A Dickens of a Christmas

Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street.
Charles Dickens, a former resident of Lant Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is Christmas without a little Dickens? British TV has a great tradition of showing Dickens adaptations over the festive period, and this week was no exception. I sat down to eat my lunch and turned on the telly to watch the news, but instead was more than pleased to find that one channel was showing Oliver Twist.

This was David Lean’s classic 1948 film, which I had never seen. Now, I have seen Roman Polanski’s 2005 film and a BBC adaptation that was shown a couple of years ago. I am also very, very familiar with the 1968 musical Oliver! as I spent a whole summer watching this film over and over again with my cousin. We drove my mum mad! I find it interesting that children and teenagers become obsessed with watching or reading the same things repeatedly. The standard convention seems to be this is how kids learn; that repetition helps to reinforce their learning. I think there is more to it than this. I think that as youngsters we often find the world we live in, a world run by adults, confusing and frightening. Watching the same film or TV series over and over again until we can recite it parrot fashion is comforting to us. Its familiarity makes us feel secure, and gives us a sense of calm.

It is nearly thirty years since my summer of Oliver! and the film is still as vivid to me as it was then. I still know all the words to the songs, and can quote some of the actors’ lines. If I close my eyes, I can still see the characters, costumes and sets in their full glory and brilliance. It’s many years since I saw the film, but I still love it. It is still a fantastic way to while away an hour or two. Oddly enough, I have never read the book, which is strange seeing I love Oliver! so much, and I also love Dickens. Great Expectations is one of my favourite books.

I pressed the information button on my Sky+ remote to find out more about the film, and it described it as Lean’s take on the classic Dickens tale. Well, this whetted my appetite and I was completely intrigued. To hell with the washing-up, vacuuming, and dishes I had more important things to do! I settled down to watch the film and was shocked to discover that it was practically the same as the 1968 musical. More accurately, the 1968 film is practically the same as the Lean version. And when I say practically the same, I mean practically the same. The only real difference is that this was in black and white and there was no singing or dancing. The depiction of the characters and the costumes was uncanny. Ron Moody was Alec Guinness. Oliver Reed was Robert Newton. This drew me into the film even more. It was like I was experiencing deja vu. I felt a rush of affection, and love for a film I had never seen before. Watching it was like wrapping myself in a blanket of treasured childhood memories. It was comforting and nostalgic, and filled me with a sense of happiness and warmth.

However, as uncanny as the actors were to each other, it was not this that amazed me the most. That was reserved for the sets. If you’ve never seen both films, I suggest you do. The similarity will blow you away. Fagan’s lair, the courthouse, the street scene at the end when they are chasing Bill Sykes; all are nigh on identical.  It was then I realised that the television channel or whoever writes the blurb for their programmes must have made a mistake. This couldn’t be Lean’s take on Oliver Twist, it must be Dickens’ Twist. Because surely when Lionel Bart wrote the stage musical (which Oliver! is based on) he drew inspiration from the classic tale, not Lean’s film.

I thought I could easily solve this mystery. After all this is the twenty-first century and all I have to do is pose the question in any internet search engine. However, I didn’t want to do this. I thought the question deserved more respect than that. I wanted to find out the answer the old fashioned way, the one we used before the internet. I wanted to read the book and find out myself. Besides, I had neglected and overlooked this story for too long, and I was mindful I needed to put this right. And surely the mark of a good adaptation (whether it is for the small or big screen) is that it urges you to pick up the novel. So this will be my present to myself this Christmas. I am going to self-indulgently immerse myself in a great book. What more could anybody ask for?

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The perfect gift?

Writer's Stop
Writer’s Stop (Photo credit: Stephh922)

The tree is up and decorated, the cards are written and posted, and the presents are bought and wrapped. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas. All of this and the fact that and the shops are full of celebrity biographies. I have a real problem with celebrity biographies. I’m a firm believer that a biography (auto or otherwise) should be written when one reaches the autumn of ones years. How on earth can you reflect, contemplate, ruminate and ponder on a life until you have lived it? What wisdom do these people have to impart to us? For the most part it seems to be falling out of nightclubs, getting your photo taken by the paparazzi, and making obscene amounts of money for having sod all talent Not that I’m bitter at all you understand.

Are we really supposed to believe that many of these people have written the thrilling account of their lives so far themselves? When do they get the time? Finding your voice, developing your narrative, deliberating endlessly over one sentence or even word, spending days, weeks, months proof reading and editing to try and get your work as perfect as you can takes an incredible amount of time; as many of you reading this know only too well. I guess if you want to be famous for being famous your ego will naturally assume that the public want to read every little minute, mundane detail about your life. And, for the most part, it seems they’re right. Otherwise, why would publishers be falling over themselves to get these literary delights into the bookshops for Christmas?

The worst culprits of this, I think, are the professional writers; the journalists and comics. These are people who make a more than decent living from writing, but it appears that some of them are tempted by the lure of fame and fortune to churn out an autobiography or two long before they get their bus passes.  You would think they would know better and want to produce something that will stand the test of time. Not something that’s going to be read once and then dumped in the next charity shop bag that’s posted through their readers door.

You would think that the professional writers would want to be an ‘and’; not a bargain bucket writer. An old friend and work colleague once explained to me what an ‘and’ was. You know when you watch a TV drama and a gifted actor plays a small role. The role isn’t big enough to warrant a name check in the ‘starring’ credits. His or her name is only listed in the ‘also’ section. Except, this actor is so talented at his craft that he isn’t mentioned in the ‘also’ section. His credit is under the title ‘and’. That is when you know you have made it.

So please, if you are thinking about buying a loved one a book for Christmas, and you decide on a biography, make sure it is one that it is written by someone who has indeed lived a life. That it imparts wisdom and is inspirational to the receiver. Let it teach the reader something different, beautiful and important about the world we live in. Make sure it will be taken down and read again and again over the coming years. After all, a book should be for life, not just for Christmas.

A complete lack of organisation

Westbourne Avenue Fountain, Hull. Image by S Braham
Westbourne Avenue Fountain, Hull. Image by S Braham

What with the school Christmas Fayre, English course presentation, decorating attempt, and rainy and snowy weather my intention to get fit and healthy had taken a bit of a back burner. I decided to get back on track by taking a long, brisk walk. I have also started to add images to my blog after recently discovering the ‘Master the Basics and Beyond’ guide on WordPress (I guess I maybe should have read this before I started blogging but, as they say, better late then never). I thought it might be a good idea to take my own photos to use. I’m always a bit wary about using others’ work, besides which I’ve always enjoyed taking photos and, who knows, it might develop another latent creative side of me that I didn’t know existed.

I’m blessed to live very close to some lovely Victorian, tree-lined avenues. There is something about trees that I find quite peaceful and restful. They mark the passing of time in such a unique way. Each year is noted by the passing of the four seasons. Eras are revealed by their size and stature. I can get well and truly lost in my own thoughts as I wander along, so it was to here I headed to get some fresh air into my lungs, and blow away the cobwebs.

It was a cold, crisp day, but the sun was shining, and I had wrapped up warmly and was setting quite a pace which helped to ward off the cold. I found the perfect subject for a photo – one of the old, ornate Victoria fountains. I pulled my camera out of my bag, switched it on and was just about to press the button when it switched itself off. Puzzled, I turned it back on and this time saw the warning message. It read ‘low battery’ before turning off again. But no matter, this is the twenty-first century and I have a mobile phone with a camera. Except that I didn’t. I had left it at home.

Cursing myself for my stupidity I headed home in a somewhat tetchy mood, and wondered what had happened to me. I used to be organised, very organised. In fact, it was a source of amusement to my friends. I was one of those people who could be relied upon to meet any deadline. I used to have everything filed away, ready to be produced whenever needed. I never pulled an all-nighter whilst at university. The old me would never have forgotten her mobile phone. The old me would not have left the house without checking the camera battery wasn’t charged. The old me would not have forgotten to charge the camera battery the last time I had used it when it warned me that it had nearly run out.

This is not the first time my newly found lack of organisational skills has caused me trouble. It caused a few wrong turnings and an extra hour travelling time on my family holiday in the summer. The old me would have had a route planned the night before we set off. The old me would have regularly checked our road atlas to ensure we were travelling on the right roads. The new me hastily jotted down a route on a piece of paper at the garage whilst my husband was filling up the car. The new me thought it would be sufficient just to use this slip of paper instead of checking our progress on the road map. The new me then couldn’t find an alternative route quick enough when we came across road works and missed the junction turn-off we needed. Needless to say, my husband bought a sat-nav as soon as we got home.

I don’t understand how I can have gone from one extreme to another. Surely there should have been a slow deterioration in my skills, not an all out loss. Why have I relaxed and mellowed so much? Is my age or because I now have kids? I don’t know, but I don’t like it. Sure, it’s good not to be so uptight but I would like to only have to do something once. I’m not even sure how to get back to something like my old self. Suggestions would be more than welcome! On the positive side, having to go out twice to take a photo did mean that I got two lots of exercise. However, it’s pretty clear I’m unlikely to be the next David Bailey anytime soon. I think I’ll stick to Zemanta.

The wrong sort of writing

Christmas card
Christmas card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For someone who claims to like Christmas on their ‘About’ page, there are certain things about the festive season that I could do without. One is Christmas shopping. The shops are too busy, crowded, hot, and the queues too long. Also, the constant playing of Slade, Wizard et al is enough to drive anyone demented. It’s a good job I’m not a sales assistant as I would be committed to the funny farm by mid December.

If you decide to give the chaos of the shops a miss, and use the internet instead this is not without its perils. It’s a gamble as to whether the gift you have carefully chosen will live up to its fantastical description and photo on the website. You can just about guarantee you will have popped out for five minutes when the item is delivered, meaning that you then have to drive to the Post Office depot and join the long, long, long queue (another Christmas tradition) to pick up your parcel. You then get home to find it is damaged and have to go through the rigmarole of sending the thing back.

Of course, this is after you have decided what to buy your loved one. Finding the perfect present is a major headache. You spend hours trawling the shops or internet for that specially chosen gift to be put in the back of a cupboard or donated to charity. I have learnt my lesson over the years and now buy everyone chocolates and wine on the basis that I can’t really go wrong with this. Besides, I once read you should buy gifts that you would like to receive yourself and I definitely would be happy with just these two items in my Christmas stocking.

The other thing I dislike, no let’s be honest here, loathe about Christmas is Christmas cards. Firstly, glitter cards. Who buys these and why? The glitter gets everywhere; over the house, over my hands, on the end of my nose. Card manufacturers please stop making these. No-one thanks you for it. Secondly, Christmas cards just get in the way. I stopped using fancy card holders as the cards only fell out of them or the damn thing fell off the wall spilling its contents all over the floor. Now I stand mine up, but space is limited so I have to cram them all together. They then fall over with the slightest draft bringing them all down like dominos. This means I spend a lot of time standing them back up again. Also, it is a complete pain to dust the shelves I’ve put them on, so I don’t bother. Come to think of it, that’s a really big positive for Christmas cards.

However, these are just minor complaints. My real hatred is reserved for writing Christmas cards. I find it mind-numbingly boring and, quite frankly, I have better things to do. My abhorrence reached its peak when I worked in a large office which had over fifty staff. Not only was it an extremely irksome task, but my hand always hurt by the time I had finished. One year I had had enough and decided to stop sending cards to my work colleagues. Obviously, I wasn’t brave enough to admit that this was because of my lack of Christmas spirit. Instead, I invented a story about how cards were only meant to be sent to loved ones and friends you hadn’t seen for a long time. They were not meant to be sent to people who you spent more time with than your own spouse. I nobly declared that I was going to give the money I normally spent on Christmas cards to charity.

I was quite pleased with myself for smoothly averting my time and efforts to more worthwhile endeavours. Then someone else in the office concluded that she too should follow my philanthropic path, and decided to do the same. Then so did another. And another. And another. Until a sizeable chunk of the office was doing the same. Crikey, I had inadvertently started a benevolent movement!

I have managed to carry on in this vein for many years now. However, this year it will be different. This year my girls have started school and want to send Christmas cards to their classmates. There are thirty children in their class and they both want to send separate cards, which means I have had to buy in bulk. They want to write the cards themselves but, as they are only four, will need a lot of help to do this. A lot of help from me. Karma anyone?

Why oh why did I start this?

Dried green paint
Dried green paint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After my last post about the woeful lack of progress I had made on decorating my bedroom, I thought I had better do something about it. I also felt that I should do something about it whilst the iron was still hot and before I found a million and one other reasons not to. Therefore, today I decided to paint the rest of one of the bedside cabinets.

I did learn some lessons from last time I opened the paint tin. I only got paint on the conservatory floor (I didn’t think to put any old newspaper down), in my hair (I didn’t think to tie it back), and break the handle off a paintbrush (no, I’m not sure how I managed to do this either).  I successfully cleaned the new paintbrush, remembering to use white spirit this time. The cabinet looked, well, nice. Nice is not normally I word I like to use, but it didn’t look amazing or crap so nice seems to fit nicely! The cabinet will need a second coat of paint, but I was now well under way to completing my decorating project. All I have to do is give the cabinet a second coat of paint; sand and paint the other bedside cabinet, dressing table, mirror and stool; reupholster the stool seat and headboard; and paint the walls and skirting boards. I’ll be finished by Christmas 2014 if I’m lucky.

Now I understand why my husband hates DIY. What seems like a simple task of redecorating one room becomes a wearisome, boring, dull, monotonous, never-ending, soul destroying, when am I going to finish?; why the hell did I start this? undertaking. No wonder my husband was keen to frog march me off to the DIY store when I mentioned I was going to do this. It wasn’t that time had dulled his memory of how spectacularly bad I am at decorating. More that he figured sorting out whatever mess I made was going to take considerable less time and effort than doing it himself. Cheeky bugger!

Ah, but there are some tasks that are way beyond my very limited capabilities. These things are ones that my hubbie is going to have to do all by himself. I haven’t told him yet. Revenge will be mine!

A lesson in focusing on the matter already in hand

Interior design
Interior design (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like going to the hairdressers. It’s a treat to have someone fix your hair and look presentable for once. I also get to indulge in reading magazines, which is something I don’t do very often. I’m not a big magazine reader or buyer, so it is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. Even the fact that they are way out of date doesn’t detract from my enjoyment. It’s also pot luck what magazines I’ll get to read as my hairdresser has a variety of different genres. Usually, it’s the celebrity gossip magazines she gives me so I get to spend time reading about the mundane going-ons of people who, for the most part, I’ve never heard of. Sometimes I’m given the Sunday Times magazine, which means I get to spend time reading about the latest big shot designer, artist or writer who, for the most part, I’ve never heard of. However, this time I got a completely different one. One I’d never been given before or even read. I can’t remember its exact title but it was one of those ‘Gosh look how perfect my home is’ magazines.

I’d seen these sorts of magazines in the newsagent but had never picked one up and flicked through it. I thought they would be a bit showy and pretentious, and make me feel sad and inadequate that my home was nowhere near as fantastic as the people’s they showcased. Also, how interesting could an interior design magazine actually be? How many superlatives could you use about someone’s bathroom? Quite a lot is the answer. Much to my surprise, I found I enjoyed reading about people’s bathroom or bedroom or kitchen projects. This was a shock because normally looking at pictures of perfect rooms and reading interviews with gloating owners’ bragging about the obscene amounts of money they have spent would be enough to make me feel irate and gloomy at the same time.

I realised that the reason I was not screwing the thing up and throwing it at the wall is because none of it seemed real. I couldn’t comprehend the amounts of money these people had spent on a toilet roll holder or new cushion. Also, I didn’t know anyone with such a perfect house. It all seemed like fiction to me. I consoled myself with the fact that the must spend a lot of time cleaning and tidying their spotless homes. And, who would want to live in a house where you were in fear of putting your cup on the polished, walnut coffee table? Not me! Either that or their homes did not normally look like this, and they had spent hours running around like headless chickens getting the thing just right for the magazine photographers visit. I think this is more likely.

The other thing about these magazines is they give you tips and ideas of how to improve your own home. Now, I liked these. They sucked me in with their promises of oh how so easy it was and how foolish you’d be not to try out these on trend projects. The issue I was reading was from June 2012 so had a Jubilee theme to it. This meant the first project I convinced myself I was going to carry out was a vintage Jubilee tea party.

All I had to do was buy some vintage plates and cups from charity shops and vintage fayres, dress the table with pieces of old lace and vintage fabrics, and put on a 1950s inspired tea party menu. “Genius,” I thought, “what a great idea!” But of course it wasn’t. It is December and people are not really interested in summer tea parties, vintage Jubilee themed or other. Besides which, the Jubilee was six months ago.

After dismissing this project as woefully too late, I turned my attention to the next one that grabbed my attention. This was making your own dip-dyed cushion covers. They looked fab and it seemed so easy. All I had to do was buy some clothes dye, mix it up in a bucket, slowly place the first bit of my cushion cover in, after ten minutes add the next bit, and so on until the whole thing was completed. Simple! I imagined myself with a plethora of cushions in an array of colours. I was the envy of my friends who all wanted me to make one for them. Except, the thought of me not getting into a complete pickle and dying everything else in a five metre radius is laughable.

Never mind, there was one my project left that had caught my eye and this was something that not only could I probably do, but also would be relevant to my own project of decorating my bedroom. For this, I had to find an old bamboo headrest from a car boot sale or the like, sand it down and then spray paint it in any colour that I wanted. Now this, I was sure I could do. It was not beyond the realm of possibility. I was going to recover my old headrest with some new fabric but I could do this instead. It was then I realised that actually what I needed to do was get on with the DIY project I had started a couple of weeks ago. So far I have painted one drawer. At this rate the Queen will be celebrating another Jubilee before I have finished.

A bolt out the blue

Different types of pens
Different types of pens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ve been to a Victorian Fayre, the girls have visited Father Christmas, they’ve also put on their school Christmas production, the shops are insanely busy, and we’ve even had a couple of flurries of snow. Yep, it’s beginning to look a bit like Christmas. The school is also getting ready to put on its own Festive Fayre, which is how I found myself sitting in a cupboard placing tickets on all the tombola prizes. Over four hundred of them.

This was one of those tasks that I willingly volunteered for in a sheer moment of madness. I had helped to collect all the tombola donations for the school and stacked them neatly in the cupboard I now found myself sitting in. “We just need tickets putting on them all,” sighed the harassed co-ordinator blowing out her cheeks in a tired, weary manner. This was when I caved in and offered my services straight away. “After all,” I thought to myself, “I don’t work anymore.”

As I sat amongst the piles of cuddly toys, heaps of biscuits and chocolates, and boxes and boxes of toiletries I realised that I had to stop feeling guilt at not being a working mum. There maybe some people who look down their noses at me when I tell them that I don’t work (including a lady I met last week), but it really is none of their or anybody else’s business what I do. I know a few other non-working parents, but none of them seem to feel the need to agree to all and sundry projects in order to feel worthwhile. I realised that what I needed was a monumental mind-shift to stop me feeling so worthless. At the very least, I needed a mind-shift to stop me ending up sitting in a cold cupboard, developing an aching back from bending over and sticking tickets on people’s old, unwanted stuff.

It was then it struck me, like a bolt out of the blue, that I do indeed have a job. I may not get paid for it, but it takes up a lot of my time. An incredible amount of my time; because if I’m not doing it, I’m thinking about it.  And something that takes up so much of my time and energy, and demands such a constant commitment has to be work; right? And this thing is like a drug. A legal form of crack. Because the more I do it, the more I want to do it. And the more I do it, the more the ideas come flowing into my head. More and more and more of them. So many, in fact, that I’ve taken to having notebooks around the house and in my bag so I can jot these thoughts and ideas down before they disappear into the ether. So this has to be work. It can’t be anything else. And this realisation is empowering because I know now that not only will I will stop volunteering for so many things, but also next time someone asks me what I do I will hold my head high and say,’ Oh me. I’m a writer.’

What on earth are they teaching them?

Peter and Jane book 1a Play with us
Peter and Jane book 1a Play with us (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was a momentous occasion in our household this week, as one of my daughters brought home her first reading book. She was very excited, proud and giddy about the whole thing. I was also very excited, proud and a little bit giddy listening to her read it.

In order to get to this significant point, she had a book of words which was full of some of the basics needed to help children start to learn to read. You know the sort of thing: at, it, if, cat, dog, etc. Once the children have built up a reasonable vocabulary they progress onto using these words in sentences, and then books. My other daughter is still at the first stage, and I was sitting with her last week going through some of the words she had been given.

I hadn’t read these through before hand as I didn’t think it was necessary. I wasn’t really expecting to find anything untoward amongst the gets and gots, when suddenly my daughter read out ‘p-u-b; pub.’ ‘Very good’, I replied. I didn’t really take in what she had said to start with but, as she carried on reading, it suddenly dawned on me what she had said. My first reaction was that there must be another definition of pub. One that had passed me by or I had forgotten about. When we had finished her list of words, I got out my dictionary and looked up ‘pub’. There was only one definition.

My understanding of giving children these word books is to give them simple words that occur regularly in English. The stories in their first reading books are written around these words. The fact that my daughter was being taught the word ‘pub’ makes me anxious. Why would four year olds need to know this word? What on earth are the plots in their reading books? I hope it isn’t something about a little person meeting an array of unsavoury characters whilst waiting outside the pub for his inebriated parents. The Peter and Jane books I learnt to read with certainly didn’t have this sort of storyline. Whatever next? I’m now fully expecting to see the letters ‘b-e-e-r’ anytime soon.