Thursday, 6 December 2012

Analyse this!

Recently a friend lent me a copy of Caroline Knapp’s memoir, Drinking: A Love Story, which recounts, in painful detail, her love affair with alcohol and her decision to give it up because it was ruining her life.

Although I have never had the remotest desire to drink to excess and have only once in my life drunk enough to gain a hangover (following a violently eventful Christmas party at the Top of the Carlton in Johannesburg, in case you’re wondering), my father’s side of the family had more than its fair share of addicts. Whether their poison was booze, gambling or prescription medication, I’m afraid that the Elsdons and Halls were a pretty rackety crew, with the Howells dropping in an interesting side order of mental instability for good measure.

Having been born into a middle-class family in Britain in the 1960s, alcohol was part of my parents’ hectic social life. Every party they attended was prefaced by a discussion about alcohol – if we’re going round to Huw and Ceinwen’s tonight we should buy a decent bottle of red – and any party that they threw necessitated even more detailed discussions. Bill drinks Johnnie Walker, while Freda favours Campari, Gareth won’t drink anything other than Carlsberg and Nesta will start the evening with sweet sherry and move onto white wine later. Have we got enough?

There was always enough, however much was consumed. Despite living in a West Wales backwater there was always plenty of money swooshing around, thanks to the major oil multinationals having set up shop just down the road at Milford Haven and other nearby towns. My Dad, who had an ironmonger’s shop and two home decorating stores in the area, happily accepted the oil companies’ money even as he cringed at the blots on the landscape.

Of course, all this relentless socialising and alcohol consumption meant that some of the guests went over to the dark side, drinking way too much, disappearing into the bathroom with someone who wasn’t their spouse, neglecting their children and not functioning properly at work the next day. Marriages imploded, livers exploded, families fractured and divorces resulted.

Fortunately for me, my mother was virtually a teetotaller due to the fact that she became virtually narcoleptic after two glasses of wine and my father, being as much of a wimp about hangovers as me, generally knew when to stop. I was one of the lucky ones, but even at a young age I could see how much harm alcohol could cause.

As a teenager it became necessary to decide on a social drink; my choice was Southern Comfort and lemonade, surely the most disgusting combination to be requested at any rugby club in Wales; ever. Also, unlike Caroline Knapp’s favourite tipple of dry white wine, it singularly failed to provide the warming glow of self-confidence that she so brilliantly describes in Drinking: A Love Story. Southern Comfort left me feeling stone-cold sober and deeply socially inadequate, as I sat with my group of friends in the dimly lit surroundings of the bar or dance hall. Only when exposed to bright light (for instance, when visiting the ladies) did I realise that I was over the limit and, while my mind remained razor sharp, my legs refused to carry out the orders from my brain.

So, Southern Comfort was either a poor choice or a good one, depending on one’s genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, too unsophisticated ever to take up drinking with enthusiasm.

So, I never became an alcoholic and have never experienced the sensation of waking up unclothed in a strange bed, never puked all down myself or lost control of my bowels, bladder or any other part of my anatomy in public, never found myself bawling down the phone to an ex-boyfriend at two in the morning in the alcoholic ritual familiar to many and dubbed “drink and dial” by Knapp.

And, because I never took up drinking, I never had to give it up.

Over the years I have had alcoholic friends and have noted the ways in which they gave up their addiction. One friend became an enthusiastic member of AA, another went cold turkey on her own because she could not accept AA’s insistence on a higher deity, yet another took up exercise and healthy living as a substitute addiction. All can now truly consider themselves ‘recovering alcoholics’. However none of them, even in their darkest moment, considered psychoanalysis as a possible solution.

Of all the constants that characterised Caroline Knapp’s descent into alcoholism and her emergence from it, the thing that struck me most forcefully was her reliance on the management of her mind. Near the beginning of her memoirs, she even mentions “a therapist” as one of the pillars of a liveable life, along with a good job and a decent place to live.

Maybe this is one of the aspects of American East Coast culture (Knapp, the daughter of a psychoanalyst, grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts) that most baffles Brits. While it is true that, for instance, London NW3 probably has more therapists per square kilometre than anywhere else in Europe, the concept of paying a Daddy (or Mummy) figure obscene amounts of money to listen to our stream-of-consciousness rants about our feelings and failings seems incredibly self-indulgent to most Brits, me included.

Naturally, if there has been some massive damage caused by a life-changing incident, the opportunity to speak to a neutral professional can be valuable but, for most of us, the term ‘psychoanalysis’ sounds like a very expensive way of getting things off your chest that can far more cheaply be achieved by inviting a few mates around for tea. Just for the record, Knapp’s addiction to visiting her therapist every time her life went tits-up did not seem to result in any improvement to her well-being, but probably wreaked havoc on her bank balance.

In the end, Caroline Knapp beat the bottle and reclaimed her life, albeit only after spouting a shed load of Freudian truisms and analysing the life out of her very existence. Maybe it’s because I lived in Africa that (although I am as guilty of enjoying a good whinge as anyone) Knapp’s complaints and incessant desire to make a bloody great drama out of the most innocuous incident seem very self-indulgent. At times, the desire to rip one’s hair out is overwhelming, as she bangs on for chapter after chapter about her problems, when it is perfectly clear that, compared to about 99 per cent of the world’s population she is living a charmed existence.

Sadly, Caroline Knapp died of cancer in 2002; she was still clean and sober at the time of her death. Maybe her battle with the demon alcohol, anorexia and a number of other addictions demonstrates that ultimately the source of and answer to our problems lies within ourselves.

And that the ‘talking cure’ is a very expensive red herring.  

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Top of the Creeps

The Paellataffy Award for Best Comment On The Whole Sorry Jimmy Savile Business goes to Mark Steel, comedian and Independent columnist: “… of all the revered institutions that were clearly up to no good, none was more obviously sinister than Jimmy bloody Savile. I felt abused by him when I was 13 and I only saw him on the telly.”

Like all the best witticisms, this observation has the ring of truth about it. I am almost exactly the same age as Mark Steel and also feel moved to ask just what it was that we did to deserve being exposed to the horrors of Savile on TV almost every week?

“This is Top of the Pops and those were the Nolans. How’s about that then, guys and gals? What a cracking bunch of young ladies! (Makes manic noise that sounds like the result of a random sexual encounter between Tarzan and a duck) Now, what have we got next? Well, it’s Gary Glitter and who wants to be in his gang, guys and gals?”

Pass the sick bag.

Savile’s presence on a myriad music shows was always something of a mystery, given that he lacked any deep interest in pop and rock and never exhibited any of the almost insane enthusiasm displayed by his contemporaries, Alan (“Fluff”) Freeman, Paul Gambaccini, John Peel and even Kenny Everett. All Savile seemed interested in was getting his gurning boat-race on TV as much as possible. You could as easily imagine him volunteering to host Crufts or a series about caravanning – anything as long as he remained in the public eye.

 Jim’ll Fix It was no less one giant enigma of a programme, with those who knew Jim claiming that his desire to “fix it” for kids was a total mystery to them, given that he had always purported to dislike them.

Now we know that when he was slipping his Jim’ll Fix It medals around the necks of the “lucky” children for whom he had fixed it to ride in a tank with the army, eat their lunch on a rollercoaster or meet some fleetingly famous celebrity or other, he was actually making his selections, like an elderly aunt lingering slightly too long over a Yuletide box of Black Magic.

Savile could almost be described as a sort of human double bluff; surely nobody who seemed so creepy and unsavoury could actually BE creepy and unsavoury?

The other inspired comment about the BBC paedophilia scandal was made by Craig Brown in The Daily Mail, who described Savile as hiding “in plain sight”. This is an excellent summation of the situation, since the man himself actually confessed to some of his least acceptable sexual tendencies in his autobiography.   

In one peculiarly vile anecdote, Savile admitted that he was interrupted by a knock on the door while ‘entertaining’ a runaway from some type of young offenders’ institute. A pair of police officers had arrived to ask him whether he knew of her whereabouts (and what, I wonder, made them beat a trail to that particular door?) Savile said that he hadn’t seen her, but if he did he would invite her to spend the night with him, which would be his reward for ‘finding’ her. According to dear old Jim, the police officers seemed perfectly satisfied with that and, instead of searching his apartment and feeling his collar, there was a nod and a wink and an understanding between consenting adults. For who, given a clearly disturbed teenage girl, would pass up the opportunity to get his leg over? Anyway, think of all the millions raised for Stoke Mandeville.

My hatred of Savile can be ordered into a fairly neat three-tiered system, consisting of:

1.      The acts themselves, which do seem to have been particularly horrific and, for the most part, involved some of the most damaged and powerless members of society in institutions such as Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor.

2.      Bullying his victims and colleagues into silence. Apart from the initial paedophilia claims, Gambaccini claims that Savile was also a necrophiliac, who used his status as a volunteer porter at Stoke Mandeville to visit the inhabitants of the morgue. All I can say is that he would have been laughing on the other side of his knighthood if all of this had emerged when he was still alive. Yet the fearless, “I couldnae gi’ a fuck” Scottish comedian, Jerry Sadowitz was very vocally pursuing the “Savile is a paedo” line as far back as 1987. “Jimmy was The Guvnor,” says Gambaccini. “You didn’t mess with him.”

3.      Making me feel like one of the rabid “hunt him down and cut off his knackers with a rusty knife” crowd who put a Newport paediatrician out of business because they didn’t know the difference between a children’s doctor and a kiddy fiddler. Having never been a “there’s one on every street corner” paedo-hysteric it gives me little pleasure to feel some perverse sense of self-satisfaction that my belief in the essential grubbiness of human nature has been justified.

Worst of all, though, is that Savile is dead and his scores of victims will never receive the justice that they deserve.

Friday, 10 August 2012

A Private Matter

Given the massive medal tally that has characterised the 2012 London Olympics, one would imagine that the British talent for finding a cloud in every silver lining would be given a well deserved rest but, no.
Apparently too many medal winners are emerging from private schools. This, at least according to one hilarious letter in The Daily Mail, is because private educational establishments house their own yachting facilities, shooting ranges, equestrian centres etc. I was educated at a private school in Cardiff which, at the time, accepted boarders and I can assure you, dear reader, that the most exotic thing that we enjoyed was access to a swimming pool. Admittedly this was more than many state schools could manage, but given the fact that otherwise we would have had to be bussed to the Empire Pool in town, this ultimately represented a saving. The pool was, in any case, in a state of very poor repair and desperately needed a makeover, which could not be afforded, at least not during my 1972-1979 tenure.
Of course, I cannot speak for all private schools; perhaps riding to class in a golden coach and having to muck out the unicorns as punishment is, in fact, common in Eton and Marlborough. I doubt it, though.
The whole point is that, in most cases, at least, what being privately educated teaches you is a sense of discipline. Those who know me will confirm that I am built for comfort, not for speed, but as a boarder I was expected to play sport sometimes three times a day; after breakfast before assembly, during the lunch hour and after school for a further 50 minutes. Not being very good at it was no excuse.
During the winter we played lacrosse, hockey, netball and table tennis and if the weather was so foul that even our formidable Head of Games, Miss Bates, agreed that it would be lunacy to venture out, we were subjected to a peculiar form of torture known as Wet Games. Despite its somewhat Hustleresque connotations this involved congregating in the school hall in our games kit and learning ludicrously archaic dances like the Gay Gordons and Stripping the Willow. Believe it or not I actually didn't mind Wet Games, because it at least involved music, albeit not the kind of thing that I would normally listen to, being a Bowie and Prog Rock gal. In the case of waterlogged pitches we were prescribed a long walk over Llandaff Fields. Apart from these outdoor activities we were expected to take to the gym for PE once a week.
Due to my lousy attitude, disinclination to attack and inability to defend in both lacrosse and in hockey, I was generally stuck in goal where it was believed that my bulk would prove useful. This was problematic, since as a dedicated specs wearer I was unsure what to do about the eyewear. Should I take them off and be partially sighted or leave them on and risk getting broken glass in my eyes? In the end it was easier to leave them on and abandon my post when the opposing team loomed too near.
So, sport and me - not a good combo.
Summer was easier; cricket, tennis and rounders were kinder, since being exiled to the margins when fielding meant that I could, to quote Stephen Fry, spend my time making daisychains and reading Dornford Yates. The warmer weather also meant that the boarding houses could not help but be about 10 degrees warmer than their wintertime average of far-too-cold-to-sustain-human-life.
Yet, the emphasis on sport did not mean that we had superb equipment. One of my lasting memories about playing cricket, for instance, was that all of the shin pads were in a ridiculously poor condition and house matches were generally characterised by batters having to adopt a curious stance when running in order to hold them in place.
Fortunately music was deemed as important as sport and eventually I managed to persuade the Head of Music that my presence in the choir was more important than on the playing fields.
Admittedly, this was during the 1970s, but the whole point about playing sport at school is that, however lacking in talent an individual might be, it at least teaches the body to expect to have demands made upon it. The other point is that most (if not all) private schools subscribe to the concept of mens sana in corpore sana. Boris Johnson has revealed that, when at Eton, he was expected to undertake two hours of physical exercise per day, a custom which he has obviously decided to continue, with his enthusiasm for cycling and running.
While many will argue that some state schools have been forced to part with playing fields to balance the books, it is not necessary to have mountains of expensive equipment to improve state schools' chances of producing more Olympic contenders. So what CAN state schools do to help themselves?
1) Expect pupils to participate in some physical activity every day. "But I don't want to" does NOT constitute an excuse.
2) Come down hard on bad behaviour. If parents send children to school who haven't been taught to belt up when the teacher is speaking or that time-keeping is a valuable life skill, then react with actual punishments like doing various janitorial jobs around the school or keep them in late after school. It worked when I was a nipper!
3) Make them realise that nobody achieves anything without hard work and effort. I doubt that Jessica Ennis would have won gold if she'd spent every Saturday morning lying in bed until noon.
4) Stop imagining that life would be so much better if you were at private school. Being woken up at 6:45 by someone switching a bright, overhead light while ringing a bell when you're experiencing your first morning away from home is something that will change your life forever - and NOT in a good way.
5) Stop wasting money on pieces of modish and totally unnecessary technology and plough the money into sports equipment instead.
Ultimately, private school is a lot more about hair shirts than popping over to the stables to select one's polo pony for lunchtime games.
You want to be privately educated? You'd better be tough enough.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Edwina in Wonderland

Does anybody know where Edwina Currie lives?
Don't worry, I'm not asking because I want to post half a ton of horse manure through her letterbox, as satisfying as that would undoubtedly be (good for the roses, not quite so great for the Axminster) more that, in my mind, her abode lies somewhere over the rainbow, slotted in between Never Never Land and that hole down which the White Rabbit disappeared, closely followed by Alice.
Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like to inhabit the inside of La Currie's head and can't help thinking that it must be a little bit like being stranded in Dali's Persistence of Memory; all of those melting clocks and that blasted landscape might be intriguing at first, but living there for long would soon wear thin.
Wear thin! Now there's a Freudian slip. For after single-handedly solving the problem of poverty in Britain ("There isn't any, because so many people have mobile phones and digiboxes: QED"), Edwina is now turning her vast intellect onto the problem of obesity.
This is where one inevitably concludes that she surely must be inhabiting a completely separate reality to the rest of us, since in EdwinaWorld, being lardy isn't just acceptable IT IS POSITIVELY ENCOURAGED! Yes, apparently the UK has turned into a fat friendly holiday camp, where doctors fail to point out to their patients that having an arse the size of Lanarkshire is possibly not a great idea.
Now, I have sat down with some of my horizontally over-extended chums and we all seem to have had the same kind of experience with the world of medicine. Over the years we have all been informed that our every ailment, from ingrowing toenails and sprained wrists to vertigo and halitosis, is a direct result of our revolting bodies. Now, I am all for people being advised to lose weight and offered a helping hand in their quest to shed a stone or two - or more - but my lardy crew and I would also appreciate being able to report a sore throat without suffering actual verbal abuse. What we would like is for the medical expert to fix the immediate problem. For instance, what would be the point of arriving at the local surgery with a broken leg, only to receive a flood of anti-smoking propaganda?
So, Edwina, I have to ask you - where do you live amongst these non-judgemental medics? I had a fabulous doctor when I was living in South Africa and am looking for one in Europe. It would be great to find someone else one who was capable of encouraging weight loss while not sneering at larger patients as though they have just emitted a particularly evil-smelling fart.
EdwinaWorld also clearly enjoys access to a different range of TV channels than those seen by we ordinary folk. It all sounds rather fun; whereas the TV programmes that I see generally feature cookery programmes where stick-thin female guests almost faint on learning that some chefs use butter and sugar in their dishes and bordering-on-emaciation actresses examine corpses that look in rather better nick than they do, Edwina sees nothing but enormous celebrities. By "enormous" of course, I mean fat, not famous.
Where does she find 'em? Dawn French is a shadow of her former self, James Corden is dropping stones like a latter-day dyspraxic Moses and Ruth Jones must now be verging on a size 12, but all Edwina can see is an endless parade of stellar wobble-bottoms. Not only this, but when they appear on screen, a satanic subliminal message appears, advising the under-fives to eat as much fast food as possible to reach their fighting weight. Allegedly.
Naturally, unwilling to appear a nagging old trout, Edwina disguises her disgust with admirable skill: "I worry for them," she repeatedly states. Yes, Edwina, you're all heart, aren't you? I bet that you were doubled up with concern for Norma Major when you were boffing her old man.
Since it naturally follows that if you're a tubster you must be thick, it is essential that we should be constantly provided with suitable role models at all times. Yet this is the entertainment industry that we're talking about - and where would we be without our daily diet of smokers, drunks, drug addicts, liars, adulterers?
Oranges are not the only fruit and lardies are not the greatest of the UK's problems, Edwina, no matter how much you need a willing scapegoat.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Cats and Dogs

Perhaps it's because my life is so specifically cat-shaped that acquaintances are often surprised when I state that I actually do like dogs. A lot.
When I'm out and about and encounter an especially cute specimen I inevitably call them over and then belatedly remember that I'm violently allergic and if I as much as pat their head, my hands and arms will erupt in itchy red bumps that look vaguely bubonic if scratched, while my eyes will turn red and make me look like an extra from Night of the Living Dead. So, until a truly hypoallergenic dog can be bred, I'm definitely off the market as far as pooches go.
Recently when I was quite surprised when a friend - who I have always considered something of a domestic pet no-go area - admitted that he would also have liked to be a dog owner, but his habit of taking off for the other side of the world at a moment's notice had made this impossible. Who could be trusted to look after the dog when he was away? It was impossible not to adnire this responsible attitude, but I was sorry that he hadn't taken the plunge.
There is something very endearing about the Latino dog owner; despite his outrageously macho attitude to life, this doesn't extend to his choice of dog. Drive through La Linea de la Frontera on the road to Gibraltar any morning of the week and you will be entertained by the sight of some of the world's tiniest dogs enjoying their morning walk with their almost exclusively male owners. The concept of a 'status dog' clearly does not exist in Spain. While British hoodies take great delight in terrifying the local populace with their Rottweilers and Pit Bull Terriers, your average Latino is far more likely to be strutting along the pavement with his chihuahua in tow and displaying absolutely no embarrassment about it either.
The topic that had ignited the whole debate with The Friend was his belief that Uggie - the real star of the French movie The Artist - should be honoured with an Oscar and I feel that here would be the perfect dog for him. If your average hoodie is determined that his canine companion should reflect his aggression, then a Jack Russell like Uggie would be the perfect choice for The Friend: fearless, always busy, excessively gobby and into absolutely everything. You'd have to team Julian Clary with a Saluki to find another match as perfect.
Coincidentally, were I to choose an actual breed (although I feel that a rescue mongrel with three legs and one eye would probably be more my style) it would either be a Jack Russell or a Labrador, both of which seem to embody the most appealing aspects of dogginess. The Labrador is a winning combination of devotion and co-operation while the Jack Russell is energetic, intelligent and perversely reminds me of my late cat, Augustus John, in its small stature and attitude of terminal bossiness.
The aspect of dog ownership that I find the least attractive, however, is the spectre of the unprovoked dog attack that seems to be a media staple these days, as more and more children and adults are maimed by the friendly family Fido who, until the moment of insanity occurred, had displayed no signs of aggression.
Say what you like about cats (and I have said plenty about my three's propensity to vomit on my duvet, hog three-quarters of the sette when I'm trying to relax in the evening and use my bedside mat as toilet paper), there's not much chance of them ripping half your face off.