Friday, September 30, 2005

No inspiration

It's that time of year again, when Autumn draws in and we all want to curl up on hot buttered toast, munching fire and staring at a roaring sofa, and, more importantly, it's the Halloween story competition at my local writers' circle. I always enter something, but I use it as a chance to write something new, rather than take along something from my archives.

This year, though, I'm stumped. I just can't seem to think of anything that would make a basis for a supernatural, or scary, story. So I tried a writing exercise that was once recommended to me, whereby I took a short walk and tried to spot three things or people that could form the basis for a story. And so, this lunchtime, I headed for Teddington High Street to see what I could find...

This normally works for me, seeing an unusual sign, or a face, or something in a shop. I tried the charity shops; always good for quirky little things that look as if they might have some sort of history. There were some remarkably unpleasant jumpers, a plastic owl, and a selection of badly framed rural scenes which looked as if they had come from a particularly scuzzy pub.

On to Tesco. I searched people's faces. Was there anybody who looked as if they might be harbouring a secret, or who could be a reincarnation of a Mongol warlord, or somebody planning a weekend of nefarious deeds? They all looked as if they were harbouring an urge to buy carrots, and were planning a weekend in Ikea.

So I'm still no further foward. Answers on a postcard please...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Room 101

And the candidate this time sport.

Now, I was an eager little beaver at school. I always came top in most of the academic subjects, and I loved learning to read and write. I did have one blind spot, however, which regularly saw me going to school in tears, and that was sport. I wasn't aware of it being a problem at infants school, possibly because games lessons before the age of seven were quite unstructured and non-competitive, and merged seamlessly into the general skipping around the playground that all little kids indulge in. The problems came when I moved to junior school.

I was quite the worst kid in the class when it came to anything physical. I was by nature a timid, shy child, who liked reading books and writing little stories, and spending time in my own imaginative little world, so running about a field with hordes of screaming brats was not something that I took to naturally. But the truth is that I had no coordination whatsoever, I still can't catch a ball to save my life, and I was probably what is now known as dyspraxic. They didn't call it that then, though, they called it being crap. And being crap at sport is a very public type of crapness.

There was, for a start, the horror of being chosen for teams. I've no idea whether this is standard practice in modern schools, but it involved an agonising ritual where two children were chosen as captains (normally the kids who were the best at sport) and they picked team mates in turn, one by one. Obviously the best got chosen first, then the ones who were OK at sport but popular, until you were down to the kids who were fat, or crap at anything physical, or the ones who smelled and had eight brothers and sisters (there were always a couple of those families in every school, weren't there?), and then it was down to me and the kid who had a squint, kept wetting themselves, and had to have one to one lessons with the "special" teacher. I would stare at my shoes, nearly in tears. The kid with the squint would stare at their shoes, though it was hard to tell. The squint kid, though, was used to having to run away from the other kids when teased, so was faster. I was always, always picked last.

I've got no idea why the teachers persisted in this. Surely it would have been kinder, and quicker, to just split the register down the middle alphabetically. I suppose you could argue that, as a very bright child, who was a bit of a teacher's pet and got gold stars for everything, and sat with all the clever girls, it might have taught a useful lesson in what it was like to fail. If this was a heartwarming made for TV film I would become friends with the other girl, realising that, even though I was the class swot, we had something in common. I could have helped her with the mysteries of Janet and John Book 1 (Run, Janet, Run), and our friendship would blossom over the years, so that even when I was a professor of English, and she was a famous country and western singer, we would meet up over cocktails, and support each other when one of us got a brain tumour. Bollocks. She was thick and smelled of wee. I wanted nothing to do with her. Kids are nice aren't they?

As for sports day, I used to cry and feel sick for days in advance. I got to be crap again, but this time in public. There has been a lot of controversy recently about making sports days non-competitive, with people muttering that kids shouldn't be protected from failing. Why not? We don't have this attitude to other subjects.

When teachers pick which pieces of work to display on the walls, they don't put the worst spelling test by the most dyslexic child up, so that everybody can laugh. If you go to a school concert, the head mistress doesn't come on stage and say

"Well, after that wonderful performance, why don't we all have a laugh at Joe, with his terrible stammer, as he attempts Yellow Submarine. And he'll be accompanied on the recorder by Emma, who's recently come back to school after that nasty accident which resulted in her losing the fingers on her right hand. Don't snivel Emma, it's character building."

But no, everybody in Bodmin came with their picnics to watch me forced to be the Joey Deacon of Cornwall.

When secondary school brought the horrors of hockey and cold showers, my performance worsened, but my attitude improved. Maybe I was just a bit more philosophical about life. Maybe the peer pressure was removed. Break time activity was no longer based around physical games like tig, or throwing balls, and the kids had stopped calling me words like spastic. Instead we huddled together in same sex groups talking about periods, or Adam Ant, or boasting that we tried our first cigarette last night. From being a lonely, shy child on the edge of the playground, I had a small circle of friends. As I got older, I had more of a sense of perspective; as a young child, you believe that all lessons are equal, and being rubbish at sport is as upsetting as not being able to read. In secondary school I began to formulate plans for the future, like going to university, and I realised that netball was, in fact, a supreme irrelevance in adult life.

I affected an aloof attitude during sports lessons. if anybody ran towards me with a hockey ball, I walked deliberately in the other direction. I knocked the high jump bar over on purpose, so that I could sit out the next rounds when it was raised. I forged sick notes so that I could sit in the library, you know, reading and learning stuff, like I was supposed to be doing at school. My enjoyment wasn't helped by the fact that the games teacher with which I had most contact was a tubthumping Christian of the most miserable and humourless kind, to whom I took a particular dislike. Thankfully, sports day was now optional, although the non-participants had the dubious pleasure of spending an entire day watching adolescents running around in circles.

The result is that I am totally opposed to compulsory sport in school. I realise that some children get a huge amount of pleasure from it, and even a chance of fame and fortune, but people can get that from woodwork, or physics, or dressmaking; we don't insist on hours of it until the age of 16 for those with no aptitude. Who knows, we might get a few more Olympic champions if sport was restricted, like other subjects, to a smaller number of keen participants with definite goals, who wanted to practice their technique, rather than diluting them in classes where people like me shiver, scowling, on the sidelines. And the rest of the kids could do something more constructive than faffing in a sandpit.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Nettle soup

At the weekends, when we aren't doing anything terribly social, we like to make a pot of soup. This normally involves some of our cheaper vegetables, like carrots and leeks, simmered with a tin of tomatoes, various spices, and some broken spaghetti. Today, however, I decided to be a bit more adventurous; since we came back from holiday, a lot of young nettles have grown in in the garden. Armed with rubber gloves, I harvested the tender nettle tops, and added them to the soup. Apparently, they are very rich in iron. They taste a little like spinach.

I was inspired to do this by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, a wonderful English character who writes on harvesting food from the wild. I was given his book as a Christmas present. It's the sort of book from which you take whatever is relevant; I found the section on using plants as vegetables invaluable. The section on gathering fungi is good too. I can already identify a few fungi, like parasol mushrooms; shaggy ink caps; wood blewitts; puffballs (never seen one); and ceps (always maggoty) but only those which are very easily spotted; there are probably loads of edible fungi that are brown or white, without any obvious distinguishing features, which I won't harvest because I'm scared I'll get it wrong and die a horrible death.

The sections on eating squirrels, rooks, and various types of road kill, I think I'll ignore. I appreciate that killing a squirrel is probably more humane than buying factory farmed chicken in a supermarket, but sorry, Hugh, it's just not me. I prefer my meat in packets.

I also appreciate that some of our freshwater fish deserve more attention than they attract, but I am not going to spend any precious hours of my life sitting by a riverbank, drowning a maggot, and looking like an extra from Last Of The Summer Wine.

Well, I'm proud of my nettle soup. At least I don't have to lower myself to this! Can you really not get a Breville Pie Magic any longer? Not that I'd really want one, oh no...

Thursday, September 22, 2005


I'm on my own tonight, as The Scotsman is on a business trip to exotic Crawley. I'm fine by myself, but, like anybody, I fall victim to Alone In The House Syndrome.

This involves hearing any tiny creak or breeze, and interpreting it as the footsteps of a mad psychopath. This leads to me adopting my normal defence when there might be somebody in the house. I sit up in bed and shout "Hello"

Now, The Scotsman laughs at this. This is not, apparently, an appropriate word with which to confront a burglar. I disagree.

The average burglar does not relish a confrontation. Yes, there are reconstructions on Crimewatch where burglars have harmed their victims, but these are rare. If most burglars are disturbed, they get the hell out. Unless you are borrowing the Topkapi diamond for the weekend, you're video isn't worth the complication of tangling with you. So they hear you stirring, they go.

What isn't sensible is the male tendency to greet the possibility of a burglar as an opportunity to creep downstairs, as silently as possible, to confront a chap who is probably carrying a weapon. You're sleepy, nervous, and equipped with a torch. He's psyched up, ready for violence, and probably still holding something like a crowbar. And he'll probably leave if you make enough noise stomping around upstairs...

So follow my example by loudly exclaiming that you are about to call the police, and you should be fine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Teddington Lock

As I walked over Teddington Lock the other day, I saw three kids preparing to jump off the highest point into the water. This must be about 20 feet high. They had a friend on the riverbank who was preparing to capture the moment on his mobile phone.

There have been many news reports recently about technology turning kids into couch potatoes, but this seemed to be encouraging kids to be active. I'm not sure I'd dive into Teddington Lock myself; I'm sure there are old shopping trolleys and all sorts of hazzards. But it was fun to see. OK, about to snuggle up in bed with The Scotsman to watch a repeat of Wycliffe. I'm such a party animal.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Back again!

Well, Croatia was brilliant. Loads of history, sun and snorkelling. Alitalia, however, are crap. We were due to arrive at Heathrow at 10.50pm on Saturday, and arrived at Gatwick at 1.00am on Sunday. They condescended to arrange a bus to Heathrow leaving at 2.30am. And the food was utterly disgraceful. Our outward bound flight was late as well.

We were assured by the staff at Gatwick that Alitalia would pay the taxi fare for anybody going home independently, so that's £61 they owe us and boy, will there be trouble if they don't pay out.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

A strange hobby

This week my attention was grabbed by a website devoted to abandoned grocery lists, those pieces of paper that you find in the bottom of shopping trolleys. It's strangely compulsive...