Monday, October 31, 2005

The Diary Of A Provincial Lady

As I mentioned the other day, I'm going to be posting a few extracts from my mother's diaries but first I should put them in context.
My mother kept a daily diary all her life. This was not a literary endeavour. She simply liked to record everything that happened and thought that reading them would give her pleasure in her old age.
Towards the end of her life (she died two years' ago), she read through them from the beginning. At that time she allowed me to read the ones that covered my own childhood, from the early 1950s to the early 1960s.

I am not proposing to serialise them nor to publish fragments in any particular order. I won't be posting any of the daily trivia of family life. I may include a few references to my infant self although I've no idea whether other people will find those as funny as I do. For example, when I was three my mother records: "When I was washing Willie's hair today he said 'Wouldn't it be a tragedy if I fell in the sink?"

But the extracts that I think may be of wider interest are those that illuminate that particular period, small nuggets of social history that describe lifestyle, leisure activities, fashions and the price of things.
There are also frequent references to world events although they often follow inconsequentially from a man coming to repair the boiler which gives them an unintentional comic quality. I remember pointing out some of these incongruous mixings of the trivial with world news to my mother and I thought she would never stop laughing.

My own notes and comments are in [square brackets]. I've used my blogging pseudonym and my father is 'J' and my sister 'C'.

These first extracts about television programmes in the 1950s I find particularly fascinating. The first one shows the wariness with which the new invention was regarded.

28th October, 1955

The arrival of television in the Lupin home!
Only rented, though - 13/6d weekly [about 65 pence]. Mother and Dad very kindly gave the £7 which one pays for aerial costs.
After always feeling very much against TV, we have now come to the conclusion that with selected viewing, both on our part and the children's, we shall all benefit considerably from it. We have had it put in the lounge and not in the living room where it might have been inclined to dominate our lives.

30th August, 1956

I am just watching the Soviet Ensemble on television. Marvellous, especially when they sing our songs like "Tipperary" and "Oh No, John".
A Howard Spring play is to follow.

2nd March, 1958

The television was repaired by teatime for me to enjoy Corky and Big Tim Champion (my pin-up!) as much as the children.
[Corky was 'Circus Boy' (pictured), played by Mickey Braddock whose real name was Mickey Dolenz who became the drummer in The Monkees pop group. I adored Corky - maybe it was that uniform - and thought it most unfair that he was in America and I could never be his friend. I had no idea my mother was smitten by Big Tim Champion, the circus owner who adopted Corky].

Tonight we watched a comedy written 2,000 years ago: "Amphitryon 38" starring Googie Withers and Patrick Barr. If they could write that kind of comedy 2,000 years ago it shows how little people have changed. I have just read in Radio Times that plot, characters and situation belong to Plautus but that this is the 1937 version so I guess the original was presented rather differently after all.

10th September 1956

We enjoyed the TV play last night - "You Touched Me" by Tennessee Williams, based on D.H. Lawrence's story. Fay Compton and Wilfred Lawson were very good.

10th August, 1956

I have just seen 'Nom-De-Plume', a weekly TV programme I enjoy because I like guessing who the famous people are. I have guessed most of them so far, including tonight's - Diaghilev.
[This appears to have been the nearest thing to a game show where you could 'play along at home'. My mother refers to it often. They appear to have been small playlets about un-named famous people. Another one she guessed was Charles Lamb. As you can see, 'Family Fortunes' it wasn't!]

To be continued

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Adwatch - No.104


I suppose one measure of success for a commercial is when a slogan or strapline passes into common currency.
The most successful one of recent years has been Ronseal's 'It does exactly what it says on the tin.'
Oh, there's another one, courtesy of Carlsberg.
I hate to puncture the copywriter's pride again (I'm lying. I like nothing better) but when these phrases insinuate themselves into everyday speech they quickly break free of the ropes that tether them to the brand.
Ask people where 'it does what it says on the tin' comes from and I bet that a lot of them couldn't do better than 'that ad on the telly about varnish'.

Many young people today, if you ask them if they're enjoying their meal or if they like the CD you gave them for their birthday, will not reply "Yes, it's very nice thank you, Uncle Willie" but 'I'm Lovin' It'.
I've no doubt that some of them go further and sing 'I'm Lovin' It' to the tune of the McDonald's jingle. I should warn such people that if they do this in my vicinity they may find themselves wiping my vomit off their T shirt.
Still, grudging McBrownie Points to the agency I suppose.

A current TV commercial for McDonald's features a young couple in bed. The man goes out to McDonald's to fetch a McDonald's breakfast. He evidently lives very close to a McDonald's which can't have done much for the value of his flat. Piles of polystyrene cartons in the doorway, Filet-O-Fish smeared over the windows, teenagers warbling 'I'm Lovin' It' late at night: these things can knock a few grand off your asking price. But I digress.
The young woman thinks he's prepared her breakfast in bed himself. It can't be from McDonald's, she says, because they don't do bagels. The woman is either intellectually challenged or hasn't put her contact lenses in because the clue is in the brown plastic McDonald's tray that he places on the bed. I didn't know you were allowed to take those trays home with you, but we'll let that pass. The golden arches on the paper napkin might be another giveaway but this woman is clearly no Poirot.

Given that she's as thick as two quarterpounders stood on top of each other, it's a mystery why he doesn't let her think he cooked the breakfast himself. It's not as though schlepping round to the nearest McDonald's bears any relation to the Herculean labours of the Milk Tray Man. And somehow 'all because the lady loves mass-produced junk food' doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Never having subscribed to the view that 'it's the thought that counts', I have to say that if someone plonked a tray of McPap on my bed in the morning, it wouldn't matter that I'd spent the previous six hours sighing ecstatically 'I'm Lovin It!' - they'd be out on their arse before you could say 'regular fries'.
But the McDonalds woman appears to think this is the most romantic thing anyone has ever done.
"I love you!" she says.
They both freeze. The woman looks horrified. The man freezes with a McBagel halfway in his mouth. And it's not because he's just remembered that he nicked one of their trays.
The woman has said the 'L' word.

She has said it inadvertently and in the casual, everyday sense of expressing appreciation of a good deed. But he might not realise that and might think that she actually loves him and that could ruin everything.
Jesus McChrist! What have I said? What am I like?

If I'm right, this commercial reflects an intriguing new phenomenon in relationships.
In the past, telling someone you loved them was a necessary precursor to getting your leg over. But today, love is the word that dares not speak its name. When the 'L' word slips out, the shagging stops.

I first registered this change in sexual mores when watching Paul Abbott's brilliant comedy drama 'Shameless'. Lip Gallagher is having regular 'no strings' sex with the daughter of his father's girlfriend. Then one day he accidentally utters the 'L' word. They Think It's All Over and it very nearly is. He spends a long time insisting that he didn't mean it and that he has no feelings for her at all. Eventually the girl is reassured that there is no danger of love coming between them and spoiling that many-splendoured thing called sex and the shagfest is able to continue.

Of course, the McMuffin munching couple wouldn't realise that they were presenting a McParadigm of the dynamics of inter-personal relationships in post-McModernist culture.
We can only hope that the woman was able to eat her words along with her McBagel and wash them down with her McLatte without any further complications.

Sunday Bloody Sunday

I didn't benefit much from the extra hour in bed provided by the clocks going back. I had a disturbed night. I think that I have started to snore and that this keeps waking me up. As I am going to sleep I am roused awake again by a sound not dissimilar to what my father, in yesterday's post, called the maritime chorus of ships' hooters on the Mersey. I am then kept awake by reflections on the horror of becoming a snorer and whether this is one of the harbingers of old age. Can it be long before I sit snoring in front of the television on Christmas Day and then insist to my young relatives that I wasn't really asleep, just 'resting my eyes'?

Waking early, I decided to catch up on yesterday's newspaper.
The Guardian's food writer Matthew Fort had decided to go back to basics with recipes for scrambled eggs and cheese on toast. However, he asserts that to make really good scrambled eggs they need to be cooked for 40 minutes on a hob no hotter than a single candle. And, of course, they need to be stirred throughout. That's right: 40 minutes. I'm sorry, but the only phrase that can be used in this context is 'taking the piss.'

I turned to the Review section and found an interview with someone I'd actually heard of: the playwright Simon Gray. But throughout the article his first stage play is referred to as 'Wild Child'. It is actually called 'Wise Child.' I became disproportionately angry about this mistake. I couldn't have been angrier if I'd written the play myself. Don't these journalists ever check things or proof-read? Wouldn't you familiarise yourself with the titles of all his plays before even doing the interview?

It seems a revival of his 'Otherwise Engaged' is soon to open in London and it so happens that my father got the title of that play wrong when he and my mother went to see it.
"What's this play called?" he asked as they were travelling to the theatre.
"Otherwise Engaged", said my mother.
My father, who is very deaf, thought she said "Other Guys and Gays".
Since he never hears all of the dialogue in a theatre and has to fill in the missing pieces of the jigsaw himself, he saw a completely different play from the one that Simon Gray had written and was just relieved that none of the male characters had simulated sex on stage.

I then spent a chunk of the morning adjusting all the clocks in Lupin Towers. This takes only a few seconds with old analogue clocks where you just twiddle the knob on the back. But with digital clocks you lose that hour you gained in the process of re-setting them all. Sometimes you have to hunt for the user manual because if you try and do it by guesswork you can wipe all your preset radio and television stations. And why do these digital clocks need to know the date, month and year? When have you ever consulted a clock to find out what bloody year it is? Or even the day of the week?

It's been pissing down with rain all day and now it's getting dark at four o'clock. All it needs now is for some little bastard to come trick or treating at my front door.
Such a disagreeable day, in fact, that I might as well spend the evening stirring scrambled eggs over the flame of my cigarette lighter.
No, on second thoughts it would probably run out of gas, I wouldn't be able to light a cigarette and then the trick or treating brats would get the kind of verbal that would see me hauled up before the local magistrates.

Friday, October 28, 2005

My First Trip

By way of a change of tone and subject, I am posting this account by my father of his first trip to sea in the 1920s.
This is a revised version of an article that first appeared in a Liverpool social history magazine.

Walking to a school that was not far from the docks on a cold, foggy December morning during the early 1920s, I could hear the maritime chorus coming from the River Mersey, accompanied by the regular blasts from the fog horns. There was the sound of the short, sharp and urgent hoots of the ferry boats already busy on their daily chores, ferrying passengers across the busy shipping lanes and the impatient signals from the tiny tugs as they chaperoned their charges alongside the quayside berths. One could hear the timid hoot of the low brow coaster, keeping a low profile in the shallower water. Then there was the wail of a poverty-stricken tramp, returning from working the world's waterways, its rusting hull giving it a geriatric appearance as it hoped to find a berth and a cargo.

There would be no mistaking the angry bellow of the great transatlantic liners, having probably missed the tide but never missing an opportunity to demonstrate their status on the busy river. The maritime chorus was as familiar to me as the dawn chorus might be to a farmer's boy.
Being at an elementary school and free from parental pressure and homework I could, together with my friends, enjoy the freedom to play on the foreshore and watch the never-ending procession of ships sailing down the river - naval boats, some doing trials, and troopships and a great variety of cargo boats servicing the vast Empire. There were Welsh boats, the Isle of Man boats and the Dublin and Belfast boats full with holidaymakers. Then, of course, the great liners, passengers lining their decks, the Cunarders off to America, the Canadian Pacific boats off to Canada, the Union Castle off to South Africa, the Steam Navigation liners off to the west coast of South America, the Elder Dempster ships off to the west coast of Africa and the Blue Funnel boats with their Chinese crews off to the Far East. It all furthered our knowledge of geography and when our fourteenth birthday arrived there might be an opportunity to fill a vacancy for a bellboy, a deckboy or even a kitchen boy. We could then find out what lay beyond the horizon.

Such an opportunity did arise for me when I had the good fortune to be signed on as a kitchen boy on a transatlantic liner. First trips are always memorable if only for the awful seasickness, especially in January when the North Atlantic can be at its most inhospitable.
Sailing day could not come quickly enough. The activity on Ocean Road, the road that led to the docks, was as busy as Wembley Way on Cup Final Day. Several liners were sailing, as well as a couple of cruise liners. Scouse seafarers would be exporting their peculiar chauvinism, a characteristic recognised worldwide for two or more centuries. The married men were easily recognised, not very sociable and bleary-eyed, having left a very hospitable bed for the inhospitable Atlantic. Bowler hats would indicate an officer, just like the Armistice Parade. The stewardesses went by taxis, financed by their tips rather than their wages. The teenagers, in better spirits, exchanged greetings with shipmate camaraderie.

The ship was already groomed for the Atlantic crossing. She was flying the Blue Peter and the company flag, the funnels already trailing smoke and the two gangways carrying a continual procession of passengers, officials, workmen and crew. The baggage and mail were being hoisted aboard in slings and lowered into the hatch. There was a great sense of urgency that was quite stimulating. Tiny tugs were already alongside like bridesmaids waiting to escort the bride to the altar and at the landing stage a huge crowd was waiting to see off the 'bride', bedecked in streamers. Like some weddings, it could turn out to be stormy.
I made my way to my allotted 'glory hole', almost on the water line. The portholes would never be open at sea. About twenty other kitchen hands shared the same awful accommodation. The anchor chutes ran through the glory hole so that sleeping in a storm would be like sleeping in a church belfry.
First trippers were always welcomed and helped. But the conversation appeared to be solely about the previous night's conquests, which many of the girls in question would have disputed. Adolescence was about to be by-passed in this man's world and from being street-wise I was to become worldly-wise.

I was escorted up to the promenade deck for the Board of Trade muster. We were to file past a formidable group of officials as well as the much-decorated ship's Captain who had nearly every naval honour from the VC downwards. I was reminded that I would have to call out the number of my lifeboat station as well as where my fire station was. As I fearfully approached, the ship's Captain stepped forward and asked "Is this your first trip, young man?"
"Yes, Sir."
"What is the abandon ship signal?"
Nobody had told me. I was speechless.
"So you join my ship and are ready to put to sea and you don't know the signal for abandoning ship and you didn't bother to find out? You had better find out before I next see you. We have enough problems with my passengers without having problems with my crew."
At three o'clock we were ready to depart. The last rope was cast free and the great liner slowly responded to the tiny tugs' pressure. There were frenzied farewells, cheers and tears as the liner, trailing hundreds of streamers, edged away, giving a mournful blast on her whistle, dismissing her escort of tugs and turning 180 degrees to head down the Mersey, trailing smoke until she vanished from sight and many of her passengers vanishing from the lives of many of the bystanders.

The elegance and opulence of the great liners was the stuff of folklore amongst Liverpool seamen as they chatted in the city's pubs. The luxury of the public rooms in different ships would be compared: the grandeur of Royal Suites, the solid marble toilets, the skilled woodcarvings and the reproduction French and Italian Renaissance furniture.
Stewards would discuss how the famous and infamous behaved when they travelled. But bedroom stewards always maintained a discreet silence.

My first glimpse of real luxury was on the first night. Before dinner, I could hear the bugler blowing 'The Roast Beef of Olde England'. The huge charcoal grill was glowing. I had been shown how to turn the ribs of beef in the huge ovens and I was to replenish the three sauce boats for serving with the grouse. The larder chef had carved from ice an aeroplane with the caviar in the cockpit for the table of a famous airman. Assistants were arranging garnishes and supplementary sauces. The soup chef was exercising his large vocabulary of obscenities - his consommé had not clarified. Like a bookmaker, he was trying to guess which of his six soups would be the favourite. He had long been addicted to this peculiar brand of excitement. The entrée chef was wondering whether he had produced enough artichoke bottoms for his Marie Louise garnish. The fish chef would be equally preoccupied as he arranged the pans for his Sole Meuniere and hoped that the poached salmon in its court bouillon would be the main attraction. He kept a wary eye on the friture, primed for the whitebait. The assistants on vegetables had laboured, preparing crates of fresh runner beans and garden peas. 'Spud barbers' produced hundreds of turned potatoes for Pommes Chateau with quick flicks of the wrist. The confectioner and his assistants would be beavering away producing birthday cakes and petit fours and a small mountain of strawberries would be marinating in orange juice and curacao for the popular Fraises Romanoff. The pantryman in his tiny pantry would be preparing thousands of butter pats, salads and cheese boards and, later in the evening, would prepare sandwiches for the public rooms. It was all a far cry from 'jam butties' and 'scouse'.

The orchestra was playing in the Minstral Gallery, the programme of music appearing opposite the menu. I caught my first glimpse of the dining room with waiters moving with the professionalism of the butlers that I had seen in films. I assumed that they came from a posh part of Merseyside. But they had mostly graduated from bellboys from third class. It was all so difficult for a boy from a deprived environment to comprehend. What I was seeing was pure theatre. When the waiters came crashing through the swing doors it was similar to an actor coming from the stage into the wings.
The first waiter to arrive banged down his tray, laughed and said: "I have a right pair out there! They look at the Borsch Polonaise on the menu and think it's something by Chopin and then order Pomp and Circum-bloody-stance from the music. They probably think the Londonderry Air is an Irish soufflé."
I was amused how the waiters satirised the menu terminology and to discover that they were just ordinary Scousers.
One waiter was having trouble with his cuffs. He removed his jacket to reveal a vest, no shirt and a cardboard front with the cuffs suspended from lengths of string that ran over his shoulders. When he returned his jacket he was impeccably dressed.
There was a steady stream of waiters crashing through the swing doors, joining various queues, sweating, swearing and swaying with the roll of the ship, knowing there would be a repeat performance with the second sitting.

Two days later, west of Ireland, we ran into bad weather. The roll of the ship, the awful creaking noise and seeing the horizon rise and fall brought on a feeling of nausea, the back of my neck went clammy, the colour drained from my cheeks and the heat of the kitchen and the smell of the food sent me racing to the nearest chute to be violently sick. The glamour of seafaring was physically surrendering and my embryonic social conscience had been severely shaken by the hierarchical class structure of a transatlantic liner.

The first class passengers had the boat and promenade deck. They lived on A deck which had many large public rooms, a cinema and all the amenities of a first class hotel, with probably a more liberal supply of luxury food.
The tourist class had a small aft deck. They did not dress in dinner jackets for dinner and had a much downgraded menu choice. They had a lounge but far fewer amenities and their sleeping quarters were on C Deck.
The third class restaurant was on D Deck. I was amused to see the outside leaves of cauliflower being puréed, mixed with a sauce seasoned with mace and served to the third class passengers as spinach. They had very little deck space and just a small lounge on the forrard poop deck. Their sleeping quarters were below the water line and they would have no conception of the cocktail parties, the deckchairs on the promenade and boat decks, nor the care and attention from the deck stewardesses who served beef tea each morning. They would not have access to the cinema or the well-equipped gymnasium, but what they did have was sheer luxury compared to the conditions for the catering crew.

We emerged from our glory holes and came up the companionways like commuters from the underground, the stewards having been allocated varying duties according to rank and length of service. Some would wash the restaurant floors, draw stores or clean silver as well as laying their station tables for breakfast. We would serve their breakfast at 7 am. The Board of Trade had decreed that eggs could be served on Thursdays and Sundays and fruit on the same day. On many ships that would be dried fruit in a pudding.
Of course, the engine room and deck personnel enjoyed far better conditions. They had their own kitchen and mess rooms and quite good food, although when an ambitious ship's cook decided to give them poached eggs there was nearly a mutiny. He was accused of frying their eggs in water.

Having been fed, the stewards then dressed to serve breakfast and take up their stations in the restaurant. They would have a short break until dinner but it would be nearly 9pm before they ate again. There were no recreation rooms, alcohol was forbidden and the deck space allotted was near the ship's bow and often awash with water.
We too had a very long day before we returned to our glory hole. There, the accommodation offered two-tier bunks, one wooden table and two wooden forms to sit on. A small locker was provided for personal belongings while our suits hung on the bunk rail.
We had two 'Abandon Ship' drills when I was again asked what the signal was. The ship's inspection was incredibly strict. The Captain's party was preceded by the ship's bugler with only essential staff remaining in the kitchen.
I was amazed to find that we were expected to eat on the kitchen worktops using boxes for seats. The stewards were less fortunate. They had no dining room and ate more or less when and where they could, 'on the wing'. We called them 'wingers'.
The stewards and assistant cooks were paid £7 and 7 shillings per month. The voyage lasted 21 days, after which we were dismissed to go on the dole until the next sailing day. I received £3 and 5 shillings per month.

In spite of the hardship, I did more than 100 Atlantic crossings and enjoyed the wonderful camaraderie and the Scouse humour as well as seeing the world.


The liner described here was the Duchess of York (pictured).
I would only add that when I visited Liverpool a few years ago I stood alone on the dockside at sunset and became unexpectedly emotional. This was because I knew that my father, my great-grandfather and other members of my family had sailed many times from that spot. But also because a way of life had disappeared to be replaced by a rather soulless 'heritage attraction'. It's probably foolish to mourn the passing of industries that were based on so much hardship and poverty but I don't think it's sentimental to celebrate the spirit and the humour of the people who worked in them.

Paperless In Gatesland

Bill Gates has been talking again about the future of information technology. He's predicting a virtually paperless society.
Yeah right.
Remember the paperless office? Whatever happened to that?

I was an early adopter of electronic personal organisers. I found them very useful for my work. I could have also entered my shopping list into one and carried it round the supermarket. But I didn't. Because for low level tasks like a shopping list a pen and paper is unbeatable. It needs no batteries........oh, I'm not going to insult you by explaining why. It's so bleeding obvious.

This morning I was reading some print-outs from my web design manual when I was in the toilet. Printing them on paper gave them this portability. It's true that I could have taken a laptop in with me, if I possessed one. It's also true that in the future envisioned by Bill Gates a micro-computer in the toilet roll holder could project the pages onto the toilet door. But why bother when we have something as brilliant and cheap as text on paper?

As you'd expect, Bill Gates predicts the end of newpapers as we know them. He loves the idea of personalised content. I hate the idea of personalised content.
I already personalise my content by buying The Guardian rather than the Daily Mail or The Sun.
My paper gives me a lot of content that I don't normally read. But sometimes a headline in the business or sports sections will catch my eye and I will read them. Personalised content would probably mean that I would be getting only those subject areas that I mostly read and that particularly interest me. It's the equivalent of the switch in television and radio from 'broadcasting' to 'narrowcasting' and the proliferation of hundreds of channels that cater for a specific interest or demographic.
The technological changes that make these specialisations possible are contributing to two regrettable developments: at the personal level: tunnel vision; at the social level: social fragmentation.

Thursday, October 27, 2005


I'm lying immobilised with a bright light shining in my eyes. I struggle repeatedly to open my eyes but my eyelids won't move.
I try to say 'Take me to your leader' or 'Planet Earth's a shithole but all things considered I'd rather stay there' but no words come out.
Finally the nightmare is over and I stagger into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

I haven't had this unpleasant experience for a long time but I was reminded of it by a study undertaken by Goldsmith's College in London which showed that most reports of alien abductions can be explained by a sleep disorder. More specifically, sleep paralysis.

When we sleep our muscles are immobilised to stop us acting out our dreams and hurting ourselves. But sometimes it is possible to wake up or half wake up without this paralysis being switched off for several minutes.
I used to experience this when I slept in the day in a brightly lit room. I never actually thought that I was lying in a flying saucer being prodded by alien beings. But it was a very terrifying experience nonetheless.

Interestingly, the new study has found that most of the people who experienced sleep paralysis as alien abduction already had a belief in the paranormal.
The researchers also venture the opinion that it makes some people feel special to think that aliens have travelled billions of light years across interstellar space just for them.

Fortunately, it seems to have been a temporary aberration in my case and I haven't experienced it for a couple of years.
I haven't awoken to find any other odd-looking, nameless being poking me for even longer. But that's another story.


It seems I may have misjudged the 'lads' mag' Zoo.
They were criticised by the Advertising Standards Authority for running a competition in which readers could win their girlfriend a new pair of breasts. Photographs of eight pairs of breasts had the caption "What type of tits do you want for your girlfriend?"

In its defence, Zoo magazine said that the competition was "intended to be a parody of the view that men objectified women and of society's obsession with cosmetic appearance".
I hadn't realised that Zoo and its ilk were actually biting social satires from a feminist perspective.
And if they're not, then at least Zoo deserves the 2005 award for sheer brass neck.

This morning's Radio Four News led with the Prince of Wales' views on climate change. In a nutshell these were:
a) It really is appalling.
b) Something must be done about it.
Those who pay attention to such things will notice that this is remarkably similar to Charlie's views on a wide range of subjects.

To be fair to Charles (if I must), much of what he said about farming and the environment was perfectly sensible. The exclusive interview given to the Today programme would have made an interesting short feature on Farming Today.
But the lead news story on the network?
Give us a break.

Mini-Adwatch: with the threat of Bird Flu meaning all birds will be viewed as harbingers of death, Hovis might like to revisit the idea of using talking ducks to extol the health benefits of their bread.

I see that Mike at Troubled Diva is posting his mother's memoirs in a blog.
I once intended to do something similar. My mother kept a diary all her life. Towards the end of her life she let me read some of those from the period of my childhood. I was astonished to find that I was making bad puns almost as soon as I emerged from the womb. But more fascinating was the social history that was revealed in these diaries, small things like what was on BBC television in the 1950s. I will see if I can get access to these again and publish some of those nuggets here.

Also, to give you a change from my own voice, I will shortly post here my father's account of his first trip to sea in the 1920s.
There's no doubt that the internet could be an invaluable resource for social historians in the future if people can be persuaded to post their memories or get their children to do it for them. Blogs will be an important part of that resource.
But I do worry slightly about the permanence of this archive, given that we are dependent on companies like Blogger and hundreds of servers across the network. If terrorists ever turn their attentions to the structure of the internet we could be in serious trouble.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Norman, Gaston and Larry's Sausage

I see that Norman Balon is to retire from running the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, Soho, London. This has attracted a lot of media coverage, partly because the pub is the venue for Private Eye's lunches but also because Norman was always dubbed the rudest landlord in Britain.
His pub was never one of my watering holes when Soho was my stamping ground. But I went there a few times in the hope of being insulted by Norman but without success.
I don't think Norman really was the rudest landlord. The competition for that title would be very strong. I think he was clever enough to make it his pub's unique selling point. And frankly, it didn't really have any other selling points.

The late Gaston, landlord of the French Pub in Soho, could be pretty rude when he wanted and quite witty with it. A lady once asked for a Pimms and Gaston replied: "Madame, this is a pub not a greengrocer's."

Then there was the landlady at the Duke of Wellington in Wardour Street who considered herself much grander than any of her customers. I once saw a man ask for a packet of crisps with his drinks. She gave him an icy smile and said: "I'm so sorry, we don't sell crisps. We find they encourage the wrong kind of customers." The slowly changing expression on the man's face as the implications of this remark sank in was like one of those lingering reaction shots you get in films.

I can't leave this subject without a story my family have heard many times. Eric was one of the best barmen in Soho. He could serve several people at once whilst conducting a conversation with two other people. A Geordie with a heart of gold, his one failing was that he had a very short fuse.
One very busy evening when Eric was running the bar single-handedly my friends and I made room for Laurence Olivier, Lord Olivier, to get to the bar and buy drinks.
In those days it was common for pubs to have a heated glass cabinet on the bar containing cooked sausages. They had usually been there since the morning or even the day before.
Lord Olivier asked if he might have one of these sausages. Eric, in between serving six other people, threw a sausage on to a plate.
Olivier said: "Excuse me, do you think I could have that sausage there (pointing at the cabinet), the one that is more well done."
There was a look in Eric's eyes that would have stopped the Kray Brothers at ten paces.
"Listen", said Eric, "you either have that fucking sausage or no fucking sausage."
Olivier took the undercooked sausage and meekly returned to his seat.

We all stood in silent shock for several minutes. Then we said to Eric: "Do you know who that was? It was Laurence Olivier. Lord Olivier. The greatest actor of his generation. The greatest actor in the history of the world."
Eric replied: "I don't care if it was the fucking Pope. Nobody pisses me around when I'm this fucking busy."

I don't have many heroes. I'm not even sure that Olivier is one of them. But Eric certainly is.
On the other hand, that dread phrase 'Do you know who I am?' never passed Olivier's lips. The man who had raged as Othello and, as Henry V, stiffened the sinews of his troops on the eve of Agincourt, had been as chastened as a schoolboy being told off by a dinner lady.

Some years later I bumped into Eric in Soho and reminded him of this episode. He said that when he told people about it they never believed him and he wished I was there to vouch for it. Well it now has whatever immortality the internet can provide. Whether or not Eric is still with us, he would be pleased about that.

Those Questions

Time for me to answer the questions submitted to mark the first birthday of this blog, most of them from Portuguese Nova.
Both she and Tony asked what I did for a living.
'I have had wide-ranging experience in both the private and public sectors, dealing with people at all levels and developing a broad range of skills....'
Well, I don't want to be too specific.
But I've already revealed here that I once worked at the Savoy Hotel. And that I worked in London theatres. The latter job, if you want to be pretentious, was as a 'stage technician' but more commonly known as a 'stagehand'. My actual job description on the contract I still have a copy of, from Stoll Moss Theatres, was 'showman'. This meant you just worked on shows (i.e. part-time), as opposed to a 'Dayman' who was a full-time member of staff but who also worked on the evening shows. I wonder if that traditional terminology has survived in the West End. Probably not.

I spent many years in an office job in London and also spent many years in local government. I've also done some freelance journalism.
I once worked for one day in a London pub. I must write about why it was only one day on another occasion.
I did some part-time teaching for a year as well.
There are a number of things I nearly did but either didn't get or else backed out when sense prevailed. These include becoming a postman, teaching at a Prep School and running a stately home.
As you can see, I've never had a 'career' but have just careered around from one opportunity and expedient to another.
My childhood ambitions were to be (in order) a coach driver, a zoo keeper, a librarian and a novelist. My grandmother always mispronounced 'librarian' and told everyone I wanted to be a 'Liberian'. People were too polite to ask why a young boy would wish to change his nationality.

PN also asked:
If you did want to make your own muesli, would you know how?
No, but I'd do what I always do. Look up a recipe on the internet, print it out, put it in my Recipes Folder, and then never make it.
Have you ever been to the US?
No and probably never will. I cannot travel by plane so would have to book one of Cunard's State Rooms which would be very expensive. I was invited to San Francisco in 1970 by an American I met in a London pub. He gave me his address but if I turned up now he probably wouldn't remember me, despite me having retained my boyish good looks.
If I were ever to make it out of Portugal while on your continent, and we were to meet for a drink, what would I order for you to celebrate your blogiversary?
That's a tricky one. I stopped drinking a few years' ago so my tolerance to alcohol is now very low. So, to avoid any embarrassing scenes in the Rod and Mullet, I would just have a weak shandy and sip it slowly. Anyway, I would be sufficiently intoxicated by the excitement of meeting you.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

More Blairite Bollocks

So every secondary school is to become a specialist school.
What's next on Blair's crazed agenda? Will every doctor have to become a specialist? No more bog-standard General Practitioners?

And it's a nonsense to think you can identify a child's specialist subject at the age of eleven. That's why the old 11-plus was so unfair.
I'm not sure that I've yet identified my own special talent five decades later. Unless you count posting opinionated clever-dickery on the internet.

We currently have 'state' schools and 'independent' schools. But now, with a wave of Tony's magic wand, all secondary schools will become 'independent state schools'. How curious that the man who first showed how language could be perverted for political ends, George Orwell, had the real name of Blair.

Local authorities will lose what few remaining powers they have over education and educational provision will be become an unregulated jungle. In all the Blairite prattle about 'choice' it's funny how the traditional democratic choice through the ballot box is being removed at local level.

There's a double page photograph in today's Guardian of Ruth Kelly presenting her education White Paper to the Cabinet. She's standing up to do this although she could equally be giving a rendition of Ole Man River in that fine baritone of hers. Apparently the presentation was accompanied by a slide show.

If the faces weren't so familiar it could be a picture of a group of middle managers being addressed by a woman from Human Resources on how to conduct Staff Appraisals.
Or it could be a team-building awayday at a country house hotel. "No Gordon, the point of the exercise was for you to catch Tony as he fell backwards. Oh dear, is there a First Aid kit anywhere?"

R.I.P. traditional Cabinet Government.
It's a depressing thought that the corporate bullshit so many people have to endure in their working lives is now replicated at the heart of government. The clash of ideas and principles around the Cabinet table is now replaced by a Powerpoint presentation by a pointedly powerless machine politician whose policies come from Tony who got them from a gaggle of unelected policy wonks in Downing Street.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Monday Morning Goods

I was startled to hear my local supermarket manager ask one of the checkout girls to 'see if Craig has morning wood.' It seemed an improper request to make of a young girl and I nearly offered to go and ascertain this information myself.
Fortunately, I had misheard.
The instruction was to ' see if Craig has morning goods'.

'Morning Goods' is the term that supermarkets use for bread and rolls and such like. I always find it an odd phrase. I can't see that either the purchase or consumption of these products is linked to a particular time of day.
I'm quite partial to a roll in the early evening and you never know at what time of day or night a sudden craving for toast and Marmite will strike. Similarly, there are people who never check their watches if given the opportunity to munch on a muffin.

And there's another thing: when did the traditional English muffin suddenly transform itself into an over-sized fairy cake? Didn't muffins belong to the same species as crumpets? You held them on a toasting fork over an open fire and then covered them with butter.....'I say, these are damned fine muffins, Cameron, the finest I've ever eaten at Eton. Send your fag out for some more and if the little oik's not back before Evensong we'll give him a sound thrashing.'

The Co-op, purveyors of Morning Goods to Lupin Towers, also operate a funeral service. So this must make them the only company in Britain to sell both Morning Goods and Mourning Goods.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Adwatch - No 93

Regular readers of these pieces may have noticed that I frequently receive a different message from commercials from the one the advertiser intended. I have no idea whether the fault lies with the advertisers or with myself and what may be an abnormal tendency to see ambiguity and sub-texts where none exist. I suppose it's arguable that if I were a typical viewer I wouldn't waste my time analysing these things but would just go out and buy the sodding products.
Anyway, here we go again.........

I glance up from my newspaper and see what appears to be yet another Brat Doc. A small boy is tearing round the house like a whirling dervish. Then we see him cutting a swathe through the suburban garden like a miniature Hurricane Katrina. Clearly an acute case of hyperactivity.
I wait for the film to cut to a telegenic psychologist watching all this on a monitor and drawing up a Behaviour Modification Programme that features House Rules, Boundaries and Reward Systems.

But wait. With a mighty crash the Brat Doc template shatters into tiny pieces.
The boy's mother is not tearfully gulping down Valium tablets and explaining how the supercharged sprog is destroying the family.
She's beaming with parental pride and saying that he never stops all day. Moreover, she is herself ensuring that he maintains the energy output of Windscale by shovelling copious quantities of Kellogg's New Tiger Power™ breakfast cereal down his throat. For Tiger Power™, according to Messrs Kelloggs, is 'wholegrain energy for non-stop kids' and will 'help mums win the breakfast battle'.

Now I may be missing something here but if the breakfast table is like a battlefield then taking the pre-pubescent tiger power down a few notches would seem to be a sensible objective. Stoking up the energy levels is a bit like handing out Stanley knives at a Glasgow pub brawl.

"Sorry to ring you at work, darling. But could you pop into the pharmacy and get another Ritalin prescription.
And for Christ's sake don't buy any more of that Tiger Power. The little bastard's just trashed the living room again."


Default response Number Two is my frequent inablity to comprehend what's going on in the minds of those people who designate themselves with an adjective - the Creatives.
Not to be confused with Creationists, although they too have a cavalier attitude to truth, logic and science.

Yesterday I had two disturbing encounters with a commercial for Persil Non-Bio. So disturbing that I lay in bed last night trying to figure out what it meant. I would have preferred to be getting to grips with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or Superstring Theory, either of which would have proved less taxing.

Before we get on to the heavy stuff, let's fast-forward to the end of the Persil commercial which has the strapline 'Dirt is good'.
Now it's undeniable that if you're a multi-national detergent manufacturer, dirt must sit at the very apex of all creation.
But if you're trying to sell detergent then surely the only possible message is that dirt is bad? Not just bad in a wishy-washy 'doesn't look very nice' kind of way but an outward sign of moral failure.
But this is a mere quibble when we go back to the beginning of the storyboard.

Two boys aged about twelve climb a garden fence and get covered in dirt in the process. They have climbed the fence in order to look at the girl next door sunbathing.
The first caption says: 'This isn't dirt.'
The second caption says: 'It's the girl next door.'
So, we've got two concrete nouns here: 'dirt' and 'the girl'. They are not co-terminous or interchangeable. The girl is not smeared over the boys' chinos and the dirt is not sunbathing in the garden.
It's true that in the endless recyling of the matter that is trapped within the gravity of our planet, the atoms of the dirt and the girl may one day rub shoulders in some new and different meta-form. But in the time-frame of a 30-second vignette, the movements of atoms across the millennia need not detain us for long.

There's a device in literature called the 'transferred epithet'. It's common in the poetry of Dylan Thomas - the 'lilting house', the 'happy yard' in Fern Hill. But we don't usually bugger about with nouns unless we have a neurological disorder, like The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.
So in what sense, if any, is the dirt the girl next door?

Here are some possible interpretations of what Charlie Creative (or a Creative on Charlie) was trying to say:

'Every picture tells a story and so does every piece of dirt. So when the smiling Mums who live on Planet Commercial are loading the washing machine and see the stains on their little boys' clothing they drift off into a luminous reverie of maternal pride and know they are looking at the fleeting souvenirs of his adventures, fantasies and dreams.'
'There's nothing dirty about climbing a fence to indulge in a spot of voyeurism and ogle the girl next door in her swimsuit. Boys will be boys. At least you know he's not gay, although you'd be relaxed about that but he might get bullied and you wouldn't have grandchildren, and you'd be more worried if it was your husband perving over the girl next door, and anyway Persil Non Bio will soon have those chinos looking like new.'

Well yes, I have to concede that whilst 'It's not's the girl next door' may be gibberish, it's a lot easier to fit into a 30 second commercial than either of the above.

And on the standard test of advertisers - 'recall' or memorability - Charlie Creative would now be feeling very pleased with himself. He'd expect me to be hurling bottles of Persil Non Bio into my basket faster than you could say reverse spin cycle. Sadly, life, like a Persil commercial, is not that simple.
For I have an unshakeable and irrational belief that only Ariel can shift those stubborn stains. Plus an equally irrational belief that Persil is little better than coloured water.
And if you ever convince me that 'dirt is good' I'll even forsake Ariel, take my chuddies down to the village stream and rely on the non-bio action of chalk spring water and a large pebble.

'A Kiss Is Just A Kiss'..........

.........except when it's a sexual assault.
Last week a young woman teacher was convicted of abuse for kissing a boy pupil. She said that the boy had kissed her.
Whatever the truth of their encounter in a cupboard, it was certainly 'inappropriate behaviour'. But sexual abuse?

Did this really warrant not one trial but two, because the first case collapsed and there was a retrial, at huge public expense?
In the second trial the jury deliberated for eleven hours before returning majority verdicts. The precise charge was "abusing a position of trust by sexual activity with a child." The child in this case was a teenager, albeit below the age of consent.

A 'non-consensual' kiss on the lips is not something that anybody welcomes. I've been on the receiving end of quite a few in my life (though never from teachers) but it never occurred to me that I was being sexually assaulted.
Isn't calling a kiss a 'sexual assault' a corruption of language and doesn't it weaken a term that should be reserved for far more serious forms of abuse?
At this rate, shaking hands with someone will be construed as foreplay.

It's no wonder that the jury had such difficulty in reaching a verdict. For some of the evidence in this case was ludicrous. It was said that the teacher wore 'provocative' clothing, although the press reports didn't define what this was. It would have to be pretty provocative to arouse teenage boys who probably had copies of 'Zoo' and 'Nuts' and 'FHM' in their school bags.
It was also said that she encouraged pupils to lie on the floor in warm weather and that this allowed them to look up her skirt.
A 15 year old boy said "She used to float around the classroom a lot, checking on the boys' work and touching their shoulders."
Touching their shoulders? If she were stroking their thighs I could see the problem. But when I was at school it was common for teachers, both male and female, to put a reassuring hand on your shoulder as they checked your work.
When I was at primary school, a male teacher had a habit of patting my bottom to indicate that I could return to my desk. I have no reason to think there was anything sexual about this but today the poor man would probably be led into court with his coat over his head.

Reading the details of this trial, there's certainly a prima facie case for saying that this teacher behaved injudiciously or even inappropriately. It was certainly easier for this boy to pester her - as she claimed - because she had given him her mobile phone number.
But it's odd that as we become a more 'touchy-feely' society and displays of human warmth and affection are generally regarded as a positive attribute in a person, in certain contexts like schools and workplaces people are becoming paranoid about physical contact.
In many cases, a word from the Head or the Boss would be a more sensible and proportionate response than dragging people through the criminal courts, destroying their lives and racking up huge costs to the taxpayer.

Wordwatch - No 242

On this week's Xtra Factor (ITV2) Ben Shephard said that the contestants had been meeting 'the hoi polloi of the celebrity world'. This reversal of the meaning of 'hoi polloi' is one of the most common mistakes in English today.
'Hoi Polloi' means 'the common people' or even 'the rabble' and comes from the Greek for 'the many'.

If you were going to use the phrase 'the hoi polloi of celebrity' you'd be talking about the X Factor contestants themselves and, without wishing to be rude, the presenter Ben Shepherd.
The contestants in question had met Michael Jackson. There are many things you can call Jacko but being one of the 'hoi polloi' is not one of them. I'm sure there's a Greek word for someone with his alleged tastes and he would probably have felt very at home in Ancient Greece but you would never bracket the King of Pop with the mass of humanity.

'Hoi Polloi' was also used in Britain for university students who graduated without Honours but I doubt that it's used in that context now. You dont hear much about 'Honours Degrees' these days and the appellation 'BA (Hons)' seems less common.
Indeed, now that so many people go to university it seems a bit naff or pretentious to put 'BA' on your business cards or letterhead.
A boy I once shared a flat with used to hide the letters from his mother because she always put '(BA)' on the envelope.

A new term amongst students is 'I got a Desmond'. This means they got a 2.2 degree and comes from 'Desmond Tutu'.
That one's going to puzzle people in 50 or 100 years' time.

I have inadvertently revealed that not only do I watch the X Factor but also the Xtra Factor and, a new programme, The X Factor 24/7.
Oh come on, people. If I had a life do you think I'd be writing this blog every day?

Having raised the subject, I must say that the standard is much higher this year and the decisions of the voting public and the judges even more infuriating.
Where do you stand on the Chico Question?
Although I live alone and am free to swear at the television, I rarely use the 'c' word. But I do whenever Chico appears and it's not 'Chico!' I'm shouting. He's almost caused me to change my views on capital punishment. I have such a powerful, visceral repugnance towards this man that I have to keep a sick bucket next to my chair.
That rather odd new term 'up himself' could have been invented for him. It takes an extreme and mis-placed form of chutzpah for someone only in a talent show and who can't sing a note to start inventing catch-phrases and putting his own name into the songs he's singing. But at least the producers must be delighted with the amount of press coverage he's generating.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Button Your Lip

Some time ago I deplored the way that social kissing has reached epidemic proportions and I received a fair amount of support from my readers, mostly from the men.
The imminent arrival of Bird Flu may prove that every cloud has a silver lining and put a temporary halt to the practice. There'll probably be a Government booklet telling people not to engage in casual kissing - Kissing Kills!.....Mwah, Mwah is Murder! - that kind of thing.

In the meantime, our in-house advertising team have returned from an extended working lunch in the Rod and Mullet with the artwork for some button badges that can be worn at parties, receptions, weddings, barmitzvahs and other high-risk occasions:

This first one is a tad aggressive but is based on a badge that was worn by some gay men in the 1970s which said: 'How Dare You Assume I'm Heterosexual'.

No 2 is also for those who want something in your face but nobody near their face.

This Shakespearean one is for those of us who usually end up head-banging instead of kissing.

This is an Ali G inspired badge for the younger party-goer.

A succint little rhyming number to wear to Hunt Balls.

For occasions where you want to keep your options open. Keep it in your pocket ready for your introduction to that fit bird or bloke in the corner.

Put this one in your pocket before you jump on the Eurostar. France is a high-risk zone. Not sure it quite translates as 'I don't think so!' but even the frogs aren't too thick to grasp the meaning.

Badges available on mail order shortly at 99p each, plus £10.95 postage and packing. Or buy 6 and get the 7th free!
Cheques payable to William Lupin. No refunds.
Also available from all good newsagents, and WH Smith.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Smear Test

Never mind a week being a long time in politics. Sometimes a couple of hours is an eternity.
While I was writing yesterday about Liam Fox being part of the homophobic Tory right wing, the London Evening Standard was hitting the streets with a lead story about Fox having been the victim of 'gay smears' about his past.
He seems to have followed the Cameron line in refusing to comment on stories about his past life but said that his forthcoming marriage would lay to rest any suspicions that he might be gay. But of course. Gay men have never been known to marry, have they?

But I'm less interested in whether the rumours about Fox were true or not than in the Standard's use of language.
Why should the suggestion that someone might be gay be called a 'smear'? And doesn't using such language in the media just reinforce the prejudices of the school bullies and the gay-bashers and murderers?
One indicator of society having grown up will be when describing someone as gay can no longer be called a smear.
You might call it 'the smear test'.


A Tory activist said of David Cameron on the radio today: "On the drugs issue he was totally honest. He said he wasn't going to answer the question."
Sorry? Could you just run that past me again?

As it happens, David 'smoothie chops' Cameron changed tack slightly on Channel 4 News last night when he said that he had never used cocaine whilst he was an MP.
If he's going to say that, he might as well go the whole hog and say he has never used cocaine at all, assuming that is the case. But one of two possible inferences of this latest statement is that he used cocaine before he was an MP. Should that be the truth then, like so many politicians, he has chosen to live the next few weeks, months or years with a ticking time-bomb down his Calvin Kleins.

Here's the kind of possible scenario that should worry him if he has ever taken drugs:
Imagine you were at university with Cameron and saw him smoking a spliff or doing coke. You go to Max Clifford and wily old Max would say 'sit tight for a bit. Wait until Cameron is elected Leader of the party and you can add a few noughts to your cheque. If we run the story now you'll get half as much money and possibly stop him becoming Leader. And if that happens and you've got some more dirt up your sleeve, you won't get a second bite at the cherry.'
Be afraid, David. Be very afraid.

Radio F***

Radio Four is the background to large chunks of my day. Described as the 'intelligent speech' station, it can both bore and stimulate but there are few of those wretched phone-ins, the presenters mostly speak to you rather than to each other, there are no jingles and it's never raucous. Yes, that all adds up to a thinly-veiled attack on Radio 5 which I often endure on Sunday mornings when Radio Four is pumping out religion.

But this week, as you may have read, the calm of Radio Four was shattered by a spectacular row between Joan Rivers and Darcus Howe on the usually anodyne 'Midweek' programme.
Ms Rivers thought Howe was calling her a racist and had a full-blown tantrum in that she didn't just shout and rant but also banged the table repeatedly. She endlessly repeated "How dare you!" This would have been less tedious if she'd varied it with Catherine Tate's catchphrase "How very dare you!" I felt that someone with her facility with words and long experience of ad-libbing on stage could have been a bit more inventive with the invective.

Towards the end of her onslaught she called Howe a 'son of a bitch', or maybe that should be written 'sonofabitch'. I may be wrong, but my impression is that this is a much stronger insult in Britain than in America. I'm not sure that Americans take it quite so literally. The same is true of the 'mother******' word which, in Britain, is considered by censors and the public alike as equal in strength to the 'c' word. It's generally the case that insulting someone's mother is only a good idea if you like hospital food.
At school there was a boy who was very easy to send into a blind rage so we used to bait him by saying his mother was a bitch or a whore. It was like lighting the touch paper on a Catherine Wheel. You applied the match, stood well back and watched the fun, having first secured your exit route. If you were sitting a few desks in front of him in double Latin you could toss these remarks over your shoulder, watch him change colour, splutter, writhe and spit, and still be out of the classroom ahead of him and halfway across the games field.
'Amo, amas, your mother's a prostitute, amat.'
My God, why do I always tell people I hated school?

The Midweek row began when Howe said that Rivers didn't like the term 'black'. I don't know what he meant by this. Although I rather like Howe, I often find his arguments difficult to follow. Fortunately, he seems to have a calm temperament and at one point could be heard chuckling when Rivers was in full spate.
The most amusing thing was that, having finally silenced Joan Rivers, the presenter Libby Purves moved seamlessly on to a bland discusssion about plant photography with another guest.

The following morning in the same 9 am timeslot, on Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time heavyweight seminar on Greek philosophy, an academic casually used the term 'dog fuck'. Moreover, he was not using the term as an insult either to Melvyn or to some other academic who had beaten him to a professorship, but was talking literally about fucking dogs.
This makes perfect sense in the context of the Cynic school of philosophy. But I think Radio Four has an absolute ban on the 'F' word, certainly at 9 o'clock in the morning.

I thought I heard a slight gasp from Melvyn when the word was uttered although he sensibly made no comment. Meanwhile, meterological satellites detected a large cloud of steam over Budleigh Salterton and paramedics were at full stretch throughout the Home Counties.

I switched off this morning's Desert Island Discs while writing this, just to be on the safe side. Admittedly, you'd expect children's author Jacqueline Wilson to be as safe as a discussion on Greek philosophy. But the way the Radio Four morning schedule is going she might well have asked for 'Never Mind The Bollocks' and chosen a vibrator as her luxury item.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Gay Stuff

The brutal murder of a young, gay man on Clapham Common is a wake-up call to those who think that, following a series of legislative reforms, gay men now live in a climate of acceptance and freedom.
In a similar way, the murder of a black teenager in Liverpool a few months ago showed that there are people so consumed with hatred that they will bury an axe in someone's head.
The optimistic view is that there is always a time-lag between changes to the legal framework and changes in public attitudes.
The pessimistic view is that changes in attitude don't necessarily follow at all, that legislation can always be reversed, and that the same battles have to be fought over and over again.

There was a harrowing article in Guardian Weekend a few weeks' ago about homophobic bullying in schools and the continuing failure of many schools to get to grips with this problem.
The infamous Section 28 has now been abolished but the article showed the limits of legislative reform in this area.
It's impossible to stop homophobic bullying without saying that it's OK to be gay. But if teachers say that they are often jumped on by parents with homophobic views, often based on religious beliefs. Some of those parents might also be school governors. Some teachers might also hold religious views that, whilst not condoning bullying, assert that homosexuality is sinful. So whilst all schools have an anti-bullying policy, there is often a refusal to acknowledge the specific nature of homophobic bullying in the way that racist bullying would be acknowledged and confronted for what it was.


In the Conservative Party now, attitudes to gay rights are widely regarded as a litmus test of modern Conservatism. I don't know why this should be so, but the fact is that no reference to modern, One Nation Conservatism is complete without using the phrase 'straight or gay', usually immediately after 'white or black'.

So it's worth noting that all the candidates in the current leadership contest, some of whom have used that mantra, have voted against some or all of recent legislation to extend gay equality.
And yes, that includes the young, thrusting, oh-so-modern David Cameron.

Liam Fox has attempted to show a compassionate side to right-wing Conservatism by focusing on the issues of mental health and domestic violence. In his conference speech he also mentioned bullying in schools. He didn't, of course, mention the problem of homophobic bullying. Hardly surprising, because he is closely aligned with the right-wing, Christian, family-values section of the party.

Sometimes when I've argued in these terms people have protested that it's perfectly possible to be against bullying while believing that homosexuality is wrong. In the same way, many Christians prattle about how much they love the sinner whilst hating the sin.
It's a position that just doesn't work in practical terms. And if you ever want to judge the validity of these kind of arguments just try substituting the word 'black' for 'gay'.
"I'm not a racist and I condemn attacks on black people but I don't think the law should treat black and white people equally."
It's a position that would only seem acceptable in the provisional wing of the BNP.

Returning to the Clapham Common murder, Peregrine Worsthorne had a letter in yesterday's Guardian saying that to avoid violence gay men would be wise to exercise discretion and not engage in what he quaintly called 'coupling' in public places.
This is a bit like saying that, whilst rape is to be deplored, women who wear short skirts are somehow inviting it.

But it's also based on some fundamental misconceptions. I have no personal knowledge of cruising in public parks. As with eating, so with sex - I'm not an al fresco kind of person. But my impression is that many men who go cruising go somewhere more private and more comfortable for the actual sex, once they've found a sexual partner.
Those who do have sex in a public place usually find somewhere out of sight of passers-by, if only because they are committing a criminal offence.

And a significant number of men who have sex in public spaces are neither self-defined nor socially-defined as gay. Remember the Labour Minister Ron Davies, married with children, who seems to have had a liking for sex with anonymous men in parks and lay-bys? It may not necessarily be a preference by such people but a necessity. When straight or bisexual men want sex with other men it has to be secret and anonymous; going to gay pubs and clubs is too dangerous an option for them.

When health professionals were first fighting the AIDS epidemic, they quickly cottoned on to this fact and used to advertise for health workers not to work with 'gay men' but to work with 'men who have sex with other men'. They realised that unless the conventional labels were dispensed with they were going to miss large numbers of men who sometimes had sex with other men.

The final riposte to Worsthorne is that casual sex in public places is not confined to gay people. In recent years the phenomenon of 'dogging' has spread like wildfire and even had a celebrity boost when famous actors and footballers have been caught at organised sex sessions in country parks late at night.
Dogging seems to be far more highly organised than gay cruising, mainly through the internet, and to have a more explicitly exhibitionist element to it. I don't know whether it arose because straight people thought 'why should gay people have all the fun?' If it was indeed a form of sexual plagiarism, then all it needs to complete the circle is for gangs of gays to descend on the dogging sites and beat up the straights.

That's not a suggestion though. Not just because I abhor violence but because it could lead to some unfortunate scenarios: "Sorry, Dad, I didn't see it was you in the dark. Mum said you'd gone to the darts match."

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Now We Are 1

Today is this blog's first birthday. Champagne corks have been popping and streamers flying all morning here at Lupin Towers. Even poor old Wolfgang, who silently watches over my musings, fell foul of a party popper.
On this special occasion, forgive me if I blog about blogging. I was going to say if I write a self-referential post but you would only shout 'Nothing new there, then.'

This blog was an unplanned baby. A year ago many of us had been blown away by a new television comedy called Green Wing. On the Channel 4 message boards someone said that one of the writers had a blog - James Henry. Wishing to put a comment on his blog I found I had to register with Blogger and somehow arrived at the page for creating a blog. For no other reason than curiosity about how the system worked, I created a blog. But if you'd told me that I would post something almost every day for the next year I'd have said that you didn't know me very well.
Perhaps I didn't know myself very well.

Blogging is supposed to be a quick and easy way of sharing your thoughts on the internet. You see something on the news, log into Blogger, type your thoughts into the Blogger window, click Publish and go and have your tea.
If only.
Anyone who has ever lost an entire post when Blogger has malfunctioned types their post into Wordpad or some other program first and then copies and pastes it into Blogger.
I'm also a very slow writer and sometimes get stuck on a single sentence for 15 minutes, either because I can't find the metaphor that is hiding in the recesses of my brain or because I can't get the structure of the sentence right.

Once a post is written, there's a long process of editing and tinkering. I may have used 'tinkering' in two consecutive sentences so have to find a synonym. The rhythm of a sentence may be wrong so words have to be re-arranged or words added. (And for the ten thousandth time I have to check the spelling of 'rhythm') Prose has to flow smoothly and be written as though it were going to be spoken aloud because when we read we are hearing it in our heads. There's nothing worse than having to read a sentence again because the way it was constructed didn't convey the stress, and possibly the meaning, that the writer intended.

Trying to write humorous prose, as opposed to writing 'gags', is even more challenging. When I wrote about the Kentucky Fried Chicken ads, the phrase "poultry-based courtship ritual" was funny in a way that "chicken-based courtship ritual" would not have been. There is no rational reason why this should be so. Similarly, in one of Coward's plays - Hay Fever, I think - there's a line "on a clear day you can see Cookham" which always gets a big laugh in the theatre. Nobody knows why. Writing, and particularly humorous writing, is a fascinating and mysterious business and it's a subject I could bore you with for another ten thousand words. Although I've identified various techniques, I never employ them consciously but can identify them afterwards. But I'll save that for another day.

Once the post has been pasted into Blogger it has to be correctly formatted and proof-read. One thing I've learned is to hit the return key as often as possible. Long unbroken chunks of text on the web are a big turn-off.
If you use photos on a blog, there's the fiddle of editing them and pasting in links and, if you take your own photos, the process is even longer.
For this post, I intended to steal a picture of a birthday cake but ended up doing my own. This was because I became traumatised by going through 25 pages of Google photos of one year old brats with their faces covered in chocolate, marzepan and icing. Many of them were trying to put their hand on the lighted candle, which might have punished them for smearing cake all over their faces, but I wasn't going to spend an hour trying to airbrush an infant hand out of a picture.
My own photo shoot took only half an hour. It was delayed when a party popper exploded in my hand and it wasted a pefectly good muffin which became covered in candle wax. If anyone has a predilection for waxed muffins, I'll send it to you.

Ideas for blog topics are not usually a problem. Yesterday I found a sheaf of about 20 sheets of A4 covered in possible blog topics. Each of these sheets is also covered in dozens of Post-It notes with more blog topics on them. Only a fraction of these subjects have been written about. That's because some trivial thing happens in your daily life that you think will make 'good copy' and the 500 words you'd intended to write an a serious topic gets pushed aside.

Or vice versa. I never wrote about the day I was in the supermarket at 7.30 am and stumbled on a man and woman engaged in what used to be called 'heavy petting' next to the Dairy Products. The cold chill from the refrigerator was doing nothing to cool their passion and when I tried to quietly help myself to some extra thick double cream they glared at me as though I were a voyeur. I decided that two people who were making the beast with two backs, albeit fully clothed, in a supermarket aisle as dawn was breaking were almost certainly each married to somebody else. And I forgot to buy any bread because I was too busy creating a 'back story' for the Tesco Two. Anyway, that's another topic I can now cross off the list.

I also found a previously unpublished list of things I could be doing that would be less beneficial to myself and possibly more harmful to society than blogging. These included:
Barbershop singing
Church bell ringing
Hand bell ringing
Any other kind of fucking bell ringing
Renovating old traction engines
Strumming a guitar and singing 'Kumbaya'
Making my own muesli
Towing a caravan down the M5 every weekend
Practising Tai Chi in the local park
Having Mission Impossible as a ringtone.

Another one ticked off.
I see that I never wrote about National Erectile Dysfunction Week, probably because it's always better to write about things you've experienced. Or maybe I wrote something but the humour was limp and the argument didn't stand up. See what I mean?
I don't know what 'request for porn' means. I've never requested porn. Had someone asked me to write some? If so, please call back, as they say on Crimewatch.

You've also been spared:
the origins of the phrase 'Crimes of Paris!';
some apparent connection between Games Theory and chocolate bars;
the socio-dynamics of the pub lock-in;
speculation on why a secondhand book I bought was inscribed with 'best wishes' to someone's mother, rather than 'love';
and the most off-putting blog descriptions I've seen - the current winner being: "a collection of some of my photos, most of them taken from a Kodak KB10 camera, one of the most economical ones around". Don't you just long for a more intimate relationship with that person?

Since plagiarism is one of the things that oils the wheels of the blogosphere, I've decided, with some trepidation, to mark this birthday by doing something that Sarah at Anchored Nomad did a few months back and invite you to send in questions. They can be serious, trivial, personal (but not too personal!). I will answer them here in a few days' time. You can either put them in the Comments Box or email them to

Finally, a big thank you to all my readers. I don't have one of the biggest readerships in the blogosphere but there are far more of you than I ever expected. I don't think of you as friends because I think that term should be reserved for people you really know in the real world. With some of you I have a gut feeling that we'd get on well if we ever met. But it's equally possible that we'd find each other insufferable.
Here in cyberspace, you're a self-selecting group who I speak to every day. You're there because you either share many of my views or because you find my posts entertaining, or both. That alone makes you a very special and valued group of people. So, in an uncharacteristic outburst of sentimentality, love and big hugs to you all.
Normal cynicism will be resumed tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Adwatch - No 81

Adwatch wishes to give a warm welcome to a new commercial for TV Easy listings magazine. This features a newsagent and some lady customers singing about the merits of this publication to the tune of Polka Dot Bikini, a song that added to the jollity of our childhood, along with that one about a bubble car whose horn went 'beep, beep, beep.'
It's an itsy bitsy,
teeny weeny
goes the ad.
How good to see an unpretentious, traditional, downmarket commercial that 'knows where it's coming from', who it's talking to and conveys its message simply and directly.
Their target market is clearly tabloid-reading ladies who want something inexpensive, easy-to-use and with a bit of showbiz gossip. And using that particular song is going to evoke warm memories in ladies who have now joined the Saga generation. Aga ladies, on the other hand, and ABC1 males can stick to the Radio Times.

At the other end of the spectrum is the new Guinness commercial in which three drinkers time-travel backwards as the evolutionary clock is rapidly wound back through billions of years and a variety of life-forms to the primeval slime.
It's brilliantly made and is being much praised. Its director is probably already making room on his mantlepiece for the awards.
Yet this is one of those cases where the commercial becomes more important than the product. And what does it actually tell you about the product? Sweet FA.

The only message I can infer is that if you drink enough of the product you may eventually manifest the intellectual capacity of a single-cell organism. And yes, there's a definite truth in that though not one that the alcohol industry would normally draw attention to.

A second problem is that I can't see this commercial playing well with Creationists, given that it's a 30 second digest of Darwinism. If they ever show it in America, Bush will add Dublin to the Axis of Evil before you can say a Hail Mary.

And presumably the biggest consumers of Guinness are still Irish Catholics who must be Creationists at heart. It's true that they don't make as big a deal of Genesis as some other Christians, being more concerned with the rights of the foetus and the denial of rights to homosexuals, and often being so unfamiliar with the Bible that they may think Genesis is that band that Phil Collins used to be in.

Of course, none of this analysis matters if you accept the advertising industry's credo that the only thing that matters about a commercial is memorability.
But my personal view is that's there's enough cleverness, arty-fartyness, and sometimes pretentiousness in movie-making. All I want from commercials is a clear message about the product and a bit of music that's not too loud or irritating.
In other words, stick your art, your production values and your CGI up your arse and hit me with your rhythm schtick.

It Shouldn't Happen To A Toyboy

Well, Liz MacDonald's toy boy didn't last long, even though he came with batteries included. Indeed, they must have been those Duracell batteries that just keep on going when toy boys fitted with an inferior product are sleeping the sleep of the sexually satiated.
But now the poor, besotted boy has been cast aside after just a few days, like last year's Action Man.

The catalyst for his dumping was Liz's meeting with the boy's mother. Far from being disapproving of the age difference, this woman was excited by the possibility of a mother and son foursome.
Although it never happened, surely the very suggestion of two middle-aged women engaging in what the tabloids would call a 'son-swopping romp' must be one of the most extraordinary notions ever to appear in a mainstream soap?
You sometimes wonder what they're smoking at Corrie script conferences.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Wordwatch - No 239

A special issue of The Guardian's G2 supplement today has pictures of 'sculptures' by Sarah Lucas, whoever she might be.
I am particularly outraged by an upturned bucket with the words 'SUCK MY NOB' painted on the base.
The correct spelling is 'KNOB'.
A 'NOB' is an upper-class person.
This kind of offensive illiteracy has no place in a family newspaper.

That Cameron Controversy

The argument that politicians are entitled to a private life, both in respect of their current personal lives and their past conduct, is a very seductive one and most people seem to be convinced by it. All my instincts lead me to agree with it too.
But hang on.
Making laws that will govern other people's lives, often restricting their lives, sometimes causing great hardship in the cause of what is believed to be the greater good - that is an awesome responsibility. Most of us, even if we hold strong opinions, would shie away from it because we don't have the massive egos and unshakeable self-belief of most politicians.
It seems to me that such a responsibility places politicians, certainly those who are lawmakers, in a completely different category when it comes to personal privacy.
Of course, a policy of complete openness should apply only to behaviour that has a relevance to public policy-making and not to the irrelevant trivia of people's lives.

Another reason for openness is that we know from long experience of the hypocrisy and double standards that some politicians are capable of. Preaching family values while having multiple affairs. Voting against gay rights when gay themselves.
Tony Blair, as you'd expect, provides some striking examples of this. Urging people to give their children the MMR jab but refusing to say if Leo had it on grounds of family privacy. Insisting on his children's privacy yet doing that standard photocall with his children - in their best suits and ties - at every General Election. Most shockingly, striking a bargain with ITN before the 1997 election, whereby they agreed to remove something from an interview in exchange for some personal footage of his children.

Being open about past behaviour has the advantage of killing press speculation stone dead. When it doesn't, it's usually because someone has come out the woodwork to say that the version you gave was not entirely truthful or complete.
It can also work to your advantage in showing that you have a direct and personal understanding of an issue. This would be the case with David Cameron if he had smoked cannabis at university or even tried a Class A drug.

An amusing episode on the periphery of the Cameron story was when Peter Sissons was questioning one of the BBC's junior political reporters about the issue. "You were also at Eton", he said to him, "were drugs all the rage when you were there?"
The reporter neatly sidestepped this mishievous question, as he was perfectly entitled to do, not being a legislator.

But it does the raise the question of why upper-class toffs taking cocaine at Oxbridge or in the City is viewed rather differently from kids in inner cities doing the same thing. I suppose the key difference is that the former are wealthy enough not to have to go out robbing to pay for a fix.
The wealthy upper classes have always inhabited a different moral universe, one where marital infidelity was accepted and divorce, at a price, was possible long before it was universally available throughout society. A combination of wealth and a social code that placed a strong emphasis on discretion and not doing things in front of the servants has always given them great freedom.
It was within my own lifetime that the jury in the Lady Chatterley case were asked 'but would you want your servants to read it?' Today the view might be that a snort of Charlie at a party is no big deal but you wouldn't want the au pair snorting lines off the ironing board in front of the children.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Licensed Robbery

I can't help noticing that the people who keep telling us what wonderful value for money the BBC licence fee is are people for whom £10 a month is just loose change.
Most of those who are sent to prison for not paying the licence fee are people who are struggling to survive below the poverty line.
And when you think about it, it's extraordinary that we imprison people for refusing to subscribe to the BBC. No wonder our prisons have now reached capacity. Can you imagine locking people up because they refused to subscribe to Sky or to one of the cable companies?

In our society, it's easy for the poor to imagine what life would be like if they won the lottery because the lives of the rich are all over our newpapers and televisions. But those with money seem incapable of understanding what life is like without it.
This was brought home to me again by an article in The Guardian by Maureen Lipman in which she said she has found an excellent hairdresser who will cut her hair for only £28! "You all want his number and the address of his salon, don't you?" she said.
No, Maureen, we don't. We want you to understand that £28 is not a piffling amount to all Guardian readers. It's actually 50% of the weekly benefit paid to the unemployed.

Even the Government, and presumably the BBC, accept that the licence fee cannot continue in the long term. But the multi-channel age is already here and the Government should have at least started the process of replacing it with a different funding structure at this licence review. Instead they have made things worse by using the licence fee to raise money to pay for the costs of digital switch-over which should have been funded by the Government, not by a regressive tax which penalises those least able to afford it.

My own short-term method of phasing out the licence fee would be to allow the BBC to sell programme sponsorship. I would actually prefer a brief sponsor's commercial at the beginning and end of programmes to the endless BBC commercials for its own output that already make it feel like a commercial broadcaster. This should make possible a reduced licence fee that would be less onerous for those on low incomes.

The Government have already set a precedent in departing from a universal licence policy in exempting those over 75 from the licence fee. This is a blunt and expensive policy anyway because it means millionaires over 75 don't have to buy a licence. So they should now exempt students and those on benefits and low incomes from the licence fee. It's called joined-up Government. Or simple logic. After all, they've already announced that they will provide financial help to those who need it when analogue is switched off and receivers need upgrading to digital.

The whole subject needed thinking through in a coherent way, instead of which it's a shambles.
And for all the BBC's qualities, we need to stop treating it as a sacred cow.
Although it still produces some good content, it is also a profligate, bloated bureaucracy that, in this brave new corporate world, constantly forgets that it is actually a publicy-funded organisation, just like the local authority that empties your bins.

Do Not Go Hungry Into That Good Night

Last week's House of Lords debate on assisted dying for the terminally ill coincided with Alan Bennett reading from his new book of diaries on Radio Four.
In writing about his mother's last months in a nursing home, he observed that thousands of elderly people are allowed to starve to death each year. This is because there are not enough staff to hand-feed every person who is unable to feed themselves. Bennett's mother continued to eat partly because she had a good appetite and was easy to feed and partly because Bennett often went into the home to feed her himself.

The same is true of hospitals. I saw this happen with my own mother when she spent several weeks in hospital. She was unable to feed herself but no attempt was made to feed her. Meals would be put in front of her, then taken away uneaten. Nobody said or did anything about this. Fortunately for her, my father went to the hospital twice a day and gave her one of those liquid feeds that contain protein, vitamins and minerals.

The problem is greater with people with Altzheimers who often clench their mouths shut or retain the food in their mouths and refuse to swallow it. So they are allowed to grow weaker and weaker and eventually die. As Bennett says, doctors are complicit in this because malnutrition or starvation is never mentioned on death certificates.

This shows the hypocrisy about the issue of assisted dying, for what is this slow death from lack of food but a form of assisted dying?
And isn't it curious that a serial killer like Ian Brady who wishes to die will be force-fed in prison, while elderly people who are simply unable to feed themselves will be left to die because there aren't enough staff to feed them and nobody gives a damn?