Thursday 24 July 2014

Drugs and alcohol - can we learn from the Dutch?

Lowestoft beach in summer
At the moment I am in the very privileged position of living in two completely contrasting parts of the country. Beardy Man and I both have houses in Lowestoft but, for work, Beardy Man rents a tiny, one-bed flat in Abingdon that we have affectionately christened Chateau Shoebox. I love both these towns in different ways.

In Lowestoft, between us we have an obscene number of bedrooms and so we both take in lodgers.

Last week, we had just got back from a long weekend in Amsterdam when we had to make an unscheduled trip to Lowestoft to sort out lodger problems in Beardy Man’s house. Alcohol related problems. This was Beardy Man’s first bad experience with lodgers and alcohol. I have had a couple:

1.       Miss A. who didn’t let on that she had just left rehab. She relapsed within a couple of days, took to her bed, and got up ONLY to get more alcohol. Within a week we had had her key worker, the police and finally an ambulance arrive. She ended up in hospital having nearly died and stayed there while she dried out. Her parents replaced the mattress that had been used as a toilet and, when we visited her in hospital, she was very contrite and determined to stay sober. So I did the only sensible thing and let her come back to my house!!!!

Jekyll & Hyde effect of alcohol
She didn’t destroy another mattress but soon started drinking again and quickly found another place to live. I wrote a totally true but utterly misleading reference and heaved a sigh of relief. Until her new landlord turned up on my doorstep. Querying the reference (gulp!) She had once more taken to her bed…He was not happy. Fortunately, when I came to the door in my electric wheelchair (called Davros) he calmed down. Sometimes disability has its advantages!

2.   Mr S – the binge drinker. He would be fine for weeks then would get scarily strange and argumentative before going on a bender. I only saw him really drunk once and that was enough. He was saying really creepy things like something from a horror film. He left suddenly. No forwarding address. No notice. Just a nice trail of vomit down the side of the bed.

So when Miss M came round for a chat about renting a room and told us that she was sofa surfing and had had problems with alcohol, I gagged my inner mug and didn’t offer her a room in my house. Beardy Man, still having faith in mankind, gave her a chance. She blew it. Within three weeks she had got drunk and become verbally aggressive and threatening to one of the other lodgers and scared another by shouting in the middle of the night about stabbing people.

She was sober when she was asked to leave and totally resigned to this outcome. Apparently the same thing has happened a dozen times. She thanked us both(!) for giving her a chance and left within two hours.

The tragedy of this is that, when sober, all three of the alky lodgers were really lovely people. Alcohol changed them completely. A total Jekyll and Hyde syndrome.

Who knew Neil from The Young Ones
was a Dutch footie fan?
In Amsterdam we encountered a lot of cannabis users – late evening was a bit like a zombie apocalypse (only the zombies were too stoned to be anything other than friendly.) Holland were playing the World Cup 3rd place play off and there were many football supporters in evidence. We watched the game in a weed-tolerant bar and, when the Netherlands won, there was a ripple of applause. I suspect if they had lost the reaction would be the same, with perhaps the addition of a disappointed sigh. My brother would have made more noise alone in his lounge. We saw very few police and felt completely safe, both on the streets and on public transport, in the wee small hours of the morning (apart from crazy stoned cyclists and getting wheelchair wheels stuck in tram lines.) Soho on any night, let alone an important football match night, is swarming with police and strategically placed police vans, while the general noise and hubbub is punctuated by screaming sirens.

The cannabis museum in Amsterdam describes at great length the many health benefits of the drug (brushing over memory loss and poor concentration as trivial side-effects!) and I know people who have used weed to manage chronic pain (it seems to be particularly good at dealing with the symptoms of Crohn’s Disease) when prescription drugs have failed.

My point? Alcohol can cause such a variety of social problems and yet budget after budget it escapes massive taxation and, in fact, laws have changed so that we can get hold of alcohol far more readily. Cannabis remains illegal. Have we got this right? Please comment. I’d like to know your views.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Huzzah for Independent Bookshops!

A couple of weeks ago I went to Mostly Books near my home in Abingdon.  I was there for an hour and a half just browsing and talking about books, not only with the people who work there but with other customers as well.
This does NOT look like me

In the decades since Arthritis arrived in my life it has chomped away on most of my joints and so, despite the insertion of a variety of bits of metal and plastic into my legs, I find walking difficult. Instead I terrorise pedestrians with my mobility scooter. Often smaller independent shops are off limits; either because they have steps or because, once inside, there is so much stock that navigation is either impossible or potentially expensive.

Mostly Books, is both accessible and navigable, but I often find that I am causing an obstruction. On this occasion, however, I found a spot near the picture books where I seemed to be out of everyone’s way. And so I felt no need to rush home. Why would I? What better productive procrastination for a children’s writer than to read the Guardian’s Independent Booksellers’ Week (IBW) supplement about children’s books, choose which ones to buy, realise I can’t afford them all…you get the gist.

Now, in fairness to the big-bookshop-chain-that-no-longer-uses-an-apostophe, I have had a few good book-related conversations with members of their staff. I may even have spent ninety minutes in said shop. BUT, and it’s a big but (a bit like mine), there just isn’t the same informal, comfortable atmosphere as in a good Indie bookshop.

Mark Forsyth with Mark of Mostly Books and assorted
 Abingdon book lovers all listening attentively
 Later that week Beardy Man and I returned to  Mostly Books to sit in their courtyard garden in the  evening sun and listen to the wise words of Mark  Forsyth* – expert in etymology (not to be confused  with entomology -  there are certainly no flies on him  [I know, I’m sorry])

 Mark has written this year’s IBW essay The  Unknown Unknown based around the idea of  discovering books that you have never heard of and,  therefore, don’t know you haven’t read. He rightly  points out that, in an Indie bookshop, the stock is  much more discerning (leaving the vacuous autobiographies of the latest tabloid sensation to The Others,) and so you will inevitably spot a compelling unknown unknown book on a promo table or shelf. What he doesn’t mention is the role of the staff.

Everyone in Mostly Books is a font of knowledge – including the work experience student, TJ, who was there during IBW – and most of my unknown unknown purchases have been made after talking about books...
“Oh yes I loved that book too. Have you read this one? No? You must! If you loved that then you’ll definitely love this...”

…and home with me it comes.

What might, in another type of shop, feel like hard sell, in a good indie bookshop is merely a sharing of passion. In fact, the staff gets quite embarrassed if they think they’ve whipped you up into an excessive book buying frenzy - like drug dealers with consciences.

Oh my! Nearly got lost for hours just looking at
pictures of books. I have a serious habit
I returned home after that glorious ninety minutes of soaking in bookishness with three books, all unknown unknowns. One that had been ordered after another evening in the courtyard with authors Kate Clanchy and Louise Millar (Antigona and Me by Kate Clanchy) one plucked from the Guardian IBW supplement (The Lost Gods by Francesca Simon) and one thrust eagerly upon me by TJ and just as eagerly added to my purchase pile (Magyk by Angie Sage, the first of the Septimus Heap, Wizard Apprentice series)

Thank you, Mostly Books, for broadening my horizons: Long may independent bookshops thrive by selling us the books we didn’t know we wanted – the unknown unknowns.

*This link is not only ironic but virtually sacrilegious. I am using it instead of listing and detailing Mark's books. The other authors/books mentioned in this blog are not linked on principle!

Thursday 10 July 2014

Is it or isn’t it ironic?

I was listening to the radio the other day when they played Ironic by Alanis Morissette. Being somewhat pedantic this irritates me as it should, more accurately, have been called Sod’s Law. Admittedly this would have caused some serious scansion problems but would have safeguarded the blood pressure of many a language purist.

In fairness, irony can be a tricksy minx and difficult to pin down. Students of Eng. Lit. pepper their essays liberally with such phrases as “it is ironic that…” or “the ironic tone of…” to indicate a nebulous idea that fails to identify itself fully in the student’s alcohol marinated brain. In fact, I was once told by a relatively senior purveyor of knowledge, that irony and ironic were good essay words to use when nothing else seemed to fit – a bit like supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (although I’ve personally never seen this used in an essay, possibly because irony is easier to spell!)

Poor misunderstood irony.

In an attempt to explain my understanding of this strangely elusive concept, I would like to cite 2 examples:
1.       A conversation overheard during lunch at a writing conference…

Woman:     What was your talk about this morning?
Man:          Oh…er…I can’t remember. Isn’t that silly? Um…goodness…Yes that’s it. “How to make your                   work stand out from the crowd.”

If the talk had been on character development I wouldn’t have nearly choked on my pasta salad. But the IRONY of forgetting a talk about how to be unforgettable, amused me. A lot.

2   An incident on the outskirts of the concourse seating area in Waterloo station of Costa Coffee: A blind person using a white stick tripped over the guide dog belonging to a blind person sitting drinking coffee.

Now, if the stick user had tripped over ANYTHING else it would have been just an unfortunate accident. The fact that it was a Guide Dog (not so much the blind leading the blind as the blind impeding the blind) makes it ironic AND HILARIOUS. In fact, I embarrassed my companions with my spontaneous guffaw – hey, I’m a doolally*. I have the right.

So, going back to the much maligned Miss Morissette, here are some suggestions that, as an English tutor, I would have scrawled in obnoxious red ink on her homework:

A traffic jam when you’re already late (for a road planning meeting?)
A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break (working for Imperial Tobacco?)
It’s like 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife (in the canteen of a                                                                              knife factory?)

                           Must try harder, Alanis. See me.

(*please refer to a future post regarding names and stereotypes for a full explanation of this)

Wednesday 2 July 2014

To blog or not to blog?

The Ultimate Procrastinator
I have been thinking about blogging for a while. Quite a long while actually. But that’s what I do – I think about things. Then maybe, eventually, I do them. A bit like Hamlet. Although I have to say I’ve never thought about killing my Uncle, but then he didn’t murder my dad and marry my mum. Anyway, Hamlet is a good example, because when he does decide to stop thinking and do something, he makes a right balls-up of it and stabs Polonius through the arras (ooh er Mrs)

This is the fear of all “thinkers” (or, let’s be honest, procrastinators.) We put off getting on with “it” just in case we’re not up to the task. Instead we opt for staying in our comfort zone, doing things that don’t quite give us the pleasure or fulfilment we think they should. The blog waitbutwhy on procrastination is not only brilliantly entertaining but illuminating. All procrastinators should read it as it is (apart from being deliciously ironic) what I call “productive procrastination.” In other words doing something useful even if it’s not what you should be doing. Reading my blog, for example, will be such a deeply edifying experience  that it must surely count as productive procrastination at the very least, if not essential to maintaining mental health and spiritual well-being. Or maybe not.

So, here I sit, having read Emily Benet’s excellent book “Blogging for Beginners” trying to follow her advice and write a blog about something that I know a lot about…


The trouble is, apart from my expertise in procrastination, I know a bit about a lot of things. In fact, I am the kind of person (a rarity, apparently) who can find something interesting in pretty much anything. I know a fair bit about books and literature, but I read at the speed of a dyslexic snail. Let’s face it, no-one wants to read a book blog about the Man Booker Prize longlist six months after the winner is announced. Besides, there are many outstanding book blogs already.
Oh dear !

This led me to the tragically narcissistic conclusion that only thing I REALLY know a lot about is me.

Caption ideas welcome... 
This blog, then, will contain the thoughts and experiences of me. It will cover topics from Arthritis (which I’ve had since I was two) to Zoos (which I love) it will feature my friends and family, my partners (past and present) their offspring and, of course, my cats. Books, theatre and writing will almost certainly pop up and…well…who knows what else? I hope you will join me to find out.