Sunday, November 30, 2008

The truth about me and Colin Firth

I received an email from a friend today asking me if it was true about me and Colin Firth. Now in common with most of the female population of the United Kingdom, I fancy Colin Firth rotten. Who can forget him smouldering in 'Pride and Prejudice' and the scene with the wet shirt? However I can say now that Colin is a happily married man who has shown no interest in me. Indeed we haven't even met!

It turned out that a friend had overheard another friend talking about an incident where I met Colin Firth in the street, failed to recognise him as the famous actor and thought I knew him. Now this kind of did happen to me once but it was about 20 years ago and the man in question was Rupert Everett. I was walking along the King's Road in London and saw this tall, handsome and oddly familiar man coming towards me. So I smiled and said 'hello' and he smiled back and said 'hello' to me. It was only after he'd passed me that I realised that he wasn't someone I knew but Rupert Everett, the film star!

The whole incident, or rather non-incident, made me ponder the nature of rumours. How easy is it for a chance remark to become the truth and then to be embroidered and altered until it is nothing at all like the original story? In the case of the story about me and Colin Firth, it's funny and doesn't matter, but imagine if it was something that involved my reputation, my safety or even, God forbid, my freedom. We all know that stories become the 'truth' if enough people say or believe it's true. How many people are we misjudging because we based our understanding of them on rumours and hearsay? How many situations are completely misunderstood? The more I think about it, the more I see that 'truth' really is a construct, like meaning itself simply a product of what it's not but not inherently meaningful.

Of course you can't live your whole life suspecting people and questioning the truth of what they are saying but I think it doesn't do any harm to be circumspect and to realise that one person's truth is not necessarily another's.

Now I wonder when Colin is going to ring me about our hot date.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A confession: I prefer Dickens on TV

I'm currently watching the BBC adaption of 'Little Dorrit' by Charles Dickens. As is typical of the BBC, it really is a classy production with wonderful acting and superb writing by Andrew Davies. I really look forward to each episode and find the story touching and riveting.
But I have a confession to make, I much prefer watching Dickens on TV than reading it. That makes me sound a real philistine and I have tried to counter this by reading a few of his books. The stories are beautifully written, if slightly implausible at times, but I always feel he could get rid of a few chapters and it wouldn't do any harm. My friend Sara and I were discussing this the other day and decided it was because he wrote for serialisation and was probably paid by the word. Not only this but, of course, Dickens was very aware of the dramatic quality of his books and was famous for his readings.
One of the things I find most tiresome, and yet which works wonderfully in an adaption, are the legion of subsidiary characters. Trying to remember who Mr Cherubim Queermucher and Miss Fanny Throttledick are while keeping tabs on the escapades of Mrs Threnody Flaps and the Rev Stipend Mangrove is quite a feat. Not to mention the effort involved in recalling that Mr Scrote Dangler is the long lost brother of his ward Miss Matilda Flangewiper, who is herself involved in a fiendishly complex dispute regarding her inheritance with the aforesaid Mr Queermuncher.
OK I made those characters up (no surely not, I hear you say) but you get my drift. Dickens's book team with people and this is their charm but also my problem in reading them. Sometimes I just yearn for the elegance of Jane Austen where the cast of characters is restricted and inconvenient characters such as dead mothers are given a couple of sentences, if that. Or even Dickens's friend Mrs Gaskell, who peoples her own books with grotesques but they are somehow more human and less archetypal.
I'm hoping that the TV adaption of 'Little Dorrit' will encourage me to read Dickens properly. I don't hold out much hope however - copies of 'Martin Chuzzlewitt' and 'Bleak House' gathering dust on my bookshelves bear witness to past failures.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Adult ballet - it's just ballet for adults!

I've just returned from my adult ballet class. The phrase 'adult ballet' always causes a few raised eyebrows and snorts as people imagine all sorts of saucy goings on at the barre. However it is what it says, a ballet class for adults. We are a group of ladies, most of us over 40 and none under 30 who meet every Monday and simply learn ballet, going through a series of barre and floor work.

Some of the ladies were keen dancers as children and find their old abilities reawakened. I did a tiny bit of a ballet in my late teens and haven't any ability to reawaken. But oh how I enjoy myself. The movements are exacting, elegant and slow but make no mistake they are not easy, your body lets you know that the day after. Many of them require a level of coordination I've yet to master, I'm always closing front instead of back and using the wrong foot, and fine balance, something I have improved on since starting the class.

After a day at work venturing out to do a ballet class can sometimes feel like a chore but once I'm there I feel energised and I always leave feeling happier and more relaxed than when I went in. I love learning to move my body in a more elegant way to beautiful tunes, this term from the great operas. We do our Ronde de Champ for instance to music by Offenbach and our battement tendu to Verdi! The language of ballet is seductive and slightly mysterious (even if you do know French) and then there is a the laughter. While we all try our best, nobody takes themselves too seriously and much of the time we spend laughing like drains at our mistakes.

I think everyone should try ballet. You don't have to be the next Darcy Bussell and you don't have to wear a tutu but you will discover all sorts of things your body can do and have a lot of fun in the process.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shock at awe

I am going to an all you can eat Chinese restaurant tonight. A pleasant evening out I grant you but not, as one of my younger colleagues said, 'awesome'. It seems that these days anything from going to the supermarket to visiting the ladies is worthy of the epithet 'awesome'.
Now call me old-fashioned if you like but I would say a volcano erupting is awesome or the basilica in Rome but not a night out in a nightclub or as many spring rolls as you can eat. How is it that this perfectly decent word has become so casually applied? Surely if we rake every experience up to this level of hyperbole, the word becomes redundant and we run out of words for genuinely amazing sights and experiences.
So I decided to look 'awesome' up in my etymology dictionary. Awe comes from a Germanic word for 'fear', not something I often feel when looking at a selection of rices and other Oriental dishes. I might fear that the rice hasn't been heated adequately and may be about to give me food poisoning but that's only a minor fear that I manage to assuage with a quick test of the temperature of the hotlocks. Awesome denotes something that inspires feelings of awe, i.e. reverential wonder of fear, and it therefore makes me wonder how it became a replacement word for 'exciting' , 'thrilling' or even 'really rather good'.
I suspect the blame can be placed at the door of the United States who are lovers of words that end in the suffix 'some', such as winsome and lonesome. Anyway I am thinking of secretly sending my young colleague a list of alternative adjectives to describe her nights out - now that would be awesome of me.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


I entered the nanosphere last night, well intellectually speaking. S and I drove to Cranfield University to support our friend Julie Freeman, who is artist in residence at Cranfield. She has been working with the nanotechnology department and creating works of art that reflect upon the science and explore its implications and how it is perceived.

After the speeches we chatted with various people in the foyer, including a man from a local university who is an expert in nanotechnology. He has an amazingly vivid way of communicating ideas about nanotechnology and although I was often lost, being a non-scientist, he certainly made me want to go away and find out more. I learned too from Julie of the power of these tiny, invisible particles that give gekkos microscopic hairs that enable them walk on ceilings, drugs that will be administered to exactly the spot they are needed and socks that have silver woven into them (Julie has some from Marks and Spencer). Astonishing but scary - well not the socks - to imagine this invisible but potentially powerful world; it's human nature to be scared of what you can't see after all.

We then went on a night time tour of the university to see the posters that Julie had made and erected around the campus. Armed with a torch we trundled around in my little car, stopping at various points so that Julie could shine a light on the poster and explain the thinking around it. We were doing this in one area when we bumped into someone that S had been remonstrating with in the foyer about the fact that commercial considerations always seem to come ahead of giving people the space to experiment and that Faraday would never have made his discoveries if they had employed the cost benefit analysis principle in his day. We explained what we were doing as it did look rather odd but his expression suggested he had us all down as mad stalkers. I commented afterwards that we should have wound down the window and quoted in unison from one of Julie's posters: 'Without context I am nothing'. He'd have thought nanogeddon was upon us for sure!

Monday, November 17, 2008

One town, two hardware shops - an olfactory excursion to Shefford

Today I visited a little town that makes my home town of Dunstable - where tumble weed regularly floats down the High Street - look like the West End. It was a charming, quiet and, well, rather dull Bedfordshire town. However there was one exciting aspect - not one but two hardware shops.

I was immediately drawn to the first one I saw. Outside were yard brushes, metal watering cans and all sort of arcane paraphanalia. How I longed to go inside and sniff the wonderfully blended aromas of plant seeds, brooms, nasty solvents, nails and sandpaper. I went in (imagine bell tinkling as I open shop door) and was immediately transported to my childhood. Your average DIY shed can't compete with a hardware shop, where it feels as though you could buy anything if you just asked and the aforesaid smell wafts seductively around you.

As I made my way down the narrow aisles piled up with plugs, gardening implements and creosote, I sniffed deeply. Aaaaah, bliss! When the lady on the till asked if I needed some help I admitted I was there simply to enjoy the smell! She was unperturbed saying people often say that, it's clear my hardware shop fetish is not a lonely obsession then.

But my joy was not to stop there. Round the corner was another hardware shop that trebled up as a post-office and, er, carpet shop. Carpets, hardware and stationery - all in one place, I was in heaven. All that was needed was some dusty liquorice to make it quite perfect.

If ever I bring out a perfume it will be called Hardware Shop - I bet it would sell very well along with Petrol Station and Ironed Shirts.

This sketch from the Two Ronnies perfectly demonstrates the charm of the old fashioned British hardware shop.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Letter from a nutter

I've been having a big clear out today in preparation for my changing role. My job is paperwork heavy, mainly because I keep things just in case. One of the things I threw out today was my letter from a nutter. If you work for an organisation with even the faintest whiff of government connection, or even worse and in my case European Union, you can be sure of a few nutter letters.

The odd thing is that letters from nutters nearly always look the same. It's as though nutters all go to a special nutter section in W H Smith and purchase a pack containing lined pad with perforations perfect for ripping roughly from said pad, a particularly scrawly pen, some letters cut out of newspapers and an envelope decorated with suspiciously greasy stains. Thus equipped your nutter is prepared for his or her rant. This one began politely enough but ended up challenging me to be 'big' enough to read a book he recommended on the evils of the EU.

Not content with just cleaning out my desk at work, I've been doing the same at home. I decided to recruit Patrick to help me take the mountain of scrap paper down to the recycling bin and he was amazingly, and unusually, helpful and industrious. The reason? He has taken delivery of the newest part of World of Warcraft which he has had on order from Amazon since the dawn of civilisation.
All evening I have been hearing the clash of swords, various groans and characters shouting 'Awwwww!' in a Brian Blessed Lite fashion. What I hate about these games is that I can feel my own levels of anxiety rising just hearing the bloody music and all the moaning and groaning that goes on. I suspect half of the people of Britain are even now fixed on their screens listening to the very same sounds, or so it would seem from the news reports.

The other problem with listening to WOW is that if you didn't know it was a wargame, the sound might make you think it was something else entirely what with all the rhythmic grunting and sporadic groaning and 'aaahs'. Makes me feel quite uncomfortable having to listen to it!

And so I have retired to the relative quiet of the study or at least the room where we keep the computer. At least for a short while I won't feel like an extra who's been coerced into performing in the next installment of 'The Lord of the Rings' or even worse 'The Ring of the Lord'.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why courtesans never get caught out

Ever noticed that when you have all our make-up on, are feeling slim, are wearing something a bit slinky and are working some fantastic heels you won't see a soul you know? You'll clickety clack round town looking hot and all you'll see is a couple of pensioners and a few kids on bikes. But go out with a just got out of bed hairdo that channels 'Eraserhead', stained grey tracksuit bottoms on that you wore to clean the loo, a bobbly cardy that makes you look like you just escaped from an institution and spit-webbed teeth and you are bound to meet not only every bugger you know but also the man of your dreams. You'll be standing there in the queue at the shops, trying to lick the dried on breakfast off your face while in front of you smoulders the most gorgeous man you've ever seen buying a lottery ticket for tonight's draw. Believe me it's happened to me.

Of course there is considerable schadenfreude to be gained from meeting someone you've always thought was glamorous in this condition. To think that even the impossibly well-groomed sometimes try to slip out for a paper with the pyjamas under their coat and get caught out. But the well-groomed tend to not even put out their washing without first having a facial and slipping on a pair of Manolo's before picking up their Kath Kidston laundry basket.

My worst slip up was deciding to wear some extremely horrid thermal knickers under my outfit when in the chorus of 'La Traviata' playing some French floozy. I'm not even sure now that they weren't thermal underpants complete with Y Front! I'd completely forgotten that I would have to strip off in the 'dressing room', not only in front of all the ladies in the chorus but also all the men! It didn't matter how low cut my dress was and commensurately impressive my heaving enbonpoint, nobody would be able to forget my big, greying thermal knickers and I knew it. It was very difficult to enter the mind and body of a 19th century courtesan at that point although they may well have worn thermal knickers to protect themselves against the harsh Parisian winters. It's more likely however that they wore none at all under their crinolines, like the infamous Victorian London courtesan Skittles who's riding habit was nearly sprayed on in order to show off her wonderful curves.

The solution? Invest in a big coat and a hat to hide your hair. And make sure you've wiped the breakfast off your face. You never know who you might meet.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Have I bitten off more than I can chew?

This week I am sitting with Nelly, shadowing, whatever you like to call it. The fact is I'm going out with my colleague and learning her job. I love meeting people and learning about their jobs but I am also drowning in a sea of acronyms, initials, jargon and paperwork of baroque proportions. Amid all this confusion I am trying to find what the nub of the whole exercise is but it's eluding me at the moment, I confess.

I keep trying to remember the idea of acting 'as if'. So I am trying to act 'as if' I am confident that I can learn the job. As Shakespeare said 'Assume a virtue if you have it not'. Well I feel as bit as if I have it not at the moment, that's for sure.

So I'm writing feverish notes, typing them up, asking lots of questions and being brave; very brave for a woman known for being averse to change. When I say change I don't mean that I don't like new ideas, innovative approaches etc, after all I'm a woman who wears interesting tights and sings Jacques Brel. No, it's venturing out of my comfort zone that makes me uncomfortable. I suppose the trick is to make yourself a new comfort zone or even better several that you can hop to and from, like delectable desert islands.

Certainly since my marriage ended, I've had to create some of these new comfort zones. Five years ago I would have been worried about sleeping in a house by myself, now I find ways to enjoy it. I felt I'd never cope financially by myself, I find it hard sometimes but I've learned to be pragmatic about it and keep my eyes open. Being solely responsible for two growing children seemed daunting but I realised that I'd been doing it all the time anyway.

Becoming a woman with two children and no partner was terrifying but I've found it's far more comfortable than the daily stress and constant covering up I had to do in a bad marriage. So if I can make this transition, the smaller ones like changing my job should surely be achieveable. I'll just have to make a list of all those bloody acronyms!

Here's some lovely music from Jacques Brel himself to give me a little moment of calm.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Audrey Hepburn and an unusual week

Audrey Hepburn graced our house yesterday and she brought Marilyn Monroe with her! Audrey stood atop a pile of beautiful red cakes, iced with glittery white icing, on a splendidly baroque cake stand, surrounded by white and red feathers. The cake my mother made for Flora's birthday party was the highlight of a week that has been somewhat unsettling and much more momentous than I expected it to be on Monday.

First of all I've had to deal with the physical impact of giving up my beloved Diet Cokes. Amazingly after a few days of the most awful headache, I feel quite well and don't crave the silver monsters. Then there was the job situation. For some time now I've suspected my position was vulnerable and there was a position going at work which I knew I was partly qualified for but might be something of a challenge initially. In a move that was very unlike me - I hate change - I put myself forward for it and am now starting a new job.
Whether I will like it and whether I'm actually up to it remains to be seen but for the moment it's better than being made redundant. Two people have told me this week that I was on a 'hitlist'. I wasn't suprised to be honest as I know my job was marginal at times, costing the company and mainly dispensible. Nevertheless I found it slightly wounding and unsettling after my years with the organisation but it was a stark reminder that no one is indispensible. Yet the very word 'hitlist', even when told to you in the context of it not being personal, sounds awful and aggressively final.

Towards the end of the week I attended an awards ceremony with work colleagues and it did feel odd sitting there knowing I had been on this 'hitlist'. My manager is relieved because she says it saves someone and allows them to keep their 'little family' but I'm unconvinced that any family would behave as a business does - not unless they are dysfunctional at least!

So do I feel optimistic? Not entirely as I'm your typical glass half empty merchant but at least I've taken some control over my future and that has to be good. As if to finish off this strange week with something of a flourish, I walked straight into my ex-husband in Sainsbury's today. I don't see him for weeks and we barely communicate. On the rare occasion we do speak he's usually uncommunicative at best but frequently unpleasant and challenging. Despite the shock of bumping into him, I managed to say in a breezy, friendly voice 'Ah, you're seeing the children later. What time?' and then walk off as if I hadn't a care in the world. I didn't even flinch when he joined the same till queue as me (Why did he do this? There were loads of other queues he could have joined).

I was amazed by my equanimity, sang-froid - whatever you want to call it (balls?), in the face of a situation that eighteen months ago would have seen me reduced to a quivering wreck. Time really is a great healer but I think the two-minute silence might have helped too. All the shoppers were asked to observe the silence for Remembrance Sunday and it gave me a chance to collect myself by the cocoa powder. Yes, I know I should have been thinking about the fallen but I'll give them two minutes another time. I hope they'll forgive me.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Happy Birthday Flo

My daughter is eleven years old today. Hardly seems a moment ago that I was lying on an operating table waiting for her to be 'born'. It was one of the best and most stressful days of my life. A year earlier my second child had been stillborn at term - a terrible shock that has never really left me. So when I became pregnant with Flora, it was decided that I would have her two weeks early by elective Caesarian section.

To walk into a hospital knowing that you are going to have a baby my Caesarian section is an odd experience. I'd had Patrick by an emergency section where you are really just swept along by events but this time I knew what to expect. Fortunately in some ways, the element of the unknown was preserved a little as my time in theatre was put off as a major emergency took precedence. When Flora was eventually born, out came a tiny, scrappy baby looking more than two weeks premature and brick red. But she was breathing and screeching at the top of her little lungs and I couldn't have been happier to hear that sound. She was placed next to me and was soon making funny little noises as she snuggled into me. Throughout my time in the hospital she was never happier than when she was lying on top of me and spent very little time in the cot. She could make her feeling known too and right from day one was a challenging little person.

And she's been like that ever since! A girl who loves her mum and likes a cuddle but who is also feisty and spirited and not afraid to speak her mind. She's a beautiful, clever young lady now but I never stop seeing in her that cross little baby who I was so pleased to welcome. Happy Birthday Flo - I love you.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Please someone stop David Bowie from acting

It's my first day off the Diet Cokes and my head is banging away like nobody's business. I feel like Ewan McGregor in 'Trainspotting'!

I felt so bad that I decided not to go to my ballet class tonight but to stay in and watch the rest of 'The Prestige'. Great film except, and it hurts me to say this, for David Bowie. I love David Bowie and I always have done. He was gorgeously slender and snaggle toothed as a very young man and then beautifully golden and raunchy in his early 30s and he has aged very elegantly. But dearie me, he is a bad actor. He was apparently trying to do some sort of accent, which only made his rather wooden delivery sound, well, even more wooden.

It pains me to be unkind about Dave as I really do love him and indeed was planning on bumping into him and marrying him before he met Iman. In fact I love him so much that I can't bear to see him embarrassing himself and the rest of us. 'The Man Who Fell to Earth' was OK as basically he was playing himself, ditto 'Labyrinth' in which he looked rather sexy in a pair of very tight trousers. But Pontius Pilate - oh dear and his Andy Warhol - saints preserve us! So please David stop acting, I can't watch many more films from behind a cushion.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Confessions of a Diet Coke addict

To paraphrase Robert Palmer I might as well face it, I'm addicted to Diet Coke. Encouraged by the Bad Mothers, I am giving up today. I've poured my last Diet Cokes down the sink and am going to try to go cold turkey. I expect headaches and withdrawal but I've got to do it.

I've done it before. I can remember exactly when and where, it was the New Year and I was at the stained glass museum in Ely. I just gave up like that! I must have been clean for about two years when I was at an event where I was the designated driver. There was nothing non-alcoholic to drink but Diet Coke and before I knew it I was hooked again.

When I was off the cokes before, I wondered what on earth I'd seen in them. Coke isn't that nice really but for me it has become a ritual. The two Diet Cokes before I start work, the satisfying sound of the ring pull opening, the shiny silver cans. I know it sound ridiculous but like a drug addict I'm as into the gear as the substance. Basically I'm addicted to the caffeine though.

I've decided to make my decision to give up public, announcing it on Facebook and BMC. My thinking is that if I shout it out, I'll be embarrassed to fail. Just hope I can do it. Aaaagh!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Green - The New Brown

Carpets have been part of my life for almost as long as I can remember. My Dad worked in the carpet trade from when I was a toddler and the smell of freshly laid carpet evokes my childhood in an instant. Sarah and I travelled in the back of vans on top of carpet samples in the days before seatbelts had to be worn and I've stepped on more Gripperod than is good for one person.

Today I had a carpet laid in my living room. My Dad retired from his carpet shop about 18 months ago but still has a few rolls of carpets around. He told me some time ago he had a nice neutral coloured carpete - 'good quality' as he is wont to say - suitable for my living room. My living room had bare floorboards, chic in some houses but not in a 1970s house with crappy old boards with big gaps between them where spiders like to lurk.

What colour is the carpet we asked. 'Sort of brown', 'neutral' , 'beige' my Dad - notoriously cavalier about colours - said. So today the carpet arrived. It wasn't brown and it wasn't neutral either, nor was it beige. No, it was that special sort of beige that some of us call green! Not a particularly offensive green but green nonetheless. But it's free and 'good quality' of course so down it went. The room has that lovely new carpet smell that I love so much (although I understand that it's to do with the chemicals in the carpet - not so nice) and does look cosy.

A song for my carpet.

All Hallows Eve

I've never been a big fan of Halloween. Actually let me qualify that, I'm not a fan of the Americanised version of Halloween that seems to have taken a grip over the last ten years. When I was a child I'd only ever seen trick or treating in 'Meet me in St Louis' and there were certainly none of the Halloween goods in the shops there are now. Let's face it, Halloween is big business these days but, sorry Halloween enthusiasts, it annoys me.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker for a bit of creepy shennanigans but I just object to the commericalisation of the ocassion. I'm not a compete misery however and always make sure I have adequate supplies of gelatine based, E number laced sweeties in (thank you Haribo) for any children passing by and I don't hide in the house with the light off with a grumpy expression on my face. Honest!

So how was it that I ended up going to a Halloween party? Well, S asked me to come to do some of our spookier songs with her before our friend R (parapsychologist and member of the Magic Circle) did a mock seance. The journey to Cambridge was easy until I got into the city itself where I became completely confused, eventually being rescued by a kind lady taxi driver (thank you so much kind lady taxi driver wherever you are.)

S and R had arrived before me and as the smoke, issuing chokingly from the smoke machine in the hall, parted I saw the two of them in the kitchen (where else?). The host and other guests were all highly intelligent scientists, none of whom I actually knew. A quick scout around the room soon told me there were unlikely to be any eligible males, so what with that, getting lost and the prospect of teetotal fun I wondered if I'd made a mistake.

Reader, I enjoyed myself! The scientists were very taken with the theremin and asked loads of questions afterwards. S said it's the first time she's asked someone if they understand the concept of 'stray capacitance' and they say 'yes'! Our host played the guitar for us in 'The Wife of Ushers Well' and I rather liked that. Making music together is one of the best ways to bond with people I find as you all work together to create a special atmosphere for just a few minutes. Of course the downside is that when you work with people you can think you really like or love them and then realise afterwards that you were kidding yourself but it's nice while it lasts.

Our performance was followed by R's 'seance'. More alarming in many ways than the prospect of raising the dead was the fact that about twenty people were crammed into a tiny bedroom and that the floorboards might not hold us all! R handled the situation with his usual wit and aplomb (that'll be £10 R) and soon we were all holding hands in the pitch dark and items marked with luminous strips were 'flying' around the room. I wasn't crept out at all until suddenly he called on the spirit of a musical hall artiste and she appeared in the corner of the room looking rather ghastly. Of course she was one of the other guests but it was a surprise for me and I nearly wet myself! Seems everyone else had seen the 'seance' before and knew what was going to happen but I was a lamb to the slaughter!

Oh and teetotal fun isn't too bad. I enjoyed getting up this morning with no headache and nothing to be embarrassed about. Might even do it again!