Friday, 30 December 2011

Ramblings: Clueless

I spent last night with Paul and we indulged in an illicit pleasure, playing board games. It was blissful. He didn’t even seem to mind when I did the voices for the characters in “Cluedo”.

I always loved board games as a child, spending hours playing Scrabble, Frustration, Mousetrap, Monopoly, Risk and The Game of Life. “The Game of Life” did lose me a little. I was never too keen on the getting married and having children thing. It didn’t seem like a realistic goal. “Mousetrap” involved endless setting up of the board and was always hit and miss whether the whole procedure would work, for example whether the little plastic man would miss and the bath tub would slip. It taught me an early lesson in meticulous preparation though and it was quite satisfying when all the fragile plastic devices worked together and you caught the mouse. As I’ve mentioned before, it inspired me to play a life like version of the game with our cantankerous Hitler lookalike cat, Whiskey, in which I’d sneak up on him and trap him under a plastic laundry basket.

My favourite game of all was “Cluedo”. I loved the whole concept of the story: a glamorous country house with billiard room, library and conservatory, a host of improbable house guests and a corpse at the bottom of the stairs. My eight year old self was fascinated by this set up. My parents should have been alerted to the fact that this eight year old boy was showing signs of being a bit different. I would only play if I could be Miss Scarlet or Mrs Peacock at a push. Not Mrs White, she was too ruddy and needed a makeover. Not the usual game plan of most young boys, I suspect.

I became the “Cluedo” champion of the neighbourhood and pretty soon no one would play with me at all as I always won. If any police officers are reading this then please bear me in mind should you ever get a call saying that Doctor Black has been murdered at Tudor Manor. I’ll solve it for you in minutes. I’m also an expert on locked room mysteries after avid viewing of Jonathan Creek but I suspect that the incidence of the locked room mystery is luckily, quite low so my skills are unlikely to be called upon any time soon.

I was frustrated that I had no one to play “Cluedo” with so took to playing little versions of the game alone. I’d lay out the board on the bedroom floor and started to make up little stories involving the characters. They were quite tame, involving blackmail and adulterous affairs. I soon bored of this though and progressed to reading “Cluedo” in book form and ploughed my way through eighty-odd Agatha Christie novels by age sixteen. I adored her books and would devour one a day. They involve a simple world of casual racism, class snobbery and character stereotypes. You know where you are in Christie’s England. Colonels behave like Colonels, the working class know their place and no one cares if anyone gets killed, they move on very quickly with no messy grief getting in the way. She used phrases like “Platinum blonde” and “sleeping drafts”. She was also a genius at writing plots, making her novels into complex puzzles which were often ingenious works of art.

I had a brief spell of playing a computer game version of “Cluedo” in the 1990s but soon tired of this. The computer was a bit rubbish at it. My excitement revived in 2008 with the discovery of a deluxe and hideously complex version of the game from the 1980s called “Super Cluedo Challenge” in a charity shop. It was pristine, understandably so as the rules are incredibly complex at first. One read through the four pages of A4 of incomprehensible rules and most people would abandon the game for good. They’d fox most teenagers. I managed, eventually, to suss them out. During a bleak time when my father was ill and I was struggling to balance my job as a ward manager with my need to help care for my father, playing this game was one of the few things which distracted me totally from real life. I’d become childlike and full of glee and be totally entranced.

Unfortunately for my opponents I’d also do the voices for the characters (my Professor Plum impression is second to none), make up stories to explain why the murder was happening and sulk if I didn’t win. An example of a story would be: Mrs Peacock was bending over the billiard table potting a ball when Dr Black stuck his hand up her petticoat and tweaked her prolapsed labia majoris. She let out a squeal of shock, being of fine breeding, and socked him one with the candlestick. It’s good to let out your inner child. I keep mine barely concealed below the surface at all times.

I also love “Yahtzee” and rediscovered this last year whilst at a dinner party with three avid Yahtzee fans. I hate maths but found that the simple act of throwing dice and trying to outfox your opponents amused me greatly. What amused me more was when we all decided that when you got 5 dice the same, instead of standing up and shouting “Yahtzee” you had to shout Nazi and do a quick goose step. Maybe a little bit tasteless but it made us laugh.

I made the mistake of playing Scrabble against my mother last year. We spent Boxing Day afternoon with my brother and the three of us played Scrabble. I won seven times, my brother one once. My mother lost every time.

“Could I borrow the game?” was her innocent request. I agreed only to discover a month later that my mother had been practising alone every night for an hour or so and had bought and was reading a Scrabble dictionary. She doesn’t like to be beaten, especially not by her own children. She’s now unbeatable.

I’ve invented a new version of “Cluedo” for modern times, to fit in with the knee jerk right wing views which the tabloid press encourage. It’s called “Paedo”. It’s much like “Cluedo” but the aim is to find out who is the suspected paedophile and in what room and with what implement they attempted to defile the junior footman, Tommy. I think the problem may be that the guilty party is generally Reverend Green. I’m not sure it’ll sell.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Ramblings: Eye Eye

My biggest fear has always been going blind. The thought terrifies me. I can’t imagine not being able to read, watch films or see live theatre. It’s a horrifying thought. I started to get migraines aged 8 and in my teens had my first bout of visual disturbance. I was in a Biology lesson and everything went patchy and disordered; Bunsen burners and people’s faces mixing wildly and everything becoming slightly surreal. Twenty minutes later it was gone and I could see again and had just the throbbing headache and projectile vomiting to contend with. This became a common occurrence for me, with visual disturbances brief and warning of impending migraines necessitating a few hours in a darkened room.

About seven years ago I was leaving work and stopped to speak to a colleague when I noticed there was a little eyelash flapping in the corner of my eye. Frantic blinking and flicking at my eye resulted in nothing and the flicker persisted. Within a few hours I was laying on the sofa, holding my head, as a pain like a juggernaut tore through my left eye and the side of my head. I slept for a while, took loads of pills and it persisted. I had to walk around holding my eye, the pain was so intense. It lasted for three days, by which time I was desperate. The doctor, understandably, thought it was a migraine and it wasn’t till I woke up blind in one eye the next morning that I realised that maybe it wasn’t just a migraine.

The emergency doctor was dismissive, leaning his sweaty torso over the desk as he peered into my eye and shone lights.

“There’s nothing I can see wrong. I suggest seeing an optician”

“Sorry to be pushy, but I’m blind in one eye. Surely that’s a bad sign?”

I stumbled one eyed to the optician and managed to get seen. I was seen by three different opticians who all muttered a lot, pronounced me blind and sent me off to the emergency eye clinic. The emergency eye doctor was a bit surly and it was only when he started being nice to me that I realised maybe something was really badly wrong. The phrase “...if there was some quite bad news would you want to know it?” alerted me further. Of course i wanted to know.

Apparently I had a swollen optic nerve, was unlikely to get 100% of my vision back and there was a 50/50 chance that I had multiple sclerosis. Queue a lengthy (three month) wait for a scan, hours spent in clinics, a hideously claustrophobic MRI scan, a test involving a wire being put in my eye and electrical currents put through it and a lot of blood tests. There was a lot of waiting around. Naturally I was worried. In my head it was only a few weeks before I’d be bed bound, sporting contractures of the limbs and gaping pressure sores. I’m nothing if not fanciful.

I decided to research the matter. I checked out reputable internet sites, talked to friends who were health professionals and knew about neurology and tried to be patient waiting for my eyesight to come back and for my scan to check for MS lesions. Unexpectedly, after the initial shock and worry I began to cope. I managed to take in and listen to sensible advice and relaxed into the whole business with a peculiar fatalism. I’d already had an MRI scan three years before following a period when I was dragging my left leg and the neurologist wanted to exclude MS. That one was normal. The blood tests were normal. I actually stopped worrying about the thought of possible MS and concentrated on the issue of managing with one eye.

Unsurprisingly I took to the sick role fairly well. I mentioned my problem at any given opportunity, referring to it at least 100 times a day. Poor Rob was sick of hearing about One Eyed jack and his traumas. I went back to work and squinted a lot, managing fine. I watched films, read books and saw sights through one eye. The only thing I hated was the interminable waiting in eye clinic. Each appointment would take a minimum of an hour and once they’d put drops in my eyes to dilate them I was stuffed, no television or books whilst I waited, just the illicit joy of eavesdropping.

I always insisted on going to appointments alone, being independent is an innate trait in me. I was caught out the first time as I staggered out with blurred vision and couldn’t count out my change for the bus or use my mobile phone to call anyone to save me. I had to ask an old lady for help in counting my bus fare. I think it was an old lady, anyway. From then on I’d go armed with the right change in a separate pocket and lurch wildly across the busy main road to the bus stop.

I was still half blind a month later and I insisted on going on holiday. My GP was dubious about me flying but on checking with eye clinic it was allowed and we jetted off to the classy bit of Tenerife. I’d read that it was classy and the bit of it I saw through one eye looked fine. It was quite Spanish and there were no cheap Irish bars or Bingo places. We went in February and it was warm and sunny, a respite after a long winter in England. We had the usual misadventures: getting chatted up by odd transvestites, getting lost a lot, having diarrhoea in remote locations miles from any toilets and ending up in a very odd nightclub doing improvised Salsa. All the things which make holidays fun.

I read a lot and drank a fair amount of alcohol. I also moaned a lot about my eye. I then moaned a lot about the diarrhoea and ran out of Imodium. I’d have my one eye permanently peeled for toilets and quickly learnt a few handy Spanish phrases which mostly translated as “Where is the toilet. NOW!”

I ventured into a chemist and asked for Imodium. She looked puzzled and her English was worse than my Spanish. We struggled. I mimed diarrhoea (quite daintily might I add) and she still looked puzzled. I said “Loperamide?” and hit gold. “Ah! La Loperamida!” and she presented me with a box of beauties which saved the holiday. If only I’d remembered that in Spanish you just add a letter A on the end of English words.

We walked a lot (whilst I kept up a monologue about how hard it is to be blind). We did go to a stunning zoo which had an amazing penguin exhibit where you entered a giant freezer the size of a sports hall and travelled round on a conveyor belt looking at penguins doing funny penguin type things on mini glaciers. Naturally I only saw it through one eye. Did I mention I only had one eye?

On returning home my sight very quickly came back ending my month of one eyed moaning. I made a miraculous recovery, losing only 2% of my total vision. The MRI was clear too. There were no signs of MS, even though the other scans had shown I had some loss of the outer sheath on the nerves in my eye. My diagnosis was downgraded to possible MS or more probably, a viral illness of the eye, which is fine. There’s no point investigating further yet as there’s nothing they would do yet in terms of treatment. It just means that every time I stumble or twitch I end up back in the scanner (4 scans so far, hopefully no more). I once started to panic badly in the scanner, being mildly claustrophobic and decided to think of things to distract myself. Visualising kittens and Bambi didn’t cut the mustard so I decided to think about dirty sex with the man who played the doctor on “Lost”. This set me off panicking further as I suddenly wondered if thinking about sex had lit up an area in my brain on the scan and made them think I was a right pervert. It was back to Bambi.

There’s always a positive thing about any bad experience and to be truthful this was quite a scary time. Sometimes the positive things are very tiny and pale laughably in comparison to the crisis. In this case I learnt three things: 1) its pretty crap being on the other side of health care 2) I do go on a lot when I’m ill 3) I actually do have some resilience deep down. Hopefully these lessons will stand me in good stead but hopefully they won’t be needed for some time yet.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Ramblings: The Divine Miss Dors

Anyone remember Diana Dors? She was the plump middle aged lady with peroxide blonde hair who played the fairy godmother in the Adam and the Ants video for “Prince Charming”. She was the blowsy lady spilling out of a too tight dress on Celebrity Squares and Blankety Blank in the 1980s. She was scandalous tabloid fodder for her hosting of wild sex parties and her troubled marriages, way before phones that could be hacked were invented.

There’s a lot more to Diana. She was actually a very talented young actress, an accomplished singer and cabaret artiste and was considered a great wit and beauty in her day. She was the youngest girl ever to have attended the London Academy of Music and Drama and the youngest person registered as the owner of a Rolls Royce. She couldn’t drive it, it was all a publicity stunt.

She was marketed as a very British answer to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfied. There’s not much hope of glamour when you’re born in Swindon and called Diana Fluck but she managed to attain celebrity and notoriety. She said of her name: “They asked me to change my name. I suppose they were afraid that if my real name Diana Fluck was in lights and one of the lights blew...”

She was often clad in gold lame dresses which she burst out of and teetered around in preposterous heels, often seen draped over leopard skins. Being typically British she failed at maintaining the illusion and was often too frank, talking openly about her private life, causing her to lose a Hollywood film contract for immoral behaviour. When asked where she’d bought a leopard skin she was sprawled out on she informed the journalist that she’d picked it up cheap, second hand.

When her first marriage failed and she was held at gunpoint and forced to sign over her assets, she embarked on a cabaret tour and recorded a swing album called “Swingin’ Dors” to bring in some cash. It’s a bloody good album too. You can still buy it.

Diana’s acting talents were never in doubt and she achieved recognition for her 1956 film “Yield to the Night” in which she did something actresses didn’t do at the time. She played a murderess waiting to be hanged and appeared on screen with dark roots and no make-up and proved that unlike some of her American contemporaries she could actually act. Interestingly, the film was loosely based on Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England, who was a friend of Diana.

There’s loads of interesting stuff about Diana Dors: she left behind a coded message stating where her hidden millions were, leaving an unsolved mystery as the money was never found. She once had a fling with Bob Monkhouse. She wrote tacky paperbacks about her life including the salacious “Behind Closed Dors”. She was a shrewd business woman who marketed herself and turned her image into a product but at times was terrible with money and went bankrupt in the early 1960s owing more than £40,000. The Archbishop of Canterbury once called her a “brazen hussy”, an accolade I’d be proud of. You’ve got to admire the woman. She certainly packed a lot into 52 years before her death from ovarian cancer.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Poems: Pessimism for Beginners

I love this poem. Low expectations make the the little things that happen, however few and far between, so much more enchanting. Two fingers to the cult of positive thinking. Positive thinking makes for banal people. I much prefer this approach.

Pessimism for Beginners

by Sophie Hannah

When you’re waiting for someone to e-mail,
When you’re waiting for someone to call –
Young or old, gay or straight, male or female –
Don’t assume that they’re busy, that’s all.
Don’t conclude that their letter went missing
Or they must be away for a while;
Think instead that they’re cursing and hissing –
They’ve decided you’re venal and vile,
That your eyes should be pecked by an eagle.
Oh, to bash in your head with a stone!
But since this is unfairly illegal
They’ve no choice but to leave you alone.
Be they friend, parent, sibling or lover
Or your most stalwart colleague at work,
Don’t pursue them. You’ll only discover
That your once-irresistible quirk
Is no longer appealing. Far from it.
Everything that you are and you do
Makes them spatter their basin with vomit.
They loathe Hitler and Herpes and you.
Once you take this on board, life gets better.
You give no-one your hopes to destroy.
The most cursory phone call or letter
Makes you pickle your heart in pure joy.
It’s so different from what you expected!
They do not want to gouge out your eyes!
You feel neither abused nor rejected –
What a stunning and perfect surprise.
This approach I’m endorsing will net you
A small portion of boundless delight.
Keep believing the world’s out to get you.
Now and then you might not be proved right.

Ramblings: Gender Confusions

I once had the misfortune to go along to see The Ladyboys of Bangkok. It was a grim night but one which set me thinking about how hard it must be to be a straight man.

I was persuaded into going to see them by several friends who had seen the Ladyboys before and said they were hugely entertaining. They weren’t. If you like a couple of hours of a load of people in sequins lip syncing to crap Kylie Minogue songs (A.K.A. all of them) then maybe this show is for you. I don’t and it wasn’t. One of my colleagues persuaded us to get up a work trip to see them in the summer of 2009. Luckily I was still drinking then. It helped.

I’d already experienced the delights of their charms at a distance. My father died in the spring of 2008 and my mother and I had gone to register the death on a randomly snowy April day. We went inside the registrar’s office and I’d barely noticed that there was a huge white marquee outside the office in the market place.  We were ploughing through forms and signing things when suddenly a thudding base beat boomed out across the overheated room. The registrar coughed and apologised for the noise.

The strains of “Hey sister, go sister!” and “Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” rang out and she apologised again for the insensitivity of it all and told us she’d complained to the council. I sniggered and asked her where the noise was coming from, knowing full well that it was the Ladyboys practising and delighted in the po-faced blushing behind her desk which ensued.

This was nothing compared to the undertaker’s a little while after. His look of horror when I asked him why there weren’t any no frills cheapo coffins was classic. Apparently there isn’t a demand for cheap plain coffins so they don’t carry that range. Likely story. This was only matched only by his shame as he later let out an involuntary high pitched laugh and had to cover it with a cough when my mum asked for a song called “The Rainbow Connection” for the funeral. The laugh came when he serenely and respectfully asked who it was sung by and I said “Kermit the Frog”. I don’t blame him. It was a tasteful little ballad though, not “Mahna Mahna”.

Naturally, I appreciated the Ladyboys efforts to brighten up a dire experience and I do like Lady Marmalade, of course, so I willingly paid my money and went along to enter the huge tent and see what they were made of.  

We were seated right at the front, in full line of fire. The audience was mostly drunken middle aged women, drunken gays and drunken young women. We all drank too, thankfully. It was like an especially bad hen party. The Ladyboys trotted out, posing gamely as they mouthed the words to bad Kylie song after bad Kylie song. They were mouthing words, anyway. I’m not so sure they were the right words. It was entertaining for all of 10 minutes as we all pondered the one intriguing question of the night: Where were they hiding their genitalia? After that it was bloody boring. There’s only so much lip syncing and posturing to songs you can stand, hence why Pans People and Hot Gossip went under (ask your mum if you’re under 35). The dresses were over the top but essentially it was terribly boring.

The amusing part of the evening came when the Ladyboys stood in a row, dressed as sexy schoolgirls and “I Kissed a Girl” by Katy Perry came on. Another Ladyboy emerged and skipped her way down the row, sucking on her finger, touching the other “girls’” panties and thighs and caressing their breasts. The amusement for me was not to be found on stage but on the puzzled and petrified faces of the gaggle of straight men in our party.

I imagine their thoughts went something like this:

“Wow, hot girls!”

“Oh fuck, they’re boys.”

“Oh fuck they’re also dressed as schoolgirls.”

“Bollocks, now they’re pretending to be lesbians. That’s too horny.”

“But they’re dressed as schoolgirls and they’re boys! Shit!”

It must be hard being straight and having to be a man. OK, they don’t get periods or have babies but imagine how psychologically damaged they were when they left that night. I’ll stick to being a gayboy.  

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ramblings: Living On Your Own

As I’ve described before on here, I left home at 17 and moved in with an unsuitable older man who was 24 years my senior. I wouldn’t recommend this as a course of action for anyone. It felt like an escape from the constraints of the parental home but I didn’t realise I was actually going to lose more independence as time went on and I’d be dragged into a claustrophobic nightmare of a relationship for the next twelve years.

I was desperate for an adult identity and hated being a teenager. My parents were openly disapproving and condemning of my sexuality as I entered my teenage years and the atmosphere at home was uncomfortable at times and infuriating at others. From the age of ten, I wanted to fast forward time and be an adult, with a job, a home and no parents. I grew up being very independent and was frequently praised for this but as I grew older it became a frustrating time as I longed to get away, any way possible. Being independent became constraining and restrictive.

My mother has a cat who hates to be cornered. She’s a handsome elderly ginger cat (a rarity in the cat world, most ginger cats are male). She’s happy to be stroked and petted and will gladly follow you around but if you try to pick her up or hold her, touch her in a place she doesn’t like to be touched or fence her in, she goes a little bit crazy. I feel an affinity with that cat.

I always craved solitude as a child and as I grew older and was allowed to be left in the house alone would find excuses to be left alone. I’d invent reasons why I couldn’t join the family on outings, refused to go on holidays and would even feign illness to get a day of school so I could be alone in the house. I used to find that if I didn’t spend a certain amount of time alone each week, I’d get crabby and irritable and crave my own company.
Luckily I'm from a small family. I have only one brother and we all always craved our own company to an extent. My father would be sitting reading, my mother would be watching TV or knitting and we'd be in our respective bedrooms listening to music or reading, alone. My idea of hell is to have a huge extended family. It feels like an oppresive thought.

I hated team sports or group work at school and although I also craved company and was often garrulous I paradoxically wanted to be alone too. It wasn’t that I was depressed or shy. I just liked being on my own. It wasn’t loneliness, although I did want attention and friendship and didn’t always feel I had enough, it was a desire to be by myself. I still hate team work and if there’s a work or college project to complete I’d always rather do it alone. It’s quicker and needs less negotiation. I can just get on and suit myself.

Given all this, it is perhaps surprising that I didn’t actually live alone until I was 28. I’d split up with the older man and after a difficult extraction of myself from his world, I rented a small flat in the city centre. I was petrified. One of his ploys to keep me with him was to convince me I was useless and unable to manage without him. He paid all the bills (with my money) and kept my bank card and would often reiterate to me how hopeless I’d be without him. He played on my fair colouring and called me the dumb blond.

I wasn’t of course and it came as a shock that I was able to manage money very well, pay bills, negotiate household repairs (but not do them myself, of course) and entertain myself with my own company. It was liberating to have my own rooms where everything was mine. I painted the whole flat within a month in a total frenzy of decorating. I was drunk on the thrill of choosing my own paint and buying things I liked. It was totally liberating. I chose things that he would have hated but which I loved and the flat was beautiful, if a little chilly and damp. It was airy and full of books which felt perfect.

I wasn’t happy of course, having been in a relationship for 12 years it’s hard to be single and I felt like I lacked a limb. I quickly sought out and found another partner and met the next one within a short space of time. I moved in with him after six months and left my flat behind and abandoned the luxury of independence and living alone for love. It didn’t feel like I was losing anything at the time. I felt it was a practical move and I was very happy to be living with someone else again. The relationship began well (as they usually do) and lasted a good few years. It was cheaper and more practical to live with someone else too. Living alone is expensive. You use as much heat and light as two. Food is cheaper for two and the small reduction in Council Tax single people get doesn’t really equate to good value.

 In many ways it was great, but not so much in others. I was back to spending lots of time compromising on things and feeling I needed more time alone but equally enjoyed the company and the relationship was good. This relationship wasn’t oppressive, either. He worked shifts as a fireman; I worked shifts as a nurse. It was either feast or famine. We either saw each other all the time or very little at all, it depended how our rotas coincided. I liked this. It felt like the best of both worlds. He wasn’t so condemning or judgmental either as my parents and the older man had been before him.

When we finally split up after 7 years it felt earth shattering. I felt totally adrift and knew inside that this time it wasn’t a temporary period of solitude heading my way to be tided over with a rented apartment, but a more semi-permanent state.

I decided to buy a house and after a period being nurtured by my closest friend, bought this house. It was a daunting prospect and I felt shivers of panic, but also it got me through the break up. I’m good at home making. It felt horrific but also positive to be living alone again. It wasn’t easy at first. I was 35, had spent only six months of my adult life living alone and was decidedly apprehensive.

I amazed myself with how quickly I adapted. My father was ill by this time and dying and I had no one to turn to for help with minor household repairs. I also, again, had no one to please but myself. No one disapproved if I went to bed at 7pm or took lengthy afternoon siestas. If I left the house tidy in the morning it was tidy when I came home. Everything in the house is designed to please me. It’s all chosen with me in mind. I haven’t had to compromise or think what other people want. Naturally I have a lot of books everywhere again.

There are downsides to living alone of course, but I’ve definitely come to enjoy the positives over the past 4 and a half years. I’ve had a couple of short relationships which weren’t so great and am now in one which is pretty bloody fantastic and I feel content with what I have. My house is small and my mortgage statements show that I own about 5 bricks and a window so far. I have negative equity and bought at a bad time but who cares. It’s mine and it’s lovely.

Maybe had I not lived alone then I wouldn’t have ended up drinking so much or having periods of promiscuity but that’s life. You sometimes do things which are bad for you when you’ve got no one to keep you in check, but you also do lots of things which are good for you too when you have the freedom to.

The big question is would I live with someone else again and the answer is: of course I would. I can easily imagine living with Paul when the right time comes. It doesn’t scare me at all and doesn't seem to daunt him either. I’m sure we’d orbit each other in the most beautiful patterns. I think it maybe should scare him though, as I do like things very tidy and my rules are quite hard to fathom. As long as he remembers what order the tins are positioned in the cupboard he’ll be fine. It’s the consequences of living alone. You can get a bit particular.

Reviews: December 2011

December can be a bleak month and for me, it’s my least favourite time of the year. I’ve written before about my pathological hatred of all things festive and I also really don’t like the short days (see “The C Word”). Going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark is not joyous. I’m always glad when the 21st has passed and the days start drawing out, too slowly for me.

I always feel like hibernating in December and don’t venture out much. I have an overwhelming urge to sleep and eat stodgy food. I avoid the city centre, it’s packed with amateur shoppers clogging up the roads and streets and the enforced jollity, designed to make you spend money, grates on my nerves. It generally takes me 30 minutes longer each day to get home from work due to clogged up roads which annoys me.

Eating out isn’t always too good either and bars are a definite no for me. One hearing of “Last Christmas” by Wham or any of the numerous cheesy pop songs about Yuletide and I start to feel a little psychotic or become like the Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” on entering a Jacuzzi. Added to that, most places are full of drunken works’ parties and staffed by temporary teenage waitresses and the food is usually churned out with an eye for making as much cash as possible and quality goes out of the window.

Lots of friends are unavailable throughout December as they endure festive parties and family events and I hope for their sake, that they can get drunk enough to think they’re fun. Theatres are full of horrifically bad pantomimes starring has-been soap stars and people from long failed sitcoms and little else. Consequently, December is my most reclusive month so this month I’m mostly reviewing books and T.V.


Anne Tyler “The Amateur Marriage”

This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for several years. I picked it up and was instantly engrossed and wished I’d discovered it before. It’s the story of Pauline and Michael, a mismatched couple who meet in the 1940s and attempt to survive a marriage doomed for failure. Anne Tyler writes evocatively and portrays drama and mood through describing the mundane details of daily life. She slips in plot turns and twists subtly amongst the domesticity as she plots their life through to the 1990s. Pauline is a feisty fire brand of a woman, whilst Michael is staid and measured and the character portrayal is deft and sympathetic. I’d definitely recommend this book.

Jeffrey Eugenides “The Marriage Plot”

I love his work. I adored “The Virgin Suicides” with its nihilistic darkness and “Middlesex” was outstanding. This new novel took a while to draw me in but once it did I wasn’t disappointed. The story is a romantic comedy with an intellectual twist. The book follows the lives of three university students in the 1980s and examines whether love and romance are still pertinent in the age of pre-nuptial agreements, feminism and quickie divorces. It’s definitely comedy looked at through a glass darkly and is a brilliant book.

Harriet Lane “Alys, Always”

This novel is a sinister tale of social climbing, Machiavellian manoeuvres and exclusion. I was lucky enough to get a free copy from Waterstones to review. The book is, sadly, not published till February but it’s definitely one to look out for. I devoured the novel in a day. The characterisation is succinct and the tone and style of the book is sparse and chilling. This is the author’s debut novel and it’s a corker of a book. Good psychological thrillers which are well written are few and far between but this book is in a class of its own.


American Horror Story

I have a new addiction. I’ve wolfed down 10 episodes of this drama in less than a week. It ticked so many boxes for me. Dylan McDermott plays one of the main character and is obliged to walk round semi-naked an awful lot. Surely I don’t need to go on? That’s enough to make me watch.

It’s the story of a couple experiencing marital problems who move to L.A. only to find they’ve moved into a murder house which is beyond sinister. It reminds me of “The Shining” crossed with “Rosemary’s Baby” crossed with “Halloween”. It’s terrifying to watch and is very cleverly written. The house itself is a stunning place with art deco and arts and crafts features and is almost a character in itself. Jessica Lang stars as the creepy neighbour and her performance is impeccable, augmented by her creepy appearance, due (I think) to a lot of misguided surgical adjustment.

A hot man walks around semi naked, there’s a scary sub-plot about a gimp mask and it’s hideously scary. What more can you ask for?


My Week With Marilyn

I wasn’t at all tempted by the premise of this film. I thought that on paper it sounded really cheesy to have an actress mimicking Monroe. I imagined it’d be a dull film that was a bit tacky and couldn’t see the point of it. I was totally wrong. It was amazing, well written and paced. Michelle Williams gives a fantastic performance as Marilyn, evoking vulnerability mixed with a fragile egotism and a manipulative nature. The ensemble cast is brilliant. The film reminded me of the best qualities about British cinema and why I love it. Definitely, definitely see this film.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Ramblings: I (Don't) Want to Ride My Bicycle

I think I may have mentioned before, but one of my oddities is that I can’t ride a bike. If I tell people this they look at me gone out like I’ve just said I’m a hermaphrodite or I can’t write my own name. It’s considered, by most people, to be decidedly odd. I personally think that riding a bike is even odder. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I think its witchcraft.

I’ve always been a bit clumsy. I trip over a lot, am prone to bumping into things and am generally uncoordinated. I have mismatched eyes. Not like David Bowie, a green and a brown one, but I have one very long sighted one and one almost normal eye. The first time an optician noted this when I went for an eye test aged 12, he asked me if I was especially clumsy and accident prone. My mother nodded eagerly, finally latching onto to a diagnosis to explain my bizarre mishaps. Recently an optician asked me if I wore my glasses to drive. When I told her I didn’t drive, I’m sure it wasn’t just my imagination that made me see a look of relief wash over her.

I also have terrible balance. I’m rubbish at standing on one leg (I practice often), could never master stilt walking or roller skating as a child and the very thought of ice skating or skiing gives me an icy chill and a vision of plaster of Paris and traction. I get terrible travel sickness and have been known to run out of films with wobbly camcorder type shots, green faced. If I try to send text messages in a moving car I start to feel dizzy and throw up. I have to look away when a fast moving train goes by or I start to spin and I never liked roundabouts or fairground rides that spin round. I once spent a whole evening in bed with a bucket beside me after an ill advised go on the Waltzers aged 7.

These are my excuses for not mastering the art of staying upright on a bicycle. I had the usual sit in and push along cars as a toddler, progressed to the tricycle then onto the little bike with stabilisers. Then the problems began. My father developed a permanent frown and a mouth full of tightly gritted teeth as we repeatedly tried to get me to stay aloft a bike without 4 wheels. He’d push me along, let go and I’d fall off. This went on ad-nauseum, usually until I trooped off home in a strop, abandoning the bicycle with a wobbly bottom lip and a lot of bruises.

I’m not one for perseverance. “I’ve tried it once and didn’t like it” or “If at first you don’t succeed then give the bastard thing up as a bad job and avoid ever trying again” could well be ideal mottos for me. The shiny bicycle which my dad had bought second hand and lovingly restored stayed in the shed until we sold it and I spent the money on books. You know where you are with books (just don’t ask me to balance one on my head).

To be honest, I don’t feel the need to justify my inability to balance on a bike. I look at people going past on them and am startled by what a weird thing it is to do. Surely it’s some kind of sorcery? These people must have magic powers. Balancing on two wheels is nonsensical.

I knew I was on to a loser when attempting to learn to drive my instructor said to me on my first lesson: “It’s much like riding a bike” followed not long after by “You can’t ride a bike? What! How strange”

I’m happy to walk, thanks.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Ramblings: Smile Please

I keep passing a sign on my way to work outside a local dentist advertising “Snap-on-smiles”. The picture shows a hideous device like those comedy false teeth you got in Christmas Crackers in the 1970s. It’s a fake set of teeth that you simply snap on over your existing rotten yellowing teeth to con people into thinking you’re a Hollywood film star. I imagine they’re rather expensive too.

I find this whole white teeth obsession puzzling. My teeth are a healthy off white and yellow combination with a smattering of iron grey fillings which are revealed if I laugh loudly. I often laugh loudly. I’m actually quite proud of them. Having rotten crooked teeth marks you out as being British. We’re famous for them throughout the world. We have a variety of patterns and shapes and the colour spectrum is represented beautifully from battleship grey to canary yellow through to eau de Nil.

I watched an old film last night from 1961 of “The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone” by Tennessee Williams. The film was a weak adaptation in spite of Vivien Leigh doing miserable and deranged as only she could, but what distracted me most during the film was Warren Beatty’s teeth. Warren Beatty played an Italian gigolo with a bottle tan and a dazzling set of huge white teeth. They were most disconcerting and constantly took my mind off the plot and dialogue. It became a dental fiesta. The lights were dazzling, reflecting off his huge mouth full of frightening dentition.

I wonder why we’ve become a nation now obsessed with having sparkling white, perfectly straight teeth when in reality they look pretty scary. There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as an ordinary British person who has teeth which if caught in the right ray of light could remove your cataracts. Perfection doesn’t look good. Take the example of women who plaster on foundation make up with a trowel. A pure matte, evenly coloured face looks odd and unattractive. They look much better with a hint of the natural, a bit of variety of tone.

I’ve had a long running issue with my teeth. The dentist says it’s genetic and I firmly hold with that. I clean, floss, gargle and have regular check-ups. In spite of that I have fillings, veneers and crowns aplenty. When I gave up smoking once for nine months, I chewed so much sugar free gum that half my fillings crumbled away with the repetitive action and I ended up spending more money on dentistry than I ever saved through not buying cigarettes. I started young. I had fillings in my milk teeth. I was a frequent visitor at the local NHS dental clinic and had to have various teeth yanked out due to an overcrowded mouth. I became a bit dental phobic and stopped going at all once I grew to adulthood.

I was scuppered one day by an abscess and had to return in my mid twenties for a clutch of fillings. I managed to temporarily overcome my fear until a year later a wisdom tooth rotted. The dentist decided to pull it and I’ll never forget his face when the tooth made a decidedly nasty crunching sound and he snapped it in two.

“I’m afraid this may be considerably more complicated than we first thought.” he said, grinning and placing a box of large metal corkscrew type implements on my chest. I left an hour later, dazed and covered in blood with a bruise on my chest where he’d rested his knee as he played tug of war with my tooth fragments. I remember staggering out and trying to light a cigarette and almost falling into the road in a dramatic faint. I didn’t go back for a few years.

Let’s face it, dentists are invariably wealthy. They’re sneaky blighters, always looking to make as much money as possible. Have you ever met a poor dentist? I don’t trust them at all. My current dentist advertises dental whitening parties especially for Christmas. You and your friends and colleagues can all have a lovely party where you spend huge amounts of money to get glow-white teeth. Sounds fun, no? Not my kind of party and not my idea of an investment.

Ultimately, I don’t want to blind people with an unnatural smile which eclipses all my other facial features. I don’t want to look like an Osmond circa 1978 or a crazed Mormon door stepper. I certainly don’t want to look like Mr Ed the talking horse or a comedy vicar from an old situation comedy. I’m happy with my grotty old teeth. They chew food and serve me well. Receding gums, crooked smiles and stains are good enough for our aristocracy so they’re good enough for me too. Leave your teeth alone, you’re fine as you are.

I’ll leave you with the words of Spike Milligan:


 English Teeth, English Teeth!

 Shining in the sun

 A part of British heritage

 Aye, each and every one.

 English Teeth, Happy Teeth!

 Always having fun

 Champing down on bits of fish

 And sausages half done.

 English Teeth, HEROES' Teeth!

 Here them click! and clack!

 Let's sing a song of praise to them -

 Three Cheers for the Brown Grey and Black.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Ramblings: Bad Manners

I sometimes wonder if I’ll die in a nasty revenge attack after I tell someone off for their bad manners or bad behaviour in public. It’s probably inevitable so why fight it? I have good rationale and right on my side. If someone has to be martyred for the cause of Courtesy then it may as well be me as anyone else.

Paul and various friends of mine wince in anticipation on occasions when I’m present where they sense a conflict about to ensue. I just can’t help myself. It’s like a red rag to a bull. As already detailed in a previous post on here (Shush!”), I have to tell people off if they talk during films or plays. I think it’s my right and generally I do it because they’re really irritating me and impinging on my enjoyment of something I’ve paid good money for. If they don’t know how to behave properly then they need someone to politely, but assertively, tell them off. I often get a mouthful of abuse in return for my polite request but they usually shut up (if they don’t I fetch the manager of the theatre, I had one woman ejected once) and that’s all good. It’s the aim.

I just hate rudeness and nastiness. I went to see a patient on a hospital ward the other day, in my capacity as a specialist nurse. I let myself onto the ward using my security pass and started walking down to go and visit my patient. I was stopped by a short young woman blocking my path.

“Who are you here to see?” she barked like a member of the SS. I told her politely with a faint smile, hoping to thaw her frozen attitude.

“Bit early for visiting don’t you think? Do we think we’re someone who can just choose when to visit a hospital? We have rules. You can come back in an hour when visiting starts, like everyone else has to.”

“Oh!” I explained. “I work here. I’m a specialist nurse come to see the patient.” I explained my role.

“Oh, sorry. I thought you were a visitor or I wouldn’t have spoken to you like that .I didn’t see your badge”

“O.K. Let’s just back track a minute and think about what you’ve just said.” I smiled at her and pulled myself up to my full six foot, flashing my ID badge also. “So, let me get me this straight because maybe I don’t understand the concept here. It’s alright to talk to me like a piece of dirt and be incredibly rude and patronising if you think I’m a visitor but it isn’t alright to do that once you find out I work here and am actually very senior to you? Is that how hospitals work?”

She was a little stuttery and was very apologetic and she clarified that indeed this wasn’t how it should be. I clarified that if I overheard her be rude ever again then she’d be facing some kind of disciplinary action for having such a terrible attitude. Fair deal, I think. It’s good to have standards and it doesn’t cost anything to show some respect, whoever the person is. I could have been a visitor who had been given special permission to visit an especially unwell relative or had merely made an honest mistake with the visiting times.

The following day I caught a bus home from work and the bus was as ever packed and steamy, smelling of unwashed clothes. There was a girl sitting near the back of the bus, across from me. She was sitting on the aisle seat with her handbag on the window seat, to prevent anyone sitting next to her. Fair enough, I understand her urge to be alone and to be honest she looked a little earthy and I wouldn’t have wanted to sit with her anyway but not fair enough when the bus is full. I’ve noticed recently that this has become the norm for people to do this on buses, blocking the window seat and sitting in the aisle seat, effectively claiming two seats. It drives me crazy. An elderly couple got on the bus and a young bloke and a nurse stood in the aisle to let them have their seats. The girl did nothing to acknowledge this and merely glared down the bus, hanging on to her two seats.

I got up, tapped the boy who was standing up on the shoulder and said “There’s a seat here. This girl’s bag hasn’t actually bought a ticket so you could have the seat if she wasn’t being so selfish.”

She moved her bag and said “What did you say?” Well, she hissed it through gritted teeth. I reiterated it and she glared away. The world felt put right. I just hate this attitude of the world being yours to do whatever you like in and screw everyone else and their feelings and comfort.

From eating smelly food on trains, talking at top volume about inappropriate stuff on your phone, not controlling your screaming kids through to playing your crappy music aloud on a tinny mobile phone speaker and dropping litter; it’s all just terrible behaviour. I chase after litter droppers and politely suggest that they maybe accidentally dropped the litter and I point out where the bins are. I ask people politely (the first time) to turn their music off. I ask people swearing loudly on buses to stop. I once caught a football which some boys were throwing across a bus, after it smacked the back of my head, and I handed it to the driver. OK, they called me every name under the sun for the rest of the journey, but who cares? What amazes me is that people sit there while a football flies up and down the bus or while someone plays loud music and pretend it isn’t happening.

I once had a vaguely scary incident where a girl with a baby in pushchair told me she’d stab me but I laughed it off. She’d been standing at the bus stop with two friends and her toddler was running up and down pulling at people’s clothes and putting his hands in their bags. A nice elderly lady had asked her to control him (politely) and she was now verbally attacking the old lady. I sat next to the lady and offered to keep her company, commending her for chastising the woman. The bus went off and the girl continued shouting a stream of really vitriolic abuse, shouting down the bus at the lady and then proceeded to walk up and jab her finger in the lady’s face repeatedly. I grabbed her wrist and told her to do one and stop pointing her finger in an old lady’s face as it was threatening and abusive. She didn’t stab me. I suspect she didn’t even have a knife. The consequence was that she spent the rest of the journey shouting about the old lady and the “queer”. Classy girl. The driver didn’t say a word but I stayed on till the girl got off and reassured the old lady who was very dignified about it all and thanked me for helping support her.  

I failed once and was very ashamed of myself. I was waiting in a queue of about 20 people for a bus when a fight broke out. It wasn’t so much a fight as two boys knocking hell out of another one. The victim was cowering against a stall in the street whilst the two other boys repeatedly punched his face and head. He was crying out loudly. They were aged about 14 or 15. I was horrified and just stood and stared. The rest of the bus queue stared at their feet. It went on for a couple of minutes and an internal monologue raced through me. Did they have a knife? Would they punch me? What should I do as the boy being punched looked at risk of serious facial injury?

My questions were answered when a little old man in his eighties ran across from a nearby cafe, accompanied by a tiny young woman. They proceeded to break up the attack and I happily joined them, feeling very ashamed that I hadn’t done so before. The rest of the queue looked on still, passively. The two attackers got on my bus and hurled abuse at me for being involved in breaking the fight up, all the way to work. No one on the bus said a word. It was a little embarrassing but I had a strategy. Their school uniforms were poorly concealed and I rang the head teacher and described the boys and the incident. The teacher rang me back a few days later to tell me he’d had other reports too, which was gladdening, and had suspended the boys who were involved in attacking the other one.
The horrible racist rant, shown on Youtube, of a young woman on a tram shouting at black people  was sickening and I'm glad she was arrested for it, but more heartened that other people shouted back. I got a taxi a few days later and the sweaty white taxi driver started talking about how he thought the woman had gone about it the wrong way but had a good point as black and Polish people were ruining our country. I asked him to stop talking and pointed out that as a taxi driver who I was paying he had a duty not to spout controversial and rascist views. He was less than impressed but he did shut up.

We seem to be told all the time that if we intervene or speak out then we’ll be attacked. The media convince us that approaching or reproaching will cause us to crippled or stabbed and maybe they’re right, maybe it is a risk. I hate to think what sort of society we might become eventually when no one at all speaks out. It’s a nasty thought. Please tackle discourtesy in whatever way you can. Just for me.