Wednesday, March 19, 2014


I've really no idea where my stutter came from, but it turned up during my second year at University. Right from the start it was suspiciously convenient. For a start, it didn't look like a real stutter, but like someone with one IMDB credit to their name hired to play "Man With Stutter" on an episode of Chucklevision. For another thing it had a habit of only turning up when things Didn't Go My Way.

During my second year at University I was an editor on a student newspaper. My co-editors were two achingly cool women who took the all-night shifts and staff complexities in their stride like they thought Lynda Day in Press Gang was a hopeless amateur. I didn't. I liked bumbling along at my own pace. Actually, I really missed editing the drama section. That was actually kind of fun. This was grown-up. And tiring. Always, at about 3am, people would start asking you really difficult questions. Lots of them. And suddenly, when there was just one question too many, out would come my thoroughly convincing stutter.

To make it worse, it was accompanied by a twitch and a Hitler salute. As my friend Rick said "you've basically nailed Dr Strangelove". It was hopelessly, utterly appalling made-up and put on. The first time it was wheeled out, everyone ignored it like a toddler playing up for guests. The second time, my co-editor Jess said "Stop that, it's ridiculous."

Then she saw the look on my face. "Oh my god," she said. "It's real, isn't it?"
I nodded glumly.

I was hopelessly baffled by the stutter. At exactly the same time, curiously, I became allergic to milk in tea. Properly "I think I'll just go and throw this up now" allergic. Basically, I was a bit of a tired mess, and the only way my body had of expressing it was by turning me into a bag of nerves. That leaked tea.

My co-editors were brilliant. I no longer had to work the whole night - I could go home at 1am, get some sleep, and then come back at dawn to finish the paper while everyone else drifted off to bed. It worked really well. And my stutter drifted away.

It came back a few years later. When I had my first proper job at the BBC I had a lovely team and we were pottering around making sites about nice nonsense for pence. The thing about being a manager is that people ask your questions. Fine. But sometimes everyone would ask a question at the same time, all about conflicting things, and then MSNs would pop up from my Lazy Susan of managers... and then back came the stutter. It was my body's way of saying "I can't cope. Just one thing at a time, please". It was sort of effective. It was also deeply embarrassing. I think I'd have been fine if I'd installed one of those Waitrose deli "take a ticket form a queue" machines. Especially when I had 17 managers. Shortly before I went properly bonkers.

Curiously, there was no sign of my stutter at all at Channel 4. Possibly because it was a brilliant place to work. And since then I've been at home, you know, pretty much just pottering around with my cat, and it's been fine.

But recently, I've had a boyfriend. A real proper love-of-my-life-stealer-of-my-crisps boyfriend. Boyfriends ask you a lot of questions. In the early days it's "Would you like another glass of wine, darling?" but as time wears on it's "Have you done x? Have you booked y? Where have you put z? And why the kettle been moved from The Newly Agreed Place?". I'm not, by the way, going out with a nagging fishwife. My boyfriend is terribly understanding. And you'd like to think that, in the two decades since it first turned up, I'd have evolved a better coping strategy.

But no. If my boyfriend asks me one too many questions, even would I like another glass of wine while I'm immersed in something else, out comes the stutter. I can't do anything about it. It's hopeless and absolute - and still utterly over-the-top. Worse, it's started spreading. My lovely parents are now quite doddery and have a tendency to ask lots of confusing questions. Luckily my terribly convenient stutter soon puts a stop to that.

Mostly, I can keep it under control. It's basically a nasty little gremlin that sits inside me and picks on pensioners and boyfriends, which is unpleasant. But it's clearly just my brain's way of saying "Bandwidth's a bit congested, could you come back in a moment?". It's buffering. Like YouTube.

Thing is, every now and then, my gremlin comes in handy in real life. Our local Co-Op is a cruel place, and not for the faint-hearted. I once made the mistake of trying to buy bread bread in there. It went horribly wrong and when the man behind the counter started shouting at me, I think he just assumed I could be belittled like any other customer. But, to the amazement of both of us, my gremlin appeared and was mighty. I'd like to say he was cowed into submission. Instead he went and got a colleague who treated me with the whole "Would it like a sweetie?" treacle.

And then this week, there was the incident of The Gym Receptionist. I turned up, laughing my head off at Cabin Pressure, to be greeted by a stern-faced woman with some forms. "Fill both of these in. And add your membership number and club code" My what? And where?" "Mem-Ber-Ship-Num-Ber, Club Code" she spelled out. There was nowhere on the form for them to go. I kept asking where I should put them, and she just got crosser. I began to get confused. And there was a muttering queue behind me, also trying to fill in the New Forms. The Receptionist got cross. I got more confused. The Receptionist got crosser.

And then the gremlin slipped out from a corner of my brain. "Don't worry," it said. "I'll take care of this." And it gave it to her in an explosive fountain of stuttering and gibbering. I may even have been speaking in tongues.

It was a deeply shameful experience. But also useful. From nowhere, the Receptionist produced a smile. "Why don't I just fill in these forms for you?" she said.

So that's where we are today. Some people have stutters that rule their every utterance. I don't. I just have a petulant little gremlin inside me that's started picking on bad customer service. Oh good grief. My stutter is Mary Portas, isn't it?

Saturday, March 08, 2014


We're standing in a frozen fjord, staring up at the Northern Lights when a woman's voice echoes off the nearby glacier:
"Oh, I'm glad I put on that pair of Janet's socks."

Iceland is all about the tours. Genuinely, since they blew up their banks, it's a massive source of income. And they do it very well. The Icelandic temperament is endlessly polite and patient, so they're very good at putting up with us. They're also excellent farmers, especially brilliant with cattle. And cattle's what we are.

People often refer to tourists as cattle, but in Iceland it's a perfect description. In order to "experience" the "real" "Iceland" you must "do" lots of trips. Coaches come, coaches go, and wheelie luggage trails through the snow. In a tell-talle moment, a tour guide says "The Icelandic horse is very friendly, very trusting, and very flavoursome". The idea of not spending a day on a tour of some sort is almost unthinkable. Why not spend an entire morning on a trip to a hydroponic garden? After all, it's what our hosts want us to do. The Icelandic horse is very friendly, very trusting, and very flavoursome.

Curiously, the Icelandic tomato is not flavoursome. They are the most lovingly grown tomatoes in the world (yes, we did go on the hydroponics trip). We learned that they are grown by a ridiculously beautiful family, kept warm by geothermal springs and doused in computer-controlled hydroelectric light. They are tended by bees and pest-eating insects. These tomatoes are loved. And they taste like... well, tomatoes that have never seen sunshine.

Tourists are as excellently tended as tomatoes. If the tomatoes could complain their grievances would be listened to and dealt with with the same endlessly patient determination that saw some Icelanders seize on the lunatic genius of growing tomatoes in the dark.

Tourists behave awfully in Iceland. It's almost like they know that the country has fallen on hard times and is taking in paying guests to make ends meet. We've come into your home and we're going to criticize the decor.

EXAMPLE 1: The Tourist Information Office
American Mom: "I want a private tour."
Icelander: "This is an excellent coach trip."
American Mom: "Well no. You see I must have a private tour for just me and the boys."
[As she speaks, one of her boys runs around the shop, licking lava. Icelander pushes forward a different coach trip leaflet with a patient smile.]

EXAMPLE 2: The Blue Lagoon Spa
American Lady: "Is there shade?"
Icelander: "This is an open-air spa."
American Lady: "But I must have shade. I cannot be in the sun."
Icelander: "Then of course there is shade."
[It is, I should point out, a cloudy winter's day. It is snowing]

EXAMPLE 3: The Northern Lights
Tour Guide: "Welcome to our Northern Lights trip. As you know, the Northern Lights are not a natural phenomena and we cannot guarantee that you will see them. Also, they rarely look as you would expect in the photographs. So tonight, we may very well see nothing. Finally, they are over 100 kilometers away and your flash works over a distance of 3 metres. So please do turn your flash off. You will simply spoil other people's ability to see."
[The tour bus decants in a dark field. People get off and take lots of photos of the darkness. With the flash on. Then complain that they can't see anything.]

Actually, the Northern Lights was a fascinating experience. Almost like being on a UFO spotting coach tour. Half of us came away convinced we had seen something. Half came away thinking they never existed. For the record, I saw some very slightly green dancing clouds. I got very excited at one point, but it turned out to be a lorry reversing. Considering a blizzard was coming on, it was amazing that we saw anything at all - even a distant lorry's headlamps.

I took a picture on my iPhone. This is a genuine photo:

And yes, I had my flash turned off.

Don't think I didn't have a wonderful time. The best thing about Iceland are its people. Seeing in them the Aryan ideal, Hitler sent a top Nazi to recruit the country, but he gave up in disgust, reporting that they preferred getting drunk, watching Sherlock Holmes and having a bath to conquering the world.

Reykjavik itself is a WEIRD capital city - kind of like a Milton Keynes industrial estate with the world's biggest Christmas Market. It snowed constantly and magically. Endless little cafes were everywhere offering warm, nutty coffee. If you're used to the London experience of cafes, it's worth going to Iceland just for the peace. You will be surrounded by immaculately-behaved toddlers. The children are amazingly brought up. Prams are neatly parked outside little art galleries, while inside mothers and museum attendants squat gossiping as children crawl curiously around exhibits.

All the notices politely asking parents not to let their children do things (like jump in geysers, lick the cakes or steal things) are written in English. With a puzzled tone of "But why would you do this?". Iceland has invited the world into its home, and is patiently baffled at how the world behaves. "Please do not put cheese in this toaster" reads one. "Please do not unplug this fridge for your laptop" read another in a cafe. But it will work out fine in the end. The Icelandic horse is very friendly, very trusting, and very flavoursome.

One final note: Icelandic men are both absurdly hot and have ludicrous names. One guide was called Bjarthur (pronounced "Bea Arthur"). And here's Iceland's top wrestler. Of course he's called Gunnar.