Tuesday, 29 December 2009

In which I didn't mean you, Colin.

A belated link to my festive ShinyStyle column, posted 17/12/09:


In which I'm the last writer on the bandwagon (who has to sit at the front with teacher)

To be printed 31/12/09.

This week, this no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year where nobody quite knows what day it is, is all about the inevitable. The inevitable slide into the state of slovenly house slug, leaving the sofa only to snaffle out the last of the cheesey footballs and claim the remote for 100 Greatest Musicals 2 (the 100 that didn’t make it into the first 100).

It is inevitable that you will plan to go for a bracing walk along the seafront, but never make it further than the M&S returns queue. It is inevitable that at some point, you will briefly think you’re having a mild heart attack. This year there are two new inevitabilities: it is inevitable that at whatever point of day you turn on your telly, David Tennant will be on it. And it is inevitable that every columnist in Christendom will be writing a round-up of the noughties. Who am I to buck the trend?

So here we stand today, on the precipice of one decade, about to topple off and land in the next one (or in the arms of a drunk tourist called Julio, if our Trafalgar Square new year plans come to fruition). This time 10 years ago, my mother was stocking the garage with tuna cans and giant bottles of water in case Y2k sent the whole world into millennial meltdown.

It’s ironic, of course, that far from collectively exploding on the stroke of midnight like an updated Cinderella prop, computers went on to change almost every facet of our lives during the subsequent decade. But you don’t need me to tell you that – you’re reading this online, on an iPhone, after I retweeted the link I posted this morning on my blog with my Blackberry. You probably have a robot to hand, making herbal tea and recharging your hover boots.

It is also near-on impossible to write about the noughties without some sort of passing reference to the recession. I have no claims to economic expertise – all I know is that despite enough talk of green shoots to start a branch of Country Fayre, I still can’t afford brand-name mayonnaise. And in keeping with all the cutbacks, I have lost 150 words of this column. So instead of prose, what follows is a list of words that I will forever associate with the last decade, in a vague approximation of chronological order. Enjoy:

Big Brother. Robbie Williams. Opening of New Look, Montague Street. Reebok Classics. Encyclopaedia Encarta (on CD-rom). Will vs Gareth. More Big Brother. Because I’m worth it. Bridget Jones. September 11th . GHD hair straighteners. Nokia 3310. Louise Rennison books. Iraq. Jade Goody. Digital cameras. Latte in massive mugs. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. SATS. The Office. Bacardi Breezers. The Strokes. Girls Aloud. More Big Brother. Yorkie – Not For Girls. Prefect badges. Tsunami. Trinny and Susannah. iPods. Carrie Bradshaw. Yeahbutnobutyeahbut... 

Skinny jeans. Atkins. 7/7 bombings. Bush. Pretzel. Myspace. Jamie, Nigella and Gordon. More Big Brother. Pete Doherty. Fake tan. Pret a Manger. Saddam executed.‘It’ bags. Live 8. Sienna Miller. Supersize Me. Doctor Who. WAGs. More Big Brother. Madeleine McCann. Balsamic vinegar. Primark. Simon Cowell. Ugg Boots. Gordon Brown. Musical theatre. Boris Johnson. Organic carrots. Credit Crunch. Peaches Geldof. Facebook. Hurricane Katrina. Leggings, jeggings and treggings. Barack Obama. Crocs. G20. Sachsgate. Strictly. Swine Flu. Michelle Obama’s upper arms. Cheryl’s hair. Gaga’s pants. Michael Jackson. Twitter. Nick Griffin. No more Big Brother.

See you on the other side, folks.

Monday, 21 December 2009

In which Christmas is no time for raging against anything.

To be printed 24/12/09.

Victory! Rargh! We’ve raged against the Cowell machine and won! Power to the people! The revolution will not be televised! Etc, etc.

Actually, I don’t care.

I’ve tried to care. I know we’re all meant to – as supporters of general good taste, authenticity and not funding Simon’s collection of solid gold tongue scrapers any further than is necessary, we’re supposed to have spent the last two weeks in a frenzy of politicised rock anger, defending the sacred Christmas number one spot the way our parents defended Nelson Mandela and our grandparents defended, well, the country. That’s what we’re supposed to have been doing.

What I’ve actually been doing is picking the green triangles out of the Quality Street, drawing moustaches on the Radio Times and going, “meh.” But because not caring seems like an act of betrayal to my generation and the good name of music, I have compiled the following list of reasons to explain myself. Ahem. I didn’t care about Rage Against winning the top spot because:

1)      Joe McElderry is like a little puppy.

Cowell may be the evil, braying Barbour-jacketed pedigree trainer standing over him with the diamond incrusted whip, but Joe is just an innocent puppy. And by taking away his number one, we are effectively KICKING THE PUPPY. In the FACE.

2)      It’s just a big rock cliché.

Pulling the rug out from under Cowell’s feet is one thing, but do we really all have to turn into angry adolescent boys while we do it? I might have been more impassioned to buy the RATM single were it not called ‘Killing in the Name’, which just seems such a petty attempt at yuletide anarchy it may as well be wearing a t-shirt from Camden Market and sucking a cannabis lollipop.
“Ooh, ooh, let’s make a big rock statement and stick it to the man!”
“But wait, has it got a violent reference in the title?”
“Better than that, it’s got death!”
“Excellent. Man, we’re so, like, ANGRY and stuff. Bah, faceless corporate machine! Take THAT!*”

3)      Christmas number one is meant to be crap.

Think back over some past Christmas number ones. Go on. Too Much by the Spice Girls. Stay Another Day by East 17. I Have a Dream by Westlife. If anything, Cowell is just perpetuating a long tradition of mawkish, misty-eyed pop taking the top spot every year. To put a stop to it is like taking away cracker hats or Terry’s Chocolate Orange - it’s just too deeply ingrained in the festive season. Once the music stops being commercialised gumph, who knows what that would mean for the Christmas TV? And the food? Before you know it, we’ll all have to watch Panorama and knaw on an organic courgette. Is that what we really want? Is it?

4)      I don’t like Rage Against the Machine.

They’re the level I really can’t do on Guitar Hero.

So there we are. Much as I’m glad they've raised all that money for Shelter, and that Cowell’s reign of terror might be drawing to a close, I just can’t manage to care very much about the 'principle'. I shall be apathetic against the machine. Mildly vexed against the machine at best. And while there are green triangles in the house that still need eating, that will just have to do.

*Not the actual Take That. Obviously. They’re as anarchic as a Boxing Day sale at Edinburgh Woollen Mill.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

In which a recycled column is the gift that keeps on giving.

An oldie! Printed December 2007.

“This Christmas”, said Darth Vadar, “Luke Skywalker will receive an Xbox 360, a High School Musical lunchbox and a Mr Frosty frozen treats maker. How do I know? I have felt his presents.”

Consider, if you will, this column is a bad present. It’s the result of a last-minute dash around the three-for-two supermarket gifts section of my mind. I’m not too fussed about its reception because I won’t be there when you unwrap it, so I’ve ignored any presumptions you might have to taste and given you exactly what I’d like myself. I was too stingy to buy nice glossy wrapping paper with little sparkly snowflakes on it, so instead I’ve done it up in newspaper in a vague attempt to be arty and minimalist. But it’s all ok because I started it with a joke. Here it is then, and I expect you to get it out whenever I come round and smile big fake smiles of fake appreciation: Bravo’s Big Book of Gift Giving Law.*

Law One: Secret Santa, that most beloved staple of institutionalised festive merriment, second only to the obligatory union of body part and photocopier or stationary cupboard and the accountant with mature acne who believes he has a future as the first white gangsta rapper of Nuneaton, will never end satisfactorily. You will overspend the £10 limit to buy Denise in Marketing a lovely bit of something from Accessorize, and in return you’ll unwrap a bag of novelty pasta shaped like genitalia.
So the next year you’ll buy Boris in HR a £2.99 Little Book of Fart Jokes and then be hugely embarrassed to receive yourself a pair of cashmere gloves or maybe a crystal sherry decanter, about which you will mutter arbitrary things about ‘taking the fun out of it’ while dodging Boris’ requests to know who thought his IBS was a comic matter.

Law Two: Gift vouchers are not a nicer way of giving money, they are a way of saying ‘I’m not going to buy you something you’d like, but I’m sure as heck not letting you do that either’. It is the official unspoken law of the universe that the shop for which you have a gift voucher will be the only shop in the world with absolutely nothing you want in it. Sure, last week H&M was full of lovely frocks  - but go back tomorrow clutching a gift voucher in your sweaty palm, and I guarantee you they’ll be selling nothing but garden trowels. Other shoppers will be flitting about buying the lovely frocks, but for you, oh piteous possessor of the voucher, there will exist nothing but garden trowels.

Law Three: When someone has bought you the two products you need to buy in Boots to get the free £30 gift bag, you are legally obliged to request the gift bag when they try to keep it for themselves. Cheeky sod.

Law Four: We may all have been faking present enthusiasm since we were able to support our own heads -  ‘Another rusk, mother? However did you know?’ – but there comes a time to reign it in. For all we feel the pressing need to weep joyful tears over our M&S loofah set, there is always the danger you’ll be really convincing. Thus, you and loofahs will be inextricably intertwined in the giver’s head for all eternity, and every year you will unwrap loofahs of increasingly startling volume and have to adjust the magnitude of the performance accordingly. On the plus side, you’ll be well exfoliated.

Law Five: Elderly relatives of equal weighting, such as grannies or aunties on parallel branches of the family tree, must always be given completely equal presents. They will compare. You may believe they have no contact with each other, one living in Nepal and the other in Bognor, but I promise you they’re secretly emailing to see how their distressed wire soap dish compares with the other one’s Tiffany tiara.

Law Six: Thank you letters. “Dear blank, thanks so much for the loofah set. Could I request the gift bag that I know you got free? Many thanks. Hope you loved the voucher – I gave Auntie Marjory exactly the same one and she was thrilled, she needed a new trowel. To fill up the rest of the page, here is a large picture of me with a bag of novelty pasta, just before the firemen arrived to cut me out of the photocopier. Lots of love”.

*Here the false promise and disappointment begins already, it being clear that the following is not going to be a Big Book but actually a rather short list adhering to a scrooge-like word limit. And I’m afraid I haven’t kept the receipt.

In which it really does look like a swell party.

To be printed 17/12/09.

Now, I have been thinking very long and hard about this, and I genuinely believe that the Iceland Christmas ad might be the best one this year. No, seriously. Hear me out.

On first viewing, Coleen and Jason’s musical finger food spectacular was a queasy affair – while they sing about prawns and chocolate coated strawberries, we still have to fight with associated images of the absent Katona, serving up a platter of cold kebab. But after a few runs it had me sold. Partly because Donovan brings such razzy star quality to the proceedings, partly because it’s the only one that bears any resemblance, albeit on a massive, overstyled scale, to anyone’s actual Christmas, and partly, most crucially, because all the other ads this year are cack.

Waitrose’s is a dour effort, all Celtic warbling and scenes of trawlermen trudging through snow. In fact it’s so melancholy that each time I see it, it takes until halfway through to remember it’s about Christmas food at all, and not an advert for a homeless charity (shame too, because I’m always on the brink of giving money to the charity but will never be able to justify shelling out for their venison mince pies). Then Boots have gone all Loose Women on us, will the ill-judged promise that their products will turn you into the screechy office girls in the restaurant people spend all night wanting to slap.

The Sainsbury’s one is boring, just Jamie in a van with some pastry, while Morrisons have stretched both their peppy Take That soundtrack and Richard Hammond’s commercial appeal to snapping point. I can’t even remember the Tesco’s one. Oh yes, Faye Ripley pretending to be married to Mark Addy. Dubious.

Even M&S have got it wrong, largely through the belief that the true essence of yuletide for all of us is watching Noemie Lenoir dance about in her pants. Here’s a tip, M&S: when I’m about to embark on a fortnight of near-superhuman eating, I don’t want to have to look at a semi-naked supermodel. I want to see Dawn French with a sign saying “have another bit of stilton, your hips look fine”.

Meanwhile, After Eights are trying to sell themselves with the slogan ‘Nobody leaves’, surely the most misguided advertising concept since ‘You’re Never Alone With a Strand’. It’s just stupid. Everyone wants their guests to leave. It’s the best bit of the party. However much you love your friends and family, however abundant your social spirit and burning desire to be the hostess with the mostess, there’s still nothing better than waving them off at the door and retreating into an empty house to undo your waistband and attack the leftovers.

So, After Eight, you want to crush that dream? You’re saying that if I buy your chocolates, my party will escalate into some sort of mad reverse-hostage situation, with guests taking up residence in my airing cupboard, eating all my cheese and never contributing to the water bill? Are you effectively reminding us of the rarely-evoked Mint Chocolate Clause in the Squatters’ Rights Act? Are you?

To conclude, then, Christmas has gone a bit deluded this year. Amidst all the snowy roadtrips, pushing trollies through fields and dancing through cardboard forests in your scanties, Iceland has managed to come out as the only option that looks like something approaching fun. If Coleen thinks that the best cure for the winter blues is a mini duck’s nest, who am I to argue otherwise?


A left-field choice for X-factor, then, in picking a winner’s song all about reaching for your dream, overcoming obstacles and never giving up. Personally my money was on a cover of the Ramones’ Teenage Lobotomy, but I guess I underestimated Simon’s creative vision. Anyway, well done Gareth! I mean, Leon. I mean, Joe...

Monday, 7 December 2009

In which I use more than 140 characters.

To be printed 10/12/09.

I have just had lunch with Chris Moyles.

When I say that, of course I don’t mean ‘with’ as in ‘at the same table’. Or ‘his being aware of my existence’. I mean ‘with’ in the same sense as Tonight With Trevor McDonald was ever ‘with’ Trevor McDonald, and Peter Andre was in love ‘with’ Jordan. Chris Moyles was in the pub, I was in the pub, we partook of the same air. That’s enough.

But that isn’t the exciting bit. The exciting bit, and I hope you realise I use ‘exciting’ in the very loosest sense of the word, was getting home to discover he had tweeted a photo of the very roast dinner we had just watched him eat. The same gravy, the same potatoes, the same clearly-Aunt-Bessie’s Yorkshire pudding.

Moreover, because of Twitter, we knew the entire course of Chris Moyles’ day. He had been woken up by the same apocalyptic downpour as us, then gone for lunch in the same pub as us, then gone home and watched X-Factor like us. He probably had the same indigestion as us, and sang the same rousing rendition of Uptown Girl in the lounge at 10.06 pm. Probably.

That is what celebrity means nowadays. Once a distant, untouchable entity, we now hold celebrity in the palms of our sweaty little hands. Technology has bridged the gap between Them (rich, mostly attractive, largely doing interesting things) and Us (poor, mostly unattractive, largely scraping the dried cheese bits off the sandwich toaster and eating them). I never even realised I wanted to live the same Sunday as Chris Moyles, but there’s a genuinely disturbing pleasure in knowing that I have.

You might remember that a while ago I wrote about Twitter, in a fairly derogatory fashion. I didn’t understand the point, I thought it would be boring, and that my friends and I would just post really banal things. I now understand the error of my ways. Twitter is not about the dull friends you already have. It’s about the celebrity friends you would like to have. “Who wants to know when Stephen Fry eats a sandwich and Holly Willoughby has a poo?” the sceptics sneer. I do! I really do! And you do too, deep down.

It can be disheartening though. Twitter is often like watching a party you haven’t been invited to, with your nose pressed up against the window. I mainly follow journalists, TV presenters and people from The Thick of It, who always provide decent diversion and witty comments to try and pass off in conversation as my own. But they are also, incredibly, ALL friends. Like a big lovely club of semi-celebrity fun, they banter back and forth on my screen all day, arranging dates and parties and super-witty events I’m not invited to.

It's become a form a slightly masochistic torture, watching Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent and Alexis Petridis exchange comedy insults at a rate nobody can when they have a proper office to sit in and a boss to read over their shoulder. They're the cool kids at school, while I eat my metaphorical lunch in the toilet cubicle and have to be partners with the teacher in PE. Which in Twitter terms means having your Dad, your hairdresser and a mystery man called Carluccio following you ("nice pics baby, u twit me sometime yes?").

Indeed, so desperate am I for fellow blue birdies to say my own inane things at, I am announcing a special offer: for every person who starts following me after this, and quotes the special code "Tunnock's Teacake", I will personally tweet a dedicated musical theatre lyric to brighten their day. Maybe I'll hit 50 followers and will be able to stop pining over Claudia Winkleman and Rebecca Front going to pilates together.

In the meantime, I’ve half a mind to take the details of one of these gatherings, turn up and slip discreetly into the conversation as though I’d been there all along. I will take a roast dinner and hope for the best.

* * * * * * * * * * 

I would like to end this week with an apology to Elsie, who was so generous as to furnish us with her views on the letters pages last week. Elsie, I am sorry. I am sorry that you have had to “endure” so many years of my tedious, youth-focused waffle. I am sorry that nobody thought to look over your shoulder, as you rocked back and forth in an apoplectic frenzy, and say “er, just don’t read them then.” I am sorry that after all this time, you have still never had a letter read out on Points of View (I’m just guessing). 

And I am sorry that you thought I was ageist. Elsie, if you can get out of your chair without groaning, then good for you. But frankly, some days, even I have trouble.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Sunday, 29 November 2009

In which SuperJane hits the bottle.

To be printed 03.12.09.

I was informed recently that my Mum has been caught making up hot water bottles for the guinea pigs. This is symptomatic of two things: firstly, her slightly alarming love for the guinea pigs, leading us to believe they are no so much replacement children (the result of burgeoning empty-hutch syndrome) but actually the children she wishes she’d had all along. Guinea pigs never call you crying because they can’t pay their council tax, or eat all the ingredients for dinner as a 4 o’clock snack, or broadcast your more eccentric habits in a series of south coast newspapers.

Secondly: her enduring belief that a hot water bottle is the answer to all ills. My mother is the goddess of the hot water bottle. I’d like to think she might have missed a calling in politics, scurrying around the cabinet room making sure everyone is cosy. Like a superhero update of the Aquarius water carrier, she could wage war on chilly toes, draughty bedrooms and period pain the world over.

Indeed, I think it is Mum’s steadfast belief in the hot water bottle that has got me all the way to December without our turning the central heating on. That’s right, DECEMBER. Or “Decembrrrrrr”, as it shall now be known. In previous years we cracked under all the layers of knitwear, surrendered to our frostbite and turned it on about halfway through October, but this year we’ve upped the ante. With each passing week the sense of achievement grows (though so too, I’m vaguely worried, might an extra layer of insulating fat, like everyone’s miniskirted legs in the 60s).

Now the dream is making it all the way to Christmas, doing workout sessions to Slade and wrapping ourselves in a metaphorical blanket of festive cheer instead. If it gets tough, a combined diet of Ready Brek and Bristol Cream sherry will be implemented for maximum internal warming. We can start hosting lavish parties, under the guise of being sociable, and just fill the house with other people’s bodily warmth. Or we can go to the other extreme and just spend as little time in the house as humanly possible, soaking up all the free heat in libraries and tube stations and other people’s living rooms.

Either way, the hot water bottle will see me through. I will strap them under my clothes, line the sofa with them, and generally slosh my way through winter. And if it all gets too much, I will follow another of my mother’s indubitable pieces of advice -  “just sit in the kitchen with all the hobs on.”

* * * * * * * * * *

On Saturday, in the name of extreme physical endurance and because it might have made the house seem warmer when we got back in it, I did something I’d never done before. I went to a football match. I know, I know, you’re shocked. I strike you as the type who’s on the terraces every week, pukka pie in one hand and obscene gesture in the other. But no, amazingly, this was new territory for me. I took a book with me, just in case.

And I learned the following three things from the experience: 1) Football is pretty simple. Despite all the offside-rule-fouls-red-card-throw-in-yadayada, it turns out all you really need to know is ‘kick-kick-kick-hopefully-in-goal’. This was quite a relief. 2) There exists a thing called a “Yorkshire wrap”, which is essentially a flat Yorkshire pudding rolled up with beef and gravy in the middle. Like a hand-held roast dinner. QPR stadium might just be the secret centre of science. And 3) I can chant with the best of them. I thought I’d sound fraudulent, like Aled Jones duetting with N-Dubz, but inside me, it turns out, lurks the spirit of Vinnie Jones.

I did struggle briefly trying to fit the words “sky blue army” into two beats, with it coming out “skarbmeurrrh”. “Why don’t they just make up chants with more syllables?” I ask male friend no.1. “Lauren,” I am told, “that’s not the point.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Sunday, 22 November 2009

In which I support charity, in my own way.

To be printed 26/11/09.

You’ll all be pleased to know we have the internet back now. There, hasn’t that made your day a little bit brighter? Of course, like anything you wait five weeks for (except Starbucks red cups), the broadband hook-up has been something of an anticlimax. While it’s lovely to be connected to the virtual world again, all it’s really done is remind me that a) nobody facebooks me anymore anyway, b) eBay has everything in the world I have ever wanted or needed, but I can’t afford to buy any of them, and c) my laptop trying to load up three tabs at once sounds like an 87-year-old trying to get out of an armchair.

It hasn’t all been a letdown, however. With our net package, we have also acquired Virgin TV. Which is AWESOME. Having spent three years with only terrestrial, it feels like Dorothy stepping out of the house into Oz and seeing colour for the first time.

No longer is every bit of viewing prefixed by the 10 minute Dance of the Aerial, where we take it in turns to stand with one arm out of the window while everyone shouts “yes… no… left a bit… you’ve nearly got it… ooh, I can see Dermot’s face…no wait, that’s a manatee...” until the idea is abandoned in favour of acting it out ourselves. No more will I be forced to invent ailments as excuses for not going out on a Saturday – I can have a social life, and watch Strictly on iPlayer, and still retain my reputation as a Supercool Person. I think that’s what the retro feminists really meant by ‘having it all’.

Without our new quality TV experience, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed Thursday’s Children in Need concert as much as I did. Which is: very, very much indeed. This was surprising – firstly because the very act of watching it could be interpreted as encouraging the perpetuation of Fearne Cotton’s career, and secondly because, um, I don’t like Children in Need.

What?? Sacrilege! Burn the witch! Did Bravo just say she wants all sick and underprivileged children to die? Did she? Should we alert the Daily Express?

No. Calm down. I don’t dislike children who are in need, as a concept, or the charity itself – I definitely approve of disadvantaged children getting treatment and houses and food and care. I’m all for it. Of course. Charity = great.

But the programme = bad. It is five hours of watching newsreaders pretend to know about pop culture, Eastenders stars pretend to know about comedy, and the aforementioned Cotton pretend to know about anything. And beware ye, viewer – the moment you start watching, you give up your entire evening. For the curse of Children in Need is that it knows when you are thinking of turning over. As soon as you reach for the remote, what will happen, eh? That’s right, a video about a kid with cystic fibrosis will automatically begin. And if you switch channels during it, you are a terrible person. They’ll know. Wogan is watching you.

But Thursday’s Albert Hall shebang was different. It was, aside from the noble cause, just excellent, excellent television. It had Leona Lewis being epic, in a dress I’m fairly sure was made by a year 10 DT Textiles class. It had Cheryl Cole, Queen of the nation’s hearts, making a song she’s only performed twice sound like an anthem for our times (though I would like to state now that I by no means believe “if it’s worth having it’s worth having it’s worth fighting for” should be applied to international oil-based conflicts). It had be-suited slots from Chris Moyles, Peter Kay and James Corden, leading me to realise that they are, in fact, all just shades of the same person. And it had Paul McCartney singing us out with Hey Jude, the textbook way to make any audience feel instantly uplifted, united, and like everything will be ok forever.

But the top three moments were, by far, the following:

*Dame Shirley Bassey and Dizzee Rascal – a union so blooming perfect it seems like madness that we haven’t seen it before. He’s in a tux! She’s doing some urban arm dancing! Now we can all imagine them doing auntie/nephew-style bonding activities together, like shopping in John Lewis  and going to pilates (until the inevitable happens, and they make it into a Vodafone ad).

*Lily Allen and Take That – for weeks and weeks, Allen’s latest single has been coming on the radio, and Hannah and I have been saying, “She’s nicked that tune from Take That.” Then, in possibly the most satisfying piece of fourth-wall-removing, self-deprecating TV I’ve ever seen, we had her singing her song, when halfway through Take That charged on singing THEIRS. Ha! Hahahahaha! If The Chiffons had done it to George Harrison, everything probably would have been resolved.

*Take That and Robbie Williams – not since the release of the Doner Kebab Pot Noodle has there been such a cultural milestone. We’ve all known it was coming for ages, but that didn’t make it any less moving. As he and Gary Barlow grinned at each other like excited schoolboys during the finale, I actually cried. I cried for friendship, for pop music, for nostalgia.

Then they ran the disadvantaged children clip and I cried for them too. Well done Beeb, you may have converted me.

* * * * * * * * * *

If the BBC were the kings of musical brilliance this week, then ITV were the inevitable court jesters. Does anybody quite now what they’re meant to be thinking about X-Factor anymore? (Don’t answer, “you’re not meant to be thinking anything, you’re meant to watch David Attenborough’s ‘Life’ and stop being shallow.” Just don’t.) I mean, to like Jedward is to be the kind of person who voted for Boris because his hair is lolz. But to hate Jedward is to validate the sincerity of the programme, which of course we’re not meant to do because it’s a fraudulent, capitalist imposter in the noble landscape of proper music. And to have no opinion on Jedward at all is to be inhuman. It’s all so complicated.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

In which I whinge about money. For the first time ever.

 To be printed 19/11/09.

It’s no fun not being a student anymore. It feels an awful lot like being Mark while everybody else still gets to be Jeremy.

As life changes go, shifting from student life to that of a genuine, museli-buying adult has to be one of the most colossal. Besides the big mental reshuffle, the re-programming of one’s body clock to sociable hours (or antisocial, when there are midnight cheese toastie rounds and Guitar Hero to sleep through), and the general awareness of one’s once-supple brain turning to Primula and pouring out through one’s ears during an episode of The Family, there is a more physical side of the transition that’s equally taxing. Because it’s, er, tax.

Forgetting for a minute the crippling reality of graduate debt, this week I’m focusing on the less debilitating but still pretty sodding nasty reality of graduate expenses. They’re the chinese burn of the financial portfolio – spiteful, petty, and they always sting more than you remember. No Topshop discount! Ow. Full-price London travel! Ooch. Council tax! Arrrrrrrggggh (put some ice on it and try to not to cry as you reach for that post-grad application form).

Where does the logic lie in taking away all our perks the moment we graduate? It’s almost, and I realise this is a ridiculous premise - maybe involving the whole Cabinet having been actually locked in a cabinet for, ooh, the last five years - but it’s almost as though the government think that when we leave uni we’re actually getting JOBS, or something. When everyone knows the truth is that graduates are WAY poorer than students. We don’t get any of the free money, and we have to pay more for everything.  Essentially, we’re being fined for the crime of having got older. It’s punishment for the inevitable passing of time. It’s Adult Tax.

And the secret expenses just keep coming – when you think you’ve just about budgeted for rent, bills and a bowl of rice and ketchup every second Thursday of the month, another facet of Adult Tax will ping up out of nowhere and gulp down your wallet as though ’twere a jelly baby. Last week, it was prescriptions.

Somewhere, in the dim recesses of my mind, the same place I store Mott the Hoople lyrics and sellotape, I was aware that non-student adults have to pay for prescriptions. I knew. But it’s the kind of fact that can be pretty easily suppressed by half a bottle of Benylin, and so the following scene ensued:

Me: “Hullo! I’d like this prescription please.”

Chemist lady: “Certainly! Please sign the back of the slip”.

Me: “With pleasure!”

Chemist lady: “Thank you. That will be eight pounds.”

Me: “I’m sorry, the mucus must have got to my ears. I thought you just said something about eight pounds.”

Chemist lady: “I did. That will be eight pounds.”

Me: “But I don’t have eight pounds.”

Chemist lady: “It’s ok, we take cards.”

Me: “No, I don’t HAVE eight pounds. In the world. At all.”

Chemist lady: “If you’re on benefits, it’s free.”

Me: “I’m not on benefits. I’m on minimum wage. What do I get for that?”

Chemist lady: “Nothing.”

Me: “I think I’ll just stay ill, then. If it’s all the same to you.”

So my proposal is this: for the sake of humanity, and my not hacking germs all over innocent pharmacy staff, student perks should be phased out gradually. They should last us through a transition phase of three years or so, perhaps decreasing in increments, the way a parent gradually lets go of a child’s bike when they’re learning to ride it . It would give you time to find a proper job, adjust your lifestyle habits, maybe uncover a Faberge egg in a cupboard to tide you through the winter. Then one day, completely unawares, you will be able to pay full price for a cinema ticket without wincing.

* * * * * * * * * *

Ever perceptive to my changing desires, yesterday the BBC dished up news coverage of Camelot’s anniversary party, which featured a hall full of be-partyhatted lottery winners doing a conga.

Nice move, Beeb. Now tomorrow, if you could broadcast five minutes of footage of investment bankers in a hotub, watching Tara Palmer Tompkinson in a bikini made of £50s dancing to Barrat Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want), all my viewing needs will be fulfilled.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

In which the gloves come off, because the boots have not.

Why won't Ugg boots die?


(no offense intended to anybody still wearing them. Well, not much)

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

In which iPod, therefore I am.

To be printed 12/11/09.

We have acquired an iPod. Found on the front steps by our downstairs neighbour, it has been sitting coquettishly on a chair in the communal hallway for two weeks now. It is an 8GB, 3rd generation Nano (read = it is small and square and red). Nobody has claimed it. Nobody has even touched it. It looks sad.

It’s a nice testament to modern morals, of course, that nobody has yet looked at it and gone “yoink, MINE”. It also puts to bed the eternal niggling worry of urban living, that someone in your building is probably a psychopath/rapist/dirty great thief. If they won’t nick an iPod, they probably won’t break in through our window, slaughter us brutally in our sleep with a Black and Decker multitool and harvest our organs to sell on the internet. That’s logic.

So it’s nice that everyone is really honest. Of course it is. Unless - and I’m about to be very, very cynical for a moment here, sort of like Charlie Brooker in a blonde wig – their honesty is like mine, a mere cover for the eternal belief that the moment they do anything immoral, someone will be secretly watching them.

I am incurably honest. Not out of genuine goodness as a person, but because ever since I first saw the Truman Show, I haven’t been able to shake off the sneaking fear that my life might be being filmed for an ITV2 special. So when I get given too much change, or they forget to charge me at the cinema, or a vending machine starts spitting out free Twixes, I own up, not because I’m incredibly selfless, but because I’m convinced that if I take advantage, Tess Daly or someone will jump out with a big microphone to tell me I’m a dreadful person.

But whatever the reason, the iPod is still there. It is still there when I leave for work, it is still there when I get home, it is still there when I get up at 3am and run downstairs to check. It is taunting me. Its not that I want it myself; I have an iPod. I just want SOMEBODY to have it. It’s like when a seat becomes free on the tube and nobody sits in it. Take it, please! Keep the universe in balance! Otherwise it’s just a waste of good music.

And this we know, because we have looked. It was just too tempting not to. An iPod is a window to the soul, a weirdly intimate insight into somebody’s life. If a group of strangers were going through mine, they’d discover that I: secretly like Dolly Parton more than the Doors; have a playlist called ‘Grr’ to listen to specifically when I’m wearing a leather jacket; and regularly alternate Dizzee Rascal with the Andrews Sisters.

So we have discovered that this iPod belongs to someone called Sara. And Sara is a person who likes Beyonce. And Boney M. And Bowie. She feels perfectly comfortable listing Gloria Estefan next to Gogol Bordello, and has a whole playlist consisting of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat eight times over (Sara potentially doesn’t know how to use her iPod very well).

Sara also has a slightly scary amount of the same stuff I do. How many other people have Edith Piaf, Donovan and Yann Tiersen nestling up with The Style Council? I believe it can only mean one of two things: either 1) I am meant to be find Sara, whoever she may be, and start a beautiful enduring friendship based on a mutual love of French accordion refrains, or 2) I am meant to keep her iPod.

* * * * * * * * * *

Unlikely commercial collaboration of the week: National Geographic and Ambi Pur. What next, we must ask, Glade and the Radio Times? The authentic scent of Terry Wogan’s dressing room (I’m betting: furniture polish and murray mints). Or Airwick and the Daily Mail! Mmm, that alpine freshness just about covers the scent of immigration and paedophilia, doesn’t it?

* * * * * * * * * *

Internet installation day minus 216 hours: I have taken up crosswords. When I don’t know the answer to a clue, I have fun by trying to fill the boxes with my own creative expletives. Six across, four letters. Why not try it at home today?

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

In which we all slam dunk da funk.

To be printed 05/11/09. 
As I type this, literally right this cotton-picking minute, I am being confronted with a truth. It is a truth that I have been fervently denying for several weeks now, but may finally be forced to accept. I should point out that I am also watching X Factor, on which JLS are performing. They are singing on floating platforms, in a range of carefully-styled ‘urban outfits’. They are walking down steps in unison. They are doing a dance routine with strategic knee-dips on the key changes. They are spelling out, in a sparkling trail of diamond ear studs, the truth that we all knew was coming, but only Louis Walsh wanted to hear. Boybands are back.

Of course we have no right to be surprised at the sudden return of the white-suited warriors. Their shadow has long been lurking in the background of this year’s ’90s revival*. Partially obscured by a big pile of leggings and scrunchies and Ed the Duck memorabilia, perched on stools, the boybands have been waiting.

After all, they had their signal ages ago - when the nation welcomed Take That back into its hearts like a band of overcoated prodigal sons, it sent a subtle top-C soundwave running through the musical stratosphere, and boybands-in-hiding everywhere pricked up their ears. But the problem was, Take That were back not as a boyband, but as a manband. They have facial hair. They look like they might walk over hilltops, not for a ballad promo, but for leisurely fun. And they had a secret weapon, slowly matured for housewives’ delectation - Jason Orange, who knew? 

Barlow et al also had the advantage of having ducked out of the industry just before it all got really ugly. They had the earthy end of the 90s. When played next to the likes of 5ive and 911, Never Forget sounds like the kind of music that you should stand on a bar to dance to, out of respect. It has majesty.

But now (and in no way a damning forecast to you, ma’am), majesty is no longer relevant. There is a place in music once more for pretty boys can do harmonies and lend panache to a silver shellsuit. We have a Blue reunion on the cards, Westlife reminding everyone they still exist, and two brand new boy bands lined up for launch early next year. Unpleasant and unnecessary, yes. But I recommend staying positive - If Another Level decide to come out a retirement, we can pretend Jordan and Peter never even happened!

Yes, hair gel manufacturers better get the gloves back on. The boy-ballad is back.  Stephen Gately would be so proud. 

*Yes, that is “’90s revival” – not, sadly, the 1890s (however much Mutya Buena and I do for championing the cause with rear-padding, fashion just won’t embrace the return of the bustle), but the 1990s. That decade we did already, like, ten years ago. The one with all the cropped tops and Anthea Turner. The one your hair is probably still doing. That one.

Because fashion, and anyone still holding onto a pair of high-waist bellbottom jeans will know this, likes to change its mind pretty quickly. Which means now we’ve mimicked every era that our parents and grandparents could remember, we have to start on the ones we lived through ourselves. Cue the massive sweatshirts, shimmer lipstick and cycling shorts. Extra points for anyone who can find their Tamagotchi.


Mr Murphy and Mr Sod have been at work again, and this time they have taken my whole house down with them. It was the work of a fool, I realise now, to spend last week in raptures at the thought of getting the internet back. But oh, reader, I just couldn’t help it!

I guess I knew deep down that the moment I committed those words to print, it would suddenly become a lie. Now, for reasons neither the grunts of the installers or metallic drones of the helplines seem to be able to explain, we have to remain in the void until the 17th of ruddy blooming gosh-darned-it November. 

I am angry. It would be unprofessional to name and shame our shoddy service provider, but let me tell you this – I’m never riding on his trains or using one of his mobiles again.

Monday, 26 October 2009

In which I post this completely by magic.

To be printed 29/10/09.

So, ever to be the first one laying down the blankets and handing out the sausage rolls on the bandwagon, The Guardian is already bidding sweet adieu to 2009. Last Saturday saw its Weekend Magazine decreed the “Noughties Issue”, dedicated to political, cultural, technological, social, environmental and fashion(al) recap of the decade.

The conclusion, ominously foreshadowed by the issue’s solid black cover, was pretty bleak. It went along the lines of “war, war, terrorism, war, Jade Goody died, more war. But hey, we got Wikipedia!” Yes, apparently the world wide web is the sole redeeming feature of the decade. Where the 70s had feminism, the 80s had microwave meals and the 90s had, um, lycra, we have whizzy technology. We may be living in a time of global terror and bomb-happy politicians, but at least we’re doing it with iPhone apps that can make your bed for you. AND Big Brother’s ending!

It’s an idea particularly close to my blackened, 21st Century heart this week. Because as you read this, I will be nearing saturation point in the biggest internet binge known to… woman. I will have RSI in my clicking finger, mild screen blindness and the kind of giddy, racing headstate that comes from reading four gossip site mailouts, doing the British counties quiz on Sporcle, and watching three weeks’ worth of America’s Next Top Model simultaneously. I will have updated enough statuses to recap on every emotion experienced in the greater part of October, and tweeted in a fashion to make Stephen Fry look trappist. I will be OH. SO. HAPPY.

As I write this, however (forgive me blasting that popular myth of modern print journalism, that I am actually IN the paper, thinking aloud as you eat your Shreddies), I am in a different state entirely. I am right at the end of a trial. It has been a test in endurance and deprivation, one that has forced me to actually function differently as a human. Or, as my flatmate put it, “like living in that 1900 house. Without Channel 4 paying us.” You see, we have gone two and a half weeks without the internet. *Gasp, sigh, applaud*.

I do remember, in the vague recesses of late September, that there was a good reason for changing service providers. As far as I can recall, it may have involved: a) mild incompetence, b) gross incompetence, c) my making a nice call centre employee cry, or d) all of the above. But all the logic has since been obscured by the dull, throbbing pain of internet abstinence, Now, as Lou Reed almost sang, I’m waiting for my (Virgin Media) man.

It’s a bourgeois cliché, of course, to pretend that spending 17 days without YouTube has somehow made me a better person. And it hasn’t. It hasn’t enlightened me, or helped me appreciate the simpler things in life, or sent me dashing out to buy a quill to pen letters to my nearest and dearest, which will be all the more full of love for their being written on paper, and never featuring the phrase ‘zomg’. No. It has taught me one thing, and that one thing is this: I really love the internet.

The internet is bloody great. Yes, my life is fine without it, but in almost every possible way better with it (that “almost” accounts for the £7 a month richer I would be if I gave it up, which I would spend on books. To throw at the wall in desperation). The internet is the first thing I turn to in the morning, and the last thing I talk to at night. The internet is awesome. Yay, internet!

* * * * * * * * * *

Ironic career move of the week: Fearne Cotton presenting a mini series of documentaries about unpopular, over-hyped, largely talentless, young female celebs. But her effort was not to waste. From Fearne, we can all learn this lesson – if you want to seem less irritating, stand as near as you can to Peaches Geldof.

* * * * * * * * * *

While we’re on the topic of people we’d all like to punch, I’d like to take this chance to mention the new Kingsmill Little Big Loaf advert. You know the one, the one with the welsh girl and the bloke who wants to cuddle. That one.

My Kingsmill confession? Never before would I have thought it possible to actually develop a wheat intolerance through my television.

Monday, 19 October 2009

I which I bid farewell to the buzz.

To be printed 22/10/09. 

I am giving up coffee.

I am reclaiming control of my own nervous system! Instead of denying tiredness and suppressing it with pretend, caffeinated energy, I intend to learn to accept it as nature’s way of telling me to lie on a sofa with a blanket over my knees. I will enjoy lethargy, revel in relaxation, and maybe take up cross-stitch as an alternative to clubbing.

I am giving up coffee. Because I have realised that, contrary to popular myth, it doesn’t make me feel alive with the glow of a thousand fairies. It makes me feel ill. It makes my heart palpitate, my fingers tingle, and my head turn into the fuzzy reception of an analogue TV screen. I don’t want to feel pre-digital anymore. I want to be HD-ready. 

I am giving up coffee. It has been a long and erratic relationship. We rode together through the highs of Costa’s glamorous debut in Worthing, when caffeine was merely a by-product of drinking from a massive mug like they did on Friends, through the lows of sixth-form canteen char, like chewy engine oil, swilled six times a day under the pretense of ‘A-level stress’ (actual reason: coffee is cool. It’s a bit like drugs, but not illegal), and up to the present day, where a coffee machine run is my favourite diversion from a computer full of public sector ICT strategy and pain.

I am giving up coffee. I renounce my days as a Starbucks bore, with my page-long, soya-ameretto-frappa-crappa order. From now on I will be simple and serene. I will merely say ‘peppermint tea’.

I am giving up coffee. Now if anybody wants me, I’ve gone back to bed.

 * * * * * * * * *
A short play.

October 18th, 16.12pm. The location: The 99p Store, Camden Town, London. The scene: Halloween-themed plastic tat; general plastic tat; shouting mothers; screaming toddlers (one sitting in a vat of alpine fresh shower gel); cockney pensioners wrestling over bags of already-broken digestives. The soundtrack: East 17’s seminal 1994 hit Stay Another Day.

Lauren, from behind a jar of pickled beetroot the size of own head: “Why, it’s East 17’s seminal 1994 hit Stay Another Day. What larks. Though, hmm. This song was a Christmas number one. It is usually associated with Christmas. It is usually played at Christmas. In fact, just hearing it now, I am thinking of Christmas. I suddenly want to drink Advocaat and wear a daft hat.

“Rather odd, then, for them to be playing it today, a day quite patently not during the yuletide season but actually in the middle of October. Even in these times of perpetual commercial opportunity, that would be ridiculous. I thought the unspoken rule was nothing pre-bonfire night. But hey - a noble institution like The 99p Store would never inflict premature Christmas music on unprepared customers in the middle of October. It must be a mistake! Maybe they just really love East 17.”

(Soundtrack changes to Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone. Fade to black)

* * * * * * * * * *

Bad people to be this week: Whitney Houston, who, in her comeback appearance on Sunday’s X-Factor, aimed to win over a whole audience muttering ‘didn’t she used to do loads of drugs?’ by pretty much looking and sounding like she… was doing loads of drugs. Good work, Whitters.

And Jan Moir. Who is probably a pretty bad person to be any week, but it’s only this week anyone’s noticed. Moir committed a double crime, of course, by being not only bigoted, offensive and moronic, but also a really bad journalist. My only hope is that her disgrace will cause some sort of Newton’s Cradle effect within the media, whereby she gets booted out and leaves enough space for me to quietly slip in the other end.

As you read this I am adding another bullet point to my CV, just under IT skills. It reads, “Is not a massive homophobe.”

Sunday, 11 October 2009

In which the men of Britain learn the power of a naked ankle.

To be printed 15/10/09

Men of Britain! Have you been experiencing strange urges? Have you noticed changes in your usual behaviour? Have you, completely without warning, suddenly found yourself with particularly strong feelings towards a brand new object of desire? Like, for example, fabric?

    Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’ve been you observing you all closely over the last few weeks, and it’s come to my attention that a new epidemic is sweeping our male population. Where previously most of you were immune, with the exception of musicians, art students and the occasional graphic designer, it seems that the virus has begun infecting even the most unassuming of chaps.

Perhaps you were carriers all along, and just needed an environmental trigger to set loose the symptoms. Either way, you’ve all come down with a bad case of fashion. And just like man-flu, man-fashion is prone to hyperbole, and likely to get you laughed at by women.

    Until these last few months, men’s style was pretty much a picnic. Because crucially men’s fashion, unlike women’s, always stopped short of the ridiculous. In fact, the aim was to get as far away from ridiculous as possible – the rule was: shellsuits, short shorts, shiny cerise suits = bad, while sludgy colours, unassuming shapes and a notable lack of accessories = good.

Not since the days of the New Romantics have men really been expected to do anything interesting with their wardrobes. While we ladyfolk have been wrestling with gargantuan shoulder pads, rollercoaster hemlines and trying to work out whether leggings are just a cruel antifeminist joke, you’ve had time to sample new ales, build a string of endless Ikea products and make sure you still ruddy get paid more than we do (stilettos not as effective a weapon for smashing through glass ceilings as everyone seemed to think).

    But now we have entered a new era of sartorial silliness, and men are the new victims. Even the most timid of male dressers is somewhere, right now, gingerly rolling up his trouser cuffs to flash the world a bit of naked ankle. You go for it, Gavin! Let those ankles see daylight! They’ve been holding you upright for 25 years, don’t they deserve to come out and play? Likewise the male cleavage – in hiding since Tom Jones put the medallions away, he-vage is now being rediscovered, uncovered, and showcased in a range of increasingly skimpy t-shirts. And the deck shoe, once just the preserve of men on yachts in Country Casuals catalogues, have suddenly reclaimed its place in the hipster’s wardrobe. It’s an exciting time to be male.

    Whether the rolled-up trouser thing has quite reached the Sussex coast yet, I’m not sure. But if it has, or when it does, I ask you ladies not to mock. Instead, encourage them. Suggest bow ties, silk scarves, maybe a daring epaulette. Because 1) it’s all really rather sweet, to see them having a go, and 2) while they’re busy musing over heritage prints, it might give us a chance to finally equal out the payroll.

* * * * * * * * * *

And so, the inevitable backlash has begun. “Stephen Fry: the most annoying man in Britain?” asked Christopher Hart in The Times last week. Ye Gads! Oh horrors! Not Fry! Get at Brucie all you want, even have a snipe at Wogan if you have to, but in the name of tea and crumpets, leave Stephen alone.

    Hart’s observation seems largely to be based on that always-accurate barometer of public feeling, Facebook, where there exists a group called ‘Stephen Fry is not a f****** genius’. Harsh, guys, harsh. But when we remember this is a medium that also boasts 233 groups called ‘I’m addicted to cheese!’, the sentiment seems a tad less valid.

Now, my love for the cuddly toff has always been stronger than most. I’ve sung his praises in this column often enough, and owe all of my pub quiz victories (and possibly half of my degree) to everything QI has taught me. However, I am far from blind to his potential faults – being posh, for one, is always to set oneself up for public persecution. Being openly clever is another. And being all over the telly, all of the time, is a crime that not even the most adored of stars can get away with for long (did you hear that, Cotton?).

    But my advice to Fry, in case he’s sobbing delicately into a monogrammed hanky somewhere, is to relish the backlash. It will give him edge. He’s now “controversial”, like a punk PG Wodehouse. God save the Queen.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

In which I'd rather Cheryl Baker had my bed.

Printed 08/10/09 (that's right... you're getting this before Worthing does. Score.) 

I realise that in pop culture terms this story is deader than Danni Minogue’s facial muscles, but I’m still reeling from Keisha leaving the Sugababes. Or rather, being callously forced out of the Sugababes (booo hiss Amelle! You were always too slender-of-thigh to truly do justice to the good Suga name). How do they think it will work with Heidi as the ‘strong voice’ – is every track going to be comprised wholly of those speak-singing middle eights? And how dare they think they can carry on using name without any of the original members? It will be like when authors try to write sequels to Jane Austen, or those Top of the Pops cover albums in the 70s. It will be bad.

For a moment it looked like it might be ok, that Mutya and the edgy ginger one would come back, reform, and force the others to call themselves the Canderelbabes or something equally derogatory. But no. It’s also put the kybosh on my new favourite tradition, watching the babes turn on city centre Christmas lights. Without Keisha, the irony of doing Push the Button before actually pushing the button just won’t have the same triumphant wit.

If it seems I’m taking this a bit irrationally hard, and I am, it’s because the event also has some personal resonance. You see, in our domestic world, I am the metaphorical Keisha. As the only original member of our household, I have stayed put for two and a half years, while 15 other flatmates have traipsed in and out of our doors. I have been the lynchpin, holding the brand together and sorting out the gas bills, while more capricious members come and go, leaving nothing but happy memories and half-full jars of economy pasta sauce. If our student home were a science experiment (and the fridge definitely is), I would be the constant factor. And until Keisha’s ousting, I thought my seat was safe.

But now, logically, I’m living in fear of coming home from work one day todiscover my stuff thrown out in the street and a former Eurovision contestant in my bedroom. I’m not ready to go solo, I’m not ready! I’d have to buy my own washing liquid and learn how to programme the heating timer. They couldn’t get rid of me – just as Keisha is the only one who can sing Freak Like Me, I’m the only one who actually knows what day the bin men come. They would be lost without me.

So this I shall plead: housemates, have mercy. And if you must evict me, please don’t give my room to Gina G. She just won’t appreciate it enough.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Highgate house has moved into a new era. Heralding the transition are two new male flatmates, and, more crucially, one new hoover. Not any new hoover. A hoover to make mothers up and down the country coo with gender-throwback envy. A Dyson.

He’s slick, he’s powerful, and he has blown poor old Henry Hoover out of the water. He’s even worked his magic on my bedroom carpet, a feat so incredible I’m thinking of sending the photos to New Scientist. My bedroom carpet is like the marines assault course for hoovers. It is like a layer cake of thread, hair grips, pennies, more thread, and enough moulted blonde hair to see a small wig factory through the recession. But no longer! Now it is clean and hair-free, and it all thanks to Mr Dyson. We’ve even discovered what colour our grime-grey carpets were really meant to be all along - lighter grey!

Now that he’s in our life, I don’t know why we went so long without him. After all, I’ve always been a keen supporter of Dyson technology. My undisputed favourite hand dryer of all time is the Dyson Airblade – to the extent that I will regularly engineer my outings around public toilets with the ’blade to ensure my hands don’t have to suffer substandard drying. Now that the hoover can be added to my list of Dyson fanlove, I’m wondering what other technological marvels they could bring into my life. Hairdryers? Hover boots? A teasmaid for the 21st century, that judges your mood and makes a bloody mary instead, if appropriate? It’s truly an exciting time to be a geek.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

In which Catholics and Kiki Dee fans have something in common.

Printed 01/10/09.

Guilty pleasures. When did they come out of the closet?

It used to be a simple distinction – good taste, by and large, was what we were aiming for. It was the route to happy personal relationships, good jobs, and generally not ending up alone watching QVC with 12 cats. Taste was the target.

Meanwhile, guilty pleasures were rationed to one or two units per genre, and banished to private quarters, hen nights and wedding receptions. You could listen to Chris de Burgh, wearing legwarmers, eating a pop tart and reading Take a Break, but only in your own bedroom, and only when you’d finished the whole of Dostoevsky. Guilty pleasures were time off for good behaviour. They were the recess of taste, a happy holiday from eating healthily, watching Newsnight and pretending to enjoy jazz.

But then something shifted. The waters got muddied. First Abba started being lauded as songwriting genius by people like Noel Gallagher. Then they started bringing back old Saturday TV, having realised that despite several decades of technological development, entertainment actually peaked around the time they thought to make a quiz show out of televised darts. Then, (and this is the crucial one), then, DJ Sean Rowley started playing 80s MOR hits on his BBC radio slot, started a nationwide club night, and turned Guilty Pleasures into a national phenomenon.

So, when the hottest party in town involves an obligatory Neil Diamond singalong, old-fashioned good taste gets relegated to a dusty shelf. Suddenly anything that doesn’t involve spandex smacks of pretension… on merit of being too, er, good. Because who wants to nod along to somebody earnest with a guitar when you can drink a cherry Panda Pop and do Agadoo without judgement?

The worry is this though: where does it end? I can’t quite believe that the guilty pleasures realm has become the bad taste free-for-all it professes to be – surely there must be rules, secret rules, just to maintain a status hierarchy in the midst of all the chaos? They say bad equals good, and we can all do the power-fist-hair-flick to our (Total Eclipse of the) Heart’s content, but you know that at some point they’ll whip the rug out from under your feet. Possibly when you request Las Ketchup, definitely when you take the school disco vibe to its logical conclusion, and actually start crying.

So when I was invited to a Power Ballads theme night last week, I didn’t reach for my rhinestone Stetson with a whoop of joy. I hesitated. Actually, I thought, while there are a handful of power ballads that I like really rather a lot – T’pau’s China in your Hands, Ultravoxx’s Vienna, Shakira’s Underneath Your Clothes – there is a significantly larger number that I really rather hate. Songs that I’d rather just not have in my evening. Because, and this is the important bit to remember, they’re bad. Some music is a pleasure, some a guilty pleasure, and some is the background music they play in a Harvester restaurant. Which is maybe where it should stay.

* * * * * * * * * *

Achievement of the week: for the first time, I know what Nick Clegg actually looks like.
Yes, lodged carefully in my cerebrum is a clear picture of…no, hang on, I’ve forgotten again. Drat. It’ll come to me in a minute… no, that’s Princess Michael of Kent…Ah, got it. Brown hair and a face. There we are.

* * * * * * * * * *

Awesome pub quiz moment of the week:
“Which bird is also a common office employee?”
“I think it’s Secretary Bird,” say I.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s clearly… Sandwich Boy Bird.”
“Or Temp Bird”
“I really think it’s Secretary Bird.”
“Nahh, Managing Director Bird. Cleaner Bird. Security Guard Bird”.
“Seriously folks. Secretary Bird. I’m writing it down.”
“Vending Machine Technician Bird! Head of Human Resources Bird! BOSS BIRD!”

“Question 14: the answer is… Secretary Bird.”

I am the queen of all knowledge.

In which there is something good on the telly.


Right, so autumn is here, the nights are drawing in, and once again it’s time to abandon our more productive summer pastimes, the visiting of places and the seeing of people and the general doing of things, for that other life, the one we live vicariously through better looking people. We call it television.

Can you hear the call? Once again it beckons us back into its bosom, to hibernate through the cold winter months and forget we ever had a social life. Sure, we once had a friend called Dave. But that Dave never broadcast round-the-clock repeats of last year’s Mock the Week, did he? He just borrowed money for Ginster’s pasties and never paid it back.

Yes, after a frankly lacklustre summer, telly is back on form. There’s the obvious return of Strictly and X-factor to celebrate – not immediately, of course, as first we’ll spend two weeks scoffing over the ageism/sexism/tasteism rampantly displayed in both, while secretly gorging on iPlayer in the dead of night with the sound down. But then we’ll give into the sequins, and it’s all ok because ‘guilty pleasure’ has an even higher place than normal on the fashion barometer this season*.

Aside from the Saturday night tat, though, there are some proper gems in the schedule. Peep Show is back! Of course you know that, you still have the bunting up and you’re drinking out of the commemorative mug. This is excellent news for three reasons - firstly, because after a couple of years spent ferociously becoming the new doyenne of the satirical panel show, I was worried David Mitchell was already about to be fossilised for the national treasures cabinet at the British Museum; secondly, because I reckon Robert Webb deserves a break from being ‘the other one’; and third, because they’re like, still totally zeitgeist. No comedy characters say ‘recession, political apathy and flu’ better than Mark and Jez.

The one notable downside is that the show’s trademark internal monologue is probably going to come back again, just when I’d got rid of it (ok, traded it for the voiceover from Gossip Girl). But if silently asking myself ‘Am I having fun? Is this fun? Am I actually having a good time? Or would I rather go home, eat crumpets and play solitaire?’ at every social engagement is the price I have to pay for Peep Show’s return to my life, then pay it I shall.

Another scheduling treat is Shooting Stars, back on our screens after seven years. The delightful thing about the Vic and Bob revival is that far from being zeitgeist, moving with the times, reinventing the comedy for a new generation of viewers or any of that bilge, they’ve just stayed exactly the same. Even to the extent that Matt Lucas is back as the be-babygro-ed Georgie Dawes, allowing the whole nation to pretend Little Britian never happened. What better gift is there than that?

*I’ve made that up. But maybe it’ll catch on, then I can listen to Showaddywaddy again in peace.

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A sad thing happened last weekend. I lost one of my all-time heroes. Dame Judi Dench’s interview in the Guardian Weekend magazine looked so promising, with her photoshoot all bleached blonde hair and Debbie Harry styling. “Don’t call me a national treasure”, said the headline. Woop, yeah, go Dame J! Look at you, you cuddly anarchist! But then, a few paragraphs in, it all went wrong when she declared she wasn’t a feminist.

NOT a feminist? That statement riles me up enough when it comes from an ignorant tweenie, but out of the mouth of someone with as much supposed grace and experience as Dench, it’s just plain astonishing. “I do believe in women having a say…”, she added. Not when they’re going to say things like that, Judi.

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On a happier note, my friend Jo is officially back in the country. For those of you who don’t remember, I wrote a while back about her year abroad in Paris being the real cause of all Britain’s recent troubles. Now she’s home, and while she pines for croissants and accordion players, we can all feel safe in the knowledge that pretty soon, we’ll all get our money back, the Tories won’t get in, and Terry Wogan will take his job back on Radio 2. Ahhh.

In which it must be funny, in a rich man's world.

Printed 17/09/09.

I’ve just had a horrible realisation. I think I have become a boring conversationalist.

This should be of some concern to you, even the four or so of you who aren’t members of my immediate family and thus never get to speak to me face to face. Because logically the next stage after becoming a boring conversationalist is to become a boring columnist (anyone writing to let me know I’m there already will have their house egged). I’m not sure what the next stage after that would be, but I have a sneaking fear it would involve the Readers’ Digest and one of those TV dinner trays with a beanbag underneath. This must stop.

The reason I’ve become boring is that I’ve become poor. Well, actually there are a number of contributing factors - spending two months unemployed, waiting for grainy episodes of Gossip Girl to load up on Chinese websites, is one. Everybody else I know being suddenly absent, on life-changing backpacking trips round Uzbekistan and interning at NASA and starting businesses making their own shoes out of compost and suchlike, is another. But mainly, I blame poverty. I am a boring conversationalist because all I can think to talk about is being poor.

“How about this weather eh?”
“Ugh I know, if only it were raining pennies from heaven… so I could buy a lightbulb instead of just sitting in the dark and pretending to be Victorian.”
“Have you heard about my cousin’s miraculous delivery of triplets in the back of a Leeds to London Megabus?”
“Yes… but have YOU heard that The Guardian only pay me minimum wage? Minimum wage! I earned more at Goring library when I was 15.”
“Can I get you a coffee?”
“No, could I just have the cash value?” And so on.

I think being broke is a bit like being a new mum or a bride-to-be. While plenty of other people are in the exact same position, you somehow believe the situation is unique to you, and only you can really know what it’s all about (obviously the other two get a spouse and a baby out of it, while I just get a big red electricity bill to eat my breakfast with – though it should be noted that the other two also tend to lead to poverty, so I guess we all lose in the end).

Please don’t think, though, that I’m writing about being skint in the hope that I’ll get the same result as last time, when I whinged so much that a lovely old gent sent me a tenner (when I was so filled with gratitude that I wept). No, I’m doing it to see if poverty itself can be my creative subject. I’ve concluded: it can’t. Sorry. But at least now we know, eh?

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I have discovered the Secret Sandwich Warehouse of Clerkenwell, and it has changed my life. Uncovered one day by my workmate, who followed a hungry-looking office worker, Pied-piper-like, through a gap in a wall, the Secret Sandwich Warehouse is the city’s best-kept bargain. It sells fresh-made sandwiches for 65p.

65p! That’s like, the 80s! Or the North! They’re good, too – Piri piri chicken or salt beef bagels, or falafel, houmous and olive (not so much like the North, then). And they’re 65p. Did I mention, 65p?

Trouble is, part of me suspects the Secret Sandwich Warehouse might not really exist. Perhaps if you went to look for it, it wouldn’t be there at all – like Hogwarts’ room of requirement, it only appears to those truly in need. So tomorrow, I intend to stock up for the week. Because I’m scared that once we finally get paid on Monday, the secret Sandwich Warehouse might disappear forever.

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The burning question on everyone’s homepage this week: Who will think up the best title for their facebook graduation photo album? The stress! The pressure! I’d like to give special mention to the two runners-up, who both went with classic punnery in their matching titles of ‘Congraduations’. But the standout first prize goes to ‘Clammy Handshake’, for bravely cutting through the glamour to the bare humanity of the situation.

Job well done. (Oh, and on the degree and everything).