Monday, April 05, 2010

Back From The Brink

Up until Thursday it felt like the joke was on me. There have been brief bouts of insomnia to contend with in the past but nothing this sustained. Though I never quite reached the point of making homemade soap with an imaginary friend, by the beginning of this last week I felt like I had accidentally ingested a horse tranquillizer by mistake.

Hoping against hope that the switch to British Summer Time would help me snap out of it, there was no such luck and I’d still be up to watch the black of night fade to an indigo blush. If I was lucky I’d get a few, almost uninterrupted hours sleep during the night, but those instances became increasingly rare. Instead I’d manage a brief catnap either late morning or early afternoon and spend the rest of the time in a wearisome daze. As debilitating as that was, at least it was fortunate I currently had the recently delivered containers of material to sort through.

While it’s more convenient nowadays to obtain information from the internet – although it then takes time to cross–check facts from a number of independent and accredited sources to guarantee it’s validity – there’s nothing better than poring over actual documents and clippings, carefully sifting through them all to find out which are useful and which are not. One of the best discoveries, although peripheral to what I’m working on, was a bound cardboard folder entitled ORIENT LINE RECORDS OF A VOYAGE. Held inside its canvas pocket were various articles pertaining to a Mediterranean cruise, from 23rd May to 9th June, 1930, onboard the SS Orion.

The contents included the PASSENGER LIST and GENERAL INFORMATION FOR PASSENGERS with its powder blue cover, the dinner menu for 3rd June and the luncheon menu from five days later, and the programme for CINEMA IN THE BALLROOM AT 9.15PM (for passengers from First Service only). There was also the printed LIST OF PRIZEWINNERS from the numerous sports and entertainment events that took place over the course of the cruise, including Chalking the Pig’s Eye, Bird Guessing Competition, Tipping the Life–Buoy and the Cigarette Race.

Obviously these various cards and booklets could have been scanned and uploaded as pdf files to be read just as easily. But almost eighty years old now and somewhat mottled with age and worn around the edges, it was just fascinating to careful lay them out on the desk for careful examination. Also given to each of the passengers was THE LANDSMAN’S LEXICON, a 32-page booklet intended to “help to add to the pleasure of a voyage by Orient Line”. Along with sections on Ships of the Past and Navigation, the latter half of the booklet was taken up with a Nautical Glossary.

On the last page was a list of “old seafaring expressions [that] still lurk unrecognized in our language”. Included there, which I didn’t know the origin of, were:

The “devil to pay”

To paint or tar the “devil”, an inaccessible plank on the ship’s side; cf. “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”


Very smart boys who were employed in “nipping” the cable to another rope connected to the capstan when the anchor was being weighed.


Upwind, and therefore difficult for a sailing ship to approach.

I’m sure it would have been more intriguing if I hadn’t been so zoned out going through it all. Maybe I’ll go back to it sometime next week. I wondered how long this mental state was going to go on. Come April Fool’s Day I was scheduled to meet up again with our delectable Persian Princess and was hoping I’d be able to string a sentence together at the very least. I also had to make the effort of suggesting where we could meet up and then where to go rather than leave it all to her, otherwise it would look like I couldn’t be bothered.

So that meant trying to remember which pubs I used to frequent back in the days when I was a young scamp. Giving it a couple of minutes thought I was floundering badly and had to turn to the Good Pub Guide’s website. Picking a central region of town and then scanning through the customer comments of the higher–rated establishments listed, there appeared to be a clear division between the sexes and what they were looking for on their night out. The women who responded would paint a wonderful picture, praising the pub’s atmosphere, the pleasant demeanour of the staff and the fact that their drinks hadn’t been spiked with whatever date–rape drug was circulating. Everything would appear perfect until, with a final brush stroke, they would daub, “But the toilets are an absolute disgrace!”

The men, however, didn’t seem to give a fig if the Gents smelt like a mackerel fisherman’s gusset on a hot summer afternoon at sea. Most were simply aggrieved that there hadn’t been a pint of Garibaldi’s Peculiar Winkle available at the pumps. Instead they had to settle on supping from a glass of Old Barnaby’s Hairless Muskrat and grumble about how it reminded them of the time their ailing donkey was given a Worcestershire sauce enema, and frankly that won’t do at all. In those instances, finding sick on the stairs seemed to be something of a bonus. Neither helped.

So we chose a central location with a number of decent pubs in mind. Of course with the Easter Weekend bearing down on us the working week had come to an early end so most were packed full to the gunwhales, with SRO if you were very lucky. At least my suggestions were. The Persian Princess knew where she was going and soon we were settled in a relatively quiet banquette. Meeting up with the usual crowd on those few occasions, a couple of the characters refuse to sit. It may be that they imbibe so much they fret whether they’ll ever get up again. In those situations it’s easy to step outside for a quick gasper, whereas in this instance the rulings of the Health Nazis put us in a bind.

To spark up we had to move on, puffing away on the trek between watering holes. There was every danger that would leave as two sotted ruins come the end of the night. Luckily we ended up on a balcony overlooking Covent Garden’s Piazza, in a pub that, since my first days at The Esteemed School of Art, I had always thought of as being jammed with obnoxious, braying poltroons. But obviously they had moved on, so we stayed. After skipping off again for something to eat, we ended up alternating between Underground platforms, heading in different directions and seeing whose train would come first.

After all this, once again getting the last bus north from Marylebone, I fell into bed and slept for a good seven hours. Waking up on Good Friday I figured this might just be a fluke, but then the next night and the next night and last night I’d retire for a decent sleep. I figured my head was already getting back onto its natural plane after watching the first couple of minutes of the final series of Ashes to Ashes and yelling, “Utter bullshit!” at the television. Since then, taking it relatively easy over the holiday weekend, I got to catch up on the second series of Simon Russell Beale’s Sacred Music and watch the new episodes of Wallander now that I was able to pay attention to the subtitles.

Other than that it was a case of looking back over the last few weeks and see what I’d missed. With all the continuing ails in the world, one of the biggest brouhahas seems to have been the BBC’s decision to appoint Claudia Winkleman as the new host of the Film programme. Criticizing her for not having the proper critical credentials and being too lightweight doesn’t seem to hold water because, quite frankly, that never stopped the outgoing incumbent. Frankly I would have been happy with a sock puppet or even one of the firemen from Trumpton if it meant getting that witless ass–clown off the television screens.

I’m not saying that she’s the very best choice. At a push my vote would be to rehire Barry Norman, and that’s not simply biased toward the fact that I’m still in possession of my Film 80 tee shirt, even though it’s now a few sizes too small. The news of having young Winkleman in the chair didn’t seem to be that big an affront to so many sensibilities once the BBC quickly pointed out the show’s format was going to change, bringing in industry experts and studio guests. Hopefully they will include appearances from the reviewers everyone expected to get her job in the first place, leading to a discussion of a new release’s merits to give a more reasoned judgement, rather than relying on just the opinion of a sole presenter.

Still, with newspaper and magazine reviews, along with trailers and any number of film clips readily available on the internet, what is the value of a television programme based around film reviews (and the odd location report or painfully short feature)? To keep the Film programme relevant they’ll have to do more than simply replace the presenter. But at least getting rid of a prancing popinjay who goes easy on his industry “mates” is a start.


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