Friday, 15 September 2017

Hollywood and friends

It's feeling like autumn. The nights are drawing in, the conkers and leaves are tumbling, yet the weather still has to warm up for summer...



Televisually, September means we are back with old friends. Hapless Pete and pals on Cold Feet. The increasingly psychopathic but much wronged Doctor Foster. Fondly bickering Phil and Kirstie on Location Location Location, though sadly this series won't be featuring the episode filmed in our part of York sometime in May. Disparaging Jeremy and his Oxbridge nobs on University Challenge. Clever Victoria on Only Connect, which also featured Oxbridge nob and University Challenge winner (til her team was disqualified) Gail Trimble.

And The Great British Bake-Off. I was going to stay loyal to the BBC, I really was, like Mary, Mel and Sue before me. But the BBC has become a hideous Tory propaganda machine and is so biased (pro-Brexit, anti-Labour) in its news reporting that frankly it doesn't deserve my loyalty. Plus I actually like Channel 4. Because Last Leg. Because Jon Snow. Because Frasier. Because of my beautiful subtitles gracing its Countdown screens all those years ago.

And the news is so stressful right now that it's unbearable. I just want to look at cake instead. And biscuits and bread and sticky toffee caramel. And, new presenters aside, the show is so reassuringly familiar and cosy. The rest of it has been transferred in its entirety. The music. The bad puns laced with innuendo. The marquee with torrential rain streaming down its window panes. The tea cups and bunting. The malfunctioning ovens. The cakes hovering over bins. The mysterious proving drawers. The crazy contestants, although they seem a little Liverpool heavy this year, maybe as an homage to Paul, the only surviving face from the original series. He's just the same too, with his fierce eyes, dismissive comments and occasional bear-like handshake reaching across the work surfaces.

Admittedly, the ad breaks and heavy sponsorship are as irritating as I feared, but at least the content of the programme hasn't been cut short to accommodate them. And I'm having to get used to it being on a Tuesday, with Jo Brand's Extra Slice on a Thursday, rather than the Wednesday and Friday slots they held on the BBC. Routine is important to me. But Sandi Toksvig is very cuddly, and I quite like Noel Fielding's dreamlike musing, even if he doesn't seem to be that interested in the food. Prue Leith is scary though. She's much more of a force to be reckoned with than Mary Berry. She's about twice the height of Mary for starters. And you won't be crying on her shoulder (you wouldn't reach that far!) or getting any sympathy or gentle advice if you mess up.

I am part of a small team working on a baking book at the moment. It's to raise money for the school (so it can still afford to buy things like books, and, er, staff) and putting it together has been a lot of fun. It's going to feature lots of delicious everyday recipes, submitted by parents, teachers and local cafes. Mostly things that you should be able to bake with kids, as opposed to the impossible challenges you see on Bake Off. So more this:




Than this:


The book will come complete with professional colour photos, hopefully no typos (since it's my job to find them) and a decent level of wit. Please buy a copy when it's published, hopefully sometime when we are officially - rather than only weatherwise - in autumn.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Astronaut: Do You Have What It Takes?




An X Factor with brains, this. A group of people who might be described as seriously clever clogs get to do all sorts of gruesome tasks in order to prove they have what it takes to enter into a European Space Agency astronaut training program.

Clever clogs
The ESA doesn't necessarily have any astronaut vacancies, since they haven't recruited any new staff since 2008, but this is all about kudos - or at least getting space veteran Chris Hadfield to write you a half-decent reference.

The tasks aren't gruesome in a celebrity eating revolting bugs in the jungle kind of way. Although that may yet come - the possibility of accidentally crashlanding in the Brazilian rainforest makes that sort of survival skill necessary for an astronaut. Plus you've got to learn to stomach all that pouched up dog food on the International Space Station, especially if Heston Blumenthal's contributions get blown up.

Instead of eating cockroaches, the contestants have been facing a series of gruelling physical and mental endurance tests. Counting backwards while being starved of oxygen, repeating series of numbers backwards while stepping on an off a block (there is a lot of counting backwards - must be a rocket thing), being stuck in a pitch-black sphere for 20 minutes, having to escape from a box underwater, being strapped in a box attached to a human centrifuge (there is also a lot of being put into a box, which is definitely a rocket thing)... They also have to extract their own blood in a syringe, ready to perform experiments, and learn some basic Russian. The latter was the only task I could do. Everything else has been a case of "not on your nelly." I'd be a total wreck. I'd be the one deciding I was deprived of oxygen while still on 100% flow, thus jeopardising a multi-million pound spacewalk. I can't even iron a shirt flat (and why should I?), let alone keep a hovering helicopter level. I don't like putting my face underwater, so wouldn't be much cop at solving maths puzzles on the bottom of a swimming pool. Etc.

Counting backwards to launch...
The judges are all terribly calm, but meticulous. And completely ruthless. They send you home at a moment's notice. They wouldn't have even let me through the door. So I have to admit that it's just a teensy bit satisfying to see all these said clever clogs come a cropper, and be made to realise that they are mere human beings after all. They might be nuclear physicists/ ballerinas/ Everest conquerors/ neurosurgeons/ urosurgeons/ academics/ engineeers, but some of them can't sprint or swim. Some of them are claustrophobic. Some of them can't answer technical questions about how you pee in space. Some of them don't notice that they're about to pass out from lack of oxygen because they are too busy doing sums.
My husband being "a bit shit" at an ISS experiment
Was I the only one who expected Tim Peake to be a bit shit, because he was British? For being a bit shit is what we are good at. We just moan about it, or laugh about it and carry on. We never quite get anything to work properly or be a resounding success. We just lack that drive. Taking the piss out of ourselves is so much easier. But Tim Peake is the exception. He was just awfully good at everything. He didn't drop a screwdriver on a spacewalk, sending it somersaulting off into the heavens. He didn't get ill or have allergic reactions. He didn't cut off anyone's oxygen supply or lose some important plant cuttings. He didn't crash the space station into a satellite or misfire the Soyuz capsule. He even ran a marathon simultaneously with the one in the London. And he was just terribly nice and enthusiastic about everything the whole time. He is a rare Brit indeed. Just as well he got signed up in that last recruitment drive by the European Space Agency in 2008, when Brexit was only dreamt of by jokers in UKIP, rather than being the everyday nightmare unfolding before our eyes in the lazy hands of David Davis, severing us from all that is good. For no matter how clever cloggy or physically strong these contestants are, they are British, and the European Space Agency, like the rest of the Continent, will soon be sailing on merrily without us. These folk ain't going up in a rocket any time soon, unless it's one piloted by Richard Branson.


Or it's one in a museum
I went through my own recruitment process in the summer as I applied for a couple of jobs at the university. I earn a bit of pocket money doing academic proofreading, but really need to earn some proper cash and get myself some guaranteed hours. But I quickly realised, after seven years of being based at home, how out of the game I have grown. It's not just how technology has marched on with things like apps and virtual learning environments and that I haven't opened an Excel spreadsheet since 2010. It's not just that the job I was good at - subtitling - has all but collapsed as an industry in the UK and now wants to pay a rate half that of what I used to earn 12 years ago. It's not just that I am now in my mid-forties and there are so many bright young things out there who don't have a small child and the need to fit work around school hours and school holidays and who can maybe talk about something other than rainbow unicorns and Harry Potter. My self-confidence is at an all-time low, my health is crap, and I just don't believe myself capable of anything. That said, I am obviously not too bad at filling in application forms since I managed to get interviews, but that's where the process ended. I totally failed to sell myself. Although - and knowing how the university works - I felt fairly sure that they had internal candidates lined up for both positions since the interviews either consisted of deliberately wacky questions asked just for the hell of it ("Describe yourself in three words!"), or such sparse, superficial questions that they wouldn't have found out anything of relevance to the post about someone they didn't already know. Or that's what I am telling myself, anyway.

Maybe I am doing myself a disservice - perhaps I assume I am "a bit shit" just because I am British. Maybe it's all about self-belief and talking the talk. Yes, I would make a BRILLIANT astronaut! You couldn't imagine a better person to send up into space. I've read a book about it! I've built space Lego!



You can send that nice Kevin Fong chap over to give me a medical.


Milton Keynes and Me

Gosh, it's been an age... Trying to catch up after the summer holidays. Feels like (and is indeed) weeks since I watched this programme, but never mind. Off we go...

I never expected to use the words "touching" and "Milton Keynes" together in the same sentence, but that's what this documentary led me to do.

It was a film about having a home town that you grew up bored by, and later embarrassed by, and that you ran away from as fast as you could as soon as you could. But a home town that you remain attached to simply because it is where your family made your roots, and where your parents stayed to grow old. And it was a film about how life turns full circle - suddenly, you have your own kids and realise what a nice place your home town might be to raise a family. Maybe you are merely trying to recreate your own memories for the next generation - memories which, as you age, acquire the rose-tinted spectacles of yore.

I possibly have similar feelings about my own home town. It was crushingly dull as a teenager - it didn't even get its own cinema until after I left home. Or rather it had had one years before, but that had long since been turned into a Marks and Spencer. Life only got marginally more interesting for us once we could start trying to drink underage, but it was never a place where anyone sensible would want to hang out on a Saturday night. But I've seen many friends, who shot off like the proverbial bullet to university in far-flung places as soon as they had the opportunity, move back there over the past decade to have their own kids. Possibly they just want the free babysitting that the grandparents offer. Alas that's not an option for me, with my mum dead for over 12 years, and my dad sold up and moved away back to his own childhood roots. But home is home. There are things about my childhood that I wish we could offer our daughter. A school with a large playing field and lots of trees instead of the concrete playground she has to make do with. The proximity to Hatfield Forest and Audley End children's railway. The opportunity to go to London every weekend. Sunshine in summer, snow in winter. An airport on the doorstep, the Suffolk coast and Channel crossings that much nearer.

I've only been to Milton Keynes properly once, on an organised coach trip from my own dull home town to do some Christmas shopping. It was possibly my first trip to a "mall". It was all terribly exciting and I remember stocking up on a Eurythmics tape, a bad lipstick that matched the one Annie Lennox was wearing on the cover of the Eurythmics tape, and a terrible pair of black and white '80s trousers from Chelsea Girl. But my only visits to the place since have been driving round its endless roundabouts en route between the M1 and my aunt's house in Buckinghamshire.

And Richard Macer's documentary began with those self-same roundabouts. There is a roundabout appreciation society, did you know that? It has its own calendar. And Milton Keynes makes them drool. They call a garden roundabout a "Titchmarsh" or a "Monty Don". They will risk life and limb to cross lanes of traffic and stand in the middle of them.

But there is a town behind those roundabouts. Hidden by trees, mounds and duck pond reeds are a multitude of houses which, at the time of building, were considered innovative and state of the art. (They haven't necessarily aged well, however.) They have unusual sloping eaves, a sense of light and space seldom found outside Scandinavia, and open-plan living. They were designed to lure people out of the London slums, where kids never knew darkness - without their own room and forced to sleep in the lounge, they had to put up with their parents staying up late in artificial light.  The families were helped to settle in by social workers. One recalls helping a woman who was dying of cancer to write letters to her young children. It still makes her cry after all these years.

Going back to the architecture, the original shopping mall, the centre of MK, has all sorts of features that you wouldn't necessarily notice unless you were given a tour by its actual architects, which thankfully in this documentary we are. They point out the reflections, the framework, the Roman marble. They sum it up with a "Milton Keynes - so there!"

Unfortunately a new shopping mall has been built bang in the middle of the Boulevard, the main thoroughfare through town, causing a diversion. This has upset numerous locals as the town has lost its sense of flow and order. The original planning corporation of Milton Keynes has been disbanded and replaced by a council committee desperate to make commercial money. So the grand plan has begun to slip. Admittedly, some parts of the original grand plan were a little way out, such as the Vegas style leisure centre, with its rodeo, wave pool and souk bar area that wouldn't have looked out of place on an episode of Star Trek. But these were never built.

There is however a lot of way-out art that has survived. It's a shame that the only sculpture people have ever heard of is the concrete cows, as there is a whole lot more. There's a gallery full of it. Enthusiasts will show you round. Artists and photographers are still lured to the streets and estates. A new piece is being commissioned to commemorate the town's 50th birthday - for a roundabout. It's a little telling that the council chooses to hold the 50th birthday party in the historical house at Bletchley Park, rather than say, the shopping centre, or on a roundabout. It's as if they're not quite as proud of the town's achievements as they claim.

The school tried to make the artists of the future. They would have themed days where the intended curriculum would be forgotten and pupils would be allowed to specialise in an activity of their choice, like art, maths, rollerskating or even golf. There was no uniform, the classrooms had carpets and the teachers and pupils were on first-name terms. Nowadays the pupils all wear ties and follow rules and whatever prehistoric lessons Michael Gove has made them learn. The vision of utopia has been snatched away from under them. Today's pupils find Milton Keynes "boring", just like the documentary maker (who attended the school at the height of its vision). But they do like the town's openness and tolerance, and multiculturalism. Which didn't exist in its early years. A famous advert with a clown on stilts carrying red balloons encouraging people to move to Milton Keynes had only white participants.

And after school the university - the Open University. That of the beards on early morning BBC2 and unfathomable equations. Local residents signed up in droves but were then disappointed to discover that physics is hard. Time to go and meditate at the first Buddhist peace pagoda in the Western world instead.

I grew up near another new town - Harlow. It was the first place my parents lived when they moved down south, in one of the country's first residential high-rise blocks. My dad worked in Harlow on an industrial estate making Latex for 30 years. Harlow had a similar ethos to Milton Keynes - lots of airy houses, green spaces and cycle paths. And roundabouts. But unfortunately it quickly lost its original aspirations and became a bit of a dump. Growing up, it provided our local A&E and cinema, though both were fairly nasty. That said, the town had its own cultural highlights - Carter USM were discovered at The Square, and the Pogues played Harlow Park. Harlow Playhouse had its annual pantomime where all my school friends seemed to get invited up on stage but I never did (oh, the trauma of being eight!), and a series of children's classical music concerts called Patchwork which attracted some pretty famous musicians (Emma Johnson, Malcolm Messiter) and instilled in me my love of early music and folk. The town's sculptures were by Henry Moore, who lived locally. Recently, a Polish man was murdered there in a racist hate crime after the EU referendum, which was far from Harlow's finest hour, and shows none of the tolerance and diversity so praised by the children of Milton Keynes. Sad times indeed. Though Harlow has apparently responded, like Milton Keynes would, with art.
Me and my mum hanging out in Harlow's green spaces in 1975

Friday, 18 August 2017

A lament for LoveFilm



Dear Amazon,

Thank you for your recent e-mail announcing the closure of your LoveFilm DVD postal service at the end of October. However, you have made me rather sad. And a bit cross. Your excuse for the demise of LoveFilm is that you've apparently seen decreasing demand for DVD and Blu-ray rental "as customers increasingly move to streaming". Streaming? Streaming what? Colds?

Some of us, you see, have no idea what you are talking about. Some of us are technically inept and technologically decrepit. Some of us just don't always have the money to upgrade to the latest thing. Some of us are still barely coming to terms with the demise of VHS. And the closure of our local Blockbuster.

I have a DVD player. In fact, only last year I upgraded it to a Blu-ray player. It's been a long haul into the 2010s in this household. So what? As far as I'm concerned, I've got it and I still want to use it. Why should I chuck it out and waste all that plastic and circuitry just because a lot of your customers have got streaming colds?

Oh, wait, you mean Internet streaming. There, I'm not such a luddite after all. Yeah, online streaming. We do that with Netflix. I signed us up in desperation for a free month's trial when our daughter got chicken pox at the end of reception, which housebound us for the best part of a week. And it's shit. It buffers a lot, crashes regularly, and has very little on it that we want to watch. Some good TV box sets, yes, but we're probably only interested in about one film in a hundred, none of which were released in cinemas in the past three years. Besides, our daughter has completely hijacked our account by watching My Little Pony and Paw Patrol on a loop.

You see, I used to go to the cinema at least twice a week. I saw pretty much every film going. Living in London, I could see anything that a review made sound interesting, no matter how obscure. This backfired sometimes. Uzak, for example. But anyway, I didn't get to miss out on movies. Relocating to York, with only one art-house cinema, our choice was more limited, which is how our LoveFilm subscription started. I still read the reviews, and slowly worked up a list of films that weren't heading our way that I wanted to see. And then we had our daughter, which (aside from a crazy year of taking her once a week as a baby to City Screen's Big Scream, where she sat through Black Swan, 127 Hours, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Another Year and many other inappropriate titles in complete milk-overloaded oblivion) meant we didn't get to go to the cinema at all for ages. Now when we go it's to see things like Captain Underpants, Minions, The Boss Baby and Moana. Which are all fine, but meanwhile our LoveFilm list of all the titles I really want to watch has been growing and growing.

It's not often that we get an uninterrupted evening with enough time and energy to actually sit through a whole film, but when we do, it's a proper treat, and we want therefore to treat it properly. Do the cinema thing. Turn the lights off, and the sound up. Have a glass of wine. Maybe even make popcorn. We bought a bigger telly to enhance our experience. We wanted to replicate the Picturehouse in our house. We're not bothered about being able to watch things on our phones. But I'm certainly regretting how few uninterrupted evenings we have, which meant we sat on The Hateful Eight for three whole months, now that we only have two months left to get through the rest of my LoveFilm list. I'm trying to up our game now, with the nights drawing in at the close of summer, but it won't be easy. I just had to quarantine my husband in the spare room for two days because he threw up everywhere on Monday night and I selfishly didn't want our daughter (or me, because I have a piece of plastic fork stuck in my intestine) catch it.

The DVD still has something that Internet streaming doesn't. What you get on DVDs or Blu-Rays are (1) extras and (2) subtitles. Extras that tell you something about the background to the movie you just watched - how it evolved from concept to completion, how special effects were achieved. Deleted scenes sometimes show you how thought directions were abandoned, for better or worse. You may catch some silly bloopers or other funny incidents that occurred during filming. You will undoubtedly see actors, writers, producers and directors gushing about how brilliant they all are. You may even capture some handheld footage of the wardrobe department. Many extras are total dross, but I always watch them. Because I spent years of my life subtitling them, or getting other people to translate subtitles for them. So a lot of effort has gone into the behind the scenes of your behind the scenes and I for one want an opportunity to appreciate it. And of course the main feature will have subtitles too - for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and in up to 38 different languages, depending on which regions the disc will play in. The subtitles will have been put together by poorly paid professionals, mostly doing it for love, because translating a movie is more interesting than translating a washing machine manual, even if it's paying you less than minimum wage and has a turnaround so fast you almost have to translate in real time.

How will the deaf community access movies now, with so little online being subtitled properly, if at all? And, more importantly, how will I watch the latest releases in Norwegian or Brazilian Portuguese?

It was kind of annoying that you didn't have much control over what you were sent next with LoveFilm, but the mystery envelope winging its way from Peterborough was part of the thrill. Now you are offering me Amazon Prime instead of my LoveFilm subscription. I try so hard not to accidentally click on that big yellow Prime icon every time I order a book or CD (yes, yes, I'm so prehistoric, but it is surely clear to you by now that I prefer objects to computer screens), but now you have really upped your ante. Will you actually have any of my LoveFilm list on your Prime selection, cos you certainly didn't the last time I checked? Or will I have to do a pay-per-view for my more obscure choices that will cost way more than my LoveFilm subscription ever did? Are you even going to e-mail me my LoveFilm list before you delete it, because I'm not going to be able to remember ten years of film choices by myself? Actually, since you are about to have a warehouse full of unwatched DVDs that you can't sell, why not use me as your charity shop and send all the ones on the list my way? I'll sit in my ark, gradually working my way through them.

And I don't want your discounted Firestick, thanks, because you let Jeremy Clarkson advertise them.

I think that ditching LoveFilm and making us all take Prime was always your plan. You said otherwise, but who ever believes a word that large tax-avoiding corporations say?

Yours, except I'm not,

A disgruntled LoveFilm by Post viewer.


Summer holidays and teenagers

So we're over halfway through, and how's it going for you? How's the weather been? (We've actually had a tiny bit of sunshine this week in York.) Are the tensions in your house at Trump-Kim levels yet or are they still relievable by wine? Yesterday my daughter asked me when I was going to stop controlling her life and let her take charge instead. This was a response to me inviting her to go to the ice cream boat over the river as a treat. She wanted to stay at home and play with her magnets instead. You just can't feckin' win, can you?

She is harder to please than ever this summer. We've done some lovely things. We've been to some shows at the Great Yorkshire Fringe and to see Robin Hood at York Theatre Royal. We've been to Harlow Carr, Newby Hall and the wonderful York Maze, and we went to stay with my dad in Grasmere for a few days, where we met up with friends and played Swallows and Amazons at Blackwell House in the pouring rain. We've done campfire cooking and raced around Goddards. But during it all there was so much moaning! (Particularly when I managed to wreck her bread dough in the campfire...) And I haven't even made her go on any country walks!

The Giant's Loo Roll
(the daughter was bribed with a chocolate pancake not to scowl in this picture)

The Scarecrow's Wedding

Genuine tents...

..and genuine boats from the Swallows And Amazons film at Blackwell House, Bowness

The dissatisfaction is spreading beyond home. This week is she is attending Kings Camp, a sports activity week held at the Mount School. It's a lot of fun, but every day she comes out overly focused on the negative - that she hasn't won star of the day, that she had to wear a beginners red cap in her swimming session despite the 25 metres badge she has sewn on to her costume, for which she was teased, that she scraped her knee during a treasure hunt, that the timetable wasn't announced in strict order at the start of the day, that they didn't go outside enough, that they went outside too much... Bah! It's partly tiredness, hence me trying to revive her with ice cream. But give the poor guys a break!

It's a foresight of what the teenage years may hold, assuming Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un, Isis in a van, and a piece of plastic fork let any of us live that long. Did so many things cause my parents sleepless nights when I was little? Plastic forks didn't of course, because my parents weren't that stupid, but when I was my daughter's age Thatcher had just come to power, nuclear war between Russia and America definitely seemed a possibility, and then Argentina invaded the Falklands. But was it this bad? With Brexit, that narcissistic, volatile moron tweeting unpredictable nonsense from the White House, a fat kid in North Korea playing games and people being run over on the streets of Europe, I feel like I am living in a nightmare that can only get worse. My mood certainly can't be helping my daughter's negativity, even though I try not to mention any of it to her. Let her have her innocence for as long as it can last. But when will something good happen? Even The Last Leg can't lift my spirits about the madness of the world any more.

Love to you, Barcelona

Anyway, teenagers. Yeah. There's a bunch of them living in the park this summer. Our lovely park, which has just lost its park keeper thanks to the latest wave of austerity cuts (my prediction in a previous blog post came true). Now it's up to volunteers to maintain its flower beds and keep it looking lovely. Which was hard enough with its flock of geese shitting over its lawns and pathways, and has now been made even harder by these teenagers' inability to use a litter bin. Oh, such bravado they show as they do their wheelies down our street and around the park stage, which only a few weeks ago was used to put on an opera. Such colourful language as they abuse each other and passers by. Such profits the corner shop must be making as they purchase their bottles of Rubicon Spring and packets of Moam. And such a mess they hurl on to the grass without a moment's thought. There's no dealing with them; they are a wall of hormones who just want to laugh at adults requesting a little respect out of them for their surroundings. Needless to say, me politely requesting them to stop ripping leaves off my neighbour's bushes did not go down well the other day.

Yes, I did pick all this up afterwards

My daughter chipped a little off their cool though. The boys invaded the zip wire queue in the play area, pushing in front of her, where she had been standing watching some friends. "We're going next!" they boomed, sneering at her. "That's OK, I don't want a go anyway because I don't like it," replied my daughter. "Ew, what are you, six?" they snorted. "Yes. But I'm nearly seven!" answered the girl, oblivious to what they were inferring. She's darn tall for her age.

We have a teenager coming to stay in our house next week actually. Hopefully he can sort the brats in the park out with some good Dutch manners. We are doing a house swap with a friend in Holland, a cheap and convenient way of being able to go abroad in August. So I am spending this week frantically trying to tidy up and looking at everything in the house that doesn't quite work properly, thinking "My goodness, how have we put up with this for ten years?" Well, mostly because one of us in this marriage is very laidback. He has to be, of course, else he wouldn't cope with me being the other half. But as a consequence his attitude to repairs is somewhat slack. He'll just work out a way of tolerating whatever has gone wrong. Deciding he prefers showers a bit on the cool side, for example. Deciding that the steam function on an iron isn't necessary if you just squirt a bit of water on your shirts instead. Not minding water spraying in his eye from a pipe because really it's quite refreshing after a long run. That sort of thing.*** Anyway, I'm just hoping I've managed to patch the place up enough to stop it falling down before the end of the month, so that our friends have a peaceful and harmonious visit, despite bringing a teenager.

So yes, ten whole years we've lived here in our crazy house. I think that's the longest I've lived anywhere continuously in my life. Cracks are still appearing in the walls. I panic about subsidence, my husband merely decides they add character. Our daughter could definitely be a little bit more like her daddy on some things.

Only 19 more days til the start of term.


*** My husband would just like me to point out that while the girl and I were in Grasmere he painted four shelves that have been bare MDF for nearly as many years. It seems the trick to make him get round to doing DIY jobs is to go away without him...

Friday, 23 June 2017

Childhood Heroes

After the whole hideous Jimmy Savile business, it felt like there was no longer anything sacred about my childhood television viewing. It had all been spoiled forever. It was the 1970s and 1980s, and they had all turned out to be a bunch of perverts. And we, in our innocence, had been completely and utterly duped. Savile was disturbingly close to home too, as he had worked with my grandfather in Leeds, and met my parents and aunts - and apparently me as a baby - at hospital social events. My mother recalled one of his cigars in an ashtray in their lounge.

Then Rolf Harris. Sunday afternoon cartoon fodder for me and my brother once we were back from our weekly swimming session at Leventhorpe pool. "Can you see what it is yet?" When we lived in Crouch End, Harris regularly went into the primary school down the road to give art lessons, open fetes etc, as his grandchild was a pupil there. But he was not what he seemed either, and was released from prison just over a month ago. No wonder the Queen's smile looked so forced on his portrait of her. I am no royalist, but she is an astute woman who can express much without words. It can't be coincidence that she dressed up as the European Union flag for her vellum-penned speech in the House of Lords this week.


However, recent events have restored some of the balance. There were good, honest people out there making television when I was little after all. I went to see Peter Lord, creator of Morph, give a talk at the York Festival of Ideas a couple of weeks ago. He is a York graduate, which I had forgotten, and one of the founders of the wondrous Aardman Animations. Morph lives on even now. Even without Tony Hart, who has become famous for nearly dying twice. I had really bad stomach ache throughout the talk (thanks to "the fork"), but it was lovely to hear Lord give an account of his career, showing some brilliant clips, even if these were hindered by technical glitches from the rather strange audiovisual set-up in the Bootham School auditorium. But nonetheless we saw everything from their first attempts at stop animation (photographing people jumping in the air then splicing the footage together to make it look like they were flying), to the original Aardman superhero character, to making the Sledgehammer video for Peter Gabriel (the success of which meant the Aardman Christmas parties trebled in size). Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! 


And don't forget Shaun...

Peter Lord was terribly modest, and spent the entirely of the talk modelling a piece of brown plasticine into a fresh Morph that was then auctioned off for charity. He also paid tribute to the wonderful Peter Sallis, who had passed away a few days before. He showed a clip of Sallis remembering how Nick Park had persuaded him to record the voice of Wallace when he was a young film student. Sallis graciously obliged, for very little money. He heard nothing more until Nick Park phoned him up six years later to announce "I've finished! Do you want to come and see it?" Such is the time-consuming nature of animating plasticine models.

Peter Sallis is a loss, though my childhood was more spent watching him rolling down a hill in a bath in Last Of The Summer Wine than in Wallace and Gromit. But that just reveals my age.

OK, so this isn't Shep...

And there have been two more recent passings of children's television presenters from my childhood that reassured me that they weren't all terrible sexual predators. First, John Noakes, Blue Peter hero. Who will always be remembered for an elephant standing on his foot, and climbing up Nelson's column on the world's most precarious ladder, without even a nod to health and safety. Because it was the 1970s and the BBC was, well, distracted. Rumour has it that the first time John Noakes climbed Nelson, the sound didn't record, so he had to do it all over again. A brave (and patient) man indeed.


"Windy's cider is very strong cider..."


Secondly, Brian Cant, voice of Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley, and presenter of Play School and Play Away until both were abruptly decommissioned in 1984. I never really saw him on screen again, though it seems he kept working right up until a few years ago, when Parkinson's took hold. Bizarrely, his copresenters on Play Away included Tony Robinson and Jeremy Irons. Which just goes to show any actor with rent to pay will do children's television. In the 1970s and '80s, 'kippers' had no connotations with Nigel Farage, and it was still acceptable (see above) for people to sing songs about ladies in a harem to young kids.


Our daughter is growing out of CBeebies, but I wonder which of its many presenters she will remember into adulthood. Justin "Mr Tumble" Fletcher? (Who of course is one of the voices on Aardman Animation's Shaun The Sheep and Timmy Time.) Lovely Chris and "Show me show me your groovy moves" Pui? Andy "Dinosaur Adventures" Day? I will be heartbroken if any of them are subsequently hit by scandal. Apart from Topsy and Tim's mum. She deserves all she gets.


Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Wife Swap: Brexit Special

Wife Swap: something my husband may wish was more widely available. Also a typically scandalous Channel 4 title for something that is in fact slightly more inane - a chance for families with opposing beliefs or lifestyles to see how the other half lives. The female of the family swaps places with the female of another for a week and goes to live in their home. First, she follows the "rules" and lifestyle of the family where she is a guest, including doing whatever work the woman does. Then she tries to introduce some of her own ways of doing things to the family. But naturally there are some deliberate attempts to fuel an argument or court controversy. I am still traumatised by the memory of the mindless sap who pretended to be a Japanese geisha girl morning, noon and night.


But now it was something closer to home - a family of Leave voters swapping with a family of Remain voters. One of the accusations bandied about after last year's (in my opinion) disastrous referendum was that voters lived in their own bubbles, each believing that everybody thought like them, and never hearing the alternative view. Remain bred Remain, Daily Mail bred Daily Mail. I saw nothing but pro-EU posts in my Facebook feed from my friends, and all the posters (bar I think two) in our part of York were for Remain. Whereas Leave voters got fed bullshit by Boris, Gove, Dacre and Murdoch and the side of a bus, which was all self-reinforcing.


So now it was time for the two opposing views to have a conversation, and try and understand each other. Only it turns out you still can't have a conversation with a Leave voter. They just stand and shout crap, and refuse to listen to anything other than the sound of their own voices. They come out with Daily Express soundbites about taking back control and wanting their country back whilst blatantly failing to understand what the EU actually is. This Leave husband and dad, Andy, was no exception. He took Kat, a German migrant, to an East End market to show how there was only one white face left manning the stalls (who was Jewish). Seriously. But Andy's not racist, apparently. No. He just doesn't recognise his own Little England any more. Kat tries to point out that the EU has nothing to do with how many Pakistani people are selling mangos or saris in London. At home in their garden over a glass of wine, Kat tries to explain that EU migrants do not get a house and full unemployment benefits within ten minutes of landing at Dover. But Andy won't listen. He's read everything he knows in the paper. In the Canvey Island pub where his wife Pauline works, Kat rolls her eyes over an outside smoke as she tries to make the punters understand that she is the EU migrant and not the Syrian refugees who are fleeing a terrible war. She just gets shouted down with Dacre quotes. "Is this about not liking the EU, or not liking brown skins?" she asks in exasperation. But they're not racist either, apparently.

Meanwhile, Pauline, the Leave wife, over a meal of boeuf bourgignon, is surprised that the Germans in the room no longer feel welcome in the UK, having been told in the street to go back to their "Hitler Merkel". It's not that sort of immigration she's opposed to, you see. Not the sort where people pay taxes and work hard and have an education and raise children here. Well, what other sort did the EU give us, you moron? She objects that she's not allowed to put on a nativity play at Christmas any more. Which is again, nothing to do with the EU. She is shot down by Guardian-reading left-wing opinion, but is ultimately a little humbled by it. Nonetheless, she still goes and puts a picture of Nigel Farage above the fireplace. And later hides a garden gnome of him in the garden.

Meanwhile, Leave husband Andy won't take his England flags down. Kat should fit in, he says. "When in Rome..." Except he was totally unable to realise the irony of that statement, having just voted against the treaty of its name. But then, he acknowledges, Kat is the one with the facts. Which makes her the one in the wrong, apparently. Kat takes him to a Polish restaurant, which he is surprised to find isn't staffed by criminals, but instead by nice folk from Poland. With his love of roasted pork belly strips, really he should fit right in. When I taught English at a summer school on the Baltic Coast in Poland in 1996, we were expected to eat fatty cuts of meat three times a day.

Pork, European style

Slupsk Summer School, 1996

Andy's unhousetrained dog learns to poo on the Daily Express at least.

At the end of the day, Kat still feels adrift. And who can blame her? She's done her best, but it was like banging her head against the proverbial brick wall, only one festooned with the flag of St George. The only small sign of progress is that Andy and Pauline, who have definitely found Kat very intense and quite hard work, try not to list any anti-German stereotypes in the car on the way home. For now, that's as good as you are going to get.