Ball Games

What is it with the English, summer and balls?
Cricket balls, footballs, tennis balls, and graduation balls.

The gee-gees have finished breaking their necks over the fences. The great washed and unwashed have realised, yet again, that watching them run round on a flat surface is about exciting as a grand prix without a crash. 
Fortunes have been made and lost. The cleavage and cream brigade have shown us that you can change the proportions of a woman by sticking something ludicrous on her head – and we’re now all bored.

Thank god for balls.

Take football, which we only get in the summer every other year. Year one world cup, year two no footie, year three European cup, year four no footie.
This must be one of the odd years even though numerically it is even. It’s 2004 ( though it could be 2006/8/10/16 etc…)
. This summer we have footie. This summer we don’t have a sea of geranium hanging baskets adorning our streets, This summer we are drowning in a jingoistic ocean of red and white flags.
Suddenly everyone is an armchair expert on the glorious game.

‘Beckham (Renaldo – Messei) is God!’

‘Bloody Scholes! (Terry – Rooney) He’s playing like a big girl’s blouse!’

‘Run you tosser!’

(I’m running out of names)

‘What the hell is Owen playing at?’

All this from the pragmatic female in accounts who barely musters a drop of perspiration when the footsie surges forward. Take out an ‘s’ and she has a personality transplant.

Red (not a good fashion colour) is a disaster as a uniform. Hop filled bellies take on EU food mountain proportions, women mistakenly believe that football strips are sexy, and pulling is confined to pints.

And then the ball goes out.

Beckham is relegated to tosser division.

 Men remember how to dress again. Women go back to white wine and weight-watchers, and every Greek, Spanish and Portuguese restaurant in the home counties is boycotted.

Ah yes, the home counties, that neatly brings us to another ball game, cricket.

Cricket, a  game enjoyed by men and tolerated by women. 

Lost in fantasy the men sit comfortably in their own space and revel in inarticulate intellectuality; Wind in the Willows for grown-ups.
The women have their partner’s presence, or at least a well-dressed semblance of it, and are moderately comfortable cutting the cucumbers while checking out who is possibly having an affair with whose husband and covertly grooming the young lad playing second stump or something, (they really couldn’t care less) for future adventures.
And then rain stops play which, coincidentally moves us forward to the yellow balls of tennis.

Wimbledon. This has to be the greatest of all the summer balls, (remember this is 2004 before Centre Court was given a lid).
The grey green canopy covering Centre Court has to the BBC’s most triumphant televisual achievement since the test card.
 Cameramen put in for the Wimbledon gig years in advance, knowing they can happily book their annual holiday to coincide and not even be missed.
Nothing happens.
The rain comes down and the nation is enthralled. 
True, Henman will go out at some point, quite possibly Cliff Richard will be in the crowd, and it’s always good for minor royalty spotting. Thankfully we have the re-runs of years gone by when boys knew how to play, long hair was the order of the day and shorts were moulded to the bits that matter.

And so we move on to the graduation ball often enjoyed with punting (yes I did say punting).
Tuxedos covering the manhood of future EU mountains.  Frocks clinging to pre weight-watchers curves. The highs (and lows) of pulling your three year fantasy, all enjoyed with substances legal and illegal and often followed by a visit to the clap clinic, or the registry office or church before the unexpected offspring arrives, thus ensuring the embryonic butter mountain secures a well paid job within the privileged walls of banking or politics,
his future  fantasies forever accompanied by the ‘thwack’ of leather on willow. While she, misty eyed, looks at the youthful ‘second stump’ (or whatever)  and remembers a more playful use of cucumbers.

Let’s face it ball games (a bit like politics) are not about the balls, they are about the people playing with them.

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Mission Impossible or, at the very least, aggravating.

When did Supermarkets turn into Japanese reality games shows?
There was a time wasn’t there when one savoured the shopping experience, even the supermarket shopping experience?
Browsing through the aisles toying with brand A and then delightfully discovering brand B, the one that you saw in the advert the night before, where the gorgeous man swept you (having mentally replaced the actress playing opposite him), off your feet with the heady aroma of instant coffee.
The thrill of trolleys that glided effortlessly over smooth sparkling floors, the tempting fruits from exotic lands evoking images of palm trees, teasing you away from the mundane and transporting you to a fantasy world of unashamed luxury.
Checkout counters that carried your precious purchases, unaided, to the crisp carrier bags so thoughtfully provided. The happy smile from the cashier, hoping you will enjoy the rest of your day and ‘do you need a hand out to your car with your packages?’

What happened?

Take for example the cigarette kiosk, where you may purchase up to five non-tobacco related items. The queue is twenty deep. The dragon immediately in front of you has at least fifteen items in her basket and from the chorus of ‘tutting’ you can only assume that the vicar (four in front of the dragon) is groping the primary school headmistress.
The cashier is either a trainee or miserably menopausal and occasionally both.
The ubiquitous lottery machine has broken down – again, and Mrs Green from number sixty-seven doesn’t understand why they don’t have a weighing machine for her grapes, she was sure they did last week. They have never had a weighing machine on the cigarette counter.
‘Can you pass me twenty Bensons?’ Shouts Gladys from aisle nine.
‘Twenty what?’ Gawps the menopausal trainee.
‘Bensons’ spit the twenty strong queue in unison, relieved at being able to use an alternative to ‘tut’.
‘No I can’t, I’ve run out of Bensons’ bleats the cashier. ‘Is there a manager around? The lottery machine’s jammed again and someone’s going to have to go to the store room for the cigarettes.’
Absolutely no response from any checkout as the familiar epidemic of selective deafness spreads with margarine like ease from cashier to cashier.

‘Honestly!’ (The queue is getting restless). ‘This shop gets worse and worse.’
Actually it can’t get any worse; there is no lower level capable of supporting its awfulness.

Andy, the assistant manager, arrives.
‘Is there a problem?’
Suddenly all the checkout staff can hear again.
‘Andy, I need a need some change and it’s my break now, can I close after the next customer?’
‘Andy can you change this pint of milk for me? it’s leaking. We had the same trouble last week. Gary said he was going to have a word with the dairy. Look it’s all over my skirt.’

Has one got time to reach across to the newspaper stand and pick up a crossword? It is almost certainly going to take most of the lunch hour to reach the front of the queue. No, if you lose your place now you’ll end up being number thirty-five without a hope of paying for your sandwich before the afternoon school run. You could try conversation.

‘Oh hello Mrs Meadows haven’t seen you for a while, how are you?’
You knew before you opened your mouth it was a mistake.
Mr Meadows it seems has been ‘up the orspital’ all morning. Apparently they did some artwork on his neck in black magic marker, said he couldn’t have anything to eat or drink for twenty-four hours and had to report back at eight in the morning – with his pyjamas.
‘Ooooh, my Alf had that’ (from the body behind you).

Thank God. Someone else is bored. You dip gracefully out of the fascinating repartee and back to the sullen salami queue.
What next? Pelvic floor exercises might relieve the boredom. Oh look we’re on the move.

Now that wasn’t very clever.

‘Andy I’ve just dropped the eggs! What do I do now?’

Get the sack? Go on your tea break? Emigrate?

Most of the counter and a fair sized puddle of floor space are now decorated with a dozen value range eggs, none of them hard-boiled – or inside their shells.

‘We’ll have to close the counter. Phone upstairs and get a sign brought down.’
‘What sign do you want Andy, the special offers?’

Do they have any kind of in house training or is it enough to pass the absolute incompetence test?
Finally a new checkout is opened and our hero Andy takes control leaving the menopausal trainee to mop up the omelette.
The relief of finally passing through the jammed automatic doors is only slightly diminished by the realisation that you need to buy stamps.
Oh joy – next stop the Post Office.

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The Birth

Contrary to any rumours you may have heard, there are only two ways to give birth. Caesarean section or drugged to the point where you resemble Amy Winehouse moments before rigor mortis set in. You may have come across the mythical term ‘natural birth’ – discount it instantly, skip the entire chapter. There is nothing remotely ‘natural’ about it.

Imagine a whale stranded on the A3, a Juggernaut on either side and three lanes merging into one after the underpass at Tibbet’s Corner.
You are the whale. It’s morning rush hour and the traffic is moving very slowly. Every time the traffic lights change on West Hill, you move forward. The juggernauts start to squeeze. You lose your breakfast. You stop. The lights change again, You move forward. The Juggernauts squeeze again. You lose the remaining contents of your stomach. Many, many hours and squeezes later, what is left of you reaches the Wandsworth one way system. The final assault is like clapping two bricks on a scrotum sac and seeing only one ball pop out – and you call that natural?

Arriving at the hospital and having convinced the doctor that your needs are more pressing than your partner’s vindaloo induced gastro-enteritis, you are bullied into the labour ward. Not ‘wheeled’ or, ‘gently and reassuringly led’. No – bullied. For some strange reason a high percentage of gynaecologists are men and, as few of them have had their scrotums brick bashed, they all believe that giving birth is no more troublesome or painful than changing a tyre or missing the rugby semi finals. Note I say ‘semi’ finals.

‘Come along, you’ve got hours to go yet. Don’t make such a fuss’. This as you clutch the nearest stationary object, knowing that any second your intestines are going to redecorate the floor.
‘Women give birth every day. In China they drop them in the paddy fields and go straight back to work.’


You clench your teeth, praying for two building bricks and unrestricted access to his scrotum.

It’s time for the pre med. You lie back on the bed. There is no way you can actually see what the nurse is doing, Moby Dick rules out any chance of that. Your partner holds your hand and smiles weakly – well you assume he’s smiling behind that ridiculous patch of green material stretched under his nose, under his nose? and hooked around his ears. The rest of his face is a similar colour to the patch. Don’t be fooled it isn’t sympathy; it’s just the death throes of his stomach and the sight of your complete sexual organs under the glare of a Brute.
He will never ever make that documentary on the wonders of reproduction.

At this point the full horror of what is about to occur finally sinks in. Ayres Rock is going to go through Marble Arch. You start sweating – profusely.
Sweating during childbirth has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of energy expended, and absolutely everything to do with blind terror and total panic… Ayres Rock won’t go through Marble Arch.
Just as the doctor says, ‘Push’, you clench every working muscle in your lower abdomen.

“Get back you b*****d, you’re not coming out that way!”


“F**k off!”

You will also discover that you know several Anglo-Saxon swear words and are quite capable of using them all – a lot – loudly.

Realising at last that a natural birth is like pulling your top lip over your head, you beg for an alternative.
It’s a toss up between a Caesar and the whole drug trip. On the plus side for the Caesar, a tiny scar below the bikini line and the reassurance that you’re most fundamental orifice won’t end up looking like the Channel tunnel. On the minus side – you do get to see most of it and what’s left of your stomach muscles may never recover.
The epidural, pethadene, morphine, and ‘any other drug you might happen to have available’ route, is quite tempting. One of the few chances in you and your child’s life for serious legal drug abuse.

‘Can you feel anything?’

This to the voodoo doll with needles poking out from everywhere, the one in your back totally numbing all sensation below the waist, and your head is well on its way to San Francisco.
A good moment to spare a thought for your son/daughter. This is his/her first ‘cosmic’ experience – beg for a little more gas and air oh, and does that prick of a doctor have an IPod handy?
You know of course that you will get a Channel Tunnel, but if you have a word with the houseman in charge of the mopping (and stitching) up, you could end up with a tighter model than the one you went in with.
Unfortunately both options are now out of the question as Moby Dick is about to make his/her appearance.

The primeval scream, the sinking into unconsciousness. 
Men are so wet. 
He slides to the floor – no one takes any notice.
 Could it be that for the first time in your life you are going to be the sole centre of attention?
No such luck – as you split from thigh to thigh, Ayres Rock crashes through Marble Arch and Moby Dick arrives.

And you think that was bad? Let’s move on to parenting.

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The Wrapping Paper Conspiracy.

Call it what you will…the festive fall out…the season of ill will.
The ancient pagan festival borrowed by the Christian ruling classes, beautifully wrapped in H.A Rrods’ or WH Smith or Tesco or Sainsbury paper, and hung on a Victorian tree imported from a timeless enemy state, the descendants of which now act as our figureheads, whilst extolling the merits of pillaging the countryside with hounds and guns for food and ‘jolly good sport’, to see them through the winter… which brings us neatly back to the ancient pagan festival.

And so this is Christmas, a totally un-natural man made holiday that we all start dreading from the middle of September, the temperature oddly soaring into the low eighties as we experience what is fast becoming a familiar Indian summer. The latest designer tinsel sprouting like a harvest festival on perfume and toy counters throughout the land.

The panic button is duly pressed. We race like lemmings to fill woolly tartan stockings with even uglier woolly tartan socks. It is a well known fact that if you were to objectively lay out all the special little goodies you have purchased to delight those nearest and dearest, you would be appalled.

Not only are they perfectly hideous (there is definitely a direct link between Christmas shopping and lack of taste), but you are already worrying about how you are going to pay off your credit card… and you haven’t even started on the food yet.

And we all do it don’t we? You know what I’m talking about. We promise ourselves every year that we won’t, but we do.
Remember telling yourself that this year you were going to just buy one present for each person? A treasure they would love. Something you had taken the time to think about and lovingly source. Something that would make their eyes light up with pleasure and surprised delight, causing you to be suffused with a warm self satisfied glow of fulfilment.

And then what happens?

The wrapping paper conspiracy.

Have you noticed that when you buy that one special gift for each person it is perfect, but the minute you wrap it, it doesn’t look half as good as the one special gift that you bought for the next person.
It either looks too small or not solid enough, or… lets face it… not expensive enough.

Who or what is behind the wrapping paper conspiracy? It could of course just be the paper companies boosting their fourth quarter profits or the perfume industry striving to makes the ultimate packaging style statement.

But hold on… the whole campaign is too orderly, too orchestrated, too subversive. Surely It has to be a capitalistic global plot masterminded by governments and credit card companies bent on beating recession by encouraging massive consumer consumption over a minimal time scale, thus distorting the West’s GDP figures and making them look good? ‘Them’ being the governments, the credit card companies (The Banks) or the West’s’ GDP figures… your choice.

Well who would believe that wrapping paper companies or fashion gurus’ care that much about looking good? OK possibly the fashion gurus.

So having rebelliously decided that this years’ Christmas theme is to be ‘Bollywood’, you duly set about purchasing every piece of cerise and gold foil paper available in your limited market place. Bearing in mind you do not do ‘Out of local high street experiences’ after November, this in itself is quite a challenge.

Luckily every high street has one, the c**p shop, otherwise known as the discount store and you are well on your way to achieving your first low cost Christmas. OK so you did have to buy half a weeks salary’s worth of completely useless stocking fillers ‘because they were there’, and you couldn’t just do stockings for immediate family.’ After all there are going to be at least eight of us, and it would be just terrible if any one thought I’d forgotten them’.

The look of polite disbelief on their faces when they eventually open their assorted play dough, king sized pick up sticks, plastic crib boards and animal key rings that pooh, (bearing in mind that apart from grandchildren the combined age of the ‘celebratees’ is probably over 500), persuades you that next year you ‘could do better.’

But you tried, truly you did. You bought all those, special, individual, carefully thought out one-off presents… and then you wrapped them. That’s when the wrapping paper conspiracy took over. No longer were the contents of importance; they just didn’t look right. They looked positively mean, scrimping, uncaring. Christmas conditioning dictates presents should look sumptuous. Only Scrooge and now obviously, you, do Christmas on such a parsimonious scale.

There is only one solution. Yet again you become a victim of the wrapping paper conspiracy. Out you fly, credit card in hand, matching presents to size and how many per person, heedless to desire or needs, the Christmas ogre in complete control. The governments and the credit card company, your puppeteers.

Finally you are sated. The Christmas room resembles a souk in high season. The kitchen is weighed down with bowls of fruit that will undoubtedly perish before consumption takes place. An overbearing smell of Roquefort feet emanates from the fridge. This is how it should be. You are at peace with your preconditioning.

And so it begins.

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National Obsessions…Just Storms in a Teacup

In England it’s the weather… the national obsession that it.

‘You can feel a nip in the air’

‘But what a wonderful summer we’ve had’.

‘Can’t believe it’s almost November.’

‘Had to turn the heating on last night mind.’

‘Did you hear that rain?’

‘They say we’re in for a hard winter.’

And so it goes on. Too hot, too cold, too many leaves on the line, too much rain, not enough rain, not the right rain (this from farmers), not the right leaves (the rail companies).
The weather is a subject we never tire of. It’s polite and it rarely raises passions (commuters are remarkably stoic even when faced day after day of delays).

I’m sure every country has its obsessions. Here in SE Asia, which is not all blue skies, warm seas and pristine beaches by the way – not in the wet season, the national obsession appears to be insects or more precisely the effects of insects. Whether they be mosquitoes, ants, spiders, nits or fleas, they are the enemy and the battle to contain them is constant; sometimes shared, sometimes a personal journey. The fascination with the war wounds they inflict is never diminished, rarely discussed but forever on your mind.

After breakfast most of the women in the families will groom their children. Not in the ugly way that we now consider grooming (although I fear that is a different subject that still needs addressing) but rather as a tribe of primates, meticulously picking through hair for nits and dabbing bright red potions onto fresh lumps and bumps.

Rarely does one see a body that has not been attacked, where the enemy has not left its mark, where skin still looks unblemished…even the most cellulite free, bikini clad, toned bodies bear the scars.

Assiduously tending to my own crop, while swatting away would be marauders, I marvel at the different stages of their development. The ‘overnights ‘ red and itchy, the ‘two day olds’ water filled and beseeching to be ‘popped’, the ‘popped ‘four day olds’ now crusted, temptingly crusted – you know that removing the crust will cause more liquid to spill out and dribble down the leg or arm affected and form a new crust but you have to do it anyway. The ‘ten day olds’, now just blood coloured dark scabs waiting to drop off…hardly worth your interest, yet you pick at them still.

No amount of toxic room spray, anti histamine, Betadine or, when they eventually turn septic, antibiotics, can stop the onslaught… like the weather they will always throw something else at you.

I look up from my scab picking to see two divers come ashore dragging a third diver….A CORPSE! After last week’s corpse incident and the bird being caught by the cat, I do exactly as Chai advised…I look.

I don’t run down the beach to offer my non existent first aid skills or rush to a phone to call an ambulance…I look – stunned.

I look as one of the divers attempts mouth to mouth. Finally I call Chai and Ali.

“We must do something!”

Ali peers down the beach, Chai shrugs his shoulders and continues scratching his bites.

The divers put the corpse into the recovery position, he is motionless, no coughing of water, no spluttering, no sign of life at all.

“Ali we have to help…shouldn’t we call someone?”

Ali looks.

“Aren’t you going to do anything?!!!” (This from the woman who ‘looks’)

“It’s fine Mama, only practice…not dead.”

At this point the ‘corpse’ picks himself up, shakes hands with his two companions, gives Ali a thumbs up sign and heads down the beach.

We return to our bites. The sun comes out from behind the clouds. A bit like a storm, once over it’s soon forgotten.

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