Tuesday, 27 May 2008


The wonderful world of the non sequitur (an occasional series)
And this is only in the last 4 days...
-"Would you like a bag?" - "No thanks, I'm paying by card"
-"No, it wasn't a hardback, it was orange."
-"I'd love that card in the window with the kitten." - "What, this one?" - "Yes, the one with the frog."
-"It was by that Japanese author - oh, I know, Martin Amis."
And my personal favourite, heard on a tannoy in a russian accent on Eurovision Day, appropriately enough... "There is good service running on all London Underground line. District is good, Piccadilly is good. For detail of essential work over Bank Holiday Weekend, please to inspect the poofters on display at the station entrance".
OK, I know, not a non-seq, unless London Underground actually does have an exhibition of homosexual gentlemen in selected ticket halls (and why not? Ours are the finest in Europe!) but my best recent Freudian mis-hearing.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Not Based On A True Story!

I've just been re-reading the fabulous (quite literally) "The Uses Of Enchantment" by Bruno Bettelheim. He was a child psychologist who believed that fairy tales (and myths, and legends etc) were a way for children to understand early traumas, or to describe their fears and view of their lives. His theory, boiled down, was: everybody has a favourite story, and the substance of the story can be a key to how the person views their own life and situation. Little Red Riding Hood appeals to women who feel they're in danger from real-life "wolves", Cinderella to those who know deep down that a handsome prince will see through their rags and recognise them for the princess they are, Jack The Giant-Killer to men who feel powerless before a bullying father, an aggessive boss, or any situation they feel dwarfed by. Etcetera, etcetera (as Yul Brynner so rightly said). When you start thinking about it, you have one too. It may not be a fairy tale, it may be a film plot ("Oh my GOD we're just like Harry and Sally"). There's something very comforting about this theory though - it makes me feel not only that millions of other people have similar hang-ups to ones' own, but also that people were having the same hang-ups hundreds of years ago. Mine is "Sir Gawain and the Loathly Lady" - which answers the question "What do women want?" ...

Monday, 19 May 2008

Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

The rapid encroachment of old age is never fun, apart from being able to say "I was doing that before you were born!" to younger siblings/cousins. My personal demon is the failing eyesight, which is a sod because while for most people it's the close-up vision that goes, for me it's distance. I have glasses, and wear them to watch TV and films etc, but there never seems any point in wearing them to work as everything is within 10ft of my eyes. The fact that they make me look like a nerdier and older version of myself doesn't help. I know I'm a nerd, you know I'm a nerd, but there seems little point in advertising the fact to complete strangers, especially if within 10 feet of me I am unable to see them as they're too close for my glasses. I know which bus to get on because it becomes legible when it's near enough to flag down. I am familiar enough with the stock in the shop to say "Oh yes the David Mitchell, it's that mauve and blue one there". HOWEVER at the weekend, walking sedately round a park with Mr Fishwife and my mother, I spent several minutes trying to work out what the striking exotic orange blooms at the edge of the lake were, before being informed that they were the feet of a dead duck lying on its back in the shallows.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Reading Age - bah, humbug

Competitive parents beware
The concept of "reading age" is a funny thing. Those with children will be familiar with it, those who work in bookshops too - at some unspecified point in the school year it appears that somebody in authority Decrees what a child's reading age is (for the uninitiated - not remotely dependent on chronological age!) and suggests that they read accordingly. Which is fine - some kids read better and faster at earlier ages than others. In practice, however, it becomes another cause of panic for the parents - is he reading "the right age" of books? A nervous parent came in and asked for teenage books for her 9 year old, as he had recently been assessed as having a 14-yr-old reading age. It was totally in vain to tell her that most teenage books these days are entirely concerned with Issues that 9 year olds may be uncomfortable with, i.e. drugs, sex, people-trafficking, ASBOs, unwanted pregnancy, knives, mugging, and all the other joyful trappings of an ordinary teenager's life. "Oh, but he's terribly intelligent." she said, entirely missing the point, waving aside our protests and buying the poor child a copy of "American Psycho"... well, obviously not "American Psycho", but why even go on? Somewhere out there in Southwest London is a bewildered 9-year-old who will henceforth be terrified of girls, drugs, psychopaths, going outside at any time of day whatever, etc etc..

Political satire, ooh controversial
I was sitting in a friend's garden yesterday with various other people, some of whom genuinely had the day off, at least two of whom were "working from home" - ie feet up on a deckchair with laptop on. At one point my friend Eamo had to call his IT department to speak to someone called Osama about his inability to get email - whether he admitted he was trying to get emails while sitting in someone else's garden is a moot point. I only mention this because there is something profoundly ironic and unintentionally funny about someone on the phone saying "Can I speak to Osama please? .. Oh, he's not there... Do you know where he is?"

The power of suggestion

Just reading a book of ghost stories by E Nesbit (for grownups, not children) - full of moments where a character leans forward from his fireside armchair, takes his pipe out of his mouth, and says "Great Scott, Langley, haven't you heard? It can't have been Edwards you spoke to - he's been dead since last week!". I love that kind of thing (M R James is another deeply fabulous and creepy example). I know H P Lovecraft is supposed to be the daddy but I can't take seriously stories that end with a full paragraph in italics ("and as it drew closer, its tentacles waving blindly, I could barely prevent myself from screaming in HORROR as the ghastly THING crept from the bowels of Great Cthulhu..."). Rather like the difference between films of the eerily suggested (Hitchcock, for example, or "The Others") and the slasher-porn likes of "Saw IV". Obviously I'm aware that what with my equally lavish use of capitals and italics I can hardly diss Lovecraft but there you go.
Absolutely chucking it down today - well, we've had the requisite 4 days in May that constitutes a British summer, and as always I am incorrectly dressed. For the last couple of sundrenched days I warily went to work in a coat (which I always ended up dragging home, purple-faced and drenched in sweat) and sneakers (my ankles were swollen like a couple of butternut squash). Yesterday I daringly wore flipflops, and as a result am so abraded between my toes that I'm hobbling like the little mermaid. Today - sneakers, light cardigan, no coat... and it's hosing it down like a carwash. I am resigned to always wearing the wrong clothes but this is getting silly. Tomorrow I shall wear a ballgown, wellies, a pith helmet and longjohns. With SPF 50 and one of those silver-foil hypothermia blankets.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

On a far less serious note....

I have seen the face of God, and its name is "Apple And Rhubarb Juice". Remember I told you this when you're casting about for a nice cold drink this summer. It was made from Bramleys, too. I may cry with happiness. Apple and rhubarb, beloved reader, apple and rhubarb. One more time - apple and rhubarb. There may be a pop quiz later on my new favourite drink, so be prepared. Oh - and I heard a really juicy piece of historical gossip about Brian Clough today, but I can't tell you, so ner. It had nothing to do with apple and rhubarb juice though.

On a more serious note...

Ok, it goes without saying that the Daily Mail are a sad red-top pretending to be a broadsheet (I once joined a Facebook group called "If I See Someone Reading The Daily Mail I Assume They're A Bit Thick"). I had a friend once whose sister was a journalist, and worked for them briefly - and left because they kept trying to make her do stuff like this. Although to be fair she also left because she was a genuinely talented journalist...

Monday, 12 May 2008

Just what every suave single man needs

Went to a friend's **th birthday at the weekend (age deleted to protect the sensitive), which he had wisely chosen to have upstairs (big open windows) in a pub, and less wisely across the road from a funfair. Although to be honest he couldn't have foreseen that the evening would be enlivened by the occasional sound of a speaker-distorted voice bawling

After a few glasses of wine it seemed like the best idea in the world to just, you know, cross the road for a few minutes, just to look, oh wow candyfloss... And let's face it, what hastily-acquired present says "Congratulations on your **th birthday" better than a lifesize stuffed toy of Bully, the mascot from Bullseye...? Don't answer that, it was a rhetorical question, and it's too late. His beautifully-decorated bachelor pad will now have a hint of dirty old pub lech about it, and I'm sure he's suitably grateful.

I used to work for Air France and of all the things the French found mildly eccentric about us, darts was the one that really foxed them. Where else in the world are a bunch of fat sweating nylon-clad middle-aged men clutching pints of lager considered sportsmen? (Boules doesn't count because they're outdoors, and at least they're doing some walking). One colleague could actually be reduced to tears of derisive laughter by the use of the phrase "Darts International, Jocky Wilson.."

Saturday, 10 May 2008

I'm NOT a crazy ranting fool.

Mr Fishwife was kind enough to offer me an in-depth critique of yesterday's post as follows : "You sound like a crazy ranting fool". So I herewith offer my apologies to:
(a) anyone who was misled by same into thinking I am anything other that a rational, law-abiding, tax-paying member of society,
(b) anyone who is a crazy ranting fool and was offended by my portrayal of their profession (it is, I believe, a growth industry, based mainly on public transport and the internet),
(c) Mr Fishwife for the appalling shame incurred.
And in retaliation I offer you some choice nuggets from his recent MOT. I should point out here that Mr Fishwife works In Money, so is subject to a regular check in the manner of racehorses etc to ensure he won't drop dead at short notice and cost his employers a fortune in death-in-service payments to me. Every check they performed had a little conclusion at the end of it, just to rule out any hypochondria on the part of the patient, ie "Your red blood count is within normal boundaries. YOU DO NOT HAVE ANAEMIA." I was delighted to find that he didn't have diabetes either, or glaucoma. "A rectal examination was not performed", which was nice. And his waist-to-hip ratio is "within desirable limits for his age". Show me a man who doesn't want to be told he has desirable hips. All in all, not bad really, but I was frankly overjoyed that the bookselling industry is so lax in these matters that the question of whether or not my eyesight is failing would only, really, emerge after I had inadvertently sold some 8-year-old a copy of "Fear Of Flying" thinking it was "Five Go Camping".

Friday, 9 May 2008

It just gets better and better

Some time ago I wrote a mildly exasperated post about the joys of the OCD spectrum - and really, I shouldn't complain, because it's handy for the crossword ("Nope, it can't be 'iridescent' because that's 10 letters"). However - more and more lately I've been wondering about whether there exists, in a parallel kinda way, a Tourette's spectrum that we're all to some extent on. We all, I presume, have those voices that scream apoplectically "SHIFT YOUR STUPID SLACK-TROUSERED TEENAGE ARSE" when stuck behind a foot-dragging gangly iPod-festooned 14-year-old cretin on the tube escalator - but mercifully silently, so that you get the satisfaction of having vented your spleen without the possibility of being headbutted by someone 9 feet tall in trainers the size of breezeblocks. Lately I've found to my HORROR that my lips are moving when I'm doing this. It's only a short step from that to being the ranty old lady we all cross the road to avoid. The sad truth is, I have always had a vision of myself, perhaps an optimistic one, as some kind of minor-Redgrave-esque trendily attired doyenne of subculture, dispensing bookish wisdom like some glamorous sybil. The gap between this and the real truth is rapidly enlarging - the hideous truth that in fact I'm some bhaji-haired old crone lurching wildly up and down the road screaming "NO, REALLY, PARK WHERE YOU LIKE, YOU FILTHY CHISWICK WHORE" at the innocent Jimmy Choo-ed mummy mafia. Out loud. Counting the letters as I do.
Then again I haven't had enough coffee yet today.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Meme on!

Hurrah! Tagged by Laura with another one of these - I'll do the contents of my fridge another time... (I'll just give you "Loon Fung Chili Oil" as a teaser).

Books I've always meant to read:

"Crime and Punishment" by Dostoevsky - I have difficulty with the hefty 2000-page seriousness of Russian novels and just about managed "War and Peace" once by focussing entirely on Natasha and pretty much ignoring the political sweep and Napoleon etc - which kind of misses the point. In my defence I was 17. This is the one everyone says has to be read. I did read Pushkin's "The Queen of Spades" the other day, though (a mere pamphlet in comparison).

"A Brief History Of Time" by Stephen Hawking - What can I say? I thought I was quite clever, then I tried reading this. By the time I got to the part (probably around page 2) where he said something along the lines of "of course the continuing expansion of an already-infinite universe can be assumed throughout" I had to lie down in a darkened room. I still wince when I think of my unbelievable arrogance in assuming that a book written by Stephen Hawking for the less clever than Stephen Hawking would be anywhere within my grasp. Maybe one day after an intensive diet of ginkgo biloba, oily fish and other brain foods I will get past the introduction.

Books that changed my life:

"Harriet The Spy" by Louise Fitzhugh - the world of childrens' books was a big wide one as far as I was concerned, and I was very much a read-under-the-bedclothes child; I loved Harriet so much though, for being geeky and wordy, for unashamedly spying on people, for writing about them as unflinchingly as possible, even when it got her into trouble. I read it again recently and realised (well, duh) that her entire spy lifestyle was only possible because her parents really weren't interested in her at all and barely cared where she was. There's a sequel called "The Long Secret" about the very rich and mousy Beth Ellen.

"The Deptford Trilogy" by Robertson Davies - the first time I read a novel and realised that some authors address you, the reader, as an adult with a brain and a heart. Robertson Davies was one of the finest, most well-read, most humane and compassionate authors of the 20th century, and I say that with absolutely no reservations. Every book he wrote was a masterpiece, his trilogies were beautifully balanced, and he could make you laugh out loud and cry on the same page.

"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov - If you think that was a eulogy to Robertson Davies, wait till I get started on Nabokov. Actually, just take it as read. My favourite author pretty much bar none. I love this book, and always have, not just for the sheer beauty of the prose, and the crossword-puzzle nature of the clues he scatters liberally throughout, but because while you're busy tutting and wondering how ethically right it is to make a 12-year-old girl sound so peachily irresistible, he hits you like a great big slap in the face with total, abject pity for her. This was my first encounter with the unreliable narrator, and it changed the way I read for ever.

Books I've been raving about since I read them:

"A Suitable Boy" by Vikram Seth - very like Middlemarch in its intertwining of stories; I began by feeling impatient and wanting to race back to Lata and her mother's quest for a suitable boy, and found myself falling for all the other characters and their storylines in turn - even Nehru. Set around the time of Partition, which I knew shamefully little about, it avoided all the traps of the historical novel by giving me characters who were reccognisable, complex and as immediate as if they lived next door. I ccould not put it down and I re-read it every year in the hopes that I'll have forgotten the plot and rediscover it all over again.

"The Marzipan Pig" by Russell Hoban - A marzipan pig falls behind the sofa and is eaten by a mouse. The mouse falls in love with a clock. An owl falls in love with a taxi. Russell Hoban described this as "a book about various kinds of love which dare not speak their name" - which is a darn good description of a kids' book in which an owl falls in love with a taxi. I love Russell Hoban for writing childrens' books which adults can read, and (more or less) vice versa. It also contains one of my favourite lines ever: "Oh love!" shouted the owl. "The breakfast of your eyes!"

AAAAAAAAAAAND I'm tagging... Bookseller Crow.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Haikus don't count as poetry.

OK I said I don't write poetry and it's true - I leave that to the talented (courtly bow in an Oxfordly direction). I have a thing for haikus though, as they confine you to 17 syllables and it's like taking a photo - lining up the shot, trying to get everything in, remembering to put the flash on, etc... and for those of us (me) with the borderline OCD, there's nothing that comes more naturally than counting syllables on my fingers while trying to work out if I've missed my stop on the bus. AAAAAAAAnyway. This came to mind during a lull yesterday while I was simultaneously noticing that the great British spring was entirely over with not much to show for it, and wondering why we don't have an equivalent of the Japanese hanami, where "enjoying the ephemeral nature of the beauty of the cherry blossom" is considered an actual activity, the sort of thing you'd put on your CV or use as an excuse for not helping wash the car.

Pink snow in gutters.
Pink confetti on car roofs.
Bewildered nude trees.