Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Dentally challenged

In recent weeks thousands of NHS doctors have found themselves under fire for the sheer, unbelievable vastness of their salaries and I know that I should feel massively aggrieved on behalf of all my hard-working relatives and friends who pay for them via the tax system. However, I prefer to direct my ire at a different breed of healthcare professional.

Last week I finally took the plunge and went to the dentist. Yes, I know – I'm a mad, extravagant bitch, but I had seen an ad in one of the local freebies offering a check-up and clean for 19€. Much to my amazement this was, in fact, the amount that was charged. It was a bargain, especially considering that I hadn't had my teeth examined or professionally cleaned since a cavity necessitated a visit in 1998, an experience that still gives me nightmares of the darkest and most depraved kind. Later I discovered that the same butcher already had several complaints lodged against his name with the British Dental Council, a fact that didn't surprise me, but it has left me with a lasting grudge against the profession and a more general disinclination to subject my poor, plaque-ridden gnashers to any more rough treatment.

Yet it's not just the pain and suffering that has put me off going to the dentist, despite the fact that my gums are receding faster than the Spanish economy; it's the mind-boggling bill that accompanies it. A friend of mine went to the dentist this week, a visit necessitated by an exposed nerve. The cost for a temporary filling and a squirt of fluid to kill the nerve was 150€! Of course, he still has to go back in a few days to have a permanent filling – another crafty 150€. At those prices the Civil List begins to look like good value for money.

I'm not suggesting that dentists shouldn't be rewarded for their years of training and their expertise, but this is now beyond a joke. Unfortunately the profession's insane get-rich-quick mentality is having dire consequences for the health and welfare of the people of Britain. Every day we are bombarded with some new warning of what health horror lies in wait for people who fail to look after their teeth, yet with NHS dentists becoming an endangered species and private treatment being beyond the means of many, what are we supposed to do?

When I lived in South Africa my medical aid scheme was so comprehensive it allowed me a pair of specs every other year and two dental check-ups annually. It helped that my dentist was so skilled that I experienced not even the vaguest twinge of pain in all the years that he treated me, so I was quite happy to book my next appointment before leaving. No worries about payment – as long as it was a necessary procedure and not a cosmetic job, the medical aid scheme would take care of it. These days, while it's still possible to find a few vaguely affordable private healthcare schemes, it is a rare thing indeed to encounter a medical aid deal that includes dental treatment. Therefore, it's either a question of finding an NHS dentist (good luck with that, boys!) or going private.

Admittedly I'm slightly out of touch but it seems that the closest NHS dentist to my hometown of Pembroke is 25 miles to the east in an even smaller town called St. Clear's, which is in Carmarthenshire - a different county! As for getting on to his overcrowded books you might have to offer sexual favours or clean his car every Sunday for a year.

Over the years Americans have delighted in taking the mickey out of us Brits for our dodgy dentition and, while I have no desire to see U.K citizens turning into the Osmonds (I am quite fond of teeth looking functional rather than purely decorative) I am beginning to see their point.

If these insane dental charges continue I fear that a return to a nation of medieval mouths is inevitable.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Things that make me go hmmm – on TV (Part 3)

These days almost every TV genre now has its list of cliches that can be called upon at will, but I can't help thinking that, despite the frequent pasting that X Factor and the other reality TV shows receive for their sob story-strewn inanities, the worst offender in the cliche stakes is the property programme.

The fatuous cliches of property programmes
Oh God, where do I start? The phrase 'an embarrassment of riches' is bolting to the forefront of my brain like a rampant stallion. Perhaps it's the omnipresence of these programmes that makes it seem that every other sentence contains some trite horror or other.

The unwritten rules of daytime TV dictate that every property or lifestyle programme (and here I include such offerings as Escape To the Country, Wanted Down Under, Location Location Location, Homes Under the Hammer and a myriad others) contains the following triumvirate of terror:

Talk of “going on a journey”: by no means confined to 'talent' shows, this particular abomination can now be used to describe nothing more emotionally arduous than a couple of days spent viewing property in Rutland. At least X Factor contestants have had to endure the hardship of being separated from their families and the trauma of singing live on TV with millions watching and without an ounce of originality or talent to back their quest for superstardom.

“Ticks all the boxes”: there is no other phrase that has quite the power to reveal the paucity of imagination of the average participant in these celebrations of mental mediocrity. Wouldn't you, dear reader, turn puce and go blind rather than utter such a prime example of brain-fart? I know I would! What's wrong with, “Yes, this does appear to be just what we're looking for” or “Well, we asked for three bedrooms and this has four, so it actually exceeds our requirements”?

“The wow factor”: this well-worn description is liberally applied throughout, whether the property being viewed is a sixteen-bedroom mansion in Buckinghamshire or a two-bed maisonette in Catford. Obviously some properties are genuinely impressive but the constant expectation that the featured home should be a palace fit to make Marie Antoinette weep with envy is as tiresome for the viewer as it surely must be for the presenter.

Come on, people! We really can’t be THAT short of originality and intelligence – can we?!

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Things that make me go hmmm – on TV (Part 2)

So, as I have demonstrated, women are frequently portrayed as raging hormonal timebombs with no sense of hygiene. This, in itself, would be bad enough, but the wily TV execs have yet more fiendish tricks up their sleeve. In a further attempt to make them all seem what Irvine Welsh would term “silly wee girlies” they have determined to carry on the old Marilyn Monroe-esque tradition of the tiny, powerless bint in her boyfriend's massive shirt.

The Tiny, Powerless Bint in her Boyfriend's Massive Shirt
Like the madwoman with the pregnancy test, this scene knows no genre and is just as likely to turn up in the corniest sit-com as it is in a tense drama.

Cynics might claim that this aversion is due to the unlikelihood of my ever being able to fit into any of my ex-boyfriend's shirts – even with straining seams and unsightly bulges - and I must confess that, unless I suddenly recall dating Giant Haystacks during a previously undiscovered amnesiac period in the 1980s, this is indeed true. Yet nothing is guaranteed to send me screaming up the wall faster and louder than the scene where, clearly after a night of coruscating passion, the woman is seen wandering winsomely around her apartment dressed in her boyfriend's shirt.

Apart from the hygiene issues of choosing to wear the same clothing that the sweaty herbert thought fit only for the bedroom floor last night, there is almost always a disconnection of logic. For example, this very scene was reprised by the extremely curvy Letitia Dean playing Sharon Watts in Eastenders when she was engaged in a particularly insane sexual affair with Dennis, played by the rather skinny and not especially towering Nigel Harman. There is no way – I repeat no way – that Letitia Dean would fit into a shirt of Nigel Harman's but, when she opened the door clad in that very item it was so capacious you practically could have fitted another Letitia Dean in beside her. Unless dear old Dennis was moonlighting as the Incredible Hulk and extending his wardrobe to equip both of his guises, I would humbly suggest that this was a risibly unlikely scenario.

It's almost enough to make me want to work in TV. If so, I would write a drama of a smouldering affair between an older, golf-obsessed businessman (played by Ronnie Corbett) and a middle-aged TV executive (played by the Amazonian Julie T. Wallace). Then when, after the obligatory night spent ceiling-gazing, she could answer the door wearing his shirt, that reaches way beneath her knees and THEY MIGHT GET THE BLOODY MESSAGE!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Things that make me go hmmm – on TV

If you can cast your mind back almost 20 years you might recall Things That Make You Go Hmmm, the splendidly silly hit by C&C Music Factory,. This inevitably acted as an invitation to hacks and serious journalists alike to discuss the things that made them go hmmm; it certainly made fascinating reading.

Attempting a comprehensive list of things me go hmmm in everyday life would occupy most of my remaining lifespan, but I have lately been struck by how many TV conventions make me wince. Having grown up during a mini golden age of British TV when excellence was a frequently achieved ideal and the vast majority of the presenters and participants were both more talented and more intelligent than the average audience member, it's easy enough to find tendencies to rail against (Mrs. Slocome's Pussy by Stuart Jeffries is a particularly fine account of this era). Yet, funnily enough, I don't seem to spend as much time fulminating against the confederacy of dunces currently appearing on our screens in programmes like Big Brother, as some of the small screen's more infuriating conventions.

This is audience participation spot on A View From A Broad and a chance for you to air your pet peeves. Just e-mail suggestions to me and I'll post them. In the meantime, here is the first of the many things that make me go hmmm.

The Pregnancy Test
Picture the scene: it has come to that point of the soap opera, drama series or sit-com when a female character has gone to the local pharmacy and bought a pregnancy testing kit. This is invariably hidden from view in a brown paper bag of the sort that died out in reality sometime during my teens. If anyone knows of a pharmacy anywhere in the world that still uses brown paper bags, please let me know.

While in the bathroom (this is not an American euphemism – the bathroom rather than a boring old bog is usually the chosen venue) the boyfriend or husband arrives home and heads for the kitchen (these scenes ALWAYS take place in a food preparation area).

Seconds later the woman bounds into the room, pregnancy stick held proudly aloft. Still clutching the offending object she throws her arms around boyfriend's / husband's neck and announces that the test result is positive.

Surely I cannot be the only person in the world thinking: “Yuck! You just pissed on that!”?

Thursday, 19 August 2010

They'll keep a welcome in the hillsides (hopefully)

After 28 years spent in Africa and Spain I'm going home.

My decision hasn't exactly been greeted with universal enthusiasm, though. Several months ago I mentioned my intention to a friend who said, “Aren't you a bit young to be going home to die?”

No, I explained, you don't get it. Wales is amazing! Haven't you seen what they've done there? Look at the opening sequences of Torchwood; it's like CSI Cardiff now.

I won't bore Welsh readers any further with what they already know, but I would advise foreigners to see Rhod Gilbert's excellent stand-up routine: “Wales isn't shit anymore – we've done it up!”

Ultimately I'm hoping to settle in the Cardiff area where my pathetic inability to pass my driving test won't be quite so debilitating. The lure of the capital is always strong, but for me Cardiff will almost be like coming home, since I lived there from 1972 to 1979 while attending high school in the city.

Like all ports, Cardiff has always had a cosmopolitan ambience and this cultural mix was very much in evidence at my school. In my final year I shared a dormitory with a Venezuelan, a girl from Japan, a Nigerian, an Iranian and a half-Armenian, half-Indian girl. Hell, you want exotic? One of my friends came from England and was called Bunty.

After spending nearly three decades both as a rooinek and as a guiri, dear old Cardiff exerts a strong pull. I'm not generally a fan of city life, but now that the Millennium Centre seems to be attracting a steady stream of fantastic musical acts to add to Cardiff's rock solid theatrical, operatic and choral traditions, it's even more alluring. On my more confident days I even imagine what it would be like to be part of a choir again, something that would be a possibility in Caerdydd if I could only persuade the musical director that what's needed is a second alto who can double as a baritone when needed. Maybe I could be the first female member of Only Men Aloud? They'd have to change their name, mind.

The culinary scene is also as varied as you'll find in Wales, extending far beyond the obligatory Indian and Chinese restaurants. I'm sure that I'll even find a tapas bar or two.

First of all, however, I'm heading straight for my hometown.

I love Pembrokeshire even more than I love David Lynch which, as my close friends will attest, is quite a statement. I love its craggy, vertiginous cliffs and stacks and its bolshy disinclination to suck up to holidaymakers with resorts offering donkey rides, candyfloss and 'Kiss Me Quick' hats. Mostly it specialises in magnificent golden sandy beaches which offer nothing more than an intermittent ice-cream van in the way of modern amenities. When it does 'do' resort towns (Tenby and Saundersfoot, for instance) they are places of staggering prettiness, which have remained largely unspoiled since the Edwardian era, when they first started touting for business.

Considering its inaccessability, Pembroke town has proved surprisingly attractive to the 'escape to the country' crowd. There certainly is a lot of countryside, but the fact that the nearest Marks & Spencer is over thirty miles away (in Carmarthen) means that only hardened lovers of rural life would contemplate a move this far west.

Back in the 1970s, the nearest M&S was in Swansea; my Dad loved to tell his tale of the day he was obliged to explain the route to two baffled American tourists.
“So we find our way back to the main road and drive how far east?”
“Sixty miles.”
“SIXTY MILES?! You are joking, right?”
“No, that's correct. Of course, if you want a really decent sized branch you'd be better off going to the one in Cardiff.”
“Maybe we'll try Cardiff. How far's that?”
“A hundred miles, roughly.”

Despite the influx of Londoners and Mancunians suffering from some obscure ennui of the spirit, the town is still home to thousands of people whose families, like mine, have been there for generations. To listen to the locals you would imagine that the entire populace now consisted of retired accountants from Tring or organic food obsessed young professionals from Islington, but even the tiny amount of research that I've undertaken has revealed that many of my old schoolfriends are either still there or have returned. Most members of my family who moved away from the area in their youth have chosen to retain a presence there by buying property or regularly visiting relatives.

Pembroke is a place where roots are still important, whatever the locals say. I can just imagine popping into the local caff and trying to get my zany foreign habits past the waitresses.

“I see Keith Elsdon's daughter's back.”
“Oh yes, in the end they all return.”
“She's gone really weird, though. Do you know what she asked for? Apparently she wanted a bap, cut in half and toasted on something called a plancha. Then she asked me to spread olive oil and crushed tomato all over it!”
“Oh, give her a toasted teacake. She'll soon get over it.”

It's funny – by the time you're middle-aged you find comfort in the things that once drove you mad.

Anyone who is remotely interested in my experiences back in Wales can follow it on my new blog, Local Weirdo. I will also be blogging on Wales Online, the website of The Western Mail, Wales's daily newspaper, of which more later.

A View From a Broad will continue to feature its usual range of topics currently inspiring or enraging me.

Monday, 19 July 2010

I write like Kurt Vonnegut

I write like Kurt Vonnegut, apparently.

I know – fantastic, isn't it? Who wouldn't want to write like the author of Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five?

Before the tsunami of scepticism hits me, I hasten to add that this piece of information comes to me not as the result of a late-night session with a colleague at a bar, where one would then be expected to reciprocate with, “And you write like Ernest Hemingway” before ending up on the well-trodden path of “You're my beshtesht friend, you are”. No, this is a scientific conclusion. Well, slightly scientific.

There is a fascinating website called “I Write Like...” which, if you copy and paste an example of your writing into a box on the homepage, guarantees to compare your writing style to various famous writers and calculate your nearest equivalent. After feeding this program two paragraphs of my previous blog I was informed that Kurt Vonnegut's sentence structure and use of language most closely matches mine, which was something of a surprise since, although I read Vonnegut regularly when at school and university, it has been many years since our literary paths have crossed.

At its worst the history of literary influence has led to cases of plagiarism, but most writers admit to it, much of it incongruous rather than blindingly obvious; hence the chick-lit writer who cites Gertrude Stein or the creator of hairy-chested heroes who was first driven to write by Jane Austen. The ghosts of the writers that we most admire are rarely evident in our prose. For instance, I love George Orwell's cunningly crafted transparent style, which has a deadpan quality that I would kill to recreate, yet I know I can't; I'm far too much of a loud, gobby show-off to reach those magnificently pared-down heights.

The only writer with whom I was previously compared was Cormac McCarthy. I hadn't even read any of his novels at this point but a kindly writing tutor made the allusion. I had submitted a short story that must have accidentally contained elements of his sparse style, but this had resulted from inexperience rather than skill. The story contained nothing more than its bare bones because at this point I hadn't grasped the importance of creating an atmosphere. When I later read my first McCarthy I laughed. The likeness was as absurd as comparing Cheryl Cole to Dusty Springfield.

If you have any interest in writing do have a look at the website. You might be as surprised by the result as I was. Of course, I know that I don't REALLY write like Kurt Vonnegut, but I was pleased to be linked to him.

After sending the link to the website to a friend, she submitted her recipe for Welsh cakes. The program reckons that her nearesr match is Dan Brown and, after suffering through Angels and Demons, I can't say I'm surprised.

I'd sooner be not nearly as good as McCarthy and Vonnegut than as good as Dan Brown.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Anyone but England

Oh England, England, England – why are you doing this to yourself? Why are you doing this to me?

I tried so hard, believe me. When anyone asked me who I was supporting in the World Cup I'd dutifully say, South Africa first (it was my home for 12 years and I still have lots of friends there), then the other African nations, Spain (it's the height of bad manners to live in a country and not support its national team) and...England! No, I was not going to be a part of the Anyone But England crowd. I was brought up next door to the country, have English relatives and lived in North London for two years. By the time I realised that I was never going to find a Londoner who didn't say, “I 'ate the bloody Welsh” on hearing my nationality, my reason for living there had expired, however. Yet how stupid would it be to find that you were supporting North Korea for no other reason than they were playing the hated English?

Why do so many Scots and Welsh have this attitude? Well, obviously the Irish had the potato famine, which was no picnic by anyone's standards, but we other Celtic nations have more recent reasons for feeling disgruntled.

Imagine that on the same weekend that the English rugby team had a match against the Walloon All Stars, the Welsh were playing the All Blacks and the Scottish team was up against the Wallabies. What do you imagine the sports presenters would be discussing? Trust me, we'd be treated to an interview with Toby Flood's former sports teacher, a feature about what brand of underpants Jonny Wilkinson favours on match day and a half hour discussion of the history of the Walloon All Stars and their enormous importance in the world of rugby union. Maybe at the end of the coverage it might be mentioned that Scotland was playing the Aussies and the Welsh were up against the Kiwis – or maybe not. Next year, when the Six Nations Championship is taking place do yourselves – and me – a favour and look at the sports coverage through the eyes of a Celt.

Then there's poor old Andy Murray. He really hates England doesn't he? In fact – didn't he INVENT the phrase “anyone but England”? Well, yes and no. The incident that sparked the infamous comment has been largely forgotten. During the early part of 2006 Murray was being interviewed with Tim Henman when the conversation turned to England's World Cup prospects. Henman took the opportunity to subject Murray to some good-natured ribbing about Scotland's failure to qualify after which one of the presenters asked him who he would be supporting in the World Cup. “Anyone but England, obviously,” said Murray, who was laughing at the time. Yes, LAUGHING! IT WAS A JOKE! I bet that if he'd realised that this would still be dredged up four years later to label him anti-English, he would have sooner bitten through his own leg than uttered a word. Since then we've been treated to a whole raft of “Andy hates England” stories, the latest of which seems to be, “Andy hates the Queen”. All total crap of course but, hey, God forbid that veracity should stand in the path of a good anti-Scottish story.

Which comes to the particularly ugly lead-up to England's latest face-off with Germany. Now, I admit to finding history rather interesting but am no Simon Schama. However, I was rather under the impression that we were no longer at war with Germany. Didn't we settle that bit of unpleasantness in 1945? If I'm correct please would someone contact the editors of The Sun and The Daily Star and remind them because I think that they've forgotten.

Tired headlines like “Herr We Go Again” are bad enough, but the incident that really finished the burgeoning relationship between the English football team and me was the loathesome Stan Boardman's appearance on Radio 5 Live on Friday 25th June. Allowing the pig-ignorant brute to share his alleged comic skills with the nation can obviously be defended under the banner of freedom of speech, but his behaviour towards his fellow guest, the comedian Sean Lock, marked a new low, even by his rectal standards of taste.

Boardman's claim that the German-baiting was just a bit of good-natured fun was contrasted with Lock's belief that we should really offer the whole anti-German thing the humane killer. Hearing that Lock's grandmother was a Holocaust survivor Boardman continued to harass him by repeating, “Where are you from?”, this question rising in volume until Lock (who has always struck me as being able to punch well above his weight) finally cracked and said, “I'm British”; at which point Boardman shouted, in a truly terrible cod German accent, “Und vere are your papers?!”

Eventually even this prize git seemed to realise that he'd gone too far and resumed his previous catchphrase: “Oh go on, it's just a laugh, innit, for God's sake. IT'S JUST A BIT OF A LAUGH!”

Yes, Stan, it's bloody hilarious. I recognise that type of humour. When at primary school one of the older boys used to push me against the wall and slap me across the face. That was a right laugh as well. Laugh? I nearly split my lip.

So, goodbye England. It was a very brief romance and will be unlikely to be resumed at a later date. It was like accepting a date from that dodgy bloke in Sales, under the impression that behind his crass and gittish exterior was something rather more sensitive and worthwhile – and being sadly disappointed.

Farewell JT, goodbye Lamps, so long Defoe, goodbye Rooney – you must go on without my support.

Now who do I want to win the World Cup?

Well, anyone but England will do me nicely, thanks.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Crime of the half-century

Later this year I'll be 50.

How the hell did that happen?

One minute it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Brain Salad Surgery, then it was, “I think it's about time you considered cosmetic surgery”. There must have been something in between but for the life of me I can't remember exactly what. A couple of years in drama school in London, a revolutionary time in South Africa, a decade and a half in Spain and here I am.

Must admit that, despite everything, I have no actual intention of doing what I have long threatened on my 50th birthday, that is disappear under the duvet with enough paracetemol to end it all, plus just enough travel sickness tablets to avoid sicking the whole lot up and having to start all over again. I've looked it all up on EXIT's website, readers.

No, I really can't be arsed to get too worked up about the dreaded half-century. I'm a baby boomer for God's sake and, as we post-war generation say, 50 is the new 30. I have high hopes for my latter years, especially having just witnessed the recent demise of a family friend who died aged 102, just one week after she gave up working in the family fish and chip shop. With an example like that, moaning about turning 50 seems impossibly wimpish and ungrateful.

What I have in mind is a future like Leonard Cohen's, a man who, despite a lifetime spent cultivating some ruinous habits like smoking, taking Class A drugs and drinking far too much, was only deterred from undertaking yet another spectacularly ambitious world tour at the age of 76 by knackering his back during the commission of a strenuous yoga move. And the action that his, admittedly orthopaedic, bed has seen! If I can muster the requisite amount of optimism I'm thinking of having one of those deli-counter ticket dispensers fitted on the foot of mine. Or, as Lenny C himself has said, there'll be a meter on my bed that will disclose what everybody knows.

So it came as a shock this week when my employers submitted my date of birth to the Powers That Be and were told that they would be given a sort of tax break for agreeing to provide me with work. Naturally I was delighted for them and impressed that the government had the foresight, during this recession which has had even more of a negative effect on Spain's economy than Britain's, to encourage employment.

Then I had time to digest this information and my mood darkened.

As a professional writer with more than two decades of varied experience and a postgraduate qualification under her belt it was a shock to realise that, at least as far as the government is concerned, I'm some kind of a bureaucratic loss leader. As they say in Private Eye, shurely shome mishtake.

While the issue of an ageing population is encouraging some very heated debates about the raising of the official retirement age, it seems that there has been very little alteration in the status of middle-aged workers. We're still considered so undesirable that prospective employers need to be offered incentives to tap into our knowledge and experience. In other words, while state old-age pensions will kick in later, there has been no improvement in the image of the older worker.

What are they worried about? That we'll take so long to glue our dentures in that we'll be constantly late for work? That the foyers of office buildings will be awash with Zimmer frames and mobility scooters? That we'll ask for longer tea breaks so we can change our incontinence pants?

Sorry to come over all Dame Joan Bakewell, but this attitude has to change – and fast. How are we going to survive financially if older employees are such a ghastly prospect that companies need to be offered bungs to take them on? I'm hoping to work until I drop – will probably have to, in fact - but the current climate scarcely looks encouraging.

I'm all for young employees, of course - where would be without their new ideas and enthusiasm? Yet we also need to rely on the experience and wisdom of the older worker. We're constantly being told that the baby boomers will make sure that attitudes will undergo a revolution as they start to collect their bus passes, but this change seems very slow in coming.

While fashion and cosmetic make-over features in the tabloids and magazines tell women that they can still look fabulous way into their seventies and beyond, it's difficult not to feel that it would be even more helpful if there could be a few more hints as to how they could be incredibly useful and valuable in the workforce. There's not much point in telling us how we should dress to avoid exposing crepey necks and wrinkled cleavage if the fundamental problem of ageing – our lowered status in the employment stakes – still hasn't been addressed.

It's not asking for much, surely. I'm a writer not a mud wrestler. As long as I retain my mental faculties there is no reason why I shouldn't continue to work until death and decomposition intervene. P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Margaret Forster and Maeve Binchy are just a few pensioner authors that spring to mind. Mary Wesley only published her first novel when she was in her seventies, while Catherine Cookson continued to work until she was very elderly.

Early retirement is now a luxury that few outside the banking sector can afford, so we need to be making the most of our extended working years.

It's time for a radical change and this (late) baby boomer, at least, is up for a fight.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

In praise of men with funny-shaped balls

Now that we have a couple of weeks off from the mental torture that is the Six Nations 2010, I feel it’s time to reflect on Wales’s status as a nation of rugby lovers and on my personal history with the game.

This particular piece might well have remained a kind of mental earworm, a few disparate thoughts that failed to cohere had I not seen, on 8 out of 10 Cats, seeing as you’re asking – it’s not clever, but even I need some time off at the end of the week from being an intellectual giant as quick with a mot juste as Oscar Wilde – the comedian, John Bishop, virtually cringing on being asked whether he ever watched rugby.

“Eeurgh, no!” he replied, as if he had been asked whether he liked eating dung. “Can’t stand it. Never watch it if I can help it!”

I knew what was coming, but felt that I had to give him the benefit of the doubt. Surely he wasn’t going for that old, long outdated chestnut about it only being for posh people?

“It’s for posh people, that,” he added, or something similar. “No, I’m a football fan.”

Having established his credentials as a Man of the People, Bishop enlisted the support of his fellow-panellists in a virtual orgy of rugby bashing. To listen to that lot carry on, you’d think that the only kind of person you’d rub against at a Six Nations match would be a nob with a double-barrelled surname who was only dropping in to “Twickers” on his way to see little Tristram playing the Wall Game at Eton.

I’d love him to have met some of the blokes I encountered when my Dad used to take me to watch Wales play at the Arms Park!

During a tackle one poor unfortunate Scottish player ended up with one of the Welsh team sitting on his head. “Better hope he hasn’t been drinkin’ Brains!” shouted the wit behind me, who had probably downed more than a few pints of Brains Bitter himself.

Equally delighted to be informed that they were posh bastards would have been Charlie Faulkner, Graham Price and Bobby Windsor, aka the incomparable Pontypool Front Row. Their opponents came up with some imaginative monikers to describe that man mountain of muscle and brute force, but I can make a fair guess that “posh” wasn’t one of them.

No, rugby union has never been a posh or elitist sport in Wales, which was one of its myriad charms. I was fortunate to have seen players like Gareth Edwards, JJ Williams, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies and JPR in action, thanks to my Dad signing me up for membership with Pembroke RFC, who obligingly coughed up the odd ticket for the Arms Park.

Stuck in a girls’ boarding school, it wasn’t always easy for him to persuade the Powers That Be to allow me out for the Big Match. My Dad, bless his heart, had other ideas: on the only occasion that I saw him rebel against the ridiculously draconian rules that cowed parents as much as pupils, he stormed into the headmistress’s office, banged his fist on her desk and demanded that I be allowed to watch the Wales v Ireland match on Saturday.

“You are denying this girl her heritage!” he railed.

Nice one, Dad!

Needless to say, the head had no choice but to release me for the afternoon.

JPR Williams was my favourite, a choice that probably accounts for my current unmarried status: no other bloke has much of a chance of matching up. When you have seen the man of your dreams leave the field with half his face hanging off then return two minutes later with it stitched (roughly) back on to finish the match, how can the average eejit, who faints when he cuts his finger, measure up?

It might have been true, fifty years ago, that English rugby measured up to the old adage, “a game for hooligans, played by gentlemen” but that went the way of the penny-farthing many years ago. These days even the relatively refined world of English Rugby Union welcomes fans from every class. As a professional sport it can ill-afford to do otherwise.

There are a few sports that remain the preserve of the elite – polo, for instance – but that aside I can’t really imagine that these days any event would turn away a prospective fan on the grounds of class, accent, race, religion or any other factor.

It’s hard to believe that John Bishop really finds rugby so repulsive that he cannot watch it. While rugby will always be my first love, I am perfectly capable of enjoying a good game of footie. His attitude must be leftist posturing.

Anyway, how would he react if Stephen Fry or Joanna Lumley refused to watch soccer on the grounds that it’s a game for proles and oiks?!

Friday, 29 January 2010

Give ‘em a bung!

Maybe it’s just my warped sense of humour, but this latest Afghan development (i.e. let’s throw a shitload of money at the Taliban in the hope that they’ll behave) puts me in mind of Harry Hill.

“Some people favour warfare as a way to sort out the situation in Afghanistan. Others think that bribery is better. Warfare or bribery – which is better? There’s only one way to find out – FIGHT!”

Come to think of it, Harry Hill’s probably got more hope of sorting it out than Hamid Kharzai.