Thursday, December 30, 2004

cousin
Owen is five years older than me and a rugged outdoorsy traveller type. He worked as a tour guide in Nepal for a couple of years, lived in South America too. He and his girlfriend missed our wedding because they were on holiday somewhere remote and exotic - they missed my brother's wedding almost a year later for the same reason. It came as no surprise then to hear that Owen would not be spending Christmas at home.
I was busy over Christmas - cooking and entertaining. I didn't check the news until after I spoke to my Mum on the phone. But even after I heard about the wave I was certain Owen was fine. I spoke to another family member the next day. She was inconsolable, wailing, crying, sobbing - I couldn't understand why she had assumed Owen must be dead. But then, we don't have a television. I logged on and checked out the news sites. Worry began to fester.

for us, a happy ending
My Mum called to tell me that Owen and girlfriend had spoken to my aunt. They had been picked up by a cruise ship. More details trickled out the next day. Owen and Samara had been staying on a tiny island off the coast of Thailand they had spent Christmas day on the beach. The next day they discussed whether to stay on the beach or head out to scuba dive, they went diving. Owen was all suited up and about to dive when the crew noticed the water was fizzing. The captain decided to take the boat out into deep water where they'd be able to ride out any storm more safely. They were out there for six hours and watched the whole calamity from the deck. When they came back to the island the tent they'd slept in the night before had been washed away. When they got back to the mainland, the hotel where they'd left their bags had been destroyed. They got on a plane to Bangkok and were going to spend the rest of their holiday there. They were in good spirits and seemed relatively unshaken. When I heard all this I laughed and said typical Owen - trust Owen, lucky Owen. For the rest of the day I congratulated myself for having not been too concerned. TA kept telling me that early reports were wildly optomistic, but nothing really sank in.
It took a day for the enormity of it to hit me and then the sense of guilt crept up on me: guilt for having not been worried, guilt for having misunderstood the scale of the tragedy, guilt for feeling relieved about Owen - strange second-hand survivors' guilt - and now the guilt of the impotent, life carrying on as normal while hundreds of thousands of people suffer. And of course, still, the nervous laugh - typical, bloody-lucky, Owen.

Monday, December 20, 2004

err, sorry for the lack of posting. A few things have conspired to keep my crazy busy - like the release of the extended version of Return of the King on DVD! Back soonish.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

the old men
My father loves family history, but his relationship with his family is distant and the geneology he pores over reads like the driest Old Testament list: X begat Y who begat Z. Perhaps it's because it's based on blood ties and I feel alienated, perhaps I just don't have the geneology gene, but I can never summon any interest in his carefully compiled family trees.
My mother has a much more vibrant relationship with her family, but very little interest in geneology. What she does have, and I share, is a love of stories. My mother has little models of the old men from the muppets in the living room. They are emblematic I think of her, our, affection for the old men of her side of the family.

Once upon a time there were three old men (there was also a young man and one that got away - my grandfather who died when my mother was 15 and uncle Jack who went to South Africa and never came back - stories for another day). The three old men were uncle Mick, uncle Dennis, my grandfather's brothers, and uncle George, my nanny's brother. After the war Nanny and uncle George shared a house and Dennis and Mick lived next door.
The stories about Dennis deserve a post on their own. I don't know any stories about Mick. My mother always asks, 'Do you remember uncle Mick?' To which I reply, 'No Mum, he died the year I was born.' This is her cue to sigh and say, 'Mick was a lovely man.'
The stories about uncle George are all tinged with sadness. George was the most beautiful little boy you could imagine. There is a photo of him, obviously taken in a studio, when he was four or five. He is holding a clay pipe, a bubble pipe, wearing short trousers and a smart little jacket. The striking thing is his gorgeous hair - perfect shoulder-length ringlets - and the solemn expression that reaches all the way to his innocent eyes.
I wonder what kind of young man that little boy grew into. We have a book of poems published before the war that includes a poem written by uncle George. The poem is called 'Violet' and ostensibly describes the flower, however, the story that goes with the poem makes this moment of literary success all the more poignant. Uncle George was in love with a girl called Violet and hoped to marry her - perhaps they were engaged, certainly they were courting. When uncle George returned from the war he discovered that Violet had married someone else.
Uncle George didn't have an easy war, who did? He was in a tank regiment. My memory says he was fighting somewhere in Africa, but perhaps I am inventing that. His tank broke down and uncle George was seperated from the rest of the convoy while he and his crew fixed the problem. It took a while and they were slow to catch up with the convoy. When eventually George's tank reached the convoy the crew discovered that all their friends were dead - there had been an ambush and none lived. George never got over the guilt of surviving.
His civvie years were uneventful - he ran a post office and then a cake shop. My cousin remembers him giving her cakes on the sly and always looking slightly lost, as if the apron was the only thing that reminded him of what he should be doing.
Throughout my own childhood uncle George was a benevolent presence. Not as mad as Uncle Dennis, not as crabbed as Nanny, George still had something of that ringletted, innocent, serious boy about him - he even smoked a pipe. I remember that he loved trees and nature. My last memory is crystal clear. Mum and I were walking in the park with uncle George. The park had a series of exercise bars and activities for kids to play on, the idea was to run around the park in a preordained circuit and stop at each activity. In his seventies uncle George was still proud to be able to complete a few chin ups on a set of bars.

Our phone often rang in the middle of the night - Dad was the keyholder at work and if an alarm went off the fire brigade or police would call him out. So when it rang in the earliest hours of the morning a week or so after our park outing I ignored it and went back to sleep. Mum and Dad must have been sleeping deeply because they never woke. So it was that Nanny couldn't reach us when George collapsed with chest pains. An ambulance came and he was taken to hospital.
Perhaps the trouble started in the desert, perhaps it was when he lost Violet, whatever it was that started it I don't think the years of cakes and pipe smoking helped to heal uncle George. During the week he was in hospital George's heart failed him, but looking back I think it broke bit by bit until he died of it. Through all his suffering he was sweet and good humoured and full of innocent wonder. Of his treatment in hospital he told his visitors, 'It's marvelous you know, the nurses have taken my lunch order for tomorrow: a full roast dinner. Though I suppose they'll have to liquidise it to put it in the drip.'
Cheat's triolet
I will write a beautiful post.
I will write 'in praise of old men'.
I will write the most...
I will write a beautiful post.
It's not a boast
As you'll see when
I write a beautiful post:
I write 'in praise of old men'.

As soon as I have some time. Watch this space as they say.
(blame him). More on triolets.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

a lesson in the dark arts
Chirpy PR lassie in email to a competition finalist:
I don't know if you've done this sort of thing before, but usually what happens
is the PR firm drafts a potential quote for you, then you either respond with a
"yes, I'll agree to say that" or you make modifications to suit your own words
better. We ask for a reply as soon as you can get it to us in email. Of course,
we'd love to keep the plug for the XXX in there. Would you be willing to do that
for us? Here's the generic quote we have drafted...
WHAT AM I DOING HERE?

Friday, December 03, 2004

sir, your daughter is a geek
It’s not often I get to display my geek credentials (for a start I don’t have all that many) but just occasionally TA and housemate C are otherwise engaged and I get to flex my geek muscles (is that an oxymoron?). Last night I performed an install by wire for my father, it was a uniquely bitter-sweet father-daughter moment.
Background: A month or so ago we gave my parents my old computer to replace my dad’s decrepit PC (we had upgraded my mum a year or more ago – her machine not the woman herself you understand). They recently bought a new printer for Mum and shunted the older one over to Dad’s machine.
Last night I rang for a chat. After a short preamble Dad said – sounding worried – that his printer had stopped working. The first hurdle was getting Dad to open the Word doc he was trying to print – he has yet to grasp the concept of saving a document in a particular folder/location. Finally he found the document he was looking for. The next hurdle was navigating XP’s tricksy menus – how was Dad to know that XP had ‘helpfully’ hidden the print option? Of course, the print dialogue box showed that he hadn’t actually installed the printer. Thank god for wizards, once we had located the control panel menu it was an easy enough process to follow.
So, why was this geek triumph so bitter at the same time as being sweet? In my Dad’s world view I’m supposed to call him wanting help (and I often do) this role reversal was deeply unsettling for him I could hear it in his voice. Perhaps he was thinking of his mother’s inability to use the telephone – that sense that the world has somehow passed you by and, hard as you try, you’ll never catch up with it again. My grandfather died long before I arrived but apparently he told the story of how as a boy he ran out into the garden to see for the very first time a plane in the sky. What a moment of awe and I imagine bewilderment.
I wonder what technology my generation will find too complex to learn and how soon we’ll become impossibly behind the times – to use IT terminology at what point do we become a legacy generation, still functioning but essentially useless? Interestingly enough, considering I work for an IT PR company that prides itself on how much the account staff know about the technologies they represent, the levels of software illiteracy are astounding. Worrying stuff.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

turning beetroot red
Beetroot is the new sweetcorn. At the weekend I bought a bag of beetroot (bulbs?) along with my usual quota of veggies and on Sunday I made borscht.

On Sunday TA and I ate this with fresh rosemary bread from the market for both lunch and dinner. I parcelled up the leftovers to bring to work for lunch. I ate borscht on Monday and Tuesday. Yesterday I had a distressing moment in the ladies’, my mind running through all the possible reasons why such a thing might happen – cancer, something worse? – before the answer dawned on me: borscht!

Borscht (feeds the 5000)
Approx 8 beetroots (peeled, half cubed and half grated)
2 carrots (peeled and grated)
2 large potatoes
2 large onions
Any leftover veggies that you can easily disguise! (my haul included some leftover stir-fry from the night before – peppers, leeks, even cashew nuts!)
Lots of garlic (finely chopped)
Fresh beef stock (we use marrow bones to make ours)
Paprika
Chilli flakes
At least one teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper
Vodka
Lemon juice
Soured cream
Dill

Lightly fry the onion, garlic and spices. Add the veggies and stock. Simmer gently for several hours. Just before serving add the lemon juice and vodka. Serve with soured cream and dill.