A system of little honour…

The Chinese girl turned out to be Korean. She also got herself flummoxed by the buses. A series of panicky emails arrived and in the last one she was about to catch the bus to Wigginton – entirely the wrong end of town.

Wait there, I’ll drive down, I emailed back.

“Oh my god Sorry… thank you so much…”

Another unplanned act of kindness in my role as an accidental B&B host. Lifts aren’t part of the deal for Airbnb, at least in theory. One potential visitor rather grandly requested I pick her up at the station. I declined and she stayed elsewhere.

Yet there I was, circling round the traffic-clogged station and failing to find anywhere to park, before nipping in to pick up the not Chinese girl. Later our new guest went out to eat and sent another email saying she couldn’t find the house. I didn’t spot that one until she’d returned. “Found it,” she said in a fresh email, even though I could hear her walking round in the bedroom upstairs.

Today sees the publication of the New Year’s Honours List, an occasion traditionally marked by a row over gong allocation. There are no honours suitable to a freelance journalist/blogger/accidental B&B host/jobseeker. Not that Man On Ledge is a fan of the honours system.

What we see nowadays is another crusty relic of our constitution, left over from when medieval monarchs wished to win over the land-owning classes with a title or two. It’s a curious mix of hereditary monarchy and political patronage, with an oddly nostalgic tang of long-gone Empire.

At times there have been attempts at applying a gloss of democracy. Harold Wilson issued MBEs for the Beatles, introducing the notion of gongs for famous entertainers or sportsmen, while John Major brought in public nominations in the 1990s (a fair enough idea).

If Major nodded to the public, David Cameron returns to the ignoble tradition of handing out stately baubles for party supporters or members, with 30 Conservatives earning an honour.

The most high-profile of these is a knighthood for the Australian right-wing political strategist Lynton Crosby, credited with winning the election for Cameron. That is like honouring Machiavelli for services to devilish manipulation. And as Niccolo is no longer available for hire, Crosby is the nearest equivalent in the dark arts of political gamesmanship.

Even the usually Tory-supporting Daily Mail today lays into the awards – “Gongs for cronies, donors and bungling bureaucrats” – while the Independent goes for “New Year’s Cronies list” and its smart little sister the ‘i’ prefers “The crony list: Tories take the honours.”

A little shabbier than usual, in other words. Honours should be given, if they should be given at all, to those who have served the country in some fashion; a political party is not synonymous with the country. Or it shouldn’t be. Sadly, Cameron’s Tories fail to see any difference, and hence feel it is perfectly fine to hand fistfuls of tainted baubles to their backers and buddies.

Honouring Crosby for unexpectedly swinging the election for the Conservatives is a dodgy piece of patronage. But will the honours system ever change? Unlikely, as it seems to be one of those musty daft British traditions that just stagger on, sometimes honouring the deserved, and sometimes seeming to be a system of little honour.

One answer would be for all politicians and bureaucrats to be deemed out of bounds. That way the partisan backslapping might dwindle and disappear.

Waiting for the next guest amid the wind and rain…

LATE to the laptop today. One set of guests has just left and another visitor is about to arrive. We should get a good ‘review’ from the recent departures. My mother and her partner have stayed here before and keep coming back.

Over Christmas we had the in-laws and two of our three to stay (the eldest lives in York, so popped in and out). The passage of all those people turned the house messier than usual, so this morning the accidental B&B host set about cleaning and tidying – and sighing occasionally – in readiness for the new guest.

I know little about her, except that she is 18 and appears to be Chinese. More will be discovered in time. That’s the fun of having people come and go. Mothers and in-laws stay for free, along with the offspring too, so our last paying guest was the French woman who wanted to settle in York for a few months to improve her English, which was already way better than my French, although that is not much of a commendation.

She found somewhere to live, and moved on. Hopefully she now has a job and is doing all right. That’s the way with guests. You get to know them a little, then they are gone and someone else rolls up.

So now I am sitting downstairs in a tidy house, waiting for the doorbell. Outside this weird winter is doing its stormy thing. No rain yet and never mind today’s Daily Express warning: “A MONTH’S RAIN TO FALL TODAY.”

But wind, hell what wind.

I have a view over the garden and can see the trees swaying and flexing, while bits of winter debris, the dried detritus of once-living plants, blow and scuttle around.

The bin rolled away earlier. Once recaptured it was weighted down with the small compost bin, and perhaps it will now stay obedient to me rather than the wind.

The conservatory roof strains and bangs, bits of this and that blow and rattle across its sloping surface, while the chimney behind the gas fire makes its own windy noise.

Sometimes it is hard to decide whether the wind or rain is more irksome this winter, but in the rain wins that argument in the end, especially here in York. The floodwaters are receding, which is good – but much of the city has remained dry anyway, even amid such widespread flooding. There has been no flooding round where we live, so it has been strange to hear so much about the risen waters, while remaining dry, guiltily dry almost.

Over in Tadcaster the old bridge linking the town was swept away yesterday, the dramatic mobile-shot footage playing again and again on social media and the TV news, as the bridge curled with the weight of water, then folded over and collapsed into the surging river.

On one level you can only be fatalistic: these things will happen and we cannot control all aspects of the weather. That said, there is much more we could do to tame the deluge after the rain falls in untold quantities (see the George Monbiot column in yesterday’s Guardian, which I shared on Facebook).

Now I am no engineer, no water expert either, no expert in anything other than the tricks I’ve learned, old and useless tricks some of them. But surely it makes sense to consider what happens when the rainfall lands high in the moors and mountains, to contain the water there, rather than digging and dredging our way to trouble by making the rivers run too quickly and full until the inevitable inundation of our towns and cities – most of them in the north.

Time for an independent floods commission, funded by government but kept at one remove. That way we would be free of the ducking and diving of party politics – and free, perhaps, from David Cameron and his photo-op wellies.

Cameron wades through in photo-op wellies…

BRING some proper answers rather than soggy platitudes and damp excuses – that’s how yesterday’s blog ended. To no general surprise in waterlogged York, David Cameron offered both responses during his short visit to the city.

The following comment was doing the rounds on social media when the prime minister arrived in James Street to “look at some sandbags” – “No applause, no babies to be kissed, just a single voice from a lad in hi-vis asking: ‘Why’s he got f***ing wellies on for?’”

At least that last question was quickly answered. Cameron had donned rubber footwear so that he could be photographed talking to soldiers while standing in a flooded street. And you can’t get better than a quick-fit photo-op from a wally in wellies.

Tellingly, the prime minister was also wearing two other noticeable items: a face of constipated concern and a walking jacket bearing the brand label: “The North Face.”

It is perfectly possible that he grabbed this jacket as left Downing Street. But is it equally plausible to wonder. Had a ministerial minion been sent out to buy this jacket for the subliminal message it might convey?

As well as his concerned face, Cameron appeared in York with the words ‘North Face’ plainly on display. Perhaps he thought this might win over the locals with filthy river water coming up through their floorboards. Maybe he thought his north-facing coat would strike the right note of concern.

Now it might seem silly to dwell on the prime minister’s jacket, but if you follow the guarded rule that nothing in politics happens by accident, then this sartorial conspiracy theory has legs – and those legs were topped off by photo-op wellies.

Many headlines this morning summon up the north-south divide. The Independent suggests that “budget cuts intensified the impact of floods” above a report saying a senior official warned two months ago that cuts would lead to the scrapping of defences in Yorkshire.

The Daily Mirror, no friend to the prime minister, comes up with “Dam you, Cam” – adding that “crocodile tears from the PR PM” cannot hide his culpability for cuts in flood defence spending”.

The Telegraph offers a contrary view, suggesting it is time for a realistic debate on how much the country can afford to spend on flood defences and other vital infrastructure. Well, the answer to that surely lies in the adjective: if they’re ‘vital’ such projects are needed.

Attention in the nationals has also focused on what the northern papers have had to say, especially the newspapers in Leeds, where the floods hit just before the rivers rose to their highest point in York.

Under the banner headline “Indefensible”, the Yorkshire Evening Post ran a front-page editorial which argued: “It remains the case that such events, like those witnessed in this city, are unthinkable in London and much of the south-east, where state-of-the-art flood defences have long been in place.”

Its sister paper, the Yorkshire Post, traditionally a Conservative-leaning newspaper, meanwhile said in its editorial: “The prime minister repeatedly used the word ‘unprecedented’ to describe this winter’s storms. Yet every fortnight brings ‘unprecedented’ levels of new flooding and the same pious platitudes from politicians, such as the environment secretary, Liz Truss, whose rhetoric is increasingly economical with the truth.”

Truss was at it again yesterday, stretching the truth bubble-gum-thin as she spouted statistics while standing on a wobbly raft of rhetoric.

What goes for Leeds goes for York too – and Manchester, and parts of West Yorkshire and Cumbia as well.

Last week the former Times editor Simon Jenkins made a telling point in his Guardian column when he said that “the latest figure for infrastructure spending on each Londoner is £5,500 a year, against Yorkshire’s £580 a head and the north-east’s £220.”

In other words, London gets what London wants and the rest of the country can whistle. All those oily promises from George Osborne about a northern powerhouse come to nothing if the basement is flooded and the power has been switched off.

As for York, the city will recover as it always does. Community spirit has surfaced once again. People will pull through in the end. But how many times will they have to suffer before something is done to stop this happening again; and how many times will they have to see a prime minister put on wellies so that he can mumble statistics while evading the truth about funding and cuts?

And will we ever again have to see Huntington Road turned into a flowing river and the centre of York flooded out in so many directions?

If you want answers to these questions, as the people of this city do, then you will have found little reassurance in what David Cameron had to say yesterday.

Pulling together in York… but don’t blame foreign aid

EVERYONE in York must know someone who has been flooded. We have old friends who live in Huntington Road where many houses have been inundated.

This part of York was hit by the decision to lift the Foss flood barrier after the pumping station was itself in danger of flooding. According to reports, the decision was taken to lift the barrier, sacrificing some homes in order to preserve others. Huntington Road flooded in 2000, although not to the present extent.

While sterling work from the Army, fire brigade and others helps ease the crisis, sandbags and community spirit are only part of the answer.

People pulling together is one natural response to a crisis. Another is to find someone to blame. The Daily Mail newspaper has built its reputation on spraying blame about, and to that end has been reporting that millions are sent in aid to the world’s most corrupt nations while Britons face misery after their towns and cities are swamped by flooding.

A Mail reporter managed to find people in York who were upset by money being spent on foreign aid rather than flooding. The problem here is that a nonsensical link is being made. Homes in York have not flooded because money is spent on foreign aid; they have flooded because Britain has failed to learn how to deal with increasingly wet winters – sometimes violently wet winters.

Making this link in this manner gives the impression that foreign aid is to blame. Maybe some foreign aid could be better spent elsewhere, but linking foreign aid and flooding in York is simply scurrilous.

You could as easily say that planning to spend untold billions on renewing Trident nuclear submarines while we can’t even keep water out of our homes is utter madness. Do we really want to blow a reported £10 billion on what amounts to a dodgy insurance policy?

David Cameron may be dropping in on York later today, wellies and bland generalities to hand. He was on the news last night saying we are there at your time of need, or some such pious claptrap.

York doesn’t need the prime minister now – it needs him to come up with flood policies that work, rather than spouting on about how the rain we now have is “unprecedented”. The thing is, such torrential downpours are no longer unprecedented as they keep occurring.

Social media played an enormous role in keeping people informed in York yesterday. I went for a run first thing and saw the waters flooding down Skeldergate and saw the River Ouse seemingly wider, deeper and faster at that point than ever before.

After that I followed the story on Facebook, sometimes looking at the photographs and short videos people were uploading from their smart phones; and sometimes dipping into official media streams.

Facebook turns out to be a good medium for keeping track of what is happening locally at such a time. Sometimes with social media the wrong end of the stick is grasped and flourished in a way a more responsible media outlet would fight shy of doing – often because what is being ‘reported’ turned out to be factually wrong.

But as a means of allowing, to use the dread phrase, citizen journalists to record a breaking story where the facts are plain to see, Facebook turned out to be useful and illuminating.

As, too, were more official sites, with fantastic offerings from established photographers too (in a city where the daily newspaper has laid off all but one of its photographers). But yesterday was a first for this dedicated follower of the news: apart from a quick dip into the BBC news, everything came to me from my smart phone, often live and as it happened.

Including this much-mentioned Tweet from Radio Scarborough: “It’s being reported that David Cameron will visit York tomorrow so it looks like the misery continues…”

Perhaps when the prime minister arrives today he could bring some proper answers rather than soggy platitudes and damp excuses.

 

Touch of an icy finger

 

 

A Christmas ghost story by Julian Cole

IT HAD all started with a piece of paper under her windscreen wipers. “Don’t buy this house,” the note said. “Evil is planted here.”

There was an address scrawled at the bottom. Martha walked there and knocked on the front door of the small cottage.

The man who answered wore round wire spectacles perched on a thin face. He sported a waistcoat and beneath that a shirt with a high collar, once white but now grubby. His trousers were stained with dirt and there was mud on his boots. From the waistcoat there hung a watch displaying the wrong time.

“You left a note on my car,” Martha said.

She showed him the note and he directed his steady gaze at her. His voice when he spoke was deep and seemed to rise from the ground beneath his feet.

“There is evil planted in that garden and you would be well advised to buy another house in a different street. And should you be foolish enough to ignore this advice, then you will have only yourself to blame.”

“What sort of evil?”

“The sort that has deep roots, the sort that does not let go, the sort you do not wish to become entangled with. The sort that dates back to the darkest of deeds.”

“It’s a nice garden and I love the house.”

“Then you will have to carry that burden.”

As the man prepared to shut the door, she saw that the watch was showing a different but still wrong time.

Back home, she told John about the note. He went over to put his oar in and returned later to say there was no strange old man, merely a young mother with a baby.

“She said they’d moved in a year ago and no man fitting your description had even stepped into the house in that time.”

It was typical of John to go to the wrong bloody address, but Martha forgot about the strange man. She loved her new home from the start, especially the long and beautiful garden. The only part she disliked was a dark corner at the far end. Martha never felt at ease beneath a tall tree that cast a deep pool of shade, but one summer afternoon she retreated there to escape the oppressive heat. A tree surgeon was due any day and the bark was already scored with a cross. She might as well use the shade while it was still there.

It was too hot for comfort, too hot for her body with its busted thermometer. She pulled her deckchair beneath the condemned tree, but sweltered even in the shade. Pen slippery in her hand, she started to write her Christmas list.

“A Christmas list – in August!” John said, off to free another lager from the cold innards of the spare fridge in the garage.

Men didn’t understand these things. Sighing, Martha marked out three columns in her notebook: one for people, one for presents and one for Christmas dinner. She filled in the ten names, made note of a present or two, and started to jot down a menu: ham cooked on Christmas Eve and then cooled (“Easier to cut that way,” she reminded herself) and turkey roasted on the day.

Her pen stopped half an inch from the paper. She shivered at the touch of ice on her back. She stood up. A branch from the untrimmed tree was swaying. Perhaps that’s the culprit, she thought.

Martha moved the deckchair to another spot of shade. The sun beat relentlessly from a cruel blue sky. She closed her eyes and must have drifted into a bad dream. The finger was long and fleshless and yet somehow still owned a nail, made not of keratin but something darker and harder, a curved shaving of marble perhaps. It appeared from a black mist and pointed at her, then disappeared to leave an icy scratch down her spine.

When she woke, Martha felt a cold scar on her back. Yet in the bathroom mirror later everything seemed normal enough, down to the bra mark in her flesh. Not even a scratch. She told herself to stop being so foolish. Such gothic fantasies didn’t belong in the back garden of her slightly scruffy semi. That was the stuff of castles and black towers, not neatly lined houses with too many cars parked out front.

 

THE heatwave lasted another day. After that two men with chainsaws and ladders arrived. One held the ladder and the other looped himself to the tree and climbed to the top, where he fired up his saw and began to lop off the branches. As he dismembered the tree, he abseiled down its trunk, severed limb by severed limb. An hour later and the tree was gone. The men were meant to tidy up, and mostly they did, but after they’d gone Martha found a discarded branch. Where the chainsaw had done its surgery the exposed wood oozed a sticky black substance. She made sure not to touch whatever it was as she walked to the green bin.

 

THE chill on her back lingered through autumn and into winter. It was there on Christmas Day, even with the house so warm, what with roasting meat, a fire that didn’t need to have been lit and people crowded everywhere.

Outside snow lay on the ground, proper snow, thick and even, apart from where him-next-door had cleared his drive, on Christmas Day too, out there with his shovel and his frown.

“Daft bugger,” John said. “Making an ice rink for people to slip on. He’s a menace that man.”

Martha smiled but said nothing. Sometimes a vague smile was enough to deflect further conversation. Anyway, they were all here now, her and John, Mark and Jane and their three, plus Alice and Emma and little Toby. John had never got used to the notion of Alice and Emma. Alice had been such a daddy’s girl when she was little, before she’d told them. John was pleased when the baby turned out to be a boy. Never mind all that artificial whatever it was they’d gone through – they couldn’t arrange the sex of the child, and a boy redressed the balance, if you asked John.

Ten people for Christmas, ten at table. The presents had been opened and were spread across the lounge floor. Martha retreated to the kitchen to check on the roast potatoes. The cooked turkey rested on the side in its shiny blanket. Martha could hear everyone in the lounge, chatting and laughing. Alice and Jane had offered to help but she was better by herself.

Even in the hot kitchen she shivered. She’d thought of seeing the doctor a few times, but she wasn’t sure what the GP could prescribe for the phantom touch of an icy finger.

“A week in the nut-house,” had been John’s answer to that question.

Martha propped herself against the kitchen cupboards and drank some of her wine. A bit early for her but it was Christmas. She looked along the winter barren garden. Snow covered the threadbare lawn and hung from the fir trees, slipping like cake icing that hadn’t set properly. Pristine white it was, untouched, then footprints or drag marks began to dent the crisp cold surface. Something was crossing the snow and coming towards the house, yet she couldn’t see what it was.

Martha rubbed her eyes but it made no difference. Not understanding, she shivered once more, turned away from the garden and drained her wine.

 

THE table was long and made of honey-coloured light oak. Martha liked to think generations of her family had eaten here, but they’d only bought it two years ago from a place on the ring-road. It had arrived flat and in bits, and a great deal of swearing had been expended on its assembly.

The table was filled with plates, glasses, decorations and candles, four bottles of wine, two red and two white – at least one of which would end up disappearing down John’s eager gullet.

A fire roared in the grate, the tip of the flames licking the sooty curve of the chimney. Snow fell again outside. This set Mark and Jane’s three off again, whooping and running.

“We can have a snow fight…”

“…and build a no man…”

“…you mean snow, you idiot…”

John set about carving first the meat with long and confident strokes of the knife. Martha shivered. Everybody else looked too warm. Jumpers off, sleeves rolled up. Faces redder than usual. Yet she still felt cold.

Carving done, John started playing with the smartphone Martha had given him, and one of the children, Simon, had just noticed.

“Hey grandad – you said we weren’t allowed our phones…”

Martha raised her eyebrows as she glanced across the table. The gesture was enough.

“Okay, okay,” John said. “I’ll just do a picture of us all round the table, then put the phone away.”

Everyone crowded round the side of the table away from the fire.

“It’s a very clever camera on this phone,” John said. “Takes pictures all by itself.”

He placed the phone on the mantelpiece and hurried back to stand in the middle with his arms around as many shoulders as possible.

The camera fired off a series of shots. After that chairs were dragged back across the floor. Martha walked round to the fireside. John retrieved his phone, scanned through the photographs and smiled.

“Good shots,” he said.

Martha reached out for the phone.

“If you need me to show you…”

“I think I can work it out, John.”

The phone was comfortable to hold, flat and black and with a curved edge. Martha was thinking she should get one for herself when she saw the first photograph. Her heart began to beat like an overworked drum. The long months since that summer afternoon disappeared into a dark tunnel. Martha was back in the garden, freezing half to death on the hottest day of the year, the hottest day in years, some said. The day when the chill first settled on her.

There were ten of them for Christmas that year, so why had she just counted eleven in the photograph? Standing next to her was the figure she’d been trying to keep out of her mind for all these long cold months. A ghoulish skeleton half-dressed in blackened skin. A figure both solid and yet shot through with light. A dead woman who had not yet died. A living woman who was no longer alive. Or any sort of gothic paradox you might wish to conjure in that overheated room filled with the good smells of a Christmas dinner waiting to be eaten.

Martha flicked through the pictures and the woman began to raise her finger, until she was pointing at the lens, beckoning with a blackened curl of fingernail.

Going back to the first photograph, Martha held up the camera.

“So how many of us are in this picture, John?”

“How many? Ten – ten people in the room and ten people in the picture.”

Martha looked down again. Eleven. The dark figure was still there, her finger still pointing out from the shiny screen. Just then the phone went cold in her hand, so cold it burned her skin. She cried out and the phone fell from her grasp and bounced into the flames.

John swore loudly and profanely. The grandchildren tittered. “Grandad said a bad word and it began with ‘F’.”

“Sorry dear,” Martha said. “It slipped. I’ll get you another one in the sales.”

Martha’s mood lifted. As the snow scurried and swirled outside, she felt warmer than in months. She wasn’t a religious woman, but on that day she felt resurrected, born again, whole again. It turned into the best Christmas Day they’d ever had.

 

SOME weeks later Martha started to study the history of her house. Gathering together the deeds and other legal documents, she sifted through the dusty documents. Nothing jumped out at her, so she tracked down a local historian. She told him about the house, and said a little about what had happened to her, only a little as she didn’t wish to alarm the poor man. He sat back and the colour drained from his face.

They were in his study in a street a mile or so from home.

“There was a murder, you see,” the historian, who was called Matthew Groves, said.

“It was quite the local scandal in late Victorian times, 1890-something-or-other. A man was charged with killing his wife, although they never found the body. He escaped prosecution in the end, even though circumstantial evidence pointed to his being the murderer. He only lived for another year or so and he was shunned by the local community during his final months.

“The man lived near you, in a small cottage. He was a gardener and local tongues suggested that he’d put the body in a garden somewhere and planted a tree on top.

“Here, I have a photograph of the supposed killer somewhere.”

The historian stood and looked through a filing cabinet. It took him a while but then he found what he sought.

“There, here it is…”

Martha looked and her heart thumped. The man in the photograph had a thin face and wore round wire glasses. It was a full-length portrait and his trousers were muddy. As were his boots.

 

 

 

A year ago the panic had set my insides bubbling like cheese under the grill

BEING at home when everyone else you know is in a pre-Christmas panic and lather at work is an odd experience.

Around this time a year ago I had a meltdown moment. It might not have shown but my insides were bubbling away like cheese under the grill.

Deadlines were piling up and acres of newsprint was waiting to be inked in with something or other. Two TV supplements had to be sorted and filled on a still newish editorial system (God, how I hated that system).

Did we have enough features, enough letters – who was in on what day? Would anyone even read all these pages being pasted over with seasonal fluff and guff? And that’s before we’d even started on the New Year pages, with their endless looking back at things people were probably glad to have forgotten.

It was time to go up a gear. So I cycled to work like Lance Armstrong on a druggy day and arrived before 7.30am. Glancing up at the darkened windows, I saw no one else was around yet. I went to open the bike shed only to find that in my haste I’d grabbed the wrong keys.

My keys have a Homer Simpson fob and these didn’t. Without Homer to hand I couldn’t secure my bike or get into the office. So I had to cycle the three miles home again, by this stage like Lance Armstrong when the drugs had worn off a bit.

Meanwhile my wife was phoning to alert me to the idiocy, but I never heard the mobile. She picked up the keys, assuming our paths would cross at some point. I was almost home when we met. Grabbing the right keys, I cycled back to work not at all like Lance Armstrong, just like me on a weary day, persistent but wobbling a little, swearing under my helmet.

By the time I sat at my desk, no longer early and definitely sweaty, I had covered eight or nine miles – most of them unnecessarily.

So, yes, I understand, honestly I do. I even miss the festive anxiety in a sense. Well it was there for years, a familiar December pulse, a necessary impetus. So today almost everyone I know is in that mad dash while I sit at my laptop doing what needs to be done, and a few things that strictly speaking don’t (how many times a day is average for looking at Facebook?)

I didn’t invite myself to my own office party this year. There didn’t seem to be much point. Well, the cat isn’t one for drinking, her food is frankly disgusting and her table manners aren’t up to much either.

The diminishing band of old colleagues did have a meal out. I saw the photographs (Facebook again) and bumped into a friendly face who gave me the gossip. Soon they’ll be able to hold that party in a phone kiosk, if such things are still available.

Years ago when the newspaper was thriving and employed many people, Christmas Eve was a big event – a good day to work, as after a mad few hours everyone headed into the pub next to the office, filling the place out with noise and chat and clinking glasses. Afterwards I would meet my wife and our three, then all still young, and take them to the Christmas Fair in York, then for a rare visit to McDonalds, where I’d sober up with a coffee.

It’s funny the things you end up missing. Who’d have thought I’d feel nostalgic about being in a pre-Christmas office tizzy? Don’t tell my wife, as she is in full-flight panic mode right now.

Blatter, verb: incoherent defence of self…

THE name of a thing or person can sometimes become so familiar that it is adopted as a word. Perhaps the most obvious modern example has been the transformation of a company into a verb when searching online. To ‘Google’ something is now a handy verb as well as a seductively useful aspect of life.

Watching the news last night, it occurred to me that another name should become a verb. This is to ‘blatter’, named in honour of the disgraced Fifa chairman Sepp Blatter, who has been banned from football for eight years, along with his onetime heir-apparent, Michel Platini.

What concerns us here are not the political ins and outs of what money may or may not have been inappropriately paid. No, it is more the attitude of the accused person that is of interest.

Blatter is famously defiant, and yesterday he was at it again, insisting on his obvious innocence in the face of an uncaring world. Or an uncaring Fifa ethics committee. Blatter looked shaken and frail, with a plaster under his eye following a minor operation. He was also unshaven and seemed confused.

Yet he was still insisting on his innocence. “I am not ashamed,” he said. “I am sorry that I am a punching ball. I am sorry for football… I am suspended eight years. Suspended eight years for what?”

So to ‘blatter’ is to carry on as you always have done with sublime disregard for whatever the world thinks. It is to talk slightly incoherently while denying everything that has been said about you. And it is, or it was, to bounce back after every setback. Whether or not Blatter will rise again seems unlikely, but you wouldn’t put it past the Swiss national, even at the age of 79.

The use of the verb to ‘blatter’ also suggests something vaguely unsavoury and an ability to protest more loudly as the charges against you rise. And also perhaps to be finally tripped up by the sort of behaviour you have always used against other people.

By coincidence, the new verb is only different by one letter from the familiar noun ‘blather’, which means to “talk long-windedly without making very much sense” – almost the same thing, as it happens.

Blather, incidentally, comes from the Old Norse word blathra, meaning to ‘talk nonsense’.

The Americans have a wonderful variant on this word, with a ‘blatherskite’ being a person who talks at great length without making much sense. So in the new useage, we could perhaps also adopt ‘blatterskite’ in a similar vein.

Staying with the second letter of the alphabet, another good word is ‘blarney’. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable defines this as “flattering talk, often with wheedling or flowery turns of phrase”. It comes from the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle near Cork in Ireland. Tradition has it that one has to kiss this stone while lying on one’s back and leaning over a sheer drop, with “a pair of strong arms gripping one’s shins”.

Those who follow this bizarre instruction are said to be given the gift of cajolery. I don’t recall whose strong arms gripped my shins, but once long ago I did kiss that stone.

Towards the other end of the alphabet we find another Swiss man whose name has taken on a wider meaning. Cesar Ritz was the hotelier who lent his name to smart hotels round the world, and gave birth to the colloquial phrase ‘ritzy’, meaning fashionable and luxurious or ostentatiously smart.

What’s the betting that in his long career as Fifa president Sepp Blatter has stayed at one or other Ritz. And when thus ensconced he no doubt indulged in a spot of Ritzy blattering.

Dimming of the day and the shifting solstice

Today should be the shortest day in what for us has been the longest year.

By tradition December 21 is dipped in darkness. The dimming of the day reaches a turning point and after that we see a slow swelling of the light.

Only this year tomorrow is the shortest day or the longest night. How very confusing. You carry a date round in your head for years, confident you have this one nailed: yes, shortest day, know the answer to that one. And then the day moves and becomes a buzzer-clang question on the TV quiz QI.

So if like me you are banking on your spirits lifting when someone turns the lights back on, you will have to wait another day.

Today should be the winter solstice with the latest dawn and the sun staying low in the sky. But this year we have been short-changed. Apparently this happens fairly often. It is because the 365 days of our year – plus an extra day every four years – does not “correspond exactly to the solar year of 365.2422 days” (today’s Daily Tory-graph: interesting article, worth a read, just stay away from the light-draining politics).

Thanks to this quirk of the calendar, the shortest day can fall between December 20 and December 23, although those two dates are rare, with a December 23 solstice last occurring in 1903 and not due around again until 2303. As an optimist I can confidently predict that my circumstances will have improved by 2303, so that is something to look forward to.

So it’s not today but tomorrow when we begin the trudge towards the summer solstice in June, when days are long and light. How cheerful the year seems as we tilt closest to the sun, the longer day lifting the spirits and opening up possibility.

That at least is the theory. This year was different as the longest days were filled with different sorts of shadows. It was around then I lost my job and shuffled on to this ledge.

Now plenty of people have had or are having a worse year, but for us 2015 has had little to recommend it. The freelance work has picked up a little lately, and that’s good, as I do love to go out and interview people. It gets me out of the house if nothing else.

Then there is the writing process, listening to the recorded conversation, making notes and then shaping a feature, giving the words a pleasing order.

It seems to be what I was born to do, but somewhere along the way other distractions occurred, enjoyable distractions such as editing and designing. But the interview is where it is at, the point of journalism for this born-again scribbler, along with blogging and writing columns.

But if the work doesn’t pick up, perhaps I shall have to do something else altogether. Last week I went into Leeds for what looked like a job interview but turned out to be merely registering for a recruitment agency. It was straightforward, not unpleasant but it was all blankly demeaning.

Maybe something will come of it, maybe it won’t. The challenge in this situation is that you want something to happen, but it needs to be the right sort of something, although sooner or later any sort of something may have to do.

There is always hope as we wave off the darkness and look towards the light. The thriller filled with politics and bullets is with my agent. My wife has read the book and enjoyed it, so I’ll say a secular prayer to that.

And we all have Christmas to enjoy or endure, or probably a stomach-popping meeting of the two. I feign grumpiness out of habit, but mostly like Christmas, one of few times we see all three of our offspring at the same time.

And you’re allowed to drink lots of wine and that has to be a plus. So I’ll raise my glass – or a mug emptied of morning tea – to a brighter day tomorrow.

A Christmas carol called Miriam…

“Julian – would you like to be introduced to Miriam?”

“Of course.”

And here she is, amid the mince pies and mulled wine, all mad hair, popping eyes and a cheerfully agitated manner.

“I can’t be introduced to a journalist – I’m about to go on stage.”

With that she bustled and bowled out. By the time I’d drained my mulled wine and headed back to my seat, she was already up on the stage and making her introductions to the packed audience.

Never mind Harry Potter films or an enjoyably bonkers turn on the Graham Norton Show. To really get the measure of Miriam Margolyes you have to sit back as she immerses herself in a bubbling pot of Dickensian stew.

Margolyes was a star turn as part of the Malton Dickensian Festival on Friday night in an evening billed as a Dickens of a Christmas at the Milton Rooms.

Malton is proud of its links to Charles Dickens, and Miriam Marolyes is a woman much taken with Dickens, and shaped by the author too. She has toured widely with her Dickens’ Women show, and this spin-off was richly enjoyable. Miriam did her Mrs Gamp turn, bringing the midwife from Martin Chuzzlewit to comically gruesome life, reading the close of A Christmas Carol, dipping into Dickens’ letters, and rattling the cantankerous bones of Mrs Pipchin from Dombey And Son, which Miriam rates as a favourite Dickens novel.

All of this was amusing and enlightening, and it is a thrill to see a performer bringing these great characters to life – but also being brought to life by those characters, almost as if Margoyles had been plugged in a Dickens generator.

Before the interval, Professor Michael Slater gave an interesting talk on A Christmas Carol, in which he meandered to fascinating and sometimes amusing effect while setting the famous story in its historical and societal setting. He would, it seemed, have carried on all night had there been world enough and time. Professor Slater returned to the stage at the end for a lively Q&A session.

A happy evening and, as a critic with portfolio, I thought it only fair to repay the invitation with a Sunday blog.

A family outing to a distant galaxy…

SEVEN of us in a row, three generations for one film. I am sitting between my Stars Wars fanboy son and my father-in-law. Fanboy son number two is at the other end of the row, with his sister, newer to the films perhaps, but now a fangirl in her own right, and my wife, who did the important job of securing the tickets.

Not sure I qualify as a fanboy, but I did enjoy the films first time round. That’s where Star Wars: The Force Awakens scores heavily. Director JJ Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan bypass the prequels and rediscover the wit, adventure and romance of the originals.

As the film rolls on, simple in its storytelling but good simple, as the story sweeps along, my 27-year-old primary teacher son laughs at every joke and sighs at every reference to the other films, clearly spotting links and parallels that have gone over my head.

He is no longer the teacher who wrote “Star Wars Release Day” on his blackboard that morning; he is that small boy again, lost in the wonder of a boundless galaxy that sucked him in more than 20 years ago.

His brother is just the same, but he is sitting further away so I can’t sense his excitement. When fanboy number two was five, I took them both to see the rereleased the Empire Strikes Back and he fell asleep. No danger of that tonight, and he says afterwards that the film was even better than he’d hoped.

And it is a good film – a proper old-fashion movie, stirring and witty, yet slotted into a sensible narrative groove; full of dizzyingly smart effects, but not in thrall to the whiz-bang spaceships and gadgetry. This gives it greater emotional resonance, allowing the Force Awakens to be a human film, with even the new Dark Lord, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) possessed by flesh-and-blood weaknesses, including a rotten temper and a tortured sense of what and who he has become.

Although Harrison Ford is back as Han Solo, with hirsute buddy Chewie, and Carrie Fisher returns as Princess Leia, now a matronly general, the impetus lies with the new arrivals, notably two young Brits who are punching for the good side, fighting and scrapping with the light behind them.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a feisty presence as a resourceful survivor from the planet Jakku, who scrapes together a living from scrap metal until the throb and hum of destiny sweeps her forward. She is a proper heroine: a fighter, argumentative, shin-kicking and handy with a lightsabre. Her companion Finn (John Boyega) is a refugee from the dark side, a former storm trooper who takes a redemptive jump into the light by turning on his former masters.

One thing modern movie technology allows for are truly impressive lightsabre fights, the ethereal blades swishing and clashing as if cast from steel, with Kylo Ren’s weapon being shaped like a traditional sword.

And there is genuine humour, proper wit in a film that summons up the excitement of a good old-fashioned night at the cinema. We watched the 3D version which had a few wobbles but not many, and once your eyes had told your brain to calm down dear, there were real visual treats in there too.

Great stuff all round, I’d say – but you’ll have to ask my fanboy sons and their fangirl sister, complete with her Stars Wars T-shirt, for the full story, and apologies from their father if the wrong end of the lightsabre has been grasped at any point.