Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Extra Time

Just to let you know, in case you didn't, that you've got a bit of extra time before the end of the year - there's a leap second today. Apparently there's going to be an extra pip in the pips to accommodate it.

I'm telling you this out of consideration, so you'll have time to plan what to do with it.

Knowing my luck, it'll probably happen in the middle of Jools Holland's Music to Feel Miserable To - or whatever they call it - tonight. I don't like New Years' Eve at the best of times and I certainly don't like that programme, though it's on every flaming year so I suppose somebody must. Yes, thinking about it, somebody does - my mother. She loves it, she loves Jools, she doesn't care that he comes over like the least trustworthy of second-hand car salesmen and she even likes the strange dull musicians that he has on.

I don't know why all these time things always happen at - well, the wrong time. Why can't the clocks go back on a sunny summer's evening so we get more summer's evening? Why can't they go forward at 4pm on a winter's Friday afternoon, so everyone could go home earlier?

Since this leap-second is so small, I think it should be down to individual choice. If anyone had thought to consult me, I would have chosen to have mine when I was swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Now I've missed that chance and I know it's going to be in the middle of some obscure band playing improvised jazz on pots and pans. Happy New Year.

Properly Honoured

Thanks to Silverback for sending me this link which tells us that the author Terry Pratchett is to be knighted and will presumably be known from now on as Sir Terry Pratchett of Discworld.

There are lots of books in this house but his are the most battered - which is probably the greatest compliment to an author that there could be.

Ironically, the person who's read the fewest of them is probably me - yes, how interesting that doing a degree in Eng Lit has put me off reading novels ever since! - but he is a superbly enjoyable writer who sometimes has made me laugh out loud and not many can do that.

I think Emily (now known as Olli) has read every word he's ever written, probably several times, and Stephen's not far behind.

When Emily was eleven, Terry Pratchett came to Leeds to sign copies of his latest book and I went along. Emily would have loved to have gone, but couldn't as she was in a performance for the school that afternoon.

She had recently written to him to say how much she enjoyed his books. He had sent her a delightful letter back, explaining that it was a better idea to write to a writer than to almost anyone else, because they are lonelier and more likely to reply. He had taken a lot of care over the letter, and I wanted to thank him.

So I stood in the queue and when I got to the front I started to thank him for writing back to her, and saying that it had meant a lot.

"Oh yes, Emily," he said, "she's the one who likes Tolkien as well and you've just been on holiday to France."

It's ironic that this amazing feat of memory - for he must have been receiving hundreds of letters at that time - is my main memory of him, because of course he was fairly recently diagnosed with a form of early Alzheimer's Disease and has done a lot to raise awareness of the illness.

Hurrah for Sir Terry!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Blurry

The Jewish comedian Jackie Mason used to say that the Jews don't do technical things and, from the evidence of extensive observation and research carried out over many years in the Jews I know well, I'd say that's true.

Of course, it's not a very wide pool of research subjects, consisting mostly of the Communist, and some of me, since I'm half-Jewish.

The Communist was very strong and very good at anything that required a bit of brute strength. He was very good at building anything that needed to be solid and to withstand a hurricane, or a comet landing, should there ever be any hurricanes or comets in this part of Leeds. If such a thing ever happened, the whole area might be completely flat, but you'd be able to identify our house by the bird table that the Communist build in the garden, which would still be standing perfectly upright.

But the Communist didn't do anything technical, and neither does my non-Jewish mother (as a kind of a control for the sample).

So - and I digress momentarily - is it any wonder that I can only learn one new button a year? And don't you think it's unnecessarily cruel to mock me for something that's clearly genetic?

To continue. I love taking photographs, as you know, and I love it so much that I'm even prepared to master some technical things about cameras. Not many, granted, but I've been working on it for a lot of years and so I've learned a thing or two, like how to press the thing that goes click halfway down to focus it first.

My parents never really mastered that focusing thing. Even with a camera where the focusing was automatic, they never quite got it. The Communist used to yell helpfully at my mother "You need to hold the camera STILL!" and it was true, he, himself did know to do that - - quite often with a finger or two in front of it. My mother didn't - still doesn't really - understand about holding the camera still. Or about pointing it fairly accurately in the direction of the thing you're trying to take photos of.

I shouldn't malign her because she's always telling me how great my photos are. However, it was only this morning, looking through lots of old photos, that I realised that her definition of "great" means "with the head actually in the picture and no thumb in front of the camera". With sad resignation I noticed that she doesn't even mean "in focus". She doesn't mind that slightly blurred look because she thinks all photos are like that - - and let's face it, when she's taken them, they are.

For Christmas my brother and I gave my mother one of those electronic photo frames which does a slideshow of photographs. She loved it, though gave another demonstration along the way of that other thing that my family has always done: which is, as soon as something doesn't work properly, it stays that way forever.

So, for example, once the battery went flat on our transistor radio, that was it: we no longer had a transistor radio. So Stephen put the photos on the frame but hadn't had a chance to turn them round, so some of them were horizontal rather than vertical.

"Don't faff with it," said my mother, "it's fine. We can just turn our heads sideways."

So we looked at lots of her recent photos of the garden in summer, where we saw some slightly blurry flowers in pretty colours, and of her recent trip to Tenby, where we saw some horizontal blurry people in front of a horizontal blurry Christmas tree, accompanied by my Mum's commentary. "Look, that's Roger! You can see nearly half of his head."

It was a great success. She can work it. She loves it. She's eighty-four and she's never going to learn how to take photographs that are in focus and are of the thing that she's trying to look at. But it really doesn't matter.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Winter Woodland on a Sunny Day

I loved the bright, contrasty colours in Florida and - as I may have mentioned one or two dozen times - I loved the fact that there was a palm tree in every shot that I took.

But it was good to be reminded, on Boxing Day, that Britain can do lovely colours too. We went for a walk in Hetchell Woods, near Bardsey just outside Leeds (and you can click on the photos to enlarge them):

For most of the time the sun was shining:

and I liked the colours of the fields:

and the shapes of the winter trees:

and the colour of the light:

Grand. Yorkshire countryside on a sunny Boxing Day, nicely framed by an old railway bridge:

Yes, yes, all very lovely. The only trouble is, you only get the sunshine occasionally. Most of the time it's British Grey, damn it.

Florida brought it home to me. On the grey days, I now know that there's sunshine SOMEWHERE ELSE, and I want it. Bring me sunshine, as Morecambe and Wise used to sing.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Feed the Fish

I love feeding anyone or anything, really, so I shamelessly nicked these fish from Amytree's blog.



Just click anywhere to feed them. I could do this all day. Stop me, someone.

Poyms

I decided pretty early on in life that there were a few words in the English language that had gone slightly wrong and needed a bit of help. WREN was one of them. Stupid spelling, I thought, of a bird which is quite clearly should be known as a WERN. And POEM. What kind of a word what that? There was no way I was ever going to pronounce it as POH-EM . Surely a better pronunciation was POYM, and that was how I was going to say it, so there.

I finally gave way on the WERN when I found out that you said it out loud as REN. But POYM I have stuck with, doggedly, through much teasing, and I don't care.

I was asked yesterday about the poem that I put on my blog: how can you tell that's a poem and not just bits of prose chopped up?

Good question, I thought. Then I started thinking - - well, what is a poem, as opposed to verse, and what is a poem, as opposed to prose?

At school, too many of us were bored nearly to death by poetry. "Oh, give us double maths instead!" we cried (oh, okay, that's probably exaggerating a bit) "for I shall die if I have to look at one more line written by Alexander Pope!"

I don't know what they thought they were trying to teach when they plonked all those dreary old classics in front of us - - but it certainly wasn't to love poetry. You had to look up one word in three and that wasn't likely to inspire us in any way "and this is a satire on the Foreign Minister of the day" - - - "OH, GIVE ME DOUBLE MATHS INSTEAD!"

So what makes something a poem, instead of prose?

To me, each new line should move it forward, should have a new thought, a new idea. Rather than making it harder to understand, the layout should make it easier.

Here's my perfect example:

There was a young girl from Australia
Who went to a dance as a dahlia
But the petals revealed
What they should have concealed
And the dance - as a dance - was a failure

Now, I would say that's verse rather than poetry - to me a poem has to have something a bit deeper to it - but each line moves it on beautifully, to the punchline at the end. Also, to me, ideally the words of a poem should have rhythm.

I like rhyme, too, though it's not vital - - but it has a comforting, soothing quality and can also be very funny. I hate it when writers will twist anything round to get a rhyme, though - to me anything that has a line like "the birds did sing" is really bad writing.

And a poem should be somehow greater than the sum of its parts - - that particular combination of words, of rhythm, of rhyme should immediately either suggest something to you that makes you go "oh, I never thought of that" or "oh YES, that's just what a summer's afternoon feels like" or it takes you straight to a certain feeling.

We think poetry can be "difficult" - but it shouldn't be and I hate it when poets write just to show off how clever they are. The best poetry should take you straight there - to wherever the poet was wanting to take you.

And, to be fair, that's probably what old Alexander Pope's writing did in the eighteenth century - it's just that because he was writing about topical stuff it's not relevant now. It'd be like showing some of the great Spitting Image episodes which we loved so much to a modern eighteen-year-old: they wouldn't have a clue who many of the characters were.

I think it's a terrible shame that so many of us had such a dull experience of poetry at school and I do think that the teaching of poetry - and the poems that are chosen - have improved since then. But it's true that poems do arouse strong feelings - and it's possible to recognise that something's a good poem, and still hate it: or to know that it's not very good, and still love it.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Reassurance

Here's a poem which was sent to me today by an actor whom I've never met, but who has done a lot of work through the agency that I work for - sometimes we need extra actors and he's always done an excellent job for us. He's called David and had been reading my posts about the Communist's death. Thank you, David.

This poem's by Thom Gunn, whose work I know only very slightly, but I really like this. I'd love to be able to believe in life after death and yet I don't seem to be able to: and this poem really sums up that feeling.

Events that some people would take as proof of an afterlife, doubting Daphne just takes as proof that my mind is making "itself secure" and so are other people's too. I do try to keep an open mind: but I've yet to come across anything that will convince me. Though I'd like to, of course!

The Reassurance
About ten days or so
After we saw you dead
You came back in a dream.
I'm all right now you said
And it was you, although
You were fleshed out again:
You hugged us all round then,
And gave your welcoming beam.
How like you to be kind,
Seeking to reassure.
And, yes, how like my mind
To make itself secure.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Things I Liked About America No.5 - Trucks

In Britain they're lorries, with flat fronts and they drive about two inches behind you on the motorway.

In America, however, trucks are big and cool and shiny. Every time we saw one, which was often, I thought "Hey, I'm in AMERICA!"

Here's another - - there were hundreds, but hard to photograph, as I generally saw them when we were on the move!


So, in celebration, let's have a listen to one of my favourite television songs of all time. It's from Not the Nine O'clock News, satire show of the late seventies, and features a young Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. The young woman is now Dr Pamela Connolly, then Pamela Stephenson, a superb comedy actress: now a well-known psychologist and married to Billy Connolly (though if she knows so much about psychology, you'd think she'd have a less annoying website, wouldn't you?)

Anyway, when I first saw this video I thought it was a little masterpiece: and actually, I still do. Particularly appropriate, too, because you see that rocket at the beginning? That's at the Kennedy Space Centre! And I was there less than a month ago! Wooohooo!

All together now - - SING! and I wish you all a very happy Boxing Day.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Harold Pinter

The playwright Harold Pinter has died, age 78. I wrote my university dissertation about his work. Somebody had once asked him what his plays were about, and he said "The weasel under the cocktail cabinet".

Loads of people then wrote learned articles trying to work out what this meant, even after he'd said that he just said the phrase and didn't expect it to be taken seriously.

He wrote some great plays and is often thought of as rather serious, but he wrote some extremely funny sketches too, and some superb film scripts.

RIP Harold Pinter

(pause)

Christmas Day

There seems to be a bit of a vogue at the moment for stuffing things into things and then eating them, rather like the Inuit do when they stuff a dead seal with seagulls, bury it, then dig it up and eat it some time later, raw. Yum!

So I've heard a lot of people saying that they were going to have an emu stuffed with a turkey stuffed with a grouse stuffed with a sparrow. Or something like that.

Here on Franks Mountain, we stuck to turkey. Though it was rather huge - almost 20lbs. Because, if you leave buying your turkey to Christmas Eve, like I did, there is a choice between tiny ones or massive ones. A massive one is, of course, much better value, and we all like turkey, so 20lbs it was.

I got up at half past six to do battle with it:

and it went in the oven at ten to seven, with bacon on top and onion inside.

Then we opened the presents, which we all enjoyed, particularly Wendy the kitten:

and we got the table ready: (that computer in the corner is where I write this blog)

Then, about five hours later, the turkey came out like this:

And we all ate far too much of everything:

Yes, it all looks much the same from year to year, Christmas in our house.

But this year, of course, it's different. We've all had a good time. But the Communist, my Dad, wasn't with us today, because he died on December 8th.

I said in my post yesterday that this house is full of the ghosts of Christmas past.

Here he is, two years ago, just finishing his Christmas dinner. He loved Christmas dinner, and he loved having his photo taken.



Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Pebble and the Ghosts of Christmas Past

When I was small I slept in the little bedroom at the top of the stairs, which is now the spare room where visitors stay.

In those days the wallpaper was cream with a recurring pattern of violets and for many years one of the rooms at Kirkstall Abbey Museum in Leeds had the same wallpaper, chosen no doubt because it looked like much Victorian wallpaper, although mine only dated from the nineteen-fifties.

I used to lie awake on Christmas Eve, staring at the wallpaper in the dimness from the landing light shining through the curtain covering the glass pane of the door. I was too excited to sleep, of course, and had a firm belief that Father Christmas (always Father Christmas in our house, never Santa Claus) would come during the night.

Luckily for me, he always did.

My son-in-law Gareth tells a story that one year his parents gave him a boat for Christmas as he was going to learn to sail. He was thrilled with it - though actually, when he came into the room it was so big that he simply didn't notice it - he couldn't tell what it was.

With me, a similar thing happened with Pebble.

One year - and I must have been very small - I came into the dining-room on Christmas morning and the carpet seemed to be a sea of presents.

I opened a few of the smaller ones before I even noticed that there was something really, really huge in the middle, wrapped into a shapeless lump of Christmas paper.

When I finally realised that this was for me, and unwrapped it, I found Pebble.

Pebble was a metal horse, about rocking-horse size. He was yellow with brown spots (hence the name I chose) and red pedals.

He was on wheels - you pressed on the pedals and he walked along, though never with much grace.

Actually, I enjoyed "feeding" him grass and letting him out on the lawn as much as I enjoyed riding him. I played with him for years - for long after I was too big to ride him really.

Finally his mechanism rusted and he spent many more years in the cellar. Sadly we got rid of him when Stephen and I moved back into this house, as there simply wasn't room any more. Then, a few years later, I saw an identical horse in a museum - - yes, that did make me feel old, since you ask!

That intense blast of pure happiness as I unwrapped Pebble is something you don't get very often as an adult. Dogs have it, I think - a happy dog seems to be all happiness - but I don't think people do, or not very often.

But I have had that feeling twice recently, both times in Florida. The first time was when I was swimming in the sea - in the Gulf of Mexico! - and found that there were pelicans fishing next to me. The second time was when I first saw a roadsign that said Cape Canaveral. Fantastic!

I'm writing this in the room where I first found Pebble, which must have happened, I suspect, on December 25th, 1960.

I'm in a room full of the ghosts of Christmas past, and I like that sense of history, that continuity.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Aladdin Tights

A lad in tights, that's what you get in a Christmas pantomime. And bad puns.

And, if the pantomime is Aladdin, you get a girl in tights, playing Aladdin, and she's called the Principal Boy. And a girl in a frock, playing the Princess who marries Aladdin in the end, and she's called the Principal Girl.

Oh yes she is!

If you're in the audience, you will have to shout "Oh yes she is!" or "It's behind you" or "Hello Cuddles" or some such sophisticated slogan at regular intervals.

If you're not from Britain, you might not have a clue what I'm on about. But if you are, the chances are you know exactly what I mean.

The pantomime I saw today was at Middlesbrough Theatre, even further Up North than Leeds, and our actress Alex Hall was the Fairy of the Ring.

It was a terrific, traditional pantomime, with glitter and spangles and old jokes a-plenty.

In case you didn't know, Widow Twankey is a washerwoman, and she's the Dame, which means she's played by a man, and she and her incompetent son Wishee Washee have conversations like this:

"Where did you put the Daz?"
"It's on top of the telly."
"Why did you put it there?"
"Because I couldn't find the Ariel!"

The Dame has lines like this:

"My frock is by Jean-Paul Gaultier and my underwear's by Tupperware. It's not very comfortable but it keeps everything nice and fresh."

Our favourite line of Widow Twankey's was this - - yes, very silly, I know:

"I have never been so insulated in all my loft!"

The Dame had numerous changes of costume. The local dancing school provided many small girls dancing their little socks off. Aladdin was played by Jet from the original series of Gladiators, who still has exactly the kind of thighs to provide interest for many adults in the audience.

Wishee Washee, the incompetent but loveable son, was Craig, who won the first series of Big Brother, and he was very endearing and excellent in all respects except that he really, really couldn't sing. And he had to lead the audience singalong of "I am the music man, I come from down your way, and I can play - - what can I play - - ".

Every time he opened his mouth he was in a different key, if indeed he was in any key at all. The Dame had referred earlier to him singing "in four different keys" and she was so right! But we didn't care, and we helped him through it, because we loved him. It was definitely a wise decision on his part to go for Big Brother and not The X-Factor though.

One of the keys to this panto's success was its attention to detail. There were lots of delightful moments: in the middle of a chase, a very tall policeman climbs into a washing machine and a very small one comes out a short time later.

The cast, I'm told, like each other, and it shows - they were great and the teamwork was excellent. Our Alex Hall, a superb pink and sparkly Fairy of the Ring, was heavily involved in the best routine of the show - a parody of The Twelve Days of Christmas with several of the cast, each with different objects - - seven cups of coffee - - two smelly socks - - oh, you had to be there. The smelly socks went into the audience and I thought some of the smaller children would have to be hospitalised because they laughed so much.

It has a strangely old-fashioned feel in spite of the contemporary references. There was a big sign on the wall outside Widow Twankey's laundry: "Bagee Washee".
A bag wash - - and correct me if I'm wrong, because I'm dredging up this memory from a book I loved as a child, set in the 1920s, The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett - was when the laundry washed everything in a bag for you and returned it to you damp. You've got to be fairly - er - mature in years to even have a chance of knowing that one.

Some of the old panto jokes won't mean much to today's children either, or certainly won't soon:

"He was just like his father, going to Church every Sunday. To nick the lead off the roof."

"My son's got a photographic memory. The trouble is, there's no film in the camera."

And, being a washerwoman, Widow Twankey produced an immaculately starched shirt and dickie-bow tie and sang this sweet little song:

"You need starch to stiffen up your dickie
You need starch to keep it that way
If you stiffen up your dickie in September
It will still be stiff in May."

I've never heard THAT one before but I bet it's been around for some considerable time. Probably started life in some Victorian music-hall.

Because the agency represents several actors who are currently working in pantomimes, I have more pantomimes to see! Oh yes I have! I hope I enjoy them as much as I enjoyed this one.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Things I Liked About America No. 4 - The V.A.B.

This is the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Centre: it's also known as the V.A.B.

It's where they build rockets. It's where they built the rockets that went to the Moon.

Because it's not next to any other buildings, it's hard to tell the scale, but if you look at those little green things at the bottom, they are full-size palm trees. There are some tiny cars too, which aren't really tiny.

So, as you might imagine, the building is very, very big: the fourth biggest building in the world, our guide told us.

The flag was painted on relatively recently.

The blue oblong at the top is the size of a basketball court, apparently. Just to be there, looking at that building, after all these years of watching rockets launched from nearby, was fantastic.

I like the colour of the sky, too.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Okay, It Must Be Christmas Time

Christmas has, of course, crept up on me, and now it's nearly here.

Firstly I was in Florida having a fantastic time: then I came back and the Communist died.

So, as you may imagine, I haven't really given Christmas a lot of thought. And, this year, I've noticed that the supermarkets haven't been playing Christmas songs since about October like they normally do - I don't know why they've stopped, but I'm glad they have. I like it to be at least mid- November before I hear Noddy Holder scream "Merry Christmaaaaaaaaaaaas!"

But there are some songs that I like to hear every Christmas and this is one of them. For some reason it always makes me cry - - but then, I tend to like songs that make me cry.

Staircase Restored

As regular readers will know ("oh yes, that's the blog that goes on and on about the staircase") John has been renovating our staircase.

This you may remember, was a Victorian staircase with spindles, until 1965 when my parents had the spindles boarded in - and a few of them removed - because firstly, it was fashionable; and secondly, it would stop my brother, who was then very young, from falling through the gaps.


The gaps are, indeed, rather wide - much wider than would be permitted nowadays. As a matter of fact, I had played on this staircase in a way that would now be considered highly dangerous, ever since we'd moved in to the house, which was when I was three. Many a doll had abseiled down perilously on a piece of string. Many a mountain rescue had saved a stranded teddy bear from death by starvation near the top. Many an imaginary upstairs conflagration was escaped by me sliding down the banisters at top speed.

And hey! I didn't fall through, or over, at any point, which is probably why I was rather cross that everyone seemed to think that my brother might. Why did they care if he fell through when they hadn't worried that I might?

Also, I loved the look of the old staircase, even then, and I hated the new boarding: but, of course, I was not consulted as I was only little. Grrr.

A few weeks ago John removed the boarding and started work on restoring the staircase. Then we went off to Florida and then the Communist died - - but this week we arranged a time for John to come back and finish it all, and he has.

This is what he did:

Cutting and fitting string patterns

Cutting and fitting tread flanges

Drilling and fitting ball tops

Fitting new spindles

Fitting newel post to top landing

Cutting and fitting corble for newel post

Cutting and fitting extended tread flange

Glueing ball tops

It's a whole new world to me! String patterns! Corble! Tread flanges! Anyway, it now looks great and the hall looks twice the size that it did before.

Next job is to fill in some ancient holes where it was boarded in and so on so it can be painted - yes, Stephen's going to get busy with the filler over his Christmas break, the lucky man.

Then we'll paint it white to match the rest of the hall and then - finally - we'll get a new carpet to replace the 1977 one.

Just as a reminder, here's how it all looked before John and I had a conversation which resulted in him poking a screwdriver through to see if any spindles remained:

One of the last conversations with the Communist that I had about the house was an update on how it was all coming along.

"I was wrong to do it," he said about the boarding, shaking his head ruefully.

Even then, him saying that made me want to cry, and I had to change the subject. Old Communists are not known for admitting they've ever been wrong about anything.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Illegally, In a Dark Wood

There were only two plays that were ever put on by the secondary school that I attended. They weren't really the kind of things that would be a guaranteed hit with teenage girls, but it was a Girls' Grammar School and everything we did was supposed to be Educational with a capital E.

The two plays were the six-hundred-years-old Mak, the Sheep Stealer and the short opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was written by GianCarlo Menotti and became famous on television in the Fifties.

So it was a bit of a coincidence that my friend David decided to put them both on this Christmas. If you're going to put plays on in a wood, a few days before Christmas, you need a large bonfire to keep everyone warm.

I'm not going to tell you where this performance took place. It was in a wood. Somewhere in England. The reason I'm not telling you exactly where, was that Health and Safety said there couldn't be a bonfire in case it got out of control and burned down the whole of England, just like it hasn't done every other year that they've performed there.

They had a bonfire anyway. So there.

In spite of the British weather lots of people came: here are some of them, watching the play:

Some of the audience were given torches to shine on the actors' faces and there were some lights strung up in the trees and the effect was magical.

Sadly for me, as soon as the second play, Amahl and the Night Visitors, began, I remembered it all too clearly. Not this play version, which was great, but the opera, which, I now remembered, I was involved in somehow at school - probably stage-managing, I did a lot of that - and I remembered hating it with a Great Hatred for its worthy-but-dullness. Plot: the Three Kings arrive at naughty young Amahl's house and they stay there for a bit and then Amahl goes with them to see the infant Jesus. It's like a subplot from The Life Of Brian, but - in the opera version at least - with far less comedy.

Still, thank goodness this wasn't the opera version because it was, I remembered, the turgid tediousness of this particular opera which gave me a towering dislike of, and prejudice against, opera - - and that has persisted to this day.

Mak, the Sheep Stealer, on the other hand, I absolutely loved. Thankfully, David had done his own adaptation so it wasn't the dreary version we had at school. I was in it at school, playing some dozy shepherd or other, and I remember there was a lot of clapping in rhythm. "MAK-THE-SHEEP- STEALER!" The school I went to could have made anything dull.

The plot is: Mak steals a sheep: the shepherds come to his house to look for it: he has hidden it in the cradle: the shepherds leave: then oops! they come back to give what they think is a new baby a present: they find the sheep: Mak tries to convince them it's not a sheep but a slightly ugly baby: they don't believe him and toss him in a blanket.

Here's the sheep, pretending to be a baby:

It was very funny, thanks to David's great script, some excellent acting and a superb sheep.

I left everyone singing carols and getting all Christmassy. The bonfire was still burning brightly and, as far as I know, the whole of England is not yet burned to a crisp.

Friday, December 19, 2008

How Lovely Are Your Branches

Here's the stunning piece of contemporary art that was created in our front room this afternoon:

The traditional dinosaur on the top:

No, I don't know why the dinosaur. I take no part in the putting-up-the-tree bit of Christmas. It's not my job. But still, jolly cheery eh?

Here's Vienna's Boys' Choir singing about it all:



Great singing, lads, though I'm not sure about the collars.

Here's the translation:

The people's flag is deepest red
It shrouded oft our martyred dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold
Their hearts' blood dyed to every fold

Chorus:
Then raise the scarlet standard high
Beneath its folds we'll live and die
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer
We'll keep the red flag flying here

Well, that's how it went in our house, anyway, when I was growing up. It was quite some years before I realised that most people thought it was about a Christmas tree with lovely branches.

You've got to admit that "It shrouded oft our martyred dead" has a bit more kick to it than "How lovely are your branches." All together now!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

It Helps Me Focus

"Oh yes," said Luisa, "it helps me focus."

She was explaining, last night, on Police, Camera Action (to which I'm slightly addicted) how a bit of alcohol - - just a couple of shots of spirits and a few lagers - helps her to drive better.

Funny thing, alcohol. It helps you to drive better in exactly the same way that it makes all the men in the room more attractive suddenly, and all the jokes funnier.

Luisa was one of a group of five people who said that they regularly drink and drive and expected to carry on doing so, because it doesn't harm their driving, and they're under the limit anyway, and if they're not, by any chance, they're very unlikely to get caught.

Ah yes, the limit. It's thirty-five, apparently. Thirty five what? Furlongs per fortnight? Anyway, whatever it is, if you're breathalysed and you're over thirty-five, that's it, you're pissed and shouldn't be driving.

So how many drinks does it take to get to thirty-five? Well, that's the trouble. It varies completely, depending upon how big you are, and how much you've eaten, and all sorts of other things.

They tested the five drink-and-drivers. One stupid cow (yes, I know, not very balanced writing, but it's my blog so I don't care) said she regularly drives after drinking eight - - that's EIGHT - - Malibu-and-Cokes.

But, surprisingly, after her eight Malibu-and-Cokes she only registered four on the up-to-thirty-five scale, probably because she drinks such a lot that she's accustomed to it, or something.

Meanwhile, giggly it-helps-me-focus-better Luisa was found, after her usual night out's worth of drinks, to be three times over the limit. "Oops," she giggled. Hilarious, eh?

But being under the limit isn't the whole story. They tested everyone on a driving simulation machine and even the people who were way under the limit were still driving much more badly and much more dangerously than when they were sober.

Meanwhile, we viewers saw professional footballer Luke McCormick - who had been driving along the M6 at about ninety miles an hour with twice the driving limit of alcohol inside him - in a police station. His car had forced another car off the road and he had killed two boys age eight and ten. We saw him as he got the news that they had died. It was hard to watch: though harder to watch the two boys' parents talking about it.

At the end of the programme they took the five habitual drink-drivers outside, blindfolded, and then got them to take their blindfolds off and look at the horrific state of the actual car in which the two boys died.

They were shocked, and said lots of things like "Oh no, I'll never drink and drive again."

Now why, why on earth, do people need to see the actual car to realise that driving whilst drunk can KILL PEOPLE TO DEATH? Are we a nation of unimaginative morons?

Anyway, the conclusions the programme drew were these:

a) that it's impossible to tell whether you're over the limit or not, as it varies so much from person to person

and

b) that even if you're under the limit your driving is very likely to be impaired

So, putting these two things together, surely the thing to do is to cut the drink-driving limit to nil. No alcohol. None at all.

An easy legal limit to understand, even for Stupid Malibu-and-Coke Cow: or for it-helps-me-focus moron Luisa: or for the unpleasant five-pints-and-a-Range-Rover man, or for anyone else, no matter how dim or misguided.

If you've drunk alcohol, you don't drive, because it's illegal. Simple.

Then everyone would know where they were. And for some people, where they were would be sitting at home on the sofa watching The Snowman on television, instead of lying in a crumpled heap in the road, or lying all nice and straight in the mortuary.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Boggins Brothers' Corporate Christmas Card

I happen to like sending Christmas cards. So I tend to send rather a lot. This year there won't be as many as usual, because - - well, you know. The Communist's death and all that. I don't feel very Christmassy, to be frank.

But from the company where I work, we've sent out proper Christmas cards made of - well, card. For the past few years they have been specially designed for us by John, because I hate that "Corporate Christmas Card" look, with a badly-painted Victorian-type snow scene and "Season's Greetings from Boggins Brothers" inside and signatures pre-printed on the card.

The cards that John designs for us are quirky and different, interesting and attractive (rather like many of our actors, in fact) and I send them to people whom I genuinely want to send them to, to thank people who've employed our actors or who are generally an actor-friendly Good Thing.

This year, however, Boggins Brothers and their ilk have moved on. They no longer send their horrible Corporate Christmas Cards.

Instead they send me an email.

It has a crudely-drawn Santa on it and he has some gimmicky thing like a flashing red nose.

The email reads like this:

BOGGINS BROTHERS ARE NOT SENDING ANY CHRISTMAS CARDS THIS YEAR.

INSTEAD WE ARE MAKING A DONATION TO CHARITY.

SEASON'S GREETINGS TO ALL OUR CUSTOMERS.

I suppose it's bad form to reply with "Okay, HOW MUCH have you given to charity? And WHICH charity? Kindly email me the receipt by return as proof."

Is it just cynical old me? Or is it rather that they've hit on a brilliant method to save lots of money spent on cards and postage and time spent sending them - - and claim the moral high ground at the same time!

Subtext - - - "We enlightened souls here at Boggins Brothers know better than to go despoiling the environment by chopping down trees and, unlike you inferior lot who are still sending cards made of card, we are going to save the Third World at the same time. Yay us!"

That does not, of course, mean that I don't like e-cards from friends - I love them. And I don't mind, of course, if someone genuinely does give the money to charity instead of buying cards. It's just the corporate-cop-out thing I don't like.

One company, however - a small company, excellent, run by a husband-and-wife team - sent me a plain email explaining that they were going to make a donation to charity instead of sending cards, and that was fine, because I know that they will actually do this.

And they sent us a box of chocolates too!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Money I Get When I'm Dead

Well, it's a week and a day since the Communist died.

Most people, perhaps, don't talk to their parents as often as I talked to mine. When I was at Leeds University, I lived at home for most of the time. I did move out for about six months and lived in a friend's house, because he was working away from Leeds.

The Communist couldn't understand this really, except it was nearer to the university. I remember him saying "Well, you wouldn't have moved out otherwise, would you?"

As a matter of fact, I did want to move out - I was fed up of living at home. I was nineteen and wanted my own space. The last bus home was ten past eleven and I frequently did a fast sprint through the city centre to catch it. It was the time of the Yorkshire Ripper, but I never seemed to think that it was a bad idea to wander round Leeds late at night on my own.

The only time I've lived away from Leeds, when I lived in Cardiff for four years, I rang my parents a couple of times a week: then we moved back to Leeds and lived at Oakwood, about a mile from their house. Then we moved again, to Meanwood, again no more than a mile and half away.

Finally, we bought their house - the house where I grew up - and they had a house built in its garden. My mother still lives there.

Until the Communist was taken into hospital in May 2007, I would go over every night at about eleven o'clock and spend half an hour with them. I still do this with my mother.

We'd talk about the events of the day: they'd drive me nuts giving me blow-by-blow accounts of television programmes that they'd watched and I hadn't: the Communist would remind me of things that I needed to do and I was usually too tired to want to think about them.

One of these things was his life insurance policy, which he always called "The Money I Get When I'm Dead."

"Don't forget it," he'd say. "It's all in the filing cabinet. My will and all that. And don't forget the money I get when I'm dead."

"Yes, Dad, I know. Can we talk about something else now?"

When we used to have those conversations, I would think ahead to the day when we wouldn't, because he'd be dead. And now I'm thinking back, from a time when he's dead, to a time when we had those conversations. Strange.

Though he refused to even consider that one day he might have a funeral, he had, whilst he still could, labelled everything in the filing cabinet, just in case his belief in his own immortality proved misguided.

After he'd died, when we started to look, it wasn't too complicated to find everything, including the policy for The Money I Get When I'm Dead. And they'd better pay up sharpish so my mother has some money, after having to pay £2300 to the Communist's nursing home every month since January.

As I said, I used to talk to my parents very often. And, believe it or not, I think that the week-and-a-day since he died is the longest I've ever gone without speaking to the Communist since I first learned to speak - which was when I was very young indeed - I know this won't surprise you!

It feels like a bad joke that's gone too far. Come on, the joke's over. Bring my Dad back. I want to tell him about his funeral.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Things I Liked About America No. 3 - The Light

Lots of people said to me before I went that Florida has No Scenery and that I would not like this because, of course, I come from a hilly part of the world and that's what I like.

And, to a certain extent, that's true: in general I prefer scenery with hills.

But then I saw the light. Literally.

Fantastic azure-blue during the day:

and here's the same place at sunset:

Stunning beaches:

stunning clouds:

If this is a place with no scenery, I'd be prepared to stare at its non-scenery for a very, very long time.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Things I Liked About America No. 2: Boat-Tailed Grackles

I like trying to identify birds and so before I went to Florida I had a quick look on the interclacker to see which birds I might see.

My attention was caught by a superb bird name - a Boat-Tailed Grackle.

Who could not love such a bird?

At the Kennedy Space Centre, there were birds everywhere - large, black birds, a bit like a British blackbird but larger and gawkier. There were also brown ones with the black ones and at the superb Billie Swamp Safari I saw this one:

They were all Boat-Tailed Grackles: the males are black, the females are brown. Like many of the Florida birds, they have long legs and big feet.

Boat-Tailed Grackle. Wonderful.

Sunshine

Here's the Communist modelling his costume for a play in 1993, when he was seventy: he's at the studio of the Grand Theatre in Leeds:

The play was A House by the Sea, by Stuart Fortey, and the Communist played a theatre porter who went to a fancy-dress party with lots of actors - the play was set during the first night of Chekhov's The Seagull.

The porter tried to impress them with his sun costume and they all failed completely to notice him.

The porter's key line was "Very good, your costume" which he said in the hope that they would compliment him on his. They didn't.

Until I saw this photo, which Stuart Fortey kindly sent to me this week, I'd almost forgotten where the line came from. It has passed into our family history and we say it every time anyone gets dressed up in any way.

"Very good, your costume."

Occasionally we say the line that my grandmother, the Communist's mother, used to say in her strong Eastern European accent, which was "I wish you well to wear it."

And occasionally we say the line that my other grandmother, my mother's mother, used to say, which was "It's lovely from the back." We were never sure how to take that one.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Croissants and Other Healthy Food

When I went to America I knew that there was going to be plenty of food that I'd like, but also plenty of food that would not be good for me, and I knew I would have to be careful.

So, with a few exceptions, I tried to eat very carefully, because of course I'm diabetic and I'm used to being pretty choosy about what I eat. Otherwise I feel terrible, and I didn't want to ruin the holiday.

So, apart from one occasion when I had about eleventeen helpings of no-added-sugar cherry crumble at a buffet restaurant called the Golden Corral, I was pretty good about it all. And, for goodness' sake, it was no-added-sugar. (I loved the buffets though. I hope they never introduce them to Britain. I'd eat there all the time and gain about ten stone).

When I got back to Britain I found that I had lost two pounds in weight. Hurrah!

But, of course, I came back to Dad's illness, death and funeral. Has all this stress rendered me completely unable to eat, all pale-and-interesting? No chance.

Since I got back I have eaten precisely what I've felt like. And what I've felt like has been croissants, mostly. With butter. Not just croissants, obviously. But mostly.

As well as croissants I've eaten toast. And crumpets. And Viennese whirls. And Scotch pancakes. And apple pies. And Bakewell tarts. The only trace left of my usual diet is porridge. And occasionally some fruit, though not nearly as much as normal. One apple and then I'm back to the croissants. After the funeral yesterday I was pleased to see that there were croissants at the hotel, too. I added nutritional balance, of course: as soon as I'd had a croissant with ham and cheese I made sure I then had another with just butter.

And have I not eaten any proper meals in the middle of all this Patisserie Mountain?

Well, I've had one meal of fish and chips and last night we had an Indian take-away.

Oh, and in the middle of a meeting at Leeds University I surreptitiously ate a Snickers bar.

And that's it since I stepped off the plane from Orlando on Friday last week.

Physically, I feel perfectly well, and I haven't put on any weight at all.

Clearly, there is a time for a Fat and Sugar Mountain, and this is it.

I'm going shopping tomorrow. I think I'll be buying rather a lot of salad.

Friday, December 12, 2008

A Grand Goodbye

So, in a photograph that you may have seen before, here I am with The Communist in 1960, before he grew his beard and even before I got my glasses:

And here's our favourite recent photograph, which was taken by Silverback on my mother's birthday, April 20th this year:

I didn't want us all to be looking at the coffin whilst we talked about the Communist, so, with Silverback's permission, we had the photo made into a huge poster which was propped in front of the lectern at the crematorium and then we put it on the wall at the hotel where we went afterwards.

It was a wonderful funeral. My brother Michael and I pointed out at the beginning that it was not, of course, at all what the Communist would have wanted - he wanted a trip to Tenby, a seafood salad, a false leg and to sing us some of the many hundreds of songs he knew. At eighty-five, he really wanted to carry on living.

Very many of his friends and relatives came - some from a long way away. I'd particularly like to thank Ruth who has been manning our office and driving up and down the roads to Oxford on what seems like a near-daily basis recently. Many others who couldn't get there sent lovely messages. Ruth Horsley, (a different Ruth from the one mentioned earlier!) who was the Celebrant who ran it, had done a fantastic job - several people assumed that she had known the Communist well, and she had never met him - she'd listened carefully as we talked about him one evening earlier in the week and written it all up beautifully.

Our friend David made a great speech, mostly about the Communist's acting, and also he read an excerpt from a lovely email sent to me by Silverback. Sid, who has been the Communist's best friend for over seventy years, (and who is Another Communist) also made an excellent speech of which the part that moved me the most was when he said, "Knowing Ron has made me a better person."

John took some photographs afterwards - I was so pleased when he offered to do this as there are never photos taken at funerals, and yet it's great to see everyone.

I'd like to finish with just two of the many lovely messages that we've received.

From Martin Riley (actor, writer and all-round Good Thing):

My love to you and to everyone today - thinking of that big hearted theatre-loving man of the people, Ronnie, who always took an interest in us all and was always ready and up for an adventure of the heart and mind. His spirit really does live on - that energy, in all of us - a great afterlife for a traditional Jewish Communist.

And from Steve Anderson, actor and friend:

A beautiful soul in a ragged overcoat.

Thank you, thank you, everyone.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Holding Hands

My mother's hands are small and delicate. The Communist's weren't: his hands were large, his fingers were broad. He was short and stocky and had the hands of a coalminer: he was a Bevin Boy during the war and there were still blue streaks of coal dust under his skin. His hands were always strong: there was never a jar he couldn't open and if anything needed the application of brute force, he was your man.

My hands are only slightly smaller and look like his, and I've always been aware of this. I can span an octave easily on the piano: nine notes at a pinch. But my playing lacks a certain delicacy, and when you see my hands you know why. I have some of his strength too: I'm pretty good on the opening-jars front myself.

On Sunday night, knowing he was dying and that it might be the last time I saw our hands together, I took this picture on my phone's camera. My hand on the left, with its Florida suntan: the Communist's on the right, pale from being too long indoors.

And tomorrow's his funeral. We went to see him today, in his coffin, and I was glad I did, though I said my proper goodbye to him on Sunday, whilst he was still alive.

Here's a verse which a friend of ours discovered once in a newspaper In Memoriam column. The writer had clearly adapted it from someone else's verse, and not picked up on the fact that it was supposed to rhyme.

He knocked upon the doors of Heaven
The angel shouted "Come!"
The pearly gates flew open wide
And in walked Dad.

The Communist loved it. I can picture him now, laughing heartily at it. I can still hear his laughter in my head, and it's strange to think that I will never hear it again.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Receipt of Kindness

When the Communist was alive it was often a real problem dealing with the bureaucracy of hospitals and Social Services.

Now he's dead, suddenly everything is easy and everyone is being lovely to us.

I did a roleplay job today and those people I was working for are lovely anyway - but today, everyone was specially kind to me. The roleplay was a new one and had been planned since August and I really didn't want to let them down and not do it.

My brother Michael and I have made many, many phone calls this week to officials, relatives and friends and everyone has been absolutely charming.

Because I'm not religious, my philosophy of life can be crystallised into a rather vague "we should be nice to each other". In the past couple of days, everyone has been delightful to us. Some people, of course, always are.

It's a shame that all this kindness only kicks in with some people, though, when you preface whatever you're saying with "My father died on Monday".

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Snappy

A tricky beast, the American Alligator.

We drove along Alligator Alley and didn't see one of them. "Get me an alligator and make it snappy!" I cried with hilarious originality. I don't know why everyone groaned.

As soon as we turned off I-75, however, suddenly they were everywhere. Clearly they just don't like to be too predictable.

We spotted this one on the far side of a little river. Huge, he was. Enormous. About forty feet long.

Okay, well maybe not quite that. Perhaps about seven feet. Big, anyway. He was basking in the sun and we stopped the car and got out to take some photos.

After a few moments, he slid into the water - you can see his tail disappearing.

And then there was this:

Nothing but a few ripples. And suddenly it all looked a bit like the East of England, though with rather more sunshine than is usually found near Norwich.

At this point, however, we all worked out that we know something about alligators. And it's that they spend most of their time being very, very still. But when they want to move, they can move very, very fast.

Suddenly I found myself thinking of that scene in Crocodile Dundee where the crocodile rushes out of the water at top speed, and we all thought that it really might be a good idea to get back to the car.

There are lots of pretty stretches of water in Florida. But you wouldn't want to go for a paddle.

Yes, it looks rather like East Anglia.
East Anglia with sunshine. And East Anglia with alligators.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Finally

My Dad, the Communist, died at about eight o'clock this morning.

He was a bit of a contradiction. A fervent atheist who lived his life by what most people would term Christian principles: a Communist who abhorred all violence: an anti-monarchist who would, if the Queen had turned up on his doorstep, have invited her in for a cuppa.

Most of all, a very kind man who valued his family above all else.

For anyone who knows him and would like to come, his funeral will be this Friday, 12th December 2008, at 9am (yes, rather too early but the only time we could get) at Lawnswood Crematorium, Leeds.

Of course, the title of this blog remains the same because my Dad will always be in my memories and my thoughts: I'm not going to put it into the past tense. No My Dad Was a Communist, no way.

I'll write more soon.

Meanwhile:

RONALD HARRY BLASS (always Ron or Ronnie, never Ronald)

aka THE COMMUNIST

born 14th September 1923
died 8th December 2008

RIP with lots of love from us all

Things I Liked About America No. 1

I plan some short posts about Things I Liked About America. Or about the Florida parts of it that I visited, anyway.

They'll be in no particular order - I stress this - and here's my first mention:

This is a lifeguard's hut on the beach in Miami. Could it be any more American if it tried?

Oh, yes, and I won't be following these up in a cynical-Brit way with a series of posts about things that I didn't like. I didn't go to find fault - I went to find out, and to enjoy, and I had a fantastic time.

(Okay, I didn't like the white American butter as much as yellow British butter. But that's the extent of my don't-likes. I'm stopping right there).

Talking to the Communist

I spent a long time sitting with the Communist tonight in the semi-dark, just holding his hand and talking, telling him about Florida and about all the people who love him, myself included.

It was a good thing to do, to say everything I wanted to say to him like that. He couldn't really speak much but eventually coughed a lot, opened his eyes and said "So Deb's coming tomorrow."

Deb is my brother's wife, who's flying over from Amsterdam tomorrow and thanks also to her sister who is flying from England to Amsterdam to look after Michael and Deb's two little girls.

He was quite peaceful. I don't think he knows quite how ill he is, and he's always told me he wouldn't want to know, so I won't tell him unless he asks directly.

I keep having a strange mental picture of a future time when I tell the Communist all about it, and how ill he was, and we both marvel at how rattly his chest was: and yet it's highly unlikely, in fact nearly impossible, that this will ever happen.

What a strange, strange time. I should be jetlagged, since I only arrived back from America yesterday, but here I am, wide awake. Perhaps it will catch up with me tomorrow.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Communist Update

Of course I went to visit the Communist as soon as I got back yesterday and he was very weak but perfectly coherent: although he sometimes couldn't reply to what I said he could certainly understand as I told him all about Florida and the Kennedy S;ace Centre, a place he would have loved to have visited.

He was longing for a cup of tea - he greeted me with "Ah! So can I have a cup of tea now?" but was sadly unable to swallow - when I tried him on a tiny sip of the nasty thickened gloop he's supposed to be drinking, he coughed and choked.

And that's the thing. He can't swallow. So although he's got a line in to hydrate him, he just can't eat and they think that putting in a feeding tube would simply cause him more distress than it's worth, and my brother and I agree. And without food, of course, he is really deteriorating fast.

So we're going down to the hospital now. I will let you know when there is more news, and many thanks to you all for your good wishes.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Back in Blighty

After the Florida sunset of the last photo that I put on this blog, here's one of today's sunset. Stephen took it on the outskirts of Leeds, whilst collecting our cat Froggie from the cattery (yes, she was fine, and purred all the way home).

As you can see, it's somewhat colder here than it was in Florida, damn it.

Before the jetlag hits me and I become unable to string two words together, I want to say a huge public THANK YOU to Silverback's friends Debby and Dennis for their friendliness, fun and for their hospitality to Stephen and me - and, of course, a huge THANK YOU to Silverback himself - whom, of course, I met through this blog.

Taking the risk of embarrassing Silverback (I don't care, for once!) I am going to say that he brought to our holiday warmth, good humour, kindness, immaculate planning, superb room-rate negotiation skills, great photos, much wit and a fantastic selection of venues to visit plus a calm hand on the maps and satnav to get us there.

That's what he brought. What did he take?

The piss, that's what. Out of me. Lots. And I enjoyed every minute.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Sunshine and Carols

Tomorrow we return to Britain. We've had a fantastic time here and I'll write more when I get back.

Silverback tells me - with, I felt, a certain relish as he's got several more months in Florida before returning to Britain - that about two hundred schools in the Yorkshire region were closed because of snow.

Today we went on two tours in the Everglades, both fascinating. The temperature reached eighty degrees Fahrenheit and the sun blazed down.

As we saw alligators, deer, wild pigs, bison, turtles and many different kinds of birds, the gift shop played "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night." I have never been abroad in the winter before and this kind of thing never ceases to amaze me.

Here's a photo of me, taken a few days ago, on a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. I am taking a photo of one of the many glorious sunsets that we have seen.

The Communist has been sitting out in a chair today, back in hospital in Leeds. He's by no means out of the woods yet but is certainly considerably better.

I'll tell you more when I'm back home, on Saturday. It's very hard to imagine snow and ice. but soon I won't need to imagine it; I'll be there.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

A Small Improvement

The doctor predicted that the Communist would be dead by yesterday morning: but the Communist had other ideas.

So he's a tiny bit better but still critically ill with kidney failure and all sorts. But I know that, because he likes being alive and has no belief in the afterlife, he will keep going as long as he can. He's always said "If ever I have a terminal illness, don't tell me, I don't want to know".

We fly back from Florida on Friday and I have asked my brother, who's in Leeds, to tell the Communist thatI send him lots of love, that I'll see him on Saturday and if he's not better by then there'll be trouble. This is the kind of thing I'd usually say - anything more sentimental and he'd think he was dying, and panic.

Meanwhile, here, in spite of the worry of it all, we have had a truly wonderful day - a boat trip round Fort Lauderdale - where Johnny Depp grew up! - a superb meal at the fascinating Hard Rock Cafe in Miami. and then a visit to the glorious Art Deco buildings along the beach.

It's odd that I've managed to have such a great day in the middle of all this. It's strange being in two worlds at once. I so hope that I'll get the chance to tell the Communist about the Florida world.

Many thanks to all those who have left lovely comments on my last post - they are very much appreciated.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Suddenly

Before I left, although the Communist was as well as he gets these days, I said a very fulsome farewell to him, because he's eighty-five after all, and you never know, do you?

And then I rang him for a brief chat every day from America, because you never know, do you? I think there was one day when he didn't answer, because he was asleep or couldn't reach the phone or something, but I managed to talk to him every other day.

The last time I spoke to him was from the Kennedy Space Centre, on our second day there - a place that he would have loved to have visited, if he hadn't been a Communist, that is, and known he would never go to America. He's always loved space travel and it was that which sparked my interest initially.

He sounded a bit chesty but not too bad. The last thing I said to him was "I'll ring you tomorrow, lots of love."

The next day when I rang, he didn't answer.

Now he's in hospital with double pneumonia and kidney failure, and the doctors are pessimistic about his chances of pulling through this time.

Of course, this was the worst-case scenario that I envisaged when we booked the Florida trip. Thank goodness my brother Michael (who sometimes leaves comments on this blog as Michael Communistson) is in Leeds at the moment and can look after my mother, who is eighty-four and really won't be coping well, I know.

It all feels strangely unreal.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Photography and Palm Trees


I have always loved taking photographs and can't remember a time when I didn't own a camera - firstly an ancient Box Brownie and then for most years of my childhood an Instamatic 100. I am not particularly technically-minded (I can hear the loud chorus of hysterical laughter from those who know me) but you may remember that, when I was in Barcelona a few weeks ago, I hit on Daphne's Theory of Photography and it is this:

ANY PHOTOGRAPH LOOKS BETTER WITH A PALM TREE IN IT

(there might be an exclusion clause for ones taken at the North or South Poles, but otherwise I think it's pretty universal)

Here are some palm trees in Barcelona:

Here in Florida there are lots of different kinds but they all have those cheery tops like little explosions, rather like that Manchester sculpture The B of the Bang.

Has anyone ever said "Palm trees! They're just so depressing, aren't they?" I don't think so. I can't look at them without smiling.

Also, of course, there could be something in the theory that the places where palm trees are found tend to make me smile too.

Language Lessons

I am beginning to learn at least some of the language.

We all know some of it of course, from American films and television.

A mobile is a cellphone. A block of flats is a condominium. Toilets are restrooms - - oh yes, a slight diversion here which probably tells us much about the contrast between Britain and America.

For in Britain the doors in toilet cubicles fit as snugly as possible to the floor, the walls on each side are often solid, and there is hardly any gap between the door and the hinges. Heaven forbid that anyone else should see us on t'bog, as they don't say round here.

The old joke in Britain (one of the very many) when I was a student was to write on the bottom of the inside of the toilet door “Beware of limbo dancers”. Well, here in America even a beginner limbo dancer could get underneath, so wide is the gap: and they could probably squeeze between the door frame and the side with the hinges for an encore.

I'm thinking of doing a doctorate on what precisely this tells us about the difference between the American psyche and the British one.

Anyway, back to the words: I didn't know, until Silverback told me, that an estate of houses is a subdivision. One of those great big mobile-home things that is pulled by a truck is called a 5th Wheel.

The food is very different too: we know that jelly is jello and that chips are French fries. But what, for example, are these?

The little round yellow one looks like what I would call a bun, and what poshos would call a fairy cake. But it isn't: it's a corn muffin. Somewhat of the consistency of madeira cake but not sweet and you eat it with a savoury dish. (Though I didn't – I ate it on its own with butter and it was delicious).

The round white one that looks like a scone is called a biscuit. Of course, what I would call a biscuit is called a cookie here. But this American biscuit, rather scone-like in texture, is, again, not sweet. But signs offering “Chicken and Biscuits” take a bit of getting used to. Again, you're supposed to eat it with a savoury dish and I didn't – I ate it with butter and it was great. The butter, by the way, is the consistency of whipped cream and is startlingly white.

See, it's not all white sand and palm trees and blue seas. This trip is very educational. That's the only reason I came here, honest.