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.

Pass!

One of the phenomena I’ve noticed in the process of getting older is the process of things passing me by. Some of them pass by from my not having noticed them, some from my not liking them and some from my not knowing about them in the first place.

Is this a natural part of ageing? In his dotage my father took impressive steps into the world of new technology when he not only mastered some elements of word processing but also managed email [albeit in a somewhat antiquated manner, beginning all mails with ‘Dear’-letter fashion, unable to quite take in the informality]. He never got to grips with surfing the net, fearing the exposure of his personal details, perhaps his previous role as secretary to the parish council or membership of the village history society.

The phenomenon of ‘Things passing me by’ has crept upon me despite efforts to keep up. I feel it is the tip of a large iceberg, the top of which is visible, the underparts carrying a mass of culture, technology and who-knows-what-else I cannot even dream of. But here are some of the items on the top-the visible-part of the obstacle:

  1. I know what a smartphone is. I own one. But aside from texts it is rarely used, or even switched on, except for an occasional look at internet, as long as it is not too onerous to access. Most of my smartphone is a mystery. I don’t use the camera. It took me over a year to be able to swipe to answer a call [my call-answering is still not reliable]. I haven’t been able to memorise the number. It has passed me by.
  2. I understand that apps are applications. I just don’t use them. It seems that as soon as I have made the effort to acquire one something else has superseded it. ‘WHAT?’ friends and relations cry, ‘You don’t use ‘Picsnap’ or ‘Instabomb’? How do you manage to live? Surely everyone does ‘Smype’? No, they don’t.
  3. Hit TV programmes. I like thrillers. I like corny, old-fashioned cop detective shows, [like soon-to-be-axed ‘New Tricks’]. I can’t get to grips with ‘Game of Thrones’-nor do I want to.
  4. Talent shows. X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al. Contrived, hyped and wearisome. The only exception I make is for ‘Strictly’. I recognise few of the ‘celebs’ but I like the dancing, although the programme, with its padding, pretend humour and feeble, contrived banter is nowhere near as good as it was in the beginning. I do not, however feel enslaved to watch every episode.
  5. Contemporary music. By which I mean Rapping [I know it is all social comment/poetry and all that, but I can’t conceive of the likes of Tiny Someone, Master Monotony or Kanter East as actual music], Plastic pop [of the ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ band kind] and that monotonous, thrumming, repetitive techno you are so often assaulted by in European bars. Give me a blast of Eric Burden delivering his stark rendition of ‘Bring it on Home to me’ any day of the week.
  6. Piri-Piri chicken, Nando’s etc. Where and when did Piri-Piri spring from? I went into a Nando’s for a coffee once.
  7. Dresses worn with leggings. No. Pass by. Please.

If all this sounds curmudgeonly it is probably because I am becoming a curmudgeon. Kay Sera.

Fledglings, Families and Feelings

Parenthood is an expensive, glorious, heart-breaking, exhausting, rewarding, demoralising, satisfying and confusing state. There is the fever of anticipation [whether planned or not], the anxiety, the draining tiredness, the anxiety, the frustrations, the pleasures and the…yes…anxiety. And then just when you think you have safely despatched your duty, done your best, got them to fledge, downsized, bought the yacht, booked the world tour, had a lie-in,the inevitable happens-they return!

There is no model for this in nature-although I believe female elephants stay in their families [the boys must go and fend for themselves and prepare for fighting and finding mates]. Baby birds do not return to their nests when they are unable to find worms for themselves, young lions must go out and seek their own gazelle to slaughter and sheep may safely graze unaided once weaned.

The returning, grown-up offspring is a double edged sword. You can no longer gripe about never hearing from them or seeing them. On the other hand you must reclaim the room they once slept in, played and made a mess of, which may now be a beautiful guest room, study, motorbike disassembly workshop, dressing room or pottery studio [or simply a repository for all the items you have no idea what to do with]. You may no longer choose to loll around on the sofa with a bowl of cornflakes and watch ‘Eastenders’ rather than making dinner. You cannot slouch about upstairs ‘au natural’ as the unedifying sight of your [=my] ageing physique is likely to be frightening, and/or sick-making at the very least.

If you are lucky enough to possess multiple rooms with TVs you can avoid conflicts over programmes, although you still can expect scoffing over your choices and disbelief over your ignorance on the subject of films/actors/music from any time from the last twenty years [or more].

There will also be stashes of the kind of snacks you had sought to avoid since children no longer shared your house. You open the fridge and the shelves are stacked with chocolate. The cupboards house multi-packs of Cheesy What-nots or Monster Crunch.

Over time you adapt. You squidge up. You make room on the sofa, in the wardrobe and at the table. You increase your grocery shopping, attempt to avoid the chocolate and try to remember who is the current Dr Who. You begin to appreciate the benefits of having an on-site computer technician who can reclaim lost documents, eradicate malevolent, lurking viruses and show you for the hundredth time how to play your music, not to mention the opportunities to gossip about other members of the family and take girly shopping trips with intermittent coffee and cake.

One day, though it is ended. That’s it. You’ve removed the stabiliser wheels and let go of the saddle.  The room is cleared, cleaned of belongings and fluff; reverted into its original ‘guest room’ status. Bare, clean and sad.

The News, Les Nouvelles, La Noticia or Las Noticias?

We are at the end of our first camper-van trip of this year, an odyssey very much unplanned that took us to Portugal, Spain and France, depending on where the weather was best according to the forecast.

Unlike the many who rumble around the roads of Southern Europe in search of sunshine we have not succumbed [yet] to a satellite dish to give us the evening diet of TV that we would get at home. Ideally we would be near enough, when parked up to access a lively bar or two but circumstances don’t always work out this way and we are sometimes left with the choice of books, internet [if it is available] or local TV. Failing all this I am forced to write!

We are at the mercy of Portuguese, Spanish or French TV programmes; most often their news bulletins or the equivalent of our ‘BBC News 24’. While we are adequately equipped linguistically in French to inquire the whereabouts of the nearest ‘boulangerie’ etc neither Husband nor I have more than the sketchiest idea of what is going on in Spanish, less still Portuguese, so the results of our viewing are often confusing and down to guesswork using pictures and the running text along the bottom of the screen.

All this gives a sense of what it may be like to be a young child learning to decipher the squiggles and symbols of words when learning to read and makes you realise how crucial the pictures are as an aid. While I like to think it is improving my linguistic skills I somehow doubt this is the case, since we’ve no idea whether our guesses are correct.

One excellent benefit of watching other countries’ news is that the angle is no longer at UK degrees, the world does not revolve around our own country. At home, even world issues will only be dealt with from a UK viewpoint. The Alpine air disaster item will focus on any British passengers, a climate summit will centre on our own delegate; grim beheadings will be given scant coverage unless the victim is British. Elsewhere in the world the focus swings to their own delegates, victims or disasters. Here is an aspect of that broadening of the mind that travel is supposed to offer.

Another advantage is missing a huge chunk of tedious UK election coverage broadcasting which, judging by the un-edifying glimpses caught since our return has been a blessing. From the quality of their baby-kissing to their stance on pot-holes, is there any pebble left undisturbed in the relentless unearthing of new stories about the opposing politicians?

And what can they possibly write, spout, blog or tweet about once the entire circus has left town? They must be praying for a heatwave/earthquake/alien invasion-otherwise it will be back to road congestion and house prices.

What’s Cooking on the TV?

In its wisdom, the BBC has opted to schedule on Channel 2 a big, blockbuster ‘food season’. This is much heralded and promises to inform in ways we have never before been informed about-food. Yawn. Really? How many more programmes about food can we take? And how many more times must we be told that refined foods, salt, fat, fast food, takeaways, sweets, chocolate and the demon sugar will be the undoing of us?

Let me see. ‘Masterchef’, ‘Hairy Bikers’, ‘Nigella’, ‘Saturday Kitchen’ and on and on-the programmes exhort us to produce more, varied and extravagant meals using more, varied and exotic, unheard-of ingredients. We sit and watch, munching our takeaways or our toasted cheese sandwiches and nodding-‘mm, yes, that looks nice’. How many viewers rush out to the supermarket next day for Tahini paste, syrup of nasturtium seed or essence of wild boars’ scrotum? How many search online for a high temperature vacuum bath or a freeze-drying machine? Heston Blumenthal has much to answer for.

It was all vastly simple decades ago. My childhood diet followed a weekly timetable that varied little beyond which meat to cook for a Sunday roast or what was available in the back garden vegetable plot. Mondays would yield up something with the remains of Sunday’s roast, the remaining days repasts would revolve around Spam-with mashed potatoes, with chips, with beetroot or eggs from the hens at the end of the garden-omelettes, fried eggs and mash or chips. We children never questioned or grumbled. We had no dislikes and would clamour only for an orange or a banana since these were prized items [rationing was not yet a distant memory], although as I’ve mentioned before we were only permitted a banana if it was accompanied by a slice of bread.

If the first course was a little sparse there would be a vast rice pudding or a suet sponge for the purposes of filling us up. Meals always consisted of two courses. Not only did we survive on this regime, but we were relatively healthy and never became in the slightest bit overweight, still less obese, even though the occasional day out to the seaside would conclude with fish and chips wrapped in newspaper.

How ironic that the more elaborate and fiddly TV chef meals become, the more the population capitulates to fast food and fry-ups, snacks and sweet treats.

Here in Portugal, where we have fled to escape the UK’s wintery temperatures we de-camped on our first evening-after five days of driving- to the village restaurant where we were shown a box containing assorted, gargantuan fresh fish, from which we selected our favourites. They were taken away and grilled with a little salt and served with a salad, crusty rolls and a plate of fried potatoes. No sauces, ‘beds’ of anything, snotty-looking foam or those stupid drips and smears dotted around the plates. The result? Completely delicious.

The B&B Rant

A lot of people swear by B&Bs for their holiday accommodation needs. B&Bs, guest houses, chambers d’hotes-whatever you like to call them-differ from hotels in a variety of ways, but personally I would prefer to eat my own hair than stay in them.
The reasons fans of B&Bs give for loving them are varied, but rely on the principle of the ‘personal touch’. They say things like ‘such nice people’, ‘just like family’, ‘home from home’ and it is just this that provokes me to shudder at the idea of staying in one. This judgement does not come from hearsay, reportage or conversation but from real, empirical research. In other words, my experiences of said places have been entirely negative.
I don’t want to stay in someone’s home. I can manage [just about] to stay with close family members for up to two nights, perhaps but even then I find it hard to manage.
I don’t want to sleep in an overheated, tiny, stuffy room crammed with family photos, ornaments, souvenirs of Brixham, lace doilies and knick-knacks. I don’t want to be suffocated by an enormous cloud of puffy duvet.
We are not the earliest of risers. I want a lovely, exclusive en suite [for night time needs, if nothing else] and at least two cups of tea before I face anyone [Husband excluded of course]. I may want to slob about pre-ablution watching News 24.
When I do surface, I don’t really want to eat anything until at least late morning, and then I am not able to cope with ‘full English’ [in other words: cereal followed by bacon, sausage, egg, baked beans, fried bread, tomato, mushrooms, black pudding, toast and marmalade].
Most of all though I don’t wish to sit at the breakfast table and make small talk with the ‘friendly, welcoming’ host or hostess. I don’t want their life story, learn what their grandchildren are studying at university or where they have been for their holidays.
If all this makes me sound humbug I don’t care. Give me a plain, simple, anonymous hotel. It doesn’t need a stupendous view, an infinity pool, a Michelin starred restaurant or four posters [although they can be fun…]. I want to be able to use a breakfast buffet-preferably up until eleven or so. I want tea and coffee making facilities [biscuits are always a bonus]. I want a TV I can watch from the bed. I want a firm, clean, comfortable bed with options for temperature control [ie covers to put on or remove]. I want a clean, efficient en suite with a shower that doesn’t need a degree in engineering to operate. Ideally, some beautiful toiletries are provided. I’d really like a late night bar where I can grab a last glass of wine before I turn in. I’d like INTERNET [included in the price!]. I’d like pleasant, non intrusive service.
I don’t mind that it is part of a ‘chain’ and every room is the same. It needn’t have an Alpine or Namibian Desert view.
Otherwise-give me a comfortable, efficient camper van, which does have ensuite, tea & coffee making, glass of wine and TV-and I don’t need to talk to anyone [Husband excluded]…

Those that can, write, Those that can’t, write too.

                I attend a book club at my local library. It consists of about eight gentile old ladies-[I am including myself in this description although the gentile part is the most inaccurate]. On the whole I love my fellow old ladies. They are smiley, mild mannered, self-deprecating. We talk about a wide variety of subjects-most recently hearing aids, the sights of Rome and foot ailments. Occasionally we come around to discussing the novel we have been allocated by Tracey, the enigmatic librarian. Given that we have all had a month to read said novel we should, by rights have plenty to throw into a discussion about it, however we are almost always as earnest as schoolgirls in our lame excuses.

                ‘I’ve read it but so long ago I can’t remember it’

                ‘I read some of it’

                ‘I couldn’t find it until this morning’-

The Book Club equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’.

                The problem lies, I believe with the kind of books Tracey chooses for us [or rather, the set of books that has become available for us]. They are rarely riveting, or if they are, I’ve generally read them already. Hence several recent issues have been, for me unreadable.  

                One of the ladies has literary tastes which are in direct opposition to mine. If there is an odd book that I enjoy I know she is going to declare it ‘rubbish’. One such book was The Great Gatsby, which I had read many years ago and enjoyed rereading. Other tales, such as the very popular ‘One Day’ by David Nichols did nothing for me but gave her much pleasure. You would think, would you not, that such discrepancies in reactions to books would lead to interesting and lively discussion, yet this has still to happen.

                I’m sorry to say I blame Tracey for this lack of debate. Were she to arrive at our table armed with provocative questions the conversation would be sustained and would not veer off on to subjects such as bunions or where to buy fruit teas. We could discuss characters, plot lines, whys and wherefores. We could say why we did or did not get something from the read [or lack of read]. Really there is no excuse, since many novels come ready pressed with the book club questions and stimulants all there at the end of the narrative.

                Just for once though, last week the opinions were unanimous. Everyone was agreed that the novel was one of the very worst we’d ever been given. The book? It was Richard Madely’s ‘Some Day I’ll Find You’.

                Richard Madely is a lightweight journalist and TV presenter who made a name co-presenting a daytime TV chat show with his wife and subsequently as a TV Book Club host. Now I understand completely what makes someone who is interested-even passionate about literature become motivated enough to take up the pen themself. This has happened to me. But the difference between myself and Richard is not associated with writing ability. It is that he, with all his lack of talent has simply thrown into his novel every cliché, formula and hackneyed device he has encountered and produced a tired story which he has not had to send to every literary agent known to man in order to get published. He can sell his boring book on the strength of his name.

It goes to show that reading, whilst useful to aspiring writers does not a writer make. Do I sound jaded? Indeed I am!