Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lies, Fatties and Kittens

So much to do and so little time to do it in, let alone write about it. During the week I note subjects I think are worth expanding on and now have a long list of items, though many of them are so cryptic I can't remember what they refer to. Perhaps a reflection of my life in general.

Having passed the health check (obligatory in France) I have no excuse for not going to the gym and battering the flab, other than laziness and embarrassment, both of which last night's viewing of recent wedding photos have overcome (wish the gym could sort out the wrinkles too). Paul and I have agreed that the midday slot is the preferable option, because no one else will be there to witness the tragedy.

On Saturday we went with Emile and his wife (retired and very typical French farming couple) to a horse fair - an event I would usually avoid like the plague (horse events, of any kind, have lost their allure since I ended my own semi-professional episode as a rider, but I also know that this particular agricultural type of fair will also involve various attitudes I will find hard to ignore), but two days later I am still cursing myself for not taking a camera.

The sense of walking into a dying world was written on the faces of men and women and embodied in the Percheron horses - beautiful, immensely powerful beasts strutting their stuff for the judges, but without purpose in the mechanised farming world. They are the souvenirs of a bygone age that these people are hanging onto for as long as they can afford to - a posture I admire, even though their treatment is rough and all too whip-ready. Less easy to bear, for this sappy southerner at least, was the line of bottom rungers - horses and ponies either too old or too ugly to be of interest to anyone except perhaps for meat. I wish I could have bought all of them, a large rangy ex-race horse in particular, but just the thought of our own 'girls' struggling in the mud back home put pay to that. Still, I wish I had brought a camera to record what must be the last rope maker in France, the farrier trimming a hoof with the circumference of a car tyre and faces only wind, rain and age could produce. I would have put them on this blog for … possibly posterity.

And on animals - we have two more. Kittens to be precise and in direct contravention of my own law - NO MORE CATS. My excuses were Lucy (she will need company when she is on her own) and the cold, both of which are fairly plausible. Our friends, Barbara and John, have gone back to England for the winter, leaving a stray cat and, formerly, six kittens behind. Barbara, who claims that she is "not a softie" and believes in nature taking its course, left buckets of cat biscuits in a green house and deviously ensured I got a glimpse of them before she left. Enough said, after a series of extremely cold days and nights (during which a local footballer collapsed with hypothermia) I went back to check their progress and found only two survivors, now Nell and Orpheus (Lucy's pretension not mine) and currently asleep on the rocking chair (see photo).
Moving down the list and lifting my gaze from its currently, dangerously navel level, I feel the need to comment on the latest furore about labour donations and political funding in general. After so many years of 'ends justifying the means' rhetoric by Blair/Brown, this revelation is hardly surprising. In fact the only surprising part is Cameron's willingness to wade in and criticise, when he must know that the spotlight will inevitably turn back on the Tory party's shenanigans in that department. Perhaps there is a case for restricting election funding and allocating a proportion of our taxpayer's money to the purpose, if only to stop the kind of carpet-bagging we are seeing now, but this in itself raises another raft of issues that I have neither the time, energy nor interest to debate here. Much more fundamental and more disturbing is the general sense of dishonesty in politics and society, though even as I write the nagging thought occurs tome that it has always been thus, just better concealed. Do I have a solution? No, of course not.

On a higher, no scrub that, infinitely lower note, has anyone seen the new reality (though God knows I wish it wasn't) TV programme; Fatties Go To Borneo, or some such title? I'm not sure which aspect I find the most shocking and/or repulsive, the sheer size of the teenage fatties themselves or their behaviour. Perhaps it is all one and the same. Rude, ungrateful, spoilt …. The adjectives, similes and metaphors don't exist to describe them. In fact the only comparison available is another programme of the same ilk - Tortuous Teenagers (correct title escapes me) involving distraught parents and kids who deserve to hung, drawn and quartered (this from a passivist who has have never even resorted to smacking). Lucy and I have our problems, my weight and wrinkles, her growing up (which incidentally she is doing beautifully and of which I am immensely proud - wish I could take the credit), but we have never behaved like that lot. What is the world coming to? I ask myself and the rest of the world.

So who else is in today's metaphorical firing line? No one actually, because yesterday left me feeling warm and much-loved. Everybody should have a bossy friend prepared to turn up unexpectedly and tell it like it is. Denise and Eric have found happiness in Portugal after a fairly miserable 12 months here in northern France and I am more than happy for them, in spite of my own, very current need of someone to dump on when I am feeling pissed off. They were only here for a couple of hours before rushing off to somewhere else, but long enough to remind me of who I am and why I am here … which brings me back to the present and my responsibilities … I have a guide book to write and the Guardian to read … so here endeth the latest diatribe on the trials and tribulations of being an overweight and grumpy retiree in northern France, where it is, of course, raining.

Friday, November 23, 2007

On tragedy, banality and comedy

Time to stop navel gazing and look at how much more sick and inexplicable the rest of the world is. The growing trend of kids planning school massacres via chat rooms makes my own junior school dreams of organising a mass walk out seem rather paltry. What is the world coming to? And why do I sound more like my father everyday when I ask this? Perhaps I am morphing back into a female version of a grumpy army officer past his sell by date.

But there is good news out there too, albeit in the most unexpected guise … prisoners earning credibility and honest lucre through their embroidery work - high class and best quality - according to Libby Purves and her interviewee this morning. "After all, they have the time to become very good because most of them spend at least 19 hours a day in their cells." A comment that makes the happy ending less joyful.

Meanwhile in this Francophile world of ours, Sarkhozy upsets train drivers, civil servants and parents who have to deal with the consequences when teachers decide to get in on the argument. Lucy called from school yesterday (a rare occurrence) to warn me that I would be getting letters about her absence, because she had been on strike too. What can I say? In principle I support her and the fundamental right to freedom of speech, though in reality suspect that the French penchant for walking out or dumping piles of poo on government doorsteps (if you are a farmer with access to tons of it) may not be altogether helpful for its ailing economy. Having said that, a recent cartoon image of Sarkhy wearing a Thatcher style wig sent shivers down my spine. Give me a placard, I'm marching.

And so onto to even more depressing subjects - the BBC World story about two internet lovers in America. A virtual love fest based on false identities - he, supposedly a fit 18 year old and she the female version of the same. Nothing new in that you might say, except that this time an additional member was lured in and ultimately murdered. Tragic enough, but perhaps even more tragic because he was the only one telling the truth.

Yesterday I went to the hair dresser (also a rare occurrence) and found myself sitting next to the mother of an ex-school friend of Lucy's (an even rarer occurrence in this particular case - I may navel gaze, but this woman is so up herself that I suspect the short and curlys currently undergoing a serious renaissance may not be all the seem). Inevitably we ask the inevitable questions about each other's daughter and inevitably I enjoy watching Madame Doctor's wife squirm when I tell her how well Lucy is doing - much better (in numbers at least) than the other one. Hey! I only do this under provocation! The real crunch comes (the best bit of all) when our beloved hairdresser tells us that we share the same hair colour. Eyes flick to mirrors and I catch a smirk in mine, but it's all prunes and sucking lemons in the other. Having to sit next to me in the same salon is mildly irritating. Discovering that my (the mad English woman with terrible dress sense) daughter is in fact out performing hers is uncomfortable, but being told that we are sharing the same hair colour is clearly intolerable. The small talk stops there.

Today Paul is doing his Rotary bit for humanity by standing in the (hopefully heated) doorway of a local supermarket and handing out plastic bags that shoppers will hopefully fill for people less fortunate than themselves. It's a bit banal, especially when ranked alongside the catastrophic effects of the recent floods in Bangladesh, but a positive action and certainly more than this cynical scribe is prepared to do.

Trivia …
We are about to enrol in the local gym, which I am sure I will regret.
Have started to meditate again
Wedding photos arrived but don't have the courage to look at them after counting wrinkles in the hairdresser's mirrors
It's raining again

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Window on the World

I'm having one of those bad days when the window on my world turns two-way. It may be unlucky coincidence that the tragic and haunting Iraq Vet. Story has centre page position on the very day when writing a guide book for pilgrims to Rome seems to be the most futile and self-obsessed activity hell could have devised. Or it may be the work of an omnipotent, all-controlling being who thinks I need a nudge, but in the end the source is irrelevant because the effect is the same either way. I am plunged into yet another mid-life crisis.

What have I done with my life? What about all those dreams? How can I ever make up for all the lost time now? And so on and so on, with only Lucy as my last attempt to do something right and positive for humanity, and my efficiency only evidenced in the consistent mess I have made of that too.

And what's more … the weather is shit. Cold, grey and entirely unacceptable in terms of the ride out on the horses that Paul and I had promised ourselves … which brings me onto our health and fitness, an impossible quest it seems, at least in this part of France, where the gym is always closed and the promised badminton classes never run (this last being particularly frustrating for Lucy who got up this morning to attend class at 8.00) ... which reminds me that my life is funnelled into the single purpose of writing our sodding guide book while Jean Michel Jarre (who was speaking on the radio yesterday) has time to extol the virtues of You Tube (I don't even have the guilt-free time to write my blog, let alone look at other people's efforts) … which only goes to show that navel gazing leads to time wasting and depression, so I shouldn't be doing it.

We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope. - Martin Luther King

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Shit Happens ... to all of us

I'd like to go on believing that somehow I will escape the tragedies - life, illness, death, depression - that happen to other people, but the illusion is becoming increasingly hard to hold on to.

Of course age has something to do with it - I've been around longer to observe the process in action - but as I had already witnessed the death of two close friends and my parents by the age of 30, this doesn't really seem an adequate explanation.

So what is happening?

Catherine's son committing suicide shook the foundations of my world and I am suffering from the after shock still. Why? Because it is so close to home, so real and suddenly so obviously something that could happen to me. His death has amplified the brink that Lucy and by association I, teeter on. Our lives revolve around her state of mind, her happiness, her future and the above all the questions - why her?/why me? /where did I go wrong?/why am I such inadequate parent?/what can I do now?

Now I hear that Libby Purves has also lost a son to suicide. Libby, whose book I read ('How Not to be Pregnant), when I was pregnant and I suspect she wrote when she was pregnant with Nicolas. A harsh irony and perhaps proof that no matter how much you give someone, and I am sure he had advantages that I could never hope to give Lucy, the state of mind will prevail.

But here the dichotomy leaps out even as I write. How can I in one breath propose that my mother's insanity was largely caused by her insane childhood (and use my own 'loser' status as an example of the damage childhood can do) while in the next breath (my most recent) maintain that ultimately who we are will always 'out'.

And on insanity - last night was a good example . A Rotary do, jazz evening in Laval, for which I dress in jeans, while (as I only discover too late) the rest of the Rotary world has donned their finest glitz and glam. I last all of 5 minutes before announcing to Paul that I can't stay and, bless him, he agrees without a word of criticism. We go off to eat a solitary and fairly miserable meal and then return home to watch Alison Moyet, Jo Brand, Trinny and Sue spar on the same sofa - a great spectacle and guess who won?

Today, I am full of resolution (probably just a hormonal shift) - we are going to get fit, I am going to get out and speak French, I have a new idea for the guide (came to me during the night - proof that I am living and dreaming the sodding subject) and I will take a look at Virgin publishing as an option. In doing so the thought has occurred to me that I should have become obsessed by a far more innovative and sexy past time that people might label 'cool', but it is too late to turn back now so I might as well just get on with it. Anyway, since last night's walk round Laval's streets (looking for a pizza place we did not find) I have decided that living in Laval will be good for both our souls (and our French).

Other people might close with something banal like 'watch this space', but I won't.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

On Losing the Power of Speech

... or perhaps I should say, think. If somebody had told me that one day I - probably the most directionally-challenged individual in the world or possibly universe - would be spending days, weeks and months immersed in writing directions for other people to follow, I think I would have gone straight into therapy.

But where needs must I do, or some such useless homily. If our aim is to help people to follow ancient pilgrim routes - an activity we heartily endorse as being good for the soul, world peace and the environment (plus long list of additional items that only occur to me when I am on a roll), without even a sniff of a deity - then I suppose creating detailed maps (Paul's job) and writing detailed instructions (unfortunately mine) must be one of our core activities - however tedious. I am sure the finished product - due out next spring - will make me think that it is has all been worthwhile - sensitive readers will pick up the e-doubt vibes as I write.

Perhaps the worst aspect in all of this is that the rest of my brain is bludgeoned into silence by the clatter of turn rights and bear lefts rattling round the limited space left in my head. I have forgotten how to think. I can't write. The cerebral muscles, such as they are, have gone into paralysis.

So, in the interests of mental fitness, I will launch into one of those rare rants that sometimes, if I am lucky, leave me riding on an Adrenalin high.

First on the list for attack:

People who say this 'is the true story'.
Nothing repeated is ever true because Chinese Whispers will always rule. What you say will not be what I repeat and what I see will not be from your point of view. All pretty obvious stuff really, but last night the documentary and therefore 'true' version of events preceding the mass suicide by Jim Jones and his followers made me think about this all over again. What is truth? Can truth exist? Who do we believe? Certainly not the man who left his 4-year old son to his fate in the jungle, while making sure he was as far away from the scene as possible. And certainly not Jim Jones' son who said he couldn't have done anything to alert people to what was about to happen.

Next, a clap on the back and loud applause for Shami Chakrabati, Director of Liberty, who told David Blunkett that history has repeatedly demonstrated that having a 'pet dictator' (referring to Masharraff) simply wasn't an option anymore.

3rd- I caught the end of a radio programme, always the way when I am immersed in map reading, that discussed the relativity of time. too bloody true. Will someone, perhaps the presenter, explain to me why the hours in the day are never long enough to do what I need to do, but an hour of aerobics is always interminable.

4th - why are some people brimming with amazing, if sometimes useless, ideas (like the woman who has just produced a book of To-do lists sent in by thousands of people - I must love my husband even when he farts on the sofa), while I can't even think of a new and less inflammatory way of telling my daughter that coffee cups encased in mould are bad for MY environment.

5th - why can some people write great groundbreaking novels when I can't even complete a blog.

6th - how can Andy Hamilton be so funny without even trying?

And here ... for the time being ... endeth the rant. But not because I've gone through the burn and reached the ultimate cerebral high. No, far from it. I'm just feeling guilty about taking valuable time out from writing directions. Ah yes, guilt, that's another point I could have added ...

In a free society, some are guilty. But all are responsible. Abraham Joshua Heschel

So there!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

No Simple Answers

Getting old/older has finally taught me that there are no simple answers to anything, even old age itself. Last night a Panorama programme left me thinking the unthinkable - that I could, in another life, possibly, understand a person's motivation for wanting to become a soldier.

Childhood experience of being an army officer's child (for which there is no space to go into here - or anywhere for that matter), left a bitter taste in my mouth with regard to all things military. I have never been able to understand the brutal principles of war - the Geneva Convention being perhaps the most ludicrous - and I have never really been able to stomach the arrogance of those who espoused/delivered them. But since last night I am a born again something or other, with a new view of the world.

No, I still cannot justify the killing of Afghan civilians, either by the British Army (in it's UN guise) or by the Taliban (Afghans themselves). Neither am I able to understand how and why these so-called 'contacts' with the other side have to involve the destruction of unconnected people's homes and livelihoods, but now I can at least claim an appreciation of the complexity of this particular problem and others like it. So well done Panorama.

The, very personal, view of soldiers caught up in the mesh of political arguments which (even at officer level, they do not profess to understand) was the most poignant revelation of army life I have ever seen - concluding in the commanding officer's emotional breakdown when he mentioned his wife (all the more shocking because he had been so stoical and rational up to that point). This, alongside the desperate plea from local people that the British Army stay to protect them from the Taliban, revealed an array of issues my, previously, immovable pacifism had managed to overlook, with the result that I am quite simply confused and depressed, but perhaps this is not such a bad starting point, or at least a more honest one, for beginning the search for solutions.

And then, as if my life weren't complicated enough, this morning I read a George Monbiot article about the reality of biofuels. Far from being the fluffy, green alternative to the filthy, pernicious and fast disappearing petroleum based fuels we now use, biofuels are in fact far worse in terms of the land they are grown on and the air they are blasted into - e-image me now, poor old hag, head in hands, bemoaning the state of the world. But, on this at least, he has supported a personal hobby horse (horses do not produce as much methane as cows) of mine - the solution is not in finding another fuel, but in changing our need for it in the vast quantities we use today.

In all of this despair, and it is a very real despair and fear for the future (more specifically my daughter's future - yes I allow myself this degree of perfectly natural selfishness - human gene and all that) I have another depressing thought ... I am burbling into a vast e-ether where blogs flicker and die like glow worms in the night and no one is listening to me, me, me. An embarassing problem I will find impossible to share (though maybe I just did), but one, thank the Lord, that can be easily solved ... I'll just call go back to calling my blog a diary.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Steven Poliakov, daughters, grieving friends and Saudi princesses

I have to say it, even though I can feel the stinging e-rebukes heading my way before I have even finished the sentence ... Steven Poliakov is the thinking man's/woman's Eastenders. I am obsessed by his plays and if there were one on TV every evening - omnibus on Saturdays - I would be eating my TV dinners in front of it,(just to ensure I did not miss a single word);

Last night we, Paul, Lucy and I, watched 'Shooting the Past', another absolute masterpiece with three of my favourite actors - Lindsay Duncan, Timothy Spall, and Billie Whitelaw. What is it about his writing that scores straight through to the subconscious? The plot? The characters? The situation? The direction and lighting - particularly in 'Shooting the Past' - that lifts the mundane into the memorable? Or is it just all of these in their uniquely Poliakov measures? I would sell my soul to write like him, but no one would buy it and I would always know that he had got there first.

And so to daughters and more specifically teenage daughters who get drunk and vomit (vastly) through the night. Never having been very good with any kind of bodily fluids and definitely not fluids filled with red kidney beans, I surprised myself by calmly telling her to go and have a shower while I scooped up the sheets and their contents. Though I dealt less well with the reason for her being drunk.

My darling Lucy is terminally unhappy while I stand powerlessly by. If pain could be packaged up and handed over to someone else, life would be so much better. A more effective punishment for murderers or rapists who would actually experience their victim's torture and a means of release for sufferers and the people who care about them. But this is just a fantasy while Lucy's depression is all too real. She hates her body, hates her image (as she sees it) and doesn't seem able to look beyond the black. Worse still, having been there myself (still am in some ways), I recognise a large percentage of what she is going through and feel utterly to blame - genetically and parentally.

And so on to Saudi princesses (current because the U.K has just received a royal visitation in the form of King Abdullah) and women whose treatment by their Saudi men - revealed in the book 'Daughters of Arabia' (which I am reading) - is frankly unimaginable. No, incomprehensible.

And so onto grieving friends. In my darker moments, usually prompted by either Lucy herself or a tragic news story, I have a brief glimpse of the desolated landscape left to a grieving parent. How could I go on living if anything happened to Lucy, or worse still as in Catherine's case, my child were to commit suicide? Nothing in my experience has equipped me to deal with this personally and I am accordingly useless when it comes to helping Catherine. What can I do or say to support her through to a presumably less inconsolable future? Why do I always seem to be standing pathetically on the sidelines? As I write I have an image of a wild women, bare legs and staring hair, screaming abuse at the sky.

And so on to the rest of the day (an unimpeded process that makes the last few day's events even more intolerable), the sun is shining, but Paul and I are hunched over our respective computers, we have acquired four more ducks (while their owners are in the UK for the winter)we are about to lose Ollie, the bulimic cat (because he is going back to Karen, the mouse under our kitchen sink has perfected the art of stealing cheese without springing the trap and the chickens are laying again.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Can't see the wood for the trees

I'm having one of those 'is this it?' days. No, to be more accurate I am suffering the aftermath of one of Paul's 'is this it?' days.

As two, overly mature adults, we should know better than to drink more than three glasses of wine on a grey autumn evening after an 8-hour day stuck in front of the computer - a recipe for war if there ever was one.

Our books are not selling, our life is predictable for the foreseeable future, our money is disappearing like mist on a summer morning (a strange analogy but one that seems to work) and we can't see a way out.

But this is not the time - just before the big 50 (me) and the big 60 (Paul) - to be wasting time wondering if what we are doing is what we should be doing, because, quite brutally, we have not got the time. Or, as my father would have said: "We have made our bed and now we have to lie on it."

Perhaps Paul and I are just princesses suffering from the pea under the mattress syndrome, but whatever the cause, last night's booze confessions revealed just how painful it is and that something (something more effective than simply adding another mattress) has to be done. The only question is what?

Today's quote
The purpose of life is a life of purpose. Robert Byrne

Yeh, easy for you to say .....