Monthly Archives: October 2009

No tea thanks

Firefighters' tea time

Firefighters' tea time

I’m facing my biggest test.

Two and a half months ago I gave up drinking tea. Proper tea that is. Irish tea. (Yes, yes, I know. Tea doesn’t come from Ireland. But we drink more per head than anyone else so we have a claim to it.) Or any kind of normal tea to which you add milk.

There I was, pint (of cider) in hand, at a party, and it came to me. I’ve been drinking tea for decades. Right. That’s it. I’m bored of it, and I’m having a break.

It’s a big thing. I love drinking it. I would sit with pots and pots of it. It’s the social lubricant – far more than alcohol. The universal panacea. The refuge to which you can turn when you don’t know where else to go. Always from a pot. None of this tea bag in a cup business. That puts a limit on it. Offering someone a cup made from a tea bag dipped in is like offering someone crisps from a bag, but keeping the opening closed narrow and tight in your fist to restrict access. It’s like offering hospitality with a time limit of, oh, say, five minutes.

But that’s all over. I’ve stopped drinking it. Not forever. That would be too daunting to contemplate. But for a long while.

And my fast – if you can call not drinking tea a fast – has brought benefits. I’ve lost weight. Eight or nine pounds. It wasn’t the aim, but appears to be the consequence. Perhaps it’s the milk I’m not drinking along with the tea, or the buckets of cake I’m not eating as accompaniment. Who knows? I may have to write a self help book extolling the virtues of cutting out tea from your diet as the route to weight loss and personal nirvana. (Any coffee companies fancy sponsoring it?)

But – and it’s a big but. (Single “t” there of course, thanks to all that tea I haven’t drunk.) I’m off to Ireland for the week. Belfast, Louth, Dublin, Drogheda. There’ll be tea and talk of tea everywhere. It’ll be pushed on me, offered, forcibly poured down my gullet through funnels. Refusal will prompt horrified gasps and concern about serious illness – physical and mental. Above all that, it’ll seem rude to refuse. (Especially in teetotal houses without alternatives – where a strong drink is when you leave the tea to brew on the hot ring.)

I don’t know what will happen. Here goes.

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When Auntie met Nazi

People queueing for Jonathan Ross

People queuing for Jonathan Ross

Just another day at the office, pictured by a colleague. Are they e United Against Facism protestors, cross about the BNP’s Nick Griffin appearing on Question Time. Or the queue for Jonathan Ross? Or Harry Hill?A TV Centre tour? Or the bus queue. Hard to tell.

 But all the fuss of the day reminded me of The Man They Couldn’t Hang and their song “The Ghosts of Cable Street”.

Or this version if you want to see the band.

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My sins have been forgiven, by a builder.

BuilderWhy is it that we feel so uncomfortable around mechanics and builders? The mechanic hitches up the car bonnets and tuts, or just looks inscrutable, and already you feel the need to make excuses. By the time he (it’s always be a he for me) deigns to hazard a guess at the source of the problem, you’re ready to believe anything and pay anything, to escape the humiliating reminder of your ignorance and inadequacy.

It’s the same with the builder. There’s a crack in the wall. Is it merely a crack? Or could it be due to subsidence which is endangering your home to the point of imminent collapse? Or something in between? Who knows? Not me. Again, it’s embarrassing.

But why? Cars are important. Homes, more so. But the health of our own bodies trumps both. So why don’t we feel even more embarrassment about our medical ignorance? There’s no shame in not knowing your own exact diagnosis. That’s what the doctor, the expert, is there for.

And it’s no good saying: Stop whingeing and get off your arse and learn about car engines or house maintenance.

That’s not the answer. Sadly.

I’ve poked about inside the innards of cars, changed bits, fixed others, cleaned doofers, restored whatsits, and come up with temporary repairs when disaster strikes out on the road.

I’ve also not been afraid to get stuck in when it comes to buildings – rendering, climbing, treating, painting, replacing, digging, hammering, etc. Sometimes with a sense of dread on icy bone cold days. But I’ve done it.

(To do otherwise would be even more shameful having been brought up by a fairly handy father deeply suspicious of all outside assistance.)

So why the enduring shame. It’s not embarrassment I feel when something malfunctions. More of a sense of moral culpability. That repeatedly troublesome awkward-to-get-at gutter is a sinful stain on my soul. Crazy? Maybe. Excessively Catholic? Despite my best efforts to transcend that possibility, I fear it may be so.

Which is why the feeling of relief and release were intense after a visit from a local builder this week. (Naturally he was not answering any summons of mine. Oh, the shame! My wife called him.)

It turns out there’s a flaw in the way the gutter was installed, leading it to repeatedly falter. And: My decaying rendering is not inherently flawed, but being destabilized by something else I hadn’t thought of. And: The suspected damp in one room is merely superficial – the wall is fine.

In terms of cost and disruption the reprieve on dampness is the important bit. But the verdict of innocence – my personal innocence – on the first degree faulty guttering gave me such an unexpected spiritual lift.

I feel bizarrely cleansed, free and lighter of step. My life is now better. I feel better.

It’s like Jesus miraculously curing the lame – except in reverse. Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven. Pick up your bed and walk.” And the cripple reportedly rises, legs working fine.

The village builder says: “Ah, that guttering has been installed in such a way that the wind always catches it and pulls it apart.” And my soul sings as if my sins have been forgiven. Even better, it turns out I hadn’t sinned in the first place.

How often do you get that from the builder?

There must be a mind/body/spirit self-help book in there somewhere…

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The Banned / A New Name

Everyone’s getting banned. Aung San Suu Kyi is banned from leaving her house arrest in Burma. Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya is banned from leaving the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. And now I’ve been banned from using the computer on Sundays. I proudly stand with my fellow bannees. But Sunday is past. So I can now mention a couple of things.

  1. Worrying/odd treatment of the British National Party (BNP) by BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat show. See Guardian newspaper news story and Roy Greenslade comment.
  2. Something delightful I saw on the Cultural Snow blog.
  3. I’ve changed the name of the main character in my novel, Blackwatertown, to (ta dah) Macken. Or more fully. John Oliver Macken, aka Jack Macken, aka Jolly Macken. There now. Isn’t that a heroic moniker?

Macken’s previous name was too close to living people, who might themselves be displeased, or might themselves incur the displeasure of others incapable of differentiating fact from fiction. Bad for the health and all that.

Macken is a conflicted Catholic policeman serving in the RUC in the 1950s. After farcical encounters in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains of County Down, he is demoted from sergeant and banished to sleepy Blackwatertown near the Irish border. His arrival has far-reaching consequences: It wakes the place up; stirs up the murkiness round the mysterious death of the police officer he is replacing; sparks a new border war; and begins a sometimes dark, sometimes funny, wild ride through the politics of sexuality, sectarianism, loyalty and what it means to belong.

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Oxford Circus Bill

 

Oxford Circus Bill

Oxford Circus Bill

 Today a London legend disappears for good. Oxford Circus Bill closes his newspaper stand for the last time.

Bill’s pitch is one of those fascinating sites/sights of alternative London. He’s not exactly off the beaten path. He’s a larger than life character who dominates a corner of one of London’s busiest intersections, where Oxford Street crosses Regent Street.

 For years and years and years, he’s been selling the Evening Standard newspaper from his stand. And he’s also been providing general entertainment, chat and banter – and occasional shows – like this week’s bizarre Punch & Judy. He’s always been a source of stories, a haven for waifs, a fiercely partisan Tottenham fan and a downright den of mischief. If you want to know more about the chequered past, the football firms and the current mischief, check out his forthcoming book. It’s called Oxford Circus Bill.

Croc & Judy at Bill's pitch

Croc & Judy at Bill's pitch

So why is it coming to an end? Like other Evening Standard vendors, Bill has been under increasing pressure in recent years. The terms for selling the paper have deteriorated, there’s been mushrooming competition from the distributors of free newspapers, the threat of crime, assault and the wearing down of body and soul that comes with working outside in the cold, heat, rain, hail and snow for decades.To be fair, bawdy Bill’s body and soul seem to be as robust as ever. But the final straw was the decision of the Evening Standard, London’s main newspaper, to transform itself into a free newspaper. Falling circulation has led to this last desparate throw of the dice by the paper’s new owners – hoping to recoup on advertising off the back of increased distribution, what they lose on cash sales. But no sales means no Bill doing the selling. So that’s the end for Oxford Circus Bill, the London legend, the mouth, the yell, the wink, the laugh. Until he finds another pitch from which to advertise his greatest asset. Himself. Watch this space.

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Knock knock. Who’s there? Doctor Parnassus…

What do you do when your leading man departs this earth part way through filming your movie? If it’s Gladiator, and Oliver Reed has sipped slipped away, you resort to some fancy digital effects. But then he wasn’t the lead.

Or – as Terry Gilliam has done with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – you recruit successors. So Heath Ledger morphs into Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law. But thankfully it’s not at all like one of those cringeworthy American sundrenched soaps where a character returns after a long time away, being played by a different actor – and no-one bats an eyelid. On the contrary, the three substitutions work very cleverly with the plot, and probably enhance the whole viewing experience.

I’ve just been to the London premiere …. (Ooh get you! I know, I know.) So here is the instant review:

Never mind the imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, what about the imagination of Terry Gilliam. It’s rich and immense, and shows no sign of flagging. There’s great vivid imagery and a lot of style.

The story revolves round successive deals that Dr Parnassus makes with the devil, and attempts to wriggle out of paying the price. It’s also about making decisions, doing the right thing. The right thing is not always obvious, and a wrong choice leads to hell. Choose well though, and you and your imagination are freed, and you finally experience life in all its wonder. The route to self-discovery lies through a magic mirror into the psychedelic world of your imagination.

The most enduring and intimate relationship is between Dr Parnassus and the devil. Tom Waits is a great Mississippi beelzebub. And rather than wanting to grab as many souls as he can, or to win at all costs, it becomes apparent how much he values having a sparring partner. And how much the battle of wits staves off an eternity of boredom.

Lily Cole (yes, the tall red-headed model) pulls off acting Christopher Lee’s daughter. The woman I was with enjoyed the four incarnations of Heath Ledger. (I found myself wondering if Colin Farrell’s dodgy child-rescuing philanthropist was a sly dig at Bono or Bob Geldof. But that may just be because Colin Farrell is from Dublin too.)  I thought the set was just great – particularly the tall narrow horse-drawn ark in which the Imaginarium and cast travel.

But – for me – the film began to meander a bit too aimlessly in the parallel Salvador Dali-esque dream world. By the time Colin Farrell was being chased, I was wishing his comeuppance would hurry up and come. The suspense sagged. And then, the story having disappeared into an almost final dismal depressing wilderness, it suddenly finds its way out again to the real world, and a last minute happy ending. This lacked the chutzpah of the first two thirds of the film. It was as if Cinderella had settled down and married Buttons.

So should you go to the cinema to see it or hang on for the DVD rental?  Well… Best of all would be to see it projected onto the glass of a giant lava lamp, while under the  influence of whatever you fancy. Failing that, yes, go to the cinema. A big screen is the best place to appreciate the hugely imaginative dreamscapes. And Heath Ledger is most charming.

A note on the premiere experience: Downside – you have to wait for ages for the bally thing to begin. Upside – you’re rubbing shoulders with people off the tele, film stars and severely under-dressed young women. Oddside – seeing Andrew Garfield in the flesh only hours after having seen him in Lions for Lambs. He looks exactly the same. He also appears to be paying homage to Richard Bacon with his choice of jackets.

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Conkers v. Spiders

ConkerScared of spiders? Tired of cobwebs in your corners? Never fear! There’s a pishogue for everything. An old wives tale, that is.

First, gather some conkers. (Luckily it’s still the tail end of the conker season.) Second, place a conker in every corner of the room where spiders lurk. Third, sit back, relax and wait for the spiders to flee. Fourth, inspect your spider-free corners.Platycryptus Undatus Female

Easy. But this blog would never just blithely dish out advice without subjecting it to rigorous testing. Which might be why my seven-year-old was dropping conkers in corners all round the house. Hey, it’s all part of scientific enquiry and experimentation.

The result? Oh dear. There, snug in the corner, was a conker, with a squat spider on top. “I think spiders like conkers,” said my daughter’s friend from down the street.

So, er… that’s spiders 1, conkers 0. Don’t believe old wives. Get a duster for those cobwebs you lazy pig. And mind you don’t skid on those conkers scattered round your floor.

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