Friday, 18 August 2017

A lament for LoveFilm

Dear Amazon,

Thank you for your recent e-mail announcing the closure of your LoveFilm DVD postal service at the end of October. However, you have made me rather sad. And a bit cross. Your excuse for the demise of LoveFilm is that you've apparently seen decreasing demand for DVD and Blu-ray rental "as customers increasingly move to streaming". Streaming? Streaming what? Colds?

Some of us, you see, have no idea what you are talking about. Some of us are technically inept and technologically decrepit. Some of us just don't always have the money to upgrade to the latest thing. Some of us are still barely coming to terms with the demise of VHS. And the closure of our local Blockbuster.

I have a DVD player. In fact, only last year I upgraded it to a Blu-ray player. It's been a long haul into the 2010s in this household. So what? As far as I'm concerned, I've got it and I still want to use it. Why should I chuck it out and waste all that plastic and circuitry just because a lot of your customers have got streaming colds?

Oh, wait, you mean Internet streaming. There, I'm not such a luddite after all. Yeah, online streaming. We do that with Netflix. I signed us up in desperation for a free month's trial when our daughter got chicken pox at the end of reception, which housebound us for the best part of a week. And it's shit. It buffers a lot, crashes regularly, and has very little on it that we want to watch. Some good TV box sets, yes, but we're probably only interested in about one film in a hundred, none of which were released in cinemas in the past three years. Besides, our daughter has completely hijacked our account by watching My Little Pony and Paw Patrol on a loop.

You see, I used to go to the cinema at least twice a week. I saw pretty much every film going. Living in London, I could see anything that a review made sound interesting, no matter how obscure. This backfired sometimes. Uzak, for example. But anyway, I didn't get to miss out on movies. Relocating to York, with only one art-house cinema, our choice was more limited, which is how our LoveFilm subscription started. I still read the reviews, and slowly worked up a list of films that weren't heading our way that I wanted to see. And then we had our daughter, which (aside from a crazy year of taking her once a week as a baby to City Screen's Big Scream, where she sat through Black Swan, 127 Hours, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Another Year and many other inappropriate titles in complete milk-overloaded oblivion) meant we didn't get to go to the cinema at all for ages. Now when we go it's to see things like Captain Underpants, Minions, The Boss Baby and Moana. Which are all fine, but meanwhile our LoveFilm list of all the titles I really want to watch has been growing and growing.

It's not often that we get an uninterrupted evening with enough time and energy to actually sit through a whole film, but when we do, it's a proper treat, and we want therefore to treat it properly. Do the cinema thing. Turn the lights off, and the sound up. Have a glass of wine. Maybe even make popcorn. We bought a bigger telly to enhance our experience. We wanted to replicate the Picturehouse in our house. We're not bothered about being able to watch things on our phones. But I'm certainly regretting how few uninterrupted evenings we have, which meant we sat on The Hateful Eight for three whole months, now that we only have two months left to get through the rest of my LoveFilm list. I'm trying to up our game now, with the nights drawing in at the close of summer, but it won't be easy. I just had to quarantine my husband in the spare room for two days because he threw up everywhere on Monday night and I selfishly didn't want our daughter (or me, because I have a piece of plastic fork stuck in my intestine) catch it.

The DVD still has something that Internet streaming doesn't. What you get on DVDs or Blu-Rays are (1) extras and (2) subtitles. Extras that tell you something about the background to the movie you just watched - how it evolved from concept to completion, how special effects were achieved. Deleted scenes sometimes show you how thought directions were abandoned, for better or worse. You may catch some silly bloopers or other funny incidents that occurred during filming. You will undoubtedly see actors, writers, producers and directors gushing about how brilliant they all are. You may even capture some handheld footage of the wardrobe department. Many extras are total dross, but I always watch them. Because I spent years of my life subtitling them, or getting other people to translate subtitles for them. So a lot of effort has gone into the behind the scenes of your behind the scenes and I for one want an opportunity to appreciate it. And of course the main feature will have subtitles too - for the deaf and hard-of-hearing, and in up to 38 different languages, depending on which regions the disc will play in. The subtitles will have been put together by poorly paid professionals, mostly doing it for love, because translating a movie is more interesting than translating a washing machine manual, even if it's paying you less than minimum wage and has a turnaround so fast you almost have to translate in real time.

How will the deaf community access movies now, with so little online being subtitled properly, if at all? And, more importantly, how will I watch the latest releases in Norwegian or Brazilian Portuguese?

It was kind of annoying that you didn't have much control over what you were sent next with LoveFilm, but the mystery envelope winging its way from Peterborough was part of the thrill. Now you are offering me Amazon Prime instead of my LoveFilm subscription. I try so hard not to accidentally click on that big yellow Prime icon every time I order a book or CD (yes, yes, I'm so prehistoric, but it is surely clear to you by now that I prefer objects to computer screens), but now you have really upped your ante. Will you actually have any of my LoveFilm list on your Prime selection, cos you certainly didn't the last time I checked? Or will I have to do a pay-per-view for my more obscure choices that will cost way more than my LoveFilm subscription ever did? Are you even going to e-mail me my LoveFilm list before you delete it, because I'm not going to be able to remember ten years of film choices by myself? Actually, since you are about to have a warehouse full of unwatched DVDs that you can't sell, why not use me as your charity shop and send all the ones on the list my way? I'll sit in my ark, gradually working my way through them.

And I don't want your discounted Firestick, thanks, because you let Jeremy Clarkson advertise them.

I think that ditching LoveFilm and making us all take Prime was always your plan. You said otherwise, but who ever believes a word that large tax-avoiding corporations say?

Yours, except I'm not,

A disgruntled LoveFilm by Post viewer.

Summer holidays and teenagers

So we're over halfway through, and how's it going for you? How's the weather been? (We've actually had a tiny bit of sunshine this week in York.) Are the tensions in your house at Trump-Kim levels yet or are they still relievable by wine? Yesterday my daughter asked me when I was going to stop controlling her life and let her take charge instead. This was a response to me inviting her to go to the ice cream boat over the river as a treat. She wanted to stay at home and play with her magnets instead. You just can't feckin' win, can you?

She is harder to please than ever this summer. We've done some lovely things. We've been to some shows at the Great Yorkshire Fringe and to see Robin Hood at York Theatre Royal. We've been to Harlow Carr, Newby Hall and the wonderful York Maze, and we went to stay with my dad in Grasmere for a few days, where we met up with friends and played Swallows and Amazons at Blackwell House in the pouring rain. We've done campfire cooking and raced around Goddards. But during it all there was so much moaning! (Particularly when I managed to wreck her bread dough in the campfire...) And I haven't even made her go on any country walks!

The Giant's Loo Roll
(the daughter was bribed with a chocolate pancake not to scowl in this picture)

The Scarecrow's Wedding

Genuine tents...

..and genuine boats from the Swallows And Amazons film at Blackwell House, Bowness

The dissatisfaction is spreading beyond home. This week is she is attending Kings Camp, a sports activity week held at the Mount School. It's a lot of fun, but every day she comes out overly focused on the negative - that she hasn't won star of the day, that she had to wear a beginners red cap in her swimming session despite the 25 metres badge she has sewn on to her costume, for which she was teased, that she scraped her knee during a treasure hunt, that the timetable wasn't announced in strict order at the start of the day, that they didn't go outside enough, that they went outside too much... Bah! It's partly tiredness, hence me trying to revive her with ice cream. But give the poor guys a break!

It's a foresight of what the teenage years may hold, assuming Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un, Isis in a van, and a piece of plastic fork let any of us live that long. Did so many things cause my parents sleepless nights when I was little? Plastic forks didn't of course, because my parents weren't that stupid, but when I was my daughter's age Thatcher had just come to power, nuclear war between Russia and America definitely seemed a possibility, and then Argentina invaded the Falklands. But was it this bad? With Brexit, that narcissistic, volatile moron tweeting unpredictable nonsense from the White House, a fat kid in North Korea playing games and people being run over on the streets of Europe, I feel like I am living in a nightmare that can only get worse. My mood certainly can't be helping my daughter's negativity, even though I try not to mention any of it to her. Let her have her innocence for as long as it can last. But when will something good happen? Even The Last Leg can't lift my spirits about the madness of the world any more.

Love to you, Barcelona

Anyway, teenagers. Yeah. There's a bunch of them living in the park this summer. Our lovely park, which has just lost its park keeper thanks to the latest wave of austerity cuts (my prediction in a previous blog post came true). Now it's up to volunteers to maintain its flower beds and keep it looking lovely. Which was hard enough with its flock of geese shitting over its lawns and pathways, and has now been made even harder by these teenagers' inability to use a litter bin. Oh, such bravado they show as they do their wheelies down our street and around the park stage, which only a few weeks ago was used to put on an opera. Such colourful language as they abuse each other and passers by. Such profits the corner shop must be making as they purchase their bottles of Rubicon Spring and packets of Moam. And such a mess they hurl on to the grass without a moment's thought. There's no dealing with them; they are a wall of hormones who just want to laugh at adults requesting a little respect out of them for their surroundings. Needless to say, me politely requesting them to stop ripping leaves off my neighbour's bushes did not go down well the other day.

Yes, I did pick all this up afterwards

My daughter chipped a little off their cool though. The boys invaded the zip wire queue in the play area, pushing in front of her, where she had been standing watching some friends. "We're going next!" they boomed, sneering at her. "That's OK, I don't want a go anyway because I don't like it," replied my daughter. "Ew, what are you, six?" they snorted. "Yes. But I'm nearly seven!" answered the girl, oblivious to what they were inferring. She's darn tall for her age.

We have a teenager coming to stay in our house next week actually. Hopefully he can sort the brats in the park out with some good Dutch manners. We are doing a house swap with a friend in Holland, a cheap and convenient way of being able to go abroad in August. So I am spending this week frantically trying to tidy up and looking at everything in the house that doesn't quite work properly, thinking "My goodness, how have we put up with this for ten years?" Well, mostly because one of us in this marriage is very laidback. He has to be, of course, else he wouldn't cope with me being the other half. But as a consequence his attitude to repairs is somewhat slack. He'll just work out a way of tolerating whatever has gone wrong. Deciding he prefers showers a bit on the cool side, for example. Deciding that the steam function on an iron isn't necessary if you just squirt a bit of water on your shirts instead. Not minding water spraying in his eye from a pipe because really it's quite refreshing after a long run. That sort of thing.*** Anyway, I'm just hoping I've managed to patch the place up enough to stop it falling down before the end of the month, so that our friends have a peaceful and harmonious visit, despite bringing a teenager.

So yes, ten whole years we've lived here in our crazy house. I think that's the longest I've lived anywhere continuously in my life. Cracks are still appearing in the walls. I panic about subsidence, my husband merely decides they add character. Our daughter could definitely be a little bit more like her daddy on some things.

Only 19 more days til the start of term.

*** My husband would just like me to point out that while the girl and I were in Grasmere he painted four shelves that have been bare MDF for nearly as many years. It seems the trick to make him get round to doing DIY jobs is to go away without him...

Friday, 23 June 2017

Childhood Heroes

After the whole hideous Jimmy Savile business, it felt like there was no longer anything sacred about my childhood television viewing. It had all been spoiled forever. It was the 1970s and 1980s, and they had all turned out to be a bunch of perverts. And we, in our innocence, had been completely and utterly duped. Savile was disturbingly close to home too, as he had worked with my grandfather in Leeds, and met my parents and aunts - and apparently me as a baby - at hospital social events. My mother recalled one of his cigars in an ashtray in their lounge.

Then Rolf Harris. Sunday afternoon cartoon fodder for me and my brother once we were back from our weekly swimming session at Leventhorpe pool. "Can you see what it is yet?" When we lived in Crouch End, Harris regularly went into the primary school down the road to give art lessons, open fetes etc, as his grandchild was a pupil there. But he was not what he seemed either, and was released from prison just over a month ago. No wonder the Queen's smile looked so forced on his portrait of her. I am no royalist, but she is an astute woman who can express much without words. It can't be coincidence that she dressed up as the European Union flag for her vellum-penned speech in the House of Lords this week.

However, recent events have restored some of the balance. There were good, honest people out there making television when I was little after all. I went to see Peter Lord, creator of Morph, give a talk at the York Festival of Ideas a couple of weeks ago. He is a York graduate, which I had forgotten, and one of the founders of the wondrous Aardman Animations. Morph lives on even now. Even without Tony Hart, who has become famous for nearly dying twice. I had really bad stomach ache throughout the talk (thanks to "the fork"), but it was lovely to hear Lord give an account of his career, showing some brilliant clips, even if these were hindered by technical glitches from the rather strange audiovisual set-up in the Bootham School auditorium. But nonetheless we saw everything from their first attempts at stop animation (photographing people jumping in the air then splicing the footage together to make it look like they were flying), to the original Aardman superhero character, to making the Sledgehammer video for Peter Gabriel (the success of which meant the Aardman Christmas parties trebled in size). Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists! 

And don't forget Shaun...

Peter Lord was terribly modest, and spent the entirely of the talk modelling a piece of brown plasticine into a fresh Morph that was then auctioned off for charity. He also paid tribute to the wonderful Peter Sallis, who had passed away a few days before. He showed a clip of Sallis remembering how Nick Park had persuaded him to record the voice of Wallace when he was a young film student. Sallis graciously obliged, for very little money. He heard nothing more until Nick Park phoned him up six years later to announce "I've finished! Do you want to come and see it?" Such is the time-consuming nature of animating plasticine models.

Peter Sallis is a loss, though my childhood was more spent watching him rolling down a hill in a bath in Last Of The Summer Wine than in Wallace and Gromit. But that just reveals my age.

OK, so this isn't Shep...

And there have been two more recent passings of children's television presenters from my childhood that reassured me that they weren't all terrible sexual predators. First, John Noakes, Blue Peter hero. Who will always be remembered for an elephant standing on his foot, and climbing up Nelson's column on the world's most precarious ladder, without even a nod to health and safety. Because it was the 1970s and the BBC was, well, distracted. Rumour has it that the first time John Noakes climbed Nelson, the sound didn't record, so he had to do it all over again. A brave (and patient) man indeed.

"Windy's cider is very strong cider..."

Secondly, Brian Cant, voice of Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley, and presenter of Play School and Play Away until both were abruptly decommissioned in 1984. I never really saw him on screen again, though it seems he kept working right up until a few years ago, when Parkinson's took hold. Bizarrely, his copresenters on Play Away included Tony Robinson and Jeremy Irons. Which just goes to show any actor with rent to pay will do children's television. In the 1970s and '80s, 'kippers' had no connotations with Nigel Farage, and it was still acceptable (see above) for people to sing songs about ladies in a harem to young kids.

Our daughter is growing out of CBeebies, but I wonder which of its many presenters she will remember into adulthood. Justin "Mr Tumble" Fletcher? (Who of course is one of the voices on Aardman Animation's Shaun The Sheep and Timmy Time.) Lovely Chris and "Show me show me your groovy moves" Pui? Andy "Dinosaur Adventures" Day? I will be heartbroken if any of them are subsequently hit by scandal. Apart from Topsy and Tim's mum. She deserves all she gets.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Wife Swap: Brexit Special

Wife Swap: something my husband may wish was more widely available. Also a typically scandalous Channel 4 title for something that is in fact slightly more inane - a chance for families with opposing beliefs or lifestyles to see how the other half lives. The female of the family swaps places with the female of another for a week and goes to live in their home. First, she follows the "rules" and lifestyle of the family where she is a guest, including doing whatever work the woman does. Then she tries to introduce some of her own ways of doing things to the family. But naturally there are some deliberate attempts to fuel an argument or court controversy. I am still traumatised by the memory of the mindless sap who pretended to be a Japanese geisha girl morning, noon and night.

But now it was something closer to home - a family of Leave voters swapping with a family of Remain voters. One of the accusations bandied about after last year's (in my opinion) disastrous referendum was that voters lived in their own bubbles, each believing that everybody thought like them, and never hearing the alternative view. Remain bred Remain, Daily Mail bred Daily Mail. I saw nothing but pro-EU posts in my Facebook feed from my friends, and all the posters (bar I think two) in our part of York were for Remain. Whereas Leave voters got fed bullshit by Boris, Gove, Dacre and Murdoch and the side of a bus, which was all self-reinforcing.

So now it was time for the two opposing views to have a conversation, and try and understand each other. Only it turns out you still can't have a conversation with a Leave voter. They just stand and shout crap, and refuse to listen to anything other than the sound of their own voices. They come out with Daily Express soundbites about taking back control and wanting their country back whilst blatantly failing to understand what the EU actually is. This Leave husband and dad, Andy, was no exception. He took Kat, a German migrant, to an East End market to show how there was only one white face left manning the stalls (who was Jewish). Seriously. But Andy's not racist, apparently. No. He just doesn't recognise his own Little England any more. Kat tries to point out that the EU has nothing to do with how many Pakistani people are selling mangos or saris in London. At home in their garden over a glass of wine, Kat tries to explain that EU migrants do not get a house and full unemployment benefits within ten minutes of landing at Dover. But Andy won't listen. He's read everything he knows in the paper. In the Canvey Island pub where his wife Pauline works, Kat rolls her eyes over an outside smoke as she tries to make the punters understand that she is the EU migrant and not the Syrian refugees who are fleeing a terrible war. She just gets shouted down with Dacre quotes. "Is this about not liking the EU, or not liking brown skins?" she asks in exasperation. But they're not racist either, apparently.

Meanwhile, Pauline, the Leave wife, over a meal of boeuf bourgignon, is surprised that the Germans in the room no longer feel welcome in the UK, having been told in the street to go back to their "Hitler Merkel". It's not that sort of immigration she's opposed to, you see. Not the sort where people pay taxes and work hard and have an education and raise children here. Well, what other sort did the EU give us, you moron? She objects that she's not allowed to put on a nativity play at Christmas any more. Which is again, nothing to do with the EU. She is shot down by Guardian-reading left-wing opinion, but is ultimately a little humbled by it. Nonetheless, she still goes and puts a picture of Nigel Farage above the fireplace. And later hides a garden gnome of him in the garden.

Meanwhile, Leave husband Andy won't take his England flags down. Kat should fit in, he says. "When in Rome..." Except he was totally unable to realise the irony of that statement, having just voted against the treaty of its name. But then, he acknowledges, Kat is the one with the facts. Which makes her the one in the wrong, apparently. Kat takes him to a Polish restaurant, which he is surprised to find isn't staffed by criminals, but instead by nice folk from Poland. With his love of roasted pork belly strips, really he should fit right in. When I taught English at a summer school on the Baltic Coast in Poland in 1996, we were expected to eat fatty cuts of meat three times a day.

Pork, European style

Slupsk Summer School, 1996

Andy's unhousetrained dog learns to poo on the Daily Express at least.

At the end of the day, Kat still feels adrift. And who can blame her? She's done her best, but it was like banging her head against the proverbial brick wall, only one festooned with the flag of St George. The only small sign of progress is that Andy and Pauline, who have definitely found Kat very intense and quite hard work, try not to list any anti-German stereotypes in the car on the way home. For now, that's as good as you are going to get.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

So this is my essential Sunday night viewing for the next ten weeks, or as long as "the fork" lets me last. I am a big Margaret Atwood fan, but The Handmaid's Tale was the only one of her works that I didn't enjoy the first time I read it. Nothing to do with Atwood's writing, it was simply that I thought it was a horrible story, with an awful premise. I found it genuinely disturbing. I worried about the mind that had dreamt the whole thing up.

But a few months ago, I read it again with my book group, and this time saw so much more. The storyline couldn't shock me any more, so I could observe the wit and insight behind the words with much greater objectivity. And a lot has happened to the world since I first read the book. I realised that Margaret Atwood hadn't just dreamt the story up out of nowhere in some sort of sick moment. She had studied and observed how totalitarian regimes handle women. She had understood the oppressive nature of extreme religious beliefs towards the female gender. She had recognised that man believes his sole purpose on this earth is to procreate, and the lengths that people may go to in order to pass on their genes. In a way, she had, writing in 1985 about an American dystopia, foreseen the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. We recently read I Am Malala in our book group, which made all too clear the ruined role of and lack of opportunities for women in Afghanistan and Pakistan's Swat Valley under their rule. And current US Vice President Mike Pence seems to hold beliefs not a million miles away from many of the Gilead regime, which is why the book was enjoying a resurgence in popularity long before the television adaptation.

The television adaptation is great. Very dark, both figuratively and literally, but it seems that electricity has gone the way of fertility so there aren't many lights to turn on. There are many shocking scenes: Janine losing an eye, the bodies strung up by the river, the Eyes in the vans, the ceremonies of rape, death and birth. But there is also Atwood's sense of the surreal, and her sense of humour. The technicolor macaroons. The Scrabble game. The oranges. A Simple Minds song. Atwood herself has a brief cameo, a blurry spectre looming large to slap a girl down in front of Aunt Lydia at the Red Center.

I love the use of flashback to Offred's past life, and her barbed interjections on the voiceover that reveal her innermost thoughts. Elisabeth Moss can say a thousand words with her facial expressions in any case - she might seem mute, repressed and withdrawn, but you always believe that there is a firebrand within.

I have seen Margaret Atwood twice in person - once at the Hay on Wye book festival discussing Oryx and Crake with David Aaronovitch, and secondly at the Theatre Royal in York this year discussing Hagseed, her reworking of The Tempest. Both times I was struck by how staggeringly intelligent, erudite and eloquent she is. She talks slowly and steadily, but her mind must be racing as she speaks in order to be able to continually come up with those sorts of verbal goods. In York she kept her coat on throughout the session and seemed only to be dropping in for the briefest of moments, yet the hour felt far longer owing to the sheer richness of her contributions. Atwood managed to give interesting answers to even the most banal of questions. The York interviewer was simpering and simplistic, and the first person in the audience to ask a question took about five minutes of precious time to do so. He began with the epithet "I'm retired", which raised a collective groan, and he then proceeded to tell his life story, waffling on to eventually form some sort of question which basically seemed to require a denunciation of the "youth of today" and all its ilk. Atwood graciously shot him down with her highlighting of environmental concerns (the focus of many of her novels, particularly the MaddAddam trilogy), to ensure that her priorities lie with making sure that there is actually a world still here in fifty years' time for "the youth of today" to live in. The Handmaid's Tale presents a world where "youth" as a concept stands in danger of being lost forever. The human race is dying out, and the fault is entirely its own.

Question Time Special

While the news has been dominated for the past two weeks by the election and the terrible attacks in Manchester and London, my life has become pathetically obsessed by the fact that I have a piece of plastic fork stuck inside my intestine. One moment of carelessness, the sort of thing that happens when you have a young child and spend your life not concentrating and attempting to multi-task, and as a result I am now living in constant fear that I am going to win a Darwin award for the most stupid death of the year.

We were having a lovely day out in Bridlington, and had been to see the breeding sea birds at the spectacular Bempton Cliffs RSPB reserve.

Our daughter was full of the moans, as she had been made to go for a long walk and it was well past her lunchtime. So we pulled up at our favourite chippy, 149 on Marton Road, and bought ourselves a picnic to eat on the cliffs next to the car park at Sewerby. Randomly, some friends from York were seated at the next bench. So I was talking, sharing my meal with my daughter, admiring the view, feeling pretty darn hungry myself, enjoying the yummy food, and therefore not paying attention to my cutlery. It was only when I swallowed that I felt something sharp. "Crikey, that was a big bone, or a tough bit of batter," I thought to myself, only to then notice that a tine of my fork was missing. I tried to calm my instant panic, by reassuring myself that it would just past straight through, like one of my top teeth when I was seven, which dropped out of its socket while I was leaping up and down on a bean bag and I reactively gulped down.

Anyway, not to put too fine a point on things, it hasn't re-emerged, over two weeks later. And I have a sharp pain on the right-hand side of my small intestine. And no doctor will effing believe me. The trouble is that plastic doesn't show up on X-rays. So there is nothing to see. I have had a CT scan with oral contrast, quite a miraculous achievement in itself for a Sunday afternoon in York Hospital on a Bank Holiday weekend, but all it showed is that my bowel is still intact. Obviously I don't want to be cut open unnecessarily, but I know it's there, sticking into me a little more as each days go by. And I can't get the bloody thing out, no matter how hard I try.

So here I continue, each day in pain, each day feeling very sorry for myself, and a bit scared of what the next few days or weeks might bring, with a sharp object in my body made of toxic plastic. It brings home to you just how special your family are to you, and how much there is to live for, and all the things that you never quite got round to doing. "You aren't going to die," my husband groans in exasperation. He is used to this sort of talk from me, and naturally doesn't like it. I am very paranoid about my health. I always was, and then watching my mother die of cancer made me a million times worse, especially now I have a child of my own, who I couldn't bear to leave motherless, because I just fricking adore her. 

And what a bloody idiotic thing to have done. That desperation to travel back in time and reset the clock, to go to a different chippy, to just chew my food that bit more thoroughly so that my teeth could have found the big sodding bit of plastic before my gullet. But it's happened, and there is nothing I can do about it now.

So it was good in a way that Question Time came to York last Friday, to remind me of the bigger picture. Here I am stressing about a tiny piece of fork, when we have the chance to decide and change our futures this coming Thursday, and when the May and Corbyn bandwagon was rolling into town. They'd both been to York already during the campaign. May spoke to ten Tory party activists in a back room of the Barbican (that "getting out and meeting voters rather than taking part in TV debates" that she keeps referring to, part of her "strong and stable leadership" mantra repeated ad nauseum, alongside "It is very clear that" and "negotiating Brexit" and pulling that funny fish face every time she tries to think of her own words) whereas Corbyn addressed a packed St Helen's Square, holding up an amplifier so that everyone could better hear Rachael Maskell's introduction. This was early in the campaign, when he was very lacking in the polls, but even then he had the popular touch. 

I have never been a Corbyn fan. I am angry that he ordered a three-line whip on the Article 50 vote - and that he voted to allow May to hold this election in the first place. He seemed to have no clue about what it means to be in Opposition, i.e. that you are supposed to oppose. But Corbyn is genuine at least. He is a man of conviction and integrity. He tries to stay on the side of decency. He is a pacifist. He gets out and talks to people. He is comfortable in his own skin. He tries to answer questions put to him. He doesn't U-turn at the drop of a hat, though he might want to learn the art of compromise a little more succinctly. But most importantly, he isn't full of shit. Unlike Theresa May. And all of that has counted a lot over recent weeks. 

But whatever doubts I may have had about Corbyn, I am going to vote Labour in this election, assuming my plastic fork lets me survive til Thursday. This is partly because I have a huge amount of respect for York Central's current MP, Rachael Maskell, who defied Corbyn's whip to vote against triggering Article 50. She chose to listen to the majority of her constituents, who voted to remain by a far greater margin than the country as a whole voted to leave the European Union. She has served our city tirelessly since being elected in 2015, and frankly I have no idea when she sleeps. She is there for the big issues, and also the small. When the city was inundated by water, there she was on our street, speaking to the residents next to the park whose houses were full of the river. She lambasted David Cameron for the government's lack of funding for flood defences. When Virgin Media trashed our pavements in Southbank laying new broadband cables, she was there demanding that they pay for the damage. When a group of mums at school campaigned for a safer crossing on Bishopthorpe Road, she came to see for herself and to ask what she could do. She has much of Corbyn's honesty and integrity, and I hope will go far. But the Tories are gunning for her seat. They have the money to throw at their campaign, and Theresa May is busy sending her glossy brochures out to the more marginal wards of York, particularly those who leaned more towards Brexit. It's greedy and despicable.

Anyway, here we were, Question Time, from the Ron Cooke hub at the University of York, part of the new Heslington East campus. Not a leaders' debate, because the Maybot only does pre-programmed cliched rhetoric, but a chance for the public to ask their questions. Although no one I knew - pro-European, left-leaning - who applied to go on the programme was successful. Instead, the biased BBC had managed to dredge up a load of entrepreneurial, wealthy, nuclear-war loving, anti-foreign aid and anti-Northern Ireland peace process Tories, young and old, to have a go at Corbyn. Gold star to the woman who finally had enough of the red-button grilling, and asked if people would kindly refrain from discussing the murder of potentially millions. Anyway, the audience certainly didn't reflect the people of York - who I generally regard as open-minded, tolerant, cultured and international - that well. They were more a reflection of the Saturday afternoon binge-drinking hellhole that our city can turn into from time to time. There were a few awkward questions for Theresa May too - notably from a nurse who has had only 1% pay rises (not in line with inflation) since 2010 and from a lady who had had a terrible experience during a work capability assessment and has had to wait years for psychological treatment. But nobody pushed May on how many people she was planning or not planning to bomb, or how she will deal with the fallout from Brexit on the borders in Ireland and the IRA. That would have made her pull a multitude of fishfaces.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The Truth About Sleep

In recent years, I have had a troubled relationship with sleep. It isn't just because I have a young child, though that certainly doesn't help. She likes to get up at stupid o'clock, and still has illnesses and bad dreams often enough to keep us on semi-alert all the way through the night.

But I wasn't much good at sleeping before she came along, to be honest. I don't think I've slept through the night since I was about 21 years old. I am terrible at dealing with jetlag, not that there's much opportunity for long-haul flights at the moment. How I envy my daughter the way she sleeps when she finally - after a much protracted bedtime routine of toileting, baths, further toileting, toothbrushing, hairbrushing, saying goodnight to the cats, reading Harry Potter, non-stop chatter and clingy cuddles and us popping in and out of her room for what feels like hours - FINALLY drops off. I don't think there is a more beautiful, heartrending and peaceful sight than a sleeping child.

If I am in familiar surroundings, I can get to sleep fairly quickly. (Different story in a strange bed, when I seem to forget how to fall asleep at all.) But then after a couple of hours I will wake up, and then spend most of the rest of the night tossing and turning, having silly dreams where I am half-awake, half-asleep and trying desperately not to get up and go to the loo. At certain times if my thyroid is swollen, I develop sleep apnoea and wake up gasping for breath, my heart pounding. And then just as I finally settle and begin to nod off again, something will disturb me - a passing drunk or car on the street outside, an owl in the park, or the pigeon that lives on our roof and coos at the first break of dawn every sodding morning. Or the girl wakes up. Or the cats start taking lumps out of each other or knock something over downstairs. Then there is my husband, trying to reclaim his share of the duvet, or rolling onto his back and starting to snore, or having one of his nightmares which make him wail like he's being murdered. And so it goes on, with me getting more and more restless, my joints achier and achier, and my feet and hands full of pins and needles. Then I will pass out into proper unconsciousness about ten minutes before we have to get up for school and work.

With my own little foibles, I am very annoying to share a bed with. I hate noise, so sleep with ear plugs in. I like darkness, so want blackout blinds and sometimes even an eye mask. And I love lots of fresh air, so I will sleep with the window wide open even in the depths of winter, the duvet over my head so that all is exposed to the chill is my nose. (See husband's battle with the duvet in the previous paragraph.) To help ease the sleep apnoea I will smear myself in Vicks and stick a little plastic strip across my nose. Then I need the bed propped up on several books to relieve acid reflux, so it feels like I am lying on a cliff, regularly sliding down to the bottom of the bed until my toes hang over the end. This gives me backache, and makes me toss and turn even more.

Sometimes my husband and I just give up with each other and sleep in separate rooms. It's bliss. But we don't like to admit that to one another.

(And my husband would just like to point out that it is very hypocritical of me indeed to complain about anybody snoring.)

But I am by no means alone. The Truth About Sleep, presented by Michael Mosley, told us that insomnia is becoming a national, generational problem. None of us are getting enough sleep. And it's making us depressed, obese, and diabetic, and prone to all sorts of other health problems. But I really didn't need to know all that. It's enough to keep me awake at night.

You can measure how sleep-deprived you are by lying on your bed in the middle of the day. Hold a metal spoon over the edge of the bed above a metal tray. Make a note of the time. When you nod off, you will drop the spoon, and the clatter of the spoon hitting the tray will wake you up. See what time it is, and how long it took you to fall asleep. If it's less than 15 minutes, chances are you need more slumbertime.

So what can we do about it? GPs offer the quick fix of sleeping pills, although they are usually reluctant to prescribe these for long, as they are addictive and - if our bodies adjust to them - soon rendered useless. That said, some people end up swallowing them for years. There is only so much resistance a doctor will put up if they have a waiting room full of patients to see.

But what about more natural ways of reducing insomnia? Well, there's the obvious behavioural things like avoiding alcohol and caffeine and large meals just before you go to bed. Although apparently if you down a shot of espresso just before you take a nap, you will feel much more alert when you wake up. This is the recommended course of action if on a long car journey you find yourself too tired to drive. Pull into a service station, buy a coffee, and then have a snooze in your car. But who the hell can manage to have a decent nap in a car, other than a toddler? Not me, that's for sure.

Another thing you can do is to switch off all screens - laptops, smart phones, Kindles etc - at least an hour before bedtime. The light from them acts as a stimulant and upsets our body clocks. Proof that the darkness I crave is important. Our daughter still refuses to sleep in the absolute dark, but daylight certainly keeps her awake in summer. Michael Mosley goes to stay the night in a Danish greenhouse to investigate the healing effect of floods of natural light controlling our bodies.

Kiwi fruit and alcohol-free wine

Then there's a selection of what seem like kooky old wives' tale sleep aids to try out. Two kiwi fruits an hour before bedtime. A hot bath. A session of mindfulness. And taking pre-biotics, a white powder stirred into a drink to encourage gut bacteria to grow and thus improve the dynamic between our brain and digestive system. A group of insomniacs each trial one of them. Bizarrely, all seem to have some sort of beneficial effect. I think I'll have a go at the lot.