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