Thursday, 15 December 2011

Old Age - a preview

It started last year with a pain in my foot. After much hobbling and cursing, slight improvements and much relapsing I was finally diagnosed with something that sounded like a right-wing regime in a southern US state: Plantar Fasciitis.

Not for me delicate, feminine afflictions, say tension headaches or anorexia. No, Sir! Extrapolating from the GP's vague words I had been hit by what fat people get when they pathetically decide to exercise while still carrying around their huge, flabby hulk.

After getting expensively fitted with special insoles for my shoes (one type for the running shoes, one type for flat city shoes etc ) the pain got better and eventually disappeared. I was able to resume the regime of huffing and puffing and sweating profusely in lycra garments that keeps me looking so good (what is your secret??).

Now the pain is back. Having just finished a wonderful non-fiction book about cancer, The Emperor of all Maladies, I'm keeping my options open but on balance I think it might be the Fasciitis again.

I'm back to shuffling slowly and wincing visibly with pain whenever I get up, sit down, shift weight from one foot to the other, walk or stand still.

The pain makes me tired and the slowness means I do only a fraction of what I would normally (although mild-mannered intellectual husband claims that most of my kinetic activity generates more heat than light, I still consider this a result! in these times of precarious energy supply).

I find myself calculating the cost effectiveness (or pain/slowness to accomplishment ratio) of any activity - the extra three steps to look into a colleague's office, the walk to the cafeteria - and obsess about how long it will take me and whether I will have the sheer strength to go from A to B.

Your thoughts turn inwards - piloting your body like a battered battleship is all you have energy for. You look at people running up a flight of stairs, jogging, kids skipping down the street with fascination and nostalgia. Oh, yes, you remember that....but you live in another country now.

I have the sneaking suspicion this is what old age will feel like, but applied across the board, from hearing to sex , to digestion - a great huge list of stuff you cannot do anymore, can do but slowly and painfully, could do but it's hardly worth the bother these days. Plenty of wincing and moaning. A creeping bitterness and annoyance at the rest of the world: everyone else seems so strong, brash, loud and in a hurry- what's the hurry? Where is everyone going?

This is it, I've reached the base camp of old age. The long ascent towards oblivion and death begins. Fascist southern foot permitting,

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Second Coming (pace William Butler Yates)

What is the poem you wish you had written? (What do you mean you've never thought about it? What are you doing here?? This blog is not for you, weirdo. The Top Gear Fans Facebook page is over there.)

As for the rest of you lot - let me tell you mine.

When I was young and unrequited love (they hadn't invented any other type yet) occupied 97pc of my thoughts , I would have said the stanzas about Paolo and Francesca, the romantically doomed lovers in the 5th canto of Dante's Inferno. It's soooo much better sounding in Italian:

"Amor che al cuor gentil ratto s'apprende,
prese costui della bella persona che mi fu tolta,
e il modo ancor m'offende.
Amor che a nullo amato amar perdona,
presemi del costui piacer si forte,
che come vedi ancor non m'abbandona...."

Bear in mind they were cast in hell for having kissed - without tongues or anything - and that seemed mild compared to what your average Catholic priest promised in confession if the matter of sex was ever raised (normally by him).

These days, with bad news, anxiety and dark premonitions dominating 97pc of my thoughts I find the first eight lines of Yates's The Second Coming beautifully prescient of whatever new horror happens to be obsessing me at the time. Damn, how I wish I had written that!

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
the falcon cannot hear the falconer"

A versatile verse, if you'll pardon the alliteration, alluding to anything from rampaging youths to out of control mice infestations.

"Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.."

Where to even begin here??? It's, as they say, pure poetry, but so practical too. All office politics is in this sentence (particularly my office's politics), as well as generic inner city riots, marital squabbles, family feuds, the messy demise of geriatric relatives, one's own middle-aged aches and pains suddenly taking on epic dimensions: you name it, this verse caters to it all.

"Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
the blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere,
the ceremony of innocence is drowned."

Ok, this starts as ANY front page of the FT these days, then it transitions into tabloid-land and ends on notes of reality TV. Incredibly succinctly, too.
Finally, the masterstroke:

"The best lack of conviction while the worst
are full of passionate intensity."

From the UK veto to the ineptitude of opposition governments in any of the main democracies, from the warnings of recent history to the behaviour of your nearest and dearest (not to mention colleagues), all human life is here.

So what is the poem you wish you had written? Your turn now.

(Or we could forget all about it, save some energy and go back to sobbing under the duvet.)

Friday, 9 December 2011

New, improved nostalgia!

Everybody used to be so much younger, have you noticed that? These days whenever you switch the TV on you find yourself staring at only vaguely recognisable, grotesquely aged people you used to fancy. On Facebook you are stalked by an army of bloated, and semi-canute zombies you last saw as fresh faced 18 year olds....what on earth happened to everyone?

I was reminded of this when I woke up this morning and found we were now living in a two speed Europe, with Britain seemingly marooned on the hard shoulder of the slow lane, pretty much on its own. You see, the last time Britain appeared so isolated in Europe was nearly 20 years ago (over Mad Cow Disease, of all things); my hair didn't need dyeing and I had a discernible waistline - happy days!

I was young but it didn't matter as I was A) very single, and B) not very cool. All the cool stuff happened later. I had never used a mobile phone and knew nobody who did. I had never been on the internet or sent an email. I filed for the paper I worked for from my Brussels office using a temperamental modem which sang a little atonal song dissolving into static and was so slow you practically had to crank it up by hand.

The Brussels press core was the largest in the world - eurosceptics were at the very least kept well informed, (not least by the BBC which had a huge, humming bureau there), if somewhat largely restricted to the UK (and a few Danes agitating for more environmental protection and more labour rights).

While I was busy growing older, plumper, married and internet savyy, with not one but two mobile phones in my briefcase, successive governments appear to have spent the best part of twenty years failing to make the case for Britain's place in the EU while refusing to take the country out of it.

This latest showdown it is not about the status of offal or the danger levels of tallow and bulls' semen, (oh, yes, we had a ball in that press room all those years ago...) but private equity funds, credit default swaps and the sacred right of the City to do whatever it wants, no matter how poisonous it might turn out to be.

Just for the record it might be worth remembering the context in which Britain's recent refusal to play came into being:

The single market, which the PM was determined to protect, very much includes financial services. Decisions in that field are taken with Qualified Majority Voting, a game in which it actually helps if you have allies prepared to scratch your back occasionally.

By contrast the feared Financial Transaction tax needs unanimity to be approved, so Britain already had a veto on it. As for paying for the sins of others, Britain will continue to contribute to the IMF, whose funds will presumably also be used to clean up the mess in the Eurozone.

David Cameron has spent the past two months lecturing the others ever more shrilly about the need to get their house in order and to sort out the eurozone before a catastrophe there takes his country down too. Yet Britain's contribution to the process at this crucial time was the petulant shrug of a six year old who's not playing anymore.

I hope he has a clever secret plan we don't know about, because what this looks like is he was bounced into a position of impotence and irrelevance by a desire to appease the unappeasable back home, to no discernable extra benefit for the country as a whole.

I would go back to tallow and the status of offal any day. But then who wouldn't like to be 22 again?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

It's my country and I'll cry if I want to!

Italian ministers weeps while announcing austerity drive. Meanwhile pensioners, high on cocaine and clutching absinthe cocktails, are too busy with their bunga bunga parties to notice. Only one of these statements is true. But they both sound unlikely, right?

Take a look at the extraordinary footage of Elsa Fornero, new welfare minister in Mario Monti's technocratic government and erstwhile tough-cookie-banker-person, who burst into tears at the thought of the sacrifices she was about to exact from above mentioned pensioners. Who, you guessed it, were not drunk and bunga-ing at all at the time. More likely, pissed off and shivering in their homes.

People back home don't know what to make of blubber-gate and nor, I confess, do I.

I feel mildly irritated that as soon as a woman of substance, the highlight of whose professional career is NOT a Pirelli Calendar, is allowed to the to table she ends up making a feeble spectacle of herself.

Come to think of it, I feel extremely irritated by the self-pitying subtext of her quote, that this is taking a psychological toll on her and her colleagues.

Most of all, I'm puzzled at her apparent shock and surprise. Are we to presume that when Monti called he didn't mention the small difficulty of cash flow experienced by the state at the time and relative need to slash and burn in manner of marauding Huns? (What on earth did he say?? "Yo, Elsa? Fancy a spin in ma motor? Gonna Pimp My country, cos shit is going down, you feel me?" I mean, did she think it would just be bit of naughty fun ?)

But also...

I feel strangely moved by her un-political, un-manly, profoundly human surge of empathy and despair.

I feel sad that we've been so badly managed and ruled that we are on the brink of this strange, (war-less, famine-less, bomb-less) silent catastrophe and the wrong people as ever will pay. And those left to clean up the mess they didn't cause have to act like butchers rather than surgeons. And those who were in power in the last ten years can relax and sit back on their plush padded parliamentary seats, shouting and jeering from the sides, eating pop corn while they watch the drama unfold, as if it had nothing to do with them, eyes and ears sharply trained on what will look and sound good in terms of re-election.

Most of all I feel ashamed of myself that forty year of the same hopeless cliches, four years of recession and four months of bad/scary headlines is all it took to drive me to the verge of an unspeakable thought, namely: when it comes to Italy why bother at all with elections, ever again? When is the last time that our parliament wasn't run like an exclusive private club, a career in politics not used as a straightforward cash machine?

Friday, 2 December 2011

BBC Trolls

I'm sure the first anguished prediction of the BBC's impending demise and/or the collapse of its unique stature and quality was issued within 15 minutes of its first radio broadcast, most probably from a disaffected insider.  I do not claim to be either original or necessarily right in issuing my own wail of sorrow now.

Full disclosure: I used to work for the Corporation, I have not for a while and the following comments are my own and do not represent the views of my current employer.

I no longer have to deal with the dismal staff morale, the daily mortifying round of patronising bilge from overpaid bosses, the slow erosion of standards and ambition. Still, every time I talk to former colleagues or switch the TV on (and increasingly the radio too) it breaks my heart what's happening to it.

I fell in love with the Beeb like an early 20th century immigrant might have fallen in love with the statute of Liberty - at first sight and with a devotion that spoke more eloquently of the horrors of home than of what the American dream really could deliver.

At home I had left RAI - imagine pre-regime change Libyan  state TV but with a lot more naked women than  camels.  The promised land turned out to be nearly a decade of freelance half-life followed by a few short years of a proper job before they started getting rid of everyone again. But the insecurity, the fairly low pay for at least a decade of that, the overwork and antisocial hours, the constant stress of having to prove yourself as there were always others, (younger, cheaper, less mouthy), queuing behind to take your place - none of it mattered: at least they weren't shooting on you and there was plenty to eat (yes, yes  we are back to the metaphor here, do keep up!).

But it was more than that - there was the pride of working for a global cultural and journalistic brand, and a force for good: a beacon of erudition, freedom and common sense for many, the world over. It was our job to be creative, tolerant, un-bigoted, intellectually curious - it was out job to question, to challenge, to experiment and to dream, yes, it was our job to dream of a life, a society, a culture which was more than just the dismal sum of its lowest impulses,  prejudices and needs.

Heather Peace describes eloquently here what has happened with the cultural side of things. I can only report on the journalism side of things but wherever you look it's the same depressing trend.

The whole place is run by Trolls, overstuffed with then, and I don't mean this kindly , as in slightly deranged juvenile weirdos leaving aggressive anonymous messages on online forums. I mean the dangerous types: 40 something middle management maggots who all want their once great programmes- be them about gardening or foreign affairs -to be "more like Top Gear", eager to appease the upper echelons, viciously indifferent to the quality of what the are in charge of, or what it's for, as long as their careers progress apace.

The troops below meanwhile, tenderised by years of reforms (dumbing down) and quality reviews (cuts), and terrorised by the spectrum of job losses (which would not have to happen at all if those paid millions to do one thing only, negotiate the licence fee settlement, hadn't done such a hash of the job this last time) soldier on, a plastic badge detailing the 'core BBC values' dangling forlornly from her necks. They are some of the most amazing, committed, qualified people this country produces and they are being treated like shit by an institution paid for with your money.

Clarkson's contemptuous comments on the public sector strikers this week (but also remember Jonathan Ross' insistence he was worth 6000 journalists?), Paxo joining in with the bullying of an EU officials (Mr Idiot from Brussels) - these aren't blips on the chart - this is the BBC giving its viewers what it has decided they want.

Lucky for the Trolls, offensive comedy panel shows, indiscriminate euro-bashing and laughing at the proles, (which is what all reality television amounts to, structured or otherwise), do not cost very much. Nowhere near as much as ground breaking or even just informed journalism, nurturing new talents and taking cultural risks.

They can do this with less money while charging you exactly the same for the Licence Fee. And they can still afford Mr Clarkson - which is what really matters.