Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween lifts the darkness on the edge of town

So Halloween has come and gone and so too has some of my cynicism.

Of course, if it had been down to me, the kids would have gone trick or treating dressed in ripped shower curtains as seriously third rate zombies.

Instead the whole Halloween process had progressed smoothly with me blissfully unaware down to the sewing on of a tail as Zara's Bride of the Dead costume was converted into a cat suit.

And as twilight fell on our miserable subdivision we descended on the less miserable subdivision down the road to take part in the only festival of the year when it's considered OK for a fully grown man in a mask to jump out of a doorway cackling, threatening children with a bloody knife. I'm still hoping that knife was plastic.

So we progressed from lit up house to lit up house, having occasional conversations with women sitting outside covered in orange blankets. Fewer households had gone to the trouble of converting their front yards to faux graveyards this year, prompting a soliloquy from my wife about how Halloween isn't like it used to be in the good old days when people handed out full sized chocolate bars rather than fun sized bars.

Yep. And we all left our doors unlocked.

It seemed lively enough to me but then I have little to compare it to, coming from a country where trick-or-treaters are discouraged as a menace and people sit quietly in their homes, pretending they aren't in when they hear a rap on the door.

After the soulless subdivision it was off to Portsmouth Old Town where I had heard the Halloween scene was better. I was trying to recall the source of this information as we parked on a deserted street, curiously austere in pale lamplight.

But then we headed up some steps to a house where a buxom Marilyn Monroe was handing out candy. I advised Zara to walk very slowly up the steps because of their precarious nature. So slowly, in fact, that my wife's hand started twitching with a distinctive poised to slap motion.

Onwards we went through the cobbled streets of the old town. Now at least this had atmosphere. There were overhanging gardens where the antique streetlights fell on solitary statues of Venus, lush magnolia trees and grand porticos. There was a throng of children on the street and well-to-do people having Halloween parties on their porches.

There were graveyards homeowners had build beside their homes, replete with mock cackling and moving skeletons. There were real graveyards lying beyond, mouldering in the mosses of time.

And it felt inclusive like a street party and momentarily I wished I was someone who owned a house with a rambling porch, who had friends who could hang out and drink and talk late into the sweet smelling fall night.

Still a lot of the kids on the streets seemed to be from another place, from the darker edges of town. As we drove back from Old Town, chewing some of the candy and realizing the owners of the largest homes were handing out the stalest candy, we passed other places that were free of the orange lights of Halloween, or the welcoming receptions on the front step.

Halloween had passed the projects on the edge of the city by. There were no porch parties in the mean blocks with tiny windows where there were also no porches. There were no treats and nobody had lovingly recreated a graveyard. Maybe you don't have to when most of the homes are graveyards, bereft of hope and ambition and the only day of the year the kids can walk up the grand staircases of Old Town, is October 31.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A rant on the eve of Halloween

Zara informed me this morning she has a cat costume but it isn't a body suit, just a mask and the tail needs to be sewn on, whereas Jackson is going as a devil and he has little ears and should look cute etc, etc.

I buried my head in my coffee and groaned. It’s that time of year again.

You can’t go to the kids’ daycare without being assaulted by plastic spiders in faux webs, you can’t go to Walgreens without tripping over great piles of candy or having some moving skeleton cackle at you. What the devil is the big deal with Halloween in the US?

Desperately, and let’s face it you have to be, I turned to Wikipedia for help. I was informed Halloween is mainly observed in the USA, Canada, Ireland and Great Britain.

But this only tells half of the story. Halloween may be observed in Britain but what happens in the US is a bit more active than merely observing. It's the difference between seeing a bucket of maggots on TV and jumping into them, cackling like a madman.
In Britain Halloween is a night when you sit at home nervously watching TV hoping no trick or treaters will knock on the door because they are normally intent on robbing the house or throwing darts at your cat.

But America enters this strange trick or treat wonderland when it’s open season to knock on people’s doors and demand their candy. All of which is a bit scary in a culture where it’s perfectly legit. to shoot an intruder dead.

That’s the other thing that gets me about Halloween, the uneasy alliance between the schmaltzy and the downright sinister. Let’s just say the 1978 film Halloween doesn’t feature a lot of apple bobbing; just a psychopath going around stabbing kids to death.

And while I’m on a Halloween rant I’d like to know what exactly is the point of pumpkins? I’ve eaten pumpkin pie and drank pumpkin spice latte but I’ve never bought a pumpkin and roasted it like a potato. For a vegetable this large it strikes me as a horrendous waste of space. And what marketing person back in the day suddenly decided pumpkins should be the vegetable of Halloween?

There are probably so many unanswered questions because Halloween, like Christmas, has a rather mixed up genesis. There’s a link to the Roman feast of Pomona, the goddess of fruits and the festival of the dead called Parenetalia.

Historian Nicholas Rogers notes a link to the Celtic festival of Samhaim, a name that means “Summer’s end.”

So no link to witches and plastic spiders there then?

The idea of trick-or-treating is apparently linked to the Middle Ages. It resembles the late medieval practice of souling when poor folk would go door-to-door on Hallomas, asking for handouts.

In other words trick-or-treating had a social function, although arguably it still does today because when kids’ mouths are gummed up with candy they are less likely to complain about the other nefarious ills of kidworld.

So with heavy heart and a heavier still pumpkin shaped bucket I assume I’ll be trawling round the neighborhood again on Sunday. Because it’s there and everyone else is doing it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Why I hate Froggie - part 6

Over the weeks I've come to hate Froggie, although I never knew where he came from or when he arrived.

Now suddenly I'm on the computer and he's busting into my consciousness, he's breaking down the door of my private party and he hasn't even brought  a bottle.

"Bash, slam, bash, bash," goes Froggie and Jackson smashes his leering face against the bars of his cot. I wince as I anticpate the wood cracking.

And then Froggie's emitting loud repetitive croaks. I swear he's like R2-D2 on acid.

The problem with Froggie is that I can't take him away and dipose of him. He's attained the status of Favorite Toy and in our household this translates as "serious shit."

I'm afraid to say Froggie with his lunatic grin is here to stay, for the short term at least, although I don't expect him to be a semi permanent fixture like TV repeats of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Kids are notoriously fickle unless something happens to be a gigantic idiot yellow sponge.

Still for now Froggie haunts my dreams and makes them nightmares. Every morning as I'm making Jackson's daycare bottles I wait nervously for the crash as Froggie is hurled aross the wooden floors, followed by the sort of giggle from Jackson that wouldn't be out of place in a Chukie film.

Last night I was trying to work on the computer when I was repeatedly disturbed by deep croaks from the bowels of Jackson's cot. I explored further and found Jackson fast asleep, Froggie buried somewhere near his hind quarters.

I swear there are keyhole surgeons who have used less precision as I prized out Froggie, briefly thought of burying him in a sarcophagos like the one round the reactor at Chernobyl and then thought better of it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Boy George and the sad eighties clock of the heart

Time, Boy George sang, is like a clock of the heart.

And that's rather appropriate in a way because time has seen the boy transformed from a gender bending pretty boy to an overweight beast who seems to spend a lot of time in the dock.

I wonder how Boy George looks back on those days of effortless hits when Karma Chameleon was the top selling record for a zillion weeks and Culture Club were a hot commodity.

Maybe it's a bit like the way we all look back on our youth; as endless summer days when anything seemed possible.

Still it's all becoming about as outdated as the expression. "Twelve inch version."

Five years ago there were kids in my office who had never heard of Duran Duran. Today the new kids on the block have never heard of Oasis.

Today the '80s are viewed as a museum of bad taste. Unfortunately I have the evidence; photos of the pointy pixie shoes, the jeans that were so tight they had to be prized on with meat hooks, the bad blonde dye job, the lame attempt at a Phil Oakey comb over, the white studded belt that hung down my leather trousers, the effeminate double breasted shirt ... it goes on.

Yes my friend Marc really did used to simulate playing a synthesizer on the TV and my mother gave him strange looks. We went out to the leisure center of a dull suburban town where Marc prowled the corridor in his white leather shoes hoping to pick up a girl who looked like Suzanne Sully from the Human League. We were hopeless stereotypes - we could have been a set of lyrics by the Smiths.

Where is Suzanne Sully now? Maybe muttering and dribbling on herself in an old folks home. If you google Suzanne Sully as I do, you come up with a blog by Heroine Addict.

Incidentally I did interview Phil Oakey a decade ago. He had lost most of his trademark hair. I also interviewed Nik Kershaw who said the '80s had made him look like a "dickhead."

Well, to be fair, he was short to begin with, so that mane of big hair made him look like he was about to topple over.

And while I cringe, a part of me loved the '80s. I can never hear Cruel Summer by Bananarama without feeling nosalgic for my bitter, awkward and acne ridden youth. I can never walk past a Rubik's cube in a curiosity shop without reigniting my old desire to match up more than one side.

I love watching re-runs of Wall Street in which Michael Douglas tries to look cool while holding a mobile phone half the size of Greenland.

So those pictures of Michael Douglas, prematurely old with cancer are poignant to me, beause Douglas was the face of an era.

The '80s had some brash icons and in Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher a power couple whose shoulder pads could pack a lot more punch than Krystle Carrington's.

Ronnie has long gone and history has been kind to him. Comparisons with George W. Bush saw to that.

And Maggie is ill and fading away. In her heyday I hated her arrogance and coldness. I even campaigned for Neil Kinnock.

But in retrospect you have to love her. Because she stuck to her convictions; because she was as impressive as Churchill in many ways and she was a part of my youth that I'll never get back.

Time is like a clock of the heart and it's chiming away.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

From Russia with love or curiosity?

My blog has been getting a lot of hits from Russia today. Russia and Lithuania.

I have no clue who is hitting me up or if it’s from Russia with love

And curiously the most viewed entry is an old blog about Twiglets.

I can only deduce that out there somewhere in the pitted, treeless wastes of Siberia or on the monotonous steppes, there’s an individual in a lonely abode harboring a Twiglet fixation, his computer flicking a blue light across the chilly grasslands.

Maybe he or she once took a visit to Britain or someone left a packet of Twiglets on the roadside. Maybe Twiglets are an ideal riposte to vodka. Perhaps he goes to bed every night in a humble place hoping for peace but knowing that at some time around 2 a.m. the visions of delicious, savory Twiglets will return to haunt him and he will flail his arms around wildly, only to grasp large voids of chilly air.

I’ll never really know. It’s one of the quirks of the blogisphere that you can get multiple visits from a far flung location and never know why, unless you are followed or messaged. A week ago there was a run on my blog from Iran. I am still trying to explain that away.

This would have been more explicable if the blog had been about something vaguely Iranian; Zoroastrianism – 10 top stores to buy your fire tower from, for instance.

But there has been nothing even vaguely Middle Eastern about my recent blog entries.

Now that nice big spike on my blog stats has got me thinking about Russia and realizing I can only think of the place in terms of stereotypes; of menacing Russian bears and hairy woman-man shot putters, of Joseph Stalin with his sinister moustache and even more sinister persecution complex, of rotting statutes of Lenin and those austere BBC shots of the freezing Kremlin.

And then there’s all those missiles being driven past a leader who is actually a corpse being propped up in Red Square and the beautiful female spies who will put a dart in your back the moment it’s turned.

My brother-in-law lived in Moscow for a time. He described it as a curious place where you’d wait for two hours to get your computer repaired, only to be snarled at and mocked by an acne ridden assistant.

Russia fascinates us because it’s so big and inhospitable but also so remotely beautiful. It’s steeped in history and so much blood and degradation. It gave us the horror of Stalingrad, Napoleon's retreat from Moscow and the gulags. It also gave us the beauty of Swan Lake and Tolstoy and the Winter Palace.

It’s out there tonight in a freezing blue darkness of antiquity and unimaginable distance. And a very small part of it is reading my blog and thinking fondly of Twiglets.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A stranger on the beach - Jamestown

Can there be anything more perfect that being alone with a book on an empty stretch of beach on a working day?

I took this picture on a weekday of breezy fall skies and flitting sunshine with the trees starting to turn color along the Colonial Parkway.

I first came here on a gorgeous but freezing day in November five years ago to do an interview at Jamestown. The road was empty and the James River glistened and danced. It seemed like the pristine wilderness that the first English settlers found in 1607.

Admittedly there was no glistening highway to sweep them to Jamestown Island then, no yellow brick road to an uncertain future. Just savage thickets, unfriendly locals, mosquitos and the promise of a long lingering death by starvation for many.

They were strangers in a strange land and the brooding silences of the New World must have been an intimidating contrast from the overpopulated squalor of the old one.

When I was last here a family of buzzards stared at me glassy eyed from a tree. But this week there were a few people on the beach by the same tree. I wondered about the man reading in perfect harmony with his surroundings. Where was he from and what tales did he have to tell?

Was he also a stranger in a strange land like the settlers? There can be fewer things closer to perfection than being on a beach where nobody knows you, on sand where you have left no footfalls. My mind returns to the shores of the Aegean, to the long and lazy days mapped out by the sighing tide and the occasional trip to a taverna, to being young again and not having a care in the world.

There's a perfect symmetry to the lazy curve of sand into the water and to being a stanger on a beach far, far away.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Twitching and fumbling in an automated rest room

Before you get the wrong idea, this blog post has nothing to do with George Michael.

Rather it's a rant against the move to automated rest rooms that turn the best of us into uncoordinated freaks.

Take the rest room at the City Hall that I cover for work. I mean City Hall as opposed to the rest room. Not only does it have ridiculously low doors that leave little to the imagination but users are faced with negotiating a dazzling array of automation.

A sensor is meant to flush the toilet as soon as you get up but if you happen to move too much mid ablution the high velocity flush will be activated, causing you to jump up like a hare at the sound of a farmer's shot gun. Even if it flushes as soon as you get up, there's a secondary problem if you want to flush again and it doesn't activate.

So hapless users are faced with an embarassing routine of sitting down and getting quickly up again in the hope the flush will activate. I know this because the stall doors are so low.

If you pass the flush test - and I'd estimate at least 50 percent of users fail - the handwashing test lies ahead. The soap is also sensor activated which means you get either a miniscule drop or a massive blob that you will never remove because the taps are also motion activated.

The third and final step is a motion activated paper dispenser. It says you don't need to touch the sensor but after a series of hopeless twitches and hand fly passes, most users end up trying to thump the hell out of it. And all of this for one, miserly sheet of paper.

There's a member of staff, I often encounter in the City Hall washroom. I can only conclude it takes him most of his working day to get through the automated minefield. So we engage in polite conversation, while our arms sail around like a windmill symphony as we seek to operate the soap and drier.

Memo to City Hall; How about installing a roll of paper and a toilet with an old fashioned flush handle?

At least you know where you stand with public lavatories in Britain. Normally in something foul smelling and nameless.

Earlier this year I blogged about the horrors of British public toilets.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Breaking up: it's not just Courteney Cox and Christina Aguilera

There are at least two ‘happy family’ pictures on our fridge of couples who are no longer together.

It really does need someone to come along with a pair of scissors and do one of those ziggy zaggy cuts between their smiling, happily ever after faces.

Given the recent rash of celebrity break-ups it’s tempting to get up on that slippery soap box and to moan: “Why don’t couples stay together any more?”

But let’s face it. Couples and, in particular, celebrities are always breaking up. Courteney Cox and David Arquette along with Christina Aguilera and her husband Jordan Bratman, may be the latest names to go their separate ways but Hollywood has a tradition of splits as long as Liz Taylor’s list of ex-husbands.

And while we expect couples such as Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes and Brad and Angelina to split at some time, other splits such as Al and Tipper Gore, took the public by surprise.

Of course if the claims of an Oregon masseuse that Gore made unwanted sexual advances is to be believed, Gore’s credibility will head south faster than the Polar ice caps.

But should we really be so surprised about actors and politicians? Both thrive on adoration and require their egos to be massaged on a regular basis; although Gore’s marriage might be in better shape now if he had stuck to wanting his ego to be massaged – if the allegations are to be believed.

More scary than the latest revelations from the world of Celebrityville are the everyday folks whose marriages are falling apart. There are lots of books on the secret of a great relationship. If I had the answers this blog would get considerably more hits.

Greater mutual appreciation of chocolate between couples, maybe.

Monday, October 11, 2010

From Henry David Thoreau to Paul Theroux - the art of random reading

I admit I can be something of a random reader. I pick up books from the shelf, it doesn't matter if I've read them before ot nor, read a few passages and move on to the next.

Although once I get hooked into a book I often finish it, this cannot be said of certain novels such as James Joyce's Ulysses and The French Revolution by JM Thompson. There's usually a casual connection between the extent of random reading and the thickness of the book, although I did successfully complete War and Peace.

The good news is I have finally got hooked on Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux and am at least on the same journey as the writer. Unfortunately I have a bad habit of mislaying a book I am finally hooked on and it's back to random reading ADD-style.

In the last few weeks my random exploits have included the Canterbury Tales. "The day came for Constance's departure; I repeat that woeful, fatal day beyond which there could be no further postponement arrived," which is from the Man of Law's Tale: one, but could be a reference to a Monday when I have to go back to work.

On to the next. If anyone tells you they have read the Canterbury Tales beyond the Prologue and the Pardoner's Tale, give them a long searching look, because they are probably telling porkie pies.

The Van by Roddy Doyle is a lot more randomly rewarding.

"The day after the Holland game Maggie bought home T-shirts she'd got made for them in town. They had Niall Quinn's head on the front with His Mommy Fed Him on Bimbo's Burgers under it. They were smashing but after two washes Niall Quinn's head had disappeared and the T-shirts didn't make any sense anymore."

I suppose it's a mark of genius that you can open a great book anywhere and find a gem. Or are novels like Joyce's Ulysses, simply overwritten?

"But wait till I tell you, he said. We had a midnight lunch too after all the jolification and when we sailed forth it was blue o'clock the morning after the night before. Coming home it was a gorgeous winter's night on the Featherbed mountain."

A snippet of lines from Tennyson's poem of the same name are more rewarding. "Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough/Gleams that untravled world whose margin fades/Forever and forever when I move. How dull it is to pause, to make an end."

But my random soul has moved on to The Intellectual Devotional American History and the Panic of 1837.

"The panic of 1837 was a devastating economic crisis triggered  by a sudden shortage of gold and silver at American  banks. The panic cast the banking system into disarray, and the resulting turmoil soon rippled across the national economy. Thousands of businesses were destroyed during the panic."

So no change there, then.

One morning when I was clearly feeling out of sorts I retreated to the rest room clutching The Courage to be Rich by Suze Orman.

"How could it have been different? Amy could have communicated with Bob, at least enough to make him aware of her fierce need to provide for her child. She could have shared her hope..."

Which is enough of that thank you very much. I'd be more interested in reading about how someone as annoying as Orman became so successful.

On to Waterland, the excellent novel by Graham Swift that I have lent to friends, not to mention family members, in blissful unawareness of the graphic nature of some of its sex scenes.

"Why this seeking for omens? This superstition? Why must the zenith be fixed? Because to fix the zenith is to contemplate decline. Because if you construct a stage then the show must go on. Because there always must be - don't deny it - a future."

The Inheritance of Loss by another Booker prize winner, Kiran Desai, is also a rewarding random read.

"Do you cook with beef," he asked a prospective employer.
"We have a Philly steak sandwich."
"Sorry. I can't work here."
"They worship the cow," he heard the owner of the establishment tell someone in the kitchen, and he felt tribal and astonishing.

I'm interested in the French revolution, but Thompson's account can certainly dry my appetite on occasions.

"The Girondins owed their defeat as much to their friends as to their foes. The Committee of Public Safety had suggested the appointment of the Commission of Twelve, and had then failed to support it. The Paris department, the traditional enemy of the commune, antagonized by Roland, and influenced by the Cordelier Dufourny, had given a show of legality to the revolt by consenting to the formation of the Insurrectional Committee."

All of which makes me want to reach for Bill Bryson's Walk in the Woods more often.

"I found  Katz in the dining room and he was looking laudibly perky. This was because he had made a friend - a waitress called Rayette, who was attending to his dining requirements in a distinctively coquettish way. Rayette had was six feet tall and had a face that would frighten a baby, but she seemed good natured and was dilligent with the coffee. She could not have signalled her availability to Katz more clearly if she had thrown her skirt over her head and lain across his Hungry Man Breakfast Platter."

I assume most of us have met a waitress like Rayette. It's one of the perils of living in the south.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Ode to a Yorkie bar - it's still not for girls

Can there be anything better than waking up on a sunny Saturday morning in fall and setting eyes on a glistening Yorkie bar, its wrapper glinting in the morning sun?

And not a lot of Americans can say that because you can't buy Yorkie bars in mainstream stores here. Instead I had stopped by The Best of British in Hampton this week and forked out a small fortune for the bar.

Best of British stocks a lot of foods I had been craving but hadn't realized at the time; Twiglets, Monster Munch, Whisper bars, Crunchies, Jammie Dodgers... the list goes on like the golden annals of time.

So here's my Yorkie bar in all its glory with the slogan: "Not for girls," written boldly on the wrapper that goes boldly where no woman has been before.

You don't see that kind of slogan in America. For a start some shrink from Sedona, would find 15 minutes to get away from her healing stones, brush her lank gray locks to one side of her head and forsake the redemptive powers of the Sun Goddess to call her attorney.

Apparently Nestle's slogan received a few complaints - mainly from Norway, where you'd think they'd be sick enough of eating raw fish for breakfast to wholeheartedly embrace the Yorkie.

A few minutes of of research reveals special versions were made for Ministry of Defence ration packs that read: "It's not for civvies."

Apparently there's history to this piece of slightly sexist marketing. In the 1980s toy lorries (trucks in the US) with the Yorkie bar logo were manufactured and television ads for the Yorkie bar featured truck drivers.

Anyway I get all poetic when I comtempate the Yorkie bar and the long weekends I have spent without one. Admittedly Keats never mentioned it when he wrote To Autumn. "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun."

But the poor soul never knew better and died young in Rome, the mellow chunkiness of a Yorkie bar, never to have passed his pale lips.

It's not a problem I'm going to have today and there won't be much competition in the household because it's not for girls.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

From Running Man to Rude Girl - why we love Facebook stereotypes

From its origins as an obscure site, Facebook has grown to become an everyday part of life in the 21st Century, visited as often as Google. I have to confess I am guilty of visiting it more times than I should, in the hope of seeing little red indicators which translate as ‘you’re popular – almost’

And as Facebook has grown and become more popular, the stereotypes we see around us have translated to the site. I recently saw a list of Facebook types on one of the networks recently, so this isn’t original. But it’s my take, in no particular order.

1 – Running man. Updates me every morning when I tune into Facebook on his run, its duration, his time and the climatic conditions. I hardly known this guy, but I know more about his body than I do my own. And that’s not right.

2 – lyrics man. His updates usually are comprised of song lyrics, intended to make him look as cool as possible. So he might tell you he’s “exchanged a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage,” – one I want to use myself some time. But he’ll post “Don't let your indecision, take you from behind . Trust your inner vision, don't let others change your mind,” over his dead body.

3 – Rude girl. A problematic Facebook friend for sure, especially since she befriended you as a case of mistaken identity from school. Rude girl will swear incessantly, make homophobic comments and allude to the state of her toilet after a curry. You know other people must wonder why you are friends with this girl, but you are too scared to defriend her.

4 – Republican Girl. She seemed OK when you knew her in person, but all of her Facebook updates are quotes by Ronald Reagan or Rush Limbaugh and she even changes her profile picture to George W Bush. Apt to pass on jokes about Obama’s death.

5 – The ex. You look at the pictures of someone with four kids and bags under her eyes from watching the four kids and think. Did we really once scale that high wall into the park after a night of heavy drinking?

6 – The World Traveler. Yes I used to like you but if I see another set of pictures from your skiing trip to St. Moritz or the French Riviera, I will scream or post something unpleasant. Me – jealous? Absolutely.

7 – Sports nut. The sports nut starts to drive me nuts by posting play by plays of the action of some game I don’t want to watch anyway. If I wanted a live ticker, I’d check one out.

8 – Needy girl. Posts a lot of updates and posts at times when civilized folks are in bed. A gorgeous guy is making eyes at her across the bar. But he’s left with another girl. Why is her life so crap? Does anybody care? Not me.

9 – Cryptic girl. Posts obscure statements that are vague enough to make you feel uneasy. Because while they may relate to the climate of Greenland, there’s a very remote chance they may relate to me.

10 – Extended family members. While I believe there is an unspoken rule about parents not being on Facebook, how about the aunts who have slipped on there and post aw, gosh, lovely comments about the pictures you have posted of your kids

11 – The Serial Mom. Posts regularly from the frustration of a chaotic home about diapers, more diapers, feeding routines, getting stains out of carpets and eternal love of children. And posts photos of kids – lots of them. And they normally have food round stuck their mouths.

12 – Anonymous man. Is on Facebook but is always AWOL. I recently realized an anonymous man from Australia has defriended me. I have no idea when this occurred.

13 – Boss person. Yeah, yeah, you had to accept his invite but now you get worried about what you post. “God I’m bored. Taking drugs at work to get by,” is obviously a no-no.

14 – Teacher. Everybody has a teacher on Facebook. They normally post updates on how bad it is to be a teacher.

15 - The Student. My monumentally unsuccessful two month stint as a teacher wasn't unsuccessful enough to prevent former students befriending me as they make their hesitant way into the grown up world. It means I can be assailed by doped up status updates at 2 a.m. or updates along the line of "I'm so going to die. The Wedding's off. Brad no longer loves me," followed two hours later by: "We made up. I'll love him for ever and ever." Pause for sigh of relief that I didn't chuck back the reply: "You're better off without him. I thought he was a jerk, anyhow."

16 – The celebrity. Most posts are purely professional and aimed at a wider market. Given that Billy Bragg never accepted my request, the only celeb I have is Robert Peston. And I do actually know him from back in the day. So there.

17 - Dog/cat lover. The profile picture of a pet is always a give away. Sees life from a low down vantage point on four legs. Will let you know when he's feeling rufffff.

18 - Mundane Maddie. Friend who posts updates that add nothing to one's existence on earth such as: "I had two eggs for beakfast and a slice of bacon." - And I went to bed in an um bed, and utilized a sheet and a blanket.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Norman Wisdom dies - nobody notices outside Albania

Sir Norman Wisdom died on Monday but nobody noticed over here.

The British comedian, who died at the age of 95, has never had a high profile in America but was rather famous in places you wouldn’t expect a diminutive British comedian to be popular such as China and Albania.

I have early memories of finding Wisdom funny. But this is probably not a reliable indicator because I also found the Goodies to be hilarious when I was six-years-old.

Wisdom’s comedy was in the best traditions of slapstick, a genre that was becoming unfashionable by the end of the 20th Century. I blame all those scenes in which Benny Hill chased half clad women around in speeded up footage.

But while Hill is unmentionable in polite society, there is an example of British slapstick that does have a following in the US, namely Mr. Bean.

So when I asked a colleague today if she’s heard of Mr. Bean she replied: “Of course.”

And Norman Wisdom?


Yet Wisdom was doing a Mr Bean routine long before Rowan Atkinson and his rubberfaced US counterpart Jim Carrey.

In an AP story that I didn’t see carried on any of the US networks, Albania paid its tributes to Wisdom.

Wisdom was apparently the only Western entertainer shown on Albanian television during the grim years under paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania from 1941 to 1985.

He apparently amused Communist authorities with his portrayal of the downtrodden Englishman.

In 2001 the appearance of Wisdom at an England v. Albania game in Tirana eclipsed that of David Beckham; which just goes to show what exposure to prolonged bouts of Communism can do to one’s sensibilities.

In Communist China too, Wisdom had a cult following because he represented the downtrodden little man. There are apparently lots of downtrodden little men in China.

There was certainly something reassuring about Wisdom and his kind of unassuming celebrity in an age of reality TV egos. I can’t think of anybody else famous called Norman, unless Norman Tebbit counts, and the name always reminds me of an introverted Scottish guy on my college course with a bad case of acne.

Wisdom makes me think of England the way it used to be when the idea of a good night out was haddock and chips on the street corner and the latest must-have gadget was a black and white TV.

Or maybe it was just because England was more like Albania in those days, albeit Albania with freedom of speech.

“He was the source of humor in our homes, a glimpse of the Western world that we could not taste ourselves, living in isolated Albania," Vladimir Mollaj, a 49-year-old owner of a fish restaurant in Albania's capital, Tirana, told AP.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

In the cactus gardens of Eze

I won't say we were glamorous then, but nor were we as unglamorous as I imagined at the time.

It's strange to say but I only realize it when I look back at the photos of Eze, with its manicured ancientness, Eze under pretty, drifting clouds tumbled like the mountain ridges the town rises from, a dizzy eyrie over the azure calmness of the Mediterranean.

Nic was more fashionable than me, even if her dress came from one of the lower end boutiques in Nice. In contrast I cringe at my combo of washed out off-white shirt and shorts, grey socks and money belt with a Canadian maple leaf on it that led hawkers in the medinas of Tunisia to yell: "Mister Canada," as I walked by.

Still we were still young and in the early stages of love that made every trip out together a thrilling adventure. We stayed in a tent and ended up sleeping one night in a Renault, but in those days we didn't care. And we were also in paradise having driven up to Eze from the racetrack streets and high rises of Monte Carlo.

So we flitted from Menton to Eze and Roquebrune across the corniches that claimed the life of Grace Kelly. We drank Pastis in Aix and red wine in Burgundy. These were the days before we discovered the charms of Wal-Mart.

Eze is an ancient fortified hill village of pleasant sunlit squares, antique shops and blind alleys that lead to stunning blue glimpses of the Mediterranean. It captivated Walt Disney enough to spend a considerable amount of time here. There are old graves on a grassy cliff in a mellow churchyard and Eze is topped by a beautiful cactus garden, the Jardin Botanique d'Eze.

It's strange when I look back on a perfect day that I also remember the rotten and distracting apples that hang in every Eden, my impatience as I struggled to find a parking spot, my concern at the cost of a beer. In the tapestry of life that becomes increasingly threadbare, these are such tiny blemishes.

So when I look back at the photos I think we didn't look like film stars but we didn't look too bad. Nobody threw us off the beach at Cannes, even if the only place we cold afford to eat in Monte Carlo was McDonalds where the discerning local seagulls decided to unload their derision on us.

Of course every photograph is a snapshot in time. Our grandparents posed on the beaches of Scarborough or Daytona and managed to look like Bogart and Bacall, in a certain light, with the amusement arcade conveniently out of focus.

And one day our great grandkids might find this photo and look at us in Eze and wonder where the cactus garden was and exactly who the people in the picture were.

I Don't Queue : Does That Make Me Unpatriotic?

I'm bemused by the scenes from Westminster today. People are queuing for 24 hours to see a wooden box. OK, it's a fancy box surround...