Culture: A picture of a picture.

This week’s photo challenge caused me a serious problem. The title is culture. I was confused, as culture for me is a hotchpotch of different ideas I couldn’t quite put my finger on, let alone illustrate or immortalise in a picture. What exactly is culture? How is it defined? Can one picture alone express the essence of culture?

I hesitated a long time before finally going out in the rain to take this photo yesterday. The derelict gymnasium in our village has been decorated by young local street artists. They are talented, and their culture will inspire until it is either replaced by another painting, or the wall disappears.

On the wall, once constructed for a purpose and now a reuseable concrete support for expression, there is this artistic contribution to culture. The depiction of the culture we may leave for our youngsters: a landscape of broken, half-demolished buildings that were once the pride of their workers. The bleak prospect of a monochrome world where the sky alone provides colour and warmth.  The harmonica-playing man looks out at you. His  eyes speak volumes about the sad world he has been painted into, asking for help to escape into the green grass of the real world that tickles his knuckles……..

Copyright Multifarious meanderings.

Copyright Multifarious meanderings.

Madame Cougar and the green-eyed monster.

Since last night, a green-eyed monster has been gnawing away at me. Sitting on my shoulder, it has been whispering maliciously into my ear. Driving me wild with its insidious suggestions. Its name is Jealousy.

The Lady and the Monster

The Lady and the Monster (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It all started before dinner, when Bigfoot put his size eleven in it right up to the ankle (as you can see, we don’t call our number one son « Bigfoot » for nothing).  He looked slyly at me over his glass, and a smirk spread slowly across his face. “Did Dad tell you what happened to him today?” To my surprise, P.F started to wriggle uncomfortably beside me, muttering “I told you not to tell your mum”. Bigfoot’s smile widened and his eyes sparkled with mischief as they probed my startled face. I intercepted his hand and slapped it away as it descended on the bowl of Pringles. “Spit it out, Buster!”

Bigfoot was more than happy to deliver the goods, with a few extra bells and whistles to make the story better. P.F had been shamelessly chatted up on his way home from work. Not only had his decrepid old genitor scored, but he had been obliged to fight off not one, not two, not three, but an entire pride of four sex-deprived cougars with his bare hands as he waited innocently for the tram. As my chin hit the coffee table, Bigfoot’s hand shot out and grabbed a huge wedge of crisps that he victoriously crammed into his mouth before settling into his armchair for the parental showdown, which promised to be better entertainment than Kramer Vs Kramer and Rocky rolled into one.

I turned to a now amused PF for an explanation. He explained that as he waited at the bus stop, a pack of four vixens started peering around the partition at him. (Bus stops are apparently a rich hunting ground for city-dwelling cougars in search of fresh prey. You live and learn.) Then they went to the ticket machine one by one, checking him out as they did so. Then one stopped to tell him what beautiful eyes he had. At this point in the story, my stomach flipped over like a greasy fried egg. The woman had then continued to tell him that she was sure he had women falling at his feet non-stop because of those gorgeous blue eyes. And that it was just incredible how much he looks like French actor Thierry L’Hermitte. At this point, the greasy egg in my stomach attempted to flop out of the scorching pan that was burning a hole in my solar plexus. I gingerly enquired how my hero had replied to her sassy, pseudo-sensual soliloquy.  “Well, I said: Thank you, someone’s already said that”. I roared in protest, resisting the temptation to crack him over the head with my beer bottle. “Hey! It wasn’t just somebody, it was your bloody wife, sunshine!

Thanks to Quill, Mose, Kate & Willow ...

Drooling in anticipation, the cougar on the number seven bus casually flicked her tail and asked her unsuspecting victim if this seat was taken. (Photo credit: Corvidaceous).

But it wasn’t over yet. Our bus stop babe was on a merciless, no holds-barred hunt for a man, and as her fellow felines looked on approvingly from the suburban equivalent of the pampa grasses, she went for his emotional jugular with her best shot – a petulant, bitter and heart-wrenching “… but men like you are never single”.

I was seething with anger. In my head, I was there, living the moment. The anti-heroine of a sordid story of bus-stop seduction. Children giggled with their mothers, teenagers listened to music on their headphones and parents returned home to the family cave from a hard day hunting their daily pay check. A prowling tigress was circling her prey, preparing to pounce on the father of my children – my sidekick, my friend, my lover, my…. ok, that’s enough Mills & Boon. What is more, she was doing so with all the alacrity and finesse of a pot-bellied French politician in a bath towel stalking an unsuspecting cleaning lady as she cleans under the bed.

I hated her to hell and back. The brassy, audacious, toadying ratbag. How could she blatantly make eyes at my husband? She had no excuse – after all, the fact that he’s married is written all over the fourth finger of his left hand. And as she said herself, if it looks to good to be true, it probably is. Hell, didn’t she know that the only other females I allow to look at him are his daughter and his mother? My jaw unhinged in silence as I gaped at her barefaced cheek, and marvelled at the surging rage that had torn through my guts at the mere idea of a rival trying to push in and pinch my husband – even for five minutes at the bus stop – after twenty years of marriage. Oh, yes…. jealously is still alive and kicking. And it was Mrs Cougar I wanted to kick. Right into the middle of next week.

PF smiled and told me it was no big deal. As I expected, he attempted to sooth my ruffled feathers by telling me that just like the nubile young students who have fluttered their Rimmelled windscreen-wipers at Môôôsieur in the past, Madame Cougar was as big as bus, smelled like a skunk, had one eye in the middle of her forehead and was otherwise no competition whatsoever for my Nefertiti-esque beauty, charm, wit and style.

He can read me like a book. He grinned at me, stroked my arm and said,  “Don’t worry. I did the same as Bruce Willis in that film we watched together: I showed her my hand and waggled my wedding ring finger at her.” Oh, boy. If I’d been there, fingers would waggled too. But not the same ones. Before I proceeded to hang her upside-down off the nearest lamp post with her leopardskin print knickers over her head and a feather duster stuck in their place. So hands off, honey. He’s already been spoken for – by me…… and my green-eyed monster.

Holiday Hoo-ha.

My elderly neighbour practically lost her top teeth in surprise to see the kids playing in the garden today: “What, they’re on holiday again?” I had to agree with her – the last holidays seem like yesterday. Or six weeks ago, to be exact. No sooner have I heaved a sigh of relief as my offspring go back to school that they are all on holiday again. For two whole weeks.

Tension rises in the Playmo household in week two of the school holidays.

Tension rises in the Playmo household in week two of the school holidays.

Yes, I am an unworthy mother, and I assume it. My nemesis, Wonder Woman, has a neatly packed drawer full of organic recipe books for under-tens and fabulous activity ideas photocopied from her latest copy of Smartypants Parenting Magazine. These rub shoulders with the ecologically sound colouring books made of papyrus and llama spit bought for children whose chemical-free, textile-friendly felt pens never dare to venture the wrong side of the black line. Dressed in fresh white organic cotton clothing that is painfully devoid of ketchup or Nutella stains, WW’s offspring play quietly on the cream carpet whilst she admires them and hums in contentment, sipping from her cup of free-trade green tea like something out of a French electricity board TV advert.

The situation chez MM is slightly different. The only cream colour on our red carpet is the hair that Smelly Dog sheds as fast as I can hoover. I work from home as the jobs come in, so my offspring often have to take initiatives to keep themselves entertained. Nevertheless, I sometimes find them rubbing round my legs like hungry cats meowing for a meal. “I’m bored!” or “There’s nothing to do!” are invariably followed by that all-time classic, “Can I call a friend?”

So a little like the mountain that won’t come to Muhammad, school comes to my kids if they can’t go to school. Little My’s girfriends turn up and each plant three generous kisses on my cheeks before pegging it into her bedroom. Two hours later, they appear out of the pungent haze of nail varnish fumes on their way to the kitchen.  Giggling, they raid the fridge and cupboard, trying to spread Nutella on toasted muffins without smearing their freshly painted, smartie-coloured nails.

Spotty finger nails.

Spotty holiday finger nails.

Rugby-boy’s mates slowly migrate through the door, uneasily flicking the long fringes that hide their spots and feelings from the outside world, and filter the heartache for the girls they secretly admire. I am generously kissed again, and they stomp up the stairs together. A battle of foam darts ensues around the first floor as they resort to their childhood games, safely hidden from the view of the outside world. Teenagers are touchingly fragile; they have one foot firmly anchored in childhood whilst the other gingerly tests the tepid waters of adulthood. They take one step forwards, then two steps back into the familiarity and security of childhood before screaming for independence and lurching forwards again to hesitate on the doorstep of a new phase in life. Every time my children gain in autonomy, half of me glows with satisfaction whilst the other half beats its breast in despair and desperately wants to tempt them back with bags of chocolate buttons.

Chosen Counterpart was next to sidle through the door, blushing ferociously from beneath Bigfoot’s protective arm. Later in the afternoon, I knocked on Bigfoot’s door to give him his clean laundry. Oh, I can see you there, smiling across cyberspace. No, I wasn’t checking if they were up to anything they shouldn’t – God forbid I should be concerned about him being head-over heels in hormone with the daughter of a gendarme. (Anyone who has seen the film called “Le Gendarme de Saint Tropez” with Louis de Funes will understand what I’m getting at.) I just felt an irrepressible urge to give him his clean laundry incase he felt like slipping on two extra sweaters and another pair of jeans. So there.

Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez

Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So I knocked on the door. When Bigfoot said « Come in! », I opened the door to see two faces looking up from his laptop. I was immediately asked to resolve their current dispute. “We’ll ask my Mum, she knows this film by heart!” I glowed at my son’s confidence in my cultural knowledge, and sturdied myself for the name of the film, determined to do him proud. I shouldn’t have bothered.  “Mum, did the dodos in The Ice Age shout “Mine! Mine! Mine!” when they were trying to catch the watermelons? She says it was, and I’m sure it’s not”.

As two sparkling pairs of eyes drilled into mine, several things hit me simultaneously: Firstly, the heart-warming realisation that they were still kids, albeit big ones, and we parents should stop being so goddamn suspicious about what they get up to in the privacy of a teenager’s bedroom. Secondly, that I’d love to be able to argue over kids’ films with PF rather than the children’s education, the family budget, or the dramatically reduced frequency with which various important activities occur (I am, of course, referring to the housework). Thirdly, the both satisfying and worrying thought that a woman my age really should not be considered a reference for children’s films, nor should she be frustrated at not having the answer to their question. (This was yet another sign of my blatant Peter Pan syndrome: I have never really grown up, and as such will no doubt follow the family tradition and become a brilliantly eccentric grandmother one day. But not yet, please.)

I told them that the dodo’s didn’t say “Mine! Mine! Mine!”, and popped the clothes into the cupboard, refraining from the temptation of ruffling Bigfoot’s hair and squeezing into the gap between them to watch the film. They found the solution on Youtube:  it wasn’t the dodos in the Ice Age that said “Mine! Mine! Mine!” – it was the seagulls in Finding Nemo. Chosen Counterpart beamed up at me with her eyes shining instead of the weary, polite distrust I had perceived on her arrival. I sailed happily out of the door into a battle of foam darts between the Smartie Sisters and the Rugby-boy boy’s band. So smartypants Wonder Woman can keep her politically correct drawers: my kids rock, and we make a great team.

For those of you who still enjoy a little cartoon therapy, here’s the famous “Mine! Mine! Mine!” sequence from Finding Nemo. It’s also a song in Disney’s Pocahontas, but ssshhh…

Up the winding staircase of life….

I love these photo challenges. This week asks for a picture illustrating the word “Up”.  I had difficulty choosing, and finally plunked for this one, taken by PF in a spiral staircase in Pezenas. Little My is peering upwards from the ground floor. In this photo, I see my daughter’s impatience to discover and explore on her way up life’s twisting staircase, step by eye-opening step. I wish her a fabulous journey.

Looking up the staircase of life.....

Looking up the staircase of life…..

Giving the cold caller the cold shoulder.

I love my job. I carry out painstaking linguistic cosmetic surgery on scientific articles,  correcting and rephrasing here and there to make it squeaky clean and ready for publication; the linguistic equivalent of transforming David Cameron into Winston Churchill (although the English I correct is rarely that bad). My nose glued to the screen, I sniff out the mistakes like Lindsay Lohan on the scent of a line of coke. Concentration is a must – the house is silent as I batter away on my keyboard and repeat sentences out loud until they sound right. So when the phone interrupts my progress through the thrills and spills of biophysics, turtle genetics or decision-making in primates, I always get up muttering incantations. Only the news that Dr Evil is holding PF hostage in his office would be deemed urgent enough to interrupt my scientific soliloquies.

BT Artbox - Padded Cellphone Box

So I generally stare at the phone and try to work out who it is before picking it up. It’s not an easy mission. The screen of my phone has finally given up the ghost after too many failed bungy jumps out of paint, chocolate or cake-mix covered hands. Its display panel now looks more like a half-finished Tetris game than a line-up of numbers. So when it rings, I can never see who is calling.

If I ignore it,  I generally miss a call announcing that Rugby-boy has redecorated the school corridor with vomit, that my long-awaited parcel has gone back to the post office because I didn’t reply when he called, or that P.F. has missed his bus and is stuck in the most unpleasant part of town whilst bored teens with shaved heads lob pebbles at people getting off the tram.

So it goes without saying that when I pick up the phone expecting one of the above situations, there is in fact a brief silence followed by the droning voice of a disinterested human robot who tells me that he or she is delighted to have me on the line before embarking on a ten-minute long speech about roof insulation, window replacements or newfangled technology that will turn my home into the most sexy, ecologically sound joint in the universe.

At the beginning, I listened patiently, before telling them that I didn’t have time. Oh, yeah? No problem, they’ll call you back. Oh, it’s dinner time? No problem. They’ll call you later – just after you’ve brushed your teeth, for a goodnight kiss to your bank account sent all the way from a call centre in India. The next few times, you gratingly explain that it’s very kind of them to think of you, but you don’t need their solar-cycle-powered water heater even if it is the best thing since sliced bread. They insist, and are getting your back up now. No, honestly, you really don’t need their services, and yes, you are still fully capable of making your own decisions without the help of a complete stranger who has just interrupted your afternoon of work/shower/quiet five minutes of reading on the loo (the only place the kids  don’t track you down within seconds). No, you don’t need the insulation replacing, and no, unless he has a camera stuffed down the phone line, he cannot presume that your roof has more holes than Jamie Oliver’s sieve.

Six months later, you have had it with being polite with people who won’t take no for an answer. You angrily tell them that if you had said “yes” to them all, your house would currently be in the process of being demolished and rebuilt, and you would be up to your eyeballs in debt to pay for the installation of technology that will be out of date within two years anyway.

You take to acidly informing callers you are not the person they asked for, because they have massacred your name so badly that you don’t even recognise it as your own. Then you really get narked, and start slamming the phone down on them. I did it last week – I had got to the point of no return. I soberly admitted to my pillow that I had been rude; I had compromised both my values and my education.  But did I have to waste time listening to all their drivel for the sake of politeness?

I therefore got working on a few solutions that would safeguard my legendary British cool. Here are my favourite new techniques for cold callers; I’ve been trying them out this week, and am proud to say that they work beautifully.

anti-valentine

Uncharitable thoughts (Photo credit: rubygirl jewelry)

Firstly, immediately interrupt their spiel asking sweetly who they are (Nathalie who? How do you spell that?) and what company they are from. Then tell them they have 30 seconds to tell you exactly what they want to sell you. Asking them to cut to the chase not only takes the wind out of their sails, but also irritates the pants off them when you don’t behave as planned on their sheet.

If this doesn’t put them off, move in for step two. This one has four possible levels.

Level one. (Annoying but unaggressive caller.) Method: Quietly put the receiver down on the table and get on with whatever you were doing. They generally get bored with speaking to the plant within minutes.

Level two. (Insistent caller who refuses to stop machine-gunning you with his pre-printed sales patter.) Method: Inform them that you are passing them on to the household decision-maker. This makes the more chauvinistic callers purr, “Ah, very good wife, you are passing me to Môôsieur.” Then plop the telephone in Smelly Dog’s basket, point to it and say “eat”.

Level three. (Aggressive caller telling you that you will hear them out, or they will call you back.) Method: place on carpet beside vacuum cleaner. Switch on said appliance on highest possible setting. Repeat as necessary.

Level four. (Very aggressive and tenacious caller who no doubt spends his or her evenings sticking pins into the wax effigies of those who refused their calls, before melting them over scented Ikea candles.) Method: Place telephone beside speaker. Switch on Bigfoot’s AC-DC. Turn up volume.

Do you have any good techniques that I have not covered here? Are you a cold caller, and if so, what have you been subjected to by reticent homeowners?

15th April 1989: Never Forget.

Liverpool crest in flowers at the Hillsborough...

Liverpool crest in flowers at the Hillsborough memorial (Photo credit: Ben Sutherland)

24 years ago today, I attended my first ever football match at Hillsborough stadium. That afternoon, one of the worst disasters in the history of football killed 95 Liverpool fans and injured 766 more. The youngest victim was just ten years old. A 96th victim died four years later. Each and every one of these 96 names corresponds to the parent, the child, the sibling or the friend of an immeasurable number of people who lost their loved ones in horrifying circumstances. Their pain has been exacerbated by the appalling handling of the disaster, the slanderous media coverage and the terrible lies told to cover up the true responsibilities. I have not set foot in a football stadium since that day. I am aware that my account could cause distress, and I apologise. I am publishing this post today because the Hillsborough disaster and its victims should never, ever be forgotten.

I still wake up with my heart racing. Each time they are there, behind the fence. Within arm’s reach, yet inaccessible. The crying man, the unconscious boy, the sobbing girl. The overflowing emotions resurface every time – distress, frustration, anger, fear, sadness, incomprehension, revolt, empathy. It has been 24 years now, and they still return with vivid precision.

My boyfriend had been adamant: I couldn’t claim that I didn’t like football if I’d never seen a real match. That’s how I ended up at Hillsborough Stadium on the 15th April 1989. We unknowingly stepped off the bus into an afternoon that blew my world sky high. That day, at just twenty years old, I realised how tenuous our link with life can be. The experience painted a stark picture of how human nature can hold unexpected, generous sources of humanity and bravery as well as the utmost cruelty, cowardice and ignorance.

Standing inside the stadium, behind the goal and close to the exits, I was struck by the imposing height of the fence, designed with an overhang to made pitch invasions impossible. We were penned in with jostling, excited people of all ages and from all horizons, a few of whom were overtly fueled by alcohol and harboured an illogical hatred of the Liverpool team. But the majority of people were just happy to be there. In the crowd, I saw children waving their scarves above their heads. Many were in front, impatiently clinging to the fence after hours of waiting to have the best view.

The match began with a near goal, and the crowd screamed enthusiastically. But seconds later, the match was stopped as people inexplicably began climbing up the fence behind the goal at the opposite end of the pitch. “Pitch invasion”, my boyfriend grumbled, but I shook my head and pointed. A man had dropped to the ground like a dislocated puppet. He stood up, walked a little, fell again as policemen tried to push other people back over the fence.  People continued to climb the fence with difficulty, and some sat astride it and pulled others over. They tumbled onto the pitch. Some stood up, others remained motionless on the ground. They were not hooligans. The police started helping people over. Something was terribly wrong.

I was mesmerised by the man. He stood up again, and began walking down the pitch, impervious to everything around him. Shakily putting one foot in front of the other, head held high, he crossed the turf towards us. He arrived in front of us and fell to his knees. His trousers were soaked with urine and tears were pouring down his face.

It was as if a glass dome had been lowered over the stadium, cutting us off from the reassuring normality of our everyday life. We only understood later that having made fans wait much too long outside the stadium, the police opened an exit gate to release the consequent crowd pressure, resulting in supporters being swept down a tunnel by the sheer force of the crowd into two spectator pens that were already full. Metal barriers were crushed to the ground by the sheer force of the crowd and men, women and children were crushed against that high, unyielding fence.

It was no longer a question of rivalry between teams. People who had come to watch a football match were now working together to save lives. I saw a human chain slowly form, dangling from the upper circle. Then another. And another. Complete strangers were working together to pluck survivors out of the bedlam below them.

Long before the extra police and ambulances arrived on the scene, football supporters placed along both sides of the pitch tore down the advertising hoardings and used them as makeshift stretchers. They hastily laid injured fans in front of us on the other side of the fence before returning into the milling mass of people, running the length of the pitch again and again. Their instinct to save lives gave me faith in human nature. All of these people are real heroes who disappeared back into the anonymity of everyday life, having played crucially important roles in the lives of so many people.

Others made me deeply ashamed of the human race, like the drunken man beside me. I threw myself at him, fists flaying, as he waved his beer can in the air, leering and spitting “Die!” at a child lying motionless and alone on the pitch less than three feet away from us on the other side of the fence. I will never know if the little boy survived. Becoming a mother has increased this need. So my memory brings him back. I see him again and again in my dreams. I awaken as I beat my fists into thin air – into that miserable, evil  excuse for a human being who was alive, safe behind a fence to insult an unconscious child. The injustice of the situation was unbearable.

The photographers sickened me. Impervious to human plight, they were taking close-ups of those suffocating against the wire fence. The camera lens appeared to be a filter between them and the appalling, urgent reality of the situation. At what point does a person lose touch with humanity to the extent that he chooses to photograph suffocating children rather than attempt to save them? I am still angry today to know that certain tabloids published those photographs, making money out of suffering and giving the sales of their “newspapers” priority over the respect of the dead and their bereaved families. We were shortly to see that they could sink even lower still, with front page headlines accusing fans of picking the victims’ pockets, of attacking policemen trying to save lives and of arriving at the stadium drunk and ticketless. Just how far can the moral values of journalism sink in a bid to make money?

When we were finally allowed outside we stopped beside a young woman who was sobbing on a step. Her boyfriend had been taken to hospital. Hugging her was the only thing we could do at a moment when we all wanted to turn the clock back in time. A hug was a mere drop in the ocean of help that the situation required – we felt inadequate, frustrated and useless. The only sound in the bus on the return home was that of grown adults weeping.

The images of that day are engraved in my memory, along with the fury of being trapped behind that fence. How I hate that fence: just a few millimetres of regularly soldered blue metal that made me powerless to bring any form of help. Permeable to my sight and feelings, the distress and pain just a few feet away on the other side had flowed through it and engulfed me. Yet it was impossible to cross, leaving us and many others as unwilling and horrified spectators who could do nothing to ease the pain on the other side.

On the 12th of September last year, the results of the Hillsborough enquiry were published, and the British government apologised to the families of the 96 people who died in the biggest football tragedy in British history. The apology will never be enough for those who not only lost their loved ones, but discovered the appalling cover-ups for the lack of organisation and inadequate reactions for emergency services, and learned that more lives could have been saved. A horrific conclusion for people who had already suffered too much.

Twenty-four years later, I wonder how many people will stop today and spare a minute to think of the 96 people who lost their lives, the survivors, and the families whose lives have been put on hold ever since they lost their loved ones. Please be one of them.

Link to Liverpool FC site page

Changes: Climbing out into a new life.

This week’s photo challenge asks for a photo depicting change. It’ll be no surprise to you that I’ve pulled out yet another photo of nature, taken by my husband: a cicada emerging from its exoskeleton in our garden last June.

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Cicadas in this region spend two years underground as nymphs. They dig an escape tunnel of over 30 cm to the surface, like light-hungry prisoners armed with hope and teaspoons. How do they know which way is up? When they finally pop out and discard all the unnecessary packaging, the poor things have just two to three weeks to live (if they don’t get eaten first).

This little guy popped his head out of a hole in front of PF, who spent the entire afternoon observing him as he shed his exoskeleton. (The cicada, not PF. Obviously.) Then his wings dried and unfolded little by little. We left him to get on with his short existence…. but does life feel as long for a cicada as it does for us?

To reassure any of you who found Mr Cicada a tad on the ugly side, here is a pic after a few hours of wing unrolling and drying, and a picture of what he would have finally looked like: a fully fledged miniature army helicopter.

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