Advent Song for December 9: Driving Home For Christmas

Coincidentally we are on our way to R’s ancestral home, though we’re on a train and it’s for a birthday, so it’s not an exact match for today’s song. We’re speeding our way through a whirlwind of Caledonia-based family and friends and getting a go at the Christmas markets while we’re at it, and although it’s minus one hundred and twenty degrees outside it’s all very twinkly and lovely. And tonight we’re staying at a hotel on a golf course! Although last night’s hotel gave us free mulled wine and mince pies, so it’ll have to outdo itself in more ways than one to measure up.

This is a ridiculous song but it’s one of my favourites, mainly because I like doing the voice (I’m better at it after a glass of mulled wine).

Today’s good news is a bit unusual because it’s not the kind of thing you get as an “and finally” on the news, but I read it in the small hours of this morning (all these Christmas parties are throwing me off-kilter, sleepwise) courtesy of my friend Jonathan, who shared it on Twitter, and – as I said to him – it’s SUCH an extraordinary relief to find that in the morass of uninformed and bad-faith opinions on the Labour party and antisemitism, there are people who think and feel the same way I do and are able to articulate it (which, despite trying, I haven’t really been). So do me a favour and read this article and don’t let’s speak again until you have. I’ll even let you skip the Chris Rea.

Football. Bloody hell!

UEFA European Championship trophy
The UEFA European Championship trophy. Nope, me neither.

I have never felt about international football the way I feel about club football. I have never been an England “fan”, or worn an England shirt, or been devastated when they lost a game (all right, maybe for five minutes after the Germany game in 1996, but I was young and impressionable and quite probably drunk).

It’s partly to do with the disagreeable connotations of the English flag, and partly about the wearying media hysteria which surrounds England’s presence at any international tournament. But mostly, it’s just that I’m not all that interested. It’s not them, it’s me: Crystal Palace have a prior claim to my heart and I can’t love two teams the way I love one.

(There’s also something in there about feeling part of my local community, which is an inclusive group,  in a way that I don’t feel “English”, which is an exclusive group, and something else about Crystal Palace footballers not being the kind who get paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, and an unrelated distaste for drunken topless men shouting in the street when England win.)

But I’m not anti the England team. I like to watch them play, and I am happy to see them win. Or I used to be. But this time around (there is, in case you hadn’t noticed, currently a football tournament taking place), I am disconcerted to discover that I actively want England to lose. Watching them play France last night I found myself silently egging France on, and occasionally shouting inadvertently (and, once, clapping like a hyperactive child) when they came close to scoring. I wasn’t supporting France the way I support Palace, but I was certainly supporting them the way I support, I don’t know, West Brom against Chelsea.

And there’s the reason: the Chelsea connection. Or more specifically, the John Terry connection. Here’s the thing: England won’t win this competition. They’re not good enough. They will probably go out in the quarter finals, to the usual lamentations from the press and vaguely exasperated eye-rolling from everyone else. And after a bit, we’ll all forget about who played well or badly in which game, or whether the right substitutions were made. But we will all remember that Roy Hodgson chose to take John Terry and not Rio Ferdinand to Ukraine, a month before Terry is due to stand trial for the racist abuse of Ferdinand’s younger brother Anton.

I don’t know how the trial will go. But I do know that John Terry is an awful man (Rio isn’t a saint, but compared to John Terry he is a shining beacon of humanity and intellect), and that stacked against all the excellent reasons not to take Terry to the competition is the single argument in his favour: that he is a good footballer. But we already know that England won’t win, so what have they gained by taking him and leaving Rio, who is also a good footballer, at home? Approximately nothing. When by doing the opposite – by using John Terry as a scapegoat and a symbol for all the loutish, entitled, ugly behaviour that footballers can exhibit – they could have sent out a message that says: we will punish footballers when they behave badly, and we don’t need to stick our thumbs up our bottoms and wait for bad behaviour to be legally determined in a court before we see it happening and call it out.

Football isn’t a matter of life and death, but its morals and values seep through into society. The England management had the chance to do a good thing, the repercussions of which would have played out in small but important ways across the country, and they didn’t take it, and that’s why I hope they lose.

(I am still waiting to pick my team for the office sweepstake, because the person inside whose desk drawer the all-important envelope is locked ran over his foot with a lawnmower at the weekend (I’ll get England now, I expect). I am of course supporting Ireland, but they didn’t have the best of starts, so I am going to be boring and tip Germany for the win.)

Elsie and the Magic Torch

I suffer from intermittent insomnia. I’ve never had a problem getting to sleep, but I sometimes wake up in the small hours and I can’t get back to sleep. Or at least, that used to be true until I discovered that if I put ear plugs in the moment I wake up, it somehow serves to switch me back off, and I can sleep peacefully again until the alarm wakes the beloved and he nudges me to tell me it’s time to resume consciousness.

So that’s good. But I can’t go to the loo with ear plugs in – it’s like going indoors with sunglasses on: I feel impaired. So when I got up and went to the loo last night I took my ear plugs out, and promptly dropped one of them on the floor. Hmm, I thought as I padded to the bathroom and back. I won’t get back to sleep without that, but I’ve no idea where it went. What I need is a torch.

And as I sleepily thought about where I might find a torch, I remembered that in July we went to the Hop Farm Festival. We had day tickets, but it was the men’s final at Wimbledon and we didn’t leave the house until around 6pm, so we only caught the end of Tinie Tempah, followed by Prince, who was the reason we were there in the first place, so it was all fine. Except that at around 10pm I decided to go to the loo (sorry, I know this is a more than usually lavatorial post. I can only apologise and assure you that it’s entirely pertinent to the story), and it was night time, and I realised I was going to have to pee in a portaloo in the dark. That doesn’t sound like fun, I thought, and then I thought a bit more, took out my phone, found the apps market and searched for “torch”.

If you search the apps market for “torch” you get 801 results. The one I chose is called “Brightest Flashlight Free”, and it is all of those things. It takes what I assume is the flash function of the camera inside my phone and turns it into a beam of white light, which lasts for as long as you keep the app open. I was so surprised that I flashed it into my eyes, momentarily blinding myself.

It was only last night, thinking about where I could find a torch, that I realised that at 10pm on a Sunday night in a field in Kent, by pressing a few times on a piece of glass, I had summoned up a torch where none had existed before.

Well, I mean, really that’s almost witchcraft, isn’t it?

By that time I had found the rogue ear plug without the aid of a torch, but I was so struck by the realisation that my smartphone had made it possible for me to magic up a physical tool which I didn’t have prior to that point that I stayed awake for another hour thinking about it. What a weird and fantastic, in every sense, world we have made for ourselves. And how lucky to be alive now, when everything changes so quickly that my grandmothers would only recognise about half of the things I spend my time doing.

(I never used the torch that night at the Hop Farm Festival, by the way. It turned out the portaloos had little lights of their own on the inside. But still.)

Plus one

I don’t often, by which I mean ever, write about work-related things here. I want to say it’s because I don’t have the time, but there are plenty of people with tougher jobs than mine who nonetheless manage to write about them regularly. Maybe it’s because although I think my work is interesting, I can see how other people might not.

But today I want to talk a little bit about Google Plus, the new social tool from Google which launched a couple of weeks ago, so this post is in the nature of an experiment. Feel free to skip it; there’s bound to be a post about kittens falling over soon.

Still here? Excellent. So, first impressions. It looks a whole lot like Facebook:

Google plus homepage

(You might need to click on the image to see it properly.)

As far as I can tell, the main functional difference between G+ and Facebook is a feature which, actually, Facebook already has, but which it doesn’t make much of. Facebook calls it “lists”; G+ calls it “circles”, but the idea is the same: you divide your contacts into groups so that you can target what you share at particular sets of people.

So, for example, I might post a picture of my new baby niece and share it with my “Friends” and “Family” circles, but not with “Work”, “Following” (I use that one for people I don’t know at all) or “Public” (if I mark a post as “Public” it means anyone who looks at my profile or has me in a circle can see it). Likewise, if I want to ask a technical question or share some thoughts on the latest radio industry news, I might just share it with my “Work” and “Following” circles.

What that means is that I can now get my tech news, my music news, my media news and my friends’ news all in the same place; I can decide what I want to share with which people, and I can dip in and out of it just like I do now with Twitter or Facebook.

So that’s one positive. Another is that you can easily make connections with people you don’t know, in a way that allows much more and easier interaction than Twitter does. Let’s say you and I are both big fans of Limmy. Limmy writes a post (that’s what I’m calling them for now; they may end up with a different name) on G+ and you and I both read it and comment on it. I see your comment, click on your name and see that we have things in common, or I just like the sound of you, so I click “Add to circles” and stick you in my “Following” circle. You get a notification that tells you I’ve done that, so you check out my profile and can decide whether to add me to one or your circles. We’ve never met and we live thousands of miles apart, but now we can share ideas, photos, video, music and more. That’s kind of exciting.

I don’t think G+ will replace Facebook, because they serve a different need. I have 271 friends on Facebook (all but one of whom I know from real life), and right now Facebook is giving most of them everything they need from a social network. Some of them will join G+, but Facebook can copy any feature that G+ has in a matter of days or weeks, which is always going to be a shorter time than it takes the majority of people to be persuaded to move elsewhere.

I don’t think G+ will replace Twitter, because again, they’re very different animals. The 140-character restriction on Twitter and the super-fast stream of information it can provide when you follow enough people mean it’s the best place for breaking news and terrible one-liners. G+ won’t change that.

As I said elsewhere on recently, I think Tumblr is probably going to suffer the most from the launch of G+, because it doesn’t have a USP that distinguishes it from the competition.  But we’ll see. G+ is only a couple of weeks old and isn’t fully rolled out to the public yet, so the story has barely begun. We knew Facebook had made it when instead of saying “I’ll send you a friend request on Facebook”, they started saying “I’ll friend you”, and we all knew what they meant. So for now, I’m just waiting for someone to tell me: “I’ll circle you”.

Easter eating

When I was little, Easter and Christmas meant one thing: chocolate. The ritual and ceremony around both festivals – the build-up, the songs, the decorations – were exciting, but only because they were pointers along the path that led to a WHOLE DAY where I could eat as much chocolate as I liked.

These days I’m ambivalent about chocolate, but the excitement has remained intact. Now what excites me about Easter and Christmas is the sense of a special occasion and the likelihood of long days spent with family and friends – catching up, laughing and, yes, eating. But whereas aged eleven I would have taken all that chocolate and eaten it silently and solitarily in my bedroom, now the food is bound up with the celebrations, which feels like a happier and healthier approach.

None of which means I don’t eat too much on these occasions, and this year was no exception. I had a Cadbury’s Flake for breakfast, and then a buttered bagel, after which we had a family lunch of roast chicken with ratatouille, green vegetables and roast potatoes with gravy, followed by apple crumble and ice cream.

Then we sat in the garden and ate cake and chocolate eggs and cheese, and while I can’t remember how much I had of the first two, I’m pretty sure I ate about half a round of camembert as well as substantial slices of stilton, brie and red leicester. My aunt, sitting next to me, didn’t have much cheese but said she’d overdone it on the chocolate eggs, and it occurred to me that we probably always attach more importance to the foods we have a troubled relationship with than to those we can take or leave. Maybe I had two chocolate eggs or maybe I had ten: I’m not obsessive about chocolate, so I didn’t notice and it doesn’t matter. My aunt didn’t have any cheese – or didn’t have much, I can’t remember – and so in my mind she didn’t gorge herself like I did. And she probably didn’t, but had she been gorging on chocolate I wouldn’t have noticed, because I don’t think chocolate is important.

All of which serves as a reminder that our perception of our eating habits is rarely the same as the reality, and that our notions about food often veer wildly from what is true. This was reinforced starkly to me recently when I heard an interview, I think on Women’s Hour, with someone who’d carried out a survey relating to teenage girls and body image. The vast majority of girls were unhappy with their bodies, and when asked whose body they’d like to have, most chose Cheryl Cole’s. What was interesting about that was that when they took the girls’ measurements, most of them were already about the same size and shape as Cheryl Cole. In other words, they were unhappy about their bodies, but when asked how they’d like to look, they described the bodies they already had.

It’s not hard to imagine that what these girls really wanted was to be successful, or beautiful, or rich, or popular, or any of the other things Cheryl Cole is. Hey, I’d like to be all of those things. But the idea of young women suffering crises of confidence and perceiving that crisis as a desire to possess something that in actual fact they already have is horribly sad. And it exposes as fantasy right from the start the idea that if women eat less and exercise more they’ll end up happy with their bodies. With rare exceptions, the unhappiness that we weave around our physical selves has very little to do with our actual physical selves.

All of which I will ponder as I make my way over the coming days through the remainder of the Easter chocolate. Anyone got any Rennies?

Wedding weight

I accidentally listened to Radio 5 for a bit this morning, having switched over for the football last night. They were reviewing today’s papers, with an eye for the human interest angle that the Today programme generally lacks (I don’t know why I persist with the Today programme: it’s so clenched, compared with anything else you can listen to at that time of day).

Anyway, as a result I can tell you that the tabloid press are “concerned” for Kate Middleton, who has apparently lost weight in the run-up to her wedding, and is having her engagement ring narrowed so that it won’t fall off her finger. The two facts were presented as though they were linked, making the assumption that Kate’s fingers have shrunk since she got engaged, without taking into account the possibility that the ring was always too large and she’s only just getting it adjusted. It’s a second-hand ring, after all, and I can confirm from personal experience that it’s very easy not to get around to having a ring adjusted to make it fit properly.

Anyway. Kate probably has lost weight, regardless of whether she meant to. I’ve lost weight, without intending to, because planning a wedding – or, anyway, planning a big wedding, which I have somehow accidentally ended up doing, though it’s not quite on the scale of Kate and Wills’ – makes you twice as busy as usual, so you have less time to eat, and what you do eat you burn up faster. That’s one side of it. The other side is that lots of women do deliberately lose weight for their weddings, because they’re going to be looked at all day by lots of people, and because for this one day they’re trying to match up to the fantasy adult version of themselves that they imagined when they were five years old, and that fantasy adult was almost always slim.

I’ve no objection to women losing weight for their weddings, any more than I’ve any objection to women losing weight for any other reason, if they can do it without being miserable (big if). But I do object to the expectation that it’s something all women will choose to do, and I especially object to the media criticising Kate Middleton for losing weight during her engagement when it’s almost entirely their fault that women in general, and those in the public eye especially, feel anxious about their size. If you want her to stop losing weight, I want to say to them, maybe you should try not talking about her weight.