Use It Or….

Two recent news items have lowered my spirits and raised my blood pressure in equal measure. Both concern students and therefore our future, and the picture they paint is not reassuring. Firstly, I learn, students’ handwriting has become so illegible that Cambridge University is considering letting undergraduates use laptops in exams, since – according to examiners – a reliance on computers has left young people unable to use a pen. Well yes, for some time now I’ve been noticing some truly alarming  signatures on impeccably typed official letters, nasty scrawls bearing no resemblance to the name of the alleged signatory; indeed, looking as if the writer had held the pen in his clenched fist, not knowing what else to do with it.  Is this becoming the New Normal?

Secondly, freshers at universities across the country are being issued with colourful wristbands printed with the name of their hall of residence, to help them get home after a night out. Apparently this will be useful for those who get so drunk that they can’t tell the cab driver where to take them.

Ouch, twice over. Not being able to use a pen slams the door on a peak achievement of human beings, the ability to make marks on a surface – mammoth tusk, clay tablet, parchment, marble, paper – that translate into words and meaning. These marks have to be made, not delivered by a clicked key. But once this unique ability is lost, and if for some reason one day laptops no longer work, what remains? Do we have to start all over again, trying to remember which line goes where, meaning what? As for those colourful wristbands, they could cost a lot of money to a sloshed reveller who happens to collapse in the cab of a less than scrupulous driver and is taken home via a long, meandering route.

What I find so depressing is that in neither case is an attempt made by the powers that be, in this case the university authorities, to correct what is  obviously wrong. By allowing the use of laptops in exams they sanction the loss of handwriting skills among our future intellectual elite. (The rot has already set in: an apparently well educated young woman I know prints all her messages in wobbly, childish block letters, joined-up writing being beyond her.) Besides putting the few remaining graphologists out of work, the end of individual, highly personal handwriting is an impoverishment, another loss of our modest uniqueness. (By the way, I have nothing against laptops: they are good servants but  make dangerous masters.)

As for the wristbands – well, their official message seems to be that it’s perfectly all right for a student to get hopelessly, idiotically drunk, as long as he or she lands in the correct hall of residence. Wouldn’t it be better to launch a culture of intelligent drinking in which alcohol heightens enjoyment, creativity and camaraderie, instead of turning the drinker into an irritating, helpless oaf? Sorry if I sound virtuous, that’s about the last thing I am, but I lived long enough in France and Italy, neither country being remotely teetotal, to know what I am talking about. In my view  binge drinking and enjoyment exist on different planets.

What links these cases is their drift towards the line of least resistance. “Let’s make it easy for the users” seems to be the official line. And ease is, of course, the highest value of the consumer society. Things have to be co-operative and  friendly in order to be desired and bought. I often feel baffled when something I buy claims to be easy to use – well, of course, I don’t expect my new dress to resist when I try to put it on, or my ballpoint pen (yes, I do write by hand) to spit ink at me when I pick it up; nor do I like to be assured that the book I’ve just bought is easy to read. I’d rather decide that for myself, thank you.

O.K., I’ll come clean. I’ve come to hate the supremacy of “ease”. It removes the need for effort, for using our abilities to achieve small victories and keep the flab off body and mind. (I’ve just noticed that the most topical rhyme for “ease” is “obese”, the plague of the so-called developed countries which is also spreading to others where people adopt the Western diet. It was an American friend who pointed out to me that the acronym for the Standard American Diet is SAD…) C.G.Jung once claimed that the human being’s greatest passion is idleness, and he was probably right. Of course the ideal consumer is passive, idle, easy (here we go again) to brainwash into consuming ever more stuff that’s neither wanted nor needed. “Death is the consumer’s last resistance,” wrote Ivan Illich. I like to think that there are less drastic escape routes, too, even though far from being easy they require some effort and plenty of common sense.

I’m already working on mine. What about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In Praise of Wéod

First, consult the dictionary. “Weed: a wild plant growing where it is not wanted and in competition with cultivated plants.” And the ancestor of the word is wéod, “of unknown origin”. Might just as well be mysterious, with that alien accent on the “e” and of unknown pronunciation.

Dictionary apart, what this is all about is that, in order to make savings, the local Council has withdrawn some services, including the regular visits of the Weedkiller Man with his toxic spray and ill-smelling procedure that used to leave us with dead brown weeds instead of green ones all over the road and no obvious advantage. Well, he no longer comes. As a result there is a profusion of weeds bursting out along the kerbs, between paving stones, through holes in the asphalt and in garden walls. And instead of tut-tutting and worrying about this part of West London becoming unkempt and undesirable, I feel delighted. For the first time in my life I am looking at weeds properly and am astonished by their beauty: so many shades of green, such a variety of shapes, from ethereal and lacy to muscular and tough, and such a wealth of small flowers in subtle colours, from pure gold to dreamy pink, white and sky-blue. Compared to this wild show, garden flowers seem  less interesting, almost too obvious.

But what pleases me most, beyond the visual pleasure added to my morning walk, is the realization that underneath the footpath, underneath all built up areas the soil is teaming with plant life and, given half a chance, starts displaying it. Just imagine, if one could roll up the asphalt along one side of the street, as if it were a carpet, within days a lush jungle of plants would appear and thrive, gradually taking over the built-up environment. Which proves my long-held suspicion that while the Earth could manage superbly without us, the reverse isn’t true. If we suddenly disappeared, like other civilizations have in the past, the Earth would probably heave a sigh of relief and start wiping itself clean, leaving only a few mementos of its previous guests. Like the Mayan ruins in South America, the pyramids of Egypt, Stonehenge and  the other stone circles all over Britain, prehistoric forts and tombs and cave drawings and —

Oops. What would we leave behind? It hardly bears thinking about. I needn’t spell it out, except to say that it would be an awful lot. Zillions of tons of hard stuff, mainly concrete, steel, glass, whatever. A gigantic landfill, with concrete being perhaps the worst offender, depressingly ugly even when new, indestructible when discarded. Enough to make my environmentalist heart grow heavy.

So I look at some sturdy weeds for solace and begin to feel more hopeful. Could they possibly provide the answer? Could they develop the ability over tens of thousands of years to grind up the concrete, mix it into the soil and eventually make it vanish? Why not? Nature is endlessly adaptable; it may in fact enjoy this challenge. Meanwhile let me live in the present, enjoy this free wild flower show –  and take great care not to tread on a barely sprouted wéod as I walk along…

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.

 

 

Seeds of omission

At long last yesterday I got down to exploring a densely chaotic shelf in an all-purpose cupboard, the kind that starts out as a model of intelligent storage and then gradually fills up with objects of  infinite variety and questionable usefulness.  The ancient Egyptians believed that life was a constant struggle with the all-engulfing chaos, and I think they were spot on, even though my chaos was infinitely smaller than their cosmic one and could sometimes be – briefly – defeated. The time to start was now.

For starters, beneath a few layers of plastic bags and the instructions  for using a long  defunct kitchen gadget, I found a smallish  gold-coloured metal box which had once contained  expensive Belgian chocolates, but now, to my amazement, was full of something less sweet: a batch of unopened seed packets. I could hardly believe my eyes.  How did I manage to forget about this lot? And was it too late to sow them now?

Well yes, it was. According to the “Sow by…” instruction on each packet, these seeds were two to four years out of date, victims of the sense of timelessness that overcomes me each time I am confronted with a resistible task, a sense of surely-it-can-wait-another-week. Or more. “Tomorrow never comes”, sang Frank Sinatra, offering a glamorous excuse to procrastinators. What a waste of money and gardening potential, I thought, fingering the pristine seed packets, but then suddenly remembered reading somewhere that wheat found in the tomb of a pharaoh did sprout after being stored in a stone jar for thousands of years. Should I perhaps – but no, get real, lady, that was probably ultra-special pharaonic wheat, and besides mid-October was no time to sow seeds.

I laid out the small envelopes on the kitchen table. Why on earth did I have six lots of radish seeds, four of them of the “French breakfast” variety ?  I lived in France for years and never saw any French person eating radishes for breakfast, nor was I ever offered any. Could this be another of those cross-Channel love-hate Franglais misunderstandings which make the French believe that the Brits eat le biftek twice a day? “An old radish which has stood the test of time”, one packet states rather offputtingly, making me realize that I don’t really like radishes of any kind. But then why did I buy all those seeds? No idea.

More to my taste, I find three packs of lettuce seeds, including those of Tom Thumb, the smallest kind, “just right for small families” I read on the pack; does that mean one and a half  family  member , or a whole family of small stature? Never mind, here come carrot seeds – they like dry, sandy soil and would have done badly in my rich organic humus – and the seeds of chives, spring onions, runner beans, peas, dark purple beetroot and – wait for it – perpetual spinach; what a nightmare for a spinach-hating child, and to hell with Popeye. Finally a touch of romance: I must have been in a lyrical mood when I bought the seeds of Night Scented Stock, delicate white and pink flowers only  releasing their sweet perfume when the stars light up. At last something to make up for those prosaic vegetable seeds.

What next? I take the seed packets to the compost bin at the bottom of the garden, open them one by one and pour the contents onto the vegetable chaos inside.  From one chaos into another, amen. My volunteer employees, the omnivorous earthworms will recycle the lot. Unless – this thought strikes me several hours later and makes me anxious – what if the seeds decide to disprove their sow-by dates and begin to sprout in the moist, warm paradise of the compost bin? What if they go on growing and thriving, until one day my garden is taken over by huge French radishes, fully intent to stand the test of time?

Let me procrastinate and wait and see. And hope.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, don’t rush me!

According to a recent newspaper report, the heads of the world’s major Christian denominations are trying to reach agreement on a fixed day for Easter. If they succeed, a dispute dating back more than 1600 years will be laid to rest, and Easter will fall on the second or third Sunday in April, instead of depending on the date of the ecclesiastical full moon, as decreed in AD325 at the Council of Nicaea.

That’s the end of the historical bit. I promise. Well, the photo accompanying the report showed a large hot cross bun which, the caption said, is traditionally served at Easter. Not any more, I thought, recalling the shocking moment before Christmas at my local supermarket  when I noticed hot cross buns displayed alongside mince pies. What’s that, I wondered, feeling cross if not hot – buy one Christian holiday, get one free? Can’t the retail trade show a little more patience in its relentless push to sell us stuff we neither need nor want well ahead of its time?

Well no, it can’t. After all, a colourful leaflet reminding me of the imminence of Christmas came through my letter box in mid-July last year. It happened to be a sweltering day, and if the pot-bellied idiot, I mean Father Christmas, ho-hoing on the leaflet had materialized, I would have cheerfully wrung his neck. The only positive by-product of this indecent haste – positive for us, bullied consumers, not for the retail moguls – is that by early October the idea of shopping for Christmas becomes so boring that one can reduce it to a bare minimum.

Yet barely were we out of Christmas. in fact the decorations were still in place at my local supermarket, when the wholesale attack by Easter bunnies began, complete with edible treats guaranteed to worsen the national obesity crisis. How demeaning this high-calorie rubbish was for the original  Easter rabbits, those pre-Christian cult animals that accompanied Freya, the Nordic goddess of Spring, carrying her luggage as she re-emerged from the mountain cave of winter. But who remembers them, or that the traditional Easter eggs – not the milk chocolate ones – were originally fertility symbols?  Not so long ago in some Continental countries hand-painted eggs were handed  by village girls to visiting young men who in return sprinkled them with cheap perfume; oh dear, just  how obvious can folklore get?

Oops, I almost forgot: after New Year’s Day and before the bunnies, we were ordered by the retail trade to get ready for Valentine’s Day on February 14, and buy champagne, caviar, jewellery, or, as the bare minimum, a decent Valentine card for our love. Here’s again a colossal misunderstanding; St. Valentinus of Rome was a holy man, totally uninterested in romantic love. Imprisoned during the persecution of Christians, he healed his jailer’s daughter and wrote her a letter before his execution, signing it “your Valentine”. Which is how we are supposed to sign ours today. That day could be a lovely, gentle feast to brighten up dreary February, if only the merchandising people didn’t make such a racket about it from January 2nd onwards. (All this notwithstanding, I do hope someone will send me a Valentine this year…)

We are being rushed into shopping early for every possible “special” day . But having used up Mother’s and Father’s celebration, aren’t the marketeers running out of excuses for selling us stuff? Of course there are grandparents and pets,  but not everybody has either of those; nor can I think of anything that would have an inescapable relevance for everybody. Except – rather hard to sell, I fear – resistible occasions, such as entering old age or leaving this world altogether. Those will need considerable finesse, to convince likely customers without frightening them – more or less all of us, come to think of it.

But if anyone is already working on a suitable leaflet, urging us to buy the right kind of sustainable, responsibly sourced, possibly organic wherewithal for our final purchases, please don’t send me one.

Not yet, anyway.