Monday, 30 January 2012

Bankers' Bonuses: Why is There No "Right to Offset"?

Bankers are always quick to point out that we silly civilians fail to understand that the arm of the RBS that makes investments is different from the arm that owes us massive debts, and that justifies the one arm taking huge bonuses to pat itself on the back rather than applying them to repaying what is owed to the taxpayers by the other arm.

I do understand that, but I don’t care.  The RBS is the RBS. It owes taxpayers a fortune.  If one arm is making pots of money, great, let them put that toward what is owed by the other arm.  I don't claim to be a financial expert, but my argument seems to make perfect sense logically.

Interestingly, that sort of logic is so clear to the banks that they are willing to apply it to us lowly taxpayers.  I was made redundant from my job and can no longer pay the £1600 per month minimum payments to my credit cards (which most of the banks raised to 30% interest so my payments for years have not touched the main debt, just the monthly interest, and these payments are so crippling that I’d been forced to use my credit cards more for basic living expenses).

My hope is that I’ll get a new job soon and carry on with those payments, but I don’t have the money right now, so I responsibly worked with a (free) debt management service to draw up a debt management plan, whereby I will pay a minimal amount to the banks each month as a token payment until I am back on my feet.  I then have every intention of continuing to pay off those debts.  Much to my surprise, I was warned by that service that I should move my bank account right away.  That was a blow; I’ve been happily with my bank for 22 years.  But there’s a reason why they must recommend that.

My bank has the legal right to freeze my current account if it is concerned that I won’t be able to repay my credit card debt with them; it’s called the ‘Right to Offset’.  So whilst I have a pittance in my account that I might just manage to live off briefly until I find work, they could suddenly take that and leave me completely unable to pay my mortgage, utilities, insurance, vet bills, basic food costs or even this minimal payment I’m offering to my credit cards.  I’d be genuinely out on the street with absolutely nothing, even though I plan to keep paying off my credit card balance; I just can’t afford the usual larger monthly payment right now.

So what puzzles me is, if the bank can freeze my credit balance to apply it to my debt, why don’t they understand how that works when we, the taxpayers, look to them to apply what their investment side is earning to what the other side owes? Why do we have no Right to Offset? It seems clear to me, and must be clear to them, too.

I’m sure their answer would be that that’s completely different, and I just don’t understand.  Maybe I don’t.  But it really seems clear to me that I do. What's wrong with simple logic?

Waiting for My Real Life To Begin

I’ve often thought about the natural arrogance of youth, which the youngsters would never imagine may later come crashing down around them as they become just like the adults who bore them, their teachers, their parents—-ordinary people with mortgages and unexciting jobs that they didn’t win on The Apprentice, living without fame or fortune. And I see now that even I have fallen into that trap of naivety. Not just in that I’ve always expected there would be more than this—and still do—but because, when I was made redundant from my job some months ago, I saw it as an amazing opportunity to embrace, a chance finally to return to the plans I originally had before I was sucked into the 9 to 5 (well…9 to 7 and then some), to return to the dreams of youth that I was sure could be realised with untapped talents that I could finally engage and show the world.

Yes, kids in school are so confident, looking down on their teachers because they are merely teachers and thus losers compared to the footballing heroes or X Factor winners that they intend to be. They are confident of this destiny because they have not yet been proven wrong. And by the time they are, they are the 40-year-old teachers or accountants, either full of regret or with changed priorities, like getting their kids into the right school and ensuring they can afford that with steady work. Yesterday, I watched the Blu-ray release of The Breakfast Club, a seminal film for my generation, and was reminded that the janitor, whom even the lowly geek is embarrassed to acknowledge, is pictured during the opening credits as a young, bright, promising student who no doubt also imagined he was destined for great things.

I feel as though I was like an arrogant child when I left work months ago, full of hope and excitement, and now I am the trapped “accountant” in a rut with a mortgage, not the writer/actor/singer (or just worker in an interesting business) that I was destined and determined to be. Colin Hay’s Waiting for My Real Life To Begin—and I recognise the tragedy of it—relates well to me. I am not even a trapped accountant (and my skills don't lie there)—I’m not anything, much to my shock and chagrin. In the face of financial ruin within two months if I don’t find work, I found myself looking at the fairly intelligent janitor in The Breakfast Club and almost envying him his job. He has a job; I do not. Still, clearing up after kids, or just being around them en masse, would hardly be delightful, and I doubt it would pay the mortgage, plus the school would not normally be as peaceful as on that Saturday. And he was fiction. But I’m a workaholic who, I believe it is safe to say, had an excellent reputation and was respected at my previous job, yet I am still unemployed, with the last bit of money I have about to run out completely.

And Word magazine has not looked out from its pages to beg me to write for it; Hat Trick hasn’t called to commission me to develop my fun script idea; no publisher has given me an advance on my excellent, ground-breaking novel; no label has offered to help produce my album of the many songs I wrote years ago (back when labels made offers and helped to produce albums); TED haven’t asked me to curate their music acts; Absolute 80s hasn’t asked me to DJ (nor any fine station that would let me play songs everyone should know but few people do); Hollywood directors and advertising agencies haven’t rushed to me to find the perfect songs for their projects; and the casting directors for Rev, Miranda or tomorrow’s next big drama have not given me a call. The latter is particularly weird because I’ve walked around London a lot, giving the powers that be plenty of opportunities to discover me, but they’ve squandered those chances. It’s outrageous!!

It’s true that I’ve not been in touch with any of the above about my potential, sending off my drafts, getting agents and going to auditions, the sort of thing that I suppose would be a first step equal to purchasing a lottery ticket if I wanted to win the lottery. Really, my main goal was to get a job that better employed my degree in Journalism—be that writing, editing, reviewing the arts, advertising, marketing or research. However, I have no portfolio to show, although I know I can write (please don’t assume my stream of consciousness rants in this blog are representative of the finished professional work I would produce before a deadline), nor can I afford an entry-level salary in a new career, given my crippling debts. But rest assured my efforts to find a desk job have been much more reasonable and proactive than the above efforts of waiting to be discovered, if not more successful as I am still unemployed, something I never dreamt I would be. But I do feel I stand here with my dreams dashed and my time squandered, which I find nearly as soul destroying. I am furious with myself for accomplishing so little somehow (How do I accomplish so little whilst off when I’m such an unbelievably hard worker in my job?), and I am terrified of losing my home and my precious rescue cats when I have nowhere else to go.

What made me feel so confident when I began this journey? (This journey, of course, was not of my own volition. A chairman, mentioning me in his speech at a dinner to which he kindly invited me after I’d left work, referred to it as “having a career break”—which I’d have to amend to “having an enforced career break”).

People at work were tremendously kind leading up to my departure. They went from going a bit pale when they heard that I was going—as they said if it could happen to me, then no one was safe—to contributing generously to my collection and throwing me a leaving do (well, my boss paid for it; but so many kind souls came to it). Most noble of all, they all patiently listened and laughed throughout my incredibly long leaving speech about my time there. In fact, it was that that had many people suggesting that I go into the media (or write a sitcom), which I always assumed I would do, but got trapped in a temporary job I took right after university. I always get caught up in my work, whatever it is, but I did manage to escape after getting caught up in retail management whilst at school, so I should have been more motivated to look elsewhere when I became submerged in administration. But having security (as I did for so long) and paying the bills can rather take over an apparent coward’s life.

Other things may have also contributed to my failing to accept quite how hard it would be to get a job in this climate. First, I was approached and offered work within weeks of leaving by someone who had worked with me and wanted me on board with his small team for a start-up net company, which he hoped would be the next Google. It would have been fascinating and given me new things to put on my c.v., but I didn’t take it in the end for numerous reasons (including it being a low-paid “self-employed business opportunity” with taxation issues for what would be a temporary job if the company didn’t take off).

Second, before I left my job, the head of press kindly encouraged me to fill a maternity leave cover for a senior press officer, but complications relating to my redundancy agreement meant that wasn’t possible. Plus by then, I was keen for a new start elsewhere, wanting to embrace new opportunities (and perhaps, frankly, new appreciation given the redundancy) and go somewhere less stifling and more atune to my original plans. Which is why, when someone else who knew my work mentioned (at another dinner to which a kind past chairman had invited me) that he knew of someone who needed a project manager, I felt reluctant to get excited as I wanted something new and different, but I did ask him to send me the details, though perhaps my foolish reluctance showed too much and put him off.

None of those were perfect—not that one can afford to wait for perfection—but coming so quickly at a time when I was leaving, and having heard of complaints being made about my going--perhaps gave my subconscious the impression that I could take a bit of time off to relax, recharge my waning batteries and go to exhibitions and lectures to enjoy London, and then work harder at finding something ideal. I also hadn’t counted on a few expensive emergencies and, with no savings and massive debts, the redundancy money just disappeared. So whilst I did get to numerous lectures, I imagined I’d have time to learn my DSLR better, practice wildlife photography, learn to play my electric keyboards, maybe use an app to record the less awful songs I’d written, update my neglected music website and blog more, and crucially write a few chapters of my novel and send it off to an agent, for what it’s worth. But I’ve spent a great deal of time trawling for jobs and completing applications, trying to improve my c.v., coming up with things to sell and ways to save or make money, cancelling things and contacting creditors to try to make the dire financial situation slightly less terrifying briefly. And then stressing about it; I’ve spent a fair amount of time on that when I should have been thinking creatively and being more productive.

Taking such care initially over my next step is perhaps linked to the fact that I slipped and fell into something unintentional before I even left University, and ended up doing that job for pretty much my whole adult life. And crucially, when I was younger and interested in moving around, it was thought that demonstrable loyalty was preferable, but now that I’ve worked in the same place for aeons, everyone seems to treat people who have stayed largely with one company as though they are dull, idiotic sticks in the mud. I know that I am capable of greater things and should be doing interesting things, but I may have blown it. I don’t feel shame about the Enforced Career Break (most of my team was made redundant and are being replaced with cheap young labour and new magical software); I mainly feel disgusted with myself for having nothing to show for my time off, a break and chance I would have dreamt of in the past.

I’m disappointed in myself for not having pulled together the scattered scraps of papers and chapters in my head and just written them down, or even less realistic things, like record on the PC some of the better songs I wrote long ago, particularly now that 80s sounds are doing well and some were written then. Nor have I read the dozens of unread books around me or watched the many DVDs still in their wrapper. Or changed the world.

I have at least started sleeping, which is something I barely did before, and it’s neat not to feel run-down and ill all the time now. But as bits of my dreams come crashing down around me, leaving craters from which hideous financial realities and pressures from creditors emerge like poisonous hissing snakes, it’s exhausting to carry on. I get occasional advice from friends and professionals (eg PayPlan), and I see I’m inclined to bury my head in the sand and say, “I hear what you’re saying, but that’s simply beyond me; I can’t do that, it’s too awful”, and sometimes I even get a bit tearful in private when faced with this despair. However, by the next morning, I’m usually raring to go and up for the next challenge, and do what I must no matter how unpleasant.

Whenever today’s hurdle seems impossibly high, I must face that it’s not going to get any lower and I can’t win the race if I go around it or just sit down and refuse to take it. Only I can get myself through this, as much as I long for some amazing benefactor to give me a grant to work on my cathartic future Booker-Prize-winning book for a year, or give me (preferably interesting or at least not devastatingly awful, though I’m no longer so choosy) work with pay that would cover my tricky outgoings, or a decent-sized lottery win. Those things aren’t happening. So I’ve got to find strength I didn’t think I had and leap over the hurdles, perhaps praying a bit as I do so, and with luck I’ll reach the end before my life is completely destroyed. I have my doubts, and I’m devastated when I face up to the reality of financial ruin in the very near future when the money just totally runs out, even if I find some simple temping jobs, but I’ve always had tremendous hope and, combined with the bursts of drive I keep discovering, I usually manage to save myself just in time. Somehow. But occasionally I fear that this hope and drive is no different than the dreams that have led me through life all these years, waiting for my real life to begin. And they can’t solve everything.

Some have suggested that I consider marrying a sick wealthy elderly man. I think not. I love my independence, although when I’m living in a cardboard box on the Strand, I suppose this option might hold more appeal, although I won’t then hold much appeal to these sick wealthy elderly men. Though I could never imagine spending money I didn’t earn (or win, should the lottery be so unusually kind). A friend used to say that explorer Benedict Allen would be my perfect man, as he was away nine months of the year, and I’m afraid that’s true—the being away, I mean; I believe Mr Allen is safely off the market and there are others who would interest me more, provided they’re gone a lot. Are there any sick elderly wealthy men who are never home and keen to get married quickly and go away immediately? Actually, I couldn’t do it. I’m too committed to things I take on, with a strong sense of duty, and there’s nothing worse than being trapped in a miserable loveless relationship (she says from experience). As I said, perhaps check back once I’m trying to support two fluffy Persians living in a cardboard box on the Strand soon, but for now, nah….

And yes, I have signed on for benefit, probably too late but I didn’t wish to be a burden when I hoped I’d find something quickly. But that’s so very little money, it’s just a drop in the ocean of what I owe, although I’m terribly grateful for it (once it’s finally paid). But how do the people I keep reading about who claim £40k a year in benefits and live in great houses for free do it? Why do people who have never worked seem to have better televisions than I do? It's so little money--is that all just a myth? And how do people less tolerant and educated than I am cope with the intimidating forms that one must work through to see any benefit? One agency keeps sending me more and more complicated forms and requires intricate details of decisions I don’t remember taking years ago when I remortgaged. I think the plan is that they keep asking for more and more obscure information until my house is repossessed and they don’t need to pay out. But seriously, I’m grateful for any assistance, I really am. I’m just struggling and slightly down!

This precarious situation with possible impending doom does wake me up to the uselessness of all my possessions—not those small family things with sentimental value, but the general clutter. I sit surrounded by myriad shelves crammed with unread books (never mind the ones on the Sony eBook Reader and the iPad), towering stacks of unplayed CDs, Blockbuster-competing numbers of unwatched DVDs (when could I find two spare hours to stare at the screen?) and hundreds of videos (is there no charitable home for those now? Must they be landfill?). Some of the credit card balances (at 30% interest) may have gone towards these, although most of the balances were just living expenses and a distant escape from the negative-equity former matrimonial home. Yet some of the unwatched DVDs have been shown on the telly, and the Blu-ray versions are cheaper than what I paid years ago for the plain ones. So I’ve recognised that I’m a fool, and they’re all pointless (other than a bit of music, which is always important). If I ever recover from this, that realisation will be a valuable lesson and ensure I am no longer Amazon’s biggest customer.

So that lesson is a good thing, and more important things I’ve managed have made me a bit proud, like finding considerable savings (though not enough), cutting out all the magazines and the big Virgin telly package and V+ box (going from being able to rewind television to only having three static-y channels with a broken aerial was quite an adjustment), living off cheap pasta and tins of beans (I miss my fresh fruit and veg!), and getting painfully rough loo rolls at the pound shop. And any time I’m tempted to push the boat out and spend even an extra pound on food, I think of it as stealing from orang-utans and suffering animals that would have had that money had I not just had to just cancel all my monthly charitable donation direct debits to the WWF, WSPCA, RSPCA etc, which was utterly galling, but I hope somehow just temporary.

But I digress. And have made this sound depressing. I’m spending hours looking for jobs and tweaking my c.v. and applying for them, though there will be hundreds of other applicants who always seem to be a better match on paper, and there isn’t much call for my Sir Humphrey Appleby skills. I’m working on developing a LinkedIn profile and will do some speculative letters soon and, with luck, will find something suitable for a salary on which I can scrape by where the employer will in turn find me. But there’s not much time left, and soon maybe I’ll be looking for that elderly, ailing millionaire after all. At least then, I might be able to write my book full-time, which will be worth reading, not like my meandering stream-of-consciousness blogs. And I could give loads to charities, which I long to do. But….ugh.

In addition to whingeing too much, I’ve said some immodest things in this blog entry, most unlike me, but true. I know my strengths, all two of them. I’m an excellent worker and, although I don’t demonstrate it here, I can write. I know I deserve this despair that I’m driving toward but I do so wish I could have a second chance, and veer away out of the dark forest unscathed. I would do so much better this time. Do people never get second chances? A single person won £40 million on the Euromillions lottery the other day, which I think is a shame as that could have made 40 millionaires—preferably one being me--but I at least hope they’re altruistic and share the wealth. With charities, I mean, not with me. That’s a second chance. J K Rowling also took a second chance when she was unemployed, writing Harry Potter. She took that chance.

I know I must work harder to find my second chance, but I fear I’m almost out of time. Meanwhile, I’ll get back to applying for jobs like that great one at the LSE that I know I could do wonderfully well, even though these jobs would be resuming the path I was taking after having been diverted from my creative goals in my youth. But really, I’m starting to long for that path now, and if I am fortunate enough to get back on it, I’ll suppress my arrogance of youth that feels I should be doing more magical things. It’s barely visible anyway. And maybe, with a new job and a new determination, I could work on those dreamy things after hours. I just want to keep my house and my cats and just manage to live—that's my main goal now: to be able just to live my life. I can wait until later for my real life to begin.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Waking Up to Wogan's Charms (and Geldof's & O'Leary's)

Hearing Terry Wogan on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last week reminded me that he’s actually a rather nice man, but I had always loathed him…until I ended up sitting beside him at dinner. I hasten to add that it wasn’t the two of us on a romantic evening out. There were loads of other people there, including Arsenal/Leeds footballer David O’Leary and a saint--Bob Geldof, whose outfit made headlines the next day as Lady Gaga's or Kate Middleton's might now. I was grateful for the presence of O'Leary and Geldof when I saw the seating plan, as I couldn’t imagine how I would cope spending a long evening beside that awful man Terry Wogan.

But why did I loathe him? What had he done to cross me? Don’t suppose I was applying reason to my feelings. Surely you can think of someone whom you "just hate" even though you don’t know them. A celebrity whose presence on this earth irks you. It's wholly irrational, you don't know this person and they're unlikely to have done you harm, but you can't abide them.

For instance, I absolutely cannot watch a film with Jim Carrey in it, someone I see as an over the top, tremendously irritating fool who is as funny as drowning puppies. Maybe he’s a poor example of the Wogan Syndrome, as I don’t believe my dislike for Carrey is irrational; it’s natural. Similarly, I cannot watch a film with Keira Knightley in it; I end up screaming at the screen the whole time. I did just manage to avoid screaming at the stage when I ventured to the West End to see her in The Misanthrope because I love Damian Lewis, Tara FitzGerald and Molière, having 'starred' in several (French) Moliere productions as a youngster. But the play was awful and wasn't Moliere but a dated Martin Crimp update, and I absolutely couldn’t bear Knightley. I remain baffled at what the world sees in her, but surely my feelings are sound.

Well, for many years I had a similar strong dislike of someone else: Terry Wogan. But I can now humbly admit that I was wrong in that case. At the time, I don't believe there was quite such a "national treasure" warmth towards the ‘Togmeister’. He’d had a television chat show three nights a week, and I’d found him unbearably irksome. The guests on his programme were never given a chance to speak, as Wogan made sure that every interview was all about Wogan, with him trying to look cute, him trying to be funny, him turning the conversation back to how great he was, always with a twinkling wink of the eye. His questions grew longer and longer, and when he finally paused to give the guest the illusion they might have a chance to answer, he’d leap in again with his own answer about him. Yet the show ran for ages so presumably no one (other than Melanie Griffith?) found him quite as annoying as I did. And after his show was replaced with the failed soap El Dorado, I expect everyone began to miss it and remember it with more fondness than it deserved.

At this time in the mid-90s, I had just been introduced to the Eurovision Song Contest, which, to an American, was an amazing novelty and rather fun in a cringeworthy way. Still, any silly enjoyment of the programme for the sake of laughs was ruined because Terry Wogan spoke throughout. He seemed to take it too seriously and criticised every bit of it, talking over the music, over the hosts, over everything, sounding bitter and twisted and plainly rude, but never funny or entertaining.

Add to that the fact that his younger son Mark was at the time coming across badly in his television appearances as he tried to become a celebrity chef, and I blamed Wogan Sr for that, too. It’s like that old expression: Too many Wogans cause woe.

So it was with horror that I took my seat at a formal banquet one evening and found that the person to my left was Terry Wogan. I was fairly shy anyway and now was going to have to make conversation for at least half of the evening with this man I couldn't abide. How would I manage?

Quite well, as it turned out, because the man beside me bore no relation to the demon I’d built up in my mind. He was charming, calmly quiet, down-to-earth and totally pleasant. In chatting, I found even he didn’t take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously (and I believe he suggested the UK couldn’t win because of the ridiculous way certain countries voted for each other regardless of the songs’ merit--which is much worse now). He was also a bit sheepish about his son's efforts to pursue television chef celebrity at the time (at which I believe young Wogan later succeeded)—very supportive as a father, but certainly not proclaiming him to be the next Delia Smith. Wogan seemed to be on my side about most things. It was as though I'd drawn my pistol for a duel, taken ten paces and turned to find my opponent effusively agreeing with my point of view and offering to shoot my rival for me.

One wonderfully memorable thing was how highly he thought of his wife, and he credited her for a great deal throughout the conversation—not just because she might have been in ear shot, as she was engaged in conversation. When he later brought her into our chat, she was a delightful, gregarious soul, and they seemed to have a warm, loving and respectful relationship. He was clearly terribly proud of her. They’d been married since before I was born, for about 31 years at the time of the dinner

If I had had no preconceptions and never heard of Terry Wogan, I would have considered him to be a marvellous dinner companion. All smiles, surprisingly quiet in his manner yet easy to talk to, and clearly full of love for life and his family, without taking a single thing for granted. Even with my preconceptions, this delightful, gentle manner zapped them away in minutes. He seemed a genuinely decent soul.

Don’t think that my change of opinion was down to being star struck. I've come across far greater VIPs than him in my life, and I’d had too low an opinion of him at the time anyway to be so moved. In any case, I wasn't short of celebrity conversation that evening. (Bearing in mind "celebrity" at the time referred to people who had actually accomplished something.) Seated to my left was Terry Wogan, yes, but across the table from me was Bob Geldof, with footballer David O’Leary diagonally across from me. It was, as you may have guessed, a dinner full of Irish guests (and at least one American in me). I believe the banquet was welcoming the President of Ireland to London.

Ten or 15 years earlier, I would have been thrilled to sit by Bob Geldof, as I had been a big fan of the Boomtown Rats in their early days, and of course thought the Band Aid and Live Aid projects were remarkable. But at this time, he was a breakfast telly tramp--the proprietor of the wild and enormously successful Big Breakfast venture, the highest rated UK show in its morning timeslot, attracting two million viewers to Channel 4. He had the reputation then of neither sleeping nor washing for days, so I pictured having to sit at a banquet by a smelly grumbling vagabond.

But Geldof surprised everyone by turning up in the required dress--white tie and covered in decorations including his KBE--looking so dapper that he featured on the front page of several tabloids the next day, all remarking on how unlikely it seemed that dirty Bob Geldof would scrub up so nicely and be so establishment. But he told me that evening how crucial he felt it was to wear the correct dress to occasions, and that he refused people entry to his wedding to Paula Yates if they hadn’t observed the dress code (presumably he was okay with the bride’s blood red dress). I was reminded then that, although he gave off the airs of being a dirty hippie-type, he was in fact a public school boy.

About that time, my then husband extricated himself from the person with whom he was in deep conversation most of the night long enough to turn to us to embarrass me by saying to Geldof, with whom I’d been coolly having a civil conversation, that I was one of his biggest fans. I don’t think that even in the 80s and certainly not by the mid-90s this was remotely true, but even if it were, that would not be my strategy for conversation with fellow guests at a state banquet. I was horrified and, to make matters worse, when Geldof looked expectantly to me for perhaps some gushing or at least favourable comment, my mortification wiped my mind completely blank of everything he’d ever done. Not even Band Aid came to mind. Eventually, I managed to mutter "Yes, I loved Surfacing", forgetting the full name of the album or even whether it was of solo or Rats pedigree (it was the Boomtown Rats’ 1979 album containing their huge hit I Don’t Like Mondays, which was not my favourite of their songs). Fortunately, that little utterance was enough. “That was a great album,” Geldof said, nodding thoughtfully, so my grasped straw was a useful one. Artists should like their own albums—otherwise, there’s little point in producing them, and the songs are probably like their children, after all.

Happily, that was the only stint of humiliation that my then husband chose to serve on me at that particular dinner before he effectively disappeared again, and I was able to move away from my past love of Geldof’s music and my past hatred for Wogan’s work, and talk to them about anything else. We--Terry Wogan, Bob Geldof, David O’Leary and I—even talked about the Troubles, and I was fascinated at the time to hear them all be critical of the IRA--and no doubt terrorism in general. As someone who had been raised in America, where they pretty much teach us that all of Ireland, even the Republic, is being held hostage against its will by evil British soldiers, I told them I was amazed to hear those views as I naively (or brainwashedly) had thought anyone Irish would support the IRA, and they all put me straight. They clearly were not supportive of any violence against innocent people, and that discussion sparked my interest in the Troubles, about which I now have many books with a variety of viewpoints, some of which I picked up on visits to beautiful Belfast, which is now one of my favourite places.

Throughout that evening, I chatted to those three men, much to the envy of my husband, who was a massive Arsenal fan but too far away from O’Leary to speak to him at length. After several years of marriage, the hub’s often twisted passion for football, including days of depression if Arsenal had merely drawn rather than beaten another team, had completely driven from me any love for ‘soccer’ that I had growing up, having played it as a child and watched my father in goal every weekend. So I knew little of O’Leary but found him to be a totally kind and genuine gentleman whose pleasant company I enjoyed. This was back when he was a nice young man who had never been sent off whilst playing for Arsenal, nothing more. I recall him telling me some romantic story of how he met his wife, which I picture as involving someone helping another who fell off a horse, but I could be imagining it through Jane Austen-coloured glasses.

My civilised chats with the three Irishmen were only altered as more courses were served with wonderful wines flowing, which led Geldof to slip sloshedly into a different persona. From the interesting polite Catholic schoolboy, he changed to someone who may well have inspired Father Jack, adding his favourite adjective (not quite “feckin”) to every word. His marriage to Paula Yates had ended not long before, and he was with a French blonde called Jeanne Marine (whom he is impressively still with 15 years later), and as the night went on, they became quite friendly in a manner for which the expression “get a room” was invented. Which would have been a more appropriate option then practically pinning each other down on the long table of a state banquet lined with gold candelabras, lavish food and important guests (and me). That image was no doubt a first for such a stuffy occasion, but it’s nice that they admired each other and knew how to express it. I gathered that she only spoke French, so he had to speak in tongues....

Dear David O’Leary rang my husband the next day to invite us to dinner and also to apologise for the language that I had had to tolerate. How chivalrous, when he didn’t mean his own. (The later dinner with the O’Learys, by the way, never happened, as I believe he was transferred to Leeds right after that. My husband and I seemed to have bad luck then, as we had another invitation to lunch at the House of Lords with a neighbour, who shortly before our chosen date ended up tragically dying whilst speaking in the House of Lords. So let that be a lesson to you. Don’t invite me to dinner. Though I imagine this taint of bad luck was down to my ex-husband, not me. Just after we separated, I won a desperately needed £70 on the lottery whereas he fell down a nine-foot hole whilst playing laser tag and had to walk with a cane for months.)

So, that’s how I came to know that Sir Terry Wogan (he’s entitled to be addressed as "Sir Terry" because he changed to UK citizenship, unlike “Sir” Bob) is actually a lovely person--as was David O’Leary…and Bob Geldof was rather elegant and introspective when sober. It was the first of several incidents that taught me how stupid it was just to adopt unjustifiable hatred for someone you really don’t know. So kids, let that be a lesson to you--such unqualified dislike of strangers is wrong. Unless it's about Keira Knightley, who really is awful and impossible to watch. But other than that, I’ve learned my lesson.

Incidentally, I remembered that a photograph had been taken of us at the table, but I’ve blurred my face as I do like to remain anonymous and hate having my photograph on the internet. I initially covered it with a black blob but that started to scare me like an ominous ‘Paul-is-dead’ type of symbol, so I’ve adjusted it to a rather less threatening blur. The aged paper photo had such a freakish red tint on it, I had to lighten it slightly, which made Bob and Jeanne look like cartoon characters. But doesn’t Bob look smart?! Front page news, that was.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

(I thought this had been posted on New Year’s Eve, but somehow it wasn’t….and it’s another meander through my memories, a leftover Christmas decoration, so enter at your peril….)

If I don’t take down the holly wreath on my door before midnight, does that scupper my lottery win?

I really need a lottery win now as I’m in dire straits, though I realise I only have a marginally greater chance of winning if I bother to buy a ticket than if I don’t. But in America, we believe that if you leave your Christmas decorations up after New Year’s Day, it’s bad luck. We don’t—at least on the East Coast where I lived—observe the 12 days of Christmas and wait until 6 January as you do here in the UK.

I say 6 January, as that seems to be what’s observed, but when you actually count the days, making what I think is a safe assumption that 25 December is the first day of Christmas when the partridge in a pear tree arrives, then surely your last gift of 12 drummers drumming would arrive on 5 January. …But a bit of quick research says that the focus is really 12 days after Christmas, generally considered to begin on Boxing Day (26 December), the feast day of St. Stephen, with the festivities lasting until the day before Epiphany on 6 January, although others start counting from sunset on 24 December, as in centuries past. Then churches add to the confusion by sometimes leaving their decorations up until the following Sunday so they have the crib out for their Epiphany service.

Anyway, growing up in America, the 12 days of Christmas were merely lyrics in a carol. So as soon as Christmas day was over, we’d be keen to get the decorations down and feel as though we never wanted to hear another carol. As we didn’t celebrate Boxing Day, many of us were back at work on 26 December.

One reason we were keen to put Christmas away was we’d be sick of it all by then. We in the States tend to put up our decorations sooner than you do in the UK. The day after Thanksgiving, which is also a ‘bank holiday’, is the biggest shopping day of the year because most people are off work and then realise that, with Thanksgiving out of the way, it’s time to start thinking of Christmas, so they go out and shop like mad in a world full of sales. If someone came home with a Christmas tree on that fourth Friday in November, it would not be absurd, although waiting another week might be more practical needles-wise.

Going to a Christmas tree lot—sizeable ventures that would turn up on designated land each year, with all sizes and types of beautiful Christmas trees—is a regular, exciting part of the Christmas season. Rather different from grabbing a tiny, dead-looking tree fit for a table from the Asda car park, wrapped tightly in netting so you’re basically buying a surprise package, nailed to wooden planks. Everyone I knew always got real trees, the truly noble getting trees you could re-plant.

Indeed, my Grandmother had a whole row of evergreens of varying heights lining the hill behind her house, years of Christmas trees past. And she would have more than one Christmas tree each year, in addition to the the trees out front and all along the deck that were decorated with lights. She had a main Christmas tree in one of the living rooms and another on the screened-in porch (which isn’t like the 4x4 tiny porch I have in London where I can just about shelter from the rain whilst searching for my door keys, but something bigger than my bedroom, with a great view of the gardens on two sides of the house). Her trees would have different themes, and they were stunning yet somewhat Spartan affairs, certainly not the hodge-podges of random decorations collected over the years that my trees were. And never, ever would they have that tacky (as I was brought up to see it) tinsel or strands of silver ‘icicles’. As a result of my upbringing, I find myself allergic to the purple and silver foil decorations that were draped across my office every year.

But my grandmother was the queen of decoration creation, and with a friend developed ‘critters, angels and stars’, even writing a book on how to make them. They were wonderful critters such as reindeer, owls, mice, mini Santa Clauses (celosia for the suit) and angels and stars made only of natural materials that she generally gathered from the road side: teasels, Queen Anne’s Lace, berries, pods. Her decorations were amazing, and my only motivation for getting a Christmas tree in past years when I certainly didn’t have the space or money was to display the many critters my grandmother had sent me, which I will cherish until they crumble.

Critters created by my grandmother, her friend and many volunteers decorated a White House Christmas tree one year when Ronald Reagan was president, and my grandmother appeared on American breakfast television showing Maria Shriver (a Kennedy and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ex-wife) how to make them. They also appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek, something of which she was very proud.

Every year, these critters decorated several trees spanning three levels in the excellent Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, which houses a spectacular collection of work by Andrew Wyeth, his son Jamie Wyeth and his father illustrator N C Wyeth, Howard Pyle and a few others. At Christmas, the museum was transformed. Apart from the magnificent critter-decorated trees, one floor of the museum had thigh-high Victorian dolls posing in different wintry scenes, wearing blue velvet coats with big ribbons in their hair. It was charming and Christmassy even if you’re not into dolls.

Even better, the next floor was turned over to model trains at Christmastime. Dozens of model trains traversed the massive round floorplan, through tunnels, past model stations, watched by miniature people and real people, constantly travelling around…it was utterly delightful. At a young age, I decided that once I had a house with a basement (or spare storey lying around), I would also somehow dedicate it to many different model trains, running all the time. Sadly, I’ve not managed it yet; life is unfulfilled.

But the pleasure of seeing these trains, the Christmassy Victorian dolls and the critter trees at the Brandywine River Museum was a big part of my childhood Christmases. Another tradition was to go to an evening church service on Christmas Eve--an earlier Anglican equivalent of midnight mass—and en route, the family would drive its convoy of cars through the Longwood Gardens car park. Longwood, created by a DuPont on farmland once owned by William Penn, was gorgeous by day at Christmas, but at night, outside, the many dozens of trees scattered amidst their ginormous car park were decorated with 500,000 Christmas lights. A parade of cars cruise through each night filled with occupants spellbound by the spectacle, which seems better than fireworks. As a child, I found it particular fun to approach a tree that looked like a Christmas-tree-shaped fir from a distance only to find that it was perhaps an Oak, but with the lights strung in such a way to create an optical illusion. I dearly miss this important tradition of my youth, but it is still there for anyone in the Brandywine River Valley (Pennsylvania/Delaware) to enjoy.

We’d return to my Grandmother’s house for the Christmas Eve celebrations, which for my family were the main sha-bang. Christmas Eve is, after all, full of that magical feeling, that tingly, tangible anticipation, such tremendous excitement that you’d almost reached the most important day of the year. And, when you’re a young kid, you can’t wait to see what Santa brought you.

We de-glamourised things in a hugely consumerist way, in that we grandchildren were tasked with distributing the many, many presents to everyone’s assigned station, mine being a sofa generally bestowed with a huge stack of gifts as I was “easy to buy for”. My grandfather had a certain high-backed chair, my mother a nearby ottoman…..the same places every year. If we came across a gift addressed to “mom” in unfamiliar handwriting (sometimes the gifts were from pets), we’d choose the mom with the fewest gifts, although that often led to bafflement at an inappropriate gift until things were sorted out.

The distribution mission accomplished, with exciting piles of gifts on every chair, we children were then allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. We would scrutinise our piles and try to select what might be the most exciting gift. It was tremendously disappointing if you wasted your Christmas Eve gift on, say, a summer top or indeed any clothing.

We’d then play Twister, which can only really be played at such a big gathering. No charades for us; I think that’s just an English tradition. It’s odd that there seem to be no photographs of our regular Twister games, relatives stretching oddly across each other to reach certain colourful dots, but then back when film was expensive and one might have to buy separate flash cubes for cameras, then not know ‘til the photos were developed when you finished your film months later if the pictures turned out….well, people took far fewer photographs.

During this family Christmas Eve party, we’d have the main Christmas meal. No turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce for us, as we’d have just had that at the end of November for Thanksgiving. My grandmother would put out a buffet of her various marvellous dishes, the main feature always being tender thick slices of roast beef, which doesn’t interest me as a veggie, but always went down well with the others. For dessert, there were pumpkin and pecan pies—not mincemeat, a description I always took literally so I welcomed its absence. Perhaps this Christmas Eve tradition followed that belief that Christmas began at sunset, but no one ever mentioned why we did things that way.

When it got late, my brother and I would go to our room and try to sleep, although we could hear the grown-ups upstairs still enjoying the party. We would normally wake about 5.30am, and we were allowed to go upstairs to the main part of the house to get our stockings, which we could take back to our rooms and play with whatever we discovered there, leaving the tired grown-ups undisturbed for many hours. As we retrieved out stockings, now leaning against the side of the fireplace as they would be so laden, we could also see what Santa had left. We knew the presents we’d distributed the night before were from family, but obviously, Santa Clause would have come in the night and left the big presents, such as the longed-for electric organ I got once, or skis.

We’d take our stockings downstairs and find them filled with little pocket games and puzzles that we could play with until everyone else woke up, plus maybe magazines or small books, and always candy, particularly an unusual tradition of jewel-coloured hard candy in the shape of boots, which we always had in our stockings, the only time we ate it. Why they were boots, I’ve no idea, and never thought to ask.

Eventually, the adults would wake, and we would begin opening our piles of gifts, carefully recording each one on a notepad so we could write a proper thank you note later. We’d all progress through our piles at the same time as though in a race, but sometimes calling out ‘Oh, I love this! Thank you, Grandmommy!’, or if it was something awful, you could just quietly put it down without offence and move onto the next item. My Grandmother would usually wander around, salvaging any pretty wrapping paper that she might want to reuse (as a pioneer of recycling, she’d also use the front of Christmas cards as gift cards the following year. Mind you, Christmas cards were nothing like as popular over here, and the people who bothered to send them would often just have a photograph taken of the family and let a SnappySnaps equivalent send out the photo postcard with a generic ‘Marry Christmas’ message to everyone they know. Rather cold and too easy, I always thought, although it’s interesting to see how distant people look these days if you don’t often see them.)

We’d then have a subdued brunch, I think with eggs benedict and scrambled eggs, English Muffins—that sort of thing. Friends of my grandmother would pop in to say Merry Christmas and perhaps have some (ugh) egg nog before going on their way, and some years we’d be joined by our cousins, who would have already had a Christmas present extravaganza at my aunt’s house.

And then it was pretty much over. We had no big family meal, all sitting around the table. No, we’d collect our haul and try to jam it into our suitcases. Then my brother and I would head to our father’s house for a more subtle Christmas (with an artsier stocking that might include a Portuguese phrase dictionary and tinned frogs’ legs) with a few more gifts to open, whilst my mother, Grandmother, and Aunt would usually go out for a Chinese meal, as they were the only restaurants open on Christmas, and often catch a film in the afternoon. In the cinema, not on television.

Television played absolutely no part in our Christmases. I remember once going to a pre-Christmas party where my grandmother’s friends put all the kids in a room to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the telly, but that was the only time I can ever remember seeing any of the goggle box at Christmas. That would explain why, when watching the Andy Williams Christmas Show on BBC4 recently, it was unfamiliar to me although it wasn’t cancelled until I was 8. Telly had no place in our lives during the holidays. Nor did anyone give a thought as to what song topped the charts that week. Why would you?

At my father’s house, we’d sit and read and read in the peace of the day by a roaring fire and gorgeous tree, waiting for the evening meal, which still was not turkey. My step-mother was an artist so the long dining room table was always impeccably, creatively decorated, with baubles, holly, pine cones and even teddy bears featuring in the centrepiece. Everything was beautiful and calm.

After that, we’d return to our lives in North Carolina, and you’d not want to see anything Christmassy again. The decorations would come down, the trees be discarded or replanted. We would not celebrate Boxing Day, although there were still often sales. I remember from my days in retail management that the stores would open early, painfully for the staff on the day after Christmas, and there would often people queuing outside to return unwanted Christmas gifts. Before 8am on 26 December! They were the ultimate Scrooges….

So whilst I can look back and feel a bit disgusted by the consumerist attitude with such a focus on so many, many presents, I mainly feel warm and fuzzy inside when remembering my childhood Christmases. The piney, spicy scents, gorgeous decorations, the warmth and safety of family, the joy of anticipation and the delight when dreams are fulfilled—it was all so stunningly beautiful and stoked my happy Christmas memories for many years. One day, although my grandmother sadly died in April so it will never be the same, but one day, I shall have to go back to Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, just to see Longwood and the Brandywine River Museum at Christmas. They always will be a huge part of Christmas for me, even from so far away in distance and time.