Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Excuse me, do you happen to speak squirrel?

One of the controversial pleasures of modern London living is undoubtedly the sight of grey squirrels everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. These days, my suburban garden can be seen hosting them on any given day, and I usually encounter them on my route to work at some point.

Now the thing is, my children love them. They are basically attractive creatures, with a huge bushy tale and, in London's parks and open spaces at least, they are endearingly tame. They will even take food directly from your hands if you are still and patient. Of course, this makes them beloved of little people everywhere, who feed them, and thus perpetuate the rise of grey squirreldom.

The Eastern Grey Squirrel is in fact an American introduction into Britain, and it has been so hugely successful that it has led to the near extinction of Britain's smaller, native, and genuinely beautiful red squirrel, especially in the south. There are no certainties about exactly why the red has suffered so badly since the grey was introduced deliberately as a curiosity during the 19th century, but it may simply be that the grey is basically made of stern stuff, and competes with the native breed for food and habitat.

Red Squirrel By Tomi Tapio K; image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic

The Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) in the UK actually deals specifically with grey squirrels, stating that if one should be captured it must not be released but humanely destroyed. Such is the threat level the greys are perceived to possess. It seems a shame, and one of the many difficult things we must overcome on a path to proper conservation.

On a lighter note, I remember some time back discussing the issue of grey squirrels with a Spanish friend, not a native English speaker, but someone who's English was certainly very much superior to my Spanish. The intention had very much been to consider the prevalence of grey squirrels in English parks, but unfortunately the conversation was unable to proceed very far. It was broadly as follows:

Siddie Nam: So you see, the grey squirrels aren't native to this park, but they're very common indeed.
Spanish Friend: ¿QuĂ©? "Skwiwwels"?
SN: Squirrels.
SF: Sorry, I no understand? 
SN: The fluffy grey creatures in the trees?

At this point, a Canadian friend who was also in the park with us, joined in in an attempt to clarify: 

Canadian Friend: It's his accent. Siddie, you have to remember that your London accent sounds to Spanish ears as if you're saying a "W" when you are in fact saying an "R".
SN: Oh. And there's me thinking I was the perfect example of fine diction and elocution.
CF: Don't be cheeky. (Turning to Spanish Friend) What Siddie is trying to say is "grey squirrel".
SF: "Grey squirl?" What's a squirl? 
SN: It's a squirrel.
SF: But you are talking about a "squirl". I don't know what a skwiwwel or a squirl is? What are their names in Spanish?
SN: (Blank look)
CF: "Ardilla".
SF: Is that a skwiwwel or a squirl? What would you call the other one in Spanish?
CF: No, there's only one word I know for a squirrel in Spanish. "Ardilla".
SF: Yes, I understand. And what about a "skwiwwel"?

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Peppa Pig and the Life Changing Experience

We're out and about waiting for my daughter's gymnastics class to begin, and Mrs Nam is putting our daughter through her maths paces. Having had an extended half term break, us proud parents have decided not to let our kids off the hook, and my seven year old is grappling with challenges like "if I divided a cake into ten pieces and then gave seven of those pieces to my friends, how many pieces would I have left?"

School or no school, Mrs Nam is a firm believer that the kids need a little something academic every day. And sitting watching, I can see why. The mid term break has played havoc with my daughter's concentration. The schoolwork is not interesting her at all, she is instead distracted by a nearby toddler with a Peppa Pig book. It's electronic and wonderful. Every fifteen seconds or so it echoes the cheery "Peeeeeeeeeppa Pig" refrain, beloved of children everywhere. It's not the slightest bit annoying, but if it happens again, I am going to toast myself a three year old. Well, maybe not because I actually quite like children, but you know what I mean. Grr!

I'm not even usually here. Usually I am in various places in central London, working hard to earn some cash to pay for classes like these. And I'm wondering what I'd be doing if I wasn't sitting here listening to Ms Pig's cheery kiddie refrain.

I didn't really try as hard as I could have when I was at school, and having left with a bunch of high expectations but mediocre results, I do sometimes consider what might have been. For example, I love to write. I have spent my entire existence absorbing books and literature at a huge rate, as if someone were suddenly about to abolish them. This has filled me with words and I think a few are now being pushed back out again. The consequence of this has been a loose collection of short stories and articles, some children's poems, and no less than two half finished novels. Since unfinished novels don't pay the rent, I do actually have a real job, which means that I never have any time to finish my novels. It's Catch 22 (except it isn't, because that's a finished novel by Joseph Heller).

Like Yossarian, I too feel the constraints of cleverly worked and bureaucratic rules, surely designed to ensure that the commuter trap is well placed to snare hard working but naive victims like me. For example, I often don't have enough time to really complete my tasks during the day, and thus frequently resort to dealing with emails and desk-based trivialities from my laptop on several evenings a week. I don't get anything extra for this, but since many of my colleagues behave similarly (and moan about it), it has led to a situation where, if I didn't do it, and the work didn't get done, I would be exposed as the one with poor values and behaviours. Naturally, all my colleagues feel the same way, with the obvious consequence that our employer gets an awful lot for free.

This is one of many traps laid for the unsuspecting, and I imagine this type of thing has become more typical in a world of constrained finances. It's also the consequence of a mediocre job. The self employed at least stand or fall by their own efforts. And the high fliers get to enjoy the thrill of the completed endeavour. Us normal people...? Well, we commute.

But there is hope. My children do get to see their daddy. Regularly. Every day Mrs Nam and I play with our kids. We read with them. Do sums. Take them to zoos, galleries and museums, and exciting places at home and abroad. They do football, swimming, gymnastics, drama and dance. They're both doing well at learning the piano. And they do it with mummy and daddy there, encouraging them on.

Why am I telling you this? It's certainly not to gloat; there are many excellent parents I know who work and play hard and have amazing, delightful children. No; I'm telling you this as a cautionary tale. I also know far too many mums and dads who, sadly, will have "I missed my kids grow up" as a possible inscription on their tombstones.

My point is simple. These straitened times we live in have shifted the balance, and I urge parents everywhere to be wise to this trap. Your kids need you too, to prepare them for their lives ahead. And your reward is seeing it happen. That will be amazing.

Recently, I made an important personal decision. Mostly my work laptop now stays switched off at home (not always; it's not about being unreasonable or inflexible -- just mostly). This has had a major positive influence on my life. Now I usually get to see my kids. And you know what? I found time to start this blog, just a few months back. And I found time to take photos. And, just yesterday, the reason for this post: I dusted down my novel, and started work on it again. Wow! It may never be published, but it WILL be finished!

This time has made my life immeasurably better. I'm so glad I took such a positive, assertive step. Think about it. What could you do if you made yourself and your kids some time? Who knows. Now if Peppa Pig would just be quiet, I will continue to concentrate on changing my life for the better. Oink.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Grubby Monkeys and the Air Biscuit

As a parent of two little terrors aged five and seven, I have much sympathy with hardworking mums and dads everywhere who spend a great deal of effort managing their little ones from one place to another in as timely and orderly a fashion as realistically possible. One of the many fun experiences a mum or dad can especially enjoy is the delight of managing your little darling when forced by circumstance to join the commuting throng on public transport in the rush hour.

Now, as one of these commuters, I am aware of the harsh truth that commuting, in common with rush hour driving, is inevitably a survival of the fittest dog eat dog affair. There's something about the daily trudge that turns otherwise normal, decent and reasonable people into elbow wielding, instantly angered psychopaths set on securing the best seat on the tube and to hell with the consequences. People can be sardined into a space the size of a single bed, squashing against their travelling comrades in sometimes deeply inappropriate ways, yet still completely ignore each other except when there's a need to shove someone when alighting. It's a tough and undignified existence, but it is what it is and your seasoned commuter accepts it with a dour inevitability.

Then, into the fray comes Mum. Mum has a buggy. There's a wriggling two year old in it. She is accompanied by another grubby faced little urchin, perhaps about five. As she steps on board, Mum immediately breaks rule number one: she speaks to you. "Excuse me, excuse me, buggy coming through..." This type of unsolicited conversation is always likely to provoke a raised eyebrow and disapproving grumble from the hardcore commuter, who will also take a dim view of having a buggy roll over his foot (even though there is nothing Mum can do about it due to the overcrowding). Then, the little urchin, excited by the adventure but bundled about because he's too little to hang on to anything, delivers the killer blow. "Mum, have you parped (sic)?"

Another of the dubious pleasures of the crowded morning commute are the abdominal exhalations which occasionally waft around. Let's not pretend this doesn't happen; I'm sure we've all been trapped on a train desperate to escape some unpleasant selfish oaf's noxious emissions and yet been powerless to move (or breathe). But the commuter gives out a disapproving glare, or just pretends to blow his nose while breathing through a handkerchief.

"No!" blurts Mum. But five year old urchin is the author of his mother's undoing. Playground lore dictates that "you denied it -- you supplied it," and, thus condemned to guilt by association, Mum is hung out to dry.

I expect some unpleasant character in a gaudy shirt and tie combo was the real perpetrator, and no doubt he had a good laugh about this with his mates when he got to the office (as I am probably doing with this blog if you think about it -- we're all damned!). But it made me think about situations when little kids have unintentionally embarrassed their parents.

My own five year old entertained my wife's friends at the bus stop one morning. The littl'uns were all being taken to school by my wife, but they were not their usual prompt selves. They arrived at the stop, panting and flustered, just as the bus came round the corner. As Mrs Nam got her breath back, her friend said to my five year old in that slightly patronising talking-to-kids voice that grown-ups adopt, "you only just made it today didn't you?" My son said, "We're a bit late because mummy had to have a poo."

I recall attending a wedding many years ago, a big lavish affair in the north of England where it felt like the whole of a hotel had been booked out by the bride's family, and the guests numbered in their hundreds. A colleague of mine was attending with his wife and kids. They were casually chatting in a small group with others while their children were pulling up flowers, one by one, from the hotel's carefully tended flower beds (I won't deny it, I was standing nearby with a group of my twenty something friends, and we may have been slightly encouraging the little cheeky monkeys -- pity about the mud on their lovely clothes...). Their father suddenly realised what was going on and screamed a pained "No!" before running over, admonishing them, and attempting to replant a row of around twelve doomed tulips. My group of co-conspirators didn't help at all, but were certainly delighted to witness the spectacle of Daddy now muddying his own smart suit.

Ah, the little darlings. Listen, it's hard work ferrying kids around, so if you're on the tube and a parent arrives, cut them some slack, OK? And if you're a parent -- well, you know what it's like, right? The kids will love you and humiliate you in equal measure. Goes with the territory.

Are you a parent whose little darlings have made you wish the ground would open and swallow you? Let me know your story. Leave me a comment, here or on the Facebook or Twitter links. Thanks!

Monday, 11 June 2012

Adrian Chiles and the Shin Pad

I'm an anxious England fan today. In common with my countrymen everywhere, I don't have any real hope that England are going to accomplish anything meaningful in this year's UEFA Euro 2012 tournament, but also in common with patriotic fans from every country, we live in hope that our disarrayed team may yet pull something out of the bag.

In the UK, the two main terrestrial TV broadcasters are the holy and revered BBC, and also commercial upstart ITV. They are sharing the Euro games according to a formula I don't really understand. Today it's ITV's turn to show the crucial opening encounter between England and France, the game of the group and a tie which will inevitably set the tone for England's campaign.

Now, this isn't a footy blog and I won't be writing a daily rant about all things soccer. But I must draw your attention to the competing footy programmes' respective anchor men. On the Beeb, we have England hero, potato crisp advertiser and all round nice guy Gary Lineker. For those readers unfamiliar with Association Football (my American readers should be aware that, with the greatest respect for your fine nation and my many friends there, I am probably looking in your direction at this point), Mr Lineker is an England hero. A talented goal poacher, he played in probably the best England international team of the modern era under the late great Bobby Robson, where the guys were pipped in the semi final of the World Cup but came away from the tournament with a great deal of kudos and respect. The same Gary Lineker was on the pitch playing with a fractured arm in a previous World Cup in Mexico, when Argentina's Diego Maradona broke English hearts with a handballed goal. As you may recall, the referee didn't see this illegal move, and Maradona later described his effort as "un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios" ("a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God").

Video evidence suggests that neither Maradona's head nor God's hand were involved. To rub salt into the wounds, Maradona followed this illegitimate goal with perhaps the finest legitimate goal ever seen in international football. Lineker also popped a good goal in for England near the end of the game, but could not get another to level the score. He shook Maradona's hand afterwards. Many years later he interviewed Maradona for a BBC football magazine programme. He said to Diego cheerfully, "Personally I blame the referee and the linesman, if that counts". Then he told him that the second Maradona strike was the only time in his career when he felt like applauding an opponent's goal. Maradona laughed stupidly and shook Lineker's hand. Lineker was gracious and unbowed. Unbooked in his professional career, this is an English superstar and a man with lucid dignity who can hold his head high.

Meanwhile, ITV have Adrian Chiles. Good old Ade used to be a BBC reporter on Radio 5 Live, and has covered the world's most prestigious sporting events as a co-anchor to Gary Lineker, before apparently having some kind of falling out with the BBC and defecting to a relatively unsuccessful ITV morning programme with Christine Bleakley. (I have no insider knowledge of what went on here -- but one day Chiles seemed simply to have left the BBC. Who knows what goes on in these contractual discussions.) Unabashed, Chiles is now ITV's leading sport's presenter and apparently commands a salary worth millions over several years. Chiles is a man-of-the-people midlander, an iconic West Bromwich Albion supporter, and is clearly positioned as such when taking the lead in ITV's footy coverage.

Unfortunately, Chiles and his team of pundits (tonight featuring Patrick Vieira for the French point of view, and England also-ran Gareth Southgate) are sitting in an apparently un-soundproofed studio which seems to wobble slightly in the breeze. And that's just the breeze coming from the pundits' mouths. Watching the Ireland game the other night with Roy Keane, one prayed for the long-awaited Keane-Vieira punch-up to enliven proceedings (Keane and Vieira have had a fractious relationship over the years -- when they were both playing in an Arsenal v Manchester United game in 2006, trouble broke out in the Highbury tunnel and there have been a variety of feuds at other times, notably including Keane's public criticism of Vieira for choosing to play internationally for France instead of his birthplace, Senegal).

But Adrian kept it all in check in both the Ireland and England games, perhaps hypnotising his panel of experts with some top notch inane Brummie drivel (" inconvenient of the French to go and equalise...", "...good to see England players with their peckers up" etc). This rainy Monday evening, excited by the prospect of some proper competitive football, on free-to-air TV and involving England, I rushed home to discover Chiles in action. Fortunately England held a skilled and troublesome French side at bay resulting in a sporting and well-contested one-one draw. Just as well. Can you imagine having to listen to this stuff while your side are losing?

Now, it's not personal. One suspects Mr Chiles would be an entertaining companion if watching this on the big screen at your local hostelry. As it happens, what I read about Mr Chiles suggests that he's a committed charity fund raiser, has a high quality university degree, and plays several musical instruments to a very good standard. So let's not judge a book by its cover, OK?

But do you really want your Everyman mate on the telly? I have my doubts. Come on BBC -- bid for all the games next time, for all our sakes. In the meantime Mr Chiles, with the greatest respect, can you put a football sock in it please? And maybe the shin protector, too.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

London's Moody Jubilee Hangover

When looking around London this week, it's a bit like being inside someone else's hangover. In the suburbs, there are still a few Union Jack flags adorning people's houses, but now the Jubilee is over, they seem a bit bedraggled in the rain that has followed our recent mini heat wave.

In town, the banks of the Thames are still showing evidence that a heaving monster of a crowd has been there. There are occasional piles of stacked crowd barriers presumably awaiting collection. There seems to be more litter than usual. And somehow it's strangely quiet.

Post-Jubilee Rubbish

It's not really quiet, of course. London doesn't really do "quiet". But perhaps you'll know what I mean. There are noticeably fewer people around. The trains have spare seats. I suppose some of this is due to the half term holiday currently being enjoyed by the capital's children. But even my eccentric travelling companion in the yellow sou'wester is absent, perhaps off chasing humpbacks in the north Atlantic rather than wave his red white and blue any more.

If music were playing now, it'd be slow, and slightly overdriven. There'd be a church hall reverb, like that when they're going to switch the lights on at the end of a wedding party. It wouldn't be hard to find a broken bottle, and perhaps in the corner a girl with tear-streaked makeup would be mournfully smoking a cigarette and wondering why it came to this.

But life goes on, and so does London. I still see a delivery happening as I walk to my desk. The recently finished hotel just along the street (unashamedly completed in good time to exploit Olympic visitors) is now serving breakfasts to its guests. There's always a tomorrow, and that tomorrow has come now. The Shard is still Shardy; The Wobbly Bridge still doesn't wobble any more, Nelson continues to observe proceedings from the top of his column. There has been rain today and sunshine after it, and when the half term is over, the people will return. It's London, it's alive, it does events and gatherings and festivities perhaps better than anywhere in the world. And then it wakes up, moves on, and takes us all with it in a perpetual journey through its ever changing moods.

The Post-Jubilee Shard