Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Limmud Update

My apologies for the long silence. I am at Limmud (feeling much better by the way) and it has taken me four days to find the computer room. Probably just as well, because I’m not sure that a blow-by-blow account of what lectures I’ve attended and which films I’ve watched would be of much interest. As it is, four days in, I can give you a more generalised overview of the Limmud experience.

For those who don’t know, Limmud is a five day Jewish conference, now in its 25th year, and attracts over 2000 attendees from all over the UK (and some from abroad too). There are academics, writers, artists, politicians, comedians and poets here – all presenting sessions on a range of themes from Bible, History, Film, Comedy, Art, Cooking, the list really is endless.

People who attend come from every walk of life – from very orthodox thru traditional streams of Judaism to no observance at all. And everyone is welcome and nobody is judged. (In public, at least). So the range of people is vast. That said, the delegates tend to fall into a number of major stereotypes. Or Tribes.

1. The Happy Clappies. These are the chaps who wear very colourful Bukharan kippot, stripy ponchos bought in Peru in 1974, fringed scarves wrapped at least twice round their necks. They all carry guitars. Some even carry balalaikas. They attend the sessions with ‘meditation’ or ‘mysticism’ in the title and they queue up for the vegetarian option in the dining room.

2. The Academics. These are, unsurprisingly, the visiting Professors from universities around the world who take Limmud very, very seriously. They do not attend a single arts based session the entire time they are here. On the contrary, they attend the heavy text-based, PhD thesis sessions back to back and rush around the campus like mad people, with the glasses on string flapping round their necks. They attack the week like Japanese tourists – they know exactly where they are going to be any given time on any day. I have no clue when I’m having lunch today. They know what session they’re attending in four days time at 3.40 pm.

3. The Harrassed Parents. They were told that Limmud was ‘a fantastic place to bring the kids’ and, more incredibly, they believed it. So they have dragged their kids to Nottingham and have spent the past four days tying to placate them for missing out on all the Christmas telly. They are trying to make Limmud a Christmas substitute, which is fitting, since everytime you see them, out of breath running from the kids play room to the kids dining room and back again, having a thoroughly miserable time, all they can say is ‘Limmud, it’s for the kids, innit.’

4. The Ladies Guild Road Trippers. Dressed in identical twin sets and big hair, they are on a session loop. Cookery demonstration (where the name of Evelyn Rose is uttered in hushed reverence) then Musical Interlude (Klezmer, preferably) then an exhibition of Chagall paintings. And then back to Cookery again. (You can never have too much Evelyn Rose).

5.The Students. They do not attend any sessions. They have not come to learn. They are on the pull.

Personally, it’s been a wonderful time. Firstly, I have drunk far too much and have flirted outrageously. Possibly casting myself into Tribe #5, but what they hell. I’m on holiday. The good news though is that, alcoholism notwithstanding, my hair is looking fabulous. You know how it is when you go away. You always worry that it’s not going to look as good as you can do it at home. It’s a girl thing. But luckily, no worries at all on that score.

I’ve not been able to attend all the sessions I’ve wanted to. It’s just not possible because there are so many. So I’ve had to choose which to attend and which to avoid. I’ve used the session ‘explanation’ in the guide book to help me choose. Anything with ‘kabbalah’, ‘audience participation’ or ‘journey’ (preceded by the word personal) is out. I know when I’ve made a mistake when the session begins with the presenter saying “Okay, let’s move the chairs to the back of the room and stand in a circle”. Time to make a sharp exit.

My only other major activity has been avoiding various ex-bad-dates that are wandering around the campus. As soon as you get the conference pack (which contains a list of all attendees) all under-35’s scan the list of names to see which dates from hell are here. Luckily, only 2 are here and I’ve managed to avoid them so far.

Well, my next session is about to start – I’m off to watch the film “Walking on Water”. I’ll update again soon – or when I’m back in London.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Passenger Blues

Well, as much I’ve tried to fight it, with industrial strength lemsip and my own body weight in oranges, I am now suffering my first proper cold of the winter. I am dosed up to the eyeballs with various sickly sweet remedies, all of which ‘may cause drowsiness’ and there is a lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit, that is making it rather difficult to swallow. I am fighting the urge to shut down the computer and just go home. But I don’t want my boss to think I’m skiving off to go Christmas shopping. Plus, when you’re under the weather, travelling on the tube is a nightmare and so I’m putting off the dreaded moment for as long as possible.

I hate travelling on the tube at the best of times. It’s dirty, unreliable and expensive. It forces us to get up-close-and-personal with the great unwashed (often, literally) of London, and brings out the very worst in all of us. I leave the house every morning in a good mood, raring to enjoy the new day, and after an hour on the tube I am snappy, irritable and ready to stab someone. I’d consider raising this with Mayor Livingstone, but he’d probably accuse me of being a Nazi.

There are dozens of reasons why the tube is a microcosm of hell on earth. Here are just five of them.

1. Tube commuters with out-of-credit Oyster cards.
There is nothing more annoying than queuing up to go through the electric barriers and finding yourself behind someone whose Oyster card is out of credit. They press the card on the scanner but the barrier doesn’t open, and instead the display screen tells them to “Seek Assistance”. At this point, two things happen. Firstly, you slam into the back of the said commuter because you expected them to walk through the barrier and so carried on walking at full speed behind them. They stop still and you crash into them, chin first. (If they are wearing a ruck sack this can be bloody painful.) The second thing that happens is that the commuter reads “Seek Assistance” and assumes it means “Try Again”. He places the card back on the scanner, but (surprise surprise) it still doesn’t open the barrier and the display still reads “Seek Assistance”. This time, the commuter thinks it means “Go on, give it another go. There are only 12 people behind you. And nobody’s in any kind of hurry”. After the third failed attempt the commuter finally realises that barrier is not going to open and tries to get out of the queue. He does this by pushing you out of the way (so that you now find yourself flung into the face of the person behind you) and swearing obscenities at you, like it’s your fault.

2. The battle of wills to sit down.
During rush hour tube seats are scarce. Unless you are pregnant, or live at the end of a line, you are not going to get a seat on the tube until at least half past nine. Your only chance of sitting down is to be in the right place at the right time. So you have to watch the other commuters and try to work out who looks like they’re getting ready to leave at the next station, and then position yourself in the right place to jump into their grave the minute they get up to leave. Anybody fiddling with their bags, putting on gloves or folding up a newspaper is a safe bet. You need to stand next to them and cling to the spot like glue. But while you’re doing this, you also have to keep half an eye out for the other standing commuters. Because there is nothing worse than eyeing up a potential empty seat, only to have it taken by somebody else while you are politely letting the previous occupant leave the train. So there is a constant battle of wills going on for every potential seat. Sometimes, if you position yourself cleverly enough, you can grab a newly vacant seat ahead of people who have been on the train for longer than you. This is great because most commuters think that the tube operates on a first-come-first-served basis, so if you manage to grab a seat before them the victory is even sweeter. Unless, of course, you’ve been on the train for ages and some jonny-come-lately gets the seat ahead of you. In which case, you give him daggers for the rest of the journey and hope that his Oyster card is out of credit.

3. London Underground Speak
Or, in other words, the inane and totally made-up English that tube staff insist on using, purely to bring out the Lynn Truss in everyone. For example, nobody travelling on the underground ever refers to the carriages as ‘cars’. This is because they are not cars but are, in fact, carriages. And yet you can guarantee that the platform staff will tell you to “Move right down inside the cars” whenever the train is particularly busy. What are they talking about? “Move right down inside the cars” is something they advise British journalists to do when travelling through a check-point in Baghdad to avoid sniper fire. We, on the other hand, are making our way through Camden Town. Another favourite of mine is the word “reduced” which is used by tube staff in its sense of “shit”. So, when they announce that “A reduced service is currently operating on the Jubilee line” what they actually mean is “A shit service is currently operating on the Jubilee line”. Not only do they use the wrong words but, on occasion, they just make words up, such as the verb “to non-stop”. So, tube announcers will never tell you that “This train will not be stopping at Kings Cross”, because that sentence makes perfect sense and shows an accurate command of the English language. Instead, they will explain that “This train will be non-stopping at Kings Cross”. This is not pure coincidence. There is a marketing theory that all negative messages should be worded in a positive way. So, instead of a train “not stopping” (negative) we are actually told that the train is (positive) non-stopping. Soon, we will no doubt be informed that the escalators are non-moving and the lifts are non-opening.

4. Service updates
You can only travel on one line at a time on the underground. Occasionally, you might change from one line to another in a single journey but, generally speaking, you use one line only. So, if the line you want to travel on is delayed, you derive absolutely no pleasure at all from the knowledge that “A good service is operating on all other lines”. If the line that takes you home is buggered, you are going to be late home. They could be serving a five-star silver-service meal with wine and providing an in-flight movie on all other lines for all you care. It makes no difference to you – you are still going to be late home. So, when you are standing on an over-crowded platform, trying to keep from falling onto the track, and the platform attendant is announcing that the next train is due to arrive in 17 minutes, how on earth does it help you to know that a good service is operating on all other lines? If anything, it just rubs salt in the wound. They might as well announce “Your journey home will be delayed by 24 minutes today. All other commuters are already at home, in their slippers and are currently watching Coronation Street”.
I once heard a station manager announce “There is currently a reduced service on the Piccadilly and Northern Lines. The Victoria and Bakerloo lines are part suspended, in both directions. The Central line is running a Saturday service due to essential engineering works. A good service is operating on all other lines.” Oh good. Because we wouldn’t want the capital’s entire travel network to grind to a halt, would we?

5. Reasons given for poor service.
A delayed journey is bad enough. Being told that all other lines are running perfectly doesn’t help. But when the tube announcers try to explain away the delay by making up any old rot they think we’ll swallow, I see red. Often, they just make the excuses up. We’ve all been in the situation of starting a tube journey in, say, Golders Green, grinding to a halt in a tunnel four stops later, only to be told that the delay is due to engineering works in the Golders Green area. When you know for a fact that there were no such engineering works at all. Sometimes, not only do they make up the excuse, but they change it as the journey progresses. So, a delay that is initially caused by engineering works in the Hendon area becomes a delay caused by flooding in Kentish Town. By the time you finally arrive (late) in Waterloo, you’ve been held up by signal failure in Kings Cross, a power cut in Hammersmith and a fire in Euston. And you don’t even travel through Hammersmith or Euston.
And, when they finally run out of excuses, they play their joker – the excuse that really makes my blood boil. “Passenger Action”. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all our own fault, isn’t it? I’ve never actually discovered what they mean by “Passenger Action”. But if a commuter has been slammed into a fellow passenger in the barrier queue, been left standing while someone has taken the last available seat, had to endure umpteen fictional excuses to explain away the poor service, only to be reassured that all other lines are fully operational, I’d hazard a guess that the said passenger action is probably justified. And I hope that it’s absolutely spectacular.

And with that in mind, I am off home, via the tube, to make myself a hot Ribena and put myself to bed. I’ll be back (in a less grumpy mood) when the Lemsip Max-Strength kicks in.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Musical musings

As a parent I worry constantly about Scrappino. It's only natural. I try not to, but I do. As soon as you give birth, your capacity to sense danger around every corner increases ten-fold. Every electric socket is a potential fire hazard; every driver a hit-and-run waiting to happen. All logic and reason disappear and irrational fretting takes their place, to the point that when I'm not worrying about something specific I'm worrying that I've been kept in the dark about something worth worrying about. And so I worry even more. Basically, I'm with Roger McGough on this. His poem, entitled (appropriately enough) Worry is one of my favourites.

Where would we be without worry?
It helps keep the brain occupied.
I once knew a man
Who couldn’t care less
And he died.

As our children grow older, the worry doesn't decrease - we just worry about different things. I know this because my parents have an almost God-like talent for worrying. In fact, I'd say they have a genetic predisposition to it, which I have clearly inherited. The dangers facing their single daughter in the heaving metropolis of modern London are not lost on them. And they are permanently anxious that I am safe and well. (If I'm honest, it's actually quite comforting to be worried about by your parents - I wonder if Scrappino feels the same?)

Given this tendency for anxiety I decided not to tell them that I had bought a ticket for a concert at the Brixton Academy. The words 'Brixton', 'Stockwell Tube Station' and 'Night Bus' are not ones to offer them much comfort. And so, without a word to the folks, I set off last night into deepest South London, with my good friend A, for the said concert.

As it turns out, our stealth was not warranted. Brixton tube station is now well lit and almost totally rebuilt, with windows in the ticket hall and a plethora of smiling (yes, can you believe it, smiling) tube staff. We felt 100% safe as we walked to the Academy and made our way to the back of the queue.

Our sense of safety was perhaps bolstered by the fact that this was a David Gray concert. Hardly at the cutting edge of the teenage music scene. In fact, looking at the people waiting behind us in the queue, we noticed that there were more mums and dads than rebellious kids. (A very refreshing feeling for me - finally, I'm not the only one in the audience rushing home at the end of the night to pay the babysitter). I don't know what the residents of Brixton must have thought of all these middle-aged middle-class white folk descending on their manor.

When we were finally ushered inside and made our way through the bag check (and not a CST volunteer in sight) it became even more apparent how middle-class this gig was going to be. This was Easy Listening night at the Brixton Academy. At the bar we both ordered a beer and were given the obligatory plastic bottles. The woman alongside us asked why the bottle was plastic. Clearly, she was a Brixton Academy virgin. And she wasn't alone. A had her huge work bag with her so we asked some random woman if there was a cloakroom. She pointed us in the direction of a door at the end of the foyer. It was only when we reached it that we realised that she'd sent us to the Ladies toilets. Bromley Village meets Brixton Central - the loo is not called a cloakroom south of the river. Perhaps she'd thought that the Brixton Academy was a posh secondary school?

Eventually, we found the cloakroom, checked in our bags and were given tickets to reclaim them after the gig. As we walked towards the hall, holding our pink tickets, a 40-something year old woman asked us "Oh, is there going to be a raffle?" ("Yes, love, there's going to be a raffle. All the major pop concerts have a raffle, didn't you know? At the Rolling Stones gig they have Mick Jagger running a tombola and Madonna gives out bottles of Pomagne in a lucky dip")

We managed to drink through the support act and made our way towards the standing area in front of the stage, while the roadies set the stage and tuned the guitars for Gray and his backing band. Roadies are, without exception, the most ugly blokes you could ever meet. I'd hazard a guess that being fat, tattooed, over-pierced and sporting long hair and a straggly beard are now essential job requirements for a roadie. And this includes the one female roadie who was there yesterday. Think Janice from Coronation Street meets Eric Bristow. Not a sight you want to pay good money to see.

Eventually, the lights went down, the crowd cheered and David Gray made his way on-stage.

Now, I know my own literary limitations. And being a music critic is not within my capabilities. I don't have the vocabulary or the musical understanding to do it justice. And, more crucially, I am completely biased. So I will simply say that he was terrific. He was clearly enjoying himself the entire night (unlike the last time I saw him - two years ago at Earl's Court - the venue was too big and he was pissed off at the audience who didn’t know any of his new material and kept calling out "Sing Babylon. Sing Babylon". Which he refused to do). Not so last night. He fired his way through the best of Life in Slow Motion (his most recent album) and then treated us to the best of White Ladder - "Sail Away", "This Year's Love" and, of course, "Babylon". He wore a fabulous dark brown Italian suit (a sign of White Ladder's commercial success) and I thought that Mum would have approved (she never forgave the Beatles for ditching the Pierre Cardin and opting for Afghan coats).

Now, I know that David Gray is not the coolest chap in the pop world. I know that some think he's corny, derivative and samey. But you know what? I don't care. I just think he's brilliant. And I've found that one of the most wonderful things about being 30+ is that you stop caring about what other people think and just enjoy the things that you want to enjoy without worrying about any potential damage done to your street cred. This is made easier by my acceptance (finally) that not everyone shares my passions and so I managed to resist the urge to earnestly compel A to "listen to the words!" whenever he sang a slow ballad. (It was during these slow numbers that the middle class audience came into its own. Instead of the obligatory waving of the cigarette lighters the audience held their mobile phones aloft instead - a sea of little blue lights).

And so A and I swayed, jumped, sang and cheered our way through the very best of David Gray. He was on stage for almost two hours - moving from electric guitar to piano to acoustic guitar and gave his all to every track. He ended the set with a fabulous rendition of Babylon (a sign that he's comfortable with his previous glories and can celebrate them without fearing about his future output) and the audience roared.

He and the band walked off stage leaving the audience baying for an encore. This always makes me laugh - everyone knows the band is going to come back. Their instruments are still on the stage for Christ's sake and the lights are still down in the hall. But we all have to play the game. So we screamed 'MORE' and eventually he jogs back onto the stage with his "Oh, okay then - if you insist" expression. And sang "Shine" (my personal favourite Gray song) with more passion and more guts than I've ever seen him do it before. Worth the cover price of the ticket on its own. Finally, with the audience fired up he ended the evening with a cover of the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love", and brought the bloody house down.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Yule Blog

Oh dear. This blog is rapidly becoming a weekly, rather than a daily, update. My apologies to regular readers who have turned up for the past 6 days only to find an out of date post. But the week has been a tad hectic, and not without excitement. It began with a bang. Literally. I was rudely awoken on Sunday morning at 6 a.m (I didn’t even know there was a 6 in the morning on a Sunday) by the most frightening BOOM that I have ever heard. It was so loud it almost knocked me out of bed. I thought at first that my front door had blown open in the wind and had been slammed shut again by the chain. I have a dodgy lock on my front door that has a habit of opening at the slightest movement outside. Not the safest security measure for a single mother, I know, but it is on my DIY to-do list. Or, more accurately, not my Do It Yourself list, but my Get A Man In To Do It list. I’ll get round to sorting it. Eventually.

So, bleary eyed and not quite fully awake (I hadn’t got to bed the previous night til gone 2) I rushed downstairs to check that everything was okay. What was odd, I thought a few moments later when I was back in bed, was that there was no wind outside, so how had the door blown open? It was only hours later, when I put the radio on, that I heard about the massive oil depot blast just a few miles up the road. Raging fires, fuel drums blazing, huge plume of thick black smoke filling the sky. The day was then spent checking that friends and family were okay. Or rather, chatting to friends and family to find out if they had heard the explosion. My brother said that he’d heard it and had assumed that the shul had been blown up. Funny how we see everything through our own personal prism. You hear a blast that sounds like a bomb and immediately assume that they’ve come for the Jews.

Luckily, Scrappino wasn’t at home that night so he had been spared the ‘ordeal’. I’m not one to advocate wrapping children in cotton wool. We can’t protect them totally from the real world. But I do worry about the effect that constant news items about terrorist bombings and security threats must have on our kids. This isn’t made any easier by the fact that his school employs three full time security guards who patrol the school grounds and stand at the gate monitoring everyone who comes in and comes out. What’s even more ridiculous is that, at the beginning and end of the day, the parents have to do security duty too. When Scrappino began at the school five years ago the rota was relatively low key. Each parent did one slot per term. And really, the only role they played was to stand at the gate with the guards to verify that parents or guardians were who they said they were and to translate the guards’ dreadful English. (The security guards are all Israeli. Young chaps of 21 or 22 who leave Israel after 3 years army service to see the world. And end up in North West London back on security duty. Mind you, that’s not quite as sad as those who end up on Golders Green road selling falafel. Can you imaging their disappointment? Moving away from Tel Aviv to travel the globe and confront a different culture, only to end up serving falafel and shwarma.)

To be honest, my relationship with the security guards began a little embarrassingly. I took Scrappino along to school on his first day, to be met by a young, and rather good looking, Israeli. He looked at me and then at Scrappino and then back at me. In halting English he asked me “Are you his sister?” I smiled in a flirty way and laughed and said “Oh, aren’t you sweet.” He then looked at the list of kids’ names that he was holding and said “No, I just need to know the name of every person who brings in a child to the school”. Ah well, worth a try.

But since 9/11 the security has become a lot more serious. In fact, the security rota has become something of a cottage industry. Now, there are three parents on duty, morning and afternoon, in addition to the professionals. We are given walkie talkies and a whistle (a whistle?? How on earth is that going to protect us if Al Qaeda decide to strike at the heart of Mill Hill?) and we have to walk up and down the roads on either side of the school wearing the most hideous, and embarrassing, fluorescent yellow jackets. Talk about moving targets. They might as well give us tattoos to wear on our fore-heads - “Neurotic Jewish Mother” and be done with it. Personally, I think it’s all a bit overboard. I honestly don’t think that it protects the kids at all. And, more worryingly, it raises them to believe that they are in constant danger, that everyone is trying to kill them and that the only way to stay safe is to create a little bubble (ghetto, perhaps?) and to keep the rest of the world out. The only outburst of anti-Semitic hostility I’ve ever witnessed while doing my security rota is the abuse meted out on parents by angry neighbours who find themselves blocked in by the parents’ carelessly parking their 4x4 cars in front of the neighbours’ driveways. And to be honest, I reckoned the neighbours had a right to be annoyed. I’m not saying that there is no anti-Semiticism in the UK. But since Ken Livingstone never ventures further than zone 2 I reckon our kids are probably safe enough.

Mind you, the school is not the only place where you encounter DIY security these days. You can’t go to any Jewish function anymore without battling your way through a barrage of security bouncers. At every synagogue they are out in force – the dreaded CST. I probably shouldn’t mock. They do a great job, are all volunteers and stand outside in the cold and the rain for hours. (Though, considering some sermons and services I’ve sat through, maybe they have the right idea?) The only thing about the CST is that, being volunteers from the community, they just don’t look the part. Let’s face it, as a nation, we are not renowned for producing tall menacing men-folk. In fact, the CST is often the nearest our short, bald accountants get to playing at being macho. The CST, it strikes me, is what the film ‘The Matrix’ would have looked like had Danny DeVito been given the lead role.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, everyone is getting ready for Christmas. I’ve already received six Christmas cards. This always amazes me. Everyone I know is aware that I’m Jewish. And yet every year they send me a card for a festival they know I don’t celebrate. (I exclude CK and LA from this list who always wish me a Happy Chanucka which is really lovely of them). But why send a Christmas card to someone who isn’t celebrating Christmas? It’s like sending all your friends a Get Well card whenever you’re ill yourself. Just doesn’t make sense. To make things more PC we have the Happy Holidays industry. But I’m not sure this is the answer. It dilutes the message of Christmas for those who are genuinely celebrating and promotes Chanucka to the most important (or, at least, the most widely known) Jewish festival, when really, it’s only a minor event in the calendar. Personally, I’ll be spending Christmas Day at Limmud. I mentioned this a couple of times at work until one of my colleagues asked me if Limmud was Hebrew for Christmas. Which, in a way, I suppose it is.

Still, for all this Bah Humbug, I do actually enjoy this time of year. The street lights and the decorations in the shops are great and there’s a warm feeling that shuts out the grey and the cold. And you don’t have to be Christian to be open to the message of goodwill to all men. It also means presents, and I’m as happy as the next person to join in with the giving and receiving of gifts. I took Scrappino to Hamleys on Sunday to have a look round and to choose his Chanucka present. He wanted a remote controlled Dalek. (We have the DVDs, the books and the posters – now we can live with a real live Dalek too). But the current price is £49.99 so I think he’s going to have to wait for the January sales and my winter pay rise. Hamleys is a great store – five floors of toys, toys and more toys. The stair way is decorated to look and feel like a trip through Narnia and is worth the trek into town for that alone. Scrappino, having seen the price of the Dalek, decided to choose some arts and crafts material. So we checked out the floor plan and noticed that ‘Arts and Crafts’ were on Floor 3 in the Girls section. Scrappino asked me why arts stuff had been put on the girls floor. “Some of the best artists in the world were men, weren’t they, Mum?” That’s my boy. He may be susceptible to the Dr Who hype but, happily, seems to be totally impervious to any kind of gender stereotyping. Which is good news. At least I won’t find him volunteering for the CST in ten years time.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The day the music died

There is a Wendy Cope poem that I absolutely adore. Actually, there are many Wendy Cope poems that I adore, but one is particularly relevant today. It’s called “Two Cures For Love” and goes like this:

Two Cures for Love

1. Don’t see him. Don’t phone or write a letter.
2. The easy way: get to know him better.

I like Cope’s work because it is unpretentious and witty and manages to convey in a few short lines what we lesser mortals would take reams of space to explain. All the disappointment of dating, the let down of discovering the ‘real person’ as opposed the original ideal we had in our head, is succinctly expressed in two brief lines.

Every woman who’s ever been dumped can instantly identify with Cope’s “Going Too Far”, another of my favourites.

Going Too Far

Cuddling the new telephone directory
After I found your name in it
Was going too far.

It’s a safe bet you’re not hugging a phone book,
Wherever you are.

Brilliant. Let’s face it, we’ve all done it. Not hugging the phone book, necessarily, but lingering over a failed relationship long after it’s dead and buried when we should have marched on to pastures new. See, that took me a ridiculously long-winded sentence, complete with two metaphors and an opening qualification, while Cope successfully describes the whole scenario in a few short lines. Genius.

L, a friend of mine with an English literature degree, has tried to convince me that Cope’s poems are really little more than clever wisecracks. Maybe so. But as I told L, the line between clever wisecrack and pithy epigram is a fine one. Maybe it’s a girl thing? Cope certainly manages to describe the inner workings of the female mind (particularly the single female mind) with frightening accuracy. And, in just a few short lines, she is able to reduce me to uncontrollable laughter or tears so, despite L’s misgivings, Wendy Cope’s place in my top-five poets of all time is pretty much secure. (I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know enough poets to have a top-ten list, so top-five will have to do).

I have digressed wildly off the point. The thing is that I have been thinking about “Two Cures for Love” a lot this week, and especially today. On Saturday night, in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, Radio 4 aired “The Wenner Tapes”, an extensive interview that John Lennon gave to Jann Wenner in New York in 1970. The interview was the basis of a Rolling Stone article that year, but has never before been broadcast in the UK. It was an eye opener, to say the least.

Much has been said and written about John Lennon over the past 25 years. Most of it ridiculously over the top, to the point of idol worship. I was never one to believe that he was a saint or a hero or a prophetic genius. But I was a bloody big fan. I spent most of my formative years listening to the Beatles and trying to convince my school friends that they really were better than Wham and Duran Duran (at least I had the last laugh there.) There are Lennon lyrics that never fail to move me. “Beautiful Boy”, “In My Life” and “Across the Universe” still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I can’t listen to “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” without smiling and thinking of H, or “Girl” without waiting expectantly for the heavy intake of breath at the end of the first chorus, and yet being surprised by it at the same time. And I defy anyone to listen to “Help!” or “I’m a Loser” without feeling some of Lennon’s pain and despair.

So, without overplaying the point (apart from one year when I lit a yizkor candle with my school friend Jayne in the girl’s toilets and got sent to the headmaster’s office – a fire hazard, apparently) John Lennon has been a constant feature in my life and I have always silently marked the 8th December as the day that he died. I know that the man wasn’t a saint or a working class hero (he wasn’t even working class) but he did write some great songs that have made me laugh and cry and think for almost 30 years and, on the day that he died, I always think of him.

But this year, Cope’s warning that getting to know a man better might well cure you of love has proved prophetic. The Wenner interview exposed a man who was clearly neither saint nor hero. In fact, rather disappointingly for this die hard fan, he was the very opposite. Lennon came across as a self-opinionated, self-important, vindictive, jealous git. He admitted to being convinced of his own genius from a young age, spoke about the other Beatles like they were dirt on his shoe (“I carried George. He’s an average guitarist at best”) and criticised Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger as old hat and an imitator, respectively. He even suggested that the only positive memory he has of the early years, touring with the Beatles, were the freely available “groupies and whores” who used to visit their hotel room.

Previously, I had been naively prepared to overlook his anti-Semitic, misogynistic and homophobic remarks as a sign of the age in which he lived, but I can’t square those feelings any more. In short, a man I had admired and respected for years turns out to have been a thoroughly unpleasant individual.

And yet. And yet. He gave me (not personally, obviously, but when I listen to his songs I can’t help feeling that he is singing just to me) some of the most constant and enduring songs of my life. His voice is still raw and alive when he sings “Mr Moonlight” and to this day, whenever I can’t sleep, I listen to the second side of Abbey Road and it calms me down and shuts out the dark silence like no other music ever can.

And so, today, 25 years after he was shot, I find myself, for the first time, with very mixed emotions. I can’t say that my admiration or respect for him is as strong as it was. He was more than merely ‘flawed’, as some commentators have written in the press today. He was clearly a disagreeable and unpleasant person. But he was also a gifted artist, a talented musician and a brilliant lyricist. And I know that, in spite of it all, I will continue to listen to his music when the mood dictates. Getting to know him better has not cured me of my ‘love’ for John Lennon, but it has certainly tainted it somewhat. “The dream is over” he once sang. Now it’s time to see the man for who and what he really was. And maybe, knowing what I know now, I can grow to love him more realistically, warts and all.

Thursday, December 01, 2005's a secret

Preparations are now underway to organise my Dad’s 70th birthday party. You would think that, between the seven adults who comprise his children and children-in-law (yes, I am responsible for the odd number), this would be a relatively simple event to arrange. After all, we are all intelligent, computer literate people with a good sense of what Dad would enjoy on his big day and what little extras we can throw in to surprise him. You’d think that we could arrange a little get-together in a London restaurant without too much difficulty. Send each other a few round robin emails to confirm dates, times and venue, make the reservation and each book a babysitter. This is not rocket science.

But, three weeks after the suggestion was originally mooted, we have made very little progress. To begin with, this was largely my fault. After a phone call from brother #1, I got the ball rolling by sending an email to all the ‘siblings’ suggesting that we pencil in Sunday 18th January. Half an hour later brother #1 replies, pointing out that there is no Sunday 18th January. At least, not in 2006 there isn’t. The problem is that I have a new electronic diary. Actually, it’s one of those hand held mini-computer things, and it looks amazing, but the diary function is really fiddly. It’s not always clear what month you’re looking at. So what I thought was the 18th January was in fact 18th December. This wouldn’t happen with a paper diary and a pen – but it’s not my style to take the Luddite approach. Plus it’s lovely to be using a diary that doesn’t interrupt your annual flow in the middle of September with a glaring advert for WHSmith “Buy your new diary now while stocks last” – when what they really mean is “Buy your new diary now while the price is extortionate” because you know that if you wait until February they’re practically giving the bastards away.

Anyway, that’s not important right now. The point is that because of my attractive but rather confusing diary I suggested a non-existent date to hold the party. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one to be slightly fazed by all this modern technology. Brother #1, in his haste to point out that 18th Jan does not exist, pushed the ‘reply’ rather than the ‘reply all’ button. (Well, it’s a very easy mistake to make, and let’s face it, we’ve all done it. Although, compared with the horror that can ensue if you press ‘reply all’ instead of just ‘reply’ I guess this is only a minor problem).

The upshot was, however, that nobody else saw his reply. Cue five more replies over the next three hours, all pointing out that there is no Sunday 18th January, and did I mean Sunday 18th December or Sunday 15th January or what? Not a great start.

Actually, that’s a slight exaggeration. Not all of the siblings replied immediately. Mainly because not all of them have a job, like mine, where you can sit at your computer without moving from the minute you arrive in the morning til the moment you put on your coat and leave at the end of the day. Now that I don’t have to send any faxes (remember them?) I can easily sit at my desk without moving for the entire working day. If it weren’t for the fact that the snack machine is on a different floor, I’d get absolutely no exercise all day. Though I’m not sure that it really counts as exercise if you only get up to buy a snickers. My siblings all have busy lives with proper jobs – they have meetings and everything – and they don’t have the luxury of hitting the reply button the minute a message is received. So it took about a week before we’d verified the date, all checked our diaries, confirmed with our spouses and then with the rest of the group, and finally pencilled in the 15th January for the big day.

There then followed a lengthy email exchange of venue ideas. Should we have a tea party at home? Book a restaurant for dinner? Go to the theatre? Should we bring the kids along or stick to grown-ups only? The messages went back and forth and slowly the plan emerged – afternoon tea at home with the kids (Dad’ll love that) followed by dinner later on in a restaurant for the adults (ditto).

Now as you (may or may not) know, my sister lives in Jerusalem, and we decided that it would be a terrific surprise for my Dad if we arranged for her to come over for his birthday. But in order to do that we had to be 100% sure that they would be free on the 15th before she booked her flight. And so I called my parents to try to speak with my mum and arrange with her to keep the day free and the secret safe until the 15th. The problem is that phoning home (funny how I still call it home even though I left my parents house almost 15 years ago) runs the risk of having to talk to Mum about this surprise visit while Dad is in earshot. I had to think of a ploy to chat to Mum without my Dad cottoning on. Luckily, Mum answered the phone. The conversation began something like this:

Me: Hi, is Dad there?
Mum: Yes, I’ll just get him.
Me: NO NO!! Don’t call him. Just tell me if he’s there?
Mum: Yes. Why?
Me: Okay, I just want to chat about his birthday. We’ve got an idea for a surprise. Just pretend that we’re talking about recipes.
Mum: Okay, I’ll just go and get my recipe book.

This year’s Oscar for Best Actress goes to…my mother. She not only got her recipe book out, but she opened it up on the desserts page and carried on the whole conversation as if she was giving me a recipe for apple pie.

Me: We’d like to have a tea party with the kids in the afternoon of 15th Jan.
Mum: Measure out one basic mixture of Evelyn Rose sweet pastry. Divide into two.
Me: Can you keep that day free? Are you sure you’re not playing bridge?
Mum: Refrigerate for half an hour before using.
Me: Then, in the evening we’ve booked a table for just the adults.
Mum: Chop four large baking apples into cm squares.
Me: And the piece de resistance is that H is going to come over. As a surprise. Just for a couple of days.
Mum: Add 100 grams caster sugar and 3 tablespoons of cinnamon.
Me: So will you make up an excuse to come to London that day and we’ll organise the rest?
Mum: Pour apple mixture into pastry-lined tin and cover with the other half of the pastry.
Me: Call me later when Dad’s in shul to confirm that it’s okay.
Mum: Bake on regulo 4 for 45 minutes.
Me: What the hell is regulo 4?
Mum: About 220 celsius.
Me: Oh.
Mum: Have you got an electric or gas oven?
Me: Why?
Mum: Because 220 celsius is gas mark 4.
Me: I’m not really making the apple pie.
Mum: Well it’s a very easy recipe if you do ever need to make one.

All this subterfuge and role-playing clearly went to Mum’s head because, later that day, I came home from work to find a message on the answer machine. It was from my mother and she was whispering. In a very faint, breathy whisper she’d said “Hi. It’s Mum. I’m whispering because Dad’s in the lounge. I’m in the toilet on the mobile. Anyway, the 15th is fine. I’ve told him we’re going to go down to see you all. Nothing special. He doesn’t know about H. I’ll call you with any updates.” Then there was a slight pause. “By the way, I forgot to mention. If you do make that apple pie, you should glaze the pastry with egg yolk before baking and prick the top with a fork.”

Operation Apple Pie to mark my Dad’s 70th is GO!