The Neapolitan teddy bears’ picnic

Isa bears in Naplesphoto © Isabel Clara Lorda Vidal

A friend who lives in Naples just sent me this great photo. It set me thinking about a  back story. So many possibilities. But I opted for this idea:


IF you go down to the Bay today / you’re sure of a big surprise. /

If you go down to the Bay today / you’d better go in disguise! /


FOR every Camorra chief there was / will gather there for certain /

because today’s the day the / Teddy Bears have their picnic. /


PICNIC time for innocent bears. /

The little bears are having / a dangerous time today. /

Watch them caught out unawares / and taken hostage on their holiday. /


SEE how Panda tries to run. /

He loves to stand his ground / and sand goes everywhere. /


AT ten o’clock their Mammas and Babbos / will come to take them home /

and find there aren’t any Teddy Bears there.


The loquacious loo

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I went to B&Q today to buy a sprayer to give to the nice man who’s doing a new garden path for my mother next week. He agreed to spray the horsetail weeds on her drive while he’s there.

Before I could look for the sprayer, I needed a quick pee. So I asked the first B&Q be-labelled person I could see if there was a ‘loo’. I said it in a Hugh-Grant-sort-of-a-way, not quite making eye contact, softly and a bit shiftily.

A TOILET?? he yelled, making everyone queueing at the tills turn round and I swear he was well within earshot of the Decorating and Electrical aisles too. YEA, IT’S DOWN THE BOTTOM ON THE LEFT! So there we are. The whole of Farnborough knew I needed to go and no-one else in a similar position needed to ask.

I admit I’d chosen ‘loo’ over ‘toilet’ advisedly, even though I had a hunch that ‘toilet’ might be the B&Q man’s nomenclature of choice. I’m reading Kate Fox’s brilliant Watching the English and ‘toilet’ is one of the ‘seven deadly sins’ in her section ‘linguistic class codes’.

When I got to the TOILET I saw one of the doors had a sign on it. I barely registered it, but assumed it was out of order. On closer inspection, I found this to be true but the notice read, on B&Q-branded, laminated notice paper: Apologies. I am out of order. So now we have talking toilets? Or was it a cry for help from someone in meltdown who’d locked themselves inside?

It was odd enough to stop me from heading straight back out to look for the sprayer. Was it supposed to be a bit ‘quaint’ maybe? Or less direct? I tried to imagine the meeting where signage had been discussed. “Should we be a bit more creative than just saying ‘Out of order’? Could we perhaps soften the bad news?” “Hmm, is it more customer-friendly to personalise it? I think customers may be less likely to complain if they feel they’ve been personally addressed, don’t you?” “Huh, maybe. Let’s do it, Mike.”

Then I saw the line underneath: ‘An engineer is on their way to fix me‘. Me? I? Sorry, but this is mad isn’t it? I mean I know we (and this is also peculiarly English) like to anthropomorphise animals (OK, I call my cat ‘darling’ sometimes), and we give human names to all sorts of things – from old cars to vicious hurricanes and even rescued blackbirds “The tiny chick, who has been named Eric, was found in a blocked drain covered in leaves…”

But a TOILET? I had a fleeting but horrible image of the seat lifting up and clicking down as it explained its predicament and asked for understanding. Maybe it even swivelled and snapped off a square or two of loo paper to wipe away a tear – or something worse.

Anyway does one really require an engineer to fix a loo? Apologies to my husband, a retired civil engineer who flies into a ready rage whenever ‘engineer’ is used to refer to one he assumes to be a mere lowly technician.

And when the ENGINEER arrives to fix the TOILET, how will they greet each other? “Hi there Terry (Terry Toilet), I’m here to help.” “Naw, mate, Terry’s next one along, I’m Trevor, and more to the point, what the hell kept yer…. Eddie was it?”

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The weird world of the aircraft cabin

Perhaps my ears need syringing but I could swear the woman next to me on a recent flight from Malaga ordered a Tampax Snack Box with her G and T. Unable to think of what it should have been, I allowed myself to run with this for a while. All neatly encased in Cellophane packets, it would be what? Two Tampax, two Lillets and a dolly-sized roll of emergency loo paper? Or perhaps two cream crackers, a rectangle of cheddar and a Tampax just in case? By the time she’d paid for whatever it really was, I’d got distracted by my book again and forgot to look.

But it may not be my ears. When we fly we all pretend (some are better at this than others) it’s an entirely normal situation to be in. Sealed, we hope securely, in an apparently light-weight outer casing, all that separates us from a death-drop onto a French village is a layer below where our cases have been slung in on top of each other alongside the occasional dog or cat in a state of pulse-racing terror or drug-induced stupefaction.

Fastened inside the cabin (‘loosely’, in case of unexpected turbulence), we are accustomed by now to the whooshing sound of the air con that does such a great job of re-distributing every virus currently inhabiting any of the 150 of us. So could it be the whooshing and the thinner cabin air at such altitude that together create that sensation of being one-removed from reality?

There was a steward on this flight who was, well, so camp that I almost wondered whether the environment had got to him and he was putting it on. I expected him to wink beneath his clown-like thickly painted eyebrows and say “Actually, I speak quite normally when I’m not flying”. “Would you like a Kit-Kaaaaaat or a Twiiiiiiiix with that sir-ir?” “The bacon bagueeeeete will be a 10-minute wait, alriiiiiiiiiight?” he trilled. But milking it or not, I couldn’t help warming to him.

Then he made what seemed like the oddest announcement as we began our descent: “Please have any rubbiiiiiish ready for collection, as this aircraft will now be going on safaaariiiiiiii”. Really? On its own? Or carrying passengers on a new EasyJet route to Namibia then? It was only after I’d played this one back in my head several times that I worked out it was “ta Faaaaroooooo”. Oh, to Faro then.

Could all this cabin fuzziness be the reason why cabin staff seem to be trained to add “do” as often as possible to all their announcements? “Welcome to EasyJet and on today’s flight we do have a wide selection of sandwiches and snacks.” “We do carry some tempting brands of perfume and cosmetics and today we do also have the special Air Bear for the little ones”. Did I ever say you didn’t?


Talent, humanity and memory: Federer and Nadal in Australia

Only real tennis fans will understand what this blog post is about. Although fans of other sports might draw parallels with other comeback fairy tales. So I don’t need to say, though I will because it’s a thrill even to write it, Roger Federer just beat Rafa Nadal in five seesaw sets to win the 2017 Australian Open 14 years after his first Grand Slam win at Wimbledon.

This is remarkable in so many ways. First, it’s about both of them, not just the victor of this match. Should anyone have bet good money on these two being the contestants, they could probably now buy themselves a yacht from which to wave at the many players who live in Monte Carlo.

Federer is 35. He’s barely hit a ball for six months, following knee surgery after an injury sustained while running bath for his daughters. But for several years now many had already been writing him off. The stamina, confidence and perfection seemed to all be dented. Even though his body remained remarkably injury-free, his soul seemed not to quite believe and his energy not to quite outlast other serious contenders. We all thought how we’d miss him when he, surely before long now, retired to one or several of his luxury homes with his wife and against-the-odds two sets of twins.

Nadal is younger at 30. But, at least until this weird start to this tennis year, even 30 would have been considered an age where you were pretty lucky to still be near the top. And, unlike Federer, there’s rarely been a run of months where Nadal has not been nursing a strained body part – no surprise given his brutal approach to combat.

If Federer is the ballet dancer whose eternal grace seemed threatened only by anno Domini, Nadal is the boxer who somehow had the belief knocked out of him somewhere along the way – perhaps the sadder of the two processes to witness.

This contrast of styles and human stories – as well as the breathtaking talent of both – is why I think most fans so much wanted this ‘dream final’. The mouthwatering combination of the pure theatre we knew we’d experience and the utter unlikeliness that this event would ever take place. And, surely now, the impossiblity of it ever happening again.

For me, as no doubt for many others, it also took me back to where I was when I watched another classic duel between them. As my father lay in his nursing home bed in the summer of 2008, with the sun fading over the fruit trees outside his window, I sat with him watching Nadal prevail in five thrilling sets. My father was Spanish. He was also a huge tennis fan and for many years a commentator at Wimbledon for the BBC World Service.

When Rafa won, I leapt in the air and said “Dad, Dad, a Spaniard has won Wimbledon again!” (the first since Santana in 1966). It was a moment I felt sure would thrill him and one I so desperately wanted to share with him. But he looked blankly at me and managed a weak smile. I think he’d probably slept through much of the match and I’d barely noticed. It was a bitter sweet moment. We both knew he wouldn’t see another Wimbledon.

So I think today was also about ageing. About capturing something of the past and finding comfort that it could be returned to – even if fleetingly.

For a split second, the two white tables brought on for the trophy ceremony appeared like two stretchers ready to carry away the memory of these two great champions for ever. It was a pleasure to see Federer shed tears again, as he had done so memorably after his first Wimbledon win. And to see his expression as he held the trophy high, as if he thought he’d never again feel the weight of it in his arms. All great sporting moments are about human beings. But this will be a hard one to follow.

A lefty pining for the right

I am left-handed. A southpaw. Nothing extraordinary about that. Like many, I am a little bit proud to be in the minority (10 or 12 per cent of the population, depending on the stats you read – and again a little bit special because most lefties are men, including Obama, Einstein and Bowie). I also like to believe all the stuff about our being a bit more creative and better at tennis, while ignoring the news that we suffer from more behavioural problems and have a shorter life expectancy.

But recently I’ve noticed an odd preference of mine, and wonder if other left-handers share this? My preference is for being on the right-hand side of things. And I don’t mean politically. I mean being physically on the right.

For example, during a poetry weekend with the great Don Paterson, he sat at one end of the room and, as we all filed in, we could sit at any of a series of desks in a U formation. I immediately chose a desk that meant I was looking towards Don to my right. Later that day, the person next to me spotted the strangest thing: that everyone down our side of the room was left-handed, while those opposite were not. Perhaps an odd coincidence, but I filed away the observation.

I’m not crazy about flying, and in the last few months I’ve noticed I always choose a seat to the right of the aisle. I’d never given this any importance, and I’m not at all superstitious. Last time I flew, for some reason I had to swap with someone on the other side of the aisle. It felt really odd and, I’ll admit, I felt ‘less safe’ on the left – somehow more exposed and vulnerable. Knowing this to be illogical, I gritted it out – but I didn’t like it.

But perhaps most alarming of all is that when driving I’ve become aware that I like to sit in the fast lane for as long as possible. This is not because I fancy myself as Nico Rosberg or Lewis Hamilton. And my battered old Polo can’t comfortably go above 70mph for long. I just like the feeling of ‘the edge’ to my right rather than to my left. And I now prefer driving in Spain (even though I have vastly more experience in the UK), so that I can feel good in the slow lane – with the plains of Seville close by at my right elbow.

Am I alone among lefties in this longing for the right?

A Sod in the throat?


Oh joy. It is less than 48 hours until the London launch of Through An Artist’s Eye. This is an event that requires my voice – to read poems I have specially written to a sell-out audience in a fascinating venue: the Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell. And I have a horrible tickly cough. So either Murphy or Sod has a lot to answer for.

The poems in question are my part of a collaborative project with artist Sonia Boué. It is our tribute to the extraordinary Felicia Browne, an artist born in 1904 – who became the only British woman to volunteer with the Republican militia in the Spanish Civil War. She was killed almost instantly on her first mission, aged 32. So I’d like to do her justice and not have a choking fit in the middle.

Turning desperately to the web for fast-acting remedies, I find a bizarre list of suggestions. These include buying a pot plant (such as an aloe vera or weeping fig – the latter is how I feel during one of these coughs); covering one nostril while gently blowing the other “into a tissue” – I’m glad they added that bit; or “oil pulling”. This is not something I have come across before but apparently involves swishing an oil of one’s choice (olive please) around the mouth for one minute – or, intriguingly, 15-20 minutes. I thought I might manage something in between but not sure that’s valid.

Finally I Googled ‘dealing with coughing fit during presentation’ and was excited to see a site come up. It told me “should the level of coughing suddenly increase during your presentation” (yes, yes, I read on) “this is a signal from the audience that their patience is wearing thin”. Oh dear, I hope it won’t come to that.

So I will be armed with a Thermos of olive oil, a packet of Strepsils and a big knot in my soggy hanky.