Wish It Were Here

The popular “Today” programme on BBC Radio Four has been running for sixty years, and to celebrate the occasion several high spots of long-ago programmes and then-and-now comparisons  were broadcast. “Today” being an essential part of my breakfast, with the voice, if not always the manner,  of the great John Humphrys as a special treat, I enjoyed the occasion, but it also started me off on a private memory trip. Meandering through the last two decades or so, I found myself listing a few things that I miss. Things such as:

A switchboard operator. A real human being with a pleasant voice who put you through in an instant to the person you wished to talk to. Just like that. Instead – oh, you know it all, there come five options, followed by three, an offer of  items you neither need nor want, sometimes the demand for a password, meanwhile adding insult to injury you are thanked for your patience when in fact you’re growling with homicidal rage at this wasting of your time – and finally the person you want isn’t available, please call back later. Whose interest does this idiotic method serve? Dropping it would create jobs for real human beings with pleasant voices.

Face to face arguments, conducted  with due tolerance and openness. This kind has its built-in boundaries and, with a bit of luck, follows logical lines. It may end with the classic formula of agreeing to differ, or else descend into a flaming row, but it would remain above board, free from the anonymous online poison-spitting that has grown into an epidemic. I often wonder what kind of person threatens me with rape or murder or both, simply because he dislikes something I’ve written, or doesn’t recognize a joke when he sees one – is his thinking apparatus in his head or somewhere else, lower down in his anatomy?

Hand-written personal letters and notes from people who really matter. You don’t need a diploma in graphology to sense the link between handwriting and personality: I certainly get a sense of the writers when their postcards arrive: P’s delicate, finicky style, Y’s energetic sweep, J’s dance-like linking of characters are unmissable. Only postcards give me this pleasure of recognition. Communications in e-mails don’t. It’s all uniform, Bookman Old Style, font size 14 or  Copperplate Gothic or a batch of other styles are fun to play with but they lack the personal touch, which is what I miss –

Hey, looking at these few things that I miss, they are all about lost human contact! I live in a world where being contactless seems a desirable aim, but one that doesn’t suit me at all. I like, love, need contact with my fellow beings and will maintain it, come what may.

At this moment a letter arrives from my bank, sending me my new card, with full instructions. “Simply touch your contactless card against the card reader,” it says. What? Touch? But that’s CONTACT!

There are times when it’s best to give up with quiet dignity. This is one of them.





Orphans, unite!

You have nothing to lose but your illusions – about the caring nature of our Government. With apologies for paraphrasing Karl Marx’s famous battle cry, let me suggest that we, the vast, helpless crowd of taxpayers are the orphans in need of wise counsel, care and leadership from our politicians, after all that’s partly what we pay them for, yet that is precisely what we are not getting. It took the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in West London to make this clear, through the disclosure of how ministers had stubbornly ignored repeated expert warnings of fire risks in high rise buildings. Yes, that fire  could have been prevented; but once it had happened, the initial official response turned out to be inadequate as well. Will there be urgent expert action to prevent similar disasters in other tower blocks? Watch out for it. But don’t hold your breath.

Our politicians seem to be fully occupied with bickering and practising U-turns among themselves. This reminds me of J.C.Bossidy’s  pleasant verse, stored in my treasured collection of useless information:

“And this is good old Boston, / The home of the bean and the cod,/Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,/ And the Cabots talk only to God.” Substitute your (un)favourite politicians for the Lowells and the Cabots, leave out the Divinity, and you get a pretty good idea of why we’ve become orphans, left to our own devices without as much as a whiff of official guidance.  Just look at two important topical problems we are faced with at this very moment, mainly in Southern and  South-East England. One is the unprecedented heat wave. Right now, at 11.40 a.m. in London, the temperature in the sun has reached 40 degrees Centigrade, equalling high fever in the human body. Moreover, this morning the  BBC weather report mentioned very high UV levels in the sunshine. Now that’s the dangerous component of sunshine that causes bad sunburn at best and skin cancer at worst. As a former melanoma sufferer, I would expect the powers that be to pull out all the stops and use all available channels to warn people against sunbathing, at least between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,  in order to avoid boosting the skin cancer statistics, especially because some popular sunscreens are known to be of limited use. Do we get any guidance from high above? Not a word.

The second huge problem is the lasting drought in the South-East. As an organic gardener, I am painfully aware of its consequences. And I recall another similar arid spell in 1976, when the then Conservative minister John Gummer, now Lord Deben, did a great job of making us save water. He asked us to stop washing our cars, not to use sprinklers or run the tap while brushing our teeth. He even composed a little ditty about when to flush the loo and when to let it wait until – well, the next time. I don’t know how many people followed his lead – I certainly did – but at least there was a lead, a member of the Government actually connected with the general population. Which the current one is definitely not doing. We might just as well not be here.

But we are here. And there’s a lot of us wanting something better. No, I am not advocating anything drastic, it’s far too hot for that and besides I dislike harsh actions. We’ll just have to start a countrywide non-material  DIY movement. Wake up the grassroots, so to speak (yes, I know it’s a mixed metaphor.). Get informed, use sound judgment and act. Grow up. Let’s shake off the traditional passivity, encouraged by the Welfare State, which expects someone else, preferably High Up, to do the necessary. Let’s stop saying “Mustn’t grumble” – yes, we must and follow up the grumble with peaceful action. There’s already a spreading international lay medical movement to empower patients and  make them sufficiently well-informed to take responsibility for their own health. The same principle of taking responsibility can be applied to other areas of life, too. We have unprecedented access to swift, free means of boundless communication, to spread information and coordinate action.  Let’s use it all.

And stop being helpless orphans. After a while it does become a bore.



The Wednesday Census

In the area of West London where I live, the Council’s huge lorries appear every Wednesday to collect our rubbish and recyclables. The latter are supposed to be sorted  into their large colour-coded bags: white for plastics, green for garden waste, blue for paper;  additionally, there is a large dark green box for all else. Bags and box must be put out by 7 a.m., which is a bit of a bore, but at least it lets me glimpse some neighbours in their dressing-gowns and slippers.

So far so dull, but please stay with me, the real story starts here. The Council’s lorries don’t arrive until later, so I have time for a morning walk, which is more than just exercise: it serves as my systematic study – anthropological fieldwork, if you like – of my neighbourhood. Like many parts of London, it is distinctly un-neighbourly, but my inoffensive research gives me a unique insight into the personal habits and lifestyle choices of its unknown inhabitants.

All I need to do is to walk along slowly and inspect the contents of the green boxes. What  variety, what precise indications they offer! To start with, we seem to have quite a few serious drinkers among us; boxes bursting with wine and spirit bottles week after week make me worry about the livers of those who had emptied them. But then green boxes full of soft drink bottles, cartoons and multiple containers of sweets and salted crisps are not reassuring, either. The venerable experts who periodically issue official warnings about the ravages of alcoholism and obesity need only join me on my morning walk to see the proof of the problem close up. Booze and junk food rule o.k., warnings go unheeded, and the cash-strapped struggling NHS has to pick up the bill.  As a disillusioned doctor friend of mine said the other day, the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry are in cahoots: the former makes us sick and then passes us on to the latter for the rest of our lives. After thirty years in general practice I expect he knows what he is talking about.

No, I’m not a health nut. I just like good fresh food and refuse to pay for expensive over- packaged  rubbish. A box I pass is full of tins. I mean brim-full. The tin on the top had contained new potatoes in salty water – heavens above, at a time when fresh new potatoes are at their sweet youthful best, tasting fantastic if gently steamed, coated in butter, sprinkled with fresh parley – oh, sorry, sometimes I do get carried away, although my research should be dispassionate and neutral. I’ll try to cool it. Honest.

Besides disclosing their owners’ food and drink consumption, the boxes also betray some aspects of their characters. There are some meticulous individuals who organise their rubbish so neatly that it looks like a still life worth photographing; I don’t expect the dustmen notice its awesome symmetry before chucking it into the collective hell of their lorry. In these exemplary well organised boxes small carton wrappers sit in plastic bags, old socks and other textiles ditto, used batteries are segregated from carefully folded packaging material, and the box itself is clean and shiny. I fantasize about the house behind the box: all spotless, not a rug out of place, small objects resting at right angles on a polished table —- it’s too perfect for comfort, let me out of there!

So I land straight in the opposite reality:  a box containing an unholy mess of things, all mixed up, chaotic and inevitably messy, too, for the unrinsed jars and bottles drip stuff onto crunched up newspapers and unflattened containers, and a single dirty slipper sits on top of a broken plastic toy.  This, too, should be photographed and widely shown as an example of how not to handle one’s rubbish, but that’s beyond my remit. And then I suddenly remember once seeing the woman who lives in that house: she has remained memorable for standing at her front door in the scruffiest garment I’d ever seen, with hair and shoes to match, and even her cat looked distinctly ungroomed. It was depressing, but  it proved that the contents of green boxes disclosed the truth about the people who had filled them.

There is also the pleasure of seeing the wildly different house numbers owners draw or paint on their boxes. Some are highly fancy, glittering with gold paint; others are plain black and official looking, yet others are surrounded by carefully coloured floral decorations, possibly drawn by a child of six. By the time I finish my morning census I feel as if the neighbourhood had become less buttoned up, more friendly, certainly not secretive.  Moreover, it amuses me to think that I know rather a lot about a lot of people who  know nothing about me. (Careful, now: this is supposed to be a detached social experiment, not an ego trip.)

What about my own green box? Well now, let me see…





Cold Calls, No Purple

They all start the same way. The phone rings. I say “hello?” – there’s silence, then the line comes to life and a man’s voice intones, “Missis Bee-Shop?” Oh, not another one of those . Yes, I am a bee warrior, having signed countless anti-pesticide petitions, sent donations and planted bee-friendly plants all over my garden, but this has nothing to do with bees, and anyone who mispronounces my name like that is a cold caller and therefore a major nuisance. He – there are many of them, but I experience them as a single entity –  he invariably rings at the worst possible moment, for instance when I am busy writing and the elusive right word has almost popped into my brain, or when the omelette I am cooking is about to reach its golden perfection. In other words cold callers are the enemies of creativity and of one’s peace of mind.

If only somebody could train them! Teach them proper English, to start with. Give them better reasons for ringing. The ones I’ve been offered so far were majestically implausible, informing me that I’d had a bad accident (more than one), crashed my car, lost a family member, been swindled out of a cool million and was about to lose my house unless … I don’t mind so much the ones that get beyond the “unless…”, provided I don’t invite the caller to get lost and hang up at once; if I let him ( it’s invariably a he) continue, he only asks for my banking details, a few passwords and similar intimate matters without which, alas, he is unable to help me. How kind. Suddenly I remember the Nigerian Widows and their tear-soaked e-mails that kept arriving a few years ago, mixing religion with offers of great wealth locked up in some bank account, half of which would be mine if –  Yes, sure. I never grasped that opportunity. But what happened to the Nigerian Widows? I haven’t heard from them for ages. Hope they are all right.

This morning’s cold caller informed me that my internet connection would be blocked for three days. He didn’t reach the “unless”, because I rudely interrupted him, asking, “Why?” After a brief pause he repeated his message. Again I asked, “Why?” but clearly whoever wrote his script hadn’t included a reply to that basic question, or else. ye gods, perhaps  he was a poorly programmed robot of very little brain and I should have been kinder to  him.

Together with the Nigerian Widows, another kind of cold  call has also mercifully vanished, thanks to the arrival of pornography on the internet.  I’ve never watched it – not interested – but feel sure that the annoying dirty phone calls of the near past have ceased thanks to its availability. Those calls to randomly chosen females listed in the phone directory ranged from heavy breathing to weird questions and even weirder suggestions, and once I’d  got over my first mild shock,  I turned them into mickey-taking exercises. So when an unknown gent rang to ask what colour my knickers were, I said “purple with yellow dots, any more silly questions?” but there weren’t any, not from that gent. Most of the other calls were just as easy to puncture and dispose of, and deep down I felt sorry for the grown men who found these would-be hot but fatally  cold calls worth making. No, they didn’t shock me. But I managed to shock one caller who told me what he intended to do to me. “Oh yes, tell me more?” I replied. There was a moment of silence, followed by “You ought to be ashamed of yourself!” and – wham, the line went dead.

Thank goodness my former heavy-breathing callers are now otherwise engaged, watching adult material, as it is politely called. And if without watching it I don’t qualify as a proper grown-up, that’s fine by me. At least part of me remains eternally immature.



On a low couch to China

Once a week I swap the noise and frantic life of the Chiswick High Road for this quiet, warm treatment room at the far end of a corridor, to lie very still on a couch for forty minutes. Mustn’t move much or try to lie on my side, because there are fine acupuncture needles protruding from various parts of my body and while lying still I can’t feel them at all, a change in position would make them sharply noticeable.

Anyway, why should I move? This is the ultimate luxury, to do nothing in great comfort and indulge in random thoughts, daydreams and suchlike frivolities. The soft tinkling background music  sounds like a miniature piano played by a gifted toddler; it flows along without structure or rhythm in a soothing Oriental manner –  just right for the occasion. Sometimes I hear a snatch of Chinese conversation outside in the corridor, sounding mildly indignant and melodious; it adds to the general atmosphere of  a mysterious elsewhere.

The needles make  me feel like a hedgehog in reverse, with spines upside down, except that Nature would never allow such a useless arrangement. Then the image of St Sebastian floats  into my awareness, the  beautiful half-naked young man tied to a tree and shot full of lethal arrows, martyred for his Christian faith by the Emperor Diocletian. Of course there’s no parallel here: poor Sebastian was killed by the arrows, while I am being peppered by needles in order to get me well.  Anyway, I should have Chinese daydreams, not Roman ones, so how about The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, AKA Huangdi Neijing (there – I knew this would impress you), the 2000-plus years old fundamental source for Chinese medicine?

Well no, let’s stick to the here and now. I first came here a few weeks ago to get rid of the severe pain in my left shoulder that has been tormenting me for three years, resisting several kinds of massage, physiotherapy and exercise, and also to increase my chi, the vital energy that drives and maintains life; mine being rather low right now. How does the needling  work?  Apparently my body contains a network of meridians, and the needles inserted into certain sensitive points along them are able to remove blockages and restore normal functioning. I have no problem with this theory, but some time ago it did  cause an eminent British consultant   to slice open a dead body in search of meridians. He didn’t find anything (what did he  expect? silk ribbons in pretty colours?), upon which he dismissed acupuncture as a load of rubbish and a con trick, in the touchingly confident manner of old-fashioned materialists who have firm views on what they don’t understand.

I wish he could meet Dr L., the Chinese woman doctor whose patient I am; given a good interpreter, they would have a truly interesting discussion.  Dr.L. is slender, middle-aged and imperturbable. We get on well.  Her English is somewhat rudimentary, a kind of Chinglish, so when it comes to finer points,  we call in the young receptionist to interpret. But a lot is done without words: Dr. L. checks my pulses and my tongue in her tiny office – look, no computer, no electronics, just a map of the human body and a small plastic skeleton, so that she looks at me, not at a screen, which is refreshing.  She is gentle and ultra-careful with the needles, but  when she massages me, despite being so petite  she has the strength of a sumo wrestler and I often have to beg her to hold back a bit.

Dr L. can also be strict; for instance, she makes me  drink twice a day a herb tea of unimaginable awfulness which I have to prepare myself according to strict rules. Complex tastes are notoriously difficult to describe, so let me just  say that this one is both cloying and dull and lingers on for a long time. The worst part of it is that it seems to do me good.

Besides, it could be worse, as I discover when the inveterate researcher in me takes over. I soon learn that the first Chinese herbal record dates from 2800 BC, which makes the practice nearly 5000 years old. Since then some 13,000 medicinals have been regularly used in China, consisting largely of plant elements, but containing animal, human and mineral products as well.  Some of these extras, such as cow’s gallstones, sound alarming, but happily the traditional products of the human body, which I refuse to list, are no longer used. (Phew.)

Another ten minutes and Dr L. will arrive, to remove her twenty-odd needles and work on muscles I didn’t know I had. So I drift into a final reverie about this mysterious medical system that works today as well as it did 5000 years ago, perhaps branching out into new areas – for instance discovering a way to roll back the years and produce enough dragon-power chi, zest, energy, vigour and vitality to rejuvenate the more or less decrepit patients, like myself, who come here in search of healing? Why not, even if it involves cow’s gallstones or worse? As far as I am concerned, it can’t be done fast enough –

Ah, Dr L. Yes, thank you, I am feeling better.

Beards and Birds

The other day I visited the National Portrait Gallery’s “Great Russians” exhibition, to see the portraits of the writers, artists, composers and their patrons who flourished from the late 19th century until 1914. “Flourished” is probably the wrong word – the pervading atmosphere of the collection was that of noble melancholy: Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, depicted mostly against black backgrounds, seemed deep in troubled thought, perhaps oppressed by the pain of sheer existence and of having a soul. As I gazed at them, it suddenly struck me that all these great men sported beards of varying sizes,  ranging from Tolstoy’s impressive length to the alcoholic Mussorgsky’s short, untidy model; and that somehow those beards, making their owners look much older than their years, contributed to their mood of cultured depression.

Later in the Gallery’s shop  I noticed a bottle of Beard Shampoo cum special Brush. H’m.Of course, beards would need some maintenance,  I thought and bearded – sorry, boarded a bus driven by a majestic Sikh elder with a beard as huge and impressive as Tolstoy’s. Now I was hooked: as a passionate collector of useless information, in beards I have found an unfamiliar subject to explore, moreover with scientific detachment, as personally I prefer clean-shaven faces and don’t understand the current fashion for the three-day stubble, which is supposed to be sexy but to me only suggests a prisoner on the run. ( Stubbled readers, please accept my apologies.)

“The male beard communicates an heroic image of the independent, sturdy and resourceful pioneer, ready, willing and able to do many things,” I find for starters on the Internet. Another quote, however, deflates the heroics, calling a beard “a vestigial trait from a time when humans had hair on their face and entire body like the hair on gorillas.” Never mind gorillas, the online treasury of data is huge. Among many things it offers a dazzling variety of present-day beard models,  ranging from the Van Dyke goatee with or without mustache to the soul patch, the chin strip, the chin curtain and many more. All this is fully illustrated and accompanied with good advice to assist the would-be bearded man, vacillating  between several possible cheek and neck lines.

And oh, the grooming advice! And the equipment that’s needed! Beside the daily shampoo and conditioner no man can be well-groomed without a beard trimmer, a wide-toothed comb for the beard and a fine-toothed one for the mustache. A magnifying glass and a three-way mirror are also recommended, plus some baby oil and moisturizing lotion. No blow-dry, though – it would make a full beard look like a disheveled hedgehog. There is also the delicate matter of colouring a graying beard; because of rapid growth this needs to be done once a week.

It was at this stage that a feeling of familiarity overtook me. Heavens above, I was reading the male equivalent of the caring prose I used to write an eternity ago when I worked on a women’s magazine as a beauty writer; it was a downmarket weekly, known sarcastically as the “Knit your own Royal Family” special, but selling millions of copies a week; how moving and endearing it seemed that men, those independent, sturdy and resourceful guys could lavish as much time, attention and even money on their beards as any ex-reader of mine used to devote to her hairdo. The eternal chasm between the sexes seemed to have shrunk a tiny bit.

I was also moved by the story of  a man who had raised funds for his favourite charity by shaving off his cherished beard. Was he perhaps going to raise  more money by growing it back to an amazing length, collecting hundreds of pounds for every inch of shampooed, conditioned and trimmed beard?

What had started as a light-hearted quest was turning into a mild obsession. I realized it had to stop when, looking at a restaurant menu, I was about to order “bearded chicken with new potatoes” – except that the bird in question was, in fact, breaded. O.K., that’s it, I thought, subject deleted,  I really have  no right to inflict beards on birds; whatever next unless I stop now?

What happened next was that I opened the morning paper and saw this news item: “Spectacular bearded vulture spotted in Britain for first time.”

Serves me right.









Misquotes and Mysteries

I was listening on the radio to a talk by Professor Stephen Hawking, or rather to the machine that enables him to speak, and I marvelled at the contrast between the even, flat robotic voice and the liveliness and subtle humour of the thoughts it uttered. And, not for the first time, I felt that the much-quoted adage beloved by English public schools and muscular Christians, namely “Mens sana in corpore sano”, (a healthy mind in a healthy body) was not invariably true. Professor Hawking’s brilliant mind happens to operate within a totally non-functional – never mind healthy – body, while I can recall listening on the radio to famous athletes, footballers and champions of all kinds who by definition were splendid specimens with rippling muscles and superb health – and who could barely utter a sentence without saying “you know” or “I mean” five times . Worse still, no doubt there were some dishy criminals and handsome mafiosi around with admirable physiques but distinctly unhealthy minds. It didn’t add up, somehow.

Where did that quote come from, anyway? (Next question: what is the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations for?) Mystery solved:  that quote was a misquote, or rather a mangled quote, because in its totality, as written by the poet Juvenal  (A.D.60-130), it ran “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano”, i.e. let us pray that there should be a healthy mind in a healthy body. Now that was a completely different  proposition; a pious wish, not a statement of fact. And of course it was possible and even laudable  to pray for something, without any guarantee of getting it – and I had one puzzle fewer to worry about.

But soon another one came to the fore. “Money is the root of all evil”, claimed a leaflet in my letterbox the other day. It came from some obscure anti-capitalist group, and the mis-spelt and meandering text ended with an appeal – for money, to promote their world-saving campaign. I tore up the leaflet but later remembered having  heard that claim before (though not in banking circles); what no-one seemed to suggest was a workable alternative to money. Also, surely there were plenty of evils with non-monetary roots? Once again, it didn’t add up.

Of course not. (Thanks, ODQ.) I’d been bluffed with another mutilated quote, this time from the first Epistle of St Paul to Timothy (who he? never mind). “The love of money is the root of all evil”, wrote St Paul, and he was, and is, spot on: most things that are desperately wrong with the world here and now spring from the obscene greed of profit-centred corporations and a few well-placed individuals.   I shan’t say another word about that; certainly not in this blog. My aim from now on is to track down misquotes and their  mangled cousins and restore them to their full meaning, so they can’t go on lying in public and puzzling individuals like me.

As for the mysteries, they are modest. I even have tentative solutions to them. The first mystery concerns the ampersand, the symbol for etc. – & . We all know that it stands for et cetera, Latin for and other things. The mystery is why so many people pronounce it as exetera. They do, honest. Just listen to them. Can it be that they are fatally misled by the curly rising bit of the ET crossing its downward bit , which produces a kind of x? At any rate it’s puzzling and if I were braver, one day I would  stop an exeterist in mid-flow and request an explanation. (Yes, I do mean eXplanation.)

Then there is the mystery of the label that appears exclusively in pyjamas and dressing- gowns  and says KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE AND FLAMES. There are few flames in a modern house: in mine the only (gas) flames appear on the cooker  when I put the kettle on. I’ve been pondering this enigma for a while and now wonder whether the warning has survived from the pre-central heating era, when freshly scrubbed children in their nightwear were allowed to stand for a few minutes at the open fire, seen but not heard,  before being dispatched to bed. Can’t think of any other scenario; shall have to track down a pyjama manufacturer or a social historian to enlighten me.

The final mystery comes from the noticeboard outside a local church, advertising the times of Sunday services. Not being a churchgoer myself, I only glanced at it in passing, but that  was enough to stop me, for I saw the following list: “9.30 Traditional, 10.45 Contemporary, 12.15 Informal, 3.00 p.m. Soaking Prayer”.  My mind briefly boggled at the possible difference between the first two – pop songs instead of  hymns? – but what on earth, or rather in heaven, could “Informal” mean?  Surely, if someone took the time and trouble to go to church, the last thing he/she wanted was to get chummy with the Almighty? There was a telephone number on the board and, as a devoted collector of useless information, I was about to jot it down for future use,  but then resisted the urge. There was, I feared, a certain risk of being answered with a Soaking Prayer, and  that would have been too much to cope with.

Perhaps some mysteries are best left unsolved.