Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hydro literacy

The world divides, quite neatly, into three groups based on their attitudes towards reading in the bath.

Firstly, there is the group that enjoys reading in the bath.
Secondly there is the group that enjoys the idea of reading in the bath, and thirdly, and lastly, there is the group that thinks that a bath is solely a way of getting clean.

Let us take it as axiomatic that we can ignore and dismiss the last group as being composed of unimaginative poltroons of a baser sort and fellows unworthy even of contempt. As Shakespeare so tellingly almost wrote in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ “The man that hath no bath reading in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet volumes, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.”

The members of the first group are the masters of the universe. They have surmounted all the obstacles to literary perusal while immersed and have become adept at such mysteries as regulating the temperature of the water by big toe adjustment of the tap; moderating the suds level so that it does not threaten to deckle edge the book; maintaining a dry hand to ensure the preservation of the book; never resting the book on damp flesh, and always having a water free resting place for the volume when actually deciding to wash (optional).

I place myself firmly in the second group: the one which enjoys the idea of reading in the bath. I even go to the extent of finding a book I might read while soaking myself and making sure the towel is near so that dry hand will handle the precious volume, but it never works out. I have an inordinate fear of the hundred page wrinkle.

I dislike anything which detracts from the virgin page of print. I detest the American habit of augmenting the page numbers with decoration, or producing some sort of design feature on the top of the page. Indeed, I dislike page numbers altogether. When reading a novel for the first time you should use a book mark and there should be a way in which all page numbers could be removed or suppressed. After the book has been read then there should be some sort of process which turns the numbers on, so that discussion of the book can be made easier by reference to specific numbered locations for textual evidence.

With this sort of puritan fastidiousness you can imagine that an ink blot on the edge of the volume which squats on page after page until the blot has worked itself out is torture to me. A rip or a ruffle in the pages is irritation and a water wrinkle which creates ridges and valleys for letters and words is an intolerable invasion into my suspension of disbelief as I try to commune with the pure text. With this neurosis waiting to pounce on any blemish in the text, you can understand my reluctance to risk the disfigurement of the book by water.

But I like the idea of reading in the bath so much that I sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time searching for the appropriate volume to accompany the immersion! You never know; the moment might arise when The Read becomes a possibility; and without The Book, The Read could never occur. It is a gentle sort of literary Catch-22 situation.

These thoughts came to me as I hunted around in my depleted stock of books (my library being in the commodious pallets of Messrs Pickford in storage) for a volume to accompany my soak after my less than convincing ‘help’ given to Richard and Sue as they packed the van with another load of furniture and other oddments to take to France.

Most of my energy was obviously given over to my rigorous system of cough training which has been the focus of my physical exertions for the last few weeks. The world class racking coughs which I am producing are not mere vocal arabesques which can be bestowed on a germ filled world without considerable preparation, delivery and professional follow through. You know if a cough has achieved an international star rating by the extent of complete physical prostration which is its aftermath. Devotion to one’s art obviously precludes total participation in less demanding activities like loading a van.

As I type this, Sue and Richard should be at the boat and are, I hope, settling down to a decent meal on board, secure in the knowledge that the cuisine is French!

It will be interesting to see how their odyssey to sell up and get out goes. I do not envy them the depersonalisation of their home: an essential element in the presentation to future buyers. The advice to ‘de-clutter’ will start to seem like an insult, then a threat, then an impossible dream, then a moral imperative, then like a glorious release. If I have any advice to give (and believe me I gave plenty!) then it can all be compressed into one clear mantra: “You always need a bigger skip than you thought.” They have happy times ahead!

My happy times over the next two days are confined to visits to the dentist and the optician.

Happy days indeed.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Coughing to victory!

I do not suspect vicious intent on the part of our doctors in our local surgery. They have set up shop in a pair of semi detached houses and the waiting room on the ground floor is a strange shape meandering past the receptionist’s window and working its way to the back of the houses and into the next one. This means that leg room is at a premium. There are very few spaces that a patient waiting can actually stretch his or her legs. Now, given the waiting time that ensues before a patient is seen there must be a need to stretch and find something to do.

As is usual in doctors’ waiting rooms, dentists’ waiting rooms and hospital waiting rooms, there are the ageless magazines that you find nowhere else displaying a studied tattiness that you only see on period sets on television drama series! They are also the sort of magazines that no one anyone knows ever buys. Where do they find them? These grubby pages clinging forlornly to rusting staples are reminders of the interests of a class far removed from that enjoyed by the majority of inhabitants in Rumney!

So with nothing to read and no space to spread out the only thing that you are left with is to have recourse to conversation; but the layout is not conducive to easy linguistic interchange and so the usual mode of talk is actually whispers, giving the atmosphere in the waiting room more of a church like mood.

It is always a relief when your name is called, though you have to run the gauntlet of the people left waiting as they assess the appropriateness of the name called out to the person walking towards one of the consulting rooms.

Luckily, given my chesty cough, there was no problem about being prescribed antibiotics so I am now taking nine tablets a day. That it should come to this!

On a more positive note: ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ was handed back to the library this morning and by the early evening the very excellent Rumney Library had managed to get me a copy of ‘Barnaby Rudge.’ Superb service! Though I was hoping for a little respite before I had to plunge into another 800 page novel, I am eager to re-read (yes, re-read, I read it first on my handheld!) this relatively unpopular novel by Dickens.

Coughing should be recognised as an art form, or possibly a sport (and thinking of London 2012) surely, an Olympic sport, at that. I say this in all humility because I could now be a major competitor with a realistic chance for the Gold. Again, being realistic, we stand a very good chance of being, with Canada, one of only two countries to host the Olympic Games without actually winning a single gold medal. Or indeed, if you scratch gently at our raw neuroses, any medals at all. All of our metal ware is going to be made cheaply in China, flown over to London, only to be re-exported to China at the end of the Games. Let’s hope that the National Mint in Llantrisant has won the contract to produce the medals for the Chinese Olympics, ‘cos that’s the only way that we are going to see any medals in Wales.

But perhaps I am being too pessimistic. Perhaps the awarding of the Games to London in 2012 was not, as I now suspect, a dastardly plot by the French, in a typically Gallic game of triple double-dealing, to humiliate us by not only forcing us to host the most expensive two weeks in the world in the 80% of a lustrum from 2008 to 2012, [Note: this is a tediously pretentious way of saying four years; a lustrum being an obscure word for five years, therefore 80% of it being four years. Ed.] But also an empty achievement which will trumpet our lack of sporting talent to the world. Damned cunning those Froggies! [Remember Jade! Ed.]

Enough of this self defeating pessimism: Vivat! Britannia! What if Spain won 13 (Dear God!) Gold medals when they hosted the Olympic Games: we can do that. Can’t we?

I’m too ill, practising my chest rattling cough, to be any more positive.

I’m going to bed!

Monday, January 29, 2007

Leave the kids alone!

Mrs Nickleby still retains her accolade as the Monster of the Month from the novels by Dickens that I have read so far. Quilp in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ is more of a grotesque than a monster and the grandfather at least has the good grace to die decorously on Nell’s grave; he is not allowed to live on with his crimes of selfishness unpunished!

For me the real interest in the novel, apart from the apocalyptic descriptions of industrialisation, lies in the descriptions of infantile sexuality. There is a thoroughly unpleasant series of questionable relationships. Nell is constantly described as Little Nell, but her position as a child is constantly compromised by the burden of adulthood which she is forced to bear because her ostensible protector cannot fulfil that role. People’s responses to her emphasise her physical attractiveness and there is often a sexual tone in the way in which she is positioned in the novel: often the narrative allows a sexual responsiveness on the part of other adult characters to the child. Her grandfather’s confusion takes the idea that Nell’s mother and grandmother all have a physical similarity, which almost encourages sexual confusion.

Other examples of child sexuality are found in Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness, where the proprieties are preserved by Dick paying for the education of the Marchioness until she is of marriageable age, though it is obvious that he entertains more than platonic feelings towards her when she is still the very small servant. His naming of this unattached female is interesting, choosing the appellation of Sophronia Sphynx which makes the girl into an object, almost like some form of dramatic act, while the surname Sphynx emphasises the danger inherent in Dick’s views of women: part lion, part woman.

Kit in his responses to Barbara undergoes a ‘ripening seed’ experience as Barbara encourages him to think in sexual terms about their relationship rather than in terms of friendship. Kit, like Nell is forced by circumstances to adopt the role of an adult so with his mother, he often appears more like a husband than a son.

Quilp has the most amoral approach to his relationships, though given his hatred of ‘everybody’ his actions are understandable, in a way you could even say that he is true to himself! His bullying attitude towards his wife is expressed in physical abuse as well as verbal contempt. Quilp often accompanies his diatribes against humanity with physical blows. Although Quilp is an adult, as a dwarf he shares his size with children and his wife constantly is in fear of him, but at the same time is fascinated by him and wants him as a husband. Her sexual reaction to this hideous dwarf is incomprehensible and compellingly realistic. Tom Scott too, although constantly attacked by Quilp has a sympathetic reaction when his master dies. Whatever the reader might think about Quilp, he is physically vital and exudes a sort of raw animal power.

The one unalloyed success in terms of marriage is the partnership of the Garlands, but their happy marriage produces a fairly vapid son who, amazingly, falls in love, “How it happened, or how they found it out, or which of them first communicated the discovery to the other, nobody knows.” This is an unconvincing relationship manufactured by the author to tie up loose ends at the end of the novel, and another relationship where the sexual experience is questionable, to say the least.

The ambiguity of relationships is taken to a different level with the brother and sister partnership of Sally and Sampson Brass. The masculine appearance of Sally and her strange dress constantly confounds strangers and, while we can appreciate a strong woman held back by convention from taking a full part in the profession in which she is expert, her lack of morality is depressing. Her brother is outwardly expected to be the stronger, but as his name suggests, he can be easily tames by a woman. Their surname also suggests the emptiness of their enterprises, the sounding brass signifying very little. That Sally is not immune to male attention makes her even more grotesque as in the flirting between Dick and herself, he constantly refers to her as a man! The sexual ambiguity there is too complex to contemplate with equanimity!

The schoolmaster with his obsession with his favourite pupil which is then transferred to Nell is an uneasy portrayal: his dedication is clear but his concentration on the physical melding of his dead male pupil and his live young friend suggests that this androgynous pedagogic creation is fulfilling a particular physical need in the schoolmaster’s life.

At the end of the novel I think that I am most impressed with the portrayal of a gambling addiction and the lengths to which the old man goes to satisfy his physical need to gamble and also the literally fatal convoluted justifications that he needs to find to allow him to continue in his destructive path.

Although there is the usual Dickensian ‘happy ending’ at the
end of the novel you are left with a heavy burden of misery and the intolerable burdens that some of the characters have had to bear. I know that this novel was immensely popular when it was published with Americans meeting the boat which brought the next instalment of the story, and crying out to the crew about the fate of Little Nell. Its obvious sentimentality is not to the modern taste and I think that many readers will and have shared Oscar Wilde’s naughty observation that, “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing.”

An uneasy read.

The next novel is ‘Barnaby Rudge’ not one of Dickens’ most popular novels, though taking the Gordon Riots as the basis for its major action it keeps alive a most discreditable incident in British history.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Don't keep it to yourself!

In the switchback ride which has been our experience of 2007 the equilibrium of illness has now dipped in my direction: Toni is getting better while I am getting worse. The incipient cough which I managed to restrain last night in Alison and Bryn’s has now developed into something which cannot be ignored. So I’ll ignore it.

I am ashamed to admit that Emily and I did not struggle unduly at the picture quiz: we preferred to sit down and drink and chat rather than join the scrum of ‘keenies’ who not only exerted every little grey cell in dredging up names to faces, but also they engaged in furtive forays trying to catch a glimpse of other people’s efforts. In a sad moment some unnamed people even picked up Emily and my effort to see if they could glean a few extra names! Now that is my definition of desperation!

The Dickens reread continues with my first (shame!) reading of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. I can see why the title is perhaps the most impressive feature of this novel. It’s full of questionable aspects: the use of an ugly dwarf as an evil character; the whole sexual identity of Little Nell; the presentation of the legal profession; the presentation of industrialisation; the presentation of the teaching profession; the ever present paternalism in Dickens; the over use of coincidence (again!) and the unconvincing narrative.

The ‘problem’ which Nell’s grandfather has is quite modern given that Britain is trying to decide where to site the first Super Casino. His infatuation with gambling is presented in a totally convincing way and his schizoid self justification is chilling in its reality. He is another of Dickens’ true monsters: justifying his destructive selfishness in a continuing whining parody of disinterested mawkish self justification. At this stage of the novel, and given Dickens’ ideas of justice, the old man should expire pathetically with some degree of self knowledge surrounded by grieving family. Little Nell should be matched with Kit and the Solitary Gentleman turn out to be a long lost brother/uncle/son/brother or whatever appellation that this particular deus ex machina cares to carry!

Quilp is another of those Dickensian baddies who delight in their badness and he is an example of ‘motiveless malignity,’ a phrase used by Coleridge to describe Iago. Quilp hates everybody and his hatred is expressed not only physically by his constant attacks on his boy and wife, but also in the way in which he continually acts up to his physical deformity – a typical example being his constant playing up to his impish image by hanging upside down and grimacing through the window at the unfortunate mother of Kit on the return journey. For Quilp, his raison d’etre is to frustrate anything which he perceives as positive and normal: his life is one long perversion in which he delights, but what you see is what you get – he looks bad and, surprise! Surprise! He is! Whereas with Nell’s grandfather, he appears to be a sad old man bowed down by grief working constantly for his grandchild, but in reality is someone consumed by a passion which is able to pervert his sense of morality – a much more convincing baddie than the misshapen Quilp.

In spite of my debilitating cough I am looking forward to finishing the novel and seeing just how far Dickens is prepared to push his penchant for coincidence to provide a suitable ending. However much you think Dickens can go, he always shocks you by how much he actually demands of the incredulous reader.

Shock on Charles!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Raise the standard high!

Looking at the history of the crusades, there is very little about which to be complacent when you consider the motivations behind many of the participants. The basic premise of the first crusade was a just a tad un-PC and, as the crusades progressed they became less and less justifiable; culminating in the very wonderful Fourth Crusade which resulted in good Christian folk indulging in the Sack of Constantinople – the seat of the Eastern Christian Empire!

And we worry about the excesses of Islam!

Anyway George Bush Junior, the most powerful man in the world and defender of democracy . . . hmmm . . . seem to be veering towards modern day Fourth Crusade territory here, the irony is too poignant!

What I’m trying to say is that a crusade which is based on faith issues seems to me to be doomed to failure. A modern day crusade needs to be based on reality rather than the diaphanously fatal fantasies of religion! Unfortunately, all the best issues have been taken over by cranks and do-gooders, leaving very little for the ordinary bloke to claim for himself.

I, however, am charged with all the enthusiasm of an obsessed neophyte in the crusade lark. As in all the best crusades, the motivation is based on a soul searing personal experience.

A blocked external drain is not something which adds noticeably to the wealth of human happiness. It is a humbling experience because the problem is, quite literally, you – or at least, should I say euphemistically, aspects of your body!

You could of course blame the Victorian Drainage System, though for a house built in the 1960s on a green field site, it’s pushing it a bit!

The Man from Dynarod gave as his considered opinion that the major culprit in the cloggage was moist wipes. They are described as flushable, but according to the Man Who Knows, they take about ten years to disintegrate! “They allow the water to go through,” he said, “but then they act as filters and start to block.” Let us not dwell too long on the image that that statement conjures up!

So, the Crusade Against the Flushing of Indestructible Wipes is officially instigated. I will ask his Holiness the Hitler Youth Pope to bless and sanction the struggle against cheap and cheerful personal hygiene and I will entreat the date-expired Prime Minister to institute a subsidised programme of emergency bidet installation.

To be utterly frank, given the past record of historical crusades, I feel that mine has the advantages of being practical, achievable, and cost effective. The advantages in terms of personal satisfaction, health and happiness are in marked contrast to the interracial hatred, death and misery that resulted from any of the previous outings.

I will have to phone up Stewart and ask him to formulate some portentously appropriate motto in Latin so give my crusade that cachet that any mass movement against a readily apparent evil needs. With motto in hand I am right to go!

I will, I think, adopt one of the proven techniques from past crusades and offer indulgences and pardons for contributions (in strict cash terms) to further the cause. All payments to my Cayman Island Off-Shore account please.

Apart from watching, with fascinated horror, the machinations of the Man from Dynarod I have not been outside the house today, so a little foray into the world of commercialism is called for in order to purchase a reasonably priced book of watercolour technique for Toni.

At least it gives me an opportunity for a little retail therapy!

The truly excellent local library in Rumney has come up trumps, yet again, and magicked two practical books on the methods of waterpainting. Toni and I have now taken to artistic production with startlingly unprofessional results. With my knowledge of the history of art, I do have at least a glimmering of the mind numbingly massive artistic failure that our efforts amount to. There again, there is something to be said for getting in touch with the inner child: that certainly is what is indicated by the 'maturity' level of the 'paintings' which we have produced.

But, in the immortal words of the bard, 'the only way is up!'

Thursday, January 25, 2007

It is finished?

In ‘Ghosts’ the orphanage is not insured because the clergyman involved in the building of it says that insurance is a denial of the grace of God. It burns down of course. Well, what would you expect from Ibsen? Not exactly slapstick.

In spite of the clear lesson from ‘Ghosts’ we (Paul Squared and I) decided to adopt the approach of the clergyman in ‘Ghosts’ in our attempts to repair the wind ravaged fence. We measured one panel and assumed that the grace of God would ensure that the others were of the same size. It wasn’t of course. Well, what would you expect?

We now have a slightly overlapping fence. I think it is an exciting feature of the garden that makes it stand out from the more quotidian examples surrounding us with their level, matching and smoothly continuous fencing. It’s a selling feature.

The rebuilding of the fence has been a revelation about the ways of builders. Paul and I have spent more time going from shop to shop buying some essential item in the reconstruction, then, a little later going back to get some more because we had not estimated usage correctly. We found that drill bits are frisky little things which constantly strive for freedom and shyly hide away from humans. We now know that paint, whatever its consistency, whatever claims are made for it; does not cover in one coat and always drips. Newtonian physics does not apply to paint drops. The parabolas that they can describe bear no relationship to the force with which the paint brush is applied to the object to be painted. They have an affinity for cloth, especially cloth which retains foreign colour in spite of instant washing. We have also discovered that whatever drill bit you have in your drill at any time, it will need to be changed for another before you can use it.

We have discovered that we have spent more time on the road than on the project. This has not been entirely our own fault. Which other group of builders has set off on yet another odyssey to find some sort of metal strut and bought a set of watercolour tubes, artist’s paint brushes and other accoutrements necessary to produce delicate works of art and really good value kit kat bars? We lacked the single minded professionalism that characterises the normal British workman. (sic.)

Toni continues to suffer; he has now been generally unwell for about five weeks and is thoroughly fed up. He languishes on the sofa during the day and then, in the switchback ride that is his illness, subsides into morose sickness during the evening and coughs his way through the night. I thought that he was allowing himself a comfortable margin for recovery on Tuesday when he told his work that he would not be returning until Monday, but I am now beginning to wonder if he is going to be fully back to his old self by then. We will see. A miserable time for him!

My list of 'tareas' grows and grows: the latest is a drain. As we slogged away putting up the final (non-fitting) piece of fence, Paul Squared noticed a thin stream of evil smelling liquid emanating from a metal cover. Paul, being Paul, and not being content to ignore things, dislodged the cover and discovered a miasmic conglomeration of nastiness which had me phoning for dynarod in short order.

I await their coming with a hand over the nose!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I have a little list!

‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ is the next in the Dickens series and another of the novels that I have convinced myself that I have read because I know the characters and the narrative; but I’m not sure that I really have. We will see when I re-enter the Dickensian world.

The last novel was dark, and the characters in this one promise to be equally sinister. I wonder if, on this re reading, I will find a character who I can despise so completely as Mrs Nickleby. Out and out baddies I can take; they are at least interesting in their own assessment of their deviation from the weak norms that their fellow characters use to limit their development, as they slavishly subordinate their desires to the publicly accepted morality of society.

As Ralph Nickleby says when attracted by the obvious attractions of Kate Nickleby’ face, “There is a grinning skull beneath it, and men like me who look and work below the surface see that, and are not its delicate covering.”

I think that the real horror of a character like Mrs Nickleby is that not only does she publicly, and vociferously advocate the mores of her society, but she also convinces herself that she is the living embodiment of those values while, at the same time, she is a monster of self obsession, delusion and destructive selfishness.

For me, she is the “grinning skull.”

The Old Curiosity Shop will have to produce a pretty vile character to take over from Mrs Nickleby.

However, before I go down to my more than excellent local library in Rumney, I would like my reader to think of letters in literature.

This was prompted by the letter from Fanny Squeers to Ralph Nickleby describing the attack by Nicholas after his rescuing of Smike from the clutches of the sadistic Yorkshire schoolmaster, Squeers. Her wonderfully misspelled letter stays in the memory through the bizarrly humerous line, “I am screaming out loud all the time I write and so is my brother which takes off my attention rather, and I hope will excuse mistake” together with the postscript about Nicholas, “P.S. I pity his ignorance and despise him.” A truly character revealing missive!

So taking this letter as the first in my thoughts I wondered how I would fill out a list of five – I only hope I do better than my attempts to complete a list of British World Music!

Letters in Literature

1 Fanny Squeers letter to Ralph Nickleby concerning the assault of Nicholas on Squeers in ‘Nicholas Nickleby.’

2 William Boot’s telegram to The Daily Beast from Africa in Evelyn Waugh’s, “Scoop.” The startling telegram which starts: “NOTHING MUCH HAS HAPPENED EXCEPT TO THE PRESIDENT WHO HAS BEEN IMPRISONED IN HIS OWN PALACE BY REVOLUTIONARY JUNTA” and which end with, “LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING”

3 Pinky’s viciously, inhuman recorded message to Rose at the end of ‘Brighton Rock.’

4 The servant girl Win Jenkins to Mary Jones in ‘Humphrey Clinker’ by Tobias Smollett in the misspelled letter towards the end of the novel which starts, “O MARY JONES! MARY JONES!”

5 Henchard’s profoundly depressing will at the end of ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge.’

I admit that I have interpreted the meaning of letter somewhat freely so that it covers different forms of communication, but all of the above have lodged themselves in my memory some because of their fantastic implausibility, others because they perfectly suit their contexts, others because they touch a deeply human chord.

Anyway the books are worth reading (even if my second year tutor dismissed ‘Humphrey Clinker’ as first rate journalism, but second rate literature); Hardy is the only major British writer whose novel (‘Jude the Obscure’) I have thrown against a wall; how can one have respect for a writer like Graham Greene who, thanks to the Byzantine politics of the committee, was never awarded the Nobel Prize for literature; Dickens was not exactly noted for his respect towards women and Evelyn Waugh was a thoroughly unscrupulous, vindictive, curmudgeonly grump.

What does anyone expect from a group of talented British writers?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The long day's task is done, almost!

Completely unaided (except for extensive help from Paul Squared) the ravages of the storm have been somewhat mitigated. The fences which were put up previously have survived the absolute calm which is the vicious weather of Wales now that it has smashed my fences. The new fences are in place and are painted. I (with extensive help from Paul Squared) intend to assay an attempt to fill in the two difficult spaces vacated by fences in the back. Here, even the locating fence post has rotted and broken, so I (extensively helped by Paul Squared) will have to start from scratch and actually do something which takes a real measure of technical ability. All is lost!

On firmer ground, ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ is read and a remarkably dark novel it is too. Once again the eponymous hero is one of the least interesting characters in the book. His smug morality shining in its self effacing spotlight is nauseating. When he finally does something ‘reprehensible’ by not admitting his admiration of Madeline Bray to the Cheerybles he shows his true priggishness by his rejection of her presence later in his mother’s house as being unbecoming. He’s inhuman! Just like his intolerable sister. Can you imagine going for a drink with those two: what a delight that would be!

The view the novel gives of sex is thoroughly disturbing. Sir Mulberry Hawk is a truly repulsive character and his assault on Kate is vicious and deeply sensual. Ralph Nickleby’s reaction to his niece is also ambiguous. The similarities between Nicholas and Kate are constantly emphasised: loving one is loving the other; sexual confusion is a natural concomitant of the physical link between the siblings. Marriage (although the easy way out at the end of the novel) is not seen as something which is positive through the course of the novel. Partnerships are shown to be destructive, dysfunctional, unequal, vicious, and vacuous: the Mantolinis; the Nicklebys; the Squeers; the Kenwigs; the Lillyvicks. The working marriage of the Crummles is histrionic rather than emotional: the only happy couple are the Browdies. Generally speaking the happy people are those who are single and who are still single at the end of the novel. The marriage of Tim and Miss La Creevy is perhaps the apotheosis of a happy marriage of two single people with no real hint of the sexual between them – they are ‘old friends’ reunited.

This novel is full of monsters: the gargoyle Squeers; the reptilian Gride; the coldly inhuman Ralph Nickleby; the predatory Hawk; the empty Lord Frederick; the pathetic Smike; the relentlessly philanthropic and completely unbuisness-like Cheerybles; the manic Newman Noggs; the camp pripiasm of the affected, sexually ambiguous Mantolini, and so the catalogue of Dickensian grotesques grows. For me, however, one grotesque stands head and shoulders above all the others in the novel: Mrs Nickleby!

She has a pernicious ignorance which makes Jade Goodie look like a PhD student. All the others at least admit to themselves their weaknesses: at some point the ‘real’ character emerges, they dissimulate no longer and rejoice in their own frailty (or strength!) Mrs Nickleby is an exception; she is well matched with lunatic in the small clothes except no one comes to take her away and lock her up as she well deserves to be. She is wilfully small minded, bigoted and selfish to an astonishing extent: she is the female version of Homer Simpson!

I enjoyed reading the novel more this time around; a macabre experience, but one I would recommend to anyone who has a spare moment to read the 800 pages it takes to get Nicholas and Kate married.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Hoods!

I’m sure that it’s something to do with living in a predominantly protestant country that makes the wearing of the hoodie so sinister and threatening. It’s the built in fear and distrust of those hooded figures from the Middle Ages who, in literature at least, are presented as unscrupulous, selfish and hypocritical: Monks!

It has to be said that for an English teacher the earliest reference to Monks that students of literature meet are probably in The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. The Monk is ‘a manly man’ and a good hunter, but as a man of God, a disaster. He even rejects the precepts of the founder of his order and jokes, ‘lat Austyn have his swink to him reserved’ and lives his life as an affluent country man of leisure. He becomes the precursor of the eighteenth century rollicking country squire: local importance with an overriding interest in field sports, and not much else. A sort of upper class hoodlum.

I seem to remember reading that French Kings lived their lives in public – even their toilet (and I mean that quite literally) was in public. In great houses the aristocracy were used to the Great Unwashed peering in through the windows: the lesser breeds without the law could watch but never participate in the life of their betters. So, although the differences were clear, they were visible; you could always see what you couldn't live.

The rich now make sure that they are hidden from view: riches mean invisibility; if you can be seen you are obviously not wealthy enough. Even the aspiring middle classes are paranoid about their privacy (or their assumed privacy) and seek the Walled Enclosure to keep the masses away from their life style and they rest easy because the police are always there to protect the only class which actually fears them.

The wandering friars of the middle ages were hated by local priests who realised that their finances would be adversely affected by silver tongued holy fraudsters who could talk money away from parishioners and into their own pockets.

Nowadays wandering bands of dispossessed youth swagger their hooded way through areas of deprivation with a complete disregard for the straightened circumstances of their fellow citizens and are able to plunder from those least able to sustain the loss of property with easy negligence and an easy conscience. Like scheming individuals such as the holy friar in The Canterbury Tales, they ‘would have a farthing ere they went’ from anyone who appeared to be an available victim.

All of this has been occasioned by the mini drama which flowed past Paul Squared and I, as we attempted to repair the wind damage to the fence before the second (non) viewing (don't ask, because I am not strong enough to tell) which was supposed to take place tomorrow (but now won't.)

A hooded group of assorted miscreants sloped past us as we were working assiduously away to be followed in almost a parody of a fifties British comedy by a slightly overweight older person gesticulating and articulating spluttering threats with some considerable venom. He disappeared, only to reappear almost instantly in a white van which drove over the grass to follow the trail of the (obviously guilty) hoodies.

Amazingly the Hoodie Group reappeared, almost instantly, from the opposite direction to that which they had used to disappear and then dispersed with extreme alacrity when the Man of the White Van made a dramatic reappearance which encouraged two youths to cycle frantically into a hedge and also the general dispersal of the marauding pack.

Much three point turning by the Man of the White Van, noisy acceleration, and then silence for a while.

As a rather disturbing interlude a man walked slowly over the grass carrying a chain saw. Our imaginations lurched a little here: hoodies are naturally the personification of the principal of evil in the universe, yet to dismember them with a chain saw is perhaps a little bit of an overreaction. Possibly.

Much later a disreputable youth in yellow and white moving shiftily, disappeared down the gully, surreptitiously looking around the corner before scurrying across Ridgeway Road and melting slyly into the trees by the side of the school.

Then, eventually, the police; driving furiously in all directions.

Never dull in Rumney.

And we had put up a single panel in the fence. With this extreme achievement we felt that we were the living antithesis of the group of degenerates who had done, god knows what; gone, god knows where and been dealt with, god knows how.

But its nice speculating!

Saturday, January 20, 2007

What do we know?

In yet another twist of time: this blog is actually Sunday 21st Janaury's effort. Does time move this much if you are not actually writing a blog? I think Stephen Hawking should be consulted!

What do the following have in common?
a) Psychedelic
b) Al-Qaeda
c) Carbon footprint

An unlikely little group; though those of you who were brought up in the 60s might possibly link ‘psychedelic’ with ‘carbon footprint’ as both being linked in some ways with the hippy do-gooder lifestyle – but that leaves out ‘Al-Qaeda.’ Some might link ‘Al-Qaeda’ with ‘psychedelic’ as being types of mind set which have fatal results – but that leave out ‘carbon footprint.’

Let me put you out of your misery: they are all terms which were well known as words before people knew what those words actually meant. For at least two of those terms the impossibility of spelling them correctly is also a linking feature.

Psychedelic became associated with the so-called permissive society (which passed me by, let me tell you) of op-art, Oz Magazine, recreational drugs, and the special visual effects of ‘Top of the Pops’ on BBC. I was never really convinced about the mind expanding elements of flares for example, so the whole concept of the ‘psychedelic’ was problematic for me.

Equally problematic, though for very different reasons, is Al-Qaeda: its foundation shrouded in the usual political corruption which always results when western governments come into contact with the almost laughably corrupt and corrupting regime of Saudi Arabia. The risible aspect of Al-Qaeda is its supposed leader, Osama bin Laden, the spoilt Saudi prince who plays at terrorism like a schoolboy with his model train set bought by a wealthy parent. The, ‘who what and how’ of Al-Qaeda, if answered, would be a disturbingly bitter condemnation of the foreign policy of most of the so-called civilized world. The operations of this fanatical organization, with the misguided responses of its opposition, end in fittingly bloody tributes to the moral bankruptcy of both sides in this conflict.

And now the ‘carbon footprint!’ Most of us have some awareness of the concept of global warming and have a hazy idea that it is somehow linked to the increase in carbon dioxide. We also have the moral imperative to cut down on our carbon emissions and work towards being carbon neutral. These are pious resolutions; what do they mean in reality?

Who knows? It’s not like wearing your seat belt or using lead free petrol, this is something where what we do has to be “offset” by something else. So, when I take a cheap flight to some European city for a weekend break, my petrol quota must be balanced by, by . . . what? Perhaps it would be easier for me if I was a Roman Catholic, as it sounds very much like some concept of Pardons: those interesting documents issued by an inventive church which promised remission of sins in the afterlife for the price of good works in this life. Inevitably this was devalued into a monetary payment in lieu of the person actually completing good works. How different from the present day where rich western companies buy quota from other less fortunate organizations to compensate for their carbon sins!

What do individuals do? Should we buy cylinders of oxygen and let their contents diffuse gradually into the atmosphere, turning up the speed of diffusion when we have committed sins like buying petrol? It seems to me that this is a golden opportunity for those of us in the affluent west to indulge our guilt feelings by giving a little extra to Oxfam to placate those troublesome twinges of morality.

This morning another vist to BBC Wales and participation in 'Something Else.' This time the subjects ranged through the wearing of suits; the Archbishops texting people in Lent with good things to do; how to be happy; power couples; the effect of 'Little Britain' in Wales; Swiss bank accounts; the usual sort of variety. It was a lively show and enjoyable. Patrick was in good form and looking forward to visiting America with the BBC NOW and his wife.

Some people have hard lives, eh?

The Looking Glass World

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

I’m sure that I will not be the only writer to remember this exchange between Alice and an animated egg as a way of thinking about the continuing controversy about what Jade did or didn’t say in the Big Brother House and whether what she did or didn’t say was racist.

I was speaking with Paul 1 yesterday and he, without endorsing what Jade said, was impressed by her performance as a sort of ‘damage limitation’ exercise as she saw her future career as a non-entity celebrity evaporating like her withdrawn perfume.

The one thing that she did, time after time, was apologise. That was clear enough. She also, in spite of continually denying that she was doing it, did attempt some form of justification. She kept asserting that what she said was not said in a racist way and was not in itself (presumably in her mind) racist.

This is an interesting situation. Her continual statement and restatement that she was not a racist and what she said was not racist is to be commended for the number of times that she managed to get this simple message into a fairly gentle interview; but it is irrelevant how many times you say something if what you are saying is simply not true! By almost any standards what Jade and her cronies did was to indulge in bullying in which one of the most telling weapons they used against a foreigner was aspects of her foreign culture. Now to me, if something foreign is used to spice up prejudice it is simple racism. Denial doesn’t change that judgement.

I am prepared to believe that Jade doesn’t have the intellectual apparatus to think out elegant racist taunts and that she would have used any aspect of someone she disliked: the intellect (!); their body shape; their sexuality; their class; their accent; their eating habits, anything. What is different can be used as a weapon against the weakest; the more obvious the difference, the more likely to be used by a person motivated by ignorance and prejudice. Jade used the ‘weapons’ she found to hand; that they were racist was possibly no more than that they were available rather than motivated by deeply held racist bigotry. This doesn’t, of course, alter the fact that what she said was objectionable, vile and undeniably racist.

I hope and trust that the maw of the media machine that made her will have the good taste to vomit her forth with the justified, self satisfied moral loathing that is so easy for a seemingly amoral press to dress itself in when a suitably vulnerable target presents itself.

I merely pause to wonder if the vapidly sentimental taste of the Great British Public will now recover from its spasm of moral outrage and suddenly discover that it has a maudlin bout of sympathy for the poor little rich girl who is being unfairly hounded by the cynical pack of press hounds; and Jade retains her status as an ordinary, but ‘real’, girl who can hold her own with the best of them. Plucky little (well, perhaps not ‘little’) busty Jade; we love you!

From the country that idolised ‘Eddie the Eagle’ anything is possible!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Toni made me watch it!

Hey, you listen to me mate! If my Prime Minister, Chancellor, assorted politicians, the great and the good and the whole world and his wife can do it then I don’t see why I should be inhibited by intellectual arrogance from not participating in the most important debate in which this country has been involved. Who should go; Jade or Shilpa?

I am typing this with that infernally irritating northern nasal voice telling me the time in The House and letting me see the inconsequential meanderings of celebrity nonentities. This is an oxymoron which sums up the whole experience of this version of Big Brother.

Although I despise the programme I am waiting for the result of the vote.

So, it’s Jade. Why has the House accepted the extraordinary silence which accompanied the information that the ignorant ‘people’s champion’ ha been chosen by a fickle public to suffer the indignation of rejection. Why did the lack of public response behind the announcement occasion no comment? Toni has opined that the inhabitants of the House are coached a little to ensure smooth broadcasting. This would suggest a degree of duplicity on the part of the programme makers which would surely be out of kilter with the quality of product that they produce.

Enough with the irony already!

I have been trying to work out just how complicated a ‘catch-22’ situation this programme offers. On the one hand it is easy to dismiss as self indulgent pap the whole concept of the show, but on the other its popularity must tell us something about the way that that we are living today: our expectations and our proclivities.

The makers of the show have shown unusual acuity in their selection of ‘celebrities’ and then included ‘one of their own’ as a sort of self referential justification for the show itself. The grotesque parody of deprivation induced stupidity that was Jade defied her failure (after all she didn’t win) and managed, against all the odds to make a career out of her own rejection. She reminds me, in some ways of Maureen from Cardiff who was the ‘star’ of the driving test series and, until the advent of Jade, was seen as monumentally stupid. But I have more respect for Maureen who at least was trying to achieve something, unlike, for example, etc etc.

Did the makers of the show really have the cynical perception to foresee the repercussions of putting bona fide celebrities (who even I had heard of) with a manufactured celebrity known for unthinking vulgarity? How cynical was the editing of the show? Did they calculate the effect of leaving in seemingly racist comments?

How far has the public outcry about the content of the show been orchestrated by the makers? How far can the programme say that any publicity is good publicity? How much can the Great British Public take of pseudo outrage? And I wonder how many people actually noted and watched this episode of Big Brother? In a rare concession to common morality, the makers of BB have decided to donate the profits from this eviction to charity. Nothing like a little fear to promote philanthropy!

I find my reactions to the show conflicting and the more complex they become the more tempted I am to return to my original position and dismiss the whole thing as worthless rubbish.

Sounds convincing to me!

What is far more impressive is that I have managed to put up one section of the fence which was blown down and lightly destroyed by the gales in the past few days. As usual for me when something practical I had to have an entire tool set a complete set of tools; an electric drill; complete incomprehension about the task to be completed; incompetence of a high order and eventual partial success.

Of such is a happy life made.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

What a surprise!

During one horrific winter of savage weather we, in Cardiff, had approx-imately 1mm of ‘snow’. It was so thin that the black surface of the road was clearly visible. The entire traffic system of South East Wales ground to a halt. Newport Road was one solid line of unmoving traffic. Traffic filled with incredulous commuters audibly questioning their perception of reality when a mere dusting of snow (during the winter) was able to disable the life of the capital city of a country by its simple unexpectedness. Who would have thought that winter could bring snow? How could anyone predict that snow would fall on roads? What gullible innocent would expect the city council to have machinery to help deal with adverse weather conditions? We have to remember that this is the country that brought you the excuse of ‘the wrong sort of leaves on the track’ to explain our lousy train system and its surrealistic time keeping!

Today was windy. Eight people have died in wind associated accidents. Air, Sea, Rail, Road and Canal have all been affected. Some wind speeds in Wales have reached 80 mph which is strong, but not that strong. We are constantly surprised by our weather and our surprise takes away our ability to cope. But, bad weather does give you the opportunity to stay comfortably indoors and sip a cup of tea and read and pretend that the weather outside does not exist. Just like the council!

In my reading Nickleby has attacked and thrashed Squeers and has decided to make for London with Smike in tow. I am constantly surprised how involved I am in the narrative when I know the book quite well already. Each re reading of Dickens points up different aspects of the story and you notice different details in the writing. Like a Giles cartoon there is always a telling detail which you have missed in the past.

My interest in Ralph Nickleby increases. His pathological hatred of disinterested philanthropy and his terror of emotional claims are fascinating. He is obviously contrasted with Nicholas: the difference between innocence and experience. But the younger man is going to have to depend on the kindness of strangers (the old deus ex machina) and his good looks, while Ralph lives in the world as it is and uses the realities of human frailty to survive. I am aware that I seem to have set off on a course to justify or exonerate his actions.

I will see how far I am able to maintain this stance: allowing the novel to dictate my response.

Of course!

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Telephone trauma

Then They Returned!

If yesterday’s opening sounded like a Yeats poem title, today’s sounds like a cheap sci-fi horror flick. Yet the leaden phrase hides something positive – the first viewers of the year are returning for a second view! This is something to think about, even if their second visit is not until next Tuesday. This gives us time to try and repair the broken fence, though probably not tomorrow as we are predicted howling gales (again) and then lots of lashing rain. It will give me time to try and find the screws which have been carefully put away; so carefully that they are now effectively lost. These things are a small price to pay for pay, as it were!

The controversy about Celebrity Big Brother continues to grow with howls of outrage: not, unfortunately about the sheer poor taste which the programme displays twenty four hours a day, but rather in terms of racism. It turns out that the Bollywood film star has been picked on by the gaggle of brainless witches which constitute the majority of the females left in the House. The controversy has reached the sort of level where Brown was assailed by questions about the programme on his trip to India.

Now part of me is delighted that opprobrium is building up against the programme and my first reaction was pompously to state that I couldn’t see how, in all conscience, the programme could be allowed to continue and it should obviously be terminated at once. But, there again, that’s what I used to say about the Conservatives and Margaret Thatcher – so, let’s get a sense of proportion in here. I do think that the programme is pernicious, but all you have to do is turn the bloody thing off. I do not read the sort of papers which make programmes like this the staple for their readers. How, therefore does this effect me?

Closing down programmes or banning content goes against what I believe. I particularly dislike media induced hiccoughs of moral outrage which prompt politicians to start making populist statements which have long term deleterious effects on life in Britain. At best this programme is giving public folk the opportunity to make facile statements about racism, which they are against. Well, that’s a surprise! A gaggle of brainless nonentities thinking themselves significant react badly when confronted with a person who exudes sophistication and articulacy and who is from a different culture. There is another surprise! Thatcher put paid to working class socialism and the women are true inheritors of Thatcher’s legacy.

I will have to buy a quality newspaper tomorrow and see the cultural fall out analysed with flair and panache from Big Brother. I think that I will enjoy the political fall out more than the programme that I don’t watch!

Today has been an elusive day. It has gone with very little to show for it. The morning was lost in pseudo illness. I think that Toni and I are still suffering from the tail end of the illness which stuck us over Christmas. At least I was able to rest for part of the morning and was only woken by the agents informing me about the return of the viewers whereas poor old Toni had to labour on with an extra hour of overtime too!

Better tomorrow. Brave the gales and shame the devil.

Toujours gai! Archie! Toujours gai!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A day in the life of

No second viewing.

Sounds like the title of a poem by Yeats or a novel from the nineteen twenties, or perhaps a film noir; it is, of course, none of these; it merely describes the non reappearance of house visitors and potential buyers. It is not going to be enough that Richard is going to have to go through the same thing as his ‘upside down’ house comes onto the market. Comparison of frustration is no expiation.

However: the sun shone. In this benighted country, who can ask for more?

I have taken my mild preoccupation with ‘World’ British Music a step further. I have pondered on what would constitute orchestra music of world renown which is British and finally managed (with the help of Robert) to come up with a list of 10. It was comforting to hear Alan suggest the Trumpet Voluntary by Jeremiah Clarke, as that was my last suggestion at number 10. So I do have a list of sorts of the top ten British World Music orchestral tunes.

The step further has been to contact Classic FM and suggest an insert or a programme based on my idea. I spoke to someone who sounded in the last throes of a sore throat and cold. I was told that I would be contacted either by somebody who would respond to the idea of a list or somebody who could take it further. I look forward to the contact, but, giving it further thought I might suggest it to Radio Wales or rather to Radio 4. I will work on the ideas and hope that my impulsive contacting of Classic FM has not stymied my chances of getting the more fully worked out ideas for a larger (or more lucrative) audience. As I’m typing I’m getting more ideas for the format of a series of programmes, so I think I should shut up and now and get a different ‘piece of paper’ and be more professional about my ideas.

I am taking part in ‘Something Else’ this Sunday, so it may well be a good opportunity to get some feedback on any idea and format that I might suggest. Some work to do then!

I’ve read a little more of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ and am getting into the narrative. Ralph Nickleby, although presented as a heartless baddie, has some interesting features, especially linguistically. I think he is a character who will be differently perceived by me this reading around. Newman Noggs as a character was front-lined for me by the superb National Theatre production of evil memory – not, I rush to add, through any fault of The National Theatre, but rather through the usual machinations of pupils whose sole reason for existence is to frustrate the best intentions of selflessly professional teachers. I have not thought about this incident for many years, but memory has a way of letting you relive all the fury, frustration and exasperation that pedagogy is heir to! How well I remember the repercussions of that little school trip!

Since memory is in the ascendant I may as well recall the Ultimate Horror Trip. It all started so well and we (the goodies – the teachers) sat in the evening sunshine in Stratford upon Avon having a well deserved light evening meal before the performance by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Company in the Memorial Theatre. It was all going so well that we shouldn’t have tempted fate by saying out loud, “Well, this is all very pleasant, isn’t it?” From then onwards terror succeeded horror and catastrophe piled on disaster.

I think I’ll just list what went on and I experience again the character building experience that the evening became:

1 We are a ticket short as we sold the ‘extra’ ticket we had because one of the pupils was hiding under a chair
2 I stand for the first half of the show behind the stall seats
3 One of my colleagues spends the first part of the show running up and down the stairs – don’t ask
4 The kids’ behaviour during the first part of the show elicits complaints from the rest of the audience
5 The kids talk, eat crisps and drink fizzy drinks from cans
6 One psychotic kid makes a break for ‘freedom’ at the end of the show
7 I trust my colleagues to count the kids back on the bus accurately
8 Just leaving Stratford someone asks, “Where’s John?” (The boy who was hiding under seat – see 1 above)
9 The bus returns to the Memorial Theatre and I wander around the steps of the theatre calling, “John! John!” as if the boy was a dog
10 We make contingency plans to inform police, parents, school etc about missing boy
11 I decide I will stay in Stratford for the night to search for boy
12 Teachers join in the increasingly worried search party
13 Boy found wandering around in front of the Hilton, “I don’t follow the herd sir,” was his explanation
14 The bus sets off and stops for a toilet break at a service station where the pupils are herded unceremoniously like animals they are so they can’t misbehave further
15 Psychotic pupil manages to steal motorway cone
16 Male colleague sits next to psychotic pupil (who is clutching the cone) and swears at him (sotto voce) for the whole of the return trip to Cardiff
17 We are late arriving back at school
18 Teachers decide to kill pupils
19 Teachers think again and reluctantly decide to obey laws
20 Teachers sleep.

This is yet another aspect of teaching that I don’t miss!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Can I join your group?

I find those little quizzes in magazines where you have to answer a series of questions to discover which ‘group’ you belong to irresistible. It’s rather like horoscopes, you know that they are a load of utter rubbish, but I would not trust the person who has the strength of character to ignore reading their reading!

The magazines latch on to the fact that everyone likes to belong, to a group even if it’s one like mine, characterised by a poisonous eight legged scuttling creature with a sting in the tail. We manage, of course, to rationalise and use metaphor to point up the obvious (to us Scorpios) positive aspects of our sign: lively, assertive, intelligent with the ability to use language to stinging effect – no one gets the linguistic upper hand with us! Hooray!

No matter how absurd the little quizzes are they are mesmeric in their attraction and also prompt extraordinary feats of imaginative thought to justify their results. I must admit I also have a healthy scepticism about the accuracy of these searching analyses ever since I filled out a sexual habits survey in a magazine when I was in university. I answered every question with total accuracy and discovered in my final points total analysis that I was – wait for it: absolutely normal. This was one of the most crushing personal insults that I have ever had to endure and, although my faith in these surveys obviously suffered a considerable dent, I struggled throughout the succeeding years and bit by bit I returned to my credulous scepticism and acceptance of the Olympian understanding of journalists in the world of popular magazines.

Accepting that the group mentality exists, my experiences today certainly categorises people; not so much via quiz but rather by reaction.

My day started with my being early for a dentist appointment: one and a half hours early. OK, so I was wrong rather than defiantly brave ad it did make the ensuing ninety minutes a little less than satisfactory thinking about what the dentist was going to do.

I trust my dentist; he has shown himself reasonable and, as far as I can work out, he only does invasive work when absolutely essential – but he is not Mr Hamilton.

Mr Hamilton was the dentist I used to go to in Maesteg when I was a kid. My aunt was his assistant and he always gave me a birthday and Christmas present. He let me dress up in his white coat and pretend to be a dentist by welding his instruments of torture; he even gave me, in what would today be regarded as an act of criminal irresponsibility, a little jar with a few drops of liquid mercury in it so that I could push the drop of liquid metal around a smooth surface. The hell with deadly heavy metals, this was the 50s and there was a boy to keep interested! Mr Hamilton was from Ireland and his accent was impenetrable; I understood virtually nothing except for the vaguely recognisable ‘Stephen’ which ended many of his sentences to me! I went to tea with Mr Hamilton and his wife. He was somebody I grew up with and he was what I thought all dentists were like. I never understood why school friends evinced fear and loathing when they went to the dentist. Why was this? Surely their dentists were exactly like Mr Hamilton.

Then Mr Hamilton died. I had to go to another dentist who I did no know; who sent me no birthday cards; with who I did not take tea. I was absolutely petrified. All the fear which I had not understood from previous years I experienced suddenly, in full, at once.

Now that I am at an age where there is greater perspective about my early reactions, I am able to take a magisterial approach and say that people do not have an attitude of indifference towards dentists. They form groups.

Let’s start with The Frankly Terrified: from a general check up to root canal work, the reaction is the same: unthinking, almost uncontrollable, gut wrenching terror. We could go on to The Defiant Liar: this is exactly the same as the above, but this person has enough gumption left to lie about their reaction. The most irritating is Open Faced Acceptance: this is a state where the person really and truly doesn’t really care about going to the dentist. There are at least one hundred and seventy three distinct extra types which you can discover in any reasonable text book, and you can find your own little group.

The other excursion today was with Paul Squared to get his stitches out in the Heath Hospital. Here is another of life’s little experiences which divide humanity: Hospital Visiting. The groups here range from the ghouls to the grumps: the former taking a macabre delight is seeing the sick and the latter resenting every second spent doing their duty to the sick.

My day was spent thinking about the house and the response thereto. The agent phoned up and said that the potential buyers liked the house but were concerned about the level of the back garden. We will wait and see.

Wait and see.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Waiting Game

This is actually (and really) Sunday’s blog but the time is out of joint and the previous blog committed the ultimate sin of breaching the midnight limit; in BBC terms this would be the equivalent of speaking over the pips!

‘The Times’ (when it was a decent newspaper and not owned by the Dirty Digger) used to print letters whose writers had noticed the first cuckoo of spring. I feel that I should write a similar missive but this time describing the first viewers of the new year.

After an extended period of unnatural activity (cleaning) and perverse behaviour (tidying) the house looked as unlike anything that I would like to live in as I could imagine: everything, as Toni would say, “in his place.” I want to get back to clutter and my books, but that will be ere the set of sun and the selling of the house.

The couple who came to view seemed to like it: the man dwelt on the car parking possibilities and the lady was drawn to the kitchen and the views. We now come to that non-time which is the time between the viewing and the response. As today is Sunday we will have to wait until Monday and even then it is sometimes delayed. Wait and see. Good advice.

The down side of preparing the house for a viewing is trying to find out where you put all those things which you just stuffed into any corner or drawer, telling yourself that you would restore everything to its appropriate place as soon as the viewers had left. What I actually did when they left (apart, that is, from the instant character analysis and pointless worry about whether or not they were likely to buy the property) was make lunch.

There was nothing outstanding about the repast we had, but the feature which interested me most was the colander which I used. At Toni’s behest we bought a new one in Sainsbury yesterday. Now I remember colanders from my youth. They were something which your family bought once and the article stayed with you for the rest of your parents’ lives and then was transferred to you by natural selection or some such process and was something which you used until it broke and then continued to use because a colander was something which distant family bought and handed down, not something which you could buy yourself. The one we had was made of aluminium and came down to Cardiff with my parents from Leeds. It was quite small and couldn’t contain a full saucepan full of potatoes for example. It also had a wonky base, so that it leaned a little to one side. Did we buy a replacement? Of course not! So you can understand my wonderment at actually having the temerity to lash out and purchase an heirloom. And very fine it is too: a professional looking thing in gleaming stainless steel and large enough to take a couple of chopped lettuces! A momentous day indeed, and, as Toni paid for half of it; an internationally significant day!

Perhaps today is the day that I get more fully into the novel of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’. The description of the Muffin and Crumpet swindle which is just about to be perpetrated seems as relevant today as it was in the time of Dickens. Although the fraud is presented in a humorous way the reality behind the scheme is harshly serious and, although this fraud is being carried out in a public meeting with the stock comic characters of Irish MPs etc., all you have to do is reset the meeting to a carefully constructed web site on the internet, and the link to the present is clear and the money making possibilities just as lucrative!

Man's greed never changes!

Grey Days

This is actually Saturdays blog, but the way things work out midnight comes too soon sometimes.

Another grey day in a succession of grey days: no wonder we founded an empire in the sun! What do we do now that we have lost it all? Move to Spain! What a good idea: why didn’t I think of that before?

Tomorrow we have the first viewers of the year for the house. This is something of a surprise as we did not expect anyone this early in the year. It would be silly to get our hopes up as we are used to disappointment so far: at least we are able to sit tight and wait and are not panicking, not yet anyway. We will have to wait and see: again!

I think that I am becoming even more misogynistic. Over the past few months I have got used to shopping when I return from taking Toni to work; so I can be inside Tesco by 8.20 am. Tesco is encouragingly empty at this time, though it is actually too early for the proper bread to be ready, but it does make browsing around the aisles a positive pleasure.

The roads are emptier and, until early lunch time, roads are a delight to travel. The danger of lunchtime is that the aged drivers make a determined foray into the cut and thrust of ordinary life. Their driving often reflects their expectation that the school run is over and the roads ought to be given to the mature: the result being that the driving is ‘individualistic’ – or erratically slow as the rest of us discover.

It is hardly a sociological discovery to state that the process of driving seems to strip layers of superficial artifice constructed by people against the intellectual incursion of the nosy world and leave drivers in their basic, sometimes atavistic state. I know people who say that they don’t like driving; but I have yet to meet someone who says that they are indifferent drivers. If we are all experts then drivers occupy the same zone of irritation as parents. All parents (without exception) are experts on education, and certainly more learned and experienced than any teacher who might be attempting to inflict their pedagogic black arts on their innocent babes. In the same way all drivers (without exception) always do the right thing and behave with decorum and professionalism. It therefore follows that there can be no criticism which is not unwarranted and impertinent. It therefore further follows that all actions taken by all drivers are right and proper at all times. This makes any reasonable analysis somewhat impossible. Any attempt at analysis should, therefore, be resisted with immense contempt at all times.

You might say that very few people would be stupid enough to comment on any one else’s driving in the same way than only a suicidal idiot would comment truthfully on any baby or child offered by parents for contemplation and adulation. It is how analysis is presented that is the issue.

Here are the ways in which analysis is perceived by other drivers, you will notice that 'other' drivers do not actually have to do anything which is against the other driver, just existing is enough, but the list following shows ways in which the threatening analysis is understood:
1 Driving too close
2 Driving too fast
3 Driving
4 Looking at other drivers
5 Not looking at other drivers
6 Using a mobile phone
7 Keeping to the speed limit
8 Talking to a passenger
9 Using hand signals
10 Driving a 4 wheel drive
11 Driving a two door car
12 Driving with stickers on the rear windscreen

13 Driving a vehicle with tinted windows
14 Driving a vehicle with Penthouse bunny stickers
15 Having a sign in the rear window with "Princess on board"
16 Driving with the head lower than the top of the steering wheel
17 Any Porche driver
18 Not wearing a seat belt
19 Smoking while driving
20 Driving a Ford

So, any behaviour, driving style or attitude on behalf of another driver is an implied analysis.

There is no escape.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Computer abuse

This is being written in electronic exile.

My internet connection is not working and it is amazing how isolated I feel. Something has happened to my computer and programs are not working properly. The most obvious reason for this situation is a virus: though I have to say (through clenched teeth) that I do have an up-and-running anti virus program. My frustration is now being expressed in a tight and sullen sort of resentment when, for no reason, the toys of my adulthood are suddenly taken away.

Just as suddenly as it happened: it has reversed itself. There was a certain amount of encouragement by listening to Toni and typing in ‘configsys’ at certain arcane spaces on the computer and limiting this and expanding that; but the most effective procedure which managed to get this cutting edge technology back onto the straight and narrow was actually turning it off and on again. This is actually quite encouraging, because that is the computer equivalent to giving the machine a little tap to get it going again! Nice to see that the old methods are still the most effective!

I’ve now completed reading “Winter in Madrid” by C J Sansom and I can recommend it as a compelling read. My reservations about the implausibility of the plot and the highly contrived twists in it are actually utilised with some subtlety as the action progresses. My further reservations about the use of the setting are also lessened as the story progresses.

There are genuine shocks as the tempo of the action increases. The central character represents a particular view of the typical non-political English man who tries to do the decent thing when placed in intolerable circumstances. That is why the historical and geographical location of the novel is so interesting: a non political approach to Spain at the end of the Civil War was impossible. I do, of course, realise that any ‘non-political’ stance is more presentation than reality. I spent a long time talking to teachers who thought that they could be non political just because they said so. It was always fun pointing out to those colleagues with limited intelligence the oxymoron that a ‘non political’ stance actually was in the profession of teaching! As it was always members of PAT (the professional association of teachers – what a misnomer that first word always was) who twittered on about their inability to take strike action ‘because of the pupils’ but who never failed to take their pay increases when they found their way into their pay packets after the actions of the NUT and NASWT!

The ending of the novel is probably the strongest part of the book, and I’m not totally convinced that the rest of the action matches the strength which is evident at the end. I do admire the fact that Sansom did not duck the issues which his setting provoked. His research is sometimes a little too much on parade and there is a certain amount of historical name dropping but it is woven into the fabric of his narrative.

Having said all that, I think that the most impressive part of the book is at the end of the novel when Sansom gives his references and especially his summary of the conflict in a section entitled ‘Historical Note’. I have not read a more compact, succinct and intelligent summary of the complex and frustrating conflict which was the Spanish Civil War. In three and a half pages he manages to concentrate the complex issues into a readable and understandable format.

Although I had not heard of Sansom before, I understand that his literary fame rests more on the fact that he has started producing a series of historical novels. I can’t say that I am encouraged to read those, even though you are given a chapter for free at the end of ‘Winter in Madrid’.

The photos promised yesterday did not materialise.


For sure.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Blow, blow thou winter wind!

Now that the howling winds have lessened in their intensity (well, stopped if I am to be strictly accurate) I can survey my demesne and take stock of the destruction wrecked. Three panels around the garden have been stricken. It is, of course, just my luck that the panels which need to be replaced are no longer made! I dread to think what resources of ingenuity will be called on from my limited stock to repair the seemingly destroyed fence. Two of the panels are now lying on the patio outside the front windows like some giant’s discarded jigsaw set and I have a vague but nagging feeling that a random scattering of nails knocked with enthusiasm in to various rotting pieces of sodden wood is not going to produce a convincing looking replacement section. Well, think what I like, it has to be done to be ready for the Selling Season for the house. I only hope that Cuprinol paint can cover a multitude of minor discrepancies in the surface of wooden panelling!

There is something to be said for viewing a gale from the centrally heated comfort of a secure home. Even though I have to say that the occasional ‘thunk!’ as yet another garden chair is levitated just enough to get itself thrown by the careless hand of the wind into the pond, where it remains, half submerged, like the aftermath of a normal pool party in Malaga, is a little disconcerting.

The wind also converted our street into an almost comical obstacle course because of the disorder brought to the road by the scattered bins which had been overturned. Driving was more of a slalom course, especially where the concentration of wheelie bins from the flats made the course even more perilous. Thank god for a good cup of tea and a decent book; the wind can do what it likes as long as there is literature to facilitate escape!

I am now well into ‘Winter in Madrid’ and I have distinctly mixed thoughts about the book. I am not convinced that the setting of the book adds that much to a rather contrived plot. I get the sense that the setting of immediate post Civil War Spain and the problems of keeping Spain out of the Second World War is more window dressing than an essential element in the effective presentation of the relationships of the major protagonists. Coincidence is playing far too large a part in the action of the novel and its obviousness is unsettling: it points up the mechanistic nature of the emotional ties which link the three school fellows.

I will wait until I have finished before I give a definitive evaluation of the novel – though I have to say the more I read this book the more I am looking forward to starting ‘Nicholas Nickleby’!

I am still looking for suggestions for the pieces of British orchestral music which qualify as ‘world famous’ – I’ve had one or two more suggestions but people are confusing ‘good’ British music with ‘world famous’ British music: not the same thing at all – though we might bemoan the fact that more British music is not known around the world, I’m looking for the reality of fame rather than the earnest expression of what ought to be famous.

Tomorrow: photos. I have neglected my camera, so I will set myself the task of producing a set of three or four decent shots to keep my level of involvement active.

We shall see.