Tuesday, 31 August 2010

When gay politicians are forced out of the closet

If you are reading this the other side of the world, it won’t make an ounce of difference to you that another leading British politician may be forced out of the closet.
This is allowing that there is substance – so far strongly denied and backed by the threat of legal action - to the nudges and winks circulating in some quarters of the political blogosphere.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Test Match Special - an appreciation

I’m not a cricket fan – I can’t tell a silly mid off from a serious one - but one of my biggest guilty pleasures is listening to Test Match Special on the radio. If I’m home, it's on all day - and for five days if the game lasts that long.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (long wave) and in digital on Five Live Sports Extra, it is the aural equivalent of comfort food.
Like the sport itself there is something gloriously ridiculous about the programme, which is quintessentially English. Just as there is probably no other sporting contest which can last the best part of a week and still end in a draw, there can be few sports shows in which the game can often take second best to reminiscences, cake tastings, and other diversions.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Let's stick together - my Velos 323 stapler and me

Today I celebrate the 50th birthday of the acquisition of my Velos 323 stapler. The oldest possession bought by myself.
The day is almost certainly wrong and I could be a year or two out on the year. But the stapler is so old it carries a rare boast declaring ‘Made In England’ – twice.
The machine still functions albeit a little stiff and mottled – a bit like its owner.
My 1956 Dandy and Beano annuals would have pre-dated the Velos purchase but I lost contact with these much-loved books around the time of my divorce over a decade ago.
I have a clear memory of buying the stapler in a stationer in London’s Goodge Street close to where the family home was at the time. It came with a box of staples – let’s say 1,000 of the things. So far the box, yellowed and heavily taped is still more than half full. It’s a sobering thought that I will expire before those staples do.
A satisfying thump on my Velos 323 sealed every letter I ever sent beyond a page – job applications, pleas to literary agents for representation, or just correspondence to family and friends.
We first teamed up half a century ago probably because I wanted to pin together the scraps on which I had started my angst-ridden teenage poetry. And in all senses our attachment grew.
When I die it would be nice to think my stapler will stand at the foot of my grave like some latter-day Greyfriars Bobby waiting to serve its master. But as I intend to be cremated the idea doesn’t work so well.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Angelina, Tom, and Cameron run and shoot and run some more

Watching Angelina Jolie in Salt and Knight and Day starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz on successive days this week means several precious hours of my life have been lost forever.
I was impelled to watch the films though action movies are not my standard diet, because a) I wanted see where the genre was at b) I had some time to kill c) It was raining d) At my age concessionary ticket prices are a relatively good deal for a place to sit in the dry.
I reasoned the stars are first-rate actors and wouldn’t attach themselves to inferior material even if it were of the shoot ‘em-up variety. All three showed why they deserve their star rating and their places in the Hollywood firmament. They carried their respective movies.
Each seemed to be having fun; an emotion I doubt shared in audiences by anyone other than their most devoted fans.
Both films dispensed with any decipherable plot after the first 10 minutes. So the usual double-agent tosh to get the films started was followed by a succession of chases, bullet spraying, and explosions done better elsewhere. The survival of the lead characters was never in doubt regardless of the dangers they faced.
In terms of involving the audience it was though Jason Bourne had never, well, been born.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Stand up comedians face extinction

Stand up comedians are in danger of over-mining their material. There can only be a finite number whose routines see them as geeks at school; suffering embarrassing parents; then later becoming hopeless lovers and cynical observers of life. Their success is the antithesis of their material and ultimately this shallowness will undermine their careers.
Some seams are already exhausted. Few laughs in commercial quantities are to be had from sexual positions, erections (or failure to achieve same), periods, sanitary towels or any other formerly taboo subjects.
The frequent use of the f- and c- words is in itself no alternative for humour. Mocking Stephen Hawking is not an effective alternative to actual wit.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Jobless graduates start here - GC looks at internships, CVs, and interviews

It’s tough enough for any new graduate to find a job but it is doubly difficult if you come from a working class background. Given the extra endeavour this category of student has made towards achieving his or her degree, it is just plain unfair the obstacles that may lay in their way. My concern is that younger brothers and sisters may decide the sacrifices that have to be made by students from poor families isn’t worth the effort if their graduate sibling can’t find a worthwhile job.

Monday, 23 August 2010

SEX + BOOZE = ABORTION

Researchers from University College London have found a correlation between the increasing amount of booze young women consume and both the rising frequency of abortion and the use of morning-after contraception in the UK. The report published in the Journal of Public Health said also an increasing number of survey respondents blamed alcohol for losing their virginity, which they later regretted.
Legacy Of The Ladette screeched the Daily Mail’s Saturday front page as its story provided another opportunity for Middle England to despair at today’s younger generation.
A quick Google of the appropriate surveys suggests that patterns of sexual activity among the young are broadly similar across Europe. But contraception use is not. Our abortion rate is way ahead of most other countries on the continent.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Ernest Hemingway - an appreciation

It is a mystery to me why I haven’t read more Ernest Hemingway given that there are two pieces by him that have influenced how I’ve approached literature for more than four decades.
His short story Hills Like White Elephants is flawless. The American and his girlfriend Jig are waiting at a country station for a train on a blistering hot day in Spain. In just a few pages you learn all you need to know about the couple, their recent past – and their future.
By the way, the Wikipedia analysis of the story is cack. It finds symbolism at every turn, which I’m certain Hemingway wouldn’t have recognised. If you haven’t read the story before give it a miss in case it spoils the magic of the text.
Of even greater influence is a passage in Hemingway’s 1937 novel To Have and Have Not. The Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall movie shares little with the book other than its title.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

The future points to legalising drug use - but money and lives could be saved now

I don’t expect to see the legalisation of prostitution, euthanasia, or personal drug use in the UK in my lifetime, although a strong case allowing tight regulation can be made for all three.
In each case MPs’ fear of a public backlash and the concern that such moves would “send out the wrong message” will keep these radical changes off the statute books for a long time to come.
But no one can really tell with the Coalition government how far it will go to slash the deficit left by New Labour. Justice minister Ken Clarke is already pledged to cut the prison population to save money much to the disgust of the Tory right.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

I lost my Edinburgh Festival virginity over a long weekend...

I lost my Edinburgh Festival virginity over a long weekend that began last Friday returning to London yesterday. Better late than never but given my enthusiasm for the low and high brow I don’t know why it has taken me so long to trek north in August where both can be handsomely catered.
From the experience of seeing eight shows – and the splendid National Gallery of Scotland (the skating minister reverend Dr Walker illustrates this blog) – I have listed 10 tips below in case you take the plunge yourself one day. But first a few general observations.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

Male body hair - fur he's a jolly good fellow

Back in 1972 when Burt Reynolds posed for this Cosmo centrefold he was judged one of the world's sexiest male film stars. My guess is today his hirsute body would be a turn-off for many young women. I don't get why the hair thing should have changed over four decades.
Unless the world has turned upside down men still want to attract women - and so groom themselves accordingly. Women, therefore, share the blame too for what strikes me as an irrational approach to male hair - from top to toe.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Britain's economic plight - the calm before the storm

It’s hardly surprising that according to the most recent survey, consumer confidence in the UK is at a lower ebb than almost anywhere in the industrialised world. The public has no idea what is around the economic corner but they suspect it’s going to be nasty.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

The Madame Butterfly aria that places Puccini among the immortals

Un bel di (One fine day) – the justly famous aria from Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly speaks for itself in terms of a beauty and sadness which never fails to move me to tears
In the video at the foot of this post Butterfly is sung by Italian soprano Carla Maria Izzo.
Butterfly has been waiting three years for the return of Pinkerton, the American naval officer, for whom she renounced everything to marry. Pinkerton didn’t recognise the legality of the Japanese wedding ceremony – Butterfly believed she tied the knot for life.
In the aria Butterfly’s love and faith in Pinkerton has never wavered and she imagines his arrival. I’ve lifted an outline of the translated libretto from Wikipedia.
Butterfly tells her maid Suzuki, "one beautiful day they will see a puff of smoke on the far horizon. Then a ship will appear and enter the harbor. She will not go down to meet him but will wait on the hill for him to come. After a long time, she will see in the far distance a man beginning the walk out of the city and up the hill. When he arrives, he will call "Butterfly" from a distance, but she will not answer, partly for fun and partly not to die from the excitement of the first meeting. Then he will speak the names he used to call her: "Little one. Dear wife. Orange blossom." Butterfly promises Suzuki that this will happen."
Be patient – the music kicks off around the 40 seconds mark – and you will be rewarded with a sublime music experience.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Why would Peter Crouch cheat on Abbey Clancy?

Peter Crouch appears to have been subject to whatever is the reverse of brewer’s droop. The News of the World alleged yesterday that the gangling soccer player had enjoyed an £800 session with a teenage prostitute, Monica Mint, while on a stag trip to Madrid last month.
It’s a pity England players can’t score as well on the pitch as they do in nightclubs.
His apparent alcohol fuelled readiness to play away from home is said to have, understandably, “utterly devastated” his fiancĂ©e, FHM cover girl and TV presenter Abbey Clancy.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

In Golders Hill Park

I am the not-so-Greater Rhea, cousin to the ostrich and emu.
With flightless wings I’m grounded here in Golders Hill Park.
My legs, which out ran the cougar, now seem ridiculous stilts.
Ashamed I hide them away beneath my grubby-grey breast.
I lay my head down on the mown grass and hope to dream
Of the wild pampas before the farmers came.
But instead of hooves, horses of the mad gauchos and their cattle,
I hear the shuffle of another lost like me but nearly home.

Friday, 6 August 2010

THE VISIT - a short story by GC (part 4)

“Sorry, mum, I haven’t been to see you for a while. But I’ve not been too well. Not well at all. I’ve got what dad had but you probably know that.”
Donald Woodley stood in front of his mother’s grave. The words were spoken silently. “The girls are well and so’s Sue. Tony? Well you know Tony.”
He couldn’t think of anything else to say. The task wasn’t helped by a growing need to urinate. He had rushed out of the house and then not thought to have a pee in the Gents at the cemetery gates.
The grave looked well enough cared for. He pulled out a few blades of grass. “Bye, mum, I’ll be seeing you, one way or another.”
He had intended to return to the car via the toilets but he had a sudden wish to see his father’s grave.
“Bury me as far away from your dad as you can,” had been his mother’s dying wish. So it wouldn’t be easy. His father had died many years earlier and Woodley had only been back once before.

At about the same time that his father was heading deeper into a field of headstones, Tony Woodley was finishing a phone call to his wife.
He had told her he’d brought up the subject of their baby’s name with his dad.
“I felt a bit bad about it – but not that bad.”
Tony and Jo had been given every reason by the ante-natal clinic to expect that their baby would be a girl. She would be christened Catherine after Jo’s late mother.
The charade with his father had been a precaution intended to stop the old man turning nasty over the naming of their baby once it was born.
Several times Tony had just stopped short of breaking with his father over Woodley’s rudeness about his wife and her family.
His mother feared a row over the baby-naming might be the cause of the final rift. It was she and Jo who had dreamed up the ruse hoping that by saying the baby would be called Donald if it were a boy might placate the old man.
Tony had been reluctant. But his mother had begged him to go along with the plan.

Donald Woodley found his father’s headstone. It was weather-stained and moss-covered. Could he really have been dead more than 30 years when his shout, his scorn, his cold disinterest were still so fresh in his son’s memory?
Woodley knew he would never return. He fought to find the right words but none would come. Yet he couldn’t leave with nothing said.
There was no one else in sight. He unbuttoned his flies. Unlike the painful old men’s’ dribble he had come to expect, his urine created a perfect arc drenching the stone and the grave beneath.
It glistened in the sun and the words came. “Why couldn’t you like me?”
He walked a few paces when he had to return to the grave. “Our Tony’s car is a Porsche and he’s going to call his boy Donald.”

“You alright, dad?” asked Tony Woodley as he helped his father back in the car.
“Everything’s fine; thanks for taking me.”
Thank Christ, I can do something right, thought Tony relieved to be heading back to his parent’s house.
When he arrived he parked behind his sister’s Golf and again hauled the old man to his feet. This time his father winced with pain.
The two men faced each other. Father and son.
“Coming in?”
“No, I better be off. Jo’ll be waiting.”
Donald Woodley watched his son go round to the driver’s door and climb in to the car. He knew he should say something about naming the baby after him. He tapped on the glass. Tony lowered it. His father bent awkwardly to face him through the open window.
“Yes, dad?”
“I wanted to say. The car. It’s a good runner.”
“Thanks.”
Tony watched his father limp slowly up the path back towards the house. The front door opened and out raced his nephew and niece, Julia’s children.
For a moment he thought they were coming to admire the Porsche but to his surprise they grabbed hands with the old man and gently led him back home.
The End

Thursday, 5 August 2010

THE VISIT - a short story by GC (part 3)

The last time Tony Woodley drove as carefully was on his driving test. Rather than go into town he headed for the motorway, which was only a few minutes’ drive from his parent’s house. He reasoned there would be less opportunity for his father to find fault with his driving.
They drove on in silence. For all the pain in his knees, Donald Woodley was enjoying the sensation of speed that came from being so close to the road surface.
“So what do you think, dad? Goes like a dream.”
“You said it. When are you going to wake up?”
“I told you it was a great deal. I’ll show a profit.”
“That’s your answer to everything. Is that how you’re going to bring your child up to always look for the angle?”
Tony kept quiet. He knew almost anything he said now would light his father’s short fuse.
He took the next exit, negotiated the roundabouts, re-joined the motorway determined to get his father home as fast as he could and then put as much distance as possible between him and his parent’s house.
But at the prospect of having to explain to Jo why he had failed in his mission, he gripped the steering wheel and steeled himself to keep his own temper.
“Dad, it’s about the baby.”
“What about the baby? What’s the matter with it?”
Tony was taken aback by his father’s concern. “There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s fine. It’s fine. It’s just, well, if it’s a boy me and Jo would like to call it Donald.”
“Why?”
“Because it’s your name, dad.”
“Huh. What’s wrong with Jo’s father’s name?”
“It’s George.”
“I see what you mean.”
“Donald is like an in-name now,” he said hoping he wouldn’t be asked why.
“Do what you like. You always do.”
You miserable old sod, you’re supposed to be flattered, thought Tony.
His father couldn’t make sense of the suggestion. Another Donald Woodley? His thoughts were confused – until he saw a direction sign he recognised.
“Are you in an any hurry?”
“I’m sorry,” Tony said automatically before checking his speed.
“Can you take the next turning off?”
“Sure, sure,” said his son pulling over sharply and earning a hoot from the car behind for the sudden manoeuvre.
Please, please, don’t let him get ill in the car. He recalled his mother’s secret bulletins about his dad’s failing health. He had never listened very carefully convinced of his father’s immortality. Now he’d be punished by having him taken ill in his car.
“What is it, dad?”
“I thought so. The cemetery’s signposted. Your nan’s buried there. I’d like to see we’re not being sold short on the maintenance for her grave.”
His relief that he wouldn’t be called upon to attempt mouth-to-mouth outweighed his annoyance at another example of his father’s suspicious nature.
Tony reached the cemetery. The car park was almost full. A big funeral was coming to an end. A large number of mourners were starting to return to their cars. He noted how flattering black can be on young women even when they’re weeping.
“Shall I come with you?” he asked as he helped his father out of the car.
“Not dressed like that you won’t.”
It suited Tony to let the old man set off for the cemetery entrance alone. He had fond memories of his grandmother but he didn’t need to be reminded of his first funeral and the only time he saw his father cry. He shivered despite the sunshine and got back in his car to wait.
To be continued tomorrow

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

THE VISIT - a short story by GC (part 2)

Tony Woodley watched his father march purposefully towards him. The tweed jacket and knife-edged creased trousers gave the old boy a military air. But he was tieless – a clue to his rapid departure from the house.
To his sisters, his nickname for their father was The Colonel – it seemed to fit his short temper and fussy dress sense.
His wife Jo had warned him not to go over to his father’s dressed in T-shirt and shorts. “He’d find fault if it was top hot and tails,” he had replied.
Tony had got out of the car and opened the passenger door by the time his father reached him. The old man looked fit to explode.
“What’s this?” he spluttered.
“A Porsche, dad.”
“I know it’s a bloody Porsche. I was driving before you were born.”
“Dad, you were over 40 when I was born.”
“Don’t get clever with me. I told you to get a sensible car. You’ve got a family on the way. What did Jo say?”
“She said I should get it out of my system.”
“Typical. But then if she’d had any sense she wouldn’t have married you.”
For an instant Tony thought of challenging the insult but decided to let it ride. He had suffered worse.
“I bought it dirt cheap off a guy at the office. I’ll run it until Jo’s too big. Then I’ll sell and at the very least get my money back.”
“Hello, Tony. Nice motor.” Both men turned. Bill Anderson, Donald Woodley’s nosy neighbour had come out of his house.
“Thanks, Mr. Anderson.”
“Come round to take your dad for a spin?”
“That’s the idea, isn’t it, pop?”
Woodley felt trapped. Escape lay in only one direction. With a grunt he tried to get in to the car.
Tony was surprised how stiff his father had become. He had to steer his waist to get the dip and sideways shuffle right so the old boy’s backside hit the middle of the passenger seat. As he pulled the safety belt around his father, he noticed too he was thinner than he ever remembered.
Any sympathy evaporated with his father’s withering look that said ‘get me away from here, you piece of shit.’Mr. Anderson waved them off. Through the nets of the top floor window, Sue Woodley made a silent prayer for both the men in her life.
To be continued tomorrow

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

THE VISIT - a short story by GC (part1)

“Try to keep calm but Tony’s outside in his new car and he wants to take you for a drive.”
Sue Woodley had come in to the lounge minutes before. Her husband Donald had remained deep in an armchair barricaded behind a Sunday newspaper.
Her son had phoned his arrival from his mobile. She was in no mood to suffer one of her husband’s rages directed against their only son.
If their third child had been another girl life would have been so much easier. Donald had no idea what to demand of daughters. Almost without him noticing Julia and Lisa had grown up to have good educations, sound jobs, and successful marriages.
Tony, however, was the black sheep of the family before he was out of primary school.
Her husband lowered his paper. More than forty years of marriage had attuned him to sense when his wife was trying to manipulate him. Where Tony was concerned that invariably meant bad news.
“Why can’t Tony take us both for a drive?” he asked as he carefully refolded the newspaper pages to their original state.
“Because I’ve got things to do before Julia comes over with the children. And anyway there wouldn’t be room. Donald…”
Her husband’s face had contorted into a grim mask of anger as he brushed passed her. She caught up with him peering through the net curtains of the hall window.
“I told him; I told him not to,” he said.
“It’s not new. It’s second hand.”
“It’s still a bloody sports car.” Her husband only came near to swearing when he felt under extreme provocation.
“It’s something he always wanted. Don’t spoil it for him.”
“What do you mean spoil it?” He’s not a child. He’s 30. He’s going to be a father.”
“He can afford it.”
“Not the point. Not the point at all. There’s something called responsibility.”
Woodley opened the front door, took one pace from the Welcome mat, and was frozen by the visual offence.
Sunday mornings in the quiet street of respectable terraced houses were for tidying front gardens, washing cars, and, for some, going to church. It was not for ostentatious displays of wealth that flouted the code of conformity that allowed so many families to live alongside each other in general harmony – save for the occasional noisy party, smoky barbeque, or errant tree root.
Tony would never cease to disappoint him. Now a flashy red sports car was parked outside the house and inside it was his smart alec estate agent son.
Sue had followed him out of the house with his jacket and slipped it on her husband without him hardly noticing. When he turned she was already back in the house and the door shut.
He patted his pockets. His keys were gone. Just as he was considering whether the neighbours would notice if he tried to negotiate with Sue through the letter-box, the sports car gave a short but piecing blast on its horn.
Woodley was forced to walk towards the car to prevent any further embarrassment.
To be continued tomorrow

Monday, 2 August 2010

Why the Coalition must make good on Tony Blair's broken promise to reform education

There were three articles in yesterday’s The Sunday Times, which underlined my conviction that successive governments have failed in their duty of care to the country’s children. But New Labour which arrived in 1997 with Tony Blair's promise its priorities would be "education, education, and education" carries the greatest burden of guilt because its defeat earlier this year brought the curtain down on 13 years of wasted opportunities and muddled thinking. Money was spent but not wisely.