Friday, 25 September 2009

Menu madness

This week I’m pleased – no, proud – to report that the story currently exercising the population of Wales isn’t the forthcoming retirement of First Minister Rhodri Morgan but the lunch menu of Flintshire County Council in Mold.

It is truly impressive to note that, after a tedious morning spent shuffling papers and combing through planning applications, some of the workers at Flintshire CC still feel sufficiently frisky to flirt with the catering assistants over the desserts section.

It was alleged that some of the workers were making risqué comments about the Spotted Dick and one or more of the dinner ladies complained. Yes, you did hear that correctly. Can you imagine being that dedicatedly humourless and politically correct? God, they must lead sad and lonely lives.

Anyway, the powers that be gave the go-ahead for the Spotted Dick to be pulled from the lunch menu to avoid embarrassing the poor dinner ladies and this incident made it onto BBC Wales Today (much to the obvious amusement of Jamie Owen), following which Flintshire County Council received a mountain of abusive letters, presumably by irate Welsh people aggrieved by being portrayed as a nation of miserable boot-faced old trouts.

Not surprisingly a u-turn was undertaken and Spotted Dick is back on the menu in Mold. One can only hope that the workers continue making lewd remarks, although I feel obliged to point out that the “Dick” in Spotted Dick has absolutely nothing to do with Richard and still less with penis. It is a corruption of “dough” which leads me to suggest, after a period in which alternative names such as Sultana Sponge were mooted, that the authorities might consider an alternative.

My writing partner’s grandmother was from Yorkshire and used to call it Spotted Dog, a name also quite obviously derived from “dough” which at least evokes nothing more suggestive than Dalmatians.

Reports that another favourite is to be remarketed as Bakewell Whore are said to be entirely false…

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Caster and b******s

Poor Caster Semenya! As if she wasn't having enough trouble with the medical issues regarding her gender, she now has the ANC Youth League piping up on her behalf.

To get an idea of how bad that is, just imagine how you'd feel if you confessed to your best friend that your love life wasn't all that it could be and then discovered that she was setting up blind dates for you with Hannibal Lecter, Peter Sutcliffe, Beelzebub and the Pope.

It's like a joke: “Which would you like first, Caster: the good news or the bad news? Well, the good news is that someone is speaking up in your support. The bad news is that it's Julius Malema!”

I am obliged to my long-suffering ex-boss and friend, Shaun de Waal in Johannesburg, for the following corker from the ANC Youth League: “Even if a test is done, the ANC YL will never accept the categorisation of Caster Semenya as a hermaphrodite, because in South Africa and the entire world of sanity, such does not exist.”

Isn't it great to know that the future of South Africa is in the hands of such lofty intellects?

At this point I must admit that, as far as I'm concerned at least, the ANC Youth League has form. In the very early 1990s, when apartheid was crumbling faster than a block of cheap Caerphilly cheese, one of my university friends - let's call him Kurt to protect the guilty - was a loyal member of the ANC YL. Acting under instruction from some controller or other he was persuaded (God knows how, since he was a very bright boy and didn't suffer fools gladly) to throw a hand grenade through the windows of the Johannesburg office of the Conservative Party. Undoubtedly the CP espoused some pretty loathsome ideas, but at this stage of the game they were a spent force, their leader Andries Treunicht was dying and the release of Mandela was just around the corner.

Kurt was arrested on suspicion of treason, placed under house arrest with his parents in some godforsaken dorpie in the Northern Transvaal and I was left with the task of faxing him cultural First Aid packages from the university's Comparative Literature department, whereupon my phone was tapped by the SA Police.

Tell people that your phone is being tapped in the real world and they'll start rolling their eyes and making the universal gesture which means, “This one's lost it” when your back is turned, but in South Africa at that time it was pretty common. My friends took great delight in phoning me and whispering phrases like, “The eagle has landed”, which at least had the effect of riling Kurt's unwanted minders.

The whole point of this tale is that during this time I didn't notice the ANC Youth League, who were at that time under the leadership of Cyril Ramaphosa who should have known better, being exactly helpful of or supportive towards Kurt or his accomplices.

Now, with Semenya's medical condition being splashed over the front pages of the world's papers, it seems that they are back to their old tricks.

Julius Melema has already made himself look like a violent dope with his 2008 statement that the ANC YL would take up arms in support of Jacob Zuma if necessary, so this latest piece of idiocy shouldn't come as any surprise.

Not that the rest of the South African population has exactly helped Caster. Pictures of a makeover designed to make her look glamorous were published on the front pages of You magazine, a publication which, at least when I was living in Jo'burg, used to feature such deathless National Enquirer-isms as “The Hairy-Faced Children of Mexico” and “The Woman Who Married a Penguin”. Hardly the type of journal to persuade readers of their golden girl's normality.

Stories have already emerged of Semenya's sexual identity being questioned within South Africa, not surprisingly given that this is a society which has always taken quite a conservative approach to gender issues. A black lesbian friend of mine once told me that she was constantly fearful of attack by men enraged by her lifestyle. Homosexuality was as loathed by the black population of South Africa, who deemed it decadent and European, or “un-African”, as it was by the conservative (or verkrampte) white population, who thought it ungodly.

Caster's teacher allegedly said that he had always thought her a boy, while witnesses at a service station reported that she was refused access to the women's toilets because of her masculine appearance.

Truly, this is not a condition that one would wish on even a worst enemy and the fact that, at only 18 years old, Semenya has had to witness her future being played out in the most public way possible must be excruciating. This has not been a case of steroid abuse or cheating at any level, but if her testosterone levels give her an unfair advantage, her athletics career is clearly over.

So please no more statements of support, Mr. Malema – this unfortunate young woman has suffered enough.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

We need to talk about paedophilia

One day – sooner rather than later – we're going to be forced into having a serious discussion about paedophilia.

Now there's a sentence guaranteed to end a few friendships, but just stop and think about it for a moment. Rather than reverting to our default setting, which appears to be finding some minority group (witches, Catholics, the Irish, Muslims, lardies) and blaming all the ills of the world on them, would it not make more sense to detect which group is the most likely to harm children and focus on deciding what should be done to stop them?

The way things are at the moment a 16 year-old boy who persuades his 15 year-old girlfriend to have sex with him runs the risk of being placed on the same sex offenders' register as Ian Brady, Ian Huntley and Gary Glitter, which scarcely seems a sensible solution to the problem.

Of course children should be protected from the unwanted attentions of the friendly neighbourhood paedo and of course adults who volunteer to work with youth groups (whether professionally or via a voluntary organisation) need to be checked, but do we really have to treat every person who might come into contact with kids as a perv-in-waiting?

It reminds me of the old feminist slogan, “Every men is a potential rapist”. In one sense that is true; all of my male friends have the physical equipment necessary to be a rapist (unless there's something that I don't know) but I would suggest that none of them are remotely mentally capable.

A few years ago the American actor Jeffrey Jones (best known for his roles in Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Amadeus) was placed on America's sex offenders' register after he was found guilty of photographing a 15 year-old boy in a series of erotic poses. Clearly Jones is a sad old queen with a rather unsavoury interest in beautiful youths, but does he really merit the same kind of censure as someone who absuses and tortures eight year-olds? There was no question of Jones's photographic subject being anything other than willing and saw the assignment as a way of earning some extra pocket money. Yet onto the sex offenders' register went Jones and, presumably, is still recorded there, along with truly depraved individuals guilty of the most sickening acts of abuse towards tiny children.

I can imagine what it must be like to be a concerned parent – if we can't trust our children to the care of the Roman Catholic Church, then who can we rely on? – but this “guilty until proven innocent” stance is doing nothing but harm.

As of writing I am not sure what the fate of the mooted new system will be, but the author Philip Pullman has already stated his opposition to the new £64 clearance required of all adults who visit schools to give talks: naturally enough he objects to being considered a potential threat. This I find especially appalling, since it is so obviously counter-productive to the education system. It's hard enough to enthuse children at the best of times (and I speak as someone who has lectured at university level) without depriving them of the chance to meet adults who might be positive influences.

When I was a teenager Ted Hughes visited our school to give a poetry reading. This was before his tenure as Poet Laureate, but he was a huge name in the world of creative writing and I was determined not to miss the experience, even though the only time he could visit was during the summer holidays. I was obliged to my Dad, who volunteered to drive me the 100 miles to school to hear him speak and I was not disappointed – he was like Heathcliff on steroids!

Maybe I'm exaggerating, but I feel sure that Ted Hughes was partly responsible for my decision to become a writer. It's certainly a pretty momentous experience to meet someone like that, especially someone who was the epitome of what a teenager thought a poet should be – tall, broad across the shoulders, good looking in a rugged sort of way. He would have made a great Mr. Rochester if he'd ever been cast in a movie of Jane Eyre.

After reading The Bell Jar the previous term I had tormented my poor English teacher by threatening to ask Hughes why he thought that Sylvia Plath, his late wife, had killed herself but having heard him read his poetry and seen him in the flesh, tormenting him was the last thing on my mind – unless it involved handcuffs and a whip!

Meeting Ted Hughes is still one of the high points of my professional life and actually being able to shake his hand and talk to him was a treat of the highest order; in my fevered brain it was like being given permission to be a writer. In truth, he had far more to fear from a roomful of hormonal teenage girls than we ever had from him.

Wouldn't it be stupid if we deprived a generation of children of such an experience just through fear?

Are we really so paralysed by terror, or mentally bankrupt, that we can't see the difference between a paedophile and a role model?

Monday, 14 September 2009

Annie, get your coat!

Every so often a news report creeps through on the BBC about how the IRA (and various rebel offshoots thereof) has put its guns “beyond use”. They're still there – nobody has melted them down for scrap or anything. It's just that they are no longer capable of hurting anybody.

Wouldn't it be great if we could do the same thing to Anne Robinson? Knowing that she has various family members who presumably feel some affection for the old bat, I have no desire to deprive them, but it would be so comforting to think that she would no longer darken our TV screens with her alarming botoxed boat-race.

The immobile face is bad enough, but the mouth is truly a thing of horror. Dear old Annie has fallen into the same trap as many women of a certain age (and often much, much younger) by injecting so much collagen into her gob and its environs that her lips stick out horizontally, lending her an unfortunate resemblance to Scrooge McDuck.

It's not her attitude towards the Welsh that bothers me either (“The Welsh – what are they for?” she once famously asked) because it seems clear to me that the young Annie, as a schoolgirl in her native Liverpool, was probably trounced in every exam by some transplanted North Walian (or Gog, as we prefer to call them) and has since bitterly resented the Welsh. Don't worry, love – your seal of disapproval merely spurs us on to even greater heights.

I also couldn't give a fig about her bossy schoolmarm routine on The Weakest Link; as La Robinson has frequently alleged, contestants would be disappointed if she wasn't rude to them and I completely believe her. I just reserve the right to watch it as infrequently as possible. I have to admit, though, that when a member of my family was a contestant on a celebrity edition of the show, I cheered out loud when he was as rude and patronising to her as she was to the other contestants.

In the days when I used to watch The Weakest Link I couldn't help noting the rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights look that possessed wee Annie when expected to read out perfectly standard English words; I couldn't recreate, even if serious money depended it, what a complete mess she made of 'spherical', for instance. Yet, she's supposed to be a trained journalist. A journalist who doesn't do big words, presumably.

No, my complaint about the Ginger Witch, as she is not so affectionately known by the tabloid press, is that she is a poorly educated quarter-wit who is an excellent example of the contemporary disease that infects the talentless, gittish and crass, leading them to imagine that not only are they mentally adequate, but possess the rapier wit of Oscar Wilde, the intellectual heft of Jacques Derrida and the looks of Brigitte Bardot (before she started to look like a leather handbag).

Much fuss has been caused over the past couple of years about the vast sums of BBC money raked in by Jonathan Ross, yet I would much prefer it if both Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand phoned my mother daily and sexually harassed her, than Anne Robinson be given one solitary quid of anyone's licence fee. And – guess what? - so would she, being even less fond of the Great Taffy Hater than me. By comparison, I don't begrudge Wossy one crude, crapulous on-screen moment. He might have the public persona of a sex-obsessed adolescent, but behind that facade he's had an education. Unlike Robinson, his gurning ignorance is merely an act, while Annie's frequently cretinous proclamations are entirely genuine.

Have you ever seen the Ginger Bitch on a chatshow? She behaves like a foxy version (in her demented dreams!) of Lady Bracknell, taking over the broadcast and putting the host in his place. Just imagine inviting your bossy history teacher from high school to visit your home? Now multiply this by fifty and you're just beginning to evoke the full horror.

If the show is hers it's even worse. When she presented Watchdog in the 1990s I clearly recall her criticising one of her female assistant's hairstyle on air, although there were many other examples of her super-confident attitude. Her daughter, Emma, admits that when she travels with La Robinson one of her jobs is to protect her from involuntary contact with fat people, another of her pet hates.

As if this wasn't bad enough she has an unsavoury habit of becoming nauseatingly flirtatious when presented with hunky young men. How would you feel if you brought a bloke home and your granny started to flutter her eyelashes at him? If Terry Wogan tried this he'd be suspended straight away and sent on some kind of sexual behaviour reconditioning course.

Why is it that, from a distance anyway, the British media seems full of people imbued with a confidence way beyond their ability?

Sky News's Kay Burley is another example of an inadequate presenter with a seemingly boundless belief in her very limited worth.

Inexplicably given her own show (presumably length of tenure means more to the Dirty Digger than actual talent), La Burley just can't keep it buttoned, either. She knows slightly less about sport than my tabby cat, yet the footie news always becomes a dialogue between the poor beleagured sports reporter and our Kay, with the latter constantly revealing how little she knows about anything.

However, she's equally out of her depth with hard news. Recently conducting an interview with a Middle East correspondent about the release of a Western journalist in Afghanistan, he offered some detail about the dramatic rescue and La Burley said, “Wow!” as if she were a 12 year-old being told that her mate from school had snogged one of the Jonas Brothers.

It's all very frustrating; so many intelligent, talented, able women in the world, yet so few on our screens.

I'm trying to work out whether it's all part of some cunning plan on the part of male broadcasting chiefs to make us look like dimwits, or merely a coincidence that so many female presenters aren't up to the job.

Whatever the truth is, I can't help feeling that decommissioning Anne Robinson would be a good place to start.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

I Love the Smell of Rhod Gilbert in the Morning or “Good Evening Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyndrobwll-llantisiliogogogoch!”

Most of us can point to an area of personal ignorance that provides hours of social embarrassment and I'm no exception.

Try living in Spain for 15 years and still not being able to speak the language. Obviously I can manage a few useful phrases ( I can ask telemarketers whether they can speak English because my Spanish is rubbish with a fluency that never fails to cause confusion), but when it comes to holding a decent conversation I'm way out of my depth.

This doesn't fit in with any personal philosophy, by the way. Thanks for pointing out that I reflect the absolutely worst type of Brit overseas. All it would take to complete the happy picture would be a pair of socks with my Birkenstocks and a loud cry of “I'm not eating that foreign muck!” when asked whether I´d like some tapas. I frequently feel like screaming, “BUT I'M NOT LIKE THAT!” Yet how are the locals to know this?

The trouble is that I suffer from a linguistic ham-fistedness that has dogged me since my schooldays. My brain is a steaming porridge of semi-digested languages: French, German, Afrikaans, Spanish, a few words of Zulu. It's all in there – somewhere. The only language I have managed to speak with any degree of proficiency is Welsh. It's a beautiful, poetic language that is a joy to speak and listen to. Yet, if you stray beyond the confines of Port Talbot or Patagonia, it's of limited use. Additionally, having lived outside Wales since 1982, I'm now having to rely on Pobol y Cwm to keep me up to date with the latest lingo.

Yet this private shame would remain just that if I didn't keep bumping into people who collect languages the way that Posh Spice collects Hermes Birkin bags. At university my friend Michael ripped through the Romance languages at top speed, conquered Cyrillic and, by the time I met him, was learning Lakota (which is only spoken by about 6,000 people worldwide) to stave off terminal ennui.

At parties I always seem to end up stuck in a corner with some Nigel or other, who has made it his life's work to study the language of the Booroo-Booroo people of the Amazon.

“They don't actually HAVE a language as such, more a series of hoots and whistles. Fascinating stuff!”

Nigel will insist on telling me the reason for my linguistic idiocy.

“All languages have a logical structure. That's your problem – you don't have a logical mind.”

Yet we Welsh people can always call on our secret weapon. Eventually Nigel will ask me where I'm from and when I tell him he begins to look impressed.

“Welsh!” he will say. “Now that's a language to conjure with! Don't suppose you can speak it at all? God knows how you pronounce it. All consonants and no vowels.”

Then he remembers that one of his grandmothers was born in Wales. He wonders if I know the place. Oh no, there's no way he will even try to pronounce it.

“Tell you what, to avoid embarrassing myself I'll write it on a piece of paper for you.”

After several minutes of frantic scribbling and crossing out he passes it to me.

“Apologies if I've messed up the spelling,” he adds with an apologetic grimace.

I take the piece of paper from his hand. Look at it.


Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Just a thought...

Has anyone ever got through to the Boot Camp phase of The X Factor by singing anything other than a power ballad?

I'd hate to think that they'd ever promote someone with an iota of originality.

Why don't they just call it The Power Ballad Factor and have done with it?

Monday, 7 September 2009

The semantics of Semtex

One Welsh word that never fails to make me laugh is “carcus” (pronounced carr-kiss). Unfortunately it means “careful” so I can't help worrying that one day I'll be walking on the maes at the National Eisteddfod and someone will shout, “Carcus!” at me, meaning don't fall down that hole/step in that gargantuan cowpat/walk slap bang into the Chief Druid and I'll be laughing too hard to avoid disaster.

Yet the English spoken in Wales can also throw up some brilliant words. I'm especially fond of “tamping”, which means incandescently furious.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am tamping.

This situation can be blamed on a pusillanimous British government that chose not to pursue the Libyans for compensation after they sold Semtex to the IRA just in case it interfered with trade – specifically oil. The Americans were compensated, but for the Brits who lost relatives or experienced members of their family being maimed in the IRA's decades long campaign of terror – nada.

I have no desire to annoy my American friends by claiming that the attack on the Twin Towers was anything less than appalling, but what they don't seem to realise is that many countries in Europe have experienced years and years of terrorism. Spain has the ongoing problem of ETA and Germany had to deal with the Red Army Faction during the 1960s and 1970s, to name but two examples.

In Britain we had to battle the IRA; I attended school with a girl whose boyfriend was left a paraplegic after the Guildford pub bombing. The IRA hung over our lives like a noxious cloud in a way that I can easily recall. On the day of my graduation from Mountview Theatre School (July 20th 1982), London was in lockdown after an IRA bomb exploded in Hyde Park. Courtesy of that nice Colonel Gaddafi, no doubt.

Yet, it's not just the Libyans that are to blame; the IRA was able to continue its campaign for as long as it did with the assistance of American money. How many of Boston's Brahmins were encouraged to part with hundreds of thousands of dollars after being seduced by a Sinn Fein charm offensive featuring a load of sentimental old tosh about “the auld country”? The Kennedys alone probably funded at least a decade of murder and mayhem.

Putting it crudely, wealthy Irish-American families like the Kennedys paid for my mate's boyfriend to be permanently confined to a wheelchair. Pity they couldn't have stumped up a bit extra and paid for a state-of-the-art wheelchair.

Now, I know that I am to political comment what Katie Price is to gentility and good taste, but once every few years an issue emerges that is so outrageous that even I feel equipped to stand up and be counted.

Americans, you are not the world authority on terrorism or its tragic results. In fact when it comes to pontificating on the issue I have one very well chosen word for you.


Saturday, 5 September 2009

Justifiable Homicide

A woman in Barcelona has been sentenced to two years in prison for stabbing her boyfriend at a family reunion after he told her that she was too fat.

Just as well it wasn't Justice Paellataffy presiding or it would have been the boyfriend looking forward to a couple of years of porridge.

Leave him, love - you're too good for him and your aim's obviously crap as well.

Friday, 4 September 2009


Apparently Edward Kennedy claims in his final memoirs that he wasn't having a sexual relationship with Mary Jo Kopechne, who he left to suffocate after driving off the bridge to Chappaquiddick Island, a death which experts reckon was most likely slow and agonising.

So that's all right then! I was really worried that he might have been shafting her...

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Goodbye, summer – you won’t be missed

Yes, I am aware that summer isn’t really over, but for those of us who live in Spain September 1st marks a cutting off point between the perils of the unbearable heat and the hope of something more manageable. It also means that the holidaymakers go home and we can once again enjoy the benefits of living in a place that, for most of the year, is pretty close to ideal.

Summer on the Costa del Sol brings with it three basic drawbacks, the first of which is the temperature. Many people ask me, quite reasonably, why I live in Spain when all I seem to do from mid-June to September is whinge about the heat, but if you haven’t braved the Marbella area at this time of year, you don’t know how we suffer!

It’s bad enough normally, but at least your Spanish friends let you know that you’re being a wimp. Try complaining about the way your shoes sink into the tarmac as it melts under the assault of the sun and all you’ll normally get is an irritated shrug and a sharp exclamation of, “Es verano!” It’s the summer, idiot! If you don’t like it go back to your own stupid country where the sheep wear vests and the sun shines once a year.

This year, however, it’s been so hot that even my Spanish mates are saying that their grandparents are claiming Summer 2009 as the hottest in living memory. As the temperature shoots up into the forties centigrade it has been difficult to concentrate on anything. It’s all very well if all you need to do is slump on a sunbed by the pool but if, like me, you have to work it’s not quite so jolly.

Then there’s the noise factor. Again, if you need to get up for work at 7:30 it’s a bit galling to be woken in the middle of the night by revellers returning from their tour of duty of the local nightclubs, singing Kylie’s greatest hits at full volume and pausing only to deposit a Technicolor yawn into the flowerbeds.

And that’s just the nocturnal din. During the day the pool area is taken over by a posse of parents dedicated to abdicating responsibility for their appalling brats. These can be divided into the Brits and the madrileños, down from the big city for their vacaciones. The noise levels are virtually identical, but you can always identify the sprogs from Madrid by their frequent cries of “mira!” Look at me, folks. What a bona fide genius I am. If Jack the Ripper’s victims had managed that level of vocal exhibitionism he would have been nicked and bang to rights seconds after laying his evil mitts on his first prostitute.

Yet the factor that most Costa del Sol locals find most challenging is the overcrowding that occurs during July and August.

It’s bad enough braving the Carretera Nacional 340 (aka The Highway of Death) during the winter, but the summer brings traffic overload that makes the M25 look like Brands Hatch on a Sunday in January. Now, with the road works around San Pedro de Alcántara (which my mate Giles refers to as “the chicane” for the way it’s abused by boy racers trying to impress their 16 year-old girlfriends) it’s even worse. You have a choice: extreme tailgating (undertaken in the bits where the traffic is still unaccountably moving, normally by birds with “Baby on Board” signs in the back of the car: if there’s a baby on board, bitch, stop driving like a loon!), or the amazing tailback caused by cars overheating and breaking down in the searing temperatures.

And as for a trip to Gibraltar, the only place in Europe to have an actual border, with real policemen asking to see your passport (or at least requesting that you flap it out of the car window at them), the queue is always far, far worse, thanks to the army of buses that take British holidaymakers to Gib, a place so packed full of history that I’m surprised it doesn’t actually explode, where they will visit Marks & Spencer, BHS and Morrison’s, shops that they regularly visit when they’re back in Godalming or Glasgow, or wherever else they come from in the UK. One lives in hope that one day that they will actually bother to have a look at some of the things that are worth seeing, but I ain’t holding my breath.

Still, it could be worse. I live in an air-conditioned apartment and travel to an air-conditioned office in an air-conditioned vehicle.

It’s September and the cooler weather is on its way very soon, even if it’s not actually here yet and all we expats are waiting for our favourite time of the year which we’ve been trying to keep a secret.

You know in December, when it’s freezing and it gets dark at about four? Well, it’s still warm enough here for us to sit outside in shirtsleeves most of the time and it only gets dark at about five-thirty in the depths of winter.

Occasionally we like to sit and enjoy a café sombra outside our favourite café and imagine all of you freezing your bums off in Ice Station Zebra.

Sometimes it’s almost enough to get us through the summer…