Wednesday, February 22, 2006

It's all about identity...

Sometimes you need to be careful what you wish for. There I was, last week, complaining about the lack of Valentines Day cards and picturing myself dying alone with my cats, when out of the blue a card arrived. Well, not so much a card arrived as a card was handed to me in a pub. It was, admittedly, given to me as a tongue in cheek gesture (which, by the end of the evening, was a rather fitting metaphor…) but I was bloody delighted to receive it. My delight was dampened slightly by the fact that the sender of the card bet me a fiver that I'd receive one by the end of the evening. I took the bet - any other year I'd have been five quid up - only to see said sender dip into his briefcase and take out the tell-tale red envelope. (I hate gambling with a passion. This is why. The odds are always stacked against you.)

So far so lovely. But there is a snag. I have promised said card-sender that I will not blog about him. The temptation is strong, but it seems the right thing to do. It's all very well setting myself up for public ridicule but it wouldn't be fair to do that to anyone else. (And anyway, I work bloody hard penning these entries, trying to put a farcical gloss on my daily life. If he wants to make himself look an arse he can do it himself.) So I find myself with lots to write, but unable to share. Which is a shame, because I reckon you'd laugh out loud if I told you about how I split open his nose with a mug that managed to fly off a shelf in my bedroom in the early hours of Friday morning and soaked us both in the process. But, as I say, a promise is a promise.

So, instead I will have to dwell on more weighty matters. I am off to Wales on Friday for a Jewish Leadership Training weekend. I've been invited to run a couple of sessions on Jewish Identity and Being A Jewish Woman. I cannot for the life of me understand why I've been chosen to do this. You know that the community is in trouble when I am held up as a beacon of Jewish Womanhood. But I will take the opportunity to spread the word. If the women on the course are not putting on tephillin by Sunday morning and insisting on their right to wear a tallit while saying kaddish in a mixed minyan I will suggest that they demand their money back.

The other mystery is working out why the weekend has been scheduled to take place in Wales. In February. Not only will it rain incessantly, but we are staying in a wooden built, vegetarian hostel, so there won't even be a nice warm meaty meal to look forward to while we shiver our way through each session. My good friend C is running the programme and her last words to me at the planning meeting were "bring warm clothes". Not a good sign.

I had flash backs of Colomendy . An outdoor recreation centre in North Wales that has been imprinted on the memory of every Liverpool school pupil since the 1940's. Think Russian Gulag with a little bit of Sobibor thrown in. If you think this sounds flippant, take a look at this.

I recall that the bathroom (which was communal - naturally) had "Ablution Block" written on the door and the campus as a whole was made up of rows upon rows of long wooden dormitory buildings. Every year, the lower 6th form (aged 16) would be sent to this Belsen-esque facility for 5 days of 'group-bonding' and 'personal growth'. But it's surprisingly difficult to grow, personally or otherwise, when your sleep has been interrupted by nightmares about SS guards in jackboots knocking down the dormitory doors.

I have been assured that, vegetarian status notwithstanding, the hostel that we'll be staying at this weekend is actually delightful, if basic. There will be single rooms, which is just as well, since my days of sleeping in dormitories are well over. Some even have a sink in the corner - so no need to trample outdoors in the dark, wearing flip-flops and bathrobe, trying to find the "Ablution Block". And the view from the communal areas is stunning, apparently. C has warned me to leave my cynicism at home and attend the scheme with an open mind. She obviously senses my fear that it will be all kumbaya, group hugs and camomile tea. Which is better than jackboots and outdoor toilets I suppose.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


It is Valentines Day. Or, as I like to abbreviate it, VD. (This year, it falls one day after Tu Bishvat which, by rights, I should abbreviate to TB, but that would be silly.The analogy ends there. Whereas TB passes by without anyone trying to forcefeed me fruit, I cannot move in London today without being bombarded with flowers, roses and heart shaped chocolate.)

Anyway, last year I complained bitterly about the shoddy service provided by Her Majesty's Royal Mail which managed to lose ALL the Valentines cards that had been sent to me. Luckily, someone seems to have taken notice, because this year, the Mail has been fined a whopping £11.4m for losing thousands of items of post. And I'm hanging on to the deluded notion that my many VD cards and love letters are lost with them.

Just in case the delusion is exactly that (and I have the M&S dinner for one ready, just in case) I have decided to send myself a card. I've whittled it down to these two. It's currently a toss up (no VD pun intended) between this one...

and this one ...

Let me know which one you prefer…

Friday, February 10, 2006

Duvet dilemma

I am not a particularly superstitious person. I have no qualms walking under ladders. I have never felt the need to throw salt over my shoulder and I do not wince at the thought of putting shoes on the table. And yet I found myself in a particularly awkward situation this week.

My mum has recently had the rather unenviable task of emptying my late grandpa's flat of all his stuff before the flat is sold. She spent three days boxing up anything that was worth keeping, throwing away anything that wasn't, and hauling everything in between to the charity shop. Or, as she calls it, the 'good as new'. 90 years on this earth and it all comes down to boxes and bin-liners.

This week my folks were down in London for a flying visit. While they were round at my brother's house, my Dad called to say that he was going to 'pop over to drop something off.' I immediately assumed it was a Folio Society book that he had ordered for me which I will not read but which will look impressive on my book shelf. But I was wrong.

Twenty minutes later I opened my front door to find my Dad standing on the doorstep holding what looked like a pile of washing. Rather puzzled, and without asking him what he was doing, I stood aside to let him in. And so he dragged the bundle up the stairs and plonked it in the centre of my lounge.

Me: What's that?
Dad: A double duvet. Mum and I have twin beds so we don't need it. We thought you might like it.
Me: (Trying not to concentrate too much on my parents' sleeping arrangements) Well, why did you buy a double duvet if you don't have a double bed?
Dad: We didn't buy it. It's from the flat.
Me: Which flat? (Pause) (Realisation) You mean, Grandpa's flat?
Dad: Yes.
Me: You've brought me Grandpa's duvet??
Dad: Well, it's a perfectly good duvet. And we don't need it because we have twin beds.
Me: Yes, I get the bit about twin beds. I'm just not sure what you expect me to do with the duvet of my dead grandfather!!
Dad: Well, you can use it.
Me: You want me to sleep in my dead grandpa's duvet?
Dad: It's been washed.
Me: I don't care if it's been fumigated by pest control. Grandpa died in bed for God's sake!
Dad: No, he died on the bed. Not in the bed. He wasn't actually in the duvet. He was just lying on it. And the cover's been washed.

So, here's the dilemma. Do I throw out a perfectly good double duvet (which I need, since mine is falling apart and is not quite warm enough for winter) just because it once belonged to my Grandpa, who has since died? Or do I resist the urge to fall prey to superstition and use the duvet, bearing in mind that a new one costs about fifty quid and if there was one thing Grandpa hated it was needless waste?

Writers Block Party

For months (years?) now, I have been telling myself (and anyone else who'll listen) that I am going to write a book. This impresses some people. They coo wide-eyed and say "How amazing!!" and encourage me into believing that I really am the next big thing about to be discovered. What they don't realise is that it's easy to say "I'm going to write a book" - anyone can do that - but actually sitting down and writing the bloody thing is a completely different matter. In fact, when I say, "I'm going to write a book" what I'm actually saying is "I haven't written a book yet" which, when put that way, is far less impressive.

My friend N can see right through the "I'm going to write a book" claim. Firstly, he's a published author so, unlike any of my other friends, he can reply "Done that". Also, he knows better than anyone that just saying "I'm going to write a book" is an empty boast. If I really wanted to do it, I'd have done it by now. Or at least I'd have mapped out the skeleton outline and figured out a basic plot. All I've done is had imaginary conversations in my head with Mark Lawson for Newsnight Review. (He loved the book by the way).

So, seeing right through my empty claims, and realising that I needed a kick up the arse, N kindly invited me to join his writers group. It's a smallish group of wannabe writers who meet once a month to read each other's work-in-progress and comment on it. All criticism is constructive and friendly and the idea is that a clean pair of eyes (or eight clean pairs of eyes) will shed new light on the writing and improve it before it is sent to an agent or publisher.

They added my name to their email list at the beginning of the week so that I could take part in the pre-meeting discussion. The first thing I noticed as the emails began flying back and forth was the other names. I have never seen such as set of quintessentially English names in my life. It was all Emma Johnson and Jennifer Clark and Anthony James and Richard Bellamy. These are people who have never had to repeat their surname when trying to get through to a switchboard operator ill- versed in Anglicized Russian surnames. They have never been told to spell out (again) their first name by an officious doctors' receptionist who asks "and how are you spelling that?" with such derision that you wonder if you'd rather prefer to go home without the prescription and sod the symptoms.

I was fairly certain (though I hate to make generalizations) that these are not people who have many Jewish friends. Not that there's anything wrong with that; why should they? It's just that I hate being somebody's first Jewish friend. Firstly, you get the "Funny, you don't look Jewish" comments. I've had this all my life. The blond hair and blue eyes don't help. If I'm in a particularly mischievous mood I will reply "Oh? What do Jews look like then?" and watch them squirm as they try to reply without using the words 'nose' 'hook' or 'swarthy'. Or else you get the well-meaning "I hope you don't mind me asking, but do you eat potatoes?" or the less well-meaning (and, in my case, unnecessary) "Don't you miss bacon?" (3000 years of rich culture and it all comes down to not eating sausages). Secondly, the problem with being somebody's first Jewish friend is that you find yourself instantly elected as official spokesperson for the Israeli Government. You know that as soon as your new-best-friend asks for your views on, say, the recent disengagement from Gaza, you are going to be quoted every time that topic arises at any dinner party or pub conversation that he/she takes part in. "Well, my friend R.x is Jewish and SHE says 'blah blah blah'" ….and you find yourself the mouthpiece of every shade of Jewish opinion ever mooted.

Still, I needn't have worried. Despite my reservations about the names there were no cultural exchange questions and I didn't find myself having to justify Ariel Sharon's foreign policy. In fact, it was a scarily nice evening with a frighteningly nice bunch of people. The conversation took constructive criticism to a whole new level. I always thought that constructive criticism was when you basically told someone that their work is shoddy, but you did so in a polite way, indicating how they can improve. So, for example, you might say "The plot of your story is good, although I suspect that William Shakespeare might have got there before you. And when you do a re-write, you might like to adopt some of the basic rules of English Grammar and punctuation." I mean, I've seen those guys on Newsnight review and when authors get the knives out for other authors, they can be really cutting. But there was none of that at this particular writers' group. It was all "Thank you so much for sharing!" and "It's such a pleasure to meet these characters again - we've missed them!" There was no sarcasm. No Sniping. No backstabbing. Only two and half hours of mutual creative masturbation and counter-congratulation. In fact, I was half expecting a group-hug and a pairing off to give each other head-and-neck massages and eat lentils before we left the pub at the end of the evening.

Perhaps all this over-the-top loveliness is just as well, because attending the writers' group was clearly not enough of a kick up the arse in N's opinion. He saw fit to suggest that, for our next meeting in a month's time, I prepare some writing for the rest of the group to read. And since they were all too nice to say no, they promptly agreed. And I was basking in their reflective niceness and so didn’t feel able to object. So I have one month to prepare at least 5 pages of A4 double-spaced typing to share with the group. They say that you should start by writing about what you know. So I might write a short semi-autobiographical piece about a Jewish single-mother who dreams of writing a novel and suddenly finds herself out of her depth among real writers with real talent. I think I might call it "I hope you don't mind me asking, but do you eat potatoes?"

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The source of the sauce gag

Since writing my last post, seven (yes, 7!) readers have emailed to tell me that the 'may the sauce be with you' (at the end of the post) is quite possibly the worst joke they have ever heard. They didn't comment on the blog because that would be hurtful. But they felt the need to email and register their disapproval. Standards are slipping, it seems.

And so I feel the need to explain. You see, weekday posts are generally written at my desk. Luckily my work involves reading and checking manuscripts on screen all day so penning the odd blog posting can be easily concealed. However, weekend posts are obviously written at home. I tend to sit on the sofa with the lap top on my knee while Scrappino mucks about around me. He is usually either watching Dr Who, sticking stamps in his album (bizarrely, not nearly as dull a hobby as you might imagine) or painting an AirFix plane (amazing how that's the first reference to the planes on this blog. I might well have to come back to those). What it means though is that posts written at home at the weekend can be seen by Scrappino.

The post about Star Wars was written while Scrappino was still suffering the tail end of his flu. So I sat on one side of the sofa, laptop on knee, and he sat on the other, head on my shoulder, nose sniffling and his throat breathing heavily like Darth Vader (appropriately enough). As I wrote, he had one eye on the TV screen and the other on the computer screen. He read the conversation we'd had earlier that day, recalling my inability to follow the plot of the Star Wars films. And about his Yoda impersonations. And then I (very proudly) recounted his (yes, his) gag about the tomato sauce. Because, you see, it was Scrappino's gag. It went something like this:

Me: Where's the tomato sauce?
Scrappino: On the table, it is.
Me: Can you pass it to me?
Scrappino: Yes. (He gets up and fetches the sauce - then hands it to me) May the sauce be with you.

Now, I must admit that I laughed out loud. Because, for an eight year old, that's really not a bad gag at all. I mean, it's quite a clever play on words and given the fact that, at the very moment he said it, Anakin Skywalker was in the process of transforming into Darth Vader, it was quite a topical gag too. So I have to admit that I was very proud of him. For someone who likes to make others laugh, it's brilliant when your offspring show that they can do it too.

So, when I was writing the post I included Scrappino's gag and wrote how proud I was of it. But Scrappino, reading over my shoulder, wasn't happy. He was adamant that I shouldn't put it in the post. In fact, he wasn't that keen on the whole Yoda impersonation thing either. So, mother and son reached a compromise. I'd include the Yoda conversation but would take out the sauce gag. But when we read the finished post it didn't seem to have a particularly strong ending. Scrappino thought (everyone's a bloody critc) that without the sauce joke there would be no 'end' to the story, and he knows from school that every story has to have a 'beginning' a 'middle' and an 'end'. Except Star Wars, which has an 'end' a 'beginning' and a 'middle'. So I tentatively suggested that we put the sauce joke back in. He agreed, reluctantly, on the condition that I pretend that it was my joke and not his. I asked why he didn't want the joke attributed to him but he just shrugged and said 'dunno'. As good an answer as you often get from an eight year old. So, we doctored the story somewhat and the gag became mine.

What is amazing is that, when I explained to the seven critics (the ones who'd emailed to say that the joke was the worst they'd heard in a long time) that the joke was actually Scrappino's joke, suddenly it became the gag of the week. My god, isn't he hilarious.! How funny! What a great sense of humour! This about a gag that seconds before had been so poor it would have been rejected from a Jim Davidson routine. So the question is this. Why is a joke funny when Scrappino makes it, but terrible when I make it? And should I be encouraging him to write more of my material in future? Or should I just throw in the towel and put the kid on the stage instead of me? Answers gratefully received…

Saturday, February 04, 2006

In the (star) wars...

The runny nose/sore throat/tickly cough that has been making its way through North West London finally arrived in Mill Hill this week and both Scrappino and I have been suffering the winter sniffles. We both woke up feeling like our heads weighed ten tonnes on Thursday morning and neither of us could complete a sentence without hacking our guts out. So we had no choice but to take the day off school and work respectively.

Do you remember when you were off sick from school years ago? It was brilliant, wasn’t it? Your mum would make a bed on the couch with pillow and duvet, and you’d snuggle under the covers with a bowl of macaroni cheese and a hot ribena watching day time telly. It was the days before Fern and Philip of course. (If I remember rightly, it was the days before Richard and Judy. I think we had to make do with Pebble Mill at One and Crown Court.)

Anyway, Scrappino and I decided to take the day off on Thursday. I hid under my duvet on the big chair while he snuggled up on the couch. I made myself a mug of tea and a huge cup of hot chocolate for Scrappino and we took the phone off the hook and watched….Star Wars. I’d bought Scrappino the Star Wars box set (both of them – this year’s Mother of the Year award is practically in the bag) for doing so well with all the legal shenanigans recently. And this week was the perfect time to watch them. (Not least because, with our blocked noses and tickly throats, we both sounded like Darth Vader every time we opened our mouths.)

Now I have to admit to something which will no doubt baffle all my male readers, but which I’m sure all female devotees will fully understand. Basically, I have never (ever) been able to sit through an entire Star Wars film without falling asleep. And that’s when my head has not been pounding with flu and I’ve not been up all night coughing. So you can appreciate how tricky it was to stay awake while I was under the weather. But, as a single mother of a young boy I find myself having to do things that I’m not particularly equipped for. It’s something of a daily learning curve. I have had to master skills I never knew I had or feign an interest in activities that I’ve never experienced before. Understanding the rules of test cricket, for example, or building AirFix models of Spitfires. And now, I can add watching Star Wars to the list.

I tried my hardest to follow the plot and not fall asleep. But it was impossible. Scrappino had no such difficulty. He was hooked. From the minute the opening credits rolled at the beginning of Episode IV A New Hope to the very last moment of Episode III Revenge of the Sith (via Episodes V, VI, I and II) he was gripped. Admittedly, Scrappino is now something of a Sci-Fi junkie. He drops words like ‘hyperspace’ and ‘teleport’ into a conversation with uncanny ease (almost as though they were real words which actually mean something) and not a day goes by without some reference to Dr Who (as you all know only too well by now). But I must admit that I struggled with it all. I kept drifting off and then waking up, only to discover that the story had moved on by a matter of decades and I had no idea who anyone was or where they were. I was the most annoying DVD companion. The conversation went something like this:

Me: “Is that Princess Leia?”
Scrappino: “No, Mum, it’s Padme”.
Me: “I see. But then how can that be Obe-wan Kenobe? I thought he already died?
Scrappino: “He did. But this is the young Obe-wan”
Me: “Oh, so is that Luke Skywalker?”
Scrappino “NO! It’s Anakin Skywalker”
Me: “Oh right, are they related?”
Scrappino: “MUM!!”

Scrappino was not the only one left exasperated. The feeling was mutual. He’s an eight year old boy and he’s started doing what all eight year old boys who are newly introduced to Star Wars do. He has started to say every sentence like Yoda. Later that day, (after he agreed to talk to me again once I had promised not to ask any more questions about the plot) we had the following conversation:

Me: “How is your throat feeling now?”
Scrappino: “A lot better, my throat feels”
Me: “Would you like some supper?”
Scrappino: “Some pasta and cheese, would I like.”
Me: “Are you feeling well enough to eat it at the table?”
Scrappino: “Eat it on the sofa, I would prefer.”

He wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t complete a sentence without stopping to cough or blow his nose, so I let him have his fun. But once I made the pasta and brought it to him on the sofa I asked if he’d like some tomato sauce to go with it.

Scrappino: “Yes please”
Me: “On the table, it is. May the sauce be with you”.