Friday, 31 August 2007

Rubbing salt in it

Francis is supposed to be absorbing brand profiles when his phone rings and Posh Headhunter, whose love affair with Francis was less a one-night stand that a five minute wonder, bounces on to the line.

"HI!!!" she squeaks, in a voice radiating such an exhausting mixture of joy, delight,surprise and warmth that Francis contemplates having a short lie-down underneath his desk. "LONGTIMENOSPEAK!!"

That the fact they've not spoken is due entirely to her having failed to return a single one of Francis' calls appears to have escaped her notice.

"Anyway," she continues, abandoning the capital letters in favour of something less exhausting. "I'm not ringing with a job offer."

She makes it sound like the best news going. "Well, thank goodness for that," says Francis.

"The thing is," she says. "I'm actually trying to get hold of Derek. I believe you used to work with him. The thing is, we've got this really exciting opportunity in advanced adhesives, and I think it would suit him down to the ground. He's obviously a very dedicated man. He sent us this amazingly passionate e-mail. Wow! Was I impressed!"

The upshot is that she can't get through to him. Would Francis, she wonders, be able to ring him at home and pass on a message to get in touch with her ASAP?

"I can't tell you what a pleasure that would be," says Francis, with absolute truth.

Awesome is as awesome does

Allow me to take you into the secret world of a top awesome blogger. Then weep. Thank God Virginia Woolf and I never overlapped. The seminal book, "A shit-heap of my own," that might have arisen as a result of the encounter would probably not have resonated to the same extent within the literary world. But, there again, the whole dismal process of tidying up my desk might have taken her mind off suicide.

I'm surrounded by precious objects that bring inspiration in their wake. Or MRSA, listeria, and salmonella. Both, possibly, on a good day.

To my left is the metal bowl I've been vowing to chuck for the past decade. Embellished with what look like random patches of rust - largely because they are, in fact, random patches of rust - it contains three cherry pips and two, pathetic grape stalks which, in their exhausted and fruitless state provide an accurate representation of my current levels of inspiration. Or just show that tidying up is not, as the headhunters would say, among my core competencies.

Straight ahead, nestling in a hand-crafted pile of dust, is a small pile of empty cookie cases. I never make cookies and have no idea how they got here, though I suspect they may have clambered under the computer monitor for warmth.

A small wooden train mounts a calculator, in a way that could be described as suggestive only if you hadn't been getting out much.

And finally, my trusty mouse, still lighting up but with a lack of enthusiasm that suggests that the emotional connection has been broken. Or that I've let its little batteries go flat again.

Anyway, Mya, thanks so much for the award. I'm thrilled. Awesome. By God, yes. It oozes from every pore.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Learning the lingo: communicating in headhunterese

Francis' ex-colleague is having another go at making Francis fit for purpose, with the second in his 'how to get the job you actually want' series.

The colleague has been for an interview with a large company that makes things that stick (of the adhesive, rather than rumour variety, as I understand it).

The fact that he's been recommended for the job by Francis appears to have no bearing on his keenness to demonstrate to Francis just how candidate headhunter relationships should be tackled.

Francis has headed off to his new office to try the job out for size (worn at the edges, too short in the self-esteem department, no allowance for growth) and forwards his e-mail to me, with only a couple of dozen exclamation marks by way of comment.

'Dear Skipper' it begins - did I mention he refers to Francis as 'Skipper'. I put it down to the dead albatross he will carry around, although it's beginning to smell.

'Just a few typos but thought you might enjoy post-tele-con interview follow up e-mail'

'Dear Derek,

'Hi. Wow. Good to talk with you. Exciting. I look forward to meeting both yourself and Greg. (Careful, chuck, you don't want to peak too early).

'How does my experience sound? (Phwoaarrr....)

'4 years working in adhesive tapes (He says nothing about the five years it took him to unstick his way out again).

'Both experience sets with demonstrable brand building experience (Well, of course it does. You what?)

'Successful 3 retailer full range acquisition of full DIY tapes range (Oh, those old 3-retailer acquisitions. Bad Lindy's done lots - often all at the same time).

He finishes by highlighting some of his key qualities which he lists as Passion, dedication & an interest in Stationery.

I phone Francis, who sounds guarded but not actively miserable.

"Is this seriously what you need to say to get a really good job?"

"I don't know," says Francis, "But if it is, no wonder I've ended up here."

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Keeping score

All about us, top executives, refreshed from their holidays and sporting just a dash of bronze tan - not so much Greek God as lightly grilled organic steak - are springing into their top of the range executive cars, ready to take on the world and every sales target it can throw at them.

Francis, in contrast, is reluctantly packing his briefcase as he prepares to start the low-paid, low-status job from which there is no escape bar death - or, of course, redundancy, assuming of course that he hasn't exceeded the government limit for farewell lunches in any calendar year.

He polishes his oldish but still serviceable car, keeping a just audible and slightly depressed tally of the rust spots that are erupting through the paintwork like a motorised version of teen acne.

"It must be puberty," I say, brightly, bringing him a cup of coffee as he rubs away at let another blemish on the bonnet, hoping against hope that it will turn out to be a bug smear.

It's not just the work. Francis, once again, has been trying his hand at growing vegetables, a prime example of hope over experience if ever there was one. Our colony of Kung fu slugs, which last year demolished four courgette plants, spikes and all, with barely a belch between them, is now in search of more exciting gourmet eating experiences and has settled on Francis's pumpkin plants.

These started off in a cold frame. The slugs bunked down under the wooden supports and charged up the stems as night fell. He moved the plants on top of the cold frame. The slugs acquired binoculars and moved with them.

Now the pumpkins are four feet up, perched precariously on the sloping roof of the wood shed. Joining them for capuccino and brunch early this morning was a fine, brown slug.

"How do they do it?" asks Francis, in despair.

"I reckon they've got a lookout who shins up a tree and blows a whistle to the others when he spots them," I say.

When Bad Lindy phones to unveil her Secret Weapon in the Colin/Ra saga, he is less than receptive.

"There's some sort of screeching and a lot of swearing," he says. "Must be for you."

"I have got the best ring tones," shrieks Bad Lindy "You gotta listen. If these don't show Wagner for the musical retard he is, I'll eat -"

"It's all right," I say hastily, "I'll use my imagination."

"I reckon just one of these will blow those two apart like dynamite on a fish farm. Hang on, I'll turn the volume up."

There's a pause, then:

"Don't move, you're surrounded by armed bastards," fills the air.

"It's from 'Life on Mars'" says Lindy. "Isn't it brilliant?"

"Keep going," I say.

"OK," she says. "This is Alan Partidge."

Another pause, then "I am hung like a donkey," bores into my eardrums.

"Not sure," I say. "In their current mood, it might just encourage them. And it doesn't really accessorise terribly well with 'The ride of the Valkyrie'."

"What about this, then?"

I jump back two feet.

"Pick up the f***** phone, you c****," yells an aggressive voice.

"Artistic, subtle, very you - but what are you going to do with it?" I ask.

"Colin doesn't know it yet," says Bad Lindy, "But he's about to get a state of the art phone. Just in time for the concert."

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Performance nerve

"Offered: two clown dolls. One with a scary laugh, the other with china head," reads Vicky, over my shoulder, as I delete Freecycle messages. "Sounds like Bad Lindy and me. Or a souvenir edition of the Spice Girls. And there I was hoping for Charlie's Angels."

Vicky and I are trying discover a way of acquiring tickets to the Wagner concert that Colin and Ra will be attending. Bad Lindy, who can survive in a woman-only atmosphere for a maximum of 30 minutes before requiring an emergency giblet infusion has gone to investigate an interesting-looking hole in the road which comes accessorised with a full set of even more interesting-looking workmen.

"I thought you were aiming to turn us into a sort of rapid response emotional task force," says Vicky. "It's more like a headless chicken brigade. And I'm getting bored."

She looks out of the window on to the road. "Oh, the first one's is missing his shirt. And he's fighting Bad Lindy for control. And....oh, I don't think she should have done that. I'd better let her in."

Bad Lindy appears, breathless and triumphant, clutching a T-shirt. "I always love the souvenirs," she says. "Look, are you getting this flaming concert sorted, or not?"

"It's a sell out," I say, gloomily.

"Why can't I just talk to Ra, anyway? Say on a dark night, just her, me, the moonlight and a couple of incriminating texts that I threaten to tell Tom about. That would do it."

"It's too risky. I think she'd just tell you to go ahead."

"Can you get hold of texts?" I ask, temporarily diverted. Lindy looks modestly downwards. "There's nothing like getting to know a really good fixer. I'll tell you about it sometime. Incidentally, he can arrange tickets, now I come to think of it."

We restrain ourselves from giving her a good slap only by thinking about hard she'd be likely to slap us back.

Two minutes later, she snaps her phone shut.

"Sorted. But I'm afraid he can only get hold of one ticket. Says the punter won't be able to make it. Apparently, he'll be very ill that evening. Shame, really."

"Don't even ask," Vicky mouths at me. "That's fine. You can go in, show Colin in his true colours and we'll wait outside."

"How much of his true colours do you want to show?" asks Lindy. "It's a concert hall, not a butcher's."

"No giblets," says Vicky, firmly.

"Probably just as well," says Lindy. "Well, a girl's got to draw the line somewhere."

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Gourmet holiday highlights from my in-box

Holiday tips: "Whatever you do, pack lots of concealer in different shades so you can blend to create the perfect one for your face as your skin tans."

From Megadik: "My friend told me you always wanted to be a pornstar. Now you can!"

From Freecycle*: "Offered - an unusual ex-shop display clothes rail. When fully opened it resembles a swastika if seen from above - making it a must-have for all collectors of nazi memorabilia with storage issues........"

*So I'm obsessed.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Bad Lindy - siding with the angels

"Do you think the NSPCC would back a campaign to reward infanticide with cash prizes?" says Vicky, wearily, looking round her kitchen, which appears to have been ransacked by troupe of of small, not very bright but incredibly well-armed mercenaries who are just honing their pillaging skills. "Just wait for Christmas. I'm going to franchise King Herod grottos with henchman helpers instead of elves. Think it'll catch on?"

Given all those advertisements that encourage you to text a number if you believe in children, but say nothing about what to do if you don't, I think this is unlikely, and say so.

There's the sound of footsteps followed by a muffled thud.

"Checking giblets on phone, didn't see step again," translates Vicky, raising her voice above the swearing. She lets Bad Lindy in, just in time to stop her dispensing with the tired old convention of opening the door and instead coming straight through the wood, cartoon fashion.

Bad Lindy stumbles to a chair, still clutching her phone. "God, he's gorgeous," she says. "Look at this."

"Who is he, and which bits are on display?" asks Vicky.

Bad Lindy looks as hurt as it's possible to get with lips slathered in so much Motherpucker Lip Gloss that they're not so much bee stung as savaged by several nests of hornets. "He's a fireman, Vicky, and he's in uniform." She takes another look. "Well, at least, half of him is."

"No, thank you," we chorus, righteously, pulling our eyes away from the phone screen.

We get down to the real topic of conversation - Cultured Mum and Colin - and the unlikely nomination of Bad Lindy, queen of bad behaviour, as champion of fidelity, marriage, and traditional values. There's only one problem. It's not a role she wants to take on.

"You've got to be joking," she says. "Why should I care what she gets up to? She's a snotty cow, anyway."

This is all true. And Ra's habit - she puts it down to nerves rather than innate pretention - of answering questions with questions or, on very bad days, of coming up with a mot juste, prefaced with, "As Flaubert put it......." is singularly annoying.

But the thought of living with Ra's interminable agonising about her emotional turmoil for days, weeks or months, in any language at all, is almost unbearable. And there's a practical dimension. Emotional destruction is catching. We've all experienced the pack of cards effect that one failed marriage can have, creating a wake that takes every other fragile relationship with it, too.

"Everyone's allowed the occasional flirtation," says Vicky. "But never with anyone called Colin. And falling in love is absolutely not on. If she goes, so will all the rest. Before you know it the place'll be stuffed with private detectives and court orders."

"Divorce just means more choice for the rest of us," says Bad Lindy. "Can't a bad thing."

We look at her.

"Oh, all right," she says. "What am I supposed to be doing, anyway? And what do I get out of it?"

"Well," says Vicky. "You know that really nice plumber I wouldn't let you near because I wanted to get the central heating sorted out?"

"Yes.." says Bad Lindy.

"Well, he's coming back in two week's time to sort out a problem with the timer. And I'm prepared to let you know when. If you do the business for us first."

"And what does that involve?"

"Well," I say. "Been listening to any Wagner recently?"

Thursday, 23 August 2007

A came of scruples

"I've got a text," says Cultured Mum.

"Oh no," I say. "Look, if it's a giblet picture, I can explain. It's all Bad Lindy's fault. Nothing to do with me -"

"Giblets?" says Cultured Mum. "Why would Bad Lindy send me pictures of giblets without the recipe? And it's months till Christmas"

"Why, indeed?" I agree, heartily. "So what's this text, then."

She shows me.

"This is fast turning into a came of scruples. C."

"A came of scruples?" I ask. "What's that? Some advanced musical expression?"

"I think Colin must mean 'game'. I've only just introduced him to texting and his fingers are so muscular from all that crumhorn practice that he has difficulty pressing the right letters. Anyway, what do I write back?"

"I've got no idea. How about suggesting a game of football? Then we could all come and watch."

She looks at me for a moment as if stunned by the brutal realisation that such enormous levels of insensitivity can be packed into a perfectly average body.

"This is my life we're talking about,"

In a way, it's reassuring to discover that Cultured Mum is relying on those same well-worn cliches that the rest of us have been picking over for years. It's also intensely depressing.

"Colin isn't your life," I say. "Tom and the children are your life. Think of Colin as an interlude. Heard once then totally forgotten."

"Or the theme music to a completely new series."

This is worse than I thought. I can only think of one person who might be able to save their marriage. That's assuming I can bear to meddle, which I usually can't.

"He's the most devoted son, you know. He lives with his mother."

Right, that's it. The final straw.

That evening, I get out my phone and send a text to Bad Lindy.

Ignition sequence has commenced.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Off to get gut instinct serviced

It's been a bit hit and miss ever since I had a dodgy premonition a couple of months back.

Back August 22nd.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

No manners? Your child may be Danish

Worried about your child's lack of manners? In particular, worried that your child's lack of manners reflect badly on your own manners/your husbands, nanny's or childminder's manners?

Worry no longer. There may be simple explanation.

Have you ever considered the possibility that, unknown to you, your child may simply be Danish?

The Danes have many admirable qualities. They are fearless and punctual to a fault, but - and here's the nub - they have no word for please. None at all. Even the concept of saying 'please' is unknown.

At a pinch, they can rev up the manners express and get it up to a "Would you pass the butter?" delivered in tones of utmost courtesy. But there's no place for a please.

The acid test is to toast your child in Shnapps. If he raises his glass, looks into your eyes and says, 'Skol,' it's the clincher.

Try it. And, with any luck, you need never feel guilty again.

PS If he drains his glass, refills it, urinates against a wall, falls down in a drunken stupor and is served an asbo while having his stomach pumped out, I'm afraid there's no doubt he's British.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Sparky stories from John the electrician (part 2)

John may be an electrician, but his speciality is crowd dispersal. At the first rumble of thunder, rooms clear and planes take off empty. Stand next to him, and there's a good chance that you could be electrocuted, drowned or in freefall at 20,000 feet. And that's just for starters.

In his twenty-year career John, who's 40, has:

- Been struck by lightning. At the time, he was at a school - mending the lightning conductors

- Been trapped in church basement for four hours after his workmates forgot he was there and locked the trapdoor. He'd have been there over the weekend, but for his mum, who rang his boss to find out why he hadn't turned up for his tea

- Caused a major explosion in an over-heated office when the fuse board he was mending went up in flames. The cause - one drop of his own sweat that fell on a live wire just as he was making the final connection.

- Discovered somebody hanging from the joist he'd was just attaching a cable to. He cut him down, called an ambulance - and the man recovered.

You'd think no sensible woman would touch him with a rubber-insulated bargepole. But John is happily married - despite the fact that on his honeymoon flight, the plane lost both engines and plummeted 15,000 feet before starting up again - seconds before it would have spun into a crash.

John is probably be the unluckiest electrician in the country.

But he's also the luckiest - because he's definitely married to the bravest woman.

Friday, 17 August 2007

The unluckiest - or luckiest - electrician in the country

Story One: The workshop

John, the electrician has been doing a bit of work for us (mending the devil-shaped hole in the anti-Bad Lindy fence, if you want to know the details - it's never worked yet but I find the false sense of security oddly reassuring).

This, as word for word as my hasty notes on scraps of paper can make them, is the first of his stories.

"I was called by this couple to install an outside light on a workshop they'd built in their garden. I did the job and didn't hear back from them for two years. Then the wife called and said one of the lights had gone on the workshop and would I fix it.

"I arrived on a pitch black winter's evening, and it was snowing. I walked out to the shed, carrying my toolbox, tried to turn the light on 'cause I couldn't see anything, and of course it didn't work.

"I took five steps forward into the darkness. Then I'm going down, falling. You'd think I'd have let go of my toolbox but I carried on holding it, like I was in a cartoon, and dropped straight into six feet of water.

"I managed to get out and the woman found me, brought me in and gave me a cup of tea. She hadn't thought to tell me they'd had a swimming pool built, but still called the place 'The workshop'.

"'You were lucky,' she said. I said, 'Why?' She said, 'We were going to have it emptied yesterday.'

"Then her husband came back and found me wrapped in his towel. I said, 'Don't even start.'"

Thursday, 16 August 2007

More sub-texts

Bad Lindy: 'Honestly - phone reception round here is rubbish. Only place I got signal was in the middle of Padstow Bay - and I had to fight off all these bloody dolphins first.'

Vicky: 'Just got weird call. i said hello and this man's voice said who is this? is it vicky? i said yes, he said is it vicky gonzales. i said no and he said oh, wrong number and hung up. i know its lindy passing my fone number out again. but why 'gonzales?' dont i suffer enough?'

Cultured Mum: As Marcel Proust puts it: 'Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them.'

'He must have met Lindy,' says Vicky, after I forward Cultured Mum's text to her.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

A trip on my Freecycle

One of the unusual features of marriage is the way it breeds strongly oppositional points of difference about the most trivial of subjects. They spring fully formed into conversations, enabling you to argue violently in favour of, say, grapefruit rearing, Bolivian egg production or shoulder pads - all subjects on which, as far you know, you had absolutely no views at all until your partner happens to dismiss them with an offhand reference in a way that you find deeply and unexpectedly irritating

Freecycle is just such a topic.

"Look," I say. "Candle wax pellets!"

"What are candle wax pellets?" asks Francis.

"I dunno. Something you get from candles you've never got round to house training? Or what about this? Cuddly toys from a hoardtastic toddler."

"What are you planning?" says Francis. "A make your own fire hazard party? Or a new line in toecovers? I can see the advertising now," he says, sketching a headline in the air. 'Get a wax-coated cuddly toy for Christmas. They're like a Barbour, only useless'."

"Oh, come on," I say. "It's only Freecycle."

Francis rolls his eyes up and goes back to cross-referencing his job applications by interview tie colour. Or something.

I regard Freecycle as a cross between legitimate voyeurism and a 24/7 jumble sale, only without the inconvenience of small talk or draughty church halls. Francis sees it as the latest weapon in my long term campaign to fill the house with tat and see if it topples over once it reaches roof level.

He will never understand what he's missing.

“We found a small dead thing in our shed (too far gone to be sure what it was). This spurred us on to clear out the shed…..” begins a recent Freecycle post, which goes on to offer ''A garden spade, fairly narrow blade, good for digging a small deep hole.......". They'd know this, presumably, because they've just dug one for the small, dead shed thing and buried it.

You get a lot of back stories with Freecycle. It’s all part of the charm. In recent weeks, we've been offered a cot ‘which has been slightly gnawed' (hamsters? babies? a mother sick of bedtime and out of Twiglets?) and a large cream rug which, the owners assure us, is 'woven not tufty' something that might have a significant bearing on its desirability given the fact that it also has 'some stainswhich might come out with washing/dry cleaning - but might not.' Any takers? No? Thought not.

There's no item, however intimate, that people aren't ready to advertise. 'Huge bag of sanitary towels?' Why not. Just think laterally - anyone past the menopause will find them fantastically useful when it comes to organising those last minute games of emergency blind man's buff without a handy scarf. Oh, just use your imagination.

I love Freecycle. In addition to satisfying my raging inner mean, penny-pinching cow, it also makes me feel morally invigorated. It's like an internet version of sale of the century, only one that stretches into eternity, piles of stuff spinning round on an endless virtual carousel, there for the taking.

The touching fondness for their possessions is also noticeable. Who, after all, could resist, “the quality 2.5 seater sofa, too good for the dump, manufactured by upholsterer with a Royal Warrant.”

Not me, for sure. Which is why it’s now adorning our sitting room….Together with the fire basket – OK, it’s a bit rusty, but a good clean up will get it as good as new in no time at all - the recorders, recorder music and miniature scores.........

No wonder Francis is suspending my membership. But we've done a fair bit of giving away things, too, I argue. What about the babyseat, books, glasses, stepladder - all in splendid new homes.

"Nobody wanted the stepladder," he says. "And you had to do a twenty mile round trip to deliver the glasses. That's hardly saving the planet. Think of the fuel consumption."

"That's only because the man who wanted them was over 80, couldn't walk and would have had to take three buses to get here."

He looks round at the firebasket which has the uncanny ability to shed its own weight in rust every day without any significant change in appearance.

"You're obsessed," he says.

"I'm not," I say. But I'm not sure I really believe it.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

String 'em up.

Each year, thousands of parents deliberately encourage small children to pick up a flimsy construction of two thin layers of wood joined together with glue and more wood and held with just one hand. On it are four pieces of wire, each tightened to high tension levels, capable of giving way at any moment.

As if that weren't enough to contend with, they then stuff a sharpened stick into the child's other hand and encourage him (or her) to move it to and fro, business end just at face level. (Style editor's note: Why not add a real eyeball to the ensemble for added fun and authenticity?)

There's a screw which, if turned in the wrong direction, deposits a load of horsehair spectacularly on to the floor, causing tears and necessitating expert assistance in putting matters right. And just for giggles, there's a disc of resin capable of coating child, adult and pets in a layer of fine, sticky dust.

In any other circumstances you'd keep something like this under lock and key. But no.

Anyone can operate a violin, despite the obvious danger, mess and inconvenience. And that's before you put stick to wire and try to produce a noise.

As the holidays finally drag into their closing stages, spare a thought for the thousands of parents about to sacrifice themselves on the altar of St Cecilia. God of music my a***. The woman's an out and out sadist.

These adults are signing up to years of mental torture with the very real possibility of substantial hearing loss. They are noble, misguided, and very, very brave. So let's all wish them success and, if they live within earshot, a speedy relocation to another, distant, part of the country.

PS: I played the violin for years, despite frequent, often desperate efforts to get me to stop. I was known, unaffectionately, as 'The earsore' by my loved ones. And this was after I'd passed all my Associated Board exams. And got a teacher's diploma. Just a thought.

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Holiday sub-texts

Wife with troubled marriage:
We're supposed to leave in an hour. He just lies on the bed and won't get up and says he won't come on holiday with us.

Bad Lindy:
Am cra**ing excessively so know I'm eating too much. But I don't care.

Cultured Mum:
Suffice a dire, il pleut des chats et chiens. En plus il neige en haut.

Am bored, f****d off c***. How the f*** r u?

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Back on August 13th

Off to raise extra funds by selling off some old words and surplus paragraphs at car boot sales.

Atone deaf

The Day of Atonement usually comes but once a year. In our house, it came whenever my father damn well pleased. A childhood encompassing escape from 1930s Berlin to set up home in the UK as a dispossessed, orphaned Jewish teenager who spoke only German and Hebrew gave him, not altogether surprisingly, the sense that organised religion hadn’t done him or his family much in the way of favours thus far (cosmic wishing, at that time, not having been invented) – so he decided to ditch it.

The world, he told us, would be a better place if all religion were abolished, given that it tends to benefit only those who are card-carrying believers of whichever God happens to be in vogue with those in power.

These were fine sentiments. Unfortunately, being Jewish isn’t something it’s easy to give up. It’s a race thing. You can’t be born a Christian. With a Jewish mother, you can’t be anything else. My father did his best, marrying a Gentile or, as we liked to call her, Mum, but however hard he worked on renouncing his Jewish ancestry, it insisted periodically on creeping up on him and giving him a gentle nip on the bottom.

His resulting bouts of ambivalence had me swinging from steeple to synagogue faster than Tarzan in a cassock. One minute I’d be belting out ‘There is a green hill far away’ in school with the rest of my Church of England class mates - Christianity might have manifest flaws but at least they were conveyed in a language I could understand - the next, thanks to a letter from my father, I’d be whisked into a side room for a quick burst of Jewish assembly, where a clever girl called Natasha led the prayers in Hebrew and I mouthed the words, miserably conscious that I was opening the book at the wrong end and that every word I failed to pronounce proclaimed nothing but my half and half, in-between status to the world.

Because my father had married out, I was not only not Jewish but, as my father occasionally reminded me when I was being a bit uppity, ‘worse than a bastard’ in the eyes of the orthodox Jewish community. I felt bad about this for years, until I worked out that unless I’d used latent pre-foetal telepathic powers to bring my parents together, they could have been part Klingon and it still wouldn’t have been my fault.

Objectively, of course, my father knew this. But his heroic early history – scrimping and saving to buy food for his parents; wheeling and dealing until he acquired a pistol when Jews faced severe punishment for possessing firearms – made him, I now believe, envious not only of his own child’s relatively pampered existence but also of the fact that I took it for granted. He did his best to get the message across, lending me grim autobiographies of life in concentration camps; one, I remember, was called, simply, ‘I survived’. I read them as I read everything, fast and uncritically, enjoying it as a gripping adventure story while feeling guiltily conscious that this wasn’t what I was supposed to feel.

Some mixed marriages provide a happy fusion of cultures. In my family, what we ended up with was a kind of religious half-life that concentrated on all the negative emotions – notably guilt and fear - provided in generous abundance by all religions everywhere, and avoided anything approaching a celebration. My father’s belief – that we were sufficiently Jewish not to celebrate Christian festivals, but not Jewish enough to enjoy theirs, made Christmas a tough time as my mother, whose birthday also fell on December 25th, felt strongly that celebration of some description was essential and resorted to guerrilla tactics, planting decorations at night like explosives, and disguising entire Christmas trees as over-sized pot plants. We even managed a Christmas meal of sorts, although my father’s valiant attempts to fight back by refusing to make small talk were so successful that one year, when we timed it, we sped from turkey to crackers in under 15 minutes.

My father’s dead now, but his half and half legacy lives on. Even at his funeral we mixed and matched, playing traditional Jewish prayers for the dead but scattering his ashes in the woodland he loved – something his parents would have considered sacrilegious but we thought he would approve of.

Now I have to work out what, if anything, to do about my own children. Their ancestry shouldn’t, of course, make any difference in a society where religion is, supposedly, in decline. And for those in full possession of their spiritual credentials, whether or not they choose to flash them about in public, this is probably true. But, as with all these things, religion looks anything but a spent force when you’re having to operate on its fringes.

My children know that their inheritance confers a difference that I’d like them to be proud of, but they don’t really understand what it is. The youngest keeps asking to be christened; I keep saying no. Christmas, with Santa’s visit and a string of light polluting, ASBO-worthy outside decorations has become a big deal but when we go to church, I mumble my way through the prayers and leave out Jesus’ name when it appears.

All this I can live with. But I struggle with legacy of the Holocaust. To me it’s a family memory. To my children, it’s something to tick off on the list of National Curriculum projects, a bad thing that happened to other people a long time ago and has nothing to do with them.

Some of my cousins, who share my half and half inheritance, have gone the other way, strengthening the blend by marrying Jewish partners and having children who, within a generation or two, will be up to full religious strength. I’ve gone for full camouflage, with an identity, name and lifestyle that relegates my Jewish ancestry to an interesting sideline in dinner party conversation.

For now, that’s where it will stay. But, every now and then, as I survey my children, the irony of their situation strikes me. For while their Jewish ancestry remains something they comprehend only with difficulty, if at all, the Nazi party, which required only one Jewish grandparent to have shipped them straight off to a concentration camp, would have had no problem acknowledging the legitimacy of their inheritance straight away.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Glowing in the dark

The word is out in cyberspace. I'm searching for a present for Francis' birthday and every gift site knows it. Like dodgy merchants in a third rate bazaar, they quickly dust off the utterly hopeless non-sellers. Top of the list are the toecovers that combine two totally unrelated functions and lump them together, simply because they can.

There's 'The amazing credit card torch - such a cool gadget you won't be able to put it down for days once it arrives',* though only, I suspect, if it automatically staples itself to your hand when you first unwrap it.

Or what about the 'Ego Boost key ring'*. Press it just before nerve-wracking occasions, such as job interviews and it will deliver such positive, life-affirming statements as 'Wow, I love what you've done with your hair!' - in Francis' case, presumably, referring to his body's successful attempts to shed most of it.

How about the 'Glow in the dark love dice.' *Throw them during those passionate moments and get a random selection of naughty things to do. In the case of the Brits there's doubtless a selection of highly charged eroticism like, 'Remove socks!', 'Close book!' or 'Share boiled sweet!' And it gets rave reviews, too: "Probably the best £3.50 I've ever spent," says Tony from Basingstoke.

I give up in disgust and leaf through a magazine. Then I come across a paragraph that makes me realise that, to misquote LP Hartley, celebrity is a foreign country. One loving spouse has, apparently, paid for a rose to be named in honour of her multi millionaire husband. He, in turn, has taken the logical next step and spent millions on turning the rose's fragrant smell into a mass market scent.

I look out at the scrubby lawn. If there were ever roses the man-eating dandelions saw them off long ago. Still......."Francis Pis en Lit," has a certain ring to it. And with a bit of cross marketing, it's a slogan that lends itself nicely to the 'Glow in the dark love dice,' too.

* = Absolutely genuine quotes, for once.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Soft re-starts

Francis goes off for his 'meet the new company' day. He is taken out for a 'hello' lunch, which makes a change from all those farewell ones, and is introduced to the products, his colleagues, and his responsibilities.

Not only will he be in charge of sales to Boot's, but there's more.

"I've been given Eastern Europe," he says, with a tinge of pride.

"As part of your bonus package?" I say. "How very generous. And just when they'd got used to democracy, too."

This job is better than Nojob, but not by enough. It pays 25% less, for a start, and while we're not on the breadline, we're certainly on the hydrogenated fat masquerading as a tasty teatime treat line. Bearable for now but not healthy in the long term.

The side effect of going back to work is that Francis, who has just become jargon-free, thanks to the Ribald Laughter programme much advocated by his loving family, is plunged into the addictive world of management speak, with disastrous results.

"I'm just going to commission the fridge," he announces, lugging our latest Freecycle acquisition through the front door.

"You what?" I ask him. "Surely you commission boilers or soldiers. But fridges?"

He looks a little hurt but carries on, switching on the fridge freezer in a small but simple ceremony that involves no more than a very small speech and the symbolic opening of a can of Stella. The fridge, which obviously doesn't like jargon either, whirs away busily but, in an interesting reversal of normal refrigeration principles, produces only hot air and the occasional burp from the coathanger bit at the back that looks like a 3D IQ test.

Francis is on to the problem at once. "I think a soft re-start is called for, this time round. We may have missed out a crucial stage in the ignition process."

He switches the fridge on again, but in slow motion. It still doesn't work. I know this is the first day of the rest of our lives - though, come to think of it, isn't every day the first day of the rest of our lives? - but I am feeling strangely unsympathetic. "You're rolling your eyes again," he says, accusingly.

I deny it. I am definitely not rolling my eyes. But as to muttering under my breath -well, that's a different matter altogether.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Lofty ideals and mounting climaxes

"It's ridiculous," says Cultured Mum. She's glowing round the edges - not obviously but the way an imperfectly fitting door gives a sense of the lit room behind it.

"What's ridiculous?" I ask.

"He ..... oh, he laughs at things I say. The way Tom used to. And he looks at me with these wonderful eyes. Tawny. Like cats."

Good grief.

Normally, the problem with Cultured Mum is bringing her back to the downlands where we lowbrows live, scrabbling a hand to mouth existence without recourse to Cultured Mum's encyclopaedic memory and lofty ideals which, like manor houses, are incredibly impressive but horribly draughty for anything other than a brief visit.

But for the first time I find myself desperate to elevate the conversation and stop all this subversive talk of eyes and laughter. If Cultured Mum carries on like this, she'll soon be onto moonlit evenings, candlelight and then, as far as I can see, moving straight into irrevocable action.

"And that whiney voice?" I say, playing what has to be a trump card.

"That's easily solved. I just talk more."

I'm not convinced drowning out 50% of the conversation is the basis for a long-term relationship but I suspect Francis might argue differently.

"So - how's Tom," I try again.

"Oh, Tom. The same as ever, really. Do you know what I think?"

Oh, boy. Please let it be about some hard to understand development in avant garde theatre.

It isn't.

"I think marriage vows shouldn't be about the big issues - better or worse stuff, but about the niggly things you're going to have to live with day in, day out. Take Tom. Every day I find matchsticks lying round the house. And I just know he's been cleaning his ears out with them. Now if the vicar had mentioned that I'd spend God knows how long - decades - making sure I picked up matchsticks by the striking end because the other end's all sticky, I might have thought twice about saying 'yes'."

"For all you know, Colin might do even worse things. Like - I don't know - picking the dry skin off his heels."

"This isn't about Colin," she snaps.

"You could have fooled me," I say. But that light's on again.

"We're going to see Wagner in a couple of weeks."

Dear God. All those mounting climaxes and leitmotives - a Teutonic version of 'I can't get no satisfaction,' stretched out over hours and hours. What is she going to be like afterwards.

Please, please don't let me have to find out.

Flat pack men

Bad Lindy arrives while I'm at Vicky's house, struggling to put a flat pack chest of drawers together.

"What a waste of time," she says, eyeing our efforts.

Admittedly, we are at that difficult, in-between Frankenstein stage.

Nuts and bolts are piled appetisingly in a bowl like nibbles at a Terminator reunion party, and there's so much surplus wood - each bit, apparently, so vital to the structural integrity of the piece that if you insert it incorrectly the entire structure will immediately crumble to dust - that you could give everyone in the country free kindling at Christmas with enough left over to make a small, perfectly formed Wicker man.

Since the piano incident, I've been superstitiously reluctant to invite Bad Lindy round. As well as realistically reluctant. Leave her alone with your partner at the front door to say goodbye and there's always the risk she'll assume he's the leaving present, stuff him in a goody bag and take off.

"Can't you help instead of criticising?" asks Vicky.

Bad Lindy takes no notice.

"Now if men came flat-packed, there'd be some point," she says.

"Or plumbers," I say. "Or good electricians."

"And then you could decide what tools you wanted to accessorise them with," says Vicky. "It could be quite fun. Oh, f- this. I'll finish it later. Let's open some wine."