Things I Watch When I Am Ironing #11: American Gods

Ian McShane as Mr Wednesday in American Gods

Big Neil Gaiman fan here. I especially liked Ocean At The End of the Lane and Neverwhere. I bloody loved Neverwhere. I never read American Gods though, so apart from a big bowlful of magical realism, I didn’t know what to expect.
I still don’t know what to expect.

The thing that I suppose has put off anyone trying to adapt American Gods before, is that it isn’t a start to finish story but a massive ever-evolving circle.

Czernobog

This is Czernobog and this is his hammer

Nothing is explained, and at the start you have to just sit back and enjoy the road trip.
It is the stunning cinematography that kept me watching at first; one tiny but exquisitely crafted scene saw a road map of Illinois swivel and transform seamlessly into the lock on a motel room door.
No-one strikes a match in American Gods without the scene slowing down and zooming in so you can see every particle of the match, hear every crackle of the tiny flame.

The plot is a road movie crossed with a fantasy quest: An extraordinarily dense ex-con called Shadow Moon is taken up by a mysterious con-artist called Mr Wednesday.
Wednesday is travelling through middle America visiting oddballs and persuading them to meet him in Wisconsin for a war.
They – or, to be precise, Shadow – are pursued by some Bad Guys who take over TVs and talk in riddles.
It takes Shadow a long, long time – the whole series in fact – to suss out that Wednesday is recruiting a gang of old gods to fight the new gods and that his boss is one of the original old-style war gods, Odin himself (the clue was in the name – Odin/Woden’s day = Wednesday).

Put like that, it sounds a bit like a Marvel super heroes movie, but it’s not even on the same planet.
In Gaiman’s world, gods aren’t buff do-gooders with a paper-thin backstory. Instead, they rely on worship – on people praying to them, sacrificing to them, building altars to them.
Once they are forgotten by their disciples, they die. In modern day America, the gods are now technology, media and globalisation, and they are vast and powerful, taking over many of the old beliefs and forging them again – like turning Easter into a chintz-fest of white rabbits and pastel-coloured macaroons.

Is your heart heavier than a feather? Well, is it?

The old gods are muttering in damp apartments or desperately flicking through Tindr in search of worshippers. They were brought to America by settlers, and some of the best scenes in the series depict how this happened.
A boat of early Viking raiders summon Odin, and leave him there when they decide the New World is a bit too rubbish. An Irish woman sentenced to transportation brings with her belief in the little folk; a Muslim woman who heard tales of the Egyptian dieties from her mother holds them in her heart when she moves to America; Ghanian teller of tales Anansi, the spider god, arrived with slaves in the sweating hold of a Dutch cargo ship.

The clincher as to whether I loved this series or just sort of admired it came at the start of episode three. The Egyptian woman – now living in Queens – falls off a rickety stool, dies, and is visited by Anubis, who weighs her heart and invites her to choose which door she will pass through into the underworld. This small scene was breathtakingly beautiful. The camera falls dizzyingly down through the apartment block, then journeys back up the fire escape to a sun-crossed land of ancient deserts. The woman’s face is careworn but beautiful, the colours are like a hand-tinted sepia film reel. I had to watch it three times.

Laura Moon

Laura Moon. Dead wife. With flies

If there is one thing American Gods has, it is depth. We don’t need to see the goddess Bilquis absorbing people into her vagina (yes, she actually does that. Loads of times). We don’t need to hear Anansi, Ghanian god of storytelling, tell it like it is to a sweltering hold of African slaves. But they give the series a boundless horizon, a sense that anything could happen.

And we will have to wait until the next season to find out exactly what is going to happen. Series one ends with nothing resolved and everything still to play for. I can’t wait that long – I’ve started reading the book.

Things I think about as I colour-co-ordinate my pegs

  • If Shadow’s dead wife Laura Moon is brought back to life what will happen to her half-rotted body? And what about the fact she has no organs? How does this resurrection stuff work anyway?
  • She tried to kill herself with fly-spray and is now surrounded by flies attracted to her rotten maggoty flesh. I see that. But don’t get it.
  • And why is Laura so superhumanly strong now she’s dead? OK, enough about Laura now.
  • Shadow Moon is really a bit of a docile thickie, so why are the nasty new gods so keen to recruit him? Why does everyone already know who he is?
  • Is a leprechaun a god? I thought they were just like Little People from the land of faerie, hanging about around rainbows and stuff.
  • That bank job Wednesday pulls, acting like a security guard. Would that work? (Asking for a friend).

Just say so

So, I inhabit a shadowy netherworld (Lincolnshire) where the latest trends and high fashion passes me by, or arrives thirty years late (our local Co-op doesn’t stock ‘posh’ avocados and I still haven’t seen Frozen – although I feel it often enough).
But even I can’t help notice the amount of times people are starting a sentence with ‘so’.
It started with radio interviews, usually politicians, but now it is everywhere. Whenever anyone is asked a straight question, they start their answer with “So, blah blah di blah blah…”
It makes no grammatical sense. It is bloody infuriating. But it spreads, like fidget spinners or loom bands (see, I do keep up with some trends). And, a bit like fidget spinners, no-one seems to realise they are doing it, and that makes it even more annoying.
My research (Google) says it began in America with techie geeks back in the 90s, who used it to give themselves more time to answer, possibly because English wasn’t their first language.
It is also used as a way of engaging with the questioner, making them think you are weighing up their query and then ignoring it and answering a totally different question – the question you wanted to answer in the first place. This is usually something like ‘why are you and your political party so great?’

And so say all of us

So far, so good


Saying so is also thought to indicate the speaker has been coached in interview techniques. It sounds more definite than ‘er’ or ‘um’, as if a more serious, thoughtful reply is about to follow.
Tony Blair, the ultimate media manipulator, started his replies with ‘well’ a lot, as a way of giving weight to them. Also popular, but slightly more aggressive, is ‘anyway’.
When the speaker drops the ‘so’ and plunges right in you know you have got to the real answers, without the media training.
I’m not buying this – I think verbal tics spread, like nits. You pick them up off someone and they are almost impossible to throw off.
When I went to college there was a big contingent of Northern Irish students. Within a month us English teenagers were unconsciously mimicking their accent. I shared a house with a couple from Down South and I found myself speaking as if everything was a question – that upward intonation at the end of every sentence that Australians and some Americans use.
Remember a few years ago, when everyone said ‘like’ or ‘you know what I mean’? (David Beckham was terrible at this). Phrases spread too: ‘How are you?’ ‘Oh, I’m good, thanks.’ ‘Do you want to play with this fidget spinner?’ ‘Ah no, I’m good.’
Good? As opposed to bad, or naughty? Who says you’re good, your mum?
Hand and the words 'so what?'

Just so


Similarly, when I started watching Elementary back in 2012 I was perplexed to hear the police (I mean cops – this is America) talk about ‘reaching out’ to someone. I imagined an outstretched hand desperately grasping for a drowning soul.
But no, they meant call someone. Like, on the phone. “Americans, eh?” I shrugged – but I have heard people talk about reaching out this year, in this country.
I mean it when I say it is contagious. Someone offered me a drink and I shook my head and told them I was good, before biting off my tongue. I start sentences with ‘so’ all the time, and even when I know I’m doing it, I still do it.
We want to be part of the pack, say the psychologists. Sharing language traits shows we all belong – to a flock of parrots, presumably.
So, you know what will happen now? You will all start hearing the word ‘so’ at the start of sentences ALL THE TIME. And then you will all start unconsciously doing it too.
So be it.

A day in the life of a polling station in the sticks

Polling Station sign

I live the centre of a large village in Lincolnshire. On election days, the village hall is the polling station. This happens to be close to my house and through my study window I can see everyone who arrives to vote.

For the General Election I was working; first sewing, then actual work, then titting about on Twitter and ordering miracle creams from Holland & Barrett admin stuff. I spent most of the day in the study watching people come to vote – and it was fascinating.

First up, from opening up at 7am until about 8amish, the voters were women in sensible office garb, nipping in and out in zippy little cars before heading for work.

Older men in chinos carrying newspapers – the active and early retired maybe – then arrived, but by 9.30am they had given way before the constant slam of car doors and whizz of mobility scooters that heralded The Pensioners.

polling cards

We were told to destroy our cards at home after voting, which was v exciting


There were hundreds – possibly thousands – of these, and they came and went all day. Most parked as close as possible to the door, levered themselves shakily out of their cars, then tottered into the village hall, which they probably haven’t visited since attending a tea dance in 1957.

They then emerged, blinking at the effort of having to open the door, and stopped to chat, before wandering off in search of their cars. Some looked ancient – 130 years old at least, and for a couple of hours I was sure there would be an accident, as they obviously haven’t left the house since the introduction of double yellow lines.

In the meantime, dog walkers called by, looping the leads over the railings outside the library. One poor border collie howled mournfully while its owner was inside. Probably knew he was voting Tory.

This is the time people I have never seen before (because they were so weird I would remember) appeared. The man who looks as if he has spent the last five years sleeping in a pile of damp leaves; the 7ft tall bulging-eyes man in a sky blue sports jacket and grey jogging bottoms; the impossibly (for Lincolnshire) glamorous woman with blonde hair piled on her head carrying a chihuahua; the troglodyte couple in matching brown hessian. Where do these people live? Why, in my 20 years in the village have I never seen them before?

polling station

These railings have been used for dogs, shopping baskets and sundry children


Mid-afternoon is peak time. The pensioners are still staggering in, and this coincides with the mums popping in on their way back from school, kids swinging on the railings outside, as well as the men in vans pulling up. These will be the plumbers, builders, electricians and refrigeration engineers who started work at 7 or 8 and are calling in before heading for home. Things heats up as the 8-4 shift hits town and, the day’s work done, everyone lingers outside to chat. A vaguely holiday atmosphere permeates the library steps.

There is a flurry of teenagers, some of them on bikes, all loud and a bit self conscious. They have had time to get home from college, get changed into cool gear and head off out again. Next stop, the bench next to the war memorial.

After 6pm it goes dead. The odd car pulls up, grown-up couples stride in and out, but no-one lingers and there are no more dogs tied to the railings.

After seven the people in suits arrive. This always bemuses me, as I thought my husband was the only person to wear a suit in a twenty-mile radius. Who are these fleece-less, overall-less, uniform-less people? Where, in our resolutely lower middle/upper working class village, do they live?

polling station

I have been staring at this entrance ALL DAY


They are joined by grown-up families, all strolling out together after dinner (not tea), and chatting to other grown-up families. After 9pm they peter out and it is single males in dusty cars and white t-shirts, and young women with brutally straightened hair, usually in pairs.

At 9.30pm an official from inside the village hall takes in one of the Polling Station signs. I’m not sure if this is allowed before 10pm, but no-one is about, and by 9.55pm they are all packed up ready to go. By 10.10pm the lights are off and the car park is empty.

The day has been punctuated with car alarms. I don’t know why this is, but more car alarms went off in the village today than in the whole of the past ten years. I would come up with some clever metaphor about it being an alarming portent of the election result, but I don’t have time; I have a night of exit polls and marginals to prepare for…

It’s the year of the Sats

stripy heart-shaped lollipops

A heart-shaped lollipop with her name on; an owl made out of shells; a collection of painted pebbles stuck on a slightly bigger pebble with the sign ‘Rock Concert’; a pencil, ruler, rubber and sharpener set and a pair of ankle boots with a two-inch heel.

This is what my daughter got for practising an 11-plus paper every day of the summer holidays last year, including when we were actually away on holiday.

rock concert pebbles

Cute AND witty – what’s not to like?

You may sniff at bribery and instant rewards but they worked; it was the hardest she has ever studied for anything, but it scraped her into grammar school.

It was a good lesson. If you work hard, if you make a sacrifice, if you put in the hours then you get a reward. At the time, getting into a good school wasn’t exactly her idea of a glittering prize. But the rock concert pebbles? That really did it. Even if she didn’t get a place, she’s still got the pebbles and the owl.

shell owl

The prize for doing a mock exam every day of the holidays. I know the value of a good bribe


When my stepdaughters tackled their GCSEs and A-Levels, they had grown past the heart-shaped lollipop stage. For them, getting good grades was the reward. These were the hard-won tickets to the next stop in their education, the key to opening the door to the next step in their lives.

This is why we put ourselves through exams, to achieve something, to move onwards and upwards, to make our families proud and boost our own self-esteem.

Except, of course, when it comes to bloody Sats.

The Sats – Standard Assessment Tests – are supposed to measure how your child is doing in maths and English, and how they compare to ten and eleven-year-olds in the rest of the country. This is important, apparently, to the Government, to the education authorities, to the schools and to the teachers. But not the poor little sods who actually have to take the bloody tests.

black ankle boots

Inappropriate for an 11-year-old? I DON’T CARE

My daughter’s teachers have been banging on about Sats since last September. They have been holding maths booster classes instead of music lessons, handing out holiday revision packs and conducting mock exam after mock exam. A friend was taken out of her beloved PE class in order to practise joined-up writing; three years ago my son had to give up his hugely enjoyable violin lessons to concentrate on arithmetic. He never picked up an instrument again. Waytogo, Sats.

Parents were invited to a special evening where we were given advice on how to remember grammar rules and told to bring our children in for the tests even if they were ill. “One class I had were struck with food poisoning from a party the day before so we had sick buckets all around the classroom,” one teacher told us proudly.

Sats suck. The stress is terrible, with some children in my stepdaughter’s year working themselves up into such a state they were shaking before they went into school. Preparing for them overshadows the last year of primary school to no purpose, other than ensure the school has a half-decent league table ranking and the teachers hang onto their jobs. It leaches away the sheer joy in learning that children have at that age, and replaces it with the need to understand the pluperfect tense.

A Sat exam and a broken pencil

Sats suck

Children have enough exam stress waiting for them when they get to senior school; 11 is too young to be worrying about making the grade. And what possible benefit can there be in telling a 11-year-old they aren’t as clever as most of the other 11-year-olds in the country, that they are ‘below average’. It doesn’t get them extra tuition or sent to a different school. It just makes them feel a failure.

And if they do come out above average, what’s the point, apart from making the headteacher feel smug? They don’t get a certificate, a bang-on job or letters after their name. All that hard work, all year, for sod all.

There are a lot of things you can work your backside off for that ultimately come to nothing, such as weeding ground elder, ironing sheets, getting through level 147 on Candy Crush or knitting socks (too big. Always too big). All of them are more worthwhile than Sats.

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public” – Winston Churchill.

Why do our brains want us to be fat?

Runners in the London Marathon

Some new research has shown that regular exercise not only staves off heart disease, diabetes, stroke risk and some cancers but also helps keep your brain healthy, so you are less likely to succumb to dementia.
This isn’t really news – scientists and doctors have been banging on about the amazing benefits of regular exercise for generations.
With this in mind, I watched the London Marathon at the weekend and then heard that a friend is now in training for an ultra-marathon (50 miles).

Marathon bar

For those of you that didn’t know what Snickers used to be. Don’t get me started on Opal Fruits


Why? We all chorus. Why do they do it? I’d rather eat a Marathon for 26 miles than run one (that’s a joke for everyone over 45).
But we all know why – being fit makes you feel bloody brilliant. Your sleep is better and you need less of it; your energy levels are higher and stay higher; you automatically eat healthier food and – and here’s a cracking bit – you can get away with eating more, so can shrug off the odd shashlik chicken or plain chocolate Bounty. Aches and pains melt away, you get up from a chair without saying ‘oof’ and can run for a bus, the school pick-up or last orders without being sick.
On top of that is the mental benefits. I don’t mean the amount of oxygen in your brain means you are likely to be staving off Alzheimer’s disease. I mean the sheer, heartwarming smugness of knowing you are in good shape.
Better shape than the cow-flanked families queuing into the car park at McDonalds; better than that bloke at work who has a Wispa and two cans of Coke for his breakfast and whose breathing sounds like a rusty old boiler; better than the expanding backside of the woman rolling down the supermarket aisle, trolley loaded with fun-size Bounty bars and family pack Doritos.
Runners

Look how happy she is – how healthy, how charmingly smug


You are slim; you are fit; you wear trainers and leggings because they are your workout gear, not your couch clothes – you are better than everyone else in the room.
It’s a no-brainer that being fit brings nothing but good. Only it isn’t. A no-brainer that is.
Because, if it was, we’d all be running marathons and chomping on bananas instead of Bounties. And we aren’t, because our brains don’t let us.
You can rationalise it much as you like, read up on the medical evidence, imagine yourself two sizes slimmer and eight sizes smugger, but it doesn’t stop you ordering chicken korma with rice and a side of Bombay potatoes and a peshwari nan and poppudoms and dips. For the fifth time in a month.
And anyone who has staggered their way through a run, or cycled round the park, or got to the end of an exercise class knows without a shadow of a doubt how good, how euphoric you feel afterwards. For a long time afterwards too, right into the next day when your stiff legs and aching arms are a cause for secret smug smiles.
But, as far as your brain is concerned, none of this trumps the ten minutes of pleasure to be gained from shoving a bowl of profiteroles down your neck. And even that isn’t unadulterated – you are wracked with guilt, or anger or misery at having given in. Yet still you do it.
Why brain, why?
Why isn’t the brain strong enough to say no? To remind you how much better everything is when you are fit, and how shit you will feel afterwards? What’s going on with evolution that the dubious short term delight of a tub of Ben & Jerrys with squirty cream and Golden Syrup will have you dumping the diet? Shouldn’t the threat of diabetes and heart disease have bred this need out of us?
A green apple

You should be reaching for this…


…instead you want this. And you want it SO MUCH


So why is it hardwired to go for the sugar and fat option? Does this go back to the Stone Age? Were there fur-loincloth wearing fatties, spreading their grilled dandelion leaves with mammoth fat and dipping their fingers into honeycombs? Can’t see it somehow – you needed to be fit and thin to run away from rampaging mammoths and swarming bees.
Or have we short-circuited nature with our statins and heart bypasses? Does our brain know, deep down, that it doesn’t matter if we spend our lives porking out in a chair because Medicine will sort it all out?
But even if this is the case, being fat and unfit feels shite, and being fat and unfit and sick feels even shitter. And your brain knows this, as it persuades you to drive to Pizza Hut instead of the swimming pool.
I have come up with two possibilities: The first is that our brains simply hate us. They tell us what we should be doing to make ourselves feel great, then go and make us do the opposite. Our brains want to upset us, to make us depressed, to feel like failures, to get ill.
Or: Our brains are really stupid. They want short-term gratification, to live for the day, to be comfy. They want profiteroles.

This place is lit up like a castle, and other grown-up phrases

I recently had a significant birthday, which kinda took me by surprise, because I thought by the time I got to this milestone I would have grown up.
Trying to remember what my parents were like at this age is hard. As a child, even a so-called grown up one, you are so self-centred you can’t see anything from anyone else’s point of view.
Only now, with an electricity bill the equivalent to the GDP of a small country, do I realise what Dad’s beef was when he stormed around the house snarling “this place is lit up like a bloody castle” and turning all the lights off.

A barn without a door

Where you born in a bloody barn?

And while I’m on the subject, what’s with leaving the doors open all the time? It doesn’t matter that you are coming back into the room in half an hour’s time, my ankles are bloody freezing now.

Some of the stuff I can remember is the things I thought grown-ups should do, the things I was determined I would do once I crossed the shining threshold into grownupness.

What you say you will do
In the 70s, my mum’s favourite chocolates were Black Magic, and Dad bought her a box at Christmas, Easter and on her birthday. I don’t know how, but she made them last ages, starting with the Liquid Cherry and finishing up with the Hazelnut Cluster weeks later. Not me, I vowed. When I am grown up, I will buy a whole box of Black Magic chocolates and eat it all to myself, all in one day.
And why you can’t
Calories. Fat content. Fear of cholesterol levels. Deep-seated guilt. And the fact they don’t make old fashioned Black Magic anymore and I can’t be doing with a truffle.

What you say you will do
Call in sick to work and go to the beach. You can’t do this at school. You need a parent and a note and a way of getting to the beach. But when you work, you can just tell them you’ve got flu and have a free day off – why not do it every month?
And why you can’t
You just don’t. The obligation – to your colleagues, to the faceless monolith that pays your salary – is too strong. And there is the nagging feeling that you are jinxing it somehow. The irrational idea that by taking a day off you don’t deserve you will not get the time off when you do need it. This is total grownupness

What you say you will do
Stay in the house, on the settee and watch TV all day.
And why you can’t
Your back will seize up with all the inactivity, the children will need feeding and you need to get up to sign for the Tesco delivery.

What you say you will do

Here comes the dawn – how bad do you feel? (http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com)

Stay up all night. Bedtime is for boring losers.
And why you can’t
It makes you feel shit. That horrible cold feeling in your chest when the sickly light of dawn filters through and you realise you have to be in work in an hour. The days it takes for your body clock to sort itself out. Shudder.

What you say you will do
Rejoice every evening and weekend. When I stayed on to do my A Levels, a lot of my friends got jobs (or went on YTS schemes. This was the 80s). Whenever they moaned at how they dull it was, how they hated it, how much better school was, I bridled. When you are in education, it never leaves you. There is always another book you can read, some more notes you can write up, a bit more revision you can do. When you work, your evenings, weekend and holidays are yours alone. Joy.
And why you can’t
Education is interesting. Work isn’t. Work is riven with office politics and fear, learning about Napoleon isn’t. You are never free of work, you spend all evening checking your work emails, all weekend worrying about your Monday morning meeting.

An old box of Black Magic chocolates

I can remember what every single one of these beauties tasted like

What you say you will do
Lose weight easily, as all the food in the house will be food you have bought. It will all be carob-coated rice cakes and baked potatoes, not chocolate cake, Tizer and frozen pizzas.
And why you can’t
Because when it comes to buying your own food the last thing you bloody want is a carob-coated rice cake. What you want is a whole box of Black Magic chocolates.