Monday, December 24, 2007

A Christmas gift for you from the Animal Disco

The season of goodwill is officially upon us. So, in keeping with tradition, I have a very special gift I'd like to share with you all. Have yourselves a very merry little Christmas indeed! 

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sad Café

It was a cold, wintery day just before Christmas, not really best suited to a trip to the seaside. My granddad and I dashed gratefully into an unexpectedly open seafront ice cream parlour; an advance party sent to place an order while the rest of the family braved the weather. The caff was old fashioned even in the 1970s - all chipped Formica and tired linoleum; original, genuine retro. Alongside the rusty Horlicks machine and ancient Gaggia behind the counter, a woman who might have once resembled Sophia Loren was attempting a damage limitation exercise with a J-cloth. We ordered hot drinks and ice cream sundaes, slid into a booth and waited for everything – the family, the order, our non-stop chat – to flow.

At the next table sat another granddad, about the same age as mine was then but somehow much older, with skin the colour of the cigarette smoke and the worn, beige cardigan that surrounded his thin frame. Opposite him, a little girl of around five years old slowly ate an ice cream-topped donut – a ‘Brown Derby’ - with a plastic spoon. Her granddad gazed at her intently; she, with equal intensity, avoided his stare. Then suddenly, gently, softly, tears began to roll down her cheeks. As she dropped her spoon, the man reached across to her, dabbing awkwardly at her cheeks with a crumpled napkin. “Eat your ice cream, love”, he rasped. “Mum would have wanted you to”. And, visibly mustering up stoicism beyond her years but still unable to quell the torrent that leaked down her cheeks, she did as she was told.

I have never since taken the love, warmth, security and raggle-taggle emotion of my family for granted. And even today, the idea of an ice cream-topped donut brings a lump to my throat.

Friday, December 21, 2007

In response to the very kind comment left by an anonymous friend in California, here (below) are my thoughts on Douglas Coupland's recent book, 'The Gum Thief' (Bloomsbury, £10.99):

Divorced, middle-aged, semi-alcoholic Roger stocks shelves at Staples, the office superstore. Bethany - a Goth in her late teens - works alongside him. The two have little to do with each other until Bethany discovers Roger’s notebook in the staff room and realises that, as well as writing a novel, he’s writing diary entries written from her point of view - and he’s getting it right. Sinister? Not to Bethany, who’s desperate to discover a life beyond black lipstick and boredom.

Using the notebook as a mode of shared communication, Bethany starts adding her own, real diary entries to the notebook. But just as ‘The Gum Thief’ starts to read like an updated version of Helene Hanff’s ‘84 Charing Cross Road’, Coupland takes us on a detour down acherontic alley. Enter a rollcall of melancholic characters such as Bethany’s mum (a frustrated housewife living vicariously through her daughter), Roger’s ex-wife (a cancer survivor), 40-something failed writer Steve and Gloria, his once-glamorous, alcoholic wife ... oh no, hang on; Steve and Gloria aren’t actually here - they’re the main characters in ‘Glove Pond’, Roger’s novel. Yup, ‘The Gum Thief’ is a novel within a diary within the actual novel itself. Why would you expect anything less from Douglas Coupland?

Having said that, unlike his contemporaries (Bret Easton Ellis perhaps being the most obvious comparison), Coupland doesn’t really rely on ‘tricksy’ to make a non-point. Certain Coupland-isms made the Oxford English Dictionary (‘McJob’, from his 1991 debut novel ‘Generation X’ - the title, too, became part of the neoteric vocabulary) and his ability to capture the contemporary zeitgeist means that he’s as likely to be referred to as a ‘social commentator’ as he is a novelist. But still, his penchant for exploring beyond the superficial humdrum of ordinary folk living ordinary lives has softened with time: Microsoft boffins and computer programmers have been supplanted by lonely widows and checkout staff, and trademark traces of hard-nosed, urbane cynicism have dissolved beneath whimsy, warmth and gentle sentiment.

As a result, Roger’s letters to Bethany sometimes read like a CBBC presenter’s autocue or an uncle who claims to like the Arctic Monkeys in an effort to impress his teenage niece, while Bethany herself is credited with an integrity way beyond her years until the character eventually becomes a poster girl for David Cameron’s ‘hug a hoodie’ campaign.

Those who have stuck with Coupland through the years won’t be disappointed by his latest offering - after all, we’ve grown up too. But it preaches to the converted; Generation Why? won’t be impressed.

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?

Well, is it or isn't it? Christmas is a funny old time. On the one hand, it's full of promise: bursting at the seams with anticipation, celebration and lashings of jollity. At the same time, the churning emotional tide of enforced merriment can turn your course through day-to-day life (for yes, it still goes on) into an uneasy journey to navigate.

For a start, sad memories seem to be sharper at this time of year than at any other. It was on this day, ten years ago now, that my wonderful grandma had the stroke that led to her dying some three weeks later. I spent that Christmas in the hospital with her, sleeping on a makeshift cushion by her bed. Needless to say, my family barely went through the motions of anything close to a celebration that year; what little joy we managed, we mustered together for the sake of my nieces, who were at that stage little children. Then there was the last Christmas I spent with Judy, my dad's long-term cohort, at her home in Hampshire just three months before she died of the brain tumour that she'd lived with for too many months already. Margy, Judy, God rest your blessed souls; since you left us, Mike's mum has joined you (again, not long before Christmas last year), and just a few short weeks ago, Thumper absconded this mortal coil too. But you know, despite how this post seems to be shaping up, I'm really not being gloomy about all this. Christmas - and the forthcoming end of 2007 - is, amongst everything else, a time to look back, take stock and count your blessings.

I still miss the people (and the animals) who have physically left me as life has rolled along - I always will; I don't need a calendar to bring them back to the forefront of my mind. I miss too the people who, although still (I hope) sharing this planet with me, have veered off the course that once insured our paths crossed regularly: the close family member, for example, who's behaviour has been so dreadful this year that he doesn't even warrant a Christmas card, let alone a gift, when I go to spend time with the Liverpool lot between Christmas and New Year (mind you, this was a man who, when visiting my house last spring, declared the bottle of really, really good Prosecco that I'd carefully selected to accompany our feast to be the signal for 'time to go home'. "She's bringing out the cheapskate plonk", he said; "let's p**s off". And so, I let him do just that). Also in this category (albeit for vastly different reasons, the person in question being a vastly different individual to the pleb I've just seethed about), 2007 saw me being forced to wave goodbye to someone I thought would always be in my life. Sadly, the end of that particular friendship came about as a result of a blog post right here. I have no intention of going into any further detail; suffice to say that the final misunderstanding should never, ever have happened, but unfortunately, it did. I guess every passing year brings with it several passings of one sort or another. However, as with all things, there is balance; I've loved so much of 2007, it's with a very grateful heart that I'll wave goodbye to it in just a few days time.

So, before that happens, I'd like to briefly recall a few of 2007's Wonderful Moments (in no particular order): mum's birthday, April 2007. The WOMAD festival: rain most certainly did not stop play. Mike's impromptu birthday party (January): fresh out of hospital (nothing serious, as it turned out - thank you, God, for that one, too) and straight into the chocolate cake. Mike himself, as a stand-alone highlight. A week-long holiday in Honfleur in June, with My Favourite People Ever. New Friends: Marty and Wayne - they gave living in Bath a whole new dimension. Dublin with Vicki and Tony at the beginning of this month; Luxembourg/Germany a couple of weeks later. Time spent in the Marais with my dad. Angela's party, and the trip down memory lane that I took with my mum very early the next day. Sol's film premiere in Liverpool. Thumper, for most of the year at least. Music: Foreigner live, Rufus Wainwright's new album, Bruce Springsteen in the pipeline. Books: Bret Easton Ellis' 'Lunar Park' (I only got around to reading it this year, but it was fab), Roddy Doyle's 'The Deportees', Ian McEwan's 'Chesil Beach'. Our recent soiree. Fabulous food, wonderful work, incredible friends. Ah, you know what? It's been a great year. And hey, it's not over yet ...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

One for the Literary Larder ...

If you're wondering what to buy for the beloved foodie in your life this Christmas, might I be so bold as to suggest Nigel Slater's latest book ‘Eating for England’ (Fourth Estate £16.99). Ooh, I love Nigel! As I said in Venue, circa issue 794:

Marmite, Oxo cubes and Branston Pickle: as intrinsic to our national cultural heritage as rain, the royal family and ... Nigel Slater. This gentle wordsmith - the Alan Bennett of the food world, regularly showcased by the Observer Food Monthly, a raft of cookery books and the occasional TV appearance (when, that is, the celebrity chef bullies allow him to get a word in) - is slowly becoming a much-loved national icon. And if anything is going to give him the final hefty shove up the ladder to confirmed British Institution status, it’s going to be this book.

Fans of the author’s kitchen-based musings love Slater for his indefatigable passion for all forms of good taste. Meanwhile, those who gobbled up his acclaimed 2004 autobiography ‘Toast’ will already be familiar with his self-deprecating wit, bittersweet honesty and penchant for bone dry, knife-sharp, beautifully presented observations on the human condition. But it’s possible that ‘Eating for England’ will attract a whole new raft of admirers altogether. Annoying though those ‘if you like that, you’ll like this’ lists can be, it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine Slater sharing column inches with the likes of Anne Tyler, Nick Hornby and Larry Grayson. Larry Grayson? Indeed! For the essays that make up this easy-to-digest collection of thoughts and ideas loosely bound by the theme of ‘The Delights and Eccentricities of the British at Table’ also combine to celebrate the delights and eccentricities of Camp ideology. What is a pink wafer biscuit, a ‘proper’ High Tea or an exercise in correct scone dressing if not camp? Slater snuggly inhabits the zone between his beloved base subject matter and its not-too-distant cousin, ‘Taking the Piss Out of the Stuffy Middle Class British at Table’ (‘Dick and Other Delights’? Ooh Nigel, shut that door!). But moments of almost austere clarity, too, keep things on an even keel: ‘Feeding the Elderly’, for example, is a heartbreakingly tender account of the reality of another Great British Institution (the death camps to which we so easily surrender our elderly relatives when they become ‘too much trouble’) while ‘Sharing the Bill - the Weasel at the Table’ sums up British ‘manners’ more succinctly than a whole brigade of sociologists could ever manage to do.

Yes, there’s the occasional heavy handed flurry of over-earnest seasoning, and some may find the glaze of whimsy way too sweet. But enjoy ‘Eating for England’ as a cosy, nibble-by-nibble winter suppertime treat, and it’s a veritable banquet. The same could be said, of course, for Marmite.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Spoilt Brat

Dear oh dear - what on earth was wrong with me yesterday? There was absolutely no reason whatsoever for the bad mood that started to descend during the afternoon and peaked (or troughed?) not long before midnight, when I skulked off to bed in a big, bad sulk. Okay, there was a sort of reason; it just feels childish to admit that lack of sleep can still get to me just like it used to get to me when I was four years old. But back in the day, I was allowed to throw toddler tantrums; 39 years on, I'm the first to admit that they're just not allowed - and yet still, yesterday, I indulged myself.

Sulk, sulk, sulk, strop, strop, strop - in town, in the supermarket, over a bottle of wine with dad. Back home, I spiralled more and more and more, until ... well, put it this way: even the pepper mill came in for a bit of a thumping, accused of recalcitrance. Can I just say that I'm very sorry to all concerned? The spoilt brat behaviour was uncalled for, and I'm going to do my very best never to inadvertently call for it again. Now here's the excuse:

Mike and I had a lovely weekend (I'd like to call it a 'long weekend', but unfortunately two nights away was all too short, especially considering the distance travelled) in Luxembourg and around the Mosel Valley, Germany. We drove - eek! - picking up Mike's brother en route (in Chichester: supposed to be very pretty, but there was no time to stop) and taking the ferry from Dover to Dunkirk. I would tell you the route we then took to Luxembourg, but unlike David Bowie, Hits of the 80's, animal behaviour and cooking, geography is not my strong point. Suffice to say we didn't hit Luxembourg until around 10pm local time, after 12 hours of travel.

Having now visited the city, I don't see why people write Luxembourg off a boring or dull. For a start, it's pretty impressive to look at, built around a huge gorge with loads of historical bits on display for all to see. It's a quiet city, for sure; when we arrived, there were few watering hole opportunities to take advantage of. But you know, life isn't all about parties, is it? So we went back to Steve's girlfriend's house (a pretty little suburb right by the airport) and got our heads down in preparation for our foray into Germany. The district we were staying in looked more like London, Ontario than anywhere in the Europe I know and love (or perhaps London, Ont. looks more like middle Europe than Canada?), but that soon changed as we hit the road, my trusty duvet keeping the chills out and Bella the lovely dog (see previous posts) snuggled down between Mike and I in the back.

First stop, Trier: strudel in a coffee shop, bratwurst from the Christmas market and purple gloves from Woolworths - yes, Woolworths! - for just 3 euros ("That's the Wonder of ...", etc). Then on we drove through the valley, the vineyards deep in winter hibernation but the gorgeous river that runs through it in full flow. Bernkastel, though, was where the full-on sensual feast really began. My goodness, this town was surely made for Christmas! You know those cute little gingerbread houses that proliferate at this time of year, all wooden toy soldiers and pretty girls in flowery skirts? Well, Bernkastel looks exactly like one of those. Another festive market dominated the centre of town; we drank Glühwein, slurped goulash soup (the best I've ever tasted) and decided that the gnome with the piercing eyes overlooking one of the kiddie fairground rides was a Stephen King character just waiting to happen. We checked into a neat little hotel and went out for dinner - pork for me, in a creamy mushroom sauce; goose and a "bit of everything" elsewhere. I wouldn't say the food was spectacular, but the ambience and the whole experience most certainly was. Afterwards, Bella and her mistress sensibly called it a day, while the boys and I made full use of the hotel bar. And here, perhaps, is where yesterday's stroppy mood started. Was it really a good idea to push the boat out when another 12 hours of travel lay ahead the following day?

On waking, I felt slightly queasy. Still, I stoically tagged along on the visit to Bernkastel's actual castle (derelict now, but still very Disney, with great views) and took in the views all the way back to Luxembourg, where we enjoyed a takeaway lunch in an Irish pub (Man U v Liverpool - you can take the boys out of England, etc) before setting off home again.

We hit freezing fog between Chichester and Bath. We didn't get home until 4am. I had to get up at 7.30am to call my mum, and when I went back to bed for a couple of hours, I couldn't sleep. And that, dearest Discoites, is the recipe for a moody Monday. It was a fabulous weekend, though. Thank you so much to all involved - not least of all Bella.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Yum yum?

Cheap to buy and vile to eat, chocolate Christmas tree decorations are not intended to be adult entertainment. But then again, even the kids won’t eat them - these days, they won’t consider any chocolate that isn’t FairTrade, organic and gluten-free. Free of their garish wrappers, these pre-cast mutants - bloated Santas, deformed fairies, reindeer with Ninja Turtle heads, foil-wrapped, banana republic currency - are the stuff of nightmares rather than the Night Before Christmas. And yet, that’s exactly when they’re at their most tempting.

It’s Christmas Eve, and you’re just back from the pub (sorry, midnight mass). What - other than Santa’s mince pie mountain - could be a better accompaniment to the glass of sherry you see before you? Fussy foodies buy Rococo’s tasteful chocolate angels by mail order in September. But most of us buy them from the same street vendor who flogs wafer thin, flimsy wrapping paper at 50p for 12-sheets (“Getcha chocolate tree decorations here - a paaahnd a bag!”) on December 23rd. They exist only to look pretty, but rarely do they manage even that. But right now, those cheap, sugar and fat laden nasties - barely related to the cocoa bean, let alone the real spirit of Christmas - look even tastier than the organic Norfolk bronze turkey that’s lying in wait in the fridge.

Top tip: rip them from the bottom branches only, leave the strings dangling from the branches and blame your misdemeanours on the dog. Christmas? It’s a guilty pleasure free-for-all.

Life Goes On

Gosh, I've sort of been putting off writing a new post here because it'll mean that Thumper won't be on the Animal Disco's opening page anymore. But I have to accept that he's made a new home living on in my heart - a place that will never be subject to the vagaries of links in new windows or one updated blog post erasing all that came previously. Thank you so much to everybody that sent me kind thoughts and comforting words - I really appreciate it. And yes, of course life goes on ... before Thumper did his 'ball of light' thing, there was Dublin. Afterwards, there was a party (pre-planned, not a wake - although many a glass of the fizzy stuff was raised to his memory). Today, there's frost on the landscape and Christmas in the air; on Wednesday, there's an Icicle Works gig to enjoy in Bristol (for much more on that - including a link - see previous post, entitled 'Let's Dance', published in August). Now, The Baby comes with me to all of it. In a way, you do too ...

Dublin was indeed wonderful. It sort of reminded me of Liverpool - another city that's been through the wars (in all senses of the word) but bravely looks forward to much better days. We stayed at a hotel that had a vaguely youth hostel-ish vibe about it, slap bang in the middle of Temple Bar, which seems to be where lots of the craic action is. Bars, pubs, restaurants; venues, all-hours takeaways ... and stag and hen parties making the most of all the delights on offer. I guess we fitted in.

During daylight hours, we did the full-on 'touristy' stuff: both the Jamesons and the Guinness factory tours, complete with a horse drawn taxi ride after the latter and a tour bus trip in between. I loved having such relaxed quality time with my sister, and her husband loved his Birthday present, too. On our last day, I went off with Mike on a trip down his own personal memory lane - a moving experience for both of us. Unfortunately though, by that time news of Thumper's possible demise was starting to filter over from Bath, so the planned trip to the Writer's Museum didn't happen. But I will return to Dublin, that's for sure. Meanwhile, look out for a short story I started working on while I was there - it should appear here soon (god, one trip to Dublin and she thinks she's Roddy Doyle ...).

Thursday, December 6, 2007

RIP Baby - mummy loves you

I brought so many tales home from our weekend in Dublin, I really don't know where to begin. But I can't begin any of them until I post this obituary to Thumper (or The Baby, as he became known to us): our beautiful Australian Bearded Dragon lizard, who passed away in his sleep during the evening of December 2nd.

I was introduced to Thumper on May 22nd 2006; Michael's gift to me, on my 42nd birthday. Thumper was 41.5 years younger than me - a tiny lizard baby, a little scrap of a thing no bigger than my outstretched palm. But gosh, he was beautiful even then: delicate yet sturdy, mysterious and prehistoric - a living, breathing artwork; a miracle in my hand.

I knew little - if anything - about the habits, traits or personality of this young, ancient being. He came complete with his own little house (a vivarium), with a heater and a UV light to replicate his ancestral climate. We gave him a log to climb on and hide under, and a stone on which to bask. He had a little pool in one corner, and a food dish in another - not that he ever used either much. Instead, he quickly learned to eat out my hand (parsley and green beans - not the live crickets he was also partial to) and, not long before he died, he'd developed the habit of turning his face towards me as I sprayed him with fresh water from a bottle, loving both the refreshment and, I believe, the attention. And yes, he did love attention - he loved me and Mike, just as we loved him.

Thumper and I had our own routine. Nearly every morning of his time with us, I was there when he woke up, before his UV light automatically switched on: "Good morning, Baby, and welcome to today". Those wise eyes - the colour of Lyle's Golden Syrup - would open, those long, intricate fingers would stretch. Sometimes, he'd leap up onto his log and nod frantically - an adult Beardie habit, hilarious to watch. But not before he'd had breakfast: the beans and parsley (with occasional chunks of orange pepper, another favourite food) followed by crickets: scatter, chase, crunch. Sometimes, he'd come out to play for a bit. We'd offer him a flat palm - often covered by a towel as he got older, and his scales became scratchy - and if he felt like it, he'd climb out and allow himself to be carried down to the floor, or the bed, from which point he was allowed to go on his own little voyage of discovery around the room or even the house, closely followed by mummy, who kept an eye out for danger or forbidden crumbs from last night's dinner. He would sometimes waddle along like a little tank, or roll like a drunken sailor. He'd occasionally attempt to aimlessly climb shiny surfaces which offered his nails no purchase, only to slide to one side looking confused. Once or twice he pooed on the floor, another time on a pillow! But never, ever did he do anything wrong.

I have to be careful here, because my impulse is to go on and on with tales and anecdotes and memories - forgive me if I've gone on too much already. But what I'm trying to explain is how much I loved that little miracle mate of mine. To me, he was eternally fascinating, and amazingly beautiful. He was proof of life personified; an initially strange little creature - almost alien, really - in an unnatural environment. And yet, we forged an indescribably close bond, almost spiritual in nature, and absolutely bursting with love.

Thumper died long before the average Beardie lifespan of 12-18 years. The vet can't tell me what he died of; there were no signs of illness or infection, distress or - god forbid! - neglect. All we know is that he died in his sleep, while I was away in Dublin. His strong, golden-green body is buried under a bush in the garden of Mike's house in Bristol, a parsley plant nearby. But I know that somehow, he's everywhere; he's a golden ball of light, bouncing along on the wind, tasting rain, watching the sun rise, exploring life beyond his vivarium and his rock and the pillow he once pooed on. Behind those amber eyes, there was an evolving spirit bursting to move on. I like to think I helped his spirit breathe.

I can't thank Mike enough for the gift of Thumper - he gave me the gift of love. Even now, as sad as I am, I wouldn't change a single moment of the precious time we shared. Goodnight Baby, and god bless - mummy loves you, and will keep you safe in her heart for always ... until we meet again.