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Wednesday 24 November 2010

A Taxing Problem For Us All

So the Scottish Parliament has flexed its muscles in order to administer a rap on the knuckles to a somewhat penitent SNP Finance Secretary John Swinney over the Scottish Variable Rate (SVR) tax stushie.

Despite early attempts by the SNP to tough it out, yesterday in Parliament Mr Swinney expressed regret for an "error of judgement", acknowledging that the Parliament should have been informed from the beginning of the negotiations with HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) over the cost of collecting the tax.

It is true that some commentators, and no doubt a fair few voters, are struggling to care about who said what to whom over the Bill for an IT system to collect a tax that none of the major Scottish parties have any intention of implementing. It is also true that claims that the power had been "lost" or even that it had "lapsed" were inaccurate. The tax varying power remains a power within The Scotland Act. The issue is one of technical capability, not legal competence.

Still there is also force in the counter argument that a power in principle is no more than wishful thinking if no practical means of exercising it exists; and that a fundamental power such as this should not have been allowed to wither on the vine, certainly not without full democratic scrutiny.

The issue of funding for HMRC to support the collection of SVR appears now to be more complicated than was obvious from Scottish Secretary Michael Moore's initial letter. In some ways this plays strongly to the advantage of the SNP since it highlights the difficulty of a devolved Government achieving its objectives when the agencies tasked with delivery are not under their control.

Conversely however, the extent to which an apparently simple and clear objective (the ability to vary tax by 3p) has become mired in administrative detail is also a timely reminder that Governments can have all the legal powers their hearts desire, but they don't amount to a hill of beans without effective policy execution.

No doubt lessons will be learned from this saga to inform the implementation of the tax provisions contained in the forthcoming Scotland Bill, (which takes forward the proposals of the Calman Commission). Not least that a detailed and public memorandum of understanding about the roles of the Scottish Government, HMRC and the Parliament might be useful.

There is now talk of an inquiry by the Parliament's Finance Committee. Many issues are yet to be clarified, but it does seem that the funding decisions were complex, and quite finely balanced. You might well disagree with Mr Swinney's decision not to commit the necessary funding, but it is more difficult to see it as entirely unreasonable.

It is on the question of transparency that Mr Swinney and his Cabinet colleagues were arguably most vulnerable, and indeed in expressing regret he has acknowledged as much. It does now seem that his statement to Parliament that he did not intend to raise the Scottish variable rate was a little like proclaiming "Don't worry, I won't shoot!" when in fact there were no bullets in the gun.

However, the way in which this tale has unfolded also raises wider issues of transparency in the political context. Specifically the extent to which the business of politics can make honesty a risky policy. Had Mr Swinney come to the Parliament seeking views on the HMRC funding request, would this have been treated objectively and sensitively by the opposition parties? Maybe. Maybe not.

If the SNP had proposed refusing to provide funds their opponents could have challenged their credentials as the party seeking greater powers for Scotland. If they had argued in favour of funding, they might have been criticised for wasting public funds on a vanity project; shelling out cash in order to retain a power they had no intention of using, (partly because the new Calman inspired tax powers are waiting in the wings).

I have written before about how hard it is for politicians to meet the expectations of the electorate. We claim to want politicans who listen and respond and yet often they are castigated for indecision, "u-turns" or "flip-flopping". Senior politicans may be many things but most of them are not daft. They behave the way they do, they play politics they way they do, because they are rewarded for it.

We may decry knockabout politics but it gets headlines and it lands electoral punches. The difficulty is that clarity, openness and honesty can be the first casualties. To return to SVR, it has been very difficult as an interested, never mind casual observer, to follow the facts of this story.

The initial letter from the Scottish Secretary, whilst opening the issue up for debate, was scant on detail and arguably rather partial when it came to the facts of funding negotiations. For their part the Scottish Government were slow to release written details of what had gone on. At the time of writing, I have still not been able to find any mention of the SVR stushie on its website. It may be there, but it's certainly not easy to find.

All of this makes it pretty tough for a concerned voter to get a handle on the facts and who to believe. Why does that matter? It matters because it is an issue of trust. We are forever being told that trust in politicans is at an all time low. Much of the blame for that can be laid at the door of Westminster politicans who behaved so badly over their parliamentary expenses.

But trust is also a problem because too often the politicians seem only to be talking amongst themselves. The focus of their energy is on winning the argument, making a case, dodging a bullet. Sometimes you can do all of these things very successfully, but is that the same as making things better?

This week saw the broadcast of "Mandelson -The Real PM?" where the arch politician of our times described himself as a "professional politician". And perhaps that sums it up. That word, "professional". It prioritises politics for its own sake, rather than as an agent of positive change. I don't mean to suggest that politicians don't care about voters. In my experience they do. Only that sometimes they may need to be reminded not to behave as if the politics is an end in itself. And that's a taxing problem for us all.

Monday 15 November 2010

Why TV Eye Candy is About More than Botox

So, do you think John Craven has had botox? Or Huw Edwards? Or maybe Jeremy Paxman and Mark Lawson have been having fillers? What do you reckon? Maybe Kevin McCloud and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are devotees of the chemical peel?

I imagine you probably think that a rather ridiculous idea. I imagine you probably had a wry chuckle at the notion of Paxo in a hairnet shooting the breeze about his greasy T-zone as the needle went in.

But what if I said that Fiona Bruce or Kirsty Wark or Mariella Frostrup had been botoxed up? Or that Sarah Beeny and Nigella had been having sneaky injections to plump out those frown lines? That doesn't seem so ludicrous does it? In fact it seems perfectly credible, if not extremely likely.

The need for regular injections of botulinim toxin if you are to have a successful career in televsion, has been in the rather unforgiving spotlight recently thanks to the age and sex discrimination case being brought against the BBC by former Countryfile presenter Miriam O'Reilly.

The ongoing employment tribunal has seen claim and counterclaim traded, with O'Reilly claiming that she and other 'older' female presenters were axed to make way for younger, prettier faces, while BBC executives have insisted that the issue was about relevant experience for the programme's new primetime slot.

Whether or not there was a breach of employment law by the Beeb in this specific instance is for the tribunal to decide. But the general question of whether there is increasing pressure on presenters to keep looking young, and whether that pressure is greater for women, is surely worth peering at in the magnifying mirror for a moment or two.

Why does it seem ridiculous to suggest that Jeremy Paxman or Mark Lawson might have had botox? Why is it not so for Kirsty Wark or Mariella Frostrup? They are all experienced, heavy hitters in their chosen field. They all work largely in 'serious' programming where commisioners might feel confident that audiences were willing to tolerate the odd grey hair and crow's foot.

One inevitably comes to the conclusion that the key difference is gender. We expect women in the public eye to go further in pursuit of eternal youth, or the best approximation of it that can be had by having your forehead frozen by a dentist in his lunchbreak.

On one level this is hardly news. We all know that most women put more effort into looking good than most men. As former Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross put it in a Daily Mail piece inspired by the O'Reilly case "We all know women are objectified more than men...it is women who reveal their breasts, midriffs and thighs, who wear the make-up, go to beauty salons, totter on high heels and are generally held up as the personification of beauty." In summary, since women's looks are more important in real life they're bound to be on TV too. Charmingly put I'm sure you'll agree. However there is no denying that factually he's pretty much correct. While recognising that some good looking women also have talent (round of applause) Ross goes on to take a swipe at "autocuties" who leap-frog more deserving male journalists because of their televisual appeal.

But hang on a minute here. The implication of the view set out by Nick Ross is that it is somehow inevitable that women will be judged on their looks to a greater degree and that this in many respects gives women an advantage.

But where is it written that women are to be judged on their appearance more than men? And why should the fact that you have to be pretty to get a job be seen as an unfair advantage rather than unfair discrimination?

I don't want to be flippant about this because the fact is we know it does happen. We know that sometimes, particularly in jobs where appearance is important, pretty women might get a job ahead of more deserving men and, indeed, unattractive women. And that does arguably give those women an unfair advantage even if they do not want it.

But that advantage given to a very few simply enshrines a wider discriminatory attitude that women have to be able and attractive in order to get on.

To return to the very wonderful Mark Lawson. Why does it seem ridiculous that he might have fillers or botox or a chemical peel? Well, the lovely Mark wasn't really going to be in the running for People Magazine's Sexiest Man Alive title in any event was he?

But much more importantly, it's just not about the way he looks. He didn't get the job because of the way he looks. His looks are irrelevant. No-one would be so crass as to assume that because Mark Lawson had put on a bit of a timber or was receding a bit or getting jowly that he wasn't still an intelligent, insightful, engaging and charming broadcaster. His age and attractiveness are not significant in determining his professional worth.

That's not the case for Mariella Frostrup. And that, in my view, is wrong.

In any event, I have a problem with the suggestion that having botox or fillers is simply an extension of everyday grooming, like applying make up or plucking your eyebrows. A friend of mine, a former GP, now conducts minor cosmetic procedures for a very upmarket chain. If I were going to have botox I would go to her in a heartbeat. She has spoken eloquently about how safe it is if properly administered and how natural it can look and for a period I thought, yeah, why not? In five years time everyone will be doing it. It will be just like dyeing your hair or wearing contacts.

Except that it's not really. I've seen some people who look fabulous after Botox. I've seen many more who look frankly, a bit bizarre.

Often people don't look younger, they just look like someone who has had botox. It can alter your face quite fundamentally. It is also rather disconcerting to see the mismatch between the bits that have gone under the needle and those that haven't: a glassy forehead untouched by the hand of time and jowls like Marlon Brando in the Godfather. Likewise with fillers which give the face an odd spongy quality, as if your cheek bones were in training to form the base of a sherry trifle.

I'm not having a go at people who choose to do it. I have never subscribed to the view that plastic surgery is simply a sticking plaster for deeper emotional wounds. I knew a girl at school who had the most absolutely enormous comedy nose which was the bane of her life. I met her many years later after a really super nose job and she looked amazing and was 200 per cent happier.

I certainly gave serious thought to botox myself. And maybe if they did it better and you still looked like you, I'd still give it a go. But when I thought seriously about having it done it struck me that that I wouldn't want to to tell my daughter. I spend a lot of time telling her that what matters is being kind, and working hard and that good nail varnish and shoes and fabulous jewellery is the very nice icing on the cake. And how does Botox sit with that philosophy? And when I realised I would be embarrassed to tell her I realised I probably shouldn't be doing it.

I'm also not averse to a bit of eye candy. No-one is suggesting that Mary Beard should be a judge on the X Factor. I get that for some jobs being beautiful and/or young is pretty essential. There's no dignity in playing the ingenue if you're knocking on 45. Though interestingly, in cinema and TV drama there does seem to be more room for diversity, for a range of facial and body types which help convey the emotional complexities of different characters; - you can be Keira Knightley or your can be Christina Hendricks; you can be Julia Roberts or you can be Julie Walters. Lets face it would Tommy Lee Jones be Tommy Lee Jones if he looked like a catalogue model? No, and we'd all be the poorer for it.

Perhaps that's my beef with Botox, it seems to me to be anti-complexity, Botox is both a symptom and a cause of the homogenisation of beauty. But then maybe, like McDonald's, they're only giving us what we want? It's all very well blaming the media for the promotion of unrealistic physical role models, for presenting us only with images of impossibly perfect human beings, but we collude in the odd mass delusion that these paragons are what humans should look like, denying the evidence that is all too obvious every time we step out the door.

That's why it is claimed that we only want to look at beautiful people, that we don't want ugly buglies cluttering up our screens. But I don't actually believe that's true. Apart from the number of national treasures who are not beauty queen material (Jo Brand? John Sergeant?) we love, and love to look at, people in every day life warts and all.

I look at my daughter with her grandparents. At the way she gazes at them and strokes the papery skin on their hands as they tell her a story or read her a book. She does not care that they are not young or conventionally beautiful. I spoke recently to a lady in her late 70's. She was very smart and entertaining company and when she smiled her age fell away and you could see in her smile and her intelligence and the animation of her spirit, the beautiful woman she still was.

It's easy to become blase about the increasing prevalence of cosmetic surgery, particularly that designed to keep us youthful. It's tempting to just rattle off a joke about wind tunnels or staples in the hair line.

But the question of whether we can live with ourselves as we grow older speaks to a deep and fundamental need in us. It is about the acceptance of ageing as a part of living and a recognition that we can be loved, liked and respected past our accepted sexual sell by date.

If we want storytellers and narrators of substance and value, on TV or elsewhere, why can we not be trusted to find that in men and women of all ages and appearance?

Saturday 30 October 2010

Sexy. Fancy. Dress. Or Not.

There are two kinds of people in this world. Those who would have sex with Piers Morgan and those who would only have sex with Piers Morgan in the hope that they would meet Simon Cowell. No, hang on, that's not right. Well, it's true, but it's not what I'm trying to say.

Oh yes! I know! There are two kinds of people in this world, people who do sexy fancy dress and people who don't.

I learnt this as a mere stripling acting as an unpaid skivvy at my Mum and Dad's fancy dress parties. The door bell would ring and there would be Mrs Anderson*, rouged cheeks, ringlets and cleavage like the San Andreas fault line.

Just as you're breaking into a sweat thinking "Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" you notice the basket of satsumas and realise she's Nell Gwynn. If Nell Gwynn had been a thickset 53 year old dentist's receptionist with elephantitis. But still there she was, one sniff of a costume party and her sexy, sexy head was on. What a trooper.

Actually, it was much more disturbing when your parents' friends were really proper sexy. Like Mrs Frances*. She was some ancient old bird of 33 that you babysat for and if you slagged her off for having rubbish biscuits your brother would go red and say things like "I like her. She smells nice." but normally she was just in a Simon shirt and a pair of Wranglers and clogs so you would think, "Well she's no Victoria Principal, but she is quite slim, I'll give her that."

But then she turns up at your parents fancy dress party in harem pants and a bikini top with a belly chain and "Blimey!" for once you really sympathise with your brother who is having to chat to her with only a tray of stuffed eggs to hide his discomfort.

Suffice to say I am not a sexy fancy dress person. I learnt this from my mother who, despite being lovely and having what they called in the '70's "a smashing figure," NEVER did sexy fancy dress. My Mum was always Fidel Castro or Groucho Marx or something and was funny and cute like Judy Garland in Easter Parade and never had to worry abut whether her bosom was about to dip in the chicken vol au vents.

So having learnt it at my mother's knee I know my fancy dress mojo, but for those of you who don't, here is a short guide to fancy dress archetypes.

1. The Jordan

This is easy. Think "common prostitute in Hammer House of Horror. " Synthetic fibres only, particularly for your hair extensions, frilly pants like Chris Evert or at a push simply knickers with days of the week on them, but ALWAYS on show. Ladies, this is not the time for mystery. Make- up is classic, applied half-cut in the dark over a thin base of creosote.

2. The TV Chef

At it's simplest its just comedy lips and a hair net for Jamie. Or you could do Nigella but that does require full frontal nudity save for fairy lights draped over your pomegranates. Finally, if you can take a lot of pain, you could do Gordon Ramsay by wrapping twenty elastic bands around your face, putting two pain aux raisins up a tight white t-shirt, and shoving a Le Creuset milk pan in your underwear.

3. The Politico

Fidel Castro, Che etc. Just some basic camo left over from that survivalist's convention and a tache. The tache can be finest plug hair if you can come by it, if not any old merkin you have lying around the house will do just as well. If you want to do right-wing just hollow out a large ham, stick a wetsuit and sunglasses on it and put it on your head like Monica did with the turkey in the Friends Thanksgiving episode. You are the PM natch. (NB: Of course the Cam-Gamm thing is Trademark Caitlin Moran of The Times.)

4. The Fop/Aristo/ Historical Clergyman

18th century aristo with powdered periwig and knee breeches. A word of caution, unless you are Elton John there is a strong chance that wearing this means you are a complete tool. (See Conrad Black )

There endeth the lesson.

*All names have been changed or the entire story fabricated.

Wednesday 13 October 2010


Today is my 43rd birthday. It is no understatement to say I have waited all my life to be this age. If Simon Cowell were here I would cry and tell him that this is my last chance at a 43rd birthday and that it means EVERYTHING to me.

Cos it does actually, mean the world to me to be 43. Even though, to all but the most deluded, I am middle aged, and middle age is not supposed to be something one celebrates. How do I know I'm middle aged? Well apart from the maths, which you can do if you wish, the signs are all there.

I read the warning notices on fairground attractions; I find aerial photography quite fascinating; I worry about listed building regulations. And then there is the physical deterioration, not catastrophic as yet admittedly. An extra crow's foot or two, a shade more wobbly round the jowls, a smile which is becoming, literally, 'long in the tooth'.

Am I delighted to face the inexorable signs of ageing in the harsh morning light of the mirror each day? Yes and no. No, because I am a bit vain and sentimental and it would be just lovely to think you could stay young and pretty forever. Yes, because you can't.

Five years ago my cousin Dawn died having been diagnosed with breast cancer two years before. Unfortunately, by the time she was diagnosed the cancer had already spread and she was told there was no chance of remission.

Dawn was a fearless child. One who would jump hollering from the highest diving board while I practised a safe, neat little dive from the side of the pool. I always envied her that. And she had the most beautiful strawberry blonde hair.

She was only in her early 30's when she died, leaving not just her little boy but her husband, mother, father, brother, sister-in-law and tiny new-born nephew. And a whole host of friends. I never knew how many till the day of her funeral.

So if I feel sad at the onset of another winter, I remember that I will celebrate Christmas with my family on 25 December. And I think of Dawn who died in December and celebrated her last Christmas early so she could watch her son open his presents one final time.

If I look in the mirror of a morning and feel a little maudlin, I think of Dawn and the way she bore her illness and I determine again not to be sad at the passing of the years but grateful for them.

Seeing what happened to Dawn may not have turned me into someone who treks in the Himalayas and watches the dawn over Macchu Picchu, frankly that's not really my cup of tea. But it has made me determined never to regret another birthday.

So believe me when I say I will enjoy today, my 43rd birthday, and I shall raise a glass to Dawn who never got to enjoy hers.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

Benefit Reform: Behind the Scenes

The Chancellor of the Exchequer's grace and favour country mansion, Dorneywood.

INT: Elegant drawing room. Chancellor George Osborne is lying on the sofa, flicking through "World of Interiors". He is dressed casually in smoking jacket, cravat and velvet slippers bearing the monogram CofE. A knock at the door. George leaps up and grabs a large sheaf of papers from his red box. He moves to the fireplace and, resting one elbow on the mantelpiece, begins to study the documents intently.

GO: Good God, come in! There's no time to waste!

The door opens and Sir Humphrey St. James, Permanent Secretary to the Treasury enters with his PS Barnaby Sumpthwaite.

Sir H: Good morning, Chancellor.

GO: Honestly, you public sector namby pambies with your door knocking and your "Good mornings". You've no sense of urgency. You wouldn't bloody last two minutes selling wallpaper in my shop, you feather bedded egg-heads.

Sir H: (smiling urbanely) You wished to see us?

GO: I've been reading this submission on plugging the ruddy great deficit, (thrusting papers at Sir H). Some of the options are ludicrous! Raise taxes!? You bunch of unreconstructed socialist morons. It's ludicrous! I suppose you'll be suggesting workers' communes and nationalising the banks next.

Sir H: Please accept my apologies Chancellor. Now, if I may be so bold, you wished to see us?

GO: Christ man, why hell else would you be here? You're like that useless bitch pointer of mine, kept returning the bird to the wrong bloody gun!

Sir H: Indeed. I wonder however if now would be an appropriate time for you to sketch out your thoughts on why you wanted to see us?

GO: Benefits Hump. Cutting the old benefit bonanza for all the numpties that haven't the gumption to get themsleves born into a successful painting and decorating business. Bloody workshy idiots. But I don't want that jumped up geek Miliband accusing me of having it in for the working classes. So bloody unfair. My beater had two weeks in Majorca last year courtesy of the Osborne dollar. So we have to take the benefits from the middle classes Hump old boy, and I've the very one, Child Benefit. Ruddy ridiculous. All these nappy valley yummy mummies blowing it on cupcakes, own brand chablis and clogs. That's not why we're fighting overseas.

BS: Actually, I'm not sure that the clogs trend ever really translated beyond the catwalk Chancellor. They're very unforgiving on a chunky ankle....

Sir H: Thank you Barnaby. That is an interesting proposotion Chancellor,(pressing fingertips together and pursing lips). If you will permit, I would like to explore some of the questions of both principle and practice which arise were such a policy to be pursued.

GO: (Stifling yawn) Oh, knock yourself out you goggle-eyed dweeb.

Sir H: Child benefit is a universal benefit. As such many see it as totemic, as an indicator of the State's commitment to a welfare system which reaches out not just to those on the breadline, but also to those on modest and middle incomes. Universalism is, after all, also a central pillar of the NHS and of our education system. Many would argue that it is important that we have policies which reflect a shared sense of citizenship, that make manifest our shared commitment to the welfare state. Removing child benefit, even from the better off, will therefore be seen by many as a direct attack on the founding principles of the welfare state.

GO: (Making 'yak yak yak' gesture with both hands) Ooooh, ten out of ten!

Sir H: As ever, the Chancellor's comments are most apposite. However, set against that, we find ourselves in uncharted fiscal territory. The structural deficit must be tackled and removing child benefit from the better off, whilst potentially unpopular amongst the middle classes, could mean less stringent cuts for those on very low incomes. And so we come to the practical difficulties. I am sure Chancellor you will have considered the difficulties in introducing an efficient, effective and equitable system of means testing. It strikes me that if removal of a universal benefit is pursued, then it must be executed in a way which is, and is seen to be, scrupulously fair. (Where are the jokes? - Ed)

GO: Oh here we go, (in whiny voice) "It's so complicated. We've tried and tried Sir but we've run out of biscuits so now we need to stop." FFS, JDI you great DODO! Well you can thank your lucky stars that I've brought a bit of private sector interior design experience to bear on this problem. Do you remember those adverts for Prize yoghurts where the yoghurts were "The Prize Guys"? Well that is me. That is me and Dave. We are the Prize guys and we have fixed it. Anyone on top rate of tax gets it whipped off 'em. Tough but fair. Endov.

Sir H: Hmm, I do wonder Chancellor whether that approach, though it does have an admirable clarity, might not lead to some unfortunate anomalies.

GO: (Fingers in ears) La, la, la I'm not listening. TOUGH BUT FAIR, FOUR EYES!

Sir H: If I may seek your indulgence a moment longer. Is there not a concern that, due to the fact that the the higher rate of tax is applied to individuals and not to households, some couples earning up to £86k a year would keep the benefit, whereas households with one person earning in excess of £44k would lose it?

GO: And?

Sir H: Well Chancellor does that not strike you as, er, somewhat problematic? Let me give you an example. Do you see those cows in the field out there, a big one and a small one? Would it be fair do you think to take the hay away from the little cow, but let the big one keep its hay?

GO: Aha! No you don't. I've seen this one before. It's not a big cow and a small cow, it's just one of them is further away.

Sir H: (rubbing temples) With respect Chancellor, this is not in fact a matter of perspective. One cow really is almost twice the size of the other. £86k really is almost twice £44k. I would humbly submit that your solution is somewhat challenged in relation to matters of equity.

GO: I would humbly submit that my foot will challenge your bony arse if you keep raining on my parade you badly dressed speccy beanpole. The big cow needs twice as much as the little cow so of course it can keep the hay. I mean if you're at the Wolsey with Fatty Soames you're hardly going to give him half portions are you?

At that moment the door bursts open and in bursts a wild eyed Samantha Cameron, baby Flora on hip, wearing clogs and brandishing large glass of Tesco's "Finest" chablis.

SC: Where's the bloody decorator? There you are, you horrible little tradesman! What the hell is this I'm hearing about the kiddies' fund? First Dave takes a pay cut, and I've had to bloody go part time. What's going to keep me in Wolfords and cocktail Sobranie now you simpering lady boy?

As Samantha lifts the poker from beside the fireplace, Sir Humphrey and Barnaby beat a hasty exit.

Barnaby: I am rather concerned about how these proposals are going to play Sir.

Sir H: Christ boy, I couldn't give a rat's arse, I'm out of here in six months and my pension is bomb-proof. At least this one's not a bloody Jock....


Tuesday 28 September 2010

Breast is Best, but Mothering Means More

According to media reports, a public health white paper for England and Wales to be published later this week will encourage employers to do more to enable new mothers returning to work to breast feed their babies.

I appreciate that there is much to be done to ensure the safe delivery of this little bundle of policy joy, which at the moment is not much past the ecstatic point of conception. Not least what is to be done with said baby in-between breast feeding breaks; since dropping it off in reception for a quick leaf through The Economist can only be a short term solution. But it does seem to be, in principle at least, a good thing.

I don't intend to list all the benefits of breast feeding, since by now they are pretty well rehearsed. Suffice to say, it sometimes feels like it cannot be long before we discover that breast fed babies have cuter dimples, prettier toes and quite lovely singing voices.

With that in mind, I want to be VERY clear about my support for breast feeding at the outset, because I am now about to say what can sometimes feel like heresy; that for some women breast feeding may not be the right thing - and that's okay too.

Some women give up breast feeding because their employment circumstances make it difficult, some because their husbands don't like it, some because their mothers purse their lips and disapprove. Some give up though simply because it can be painful and exhausting and bloody hard work.

I do not have a personal axe to grind here. I breast fed my daughter, though not exclusively, till she was six and a half months old. I had a lot of help at the beginning and "established" feeding quickly and painlessly. I loved feeding my daughter. When I stopped feeding her I cried and cried because feeding your baby yourself can be one of those joyous wonders of motherhood that makes all the tiredness, trauma and weight gain worthwhile. For the avoidance of doubt then, BREAST FEEDING IS A GOOD THING.

But it is not the only thing.

I have a number of friends whose experiences with breast feeding were not as happy as mine. One of my closest friends had terrible pain from feeding when her son could not latch on properly (due, it transpired, to a "tongue tie", a minor mouth problem which was not picked up initially). I remember visiting her and seeing her distress every time the baby needed to be fed. The combination of the physical pain she endured and the constant reminder that she was not able to fulfill her baby's basic needs really took its toll. Feeding, or rather the inability to feed, assumed an enormous significance. It became the thing that defined their relationship.

She attended a breast feeding clinic every week and was constantly supported and encouraged by midwives who told her of course she could feed and it would all come right. And she would listen and smile and go home and cry and dread the next feed. Eventually a kindly health visitor took her aside and told her in hushed tones that perhaps she had done all she could and that really it was time to try something else. My friend says the feeling of relief at having been given permission to stop was immense.

She and her husband were then spirited away into a broom cupboard to be given advice about formula as if it were a dirty little secret. The whole experience was difficult and distressing and spoke of a system which seemed to focus on the benefits of feeding to the exclusion of other aspects of parenthood. (My amazing friend then went on to feed her son exclusively on expressed milk, before successfully establishing breast feeding when he was several months older. She's a better woman than me. )

Breast feeding is promoted, rightly, as one of the most important ways of bonding with your baby. But if feeding is not working out, it has exactly the opposite effect. The fact of being unable to feed your baby becomes all-encompassing; making bonding with your child in other ways nigh on impossible.

Finding the right solution is not helped by the fact that it is such an emotive issue, often presented in divisive and caricatured terms. On the one hand there are the tree-huggers who sit around brushing each other's hair and playing the mandolin while breast feeding their infants; on the other hoop earring wearing feckless mothers who force feed their offspring bottles of vimto.

It's also a tricky one in terms of the gap between the benefits described in the literature and one's own experience. The convenience of breast feeding for example is often emphasised in promotional material. Well yes. It was very convenient for night feeds and if you were stranded in traffic jams. But it could also be enormousy tying and if, like me, you had bosoms like the Hindenberg, not actually that easy to do comfortably and discreetly.

I'm not trying to diss the science. I breast fed my baby in large part because I have faith in science, even though I don't understand it, and the science told me I should. But if I'm really honest it's sometimes difficult to square that with the evidence of my own eyes.

I see children that were born at the same time as my daughter every day of the week. Their health, happiness and intellectual ability appears to have nothing to do with whether they were breast or bottle fed. I know that this is personal and anecdotal - but it's a very powerful experience. Many people just don't see the science translated into every day life; and the health professionals and policy makers have to get better at acknowledging that.

No-one should be deterred from breast feeding for cultural, social or economic reasons. Women who breastfeed their babies should not be thrown off buses, out of cafes or into coal cellars lest their brazen need to nourish their child should throw the populace into paroxysms of embarassment and/or lust.

But equally motherhood should not be defined by which teat your baby drinks from. Yes, breast is best, but mothering means much, much more.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

The Fag-End of Philosophy

On the bus this morning I sat next to a woman with an almighty hacking cough. She looked harmless enough, but clearly she was hiding her phlegm under a bushel. Because as soon as I sat down she started with the chesty burbling death rattle. It was like eavesdropping on a bunch of orcs having rough sex.

Do you think there are some people in the world who, on sitting next to a hacking cougher, feel sympathy rather than revulsion? I hope so. I hope there are good Samaritans out there who might have patted her arm or offered a blackcurrant Soother, rather than miming an imaginary barrier between us and fashioning blinkers from a copy of The Scotsman.

When we both alighted at the same stop, she scrabbled frantically in her bag and pulled out a packet of fags, nearly extinguishing the lighter flame with the force of her cough, before taking one huge comic book draw so that her cheeks disappeared like a Chilean sink hole. Immediately she seemed calmer and almost as quickly I felt a pang of sympathy, pity even, for her addiction to the evil weed.

I am aware that this will infuriate those smokers who do it for the love of it, for whom it is a pleasure without guilt, a means of self-expression, a fetishistic ritual of indulgence to be savoured and worn as a badge of honour. Fair enough, you lot carry on, knock yourselves out, I don't feel sorry for you AT ALL.

But, I do pity the others, the ones who would dearly love to be able to kick their habit, who have tried many, many times to escape it's wraith-like clutches before once more falling sobbing and spent back into the lethally seductive arms of Lady Nicotine.

I don't pretend to understand how addiction to nicotine works, y'know biologically nor nuthin'. I was one of the lucky ones. Despite having my first fag in my mid teens and smoking on and off till I had my daughter in my mid thirties, I just never really seemed to get clinically, literally, addicted.

Sure I had nights where, after a few cans of Forge lager, I would worry the sofa upholstery with my bare teeth hoping to find a long forgotten SilkCut, but I was that classic oxymoron of the social smoker, happy to puff away on a Saturday night out, but then equally happy to do without Monday to Friday. Then when I got pregnant I stopped, made a conscious decision not to start again and never did.

Many of my friends were not so lucky and woke up one day suddenly one of the unhappy band who cannot get through the day without the old tar sticks. Their addiction makes them unhappy, it worries them and frightens them and gnaws at their self esteem. Some have given up, but others are still miserably addicted, and their mantra is often the same, "I just wish I'd never started."

For them there is no doubt that being a smoker, becoming addicted to cigarettes, is a matter of profound regret. I think of them whenever I pick up Hello! and read a Chopra loving, snake-oil salesman of an NLP addicted celebrity say smugly that they 'don't believe in regrets.' Well, in return I'm tempted to say that you're either a saint or a sociopath.

If you can say hand on heart that you have never been selfish or petulant or greedy or casually mean or unkind then congratulations and you may be excused. If, as I suspect is more likely, you are human just like the rest of us, are we to take it that you don’t regret your behaviour and the hurt it caused?

At the very least, are we no longer to be permitted a quiet moment of reflection where we admit that perhaps we wouldn't do it ALL again? I have never understood the appeal of surveying the human wreckage of a catastrophic decision and saying "If I had my time over, I wouldn't change a thing." If the same principles were applied to scientific endeavour, we'd still be eating spit roasted vole and using portable hooded hairdryers by Pifco.

Similarly, when team positivity asserts that “you make your own luck” we can hopefully assume they don’t
really mean it was your fault when that pesky drunk driver crossed the central reservation.

But of course lets not forget that “everything happens for a reason”, a philosophy most recently espoused in a lead Vanity Fair article by the shining example of good judgement and sober self awareness that is Lindsay Lohan.

The marvellous thing about clinging to this philosophical flotsam and jetsam is that it simply reaffirms that bad stuff only happens cos something better is waiting round the corner. And anyway, it wasn't your fault, it was the Universe did it and ran away.

Yes, yes, I know I'm probably being far too literal and what you really mean is that we should seize the day, follow the dream, give a Simon Cowell approved 120 per cent - and for what it’s worth, I agree. I'm not suggesting it's healthy to spend one's life brooding about the mistakes of the past or feeling burdened by the guilt caused by other people's unhappiness.

But at the very least I object to these slogans – for that’s what they are – on the grounds of borderline idiocy since they don’t even say what they mean. I'm tired of bumper stickers masquerading as wisdom.

Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we regret it. Sometimes we light up yet another fag and wish we hadn't. That's life and not believing in it doesn't mean it's not true.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

California Gurls: When Big Business Turns Child Catcher

Most children learn to read. First they read their name, then maybe Mummy, Daddy, cat, boy. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, they start to read items in every day life: packets, leaflets, street signs, bitchy texts about the X Factor that you're sending to your workmates. One day, they also start to read newspaper and magazine headlines in the supermarket.

And that's when your desire to shield your little angel from some of life's horrors becomes rather more complicated. I wouldn't describe Katy Perry as one of life's horrors exactly, but her presence on the cover of Glamour magazine did lead to some interesting reading for my 8 year old daughter when it caught her eye. Namely, cover strap lines like "What to Do With a Naked Man" and "I didn't know I'd been raped until I realised I was pregnant."

And this got me thinking about what happens when (in a big deep voice) TWO MARKETS COLLIDE! In this instance, when the music business simultaneously targets children, little girls in particular, and grown ups with grown up tastes.

For it was no accident that my daughter's eye was drawn to that particular magazine. Up until this summer she had never heard of Katy Perry. But all that changed with the release of "California Gurls" (yes, that is how they is spelling it.)

For those of you not familiar, this burst of bubble-gum pop has a chorus which runs;

"California Gurls are unforgettable/ Daisy Dukes bikinis on top/ Sun-kissed skin so hot to melt your popsicles/ Oh, woah, oh! Oh, woah, oh!"

Something about the chirpy tune and the combination of words like "girls" "Daisy" "bikinis" and "popsicles", rendered this tune irresistible to my daughter and her chums. And that was before they saw the video.

In the promo a luscious Katy and assorted popsies are frolicking inside a board game named Candyfornia, a land of sweets with lollipops like palm trees, candy floss clouds, bon-bon pillows and salted caramel tumble dryers. (Okay, I made the last one up).

Looming over them is sugar daddy Snoop Doggy Dog who (horrors!) has the 'gurls' trapped there for his delectation, lustily licking his lips like a pervy Willy Wonka. Katy romps around the Candyfornia board freeing fellow cuties trapped in hubba bubba bubbles with the heel of her stripper shoes. She also lies naked and licking her wrist on a candy floss cloud with her bottom cleavage just obscured by a stray wisp of spun sugar. The 'gurls' then dance on the beach in cut-off shorts with bikini tops designed to look like giant cupcakes iced with glazed cherries on; or rather, enormous breasts.

But the Snoopster is mighty peeved at this and sends an army of gummy bears to CRUSH the little 'gurly' sweeties . Whereupon Candy Queen Katy morphs into a female avenger clad in a glittery red bikini with two canisters of "scooshy" cream strapped to her boobs.

She then proceeds to twist her cream guns in the manner of a porn star fondling her breasts, whereupon enormous spurts of milkiness shoot from her bosom pistols, vanquishing her little jelly foes. (I did not make any of that up.)

You may deduce from this that the video for California Gurls is not really appropriate fare for 8 year old girls. And yet, with its scrumptious set and 'girlpower' subtext, they couldn't have made a video that would appeal more to little girls if they tried. And, basically, that's my point. I rather wonder if they did make it to appeal to little girls. At least in part.

Now, I don't have a beef with Katy Perry, even if there is something of the replicant in that wide eyed stare of hers. She's a grown woman and the cartoon Vargas girl sexiness of her persona is vastly preferable to the dead eyed grindings of many other largely interchangeable pop starlets.

I don't know for certain who buys her records, but I'd be pretty surprised if it's 30 something musos. I imagine a young, very young, female audience is a lucrative market for her. But clearly you would also want to exploit God given talents like those on display in the California Gurls video. Hence a creative marketing strategy which reels in young kids with the most wonderfully realised candy world and which appeals to adults with raunchy, if tongue in cheek, sexual content.

So if it's inappropriate don't let her watch it, I hear you cry. Well, in my defence I didn't. She saw it at someone else's house and came back raving about it. We watched it through together and at various points I thought, should I stop this? Should I say, "I don't want you to watch this"?

But I have no particular problem with my child seeing female nudity and the giant cupcake bosoms were actually pretty funny (we're not beyond the odd booby joke in this household) and basically I didn't want to project my own adult sensibilities onto her experience. For there is no doubt that she just likes the tune and the bright colours and the funky clothes and THE SWEETS!!

But when we reached the cream gun, ahem, climax I determined that this was not a video that she should be allowed to watch again. Why? Because little girls want to be like big girls and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. And, sure enough, it was not long before a friend reported that her daughter had been bouncing around in the sitting room miming the cream gun twists while belting out the tune.

Little girls (and that is what 8 year olds are) should not be imitating the simulated sex poses of porn stars and pole dancers. Even if they do so quite innocently. What happens when such little girls, who have been pouting and jiggling their way through childhood, turn 12, 13, 14, and do begin to understand the significance of the imagery in Katy Perry's apparently wholesome visual treat? Would it be surprising if by that time they have developed a kind of sense memory of studiedly provocative behaviour which implies a sexual maturity they do not in fact possess?

Acres of coverage has, quite rightly, been given recently to the impact of "raunch culture" on children, young girls in particular. What were once specifically adult porn and sex industry aesthetics have become increasingly mainstream, creating an environment such that the horrors of pole dancing kits in the toy section could even be contemplated.

But such overt attempts to commercialise sexuality for children have cheeringly so far been met mostly with howls of disapproval. The Mumsnet campaign Let Girls Be Girls for example, which asks retailers not to sell products which "exploit, emphasise or play upon children's sexuality " is having considerable success. Not just in consciousness raising, but also in getting firm commitments from major retailers not to succumb to the temptation of making a fast buck from products which cynically aim to sexualise our childrens' play.

But at least these direct attempts to target children can be easily identified and met head on. It is much, much harder to combat the "dog whistle" marketing of adult products to multiple markets which include young children. It is insidious, feeding into the culture until it begins to become the norm and therefore much harder to challenge.

I am not turning into Mary Whitehouse here (I hope). Sex is a (welcome) fact of life and society needs to cater for the needs of adults as well as children and families. But selling products with sexual content so that they surreptitiously appeal to young children is crossing the line. So forgive me if I see Katy's sweet offering rather more cynically, as big business turning child catcher and refuse to be seduced.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Letts Hear it for Libraries

So, are you familiar with Quentin Letts? No, it's not an estate agents, though it would be a damn fine name for one I grant you. Okay, do you read the Daily Mail? What do you mean, "Are we alone"? Fine, let's skip that question if its going to be a source of embarassment.

Quentin Letts is a journalist who writes for a number of British newspapers, including the Daily Mail. He is a theatre critic, political commentator and scourge of health and safety clipboard operators everywhere. He has a cheeky Just Williamish air; with blinky eyes behind little round specs; and he is never without a worm in his pocket all the better to frighten annoying gurls like Germaine Greer.

Quentin is currently presenting a series on Radio 4 entitled "What's The Point of..." where he questions the purpose of some of Britain's national institutions and obsessions. This week it was the turn of public libraries to have the beady eye of Letts turned upon it.

Suffice to say that I suspect Quentin and I would not see eye to beady eye on quite a number of issues.But I am forced to admit that I found myself agreeing with some of his thoughts on libraries.

Since I stopped working in an office, I have spent more and more time in the library. Also talking to check-out assistants and asking for free carpet fitting quotes, but that's another story. I now believe more strongly than ever that the public library is a shining beacon of civilisation which we all should cherish, and, more to the point, USE. It is testament to the power of the library that it could unite Mr Letts and I; specifically in the belief that it plays a vital role in unlocking human potential. So when Quentin called for the library of the future to be "a placid communal sanctuary, a public space for literary pleasure and self betterment", I found myself nodding in agreement.

Funnily enough, I am in a library as I write these words. As it happens, the library I happen to be in is no ordinary library. It is the National Library of Scotland. An institution which I love with a white hot passion which shakes me to the core.

The National Library, has comfortable chairs with leather padding and wide oak desks with room to spread your papers out. The enormously helpful staff will bring the books TO YOUR SEAT while anointing you with sweet smelling oils, feeding you dates and blowing gently on your neck.

As if that were not sufficient entertainment, there are my fellow libary users. Posh Edinburgh University students called Proteus and Porphyria with golden skin and shiny hair and pearly white teeth newly released from the loving care of an expensive orthodontist. Elderly ladies with shoogly beads, lopsided bosoms and birds nests, hair; retired gentlemen in mufti of flannels and a blazer; wild eyed academics with nicotine stained fingers and inky patches on their jacket pockets. And, in the unlikely event that you tire of the people watching, there are the books.

Books and books and books in abundance. In the small room where I now sit I could lovingly stroke the spines of ;"The One Pound Note in the History of Banking in Great Britain"; "The Encyclopedia of Islam"; Virgil's "Aeneid"; or "A Dissertation Upon English Typographical Founders". The stylish young woman next to me is reading a report of the 'Viceroyal's Visit to the West', in a 1900 edition of "The Queen: The Lady's Newspaper". Then there are the journals, newspapers, maps, manuscripts, rare books and the Scottish Screen Archive. Not to mention the exhibitions, events and a rather nice cafe in the foyer.

Of course the National Library is the Sunday Best of all libraries, but my little workaday local library is not too shabby either. Well actually, it is quite shabby but marvellous nonetheless. There are mothers and fathers and children reading and playing (quite quietly for all you purists like Quentin). Learning not just to read but to question and to think for themselves. Men and women filling out job applications and researching for interviews. It was at a library that I did the research that helped me get the job that paid my bills and secured my first mortgage. It was at a library that Jimmy Reid got the education that led to a life that was celebrated by the great and the good when he died.

Young people who are not given the space or peace to study at home. Old people who just want some human contact and can't work the computer. And yes, sharp elbowed middle class folk like myself who know a good thing when they see it.

The day that "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows", the last in the series of Potter books, was published, I was in my local library. A forlorn looking little boy of about 12 came to the desk with his grandmother and asked to order a copy of the book, knowing that the next day at school most of his friends would be brandishing their copies. The librarian smiled and spoke to her colleague and took from under the desk one of the brand spanking new copies which had only been published at midnight before. I hope the disblieving grin that spread across his face was somehow captured in the monthy performance indicators return.

A society that funds and supports public libraries is a civilised society, a democratic society, a society that believes in progress and tolerance and community and the kind of society I want to live in.

Mr Letts gave the last word in his programme to the former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion, whose father had never finished a book in his life, and I will do the same, " I owe my life to libraries." he said, "I went into a series of quite small rooms and found that I was in the world."

Thursday 26 August 2010

Scottish Football News is a Breath of Fresh Air

I am not a sports fan. Though I do like Wimbledon, the Olympics, World Cup football and Dancing on Ice. My pulse does not, however, start racing at the thought of a mid November fixture between Albion Thistle and "the Rovers", (as I believe they are called).

This morning however, as I sat de-fuzzing my felt Cath Kidston door stop, I did wonder if perhaps my life was becoming a little too cosy. So I decided to break out of my comfortable ...er...comfort zone and what better way to begin than by immersing myself in the world of Sport?

I therefore turned to the unopened and freshly ironed copy of The Scotsman by my side and decided, right there and then, that I would, FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, read the back pages first.

And so I read the 8 pages of footballing information. I will not call it news, for I fear that is a misnomer implying as it does reports of matches, scores, end to end stuff, near misses, things that had actually happened and the like.

But no. Rather football fans apparently wish to read stories about why some people think they would like to play football somewhere else; or what some people might do in certain matches that might not happen; or why some things that some people have said are not fair and really quite annoying.

In that sense it is very like political reporting. You know, where Peter Mandelson tells everyone what has just happened and what to think like the way the characters do in Mistresses. ANYWAY, I was a little disappointed at the lack of results and facts related to events in the past but in other respects I found I liked it very much.

I liked the headlines, which are poetic and rather mysterious, like the titles of short stories by Saul Bellow or Philip Roth: "MacDonald Ponders"; "Hooiveld Finds No Room For Sentiment"; or, "Baudelaire's Misfortune is A Boost for Proust". (Okay, I made that last one up.)

Some read like briefings from the Pentagon, "Roberston adamant United can oust AEK amid chaotic backdrop" or "Yemeni forces demand answers from Jambo's Oligarchs" (Okay, I made that one up as well.) I also liked all the foreign names, which are exotic and occasionally quite amusing, like 'Crouch'.

Some headlines though, I found downright impenetrable:

"Du Chatinier says pressure all on Scotrs". It does actually say"Scotrs". Is this a typo? Or is it a real footballing phenomenon? I imagine it is a cross between 'Scots' and 'snotters'.

Others read as if they are perhaps incomplete:

"Robinho wants away" ... early the night cos it's macaroni fur tea?

However, my absolute favourite was the collection of positively uplifting thoughts brought forth from the mouth of one Mr Craig Levein, who I believe now holds a managerial position in relation to the Scottish national embarrassment, er, sorry, squad.

The candour of Mr Levein in discussing the selection of the squad in advance of an upcoming European double-header (note footballing lingo) is an absolute breath of fresh air.I wish to point out that I have NOT made any of this up:

  • "I cannot afford to look in detail at who speaks in a Scottish accent and who has a Saltire hanging from their bedroom window." (Well indeed, who can in this day and age?)

  • "I pick the guys who are not going to be caught in the headlights, who are not going to go into their shells." (So he mixes a few metaphors, chill down will ya?)

  • "I want to win them both, I think we are capable. But we are capable of losing both, It's football." (The key word here is 'capable', let's just focus on that.)

  • "I am still getting a handle myself on what this is all about." (Okay, starting to get a bit worried now.)

  • "I picked a group of players for the last game, half of whom did not turn up." (Don't know about youse, but I'm fair bursting with pride here.)

  • "So I thought, I'll throw some young boys in and hopefully we can get something out of it." (Let's just admire the candour shall we? I'll admit the strategy may need work.)

Simply Marvellous. Though I do wonder whether he realised that there were other people in the room who could hear him.

Anyway, it was all very fascinating and finally, you will be pleased to know that Lithuania believe they can cause upset. But then so can I, especially after a tin of pea and ham soup. Still that's a (non) story for another day.

Saturday 26 June 2010

Creating Glasto at Home: Why It's Never Too Late to Give it a Go

Okay, first, let's examine the facts. I have never been on the receiving end of a stage dive or in the thick of a mosh pit. I have never stood swaying, my lit lighter held aloft in the dark, unless I was half cut and trying to light a fag. The last live gig I went to was a jazz guitar evening in a converted church where there was ice cream during the interval. In short I am not, and never have been, what might be called a regular frequenter of down and dirty live music spectaculars.

Even in my youth I would stand, plastic glass of warm beer in hand, feigning ecstasy at a Red Lorry Yellow Lorry encore, secretly thinking "What wouldn't I give for a seat and a bit of Luther Vandross."

So it will surprise no-one that I have never been to Glastonbury. Indeed, (whisper it) I have never been to any music festival. Nope; not once; not ever; no way. Not even WOMAD and it's practically Glyndebourne.

This is a fact of which I was once inordinately proud. It became a badge of prematurely middle- aged honour to roll my eyes at fellow 20 somethings hitting the festival circuit. "Ooh yes!" I would sneer, "Take me to the nirvana of gut rotting samosas, damp underwear and petty crime that is T in the Park, so that I can listen to every song in Cornershop's back catalogue!"

But the uncomfortable truth is that the comedy value of acting middle aged diminishes in direct proportion to the rate at which one becomes, well, middle aged. And yes, the youthful confidence that there will be endless opportunities begins to wane.

And so it is only now, with the spectre of being past it looming, that I am starting to flirt (embarrassingly) with the notion of giving Glasto a go. But there are so many questions. What does one wear? How should one talk? Should I do da dub step wid da dudes in da Dance Village?

Yesterday I decided to peruse the website, but it does little to calm one's fears.Turns out it's a cross between ancient Rome, Blade Runner and Bluewater - themed areas stuffed to the gunnels with alcohol, carb stations and a forest of firm thighed young women in eye-wateringly teeny shorts.

I read the details of the Shangri- La Area and became increasingly alarmed. There is no sign of a Costa Coffee, or a Waterstones, nor a LIDL tent where one could eat pretzels or buy a wetsuit. Instead it is home to a variety of other mini-zones like The Alleys, or 'Badlands', 'a seedy maze of wrongness...dark and steamy, chaotic and sexy..home to a myriad of bizarre nano-venues". Blimey. While I recognise most of the words in this sentence, I realise that I have absolutely no idea what it means.

So last night it occured to me that a trial run, creating Glasto at home, would be the best way to ease oneself into it. Excellent. Yes. That is the plan. First, I leap headfirst into the compost bin and roll around for a bit, drying myself off with the newspaper that lines the guinea pig hutch. Earthy aroma : tick.

Next; wardrobe. Channeling Florence that has the machine and Le Roo (see, I've been doing my homework) I fashion a strapless romper suit from a National Trust tea towel and some M&S control knickers. Stylish and secure, I am liking it.

Recognising that my open toed shoe boots are are asking for trouble in the chemical loos, I pack several pairs of blue plastic overshoes, nicked from accident and emergency. But still it lacks something. Squinting at photos of the crowd I see that some kind of head gear is de rigeur. Aha! I fall upon our Cath Kidston peg bag which will also give sun protection to the back of my neck. Tacking on some tassels and a rape whistle finishes it off to a T. Outfit: Tick.

Of course I now need somewhere to lay my fashionably attired head, so I drape a sheet over the clothes horse and sit inside it. I immediately want some warm diluting orange juice in a scratched plastic beaker and a cuddle from my Mum, but I just suck my thumb for a minute and it passes. Accomodation: Tick

It is now that the outmoded nature of my dance stylee begins to trouble me. Do people still twist each other's melons man? I try to remember the routine me and my mates used to do to Firestarter but can't get past the bit where we pretend to light a match. There is nothing for it then but to switch on the telly, watch a bit of Glasto and try to emulate the crowd.

I lie down on the floor and look up at the telly to try and get a sense of the scale of it. I jiggle my hands around like that lovely bit in "Gregory's Girl". The Pyramid Stage glows like a beacon. The tiny points of light in the crowd ripple across the screen. Thousands and thousands of people all swaying, whooping and singing in the dusty hot night, absolutely right in that moment. A sense of endless possibilities while the music is playing.

And I think, that looks bloody great.

Monday 31 May 2010

Forceps for Meredith Grey?

This morning I put the hairbrush in the fridge again. Yesterday, the green beans were discovered in the sock drawer. Once, and only once, I managed to pop my mobile phone in the post-box, which wouldn't have been the end of the world, except that foolishly, I forgot the stamp.

Being a tad on the forgetful side may be an irritation in the domestic sphere, but in the workplace of course it can prove rather more serious. Not for me, thankfully, since I've never had a job where anything more important than a missing Annex to a background paper on the migrating patterns of actuaries was at stake.

Rather more worrying are the instances of forgetfulness in the operating theatres of Scotland's hospitals, which were revealed in the response to a Freedom of Information request just published by the Press Association.

Forceps, needle tips, fragments of a bone drill and swabs were among the lost property items reported as having gone AWOL in the icky inside bits of real live people. The data detailed that, since 2008, in NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde a total of 12 patients had been discharged with objects left inside them after surgery. NHS Borders meanwhile confirmed that forceps, which are typically between six and eight inches long, were left inside a patient at Borders General Hospital.

Hang on a minute, the tip of a needle's one thing but EIGHT INCH long forceps? Surely that can't be right? I mean, we've all left our eyelashes curlers in the hotel ensuite at some point, but come on, chaps!

A number of questions arise about such a mishap. First and foremost, why were the forceps casually laid to rest in the patient's innards in the first place? That's the equivalent of putting your red wine glass down on the cream carpet at the neighbourhood watch meeting, it's never going to end well.

Frankly, it reeks of a rather dismissive approach to the dignity of the patient's entrails. What next? The anaethestist propping his thermos on your spleen while he doles out the egg nog at the Christmas party? The surgeon wedging her compact mirror into your lower bowel while she squeezes her blackheads?

For if familiaity breeds contempt, it must be jolly hard as a practising medic not to get slightly blase about rootling around in some dude's gizzard. We'd like to think that the atmosphere in theatre when we're etherised on the table is as reverent as a Trevor McDonald interview, when it's probably more like the accounts department's 'Cupcake Friday'.

Personally I blame Channel 5. I wouldn't be surprised if next years stats reveal a worrying number of patients who have had to return to hospital due to discarded DVD Box sets of Grey's Anatomy, protruding from under their rib cages.

My hunch is that while the creme de la creme of the country's medical and nursing undergraduates should be stopping in the library, heads buried in Gray's anatomy, they're much more likely to be swotting up the anatomy of Izzy and co. Especially now that McDreamy is on tap on catchup tv, him and his sexy barnet pining for that whiny, pinch-faced, cotton-bud Meredith bloody Grey who has all the sexual allure of an Afghan hound. (I'm sorry, where was I?)

Oh yeah, what sort of example is that to set unattractive, um, sorry, I mean impressionable young Scottish puddins, er... rather, medics? With role models like that, no wonder 12 piece teasets are being casually overlooked during appendectomies. It's hard to keep your eye on the swab count when you're undoing each others' scrubs with your eyes and wigging out to Snow Patrol.

But of course I'm being facetious - they never play Snow Patrol in theatre, only when they're lying in the foyer, spent from a long hard day rolling their eyes and shagging transplant patients.

Seriously though, it's obviously not a barrel of laughs to be wheeled home after an op oblivious to the fact that there's a wee internal party bag of gauze wrapped monkey wrenches festering inside you. Thankfully however, though 'one such incident is one too many', it's still a pretty rare occurence. Partly due to procedures designed to prevent such incidents , particularly that all swabs and instruments should be "counted back out and in" again, by not one, but two members of the nursing staff. (Though budget restraints mean that it's not possible to have Brian Hanrahan on hand for anything other than headline cases.) But also because clumsy, slapdash, buffons like myself are, on the whole, not likely to get through the rigorous training required.

The NHS, despite its cock-ups, is a marvellous, wondrous, life saving and life affirming institution and we all should thank our lucky stars we have it - though sometimes it does pay to have your wits about you - especially if you hear "Chasing Cars" as they're putting you under.

Monday 24 May 2010

Fergie's Fall From Grace

It certainly makes for depressing viewing, a middle aged woman, once the nation's sweetheart, feted at home and abroad, now reduced to a tawdry and pathetic figure, cynically screwing as much money as possible from her association with an institution well past it's sell by date.

But enough of the word of mouth on Sex and the City 2: clearly the big winner in this week's spectacular fall from grace awards is Sarah, Duchess of York, exposed by the News of the World for offering access to Prince Andrew for £500k.

It appears that after the years spent bumping along the bottom of the tank in which "Hello!" keeps its minor royals, Fergie is back on the media A list for all the wrong reasons. Except that in a strange, through the looking glass way, she's gets it so wrong she's almost right.

The joyous wonder of Fergie's association with the Royals is her total inability to cultivate or maintain anything approaching "mystique". She is a walking, talking, human anti-mystique virus. Fergie, just by being Fergie in all her "Fergieness", has let more light in on the magic of monarchy than a bonkers red setter with a penchant for chewing the curtains.

Silly Royal "It's A Knockout"? Poor Fergie didn't get the memo that you're not supposed to look as if you're enjoying yourself - bouncing around in her wimpole like a Spamalot extra. Extra marital affair? No coy glances over the polo cup for her. No, no! Rather grainy pap pictures of her instep being nuzzled by a semi naked YANK!

If the famous fairy tale of regal hubris and collective delusion featured Fergie, there would be no need for a little boy to point the finger. Fergie would be up there on the podium shouting "LOOK AT US! WE'RE NOT WEARING ANY CLOTHES!"

And of course hovering in the background of all her indiscretions was the cardinal sin for a woman in the public eye of allowing herself to get fat and unphotogenic. Diana's press was far from positive at times, but she always had the fall back of the drop dead, knock em' down photoshoot that silenced the critics - not least because their tongues were hanging out.

Of course, until this latest and possibly greatest cock-up Fergie had long been on the road to public rehabilitation, hauling herself out of debt, acquiring a new self-help, no self pity persona - oh and of course shifting some weight.

This is where I need to say that those of you who were expecting a republican rallying cry should look away now. I know her behaviour is appalling, sad and lacking in any kind of integrity, I know it wasn't some sort of conspiracy that forced her to seek to fund an expensive lifestyle that she could no longer afford. But, she also is a woman who still bears the scars not just of an unhappy childhood, but of the pressures of sudden global fame for which she was clearly ill-equipped.

Several months ago she appeared on Pamela Connolly's 'Shrink Rap' discussion programme. From Fergie's point of view it was no no doubt an opportunity to share how she triumphed over adversity. But instead it showed a woman with her face oddly frozen and a disconcerting habit of talking about herself in the third person, still not at ease despite all the NLP mumbo jumbo.

And it will take some going to bounce back from this latest 'indiscretion', caught on camera slurring like Oliver Reed in the green room, miming 'give me the money' and incoherently wittering about wire transfers like a Nigerian fraudster.

There will be many who see no reason to pity a woman from a privileged background who, despite her claims of "not having a pot to piss in", still lives in a luxury most ordinary folk can only dream of. Fair enough.

But there is also something slightly disturbing in the sense one has of vultures circling overhead, now that she is once again in the wilderness; of smug satisfaction that those long ago cries of "vulgar, vulgar, vulgar" have been proven true. And sometimes it's healthy to feel a degree of compassion even for these we don't particularly admire.

In the final event one thing's for certain, as a cautionary tale for any young woman who thinks that marrying her prince is a guaranteed happy ever after, they don't come much better this.

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Rolling News

BREAKING NEWS: As I write this, Gordon Brown has just left Downing Street and the nail-biting cliffhanger of the past few days is over. Never have so many flights of steps borne witness to so many platitudes and a collective sigh of relief can be heard, if not across the nation, then at least in the TV satellite vans currently besieging Westminster. Relief that, at long last, there is something to report.

Well "Hallellujah!" and praise Laura Keunssberg!

For Ms Keunssberg, Chief Political Correspondent for the BBC News Channel has been an absolute trooper, always there, like Zelig, on the shoulder of history.

Take, yesterday afternoon, when it fell to Lib Dem negotiator David Laws to update the assembled hacks on the state of play with Con - Lib negotiations. David duly did the needful, muttering "friendly", "constructive", "national interest" and "more Red Bull please". The fairly obvious gist was that they hadn't reached an agreement, but hadn't given up on doing so. Called upon to explain the complexities of this concept, Laura K went all Donald Rumsfeld and intoned "Well, it's not a deal, but it's not not a deal."

Ms Kuenssberg is obviously not daft, no- one gets to be a Beeb Chief anything without being very bright, very knowleadgeable and very hard working. It would have been as clear to her as anyone else that a deal had not been reached. But then a deal had not been reached ALL DAY and this in news terms, was frankly unacceptable. It then becomes the reporters job to convince the viewer to disbelieve the evidence of their own eyes. It's not an option for Laura Kuenssberg to say "move along people, there's nothing to see" since, horror of horrors, we very well might.

So what made said bright, able professional tie herself up in double negative knots (apart of course from near exhaustion which is taken as read...)?

Two words; rolling news - which in recent days has reduced the nation's finest journalistic brains to a rabble of breathless curtain twitchers.

"They're in the car! They're gettting out of the car! They're on the steps! They're at the top of the steps!" The hack pack recorded the movements of the negotiating teams with all the obsessive mundanity of an anxious first time mother checking the contents of her baby's nappy.

Of course, rolling news also had it's pre-polling day moment in the sun, outside the very ordinary Rochdale front door of Mrs Gillian Duffy. "These are amazing scenes" the journos exclaimed as the minutes rolled by, the door remained resolutely shut and scenes of any sort, amazing or otherwise, truculently failed to materialise.

To return to the curtain twitchers in the street, they were ably supported by the graverobbers in the studios. Since anyone who was anyone and knew anything was either in the talks or under wraps, the ghosts of Government past rose up to be stroked and petted back to life by Burke and Hare aka Huw Edwards and Jon Snow.

The mummified remains of Lord Hurd (previously plain Douglas) were exhumed, propped up next to the cheery spectre of Shirley Williams, and most chilling of all, a cadaverous John Greenwood slithered into the studio, to lecture us from the beyond political grave about what "the public wants."

But the most entertaining media spectacle of them all was the already legendary face off between Adam Boulton and Alastair Campbell. Campbell verbally planted his palm on Boulton's forehead and whistled nonchalantly while Boulton swung ineffectually at him like a demented emoticon. It was indeed very extremely hilarious and merited all it's youtube hits and retweeting.

But it was frankly also slightly disturbing that a professional journalist of that seniority should lose it so comprehensively on national television. Even if we take into account the possibility of a strong dislike of Campbell, it is also a symptom of the hysteria which has collectively gripped the political hacks. Boulton seemed like the personification of a lobby on the edge of professional meltdown, compelled as it was by the demands of the news schedules to find endless new ways of saying nothing much at all.

So what, you might say? A few slightly overwrought journalists at Westminster is surely nothing new. And yes, sadly, that's true. But given the fragile nature of the negotiations, and the "uncharted territory" that was being reported on, we "the public" might have a right to expect that those granted the privilege of recording proceedings keep a level head.

The sight of Brown leaving Downing St. hand in hand with his wife and children was poignant, moving and captured a sense of the incredible burden and privilege it is to hold such a high office. We need the cameras there to capure such moments and we need able writers to underscore and help make sense of the story unfolding. And we all need a moment to catch our breath and take it in.

Wednesday 5 May 2010

Stand for Parliament? I'd Rather Lick the Pavement Clean

So by tomorrow it will be all over. Except of course that it won't. Even if we're spared the hysteria which will surround the horse trading which comes with a hung parliament, the hangover from this election will be pounding in our heads for a long time to come.

Whatever the new administration looks like, we can be guaranteed that gangs of hacks, jaundiced from weeks of binge campaigning, will be desperately trying to prize the fag end of meaning from this empty can of electoral Kestrel.

But pity the poor sods charged with creating a coherent narrative arc from this soap opera. Non-doms, Tory Toffs, Brown the wounded dancing bear; leaders' wives, bigotgate, and the Lib Dem love in. There's a doctoral thesis in the coverage of Mrs Duffy's front door alone. The emerging concensus on the top story though appears to be the impact of the leaders' debate and the Presidential nature of the campaign.

But if that is the tale that we are to tell our grandchildren, we are overlooking some very important protaganists in this story. No, not the electorate you narcissists - ALL the other candidates.

Watching the election coverage one does think "Stand for Parliament? Why not lick the pavement clean?" Except that doesn't begin to cover it. How about, lick the pavement clean as passers-by shout abuse and encourage their dogs to lift their legs on your new suit from Next, while an Oxbridge graduate from the BBC holds his nose and asks you to justify your position.

Before you all beat me about the head with a copy of the Daily Telegraph, yes I remember the expenses scandal, yes I've seen a picture of Eric Pickles, yes I know that some of our elected representatives are shallow, vacuous, greedy, indolent, self -pitying egomaniacs whose presence on the hustings is an affront to our intelligence and common sense. But if those elected and seeking election are a bunch of losers, (even the winners), why aren't we all stepping up to the plate?

Well because most of us would, I know, rather cover our naked forms in Marmite and have it slurped off by Ian Beale than spend 10 minutes in the company of the slippery snake oil salesmen that we no longer read about in the papers every day. And there's the rub. What is the tipping point at which your average concerned competent citizen actually wants to join in? We might all agree entirely that someone's got to take the lead, it's just not going to be us.

In any event, not wanting to hang around with some of the most hated men and women on the planet is not the only disincentive to seeking a political career. What if you actually get elected? Here's where I admit that for 10 years as an official at the Scottish Parliament I actually worked cheek by jowly jowl with elected politicians.

Chatting with friends, it often became clear that most people had a rather warped view of what the daily grind represented for your average parliamentarian. My mates imagined a demanding programme of champagne fuelled receptions and fact- finding tips to Bali interspersed with a little light fete opening and the occasional piece of fiery oratory delivered to serried ranks of cheering followers.

The reality of course is "somewhat" different. Most elected politicians spend most of their time in dingy flourescent lit offices reading mind numbingly dull tomes on matters like finanical performance indicators in further education, leavened only by a welcome phone call from a constituent screaming abuse about their rubbish collection (which, as we all know, is a matter for the local authority.)

One of the reasons why I, and many of my former parliamentary colleagues, loved The Thick of It (TTOIT) so much was not just that it is was so funny, but that it captured the mundanity of every day political life so perfectly. You could smell the curled up chicken tikka sandwiches lurking in Olly's briefcase from the lunchtime meeting buffet. TTOIT also caught the sense of forlorn frustration that many politicians feel at the fact that "making it" politically often makes it harder to do the things that got them into politics in the first place.

Because, shocking though it may sound, (adolescent high foreheaded policy bots and political junkies aside) most politicians start out wanting to help people and many continue to feel that way. Perversely though, the business of getting through the day for most MPs can leave little time for campaigning on the issues that they are truly passionate about and which may have got them elected in the first place. Add to that the electorate's high expectations and we find ourselves with disappointment and hurt feelings all round.

For the breadth of skills required to be a fine parliamentarian is pretty mind boggling. They need to have the oratorical skills of Jed Bartlett, the forensic questioning technique of Petrocelli, the charisma of George Clooney and the balls of Madonna. But most of all they need to be the kind of bloke we'd be happy to have a pint with. Especially if they're female. And for all that we are prepared to pay them roughly the same as an Area Manager for the Carphone Warehouse.

Of course politician's must take their hefty share of the blame for the contempt in which they are now widely held. We've been lied to and patronised and ignored and all too often treated like an irritation by those who are supposed to serve us.

But still we're a pretty tough crowd. I suspect even a cross between Nye Bevan, Mandela and Joanna Lumley would have some voters muttering "Too bloody Welsh...". As Alain de Botton posted (postulated?) on his Twitter account in the wake of the bigotgate farrago "We want our politicians to be at once entirely ordinary and completely exceptional."

And of course the fourth estate play their part in this. The demands of rolling news, a complusion to editorialise anything that moves and the (probably age old) insularity of the Westminster media/political village paint a political picture that rarely tells the whole story.

Political journalism is also dominated by the same kind of mindset as old fashioned politics, which is to say going for the jugular and admitting no weakness. So while we say we want politicans who listen and respond, we ridicule them for "flip-flopping" "caving", or "u-turning". We say we want politicians to tell the truth but in reality they would often be crucified for it. The attraction of the debates for many people may actually have been the opportunity to hear the politicans speak at some length about their policies

This is not supposed to be an apologia for politicians. Many, indeed very many, behaved disgracefully in relation to their expenses. Some have the intellectual rigour of a demented donkey and the compassion of Cruella de Ville. A number would be lucky to find and keep gainful employment of any kind in the real world. I've met politicians who would leave you for dead at the side of the road if it meant two minutes in the Newsnight studio. I've equally known politicians who are decent, kind, considerate and tolerant in their views. Both kinds, I might add, can be found in most parties you care to mention.

Politicians are human, awful, admirable, fallible. To paraphrase that great political philosopher Julia Roberts in Notting Hill, at the end of the day they're just people, standing in front of the electorate, asking you to vote for them.