July 19, 2013 6:39 pm

The Diary: Nicola Barker

From nasty foot incidents to this year’s ‘Big Brother’ and the special art of emoticons
An illustration of a French Bulldog biting someone's foot©Luke Waller

I was sitting at the kitchen table a couple of weeks ago innocently enjoying an especially delicious cauliflower cheese when one of my two French bulldogs inadvertently bit me on the foot. A “contested” object had, unbeknownst to me, been secreted under the table and a sudden, violent argument had broken out between the two of them. When I moved my foot – surprised by the snarling uproar – it got in the way of this argument and was punctured quite severely. I was livid, in agony, and hobbled around for a couple of days with a stick.

Of course, it was all my fault because I’m finishing a novel and am, therefore, incapable of focusing on anything else. The dogs are both uncastrated males and so liable to be competitive. All toys must consequently be removed from the floor after supervised playing sessions to avoid unexpected bust-ups. What were they doing loitering under the table during mealtimes, anyway (you might quite rightly ask)? Well, I had been tossing them peas from my dinner plate (out of pure guilt after ignoring them all day) and watching them scuttle around delightedly to retrieve them on the tiles.

How curious, then, that a mere 10 days later, just as my foot was returning to normal, the fates should decree that both of my dogs and my partner, Ben, would sustain serious leg and foot injuries. Sarge sprained his front paw after jumping over a low bush for a ball and landing on a fish-food container (which I had left out near the pond). Moses tore an overlong dewclaw (I hadn’t found time to trim it) after an especially vigorous game of stick (which is actually officially banned at home), and Ben (a ghost writer) was running for a Tube after a late meeting with a client to get home in time to walk the dogs (I was too busy that day) and his calf muscle pinged and tore. Now he can’t walk himself or them and I am playing sullen nurse (picture a slightly less functional Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery) to all three.

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The moral of this sorry tale? Uh, I don’t know. I’m too frazzled to settle on one. Although I’m currently fixating on a series of lame (no pun intended) pedi-related metaphors: to “shoot oneself in the foot” (Ha! Story of my life); “the boot is on the other foot” (never more so, dammit); “put your best foot forward” (that’ll be the unbitten one, will it?); waiting on somebody (or bodies) “hand and foot” (replacement ice-pack, anyone? Arnica rub? Salt soak?). “Getting off on the wrong foot” (Argh. ’Twas ever thus!). “Foot the bill” (Oh I am, I am, believe me, I am).

. . .

I always find the official warnings issued by the production team to miscreant contestants on Big Brother an interesting litmus test for prevalent social mores. In the first few weeks of this year’s “Secrets and Lies”-themed series, there were two of them. The first came when a 41-year-old Caucasian woman called Jemima told another contestant, Michael (coincidentally a “mole”), that she “didn’t fancy” black or Chinese men (although she did like mixed-race men). The second was issued to “dating consultant” Dexter when, during a secret challenge in which he was instructed to “infuriate” another contestant, he told Sophie, the daughter of a Canning Town scrap-merchant, “You can take the girl out of the caravan park but you can’t take the caravan park out of the girl.”

Both of the subsequent warnings left me (and the contestants) confused and perplexed. The first because surely sexual attraction is one of the few things a person can be allowed to have silly – even ignorant – opinions on (it’s sexual attraction for heaven’s sake – it’s totally personal and arbitrary!). The second because Dexter had been instructed to offend Sophie. And he promptly did so – very successfully. Surely morality can’t seriously be expected to intersect with “play” (play is where we experiment with morality, and thereby define its ever-changing boundaries), and especially not with the heart (worse still the genitals!). I’m all for people being called to account for offensive things that they have said and done – being gently encouraged to question their innate prejudices etc – but good reality television depends on people being ... uh ... real.

. . .

My sister, Tania (who lives in Cape Town), loves (insert small red heart) emoticons. I have lately realised that if I am to communicate with her successfully, then I need to master this special art myself. As a writer I love words but as a trained graphic artist and advertising exec she responds to words and images conjoined. Emoticons are kind of like the ketchup on the burger of her textual conversations. In a pathetic attempt to keep up, I downloaded hundreds of emoji on to my iPhone last week and have been employing them, with mixed success, ever since. The one I seem to use the most is the little “see no evil” monkey who, for me – with his poignantly covered eyes – expresses the feelings “Doh!”, or “Why? Why? Why?”, or “I can’t bear it!”

 

My sister will sometimes write an entire text in pure emoticon. To illustrate the scope of the art form she kindly forwarded me a copy of a conversation she and her bemused partner, Zeddie, had exchanged during her recent business trip to Johannesburg. He texted that her three Boston Terriers were missing her dreadfully. She promptly responded with six different emoticons, including cat with heart eyes, cat blowing a kiss, serene princess, cat in tears and an old-fashioned, punctuation-style wink ;). Zeddie consolidated his statement with a lovely photo of the dogs. She responded to this with eight red and angry Pinocchio-style faces in a row. (Terrifying!). He typed back, “I don’t know what that means ... Have we stopped using words?” She promptly replied with a starburst and two sideways-looking eyes. (Superb work, Tania! Game set and match!)

The other day, following a brief flurry of texts about a little English town I was visiting that we both love dearly, I sent her a fir tree, an oak tree and a fir tree. She got back to me straight away. Two little words to bring tears of pride to my amateur eyes: “Eloquent Emoji. X”.

Nicola Barker’s most recent novel ‘The Yips’ is out in paperback (Fourth Estate, £8.99)

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