7 reasons why Halloween is better than Christmas

I’ve always lamented the fact that Halloween is just one day, while Christmas is an entire season. We spend weeks — months, even — bombarded by red and gold baubles and silver tinsel and carols and bake-offs and elves on shelves. Halloween, meanwhile, gets maybe a weekend.

I think Halloween deserves much more fanfare. Here are 7 reasons why. 

Ingrid Pitt1. You get to be someone else for the day. Or, put another way, you don’t have be yourself. How great is that? I put up with me all year long. Same old face in the mirror. Same body (for the most part, aside from the incremental, inch-along changes that same to slide from one dress size into the next without me realizing it). Same uncooperative hair. Same work. Same worries. Blah, blah, blah. At Halloween, I get to wear a long, black flowing robe and cape and imagine myself some wizened vampiress with a 36-24-36 figure who need only wink and snarl to beckon her army of bats and sic them on that shitty boss she used to work for at an agency long ago. How great is that?

2. You don’t have to spend it with relatives. God love my mother-in-law (she’ll never read this) and God bless her family get-togethers, but oh my Lord, the big to-do for weeks beforehand about what time will everyone be there and will I bring my stuffing again, and if I do, can I bring it up the night before, and when should she buy the vegetables (“It’s on a Sunday this year, so if I buy them Saturday, they’ll only be a day old, but Saturday is Christmas Eve and Loblaws will be so busy, but if I buy them Friday when it’s not as busy, they’ll be two days old…”) Oh, to just put on a black robe and light candles and hand out candy and watch The Exorcist. 

3. It’s cheaper and doesn’t involve trekking through malls. Okay, you might spring a few dollars for your costume at Value Village, and the candy might run you $30 or $40 at Walmart. Oh — and the fake tombstone and spider web and orange lights from Dollarama… we’re talking maybe $10. We all know that pales in comparison to the cost and logistics of Christmas gifts — even with online shopping.

Lucy_bag_full_of_candy4. You get a bagful of candy. I’m going back a few years, but I remember the feeling of Halloween candy like it was yesterday. Carrying that bag. Feeling it get heavier house by house. Knowing what awaited when you got home into the light and could survey your loot. I even got a kick when my kids used to come home after trick-or-treating, and would shake their bags out on the floor and begin separating: crap to the left, good stuff (Kit Kats, Aero bars, Smarties, etc.) to the right. It always reminded me of how I felt as a kid. That Gollum-like thrill: Precious.

5. It’s not as cold and there’s no snow. Unless you live in Ottawa. With all due respect to my relatives in our nation’s capital, we lived there for a couple of years when our kids were small, and one Halloween it snowed. Talk about depressing. Made me wanna go out and kill a civil servant. Or sic my bats on them.

6. Yonge Street is a giant street party. I’ve lived in the Toronto area most of my life, and of all the places and parties I’ve been to at Halloween, none of them beats Yonge Street — especially when it falls on a Friday or Saturday night, like this year. The costumes, the revelry, the parties in pubs and bars spilling out onto sidewalks… it is so much bloody fun.

julia-roberts_cropped7. You can dress like a prostitute and get away with it. Come on, admit it: who doesn’t wanna at least try dressing up like Julia Roberts dressed up like a hooker? Thigh-high boots… A barely-there mini-skirt… Wild, unruly tresses… Again, I’m going back a few years *suck in gut* but in my Ryerson days, Halloween was a chance to put down the hairbrush and step away from the mirror and be that person (or hooker) you kind of, sort of wanted to be.

So… enough said. There are still two weeks left to celebrate. Go eat some chocolate, and find some Spanx.

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5 reasons to watch The Conjuring

Last night I watched The Conjuring. It was a dark, rainy Saturday night, perfect for snuggling down with Netflix and this deliciously creepy flick. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the best haunted-house movie to come out in a long time. It stars Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as vintage 1970s paranormal investigators (complete with calf-length skirts and ruffled blouses), and Lili Taylor as the homeowner whose home is… not her own.

Now this wasn’t the first time I’d watched the movie. I saw it when it was first released in 2013. But I’d seen something about it recently — a still from it, or maybe it was a clip on YouTube — and I decided I had to watch it again.    

And because it’s October, I figured it was worth a post in this blog.

However, rather than simply ramble about the movie (I would never do that), I figured I’d pick, say, five things that make it good. I had to think hard about this, and I had to do some swapping in and out to keep the list to five. This really is among the best of the best when it comes to scary movies, and if you haven’t seen it, hopefully this list will entice you (and fyi: no plot-spoilers here).

So, without further adieu… five reasons to watch The Conjuring:

  1. The house

In some scary movies, the house is simply a location. A place. Four walls and a roof, under which people live and shit happens. Take, for instance, the Paranormal Activity series: gorgeous home, with that to-die-for kitchen and ginormous staircase; however, the house is not especially frightening in and of itself.

In other movies, the house is a character in its own right. The first example that comes to mind is 212 Ocean Avenue — a.k.a. The Amityville Horror.

Conjuring-house-itselfThe Perron home in The Conjuring is the same. Now I must say right up front that the house in the movie is not the real Perron home. The real home where the haunting reportedly took place is a rather plain-looking farmhouse in Harrisville, Rhode Island. The movie home is located at 405 Canetuck Road in Wilmington, North Carolina.

But who cares. The movie is based on a true story, and the house we see in the film makes the story much more convincing. That’s good enough for me. (Should I add that the interior shots of the house are sets? I guess you can’t win ’em all.)

  1. Vera Farmiga

IMG_4913.dngAlready very attractive, here, as medium Lorraine Warren, Farmiga has a feminine prettiness and maternal softness that you remember somebody’s mom having way back when. Maybe it’s the ruffles. Maybe it’s the fact that we see her fold laundry. Either way, while she’s good in whatever she’s in, she’s really spot-on here.  

  1. The tree

Conjuring_TreeThat big lonely tree down at the end of the yard is…well, if you’ve seen the movie, you know it. Enormous black trunk. Looming, clawing branches that look like they could reach down and grab you. More than just a prop, the tree is central to the storyline — and one scene in particular that still totally creeps me out.  

  1. The dresser

Maybe ‘dresser’ isn’t the right word. This thing is a mother of a wardrobe. Like the tree outside, the dresser inside is a big, dark, looming fixture where bad things happen. I myself would now think twice about buying one; I’d never rummage around in one; and I sure as hell wouldn’t stand in front of one without first checking above it.

  1. The kids

Conjuring_kidsI often don’t like kids in movies. And God bless ‘em — I have two myself — but a lot of the time, they’re over the top and unconvincing.

Not these kids. These kids are real. They’re a bit disheveled and a bit nerdy and their rooms are messy. Just like real kids. No doubt they had good coaching from director James Wan (who is, by the way, the man behind Insidious and Saw, and who even created Billy the Puppet).

Honourable mentions

I said I had trouble keeping the list to five. The following was also worth noting…

The game   It’s called hide ‘n clap. One person is blindfolded. The others hide. Those in hiding then clap (up to three times, at the searcher’s request) until everyone is found. This is the Perron family’s favourite game. And I think it adds to the authenticity of the movie. I so remember playing hide ‘n seek at my cousins’ place in Arnprior, Ontario — except that we played it in the dark (basement, lights off, no blindfolds needed). And while it scared the bejesus out of me, I loved it. Hide ‘n seek. Kick the can. Nicky nicky nine doors. Didn’t every kid in the 70s play at least one of these games? Of course, in a horror movie, the game takes on a new dimension when a stranger decides to join in. I’ll say no more.

The 70s   The 1970s were a kinder, gentler time. No, seriously. There was no internet, no Osama bin Laden (that we knew of), no Snapchat, no Kardashians. It was a more innocent era, and that fact adds to the movie’s atmosphere. Even my 17-year-old son, who’s cynical and skeptical about everything, likes the comfortable, worn-in feeling the decade lends the movie. My own theory is that it makes everything feel somehow familiar and ‘real’ — which in turn makes it all more scary. Make sense? (Plus you get some great 70s tunes along with it.)

The witch   Bathsheba is her name (of course it is). Bathsheba Sherman. Nothing like a good ole grassroots Biblical moniker to set the stage for some unholy shit. And she is indeed one scary woman. How frightening Bathsheba Sherman was in real life might be up for debate. By the way, a bit of trivia: the actor who played the witch was a man, Joseph Bishara, who also composed the music for the movie.

So… Now… How can you possibly resist? It is October, after all. Tonight would be a perfect night to put on your jim-jams, dim the lights, fire up a candle or two… and keep your pillow handy.

Farewell BBC iPlayer

This past week I received some sad news. It wasn’t anywhere on the scale of the earthquakes in Nepal, or being holed up in Guantanamo Bay for 13 years, but it rocked my little world nonetheless.

It came via the email here. It startedBBC_iPlayer_email_May2015 simply with ‘BBC Global iPlayer is permanently closing’, and ended with a cheerio ‘Best wishes, The BBC Global iPlayer team’.

I think my eyes actually welled up when I read it. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m ga-ga over British drama. From my initial foray into Prime Suspect and Dame Helen almost 25 years ago, to the likes of current gems like Broadchurch and Silk, I lap it up. The eccentric characters, the understated acting, the alternately gritty and sumptuous scenery, all against a backdrop of ancient stone and polished wood and dark alleys and Orwellian conspiracy theories.

Storytelling doesn’t get any better.Prime_Suspect

So naturally, when a good friend of mine — a longtime fellow Anglophile — put me on to BBC iPlayer, I was, as the Brits say, chuffed.

If you’re not familiar with it (shame!), BBC iPlayer is a Netflix for all things BBC. New programs appear on a weekly basis (they’re old across the pond but ne’er seen here). A couple of taps on ye olde iPad and I can be whisked away to the south coast of Devon to solve a murder mystery. Or taken on a grand tour of the Belfast shipyards to retrace the last steps of passengers on the Titanic. Or horse-and-carriaged into the Carpathian Mountains to the lair of (BBC’s delectable 1977 version of) Count Dracula.Dracula 5

Alas, no more. I received the email that the service was shutting down — period. Possibly within two weeks. When I emailed Aunty to find out exactly why, I received a response (the next day, I’ll grant that) telling me that iPlayer is not “commercially viable”. How exactly that could be with each subscriber (and there are a lot of us, judging by the Facebook page) paying in the neighbourhood of $6.99 a month (Cdn), I can’t figure out.

Now as the end of the email suggests, there are apparently going to be other platforms developed for other (presumably non-Apple) devices.

Fair enough. But why on earth wouldn’t Aunty wait ’til those platforms are built and then switch subscribers over to them, rather than just drop us all like a lot of overdone, room-temperature potatoes?

It seems to me to be the antithesis of good customer service. The result being that though I’ve always been a massive fan of the Beeb, I now feel quite betrayed.white-chapel_threesome

For the past few nights, I’ve been madly ploughing through my ‘to-watch’ list, knowing that at any moment, it could all fade to black, like the east end of London under threat of the Luftwaffe. At the moment I’m almost finished the first series of Whitechapel, about a modern-day Jack the Ripper; next, I’m hoping to tackle Waking the Dead, a forensic crime-thriller about cold cases.

Waking the Dead2The shutdown will be staggered, and will start May 26th, running through to June 26th — the exact date depends on when you’re billed. When am I billed? I daren’t look. For the moment, I will press on, I will watch my dramas, I will find a new platform, I will never surrender.

Clear the head. Stay cozy.

It’s almost the end of January and I seem to have survived the New Year without gaining too much weight or damaging my liver. Now, with Christmas gone and spring still months away, I find myself once again trying to look on the bright side of this long, cold and rather sunless season. While I don’t suffer from full-fledged seasonal affective disorder (SAD), I do, at times, struggle to get my mind up and over the short, often overcast days that seem to pop up, one after the other, chipping away at my psyche. 

Popular women’s magazines would offer up a laundry lists of peppy how-tos for “Making the Most of Old Man Winter!” #1: Take up a winter sport! #2: Take a nice hot bath! #3: Bake your favourite dessert and fill the house with the smell! The triteness of them only depresses me more.

I have my own formula for coping — one that doesn’t involve eating or alcohol.

boots# 1: Clear the head.

Winter tends to be a season when we turn inward. Post-holidays, with a new year upon us, we reflect. We think about what we’ve done, what lies ahead, and what it all means. Frankly, it can get a bit Freudian. So what do I do? Well, not to sound equally trite, but I go out and walk. Yes, it’s cold out. Yes, I need to bundle up, which I’m not terribly fond of doing. But I always find the effort is worth it. I’m not a gym kind of girl. I’m not into running (too daunting). I tried hot yoga awhile back and found it… too damned hot.

But I like to walk. It’s easy. It’s accessible. And it pulls my out of myself — something I need to do on a regular basis. Years ago, in my teens, when I was worrying out loud one day about something or other (God knows what), my wise (and himself worrisome) dad once said to me: “Tad, you know what? A disease is not going to get you; worry is going to get you.”

cupAnd so, when I feel those niggling worries starting to sneak up on me and snake around me (and they’re always harder to shake at this time of year), I get the heck outta Dodge and go for a walk. No, it’s not a magic tonic, and yes, I have to work at it. But getting my heart rate up, even just a bit, and throwing a few endorphins into the mix makes me feel like I’m doing something about the blahs rather than just thinking about them.

#2: Stay cozy.

In any season—but especially in this one—I’m a big fan of all things cozy. Cozy blankies. Cozy sweats. Warm, cozy fires. At the risk of sounding like a women’s magazine, I have to say that coming in from the cold and getting warm is one of the (few) perks of winter. Maybe it’s the old “hit-yourself-with-a-hammer-‘cause-it-feels-good-when-you-stop” philosophy. All I know is, in the dark days of winter, you have to accentuate the positive. For me, that means coming in from a walk and appreciating a cozy house. It means making a hot drink, grabbing a nearby cat and hunkering down in front of a good movie.

catTell the truth, I actually kinda like winter. Until December 31st, anyway. After that, it starts to wear on me. Again, my cheep and cheerful tonic is not always guaranteed; however, it’s amazing how a stretch of the gams and some snuggling down is enough to put me in my happy place—for awhile—and get me through the night. 

The (wo)man behind the monster

I was 14 the first time I saw The Exorcist. It was a Saturday night in the summer of 1979, down at the Eaton Centre Cineplex. I was with a good friend of mine, Mary, who thankfully loved horror movies as much as I did, and happily spent many a weekend night with me hunkered down in a dark theatre, where we would subject ourselves to as much slashing and gore as we could stand.Exorcist_movie_posterAnd while, at the ripe old age of 14, I was still seriously underage for a seriously R-rated movie like The Exorcist, I figured that with the number of screamers under my belt, I was up for it. Several hours later, lying awake in my basement with Mary asleep beside me, I seriously doubted the wisdom of my decision.

I had heard stories about The Exorcist. It had come out several years earlier, in 1973, and now was being re-released for a limited run in 1979.

But nothing could prepare me for what would be splayed in larger-than-life Technicolor across the movie screen that night. For anyone who hasn’t seen the film, it starts off rather innocently, at an archaeological dig in Northern Iraq. Scary? No. But unsettling? Yes. The scorching heat, dusty earth, and deep trenches of unearthed millennia, all set against an aural backdrop of clinking hammers and the near-hypnotic Islamic call to prayer, combine to raise one’s hackles in degrees, so that by the time the dogs are fighting in the desert and clocks are stopping at the museum, you’re on edge. Something is up. Where it’s all going, you’re not quite sure, and how you’ll get from a dig in Iraq to a house in Washington, D.C. is anyone’s guess.

Eventually, all is revealed, and when it is, it’s f****** scary. Sliding ever lower in my seat at the Eaton Centre, hearing teenaged boys behind me curse and groan into their hands, I now knew what all the stink was about.

Regan_MercedesBut what left its mark the most on me in The Exorcist, and what still to this day is, to my mind, the best non-special effect ever in a horror movie, is the voice of the demon. This is the demon Pazuzu that possesses 12-year-old Regan MacNeil, played by Linda Blair. If you haven’t seen the movie — or if you have and need your memory jogged — watch this short clip.

That voice makes the movie. And the person behind it was not a creepy, Gollum-like man with a hunched back and laryngitis; on the contrary, it was a rather demure woman — the actress Mercedes McCambridge. Born in 1916 in Joliet, Illinois — she died in March 2004 — she was referred to by Orson Welles as “the world’s greatest living radio actress”. For the movie, her already rich, throaty voice was apparently made more gravelly by raw eggs, cigarettes and booze, and in fact, at one point during the film, she was tied to a chair. McCambridge talks about it here.

That voice was the source of nightmares for millions of people who filled sold-out theatres to see the movie when it opened the day after Christmas in 1973. And for me, someone who has seen the movie many times — and seen many other movies about possession — there is no demon like that one. Mercedes McCambridge set the bar at a level that, in my opinion, no one else has reached.

But McCambridge is not the only woman lurking quietly (so to speak) behind the monster in The Exorcist.

Eileen_dietz_001

You might recall the brief flashes of Pazuzu’s face — fleeting glimpses made all the more terrifying by their brevity. A man behind the makeup, you might assume — as I did. But no; once again, it’s a woman. Her name is Eileen Dietz. She seems a warm, lovely person. And why wouldn’t she be? We all know it’s makeup. It’s worth noting here, by the way, that the makeup artist on The Exorcist was Dick Smith, an Oscar-winner (for Amadeus, in 1984) and the only man in his field to win an Academy Honorary Award for lifetime achievement. He died this past July.

Face_2

The very fact that I was surprised to learn that the person behind the demon was a woman is a testament to Smith’s talent. And while I remind myself there’s a person behind that mask, it still scares the crap out of me. I echo the sentiments of one YouTuber who says, “So this is the person who did that infamous face. I never knew that till I watched this video. Scariest part of the movie is that face. I close my eyes still when I know it’s coming.”

Ditto.

Tonight, when the trick-or-treaters have all gone home, and the pumpkins have all gone out, I will settle down with what many horror buffs consider the scariest movie ever made. And, between my fingers, I will marvel once again at these two women. Kudos to both for being the “invisible” artists behind the movie — and for making its monsters so bloody good.

What was that?

Stop. Don’t move. Did you catch that?

That shadow that just scurried around the corner? That door that closed by itself? How about that soft whisper in the dark?

As I type this, it’s a warm, grey, early fall day. Looking out my office window, I notice some of the trees across the road just starting to turn. It is early afternoon, but it looks more like seven o’clock because of a darkening sky that just keeps getting darker.

I love it. I love it because it’s quietly ominous. Because of what it implies. Driving rain. Howling wind. Forks of lightning. Earth-shaking thunder. It doesn’t actually need to rain and howl and thunder; just the hint that it could is delicious.

The same applies to the shadow. The door. The whisper. In and of themselves, they’re not especially scary.

But in the right context — in a dusty corner, down a long hall, in an empty house — they imply something much more sinister.

As I thought about this blog post, ushering in my favourite month of the year, it occurred to me that when it comes to fear — truly skin-crawling, head-tucked-behind-the-pillow fright — less is more.

In my opinion, fear is more effective when administered subtly, in drip-drip-drip doses. Or, as is sometimes the case, brief, unexpected glimpses of… you’re not sure what, that are there one minute and gone the next, leaving you to wonder, “WTF was that?”

Sixth_Sense_BW_HJOOne of the best examples of this (and I’m assuming if you’ve read this far, you like to be scared, as I do) is the movie The Sixth Sense. In it, Bruce Willis is a psychologist who counsels Haley Joel Osment, a young boy who can see dead people. There are several scenes worthy of WTFs, but the best by far comes early on in the movie. It’s late at night, and young Cole (Osment) needs to use the loo. He fearfully pokes his head out his bedroom door; he obviously has been holding it, and now is bursting. He has no choice but to make the brave dash down the long hall to the john. An old bathroom… An old thermostat… And something that quickly shuffles past the camera between you and Cole that literally makes your stomach drop.

Another screen example — a little campier, perhaps, but subtly creepy nonetheless — comes in the first few minutes of George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead. Barbara and Johnny have come to pay their annual respects to the their mother. As Barbara kneels before the headstone, Johnny stands above her, looking around. The place is deserted… or is it? Night_Babs_Johnny_cemeteryThe wind picks up, and thunder starts to roll. And there in the back of the cemetery lumbers a lone man. A few seconds later, he appears again… only to disappear a second time behind the headstones. You can see the whole movie — and fast-forward to 5:05 to see the scene I’m talking about — right here.

The granddaddy of horror movies, The Exorcist, is well-known for several nano-second shots that fill the screen suddenly and are gone just as quickly. To this day, they scare the shit out of me. Judging by  comments I’ve seen on YouTube, I’m not alone.

My final example of less-is-more fear factor comes from a book. Books are, in my opinion, a little trickier than movies because there’s more left to the imagination. They’re also more open to individual interpretation. That said, I’m going to try to convey to you what I think is one of the eeriest sequences in what is the most haunting book I’ve ever read.

It is The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters. It takes place in post-war England, at a time when the country was undergoing a quiet revolution, the aristocracy turned on its ear by an emerging middle class. (Think Downton Abbey.) As a result, many big landowners were forced to sell off property, let their servants go, and generally “make do” in monstrous homes that sat cold and mostly empty and crumbling at the seams.

Little_Stranger_coverSuch is the case with Hundreds Hall, a decrepit old mansion where the Ayres family lives, amidst leaky plumbing, weed-choked gardens and cold, drafty rooms, most of which are shut up tight because they’re too expensive to heat.

We meet the Ayres through the eyes of Dr. Faraday, a young country GP whose mother, in fact, was once a maid at Hundreds. Now, ironically, he’s been called to the mansion to visit a sick maid. The trouble is, she’s not really sick; she’s afraid.

And so we are drawn into a story where we soon learn that not all the inhabitants of Hundreds are living. (I will warn you now that while this isn’t an official spoiler alert, I do go into a certain amount of detail here that, depending on the type of reader you are, you may want to experience yourself. FYI, Stephen King called The Little Stranger, “The best book I read this year” — 2009.)

We learn early on in the book that Mrs. Ayres had a daughter who died as a child. When malicious things start to happen around the house, it gradually starts to become apparent that this ghostly child might be the one responsible.

One day, Mrs. Ayres ventures up to the old nursery on the top floor of the house. She has come to conduct a no-nonsense investigation of the rooms up there in the hopes of quelling the servants’ worries about “that nasty thing a-watching us!” Climbing the stairs, she becomes aware of “the thickening silence” and the voices left several floors below. Regardless, she presses on.

At last, finding herself alone in the day nursery, wandering the empty rooms, she becomes nostalgic. She recalls times long past when her children were young. She even remembers the nurse announcing her visits: “Why, mummy can’t keep away!”

As she stands there in the dim late-afternoon light, she looks out the dusty, cobwebbed window in time to see her older daughter walking across the yard. At the same time, right behind her, she feels a cold draft, while in the next room, comes a violent slam. There, she finds that the door she’d left wide open has slammed shut. She tries to open it, but it will not budge. She peers in vain through the keyhole, and can even see the shaft of the key. But she can’t get at it.1chairinroom

Then she hears it: the lightest pitter-patter of steps out in the hall. Softly they shuffle, pit-pat, pit-pat, past the door. They get more distant as they move down the hall. Then they stop. And back they come, pit-pat, getting louder as they pass by the door once again.

Then they fade. And back they come again. And again.

She puts her eye to the keyhole. Here come the steps once more. And with them, a dark shape flits by. She calls out the names of the servants — people she’d been talking with just minutes earlier several floors below. No one answers.

Now whatever it is that’s out there is coming closer, brushing against the door as it passes. And eventually she hears scraping: fingernails being dragged along the wall as the being passes by.

HundredsHallAnd suddenly the running and scraping stops — right outside the door.

At that moment, there comes a shrill blast from behind her. It’s the old speaking tube — a long-disused communication pipe running from the nursery down to the kitchen. Now beside herself with fear, she walks hesitantly over to it, and brings the earpiece to her ear.

“The sound, she realized with a shock, was that of laboured breath, which kept catching and bubbling as if in a narrow, constricted throat. In an instant, she was transported back, twenty-eight years, to her child’s first sickbed. She whispered her daughter’s name — “Susan?” — and the breathing quickened and grew more liquid. A voice began to emerge from the bubbling mess of sound: a child’s voice, she took it to be, high and pitiful, attempting, as if with tremendous effort, to form words.”

So simple. So understated. A few footsteps… a blurred shape. On their own, they’re rather innocent. Together, experienced in the top rooms of a lonely old house, they nibble away at the psyche — and reduce it to tears — one shiver at a time.

So too it goes with the aforementioned shadow. The quiet whisper.

In the right (wrong?) circumstances, the shadow becomes a stalker.  The whisper, a ghost. And the closing door, your last chance of getting out alive.

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My name is Tad and I’m an exchange student

There is a running joke in my house that I am the butt of. (Actually there are several, but this post is about one of them.) It started a few years back when Steve stumbled across some old pictures of me from grade school. Before we go any farther, let me paint a little picture of me in, oh, let’s say anywhere from grade 3 to 7.

Me_in_blue_stop_Exch_student_Sept2013

Tall. Very tall — almost always the tallest kid (not just girl, but kid) in the class.

Glasses. With taped, lopsided frames that were perpetually broken because I took them off and then stepped on them or sat on them or — in one instance that I can remember — fell on them.

Avid reader. This, of course, was long before the advent of book clubs and e-readers and enrollment in journalism school. This is circa 1977 when boys wore mullets, girls wore tube tops, and tall, book-reading people with glasses were spazzes.

You get the picture.

Needless to say, when Steve came across these old photos of me, in some album in the back of some closet (ours, I guess), he said, “You look like an exchange student.”

No offence to any foreign students who, simply by virtue of making it into an exchange program are, in all likelihood, a lot smarter than me and will go a lot farther in life than I have.

But you have to admit that the very words “exchange student” tend to conjure up images of crispy shirts and discount jeans and tight ponytails jutting out at all angles on the head.

Then again, maybe I’m recalling a back-to-school shopping trip to Simpsons with my mum: “Tad! Tadsy! I’ve found more coats over here!”

Did I mention my nickname was Tad? It still is, to some degree, though at work and in much of my social life now, people know me as Edana. Longtime friends still call me Tad. Back in grade school, I was Tad to everyone. This was in an era of Nancys and Lindas and Valeries and Brendas. “Maria” was ethnic, and there certainly were no Mackenzies or Crees or Coltons or Noahs. “Tad?” I especially remember French class, where teachers often would try to Frenchify students’ names. Mary. Marie. Theresa. Therèse. John. Jean. Tad. Tad. “Oui madame. Il fait froid et je m’apelle Tad.”

Me_at_desk_Exch_student_Sept2014

How did I get the name Tad? My mum’s name was Teddi, and when I was born (first — the oldest of three kids), I was “a little Tad of Ted”. Somehow it stuck.

The odd name just seemed to reinforce my sense that I was an odd kid. Though it wasn’t until I’d left grade school — probably into my 20s, in fact — that I realized in hindsight that I had been a de facto nerd. I wasn’t ostracized or bullied, thankfully, but I definitely was not one of the cool kids.

I remember, for instance, making up excuses to avoid parties (“Sorry, we’re going to Hamilton that weekend”) because I didn’t want to have face another uncomfortable, ucky game of spin the bottle.

I often had trouble finding pants long enough for me, and ended up with floods as a result. This is in addition to a wardrobe of gauchos (ouch), painter paints (anyone seen Lurch?) and peasant dresses (think Mennonite hooker).

I daydreamed in class, and frequently got called on it, having to suddenly explain the difference between a quadrilateral and parallelogram right when I was in the middle of helping Nancy Drew solve the Mystery of Larkspur Lane.

Math in particular was a weakness for me, which might contradict my nerd theory but in fact seemed core to my nerdiness. You see, being good at English wasn’t admired the way being good at math was. Moreover, it seemed a lot of the cool kids excelled at math. Not I, said the goose. In grade 12, I was informed by my math teacher just before exams that if I didn’t pass the exam, I wouldn’t pass the course. I squeezed by with a 51. It was the last time I took math — and the math industry breathed a sigh of relief.

Now, I’m glad things turned out the way they did because I like to write and have been lucky enough to make my living from it. I’ve also come to believe that writing and nerdiness are closely connected. If you’re not at least somewhat weird and obsessive, how are you going to care whether that sentence calls for a comma or semi-colon? Or whether to use “provide”, “supply”, “offer” or “deliver” in that headline? Or whether that paragraph could be 10 words shorter? These are deep questions, and it takes a certain kind of person to spend their days pondering them.

The truth is, of course, that at heart, we’re all nerds. The sooner you realize that and embrace it — and laugh at it — the more you will enjoy life. Yes, we admire the hero, the model, the mogul, but we identify with the underdog, the awkward kid… the exchange student. My wise mom used to say, “Perfection is dull.” I remind Me_in_class_cropped_Exch_student_Sept2014Steve of that often.

To all the students, exchange or otherwise, who are now entering another school year — and to those of us who finished a long time ago — I have this to say:  To thine own self be true.

The House at the End: Chapter One

Serial killer John Reginald Christie

Imagine yourself a child living down the street from a serial killer.  This is the premise of my first book, and I’ve taken the plunge and posted the first chapter here. My story is based on events surrounding real-life serial killer John Reginald Christie. Christie lived in a dingy street called Rillington Place, in north Kensington, London, from 1937 to 1953. I don’t want to say too much more, other than I’m hoping for feedback — and I hope you like it.

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Most people in Britain would tell you the thing they remembered most about March 24th, 1953 — if they remembered it at all — was that it was the day Queen Mary died. She was a well-liked queen — as much as you can like someone you’ve only ever seen in pictures. People used words like ‘enduring’ and ‘steadfast’ and ‘dignified’ when they talked about her.

Mum, on the other hand, was more forthright. “I’m tellin’ you, Arthur,” I’d heard her say to my father about a month earlier, after yet another news story on her worsening ‘gastric illness’ (which we all later learned was cancer), “I don’t know how she put up with him — him ‘n his stamps ‘n bloody shooting. Could he have been any duller?” ‘He’ and ‘him’, of course, being George V. He’d died of flu in 1936.

And now, seventeen years later, to no one’s surprise, it appeared Mary was going to join him. By the time the BBC interrupted the Light and Third Programmes well after ten o’clock that March night, Britons had braced themselves for the worst — and being Britons, took great pleasure in proving themselves right. “Didn’t I tell you Arthur?” mum said, nodding sagely into her tea towel as she dried the mugs she and dad used for nighty-nights. Dad, meanwhile, sitting at the kitchen table scanning the football scores, barely mumbled a reply. Not that mum expected or needed one. She knew she was right.

By the next morning, the Queen’s death had preoccupied the country. Except our street, where her passing had taken a back seat to events that were unfolding in the house at the end. Number 10. It was Mr. Brown who found them. The bodies, that is. He’d been fixing up the downstairs kitchen and been looking for a place to put a little shelf for his wireless. He’d started peeling off some wallpaper, and had come across a hidden door.

But this is actually where the story ends. I should probably start at the beginning, turning the clock back five years to the time when I first met one of the tenants of Number 10, Beryl Evans.

Looking back on my neighbourly acquaintance with Beryl through grown-up eyes, I can see now what a young, naïve girl she was. A girl who, at eighteen, might have seen marriage as an escape, but on the contrary found herself pregnant and a prisoner in our harsh, gritty pocket of Notting Hill, relegated to a life of cramped, treeless row housing and dirt-bare gardens, with outdoor lavvies that stank in summer, and grey sheets and knickers perpetually strung up between soot-covered walls.

But this is hindsight talking. At the time, it was simply where I lived. Where we all lived — my mum and dad and older sister. Plus my two best friends, Elsie and Bel. Short for Annabel. Though Bel didn’t actually live on our street; she lived round the corner on St. Mark’s Road. Regardless, the three of us were inseparable. We also were rather mischievous given half the chance. Elsie was the ringleader. She was always daring one of us to do something outrageous. Nick allsorts from the grocery store. Blow kisses to the milkman (he once blew them back). Exchange Mr. Heavey’s post with Mrs. Phelps’. Say good morning to queer old Mr. Christie — which I did, and which led to my introduction to Beryl. Here’s how it happened.

It was a Saturday morning — a fine day in May so sunny and fresh that even Rillington Place looked…well, if not quite inviting then perhaps more habitable than it usually did. We sat on the pavement outside my front door playing jacks. Bel was winning — she almost always won at jacks — and Elsie, as usual, didn’t like it. She was looking for a diversion, and she soon found one. The front door at Number 10 had opened and out had come Mr. Christie. Reggie No-Dick, I’d once overheard someone call him (not to his face, of course). At the time, being twelve years old, in post-war Britain no less, I couldn’t quite (pardon the pun) grasp the anatomical ramifications of ‘no dick’. Oh, I knew well enough what ‘dick’ meant, but no dick? How could that be? How on earth did he pee? Urination was as far as my ponderings took me; it wasn’t until years later that I discovered that ‘Reggie No-Dick’ and his other nickname, ‘Can’t-do-it-Christie’, were the result of his rumoured impotence — rumours that had haunted him from an early age growing up in Yorkshire.

“Go say hello to him,” Elsie whispered, nudging me in the ribs with a bony kneecap.

You say it!” I hissed back, knowing full well that Elsie would get her way. I was a bit of a pushover (‘non-confrontational’ is how I like to put it now) and Elsie, being Elsie, was extremely persuasive.

“Come on, I dare you.” Elsie taunted. “Double-dare. Triple-dare!”

How could I turn down a triple dare and retain any semblance of pride? I looked sideways at Bel, who kept her eyes down, clearly wanting nothing to do with any of this. She in fact was more non-confrontational than I. But she was killer at jacks. Alas, in the unofficial pecking order this particular day, I was the number-one peckee and Elsie, the supreme pecker.

“Hurry you silly cow, before he goes back inside!” She was getting more impatient, and bumped me again with her knee, harder this time.

I looked across at him. He was slowly and purposefully washing his front window. Watching him methodically soap and rinse each square of glass — and appreciating, even then, what little good it did in this tired, grey street of ours — I was struck once again by what an odd man he was. Tall and rakey, with a bald, egg-shaped dome of a head and a weasely face made all the more weasely by his small, round spectacles. His wife, Ethel, was the complete opposite: large and buxomly, with tight curls framing saggy jowls. She was much nicer than him, however, and often would stop and say hello or have a quick chat with mum.

Elsie kneed me a third time.

“Stop it!”

“Well go!”

“What do I say?”

“Just say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Christie’.” Elsie giggled wickedly. “What a beautiful morning it is, and what a fine job you’re doing on those windows. Would you like to do ours when you’re finished?” She let out a raucous laugh. Across the road, Christie’s circular scrubbing had slowed, and while he didn’t look over, I sensed he was listening. Inwardly, I shivered. Aside from looking both gawky and crusty at the same time, there was something about him I didn’t like. Something I didn’t trust, but couldn’t articulate.

“I’m not asking him to do any bloody windows!” I retorted.

“Well, then, go over and ask him if you can help him wash his.” More peals of laughter. This time Christie shot a glance in our direction.

Just as I was plucking up my courage to do something — if only to shut Elsie up — the door to Number 10 opened again. It was a woman this time. The young, pretty woman who’d moved in last year with her husband. Her name was Beryl, mum had said. Her husband was Timothy. I’d seen them come and go the odd time, but never had spoken with them beyond exchanging the odd shy hello.

At the moment, Beryl was maneuvering the baby’s pram through the front door, shifting it this way and that to nudge it past the frame. The jigging and bouncing caused the unseen occupant inside to cry out. Mr. Christie glanced over but made no move to help. The crying grew louder. I could see the woman look scornfully at him, making a face that he couldn’t see as he bent back over his bucket. I smiled to myself, thinking that if I were a bit older, I could imagine Beryl and I being great chums. I had flashes of pyjama parties and toe-nail painting and hair in rags, which would have continued a few moments longer had Beryl’s voice not interrupted them.

“There’s a good girl, now, Geraldine. Time for sleep.” She rocked the pram gently back and forth on its squeaky wheels. By now, Mr. Christie had finished the windows and was trying to squeeze by her to get back in the door. She jerked the pram to one side so he could pass, and the motion caused Geraldine to erupt once more into loud wails. Behind her, the door slammed shut.

“Sod off, bloody idiot,” she spat, not realizing she had an audience. “Right, Geraldine, let’s get you out for a moment.” And out she came from under the bonnet, a cherubic, downy-headed baby wrapped in a yellow blanket. Beryl tucked her up against her shoulder. Geraldine was now quiet, peering wide-eyed over her mother’s shoulder at us. We all waved at her. Beryl, meanwhile, kept her back to us. She reached into the pram again, rummaged around, then pulled out a soother, which she plopped into Geraldine’s mouth.

“There now. Maybe now you’ll have a little nap for mummy.”

Most parents, as I myself later discovered, are nothing short of relieved when their so-called bundle of joy finally drifts off, giving mummy or daddy — usually the former — a bit of precious time to themselves. Beryl, however, probably would have preferred if Geraldine had slept indefinitely, which is a bit ironic considering the events that were soon to transpire.  It was rumoured on the street that she had about as much interest in child-rearing as she did in housekeeping, and judging by the almost eternally unwashed state of her daughter (this according to my mother’s back-fence gossip), Beryl clearly was no housekeeper. She also liked to spend what little money Timothy brought home, and as an illiterate lorry driver who drank a lot of his pay away at the the Kensington Park Hotel, he was unable to keep his wife in the manner to which she no doubt would like to be accustomed. They fought often, and loudly. Not that we were nosey (though I can’t say the same for my mother); it’s just that on such a jammed little street with our houses practically on top of one another, it was hard to ignore the goings-on of our neighbours.

Rillington Place in 1970, after it had been renamed Ruston Close.

But this was my first real encounter with Beryl. She and Timothy had moved in last spring and Geraldine had been born in the fall. With the baby to keep her busy, she didn’t get out as much as she liked, and now with the weather turning fine and Geraldine a little older, sturdier and more portable, perhaps Beryl would have more outings like this one.

She still stood with her back to us, but now she’d become aware of her daughter’s apparent rapt attention. She spun around.

“Well hallo! I didn’t know anyone was here!” She bounced Geraldine nervously, clearly caught unawares. “Look Geraldine, we’ve got company.” She craned her neck and peered around into her daughter’s face, playing proud mum. Geraldine’s hair was now visibly greasy, her blanket covered in stains. Continuing to stare at us, her jaw slackened and her soother dropped out of her mouth. Her lips searched hungrily for a replacement and found tight, grimy little fists. A few seconds later, long wet strings of drool were dripping off them.  Beryl rolled her eyes. “Geraldine, for goodness sake — mind your manners!” It seemed as if Beryl was trying to make a good first impression and was finding her daughter embarrassing. It struck me as odd that a grown woman would expect a teething infant to mind her manners. Geraldine seemed blissfully unaware of her mother’s embarrassment and continued to gnaw away. Beryl, meanwhile, struggled to keep the baby upright while stooping down sideways to retrieve the soother from the pavement. Geraldine’s face crinkled unhappily. Before it could disappear behind a wail, I’d jumped up and run across to help. Beryl had managed to retrieve the soother and now was wiping it on her skirt. Feeling compelled to explain the lack of hygiene, she motioned to the door of Number 10. “I don’t want to climb them stairs again.”

“I can run across and wash it at my house,” I offered, eager to help as well as thwart any further attempts by Elsie to embarrass me. I sensed Beryl’s hesitation. She seemed to want to get going, but didn’t want to appear ungracious or unclean by declining my offer. I quickly added, “I won’t be a minute.”

Beryl smiled — it was a wide, lipsticked smile, like a film star’s, making her all the more an anomaly in our dreary street. “Thank you — that’s very sweet of you.”

Back at my door, Elsie and Bel were silent, obviously taken aback at my uncharacteristic impulsiveness and Samaritan-like bravery. In the kitchen, mum sat at the table peeling potatoes. She watched with mild interest as I ran past her to the kettle that sat on our stove, perpetually filled and waiting for the next pot of tea. “What are you doing?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t nothing me. What on earth are you doing with the kettle?”

“Nothing mum.”

“Is that a baby soother you’ve got?” Voice getting louder. Perennial frown becoming more pronounced. “Don’t dip the bloody thing in the tea water! Heaven only knows what it might be carrying!”

But it was too late. I had dipped and dashed and was heading out the door again, wondering about the logic of worrying about germs from a baby’s soother in a street where cockroaches and rats were akin to house pets.

Seconds later I was back in front of Number 10. Elsie and Bel had not moved. Geraldine was now fidgety and whiny, with Beryl frantically rocking and bobbing to keep the wailing at bay. She was clearly relieved when I returned, clean soother in hand. Geraldine saw it coming and opened her mouth gratefully to receive it. A few seconds of sucking and her eyes were heavy.

“I’d better pop her in before she drops it again.” Beryl lowered the baby back into the pram and pulled the shade down low. “Thank you so much; I’m ever so grateful.” She looked back at the door a final time. “I try to avoid the ups and downs on the stairs with the pram. Mr. Christie doesn’t like it. Not to mention the fact that it’s bloody exhausting.” She laughed, and I smiled. She was so pretty. So… bubbly. Yes, that was it. I’d heard bubbly used to describe people — usually women — and for Beryl it was a perfect fit.

“Well, I really must get going or she’ll wake up in the queue at Sainsbury’s.” She gave an awkward little wave and we all waved back. Then she gave the pram a push and was off.

We watched her click-clack her way down the street in her scuffed black pumps, purse swinging and little hat perched on one side of her head. The squeaking and rattling of the pram lessened as she went and, eventually, when she turned onto busier St. Mark’s Road, it disappeared.

The front door of Number 10 opened again. It was Mr. Christie. Startled, I stood there wordlessly, looking up at him. “What do you want?” He squinted in the sunlight, which bounced off his shiny head. Suddenly part of me wanted to laugh. Another part of me knew better.

“I… Nothing, Mr. —“

“Well don’t be hanging about, then — off with you.” And he slammed the door shut once more.

I needed no further prompting. Running to the safety of front door and friends, I saw they were both spooked as well.

“He’s absolutely batty,” said Bel.

“He reminds me of a lizard,” said Elsie.

“Why a lizard?” I asked.

“Because he seems — I dunno — kind of slimy.”

“Lizards aren’t slimy,” Bel corrected. “Worms are slimy.”

“Thank you Miss Encyclopedia Britannica.” Elsie rolled her eyes. “Actually, I’ve changed my mind. His bald head looks like the end of a giant,” — she paused for effect — “a giant willy.”

10 Rillington Place

We all looked at one another, the collective vision of a spectacled penis hanging silently above our heads. Bel’s eyes bulged and her cheeks puckered. The laughter exploded from her a second later, and soon all three of us were doubled over. A quick glance over at Number 10 sobered me up; there at the window peering out between a curtained slit was Christie. The slit closed again.

“Come on everyone,” I rallied, “let’s go in and have some toffee. Mum’s just been shopping.” With sweets still in short supply — the last vestiges of rationing — everyone gladly agreed, knowing that in my house, with my dad and older sister on the prowl, we’d be wise to get some now as it might all be gone by tea.

[end of Chapter One]

Old friends, new season

There aren’t many people in this world I’ve known for 30 years — my beloved hubby included — so when I meet up with them for a girls’ weekend, it’s worth a blog post.

I met Michelle and Tyrone (she goes by “Ty”) in 1984. We were all working at Boutique Marie Claire, a women’s clothing chain some of you might remember. It’s still up and running in eastern Canada and Quebec but, going by their website, no longer has locations in the Toronto area. Michelle, Ty and I worked at the Sheppard Centre location, in Toronto’s north end. I was 19 at the time, going to Ryerson and living with my parents at Yonge and St. Clair. Tyrone had recently moved with her family from Sudbury to Toronto’s west end. Michelle, meanwhile, was a farm girl from Zurich, Ontario who had a boyfriend (now her husband) back home and took the train back most weekends to see him.

We were a mixed bag, to say the least. And I don’t think any of us would have predicted our friendship would last through the relationships, relocation, challenges and change that life can throw at you over three decades.

But there we were last weekend, ushering in summer together in London, Ontario in Ty’s exquisite little back patio, surrounded by flowers and warm June sun, sipping cold drinks and reminiscing. And there was no shortage of grist for the memory mill.

We talked about old friends and boyfriends — one of whom, incidentally, Ty has recently reunited with and fallen in love with all over again. He was her high school sweetheart. (I have yet to meet Glenn but he sounds like a terrific guy and treats Ty like a queen — as she so deserves).Tys_backyard

We talked about odd people we used to know, like a former roommate of Michelle’s who had two names — and personalities and voices to go with them: there was “Randy”, the nasally-voiced dweeb who fussed and worried himself silly over everything, and there was the Sam Elliott-voiced manly man who answered the phone as “Wayne”, sounding like he could sell Dodge RAM trucks. What’s up with that, you ask? Michelle still doesn’t know. Though Randy/Wayne, if you’re reading this: thank you — you gave us a lot of laughs last weekend.

We also talked a lot about Grand Bend — our long-ago summer haunt on Lake Huron, made particularly convenient by the fact that Michelle lived in Exeter (and still does), about 20 minutes away. Oh, the summer days and nights we spent cruising the beach and bars in the Bend with Michelle’s local, very friendly gang of friends. I remember sitting at crowded tables, sipping tall bottles of Blue Light (when it was new) and watching videos on MTV (it was new too). I remember Phil Collins (“Sussudio”), Gino Vanelli (“Black Cars”), and Wham (“Go Go”). I remember striped t-shirts, big hair, plastic bangles, and neon eye-shadow (which I believe, if I’m as hip to the jive as I think I am, has made a recent comeback).

Ty and I would take the train from Toronto to St. Mary’s, southwest of Stratford, and Michelle (and often her boyfriend Fred) would pick us up and drive us the final leg of the journey to Exeter. There, we would bunk in Michelle’s cozy apartment, spreading clothes and makeup around the place. We would take hours to “get ready” before going out and, when we finally did, would leave behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, perfume, hair spray and nail polish fumes.

At the end of the night, with makeup sweated off and hair uncurled, we would stop by the Derby Dip, a terrific little one-off burger joint that spawned a mantra all three of us still remember: “Hip, hip, the Derby Dip; here, here, another beer!” (Hey, it was the 80s.)

They were great times, and gave us many great summer memories. And now, as I type this, pausing to look out the window at a beautiful sunny, blue-sky-ed Friday, the first official long weekend (I’m off Monday June 30th) of another summer beckons. I’m deliciously anticipating a few days of relaxing with cold beverages, maybe some good movies, a great book, and the odd nap.

In between, I will be thinking about summers past, and the good friends I’ve been lucky to share them with. Happy Canada Day to you all.

xo

girls_dinner

Me, Michelle and Ty

Jammin’ with the ladies of the guild

I suspect most people have what you might call a “go-to” TV show. This would be a program that you watch in re-runs, buy as a boxed set, and even forsake date night for. Why? Because in some way, you identify with it on a deeper level. Somehow, the combination of characters, storyline, dialogue, setting and even music come together to hit a cerebral sweet spot.

Such is the case with a quirky British series that, alas, was on for a brief three seasons a few years back but which I recently rediscovered on YouTube — reminding me once again why I love it so much. It’s called Jam & Jerusalem.

It’s called what?

Read on.

The show takes place in a fictional village called Clatterford, in the county of Devon on England’s south coast. I would use words like “quaint” and “charming”, but they feel canned in the context of this lovely place and its eccentric, endearing inhabitants. The series begins with the main character, Sal Vine (the one in white in the group shot below, played by Sue Johnston), meeting up with the chair of the local ladies’ guild. Sal has so far resisted joining the guild, explaining in the first episode that it’s “just not my scene.”

Later she tells best friend Tip, “Promise me you’ll kill me if I ever relent and join the guild.” Tip replies (with a smirk and an Irish lilt): “I’ll kill ye and I’ll knit ye a coffin.”

Eventually, due to a change in family circumstances, Sal gives in. And so, over 19 episodes, we come to know a motley, lovable crew of characters.

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There’s Rosie (played by the one-and-only Dawn French), who has a split personality, the two halves of which (her alter-ego is the nasty Margaret) are often seen verbally duking it out. As an aside, Rosie works in the local cheese factory, and frequently pulls from a coat pocket or rucksack a slab of cheese (“for goodness”) which appears to serve equally well as snack, peace offering and hostess gift.

There’s Delilah, the old village crotchet who plays the dementia card when it suits her (at the pub, mostly) and who apparently was good friends with Adolf Hitler. (I dare you to find Joanna Lumley behind that frazzled grey hair and knitted tam.)

Then there’s Kate, the rather whiny grievance counselor who cries at the mere mention of her late husband (he died five years previously) and can’t make a decision to save her life.

Eileen, the highly flappable guild chair, sheds some light on the show’s name when she tells Sal that the guild is “not all jam and Jerusalem”. Probably fearing that such a title was too odd and English for a North American audience, the show’s producers marketed it here as Clatterford.

My absolute favourite character bar-none is Tash, Sal’s hippie, feminist daughter whose naive self-absorption and lack of ambition is, of course, lost on her but annoyingly evident to everyone around her. I quote:

Sal:   “Tash why don’t you tell [brother] James about your new job?”

Tash:     “Oh — Tash in the pubthe drinky, servy, slavery thing. I don’t do that anymore, mum.”

James:   “Surprise, surprise.”

Tash:     “It was all like ‘Hey, I’ve been waiting over an hour!’ and ‘Me, me, me, me, me!’ and ‘Where’s my pudding?’ You know? Like, I didn’t have any feelings? Or beliefs? I do have, like, human limitations, you know, and it wasn’t like we invited these people to come; they just, like, turn up!”

James:   “But they’re paying you.”

Tash:     “Oh, so I have to prostitute myself? I’ve got news for you: I cannot be bought. Mum, am I a nihilist or an anarchist?”

Sal:         “You’re unemployed, luv.”

It goes without saying that the writing on the show is bloody brilliant. The woman behind it is the incomparable Jennifer Saunders; she also plays a character in the show — and here’s a bit of trivia: her daughter on the show is her real daughter. You might also know Saunders from her role as the wacky, champagne-guzzling Edina (“Sweetie!”) in Absolutely Fabulous.

Interestingly, Saunders moved with her husband and family to a 400-year-old farmhouse in Devon in 2001, a few years before Jam & Jerusalem aired. No doubt her characters and storylines drew from a great deal of personal experience.

Which brings me to why I love the show — among all the other British shows I love, and there are many. What, I ask myself, is it aImagebout this one that really stands out for me? Gorgeous setting? Check. Eclectic characters? Check. Great dialogue. Check. Wonderful music (by the sweet-voiced Kate Rusby)? Check.

But it’s more than that. I want to live in Clatterford. I want those people for neighbours. I want to drink in that pub (that’s not really a gauge — I like drinking in most pubs, though the Fountain is an especially lovely spot). And most of all, I want to join the guild.

With that perfect balance of comedy and drama that the Brits do so well — always keeping it real and never rubbing your nose in it — Jam and Jerusalem whisks me away to a kinder, gentler place that, for me, is the perfect (gin and) tonic for whatever ails me.

PS: Since starting on this post, I’ve sadly discovered that BBC WorldWide on YouTube has nixed all freely available Jam & Jerusalem uploads. I’ve nosed around BBC WorldWide a bit and haven’t found them there — if you manage to find them, please post a comment and let me know!