Monday, October 29, 2007

Rissoles at Dawn

Frozen Moment, Leicestershire. By Pants

Cows will actually stand and stare at you if you point a camera at them, which is, I guess, the reason that there isn't a Big Cow Diary on one's beloved BBC2 with Saba Douglas-Hamilton tucked up in a Prada fleece waiting to pounce on a rarely spotted beastie. In any case, cows don't have spots, only the occasional patch, as far as I know. I'm no zoologist.

I call them 'cows' as a shorthand but interestingly, there seems to be no word to describe this animal that can be either a cow or a bull. There is only cattle, which is a plural describing a group. I know it's the same with sheep but you can't say 'a cattle' in the same way as you can say 'a sheep'. Sheep are clearly designated as either rams or ewes. Goats are divided into billies and nannies. Pigs are gender defined as sows and boars. Even chickens are either hens or roosters. So how come the big guy misses out? Not even Wikipedia is sure how the whole mess should be presented.

No wonder these guys sought out the Kodak last weekend in the Leicestershire wilds. Clearly, they were pleading with me. 'Pants, tell us who we are and why we're here.' Fat chance of me being able to solve the bovine conundrum. I can't even get a fix on my own future. I might have simply spray-painted a large yellow 'M' in the frozen ground but that would have been cruel and sent the wrong environmental message. It most certainly would have attracted carrion from miles around and possibly a fleet of people carriers to boot.

Being out in the countryside very early in the morning has a profound impact on the way one perceives the world. At the very least, it requires you to reconsider the received wisdom that 'Britain is getting overcrowded'. Unless you think these bovine creatures are somehow a contributory factor, space deprivation doesn't seem much of a threat.

A weekend idyll can't be appreciated in full relief unless it's prefaced and epilogued by passing through an emotional passport control that leaves you in no doubt that you've simply attained a limited visa to explore a kindlier world. As a wakeup call to re-entering the urban jungle, the Number 30 bus to Hackney Wick rarely fails.

'You fuckin' caaaarrr', remarks the polite young lady as she shoves me aside and stomps up the stairs. There's no way that a demon vixen from Haggerston will stand between me and the top deck - the only bearable location on any form of London transport. I follow her up, hoping to secure a seat at the opposite end of the bus.

No such luck. Two seats, right at the back, facing each other. Defiantly I sit down opposite my insolent disparager, stow my weekend backpack under the seat, shoving aside several half-full KFC cartons and ... open The Guardian. It does the trick. She gets off two stops later.

Reflecting on the whole experience, I pause to ponder the original of the expression,

How now, brown cow?

I google it and discover it has no purpose other than to demonstrate the correct pronunciation of rounded vowels. Perhaps no one told the cows. Possibly they've considered the question and have come up with a bovine solution to the perplexing notions of 'how' and 'now' and could even have mathematically linked them. We may never know.

I've been fine tuning The Full English and fleshing out the scene I found hardest to write in which Ben attends a bullfight. In the time I lived in Spain I never went to the toreo. I did know a few bullfighters though and I was often invited to go. I'm against gratuitous killing. I understand that there are elaborate rituals that humans have devised to allow male domestic animals for which we can find no other purpose beyond the plate, to display some semblance of their natural behaviour via a battle. The question is whether or not there's any point in breeding domestic animals up to adulthood for the sole purpose of allowing them to display their 'natural' behaviour synthetically. Bulls would have once fought each other for breeding rights. I'm guessing that human intervention has rendered inter-bovine dating slightly more scientific.

When the lot of almost every living creature on the planet is controlled by some idiot politician, capitalist or oligarch with a jacuzzi-centred agenda, we could say we're all being milked, whether we have an awareness of it or not...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Simply Georgeous

George Eliot statue, Nuneaton. By Pants

George Eliot was born on the Arbury Estate just outside of Nuneaton in 1819. I want to write a much longer post about her once I've read Scenes of Clerical Life. Much of it is set in Nuneaton and the local Waterstone's sold me a copy of the Wordsworth edition for an inspiring £1.99.

I chose to spend the day in Nuneaton after a blow out weekend with my cousins the family Ozmicro at their charming somewhere up north cottage. The nearest town is the delightfully named Ashby de la Zouche. I know it as the place Ivanhoe is set and I know that because Heather is writing a musical adaptation of Ivanhoe in The Way of the Pear. So, I read it a few times.

There were several birthdays involved in the weekend and Pa Ozmicro had won a timely luxury Fortnum & Mason hamper. The empty box will make a useful clothes basket, I'm sure. There was a rugby match, I seem to remember, which we watched at the pub where OZ4 works. We were all quite glum about the outcome because not even Australians like the South Africans. Ma Ozmicro is a fabulous cook and OZ1 was visiting from Jersey. Family eh?

Pa Ozmicro dropped me off in Nuneaton at around 8am. I had a seat booked on the 2.35 Rich Bastard express which I intended to claim come hell or high inflation. I found a lovely Italian cafe called Leonardo's and ate a leisurely breakfast. It was only briefly interrupted by a nutter claiming to be a painter and asking me if we knew each other. 'Grow a long, grey beard', I told him, 'then come back and ask me again. And, while you're about it, invent me a flying machine.'

I found the library where the George Eliot collection is housed. Most people in the room were reading the sports section of The Sun. Nuneaton is not the thriving market town it once was. It didn't bother me because I had no competition whatever for the material I wanted to read. I didn't have a lot of time but I wanted to peruse her notebooks, observing her handwriting and thought processes before going out to imagine her in the town.

George Eliot's formal education ended at age 16 when her mother died. It was an unusual upbringing. Her father Robert Evans was a surveyor and land agent to Sir Roger Newdigate, the master of Arbury Hall and grand patron of literature. Born Mary Ann Evans, Eliot's road to self-determination would have been unlikely even for a man of her class. Her circumstances were exceptional. Although her mother's death required her to devote herself to household duties for a time, she was given free ranging rights to the library at Arbury Hall where she continued to educate herself to a classical standard that is virtually incomprehensible today.

I sat reading her notebook in which she considers Plato in Greek, Descartes in French and Locke in English. Naturally, there are also copious passages in competent Latin. Here was a woman so gifted in so many ways who was reliant on good will and even better luck to get herself schooled up. Even then, she had to publish under a man's name. Even now, she's still George Eliot and not Mary Ann Evans. More later...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Pants Pendolinoed - Exclusive

It's beautiful, sleek and fast and everything a train should be, unless of course it's also expected to function as a conveyance, in which case it fails miserably. I know one's beloved Simon Hoggart of The Guardian is always rabbiting on about cattle refusing to travel on it but I honestly thought he was over-egging the omelette for dramatic effect and that he, however grudgingly, paid his tenner and moved up to first class. Now I get it.

Last Friday I took the Virgin Pendolino to Nuneaton and discovered yet another reason to despise 'Sir' Rich Bastard Brand Name. The Guinness Book of World Records people are interested by the way. Since I am the kind of anal retentive who researches travel well in advance rather than the hell raiser who takes a whim to whiz up north that I expect you all think I am, I managed to secure a fare rather less than the price of a package holiday in Fuerteventura. In the process, I secured a seat.

You may think a seat would be a mandatory requirement if you are travelling on a long distance train to, say Liverpool, and paying over £80 one way as the woman I ended up sitting next to did. Even when I've got a seat booked I arrive early enough to check the big board at least ten times and then ask two separate railway employees to ratify the information on said big board - computers have been known to be wrong and I don't want to start my holiday like poor M Hulot, running up and down stairs.

Just to be on the safe side, after I've studied the little board on the platform and satisfied myself that my intended destination appears before my eyes, I will challenge the conductor with a probing, 'is this the Nuneaton train?' Then, and only then, will I literally run down the platform frantically searching for an alphabetically designated coach before arriving in my seat a full ten minutes before the train is scheduled to depart. My personal motto is 'obsessive compulsives don't miss planes' or, in this case, trains. Besides, years of travelling on the Silverlink Metro have engendered a mistrust in trains leaving at the right time that I doubt I will ever truly overcome.

And it was as well that I did deploy every precaution in my vast arsenal on this particular trip. I assumed defcon 4 when I discovered a woman draped across my seat and the one next to it with a desperation I haven't seen since the Wimbledon queue on Day 1 in the sad days when Tim Henman was still playing. There was always the feeling that if you didn't get in before lunch, he would be out of the tournament.

The woman was easily seen off and I settled into my seat noting it had less leg room than you would expect to get on an under fives Disney ride. Shortly afterwards, the woman who'd paid over eighty quid parked herself anxiously beside me. There was a reserve ticket lodged into the top of the seat but she said there were no other free seats and she could only hope the person who reserved it had prematurely died. Apparently they had died or come to their senses, because she stayed put. She was one of the lucky ones.

Ten minutes into my one hour journey, I got up to go to the toilet. There are two of these serving around 240 people in 'economy' - yes, well - class. They are located at each end of the 'economy' section. The one at our end was broken so I had to hike through three carriages to reach the other. The full horror of a Friday night on the London to Liverpool was revealed as every available standing inch was occupied, including those concertina spaces between carriages. Since a Pendolino crashed not long ago, you might be forgiven for thinking that a nod to passenger safety might have been diplomatic, at least for a time. Chance, fine thing, Rich Bastard profit margin - work it out.

After virtually swinging my way through the carriages on the handrails, I ended up in a queue for the one serviceable toilet catering for approximately 500 people. I count myself extremely lucky that I was able to relieve myself at all. While waiting in the queue, I got chatting to a Liverpudlian guy perched on a fold down dickey seat in front of the toilet. He told me he'd seen it worse. He was drinking from a can of Special Brew which did not appear to be his first for the day so I can only imagine he'd hardened himself to the ordeal rather like a mutant from one of the Star Wars films that exists merely for the purpose of illustrating the relative horrendousness of the experience.

Forty minutes into the journey, I stood in another queue and bought a can of Carlsberg and a packet of Walkers 'Baked' ready salted crisps. It cost me over £3 and I just about managed to gulp it down and call it dinner before journey's end. I remembered the guy with the Special Brew on my return trip yesterday and bought a can of Stella and a packet of Hula Hoops (55% less fat!) from an off licence at a cost of £1.15 before boarding. It was a much more comfortable trip, although I still had to eject someone from my booked seat.

I paid £30 for my return ticket. I regard that as reasonable for a super fast service halfway across the country. Lordy, I can just about get from the West End to Hackney on the bus in that time. I don't always get a seat on the bus, but it's 80p not £80. If I was one of those poor sods relegated to standing over the coupling, I would have had something to say about it.

What makes Rich Bastard Brand Name the most vile and contemptible creature on the planet is (among a vast and diverse array of other things) that his trains have four 'economy' cattle trucks carrying five hundred passengers under the delusion that they are in a civilised country in which they are travelling on regulated public transport and an equal number of first class coaches with about three people in each one. It used to be that if the train was really full, you'd get an announcement saying you could use the first class carriages.

Clever railway people give you the choice of paying a tenner and getting an upgrade. I say clever because once the train has already left, there is no chance whatever of selling the hundreds of empty seats in first class. Did Virgin clock that opportunity? They did not. The sad woman who had forlornly tried to bag my seat told me she'd inquired about an upgrade and was told it was the full price - £161. You can get a return flight to New York for that - and you get a seat, provided you don't fly Virgin obviously.

And what could possibly have possessed the rail regulator to allow an operator to put on an intercity service with an equal number of first and economy class carriages? Has there ever been a time in Britain where that proportion would have accurately reflected the train travelling demographic? So much for demand-led services.

One could draw unfortunate parallels with past scary regimes whose gleamingly advanced railways were the emblem of their supremacy in all things. But then again, the fascists prided themselves on their trains running on time...

Friday, October 19, 2007

And Whiteley So

House of Pants

This is more like it. As I was going to say some twenty-four hours ago - this is House of Pants as it has never been seen before and is never likely to be seen again. Enjoy while you can. I would like to live like this but it is not humanly possible as I would be cleaning all the time and I have other things to do. This is how House of Pants looked on the day that someone new decided to buy it. I don't get excited about these regular events any more as I have worked out that deciding to buy a property and actually buying a property are not connected in any tangible way. Given that all manner of media are willing a housing market crash to happen, it will be some kind of miracle if I can achieve my humble goal of packing my modest possessions and moving to the sub-tropics. The fact that somewhere out there a couple of lawyers are trying to chisel a tiny window of opportunity into the universe which will enable a change of personnel at House of Pants, occupies me for approximately five minutes a day. I can't worry about that shit now.

I like art but at the moment, I can't afford to buy any. My friend Mr P runs an art gallery and tonight I went to the launch of a show by two bright young hopefuls. I say I can't afford to buy anything but I would if I fell in love in that just can't live without this way. That hasn't happened in ages. In the absence of a personal purchase high, Mr P (who spends virtually all his disposable income on ceramics), and I amuse ourselves by seeing if we can get Mr T drunk enough to buy something. Tonight we may have hit the jackpot. I had to leave because I have a sink full of dishes to wash and a bag to pack for a weekend away but Mr T was on the verge of committing to not only a piece, but a series! I can't wait to find out how the night ended.

Many years ago, I fell in in love with the fine piece of wall adornment that appears prominently in the photo above. It looks like a single frame from a film. That was the first thing I liked about it. It's by Australian artist Brett Whiteley and it's called 10 Rillington Place, W11 (1965). The subject is the murderer John Christie, who created an elaborate device to dispense lethal gas to his victims. If I could ever have afforded one of Whiteley's exquisite landscapes, I would have snapped one up but he's always been well out of my league. Prints are affordable. Last year I went to an exhibition of Picasso and Matisse prints. The cheapest was around £500. Before anyone starts getting on my case about the poorest people being excluded from this cultural bonanza, I mean 'affordable' in the relative sense, i.e. hundreds and not millions.

The thing I like most about my print is that Whiteley hasn't just scrawled his name on the thing cursorily but has written out in painstakingly scratchy copybook italic script,

"10 Rillington Place W11" (Still from a Proposed 16 millimetre film) 53/70 Brett Whiteley

There is something very personal about this print. It isn't at all slick, like it was churned out in a mass produced run. It's a short series with only 70 made. The Tate has one (I think they have No. 4 but I've never seen it on show - not that I need to, obviously). The National Gallery of Australia has No. 39. House of Pants is in good company. But don't go getting any fancy ideas about turning me over. They're not worth that much. Now if it was a Warhol, that would be different.

So there you have it, my elegantly dressed wall. And so to the dishes. I'm off up north for a few days tomorrow. Try to stay out of trouble and I'll catch up with you next week...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wednesday Postponed


You know I've always wanted to do that.

I had a great idea for Elegantly Dressed Wednesday but there's a problem on mein host Blogger, the outcome of which is that no images can be posted in the here and now and since it's nearly not Wednesday anymore, well... I'm kind of fucked. I just so wasn't prepared to... erble... fluck... slom... put elegance into words. You psft... motlt... need pictures...mdkeltl?

So Wednesday will now appear on Thursday, by order of House of Pants.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

You Can't Fight Blog Action

My Neighbour - by Pants

Today is Blog Action Day.Thanks to J at And Another Thing for alerting House of Pants to the occasion. As a child, I was into conservation and wildlife. All children are. There's one of the great untapped resources of our time. I've always loved water fowl. Mr Heron has lived across the water from me as long as I've been here. He's a good neighbour, save the occasional dispute with my dear pals the coots. They simply don't see eye to eye on the subject of infanticide. Different strokes for different folks and all that.

I’m interested in all aspects of protecting the environment, as you know. By that, I do not mean buying food that I don’t eat and shoving it into one of the ridiculous plastic ‘organic waste’ recycling dooberries that Hackney Council consider cutting edge. I have news for the environmental genii at Hackney Town Hall, organic matter breaks down – quite quickly if the bananas at the bottom of my fridge are any indication. You do not need to collect it up separately.

The only reason to stop people from putting food scraps in the bins is that it smells awful for a bit before it starts rejuvenating the earth. It’s not really entering into the spirit of more responsible, sustainable waste management in the long term if your solution to garbage-day pong is a five-litre container that simply adds to the street clutter, is untenably expensive to collect and has no demonstrably beneficial destination. It probably just goes to the tip via a different route anyway.

Radical solution time. As a society we could ask people to buy less food so they have less to throw away. That’s a hiding to nothing en croute. As a species, we still haven’t got that feast/famine thing sorted and supermarkets would simply crank up their marketing machinery if we even thought about rejecting their two for one offers and bumper packs. They know which leg to pull. Given that there will always be some food wasted, perhaps councils could give out composting bins instead of daft little buckets.

Small bins suitable for individual households could be dispensed along with advice on what does and doesn’t constitute ‘usable organic waste’, e.g. cigarette butts, KFC chicken wing bones, chip fat and the remains of your pig-out bacon and egg breakfast No, pretty much everything else Yes. Once householders have mastered the basics of putting the right things in the little round hole, they could learn how to make the kind of potting mix they usually have to line up in B&Q for half an hour to obtain. You can almost see the carbon footprint evaporate before your eyes. No more driving to soulless retail parks to buy bags of other people’s potato peelings.

And that’s just for individuals. What if they put big communal bins on estates for the gardeners to use? Think of the cost savings. Think of the rose gardens that might spring up with the nutrients on offer, not to mention the communal vegetable patches. We might even be inspired to tear up the lazy crazy paving slabs that are still being installed where grass once thrived, despite the threat of floods that comes with global warming.

We have communal gardens at House of Pants. When I first moved here, we had herbs growing in all the beds but almost no one knew what they were, so their gradual demise has not attracted outrage of any kind. The last rosemary bush died out about three years ago. Apart from the lovely lavender at the front door, all we have now is awful gnarly brambles whose main purpose is to deter unwanted lingering. It’s green in colour but not at heart. I used to like our garden, not least of all because of the free homegrown seasoning it produced. Now it might as well be poison ivy.Something must be done before all our habitable space becomes either houses or hedges!

So Unite Fellow Bloggers and let us save the world together. Mr Heron said he'd make us a coot egg omelette if we managed it...

Monday, October 15, 2007

CSI - Hackney Wick

The ticket machine at Hackney Wick Station was ‘live’ for approximately one week. It is now most assuredly dead.

I arrived at the station last Monday to the devastating sight of the newly and proudly animated automatic ticketing function smashed to pieces. I didn’t have my camera that day so you are spared the harrowing ordeal of seeing its glass guts splattered across the concrete apron of our besieged little station.

As I reported in the spring – what an innocent time that now seems – the station was undergoing something of a revival. With station master St John dispensing good cheer and a copy of The Metro with every ticket sold, not even the powerful pong of urine coming from the unusable waiting huts or the ‘you just missed the last train ever’ feeling that never entirely leaves you when you’re catching a Silverlink train, could dampen the optimism.

You began to dream that one day there might be little baskets of begonias hanging about the place. You became one of the Railway Children praying for Daddy to come home, or at least the slim change of making it to Stratford in time for the 8.29 to Shenfield. The ticket machine had been there for at least a year but had either never been activated or was permanently broken. I never established which but it did occur to me that it might have been on trial as a decoy to see if it would be a target for vandalism.

I’ve learned how to do an Oyster top-up on line now. It’s not very Pants-like but it’s the most practical solution to my ongoing problem of needing a weekly Travelcard. My preference would be to buy my ticket from St John and have a pleasant conversation about what kinds of leaves railway tracks really like and dislike. The reality is that John is the only ticket seller so if he has to go to the little boys room or is away on honeymoon, then you’ve had it.

For the week that the ticket machine was in operation, Hackney Wick began to look like a real railway station. Money was going in and tickets were coming out. There was a tangible sense that transactions were taking place. A calm descended as it dawned on travellers that they need not run the gauntlet of tens of thousands of ticket inspectors at Stratford waiting to impose a fine. Traveller's tip - being unable to find a place to purchase permission to ride no matter how hard you try is a criminal offence in Britain.

Vandals, for there can be no gentler term for the monsters who stole our peace of mind along with a bundle of used tenners, have put paid to there ever being a Brief Encounter experience for we weary travellers from Hackney Wick. There’ll be no cloche hat for me, no cup of sweet tea and no heartbreaking farewells. We are not just talking about the demise of a machine, this is the death of romance, fuckit. St John is now bunkered in behind the shuttered up ticket box, his spirit expired, a sad pile of Metros left on a bench the only evidence of his ghostly presence.

Once I got over the debilitating crappiness of the whole thing, I thought about what I could do to set the world to rights. I dismissed that quite quickly because there is obviously nothing and I don’t think ticket machines have souls. I was, however, sufficiently motivated to at least make some sort of symbolic gesture so I did the only appropriate thing. I opened a new blog.

Surviving Britain will encompass my vast experience of navigating the challenges that we all face on a daily basis, from working out where the end of the queue in the post office is (Nuneaton – best set off now if you need to post a package tomorrow), to getting seen in casualty (your best bet is to get shot or knifed), to finding out your tax code (allow at least three and a half years, the Government is only solvent because nearly all foreign nationals are permanently on ‘emergency tax’).

Look out for it and take care of you – I guarantee you no one here will do it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Out for a Duck

Picture from Sydney Morning Herald

I’ve been eerily quiet about the ceremonial waddling of duck feet from No. 11 to No. 10 Downy Street. Difficult as it may be for some to contemplate, even Pants is capable of giving a duck a fair go – at least for a semester. There is another reason - I was reeling from the shock that I could actually have been wrong about something. The cyanide pills were on order. It's true, you can get anything on eBay.

Scrooge of the Clan McDuck opened his Premiership with a speech that not only almost made sense, it was delivered without the obsessive shuffling of papers that ensured you never quite believed any of the figures that spilled from his Chancellorial beak. The shiftiness and self-consciously averted eyes had been replaced by a steely glare of conviction. For nearly three months questions were just about answered satisfactorily. Even I began to stop imagining it was state silverware bulking out those baggy suits.

No one expected a swan transformation but there was at least hope over the summer that Scrooge wasn’t going to make a total paté of the job. He’d fumbled his way through the floods – hardly as challenging as New Orleans but at least he’d managed a few timely sympathetic words for the deluged. He’d responded swiftly to the mortgage crisis, for which I declare a grateful interest, since I sold House of Pants that very week. He’d managed the pestilence within the food chain, but then again plagues that threaten to wipe out the animal kingdom are now as regular as Michael Palin’s arrivals but probably not as worrying for the locals.

It was starting to look like a safe pair of hands was at the helm, albeit one of them being the famous ‘big clunking fist’. It couldn’t last because Scrooge (sorry, I seem to have left my moral compass in my other trousers) McDuck proved no more of an entrée than his predecessor.

Push came to shove as they say during the party conferences over the past two weeks. McDuck is no MacDuff. He didn’t choke exactly but his speech was hardly Churchillian or even vaguely vermillion. Its successful completion was cause for celebration in Labour ranks - expectations weren't high. That in itself is a distance travelled but the fact that he said nothing didn’t go unnoticed. Nothing may be all we’re used to getting but we were led to believe that the days of blank looks and unfinished sentences got shipped to Connaught Square with the rest of the Blairs' perishables.

David ‘Me Cam’ Cameron, who makes duck down look heavy, wowed his party conference with nothing as well but his nothing was made up of slightly different non-ingredients and he’d learned it by heart and he'd unleashed the Southern Baptist within when he got up on that stage. A stunned and grateful nation rewarded him with an even money start should there be a snap election. The Tory-proposed raising of the inheritance tax and stamp duty thresholds may not have been implementable but certainly proved popular. Even House of Pants is above the current threshold. There can scarcely be a property in inner London that isn't.

Meanwhile, back at the Money Bin (the knocked-through 10-11 Downy Street), McDuck’s round-the-clock pollsters were called in after his interminable sermon of which no one can agree the exact length but it went down in the minutes as 'for ever plus a fourth term'. They concluded (rather bravely I thought) that it probably wasn’t a great idea to hold an election after you’d only been in charge for three months, particularly if you've come up looking like even more of a tosser than your more popular (today at least) rival.

Problem – how do you then explain to pundits who have noted your unmistakable big clunking fist shoring up the jackets of various cabinet colleagues promoting the idea of an election?

Answer – you go all stony-faced and pretend that holding an election is the most absurd idea since deep-fried Mars bars.

'I'll not be calling an election and let me explain why. I have a vision for change in Britain and I want to show people how in government we are implementing it’, he intoned to Andrew Marr of the BBC, 'I want the chance in the next phase of my premiership to develop and show people the policies that are going to make a huge difference and show the change in the country itself.’

I started to see silver candelabras underneath those baggy suits all over again. At this rate, he’ll need a reign as long as Castro’s to change the country (like, as if). By then Michael Palin might just have completed his life's work of engaging, in a profoundly annoying way, very resident of this planet. It seems only fitting to sentimentally invoke Palin from his glorious Python days at this sad time in history if only to send a strong message to Scrooge, and indeed Palin himself,

Intercourse the duck.’

There was a time when ordinary people knew up from down, back from front and in from out...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Dressed to Die

Inspired by Quinkie’s Elegantly Dressed Wednesday post on Peter O’Toole, I present Dylan Thomas. You all know the Pants elastic is wearing a little thin at the moment - I won’t lie. I was desperate for a steer this week so I trawled around the other EDW dedicatees, hoping to awaken either my creativity or, as a last resort, some distant memory.

Of course EDW founder and mentor Quinkie is my first port of call and he didn’t disappoint. One look at P O’T and all I can ever think about is what a wonderful sport he was to self-parody the vibrant blue-eyedness that made him a star in Lawrence of Arabia in the mesmerising 1972 Film of Thomas’s Under Milk Wood. Playing the blind Captain Tom Cat, he was the little star that could steal the whole show from all those Hollywood taffs with drink issues.

A couple of years ago I holidayed in Laugharne for a week with my cousins and we stayed in cabins right next to The Boathouse, a beautiful residence overlooking Afon Taf, gifted to the family by Thomas’s patron Margaret Taylor (wife of AJP Taylor). I don't often write in rhyme, so this poem about that experience should be treated as rare.


"Croeso", you say and wish me well,
and invite a beer in Brown's Hotel.
Where Thomas once sustained the regale
now rebound the sounds of Emmerdale.

I wander The Boathouse where our man dwelt.
and snatch for a fragment of what he felt.
His voice carouses a whisky man's song.
and requests the laddies to grunt along.

Afon Taf recedes to meet the sun above,
as a flame-haired lady reads from The Map of Love.
A glass of wine, a summer night and strangers ten a penny -
how comforting the loneliness of the company of many.

Laugharne you've waited fifty years
for a suitable hanky to wipe your tears.
There in St Martin's, field of the dead
are Dylan and Caitlin and some of their friends.

The poets, the painters, the great and the good
and some of the people from Under Milk Wood.
Half Brigadoon, half Canterbury Tales,
you are the strangest place in Wales.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Cultural Whinge

Mr T, Pants and La Formidable on top of The Hedgehog

Things have been a bit quiet around House of Pants lately I know. I find work physically and mentally draining – and not in a good way. This last week has been exceptionally debilitating. The condition of my friend Age who’s in Whipps Cross Hospital continues to cause concern. He has Parkinson’s Disease and is diabetic and is parked in care awaiting a triple bypass operation. With the Parkinson’s, it’s critical that he gets his drugs at exactly the right time. I went in to see him yesterday to find that the drugs were delivered fifteen minutes late and he was in a very poorly state. Everyone knows that diabetics are restricted in what they can eat, everyone that is, except nurses. This would seem a relatively simple thing to get right, given its critical importance. Apparently not at Whipps Cross.

The food trolley comes around and there is almost nothing suitable on it except watery potatoes and processed peas and carrots. The nurses at Whipps Cross do not seem to understand that adequate nourishment is vital to life. Age is now frightened because when he has tried to assert his needs, he’s been severely roused at by the bullying staff and told he must ‘play by the rules’. What game are they playing - Russian Roulette? 

Something doesn’t add up here. Hospitals now routinely supply kosher and halal choices to patients, which although a cultural imperative, is not actually a solution to a life-threatening problem. I thought the Homerton was bad but at least you could order your food in advance so you knew what you were getting. As it is, Age is dependent on friends bringing in food that he can actually eat. It’s chaotic because we don’t know each other well enough to organise it properly and it’s also dependent on the good will of the nurses because Age won’t necessarily remember what’s been put in the fridge for him. Yesterday he was so hungry he wolfed down some very unsuitable chicken pie. I was able to add an organic avocado and lemon I’d brought in to liven up the limp salad that accompanied it but it was a dead cert that he’d suffer later for the decision to defy his long-term condition in favour of immediate survival.

Last week I also saw one of my oldest friends who was in town on business and then went off on a short holiday with Mr T. La Formidable is a wonderful woman and we will be friends for life, unless she reads this post of course. We all went out for dinner three times and had three arguments, all of them intense and stimulating. I believe my brain may have even broken into a canter once or twice. It was hard to tell because there was a lot of wine involved. You can’t really argue with Mr T, which is why we’ve been constant friends for over thirty years. His fallback position is always to propose the converse of whatever I’ve posited, thereby neatly circumventing the possibility of ever meeting in the middle over a three course meal. I quickly tire of this and requesting the dessert menu starts to seem like a good idea after Round 2 of both of us struggling to articulate our point of view from opposite poles. You so can’t see around latitudes.

LF tried to help me get my second novel The Way of the Pear published a few years ago. Our third and final dinner argument took place at the wonderful Mango Room restaurant in Camden Town. I apologise unreservedly to anyone who was sitting in our immediate vicinity. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve lived away from my native Australia for the last twenty-five years. And I’ve also mentioned that I’m about to go back for good in the next few months. The crux of our argument was that Pear contains a representation of some Aboriginal legends. The purpose they serve in the novel is metaphorical. LF says that this is a total no-go area and there is a word for it – ‘appropriation’. I backed off because I thought I’ve been away from Australia for a long time and there may have been advancements in thinking of which I’m unaware.
Let me give you a bit of background about why there is Aboriginal mythology in Pear. I spent some time as a young(ish) person at Moongalba, the home of Aboriginal poet, artist and diplomat Oodgeroo Noonuccal. ‘Kath’ as we called her then because she had not yet taken the Aboriginal name Oodgeroo, had a constant stream of mostly white school and university students visiting. Her purpose was to teach young people the true history of the country which they called home. The message that I got from her, which is indelibly etched on my consciousness, is that newcomers must learn from the Aboriginal people. My personal experience of spending time with Oodgeroo only lasted a short while but it had a profound impact on the way I think about the country in which I was born.

The argument with LF was not the first warning I’ve had that I’d written a completely unpublishable book. Last month I registered alarm at Kate Grenville’s improbable confession that she’d not had any awareness of Aboriginal people as anything but ‘museum pieces’ until 1988. I’ve previously lampooned the venerable Germaine Greer for her frankly ludicrous stand on the Bangladeshi writer Monica Ali’s fictional representation of the Bengali community in her debut novel Brick Lane. What both seem to be suggesting is that a fiction writer has no jurisdiction beyond her a posteriori experience when referencing living cultures. This is fairly restricting unless you’re content with writing episodes of Doctor Who or live next door to Pete Doherty.

I’m wondering if it’s just an Australian thing as I’ve just now watched a DVD of The Last King of Scotland, a fictional scenario where a Scot becomes Idi Amin’s personal physician. It’s based on the novel by Giles Foden who’s not Ugandan or Scottish or even a doctor. As far as I know, no one has been freaked out by Foden’s fictionalising of this particular black man’s life. Is this because Idi Amin is considered a ‘bad’ person? You see where the argument falls apart when you start sketching in arbitrary boundaries based on unfounded assumptions. 
Most of us can understand there are ethical issues when harvesting knowledge and understanding from groups of people who have been abused and exploited. Surely sensitivity is a more appropriate response than hysterical denial. If white Australians decide en masse to ignore the original traditions of the land they inhabit, how will it ever be possible to arrive at a shared identity? Am I missing something here? To further complicate the picture, the distinction between white and Aboriginal Australia is not always neatly drawn. I could discover tomorrow that I have an Aboriginal great grandparent, as cousins of mine recently did. Would such a revelation somehow alter my entitlement to add what I know of Aboriginal tradition to my personal narrative? Oodgeroo had some white ancestors, as her striking blue eyes demonstrated. Our white male ancestors shamed us all by their theft and rape but their legacy is living, breathing individuals who may not necessarily fancy being rigidly categorized.
We forget sometimes that knowledge is free. I can’t help thinking that the whole argument betrays a certain free-market perception of ownership. I could take all the Aboriginal fables out of Pear without materially affecting it. What I can’t do is ‘unknow’ those stories. Thank fuck for that…