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Sunday 20 November 2011

Dressed to Impress? Or Dressed for Distress?

Being a woman of a certain age, it is not all that often that you will find me loitering in a taxi queue in the wee small hours. I have a very active social life but most of it is conducted on my sofa, or friends' sofas, or on Twitter, where you can eat too much and undo your trouser buttons without risk of arrest.

If I do venture into town, I usually make a point of getting home before chucking out time, when young people start humping lampposts and throwing themselves into the traffic.

But the past couple of Saturdays I was out and about till well past pub closing time and found myself, on my tod, stuck in a taxi queue due to wearing stupidly high, spindly, cheap heels that made walking home an impossible dream. (Imagine shoes made of jay cloths, sequins and twigs and you're in the right ball park. )

Cursing my idiotic footwear and coveting the chips of passers-by could only hold my attention for so long and, eventually, I got round to examining the fashion choices of my fellow revellers. Particularly the young women. And what an eye-popping sight it was.

When I was in my 20's, my flatmates and I would sometimes drink too much wine and then, for a laugh, put on our thermal vests, big pants and our one pair of court shoes and jump around the sitting-room to the theme from Wonder Woman. ("All the world is waiting for you, and the power you possess! In your satin tights, fighting for your rights, And the old Red, White and Blue!!)

Remarkably, it seemed that the attire of the young women in the taxi-queue had been inspired by just such a scene. (Although, unfortunately, without the super hero vibe).

Next to me stood a shivering girl clad in a medium-sized Lakeland piping bag, her lady lumps oozing out of it like fondant icing with goose bumps. Her friend wore microscopic denim hot-pants and a halter neck top only just visible to the naked eye. They were both shod in a nest of tables strapped to their feet with dental floss. Or near enough.

Wincing like The Little Mermaid at every step, looking for all the world like they had been hobbled by Kathy Bates in "Misery", their "look" was more "physio appointment" than "sexy time".

I am cringing slightly as I write this, because I am conscious that I sound like a snooty old crone. Am I the equivalent of the Victorian dowager nursing her hump and necking the laudanum at the sight of a finely turned ankle? Or the 1950's gynaecologist sneering "harlot" at the sight of a painted toe-nail? Maybe. Sometimes it's hard to tell. I'm a good twenty years older than the young women I'm talking about and perhaps I am, quite simply, out of touch.

I'm not setting myself up as fashion expert, which is just as well since I am mostly channelling Rip Van Winkle in Wallis party wear. It's not really about fashion.

My beef with the flesh on show is not that these young women were dressing provocatively. If they been enjoying their sexual power, reveling in the male gaze they attracted, then bloody good luck to them. But they weren't. They were cold, uncomfortable, self-conscious and clearly frankly bloody miserable. To be perfectly honest, it was a bit distressing.

The sad irony is that for many young women, dressing like a porn star seems to have become synonymous with sexual liberation. But it's not liberating if you're dressing that way because you feel like you have to. Just like it's not liberating to flash your boobs on Spring Break because you want a cheer from the guys. I weep that empowerment has come to mean shoes that make you bleed and bad sex in the loo of a "fun" pub in Magaluf. (If these girls are having earth shattering orgasms in these two minute couplings, I'm Eva Peron. )

I appreciate I'm hardly the first person to have commented on the mainstreaming of sex industry aesthetics. (See of course most recently Caitlin Moran's fantastic "How to be a Woman".) But some things bear repeating.

I'm not suggesting that young women shouldn't have sex. If they're old enough and mature enough to be having good, safe sex, then carry on, knock yourself out. I'm just sorry that some feel they have to be in a state of undress in order to "fit in."

Of course it's not true for all women. Some young girls stumble through the forest of adolescence and choose the road to a fashion identity of skinny jeans, Converse and Breton tops. Why do some go that way and others aim for the land of Jordan? Is it related to self-esteem? Class? The rise of narcissism? I'm not sure that we know.

I just know that it makes me sad to see young women reluctantly bound and trussed like prize turkeys in the name of being dressed to kill.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

How I Discovered Facebook

Last week I discovered Facebook. I say "discovered", but I do not mean it in the sense that Christopher Columbus discovered America or Blind Date discovered Jenni Falconer. I mean that, approximately four years after having signed up for it, I actually started to use it.

In some ways this was an odd decision since mostly I hear nothing but complaints about Facebook from people on Twitter - but that's a bit like Aldi slagging off LIDL and they're both pretty good actually, especially for mulled wine and esoteric biscuits - so I shrugged it off and took the plunge.

I am aware that one or two of you may already be familiar with Facebook. (I learned my lesson a few months back when I thought I was blazing a trail with the cafes that have the sushi roundabout and drainpipe jeans. ) Still, for those of you who are not, here are my thoughts.

My first tip is not to keep going on about how you have discovered Facebook, unless you also claim to have been in a coma. If you take this route you must prepare thoroughly. I decided that my last waking memory would be Darius singing Britney on Pop Idol, which doubled helpfully as my reason for falling into the coma.

Also, do not be caught out by trick questions like poor Gordon Jackson in The Great Escape. If anyone mentions Gary Barlow, laugh loudly, puff your cheeks out and go cross-eyed before intoning "And he was never heard of again."

But to the Facebook experience. At first it's a bit like being a new start in Minority Report with Tom Cruise. Pictures, words and invitations to join the Smurfs down at the Casino appear at random on the screen alongside adverts for haemorrhoids. The idea is that you then bat them around ineffectually like a dozy cat trying to catch a laser beam.

This is mostly done via use of the "Like" button which tells the Captain of Facebook that the passengers have at least one functioning digit. (At least we hope it's a digit.) I was under the impression that the "Like" button also delivered a short electric shock to the person who had posted that picture of Halloween pumpkin erotica, but it turns out that was just wishful thinking.

Sometimes a little box appears where people can chat with you and tell you all about their day, but personally I get enough of that at home, thanks.

In a way though, all that stuff is a sideshow because your friends are what really matter. In order to maximise your enjoyment of Facebook, you should categorise your friends. This helps you to keep all the weirdos that you are friends with from knowing anything about you.

You can use any categories you like, I started with "Snog, Marry, Avoid" but there was too much crossover between the three groups so I binned that one. I am currently using "Useful" and "No Use", which is working well.

Friends are the best bit about Facebook, apart from friends of friends which is even better. For in Facebook's house there are many mansions and they are all full of ex-boyfriends gone to seed and that slut who sat in the second row at sociology lectures and is now a TV evangelist.

In getting to know Facebook, it is important to understand that it is powered by an addictive mix of schadenfreude and sentiment. I don't understand how you can not find it fun to stare at your ex-schoolmates' wrinkles through a magnifying glass, before slapping your thigh in joy and ticking the "has not worn well" box on your spreadsheet. (Don't pretend you don't have one.)

I secretly rather like the dreadful old photos actually. You are less likely to cry over your lost youth when you realise you spent most of your thirties looking utterly hellish. Take the pics of me in that khaki duffle coat that I thought made me look like Melanie Blatt, when really I looked like a homeless person.

But leaving aside my dreadful narcissism for a moment, the photos are also just, well, nice I think. It's been great fun trawling through pictures of parties, dinners, days at the beach, christenings and weddings. Some of them I had missed, some of them I remember, some of them of course are happening as I type this.

I know the novelty hasn't worn off yet, but at the moment I'm rather basking in the collective Facebook experience, wandering serenely through its pages like Kate Winslet being reunited with her chums at the end of Titanic. I don't intend to use it as a way of making new friends, but as a way of keeping up with old ones, of enhancing the dusty memories of our days in the sun, I like it.

Thursday 13 October 2011

The Joys of Middle Age

Today is my birthday, so I am writing a birthday blog. I wrote a birthday blog last year (here it is) and have decided to make it an annual event, like Stephen Fry leaving Twitter.

I am 44 years old. So far, being 44 is jolly nice. I even like the number itself. I like its symmetrical elegance. Also I rather like the fact that, being half of 88, it is properly middle-aged. Poor old middle-age gets rather a bad press, most unfairly in my view, so I've decided to rectify that by promoting just some of its many joys.

Many middle-aged people bemoan the fact that you become invisible - especially to younger members of the opposite sex. This is undeniably true, but I have always found it to be a great advantage when shoplifting in Abercrombie and Fitch. So, y'know, swings and roundabouts.

I once heard a kid at a bus stop say " Primary 6 was the best year of my life. Apart from primary 7." Proof, if it were needed, that young people are rubbish at reminiscing. They just don't have the material. We have cremola foam, Raleigh choppers, "Poldark", the three day week, Wimpey Bars and punk. What do the young un's have? The Maastricht Treaty and combat trousers.

Probably the best known advantage of middle-age. Why only yesterday a workman passing by whistled loudly and shouted "Look at the wisdom on that!" At least I think he said wisdom. It might have been "arse" and he might have been pointing at the twenty year old blonde next to me. No matter, I think I've made my point.

The advantage of having been around a bit is that you can turn your hand to most things. Plus your girdle makes an excellent temporary fan belt when you break down on the motorway.

Inner Resources
Young people seem to need to be constantly entertained. They lack the inner resources of the middle-aged who can find contentment in themselves or at the very least in idly doodling whiskers and a tail onto the liver spot on the back of their hand.

The Element of Surprise
In the office I was one of those middle-aged working mums who sat in the corner in an ill-fitting suit from Next, typing like a maniac while picking lego out of my hair and whispering aggressively down the phone about mashed potato and ointment. What joy then to turn up at the office party in heels, lipstick and NASA engineered cleavage and regale the juniors with tales of being on the tour bus with Debbie Gibson, before drinking them under the table and cartwheeling off into the early dawn.

Of course, if I'm honest, middle-age is not all beer and skittles, though there's a fair amount of both involved. The onset of physical decrepitude isn't always a barrel of laughs, and the lightness of being that settles on us in moments of pure happiness can be ever more fleeting. But middle-age still has many joys, chief among them that you're not dead yet, for which I remain eternally grateful.

Sunday 9 October 2011

10 Things I Love

A while back I was tagged by the marvellous Betty Herbert, (@52Betty on Twitter) author of the equally marvellous blog, and now book, "The 52 Seductions", to share 10 things I love. So here they are...
Beaches (Not The Movie)
I grew up in a seaside village and I can't imagine not living within striking distance of the sea. I think I would get horribly claustrophobic. I love every kind of beach, sandy, rocky, grassy. I'm even rather fond of seaweed. I like to pop the mermaid's purses. My favourite beach is Saddell beach on the Kintyre Peninsula in Argyll. You can stay in little cottages right on the beach and, one day, I will.

My musical education began with propping a Thorn tape recorder next to the radio to tape the Top 40. Probably my first criminal act. To be honest, my musical tastes have never developed much past that. I might listen to classical music, but if it's pop I want to dance and if I want to dance, it's disco. Do I even mean disco? Sometimes I might mean Carolina Beach Music, or funk or soul. Anyway, I don't mean boys in skinny jeans and low cut t-shirts exposing their wee concave chests. Bless. I mean something like this...

When I was younger I had lots of hobbies. I used to do canoeing and gymnastics and play the violin. But the only one that's really lasted has been watching telly. Want to sit on your own and cry into your Chablis? Watch the telly! Want to get really irate and shout at the Prime Minister? Watch the telly! Want to see Michael Portillo in a green satin shirt? Watch the telly! This wondrous sliver of shimmering dreams. This electronic encyclopedia of emotion. This shining citadel of learning, flickering in the corner of our lives. I love it.

Bread and Butter
If I had to describe how happiness felt it would be the sensation of my teeth sinking into half an inch of butter on a thick doorstep of white freshly baked bread. I have a strange fantasy about sleeping in a bed made of bread. Can you imagine, cushioned on that pillowy softness, encased in the aroma of buttery crust. Oooh, I feel a bit peckish now...

Ladybird Children's Books
"Her shoes were so wet that the water was running in at the toes and out at the heels." If I close my eyes and conjure up the princess in "The Princess and the Pea", the picture in my mind's eye is never my own. It is the illustration from the Ladybird book of the fairy tale published in the late 1960's. They are the technicolour MGM musicals of children's illustrations: princesses in wasp waisted primrose yellow dresses, millers' sons in open necked shirts and tight breeches. I still have them and when I take them out and look at them I can almost taste the Creamola Foam.

Cushions and Shoes
I am calling this one thing under a notional heading of accessories. I love their infinite variety. If humans were not as wonderful as they are, someone would have invented the cushion and left it there; a bit of burlap sacking with some horsehair, Bob's your uncle. They'd have got as far as the hobnail boot and then gone to the pub. But they didn't. They took these mundane objects and looked beyond their function, they made them pretty and luxurious and funny and fetishistic and they don't half cheer me up some days.

I don't wake up every day and actively think "I LOVE DEMOCRACY!" but it's probably unlikely I'd be faffing around here thinking about shoes and cushions if it didn't exist. In my previous job I met elected members from Parliaments around the world, like the representatives from Oyo State in Nigeria, who had been besieged by gunmen in the Parliament shortly before their visit. They asked how politicians and officials were "made" to do things. Were they prosecuted? Were they put in jail? Well, we would say, it doesn't always work, but for the most part people just sort of, um, follow the rules. Boring, but also kind of magical really and certainly precious.

My Daughter
(and Everyone Else Who Knows Me, Or At Least The Ones I Like)
It's hard to say something here that won't make the non-parents throw up and the parents go "WE KNOW!", but I couldn't write this without including my daughter because she is the joy of my life and I adore her. Like millions before me it was a bit shocking to realise how much I loved my daughter, how fierce it is.

I love my friends and other family too and I don't have to wash their clothes for them, which is nice.

Large People Falling Over At Weddings

I don't mind a bit of witty banter but I'm really a slapstick merchant at heart. There's not much makes me laugh more than a sturdy middle aged man in tartan trews crashing full pelt into a trestle table. Unless it's a tented bridesmaid falling off a chair.

Friday 7 October 2011

The Secrets of Long Term Love

Two good friends of mine just got engaged and I am quite delighted for them. It is lovely when two friends get together and they are two lovely friends so the whole thing, basically, could not be lovelier.

I'm a bit of a softy at heart. I love weddings and try to be an exemplary guest. I agonise over gifts (or the price, certainly). I'm also one of those people who cries (especially if there is no free bar or late night buffet).

Sometimes I do worry though, that young couples are not entirely prepared for the reality of long term love. Of course, it is now quite common for couples to live together for a while before they marry, or have a civil partnership, or decide to commit in the long term. But there is a big difference between two or three years of fondue parties with fellow young solicitors and proper, down in the trenches, blood and guts, toe-nail clippings on the armrest, long term love.

So I have taken it upon myself to tell a few home truths. The first rule of long term love is that you have to discuss what is for tea EVERY SINGLE DAY FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. Reaching terms of agreement on beverages can also be a minefield. Particularly getting your partner to accept that placing the teabag in the cup the night before, "to save time in the morning", is an early sign of madness.

It is also true that it is difficult to keep the romance alive. Delicate whisps of underwear dancing like snowflakes on the washing line, are replaced by sturdy cotton items resembling dead moles on a fence. The courtesy of only breaking wind in the garden is abandoned, to be replaced by a lift of the cheek and a cursory flap of the Radio Times.

Bearing all of this in mind, I think it is best to approach long term love with low expectations. The key to this is to have a really crap wedding, or rather, have a great wedding but a really crap wedding night, since this best reflects later life when fun times are reserved for going out with your mates.

A friend played a blinder in the crap wedding night department. She and the groom had their small reception in their flat, the idea being that they would slope off to a swanky hotel in the wee small hours. In the end they both got hammered and couldn't face the journey.

My friend went to bed just as a food fight was breaking out and awoke some time later to find her husband climbing into bed, apparently coming down with something, so cold and clammy was his chest. But still, he also had a raging erection. The good news was that the cold and clammy chest was only a large slice of gammon stuck to his pecs, the bad news was that the erection turned out to be half a cucumber in his boxers. Shortly after, the door opened to reveal a sleepwalking male house guest who urinated on the bed.

I rate this as an excellent introduction to long term love, particularly if having children is on the agenda. For the horrors of secret nose-picking, or tights worn two days in a row, pale into insignificance when you enter the long term love landscape of parenthood.

For example, no-one tells you when you're exchanging rings that one day you will dress your concussed husband's head wound with a sanitary towel, before making him have disorientated sex with you, because you are ovulating. Or that he may be forced to take dictation for a shopping list that includes "nipple protectors" while you stand naked after your shower, blowdrying your episiotomy stitches.

I imagine there are people in long term relationships reading this "tutting" and getting ready to launch into a lecture about how to keep long term love "fresh" as if it were a smelly armpit you were forced to sniff on the tube.

I am not about to criticise them. I admire them, I really do. I am in awe of people who have date nights and won't let their wives see them in their curlers. I wish I were more like them, rather than being someone who shouts "OH, DRY YOUR EYES!" when my husband suggests that I might like to change out of my pyjamas in order to go to Homebase.

And yet, and yet, there is also something very special about allowing one other person in your life to see you very far from your best. I'm not cut from the same cloth as I was 20 years ago. Not emotionally, and certainly not physically. If we want to be loved for who we really are, then surely that must admit the possibility of still being desirable with a crumpled face in last night's make-up.

I'm not advocating making no effort for your nearest and dearest, it's a bit disrespectful to say the least. But I also believe that true love has tenderness at its heart, and that tenderness does not require perfection. Thank God.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Twitter: Why the Little Blue Bird is Good

I had a lovely day yesterday. I spent most of it with Celia Pedroso, a travel journalist and food writer from Lisbon. We drank coffee, walked up Arthur's Seat, ate a scrummy lunch and generally had a fine time.

Celia was put in touch with me by a mutual acquaintance, food writer and legendary Metro restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin. "Fascinating, but what is your point caller?" I hear you cry. Well, rather oddly, I have never actually met Marina. I only know her through Twitter where she tweets under the name @MarinaMetro.

And yet, there we were, Celia and I, two real life people chatting in the sunshine, brought together by a person I have only known as a series of 140 character tweets and a picture of a giant slug in horn-rimmed specs.

I used to attempt to explain the attraction of Twitter to non-Tweeters, but no longer. Now I simply hang a sign round my neck saying "I use Twitter so, yes, I am a moron." It's less painful and does not distract me from getting quietly slaughtered while the conversation moves onto bunions and how much to spend on cheese at Christmas.

The fact is Twitter is much like life. On Twitter there are good eggs, bad eggs, smelly eggs, clever eggs, sexy eggs, pompous eggs, an egg to suit every pocket really - as long as you're careful how you sit down. Also, just because the eggs are not actually in your pocket, do not presume that they will not one day end up in a delicious real life egg sandwich. Are you following this? Thought not. In which case, read on. Or not.

Being on Twitter is a Substitute for Living Life

An assumption often made by anti-Tweeters (let us call them "hostiles") is that relationships on Twitter are a substitute for bona-fide corporeal relationships.

Fact 1: Tweeting does not render one incapable of texting, or hiding from the neighbours like a proper normal.

Fact 2: I have friends in real life and I see and speak to them often. Sometimes even when, quite frankly, I really cannot be arsed.

Fact 3: A cursory glance at my timeline shows that, miraculously, people who tweet can do other things as well. They work, they go to the theatre, they run, they read, they cook wonderful food, they walk up hills, they swim in the ocean, they care for ill relatives, they help out at school. Their lives are as rich and diverse as anyone else's. Clearly there are exceptions, like Piers Morgan, but they are in the minority.

Twitter Friends Are Not Like Real Friends

Fact 4: I follow more than 600 people on Twitter and I'm not going to pretend that they are all bosom buddies. I am not about to invite the postman to dinner either, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have the odd exchange about the weather.

Fact 5: Some Twitter friends become real life friends. I know because I have drunk wine, eaten cake, danced and laughed with them. I had mentally tacked a large "No Vacancies" sign to the "new friendships" part of my life. Twitter brought back a bit of the freewheeling attitude to friendships that I had when I was younger, when I was quite happy to have half-cut partial strangers arrive at the door in order to watch Vic and Bob and share a slevery bottle of Irn Bru.

Fact 6: Sometimes, though perhaps rarely, you can develop a real friendship and fondness for people you have never met. I don't understand why people who think "84 Charing Cross Road" is charming and delightful refuse to believe that people can establish a genuine connection on Twitter.

People Only Talk About Rubbish Like What they have for Breakfast

Fact 7: Have you taken part in any real-life conversations of late? See my earlier point about bunions and cheese. I am as likely to talk crap in real life as I am on Twitter. In fact more likely because, like squeezing yourself into a tight party dress, you have to make a bit of an effort for 140 characters.

Fact 8: For lazy toe-rags like me Twitter is heaven sent. It is like having the zeitgeist elves visit while you are sleeping. Tweets I have favourited send me to wonderful photographs of Victorian London, obscure Northern Soul recordings, the full text of political speeches, recommendations for books and films, copies of research and inquiry reports. As well as sites where you can draw stick men and watch kitttens ride on tortoises.

I don't like everything about Twitter. There are times when a clash of "tone" makes it feel prettty uncomfortable - like going out for dinner and having the person next to you strip naked and sit on their lasagne, crying, while other diners are playing scrabble or trying to put a hat on a guinea pig.

There are plenty of things about Twitter that irritate the hell out of me. The playground spats, the pack mentality, the displays of aggression and snide remarks. But, let's face it, walk down Princes St on a Saturday and you're bound to bump into one or two total and utter gits.

Twitter can also be a bit exhausting. I think it may have been Greg Stekelman, aka @themanwhofell who said it's a bit like having an angry wasp in your brain. The knowledge that it's whirring away all day and all night, like a giant pedantic cocktail party can make it hard to switch off. But then, some people get addicted to Benylin.

Sometimes I see myself from the outside, staring at a never ending stream of tiny people on my phone and think "The whole thing's bonkers." But I don't ever think, as its critics do, that it is a barrier to "real" experience.

I've been thoroughly cheesed off and Twitter has lifted my mood, I've been happy as a clam and Twitter has made me happier. It has made me laugh, it has made me cry, it has patted me on the back and it has made me pull my socks up. Twitter is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but it's thought provoking and fun and I'm glad I found it.

Twitter is what you make it, and what makes it are the people. You know who you are and I'm glad to have met you.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Raising My Heckles

I just love heckling. I cannot tell you how much I love it. It's almost as good as the thrill you get when you buy a jam doughnut and find two angry wasps in the bag.

So imagine my delight when I went to see a comedian the other evening and got treated to some top notch heckling. Bon mots such as "Speak up!" "Not funny!" "Oi! You! Yeah, you! Ha!" kept the audience entranced, or at the very least, homicidal.

For if brevity is the soul of wit, these guys were really, really, really, reallly great. No, really, they really were, really good.

At times they were positively avant garde, dispensing with the tired tradition of heckling with words and critiquing the performance with atypical groupings of syllables and urgent grunting. Some heckles may even have been produced by body parts other than the vocal chords.

I do hope that if any of them ever get to have sex, their partner shouts out "BOOOORING!" just as they are hitting their stride.

Anyway, in honour of that fine body of men (oh yes, they were men) I have set out below some of the most momentous heckles in history.


Troglodyte 1: Man! Or rather, neanderthal man! A bolt of light came down from the sky and hit that twig and all of a sudden my little hairy tootsies are roasty toasty! Whoa! What's all that about?!? Tell you what, let's get more twigs and keep it going! Yay! This is like that time when me and the missus nearly fell in that volcano and...

Troglodyte 2 steps forward and pours water on the burning twig.

Troglodyte 1: I guess it did need more work.


St Francis of Assisi offers up a prayer to God.

St Francis: Lord make me an instrument of your peace; where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, ...

Unknown peasant: BALDY!

St Francis : Pardon? Oh, I like that actually.


Leonardo Da Vinci holds forth to a group of students on his many diverse and marvellous achievements in art, design, engineering, cartography. Suddenly, a passing washer woman cries:


(Some records attribute this to a member of the audience in the Glasgow Apollo during a Roy Castle show, but true to the spirit of the piece, let us not be troubled by the facts .)


The opening night of Hamlet at the Globe Theatre.

Hamlet: To be or not to be, that is the question.

Unknown peasant: Make your mind up, son.


Abraham Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg address.

Lincoln: Four score and seven years ago...

Unknown pedant: Oi! Big nose! "Four score and seven?" What's wrong with "87?"

Lincoln: ...our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, ...

Unknown pedant: Ooh, "brought forth"! Lah de dah! What's wrong with "made"!? Bloody left wing intelligentsia! Plain English too good for ya?!

Lincoln: ...conceived in liberty


Lincoln: ... One nation, under a groove. Er, um, sheesh, I've lost my place now...


(The unknown pedant subsequently became a successful political blogger.)

I could go on. (Please don't - Ed) Instead I will give you the words of Teddy Roosevelt.

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

I'm not sure I'd condemn all critics quite as harshly as President Roosevelt. Intelligent criticism is an essential componment in public discourse and the evolution of art forms. Even some hecklers are quite funny. Just not the ones I heard the other night. And to those of you who disagree, I would simply say, "LOOOOSERS!".

Tuesday 19 July 2011


Today the great and the not so good who presided over the shocking saga of phone hacking at the News of the World will appear before a committee of MPs to be held to account. (Or at least those not under arrest will.)

As a piece of political theatre no doubt it will be gripping. It may even provide some of the answers to important questions about who knew what and when.

But it cannot hope to address the fundamental issues raised by this scandal, not least because of the extent to which politicians have been made complicit by their failure to act. So there will be the inquiries and possibly, perhaps probably, the prosecutions.

As I write this I am on holiday abroad, not on-line much and therefore very much out of the loop. Muffled cries of more resignations and arrests have filtered through, but the allegations of wrongdoing seem essentially unchanged. As appalling as the story has been, in recent days there has been a sense of stasis, of further revelations going over old ground. There may be little more that can usefully be said at this point.

And yet I can’t stop thinking about it. Why? What is it about this story that makes me keep turning it over in my head? I keep on worrying at it, trying to make sense of it. Conflicts still rage around the globe, nations teeter on the brink of bankruptcy. A few hacked messages, the attempted smash and grab of a politician’s bank details, seem pretty small beer by comparison.

So why do I care so much? Is it the ruthless power of a media dynasty? The household names who cried foul but were deemed fair game? The politicians who raged and wept in private but in public kissed their tormentors and wished them well?

I think it is because it has shaken my faith in the system. It has made me question whether I really know the country I have lived in all my life. I am aware this sounds rather melodramatic. Maybe it is. Maybe I’m a bit hysterical; maybe not.

I wrote recently about democracy, about the fact that I worked for a long time in the Scottish Parliament and that, during meetings with politicians from emerging democracies, I felt very lucky that I happened to live here and now, in a political system where, basically, those in charge follow the rules. I felt lucky to live in a country with a delicate system of checks and balances, evolved and refined over many decades, which protects us from corruption and power without responsibility. But, in relation to hacking, that system failed.

I am reminded of the received wisdom about great disasters. In essence, "man-made” disasters occur when not one but several mechanisms fail simultaneously. We have been failed by not one, but three of our most important institutions: an elected parliament accountable to the people, a free press, and an independent police force. If this wrongdoing had not been exposed, who knows how much further we would have drifted toward catastrophic democratic failure.

Again my melodrama detector is flickering. But it is difficult to overstate the seriousness of what has been uncovered. The unscrupulous behaviour of some journalists on one newspaper, or even a number of newspapers, is only the beginning. The serious breach of trust is that, as evidence of that behaviour began to emerge, politicians failed to act decisively, the police failed to investigate fully, the wider press failed to report. The refined system of checks and balances did not work, more than that, barely seemed to exist.

But we have been fortunate. We have been fortunate to have practitioners in these institutions who were not persuaded to let questions lie unanswered. The story may never have seen the light of day if not for the exemplary journalism of Nick Davies and The Guardian. MPs such as Tom Watson, Chris Bryant and Norman Fowler continued to campaign on these issues when no-one wanted to listen.

But overall we cannot escape the fact that we have been let down. So how on earth did we get here?

The story of how sections of the press have increasingly felt an entitlement to private information is a whole other blog in itself. Suffice to say that the “they were asking for it defence” most recently expounded by the former News of the World journalist and moral amoeba Paul McMullan, is wearing pretty thin, not least because many of the victims of hacking were not celebrities or public figures. (Though frankly, I thought hacking was a pretty big deal even when it was starlets, and Max Clifford because rest assured, if they'll do it to the rich and famous, they'll do it to you.)

As for the politicians, I am glad they have acknowledged that things had got too cosy by half with the fourth estate.This is the ray of hope to have emerged in these murky times. If the main parties stand together, this is the best chance they will have had in many years to free themselves from their self imposed servitude.

For while there may have been reasons for politicians' complicity, there was no justification. If you put yourself forward for high public office we have a right to expect you to make brave moral choices. We certainly have a right to expect you to confront the abuse of power even where it might be held against your party or you personally. The alternative is a whole political class in hock to the media barons.

As for the Met police, their behaviour has in some ways troubled me most of all. Incompetence? Poor judgement? Cover-up? Corruption? I'm not loving any of those as explanations, to be honest. When we start to doubt the willingness of the police to investigate without fear or favour we really are in serious trouble.

So where do we go from here? Tougher regulation of the press is surely unavoidable. The PCC has been overseeing this essential national industry like the management committee of a private members club. That cannot continue. But we must remember that good journalists got us out of this hole when elected members, regulators and police were missing in inaction. We need a regulatory system that encourages and protects the kind of reporting undertaken by The Guardian on this story, while curbing the worst excesses of intrusion and abuse.

I don't accept that tougher regulation and press freedom are mutually exclusive. I have never believed that a regulatory and wider legal framework which protects legitimate private information and press freedom is beyond the wit of legislators. There are other areas of law, (medicine for example) which throw up difficult questions of competing rights, freedoms and responsibilities.

Frankly the issue, while complex, is not as impossible to resolve as some journalists would have as believe. In that respect we must remember that the media, as the messenger, is also the subject of the debate. This is quite unique. No other profession enjoys the privileged position of directly arguing its own case in the court of public opinion.

Of course we must listen to the views of the press on how their industry should be regulated. Their experience and insight is essential. But sometimes insight is gained at the expense of perspective and objectivity.

Stronger regulation does not have to mean a move away from self regulation. There are analagous examples such as the way in which doctors are “policed” by the General Medical Council which could be followed. Why can a body of (former) journalists and lay people could not be given the power to impose large fines and also decide that newspaper executives and editors may not be fit to hold senior positions?

I care passionately about the quality of the press in this country. It's not only the banks that are too important to fail. A strong and vocal press should be our national conscience, asking questions others would rather ignore, calling out bad decisions, forcing the body politic to acknowledge its failings.

Press, politicians, regulators, police, we need them all to act in the public interest, because the public interest is what matters.

Thursday 30 June 2011

Transformative Teaching or Why We Really Are All in this Together

Teachers and teaching have been in the news a fair bit of late. Although that's not strictly true because there has been very little discussion of teaching itself. The heated debate has been mostly about pensions and holidays. Subjects dear to all our hearts of course and therefore understandably likely to stir strong emotions. Thank God they're not also talking about making gherkins mandatory in cheeseburgers or Twitter might spontaneously combust.

All this chat about teaching, (and the fact that tomorrow is the end of term here in Scotland so we are doing all that end of term stuff like concerts, presents for the teachers, drinking neat martini and smoking cocktail Sobranie in the loos,) sorry, where were we? Oh yes, all the chat about teaching has made me think about my own teachers. Recently someone also asked me if I had a favourite teacher.

The truth is, not really. I remember lots of teachers, but I'm not sure that I'd pick one out as a favourite. I remember Mr Anderson who ate his chocolate biscuits before his sandwiches, I remember Mrs Bailey with the crazy beehive and hairy legs, I remember Mr Roger who ran up and down in front of our desks pretending to be a sperm. I remember Mr Eastbury who came in one day rather half-cut and sat cross-legged on his desk; and Mrs Paterson who played the tape of an "O" Grade German student who, in his oral exam, said everything in English but with a German accent and who called the characters in the story Fritz and Gretel.

There are a couple who stand out from the crowd though. One was Mr Stevenson who took us for English. He looked a bit like Gimli from the Lord of the Rings, if Gimli had worn Hush Puppies. He read aloud and acted the parts and fulminated loudly if we didn't like the things he liked. It was in his class that I read "A High Wind in Jamaica" and "The Great Gatsby" for the first time. He also gave me the worst mark I ever received for a creative writing piece.

It was all about a clever girl who worked as a secretary in order to support her ailing mother. It was mostly a description of her outfits, with a bit of romance chucked in. It was basically the literary love child of The Bunty and "Scruples". He gave me a "D" and wrote on it something like "This is very boring. You are better than this." I think all of those things explain why I might have been a little bit in love with him.

Then there was Mrs Rochester a music teacher who joined in my fifth year and took over the choir. She was very tall and theatrical and she conducted like her life depended on it. The senior choir grew from 20 pupils or so to over 100. They could barely fit us all on the stage. We sang carols and old songs from musicals, but with her we also sang Gilbert and Sullivan pieces and "Worthy is the Lamb". Put simply, she had ambition for us. She therefore also expected more of us than the other choir masters had done. (Though any pupil could join.)

Neither of these teachers changed my life. Frankly I came from a nice middle class home and was reasonably bright and didn't really need my life changing. But they both taught me very well. They had a passion for their subject which lit the embers of enthusiasm which lurk in even the most painfully cool and self-conscious adolescent breast.

One of the many unfortunate things about the nature of the debate surrounding today's action is that discussion of teaching, of the transformative power of a good teacher has been squeezed out. I am not belittling the importance of the issues under discussion. Teachers have every right to fight for a decent pension. I do not expect them to do it simply for the love it. They deserve fair recompense like the rest of us.

They derserve fair recompense because the job they do is very important. For parents what could be more important than the education and social development of your child? For non- parents what could be more important than nurturing the citizens of the future?

I think we all need to be honest about both the burdens and benefits of our jobs (if we have one). Many of my friends and members of my family are teachers. They work hard in a stressful and important job for a salary that could not (except in some very rare cases) be called vast.

Some teachers are wonderful and work above and beyond the call of duty. Some are not that great. My husband works in education and I know how wearisome it is to be needled about your holidays by a lawyer who earns four times what he does. But, having shared the long summer holidays with my husband for the first time these past two years, I also know the rare delight of having that "breathing" space.

I recently met two young women who, despite having worked full time for their employer for two years, received 8 paid days holiday a year because they were retained on 12 hour a week contracts. I am categorically not espousing that as the way forward. I was shocked and angered by it and saddened by their acceptance of it.

I don't think a fairer deal for them will be the result if teachers' pensions are eroded. But I do understand why they might feel resentful and how preying on such feelings drives a divide and rule philosphy which is to the detriment of society as a whole.

Teachers are not, and do not claim to be, martyrs to the cause of our children's future. Neither are they indolent parasites. MPs are not all avaricious monsters, most journalists do not routinely tell lies for a living, even some bankers are quite nice people.

Basically, let's remember, we really are all in this together.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Voter Apathy? Vote Yes 2 AV

Tomorrow Scots will go the polls to choose the next Scottish Government. In doing so we will use a form of proportional representation, a system which aims to ensure that the number of Parliamentary seats each party wins better reflects their support in the country.

We've done it now since 1999 and no single party has ever had an outright majority in the Scottish Parliament. Miraculously the sky has not fallen in, a plague of locusts has not descended upon the land and Tunnocks tea cakes remain as delicious as ever.

Why do I bring this up now, you yawn?

Because, as you jolly well know, tomorrow Scots, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, will also go to the polls to vote in the referendum on whether to change our voting system, from "first past the post" to the alternative vote or AV; and the experience of electing the devolved administrations shows that it is possible to introduce electoral reform without inducing a national nervous collapse.

AV is not a proportional system. More's the pity in my opinion. (If you want to know more about AV you can read all about it on the Electoral Reform Society's website.) But at the moment it's the only bum numbingly dull electoral systems debate in town. For truthfully, most folk would rather be forced to stir a pot of boiling tripe non-stop for 24 hours while listening to the collected speeches of Nadine Dorries, than discuss electoral systems.

And the doomsday scenario for the Yes 2 Av camp is that this apathy, coupled with fear of the unknown, will see the campaign for change hit the buffers. But actually those of us suffering from voter apathy are the very people who should be voting yes 2 AV.

Trust in politicians seems to be permanently at an all-time low. People are tired of "Punch and Judy" politics. The electorate wants to see fresh new faces and a new approach in Parliament, not the same old party hacks.

Well frankly you can't have that and first past the post. First past the post is all about the old two party hegemony. That's what it's designed for. That's when it works best. If you want to see a new kind of politics, why vote to keep first past the post? It's marching for change in concrete wellies.

The truth is systems can only deliver so much. Certainly that's true of AV which is not the fundamental change that many reformers are looking for. Much relies on changing the culture of politics and the behaviour of politicians, and indeed political reporting, which traditionally rewards those who land political punches rather than build bridges.

Trying to create a new politics on the foundation of first past the post is like grafting a pig's ear onto a mouse's back - entirely alien to the host body.

AV is not perfect. No electoral system is. It will not right all the wrongs of the current political system. But if we say no we are resigning ourselves to more of the same for longer than I can bear to imagine. I'll be voting yes for positive reasons. But even if you're fed up and tired and bored and can't be bothered. In fact especially if that's how you feel, if you're overcome with apathy, why not vote Yes 2 AV?

Sunday 27 March 2011

A Real Life Bucket List

This week has been glorious, weather wise. Sunshine, cool breeze, fat white clouds and blue skies. Spring sprang this week and, for me, this changing of the seasons heralds the arrival of a new year more meaningfully than the distant chimes of Big Ben at midnight.

So perhaps this is the time to make some resolutions. And why not think big? Why not go the whole hog and compile the resolutions of a lifetime? The things I want to do before I roll over, turn up my toes and start pushing up daisies.

But why do so many of these so-called "bucket" lists dwell on "dreams" that don't often trouble us on a day to day basis? Do people really wake each day and think "Oh rats! Another day without fulfilling my lifelong dream of swimming with dolphins/going hot air ballooning/baking the world's largest battenberg." I don't. My real life dreams, dreamt on a daily basis, are more likely to be about having a built in barbecue or upper arms like Jennifer Aniston. So, truthfully, the list of things I want to do before I die, goes like this:

1. Make a very great deal of money

2. Win "Strictly Come Dancing"

3. Wake up one morning with neat, finely turned ankles

4. Be interviewed by Michael Parkinson ("Yes, Michael, it's all happened very fast...")

5. Amass a museum quality collection of antique jewellery (may count as a subset of 1.)

6. Wear matching underwear every day

7. Win an Oscar

8. Own a utility room

9. Win the X Factor

10. Become an eminent art historian

11. Go out for dinner in a white silk shirt without spilling anything on it.

Am I reaching for the stars here? I'll let you know.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Boys and Girls and How to be Best Friends

Tonight I will be helping out at the Primary 5, 6 and 7 disco. This involves doling out juice and crisps and generally skulking about waiting for an opportunity to be embarrassing.

I have helped at discos before and it's always highly entertaining, not least because of the opportunity to analyse the behaviours of the different sexes. Girls spend a lot of time talking to each other behind their hands and the boys mostly slide about on their knees.

Men and women, boys and girls. Nature versus nurture. Skipping stones or shell collecting. How many words, how many prayers, how many sleepless nights of tortured thought have been devoted to unpicking the intricacies of the attachment between men and women and how to sustain it?

A few years ago I was lucky enough to witness a brief exchange between some children of my acquaintance which told me everything I needed to know. (Names have been changed to protect the innocents.)

The scene: A holiday cottage. Three families are staying there over Christmas. The children have known each other since they were very small, but see each other rarely. Two girls of about five are seated in companionable silence at the kitchen table, drawing, cutting out etc. Then;

Alice: We are really good friends aren't we Jane?

Jane: Yes Alice. You are my best friend. Are you my best friend?

Alice: Yes Jane. We are very best friends. Best friends in the world.

Jane: Yes. We are such good friends people think we are sisters don't they?

Alice: Yes! We like all the same things and we play together all the time don't we?

Jane. Yes. We do. And that is why we are best friends.

Alice: Yes:

The following day Alice and a little boy, also about five, are sitting at the kitchen table in companionable silence drawing, cutting out etc. Then:

Alice: We are really good friends, arent' we John?

John: Eh?

Alice: We are best friends.

John: leaning away from Alice and looking spooked, "Whaaaaaaat!?!"

Alice: We are best friends. We are like brother and sister.

John: Oh, MAN.

John pushes his chair away and gets down from the table and goes to the sitting room.

Alice: Oh.

A grown-up suggests Alice take some sweets through to John and that they watch "The Incredibles" together.

Five minutes later, John and Alice sit together watching "The Incredibles". They laugh together and occasionally comment on the action. When it is finished John jumps up:

John: Alice, do you want to come upstairs and see my GoGos? I've got MILLIONS.

Alice: Sure.

They head upstairs. John can be heard excitedly telling Alice about his GoGo collection and the special bag he has for them. Alice is laughing.

And there you have it. Putting it into practice is, of course, another matter.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Porn Again: An Innocent At The Home Office

The current edition of the Radio Times carries an interview with former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to promote her forthcoming Radio 5 Live programme on porn. In it she talks about the scandal which erupted when it was revealed that she had claimed for pay-per-view porn watched by her husband.

It's fascinating stuff. But there is one disclosure in particular which brought me up short. The article states:

"...Jacqui Smith's most startling revelation is that she had no idea porn was so widely available on line. "I thought the attraction of porn was that it's illicit: you go into a private shop to buy a DVD. But what the Internet has done is to open up free, hard pornography to anybody of any age. I found that quite shocking.""

Gosh. What I find quite shocking is that a former Home Secretary was apparently unaware of the Internet's function as a giant porn machine.

What other miracles of the modern world might Ms. Smith be unfamiliar with? Squeezy bottles of tomato sauce? Pentapeptide skin technology? The horseless carriage? It does make one wonder how the conversation went when news of her husband's indiscretion was brought to her attention .... *screen goes wavy*

INT: The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, is seated at the desk, her head in her hands. She sighs, turns, picks up a small stick and loudly beats a gong positioned behind her chair. Almost immediately the door opens and two men enter. They are Sir Farquhar Monro, Permanent Secretary of the Department and the Minister's PS Bernard Sillitoe.

Sir F: You rang Minister?

BS: (Pointing gingerly at the desk.) You do remember Minister, you have the buzzer?

JS: Oh for the love of God Bernard! I've told you, I've no truck with the damn thing. It's just something else is going to break down on you. Now sit, please. I'm afraid we, I, have a situation.

Sir F: Is it, by any chance Minister, a matter relating to your husband and what one's aide de camp might refer to as "gentleman's entertainment"?

JS. Good God. Yes. How did you know?

Sir F: Ah, the jungle drums Minister, the jungle drums.

JS: For Christ's sake Farquhar! I may not be into Bebo and whatnot but surely we can use a bloody telephone!

Sir F: Ah yes, figure of speech Minister. I merely meant that such news tends to travel fast.

JS. Oh. Right. Well you probably know I've mistakenly claimed for some er, entertainment through pay-per-view. God knows how that works. Maybe it's a collector's thing like in the Sunday supplements. You know, where you buy one DVD and then you get a set in a ring binder. And the magazine comes with it. I got a very good offer on Little House on the Prairie.

Sir F: I'm sorry Minister, I don't follow.

JS: Pay-per-view Farquhar! They said he got it pay-per-view! You must pay per DVD you view! Or for every peek through one of those little holes in the wall, or something. I thought you were a man of the world!

Sir F: Ahem. I see. No Minister, pay per view refers to a service offered by satellite and digital broadcasters where one pays to view a particular, er, item on the television.

JS: What!? You can get a porno on the telly?! But that's ludicrous!

BS; Well, indeed Minister, given what you can get on-line for free, and with a bit of forethought not even your mother would know what you'd been looking at especially not if you...

Sir F: (Hastily) Yes, thank-you Bernard. Ah, Minister, I must inform you that we men about town, we blades, we tomcats, as it were, are no longer restricted to a fly blown Penthouse wedged under the tennis club hut. No, no, these days most pornography is viewed via the Internet.

JS. Oh don't be ridiculous Farquhar. The Internet is for terrorists and swimming hamsters and that sort of thing.

Sir F: That may be Minister, but I can assure you that if you have an interest in erm, carnal matters, the Internet is the best thing since sliced bread.

JS: What do you mean sliced bread?

Sir F: (Starting to look really quite concerned.) Again it is a figure of speech Minister. Used to denote a breakthrough, a user friendly innovation akin to the introduction of ready sliced bread.

JS: I'm not familiar. I always buy a nice cottage loaf.

A silence descends. Sir F and Bernard are at a loss.

JS: (Sadly) I've never understood what people see in these films anyway.

Sir F: Well, they can be a boon to those who live a lonely existence Minister.

JS: No I mean I don't know what they can see. How do they know what's going on when it's in the dark? Even if you had your shorty nightie on, you're under the covers two minutes in.

Sir F: Ah. I think Minister the makers of such entertainment are perhaps economical with the actualite when it comes to the depiction of..., of..., an act of love. It is likely, for example, to be unnaturally well lit.

JS: (Wringing her hands) Stop! Please! I have no desire to look into the mouth of the beast!

Sir F: (Gently) Yes Minister. This is all most trying for you. We must of course issue a statement as a matter of urgency..

JS: Of course, of course. (Checking her watch) The girls in the typing pool will be keen to catch a tram before nightfall.

BS: Actually Minister, I may have mentioned we no longer have a typ...

Sir F: Yes Bernard, we must not become mired in inconsequential detail at this most difficult and sensitive juncture.

JS: Thank you Farquhar. You have been very kind. Now I must fix myself up a bit before I face the press. (Thoughtfully..) Perhaps I should give an interview to the Manchester Guardian, they've always been very supportive... I shall plug in my Carmen rollers and be with you in a jiffy...

BS: I'm not sure if you're aware Minister but if it's big hair with a salon finish you're looking for the Babyliss Big Hair is getting a very good press at the moment...

Sir F: Yes. Thank-you Bernard. Now about those expenses for the Heads of Department strategy weekend, I think it might be best if the claims are sent direct to me....


Wednesday 23 February 2011

Food Perversion That's A Real Turn Off

Today I mentioned on Twitter that I had eaten banana on toast. I am sorry to bring this up, particularly because it will confirm the prejudices of those who think that Twitter is a stream of inanities such as "Just had banana on toast.", or "Off 2 work! LOL!!" or "Cutting up dead bodies is harder than you think." But in the end the need to share my story with the world appears to have gotten the better of me, so here we are.

My tale of banana on toast got quite a reaction I can tell you. Very soon literally* scores** of tweeters were sharing their banana on toast experiences. And there I was at the epicentre of it, like Nigel Slater at a greasy hair convention.

I'd like to be able to say that it was heartwarming and made me go all fuzzy inside, like when I see James McAvoy's forearms, but the truth is I was left rather disturbed by the whole thing. Why? Because of what it revealed about my fellow tweeters' eating habits.

For example, one person responded that they hoped I had put sugar on it. Sugar. On banana on toast. Er, yeah. Great idea. Why not go the whole hog and sprinkle it with DIAMONDS?!

This got me thinking about Great Food Perversions of Our Time. Not obvious perversions like a daylight kebab. No, something much darker which, once discovered, cannot be wished away.

You might be rubbing along quite nicely with some new acquaintance, discovering a shared love of the Doobie Brothers and candlewick dressing gowns, when they mention casually that they put garlic in their carbonara. There's just no coming back from that is there?

Growing up in Scotland the greatest barometer of food perversion was mince, for no two Mums' minces ever taste the same. It is also a truth universally acknowledged that one Mum's mince is another child's nightmare. It is the epicurean equivalent of the "smelly lobby"; that strange smell of "otherness" that hovers on the landings of certain houses not your own and enables you to experience anew the intoxicating, familiar scent of home.

For a child missing home, different foods only add to the heartache. When my Mum was in hospital having my little brother, my elder brother and I were farmed out to neighbours who, very kindly, gave us our tea. I remember well the look of anxious distress in my brother's eyes when we were given spaghetti hoops on toast. " This is all very well, " he whispered, "but where is the meal?"

It was an important milestone in our young lives to realise that not everyone ate oxtail stew with prunes on a regular basis.

I leave you with some of the food perversions which have made a lasting impact on me. I'd love to hear about yours.

When Sweet Turns Sour
Inappropriate sugaring looms large in my food perversions. Sugar on bananas on toast we have already discussed. Sugar on french toast (or "eggy bread" if you must) is another. I am not averse to french toast with, say, a caramelised pear or a wee bit of chocolate sauce, but a naked sprinkle of sugar is prime perversion.

Likewise of course sugar in porridge. If God had wanted you to put sugar in porridge he wouldn't have invented Ricicles.

Tommy Sauce; The Rules
Tomato sauce is acceptable thusly: on burgers, with chips and in macaroni cheese. That's your lot. Tommy Sauce particularly has no place near an egg of any description.

A Has-Bean Friend
I once went on a cottage holiday in the far north west of Scotland with a group of lifelong friends. Those of you who have done this will know that there is nowhere to hide a culinary peccadillo. I could only watch with horror as a woman I had known all my life tipped a tin of baked beans into, yes, you've guessed it, the mince. To say that it caused a rift would be something of an understatement.

Scotch Broth: Barley Making Sense
Scotch Broth without barley is like making love without hot buttered toast. I rest my case.

*by literally I mean not at all literally
**by scores I mean "one or two"

Wednesday 9 February 2011


For some reason my first kiss popped into my head today.

It wasn't like first kisses in the movies which happen at the Prom, or on the bleachers bathed in golden twilight. I didn't have a crush on the boy. He didn't pass me notes in class or carry my books home.

He was German and was on holiday in the little seaside town I grew up in. I think I was 13, maybe 14. We had gone to the beach, my friends and I, because someone said there were German lads staying in the Church of Scotland holiday home. This would not have been my idea. I wasn't interested in boys. (I wasn't interested in girls either). I had a proper crush on Paul Newman after watching "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and it was pretty hard to compete with that, to be honest.

I found my friends' endless discussion of boys mind numbingly tedious. I thought it was phoney and idiotic. I just didn't get it. I always wanted to say "No, he's not looking at you. Now can we go for chips?" But I didn't because I was a coward and I knew that the path of truth would lead to long lunch hours on my own at the social suicide end of the tennis courts.

Anyway, it was just as well I wasn't interested in boys because they weren't much interested in me. I had long brown hair in plaits, wore vests, played the violin and looked about 11. Let's put it this way, I was no Julie Wallace. (She became an air hostess.)

So it was all the more perplexing when we arrived at the beach and found the German boys and one of them was interested in me. I can't remember how this became apparent but it did. I don't' remember his name. I know I didn't fancy him and was frankly terrified because he was 15 or 16 and was wearing clogs.

After my friends got over their astonishment, they quickly made it their business to steamroller my increasingly desperate objections and force me at hissing point into a walk along the cliff top path with clog boy.

We walked along in silence. I don't remember how good his English was, but my German, gleaned from my brother's "Battle" comics, consisted mainly of "Raus!" and "Schnell!" which my nascent sense of diplomacy told me was probably best avoided.

We stopped at the end of the path. Panic and embarrassment swelled in my vest clad chest as I sensed that the time was nigh. I remember closing my eyes and thinking "Okay. Let's get this over with." I think I stopped just shy of holding my nose.

And then he kissed me. Who knows what it was like really? In my memory it has become a classic teenage teeth grinding nightmare, like pressing your lips against the boring machine that dug the Channel Tunnel. I do remember that he smoked and that the taste of stale, tarry cigarettes was overwhelming.

A few minutes later it was over. I said goodbye and ran home, the taste of ashes in my mouth.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

How to Have the Best Burns Night Ever, Eh No?

Today's the proud day when the eyes of the world are upon my own wee home country of Scotchland. Och Aye and, let us not forget, the noo. All over the globe men, women and transgender folk are gathering round their i-pads to celebrate the birth/death/life (Note to research: check that will you? I've got cocktails at six, then Brahms at the Usher Hall) of our greatest shagger and poet/lyricist.

Yes, it's Marti Pellow Night! When citizens of the greatest small non-sovereign nation north of and attached to England join together to take heroin and sing "Ilikekickinginthegutter and-a Wishin' Ah Wiz Lucky", while mincin' aboot like they've goat a bad case o' piles.

But jings! Ah'm huvin ye's oan, so ah am! Marti Pellow night's no' till the morra right enuff, eh no? Tonight is of course Burns Night when, just fur a wee change, "supper" consists of oatmeal and the heart and lungs of lamb chopped and nestled in the stomach of a sheep, then boiled for 8 hours. I can see youse ur thinkin' "Oh, fur a nice bowl of Special K and a wee Blue Riband!" eh?

Noo, noo, dinnae get your sporran up yer erchie, sure the haggis n' neeps n'tatties is pure delish and us lot eat it a' year roon' (Ed: Good Christ, can you imagine?!)

But it has come to our attention here at The Absurdist Tartan Towers that a guid wheen o' folk dinnae ken how to put oan a Burns Supper! Michty! Whit would Andrew O'Hagan say? So, we've goat the gither to bring youse the pure definitive guide to the best and brawest Burns Night EVER!

The Food

Of course the traditional and aforementioned haggis (or in the plural haggisarium) is the centrepiece of the feast. Remember that it must be de-boned and thoroughly plucked before serving. Ask your local specialist Gaelic butcher to do this for you. Next the neep (or neeps, plural). Neep, more commonly known as turnip or "boak", is an orange root vegetable which should be vigorously boiled until it achieves the consistency of lumpy wet cardboard. You can smother it with butter and salt to bring out/disguise the flavour, but where's the fun in that? Finally, champit tatties which even youse eejits fae doon south surely cannae balls up.

Everything must be served either piping, PIPING, hot so that it sticks to the roof of your mouth, scarring the tender flesh thereof quite hideously, or, stone cold.

The Speeches

The most celebrated part of Burns Night where the works of the Great Brad (short for Bradley, Burns' middle name, not many people know that...) are given voice and life, and have been passed down through the generations like a peculiar genetic disorder.

Address to the Haggis
First The Address to the Haggis when a portly gentleman with a sizeable beer gut must bring on a minor stroke by bellowing "Fair fa' your honest sonsie face, Great Chieftain O' the Puddin Race" at the guests before stabbing the haggis, or haggisariearium if it's a large gathering, in the buttocks until blood is drawn or until the haggis concedes defeat. You can place a photo of First Minister Alex Salmond on the haggis if you wish, and if that is not freely available a picture of look-a-like X Factor contender Wagner will do just as well.

After the haggis has been disemboweled, the sheep's stomach casing is placed on the head while the assembled company sing "I Love a cookie, A Co-Operative cookie, You can tell it's Co-Operative by the smell. " (It is of course essential to correctly pronounce Co-operative, as "CO-PER-AY-TIVE"; or the thing doesnae scan and you will sound like a numpty.)

Toast to The Lassies
It's now time for a toast to the lassies. This is the point at which Andy Gray and Richard Keys denigrate the ladies present, ridiculing the notion that there were ever any great woman poets, ending with the famous line, "Emily Dickinson? Do me a favour love."

Response to the Toast to the Lassies
The women then respond to the toast either by giggling, feeling Andy's biceps and offering to give him his favourite fish tea, or by punching him to the ground, depending on whether or not the event is being held in the 21st century.

Finally all guests must stand and shout "Weel Done Cutty Sark!" while pulling the pony tail of the person to their left and sooking a Lee's macaroon bar.

And so, with the formal part of the ceremonies over, the company can now let their kilts oot and get on with the serious business of getting hammered on Scotmid blended whisky.

You do have some leeway in terms of entertainment for this final part of the evening. Old favourites include a screening of "An Audience with Billy Connolly", burning an effigy of Thatcher or a classic cabaret with Lulu belting out Deacon Blue's "Dignity" from atop a giant Tunnock's Tea Cake.

And so, as the evening draws to a close, all that remains to be done is join in one last rousing chorus of that great romantic ballad, "Stop Your Tickling Jock" and to take pride in this great and forward looking nation of ours, soon to have its very own digital TV channel if somebody would only stump up the readies.