None Of The Above
the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity
Friday, November 28, 2003

Underage Drinking

Everyone in Chat is sharing their own first experience of vomiting gin into the curtains as a teenager. I didn't drink until I was 16 (and was described as 'teetotal' before then, in all seriousness, by friends who considered that no birthday party was complete without large amounts of cheap cider), so my own underage drinking stories happened to other people. And they're even better for it.

On my friend Kate's fifteenth birthday, her parents let her invite some friends over for a sleepover, and - even better! - agreed to go out for the evening. Unescorted parties were almost unheard of, the sole territory of older brothers and sisters who could be trusted not to microwave eggs and paint the cat with neon highlighters. We could do anything we wanted. And, when you're fourteen and fifteen, that means alcohol.

We arrived at half-past six, and began the important business of laying down sleeping-bags in the living room ("No, she's my friend, so I get the sofa! I don't care if you bagsed it first!"). Kate's parents left at seven, with instructions to not make too much of a mess. We waved them off, and cackled with glee. Alone! Alone, with alcohol!

Or not, as it turned out. We'd got a bit too caught up in the possibility of wild drinking binges to work out where the alcohol was going to actually come from. Someone had managed to get a bottle of Diamond White (Britain's only dual-purpose cider and paintstripper) from an older brother, but it wasn't going to be much when shared between twelve of us. We pondered this for a while, and then Kate remembered that her parents had bought a bottle of brandy the day before to make the Christmas pudding with. The bottle was full, but that wasn't much of a challenge - we took out a third, topped it up with water, and replaced it. They'd never know. Unfortunately, both the brandy and the cider tasted like industrial solvent. Some of us drank it anyway, some of us gave it away to others, and the rest took a glass and drank it very, very slowly over the next couple of hours (or poured it down the sink when nobody was looking).

Someone had brought the obligatory sleepover videos, Beaches and Top Gun. (Kids today probably watch Battle Royale while shooting up heroin, but these were more innocent times.) Neither of these are great films, as you've probably noticed, and after the eleventh time somebody rewound the scene where Anthony Edwards gets killed ("Because it's so sad!" "You're sick, you know that? Sick"), a small group of us wandered off to do something more interesting instead. 'Something more interesting' was a ouija board. because teenage rebellion is so much more thrilling when you're rebelling against the boundary between life and death. It didn't work, of course, but it was far more interesting than Top Gun, and before long everyone gathered round to watch. Quite a bit of the brandy disappeared. At first, nobody noticed. And then Joanne started giggling.

Within the hour, the house had degenerated into mayhem. All the brandy we'd requisitioned had gone, and most of the cider had gone with it, foul-tasting though it was. The cat had climbed to the top of the fridge, and was hissing at anyone who walked past. Joanne was wandering from room to room, shrieking "Hey! I'm drunk! It's amazing! You should all be drunk!" Me and a couple of other people who hadn't been drinking headed off to the kitchen and hid. From outside, we heard the sounds of breaking plates, vomiting and people falling down stairs (often all three at once). The clean-up operation would have to be pretty substantial if we didn't want Kate's parents to notice anything had happened. We muttered bitterly.

After a while, the noise died down, and a few of us ventured out to see what had happened. Kate came back in holding up the still-giggling Joanne. "Look, everyone!" she grinned. "Joanne wants to tell us all how much she loves Mr. Thomas!"

Mr Thomas, the P.E. teacher with the moustache? Apparently, yes. Joanne, in alcohol-fueled euphoria, wanted to share her secret crush with all of us. And the more opportunistic of the sober crowd worked out that this situation had the potential to be interesting after all. We went from giggling drunk person to giggling drunk person, taking notes and obtaining confessions, and the time just flew past. By the time we noticed some people were missing, it was half an hour before Kate's parents were due back.

"What do you mean, they left? Where did they go?"

"They said they were going out for a walk, and... um..." (accompanied with shrug towards doorway) "They went."

We headed out to find them, and Kate waited in for her parents to arrive (as the door slammed behind us, we heard her saying "That's lovely! And if you could just sign this piece of paper for me...") We didn't have much luck. The streets were frozen over, and we could hardly stand up. We could hear them in the distance, always behind another clump of houses or across a main road or (on one interesting occasion) on the opposite bank of a canal, but we couldn't get close enough to grab them. With the strange agility that drunk people sometimes manage, they were actually managing to run over the icy streets without slipping. Damn it.

We were getting a bit annoyed with them by the time Kate's dad pulled up next to us in his car and offered to help us find them. "They're not drunk, are they?" he asked as he headed off in the direction of the shrieks.

"Nooooooooo..." we all said in unison.

We found them swaying - literally swaying - on the doorstep of a rather puzzled boy from school, which put paid to that one.

After helping Kate's parents herd everyone who couldn't fake sober into the living room, and decamping to somewhere quieter, it was 4am and we were cold. Cold, fed up, and swearing never to touch cheap cider. It set a precedent, although I didn't realise it then.

The next morning, the drunk crowd had awakened bright and early with no hangovers (how they managed that I'll never know), and had got breakfast ready for everyone by way of an apology. We staggered in, muttering darkly, and grabbed handfuls of toast.

"It's a pity none of you had anything to drink last night," said Joanne, in an annoyingly cheery voice. "You'd have had much more fun!"

I stared at her, feeling the background noise fade away as her voice echoed over and over again - "You'd have had much more fun! Much more fun!" Just as I was about to grab at her throat, Kate handed me a piece of folded paper.

It said, in Kate's handwriting, "I, Joanne, solemnly swear that Mr Thomas is really cute and I look forward to P.E. all week so I can see him. I am proud of this and don't care who knows." The signature below it was scrawled and messy, but it was recognisably Joanne's.

Turns out the party was fun after all!

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Playing with photos

There's an example of the old gravestones I was talking about earlier. If it posts. We'll see.

(Although you can't really see it, the date is 1691 in very curly script - the 6 and the 9 are in the middle at the top)

Monday, November 24, 2003

Gloves, gardens and 'goons'

I have done 0% of the things I planned on doing today. That's not really surprising, since I do that most days. I did remember to find my gloves, though, so at least I've spent today doing nothing but with warm hands. They're nice gloves, although they do have that unfortunate feature most gloves do of having fingers much longer than mine. Also, they're sort of flattened, so it looks like I have large sucker pads on the ends of my fingers. Combined with being made of black wool, they result in me looking like a ninja gecko.

According to The Sunday Mirror, the Queen is annoyed about Bush's entourage trashing her garden. (Maybe they've got an undercover reporter working as a gardener, too.)

"Royal officials are now in touch with the Queen's insurers and Prime Minister Tony Blair to find out who will pick up the massive repair bill. Palace staff said they had never seen the Queen so angry as when she saw how her perfectly-mantained lawns had been churned up after being turned into helipads with three giant H landing markings for the Bush visit."

Oddly enough, I think this is more likely to get the pro-war people angry than any of the Mirror's anti-war attitudes before the, uh, 'conflict.' Okay, America, we'll come on board for your illegal invasion of Iraq and the resulting guerilla war, but messing with our lawns is just going one step too far.

The article does contain some interesting points, though. Such as this one:

"The Queen's own flock of flamingoes, which security staff insisted should be moved in case they flew into the helicopter rotors, are thought to be so traumatised after being taken to a "place of safety" that they might never return home."

I didn't even know she had her own flock of flamingoes. That's just not fair. One flamingo I could understand, but a whole flock?

It's nice to see the 'special relationship' edge into more familiar territory - I'm sure all of us can relate to the 'Your kids trampled my flowers!' argument with bad-tempered neighbours. If the pattern continues, I predict the following events:

1) Tony Blair, during a press conference, holding up a football and saying "If this lands in our petunias one more time, I'm just going to keep it! I know some children who would really like a nice football like this one! And I think they'd be a lot more careful with it, too!"

2) US Special Forces teams to devise plausible cover story for being found in disputed gardens - traditionally in these cases, 'Um, we're looking for our cat!'

3) Angry letters to be passed back and forth about Britain's plan to build a treehouse which will block Bush's view from the kitchen window when he's doing his washing-up.

Protestors in future will carry banners that say "It took me months to grow that and now you've ruined it!", and chant "I know all your names! I'll tell your parents!" Hastily-codified international law will attempt to draw up correct procedural rules for what to do when neighbour A is found throwing snails and slugs over the garden wall into neighbour B's property. And the UN Security Council will be bombarded with complaints about why next door's dog can't just damn well be kept on a lead if it's going to act like that.

I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Went a-walking

Spent 0.5 seconds deciding whether to study modern genre theory in more depth this afternoon, then went for a walk with my brother instead. The brother does much more of this walking lark than I do, and is consequently better at it. 'Let's go for a walk' quickly turned into 'Let's climb that big hill you see looming over the campus.'

I've climbed the hill before - it used to be a tradition before exams, when anything was more appealing than reading notes on Descartes. Although commonly referred to as 'the mountain,' it's only a couple of thousand feet high and not really deserving of the title. It takes a couple of hours or so to climb up and then down again, if you remember the paths relatively well. We didn't, and ended up going the cyclist/wussy/tourist route - follow the road up until it peters out into a rocky unofficial car park, then walk along a roughly-marked track the rest of the way, dodging the occasional charging sheep.

It was a good walk. I found a feather which is sitting by the keyboard right now waiting to be identified (my current guess is that it's from the wing of a barn owl), and after the initial "How did we end up here?" distraction, it was a nice climb. It's difficult to get back onto the path you want when you get into the woods, because of all the high fences and gates designed to keep deer from eating the newly planted trees - of course, they don't slow the deer down much, but they can be tricky to climb. This late in the year, not many people feel like shinning up a rabbit-track into the cold, dark and muddy hills, so it wasn't crowded.

We sat at the top of a cliff-face from which suspected witches were thrown in the Middle Ages (if you die, you weren't a witch and you get a Christian burial; if you live, you're a witch and get stoned to death), and I proofread my brother's psychology essay. Below us, the river serpentined its way into the distance across flat fields, which seemed oddly out of place so close to the hilly country we'd just emerged from. For the first time, we could hear the rumble of traffic. I kept hold of my feather, and thought black thoughts about cars.

We went down on a different path, which was much steeper and twisted through the woods like it was trying to evade capture. My brother described walking the same way with a group of his friends, who all fell over several times before reaching the road at the bottom of the hill. We chuckled to ourselves. Our childhood spent sprinting down such slopes with no thought of threat to life or limb has apparently served us well, since we're both much more surefooted in that kind of terrain (I was surprised by what a difference it made to have boots with soles which weren't completely worn smooth, though). I remembered climbing Snowdon on a school trip, and racing down a rock-strewn slope as my worried friend shouted after me "Who's going to carry you down if you break your ankle?"

Balance is the key. If you try to keep your balance all the time, you'll fall. If you allow yourself to slide and stumble a little without resisting gravity, you can stay on your feet. Both of us have permanently scarred knees from learning that the hard way when we were younger.

On the way back, we stopped off at a ruined church which rumour says black mass was once held in. (I doubt there are any ruined churches which rumour doesn't say that about, so I wouldn't advise the building to take it too seriously.) Four walls are still standing, although the roof has gone, and the floor is sunken in and covered with grass - it has a strangely timeless feel about it. We walked through the graveyard, me dancing around trying not to stand on anyone's resting place and murmuring 'Sorry, sorry...' and my much taller brother stepping over them in one stride. The graves which surround it fell into three categories:

1) 'Modern' graves, from 1890-ish to the 1930s, inscribed with names, dates and epitaphs in serious-looking Times New Roman

2) Older graves from 1750 or so until the end of the nineteenth century, with curling inscriptions with spelling which betrayed their age - 'Petter Macdonald,' read one, 'and wife Swsan Macdonald, dearly loved.' These stones had started to lurch over, as though they were tired of standing.

3) Even older graves, from 1620 to 1750. These were littler stones, usually with no lettering other than 'MEMENTO MORI,' which told their message in pictures rather than words. A skull with crossed bones beneath it, or an egg-timer counting down the sands of life, or an open book (of Judgement, we assumed). They seemed oddly morbid to someone used to 'Dearly loved husband was laid to rest...' inscriptions, but if anything rightfully should be morbid, I suppose graves would be it. There was an honesty about them.

On the wall of the church, plaques commemorated war dead up to the present, and I wondered why anyone continued putting them there now the church was ruined. Seond Lieutenant, so-and-so killed in Baghdad in 1950, shared a wall with Corporal such-and-such, killed in France in April 1918, and Private so-and-so, killed in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. One of them was born in a building which used to be a maternity castle, five minutes walk away from where he was buried.

It's a nice place to live your life in.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

Pseudo-scientific words used in adverts

My current favourite is Regenium XY, an 'active ingredient' in L'Oreal Elvive shampoo for men. It's got it all - the word 'regenerate' for people who are balding but don't quite want to admit it, with the suffix -ium to add the legitimacy of the periodic table, and 'XY' tacked on the end for those who need a suitably scientific way of saying 'This is for real men!'. Classic.

My second-favourite, also from L'Oreal (do they pay someone to think these up?) is Ceramide-R. Does something for cuticles, apparently.

I'm going to start collecting these.

Friday, November 21, 2003

On a slightly more topical note

BBC's pictures from the protests in London yesterday. They're an interesting collection. Protests always attract the lunatic fringe, and they do tend to make for much more interesting photos - 'Insane anarchists dressed as rabbits!' wins over 'Ordinary people annoyed about bombings' any day - so, it's nice to see some balance.

The BBC also have a brief quote from the person photographed next to each picture. One man says:

"I'm Iraqi. I came here in 1995. My poster says "stop this butcher Bush killing my people". My mother and brother are still in Baghdad and obviously I lost contact with them during the war, my brother emails me now, he tells me he'd rather have Saddam Hussein back than the coalition troops and the Iraqi council who are all only there for the money to be made.

How bad must it be if they want Saddam back?"


I wasn't there, because London is a long way off and I'm broke. I did make it to the big protests in February, though, and marched through Glasgow with 90,000 or so other people, most of whom weren't complete nutcases. (I say 'most' because for part of the march we ended up behind a small crowd from Globalise Resistance, who had that professional protestor air about them - starting all chants simultaneously as if by telepathic transmission, and staring straight ahead with their cold, cold eyes the whole time. Then they sat down in front of traffic which was already stopped, due to the huge march parading past.)

It was good. No shouting, no police rushing forward with futuristic-type riot gear, no fights breaking out anywhere (that I saw). Police were ambling along by the side of the protestors chatting to people. Most of the people marching seemed self-conscious and a little surprised they were actually there. A true cross-section of the population, most who'd never participated in anything like it before, marching to show their government the true level of opposition to the war.

It didn't help, of course. But you've got to try.

Answer poetry

From the great tradition which brought you Sweet Home Alabama (in response to Neil Young's Southern Man)

To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

Frances Cornford


The Fat White Woman Speaks

Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;
And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

G. K. Chesterton

New links

Acid and Mad, you're linked!

Anyone else, if you know me and you've got a blog I don't know about that I probably should do (I'm working my way slowly through Sam's list, but it takes time...) let me know.

I also got comments working. I am teh l33t.

Thursday, November 20, 2003

My eighth-favourite joke ever

One day, a man called Smith went to the fair, and saw a fortune-teller's tent right by the gate. "How strange," Smith thought, "fortune-tellers never actually appear at fairs. I'm obviously a character in a joke." Being an affable sort, Smith accepted this, and went along to find out his fortune. The fortune-teller looked in her crystal ball, gasped in horror, then (because she had no business sense) told him she couldn't actually tell him what she'd seen, because it was just too horrible a thing to tell. Instead, she said, she'd write it down and he could read it himself when he felt ready to.

Feeling rather cheated, Smith logged a brief complaint to Trading Standards and then moved on with his life. He didn't dare look at what was written on the piece of paper, though. Instead, he kept it in a locket around his neck, and promised himself he'd look at it once his life was almost over and everything bad had already happened.

After seeing one of those "What would you do in this situation?" adverts for the Army, and feeling pleased with himself for knowing the answer (dress in uniforms of opposing forces and try to run away unnoticed, usually - well, it's what I'd do, and they didn't ask for a suggestion useful to anyone else), he decided to sign up. Things went well for Smith, and after a few years he was dispatched to [insert whatever country in the Middle East we're currently At Liberation with]. Smith was happy there, but the incident with the fortune-teller had always weighed heavily on his mind. One day, when driving around in the desert with his commanding officer, Smith decided to share the story. His CO was intrigued, and asked if Smith wouldn't mind letting him read the fortune if he promised not to tell. Smith handed the piece of paper over.

His CO read it in horror, and his face turned grey. "Smith," he spluttered, "we can't have people like you in the Army! Get out!" Smith, clutching his little piece of paper, got out of the jeep and started to walk back home.

After another few years, Smith decided to give the military life another try, and signed up for the RAF. He did well on all the initial tests, and got to train as a pilot. One day, while learning how to do those impressive loop things in midair, Smith's instructor asked why he'd left the army. Smith shared the story. Again, the instructor asked if he could read the piece of paper, and again, Smith handed it over.

"I'm sorry, Smith," said his instructor, "but the Army were right. We can't have people like you in the RAF either. Get out." He handed Smith a parachute, and Smith took the piece of paper back and jumped out of the plane.

"Well," thought Smith as he floated downwards, "this thing sounds pretty horrific. I still don't dare read it, because that would ruin the joke. But I'm sure the Navy can put up with it, whatever it is. I think I'll sign up."

A couple of years later, Smith was on an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Atlantic when someone handed him a copy of his town's local newspaper. "Fortune-Teller Vindicated, Sues Trading Standards!" crowed the headline.

Smith read on with interest. "How strange," he said. "I was convinced she was a fraud."

"You mean, Madame Plotdevice read your fortune?" said the ship's captain, who'd been listening in. "The Madame Plotdevice?"

"Er, yes," said Smith, and began the story. The captain asked to see the piece of paper, and Smith, sensing the inevitable, handed it over reluctantly. The captain read it.

"Smith," he said, "I'm really sorry, but we honestly can't have people like you in the Navy. You'll have to leave, I'm afraid." But out of respect for Smith's previous association with the famous Madame Plotdevice, the Captain gave him a rubber dinghy as well.

Smith sailed for three days, alone. Once, he tried to beat an albatross to death just so he'd at least have a ship full of a skeleton crew to deal with, but it didn't work. Eventually, the dinghy washed up on the stereotypical Far Side-type desert island - a small circle of sand with one palm tree.

"Well," thought Smith, "I'm probably going to die here, and I don't have much left to lose. I might as well read what my fortune was." He opened the locket, took out the piece of paper -

- and the wind came out and blew it away.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Jesus He Knows My Sleeping Patterns

I thought my neighbours this year looked too good to be true.

I live in a big building with a lot of other people, all postgraduate students. On one hand, it's university accomodation and it's always going to be a bit noisy; on the other hand, it's older and wiser students, so ideally it won't end up being quite as noisy as it was in undergraduate accomodation (no more 4am table-fights in the kitchen, anyway). I've met all the people who live on my corridor, mostly international students, and they all seem sensible and considerate and polite.

So, anyway. A couple of weeks ago, I heard singing. At 4am. I was awake anyway, because I do that, but it took me a while to convince myself I was really hearing it. I was, though, and it only got louder. Very weird singing, too. None of the dulcet tones of Hey Baby (Oooh Ah) or Daydream Believer from my undergraduate living-with-bastard-neighbour days. This was more like a kind of chanting, praying sound. But it went on for quite a while, and even though it wasn't keeping me awake itself, it was starting to really annoy me just on principle. Part of that principle was that it was just downright strange, because it wasn't normal drunk people singing, and it's not like there was any special religious occasion...

Except for it being the first day of Ramadan. Yeah, nothing major or anything. Sept, you are most observant and perceptive.

I consider going out and saying something about the singing, but decide to let it drop - I'm not sleeping anyway, it's evidently not going to be a regular thing, and I can't be bothered to get out of bed. After half an hour or so, they shut up.

So, that would have been all right. But this morning, at 8am, I got woken up by singing again. All right, 8am is practically the afternoon for some people, but I'm not one of them and neither are most of the people I live with. Plus, I'd only had four hours sleep. And this singing was loud.

Loud enough for me to pick out the words.

Which feature a lot of 'Jesus' and 'Alleluia.'

One bout of singing, on the first day of Ramadan, I can write off as having some sort of religious justification. Another bout of early-morning singing, when it features Jesus, is just not normal behaviour - not to mention that it takes away a good bit of the justification for the previous incident. I can't summon the energy to get out of bed, but there's a lot of scuffling half-asleep "What the hell is going on?" sounds in the corridor from everyone else.

Nobody tells the girl in question to shut up, though.

So, we probably don't have much of a right to complain - if we've not mentioned it, how's she to know, right? I'm prepared to accept a certain amount of 'stop whining and do something about it, you blithering morons' in response. But...

1) Asking/telling/begging noisy neighbours to please shut up about stuff has not been productive in my experience. Actually, nothing has, including calling the police and throwing chopped vegetables through their windows (we were desperate, okay?).

2) That's because, contrary to what people may suggest, they usually do realise just how noisy they are. At the volume this girl was singing, there is no way she could have expected it to not wake up the entire corridor.

3) The girl in question is incredibly quiet and shy (except musically, apparently). Having to tell someone like that to please stop being so loud and obnoxious is just, well, weird. How would you phrase it? "You probably haven't noticed much of us since you always just blush and avoid eye contact when we say hello, but you're waking us up, bitch. Put a sock in it."

4) Who sings songs about Jesus loudly at 8am? And 4am? And 4am on the first day of Ramadan? That goes beyond 'a bit weird.' That's fullblown strangeness. I'm not going to confront her about it without armed guards and lawyers present.

5) It's so much energy to get out of bed.

Watch this space for further updates. Why don't I ever get normal neighbours?

Monday, November 17, 2003

Always the last to know this case, about Wil Wheaton's blog, which everyone with an Internet connection has discovered before me. In the unlikely event that I'm wrong about this and you, dear reader, haven't seen it yet, go there now. The idea of celebrity blogs has never really interested me before, but he's an excellent writer. (And his answer to 'I hated Wesley!' in the FAQ is 'Really? He always had such nice things to say about you.')

Ramble justified

Panorama lived up to its usual high standards, and there were only a couple of "huh, shows how much you know" moments. Only a couple, that is, plus one the-hell-with-you,-BBC! moment that had me snarling for about six hours afterwards.

It went like this: Fran (the undercover Panorama woman) had been working on her own for about a week, after pitifully inadequate induction and training. The narrator boomed out (I think the narrator was a woman, but Panorama narrators have been booming for so long it affects the memory): "At this point, Fran noticed that her attitudes towards the people in her care started to change." Fran explained that she'd stopped caring so much, that the day before she'd been putting a woman to bed and trying to hurry her up as quickly as possible so she could get on to her next patient when the woman was really old and frail, etc., etc... and summed this up as "I was starting to think like a carer."

"Right, then! Should we acknowledge the real difficulties faced by carers who are trying to do a difficult and much-needed job for hardly any pay and no respect at all? Or should we act so horrified by the sight of old people that we write off the entire industry of those who care for them as full of heartless mercenaries who don't give a damn because we're convinced We Could Do So Much Better ("Eww! Some old people are, like, incontinent! That can't be right!"), and thereby only make the problem worse by further blinding ourselves to the reality that old people and carers need to be acknowledged as human before we can fix any of the problems connected with them?"

"Ooooh, tough one, tough one... Heartless mercenaries wins it!"

I think this calls for - *drumroll* - a stroppy comment on the Panorama website's Comments section. Repeat after me, everyone: "Why oh why oh why, BBC..."

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Who Cares?

Long ramble imminent.

Panorama, which for those who don't know is an excellent BBC current affairs programme that's been running for 50 years, is broadcasting an interesting-sounding undercover story this evening. An assistant producer spent three months as a care worker looking after elderly people at home, recording her experiences with hidden cameras and the usual paraphernalia. (Usual for undercover documentary-type things, that is, not usual for care work.) Her diaries are on the BBC's site here.

I've worked in three different nursing homes doing the same sort of job (only without the undercover cameras part), so I'm curious. The Panorama assistant producer was specifically investigating the idea of 'home care,' which I haven't done - it's a relatively new idea as a proper regulated industry, and it looks like it's still in the bunglingly incompetent stages of birth. The general duties and such are basically the same, though.

It's one of those jobs which is considered both important and irrelevant. You get paid a pittance to do back-breaking work, although you're looking after incredibly vulnerable people who deserve the best level of care they can get; you have to deal with the drastically different needs of people with all sorts of physical and mental problems as well as knowing how to fix wheelchairs, make beds in 0.5 seconds, remember the names, dietary requirements, room numbers, friends and favourite chairs in the lounge of several dozen people. Since society as a whole doesn't much like to think of its collective possible future as an old, frail individual with dementia, people tend to have a very fuzzy idea of what care workers actually do, and attitudes veer between 'So, you sit and knit with the old people all day?' to 'What an incredibly soul-destroying and noble job you must do!'

Either way, though, people don't want to know too much. So, a documentary which reveals the Real Story has got to be worth seeing, both to uncover the worst parts of the home care industry and to cackle in glee at Other People discovering exactly what care workers do every day.

Right, then.

    "Fran was sent out alone with little or no training, a false CV, no police check and inadequate references. Fran worked for a number of homecare agencies in Brighton and Liverpool for up to 16 hours a day - sometimes for as little as £5.60 an hour."

Obviously, doing any such job with little or no training is terrible (I'm assuming the false CV didn't say she had prior experience), and references should be checked. Police checks take several months minimum, though. It's a difficult situation. On the other hand, "as little as £5.60 an hour"? £5.60? The most I've ever got paid for care work was £4.10. I knew people who were doing the same job I was for £2.70 an hour because they were under 18. I'd have killed for £5.60 an hour. I'd have changed incontinence pads and spoonfed people and pulled every muscle in my body and put up with being punched and kicked and bitten for £5.60 an hour. Well, obviously I would, since I did all that for £4.10 an hour. To start out at £5.60 an hour, with no qualifications, is probably still underpaid for such an important job but it's far above what most new care workers get. Good for Panorama for being shocked at the amount she got paid, but they've got a long way to go if they expect it to get any higher when the industry becomes better regulated.

I'm sure I'll have plenty more such comments to make after I've actually seen the programme, although pre-emptive ranting has never failed me yet. I'm also sure Panorama will do its usual exemplary job. It's limited by its format, though, and Fran's repeated worry that care workers in her position have no time to get to know any of the people they care for isn't likely to get resolved at any point soon. So, on that subject, since I got a better working environment in that respect, I'll leave you with a brief description of some of the people I used to look after.

M. was in her early eighties, although her hair was still a beautiful dark brown. She could no longer walk, and she rarely seemed to know where she was. She would reply to anyone who spoke to her, but she talked to the carers as if we were domestic staff in a large house of many decades ago, and would politely give us orders to relay to the cook, or the butler, or the chauffeur. Several times a day she would catch one of us by the sleeve and ask us to tell James to bring the horses round to the front of the house for her, and we'd promise to relay the message. If we asked her how her day had been, she'd reply with wonderful stories about a life we'd never experienced - watching the men play cricket out on the green, taking a walk with the children's governess. Once, when I was putting her to bed, I asked if she'd enjoyed her day. "Oh, yes!" she smiled. "I went to a ball with three villains, and we had a wonderful time!" We didn't doubt she loved the world she was living in, and her only issue of concern seemed to be that James wouldn't bring her favourite horse quickly enough.

After she'd been there for several months, one of the staff asked her son where she'd lived when she was younger, mentioning a few of the stories she'd shared. He looked puzzled. "She lived in a tiny crowded cottage all her life," he said, "and she used to work in the mills. She never had any servants. And she was absolutely terrified of horses."

G. was a similar age, but without the frequent family visitors that M. had, we never found out her story. I'm not sure we'd have wanted to know it either, since it would have made us furious on her behalf and there wasn't much we could have done about it. She was perpetually terrified of all of us - if anyone raised their voice, or walked too close to her, or touched her gently on the hand, she'd flinch as if we were about to hit her. Sometimes she'd be so afraid of something that she'd physically shake, all the time smiling at us with the most artificial smile I've ever seen, as though she'd spent half her life working on it. She'd constantly ask us where 'the men' were, and if they were anywhere near her, and if we'd tell them where she was if they hit us. If we accidentally woke her up when we checked on her at night, she'd cry and beg us not to hurt her. Any time we did anything with her, we'd have to constantly reassure her that we weren't going to hurt her and we wouldn't let anyone else do it, and she was safe.

After a few months, G. started to trust us a bit more. She'd still be terrified if we woke her up at night, but after she saw our uniforms, she'd relax and whisper "Oh, it's only you, I was so worried..." A few months after that, she got confident enough to joke with us if she was in a good mood, and assertive enough to argue with us if she didn't want to do something. One day, after another carer had been particularly insistent about making sure she finished her dinner, G. swung a punch at her. The carer dodged it - we were damn good at dodging punches - left her to eat as much of the meal as she wanted, and ran off to tell the rest of us "Isn't it great? G tried to hit me! I'm so glad she's not scared any more!"

C. had been a patient for years, and had severe dementia. She didn't speak, she didn't make eye contact, she didn't interact in any way with her surroundings, and she needed everything done for her. When I first met her, I didn't think there was any of her personality left, but the carer who was showing me around just grinned and said, "You'll get to know her." I did. When her husband came to visit her, with his new wife in tow, C. didn't move or make a sound or do anything I hadn't expected her to do - but she glared at the wife, and closed her eyes when her husband asked her how she'd been, and managed to communicate the frostiest silence I've ever seen without actually doing anything at all. She did it the next time he visited, too, and by then I was pretty sure it wasn't my imagination. But still, she didn't respond to anything else.

One morning, after my night shift had nearly finished, I was making cups for tea for all the patients before their breakfast. We'd got a bit behind schedule, and we were rushing to finish everything on time. My colleague accidentally knocked over a small table by C's chair, and the vase on it shattered. The more alert residents tried not to giggle, I started picking up the pieces, and a cackling gentleman in a wheelchair said "There! That's what you get for rushing!"

"It wasn't my fault!" said my colleague.

I stood up with the pieces of the vase in my hands, and happened to catch C's eye. C stared at me for a moment or two, then glanced over at my colleague in disdain, and said firmly "It was."

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Why I Never Got To Be A Private Detective

Was trawling though e-mails from several years ago, and found one from a friend I've not seen for ages. It was sent from a Hotmail address which was described as 'only temporary' at the time, and that was in 1999, so he's probably got a new one by now. I know where he lives now, he's got quite an unusual name... how difficult can it be to find him?

Googled for half an hour, and turned up one site - one measly, poxy site! - which mentioned him by name. It didn't have an e-mail address for him, and it hadn't been updated for over a year. Right, then, time for some more in-depth searching.

Friends Reunited turned up his name, his employment history which I already knew, his recent globe-trotting exploits which I didn't, and a link to his e-mail address which I'd have to pay £7.50 to get. Pay money, when it's got to be out there somewhere? Ha!

Right. Think back. He's a computer person, he's been posting on Usenet since (probably) I first toddled my way up to a computer and said "Me wan play with shiny box!" So, Google Groups archive. That turned up a long list of postings on various sci-fi groups from 1993 to 1997, and nothing since then.

All that left me really wanting to e-mail him, so I could:
a) ask him about previously-mentioned globetrotting expeditions
b) ask him if he knew that Google keeps churning up results for someone with his name born in 1880 very close to where he grew up
c) ask him if he ended up recanting those theories on the second series of Babylon 5 or not
d) ask him what name he uses on the Internet these days.

But, of course, I still didn't have his e-mail address.

After an hour and I half, I end up on Yahoo People Search, and type in his name. Voila! One result in the whole of the UK with someone of his name, living in the place I know he moved to. And it's got an e-mail address! I win! Take that, Internet anonymity! I click on the little button to see what the enigmatic line of characters is...

It's his name

That thunking sound is me banging my head off my keyboard. Just in case you were wondering.

Friday, November 14, 2003

The good news - A good, albeit hideously organised, friend has already bought my Christmas present.

The kind-of-interesting news - She describes it like this: "Let's just say that if you team it with the other part of the present (that I have yet to buy) and your leather coat, you'll be cool, original and unique when wandering round the campus."


She's probably not bought me clothes. People who know me don't buy me clothes. People who vaguely know me buy me clothes I'll never wear, and give them to me while saying "I was going to get you book tokens, but that would be so boring!" and laugh merrily to themselves while I try my best to smile a thank-you, but people who actually know me don't buy me clothes. And since she's known me since we were both three years old, and I was (according to her) running circuits round our nursery group's main room pretending to be Superted, she's probably not bought me clothes.

So. The coat in question is impressive enough all by itself - it's three-quarter-length on an average person, so it comes down to my ankles, and grey leather with a very Secret Police feel to it. I'm unsure what she thinks would suit it. I asked around...

Me: Do you think the leather coat is more Stasi or NKVD? Either way, I'm very interested to know what goes with it.

Person Being Asked: Stasi. NKVD wore leather bomber jackets.

Me: Okay. So, she's probably not bought me 'a denunciation', then?

Person Being Asked: Yep. Maybe a nine mil pistol to execute dissidents with.

Me: But, she says it's a two-part present and they both need to be combined with the coat. Pistol and hat? They had hats, right?

Person Being Asked: Yes! a fur Ushkanta! That'd be really nice.

Me: A fur hat? Yay! But substitute 'You'll be cool and original when walking around campus' with 'You'll be arrested when walking around campus.'

Person Being Asked: But if you get a Russian style fur hat, that means you're mixing and matching your styles. What would Trinny and Susannah say?

Me: "Please, stop pointing that pistol at me!"?

C'mon, Christmas...

Thursday, November 13, 2003

On balance, I think I won't go and see Matrix: Revolutions, despite my deep and abiding love for Agent "I'm not so bad, once you get to know me" Smith. This is due solely to a dream I had a few nights ago, where Agent Smith cut my arm off with a chainsaw. I interpret this to mean "Wonderful though he is, he will only disappoint you in a messy and painful way."

I'll miss him. And not just because he had more of a personality than any of the humans, either.

On that subject, it's occured to me that I find non-human characters a lot more attractive than human ones in films and TV. This was bound to happen eventually, given that I've been complaining about my own species for most of my life, but, well, still, you know?

Thursday, November 06, 2003

Last night was Guy Fawkes Night, on which people up and down the country celebrate the failure of a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. After this, everyone goes home to write angry letters to their local newspapers about how the government is:

a) allowing 'asylum-seekers' to 'flood the country.'
b) persistently refusing to bring back the death penalty for all crimes more severe than impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.
c) except for anything to do with traffic laws, as the police should be off catching 'real criminals' instead of fining BM from Barnsworth for driving at 90mph in a 30 zone while eating a sandwich and clutching a mobile phone in each sweaty little hand.
d) sending troops to Iraq / not sending enough troops to Iraq / not sending troops to everywhere else / not carpet-bombing whole of Iraq for treatment of troops / not ordering troops to continue with Winston Churchill and Saddam Hussein's fantastic gas-them-all-that'll-shut-them-up policy/ not recalling all troops back to the UK to deal with above-mentioned army of refugees from Afghanistan.

I love my country.

Guy Fawkes is traditionally burnt in effigy on bonfires (although often these effigies take the form of other disliked individuals instead). Four hundred years later, and we still haven't let it drop. Which is rather unfair, given the circumstances surrounding the Gunpowder Plot.

In brief: Catholics were a persecuted minority in Elizabethan England. The situation got worse after the Catholic-supported rebellion by the Earl of Essex in 1601 ended with the Earl becoming a head shorter, and his supporters getting a good ticking-off. Ever the optimists, English Catholics got James VI of Scotland to promise them fairer treatment when he got into power. Instead, things got even worse. At this point, I imagine a room full of rather disgruntled Catholics sulking around a fire, while someone pipes up from the corner "So, this gunpowder stuff..."

The plan was to place 36 barrels of gunpowder underneath the Houses of Parliament, and blow up the entire place, including all the MPs and James VI and I (who are the same person). Originally, the plotters hired a house nearby and tried to dig through from its cellar. This rather Shawshank-esque idea would take a while, but they were helped by Parliament conveniently being postponed for ten months. When that still wasn't enough time, somebody noticed that a cellar was available for hire underneath the Houses of Parliament itself. ("So, guys, there's your leases - remember, no pets, don't redecorate, and - hey, what's in those barrels?" "Um...")

One of the plotters, evidently feeling rather invincible after the cellar thing had worked out, realised that his brother-in-law was a Lord and would probably be rather annoyed by the whole getting-blown-up thing. So, he wrote a letter warning him that Parliament would receive - and I quote - 'a terrible blow' on November 5th. Instead of destroying the letter, the Lord handed it over to someone important. Cellars were searched, and Guy Fawkes was discovered lurking suspiciously in one of them. In one of those moments that makes you despair for the efficiency of plotters everywhere, he claimed to be - wait for it - 'John Johnson', a servant who was just checking a pile of timber. You know, in case it ran off or anything.

Fawkes was arrested, tortured, and eventually revealed the names of the other plotters. He was executed, and most of the others were either executed as well or killed in a big shoot-out which involved one bullet going through two men. Victory, and so on.

It was, of course, most probably a set-up. While Parliament had done (and continues to do) many stupid things, letting off a group of rebels with a small fine then postponing Parliament for ten months while hiring out a cellar underneath the building is a bit too stupid. There's speculation about where they got the gunpowder from in the first place, and the warning letter sat around gathering dust for quite a while before the people responsible bothered to go and check the cellars.

If this was Law and Order, Jack McCoy would have got all the plotters off with a small fine after an impassioned speech and lots of arm-waving.

I didn't go to any fireworks displays (mostly because, in the words of someone who thinks in a similar vein, "I don't want to go to an airfield and listen to Rock You Like A Hurricane!"). In memory of Guy Fawkes, though, I did stop for a while on my way home and watch fireworks in the distance - ironically enough, from the same castle that James VI and I himself once occupied. They were very pretty. I'm sure Guy would have been proud.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

The mouse at the computer I'm using is working perfectly well. This annoys me.

My own computer has an optical mouse. This was pretty spiffy when I first got it, and it's no less spiffy now, despite being surpassed in gadgetness by the optical-and-wireless mouse. (I'm not tempted to upgrade, since I know myself well enough to be sure that I'd lose the thing within a week if I didn't drill a hole through it and tether it to the keyboard.) It doesn't need a mouse-mat, it doesn't get clogged by dirt, and it has a nice red glow. But I can't pick grime off the rollers!

People who only have an old-fashioned mouse might find this a necessary annoyance, having to take the thing apart and de-gunk it every time the cursor starts jumping. I assure you, though, it's something you'll miss if you ever lose it. What am I supposed to do now when a page won't load, or I can't think of what to write, or I'm waiting for my loan to be paid off in SimCity? Chew the keyboard?

Monday, November 03, 2003

The darkness has come upon us.

Soon, the entire country will be buzzing with tales and rumours about Michael Howard's "Gosh, me? Really? Little old me?" ambitions for leadership. And in times like these, only one question needs to be asked.

How many times did Jeremy Paxman ask "Did you threaten to overrule him?" in That Interview?

The answer is: Fourteen.

I like computer labs after 9pm. They're quiet places, and on a good day I can have a room of my own with 34 other computers to move to if the one I'm using goes Blue Screen Of Death. Occasionally, other people wander in, but it's generally understood that computer lab rules during the day are not the same as those which apply in the evening, and nobody comments if I'm eating a veritable picnic of junk food while printing out 136 double-sided pages of something which looked interesting.

Tonight, I arrived in my favourite computer lab to find it full of hyperactive shrieking people with notes, books, and ring-binders. After fighting the urge to scream in panic and demand they all leave, I settled down at an unusued computer in the corner while trying to work out where they'd all come from. Some first-year group excursion to computer labs for complete newbies who still think the paperclip in Microsoft Word is sort of cute? Some Computer Science class where the lecturer's demanded everybody is going to stay until someone owns up to whoever was making the paper aeroplanes?

No. It's Undergraduate Essay Deadline Week.

This is a common thing. Lecturers, being not unkind people, often place essay deadlines after the October break so that students will have more time to finish it. Students, being not unidiotic people, often spend the first few days back in computer labs frantically typing up the essays they've inevitably not even started. I can't exactly complain, since I did the same thing myself as an undergraduate, but I do find it slightly annoying that the labs are full of them so early in the evening. Back in my day, doing an all-nighter meant not getting to the computer labs till 11pm, and not actually starting the essay until the early hours of the morning. (The fact that I only ever handed in one essay late - and that one wasn't marked down because the Philosophy office staff hadn't bothered to check the essay box on the appropriate day - speaks volumes for my ability to follow long bouts of procrastination with short periods of immense productivity.)

Right now, there are two Marketing students sitting on the row behind me. They are discussing the assignment they've got to complete by, I assume, tomorrow morning. They're apparently going to be here for a long time, judging by how little they seem to know about what they've got to do. They're asking each other, in incredibly loud voices, questions interspersed with the kind of swearing that's going to do a lot for the goody-two-shoes reputation of Marketing students everywhere. It sounds like some bizarre Trainspotting 2: Everyone Gets Serious About Their Future And Decides To Pursue A Sensible Degree From A Reputale University script.

"Fuckin' look at how many section things we have to do. Fuck, man. There's fuckin' seven of them. Are you going out tomorrow night?"

"Naw, man, seven? Fuck. No, I'm stayin' in, I was out last night with Binky and Wuzzo an' them. Seven? That's total shite. It can't be seven."

"It is, look at this fuckin' cuntin' thing here. Seven. Hey, did you get as pished as the time when Binky puked all over your Ben Sherman shirt?"

"Even more, man! It was fuckin' amazing. It's ridiculous, but taking pride in such exploits is the only way I can justify my pointless little life. Don't you think I look like a prat with my newly-shaved head, by the way?"

"Oh, completely. But not as much of a prat as I look in my very obviously pre-faded jeans. Why are those people over there glaring at us?"

And so on, and so on. Once, when I was an undergraduate myself, a lecturer managed to turn a Philosophy of Mind lecture on fallacies of dualism into an extended rant on the stupidity of pursuing a degree like Marketing, when you could be learning Something Really Interesting. Much though we muttered about interesting things not getting us a job in future, I thought he had a point at the time and I've come to agree even more tonight.

For all the nights I spent in computer labs frantically typing 3000 word essays due in the next day, I never once felt the almost-insatiable urge to beat myself to death with a rolled-up mousemat that I'm getting after twenty minutes of listening to these morons.