Month: January 2016


(or, the further trials and tribulations of being a person who stammers)

People who actually go out to work and contribute to that scary thing known as Society will be familiar with the workplace activity known as the ‘ice breaker’ – unlike those of us who sit about the house all day occasionally tapping out blog posts, or making pathetic attempts at knitting microscopic jumpers for their little Sylvanian family (for which they’ve no pattern and have to make the thing up as they go along, meaning lots of tiny misshapen bits of wool get chucked in the bin) or who sporadically do a bit of hoovering, washing up and dusting.

Thankfully, being a housewife for the last 28 years, I’ve escaped the nightmarish ice breaking activity, whereby strangers sit around a table and engage in activities designed to turn them into lifelong buddies (or into people who might refrain from going all celebrity Big Brother in the workplace) – but last Monday evening changed all that.

Only those of us who stammer (or the constitutionally shy) will understand the fear of God that was driven into this atheist’s heart when, at choir rehearsal a week ago (an activity usually registering about a 3 on my Anxiety Richter Magnitude scale) the lead committee member suddenly stood up, grabbed a microphone and announced that the following week the choir’s AGM would take place, and those in power had decided to make this a communal event, instead of just Committee members, via a Social, whereby choir members would be given a number on arrival and would have to sit at that numbered table, so they could get to know people they normally wouldn’t talk to  (my Anxiety Richter scale shot rapidly up to 10.)  He emphasised that we MUST sit at our allocated table and would we also sign up to provide cakes and the suchlike on our way out – thank you very much.

The jolly woman next to me turned and said ‘ooh that sounds nice doesn’t it’, and I smiled and nodded, inwardly screaming (like that bloke in the picture by Edvard Munch) ‘Help Me!,’ and thinking ‘Why did I start coming to this choir thing anyway’ and ‘Maybe I can engineer something catastrophic but non-life threatening, by next week, so I don’t have to turn up – something like a domestic gas explosion that obliterates the house but leaves the occupants intact?’   In case you’re thinking ‘good luck with that one matey’ – this EXACT scenario happened a couple of weeks ago and was splashed all over the front pages in my local Co-op.  Or I could have gone with a massive sink hole suddenly appearing down our street.

Pulling myself back to reality, I signed up to bring 6 cakes along on my way out (I felt duty bound) and unfortunately that signature sealed my choir related doom, as I’m the sort of person who feels that if she’s signed her life away, in terms of cake bringing, then she has to turn up with said cakes.  One of the two women I joined the choir with then rushed over to me and said ‘don’t worry, we’ll make them let you sit with one of us next week’ and then, like Elvis, left the building.

Make them???!!!

The run-up to the dreaded AGM practically ruined the usually quiet, calm and reassuringly non-exciting nature of an average week in the life of yours truly.  ‘ How can you be worrying about something that’s happening next week?  asked the bemused husband.  ‘Just don’t go!!  was another of his helpful suggestions.   Again, only those people cursed with anticipatory anxiety and a rubbishy sense of duty, will know the horror of imagining yourself, on a daily basis, seated in a big hall, trying to communicate with a table full of strangers – when you STAMMER.

As the week wore on I began to think: ‘I won’t be allowed to sit with the women I know; that bloke stressed the table number thing ,so I did what I always do in such terrifying circumstances – I started writing to people I don’t actually know (the keyboard doesn’t stammer) telling them how I felt about the AGM.  That’s right, I emailed people on the committee (well, a woman who, like me, is from Yorkshire, thinking she might have some fellow Northern feeling)  re: my worries about the ice breaker thing and did they think I should turn up when things were unlikely to go smoothly for the people unfortunate enough to get stuck with me on their table?

A reply whizzed back saying not to worry, that she would tell committee members to seat me next to at least one person I did know and was it ok but she’d copied the rest of the committee in on my email!   Yikes – but you’re used to embarrassing yourself on a daily basis re: the stammer, I told myself, what does an entire committee reading your stupid email amount to?   (That kind of thought works best if you don’t think about it too much.)

The night of the horrific AGM came around too quickly; like when you’ve finished work on a Friday and, before you know it, it’s Monday again.  I met one of the two women I kind of know at the entrance and she ushered me over to the registration bloke, rapidly explaining that I’d be sitting with her, so could we have the same numbered table.  The registration bloke said he ‘knew all about it’ (with some exasperation, as he had to shuffle his little numbered strips around and made a great point of doing this) and we also had to write our names on sticky labels, affixing them to our tops and then we both sat down at table number 7, which was strewn with various bits of paper.

We sat there discussing scary health issues (which seems to be the default setting for most general conversations) whilst the hall gradually filled, and then the rest of our table started showing up.  Meanwhile a young lad, in a wheelchair, arrived at the neighbouring table leading to guilt-ridden thoughts such as ‘blimey he’s in a wheelchair and all I do is stammer.’

Our table comprised a young slip of a girl (19, she told us), a woman in her early 60’s, a 70 year old retired midwife from Finland (heavy accent and a new choir member) and a red-faced bloke (75).  My friend immediately announced to the table that I had a stammer and would be unable to easily answer any questions.  ‘What’s that?’  the woman in her 60’s replied, cupping her hand around one ear (slightly deaf it turned out.)  So my friend shouted the whole embarrassing stammering thing again, whilst I took myself off to a happier place, and the 19 year old said OK, whilst checking out her phone, and the 75 year old bloke said: ‘what was that?’ to the woman who still hadn’t got it.  Praying that my well intentioned friend wouldn’t make a third announcement, the meeting suddenly got underway.

We sang warm up things for half an hour and then the register bloke (who turned out to be a big noise on the committee) made a speech about a vision of what the choir should be and where the monthly fees go to (two charities.)  Then we had refreshments which turned out to be a choice between cake, cake or more cake (all donated by Mr Kipling) with a few Pringles thrown in. Then the ice breaker got underway, which was a series of quizzes, which wasn’t too bad at all, particularly as two sections were all about novelty songs (think Lonnie Donegan) and the titles of ancient classical music pieces that only I and the 19 year old were totally unable to provide answers to – ‘hurray I’m not as old as I thought,’ was one positive side effect of the evening.   The 19 year old shone, however, on the stills from fairly recent West End musicals and the film musical, declaring dramatically that ‘High School Musical was my life!!’ when it appeared on the overhead screen.  She equally shone when it came to re-marking our quiz sheets, after the next table had marked them, when she took umbrage at the fact that they’d marked some of our answers as wrong, even if we’d got them mostly right, so she wrote ½ instead of an X, against these answers causing general hilarity at her competitive determination and ability to shout down the next table when they dared to accuse her of rigging the numbers.  (To be fair she knew most everyone in the room.)

Everyone was in highly competitive mode and the only contribution I made the entire evening was to come up with ‘Jake the Peg’ (novelty song) – ‘oh dear it’s that horrid paedophile,’ my friend muttered under her breath – and The Floral Dance, cos it was just on the tip of everyone’s tongue but nobody could get it.  I was under instructions from my helpful friend to write my answers down then show everyone, so I didn’t hold things up answering-time wise – she was a very committed quizzicist (?)

Then I went home, heaving a sigh of relief that the torturous event was over and wondering at the fact that people actually enjoy this kind of thing.







The Rise and Fall of the Chat Show

In the late 1950’s a ‘chat’ show appeared called Face to Face – it ran for just 35 episodes ending in 1962.  The format was incredibly simple.  John Freeman, an ex-politician, sat in an armchair (his face hidden) opposite a celebrity of the day (also seated in a 1950’s type comfy armchair) and interviewed said famous person whilst the camera focused exclusively on the Star’s face.  No eye distracting scenery, no colour (black and white TV), no other guests, no ‘look at me’ type jokes or banter from Freeman the host.  A pure, unadulterated talk show.  In some cases the process resembled an excruciating job interview, or rose to the levels of a counselling session (or descended to that level – depends on your view of that popular pastime known as ‘navel-gazing.’)

This was powerful stuff, demanding that you focused entirely on what was being said.  It could be, in turns, mesmerising, uncomfortable and difficult to watch.  One of the best examples of this more serious type of ‘chat’ show (the 50’s went with ‘personal interview programme’) was the episode featuring Tony Hancock.  In it Hancock, a brilliant comic, was clearly trying to ‘come over’ as a quasi-intellectual, as someone trying to better himself, acutely aware of his lower class roots and non-existent formal education, when talking to the very posh and well educated Freeman (who died just over a year ago I was astonished to discover at the age of 99)  outliving poor old Hancock by 46 years. Many people, at the time, thought that Hancock’s experience on Face to Face in 1960 led to the self-critical introspection and obsession with all things psychobabblic that eventually killed him (that and the drink.)

In the clip below Hancock is clearly on edge – your average 2016 GP would be throwing the happy pills straight at him, based on Hancock’s facial contortions and frequent nervous but luminous smile.  Hancock visibly relaxes when he sticks a cigarette in his constantly twitching mouth (for a second there turning into his TV alter ego) but you can see that the personal, probing questions asked by Freeman are not disappearing like water off a duck’s back, the insecure Hancock is clearly taking it all on board, although he curiously seems to welcome the intrusive questioning.  It’s fascinating how he mentions, almost in passing, that his dad died when he was just 11 years old and that his brother was killed in the war – enough sadness to send anyone to the brink.   It’s not difficult to picture Hancock going home after this public grilling to mull it all over, doing himself, and his alcoholism, no favours at all.

This interview seems startlingly real and, oddly, more open and honest than anything put out in today’s, supposedly, no subject is barred as long as it counts as entertainment – telly watching climate.

On into the 1970’s and the chat show peaked, becoming more an entertainment show in its own right; losing the sombre, deeply psychological and personal vibe of Face to Face but retaining the intelligence and the focus on the interviewee rather than the interviewer.  Michael Parkinson is the name that comes to most everyone’s mind from this period.  Lauded as the epitome of a chat show host, Parkinson banged on about being from up north, flirted with all the women and supposedly got the best interviews on the planet by means of uttering a few simple umms and ahhs, letting the guest witter on without interruption.  His was a kind of working class continuation of Freeman’s posher, minimalist interviewing style but with music thrown in and more guests filling more chairs.  The 70’s was also the era when the chat show host began to attain the same kind of fame as the starry guests, the host’s character traits and appearance becoming an important ingredient in its success.

Although ‘Parky’ ruled the chat show airwaves, there was another interviewer around at this time called Russell Harty who, to my mind, outdid Parky in every way.  Harty was also Northern but erred on the ‘camp’ side, whilst Parkinson went with the more rugged, skin like old leather, can’t be bothered to comb my hair look.  Russell favoured a sort of back combed bouffant and gently minced on to the stage, looking like a business man (or school teacher, which he actually was for 10 years) who’d inadvertently turned up at the wrong place.  Whereas Parkinson was determinedly working class, leaving school to work on his local paper, Harty (also working class) studied English Lit at Oxford gaining a first class degree (it showed) favouring a more lilting, less stridently Ee By Gum accent.  His interviewing style is on a par with Freeman’s and Parkinson’s whilst, at the same time, being on a whole other almost ethereal and intellectual level.  There was also a sort of mischievous, impolite, inappropriate intention to ask very personal questions and to beat the guest down until he’d given the answers.  He was not beyond patronising his honoured guests or ticking them off for being a bunch of thick idiots; but it was all very charming and school ma’am’ish.  Harty was never phased by his famous guests, or ever stood in awe of them, seeming to treat the whole chat show thing as a kind of frivolous joke.  Sometimes you couldn’t help feeling that he was just taking the too clever p*ss – a style that really worked.

Meanwhile over in 1970’s America there was Dick Cavett.  Mr Cavett completely outshone any other USA talk show host.  Here he is maintaining his conservative, Yale educated composure in the face of the cigarette wielding, nervy John Ono Lennon and similarly cigaretted and unfortunately dressed Yoko Ono Lennon.

From the 80’s onwards the conversational, intelligent chat shows, led by men (seems to have been a male dominated genre) who let the guests do the talking, died a slow death, as the less scrutinising Wogan got in on the act, and the cruder Jonathan Ross.  Then the format morphed to become more of a magazine-type programme, flitting about from topic to topic, the occasional interview stuck in the middle, and that spelled the end for the clever, witty, serious, philosophical, lengthy and entertaining chat show .

Now we’re stuck with Graham Norton, This Morning, a now middle-aged, verging on the dirty old man, Jonathan Ross and Loose Women.  I never watch any of them, but maybe that’s age rearing it’s unattractive head.  It becomes more difficult to maintain an interest in light entertainment telly, when you feel you’ve seen it all before and besides it was all done so much better years and years ago.

The televisual types clearly believe that an audience now possesses the attention span of a 2 year old (this may be true due to the rise and rise of all things Internet.)  In order to stave off channel hopping, or delay gogglebox boredom setting in, chat show interviewers now frequently interrupt the interviewee, or introduce childish games, or do a bit of stand-up and cram everyone onto a communal sofa so the viewing public think they’re getting value for money.  There’s lots of inane book/tv/film plugging type chatter going on – lots of talking without much of any significance being said.

But never fear.  Where the telly once led, in the field of famous faces having a good natter; Podcasts and the old fashioned radio have now taken its place.  If you want to really hear what someone has to say then, as one of the only examples where improved technology did no one any favours, strip away the high-tech add ons and leave just the sound of the human voice.

Back to Michael Parkinson.  I never thought I’d say it (not being much of a fan) but it might be time to drag 80 year old Parky away from the funeral pay out Ads and let him loose once again, on one more chat show, just so he can show everyone else how to do it.   (I’d rather have gone with good old, slightly weird Russell Harty here, but unfortunately he died in 1988 aged 53.)

The Eye Test

Every December I go for a free eye test.  It’s free because a family member has Glaucoma.  This test would cost your average, glaucoma-history-free Joe £55.  Every day the papers, which I go out of my way not to read, but sometimes can’t help glancing … Continue reading The Eye Test