Thursday, 25 February 2010

Barry Miles - London Calling Book Launch

Barry Miles
The Pedantic Sales Team, selling hard...

Seal of disapproval

I can't believe that these words are going to come out of my mouth.  But nevertheless, here they are:.  Tonight, I'm going to a gig.


It's not the idea of going to a smelly venue with a beer soaked carpet and legions of the young, so much as the idea of me going, and of having to actually say gig.

Double shudder.

It's just one of those words that people over fifty shouldn't have in their lexicon.  Like fit, except as it refers to a person who goes often to the gym, or buff, unless you're talking about exfoliating.  Nevertheless, to a gig I mutton go...  To see Marina and the Diamonds after having first listened several times to a USB with five songs on it to accustom myself to the sound, something between a crazed Kate Bush and well, a less crazed Kate Bush.  But with conditioner.

It seemed like a good idea at the time of Lukewarm's suggestion.  But after the Ozu film, I am slightly worried about the retributive aspect of the invitation.  I needn't have been.  We go in, get our hand stamped with the mini post office set on the door and plonk ourselves down on the aforementioned beer stained carpet like kids at a picnic where we wait obediently for the support act - a miserable chap in an Oasis jacket, with an Oasis sneer and a sound something between Happy Verve and an Irish Jig.  I tap my foot.  Lukewarm's  footballer's leg remains immobile next to mine.  I tread on it several times trying to show my enthusiasm which isn't matched by his but which eventually welds mine against his and stills it.  I think he may be trying to tell me something.  Just like at a football match, dancing is not a good idea.

"I don't think much of them,'  He says after a round of obligatory clapping, following a round of somewhat obligatory songs.  I remark on how unhappy they all look - like kids who've had a lot of music lessons and been reluctantly forced by their mother on to the stage when they'd rather be playing Super Mario Cart.  One chap in particular, strumming the ukulele  with a fountain of curly hair covering his eyes, seemed particularly unhappy to be there.  Well, playing the ukulele  - you can hardly blame him.

Marina comes on next wearing a knitted pig cloak with ears and a felt nose.

I feel very, very old.

The next day I tell my youngest daughter that I'd been to hear a band, and I cringe inwardly at the word 'band' which might almost be as bad as the g-word.


'Marina and the Diamonds.  Have you heard of them?'


'I take it this means no.

'They are at number two at the charts,' I say encouragingly - because the singer announced this between songs.


I realise that I haven't known what was in the charts since I was about 21, and didn't care that much then, and that it's pretty pathetic that I should even appear to care now.  I'm sounding like the oldest freaking swinger in town.  I give up which is a relief to both of us.  It's only later at work when Publicista notices my rubber ink pad hand and says - 'Oh, you have a nightclub stamp!' that I realise it could have been worse.

A nightclub - comeawwwwwn...

'No, no - it was a g..." I protest, but the word sticks like a claustrophobic to my open lips.  Unlike me, it just won't come out.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Silent Scream

I've seen everything at the cinema that I want to see, and it's half term, so unless I line up for Alvin and the Chipmunks - The Squeakwell, current multiplex offerings are pretty much exhausted.  And so I find myself on the BFI site buying tickets for 'the most romantic film ever made' - Letter from and Unknown Woman which I suppose is romantic if your idea of a hero has Herman Munster sideburns enhancing the Grecian 2000, and a penchant for anonymous one night stands with women who are instantly forgotten afterwards.  Sounds like a date on Guardian Soulmates to me.  Nevertheless I clicked and bought for Friday night.

'Oh, and there's an Ozu festival on,' urges Editorial swooningly, after he'd finished raving about how wonderful the other film was.  'Go and see Tokyo Story...'

Un(fortunately?) - it wasn't playing when I wanted to go.  'They only have Late Autumn...'

'That's amazing too - see that instead.'

As my mother used to say when I invoked priviledges other friends were allowed which I was denied '...if they stuck their hand in the fire would you do that too?'

Good point mother, but it was one which I remembered too late, after I had taken advice from the resident Editorial film critic and yet again, like a gormless sheep on the eve of Ramadan, clicked and booked.

This is how I come to find myself drowsy and hungry after a very, very late Saturday night and extremely early Sunday that began with a 6am fire-alarm that had me huddled on a cold street in my hastily donned clothes outside a hotel, sitting in the back row of the tiny studio cinema at the South Bank being hugged claustrophobically tightly by over-enthusiastic central heating and the collective carbon monoxide produced by two dozen highly excited film buffs.

Lights dimmed.

The credits rolled.

I am gripped with European-supermarket, empty-trolley excitement (oh yes, the unexplored world of foreign films also fills me with the giddy anticipation of a new date with silver-templed, Guardian Soulmate Lothario types who may, yet, turn out to be almost normal...)  watching the interminable opening sequence of Japanese ideographs projected on a hessian screen, as Late Autumn unfolds at the speed of a double amputee doing origami.

And let me tell you.  Ice melts faster.

My eyes start to droop.  My head sinks towards my slumped chest and startles me awake.  I think about dead babies, world hunger, Haitian earthquakes, war in Afghanistan, Mossad Spy Rings, the opening scene from the Hurt Locker  - anything with explosions - all in a vain effort to wake myself up - but still the actors on screen are sitting exactly where they had been five minutes or three days earlier, the women smiling eerily like Stepford Wives, answering the beetle-like men in high reedy, complaisant voices.

Lukewarm sits silently beside me, like a mourner at a funeral for someone he didn't like - his big footballer thighs struggling to stay daintily within the confines of his seat.

Poor b******.

He takes me to a Chelsea match and I take him to see Japanese paint drying - okay beautifully shot, classic, cinematic, arty, seminal, Japanese paint, but nevertheless, paint: slow - slow - slow drying matte magnolia paint.

The rest of the audience is immobile, whether because they've been turned to stone by boredom or from rapt attention, I cannot say.  I'm afraid to look at Lukewarm to see how he's reacting in case he is dead.  Instead I tough it out and go back to continue my fight against sleep, pinching my skin on my inner arm to jolt myself awake.

About a decade later one of the smiling Japanese women that we've been trying to marry off in real time announces with a happy expression of cowlike acquiesence that she has decided, after all, not to get married (sorry about the plot spoiler) at which my heart shrivels to the size of a walnut.  After all this now, now, you've changed your mind!

I don't think I will be taking Lukewarm to any more films.

To anything, in fact.  I mean, how less enthusiastic can you get than lukewarm?

'Oh Marion, what prompted all the self improvement?' says Nel, my Bafta-winning, film director friend.  'I remember sitting through all these things at film school pretending that I understood what made them so brilliant and just feeling stupid.  I felt stupid for most of my twenties now that I come to think of it.  Ozu has made one good film and that's Tokyo Story.. I've got the whole boxed set if you want to borrow it.'

I consider taking exception to the implication that my foray into the beard-stroking film world is an anomoly in my viewing history, but the risk of having the ruddy boxed set thrust into my hand is sufficiently prohibitive to strike me mute.

And this weekend? Well, Alv-in, Si-mon, The-o-dore...  I mean, how bad can it be?

Friday, 19 February 2010

Chuckie Cheese

Journalista, Publicista and I are sitting on a bench by the front door of La Ubertrendeecheeserie (whose name I don't want to mention so that the Google search doesn't pick it up, less I sound ungrateful) surrounded by crates of the world's most expensive lemons and neat little parcels of spices wrapped up in muslin and tape, held in place with what looks like sealing wax.  I have that feeling in my chest that I get when I'm in love in the midst of all this food - it's a sort of tight, fluttery, tension that I can barely contain - excitement and longing and - best of all - the ability to indulge it.  Sad, isn't it - when walking into - say Green Valley (the Lebanese store next to Marble Arch Synagogue) or Selfridges Food Hall, or Ottolenghi, or Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols, or any supermarket in any city anywhere outside the United Kingdom (or even Waitrose at a pinch) fills you with the trembling joy other women feel for Manolo's or Johnny Depp - which probably accounts both for the size of my thighs and my dreary love life.

But I do love food, not just eating it, but buying it, owning it, having it in the cupboard waiting patiently to be consumed, or even more likely, never actually opened but kept there in perpetuity looking fabulous and seductive for long after its sell-by date - like the pickled lemons I bought so many years ago that they are, by  now, probably fossilised .  I do cook with pickled lemons, but these ones are in such a pretty jar.  This brings me to my other love - packaging.  I'm a sucker for packaging and therefore I'm a total walkover for beautifully packaged, aspirational food.  I want crates of leafy lemons in my kitchen, and ropes of smoked garlic, and necklaces of chilis, and fist sized jars of cinnamon sticks.  I want iced cupcakes under a bell jar, and artisan cheese on a marble slab.  I want a jug of violet flavoured lollies and everything with French or Italian labels, preferably with hand-painted watercolour illustrations.   In essence, I want to live in a food shop and in La Ubertrendeecheeserie where I've come for a freebie dinner with Journalista, I just want to fill my pockets, my handbag, my life with pretty comestibles.

A waitress passes by with tiny cocktails which my menu cribsheet tells me are rhubarb infused gin with maraschino and pink grapefruit.  I have a second, and attempt to spear a friable bread cube to dip it into the welsh rarebit fondue.  Cheese drips all over my skirt.  This is why it's better to dream about food and place it artfully on the shelves of your kitchen than it is to attempt to eat it.

Journalista is looking a little pale and is unusually quiet, but Publicista and I make up for it, until we are shepherded to the long communal tables for supper. La Ubertrendeecheeserie run these supper evenings, usually producing a meal based around - wouldn't you have guessed it - cheese but they are, for my modest wallet, rather expensive and so it was wonderful to be invited along as Journalista's guest.  I am starving.  I haven't eaten all day. I've held back on the tiny croutons coated with unctious melted cheese, but it has been a struggle.

At the table there are speeches.  Oh god, there are speeches.  There is no such thing as a free lunch, or supper, because the food has to be explained to us course by course, and then the overly complicated drinks which have more ingredients than shampoo, and smell not dissimilar, because the theme of the night is matching food with cocktails.  Yep, you heard right.  We are going to knock back a cocktail with every course.  This is what you mean by a mixed drink.

Wait staff stand behind us holding a plate in each hand while the ancient mariner tells us the story of blending tequila with pink lady apple and serving it with smoked salmon - you could probably smoke it faster than the explanation - and Richard Corrigan's soda bread.  I'm almost fainting by the time it is set before us.  It's a small piece of bread the size of a credit card - okay, well, go on then - a large credit card, covered in fat, sliced, salmon.  I have eaten it before the speech giver has drawn his chair underneath him.  I knock back the tequila in one shot.  As you're supposed to.  No?

Journalista, in the meantime, has disappeared.  I mean, I know that talking about food is a bit like listening to ballroom dancing, but the speech wasn't that bad - nevertheless she has gone, and remains gone for most of the first course.  I eye her plate longingly, but refrain from touching it.  It's too close to Publicista who has struck up a conversation with Fay Weldon's nephew, aghast because she had just had lunch with Fay the other day.  Darling.  We luvvies, huh...  I just had lunch with a cup-a-soup (tomato and vegetable - with twenty two ingredients, most of which are chemical in flavour) but you don't hear me name dropping.

The evening flowed on.  I stopped drinking at cocktail number three - Honey vodka, which was a mistake, because cocktail number four, five and six were whisky based and made shampoo sound appealing, and that's before we get to the port flip with egg yolk.  The food however - sigh...  Despite the fact that it took longer to arrive than a third world train and had the portion control of Cucina Lilliput, it was delicious - more assemblage than cooking, but gorgeous nonetheless.  Black pudding, potato and apple mash, Dublin Bay prawns, roasted beets, goats cheese and, my favourite, wood pigeon on toast where the juices had seeped into the crunchy bread and infused it with earthy, caramel loveliness.  If only I had the appetite of a bird, I would not have been quite so pecked off.  Rich people just don't have appetites and there is no sum too great that they will pay for food which they do not actually eat.

Journalista didn't touch most of hers.  She is a vegetarian, but still... I was a tad envious of her ability not-to-scoff which, as you know, is a trait prized amongst women to their faces, and talked about in a derisory fashion behind their scrawny backs.  But Journalista is not rich. She's not skinny.  She's not in lust, love or languishing in heartbreak as far as I know.  What's wrong with her?

I saved myself for the final course.  We are, remember, in a cheese shop.  Surely there will be some wonderful cheese.  I can't wait.  I'm also going to have the final drink.  I'm fantasising about a glass of red wine which I notice the proprietor of the shop is quaffing with Mark Hix, our joint host for the evening, but no - instead another teeny glass is set before me.  Eagerly I go to lift it to my lips and - phoar - stop when the antiseptic smell assails me.

Oh for for peat's sake, if bloody whisky - Ardbeg malt whisky - where I spent all my childhood holiday's living in my uncle's corrugated iron house next to the distillery in Islay, and whose charred, bonfire aroma reminds me of hospitals and rusty nails.  It tastes like TCP and I don't know whether to drink it or gargle with it.  I chose to do neither.  It also contains creme de peche and old fashioned bitters.  Don't these people know that the point of a cocktail is to disguise the taste of the alcohol, not to enhance it - why else did I spend my adolescence drinking this stuff, decanted into lemonade bottles and watered down with everything from Irn Bru (ah it's the girders, that's where the rusty connotation comes from) to Limeade, and it still tasted like the most disgusting way to get drunk ever invented.

One word.  Yuck.  But with an F.

But there was still the cheese.  And unfortunately the introductory speech - honestly, I spent less time introducing myself to the person on either side of me than they did on the food:

This is a Montgomery cheddar, matured for 12 months and we've chosen this because the cheesemaker had had a little problem with his cheese mites, and cheese mites, as you know,

(Did you?)

...are little parasites that all cheese makers have

(They do?)

...and which grow on the rind of the cheese and help to develop the flavours

(Really, they do?)

...but in this case the mites had got out of control
(They did? - Journalista and I both look at the huge hunk of unadorned cheese lying on our plates for evidence of swarming mites.)

...which improved the texture and depth of flavour enormously.

Journalista excused herself again.

Turns out she had food poisoning and was going next door to the pub to throw up.

Funnily enough I didn't fancy the cheese after that either.

Here come the goals.

Ah, so this is where they are!

I have never seen so many men in my life.  They are everywhere, swarming like large black ants, the dark mass moving up Fulham Broadway relieved only by the odd flash of white striped with royal blue.  I wish I hadn't worn my pink coat - not quite football appropriate garb, I realise as I stand at the mouth of the tube station and let the other Chelsea supporters flow past me.  I can't see Lukewarm anywhere and I suddenly panic when I realise that I can't actually remember what he looks like.I phone him and he tells me to wait outside the stadium and I scan the crowd in vain looking for a familiar face until his head appears a few yards away, distinguished from the stern-faced, bulldog masses by a wide, delighted smile.  Thank god, he's not dressed in head to toe Chelsea, and isn't wearing a strip shirt over his jumper, I think moments before he bends to kiss me and I simultaneously turn my cheek.

It has been years since I've been to a football match.  The last time I came to Chelsea I was accessorised by two small boys, both with Zola emblazoned on their shirts, which - for those of you who know how long it has been since he's played - will give you an idea of the timeframe.  In those days I was instructed not to sing, not to comment, not to shriek, and not to cheer.  In short I was to be invisible and refrain from embarrassing them but they were quite within their rights to insist on this as I did, and still do not, have any grasp of the rules of football.  I had a tendency to do heinous things like: buy tickets in the QPR stands when they were playing Chelsea - unwittingly join in with the other teams chants - boo for the wrong team, criticise the ref when he hasn't done anything wrong and get cross with the players on our side when they foul, even though I don't really know what a foul is.

Today, therefore, it seems safe to assume that those same guidelines still hold true.  I am going to be on my best behaviour.  Absolutely no singing.  No opening of mouth at all, in fact. Unlike the last time I attended when I reviewed Fishnets, the restaurant -in - cringingly appropriate hosiery - I have not worn a skirt.  I am in sensible flat shoes.  I have layered up against the cold and even brought a hat and gloves.

Shame about the pink jacket, though - that was a grave error of fashion judgement - especially as it's oh-so-nearly not pink but red.  I can probably be seen from space.

Can't miss you in that pink jacket - you'll probably show up on the television, says Lukewarm, nervously, taking my hand and then dropping it.  I'll look for you during the highlights replay.

As I say, I can probably be seen from space.

After we've gone through the 'lucky' turnstile, in which -thank you god- I did not get stuck, we sit in the lower stands, seven rows from the pitch.  It's absolutely freezing and my two pairs of tights, two pairs of socks and three shirts are not doing much to beat the cold except making it very hard for me to bend any of my limbs.  I am slightly perturbed by the man next to me who is getting incredibly fed up with Joe Cole who keeps on messing up his passes and starts swearing at him in a tannoy voice of the sort used to evacuate public places in event of a terrorist attack:  You're p***ing me off you f***ing w***er b***ard.  He shouts, right in my ear, complete with saliva - though without the asterisks.  It's fair to say there are absolutely no asterisks in a football stadium.  His wife, a demure pensioner with frosted permed hair and a neat little frilled choirboy collar on her white blouse, meanwhile, is calmly taking video shots of the match on her camera.  A lone woman in a page boy and puffa jacket sits in front, shivering, as she sings along with the Chelsea anthem, complete with actions.  I watch Lukewarm anxiously out of the corner of my watering-from-the-cold eyes.  Please don't sing, please, please, no arm movements, I pray, silently, and see him watching me, the same thoughts passing all too visibly across his face.  I sit on my hands to reassure him, and to keep them warm.

There's a goal which momentarily silences the rival Cardiff fans who are banging out a tattoo on the metal frame of the stand and singing 'John Terry is sh***ing all your wives'. John Terry isn't playing - he's gone abroad to patch things up with his wife, Lukewarm tells me.  Yeah, good luck with that, darling...  The Chelsea fans sing back:  'He's sh***ing all your sheep' which hardly casts John Terry in a better light.   In the third row there's a posh looking man in one of those quilted jackets that boys wear  to prep school, with an expensive blow-dried wife who has one of those haughty, I've-really-got-much-better-things-to-do-than-be-here slumming-it expressions, and a straw-headed child sandwiched between them.  He cheers loudly then turns to the Cardiff crowd and opens his arms wide in a taunting gesture and gives them an open handed, two fingered salute while very RP expletives roll from his mouth.

Reader, I feel like Alice in Wonderland.  It really has been a long, long time since I have been to a football match.

We win 4-1.  Note the we.  In the course of 90 minutes I've become a member of the tribe.

Lukewarm and I walk to the pub.  I've relieved we won. Otherwise I would have been tainted henceforth by the defeat and the lucky turnstile would be no more.  So, did I behave myself well enough?  I ask, tentatively, because though I feel I have cheered in the requisite places and kept my commentary to a minimum, one can never be sure.

You were lovely.  He says.  You didn't sing and you didn't chant and you didn't taunt the crowds.  You can come again.  Just maybe not wear the pink jacket.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

On the bread line

So where are the compensations, you might be asking?

Everyone thought it a great scandal when one of the paternal uncles went to the cinema on the afternoon of his father's azzah.  I don't quite know what they would have made of our family outing to see Shrek on the eve of my own father's funeral or, coincidentally, Shrek 2 after we had the service for my mother (you can see we were fairly worried when Shrek 3 was released, but luckily, that time nobody died...)  In Beirut, after we spend the day mournfully dressed in black, we went back to the hotel, re-dressed in black and the went to the Buddha Bar, had dinner in a sushi restaurant and then stood in the aisles or The Music Hall and danced until four in the morning, then got up the next day and did it all again.  This time with a hangover.

It doesn't sound very respectful to the dead, admittedly, but this all took place some months after the actual death, and had my mother-in-law had the choice of which occasion she attended, she would unhesitatingly have chosen the night club.

I'm thinking about all this in a coffee shop in Notting Hill Gate with my husband who has just bought me the first carbohydrate I've eaten in several weeks.  We've just come back from my neighbour's funeral in the Methodist church where her husband was once a vicar.  The biodegradable coffin looked like a large laundry basket and was decorated with spring flowers and ivy picked from her garden and we sang a few recognisable hymns.  As British funerals go, it was fairly bearable, but still I would rather have had a double vodka and jumped up and down to a dubke band (which, apart from running away from them, is the only other option) than a cheese and ham baquette and a decaf skinny latte.

My neighbour, though once a missionary in India and married to a vicar, was also divorced when I first met her.  She was in her early sixties when we moved into the house next door.  I was a young bride with a toddler and a three month old baby and she was retired, learning Bengali so she could go back to India and work as a volunteer.  To my shame I thought she was old.  Now there's only about ten years between the age she was then and the age I am now now.  I can't quite shake off the sadness at the contrast between the young, optimistic girl I was then, with two of my children as yet unborn and my life containable in a double pushchair and a couple of trips in my father's Ford Siesta, and failed spectre of it all now .  My children are mostly grown and the marriage is over and when her house is sold and the inevitable new family move in, I'll be the old dear next door.  It's like a part of my life is over too. However, I take heart in how well she and her husband seemed to have negotiated their divorce and maintained an amicable relationship afterwards.

So, with my usual genius at picking exactly the right moment to broach these subjects, I turn to my mute husband who has been sitting beside me silently for the past hour of hymn singing and reminiscences, resolutely not joining in with my walk down Nostalgia Lane, and say:  Don't you think it's time that we made some sort of decision about what we are going to do?

What do you mean? He asked.  I need to get back to work after this...

So do I, but I'm not talking about now, I'm talking about 'us'.  Shouldn't we decide what we're doing.  It's been two years now and it's not like you are planning on coming back home, so ...

He interrupts me:   I don't know,  he says, and he looks pitifully at me, as though I'm the one who has just had a terrible bereavement  needs to be consoled.  I don't know what I'm doing.  He repeats.

Damn it, of course you know what you're doing - you're not coming back because otherwise you would be back.  I refrain from mentioning that I don't necessarily want him to come back, but the fiction that he might return is one that he's been maintaining, as much for his benefit as mine.  I mean, it would get a bit crowded with the new, new man hanging around the house at the weekends.

He gives me that look again, the really, really sorry to hear you have a terminal illness, expression, shrugs, and says:  I'm content as I am.


He smiles ruefully.  Yes, I'm content.

Content?  I'm somewhat taken aback by the choice of words.  Happy, I could have dealt with - at least it's a positive statement.  Confused - yes, I feel that too.  Upset, depressed, regretful - bring it on, I know those words, but  I'm sitting here mourning the death of our marriage and our grown up kids and my lost youth and my lost husband and he's 'content'?

All my mature , let's settle this reasonably and equably goes straight out the window of Paul's and blows off down Holland Park Avenue.  There's something about the bland, smugness of the word 'content' that drags my heart out of my chest on to the plate in front of me and saws it into two ragged pieces like the baguette I no longer feel like eating.  How can he be content, I think? 

Because he isn't living with you, I tell myself.. Unnecessarily brutally, I thought - even for me.

I've lost my appetite.  No bread since December, and I cant face it.  What a waste of a bloody good baguette.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Death, Beiruti style

Funerals.  Whichever way you look at them, especially from the coffin up, they are not fun.

Well, not unless they are in Beirut.

Beiruti funerals are not intrinsically fun, either, I should add, but long, somnolent, boring, affairs that last for days, endless, elastic days of yawning until tears run from the corner of your eyes, which at least is in keeping with the general spirit of the affair.  However, there are compensations.

My mother-in-law died exiled in America and was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge Massachusetts, a place where, oblivious to the Gothic gloom, she used to like to take visiting guests for picnics.  Her funeral, however, took place some months after her death in the small turreted Ottoman-style palace where she grew up with her father and twelve siblings, one of whom was Prime Minister of Lebanon enough times to have a Boulevard named after him.  The house is now inhabited by his son, a politician himself.  When the kids were small we would pay court in the large salon downstairs, where the children clambered over the plush banquettes and the rest of us sat formally, our hands on our knees, but for the two days of the azzah, there were no clambering childrenm, just an awful lot of sitting.

My younger son, all grown up and flushed with adolescent razor burn stands, hot and uncomfortable in the suit his father wore at our wedding, choking behind a tie in the condolence line of men that includes his father, his grandfather, his politician uncle, a fraternal uncle, and assorted elderly male relatives, most of whom I've never seen before.  Dutifully he loiters at the end, low in the pecking order as being a nus-nus (half-half) nobody knows who he is.  His father, only marginally more recognisable, takes a demotion in rank to stand next to him as men file in throughout the morning and afternoon, shake hands and kiss each relative three times.  My father-in-law resists the urge to wipe his palms on the side of his trousers after every touch, as though it defiles him and after he's freed to the custody of the whisky calling him from his hotel room, he first washes his hands compulsively.

I'm in the antechamber to the rear with the women.  I had wanted to wear trousers but my husband, uber conventional after all his decades abroad, told me I couldn't.  So I'm sitting in a long black skirt with my cardigan buttoned up to the neck despite the temperature being in the eighties outside.  The chief mourners, my father-in-law's two sisters, Auntie Fuss Fuss, who lived up to her name, and Auntie Randa, sit side by side, flanked by the elderly wives of the men shaking hands, or more usually, their widows.  I barely count as a legitimate family member though in recent years I was probably closer to the absent guest of honour than any of the other women in the room.  I can hear giggling, then hiss in my ear from the grave as they arrive to pay their respects.  Mish ma'ul, 'impossible' of the overdressed, bisha'a 'ugly' of the ruffled and gilded, 'sharshuha' common of their gaudy jewelry. She often said she felt as much of an outsider as I did, but today she isn't here to keep me company.  Something I try not to think about because I don't want to commit the faux pas of crying real tears.

Mothers and daughters arrive with matching plastic surgery and matching bouffant, back combed hair.  They have brown lines drawn, sometimes tattooed, around their mouths, and black lines drawn around their eyes.  They make sad little moues with their puffed up caramel lips as they kiss the air, habibti, when they embrace the bereaved, their manicured fingernails clutching monogrammed handbags, with fists of rings.  Occasionally someone glances at me and I hear the murmur 'zauj Ahmad' (Ahmad's wife - you're nobody unless you're a prefixed daughter or a wife in Arab society)  followed by 'ajnabiya'  (foreigner).  Then they shrug and move on.  You're nobody if you're a foreigner in Arab society. 

Some of the mourners display deep décolletages to better show off their new fake boobs, others, calcium deprived and shrivelled, are swathed in bank teller black from chin to ankle, and one, a very frail ancient. wears round black sunglasses the size of tea cups though the light in the room is grievously muted.  She sits next to me in the place vacated by the Muslim cousin who, alone in this family of alcoholic secularists, has come to religion late in life and wears the full hijab.  It's telling that people are more shocked and outraged by this than the women who come dressed like Playboy pin ups from 1972.

The ancient nods at me and says something in French.

I nod back and introduce myself as the daughter-in-law in English, though I'm not sure she is clear who the deceased is.  It's perfectly possible that she doesn't have a clue who we're mourning.  My younger daughter is upstairs in the house watching MTV Asia with a room full of itinerant funeral refugees who don't seem to have known my mother-in-law but have come anyway because it's what you do, and the politician cousin is an important man and his family has to be honoured, even if he did split with his wife the week before last and is about to move in her replacement.   Downstairs, my husband sat next to a man in the azzah who whispered to him:  'Who's dead?' to which he replied 'my mother'.

The ancient nods again and tells me how sorry she is before she falls silent for the Sheikh who recites the Quran every fifteen minutes, marking the time like a  - it has to be said - fairly whiny cuckoo clock.  Everyone opens their palms on their knees and I follow suit, though as an infidel, I'm not sure I should be masquerading as a believer. She removes her sunglasses to display an immobile face with lipstick that seems to exceed the boundaries of her mouth (this might be why they insist on lip liner, because they haven't learned how to colour in skilfully) and eyebrows that are drawn on.   She asks were I live.  She asks about my children.  Without my children I would have absolutely no conversation.  They are the Arabic equivalent of the weather.  I recite their names:  Anbara, Walid, Hussein, Alya...

I too have a Walid, she responds.

I don't know what to say to that - it's a common name.  It's only when I'm beckoned out into the heat of the garden by one of the Russian twins that I realise that the Walid she's talking about is Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader. 

The current Prime Minister of Lebanon arrives in the morning to pay his condolences, leaves and resigns and the one who succeeds him, comes later in the afternoon.  The day drags on.  It's Ramadan so there are no refreshments being served, but I'm also spared the fug of inevitable Marlborough Reds since nothing is supposed to pass your lips between dawn and dusk, not even cigarettes.  Everybody in Lebanon smokes, but during a funeral in Ramadan, at least everybody smokes in the garden.

The Russian twins, are not twins, nor are they Russian.  They just look like identikit parodies of each other, with more than a hint of the music hall about them.  Separated by ten years, the elder dyes her hair a lurid shade of orange, and wears bright scarlet lipstick. The younger sister was encouraged to follow her example so that it looked 'natural'.  So although, both very beautiful, now they both have bright, brassy hair that shines garishly in the harsh Beirut sun, offset by deathly white skin and the slash of red on their mouths.   My mother-in-law thought the elder looked like a Russian sharmuta.  Having been taken for a Russian sharmuta myself (in my defence - in Syria, at one time, any blonde woman would have been Russian and by default, a whore), I think it does Russian whores a great disservice especially in the present company where a great many of the women look like they keep successful brothels in Azerbaijan.  To me the twins should be starring in Twilight as the sexy, attractive older Vampire aunts.  The elder twin perches on the end of a dried up well and lights up.  The filter of her cigarette, in common with those scattered across the dusty soil, is stained thick and waxy with lipstick.  The cups of coffee being surreptitiously drunk by others with funeral fatigue is similarly branded.

Emboldened by their bright make-up, funeral or no funeral, I apply my own red lipstick.  Today they are both dressed in Comme de Garçons, but, I'm wearing  Gap.  I feel horribly shabby.  Though I can match them on the make up I can't follow their designer clothes. 

The next day, however, I make damn sure I wear my trousers.

The Facts of Life

We're at a private viewing of Invictus at the Warner Bros Cinema round the corner from Pedantic.  There's an open bar so naturally we pedants turn up early to try and pack in a couple of drinks before the screening. The lucky Chiefs got to go to the première, but we Indians have to make do without the pleasure of seeing Clint & Co in the flesh.  Still, with a glass of reasonable red wine in my hand, I'm certainly not complaining.

Contracts isn't complaining either.  He's talking about having worked late the night before until 11pm, and having eaten his supper at the kitchen table while his laptop was open.  That's a normal night for me lately, though my laptop might well be playing an American cop drama with minuscule Japanese subtitles across the bottom, and the kitchen table will also be littered with scraps of paper, backboards, paints, glue, scalpels and needles and thread - once love goes out the window, bookbinding comes sneaking back in through the door.  I'm as likely to be cleaning my paintbrush in vodka as drinking it.  Or, let's be absolutely honest, possibly both.

I mention that my kids had been begging me to please, please, find a replacement man fast, as the unusual amount of attention I was lavishing on them was proving unwelcome.  I picked up ten bags of clothes from my daughter's bedroom on Saturday afternoon, having nothing better to do.  It was not appreciated. I need a distraction. Maybe I should get a dog, I wonder aloud, not for the fifty-fourth time.

No, Cats, said Contracts, a serious, professorial colleague who joins me in the upper age echelons of the company.  I've had cats from time to time and they don't take much looking after.

Yes, but at least you can go away and leave your kids for a couple of days and they don't pee on the floor.  I answered, before falling into a thoughtful silence, because, frankly, after picking up ten bags of clothing, who can be sure?

Hens then, Contracts suggested.  (He's a man of few, and succinct, words).

Hens?  God no!  I am reminded of my friend Gay who told me that she could just see me living in the country keeping hens.  I was not flattered. Nor did she mean me to be.

No, my sister keeps hens and they are remarkably friendly creatures.

I'm unconvinced.

Really, they come into the house and you can pet them.

That's all I ruddy need to ensure I remain totally celibate for the rest of my life, standing in the kitchen with chicken shit everywhere, drinking muddy coloured vodka from a jam jar with a paint brush in it, stroking a hen under one arm.

And, just think, adds young Reception, between glugs of lager,  you could also have fresh eggs.

I do think.  For a while.  Before I formulate the next sentence.  I have now had two glasses of wine. I  pick my words very carefully, aware that I'm treading dangerously on double entendre territory.

Erm, but don't you need to have a rooster to get eggs?  I ask, delicately -  I mean, despite the fact that I've written most of a farming book, I've forgotten how you get hens to lay.

I look questioningly at Contracts.

Oh yes, definitely, he says.

And I can see it coming, but not in time....

You have to have a cock.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010


Despite all subsequent activity, since new man and I went our separate ways (and yes, hair gel did play its sticky part) the weekend that I didn't spend in The Halkin passed idly at home in the void that is the life of the recently single.

It goes like this:

You've let your friends slip a little bit to accommodate romance, and so, on Friday, though you've arranged for your daughter to stay out in anticipation of a torrid evening, it now looks like consisting of you, cheese on toast and the boxed set of Grey's Anatomy. In the afternoon, you're sitting in the kitchen in the last wash of sunlight fighting its way through the grime of the window. The table, for once, is so clean it looks like it has been licked, the dishwasher is empty, the washing machine is empty, the dryer is empty, the whole house is empty and it's just you, laptop open, the click of the keys measuring the seconds, and work - trying to make a sceptre flit across the webpage instead of a cursor - isn't working so that the only hotspot in your life is the one you've created in Flash.

Did you hear a loud, thundering boom?

You can't remember. You may be torturing yourself, but you just can't remember, and yet - later it haunts you - that fleeing feeling that there was a tumultous crash and that maybe, idly, you listened, wondering what it was, and heard nothing further, and so went on - click, click, clicking, reloading the page, refreshing the image, click, click, click.

In fact, in the evening, you did go out. You wandered round to the local Tapas bar with friends, forgiving enough of your neglect, to take pity on you, where you ate Serrano ham and tortilla and lamb chops and washed it down with a couple of glasses of the red wine that you haven't been drinking for the last 21 days, but which, tonight, damn it, you think you need.

You flirt with a short Spanish man who comes up to your armpits, even when you're not towering above him on a bar-stool, who talks as though he's had his jaw wired shut, and whose gentle lithping lulls and comforts you into pleasure, in spite of yourself. And later, you walk home in the frost and let yourself in to the dark, gloomy house that seems to mock you with the unexplored possibilities of its emptiness. You double lock the door.

Next day you rise early, just to spite yourself, and carry on click, clicking until you decide you should to go to the supermarket for food that you're not going to eat, cook, or need, but nevertheless buy, store in the fridge in which everything is at right angles, and will probably throw out untouched before the end of the week. The afternoon turns to evening, broken only by a visit to the National Gallery to see The Sacred Made Real where you marvel at homoeroticism through the ages, before you while the evening away watching people pretend to be even more miserable that you, but with better figures and medical degrees.

At eleven o'clock, you're are still sitting there. The hotspots are no longer hot and the laptop has crashed. You've written emails you haven't sent (because who wants to advertise that they are sitting at home on a Saturday night) and forlornly called your youngest daughter who never goes across the threshold when there's the hint of squeaking bed springs, but has now just announced she is spending her second night out and may be back some time tomorrow, but only for a change of clothes.

The house is as quiet as a grave.

Your phone hasn't rung once.

You lock all the internal doors before you go to sleep, which you do fitfully, but for once, the floorboards and old walls are merciful and don't advertise their creaking, aching limbs while you lie awake, in the middle of the bed, which doesn't really fool anyone into making it feel occupied.

By Sunday, you're sick of the bloody website, and think Doctor Dreamy Derek is a wet prat, and you sling on your wellington boots and plod through the mud on Wormwood Scrubs where people look at you oddly because you are not accompanied by a dog. Damn it, even here you feel single. Back home, you walk up the red tile path and let yourself back into the house which fails to notice your arrival. You don't even glance at the house next door which cuddles up to yours, separated only by one flowerpot which your neighbour tends. Why should you? Unless the door is standing open, which has happened once or twice, or the burglar alarm has gone off, which has happened two or three hundred times, why would you look next door? Did you look when someone broke in through the side window and robbed the place? Did you look when another opportunist climbed over the back wall and let themselves in the bedroom window and stole all her mother's jewellry? Did you look the day that the woman who has lived there for the last 23 years set fire to her blouse and calmly called the ambulance herself, although you were at home and could have helped?

No. No. And no.

You did look the night the neighbour's daughter tried to kill the mouse with a brush and woke you up in the middle of the night screaming. The walls between you are so thin, you used to able to listen to the Today program in the morning without turning on the radio. They're so thin you can hear everything.

Can't you?

In the evening you go to the theatre with someone from work and get lost on the drive back, not getting in to bed until almost midnight. Daughter is in her bedroom. Her bag is slung across the kitchen table. Son is in his bedroom. His bike is poleaxed in the hall. There is a knife smeared with peanut butter on the kitchen counter.

Signs of life as we know it.

The office next morning feels like going to a holiday camp.

And then at the end of the day you park the car outside the house. It's dark. You notice a light on next door, not in itself unusual, but half of one window seems to be gone, and the other has a crack in it that's been mended with black electrical tape. Your heart sinks. Damn it, she's been burgled again. And your eyes immediately swing to your own front door, wondering if you've been hit too. But your son's bike is still in the hall so, no - even if he's fighting demons in the Land of Ork all day, he probably, might have, would have, surely, heard someone breaking in. You are about to turn the key in the lock when you hesitate. Your good neighbourliness kicks in and overrules your fear of intruding and you bang on the door.

Which is when, finally, you see your neighbour lying on the floor at the bottom of the stairs.

Quite dead and bloodied.

Where, apparently, the police think she has been since Friday.

Less than six feet from where you sat around all weekend - both of you, home alone by yourselves.

But it's only later that you start to pick at the scab of your memory and convince yourself that perhaps you heard her fall.

And did nothing.

To beard or not to beard

Then Sales, who is also sporting a - say - 2 o'clock shadow, asks me if he should shave or not because he has a date tonight with the guy who facebooked him after selling him a couple of tickets at the theatre last week.  Ah the modern world, huh?

'Mmm, well is he clean-shaven, I mean if you rub your chins together are you going to ignite?'

He gave me the haughty stare that he seems to reserve mainly for me and deigns to initiate me into whether or not tonight will be a meeting of chins.  'No, he's smooth.'

Very, if he can chat you up on Facebook after meeting you once.

'Shave,' I say.  But I'm a middle aged woman.   I don't think my preferences hold much sway in boy circles, so I think again.  'Or maybe not.'

'That's very helpful...'  He says.  'How was I the other night?'

'What other night?'

'When we went to the theatre together?'

'I don't remember.'

'Oh come on, you were with me, why can't you remember?  Cast your mind back and think!'

I can't.  It's a  blank.  All I can remember is the mystified look on the young woman (and her mother) who we ran into in the foyer as she wondered who the hell the old matron was who was accompanying her gay friend , though this was a problem I had anticipated with a little help from my frenemies at work. 

'But what will people think when they see you?'  Chief Sales had asked when I mentioned that young Sales and I were going out for a night of culture. (Look, he asked me...)

'That I'm his mother, or his aunt or something...  Surely!'

She looked sceptical. 

There was rhyming slang in there.  I just know it. 

May the Stubble Be With You

We're having a Beardathon at work. Well, by we I mean Editorial, Receptionist, Corvus and Contract. All came in clean shaven on February 1st with the aim of seeing who can grow the biggest beard by the end of the month. I'm thinking we should run a book and my money would be on Editorial - it would have been Contract but he succumbed on Day 3 and the sandpaper glint disappeared from his cheeks.

'I think he probably lives with a woman,' I said when Editorial bemoaned the fact that Contract had thrown in the hot towel.

'What do you mean? I live with a woman,' He replied indignantly. 'My mum loves my beard.'

You got it at mum, didn't you?

But are there really women apart from mothers who love beards? I assume there must be since my ex took his razor burn with him to the new woman when he left me. I wasn't sad to see it go because, despite Mrs Arafat telling me on very good authority that Yasser's beard didn't scratch (waste time on the PLO's mismanagement of millions when there's the important matter of physical intimacy to discuss - are you mad?) - scratching I can handle, it's the soft fluffy hairiness that I find sooooo wrong on so many levels..

And the way they stroke it.

We were talking about hair as a male attribute in the office the other day (waste time on literature when you there's the important matter etc...). 'I like bald men,' said one of the lithe young lovelies with flowing locks to her waist and a, presumably, hirsute Italian stallion tucked away in her weekends.

'Me too - but that's just as well, because after fifty you don't always have a lot of choice.' I said, authoritatively.

Well you do. But it's either that or hair gel.

Crispy hair gel.

That gets stuck in between your fingers if you try to run them through it, just before they jump back and yell: 'Don't touch the hair!'

For those who like lists

In the last week while not blogging I saw The Prophet, Swan Lake, The Misanthrope (for goodness sake Kiera, eat something), The Habit of Art (there should be an F in there somewhere and you can guess where it goes), Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hairspray (at which, for the first time ever, I groped the breast of an ...erm woman - Phil Jupitus in drag - and met Josie Lawrence which was only marginally less exciting), broke up with the new man, fell out with the old man, made up with the old man again, spend the weekend at The Halkin, had a great meal at Maze and a noisy but delicious meal at Buca del Lupo, visited the Saatchi, the Serpentine, the National Gallery, The British Museum, The Tate Modern, and found a dead body.