Wednesday, March 29, 2006

You get what you ask for

A big hello to the reader who came to this blog via a search on for "lesbian threesome", and got my report on the Boy's parent-teacher evening. I so hope you weren't too disappointed.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A load of balls

The Today programme this morning played a sound clip of the only castrato known to have made phonograph recordings. It's a voice that combines the sweetness of a boy's treble with the belting-out power of a man's lungs. An eerie experience - a bit like watching footage of a Tasmanian Tiger or other extinct creature, something that was around in (just) living memory but is now forever out of our reach. The voice belonged to one Alessandro Moreschi, who sadly is more famous for being the only castrato known etc. rather than his actual singing, which apparently wasn't very good. A shame, because you can't help feeling that if someone does that to you, you ought to get at least something out of it.

Castrati, apparently, arose out of a seventeenth century ban by the Catholic Church (there's a certain world-weary "who else" attached to that, isn't there?) on women singing in the theatre. Why? Well, who knows. It probably relates to the well known fact that men are driven into uncontrollable passions of sin at the slightest sign of a woman in public and it's all her fault. ANYWAY the way around this was to start, um, creating castrati, i.e. gelding young boys, which of course is so much more the moral course.

This somehow reminds me of a comment I once heard - from a member of guess which organisation, but I believe it's not their official position - that in vitro fertilisation must ipso facto be wrong because you need sperm for it, and the only way you can get the sperm is by masturbation, which ... and so on.

Some people really were just born to miss the point.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Makes a good effort

So I carved the next notch on the bedboard of my stepfatherhood yesterday by accompanying Best Beloved to the Boy's parent-teacher evening (not parent-STUDENT-teacher evening, the Boy said pointedly, before managing to come down with a debilitating illness that actually seemed to be genuine - anyway, he stayed at home). It was the first of these events I can remember going to since I was 13, when my parents were abroad and I had to escort my grandmother instead, who was proudly wearing her name badge upside down. That's all I remember.

WhenI was the Boy's age it was probably the unhappiest time of my adolescence. And here he is, secure and happy and discussing GCSE options. Wow, how things change.

A surprisingly interesting time. All the meetings were carefully scheduled and we were handed out a grid map of the school hall showing where each teacher was sitting. Unfortunately the teachers didn't appear to have the same map ... And as the evening drew on, the schedule slipped more and more, and by the end there were some teachers sitting in lonely isolation while others had parents stacked up in holding patterns like Heathrow on a particularly bad day. I could pass my time-
  • trying to decipher the cunning algorithm by which the teachers had repositioned themselves.
  • trying to work out if the odd threesome who seemed to trail us were (a) daughter, mother and mother's lesbian partner or (b) daughter, mother and daughter's quite a bit older butch-looking sister.
  • counting the visible piercings sported by Mrs A, who doesn't teach the Boy but whom the Boy thinks is "cool". I got up to 8. The sad thing is, the lady is ... ahem ... probably nearer retirement than I am.

But let's not quibble. The teachers all seem to genuinely care about the Boy, they give praise where praise is due (and there's quite a bit of it), they are dedicated to their jobs, and they provide a secure environment that nurtures him through his adolesence. It's something that will stay with him long after he's forgotten their faces. I am pleased and I praise them.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Nick? Mike? Philip?

Whoever you are, welcome, unknown pupil of Abingdon School who read this blog at 11.05 a.m. yesterday. And may I say I am shocked, shocked! at your cavalier disregard for the sacrifices that your parents make on your behalf, given that you seem happy to pour their hard-earned school fees down the drain with such frivolous activity. You’re there to learn how to run the British Empire, boy, not enjoy yourself. You should be busy practicing rabid Tory homoeroticism and growing cannabis behind the bike sheds. Yes, I know, it’s difficult but someone has to do it.

But you’re probably a friend too, so I forgive you. Just don’t let it happen again.

Vonderful Veaving but no Vicious Cabaret

V for Vendetta was never going to be like the original comic because the original comic is sui generis. So it doesn’t seem that much of a travesty that they take the basic set-up and characters, keep the key iconic moments like prisoner no. 5 emerging from the blazing ruins of Larkhill, and tell a completely different story. In fact, if it is a travesty at all, it’s a bloody good one. This is no Constantine and emphatically no League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

This is the thinking man’s The Matrix, concentrating on story rather than the (plentiful) effects and leaving the big moral questions hanging in the air. What is a terrorist and what is a freedom fighter? What right does V have to impose his version of rightness on an entire country? It seems incredible, but the Wachowski Brothers have somehow created a British film, with mostly Brit actors (plus one Australian, one American and a couple of Irish), set and filmed in Britain, in a British context, with (mostly) British dialogue ... and, rather daringly for a movie that needs to make it big in the US, they lay the blame for the world as it now is squarely at the foot of America. Go guys!

Most of the items that get blown up in the comic get blown up here, though not necessarily in the same order. A couple of the subplots have gone, which is a shame, but keeping them would have led to a much longer movie. And V’s wonderful Vicious Cabaret musical interlude is completely missing. (How does a comic have a musical interlude? Read it and see.)

The character of V is exactly as it should be. Hugo Weaving, most known for the menace of his glassy stare, does an amazing job behind a mask, and – praise be! – they avoid what must have been a powerful temptation for a routine unmasking. Evey’s job has changed beyond recognition but she is still the same character who goes through much the same changes. The dictator of Britain, Adam Susan, is now called Adam Sutler, possibly because the brothers correctly concluded that a dictator called Susan was silly.

The set-up for the movie, and the comic, and the whole Thatcher era in which Alan Moore wrote the original, is that an entirely unpalatable government took power because it was allowed to by a populace that wanted security more than it wanted freedom, preaching the mantra that “there is no alternative but us”. (Strangely this is V's attitude as well.) I forget if movie-V’s line is in the comic, but it should be: “People should not fear their governments. Governments should fear their people.” (Though Roger Ebert points out that ideally neither should fear the other but work together ...) A government may contain the seeds for going bad within itself, and that is its fault. But if those seeds are allowed to flower, that’s the people’s fault. That works just as much today, in the era of the Divine Helmsman of Downing Street, as it did in the days of Iron Margaret.

Alan Moore has performed his ritual disavowal and is quoted as saying “To see a line of dialogue or a character that I have poured that much emotional involvement into, to see them casually travestied and watered down and distorted... it's kind of painful. It's much better just to avoid them altogether.” Yeah, well, I can see his point. But movies and comics are two completely different artforms. His name and reputation are unassailable; he could easily afford to be acknowledged as the inspiration of this work of someone else's hands, and not suffer in the least for it. It’s his decision. But if you saw The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, go and see this too for some badly needed therapy.

My only quibbles are all with the last five minutes. Watch out, spoilers ahead:

  • there have been mass insurrections before and will be again, but this one was a little too convenient.
  • it doesn't make much sense to rally thousands of your supporters and make them stand close to something you are about to blow up.
  • that wasn't the District & Circle line, which bearing in mind what happens next, it really should have been.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Doctor Wow

Went to the doctor to arrange various checks which I instinctively associate with middle age.

First of all, I was told emphatically, you are not middle aged - medically speaking you've got at least another ten years before you can consider yourself such. So scratch the need for one of the checks, unless pressing symptoms arise in the meantime.

Second, his scales say I'm a stone lighter than I thought I was. Question: industrial looking scales found in a doctor's surgery or the bathroom scales I got for a tenner in Boots ... which do I trust?

Third: my blood pressure is pretty good.

So all in all, current mood: chipper.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Hustle fuss'll end in tussle

Watched 'Hustle' last night, for the first time in a long while. A good retro 70s title sequence, then straight into an entertaining but pop videoish reminder of why I took a dislike to it when it was first on.

"You can't con an honest man" - they didn't say this last night but I remember the philosophy being espoused in episode 1. I'm still not sure if it's correct. What you can do with an honest man, as they showed in episode 1 and last night and on many occasions in between, is steal from one. The philosophy of this show is that every honest citizen carries a small amount of disposable wealth around with them, which is fair game for these parasites who can' t be arsed to get a proper job and who need it to keep them in the sybaritic lifestyle to which they feel entitled because they are Cule.

During the show's first season I was about this > < far from personal bankruptcy and even the loss of a tenner from a cashpoint would have been drastic. And that's why I don't watch it.

So why watch it last night? Well, the Boy did a 24 hour fast and was about 14 hours into it at the time, and he needed something to keep his mind off the hunger. So we watched the show, and then he went to bed and slept the rest of it off. No one made him do it, it was sponsored for some charity or other and we're all very proud of him. We even showed a modicum of support by having only rolls and bouillon for dinner ourselves.

The characters of 'Hustle' are able to make small sacrifices for a long term gain of several thousand unearned quid. Somehow it's much more impressive to go without and stay without, your only reward being the faith that complete strangers who you will never meet in this life may be benefiting.

And tonight we dine well.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

You've got an Ology!

Many years ago, when I was a callow and innocent young recent graduate working in London, a pleasant young Irish lady accosted me as I walked along Tottenham Court Road towards the tube. "We're doing free personality tests. Would you be interested?"

At this stage of my life I was still determined to be nice to salespeople, my memories as a Kleeneze door-to-doorer and steam cleaning salesman still uncomfortably fresh in my mind. So I said yes thanks, and was ushered in to a pleasant little office, and sat down with a multiple choice questionnaire with posers like "you are walking along and see a dropped five pound note, what do you do?" sort of thing. I got busy ticking the answers ...

... and, as time passed by, my peripheral vision kept being snagged by the catchy yellow-orange spines of the books on the shelf next to me. They were all copies of Dianetics, by L. Ron Hubbard.

I had fallen into the hands of the Scientologists.

Mr Hubbard's disciples had, unusually for them, made one fatal error. The space on the questionnaire where you put your name and address was at the end, not at the beginning. So when I got to the end, finally clued up as to my situation, I put down the impenetrable pseudonym "J. Benn" and left out the flat number of my address.

I was assessed, and I still have the results somewhere. I recall that it was headed "The Oxford Personality Test". Oxford what? University? Stadium? Apollo? It didn't say, but it was a "big" word, designed to impress without too much thought. Anyway, the results came back on a graph, divided into zones of "basically okay" and "dodgy" and "needs urgent attention". Unsurprisingly, my assessment indicated a screamingly urgent need to become a Scientologist right now and spend lots of money on a weekend away so as to facilitate the process.

I managed to duck that. I did buy a copy of Dianetics, which I also still have somewhere. I had to spend my last fiver on it since, obviously, I didn't have any cheques or a card with the right name on ...

I said I was innocent and callow. Well, I was 22 and not so innocent or callow that I hadn't read Russell Miller's fascinating and entirely unauthorised biography of L. Ron, Bare-Faced Messiah. The book the Scientologists tried and failed to ban - failed because he could inconveniently prove every single one of his assertions, and they could prove not one of theirs. The book that tells entertaining tales of how LRH dabbled in black magic with a disciple of Aleister Crowley, just long enough to steal all the guy's money and run off with his woman and his yacht. That's my favourite, anyway, but there's much, much more. It's also interesting to count how many witnesses, independently interviewed, all heard the man say something along the lines of "if you want to make lots of money, start a religion."

In short, the book that shows his one unmistakable talent lay in making lots of money by spinning tall yarns.

On the way out, I saw that on the way in I had passed a massive bronze bust of the same gent, without noticing. From then on, I walked to the tube on the other side of the road.

All this reminiscing is sparked off by a friend sending me a news link - Thanks, Alex. Scientologist Isaac Hayes, the voice of Chef in South Park, has quit the show because of a story line poking fun at his religion's founder. Apparently Stan does so well in a Scientology test that church followers hail him as the next L Ron Hubbard.

"There is a place in this world for satire but there is a time when satire ends and intolerance and bigotry toward religious beliefs begins," says Mr Hayes, laying down his apron after 10 years of working on a show that has lampooned Christians, Muslims, Mormons, Jews and - um, I suppose, to be balanced - Satan. Indeed.

Believe it or not, I concede from the evidence that elements of Scientology do actually work. The nice Irish lady who failed to convert me told me how it had helped her reconcile with her mother. Her face shone, I had no reason to doubt it, and was very happy for her. No doubt Isaac has found it equally so. A whole raft of Hollywood celebrities seem to have genuinely found it useful in keeping afloat. How many of the above have also been able to get emotive readings off tomatoes, or recall past lives in galaxies far, far away, I do not know, but the elements of Scientology that work seem to be the ones that strangely resemble basic counselling skills in the real world. In other words, the bits that anyone with a bit of gumption can do without having to buy an e-meter, or read Dianetics, or even worse buy and read Battlefield Earth.

A "clear" in Scientology is allegedly able to overcome all the little quirks that go with having a reactive mind. Operating Thetans, the next stage up, can do clever things with matter, energy, space and time. (Don't take my words for it - take theirs.) But the one thing they can't apparently do is take it as well as dish it out.


Monday, March 13, 2006

Palais au Portacabins

Well, this is exciting. Long term readers (how you both doing?) may remember the accommodation block being built on our back lawn, and the building site that preceded it. The hostel is there for the great and the good of one of Europe's most prestigious high-energy research projects. Surely at least a couple of big bucks were going to be spent. Springfield Power Station's executive washroom would be but a shadow of the glory that would unfurl before out eyes. So we could barely contain ourselves as a pleasant patch of green grass was transformed into a war zone and the tree that was the habitat of a cute little woodpecker was cruelly torn down. What next, we asked ourselves, what next?

What next was something guaranteed to please anyone who OD'd on Lego and Gerry Anderson in their youth. Along comes a huge great crane, like something that has rolled out of Thunderbird 2, and it starts swinging these prefab modules into place. Each one, apparently, already furnished and decorated inside. And there we were, thinking it might be swanky or something. It's going up to three floors, we're told. Fancy!

But, children, can you see what they're doing wrong? Of course you can. Everyone knows that when you build a wall out of blocks you make them overlap. Otherwise the wall just falls over. Honestly, what kind of cowboys are they? I think I'll go and have a word.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

New glasses!

Pretty swish, eh?

"You will look very handsome," said Best Beloved when she heard about them. An interesting choice of tense, I thought.

The last glasses lasted several years, but were just too face-hugging and the arms were leaving welts between my eyes and my ears. Lately they were actively rubbing the skin off and I was spending my days with plasters on my temples, leading to the inevitable concerned enquiries from friends and/or co-workers. The main design spec (ba-boom!) for the replacements was adequate clearance between arms and head.

Five minutes after putting them on I walked into a pillar in Superdrug, but I don't think anyone noticed.

This has been a weekend of image overhaul, as yesterday I also got measured up for my groom's outfit. Usually I detest spending more than five minutes in a clothes shop and I'm no great fan of suits. I always end up growing out of them - vertically while at school, more lately horizontally. I do have a morning suit inherited from the late husband of a friend of my grandmother's, but it's for someone my height and half my diameter. Somehow it seemed worth making that little extra effort for the big day.

Sorry, ladies, no photos as yet. Just trust me that it's a pretty nice black frock coat and stripy trousers, which not only disguises the fact that the figure beneath it isn't worth a second look, but also makes you think that maybe it is. That is quality tailoring, I tell you.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Underneath I was really gentle

On a completely different Germanic theme, I watched the excellent Downfall last night – a reconstruction of the last days in the Fuhrerbunker as the world crumbled around them. The world can be allowed, indeed should be encouraged, to forget Trio; but this – never.

Downfall is one of those films, like Schindler’s List, that should be shown to every generation, preferably often, just to make sure no one forgets. Not so long ago – still in reasonably fresh living memory for many people (ask anyone who lived through the war, even as a child) – there was a time when our European cousins were wearing silly comic opera uniforms, wiping out populations, bringing Gotterdammerung down upon themselves, and, as the noose tightened around Berlin, making life so much easier for the advancing Red Army by shooting, hanging or poisoning everyone within their own ranks who showed a bit of courage, integrity and intelligence.

Unlike Schindler’s List, this one was made by the Germans. Good on them.

Apparently it caused some controversy in Germany by portraying Hitler as ‘normal’. Which is precisely what makes it so chilling. At one point Frau Junge, the young secretary who wrote a memoir on which much of the film is based, turns up late for work because she overslept. She stammers out an apology to the Fuhrer, who gives a knowing, avuncular smile. “Had a little lie down, did you?” he asks genially, and gets on with his dictation. (Of words, not countries.) And you think, ah, what a nice old bloke. And then you scream at yourself, WHAT DID I JUST THINK??

But it did make you think: in the event of there ever being a Channel 4 programme on “The Top 100 Most Evil Nazis”, exactly who was worst?

  • Adolf – instinct makes you want to put him at the top, because certainly the whole caboodle could not have happened without him. Whatever the Irvings of the world might say, he knew and approved of the Final Solution all the way. Couldn’t have done any of it, though, if others had said ‘no’.
  • Goering – a basic waste of space. Might have ended up as a retired Oberst Blimp, huffing and puffing about his days in the airforce, long since left behind by the technical advances in aerospatial engineering.
  • Himmler – may have risen to a highly unpleasant petty little official – a burgomeister somewhere in Bavaria, maybe. Would probably have ended his days a chicken farmer with unusual ideas about polygamy.
  • Goebbels ... ah, Goebbels. None of the above would have got anywhere without the mighty machinery of the Nazi party to boost them along. And who created that machinery? Whose propaganda poisoned the climate of an entire nation, letting this vile thing grow to the monstrous proportions it later assumed? Step forward Doctor of Philosophy & Literature Paul Joseph Goebbels, the poison dwarf, a bitter little creature who let his wife drug and poison their six children rather than let them face a future without National Socialism. I think we have our most evil Nazi.

A question I bet you very rarely heard in post-war Germany: so, what does your dad do?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Obscure prophecies from scripture no. 4019: Trio

"May those who say to me, 'Aha! Aha!'
turn back because of their shame."
- Psalm 70 v. 3
It may seem a little thin-skinned to complain of people coming up to you and saying "Aha! Aha!" until you remember Trio - the obscurely named trio of German minimalist synth pop artists, whose song "Da Da Da" did just that. This little number, Germany's most annoying musical export since Marlene Dietrich, bored its way up the UK charts in the early 1980s, and thanks to the psalmist it's back in my head again.

For those whose years are still too tender to remember, try a mental exercise. Picture Schwarzenegger putting all his famed acting and emoting skills into the words 'aha aha aha'.

Now imagine him saying 'ich lieb dich nicht du liebst mich nicht'.

And now, 'da da da'.

You have the song.

Quite clearly, the psalmist had a word of prophecy about this dire event some 3000 years in advance. How sad that no one paid any attention.

Possible reasons for this oversight:
  • on the great Venn diagram of humanity, the circles of biblical scholars and synth pop fans don't overlap very much.
  • we were still reeling from Joe Dolce's 'Shaddup your face' and Jona Lewie's 'Stop the cavalry'.
The latter is a reason, but not an excuse.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hard sell

At first glance there's nothing unusual about this picture, but then you may not know I live in a second storey flat. Even the Jehovah's Witnesses usually give up after the first 20 feet.

This guy was measuring up the windows for replacement, standing on the last rung of a very long ladder. Okay, there was someone holding it at the bottom, but the best he could have done if his mate had come off would be to cushion the fall. Sheer bloody terrifying. I will dream of falling tonight.

Meanwhile I've just shaken off the latest example of Thames Water's finest to phone me up unsolicitedlike and offer me something I already have or am not eligible for. I'm with the Telephone Preference Service but there's nothing to be done about existing insurers getting in touch, and these ones get in touch more than most. The five second gap between me answering the phone and someone asking for Mr Jeebers is always the clue that it's them.

In this case the non-eligible product was additional cover for the pipes bringing water into the property.

- Her: "Can you confirm you are the owner and the property is not a flat?"

- Me: "I am the owner and the property is a flat."

- Her: "Well, I'm afraid this policy doesn't cover flats - is that all right?"

I'm still not quite sure what happened, but somehow the conversation started as a cold sales call and ended as if I was the one who had made an enquiry.

This is a quaint habit; I'm not sure if it should be encouraged. Directory enquiries could phone up out of the blue and give you the number of a complete stranger that you might want to talk to. There again they might give you the number of a complete git. Car salesmen could visit your house while you sleep and part-exchange your old banger for a decent top of the range model. But you may find they've hauled off your classic MG.

Either way, I draw the line at glaziers suddenly appearing outside my living room window. For that, I would continue to need warning.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Da da-da dum

Am I the only one to think James Blunt's woefully underplayed (snort) "You're beautiful" rips off the opening bars of The Incredible Hulk?

A quick Google search ...

No, apparently I'm not.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

How to write up

Once upon a time, and a mostly good time it was, I worked in a mostly pleasant building called Woodside - a former private home, converted to offices, perched high on a hill above Oxford amidst pleasant gardens and boasting its own pool, which you could even use on those occasions when the boss's PA remembered to get it chlorinated.

My former employer is long departed, I am even longer departed, but the place persists - amongst other things, apparently, as the Thames Business Advice Centre. Now, if you're trying to plug the virtues of an Oxford location, most people would probably emphasise the dreaming spires angle, unparalleled access to large wodges of our national history, thriving cultural scene etc.

Somehow, "only 2 minutes from the Hinksey roundabout on the A34" comes across as faint praise.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

So there I was, having tea with three nuns ...

In fact, three blue nuns, though some wear black. Apparently it’s a matter of choice. The blue get to wear a blue-grey robe that actually looks quite comfortable, the black wear the more trad and forbidding Sister Act / Blues Brothers garb beloved of Hollywood. Your peripheral vision tells you an emperor penguin is sidling up to you; then you look more closely and see it’s just a saintly lady of a certain age plus, in a garment that her spiritual ancestors 1000 years ago would have recognised.

The sisters at St Mary’s convent in Wantage have helped Best Beloved get through some hard times in the past, the place has a special place in her heart, and she has repaid the favour by becoming an Associate. The Boy and I went along to watch and support, to see that she didn’t say 'I do' to anything which she might later regret, and to make sure that if there was a form saying 'I want to be [ ] an Associate [ ] a Nun' then she ticked the right box.

So, after the service, a silent lunch and then a friendly chat over the aforementioned tea, with mint matchmakers* broken out to the sound of a delighted little 'ooh!' from one of the sisters involved. Mint matchmakers seem to be the permitted vice of choice, a bit like sherry at the vicarage. It was those matchmakers that gave me an Insight.

If the motivating factors of life are sex, money and power, then the traditional nunly vows of chastity, poverty and obedience are the exact opposite. This means that everything in the life of these sisters is a gift and a blessing. Everything that they do within their community is a gift and a blessing to someone else; everything that is done by one of the other sisters is a gift and a blessing in return.

And though I didn’t press, I got the distinct impression that these sisters haven’t always been sisters, which fits with the tradition of that particular convent. Apparently it was founded in the nineteenth century, when Wantage was known as Black Wantage, the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the Vale. 'Every other house was a pub,' a nun told me, clearly feeling a mild thrill at the thought of such salacious wickedness. A bright dynamic young clergyman brought in the sisters to clean the place up. Anyone who knows Wantage today can conclude they succeeded.

And that is how these communities should work. Their people live out in the world and learn about it. Then, if they feel so called, they take the veil, or whatever nuns do (veils weren't in evidence) and the convent becomes a huge reservoir of life experience and wisdom, stored like a battery and discharged into the community. Meanwhile, asking nothing and receiving little in return, the nuns go about their daily business content with the odd blessing of a cup of tea and a matchmaker. There are worse philosophies.


* By which I mean chocolate matchmakers flavoured with mint, not matchmakers still in their own original wrapping, which would be silly and spoil the taste.