Friday, January 27, 2012

Whatever happened to Chris?

Sometimes I wonder about Chris; but not very often. When I first arrived in rural North Carolina and ended up working on a small town newspaper Chris walked in wearing a leather jacket and a superior frown; a big shot crime reporter in a small town, smoking out of his sardonic mouth round the back of the building, looking me up and down with a disdainful eye, slightly unkempt and on the edge.

Chris was odd and I believed him to be standoffish. He shared the next cubicle to me but we seldom talked. Then occasionally our heads would bob up and down at the same time and we’d exchange a few words. I believe he thought I was standoffish.

Chris, his wife and kids lived a street over to us in a white house, that had the mere whiff of grandeur but seemed to be heading downhill fast. The blinds looked as if they had been in a fight; there were kids toys and trash all over the lawn.

We invited Chris to our daughter’s birthday and he came but he looked ill at ease, staring into the far distance through a haze of blue smoke. We started to wonder if he was a depressive. It occurred to me that what I had assumed was his arrogance was in fact something else.

Chris embraced the crime beat like a pair of well worn boots. He’d hang out in the bad parts of town, looking edgy. He wrote stories that went above and beyond but some days he wouldn’t go there at all. He’d be summoned into the editor’s office and would leave looking more hard bitten than ever. Then there was a rumor and speculation he was interviewing for a big paper in California. Then he stopped coming to work. Mostly.

In the end Chris just quit and disappeared into the dark home with white sidings close to the river. He had a large collection of French literature and he just buried himself in it, I heard. Sometimes he’d be spotted in town and he’d enter superficial conversations. But it was as if his former life belonged to somebody else.

Mostly he disappeared. The world moved on and left him in its slipstream – another Boo Radley in a southern town. The last time I drove by the old house in November I saw his door swing open and there was Chris, still in the small town and looking into the middle distance. I thought about stopping and saying ‘hi’ but I wasn’t sure he’d even recall me anymore and the conversation would be frankly stilted.

Yet there are days when I think there’s a bit of Chris in all of us, days when the strange and trite conversations about road tolls leave us numb, when we find we frankly don’t give a damn about whether Romney is five points up on Gingrich.

There are days when just tuning out on a sunny day and disappearing from sight for the rest of our time on earth seems as attractive as taking the road less travelled.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Woolworth staff win compensation - and not in pick n' mix either

The news that former staff at Woolworths have been awarded a total of 67.8 million (what no pound sign on this infernal computer??) in compensation for losing their jobs in 2008, made me incredibly happy.

Not so much because they deserved 60 day's pay, although they probably did for the trauma of having to work at Woolworths - rather that it gave me a semi-legitimate excuse for a shameless repost.

It seemed my first post in Brits was on the closure of Woolworths, back in 2008. Nobody commented back then so just one comment will give me a 100 percent increase in popularity, although this is probably incorrect because anything times zero is still zero isn't it? OK I sucked at maths. It wasn't just the hatred of Mr. Murphy that led me to drop out. Talking of which I find myself sublimely dropping out now. And taking blissful solace in repost heaven.


When I was growing up in England in the 1970s we didn't have a visit to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory to aspire to.

The closest thing was the pick 'n' mix section of Woolworths, a vast glittering realm of cheap candies and hardboiled sweets, normally positioned near the door that helped cement its nickname of 'pick 'n' steal.'

I never met a kid who hadn't swiped at least a couple of candies and even parents turned a blind eye.
In those days you could buy enough candies to fill a small wheelbarrow for 50p.

Like Woolworths itself the chocolates in the pick 'n' mix aisle would melt under the glare of a connoisseur, although there weren't too many of those around until the '80s.

It's, therefore, mind boggling to imagine a bag of "Woolies" pick 'n' mix selling for £14,500 as one did on eBay this weekend - the highest of 115 bids that were received..

The 800 gram bag was sold by Ed Adams, the former manager of the Petts Wood store in Kent, who picked it up before his store closed for the last time.

I can imagine Mr. Adams standing in the store with a large Gothic bunch of keys in his hand, ready to lock up the last store in the country for the last time, switching off the lights strip by strip on a cold winter night.

His tear smudged eye falls on a bag of candy the liquidators had missed on the empty shelves and and he picks it up and rescues it.

But I'm sure it didn't happen like that.

Still the demise of Woolworths, with the last of its 807 British stores closing on Jan. 5, is sad for anyone who grew up with the Great British institution that was actually American.

The psychological loss was described in an article in the International Herald Tribune.

F.W. Woolworth closed down in 2001 in the United States, reinventing itself as Foot Locker Inc., but the British company - long separated from its U.S. parent - remained as what the article described as a "symbol of something, a vestige of a simpler past when the country had few department stores and no giant retailers, when shopping still seemed like a treat."

In other words Woolworths was always a synonym for mediocrity.

The goods were unremarkable and the staff were notoriously "Woolly headed," as my mother would remark.

If Marks & Spencer was a grammar school boy in a blazer whose dad drove a Rover, Woolworths was the scruffy kid from the unfashionable side of town who was ferried to school in a battered Vauxhall Viva and always had a lump of snot hanging off his nose, although he didn't know it and nobody had the heart to tell him.

But people get nostalgic about Woolworths because it was like Britain itself back in the '70s, a country where pasta was an exotic food, a social life was a pair of roller skates in a scruffy church hall and nightlife was the baleful light of a fish and chip shop at the end of the street.

The demise of Woolworths is not just the fault of the recent recession. The store struggled for an identity in the 1990s and hit on a new logo and wooden floors.

When that failed it went for more wooden floors.

Now it's gone it's strange to read on its website: "Coming back soon, better than ever."

There's even tentative suggestion left hanging in the post retail ether, that pick 'n' mix could be sold on line.

I'm all for nostalgia but this is surely wishful thinking. For a start how can kids possible steal candies on the Internet?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Kate Winslet and why we're swimming naked

Today I started finding material to send to a national magazine that is looking for freelance writers. I thought this woudn't be a problem having interviewed folks like Kate Winslet, Meg Ryan, Angelina Jolie etc. in the past - admittedly at press conferences in the Dorchester as opposed to over lunch at the Ivy.

I was somewhat taken back to find so few of these existed onlne. Instead I found myself having to transcribe my Kate interview onto my blog and publishing it here.

Looking over my cuttings (they call them clips in the US) started me wondering what exactly I have been doing for more than a decade. The Winslet interview seemed recent but it was early 2002. Looking back it's hard not to look at jounalism as being like that Italian cruise liner, although a more appropriate metaphor, particularly for a Kate interview, is surely the Titanic because it took longer to go down, the band played on and people rearranged the deck chairs.

But I'm sad to say the last few years have been dominated by layoffs and the sight of skilled colleagues clearing their desks after being let go for earning too much, even though too much was not much. And while it's easy to get into an 'it isn't me' mentality there's also a thing called the law of averages.

But there has been plenty of deck chair arranging, talk of new products and innovative internet gizmos, pay walls and content clouds. And 'Talk to Sam,' a marketing initiative by Sam Zell to listen to employees while he bled the company dry and later sued it. We were cynical at the time but the surpreme irony was that even journalists - that most cynical breed of people - were not as skeptical as they should have been.

But at least as we go glug, glug down to the inevitable whirlpool at the bottom of the swirling cesspit we can glory in the memory of Kate running up and down those flooded corridors. Transcribing this interview with Kate Winslet after all these years made me at first wonder what I had learned in more than a decade.

But it also gave me hope. There were paragraphs that I tightened up. I found myself thinking I would write this article differently today and it would be a lot more readable. I may have spent much of the last decade sinking but I've enjoyed the ride. And I've picked up a few tips as I've gone down.


It is an idyllic day in Southwold, Suffolk. The young Iris Murdoch runs down to the chilly sea hand-in-hand with the love of her life, John Bayley. They throw stones into the water and gawky Bayley dons a scuba mask and wades into the sea in an overcoat.

In another scene she stands in a bright blue beach hut rattling with pebbles and shells, wearing a mischievous smile as wide as the cloudless Suffolk horizon.

The movie Iris is a tale of enduring love between the prolific and promiscuous novelist and the awkward Oxford don Bayley. It is an intellectual love that's at times childish.

For Kate Winslet, the actress cast in the role of Murdoch, life was not imitating art. As she passionately embraced her co-star, Hugh Bonneville, her husband Jamie Threapleton was holed up in  hotel nearby. Four months later they split up.

Does Winslet still believe in enduring love? She falters briefly during a press conference at the Dorchester Hotel.

"I'm not a cynical person and I live for the moment. Yes, of course it can exist. Absolutely," she said not totally convincingly, before heading for the safe ground.  "Iris and John were a true love story. They made each other extremely happy."

While Winslet sidesteps the question of her own romances, she glows when she talks about her daughter Mia. She did not mention Threapleton or new love Sam Mendes, the film director.

Winslet made her name in the blockbuster movie Titanic but surprised the movie world by eschewing further Hollywood blockbusters to accept roles in smaller, more offbeat British-made films.

Richard Eyre's Iris falls into this category but looks set to be one of those rare movies that will prove to be a success on both sides of the Atlantic without receiving the Titanic treatment.

On the face of it, a raw film about a novelist's descent into Alzheimer's disease does not sound like a recipe for box office success. But these are not normal times, and post September 11 cinema goers are looking for something different from the traditional diet of action movies.

Iris is a profound and moving film in which Winslet sparkles as the vivacious young Murdoch, a woman with a lust for life, not to mention a series of men and women while she is with Bayley, even though he is the man she gives her mind to.

But it is Dame Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent as the older Murdoch and Bayley who steal the show by taking the relationship to a new bittersweet level. They are tipped for Oscar nominations.

The autumn and winter of Murdoch's life rather than the spring days of bicycle rides and skinny-dipping in Oxford's rivers make the most compelling viewing. From being a distinguished scholar and a woman of books, one of England's most accomplished writers, Murdoch was transformed by Alzheimer's into a rambling wreck incapable of reading the word "dog."

For those of us who remember the media reports about Murdoch suffering from "writer's block," watching Iris feels somewhat too close to reality for comfort.

Eyre uses the juxtaposition of Winslet and Dench to devastating effect, nowhere more so than in the scenes filmed at Southwold.

While the novelist as a young woman frolics on the sand before Bayley's friend Janet Stone (Penelope Wilton), Dench stares moodily out to the sea that spawned her most famous novel and places smooth rocks on slivers of notepaper. When Janet asks her to sign a copy of her latest novel, she throws it angrily to the ground. Janet is also seriously ill with cancer, her face set in a mask of pain.

But later that night, outside the candle-lit beach hut there is a moving scene in which Murdoch responds to an old tune and holds Janet tight in a last dance to the music of time for both women.

In an era of escapism and magic depicted by The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, it is sobering to see a film that does not flinch at the grim realities of mortality and old age, a film that addresses the degradation and sheer horror of Alzheimer's head-on.

There is an abyss between Winslet's wild, young character and the sad old woman played by Dench, which is the simple but effective key to the movie's poignancy.

Winslet is well attuned to growing older. She's made a living in acting since she was 13 and is fast becoming a British movie institution. She was nominated for an Oscar for Titanic at the age of 22. When she shot Holy Smoke two years later, she said she felt as though she was in her mid 30s. "God, I don't know how to be young anymore," she said.

Now in her mid-20s she has the attitude of a woman in her 30s. She says she is bemused by her current status as a mega star and prefers to talk about Murdoch.

"I knew about Iris Murdoch but I didn't know about her work," she said. "I had to be very selective about the research I did because the film was not about the novels but about the material from John Bayley's books. I simply read his books over and over again and spent some time with John Bayley. I did not feel the need to go out and read all her novels.

"It confirmed things I knew and felt about her. She loved people, she loved things and had an incredible zest for life."

Despite the close interweaving of the young Murdoch and the older writer in the film, Winslet did not discuss her portrayal of the role with Dench beforehand.

"When I first saw the film I remember thinking 'Thank God we pulled it off.' We did feel similar, even though from the outside we're nothing alike- I'm about five inches taller than Judi and there are a lot of obvious differences. I was relieved that we did feel like the same woman."

Winslet found few problems dealing with the two very distinct plots going on in the film that splits Murdoch's life in two. "They really were two separate stories. I was giving the sense of the young Iris as an absolute stick of dynamite, which is what she was," she said.

She recalled how Eyre told her it had been wonderful to work with Dench and Broadbent but he was glad to move on and shoot the scenes of the younger Murdoch because "it's so much happier."

"Richard has experience of losing somebody to Alzheimer's and it was nice of him to get involved in some of the spingtime stuff," she said.

Water was very important to Murdoch. The novelist and her husband were keen swimmers. One of the last entries made in her journal in 1996 read: "We swam in the Thames, in our usual place for this time of year."

The film opens with a scene in which Winslet swims naked underwater. "I love it. I do love water and I always have done," she said. "If you ask my father who was first to go in the sea, it was me tearing down the beach," the Titanic star said.

Nudity is an issue the actress shrugged off with a laugh. "If anyone is used to taking their clothes off it is me," she said. "You never get used to nudity and I certainly don't look forward to it. This was something that was key in John and Iris's relationship. When they were young they did a of skinny dipping, so to me it was another extension of their relationship."

But she admitted to having a moment of "Oh, no, here we go again," when she saw herself naked in the movie.

Winslet's weight has been a constant source of media interest. After Titanic her weight rose above 11 stone and she was dubbed "Titanic Kate," in the tabloids. She described the coverage as "hurtful" but seemed impervious to pressure to do the thing the movie industry expects of leading ladies - to lose weight. Then, just as she started to become a role model for women resisting the pressure to diet, she lost weight.

Now she is back to her pre-Titanic weight but sighs when the issue is invariably raised at press conferences. "Awful boring weight questions again," she tells the reporter who was bold enough to ask.

"Getting my figure back after pregnancy wasn't easy but I got it back again. I didn't panic and think I'd lost my figure for ever," she said.

Media interest in Winslet's  weight and personal life remains unabated, becoming more intense after she started dating Mendes.

"When I feel invaded I carry on as normal, particularly now that I have Mia," she said. "The press have never forced me to be barricaded into my own home and I never will be. Because of what's been going on I'm probably followed around more now when I take Mia for a simple walk than I have been for some time, but that doesn't mean I won't go on that walk."

The arrival of  Winslet's first daughter also curtailed her movie-making.

"In the first year of her life I didn't want to be away a lot. I have ended up doing two films but only worked about 11 weeks. I feel relatively triumphant about that because she has come along when I've been doing these roles. Actresses are very lucky."

Winslet's post Titanic roles appear to demonstrate a desire to do different. She turned down blockbusters to film the modestly budgeted Hideous Kinky in Morocco and Holy Smoke in India.

"I don't have a specific agenda as  such, she told me. " I haven't turned down the blockbusters because I don't want to do the films. It is simply that after Titanic I have done the things I felt most passionate about and the most challenged by."

Hideous Kinky was her only specific choice. "I wanted to do something that was British and small," she said. "I was mindful of the fact I am a young British actress and it's quite important to set an example."

Many critics are saying Iris brings the best of British to the screen, bu it Kate Winslet, Judi Dench, Jim Broadbent or the writer of whose life this film is a poignant celebration of.

Bayley saw his late wife in the depiction of Iris Murdoch in the film and it made him cry. He won't be the only one.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dial 8 for Dido at the bank

A strange thing happened to me this morning when I tried to get hold of someone from the bank. The strange thing was the fact I managed to get hold of someone from the bank. Usually I call the number on the back of my card having taken the adequate precautions. The sleeping bag is ready along with enough tins of beans to survive a nuclear winter.

And then I will go through the whole process of pressing numbers on cue and being put through a labyrinth of options before giving away precious chunks of my life that I'll never get back again by listening to an automated voice that tells me a service representative will be with me "shortly." The message should really say "longly shortly," but that's not great grammar.

This time I was asked to press 1 for a service rep and then a very weird and disturbing thing happened; a human voice answered immediately. This was so unexpected I found myself floundering, my tongue flipping around like Free Willy in a fish tank, utterly in shock and almost forgetting why I called in the first place.

The other surprising aspect of this call was the fact I was able to achieve what I wanted without having my request denied because I couldn't recall the middle name of my great aunt Beatrice's long deceased gold fish.

There was a brief interlude during which I was treated to Life for Rent by Dido. This got me thinking about music on corporate voicelines and wondering why it's usually of the Dido, Celine Dion ilk. While I'm rather keen on Dido but not so keen on Celine, it would be surely be more interesting if banks opted for something edgier.

Suede, for instance, a band that never made it big in the US but had something of a heroin chic cache in Britain during the '90s, although I have little idea what they were singing about, but probably not the woman who works at the buchers'.

"She sells heart, she sells meat
Oh dad, she's driving me mad, come see."

If Suede won't make it onto Bank of America, the Sex Pistols really don't have much chance.

God save the queen
The fascist regime
They made you a moron
Potential H-bomb

But you think they'd consider The Smiths and the one line that resonates most with me (unfortunately).

I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour
But heaven knows I'm miserable now.

Especially after waiting for 40 minutes to be told your overdraft limit will not be extended by some snotty rep from Rockville hovering on pubescence who probably plays Join the Dots with his acne every morning. It's enough to turn the mildest mannered individual into Sid Vicious after a couple of Tia Marias.

Personally I'd be a lot happier hanging on the telephone, in the immortal words of Blondie if they had Bowie on there. Ashes to Ashes would be the most appropriate song not only because it's probably the most amazing song ever written, although that' s a big claim, but because by the time the folks at the bank have finished with us we all feel like Major Tom.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The simplicity of southern skies

There's a simplicity to southern skies, a shining symmetry that we don't always appreciate until it's gone.

We walk under so many skies, heads down, missing the shimmering world above the sheds and the pine trees and the tumble of wires.

But occasionally we take the time to look up and there it is; iridescent pink strips lighting up the blue, the last vestiges of a warm winter's day.

I found my camera before it was too late. But already gray was drifting into the pink, like a dirty smudge on the lens. I moved the lens to the left and the right but the grey moved in; gun smoke seeping across peaceful vistas.

We should make more time for the pink; we should bask more in the iridescent before the gray marches in for good.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The demise of penguins and badgers

Time was I could rely on penguins to cheer me up. No longer. Just their fluffy buzzard heads (which I know is a bird mixed metaphor) and their flappers were enough of a tonic.

Sadly my recent visit to Busch Gardens where the penguin show was flagged as something of a highlight has cured me of my notion of penguins as a panacea for all ills. Zara was unhappy that I forgot to bring dirty hard currency which meant she was unable to attempt to win an angry bird by throwing a dart at the head of one of the hapless Busch Garden workers dressed as elves.

“Don’t worry. I said. There’s always the penguins.”

And let’s face it. There was always the penguins wasn’t there? During times of terrorist attacks, plane crashes and global warming, all we needed was an image of a cuddly penguin and – hey presto, like a giant Band Aid on all the world’s problems, everything was hunky dorey.

We had to wait in a long line for the penguin show, which I was told was more of a walk-past. Finally we got into a dingy house with a few small penguins clustered behind glass, along with a handful of bigger Emperor penguins.

“They stink,” said Zara.

And sure enough they did. The penguin house was awash with stinky fish water and the penguins looked pathetic and smelled badly which got me wondering why we had lined up for an exhibit that wouldn’t be seen to be fit to grace a Bogota zoo.

After this incident I fell out with penguins. I’m fickle like that.

Today I realized badgers are also missing from my life. Back in the day almost every Wednesday I would stroll across the House of Commons and have tea with a Member of Parliament. He was not a particularly important or influential member of Parliament. But he was something of an expert on badgers.

We would talk about the black and white fellas until we were black and blue in the face and the sun went down. We would talk about bovine TB. I would urge you at this critical juncture not to be overly jealous and to want a part in such sparkling repartee.

But the strange thing about badgers is nobody in the USA seems to know much about them, even though I’m told they exist here and there’s a Wisconsin based university team called the Badgers. I assume badgers must exist here because why would you name your team after a non native animal unless it’s something macho like a tiger? Otherwise it would be like the Boston Duck Billed Platypuses.

I have emailed a number of people today asking them if they know of the existence of badgers in America. So far nobody has replied. I wonder now if there’s some kind of sinister conspiracy of silence about badgers in the USA. Is to mention badgers like mentioning the secret society in Eyes Wide Shut where influential folks dress like Gandalf and take part in sex orgies?

Nobody got this movie but I found it rather interesting as is anything by Stanley Kubrick, the obsessive director who probably got off on making Tom and Nicole do sex scenes when there was clearly no chemistry between them following Nicole’s discovery she had married a short guy.

I also admire Kubrick as a talented American who, like T.S. Eliot, chose to live in England for much of his life. I’m only sorry he never had time to devote a movie to penguins and badgers. Perhaps he could have used a curious story that emanated in Basra during the Iraq war that British troops had let giant man eating badgers loose on the streets.

Which is the sort of scary thing our boys and girls in combat fatigues do in war zones after destroying the morale of the local population by carpet bombing civilians with dead penguins.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year's Eve with the human wrecking ball and sister sulk

I'm a firm believer that something unfortunate happens to us in our 40s. Aside from the perpetual mid life crisis, we make the stealthy transition from being protagonists to victims.

Suddenly we realise one day we have no control over our own destinies and are rather purely reactive people who watch horrified on the sidelines as awful events explode around us thinking weakly 'I used to shape and now I don' t even have the energy or the belief to follow; rather I stumble haphazardly in the wake of things, blinking weakly and trying to remember the world we once mistakenly eyed up as our oyster.'

New Years Eves used to be a case in point. These used to be so full of hope and expectation, even if they so often ended up in the arms of a stranger with a bad complexion at a second rate party in a disused bowling alley.

We got older, they got more respectable. But we still waited for the countdown, we still went through the motions of partying. We threw our arms around people when the clock struck 12.

But now in our 40s we seldom even bother to wait up and watch the ball drop. We're far too tired to stay up so late.

And we seem to have little control over the chain of events; a relative said we should meet at the Great Wolf Lodge because she had four kids in tow and we have two and we should all get together and it will be fun and frolics and she forgets to add to explain more is less with kids and to mention a key word that comes back to haunt us and nibble at us as we beat a retreat from hell; purgatory - it will be purgatory. You may never have been to Purgatory USA but the brochure looks positively nasty.

Another symptom of being in your 40s is that you realize something will be bad but you are powerless to change the course of events. The pictures of the Great Wolf Lodge looked frankly alarming - you could almost smell the sweat oozing from the bodies of children out of the pages, you could hear the screams and yells and demands for more and less and something you couldn't give. The good news is the rate had gone up to $500 a night by the time we got round to booking, so we stayed in the Hilton instead.

And as soon as we arrived there and the comfortable bed wrapped around me I weakly suggested not even showing up for my rendezvous at the Wolf Lodge.

Overruled. before I knew it the great faux hunting lodge rose from the woods and we were descending into its depths beneath giant polystyrene wolves asking at reception where we could be fitted with Adamantine chains. The place was full of miserable adults, recently disgorged from flash Mercs and BMWs looking uneasy and out of place while the kids screamed at them to part with $15 for magic wands that would open the chests placed along corridors straight out of The Shining.

Before we could reach the water park we were taken to a BBQ shack for a late lunch. The place was renown for its BBQ but had all of the aura of Steffi Graf's arm pit. "I'm sure the white table cloths are arriving soon," I joked to deadpan silence.

By now Jax was causing havoc, hurling just about every piece of food related junk on the table.

"Look - I've just about had enough or you," I growled assuming the fearsome demeanor of a polystyrene wolf.

"Ah," he threw a cup full of water over me. That's what I'm trying to say about the powerlessness of being in your 40s.

Then as I went off on another bleak foray for plastic utensils he sunk his teeth into my wife's arm.

Yes. It was going to be a New Year's Eve to remember.

Back at the Great Wolf Lodge we were preparing to use the water park. My wife pointed out rather pertinently that while the rooms may have large lumberjack-style four poster beds and cost $500 a night for New Year's Eve, they reeked of child vomit.

I thought it might be the distinctive odor of the vomit of the Papua New Guinea duck billed platy puss but I didn't argue the point. That's another characteristic of being in your 40s; you don't want to waste energy defending stances you would have built a barricade for in your twenties.

At this point it became apparent I had forgotten my swimming trunks so I had to borrow those of my nephew that were rather too tight. This left me uneasy on the water slides as I expected an unpleasant ripping sound that would herald more trouble.

So the night unfolded with only extortionately priced cans of Miller Lite to dull the pain. Jax ran through the water park with me haphazardly in tow at one point falling and gashing his face. And he ran and ran until we adopted plan B - namely restraining him as he screamed and writhed and knocked over cans of Miller Lite in his temper.

Zara merely sulked about rides she couldn't go on until we agreed she could most certainly stay at the Wolf Lodge and we'd pick her up again on New Year's Day - 2014.

And after a tortuous few hours we got back to the Hilton where we could miss the ball falling in Time Square and any other mawkish activities traditionally associated with New Year's Eve.

As it turned out I had to pick up Zara before 9 a.m. the next day but the organized activities in the lobby on the cotton wool snow failed to mask the chill that had descended on the place with my wife's sister having fallen out with her boyfriend and the kids sitting in a woeful line comparing their moon faces. I was barely acknowledged as I picked up Zara and nobody ventured those well worn comments: "Happy New Year."

At least there was a sense of normality back at the Hilton, even if the woman on the next breakfast table kept glancing at Jackson's scarred face and we expected her to dial up social services at any time. Or perhaps she was just being wary because he had just thrown a buttered roll that had missed her face by mere inches.

We drove away bereft of New Year's resolutions or any high hopes although we harbor a hesitant expectation that 2012 won't suck quite as much as 2011.

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...