Friday, 30 November 2007

Alan Johnston & Jon Snow at the RSA

I meant to post this Wednesday but work pressures intervened….

I found myself this lunchtime at the lovely RSA building just off the Strand, sitting in a muralled 250-year-old room with a small group of mostly older, eccentric academics facing a desk behind which Jon Snow, the hugely respectable Channel 4 newsreader, faced back, killing a few minutes until the subject of the “In Conversation with” event, former BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston, managed to extricate himself from a taxi caught in traffic to reach us.

The RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce) “works to remove the barriers to social progress” by driving “ideas, innovation and social change” through lectures and the like. When I entered its lovely house and said I’d come for the Alan Johnston lecture, I was bemused to be asked if I were one of the speakers. Not just because, statistically, I should think it safe to assume that most of the people coming for the event would not be one of the speakers, but also because it’s been a long while since I’ve been mistaken for either Jon Snow or Alan Johnston, particularly when wearing a skirt. I did wonder if I should offer to have a go, giving Alan a rest from repeating the story of his kidnap, but I know I would disappoint his audience.

Despite these shortcomings, I was shown to the Great Room, with its surrounding James Barry murals called The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture, where the small group gathering included many forthright grey-haired professor types, including a dignified bearded man in cycle gear with what looked like a miner’s lamp strapped to his forehead, who got up from his front row seat to help himself to a handful of the wrapped mints in a bowl on the desk reserved for Jon Snow and Alan Johnston. I guessed that must be a privilege reserved for RSA fellows.

When Jon Snow came in and sat beside the depleted mint bowl, Jonathan Carr-West of the RSA explained the plan to begin In Conversation with Alan Johnston without Alan Johnston, when I doubt we’d mind waiting. Apparently Snow had agreed at short notice to chair this event; I wondered who had dropped out, but he seemed ideally suited, particularly as an impressive past foreign correspondent himself and patron of Prisoners Abroad. Carr-West earned a chuckle and a surprised look from Snow when he suggested that Snow kill time by giving us an early peak at the evening news.

Snow explained that, when Alan joined us, it would be their first meeting, though he could confirm that Alan was as modest and straightforward as he appeared, and described him as a “high quality hack as we all aspire to be”. He noted that this conversation would be taking place the day after the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis which, he said, basically altogether excluded Gaza, where the situation would grow consistently worse every year of our lives. He said he hoped but doubted the talks would help, and it seemed odd that Bush, a man of many holidays, had suddenly taken an interest in the topic so late in his presidency, compared to Clinton who worked so hard to help.

He mentioned that Norman Kember was in the audience and hoped he and Alan would talk about their shared experiences. Snow did not explain but Kember, a retired professor of biophysics, was one of four peace activists kidnapped in Iraq in 2005 and held for three months before a British special forces-led initiative freed them—all but the American, who sadly had been executed. Controversy ensued as the military did not believe Kember explicitly thanked his rescuers and said they’d had to devote valuable resources to freeing him when he’d ignored advice not to go to Baghdad in the first place.

At this point, Alan Johnston rather humbly entered the room bedecked with blue--blazer, shirt and jeans—with nearly a twinkle in his eye, and took his seat beside Snow to great applause. He immediately launched into that enthusiastic and fluid style of speaking, apologising profusely for being (only slightly) tardy and out of breath as he’d had to abandon the taxi and run here from the Tube station, and he said this was the first time in about five years that he’d been late for anything. With that knowledge and the suggestion when I arrived that I was his doppelganger, I must be the Bizarro Alan.

Snow took over to let Alan get his breath back, saying that the last time he’d seen Alan was in a photo he was holding whilst standing with myriad colleagues in protest at Alan’s kidnap earlier this year. Alan described how, on a rare occasion when his moody guard let him see the television, he caught a glimpse of the coverage of those worldwide protests and had seen in the faces of many of those taking part a look that they thought Alan was gone for good, which had been harrowing.

He referred to the fact that, at the time of his kidnap, he had only days left before his contract in Gaza finished and he had already booked his flight, so one of the hardest days of his captivity was the day he knew he should be in a departure lounge catching that flight with an empty seat.

Alan confirmed Snow’s comment that he wasn’t a religious man, telling the Bishop’s son that he had never prayed before being kidnapped so he felt it would be wrong to do so during his captivity, although there was one night when he briefly considered that it might not do any harm, but he’d seen so much suffering amongst innocent people that he felt that if there were a God, He didn’t get that involved in our daily lives or that—in such situations--perhaps He would not need to be asked.

The first audience member to ask a question was a young woman Alan greeted with a smile of delighted recognition, as it transpired she’d once worked with him. She said, on the glorious day we woke to the news of his freedom, she just knew the first thing he’d do was cut his hair despite surely competing priorities, and indeed he appeared at the big press conference that followed with a shaven head (referring to it as helping to remove that “just kidnapped look”). She asked whether, in the immediate chaos that followed his release and being taken to meet the Hamas leader, he just longed for some time to himself. He replied that, as a journalist, he was aware of the circus that could be expected and knew his time would not be his own, although he might have preferred to do things other than, for instance, have breakfast with the Hamas cabinet. He found when he returned to Scotland that his parents’ house and lawn were full of “our colleagues”, and he’d had to stress to those journalists, “I’m the same, I’m the same, I’m the same!” As for the haircut, it was a priority although he was not a vain man, and someone had unkindly said he’d looked like Krusty the Clown from The Simpsons on his release.

Norman Kember spoke next, referring to his own police-issue haircut on his release, as the stylist had been a Superintendent, and he asked whether Alan had worried that his kidnappers might force him to convert to Islam, as had happened to the Fox reporters briefly held hostage in 2006. Alan first thanked Kember for the book he’d sent, which I initially pictured to be some inspirational poetry to help him recover from his ordeal, but then realised that Kember has recently published a book on his experience. Alan answered that he was aware that his kidnappers knew it would be humiliating to force him to convert to Islam, but for some reason, the most they did was make him watch an hour-long programme in English (upon learning that his Arabic was too weak to follow the previously proffered propaganda) about why he should convert.

A man near me asked a long question referring to Gaza politics and Hamas, which had been instrumental to his release but was considered by many to be a terrorist organisation, having carried out numerous suicide bombings and attacks against civilians. Alan acknowledged his gratitude for their part in securing his freedom, but said he completely understood why some people wouldn’t want them to be seated at a table of peace talks. However, he said, Hamas could not just be wished away, and it could be likened to someone deciding not to hold talks with the IRA (or presumably Sinn Fein). When Snow pressed him for opinions on the current situation there, Alan pointed out that he’d been out of the loop on Gaza for about nine months, which was interesting as I’d been wondering why, in a new London-based role and in this age of journalists interviewing other journalists, he had not been commenting in news reports about the Annapolis talks.

Jon Snow asked about the “psychiatric” effects of the kidnapping, and Alan said the Beeb had looked after him wonderfully, sending out a psychologist to assess him when he was released, and the two had spoken a few times since and both agreed after a recent health check that Alan’s fine right now. He explained the mental exercises he had applied to keep himself sane, such as visualising a list on the right side of the wall of the dark things that might take hold of him, and a list on the left of the wall of the good things for which he could be thankful, such as having a radio, and he tried to lean towards the left side. He said he had so much time to do nothing but think that he found himself remembering details such as the name of the guy at the back of his woodworking class in Port Elizabeth when he was 12 who was good at dovetail joints.

He'd tackled many great issues in his mind and at one point felt he had worked out a solution to the Darfur conflict in Sudan, but sadly didn’t recall it later. He said he wrote a lot of rubbish poetry and prose whilst there and entertained thoughts of writing the great British novel, but as he had no writing instruments, he struggled as he’d have to remember the first 18 lines of text whilst composing the 19th, so it became a depressing exercise in memory. Alan said that for now, he felt together and okay and didn’t have another appointment with the psychologist, which the crowd received with smiles and a sense of silent applause.

He said, as his mother had put it, it had been a “funny old year”, as he’d been banged up alone for the first half and was spending the second half as a “quasi-D-list celebrity” who was recognised in Tesco's, though he made it clear he was always grateful for everyone’s support.

Someone asked about his relationship with his captors whom they suggested Alan had referred to as world class lunatics, which made Alan duck and say not to tell them he’d said that. Alan spoke of seeing the loathing in the eyes of his main guard, who would fly into unprovoked rages, but because Alan had no control or influence on the situation, he would thank the guard for any kindness—be it delivering his meals or a rare gift of coffee—and try always to be pleasant. He mentioned that, on the 100th day of his captivity, he asked the guard what he thought Alan’s name might be and the guard didn’t know. He described the odd experience of trying to engage in conversation as the guard “rifled through his militiaware” in a wardrobe in the room where Alan was kept. Alan said he’d been asked before whether he thought the rare treats including a glimpse of television to see his parents’ appeal were an attempt to manipulate him, but he didn’t think those individuals were sophisticated enough to organise their thoughts that way. In answer to another question, Alan referred to former Beirut hostage John McCarthy having said that suffering in that way made you more empathetic.

When Snow asked whether the future would see Alan as the BBC’s Tokyo correspondent, Alan joked yes--or Paris—and stressed that the BBC had saved his bacon in Gaza so he wouldn’t jump ship to Sky or to Snow’s Channel 4. He agreed that he must be the BBC World Service’s best listener, as that had been his lifeline throughout his captivity and he’d even listened to their most obscure art programmes. He conceded that, having spent much of his life campaigning hard to get those positions in Afghanistan and Gaza, he now found that he really loved being in Britain and that, for the first time, he was not wishing to be somewhere like the Sudan. He added that there was only so much he could put his parents through and mentioned their concerns even when he left for a holiday in Spain. Now, he planned to work in London for a while and acknowledged that, after nine months of struggling on the Tube and dealing with traffic like today, he might change his mind, but at present, he was pleased to be in Britain, possibly because the kidnap had taken a lot out of him.

We were disappointed to be allotted only three more minutes in Alan’s company, and he hurriedly referred in answering another question to a message from former Beirut hostage Terry Waite that he’d heard when listening in captivity to the World Service, who said Alan’s mind and body would find ways of coping. Alan initially wasn’t confident but then thought of the parents he’d seen in hospitals dealing with their kids’ leukaemia, who surely would have thought months earlier that they’d never be able to cope in such a situation, but they just do, you have to get on with it, just keep on carrying on, and that was what he did. You find a way to cope, you find strength. When asked if he’d talked to himself in captivity, Alan said he’d tried to avoid doing anything that he might have judged to be a bit mad, and speaking aloud to himself fell into that category.

The lights dimmed as the event officially ended, but Alan remained at that desk as some of us filed up to have a word and ask him to sign our copies of Kidnapped and other Dispatches, his From Our Own Correspondent edited book published by Profile last week. An engrossing read in a nifty little book, everyone should get one; The Guardian recently printed an excerpt.

The person in front of me in the peaceful queue was someone that Alan had known but not met face-to-face before, and I felt guilty inadvertently making the chap feel he was holding us up, so I turned away to give them some privacy, only to find myself facing Norman Kember. I was naturally going to let him jump in and speak with Alan, but the man behind me started chatting to him so he was diverted when Alan became free. That man had just been telling his companion of the questions he’d wanted to ask but didn’t dare jump in as he wasn’t an RSA Fellow, an apparent protocol that never occurred to me. Indeed, most of the questioners had identified themselves as fellows, other than one who gave his name followed by “mere mortal” with such aplomb that no one seemed to bat an eyelid.

I asked Alan to sign my book, though the idea of snatching someone’s signature seems kind of silly when you think about it, and these days, I suppose I could scan it in and take out a mortgage in his name, particularly since the postman kindly brought me that unexpected package of CDRs with loads of families’ names and account details on them. However, it does make me look more warmly on the book and better remember the enjoyable experience. Alan was just as marvellous, gregarious and kind with everyone in the queue as he always seems to be. He spelled my unusual name right and made a charming comment when I placed the blame for its oddity on the fact that my parents had thought it up in the 60s (though to be fair to them, rather than wearing flowers and doing drugs, my parents were living in Okinawa where my father was based as a young Air Force officer fighting the Vietnam War. It’s shocking to think back and realise we in the States had conscription; imagine that with the equally unpopular military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, being told your civilian son/brother/husband had to go fight).

When I told Alan I hoped his life returned to something more peaceful as soon as he wanted it, he launched into his usual vibrant, welcome way of responding, clearly longing for things to quiet down but quickly adding cheerfully that, of course compared to the kidnap, this was no problem. He did say it was awful opening the papers and seeing himself so often, and always with the worst possible pictures, though I’ve yet to see a bad photo of him (and I disagreed with the Krusty the Clown allusion). He continued to speak kindly and enthusiastically to all those around him, his beautiful, sparkling personality having wowed us with his ability to bring humour to descriptions of even the darkest situations. Every answer he had given had us laughing despite the true horrors of his ordeal; he does seem to be so well-grounded and positive that the good humour is not just a front for a darker inability to cope. I hope that remains the case for him. A model of rectitude, if this lovely man ever gets bored of journalism, he should give classes on How To Be a Good Human. Though I’m sure he’d deny all knowledge…..

Having just caught my train upon reaching Charing Cross, I checked my compact to remove some street grit from my eye and noticed that the recent cold had left me with a bad case of nose leprosy. I realised with horror that everyone I’d seen all afternoon would have thought that not only was I a nose-picker, but a fairly unsuccessful one at that. Fortunately, I’m sure no one really looks at me; I’m a Londoner, after all. Then walking home from the station, I realised that I’d taken my camera with me but hadn’t thought or drummed up the courage to take a photo at the RSA; I go all shy and hate to be intrusive. Just then a fox rushed past me into a front garden in broad daylight, so I took a photo of him, although he refused to pose and was half-hiding behind a car by the time I got everything sorted. At least it gave other pedestrians and the people in that house a chance to think I was mad (and no doubt to note the apparent evidence that I was rubbish at picking my nose). All in all, an unusually fine day.

My Creative Zen Tries To Comfort Me

Despite spending decades carefully constructing mixed tapes, CDs and minidiscs in order to introduce friends to new music, I find that I happily passed control to my Creative Zen Vision M and have still been unable to take it off random play. The once or twice when I sorted a playlist so I could better get to know my new albums, which are otherwise completely lost amongst the nearly 7700 tracks, I’ve found myself feeling depressed and missing the delight of suddenly being presented with a nostalgic 80s memory or having my heart lifted at some ultra-boppy song I hadn’t thought of for ages. My Zen also usually seems adept at determining my mood, playing cheerful songs when I really need them or switching to gentle classical music when Southeastern are announcing their latest horror to us train passengers. (Does my Zen subscribe to Zen Buddhism?)

I shall expand on that theory when I have more time, but for now, I will just insert the random playlist it provided one stressful day when the expected length of my trip to work doubled. I tried to concentrate on the samples of fine music and remain calm, and I jotted down the tracks to keep myself focused on something other than wanting to kill the sadistic train managers. So for now, here’s a glimpse of a morning’s random choice by my Zen:-

Jackie Wilson Said – Dexy’s Midnight Runners (I prefer Van’s original but this is good fun)
Fantastic Day – Haircut 100 (you’ve lost all respect for me now, haven’t you?)
Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in A – Angela Malsbury & London Mozart players (played as danger of train being cancelled was announced)
Don’t Cry Baby – Madeleine Peyroux (like new Billie Holiday)
Little Cowboy – Harry Nilsson
Man That I’ve Become – Nick Lowe
You Made a Fool of Me – Tasmin Archer
Something Stupid – Frank Sinatra and Nancy Sinatra
Honey Honey – Feist
People Gonna Talk – James Hunter (like new Sam Cooke)
Anytime - Neil Finn
Rebel Rebel – David Bowie
There Stands the Glass-Ted Baxter (everyone should hear his Biloxi)
Vehicles and Animals - Athlete
Bosom Buddies – Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur (from Mame)
Kids (Rise from the Ashes)-- Ed Harcourt
All I Want is Everything—Darden Smith & Boo Hewerdine
Happy Birthday – Altered Images
Help Yourself - Amy Winehouse
Speaking Confidentially – Cowboy Junkies
Pollution – Tom Lehrer
Different God – Brian Kennedy
Graceland (Live) – Boo Hewerdine (performing his hit with The Bible; did the Zen know he’d written the previous BK song?)
Surf (Live) – Roddy Frame (Everyone must get his Surf album)
In Your Sway – Tim Finn
It’s Been a Long, Long Time – Keely Smith (wife of King of the Swingers Louis Prima)
Carolina – Rico
Bare – Matt Nathanson
Mr Harris – Aimee Mann
Ramshackle Day Parade – Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros
You Dream Too Much – Richard Thompson
Best Friends – Ron Sexsmith.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Suddenly It's Christmas

A neighbour has put their Christmas lights up already. It seems so early. As Loudon says (in my post below), Suddenly It’s Christmas. Though, to be fair, we Americans think of the Friday after Thanksgiving as officially heralding in the Christmas season, and that was last Friday, so I suppose everything is in order even here in the UK.

Maybe what worries me is that these lights are not lovely, twinkling white lights around an outside tree, giving it a new joyful character that we can all observe, turning us into excited children as we’re touched by a nostalgic appreciation of anything resembling a brightly lit Christmas tree and the air of anticipation that brings, and happily demonstrating that someone had sufficient holiday spirit to go to such trouble.

No, these are not those type of lights. These are all-singing (nearly), all-dancing, irritatingly constantly flashing multicoloured lights that leap from side to side on what is meant to depict some image I can’t make out, though I suspect it’s not the nativity scene. It is distracting, but at least I can close my curtains and it goes away. For the neighbours who live there, with that on the window, sitting in their living room must be like living in one of those cheap rooms on the wrong side of town in a film noir sleuth movie, with a red neon sign flashing just outside the window and giving the whole room that tint…and taint.

Maybe the real problem, the reason I cannot embrace these lights and I find words like ‘tacky’ and ‘tawdry’ cruelly popping into my head, is that I’ve just not faced up to the fact that December is next week. Seriously, it really is. Check the calendar; I’m telling the truth. In fact, now that I look at the calendar, I realise that this time next month, Christmas will be over; it's that soon. Oh dear. Best go back to ignoring it all really; it’s the only way to cope. Bah humbug.

Saturday, 24 November 2007


Happy Thanksgiving to those of you who celebrate it. I’m an American in London who has no family in this country, and the holiday is all about travelling to spend the four-day weekend with your family. Everyone has much the equivalent of a Christmas dinner on Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday of November, and then they watch the Macy’s parade of giant floating Shrek (and the like) balloons or American football on the telly—not that my family ever did either—and then go brave the crowds in the shops on Friday, which is the biggest shopping day of the year, when the Christmas season is officially declared open. The shops, of course, declare it open much earlier, usually sometime in August these days, which makes me think of Loudon Wainwright III’s song, Suddenly It’s Christmas (see below).

I did not head home this year but booked leave for the Thursday and Friday anyway, as it would have been too depressing to suffer the irritations of work when I should be having a lazy day focused on eating and sloth. Though I missed out on the family/togetherness spirit of the day, other than receiving a few phone calls, it was great to wake up and enjoy a day where I wasn’t feeling pressured to do chores and work, plus I had the advantage of being able to pop to the shops to get more food, whereas at home everything is closed on Thanksgiving day.

I highly recommend that you Brits come up with some sort of holiday to help alleviate the strain of November. Seriously, you guys have so many Bank Holidays in the Spring and summer that one gets in the habit of having a long weekend every few weeks, and then—nothing. Just a long path of incredibly early darkness, a sky permanently painted grey with lots of drizzle….until about April. Christmas helps, but you need to add a few other fun things on which to focus the mind. Your increasing interest in Halloween doesn’t count because that’s a real irritation, a holiday for pagans—by which I mean the teens who bash your door in and demand free food or threaten you, all in the spirit of celebration. Nor am I counting Guy Fawkes Night, another noisy, violent surely pagan celebration that seems to give annoying neighbours free reign to set off incessant, loud fireworks from October through December at 2am, terrifying all pets and wildlife.

But there’s no reason why you Brits can’t adopt Thanksgiving. These were your people who settled in the States, after all. I keep getting asked what it’s all about. It’s about being thankful for all you have at the conclusion of the harvest—or I guess in modern day, what you managed to harvest from Marks, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. We’re all meant to sit down with our extended family and eat turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, pecan pie or pumpkin pie. I’m a veggie who can’t really cook so I had veggie stuffing, roast parsnips and tenderstem broccoli, and since I can’t get pecan or pumpkin pie here, I had cherry pie. Last year, a dear friend at work made me pumpkin pie (well, sweet potato pie—much the same thing), which has ingredients much like my favourite Chai Tea Latté: nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom etc. It’s a shame it’s not easier to get hold of one in London.

I did once, years ago when I was married, go out for Thanksgiving dinner to an American restaurant, Joe Allen’s in Covent Garden. I know that they’re all about quick turnovers for the pre-theatre crowd, but I expected a more leisurely pace on this important holiday, when they were offering a special, expensive Thanksgiving meal to us ex-pat Americans. It was horrible; gruff impatient, even aggressive wait staff made us all feel as soon as we sat down like we were irritating creatures taking up valuable chair space that they needed for the next sitting. They had clearly booked a bazillion more people than they could handle and needed to turn around the tables in about 15 minutes despite serving several courses of a meal that should be slow. They would serve one person’s main meal while the other was still on a starter, snatch plates before people were finished (indeed whilst they held fork to mouth), get impatient if one person whom they served the next course chose to wait for the other diners to be given food as well….We felt bullied and exhausted and paid a fortune for the pleasure. It was the most unpleasant Thanksgiving meal I’d ever had so we never returned.

Anyway, returning to the holiday’s true meaning, I understood from early school plays we always put on at this time of year that the First Thanksgiving was in the early 1600s when the Pilgrims in Plymouth, Massachusetts, were starving because they had no food and the Indians (what you call ‘Red Indians’, what I should call ‘Native Americans’) shared their harvest and taught them how to grow maize, and they all sat down to a wonderful meal together to give thanks for all they had….before we turned on the Indians and killed them in droves, of course. That isn’t quite the official definition but certainly some Pilgrims and natives shared food at a harvest meal. So technically, it was English people and Americans joined together, and you might as well proclaim Thanksgiving an official UK holiday and start taking four-day weekends in November, spending time with your family. Don’t worry if you all end up fighting; that’s another Thanksgiving tradition.

I’ve had a wonderful peaceful time this year and feel, just to finish off the holiday in the right spirit, that I will watch the DVD from a Peanuts holiday box set that an American friend sent me: A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Nothing like seeing Peppermint Patty and Linus bully their hosts Charlie Brown and Snoopy with demands for food to put me in the holiday spirit. And as we speak, I am listening to the fine Boo Hewerdine album Thanksgiving, which really has little to do with it other than contain a song of the same name, which focuses more on missing someone who is celebrating the holiday in America, ending with the lonely verse:-

“And through each November as
I feel the summer die,
I pull my coat around me hard
And will myself to fly.
But there is no Thanksgiving;
I know the winter's here.
I'll lock the door and build a fire
And burn another year.”

I highly recommend that album, by the way; Boo is brilliant, it contains such masterful songs as Murder in the Dark, Please Don’t Ask Me to Dance, Footsteps Fall, Bell, Book and Candle and the breathtakingly beautiful The Birds Are Leaving, and includes backing vocals by Martha Wainwright long before she was known as much more than the daughter of Loudon (and Kate McGarrigle)—even before she was known as the sister of Rufus.

And as we’ve returned to the Wainwright family, I shall reprint here the lyrics of the aforementioned song by Daddy Wainwright, Suddenly It’s Christmas, a live version of which is available for download or can be found on his Career Moves album. Naturally, you should see him live (or watch him on YouTube) for the full spellbinding, hilarious Loudon experience, with enthusiasm bursting from him through his waggling outstretched tongue, twisting leg and stomping foot.

Suddenly it's Christmas,
Right after Hallowe'en.
Forget about Thanksgiving;
It's just a buffet in between.
There's lights and tinsel in the windows;
They're stocking up the shelves;
Santa's slaving at the North Pole
In his sweatshop full of elves.

There's got to be a build-up
To the day that Christ was born:
The halls are decked with pumpkins
And the ears of Indian corn.
Dragging through the falling leaves
In a one-horse open sleigh,
Suddenly it's Christmas,
Seven weeks before the day.

Suddenly it's Christmas,
The longest holiday.
When they say "Season's Greetings"
They mean just what they say:
It's a season, it's a marathon,
Retail eternity.
It's not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree.

Outside it's positively balmy,
In the air nary a nip;
Suddenly it's Christmas,
Unbuttoned and unzipped.
Yes, they're working overtime,
Santa's little runts;
Christmas comes but once a year
And goes on for two months.

Christmas carols in December
And November, too;
It's no wonder we're depressed
When the whole thing is through.
Finally it's January;
Let's sing "Auld Lang Syne";
But here comes another heartache,
Shaped like a Valentine.

Suddenly it's Christmas,
The longest holiday.
The season is upon us;
A pox, it won't go away.
It's a season, it's a marathon,
Retail eternity.
It's not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree.

No, it's not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree;
It's still not over till it's over
And you throw away the tree.

--by Loudon Wainwright III

……Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Foot Notes (and the Joys of Exploring the NHS)

I recently had the joy of experiencing a hospital as an outpatient, pleased that I only had to worry about problems with my feet, which would involve no embarrassing stripping or awkward exposure. It didn’t occur to me that I should be a lot more worried since we tend to depend on our feet a fair bit to get around, particularly if, like me, you live in a city, don’t have a car, and walking everywhere is the exercise that prevents you from being the 50-stone person you probably deserve to be.

After a rare visit to my doctor, which in itself seemed like a videogame victory as I managed to get past the complicated appointment booking system and the gatekeeper/receptionist, I was able to choose whether I wanted to attend the MRSA-ridden hospital they’re threatening to close that is regularly on the “worst hospital” lists with reports in local papers of disgusting deposits often found on the floor, or the other hospital they’re threatening to close (I expect our “local” will soon be in South Africa). As you can imagine, I thought long and hard about this tough decision before opting for the latter.

As an American who rarely gets sick, I felt like a lost new kid in school being scolded for wandering in the wrong direction as I was shuffled from clinic to clinic, and my presence was barely acknowledged by people who spoke gobbledygook to me and shoved various forms at me to complete before prodding or scanning me. I quickly realised I was a mere cog on an assembly line, just one of a thousand that would pass before them that day as they busied themselves chatting to each other as colleagues do, and though I was slightly worried about what was going on, they were too busy to adjust their jargon for a layman or be less than frustrated by my inability to know the ropes. I’m not actually criticising the hospital or the NHS; I quickly realised the fault lay with my expectations. Although things weren’t like this when my mother was in hospital in the States, one pays (or one’s insurance pays) a bazillion pounds for those niceties, and frankly my current financial state would have left me unable to investigate this extreme pain if I'd had to cough up a few thousand pounds for the privilege.

My humanity was better recognised once I was pushed into the room where The Actual Consultant, who was treated by all like Deity, was seated, although I wasn’t allowed to approach him directly and was initially shuffled into a nearby cubicle set off by curtains. I was left alone without any instructions and was wondering whether I should be disrobing, but fortunately before I did, I was retrieved as that was merely a holding cell. The nurses and receptionists flurried around HRH The Actual Consultant whilst practically doubled over and retreating backwards, but I’d had no protocol instructions so merely walked toward him in hopes I would not be shot for this disrespect. He had a medical student with him cowering near the floor throughout our interview.

To be fair, HRH The AC was delightful, a rare kind soul in the setting, and had already made a diagnosis from my X-Rays that were displayed on his desk. Unfortunately, he then bombarded me with what seemed to be an entire encyclopaedia’s worth of news spoken in medical lingo about my various problems within all of about two minutes, which seemed to be the maximum time one is allowed with Actual Consultants. It didn’t help that I’m easily distracted, that I was desperately trying to remember the points I’d told myself I must mention, and that he had a thick accent of some sort. Then, as he pointed vaguely to my feet that had been stripped naked, I looked down and was horrified to find them covered with black residue left by my socks that looked like filth spread around my feet and, horribly, lingering in between some toes.

I rarely dress casually but had realised that a skirt/tights arrangement would have involved more embarrassing undressing than whipping off just socks, and I also wanted to wear casual supportive shoes that suggested that I treated my feet better than I do. I did not realise that wearing new black socks would leave my feet looking like a feature in a Cajun recipe, as though I hadn’t washed them for weeks, when honestly I’d scrubbed them as I knew they’d be centre stage (and feet are rather disgusting generally, aren’t they?). So I spent much of my time trying to reach down subtly and brush them off before The AC and student became too judgemental, and I wondered how I could casually work into the conversation an explanation that the black on my feet was cloth residue and I wasn’t Pigpen from Peanuts.

When I returned my focus to HRH The Actual Consultant, I found I had missed loads of important information, just catching the occasional scary bit about having worn down one of my bones, which he pointed out on the X-ray as though it were obvious. I seem to have a disability when interpreting X-rays; I recognised that we were looking at feet, but could tell little more than that. I sensed his frustration at my failure so I nodded encouragingly, which was stupid when discussing my health, as were my misguided attempts to claim that I bravely coped fine with the pain as though it was nothing to worry about.

Somewhere amidst his forays into blaming spinal discs for other problems, HRH used an additional flurry of medical terms whilst pointing vaguely towards my black spotted feet, and I could swear I heard him use the terms “metamorphosis” and “dorsal fin”. Naturally, rather than query this, I disappeared into my mind to ponder that quandary until I found myself being led back into reception by his minders. I was at least relieved that I had not been taken to an operating theatre to have my feet removed, though when the problem gets sufficiently worse, perhaps that will be an option open to HRH the Actual Consultant.

Note to self for next time: take a tape recorder with you, even if you have to secrete it in your handbag like a bootlegger at a concert, but then I could later go through the tremendous amount of important information poured through my ears in such a condensed slot of time and digest it slowly, though that wouldn’t solve the fact that I later thought up a hundred sensible questions I should have asked whilst there (eg, “Do you intend one day to chop off my feet, as your answer will dictate how soon I return to see you.”).

Back at work, my colleagues helped established that what I’d heard as “metamorphosis/dorsal fin” was actually a reference to my worn first metatarsal, which impressed some football fans as it meant I had something in common with Wayne Rooney. Another colleague pointed out that my feet were about three times the age of the rest of me since I’m notorious for walking at such speed that I’m normally just a blur on the horizon.

I have since had time to worry that my “metamorphosis dorsal fin” troubles might mean I can no longer jazz/tap dance on stage, go rock climbing, or sprint around a track at great speed as I did when I was younger. Okay, so I’ve not done those things for about 30 years, but that’s not the point….what if I suddenly wanted to again tomorrow? Right now, I’m busy eating and sitting on the sofa whilst watching Jools Holland on the telly (oh God, is that James Blunt?!? Why must we listen to that unpleasantness and can’t someone drag him to a barber or sheep shearer? Next I expect Jools will introduce Katie Melua and my compounded reaction will be a method of losing weight without troubling my metatarsals to walk, one tried and tested by bulimics though hard on the oesophagus. Sorry, that was unkind; I guess I’m just bitter because I can’t go tap dancing up Ben Nevis tonight as I might have done if I didn’t have such ancient metamorphosising dorsal fins for feet.). Sigh.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Alan Johnston, Beware of Salivating Single Women....

My post below on the engrossing Panorama programme on Alan Johnston was written shortly after it aired, but the day job seeps into nights and weekends so much that I rarely have time to post my (long and rambling) thoughts. One thing the apparently incredibly decent Alan mentioned in that interview and others he has been giving was that the night he was taken hostage in Gaza, the kidnappers' leader told him he would one day go free, write a book about his experience, and get married. Whilst that was an odd proclamation, it did at least reassure him that he had a future, although it obviously implied that he was to go through something life-changing, which was a worry. Fortunately, four months later, he was freed. Now, today, he also publishes a book, Kidnapped and Other Dispatches, which at present is available from Amazon for £3.99. The Guardian published an excerpt on 17 November, which can be read online .

So people will undoubtedly note that one prediction remains to be fulfilled: that Alan will get married. In the Panorama programme, he laughs when Jeremy Vine asks whether it was time to settle down with a wife, terraced house, and white picket fence, and Alan says that may just be too radical a change to his lifestyle. It’s clearly no one’s business but his own, but I do find myself hoping that this seemingly kind-hearted stranger takes his time and finds someone truly special, and doesn’t rush into anything. Whilst my friends know me as staunchly independent and thus not a huge advocate of marriage, I’m not preaching against it in principle as I’m sure it’s lovely when the right (mature!) people really believe they want to make such a commitment and be that together for the future. I just worry that he might be besieged by ‘groupies’ who are either drawn to anyone in the public eye or are, like me, astonished to find there are still such fine humans out there, and single at that. He is, after all, and despite his welcome reassurances that he is recovering well from his ordeal, surely still in some state of bereavement for his old happy life in Gaza, which is lost to him now, and dealing with a haunting, traumatic experience that no one else can truly understand.

I am also aware how a trauma can leave one feeling a lot more open to the prospect of a relationship—inappropriate or otherwise, which can leave one in a worrying and vulnerable position. After my beloved father’s sudden death and the ongoing agonising suffering I feel for that, I initially found myself feeling so tired. Tired of always having to be strong. Tired of having to cope with everything on my own, whereas before I had always been so proud of my independence and never wanted to be tied down in a claustrophobic, limiting relationship. For a while, I started to think it might not be so terrible to have someone to lean on, just slightly, every now and then. I used to like to be the crutch to friends and others in need, but here I found myself thinking maybe I just might do with a bit of support myself. For a while then, as I began to notice the world carrying on around me again, I found myself feeling slightly receptive to the idea of having someone to share things with for the first time in an age. I would look around a meeting room at colleagues whom I never would have considered to be suitable potential partners before, and make excuses in my mind for what I’d previously seen as shortcomings. People who were plain, quiet and gentle suddenly seemed heroic to me. They offered a calm stability. I couldn’t cope with any more noise, pain and turmoil, and surely these quiet, serene people whom I perhaps had never particularly noticed before held the answer to my happiness.

That was all fairly ludicrous, although I couldn’t see that--or anything clearly--at the time, and it did contribute to me going out with someone very quiet who I’d not really noticed before and would never have thought of as someone I’d be attracted to earlier. At the time, he seemed to become fascinating and perfect. There were, indeed, many good things I discovered about him, and I felt that more people were missing out by dismissing these tranquil, unassuming people lurking in the shadowy corners of the room. But I’d let my guard down and failed to take stock of the true situation, failed to run my usual checks in any way, and foolishly took him at his word. Obviously, just because he had these placid characteristics did not mean he was automatically an honourable man. Just when I felt like I might, unusually, actually fall for him, I learned he already had a girlfriend, whom he hadn’t felt it important to mention in the month we’d been seeing each other, who didn’t understand him and whom he intended to leave when the time was right, etc, etc, etc—the same old story. Needless to say, that was a shock and the first of many boulders I hit whilst rolling downhill—which at least was a way of moving quickly away from this ill-advised situation and leaving the duplicitous creature to his former life without me.

I see now, a couple years later, that I had let this total exhaustion, this feeling of just being too tired to deal with any more challenges or jolts on my own, take over everything, and I’d shut down my brain and normal senses and sensibilities, which was a mistake. I suppose a compromise between that reckless abandon and my usual walls-up I-am-an-island stance is the answer.

Alan Johnston seems so much more sensible and, I sense, stronger than I am. I am not unintelligent, I am not lacking in street wisdom; I am more or less back on my feet though still, of course, suffering badly from the endless void created by the loss of my father, my foundation, but I feel strong enough now to help support someone else who needed someone to lean on slightly, or at least perhaps if I came across such a person, we could lean on each other. Though I’m not looking and still enjoy my life on my own.

But I wonder if Alan will be thinking more of this prediction that he will marry. Most people do marry eventually, after all. And perhaps, after the wild experiences in the dangerous places he has been based, and the shock to his system of the kidnapping ordeal, which will surely affect him for years and cause the odd sudden scream in the night, no matter how impressively reassuring he is that he’s fine, he may now be feeling receptive to a slightly more conventional life—albeit without the picket fence. I have no doubt there are plenty of intelligent, understanding, kind people out there who would welcome him into their lives and provide him with anything he needs. And although he is a stranger to me, I truly hope that he finds that woman rather than someone who mentions, just as he falls for her, that she has a boyfriend….or somehow isn’t quite the one.

I remember hearing a comment by writer and former Beirut hostage John McCarthy that his wife knew nothing of his being a hostage; he’d met her much later through work on a book and was somewhat comforted that she knew him as John McCarthy rather than as John McCarthy the Hostage. I can understand his feeling, although I wonder how his wife could have been so sheltered from the news. I do worry that there are many ‘groupies’ out there who are keen to latch onto any hero, anyone with a modicum of celebrity, anyone in the public eye who they mistakenly think they know. And I acknowledge that here I am, talking about something personal to someone I don’t know, which isn’t much better. But he seems so likeable and deserves happiness and peace now, I find myself hoping he finds it.

Personally, my ideal man now would be someone soft-spoken, well-grounded, highly respectable, excellent at his job, intelligent and well-educated, talented at writing, appreciative of small pleasures and blessings, calm, sensible and possibly away for long periods of time (sorry, but I’m highly independent and need lots of space!)—and though what little we think we know of Alan Johnston seems to fit much of that bill and he has a tremendous family and lovely physical features to boot, I don’t know Alan Johnston and I’m not a stalker/groupie/freak, so he needn’t worry that I’ll be lurking in the bushes outside his home. I hope no one is, and that he finds (not in the bushes) someone great for him when he’s ready.

Meanwhile, I will still hold open my offer to buy him a coffee if he’s ever wandering through the City of London where I work, because I’m decent friend (or acquaintance) material, if I do say so myself, if perhaps a bit too dull and busy with work, and he deserves everyone to buy him a drink of some sort, which I’m sure happens. And as soon I get my awful financial situation sorted, his book will be one of the first treats I buy.

[Alan will be taking part in an RSA lecture in London next week and is participating in a live webchat today, answering questions posted previously on the Guardian’s OrganGrinder blog. I admittedly posted a question for this earlier this week but not one of the more exciting ones, and I’m disappointed but not surprised to see two women offering themselves to help fulfil the remaining prediction! Beware the groupies, Alan! But good luck with everything else.]

Gripping Alan Johnston Panorama Let Down by Arty Gimmicks

[I meant to post this yonks ago…]

Imagine beginning your day with root canal surgery. Surely you would think the day could only improve from there. But not so for Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent based in Gaza, the only western journalist living in the dangerous Gaza Strip, who on 12 March this year was due to return home 16 days later after a three-year stint. Alan left the calmer grounds of Jerusalem that morning where he’d had undoubtedly painful dental surgery, and returned home to Gaza, reporting for work. After he left there, his car was overtaken and he was kidnapped by what transpired to be the dreaded Army of Islam, and whereas most kidnappings in the area ended with the hostage being released in a week or so, this kidnapping was to be different.

The recent BBC Panorama special Kidnapped: the Alan Johnston Story was absolutely gripping despite the weak arty ploys of manipulative, nauseating camera-jostling to convey the chaos of the kidnap that we must be too stupid to imagine; the staged feel of the stark interview space: an empty converted warehouse; screeching ravens attempting to lend a disturbing Poe uneasiness to proceedings; and distracting cryptic glimpses of a woman in a field. Most absurd was bizarrely unveiling the latter’s significance—that Keats’ reference to the Biblical homesick Ruth “amid the alien corn” was on Alan’s mind during his captivity--as though that revelation was the exciting denouement of the story, when that honour went to the joyful, heart-warming moment four months after he was taken when Alan and his friend Fayed Abu Shamalah laid eyes on each other and knew Alan was finally free.

The comfortingly calm Alan is an amazing, engaging raconteur whose tale needs none of these gimmicks, and I look forward to his future work from somewhere safer if that would not bore him. Whereas the nauseating camerawork turned my telly into radio as I was forced to look away, by contrast I was captivated by clips of the impressive (and surprisingly tender, given his job) BBC Head of Safety, Paul Greeves, and Alan’s delightful editor, Simon Wilson (surely a gentle giant?) speaking of their concerns and astounding work attempting to secure his release, as well as being touched by Alan’s magnificent parents, clearly the source of his superb grounding, courage and intelligence. Few films could have such a happy ending as Alan wandering free through the bright Argyll countryside, although our glee was tempered with the harrowing, important reminder that British hostages remain missing in Baghdad, and I hope their stories’ endings are as happy soon.

I recorded the programme and if DVDs could be worn out by repetitive viewing of a particular chapter, I would have destroyed it by now from watching umpteen times the moment Alan is describing how he is taken out to an unknown fate by his kidnappers, who had just beaten him and held a Kalashnikov to his head, then dumped him in an alley at the foot of a row of armed men, and like an animal with no control over his own situation, he had no idea what that meant and wondered whether the men who were taking him around the corner were a new gang who had taken charge of him…..until he caught sight in a tent in a garden of his friend and colleague Fayed Abu Shamalah (Fayed is pictured on the left of the picture with Alan when he was freed).

Then, the programme switches to Fayed’s point of view, who sweetly describes trying to comfort Alan and drum home that he was free, grabbing hold of him and not letting go for hours, and then we are shown the footage of Alan, with his friend Fayed’s arm safely wrapped around him, guiding him through the chaotic crowds jostling him in a happy madness. Then we get to see his parents, all smiles, speaking of hearing Alan on the phone right after that, and the world is a better place. I well up ever time I watch this and it might replace Singing in the Rain and Father Ted as tried-and-true medicine for cheering me up when things are horrid.

Some things in particular that stick in my mind from this programme are:-

  • The amazing warmth and professional skill at dealing with this unusual situation--implementing a protocol written by Alan--conveyed by Greeves and Wilson (Director-General Mark Thompson came across as less caring and more business-focused but I sense that's an unfair depiction)

  • His absolutely precious father describing how nervous he was addressing the packed press briefing and television cameras but that he focused on speaking directly to his son, who incredibly saw the plea and was comforted by seeing his parents strong and dignified

  • Wilson describing moving into Alan’s flat in Gaza after Alan had been taken, which must have been terrifying for him and his family given the fate of the only other western journalist in Gaza, and his comment that the existing provisions suggested that Alan lived off chocolate and green beans (perhaps because his pre-root-canal mouth could take nothing more?)

  • Greeves’ description of the horror of waiting for the slow download of the video posted to the web by the terrorists who had threatened to kill Alan, and dreading clicking ‘play’ for fear of what it would reveal

  • My being reminded of the worldwide peaceful demonstrations against his kidnapping

  • The mix-up that in other circumstances would have been hilarious, when his colleagues tried to ascertain whether Alan was still alive by asking the kidnappers to get from him the name of his childhood cat in South Africa, and learning that a language mix-up meant Alan was asked ‘What is the national cat of South Africa?’ and picturing Alan trying to think of an answer in case his life depended on it

  • Wondering why his kidnappers gave him a radio that received the BBC World Service--perhaps it was to keep him quiet like sticking a child in front of television--and did they know that he was Scottish when showing him part of the Scotland–France football match?

  • The dilemma of the Foreign Office in deciding whether to work with Hamas, which they’d previously labelled as a terrorist organisation, but which were gaining control of Gaza and thus could provide the key to rescuing Alan

  • The horror Alan must have felt when hearing the incorrect radio report of his death, which he now jokes Twain -style had been exaggerated, but he did worry of the impact on his parents, and I wonder if he realised a search might stop if he were thought to be dead.

  • I worry that Alan’s underplaying the trauma he must be going through, although he is clearly very grounded, stems from his modesty and determination not to complain too much when he may feel that others, such as the Beirut hostages, suffered worse fates, and I worry that he’ll let undeserved guilt creep in—but he had no freedom and a lot of fear

  • Alan used to dream of being out of that room and wake to the horrors of finding he was still there; now he is out of that room and has nightmares that he is still there and must wake screaming—though fortunately finds that he’s free and I hope improves

  • I wonder what guarantee of safe return the captors had when clearly they crossed several Hamas checkpoints to deliver Alan and had threatened to shoot him if the guards didn’t back off, so how would they expect, without Alan as security on the way back, to escape with their lives and freedom? It seems a surprising risk.

  • I wondered what Alan thought of being taken to pose and dine with Ismail Haniya, the Hamas leader in Gaza, given that some viewed Hamas as terrorists, but I suppose he was grateful to be freed, and Hamas contributed to his being free

  • It must have been awful for a journalist to miss the biggest story (next to his own) happening on his patch when Hamas took control of Gaza, and maddening for any to be trapped in an empty room for so long with so many thoughts and no facility to write them down; no wonder he spoke so fluently upon his release

  • Alan seems to have protected himself with a remarkable self-awareness, fighting off feelings of despair as though he borrowed a weapon from his captives and used it to shoot down any depression-inducing thoughts, but I hope he treads carefully for some time so those thoughts don’t rear up and overwhelm him.

What is upsetting are some of the cold remarks made with prejudice and hindsight scattered across the web. There are accusations that the dear Fayed Abu Shamalah was linked to Hamas, which the BBC absolutely refutes, saying the rally he was accused of attending was a press briefing with numerous journalists who would have reported any such outrageous irregularities. In any case, any good reporter would foster contacts with all sides. There are also many unjust criticisms of or plain unkind comments about Alan and those who worked to free him, clearly made by people with firm political views who are too focused on their prejudices to applaud the fact that a man criminally stolen from the street is now free, which is all that should matter, regardless of one’s political views.

I feel annoyed when people ask why didn’t he try to escape—to what? They weren’t there, and he had no idea where he was, other than that he was surrounded by people who loathed what he represented and had an arsenal, in a bad part of a bad town, and he might have escaped from one room only to be shot in another, and if he actually made it to the street, the only westerner wandering lost, nearly blind without his contacts, would hardly get far before being recaptured or worse. He played it safe rather than being stupid, thank goodness.

There are also the inevitable cruel comments that emerge whenever anyone addresses the inevitable media onslaught following such a situation, accusing him of overkill by now granting so many interviews and even cashing in on his ordeal by publishing a book on the experience. So what? He didn’t arrange his kidnapping for eventual profit and celebrity! It must be cathartic for him to write—he’s a journalist after all, and was for four months without any means of jotting down his myriad thoughts, which were all he had to occupy him, so no wonder he has so much to say now. It’s all part of his recovery and he seems keen to return to obscurity. I feel he’s doing his duty now, almost like the royals granting photo calls on the condition that the media leave them alone for the rest of their ski trip. I hope he’s not weary of repeating the account of what happened, and that his future in London, if he works for his beloved World Service, would not be too dull for him, as he’s usually based somewhere dangerous.

It is bad enough that the Beeb plans to cut down on factual programming, like the World Service, a service of which Alan spoke after his release joyfully, calmly and fluently about his ordeal at his press conference (which can be seen on YouTube), as no doubt he had been imagining and dying to do for four months, full of jokes about having got a haircut to remove that ‘just kidnapped look’ and recommending the BBC World Service to anyone who found themselves kidnapped. I’m sure the World Service is a comfort to many people around the world and I worry about the threatened BBC cuts to factual programming, when there is so much dross and so many overpaid presenters that could be pruned out instead.

Incidentally, anyone wishing to explore the ‘alien corn’ reference, it refers to Ruth following her mother-in-law Naomi to Bethlehem to become a gleaner in the fields after Ruth’s husband died (“Whither thou goest, I will go,” Ruth 1:16) and describes someone who is alone in a foreign land in alien surroundings. John Keats alluded to that in his famous Ode to a Nightingale poem, writing of the bird’s lovely song, “Perhaps the self-same song that found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home, / She stood in tears amid the alien corn''. The same poem contains the more well-known phrase, “Tender is the night.”

Alan is a truly impressive soul, and if he ever finds himself wandering through the City of London, I’d love to buy him a coffee—just as a humble congratulations and gratitude for daring to put his life in danger by reporting the truth to so many people who don’t care as much as they should that so many correspondents are doing that. It would have to be a big, expensive Starbucks coffee, obviously, and I would not make him talk about his kidnapping unless he wanted to; I’d be interested in learning about that cat in South Africa, his studies (as I also have a degree in journalism, but a wasted one) and walking in beautiful Argyll. He’s not Alan Johnston the Freed Captive, but an amazing, intelligent, soft-spoken, Decent Human Being and remarkable journalist. He seems like he’d be a joy to meet.

I also recommend downloading the podcast of Alan’s account of his ordeal on Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent, or reading it on the webpage.

The Importance of Remembrance

When tuning dutifully into the Lord Mayor’s Show this year for a moment, as my work in the Square Mile makes me feel I should at least momentarily glance at the parade, I was appalled to hear the BBC presenter ask viewers to text in comments for their friends who were participating in the show, so the texts could run feed-style across the bottom of the screen. Seriously, is there no end to this desperate need to encourage pointless interaction on every single live programme? No one in the show would see these messages, and no one else cares; it’s just blocking our view of part of the screen. Maybe next year, they’ll have a rigged vote to eliminate our least favourite floats with some cruel Alan Sugar denouncement or a pointlessly cursing Gordon Ramsay. Maybe we can ditch the Livery’s “election” of Lord Mayor altogether and in future make candidates perform a scantily clad dance on ice in the jungle after eating maggots whilst performing other degrading tasks, living without a change of clothes and on reduced rations, and whomever lasts nine weeks is pronounced Lord Mayor, promoting the “financial centre of the world” across the globe. Fortunately, I wasn’t troubled for too long about the text-feed because once it appeared, and once I learned there was to be no camel in this year’s show, I switched off and went out to enjoy the gorgeous sunshine in person, joyfully far from the crowds of the Show.

I can at least be thankful that no similar gimmicks were applied by the Beeb to this year’s Festival of Remembrance at the Albert Hall, which was allowed to proceed peacefully and with the expected respect for veterans and their loved ones (and without credit crunching at the end and a voiceover cheerfully advertising the programme to follow--hurrah!). I always watch the programme in floods of healthy tears; it’s important We Remember and appreciate the hell that these people are going through for us even now. I overcame my initial instinct to record this programme on DVD, as I worry that my archivist tendencies are repeating the video nightmare that has left me surrounded by the clutter of hundreds of nearly obsolete and largely unlabelled videotapes that I’ll never have time to watch. Then after a few heart-tugging stories and the appearance of the fantastic tenor Alfie Boe, I hit record but not soon enough to capture the whole of his breathtaking performance of the perfectly apt Bring Him Home from Les Miserables. What could be more perfect, with so many soldiers still suffering in wars abroad, all of whom we want to return home safely—regardless of whether you feel they should return immediately or eventually.

That extremely high point was, of course, dwarfed by the incredible tales told of so many soldiers, their relatives and others working ‘for the cause’, and particularly the appearance of amazing Chelsea Pensioners and other ancient veterans from wars nearly forgotten. A low point was the G4-ish boy band Blake singing the theme from An Officer and a Gentleman---Up Where We Belong. But some described it as moving, and I must confess to being biased against that terrible song.

I make it a point to watch just about every remembrance tribute shown at this time of year; it’s so important to remember and respect those who went to war and particularly those who suffered. The Government, all governments, seem to remember them too little, as evidenced by the many who have returned and even ended up homeless or suicidal, and the awful stories we’ve been hearing about insulting levels of compensation to families or the injured, families evicted owing to the death or injury of the previously serving soldier, and lack of support to those who suffered injuries in battle. I think every school child should watch these programmes, along with the first 30 minutes of Saving Private Ryan so they can learn respect and awareness of the hell many older people have suffered. Mind you, at least there is more awareness of your day of tribute here in the UK, with everyone wearing a poppy as it approaches; I was never aware of the approach of Veteran’s Day when I was growing up in the States.

One series I was pleased to see repeated was Channel 4’s Not Forgotten presented by Ian Hislop, where a few descendents of soldiers named on old and often forgotten war memorials around the country were tracked down and some memorials restored or saved. It was a bit like Who Do You Think You Are? in reverse, participation in which apparently encouraged Hislop to do this programme, as he’s descended from a First World War veteran. Most people he stopped in the street in Not Forgotten barely noticed the decaying memorials they passed daily, and I’m ashamed to say that I have not yet carried out my promise after the show was first aired to visit the Liverpool Street station memorial (near my work) to the fearless ferry boat captain Charles Fryatt, who was executed by the Germans in the First World War to worldwide outrage after they took his brave challenge to their U-boats rather badly.

I also enjoyed Jeremy Paxman’s heartfelt tribute to First World War poet Wilfred Owen. However, the best programme shown over this period was Channel 4’s Forgotten Heroes: the Not Dead, which had me crying throughout. The trailers had gripped me when showing Fusilier Eddie Beddoes, a truly tough looking man who you’d probably fear in another situation, talking nearly tearfully about how his children had to deal with their father falling apart in the corner upon hearing a balloon burst at their birthday party. The courage of his wife to accept these new hardships was also impressive. The programme shared amazing, moving tales told by the three former soldiers, young an old, who experienced them, each finishing with the veteran reading tailor-made poetry by Simon Armitage vividly describing their memories of the particular horrors they experienced.

Fusilier Beddoes wore severe scars across his face (and mind) after being shot and seriously injured in Bosnia whilst peace-keeping, which he pointed out meant wearing a blue helmet as a sitting target who wasn’t allowed to defend himself by firing at the murder squads who regularly shot at the peacekeepers. Guardsman Rob Tromans described the terror that gripped him amidst the horrors of Iraq, which lasted 24/7 with no rest, and he now struggles in society, on drugs, in and out of prison, the sort of person you’d go out of your way to avoid—but he was once an eager youngster who signed up to help his country. Now we see what’s leftover when his country failed to help him.

Most utterly heartbreaking—though all the situations were harrowing—was seeing the tears of 78-year-old former Private Cliff Holland, who had been looking forward as a young bricklayer to the opportunity to see the world and fight for King and country when he was shipped off to fight Communists in the Malayan jungle in 1950. Most of his group on a particular mission died immediately when they walked into an ambush, with others surviving with shocking injuries, and they were just boys who barely knew how to deal with any of it. He shot someone quickly in revenge, which still haunts him, as does having to choose to drive over a man who looked him in the eye with apparent intentions of surrendering, but it was unsafe to do anything else when he needed to get the few survivors away from the carnage. About 60 years on, he sobbed on camera about this episode, which he relives every single night. He also described the hardships facing demobbed soldiers who were expected to snap back into normal life despite these horrors on their mind and the lack of jobs, particularly for those of limited skills. “You couldn't go into the Labour Exchange and say, 'If you know anyone wants killing, I'm your man'.”, he said.

Armitage’s poetry rolled off these injured tongues so naturally, it was as though it was their everyday speech. His collaboration with director Brian Hill to expose us to these raw and nearly unbearably sad situations deserves to be seen by a much wider audience, and I urge everyone to catch a repeat whenever it is shown. It will make you feel that something must be done, but presumably you will feel as helpless as I did, as sadly I can’t bring peace to the world. But much more should be done for the ‘not dead’ who need more attention and support, and there society could act to improve the awful reality somehow, and individuals could help charities such as the British Legion who try to pick up the pieces that the military discards.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Whose Line Is It Anyway & Comedy Store

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the repeats of the early series of the original British television version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? being shown on Dave, formerly known as UKG2. (Renamed, I suppose, to be blokier as the channel has Top Gear on loop. Maybe all channels could change to names of men you’d come across in a pub, and we’d be saying, ‘Did you see that Attenborough special last night on Terry?’ and ‘I was watching Corrie on Kev but turned over to Tony’ and ‘Rory Bremner left Barry and is on Pete now.’)

It’s been a joy to rediscover the refreshing humour of WLIIA?, particularly after stumbling across the later American version hosted by Drew Carey, which left me feeling depressed to the extent that I refuse to give it another try. Compared to the quick takes of the British version, the improvised skits seemed to drag on endlessly even when failing, which was unexpected in the presence of Ryan Styles and Greg Proops, fairly regular treasures on the British version. The British show, which started on radio in 1988 (both hosted by the wonderfully spontaneous Clive Anderson), sees four comedians assigned situations to improvise with the aim of being funny. These are really acting exercises that students do in beginning drama classes, but with the challenge of rapidly being amusing. The games include reading a passage from an imaginary book in the style of a chosen author (eg Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, Dr Seuss, Hello magazine), having a party host guess what the guests are meant to be (eg a Chippendale, a showjumper, someone who thinks he’s a moth), thinking up punchlines using props, providing silly dialogue for old film footage, and playing a scene where they build up to revealing a line that is unknown to them until they unfold a paper and read it out (eg “Always remember our company's motto: ‘Dead ducks don’t fly backwards’”).

Josie Lawrence was talented at singing and thinking up lyrics quickly but was rarely funny. The song sequences were a weakness but provided the presence of Richard Vranch on piano, usually playing the same ‘hoedown’ tune as the contestants each came up with a verse. The ‘winners’ would read the credits in a style of Anderson’s choosing; for instance, as in a football interview while the other two portrayed irritating passers-by who keep getting into shot.

The multi-talented John Sessions originally shared top billing with Anderson, and Paul Merton and Tony Slattery were also early regulars. I preferred the earlier line-ups though I despaired of Slattery, who invariably resorted to being crude owing to a desperate inability to come up with something funny. Later, North Americans Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops and Colin Mochrie gave the show polish with their enormously impressive abilities, the former a particularly skilled improviser. They never missed a possible joke and Ryan's hilarious facial expressions and sense of daring always won over the crowd, such as when he played the chef with arms provided by someone crouched behind him and he was forced to scoff a whole brie. Most memorable was his portrayal in the Party Tricks game of an antelope frightened that he heard a lion approaching, and I enjoyed his quick wit when being interviewed in a mock news report about how unusual it was when a girl kissed a frog that turned into a man. He quipped, "It is unusual; normally when you kiss a frog, it turns into a prince. This girl kissed a frog and it turned into the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”

I love seeing the players from the improv nights at the Comedy Store (CS) in Piccadilly where they present the same format live, such as Jim Sweeney (curly haired in the programme but clean headed live), Steve Steen, and Steve Frost. The aforementioned Richard Vranch, a mere accompanist on the television version, comes to life at the CS as a full participant and practically MC, showing not just his musical talent but that he is an adept comedian himself. Along with his comic/acting/writing/voiceover ventures, he presented a Channel 4 science series called Beat that Einstein. Richard, you see, has a PhD in radiation physics from Cambridge University and was briefly a Research Fellow at St John's College, Oxford.

I have an embarrassing confession about Richard Vranch. I am drawn to intelligence--and to pianists. Somehow he seemed a nice guy through his wordless appearance on the show, and the blend of humour, confidence and charisma that he oozed on stage at the CS led to me fancying him sufficiently that, when a group of us were sharing a drink with Fred MacAulay after he MC'd a show (he’d been to school with a friend), my friends quizzed him about Vranch’s single/taken status. When I learned more, I realised he wasn’t the man for me, so he was safe. Still, my friends embarrassed me by dragging him out with clever Niall Ashdown for a photo on my 31st birthday. I’ve blurred the faces of myself and friend as I’m keen on anonymity, though that made it look creepy. (Niall A's on the left, Richard Vranch is on the right.)

I also confess to having moments of fancying other CS Players, perhaps because I’d just got divorced when I started dragging friends there for inexpensive cheering up. I liked Neil Mullarkey for a moment (Cambridge Footlights alum Neil fares better on stage, particularly at Edinburgh, and had early double acts with Nick Hancock and then Mike Myers, which led to bit parts in Austin Powers films, and guested regularly on Paul Merton's surreal sketch series); Lee Simpson, who co-starred with Julian Clary in an odd sitcom and whose Improbable Theatre produced the mindstompingly impressive Shockheaded Peter on stage with puppets and slightly bizarre group the Tiger Lilies; and Tony Hawks, who caught my attention after he gave me a massive, prolonged smile one evening (I was easily impressed then).

Hawks’ amusing first book, Round Ireland with a Fridge, an account of his adventure lugging a refrigerator around Ireland whilst hitchhiking to win a bar bet, was an entertaining vaguely Bill Bryson-style read but completely put me off the man himself as he spent all his time pursuing women and alcohol and not only slept with a strange woman in a doghouse one night, but then told the world about it. He’s had the odd quiet telly series such as One Hit Wonderland, based on another bet that led him to have a hit song in Albania with Norman Wisdom and Tim Rice, and he reached the Top 5 in the UK charts in 1988 as leader of Morris Minor and the Majors with their Beastie Boys parody, Stutter Rap (No Sleep ‘Til Bedtime). He’s now the annoying unshaven chap in the telly adverts whinging about ‘Wollop!’ being hit by high car insurance premiums and getting a thousand unwanted free tax discs holders. He is often mistakenly sent e-mails destined for American skateboarder Tony Hawk and posts on his website his rascally responses to them.

One great thing about the CS was you could have a drink or quiet word with the Players as they’re forced to order drinks at the same bar as you, climb through the crowd to reach their dressing room, and even share the loos. So if you are a truly committed stalker, rather than an overly shy person with unconvinced designs on the occasional comedian as I was, you could probably make progress by introducing yourself. I highly recommend seeing the Comedy Store Players on Wednesdays or Sundays. Vranch, Sweeney, Mullarkey are inevitably there, with Lawrence and sometimes Paul Merton still attending on Sundays. It’s now a pricier £15, but worth it and now fortunately smokeless, given that it's a small basement area. Book ahead to avoid queues, arrive early for a good seat (you’re not game for attack as in stand-up and a cute comedian might smile and lead you astray) and take your thinking cap; I was always amazed by the brilliant creativity of some of the audience members who shouted out hysterical suggestions for the comedians to implement. If you can't get there, enjoy Series 1 and 2 of the British WLIIA?, which will be released on DVD in February 2008.

Letterman Returns to the UK

Despite the myriad complaints I have about ntl/VirginMedia, and how I wish that rather than spend a fortune on Uma Thurman’s attempts to lure innocent young men blindly to their Dark Side, they’d put that money into providing even a modicum of customer service, I can applaud them for one thing: recently giving us DivaTV. It almost makes up for the channels that we’ve lost. DivaTV (Ch 192) appeared on my wishlist not because I have some talk show fixation; I assure you I gladly bypass all of them, despite having occasionally glanced at Oprah in the past. (Her programmes are loathsome when they fawn over some Hollywood star, but are great when they teach you something, like how to survive a plane crash or an encounter with a grizzly bear—the latter being either to play dead or to climb a tree; I can never remember which is grizzly bear and which is black bear, and hope I figure it out before the worst happens…..).

Nay, the diamond in Diva’s crown is the Late Show with David Letterman, which has been absent from these shores for far too long. I can barely control my elation at being exposed again to the hilarious Top Ten Lists and Stupid Pet Tricks, never mind so many wonderful musical guests and the great Paul Schaffer. These programmes are about a month old when shown on Diva, which is disappointing, particularly as I used to gain my knowledge of American current events from Letterman's monologues, but I am too thrilled by the return of this fine man and his cohorts to mind too much. Diva shows the Late Show at the early time of 9pm, but then I tend to fall asleep earlier after a hard day at work so I can deal with that.

We’re terrifically lucky to have the opportunity to see him again in the UK (weeknights at 9pm), and I continue to be thankful that Letterman has survived some serious health scares (an emergency quintuple bypass in 2000—when the likes of Bill Cosby guest-hosted--and a dreadful case of Shingles in 2003, when even Elvis Costello guest hosted, but stiffly). My fondness for Letterman runs deep; I’ve practically grown up with him, and I remember trying to convince my freshman year college roommate of his merits back when he was known for more acerbic, confrontational and sarcastic interviews. I even mentioned him in my father’s eulogy as they always reminded me of each other. I thank goodness I can see one of them every night again; I wish I could say more.

[Sadly, Diva dropped David Letterman not long afterwards, so I'm in the devastated position of being Letterman-less again. And there's no point in watching DivaTV.]

Monday, 19 November 2007

Interesting Facts About Barry Manilow

I accidentally recently half-watched the programme on Barry Manilow (Barry Alan Pincus) on the Biography Channel, and was interested to learn how he got started. I suppose I had heard that he originally wrote advertising jingles, and the programme said that, in order to keep the audience’s attention in his early shows as an unknown, he would perform a medley of the famous jingles he’d written and sung, so the concert took a surreal advertising break as he and his backing singers sang seriously about KFC, Dr Pepper, Pepsi and McDonald’s—the latter’s famous ‘You Deserve a Break Today’ campaign.

Another thing that caught my attention was that his first producer was Tony Orlando, as in Tony Orlando and Dawn, who sang Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree—so famously used as an unofficial anthem during the Iran hostage crisis—and Knock Three Times, and hosted a variety show in the States in the 70s, as did most performers it seems (The Smothers Brothers, Captain and Tennille, The Carpenters, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie, etc). Hearing the result of Orlando’s tinkering with such later-famous ballads as Could it Be Magic? and Mandy suggest that it was not the happiest arrangement, as Orlando turned most things into something that sounded like Tie a Yellow Ribbon, a quick catchy pop song of the day. Fortunately, Manilow wrestled them back and eventually made hits of them his way, before the likes of Take That eventually covered Could it Be Magic? in a way that would make Orlando proud.

But most amazing, I thought, was seeing old clips of Barry Manilow working as Bette Midler’s pianist, with Grammy award winner Melissa Manchester (another former jingle singer) on backing vocals, in toned down shows on a teeny stage at a gay baths (NYC Continental Baths), where Manchester said the vending machine only sold KY Jelly and much of the audience watched bare-chested and clad only in towels, which they would throw at the stage if they disliked what they saw. But methinks that seeing Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester perform together on stage in the 70s must have been an impressive act worth keeping one’s towel on for.

Though my musical tastes are generally slightly more cutting edge, as partly demonstrated by my music-related website , I would certainly go see Manilow if I found myself in Vegas with the fortune to spare that it would probably cost me. He’s surely an impressive showman, I remember loving a lot of his songs I heard on the radio when I was a girl—particularly Mandy, the name of my cat, short for Kathmandu as she was a Himalayan cat. Think of all the songs you could sing along with if you were that way inclined, sung by that bold, unique voice on stage: One Voice, I Write the Songs (written by the Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston), Can’t Smile Without You, It’s a Miracle, Looks Like We Made It, I Don’t Want to Walk Without You and the one most people like more than I do: Copacabana. You couldn’t pay me to see the likes of Tom Jones or others who might be filed under ‘naff’, but I imagine Manilow would be worth the mortgage-priced ticket cost. Hey, Sinatra and Dylan have been fans, so don’t knock him.

One thing the show didn’t mention was that in June 2006, some Australian officials blasted Manilow’s music between 9pm until midnight every Friday, Saturday and Sunday to deter gangs of youths from congregating in a residential area late at night (there was no mention of what the residents thought of having Manilow music blasted around their homes all night, but I assume it was preferred). As nothing seems to work here in Britain, I wonder if they should consider that? Though I’m sure they could come up with artists who would be more of a deterrent…..any suggestions?

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Doctor in the House Revisited

I’ve been watching old episodes (the only type) of the LWT comedy series Doctor in the House. I have a soft spot for this series as it was one of the few English programmes I could see when I was growing up in the States, shown usually near midnight on the little watched public broadcast channel, PBS. That was in the early 80s and even then, this 70s programme looked severely dated, perhaps because of the huge gap in fashions, haircuts and film between the two decades, particularly as the sitcom was staged at the beginning of the 70s with many lingering 60s fashions, including distinctly dodgy sideburns.

I made a great choice when using a recent perfect gift of an Amazon gift certificate to get the DVD of the second series as it’s a nostalgic joy. Mind you, my expectations were low; I hadn’t remembered it as being so funny. But then, I was surprised to find that this series was written by Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie, later of the Goodies and even later of great Radio 4 panel programmes and Spring/Autumnwatch, respectively. Some episodes in the first series, which I can’t wait to delve into, were written by later Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman. Although I had always enjoyed the programme, I hadn’t expected anyone with such impressive comic pedigrees to have been involved. ….I also found that the nearly omnipresent David Jason is even in this, playing an old Yugoslavian patient.

As a young American, I did wonder how these doctors got so many girls, as I also wondered about womanising Jacko of Brush Strokes, but then our cultures had different tastes. Robin Nedwell, who played Duncan Waring, was fairly cute if you could cut his hair, shave the sideburns and get him better clothes (specifically looser trousers), but I never fancied the lead character, Michael Upton (played by Barry Evans), though I naturally admired his honest character.

A particularly sad fact is that, despite his success in this programme and its spin-off, Doctor at Large, Barry Evans’ career never amounted to much more, and his life is a bit of a sad story so I would have wished better for him. He grew up in an orphanage but got his chance by winning a scholarship to the Central School of Speech and Drama. He ironically—given his final career--starred in the 1976 sex farce Adventures of a Taxi Driver, as well as the awful series Mind Your Language, where he played an Upton type of teacher of English as a foreign language to a room full of nearly racist stereotypes, and sadly seems to have done little else as an actor. He ended his life as a taxi driver in his birthplace, Melton Mowbray, where he died in 1997 at the age of 53 in mysterious circumstances. The coroner recorded an open verdict on his death apparently by alcohol poisoning; he had been found dead in his bungalow with bottles of whiskey and aspirins nearby. A youth was charged with his murder, but acquitted on lack of evidence.

Robin Nedwell, who played Upton’s (cute) best friend Duncan Waring, also died at an early age, just two years later. He fell from a ladder, visited hospital where he got stitches, then returned home. After feeling unwell for a couple of days after that, he saw his GP and whilst at the surgery, suffered a heart attack and died. He was only 52.

The sad tale of Barry Evans reminds me of Bob Crane, who once enjoyed enormous success as the loveable Hogan in the American comedy about inmates in a German World War II prisoner of war camp, Hogan's Heroes. He also later experienced a bit of a work drought, although when he was 49, he bought the rights to the play Beginner’s Luck, which he directed and starred in, touring small town America. In 1978, when the play reached Scottsdale, Arizona, he was found in his rented room beaten to death with a video camera tripod and strangled with the camera’s cord, apparently while he slept. Terribly sad. Crane’s widow, whom he had been divorcing at the time, was the actress Sigrid Valdis, who played Hilda in Hogan’s Heroes, and they had they married on the set eight years before.

But I have digressed into gloom when I began to talk about how much I enjoyed watching these old episodes of Doctor in the House. And its other alumni were busy successes. George Layton, who played Paul Collier, is still going strong and has enjoyed enormous success as a writer as well as actor. He was probably equally as well known for his role in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and was even a regular in the corny series Sunburn in 2000.

Jonathan Lynn, who played the extremely irritating Irish rugger player Danny Hooley in series 2, has also fared well as half of the writing team of the astounding Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister and a director of acclaimed films My Cousin Vinny and less acclaimed but popular ones like Nuns on the Run.

On the set of the Doctor series at all times was the president of Equity, the actor’s union. Not because of any statutory requirement, but because it was Ernest Clark, who played the wonderful but feared Professor Loftus. Clark died in 1994 at the age of 82, and his widow Julia is the daughter of film star Margaret Lockwood.

Many of the Doctor alumni regrouped for a brief revival in 1991, Doctor at the Top, obviously without poor Bob Evans. Sadly, no matter how much we think we’d like them or how much the telly folk think they need to force them on us, revivals don’t generally work, do they--especially without the lead character (see Reggie Perrin) or when the novelty has passed (see Absolutely Fabulous).

Anyway, I highly recommend revisiting Doctor in the House, or generally enjoying the enormous pleasure of locking oneself away for a weekend and delving into a nostalgic box set of DVDs. It can sometimes feel like a quick ride in a time machine, taking you back to the emotional bookmark in your life when you first saw those programmes, and to memories of the person with whom you enjoyed them. When the old London Weekend Television logo appeared and the theme tune kicked in over a shot of the fictional St Swithin's Hospital (the old Wanstead Hospital in E11, now the residential Clock Court), my heart nearly fluttered. Reliving the first series of Watching had a similar remarkable effect on me not too long ago, but that’s another story. Turning back time in this way makes life seem so much simpler than it is, just for a while. It is pure, fine escapism that most of us could really use in these chaotic days of stress and deadlines. Just don’t be tempted to grow any dodgy sideburns in tribute.