Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year!

Update (1/01/10): I hope you all had a good time last night. But not too good. To check the state of your gall-bladder, visualize a piece of toast dribbling with melted butter. If you instantly feel nauseous and clutch your right side, you have overindulged: you need to cut out all fat and alcohol from your diet for a while.

This is an actual test that was used by French doctors in the olden days. It should be revived: it does work. Try it!

Monday, 28 December 2009


I’m sitting here writing a post for Les Planches d’Outre-Manche with the TV on (with the sound off and out of my line of vision – the ideal setup) and I’ve just glanced at it and seen David Tennant taking part in some game show… GO AWAY, we’re all utterly sick and tired of seeing your silly face all over the place this Christmas!

Slapping silly face!

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Season of Goodwill

A lot of parcels get lost in the post in the UK. Millions of them every year, and probably a high percentage of those around now since so many are foolishly entrusted to Royal Mail before Christmas. (Actually, I believe this is the safest period mail-wise because every parcel is assumed to be a present that has to reach its recipient. Royal Mail employees called off the strike that had been going on for several weeks in October and November because, otherwise, they would have been lynched by their nearest and dearest, let alone the general public. Nothing, but nothing is allowed to get between a Brit and his/her Christmas cards/pressies.)

Anyway, if you agree with the above statement, could you, please, go and tell those neighbours of mine (a young couple from Thailand) who have accused me twice in the past few days of stealing a parcel meant for them. Notice I didn’t say ‘addressed’ to them because, apparently, the sender made a mistake and wrote down my flat number instead of theirs on the label. It goes without saying (but it’s even better said) that I haven’t set eyes on their blasted parcel: all parcels are left with the porter on duty at the time (I know, it sounds ever so grand, but I assure you it isn’t), who enters the name of the recipient – exactly as it appears on the parcel – and the flat number in a book (which you sign when you collect your parcel).

The young girl came to see me first. Her English is practically nonexistent, but I eventually understood she had ordered goods from a company somewhere and the parcel bore my address. I told her that if I got notification of a parcel waiting for me in reception and the parcel didn’t bear my name I would, of course, not collect it and let the porter know which flat it was intended for.

She seemed OK with my response, but the following day, the young man turned up and said – in slightly better English – that he knew I’d recently had a parcel: he’d seen my flat number in the book. The implication being that it had been theirs. Er, no, it is Christmas and lots of people get parcels and, however surprising it may seem, so did I. The parcel, as the name entered in the book indicated, had been intended for me. I also showed the guy the box the stuff had come in – with my name on it.

No doubt their parcel is lost, like all the other unfortunate pieces of mail that never reach their intended recipients, and I expect the company is refusing to send them a duplicate of whatever it was they ordered from them and will carry on telling them, ‘Sorry we made a mistake, but you need to sort it out with the person who lives in that flat.’ I feel sorry for them, but there is nothing I can do. Please tell them that for me – again. And tell them not to turn up on my doorstep any more with an accusatory look in their eyes. They also accused the porter – five times – of the same offence. Enough already! This is England: things will go wrong.


Friday, 11 December 2009

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Plus ça change

The story goes that the great art critic John Ruskin refused to consummate his marriage to his young bride because he was horrified at finding she had pubic hair. He was used to seeing paintings and statues. That was in 1848 and you’d think young men these days would have a pretty good idea of what women look like down there.

Well, you would be wrong: apparently, some men still find women au naturel repulsive. A few weeks ago, a 38-year-old Times reader, who had just started seeing a 27-year-old man asked the resident sex adviser, ‘Do I need a Brazilian waxing?’ because her new lover had remarked on her ‘lack of grooming’.

That is shocking in itself, but even more outrageous – and sad – was the answer.
There is something hugely irritating about being forced to conform to an aesthetic ideal instigated and perpetuated by the porn industry, but, like keeping one’s armpits and legs smooth, it is now expected. If your boyfriend has been conditioned to expect a tidy Brazilian, he may genuinely find anything else very off-putting.

Though the feminist ethos of your ‘take me as I am’ argument is perfectly valid, your boyfriend’s reaction is instinctive — and in the face of something that is honestly perceived as a turn-off by one partner, rational arguments simply do not work. The good news is that, as “issues” go, this is a pretty small one and, hey, if the relationship doesn’t work out you can return to your old ways.
So, there you have it, ladies, if you want to please your man, you have to take your cue from porn stars. Nice!

Talking about being groomed, I wonder whether the man in question uses an antiperspirant or whether he prefers to stink like his Neanderthal forebears. There is a certain male sales assistant in my local Primark whom one cannot approach for fear of being suffocated. What do you bet he too is very particular about his woman’s toilette?


Tuesday, 20 October 2009


As the New York Times reported on 5 October, ‘[from 1 Dec 2009] The Federal Trade Commission will try to regulate blogging for the first time, requiring writers on the Web to clearly disclose any freebies or payments they get from companies for reviewing their products.’ At last people who blog about ‘stuff’ are beginning to come clean and reveal what samples they’ve received.


1) lots of people are not as wealthy as they appear to be
2) some companies do not care how badly reviews are written as long as their products are being mentioned
3) I should have been cleverer and realised straight away that blogging about nothing in particular was never going to be lucrative (writing well or badly about books might have got me a Sony Reader – drat!)

Anyway, I would like to assure my readers that no company has ever given me free bad service so I could comment on it. I’ve always had to pay for it one way or another.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Second-guessing the medics – updated

1990 - I’m having an ultrasound on my right eye at Moorfields. I am anxious, but not overly so because the symptoms I’ve been experiencing are the same as those I had seven years ago and I’m expecting ultimately to be told the problem will go away and to get used to the weird green patch in my field of vision because they can’t do anything for me. The ultrasound operator is very talkative and we chat happily for a few minutes while she strokes my eyelid this way and that with the probe. And then she goes silent. I subliminally register the change, but shrug it off. I know she’s seen something because, in the course of the angiogram I had a couple of weeks earlier, the doctor called out to a colleague to ‘come and see this lesion!’ It turns out I have a retinal melanoma.

1999 - I’m having a mammogram arranged by the consultant I saw the previous evening. I’ve never had a mammogram before and it’s agony because I have small breasts and they don’t fit between the plates. The technician struggles with my body, gets her hand squashed, one of my breasts even pops out of the machine halfway through a picture being taken. It is a thoroughly humiliating – and excruciating – experience. Then it’s over and I’m asked to sit on a chair and wait. I sit there, breathless, holding my injured chest, angry that I have to be put through this torture when the consultant more or less said it was some benign problem. The technician comes out of the other room and says she should be having her lunch break now and has to go and fetch her colleague. She comes back with someone else who, when she’s seen the pictures, says that some of them are not clear because the other technician is fairly new and didn’t operate the machine correctly. I get a bit distressed, and even angrier, but do not think there is anything sinister. The experts at the Marsden deliver their verdict the next day: cancer in both breasts – except they were wrong.

2009 – A few weeks ago, I’m lying perfectly still in an MRI room (there is something incongruous in having such a sophisticated test in the basement of an 18th-century house in Harley Street, but I can’t see the humour of it at this point); my head is squashed between two chunks of foam and the machine is making a deafening sound. Still, I’m OK: I’m not in a tube and not feeling claustrophobic – much. The technician told me before the scan started that it would take approximately 15 minutes, but I’ve already heard her say, ‘the next one is eight minutes’, then, ‘the next one is four minutes’ several times and I know it’s taking a lot longer than it should. And then it dawns on me that they are not looking for damage to my cervical vertebrae, but for a tumour on my spinal cord. When it’s over – 45 minutes later – and I query the time it took, she says, ‘We took some extra shots because you’ve had a melanoma,’ and I know I guessed right. Results: no tumour or nerve compression.

The moral of the story? You can’t rely on your instinct when it comes to such tests – just as well sometimes.

Where we at, then? (You can tell I’ve been watching The Wire, can’t you?) Well, no one knows why I’m having the symptoms that have been bothering me, but they’ve discovered I have osteoporosis in my spine (the MRI didn’t show that, by the way), which may or may not be responsible. Some big frightening words have been mentioned, but they don’t bear thinking – or talking – about right now so it’s a question of waiting and seeing if some calcium will do the trick.

Update (18/10/09): So, after waiting over two hours at the hospital and being weighed in public (ugh!), I was told (thanks to a clever computer program that any GP could probably master and thus save everyone a lot of time) that I wasn’t suffering from osteoporosis after all. That is, I do have osteoporosis, but no more than any other woman of my age and I don't require any specific treatment. Just need to be careful not to fall over too often.

That was the good news; the bad news is that osteoporosis is obviously not the cause of my symptoms… I wish it were.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Another Great British Summer…

…another blight on my life.

For over 20 years, I could never enjoy the sunshine* because summer was my busiest period (all the other French translators being away for ‘les grandes vacances’), then, when that work dried out and I was free again, the gods decided I should be preoccupied with health scares instead.

So here I find myself once again ‘under the doctor’, in front of X-ray machines and soon inside an MRI thingamabob, for symptoms that are making my life a misery. I used to be a hypochondriac, but not any longer. That’s what chronic ill health does for you.

Slapping the gods!

* of course, since I live in London and recently bought a new pair of sunglasses, the sunshine is most often replaced by torrential downpours, which, at least, are in tune with my mood. Trust me on this: going for tests and receiving bad news is worse when the sky is blue and the sun is shining.
It is one of the secrets of Nature in its mood of mockery that fine weather lays heavier weight on the mind and hearts of the depressed and the inwardly tormented than does a really bad day with dark rain sniveling continuously and sympathetically from a dirty sky. (Muriel Spark)

Saturday, 27 June 2009


I’ve already mentioned my erstwhile friend Diana, who sublet her Notting Hill Gate flat to me when I moved to London in 1979 (Small pleasures from small favours). For the first six months, the flat was still in her name and so were all the utility bills: I gave her the money and she paid them – or so I thought until, one day, I found I couldn’t use the phone because the line had been cut off. Art-loving Diana had bought some pieces in a Stratford gallery. I was livid: that money didn’t belong to her; it didn’t even belong to me; it belonged to British Telecom.

I was reminded of her behaviour earlier today when I read a comment on a blog in which the commenter boasted she was thousands of dollars in debt, but still managed to save for luxuries – to make herself feel better, she said. You cannot save money that doesn’t belong to you. You have no business buying luxuries when you owe money to others. You’re not ‘worth it’! You don’t ‘deserve it’! You are being irresponsible and it’s partly because of people like you that people like me, who always strive to live within their means, are in trouble. I am losing money daily because interest rates are now practically nil in this country, lower than inflation anyway. Forget luxuries, I need that money to live on. For the sake of my health, I’m trying not to get het up about things I can’t do anything about, but that made my blood boil.

Slapping selfish, irresponsible people! There are so many of them.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

My Brilliant Career

I’ve been digitizing old cassette tapes and feel I cannot deprive my readers of this treat one moment longer.

I was big in Mali and Niger in the early 90s. Easy to see why, innit?

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

That famous British humour

Just back from my yearly ‘book bath’ at Earl’s Court. Exhausted, but happy: the future of books is not in danger and the quality seems higher than usual – certainly higher than last year. Fewer rubbishy ‘comic’ stocking fillers; fewer patronising ‘lifestyle’ books; more serious fiction.

Anyway, this was next to my seat on the bus back

Pity it wasn’t rush hour yet.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The column to end all columns

I used to read quite a few blogs; I don’t any longer. Over the past year or so, I have gradually stopped reading blogs about topics I don’t really care about; blogs that don’t make sense however hard you try to fathom what they’re striving to say; blogs whose authors use the pronoun ‘we’ to refer to themselves; blogs written in painfully bad English; blogs written by admirers of Marie-Antoinette and/or the Romanovs; blogs written by hypocrites; blogs written by sycophants, and blogs whose authors are hypocritical sycophants.

Instead of blogs I’ve been reading newspaper columns online. What is the difference between a blogger and a columnist? The former does it for free; the latter gets paid? Nope: the newspaper columnist has an editor (no one would let me ramble on the way I do in print and that’s as it should be). I am getting fonder of edited stuff by the minute.

The majority of the columns I read are interesting and occasionally perceptive, but none has been more strikingly so as this one, by the delightfully grumpy Giles Coren. It was published in the Times, on 22 November 2008. It refers to events that happened a few months ago, but the main message is even more relevant now, as the recession deepens. I haven’t agreed so much with anything anyone has written for a long time, but then, to me, ‘middlebrow’ is a dirty word.

We need high culture when the index is low

Forget Siberian flosspots. When we’re living on boiled squirrel we should turn to Tolstoy, not trash.

I don't want to give you the wrong impression - and make you think that I give a gibbon's blue goolies whether or not John Sergeant and some horse-thighed Croatian belly-dancer were robbed of a chance to win that game show – but there was one vein of comment in the quagmire of cack spouted about it over the past week that did, briefly, engage me.

And that came when the pro-Sergeant “lobby” appeared to marshal itself around the rallying cry that “the judges should lighten up, it's just a bit of fun, we need distracting from the grimness of the recession”. And I just absolutely do not agree. I cannot see the link. I do not grasp why global economic meltdown should necessarily create an appetite for dumb vanity and shallowness.

Dancing is a moronic activity at the best of times, and when turned into yet another opportunity for celebrity exhibitionism and flawed voting schemes that give democracy a bad name (among a viewing public too lazy to turn out in any significant numbers for elections that really might make a difference to their lives) it appears more imbecilic still. Fiddling while Rome burns.

If a man has lost his job, if his children have holes in their shoes and he is living off soup made from the ninth boiling of a squirrel, then how dare we imagine that his lot will be eased by the sight of a retired journalist waddling round a dance floor with some thunder-bummed Siberian flosspot? (or Slovenian or Russian or whatever she is – I've not seen the show but I've seen the photos in the paper, and nobody colours their hair and body like that except to compensate for a childhood lived under communism).

The media, perhaps understandably, have turned very monochromatic of late. It has only two notes: mad, screaming pessimism about money on the one hand, and brutish, wailing enthusiasm for the lowest of low culture on the other. As if a lack of perspective at both ends in some way created balance.

This week, for example, the papers, when briefly turning their attention away from Strictly Come Dancing, have been thoroughly boob-struck, wrapping stories about the “moral failure” of banks around photographs of Nigella with her shmams out, and running front-page headlines about families losing their homes alongside I'm a Celebrity... video-grabs of big, wet, plastic norks in the jungle.

I do not want to appear hypocritical here, for I am as easily distracted by a big artificial rack on a dim-witted WAG as the next man, but it's not a “new Jordan” that this country should be looking for just at this precise moment, it's a new outlook on life. A far more serious and grown-up one.

And don't look up from your copy of the No1 bestseller Look Who It Is! - My Story by Alan Carr and give me “escapism”. Escapism is an illusion. Escapism is what has got us into this mess. Buying on credit, from the tiddliest MasterCard lunch you couldn't really afford to billion-dollar leveraged buyouts, is, when you boil it down, just escapism - avoiding any sort of engagement with objective reality and doing something just because it feels good at the time. Like a child might do. Or a monkey.

This is not the time to waste a week of your life with Alan Carr's autobiography (or Dawn French's or Paul O'Grady's or Richard Madeley's) and think it counts as reading a book. Because it doesn't. You have borrowed unwisely. You have taken a week off your life that you will not get back at the end, and when you shut whichever compendium of venal drivel you chose, you will still owe thousands on your worthless home and be in no less danger of losing your job.

If you had at least read a bit of Tolstoy, you might have expanded your mind a little. If, instead of watching all those reality shows, you had learnt Japanese, you would be in a better position to remain in work. And if, rather than calling radio phone-ins to say that Len Goodman is a spoilsport, you had learnt the French horn, you would, if nothing else, be able to play your children a bit of Mozart while they sit shivering round the last candle in the house.

I cannot tell you how furious I am with these people who seem to think they should be given back the money they spent on voting for John Sergeant. Anyone to whom a single pound represents a significant, useful quantity of money, and who spent it on a celebrity game show vote, should have his or her assets frozen immediately – under the counter-terrorism laws if need be. Their children should be taken into care. And they should have their credit cards melted and moulded into a stick with which they should be flogged until they bleed.

How in the world can people be angry about a game show? How can a country in 2008 (with the National Intelligence Council in America predicting 20 impending years of environmental tragedy and nuclear war) truly divide into two camps on the question of whether or not the dancing, per se, is the lifeblood of Strictly Come Dancing? It's not funny. It's not even wholesome. It is rancid. If the people who have got so angry about the “injustice” of John's departure had any balls, they would be out lynching bankers.

The point is that all these distractions and escape channels were created not by recession but, quite the opposite, by economic boom.

It was the fat years that made us lazy, dumbed us down, replaced great television with a series of reality shows and killed literature to make room for celebrity whingeing and kiddy books repackaged for adults. It is no coincidence that the publication cycle of Harry Potter, from the first book to the seventh, marked almost exactly the years of economic growth. It is a fat, lazy race that turns its brain off as a prelude to cultural engagement.

Fat, like the seven fat kine in Pharaoh's dream, and the seven lean kine who came after and ate them up. We laid nothing by in the fat years except shlock and dross, and now we turn to it and find that it offers us nothing. Shopping as leisure activity, for heaven's sake. Bluewater, Lakeside, Westfield. The descent into Gomorrah is all-encompassing and headlong. We have not just lost our money, we have lost everything.

Sensible investment designed to repay over the long term would not have screwed everything up the way wild speculation for short-term profit has done.

And the same is true in the culture. Things are going to be pretty crappy now for quite some time, and the short-term fixes of reality television and celebrity biography are not going to help. It would be a great thing if bad times meant we found room for proper books again, and slightly less poisonous popular culture. In the long run, we will end up feeling better if we moderate the gloom of a life with less money by focusing on higher things, not lower ones.

Off to read a ‘proper’ book!

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Jamais deux sans trois

You wouldn’t expect the Swedes to trick people, would you? They are so straightforward, so no-nonsense, so blond, so healthy, so attractive… but I digress… I usually visit IKEA once a year: it’s tiring and these days there isn’t much I need to buy for my little flat so going there more often would be tedious and unnecessary.

My last ‘expotition’ to the nearest store yielded a very nice shopping trolley at a reduced price of £11, and a white mug-like container with a handle that looked so strange I could not not buy it. I will ask one of my two Swedish friends to tell me what it’s used for. I fully expect her to laugh and say, ‘We don’t use that kind of contraption for anything; it must be Finnish.’ Anyway, on my return home, I checked the receipt and realized to my dismay that I had been charged the full price for the trolley instead of the discounted one. So, two days later, back I went to that huge warehouse, but before going to the customer service desk and complaining about the mistake I thought I should take a photograph of the label showing the price of the trolley in case they didn’t believe me. All the trolleys had been sold, but the label referring to them was still there. That’s when I noticed that I had been charged the correct price: £11 was the Family price. What Family price? Never heard of a Family price.

Easy to miss on the label, non?

I dislike being tricked in this way. I really do. In an attempt to relieve the frustration and resentment I felt, I bought a small table specially designed for laptop users. I occasionally have mine on my lap, but it gets very hot very quickly. Just like the trolley, the table had to be put together, but unlike the trolley, which had been very easy, it couldn’t be built because a main part was missing. So, the next day, I traipsed to IKEA for the third time and returned the stupid, incomplete table. The guy at the desk didn’t even want to hear the reason why I was returning it. As I was leaving, I noticed a large counter in the waiting area, where buyers are encouraged to ‘check’ that the boxes containing the items they have bought are not missing an essential ‘bit’. The very existence of that table means that masses of ‘bits’ are absent from masses of boxes; that it’s a common occurrence.

What about making sure everything is there in the first place, eh? Slap!

PS. At least I won’t have to go back to IKEA for another two years now.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

A failed cure

Last year I wrote about the reader’s block that had afflicted me for a long time and how I had managed to conquer it (see The book freeze). It worked very well for a while and then I had a relapse: all I could read was stuff on the Net instead of all those wonderful books that were piling up on my bedside table. I got quite distressed about it again.

And then, one afternoon, in Poundland – one of my favourite shops in the whole wide world, where you can satisfy an urge to spend money so easily and so cheaply, I found several interesting audio books (24 hours of entertainment for £4 – an incredible bargain):

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, read by Kerry Shale
Brick Lane by Monica Ali, read by Ayesha Dharker
Toast by Nigel Slater, read by the author
Orson Welles by Simon Callow, read by the author

My treatment started well: the Jonathan Safran Foer was pure bliss. The novel is marvellous and I cannot tell you how wonderfully Kerry Shale reads it. Brick Lane was also a delight. At last I could understand what all the fuss was about: it’s a sensitive, beautifully written novel, read with feeling.

I was elated: in a very short space of time I had managed to ‘read’ two great novels. I stuck the first tape of Toast in my player and prepared to be enthralled. But as soon as I heard the first sentence read out in a weedy, reedy, thin, wet voice by Nigel Slater I knew I wouldn’t enjoy that particular ride. It was torture, but I suffer from ‘Completion Syndrome’ when it comes to audio books too so I had to listen to all six hours of it. I love Nigel Slater’s recipes, but the food he talks about in Toast (the story of his childhood and youth through the foodstuffs he ate) is stodgy and unpalatable and so is the book. Still, OK, I thought, the reason must be partly because it wasn’t read by an actor. Surely the Orson Welles biography would be fascinating: Simon Callow is a talented writer and he was bound to read his own book with all the passion he put into his acting. Alas! I am halfway through it and not enjoying it much. This time I am bothered by Callow’s American accent. It is the most atrocious I have ever heard. Think Anthony LaPaglia’s English accent in Frasier. It makes me want to scream, which is not good since I mostly listen to the tapes at night. I don’t know how I’m going to bear it for another four hours.

After that, it will be back to printed books, I think, because at least I won’t have to put up with silly voices.

Slapping the self-indulgent authors who think they can read their own works and the editors/publishers who can’t say no to them!