Clutching our yellow balloons we sidled through the crowd into the windy car park. There was an excellent turnout for the nursery’s 10th ‘birthday party’. The balloons were being handed out by Natalie, the manager, while her number two Melissa filled ever more from a vast helium cylinder and in the jammed hallway black-coated parents politely fought each other to get at them. Brit Junior had a butterfly painted on her face, this having been expertly done by Kylie, who used to be her ‘key worker’ back when my girl was in the Frogs room. I like Kylie, she exudes sensible but warm motherliness and once I saw her in mufti with her boyfriend and they had a bit of an interesting goth/heavy metal look going on and unexpected facial piercings.
While the face-painting took place I elbowed my way off through the throng to find some cake to eat. On the way I spoke to Lily’s mum, who I always sense is rather wanting to get away from me when we converse. Then I got talking to Sophie’s mum who, I realised, I always rather want to get away from. I made a special effort not to let this show. Fortunately we were interrupted by Natalie announcing that the Great Balloon Let-off would be occurring imminently.
So out in the car park we gathered, a hundred yellow balloons flapping furiously in the cruel wind. It was also raining somewhat. (Got to get through January, Got to get through February sings Van Morrison over and over in the song Fire in the Belly. How right he is.) Each balloon had a card attached to its string, requesting that the finder post it back so we could discover which balloon went the farthest. We wrote the girls’ names on our cards and waited for Natalie to begin the countdown. Brit Junior held her string with both hands and intense concentration.
“Right!” yelled Natalie, after an eternity. “Are you ready?” We were, but first we had to sing Happy Birthday to the nursery. This we did, quickly. “Right!” yelled Natalie again. “I’ll count to three, and then everyone let go of your balloons.” Miraculously nobody jumped the gun. “One…two… three… Go!” Brit Junior flung her arms wide. Up went the balloon, up went scores of balloons, a bobbing yellow swarm flung immediately eastward by the wind straight into the row of bare trees in front of Asda. It was a massacre, as if the branches had been lying in ambush. Bang bang bang, I had an inappropriate vision of soldiers pinned to barbed wire on the Somme. Soon the trees were quite clogged with yellow… But wait! Not quite all had perished. For wriggling free of the uppermost branches of its tree, like some strange anti-gravity fruit, was one bold balloon. Away it sailed, this lone escapee, up and away over Asda towards the wilds of Hanham.
“Oh look dear, there goes your one,” said all the parents.
I’m having trouble with Africa, presented by the sainted David Attenborough. Nothing wrong with the programme of course – awesome, incredible, watch it in HD et cetera – but I struggle with nature. Nature is horrible, but more than that, I get depressed by it. The relentless, meaningless, monotony of survival. The frigging Circle of Life. The lack of variety. Of course all the creatures look different and have their crazy quirks etc, but from frogs to elephants it’s always the same old thing: creature ekes out living on the brink of starvation; male creature gets horny, fights other male; if wins, impregnates female; dies; female rears selected young. And off we go again. It seems so needlessly grinding.
As for their ‘fascinating’ behaviours: nine times out of ten, just horrible. The writers of Saw IV couldn’t come up with a sicker system for despatching victims than the average spider’s modus operandi, for example. No, your natural wonders are all very well, but I’ll take cathedrals, music and paintings over rainforests and flocks of flamingos any day. And this is why I find Population Matters – of which the sainted Attenborough is a patron – so objectionable. Behind population control advocacy lies the idea that humans should be sacrificed in favour of spiders and elephants and what have you. So, I ask myself in a daft thought-experiment, would I sacrifice every animal on the planet to save one human child? Depends on the child, but, in principle, yes, because as wretched as humans can be they have the capacity to transcend, so the whole purposeless, soulless animal kingdom can go as far as I’m concerned. It’s just a pity the child would have to grow up vegetarian.
Perhaps that was a bit strong. I like sealions. Not all animals are necessarily wicked per se. I have amongst my many unfinished grand schemes a project entitled Towards an Ethical System of Biological Taxonomy, in which all members of the animal kingdom will be classified according to whether they are good or evil. For example:
Good: Dogs, horses, dolphins, elephants, little Robin Redbreasts (the Christmas bird), sealions, penguins, donkeys, pandas, red squirrels, whales and baby lions.
Evil: Cats, boa constrictors, rats, orang-utans, vultures, wasps, Piers Morgan, spiders, grey squirrels, great white sharks, camels, hamsters and sheep.
We can also apply the classifications retrospectively to prehistoric fauna. Thus:
Good: triceratops, brontosaurus, iguanadon (thumbs up!) woolly mammoth, dodo, unicorn.
Evil: T-Rex, velociraptor, pterodactyl, sabre-tooth tiger, giant octopus.
Neutral: stegosaurus, trilobite.
Another good project, which I’ve just thought of, would be a coffee-table book called Bad Royal Portaits, and the Artists who Presumably Apologised For Them. Paul Emsley goes straight in with his wrinkly Duchess of Cambridge – all the more egregious because for once the Royals provided a real looker for a subject – and I love this amusingly giraffe-like Queen by John Napper. It was painted in 1952 and has been banned until now for looking nothing like her (Napper himself called it “ ”a beautiful painting of a queen, but not this Queen”) You can’t help wondering what the conversation was like at the unveiling. And when an artist does something like that, is it deliberate (and the artist ‘sees’ the subject that way), or have they simply cocked it up?
As HMV goes gently into that good night, over here Nige remembers the first record he ever bought. Like Nige, I’m always suspicious when people claim it to have been something cool, like The Clash or David Bowie, because children have awful taste in music. I honestly can’t remember which of the risible novelty singles in my little collection was the first one I paid for out of my own pocket money, but there’s a strong likelihood that it was We All Stand Together by Paul McCartney and the Frog Chorus.
I noted above that humans can be wretched. Oprah did her best not to let Lance Armstrong off the hook, but she wasn’t a tribunal and he didn’t have to face the people he’d wrecked in the whole sorry saga. What takes Lance’s great fraud beyond the boundaries of merely cheating at sport isn’t the doping or bullying but the whole multi-billion dollar industry he built out of complete bullshit and joyless winning. He’s a long way off redemption and he didn’t look contrite. I’d be happy never to see his face on television again, nor to read another column about him; not even one by David Walsh, admirable as that tenacious journalist is.
Snows have come, deep and crisp and disruptive. I shovelled ice and snow from around the car on the street outside our front door. Two of my neighbours were doing likewise; we exchanged grim remarks to the effect that nature must be fought, ever fought. But it always wins in the end. In the back garden we made a snowman, sinister with button eyes and John Merrick-like deformities. Cold gets in your bones. Soon the snow will turn to queasy brown slush. December’s payday always comes too early and then there’s the dentist and the MOT and traffic jams. Bare trees with dead yellow balloons sagging, and parasitical insects planting their eggs in spiders. Got to get through January, got to get through February. Hang on in there, everyone, for one day soon spring will come and the eggs will hatch, bursting the spiders open and there will be daffodils in the park, and a weak sun, and children on their Christmas bicycles pedaling for the innocent joy of speed.