Friday, 27 February 2009


I helped organise a surprise birthday party for a work colleague last night. Such things are fraught with small anxieties, not everyone likes surprise parties. I was once invited to a surprise party where the ‘victim’ walked through the door, the rebel yell of ‘Surprise!’ reverberated round the room at which point the birthday boy turned on his heels and ran off. He did not return until the next day or so his rather bemused girlfriend reported later. We still carried on with the party and after several glasses of very strong punch no-one seemed to recall that the cause for the celebration was on the bus heading across town to spend the night at his mother’s.

I think I might find a surprise party a little unnerving myself, being a recovering control freak ( well on a good day I’m in recovery on a bad one I am wondering why people don’t listen to me as I am always so right). There are good surprises, bad surprise and surprises that freak you out a little and make you feel rather unnerved. Then again the capacity to be surprised keeps us a step ahead of the drone, maybe astonishment makes us a little more human, the unexpected keeps your soul on its toes. Always liked this Paul Farley poem that burrows under the surface of that feeling in more ways than one.

Luckily the birthday girl at last nights party was both suitably surprised and pleased, sighs of relief all round. The birthday was a sixtieth and some of us started to talk about pensions, I mentioned the RBS head honcho’s, Sir Fred Goodwin’s, pension and his reward for working really really hard and making such a huge success of the bank ( for those who may be unaware this is an ironic statement). There seemed to be common agreement round the table that something was wrong, not just with this £693,000 per annum pension at the ancient age of 50, but with a society that deems his labour worth such a sum. The city has always had rules of its own about what constitutes worth. Some people spend years in badly paid jobs that directly benefit hundreds of people, firemen, nurses, care workers etc and they have to work really hard and their reward is very little whilst doing the job and even less when they retire. You could argue that such lowly people don’t generate money, they do not move and shake the economy or create profit. A labourer is never worthy of his hire because it depends on who the labourer is and it depends on the financial context in which the hiring takes place. Sir Fred’s mammoth pension is not about his real worth, nor is it about what he achieved, it is about what he can get, what the market will bear. It has been ever thus, the market isn’t interested in fairness, usefulness or levels of responsibility. A nurse may have to be responsible for ensuring someone is kept a live and healthy, Sir Fred had to do the same for a bank. Unfortunately the patient died and he was there standing over the body with his foot on the patient’s oxygen pipe. Over half a million pounds per annum to step away from the body seems absurd but if people are stupid enough to give him a golden handshake rather than call him to account for his failure to keep his patient alive then good luck to the man, he must be laughing all the way to the bank.

The government are now saying this pay-out is obscene whilst the man himself states that the government were well aware of the details of his pension. The government in the past denied that we had any involvement in ‘extraordinary rendition’. Now it seems we do recall giving the Americans two suspected terrorists captured in Iraq to be whisked off to be ‘questioned’ in facilities in a third country where torture is not illegal. Jack Straw had said categorically this had not happened, now Mr Hutton the defence secretary says: "Brief references to this case" were included in "lengthy" papers to the, then, Foreign and Home Secretaries without its significance being highlighted at the time.” Perhaps the details of Sir Fred’s pension were briefly mentioned in some lengthy papers as well and its significance was passed over as unimportant when losses of billions were in the offing.
We do have to wonder that the government at present do seem to be surprised by quite a lot of things, perhaps someone should arrange them a surprise a party.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

Love is a Butterfly, Saint Sebastian, Chopin but Mostly Tripe

Posting on Valentine’s day is a bit iffy, if you do then how sad that you have nothing else better to do on a day set aside to celebrate love, if you don’t post then you may be seen as the churlish sulking woman envying all those with a love to clutch to their bosom. Still I have to say I benefited from the day as I thought I got rather a good deal from the supermarket on their special Valentine Meal offer, just phase it over two days rather than eat the three courses as a couple tonight plus you get a bottle of wine to take the edge off watching Casualty and the England versus Wales Rugby without someone there to second guess the plot, annoyingly correctly in both shows.
For some time, as a child and a teenager, I though that picture of Saint Sebastian tied up and pierced with arrows was actually St Valentine so I naturally presumed Valentine’s day was tied up with dying for love, wounding, and general sadism.My love life as a teenager went along those lines so no wonder he was my pin up boy for love, along with Che Guevara (another one dying for love of something) and for some strange reason I also had a thing about Chopin who I thought, due to the film of his life I saw at eleven, also died for love in a rather romantic way. Cornel Wilde and Merle Oberon starred in this very bad film called A Song To Remember. I think I was taken for a strange re-showing of it at the Metropole in Nottingham, I even recall a queue, although I may be mixing that up with going to see Cliff Richards in Summer Holiday. It was one of those lurid biopics. Cornel gave his Chopin and Merle gave her George Sands, striding into the film wearing men’s clothes and holding a whip I think , which was as far as Hollywood went towards suggesting a slight hint at feminism and sexual ambiguity. However the part I now recall most vividly was a scene in which a tubercular Chopin was feverishly playing the Revolutionary Etude at some concert to raise money for his beloved Poland (or maybe his family, the two become blurred at this distance). There was a close up shot of his hands (or rather some unnamed pianist whose job it was to be the hand-double for the scene) and then slowly drops of blood as he coughed fell onto the keys. It was in glorious garish Technicolor at a time when the early sixties hadn’t quite shaken off the black and white of the fifties so the black and white keys and the bright scarlet blood was very immediate and visual. As a child I thought it was so romantic, the artist literally dying , drop of blood by drop of blood, for his art and the things he loved. I cannot hear this piece of music now without that close-up image being summoned. It gets mashed up now and then with Sparky and the Magic Piano which I think also contains this Chopin piece but I cannot hear The Revolutionary Etude without seeing that scene from the film and feeling the rash itch on the back of my legs caused by the scarlet plush of the cinema seat. This performance by Bronfman of all those posted on Youtube comes closest to the tempestuousness that I felt poured out of the screen and from the heart of Chopin. No wonder I got the impression as a child that love was all about the big things, the huge moments of sacrifice or grand gesture. My father taking my mother a cup of tea in bed every morning of their married life until he was too ill to do so, my mother cooking him his favourite tripe and onions to perfection although the sight and smell of it turned her stomach, these acts did not merit the title of profound romantic love. Even after I left home, all grown up, or so I thought and aware now that love was sometimes in the small things I still sometimes thought that the greatest , the most loving love, rose above tea and tripe but now I am hopefully wise enough to think that maybe that is what true love between two people can aspire to.

Happy Valentines Day, hope you all get your equivalent of tea in bed or tripe and onions and if you are not coupled up ( I felt rather like a lurching railway carriage as I typed that) then just sit and listen to poor innocent Madame Butterfly ( in this case actually played by Ying Huang, a believable Madam Butterfly and not a Widow Twankie makeover version) sing out her longing to see her bastard, two faced, husband, Pinkerton, sail into the harbour to come and get her. This is the opera I put on and flow into when I am feeling I need to touch base on the downs of love, opera is always good for disastrous love playing itself out in three acts. At least I don’t have to end up committing Hari-Kari for love and in my case I have great friends, the DVD of Son of Rambow and to hell with it I can have a double helping of the Marks and Spencer’s Valentine Meal for two.

Friday, 6 February 2009

'Me first' mentality, Victory Vs, snowbound and Charles Simic

So the snow falls and then falls some more and friends in the States and Canada laugh at the pathetic sight of us grinding to a halt. I battled through snow on Monday, sliding gracefully round bends flanked by deep fen drainage dykes wondering if the tale of the man dredged in his car from the dyke after several months in which his wife just presumed he had run off with another woman is true or a rural, as opposed to urban, myth. When the snow fell again during the night on Thursday, this time thicker and more luxurious, I had a ‘Snow Day’ as all my meetings were cancelled, I could have walked through the snow to the office as our secretary did, taking an hour to slither what would normally have taken her fifteen minutes, but I had no need to as I could log on at home and busy myself with the same stuff I would have done had I displayed the Dunkirk spirit and gone into work. Where is my Dunkirk spirit, did I leave it in my parents genes, did I misplace it when I failed to produce fairy cakes for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Street party, am I now the sort of person to stock pile in a shortage situation, queue to get my money out of Northern Rock?

There was a lot of publicity this week surrounding a recent report that came to the conclusion that children’s lives were being adversely effected by the selfish behaviour of adults around them, the ‘me first’ mentality was, they seemed to indicate, pervasive and having a long term toxic effect on our young. I was a little dismayed to see that the single parent working mother was again dredged up by others (not the report) as the prime example of this attitude. As an ex single parent working mother (the child now having grown, not past mothering but past being counted statistically as a child of a working single parent) my hackles rise and the ‘me first’ mentality does come into play; ‘me first’ to kick the smug pundits that trot out such tripe into touch. Most single working parents have no time to put the ‘me first’ into action they are too busy trying to do the best they can to bring up their children and give them a decent and secure and love filled life. There are always exceptions that can be trotted out to the rule but the vast majority of single parents have no real ‘me time’ and do not resent that because others, their children, always come first. Perhaps some want to see the so called demise of the community spirit as an indication of the rise of the ‘me’ society. I am always suspicious of looking back at the communities and societies of the past through rose coloured spectacles. My mother used to talk about the fights that went on in the Second World War, between women outside butchers' shops when there was a merest rumour of offal or some woman being given an extra sausage. My father as an ex policeman who walked the beat during the war in a cheek by jowl so called slum area could name all the people that profiteered even on a tiny scale and those that burgled peoples houses when they took to the shelters during the air raids. People helped each other because this was the most effective way of surviving on the whole and most people have a desire to be kind if possible.

I personally think people are just as kind, just as helpful but the nature of how people work now and how housing and finances dictate how we live makes it more difficult to show that kindness. Violence, rape, child abuse of all kinds, all went on in the past, most of it undetected or even unmarked by society as it was within the normal parameters of social expectation or even to speak of it was taboo. The premise that people were less selfless then cannot be upheld solely by looking at the crime statistics or mental health referrals of the young now or pointing to nostalgic anecdotes about the way people sang together down the air raid shelters or could let their kids roam free all day without supervision or how people would more readily help a neighbour clear their path of snow. I have known great acts of kindness and care displayed by the people who live in my small town, the toxin of the ‘me first’ culture if it exists at all may just boil down to that old socio-political concept, alienation, when you don’t feel connected to anything or anyone there is only yourself to tend to. If you don’t feel part of the great web of life and want your children to be part of it, all that’s left is to be the spider or the fly

I have craved Victory V lozenges throughout the cold snap and could not find them locally, it takes my Philadelphian friend to send me a link to a web site where I can purchase nostalgic confectionery until I’m sick of the sight of sherbet fountains, Poppets, Fisherman’s Friends, Tootie Fruities, shrimps, Imps, Jelly Tots and the very un PC sweet tobacco. Perhaps the confectionery of old contained chemicals that inhibited the operation of the selfish gene, perhaps there was a government conspiracy to keep the population acquiescent and more community conscious through ensuring children were brought up on a diet of sweets chemically infused with certain colourings or sugars.The old Victory Vs for instance contained liquorice, ether and chloroform. As a child I must have been exposed to them and to more sugar and artificial colourings (long banned) than several herds of lab rats. The amount of sunshine yellow colourant in the fish fingers I consumed alone could now keep a whole class full of children bouncing of the walls, or so some say. The way we were is a very dodgy tool to use, a detailed understanding of history is of course hugely important, where we have been is vital to allow us to examine the here and now rationally and put it in context but to profess that human beings were less selfish then and more selfish now seems unwise, unproductive and just plain wrong. I think I have harped on in a similar vein in previous posts but the publication of this report about the future of our children was jabbing at my brain.

I was sorry to miss Charles Simic’s Poetry Society lecture in London because of he snow but have been informed that the text of the lecture will be made available to all those who want it and there should be a recording of it available at some point.

I have been asked to contribute a square( ish poem) about Spring to an anthology, I must now go off into a darkened room and think spring like thoughts despite the snow, now rapidly turning to slush that the forecasts say will turn to ice overnight and likely to stay icy for a few days. Dear Reader , this week I shall be mostly eating Victory V’s and falling over.