Sunday, November 30, 2014


On this day, minus two, many years ago, Josef Stalin looked at me and I looked at him.

It was in Teheran, in the British embassy compound.  My father said I wasn't to go to school. He didn't say why, only that it was a very important secret. Soldiers had previously set up tents on the lawns and marched through the compound in heavy boots, or stood at corners, at ease but watchful, with their rifles slanted beside them. They drove growling armoured vehicles. Everyone going in and out of the compound had to have a special pass, scrutinised by the Ghurkhas on the gate. Even the old man at the back gate stood smartly on guard instead of sleeping in the shade as he usually did.

On this day, minus two, my father and I were the only people, apart from the old man, who watched the back gate of the embassy open. A black car drove into our compound from the Russian embassy opposite. The old man saluted - surely his finest moment.

"Watch" said my father. "This is history happening. One day you'll be glad you saw this.  The man in the back of that car is the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.  His name is Josef Stalin."

I watched the car move slowly by, the back windows covered with blinds.  As it passed us Josef Stalin zapped up the blind and he stared out at us as we stared back.

On this day, 30th November, 1943, my father stood beside me in the small crowd of people in the sunshine outside the chancery. The soldiers were there too, at attention, eyes staring straight ahead, rifles bristling, brasses glinting. There was an atmosphere that fizzed and I felt it, head to toe.

"Watch" said my father. "The man sitting there with the fat cigar is Winston Churchill, who is the man making the decisions about this war for Britain. He is having his photograph taken because today is his sixty-ninth birthday." The photo­graphers snapped and flashed. Then two other men came out and joined Mr Churchill, and the photographers snapped and flashed again.

"Josef Stalin is the man in the uniform" said my father. "Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in the suit, is the president of the United States. Watch carefully, because this is history too. These three men are the most important people in the world right now, and what they talk about and decide at the conference here will affect the course of history for a long time to come."

After the conference the soldiers went away, taking their tents and guns and growly vehicles away with them.  It was winter, and soon deep drifts of snow covered everything.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014


Definition 1: A screamer is a large raucous bird with a goose-like body, chicken-like head, a short, hooked bill and a harsh, honking call.

Definition 2: A screamer is someone who talks in a very loud voice.

Definition 3: A screamer is an exclamation mark, especially in newspapers, posters and the like. They are used to emphasise, draw attention, reinforce something said; to indicate excitement, surprise, astonishment, or strong emotion. These marks are called exclamation marks because they exclaim!!!!!!  In a very loud voice.  Raucously.

Definition 4: A screamer is one of my pet hates – and I use them all the time. Can’t help it, they spill out, littering the landscape and having to be swept away. They can add punch but need to be used with discretion if they are not to overwhelm the text. It is, however, the lazy way to write. Instead of finding strong words to beef up what I’m writing, it’s too easy to end a sentence with ! In the revision process they are firmly deleted.

Splattering (and they do splatter, just look at them) exclamation marks like confetti all over text is frowned upon by anyone of discernment. Dear old Fowler (Modern English Usage, although no longer so modern) wrote that “excessive use of exclamation marks is, like that of italics, one of the things that betray the uneducated or unpractised writer.” To my mind, exclaiming after every sentence is like talking to someone and constantly poking him in the ribs and honking. Writing a sentence with a cluster of exclamation marks at the end is more like whacking someone on the back hard enough to dislodge a chicken bone.  

Yes, times change and rules are made to be broken, but the pesky things must be used sparingly if they are to have any effect. Exclamation marks are not full stops.  However, sometimes they are used as full stops – after every sentence!  We bang down two, three or more of them, even when one by itself is inappropriate!!!!  Along with typing in CAPITAL LETTERS, which comes across as shouting and is considered rude, bossy or in-your-face, and using italics or underlining, exclamation marks can lend emphasis but, if over-used, lose that emphasis and become annoying.

There are, obviously, good reasons for them – in their place. They can be used in direct speech to indicate strong feelings: “My goodness!”  Or excitement, urgency: "No!" he bellowed. "It’s going to blow up!  Generally speaking, exclamation marks have no place in narrative prose, as opposed to conversational or informal prose. And even when they are used, it should only be one at a time.  After all, no one would put two or three commas or question marks instead of one – would they?  Just too silly.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014


I often wonder.  I’m me of course. Except when I’m the person whose first name isn’t Joan but which people who don’t know me use. Or when I use my maiden name. And then there are the aliases.

Inventing an on-line alias would be a great way to stay anonymous. To write a blog without having to answer to anyone. To become a member of this or that site without clenching my teeth and grrring when people nag me to reply, or follow, or like, or connect. To say what I think without people assuming I meant them specifically and having to grovel and explain myself. To express some of those opinions that are blurted on an impulse but, with hindsight, reflect badly on me. To wander around those sites that won’t let you past the first page without signing in, and then having to endure a stream of urgent emails trying to sell me stuff.

I became Topsy once so I could play a little. She was useful for one of those excessively pushy genealogy sites briefly, but she had to extricate herself before the site constructed any more of her entirely fictitious family tree and threw hints and suggestions at her ad nauseum. She was very hard to kill off but I was more persistent than they were, which is saying something. Then Flopsy was created to join another site where I had once been a member and had left in a huff. Flopsy was put there to keep an eye on things but she felt really guilty about it and quietly resigned. Spying was clearly not her style. As for Mopsy, I can’t find her any more, she came and went rather quickly and didn’t leave a trace. She couldn’t remember her password and the messages telling her that she had tried too many times to sign in became sinister, so she quit.

My confusions with the aliases arose from the fact that I started with Hotmail, which unknown to me morphed into Outlook and changed its look and layout. When I tried to gather all the “people” into one basket I got in a terrific muddle and deleted everyone I could actually find and catch. Now only Flopsy still works, although for a while there she looked very like me and I realised that people would find her out if they wanted to. Now Flopsy has an anonymous black‘n’white pic.

I suspect the way to go would be to tell no one – no one – because the temptation to smirk or look alarmed or spill coffee when the blog (or whatever) is mentioned or criticised would be one’s undoing. And one can’t be undone, can one – what would the neighbours think?


Wednesday, November 12, 2014


Frank (not his real name) and I (not my real name) are connected. I have never met Frank. I don’t know where he lives, what he looks like, what he does and how he does it. Frank doesn’t know me either, obviously. But we are connected because we both subscribe to one of those social/professional on-line networks that are designed to group people so that we can together expand our profiles, add to our connections, and help each other become rich and famous. We’d all like that, wouldn’t we?

Frank is a newbie on the network and has apparently been seduced into recommending me for my skills. He has leapt wholeheartedly into the job and has endorsed me in more categories than is credible. He has done his best to raise my modest profile by a factor of five at least, and it will never be possible to live up to it.  And how did he miss my dragon-slaying, my cure for Ebola and my devilish knack for snail-training?

I am aware of the strategies of the network in question and know that it sends urgent and peremptory emails to people demanding that they recommend their connections for this and that without any prompting from the endorsee himself/herself. It has already suggested that I endorse the unknown Frank for skills he may never have heard of and couldn’t claim, and that I certainly can’t attest to. And it’s doubtful if any of my “connections” initiated any of the endorsements I’ve been urged to make for them but have, perhaps rudely, ignored. Which probably accounts for the shrinking-violet status of my own public profile.

Anyone who succumbs to the pressure and starts the process should be prepared to sit at the computer till the end of time. Faces appear on the screen as on a conveyor belt and you are invited to endorse them and their myriad accomplishments one at a time until you realise it isn’t going to stop, ever, until the whole world has passed by your glazing eyes. It’s all a wondrous mirage, designed to kid us into thinking how successful and connected we people are who are clever enough and successful enough to join the elite.

Except of course that it is nothing of the sort. Endorsements so easily obtained are worthless, I say loftily. But – sneaky thought: might they work?  As in “fake it till you make it”?

Thursday, November 6, 2014


… My name is Joan Curry and I have a problem …  Yes indeed, Tracey, I hope you can help me, and this is not the first time I’ve called … No I can’t remember who I spoke to the last time … I think it was in October, round about the … Very well, I’ll tell you what the problem is.  You see, I bought a … um, date of birth is 21st of February, nineteen mumble  … as I was saying I bought … address? 92 Something Street – and … oh for heaven’s sake, the phone number is 123-456-7808. Where was I? Three months ago I bought this Wunda-Washa-Moppa from you and charged it to my account … no, no, the product is fine, so far anyway … Yes, I do have an account with you … yes, I do have my customer number handy, it’s 9876XY34.

The problem, Tracey, is that I paid the full amount of $170.00 for the Wunda-Washa-Moppa way back in September, when you sent me the first account… no, not by cheque, I paid on-line and on time … yes do that, look it up on your computer, because we’ll get along a whole lot better if you have … I can’t help what it says there, Tracey, I assure you that I paid $170 and I can prove it … That’s why I’m ringing you, I know your computer says I paid you $2.86 because that’s what it says here on the statement I’ve just received from you – the third statement by the way, this is getting ridiculous – it says $2.86 paid, balance outstanding = $167.14. That adds up to $170.00 which is what I paid.  What I want to know is, where has the rest of my payment gone?

Excuse me – as far as I know I have never paid anyone $2.86, especially on-line. I might be a silly old chook, and I might one day slip the decimal point to one side or the other of the figure by accident and pay $17.00 or $1700.00 instead of $170.00. And if I did that I would be deeply embarrassed and fix the error as soon as I could.  But never in a million years would I pay $2.86 when I’m trying to pay $170.00.

Yes I’ve checked my bank statement on-line and that confirms what I’ve said. What do you want – a screen-shot? … I have rung the bank. They have not made a mistake, and they are willing to send you a confirmation of payment. Is there any way to talk to a person with enough clout to deal with what is wrong here?