Saturday, 26 September 2009

In which I am not Felicity Kendal.

Printed 15/01/09.

Tighten your belts! Is yours tight enough? Squeeze down another notch, go on. Still buying bottled water? Are you a Duke??

So, in these troubled economic climes, everyone is having to cut back a bit. As far as I can deduce, what this means is that Waitrose people are now all at Tesco, Tesco people are all at Morrisons, and Morrisons people are trawling markets to stockpile free samples in old ice cream tubs. (It hasn't been widely publicised, but even the Queen's weekly Harrods shop has recently been feeling the pinch — she can't have little sausages in with her beans anymore).

What, then, becomes of the student? If the real-life actual people are all decamping to Lidl and Netto, then what room will there be for us in the aisle among the vats of bargain sauerkraut? It's quite possible we just fall off the consumer spectrum altogether.

My brand-new, super mega masterplan, then, is to beat the recession before it gets the better of us (fairly similar to dumping someone because you suspect they're going to dump you — the credit crunch hasn't been answering my calls for a week and I've a feeling he's been seeing other people). So in the spirit of Tom and Barbara Good, and partly because I'd like my bottom to look like Felicity Kendall's in a pair of dungarees, I'm going self-sufficient.

Sadly, my effort won't be quite the rural idyll of the Surbiton original. Lacking in the crucial element of "garden", and subsidiary elements of "skill with trowel" and "faint idea of what Baby Bio does", I won't be growing cabbages. Or keeping pigs. Or looking attractive with mud smeared on my ruddy, health-flushed cheeks.

Our modest bit of flat rooftop (known as the "terrace" only to people who aren't ever likely to pop round and find out the truth) has been housing two carrier bags, five empty lager cans and a stack of London Lites for as long as I can remember, and isn't likely to let me tamper with the natural course of things. Plus, everyone knows the only plants students can keep alive aren't wholesome enough for BBC airing.

But, I do have a plan. For the next few months, I plan to forgo the supermarkets in favour of the freely available bounty on my own doorstep. I am not going to buy any food, from any shops, until I have eaten everything I can possibly eat in our kitchen. It won't be a task for the fainthearted, but I intend to emerge a better, richer, more disciplined person as a result. Albeit with rickets.

Of course, only our specific breed of student house could accommodate such a challenge. In the 18 months or so that I've lived here, our five-bedroomed maisonette has had 12 inhabitants. And that's just counting the core livees, not the various hangers-on who have frequented our sofa and left pasta sauce in our cupboards.

So we've amassed about six Harvest Festivals-worth of tins, packets, jars, and weird things in Tupperware that nobody ever dares eat, in case the original owner from 2006 jumps out from behind a door shrieking "MY Cup A Soup. You thieving scoundrel" then batters them with the good wok.*

It'll be a tough adjustment at first, but pretty soon I'm sure I'll learn to love the diet. Think of the opportunities it'll create for fusion cuisine. I can have cous cous, in an Aunt Bessie's Yorkshire pudding, with a side of fajita filling, and some chicken tikka splodged on top. I'll discover brilliant new uses for Angel Delight, and find out what's in that freezer bag everyone's scared to touch.

What's more, I'll be providing a wonderful service to my flatmates by making room for all the new, lovely food they want to put in the cupboards, instead of eating it from the carrier bags on the bus home before it goes off. Then, in several decades' time when another recession hits, a whole new generation of students will be saved by our new hoard of nourishment. It's a beautiful cycle.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm pretty sure I saw some powdered egg at the back of a shelf and I'd like to see how it goes with Smash.

In which everything is cheaper, except the new Doctor.

Printed 07/01/09

Right, 2009. We’ve been in it for a week. How’s it looking so far? Not enormously different from the end of 2008, admittedly – Kerry Katona’s still mental, Barack is still superman and everyone’s still running around blue-faced screaming ‘Recession!! Receeeeessiooooon!’ into paper bags. But can’t you smell the hope? The fresh possibility? It’s a promising smell, similar to that of new school shoes, new carpet, or a new pine flatpack desk (sorry MFI). There is newness all around, if you look for it hard enough.

Here’s one to start you off: new prices. Sorry, that should be new, stupid, prices. Suddenly my sandwich is £3.37, and that means the economy is going to be ok again? Are we expected to save up all the extra 3ps and 6ps and 19ps in a jar, until in 57 years’ time we can all buy a bungalow? It’s not that we don’t appreciate the extra 3p, Gordon. We really, really do. But being as there’s not an awful lot we’re going to be able to buy with our new 3p, and the government’s currently picking pits of fluff and toffee wrappers off the lining of its vast, empty pockets, do you not think that perhaps you need it more than we do?

Call it ungrateful, but the truth is nobody cares about 3p. We don’t want 3p, we want £75, and no less. Giving us 3p is like giving us the gherkin when we wanted the Big Mac. It’s a token gesture, and very nice too, but truthfully will 2009 just be the year of the coppers? Purses will have to get bigger and sturdier just to house all those extra pennies, which will cost more to manufacture, and thus to buy, and thus undo all the good work of the VAT cut. Doesn’t anybody every think about these things?

Another element of newness: the new Doctor. Though he actually won’t be on our screens until 2010, they’ve unveiled him now so we have a whole year to stew, complain, put him in Heat magazine wearing just his pants, and mourn the loss of David Tennant in a fitting manner (I’m thinking: tartan armbands and quiffs). The newbie, then, is 26-year-old Matt Smith, and no, you’re not meant to have heard of him. Whether his sonic screwdriver skills will be up to the job remains to be seen, but it looks like his main obstacle along the path to intergalactic harmony is going to be his floppy, foppish, ‘Byronic’ hair getting in his eyes. Yes, prepare yourselves Cybermen, this one’s posh.

Weird, that we have an instant distrust of poshness. I can promise you, the first proper reaction anyone had when watching Smith’s first interview was ‘Posh! Too posh! Get him out, no poshies in the Tardis!’. He said ‘I’m flabbergasted…Doctor Who is an iconic part of our culture, and now I'm taking that on’, and we heard: ‘To the rugger match, Jeeves! And golly if Hugo hasn’t quaffed all the champers, what!’. I don’t quite know what the fear is – maybe that he’ll want to start hunting the Darleks with teams of robofoxes while mounted on a space-pony, or running off to Mahiki with Wills and Harry when he should be fixing holes in the time-space continuum – but the slightest whiff of public school, and the fans recoil.

Interestingly, we don’t mind people being middle-aged and posh. Nigella Lawson’s allowed, Hugh Grant gets away with it, and no body has earned more inches of printed praise in this column than Papa Posh himself, Stephen Fry. No, it’s the young-and-posh we can’t stand, with all their polo parties and their gold-leaf cocktails and Emma Watson being generally encouraged. While I’m saving up all my extra 3ps in the hope of buying a Twix in three years’ time, they can continue galavanting all over the gossip pages without a care in the world.

Let’s just hope that by the time the former Head Boy gets to the Tardis, recession might have battered him into dropping a ‘t’ or two. It’s for the good of the universe.

In which we all have a bangin' New Year.

Printed 02/01/09

While some might think it’s invasive and unfair, I consider it an occupational hazard of being related to me (or friends with me, or a man with funny hair who once served me in a shop) that every now and then you’ll be exposed in this column. I think it’s testament to their rich personalities that their quirks and foibles get committed to print so regularly.

And of course, the quirkiest and foibliest of all is my mother. I’m genuinely surprised that her mandatory dressing gown policy for the Christmas-New Year period hasn’t yet been enforced, after I wrote about it a whole year ago. People of Worthing, you’re missing out. We could all be dancing merrily around a flannel bonfire in the ‘burning of the dressing gowns’ ceremony right now, if my mother’s immortal genius had been listened to.

So when my mother said to me about an hour ago, “whatever you write about, please please don’t put anything about how sad our new year’s eves are”, I believe she actually meant, “Here’s a great idea for material! Write about our sad new year’s eves!”

“Let the world share in our yearly angst, as we realise that all the struggles and successes, progressions, discoveries and personal triumphs of the last twelve months culminate in a bowl of broken twiglets and a telly programme called “Phillip Schofield and Some Celebrities Who Were Once on Reality TV For Three Minutes Reminisce About That Time Someone’s Top Popped Open on Bargain Hunt”*.

It’s important, I think, for these things to be admitted openly. It’s about time someone took a stand against all the propaganda, and exposed New Year’s Eve as the sham it really is. So, for the sake of my family and everyone else up and down the country making duck mouths out of Pringles as a fitting tribute to their year, I am going to be the one brave enough to ask: Does ANYBODY ever have an exciting new year?

As a child I believed New Year’s Eve was something only TV people could do, like magically making dates over the phone without saying the time or place, or waking up in full make-up without pillow creases down their face and hair like Mrs Twit. New Year’s Eve was a time when people in films got engaged, people in Eastenders got their faces punched in, and people in my family got to finish off the Christmas cheese and fall asleep at 10.30.

Then as I got older, I realised that New Year’s Eve wasn’t the sole preserve of people in films and telly, it was just the preserve of everybody in the world apart from people you actually know. The same way you always suspect everybody else can finish a Guardian crossword or drink Campari without gagging, despite never having seen anyone do it, you always believe the whole worlds is having fantastically glamorous parties full of popping champagne corks and air-kissing and fireworks on boats, despite everyone you know claiming their New Year’s was just as crap as yours was.

The upside to our traditional family New Year’s, other than holding a fake countdown at 9.30 so no.2 brother could be put to bed with minimal violence, was Jools Holland. Uncle Jools. Uncle Jools, who selflessly let us join in his own party every year, giving us the warm cosy feeling that we were part of something. “It’s ok that we’re not galavanting somewhere, Jools approves! If Jennifer Saunders and Ade Edmundson spend their New Year’s sitting at a table watching Franz Ferdinand, that’s not so very different from us sitting on a sofa, watching Jennifer Saunders and Ade Edmundson sitting at a table watching Franz Ferdinand. Hoorah!”

So of course, it was more than a little soul-destroying when recently, after over a decade of contented New Years with Uncle Jools, my mother discovered the awful truth. That the Hootenanny, despite its realistic air of natural jollity and mirth, is actually pre-filmed at the beginning of December. The liars!! And so the New Year sham continues, aided by some of our best-loved D-list celebs. We all know, deep down, that it’s because, come real New Year, they too are all at home polishing off their selection boxes over a nice jigsaw. We all know it, and yet somehow I still can’t quite believe it.

*If we’re lucky it might be an extended special called ‘Top 100 People’s Tops Popping Open of 2008’, and we can go to bed satisfied that the year wasn’t wasted.

In which I go the whole turkey.

Printed 23/12/08

What UCL were thinking when they set our dissertation deadlines for a week after Christmas, I'm not sure.
While I've long suspected a sadist streak in the higher powers of the English department – the only explanation for décor featuring so much brown hessian – I can't believe even the most tweedy of my senior knowledge imparters can't peer out from their beards long enough to realise the idea, as William Blake might have put it, um, sucks.

Thing is, these are very clever people. They are people with Phds, people with published books, people who can do entire pub quizzes without once having to secretly Google on their phone from the loos, people with whole drawers-full of suede elbow patches who, I like to imagine, have John Sergeant and Ian Hislop round at the weekends to eat pâté and play Wii on its hardest, hardest level.

But how could a body of people so brainy genuinely think a post-festive hand-in date was going to get the best out of its students? Or, indeed, get essays out of its students, instead of just 60 drawings of snowmen scribbled on the back of some wrapping paper?

We're talking about 6,000 words here. Six thousand words, none of them to include "Ooh, whack a bit of Cliff on", "Who ate all the green triangles?", or "Granny, put the brandy butter down…" Six thousand to be crammed in between charades rounds, or hammered out while everyone else is trying to assemble a cyber-plastic-battery-powered-space-blaster-cooker-wrench, using instructions written in Klingon and a diagram that got briefly, accidentally, sat on by the turkey. It's an impossible feat.

And the trouble is, while some scroogish souls might welcome the academia as a break from the glitter-coated, sugar-sprinkled merry-go-round of festive fun ("You WILL be happy. You'll be happy with a sausage on a stick and a paper crown on your head, and you will laugh heartily at a cracker joke, and you will do it NOW"), I don't do Christmas in small bursts.

I do it in one, massive, fortnight-long explosion.

I go the whole turkey.

I will laugh at that cracker joke, then laugh about it some more, then propose a toast to the cracker joke-writer with a glass full of Bristol Cream sherry.

So from where I'm standing right now – 500 words written, not a single Julie Andrews movie even watched yet – it isn't looking good. I will probably have feverish dreams, in which Jane Austen and Geoffrey Chaucer and Alexander Pope all fly into my room like the Ghosts of Christmas Lost and start battering me with tubes of Pringles, shouting: "Write! Write more! In the name of literature, write!"

It might have helped if I'd chosen something more seasonal as my essay topic. I could have done "Christmas as represented in literature through the ages", and then just talked for 20 pages about Little Women and Harry Potter and whether the Muppets stayed true to Dickens' original vision.

I'm pretty sure that I could produce a first-class critical analysis of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas – how the rhyme scheme on "Shook his belly/Like a bowlful of jelly" reflects societal connections between Christmas, gluttony and excess weight gain, while disguising it with a veil of poetic jollity etc. – and, what's more, I could do it in front of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with one hand in a bowl of cheesy footballs.

As it is, I will be locked in the spare room while my mother tries to feed me Iceland mini-bites through the cracks in the doorframe, writing sentences like: "While much of his subject matter was influenced by his position in a coterie, Frank O'Hara's poetic standing-dong-merrily-on-high has since been recognised due to his use of-falalala lala la la cultural iconography..."

At least, and this really is my only consolation, it might just get me out of thank-you letters this year.

In which Christmas joy is tenfold.

Printed 11/12/08.

THE ten most underrated things about Christmas:

10. Novelty earring-wearers.

It's always the ones you least suspect that turn out to be closeted novelty earring wearers. This phenomenon also stems to those who tie tinsel round their pony tail, or round their neck, or round their cat's neck, or perhaps round their steering wheel, lest any left-turn slip-by uninjected with yuletide joy.

Novelty-earring wearers (and for unpierced gentlemen, the sporter of the light-up snowman tie) are most frequently those who the rest of the year round wouldn't say boo to an accessories goose, the kind who consider beige a bit flamboyant and think BBC newsreaders are getting too racy. Let all this suppressed desire for glitter build-up steadily over an 11-month period, and kablam! They'll be the ones in flashing fairy wings singing "I Am What I Am" at the Rotary karaoke buffet.

9. Cheesey footballs.

Are they ever, EVER bought at any other time of year? Are they even produced? Does Kerry Katona's family eat them? What's the best way to lift off the wafery outside leaving you just with the creamy filling in a perfectly spherical shape? Is the creamy filling really a diluted form of Polyfilla?

So many questions.

The black sheep of the party snack world, cheesey footballs will always remain an enigma.

8. Secret Santa.

I spent a woeful shift at work this week watching a table full of workmates unwrapping their secret Santa presents. The accumulated hoard of carefully-chosen, thoughtfully personalised gifts went as follows: Ferrero Rocher, a giant bag of Maltesers, a Lynx shower gel and body spray set, Ferrero Rocher (again), a tiny liqueur miniature in an unnecessarily large package, a massive Toblerone, Ferrero Rocher (sigh).

Secret Santa - the perfect way to tell your beloved friend/workmate/flatmate or pet that in your eyes, they have no discernable personality whatsoever.

7. "Traditions."

One year, many eons ago, my family had a Chinese takeaway on Christmas Eve.

The next year, we had a Chinese takeaway again, because we'd had one last year.

The year after that, the Chinese takeaway had rooted itself so firmly in our festive schedule that to not have crispy duck and prawn toasts on Christmas Eve would be sacrilege to the noble name of the holiday. Because it was a "tradition".

Why not try making some "traditions" of your own? Did you have to make a Boxing Day dash to a late-night chemist last year because Auntie Maud's rash flared up again? There we go, your very own "tradition".

6. Watching your Dad fall asleep in the middle of the afternoon.

The best bit is watching them do the spluttery-half-waking-head-lilt. Personally I like to take down all the decorations, put a Cadbury's Creme Egg in their hand and tell them when they wake up that it's Easter.

5. Normal drinking rules are off.

You can put alcohol anywhere you like and at any time of day during Christmas.

In fact, you ought to, it's the law. Gin porridge, mother? Don't mind if I do! Pop a bit of sherry on my Frosties will you, my organs need warming. Got a sniffle there, Nigel? Vodka Lemsip, that's the ticket…

4. Nobody can be cool at Christmas.

It's a refreshing change for humanity – the knowledge that even the uppermost echelons of the cool crowd will, in living rooms up and down the country, be professing thanks for a Forever Friends pencil tin and five-pack of BHS knickers. What's more, they'll be doing it wearing a paper cracker crown, and someone will ask if their ironic chunky Fair Isle jumper is keeping their kidneys warm.

3. The super massive bumper issue of the Radio Times.

As the general life rule goes, anything that's much much bigger or much, much smaller than its usual size should be the object of worldwide admiration, wonder and cooing noises.The massive double issue of the Radio Times is the real, true signifier that Christmas has properly begun and you're allowed to open the special cheese.

To take a big red biro and go through circling your prospective festive viewing (Mary Poppins! Because I haven't see THAT enough!) is surely one of the purest pleasures the season has to offer. Every year, you will circle Brief Encounter, and every year you will end up watching Jingle All the Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger instead. Don't beat yourself up. The Radio Times only guides, it cannot dictate.

2. Dennis Norden will always appear at some point.

Yes, he's STILL alive!

1. Leftovers.

Admit it, everything tastes better cold, out of Tupperware, at 8.30 in the morning on December 27.

Until you have feasted on a breakfast of fried Christmas pudding, bubble and squeak, Iceland filo prawn parcels and a Terry's Chocolate Orange segment, you have not lived.

In which I am typing on a weird French keyboard.

Printed 18/12/08

Eurostar is a wonderful conception. I am not disputing this.

In fact, it is one of my favourite subjects for pondering during my weekly pondering sessions, to marvel over how they ever managed to move all that earth away in time to shove a tunnel in. It's amazing, I completely acknowledge that. Like ships in bottles, or the way they keep the inside of Lindor melty while the outside is solid.

But frankly, I think they could have done more.

It struck me during this week's London to Paris jaunt, the second in three months (can one qualify as a jet-setter if your main travel perk is buying Heat magazine because the time difference undoes the trashiness?), that the Eurostar people are missing a trick or two.

"Are we still in Kent?" I ask Tara.

"No, we're under the sea now."

"We're in..? Already? With no warning? But I didn't hold my breath or pinch my nose or assume the safety position! There was no Thunderbirds countdown, or Going Underground piped into the carriages while a crowd of smiley stewardesses wave us goodbye from the white cliffs. That's a bigger anticlimax than this M&S Christmas dinner sandwich."

What about a bit more ceremony, hmm Eurostar? Hype it up more, please the people. Cash in on the still amazing fact we are UNDER THE SEA.

Clearly, the answer is to make it a bit of a white knuckle ride, something like the Legoland log flume, plunging at a 60-degree angle into the foamy depths of The Channel and printing out a nice souvenir photo of the bug-eyed screaming passengers in their waterproof ponchos to take away as they get off at the other end.

And while, of course, I appreciate the job the engineers had to do, what with one of them holding the earth up while the other one quickly shoves bits of wall against it – like shutting the kitchen cupboard doors before an avalanche of food falls out – but can I just ask what they were thinking when they made the walls opaque? Glass, surely, would have been a much better idea. You could watch the fish swim past, take some hilarious photos of you pretending to kiss a dogfish, and generally have an educational experience.

But there we are – no flume, no fish, no fun. Instead, we read The Guardian supplements and shriek at each other across the aisle and play "I spy", a game which dies a quick death when Kirsty guesses straight off that my "A" is for antimacassar and we probably spend too much time together.

Chief discovery of the whole journey was, "Look! If you close your eyes, then open them, the quality of light and brown furnishings make it look like we're in the 70s."

And if that isn't a call for a revamp, then I don't know what is.

In which even the sheep and wolf couldn't save it.

Printed 04/12/08.

I would never profess to be any kind of oracle*, but sometimes I wonder why I haven’t yet been hired as a retail business consultant. Lack of qualifications, spreadsheet knowledge, and little business cards saying ‘Lauren Bravo – retail business consultant and part-time nuclear technician’ aside, the fact stands that nobody criticises the high street better than me. I am a tip-top high-street criticiser. And for years, YEARS now, I’ve been vocalising my concern for Woolworths.

It only stood to reason that as a chain whose primary market was the discerning Pick’n’Mix consumer, Woollies’ salad days were numbered. As ‘90s children back in the golden age of tooth rot, we regarded it as a mecca for all that was good, cheap, and came in a neon shade unknown to nature. If it oozed, fizzed, popped, glowed or caused migraines, Woolworths had it and we bought it by the bucketload. This was a simpler time, time when cassette tape singles were 99p in the first week of release. So the giddy Saturday sugar binge was set to a soundtrack of the era’s best poptastic mastery and finished off with a dramatic reading of the Mizz problem page to all gathered at the Montague Street bandstand (“Dear Sally. My crush saw me with spinach in my braces! Will I ever find love? Red-faced of Rotherham, aged 12”).

Kids today just wouldn’t understand the simple pleasure of pink foam shrimps, B*Witched on your walkman and a nice flowchart called “Which Hollyoaks babe would you be?”. They’re all downloading Sigur Rós and reading Private Eye and eating M&S Thai chicken noodle salads like miniature grown-ups. I’m pretty sure even the shoplifters have gone upmarket – it’s been years since I’ve witnessed anyone sprinting past security with a toaster up their puffa jacket.

It doesn’t help that all Woolworths stores have in recent years taken on the appearance of giant bus shelters, the kind of places you expect to reach into the bottom of the half-off bin to find a trembling pensioner clutching a Daniel O’Donnel album she was originally trying to buy in 1984. My local branch in Archway is a particularly grubby specimen, the kind I always expect to have ‘As Featured on Crimewatch’ on a banner over the door. I want to give the staff hugs, and secretly slip them Waitrose application forms under the counter.

So while the nation reeled this week at the news that the company has gone into administration (did you reel? Are you still reeling? Is anyone entirely sure what reeling actually entails, aside from the vague idea it’ll give you a crick in your neck for several days?), I shook my head sadly and sighed my retail business consultant sigh. Next up, though there isn’t column space enough in the world to go into what they’ve been doing wrong for ten years, will be BHS. Mark my words, they won’t last much longer. Buy all the lilac jersey vest tops and cargo shorts you need now folks, it won’t be around much longer. Oh, you already did? In 1998? Let them know, it’s only kind.

Now, the retail business consultant thingy doesn’t quite stretch to understanding the process of administration, but from what I’ve heard, and this is wonderful, is that we can now BUY Woolworths for £1. £1! It’s true, I googled. That’s only a week’s supply of gummy bootlaces, or Tragedy by Steps with Heartbeat on the B-side. Think of all the giftwrap you would own! You’d never have to buy a greetings card again, you’d have one for every occasion that could ever arise! Fancy a smoothie? Pop to YOUR local Woollies and grab yourself a blender. Or, wait, a pre-made bottle of the stuff, you own those too!

Of course, the lucky bargain-hunter will inherit £300 million of debt along with all the sweeties and fizzy pop. But with the prospect of reviving some childhood nostalgia on the cards, I reckon that’d be pretty easy to overlook in the heat of the moment. As my friend Rich pointed out – “Wouldn’t that be the worst hangover ever? To wake up, think ‘owww, what did I do last night?’, and then realise you accidentally bought Woolworths…”

* Actually I would and regularly do, but following Friday’s, “It’s fairly quiet as house parties go.. I’m sure the neighbours won’t mind a bit” misdemeanour, I’m laying low with my prophesising powers.

In which five go dumping.

Printed 28/11/09

"GET UUUPP! It's DUMP DAY! Happy dump dayyyy!"

It bears witness to this year's rapid decline into premature middle age (and not even the fun kind of middle age, with Harley-Davidsons and Anne Summers parties), that this weekend's highlight was an eagerly-awaited trip to Haringey Refuse and Recycling Centre.

We woke up early, eyes shining with anticipation, rosy-cheeked like Victorian kids on a biscuit tin. Get dressed. Pack the car up. Start a rousing chorus of 101 Eco-friendly Green Recyclable Bottles on the wall.
It was early Christmas. Christmas, without the acid heartburn, or the Vicar of Dibley, and with the crucial difference being we were getting rid of a massive pile of tat instead of acquiring it.

It was exciting for many different reasons. Firstly, there was the challenge of seeing if, with no help from proper grown-ups whatsoever (other than the cautious lending of car and sat nav), we could successfully complete the mission without a figure of authority outing us as amateurs somewhere along the way — "You! You in the heels! With the picnic! You're not a proper grown-up, you're a student. Back to your own landfill."

Then there was the kharmic benefit. By cleansing our cupboards of all the mangy old cack the previous tenants left behind (pre-war kitchen utensils, a hiking boot, Lord Lucan), we cleansed our minds and souls, finding new levels of clarity, self-knowledge, and the sandwich toaster we thought was lost forever. We also created lots of space for all our own mangy old cack (a juicer, 12 sleeping bags, that laptop the Ministry of Defence mislaid the other year).

And then, most excitingly, there was the novelty. Before Saturday, I had never been to the dump before. It was a mystical place, an illusory land , the sole preserve of Dads on Bank Holidays. Until I was about 13, I thought "Dad's going to the tip" was grown-up shorthand for "going on a super-exciting holiday excursion without you, petty child", or possibly an affair.

The car load of tree branches and broken kettles was a mere foil for the magical, musical, joy-packed adventure that father would be having all day without us (in between his other thrilling bank holiday rituals: grouting the bathroom tiles; spending quality time upside down in a box in the garage; wounding himself bloodily in assorted picture-hanging ventures; talking to a neighbour over a hedge).

So inevitably, as we pulled up expecting an all-singing, all-dancing rainbow-lit theme park full of Dads whizzing round on waltzers made from old bike parts, there were elements of disappointment. Firstly, it was nine minutes from our house. We'd barely made it to 85 Eco-friendly Green Recyclable Bottles before we were there, which made it less an excursion and more the kind of place you can pop to. You shouldn't be able to pop to the dump. Dumps should be far, far away on the outskirts of cities, in suburban no-man's-land, past a spaghetti junction, in between a Furniture Village and an Ikea.

Next disappointment — no mountain of rubbish. I wanted circling seagulls, half-visible Ford Cortinas, and a sofa perched jauntily on the top where you might imagine the dustmen have after-hours tea parties. I thought maybe, just maybe, we might stumble across a working CD player or a Shakespeare folio and be allowed to take it home.

But no, sadly it seems the only area in which Haringey Council can excel at the moment is super-organised recycling. It's clean, it doesn't smell, and there are cheerful mosaics from schoolkids all round the walls saying things like "Recycling is rad!" as though they really, really mean it.

Within 10 minutes we'd disposed of all our assorted detritus in big, categorised containers and nobody had told us off for bringing stolen road signs. It was an efficient anti-climax. My only hope now is that maybe my dump is an anomaly, and that some day I'll get to experience the same exhilaration my Dad gets every bank holiday.

I've checked it out and discovered happily that Worthing's dump is far away enough from my house to possibly warrant the taking of sandwiches, and, if the photo is anything to go by, definitely has a massive pile of rubbish. If I find out anything about the waltzers, I'll let you know.

In which Fern slims for Britton.

Printed 04/06/08

Womankind is a fickle, fickle species. Following the immortal guidance of Donna Summer and Tina Charles, we love to love. We love to love things that don’t really deserve to be loved; things that barely register on the love-o-meter as moderately likeable; things that men only know exist when they find you weeping into a pillow after they are discontinued in the shop or killed off by spiteful scriptwriters.

We love to love our conditioner brand. We love to love adverts. We love to love anything that’s at least half the size it should usually be, like hotel soaps or those teeny tiny lipglosses you hang off your phone. Not because anybody needs teeny tiny lipgloss, you understand*, but because it’s quite fun to hold them and pretend you’re a giantess for a few minutes.

Indeed, we are happiest to bestow our love-to-loving on things that will almost certainly, unless we find ourselves in a sci-fi horror from the 50s, never love us back. I am reminded here by a phone call I received from my mother a month or so ago: “It’s SO sweeeet,” she cooed in the same voice she used for Waffles the late hamster, “I just want to give it a hug”. The adored addition to the Bravo family, it turned out, was my Dad’s new ukulele. Just a guitar, but OOH it’s so tiny!

Yes, we cheerfully ladle affection left right and centre, then remove it again with all the emotional consistency of a Katona marriage. Personally, I believe this indiscriminate approach is acquired during the fledgling stages of emotional development with the sacred rites of the pencil case, where girls learn to love according to novelty, newness, and everybody else wanting one. The multi-colour biro was love object no.1 until usurped by the popcorn-scented gel pen. It’s a sad business.

And of course, when our devotions are extended to fellow humans rather than the upstairs of WH Smith, they become all the more capricious. Take Fern Britton, for example. Poor old Fern. She was the nation’s surrogate mum, the thinking man’s crumpet (and butter), the reason I invented the peanut-butter-custard-Oreo-golden-syrup-surprise. The poster girl for womanly acceptance. The lyrical inspiration, I always wanted to believe, behind “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow”. We loved to love to love her, with sugar on top.

Until, of course, she committed the ultimate betrayal of womanhood, the salad-munching harpy, and got thin. No! How DARE she?? Suddenly it was less of the love, more of the bitterness and resentment. Oh, and the fear that she’d start cajoling Dawn French and Beth Ditto into it too, until the entire ‘fat but pretty’ list comprised of the girl from Hairspray and maybe Aunt Bessie in the right light.

But there was worse to come this week for (increasingly) Little Britton, when it was revealed that she’d, as I like to think they refer to it in the offices of CelebsWithNoKnickers magazine, ‘done a Diamond’ and had a gastric band fitted. No! How DARE she?? While we could just about stomach the idea of beloved Fernie slogging it out on a treadmill, or maybe just losing all the weight accidentally after an ill-judged trip to one of the night time pavement hotdog stands on Tottenham Court Road (I’ve played the e-coli lottery enough, my time must be soon), the notion that she cared enough to swap a cheese knife for a surgical scalpel was positively unsavoury.

But what really upset us was the notion that somehow she had ‘cheated’. In the big board game of vanity, Fern had been collecting £200 without passing Go (and losing her community chest in the process, a cruder writer might add…). No woman shalt be skinny without paying her dues in misery and carbohydrate withdrawal sweats.

I disagree, however. In my book, Fern has done us all a favour by revealing willpower to be the mythical, fairytale notion we suspected it was all along. Now that we know she’s actually weak like the rest of us, just a darn sight richer, it’s like we’re all on the same team again. We can return to loving Fern, and loving Rubens pin-ups, and maybe loving some teeny-tiny snack foods. Which we do love to love to do.

*Notwithstanding those who have teeny tiny lips.

In which I reveal the horror of the wizzard curse.

Printed 20/11/08

There is a shop near London Bridge station called The Christmas Shop. It is open all year round.
I'd sincerely love to tell you it sells Easter eggs, pumpkins and menorahs, just to get a kick out of spreading daily confusion among the simple minds of the general public (the same reason I very soon plan to open Jigsaw World, North London's premier wig specialist — possibly with a picture of patio furniture on the sign), but sadly nothing so creative is at work. The disappointing truth is that it just sells Christmas.

Christmassy Christmassness, and nothing but it. It baffles me.

Think about it - this is someone who has devoted the entirety of their working life to Christmas. They live Christmas 12 months a year, seven days a week, endlessly striving for Yuletide perfection with a dedication that potentially no other human has ever given.

Apart, maybe, from the Wise Men, though notably even they were 12 days late.

Think of the time and effort this person is clearly putting-in to source the very finest flashing tinsel Christmas tree earrings that have ever been made, all so that we can wear them for three hours at an office do before they fall off in a clinch with Brian from accounts on the photocopier.

June, July, August — Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. They wake up in the height of heatwave, throw on their hand-knitted Rudolph jumper and some comedy antlers, scoff down some mince pies and drive to work with the heater on and Perry Como on the radio. And I can't confirm this personally, but I'll eat my non-festively-themed hat if their ringtone isn't Frosty the Snowman in all its polyphonic glory.

What I want to know is, at what point in one's life does one have the epiphanic moment, of realising that what you want to do with your life more than anything is flogging sets of musical, fibre optic Victorian carol singers? Is it a calling, like priesthood? Are there only several people in the country properly qualified to distribute such high quantities of joy and imitation snow-glitter? Or is this the back-up career plan when, after wishing desperately every birthday, despite all your best beard-growing efforts and several courses of chimney navigation, however many times you watch Tim Allen and take notes, you in fact don't, ever, grow up to be Santa?

Specialist shops in general have always had a kind of morbid fascination for me — as a person who gets bored of her dinner halfway through eating it, I am constantly amazed by people with enough stoic devotion to one obscure pastime that they genuinely believe the world needs a shop dedicated to it. Down my road is Girls Bike Too, which just sells pink motorbike leathers. A bit further down there is a wrought-iron specialist, an Afghan cardigan shop (because a girl can never have too many), and a shop that just sells clothes rails.

But none of these is as depressing as The Christmas Shop (with an average lifespan of six weeks, they're never around long enough to garner my sympathy before something new pops up anyway — "Sad about the Afghan woollies, but look! A Slinky specialist!"). Even those shops that just cater for uber-plastic, helium-enhanced birthdays and hen parties, imbued though they are with a melancholy yearning for days before sashes saying "super slut" were the last happy vestment of singledom, at least have customers all year round. Tasteless people will always need tat.

But let's face it, our craving for Christmas tat was satisfied with one swift trip round a garden centre in the mid-90s, and though the tinsel now looks like something a cat would cough up, adding to the collection now would just be extravagance. Trying to understand how The Christmas Shop makes enough to pay premium city rent when it is obsolete for a good nine months of the year is making my brain hurt, and also spawn the idea that it might be the front for a crack den.

OR, and this is the genius explanation — the owners are under a curse. A hex put upon them by Roy Wood of Wizzard, as bitter vengeance of the fact that no matter how much we as a nation may love I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, the truth is that Slade will always, always, be just ever so slightly better.
And so, in some warped festive version of Groundhog Day, Mr Christopher Mass has been doomed to live out Wizzard's wish for all eternity.

And keep Roy Wood in August baubles until the end of time.

In which my mother wins the deodorant jackpot.

Printed 13/11/08

Wow. Do we really live in a country where 30,000 people can be bothered to complain about a radio prank only two of them even heard in the first place? Are these the same people who sign petitions against wind farms and have feuds with neighbours over seven inches of garden hedge? I’ve always regarded complaining as something of a national sport (this is probably, I realised, because it’s the only sport where I have a hope in hell of getting picked for the team without having to do the captain’s history homework for them first), but this is an abuse of its good name.

Complaining is an art form. It’s finely honed through daily practice, by standing in queues, eating Fray Bentos pie-in-a-tin and seeing films with Adam Sandler in them. And if we practice hard enough, with enough commitment, some day we might qualify for the ultimate honour, the complaining Olympics: Points of View.

What other country would have a whole half hour of their weekly programming schedule dedicated to complaining about how bad the rest of the programming schedule is? Even the chirpy scatting theme tune and dulcet tones of Terry Wogan can’t detract from the fact that it’s just a great big massive moanfest for people who will sit angrily through a whole hour’s gratuitous nudity just to check they’re definitely, definitely offended. I love it. What I love even more is that of all the tiny, irrelevant, niggly details that the great viewing public will find to complain about, it’s never the funny fake actor voices their letters are being read out in (“Why, oh why, oh why… has Auntie Beeb decided to make me a 65 yr old Welsh woman when I clearly signed the letter Alan McAllister?”).

My flatmate has just read this over my shoulder and told me that I’m wrong. “British people never complain. They should complain more, nothing ever gets better because we just stay silent.” But aha, you see, that’s the cunning trick. When we sit quietly by as a waiter sneezes on our lasagne, or overtip a hairdresser who’s made us look like Anne Widdecombe, the stiff upper lip is just holding in the torrent of first-class über-complaining we’re going to do all the way home. We’re cowards, but we’re complaining cowards.

Or maybe she’s right, and what we do isn’t complaining at all. Complaining, I suppose, is a structured activity. It has rules. It’s official. It involves making phone calls and writing letters and using terms like ‘completely unacceptable’. What most of us do do, or what I do anyway, is grumble. Moan. Gripe. Nothing that involves as much effort, or as many forms, as complaining. Though of course it should be noted that forms are a wonderful thing to complain, moan, grumble or gripe about. Or at least, they are if my mum’s anything to go by when she’s filling out mine for me.

Incidentally my mother – conveniently, as it’s been a while since she’s had a mention and her fans are getting restless – has in recent months become one of these professional complainers. I mean ‘professional’ quite literally, as she’s actually being paid for her time in soup vouchers and free deodorants.

It all began several months back, when she opened a Baxter’s soup can to find the wrong soup inside. “Jackpot!,” the more laid back among us might think – “what a wonderful soupy surprise! I shall enjoy this soup more than the originally planned soup, because the secret ingredient is mystery.” Not so Mother Bravo, who instead took it upon herself to ring up Mrs Baxter and inform her of the mishap. “My son’s very disappointed. It was his favourite soup,” she told the nice Scottish helpline lady in her best wounded tone. Of course, the son in question is 18, but that’s by the by in the world of the serial complainer.

The reason these complainers carry on with gusto, while us moaners, gripers and grumblers get distracted by something shiny and lose interest, is that complainers get payoff. In this case it was a whole £4-worth of soup vouchers, enough to keep her in possibly defective soup for three weeks, and in complaining for the foreseeable future. Next up was a deodorant she couldn’t get the cap off. Nor could my father, nor the neighbours, nor the neighbour’s cousin’s parakeet, which meant complain-o’clock for mummy. The big prize was an apologetic letter containing a ‘fault report’ from the ‘chief packaging technician’ (two pages of bullet points to explain the ever-complex process of ‘some glue got on the lid’), and four free deodorants. Now if she can just find a faulty Aston Martin and a jar of caviar with a toenail in it, we’ll be set for life.

Unfortunately it seems that while moaning, grumbling and griping are hobbies, complaining is a way of life. “The trouble with the free deodorants, though,” she calls to tell me several days later, “is that they’re all the pink scent. And I really rather prefer the blue.”

In which everything is Jo's fault.

Printed 06/11/08

Ladies and gentleman, you are about to witness one of the most significant breakthroughs in 21st century journalism, right here on the pages of your friendly local Herald. While newsrooms full of hacks across the capital have been getting themselves into a right tizzy over the recent downturn in the Britain’s fortunes, your humble yoof columnist has quietly discovered the exact, scientific answer for the current economic, political and cultural climate to be otherwise referred to as Everything in the Country’s Gone A Bit Wrong. Yes, I can now announce that the reason you can’t get a mortgage, or afford an M&S sandwich, or make the odd obscene phonecall to a veteran actor without incurring a whole load of hoo-hah anymore, is my friend Jo.

You can’t get angry with her, or us, though, because it was entirely accidental. Nobody realised that the secret key to the country’s welfare and prosperity was a 21-year-old from Findon Valley who is scared of balloons. So nobody could have predicted that when she moved to France for the year, everything would turn to merde. “What is going on in the UK?,” she’s demanding on my Facebook wall. “ Gordon Brown and David Cameron have opinions on Russell Brand, Tennant has quit Doctor Who, the economy's crashing...I leave you lot alone for 4 months and mayhem ensues!”

We always said no good would come of her abandoning us for 12 months. But the kind of ‘no good’ I believe we were referring to was stuff like being short of her abundant 70s musical knowledge in pub quizzes, or not going round for her mum’s barbeques, or missing her voice in the harmonies next time we want to sing a merry roundel on a train.

Never, in shouting “don’t go to Paris, stay here and eat toast!”, do I believe we added the affix “because you might trigger a massive recession, plunging Britain into financial gloom while two of our best bastions of entertainment are forced to resign for doing what, essentially, is a pastime of 13-year-old girls at sleepovers, and David Tennant punishes us for all the madness by removing himself from the Tardis and his beautiful face from our screens, surely the worst news of all.” I don’t think we did, but I shall check the minutes archive to be sure.

Of course I would never blame her (it would jeopardise my claim on the free Parisian accommodation, for one thing). I’ve already used this space to express my fairly ‘meh’ attitude to the credit crunch, while the fall of Brand and Woss seems mainly to signify the unjust law of life learned by Oscar Wilde a century ago, that being too much of a dandy will always ruin you in the end.* Meanwhile, the Doctor’s departure is causing me considerable heartache, but we can all take comfort in knowing that Jo will be mourning most of all, burdened with the additional guilt of knowing she may be responsible.

What I want to know is: if she comes back to Blighty in time, or possibly across time in a Who-style chase through the vortexes of a parallel universe, will she reverse the effects of her absence, give the Radio 2 boss her job back, banish Neil Morrissey and other sub-par successors from the realms of Gallifrey forever, and make chocolate bars 31p again? If Russell T. Davies scripted it, would that help?

And no sooner had my tears dried than my mother was on the phone to tell me that Mr Tennant himself has, apparently, supposedly, according to something she read in Times2, moved just down the road from me! We might (will) bump into (ruthlessly stalk) each other (he and his loved ones) in Budgens (his back garden) buying tomatoes (stealing pants from the washing line)! So all that time he’ll save not fighting darlek time wars, he can now spend coming round to mine for tea.

And Jo, if that’s not a reason to come home then I don’t know what is.

*Let’s take a moment here to spare a thought for other dapper gentleman who may be next in line for the curse of the fop – they can take Lawrence Llwellen-Bowen, but they’re NEVER having Stephen Fry.

In which I genuinely enjoy miso soup.

Printed 30/10/09

Hear ye, hear ye! Here beginneth Lauren Bravo’s Massive Week of Enormous Healthiness. To be followed by a subsequent Fairly Large Week of Pretty Good Healthiness, and a third Big Ol’ Week of Maybe The Odd Accidental Cheese Toastie But Generally Being Still Rather Healthy. And so on, and so on, until my collarbones have returned from their mysterious holiday.

Of all the communal hobbies for my flatmates and I to have taken up, ‘eating’ may not have been as wise a choice as, say, airfix models or water aerobics. I’m starting to realise that now. Our plans, conversations and schedules all revolve around food. We’ve deduced, to within minutes, the earliest feasible time that one can start cooking dinner in the evening without incurring judgement from the Council of Appropriate Mealtimes*, and conducted extensive research in the field of dinner foods for breakfast (suggested jingle: “we’d rather have a bowl of spag bol and cheese”).

The beautiful marriage of gluttony and sloth has resulted in a serious restaurant habit. Because now that we’re all very old, clubbing is frankly just effort. Clubbing means leaving the house at 10.30 just when you’d got comfy with QI, being beaten to the bar by nubile 18 year olds, making friends with Marjorie the cloakroom attendant and mouthing ‘what’s this then, the Arctic Monkeys?’ as each unknown track comes on like a politician at a youth club.

But restaurants, oooh. Ooh yes. ‘Going out for a meal’ encompasses the important bit, the ‘going out’ bit, but with the lovely addition of food and a nice sit down. There’s all the hopeful anticipation of clubbing, with none of the sweat and groping and chance someone might be sick on your shoes (notwithstanding Soho Best Kebab). You can still get your beauty sleep, and hoorah! You’ve left the house! You’ve battled the elements, wrapped up against the autumn chill, braved public transport and queued at three defective cashpoints in the noble name of sociability – the least you deserve is a nice lamb bhuna and a little minty chocolate for your troubles.

I do realise, however, that actually getting a job in a restaurant might have been taking the hobby too far. “It’ll be a busman’s holiday.” I said. “I’ll spend every day surrounded by beautiful plates of beautiful food and the novelty will wear off so fast that by Christmas I’ll be living on miso soup surprise and borrowing Keira Knightley’s jeans.”

Alas, it turns out that while I like food a lot, I like lots and lots of food even more. So volunteering to be surrounded all day by beautiful plates of beautiful food was a foolish setback for my bikini-wearing potential, unable as I am not to follow every plate of beautiful buttery leftovers back into the kitchen for a quick feast. I’m not completely past the idea of legal action, on the grounds that ‘pounds per hour’ should have been listed in mass as well as monetary units on the small ad.

So while I’m waiting for the settlement to fund a bit of lypo, I’m embarking on my Massive Week of Enormous Healthiness with all the vigour I usually reserve for Massive Plates of Enormous Hamburgers. Celery! Carob! And clubbing again, because my social life has to survive somehow. The sweating will probably work wonders.

*Suggested Chairwoman, in case they’re recruiting, is my mother, from whom I’ve inherited the staunch belief that an acceptable lunchtime just has to have ‘12’ in its name… thus ‘twenty-five to twelve’ = sandwiches a-go-go. Ten past twelve is practically afternoon tea. Of course, it should probably be noted that my mum goes to bed at 9.30, meaning all mealtimes can justifiably be brought forward several hours. Meanwhile I slip in an extra meal at midnight and wonder why my skirt won’t button up.

In which I don't put my name on stupid lists.

Printed 23/20/09

Now, I am not what could be considered an unsociable person. I’m fairly certain I have some friends, even if they all manage to beat a hasty retreat every time the bin bag breaks and leaks bin juice all over my leg as I’m lugging it down the stairs. In fact, I’m certain I have some friends because they were the ones who
a) bullied me into eating meat again after nine years of ostentatious vegetarianism, by reminding me I don’t actually like animals, or at least not as much as I like a rare steak with lots of nice blood to dip my chips in,
b) had no qualms in announcing after my summer dyeing misadventure that my hair looked like an old sofa, and
c) enjoy reminding me, each time I mention feeling even vaguely ill, of the times I thought I had consumption, heart disease and colon cancer that all turned out to be mild viruses.

Yes, I definitely have friends. I also have plenty of casual acquaintances, I think. I definitely spend at least one bus journey a week in awkward conversation with someone I hoped wouldn’t spot me as they got on, and every birthday I get at least three facebook wall posts from people I don’t remember ever meeting. So I must have acquaintances. What’s more, I’m not averse to making new ones every now and then. There are several Spitalfields stallholders with whom I’ve surpassed the usual pleasantries required by the customer/seller relationship, and sometimes I even talk to strangers at bus stops, just for the heck of it. So there, I’m sociable.

Why then, and I’m ashamed to admit this for fear future employers might see it and write me off as an empty shell of a person, have I not joined a single society the entire time I’ve been at uni? I’ll say that again more slowly, in case its magnitude escaped you the first time. Not – a – single - society. Nothing. No clubs, no organisations, no campaigns, no plays, no rallies, no trips, nothing involving special hoodies or wearing ‘wacky’ costumes, nothing I can write on my CV to show what a well-rounded individual I am, nothing I can be treasurer or vice-president or mascot of, nothing.

For the first year I convinced myself it was enough to have put my name down on a few sign up sheets at the Freshers Fayre (coincidentally my interest was directly proportional to the calibre of free goodies being handed out by the particular table. Morris Dancing for Beginners? Free Milky Way? Sign me up baby!), upon which I received emails once every 2.3 minutes telling me what the salsa/drama/judo/rugby/ monopoly/extreme ironing society were up to without me.

Then in second year I didn’t have the ‘time’. How will I ever fit in meetings and rehearsals around my epic, energy-draining seven hours of lectures a week? Not to mention doing my Morrisons shopping, and keeping up with my extensive ebaying, and the obligatory 12 hours of weekly pub time I have to put in to keep the breweries afloat? Plus there’s doing the washing up, the time invested each day in holding the TV aerial in different positions until the reception stops fuzzing, and molding blu-tack into novelty shapes while waiting for the kettle to boil. There’s no way I could jam extra-curricular activities into that already full-to-bursting schedule.

And so now third year’s in full swing, and my social calendar is not. Because now, I’m reasoning, if I started turning up to societies I’d have to invent some story about being a transfer student from Sweden to explain my conspicuous absence from everything for the past six terms. The only consolation for the fact I’ll never appear in a uni play (selfish really, knowing what a fantastic second-tree-from-the-left I would have made) or captain a squad of some kind, is that I seem to have managed to find as my friends all the other social outcasts on campus.

So in a way, we have our own anti-society society, based on the noble virtues of laziness, cynicism and aversion to matching t-shirts. At meetings we largely eat bloody meat, strike up conversations with strangers at bus stops, and take it turns to hold the TV aerial. Future employers, take note.

In which I am a crumbly cheddar.

Printed 15/10/08

Third year is here! That’s an insincere exclamation mark, but I’m hoping if I use it enough the enthusiasm might stick. Third year, third year, third year! Never, under any circumstances, to be referred to as ‘final year’. That’s far too, er, final. And makes me think of finals. Possibly with an accompanying facial twitch. So, third year! Pip pip!

Obviously it isn’t something to feel glum about, as students, like leather shoes and Joan Rivers’ face, grow better with age (important to note: the former get looser and the latter gets tighter. Students do both, morally then financially). Yes, I’m choosing to think of third year as a slab of cheese, maybe Cathedral City, which has been gradually maturing over the last 24 months to reach the perfect stage of rich, crumbly flavour once we’re fully equipped to appreciate its delicate nuances. Freshers can make do with Babybell and Dairylea Dunkers. Save the good fromage for us old-timers, please.

Nothing makes you feel more at-home in your student slippers than summoning your little brother to the phone for his pre-uni pep talk. I leaned back in my armchair, stroked my beard, puffed on a metaphorical pipe of wisdom and smiled a twinkly smile like the Werther’s Originals granddad, sifting through the vast sands of my acquired knowledge for a nugget of gold to give the youngster. Eventually I produced the following: “Don’t make friends with losers. You’ll still be shaking them off in two years time*. And don’t go to any event that requires you to wear school uniform. You are better than that.”

Handing the crown down to Bravo no.2 was a sombre experience. I felt a certain affinity with Bruce Forsyth, handing the Generation Game over for Jim Davidson to trample all over – not to suggest that in 60 years time I will be a doddery national dancing treasure while the brother peddles bigoted smut to pensioners on Southend Pier, but you get the gist. I used to drink six cups of black coffee a day, and now I get my morning kicks from Berocca. The times, they are a-changing.

Sensing that there’s an unwritten rule somewhere about people over 21 living with stolen road signs as wall decoration, we’ve given the house a third-year makeover. Out with the bits of broken bus stop, in with fresh flowers (albeit in makeshift pint-glass vases). Away went the kitchen mould farm, maintained in case one day we should stumble across a cure for cancer in some month-old kebab rind, and in its place a shelf of intellectual books for breakfast-time perusal (current selection: A Brief History of Time; The Famous Five go up a Hill Again; Bettaware Autumn ’08). We’re mere steps away from using coasters. It’s very exciting.

Worrying though, was the realisation that while we’ve amassed enormous amounts of extra-curricular wisdom, not to mention 54 local takeaway menus and 17 toothbrushes between five people, we haven’t learnt very much about very much at all to do with academia. When I was a child I would watch University Challenge and think “Wow. This is a superior calibre of human. When I am at university, I too will have reached this higher plane and know things about stuff. I’ll know what type of object is the end product of a star of less than 4 solar masses, and what word is used in a planned economy to describe the required output and is used elsewhere to describe a maximum allocation, and which rank in the army is equivalent to the naval rank of commodore, and the name of the last opera written by Mozart. I’ll know all of this, because that’s what university does.” Then I would get one answer right, maybe two on an amazingly jammy day, and look forward to the day when I knew everything.

But of course the day never came. After two years and £6000-worth of quality education, I still only get one answer right, usually the arbitrary one about pop music or Coronation Street chucked in to wobble the geeks off their pedestals. Where do they FIND those contestants? I will happily swear right now that not a single person I know at uni could answer: the term 'enriched uranium' refers to an increase in the proportion of which isotope of uranium to natural uranium for use in a nuclear reactor or weapon?, and I don’t think that makes them any less worthy as people.

Anyway, we’ve still got a year to work on it. By which point we’ll be a veiny old stilton, with a few more intellectual books on the breakfast bookshelf. Third year, third year, third year!!

*Don’t worry, I’m not talking about you. Or you. Possibly you, but that’s all water under the bridge now.

In which I am a valued customer.

Printed 02/10/08

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"You would like to renew your internet account in somebody else's name? Can you please give me the name, date of birth, chest measurement, favourite SClub member and exact chromosome make up of the previous account holder? No? Well, aren't we a bad flatmate?

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"Thank you for calling WebWhizz, the internet service provider for people who don't know how they'll email this column in tomorrow."

In which the credit crunch is still a novel topic...

Printed on 25/09/08.

I’ve been finding it hard to get worked up about the credit crunch. Largely, I believe, because it just doesn’t sound scary enough. The Wall Street Crash, that was effective terminology – ‘crash’ is scary, it conjures up appropriate images of destruction and flying debris and people screaming, as all the money in the world suddenly drops through the floor and we have to scrabble around looking for it. Credit Crunch, meanwhile, sounds like a novelty breakfast cereal. Which your mum then takes back out of the trolley, and buys All Bran instead.

Even ‘recession’, with its overtone of general doom, doesn’t quite have me reaching for the economy shampoo. For one thing, the word has the false promise of a retro revival, as though we’ll just slip back a few years and start using massive mobile phones again, and typewriters and Betamax tapes to record old episodes of To The Manor Born.

It’s also got the middle classes excited, as they tend to, about the pastoral possibilities of everyone being skint. It’ll unite the masses again! We’ll sing jolly songs about hardship and brew our own ale! We’ll use powdered egg and draw stocking seams up our legs with eyeliner! The whole exercise will just be an extension of the middle class’s already-existing need to feign rusticness – it’s the same reason they buy Agas, wear wellies and name their kids Poppy and Matilda after Victorian parlour maids*.

Of course, it started this summer with everyone pretending they really wanted to go camping in Skegness instead of renting villas in Tuscany, because it’s conveniently fashionable to slum it and prove you can still be a fabulously interesting person whilst wearing a cagoule. Now the credit crunch is in full swing, apparently everyone’s boycotting Waitrose in favour of cheap and cheerful un-organic alternatives. They’ve all invaded my Morrisons and now I can’t swing a trolley without bashing into a Sloane checking the gluten content in a packet of smokey bacon Supernoodles.

But other than the occasional handbag fight over the last half-price asparagus tips (Hermés vs Help the Aged), I’m finding it difficult to care. When you’re already counting out coppers to buy yourself a Greg’s entrail pasty, it’s hard to faff about everybody else getting a bit poorer. It’s like Jordan caring that Mensa are raising their entry requirements. “Mortgage? Not this week for me ta, I splashed out on name-brand ketchup”.

Though while we’re all financially bereft, we are getting richer in moaning material. The state of the economy finally hit home for me this week, two days before pay day, hungry in Notting Hill with exactly 30p in my purse. “I’ll just pop into a newsagents and buy a choccie bar,” thinks I. “Just a Twix or a Double Decker, nothing fancy.” Half an hour of shop-hopping later, I’m doubly hungry and sans chocolate sustenance, because it turns out all chocolate bars in the world are now 59p.

59p! WHEN DID THIS HAPPEN? Where have I been? Filed in my brain, admittedly dating back to 1997 at the height of my pocket money boon, is the information that a standard choccie bar is 27p, 29p, or 31p for the extra special ones like Yorkies. You could fund one with a quick scrounge under sofa cushions. And now, now, a poxy Time Out is going to eat up the best bit of a pound? What is this madness? Even the humble Freddo, the modest treat for the kid whose mother is more vigilant than most with the sofa maintenance, has gone up to 15p. It’s an outrage.

Reading back over this page, I’ve just realised that my entire approach to discussing the economic doom of the Western world is to talk about food. Cereal, supernoodles, choocie bars. This could be because my artistic sensibility finds no creative stimulation in a topic as cold and harsh as money, and needs to supplement it with the stuff of baser human experience, like eating. Or maybe it’s because it’s lunchtime and all I have in my cupboard is half a bag of dried lentils. Excuse me while I do 59p’s worth of sofa scavenging.

*I’m talking, naturally, about the middle-and-upper middle classes. Which I can do with cheerful derision, because my family have a Mondeo, a nest of tables in our lounge, and regularly say ‘toilet’. Which makes us lower middle class, and the sort of people who went to Butlins before it was ironic.

In which I start a blog. This one, as it happens.

I'm Lauren Bravo. Graduate, pauper, symbol for our times. When I was 14, I started writing for The Worthing Herald, as the voice of the yoof. The middle class, south coast yoof. That was quite exciting.

Now, I am 21. I still have my newspaper column. I also have a degree, an overdue council tax bill, a mould farm in the bathroom grouting, a minimum wage job writing about public sector ICT usage, and an impending sense of doom.

Up till this point, my self-publicising habits haven't tended to stretch beyond a dancefloor. But now I've decided to get shameless, because I need employing, and this recession ain't big enough for the both of us*. I'm starting by uploading the last year's worth of columns in their pure, original, un-butchered-by-the-sub-eds form, plus a few other nuggets that I want to share with the world.

So here it is, my own little bedsit in cyberspace. Please visit. Bring your friends, family, pets and convenient senior editors at prestigious newspapers and magazines. Read, enjoy, debate, and then find me a career. I thank you.


*By 'both of us', I mean me in one corner of the ring, and the vicious, seething mass of every wannabe journalist in London in the other. Puns at the ready - I've been sharpening mine for seven years.