Sunday, March 29, 2009


Four days in London can have quite an effect on you. I hadn’t been home twelve hours before I knew that I’d picked up a bug. This nearly always happens now when I go to town. There came a point when the return visits to the city where I lived for nigh on 40 years became far enough spaced out that I lost my immunity to it. I’m sure that the source of this vulnerability is public transport, particularly the underground. So many germs get trapped down there in the carriages where they multiply and seek new victims. Residents are immune; visitors are not.

My generation was taught to “put your hand in front when you cough”. There was even a lyric, sung to the tune of Deutschland über Alles: “Coughs and sneezes/Spread diseases;/Catch them in your hand-ker-chief”. Nobody bothers now. A man passed me in the street, respectable enough in suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, and just before he drew level he sent an explosive, unstifled cough into the air all around both of us. Maybe he was the one who infected me.

I rose into semi-consciousness while it was still dark this morning. My throat was fiercely sore but I wasn’t awake enough to do anything about it. I had a half-awake dream about Sol Campbell. This is pretty odd. I know three things about Mr Campbell: he is a footballer though I couldn’t guess for which club he plays; he is of Afro-Caribbean appearance though, had I walked into my London hostess’s living room and he had been sitting on the sofa, I would not have known who he was; there have been persistent rumours, strongly denied, concerning his sexual orientation. Probably this third element prompted the dream.

Why did I dream of a footballer? I mock my football-following friends of whom there are rather few though the friend with whom I stayed is certainly the most devoted: she and her daughter support Fulham (evidence of true devotion, I believe). So I guess football was more in my head than usual. But I do take more of an academic interest in the game than I usually pretend. I never actually watch it on television and the last time I went to a match was at Upton Park at the end of the 1960s when – I guess, though I don’t really remember – West Ham would have been playing host to Manchester United, among whose most enthusiastic fans was a fellow member of the student group with whom I was then sharing a flat. At that time I developed a temporary interest in football managers and their psychology, so I know who the likes of Bill Shankly, Joe Mercer, Malcolm Allison and Brian Clough were. Shankly, a fascinating character and a legendary manager of Liverpool when it was the dominant team in England, famously declared in his deep Scottish brogue that “football isn’t a matter of life and death – it’s more important than that”. Of course it wasn’t meant as a joke.

Apart from unavoidably seeing snatches of matches on television news (BBC News is little less than obsessed with English football), I often watch Final Score on BBC1 on a Saturday afternoon, largely to catch the results for the teams that are based in the part of the world where I grew up, namely Northampton Town, Kettering and Rushden & Diamonds, the latter persistently mispronounced by presenter Ray Stubbs and results reader Tim Gudgeon: it’s Ruzhden, not Rushton. I have no feeling for the teams that represent the area where we now live. On Sunday, I look at the sports pages to see the tables and upcoming fixtures for the Northants teams and take a mild interest in other clubs for arbitrary resonances or ancient associations: Liverpool, West Ham, Stoke City, Ipswich, Reading, Southampton, Nottingham Forest, Accrington Stanley. Though I lived for more than twenty years in the catchment area of Arsenal, I never had any curiosity about that particular club which anyway now lives further off; after all, its origins lie on the far side of the Thames.

On Friday, I went to a pub on the Great West Road to see a man about a debt. I got there on the stroke of noon and found the pub closed. Two men were outside at one of the pub tables, one seated, the other standing. I asked the seated one if he knew when the pub opened. “It should open at twelve” he said. “Oh,” said I, “any minute now, then”. “I certainly hope so” said the man who was standing. I looked at him for the first time. It was John Motson. I betrayed no flicker of reaction. I know enough people in the public eye to understand that having a quiet drink is an important oasis.

Then the pub opened and I followed them in. ‘Motty’, as I understand the BBC’s chief football commentator is known, ordered a cider shandy, a suitably abstemious beverage. My debtor was late. I looked over at the pair I’d earlier addressed, the only other people in the bar. Their conversation was just a burble within which “BBC” was occasionally discernible. I decided that, after all, I did want to approach Mr Motson. I would wait until his colleague went to the bar, then nip across and say: “Excuse me for being presumptuous. I know nothing of football, but your fame and the great affection in which you are held extends far beyond the realms of football and I do hope you know that”. That would be all, it wouldn’t be an opening gambit. He could hardly be other than gratified. And I meant it. I avoid the word “icon” like the plague but if it must be used in its contemporary meaning it could hardly apply more properly to anyone else. However, the pair had the one drink and left. It was perhaps just as well because, on both occasions that I retailed this anecdote, I found myself unaccountably filling up. Why?

Does football run deeper than I know in the national – indeed global – consciousness? I hope not. From my detached perspective – though it is clearly far less detached than I imagine – football represents much of what I deplore: blokes, grotesque overpayment, naked marketing and exploitation, gratuitous competitiveness, continuously unsporting behaviour, the elevation of something wholly trivial into something that grown-ups imagine is more “important” than their own lives (and deaths), a culture that is violent, drunken, exclusive, self-important, grasping, frequently racist and xenophobic, always misogynistic and homophobic. What can football possibly mean to me?

Well, something clearly. Not enough to make me want the World Cup to come to Britain, any more than I welcome the 2012 Olympics which, as I predicted long before London “won” the struggle to stage it, will cost us dear – primarily financially but in other ways too – for decades to come. Certainly, I hope not to dream about any more footballers, particularly ones of whom I have no more than a sketchy image. Let’s hope it was just the effect of London germs.

Friday, March 20, 2009


Tomorrow, March 21st, is the first day of Spring. Actually, some argue that today, being the Vernal Equinox this year, is the first day of Spring. I was always taught that the seasons begin on the 21st of the month irrespective of the small changes in the dates of the equinoxes (equinoces? – on the analogy with index and indices?); one tends to cleave to early teachings.

At any rate, spring certainly didn’t begin on March 1st. The political parties, ever spinning reality to make it seem more attractive, each call their opening gathering of the year The Spring Conference, even when it takes place in February. But it’s no good putting your faith in politicians.

A few years ago, the weather forecaster Penny Tranter mentioned in passing that it was the first day of spring. I checked the calendar. It was March 1st. I wrote to inform Ms Tranter that I had been taught that the first day of spring was the 21st. When and why had she changed it? Ms Tranter wrote back, very promptly and fully. She reckoned that meteorologists measure the seasons by quarters beginning on the 1st of the month, rather than from the equinox. I found this rather unconvincing. Meanwhile, Michael Fish had explained much the same thing on air. Every viewer but me must have wondered why he suddenly felt the need to launch into this subject. Nevertheless, my letter has changed the thinking at the Met Office in a way I could not have anticipated. On March 21st the following year, Helen Willetts announced; “It’s officially the start of spring today”. On March 21st the year after that, Daniel Corbett was saying the same when I switched him off (I can’t watch Corbett and still keep my sense either of humour or of proportion). Nevertheless, I suspect I am fighting a losing battle over the ”official” First Day of Spring. Another gallant but doubtless doomed fight is to keep the designation of this coming Sunday what it has been historically – Mothering Sunday – rather than what the transatlantic media calls it – Mother’s Day.

Spring heralds the houseguest season. Indeed, the season has already begun at our gaff. Having friends to stay is an almost wholly unmixed blessing. Apart from the particular pleasures associated with particular visitors, the generality of these visits suggests far more to raise the spirits than to lower them. First of all, it means we have to do some cleaning. This is a necessity from which we gain as much as do our guests. I confess that, while my partner and I are in many ways opposites (a lark and an owl, for instance; a nurse and a patient), we share an almost limitless capacity for squalor. If no one ever came to the door, we might well succumb to a sea of paper, discarded clothes and dust. Actually, the dust is under rather tighter control since our little dog Tati, the one who has suffered a major sight loss recently, was diagnosed last year as atopic, which means that among his twenty-odd allergies are dust mites. So we need to pay attention to the level of dust.

Something David and I also share is a tendency to solitude. It is no hardship for either of us to be confined to our shared company or – often even better – the company of none, not even each other. Happily, our house is large enough for this to be practicable. For David to pass the day in the garden while I fill the same time in my study makes us both as happy as pigs in muck. Neither of us wants such days to be unavoidably the norm but to have the choice is very heaven. To have this complaisant peace shattered is of course a most welcome change. We genuinely relish visitors.

Solitude can make you cranky, isolated, wary and inured to matters that you ought not to neglect to tend. Visitors bring important input: the direct or vicarious perspective of different generations, different circumstances, different geographies, different cultural textures. Sometimes, they even bring political and other challenges to one’s settled views. This is essential stimulus. And just as it is patently good for our dogs to have socialising with people reinforced by a steady traffic of intruders upon their territory, so it is equally good – nourishing, challenging, expanding – for us.

I think, hope and believe that we show our guests a good time. With few exceptions, they are temporarily escaping life in the city (usually but not always London) and are taken aback all over again by the restorative powers to be found even within spitting distance of the A4. It helps a lot: a) that our house was long ago re-orientated away from the road and towards open fields (and the guest bedrooms are on that side of the house); b) that the journey from London by road or rail is a snip while psychologically the distance is vast; c) that our guestrooms and especially the beds are very comfortable; d) that David is a fabulous (trained) cook; e) that we are, I think I can claim, in no way proscriptive.

Needless to say, we have made mistakes. An early guest, whom we dearly wanted to make welcome, insisted on coming at a time when there were builders here, not merely at but in the house. Our guest – let’s call him Andrew – is himself a noted and fastidious cook. We weren’t up to speed yet with the kitchen and even found ourselves offering Andrew a takeaway one evening. When he complained about a splash mark he’d noticed on the bathroom mirror (which is the full length of the wall), David lost sympathy and has little regret that he has steadfastly never returned.

Another guest – Ruth, say – came with her husband (Robert) and child. We had already got off slightly on a wrong foot over some footling misunderstanding about what the child was prepared to eat. On the second day, Ruth couldn’t stop herself, over Robert’s objections, asking David why we didn’t use liners under the pillowcases. David dealt with the query civilly enough but he was furious because he had spent more than the issue deserved looking for the missing items the morning before. After that, things flew downhill. I handed Ruth a glass of sherry that she promptly handed back because the glass was clearly cracked. How had that happened? At lunch, I was mortified to spot a flake of some previous morning’s cereal still attached to the bowl from which she was about to attack her pudding. The visit’s sense of being doomed has been reinforced by Ruth’s kind but firm refusal of a repetition of the experience. The innocent child would, I swear, come like a shot if allowed, though more to see the dogs than us.

Other visitors have been less than well attended. In David’s absence I served to guests from the Americas a bowl of home grown raspberries that, had I been more attentive, I might have noted were more mouldy than good. On another occasion, my culinary innocence was revealed by the offering of a dish – “the Aga is perfect for this” – that inadvertently lacked one of its major ingredients; a little short of perfection on that occasion and no fault of the Aga.

On the other hand, there have been guests who have fallen short of our own expectations. The most tenacious of guest faults is the (no doubt earnest) desire to “help”. As we sometimes bark at strangers who stray into the kitchen: “no passengers in the engine room, thank you – please return to the sundeck”. Stopping them clearing the table requires eternal vigilance because it’s the kind of gesture that they can slip past you without you registering that it has begun: the major alert usually comes with the question “where shall I put this?” to which the only sensible rejoinder is of course: “back on the table”.

“Helping” to clear the table is the thin end of the wedge. Once they’ve persuaded you to let them “help” with the washing up, the peace of the house is doomed. I learned this long ago. In my childhood, when Christmas Day was hosted turn and turn about by different households within the extended family, there was a lame-brained “uncle” (by marriage not blood, I hasten to add) who always took it upon himself to “do” the washing up and who, without fail, broke at least one item every year, to my mother’s white fury when it was one of hers. Before we hardened our own hearts against those who would take over the sink, we did permit one or two minor washings-up to be conducted by guests. I think it was the six weeks it took us afterwards to find the potato peeler that finished that foolish weakness.

Guests have other traits that do them no credit, from commandeering the television (particularly for some seemingly endless sports event) to misunderstanding the function of the bidet to making off with the toothpaste or a book that was in the process of being read by one of us. But no one has yet come close to the nightmare of one of our first guests. Admittedly, we had already been warned by mutual friends that ‘Miles’ was “the houseguest from hell” so we should have known better than to admit him. Like many who have lived alone for years, he has lost all notion of consideration for others.

As it happened, he and I travelled down from London on the train together. I had asked him (as we always do) if he had any particular dietary requirements and he announced that he was indeed on a special diet at that time. I no longer recall the details, save that potatoes were not permitted. This did not prevent him from consuming an entire 150-gram bag of kettle chips, which he declared to be “not the same”. Aside from the diet, he claimed to be easy to feed, so long as he was able to have his daily Marmite. I couldn’t remember if we had this item in the cupboard and couldn’t raise David to ask him (this was before either of us had a mobile phone) so I purchased a jar ahead of the train journey, only being able to put my hand on the largest size. Needless to say, it turned out that we had an almost full jar in the cupboard (the new one eventually had to be thrown out); that was irritating enough, though not quite as irritating as the fact that Miles never once touched the Marmite during the endless week of his visit.

What else did he do? He was forever leaving ajar the door of the fridge (which he visited often and without a by-your-leave), justifying the laxity by claiming that his cats were always opening his own fridge and failing to close it. After he had taken a bath, I found he had trampled under the bathmat my own towel, which he dismissed as “some old thing”. He complained because on one or two occasions he was down before me in the morning (though never before David) as if somehow I had an obligation to be up and ready to wait on him each day. I pointed out that, unlike him, I did not take a lengthy siesta after lunch, an irrelevant point as far as he was concerned.

None of this, I am sure, seems much of a trial but it all came wrapped in a loud and insistent expectation that he deserved all the consideration that the white colonialist would demand of his coolies. We were profoundly glad to see the back of him, as we indeed have done definitively because a few years later we came to the realisation that, living abroad as he now does, he had dropped us from his contact list without a word of explanation. Perhaps he was afraid that we might want to visit him as we did once long ago when he lived in another foreign land. On that occasion, we arrived laden with the comestibles and other items he missed from Britain and found ourselves sleeping each on one of the two foam mattresses that served as his regular bed, while he slept on a rather comfortable-looking futon that he had borrowed for the duration of our stay. I wish we had had the foresight to leave his fridge door open.

Next week I shall be in London, staying as the houseguest of someone else. I hope I shall manage to comport myself with proper but modest deference.

PS: This week's was a fabulous episode of Desperate Housewives. For the benefit of my international readers, it was episode 13 of season 4, a self-contained story entitled The Best Thing That Ever Could Have Happened which, like many of the best episodes, is named after a Stephen Sondheim number, the kind of allusion that alerts those viewers likely to know that they will share a sensibility with this show. Beau Bridges played a handyman who had come to know the various housewives professionally but also as something of a confidant. It was a finely-turned portrait of a good man, neat and economical, sentimental but not superficial and it also shed passing light on each of the regular characters. What a terrific piece of bread-and-butter television, as nourishing as it was delicious.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009


The facial image of Shakespeare has been a matter of intense conjecture since his very lifetime, when of course there was no television and no press daily to convey his presence to a curious populace. The latest claimant to the role of authentic, definitive likeness of the great man is the shining morning face of the portrait known as The Cobbe. Until now it has been in private hands, those of the Cobbe family (hence its identification). Now, after extensive further research, it emerges to offer itself to the public gaze. It’s a lovely image, almost as seductive as the fabulous portrait of John Donne by an equally unknown hand, to the saving-for-the-nation of which I contributed rather recklessly three years ago when we had more money to throw around.

But is it the real thing? Professor Stanley Wells believes so but he does have a vested interest in the portrait being a major draw for he chairs the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which august body will, from Shakespeare’s next birthday onwards, host an exhibition of which the Cobbe will be the centrepiece. Other experts are less sanguine, not least those based at the National Portrait Gallery where a really beguiling show entitled 'Searching for Shakespeare' was mounted some seven years ago.

Naturally enough, the playwright anticipated all this. “I have heard of your paintings too, well enough” Hamlet tells Ophelia. “God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another” (III.i.150). The prince was of course speaking of women’s makeup but the remark will, with only gentle distortion, serve to suggest its author’s abiding prescience.

The simultaneous unveiling of the foundations of the first playhouse to have staged Shakespeare’s work is less controversial and more objectively significant if lacking the romantic appeal of the portrait issue. Known simply as The Theatre, the site is in Shoreditch. The playhouse that stood on the site was constructed by James Burbage, father of Shakespeare’s close associate Richard. Perhaps the major dig that will start twelve months hence and close Blackfriars station (which is to be rebuilt and its Thameslink connection upgraded) will yield some trace of the long sought theatre built over the grounds of the Dominican monastery that gave the area its name. This was another construction of Burbage Sr. Shakespeare was a founding shareholder in that project but its repertoire was largely devoted to the younger Jacobean playwrights.

All this is bracing stuff but what we really need is the supreme playwright here among us now, plying his trade. What a subject he would find in Zimbabwe. The power struggle between ZANU-PF and the MDC-T yields nothing in drama and blood to the ancient British history that Shakespeare found in Holinshed’s Chronicles. In Macbeth, Duncan says of the original Thane of Cawdor, discovered at the play’s outset to be traitorous: “There’s no art/To find the mind’s construction in the face./He was a gentleman on whom I built/An absolute trust” (I.iv.12). The next stage direction is the favourite in the canon of my old English master James Hasler: “Enter Macbeth”. He’s right: it should be a wonderful moment of theatrical irony and premonition but I have never seen a production – and I have seen tens if not dozens – that made anything much of it.

Those who supported Robert Mugabe’s assumption of the premiership of what was then still Southern Rhodesia in 1980 might well feel that they failed to find his mind’s construction. The last ten years of Mugabe’s presidency have provided a textbook demonstration of absolute power corrupting absolutely. But the last twelve months have seen a change, though it is still too early to be sure whether it presages an unravelling of Mugabe’s power. And how far is Mugabe engaged in a deep game of quadruple bluff? He is, after all, one of the great Machiavels on the modern world stage.

This week has provided fantastic material. What playwright wouldn’t surrender a limb to write that scene when the Mugabes visited Morgan Tsvangirai in hospital after the apparent accident that killed Susan Tsvangirai. The president uttered various pious sentiments – he is, of course, a devout Catholic as could be guessed from his taste for conspicuous consumption and his hobby of having people killed – and Grace Mugabe wept gracious tears of a crocodile nature. The first lady, though not the intellectual equal of Lady Macbeth, makes a terrific study in hypocritical harpiedom. Then yesterday there was Mrs Tsvangirai’s funeral at which the president spoke, striking a note that the innocent might hear as conciliatory, even fraternal. For his part, the bereaved prime minister has stamped on speculation that the supposed accident was suspicious, despite the number of road collisions that have conveniently eliminated enemies of ZANU-PF over the years. What’s he up to? The MDC-T has nonetheless commissioned an independent enquiry into the incident.

There is terrific scope for Shakespearean drama in these events. One is bound to imagine that the end of Mugabe’s rule will be occasioned by his death of natural causes rather than by some Zimbabwean equivalent of Birnan Wood being come to Dunsinane (and I have not heard any suggestion that Mr Tsvangirai was from his mother's womb untimely ripped). Even so, the monologues, duologues, crowd scenes and set pieces would flow thick and fast. The Tragicall Historie of Mugabeth: who’s going to write it if not Shakespeare?

Saturday, March 07, 2009


What is it with this incessant clamour for Gordon Brown to say “sorry” for some nebulously all-embracing omission he is claimed by his political opponents to have made while Chancellor of the Exchequer? A member of the audience on this week’s Any Questions? asked “What part of the word ‘sorry’ does the Prime Minister not understand?” I would counter: “What part of that question could not be deemed snide and which opposition party planted it?”

I thought Westminster was united in deploring what is known as “gesture politics” but evidently, as with so many other matters, if it suits then it serves. It has served to the extent that Mr Brown has been slow to pre-empt the clamour and shifty in dealing with it when it is raised. “When” he might ask in reply “may we expect the Tories to apologise for the poll tax? Isn’t it rather long overdue for the Liberals to say sorry for their suicidal divisions over free trade in the early 1930s?”

Being sorry signifies in personal relationships but not on the public stage. On Monday, it was revealed that the Vale of Glamorgan council had placed in foster care a teenager with a five-year history of child abuse. The couple who took him on were not apprised of the teenager’s proclivities, even though they had two young children of their own. The council has admitted “a serious error of judgment” and expressed its “deep regret” for the “distress and harm caused to the family”. For the nine year-old daughter who has been sexually assaulted and the toddler-age son who was anally raped, I doubt that an apology, however “deep”, suffices. I hope that the family will be suing the council for several million pounds. In such a case, the social services officers on the council payroll are surely far more at fault than those excoriated over several weeks by the press and driven from their posts in Haringey in the so-called Baby P affair.

This requirement for public figures to “put their hands up” – one hand used to be thought sufficient – is a relatively new phenomenon but frequently refers to events of long ago. Pope John Paul II, a great one for rhetorical gestures, apologised for the crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and “sins and accidents of omission” against non-Catholic Christians, women and ethnic groups. Why? How does it put anything right if the US President apologises for the extermination of the native Americans: “Red Indians”, as they were called when they still constituted a force in the land, even though named in an ideologically unacceptable manner? What good does it do if the Emperor of Japan apologises for his country’s part in World War II? What manner of fence is mended if the Queen says sorry to the peoples of various countries that Britain plundered and dominated during the building of the Empire?

All well and good if reparations are made. Military spokesmen routinely express their condolences to the relatives of personnel killed by that fearful failure of intelligence known by the horrible euphemism of “friendly fire”. We might think them sincere if they could also report that those families were to receive handsome payments to buttress them against the loss of the breadwinner; that the officer commanding the exercise that led to the deaths had been stripped of his rank; that new strategies were already in place to ensure that such horrors never recur. This they do not do. Who thinks that saying "sorry" is enough? Only those who elect to say it, especially when (as often) that "sorry" anyway sticks in the craw.

But many expressions of regret and apology, like similar ones of welcome and gratitude, are no more than scripted and calculated pieces of public relations waffle. Why should one place any faith in a printed or recorded gesture: “welcome to our website”, “thank you for not smoking”, “we’re sorry to keep you on hold – all our agents are dealing with other customers at present”? What good are these statements? Those who laid them down in the first place have no knowledge of the circumstances of their use. How much mileage is there in my arguing that a website that has refused to recognise my legitimate password or disputes my correct credit card details is in no discernible way making me welcome and is therefore liable under the Trades Descriptions Act?

Nowhere is the apology – routine, anonymous and unanswerable – more prevalent than on Britain’s railways. Older readers who foreswore public transport long ago may be unaware that live announcements, one of the thrills of visiting a big terminus in a ’50s childhood (“Attention, please!”), are a thing of the past. On platform PA systems today, recorded phrases are segued by computer so that details of particular journeys and their fates are constructed like Lego buildings from given materials.

Three of these recorded phrases go as follows: “I am sorry”, “I am very sorry” and “I am extremely sorry”. According to my own observations while attempting to fill the yawning wait as my train slides further and further down the timetable, these formulations are played in conjunction with the phrase “for the delay”, followed by details of the particular missing train. The extent of delay is graduated and seems to comprise, respectively, up to ten minutes, between ten and twenty, thereafter anything over twenty minutes. It may amuse the bored customer to track how accurately timed is the switchover from “sorry” to “very sorry” to “extremely sorry”.

What is not in doubt, however, is that nobody associated with the network is experiencing actual regret on our behalf. To the (usually invisible) station staff, the workings of the trains seem as impenetrable a mystery as they are to us. The distinction between them and us is that, to them, it is a matter of profound indifference. Perhaps it is only the drone operating the computer program who is even aware that there is a delay and that it has been acknowledged publicly at any level of the railway operation. So, is this recorded apology of any value? Not to me.

How different it is on the train itself. There one is treated to a live running commentary by someone termed ‘the train manager’, giving more information than even a congenital train spotter might desire. These commentaries, evidently issued as scripts from head office, use curious constructs about “arriving into the next station stop” and “on behalf of myself and the on-board crew”. Some time thereafter comes a bulletin from the buffet car, lovingly listing all today’s items of an allegedly comestible nature. Needless to say, the rather good full silver service cuisine served without fanfare on trains in my childhood (not least the legendary British Railways breakfast) has long been swept away, to be replaced by pre-packaged, under-microwaved bacon rolls and other such undesirable matter. Nothing, you would think, for a public service announcement to crow about.

If not already scuppered by a choral symphony of shouting into mobile phones, the tinny buzz of personal stereos and the full-volume persistence of toddlers’ observations (one could have escaped all this in the old compartmentalised carriages), any chance of catching a doze or reading a book is thwarted by the eagerness with which every detail of the journey’s geographic and gastronomic progress must be imparted after every ‘station stop’ has been ‘arrived into’, along with urgings to read the safety drill as if we’re all virgin (as against Virgin) travellers. If this is not too much information, I don’t know what is.

All such affectless public postures are the spawn of the marketing culture that we have enthusiastically embraced for a century and more. A prime ministerial apology is only of import if it is in some sense “saleable”: “look,” the government can say, “our man is big enough to admit when he is wrong and move on”; “look,” the opposition will be able to smirk, “we’ve got him to climb down which only shows him to be spineless”. I don’t want the Prime Minister to be diverted by fruitless considerations of what meaningless form of words will play best with the electorate while surrendering nothing to those who would bring him down. I want him to devote himself to the considerably more urgent business of steering the nation through the present economic mess.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Tati, summer 2007
photo: Barbra Flinder


An update on Tati (further to the previous entry, Dog Days, immediately below): our PBGV is half-way through an enforced period of wearing one of those inverted lampshade affairs that prevent him scratching the delicate areas (in his case, the eyes) and, in practice, pretty much anywhere else. This of course is frustrating and uncomfortable for him. He is not supposed to get excited or to bark much or to go tearing off round our field so he is often walked on the lead (which is attached to a harness so as not to interfere with the lampshade) and, because he is naturally ebullient even in his reduced circumstances, he finds this stressful.

The worst part – perhaps even more for us than for him – is that he has suffered significant sight loss. His right eye, which underwent the operation, is now permanently longsighted so that he can see what he is aiming at but not necessarily what is along the route. And that is his good eye. His left eye has a partially detached front lens that is being held in place by the iris, which is functioning normally. The right iris was unable to do this job, which was why he had to lose the lens. But it means that effectively he has no useful sight in his left eye. So he finds himself much like Gordon Brown: blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. Perhaps he too can raise 17 standing ovations in Congress.

On Monday he will again see the specialist and we shall learn where we go from here. It may be necessary at some juncture to operate similarly on the left eye or we may have to continue to medicate and monitor it, perhaps for the rest of his life. Currently, he is taking an extensive regime of medication, most but not all in the form of eye drops. He accepts all this with what, in a human, you would call good grace. In canine terms, he has certainly not lost his wag and, when distracted from his condition, he is still capable of getting excited about the prospect of a game or a walk, though of course we have to damp down any such excitement.

It is all most distressing but, as I say, more distressing for us who discuss and fear and speculate and question than for the dog who finds himself perplexed and quelled but, to pick up my refrain from Dog Days, living in the moment and adjusting and coping.

PS: What an outstanding episode of Shameless on Channel 4 this week, written by Jack Lothian and directed by Paul Norton Waller. Even though it was part of an on-going serial dreamt up by someone else (the mighty Paul Abbott), it still managed to shift some telling material and fashion some powerful individual scenes. British teledrama is still – just – alive and kicking.