Sunday, 27 November 2005

28… 27... 26... 25...

The countdown to Christmas has started in earnest. I can’t stand it. Every year I get so stressed by it all – and I don’t even have a huge family to cater for or a gigantic circle of friends to buy presents for. I can’t help it; I get caught up in the hysteria and end up feeling like a nervous wreck.

This year I have decided not to take part in it at all. All right, go on, call me a Scrooge and a Grinch. I don’t care. I want to retain some of my sanity.

Christmas is a Christian festival and I am not a Christian. Do you celebrate Hanukkah if you’re not a Jew? I don’t think so. Give me one good reason why I should celebrate Christmas?

We never celebrated it when I was a child. I went to school in a district of Paris mostly populated by Jews and we were taught about nos ancêtres les Gaulois and we used to draw Christmas trees and sing chants de Noël. Fine. If you live in an overtly Christian country (the separation of Church and State is written into the French Constitution, but it's still a Catholic country and it was very much so then, even more than now) you have to conform – when you’re at school or at work. But that’s as far as it should go; what you do in the privacy of your home and within your family is up to you. I remember being asked to write about “How I spent Christmas” one time too many, when I was about nine years old. My Jewish friends’ essays were works of fiction. Mine was a true reflection of what had taken place in my home around that time and was entitled “How I spent Hanukkah” instead. My little rédaction was read out in class and praised for its originality. But, then, I've always lacked imagination.

My parents would have felt they were betraying their origins if they’d brought a Christmas tree into our home. They came from Eastern Europe, where traditionally Christmas and Easter weren't complete without the Christian populace starting pogroms and attacking the Jews in their shtetls. Why should I celebrate a festival that has such unsavoury connotations for me and my coreligionists?

Of course, the true meaning of Christmas has got more and more lost over the years so, to a lot of people, it has just become an excuse for eating and drinking too much, and getting into debt. Unbridled consumerism and greediness now reflect the true spirit of Christmas. I don't want to take part in that either.

Who knows, maybe I just need a little break and will be singing carols with everyone else next year. (I wouldn’t hold my breath, though, if I were you.)

In the meantime, I want to slap the whole cynical “Christmas industry”.

Wednesday, 23 November 2005

The vultures among us

The UK charity Crimestoppers has launched a website, where you can learn how to protect yourself from crime, look at the photographs of the most wanted criminals in the land or find out what crimes have been committed in your area (this doesn’t seem to be working that well at the moment: I put in my postcode and returned some incidents committed in Hertfordshire… still, the website’s very new and I’m sure these are just teething troubles).

We keep hearing about identity theft, viruses, bad things like that, which originate on the Internet, but it’s also being put to good use (apart from making Christmas shopping easier). There is no doubt the Crimestoppers website will help the police track down at least some nasty people.

There are also now websites that post photographs of stolen goods. I so wish they’d existed at the time my mother became the victim of two clever crooks, back in 1995, in Nice.

Early one sunny morning in June, the doorbell rang and my mother was confronted with a charming young woman who told her she’d been her nurse. My mother didn’t recognize her, but she’d spent a few days in hospital recently so she pretended she did remember her and was quite happy to let her in. It was very warm so they went out on to the balcony and had a nice chat. About 15 minutes later, the doorbell rang again and a man was let in: he proceeded to tell my mother a cock-and-bull story about a robbery being planned at a nearby bank. He said he was an undercover policeman and asked her if she had a deposit box at that particular bank. Yes, she did. He told her she should go and remove everything she had in it straightaway, for the police knew the robbery was to happen that very night and they intended to catch the robbers in flagrante delicto and arrest them. It would be safer for her possessions to be here, at home with her. She could take them back to the bank as soon as the whole thing had been wrapped up.

My poor flustered mother got dressed – the woman helped her – and went with them to the bank. The man waited outside, while the woman made sure my mother didn’t speak to anyone. My mother had been warned not to say a word. She wouldn’t have anyway: she was so scared of making the “operation” fail. She’d been with that bank for over 20 years and people knew her well there. A couple of clerks asked her whether she was all right. She didn’t let on. She went down to the vault, while the woman waited in the lobby, and put everything that was in the safe deposit box into an innocent-looking plastic bag. If she’d asked to take all her money out, the bank would have been suspicious, but what you do in the vault remains private so no one queried anything. They walked her to the flat, where the man looked on as she placed the plastic bag on the top shelf of her wardrobe. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated themselves on a good job done. The “nurse” and “policeman” left soon after.

Still feeling shaky, my mother sat down and had a cup of coffee, then went to check the plastic bag in her wardrobe. It contained huge pebbles (I subsequently discovered they came from a plant display in the lobby of her block of flats). She called the police straightaway and reported the theft, but it was too late. A sympathetic policewoman took down her account of what had happened, but had to tell her there was very little chance of anything being recovered. The pair had stolen stuff from masses of pensioners in the area and were probably already on their way to Italy.

The safe deposit box had contained most of my mother’s jewels (luckily she wore a few favourite pieces every day, so they escaped unscathed); among them was a beautiful brooch, which I’d always wanted to wear – from age three, I think. It also contained her father's cigarette case, my father’s signet ring (a present from a beloved member of his family) and a Patek Philippe watch that had belonged to his father.

But it’s that brooch I miss.

It’s quite possible that, if a Crimestoppers-style website had existed then, that particular incident wouldn’t have happened.

I want to slap all those heartless villains who prey on helpless old people and rob them of some of their memories, not to mention their dignity. My mother never recovered from the shock and the feeling that she’d been made a fool of. She also felt she’d let me down, I think.


If anyone has seen the brooch above, please let me know.

Saturday, 19 November 2005

You’re sharing my life; what shall I call you?

In recent years it’s become fashionable for young, unmarried French women to refer to their boyfriends, partners, companions, etc. as “mon chéri”. It means "my darling" and, if you’re talking to the person, it's fine, but, if you’re talking about them to someone else, it becomes something like “my sweetie”. They’ll say, “J’ai demandé à mon chéri de venir avec moi.” (I asked my sweetie to come with me.) “Mon chéri does this.” “Mon chéri says that.” Ugh!

It’s cute in the worst possible way; it’s twee; it’s much too intimate for everyday use (it’s a glimpse into the bedroom) and it's so smug. It's not possible to adequately convey how silly it sounds. It makes me bristle.

The men don’t do it, of course. And therein lies my main objection to it. It’s the little woman talking about “her man” and somehow stressing the fact that she has got a man. In the past, some women would say “mon homme”, but it was usually ironic, or, if it wasn’t, it was the preserve of lower-class women (think of Piaf and that song).

I want my relationship to be based on equality and what I call the other person in that relationship should reflect it. But, then, I’m an old feminist. These young French women already belong to a different era: it’s again ok for them to define themselves in relation to a man and they see nothing wrong in being a simpering female, constantly looking up to her “chéri”.

A slap to those misguided women! It might rebound on them some day.

PS. By the way, heterosexual French women do not call each other “chérie”. Not ever!

Wednesday, 16 November 2005

A modern shopping saga

A friend of mine has promised her mother a DVD player and a DVD for her birthday (mostly because her mother resents giving her the free DVDs she gets with the newspaper she reads – and there was me thinking all mothers were selfless creatures who gave everything to their offspring and never knew envy).

This should be quite easy to achieve, you might think, but it hasn’t been going very well.

She did her research and found that the cheapest and best player was a Toshiba at under £40. It was available from Amazon, so she ordered it a couple of weeks ago. Ok, one DVD player on the way.

Mother expressed the wish to own a copy of Pretty Woman, although it seems to be constantly shown on TV (at least, I feel like I’m constantly watching it; I feel compelled to watch it every time it’s broadcast and it seems to me I’ve seen it a lot over the past few years). Still, my friend is a dutiful daughter and, what Mother wants, Mother gets. According to an ad in the paper, HMV had it at £6.99. So all she had to do was to go and buy it there.

Except that the nearest brick-and-mortar HMV didn’t have it. It only had a special edition at £15.99. Same price on Amazon. Drat! Why should one pay over the odds? Luckily, WH Smith, next door, had a copy of it for £12.99. Good, no need to worry about it any more.

However, the next day, my friend discovers that Pretty Woman now costs £6.99 on Amazon. I know she’s already bought it, but can one help checking things out? ’course not. So, she orders a copy from Amazon and decides to return the other one to WH Smith. She doesn’t get around to doing it for a couple of days and, in the meantime, guess what!, Pretty Woman appears at HMV at £6.99, as originally advertised. Fearing that the Amazon DVD might arrive later than the DVD player (Mother is now clamouring for her pressies: her birthday’s been and gone), my friend buys another copy of Pretty Woman at HMV and returns the WH Smith one. She knows she will have to return the extra copy to either Amazon or HMV, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

The DVD from Amazon hasn’t surfaced yet, but it should be here anon, and next weekend Mother should be able to watch her favourite film on her new DVD player. (If she can operate it, that is. She can’t use the VCR. What are the chances of her being able to fathom the mysteries of the multiple-choice menu? Never mind, she wants it, she can have it.)

Well, she should have been able to watch it. This morning my friend received an email from Amazon: the DVD player is not available right now; there is a delay of at least two weeks.

Two DVDs and no player! It used to be so easy!


Update (1st Dec): yesterday my friend received an email from Amazon informing her that there was now a delay of 4-6 weeks on the DVD player. She has cancelled her order, but has just found that the player was sold out in Dixons. It doesn't get easier. She only has one DVD now, though.

Saturday, 12 November 2005

The National Theatre



You don't want to know.

Thursday, 10 November 2005

The customer used to be always right

A couple of years ago, I opened a savings account with a great big bank that spends a lot on advertising and, because they’re normally quite good, I recommended them to a friend of mine. My friend and I were talking about our bank yesterday and she said en passant she’d just received a present from them – a calculator. The accompanying letter read, “Happy Anniversary – and thank you for your loyalty! It’s been a year since you first opened a savings account with us and to celebrate we’ve enclosed a particularly apt gift.”

Hey, hang on! I’ve been a customer much longer. I like to be treated fairly, me. Let me have a tantrum. So I get on the phone to them and the man at the other end says, “We send calculators to a small selection of people every month – about 20,000 customers [doesn’t sound like such a small selection to me, but what do I know?] and I’m afraid your name didn’t come up.” I make some disappointed noises and he goes, “Hold on, Mrs So-and-Such [no one can ever pronounce my name properly and, as we know, banks do not recognize Ms], I’ll go and ask my supervisor.” He goes away and keeps me waiting for several long minutes. When he comes back, the answer is still negative. I say, “This is bad business practice, you know. In a case like this, the response should be, ‘Yes, of course, Ms So-and-So, I will make sure you receive a calculator as soon as possible. Don’t worry, I have your address and please accept our apologies,’ not disappearing for ages and then saying, ‘No, sorry, we can’t send you this calculator that’s costing us 5p.’ You don’t expect your customers to talk to each other, do you? That’s a big mistake.” He goes, “I will pass on your comments.” “Please do. This call has now become a complaint.”

It’s not the calculator; it’s the principle of the thing. Well, it’s the calculator as well: it’s very nice, with soft, rubbery keys and big figures, easily legible – just right for older eyes like mine. (What can I say: I like freebies.)

It’s the same with banks that give better rates of interest to new customers and forget about their older ones. It’s not fair. There’s nothing much we can do about it, except phone up and demand the same benefits.

Bad business practice can be found everywhere. Some years ago, tired from an afternoon spent traipsing around shops, my partner and I felt like having a little sit down somewhere. It was before the advent of Starbucks and other Cafés Rouges. We spotted a Pizzaland and asked whether we could have a pot of tea. The place was absolutely deserted, but the answer was, “No, we’re only open for meals now.” Pizzaland wasn’t exactly a chain of posh restaurants where tables were set with white damask tablecloths and napkins, which would have taken ages to change. This kind of thing would have been inconceivable in France and I expect in the US too. You do not turn a customer away when it takes so little effort to accommodate them.

Once I was in Debenhams, on Oxford Street, not long before closing time. I spotted a jacket I liked and tried it on; it fitted me and I took it to the cash desk. The sales assistant was about to start putting things away, but she hadn't closed the cash register yet. Instead of spending all that time telling me that she couldn’t let me have the garment, she could have taken my money (I was paying cash) and wrapped the jacket up in several layers of tissue paper and put a ribbon around it. But, no, she wouldn’t budge. I had to go back the next day (the jacket was that nice). Now, my parents had a shop and my mother would never ever ever have sent a customer away, whatever time it was: even if you’d turned up at 9pm (we used to have our meals in the back room), she would have served you. I expect that Debenhams sales assistant wasn’t on commission, otherwise she would have cared about a lost sale (she couldn’t know I’d be coming back).

How difficult is it to satisfy most customers?


Monday, 7 November 2005

Catch me if you can

Earlier this year, the charity ActionAid found that South African women labourers who grow fruit sold in Tesco had to put up with poor wages and unacceptable working conditions.

Of course Tesco deserve to be slapped for that. We all want cheaper food, but not at other people's expense, surely.

However, something else bothers me: a representative of Tesco was interviewed the other day on You & Yours, on Radio 4. He was asked why all the points raised by ActionAid had never come to the attention of Tesco before. His answer was that he deplored it, of course, but they had inspected those farms and found nothing untoward. Asked whether Tesco did those inspections unannounced, he said, “No, we usually tell the farmers that we’re coming.” Duh!

How can they be expected to have a clear picture of the situation if they warn the owners of those farms they’re coming to inspect their premises and the workers’ quarters, etc.? Also, is anyone working there likely to tell the truth about how little they earn (not even the South African minimum wage) if their employer’s standing next to them while they’re being interviewed? It’s preposterous. It’s criminal. And it’s not the first time this kind of thing has happened.

On 23 June 1944, two Swiss delegates of the International Red Cross and two representatives of the Danish government visited the Theresienstadt ghetto. As soon as they’d announced their visit – six months earlier, the Nazis had undertaken a huge programme of “beautification”, which involved turning the place into a fake Jewish town, complete with bank, café and other shops. And guess what, the Red Cross liked what they saw and gave them a glowing report. (You can read a concise account of the background to that visit here) They visited it again on 6 April 1945 and again were happy with what they saw.

The Red Cross also visited Auschwitz, again not unannounced, and this time failed to notice that the shower rooms were in fact gas chambers. According to them, everything was hunky-dory. There are no words….

So, to all those so-called inspectors: the ones who announce their arrival with a fanfare, and then avert their eyes and choose not to see – SLAP!

Thursday, 3 November 2005

Tête à claques IV

Anne-Sophie Mutter was back in town last month. I didn’t go to her concert. She's stood me up twice in the past. There is a limit!

Back in February 1999, when I was peacefully waiting for death, she played Beethoven Violin Sonatas, over three nights, on BBC2 – like an angel. It was moving, soothing, life affirming. I vowed to go and listen to her live at the first opportunity.

She came to London in June 2001. I’d recently had the flu (the real one; the one that would stop you from getting out of bed and picking up a £50 note if there was one just outside your door and it meant you had to get out of bed). The stupid flu had triggered a bad bout of cervical arthritis and I could hardly sit with my head straight for any length of time, but she was going to play the Korngold Violin Concerto and the combination of Anne-Sophie Mutter and Korngold was too attractive to miss.

I staggered to the Barbican Concert Hall only to find that she wasn’t going to play the Korngold but some composition by her new beau, André Previn. I was livid. The piece was unremarkable and unworthy of her talent. By the end of it, I was livid and feeling dizzy. Still, ok, I’d heard Anne-Sophie live. I’d seen her and could testify that the beautiful strapless dress she wore (she always wears stunning strapless dresses) stayed on whatever she did with that lovely instrument of hers.

The arrogance of the woman, though! Did she assume people would come and listen to her, whatever rubbish she played? She did, didn’t she? Well, she was wrong, in my case: I’m not a groupie; I wanted to hear her play one of my favourite pieces of music (I have a recording of Jascha Heifetz playing the Korngold and I love it). I wanted to hear it, not something else.

Two years later she was back. Again she was going to play the Korngold. Again I booked a ticket. Again she didn’t play it. She didn’t play at all. They said she was unwell. I was warned by email from the Barbican and decided to return my ticket. What they didn’t say was that the great Maxim Vengerov would step in and play some other beautiful piece wonderfully, so I’d cut my nose to spite my face by not going at all, but it was the principle of the thing. Oh, and I didn’t believe she was ill, by the way: some better offer must have come up.

I've learned since that she's not only arrogant, but very very greedy. This is what Norman Lebrecht wrote about her in the Evening Standard, last month:

“At 42 she makes well over three million dollars a year from sixty performances, which is more than the combined income of players in a symphony orchestra in Britain or Scandinavia.

Ahead of next year's Mozart jamboree – it's the 250th anniversary of his birth – Mutter astutely organised a world tour of the violin concertos and sonatas. The LSO booked her sonata cycle, three nights at £30,000 each – breaking the budget rules, but just about justifiable in terms of a warm long-term relationship and virtual exclusivity.

Then Mutter decided to play the concertos with the London Philharmonic at an earlier brace of concerts, and record them for DG. By the time she reached the Barbican a fortnight ago, whatever musical curiosity London felt about her Mozart had been thoroughly exhausted and only sixty percent of the tickets were sold. The Barbican echoed with empty spaces and the LSO, which paid for the series, was left with a substantial loss. Mutter, I hear on the grapevine, was asked to reduce her invoice and bluntly refused.”

Lebrecht is asking for her to be banned from the London music scene. Apparently, she was banned 12 years ago, for two seasons, because she would not drop her £10,000 fee.

She deserves to be slapped. And, while I’m at it, I’m slapping all the female performers (actresses, musicians, etc.) who insist on working more or less exclusively with their hubbies. It’s yucky. It’s ridiculous. There are quite a few out there (and, yes, that includes Susan Sarandon & Tim Robbins). Slap!

Tuesday, 1 November 2005


This is the state of my bathroom now!