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I think I may have betrayed this secret before, but since I am not bound by any rule of the confessional, nor am I in (or is it under, like a racehorse?) Holy Orders, I can whisper the truth:  I am over sixty.

And then some.

A while ago I used this blog to confront the phenomena known to the cosmetics industry as the ‘Seven Signs of Ageing’.  I got to number four, at which point I figured anyone who was still reading was probably as bored with the subject as I, so I rested it for a while.

Now it’s back!

Why?  Well, perhaps because ageing is a holistic experience, and one which I left hanging just a little over half-istically.  Perhaps because I am encountering the next phase, the one beyond invisibility.

I am sliding inexorably towards societal checkmate.  I am becoming an Old Fart.

Let’s discuss symptoms.

1  Absent-mindedness:

There is an age when OCD moves seamlessly into Alzheimer’s; when being unable to find the way home becomes a medical rather than a psychological condition.  Nowadays I take the dog every time I go out, because she is the only one who knows the way – or she used to.  Since she is rapidly succumbing to Dogzheimer’s, there is more than a chance we will both get lost.

I do not regard my absence of short term memory as anything more than a minor inconvenience, but those around me do.  They smile indulgently, their tone subtly alters.

“Oh, bless him!”  They say, giving a sort of third party smile, as if I am not actually there.  And then they move on, because the companion adjective to Old Fart is ‘tedious’.

2  Emotional Instability:

It is hard to explain exactly why the precise position of a postage stamp on an envelope should have become a matter of such importance, still less easy to understand my shaking incoherent rage at the sight of an un-cleared restaurant table, or the feeling of an unnecessary draught.  Nor can I account for my uncontrollable tear ducts, which fill up at the least provocation.  Bursting into tears at a weather forecast may be excusable, given the weather lately, but it is embarrassing.

This same lack of self restraint manifests itself in other ways.  The other day, in the company of a young client, I drove past a woman wearing a very dramatic outfit.  I disguised a quiet snigger.

“She’s very smartly dressed, isn’t she?”  I suggested.  What I really wanted to say – I mean really, really wanted – was ‘Mutton dressed as lamb’?

“That’s my mother.”  My client replied.

Close one!

3.  The shakes.

Now these are a little more disturbing.  I was never going to be a brain surgeon.  My hands were ever prone to the quivers, especially when nervous.  In ‘respectable company’ the cup, saucer and spoon were always a musical instrument where I was concerned.  But lately….

In extreme cases raising a cup from a side table may send my wrist into a rapid thirty degree oscillation.  At best the surface of the tea when it reaches my mouth will resemble a storm on Lake Huron, inducing me to sip and sniff it in equal quantities.  It’s the sniffing part that doesn’t work out.  Oddly enough, the result does not inspire the same sympathetic response that applies to my absent-mindedness.

 I hit the brong jeys on my leyboarf; I reach for door handles and miss….

4.  Deja vu.

Where’s an accent key when you need one?  In the young, second sight is regarded as a gift and those who possess it are guaranteed an audience, some of whom will travel miles and endure force majeure to hang on each word that drips from their mouths.  My problem is that I was actually there before, but no-one wants to listen.

Air pollution?  Nothing like the smogs of the 1950s.

Peace in our time?  Rubbish then and rubbish now.

Jam tomorrow?  Oh, yea

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Cold winters?  In 1963 a car was driven across the frozen Thames at Oxford.  Richard Blackmore described a 17th Century winter so cold the sap froze in the trees and great oaks split apart.

All right, I wasn’t actually there for that, but……you’re not listening, are you?

To my mind age gives me a certain paternal wisdom.  I have the gift of knowledge to impart.  I should be venerated in my old age, treasured for my sagacity.  Those around me should be glad to mop up a little, speak a little louder and accept my judgement.  They should stop moving me around like the furniture and not look at me as though I am spoiling their design for the room.

I should be honoured.  Yes, that’s it – I should be honoured.

Wait!  Stop!  Where are you going?  Can I come?  Why won’t they accept mobility scooters in nightclubs?  I remember once, back in 1962…..

Moonbeams

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The point of a moonbeam, dearest child,”   said my mother

“Is a sign to heaven the young alone may follow

And adults never find.”

                                     “Don’t grown-ups go there ever?”

I asked as I reclined at her side on a pillow

Voluptuously drowning, drowsy fingers clutching

At straws of her hair.  “I thought only old people died?”

“They do;” she replied.  “But the way is found by touching –

And the texture of light is lost to an older mind.”

 

Persisting, warm in the glow of her skin by lamplight

And eye-wide in the white-bright fronds of the slivered moon:

“Will I go somewhere full of old people?”  I asked her,

“And follow a shivery moonbeam – why?”        

                                                               “Some are called,”

She responded, a mystic gleam in her saddened eye.

“I wouldn’t answer!”  Said I.

                                             “Sleep now, child.”  The light was

Extinguished as I burrowed deep in the chasms of bed.

Flowing words in the warm like a dream to enclose me.

“Here.   This is Heaven for me.”  I said.

                                                             “Perhaps for you.”

From an outer world her cold voice clattered like pebbles.

“Why is my Heaven always tomorrow?”  She wondered.

I lay still in the hollow where my father once slept.

Tomorrow?   Would he come, then, tomorrow?  We pondered

The unasked question. 

                                     “No, nor ever.”   My mother said.

 

Eyes half-closed

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The Japanese Bridge at Giverny

When Claude Monet completed his work ‘The Japanese Bridge at Giverny’ he was almost blind.

Edgar Degas suffered from an eye disease which warped his vision.

When Ridley Scott brought ‘Alien’ to the screen the suffuse light he employed turned H.R. Geiger’s design for a rapacious predator from a man in a rubber suit with a head modeled on a human penis into an extremely convincing creature of menace.

I used to build scratch models for clients.  Since the primary motive was money, I quickly learned that ‘toys’ are despised and the differences between enthusiasts’ objects of fantasy and commercially produced pieces of plastic are very clearly defined.  A successful replica must not only conform to requirements of scale and detail, but also fit into the diorama of their imagination.  The subtleties – knowledge of their planned light source as well as the general ambience needed for the piece – introduce an ‘attitude’ you must follow precisely.  Whilst applying finishes the model must be placed in correct light in the client’s desired position and color used to emphasize areas of light and shade.   Agents often need to be added to the paint – talcum powder and so on – to lend texture.

Even with so much attention to detail, I would not have avoided the ‘toy’ accusation, had it not been for the advice of an experienced (and very good) modeler.  While you apply the finishes, he told me, you should deliberately blur your vision.  Work with eyes half closed.   Imagine the ship behind the spray of a storm, or the transporter approaching through swirls of dust.

  ‘Toys’ become ‘models’ by dimming and blending; by creating an effect which is as strong or even stronger than the subject.  The detail is the layer behind the truth.  The truth is the dust that gets in your eyes, the storm that brings confusion and danger.

It is my belief that the abiding view most of us share of life is an impressionistic one; not that we go around with our eyes half closed but that we gain only a fleeting essential core of information from the things we see.  In the course of a day we see so much!  Detail overload, I am sure, is a mistake too many writers are prone to make.

Yes, the detail needs to be there, and it needs to be accurate, but it can mostly be implied rather than stated.  Writing a landscape does not and should not require depiction of every bend in every road, or every house, or every hump and bump.  These are our gifts to the reader, for him to do with as he wishes.  However, we should have a map, and the few references to specifics we make must conform.

Descriptive writing should appeal to all the senses: sure, but once you place dog pooh in front of the reader you don’t need to tell him it stinks.   Once you tell him the top of a hill is shrouded in mist he does not need to be told it is a high hill.  A room wherein a voice echoes describes itself. As long as he knows the letter is written on vellum he knows how it will respond to his touch.

Too often we force information on the reader that should be left to his imagination.  Our writing should be the fuel, not the flame.  Our art is to provide focus upon the vague shape in the mist that will become the character he loves; the character who will come alive inside his head.  Our gift, if we have it, is to offer Degas’ quirkiness of form,  Monet’s fierce defiance, or Van Gogh’s exuberant hand.

 

What Miss Piggy Does not Know….

My family tolerates my addiction to TV quiz shows.   I have no real excuse for it; most of the trivia I absorb from those mindless hours passes straight through the open windows of my mind into the firmament beyond, but some things stick.

For instance:  today I learned that frogs have teeth!

That stuck!

I mean, some frogs are quite big, aren’t they?   Suppose  they all got together, or something?

Draining the pond would become a completely different proposition.

All those childhood hours spent by the side of the stream with my jar, happily catching tadpoles, little knowing what danger I was in?

Imagine the embarrassment, having to check in to casualty with a bad case of frog bite!  Maybe that’s why the statistical evidence is so difficult to track down.  Perhaps that’s why no serious cases have been reported – yet.Image

But I believe in evolution.  I believe Mr. Darwin got it right.  And out there, somewhere in the darkness, frogs are evolving.   They are coming to avenge their children.  The night of the lily-pad is drawing near….

 

 

Tom’s Story

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Not Tom. This is just a stock photograph. Throughout this article names and identities have been altered to protect the besieged.

I’ll call him Tom.

Tom is eighteen years old and he lives in a typical English village.   That is, a small community of chocolate-box cottages with a shop and a pub surrounding a placid village pond.   The outer perimeter of this idyll was blessed in 1948 with the addition of a small clutch of social housing, and again in 1985 by a further estate of featureless rabbit hutches which their developer sold as ‘desirable executive homes’.   Commentators at the time suggested (quite unfairly) that the developer had only built them to give the social housing tenants something to rob.

Today the owners of the chocolate box cottages huddle by their wood-burning stoves to the tune of the picturesque village street, which is filled with window-rattling heavy traffic.  Taken over by a large brewery the pub was run down and closed in 2006.  It remains boarded up and empty.  The village pond is far from empty.  Abandoned by any wildlife two generations since, it is full of old car tires and the occasional shopping cart.

In Tom’s council-built estate many prospective Banksies have bequeathed their efforts to the critical eyes of those short-stay tenants who come, desecrate and depart. Detritus adorns those places the planners intended as recreation areas:  abandoned furniture, abandoned cars, abandoned needles.

The ‘executive homes’ gaze out upon all this with tombstone inscrutability.   Owners do their best to pretend they have nothing to do with the village.  They never use the village store, for example, preferring to drive to a larger town nearby.

Tom drives too, though the cars he drives are rarely his own.  The village store, or the area outside it, is where Tom spends most of his time.   He and his friends, seated on their pedal-cycles or just on the pavement filter the store’s customers:  the chocolate-box people are intimidated by him and unwilling to shop there.  Soon the store will go the way of the pub, and the village will have no facilities at all.

Tom does not work.  There are no jobs in the village, but this is not his real problem.  His parents have never worked or provided him with a role model:  in the benefits culture there are no disciplines and few routines, so the nearest Tom ever got to either was during his brief, sporadic relationship with school.

Academia has no place for him.  He is disruptive; he is not bright.  Any spark of brilliance there might have been was extinguished promptly by teachers who singled him out as a butt for ‘class humor’, leaving him with a dread of the desk and the dusty room, and a phobic terror of examinations.

Nevertheless, Tom does work, albeit in unskilled labor and the ‘cash economy’.  With his benefits and irregular extra earnings he has enough to finance his expensive smart-phone and trainers.  Perhaps his purchasing choices are more responsible than anything else for society’s verdict.  They belie his real poverty, giving the impression that he is living well on the benevolence of The State when he really has very little of any worth.

Tom is eighteen.  His girlfriend is pregnant.  He walks with his hood up and his head down.  People say that if he looks up it is only to check out your roof for any loose lead.  He drives stolen cars fast and recklessly, because he likes it.  One day the magistrates’ patience will wear out.

I know that this is not a new story.  It is entrée to a genre that promulgates a certain view of British society which, however accurate, will win no friends at the tourist board.  It is one view, but it is the crossroads at which I stand, because Tom, or someone very like him, is the ‘hero’ of my next book.

This is the book I need to write.  It is the tale of all the Toms I have met and known down the years, people not equipped to meet the demands of the technological society, the ‘no hopers’ who are not that way of their own making, but who simply landed on the wrong planet at the wrong time.  Real people with real value, and with a real morality which sadly all too few of the gifted, great and good appear to share.

Tom deserves his story, but how, from where I sit, do I truly get inside his head?  Where is his future and from where does he dredge the one thing we all seek, his shred of hope?

   

 

Man of Steel

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A long time ago, when men were men and dinosaurs ruled the earth, while Victoria Vetri was slaying those big lizards dressed (inexplicably) in a bikini I too was a servant of Thespis.

 

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No, not me! Although there might be something in the ears….

Yes, I bestrode the stage.  I was (darlings) a nactor!    

 

No, never in a bikini.

 

I would have done if somebody asked me to.  As an actor, assuming your looks fell short of the Vetri standard, you should be prepared to do anything.

 

Can you sing?

“Yes.”

Dance?

“Yes.”

Ride a horse?

“Errrm  y-y-y-yes.”

Speak Swahili?

“Of course – fluently.”

Wash Dishes?  

“Yes.”

 

Only one of these answers held any truth.  I could wash dishes.   I washed a lot of dishes, I served food on a lot of dishes – in fact, had there been a movie made about waiters, I would have been right there, carrying the dishes.

 

All the other skills I would lie about, study frantically if needed, or pray I wouldn’t actually be asked to do.  To be honest, though, nobody asked me – much.

 

I could mention the time when, directed to perform in a polka scene on a small stage with a troupe of girls in impossibly unwieldy dresses, I was literally crinolined into the orchestra pit.  Or I could mention the musical director for a regional pantomime who, discovering my voice’s true potential moved me first to the back of the chorus and then into the wings.

 

He placed me right next to the maroon which was meant to represent  a cannon shot…

 

“Here we come boys, here we stand,

With every man aboard.

We’ll cut and parry and then riposte,

And parry the old St. George!”  (BOOM!)

 

Plaster shaken from the ceiling, ominous rattling from the fly floor, drums blown from my ears.   Other than the sudden falsetto I hit (possibly the result of shock) the rest of my contribution to the song was a sort of improvised descant.  I was removed from the choir altogether for the next performance.

I could mention these, and other humiliations, but I won’t.  They still hurt.

 

So, like most actors, I had lots of jobs.   (How do you address a RADA Graduate? -  Big Mac and medium fries, please.) 

 

I drove taxis, I washed dishes, I made beds, I served dishes, I delivered milk, I cleared dishes.  Hotels and their darker subterranean regions were the stuff of life for me.  All for the occasional privilege of standing on stage with a big fan or similar prop while a nubile cast of dancers pranced through ‘Sleeping Beauty’, or making the odd appearance in a very minor part – which I could be relied upon to make even less important.

 

It took two years for the rose tint in my spectacles to turn a sort of rancid brown – an indecently long time in a young life.  Eventually I realized the stage was not for me because, in common with most very average actors, I was scarcely ever on it.  

 

I remember my Damascene moment.

 

A steel stockholders had been charitable enough to employ me and foolish enough to let me drive a crane.   A steel stockholder is a sort of wholesaler for girders – a vast shed where thousands of tons of heavy steel in various forms is stored before delivery to big construction sites. 

 

My job in a beam crane was to move stock up and down the long bays, either to lorries for delivery or between the welding benches upon which huge industrial size roof trusses were assembled.   Heavy industrial tools – drills, saws, reamers lined these bays.

 

This particular morning the piece of work on the benches in my bay was a truly massive truss, only just within the weight capabilities of my crane.  In sheer span it was wider than the bay.  At its apex it probably stood about twelve feet high. 

This monster had to be lifted to be transferred from the welding benches to the drilling bench, a matter of about forty feet further down the bay.   From my position in the crane cab, up in the warehouse roof, I could not see the clearance on my side of the bay.  Lifted, the truss was so long it extended beneath the cab. 

With guidance from a guy on the floor, I lifted and worked the piece gradually down towards the drilling bench.  My crane bogeys were grinding and slewing on their rails and I had visions of becoming derailed (which would have sent me, the crane and a lot of other gumph plunging thirty-odd feet to the warehouse floor).

Reaching the drilling bench, I stopped the crane’s lateral movement (or at least I thought I did) and began to send the carrier out far enough to swing the truss around, end on, so the drills could reach the part of the work where holes were required.  

 

As it lowered to his bench, the drill operative – a really nice guy in his fifties – took hold of the lower strut of the truss, intending to guide it a few final inches.  But the truss had not stopped swinging!   Why?  Because my crane had not stopped travelling.  The sheer weight of the piece was acting like a pendulum, keeping it in motion.

 

What made him hold on, I don’t know.  Some instinct for preservation, like the mechanism which keeps us clinging to the boat even though it is clearly sinking?  Whatever it was it kept him clutching desperately to that strut until some inner warning (or some shouted one) made him release it, less than a second before it hit the control panel of the drill and the whole truss went live.    Sparks flew, every machine in the warehouse stuttered and died.

 

That was the day I finally decided I was not cut out to be an actor.  Because pursuing my dream actually involved very little acting, and instead placed me in several occupations for which I was clearly ill-equipped.

 

Because I wanted to see those who were unfortunate enough to have to work beside me in those positions kept safe, and see a lot of very nice people like that drill operative go safely home to their families each night.

 

To be or not to be?  No – on balance, maybe not.

 

 

Aside

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ImageMy question for this week:  who polishes David Cameron?

A lot of guys follow him around, and they are supposed to be security, but I’m prepared to bet that one of them is secreting a choice of chamois leathers and a spray can of Mr. Sheen.

Now I come to think of it, why let it rest there?  I mean, everyone acknowledges that the original Ed Milliband was made by Aardman (although rumors he is Wallace’s lovechild are probably unfounded) so someone must be there to touch up the plasticine, right?Image

Whatever we may think of their morality, or of their qualities as people, those who rise to the top in public life do work extremely hard.   Every waking minute must be time-managed; and in this news-hungry generation image management is equally vital.  So, with apologies for my cynicism, I refuse to believe that 7 a.m. at the Cameron’s bears any relation to breakfast time at my house. 

Upstairs?  Well, yes, you can picture some normality there:  wife Samantha telling Dave emphatically that if he must get up at this hour he can fix his own bloody tie, perhaps – but thus far and no further.   If you are due to meet the President of France at 9.00 o’clock an absence of underpants because they’re all in the wash could cause a national crisis, and as for the kids at breakfast….

Imagine the damage one exuberant spoonful of flying jam could do, or the under-confidence engendered by riding your bike commando through London Traffic, rabidly pursued by squadrons of paparazzi eager for the split seam that could end your political career?

No, somewhere behind the door at number 10 there are ‘people’ who ensure that sort of thing can’t happen.  I can imagine them waiting for their Prime Minister to emerge from his private accommodation with a shiny photograph in their pockets, ready to see the image perfected before he is allowed out of doors.

Why is this aspect of public life so important to us, the poor worker bees?  I suppose because at a stroke it invalidates the ‘just like us’ element of democratic leadership.  I recall at one time being told that Prince Charles has a personal valet who helps him to put on his trousers in the morning.  If true, presumably such a person must be in a position to check on the underpants situation at the same time.  But how personal can such an odd relationship get?  And to be so entwined in the lifestyle not to see it as odd – that is a far cry from the daily affairs of the people in the street.  

Lady Churchill once said of her husband that he never went shopping; that he would have had no notion how to conduct himself in a grocers.  Our current Chancellor of the Exchequer Gorgeous George Osborne is a member of a millionaire family and he, like most members of the current government were raised in the tradition of Eton and Oxbridge.  They grew up with the ‘fag’ system and nothing has really changed since.

This is the essential paradox of democracy:  that those who rule us are not, in essence, democrats.   They may say they are, they may lay claim to democratic principles, but they live according a much older code – that of feudalism. 

So spare a thought for the ‘fags’ – the people in the background who should unify us, yet somehow keep the separation intact – who do the unseen jobs.  The great unthanked.  They are untouched by the media, yet they make the Great and the Good much greater and hopefully quite a lot gooder.   

This is my quiet little round of applause for them, the silent ones.  For the man who plugged Richard Murdoch into the mains this morning, for the woman who does Nigella Lawson’s washing up, and the little chap who lurks inside the traffic lights in our town centre just so he can turn them to red every time I approach them. 

They also serve!

They Talk of Cars……

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They sit and talk of cars.

After long years without sight or word or picture – without any knowing – he seems unchanged.  Older, of course, his neat, short hair trimmed with grey:  wiser?  Perhaps.  Confident?  Certainly.   That nervous laugh is quietened now, no more than an eddy in the torrent of his words.

 He talks of cars.

“It is a nice car,” his father tells him.  “You should be proud to own such a car.”

He does not ask the question:  he does not say ‘I cannot love you’ or ask if there is love in his son for him?  Or try to explain why he could never really love him as a father should love his son.

It is a Mercedes, the car.  It is new.  The son has come from afar and the father knows all those miles were for the enjoyment of the drive, for the impression it would make, for his approval. 

 ‘Yes’, the son agrees.  “I have done well.’

There is business to speak of – the properties the son now owns, the achievements of time – time they both have lost.  He listens, the father, his ears filled with his boy’s success, his mind filled with his guilt.  He remembers a little childhood song the boy once sang for him, and counts off each of his betrayals, every one.  All the ways he let him down; all the absence, the vanities, the anger.  And he hopes in the spaces, in the brief moments of silence his son will hear his sorrow for them spoken, though he cannot say the words.

The son glances at his watch.  He should know the father better than to expect such a gesture to be missed; but of course he doesn’t know him.  He is half a stranger now. 

And it is time to part.  The father’s interview is finished, though he may have said rather less than a fistful of words.  The son has visited his father and now he has another appointment.  It is time.

The smiles of parting, the platitudes:  they do not touch. 

 So much that is needed is left unsaid; for the father is old now, in the December of his life.   There is no room left for more lost years, and the son will be too busy to cross the miles – ever to meet with him again.  

But he will be able to recall their last meeting, and how they spoke of cars.

 

Happy Sunday!

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I suppose I didn’t think about it much.   I had just finished a session with a client. 

“Happy Valentine’s Day!”  She said.

I said:  “Same to you!”

Later, the fatuousness of that exchange occurred to me.   I am interred beneath a stone of years and steeped in more than a generation of marriage.  The Viagra is kept in a locked cabinet in the basement to which my dear wife holds the key.  She would greet any suggestion we celebrate by, say, a ‘dining experience’ with a look best described as old-fashioned.  In her view such invitations imply guilt for some undiscovered crime.   The investigation would not be pleasant.  ‘Happy Valentine’?

No, I’m being serious.   St. Valentine was not a happy chap.  We don’t know much about him except his end at the murderous hands of Emperor Claudius Gothicus who had very reactionary views about Christians.  His messy demise was celebrated as a feast day originally, and survives in the form of a rather charming little tradition; that of sending anonymous tokens of affection to those we love, and in some cases (thank you Bob Newhart) our wives.

Until somebody somewhere decided it should become a ‘Day’.   And we should be ‘Happy’ on it.

And so it has joined a long list of such ‘Days’ upon which we should be ‘Happy’.

Once we were only entitled to be ‘Happy’ at Christmas and on our birthday.  Now we are being Happy’ all over the most inappropriate places.

‘Happy Halloween’.   What?   The Eve of All Hallows is a celebration strictly for witches and warlocks, a time for evil mischief – not the best time to be abroad after sunset, and certainly not ‘Happy’.  A little eye of newt, anyone?

‘Happy Easter’.  Well, we all know what happened then.  Yet we are enjoined to be ‘Happy’.  No-one so far has thought of ‘Happy Ascension Day’, although that would make a lot more sense.

‘Happy Mothers’ Day’.  A 20th Century invention in the USA, the creation of one Anna Jarvis back before the First World War, and a purely commercial affair, though it was originally intended to honour Anna’s mum.  In UK its equivalent is Mothering Sunday.  A noble tribute to mothers everywhere, but not a universal ‘Happy’.  I, for example, am not a mother.

My point?  By reducing each of these, and many other festive or votive occasions to ‘Days’ we are robbing them of their history and significance, and replacing them with a functionless vehicle for commercial interests.  Christmas is, of course, the outstanding example of this, but how long will it be before the insidious influence of the greetings card and catering industries induces us to celebrate any number of other annual ‘Happy’s? 

How about ‘Happy Pancake Day’ or ‘Happy No Smoking Day’?  (Maybe we could link that up to Ash Wednesday).  Why not Jedi Sunday,  or  ‘Happy Midsummer Day’?

Make your own suggestions – all valuable, unexploited marketing tools ready to sell us another over-priced greetings card, provide us with expensive dining and lend insignificance to another meaningless greeting.

 Happy Dalek Invasion Day, everyone! 

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