Friday, April 27, 2007

I ergo, ergo I am

As part of our training for the Hamilton Island Cup at the end of May, the 6 women and 5 men from our club competing in the races, who are collectively known as the “Hamo” crew (“hamfisted” in my case), are all completing various on and off-water tests to gauge our fitness. The test results are humiliatingly revealed on a weekly basis and I can tell you that there is nothing more motivating than knowing the email of doom is going to appear for all to see. Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide!

The toughest, and paradoxically the shortest, test is 750 metres on a rowing machine, or ergonometer (“erg” or “ergo” in the parlance). Panicking at my signal failure thus far to get below 3 minutes, I have gone to the lengths of engaging a personal erg coach, my friend A who’s a brilliant rower and a very attractive woman to boot. For the price of breakfast (and some flattery), she’s going to teach me how to improve my wretched technique enough to scrape a more dignified time.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Education otherwise

It's 20 years since I left school this year, and I am hardly surprised that there has not been as much as a whisper of any kind of class reunion to mark the passing of time (and all of its sickening crimes). Some have died, and some have faltered, and I don't really know where most of them are apart from a few gems I am still in touch with. I suspect that it's really still not long enough ago yet for most of us.

Philip Roth wrote acerbically of school reunions that there are few reasons to go, most of them suspect, and usually based on self-aggrandisement (look how much better than you I have fared!).

Our school was a difficult and troubled place and when I joined at the age of 13 (after four years of an only-partially-successful experiment in rural home schooling, about which more some other time), I was terrified by what seemed to be the premature maturity of my fellow pupils in the big city: talking about learning to inhale, and drinking at parties, and lovebites. I felt completely out of my depth.

Shy and insecure, and longing to fit in but unable to, I made things worse for myself by falling horribly in love with the class celebrity (who would definitely mind being described this way). So popular was he that, when I went past his house on the bus, I would always see at least one person hanging around outside waiting to catch a glimpse. I never stooped to that, of course, but I too succumbed to his rough magic. He had several self-appointed female security guards whose job it was to stop anyone from getting to close to him.

At the first real party I ever went to (ie the first with no adults present), I watched in despair as he carried his then girlfriend, who was wearing a risible schoolgirl outfit with a black lace garter, up the stairs for – what? I didn't know. I had a glass of wine and danced to Mad World, which in that teenage nightmare seemed to speak my life.

The pupils at my school seemed to specialise in psychological warfare – or is that every school? So yes, on reflection I am in no hurry to revisit those memories either; as this article about the Virginia massacre by Lionel Shriver (author of the disturbing, powerful book We Need to Talk About Kevin) says:

"For a lucky few, school and college are where we first distinguish ourselves. But for the majority, they are the site of first humiliation, subjugation and injury. They are almost always our first introduction to brutal social hierarchies, as they may also sponsor our first romantic devastation. What better stage on which to act out primitive retribution?"

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Luck be a lady

Imagine my surprise on receiving this in my inbox at work today from the delightfully named "Be a Lady". I am not sure what she's selling, but I just can't wait to buy it. The fact that any Hong Kong shop assistant worth her salt would be describing this unfortunate woman as "Too fat" (a common response to western women when you ask for something in your size) makes it doubly unnerving.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Slip sliding away

I had a vivid, terrible nightmare two nights ago about being on the back of J’s motorbike and the motorbike crashing and sliding across the road leaving both of us badly injured and bleeding. This morning on the way to Stanley for an early morning paddle, we hit a patch of diesel and in slow motion slid across the road exactly as it happened in my nightmare. I hit the ground pretty hard and for a moment was confused: am I still dreaming?

Most of Hong Kong’s roads are bordered by high concrete barriers, which I’ve often thought would be hell to barrel into, but we were going very slowly (the sixth sense of the rider looking for patches on the road) and the bike slid away rather than landing on top of us. J was unhurt; and I got up, my arm sore, pretty shaken, a graze on my knee but my favourite Kenneth Cole trousers completely unscathed (I told you I was shallow – the first thing I thought was: damn, my trousers!), and my bargain buy H&M leather jacket as good as new. Hey, looking good in a crisis is what it’s all about! And we came out of it a lot better than we did in my nightmare.

For the second time in the last year, then, I was in Casualty getting an x-ray, this time of my arm. The doctor looked about 20 and he didn’t know where to look when I took my top off – he had to call in a nurse using what looked suspiciously like a panic button beside him on the desk. Ostensibly this was to chaperone me, but I think he was just terrified.

My main concern now, and this illustrates only how much I’ve been sucked in to the shadowy world of outrigging (I guarantee only my sister will spot me in this clip; and yes, we won), is that I might not be able to paddle this weekend.

Monday, April 09, 2007

School of thought

The Fratellis remind me of everything that's good about being Scottish, and other things too: the warm East Lothian summers of my 1970s childhood, and discovering music for the first time. I was slightly too young to fall for the Bay City Rollers, and dumbfounded by the hysteria, but music's seductive whisper was already at my ear. In my old primary school (destined to become a recording studio where Orange Juice would record "Simply Thrilled Honey"), when I was six, I had a conversation in the toilets with a girl called Margaret McNeil, who lived in a house with turrets, whose father was a lawyer, and who owned a pony: so of course I worshipped her and craved her indulgence:

Me (squeaks nervously): What music do you like?
Goddess (confidently): Slik.
Me (blurts): Why?
Goddess (confidently, and with more than touch of condescension): They're not too loud, and not too quiet.

Despite her confidence, infamy came to Margaret too: the pony and the house had to be sold after her father was disbarred for embezzling the clients' fund; but this was my first ever musical recommendation and I took it to heart. Not too loud, not too quiet: I loved Slik from that moment on.

Of course the Fratellis are (in my English teacher's most withering dismissal) derivative: but that's why I like them. They sound so Scottish, for one thing: and this unexpected wave of nostalgia comes over me whenever I hear "I seen you and little Susan and Joanna round the back of ma hotel - oh yeah". I'm thinking about tartan flares, and football scarves on Top of the Pops, and BA Robertson and Bilbo Baggins (a band so obscure there's no Wikipedia reference for them, but for the trainspotters, they were once "managed" by poor old discredited Tam Paton), and the beginning of my passion for music, and my longing to belong, in the flat grey surroundings of the toilets at my first school.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Secrets and lies

At my grandfather’s funeral, I stood up in church and read “Everyone Sang” by Siegfried Sassoon, which was written in the month he was born (April 1919). I’d forgotten to bring my print-out of the poem, so in a little modern twist, as we drove on the motorway from London to Leicestershire I called a friend in Edinburgh on my mobile and he Googled it and dictated it to me.

Families perpetrate many injustices upon each other – ask anyone – but the one involving my grandfather is worse than many. As global injustices go, this one may be small, but so convoluted and cruel is the story that it’s hard to know where to start.

Granddad was a commercial artist who had ended up sculpting models for shop-window mannequins. His life story was full of regret: he talked most eloquently about his war experiences, his memories of a friend who was court-martialled and shot for falling asleep at his post, and the loss of the family business when the factories were requisitioned for the war effort. Painstakingly, after the war, he rebuilt the business, but then he went into partnership with a cad who betrayed him, and he lost everything again as a result.

Granny died in the 1980s; Granddad lived alone in a beautiful old English village, in a slowly decaying house called Pear Tree Cottage (not just a conceit: there were pear trees in the garden). I spent many happy hours in that garden as a child, polishing a statue of Peter Pan with rose petals. Peter’s hand had been broken off and rather hamfistedly reattached with epoxy and I could never get him, or his reattached limb, clean.

My father was the second of four children. The oldest – let’s call her Ann – went wrong from a young age: she pawned Granny’s jewellery in her teens, asked for (and received) her inheritance in advance in her twenties, dyed her hair blonde, smoked, married badly, divorced, married badly again but this time to money, moved to America, and generally hurt her parents upside down and inside out. How they loved her, though! As teenagers my sister and I were heartily sick of being compared unfavourably by Granny and Granddad to Ann’s children.

By the time of Granddad’s funeral, there was something rotten in the garden: Ann had got very close to Granddad before he died, uncomfortably close, and had taken out an injunction to prevent any of her siblings from entering the house on the grounds that one (J) had been stealing heirlooms (unlikely), one (L) had threatened Granddad with a gun (sadly true), and one (my father) was not to be trusted.

Consequently the wake, such as it was, had to be held in the garden, and fearing that it would be a washout, we had packed the boot with bottles of Cava and plastic cups. Cousin P (Ann’s daughter) brought strawberries and we toasted Granddad on the sunny lawn as if nothing was wrong. Of course there was a nasty aftertaste, and I was astonished to overhear Ann telling the neighbours that she’d organized the “champagne”; but the real bombshell was the news that Granddad, in his will, had left nothing to two of his children (J and L), a small share (some 5%) to my father, and the rest, including the house, to Ann.

My father and his other sister tried and failed to challenge the will on the grounds of undue influence. The will was executed by Ann’s lawyers who claimed it was valid and that Granddad knew what he was doing. Old and frail, and hospitalised for some time before he died, he could easily have been persuaded not to trust the other three of his children by the one with the facelift. So righteous and confident was she that she arranged the sale of the house to the next-door neighbours, who had coveted it for years, as we stood in Granddad’s garden in the sunshine with cups of Cava in our hands.

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Siegfried Sassoon
April 1919