Sunday, 31 July 2011

Ramblings: Brighton Sleazy

One of my favourite cities in England is Brighton. I've visited Brighton many times since my teens and love the faded grandeur of the place. From the chipped and faded pale blue railings through to the imposing and camp pavilion, built with adultery in mind, Brighton presents an image of decadence and freedom of expression. There are loads of vegetarian restaurants, quirky little shops and funky bars. The beach is pretty if hard on the feet, the Georgian architecture is stunning and the nightlife lasts all night. I loved the derelict West Pier before it burnt down. It reminded me of the set for a zombie flick. Oh, there are loads of gays about too, of course.

I was shocked, in my teens, to see openly gay bars on the sea front with the men inside visible through glass windows for the entire world to see. My home town in the Midlands was slightly less progressive in the 1980s with the one gay bar being shuttered up and having a policy whereby you had to knock on the door for admission and they'd peer at you through a hatch. A bit like Fat Sam's Speakeasy in "Bugsy Malone but without the luscious Scott Baio. The shutters were essential defences against missiles and gangs of rowdy men. You'd often end up trapped in the bar for ten minutes whilst you waited for a gang of skinheads to stop hammering on the shutters. By stark contrast, here were men walking around holding hands and shops selling naughty pictures of naked men. Naturally, I fell in love with the place instantly.

Rob and I had another of our hapless holiday exploits in Brighton. We stayed in a gay hotel which allowed only male guests. Strange concept but it looked a bit cheeky and fun and the location was good. We arrived at the hotel and the room was absolutely plush. There was a walk in wet room and a big comfortable bed. We later learnt that the hotel had been used to shoot a well known porn video and our wet room had become, well, a bit wetter during a rampant orgy scene. No worries though, it was well bleached and squeaky clean.

There was a sauna in the basement. Not the kind of sauna that you go for a steam and a facial. It was the kind of sauna you go to get steamy and get a different kind of facial. You could get a massage but it wasn't shiatsu. The smell of chlorine permeated the hotel. The hotel bar was quite lively but Rob wasn't too impressed when within minutes I'd been chatted up by two older gentlemen. I wasn't impressed by the amateur stripping whereby the DJ would ask men in the bar to strip down to their underwear for a tenner. I wasn't impressed because he failed to ask me. I wouldn't have done it but it would have been nice to be asked.

The August weather was rare in that it was sunny and bright and we sauntered from bar to cafe to beach. I spotted a strange Tin Tin like chap at the next table in a cafe and wrote "Jimmy Somervile on the next table" on a napkin which I passed to Rob. He squinted and said loudly "Jimmy who? I can't read the surname." Jimmy glared at me. Has-been pop stars can be such divas.

We walked to the marina and ventured past the nudist beach where the leather skinned middle aged and elderly bathers stood on hillocks of stones in catalogue poses, their orange hue illuminating the vista. We ate and walked back along the cliffs, accidentally walking through the gay cruising area which was surprisingly lively for mid afternoon. I was very impressed that the two gentlemen engaged in mutual masturbation were polite enough to have covered over their laps with a copy of The Guardian and even took the trouble to give a polite "Hello!" as we passed by. We scuttled away tittering.

Breakfast in the hotel amused us and we struggled to keep our composure when a gaggle of pretty Thai boys descended into the room followed by their elderly boyfriends. It's amazing what you can buy online. I wouldn't recommend staying in a gay hotel. It's exhausting having to exfoliate and shower and be in freshly ironed clothing before going down for a full English.

On the final night we went out drinking, saw a drag act and returned late to our room. As we walked round the corridor I spotted a series of Post-it notes along the wall with little arrows on them. I looked at Rob and he was the right side of drunk to persuade into impish behaviour. We followed the arrows. They led up a flight of stairs and along a corridor to another hotel room. The door was slightly ajar so we peered inside. Lying face down, naked, oiled and ready was a very fat man. There was a Post-it on his buttocks but we didn't stop to read it. I laughed a lot, Rob shuddered a lot as we scurried back to the safety of our room.

The next time we went we stayed in a standard hotel on the beach front. It was much less interesting. I read a lot more.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Ramblings: Tell it to the Hand

I'm ranting. I've got nothing against Americans at all. I quite like them, to be honest. They've written some of my favourite books and sang some of my favourite songs. I just like being British and like our language. If I was French, I wouldn't speak Belgian, so I'm sticking to English.

I was horrified this week to read a piece in The Independent where a man described his wife as being "pissed". He meant angry and not inebriated. How odd and confusing. When did pissed start meaning angry? I also saw an advert on a bus for Subway saying "Do the Math!" Eek. It's maths. It always has been and always will be. I felt a cold chill.

It's not just the Americanism we've adopted which drive me crazy (24/7 kills me), it's the faddy and lazy phrases people over use for a period of time. They're funny for a minute or so and then are hideously irritating. My rule is: what would Noel say? By that, I mean Noel Coward not Edmonds. If I met Mr Edmonds he'd say "Please don't stab me." as I ran at him with a knife for crimes against good taste. If it wouldn't crop up in a Noel Coward piece it's probably not funny and not appropriate.
My current hate list is this:
  • Putting .com after things e.g. It's not funny or clever.
  • Saying "Back in the day." It makes you sound like a cheesy local radio disc jockey.
  • "Wine o'clock" was maybe funny the first time it was said or typed but it isn't now, honestly.
  • "Five items or less" on a checkout. It's "fewer", the same as it's "different from" not "different to/than"
  • LOL/PMSL/ROFL. Really? You're not really doing that at all are you? So please, don't type it. It's silly. What ever happened to "tee-hee" or "ha ha ha".
  • Text message speach and abreviations. I hate this. I can't stand "ya" for you, especially.
  • "Man flu". Lazy and sexist stereotyping. I had severe flu and everyone kept asking if I had man flu. I had actual flu, thanks and was in bed for a week sweating and suffering. Cheers for belittling it.
Another thing I hate is when people laugh about red hair and being "ginger". It was briefly funny to do this in the 90s. It's not now. It's just banal, rude and tired. Lots of ginger men and women are stunningly beautiful and one of my more promiscuous exes tells me that, according to his extensive research of men's undercarriages, red haired men have larger willies. Think on.

I know this sounds pedantic and picky and I'm sure I say things incorrectly or overuse phrases that annoy others too but I am the man who won't sing along to a song if it's grammatically correct. I have to adapt the lyrics to exclude the word "aint" or any of those nasty double negatives. Eurgh.

So in summary, desist please. Period.

Poems: Things

This poem is dedicated to anyone who's ever experienced insomnia


Things by Fleur Adcock

There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public.
There are worse things than these miniature betrayals,
committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things
than not being able to sleep for thinking about them.
It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in
and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse
and worse.

Ramblings: Nanny No Legs

The fashion of the last few years has been to broadcast everything on Facebook, to recycle everything, to claim compensation for every slip trip and fall and to "make do and mend". I suspect that the austerity messages and the "Keep Calm and Carry On" merchandise is a discrete ploy by the government to make us all feel happy that we're being royally shafted but I'm a natural born cynic of the highest order and that's by the by. I was thinking today about a person in my past who'd have loved all this and who'd have fitted in perfectly with the fads of 2012, my late maternal grandmother who I shall call Mabel.

Mabel was born in the late 1920s in a small mining village in Nottinghamshire in and was one of five children. She grew up in poverty and would regale my bored teenage ears with tales of large beds crammed with children vying for space, eating berries and having to huddle together for warmth. Very dull for a teenager in the 1980s who thought affluence was a given right and who was unhappy that his parents had bought him a cheap Sanyo cassette player instead of a Sony Walkman.

I remember her as a broad woman in a 1960s frock, a dress which was largely triangular and stopped mid thigh. These often highly patterned numbers were her uniform until her death. This outfit was finished off with court shoes, a pair of thick orange tights and a massive handbag. She wore a small amount of rouge on her cheeks, a little pale lipstick and a dusting of face powder. She bathed once a week and never washed her hair. That was a job for the hairdresser and an occasion prime for imparting gossip under a huge hooded hairdryer. She bleached her dentures nightly and the gum part was pure sparkling white.

Mabel loved children and found them charming and a joy to be with. Except for one child: namely me. When my brother had been born my mum had continued to work and Mabel helped a lot with child care. My brother was everything she approved of, a docile grateful child who would sit quietly, do as he was told and accept what he was given graciously. I came along three years later and upset the apple cart. My mum gave up work and took up Valium and Mabel had no part in my rearing. We failed to bond for many years.

Mabel believed in making do and wearing clothes till they fell off you. I believed in buying the best you could afford or badgering your parents and sulking until they bought it for you. From age five onwards I was spurning hand me downs and demanding fashionable new clothes and was clad in junior tweed suits, lurid shirts with matching ties and a slinky black corduroy suit which I thought made me look rather fetching about town. I still didn't manage to avoid my mum's evil knitting machine and its satanic 1970s creations but I did avoid Mabel's offerings.

She liked to organise things (buffets, seating arrangements, lives etc.) and to fundraise was a favourite activity. She liked nothing better than manning a jumble sale stall or tombola to raise money for some poor crippled Catholic woman to go to Lourdes or to buy a new frock for the priest. Her house became jumble central. The neighbourhood women would bring their old clothes, books and assorted junk to her house and it covered every surface. Her little council house had piles of dated clothing with dubious odours, strange records from bands no one ever listened to and piles of obscure books. I liked the books.

The clothes were another matter. I'd dread going round and her looming over me with armfuls of unfashionable clothing which she'd carefully sifted out for me. Naturally Mabel's jumble collecting had its benefits for her: she got the pick of the crop. My sullen refusals and face pulling would earn me a reproach of: "You think you're better than you are, my boy! Mark my words; you'll have a hard knock coming one day." She was right on both counts.

She hoarded things with the misapprehension that they'd come in useful one day. They rarely did. She also believed everything she accrued was worth something. The items never were. Notably, we found a small collection of soft pornographic magazines in my granddad's drawer after his death. My parents tried to discretely spirit them away but Mabel intercepted them and was having none of it. "Someone might want them, pass them here, I'll ask Flo at number 5 if her husband fancies them."

Mabel believed in over eating and maintained an imposing figure and a magnificent bosom. To not clear a plate was like spitting in her face. I was the pickiest eater, bordering on anorexia and easily revolted by her cooking. This went down badly. Most people were revolted by her cooking, if I'm honest. Her speciality was mince pies. She cooked them all year round and poor green faced ladies would remark on their merits whilst frantically trying to wash them down with gallons of tea. She made mince pies with a half teaspoon of mincemeat and thick dry pastry. You risked a colonic obstruction as they slowly moved through your bowels and severe dehydration as they sucked every bit of moisture from your body. She kept a large brown speckled pan of meat fat in the kitchen which was topped up frequently and never emptied. I dread to think what was lurking at the bottom. She had a vehement belief that if you put something in the fridge it stayed fresh forever. The fridge contained everything including biscuits, cakes and sweets and long out of date meat with a strange silvery sheen to it. She always had a lot of sweets and biscuits which I loved and she was very generous with them. She had a few speciality dishes which were pretty grim. The boiled sausage was a particular terror. She liked a dish you could leave be. If she fried a piece of chicken she would throw it in lard in a pan and leave it cooking unattended. She'd then pluck it off the stove top and serve it half raw and half black. She was never experienced any gastric problems. Her guests did.

She would walk to Bird's cake shop every day at teatime and get the stale cakes they were giving away and would always go to the fishmongers twice a week for fish scraps for the cat, which at that time was fictional. We ate these, naturally. She called my mother's cooking "foreign muck" but did stoop to a lasagne once and proclaimed it not half bad and then ate it often, calling it "lagney". She kept a well stocked poverty cupboard in case of war or unemployment and was never without 15 tins of peaches and John West salmon in her pantry. The tins never got used but sat there hoping for Armageddon or at least a strike at Rolls Royce (where my granddad worked). When she was due out of hospital one time in the late 1990s we had a big clear out in order to accommodate her wheelchair. We found tins which went out of date in the 1970s.

It's odd that she feared poverty as she was a relatively wealthy woman. I suppose old habits die hard. In the early 1980s my granddad won £25,000 on "Spot the Ball". This was an odd competition whereby you had a photo of a footballing scene and the ball was blanked out. You had to guess where the ball was and mark little crosses on the paper with the nearest guess winning the jackpot. My grandparents were at first delirious then puzzled as to what to do next. They bought their council house (which they got for a very small amount as they'd rented it for 40 years by that time) and went for a weekend in Blackpool. The rest went in the bank and stayed there. My granddad died not long after and she viewed the money as a terrible responsibility. She was always generous to us though and would periodically pull out one of her many formidable handbags from its secret location and give us a hundred pounds apiece. She liked to keep about £2,000 in the house for emergencies. She was later burgled twice and mugged once and lost a lot of cash. We did persuade her in the late 1990s to have some double glazing and a new fire but she had no truck with central heating. It made her hair dry out and go kinky.

Blackpool was a favourite place of hers and she'd been once before when she managed to extract a free holiday from the bus company. She was involved in a minor bus crash in the 1950s and cannily claimed an emotionally traumatised daughter. This was before emotional trauma was invented. It got her a free week away and she went on, over the years, to claim a handful more times for various trips on dodgy paving slaps. If she were alive today then the Claims Direct number would be stored in her phone.

Mabel was a great gossip and knew everything about everyone in the neighbourhood. She was known locally as "News of the World" and would often be found at the front gate whispering about illicit affairs and nefarious practices. This was heaven to my ears and I eavesdropped with finesse. Occasionally this backfired on her and on one notable occasion a neighbour put an air rifle through her letter box and threatened to kill her. Some people are so touchy when accused of adultery! Her coven of friends would congregate at the gate and after my granddad died there was never a spare seat on the sofa as they were finally allowed over the threshold and a procession of Madge's, Doris's and Freda's were propped up among the jumble sipping sweet tea and choking on dry mince pies.

One creature who never crossed the threshold was Sooty. Sooty appeared on the back doorstep in the late 1970s and Mabel fed him. He never left the back porch until he died in the 1980s. She fed him dutifully twice a day and the fish scraps were finally put to their proper use. If he tried to cross the threshold there was shout of "Get out you maggot!" and a brush was swung at him. I spent many hours sitting with Sooty in the long grass of the garden, a pair of ungrateful outcasts.

You wouldn't, perhaps, call a cat Sooty nowadays as it could be seen as a racist term for a black man. Mabel, like all her generation, had a few choice words she used to call ethnic minorities. On one notable occasion I was visiting her in hospital and she was in a vast dormitory of a ward. She told me in full detail about the ladies in her vicinity in what she perceived as a whisper but was actually a bellow.

"See her across there? She's had it all out, shits in a bag now. Her in the corner with the sour face: three kids and can't keep a man. No wonder she looks so fed up."

A ward round approached with a clutch of junior doctors racing after the consultant.

"Oh I say! It's like the Tower of Babel here. Look at them lot. There's a nigger, a chink and a paki. They've got them all!" I was a little embarrassed but she meant no harm. I was more embarrassed by the fact that she liked to sit on the bed with her skirt hitched up and the largest pair of bloomers ever seen on show to the world.

In the 1950s a black woman arrived in her neighbourhood and Mabel was the first one round to find out what that was all about. She arrived with a plate of mince pies as a welcome gift and was horribly disappointed to discover no mud on the walls or grass on the floor but a plain hair cord carpet and a nice flock paper. I'd love to know what a Jamaican lady made of the famous mince pies.

Mabel wasn't a great reader, didn't smoke or drink and liked to go to bingo or crochet things for entertainment. She made chicks at Easter and Santas at Christmas. They were always a little bit off in the faces. She struggled with faces and they had a touch of the Picasso about them. She sold these and raised a lot of money for the Catholic Church which was odd, as she wasn't a Catholic. My granddad was Catholic. She wasn't a churchgoer but found it a handy cause and liked the jollity of the Irish. In later years she raised money for amputees and was commended often for her efforts.

Mabel had a bit of trouble with words and often made up her own and was never deterred by being corrected. Here follows a short glossary of terms with their translations.
  • Michael Wave: a microwave. She thought a man called Mr Wave invented it
  • Ruftitarian: A Rastafarian
  • Dobermobile: a Doberman hound. Presumabaly a mix of Doberman and Dormobile
  • Denims: Debenham's department store
There were many more.

As I grew to adulthood we forgot the past and my picky childhood ways and entered a truce. My brother, although a docile child was inattentive and not much help to her as an adult. Like any heterosexual boy, listening to his gran spouting off about Hilda's useless son was a trial. The gay grandson found it fascinating and provided an eager listening ear. She learnt not to offer me food and that offering books was fine but clothes were always going to be refused. She'd occasionally still mutter "Picky!" under her breath but we understood each other. She was very proud of my career as a nurse and easily accepted the fact that I was gay. Her experience of human nature made her mellow into an understanding woman who'd heard it all before. When my mum told her I was gay, she spoke about it once to me.

"Your granddad wasn't much for that kind of thing but it don't bother me."

The last ten years of her life were troubled by illness and she developed painful legs and gangrene, needing to have first one leg, then the other amputated. She took to it well and insisted she would never leave her house for a care home. She became a dab hand at sliding across from wheelchair to bed unaided using a slippery board and is the only woman I've ever met who could wee into a female urinal: an item she called "the shoe" (it looked a little like a white plastic clog). She loved to berate the home helps and carers and would deliberately wash herself before they came or cook her own meals before they get the chance to help. This was partly so she could playfully reproach them, partly so they'd have time for a gossip and a mince pie. She was liberal with her pills too and once offered me a hefty dose of morphine for a mild headache. I refused it and whisked the unused pills (she was saving them up in case they were useful) back to the chemists.

"She's the one who don't wash her hands. Have a sniff when she comes in, stinks of cigarettes!" She'd holler at me as the poor home help was scrubbing away a few from us.

She loved the limb centre and the amputee support groups and was very proud of her stumps. She'd get them out to show everyone what a lovely job the surgeon had made.

Her final fortnight of life was spent on the hospital ward I managed. She'd started a course of antibiotics and became jaundiced and needed a new a bed on the liver ward to investigate and sort her swollen liver out. I agreed with the doctors that she needed to be on my ward and devised a plan whereby she would be kept in a side room and I'd work on the other side of the ward and not look after her. I still pitied the poor nurses as having your boss's grandmother as a patient is a trying thing. She loved being on my ward and felt like the Queen Mother, sitting astride her bed with her dress hitched up, pants on show, showing the nurses her stumps. She loved one of the night time care assistants who was a very dark skinned black lady. One of the women nicknamed her nanny no legs which I loved but didn't dare tell her, although I suspect she'd have tittered.

"She's a tonic, that girl. Works like a black. When she comes in at night she's completely invisible bar her eyes and teeth!" I winced a little.

Sadly, it turned out not to be the antibiotics affecting her liver and she was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder and died two weeks later aged 88. She took the news she had cancer well and decided to fight it, like my dad had his bowel cancer. He was in remission at the time but would die three years later when it recurred. I was on duty the morning before she died and sat with her after my shift till midnight so my parents could go home and rest. My mum was her only child. She wasn't a tactile person and hated being kissed. She'd visibly wince if she had to make physical contact with someone. We always had that in common, at least. Even in death she winced and pulled away if the nurses tried to hold her hand and me and my mum knew to sit sentry like by the bed and not try to touch her. She'd been comatose for days and shocked me by waking up and grabbing my arm and shouting to me as if I was my mother.

"Mary! I want to go home. Take me home now. I'm scared." She looked bewildered and stricken and babbled away, pleading.

I pretended I was my mum. It placated her. She looked at me with affection as I told her I was sending my dad round to get the car and she settled back to sleep and didn't wake again. I was very sad to lose her.

The clash of generations can be hard to reconcile and Mabel grew up in poverty with no welfare state to help her. There were no ethnic minorities about. She spent her twenties coping with a war and all its hardships and the loneliness of being a woman with a baby whose husband is away fighting. I grew up in the booming 80s, a more affluent and diverse time. We both had strong personalities and it took till my teens for us to find common ground. I like to think that were she alive today she'd be a more adventurous cook and an avid Facebook fan. With one arm tucked under her bosom she'd be tapping away at her laptop, delighting at the antics of Ada from down the street and marvelling that Joan had been on another foreign holiday with her gammy hip and I'd be listening avidly and putting in my "two-pennorth".

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Ramblings: The Games People Play

I don't understand sport at all. It's a complete mystery to me. I'm already dreading all the dullness that will accompany the impending Olympics. I'm bewildered by the amount of excitement sports generate in people when they watch it, not to mention the violence and aggression. You never see police in riot gear outside theatres or libraries. Personally, I can't follow the plot of a sports match and always find the characterisation weak. The sets are pretty dull too. As for playing sport, I'll certainly never understand that one. That is truly insane. If you're that bored try reading a good book. Libraries are full of them. They're good for you too.

My parents disliked football. I think they thought it was common. They were avid cricket viewers and occasionally entertained tennis on the television. Cricket seemed to me to be a bizarre exercise in boredom. Lots of men stood round in a field for ages, occasionally one of them ran a little bit and the score made no sense. The very noise of it irritated me and if it was on the television I'd be in another room.

Age seven I decided I wanted to join the scouts. This was purely because one of my friends went and I liked the sound of making cocoa, getting a cooking badge and learning how to perform acts of arson using only twigs. My mum got me the full uniform, she believes in being properly attired. The first week we were made to go to church which disgruntled me. The second week we were made to play football which horrified me. I'd never seen a football match or attempted to play the game and quickly became an object of ridicule. The scout master was incredulous that a boy of that age didn't know how to play football and ridiculed me in front of the other boy. In retrospect, what's more incredulous is that grown men want to dress like oversized schoolboys and hang about with pre-pubescent boys in their spare time. I was very affronted by this incident and refused to go back to the scouts. My mother and I entered one of our battles of wills.

"I've paid for that woggle, you're going!" I didn't go back, a rare victory and a return to reading and playing "Single Mum" with Whiskey the cat.

I always hated running about. It seemed so undignified and unnecessary. I also hate being shouted at, having whistles blown at me and getting dirty or sweaty. There's no call for it in this day and age. Secondary school came as a terrible shock when I realised that we had to do two hours a week of Physical Education. So began the misery and my first encounters with the man I still to this day hate more than any other person I've met. I shall call him Mr Fiend (not dissimilar to his real name), the sports teacher.

I was a skinny child with as yet undiagnosed terrible eyesight. I have one eye which is long sighted and needs a bottle bottomed lens and another which is almost normal. I was (and still am) very uncoordinated and sports presented a problem. I was also timid, nervous and hated pain. My naturally reaction on seeing a solid leather cricket ball hurtling towards my face or genitals at high velocity is to run in the other direction. Likewise, a big boy charging at my shins with a wooden hockey stick presents a similar desire to flee. I think this is called common sense.

Mr Fiend must have been in his late twenties and was a big hulk of a man. His inane toothy smile and dead eyes spoke of a man of little intelligence and his lack of pants under a nylon tracksuit spoke of a man who was proud of his large appendage and had no idea how to dress or behave around children. In short, he was a walking cliché: a sadistic P.E. teacher. I think they have a special fast track program for just this type of man and they become sports teachers or psychopaths, often both. He wasn't impressed by a delicate 11 year old boy who weighed less than one of his thighs.

I decided to be enthusiastic and try hard, initially. It didn't work. I couldn't kick a football, hold a racquet properly or enter a rugby scrum, but I tried. Sports lessons became a weekly torture and I would get worked up and agitated as they loomed over me. I would begin to tremble and fret as they came nearer. For one year we had double sport on a Monday morning and I would try everything to get out of it. Sunday nights would be miserable and hateful as I felt the bowling ball growing in my stomach.

Initially, Mr Fiend tolerated me and this was in part due to my ability to run. I'm built for running, apparently, but I choose not to. I was superb at cross country running but hated it with a passion. I think that running away from boys at school shouting "Gaylord" taught me speed and endurance. The problems began when Mr Fiend suggested that I represent the school at long distance running. I naturally laughed and said no way. I had more interesting things to fill my time. He resented this and his brief tolerance of me stopped from then on in. I became known as "Poofter" from this point onwards.

He decided it would be fun to critique my performance at sport from therein. I was pulled aside at the end of each feeble attempt at sport and made to stand in front of the class.

"What was that all about Poofter? Were you even present today? You're a waste of space."

He had a good vocabulary though. He also knew the following names for me: big girl's blouse, shirtlifter, woofter and poof. He used these names at every opportunity. Initially I felt humiliated and shamed. The other boys weren't too keen to have me on their teams either and I was always the last to be picked, which gave me an obtuse pride. I was chosen after the very fat boy with asthma and psoriasis. This acceptance of the bullying didn't last and I was a plucky if nervous little thing. I managed about a year of putting up with the insults. My school reports were all A or B scores apart from a blot by Sport where I got an A for effort and an E for attainment. This soon changed along with my attitude and my discovery of dumb insolence. I quickly attained an E for effort. I was very proud.

I decided to fight back the only ways I knew how: deceit and passive aggression. I managed to skip at least a quarter of the lessons by either feigning illness or simply hiding somewhere. I was good at deceit. One trick I had was to get my mum to write a note in April saying I had severe and crippling hay fever. It would read
"Dear Mr Fiend, Please excuse my son from Physical Education classes until the Winter as he cannot go outside due to his severe and crippling hay fever." I dictated these letters and she was glad to oblige for a quieter life and a lot less tears and tantrums from me. I got to sit in a room and polish trophies (until his back was turned and I read my books in peace). This plan fell through on rainy days when the horrors of badminton, indoor volley ball and basketball befell me. I had a scheme for badminton and volley ball. We all had to sit on a bench and move along one place at the end of each game. My trick was to just run round back to the end of the bench and never actually play. That ball really hurt my hands and I could no sooner hit a shuttle cock, with my eyesight and coordination, than I could do a handstand. I also began doing the opposite of what was expected of me at all times. If the ball came near me I'd walk fast the other way, I never ran. It's undignified. If everyone ran one way I'd stroll the other way.

Mr Fiend wasn't happy. I fondly recall his bright red face shouting insults at me as he stood impotent with rage. I was both terrified of him and full of gleeful hatred. If he hated me anyway then let me make it easier: I could make him really hate me with a passion. He did. The insults flowed. I remember one basket ball game when I wasn't quick enough to flee the ball. It struck me on the shoulder and I gave the loudest "Tsk!" that I could muster and glared at it archly. He was a little bit cross. He began to take me aside and speak to me alone after the lessons. Obviously he still shouted at me in front of the class first.

"What's wrong with you, you freak? Were you not bounced enough on your dad's knees? Are you some kind of retard?" The "bouncing" thing was something he often mentioned. I think he read a child psychology book once or was read it by someone.

"You were terrible as usual. Would you rather go and do country dancing with the girls or a bit of embroidery?" This was said with a glance at the other boys and a pause for the laughter which didn't come.

"Oh yes please, Sir! That sounds like fun!" I said smirking. The boys laughed this time. I was funnier.

The teachers had a period of working to rule and striking. Everyone went on strike, it was the eighties. It's what people did. They all refused to write comments on our school reports one year. Mr Fiend made a decision to break the strike, especially for me. I was touched.

"C has shown a complete lack of effort and a bad attitude. He is physically feeble and weak and has absolutely no stamina. He avoids all physical contact and is a disruptive influence on the class." Nice. This sat amongst my glowing A's and B's. I decided to embrace this report and see it as a positive. My parents didn't care about this blot on my records. It was only a mindless, pointless subject anyway, according to my often sensible dad.

My lucky break came on an icy February morning aged 13. We were made to go outside in our skimpy nylon clothes to play football. I wasn't looking forward to an hour of embarrassment, discomfort and humiliation again. I was standing with my arms folded.

"You! Unfold your arms now! You're not a fishwife off Coronation Street." He was witty too. I didn't unfold my arms. I looked up with a tilted glance (I learnt this off Princess Di and the women from The Human League) and glared at him. He glared back, seething. He began to turn pink as he lost control of himself. He hurled the frozen football at my face from 4 feet away and I didn't have time to move fast enough. The impact was agony and my eyes smarted with the pain. I wasn't about to cry in front of him so I walked off. Stumbling over the pitch in my football kit I ignored the frantic shouts for me to return and the warnings as to how much trouble I was in.

It was a long walk to my house and I cried all the way, shivering in the cold, my studs clacking a rhythm on the pavement. My mother emerged from her stupor when she saw the mess I was in and the bruise appearing on my face and set about calling the head teacher. I spent the whole evening in my bedroom, lying on my bed crying, unable even to concentrate on "To the Manor Born", a favourite program of mine.

The meeting with the head teacher was daunting but went well. I got over my initial fear once I realised that my facial bruise gave me the winning hand. Mr Fiend's pallid sweaty face told me straight away that I was in charge. I never played sports again. Embarrassingly two other teachers were friends of the fiend. The pock marked History teacher and the drunken French teacher both saw fit to mention the "running off" incident in their classes that day, quite inappropriately. I was mortified. Mr Fiend wasn't suspended or even told off to my knowledge. There was no apology. We accepted this. It was the 1980's after all. It was a prime result for me though. No more sport, this was something I'd only dreamt of, previously. I had an extra two hours a week to read and do homework. I still had to face Mr Fiend weekly and he'd glare as he sat me in the foyer of the sports hall. I'd glare back but we entered an entente cordiale. We kept our hatred of each other to ourselves. He didn't have to teach the surly boy with no talent for sport. I could read a book. We were all winners.

To this day I've never been in a gym or shopped in a sports shop, never seen a sports match either live or on television and never exercised at all. It all makes me shudder. I don't intend to start doing any of these things either. You can keep them. I even hate the noise of sport in the background and the hideous sportswear people wear makes me want to vomit. I'm lucky in that I'm naturally thin and quite toned but when I start to get fat I'll simply eat less and walk more.

I did see Mr Fiend a few years later when I had left school and was working in a shop. He came to the checkout and on spotting me, greeted me warmly, appearing to have the memory of a goldfish. I looked away and rang up the sale. He left. I still hate him to this day.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Ramblings: Meat is Murder

I said I'd work my way through the list of questions posed in my post "The C Word" and as I'm a man of my word I'll tell you why I don't eat meat.

This may shock you but I'm not very interested in food. It bores me. Eating can be a total pain. It interrupts what you're doing and means you have to cook which in turn means that your nice clean kitchen gets all grubby which is no good at all. Ovens are great places to keep books. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a nice meal out and if you want to cook for me then that's fine and dandy but if it was a choice between food or books or cigarettes then the food would always lose. I tend to watch TV whilst I eat. I turn on the TV, start to eat and the minute the meal ends, I turn it back off. It stops me having to think about it. I can happily eat the same food every day too without getting too bored. It's like scratching an itch.

A friend once told me that she lay in bed and dreamt of food. She said that her first thought on waking was "What can I eat today?" Bizarre. I hate the feeling when you over eat. That sluggish torpor and the feeling of being full to the neck is not my idea of fun. It's a torture.

I don't really like cooking much. It's tedious. As for baking, they sell cakes in shops. Why waste your time? You could be reading a good book.

During my career as a nurse, food has been the one thing that has consistently made me heave and retch. I can cope with excrement, urine, vomit and phlegm but show me a bowl of congealed Weetabix or a lump of porridge stuck to an old lady's cardigan and I'll run a mile.

As a child I hated to eat. I hated meat, salad and vegetables. Unluckily for me, I had parents who were as snobbish as Margot and Jerry Leadbetter but with the horticultural skills of Tom and Barbara Good (from the 1970s sitcom "The Good Life", if you don't recognise the allusion). My parents had a huge allotment and grew huge quantities of fresh vegetables which we would have to eat all year round. They sowed, picked, blanched and froze and we had to help. They also loved to cook much more than I hated to eat. I compromised a little and would eat peas and carrots and the occasional runner bean. This wasn't enough of a compromise and I spent many hours sitting in a chair, not allowed to leave the table or lay down my cutlery until I ate one Brussel sprout or a sprig of broccoli. I was stubborn but my mum was the mistress of stubborn. Meal times were a tense battle which I usually lost.

We had to eat at the table as a family every night, which I hated. I secretly thought I was probably adopted anyway, so why did I have to spend time with these people? Meal times were often the subject of tense discussions about things too.

I devised a few tricks. Firstly: Benny the dog. He was my food ally and was a canine dustbin. He'd eat anything. I'd try and lure him into position under the table and artfully flick half my dinner into his waiting jaw. He suffered a lot of wind due to his varied diet. Secondly: the swallowing trick. With enough gravy or sauce applied liberally I soon mastered the technique of swallowing most foods. I worked up from peas and eventually was at the point where I could swallow a sprout without it touching my tongue. I still hate sprouts. They were invented by Satan. Thirdly: the pocket game. With a tissue laid on my lap, I would secrete food under the table and stuff it into my pocket, consigning it to a watery grave down the toilet as soon as the meal ended.

I ate so little that eventually I was allowed to have a side plate instead of a dinner plate and no one worried about it. I wasn't anorexic. I just didn't like eating much. I expect if it had been any later in time than the 70s and 80s I'd have been admitted to a clinic and tube fed whilst being made to talk about my fear of sexual intimacy. Luckily, I evaded that and didn't fail to grow.

I did like sweets. I'd line up a pile of dolly mixtures and play my favourite game. This was called "Mummy" and involved scoffing a load of sweets which represented my pills. I'd pop them one by one as I held aloft a little glass of dandelion and burdock and a candy cigarette and feel grown up. I would inhale deeply and sigh and pop another "pill" with a swig of my "sherry".

It wasn't too much of a leap for a teenage food hater to become a vegetarian. A love of "The Smiths" gave me a fantastic idea. Not eating meat was cool and trendy and would annoy my parents to the highest degree. Every teenager's dream, I think. I recall a Christmas dinner as I smugly nibbled a cheese and onion quiche, aged 14, whilst my parents looked on and frowned. I soon got bored of it, though and was back eating meat.

As I got older, I started to enjoy food more. On leaving home and moving in with my older drunk of a boyfriend, I experienced real poverty for a time. We often had no money at all. I can't think where it went but I think the tills of various pubs and off licenses were ringing out a merry tune. I had a priority list: cigarettes came top. As long as I had cigarettes I could live on Happy Shopper biscuits and bread.

I made a terrible mistake in 2004. I was watching TV (a rare event) and flicked through the channels onto a program on BBC2 about abattoirs. It was repulsive. I cringed as I watched but couldn't turn it off. The next few days I found eating meat a weird experience. I couldn't get it out of my mind that it was a corpse I was eating. I felt sick. It rolled around my mouth, sticking there and I couldn't swallow. I gave up meat. Rob was disgruntled. It meant mealtimes were trickier but we got into a routine. It wasn't high moral principles that stopped me eating meat but pure over thinking and subsequent disgust.

I had a brief lapse in 2007 when me and Rob split up and I was temporarily living with my best female friend. It was alcohol related and involved a plate of chicken nuggets which I fell face first into. There's no meat in a chicken nugget though, really, so it's all OK.

Ramblings: My Name is Tallulah

You can't beat an old fashioned high camp bitch and Tallulah Bankhead was one of the wildest, most original and best. She's sadly mostly forgotten nowadays. How can you not love a crazed bisexual woman who slept with hundreds of people, smoked 100 cigarettes a day (and even employed an assistant to wake her on the hour in the night with a lit cigarette at the ready) and drank bourbon and gin like it was water? She was also renowned for her great wit. I've quoted a few examples below.

"If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner."

"It's the good girls who keep diaries; the bad girls never have the time."

"My heart is as pure as the driven slush."

 "They used to photograph Shirley Temple through gauze. They should photograph me through linoleum."

"Cocaine isn't habit forming. I should know, I've been using it for years."

 "I've tried several varieties of sex. The conventional position makes me claustrophobic and the others give me either stiff neck or lockjaw."

 "I was raped in our driveway when I was eleven. You know darling, it was a terrible experience because we had all that gravel."

 Her last coherent words reportedly were "Codeine... bourbon."

 Tallulah went to Midnight Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City one Christmas Eve. Tallulah was already hideously drunk, so when the Bishop proceeded down the aisle in his finest vestments swinging a censer full of burning incense, through very bleary eyes, Tallulah took one look at him and shouted "Darling, your dress is divine, but your purse is on fire!!"

Here's a very camp website all about Tallulah:

Ramblings: Good Grief

It's August, I'm in Paris with my boyfriend of six months and I'm taking in some art at the Musee D'Orsay. It's a stunning building. The architecture of the old station is complemented by the vast display of art and sculpture. I should be happy but I'm feeling desperate. I haven't got the mental energy to look at anything. I just want this day to end, to be at home on my own hiding under the duvet and not here with this man whose interest and affection is ebbing away. The pit of my stomach is aching and I feel sick. My limbs feel too heavy to lift as we mount the glass walkway and I look over the railing with longing at the drop to the floor below.

 I'd met Peter six months before, in February 2008. I'd been single for eleven months since I'd split up with Rob and it hadn't been easy. I hated being alone and found it disorientating and disturbing. I did however love having my own house and space. I'd had a brief dalliance with a good looking bad boy who made me laugh but was sleeping with all and sundry behind my back, which had hurt as much as I'd expected it to. I'd drunk my way through this. I'd been on countless dates, each one more demoralising than the last. I'd drunk my way through this too.

 I met Peter in a bar in town. He'd wooed me on the internet by quoting lines from one of my favourite films, "A Streetcar Named Desire". I could easily fall for a man who knows his Tennessee Williams. He was a teacher in a public school and was a few years younger than me. Ironically we met in the bar where I'd met my abusive long term boyfriend, Barry, in 1987. This should have been an omen.

The date wasn't fantastic. I didn't find him all that attractive and his mannerisms were a bit odd. He was also from a different world from me. He was, however quite attentive and funny and when he kissed me a chaste good night kiss, I accepted his offer to cook me a meal in a few days time. He lived in at the public school and I thought it could be interesting to see his flat. I wasn't familiar with the inside of public schools.

 He picked me up for a meal and drove me to his flat. He was clad head to toe in tweed and wittered away, making me laugh. He'd wheedled out of me what my favourite foods were without me noticing and we entered his big Georgian flat, which took my breath away. There were walls of books, a wing backed armchair and a fire was burning in the grate. His mother was an actress, which seemed exotic.We started dating.

 I was a little concerned about his religious views. I'm a zealous atheist. My youthful experiences of the anti gay doctrine of the Catholic Church had left me with an almost evangelical atheism and a hatred of all things papal. He was a devout Catholic and had almost entered the priesthood. His flat shouted Catholic, loud and clear. There were icons and crucifixes everywhere, things that I'm almost allergic to and would normally have run screaming from, like Damien in "The Omen". I pushed my doubts away. He amused me and he became more attractive to me as time went on. The sex wasn't the best I'd had but it's not everything (or so I tried to convince myself). I was a little startled when on the second date he went to the toilet and left the door wide open. I was mortified. I like to get to know someone a bit better before I see them defecate. He thought my request for him to keep the toilet door shut was bizarre. It was only for solids that I minded though. I think it would have fizzled out in a few weeks but something horrible happened.

 My dad had been ill with bowel and prostate cancer for 5 years. Initially he'd had surgery, radiotherapy and chemo and for a couple of years been frail, but free of cancer and relatively happy. The cancer had returned the year before with secondaries sprouting in his lungs, bones and on his scalp. Following a spontaneous fracture of his hip socket a year before, he'd been in almost constant pain. March 2008 he started to become weaker, walking was an effort, he had bouts of confusion. He'd wander the house at night aimlessly, unsure where he was and we had to get a hospital bed for the downstairs and start getting nurses in at night to sit with him. I filled in the gaps a few times and would spend exhausting nights idly flicking through the TV channels, desperately trying to stay awake in case he needed anything. I was trying to balance this with work, which was hard. Within a few weeks I had to take indefinite leave from work to look after him. He was in quite a state, bouts of pain and agitation troubled him and he needed constant observation. Having spent so much time in hospital we'd said to him we'd try to keep him at home, whatever and we did. He was on a morphine pump but needed frequent top ups. The GP provided all the stuff and I was allowed to give drugs by injection. I'd stay from 7am to 10pm every day and was glad to do this if it meant he could stay at home.

 Peter phoned me daily and if he had time and my dad was sleeping and settled he'd drive over and take me out. I had a yearning for Spring time that year. I had a childlike need to see green shoots, lambs and daffodils. I needed fresh air and freedom from the sick room and someone to care about me. He provided this service, gladly and was happy to fuss over me. I'm normally fiercely independent but this time I was glad to let someone nurture me. I exclaimed like a child at the lambs and he lapped this up. He had a tendency for silliness.

 My dad died six weeks later and I stupidly went back to work within a day. I was totally numb. My dad had converted to Catholicism when he first knew he was terminally ill and I struggled with this. The bumbling priest was a frequent visitor to the house and I was a frequent visitor to the flowerbeds at the bottom of the garden whenever he arrived. The lengthy Roman Catholic funeral was an ordeal lasting several hours. I was both angry and numb. Peter sat beside me glowing in my mum's adoration. He offered to do a reading which angered me intensely. He'd met my dad just a few times and had no right to take a part. I resented this passively. I didn't complain. It pleased my mum. I remember sitting glaring at him as he read out a passage from the Bible and my irrational rage focused on him. I sat chewing on dry Valium tablets as the hours passed slowly. I did anagrams in my head. I couldn't imagine it was anything to do with my dad and it was with great restraint that I didn't just stand up and shout swear words at the whole place.

 As we left the church to go to the crematorium I spotted a fine looking pine dresser propped in the porch of the church. I wanted it. My desire to shop was reaching mad proportions and every time Peter picked me up he'd ask what I wanted to buy that day, pandering to my insanity. I'd bought a picnic hamper the day my dad died (unusual choice for a snowy April day), a chair the day we went to the undertakers, countless new clothes, mugs and plates. I was indiscriminate. I usually hate shopping. I asked the warden of the church how much she wanted for the dresser and she looked shocked. I was following my dad's coffin and trying to shop. Peter suggested I think about buying it later and I think I whispered an obscenity back. I bought it during the wake. It was a bargain.

 I felt adrift after the funeral. I had three basic moods: angry, exuberant and sad. I drank through it. I also took it out on Peter. I attacked his views, criticised his behaviour and picked fights. He couldn't handle me at all. I recall waking up on a bad day and feeling very low. I was crouching in the garden, smoking and he appeared in a dressing gown and did a little comedy dance to try and cheer me up. I'm not impressed by comedy dances at the best of times. It was my dressing gown too.

 He suggested that if we were together in a year's time we might think about marriage. I laughed in his face and gave him a 30 minute lecture about why I don't believe in marriage. We came upon a car crash in a deserted country lane, late at night and I shouted at him to grow up when he screamed at the sight of a boy in the road covered in blood (the boy lived, it was a broken leg with a protruding bone). He invited me to go with him to Rome to stay with his friend who was a priest and I told him why I thought all priests should be flogged and why I would never meet his priest friends. He told me anecdotes about his time in the seminary, training to be a priest and I hissed through clenched teeth about the hypocrisy of gay Catholics. He leant me books and showed me films and I told him how much I hated them. He expected me to embrace everything he liked and like it too. Whereas I saw a relationship as two individuals being together but remaining individuals, he saw it as merging of two people into one unit. I was his first proper boyfriend.

 I wasn't a complete monster, at times. On the sad days I'd withdraw, hiding under my duvet and needing solitude. He fretted about my prolonged drinking sessions. On the exuberant days I was exhausting but fun to be with, entertaining him with tales from my life and laughing endlessly. He loved the wild side of me and the occasional flashes of childlike impishness. I became obsessed with board games and he smiled with delight when I got excited about winning at Cluedo. I was very sullen if I wasn't allowed to be Miss Scarlet. Naturally, he was Reverend Green. We went to the theatre a lot, visited London and attended school functions. Naturally I had to buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes to fit in with the public school crowd. We walked a lot, shopped a lot and laughed a lot. It wasn't all bad for us. He told me I was "erudite" and on looking it up, I found it meant "knowledgeable", the irony being that I had to look it up.

 Paris had been planned for several weeks. I didn't realise it was a series of tests for me. He explained this much later. Apparently it was my last chance to be "decent and charitable". Had I known, I'd have chosen to fail them anyway. Paris coincided with a raft of moods. I was happy to be there. It was August and hot. The hotel was by the Sorbonne and was luxurious if small. We walked for miles and ate and drank. We read a lot and didn't kiss or touch. I was enchanted to see people ballroom dancing in the evening sun by the Seine. I loved the "Paris Beach" which was a series of imported beaches along the banks of the river with temporary lidos and groups of stylish Parisians sunbathing. The Pompidou Centre thrilled me with its deranged architecture and improbable art. I was irritated by the horrible sandals he wore, which looked like they should have been on a five year old schoolboy.

 I failed in the Scare Coeur. As we walked in a small bell rang and Peter fell to his knees with a sickening thud of kneecap. I winced and walked away briskly, hideously embarrassed. I saw what looked like a budgie cage, covered in a cloth. Peter saw bread turned to Jesus' flesh. Peter marvelled at the massive gold statues. I griped about the injustice of a church gathering wealth whilst people starved. He asked me to leave after I suggested that the rather plain nuns had entered their profession because they were too ugly to get men. I was bad. He was bizarre. I was stubborn and didn't apologise.

 I left him there to sit through a lengthy mass and felt free to be myself. I sat smoking outside a pavement cafe and watched people go by. I shopped too. I was quite happy.

 Unsurprisingly we split when we got back. He told me, ashen faced and shaking that he never wanted to see me again and if I found any of his belongings about the house I was to bin them. I unravelled a little. My grief surfaced and I felt abandoned, ashamed and lost. I drank a lot. He turned off his mobile and disappeared. I sent messages and rang. Nothing too psychotic, just one text and one call a day. The content of the messages depended how much I'd drank. After a few weeks I pulled myself together. He finally answered his phone and we met for a drink in the bar we first met in.

 Apparently I was the most small minded and mean spirited person he'd ever met. I looked at him in the cold light of day and my guilt felt burdensome. How had I been so mean to such a kind man? Tellingly, I felt no yearning for him and was glad he was no longer my boyfriend. I apologised but couldn't resist pointing out how irritating he was at times. He pointed out gleefully how much the other teachers had disliked me. I pointed out that I had been grieving and he replied that I hadn't. Grief apparently, only lasts two months. I was evil. This was me. I left the bar with my head held high feeling gratified and a little less guilty. I was glad to be single and remained so for a long time afterwards. I also regained my normal personality. I cut down on the drinking, read and saw my friends. The meanness faded away as my sadness and anger dissipated.

 I don't think there is a villain in this piece. There were just two mismatched people: one hoping he'd find a man like him, who'd embrace his eccentricities and another, hoping someone would care enough to rescue him and would see through his attempts to sabotage his own life.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Ramblings: Le Dirty Weekend

December 2001 saw mine and Rob's first anniversary arrive and we decided to go on a romantic but economically viable weekend in Paris. The travel agent assured us that the bargain priced 2 star hotel we'd booked was actually at least 3 star standard but had lost a star for not having a lift. We fell for it. He reassured us that the location in the Pigalle, red light district of Paris, was actually quite romantic and not at all seedy or rough. I quite liked the idea of staying in the red light district. Seedy is usually ok by me. It can be fun. I like the people watching in seedy areas. It's better quality. I like to call it local colour. I visualised glamorous French hookers parading by languidly in big hats and pencil skirts with well trimmed Poodles on leads. The sound of their heels as they passed would provide a dramatic punctuation to the atmosphere of Paris and they would nod aloofly, drawing deeply on their Gauloises as I passed. I got all this a little wrong.

The flight was amusing and we tried hard not to laugh too openly at the scarily stern Air France stewardesses. I particularly liked the look of disdain they gave to everyone as they slammed down coffees on the tray tables. The Metro amused me too and I was delighted to see accordion players banging out what sounded like the "'Allo 'Allo" theme tune as they strolled up and down the trains.

The hotel was a bit of a slap in the face. It was on a street lined with strip clubs and XXX cinemas. The neon signs flashed with boredom in the December drizzle. The men in the doorways looked haggard and menacing and the women were just heroin addled and dirty. The greasy little man on reception looked Simian with his walnut like face. We climbed an eternity of stairs to our room to greet the horror that awaited us.

The room was like a Jackson Pollack painting. This wasn't paint splashes though. It was a collage of stains and cigarette burns. The headboard and carpet were like poker work, swirls of circular burns marking a hideous pattern. The carpet wasn't much better. The grimed window looked out onto a small dank courtyard below and a wall opposite. I entered the bathroom and was astonished that so much black mould could grow in a room so small. I tried the shower and a weak trickle of rust came out. The tap was the same, as was the toilet.

Rob was looking sheepish and a bit anxious.

"It's only for 3 nights. It'll be fine." He began to unpack.

I rang reception and told the man, in the halting pidgin French I still recalled from my O levels, that there was no water at all.

"Wait one hour and there will be water." He said.

I looked over at Rob who had a look of horror on his face.

"You've not packed any underwear or KY jelly." He looked downcast. His dirty weekend plans now involved no sex and a lot of mould and dust.

"No underwear! My goodness!" I was going to have to find pants fast or face Paris commando.

"No KY!" He replied, more vigorously. His priorities were different from mine.

We decided to go for a short walk and anyone who has ever been on a short walk with me will know, this took about 3 hours. I get disorientated. I also emphatically claim to know where I'm going. We headed towards the Eiffel Tower. I forgot to factor in that the Eiffel Tower is actually quite large and looks a lot nearer than it is. We eventually ate in a small cafe and turned back after 90 minutes of walking when we were still no nearer.

We got back to the hotel and the room looked no better. Still no water, which the man from reception responded to by saying "Wait one hour and there will be water."

There was no water in one hour so we went to bed under the stained blanket feeling sweaty and grubby. We didn't sleep much. From midnight onwards there was an hourly ritual. On the hour, every hour, we would hear footsteps going up to the room above us and a knocking on the door. The door would open and shortly afterwards there would be the sound of muffled voices followed by the frantic squeaking of bed springs for a short period, followed by the sound of a set of feet going back down the stairs. This carried on hourly all night. We were staying in a brothel.

We woke the next day and the man from reception told me that there would be water in one hour. Oddly there was. We showered and went downstairs, clean but with trepidation, for breakfast. The restaurant wasn't welcoming and the motley collection of prostitutes sitting around weren't exactly warm and friendly. They were smoking, but there were no Poodles and pencil skirts. Just track marked arms and black ringed eyes set in pale greasy faces. I think they were about to clock off. It's hard to have an appetite for a stale croissant in this atmosphere.

We had breakfast in town and set off out, excited to be in Paris in spite of having no pants on and feeling rather weary. The first stop was at a small chemist shop nearby. My O level French didn't cover buying KY Jelly so a small anatomical mime was involved which worked a treat and Rob (who oddly made me go in the shop alone) was very pleased.

Paris was stunning. It was a crisp December day and it was everything I expected. I did complain about the prices of coffee near Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower was a bit, well, brown, but you can't have everything. We bought underwear and saw sights and I was happy. Sadly there was no water again in the hotel room (for at least the next hour according to reception) and we set out for a meal and sampled a few of the local bars before returning for another night listening to the squeaking bed springs of a girl who certainly had a good work ethic.

We were weary but delirious with joy the next day to discover we had 30 minutes of water. Another day of sightseeing, so we explored Monmartre. I loved the Sacre Coeur and the windy backstreets with their narrow stepped approaches. The drinks were hideously expensive though, but I didn't mind. Rob had a single whiskey which cost £12. We stood out as tourists and two men approached our cafe table and started to draw us which bemused me. We had no intention of buying anything. The first man turned to me smiling and showed me a very idealised picture of me which made me look like a much better looking Brad Pitt. I laughed. The second man turned to Rob and showed a picture of Rob which he had drawn. Rob didn't laugh. The picture looked like a cross between Bernard Breslaw, off the Carry On films, and Frankenstein's monster. Rob can't speak French but he puffed out his chest and said "Non!" in a voice so authoritative that the two (con) artists scuttled away.

We ate and later found a suitably dark and sleazy basement gay bar and settled in to have a drink or two. It was actually more than two. We were tempted by a cocktail called The Flaming Christobel. I liked the name. Wandering aimlessly along the Champ Elysees an hour later we were laughing hysterically but lost and bewildered. We kept walking. There were a lot of dubious women lining doorways and we laughed wildly as we spotted a few of them providing relief to assorted men in the alleys. Somehow we found the hotel and unsurprisingly the water was off for an hour. We settled in for our final night.

There had been a football match that evening between Paris and a team from Glasgow. I don't know enough about sport to name the teams. Sadly a horde of drunken Scottish football fans had taken over the hotel and were singing bawdy chants most of the night. At least it drowned out the noise of the hookers but I became alarmed when they smashed a window and started to systematically throw all the furniture out. I can't understand why the monkey faced man on reception was so reluctant to call the police, even after my third irate phone call. I'm sure he understood what I was saying.

On checking out the next day the wizened little man handed me a fax. It was dated 24 hours before. The fax was telling us that we had to stay another night as there was an airport strike (had a stewardess been made to smile? If so that was unfair). I was livid and let rip in bad French. I told the man there was no way I was staying in that place another minute and grabbed my case and stalked off. I do occasionally have a flare up of temper but it's rare. My dander was up for sure. Unluckily, at this moment a small dishevelled group of red haired men in Glasgow football shirts lurched into reception. The smell of stale alcohol was ripe. I saw white and decided it would be a good idea to tell them what I thought of them in a shouty tirade of swearing. Rob, very sensibly, moved away to leave me to it, anticipating phoning an ambulance at any moment, once they'd laid me out. In a rare stroke of luck they were so drunk still that they couldn't work out a word I was saying. I might as well have been talking French.

After a pleading call to the hotel company we finally arrived in a lush hotel in La Defense. We slept a little and then enjoyed the extra day in Paris for free before flying back home the next day. Actually the whole holiday was free. I wrote a letter and got a full refund. Result!

I love Paris.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Ramblings: Grecian 2002

I'm conscious that the ramblings on my blog don't always paint the men I've met in a very positive light. Hopefully this will redress the balance and I'll write about the time a man saved my life.

The majority of my adult life has been spent in relationships and my second big relationship was with Rob. We met in 2000 and on the whole we were fairly happy together until our incompatibilities and circumstances drove us apart and we eventually split up in 2007. I haven't always spent my life going on dates from Hell and wheezing away in strange hotel bedrooms.

In June 2002 I decided I couldn't think of any birthday presents I wanted and Rob suggested he put some money towards a cheap holiday abroad. We trudged off to the travel agents and found a really cheap deal to Greece. The flights were at terrible times, we needed to get to Birmingham airport and the resort and accommodation were "allocation on arrival". All we knew is that we were going to Crete and it was cheap and three stars, which sounded good. I packed a load of paperbacks, my "Rough Guide to Greece" and was looking forward to a relaxing week of tavernas and sauntering about whitewashed Greek villages. I'd recently recovered from a bout of depression which had left me still feeling fragile and in fear of the bad days returning.

We arrived in Crete in the middle of the night and my heart sank a little when the coach dropped us in Malia, the clubbing capital of the island. We walked down the main street, which was full of drunken teenagers lurching about, and found our hotel. We were unimpressed. The hotel was over a bar and we had to shout for the elderly man at reception to hear us over the thudding bass of the music. The room looked like a depiction of a post-apocalyptic dream. There were cheap metal shutters over the patio doors, the balcony rail was constructed out of wire and string and the bathroom was very strangely laid out. The shower was actually over the toilet. I never figured that one out. The walls were made of plasterboard and were vibrating with the music from the bar. During the brief pauses in the music you could hear the couple in the next room snoring. I stepped out onto the balcony and the heat was oppressive. The view was unimpressive: a strip of bars with plastic sheeting and neon signs, people vomiting in the street and a tiny beach where people went to have sex. We managed an hour or so of fitful sleep and then went down to see the rep.

The rep was about 20 and very tanned with one of those cheese grater voices that suggest you've smoked your way through a hell of lot of Park Drives and had one or two late nights on the lash. His companion was a younger boy, who was hangover-grey beneath a tan and was intermittently running off to retch into a flowerpot. We were lucky in that we were first to get there (thanks to the alarm on my phone) and by the time we left with an upgraded hotel for an extra £50, there was a queue of disgruntled people, including two young women who were sobbing.

The new hotel was almost perfect. It was in the whitewashed Old Town. The room was airy with oversized dark wood furniture, white cotton sheets and cool floor tiles. Worryingly, it was a club 18-30 hotel. We were 31 and 35. Our room overlooked the pool where all the banana smuggling, wet t-shirt, "crazy" DJ activities took place. Classy. Some of the boys were cute though, which pleased Rob. He was quite happy to sit on the balcony in his sunglasses pretending to read. I read a lot (I may have occasionally ogled the odd particularly fine specimen, I'm not divulging). Sleeping at night would have been nice, though.

Malia Old Town was everything I'd hoped our holiday destination would be. I loved having a good peer into the open doors of the little white houses and nosing at the little old ladies in black sitting in their lace-decked lairs. I loved the town square with its promenading women and strutting boys. There was Jasmine growing everywhere and loads of cheap tavernas selling traditional Greek food. We even saw a Greek wedding at the Orthodox Church which looked lavish. Oddly, no one from the hotel seemed to venture here. I liked the fact that the place seemed so primitive and old fashioned. I was especially impressed by the butcher chopping meat with a cleaver whilst holding a smouldering cigarette in his mouth and swigging neat vodka from a bottle on the counter. The "bar street" was always packed with people from noon onwards, eating egg and chips on sweaty plastic chairs and squinting through merciless hangovers as they sampled hair of the dog.

We decided not to be snobbish about the whole thing and went for a few nights out in the bars. We both liked a drink. It was relentless. The "P.R." people on the bar fronts would stoop to anything to try and get you in to their bars, including man handling. They'd grab at you, block your path and shout to you. I hate being called "mate" at the best of times. I struck on the idea of feigning deafness and we soon found that walking along doing fake sign language to each other deterred even the most eager youth from trying their hand at getting your custom.

We settled in a bar and I must admit that a few vodkas made me feel better disposed. We got talking to a couple of sisters from London who were as horrified as I was at how rough the whole place was. It was like watching an anthropological experiment and good to find we weren't the only ones who weren't off our faces on cocktails, humping things randomly.

I think the alcohol helped as before long we tagged onto a bar crawl which was hilarious. I vaguely recall dancing on a bar counter and deciding to break dance to Run DMC. My electric boogaloo was second to none but those grazes from doing "the turtle" took some healing.

After a few days we were a bit restless as neither of us were good at sunbathing, Rob always ended up red and I ended up irritable. We hired a Smart car and took off for the mountains. I'd found an entry in my "Rough Guide" which described a fantastic monastery with a walled garden where the welcoming monks would let you look around the walled gardens and their underground chapel. We threw jeans onto the back seat, to change into for propriety's sake, and headed up the mountain. To say that the journey up was hairy is an understatement. Smart cars are not made for 45 degree inclines. Going down was easier (after the monks failed to respond to us hammering on the door) and the incline was useful as we had only a few fumes of petrol left and Rob had to take the brakes off and coast down.

We had a relaxing lunch and drove by Spinalonga, the leper colony described in the novel called "The Island" by Victoria Hislop. I saw a funny little sign leading to a cliff side walk and decided it would be good to follow this. It was a narrow path on the edge of a ravine with a rickety rail. We walked along, tentatively, for about a mile until we came to a cave. Entering the cave we spotted another cave ahead, oddly lit by a flickering light. We were both a bit startled to see a glass coffin with a skeleton inside and the walk back to the car was much quicker.

We decided to go to the beach. I'm not a beach lover. The sea is a bit scary and who wants sand in their crevices? It was a bit hot for a delicate English flower like me too. I half remembered the rep on the coach telling us that the sea was dodgy there as there were tidal undercurrents but who listens to reps?

We went in the sea and walked out up to our chests. I splashed about a bit, swimming like a dog with epilepsy, as ever. I'm not a good swimmer but there were no red flags and (perhaps more worryingly) no lifeguards. It was all fine and dandy until after about 5 minutes swimming I noticed that the perspective had changed. The beach had moved by a quarter of a mile. I tried to stand but the sea bed had gone too. Swimming back wasn't easy as the current was against me and before long both the beach and Rob were a good half mile away. The sea was getting choppy and I could feel myself being dragged out further. I was thrown about and buffeted and waves went over my head and I went under a couple of times as it dawned on me that I was about to drown. It's been theorised that drowning is a pleasant way to die but I'm not convinced. This was scary. I tried to tread water and had a quick think about whether it was worth staying alive (it was) and then felt myself go under again as huge wave hit my face.

Naturally, I didn't drown. Rob spotted me and swam out. Being 6 foot 2, broad and a better swimming he managed to drag me back in with ease.
"Fucking hell! How bloody embarrassing. Do you think anyone saw me?" I said, coughing up water.
Rob gave me on one of his looks and reminded me that dignity wasn't the main issue here.
"You're like David Hasselhoff!". He wasn't amused again but he had chosen to wear red shorts. It was like a particularly naff scene off Baywatch.
I staggered to where my clothes were, collapsed onto a towel and began fumbling around.
"What are you looking for?" said Rob
"A cigarette!" I spluttered and began dragging on a Marlboro Light. At this point Rob sat back down, resigned to his fate, being on holiday with a twat.

I forced myself to go swimming again the next day and was very flippant about the whole thing. It wasn't until a few months later that I woke up gasping from the first of many drowning dreams that I realised I'd almost died. I've not been in the sea since.

The point of this tale is to explain that I don't think all the men I've met are bad. Some are long suffering and save you from drowning. The relationships don't always work out in the end and neither of you is ever perfect but at least you stay alive.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Ramblings: World Book Night

I was lucky enough to be asked to give away free copies of "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters for World Book Night this year. They're compiling a list of the Nation's Top 100 books and are asking people to nominate their Top Ten books of all time. It's an impossible task but I managed to think of ten which have had a huge impact on me. If you haven't read these ten yet then I'm very jealous of you.

"Rebecca" by Daphne Du Maurier is a piece of genius and a classic study in suspense and the unexpected twist. It's so atmospheric and dark. I couldn't possibly count the times I've read this. The first time I read it, I got to the end and the final 50 pgaes were missing which meant a mercy dash to a book shop to find out what happened.

I loved "One Day" by David Nicholls and was very excited to see him speak last year. I also fell a bit in love with him. He was kind of cute. It's a corker of a story and spoke to me about lots of stuff I could relate all too well to, sadly, like addiction, messing things up and unrequited love.

Armistead Maupin is a fantastic writer who I've loved since my teens. I spent many a sleepless night staying up to finish "Tales of the City", promising myself I'd go to bed after I had read one more page and seeing the dawn break and realising with a panic I needed to sleep before work. "The Night Listener" is a very compulsive read too and very poignant.

I don't really get the poetry of Sylvia Plath too well but her novel, "The Bell Jar", about her descent into madness, is a stunning book and is beautiful prose.

I love all of Sarah Water's work but this one was my favourite by far. I loved her attention to detail about life in 1940s London, a period which fascinates me. She's a real mistress of the clever plot device and writes quality fiction that is actually readable.

I tried Lionel Shriver's subsequent and previous novels and they're not a patch on this one. This book shocked me so much that I had to read it again a week later. I'd definitely suggest reading "We Need to Talk About Kevin" before seeing the film which is due to be released soon.

Donna Tartt's masterpiece, "The Secret History" is deservedly a cult classic. This book is so dark it should come with a night light.

Obvious choice, but "The Catcher in the Rye" really is a moving book and a pure joy to read. It's considered a classic for good reason.

I hate the film of this book. It missed the point entirely. I read "Breakfast at Tiffany's" when I'm fed up and it makes me feel more human. I get the "mean reds" a lot.

"The Time Traveller's Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger is a brilliant book. I've avoided the film as I can't imagine anything could do this lovely reflection on love and grief, justice.

Ramblings: Heroine Addiction

My family were a reading family. We didn't talk to each other a lot but we all read. Evenings would find us all ensconced in our separate corners of the suburban semi we lived in, buried in our books. My parents would be sitting in the lounge whilst the dog slept, listening to background music with my dad in his armchair reading a gory thriller, my mum on the settee reading a blockbuster. My brother would be on his bed reading a fantasy novel and listening to Metallica whilst I'd be sat in an armchair in my tiny box bedroom ploughing my way through a pile of thrillers.

 I started reading at an early age and have vivid memories of excitedly going to the children's library section in Littleover with my mum to get out a new Dr Seuss book, aged about 3. I had a bedroom full of books and loved reading all about Milly Molly Mandy, The Famous Five and the world of Narnia. On holiday we'd all sit in the evenings with our books, which was a perfect way to keep ourselves entertained and not have to interact too much, unless it was to talk about what we were reading.

 I've always had a low boredom threshold and found television very passive and uninvolving. I like to read as I find it a complete distraction. If I'm reading the outside world recedes completely and I relax. It's probably the only time I do relax. I'm the only person ever, I think, to have been treated by a physio for a reading injury. The sporty physio was incredulous that I had a bed neck from spending hours curled up in a ball over a novel. I've always been "indoorsy" rather than "out-doorsy".

 I wasn't especially happy as a teenager and found school a bit traumatic and essentially very boring. I spent most of my time in lessons watching the clock ticking painfully slowly till the bell rang. I was also a bit lonely and isolated (see Welcome to the Dolls' house) and just wanted to meet a nice boy like myself. I spent most of my teenage years wanting to grow up faster so I could escape the monotony and the feeling of not being my own person. I later coped with this by necking lots of alcohol and smoking loads of John Player Specials, but initially I became hooked on heroines. I read my way through school at an alarming and ravenous rate. I also found it was an amazing way to get inside someone else's mind. The inner lives of people's imaginations set out on paper fascinated me.

 I walked to the library in Littleover once or twice a week. I'd also go to the school library every day and borrow books. I was on first name terms with the stern middle aged librarian with the cardigan over her shoulders. I quickly worked my way through shelves of novels. My favourite lesson of the week was one led by a slightly tipsy English teacher who always smelt faintly of whiskey. She'd tell us to sit and read for an hour whilst she patrolled the room and squinted hazily out of the window. Finally, a lesson which didn't bore the pants off me. I could read in peace for an hour with only the teacher's occasional hiccup to bother me.

 If I could get away from people, I'd slope off at lunchtime and sit in the library reading an Agatha Christie. I graduated through Dr Seuss, Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis to Judy Blume and Robert Cormier, via Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell to Dickens and the Brontes. I later worked my way through E.M. Forster, Felice Picano, Christopher Isherwood and Edmund White in an attempt to find out what being gay was all about.

 I'd get home from school, greet Whiskey (the cat who looked like Hitler) and retire to my bedroom. During my early teens I read every book by Agatha Christie and had reached a point where I felt my detection skills were worthy of a career in the police force. If only there were more locked room mysteries in the region, I'd have had a different career. I'd get home and breathlessly open a new book and read away. I'd have a reluctant break for dinner, where reading was banned and conversation expected, then back to my bedroom for the second half of the book. I once got into major trouble with my parents when I was caught reading "A Taste of Honey" covertly during an especially dull wedding service. I hate the fact I can't read on a moving vehicle without getting queasy. Car journeys always felt like wasted reading time.

 By the time I left home, I had hundreds of books which all travelled with me from run down flats, to cheap rented houses. By my mid twenties they were threatening to take over the house and I had to part with a thousand or more books. I fetishised books and still do, loving their texture and smell. Had there been a house fire I'd have grabbed my books before waking my boyfriend (mind you, he was a bit of a twat). They always represented a shelf full of memories and were almost friends. The natural choice of career was one to do with books, but I messed that up by running off with an older man and jacking in my studies but that's a whole other story.

 In 2004, I went temporarily blind in one eye which was horrific and scary. I still managed to read by means of a lot of squinting and using a ruler under the words and thankfully my sight was back in a month. My ex partners were often horrified by how much of our luggage allowance I took up on holiday with books. How can you go away for a week without at least 7 paperback books? I think a Kindle may be the answer to that one.

 I still read voraciously. I get through, on average, two books a week. I'm definitely hooked on heroines and heroes. You can keep the television. I can cope without Noel Edmonds, Alan Sugar and relentless reality dramas. Just don't confiscate my library card.