Savalas' teeth for one thing.

Savalas died in 1994 which always seems like recently to me until I realize it's getting on for 20 years ago.

I was also a big fan of Cannon which the Thrilling Detective Web Site described as "Quite a good series, rising far above the gimmick of having a fat man as an action hero." William Conrad who played the role of Cannon also died in 1994, clearly a bad year for TV detectives.

Despite his girth, Cannon apparently didn't live in doughnuts while he staked people out but had a taste for fine dining and good wine; which is unusual in a TV cop or P.I.

The Rockford Files starring James Garner was also on TV a lot in the 1970s but it never did much for me. Only later in life did I come to appreciate the cult feel of the show. Back in the 1970s it lacked the childhood appeal of someone's skin turning green and ripping through their shirt.

James Garner is still around and the Files are inspiring fans across the world to keep buying dog tooth check jackets to the present day. But given that he was born in 1928 I doubt if Garner is chasing too many bad guys.

And another funny thing about the TV detectives is the actors never made much of themselves after these roles; just look at the guys from Starsky and Hutch, whatever their names were.

For me these cops shows also gave me my first glimpse of America; a place where folks raced round after each other in brown Pontiacs and other gas guzzlers. It made America seem very dangerous but also very exciting. And there was never a Wal-Mart in sight.

Yours in nostalgia.