Sunday, 30 September 2007

Unexpected published Sept 30

There are some events which happen in life that we are completely unprepared for. You think about such catastrophic happenings but you doubt that they will ever really take place. You use phrases such as “pigs can fly” or “I’m Marie of Romania” with reference to these things occurring and you go about your daily business confident that they won’t. Sure that in the ways of the universe it would never happen to you.
One of these events happened last week. To be fair I had been warned, and it should have been expected. But I just didn’t think it ever would.
My husband stopped smoking. After thirty years of devotion to tobacco he smells like a different man. Our house is smoke free for the first time and I’m looking forward to having him around ten years longer than the smoking version. It’s the coolest, sexiest most wonderful think he’s ever done. He’s told me to increase our mortgage payments by the $100 a week he’d normally spend on fags, but I’m secretly putting it into a savings account so that he can fulfil a life long dream of visiting Antarctica, something being a smoker would be difficult to do.
As it turns out it was quite the week for unexpected events.
We had a tyre blow out on the southern motorway and we didn’t swerve across the road into oncoming traffic at 100 km an hour and die. In fact within minutes a nice man stopped to offer help followed by a fine police officer who had the tyre off and spare on before you could say thank you very much. My husband nearly started smoking again from the stress but didn’t.
I caught my first fish in two years. It was only 20 cms long and requested that it be thrown back in the sea. I acquiesced, but only after securing from it a promise that it would send back a bigger member of its species next time I was fishing.
My best friend had her birthday. Which wasn’t unexpected but she did manage to eat her lunch while my Kumfs shoes, which she had previously declared she would not allow within a 100 metres of her own Miu Miu’s, had a nice rest under the table directly beneath her calamari.
My novel which is half written and has sat grumpily in my computer for the past few months untouched, put its hand up and requested a month in Venice to be completed. Apparently as half of it is set in Venice it needs to revisit the light, the churches, the canals and the food. It claims to have been inspired by watching the movie Don’t Look Now again, and denies it is obsessed with the sex scene between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. I’m delighted the novel is ready to be finished but unsure if I could stand a month in Venice away from my family nor am I prepared to filch the money out of my husband’s Antarctica account, even if he doesn't know it exists. My novel tells me to harden up.
My five-year-old huntaway/golden retriever cross decided to reveal her latent ability to kill possums. We’re not actually sure if the possum died but it was last seen swimming out to sea. The last time the dog showed any interest in wildlife a possum ran for dear life across a patch of grass and up the nearest thing which looked like a tree, which was me.
Oh and then to top it all off a frippery of a memoir I had tapped out over the summer more for my own amusement than anything else never left the warehouse where it was sitting eagerly awaiting a day out at the book stores.
I heard from friends and colleagues I hadn’t spoken to in years and we discussed themes of censorship, the defence of truth and we recalled our early years as fearless journalists when we got stories out there, no matter what. And then we laughed my old friends and me. Because with such a fuss I wished my book had died an honourable death having brought down a corrupt political party or some hidden truth like who really killed Princess Diana and where Madeleine McCann is. But instead it is still a frippery of a memoir which in its short life made people laugh and cry. My husband nearly started smoking again from the stress, but didn’t.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Souvenirs published Sept 23

It’s strange the things people remember. Recollections of white hot arguments, mad dreams, romantic interludes and hot sex are all capable of hitting us at the most inconvenient times, simply because we triggered the memory.
A smell or an object can bring it all back in living colour which is quite cool. Embracing your memory and reliving events in your head, such as hot sex as an example are an essential way of getting through a bus ride or that phone call which just won't end. And that is why some of us collect souvenirs. Not the snow dome, fridge magnet, shot glass type souvenirs, but the ones the French meant when they invented the word souvenir which means to remember.
And while some may collect these memory prompters and put them away in little boxes, I prefer to have mine with me. If someone were to pounce upon me and shake my huge handbag upside down they would find the following:
A silver button found on a street in Paris on the way to a special dinner in 1997.
A piece of King Arthur’s Tintagel castle which found its way into my shoe (honest) in Britain on a special holiday in 1995.
A child’s tooth. I’m not sure which child this belonged to but it makes me remember all their gappy smiles, which is always nice.
A religious picture of Mary given to me by an old lady outside Pompeii in 2006. It’s very pretty.
A shell from the beach my youngest daughter took her first steps on.
And numerous business cards from restaurants I have adored eating in. As I fumble in my purse for loose change or a lipstick I often find these cards in various states of disarray and think straight back to the sardine, pine nut, raisin pasta or the crayfish. Yum.
I often gaze at other women and their immaculate handbags with nothing in them except a lipstick, a mirror, a cell phone and a purse. All placed just so. What chance do memories have of surviving in such sterility?
Of course there are other souvenirs we do not welcome. The smell of Kouros aftershave wafting off a man in the street will cause me to double over in revulsion, such is the gloomy sexual memory I have associated with that. The scent of Charlie reminds me of an operation my mother had when I was young and worried. . Five inch heel, drop dead gorgeous shoes in my wardrobe remind me of the two years I have spent under the care of a podiatrist after one particularly energetic night out and the fact that I will never again be truly glamorous. Two inch suede courts from Kumfs, remind me that I’ve really given up, and my friend is still recovering from the shock that I actually went into a Kumfs store yet alone tried some shoes on and bought them. She’s now banned me from wearing them anywhere near her, she claims she can smell them coming from 100 metres away, such is her distaste for anything other than Miu Miu or Manolo Blahnik.
Gold wrapping paper has its own special memory associations. Mainly of shop assistants who take as long to gift wrap something as it took for you to drive to the shop, find a park, look around the shop, decide on you purchase and pay for it.
No wonder I keep a piece of old castle in my bag to give me something to look at as I resign myself to the fact that I’ll never get that half hour back again.
And then there is food as a souvenir. I’ve found this quite an absorbing pastime as I’ve determinedly lugged wheels of Parmigiano Reggiano back from Italy and presented them to the nice man at customs. Tins of pate and terrine, spices, jam and chocolate. I’ve brought them all back from far flung destinations, proudly lining up in the “Something to Declare” cue and smiling sweetly at the customs man who sniffs, and attempts to read the French or Italian on the package and then finally lets me through with my gastro souvenirs. All except the duck confit. Two whopping tins of it, lugged in my hand baggage. I think I might have cried at the waste of it. The customs man patted my shoulder and said: “There, there.” I’ll never forget him.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Welcome to my blog

I hope you enjoy the columns I am posting on this site. I came up with the idea after I backed up my computer and saw I had about three years' worth sitting on my hard disc. I figured someone other than the Herald on Sunday readers might like to read them. If you don't that's fine because in reality I'm just trying to avoid writing my novel, like most writers who have blogs. I've tried baking bread (see next week's column) and my garden is flourishing. Tomorrow I start on my writer's regime as advised by Stephen King and will write a little every day. That should help. I have done chapters one and two which my 18-year-old daughter tells me are very good but advises that I concentrate on showing the story rather than telling it. I'm not sure where she gets these things from but it is age old advice especially for journalists trying to write fiction and I think I'll keep her on as my novel tester. If I am looking for even more distraction I may start posting my Agony Aunt columns for your amusement. Off to bake more bread.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

"Noticing Death" published September 16

An obsession with death notices is something most often found in the elderly. The sure knowledge that someone you knew has passed away before you is enough to keep old people scanning them daily. I’m not sure if this is a good feeling to have, knowing that you have been pre-deceased, or a bad feeling knowing that your circle of friends is growing ever increasingly smaller.
Being obsessed with death notices when you’re my age, on the other hand, is a simple case of nosiness. It started in my early years as a journalist when you were trained to read every inch of a paper in case something popped up of interest. Now you have shows like Fair Go and What Ever Happened To….to do that. But it’s a hard habit to break because you can tell a lot about a person from their death notice. And in my opinion you can never know too much about strangers.
Popularity is always an important consideration after someone dies. If they get a lot of notices, for many days then you can be assured they were well-liked. One lonely notice detailing the rest home they died in, a few relatives mostly deceased and an age of 94 and you can pretty much assume it was a fairly lonesome old passing.
Personality has only a slim chance of making itself heard in the death notice because it comes down to the nickname. “ Plonker,” “Big Boy,” and “Stinky” are all self-explanatory and impart a certain sense of fun. Likewise “Shrimp,” “Jiggles” and “Fats” require little interpretation although their owners would probably have preferred “Twelve Inch”, “Tits” or “Boulder Boy.”
Frustrating is the insistence on olde worlde language which tells us death notice sleuths absolutely nothing. Like sex and bowel movements, our language around death is required to be in code. No one dies; they pass away or pass on. Dead people are deceased, and they are always cherished or treasured.
“Passed away peacefully” is fair enough as it most likely means someone just died of natural causes at a very old age. But words such as “suddenly” and “unexpectedly” leave the reader hanging somewhat. Suicide or heart failure? We need to know. Car accident, violent stabbing, fishing trip gone wrong, alien abduction? Could someone not tell us the story about how Bob left early to go hunting with his best friend Steve, who then shot him thinking he was a deer. Now that’s a good death notice read on any given day.
Poetry is also encouraging in it’s effort to impart a little more information about a person although I’m now sure the one about God only taking the bes, makes a lot of sense, death being the non selective beast it is. Or the bit about the dead person being needed elsewhere. What for? Being a bank manager for dead people? It’s the amateur poetry not provided by the bible, but inspired by the grieving relatives which can be a little frustrating for its tendency to rhyme stay and away, joke and bloke, go and flow and Kevin and Heaven. I haven’t seen pissed and missed yet but I live in hope.
And of course lately you can have a picture too. I’ve previously written about the care which must be taken in leaving behind a suitable shot of ourselves when we were hot in our 20s to accompany our death notice, but one must now leave instructions as to the clip art you would like to go with your notice. Will it be the red rose outline or just the red rose? The dove and window or the baby angel and dove. Frustratingly none of these illustrations give the nosy parker any more relevant information about the deceased, apart from the fact that their relatives or funeral director like to add that special touch.
And occasionally there are strokes – sorry - of sheer brilliance for the obsessive death notice follower. Times when someone has penned something so gorgeous you sigh with appreciation, such as the great grandchildren who recently said they would miss the cookies and lemonade and the beautiful garden.
Now that’s more like it. If I had it my way death notices would be more like a collection of mini obituaries along the lines of my own…
Nissen, Wendyl, aged 98. Suddenly, outside SPQR, after a short battle with the footpath. In lieu of flowers champagne may be brought to what should be a very interesting party.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

"Irrational bad moods" published Sept 9

There just aren’t enough bad moods in the world any longer. It used to be that you could wake up hating the world and people would leave you be. They’d describe you as being a bit “under the weather” or having “got up on the wrong side of the bed.” They would work around you, leaving you to sort out whatever demons were fighting it out in your head, bring you cups of tea and wait patiently for the storm clouds to clear. Before the age of “feel good” radio, television and magazines it was okay to be a bit down. No one ever put their hands on their hips and said: “cheer up!” or “don’t you think it’s time you had closure?”
Today, when you start the day glaring at your nine-year-old daughter who hops into bed, grabs the newspaper and reads out the weather in Rome (23 degrees), Paris (23 degrees) and Mecca (43 degrees!!!), you are forced to feel guilty about your irrational bad mood. How could you possibly be irritated by your darling daughter reading to you as she does every morning? Perhaps it has something to do with her kicking you, dropping her toast crumbs, elbowing you into the corner and spilling your cup of tea. That exact sequence of events happens every morning and you don’t mind. Too bad. I just want to be grumpy for once.
The modern day requirement to be consistently cheerful is one I’m able to fill most of the time. I’m generally quite an upbeat, wine glass three quarters full type of person who likes to see the good in everyone and everything. Which makes it all the more special when a bad mood does strike. It’s new, it’s exciting and absorbing, like a wild affair with a very bad boy without the sex. But deep down you know it’s not right, so you have to find the reason for it, deal with it, and attempt to please everyone by getting happy again.
For women our first thought is PMT. And 90 percent of the time that’s the culprit especially if you’ve been dropping things and crying. If not, then something has happened that has annoyed you like realising all the Auckland mayoral candidates are ridiculous or someone at the newspaper you work for ran the same column you wrote two weeks in a row. Perhaps it’s the weather? Those relentlessly grey, wet days just will not end at this time of the year. And if it’s none of those things then one must come to the realisation that you are just being a self indulgent cantankerous old bag. And you have no choice but to embrace, indulge and enjoy.
As the day progresses you dismiss your adult children’s conversations with curt phrases such as “get over yourself,” “whatever” and “are you home for dinner?” You remind your husband that a) he already kissed you goodbye and no he can’t have another b) no you don’t want a foot massage and c) life does not revolve around what’s for dinner.
Then some old person rings up to talk to your husband about something and you yell at them because they got confused and had the audacity to say in a rather loud voice, as old people do: “Who are you? I don’t want you. You’re not the person I rang to talk to!” Later you hope like hell they didn’t hear the words “rude” and “prick” which accompanied the phone as it was thrown across the room.
Then you turn down a job just because you can. Not because you didn’t have the time, the ability or the inclination. You just felt like it. So there. Later your friend reminds you that you’ll never pay off the mortgage with that attitude. You hope like hell she’s forgiven you for using the words “rude” and “prick” in the same sentence.
And then it’s over. Just like that. Nothing a quick lunch and a few glasses of wine at SPQR can’t fix. Miraculously you rejoin the land of the contented as you find yourself complimenting your daughter’s outfit, laughing at your other daughter’s joke, singing to yourself as you cook dinner and giving your husband a kiss just because you felt like it.
And you realise that irrationally bad moods are possibly sent to us for a reason.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

"Diana a Decade of Dreariness" published Sept 2

I sense I was not alone in my need to groan with despair at the manufacturing of recycled grief as we remembered Princess Diana a decade after her dreary death.
Okay so the actual death wasn’t dreary, surrounded as it is with tales of a missing white Fiat, paparazzi chases, a mystery foetus, a supposed engagement, a jealous heart surgeon, MI5, CIA. Brilliant. When will they make the movie and will Hugh Grant be the love interest or the driver of the Fiat?
But what has always been dreary is Diana. She was a dreadful bore from the moment she emerged from the dodgy Spencer clan into the even dodgier royal family. She showed nothing but a crippling shyness and naivety which fuelled by the rigorous protocol and emotional coldness of her husband and in-laws swiftly blossomed into a maniacal attention seeking loo loo la la nutbar.
In the last few years of her life she spent much of it asking for privacy from the very media she courted with exclusive “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded” documentaries, secretly co-writing her own tell-all book which was described as the “longest divorce petition in history” and leaking stories to her preferred newspapers.
She was not the first celebrity to believe her own publicity but she was and still is the first celebrity to be crowned Queen of Media Manipulation.
She also managed to get a grip on her deplorable style. Who will ever forgive her for introducing knickerbockers let alone those dreadful drop-waisted Mother Hubbard dresses? And she made sure that the best photographers in the world took suitably gorgeous shots of her, for which the media are now eternally grateful as they all reprint that classic black and white Mario Testino shot over and over, year in and year out. Strange how we never see her in those demonic polka dot tents complete with ridiculous hats she got about in during the 80s anymore.
I never shed a tear for Diana, even though I knew her life intimately having sold thousands of magazines on the back of every story ever conceived about her. I just never really liked her because what’s to like?
While she moaned on about Charles and his relationship with Camilla, one had to wonder what part of British Royal History 101 she was reading before she signed up to the marriage? Did she not get the bit about mistresses and turning the other cheeks? I’m not saying its right, but no woman in her right mind would marry Charles or any royal for that matter and expect a conventional marriage. And while we’re at it let’s take a close look at just what she was doing with her fidelity while she was throwing up her dinner from the stress. She was hardly idle, choosing to entertain herself with such class acts as James Hewitt and other such bores in uniform.
Possibly the only thing you could like about the women was her way with kids. There was no doubting she loved her sons and could hug any old orphan in any old orphanage and mean it. But being a good mother is something 99 per cent of women do well, there are no medals available for that, it’s called instinct. And let’s just pause a moment and look back at how she treated William and Harry. If your children were being harassed by paparazzi because of wouldn’t you do something about it? Here’s a suggestion: retire from public life and stop jet setting around the world with dodgy billionaire’s sons. A quiet life in the country perhaps with some security help from her ex hubby’s staff. It might take a few years of fighting your addiction to fame but you’d still be alive for your sons.
Ten years on I think the rest of the world may be starting to catch up with me. Unlike the initial and astonishing outpouring of grief in Britain for Diana from a nation renowned for its emotional reserve and stiff upper lip her anniversary seems to have gone quietly past with no one having anything much more to say than “where is that white Fiat?” and “Gosh didn’t her death teach the Royal family something about being accessible to their public.”
Perhaps in 2007 we have other more pressing concerns to cry about and the media just aren’t doing their job. I haven’t heard a thing about Paris Hilton for weeks.