Monday, 31 December 2007

Best wishes for 2008

What will you be doing tonight? Drinking champagne and nibbling on blinis and gravadlax with sour cream and dill, while watching whatever is on the telly, that’s what my partner and I will be doing. Warm and cosy, we will be. Aaah!

What we won’t be doing is standing in the freezing cold, in the middle of the pavement outside John Lewis, on Oxford Street, armed with an instant camera. We won’t be stopping people on their way to the river to watch the fireworks and trying to take their photograph for a £1 so they can cherish a record of the night forever. No, we won’t. On the other hand, we won’t be collecting over £20 to send to a cancer charity, either.

Been there, done that. Yep, on 31 December 1999. I bet those twenty odd people (well, they weren’t odd, we were) are very glad to have a photograph of themselves on Millennium night. Wouldn’t you? Hmm... perhaps it wasn’t one of my better ideas.

Anyway, whatever you’re doing tonight, I hope it’s fun and memorable.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Where will it stop?

It’s just past one o’clock in the morning; I’m working while listening to the television (don’t worry about the neighbours: I’m using earphones so as not to disturb them). I’ve just heard an ad for a chain of women’s clothing: it said something like, ‘Sale starts tomorrow – five a.m.’

If I hadn’t watched the news earlier today I might have thought there was some mistake, but, no, apparently people were queuing outside department stores this morning at four. And then they fought over ‘stuff’ like animals. I saw women grabbing armfuls of handbags in Selfridges, for instance. I felt nauseated. Nothing repels me more these days than people who spend spend spend. Those who feel they have to ‘own’ everything they see, whether they can afford it or not. Those who boast of being shopaholics and are not ashamed of their addiction. Those for whom possessions replace achievements, or non-materialistic aspirations.


Saturday, 22 December 2007

Friday, 14 December 2007

Language matters

Do you know why British kids are not required to learn foreign languages past the age of 14? No, it’s not because there aren’t enough teachers. Nor is it because there isn’t time for foreign languages in the curriculum. Nope, as an official revealed the other day on BBC Radio 4, it’s because students – er – I mean, pupils can’t express themselves in English so there is no point in trying to make them speak another language, is there?

Good, eh? If you remove foreign languages from the curriculum, teachers don’t waste their time and kids don’t fail, and everyone’s happy.

Does it mean that pupils will acquire a better command of English when they’re not being bothered by pesky irregular French verbs? What do you think? What will replace foreign languages? More English lessons? Probably not. Will the kids spend their newly-found free time reading? I don’t think so. If would-be writers need to be told to read, as I discovered recently, why should teenagers, who would rather be playing computer games, bury their noses in old-fashioned books? But if they don’t read they will never be able to use all the wonderful possibilities offered by their mother-tongue. Like interesting figures of speech, for instance: puns or rhetorical questions or irony*, say.**

Slapping short-sighted educators and literal-minded people while I’m at it.

*Some folks are better at irony (using it and getting it) than others: I’m told it’s a cultural thang.

**Homework for the above-mentioned lmp: find one instance of each in this post.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Happy Hanukkah!

Hope you all have a great time.

I also hope that, when it’s over, you won't have any trouble removing the melted wax from your menorah. And since I’m a very practical person I will tell you how to do it (read it somewhere; wish I’d known the secret long ago): you use a hairdryer to soften the wax and then it comes off easily. That’s it!

Update (5/12/07): I didn’t think Hanukkah would provide me with a slap, but I've just read this item in thelondonpaper:

‘Celebrate the festival of light
To mark Hanukkah, the V&A are putting on a special celebration which includes gospel singing workshops, sitar recitals and Buddhist meditation.’

And while I’m at it I think I should slap the contestants of last Monday’s Brain of Britain Radio 4. None of them managed to name the Jewish festival that usually falls in December and commemorates... etc. etc.

Remind me again what Christian festival is celebrated around the end of December...


Monday, 3 December 2007

Can't have one without the other

Whenever I watch Law & Order I wait for the Fed Ex van to drive past in the background, while whatshisname and whatshisname (I’m very bad with character names; hey, I’ve only been watching it for ten years; Briscoe and... nope...) are out wisecracking in the streets of New York City. There is one in every episode (sometimes two).

That’s product placement, that is. (Whereas my previous post wasn’t. I said that already, I know. That is called ‘padding’.)

It annoys me. A lot.

Like, earlier tonight, BBC2 showed a fillum (the guy on Channel 4 says that, always; he’s cute) entitled Chopper by whatshisname – oh, OK, I’ll go check – by Andrew Dominik. Why? Because his new film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (don’t tell me he never saw The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade – is it just titles with the word ‘assassination’ in them that are a mile long?), what was I saying, because his new film opened here a few days ago. What other reason could there be?

When Elizabeth – The Golden Age came out recently we were treated with another showing of the first film. It’s regular as clockwork. However, sometimes, they can’t get their act together, quite, and funny things happen, like with the Ice Age series. ITV showed Ice Age one afternoon and then, to everyone’s amazement, they showed it again less than two weeks later. What had happened ? Yes, you got it: Ice Age: The Meltdown had been released in the meantime. Someone had f***** up big time.

So, whenever a big film is released, we get shown a film by the same director or with the same film star. Why? Why is television linked thus to the cinema? I don’t mind so much when it’s the commercial channels that do it, but when it’s the BBC it’s our money they’re using to promote those films, instead of using it to make original programmes. We’re not getting the royalties, are we? I was particularly upset a little while ago, when it seemed that Stephen Poliakoff’s entire oeuvre was going to be shown again before the unveiling of his latest pretentious, portentous, puffed up offering.

And now it’s not just TV that’s hand in hand with the cinema; it’s radio too. Military animals were mentioned for the first time in The Archers a few weeks ago. It was around 11 November, but still. My first thought was that they were promoting War Horse, which is currently on at the National Theatre (I’m seeing it at the end of January; I’ve already started to collect tissues to take on the night). And, the other day, Mariella Frostrup (don't like her, but like programmes about books) mentioned a new book about Sweeney Todd. Why? Yes, of course! Tim Burton, Johnny Depp... very soon... at a cinema near you.


Sunday, 25 November 2007

While you wait...

Feast your eyes on this beautiful beast:

Modest, moi? Which question did I answer wrongly, I wonder.

I haven't read the book and won't see the film until it's shown on TV in a few years' time. This is no product placement. I just love the look of the website. (Thanks, Dove Grey Reader, for posting about it.)

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Tête à claques XV

When I moved to London, in 1979, I took over a friend’s flat in Lonsdale Road (one of those cute little streets in the heart of Notting Hill Gate that look like tranches napolitaines, with each house painted a different pastel shade). She was starting a new job with the RSC, in Stratford-upon-Avon, and my coming over suited everyone: she was glad to have someone to look after her cat and her belongings until she could move them to Stratford permanently; her landlord was glad to have a ready-made tenant; and I was glad not to have to live in a depressing bedsit, like on my first attempt at settling in London a few years earlier. The flat was minuscule, but very sunny and convenient (I worked in a publishing house just off Oxford Street, a short bus ride away). I was happy there for a while.

Flash forward to early spring 1983: I had just had a dreadful year battling with noisy upstairs neighbours: a loud Belgian girl and her Middle-Eastern boyfriend who used to play the drums on the floor on their flat, i.e. directly on my head. It had started one Friday evening and had never stopped. The guy had refused all entreaties to be quiet. Finally, because I was a good, reliable tenant, the landlord had agreed to terminate their tenancy and my torturers had moved out.

I had a few weeks of blissful peace, then, one Saturday morning, I was woken up by deafening choral music accompanied by something thunderous that I didn’t recognize. I jumped out of bed and went upstairs. The door was wide open: the carpet had been removed and a young man was sanding the floorboards. When I called out to attract his attention, he looked up and I realized it wasn’t a young man but a young woman. I explained about loud noise, about people like me working full-time in offices and needing their rest on Saturday mornings, about the flats being tiny and very ‘sonorous’, etc. etc. She looked at me with cold unblinking eyes and went back to her sanding machine.

It went on like that for several weeks: she would turn up in the evenings and at weekends to sand and hammer and drill and play music as loud as in a cathedral. At first I couldn’t understand how it was that she could be redoing the entire flat. I wasn't allowed to so much as stick pins in the walls to put posters up. However, when I wrote to the landlord, an old military man who lived in Dorset and had several properties in the area, he told me she was the daughter of friends of his and all became clear.

Her name was Sophie Hicks. At the time she was a fashion editor at Vogue: when she came back from shoots, she used to clutter the narrow lobby of the house with enormous black suitcases bearing labels from all over the world; she drove around in a Jeep, which looked incongruous in that tiny street; she had short back and sides and wore men’s brogues; she stomped around like a spoilt brat.

The previous year I had been toying with the idea of buying a flat, but had shelved it when the loutish couple had gone; after I understood from my landlord that I would never get rid of her, and after he refused to have my water heater repaired (it leaked gas and I could have died because of it), I knew I would have to leave. Which I did, the following year.

Much later I learned she had tried to replace the old bath in her flat with a new, larger one, and the floor had collapsed under the weight. Did I laugh? What do you think?

In the meantime, she left Vogue, trained as an architect and now designs for the super-rich. She’s had three children, but she still looks like an arrogant man who could make someone’s life a misery. I came across an article about her yesterday on the Net and since there is no statute of limitations for slapping I thought I would do it today – 24 years later.


Friday, 2 November 2007

I need a good laugh

I thought I’d wake up to an entertaining list of hanging participles, but none yet. No lovely sentences where the person speaking is hidden in their own breast pocket or men are wearing high heels (see post below) so I had to go elsewhere for a restorative chuckle.

I found it in the Jewish Chronicle online, in an article by the late Alan Coren. Here is an excerpt from it (if you want to read the rest go to Licensed to amuse)

FOLLOWING reports that the threatened dismemberment of the Church of England over the issue of homosexual prelates is apparently persuading hordes of disaffected Anglicans to up sticks and defect to Roman Catholicism, thousands of you have, not surprisingly, written to ask me for my expert guidance in this perplexing matter. [...]

Judaism, for example, has considerable appeal. The soup is good, and you can keep your hat on indoors, thereby making a considerable saving on fuel costs. Also, since you will not be allowed to drive on Saturdays, your car will last about 14 per cent longer than gentile ones. Furthermore, books are read back to front, which means that you do not have to plough through the whole of the new Jeffrey Archer to find out what happens.

Islam, however, may suit you even better, in that if you don’t want to read the new Jeffrey Archer, you can not only publicly burn it, you can apply to have him shot. The main drawback with Islam is that you will have to take your shoes off upon entering the mosque. If it is a big mosque, it may take you all day to find them again.

Buddhism is terrific if you are bald. Nobody will ever know. You can also spend all day walking up and down Oxford Street without ever having to buy anything, and with no socks to wash when you get home. Moreover, the principle of reincarnation is immensely attractive: you could come back as Bill Gates or George Clooney. Then again, you could come back as Jeffrey Archer. [...]


Hanging participles

Hate hate hate them. They are foul... and sometimes hilarious.

Any good ones you’d like to share?

Slap! (No, not you, hanging participles.)

Update (4.11.07): For those of you who aren't quite sure what a hanging participle is, here's a nice one:
Even in her high heels, he was taller than she was.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Déjà vu

I’ve been writing for so long now and my life is so bo-, er, predictable, that I could just recycle old posts all the time. Since I’m still very busy and somewhat lacking in energy this week (mostly because the life force has been sucked out of me by another large organisation and Leonard Cohen wasn't there any longer to revive me) that’s mostly what I’ll do today.

If you haven’t read it already, look at this post Puzzle of the Day and make the following amendments to it:

1) Replace ‘two hours’ by three
2) Add four phone calls (to sort out the mess the Box Office made of my booking)

Oh, OK, if you insist, I’ll elaborate a bit.

This time the performance schedule was less than 1% of the surface of a huge, double-sided sheet full of blah blah about how wonderful the plays will be (yeah, right, that’s if anyone is actually able to book for them).

Next spring, the RSC are doing Shakespeare’s Histories so the plays are called Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Henry V, and Henry VI Part 1, 2 and 3, Richard III. In that tiny strip of a schedule, the titles of the plays are printed in a very narrow (well, there’s no space, is there?), very thick, very black typeface and, to make matters worse, everything is in Roman numerals – Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II... you get the message. You need a magnifying glass to distinguish them from one another. I was told earlier today that Roman numerals were used because they look ‘posher’ (yes, that person works there; no, I won’t tell you who it is; you can torture me if you like: I have to protect my sources).

There were other things that were confusing in that booking form, but I will spare you. I wouldn't want you to be as stressed by it as I was.

Now I have to send back the wrong tickets. I was given a Freepost address to send them to, ‘... so you won’t have to pay for postage.’ Wow, thanks! Did the person (I can give you the name of that one if you like) think I should be grateful for that, after all that wasted time?

Cliffhanger: will I ever get the correct tickets? Stay tuned.

Slapping the RSC! Again!

Update (13/11/07): Tickets for the correct date did turn up eventually. I will be going to the theatre every week for two months next year: I used to go three times a week all year round when I was younger, but I might not be up to it these days. We'll see.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Les jours se suivent... ne se ressemblent pas.

What would make one forget one’s troubles with the Tax Office?

An evening with the serene Leonard Cohen.

He was at the Barbican on Saturday evening, in conversation with Philip Glass.

I was there.

It was even better than seeing Moses in the audience, that time, in the Barbican Pit.

He didn’t sing. He spoke. His voice has now become so low it’s practically inaudible. He recited a wonderful poem. He joked. He avoided answering the odd question.

The whole auditorium was filled with such love.

Later, we listened to Philip Glass’s musical settings of Leonard’s latest poems, Book of Longing, while the latter’s sketches and paintings were projected onto the back of the stage. The music was inspired (and inspiring) too and sometimes, even though it really bore no resemblance to the ex-monk’s own, it sounded like it could have been written by him.

I took a few pictures during the talk. Here is the only one that came out. I don’t need any other. I don’t need any at all. I’m not likely to ever forget that evening.

(The guy on the left is John L Walters of the Guardian.)

Friday, 19 October 2007

Fit for nothing

I am in despair. I learned this morning that the second tax return I sent by Special Delivery at the beginning of September had not been logged in.

You may remember the first one I sent by Recorded Delivery managed to get lost somehow (if you don’t, see
That famous British logic). The Royal Mail assures me the second tax return I filled in was delivered two days after being posted, but the people on the end of the phone (as I said before, you cannot speak to anyone who is actually in the office and has access to your files) tell me they have no trace of it.

What do I do now? Fill in a third one? How can I guarantee the Tax Office will acknowledge they received it?

The nonsense about the location of my Tax Office is even worse than I thought: it’s the Cornwall and Plymouth Area office, tax returns have to be sent to an address in Newcastle, where they are collected, logged in (well, some of them are) and then, guess what, they are redistributed to local offices all over the country. Which means that my files are in Cornwall, not in Newcastle. Are you following this at all? Good for you, because I’m not.

Now, of course, I missed the deadline.

And why am I getting such stress? Because I want to send these people some of my hard-earned money. What would it be like if I wanted money from them?

Don’t ask me to do anything today: it has drained me of all the little energy I had when I got up this morning. I might go back to bed.

Update (13/11/07): I'm off to the post office later going to send my third tax return (not by any special mail, but I still want a certificate of posting). I'm sending it to a real person this time. Will it be 'third time lucky' or 'jamais deux sans trois'?

Friday, 12 October 2007

Grumpy old writers

TV Reporter to Doris Lessing getting out of black cab with some difficulty (she’s 88, after all): ‘Have you heard the news?’
Doris, looking and sounding gruff, ‘No!’
TV Reporter: ‘You’ve won the Nobel Prize for Literature!’
Doris, looking p*ssed off: ‘Christ! It’s been going on for 30 years....’

...and she walked away.

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4, she said the Nobel Prize panel didn’t like her 40 years ago and told her so, and she couldn’t see why they would like her better now. She more or less said, ‘High b***** time they gave it to me!’

Later, she did say she was very pleased and reminded everyone she’d won all the other literary prizes available in Europe.

She has a right to be cantankerous; she’s earned it with brilliant books. Not all older female writers should be allowed to be rude to strangers, though. There is one out there (who shall remain nameless) who is just as grouchy as Doris, with one big difference: she doesn’t run the risk of ever winning the Nobel Prize.

I’m slapping her.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

No shepherd and no bush

So, it took me two weeks to put the BBC texts I had to translate through Babelfish, sentence by sentence, sometimes word by word. It was horrendously slow but it was very rewarding and, thanks to this new – and much more accurate – way of translating, I managed to meet my very short deadline – again (see More of the same below). Now, after taking a few days off, I’ve resumed my daily struggle with the big book I have to do for next year. I can’t Babelfish it, though: it’s much too long. Shame.

Anyway, I walked down to Hammersmith, the other day: I thought I might celebrate my new-found semi-freedom by buying some tat in TK Maxx, as is my wont. On the way, I encountered a big fridge, plonked in the middle of the pavement. It looked familiar – probably the same one I’d seen on that very same spot several days earlier. A couple of B&Bs along Shepherd’s Bush Road are being refurbished and their front gardens look like enormous skips. On the way back, I pinched a nice piece of new carpeting to use as a doormat sometime in the future. With the amount of stuff they’d chucked out I could in fact have re-carpeted my entire flat. I’m a bit of a scavenger, me. The fridge wasn’t in working order, unfortunately, otherwise I might have taken it too – it was still there.

Apart from that fridge and the lengths of carpet and underlay, I also saw one of those pathetic LOST notices that desperate pet owners pin on trees. That one was particularly heartbreaking: a cute five-month-old puppy had been taken from his owner under threat, in Notting Hill Gate. The fact that the guy was now looking for him in my neighbourhood showed that he obviously thought the villains who’d committed such a horrid deed couldn’t possibly live in upmarket NHG. Yeah, right! Like it’s not full of drug addicts and rogues of all kinds – and I’m just talking about the denizens of NHG who gather at the posh Electric Brasserie...

Still, he’s not the one who deserves to be slapped, obviously, poor man. Losing a pet is bad enough, but having to give it away yourself to criminals must be unbearable. Who would put someone through this kind of ordeal? And for what? Money?


Friday, 14 September 2007

What not to say

It’s obvious the McCanns do not watch CSI (any of them, although, what they would learn from CSI : Miami, I have no idea – standing sideways maybe).

If they did, they would know you must never ever ever say, ‘Prove it!’ to the police. Only the guilty say that and they’re usually actors. Yes, I know that everyone in CSI is an actor, but the culprits are the only ones, apart from the main protagonists, who are actors. If someone appears on the screen and you recognize them from some other TV series or, even better, from films, you can bet anything they’re the murderer.

I now believe the McCanns are guilty. They gave themselves away, didn’t they?

Addendum (14.09.07):
What not to do
If you are a famous Polish author (if you’re currently a British author you can spend some time in Poland – they’ve got masses of space there since everyone has now moved to this country – and become a Polish author), so, if you are a famous Polish author (I have no advice on how to become famous: you’re on your own there, sorry ) and you commit a crime, it is not a good idea to write a thriller describing your crime in great detail because someone will tip off the police five years later and suggest they read your book and you will eventually be jailed for the crime. Do not follow Krystian Bala’s example: think of another plot for your novel.

Are there any limits to people's stupidity and greed and arrogance?

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

More of the same

What would I do without the BBC? What would I write about? No, really. It’s a constant source of astonishment, aggravation, amusement, alliteration. Such a gift for a grumpy old woman.

Like, for example, why did they show Bend It Like Beckham the other day? As if I didn’t know. Could it be, by any chance, because that Keira Knightley (my mother would have said, ‘On dirait un hareng.’) is in a new film? Could it?

I don’t care when this kind of thing is done by commercial TV channels, although I don’t see why TV and newly released films should be coupled thus, but this is my licence fee they’re using to hype Atonement. Drat, I’ve said it!

Don’t go away, there’s more
: the BBC has surpassed itself this week. They have reached a new low in moronicity. Wanna hear the latest? I’m once again about to translate stuff for them, as I do every year around this time. Yesterday morning I received a summary in abominable French for one of the scripts I have to translate. I asked the PA who sent it to me why it was in French and where it came from, dismayed at the idea that such gobbledygook might have been used to promote the programme in a French-speaking country. She got back to me saying, ‘... the translation I sent was created from a translation website that I found – I was trying to help.’ Does she think that’s what I’m going to do too: feed the scripts through Babelfish and just correct the odd infelicitous phrase here and there? Obviously she does.

Idiots are all around us. How do you respond when a project manager says to you, as one did recently to my partner, who’s an editor, when told a particular book would take x weeks to edit, ‘But surely you don't have to read it all, do you?’

Makes you want to curl up and die, doesn’t it? Or slap them very hard, anyway.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Something to look forward to

The problem with having a blog dedicated to bad things and bad people is that readers might get the impression that my life is one long miserable series of tribulations. Not so. I choose to write about what annoys me, as a way of getting it out of my system, eliciting sympathy from my readers (no, not really), showing that we all have the same problems, and, finally, making people feel better about their own lives (‘Well, at least, nothing like that has ever happened to me’ kind of thing).

Sometimes I want to share the nice things too, but since I can’t start writing another blog called Blessing of the Day (not only would I make myself throw up but frankly, on balance, I wouldn’t have enough to write about) I have to use this platform and wonder who or what I can slap at the end. Let’s see how it goes...

A little while ago, I told the story of a failed getting-together-again-after-so-many-years with someone I met when I was having fun with – er – teaching French civilisation to kids in Tewkesbury. The young, bohemian guy I knew then had become a dirty old man and I didn’t feel like having anything to do with him now. I more or less swore not to try to track down any more people I had lost touch with years ago: we were bound to not have anything in common any longer and meeting again might destroy the good memories we had of each other.

However, one of my recent commenters turned out to be someone who studied English at the same university and at the same time as me: I didn’t know him personally and he didn’t know me but we’ve been able to remind each other of people and things we encountered then. He’s a charming man and I hope we can carry on reminiscing together.

Encouraged, I decided to see who else was out there. I googled some names and hit the jackpot.

I used to smile when my mother visited her ‘school friends’: women, who, like her, had managed to escape being murdered by the Nazis; little old ladies she knew when she was a child in Poland, with whom she walked to school, her pockets full of hot sunflower seeds in winter. To me as a young person it seemed slightly ridiculous but yesterday I talked on the phone with someone I knew when I was 11 years old and hadn’t spoken to for 45 years. We were best friends at school, and the last time we met we were 14 and we were both in tears: I was leaving Paris with my parents. She still lives in Paris and has two grown-up daughters, and we giggled like schoolgirls on the phone. I’m so looking forward to seeing her again soon.

So, you see, it’s not all aggro.

Who shall I slap, then? What about myself for not looking for her sooner?

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Yet another b***** wet BH

What is it with leaks? They lie in wait hidden away for several days until they suddenly jump on you at 2.38pm, at the very beginning of a long weekend, when your trusty plumber is in Wales and won’t be back until Wednesday.

Please keep your fingers crossed that the drip drip from under my kitchen sink doesn’t get worse and that a large saucepan is enough to keep things dry until next week. Emergency plumbers are nasty nasty individuals who exploit people’s misery.

Just as well I don’t do holidays, eh?


Update (30.08.07): I’m sure you’re all waiting with bated breath to hear what happened yesterday when the plumber came. Well, what do you know, he didn’t. I got up especially for him too. Anyway, he came earlier today. Verdict: I need a new tap, but I can use silicone bath sealant in the meantime. Great, I’ve never bought a tap in my life. I really need new experiences just now. As if I didn't have enough on my plate, what with that stupid Tax Return getting properly lost and my having to redo it all, etc. etc.

By the way, I wasn't kidding about leaks revealing themselves at Bank Holidays: this is the third time it's happened to me.

On a happier note: the packet of Scottish salmon fillets I’ve just opened says, ‘Allergy advice: contains fish’. I should hope so.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

That famous British logic

I’ve written before about the palaver of telling the taxman how many peanuts I’ve earned in the past year. It’s the same thing every year: I earn four peanuts and I give him one. How difficult should it be?

Last year, I wasn’t busy in the summer (I’d just lost one of my main ‘clients’); I was busy wondering where the fourth peanut would be coming from. So preoccupied was I that I left it almost too late to fill in my tax return. The sky doesn’t fall in if you don’t do it by 30 September, but you have to calculate the amount of tax due yourself and send the taxman the correct moonay in January – on pain of death, of course. My situation is so simple that I wasn’t unduly worried about missing the deadline. Still, I'd rather let someone else make a mistake, so I sent it back in time by Signed For Recorded Delivery and breathed a sigh of relief. Well, what do you know, no one bothered to sign for it and it sat for ages in Newcastle, in a huge pile of tax returns.

Why Newcastle; don’t you live in Central London, I hear you wonder. Yes, I do, but the tax office that deals with my ‘financial affairs’ is in Newcastle, and it’s called, wait for it, ‘Cornwall and Plymouth Area’. But of course! My tax office used to be in Cornwall (it was ridiculous but at least the name corresponded with the location), but they moved it up north, last year, without telling any of us, so I had a terrible time trying to find out what had happened to my tax return. I attempted to track it with that nifty thing on the Royal Mail website, but it didn’t come up as having arrived anywhere. So, where was it? Was it in Cornwall, where I’d sent it, or was it in its new home in Newcastle? Those two places aren’t exactly next door to each other. After about a million phone calls, it was spotted safely ensconced in Newcastle: they’d been so snowed under with mail that they hadn’t had time to acknowledge receipt.

OK, then, so, this year, I decided to spare myself all that hassle and filled in my tax return well in advance of the deadline. I sent it back on 13 July, again by Signed For Recorded Delivery. Again I didn’t get an acknowledgment and again it didn’t appear on the Royal Mail website. In the end, last week, I thought I would find out, etc. etc. One person told me that it was possible it had arrived and that no one had signed for it or acknowledged it because it was sent back so early. Aaaaargh! You can’t win, can you?

Another thing you cannot do is speak to a person who is actually in the tax office where your file is. I have no fewer than six different telephone numbers for that one office, all of which take me to a call centre.

Why don’t I believe my tax return got lost in the post? Because, as I said, the same thing happened last year, and because I sent two other envelopes by Signed For Recorded Delivery on the same day – one to another address in the UK and one to France – and they both arrived at their destination within a few days. And because I just don’t believe these people. The only envelope I sent on 13 July that didn’t get there was the one addressed to the tax office? Yeah, right!

Since I don’t relish the thought of having to redo it all, I sent a letter to Newcastle a few days ago, by snail mail, asking them to please have a good look and let me know if my tax return was anywhere to be seen.

Have I had an answer to my letter? Did it even get to Newcastle? Is there anyone out there?


Thursday, 16 August 2007

Oh, yes?

A-level results are in. And, guess what, they’re the best ever.

I’m sure that, like me, you have noticed how much more clever and articulate and knowledgeable young people have become in the past year.

You haven’t? Really?

Let’s see what the results are like next year – when they reduce the amount of coursework and test kids on what they know here and now.


Update: I apologize to my non-British readers; I should have explained. This is what Wikipedia says about A-levels: ‘The A-level, short for Advanced Level, is a General Certificate of Education qualification in the United Kingdom, usually taken by students during the optional final two years of secondary school (Years 12 & 13, commonly called the Sixth Form), or at a separate sixth form college or further education college, after they have completed IGCSE or GCSE exams.’

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Where was I? *

Not on holiday, that’s for sure. I don't do holidays.

No, I was still struggling with the new PC, and all that entails. Those things are supposed to make our lives easier and save us time. Yeah, right!

And that’s when the user is not a novice and knows her software from her underwear.

Even when everything is as it should be, i.e. when the computer purrs nicely and accepts new programs without spitting them out, you’re still at the mercy of those frauds, those people who get jobs with Virgin, or Symantec (don’t start me on those crooks), and call themselves helplines. If I had made a note of the name of that woman at Virgin who told me beforehand that, no, they didn’t have a specific broadband installation download for Vista and I could use the Windows XP one, I could have made a voodoo doll, named it and stuck pins into it. OK, the connection is working, but only because I had installed broadband on two other computers already and knew what I was doing. Since they charge something like £1.50 per minute and usually spend the first 20 minutes asking for your life story, you can imagine how much the poor people who don’t have a clue have to fork out.

And then there are the peripherals that are in perfectly good working order but that won’t work with newer computers because Microsoft or Apple have decided to produce a new OS (are you following all this jargon?) and the manufacturers of those peripherals haven’t bothered to make patches for them (still with me?), so said peripherals can’t work with above-mentioned computers (phew!). My lovely flatbed scanner – so flat, so bed – should be working with this beautiful PC (coochycooch). I need it for the OCR function (there she goes again with the jargon!) because it’s easier to translate stuff when it’s on the screen in front of you than to have it propped up on the side of the monitor. Much. Anyway, I cannot throw away a machine that is not broken. I just can’t. And is it possible to buy a cheap flatbed scanner these days? ’course not. At some point you could get one for, like, £20, now everyone’s buying those 3-in-1s and they’re no good if you need to scan a book. Luckily, my partner still has an older Mac and we’ve managed to make the scanner work on it. Hooray! That’s one in the eye for Bill Gates, Vista et al.

Now if only I could make my old speakers work on the HP (Hewlett-Packard to you). Why do some new computers come without speakers? They keep telling you about what sounds you can have to alert you when you fall asleep at the keyboard or when you need a pee, and there are NO speakers!

So, as you can see, the saga isn’t over: more potentially stubborn programs and devices to install...

While I’m on the subject of waste: we’re all doing our bit to save the planet. We sort out our rubbish; we don’t leave our machines on standby (well, not all of them); we reuse plastic bags, and then we buy cook-chill stuff (I don’t, but some people not a million miles away from me do) in Tesco or M&S, and we’re asked to cook a minute portion of dog food for 25 minutes in a hot oven. Twenty-five minutes for a few mouthfuls. You can cook a meal from scratch in 25 minutes!


* I know I’ve already used that heading for another post. So what?

Sunday, 22 July 2007

There’s a new computer in the house…

…so, as you can imagine, I have no time for anything except trying to make this new lodger talk to me and, more to the point, obey my orders. So far so tractable… but I haven’t asked it to link up to any other computer yet, over there in cyberspace. I hope it will agree to do that without dragging its feet too much because my patience is wearing thin.
In the meantime, two of my most favourite places in the world (I haven’t been anywhere much so they might not be on anyone else’s list of ‘100 sites to visit before you die’) – Stratford-upon-Avon and Tewkesbury – are under water. I’ve seen pictures. Awful!

Here, in my second-floor flat in Central London, I am not completely unaffected by the torrential rains: we haven’t had any hot water for the past two days because of it. Don’t ask me why; it’s too preposterous, as usual with anything to do with this building.


Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Boom booming

Yesterday morning (well, OK, lunchtime), I was sitting at my desk trying to convince myself that, yes, if I could translate four pages of a novel satisfactorily I could translate another 279 just as well, and, yes, I would stop having nightmares about it soon, when suddenly the building shook: a loud thud was reverberating through the floor and the walls of my flat.

Another mini earthquake followed, then another and another, and so it went on, practically without interruption, until 5pm. At some point, I went out on a recce and discovered piles were being driven into the soil next to our block of flats.

We knew it was going to happen: we had circulars warning that the owner of a small block adjacent to ours had asked planning permission for an extension. Everyone here was against it. We wrote letters to the council; we tried to have it stopped. Since the guy is French, I volunteered to go and swear at him in my mother tongue, but, for some unfathomable reason, my offer was turned down. As was his first proposal. But, of course, he modified the specifications again and again, and eventually he was allowed to build.

Apart from the initial shock, the first BOOM scared me, and I’ve been trying to understand why. I think it comes from an atavistic fear: although the piles are being driven vertically, it feels like the building is under attack and being rammed into. I have the impression that my home – my refuge, my sanctuary – is at risk.

I may be right too: a structural engineer has given the OK to the work next door, but who knows what this constant shaking will do to our building. We are already aware that some of us will be deprived of daylight; what else is in the offing?

I learned tonight that the shaking of my walls (my windows rattled too today) might go on for months. Why did the council ever say ‘yes’ to that greedy landlord? Why don’t reasonable petitions ever work? Slap!

Monday, 9 July 2007

Full circle

Life’s a funny old thing.

I was still at college when I got my first full-time job. While my fellow students still faced the prospect of having to look for work at the end of their last year, I was earning a good salary as a translator and archivist (employed by the CNRS; yes, like Luca Turin at some point in his career) at the Neurophysiology lab of the Faculty of Science in Nice, which was (still is) situated in a wonderful park full of gorgeous plants and flowers. Everyone was nice; I drove a cute little car; I felt happily settled, but eventually I realised I was too young to be such a bourgeoise and, at the end of my two-year contract, I left. I lost touch with my bosses (a charming couple of researchers) for 35 years – until I traced them again (it wasn’t difficult: they hadn’t moved around like me), and these days we are very close friends. They are incredibly supportive and keep me in Provençal goodies.

Back to the mid-’70s: after a short English hiatus, I found myself in the right place at the right time again, and became a literary translator in Paris, working for one of the most influential editors of foreign literature in France. I had my name on the covers of books; I went to book launches and cocktail parties and met well-known writers, but the freelance life is not for the young. Sitting in a room, day in day out, with a typewriter for company can be soul-destroying and I got depressed. Also, the Royal Shakespeare Company was still calling my name, and, again, after five years, I left.

That was 28 years ago. In the meantime, my French editor has moved to another – just as prestigious – publishing house, and, guess what, I am now working for her again (me and Alain de Botton, in fact, but not together, unfortunately). It’s a rather strange feeling: it delights me and makes me slightly dizzy at the same time.

Some might say (my parents certainly did, every time) I deserve a slap for turning my back, at least twice, on things others would have given their eyeteeth to get.

See you next year! I’m only half joking: I have a challenging 300-page novel to translate and no idea yet how to pace myself – it’s so long since I last undertook such a huge amount of work. Years ago, of course, it would have been easy: I would have waited until a few weeks before the deadline before starting on it, and I would have been dead at the end. I am a different person now, thank goodness. Now, if x is the time it takes to do a first draft and y the time it takes to....

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Tête à claques XIV

I had been planning to slap Mariella Frostrup for a while, but, you know how it is… However, since my commenters have questioned her presence on the list of Slappees below, I don’t think I can put it off any longer.

Something like 15 years ago, she presented a programme on Channel 4 entitled The Little Picture Show. It was on very late at night – probably just before the preposterous Prisoner Cell Block H on ITV (I’ve always worked at night with the TV on, preferably rubbish so my brain doesn’t have to engage with it too much) and it was just as inane. I’m afraid I took an instant dislike to Mariella. Who was this blonde bimbo with a rasping, flirtatious voice who reviewed the latest video releases? She may have been saying interesting things, but I couldn’t get past the annoying, staccato voice. I was repulsed by it, but I carried on watching: the awful can very often be fascinating.

It went on for a few months, then she disappeared. I believe she was George Clooney’s girlfriend or something useful like that for a while. Much much later, when I thought I could escape her by not looking at those pages in magazines that show bleary-eyed celebs staggering out of night-clubs, she turned up on Radio 4 – of all places! Presenting a book programme! Aaargh!

So, anyway, it’s been years and she’s finally getting a bit better (I would have sacked her after her first interview: it was such a disaster). I listen to Open Book because anything about literature interests me, but it’s through clenched ears (I know, I know).

She really was nothing but a blonde girlie with a sexy voice, but she was given the chance to learn on the job, from scratch. So many others, more talented, never get a look-in. I know she’s not the only one but, hey, who says I have to be fair?

Oh, yes, there’s something else: this is what she said, when asked what she missed most about her old life (i.e. before babies, etc.), ‘I miss the sheer indulgence of it. I miss having time to sit in a café, drink a coffee and read a paper. But, what I miss most are those lost afternoons; the ones where you meet a friend for lunch, drink a bottle of wine and then decide to order another one because you have nothing else to do.’

When did you have a life like that?

I rest my case.

Update (19/07/07): I feel like taking back everything I said about Mariella. I’ve just heard say that she didn’t understand why adults read Harry Potter, since there were soooo many wonderful books for adults. I may have misjudged the woman...

Friday, 29 June 2007

A ragbag of aborted Slaps

I have this little book. In it, I write down things that bother me, make me go Grrr!, get my goat, depress me. The idea is that each item might become a Slap at some point in the future. Except that most often I don’t look at it; I write about something I’ve just heard or read or that has annoyed me personally in the hour before sitting at my desk. So, here, in no special order, are a few things that might have become Slaps, but didn’t quite make the grade.

* One in 25 old people are abused in their own homes.
* Until now, when a woman had knee-replacement surgery, the prosthetic patella she would be given was modelled on a male one (and they are different, apparently). Someone has finally cottoned on that women might walk better with a patella that fitted their knee properly.
* One quarter of Russia is owned by 36 men.
* 11% of Mauritanian girls are force-fed because the men prefer fat women. Like in the case of female circumcision, it’s the older women who insist it has to be done.
* China’s fur trade.
* Earphones that get into a tangle all the time.
* A teenager planned to kill his entire family because he wanted to be adopted by a rich couple (he managed to kill his brother and sister).
* Women who are threatened by an all-women environment.
* Motorists who just get a fine for killing people.
* Mariella Frostrup.

Addendum (30/06/07): After listening to this week's Any Answers on BBC Radio 4, I have to add 'Phone-ins' to my list. I try not to listen to such unbelievably annoying programmes, but today I'm waiting for Arcadia by Tom Stoppard to start... just about... now. Aaaaah, bliss!

Sunday, 24 June 2007

The greatest sin

Do you know what it is – according to the Americans? It’s not being rich, filthy rich, obscenely rich.

If you’re not rich, filthy rich, obscenely rich, it must be because you’re not trying hard enough. Anyone, whatever their field of expertise, whatever their abilities, whatever their education (or lack of), whatever the state of their health; whatever the economic situation in their country, can earn oodles of money if only they apply themselves to that goal. No exception.

I thought that the American Dream thing had been debunked long ago; that it had become obvious to everyone that being determined, flexible and hard-working just wasn’t enough; that the world was now a very different place from what it was at the turn of the last century – it may have been true then, it certainly isn’t now.

But, no, it looks like this kind of thinking is still alive. Someone, whose comments weren’t exactly welcome, advised me today to work harder. Er, yes, I would if I could. I would if I wasn’t unwell. I would if there was work to be had – somewhere. But there isn’t.

Quite apart from being astoundingly arrogant, this attitude is staggeringly stupid. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the way the world works. Only someone who has had a sheltered life or who, like the person in question, earns big bucks working for an international bank* in a European city that has, if one is to believe Wikipedia, the best quality of life anywhere in the world, can still come out with this kind of crap.


* Working in a bank: my worst nightmare!

Addendum (25/06/07): I love my hit counter: as well as telling me how many readers I have it tells me who reads me – those who can actually read and also those who can’t. You have been warned. LOL!

Saturday, 23 June 2007

A wasted life

A young girl was stabbed by another young girl the other day, on a London estate. Interviewed on the TV, her distraught mother said, ‘She was a very beautiful, very ambitious, young girl, who one day wanted to become an accountant.’

I’m afraid I couldn’t resist laughing: the juxtaposition of ‘very ambitious’ with ‘an accountant’ was so incongruous. I was expecting her to say her daughter wanted to be a brain surgeon, someone who would make a difference to other people’s life, you know, like Miss World candidates, who answer, ‘World peace!’, when asked what they wish to achieve. But an accountant?!

Apparently, it’s more difficult nowadays for people from a deprived background to go up in the world than it was 20 years ago and I suppose one should be grateful she didn’t want to become a Page-Three model and be famous for the size of her boobs, or take part in Big Brother and earn pots of money selling salacious stories to the press, still...

Who shall I slap? Parents and educators who do not manage to stimulate children and make them want ‘more’ from life? The media who makes us all believe that being a celebrity is the utmost achievement? Who else?

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Balm for the soul

It’s the middle of June, and summer hasn’t even started here. The lack of sunshine is affecting me. All those years spent on the Côte d’Azur, you know... If it doesn’t begin to get lighter soon, I’ll have to travel somewhere where it’s sunny, and I don’t travel well. Then what?

Since the world has gone mad; since there is no justice, no decency, no consideration any longer, we all need something to soothe our ruffled souls. Here it is, in the shape of the beautiful Leonard Cohen – beautiful face, beautiful mind and most beautiful voice.

This version of ‘Take This Waltz’ (based on a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca) is from a 1988 Norwegian broadcast. The gorgeous backing singers swaying with Leonard are Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla.

My thanks to the person who posted it on YouTube.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

Just one more thing

Right now, I feel like devoting this entire blog to the injustices perpetrated against Israel, there’s so much that is making me apoplectic. It might become quite boring for people who don’t give a hoot about that country’s survival or reputation, but I have to devote a post to this: the University College Union (UCU) passed a resolution on 30 May to boycott Israeli universities and academics. It is shameful and conjures up images of books being burned, of respected professors being thrown out of windows by storm troopers. Others, more articulate than I, have written about how repellent they would find such a boycott. Read what they say here and here.

It’s a slippery slope...

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Six heroic days

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the start of the Six-Day War.

Israel won. Calling it a miracle would be belittling the achievement of the men who saved the country from annihilation and, anyway, disparaging Israel is the role of the BBC: it does it so well.

All this week it’s broadcasting a series of programmes about the war, presented by the then BBC correspondent Jeremy Bowen. This is how the first programme started on Monday: ‘The myth of 1967 is that the Israeli David slew the Arab Goliath; it’s more accurate to say that there were two Goliaths in the Middle East in 1967.’

Et voilà! This is how, in one sentence, you give the impression that there was no disproportion between the Israeli forces and those of the Arab countries that were preparing to crush them. But then, as an Arab commentator said yesterday, ‘I’m sure they knew very well that the Arab countries weren’t ready to attack.’

You could have fooled me. Especially since this is what Nasser said, the day after he decided to close the Straits of Tiran (which had provoked a strong reaction from Israel and was in effect the casus belli), ‘The Jews threaten to make war. I reply: Welcome! We are ready for war.’

I was 19 years old at the time and I followed the events very closely with my parents and all our Jewish friends. We were glued to the television and the radio. We heard the crowds in Cairo and elsewhere in the Arab world shout ‘Death to Israel! Death to the Jews!’(I still have a recording of those blood-curdling cries.) There was no doubt as to their ultimate goal. As Nasser said, ‘Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight. [...] We will not accept any coexistence with Israel. [...] Today the issue is not the establishment of peace between the Arab states and Israel. [...] The war with Israel is in effect since 1948.’ The Iraqi president added, ‘Our goal is clear -- to wipe Israel off the map.’

The BBC called the series of programmes, ‘Six Days That Changed the Middle East’. A lot of people were hoping that the Middle East would be changed even more drastically by the destruction of Israel. Fortunately for me, and my fellow Jews, it didn’t happen that way.

Slapping the BBC (again)!

Updates (14/07/07): In case you think I’m a lone paranoid voice, please read what the journalist Melanie Phillips wrote three days ago on her website here. You see: even CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) is up in arms about the BBC’s bias against Israel.

(25/06/07): Norman Lebrecht also mentions Jeremy Bowen’s comment in his review of two books about the Six-Day War in today’s Standard.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Be my guests!

I was listening to Feedback on BBC Radio 4 earlier: among the usual complaints about ‘bad language’, they read out a letter from a listener bemoaning the fact that one hardly ever heard ‘positive’ news on the air.

What ‘positive’ news?

I can’t think of any. Can you? The floor is yours!

If, on the other hand, constant exhortations to be positive make you feel queasy, and you believe, like me, that keeping a positive outlook doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference; that life is for the most part a series of aggravating incidents; that bottling things up isn’t good for you, then feel free to grumble and slap.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Their sisters' keepers

When I was very young I occasionally wished I had a brother or a sister to share the burden of a stressful home situation, but it was only a passing thought: in my experience, other children were clumsy and destroyed things, and, since I was always tidy and cared a lot about my books, toys, etc., I wasn’t that keen to share with another child. The only other time I thought it might have been nice to have a sibling was when my father died and I could foresee having to make difficult decisions on my own about my mother, should she become ill or incapacitated in the future. Apart from that, I never gave it a thought.

I certainly never missed having a bossy older brother, for instance. We have all read about younger sisters being bullied by their brothers and in certain circumstances beaten up or even killed – so-called honour killings in patriarchal societies. But fraternal abuse can take another, less drastic and obvious, form.

I know of at least two women who, after their mothers’ death, were forced by their older brothers to sell the family home. Neither of them had enough money to buy their brother’s share of the property and they ended up heartbroken (one of them became very ill soon after and never really recovered). In both cases the brothers behaved with a total lack of empathy, with a ruthlessness that surprised and dismayed the women. They refused to negotiate or compromise: those houses, which the women had invested a lot in, emotionally, meant nothing to them – they were just a source of money. I was spared that kind of aggro: I inherited and subsequently sold my parents’ flat; I did it in my own time; I jumped; I wasn’t pushed. No one likes to be pushed.

I had enough problems with controlling parents; I don’t know what I would have done if a brother of mine had tried to assert his authority over me as well.

Slapping all bullying male siblings!

Update (11.06.07): A Kurdish father was found guilty at the Old Bailey today of killing his daughter because she’d fallen in love with a young Iranian man. Helped by his brother, he strangled her with a shoelace, then dumped her body in a suitcase. They had made attempts on her life before and she had been in touch four times with the police. A policewoman whom the girl had told of her fears wrote in her report that she was being ‘melodramatic’. Is there any hope of the British authorities ever being aware of how other communities live and behave?

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Blogger strikes again

It has come to my attention that some people cannot leave comments on this blog or other Blogger blogs: they have to register and re-register and re-re-register every single time and it’s driving them bonkers and they walk away frustrated.

If you are one of the lucky few who have my email address just send me your comment and I will post it for you. If you don’t have it I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do (I’d rather not put my email address on the site) and I will continue to be deprived of your thoughts. Now I’m frustrated!

I have contacted Blogger about the problem, but I’m not holding my breath.


Monday, 7 May 2007

Neither here nor there

I am a French citizen, but I didn’t vote in the presidential election today (to me it’s still today, but I expect you will read this tomorrow so to you it will be yesterday, if you know what I mean).

I’ve been here nigh on 28 years and I doubt I will ever go back to France to live (I occasionally toy with the idea of retiring in Nice, but considering how bad I am at standing in the right queue in the supermarket and picking the right euro coin to pay for purchases whenever I visit France I should probably stay in the UK) so I have no stake in what happens in the country of my birth any longer. All I have left in France are a few friends and since I didn’t know whom any of them wanted for president I couldn’t have helped them achieve their goal by adding my vote to theirs. The only reason I might have had to vote would have been to back one of the candidates’ foreign policy. He won without my support so I don’t feel as if I’ve let the side down.

Voting would have meant traipsing to South Kensington, where the Lycée Français was used as a polling station. South Kensington is where all the French expats congregate and I try to avoid going there as much as I can. The last time I was there was a couple of years ago, when I needed to renew my passport. After collecting that French document from the French Consulate I stopped at the French Institute, where I had a French herbal tea (verbena – my favourite) and a French croissant, while reading a French newspaper, surrounded by French people speaking French and smoking French cigarettes. The atmosphere was nice, but it was fake and I was glad to return to grotty Shepherds Bush and my ‘English’ life.

I wasn’t sent to London by my firm to work in their UK branch or by the French government to look good at official functions; I didn’t come here because I couldn’t cut it in France or because I got married to an Englishman or because I wanted to renovate a dilapidated barn the locals wouldn’t dream of living in. I didn’t settle here so my friends could envy me for living in London or so I could write a book after a few months in the country and pretend to know what makes the Brits tick. I don’t travel to France to have my clothes dry-cleaned there or to consult a French GP when I’m ill (I’m not kidding: I know someone who’s been here over 20 years and who still does that). I don’t pick and choose between what France and the UK have to offer (apart from perfume, maybe). In short, I am not an expat.

I was proofreading a book about living and working in France recently: the author – an American – has lived there for several years and most of what he says in the book is true (I even learned a few things), but some of it was slightly ‘off’ – things to do with what one learns as a child or from listening to the radio and watching television in a country for 20 years; things to do with not having a thorough command of the language (see previous post, although it’s about a different person). He thought he could tell other English-speaking people hankering for the French way of life how the country ‘functioned’, but he doesn't ‘get’ France in very subtle ways and probably never will. Being an expat is a state of mind and I don’t think you can shake it off.

Have you seen how many blogs written by tin-eared and ignorant expats there are out there?


Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Of books... maybe

You can’t judge a book by its cover, they say.

Or can you?

There are books, great big tall ones, that are nasty looking and whose content turns out to be as nasty as their covers. They can be deceptive, though: a few chapters may make you question your initial impression. Halfway through a particular book, for instance, you may wonder whether you were mistaken, and, for a moment, you believe it may have a place on your bedside table. Unfortunately, as you carry on reading you discover it supports the indefensible, and, a bit later, there are several particularly offensive quotes that amount to abuse (not just differences of opinion), which the book doesn’t bother to refute, and the true nature of the work is revealed. You persevere with it and give it a second chance and a third one, but, no, you were right. You are aware that other readers find it attractive – poor deluded souls – and are taken in by its ingratiating ways, especially towards the end, but you recognise the sour smell of hypocrisy and you know it would have been better to leave it on its shelf, with all the other uncivil tomes that clutter the cyber bookshop. It’s not even good enough for a charity shop; it deserves to be pulped.

You should have realised anyway that the title of the book referred to something you are allergic to.WinterWheat

Friday, 27 April 2007

Bl**dy nerve!

Last week I was asked to proofread the text and audio scripts of a new BBC French language course. The last time I undertook such work (for a well-publicised BBC Two series that turned out to be a disaster) the dialogues had already been recorded by the time the typescripts were sent to me (you can imagine my dismay). This time, things are being done in the right order and with a bit of luck the end result won’t make anyone cringe. Of course, it took longer than I was told it would (five hours more, in fact, than I was able to charge for, because – as usual – the project manager underestimated the time, and beggars.... see previous post).

What amazed and concerned me was that this language course was written, like the previous one, by someone who has been teaching French for donkey’s years yet still makes basic mistakes. Here’s a – far from exhaustive – list I compiled as I went along:

* du and de; des and de; c'est and il/elle est; dans le and au are not interchangeable and are subject to precise rules.
* the adjective that follows c’est is always masculine singular.
* ‘After ten minutes’ is not après dix minutes but au bout de dix minutes.
* Tu penses? is not English; the correct verb is croire: Tu crois?.
* les soirs, elle va... is a literal – and incorrect – translation for ‘in the evenings, she goes...’; it’s le soir, elle va...
* depending on context, ‘next’ is prochain or suivant (they’re not interchangeable either).

* In the past tense, se faire mal (to hurt oneself) goes like this: je me suis fait mal, tu t’es fait mal, il/elle s’est fait mal, nous nous sommes fait mal, vous vous êtes fait mal, ils/elles se sont fait mal. Yes, that's it, fait is invariable. Elle s’est faite mal hurts me a lot. LOL!

* Passer
(to pass) is only followed by a direct object in passer le temps, passer un examen, otherwise it’s passer devant. In giving directions, you say, ‘Vous passez devant l’église...’ not ‘Vous passez l’église...’

* proper names never take an ‘s’ in the plural – except names of dynasties: les Bourbons.
* The French love commas and use them much more liberally than the Anglo-Saxons.

Most bits of very simple French text written to illustrate specific grammar rules sounded clumsy and were often wrong.

What makes someone whose French is not 100% perfect think they can produce such a course? Who commissions them? Would it occur to me to write an English language course, even though I am just as qualified as those writers to teach English? Erm, no. The only foolproof way for such material to be up to scratch would be for it to be written by two native speakers – one for each language.

Obviously, if the author had been correct all through, I would have missed out on a job. I should be grateful, really. Hmm...


Wednesday, 18 April 2007

I’m so glad

Apparently, average earnings have grown like crazy in the past three years. Since I haven’t been able to increase my freelance rates for four years... grrr!

Hasn’t the cost of living gone up for me too in the meantime?

Sunday, 15 April 2007


No Slap today: it’s sunny and very warm and I haven’t got the energy.

Anyway, I’m in love. With these MOO cards. Well, wouldn’t you be? Aren’t they just the most adorable things you’ve ever seen? They are so tiny!

The MOOs above are business cards – but only because my partner and I put our details on the back. You can have whatever you like printed on them.

The London Book Fair is on for three days from tomorrow. We both need to tout for work. These little cuties will make it a little bit less unpleasant than it might otherwise be.

You would give us a job in return for one of these, wouldn’t you?

Friday, 6 April 2007

The bad old days

The picture above was not taken in the 19th century; it was taken yesterday – in the Cromwell Road. I was on my way to my favourite hospital. (As I always say, ‘What was good enough for General Pinochet is good enough for me.’ LOL!) I’ve been seeing this sign for years – every time I have a check-up – and it shocks me every time. I’ve always wanted to photograph it but usually when I go to the Cromwell the last thing on my mind is making sure I have my camera with me. Anyway, yesterday I happened to carry it in my bag and it only took a moment to make a record of that leftover of the past, when this kind of segregation was the norm; when there were other signs in windows of boarding houses that read, ‘No Jews, no Irish, no dogs’ (in whatever order).

I wish I could say that the sign is just there because it looks quaint but I can’t swear it is. The Cromwell Road is a posh area and I have a feeling it’s there because it still serves a purpose.


Sunday, 1 April 2007

Guest Slapper of the Month XV

My April Guest Slapper let me down yesterday. Maybe she thought it was a joke. I frantically looked around for a replacement and my gaze fell on Lulu, who, I knew, had lots to say about those controversial ID cards. Here’s her last-minute Slap. I will be eternally grateful to her. Yes, I will.

I Don’t Want to be an April Fool.

This is a slap that was never going to be a slap. In fact, for the past year or two, ever since it was first mentioned, I have always thought I would slap the people who were against the idea, for being so British and insular.

But recently I’ve changed my mind.

I’m talking about ID cards. Specifically, the introduction of them in the UK.

In the past months of public discussions, I always used to accept the argument that, if you had any reservations about carrying an ID card, it meant you had something to hide. That law-abiding citizens had nothing to fear from them, and the only reason you might have to be unwilling to prove who you were to anyone who asked you would be a guilty one. They have had them in France, a perfectly civilised democratic country, for tens of years, I would add, and no one makes a fuss there. Anyway, what’s the difference between a driving licence or passport and an ID card?

But things I’ve read, and seen, recently have really undermined my certainty. And no, it’s not about the £88 or whatever it is we are to be charged for the privilege of getting one.

First, as a middle-class, middle-aged white woman, I have to accept that the likelihood of my ID card being demanded for no particular reason by a passing policeman on my way to Tesco is minimal. That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be concerned about the extra hassle it will cause a young Asian man who’s not wearing a suit and tie – every survey shows the UK police force suffer from ‘institutional racism’, and when doing jury service I saw to my dismay how ‘stop and search’ rights were part of the everyday lives of black kids.

Secondly, the ‘nothing to hide’ argument doesn’t work when taken to its extreme. I am not a terrorist or a drug dealer, but that really, really doesn’t mean I want the intelligence services listening in on my phone line or scanning my e-mail.

Thirdly, the belief that the innocent will have no problems with ID cards assumes that the computer system set up to administer them will be pretty much faultless. And there is simply no British system in the last ten years that hasn’t caused incredible mishaps and misunderstandings and trouble for ordinary people. The new NHS patient-linking data system has been abandoned, as has the computerised system for finding junior doctors a job. You can’t book a train journey without having to sort through up to 36 different prices for the same route, from £12 to £250. The congestion charging system in London sends the bailiffs out to repossess the property of non-fine-payers who in fact had their car stolen and trashed 8 years previously and police reports prove it. And they have written five times with documentary evidence of that fact but no actual person with common sense ever looks at the letters. The child support agency endlessly pursues people who happen to have the same name but live 200 miles away from real absentee fathers, while single mothers struggle to pay their bills. The new passport system, when installed, resulted in daily nine-hour queues down the street for passports for nearly a year before its ‘teething problems’ were resolved. Credit reference agencies blacklist you because someone who lived in your house five years ago didn’t pay their mobile phone bill, even though they are a married man called Robert Black and you are a single woman called Susan White. My GP tells me to pester the hospital myself for my test results because the hospital computer will never connect up patient with GP once you’ve left the building, and she, she says, cannot possibly remember to chase my results for me because she has 3,000 people to think about. The tax office changes its address without informing you, and when you send in your tax return by overnight signed-for mail in plenty of time, it takes five days because they have to forward it on from Cornwall to Newcastle, and then they fine you for being late. Incompetence rules every administrative system, because the people entering working life now and for the past 15 years have received an education that would shame a rogue African state in the middle of a civil war, and cannot actually form a sentence or add two sums.

Fourthly, and most importantly, the ‘ID cards are innocent for innocent people’ argument totally and entirely depends upon there always being a democratic government in place, with a reasonable view on human rights and privacies, to whom one can apply peacefully and democratically to change unfair laws, and whose administrative wings – the police, social services, the courts, the tax office, the armed forces – remain under its control and basically benign. We are incredibly complacent about this in Britain – we don’t bother going to vote, we don’t protest, we sleepwalk our way into the erosion of rights, we’re scared to speak up and offend anyone or stand out from the crowd. We really assume that the situation in Europe today (well, of 20 years ago, actually) – of the West, and late 20th-century western democracy, being forever in charge of the thinking world and hopefully even in the ascendancy – will be the status quo forever. But history does not back this up, and nor do recent events. This struck me at the theatre last week, watching Athol Fugard’s play Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which is about the monstrous Kafkaesque hoops a man – a black man, of course – is made to jump through simply to be allowed to leave his home town, get a job somewhere else and send money home to his wife and children. It’s the tiniest leap – it would take the tiniest event in history (like 9/11) or a simple change of government – to instantly, or, even worse, gradually and sneakily, turn ID cards into a tool for population control in the name of ‘national security’. All that even an elected government has to do is announce ‘special circumstances’ and they can detain people for three months without charge (in the UK, or goodness knows how long in Guantanamo). A move to make people stay in or go back to the city where they were born would be the next step – it’s been a motif throughout history, in communist states, in Russia, right back to the time of Herod. There doesn’t even have to be a pressing reason, it might just strike a government minister as less trouble that way.

And there is a difference between the UK and, say, France. France has a written code or constitution dating back to Napoleon. It enshrines the separation of Church and State, so no religious fundamentalist leader can worm his way into power and change the rules from within. No one politician, in fact, can ever trespass beyond agreed limits. And the French people are ever alert to any erosion of their liberties and take to the streets the minute they are threatened.

So now I’m most certainly slapping ID cards, with all the force I can muster. Is there anyone out there who can change my mind back again, and convince me I’ve nothing to worry about?

Friday, 30 March 2007

We should have a choice, non?

Yesterday I discovered to my dismay that all the waste pipes in my kitchen and bathroom were completely blocked. No, but completely. I couldn’t run water in the sink, washbasin or bath for one second. In this wonderful flat of mine, all the water ends up in the same pipes. (What idiot devised this, back in the 1930s, that’s what I want to know.) I couldn’t understand how my pipes could go from totally clear to 100% clogged up in the space of one day – they were perfectly fine the day before, but I had to do something about it.

In my experience, the only thing that really works when this happens is Mr Muscle Sink & Plughole Unblocker (it’s also the safest, I believe, since it doesn’t harden in the drains). Off I went to my local Tesco to buy some of the stuff. They had a ‘3 for 2’ offer so I came back lugging three bottles of the miracle product (you can’t be too careful, can you?).

Then came the fun part: I got hold of one Mr Muscle and tried to unscrew its cap (no smutty jokes here, please). No could do. It was childproof. I pushed and turned and pushed harder and turned harder, in vain. OK, I had two more chances to succeed. I grabbed another bottle… Nope! Finally, the third Mr Muscle cap yielded to my will. Phew! I poured the gooey liquid through the plughole and let it do its business overnight.

Reader, it worked.

But, what I want to know (apart from who devised the drain system in my building, of course) is why we who are not children, we who do not have any children in our homes, we who can tell the difference between a bottle of Volvic and a bottle of hydrochloride what’s-it, why we have to buy these bottles with childproof caps? I’m little but I have extremely strong hands (ask anyone who’s had their back massaged by me, or, even better, ask Linda Pilkington, the owner of Ormonde Jayne: her hand is probably still smarting from being crushed in mine – I was trying to be friendly, LOL!) and what I can’t open... I was going to say, isn’t worth opening, well, no, but you know what I mean. I understand the need for childproof caps but why can’t we buy bottles, etc. with ordinary caps as well ? I think I know why but I’m asking anyway.

And what about older people with arthritis? (Actually I have a touch of it in my left hand at the moment, but I’m right-handed so it didn’t have a part in my inability to open those bottles.) What if you’re an arthritic person whose pipes are blocked or who wants to take some vitamins so they can live a little longer and bother everyone else with their special requirements, like ‘easy to open containers’? What about them, then?


Wednesday, 28 March 2007


How long before Iran promises to wipe Britain off the map, do you think?

Or isn't Britain such a thorn in its side?

Update (29 March): It's getting there... How unreasonable of Britain to make such a ‘fuss’ about nothing! Tut-tut! (Or should it be ‘Slap’?)

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

For God’s sake!

Did you know that you don’t have to be a Christian to say a prayer talking about ‘crosses’ and ‘churches’? No, neither did I. And did you know that suggesting that Jews might not be comfortable saying such a prayer is being as intolerant as the worst fundamentalist? No, neither did I.

‘Crosses’ and ‘churches’ are Christian symbols – exclusively. They have no place in Jewish religious rituals (I can only speak as Jew in this instance). Many Jews would find mentioning those words in a prayer abhorrent. How could they forget that thousands of other Jews were murdered in the name of the Church, by hordes of devout Christian brandishing crosses? The Christian religion is not universal (it might have wanted to be, once upon a time, but it didn’t manage it, quite). There are prayers that mention god without being so specific; those are fine.

During the war, trying to escape from the Gestapo in la France profonde, my mother was hired as a companion by an old woman, who had portraits of Hitler and Pétain above her bed (could there be a safer place to take refuge in?). Every night, on her knee, the woman prayed God for them. My mother was trying to ‘pass’ as a Christian: she had dyed her hair blonde; she wore a cross and went to church. She was forced to: her life was at stake. She played that difficult role for a few months, until the woman, who was very kind to her and completely unaware of her real identity, gave her away – unwittingly – to a member of the French milice. Luckily, my mother had heard them talking and she left at the earliest opportunity.

I am not a religious Jew, but I would only consider wearing a cross if my life depended on it. As for churches, I like visiting them, for their beauty, their architecture, their art, and I have attended the odd wedding/funeral in them, but I would not worship there.

I don’t care what you believe; just don’t impose your beliefs or your religious symbols on me. And don’t accuse me of intolerance when I object to your trying to do so.

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Supermarket etiquette

Forget about foreign languages, what kids need to learn from an early age is how to shop in supermarkets. We acquire that skill by watching other people, mostly our mummies; unfortunately these days women are as bad at it as men so young shoppers don’t have any role models and Supermarket Rage is a very common occurrence.

Don’t leave your basket or trolley right bang in the middle of the floor! When did this habit start? When did it become OK to block everybody else's way because one is too lazy to carry one's basket to where the pomegranate-juice cartons live? No one would leave their bags unattended in the middle of the pavement while they went into a shop so why do it in a supermarket?

If it says ‘Less than 10 items’ (by the way, resist the urge to tell the manager it should be ‘fewer’: he’s not interested), do not turn up in the queue with a trolley full to the brim and then smile apologetically to the people behind you: it won’t wash.

Don’t leave the stuff you want to buy on the belt while you go off to get an item you forgot to pick up earlier? It's a neat trick, isn't it? You reserve your place in the queue and no one can move your groceries aside without feeling like a louse.

When the cashier begins to check out your purchases, don’t stand there flirting with them or nattering into your mobile; unless you’re very old or suffering from some handicap and are therefore slower than an able-bodied person, don’t wait until you’ve paid, start bagging the stuff now, otherwise the next person will huff and puff and probably curse you to the twelfth generation for keeping them waiting.

Don’t act surprised when the cashier requests money from you. What did you expect? Did you think it was Free Food Day and you wouldn’t have to fork out for your over-packaged cook-chill meals? Hand in your card or cash and then resume packing so by the time they give you your change or ask you to key in your PIN you will have finished and no time will have been wasted.

Finally, don’t hang about checking your receipt while the next person – me – is trying to access their items, which are now tumbling all over the place, get out of the way!

Sunday, 11 March 2007

The answer is 'no'

The other day, while I was putting away some letters and cards I received in the past two years (yes, I keep lots of stuff and, yes, I'm very behind in my filing), I came across several envelopes containing hand-painted cards, a few pebbles and bits of driftwood. They were sent to me last Christmas by the guy who was the Art Master at the school in Tewkesbury where I was the ‘French Madamoiselle’ in 1969-70.

David was a lovely, eccentric artist. At the time, he was having an intense affair with the PE mistress – a buxom girl called Sue, who became my best friend there. I used to tag along, when my presence wasn’t an intrusion, and sometimes even when it was beginning to be (it was the late ‘60s, LOL!). We used to listen to music and have impromptu parties. David had a Mini, which he drove like a madman. We went to the Cheltenham Film Club to see – oh, how bohemian! – foreign films (England was so insular then). David wasn’t just an artist, he was also a wonderful photographer – he took the one photograph of me I don’t mind looking at. He was friendly, fun and kind, and I was very sorry when I left and lost touch with him and Sue a couple of years later (they didn’t get married, by the way).

Fast forward 32 years and in a fit of nostalgia I register with Friends Reunited to see if any of my old ‘pupils’ are still around, and before I know it I receive an email from David. He has been married for years and years, has two grown-up daughters and is still teaching, painting and taking photographs. He wants to meet me; wants to come down to London and stay with me; wants to take me to an exhibition... Hey, slow down, it's all going a bit too fast. We exchange a couple more emails and he says all the wrong things. I can’t quite put my finger on why they’re wrong, they just are, and I know we wouldn’t get on. He calls one evening and again says things that make my hackles rise. I decide I don't want to pursue the relationship any further. I find some excuse for not responding to his emails. I feel angry and disappointed: he has spoiled the sweet memories I have of my year in Tewkesbury. I would have got the message. He didn’t. Since then I’ve received masses of letters and cards and odd objets trouvés (he lives by the sea).

What saddens me is that it’s not impossible to renew old friendships: I am in touch with a few people I used to know 30 years ago and who weren’t part of my life for many years in between. When I found them again (or they found me), we picked up where we’d left off. It’s a fantastic feeling – there’s nothing like old friends – but it doesn’t work every time and one has to acknowledge it.

I curse the day I came across Friends Reunited – I gather it has a lot of broken marriages, and even some deaths, on its conscience – and I’m slapping people who behave like stalkers and refuse to recognize when they’re unwanted (yes, I’m talking about you too, S).

Tuesday, 6 March 2007

Or this

It's been revealed recently that English-speaking doctors from the Commonwealth, i.e. from Canada, Australia and India, for instance, have to pass a proficiency test before they're allowed to practise medicine in the UK, but doctors hailing from countries of the EU don’t, even if their English is appalling. As you can imagine, this could have terrible consequences.

It already has. A little while ago, a man probably died because of this mad policy: he collapsed in the surgery of a French GP, who, suspecting a heart attack, called for an ambulance straight away. Unfortunately, instead of saying the man was ‘unconscious’, he said he was ‘sleeping’, so, you know, the ambulance people didn’t think it was such an emergency and they took their time. And who can blame them?