Snatching defeat from the jaws, and so on and so forth

miliband and ballsWatching Prime Minister’s Questions should be a joy on a day like yesterday but as the Gershwins’ long lost verse about the perils of British parliamentary democracy had it it ain’t necessarily so.  Like any number of Labour supporters I sat rather nervously anticipating whether Ed Miliband would, as he has an astonishing capacity to do, come off the poorer of the two.  I like Ed Miliband and don’t regret voting for him in the leadership election.  He has interesting and sage things to say about much that has gone wrong with Britain over the last few years, and I also rather approve of Ed Balls.  His affable thuggishness is a welcome counterpoint to his boss’ wonkiness and indeed his opposite number, Little Lord Fauntleroy.  Whether I can envisage them in Downing Street is a different matter though, and I hope only indicative of my lack of imagination.  The more we see of this Coalition government the less likeable it is; slipping and sliding as it does between its three pillars of operation: viciousness, incompetence and stinging arrogance, and yet still Labour’s leader is as likely as not to stagger from the ring of PMQs the most decided loser. 

David Cameron can then strut from the chamber and those of us who want to see him fall flat on his shittycameron at dispatch box shiny face are instead left sucking on the cliché, applicable to so many Labour general election results of years gone by, which goes on about “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”  But this week, hurrah, Mr M was rather good, until as his way, he completely unnecessarily reached for another one of those Labour clichés.  As he got to his feet to rejoinder some bluster the PM had shouted about the dreadful Maria Miller, and well before the words were even out of his mouth I could tell what he was about to do, and my whole body squirmed in anticipation.  Pointing at Cameron sitting sweatily red-faced just a mace away the leader of the Labour Party shouted out, “he just doesn’t get it.”  He delivered it in a sarky, sing-song way, maybe hoping the benches behind him might join in.  Please, please, please stop doing this, Ed.  It’s a hateful, embarrassing habit of yours and somehow even worse when repeated by members your front bench team, as if they’re doing something very big and very clever.

Look: we all know Dave JUST DOESN’T GET IT, we also know that there is A COST OF LIVING CRISIS, and indeed George CUTTING TOO FAR AND TOO FAST meant our economy’s recovery arrived a good long while after it should have done.  But my loves – we’re not stupid.  Those of us who aren’t out-and-out Tories, happy to vote for the bastards regardless of what havoc they wreak on the country, know all these things and are also capable of putting voice to these ideas in a number of different ways.  When it comes to the general election of 2015, despite all of Ed Miliband’s insightful analysis and rather unsung achievements, I still fear the Labour party won’t have given the electorate enough positive reasons to vote for it.  It seems an unnecessary shame to needlessly suggest to punters they are guilty of BEING IRRITATING AND PATRONISING to boot. 

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In the library

Here we go.

“Excuse me. Can you hear that pinging?” the woman sitting opposite me right now in the library has just asked the third person sharing our round formica table. I’m sitting here with headphones in my ears pretending not to be able to hear anything and anyway I’m mainly distracted by the enormous man a few tables away with a cough that sounds like his lungs are breaking free of their moorings.

The woman to whom the question was addressed was leafing through The Times and either hugely gripped by whatever it was she had found to read or quite deaf. Possibly both. At the third time of being asked she finally realised someone was talking to her and she did indeed agree that she could hear some pinging noise.
“It’s the machines for taking books out with, I think,” she suggests. I’m with her.
But she is wrong, and so it follows am I. “No, it is the noise of satellites above us,” the first woman explains. “You can hear it at night too. With the helicopters and the planes.”
“I know the sound of the helicopters,” says The Times lady, “but I’ve not heard that pinging at night.”
“There it goes again,” our keen-eared companion says at exactly the same moment a man with a shopping trolley is checking out Night Watch by Terry Pratchett.
“Oh, I see,” comes the blank response. She has now finished with The Times and gets up to replace it, I think. She doesn’t come back. Goodbye, dear stranger, of whom I suddenly feel hugely fond.

It is now just me and Satellite Listener. I think she knows my earphones are a ruse and I suspect she can hear the thoughts in my brain as I type this and get into a little pickle as to what tense I should be using. She keeps getting up and peering around the library looking for something or someone. Maybe deep vein thrombosis is on her mind. After one of these brief excursions she returns with a copy of New Scientist which remains unopened on our table but I wonder if is placed there as evidence of her sanity.

I continue to write this (somewhat nervously as she will insist on getting up and walking behind me) and when she sits down she is very busy filling a good number of pages in an A4 notebook. She’s using one of those nicer Bic biros, the yellow ones with a fine nib. Can a biro have a nib? And unlike me she certainly never struggles for the right word or how to put things, she just writes and writes and writes. Whether she’s exhausted her ballpoint, I don’t know, but she has just changed her pen for a clunkier model and the words still keep coming.

Right, be brave. Take your headphones out and put your computer away. I’m talking to myself in the second person through the medium of my blog in an attempt to gird my loins.  This strikes me as a not especially effective way of going about my business and also not so far removed from an ability to hear satellites which for all I really know may actually be A Thing.

Wish me luck. Here goes.

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Yesterday’s effort, not read out-loud exactly

ImageYou should always try to get at least two cups of tea out of one tea bag, I was taught, and that is exactly the way I feel with anything I’ve written.  Press the play button below and you are in for something deliciously rehashed, and yet different(ish).





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The splendid art of show business interbreeding

russ abbotAtheists can be terrible hypocrites.  Sneer as I sometimes will at those bogged down by religion I too believe certain things to be true that are not based on any discernible fact.  For instance, I have a strong sense that it was a trope of mid-strength 1980s sketch shows to think up stuff to say about the melding or over-lapping of one soap opera and another.  Ensconced in his Madhouse, did Russ Abbot ever postulate the idea that it would be funny if Alf Roberts replaced Mr Papadopoulos as the owner of the launderette in Albert Square?  I don’t know, but I think it could have happened.  Or if Cindy Beale turned up behind the bar of the Rover’s Return with a slippery Mancunian accent and a mother from Brookside?  Possibly.  Les Dennis’ essaying of Mavis Riley is the likely cause of all my convictions.  Les Dennis is in his way my Jesus.  Without a scrap of evidence whatsoever, I do believe these sketches to have existed and that what I say is the truth.  I don’t suggest you should move house to be in a catchment area, however, so that your children can attend a school whose ethos is based on such stuff. 

Whether there’s anything in all this who can truly say but when soap characters refer to hayley and roy cropper on bedthe real world a frisson courses through me that is both pathetic and exciting but mainly pathetic.  Just before she died Hayley Cropper was lying one morning in bed and she cast the Robert’s Radio aside.  “Ken Bruce really grates,” she exclaimed which I thought seemed a trifle unfair considering Radio 2′s mid-morning stalwart is hardly likely to defend himself to a fictional character dying of pancreatic cancer.  Actually what she must have said is “Ken Bruce is great,” (equally contentious in its way) because she went on to declare, “I might even try my hand at Pop Master.”  Sadly, it was never to be. 

miranda hart box setIn another episode, devoted husband Roy returned from the library to his ailing wife with a Miranda Hart box set to cheer her up.  Yet again, my interest in Coronation Street which is never less than profound went up a notch or two.  Before I leave Roy’s Rolls and all that happens therein, why I’ve met no one else who finds the fact that both The Archers and Coronation Street have had couples called Roy and Hayley in them as endlessly fascinating as me I don’t know.  At new material nights at The Hob in Forest Hill I more often than not turn up with no new material to try out and so resort to telling the audience about what’s been happening in The Archers.  Daniel Kitson is always a great encourager of this and most kindly seems to think it’s got something going for it.  I can’t see what.  But  if you can think of any way in which I can turn my listening to The Archers and my précising of events into something more substantial than me standing with a empty notebook in my hand in front of Dan and some others who are usually less appreciative then I’d love to know. 

Back to Coronation Street.  There was the time Deirdre Barlow stood in front of her telly twisting her tea towel in her hands with a look of utter contentment adorning her face.  “Oh I do like this one, he’s very comical,” she observed as those chain belts she wears over her muffin top rose and fell with her mirth.  eddie mairWe cut away to a view of her telly and there was Milton Jones. 

One Friday evening whilst peeling the potatoes, I was listening to Eddie Mair trying to talk to Jonathan Dimbleby on a mobile phone line about that evening’s Any Questions.  A couple of hours later and a couple of hundred miles up the M6 Audrey Roberts was knocking back a well-earned vodka and tonic (no ice, thank you, this is Weatherfield) and when asked if she fancied a top-up she she said no because she was looking forward to getting home and taking a long, hot soak in the bath whilst listening to said programme.  “I do hope he’s some good people on tonight,” she beseeched, as well you might if you’re a regular listener to Any Questions.  I found myself thinking: “oh if only I’d taken a bit more notice of them earlier on I could tell her.”  I’ve always liked Audrey and I knew she’d be a Radio 4 listener and I know for a fact she’d rather do a stock take of colourants and shampoos at the Salon even on a Saturday lunchtime so long as it meant she didn’t have to listen to the nag-fest that is Any Answers. 

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plane descends laxAs the plane flew low on its descent into Los Angeles airport, the passenger in seat 35A looked out of the window at the rows of ugly houses beneath, single storey mainly with air conditioning units on their roofs.  He had grown up in an ordinary suburb like this, under the flight path, and his friend Phil had lived in a place not unlike these, with his mum and his sister.   That too had been near the airport and was also single storey – a bungalow – but Phil’s mum never let anyone refer to her home like that and she would always correct them, insisting it was a house.  There was that one small room in the eaves with its solitary window overlooking the front path, he recalled, but that hadn’t made it a house, had it?  The long flight had left David numb and he took his glasses off to rub his eyes.  He had meant to get new glasses before he left London but had never got round to it and was now away from home for three weeks with ones that didn’t seem to quite work for him any more. 

He had always adored Phil, although the way in which that adoring manifested itself had changed and in the latter years coloured their friendship with a dark hue of rejection.  “Phil and David – they’re joined at the hip – like two peas in a pod – you’d think they were brothers,” people had said when they were little and if he’d known at fifteen that within ten years he and his very best friend wouldn’t have seen each other for six of them he would have laughed and said, “don’t be stupid.”  And yet this outlandish prospect is what had transpired.  Phil’s bungalow had previously been a place he had liked very much not least because Phil’s mum was rarely in it, it seemed, and time there was their own.  His friend Jess had said to him as they walked home from school one day, “you fancy Phil, don’t you?”  He had blushed at the accusation and denied it in his faltering voice which was taking far longer than the other boys’ to break and Jess had rolled her eyes and changed the subject.  He hadn’t strictly been lying;  ‘fancying’ was too simplistic and harsh a notion and that is what had stopped him saying yes to Jess, he tried to persuade himself.  If she’d enunciated his emotions more clearly he’d have taken it on the chin.  He twisted awkwardly in his seat knowing this wasn’t really true and even all these years later he was dissembling in the way he had back then.  Pitying that teenage boy and accepting him for what he’d been was the right way to feel but he couldn’t and instead he disliked his earlier self intensely. Recalling all this, he crossed his left leg over his right one and curled his foot behind his leg in a corkscrewing, squirming action and he wondered why although he might not redden at the memory of it all  any more there was still a corporeal response.  He pictured Jess rolling her eyes when he’d said, “where do you get that idea?” and he rolled his eyes now to see how it felt and then rubbed them again before trying to look more concertedly out of the window to make them focus. 

The bungalows here were brightly lit by the late afternoon sun and from this height it was hard to tell if they were desirable or not.  Their suburban neatness belied something shabby he could detect from even this height but they were lent a exotic languid hue by the palm trees and like everywhere in this city, even amongst the ugly places, there were swimming pools at the back.  As you approached Heathrow, he thought, how transforming would palm trees be and swimming pools in the gardens of the drab houses of Feltham or Hounslow.  He smiled as he imagined Phil’s mum being the owner of such things.  “At the back of the house,” he could hear her say, “there’s the pool and the palm, the children adore the water and it’s all so welcome on a day like today.”  She would never have spoken like this he knew but it wasn’t hard to imagine her as one of those leathery, thin women you met in LA, slapping wet feet between pool and kitchen.  The first drink of the day consumed at some point before noon, enjoyed with a white filtered cigarette working with the sun to turn skin on hands and face leathery and sallow. 

Something in the pressure of the cabin changed and a noisy silence descended.  The end must surely be close now and all the passengers were strapped in and thankfully even the cries of the baby across the aisle were stifled.  All the cabin crew had departed into their secret areas and he found their absence inappropriate, as if they had fled ahead of some impending disaster.  The woman sitting next to him in 35B had been awoken by the stewardess for the final stretch of the journey.  She’d been asked to put her table in its upright position and now she was sighing and repeatedly checking her watch.  Beyond saying a courteous but blocking hello to whomever he was sat next to on a plane, David didn’t like committing to conversation with people, especially when he knew that their proximity was an unchangeable fact for the next ten hours or so.  In this way, he was like his own father.  Mum had once complained about Dad on their return from a coach trip to the Alps.  The holiday had not, it transpired, been a great success not least because of Dad’s reluctance to chat with people. 
“We were on that bus for hours and hours and your father didn’t want to talk to anyone. It was very awkward for me, I can tell you.” 
“I don’t go on holiday to talk to people,” said Dad.
“Well then we shouldn’t have gone on a coach trip, should we?”
On that they were agreed and never did such a thing again.  Unusually David had actually fallen into conversation with this woman next to him; it was a crumb of the mini-pretzel dropping into his drink in its sparkling plastic glass that had started it all.  Amongst the ice cubes, the crumb had moved about under its own volition like a small insect trapped in setting amber.   Just at the point of prising it from the depths with his coffee stirrer some tiny imperceptible jolt would set it off again.  After a while, bored by this David simply knocked back the drink in one and the woman in 35B (whose name he had now awkwardly forgotten) said, “I’d have done the same – ages ago,” and then swallowed a sleeping pill with her white wine.  From then on during their meal and through some of the film afterwards they had talked amiably enough about his work in both London and California and her husband who had just started a new job as director of a large gallery and gardens in some smart district in Los Angeles, but then she slept for nearly seven hours. 

When they had been fourteen David and Phil had come home from school one day and were watching television.  Debbie, Phil’s younger sister, had put up a fight for a short while that she wanted to watch something on the other side but Phil had had his way, as he tended to.  Phil’s mum came and stood awkwardly in the doorway and said, “there’s someone I’d like you two to meet.”  David knew this was his cue to leave but didn’t really how to do so or what to say so instead didn’t say or do anything.  “This is Andy,” she went on, and as if introducing someone onto a stage a wiry, tall man suddenly appeared in the doorway with her.  They giggled awkwardly at the narrowness of the space and David cast a look from Phil to Debbie and back to Phil to see the effect this was having on them whilst the siblings simply stared at their mother and this man.  “Hi kids,” said Andy and Debbie said hello back and then so did David even though he knew he shouldn’t be there.  Phil shot him an admonishing glance and didn’t say anything. 
“Your mum thought it would be nice for us to meet.”
“Andy’s a magician.  He plays all the hotels,” Phil’s mum said through a sharp-cornered smile.  Her eyes were glassy.  There had been an awkward conversation for a while and David finally found a way of saying he should go home.  “Don’t,” said Phil and David looked to Phil’s mum for instruction.  None seemed forthcoming so he sat down again, and immediately regretted not taking his chance.  In all the years since, David had never been certain when it was Andy had started performing tricks.  He remembered feeling sorry for Phil’s mum who kept letting out whelps of delight and mock surprise which sounded rehearsed and uncomfortable.  Debbie was interested, and although it made him feel disloyal so was he but Phil had his arms folded and surveyed the scene with an angry disappointment.  Andy was good at this magic though.  There were tricks with cards and ping pong balls in glasses and then best of all he made things disappear from one place and turn up in another.  Debbie laughed as this man took items from her pencil case and did the impossible; but it was when he produced a ten pence piece from Phil’s shoulder the boil finally burst.  Phil had thrown the coin at his mother and it had hit her hard on her collar bone.  He got up, rushed out and David heard him thundering down the hall to his room.  Finally, David found the words to say he should go and collecting his coat and bag he looked towards his friend’s bedroom but the door was shut, in a way that David interpreted as meaning even he wouldn’t be welcome.  On the bus back to his own house, he hated Phil for shutting his door before he could reach him. 

The pressure popped in his right ear as the plane violently shuddered when its lax eveningwheels hit the runway and he had the disconcerting sensation that a little warm liquid was oozing out.  He could hear that child crying again now.  He still wondered how different things might have been if he hadn’t concentrated on his own rejection rather than the hurt and anger his best friend was experiencing.  But maybe their friendship had started disintegrating long before Andy arrived that November afternoon?    From then their bond had imperceptibly loosened and by the time they left school they each existed in different orbits.   

Whilst doing their A’ levels they had seen each other in the college canteen and they had said ‘hi’ but that was it.  Phil went to university and David drifted in and out of jobs before finally applying for drama school and moving to the north.  Late at night, he still sometimes looked for Phil on the Internet and on Facebook and although he was there to be glimpsed the experience was hollow and the facts of his family life only made this Phil seem a different person from the one he had cared for.  He unbuckled his seatbelt and awkwardly stood up, making his way past seats B and C into the aisle. Collecting his hand luggage he anticipated dinner with his clients that evening and wondered what they would eat.  He put on his glasses, realised that only made things worse, and took them off again.

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What I did before but now out loud

If you’ve looked at my tripe and opera post below and thought to yourself, “ooh that looks alright but it’s just a shame I don’t have Chris’ mellifluous voice reading it to me,” well it’s your lucky day.  There’s this now:

As you were.

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Tripe for opera lovers, and vice versa

tripe not just for dogsIt was when my front door had just been painted a golden yellow, the colour of yolks from expensive eggs – not my choice really but there you go – that I first cooked tripe.  So, quite a long time ago now.  I’ve been cooking it regularly ever since despite in the early days finding that although I didn’t actively dislike it I sensed that I wasn’t quite getting it.  I kept going back however and now it’s reached a point where I am very happy to eat tripe at least once or twice a month, but don’t. 

Soon after we first met I cooked for Rory a dish of tripe with tomato, wine, chickpeas and chorizo.  He even took a photo of his bowlful, so astonished was he by the whole thing.  He liked the sauce, he told me afterwards, and all the other bits but please, he never wanted to eat tripe again.  He ate it that once, he told me months later, so as to please me and for me not to cast doubt over his suitability as a boyfriend.  I would like it if he did eat the tripe dishes I prepare from time to time but nevertheless nothing I have ever cooked anyone has been consumed for such lovely reasons, so I’m not complaining really.  I’ve tried to persuade him he should give it another go, but we’ve moved in together now so in my heart of hearts I know it’s a lost cause.  Over the years I’ve found that as with the novels of Howard Jacobson and listening to opera eating tripe demands commitment; there are rewards to be had although not obviously so when you’re only just starting out.  Unlike reading the novels of Howard Jacobson however the more you do of it the more it makes sense and the more pleasurable it becomes. 

This meat takes a long time to prepare and cook but I find if you a night at the operastart your tripe off just as the overture gets under way by the time the lovesick count / poet masquerading as a waiter with a stoop in the dilapidated café is revealed by the fat bloke who is the girl’s father but confusingly might or might not also be the general in the Italian battalion rips off the count / poet / waiter’s false moustache which mysteriously has confused everyone on stage (even though from the audience’s perspective he looks just the same but with a stoop and a false moustache) and the object of his affections rushes into his arms which are now strong enough to hold her as his stoop and all-round weakness were only a ruse (usually around the same time you first check on your watch after the curtain has gone up on Act III) your dinner will be well on its way.  Although it won’t be long now you can’t be certain that it will be toothsome until at least two characters have died of consumption and at that point, and only at that point, will it be worth even considering laying the table.

None of this allows for travelling time to and from wherever it is you’re seeing the opera and so I’ll be the first to concede that it’s an utterly unusable guide to how long to cook tripe for but it gives you something to think about as your interest ebbs and flows during the really long bits where chaps with mutton chop sideburns try to look frolicsome as they josh with each other in the barracks whilst singing about beautiful girls and the pleasures of bayoneting one’s enemies.

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