Wednesday, 29 December 2010

If I Swallow Anything Evil........

When I was in India, I was given quite detailed instructions on how to kill a cobra. Twist its neck, two inches down from its nose. Get it right, you only get one chance at this.

However, it is a different type of snake that causes problems in our urban lives.

Some years ago I had the experience of watching someone try to tell me something difficult. Before they said anything, I could almost sense a serpent winding its way up their oesophagus and twisting out of their mouth - the forked tongue coming out and spitting venom. It was a really, deeply strange experience, quite apart from the distress of hearing the words being delivered.

We have all heard about snakes in the grass, but some people have snakes inside them. They can have smiley faces, but very occasionally you get a sense that there is something wriggling around inside them, desperate to get out. You can almost see them choking on it. It does something to their eyes too. The eyes can't say anything, we all know that, yet we know lying eyes when we see them. I think its the snake, taking a look around.

Don't release your inner snake! Put your fingers down your throat and strangle it. Two inches from its nose does the trick apparently.

Remember, you only get one go at this.

Who's Looking at You?

Life is full of faces.

Faces you look into over many decades.

Faces that see you. Faces that read every nuance of every thought.

Faces that become lined with wisdom.

Faces with tears running down the cheeks.

Faces with big smiles and dimples.

Faces of your friends, you know every line, every blemish, every expression.

Faces coming close for a kiss that raise your heart rate.

Faces shining with love, upturned and open.

Angry faces, eager faces, surprised faces.

Faces that accompany you on your walk through life.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Hitting Hyperspace

When the computer game Asteroids came out, I was scared of the Hyperspace button, that took your little spacecraft into unknown territory.

It's a truism that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Scientists seem confident that they can describe everything by close examination. But if you looked at brain cells under a microscope you would be able to talk about their biological and physiological function but would miss the fact that they are capable of original thought when put together.

If you put a group of people together, and they express their thoughts, again the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. So much more information and development of ideas happens. It's the hyperspace factor.

The big society is centred around communities, but seems to be aimed at communities providing services that have historically been delivered by local authorities. Community is a word that has now become quite political. It's lost it's meaning. We need a new word for community, and it needs to reflect the hyperspace function.

Ideas on a postcard please.....

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Cookies and Clangers

I can't cook. I really can't cook.

Having read 'Feel the Fear and do it Anyway' I decided to conquer this long held phobia and took the Bellringers Cake Sale today to be my watershed. I woke up at 7am, and armed with a BBC shortbread recipe and bell shaped cookie cutters, took to the kitchen with a stiff upper lip and my son's netbook.

The recipe couldn't have been simpler. But with hindsight it would have helped if my scales were accurate to a greater degree than 3 lbs. I swirled the mix around with my ancient electric whisk (my sister donated this to me thirty years ago, having felt it needed replacing), enjoyed cutting the bell shapes out (there is something charmingly reminiscent of nursery school in this activity) and put them in the oven. While they were doing, I did the washing up, and even though the sink is next to the oven, I STILL MANAGED TO LET THEM BURN. With a heavy heart I chisled them off the baking trays, and tasted a corner (or clanger). It was so bad I even had to spit that out.

It was very depressing, having more washing up to do, no cookies and a glob of sugary dough stuck around the shift key on the netbook to try to disentangle before my son sees it.

Luckily I have two boxes of mince pies in the cupboard.

At least I felt the fear and tried.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Mind Blowing

Are you ready for it?

It's going to come soon.

It's going to be big. Bigger than anything you have ever felt before, yet all the while silent and tranquil.

You'll feel it glowing in your solar plexus, it will be warm and wonderful.

It will feel so delicious you will almost taste it.

Prepare yourself.

Be still.

Be calm.

It doesn't care if you're old or young, thin or fat, rich or poor.
It's not bothered if you're about to lose your job or about to have an operation.

It might come through your friends and family, a stranger on the tube, a colleague. It might come from your God or my God. It might even already be inside you.

Can you feel it?

The celestial breeze?

Unfurl your sail and run with the wind.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Let's Reorganise Everything!

I'm currently a 'victim' of the NHS.

What I need is one specific examination. I have so far had two pointless appointments, where both doctors have said, 'you need this specific examination'.

'Yes' I reply, 'I know'.

Trouble is, having written a rather tetchy letter to my GP, I feel obliged to keep attending the appointments he sends me for so I can't be criticised for not playing my part of the game.

The last appointment I had for the wrong examination even sent out the wrong preparation letter, so I couldn't even have the wrong examination I was scheduled for.

Yesterday, I became foolishly excited by another letter from the NHS, thinking it would be for the right examination. No, it was for an appointment to have the right wrong examination, if you follow my drift.

The most frustrating thing is that no-one seems to be communicating with each other, so in desperation, I wrote a letter to my GP, explaining my diagnosis, possible 'hidden' factors and which examination I should be having. I couldn't help thinking, as I put pen to paper, that maybe this is what the consultant I saw a month ago should have done.

The parts of the NHS that I am now familiar with have the aura of a third world facility. To get an early appointment with the GP one has to queue on the pavement outside the surgery for at least 20 minutes, followed by a further 20 minutes inside. There was something of the 'Spirit of the Blitz' in the queue, with one kind person actually queueing for an elderly neighbour who couldn't stand up for long. It was raining too, which added to the abject misery of the experience.

At the hospital I was kept waiting for over an hour - which gave me ample time to contemplate the 'we aim to see everyone within 30 minutes of their appointment time' notice. Another poster declared that the NHS valued my opinion, and would like me to fill in a patient survey form 'to be found in the waiting room'. My friend and I played Hunt the Patient Questionnaire for a while, and then I asked at the desk about their whereabouts. The chap looked confused, not having heard of them. He suggested I tried downstairs, and they hadn't either. Giving up hope, I did come across a pamphlet entitled 'Poems to Read in the Waiting Room'. My friend and I had a rather amusing time adding to these with little ditties, which I have to confess erred on the side of irony.

In the hour or so I was kept waiting, no one came to tell us what was going on, why we were waiting or how long it might be. All this coupled with the apparent complete lack of communication with the GP's surgery or myself was beyond comprehension. An organisation that prides itself on generally keeping its customers waiting 'only' thirty minutes in the twenty first century has much wrong with it.

I have to say that once in the consultation, everything was very well done and as pleasant as it could be. What a shame that seriously hopeless customer care and administration lets these brilliant teams down so badly.

Monday, 18 October 2010

I am Middle C

I play the piano. That's part of who I am.

I can't walk past a piano without giving in to the temptation to hit a chord or two.

I've always been like that.

There is something ultimately satisfying about the feel of the keys going down and springing back up, like miniature seesaws. The feel of triggering the hammer to bump the string.

Middle C. It's where it all starts.

The first note you find when your hands are still too small to reach an octave and your legs too short to reach the pedals. When you stood up, your nose was level with the bits of the keys that stick out a little further which older, taller people don't notice.

Middle C, defined by its wavelength, its tone. It can be sustained or dampened with the pedals. It can be part of a delightful melody when played in a particular order. It can be discordant when played against the wrong notes. A gifted composer can transform the discordant sound into something brilliant. It can be part of an orchestra, it can be part of something that evokes strong memories and emotions. But all it is is middle C.

I am middle C.

Who are you?

Saturday, 2 October 2010

How to be Happy

On my holiday this year, I spent quite a lot of time sitting on rocks on windswept Hebridean beaches. It gave me the opportunity to think. Or not to think for that matter.

If I chose to think, I could go for light and fluffy thoughts, 'what is that cow doing?', 'Is the tide coming in?'. Alternatively I could go for thinking extra-plus, 'is what I'm seeing really here?', 'how many micro-organisms are milling around under the rippling water'. I do acknowledge that my thinking extra-plus probably isn't that heavy duty compared to other people, but it felt weighty. So weighty in fact that I feel the urge to share it, and one of the things I thought was that you have to follow your urges (within reason, and therein lies the rub).

I think we all have inbuilt wisdom. You might not have noticed it yet, but every so often it will give you a little shake. I describe this best as having antennae that wiggle. Once you learn to recognise the wiggling sensation, you are starting out on being a bit happier. If you do something not in right ordering (with the cosmos - remember we're thinking big here), something will disturb you a bit, or maybe a lot (depends what you're thinking of doing really) and you might notice a virtual tremour.

The next thing to do is to PAY ATTENTION to the wiggling. Don't just discard the feeling, it is a gift that is helping you live your life better. It takes quite a while to trust the wiggles, but once you learn to trust them, stuff gets easier. It can be a bit bothersome at first, but persevere.

As a beginner, you might find it hard to differentiate the real wiggles from fake ones. Fake ones tend to happen when you are being a bit vain, or greedy - basically when you are suffering an unexpected attack of one of the seven deadly sins. There is an art to telling the difference, generally speaking real ones won't be advising you to do something for personal gain or to hurt someone else.

Once you start to get the hang of this, the wiggles become clearer, and you find you have some direction developing in your life. The antennae will point you towards what makes you happier, and properly happier.

Give yourself a few minutes every evening to think about what made you happier that day and think about why. Have integrity in all that you do.

If you're not sure where to start, think outwards. That is, think about what you can do to help other people. It takes you away from being self absorbed, and hopefully the other people will become more smiley and friendly towards you, giving you a bit of a warm inner glow. Random acts of kindness go a long way in building the inner glow. Just do a few off the cuff things, as easy as making someone a cup of tea or doing a chore for them. Something a bit unexpected and small works best. Unexpected big acts of generosity might make them suspicious and are to be avoided at first.

Try to be positive, say positive things to people, focus on the positive things in your life. If there is nothing positive to think about, it's time to make significant changes. Be adventurous and creative, but plan well and take advice.

The wiggling will help you start to express yourself better. This can help make you more creative. Being creative will make you happier because you will start to do things you feel passionate about. If everyone is busy doing things they feel passionate about, they will do them well. If we are all doing things well, the sum total of the human experience will improve and we will all benefit.

I do acknowledge this advice comes from the advantageous point of being free from pain, having enough food to eat, a roof over my head, freedom, a regular income and living in a democracy. With all these things, what right do we have not to be happy anyway?

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Nuclear Picnic Anyone?

I've just spent an afternoon in an old people's home, helping my mother move into their new premises. While we waited for her belongings to catch up (which they didn't) things became surreal. I was reading celebrity cellulite articles to her to try to dispel her anxiety about the whereabouts of her toothbrush and nightie. 'Did Alex really want to marry Jordan?' we wondered together. This lead me to ask her about her own long marriage to my father. What were the happiest times?

The reply sounded like something straight out of The Simpsons. 'Oh, I most enjoyed visiting the nuclear power stations for picnics. We used to go to all of them you know.'

I marveled at how a picnic at a nuclear power station could possibly rank as the high point of anyone's marriage, while gazing pointlessly at Posh's extensions ('she wouldn't leave my salon looking like that' - angry hairdresser to the WAGs).

'What are meal times like?' I asked, wondering whether a gastric band was really a good idea. I was regaled with a story detailing surprising aggression from a ninety year old with a stick baggying the adjacent dining chair for his wife. One brave gent (new kid on the block) had foolishly tried to sit in the chair and had faced the aforementioned walking stick being brandished menacingly from the arthritic oldie. The 'victim' had to resort to a particularly steady stare to dispel the attack. My mother was obviously impressed by the stand off and said it would have 'looked very good in a film' - I tried quite hard to imagine who would be interested in a film about old people arguing over the care home seating plan, but failed to think of a suitable market audience. I looked up from 'has Christine Bleakley had cosmetic surgery?' and asked whether my mother was 'sweet' on the gentleman with the dynamic 'look'. I noticed her blush and decided I didn't want to know any more and went back to 'boob jobs of the stars'.

There seemed to be an awful lot of staff helping to create total chaos in the home, with huge pieces of furniture being lugged into the one small lift by hefty removal men, who always had to wait for someone on a Zimmer frame to get out first. It was the slowest way you could possibly move into anywhere. I noticed an electric keyboard had taken up position in the lounge and resisted the urge to bash out some blues to the assembled hoardes of bored oldies. I later regretted this restraint when a helper started launching into 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' - all verses - several times.

I was sympathising with an elderly inmate about being further away from the sea, and nearly died of embarrassment when she said she was a volunteer. I made a mental note that if I was ever a volunteer in an old people's home, I would avoid a blue rinse and go for dreadlocks. Maybe even blue dreadlocks, just to be sure.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

The P***** Off-ice

The toys in the back pages of the mail order catalogue that I used to study intently as a child always included a toy post office. It seemed to be the ultimate in happiness. I visualised myself tearing off rows of stamps and putting plastic change in the plastic till.

As we all know, life can be cruel, and nothing demonstrates this more harshly than the experience of the real life post office.

As most of the sub-branches have closed, and the main post offices no longer inhabit grand buildings with large, free flowing spaces, you now have to queue for about 40 minutes crammed between racks of party poppers and Doritos in the back of a newsagent. I am going abroad soon and had to send off a visa application. With a grim heart I headed for the local Post Office. True to form, my lunch hour ticked away while I stared despondently at tired looking jiffy bags. When I eventually made it to the front of the queue the ‘helpful’ assistant tried to sell me a polythene bag for my passport for £5. ‘No’ I said firmly, ‘I just want a recorded delivery stamp on the envelope and the return envelope inside’. He tried again to flog me the bag. ‘No’, I said more firmly and held what I hoped was quite an effective Paddington Hard Stare. He relented and did as I asked and charged me £2.35, which seemed a better deal..

Off I went, pleased everything was sorted and relieved I wouldn't have to step inside one of those places again anytime soon.

Never be too pleased with yourself I realised later in the week when the visa office rang to say they didn’t take cheques, only postal orders. I didn’t even know you could still get postal orders. With heavier heart I made it to a different main branch PO and queued again. This queue was more edgy, I think it was the metal struts forcing us into the grim zig zag queue that had the effect of making you feel like cattle being herded into the slaughterhouse that didn’t help. The metal bound corners proved tricky for women to negotiate with pushchairs, and a chap who looked like his last qualification was an ASBO swore at a mate on his mobile phone, using plentiful words that the women in pushchairs probably didn’t want their children to hear. There were about twelve counters in the post office. Three were used for an imaginative display of home made toys. I didn’t hold out much hope for those being opened up to relieve the queue any time soon. The other counters were manned by three staff, as spread out as possible. One chap on the bureau de change counter was hidden behind a pillar, and when he needed to call the next customer, had to walk round the back of the counters to attract our attention. Customers in the queue helped each other recognise when a teller became available, and we all waited less and less patiently while women untangled buggy wheels from each other and soothed children that were nearly catapulted out of their seats when the wheels snagged on the metal restraining bars holding the angry hoarde back.

I had low blood sugar, and no patience at all left by the time the man from the bureau de change walked round the pillar again. ‘I want a £32 postal order please’, I muttered through clenched teeth. When he told me that would be £35 I could feel my blood pressure rising. I went to put my card in his little money sucking machine. ‘We can’t take the card’ he said helpfully, ‘too much fraud around’.

This is a card I have used in most of the shops in the town and never had any problem. It is also a card that uses a bank that operates via the post office. ‘You can use it to withdraw money first, and then give me the cash for the postal order’ he said helpfully. I realised this was why the queue was so long, every single transaction had to be done the most labourious way possible. The man behind the counter was sitting back with a self satisfied grin. I didn’t like his attitude, but then I didn’t like anything anymore.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked, the question laced with acid.

‘Mike’ he said and glared at me challengingly.

‘Do you have a surname?’ I asked, struggling to sound rational.

‘I don’t have to give you that’ he said, wearing an expression familiar to me from the chap with the ASBO back in the queue.

‘What is your manager’s name then?’ I asked as sweat began to break on my brow and I started to wonder whether I needed anger management classes.

‘I haven’t done anything wrong’ said 'Mike', ‘it’s the Post Office’.

He didn’t help at this point by sitting back, delaying everything even more. Trembling, I reached into my bag and thankfully found the money in cash.

‘Who do you want it paid to?’ he asked, scowling at me.

‘The Syrian Embassy please’. He looked confused for a moment, and then asked,
‘C-I -…..?’.

‘No, not C, try S’ I said helpfully.

‘C?’ he went again as his finger hovered uncertainly over the keyboard and the furrows on his brow deepened.

It was lucky there was armoured glass between us at this point, as I almost spat out, ‘S_Y_R_I_A_N’. I was aware of the eyes of all the people in the queue boring holes into the back of my head.

I wondered why the post office employed people to work on the bureau de change counter who couldn't spell the countries of the world.

It all went on far too long, and I was probably out of order. I had a stab of sympathy for the chap as I left, it can’t be any fun dealing with frustrated customers all day.

As I stepped outside, there was a whooshing noise as my childhood dream of post office happiness evaporated.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Looking behind the Door

I've always wanted to be one of those really cool people who can sit at a piano and improvise away for ages with lovely, bluesy stuff. I've been trying to do this for about thirty years, and as soon as anyone says anything remotely like, 'ad lib around E flat' my fingers seize up and I can't do anything at all. I even attended a jazz piano course that made a whooshing noise as it went right over my head - how was I supposed to know what an 'open sus 14' was? I had sadly considered blues style piano was something I really just wasn't capable of, until this weekend.

I was staying at a friend's house and having a go on her rather wonderful piano. She had said something (mildly stinging) about my limited repertoire, which made me decide to try and play different stuff for a change. I was just twiddling around and suddenly, there I was, doodling on the ivories in BLUESY style. Everything was starting to make sense, 'arpeggio with a diminished seventh' I found myself thinking, 'improvise around C, E flat, F sharp and G' I remembered the piano teacher saying (with the spiteful chaser that it was so easy anyone could do it), 'pentatonic scale - just keep to the black notes' my son once said.

And there they were, in front of me, my fingers skipping around and the noise that was coming out SOUNDED PRETTY GOOD. Even my friend came in and said how good it was. 'Me', I thought, 'Me, playing blues'.

It was as if a very large and creaky door (like the seriously huge ones in the British Museum) had finally opened and some sunlight was shining through the gap.

It was fun. It was very fun indeed.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Is this the right platform?

You might be sitting at your computer, but really you are on Hampton Wick Station. I wonder whether the right train is coming yet?
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Ah, here comes the train now.
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Have a good journey!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Waiting for this Madness to Pass

I've been feeling very happy lately. I felt so happy, and it felt so unusual, I actually caught myself wondering whether I was in fact going mad. I did meet someone in the lift (unusually I knew them already) and he agreed he too was unfashionably happy. We had a very jolly conversation about the wonders of waking up (good news, means you're alive), being free, not being in pain and having a job (food and shelter as add on extras). It was an eight floor conversation. It beat the three floor conversation I had with a stranger in the morning. He said he didn't like the rain. I said I didn't like the sun, and then heard myself explaining this was because I was, in fact, a vampire and dissolved in sunshine. Unsurprisingly, he didn't seem to want to talk to me after this.

You can see why I might think I'm going mad.

I was more relieved than usual when the woman who spends all her time sitting on top of the lifts announced the doors were opening.


They're coming to take me away, ha-haaa, They're coming to take me away, ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-haaa. To the happy home. With trees and flowers and chirping birds and basket weavers who sit and smile and twiddle their thumbs and toes and they're coming to take me away, ha-haaa!!!

Saturday, 27 March 2010

The Desk Pillow

Why hasn't anyone invented the desk pillow yet? A fluffy confection of goose feather that fits neatly over your keyboard. It could include a rubber dribble resevoir to avoid any embarrassing dampness clogging up the 'f' and the 'g'. The base of your computer monitor would be adapted to have little concertina arms fitted to it. These would have boxing gloves on the ends. As your head lowered onto the keyboard one boxing glove would ping out to puff up the edges of the pillow, the other to pat you on the head while the computer murmured soothing 'there-there's . A special antenna would have to be fitted to the top of the monitor to react to a previously inserted microchip (situated in the position of your choosing about Major Paperclip's person) so that as he approached, the concertina arms would whisk the pillow away and re-arrange your head in the upright position. The screen would automatically show the latest comparative performance indicator spreadsheet, which would explain your bewildered expression to everyone present. You might need special add-on features, such as the velcro wrist band to fasten your hand to the mouse mat, so you are not rudely awakened by 'arm slip'. If anyone asks, you have the choice of wearing a pained expression and muttering 'RSI', or of wearing a secretive expression and starting a discussion on 'interesting hobbies'.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Power of the Guinea Pig

I was heartened to see a very large banner hanging on a lamp-post outside a pet mega-market this morning. It featured a handsome close-up photograph of a guinea pig, doing what guinea-pigs do best - looking philosophical. He was obviously contemplating how contrary to the evidence of our senses, the belief in plurality and change is mistaken, and in particular that motion is nothing but an illusion.

You might wonder how I know that. It was all in the expression.

The far away look in the eyes.

Either that or he was just considering whether or not to eat the bouquet of daisies that the photographer had employed to keep him in place.

They eat guinea-pigs in Ecuador, so my friends, I think it's time to start the siege.

Serve de-skinned and fried in a light crumb coating.

NB: While writing this I came across a recipe for Rottweiler and sweet potato. Do Waitrose sell Rottweiler steaks yet?

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Look Busy, Jesus is Coming

I was driving home and, having managed to bludgeon the window motor into life, both windows were open letting gusts of spring air rush around. I indulged in a little daydream, imagining the Skip was in fact a BMW Z5. My long, blonde hair was flowing out in the slipstream, my beauty dazzling male admirers who stopped to watch this amazing and obviously successful woman cruise down the street. They held the backs of their hands up to shield their eyes as, in slow motion, I smiled a diamond, sparkling smile from under my Ray Ban Wayfarers.

Then the lights changed.

As I drove I reflected on how it had been another heavy day at work, watching senior managers wrestle with paper planes in order to learn how to improve efficiency while building a Toyota Corolla. An initiative that I suspected had Major Paperclip written all over it. There had also been a minor skirmish over posters in the ecumenical chapel. 'My God!' the caller proclaimed, 'He pulled them all down'. I felt upset at having missed God doing his thing on our premises. Perhaps he really wanted to build a Toyota. They do last a long time.

Me, I'm happy in my Skip.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air

The thin, young man with the face so white it glowed like the moon sat cross legged on the filthy tiled floor of the stinking subway. He wore a jaunty hat on a head that sagged from trembling shoulders. His only possession, a thin jacket, scrunched up in front of him. He didn't even have the energy to beg.

A group of suits walked past, faces flushed from the excesses of the after work drink. As they walked they threw snide jeers at him - like stones at a medieval prisoner in the stocks. The limp soul didn't look up.

'Are you hungry?' I asked, stupidly. The pointy chin in the shadow of the hat moved up and down. I left something I'd just bought from a late opening supermarket. I looked back from the stairs. His face was turned towards me and I was getting a thumbs up from one fist. It was like a jolt of electricity, this connection with a stranger.

On the journey home I wondered what series of events would need to happen to lose touch so completely with the functioning world. And how many of us have been close to it at some point?

Sadder still was the realisation of the magnitude of the task facing this ashen faced lost soul to find his way back.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Major Paperclip

There was once a Major who was proud to be in charge of paperclips. His comrades carried M2 Brownings to kill as many people as possible, but he was proud to carry a heavy duty staple gun. He was smug that while his comrades murdered the opposition, innocent civilians and sometimes each other, he only killed time. Major Paperclip enjoyed reading office supplies catalogues, and running audits of stock. He noted his colleagues only read pornography and counting how many cigarettes they had left. He also noted that while they might invade countries, he only invaded other people's personal space.

One day, General Postit announced that paper cuts were required. Not little cuts, but HUGE cuts. He called Major Paperclip into his office, and pointed to a chart on the wall. The chart was bisected by a red line, plunging to the bottom right hand corner. General Postit stamped his foot, hammered the desk with a fat fist and shouted that DRASTIC reorganisation was required to save money. The General inhaled momentarily and then spat out the chaser, 'AND THERE MUST BE NO DROP IN EFFICIENCY'.

Other majors might have been overwhelmed by the size and complexity of the task. Not Major Paperclip. After many hundreds of hours of careful thought, he experienced a dawn of realisation in his early morning bath. The answer to all the organisation's problems would be to KEEP THE STATIONERY CUPBOARDS TIDY. He leapt out of the bath and ran out into the street shouting his excitement.

Major Paperclip organised meeting after meeting, with more and more complicated spreadsheets and more and more computerised presentations in sinister, darkened rooms. The meetings were so important they required that more and more of the highest grade officers attend. The higher the grade, the longer the meeting and the more numerous the officers, the happier Major Paperclip became. The meetings were like a virus, spreading through the building.

The next day in the office, wearing his smartest dress uniform, complete with sword, he held the highest tier meeting he could muster and dispatched every person present to their respective stationery cupboards to make sure they were well organised. He marched back and forth as senior officers hurriedly wrote 'biros' and 'staples - 26/6' on sticky labels and affixed them to the melamine shelving. He ran his fingers round the inside of his shiny Sam Browne and barked the occasional order about whether hole punches (being heavier than lever arch files) should be stowed lower or higher up.

While Major Paperclip was managing to keep so many staff busy checking treasury tags and C5 (window) envelope stock and General Postit admired his updated chart with the red line pointing back at the ceiling again, no one noticed the invaders approaching.

 Disclaimer: Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is
purely coincidental.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Is it going to be a barbeque summer?

I went for a walk in the suburban paradise around Prefab Towers at lunchtime. Feeling fleet of foot, I decided to investigate the shop furthest away, which was whatever Woollies has morphed into. It was chock full of odd bits and pieces, a cheap imitation of what Woollies once was. Bike chains hanging next to sewing thread and chocolates. A little beyond the 'wardrobe systems' I was surprised to see what every shopper needs in a slightly dull lunchbreak. Cremation urns, in a stack. Woolworths never sold urns did they? Perhaps they were hidden in the vase section I never excavated properly.

I started to think about how they could work the 'buy one get one free' offers. They'd have to do what Tesco does and 'have one now, one later' (although that's only really helpful for the mass murderers among us). I felt dark thoughts creeping into my mind. Perhaps this part of suburbia is hiding the sort of middle class that barbeque unwanted members of their families, and then pop to Timmy Woolworth to get the urn. I bet the woman on the till knows a few things that might interest the police. Maybe the police should open an urn shop themselves - they could check out the shoppers who ask about the loyalty card scheme.

As I left I decided the positioning of the urns was wrong. They would attract more attention near the 'Happy 100th birthday' cards.

* * * * * *

NB: At secretarial college I sat next to a woman who actually lived next door to a man who had famously barbequed his wife in Richmond. She said they had wondered about the number of al fresco meals he was enjoying, and about the strange smell that lingered on afterwards.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Special K

I was quite excited driving The Skip this week. I had done 49,999 miles. I was on the M40 and had to keep staring at the digital read out to watch the mileometre change. I glanced up to wonder if I needed anything from the M&S outlet in the MOTO services, looked back and, blast, 50,000 was showing.

When I thought about it, I hadn't actually missed anything. It's not like it used to be, when whichever old banger we were driving hit 100,000 and you actually had the deep joy of watching the wheels with the numbers on roll round in unison. The last nought was always a bit slow, you wanted them to clunk down together, like a fruit machine hitting the jackpot, but that last one was always tricky. There was nothing remotely interesting about my digital read out changing, no lovely little wheely things whirring around. Why, when someone has kindly left the speedometre as a proper dial, can't we keep real numbers stamped on little wheels. Just think of the sense of acceleration you get with the speedometer needle swirling round. Think about the hint of blackberry and apple and faint expectation of custard you get looking at the pie chart quality of a real clock. (When anyone in my family ask for a portion of pie or tart, we always ask for '10 minutes', or 'quarter of an hour' on an especially hungry day). It just doesn't work in digital. Where is the food analogy with a digital clock? There is just the hint of GCSE maths with take-awaysies to base sixty. It's not the same.

Bring back dials, bring back real clocks that have a tick from a pendulum, bring back phones that jangle when they ring because they have a bell inside! Digital is dingy!

Friday, 5 March 2010

Going Down?

I'm in the lift, strange faces again. I was so absorbed in my new theory that I forgot to press '9' and then looked daft as I scrabbled for the button as the red dotted '8' swung by encased in upward 'v' signs. The suspect pair had a trolley and a couple of brown paper parcels with them. Props I expect. There's probably a wire basket Lucky Dip of office basics on the roof to help add credibility. Clipboards are popular, as well as the ubiquitous text book with the post-it tags. There must be a row of pegs holding variations on the council lanyard and ID card. I tried to look at one of the lift men's ID cards, but it was cunningly clipped to the edge of his trouser pocket, overlapping his groin. I didn't want to stare too hard in case my interest was misinterpreted.

I've been suspicious of lifts since watching a Saturday night thriller on TV aged about eleven. A woman and a psychotic killer were locked in an office block, and the whole film was based around how she was trying to avoid a grizzly death (by being garroted with a letter knife or similar) and spent hours going up and down in the lifts, hopping out at different floors to see where the madman's lift was. I think it's stayed with me past it's sell-by date.

I hope there's no letter knife in the Lucky Dip on the roof. I won't be responsible for my actions!

Monday, 1 March 2010

Can anyone show me the script please?

I work in a fourteen storey building, which must house a a finite number of employees. I've been working there over two years. How come every time I get in the lift there are people I've never seen before? In fact, when I use the kitchen on the ninth floor, if there is someone else squirting water from the boiler on a teabag, chances are I've not seen them before either. It's starting to worry me. Am I in a 'Truman Show' situation, where the actors are changing regularly? Should I try to break out through the skyline of my local suburbia, somewhere over Pound Mart and the non chain coffee shop that should be nice but isn't? Spookily, today someone was very friendly and spoke to me like they knew me - I could swear I hadn't seen them before. They took the stairs though.

Perhaps there's a crowd of people on the roof, just coming down one or two at a time in the lifts. If I don't get in, maybe they change on the ground floor and go up again until they are spotted. Come to think of it, the security guys in their office on the ground floor always look quite knowing. They're often on the phone too, perhaps they're sending a message to the group of bit-part extras on the roof.

I would take the stairs more often to avoid this conundrum. Trouble is, 252 stairs leaves me gasping for breath at the photocopier and my cappuccino has gone disappointingly tepid by the time I collapse, wheezing, at my desk. The (very good) coffee shop join me in some mild Health and Safety anarchy, and now super-heat my beverage to skin-grafting temperatures. Hopefully, as I get fitter, this won't be necessary. I'll be able to bound up the stairs three at a time, laughing joyfully as I biff the green button on the photocopier to wake it up on my way to my pod zone. I then biff the button on my computer which also takes a good ten minutes to come round. I take the opportunity to stare at the view of Canary Wharf in the distance, where my friend- who-did-better-than-me-at-school works. There must be loads of people in that building, I'll ask her if she recognises anyone in the lifts.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

What's the point in IT?

The IT training room at work feels a bit like being in prison. A high quality prison, but a prison all the same. All the tacky matching-but-cheap furnishings cloned from every IT suite across the universe (there's probably an alien somewhere, wrestling with computer concepts, sitting on the dual adjustable office chair) laid out so you can only stare at your monitor or the magnolia wall. It feels like you've been sent to the naughty corner. The single, small window is set high in the wall to avoid the wanton allure of the suburban paradise below distracting us from our task. I stood on tiptoe to open the window to try to alleviate the drone from the monitors and ceiling projector. A pneumatic drill started attacking some belligerent concrete outside. The window was closed. The air went dry. The room remained souless.

The wall screen bore the time in its curled up corner, cruelly accurate to the minute.

I gazed despondently out of the grey window at the grey sky.

'The anti-bird netting seems to be woven into interesting trapeziums' I thought desperately to myself. Just at that moment, an anarchic pigeon released two dollops of poo that splattered across the window pane.

It was OK, it was grey.

It matched.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Odd, Clever, Strange.

I was walking past the Tate Modern today, and thought I shouldn't walk past, I should go in and 'get me some culture'. For a huge place, I've only ever seen a few things that really grab me, and generally I find it rather disappointing. Today there was what looked like an outsized lorry container in the Turbine Hall. I wasn't sure I could be bothered to even go down the stairs to look at it. Then I saw a sign that showed you could walk into it from the other end, so, slightly intrigued, I went round. The container was open with the end dropped down making a broad ramp. It still looked too uninspiring to bother navigating the slight incline to get in. Just as I was about to turn away, a young girl went past saying, 'Wow, what an experience'. Confused, I wandered up the ramp and was drawn into the void. I walked further and further into the container and the darkness became increasingly thick, like soup. Faces came upon me suddenly, out of the apparent nowhere and people bumped against each other. It was disorientating, but mesmerising. It reminded me of seeing a swarm of bats one night in the park. I couldn't see them until they were right in my personal space, when they swooped away with a deft screw turn.

A cluster of pale faces marked the back wall of the container. Turning round, I could see the end of the Turbine Hall, in normal daylight.

Odd. Clever. Strange.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

How much for a wing mirror?

I've had to rather traumatically give up my free parking pass at work. This means I have to find a spot in the streets around Prefab Towers. On Friday, I parked in quite a good place on a fairly wide main road. When I came back to the car, someone had smashed into the wing mirror and left it dangling by a solitary electric cable. It reminded me of two things: being seven years old with a tooth hanging by the last string of skin, dangling and twisting rather uncomfortably (I never was quite brave enough to yank it out, and went for days spitting a tooth out at people as I spoke) and how an eyeball might look after being snookered out of its orbit, hanging by the optic nerve.

I drove home gingerly, and most of today has been spent trying to sort out a replacement. The jolly man at the garage under the railway bridge said it would be £175. That's without the time to fit it and before he had screwed the number plate on properly (about time I had a gaffer-tape free car I thought).


For a mirror!


It spurred me on to test out Halford's customer service, which does those boring ads between Top Gear on the Dave channel. I had done my homework and found a universal mirror for £13.99 on the internet. I started to lose the will to live after giving my registration number three times over the phone to the Saturday chap in the local branch. To make it easy, I even gave him the catalogue number. He spent some time rummaging around in the attic and came back to say he had one. I hot footed it down to the shop, to find that what was behind the till was a towing mirror. I don't have a caravan, and obviously also didn't have a wing mirror to attach it to. The helpful chap went scurrying back into the attic. While I waited, I strolled up to the mirror display and found the one I wanted.

Back to the jolly man in the garage who obviously saw the word 'mug' written across my forehead, because an hour later he charged me £50 to fit it (and do the number plate). As I handed over my hard earned cash, he said I needed some gaffer tape to stop the rain getting in and stopping the window from working.

I tried to look concerned, but regular readers will know that the window hasn't worked for some time.

I was more annoyed that I still needed a roll of gaffer-tape in the glove compartment.

Friday, 12 February 2010

The Magic Carpet

When we are down, we look at the clouds. We see nothing else.

Storm clouds, dark clouds.

A deep depression.

Friends and family come together to shoulder our trouble on a magic carpet of love. Raising us up to better see the sky.

If we look at the clouds, the supporters silently shuffle round beneath us, turning the carpet so our face looks to the sunlight. We might turn our head away, not ready to see it yet.

Quietly, the carpet shuffles round again, trying to direct us to the light.

Sometimes the burden of holding the carpet up is immense. The supporters know they must not buckle under the weight of grief; yours or their own. They hold their breath. Heads down, arms across each other’s trusty shoulders, they side step around the black hole of despair, determined not to let you fall again.

The magnitude of the task is bolstered by love, by trust and by faith in you.

They want no gratitude, only to see your face turn to the light.

They know that somewhere, deep in your soul, you are aware of the ride.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Sport for the Lazy

There's something therapeutic about trying to bat the living daylights out of a shuttlecock. Every ounce of stress or anger from the day can be directed at the flimsy feathered thing that is cockroach-like in it's inability to be destroyed.

I'm now wondering whether there is something in the prefix or suffix 'cock' that makes it indestructable. Hmm, something to think about there.....

Snap out of it girl!

Sorry, where was I?

Oh yes, the shuttlecock. What is so wonderful is that, unlike a tennis ball, you don't have to run far to retrieve it. You can achieve pretty good shots with not that much effort, the racquet is nice and light and you also tend to play indoors so you don't get the sun in your eyes or the wind whisking the focus of your pent-up emotions away. Yes, badminton is a sport well suited to the lazy athlete. I also like cycling because it's exercise done sitting down, and swimming backstroke, because its as near to lying in bed as exercise gets. All that comfy water holding you up. Table tennis might have lighter bats, and those weedy balls, but they do tend to roll a long way away and lodge in tricky places under furniture. If you don't look where you are treading, there's an annoying crunch and you have to bring the game to a premature close (a useful device to employ if you are losing as a draw is the only sportsman-like option in this situation).

Running is by far too much like hard work, and runners always have bandaged knees or ankles, which proves it's not good for you. Rugby players spend as much time in casualty waiting for ear transplants as they do running around the pitch, and cricketers need armoured protection for their well, you know what*, which points to an obvious highly undesirable element in the game.

So, grab a lightweight racquet,swirl it around a few times so it makes a very satisfying whooshing noise in the air, and reduce your blood pressure instantly by thrashing a shuttlecock.

*like those puzzles, fill in the gap the word that makes two new words:
shuttle(_ _ _ _)roach

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The Bell of Doom

My new job means a new desk in a huge, open plan office. This is a bit of a change of culture as previously I enjoyed a rather large cell all to myself. I now sit at a 'pod', and am currently feeling slightly inferior, as everyone else has lined their areas with box files and heaps of important looking, spiral bound documents. I quickly realised, like furniture shops have fake books on their shelving, the under-utilised employee needs fake box files. It leaves me in something of a quandry. Is it better to have a clear desk to look hyper-efficient, or does that create the illusion that you haven't got enough to do and must therefore be first on the latest redundancy list? Should I cover my desk in heaps of paperwork to look busy, but risk criticism for muddled working techniques? The other new thing about my work station is that it has a view. Yes, I'm on the ninth floor (feel a bit worried, I was on the first floor before and knew, if push came to shove, that I could dangle from the window sill and drop, Starsky and Hutch style, onto one of the vehicles in the car park. The police tended to park their vans under my window, so that would add to the dramatic effect). The view is a bit annoying, as being in an open plan office, I feel somewhat inhibited about gazing at it for too long for fear of finding another way onto that list.

Anyway, my latest fitness trend is to WALK UP THE STAIRS in the morning. There are 152 - consequently I arrive a bit of a wreck, knees a-tremble, but feeling quite smug. All that hard work means that when the tuck-trolley trundles into my pod zone and the tuck-chap rings his Bell of Doom, my resolve disolves and I observe (from that other being deep in my soul) one hand proffering 50p and the other reaching out to the rustic wicker basket that contains the chocolately items. If I want to make a cup of tea to go with my confectionery, I have to brave the communal kitchen with a set of rules I don't feel totally au fait with yet. I do know that one fridge belongs to the legal team and that I risk being arrested if I use their milk. The kitchen is mysteriously devoid of any utensils (is everyone on the ninth floor a kleptomaniac I wondered), so instead of stirring the tea, I just have to walk with a bit more bounce in my step to help it slop around to achieve perfect diffusion with the milk. This can go wrong and is not to be attempted while wearing anything white. On return to my desk I decided it might need to become the one that has helpful cutlery on it rather than bulging lever arch files with those annoying little Post-It page finders sticking out, inferring that the owner HAS READ EVERYTHING INSIDE.

The oddest thing about the kitchen though is that the fridges are confusingly intermingled with large, glass fronted computers. I can see this becoming a problem as the retirement age increases someone will eventually be caught trying to fit the milk between ranks of cables, sending the whole building into a pre-computer age winter. At least then I will be able to admire the view.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Sweet Dreams

I have purged the whole house of junk this week, and only have a couple of cupboards to go. One I noted, as I wrestled with the ironing board, is the kitchen cupboard. As I mentioned before, one leg got stuck on the folding shovel last time. Today, the ironing board snagged on a deer antler. I wondered for a brief moment if everyone has these things in their cupboards or is it just my kitchen that seems rather surreal. (As I write this, I am reminded of the party where a gatecrasher thought my kitchen was actually a club, so fabulous were the flashing disco lights and the fact that everyone was throwing their shapes while crunching across shards of broken wine glasses).

Anyway, as I am still enjoying a vinyl-fest from having discovered how to plug in the turntable, I blasted the basement with the Eurythmics as I tackled my mountain of ironing.

'Sweet dreams are made of this!', I yelled as the iron tried to straighten the crinkles in my favourite skirt. Oh, how I wish I could sing like Annie Lennox, I thought mournfully to myself. 'Purple Rain, Purple Rain' I sang as I swooshed over my purple top - seemed funny at the time, but maybe you had to be there.

The trouble with vinyl is the music finishes so quickly, twenty minutes is nothing before you have to fiddle around flipping the record over. What's worrying is that it seemed quite a long time back in the 1980s. Do we get ground rush as we get older? Do I want to be doing my ironing if the end of my life is approaching that fast? What should I be doing - fronting a rock band? Can I be Chrissie Hynde next time round please or maybe Annie - I'd enjoy being tall for a change.

Perhaps Annie Lennox does her ironing wishing she worked for the local council, shouting 'any apologies for absence before we tackle agenda item 1?'.

Maybe not, but how would she cope if she found herself in a kitchen emergency that required a folding shovel and a pair of deer antlers?

Saturday, 16 January 2010

A Folding Shovel and a Survival Bag

I had an exciting journey to work in the snow on Wednesday. I enjoyed feeling slightly superior as I got into the Skip, which has '4x4' emblazoned on the side. The smile was wiped off my face as, at the first T junction, I applied the brakes and nothing happened. There was an ominous bang as I cruised into the car in front. The driver was very nice about it, and there was no apparent damage. My precious new number plate was hanging by a thread, but a couple of thumps with my fist seemed to do the trick. After sliding around at about 5 miles an hour, brakes juddering at intervals, I got within walking distance of Prefab Towers and skidded on foot into the office. I was 15 minutes late for my first day in a new job. Not a very good start, 'but at least I got there' said a kindly person offering therapy in the lift. That's one of the benefits of being on the ninth floor, you can meet new friends while the lift struggles to achieve escape velocity.

I was reminded of the snowy scenario when I went to get the ironing board out this morning. It caught on something in the bowels of the kitchen cupboard, which turned out to be the handy folding shovel I inherited from my father. It was in a bag that had followed us everywhere throughout my childhood in the boot of the car, and used to also contain tyre chains and a 'survival bag'. It even came on our summer holidays with the sister bag (goodness knows what was in that) making it difficult to fit all the holiday luggage in. Quite often the blue emergency bags would be stored in the passenger footwells which meant a 500 mile trip to Scotland would be made with our chins resting on our knees. My father once described how the 'survival bag' would save our lives if we were stranded in a snow drift. I tried to wear an expression of reassurance, but in truth I think I experienced one or two nightmares at the prospect of being zipped into a fluorescent green rubberised bag with my father while imprisoned in a Toyota Celica on the M1 somewhere near Newport Pagnell.

It all seemed quite far fetched in those days, not so now.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Easter's Come Early

I've just been to Tesco. I had to go - my vacuum cleaner has given up again, and the little independent vacuum cleaner and accessories shop I like to frequent was closed, 'for two weeks' it said on the helpful hand-written notice stuck to the metal shutters. I'm not a fastidious person, but two weeks without a vacuuming session, and there being a hole in the coal bucket (dear Liza), means my once cream carpet has gone a bit black round the grate. 'Big' Tesco (as locals like to call it) was the only place to go for replacements.

The first thing that hit me this time was the enthusiastic marketing of Easter bunnies and creme eggs, the 'season' being 1st Jan to 4th April (nothing much to do with the Paschal Full Moons then). I don't know about you, but I'm only just recovering from Christmas, and so was Tesco (cheap mistletoe-embellished cakes and whole walls built out of Pringles). The other thing I noticed about Big Tesco was the distribution of types of shoppers in the aisles. DIY equipment was wholly populated by men, the pharmacy area by old people, organics by corn braided shoppers in colourful coats. The only aisle that was empty was pet food. Twickenham dogs and cats must still be working their way through the left over turkey - not ready for the rabbit yet either.

While I was there, I was inexplicably overcome by the need to buy a new mop. I have trouble with mops. About once every five years I buy a new one, thinking it will revolutionise my life. I fell for the 'Vileda Supermop', I fell for the 'Wood Floor Mop System'. The problem with these is that you can never find the right replacement parts. I spent a dispropotionate amount of time considering the fixings of mop accessories, before succombing to the charms of the 'Tesco Sponge Mop', which looked simple to use even for me and, cleverly thinking ahead, purchased a replacement head at the same time. This should keep me going for about the next decade, floor mopping not being too high on my agenda.

I cruised home, strangely looking forward to some serious housework, and as I drove past the corporate concrete megolith that is the rugby stadium, I couldn't help wondering whether it might look better built out of unsold savoury snack tubes.

Sunday, 3 January 2010


Phew. I've watched the whole of series one of 'The Wire'. I think I watched too much too soon as I now want to buy an orange sofa and call everyone 'Motherfucker'.

I'm a mother though, does that still work?

My son thinks not and waves his arms in distress every time I try to tell him dinner is ready.

I want to invest in the drug dealer look too; impossibly baggy jeans that show the waistband of my knickers (luckily Bridget Jones big ones work this style), a bicycle chain made of gold (I'll have to buy some Hammerite and cannibalise my old bike), a huge hoodie and some platform trainers. I will keep my middle two fingers permanently folded over, and randomly point to my groin with the remaining digits. I can also mumble about 'my stash' say 'yo' a lot and look furtive.

I think the neighbours are going to be a bit surprised.