At the science museum the girls were so absorbed in making rocket mice that Mrs B gave me leave to sneak off to the 11 o’clock Planetarium show. The Planetarium is housed in a giant mirrorball that sprouts like an abscess into Millennium Square. I slouched in a comfy seat as the lights went out and watched the ceiling disappear. The Planetarium has something of the quality of Douglas Adams’ Total Perspective Vortex, a torture device which drives its victims mad by showing them the true enormity of the universe and the reality of their own insignificance within it (Zaphod Breeblebox survived the experience by noting of this unspeakable vastness that he was its most important inhabitant). The stars surrounded us. Our presenter pointed out constellations with a red laser and told us facts about the galaxy. She was Hispanic, very young, very tiny and very commanding. She quieted some obnoxious teens whose remarks were just starting to bubble up with a ‘Thanks Guys’ of stunning authority, then pointed out the North Star. Her red laser squiggled over the Seven Sisters, one of the few things in the night sky I can recognise. Turns out that that cute little smudge contains over 1,0000 statistically confirmed stars and has a radius of about 43 light years. Distantly I heard myself letting out a sigh. The obnoxious teens were just starting to bubble up again but it hardly seemed to matter.

***

Doesn’t anything called ‘Millennium something’ now sound irredeemably naff?

***

On the day after Nelson Mandela passed from this tiny insignificant planet, the BBC News website gave him a special section and led with his death as their main headline … and also all their other headlines. It went like this: Politics – Politicians pay tribute to Mandela. Scotland – Scotland pays tribute to Mandela. Wales – Welsh Assembly hails Mandela  Sport – Sport world mourns Mandela  Entertainment – Entertainment world pays tribute to Mandela. Et cetera. Nothing else had happened of moment to the British public in any sphere of human endeavour.

So I was expecting the Question Time South Africa Special from Johannesburg to be a tiresome succession of Beeb-friendly politicos milking what platitudinous applause they could from their tenuous connections with the great man – and indeed Peter Hain was on the panel. But it turned out to be a quite astonishing hour of television – if you haven’t already done so I recommend you watch it. Nothing could better illustrate the relative triviality of British political ‘issues’ than the contrast between this and the usual QT. Here in Britain our ‘racism’ issues involve teens being arrested for things they’ve said on Twitter; in South Africa the panel included a giggling demagogue in a military beret ranting about ‘white capital’ and demanding Mugabe-style land grabs because the black man taught the white man how to farm and then had his land stolen from him. Here, our issues about free speech concern such things as whether the BBC was right not to play the whole of ‘Ding Dong the Witch is Dead’ on the day of Thatcher’s funeral. There, a chilling ANC spokeswoman stated frankly that those who booed Jacob Zuma during the Mandela memorial would be ‘dealt with’. There, thousands of people live in hunger and squalor; here, we have so forgotten what that looks like that we have decided to redefine ‘poverty’ as being 59% of whatever the median income of the day is (let’s hope Bill Gates never moves to London or we’ll all be on the breadline).

As well as drama and despair there was comedy: Pik Botha attempting to deliver epic, halting soliloquies; Peter Hain being shown his workings by a journalist for constantly trying change the subject from South Africa’s dire problems to its ‘amazing progress’ since apartheid (thanks largely to Peter Hain) and thereby reinforcing the ‘politics of low expectations’. There was no polish, no glibness, no focus-grouped applause button-pushing soundbites from the panel – just raw argument about real things. The show was, for Britons, a political Total Perspective Vortex. Of course, the triviality of our political debate proves our remarkable success and good fortune, but I’d have liked to have seen Russell Brand try to explain to the South African audience why nobody should be arsed to vote.

***

Talking of first world problems, the other day one of my colleagues was complaining about something with such vigour and bitterness that I had to interrupt and ask what the problem was. Turned out that Sky had removed Channel 5 HD from his television package and he could now only watch Neighbours in ordinary low-definition. I expressed appropriate sympathy.

***

Worst Christmas rip-off? I’ll nominate ‘luxury’ crackers. If you’re going to have a paper hat, a rotten joke and a piece of tat to chuck in the bin, you may as well have ‘em cheap. Besides, a plastic septum-squeezing moustache and a fortune-telling fish that calls you ‘fickle’ are timeless amusements.

***

Children, you will have noticed, are comfortable with the notion of multiple manifestations of the same entity existing simultaneously across physical and nonphysical planes. They also enjoy bringing physical and nonphysical manifestations of the same entity into contact with each other. E, for example, who has just turned two, loves nothing more than holding up her plastic Peppa Pig figurine and waving it at the Peppa Pig on the telly. Once during The Lion King C got all her Schleich animals lined up on the edge of the sofa and as the zebras, elephants, giraffes etc appeared during Circle of Life she solemnly bore each appropriate beast aloft. On Saturday the girls visited two Father Christmases in the space of five hours: the Real one (whose grotto is located upstairs above The Stripey Owl toyshop (you go through a Narnian wardrobe to the secret room, it’s fantastic) and then a ‘helper’ one at the school Christmas party. None of this fazes children. We are born into a world of magic and happy impossibilities, and then the world gradually hardens into rules and realities. And then we enter the Total Perspective Vortex at the Science Museum and they all get blown away again.

***

Thursday was E’s last day at the nursery forever. Georgina, her key worker, gave us her folder. It is full of photos of different manifestations of E, each at a different stage with different capabilities and hair and catchphrases. You want to go back and give each little E a hug, but of course you can’t, only the current one. A fast-moving stream. Just Learning has been a wonderful nursery for both our girls over the last four years; every one of the carers is a profoundly good human being. It is far too painful to say goodbye in such circumstances so we don’t; the French have au revoir; we have little lies. I’m sure we’ll see you all again. We’ll pop in for visits. I strapped E into her car seat and off we went. She was quite oblivious that she would never return, of course, and was happily talking to Peppa Pig. The trick is to keep looking forward. We turned onto the ring road and here I could put my foot down.

***

Over the Christmas period we have a ton of terrific festive fare for you, but Dabbler Diary will be taking a break now until the New Year. Thanks for reading and for all your comments, which are genuinely appreciated. Look out for more exciting developments in 2014, including some new Dabbler Editions ebooks for your Kindles. In the meantime, a very Merry Christmas to you all. See you on the other side.


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  1. jonathan law on Monday 16, 2013

    Unless I’ve got this totally wrong, Bill Gates could move to London
    (population c. 9 million) without making any significant difference in the relative poverty threshold, this being calculated relative to median income and not the mean. In fact, Bill, Warren Buffet, and that Bloke Who Invented the Milk Carton could probably move to Aylesbury (pop 75,000) without shifting the odds that much.

    Not that this affects the wider point of South African poverty v. British ‘poverty’ (the inverted commas feel a bit indecent, but in comparison it would be more indecent to leave them off).

    • Brit on Monday 16, 2013

      Quite right.

  2. Peter on Monday 16, 2013

    We talk a lot about the wonder of a child’s Chistmas, but there is also magic for them in the security of the traditions. In Montreal, where I grew up, the main department store was called Eaton’s. As other stores were beginning the noxious practice of having their own Santas, we were assured the real one was at Eaton’s, and we never questioned that for an instant. Indeed, I believed the real one was at Eaton’s for years after I stopped believing in Santa.

    Why, when we are confronted with the vast emptiness of the universe, are we supposed to feel insignificant? I mean on an emotional level. Given that the closest thing to life we’ve found out there is a few theoretical water molecules, isn’t the opposite the more plausible reaction? I simply don’t get it, nor do I understand the sages that so preach. They seem to me to be like statisticians who rush in to tell you your winning lottery ticket was random and there is absolutely no good reason to feel lucky. Weird people.

    Many thanks for all the bi-weekly delights, Brit. I really do look forward to it and I’m sure I have lots of company. The best to you and Mrs. Brit and all the little letters of the alphabet you love and care for.

    • Brit on Monday 16, 2013

      Good point. I suppose that if we are alone in the vastness then we ought to feel the opposite of insignificant (whereas Adams’ universe was teeming with aliens).

      Thanks, Peter – same to you.

  3. BenSix on Monday 16, 2013

    It would take a lot to make me sympathise with Jacob Zuma, but being the President of South Africa in the wake of Mandela’s death must feel even worse than being David Moyes in the wake of Ferguson.

  4. David on Monday 16, 2013

    “Rocket mice”? “Key worker”?

    Despite my fluent English, I’m mystified. Rocket mice I’d rather not know; the reality won’t be nearly as good as my imagination (two young girls, strapping rockets to mice, what could be better?) but what in the world is a key worker in the context of the nursery? (Tangent: is nursery what we call nursery school? If so, is that the missing “the” from in front of hospital? If so, another mystery solved.)

    E is, I’m sure, a prodigious talent, but one thinks more about Apple having a key worker than a babe in nursery.

    • Brit on Monday 16, 2013

      Erm. Nursery is nursery school, yes (ages 0-4). I’m not sure why I put the ‘the’ in, I needn’t have, except I meant perhaps to attribute significance to this particular nursery. A key worker is New Labourspeak for the lady who does your child’s paperwork.

  5. Worm on Monday 16, 2013

    Top drawer stuff as ever

    • malty on Monday 16, 2013

      Consistently high standard, only available at the Dabbler, Merry Christmas to you and yours Brit.

      Somebody important popped his clogs? sheesh!

  6. Atomic Elk on Monday 16, 2013

    Enjoyable as ever – thank you!