PROTECTING OUR KIDS FROM PORN

English: WH Smith branch in Hounslow, pretty m...
English: WH Smith branch in Hounslow, pretty much identical to almost every WH Smith in the UK, however this one also plays host to Hounslow’s main branch of the Post Office. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This morning I discovered that the popular UK book seller WH Smith had shut down its website after it was revealed that a search for the word ‘Daddy’ had bought up hardcore pornographic ebooks as well as books for children. There were at least 60 such books available for sale on their website. These books were also found on other major online bookseller’s websites. How sickening!

These books have been put out there by amoral writers seeking only to make money and it seems they managed to slip through the net because of the huge number of self-published books on these sites that have given writers the opportunity to sell their work online. Book sellers have a responsibility to us all to make sure this stops. Here we had something really good – legitimate writers able to self-publish – and it’s being horribly abused!  Now the new UK National Crime Agency said that these offensive books might help to legitimise child abuse. This is truly horrendous.

The fact that these books are sold alongside children’s books makes me wonder how low some human beings will sink to exploit innocent children and make money. The Ministry of Justice has said that retailers would be liable for prosecution if a judge thought the ebooks breached the Obscene Publications Act. What has happened to our individual moral compasses? How could these so-called ‘writers’ do something so despicable?

The awful thing is that children might have been inadvertently exposed to such books despite parents making sure that access to pornographic material on a family PC is not possible. If a child looks at the website of a children’s book seller, they should feel confident that the books on sale are suitable for children.

Children have always been vulnerable to exploitation in all its forms by adults, but the writers who self-publish such books and put them on web-sites that are accessible to children, are not writers, they are gross criminals and they should be prosecuted, not for writing the books, but for using them to legitimise child sexual abuse, for what else can their motive be?

ECO-BOOKS?

Old English Coffee Pot and Coffee Cups

I’ve just looked out of the window. It’s Wednesday and guess what, it’s not raining.

My cup of coffee is cold. It stands on my desk as a reminder that I do the same thing every day. I wake up at six, make a cup of coffee, put it on my desk, forget about it, slip back into bed for a quick warm and fall asleep until my mobile phone makes that annoying twink sound at seven,  announcing I have a message. That message is often from my bank telling me how much money I don’t have in my account; guaranteed to start your day on a high. It’s a free service – these days,  I’m into anything that is free.  Now I’m in a mood, firstly because I have missed another precious hour of writing time and secondly because I have wasted a perfectly good cup of coffee.

The purpose of all this early rising is to finish my novel. The first draft is done, but every writer knows that writing is all about re-writing. You have to re-write the bloody thing until your floors are knee-high in pages of A4. I’m one of those boring people that needs to see words written on paper. Not for me the simple joys of the CD, where 350,000 words can be stored at the touch of a keyboard button. I need paper and lots of it. I’m old-fashioned. I like to hold those pages and flip through them like a child using an old Victorian toy that mimicked a film as you flicked. Of course, when I flick through my manuscript, there is no swallow flying across a blue sky, or a steam train running along tracks. No, there are words. Hundreds of them, all working together to make my novel a fascinating slice  of imaginative life for my readers…

At that stage, draft 105, I expect everyone who reads the bugger to like it, or even love it. I expect friends and family to say I will be the next Booker Prize winner. Guess what? They don’t. They are surprisingly silent. One or two may express hearty comments, like ‘jolly well done!’ or even, ‘I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t write a shopping list.’   Well, dear friend, neither could I. My shopping lists are impossible to de-cipher and leave me standing in the isles of the supermarket like a lost puppy.  But then, shopping was never a skill I learned to master. When I confront this fault in myself, I feel incredibly inadequate. Women are supposed to be able to shop. I am a failure as a woman because I hate shopping. I would rather be holed up in my study, knee-deep in paper, trying to write that elusive final draft, for heaven’s sake!

However, lately things have changed. The plethora of TV programmes about saving us and the planet have started to get to me. Those sincere young men and women begging us oldies to get a grip and recycle, have made me feel even more inadequate than being a lousy shopper did. Shots of piles of rubbish and plagues of rats have imprinted on that space behind my eyes where I usually kept recipes for cheesecake.  Fliers drop on to my doormat, advertising the selfless work of The Green Party. I feel so guilty that I order a weekly vegetable box from an organic farm from a place I’ve never heard of.  I’m doing my bit.

By eleven o’clock, I have tipped the cold coffee down the sink and made an ecologically acceptable cup of green tea.

This time it's green tea.

 

It’s my new resolution for October. I will get up later, thus saving fuel and I will ditch coffee. In fact, I have embraced ecotarianism today. I have read that it is the new common-sense approach to life, love and everything else. I will live my life causing the lowest environmental burden to this lovely planet. That’s the plan, anyway. Apparently, as an ecotarian, I don’t have to be a vegetarian, which is good as I love a steak every now and again and the characters in my latest novel do, too. Now I’ll give them all options to become more eco-aware, as they travel through their imaginary lives in my book.

I may force my  characters to get rid of their old mobile phones since I read that one in five of us have three unused mobile phoned hanging about in cupboards at home. They will become very curious about trash, since I discovered that 2.1 tonnes of edible lunch food is dumped in landfills every year. No longer will my characters languish in Starbucks, waiting for the hero/heroine to arrive and share a possibly ecologically poisonous cappucino. They now meet at the whole-food restaurant, wearing their organic cotton clothes, their skin washed in soap made from beeswax, honey and rose petals, their shoes made from woven straw. Now their homes will be heated by energy that comes from a huge wind turbine situated at the bottom of their ten-acre field (a real phallic symbol, if ever there was one). The Aga in their kitchen will be replaced by a wood burning stove that heats everything – house, water, other characters.

Will my novel finally meet green standards? Will it be a template for a greener life for my readers? Will my friends and family have anything productive to say when they have read it? Are my expectations too bloody high?

As for the characters, they have taken on life-styles a great deal more perfect than any of my eco-friendly mates and family. They still kill people and act in ways that would make your hair curl, they still cheat and lie and deflower virgins, as the plot demands, but now they might do it ecologically.

All I have to do now,  is find a green publisher.

LAMPEDUSA IS A WORLD TRAGEDY

The Pope reminded us this morning of the sort of world we live in.

You may not agree with the man, like him or subscribe to his religion, but for me, his speech hit a spot. The tragedy of the lost 400+ at sea this week is something that must never happen again. Of course, it will. While there are desperate refugees fleeing from war torn countries, there will be people willing to take their money and promise them Nirvana. There will be people who will assure them that the boats they scramble on to with their women and children, are safe. There will be people taking huge amounts of money from them and in return, killing them – for that is what happened this week.

The local people living on the Italian island of Lampedusa have been witnessing these tragedies for many years. They are sick of it. One fisherman, having seen the rows of bodies, including women and children, laid out on the dockside, told a reporter that the Italian government should send ships to collect these people, rather than let them continue to pay unscrupulous, uncaring smugglers to bring them to Europe.

How much does the world really care about the plight of asylum seekers? I feel physically sick when the MP Nigel Farage bleats on about them, when papers like The Daily Mail use their power to subtly print stories that are, in my opinion, clearly racist. The Daily Mail newspaper ran many articles in the 1930’s praising Nazi Germany, The Hitler Youth, Mussolini’s Italy and the British Union of Fascists. They have short memories…

This paper is the second most read daily newspaper in this country. Why? Now they have turned on Ed Milliband, the leader of the Labour Party. How low can they stoop? Do they remember that at the start of the second world war, they changed their editorial stance to avoid charges of treason? They stopped praising the Nazis and the BUF but carried on their support of appeasement. One of their stories during that terrible period stated:  The Czechs are of no concern to Englishmen…  Then why has Ralph Milliband become so interesting to them?

I wonder what they will make of the tragedy in Lampedusa? As I never buy the paper and never will, I won’t know, except when it is reported on the news. Their recent hateful attack on Ed Milliband’s father, widely reported on TV and radio, speaks volumes about their real agenda. Mr. Milliband’s father was an immigrant, like my father. Is anyone who’s father came from another country fair game for The Daily Mail? Is this what British people really want? The articles about Ralph Milliband are despicable.

RIP for all those who lost their lives seeking our help and compassion.

A CHILD’S VIEW OF AN ITALIAN CHRISTMAS

English: Balsamic vinegar drizzled over chunks...
English: Balsamic vinegar drizzled over chunks of parmesan cheese, Modena, Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In our house, Christmas was the one time we could push the boat out and eat. When I was growing up, the UK was in the grip of rationing. We were lucky. My Dad worked in the clubs and restaurants that served the rich in London. He was the leader of a small jazz combo called the Quaglino Quartette. He put the band together while he was working at Quags.

Giovanni Quaglino, who opened the hotel in 1929 was a wonderful host. His clients included the Duke of Windsor and Princess Margaret, who allegedly took my brother’s guitar (he often played with my Dad) and tried to play a tune on it. Other famous people include Evelyn Waugh and Barbara Cartland. My Dad knew them all. Sadly Quags shut its door in 1981 and they stayed shut until Sir Terence Conran and his partner, Joel Kissin reopened it. Quaglino’s now salutes Thirties glamour. The restaurant is opulent and contemporary and I think my Dad would have been thrilled to see how it looks today, with its sleek bar where a pianist plays. There is still a dance floor and trios and quartets play during the evenings at weekends.

We opened our presents on Christmas morning, after all we were living in England and my parents respected and wanted us to learn English ways and traditions. Most Italians used to open their presents on the Epiphany, l’epifania, January 6th. As was the tradition, we received a stocking filled with small toys, an Amoretti biscuit that we unwrapped immediately and threw the tissue paper wrapping into the fire where it burned bright, the remains floating up the chimney, carrying our wishes with it. We also found a small orange in the toe of the stocking. This was a real treat in those days and I suspect my father managed to get them from the chef at the club where he was working.

Although in Italy it was traditionally the kind witch, La Befana, who brought the gifts and sweets, in our house it was Santa. I remember so clearly the magic feeling of staying awake in my bed with the curtains open, looking up at a star studded sky, waiting to see the sleigh and the reindeer. One Christmas when I was about five years old, I swear I saw him. I was told that in Italy the wise witch was followed by the wise men that got lost and have been wandering ever since, handing out presents to children. In Venice and Mantova, it’s Santa Lucia who brings the presents, while in some regions it’s Baby Jesus, Gesu’ Bambino, who bears the gifts. But nowadays, 90% of Italians also believe in Santa Claus, Babbo Natale.

Christmas day for me was all about family, love and food; la famiglia, l’amaore e il cibo. We didn’t stick to the tradition of fasting on Christmas Eve, but my mother would cook a supper of Salt Cod and Polenta. After eating, we would get ready for church and midnight mass. This was sheer wonder for a small child. The candles and incense, the crib with its painted plaster Jesus, Mary and Jospeh, the Wise Men and their gifts, the shepherds and angels, all amazing and magical to a child. To be allowed to stay up until after midnight and accompany my family to church was so exciting. We would put on our Sunday best and walk to church, the frosty night air pinching our cheeks. (I remember it always as frosty!) If I was cold, I would travel on my brother’s shoulders or be wrapped in my older brother’s coats. Inevitably I would fall asleep during the latter half of the mass, but I would force myself to stay awake and see the Consecration of the Host and watch people receiving Holy Communion.

After opening the presents at about 8am, despite not getting to bed until 2am, the women would start to prepare for lunch. Lunch on Christmas day was a theatrical performance. It was a long show. My elder sister and I would lay the table. We would cover it with a spotless white and starched linen cloth, napkins, silver knives and forks, crystal glasses and most important of all for me, christmas crackers. There would usually be 12 around the table, a mixture of cousins and aunts, uncles and musicians. We would start the meal with an anti pasti of vegetables and meats that would include salami, coppa, mortadella and liver pate. A good wine would accompany this and all the courses and I was always allowed a small glass of my own. Then Mum would serve a soup or brode with home made ravioli floating in it. Copious amounts pf Parmesan cheese would be sprinkled on this and my Dad would pour a good slurp of wine into my plate to ‘liven up’ my soup!

Because we were in England, Mum would always cook a turkey, but it was liberally stuffed with an Italian stuffing made with cheese, breadcrumbs, lots of garlic, onions, mushrooms and herbs. It was delicious and I still stuff my turkey with a version of it today. Sometimes Mum would make two stuffings, one with chestnuts, but I found that too rich and preferred the cheese one. For desert, Christmas pudding was always served. The lights would be turned off and the pudding would be brought into the room, flaming. By now it would be about 4pm so the light outside would be failing, making it even more magical for a child. The meal would end with oranges and nuts, liqueurs and chocolates. Mum’s sweet filled ravioli would be bought to the table, a mound of glistening fried pasta squares filled with chestnuts, liqueur and spices, doused in honey. Then, the sugared almonds and cigars would come round with the indoor fireworks, a must on Christmas day.

We would move to our large sitting room where the grand piano stood and my sister would play and sing for us. Tradition has it that in Italy pipers – zampognari, perform songs on bagpipes, flutes and oboes. These travelling musicians come down from the mountains in the regions of Abruzzo and Calabria and typically wear bright red jackets and broad-brimmed hats with red tassels. In Rome, the pipers play at the market in the historic Piazza Navona, on the Spanish Steps and at the entrance to St. Peter’s Square. Figures of the zampognari often feature in nativity scenes. But my family came from the north of Italy and I think the family made their own music using accordions, my father’s instrument. It was all wonderful to me.

Here are the words to an Italian carol – Un Canto di Natale. Astro del Ciel, Star of the Sky (same tune as Silent Night)

Astro del ciel, Pargol divin, mite Agnello Redentor! 
Tu che i Vati da lungi sognar, tu che angeliche voci nunziar, 
luce dona alle genti, pace infondi nei cuor! 
luce dona alle genti, pace infondi nei cuor!
Astro del ciel, Pargol divin, mite Agnello Redentor! 
Tu di stirpe regale decor, Tu virgineo, mistico fior, 
luce dona alle genti, pace infondi nei cuor! 
Luce dona alle genti, pace infondi nei cuor!
Astro del ciel, Pargol divin, mite Agnello Redentor! 
Tu disceso a scontare l’error, Tu sol nato a parlare d’amor, 
luce dona alle genti, pace infondi nei cuor! 
Luce dona alle genti, pace infondi nei cuor!

When I had my own children I tried to recapture some of the magic of those family Christmases for them. We have made Christmas so commercial and church is no longer part of the celebration. Although I admit to being a lapsed Catholic, those midnight masses were so special to me. I think we managed to attend a couple of times when my kids were growing up and I know it made an impression on them. Sadly, I was in a store last Christmas when standing beside some christmas cards with pictures of a cross and a Nativity on them, I heard a woman say: ‘Look, they’re even bringing religion into Christmas now!’

The magic of those family Christmases will never fade for me and every year, I take a moment to think about all the hard work and love my Italian family put into making it so special for all of us. I love them all so much for that. Buon Natale!

My Dad, Frank Gregori playing the Accordion solo on this wonderful session recorded in 1935, long before I was a twinkle in his eye!