Archive for August, 2008

Damp Spirits

My Granny has a rather handy word to describe how I’m feeling right now: pianissimo. As someone who used to bash out a few chords on the piano and toot the clarinet a former child musical prodigy, I’m familiar with the word, which is the musical term for very very quiet.

But the way Granny says pianissimo doesn’t mean quiet, voume-wise. It means subdued, flat… to extend the musical analogy, it’s a little like using the piano’s damper pedal. Poor Granny has every reason to feel this way at the moment, having just lost my lovely Grandpa in July. This loss, and the other loss which brings a difficult anniversary in July, and other personal matters, have combined to make this summer somewhat on the sighing side Chez Bokker.

The last few days have pushed me a little further towards the edge (I mean like the edge of glumpiness, not the edge of anything dramatic!). The fast turnaroud film I made this week, in addition to feeling a little bit ill, in addition to G being properly ill (he’s hacking away in the kitchen as I type, but I still didn’t relieve him of washing-up duties, mwa-ha-haaa) , in addition to having an enjoyable bank holiday weekend in which I nevertheless didn’t achieve anything, in addition to the tried n tested lady’s excuse- hormones- have all left me feeling decidedly pianissimo and somewhat liable to weep suddenly.

I’ve know depression; some of my student days were spent plodding around campus with self-indulgent tears rolling down my cheeks in time to Otis Redding on repeat on my discman. Good times. And I’ve known deep grief and trauma.

This is neither of those things, thankfully. This what the yankee-doodles among you might call “a funk”. This is like looking at the world from a fish tank, darkly (and temporarily).  No biggie.

Just a pain in the bum.


Life behind a lens

This week pulled the rug from under my feet. I was prepared for a few days researching new stories for the show I work on, making calls and contacts, writing proposals and tracking down statistics.

On Monday afternoon my boss strode across the office, barking that I needed to turn around a story for transmission next Wednesday. A week and a bit sounds like a long lead time, but although I work in News, I don’t work on the news; our stories have to be more than  reporter-stands-in-front-of-courthouse-and-delivers-piece-to-camera. We have to incorporate actuality (following stuff as it happens), journalism (finding out original stuff) and first-hand testimony (hearing stuff from the people at the heart of the story). We have to write compelling scripts and use music- we’re making mini-documentaries, basically.

I confess that I find the adrenaline and jeopardy of working on a fast turnaround story energizing. But conversely, it also wrings me out and leaves me a shell of my former self.   This week’s filming was centred around an incredibly sad story, and involved all the things I find most gruelling about my job: undercover filming (hate), and setting up said undercover filming in the space of a day, being two of these things.

But the hardest part is working with families who have lost someone in tragic circumstances. I’m always humbled by their bravery in speaking out about whatever evil took their loved one (in this case, it was prejudice and hatred). I’m always acutely aware that it’s so hard for them to talk about their loss; I feel awful when I chime in from behind the camera with “I don’t think we’ve quite covered the moment when you actually found out about their death”, or something similarly crass (it has to be done, though- and I do phrase it in a more sensitive way than that!). I want to tell them that I know something of what they’re feeling, that one of my most cherished people died too young and too suddenly. Sometimes I do tell them- most of the time I don’t.

Essentially, though, for all the difficulties of working in current affairs, I’m glad after weeks like this one that I’m able to tell stories which matter. I’m under no illusion that television can change the world. But I also take issue with those who blame the world’s problems on TV. It’s the most consumed media and it has a far wider reach than an earnest broadsheet newspaper, in terms of taking stories to people. “Oh, we don’t have a television in our house”, uttered with smug self-satisfaction, just doesn’t wash with me (I suppose it’s the smuggery that doesn’t wash, rather than the lack of TV- of course, a box isn’t mandatory). It smacks of snobbery: just because information is packaged in a way that’s instant and easy to consume, doesn’t make it bad.

The television gravy train stopped running years ago. My generation of journalists and broadcasters don’t enjoy unlimited budgets and unquestioned expense accounts; we can’t get away with embroidering the truth and trampling all over ethics. I hope that as we rise to producer level, exec level, controller level, we’ll help rid television of its rancid reputation and perhaps put something back into the world which we, in the work that we do, can’t exist without taking from.

Minibreak Mania

Pei and I had a lot of fun on our minibreak to Chester, as you can see:

Don’t worry, we were just pretending to be Victorians in this picture. We really did have much merriment. The zoo was a highlight, and fun was had pretending to be animals (we don’t pretend all the time, by the way. Just most of it). Here’s pei demonstrating her best “smug camel”:

And me doing an uncanny impersonation of a condor spreading its wings (look closely and you’ll spot said condor in the background):

The zoo was not all laughs, however. I evidently found the innovative marmot enclosure terrifying:

While pei took it all in her stride:

(I must add that we found this marmot enclosure possibly one of the most hilarious and thrilling things we had ever experienced. You had to crawl through a tunnel to get into it).

Pei was not too happy about the whiff of the monkey houses, and we were both somewhat disgruntled at the lack of orangutans, especially having huffed and puffed up a winding wooden ramp to get to their enclosure.

I have to say that a real low point for me was the giant tortoise shells. I was desperate to play in these- ie stick my head out of one end and feet out of another for an amusing photo opportunity. I waited patiently by the shells, only to be usurped twice by presumptuous children. Presumptuous in that they presumed a grown woman would not want to climb inside a giant tortoiseshell. To add insult to injury, one of the shells had been monopolised by one woman. She was not inside the shell, no. She was leaning against it, breastfeeding. Now may I just say, I am a great fan of breastfeeding, and applaud breastfeeding in public. Go ahead, suckle your young by all means! But if you have no intention of climbing inside a giant tortoiseshell for the amusement of yourself and your companions, please do not selfishly take over one of the shells.  They are for me to play in, not to be leaned against for nursing purposes, particularly when there is a perfectly good bench mere metres away. You can sit on the bench and nurse; I cannot climb inside the bench to great comic effect.

I’ll finish this post with a picture of me waiting for the tortoiseshells to come free. I’m not sure that this was entirely posed, and suspect, with a mounting sense of shame, that this was my genuine facial expression at the time:

(Breastfeeding mother not pictured. Obviously)

Light and shade

This evening I am off to the wilds of Chester, with my best friend Pei. We’ve been bezzies ever since she peered into my cot when I was a newborn and she was 10 months old, but these days we live in different cities with our respective partners, so we don’t see each other every weekend as we used to, without fail. In 2006 we started a tradition which I hope will continue until death do us part: the annual bei & pei minibreak.  Hysteria has been mounting over this trip all week, to the point where I now actually feel sick with excitement. We text each other several times a day with typed screams, eg AAARRRRRR! or EEEEEK! or similar. I’ve prepared some “Credit Crunch Cocktails” for the train journey to Chester- a thermos of ice, a couple of glasses, a bottle of gin and one of tonic. Excited doesn’t even cover it. There will be silliness, oh, there will be silliness. And lots of smooshy friend-love.

I was on my way to work this morning, attempting to apply mascara as the bus lurched over speed bumps and around corners. I felt good: see above re minibreak hysteria; the sun was shining and I had put on a favourite sundress; my hair was behaving itself; I’d just spoken to my sister A who has sorted out a bit of a life crisis, and is off to be a bridesmaid for her little godson’s mum this weekend to boot; I was kind of on fire at work yesterday and predicted a stress-free Friday with maybe a pat on the back for my troubleshooting yesterday; and what’s more, I had so far managed the tricky bus/mascara combo, without smearing black marks onto my cheeks or poking myself in the eye. 

Without warning, something reminded me of my little sister H, who died four years ago. Could have been the sun glinting on the window, could have been the Abba song running through my head; could have been the fact we were passing by her school. I think of her hundreds of times a day, so this was not unusual. But sometimes it’s more than a sad pang or a happy memory. Sometimes it guts me. My mascara wand paused half-way to my eye as five words, clear as anything, ripped through my insides: “Oh, my sister, my heart”. I pictured her walking into the school gates, her long, thin legs and shy personality lending her a deer-like gait. I saw her smile, big and bright, and her dark hair. Her face in my mind’s eye- almost, but never quite, close enough to touch.

Five minutes later I swiped my way into work and made my way to my desk to e-mail an excited screech- 40pt Arial and bright green- to my best friend.  It may seem shallow, that I can crash from undending grief to giggly excitement, in a matter of moments. I sometimes fear that I seem flippant, laughing and dancing and planning and living as I do. It’s not how I imagined I’d be- I thought I’d be ruined.

But four years since our beloved girl died, that’s the reality. I’m normal (though that’s debatable), my life is normal. If you didn’t know me, you wouldn’t see that I’ve been broken and pieced back together again. You wouldn’t see the cracks where it’s been done clumsily, and the holes where I’m still trying to make the pieces fit; wouldn’t know that once shattered, a person is never quite the whole they once were.

But that’s how it should be, and that’s how it is for those left behind: a life of light and shade.

Attack of the Killer Tomatoes

Warning: here be horticulture. (I say this for the benefit of my friends who have no time for gardening talk. Go! Seek succour in the arms of some other, less vegetable-focused, website).

I’ve mentioned, oh, about three dozen times, how much I love composting. These are not words that, ten years ago, I would ever thought would come out of my mouth or fingers. But there it is. It seems amazing to me now that for all those years, I was throwing away apple cores and veg peelings. Now I throw them into our absurdly large (compared to our rather small yarden) compost bin, and about a year later, out comes that good good compost.

It seems to be great for the plants. I’m certainly tending what looks like a bumper crop this year, even though the weather has been, frankly, shitty. The equally rainy, and compost-free, summer of 2007 was a bit of a disappointment produce-wise. But as I type this, our modest yarden boasts thrusting golden yellow courgettes with monstrously big leaves; fagiole beans with skins turning from green to mottled red; an abundance of tomatoes tumbling from squat dwarf plants, waiting to ripen; strawberry plants throwing tendrils hither and thither; and a smorgasboard of herbs.

The garden boasts all this, and I in turn boast about the garden.

So the black gold has done its job impeccably. It has also thrown up an interesting phenomenon. Remember that 80s cartoon, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes? That’s the effect we’re seeing here. Last year we had to sling some of our tomato crop into the compost bin, as they had blight. Seems tomato seeds are hardy little buggers, as they obviously survived the whole “turning into mud” process. When I mulched the compost into our pots this summer (ours is a container yarden, on the whole), the tomato seeds had obviously survived and were mulched in with the compost, and now we have tomato plants everywhere. They creep through the courgette leaves, they snuggle up to the hostas, they steal space from the beans, and they’ve even colonised a half-dead shrub which has been abandoned in the back alley after my brief attempts to revive it failed, the tomato plants using the nearly bare branches as a climbing frame.

I rather like our tomato-weeds, and can’t bear to pull them out. Most of them are in the relative (yet low-walled) privacy of the back yarden. However, we also have a little tree with a square of earth at its base, in the pavement at the front of our house- courtest of the City Council. At our end of the street, it’s the custom to make this look pretty. None of us can beat the fabulous old lady across the road (she’s about 75 and she rides a bike!) with her stunning display of sweet peas. But earlier in the summer I did my bit for neighbourhood floraloristy (it’s a word, ok) and planted the base of our tree out with fuschias and tender plants, to create a pretty display. Now? It’s a tomato farm out there. Our neighbours must feel their suspicions have been confirmed: we’re clearly mental.

This One’s Got Legs*

There are rules governing personal blogs, where I work. The Sausage Factory (as my office shall be known) has decreed that its employees can’t blog about work in too much detail without telling their line manager. Now, my managers know I have a blog, thanks to a very embarassing meeting about multi-platform media in which somehow everyone ended up thinking I am into S&M websites and I had to explain that no, no, NO, I simply have a bog standard blog.  But my managers do not know my blog address. So I mustn’t blog about work in a way which reveals explicitly where I work, or anything that would compromise confidentiality.

But I spend so much of my time here (sometimes the amount of time I spend here makes me cry), so I can’t help but reflect on the sausage-making part of my life, in a way which does not at all compromise the editorial integrity of our content, of course.

Most people who work in TV are annoyingly normal and don’t fit the image people might have of the industry. This is especially true in news. We’re dour, rather than gushing. Our haircuts are always symmetrical, and never pink. There’s no crazy toilet-based drug taking, and we don’t tear up scripts in disgust and tell each other to f off. We don’t do celebrities. We don’t do wrap parties.

Some people do meet the expectations I had as a fresh-faced trainer researcher; there are still some   dyed-in-the-wool TV types, though they’re dying out thanks to endless redundancies in this industry. Take my current boss. He’s a former red-top hack, and he runs this ship like a tabloid newdesk. For those who have seen Life On Mars,imagine Gene Hunt in more contemporary clothes.  He says things like “we need to copper bottom this story”; “get in bed with that person and we’ve nailed it”; and “deliver. Just. Deliver”. He hammers at his keyboard and barks orders across the office, and, when something goes wrong, as it very frequently does, he can barely contain his excitement at the drama.  Yesterday he broke off from a conversation to say to a coworker sitting next to him: “Your handwriting is great for a left-handed freak”.

His enthusiasm is infectious and very motivating. In fact, my favourite moment of today was when I e-mailed him a rather bland update on where I’d got up to with a story, and he shot back the following reply: “I bloody love it!!”.


 *The title of this post is another bit of TV lingo which I can’t bring myself to say!

Weekend round-up

When G and I eventually procreate, our children will have an exotic crowd of grandparent-type people. Both sets of parents are divorced, and some of them have paired off again. The latest addition to our future children’s collection of “olds” is a lovely lady who G’s dad married on Saturday. She’s flamboyant, warm and- always a bonus in my book- South African. I cannot get enough of the accent: “it’s our widding day, let’s cilibrate!”. They met a mere seven months ago, and she has steamed through his life and his minimalist house in a whirlwind of colour, bringing laughter and South African paintings and new experiences (banana to accompany curry! It blew my mind).

The wedding was low-key and small, but very happy. We were in and out of the town hall in a flash, a cluster of six or so people. We ate breakfast at Cafe Rouge (my calls for buck’s fizz were sadly pooh-poohed in favour of orange juice); then went back to the happy couple’s house, where we popped corks and party poppers, and played the rizla game, in which you have to guess the name of the celebrity written on the bit of paper stuck to your head. It’s sort of like 20 Questions. The memory of my 28-year-old, white/Jewish, British boyfriend saying matter-of-factly “So, I’m a black American woman aged over 50, and I’m alive”, will stay with me for a while.

Then I came down from all that sugar and excitement and champagne…

Check the comedy twee slippers! I wish they were mine but sadly I can’t lay claim to those beauties- I borrowed them from my stepmother-in-law(?)

On Saturday night we lolled on the sofa and watched videos on Youtube, and on Sunday hopped from rock to rock along a gorge in the Peak District.

It struck me this weekend, the way that families don’t just grow in a downwards direction, with the birth of new members. They also grow sideways, with surprising and twisty new branches springing out. G now has a step mum and two new step-sisters. We met one of his new step-sibs at the wedding. She’s a lovely, feisty, skinny-jeaned little seventeen year old, and she slotted right in with G and his (actual) sister as if they’d always been related. The hugs shared between everyone at the end of the weekend were genuine and affectionate. Meanwhile, in another gloriously tangled web of family and friendship, my sister is now best friends with (wait for it) my boyfriend’s cousin’s best mate’s sister. I feel like the branches of my “family” tree are spreading more like a climbing plant, in all directions and across the country, each branch weighed down with blooms.

This is comforting, when sometimes it can seem as though families only shrink, as we lose beloved members. Nothing will ever replace those who we’ve lost, and nothing is family like your core peeps (my siblings, parents and close rellies). But I relish this branching out of my idea of “family” too.

Here’s to new shoots.