Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Beware the Haters!

Last Sunday I attended a self-improvement workshop where the first slide the facilitator projected had 'Beware the Haters!' emblazoned across it.
For a moment I was puzzled. Then she explained that whenever an individual seeks to improve, grow or evolve themselves in some way, they will invoke the wrath of the 'haters', even surprisingly, among friends, lovers and families, and to be aware of this.

Apparently some people are so fearful of change or perhaps cannot bear the thought that someone they know might become happier, more fulfilled or more successful in life than they, and even worse, 'leave them behind', that they make it their business to undermine them in various ways from minor digs and put-downs to major show-downs and ultimatums. If the individual under such 'psychic attack' has a shaky or uncertain concept of their own self-worth, these detractors often succeed.

However if one had the courage to fight back, or rather, assert one's right to better oneself, and accept one is likely to lose a 'friend' or two in the process, we would be rewarded in this painful process by making room in our lives for the more positive friends we were about to attract through our new more positive way of being and accompanying vibes. Besides which, if certain individuals in our lives wished to hold us back, even through the fear that we might leave them behind or outgrow them, rather than wishing us well and offering their support, how is that 'friendly'? In what way are they a big loss to us if they are not going to behave in a friend-like manner?

She also made a valid point that if all these people emitting negative energy were to direct that same energy to focus on what they wanted in life, rather than spending all their time resenting others and what they have, dwelling on what they don't want or on what makes them unhappy, and generally letting their fears rule them, they too could take advantage of the same self-improvement benefits open to everyone and enjoy happier and more fulfilling lives.

This reminded me of a book I once read concerning cancer sufferers who had volunteered to try out a special (largely vegetarian) diet designed to boost their immune system without feeding their cancer. A number of volunteers did really well for a few weeks or months, to the point that their consultants were lengthening their prognosis by up to a year and one or two tumours were visibly arrested or shrinking on scans. Then all of a sudden the researchers started to notice that their star volunteers, mainly women, were going downhill again. They made tentative enquiries and found that the women had decided it was too much trouble to cook a special diet for themselves and eat separate food from their families. Even the woman whose family had volunteered to eat the same food as her had eventually capitulated when she realised from a few unguarded comments how much they were missing their normal diet and normal family mealtimes 'just like they used to be'.

Some had even had blatantly disparaging comments made to them by children or spouses, or scorn or doubt expressed about the diet, which had persuaded them to abandon it to win back loved ones' approval..
I found it sad that these sufferers did not receive the support from their loved ones that they should have been able to expect when they needed it most - ie to fight cancer in the way that they wished to and some of them were doing really well with. It struck me they were almost signing their own death warrants in the name of not wanting to be 'too much trouble' and upset the family and its routine. Or at least preparing themselves to leave these same families earlier than expected.

So in a sensitive situation even a mild comment or lack of support from someone who is not a witting 'hater' can cause an individual to abort what could have been a life-changing or prolonging course if they are not prepared to assert themselves in the face of challenge. This includes the natural nay-sayers who might not even realise that that's what they are doing and the effects of their behaviour.

Whilst it is harder to turn one's back on a negative member of the family than a relationship or friend, ultimately one can only win respect through stating one's own truth and doing one's best to be true to it. There are times in life where other peoples' opinions and approval are secondary, if not irrelevant in the bigger picture. And if their opinions are formed by their fears rather than the reality of a situation (ie you have no intention of abandoning them just because you seek to improve your confidence or learn a new skill etc), that is even less reason to pay them too much heed. I certainly think there is room to challenge friends and lovers on whether they are friends or lovers if they are not behaving in a friendly or loving manner. Then there's the risk of 'haters' on the internet for those who share tmi (too much information), so again, Beware the Haters!

It was interesting that so many concerns were voiced in the workshop Q & A about what others might think if a person followed their chosen path. And fair enough; 'You can't just abandon a disabled husband who needs you 24/7' as one woman in the room pointed out. 'Agreed. But you can't walk around labouring under the misapprehension that his life is more important than yours either. Your life is also of value. Equal value.' smiled the tutor. 'And even if it's only baby steps, you can find a way to live for your own sake as well. I suggest starting with ten minutes meditation each day to help you identify who you are and what you want and then, how you can find a way to combine your needs with your husband's, rather than sacrificing your needs for his. You've made a start already. You've managed to attend this workshop. The other thing to remember is that just as you are instructed to put on your own  life jacket first in a plane before helping anyone else on with theirs, you make yourself fitter to care for your husband if you look after yourself first.'

The physical needs of dependents aside, which is altogether a trickier subject since these individuals may be 100% well-meaning and loving otherwise, Quentin Crisp had an interesting maxim on the subject of living one's life to court the approval of others: 'If there were no praise and no blame, who would you be?'

I am still trying to answer that question. Amidst wondering if all the individuals in my world similarly put themselves through apoplexies worrying about what I think of them and constricting their lives to live as blamelessly as possible according to my perceived opinions of them! Answers on a postcard please. Should I worry about what you think of me, and if so, why?

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The Crying Game(show)

Opinion is divided as to whether it was Gazza the footballer or the late Princess Diana who turned a nation of stiff upper lips into today's nation of quivering-lipped cry babies with all the backbone of a jellyfish.

As one who has applied to appear on some of the higher end reality shows, of the life or career transforming genre, I found it noticeable how I typically had to fill out a ten page personality questionaire as a part of the interview process with endless elements trying to ascertain by various means how emotional I was and what made me cry and, in particular, how often.

Needless to say when I confessed I didn't cry very often, any other characteristic that might have made me interesting or entertaining viewing was hastily dismissed. I came to realise TV companies are deliberately targetting the emoters, despite up to 70% of viewers now opining that they can't stand the constant crying and histrionics on TV and are beginning to turn off from such formats.

Well I am heartened to find that I am not the only one who can't take any more cringe factor on the X Factor or fake-off on the Bake-Off . As for Ruby's current antics on the Great British Bake-Off, it is nothing short of disgusting that she is turning on the waterworks to get her own way, and worse, being allowed to get away with it, unimpressed as Mary Berry looks (well as a fellow female, she does know all the tricks of the trade, even if Paul Hollywood is taken in.) Someone should also tell Ruth and her fellow over-emotional cooks that it is unhygienic to snivel unabated into one's cooking. Cookery shows should make it a disqualifier if entrants don't leave the kitchen before blubbing, not forgetting to put germy hankies away and wash their hands again before returning. Ditto spoon tasters who return said spoon to saucepan after putting it in their mouth.  And while we're on the subject, where are their hair nets? No one wants to find unwelcome ingredients in what is supposed to be competition-winning fayre.

Notwithstanding, these TV tactics are increasingly spilling over into real life. Last week for example I had a 20 year old female student in front of me weeping copiously and demanding to be released from her accommodation contract owing to the extreme damp which was making her ill. She was asthmatic she said, so it was 'dangerous' for her to remain there. I replied that the only way she could be released from her contract was to find another student with no pre-existing contracts with the university who could take over her contract. She stuck out her bottom lip. 'But how can I? It's not fit for human habitation!' she insisted. I asked her if she had reported the damp to her Hall Manager and she said that she had. I asked when they had said they would deal with it for her. She seemed vague. A male colleague affected by her tears moved to hand over the appropriate form. I stopped him, promising. 'Well you advertise your room and I will talk to your Hall Manager about getting this problem resolved. We can't have rooms with problems, whoever lives in them.' She looked unhappy, burst into further tears and left. Suspicious that a room fewer than five years old and which she had been occupying for a mere four weeks could be so damp in a Hall of Residence not previously known for that problem, I rang her Hall Manager and asked what the Maintenance team were doing about her room. She had reported no problem with her room to him. My male colleague looked stunned, but then he hadn't worked there as long as I had and seen it all. She was just another example of someone who believes that by bursting into tears or causing a huge fuss they will get their own way, never seeming to imagine that what they claim might be checked for its validity.

So not only is Britain becoming a nation of emotional incontinents, but a nation of people who use emotion as a form of manipulation, a smokescreen for untruths and even to facilitate blackmail. A friend who had fallen out of love with her needy and manipulative boyfriend tried to end it. He threatened suicide, but she insisted to him firmly but kindly that the relationship had run its course and they were obviously radically different people who would be much happier with other partners and not to be so silly. She didn't sleep for days afterwards for worry as he'd gone so far as to engrave surface nicks in his wrists with a penknife and turn up on her doorstep drunk and swathed in bandages when she'd tried to end it before, but reasoned as long as she was being bombarded with begging texts and emotive emails, he was still alive and kicking. Two weeks later, having said he couldn't live without my friend, he had found another girl. My friend was somewhat deflated by this after all his extravagant declarations, but certainly didn't cry that he'd got over her so quickly. Relief was the overriding emotion.

I fully concur with the view that we Brits were probably far too repressed in the past. But I find little authenticity in today's opposite extreme of falsely-inflated emotion and histrionics and fear it carries just as many drawbacks as the stiff upper lip, if not more, if those same individuals genuinely cannot deal with life by honest means the moment it goes even slightly wrong for them, or feel it is legitimate to resort to controlling others to get what they want through their moods. Chaotic lives and f***ed up out-of-controllers abound and are even encouraged by a surfeit of societal acceptance and,  in some cases, benefits.

Where will it end? How on earth would this nation win through another world war if one were to break out? I shudder to think.

Give me an individual with spirit and backbone as well as communication and emotional honesty any day of the week. But then I do like to have my cake and eat it...

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

An Oxford Education

I moved to Oxford the week after Princess Diana was killed. I had lived in Coventry for some years but my fiancĂ© and I had split up, the jobs were getting more and more dead-end and my late grandmother’s house, in which I was temporarily living, was about to be sold. Various friends were also moving away. 

One such friend who had already made the move said one day; ‘Why don’t you move to Oxford Laura? There’s far more going on there. There’s not much culture in Coventry.’

I couldn’t disagree. I had to move anyway, so why not move to another city?

I have never looked back. Within a week I had landed an admin job in the heart of one of Oxford’s most ancient Colleges, found a pleasant house-share with a young couple who welcomed Moggins the Mog, and begun making friends. I had always written poetry but suddenly I now had somewhere I could recite it more than once or twice a year, thus more incentive to write. The Catweazle Club became a weekly fixture on a Wednesday night. 

I joined Oxford Writer’s Group, became a founder member of Back Room Poets and started making full use of the 24-hour coaches to London to attend London’s Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe a couple of times a month, making a new set of London friends. An exciting new world called ‘performance poetry’ began to open up and I entered Cheltenham Literary Festival Slams, among others, making the semi-finals one year. I've taken part in OxFringe Festival shows for six years consecutively and enjoyed many an evening watching friends perform in their shows, operettas, jazz combo's, choirs or at Oxford Playhouse play-in-hand evenings. Hear the Word and Hammer and Tongue also came to join the local spoken word scene. Borders Bookshop formed a major hang out venue for the local literati for nearly a decade, hosting various groups and events in the evenings (though sadly I missed the infamous punch-up the philosophy group descended into one night on a moot point of principle) and remains much missed, though Blackwells has tried to fill its shoes in the city centre and other muse meccas such as Jericho's Beatnik Bookshop have sprung up.

On the romantic front, seven years of volunteering on a Saturday in St Giles’ Oxfam Bookshop failed to yield a single straight Oscar Wilde, but I made friends there too (including a retired don who was a contemporary and neighbour of CS Lewis), and learned a lot about second hand and antiquarian books. Forays into lonely hearts columns and early internet dating followed with mixed results and still no straight Oscar Wilde.

The eternal quest for affordable housing got me involved in Oxfordshire Community Land Trusts for many years and my appreciation of nice architecture, Oxford Civic Society.
I passed my driving test, took a C&G in Interior Design, studied The History of the English House, among other architectural subjects, and in my subsequent job at the ‘other university’ took an NVQ Level 3 in Customer Service, among much employment-related training. And did I mention the three years of Wednesday night dress-making classes at Cherwell Valley College? Suffice to say if two-dimensional fashions ever come into vogue, I possess some!

Every year Victorian Literature Day at Oxford University Further Education Department became a must. For around £40, one could partake of an Oxford University education taster in the adept hands of four experts in their field enthusiastically holding forth on their literary hero or heroine. Jenny Uglow was particularly superb on Elizabeth Gaskell, her soft mousy voice coming alive, her petite bright-eyed features transforming to resemble a latter-day Elizabeth Gaskell. It was similarly a real treat to see the doyen of Victorian Literature John Sutherland in full flow. I particularly love his cheat’s guides zeroing in on the most intriguing puzzles in Victorian literature in collections of essays variously entitled; ‘Is Heathcliff a Murderer?’ Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?’ and ‘Who Betrayed Elizabeth Bennett?’ Another lecturer whose name I now forget enthralled us with how HG Wells got his own back on the class system, of which his parents were servants in the pecking order, by dreaming up the morlocks coming up from underground (ie below stairs) to eat the eloi (the elite), avenging a boyhood of perpetual hunger and invisibility. It was wonderful to hear such talks with no coursework involved and no exams to be passed, just an optional pre-day reading list.

There are also stars to be seen for free if you can get away from work around 5pm and catch the tail end of late afternoon lectures. Such did I see the late Seamus Heaney and the late Beryl Bainbridge, in what may well have been her final public appearance. Armando Iannucci was elected visiting Media Professor by one College and duly delivered a four part weekly extravaganza on the history and future of TV comedy, liberally sprinkled with film clips to illustrate his points. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the free party afterwards in Green College observatory. Colin Dexter, having endorsed our Oxford Short Story books also became a regular fixture at Oxford Writer’s Group parties, regaling us with literary anecdotes. However I didn't feel shortchanged paying to see the likes of Alan Bennett fill the Sheldonian or Cleo Laine and the late Johnny Dankworth in action.

The Oxford Student Union is open to anyone with a friend to sign them in and I watched a number of entertaining debates in the debating chamber. Sometimes unlikely celebrities would turn up to give a talk or join in a debate, the most unlikely surely being the late Michael Jackson, who was apparently winched into the back of the building for security reasons, although I wasn't there that night. The Union bar is also a nice place to hang out in and pretty as the film set it often is.

In our office, I was twice visited by Nathaniel Parker as he looked for his coat whilst filming the Inspector Lynley Mysteries nearby and John Thaw was a familiar sight in the dying days of Morse, filming various bits of our college and others, Kevin Whately to follow in his footsteps. A remake of Brideshead Revisited claimed half the front quad for six weeks and I learned quite a bit about scenery, make up and setting up shots purely by facilitating their uninterrupted shooting. I also learned about gargoyle commission in my job and how no ‘old member’ likes their gargoyle to be too ugly!

Students? Well some are earnest and serious and you can understand how they got here, but plenty are not and you can’t. On the whole though, they do tend to have better manners than most redbrick university students (and I’ve worked at both).

Oxford is one of those places where there is always something extraordinary going on around the next corner (such as a church service on the St Giles Fair carousel) however well you feel you know it.

The only fly in the ointment is the developers’ determination to wreak the architectural destruction that Hitler failed to, having decided the city was too precious to unleash bombs on, only now in the name of profit, rather than invasion. Even the city’s historic Covered Market is perpetually under threat as a prime supermarket ‘site’. The city’s status as a ‘World Heritage Site’ seemingly affords it no protection from monstrosities such as the new Somerville College development (not what tourists board Oxford tour buses to see). As for accusations of ‘Disneyfication’, if only.  At least that would be more picturesque and demonstrate some aesthetic appreciation and respect for the city. Notwithstanding, an early member of Oxford Civic Society savoured the victory of preventing a road from being built slap bang through the middle of Christchurch Meadow in the 1950s when the architectural love affair with brutalism was in full swing. Recent members have not been so lucky in preventing the ruin of Port Meadow further out with yet more ugly student blocks despoiling the Oxford skyline (despite student blocks now being at saturation point).

The other sadness about Oxford is that whilst the snob factor may have softened over the years, it has been at the expense of the invasion of corporatism. If you are advertising an event these days for example, you will seldom find a friendly neighbourhood cafe or shop willing to let you put a poster up, not even the local tourist information, who have dispensed with their ‘What’s On’ board and insidiously re-branded themselves ‘Visit Oxford’. I would venture to suggest there is little more sense of community in the city centre these days than there was when town and gown tensions were at their height. Now mass (year round) tourism has come to join town and gown, regarded as a blessing by some and a nuisance by others, largely because the majority surging along the narrow pavements at the peril of unwary denizens are day trippers who don't stay long enough to contribute to the local economy in any meaningful way. Not that the facilities in Oxford exactly welcome them. The public toilets alone must be among the worst in Britain and there is no proper coach park or meeting point for them either.  The Ashmolean Museum and the Oxford Museum have both been hollowed out and turned into soulless white boxes for wine tasting evenings with gift shops attached, despite the existence of MAO (Modern Art Oxford), created specifically for the purpose.

Every day continues to be an Oxford education... 

As for that straight Oscar Wilde, he never did materialise, but would I suspect, have been far too much of a narcissist to notice little me, so I am far from disappointed that fate finally stepped in with an eminently more suitable suitor.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

The REAL Dowager of Downton Abbey

The real dowager of Downton Abbey is not the one portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith  (above) but a humble kitchen maid from Hove who left school at 14, went into service, married a milkman and didn't receive any further education until her mid-50s when her children left home and she decided to attend the University of the Third Age to 'better herself', studying for and taking English O Levels and A levels. She began to write about her experiences in service in the 1920s and 30s, something few individuals of similar humble origins had ever thought to do, assuming no one would be interested in their humble and, to them, humdrum lives, even if they possessed the creative urge. Notwithstanding the working classes were very much brought up to respect their 'elders and betters' in those days and accept that they were not supposed to 'get ideas above their station' in life. Not this former kitchen maid, who had always been a spirited girl with a mind of her own.

Much to her surprise her books were a hit and she became a housewife superstar, almost akin to a British real life Dame Edna Everage! Older readers may remember the familiar features of Margaret Powell who was seldom off the TV in the 1970s, and made regular appearances on Housewive's Choice. 

Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins openly credited her book 'Below Stairs' as being the inspiration for their hit series 'Upstairs Downstairs' in the 1970s and now Julian Fellows (creator of Downtown Abbey) has credited both Margaret Powell as well as Upstairs Downstairs as being the inspiration for Downton Abbey, which is essentially 'Upstairs Downstairs' transplanted to a country house! And while Willy Russell does not credit Margaret Powell as the inspiration for his hit play and film 'Educating Rita', it is highly probable that she was.

After her initial success with 'Below Stairs' in 1968 there was no stopping Margaret Powell and the books poured out of her; 'Climbing the Stairs', 'The Treasure Upstairs' 'My Mother and I', 'Albert, My Consort', 'Margaret Powell's London Season', 'Margaret Powell's Cookery Book', 'Margaret Powell Down Under', 'Margaret Powell in America', 'Margaret Powell's 'Sweetmaking for Children' all followed and Margaret was in endless demand for interviews, openings and all manner of other excuses to don a party frock rather than a maid's pinny. 

My favourite of her books is 'Albert, My Consort',  the touching story of her long marriage to Albert the milkman, a disarmingly honest account of married life and all its ups and downs through wartime and beyond. I also enjoyed 'My Mother and I' where she interviews her indomitable mother about HER life in service, dating from late Victorian times! I have re-read both books recently and they paint a vivid picture of Hove in the early twentieth century. Hard to believe compared to the Hove of today.
Critics scorned Margaret's writing style as somewhat 'coarse' but they couldn't deter Margaret's millions of fans who lapped up her charming and witty candor and relished every detail of domestic life and servant's eye view she furnished. And she had a way with words all her own, so no one could accuse her of not having forged her own distinctive style. I first came across 'Below Stairs' in my grandmother's house when I was about ten and asked if I could borrow it. I quickly became hooked and before I knew it, had ordered every last Margaret Powell from the library and read it. Some of her books such as 'Climbing the Stairs' remain in print to this day, over forty years after she first wrote them. Most authors would be happy with that kind of shelf life.

Margaret's life even inspired a successful sit-com 'Beryl's Lot' which ran from 1973-77 featuring 'Beryl Humphries', a Battersea milkman's wife and mother of three, who decides as her 40th birthday approaches that she needs to broaden her horizons, which she accomplishes by enrolling on a philosophy course at night school. The series dealt with how Beryl's new ideas, attitudes and outlook affected her family, friends and neighbours.

Last week I listened as a Brighton taxi driver on Sussex radio related fond memories of picking Margaret up from her favourite pub and driving her home after her Sunday afternoon tipple each week, regular as clockwork, but always as nice as pie and 'merry', rather than drunk. Always 'a real lady' (well she'd observed enough of them during her life!) She liked to let her hair down, did Margaret, even in her 70s, but shy as she wasn't, she never let her fame go to her head. Celebrities of today could learn a lot.

Here's the characterful Margaret being interviewed by Russell Harty.  Note how the original Brighton accent has a hint of cockney about it, something noticeable in my mother's elderly Brighton relations.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Proposing a Toast to More Temperance

Recently I met an attractive and effervescent fortysomething woman at a party. Among the top in her field according to colleagues, when not working hard, she enjoyed an enviable lifestyle of designer clothes, expensive holidays and a bachelorette pad in an exclusive waterfront development, not to mention a private box each time she went to the theatre. As the evening wore on however, it transpired all was not as it seemed.

Clara* was hoovering every complimentary drink in sight except the Thames itself,  gradually becoming louder and more incoherent, when not dancing, flirting and laughing somewhat manically. Periods of moroseness and drunken confession ensued. Her drinking it seems was all down to school bullying and feelings of worthlessness.

At her age? I wondered, in some disbelief. Hadn't she heard of therapy? How did it help that she now bullied herself with booze and took over where her school bullies had left off, concurring with them in her own opinion of herself?

Another of her colleagues revealed that it was Clara's habit to keep drinking until she found a bloke to take home. If she didn't she would stay out drinking all night and give home a miss.

I was shocked that anyone would dread returning to an empty des res quite this much and that an obviously intelligent middle-aged woman would be so bent on self-destruction.

I last saw Clara entering yet another bar, eyeliner now smudged and skin like crepe, but I had had enough by this time and told her I needed to go home and catch up on my beauty sleep. A look of sheer desperation crossed her face. 'I wish I could go home, I'm so tired and my feet are killing me.' she said. 'Then why don't you?' I asked, touching her arm. 'You should go home if you're not having fun any more and it's becoming a night of diminishing returns.' 'I can't.' she replied with finality, taking a swig of cocktail as if to emphasise the point.

I felt disturbed by conflicting emotions of pity and prejudice as she was very engaging, despite her obvious problems. Yet who was I to judge someone I scarcely knew?  I suppose the warning signs were there from the start when we were introduced and she joked (or so I assumed); 'I hate grown-ups. They are so dull. I hope I never grow up;' then threw back her head and laughed. I bit my lip as I quite enjoy being a grown-up and taking adult responsibility for myself.

One other nugget of information which came to light about Clara was that her drinking had spiralled out of control at roughly the same time Tony Blair had introduced the 24-hour drinking culture, back in the day when she was an exceedingly slim and pretty girl by all accounts, and could have had her pick of the marriage and motherhood prospects she had earlier bemoaned to me as being non-existent..

Now we hear that alcohol licencing is to be extended to small businesses other than pubs, clubs, bars and restaurants.

History demonstrates however that it is only when alcohol is heavily taxed (which is should be in view of the many millions its over-consumption costs this country in crime, emergency and healthcare), and there are strict licencing laws, that there has not been a high level of alcoholism in Britain. We have never been able to display the class of our European counterparts who sip rather than glug, and who for the most part, consider drinks as meal accompaniments rather than an indulgence in their own right.

In Victorian times pubs were regulated not just out of concern for people's moral welfare, but because it was recognised that over-consumption led to serious, sometimes fatal, accidents at work. And most mills, mines and farms were dangerous enough in those days.

Sometimes it seems the laws of this land have gone backwards rather than forwards if it can so easily be forgotten that the old measures were brought in for good reasons. Good reasons that have not necessarily changed that much over one and a half centuries. And though most workplaces are call-centre safe nowadays, there is still plenty of scope for accidents among the inebriated. A 60% higher chance, to be precise. And one person is still killed every half an hour owing to drink driving in this country, a risk the Victorians didn't have to worry about, so some new risks have arisen to replace the old.

To cap it all, despite drink-driving laws GARAGES are permitted to sell alcohol! What sort of a public message is that to send out?

We have also lost the shame factor. In the olden days, people would generally try and disguise their drinking and be mortified at being seen drunken in a public place (still an offence). These days individuals (and not just of university age) brag about how they got 'slaughtered last night' and appear to find their behaviour uproariously amusing rather than pathetic, and in some cases, tragic, let alone shameful in any way. Our country is an international laughing stock (and TV Reality staple) when it ventures abroad, so out of control have our citizens become whilst on holiday. Stag and Hen nights have turned into Stag and Hen weekends and even whole weeks of continuous drinking. It is no longer unusual to find twentysomethings dying of liver disease in our hospitals or of alcohol poisoning after a particularly heavy binge. One in five pop tracks now features references to binge drinking, the likes of Katy Perry en-fashioning it to the masses as if she were on some fat retainer from the booze industry. Amy Winehouse (was there ever a more aptly named pop star?) took train wreck chic to the next level altogether, both in her art and her life.

Conversely it has just been proposed that 'drunk tanks' be introduced in every town and city where drunken people can be locked up for their own safety overnight and charged £400. But the reason Police stopped using their Police cells to house the town drunk overnight was because they were afraid the town drunk might choke on his own vomit or have a stroke or heart attack and the Police would be found liable for not recognising that he was in need of medical assistance (not within their remit to provide). Hence the inexorable rise of A & E admissions, some even deposited there by the Police. So how would 'drunk tanks' circumvent this problem? And if they couldn't, would A & E departments then be given the power to fine patients admitted for alcohol abuse? I have long advocated they be given the power to fine such admissions (£500 was my suggestion) to set up a compensation fund for all the A & E staff they attack and  resources they take away from genuine cases of accident and emergency, some of whom suffer dire consequences when the local A & E department is clogged up with alcoholics.

In Victorian times, it could be argued that people had more reason for heavy drinking than they do now. Short, often brutal lives, devoid of many of the freedoms and comforts we take for granted today, constant pains of various kinds before the advent of painkillers, and no central heating or double-glazing to keep out the cold and wet, other than the warming liquids they imbibed. Where is our excuse now? It is all very well to wring our hands over not wanting to impose a 'nanny state' but this country doesn't hesitate to tax and Big Brother its denizens in every other area of life. What's so abhorrent about setting a few limits to help individuals like Clara who have no limits of their own?

As for Clara? When not waxing lyrically about her independence and how she much loved 'getting slaughtered' whenever she could, it was noticeable how the tears of a clown and the melancholy were never far from the surface.