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.




Thanks to everyone for the kind comments and emails about mum. She really was the best mum in the world. I know I'm biased, but I also happen to be extremely well-informed. Trust me on this.

I couldn't bring myself to speak at the funeral, but the lady curate did an excellent job piecing together a tribute from the reminiscences of my dad, sister, uncle and me. She certainly picked up on the unplanned theme which ran through our memories and choice of music: mum's great love of nature. We spoke of her delight at finding glow-worms as a child on holiday in Anglesey; her self-professed stupidity at school due to her constant day-dreaming about the countryside; her taming of the blackbirds in the garden; her concerns that her birds might not be being fed properly while she was confined to bed.

It was mum who gave me my great love of the natural world. It was mum who bought me all those nature books when I was a boy (and adult), who taught me the names of the birds and flowers, and who took me on all those walks in the countryside. Mum was so excited when Jen and I bought a former farmhouse in the Yorkshire countryside, and delighted in my tales of the wildlife I saw here: the hares and occasional deer in the front field, the rabbits in the garden, the lapwings and curlews on the moors. Mum could never quite understand my enthusiasm for standing in the garden at twilight while the local bats flitted around my head, but she knew that she was totally responsible for the enthusiasm. In recent months, local gossip, curious droppings, and claw marks on our trees have convinced me that badgers are visiting the garden. I have been looking out for them all summer, keeping mum posted, but I still haven't seen any. I was really looking forward to breaking the news of my first badger sighting to mum. I'll keep looking.

Mum and Dad had planned a holiday in her beloved Anglesey earlier this month, but, some months ago, she realised she wouldn't be up to it and asked if Jen and I would like to go instead. We agreed, not realising how little time mum had left. As it turned out, we took our Anglesey holiday the week after mum's funeral. We stayed in a static caravan on the same farm my parents have been going to since I was a child—just three miles down the coast from where mum found those glow-worms over 60 years ago. The place has countless fond memories for me. Early on the first morning of our holiday, I went down to the headland at the bottom of the field and sat on the rocks looking out to sea, reminiscing. After half an hour or so, I spotted a dolphin rounding the point and heading out to sea. Five minutes later, two more followed. In all the hundreds of hours I have sat on that headland over the years, I had never seen dolphins. Mum would have been so excited. I'll post some photographs soon.

Now, if you'll forgive me, I have to go and feed my birds.

Lest we forget

Yesterday was the 90th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice. I spent the night at my parents' house. We watched a documentary in which Rolf Harris visited the First World War battleground on which his father was injured and his uncle killed.

"They were very brave, weren't they, the Aztecs," observed mum.

She meant Anzacs.

Weapon of choice

My dad has what can only be described as an unhealthy paranoia about the BBC. He thinks they're the spawn of Satan.

Like all the best paranoias and conspiracy theories, Dad's has a small toe-hold in reality. There certainly is a Southern England bias at the BBC, which is reflected in its news coverage and even its weather forecasts. But Dad seems to believe that every single BBC presenter or continuity announcer who pronounces their A's long was personally selected by the Director General to promote the corporation's Cockney Agenda.

Dad's fixation with the BBC began in the summer of 1982 during the Falklands War. Every evening, the Newsnight programme would wheel on some recently retired British general and get him to talk military tactics. Dad was convinced this was tantamount to treason. "The Argentinan Embassy will be noting all this down!" he would shout at Peter Snow.

In fact, Dad did have a point: I clearly remember how, during the early days of the war, when one Argentinian bomb hit a British warship but failed to explode, the BBC displayed a helpful graphic showing how the bomb should have been dropped. Next thing our lads in the South Atlantic knew, that was exactly how the bombs were being dropped—with far greater effect.

Ever since then, Dad has been convinced that the BBC's not particularly well-hidden agenda is to undermine British society and betray us to our enemies. He is, for example, the only person I know who believes that the Hutton Enquiry wasn't a shameless stitch-up, totally exhonorated the Blair government, and showed up the BBC and its Cockney Director General for what they really were.

This Tuesday, Dad's BBC paranoia finally tipped him over the edge. My parents and I were watching the comedy quiz show QI, when Stephen Fry asked a question along the lines of, "Why might it be dangerous to have a ship-load of pistachio nuts?" The answer, it turned out, was that large masses of pistachio nuts are prone to spontaneous combustion and can sometimes explode.

"There they go again!" Dad shouted at the telly. "Giving away information of use to terrorists!"

Mum and I thought we were going to die. We were laughing so much, we couldn't breath.

"I hardly think the pistachio nut is going to be the weapon of choice for a terrorist!" I gasped at Dad, still trying to work out out how to get my lungs to take in air.

Dad was adamant: "Mark my words, you'll be watching the news one day soon, saying 'Norm predicted that!'"