The observant among you may have noted that I was absent last week. I had intended to write a column, or at any rate log on with a ‘Kathryn is away this week’ message but several factors mitigated against me. I left my Blackberry on charge in the living room as I gathered the final items for my holiday in the South of France, most of which was spent in true rurality. It was bliss and the effort of seeking an internet cafe was far less appealing than sipping wine and nibbling olives. Just this once, I’ll let myself off from the challenge I set at New Year to write each Thursday come what may because I was, quite literally, in another world. I could bore you with stories of wonderful meals, charming towns and the other minutiae of holidays but instead I’ll pick up on one significant impression left upon me. The boyfriends’ eldest has started collecting flags and requested a French flag. Readily we promised to buy him one. Yes, yes you shouldn’t make promises to children unless you’re absolutely sure you can deliver. But how difficult could it be? The World Cup was on and France still in the running, flags would be everywhere! France is beautiful. This is nothing new. If you haven’t wandered the pastel streets of the towns that dot Provence, poured wine from painted carafes or watched the sun set over the twinkling Mediterranean then you’ve seen the pictures and postcards, and watched the films of these things. The French dress stylishly, adhere to a myriad of planning rules for their buildings and regularly carry baskets with baguettes but most significantly, they are so assured in their national pride that they do not feel the need to attach the Tricolore to their cars. Or hang them outside their homes or wear them about their shoulders. No flags to be seen.*

Of course the French can be tiresome at times. One night at a party the boyfriend got chatting to a charming bloke who nonetheless divided the planet’s commerce between French and not-French. A lightly spirited debate over beer (I must say at this point that the boyfriends’ language talents were both surprising and delightful) caught me rolling my eyes and him demanding to know what I was drinking. My answer that I was drinking pastis caught him off guard and I was eager to stress my appreciation for a great many things French (personally I thought the fact I was spending my holiday in the country might have been a clue). Still, one can rather labour the point and his afterbirth had come out half an hour ago. Yet I was affected and left saddened by the infusion of national pride that I saw wherever I went. Perhaps football was avoided as a diplomatic measure and perhaps the circles I was moving in (British expats and the locals that befriend them) accounts for the subjects of film and food being notable topics of discussion but it was nice. It was nice to talk to people that love their cheese and are eager to hear which actors and entertainers are popular in England (much hilarity when Antoine de Caunes was mentioned).

Later, when an English woman mentioned the World Cup, I started talking about asparagus. We have amazing asparagus in Gloucestershire you know. I buy ours from Over Farm Market where it gets picked early in the day and is displayed casually on racks to be gathered by the handful. Luscious! I pointed out that it was tragic that our national pride was so tied to wearing football shirts and chanting for Engurland *shudder.* This isn’t to disparage football; despite not being a fan I was far more thrilled than I expected to hear of yesterday’s victory from the cheer arising at the Berkeley Arms as I sat at my desk at the Edward Jenner Museum a few moments walk away. But it is just a game... Anyway, she looked pensive for a moment and then agreed. We covered a few of the amazing things about our fair isle and she seemed positively buoyed in the face of surrounding French smugness.

I love the scene in Love Actually where Hugh Grant gives the kind of speech that is the Political Scientists wet dream** (from 1 min 20 secs particularly). ‘We may be a small country, but we’re a great one too.’ I’d like to see more recognition from this fact. Yes we are overpopulated with what can only be described as chav scum but we are also host to amazing talent that was tragically neglected during Labour’s party for the reliant. One of my hopes for the new government is that rather than fuel a culture of dependence where benefits are viewed as a right, we see greater investment in start-ups and R&D. There is a particular group of people that deserve as much focus as Rooney and his fellow dribblers and kickers and they are our entrepreneurs and our scientists. We have amazing standards of education and our footballers represent just a fraction of our raw talent. From pressing cider to conceptualising new pathways in medicine we Brits are pretty damn awesome. So while I’ll have my fingers crossed on Sunday (though I’ll actually be eating a picnic at Goodrich Castle) I hope you’ll take a moment to reflect on the other things worth celebrating. 

 * An eBay order was placed upon our return home.

** If, well ya know, that happened to girls...
 
 

I’m a fan of Oliver James. Such an admission is unlikely to make me popular with working mothers but I’ve never been one to let an unsavoury truth affect my opinions. I consider James to fall into the category of a decent researcher and if his conclusions are difficult to swallow then his conclusions are difficult to swallow; his methodology to my eyes is sound. James is the author of a favourite book title of mine. A book, I hasten to add, I am yet to read. The title summarises the relationship many of us have with our parents beautifully: They fuck you up

The reason I’m thinking about parents screwing you up is possibly guessable. Derek Bird’s massacre of Cumbrian citizens has shaken the country. It seems that in as much as there was a reason* for Bird’s behaviour, it was linked to his father’s will. And in a knock on effect, his youngest son has pulled out of his GCSE’s. My first reaction to the exam dodger was negative but then, Graeme (28) and Jamie (16) have been horribly insensitive.


Their statement read as follows:

We are utterly devastated about the death of our father Derrick Bird. To us he was the nicest man you could ever meet. He was a loving dad and recently became a grandfather. We do not know why our dad committed these horrific crimes. We are both mortified by these sad events. We would ask to be allowed to mourn the loss of our father. We would also like to send our condolences to all the other families and people involved in this tragic incident.

It ought to have been shorter:


We do not know why our dad committed these horrific crimes. We are both mortified by these sad events. We would also like to send our condolences to all the other families and people involved in this tragic incident.

Anything more than the shorter is not only irrelevant but actually insulting. A request to mourn their father suggests their father is in some way equal to the other people that lost their life that day. Sorry boys but everything changed. What you are mourning is not your father but a person you believed to be your father. Your father was a soulless killer that boasted prior to his death that he would go out in a blaze of glory. If you are to survive this then you need to recognise that fact.

I’m sure I’m coming across as harsh but it is just bad manners. Good people died that day; loved and loving family members that no doubt had their share of disappointments and feeling the world was against them but got on with things rather than go on a killing spree. I’m far from perfectly mannered but I try to have some standards and I’d never be so arrogant as to assume anyone gave a toss about me mourning a twisted cunt** like Derek Bird.


It strikes me as a reflection on society. In Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Madding Crowd an early conversation between Oak and Bathsheba touches on the notion of individual significance.

"I believe you saved my life, Miss - I don't know your name. I know your aunt's, but not yours."

"I would just as soon not tell it - rather not. There is no reason either why I should, as you probably will never have much to do with me."


"Still, I should like to know."


"You can inquire at my aunt's - she will tell you."


"My name is Gabriel Oak."

"And mine
 isn't. You seem fond of yours in speaking it so decisively, Gabriel Oak."

Bathsheba is an interesting character and I wouldn’t want to leap to the conclusion that Hardy’s portrayal of her is sociologically defendable as female attitudes of the day but it nonetheless reflects an idea of one’s station in life being clearly marked. In 1874 one did not presume that all and sundry were keen to know your views. That was something to be earned.

Arguably the young Mr's Bird have earned an audience through notoriety by association with the Cumbrian killer but an audience by association is not a true audience. What we want to hear is sorry and while Grame and Jamie are in no way responsible for the sins of their father, it might have been nice if they'd displayed some 19th century decorum and considered their personal feelings to be kept private and the appropriate public response to be a simple, "we are so very sorry for the losses at the hand of our father."

* I think it’s important to be absolutely clear that I believe Derek Bird to be a pathetic excuse for a human being and anything positive that he may have done has been obliterated
by his final actions. The kind of son, father, grandparent he was prior to last week is made utterly irrelevant by his demonstration that he was an individual without value and the tiny positive from the situation is that he removed himself from the world.


** I apologise. I vowed never to use that degree of language in this blog but I’ve stared at my blinking cursor for too long. It is the right word to use for him.
 

Focus

03/06/2010

1 Comment

 
What would you do if you could do anything? Who would you be? Where would you go?

I generally try to avoid thinking about such things. Instead I do them. Life is too damned short not to. But like so many bad habits that creep up on you, I've started separating out my dreams from real life. This is a very bad idea as such behaviour does not lead to living a dream life. And I have no interested in alternatives to living a dream life. I'm just not cut out for mediocre; things are tough enough when things are going great! 

I remember that my fabulous KL partygirl lifestyle was counter balanced with cockroaches, loneliness and a lack of roast potatoes. I don't aspire to perfect and am happy to have to go to work, do housework and have low moods for these things are normal and necessary. Rather a dream life is one where I feel inspired and engaged, where I jump out of bed with interest in what the day holds for me. 

I've not been doing that lately.

So I have some tough questions to answer.


Firstly though, my foundations are right. When I was a KL partygirl, the boyfriend asked what I wanted from life; wondering (as one would expect) how I was planning to adapt to Gloucestershire. I said I saw myself baking while he mowed the lawn with the children. That I wanted a home and a family, to settle down but not settle for. Last Sunday I baked, he mowed the lawn and my brother taught the elder of his new step-nephews to play croquet. Tick.

But there are some details that need fleshing out and in letting myself get caught up in the motions of everyday life I stopped addressing them. There are some very good arguments for just getting on with life. The daily grind has the advantage of paying the bills for instance. A good argument but a rather depressing one; and I'm not really cut out for depressing, not any more.

The main thing I’ve let slide has been my academic work and that needs addressing. 90% of a PhD done does not a doctor make and I really want the title to match the ego that sees herself as a world expert on ethnic conflict in Malaysia. I have a conference in Exeter in July and will use that to get the academic in me going again.

I’ve also been bad at attending my writers group and working on my various projects and the only paintbrush I’ve picked up recently was one to paint a piece of garden furniture. Nor have I really used the DSLR I was so thrilled about getting for Christmas. I’ve been cooking but I haven’t been creating recipes.

I could let myself off the hook saying that moving house was challenging but I rise to the challenge so ultimately I’m out of balance.

I’ve a holiday coming up which will be good for some thinking but in the meantime I’m going to commit my 30 before I’m 30 list* to the public sphere as motivation for doing the things that really matter.

1)    Get a degree – Done

2)    Learn to drive – Done

3)    Get a piercing other than my ears – Done

4)    Scuba dive – Done

5)    Publish a book

6)    Visit Russia – Done

7)    Live in a foreign country – Done

8)    Get a tattoo

9)    Get married – Done

10) Buy a house – Done


11) Have a baby

12) Eat lobster – Done

13) Order champagne in a restaurant – Done

14) Cook a multibird roast

15) Go to an airport and take a flight chosen on the spot

16) Buy a pair of designer shoes – Done

17) Own a corset


18) Own a sports car – Done

19) Watch a sunset and a sun rise without going to bed

20) Swim under the stars – Done

21) Take a road trip – Done

22) Make a film or documentary


23) Go to

          a.    The theatre – Done

          b.    The ballet – Done

          c.    A classical concert – Done

          d.    A gig – Done


          e.    The opera

24) Ride a motorcycle

25) Take a photo worth framing on a large canvas and hang it in my home

26) Ride


          a.    A horse – Done

          b.    An elephant – Done

          c.    A camel – Done

27) Ride in a carriage through Central Park

28) Be suspended by rope

29) Light a proper fire and cook over it

30) Buy an entire animal (eg. a pig) and cook it

I started this list as a teenager and half of it still needs doing. A lot of it is relatively straightforward and I just need to prioritise these things that are important to me. 

* A sign of how bad things got is that the notebook where the list is written had been put away!