Monthly Archives: February 2016



In or out*? That’s so obviously the question. I say ‘so obviously’ but I recognise I’m a little late in asking it, having been first alerted to David Cameron’s address at the European Summit while on a ski bus in the alps, by a nice Parisian man. Up till then, I had little idea what was going on.

Which is probably because I’m not very ‘political’. Which is why I have been astounded by myself these subsequent snowy days, not only in my need to be able to answer that question, but also  my even stronger need to be able to do so intelligently i.e. based on the facts, not the spin.

I want to be ‘all over this one’, as a hipster might say, weighing the true advantages and disadvantages, sifting the wheat from the chaff, understanding the ramifications – not just base my decision on the knee-jerk of instinct, augmented, as it surely would be, by the plethora of tabloid soundbites, much less fertilized by impassioned but not necessarily correct rhetoric from whichever camp, or camp-follower, it comes.

In short, at the risk of sounding like an EU directive myself, this is important, and I want to do it properly.

Which means putting time in, because the issues are extremely complex.  Which is why I spent an unlikely hour pre-dawn the other morning, in downloading and reading the government’s policy paper on the subject, followed by the analyses of political journalists from right across the spectrum, and the comments (some astute, some pugnacious, some frankly ignorant) that those screeds of words obviously attract.

So that’s a big tick for me, then.  I am packing some heavy knowledge! But also a second impasse, as I have very quickly realised that the more I know the more I appreciate how much I don’t know –  of just how big a gulf stretches beyond the edge of my understanding and the lush forests of comprehension on the other shore.

I thought initially that the failing was strictly of my own making. That dithering – thinking this, and then that, and then the other – was a difficult-to-admit, weedy, shameful thing. You don’t know? You SHOULD know! Where’ve you BEEN all these decades?

And then it hit me.  That the opposite might be true. That in understanding how much you don’t know you are at least striving towards wisdom, unlike so many I have – chillingly – heard pontificating on the subject, despite not seeming to know anything much about the facts at all.  Or, rather like the enduring Euromyth about the EU meddling in our bananas, bending the facts to fit the shape they would most like them to be.

And that’s the most scary thing of all. We might despise our politicians, and justly accuse them of all sorts.  Of adopting positions based on spurious motivations. Of fudging the issues. Of evading the questions. Of being – as one person pithily put it – a bunch of self-serving, power-obsessed, dishonest scoundrels, without a scrap of  human decency between them. And some mean stuff about  Jeremy Corbyn’s clothes, as well.

But I’d take most of them, any day (I stand firm on Farage, who chills me) over the people-power that is a public referendum.

That this is a complicated, multi-factorial issue, is there for all to see. It’s provoked a rift in the Cameron/Gove BFF partnership, and put George Osborne in the same camp as Diane Abbott. It’s got Paddy Ashdown and David Owen waving handbags at dawn, and Leanne Wood tucked up in (an NHS?) bed with Jeremy Hunt.

And when something is that serious, one thing at least is clear. That, for all that we don’t know, the one thing we do know is that, whatever spin pitches up on the front pages of newspapers (and the internet babble, and the ten o’clock news) they will all – you can be sure – know the facts about Europe.

As opposed to many of us, who have known little, and cared less.  And who must now base our decision on whichever ‘cause du jour’  that previously – and sporadically – floated our ‘taxpayer’s money’ boat,  or our instinctive post-war fear of being ‘swamped by ‘Johnny Foreigner’, or our simmering resentment of money going to  ‘madcap euro-money pits’,  or of untrammelled waves of immigrants stealing both our jobs and our benefits,  or of ‘bureaucrats’. Which is almost like a swear word.

The same ‘we’ who hold the power now.  Who’ll make that life-changing decision. Which feels like a terrifying responsibility.


First published on The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 27th Feb 2016

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As they so often say in matters of fundamental importance, there really is no time like the present. No better time than now to take committed, decisive action. And that’s not only because your sense of right and wrong surely demands it, but because (to the best of my knowledge, which is obviously, ahem, extensive) there are only a few still remaining in the wild, and the time will all too soon be upon us when the last surviving member of this critically endangered species will be on a high security reservation somewhere (probably on Madagascar) while a desperate search ensues for a synthetic one for it to breed with.

I refer, of course, to the semi-colon. Which you probably already guessed, didn’t you? What with me being so, like, wordy, and all.

And I do so because last week I stumbled upon an essay, in which, having chosen a number of famous books, the author removed the words, and just displayed the punctuation. Which made for some pretty cool wall art for the literati.

But he then also did a bit of funky analysis to show how different authors not only have different relationships with words, but used punctuation differently too. But what I mostly took from the article was this news just in. That, according to this study, the poor old semi-colon’s days are numbered. So much so that I cannot even give you an example of one here, the semi-colon being a punctuation mark not generally in tune with this magazine’s ‘house style’.

And I fear that this house is not alone, because I am beginning to see much the same everywhere these days – the semi-colon fast becoming the punctuation-fancier’s version of that old quilted jacket you no longer wear, because you’ve realised it makes you look like your granny. Increasingly, the semi-colon (or ‘semicolon’, for those of you who REALLY hate punctuation marks) is the unwanted, dad-dancing, cool-challenged crusty who no longer has a place at the party.

Being a grammar pedant (if one with occasional lapses, because, truly, for all my exams an’ ting, I still couldn’t define a dipthong on the hoof) I care mightily about hanging on to the marks between words, and abhor what the computing age has done to us.

I deplore dodgy writing, even if I do sometimes unwittingly practice it. No person in history, ever, ‘WAS stood at the bus-stop’. They either stood there or were standing there. How many times must I SAY that? But I especially deplore how the written word, as practiced on innumerable modern keyboards, has led to the widespread mismanagement of the comma, which people chuck about the place as if – oh, how to best put this? As if – there you go – it WAS A FULL STOP.

I deplore that, increasingly, people fail to understand narrative layout, despite correct narrative layout being there for all to see. In every frigging novel on every frigging bookshelf! Yet so many persist in ignoring it.

And why? Because as soon as we start writing, the computer says no. As if Jobs/Gates/Berners-Lee were the new holy trinity, and having ‘a gap between paragraphs of the same style’ was set in some crazy-bonkers statute.

I deplore that Twitter has bent what we say out of shape, too. And not because we can’t access spellcheckers (jeez, they bloody stalk us) but because someone told us we can only use 140 characters, and, hey, why would we waste them on boring dots and dashes when we have so much of such great wisdom and importance to say?

You know what, though? Even as I drone – and I fully recognise that I do drone – I am mindful that, for some people, this is of entirely no account. That there will be folks reading this who have no particular standpoint on the deployment of the ellipse or the mid-sentence dash. Who are happy to go with the linguistic flow and accept that language simply evolves.

In fact that’s probably the best way. Remain sanguine that, in not using it, we lose it. C’est la vie.

Except when it’s an apostrophe, of course, when it’s obviously more a case of ‘use it appropriately, damn it, or lose any last vestige of unambiguous comprehension and, as a consequence, pave the way for misunderstandings on a grand and dangerous scale, possibly bringing about the downfall of civilization as we know it, you mark my words!’, and so on.

Or perhaps I should just emigrate to Madagascar.


First published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine, 20th Feb 2016


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Oh, February, how glad I am to see you. Such a fine month for sloughing off the harridan that is January, with its grey chocolates, grey skies, and frankly misguided attachment to hosting the most miserable day of the year. No wonder I have such a spring in my step.

And I do, because it’s already being so bountiful. Not only has Sam Cam (who I cannot not love) won her bit of Sport Relief Bake Off, there is just so much good news to share.

First up, a liberating and joyful revelation. That I have resolved not to dwell further on fashion. Fashion should never be dwelt upon by sentient animals. As with thistledown, dust, cooking aromas, and Kate Moss, it should waft in, waft about a bit, and then waft right on out again.

And yet, and yet. There is a thing called a Paper Bag Waist Trouser (or pant, if you are minded to come over all American about it) which is, apparently, very much ‘on trend’. And yes, I know regular readers will be despairing right now. Because, yes, it’s true. Once a year – perhaps twice, if I’m feeling liverish – I can’t stop myself filling columns that could be filled with important recipes, say, or my thoughts on developments in particle physics, with small explosions of incredulity about the lunacy that is fashion, and the folly that it following it about the place. Though I can’t say I’m sorry.


Anyway, here’s what you need to know about the Paper Bag Waist Trouser. It’s been described as ‘difficult to wear’, ‘tricky’ and – love this one – ‘challenging’. (‘I am a paper bag waist trouser and I DARE you to don me!’) To which duty obliges me to add a translation into English. They mean ‘do not buy’, ‘do not buy’, and ‘do not buy’, respectively. Unless, of course, you aspire to look exactly like you have styled yourself as a person wearing a ‘cinched’ paper bag round their middle, and are five foot thirteen and a size six. (Honestly, it’s not rocket science, is it?)

I see Cardiff has slipped out of the top ten of cites that are happy, lovely, chummy, jolly, fun, exciting, financially appealing, career-enhancing, comfortable, fashionable (God, here we go again) and generally perfect places to work in the UK. Indeed, a recent survey, by some kind of psychological profiling/PR-ish/ ‘supporting your business needs since 1642’/consultancy kind of outfit – FOMO, or OMG, or WTF or something – tells us that it couldn’t get much worse. Apparently people in Cardiff come out bottom (just below Glasgow) in that only 64% of Cardiffians reported being happy, as opposed to a positively euphoric 77% in Norwich. Which make YOU happy, no? Because this is probably an excellent time to start looking for a flat in the Welsh capital. Or, indeed, selling one. Or just cracking right on with your life, as another very important survey will be along shortly.

I could not be more thrilled to learn that I need never go to the gym again. I was never going to go to the gym again anyway, to be fair (and said as much, in a public place, over lunch, just two days ago) because of all the things I’ve spent half my live either a) doing extremely grudgingly, b) not doing, extremely guiltily or c) railing against, usually at parties, as a kind of terrible first-world canker, it has to be the most vile – even above quinoa. So that news that after the first couple of minutes, you might as well go home again and watch Homes Under The Hammer, for all good its doing you, is good news indeed. This is TRUE. Which is why I’ve written it in capitals.

Staying with fitness, According to my Fitbit (other kinds of computerized tyranny are available), last Tuesday I did one million, one hundred and eighty nine thousand, eight hundred and ninety three steps. Which I’ve worked out – since I slept for a portion of last Tuesday (and the Fitbit never lies) – equates to 74,000ish steps an hour, which is 1,200 steps a minute, which is 20 steps per second. Go me!

But the net result? A calorie burn of just 1,734. And if that’s not reason enough to abandon your exercise regime, ladies, I really don’t know what is.

Unless, of course, you aspire to wearing a Paper Bag Waist Trouser. In which case, keep on stepping, with my blessing.

First published in the Western Mail Weekend magazine 6th Feb 2016