Seeing Scarlett

Talking of Scarlett Johansson—which, if you've been paying attention, you'll remember I was—you might have heard that the actress came under considerable flak recently for becoming a ‘brand ambassador’ for SodaStream™: a device that allows people to make their own fizzy drinks. SodaStream™ is an Israeli company that operates in the occupied West Bank. Being associated with the company was seen as being incompatible with Ms Johansson's role as a global ambassador for Oxfam. So she quit her Oxfam role.

This whole sorry SodaStream™ saga has an unexpected bright side, however. In the unlikely event that I should ever find myself at a cocktail party chatting with Scarlett Johansson, I will now be able to explain to her how we have something in common. You see, many years ago, SodaStream™ also landed me in a whole lot of trouble.

It was down to my enquiring mind, you see. Our grandmother had bought my sister and me a SodaStream™ device. We seldom used it. This was partly because you had to buy a special concentrate to covert the fizzy water made in the machine into the flavour of your choice, and this concentrate soon ran out. But it was mostly because we were terrified of the damn contraption. Every time you released the yellow lever to remove the freshly enfizzed bottle of water from the device, the gas pressure made the lever shoot back so violently, it nearly took your arm off. I exaggerate only slightly. So the thing languished pretty much unused in the back of the cupboard.

Until, that is, my mum was enjoying a bottle of white wine one evening, and I decided to find out whether you could use a SodaStream™ to convert cheap plonk into finest Champagne.

The answer to that question turned out to be ‘no’.

What I also learnt that evening was that white wine placed in a SodaStream™ tended to explode in a rather spectacular manner. So spectacular, that only a thimble-full of nasty, fizzy wine remained in the bottle, while the rest was sprayed across all four kitchen walls, as well as the ceiling.

As I say, I don't think it's very likely that I will ever find myself chatting with Scarlett Johansson at a cocktail party—cocktail parties are just not my scene—but, in that unlikely event, at least we'll have something to laugh about together. Perhaps we might even see if it's possible to make fizzy cocktails in a SodaStream™ device. Based on my previous experience in this area, I should imagine the result might look something like this:

Scarlett Johansson exploding

Scarlett Johansson exploding.

Who knows, perhaps Scarlett and I might turn out to be the West's answer to Vyacheslav Molotov.

Nanna Margaret

My grandmother

My grandmother, Margaret Carter (née Miller).

I've just realised that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of my paternal grandmother, Nanna Margaret. She died almost 20 years ago, but I'll be breaking out the Laphroaig in her memory this evening.

Seems like a good excuse.

Nanna Margaret didn't like the fact that I drank neat whisky. She said it would rot my liver. She knew this for a fact: she had worked in an off-licence and had been on a course where they put some cow's liver in a tumbler of whisky, and a few days later it had gone!

I wasn't falling for that one: Nanna Margaret had also told me that eating the crusts of my toast would make my hair curl.

Not that I ever wanted curly hair, you understand.


Postscript: Oops! Almost forgot to mention that it's also Bette Davis's centenary today.

Giving dogma a bad name

Reuters: Pope says some science shatters human dignity

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict said on Thursday that embryonic stem cell research, artificial insemination and the prospect of human cloning had "shattered" human dignity.

The scientists carrying out stem cell research have realistic hopes of finding effective treatments for cancer, Parkinson's Disease, brain injuries, and many other horrible ailments.

My grandfather spent the last 20 years of his life bedridden with Pakinson's Disease. It was not dignifying. A very close family member recently underwent major cancer treatment. They found it utterly humiliating. Another close family member has been disabled for many years following a major brain injury. They would give their ineffective left arm for a cure.

Repeat pious bullshit like that in front of me, Ratzinger, and you'll be making an unplanned trip to Lourdes—on your knees, wearing sackcloth—to beg for the intervention of a figment of your imagination.

I trust you'll find that commensurate with your human dignity.

Of peg-legs and false teeth

My Great-Grandparents on the Isle of Man

My great-grandparents a long time ago.

The elderly couple on the right are my mum's maternal grandparents (and Uncle Fred's in-laws), Frederick Michael Rotheram and Ellen Sarah Rotheram (née Heyward)—known to her friends as Nelly.

A quick Google search of information given on the sign behind them reveals that they were on the Isle of Man when this photograph was taken. Judging by their apparent ages and the style of the vehicle on the hillside in the background, I would guess that the photograph was taken some time in the 1930s.

I didn't know that there were any surviving photographs of my great-grandparents until my mum's cousin loaned her an envelope full of old family photos earlier this year. I have just spent the afternoon making copies of them with my digital camera.

My Great-Grandparents

There they were again!

Frederick and Nelly met while they were both servants of Lord Leverhulme (of Lever Brothers Soap fame). Frederick was a gardener and Nelly was a maid. Frederick's mother, Bridget Kelly, was from a well-to-do Irish family, but had emigrated to Britain and fallen on harder times, having run away with a household servant (who was presumably Frederick's dad).

I don't know much about Nelly Rotheram, other than she died of throat cancer, aged 60.

In 1958, at the age of 82, Frederick accidentally stuck a garden fork through his foot. He didn't like to make a fuss, so he didn't seek medical help until gangrene had spread throughout the entire leg. His leg was amputated on 6th March of that year—my mum's 21st birthday. Despite his age, Frederick survived the operation: they gave him an artificial leg, and he lived for another 11 years, staying with my Uncle Fred and Auntie Lucy.

The amputation wasn't the last of Frederick's medical emergencies. One day, he discovered that his false teeth were missing. By a process of elimination, he and Auntie Lucy deduced that he must have swallowed them while eating his steak dinner in front of the fire—he hadn't left his armchair since then. In a blind panic, Auntie Lucy rushed him to hospital. The hospital said there was nothing wrong with him. The next day, Auntie Lucy found the melted remains of her father's false teeth in the embers of the fire. Frederick had encountered a piece of gristle while finishing off his steak and had spat it into the fire, along with his false teeth.

About ten years ago, I pretty much freaked out my mum. I told her about a vague recollection I had of sitting on a besuited old man's knee at Uncle Fred and Auntie Lucy's house, and being fascinated by his leg—there was something funny about it. Which is when mum told me about my great-grandad and his peg-leg. Mum had thought I was far too young to remember him. She was right. It pretty much freaks me out too.

My great-grandfather died at the age of 93 in late 1967 or early 1968, shortly before my third birthday. He is special to me because he is the oldest person that I can remember having met (in terms of date of birth, that is; in terms of birthdays achieved, at 101 and counting, Uncle Fred makes his father-in-law look like a young, peg-legged whippersnapper). According to the maths, my great-grandfather must have been born around 1875. Not only does that make him the oldest person I can (or will) ever remember, it also makes him the only person I will ever meet whose lifetime overlapped—albeit briefly—with my hero, Charles Darwin.

I am extremely glad to have any sort of recollection of him.