Life without literacy.

Reading and writing have always been as essential to me as love, laughter, oxygen and food. It is part and parcel of everyday life; I cannot imagine living without this ability. Life would be hell.

So when I discovered that a friend was illiterate, my stomach overturned. I asked her how she managed. Imagine a world where you have no idea what is written on the paper that you pull out of that envelope. On that packet. How can you live without this essential tool for communication?

My hedgehog book sits beside my bed. A meeting between a child and a novel creates beautiful things.

My hedgehog book sits beside my bed. A meeting between a child and a novel creates beautiful things.

The answer is dependence. That terrible state I never want to be in is her everyday situation. Her husband reads the notes from school to her, and her daughter reads the homework instructions out loud so that she can understand. Her daughter is sweet, understanding and fun. Like her mum. She reads for her mum. Her mother trusts her to tell her the truth. A delicate equation of trust and dependency between a mother and daughter that will continue for as long as they need each other, in a world where a child is the eyes of her parent, reading the news before passing it on. When she grows older, will she filter out the bad stuff, like we do as parents for our children before they know how to read? The necessary role reversal that had occurred so naturally shocked me.

But there is no firewall, nothing and no one to protect her if one day those helping hands suddenly disappeared. This dependence shocks me; how can illiteracy still exist in this day and age? The clock is ticking, and nothing has changed. Time that could be used to make things better is running through the hourglass.

I tried to motivate her. A simultaneous desire to hug her and shake her out of her lethargy and into action. Sign up for classes. You’re so young. Be independent. Rely on yourself. Be proud. Do it. Prove to yourself that you love yourself, and if you can’t do it for yourself, do it for the sake of your daughter. Please. Don’t rely on others for something so essential. Respect yourself. React. In this day and age, it is wrong to accept this kind of situation as a fatality.

I have suddenly realised that like so many other things in life, like love, health and happiness, things that I had always considered a basic staple of life are a privilege. That although we grew up in the same world, at the same time, she didn’t get the same chances as me. I have taken a real slap on the face. I am thankful for having parents who refused to let me let go, who cocooned me in a world full of books, literacy, library visits, who encouraged me and pushed me to never be dependent on anyone else. Education is a right. But it is also a privilege.

Shopping Sociology with Earth Daddy and the Dinkies.

It is common procedure to open the fridge within my house within two days of raiding the the supermarket and discover that it is barer than John Malkovich’s scalp. Feed a teenager the entire contents of the cupboard, and within two hours he will be rubbing round your legs like a famished tomcat, wailing that he is starving. Buy him a packet of cereal and it disappears within two days. Teenagers appear to believe in the Kellogg’s equivalent of the magic porridge pot: why is the box incapable of renewing its own contents?

That’s how I found myself wheeling my trolley around Intermarché for the umpteenth time yesterday. As usual, I had the one with the squeaky wheel. As usual, I had forgotten my list on the kitchen table. And as usual, all my favourite categories of shopper were there.

Giant Shopping Basket Feb 2006

An ideal shopping trolley for MM’s family (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Show me the contents of your trolley, and I’ll tell you who you are. Here are a few of the species I met:

Earth Daddy. Earth Daddy is married to my nemesis, Wonder Woman, who is a regular victim of my ire and bad faith on this blog. As she spends her free time at Primary school meetings in the evening, making smarmy little asides to ensure everyone knows that she is on first name terms with the teacher, Earth Daddy does the shopping with his children. He trips enthusiastically down the aisles in his designer cotton clothes, filling his trolley with whole grains, granary bread, Ryvita and Scandinavian yoghurt that has never seen a pesticide, but has made a generous contribution to the hole in the ozone layer after travelling to the South of France by plane and truck. An appropriately sleeping baby is bandaged tastefully to his chest with so much naturally dyed swathing that he looks disturbingly like a child-friendly remake of “The Mummy”.

Baby’s big sister generally has a very tasteful name like Clementine or Prune. (Classy kids in France are apparently named after fruit. Maybe Gwyneth Paltrow is actually French; she called her kid Apple.) Clementine/Prune/Banana’s education doesn’t stop when they shop, as Earth Daddy believes in taking every opportunity to brainwash his child inform Clementine about the best possible choices in life. So he stopped at the chocolate shelf as Clementine enthusiastically pointed to a well-known brand of Swiss chocolate that we all know is made with milk from purple cows then wrapped in the aluminium foil by underpaid but happy marmots.

Milka in der Breiten Straße Potsdam

The purple cow meets a chocoholic fan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She enquired whether they could buy it, and Earth Daddy laughed indulgently. Scratching his designer stubble, he said that she could of course have some chocolate, but he was going to show her something better. I was curious, and tailgated my politically correct suspect and his cargo of organic bran like an off-beat Sherlock Holmes. Earth Daddy homed in on his destination, and beamed as he explained the concept of fair trade to his bemused offspring. I’m not sure she bought the idea, but he bought the chocolate anyway.

The stressed mother and her assortment of screaming kids are reassuringly normal.  They remind me of that family planning advert with the kid having a tantrum (check it out at the end of the post). Whilst a toddler with streams of yellow snot running down its face eats his way through a packet of biscuits in the seat of the trolley, a sibling imprisoned between the packets of pasta and disposable nappies tramples on the fresh fruit with one foot and hangs the rest of her body over the side, screaming “Muuum, want that, want thaaaat!” Stressed mother is haggard, determined and inches from sticking a price label on each kid’s forehead and leaving them on the discount shelf. 

Zero percent is generally female, appears depressed and is on a permanent guilt trip. Her relationship with food is borderline obsessive; she suspiciously reads every last letter of the packaging. She hunts down zero percent yoghurt, zero percent coke and beef that was no doubt gleaned from liposuctioned cattle on a health farm. Her trolley is so light you are surprised it doesn’t float up in the air before she gets to the till and disappear with her hanging on to it like Mary Poppins on helium.


Zero Percent on her way home with her stash of light food produce (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The alcoholic OAP wanders slowly to the wine shelf in espadrilles, sagging trousers, baggy jumper and a felt cap covered with dog hair. His trolley contains two five-litre plastic containers of red wine, two packs of goats cheese and two baguettes. He beams congenially at everyone when he forgets his credit card number twice in a row, then waves goodbye before using the trolley as an impromptu Zimmer frame. He probably won’t see another human being until he does the same shop in a week’s time.

The DINKIES (Dual Income, No KIddieS) are the ones who need a stepladder to access the expensive rare breed of imported Italian pasta on the top shelf whilst you are mining  for the last packet of supermarket brand macaroni in the murky depths of the bottom shelf. Miss DINKIE wrinkles her nose on seeing any of the above supermarket population categories, and goes into anaphylactic shock on contact with children. She can be observed at the toiletries dept, suspiciously sniffing at shampoo bottles whilst her bored boyfriend looks on.

The YFSM: Young, Free & Single MaleEasily identified by the contents of his basket: pizzas, chocolate, pasta sauce, pies, frozen chips and a pack of beer. Heart-wrenching examples are the cute ones who have packets of Petit Prince biscuits and M&M’s to eat in front of the TV. I generally avoid queuing beside a YFSM, as I get inexplicable pangs of jealousy at the idea of being able to not only have the remote for myself, but eat as much rubbish as I like without being told off.

There are more categories to be covered, such as the retired lovebirds, but this post is getting way too long. So I’ll pass the talking stick on to you: who are your favourite shoppers? Here is that advert I promised you, complete with an epic Earth Daddy fail.

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.


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?

Henry’s heritage: practise what you preach.

I was brought up to avoid the conversational “hot potatoes” of sex, religion and politics. Well, today I’m going to break that golden rule, because something within those three categories has come up which has really got my goat. I am obviously not alone, and recommend this article on “mixedbabygreens”, which is real food for thought.

Anyone who could have sworn that they had heard bellicose laughter echoing within the walls of St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle this week probably either pinched themselves or took an appointment with their local shrink.  Yet it would not have surprised me at all. There’s a man buried there who would no doubt have done a victory dance if he’d still been alive to hear the news this week. This man is no other than the initiator of the Church of England, a certain Henry VIII.

Portrait of Henry VIII, c. 1536. Oil and tempe...

Little Henry was probably a nice lad to begin with, but he rapidly became obsessed with the need for a male descendant, which happily coincided with what appears to be an insatiable appetite for women. When he decided that his wife Catherine was no longer fit for the job, he decided to ask for his money back in view of an immediate exchange. Unfortunately for him, the Catholic church drew the line at issuing an annulment for his marriage, so clever Henry got his thinking cap on and rapidly sent the Pope packing.

He immediately reformed the church on his own terms, and was hence able to get shot of Catherine of Aragon for the hopefully fertile and beautiful Anne Boleyn, the sister of one of his many mistresses. Unfortunately, she didn’t produce the male heir either, and got the chop within a few years – both literally and figuratively.

Henry’s appetite for women made modern-day France’s Dominique Strauss Kahn look like a hung-up choir boy as he fell madly in and out of love with women. He got through six wives faster than Bigfoot demolishes a Super-size menu, and died at the age of 55. Two of his four deceased wives were executed, and the last happily survived him along with Anne of Cleves, no doubt taking the time to drink a toast as the coffin lid was nailed down.

The Church of England has gone a long way since. They opened the doors to female priests in 1992. At that time I applauded them for their open-mindedness and their conviction, and really thought that this church was going somewhere.

But this week, my position changed. For those who missed the news this week, the Church of England’s General Synod voted against giving women access to the Bishopry. The great glass ceiling, which most evolved societies have strived to eliminate for women, is apparently still firmly in place in the C of E. It is even more concerning to see that the “against” camp got the last word despite 72.6% of votes being cast in favour of the movement. My reasoning may be a little simplistic, but for me this means that the voting procedure used is in need of severe reform. When the opinion of a majority is consciously ignored, the official body concerned is in the firing line. I can’t see elections working that way anywhere else in society without resulting in riots.

The decision that has just been taken takes us back to medieval times in a country which proudly touts equal opportunities across the board. I presume that the Church of England  preaches tolerance, and abhors discrimination. The opposite would be concerning. The bible says that we are all equal before God, but apparently not before the possibility of preaching His word….. Much as I try, I cannot help thinking of George Orwell, who said in his novel “Animal Farm” that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

Society is evolving fast, and the word “evolution” now has its place in the church dictionary, after the Church of England revised its position on Darwin and his works with a written apology in 2008. Within this document, called Good Religion Needs Good Science, the Rev Dr Malcolm Brown proffers the following words of wisdom:

“People, and institutions, make mistakes and Christian people and churches are no exception. When a big new idea emerges which changes the way people look at the world, it’s easy to feel that every old idea, every certainty, is under attack and then to do battle against the new insights”.

He’s right, although in this context I consider equality to be a fundamental right, not a new idea. General Synod, for the moment you are not only behind on schedule, you are back-pedalling in a world where clinging on to the debris of the comfortingly familiar is no longer possible. All the women who have played a role in their Church and their parish have been slapped across the face and put in their places: apparently, well below men. I’m not sure that they are happy to limit their contributions to wearing a broad-brimmed flowery hat and making cakes for tea time at the vicarage. In any case, I hope not.

Which brings me back to our old Henry, buried in St Georges chapel.  He can rest in peace: although the Church he created no longer tolerates that anyone cuts off women’s heads, it still apparently maintains the right to axe their future in the clergy.

I’ll leave you with this charming little ditty, written by CBBC for children….

Have a “nice” day!


Love (Photo credit: praram)

This morning I got up, woke my kids up, and took them to school. Between emptying the washing machine and filling the tumble dryer, I called a friend to check if she was ok, because I knew she had a tough day in store. Then I sorted out a run to the supermarket with my retired neighbour: we both hate the food shopping ritual, but we always manage to have a whale of a time when we go together.

When I got home, I dumped my shopping bags on the table and switched on the radio, just in time to hear that today is apparently « national kindness day » in France. I was surprised, in the same way as when it was « Women’s day »  (I couldn’t help wondering if the 364 others had been bagged for « Mens’ days »).

However commendable this initiative may be, I wonder if I am alone in finding it depressingly inane to ask people to think about their fellow-man on one particular day of the year. Doesn’t this imply that the instigators of this « kindness day » consider that society today is overtly individualistic and selfish? Hardly a positive view of humanity….

The word « gentil » in French means « kind » or « nice » (a word my mum hates and always asked me to replace by a « real adjective », and I agree. Sorry, Mum). However, it is also used in a much more pejorative form, implying that a person is one can short of a six-pack; in other words, simple-minded or lacking in intelligence. I have always wondered whether this double-barrelled definition linking kindness with stupidity hides a Gallic conviction that if you are kind, you’re going to have the wool pulled over your eyes and be considered a gullible twerp within very little time.

The French personality in this neck of the woods is direct, latin, and passionate, and this sugarcoated, over-the-top and Care-Bearish  « show-everyone-you-love-them-day» concept just doesn’t seem right here. I see smiles everywhere, every day, and people gladly communicate if you send the right signals. Some people are so anxious to get their message through that the conversations are spiced up with regular squeezing of hands and prodding of arms, making the interlocutor feel like an unripe melon on the local market place. However, the same passion can apply to those who don’t send positive signals and want to be left alone, and it’s their right.

There are of course the ones who don’t give a monkey’s uncle about anyone else unless the latter can provide something interesting.  Today, these unscrupulous individuals may even presume that as it’s « kindness day », other people will have to roll out the red carpet for them. Imagine the scene in the crowded supermarket car park:

Q. « Excuse me, sir, but I sincerely believe I was waiting for this parking space before you arrived. And you know, today is « national kindness day ». So would you mind terribly if I took the space and you found another one ?»

A. « If it’s national kindness day today, then you can be kind and back off, before I am generous enough to give you a broken nose. Oh, and for what it’s worth, thanks for the parking space ».

Ok, I’m exaggerating a tad (although I have actually seen the exact same thing happen in a car park here) but I don’t think that the people really concerned by this initiative will bother making an effort today.

Forrest Gump (character)

Forrest Gump (character) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As for those who aren’t bad eggs as such, but just don’t seem to see or need the gazillions of people milling around them in over the course of their everyday lives, why bother being a hypocrite for just one day? Someone who prefers to barricade himself within the comfort of his headphones in the bus after a long day at work rather than talk with strangers isn’t going to make an exception. Let’s face it, not everyone sitting on a park bench is a potential Forrest Gump with a box of chocolates to share and breathtaking stories to tell – and less and less people in our urban jungle are interested enough to hang around to find out when the last bus home rounds the corner.

The other thing that I object to with this «special day» business is the underlying implication that on the other days of the year, it simply doesn’t matter. People who are kind do it automatically, I think.  And those who aren’t kind react in the same way – they are naturally either unpleasant or simply anesthetized against other people’s needs from an early age.

I was laughing with my neighbour yesterday about « neighbourhood day », the date when French neighbours all over the nation are supposed to get together in the street for a huge party. Every day is neighbourhood day in our building: not a day goes past without a quick coffee, a chat, or finding a bag of homegrown vegetables hanging on the kitchen door handle. We all watch out for each other. Ok, all except for Gargamel, who would rather gouge his own eyes out with his garden trowel than partake in mundane chat. So we just let him be.

So I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that people don’t change. You either have the happy, people-orientated, look-out-for-others instinct, or you don’t. And if you don’t, then it’s certainly not « special days » spun by the media that will change you….


The interactions between humans whose territories are side by side are fascinating, and have been used as a basis for TV series for donkey’s years. A neighbourhood is a rich microcosm of society that illustrates the best and the worse of human relationships, which remain the same whether its occupants are penned in plush, posh houses for upmarket despotic housewives or popping in and out of the one-up, one-down terraced houses of Coronation Street.

I have never understood how people can live side by side without ever speaking to each other, and I am often struck by the strange impression that the denser the human population is, the more lonely and anonymous people seem to become. This fear of alienation could explain why we have always lived in small towns or villages.

In our microcosm, many of our neighbours are over the age of 70. When I saw my 85-year-old neighbour chuck his cane on the ground then take what felt like light years to kneel down in the dirt and play marbles with my kids, his eyes shining like someone 80 years his junior, I was thrilled. I think we all interact pretty well.

Gargamel and his cat Azrael.

Gargamel and his cat Azrael. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All, that is, except the one I have come to call “Gargamel”, who always made it obvious that he wants to keep himself to himself. A modus vivendi has evolved, and everyone respects his wish to remain at a distance. Like Molière’s Misanthropist, he flits around people like a moth around a naked lightbulb – fascinated and attracted by the warmth and the light, yet scared he will get burnt in the process. He suspiciously surveys all his neighbours through a carefully crafted hole in his garden wall, muttering incantations. He thought nobody had noticed his look-out point until the day Bigfoot waved cheerfully at him and grinned mischievously before politely calling « Good morning, Monsieur. How are you today ? »

Gargamel goes through all the motions of a happy retiree, but something is missing. He somehow managed to plan everything for his golden age except the one thing you can’t put aside for a rainy day: what the French so nicely call la joie de vivre. Consequently, a black cloud hovers permanently over his head wherever he roams.

You could set your watch by the regularity of his daily routine, executed with military precision. First thing in the morning, he cycles to the bakery with his trouser leg bottoms rolled up and carefully held out of chain’s reach with clean wooden clothes pegs. His trouser legs remain rolled up for the rest of the day, presumably to avoid getting the hems dirty. Then he returns home, tidies away the bike and the bread, and goes for the same walk he goes for every day. Garden, lunch, the news, an afternoon siesta, garden, dinner and the news. Then he spends all night awake because he had already slept all afternoon. The same routine – day in, day out.

The bottle is always half empty in his book, and his upper lip curls with contempt at any form of kindness, optimism or spontaneity: kindness and friendship are merely social tools for sinister Machiavellian plans.  Chewing on a toothpick, he complains in his nasal twang that the world is going to the dogs….. Any occasional, short conversation is closed with a perfunctory « Pfft. Have a good day, and walk in the shade », before he stomps home, his rolled-up trouser bottoms flapping a few inches above his ankles, and perceptible wafts of loneliness and vulnerability trailing behind him.

Always the same remark: “Walk in the shade”. I tried to work out if there was a hidden message in there, to no avail. I have since concluded that it was his credo on life: If you keep out of the sun, you don’t get burnt. If you live life in the shade, nobody bothers you.

Well…. I’m sorry, but although I’m not the type to sing Julie Andrews blockbusters in the garden during your siesta, walking in the shade just ain’t my cup of tea. I’m more a « sunny side up » kind of person. If life is a loaf of bread, I’m the slice of toast that always tries to land butter side up, then get back on the plate in time to see which jam is on the menu today, even if I am covered in dust and dog hair. The Gargamels in life used to sap my energy and make me sad. Now I smile, say hello and goodbye, then get back to the sunny side of the street rather than trying to drag them over with me. You live and learn. But if you need me, you know where I am, and you’re more than welcome to join me….