Kobayashi Maru

The loathsome bear-baiting spectacle that is Prime Minister’s Question Time was on again today.  I don’t get it.  It’s a Kobayashi Maru for Ed Miliband.  He can’t win: if he scores a point off David Cameron he looks as sneering and supercilious as Cameron, and if he doesn’t, he just looks weak.  Why doesn’t he pull the plug and refuse to play?

I don’t mean fail to turn up (although that in itself would make a helluva story) but change the game.  Get his troops together, and ambush the tories by behaving like…

… well, like grown ups.  Like thinking human beings.  Like statesmen and women.  Be the change you want to see and actually ask sensible questions, answer points that are raised, debate like you mean it.  And meanwhile refrain (and get your supporters to refrain) from making braying noises like a meeting of the Drones Club.

The tories would walk all over him?  Well they’re walking all over him now.  He seriously needs some media training.  Hell, he seriously needs to watch a box set of the West Wing.  But people are tired of the stupid game: get into its programming and change the rules.  Live long and prosper!

Ten years ago today…

I just found my 2005 diary.  It was a gorgeous page-a-day A5 Moleskine (sigh.  Stationery fetishists-R-us) and I filled it in for exactly three days!

Mind you, they weren’t bad days.  I was living in a flat in Covent Garden at the time, and the Eurostar went from Waterloo in those days.  So I got up, walked around the corner, got on a train, and on New Year’s Day I went to Paris!

For lunch!

To meet up with techgrrl and some of her friends, because she was over from the States and the closest she was getting to me was Paris.

It seems like a hundred years ago.

The next day I apparently pottered about quietly at home and it felt like being on sabbatical again – I must have just gone back to work after my year off, when I went to Clarion and then spent 18 months in my little cottage in Wales, allegedly writing a novel.

The only other day I filled in was in spring, when I was in Barcelona for the weekend with Sandra Kirkham. I record that I had a few moments to myself as she was in the hotel gym…. and then my pen ran out and there was nothing more.

Those were the days, my friends.

Anything goes

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was on tv earlier this week, so I was singing “Anything Goes” in risibly badly remembered phonetic Mandarin-lite for twenty four hours, so it was a relief to get it out of my system and go and see the actual show, Anything Goes, at the Crucible theatre on Tuesday afternoon.

And, yes, this is the kind of review that’s going to explain why no-one will go to the theatre with me any more.

And, yes, I have issues with the Crucible theatre: I’m not a neutral party.  You see, I was here before the Crucible.  When the Crucible was a hole in the ground, trying to raise enough money to be built, I wanted it to exist.  I was an usherette there all through my A-level years.

(Old git alert: when I worked at the Crucible three evenings a week I was paid.  I also had a paid Saturday job at Boots the Chemist in Broomhill.  And then I left school, and my mother got me a temporary full time job for a couple of weeks at Lucas’ in Mappin Street (before it became one of the University buildings, when it was something to do with the manufacture of car parts).  The old git part?  I had three jobs, one full time and two part time, in the early seventies, and my ambition at the time was to earn forty pounds a week and even with three jobs I didn’t make it.  (Cue chorus of Four Yorkshiremen saying “tell the young people of today that…”))



Anything Goes is…OK.

I know, I know, and I’m sorry, but I can’t say any fairer than that.

I can’t complain about the show itself.  I hadn’t seen it before, but the book is a reasonable comedy farrago of people in disguise, in love with the wrong people, and motivated by monomania.  She loves him, he loves the other gal, she’s marrying the rich guy, the rich guy’ll marry whoever’s left over and we’ll all live happily ever after.  And the songs are mostly great: I get a kick out of you, You’re the top, It’s de-lovely, and of course Anything Goes itself.  Even the ones you can’t instantly sing along to – Blow, Gabriel, Blow – are performed with panache.  The chorus singing is excellent and a couple of the cast – notably Stephen Matthews as Lord Oakleigh and Debbie Kurup as Reno – have fabulous voices.

It’s the dancing.  I know ‘everyone’s a critic’ is a cliche, but there’s also some truth in it.  Critics had a gatekeeping function in the pre-broadcast and pre-internet age, helping people identify good performances from bad, and in signposting star quality.   Now, however, people can see, effortlessly, electronically, enough performances to form their own opinions.  There are also enough quasi-critical programmes like Strictly that people also have some idea of what makes a good performance. There is personal preference, but there’s also the difference between competence and excellence, and far more people have sufficient experience of different performances to see which is which.

So the dancing was, well, competent.  That doesn’t mean I could do any of it, or that it isn’t bloody hard work competently performed at a professional level that 99% of us could never aspire to reaching.  What it wasn’t, though, was worth going out of the house to watch because it was better/more exciting/more engaging that anything I could see on tv any day of the week.  Sorry and all that, but if I still notice the girls fumbling the scarf pull at the end of Anything Goes in Temple of Doom after all these years, I’m also going to notice that there are only half a dozen dancing sailors in the chorus on the Crucible stage and, while they were all dancing their hearts out, there wasn’t that… something extra… that I couldn’t have got from watching Strictly.

I feel awful saying it, actually, because they’re real people with real jobs that they work really hard at, but there wasn’t any… stardust.

I don’t know how you get stardust, but I know it when I see it, and Anything Goes didn’t show me any.  Sorry again.

Two things might have helped.  One is just sheer numbers.  The chorus lines were five girls and six boys and that number felt just a little mean.  I know actors cost money and an enormous chorus line is, presumably, the difference between  profit and loss.  But then I always thought the chorus line in Temple of Doom looked a bit thin, too.  I don’t recall ever thinking that in a Fred and Ginger movie.

And the other?


The Crucible has a thrust stage.  Like the Olivier and the Globe, the audience aren’t separated from the cast by a proscenium arch.  Now, if you want to know what a person thinks about politics, look at what was happening in the world when they were 18. For me, if you want to know my views about theatre, look at what theatre I was going to when I was 18.  For me, the Crucible is the ideal stage configuration and it makes me brain-explodingly mad to see it used as if it was a badly-designed proscenium arch rather than a brilliantly-designed thrust.

Anything Goes is going on tour when it finishes at the Crucible.  Look at the dates and the venues here.  It’s designed to tour, and to tour all kinds of venues.  It’s not designed for the Crucible.  One of my fantasy “when I win £100 million on the Eurolottery” fantasies is to buy the Crucible and run it how I think it ought to be run.  So I guess you can safely ignore my opinion of its productions.

How to revise for exams

What would happen if I locked the door, right now, and put an exam paper in front of you?  English literature, say?  Write 500 words about the feminist subtext of Vanity Fair.   Or maths.  Could you work out how much change you’d have from a twenty if you bought three pairs of socks at £6.50 apiece?  Chemistry?  What is the atomic weight of unobtainium?   (one of these is a trick question, btw)

Let’s call the stuff you know now, without any preparation, knowledge.  The good news is that, if you’ve been on a course, turned up at lectures, participated in seminars, done the coursework, you should already have some of the course material there in your head, as knowledge, alongside all the other stuff you’ve picked up from watching Pointless and reading fanfic.

Now what you need to do is revision, which essentially is taking as much of the material you’ve read, written down, heard and studied as you can, and actively getting it into your head so that it moves into the knowledge category.

How to do that?

Organise.  If you’ve got pages of notes, sort them out.  Put them in order, sort them into topics, see how the material fits together.  A useful way of doing that is to use those coloured index cards and write one card for each topic.  Write the name of the topic, and three bullet points explaining what the topic is about.  Maybe list the key names and labels and dates you need to remember.  Arrange the cards on a table or a noticeboard in some kind of logical way so you can see how the stuff fits together – it depends on how your brain works how best you can do this stage.

The key thing about the organising stage is that it has to be active: it’s something you do differently, not simply taking your notes and reading again.  A really useful tip is to do the organising in a different medium from the notes you’ve been taking as you went through the course.  If you took all your notes on an iPad and saved them into dropbox, you now need to boil them down onto separate sheets of paper or index cards, one per topic.  Conversely, if you took all your notes on paper it can be really useful to get onto a computer and summarise them into a powerpoint, one slide per topic.

After organising comes remembering.  But again there’s good news.  It’s actually more efficient to do bits of organising and bits of memorising all mixed up together in bite-size pieces, rather than sitting for three hours and telling yourself you can’t have coffee till you’ve “done” this or that subject.

Don’t be seduced into spending a long time working out a revision schedule, by the way.  You get no marks for a beautiful timetable, sorry.  And, even worse, don’t touch “how to study” or “how to organise” books – or blogs, for that matter!  Read to the end of this entry and then go do some real work.

Here’s a way that works.  Set the timer on your phone for twenty minutes.  Spend twenty minutes looking at one topic and reducing it to one index card or powerpoint slide.  Put the card, or save the slide, in a safe place.  If the twenty minutes aren’t up yet, start trying to memorise what’s on the slide.  If the twenty minutes are up, stop and take a five minute break (yes, you can have coffee, if you can make it in five minutes).  You don’t have to stop if you’re really into it, or you’ve nearly finished this topic and there’s only two pages left to go, but set the timer again and stop if it goes again.

Mix up the topics so your brain doesn’t get bored, and go on for as long as you can manage – twenty minutes of summarising, five minute break, twenty more minutes on a different topic, another five minute break.  (It’s also useful to do something physical in the breaks.  I’ve variously learned to juggle, learned to knit, and practiced the violin in five minute breaks.  No, I can’t do any of them very well, but somehow I find it helps me to get a completely different bit of my brain working in between studying.  If all else fails, do something physical like run up and down the stairs a couple of times or stand on one leg and do that tai chi exercise where you pretend to close three drawers at different heights with your other foot)

Right.  Now here’s the bit where you DO need a calendar or a blank piece of paper and a pen.

You look at your card after you’ve written it, and try to commit it memory.

Then look at it twenty minutes later.

Then at the end of the day.

Then twenty four hours after you first looked at it.

Then at the end of the day.

See?  Say you’re doing topics called blue, green, yellow, red and pink.  You spend twenty minutes summarising the blue topic onto a card, take a five minute break, and then work on the green topic – but before you take your next five minute break, you go back and look again at the blue card.  Next you might do some work on the yellow topic, and after twenty minutes you’ll have another look at your green card…

At the end of the day (last thing at night) you have another read of the cards you’e made about the blue, green and yellow topics.

The next day you’ll start work on the red topic and then re-read the blue topic, then work on pink and read red (from twenty minutes ago) and green (from 24 hours ago) until eventually you’ve got all the stuff you want to remember written onto a set of cards or slides that you’ve look at and tried to remember at least four times.

Then you carry them round with you till the exam and try to remember what’s on them.  This is not about just passive reading.  It’s actively trying first to understand and then to remember.  So if you were looking at a particular topic in law, say, you might have the most important bits of legislation and the most relevant cases, perhaps some bullet points, written onto a card that organises the information in a way that makes sense to you.  Then you try and remember it.

Methods to remember?  Try covering up parts of the card and trying to recall what’s underneath.  Try asking a friend to test you.  There’s supposed to be a strong association between scent and memory, so if you think your fellow-students can bear it, try sniffing different scents for different topics, and then putting a drop of the relevant scent on your wrist when you go into that particular exam.  But don’t get your scents mixed up!

So there’s stuff in your head that moved in on its own (did you ever actively try to remember the atomic number of unobtainium???) and there’s stuff you actively work to put into your head.  There’s one last tiny bit of space in your head, for something small like a telephone number.

You know how someone tells you a phone number or a date and time, and you repeat them to yourself till you can get to a piece of paper or the calendar on your phone and make a note?  Well you can use that in an exam, too.

How is that useful?  Let me explain.  When I trained as a tax inspector, I had to pass an exam which involved remembering a ridiculous number of tax cases.  I had terrible problems with the names (you can get most of the marks by remembering the gist of the argument even if you can’t remember the name of the case) but I got completely hung up about a case about a second hand suit.  Even though I knew I could get most of the marks by explaining the gist, I became obsessed with the idea I would fail if I couldn’t remember Wilkins v Rogerson (yes, I had to look it up to put the names in here)

If you get a problem like that, use the telephone number method.  Don’t even try to memorise it: write it down on a piece of paper.  Look at the piece of paper before you go into the exam, then screw it up and throw it away.  Keep repeating “Wilkins v Rogerson” – well, no, keep repeating whatever you’re trying to remember, but you get the idea – as you go into the exam room and find your seat.  Keep thinking about it while you listen to the instructions, and then, as soon as you’re allowed to turn the papers over and start making notes, write it down.  And then forget about it.  If it comes up in one of the questions, refer back to the front of the paper where you’ve written it down.  And if it doesn’t come up, scribble it out.

Disclaimer: I’m not a psychologist or any other kind of memory expert.  I’ve just taken a lot of exams.  Really.  A lot.



This is what a feminist looks like

I was personally called a Stalinist by David Mellor once.

It happened when I was part of the delegation from the National Alliance of Women’s Organisations that lobbied David Mellor about the Broadcasting Act before the Broadcasting Act before this one, back in the days when Mellor was Minister of Fun and I was on the Fawcett Society’s Media Committee.  I mention this only to point out that I have history with the Fawcett Society.  I wasn’t just a pay-your-dues-and-read-the-emails member, I was an actual activist member.  It was the great and much missed Mary Stott who nominated me for the committee, in fact.

So why am I no longer a member?  It was this: this is what a feminist looks like.  She is no bigger than “X-large”, where “X-large” means a chest smaller than 44″

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s a brilliant campaign!  Get some photos of people, all sizes and shapes of people, people you wouldn’t expect, and show them in t-shirts that say THIS is what a feminist looks like, and you make the point.  Feminists come in all shapes and sizes.  Feminism applies to everyone.  Even men.  Even celebrities.  Yay us!

Feminists come in all shapes and sizes.  They aren’t just middle-aged fat ladies with bad hair: that’s the subtext.  Put your stereotypes aside and see: feminism is just like you!

Which gives me a problem.  Because, you see, I AM a middle-aged fat lady with bad hair.  I exactly fulfil the stereotypical view of “feminist” – it would be criminally stupid of the Fawcett Society to undercut their campaign by making a “this is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt that would fit me.  (Hey, you think I’m making this up?)

I would love to work with the Fawcett Society again.  But I raised the issue with them when the campaign first came out and was brushed off, twice.  I raised it with them again on twitter this morning when I saw Elle advertising a new variant of the t shirt.

Could they BE any more patronising?

There IS no way to reconcile the “this is what a feminist looks like” campaign with the exclusion of larger feminists.  That’s the point.  However Fawcett could easily show they understand the issue and the hurtfulness of it and come up with a response which explains it’s a circle they just can’t square – or at least an answer that doesn’t reek of “and we don’t care, either!”  But they haven’t.  Still.  And that’s what pisses me off.

Interesting times

Well that was… interesting. I published a piece on the Guardian “Comment is Free” website yesterday and the readership on this blog and on tiintax, my tax blog, had a sudden spike. And the comments on the piece are up to 500+ at the time of writing.

And you know when they say “don’t read the comments”…???

However. One of the things I did in my past was to edit Quarterly Record, the journal of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Taxes and Senior Revenue Officials, in the days before HMRC. I recalled writing something there about the difference between equality and diversity. I didn’t have space to go into it in the Guardian piece, but I have just found a copy of the July 2002 QR in my cupboard and so I thought I would reproduce below the relevant extract from my editorial. I think it still works. Although goodness me, didn’t I need a decent copy editor! No, the em-dash should NOT be the most frequently used punctuation mark.

…Which brings me on to my theme – hey, you knew I’d get to one eventually – which is Diversity. Now diversity is one of those words which, like culture, seems to make some people reach instantly for their guns, so let’s begin by defining what we mean. Diversity needs to be distinguished from equality. To me equality is what you get when you apply the same rules to everyone – what we might call the “GI Jane” method. You decide that anyone can be – say – a police officer – provided he or she is at least six feet tall, can carry a hundred and fifty pounds for a hundred yards and complete an assault course in ten minutes. And if that produces a self selected group with very few women in it, well, that’s just the way things are – anyone who wants to join can try, and any woman who has the right stuff can make the grade, just like any man. The method is fair, the outcome is nothing to do with inequality. Diversity, in contrast, means you look at the demographic of the population as a whole, and the demographic of – say – your police force, and compare them – and then look hard at why you are setting the qualifications you are setting. Does an officer regularly have to carry a hundred and fifty pounds of weight over a hundred yards? Every officer? What would it mean to have a force which more closely mirrored the demographic of the population as a whole? Are there police tasks which a four foot six woman could do as well – better? – than a six foot man? It’s about looking at what each person brings to the table and valuing it. So the soccer hooligan might quieten down faster when challenged by the dazzling blonde – and the six foot rugby playing stereotype might turn out to have skills for more diverse than thumping people in any event.

Personally I routinely look around any group and do what Sara Paretsky calls an “affirmative action headcount”. In other words, when I find myself in a gathering of twenty four people I automatically start to wonder why only four of them are women and none of them is from an ethnic minority. And, yes, I’m talking about the AIT Executive Committee to which I am newly elected and which I met on an awayday the week before sending this issue to the printers.

So why are there so many of the same old faces on Committee? Well obviously to a large degree it’s because the previous committee were good guys and did a good job and people were happy to re-elect them. D’oh, as Homer might say. But I am nevertheless concerned that the committee is so white and so male, and I wonder whether the answer might not lie in the tendency to think that “the way we do things here” is “the way things ought to be done”…

Rather belatedly, here is “What I did on my holidays”

Day One: travel four hours to get to Cumbria.  Go to Secret Housesitting Destination, where I shall have a fortnight’s peaceful rural writing retreat in exchange for feeding the resident cat and rabbits.

House smells wonderful.

Also the wonderful smell is scented candles.

Also scented candles trigger my hay fever like wouldn’t believe.  Spend the afternoon working out how the TV works, and where to plug in the computer.  And sniffing.

Day Two: cat has left a dead mouse on the living room carpet, presumably by way of a welcome gift.  Swear at cat but, heroically, do not throw up during clean up.

I am working the pomodoro system: 25 minutes of concentrated attention, followed by five minutes break, with a longer break after four pomodoros.  Tuesday’s score: 12.  Still not thrown up, but it was a close run thing.  Cannot fathom how to shut the living room window to prevent bloody cat getting out and doing it again tonight.

Day Three: no gifts from cat.  Phew.  But also productivity falling (pomodoros of work done on Wednesday: 9.)  Stopped in the evening to watch Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony, and to have intense text message conversation with relatively sane friend about whether I was actually seeing John Barrowman sing the Ceebeebies History of Scotland amidst dancing Tunnocks tea cakes or whether I was on drugs.  Around the interpretive dance version of 500 miles I gave up.  Wine.  Lots of wine.  Interrupted by giant moth battering itself to death inside the living room lamp very loudly.  It may in fact be a small bat.

Day Four: is it Thursday?  Productivity continues to decline (pomodoro: 8).  But went to dinner with J and family, and managed to persuade her that emptying the cat litter was her job, not mine.  Mark the day as a positive.

Day Five: Friday.  (Pomodoro: 5.  It was that kind of day)  Having a pleasant post-prandial nap when suddenly AWAKE AWAKE! FEAR! FIRE! FOES! alarm starts going off.  Run into hall but there’s no smoke, no sign of fire.  Open all doors.  Go outside and check for burglars.  Why is the blasted alarm going off?  Ring the “call these people in an emergency” number – they’re out!  As are J and family.  OK then… fire brigade?  No: there really isn’t a fire.  But is it a carbon monoxide alarm?  I was, after all, asleep when it went off… text owner of house, await return of helpful neighbours, sit outside Sternly Ignoring the fact the house is still beeping FEAR! FIRE! FOES! loudly.  Look up local fire brigade non-emergency number (a nice fireman with a carbon monoxide detector sounds like a plan…) but helpful neighbours arrive first, disable alarm, and text from holidaying house owner provides reassurance that alarm *isn’t* the carbon monoxide alarm but a malfunctioning fire alarm, but there is both a backup fire alarm and a functional carbon monoxide alarm elsewhere.

Peace decends.

Giant butterfly is now flapping round living room.  Let it out the patio doors and risk never being able to shut them again?  Ah.  Turns out I don’t actually have a key to the patio doors.  Chase butterfly for a while with glass and cardboard, but it gives me a “bitch, please!” look and goes to hide somewhere.  Sigh.

Lure cat indoors.  Shut cat out of bedroom.  Go to bed.  There is a giant spider on the ceiling directly above the bed.  But if I close my eyes, there isn’t.

Day… I don’t know.  Bloody cat brings me a LIVE mouse this time.  I scream at cat, cat drops mouse, mouse runs under piano.  I am clearly living in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.  Lock cat in.  Lock cat OUT of bedroom.  Go to bed, after warning J that I shall be calling her in the morning to deal with any gruesomeness which might ensue.

Rabbits look at me contemptuously when I let them out of their hutch to run around their enclosure.  They are clearly humouring me by not rampaging out through the gate, which is held together by string and a clothes peg.  Also, they don’t eat spring onions.  Who knew?  But I’m rapidly running out of the curly kale the house owner left me, so they’re either going to have to eat the avocado I found in the bottom of the fridge or I’m going to have to have another Tesco delivery.  On the other hand, Tescos mean… newspapers!  Chocolate!

J arrives and takes me out for afternoon tea at Brantwood, John Ruskin’s house, where there is a fantastic tea shop where you can sit out on a terrace overlooking the lake.  Which we do.  At my urging, she takes photos.  Look at photos.  Who is that fat lady??????   Never, never eating chocolate ever again.  Go back to house.  Get sci fi story rejection.  Who am I kidding?  Eat chocolate.  Get email accepting academic paper with hardly any amendments.  Rejoice!  Eat chocolate AND drink wine.

It’s raining.  Cat comes in to inform me its raining by drying itself off by rolling on my lap.  Sigh.  I hate the countryside.

Next day.  It might be Tuesday?  Rain.  Feed the rabbits (Tiny amounts of curly kale, cucumber, cauliflower and pea pods.  They sneer at me.  Rabbits are very judgemental)  Get lots of work done, for nearly half an hour.  Cat comes in to inform me it’s raining again by drying itself off by rolling on my lap, and then demands to be let out the other door, presumably in case it’s not raining there.

Get lots of work done for nearly five minutes.  Cat returns, wet again.  I explain to it that I’m not on board with the “being used as a cat towel” scenario, and stroke it dry with kitchen roll.  It gives me a “bitch, please” look and demands to go out the other door again.  Cats are nearly as judgemental as rabbits.  Still no sign of the mouse.

Late at night, decide to go to bed.  No sign of cat returning from latest foray through the Door Into Summer.  Decide to set the cat door on “can come in, but not go out” and just go to bed.

Day… what day IS it anyway?  Anticipate being discovered by taxi driver collecting me for return journey, unrecognisably entirely covered in cat hair, so decide to take shower and launder clothes.  And to check what day it, actually, is.

Go to feed rabbits.  There is only one rabbit.  Holy fuck, WHERE IS THE OTHER RABBIT?????  Run round enclosure for a while having a nice soothing panic attack.  Other rabbit is hiding under the shelf.  Both rabbits regard me contemptuously.  Rabbits are very judgemental.

Come to that, where is the cat?  There are no dead animals in evidence, but last night’s cat food hasn’t been eaten and the rattle of the cat’s bowl produces no imperious mewing.

WHERE IS THE CAT???  Send text messages to various bastions of sanity, wondering how soon should I start to panic?  Three pm is the consensus: it’s probably sheltering from the rain and will stroll in when the rain stops.

The rain doesn’t stop.  But the cat materialises, dry, on the hall carpet.  Where the hell have you been, I demand to know?  “Bitch, please” the cat’s look clearly says.  Cats are very judgemental.

Day… Thursday.  It must be Thursday.  J is kindly taking me out to lunch, out into the World Without Cat Hair again.  Get up joyfully.  Come down to find what appear to be the viscera of a small animal on the hall rug.  Presumably the owner of the house would notice if I just threw the entire rug away?  Contemplate carefully staged “accident” involving scented candles and, possibly, cute firemen?  Sigh.  Rubber gloves and kitchen roll, and We Will Not Speak Of This Again.

Sit down to work.  Two pomodoro later get up to make coffee and notice the second half of last night’s cat food still sitting in its pouch on the kitchen counter.  And the dry cat food bowl is empty.  And I kicked the cat out this morning without feeding it (because, viscera).  Ah.  Feed cat.  Remember I also haven’t fed rabbits.  Feed rabbits.  The are unimpressed, but then rabbits are very judgemental.

Weekend.  Don’t ask me what day it is.  Cat and I have worked out a modus operandi which involves my luring it into the kitchen around tea time because, food, and then sneakily closing the cat flap.  Cat then spends the evening strolling round the house wailing and butting its head against the cat flap, but brings no more gift offerings, live OR dead.

The rabbits continue to judge me.  It was pouring with rain yesterday so I didn’t go out to feed them till it stopped.  They regard me balefully.  It was only the one in Monty Python that was carnivorous, right?  Check handbag for Holy Hand-grenade of Antioch or similar, just in case.

In the afternoon, the weather suddenly dries up.  I go out and feed rabbits again, and let them out of the hutch to run around on the grass.  I stand waiting for them to come out of the hutch.  They do not come out of the hutch.  I go and fetch a glass of wine and sit on the back step waiting for them to come out of the hutch.  They do not come out of the hutch.  I finish the wine, go back to the hutch, where rabbits are continuing to sit on the shelf where the food is.  “You don’t want to come and have a run around while the weather is clear?” I ask them.  They give me a look, the one which says “bitch, please.”

Last day.  Finally!  Feed cat, which thankfully does not include dealing with any final thank you gifts.  Feed rabbits, giving them slightly more than their usual ration because they won’t be fed again till the householder returns, late tonight.  They look at the food.  They look at me.  Their looks clearly say “bitch, please.”  But then rabbits are very judgemental.

On Hiatus

I’m off to house-, rabbit- and cat-sit for a fortnight, hoping to break the back of a couple of writing projects while I’m out of my routine.  The wifi and mobile access will, apparently, be “spotty”, so I’m also taking the opportunity to have a digital detox.  I shall be beyond the reach of pizza delivery, as well as newspaper delivery too – come find me if the world ends while i’m not looking!!!!

See you in August

Richard III

I went to see Martin Freeman’s Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios on Monday night.  I suppose I ought to write my review before I read anyone else’s (it was the press night last night) so here we go.  I should begin by explaining that I was sitting on the stage, in one of the rows of seats behind the performance area so I was both extraordinarily close to the actors but also looking at the backs of their heads for much of the time. 

Freeman gave a good performance: he comes with baggage, of course (Tim from the office, Arthur Dent, Bilbo, John Watson… ) but the performance I saw was relatively calm on the daffy-fan-behaviour spectrum and his trademark “can you believe this?” sideways look at the audience actually works well for Richard.

The conceit of the production is that the “Winter of Discontent” refers to the 1970s and that there was some kind of coup.  Broadly, imagine the unions (or at least the working class, or at least people with thick Yorkshire accents) were the defeated Lancastrians, and the ruling classes were the sons of York.  Which is neat; and the set – two face to face conference tables and some desks with 1970s typewriters, faxes and phones – looked as if it might be fun too.  And the opening scene worked with the concept, Richard holding a microphone and making “now is the winter…” as a formal speech, and then putting down the mike and making it clear we were hearing his private thoughts about his villainous intent.

But that was the extent of the cleverness: after that the seventies were wasted and what we had was just a bunch of guys in oddly cut suits and improbable sideboards, looking like your mad uncle from way back when…

There were some shocking moments.  Clarence, in particular, was drowned by dunking in a fish tank not six feet away from where I was sitting and I couldn’t see how the actor survived it except by holding his breath, so kudos for that effect (assuming it WAS an effect and not awesome lung power!) There was a truly horrific scene of domestic violence with Richard murdering Anne in a one armed strangling that turned into an epic fight for life and had me covering my eyes.  And I walked off backstage to find the floor literally spotted with stage blood from the gore-covered exits.

So it was good.  There were some good performances, particularly Martin Freeman’s Richard and Gina McKee’s queen.  But… but… but…

But it wasn’t clever.

It was set in the 1970s.  To me, the absurdity of the scene where Richard confronts Anne over her dead husband’s bleeding body and says, in effect, yes, I know I killed your father and your husband but it was *all your fault* for being so hot, so how about it babe? COULD actually be made to work.  How?  Sedation and roofies.  Hysterical female crying at a death?  Bring in a compliant doctor, stuff her full of drugs, and you have your obedient zombie bride.  If the director had read A Woman On The Edge Of Time at an impressionable age as I did, well, it might have worked.

And, slightly earlier than the actual Winter of Discontent, what about Nixon?  What more perfect way could there be to encapsulate the vainglory of someone keen to be understood by history and yet in no way to modify his behaviour than to have Richard “record” his soliloquies like the Nixon tapes?  

Where were the cameras?  Yes, there was an ancient TV camera wheeled on at the end for the triumphant Henry to make his final speech, but some seventies tech would have worked brilliantly with the concept – what was the scene with the citizens asking him to take the crown but a TV interview with a bunch of paps standing by?  When – I kept asking myself – were they going to use the bloody typewriters?  Employ half a dozen actresses who could type, to sit on the sidelines and type all these despatches, and faxes, and ticker tape messages going out to the various troops?  (And then they could have put on balaclavas and made the final battle scene a bit less one-on-one!)

So, yes, I enjoyed it, enormously.  But I enjoyed the production I was directing in my head a lot more.  Sorry and all that.




Middle Aged Blues

You know it’s not going to be a good day when it starts by bashing your head on the shower door, getting shampoo in your eye, and then having to stand and rinse your hair for ages because the new conditioner the hotel provides smells like drain cleaner.

But I ventured out of my hotel nevertheless, bright and early, and walked across Westminster Bridge for my first ever visit to the Houses of Parliament. I’ve been in Portcullis House before, but not the actual iconic building itself.

The invitation said allow “up to” half an hour to get through security. I thought that didn’t sound right – I thought I’d heard somewhere that you have to allow at least an hour? But anyway I was a prudent ten minutes earlier than the half hour mark, and joined the long, long, looooooong queue to get through security and go in.

I stood in the queue. I tweeted humorously about the “trial by ordeal” of queueing for a hundred yards on a walkway suspended over a lawn that was in the process of being cut – hay fever city! I took, and tweeted, a picture of the statue of Cromwell (caption: “for god’s sake, go!”) I waited, and waited, and the clock got nearer and nearer to ten o’clock when the debate was due to start…

I was heartened to see former colleagues from ARC a mere ten or twelve yards in front of me. I mean, they were hosting the event, so I couldn’t be THAT late, right?

They got through the security door and vanished. I shuffled the last, slow, few feet, and then found myself inside…

… where there was a whole OTHER queue, to go through airport security-style metal detector security.

So I put my handbag and my jacket in one tray and my mobile in another, and passed through the arch…

…which went off. So the man waved his wand over my arms and legs and wasn’t happy. I was racking my brains to think what was I wearing or carrying that might make the machines go beep. The attendant called a female attendant, who patted me down. Baffled but apparently reassured by this bit of theatre, they let me through….

… where, unsupervised, I wandered around to the ACTUAL visitor’s entrance, as opposed to the security theatre entrance which was a mere out building.

Which is fine of course, but at this point it was 10am and I was officially in danger of being Late, and I still had no idea where Committee Room 14 might be found. So I stood in the vast marbled hall and panicked, and then found a person with a photo id who indicated the vast staircase at the end of the hall.

A vast staircase without a handrail is… interesting. I wouldn’t have minded, but I then had to turn left and limp down a long corridor… to another staircase. And another. And another. I was so miffed I actually counted them on the way out. I’m sorry, but 88 steps requires advanced notice, or a lift. (I gather there was a lift. But no-one to point you toward it. And I was late anyway)

I was late. I wasn’t the last (the esteemed editor of Taxation magazine and various other luminaries arrived later). But I got a good old attack of “side eye” from A Certain Former Official Of My Former Union Who Were Organising The Event, Who Had Been Ahead Of Me In The Queue. Reader, if looks could kill he’d be a teeny tiny pile of ashes on the carpet!

And then they began. The chairwoman had a lovely audible voice. And a microphone. Directly in front of her.

The other speakers… had a mike between each pair. Now, this CAN work… if the speakers USE the mike. Either move the mike in front of you when you speak, or else simply move yourself TO the mike. But if you sit and politely do nothing, hoping the mike might pick up your voice through sympathetic magic, then the middle aged fat lady at the back of the room will be tweeting furiously that she can’t hear you and USE the mike and other people will be tweeting back to her that they don’t think the mikes are actually ON.

It’s a good thing it was an interesting debate, because I had the kind of day where you start by bashing your head on the shower door handle, and end it by picking a sandwich off the vegetarian platter and finding you’ve bitten into… a chicken wrap.

Still, at least I didn’t actually throw up on anyone’s shoes.