Friday, 28 October 2005

It’s all my mother’s fault – a tribute (of sorts)

In 1959, my mother went to Poland to visit some cousins of hers and to bring them part of the money they needed to bribe officials in order to be allowed to emigrate to Israel (btw, in your dreams, Iran, in your dreams!). She should have been a spy, my mother; she took dollars rolled up inside a couple of emptied toothpaste tubes and sewn into the lining of her clothes. A year later, they managed to leave Poland and move to the city of Ashkelon, where, at the time, you could bend down and pick up bits of Roman artefacts in the road (and where the word ‘échalote’ – shallot – comes from: isn’t this more fun than Wikipedia, eh?).

Now, earlier on, those cousins of hers, they had sent me a traditional costume from one of the Polish provinces (see pic). I was about eight or nine at the time and I blame it (and my mother) for my dislike of fancy-dress anything, because, for the next several years, I was paraded in the streets of Paris, wearing that costume, on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras, pronounced “mahrdee-GRAH”, in French; btw, “coup de grâce” is pronounced “coo-duh-GRASS” not “coo-duh-grah” – drives me nuts). I was a very very shy little girl and there I was, saddled with a mother whose middle name was “gregarious”. She embarrassed me all the time and never more so than the day she pushed me on to the stage of the Alhambra theatre and forced me to join a whole lot of poor little red-faced kids, all wearing fancy dress, just before a live programme presented by a guy called Jean Nohain, who looooooved little children. No, no, I’m sure he was all right, but he was so unctuous that, even then, when I used to watch his programmes, I felt like throwing up, so you can imagine how I felt on that stage. When the show started, we all filed in front of him and said our names into the microphone and what costumes we were wearing. I was a big hit, although what the viewers thought of it in black and white I have no idea. Within a minute I found myself in the wings on the other side of the stage and vowed to never ever put on that costume again – or any other costume, for that matter.

That’s why I will not take part in any Halloween celebration (I wouldn’t anyway: Halloween’s nothing to do with me) and I absolutely hate dressing up.

Today is the 9th anniversary of my mother’s death; I shouldn’t really slap her, but she won’t mind: we had that kind of relationship. No, no, I don’t mean we hit each other all over the place, but it was, shall we say, “robust”. (You can start rowing again, Mum!)

The Dead
The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity

They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,

which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
Billy Collins

Thursday, 27 October 2005

“Smoke gets in your eyes” - no more

So, at last there is to be a smoking ban in public places in England. Not before time. It’s been a bit of a shambles in the last few days: at one point, it looked as if MPs wouldn’t be able to come to an agreement, but it should be finalized by now. It will probably allow smoking in private members’ clubs, and pubs that don’t serve food will be able to choose whether they allow smoking or not. A total ban would be much better, but this is not a bad compromise.

I was reminded today that I only smoked for about a year (when I was a student at the Sorbonne, in the 60s) and only “blondes” or menthol cigarettes. When I started getting migraines I stopped and never took it up again. Cigarette smoke still gives me a headache.

Who would have thought twenty years ago that smoking would be banned from restaurants? I remember an occasion when I dared to ask a couple of work colleagues not to smoke while we were having our meal (it was a birthday party; we were in a basement with a very low ceiling) and was berated for being a spoilsport. I had to endure having smoke blown in my face during the entire meal and, of course, ended up with a splitting headache. It made me very angry.

The consequences of smoking are now well known and there is no excuse for lighting up. I’m sure it’s quite difficult to quit if you’re a heavy smoker, i.e. an addict, but it can be done if you’re strongly motivated: my father stopped smoking overnight after having a heart attack at the age of 65, and that was before patches and other chewing gums.

And remember: “Kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray”. Blech!
I’d like to slap those people who made me feel like a freak and a killjoy on that particular day (I think I deserve an apology from them, actually) and anyone who’s ever imposed their antisocial habit on those of us who wish to breathe clean-ish air. Slap!

Wednesday, 26 October 2005

I thought I'd suffered enough

This is the state of my bathroom! Do I care about anything else right this minute? Er, not much, no.

The plumber was wrong (see Jericho! post): the tiles had nothing to do with the downstairs wall being damp. The culprit is (because it's not repaired yet) a pipe under my bath. Since it wasn't causing any damage to my own flat, I couldn't alert anyone.

The plumber turned up this morning (I don't do mornings!); tutted an awful lot; make a great deal of racket (the cat is, fortunately, safely ensconced with my partner across the walkway); swore quite a lot; tried to take the bath out of the bathroom, but had to give up; cleared up some of the mess that was left by the lazy people who put the bath in 15 years ago, and then left to get some "parts".

He's coming back tomorrow morning. I DON'T DO MORNINGS!

Sunday, 23 October 2005

A Tale of Two Titties

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month – still for a few more days. I am aware. Are you?

There’s no history of breast cancer in my family. That might be, of course, because many female members of my family didn’t live to an age when they might have developed it – thanks to rampaging Cossacks and assorted Nazis, but, for nearly the whole of February 1999, I believed I had it. I’d had cancer of the eye nine years before and I was sure it had caught up with me again. It went like this:

Thursday 28th January: Noticed a strange stain on my T-shirt, level with my right breast. Saw my GP straightaway, then later a consultant at the Cromwell Hospital (I will not apologize for going private: that specialist was seeing me after working all day in the NHS). Mixed messages: it’s absolutely nothing – probably a papilloma; you must have an ultrasound and a mammogram first thing tomorrow morning.

Friday 29th January: First mammogram. The most excruciating pain I had ever endured so far (and my pain threshold is very high). Mammograms save lives, but don’t let anyone tell you they’re painless: they’re not if you’ve got very small breasts and the machine doesn’t have much to squeeze; mine kept popping out and getting squashed in the wrong place. Of course, I misread the signs again (like, nine years earlier, when the person doing the ultrasound on my eye had suddenly stopped chatting): this time the young nurse went out of the room and came back with an older one; they told me some fib about lunch break. Yeah, right!

Saturday 30th January: First thing in the morning, the consultant announced they’d found multiple calcifications in my right breast and, according to the Marsden, it was most probably cancer, but, not to worry, he would remove those calcifications with a wire hook while I was having a mammogram and…. I heard the word “mammogram” and said, “Wouldn’t it be easier to just cut it off?” “Erm, yes, of course, but there’s no need…” I stopped listening after that.

A little later, after he’d explained – and drawn on my breast – how he would cut me up, I left the tiny consulting room on my own. My partner was asked to stay behind on some pretext and was told that, in fact, they believed I had cancer in the other breast as well. I managed to find out a few minutes later: my brain wasn’t working very well at that point, but I wasn’t that stupid!

Mr L. was going on holiday somewhere exotic so he wouldn’t be able to perform the mastectomies until the end of the month. Did I want someone else to do it? No. I think they probably expected me to change my mind in the meantime, but I didn’t. From the moment I knew there was something the matter with them, i.e. on the way to the GP’s surgery, two days previously, my breasts had become the enemy; things that might kill me and I didn’t want anything to do with them any longer; I could never feel the same about them; I didn’t want to be constantly afraid of them.

I spent three weeks on Valium, very calm and contented, planning my death. I had a double mastectomy on 26th February. Two days later, Mr L. turned up brandishing a sheet of paper: it was the histology report. It said there was no trace of cancer anywhere. They call it a false positive. I call it a miracle.

I have never regretted my decision to have mastectomies. Sure, it would have been nice if I hadn’t had all those lymph nodes removed from both armpits, which makes me vulnerable to lymphoedema at any time in the future, if I’m not careful, but apart from that, no, no regrets.

I saw a documentary recently about Marsha Hunt, who's had breast cancer. She’s amazingly resilient, but she was criticized for being so relentlessly upbeat. They said other women might feel guilty for not being so strong and so optimistic. There’s some truth in that. People go on about “battle” and “fight”. Yes, you’re fighting a disease. Yes, you’re fighting for your life, but there is no shame in not being strong; there is no shame in giving up or losing that fight.

Anyway, I want to slap anyone who doesn’t advise women properly and clearly; anyone who tells women what they want to hear rather than the truth. How many women have died because they weren’t told, “If you only have a lumpectomy, the cancer will probably come back and you will have to have a mastectomy anyway, but by then the cancer will be more advanced and therefore more difficult to eradicate.”?

And what’s with reconstruction? It so often leads to complications. You’ve got cancer; why would you want to subject yourself to more – unnecessary – operations? I just can’t understand it. I won’t even say what I think of women who take the opportunity to increase their bust size.

By the time cancer is diagnosed, your body has to get rid of one billion cancerous cells. If, g-d forbid, it happens to you, don’t say, “I’d rather die!” That’s what you’re saying if you’re not doing your utmost to eradicate the cancer from your body – with the most radical means you have at your disposal.

[I owe the title of this post to the most hilarious show on BBC Radio 4: I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. I hope it doesn't offend anyone.]

Wednesday, 19 October 2005

What's in a name?

So your surname is Davis and you have a son in 1948; what do you call him? Why, David, of course! It has a certain ring to it – David Davis. Not.

I was born in France, the same year as the man who wants to be the next leader of the Conservative Party (as if I care) and my parents gave me the two most popular names for girls that year. They weren’t aware of that fact: they arrived at those two names through a long and complicated process involving the Bible, French translations of Hebrew names, dead grandmothers, etc. Still, thanks to them, I have two nice (and patriotic) names, which suit me; which have never sounded ridiculous and which I've never been ashamed of. They never will sound silly either because, although popular in 1948, they were not “fashionable”; they are old and have stood the test of time.

If you’re a responsible parent you owe it to your kids not to burden them with preposterous-sounding names. You do not call your daughters Fifi Trixiebelle or Peaches Honeyblossom, for instance. Or even Apple or Lourdes. You just don’t. Those names are ok for babies and toddlers, not for grown-ups. You don’t give them the name of the latest pop idol, whom no one will remember when you’re long gone and your kids are themselves grandparents.

If you’re not French I don’t expect you to be able to “sense” how utterly stupid the name “Ninette de Valois” sounds to my ears. “Ninette” is a diminutive and, combined with the aristocratic “de Valois”, it creates a weird picture. It’s impossible to take it seriously. Ok, that was a made-up stage name, but it’s never a good idea for the name on the birth certificate to be a diminutive. Let it be the full-size version and let the person shorten it later if they wish to do so! By the way, Minette, as in Minette Walters, is a traditional kiddies' name for a female pussycat.

What about Ruby Wax, who gave her three children names beginning with the same letter? Must make finding your school stuff in the morning easy, mustn’t it? Does she have a fetish for a certain letter of the alphabet, or what? I find it moronic.
Same thing with punning names, like the BBC's Jo King. And if your surname is Shakespeare, please don't call your son William.

Tonight I feel like slapping selfish and ultimately cruel parents, whose children will be mercilessly bullied because of their lack of foresight. Slap!

Sunday, 16 October 2005

Please ask someone else

I’ve already slapped my flat for refusing to grow; I could slap it today for refusing to get clean by itself, but I won’t because I have another slappee in mind.

In the past three days, I’ve been tidying up and dusting, etc. with the TV on. I find most boring tasks become less boring with an afternoon film on the box. Actually, sometimes watching daytime TV leads to witnessing more important things, like on a certain afternoon in September 2001, when, waiting for something to start on TV, I went to the kitchen to make myself some lunch and halfway through turned around to see if the programme had started and instead saw two towers, one of which was sprouting smoke. Puzzled (the sound was off), I got closer and never left that spot again for the next two hours.

Television has always played a big part in my life: I remember the Coronation of our Queenie in 1953; the Hungarian uprising in 1956, etc. When I say to people that I was watching TV when I was two, they shrug “so what”: they were watching it in the womb. Ah, but I was born in 1948 and the number of TV sets in France in 1950 could be counted on the fingers of one hand, more or less. My father was mad about gadgets: he bought one of the first Polaroid cameras available in France; the first transistor; the first portable tape-recorder, etc. He would love all the new technology on offer these days.

Anyway, when I’m at home I often watch B-movies in the afternoon, mostly on Channel Five: I love stories about babies snatched at birth and reunited with their mothers twenty years later. I like a good cry. But yesterday I was suddenly struck by the kinds of adverts that are shown during those films. I understand the ones about health insurance; the ones about foods that no yuppie would ever eat; the ones about weird kitchen gadgets, but I don’t understand why there are so many ads for charities. Apart from me, who watches TV in the afternoon? The old, the unemployed, mothers with babies, i.e. people with not much money. Why are they the target audience of those ads? Ah, I know: an old person is more liable to be touched by a short film showing a poor little kid crying in its crib with a voice-over saying that no one will answer its cries, or a tiny puppy yelping as it's being thrown out with the rubbish, or an emaciated African baby gasping for air in its mother’s arms. They tug at your heart and it’s almost impossible to resist calling the phone number on the screen and donate your whole meagre pension there and then. It’s cynical and cruel.

So I’m slapping those charities and the programmers: they are targeting the wrong people. Well, obviously not the wrong people because it works, otherwise they wouldn’t carry on doing it, but those ads should be shown in the evening, when people in full-time employment are back from their offices, where they probably earned enough money to donate to others less fortunate, but probably don’t because they’re not given an easy phone number to call there and then. Slap!

Wednesday, 12 October 2005

I've been tagged

My friend Mireille of C'est Chic has tagged me: I don't know whether I should slap her or give her a hug.

Anyway, here are 20 random facts about me:

I hate hairdressers (I’ve cut my own hair since 1969)
The only musical I truly love is Les Misérables
Oysters and artichokes are two of my favourite foods
I’ve never been really drunk
I bit my nails for 25 years and then I stopped (more or less overnight)
I hate flying, but I hate sailing even more
I believe “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”
I wear cardigans – that’s how uncool I am
I should get myself a pair of reading glasses
I understand Russian swear words
I was friends with Rupert Everett when he was 16
I once had a guinea pig that had three babies a few days after I got her
I was 37 when I found love
Je suis soupe au lait (hee hee!)
I’ve tried very hard to get a crush on Gary Sinise in CSI: NY, but I can’t
I love sunlight, but I always feel better once the curtains have been drawn and the electricity switched on
I can still translate from the Latin – after 35 years
I believe actors have the best psychological insights
I haven’t read Harry Potter and have no intention of doing so – ever
I can remember the ‘60s – and I was there

Now comes the fun part. I'd like to tag:
still life of dancing in place
Tania of
Brain Trapped in Girl's Body
The Great She Elephant
Katiedid of
Seldom Nice Nowadays
Urban Chick

Monday, 10 October 2005

Thou shalt not annoy thy neighbour

Apart from a few months in 1974, I have never lived in a house, always in flats – from day one. I know how to live in shoe boxes, surrounded by other people.

I’ve had quite a few problems with noisy neighbours in London: one young boy played the drums “on my head” for a year; a couple of Italians rebuilt their bathroom, next door to me, from 8pm to 11pm for a whole month; a restaurant chef had parties and machine-washed her dirty working clothes in the middle of the night, every night, for six months; when I first moved to my current block of flats, I found myself confronted with two brothers from hell, whose favourite pastimes were watching A Clockwork Orange with the sound on full and making animal noises (it got so bad I had to sell that particular flat and move to another one in the building).

I am very quiet: I never listen to loud music and I watch TV with earphones. In the middle of the night, when all is still, any TV sound – however low – can be heard through our paper-thin walls. Yet, lots of people who live in my building never give that fact a thought. They also talk very loudly on the telephone, on the walkways. (Have you noticed how much noisier the world has become? Before the advent of the mobile phone, a person on their own wouldn’t have made any noise, would they? Now they do and they add to the ambient cacophony.)

Today I saw someone on the 4th-floor walkway throw the dregs of the coffee he’d been drinking over the railing, without even looking down to see if there was someone in the communal garden. A lot of prospective tenants lie to landlords when asked whether they smoke and later have to resort to smoking on the walkways: their cigarette butts usually end up in the garden too.

I always wonder where those kinds of people have been brought up. The word pigsty comes to mind.

What about that couple who’ve been throwing their baby’s dirty nappies over their balcony? That’s been happening in a council block somewhere else in London – unbelievable, isn’t it? Or is it?

My upstairs neighbour left about ten days ago and the owner has been redecorating the flat. Someone new is bound to move in soon. I’m dreading it.

Tonight I’m slapping all bad neighbours, all those who only care about themselves and show no regard for the people who live next door to them. Slap!

Friday, 7 October 2005

And what will Madam have for afters?

There’s this restaurant on the King’s Road. It’s called Big Easy and it’s been around since 1991. I’ve never eaten there, but I’ve just read a review of it by Toby Young (not my favourite person in the world, but he seems to know his stuff). Apparently Big Easy has “always been renowned for its huge portions, but at the beginning of this month they went one better and introduced the Lobster Challenge. This is a plate of food that includes a 2lb steak, a 1lb portion of chips and a 4lb lobster, making it Britain’s most calorific meal. If you can finish it in one sitting, your name goes up on a board in the basement.”

What on earth do they think they’re doing? I love America, but there are a few things we shouldn’t emulate and one of them is the amount of food its inhabitants consume. There is already a problem with obesity in this country, especially among children. Who in their right mind would encourage people to eat more?

Ok, the food served by Big Easy is not junk, but it only makes it marginally better. What about the junk people shove down their throats on a regular basis?

Enter Sir Jamie Oliver! (He’s already got an MBE, but he deserves to be knighted ASAP – don’t you just love acronyms?) You know, you hear about this programme on the telly, about how Jamie Oliver tried to change school dinners and stop kiddies eating crap and you go, “Yeah, yeah! Another one of his antics!” But you watch it anyway because it’s been trailed to death and you know everyone will be watching it and you want to be able to discuss it with your mates and – BAM! – it’s a revelation. The guy is amazing. And what he’s done is incredible. He’s forced the government to take action about the problem. Unheard of!

Hey, my American friends, Jamie is landing on your shores very soon. He’s determined to tackle your junk food problems. I wonder if you’re prepared for him.

We in the UK have just had a wake-up call. I’m slapping Big Easy and all the other promoters of force-feeding out there. They’re like drug peddlers. They have to be stopped. At least the red-and-yellow people with the arches never got to impose their supersize portions on us here.

PS. Who said I didn’t like celebrity chefs. *grin*

Tuesday, 4 October 2005

Tête à claques III

I know Nigella doesn't quite qualify as a “tête à claques” – she doesn’t look like a sheep, doesn’t keep her mouth open all the time (only some of the time) – but she annoys the hell out of me nonetheless.

She’s such a bad role model.

From serious journalist to celebrity TV cook – what kind of a career is that?

She used to write a column in the Evening Standard: she had a lot of common sense and I remember agreeing with practically everything she said at the time. It was grounded; there was no bullsh*t.

Was it marrying John Diamond (who was probably cleverer than she)? Was it getting children? What happened to her brain? It went mushy. And she developed an insatiable thirst for fame (perhaps it was dormant before: the Lawsons are a very competitive family).

Her cookery programmes were always an embarrassment, verging on the pornographic as they were (“Please put that tongue away!”), but what made them absolutely unbearable by the end was the knowledge that her husband was at home, dying of throat cancer and incapable of tasting any of those marvellous dishes she was preparing so lovingly for the rest of the nation. She became famous for her cooking just as he was obviously getting worse. That was the most cruel thing ever.

But, wait!, that’s not all: minutes after her husband’s death she took up with millionaire Charles Saatchi (“So, tell us, what attracted you to millionaire Charles Saatchi?”) and became a party girl. She went to live with Saatchi in Mayfair, but not before she unnecessarily dissed the area where she used to live with JD – my area, Shepherds Bush! She did the whole place a lot of harm (you know how suggestible people are). She gave millions of interviews in which she asserted her “right to be happy”– regardless of the circumstances. I could take it from a brainless chick, but she’s an intelligent woman (although I’m beginning to wonder about that; perhaps she’s just “shrewd”).

Anyway, she now appears in magazines everywhere – not in the editorial sections, in those pages where they show what silly celebrities get up to at the latest parties. Always smiling; always “happy”. That’s what she wants to be, after all.


Monday, 3 October 2005

While you wait...

I'm chasing my tail today so I haven't got time to be annoyed by anything much. Thought you might like to ponder on these two fascinating facts (well, I find them fascinating) while you wait (with bated breath, I'm sure) for my next post:

1) Doctors always deliver babies from the right-hand side of the bed.
2) Women use both sides of their brains to process sounds.

See you later...

Saturday, 1 October 2005

Never pay retail

I went to TK Maxx (TJ Maxx in the US, go figure!) earlier today; I was looking for more cashmere to satisfy my new-found obsession with goat hair. I came across a strange garment: a kind of knitted tabard, i.e. a sleeveless, collarless, rather charmless nothing piece of clothing. It was originally on sale at French Connection for £50. TK Maxx was selling it for £16.99. And even at that price it was too expensive.

I was brought up in the rag trade district in Paris, aka the Marais – pre-art galleries and bijou boutiques. My father was a confectionneur de vêtements imperméables (he made raincoats) and we never bought any garments in shops: we bought everything at wholesale prices. It was great but it also meant that I never had any interest in clothes. They were things that my parents’ friends and acquaintances provided, and choice was limited to what those people could offer.

But those people, who had workshops in the area, also supplied famous labels. I’ve always known that even prestigious prêt-à-porter garments are made in less than prestigious surroundings. In the ‘70s, I lived just outside the Marais, in a quiet back street, next door to the workshops where Louis Vuitton bags and accessories were being made: every night, dustbins full of scraps of that horrible plastic LV-stamped material would be put on the pavement outside. I smile when I see people queuing to be admitted into the Louis Vuitton boutique in Selfridges and see the prices those bags are sold for.

In 1962, my parents opened a shop in Nice and started selling not only raincoats, which my father no longer made, but leather and suede garments, and I learned to recognize quality. I know what good leather should look and feel like. And, more to the point, what it’s worth.

Today, in TK Maxx, faced with that ridiculous piece of knitwear, I wanted to slap retailers who charge outrageous mark-ups so here goes: slap!

PS. I bought a lovely purple sweater (not cashmere), from some American label: it’s beautifully cut and finished. The original price was ludicrous: £146. It was reduced to £12.99 and probably worth around £30. A real bargain.