Thursday, August 27, 2009

A star

So yet again an eight year old has got an A star in GCSE Maths. Here's me , forty ahem and the very word division gives me a headache. When I was eight my main preoccupation was learning to dance like Pans People!

I know it's wrong but, despite being a woman of deeply maternal leanings who loves children, I find myself actively disliking child geniuses and don't get me started on their bloody parents. This particular one has not only achieved an A star but plays half an orchestra's worth of instruments and speaks - speaks mark you - Latin!

In my fetid imagination, I like to picture the child being hot-housed by socially awkward parents who do algebra over breakfast, don't watch TV and file their hair. I'm secretly hoping the father is a weirdo in sandals and a beard and the mother wears skirts with a high waistline and pork pie shoes, just like the parents who appeared on 'Ask the Family'. I need to think this as if they are normal, it raises the bar considerably for we ordinary parents. If they are normal, why can't the rest of us bring up a child genius who can speak Ancient Greek and has Grade 8 piano by the time they are six?

Pans People were good though.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When it comes to accents I really am the creme de la creme

We spent the whole of our holiday in Edinburgh trying as hard as possible not to break into our 'Scoortish' accents. Last year we found ourselves using them the moment the train pulled into Waverley, paticularly when saying words such as 'haggis'. I resisted doing my 'Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' meets Alexander McCall Smith meets Wee Jimmy Krankie accent for a whole week until, in the taxi on the way back to the station, I related a story about a nurse I had met the night before and started 'doing' her voice. By the time I realised what I was doing, it was too late. We all sat silently red-faced, hoping our Scottish taxi driver hadn't heard my terribly disrespectful accent.

My problem is that I am a sponge for accents, picking up the speech patterns of those around me and parroting them without even realising. I flatter myself this is a compunction with Darwinian roots. People who pick up other people's accents are, I believe, empathetic and socially intelligent. Although they may not be consciously aware of it, they are adapting to fit in to their circumstances . That's my story anyway and I'm sticking to it.

A good example of this is my father who is an extremely gregarious, socially adept man who soon lost a strong Dorset accent after moving north of London as a young man, although traces remain. I'm also aware of many people who have very different accents for different situations. A friend of my mothers has a special voice for dealing with market traders for instance, saying things like 'paand of taters' with the requisite glottal stop. Similarly, I worked once for an organisation where we sometimes had to deal with callers from South Africa and you always knew when someone was taking one as they started saying 'yis' rather than 'yes'.

Of course the problem is people think you are being patronising or even worse taking the piss! Telling them that you are actually trying to fit in with them isn't exactly going to wash. However I'll leave the final analysis to Henry Kissinger's brother. Apparently on being asked why had an American accent while his brother had a German accent he said: 'I listen to people'.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A week in Edinburgh

I have just returned from a week at the Edinburgh Festival. The Fringe is a wondrous and eclectic thing, encompassing so many different performances with something for everyone, done by almost everyone. Nevertheless, I do feel there should be a a rule that no one is allowed to perform in white face or wear a basque and wiggle about it in it 'seductively' in the manner of an am-dram 18th century trollop. Top hat wearing should similarly be banned. Enough already!

Basque wearers notwithstanding (and they are not all women let me tell you), there's always something interesting to see as you walk down the Royal Mile, where people desperate to get you into their show press their leaflets in to your hand. Or don't! On the one hand I found myself exasperated by the sheer volume of flyers in my bag and felt compelled to thank the giver and make noises about hoping to see their show 'Antiques Roadshow: The Musical'. Yet I also felt strangely insecure if I noticed someone handing flyers to everyone and then not to me. 'What's wrong with me?' I thought. Am I too old or uncool to see their show? Am I not suitably arty-farty? I'm with my kids, am I too mumsy?

On the whole though I spent the day dodging people with flyers. Some flyers seemed destined for ubiquity, particularly that for Bedales School production of 'Oedipus Rex', even turning up mysteriously in our bathroom. Indeed the whole production haunted me as I bumped into the cast on a daily basis crossing the road on their way to the theatre. It is very odd to see a Greek chorus, Oedipus with blood running down his face and his mum/girlfriend waiting for the green light , looking incongrously fresh and jolly. Having perused their flyer however, I decided I would, ahem, rather poke my own eyes out with a stick than see the play.

It's as much fun watching the potential audience as the players and I found myself idly playing 'what production are you going to?' Visiting a cafe I stood in front of a young man in the queue wearing a Jethro Tull T shirt and sporting the requisite pointy beard. I half expected him to produce a flute and start doing a pixie dance and singing about elven maids etc. No surprise then to discover there was a Terry Pratchett play on round the corner (this last is indicative of my prejudiced view of Jethro Tull fans and should not be taken as an insightful remark although I am right of course).

It was a week of contrasts with highlights including Piff the Magic Dragon doing astonishing magic tricks and making us laugh, Pete Firman's suit, a man doing amazing physical stunts using a hula hoop, Colin Hoult's hilarious surreal comedy and John Otway singing 'Crazy Horses'.

The nadir though was being bullied into shouting 'I is a African!' in response to a particularly cringeworthy rap on evolution. I tried to move my lips as economically as possible and was glad when Flora pronounced herself bored giving me a perfect excuse to slip out. This was closely followed by Flora being concussed by a beam that fell on top of her at a venue. Still it wouldn't be fun if we didn't have at least one thing to moan about although potential serious injury is perhaps going a little far.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Let's not read books by their covers

I love going into a bookshop to find a new book. The very smell of the books fills me with excited anticipation. However, the experience has been marred recently by the evolution of what I can only call 'me too' books.

In Waterstones or your local shop you are greeted by books that are signposted with flashing lights as being in the same genre. So you have your ersatz 'Da Vinci Code' books, for instance. I found 'The Da Vinci Code' one of the worst books I have ever read, and I'm not ready to repeat the experience , yet for those who enjoyed it there are a whole range of books on the same lines. They all have vaguely similar titles such as 'The Shakespeare Prophecy', 'The Michaelangelo Conundrum' or 'The Botticelli Files' so that you know exactly what you are getting. Just in case the title doesn't tell you, you are alerted to the book being in the Da Vinci Code group by the cover, usually some sort of faux medieval plan in a washy coloured print.

If 'Da Vinci Code' even lite-er isn't the bag you're into, you can find plenty more in the genres section. For instance the group of women who meet regularly to knit, sew quilts, read books category. You can spot these by names such as 'The Ladies' Club', 'The Herman Melville Club' or 'The Knitting Circle'. The groups are usually made up of one woman with terminal cancer, a lesbian, one woman with marriage difficulties and sometimes a token man who may or may not be gay. They all sit down talking about books, knitting, quilts etc, all of which provide metaphors for the situations each woman (and the man) find themselves in.

If the 'ladies who meet' genre doesn't provide enough tragedy there is always the 'tragic childhood' section. With titles such as 'Don't hurt me Mummy' and 'A Liverpool Punchbag', these can be identified by sepia tinted cover photos of wan and troubled looking children dressed in rags. Springing from the loins of 'Angela's Ashes', these books document the rise from terrible poverty and abuse of the protagonist.

Finally there's the chick lit section. These are usually brightly coloured and feature a cartoonish picture of a woman in high heels, with our without baby. These are tales of women in fashionable clothes trying to have it all. They struggle to be sexy and successful in their amazing advertising job while bringing up their beautiful and precocious children Cosmo and Thea and cooking with sun-dried tomatoes.

It's always a relief to find the Penguin Classics, wth their black spines and donnish cover notes they are utterly enigmatic, like gifts waiting to be opened. They may turn out to be gifts you don't particularly like but at least you have the opportunity to make up your own mind.

I'm just a bit fed up with being herded into the supermarket model of book buying where some marketing executive decides what sort of person you are and what sort of book you would like. For me this is in absolute opposition to what reading should be about - the opportunity to enter worlds you may never ordinarily come across, to challenge your ideas and opinions. It's great that more people are reading than ever but it's also patronising and limiting to implicitly say to people that this or that type of book is for them. No doubt it sells a lot of books but there's a lot to be said for not being able to read a book by its cover.

A meaty challenge

Over the past few weeks, I've been playing fast and loose with my vegetarianism. Only relatively so but after nearly thirty years as a veggie, even the smallest amount of meat is a huge change. First of all I was persuaded to try a small piece of beef. When I say small, I mean absolutely tiny. At first I resisted but then I was overtaken by some ridiculous compulsion to accept the challenge. Added to this was a sort of equally childish need to 'impress' my dining partner with my flexible attitude as I am always slightly ashamed by my admittedly dysfunctional eating habits. So I put it in my mouth, chewed it as quickly as I could and swallowed. Did I enjoy it? Not really but I felt a sense of achievement in that I had challenged myself and found that I was happy being a vegetarian.

Challenge two came in the form of bacon. Throughout my veggie days, I've always had a sneaking regard for bacon. Other meat smells pretty awful to me but I do like the smell of bacon and during my pregnancies had a bit of a yen for it although I didn't indulge. Again I took a small piece, had a chew and swallowed. Quite nice actually.

Challenge three was a piece of salami or prosciutto. Not so nice this one. It tasted and felt fatty and I was glad to swallow it and wash my mouth out with some wine. Bleeeurgh!

So am I converted? I don't think so but I do feel my reasons for being vegetarian are perhaps not the most laudable or worthy. As a teenager I developed a distaste for eating at all and found lots of reasons for not eating this, that and the other. It slowly became a self-fulfilling prophecy which I could justify with talk of animal rights and morals.

That's not to say I don't believe in caring about animals because I do, passionately. I was brought up not even to hurt an insect if I could help it and I absolutely abhor the idea of harming another creature simply for entertainment. It's just I feel that saying that's why I became vegetarian is deluded and disingenuous. I believe my vegetarianism was the manifestation of body dysmorphia and a borderline eating disorder that has became so ingrained that I can't really change now. However I am slim, healthy and have low cholesterol so it's not done me too much harm.

My children eat meat and nowadays I believe that if people want to eat meat that's OK for them and that if they can eat meat that's been produced in a compassionate way then all the better. I don't want to join them, despite my recent meat eating antics, but I'm not so certain they are wrong and I am right as I was at sixteen years old. However, I won't be joining the meat eaters at the barbie - I'd rather chew on a raw carrot than a steak.

Friday, August 14, 2009

My blog of many colours but mainly purple

Ah a week off work - such bliss and an opportunity to mess around with the colours on one's blog. A friend was showing me another woman's blog the other day and I rather liked her black background and the font she was using so thought I'd nick her design. Then I started changing the colours and decided to change the text to purple - Purple Passages, geddit?

My dear friend Sara (aged over 40) says it is now difficult to read while my dear daughter Flora (aged 11) says it isn't. I think it looks nice but I do have to take into account the needs of my - cough - older readers. Eleven years olds can see infinitesimally small specks with no problem while we slightly older people often need help even with big writing. It would be a tragedy if my readership of about three were put off by my new branding. It hurts to think so many would be denied the chance to read my incredibly insightful posts dealing with important contemporary issues such as buying shoes, scarecrows and Horlicks.

So anyway, I intend to road-test the new Purple Passages corporate look with a few other people to see if I need to change it. Can you read this Sara?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I love the NHS because....

Over the last few days a viral campaign on Twitter has been in full swing in which British people are proclaiming why they love the National Health Service. The campaign is a reaction to attacks on our system by American Republicans, eager to discredit Obama's plans for health reform. According to them elderly people are left to die and health care is meted out on Nazi-style lines.

I don't recognise the Republicans description of a system which, although we know it's flawed, is still one to be envied. Over the years I've benefitted from treatment for my asthma and exemplary obstetric care (a couple of times in harrowing circumstances and delivered with great care and sympathy). Recently Flora spent two weeks in hospital with appendicitis, my best friend is currently receiving excellent and dedicated cancer care and my grandmother was given compassionate palliative care towards the end of her life. This represents care right across the age range, all free at the point of delivery with nobody forced to live with concerns about payment.

In my own family's fairly recent history, children died because the family couldn't scrape together the money to pay a doctor. A relative was a friend of Aneurin Bevan and many of us have worked for the NHS. It's a system that runs through our veins, even though we acknowledge it's not always perfect. What decent person would want a return to the days when your chances of a healthy life were determined by the size of your bank balance?

I personally feel a real stake in the NHS, that it is fundamental to ours being a relatively civilised society where the good of the many still holds sway. So yes, I do love the NHS. Long may it reign, warts and all.

Taxidermic Treats at Tring

This week we made one of our regular visits to a favourite museum: the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum in Tring. I've been going there since childhood and have taken my own children there many times, yet it never ceases to delight and intrigue me. There's always something new to discover.

Even the finest zoo or most brilliantly filmed wildlife documentary cannot rival the museum for giving you an insight into the scale and physical attributes of the animals on display. The reason? They are all stuffed so you can get pretty close and they're extremely unlikely to move away or attack you!

An Emperor Penguin is much taller than I ever expected, some skates are the width of a box room and you can't help but marvel at the huge size of a gorilla and the incommensurately small size of its gentleman's member!

Today many of us find the idea of shooting and stuffing animals in this way repugnant but if you accept that the exhibits at Tring are of their day, then there's a lot to be gained from a visit. Sir Walter was a fabulously wealthy man, able to buy any animal that caught his fancy and so the collection is both quirky and comprehensive. Some of the stuffing is a little odd, with amused looking polar bears and some rather moth-eaten examples, but it's hard to resist the old fashioned display cases and the general air of being transported back to a bygone age, when being an amateur enthusiast did not imply criticism but imagination and not a little intellectual rigour.

I say hoorah for Tring and Lord Rothschild. Where else are you going to see a flea dressed in a crinoline, a picture of someone harnessing zebras, the most famous racing greyhound of all time and the skeleton of a boa constrictor all in one place?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Wilkinsons and why you can't listen to Joy Division and eat chocolate

Your average musician spends a lot of time trying to conjure an atmosphere. He or she takes into account a plethora of factors including the blend of instruments, dynamics and quality of sound ,all with the aim of evoking an emotional response from their audience. So how galling it must be to hear your painstakingly constructed piece as background music in Wilkinsons.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Wilkos. It's filled the vacuum that Woolworth's left with its pick n mix, cheap and cheerful stationery and useful things like manure, dustpans and toilet brushes.

Yet as I browsed the aisles, I felt rather sorry for the people who had recorded the rather ethereal ditty playing in the background. While the singer emoted delicately, two women next to me discussed the merits of a hair colourant and a whiny voice came over the tannoy requesting assistance in aisle number one, kids screamed and whined and old ladies shuffled about, most of them seemingly unaware of the music.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who can't ignore even lift music. Friday night was a good example of this 'affliction'. As a monthly treat I always have a 25 g bar of Belgian dark chocolate. It's just enough to satisfy me and as it's only once a month it feels special and, most importantly, doesn't turn me into a great chocolate guzzling elephant of a woman.

I bought my precious bar in Sainsbury's and sat in the car for a few seconds to enjoy the moment. On the CD player I was playing a rather challenging Joy Division number and I found that this was marring the experience. Bizarrely I felt I couldn't taste the chocolate properly because my senses were overwhelmed by the music. So I turned it off and went into chocolate induced state of bliss for a few seconds. I don't know if this if this is an example of synaesthesia or just being a bit strange. I will have to experiment with some different music before making any conclusions.

But back to Wilkinsons. I suspect most people in Wilkinson's today weren't even aware of the music on a superficial level. The group who recorded the song did it all for nothing as far as Wilko's is concerned. I only hope the royalties are good!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

My tarot teenager

Saturday saw the kids and I watching the procession for Brighton Pride The rain held off for the actual procession which was just as well as there was an abundance of brightly coloured feathers and game chaps with their bums hanging out of barely there pants.

Not long after the procession, the heavens opened but we were wet anyway so decided to visit the shops. Patrick, perhaps a little traumatised by his exposure to Pride, had his mind set on getting some tarot cards. Seems only yesterday that his goal was a set of Pokemon cards so I was a little surprised.

We found a suitable shop where we discovered that tarot cards come in all sorts of designs, all based roughly on the original design - if there is such a thing. There were fairy tarots, art deco tarots, Lord of the Rings tarots (there would be!), National Trust tarot (alright, I made that one up). However Patrick plumped for a fairly traditional set which cost a princely £26! I asked the rather snooty shopkeeper if there was an economy set and he snorted at me with barely disguised disdain, actually let's just call it disdain; his tarot reading must have been a bit negative that day.

Apparently Patrick will soon get used to his cards which will help his 'reading'. Good. I'm hoping he develops a real talent for it and can earn some money on the side doing little readings. He'll have to tidy his bedroom first and develop a more mysterious persona. When mystery was given out, our family were at the back of the queue so it might be quite hard but I think there's room for a few wide-eyed, chubby cheeked blond tarot readers. He also has a yen to buy a long black coat so that might add to his mystique.

If he does well I might even get him a Pokemon tarot set like the one in the attached picture. They didn't have those in Brighton!

Pimp my filing cabinet

I am the proud owner of a second hand filing cabinet which I acquired from work where a number of pieces of office furniture are being disposed of. I am that rather inconvenient type who is deeply untidy but isn't happy about it. I am hoping my new filing cabinet will bring some order to my environment which so far it is doing very well.

But now the important thing for we form over function types. What does it look like? Well, as filing cabinets go it isn't bad really. It's a reasonably inoffensive shade of cream with contrasting brown trim - OK it is pretty ugly. However it is robust, functional and the drawers are capacious and open and shut smoothly.

Now though I want to pimp my filing cabinet. My plan is to spray it a more fetching colour with shocking pink being at the top of my list. I might buy some nice stickers to put on it or something similarly decorative. In my dreams I imagine studding it with LEDS that light up when I open the drawer or perhaps I could rig it up with fairy lights.

I've found a rather wonderful customised filing cabinet on the web, picture attached to this post,. which is giving me some inspiration. Looks a rather challenging design but you can't deny it's rather stylish, for a filing cabinet.

Having seen what others can do, I feel quite overcome with excitement. When does B and Q open?