Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sleeping with fishes

I am short on entertainment for you, having barely moved from this chair for five days. I will however try to scrape the barrel as best I can.

1. The ongoing fishpocalypse (I reckon I'm over halfway, after four and a half days work without interruption and a newfound intimacy with individual transferable fishing quota rights that I never imagined, or indeed aspired to) means that I have not been able to cook, clean, wash, or purchase food, let alone luxuriate in such frivolities as hoovering, paying bills and brushing my teeth. I am wearing Gap jeans circa 1998 from the bottom of the washing basket, a moth eaten jumper and a hoodie covered in mud and dog hair. I have developed a dowager's hump and a permanent scowl and spoken to noone but canines. My waking dreams are all of deep tissue massage, salt scrubs, spas, teams of industrial cleaners and fresh, nourishing food. My nighttime dreams, such as they are (Bob's ceaseless nocturnal vigilance against the forces of insurgency, or dust, continues), are all of hake.

2. "Bob" the covert ops dog seems to have developed stress related alopecia. My whole kitchen floor, indeed, all my floors, are covered in clumps of long, coarse black dog hair. It is a charming development. Perhaps I will have to give him back bald? I would imagine this might lead to me being terminated in a no fuss, professional hit. Frankly, if the fishpocalypse, and Bob's incessant barking, go on much longer, I will be begging for exactly that.

3. I have whined extensively to my dearest and dearest about both elements of my current predicament. Their suggestions are not entirely practical.

B suggested I should organise an illegal caged fight between the two dogs and open a book on it. Then, he thought, he and I could give up our respective careers and concentrate on illegal pet sports betting. This is not as good as some of his previous ideas for our alternative careers, such as cat couture (but not cat shoemaking "I'm usually too drunk for that cobbling shit"), or a petting zoo in my back yard full of creepy animals ("like goats. I love those calmly evil motherfuckers"), only because no-one would pay to watch my bag of bones and a bearded sausage shamble around looking haunted and failing to draw blood. When things got really tense, they might jostle for the best spot for lying down and falling asleep.

H has decided I should write a series of spy books with dogs as the main characters. SpyDogz will be the next big thing, she assures me, but unless I am hallucinating, I am fairly sure I saw Mission Impossible remade with guinea pigs at Christmas, so I think the train has already left on the anthropomorphised pet espionage stories.

M just sings "Les poi SSONS!" from the Little Mermaid to me, repeatedly.

Since I have never seen the Little Mermaid I had no idea what on earth she was talking about. Sometimes she mixes it up by telling me how incomprehensible my translation will be. "Like it was written by monkeys!" She is correct.

F thinks that my whole predicament is probably the fish taking their revenge after the fish pedicure. "You'll wake up with a severed tuna head in your bed tomorrow", she predicted sagely. "The fish, they do not forget".

The CFO just laughed uncontrollably when he saw me with "Bob" and asked whether I wanted a lead for one of the tortoises too. He updated me fully on tortoise health issues when I saw him earlier today. They are all "in" for the winter. One of them is having difficulty maintaining weight. One has an eye problem. I felt like a racehorse owner talking to the head groom, though I was not allowed to look at the tort spreadsheet. He has not seen the hedgehog babies since that first encounter. I do hope this will not become a sad story.

I have to go. The fish cannot wait another minute. Oh! I have promised the return of the Confessional, so get preparing your sins. I think we might reopen on Friday. I bet you've been bad.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Special Ops (Fish Branch)

Veteran readers (to whom my apologies for many, many things) may remember a confession, from the days of the Confessional, involving my complicity in the disposal of a small number of live tropical fish - the Pontypines - in a not entirely humane way. I think my current predicament is karmic retribution for that dark day. I am embroiled in a terrifyingly lengthy translation exercise on a fish related topic. INTO French. Every time I fumble my way through a paragraph of Fmsy (that's something to do with yield, fish fans), and stochastic stock projection, it seems that seven hundred more take its place, like a hideous DG Maritime Affairs and Fisheries sponsored hydra. I spent the whole day on it yesterday and I am still only at the bottom of page 4 (of 60). By mid-afternoon I was hallucinating hake. By six I had started on the sloe gin. How are you supposed to drink sloe gin? I was going for "neat, in full tumblers, fast". Penury is a difficult business, forcing you into unspeakable acts.

So. The rest of my natural life will be consumed with halting, bureaucratic piscine French. Serves me right. I am also translating to the melodious accompaniment of my house guest "Bob".

I say "Bob" because that might not be his real name. "Bob" is a classified dog. His owner (my neighbour) is not merely evasive, but positively secretive, both about where he is going, and when, if ever, he will return. That information is disseminated on a need to know basis, and I do not. "Bob" is similarly shrouded in secrecy. I think I might have been duped into providing a safe house for him. "For all we know" mused M "that dog is a terrorist". He is certainly very loud and spent much of the night barking at insurgents. Or possibly dust. "Bob"'s owner disappeared into the night after dropping him off last night, asking me, intensely as he stood on the threshold:

"Emma, I am going to ask you a question and I want you to think about your answer. What would you do JUST AFTER you had killed a man?"

(he's in IT, I believe)

This keeps distracting me from the fish. What would I do? Flap about ineffectually, I expect. Maybe try and do something with kitchen roll? Kitchen roll usually helps. I sort of hope that if the situation arises whilst "Bob" is in my custody, he will know what to do. He seems a relatively greedy little chap, so maybe he could dispose of the body. The whole things sounds .. exhausting though. I don't think I missed my vocation in not becoming an assassin.

I must return to the fish. If anything happens to me .. well. I have no idea. But there are five spare kitchen rolls in the basement should you need them.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Bono and the Belgian Constitutional Crisis

I woke up with a certainty I had to convey something vital to M about Ispahans (the mythic Pierre Hermé cake). It has been troubling me all day. Oh! I just remembered. It was that Chanel Rouge Coco Mademoiselle lipstick smells and tastes like Ispahan and possibly this is why we like it. I should have started a blog post earlier, clearly.

I am glad that is out of the way. I was reminded by eating half a Kinder bar that had been knocking around in the sediment at the bottom of my handbag with a bottle of Serge Lutens Sa Majesté La Rose perfume, creating something akin to what a team of poorly trained monkeys might come up with when presented with the ingredients for a rose flavoured piece of confectionery and an unlimited supply of methamphetamine. Anyway, now M is moving to Singapore (with flagrant disregard for my wellbeing) I believe that means that ALL the Ispahans in Europe are now mine. Just saying.

Where is this all going? I have absolutely no idea. Stick with me, I'm fragile tonight. A large dog peed on me in the park this evening. This is the second time in two years, and I am concerned that now that two dogs have peed on me I am to all intents and purposes a lamppost and must ready myself for being peed on all the time for territorial marking reasons. Apart from that my sense of fun has been swallowed up by various tentacles of the swirling, year long apocalypse that is 2010 (yes, tentacles can swallow), but I have a great deal of leftover confectionery from my daytrip to London and I am too tired to trouble you for long. It's all going to be ok.

News from Brussels is as follows:

Belgium is no closer to having a government than it was when the elections were held in June. We still have the fat idiot and the dapper little man in the bow tie. The fat idiot is busying himself writing polemics about the Walloon record on wartime collaboration, with particularly reference to cartoon authors (very Belgian, this). The one with the bow tie .. actually, where is he? I haven't heard from him for a few days. I reckon the fat one has eaten him. The king looks quietly furious whenever he is spotted in public, as well he might.

In other news, Bono is in Brussels tonight, as U2 are performing. Joy. The Stade Roi Baudoin will be echoing to the sounds of his self-important shouting. I could probably hear him from here if my fridge were not having some kind of seizure. The combination of this, and our absence of a government fills me with terror. Particular since Tony Blair has recently reinforced all Bono's delusions with his puzzling assertion that "Bono .. could have been a president or prime minister standing on his head". You can see my concern. We're talking about a man with a frustrated vocation here. And a handy snack sized country. A starter country for a man of Bono's boundless ambition.

I feel absolutely sure that if anyone happens, inadvertently, to mention to him that Belgium has been without a government for approximately three years, being the helpful messianic megalomaniac he is, he will offer to step in and bring peace to our conflict torn nation. I just know it's going to happen. I know it deep in the heart of my being, Bono is going to be the next Belgian Prime Minister. Bono, of course, will not let a small thing like linguistic divisions stand in the way of rock n roll government. Maybe we will have a new dreary pomp rock anthem to replace La Brabançonne? The Atomium will be covered with lasers and video screens. The Manneken Pis will be forced to wear fuckwitted visor style sunglasses. We are all doomed. DOOMED I TELL YOU. I suppose it will give Africa a break from his attentions at least? And frankly, with its colonial history, Belgium owes Africa that much.

A better solution, surely, would be to send Bart de Wever down to the Roi Baudoin stadium tonight to eat Bono in a tidy and workmanlike fashion. The whole country will be united in a common purpose, francophones and flems alike willing him on as he drinks Bono's spinal fluid with a genièvre/jenever chaser. The celebrations at our deliverance from Prime Minister Bono will be unprecedented and a thousand year reign of peace and prosperity will settle on the Kingdom of Belgiana.

But hang on. Does that mean Bono DID solve the Belgian constitutional crisis?

Saturday, 18 September 2010


So many serious, long posts recently. I think it's because I can't just BUY stuff any more and must instead allow my brain to gnaw at the bald patches in my fur, in the immortal words of Antonia.

So. Light and fluffy. Conveniently, I went to London yesterday, to stare like a halfwit at the bright, shiny things. This was not the purpose of my visit as declared to HM Immigration, obviously, but the work thing I went for lasted all of 40 minutes so I was able to do a good amount of halfwit staring.

Halfwit staring conclusions:

1. Camden has not changed at all in fifteen years, has it? Probably longer, but that's the last time I used to go there regularly (to Sainsburys. Not to the market. The last time I went THERE regularly I was fourteen). Does it have some kind of English Heritage preservation order on it which means that the drug dealers and punks are paid a stipend to lurk around the tube station providing edgy local colour? Christ, it's ugly. I have no issue with the wider borough, just, you know, the High Street. Ick.

2. Liberty's peerlessly beautiful underwear room has been shrunken to about 6 shelves of Princesse Tam Tam and Stella McCartney, neither of whom has much truck with a DD. I am saddened. Not only was this the site of one of my favourite 'sleb spots - Piers Morgan ostentatiously buying saucy women's underpinnings and looking tremendously pleased about it - but it had some really really beautiful stuff and large comfortable changing rooms with lovely wallpaper. Now, half of that side room is taken up by those severe Japanese shroud garments with massive sleeves made of boiled felt, favoured by contemporary gallery owners and people who teach at Goldsmiths. The Japanese assymetric shroud market is apparently recession proof. There's gold in them there Cork Street contemporary art galleries!

3. I had to buy the new Kate Atkinson. "Had". The staff of Foyles were not holding a gun to my head. Their tiny weak girlish wrists would not be very good at that. But I was, nevertheless compelled to. This will be filed under "reasons why my economy drive continues to suck". A hardback, no less. Fie, fie.

4. These Gap Modern Bootleg things. I think they might be massively unflattering. Obviously I can't have thought that when I got them, but I think there was a colossal error of judgment at work. The material has a whiff of the drip-dry polycotton about it. They aren't quite occupational therapist's work trouser material, like some of the other new Gap black trousers, but they are definitely suspect. The shape is .. ok. I suppose. I seem to have got out of the habit of trousers, or perhaps more accurately, I am not the convenient trouser shape I once was. I'm actually fairly scrawny at the moment - the nervous vomiting thing is making sure of it - but I'm just the wrong shape. Anyway, my Gap Modern Bootlegs compound their various crimes by having a defective fly. Which is always nice, particularly as you saunter around your neighbourhood greeting acquaintances and trying to look put together and on top of things, as opposed to crushed by the weight of things and put out with the bin bags (a look I master effortlessly), then realise that you are showing them your (cheap, greying) pants. No-one needs to see my pants. Full stop. Especially now that both Liberty's underwear department and my bank balance are shadows of their former self.

So I came back from London with Kate Atkinson, a pile of cheap chocolate and two rather charming wind up bats from M&S, had a lucky escape with a taxi driver whose mastery of the rules of the road and sense of direction was worse even than mine, and today we have done nothing, but nothing. All slightly under the weather, and after some pretty ferociously bad behaviour mid-week from all three of us, we have rentrenched and spent the day eating toast and chocolate mini rolls and largely ignoring each other. Lashes has watched endless Japanese tv ("this is the BEST day of my LIFE" he said histrionically at about 6 this evening, from under a duvet on the sofa, blank eyed cartoon characters bellowing at him, legs crossed and a bottle of cheap orange squash held in one limp, exhausted, hand. He looks like I imagine Lytton Strachey would have looked if he had been born in 2002 with an inordinate fondness for Pokémon; a bit fey, and disapproving). I fell asleep on Fingers's bed whilst trying to build some Lego monstrosity after one of those mildly OCD fits of trying to rationalise the toys ('No! The Hot Wheels go in the BLUE box!', as all around me red bills and crumpled clothes collect in drifting heaps, and the pervasive smell of drains is not remotely masked with cheap belgo-air freshener. Priorities, see). Fingers wore no pants and spent most of the day in the bath or tormenting the dog.

It was brilliant and we now feel a warm glow of affection towards each other, even going so far as to manage a walk to the park this evening without moaning, violence, or recriminations. But where do we go from here? I fear the future may consist of us all wandering round the house in varying states of undress (me displaying my pants through my defective Gap flies to the horror of the neighbours), eating processed crap straight from the packet with our filthy claws and communicating only in a series of grunts, interspersed with gestures of wordless aggression when our territory is invaded. The Pope would be delighted.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Un tour de manège

There's a manège up the road at the moment; we stopped to look at it for a while today, but the boys didn't want a go. They went for the pêche aux canards instead (hook ten plastic ducks and win a piece of tat), and then Fingers couldn't choose what he wanted as a prize and I got snappy. It's been that kind of day; fractious, discordant. I looked back at the manège as I herded them away, grumbling, late for a doctor's appointment for Lashes (searingly awful, incidentally), a little wistfully. Manège is one of those words I only really know in French. I used to say 'roundabout' in English - as in the Magic Roundabout - but I think merry-go-round might be more accurate. Or is it a carousel? Every manège I see in Belgium (except these beauties, of course) is the same; a hydraulic spider with ten or twelve gaudily coloured vehicles at the end of its legs, one of which might ascend jerkily skywards some small number of feet, if the button happens to be working. Fat, coloured bulbs flashing along the full length of each limb, and on the struts supporting the canopy that covers the riders. A low studded metal platform surrounding it, a supremely bored man or woman in a booth, amplified generic pop music, a few plastic chairs scattered around the perimeter for parents. They spring up now and then in the neighbourhood, when there's a brocante, or a fair, or an r in the month.

They're getting a bit big for the full manège experience now, my boys. They'll watch, appraisingly, eyes narrowed, especially if there are things that go up in the air or have some other kind of bells and whistles. You can see the struggle in their eyes, if it's a good one. Can I still? Maybe they'll allow themselves if it's butch enough, or if there's a pompom. Le pompom is a mangy piece of cloth, or ancient soft toy on the end of a rope, dangled by a stonily indifferent teenage boy. If he lowers it above you and you manage to grab it, you get a free turn. It requires decent reflexes and a moment's inattention from the teenager. If there's a pompom, surely it's still ok to have a go if you're 8, wonders Lashes, indecision hovering, visible around his brow line.

I want to urge them, thrust tickets into their hands, though of course that would make no difference; they're too old to be bounced into enjoying themselves against their will. Of course you can go on the bloody manège, I want to tell them. Go! Good god, enjoy your two minutes of .. what? I don't know, can't remember, it's been too long since I tried it myself. It seems such a sedate thrill to the observer, uncomfortably wedged into one of those flimsy plastic spectators' chairs, but it still draws them in, just, for now. The ritual of buying your token, watching as the previous riders slow, your eyes fixed on the seat - the only one you want - willing it to stop near you, the single-minded dash, musical chairs style, to take your place as it finally stops. The wait, surprisingly long at times, token in hand, strapped on, or in, for your turn to start. They look extraordinarily serious at this point, children on manèges. Such concentration. It always seemed an odd, grave, sort of enjoyment, seen from the outside; riders tend not to laugh or smile. Bar the odd screamer, face crumpling in terror or distress for whom the manège would be brought to a premature halt, the whole business is conducted in silence. I wave, cheerily, show I am still watching, am still there. It's sometimes greeted with a serious nod of acknowledgment, sometimes not.

I have been standing by manèges for, what, nearly seven years now I suppose. It started in Paris. Paris was a solitary succession of manèges and cake shops; me, a pushchair, and a baby strapped to my chest. The Parc Monceau, almost daily, a swift, no frills number forever associated for me with darkening October or November skies, night falling around that squat green roofed structure, illuminated yellow and and red. It's always dark in my memory, the park is emptying and if we are lucky, the manège is still open, lights visible through the thinning autumn trees. A couple of muffled figures standing by the green railings watch their charges, similarly muffled, for heaven help the Parisian child who goes out without coat, scarf, mittens on the mildest autumn day. For months on end, I would watch Lashes, aged 2, revolve, face set in a mask of concentration, in whatever car, or fire engine, or motorbike, had caught his eye that day. I remember his bright yellow Petit Bateau cirée, remember the awkwardness of manoeuvring a toddler into his chosen spot with a truculent baby attached to my front, remember those couple of minutes of, not peace exactly, but respite, maybe. Standing shoulder to shoulder with other solitary, unspeaking parents, grandparents, nannies. It was the place where Fingers - aged 10 months, or so, first accompanied his brother on a manege, wedged in his plump toddler arms, initially sceptical, finally smiling.

There were others, of course. The manège at the end of the Rue de Lévis street market, where it meets Boulevard de Courcelles, which I recall as having a certain eighties retro splendour, with a canopy for poor weather and some outlandish Night Rider style cars. The Jardins d'Acclimatation (the place I first encountered the pom-pom phenomenon), which is a whole succession of low-tech rides, including the famous petits chevaux that process in a stately fashion around a wide loop of scrubby grassland in the Bois de Boulogne. I would find the hot pink plastic tokens in my pockets, or in the corners of handbags, for years after we left. I could probably tell you fairly accurately where I could still find a couple in the CFO's house. There was the manège at the foot of the Eiffel tower with proper painted horses, which you can watch turn from the top, then go back down and have a go yourself, staring back up at that gigantic pylon. I did that with Lashes on our only Christmas in Paris, setting off in the pale sun of a wintry morning, striking out across the city yet again, desperate to do something memorable. During the same week I remember watching a freak snowstorm through the plate glass windows of the Cité des Enfants, and coming out to a sudden white-out, building a tiny snowman in the shadow of that big shiny ball, the Géode. Tiny snatches of joy in a bleak year. The Jardin des Plantes manège was small but brilliant, with giant turtles and dinosaurs to ride on. Square des Batignolles, beautifully old fashioned, usually shrouded in green tarpaulins you could peep under; occasionally, thrillingly open (it's the one in the picture up the top).

Such big parts of my life spent watching as the revolutions gather momentum, watching for their faces to spin past, waving. How many more tours de manège, how many chances to use up those plastic tokens? I might have a few more months, as much as a year perhaps, if I'm lucky. I'd like it to last a bit longer. It's such an easy way to say 'I want you to be happy, I want you to do this thing that pleases you, and I will stand and watch and wait'. I'll need to find other ways, but for now, I think all three of us could do with a few last spins.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Drill 3

Continued blog radio silence, sorry. Mainly I have been skittering along in the trenches of parenting this week, one forgotten gym kit, pustule draining appointment, pool of dog sick at a time. We schlep backwards and forwards from school in a shambolic procession, the dog weaving its lead around our legs, Lashes bashing into elderly ladies and me wearing unforgiving spike heels and carrying both the cartables of muscular-skeletal degeneration. School bags must weigh in excess of a metric tonne otherwise they just fail you automatically, I think. The whole schoolbag thing is a plot by European physiotherapists and orthopaedic surgeons to generate work. I do not own scales in order to do the traditional French tv exercise of weighing the school bags, but I can assure you that each one is fully two weepettes.

The sticky backed plastic film is all finished but there are still new and inexplicable challenges and many of them, distressingly, are maths related. We are labouring under the yoke of the attractively named "Drill 3" at the moment.

I imagine the title refers to some esoteric corporal punishment inflicted on you for having misshapen 6s. I can't imagine why they look so cheery in their train. Maybe they have escaped Robald's clutches. The station is smiling. Unspeakably sordid, I tell you.

"Why" I ask Lashes for the nine thousandth time "Do we have to use a mouth shape to do relatively simple additions? What is the mouth shape FOR? I don't understand"

He just shrugs, dismissively and makes strange hieroglyphic notations on the page in inky, spidery blotches. He does not care, much. I am unable to establish whether they are right or wrong. My rôle seems to be to assist his self-esteem by demonstrating that he is far better at Drill 3 than I am. This I can manage. Just when I think I am grasping the complexities of the single mouth - it appears to be a method for making adding any two numbers take vastly longer than you could imagine - Drill 3 goes all fancy and hits us up with a TRIPLE MOUTH:

The tortoise does well to stand by its abacus. Troisième primaire is shaping up to be a rollercoaster of parental incompetence. I find myself thinking wistfully of the Steiner school in York where you could spend a whole academic year making one candle. I also find myself thinking wistfully of gin.

This illustration on page 15 of Drill 3 pretty much says it all, I feel.

As we grapple with the Mouths of Impenetrability, Fingers sits peacefully in the corner, obsessively copying out lines of zeros and ones, like he has just invented binary. When he is particularly pleased with one of his efforts he sits back and surveys it, Bic 4 couleurs, etiquetté au nom de l'enfant poised above the paper.

"Celui-là, il est bien" he says, without false modesty, pointing at a particularly sinuously curved 2. "J'aime bien les 2".

It would be fair to say he is finding primary school everything he dreamed and more. His pencil case is immaculate, he does not forget where he has left his coat and I have rarely seen him vibrate with such contentment at the utter rightness of everything. At bedtime he requests a pencil and insists on writing his name several times in spidery, old lady handwriting, mouth open, tongue protruding ever so slightly, before he can sleep, curled in a neat ball.

Lashes may find the whole business more, well, frustrating, but at least he and I have been having frat boy style fun with his dilating eye drops. Before anyone gets exercised about that, I promise it was strictly above board and required by both the handwriting gorgon and the opthamologist. If we were going to do something risky and irresponsible, I would at least choose something with FIRE. Or steal a penguin.

We did enjoy it though.

"Wooooaaaah tes pupilles! Go and look in the mirror!"

"Non, take a picture!"

I showed this picture to my friend H, who said "He looks like he spent 1972 up a tree in Windsor Great Park". Indeed.

I have left you too long without news of Robald. He is on holiday, from where this idyllic picture of a Belgian seaside holiday comes.

I mainly liked this picture for the aspirational man demonstrating the correct use of a handdoek, met sigaret, but learning that a seagull is a Meeuw is an added bonus. Meow indeed.

Friday, 10 September 2010

On being 20, and very stupid

My life seems oddly resistant to being written about at the moment. I sit down and .. no. Nothing.

There was a really lovely piece about Cambridge by Patrick Barkham in the Guardian this week, though. I went to Oxford, not Cambridge, but much of what he described was very familiar, how alien it all seemed, the beauty and the grandeur and the oddity, the brash groups of public schoolboys radiating entitlement, the freaks, the pockets of normality. Then I read an interview in Vogue with Rebecca Hall on the train talking about how she had forged intensely intimate and lasting friendships when she was at Cambridge. They were wound, she said, into the fabric of her life. Many - most, even - of my friends feel the same about their university years.

I wasn't happy at Oxford. I still feel viscerally uncomfortable going back there, the sun catching some ancient piece of honey stone, a chilly autumn morning with flotillas of bikes bowling along the High Street, those improbably perfect lawns, leave a hard stone of sadness in my chest. I remember it as one of the hardest and loneliest times of my life and it's strange because I can see now, could even see then, that there was much I should have absolutely loved about it. The company of clever, funny people; the extraordinary history of the place, the tolerance, encouragement even, of eccentricity, the peerless resources for finding out about pretty much anything you could wish. Why didn't it work? What went wrong?

I always used to attribute that to being in a long distance relationship. I was disappearing every weekend to take the ferry to Normandy, or to pick the CFO up from Heathrow, queueing for hours in the evenings to squabble on a public phone in a corridor with him (ah, youth of today, you will never know the peculiar brand of homicidal despair that sets in as you queue behind some garrulous girl with an extended family and a seemingly inexhaustible phonecard, or the strange frustration of watching your credit tick away as you both sulk, silently, absurdly, on either end of an international line). He was insecure about me, I was defensive and frustrated, we were miserable. We fought constantly, cried, hurt each other. Then from the end of my first year, I was ill, bald, shell-shocked, making trips to the hospital in London and to the shrink, taking drugs I couldn't drink with, drugs that made me fat. In my third year, the CFO got skin cancer and needed surgery. It was, unquestionably, tricky. I have often, glibly, credited my degree to Prozac, and I do think I would not have survived, succeeded, without it.

Recently, though, I have come to the realisation that I might not have managed to be happy there even if circumstances had been different. And, though there is much you could criticise in Oxford, I think now that my unhappiness was largely my own fault. Quite simply, I didn't have a propensity for happiness then. I wasn't even trying to be happy, or content. I wanted to be interesting, exotic, different. My model of relationships was based on 37, 2°, my model of higher education The Secret History. I was, to put it mildly, an idiot. I feel rather sad, and even more exasperated, when I think of my younger self. I put a lot of time and energy into looking chic and aloof - all Agnès b and Gauloises, French boyfriend, car, frequent absences - and none into being content, or making friends. It seems so sad, in retrospect, such a waste. I can count on the fingers of one hand the parties I went to in three years. Imagine! Little surprise, then, that I made few friends, or that even fewer have survived. I wouldn't have wanted to be friends with my 21 year old self. I was wary, defensive and sad; risk averse and no fun whatsoever.

God knows, it was a peculiar place though, brittle and unforgiving in parts; a place of terrible food, non-existent pastoral care and intellectual machismo, of four flights of stairs to the nearest loo and feeding the college vegan "Champignons à la grècque" (aka a small finger bowl of shrunken, brined mushrooms, like something from one of Ramses II's smaller organ jars) four times a week for three years. I had some spectacularly unsympathetic tutors, one of whom still haunts my dreams occasionally. I just looked her up and could not suppress a shudder at the photograph. "X is keen on introducing undergraduates to medieval and early modern history" says her biography, blandly. Well, yes. If by "introducing", you mean "inducing a profound phobia of all things medieval into a generation of unsuspecting youths, using a combination of scorn and arbitrary terror". I only rebelled once in her tutorial, refusing to read an essay, mutinous and tearful, but it was talked of in hushed tones by my contemporaries for the remainder of our course. Others were a pure delight, urbane and funny and kind as well as breathtakingly clever - Ruth Harris I completely adored, Martin Conway, Leslie Mitchell. Brilliant was more or less a given (with the exception of a couple of retirement candidates for whom the college system operated as subisdised sheltered housing), but kindness was far rarer and more precious.

It was odd, too, to be in a place where people fought over books, hid them, scrambled for attention. To be among people who were not only clever, but who made no attempt to hide it, to dissimulate, to pretend not to care, should have been a wonderful thing, but I found it alarming. "Hard work was fetishised" says the Guardian piece. It was, I think, at my college too, and I didn't know how to deal with that. Join in? That didn't quite fit with the idiotic persona I was so intent on constructing, but I was too beadily competitive not to want to do well. My first year was a terrifying scramble, always too late for the critical textbook, or the vital article that could only be found in some far flung basement library in Summertown, and my second passed in a fog of tricyclic antidepressants, swimming through treacle to go and sit, dreamily, in the history faculty library as the dense print of journal articles on the cabinets of Queen Anne jiggled around on the page in front of me. I was not as good as I knew I could be, should be, and it scared me. In my final year only - thanks, as I say, to the power of Prozac - I think I got some clarity and focus back, studied things that actually fascinated me, regained a degree of mental agility, found some intellectual confidence. I wrote about non-conformism in the eighteenth century, about fin de siècle, about the art and literature of collaboration, found an outlet for my galloping francophilia.

But even then I had a tiny, dull, life. I remember watching other people covetously, enviously, as I sat in libraries or walked through college, fascinated by their rhythms, the comings and goings of their friends, their bags of crisps and cans of Coke, riotous laughter, stories of parties or punting. I made watery porridge in the microwave every morning at 7 while I took my shower, worked all day, breaking for something small and virtuous to eat, came back to my prettily decorated and desperately quiet room, prepared myself minutely calibrated meals of vegetables which I wrote down in immaculate writing for my shrink, called the CFO, read a novel, slept early and long, wore earplugs on weekends for the inevitable noise of festivities. It was a half life, a quarter life, a terrible waste.

So. I went to Oxford and I got a great degree. I think I earned it; I worked and thought hard for it. But at the same time I missed out fundamentally, wretchedly, stupidly in my years there. Meeting people now who have forged something far warmer and more lasting than a piece of paper from their time at university makes me terribly wistful. I try terribly hard now not to repeat that particular brand of idiocy. I found a photograph of my pretty final year room recently. I came fairly high in the ballot, which allows you to choose your room, and mine was large, and light. The photo shows my bookshelves, carefully chosen mugs, a Nabis exhibition poster, Keith Vaughan pencil sketch, a bunch of crimson parrot tulips, a tiny kilim, a pretty bedspread. All outwardly lovely. But looking at it I remember how utterly lonely that room was too. I think I'll pin the photo up somewhere to remind me to embrace the chaos and live a little.

Did anyone else mess up their university years as badly as me? Best years of your life, or utter ratshit? I'd love to hear.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Animal oddments

Wow, it's been a while. I started writing an explanation of why, but even that was monstrously tedious and I will spare you. It was just variations on: anxious/sick/dull/confidential-but-not-in-a-fun-way. I did try and do a post yesterday (oh dear, that's a bit like when someone says 'I was going to buy you flowers, but then I didn't'). I even looked through 100 pages of Kiss & Rides for some tiny Belgo-gems, but they were a poor selection. I sort of liked this one:

I want to reassure the charming lady with brown hair who got on the 7h28 Mons - Liege and fell into a state of musical autism thanks to her white earphones: I didn't want to steal your bag. But I would have liked to steal a smile to survive the Toussaint climate.

But it was hardly a classic on a par with these (which I realise now I only related at Tall Tales, and never here. There is another Tall Tales on 30 September at which I will be performing something minute and yet to be decided. If anyone would like to come, follow that link up there.):

Slimming in Five Lessons

We met on the line from Mouscron to Brussels. You had a beard, and you were reading”Slimming in 5 Lessons” and I fell for you instantly. I hope to see you tomorrow in the same carriage. Now I believe love at first sigh really exists.

Nos Vieux Jours

To the gentleman who helped me change the wheel of my wheelchair in the train from Mons to Brussels that was taking me back to the Good Old Days retirement home, I will never forget how robust you were, or your pleasant chuckling. I’m impatient to hear from you. Raymonde.

See, those were proper ads.

I am concerned at this decline in Kiss & Ride standards, but I hope it's just a rentrée lull and the poetry of transport longing will be back soon.

Apart from that, well. We went to the Scary Bat Caves again and a flying fox peed on me. I wasn't too upset, because at the time, I was feeding a grape to an actual bat. Straight into its actual daintily fanged mouth. It was strangely thrilling and felt a little dangerous, even though, really, it's just a mouse with wings, no? But a definite frisson (why yes, it doesn't take much, you are quite correct). Even more excitingly, the Scary Bat Caves (not their real name) have a new attraction which is a bunch of snakes FREE RANGE in a room mocked up to look, supposedly, like an American barn (it was most certainly not like a British barn since it was missing: leaking barrels of diesel, rusting farm machinery, dead birds and a rancid mountain of wool, like so). You move sacks of grain, and sticks and bits of cloth and underneath there are real live snakes that you can poke. We were the only ones in there, in a silent, dimly lit room and it was amazing. We found three snakes and I only had to remove them from the children's pockets a couple of times. If you ever happen to be in the arse end of Belgium, lost somewhere between the 98th field of identical beige cows on your 900th kilometre of identical flat, featureless arable farmland, I recommend it wholeheartedly. (Incidentally, if on your 900th kilometre of identical, flat, featureless arable farmland, you get a bad feeling that you may be heading towards, say, Poland, can I also recommend you turn around, rather than, thinking, optimistically, that you will "find a way back". No need to thank me).

Then there was the annual fête/jumble sale in the park and the dog ran amok in a tai-kwondo demonstration and wore an empty churros cone on its nose for much of the day. The children spent approximately 4 minutely concentrated hours trying to choose which heaps of broken tat to spend €5 on. The despair set in mid-afternoon on my side when they alighted on a giant box of, essentially, discarded and broken Happy Meal and Kinder Egg toys all competitively priced at 2 - TWO! - centimes each. Even with my poor grasp of maths, I could calculate that that would mean a fuckload (technical measure used by HM Customs & Excise) of worthless rubbish coming home with us, and thus it proved. I will be surreptitiously disposing of plastic rubble for the rest of my natural life now. I was getting a head start on Sunday when the children rang in a state of squealing high excitement. "Eeeeeeeeeeeh" it went.

E: What is it?

F/L: Eeeeeeeeeeeeh.

E: What? Tell me.

F/L: Ben maman, when we tried to move the hérisson nest it went squeeeeeeee.

E: Maybe it didn't want its nest moved? Like when you use Oscar's ears as a steering wheel.

F/L: Naaaoooon tu ne comprends rien, it wasn't the maman hérisson. At first we thought it was her legs because we hadn't seen her legs before but it wasn't!

E: Hang on .. are you saying?

F/L: BABIES!!!!!!!

E: No!

F/L: Si!

E: No!

F/L: Si!

etc etc etc. This is most surprising as no-one knew the hérisson was even female, let alone pregnant. We are most certainly not allowed to "dérange" the babies, in case the maman eats them, but if and when there is any prospect of baby hedgehog pictures I will of course provide.

Yes. It's all go round here as long as you are some species of lower mammal (debatable, I think of myself as more closely akin to a hermit crab). I am going to London tomorrow for a couple of days so I will try to dredge something shiny from that to relate. Ideally shiny and without fur.

Friday, 3 September 2010

13 keyword questions answered

The keyword searches are getting out of hand. I need to sort some of them out. Many keyword searchers appear to mistake me for either a veterinary surgeon or an etiquette guide. The remainder have blue genitals, I am not going to deal with those ones, there isn't enough latex in all of Brussels.

1. Is it wrong to look at naked women?

No. It is not. Unless you are hiding in their gardens and peering in through their windows as they emerge from the shower, holding a massive telephoto lens in your sweaty claws. Then it is wrong. Is that all clear now?

2. Are okapis fertile?

Really? What kind of a fucking question IS that? I mean. Think, keyword person. If the okapi exists, then it must have had parents who were also okapis. Thus, at least some okapis are fertile, yes. Also, I have met an okapi baby, which is presumably what brought you, fruitlessly, here, looking for the answer to your profoundly stupid question. I do hope you aren't a zoology student.

3. Corkscrew tail Scottish terrier back problems?

Why yes. If you attach a corkscrew to a Scottish terrier's tail, I can see that it might lead to back problems for the poor creature. If you are absolutely insistent, can I suggest you choose a basic waiter's friend, rather than one of those things shaped like a fish from the Conran Shop?

4. Why are my triops not moving?

Ok, I have two suggestions, and brace yourself, one of them is actually SERIOUS. Firstly, they are probably dead, you idiot. However, and this is based on my actual experience with actual Triops (and wasn't THAT a regrettable period in my life), Triops actually shed their old skin. Maybe what you are looking at is an old Triops exoskeleton? Whilst the lithe, new, shiny Triops is over there being dismembered by one of its companions, because the little fuckers are cannibals, oh yeah.

5. Unicorn eating chicory

No. I think you have been misinformed. Unicorns eat sunlight and drink Elemis Supersoak. I should know, I run a unicorn stud in my other life, the one where things went a little better and I don't have to spend Friday nights picking sweetcorn out of the kilim and discovering new and ever more alarming places where the dog has been sick.

6. Zombies eating chicory

Yeah, that figures. I reckon Robald enjoys a nice witloof too.

7. Tarantula juggling

You know, I could be persuaded. They're quite cuddly and probably quite slow, so good for learner jugglers. Though of course I disapprove of juggling. It is but a short step to poi. Hey, tarantula poi! Put a tarantula in a sock and swing it around near your genitals. I'd pay to see that.

8. Cat performance beard

See me after class.

9. How to make a night fury cake?

I've thought hard about this one, but I think the actual answer is that almost all my cakes are night fury cakes. Take 1 imminent school fête, 500g perfectionism, 500g intense competitive instinct, 750g misplaced ambition, 1kg of incompetence, 1 defective oven manufactured circa 1978, and houseful of edible glitter. Forget to buy any eggs. Voilà.

10. What to wear to a Havisham party?

Oh, you know. Tears, decay, dust, trampled dreams and a rotting wedding dress. There's probably a Facebook group with handy hints. Bring me along next time, I'll fit right in.

11. Yellow dragon uncensored

No thank you. Pre-watershed PG certificate yellow dragons only for me, thanks.

12. Lotion roofies

And what do you do with that, exactly? Sneak up to some one in a bar and start surreptitiously MOISTURING them? You have not thought this through sufficiently. I am going to have to fail you.

13. Awesome mustache flying waffle

Whoever you are, I think I want to catch you, and keep you in my basement. Do you have a girlfriend?

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Gulag Redux

They're back. The salt mines have finally reopened. I have taken the official Gulag portrait:




I'm quite surprised by how little they have changed, actually. They look slightly sombre on the official portrait, but I can assure you it was business as usual.

They were probably just tired, because we got up at six to go and see the hedgehog. The hedgehog was not cooperative, but in recognition of our efforts, the CFO donned his motorcycle gloves to wake it up for us. It was totally worth the early start.

It looked how I feel, getting up at 6am. Dishevelled, disorientated, and on a fast track back to bed.

In some arcane Gulag ceremony, Fingers was required to line up in the hall and walk, to parental applause from the maternelle (gulag lite, soup at 11am, pickaxes provided) to the primaire (full metal gulag, 18 hour day with a half hour lunchbreak mucking out on the collective farm, but you can choose your own 11am snack). This is the end of his carefree infancy in the company of Mario and Luigi, we will be doing handwriting practice until our pencils are soaked in blood. His brother came home this lunchtime (YES. The first day of school lasted a magnificent THREE WHOLE HOURS) having been to his first Dutch lesson. He pulled a French face of indifference.

"C'est exactement comme l'anglais". Pout. Shrug. I am looking forward to us learning an exciting new language together, hem hem.

I note that the Dutch textbook features an alarming bearded man taking two small children .. somewhere.

I would discourage my child in the strongest terms from going anywhere with Robald. I mean, look at him. At best, he's going to make you play non-competitive games featuring co-operating tribes in a forest somewhere. At worst .. well. I bet he has a geetar and knows several chords for 'Little Boxes'. The whole thing is, in the words of Molesworth, unspeakably sordid*.

(*He is describing the French textbook. "There is another character called papa rat. He is always eating cheese. He loves cheese. Mama rat loves cheese too. They hav ten little rats who love cheese. In fact, the whole business is unspeakably sordid")

I must go and wrestle with the self-adhesive book covering torture that is my life for the next few days. It is day one. I have covered 7 books with all the skill of an epileptic dog and a light smattering of anglo-saxon vocabulary. I apparently owe the school TWO HUNDRED AND TWENTY EUROS for a coach trip to stare at some dust and a month's worth of chicon braisé and boulettes. It's going to be a long, long year.