Monday, September 24, 2007

A Coot Dilemma

It takes me a day and half to clean House of Pants and only an hour and a half to trash it. This family of coots lives under my bedroom window. Every year they build a nest out of anything that comes to hand. This year they’ve even laid carpet! One time they nested in a fridge door and another, in an old tyre. Last year they utilised a copy of the Yellow Pages. I can’t imagine how they managed to drag it into the nest. There’s another pair fifty or so yards down the canal who always build an incredibly neat nest using only the very best carefully woven lily leaves. Even coots can't agree on what's important, apparently.
The sale is still progressing despite the best efforts of American mortgage lenders and Northern Rock customers to trigger another great depression. The reason HOP had to be cleaned again is that the surveyors are coming tomorrow. It hasn’t undergone the type of ‘deep clean’ I’m certain our hospitals are going to get on the recent promise of Gordon ‘Scrooge McDuck’ Brown – just a superficial swish around with the mop, clearing of corridors and demolition of the dirty dishes mountain. It’s the last housework I’ll do until it’s time to move out.

I can think of nothing else. Obviously there’s a flurry of quite sensible activity happening in Downy Street to which I am thoroughly oblivious. Cleaning the hospitals is a master stroke, although it begs the question why no one thought to do it before. I was talking to a friend today who has a life-threatening chronic condition and he was relating yet another regular instance of nurses being cruel and callous. I wonder when that’s going to come up on the agenda. How many studies will it take before some policy wonk makes a link between being treated with serial beastliness when you’re desperately ill and taking rather a long time to get better? In addition to his main illness, my friend also has diabetes which is not catered for in hospitals. He could get Kosher or Halal choices but not food suitable for a diabetic. It has been suggested to him that a relative could bring him in some more appropriate nourishment. If he had any relatives living close by, I’m sure he would ask them to, but he doesn’t. He’s a little unclear as to what a lifetime of paying into National Insurance entitles him to at this point.

The economic wobble which has so far dismally failed to ruin my life could have been much worse if the Government hadn’t stepped in to guarantee ordinary folks' savings, so I suppose grudging gratitude is due to the old duck. According to Martin Kettle at one’s beloved Guardian yesterday, we’re lucky that the crisis happened when Labour has the confidence of the business sector and no possible chance of losing control of the country over it,

Ever since 1997, Labour has built its financial policy on the rock - if one can use the word in these circumstances - of non-intervention in markets. Allowing the markets to find their own solutions under the operational independence of the Bank was the alpha and omega of New Labour's historic compromise with the British business class. New Labour had a prescriptive view of the rights and responsibilities of almost everyone else in the country - from toddlers to teachers. Bankers and business leaders, alone, were exempt. They only had rights.

All that changed for ever on Monday when Darling [Alistair Darling, Chancellor of the Exchequer] - with Brown's backing - intervened with a taxpayer-backed guarantee to protect Northern Rock's depositors. This was not just a huge financial act in its own right - the guarantee is worth billions of pounds - but a huge symbolic act too. It said that the government must intervene to protect ordinary people's savings, however much this spits on the cloth of financial orthodoxy. It was a moment of choice worthy of Franklin Roosevelt.

My luck may be on the turn, but it raises an interesting question. Is doing the right thing that dependent on circumstances? Would we want a government to stand aside and let depositors lose their life savings, given that it would then inherit the responsibility of feeding and housing them? Since they’ve been haranguing us to save for the future - a thing they make no effort whatever to guarantee - it wouldn’t be good to be seen to be penalising people for having done what they were asked to do. In any case, Scrooge and his Darling have done the right thing and I probably won’t have to sell matches and/or my next door neighbours' infants/cat/dog in the street.

Last week a police superintendent defended two police community support officers who had declined to jump into water to save a child who was in danger of drowning. Instead they called the incident in but by the time a police officer and the child’s father simultaneously arrived on the scene and located him, the little boy was unconscious and could not be saved. The superintendent claimed that the community support officers ‘had not been trained’ to intervene in such an incident. By this, does he mean they couldn’t swim? That would appear to be the governing factor in these circumstances would it not? Anyone who can swim can save a child from drowning. If you can’t swim you’re likely to become part of the problem and should stay out of it. So where does ‘doing the right thing’ fit into this equation? It’s true that support officers do not have the same contractual duty of care to the public that police officers have. Are all police officers taught to swim? If not, should they be?

Marcel Marceau died today. Please join me in observing a minute's clamour...

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Window Dressing

Stained glass window - 17 Gough Street London EC4

When a man
is tired of London he is tired of life - Dr Johnson

When a woman is tired of London she's done with fuckwits - Dr Pants

There are many things I'll miss about this old girl. Open House London is a wonderful weekend in September when anyone can stroll through almost any of the gracious abodes and cathedrals of commerce and government that this city has to offer without the slightest obligation to mind their pricelessness, cultural significance or unique history. The obligatory touristic reverence countenanced by the smug superiority that normally accompanies the demand for a fistful of foreign for the privilege of queuing interminably behind an arbitrary, fraying velvet cordon is temporarily suspended. Sour-faced, underpaid staff in ill-fitting uniforms with a penchant for discussing their out of hours activities very loudly are temporarily replaced by enthusiastic volunteers wearing their own clothes, green stickers and an unmistakable passion for the individual lives and labours that occurred under the thatch in which you both stand, many long years ago.

I had the good fortune to be one of few who managed to locate the house where Dr Samuel Johnson, compiler of the first comprehensive English Dictionary lived and worked. The queue was about five minutes long and consisted only of seasoned freebie hunters from the home counties whose original 70s canvas hats and buckled rucksacks might have redeemed the price of their saver rail tickets if they were to float them on e-Bay. Gough Street, EC4 is sequestered in a tiny higgledy-piggle of 18th Century London now dwarfed by huge concrete and glass pretensions to futurism.

It was a happy house. Johnson had been gone for two hundred years but the sense of him was everywhere. The library contained many editions of his dictionary and just as many of the book that rendered him even more famous; James Boswell's biography. I learned that Johnson supported the blind poet Anna Williams for much of her life and nursed her at the end of it and that he left most of his money to his freed slave man servant Francis Barber. I also learned that he'd tutored the young David Garrick who became the most famous actor in England.

The fourth floor garret where Johnson spent eleven years creating the prototype dictionary on which all others would be modelled, is currently hosting an exhibition of Garrick memorabilia. Interestingly, in my (admittedly old) Collins English Dictionary, 'garret' immediately precedes Garrick n. David. Sweet. I learned that David Garrick, celebrated impresario as well as actor, painstakingly compiled a compendium of the running times of every act of every show in the West End. This was not because he was some kind of proto-trainspotter, rather to enable gentlemen to have their coaches standing by for a prompt exit.

If you've been to a London show lately, you'll know that you're lucky to escape the theatre at all. If by some miracle you manage to get out into the street without being trampled by giant Mr and Mrs Magoos in coordinated pastels, you are almost certain to be mown down by homicidal maniacs wielding bicycle rickshaws. A determined band of survivors then competes for the one taxi that has bucked the classic London tradition of changing shifts at exactly the time when they are most likely to be in demand. Not quite what Dr Johnson or David Garrick had in mind as they sat in the oak sitting room of 17 Gough Street having been expediently if not comfortably conveyed by carriage from Drury Lane.

London is a fine city with approximately five million people too many in it. If most of them decide to do something else for the day, it's bliss. But this hardly ever happens. Mostly you end up spending far too much time in unhappily close proximity with people who'd prefer not to be examining your armpits either. It's about the only thing on which you would mutually agree, if you ever actually spoke - which you wouldn't. When people get that close to each other, a conversation is the least appropriate option. Johnson also said,

As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man upon easier terms than I was formerly.

That has to be a guy thing. But then Johnson didn't get calls every five minutes from someone trying to sell him a mobile phone. I like to think his tolerance might have been tested by the way we are forced to live now and that he'd be drafting objections to the hideous office block being constructed as I write that will ensure his stained glass window never again gets enough sun to illuminate his face...

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sun Sets on House of Pants

This is the glorious view from House of Pants at dusk. We have another buyer. I dread even to type these words as I am now convinced that the minute I announce even the slightest upturn in my fortunes, that demonic force in which I do not believe but nonetheless seems determined to ruin me, will cast a cloud over my being that will make Frodo the Hobbit's trek to Mount Doom look like a Saga Holiday. Call me hellbent.

Incredibly, after a weekend where the housing market in Britain threatened to crumble into a million little pieces of crazy paving, we have a buyer who has this day paid a large deposit. This is far farther down the line of exchanging the admittedly dinky and gorgeous House of Pants for an unknown wilderness future than I and my purr-petulantly ungrateful hypo-allergenic owly-cat Barney have ever managed before. Perhaps Barney has become the guardian of the ring. That would certainly explain his sudden invisibility when there is any packing to be done.

It all happened quite painlessly that Saturday when I went to see Atonement and Barney was trying to work out whether the owl or cat part of him was better qualified to stalk the new batch of coot chicks that had hatched out in a nest very appropriately built on the remains of a Maclaren push chair that had been dumped into our water feature.

I had resisted deploying the inhumane practice of crowding all potential buyers into the flat and goading them into believing that if they didn't commit to prostituting themselves to the Royal Bank of Sodom for four lifetimes within five minutes of entering the sacred Pants Portal, some other bastard would beat them to it. However it does seem that buyers in London don't feel as if they've bagged themselves a des-res unless they've had to arbitrage a dozen other contenders out of the way.

I feel even more relieved than I did after that unfortunate episode with the faecal furball earlier this year. It takes me a day and a half to get House of Pants into a condition where it is even vaguely habitable and only an hour and a half to trash it to the point where Environmental Health might think about closing us down so you can only imagine the strain it was to keep it clean for weeks of random enquiries. The limited viewing scenario seemed to work well for all concerned. My living quarters only stank of bleach for a day, the agents only had to do two hours work and the buyer felt like she'd won an egg and spoon race.

So the countdown begins again. I look out at these superb September sunsets and reflect on the lovely weekend I've had doing Open House London and the Thames Festival and wonder what my new life will look like. There is trepidation there but I still have one up on Barney. I haven't yet told him there are snakes where we're going. Shhh. Revenge will be sweet...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Feeling a little Gilmourish

'Sir' David Gilmour upon receipt of his CBE

I am insane. You knew that already, but it was news to me.

David Gilmour? I know, I know. But it's Wednesday.

And here he is as a virile young man. He used to be called 'Dave' then.

I repeat, I am INSANE.

When ‘Dave’ Gilmour was a young and handsome Pink Floydian, I fancied him not in the slightest. Actually, I think I fancied my boyfriend Kim to the detriment of all else. Kim had shiny curls and a motorbike. No contest really. What was wrong with me then?

Lock me up!

Now that he’s a fat, bald geezer in a shapeless black T-shirt, I find him totally Ummagumma. What is wrong with me?

And he insists on being called ‘David’. Have we ever seen a man look more ‘Dave’, Dave? I think not.

Just a wild guess but maybe it's the way he makes that Strat sing that tugs at the pant strings so.

Beef Wellington for the soul!

If you find yourself in need of pudding check out

Monday, September 10, 2007

Fortune's Favours

James McAvoy gets a fate makeover in Atonement

We are all hostages to fortune, who would appear to be a halfwit sitting in some remote call centre mismanaging a giant repository of life opportunities for those of us who are not governors of our own destiny. The week before last when I discovered that my sold flat became miraculously unsold, I immediately contacted employment agencies to try to pick up a three month contract so that I can repeat the whole tedious process of selling House of Pants and repatriating to a remote corner of my native land.

As luck would have it, one agency found a vacancy in a place I’d worked before. These days there’s a central clearing house for all local government vacancies. Meant to challenge the practice of managers hiring their friends as ‘consultants’ this organisation is essentially just another collective of middlemen top-slicing the meagre amount of money allocated to cover essential work. What happened was that I didn’t get an interview for the post which upset me because I thought I’d done a good job and been well liked. Apparently they hated me, or so it seemed. It didn’t look that good from the perspective of the recruiter who didn’t think being rejected by a previous employer was much of an endorsement of my abilities.

Then last Friday, this job came to me anyway through an entirely different route with no middlemen taking a third of the money. The dual recruiting system that was intended to keep everyone honest rejects those who are most qualified to take on these vacancies because the profit margin isn’t as great. So, the employer gets sent a dozen CVs belonging to people with an NVQ in Horticulture. They'd not even been shown my CV. I am now not destined for the poor house and, best of all, I only had to live with the thought that I was so awful and crap that people I’d liked and worked hard for couldn’t stand the thought of having me back for a week. It wasn’t a great week I can tell you. My economic viability was at the whim of an incompetent puppeteer.

House of Pants is now in the hands of a different estate agent. I finally parted company with the old ones, to whom I’d remained absurdly loyal when the young, inexperienced agent on whom I’d been palmed off was rude to me on the phone and informed me she’d not managed to arrange a single viewing in a week. It was ‘too short notice for people’ she snapped. I’ve never understood the propensity of the British to turn the purchase of a home into a life’s work. To my mind you decide to buy, you look at half a dozen suitable properties and pick one. You move, noting it is horrendous and you never want to do it again and then get on with the rest of your life. It is a blip, not a vocation.

In any case, even I know that London is a seller’s market. I asked to speak to one of the partners. He assured me that buyers pulling out didn’t happen all that often. Be that as it may, it happened to ME and I informed him that situation still needed to be adequately managed. Then he flippantly suggested that since they’d ‘sold’ the flat once they were more than capable of doing it again. That’s when the ideological atom split I’m afraid. If we couldn’t agree on a common definition of the word ‘sold’ then we probably didn’t have much chance of a completing a transaction to our mutual satisfaction.

I found a different agent, one who managed to locate a whole lot of people who didn’t need quite as much notice to look at property they might want to buy. This is how I ended up at the cinema yesterday afternoon watching Atonement. As a trail of strangers tramped through House of Pants, I grabbed the opportunity to further contemplate the fickle forefinger of fate. Tom Paulin got into trouble from Kirsty Wark on Newsnight Review on Friday for revealing an important bit of the plot which seems odd given that it’s a more or less faithful adaptation. Anyone who’s read the book will know what happens in it. There’s not a lot of point in tediously rehashing that anyway as most of the reviewers have already done so in suitably florid prose.

I loved it. I wasn’t around in 1935 but if I had been, I’m sure I would have recognised the colours and sounds and manners, the torture of being born into a powerless class and the callous fatuousness of the gentry. The wonderful device of using a typewriter to convey the pivotal event which freezes the course of action is genius. It’s that way in the book but dramatised exquisitely here. Typewriters appear throughout, tapping out rhythms of suspense, driving us incontrovertibly forward. They are the tools of investigation as well as fantasy and also in war where they constantly bang out grim reports and casualty lists.

Director Joe Wright seamlessly shifts us from the country house on that blistering summer’s day to war ravaged France and London four years later. The sense of being swept up in the global turmoil of war is palpable. James McAvoy and Keira Knightley are enigmatic to just the right level of individual and joint perfection. Believing that the relationship between spoilt rich Cecilia Tallis and housekeeper's son Robbie Turner can withstand his criminal conviction is easily the biggest ask in the book. In lesser hands it might have been a disaster. They make it look simple. A clever solution is found to the time and perspective shift that closes the book. Vanessa Redgrave is stunning as the atoning novelist being interviewed by the real Anthony Minghella. Lovely.

So next week I rejoin the working classes as my blog friend J so sensitively put it. Wish me luck. At least they don’t hate me. At the moment, the world and House of Pants are peacefully co-existing. So behave yourself world and no more of those messing with my head moments for a little while, if you would be so kind…

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Klimptomania - Elegant on Wednesday

In Vienna last year I discovered that painting like Gustav Klimt was one of loads of things I want to do before I die. Why is life so damned short ... and why does almost everyone feel obliged to waste so much of it on your behalf? It being the perfect time of year for Vienna, I took loads of kodaks (forgive the Cloud Atlas speak – why change the habit of a lifetime just because someone puts it in a book? Actually that happens to me a lot. I really think someone is stealing my thoughts). Yes ... I took loads of kodaks of beautiful Viennese gardens and then supplemented my portfolio with lovely blossoms from our own dear Eden Project, thinking I’d one day sit down in my own far garden of Banskia men and bottle brush and recreate the wondrous colours of gentle Europe.

Klimt was way ahead of his time, pipping Demis Roussos to the caftan by at least half a century. This is the kind of garment I can imagine retiring in – in the not too distant future as it happens. Hard as it now is for me or you, I’m sure, to conceive I’ve had my moments of sustained elegance. Fortunately there are photos and one or two works d’art to verify and not too many to support the converse as I simply won’t allow them. There’s even a rather large nude of me kicking around somewhere. I google the artist who painted it every six months or so just to make sure she hasn’t become very famous. I’d prefer the artists whose work I actually own to get there first for any number of reasons. No offense C. I love your stuff.

It’s only fairly recently I gave up washing and styling my hair every day. A friend told me you don’t need to wash your hair at all but I find my head gets itchy after three or four days. Maybe I just need to condition it in a non-product kind of way. Klimt had his moments of elegance too. He was easily the best dressed of the Vienna Successionists in the famous photo from 1902 which I have in a book but can't be bothered to scan so you'll have to trust me.

I find it much easier to accept that life goes in phases since I’ve had the opportunity to experience a few of them now. Would it be bratty to suggest that the bad ones might be over rather sooner and the good ones last a little longer? I can picture myself in a scratchy caftan cradling Barney the hypoallergenic owly-cat who has finally agreed to emigrate to Australia. I haven’t mentioned the snake situation and I would appreciate it if that stays between us for the moment. One can only imagine what a snake would make of Barney. Might it have a ‘can’t mix carbs with protein’ moment or just swallow and worry about the consequences later, like Paris Hilton. There’s a time and a place and once Barney’s there he won’t easily find his way back to Hackney.

All that aside, I’ve completed my first Vienna work and am quite interested in starting a neo-Successionist movement if anyone’s interested. Anything that assumes success has to have an edge right? Since I started painting in the impressionist style I’ve had the most amazing revelation. I think the Impressionists were all short-sighted. I say this only because when I did this painting, I forgot to put my contact lenses in. Believe it or not, it started out as a representational work. They say the best art is accidental and my God, have I just proved that, in my own humungous opinion of course. As always, I trust you to be the judge.

I therefore present to you Vienna in Bloom by Pants – inspired by Gustav Klimt.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Full English - Ready To Eat!

Thanks to my dear friend Mike Wade for the Art

Finally, I’m pleased to offer up the first chapter of The Full English, that long awaited novel I’ve been teasing you with all summer.

As many of you know, I’ve had a right old time of it this year and trying to get Ben Webster on the page has been both my constant toil and my saving grace. There have been many times when I should have been doing my accounts or changing estate agents or washing up when I chose to go on Ben’s journey instead of my own. He’s kept me sane and, in return, I’ve done unspeakable things to him. What can I say? A protagonist’s lot is not a happy one, happy one. And I have so little power to express my vast repository of angst. In any case, all the other jobs got done before my predicament came to the attention of either a tax inspector or a plague of rats. It proves that the world will stop for a good story.

That you are getting this first chapter is in no small part due to the kindness and expertise of a very special person. I hope she won’t mind my revealing that she is none other than Reading the Signs. Signs has scrutinised draft after draft of these first ten pages as well as later sections and offered me the most insightful help and advice I’ve ever had from anyone. Signs, words will never be enough. Thank you.

Last week The Inner Minx posted a fabulous piece on critiquing works in progress. She says,

‘I have strong feelings that a critique should be of some benefit to the writer, a fresh pair of eyes that can say honestly what they liked/disliked, how it made them feel and whether they enjoyed it, or not, what worked and what didn't. Critique should make you look at your writing, does it flow, make sense, and in essence is it readable? We all like to think that we are going to produce the next bestseller but writing is a craft, a craft that carries its own self-apprenticeship. Criticising at this level is about the help and support of fellow writers.’

This especially resonated with me because I have legendarily huge trust issues with the world. Even though I think I’m quite good at dealing with criticism I know I’m total pants at trusting people. The Inner Minx goes on to say that she thinks it essential that the writer trusts the critic. But trust is more than just satisfying yourself that the person you’ve given your work to is not going to be mean for the sake of it. That’s easy – don’t give your stuff to mean people and that won’t happen. I once got a really mean response when a friend gave her friend who’s always disliked me an earlier version of The Way of the Pear to read, unaware that this woman and I had history. What she basically said was that I had barely the right to exist, much less exercise the audacity to write a book! Easy to dismiss that sort of bile.

The trust you absolutely need to have is in your critical friend’s knowledge and expertise. You need them to understand where the story is trying to go which means they must recognise devices and be able to assess creative decisions in the context of the narrative. It’s no good them just saying ‘this doesn’t work’. You need them to be able to say why. This means they must be able to read on a number of levels which requires both skill and commitment. I had a very interesting conversation over on Fiction Bitch with Elizabeth Baines where we talked about the much misunderstood level of investment that the reader is prepared to make in a novel. This is not to say that you can write any old guff in the opening pages, as I’ve learned the hard way. But concepts like ‘the first five pages’ that are tailored to meet the needs of literary agents and publishers rather than the book’s actual target audience ought to be openly and regularly challenged. We readers are generally flexible and willing to follow the writer - for a goodly long stroll in my case. I rarely give up on books and I prefer my literature not to read as if it came from a production line of creative writing class graduates.

One of my great failings as a writer is that I find it difficult to discipline my thoughts. This is something that Signs has helped me with a lot. I’ve tried everything that she’s suggested and it’s added a whole new dimension to the way I work. The story hasn’t changed much in the last three years but the writing has altered a great deal. She said to me very early in the process that she was concerned about putting me off my stride. Of course I confidently quipped, ‘Don’t be silly. Say whatever you want. I can take it.’ Then the reply came back – the beginning wasn’t working - at all.

I agree completely with The Inner Minx that this is exactly the right time to be hearing this – before you’ve wasted your chances and sent it off to agents. There’s no denying it’s a blow – but it’s the kind of blow that makes you start thinking like a boxer. You’ve got to stay in the ring and start fighting for your story like you want it to win.

I’m basically a collaborative animal so having the opportunity to bounce ideas off someone who knows what they’re talking about has been the best possible scenario for me. So, to my dear mentor Signs, thank you.

And so it begins,

Hi, I’m Ben. (Now read on here)