Friday, 19 June 2009


Does anyone use phone booths any more? (Apart from weak-bladdered ne’er-do-wells, that is.)

I suppose it won’t be long before they become extinct altogether, and we’ll shake our heads at how old we must be to remember actually using them. Like electric typewriters. Or “please”.

Already in my mind they are taking on the warm glow of nostalgia. Burnished by memories of reverse charge conversations from the Boulevard St. Michel in my student days, shivering with cold and homesickness. Or, even further back, coded rings home to request a pick-up from the station after school, hanging up just in time to bring the coins clattering back. (Coins!)

I think they’ve always had a somewhat retro aura, haven’t they? Plush cabinets in old theatres. The groovy 60s capsules you used to see at airports. The opening credits of “Get Smart”. Then of course there’s the red, old-world charm of the local variety, only used these days as backdrops in tourist snaps.

Actually, I did see someone make a call from a phone booth this morning. He was on his mobile.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

This England

Overheard on the 319 to Sloane Square.
Two silver-bobbed ladies:

“Jasper set me up with the Internet. Are you online?”

“Oh yes. Emma emails from Botswana.”

“Isn’t it extraordinary!”


“The Net! My dear, the things you can find!”

“I know! Marvellous, isn’t it?”

“I found one site which tells you how to train goldfish.”


“Yes. It’s the most extraordinary thing. You teach them how to swim in formation.”

“What, like synchronised swimming?”

“Exactly. It’s all about how you scatter the food. I’ve been practising with the carp. I’ve managed to get them to swim to one end of the pond. Eventually I’m hoping for a sort of arrow formation.”

“How marvellous! You’ll have to throw the most enormous drinks party!”

Friday, 3 April 2009


Do you remember Easter Bonnet Parades? Some of my sharpest early school memories come from those bizarre occasions when all the infant students would be forced to don holiday headgear and file around the playground while the seniors snickered and mocked.

One year Mum helped me make a “Cat in the Hat” affair, a crisp red and white cylinder. I was giddy with the thought that I might actually win a prize, until some daft sadist of a teacher put me in the “tall hats” group instead of the “story book” category. I had no chance against the towering creations around me.

The next year, Mum thought it would be character-building for me to compete on my own efforts, so while other kids’ parents pulled in favours from society milliners, I got creative with an ice-cream container, some foil and a couple of Mintie wrappers.

That year I walked in my own special category.

Despite these traumatic memories, I do love the idea of wearing silly hats in public. It’s a shame the Easter Bonnet Parade isn’t more widely celebrated in the grown-up world. True, in Australia we have Melbourne Cup Day, which is always good for a giggle at fascinators, but it lacks somehow the innocent abandon of the E.B.P. (Hard to feel innocent when you’re guzzling Champagne and betting on horses.)

That is why I was so pleased to read the below article in today’s Wandsworth Guardian. It’s good to see the spirit of competition so vibrantly alive this Easter. Even at 86, “funky” Mae Main be-ribboned her way to victory in the Battersea Pensioners Contact Club Easter Bonnet Parade.

Congratulations, Mae – I take my home-made hat off to you.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009


I never got Rolf Harris. I always felt slightly embarrassed whenever I saw him huff and wobble on TV, a dated relic perpetuating the Cultural Cringe. Then I saw him live.

He may be 79, but he’s no relic.

He was a revelation on Sunday night at the Australian Fire & Flood Benefit Concert. Funny, warm, commanding and unexpectedly moving, he was the emotional anchor of the whole show. I couldn’t help but respond, all the old numbers resonating in some profound core of identity acquired through a long process of Aussie osmosis.
I wasn’t alone: a lot of my compatriots were dabbing their eyes as Rolf worked his magic. Especially when he started “Two Little Boys”. I was stilled with shock when, during the opening eight, a deep-buried memory chimed: my twin brother and me, toddlers rolling on the floor in front of the old radiogram, delighted that someone was singing a song about us.

It felt good to give in to this collective nostalgia, to share it with other expats without shame. Although I still felt self-conscious singing along to “Tie me Kangaroo Down, Sport”.

Friday, 27 March 2009


We had such a wonderful weekend in the Lake District, part of a boisterous bunch baptising a friend’s B&B (with fire). The highlight was a long, high walk from Grasmere to Alcock Tarn, climbing past streams and flinty cottages to the wide wind-scoured fells. The sky expanded above us as we breathed in the broad view, houses and cars comically small on the valley floor below. My childhood love of the Swallows and Amazons books gusted through me and I almost whooped with the joy of running through the grass, tacking uphill in the breeze. All we needed as we lay on the spongy moss by the tarn was a basket of pemmican sandwiches, ginger beer and an admonition from Sensible Susan not to eat too quickly.

It was a shame that the weekend had to end with a Bad Train Experience. It would have been quicker to fly back to London from New York than travel on Virgin Trains from the Lakes. Fortunately, I found a half-bottle of gin in my bag, so anything after Preston is just a pleasant blur. And my memories of the Lakes remain untarnished and exhilarating, just like an Arthur Ransome adventure, with less ginger beer.

Swallows and Amazons forever!

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Friday, 13 March 2009


One final act in my consumadrama: a letter from the dried fruit packing company responsible for the unidentified metal object in my figs. Quite a respectable concern by all accounts: royal warrants if you please. By Previous Appointment to The Late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother 1971-2007. I’m not sure I’d use a deceased Royal to champion my comestibles but there you are.

Under this impressive letterhead, the Previously Appointed Manufacturers of Provisions and Dried Fruit describe in bewildering detail the entire sorting, grading and packing procedure. Multiple paragraphs explain such mysteries as infestation parameters, blancher infeed platforms, vibratory screens, non-ferrous test pieces and due diligence. It’s not just the technical syntax which is confusing: the product in question seems to change from fig to prune and back again throughout the process. Form-letter induced transmogrification, perhaps?

The message so subtly conveyed between these densely-typed lines is, of course, “WE DON’T BELIEVE YOU FOR A SECOND”.

I’m not really offended. I suppose there are people who spend their days opening packets of food and inserting bits of hardware in the hope of a juicy payout. It does seem rather a lot of trouble, but I can’t deny that I’ve made a profit from my complaint. Attached to the letter was a postal order for ten pounds.

Hush now.