Saturday, 19 April 2014

The stuff of nightmares

So, I'm taking part in a sitting of the Geneva Convention (?), which is in session in a hall inside a shopping mall (??). 

I'm with my team from the pro-EU org I now work for, and our job is to debate persuasively against UKIP's Nigel Farage, who is sitting not far away with his team. We have several papers with killer arguments to present, although there is some confusion as to which will be debated in the hall (???).

All along the horse-shoe table at which we delegates sit there are little dishes of nibbles: nuts, olives and so on. I'm nervous so, true to type, I'm absent-mindedly stuffing my face. At one point Nigel Farage leans over and asks me to pass him some food. Disaster! I've hoovered everything within reach! Farage looks upset and like he's about to make a huge fuss. 

I scramble to my feet and offer to go and get something for him but there are no more nibbles anywhere I search in the hall. Soon I'm scouring the rest of the shopping mall for a bag of cheese puffs, pork scratchings, anything, like a woman possessed , while my colleagues ping me increasingly frantically on the mobile to say that our paper is up for discussion next, and where am I, and what are they to do? 

I return to the Convention Hall empty-handed to find out that we have missed the chance to present our paper and the UKIP team, which we were there to expose, have turned me into the story. 

So to recap: I've disgraced myself, let down my team and become the focus of attention at the Geneva Convention (the Geneva Convention, people!) for nibbling on Nigel Farage's nuts.

And then I wake up. 

It's a gloriously sunny morning (!) of the Easter bank holiday week-end (!!) and Mild mannered Intellectual Husband is snoring gently by my side (!!!). I have not screwed up and I am not disgraced. 

But I am giving up bar snacks forever, just in case.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

My new fuorescent yellow running shoes

My new fluerescent yellow running shoes have been startling a few squirrels in the park, let me tell you. Pigeons have scattered in alarm. Old ladies have been seen clutching their frail husbands' arm a little tighter, eyes wide open in alarm. Toddlers have stopped mid-wail, snot and saliva still dripping from their beetroot-red faces, and stared in utter fascination.

I'm a little embarassed by all the attention, to say the least. As I came home from my first run in them this afternoon I was so flustered I assumed the presence of two fire engines and an ambulance in the middle of my square was somewhat connected with the shoes. It was quite a relief, in the circumstances, to be told about the ammonia leak at n28. 

You see, I'm not the sort of runner who delights in the feel of the wind in her hair, while she zips past the rest of humanity, her high-tech brightly coloured gear ablaze against the pale blur of the world. I'm the other kind, the fat and middle aged kind, forever re-building her strenght, breath and resistence after yet another epidode of back pain or knee trouble, hungover and lassitude pemitting. The weight I was hoping to lose I now just lug around, philosophically. I take the weight for a run as it were - and it enjoys it, mind - but it leaves me breathless, sore and half dead.The last thing I need is people, and small woodland creatures, pointing and staring.

My ideal running clothes would be black, sleek, spandexed and unassuming. The same goes for the shoes. The problem is, I am forever unwilling to spend money on sleek black running gear until I lose the weight, and the shoes, well, they do not come in black, ever.  Today in the shop my only choice (among the models that would accommodate my bulky orthotics insoles) were a pair featuring the colour and design of something Barbie might have vomited after an amphetamine overdose, and the flurescent pair I ended up buying.

Running shoes for non-clowning adults belong to the ever expanding category of goods for which, pace the rules of capitalism 101, a gap in the market persists despite the robust and often desperate demand:

Edible gluten-free bread;

Edible gluten-free anything;

Night clothes suitable for environments other than a Playboy shoot or a nursery;

Nice shoes of any kind with a bit of a heel in which it's actually possible to walk;

News analisys programmes on TV (not just made-for-radio discos made up of bloated right-wing journalists interviewing each other)....

I've run out of thoughts for now. What's on your list?

Monday, 31 March 2014

Europe: pub landlords and a desperate dearth of carrots

Can you make people love Europe? The question immediately generates two more: Which people? What Europe? There are many answers and therefore no real, safe, surefire, mathematical solution to this riddle. 

But if your aim is for people to develop an intense dislike for it, coupled with episodes of catatonic ennui about the whole matter, then congratulations to both the pro and anti-EU camps for collaborating so effectively towards this goal. 

Two pieces I read recently,  about the somewhat mirroring challenges of the EU and Scottish independence referendums, highlight the dilemmas at play. 

Ruth Wishart argues, in my view very persuasively, in The Observer that the faltering Better Together campaign needs to find some carrots to go with the sticks. Threatening people with the uncertainty of some unspecified horrific apocalypse if they ever leave only works so far and is never as attractive as showing them that it is really in their interest to stay because the future can be bright and exciting inside the Union. As one person commented on the thread below the piece :"A campaign slogan of 'you're too wee, too poor and too stupid to cope' never had much going for it in the empathy stake."

Which gets me to Chris Huhne's Guardian piece,  full of interesting polling data but so strident in tone it made my teeth hurt. I share Huhne's premise, summed up in the title: Ukip are the party 'of a better yesterday', of undeliverable promises based on a rose tinted narrative of a past that will never return and was actually not so great in the first place. But sneering at 'insecurity and nostalgia' won't do the second part of the trick: offer a vision of a better tomorrow inside the EU for the people who feel left behind.

To get through to potential UKIP voters I think it is essential to turn a common saying upside down.  Play the man by all means: Nigel Farage is a big boy, he can take and is well overdue some ribbing, some not-so-gentle reminding of the intellectual dishonesty of his party and its elected representatives. Just think of their rhetorical despairing of the EU budget while drinking deeply from its trough, their colour-by-number manifestos, their purporting to stand up for everyday folks against big business provided they are not women and/or low paid workers or in fact anyone who doesn't run a pub whilst chain-smoking, basically. Play the man, as I say, but never, ever kick his potential electorate like a ball - too poor and dumb and uneducated to know what's good for them. This is not just horribly patronising but self-defeating too.

Sticks only work so far, particularly with the safety and familiarity of the idea of the nation state pulling the other way, the comforting illusion that your leaders can get back to being 'in charge' as if the world and all its challenges and structures weren't  global anyway. You need the carrot of a vision of Europe that is worth partaking in. It's tricky because there are many different, often contrasting reasons why Europe has created real value for businesses, more freedom and a better quality of life for its citizens and - at times, though not so much recently - a sense of purpose.

Here, for what it is worth, is why I grew to love Europe, warts and all, idiotic bureaucracy and some disastrous decisions notwithstanding. It starts with my father.

As a small boy, who had to flee the industrial town of Leghorn at the height of the war to seek refuge in the Sienna countryside, my father saw the dusty tanks of the defeated German troops file past his village one way and jubilant (and often marauding) Allies contingents come up the other way. The need to stop European countries ever going to war with each other is as ingrained in him as the love of sweets, which American soldiers apparently lavished on him on accounts of his unbelievably cuteness.

When I left Genoa University in 1989 to finish my studies in Edinburgh, safe in the knowledge that by 1992 my degree would be recognised throughout the then EEC, I didn't need complex graphs and charts to explain to me why a single market of goods, people, capitals and services, work in progress though it was and- incredibly - still is, was a good idea.

And after a few short years of undrinkable coffee and dodgy salad cream I noticed with relish that Italy had followed me up there: not in the shape of hordes of unwashed immigrant zombies but in the ready availability of every conceivable culinary ingredient, brand of clothing, and even the odd, wildly optimistic given the as yet un-integrated weather, Vespa scooter. Brits, not just the posh, well travelled ones, could have a little taste of the Mediterranean life.

In those first few years if I was ever nostalgic for  'home' I really had to conjure it up, Proustian style, at the bottom of a coffee cup. Flights were punishingly expensive and I could barely afford to fly back once or twice a year - casual mini-breaks in Rome or Madrid really would have seemed the stuff of science fiction. But they didn't come up with better planes, you see, just a better market for the industry to evolve in through genuine competition.

I am proud of the fact that we Europeans, a collection of peoples who have exchanged ideas and  knowledge, created art and beaten the shit out of each other for millennia can calmly establish, through the rules of access to the Single Market, and with not a cannon in sight, that we want our products safe, of a high standard and not made through slave labour or at the expense of ecological disaster.

Later on in life I, and any of my British neighbors who may wish to, will be free (as things stand) to retire back in Italy, safe in the knowledge that the local health service will look after me, despite my not ever having paid a penny towards it.

Finally, as a woman, I can think of fewer worse fates than having Farage and his braying chums in charge or able to influence any policies at all, at home or internationally, as my chances of becoming a chain-smoking pub landlord, unconcerned with maternity leave, anti-trafficking laws and all that - what do they call it? - red tape, are vanishingly small.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Npower, I salute you....

From the desk of Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband

Letter to Gareth Pickles, Customer Services Director, Npower
Dear Goreth Packles,

Thank you for you illoterate litter of 15th March, shown on the left, in which you congratulate yourself for having learned how to spell my wife’s name.  
It’s really, really impressive it only took her 20 minutes on the phone to teach one of your staff to do to this.

However, the effect is somewhat spoiled by the fact that in the same letter you manage to misspell my name, twice, in entertainingly inconsistent ways.

Evidently Npower has decided it’s no longer enough to fleece its customers.  Now it’s essential to actively troll them in their own homes for that extra special personal touch.
Gireth, I salute you.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Tom Runnacles (that’s RUNNACLES)

Friday, 14 March 2014

Great news: I love you!

Dear Mild Mannered Intellectual Husband, 

it has come to my attention that, as of tomorrow, we will have been blissfully and legally happy for 6 years.

To reward your loyalty to our joint enterprise I'm sending you a 'My hot wife loves me' coupon, for you to redeem in a variety of male conversations about hot chicks.

I trust you'll enjoy your coupon and will keep loving me for many long years to come.

Your Hot Wife

PS:  Before you start, no the picture *does not* make you look like a giant green slug.
And anyway, it's a good picture of me, which is the whole point of the voucher.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Happiness: daffodils and fire engines.

I wanted to share this sudden insight I had last night about the human condition, before: 

1) I realise how meaningless it possibly is or,

2) that it only applies to my human condition or worse,

3) before some confused, elderly Ukip reader stumbles upon this blog by mistake and unmasks me as not 'proper human, just Italian'.

I came back home from a long, complex, unresolved kind of a day, deep in thought about how unable I have been for some time to see my way through whatever the next stage if my life is.

On my doorstep I found this:

I immediately recognised it as a gift from my next door neighbour, for whom I had done a minuscule favour but at a time of slight crisis. The drawing is by her son, whose repertoire of fire engines is truly inexhaustible.

My heart opened up, totally involuntarily, like a mouth in a yawn, and I though: the ability to feel happiness - give or take dramatic events such wars and family deaths- must be part optimism, part the ability to accept consolation.

That's all I wanted to say. I warned you it was probably silly.


Wednesday, 12 February 2014

This Facebook Life

Do your FB postings reflect your life? I bet they do not. Take me: I spent the last week sullenly applying for yet more jobs and battling a flare-up of back pain with floor exercises (but mainly with food, if I'm honest). But you wouldn't know by looking at my FB output, which has been the usual placid stream of editorials about the EU or feminist articles I've linked to, polite comments on friends pages, maybe a shared cartoon or other visual joke or two.

I'm writing about this because I have noticed a number of friends posting prefab little films about their own 'Facebook story'. The first I came across was vaguely moving: oh, look at so and so ten years ago; yep, I remember the wedding, oh and that was the photo we took in Paris etc, all accompanied by some vaguely soulful muzak.

By the fourth such advertorial it seemed clear that FB is not just using its own customers to advertise itself but is offering this as a service to them. It's selling them back their last decade as a mathematical algorithm, which is all FB think we all are. I don't fault them for trying, I fault us for falling for this Coca-Cola ad version of our own lives, which we have not even curated ourselves.

So back to the initial question. FB has lulled us into the illusion that we could document our lives through it, through the sharing of stuff, of photos and gags and links and likes with a greater and greater, more and more amorphous community of friends. Well, kind of. These fragments of ours aren't a coherent and honest narrative of us, aren't us.

We are still deeply human despite the changing digital landscape we move in; we remain fleshy and encumbered and slow and un-insightful. We haven't caught up with Fb, we're still lagging behind, unable to optimise. Despite FB's near messianic arrival ten years ago, praise be the Internet Gods, we have carried on living life as a first draft: we do not know, will never know what the life-changing events are until after,often long after they have happened. We do continue to make sense of our lives in retrospect, in dreams, in memories, in desires, in a gazillion ways and means that are not documentable, shareable, curate-able, scrapbookable, especially  by computers. 

As for my last ten years, it was meeting my husband, not marrying him, that changed my life, and no picture exist of the first event whereas the second is extensively documented. It wasn't the leaving do that mattered, jolly pictures notwithstanding, but the decision to leave the BBC. There's a gazillion missing pictures of, and shared jokes and meals between, my sister and me, because the last ten years we have continued to be mostly absences in each other's life. And do not get me started about the books I haven't written, and the ones still in drawers somewhere.

FB wouldn't know about that. For it we all exist on the same digital plain where time is always now, geographical distance is meaningless and the existence of FB itself is the biggest feature of the last decade of our lives.

Nice try. Close, damn close, but no cigar. And frankly they could have chosen less irritating, if vaguely soulful, muzak.