Thursday, 28 April 2016

Europe - Them Or Us

Where we saw Nick Robinson, captured in Lego

The other day, we encountered Nick Robinson and a film crew trying to find a handbag shop at St Pancras station. We were killing time between trains from Gatwick Airport and onwards to York, and he provided a welcome distraction for my shopaholic daughter, who had already set her eyes on some bamboo socks that cost £4.95 a pair.

The reason for Robinson's handbag shop search became clear during the second part of his documentary series, Europe - Them Or Us. He needed something to introduce Mrs Thatcher trying to get her money back from the Common Market.

The programme was interesting because I learned that around the time I was born, Mrs Thatcher was ardently pro Europe, and the Labour Party were very much against it. How times subsequently changed.

Robinson gave a fairly balanced view and patiently worked his way through Maastricht, Black Tuesday, the Euro, and Blair's bid to be President. It certainly provided a useful historical background.

However, this terrifying referendum on June 23rd, caused by Cameron's own fear that the Tories would lose seats in Parliament to UKIP, will be decided by ignorance. The people that need to find out the facts won't have been watching Robinson's documentary. The sort of people who stand in the street and say "What did Europe ever do for us?" The people who think that Nigel Farage with his pint and booze and racist opinions is a great bloke. The people who think this referendum is about Syria and the refugee crisis and throwing out immigrants. The people who still think Britain has an Empire. The people who have no idea what the Tory Party might to do our country and workers' rights if they are given a free rein to act as they please. The people who think that the country will suddenly be billions of pounds richer if we no longer have to give the EU money, and that a Tory government will give all that money to them. The people sat on their sofas moaning that Bulgarians are taking their jobs while being too lazy to go out and get their own.

I am not saying that the EU doesn't have its faults, nor that these aren't turbulent times. But as far as I am concerned, I am European. I speak four European languages. I went to university in Germany. I love travelling. I want to be free to visit, live, study and work in and be part of places like this:

and this:
and this:
and this
and this:

 and this:
Lake Bled

And these are just the places on water.

The ignorance of voters I fear is summed up for me by two individuals. The first is a man interviewed by Channel 4 News. He was a farmer, in receipt of EU subsidies. He owned a haulage company, whose vehicles were supplied and serviced by Renault in France. And yet he was campaigning to leave, adamant that his finances and his business would not be affected. The second is Scarlett Moffat of Gogglebox fame, who represents the "undecided" camp. She was watching the news when Boris "decided" he would side with the Brexit campaign. Moffat said she thought that Boris Johnson is trustworthy. Now, what exactly about Boris is trustworthy, I ask? But she said that if Boris is telling people to leave, then it must be for a good reason. And not at all because he thinks it will get him an easy ticket to become Prime Minister.

I am genuinely frightened by what Daily Mail and Sun readers and UKIP voters and Johnson & Gove could do to our country on June 23rd. So please, if you care about small things like travelling on holiday without needing a visa or being able to get free emergency healthcare if you become ill in another EU country, or big things like your rights to maternity and paternity leave and equal pay, the need for Europe-wide collaboration on security, trading at competitive prices, or just the fact that there is a mechanism in place to protect us from some of the worst of Tory rule, then don't let it happen. The divorce would be messy, and we would be the suffering children caught in the acrimony.

But thank you, Nick Robinson, for an interesting programme, even if the right people won't have watched it.

I still ended up having to buy those bloody socks though.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Shakespeare Live

Borrowed from another William, Bill Bryson

The clue was in the title. What we expected - and wanted - was an evening of Shakespeare live from the RSC. Since we don't get to go out much any more. Since York's theatre has been closed for the past year (and hardly ever does Shakespeare when it is open).

What we got was largely a load of dumbed down dross. To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death (or his 452nd birthday, depending on whether you are a glass half full or half empty kind of person), the folk at Stratford had staged a celebration of his work - or rather, a celebration of the influence of his work. This meant that the Bard's actual words were for the most part pushed aside by musicals, opera, ballet, comedy sketches and hip-hop.

A garden near to Stratford-on-Avon in the style of Anne Hathaway

Mnah. I suppose it was well-intentioned. Joseph Fiennes showed us some nice footage of Anne Hathaway's cottage and garden through the seasons in a sort of Alan Titchmarsh meets Monty Don kind of way. But did most of the people watching at home really need a Horrible Histories sketch to explain who Shakespeare was? This wasn't a child-friendly production. (We saw Judi Dench snogging Al Murray dressed as a donkey, for starters.)

For most of the two hours, they stuck to the funny stuff, just throwing in some tragedies towards the end. Even the excerpt from Henry V was the only scene in the whole play with a joke. They only let that famous speech from Hamlet happen after it had been mocked by Tim Minchin, Benedict Cumberbatch and, er, Prince Charles. Who had almost as many lines as Cumberbatch. That was another marker of the evening - the good, gritty stuff was too brief. Like Lady Macbeth's candle. They could have given Benedict more to do. He wasn't even allowed to play the character whose name he almost shares. It seems crazy that a botched song from Kiss Me Kate was allowed to go on for what felt like hours when soliloquays from King Lear or Richard II flashed by in an instant.

And then there was David Tennant and Catherine Tate, transported from the TARDIS to be the Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood of the evening, doing the links. When will people learn that nobody can read an autocue? It's what makes award ceremonies so excruciating, the news sound weird, and George W Bush sound like a moron. (And he didn't need much help.)

Juliet's Balcony (allegedly), Verona

Tennant and Tate both proved at other times during the evening that they can act. Unlike the terrible couple picked to perform the balcony scene from Romeo And Juliet, a play which got far more attention than it deserved. There were other great performances - David Suchet, Roger Allam, Anne-Marie Duff, Ian McKellan and Antony Sher did not disappoint. At the end, Helen Mirren as Prospero smirked at the audience and stole the show.

Some of the better things were on video. Songs sung by Alison Moyet and Ian Bostridge. (Not together, obviously.) And Simon Russell Beale. Oh, Simon Russell Beale. Don't ever dumb Shakespeare down; just make Simon Russell Beale do it. He'll make sure you understand it. He'll make you LOVE it. For Simon Russell Beale is never anything short of incredible. I am so lucky to have seen him in numerous productions (Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare) at the National Theatre when I lived in London - from Life of Galileo to Hamlet to Candide. He was amazing in every single one. So much so that I once saw him on the Tube and nearly said something. But I was scared I would start gushing uncontrollably, and the poor guy was just trying to get to work. And you don't talk to people on the Tube, EVER.

I have seen the RSC do many wonderful things over the years - at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle (£3 for a student stand-by seat in the gods), the Barbican in London, and most recently Henry VI Part 3 in a temporary theatre in Stratford known as "The Rusty Shed". (The Swan was being rebuilt.) But the person who introduced me to Shakespeare died recently, and so it was him I remembered on Saturday night. He was the Head of English at my school and put on a Shakespeare play every year. He too had been in the RSC, though we always joked that it was playing third tree to Judi Dench's Lady Macbeth. Which is possibly why he always tended to cast himself in the lead role. To be fair he was the only male available - it was an all girls' school, with a token three boys in the Sixth Form, none of whom could act. Generally our productions were like some mass Shakespeare's Globe gender reversal. But this teacher knew his stuff. Thanks to a bout of flu taking me out of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the only play I was ever in was Macbeth ("Hot potato, orchestra stalls, Puck will make amends!"). I had four lines and was then murdered, where I then had to lie dead on stage while Macduff and Macbeth did battle (with real swords) above my head. But I was also in the chorus and got to see the workings of the entire production and learn it by heart. And while we may not have given the best performance of the text ever ("Within this three mile may you see it coming; I say, a moving groove" said one of my friends earnestly as Birnam wood approached Dunsinane), I still think his interpretation of it was second to none. As they say, nobody ever forgets a good teacher. Dr Peter Cochran, RIP.
A moving groove

Friday, 22 April 2016

Victoria Wood

Two soups

I was shocked and - frankly - pretty devastated to hear of the death of Victoria Wood, well before her time. Cancer stole her from us at the age of only 62. Which is so utterly unfair. There are no words at a moment like this, especially as she was the one with all the good lines. Lines that made you laugh and made you cry in equal measure. I find it hard to accept that there will be no more, that her work is now complete. For her words made the everyday hilarious, the mundane massive and brought the things you had never noticed to the fore. The hostess trolley, the avocado. The Woman's Weekly, the Berni Inn. Judith Chalmers. Soup. Since Victoria Wood incorporated them into songs or sketches they have brought a snigger or knowing smile to our lips. But now they carry a bittersweet memory too.

I remember watching this stand-up show with my mum once and Mum laughed until she weed. Watching it again post-childbirth, I can see why. And not just because I am now that woman at the bus stop trying to exercise her pelvic floor. For I have had the poo-coloured wardrobe phase. I have been the new mother trying to get out of the house with toast in her hair. Victoria Wood was saying all these things before all the Mummy bloggers out there now. Back then it was so original and refreshing to hear someone tell it like it is.

Remembering my mum laughing like that makes me sad. My mum died of cancer at a similar age to Victoria Wood, and with similar speed. But given she used to drive between schools giggling to tapes of Victoria Wood she is lucky she didn't bump herself off in a car crash much earlier.

About ten years ago I managed to get two last-minute tickets to see Acorn Antiques: The Musical in the West End. As the tickets were in the stalls, it was the most money I have ever spent on going to the theatre. But it was totally worth it. Julie Walters as Mrs Overall was - as ever - astounding. And as the curtain lifted on the shop scene at the start of the second half, it's the first time I have seen a set alone get a cheer and round of spontaneous applause. Someone else played Miss Berta - Wood only appeared (as Mrs Overall) for some matinees, when Walters (according to Wood) was at Bingo.

The last thing of Victoria Wood's I saw (apart from her winning cakes on Comic Relief Bake-Off) was That Day We Sang, which I blogged about here. The quote at the top "I have a bit of life still owing" has an entirely different resonance now.

Victoria Wood was a true genius. Clever in such a down-to-earth way. She was witty and northern, shy and modest, awkward yet exuberant. And we all - probably without exception - loved her.

So farewell. And at least we will always have Barry and Freda:

..on me lower portions

Beat me on the bottom with the...

Bend me over backwards on me...

Friday, 15 April 2016

Five Star Babies: Inside The Portland Hospital

There's nothing more guaranteed to fill you with love for the NHS than seeing a private hospital on television.

Is that not what you'd expect? Do you think it would be better to spend thousands of pounds on your healthcare?

Well, in the case of childbirth, after seeing this programme on the UK's only private maternity hospital, the Portland in London, I think not. Childbirth is childbirth. There are only two routes out, and neither can be put on a long waiting list or severely delayed. There are only so many ways to kit out a delivery room or operating theatre. And the programme stressed that at the actual birth, there was no difference between the NHS and the Portland in terms of care received or procedures followed. In other words, you get told to "push into your bottom" either way. And nobody knows what that means.

But it rapidly became clear that all of the Portland's patients have more money than sense.

So what do you get for shelling out £10,000-40,000 on birthing your baby at the Portland? Champagne, for one thing. Foie gras. Lobster. Pretty much all the things you've been banned from eating and drinking for nine months. Oh, and an exquisite afternoon tea. Except that the rich new mummies are so obsessed with regaining their figure immediately after delivery that they all stick to fruit platters and grapefruit juice.

You can also purchase some exclusive baby mementos. Silver or bronze statuettes of your baby's feet. Everyone gets a gift bag containing a cuddly panda and who knows what else. (More champagne, presumably.) Puts that annoying Bounty Lady to shame - she's only trying to flog you a blurry photo before she hands over your child benefit forms and free sample of Johnson's.

What you do get at the Portland is Pat. Portland Pat will stay up all night in the nursery, looking after nine bawling babies while their mummies have a pedicure and get some sleep. Pat is a wonder. She has all the down-to-earthedness of a good NHS nurse, and she is a slightly incongruous figure amongst all these hormonal celebrities and moneyed chavs. "I never get a man in here who doesn't love Breaking Bad," she coos over fluffy pink baby Skyler.

Every woman gets her own personally selected consultant who follows her throughout her pregnancy, and through the birth. Which possibly explains why the Portland has such a high rate of Caesarians (50%) - these consultants, one of whom is a Countess married to the Earl of Bradford, don't like having their Easter lunches in Shropshire interrupted to go and have to deliver a baby naturally. They prefer it all scheduled to fit neatly into their day. We also see a consultant quick to intervene in a natural birth that had been progressing well. After one and a half hours of pushing the baby hadn't moved much, so after a swift attempt at Ventouse, she cuts the yoga teacher mummy open and whips said baby out. Consultants must naturally feel the urge to do something to earn their money - they are only called in when there is a crisis in an NHS birth, so they are not used to letting normal deliveries happen.

I would say that for that money there should be less strapping people to monitors and more birthing pools, more massages and more midwives offering soothing encouragement. For what do the midwives get to do at the Portland if everything is consultant led? A lot of cleaning, by the looks of it. And a lot of waiting on spoilt pampered women unwilling to do anything for themselves.

The worst of which is of course Hui, a Chinese "It Girl" fashion designer that I have never heard of. Her husband runs some sort of empire in Hong Kong, and generally seems so absent that she isn't even sure if he should be at the birth. (Her mum is at the hospital too and Hui is only allowed to take one person with her to theatre.) Hui is of course, too posh - or too scared - to push. Because having a baby has got to hurt, apparently. Whereas recovering from major abdominal surgery is of course entirely pain-free, right? Just ask my friend with the morphine allergy who had to recover from a C-section on paracetamol. Hui seems genuinely shocked when her consultant informs her that a Caesarian carries risk of organ damage and infection. Yes, even in this exclusive hospital. No amount of money will win that war on bacteria.

Hui's surgery goes well. However, Hui doesn't want to hold her baby until he has been thoroughly cleaned and had a nappy put on him. No skin to skin here. When he starts crying, she sends him off to the hospital nursery for Pat to look after. And from then on out she pretty much gets anyone else in the room to hold him other than her. It is of course difficult to move after a Caesarian, but any one of those fifty midwives would gladly hand her the baby if she was struggling. Once back home she has a nanny, who is apparently there to cook, clean, look after the baby and look after Hui. What Hui is left to do, I have no idea. Get her tummy tucked for her husband and then return to work, it seems. Unsurprisingly, she is on Nanny number two by the end of the programme.

The mummies are also all too posh to breastfeed, apparently. There are a lot of bottles of Aptamil being bandied about. During a tour of the hospital it is announced that the hospital has 50 midwives, but only one lactation consultant. Really? The NHS doesn't have enough breast-feeding support either, but at least it encourages it. There is nothing wrong with formula feeding, and I would never claim otherwise, but are any of these women even prepared to give breastfeeding a go? It can be lovely, it can be a battle, it can be the worst experience of your life, but the only way to know is to try. These women are all taking pills to stop their milk coming in, seemingly without having been offered any alternative by the hospital.

So yes, I ended the programme filled with love for the NHS. York District Hospital safely delivered my daughter five and a half years ago, and I have only praise for them and the care we received during our stay. Things weren't perfect (no water birth option, no en suite bathrooms, no private rooms), but if I'd had £40,000 to spare, I wouldn't have dreamed of giving a penny to the Portland Hospital instead. For the gas and air was on tap. My midwife was an angel. My wishes were listened to and respected. And foie gras may not have been on the menu, but the toast I was offered for breakfast once my daughter finally emerged after 36 long hours of labour was one of the best (and most welcome) meals of my life.

I was also very lucky as York Hospital was not busy that day. I think it might have been a very different story if it had been a day when they were getting slammed with patients. I was the only one in my post-labour ward for 16 hours, and then only had to share it with one other person (rather than the usual three). I was very weak, so they also took my baby away for a couple of hours in the night to an impromptu nursery in the corridor so that I could have a break and some sleep. (Not that I got any sleep, but it was a kind thought.) I could well have wanted a few nights of being looked after in a luxury hotel after the birth (or really just a bit longer in hospital), but I don't think it would have made breastfeeding less stressful or my stitches heal any faster.

I used to work just around the corner from the Portland Hospital. I never really paid it much attention, since I was usually scuttling past to get to the office, the Tube station, Regent's Park or the great deli at Villandry. So I never saw any celebrity babies or future Arab sheiks being wheeled out of the building in their expensive prams or car seats. Besides, I didn't really "do" babies in those days. Now I would shout out that they were all fools, and had been taken well and truly for a ride. But would they listen? Would they care? No. For money is for them no object.