How do you Watch?

My maternal grandmother measured around four foot six inches in height and looked about the same distance in width. She was a complex character, at once merry and childlike but also prone to emotional outbursts. As a young child I adored her and loved nothing more than to snuggle up in her bed [once my austere, child-hating grandfather was up] listening to her nonsense rhymes and the funny stories that caused her to laugh with an infectious guffaw.

She ate an appalling diet of cream cakes, sweets and puddings, never moved unless she had to and lived to a ripe old age of ninety-eight.

She was also addicted to television, watching it for as many hours as it aired, which in those days was not twenty-four/seven but test card to close-down, when the screen would diminish into a tiny dot and disappear. She loved to sit on the sofa munching her way through a bag of sweets and watch whatever was on, distracted only by the sound of an approaching ice-cream van tinkling its jolly, summoning tune, at which she’d reach for her bag, withdraw a note and send one of us out to get a round in.

Spending time with my grandparents became trickier as I got older. The nonsense rhymes lost their appeal along with the long sessions of lolling on the sofa watching endless TV. One of her favourite programmes was ‘Peyton Place’, an American soap opera of the sixties which kick-started the careers of such actors as Ryan O’Neal and Mia Farrow. We children were not allowed to touch the TV buttons, on pain of the wrath of my grandfather, who also considered that the court drama ‘Perry Mason’ was too ‘deep’ for us.

During stays longer than a couple of days I’d feel an urgent need to get out and away from the endless hours of television, although the soulless estate the claustrophobic bungalow occupied was not over-conducive to walking. I’d wander the identical streets and stare into the windows of the shops in a small row called ‘The Cut’. At last, in an area of wasteland near to the estate I discovered a diversion that would take me as near to heaven as a pony-mad child could be: a riding stables. Thereafter I spent all my pocket money riding and any other time cleaning tack, mucking out and volunteering my services.

Grandma would be astonished to see how many channels there are on TV now and even more amazed at the ways we can view; recorded, I-player, Netflix and the rest. But what astonishes me is that despite the plethora of footage of one sort or another, how little there is that is worth devoting any time to. Since we returned from travel we’ve watched a so-so detective serial, some historical drama and the news. We almost never watch anything on commercial channels except for the channel 4 news.

The future of TV is even more uncertain as the young turn away in favour of alternative screens, gaming and interactive viewing. So It’s unlikely I’ll follow in my grandmother’s footsteps, few as they were!

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Fiction Month: Renaissance.

      Fiction month concludes today with an extra story-dedicated to anyone who, like myself was a child of the fifties when television was in its infancy and children’s programmes reflected the times. This was an era that pre-dated political correctness, colour TV, children’s presenters and all that ensued and for all its crude presentation held a kind of naive innocence. One of my own childhood favourites was ‘The Woodentops’ which first aired in 1955. To view a sample, visit youtube.

Renaissance

                She stirs. Her eyelids part in a narrow slit although it is still dark. What has woken her? She shudders and feels a sharp intrusive dig on her left side, wedged as she is between two others.  There it is again; a blow to her ribs. Her eyelids widen as she gasps, feeling around with her right hand for the offending weapon. An elbow.

‘Jenny!’

She stiffens. ‘Get off me! What are you doing?’ Her small, high voice is thick and slurred from under-use.

‘There’s someone out there. I can hear sounds-steps. Listen.’

Jenny groans. ‘Leave me alone, Will. I’m asleep.’

‘You’re not asleep. You are talking to me.’

She lifts her head as far as the space will allow. In the oppressive darkness of their space there are rhythmic snores amid the sighing breaths and snuffles of sleep as well as an occasional whimpering yap from the dog as he dreams of biscuits and buried bones.

‘There!’

She feels her brother’s hissing breath as the sound of steps approaching and receding invades her consciousness. In the gloom she knows he is listening too just as she knows everything he is thinking. After a moment a thin strip of light appears below them along the floor. She takes in a sharp breath and needs to cough but stifles it, reaching instead for her twin’s hand. There is an abrupt rattle as the door knob is twisted which prompts rousing from the others and whimpering from the baby, who threatens to howl.

‘Did you hear the voices?’ Jenny can feel Will trembling. The dog is stirring, a low growl heralding what could become a tirade of barking.

‘Don’t panic. I’ve got him.’ It is their father who has wrapped a restraining hand around the dog’s muzzle.

They are all awake now and straining to hear. The footsteps have disappeared but the light remains. Jenny frowns, trying to think how long they’ve been here and what prompted them to have been banished to this dark, musty cell. She can remember someone saying they should be kept as she was brought in but none of them knew what they did to be banished and hidden away like pariahs. If the footsteps return they might find out. She allows herself to hope.

She tries to stretch her limbs but in doing so elicits an outraged ‘Oy! Watch yourself!’’ from Sam who is squeezed next to her other side.

Mrs Scrubitt’s voice is tremulous as she utters, voicing all their thoughts into the half- light. “What are they going to do with us? They might be having a clear-out, like. Will they be…doing away with us, do you think?’

Jenny trembles. Sam’s mum is right. They could be cast into a bin somewhere or thrown on to a bonfire. Mummy intervenes. ‘There’s no use in worrying what’ll happen. What will be, will be. Whatever they do we’ll be all together, like always.’

They are startled into silence then as the footsteps return, more this time. There are voices at the door and they hear a key in the lock. The door opens, deluging their small closet with blinding light, forcing them to wince and squint at the unaccustomed brightness.

Jenny swallows and lifts her chin as they prepare to face whatever fate awaits them. A large face looms into hers and she shrinks back into a space she does not have. There are two of them scrutinising, exclaiming.

‘Take care! They’re very old, you know-nearly seventy years!’ The voice booms like a fog-horn in the little cupboard until Jenny’s ears feel like exploding balloons.

‘They’re in good shape though!’ The second voice is softer. After a moment a warm, scooping hand envelops her and she is off the shelf, travelling outside the safety of the cubby-hole and along a bright, white corridor. She closes her eyes as the glare prompts tears to stream down her face. Then she is in a large room, comforted to be sitting on a surface she recognises as wood and mummy and baby are placed next to her.

The two giants discuss them. ‘Of course, if we’re going to remake it there will need to be changes. The show was made before political correctness was thought of.’

The other one chuckles. ‘Yes of course. We can’t have a Mrs Scrubitt and we’ll need to address the nuclear family issue. Plus the fact that they are all white, fully-abled and middle class.’

Jenny glances across at Mrs Scrubitt whose face has become an unnerving, chalky white and whose mouth is open in a silent cry.

‘I’m not so sure that they were middle class. He is a farmer.’

‘Yes but Mum doesn’t go out to work and they can afford to employ servants.’

‘OK. Well maybe we can use Mrs Scrubitt as extended family and Mum can be a farm worker, too? And how about giving one of the twins a disability? I don’t know about Sam Scrubitt though. There may not be a role for him.’

Jenny and Will exchange a stricken look as Mrs Scrubitt claps a terrified hand over her mouth.

 

Four months later they are on set. Jenny has become adept at the sign language she must use to communicate with her twin, they have all learned to call Mrs Scrubitt ‘Grandma’, Mum has had a new wardrobe consisting of overalls, has got the hang of the power tools she must use and they’ve all adjusted to their new, ebony colour as well as remembering to call Sam, who’s been given some exuberant dreadlocks, ‘Denzil’.

Whereabouts on the Podium do you Stand?

It is Olympics time. I was watching the women’s cycling road event, sucked in by the thrilling build-up as the competitors battled over the last few kilometres. There was a tortuous climb up a long, winding hill followed by a hurtling, nail-biting descent on a slippery road with more perilous bends, the roadside precipices looming at every turn. The leader, a Dutch woman had pulled ahead of the pack, shrugged off her nearest rival and was rocketing down in an exhilarating abandonment of caution. Then catastrophe struck as she hit the side, catapulting herself over the handlebars and on to her head to lie inert as the riders cannoned downwards past her and towards the finish.

My heart leapt into my throat. I remembered what a coward I was, whimpering my way down the mountain in Thailand and having to be nursed down over the ruts and chasms by a kindly Thai guide as the rest of the group swooshed down in a cloud of confidence. The camera continued to follow the Olympic cyclists, one of the commentators insisting we should follow the race, the other less sure, feeling much like I did that the catastrophic crash eclipsed any result that would ensue.

An American had taken the lead now, hotly pursued by a small group who closed the gap then at the very last they overtook her and the gold medal was won by another Dutch woman in an ironic turn of events. How must the American have felt to have the medal torn from her grasp in the last few metres? These are the stories you see less of during the coverage of the games. We see the triumphs, the excitement, the interviews and the joy. We don’t see the heartbreak and the disappointment.

Until I grew old-ish the only interest I took in anything Olympic Games related was to rail at the lack of proper telly. During the weeks that the games is on everything else-dramas, murder mysteries, historical documentaries, talk shows, music programmes, political debate or David Attenborough cavorting with primates-they all must make way for the ceaseless round of prattle that is the Games.

Nowadays I have an ambivalent attitude to watching sport. Sometimes it can suck me in [as in the cycle race]. Other times I’ll sit down to watch an event only to have my mind wander off on an event of its own-to the supermarket perhaps to ponder groceries or to the fridge to peruse the contents. My fingers may stray to the keyboard to play a round of Scrabble [I am engaged in a gladiatorial battle of almost Olympic proportions with a friend]. I might feel inclined to check emails or read a news website.

And where is the coverage of The Edinburgh Fringe event? At the very least it could be shown on a different channel!

The Dutch cyclist survived, albeit with spinal fractures and some other injuries-not least the disappointment of having crashed out at a pivotal moment. Since then there has been diving, gymnastics, tennis, swimming, shooting; some GB successes. The results, yes they are of some interest. The events themselves must take their chances and compete with emails and Scrabble.

The Future According to Grace

Developments in technology move faster than it takes to draw breath, don’t they? This is how it appears, anyway to one who is becoming ancient. A small item in the [on line] paper I read bore the headline ‘How to organise and store your digital photos’. Goodness! A couple of decades ago storing photographs was all about new developments in photo albums and shelving. Do you mourn the loss of photo albums? Or are you delighted to have less dusting and more space in your home? So many technological developments concern scaling down-in some instances to nothing at all.

The same applies to books of course. Myself, I am a convert to digital books-with the great exception of children’s literature, of course. To me the content over-rides any sentimental attachment to paper. I am uncertain, however on the issue of ‘condensed book apps’ which precis novels down into 15 minute reads-this may be carrying minimalism a little too far.

Then there is television. Sets are becoming ever slimmer. Who remembers the enormous sets of the fifties with their tiny, flickering screens inside large, elaborate wooden cabinets? And film-videos seemed like an incredible leap forward in innovation but were soon replaced with the much reduced DVDs then the physical was done away with altogether by downloads. Music has moved in the same direction, with one click replacing the need for record players and records, cassette tapes and ultimately CDs.

Could this happen in the kitchen? It may have already begun. The need for kettles has been negated by taps that produce boiling water and there is more in the pipeline [so to speak] with robotic food preparation and smart this, that and the other.

And while all this minimalising, scaling down and disappearing altogether has been going on, we, the owners [figuratively] of all this technology become bigger and bigger. I wonder then that technological wizardry has not been developed to shrink humans, too. Yes, of course there are gastric bands and so on but these are not guaranteed to be successful or permanent. The idea of shrunken food, however has been tackled in literature. Turn-of-the-century writer Stephen Leacock [http://www.online-literature.com/stephen-leacock/literary-lapses/10/] wrote an amusing short story about a baby who snatched and swallowed a tablet containing 13 Christmas dinners which did not end happily.

The obvious outcome must be that the need for human beings is removed altogether. I imagine there will be developmental stages where man and computer merge. In the beginning the machine will be an appendage such as we see already [think earphones and those weird Bluetooth thingummies fastened to peoples’ ears]. The takeover will progress with insertions into brains, replacement limbs and organs then mobility aids will remove the need for limbs [now think Daleks from Dr Who]. Reduce the jelly-like substance at the heart of the machine and…Bingo! Man disappears from the Earth to be replaced by technology. I just hope the machines make a better job of it all than we have.

Fiction Month -Week 3

Here is Part 3, and the conclusion of ‘The Woman from the Baker’s’. Parts 1 & 2 can be found in the previous two posts.
———————–

“I’ll do your supper, Dad, before I go and I’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need to hand. You can always phone me if there’s an emergency. I won’t be late back so I’ll be here for bedtime as usual.”
He turned away, seeming to sag and shrivel in the chair like a cushion with the stuffing pulled out.
“I’ll be going to bed now, Margaret, if you please.” That was all he said, but whilst I couldn’t escape the feeling of portent his silence carried I was filled with a bullish determination, so that I muttered ‘I AM going out’ repeatedly while I got his Horlicks and made his hot water bottle.

There was a skittish, party atmosphere in the shop next morning as the girls teased me about the evening to come, a flippant suggestion from Pam as to whether ‘Hot Rod’ might like to join us and a cross-examination from Vi over the intended outfit. The pleasure I normally derived from these exchanges, however was tempered by nagging anxiety, as my morning ministrations had been met by stony, grim faced silence from my father, prompting me to whisper ‘I’m STILL going out’ as I left the house.
Later, dashing homewards it was difficult to say whether my feverish nerves were due to the impending, unaccustomed jaunt or uneasiness about my father. Letting myself in I sensed a barely perceptible alteration in the atmosphere as if the air held an electrical charge, even though the television was burbling away as usual and Dad ensconced in front of it. I got no response to my ‘alright, Dad?’ or when I brought him the tray bearing his supper, upon which I’d lavished great care and attention.
“Right Dad, I’m going up to get ready now”, I said, but might as well have told it the TV screen. I went up and began attempting to squeeze myself into a black skirt I’d last worn about eighteen months ago and which had seemed a good idea for the quiz outing until I tried the recalcitrant zip. Gearing up for one last tug I was holding my breath and wrenching in my girth when I caught the sound of a thud from below. I let go of the zip and nipped out to the landing, skirt sagging round my hips. Beneath me at the foot of the stairs lay my father, prone, limbs flopping like a rag doll’s. I ran down. My heart beat with a strident pounding that throbbed in my chest and ears. Leaning down I noticed a liquid red line emerge from under his head and flow along following the join in the laminate floor. I straightened, stepped over him and into the kitchen. On the table the ‘Hercules Tours’ brochure remained, impassive, bearing a picture of the Taj under a blood red sky. I grabbed the phone and the kitchen towel, sat down on the hall floor. I lifted his head gently onto the towel, then my lap, observing the pale, waxy pallor of his skin, the shallow rasp of his breathing. I punched 999 into the phone, gave all the details.
“It’s alright Dad. There’s help coming” I said, as I smoothed the wisp of baby soft hair from his face. His eyelids, papery and almost translucent, trembled and his thin lips jerked to produce a word.
“Margaret?”
“Yes Dad. I’m here. You’re safe. Stay still now, till the ambulance comes.”
His voice quavered as a glint of wetness materialised in the corner of his eye.
“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Margaret.”
There was a distant sound of a siren now, as the ambulance approached. I looked away from him.
“I know Dad, I know.”

TMTE than TOWIE…

               Here in the UK where get our share of reality TV the creative whizzes behind the shows display no signs at all that they are running out of ideas. One such programme is a day-to-day look at life in the county of Essex, a county that has gained itself quite a reputation during the last fifteen years or so, for its characterful populace and their antics.

                I must confess I am not a follower of ‘The Only Way is Essex’ and that all of my knowledge of said show has been gleaned from reading reviews or catching glimpses of the ‘slebs’ in glossy magazines whilst waiting for appointments [as explained in previous posts], but I’m guessing that fans of the programme could be forgiven for thinking that all there is to Essex is London overspill towns, spray tans, vajazzles and estuary vowels [for the uninitiated-Essex edges itself around the mouth of the Thames as it joins the North Sea and the inhabitants speak in a distinctive, unmistakeable accent]. It is easy to gain a preconceived idea of a place.

                I consider myself, as far as the UK is concerned, to be a South Wester-that is to say I was born in the South West I’ve spent most of my life living there, however I did spend some significant periods of my childhood living in both East Anglia [North Norfolk] and Kent, and although I know and recall both of these areas well I knew nothing of Essex until this week, when we journeyed Eastwards to rectify this gaping void of ignorance.

                Of course I was well aware that besides the sprawling conurbations of Basildon and Romford there were whole tracts of beautiful countryside, swathes of marshes teeming with wildlife, charming coastal towns and quaint villages and I have not been disappointed. We made first for Mersea Island in the south-an island only in that a wide, muddy causeway separates it from the ‘mainland’, given over largely to holiday parks, but also home to manicured villages with black, clapperboard houses with voluptuous gardens, village duck-ponds and wonderful pubs. We visited the Oyster Bar, indulging in an enormous sharing platter of crab, prawns, mussels, cockles, smoked salmon, smoked haddock and of course, oysters-accompanied by a Guiness [Husband] and a chilled white wine [me].

                Colchester, towards the East boasts the reputation of being the earliest recorded town in the country, although here my expectations were a little dashed. It is a handsome town, with some fine buildings but not spectacular. It has a modest, well-tended castle but I suspect all vestiges of antiquity were thrashed out of it long ago to make way for the ubiquitous likes of H&M, Marks and Spencer, Greggs and Tesco Express.             

                On again then to the East coast beyond Colchester, where were truly in the depths of the countryside, but near to the ports of Harwich and Felixstowe [across the water to the North in Suffolk]. It is an exemplary scene of rural England. So much for preconceptions-and all about three hours away!

 

 

TV-the opium of the masses…

                When you consider how long ago television was invented it is surprising how little about it has really changed, especially the world’s love affair with it. I imagine you could go into the most deprived, squalid hovel in the most impoverished shanty town on the planet, with ten people sharing one crowded room to sleep, cook, eat and bathe and there would be a TV rigged up somehow with scrumped electricity, the only prized item in the family. What will they be watching? Football, adverts for cars and reality TV shows; Botswana ‘X Factor’ or Delhi ‘Big Brother’.

                A month’s trip to traditional holiday destinations off season demonstrates how reliant so many are on television for their entertainment needs. No matter what nationality-Swedish, Dutch, German, British-one of the first items to be organised once they have positioned the motorhome within the emplacement is the aerial, or the satellite dish. Our own entertainment was partly addressed by watching the Austrian couple next door spending several hours attempting to place their satellite dish in a location that would offer them Austrian TV. Austrian TV? A version of ‘Masterchef’ with viener schnitzel, perhaps, or ‘Austria’s got Talent’ with lederhosen-clad dancers and an oompah band? Early next morning the Austrian couple voted with their wheels, presumably returning to their homeland in disgust and hopes of watching ‘I’m an Austrian Celebrity [?]-Get me out of Here’ in the comfort of their living room.

                I understand why this is. Much of the South of France is still closed, especially in the evenings. You can spend hours tramping the streets searching for a bar that has not yet pulled its tables off the pavement and closed its doors. We rely heavily on the PMU bars-open for gamblers; as long as the racing lasts. In the malls and the streets leading to the promenade the cafes and bistros sport faded scraps of paper scrawled with the same message: ‘Fermé. Ouvert Marche’. But none of them is. Elsewhere there are signs of opening-roofs being repaired and signs getting spruced up, though as yet no pressions getting pulled or vats of moules steaming.

                In our wondrous van there is a TV, a novelty for us and with an aerial that can access whatever local TV stations are broadcasting. In a rush of excited enthusiasm we sat down to watch French television, pretending that it would be helpful in improving our French conversation skills; but interest in the news channel’s grindingly tedious coverage of Nikolas Sarkozy’s inflammatory remarks comparing France with East Germany soon began to pall and we returned to our usual in-van activities of internet, novels, music, writing, cooking, eating and assessing the local wines-punctuated by forays into the neighbourhood to scour it for some evening life.

                Better. Better than slow death by TV. Maybe one day we will succumb…but not yet…