Wednesday, 15 December 2010

In which An Evening at Alfie's glamorised the truth

To be printed 16/12/10.

I've just had my first grown-up domestic disaster. It's amazing, really, after four years of living in properties that can only be described as "squat chic" (all the rodent problems and peeling paint one could ever want, but for £500 a month instead of free), that I haven't had one before. All my pipes have remained miraculously unburst, all my precariously-creviced ceilings intact. I've never been able to call my office with the sound of gushing water and explosions in the background, to say I can't come in because my house might disintegrate. Not once.

Until Saturday, when we get up to find the boiler has leaked a puddle all over the kitchen floor. It takes me by surprise, not least because I've never really thought of boilers as being full of water before. In my head, boilers have always been full of gas. Great, swollen, noxious boxes just waiting to give us all carbon monoxide poisoning like Rita in Coronation Street. But no, it turns out mine has decided to furnish us with a DIY pool instead, the generous thing.

The trouble is that when you have no experience of your own domestic disasters, all your ideas of how to deal with them are based on things you've seen in films. And in films, most likely, I would end up riding a tidal wave through a window, screaming, “TELL BILLY JOE I ALWAYS LOVED HIM”, before a mutant crawls out of the plughole and tries for world domination.

 So I flap. "Find a knob!" I shriek, "there must be a knob! Look for one with 'Water Be-Gone' embossed on it."  Boyfriend, meanwhile, is relishing the opportunity to prove his handyman credentials. He locates the knob, and triumphantly turns it. The wrong way.

So then the leak becomes a gushing waterfall, the puddle becomes a lake and the flap becomes a full-blown flail. We start a comedy receptacle-swapping routine with the fruit bowl and the top bit of the food processor, chanting, "one, two, three, GO" as we slosh the river across the kitchen into the sink. It feel a bit like a challenge from the Crystal Maze, but without the natty jumpsuits, prize money, or fun. Still, I'm quite pleased with our conveyor belt system - it's great teamwork, not to mention the most action the food processor has seen in ages.

But it soon transpires that we can't keep it up indefinitely. Our arms are tired, for one, and water is probably starting to seep through the ceiling into the flat below. So I phone the landlord while Boyfriend attempts to redeem himself with another go at the knob. This time the water stops.

Several hours, many towels and a visit from some plumbers (“Never fiddle with the boiler,” they tut. “You might get a shock.” “Well QUITE,” says I), the kitchen is habitable again, and we’re fairly smug at our flat-saving, knob-turning achievements.

“You do realise,” says my flatmate when she gets home and we’ve re-enacted the whole receptacle-swapping performance for her, “that there’s a massive bucket right there in the corner?”

In which we're not sure if they do know it's Christmas, actually

Printed 09/12/10.

The Most Underrated Christmas Songs Ever

The Waitresses, Christmas Wrapping

Everyone loves a song that tells a story. Two Little Boys. Copa Cobana. We feel a far closer affinity with a song when we properly listen to the lyrics for the first time and realise, oh my days, Tony gets shot! Patti Smith's Redondo Beach is about a girl drowning, but it has such a jaunty tune that you might just never realise.

So Christmas Wrapping, while also earning points for 80s new wave, winkle picker-wearing credibility, is wonderful because of its stirring narrative. The ups! The downs! It's been a hectic year… she missed lots of dates through various arbitrary mishaps…she's spending Christmas by herself… she's even got a tiny turkey. But then a last-minute trip to the grocery store leaves her face-to-face with the object of her desire, and you get to chorus in with the killer line, "You mean you forgot cranberries too?!" It's understated magic.

East 17, Stay Another Day

This is my earliest Top of the Pops memory ever. Brian and the boys swathed in white furry jackets, snow falling on their bristly little heads. Despite no mention of Santa, elves or drunk Grannies, Stay Another Day is a crucial Christmas track because it's perfect slow-dance fodder. It is ripe for school discos, office parties and particularly dismal pub lock-ins. It's the one time of the year where even gristly tough guys who will later run themselves over with their own cars, can open up and cry a little. And that is very, very special.

The Ramones, Merry Christmas (I don't wanna fight tonight)

If ever there was an antidote to a bejumpered Cliff Richard, it's a beleathered Ramone. Merry Christmas (I don't wanna fight tonight) is a yuletide anthem for people who would rather watch Eastenders than the Vicar of Dibley. And like all yuletide anthems, it includes a meaningful message, but this one doesn't stretch itself too far. It's not peace on earth, for everyone, for ever, but merely peace in our living room, for tonight. It sets us a goal that we can all strive for. And as Bob Geldof knows, start small and sometime you can create something big.

It also has a pretty kickin' beat.
The Pretenders, 2000 Miles

This song suffers in two ways – firstly by being very easily confused with The Proclaimers' 1000 Miles, which, let's face it, is not only a more rousing song but also only demands a journey of half the length (and these things matter to everyone forced to take a bracing post-dinner walk on Christmas day).

And secondly, by not really sounding much like a Christmas song at all, except for featuring the word Christmas sporadically in the lyrics. Which makes it the perfect track for Scrooges, slipping a little festive cheer into their ears without them realising. You might want to try the same with their drinks.

Slade, Merry Xmas Everybody

Only joking.

Monday, 6 December 2010

In which Oscar Wilde must have had his reasons

To be printed.

It's always interesting to see your hometown through the eyes of a tourist. It's particularly interesting when the tourist in question is your New Boyfriend, on a giddy whirlwind trip that involves meeting your parents, Grandma, schoolfriends and Teville Gate in one day.

There are numerous telltale signs of potential lunacy that people look for when they start dating someone – hidden Michael Buble albums, teddy bears, hairs on the palms of their hands. But when the suggestion "let's go to Brighton for the day" is met with the response "no, I'd rather see Worthing" from your new beau, you might feel you have legitimate cause to worry.

I could have talked him out of it. I could have pointed out that while a day trip to Brighton would provide an actual day's worth of things to do - buying hemp, eating goat's cheese, getting spontaneous piercings - a day trip to Worthing would have been over in the time it would take me to say, "um, there's the pier." I could have explained that visiting a seaside town in the bleak midwinter tends to infuse one with a lingering melancholy for weeks to come, as though one's soul has been given a good once-over with a cold, wet flannel.

But I didn't. Being the patriotic bundle of Sussex pride that I am, I said, "yes! Let's do it! It's been MONTHS since I spent an afternoon doing battle with a 2p machine." So off we trundled to Worthing, on the 9.17 from Victoria, burdened with one hangover, one caffeine headache, one Cornish pasty and one weighty copy of the Observer. Mistake number one, naturally, was not remembering that an eye-wateringly early start wouldn't mean All the More Time for Grade-A Fun, but actually just that nothing would be open yet.

"There's the law courts," I said, before running through a brief history of the town's more newsworthy trials of late. He took a photo. "There's some council buildings," I said. He took a photo. "Here's Worthing library, where I briefly worked before finding the pressures of town-centre book borrowing too much and moving to the altogether less 'urban' Goring branch," I said. Photo. "We still have a Wimpy." Photo.

And while I tried my best to do justice to Worthing's lovely art deco architecture, our literary history, budding artistic community and slightly bigger than average H&M, it was always the less remarkable elements of the town that NB was drawn to. Places I hadn't been since I was 12, having been too busy standing on the A259 with a sign saying "anywhere with a Pret." Because in the same way Parisians never go up the Eiffel tower, the charm of the English seaside town, with its tearooms and slot machines and non-ironic visits from Canon and Ball, is often lost on us residents.

Sometimes you just need an outsider to come along and say "hey, the Guildbourne Centre looks interesting - let's go in there."

In which he liked it, so he put a ring on it

Printed 25/11/10.

The trouble with writing columns a few days in advance is that I'm basically the last journalist to say "Royal Wedding, rah rah rah." But here goes anyway. Ahem. Royal wedding! Rah rah rah! The love, the smiles, the laughter, the beautiful, shiny hair. And the TELLY. Sometimes we need events like this to remind us of two things 1) we are capable, as a nation, of producing spectacularly bad telly. And 2) we are even more capable of watching it.

So now we can look forward to nine months of the sort of programming that makes T4 Movie Specials look insightful and well-informed. Programmes that take one basic, three-second fact and eek it out into an hour of televisual fluff* by inviting people who may have been in the same room as the happy couple, once, to speculate on what they may, or may not, be thinking or planning.

"Having been seen on numerous occasions wearing dresses, the bride may well choose to sport one for the big day," Jenni Bond will ponder. "The couple enjoy food, as proved by this one blurry photo of them eating chips in a St Andrews bus shelter," TV chef James Martin will say. "Maybe there will be chips at the wedding breakfast!" Maybe.

My favourite news nugget so far has been that the stag do, to be arranged in ominous fashion by Prince Harry, will be held "in either Gloucestershire or Botswana." I imagine this was in a similar style to my 16th birthday party, which was going to be held in either Worthing, or Kuala Lumpur. In the end it was held in Worthing.

But it seems to me that there's one big televisual trick everyone is missing. We don't want polite, carefully-lit interviews where they guffaw over how droll each other is. We want to see a wailing bride puffing on a fag and blowing her nose on a bit of tulle petticoat. We want to see a groom whose idea of a romantic reception is hiring three bikini-clad Vegas dancers and a blackjack table. I want to see a beautiful, catastrophic collision between the royal wedding and BBC Three's Don't Tell The Bride.

For the uninitiated among you, this is the genius concept: a couple love each other very very much and want to be joined together in holy matrimony, but what with her fake tan budget and his new hubcaps, they can't afford it. So generous Auntie Beeb gives them £12,000 to spend on the big day – but on the condition that every single thing is picked and planned by the groom.

Each episode is always full of shots where you can practically feel the director off-camera, rubbing his hands with glee. "I don't care which colour he picks for the bridesmaid's dresses, as long as it isn't orange," says Bride. Cut to shot of groom in bridal shop saying "Hmm, orange. I reckon she'd love that, I do." You get the idea.

Is there any aspect of the royal wedding that would not be more glorious in this format? I'd even concede to them stretching the budget slightly – 15 grand, say – if it meant we could watch Katie trying on a dress three sizes too big that Wills got on sale in TK Maxx after spending half his budget on the Botswanan stag do. We could watch Camilla and Carol go head to head after financial restrictions mean that the Middletons have to watch the ceremony on a big screen outside a barn conversion.

And at the end, when the happy couple are swaying gently to Take That's Rule the World as Harry necks a bridesmaid in a hay bale, we'll all believe it's true love. "You done me proud, babe," she'll hiccup. "You done me proud."

*I like to call this phenomenon 'the X-Factor Results Show approach'.

In which a child by any other name would smell as posh

Printed 18/11/10.
Ok, respect to Ed Miliband for calling his baby something normal. To have resisted the urge to christen his second child Le Creuset, Agamemnon or Thor is a feat we should all applaud, I suppose. But honestly, wasn't it the outcome we all expected - Ed using his Family Man Moment to be as un-Cameronish as possible. And basically the only more Joe-Public name than Sam is Dave, understandably vetoed despite hilarity value, he's basically dished up predictable move no.1.

As a Samuel, he joins noble but unglamorous ranks. Dr Samuel Johnson, famous lexicographer. Samuel Pepys, diarist and wig-sporter. Samuel Smith, of the excellent pub chain. One of my ex-boyfriends. I could go on (just).

Plus, you have to wonder. For decades we've reproached parents for giving their children fantastical names under the assumption that the kids will stand out from their classmates, and subsequently be bullied. In my own youth, certainly, this was true. When everyone on the entire register was called Emma, Gemma, Lee and Luke, a Gerronimo or Bodicea would have been prime fodder for a hockey cupboard 'incident'. My own parents' naming decisions were doubly difficult, give that our comedy surname was already going to earn us a monthly kicking. If they'd slipped up and called one of my brothers Johnny, I believe he may have had to be home-schooled. 

But are we really in the same position now? As far as I can tell, one of the greatest human rights advancements of the 21st century has been that we can now title our offspring with reference to the Geldof Dictionary of Modern Ridiculousness, and nobody is allowed to judge. Nowadays people name their kids the way they used to paint their own mugs, as an expression of how creative and interesting they are. Of course, over time mugs will become chipped and tea-stained and eventually be replaced, whereas children will grow up and sue you - but that's by the by.

What's more, while a sturdy, salt-of-the-earth name might serve you well in a sturdy, salt-of-the-earth town, let's remember that baby Miliband is going to grow up in North London. Which is more flimsy, salt-of-the-Waitrose-premium-range. As a resident for the last four years, I'll tell you now - you can't do a morning Starbucks run without falling over a million infants called Tarquin, Simba or Chive. So I can't help but worry that actually, little baby Samuel risks standing out among his friends and being bullied on merit of having a name that doesn't sound like a crockery design in The Conran Shop.

It doesn't have enough vintage panache to count as one of the Victoriana crew - the Arthurs and Ediths and Winstons and what-have-you - but nor is it enigmatically 'foreign', or one of those names invented by jamming together bits of other names – Jashella or Kennethiqua or something. He might try to seek refuge amid the Biblical kids, but frankly, a Samuel is never going to be able to hold his own against a load of Silases and Tituses and Delilahs.

So I wish you well, baby Miliband. May your everyman moniker simultaneously anchor you to the ground and propel you to the stars. But if you want to change your name to Schubert Soya IV, it's ok. We understand.

In which nobody dies

Printed 11/11/10.
The trouble with being a meed-yah professional is that nothing you do will ever sound that serious. Or at least, it won't for the ample percentage of us who aren't Jon Snow or Krishnan Guru-Murthy. Obviously, I hear you cry, writing for the Herald is about as serious a job as they come - but in my day job at the Channel 4 Food site, I am rarely likely to be quizzing a war criminal or clamping a crucial artery.

No one will accept "I have to work late, it's all kicking off on the Come Dine With Me Facbook page" as a legitimate cancellation excuse. Likewise, "I have to go to a cake tasting," or "the background on our twitter feed needs changing and no one can decide on a colour palette." The other day I arrived at the office to hear a colleague earnestly trying to explain the term 'facepalm' to a client down the phone. It's hardly the square mile.

But the upside of being whipped cream on the vocational landscape is that we can accurately and enjoyably use the mantra: no one will die." If these recipes don't get uploaded, no one will die*. If we misspell pestle and mortar, no one will die. If Jamie Oliver's face gets smooshed up by some erroneous photoshopping, no one will die.

Meanwhile my doctor friends, lawyer friends, even to a lesser extent depending on the level of knife crime or tricksy gymnastic equipment in their schools, teacher friends, can't really say that with confidence. I hadn't realised it until now, but 'would prefer to have icing sugar, not blood, on hands' may just have been my top job-seeking criteria.

Being a year out of uni, my pals and I are at a notable stage of what-have-you-done?ness. In order to earn top kudos at the one-year mark, you have to either: have travelled somewhere exotic to do something worthy (supported by multiple pictures of you hugging orphans), got an important job (or at least one that can be suitably dressed to sound important when confronted with the worthy traveller), or become significantly more attractive than you were when you graduated.

Lower points are awarded for moving home to save money (sensible but depressing) or contracting an exciting illness (worthy travellers often score an unfair double on this count). Harshly, post graduate studying endeavours don't really count, as those people have prolonged their time in the cosy bosom of education and must wait to be judged on their eventual transferral to the Real World - by which point, the theory is, they'll have got some colour back in their cheeks and learned not to bring Sainsbury's Basics table wine to dinner parties.

So while my meed-yah endeavours might not garner medals or get me a spread in an alumni magazine, I can take comfort in two things: someone might eat some marvellous cake one day because of me, and if not, at least no one will die.

*This is temporarily ignoring the recent mishap in a Swedish magazine where 'grams' was omitted from an ingredients listing, meaning the recipe contained a potentially fatal dosage of nutmeg.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

In which I say thank you for the music

To be printed 04/11/10.

Karaoke. In these times of puyrotechnic, lycra-clad X-Factor domination, in a land where Kate Weasel's roots are the only ones we're going back to, there is something so pure and uncorrupted about a good old sing song. No judgement, no public vote, just the chance to bawl your brains out in a padded room until everything seems better again. But just like boybands, not all karaoke tracks are created equal. Here's what your karaoke choice says about you:

Gangsta's Paradise

Falling into the 'soulful rap' category (as opposed to 'sexy rap', 'booty-shaking rap' and 'shooting everybody then getting a hot tub rap'), men feel that a song like Gangsta's Paradise gives them a chance to showcase both their badass urban credentials and their softer, sensitive side - the side that might teach kids to read good in an inner city comprehensive. In reality, it showcases the alarming number of adolescent hours spent in their bedrooms memorising lyrics they don't understand, and fawning over pictures of Michelle Pfeiffer.

All By Myself

See also: I Will Always Love You, I Will Survive, I Can't Live (If Living Is Without You)

For the vast majority of their day to day lives, many women are forced to hide a part of their true selves. We fight an ongoing battle to suppress certain urges, for fear of judgement, ridicule and repelling menfolk. As a feminist and general disciple of Good Taste, I'd like to pretend I don't even possess them. But play the opening twangs of Eric Carmen's sobalong classic and, like a melancholy moth to a vodka-fuelled flame, we rise up like a tribe of pyjamaed Bridget Jonesbots, ready to wail our way through three minutes of musical spinsterhood. I like to think of it as queen of the Ovary Anthems.

My Way

Frank Sinatra is karaoke ketchup. He blankets all matters of taste with the same sweet, generic charm. One for the rookies, more experiences 'okers should forgo Frank in favour of something less obvious. Like side one of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. With dance routine.

Islands in the Stream

Country and western is a left-field choice, often plumped for by people wanting to deliver a little obligatory naff factor without resorting to a power fist. The trouble is, without a mullet or bucking bronchi to complete the scene, C&W karaoke is in most cases exceptionally boring. Roger Miller's King of the Road is the hip kids' croon du jour, but Islands in the Stream earns more points - though only when sung as Nessa and Uncle Bryn from Gavin and Stacey. Sorry Dolly.

Born to Run

See: All By Myself. But replace 'Ovary Anthems' with the appropriate alternate reproductive organs.

Wuthering Heights

Ladies undertaking this track will do so in the name of lolz, under the guise that it'll sound so ridiculous they couldn't possibly be taking themselves seriously. Do not be fooled. They secretly believe they are going to be ethereal in the extreme, channelling Kate Bush's wide-eyed mad lady insouciance with their wafty arm movements and dog-decibel wailing. Sadly their efforts will be such that Heathcliffe won't let them in the window. However cold it is.

In which I fly, my pretties, fly!

Printed 28/10/10.

As I write this, I am about to embark on my first ever long-haul flight. Ever. In my life.

How one gets to the ripe age of 22 without ever crossing an ocean I'm still not sure, but know it has something to do with a combination of: believing a gap year would require me to wear leather bracelets and have diarrhea on a mountain top, coming from a family that considers Pizza Express a cultural experience, and having friends doomed to spend each year planning riotous expeditions in full knowledge that we will never even attempt to go on them. Instead we will go to the pub and get
our kicks by shredding some beer mats into oblivion.

So today, I am like a wide-eyed child in a montage from a 90s movie. I'm giddy on the novelty. Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me is playing alternately on a loop in my head. I'm flashing my passport indiscriminately at everybody - the lady in WH Smith, the toilet attendant, the man who nicely asked me to take his bag through customs for him - just to make sure nobody can accuse me of pulling an international fast one. I'm already excited about telling the flight attendant that I'm "in it for the long-haul", then doing some hilarious finger-guns.

As with most of my Johnny-come-lately experiences ( mobile phones, crispy duck pancakes, season 4 of Mad Men), it's inevitably going to be a disappointment. After all, my expectations of flying are mainly based on Airplane, the first episode of Miami 7, and anytime they flew anywhere on Friends, when the plane basically looked like a fairly plush dentists' waiting room. If I’m honest, I’m half expecting a smiling stewardess to ask if I want to come and meet the pilot (and I do).

Never a minimalist packer, I am struggling with the hand luggage restrictions. Liquids I can identify, but what constitutes a ‘paste’? Do I have any pastes? Does the melted peanut butter cup moulded to the inside pocket of my handbag count as a paste? And if so, should I declare it? Or eat it? Confused will also lead me to keep my personal items in their clear plastic bag not just for the flight but for my entire holiday, just in case Canada is funny about liquids in general. Perhaps, as a nation, they are not tolerant of spillage.

I will in all likelihood be the only person who watches the safety video (as we plunge to our death above the Atlantic, I feel it would reassure me to have tied my lifejacket in the correct double bow, and be able to quickly locate my whistle. “Bleep bleep!” I would toot, and the rescue operatives would say ‘gee, there’s a passenger who paid attention to the demonstration.- let’s save her life FIRST”). I will take my in-flight leg exercises very seriously, and I will aim to use every item in my little complimentary pouch of comfort – the eye mask, the socks, the blanket, the pen.

I will also, I am pretty sure now, enjoy the plane food. I just know I will. All those individual containers will feel a bit like the kind of packed lunches I was never allowed to have. BA could essentially serve me a Dairylea Lunchables with a Pepperami on the side and I would be happy as a clam.

And if all else fails to entertain me, I know I could spend an absorbing six hours trying to work out exactly what it is that’s holding the plane up. Or, let’s face it, just nap.

In which it's just the drugs talking

Printed 21/10/10.

There is nothing worse than waiting for a cold to come out*. It's like walking around with a cartoon anvil above your head, ready to drop. As son as that scratchy warning niggle at the back of your throat announces itself, you're a ticking slime bomb - you know you only have minimal days in which to get everything done as a functioning human, before you're reduced to a clammy, tissue-strewn corpse who can only say "blargggh".

If properly planned and furnished with the right pharmaceuticals, I believe having a cold can be a positive experience. You get to catch up on your ITV2 viewing, not wear a bra for a couple of days, and uncover a whole fresh new layer of skin on your nose.  So when I felt the warning niggle a couple of days ago, I said "ahoy! What have we here? A cold on the horizon?" and set about battening down my hatches with all the stoicism of a wizened sea captain (who doesn't quite know what battening means).

I even allowed myself a specific window of time in which to be ill. I pencilled it in my mental diary and faxed it over to my white blood cells - a whole weekend in which I had nothing to do but be a snivelling invalid. I did some prep, by binge drinking Berocca for three days in advance and digging out my slipper socks. It was going to be a congestion carnival. A little paracetamol party for one. And best of all, I got to go and spend a stupid amount of money in Boots.

I can probably blame the fact that I've never taken drugs recreationally for the way I feast on pharmaceuticals every time I have an excuse. This doesn't count as recreational, of course; there is nothing leisurely about my attitude to flu treatments. It is a full time job, and I approach it like an Apprentice contestant approaches a weekly task - with minimum knowledge, maximum confidence and a little whiney voice.

And oh, there have been such advancements in the world of lurgy-treatment since my last bout! Strepsils with added vitamin C, Olbas Oil-infused tissues, supplements with guarana so that you can fight germs and go to a rave at the same time. Unfortunately Lemsip still only comes in two flavours, bile and purple bile, but you can now pay an extra quid for a super duper shiny-boxed version which I can only assume, as it claims only to treat the exact same symptoms as the regular version, gives you perfect pitch or something at the same time.

So I embarked on my Designated Weekend of Ill swimming in advantage points, gathered my blanket pile, positioned my tissue bin, made sure I was within easy reach of fluids and the remote control. And waited. And waited some more. When, by Saturday evening, I still felt pretty chipper, I started getting anxious. Either I had managed to bypass the cold altogether, or it was working on its own agenda.

Two days on, I have learned the following things – recovery speed is not directly proportional to the amount you spend on drugs, antibodies do not conform to schedules, and it is far less fun  being a clammy, tissue-strewn corpse who can only say "blargggh" in the office.

*This is a lie. There are plenty of things worse, of course - waiting for a donor organ, waiting for a delivery man to call between 9 and 5, waiting for a night bus in the rain. Waiting for Godot. But being ill gives me an inflated sense of self-importance as well as swollen glands.

Monday, 11 October 2010

In which I'm the apple of their news feed

To be printed 14/07/10.

A lesson in parental love for the 21st century: I got a text from my Dad the other day that read, "Mum noticed you hadn't been tweeting much recently, and we wondered if you were ok?"

I tell this story not to shame my parents for neglect - indeed, I think it shows extraordinary sensitivity on their part that my social networking is monitored for irregularities, rather than just waiting for me to burst into tears over the Easter dinner table and throw a positive pregnancy test/court summons down in front of the Vienetta. No, I'm mentioning it partly because it's hilarious, and partly because it's an interesting comment on our tendencies for chronic oversharing (mainly because it's hilarious.)

I know I write a lot about the internet. I do. It's not like I'm trying to be Ms Totally Facebook '10, but a column on the intricacies of online communication just seems to fall out of my head every six weeks or so as a matter of course. Like Dickens with street urchins or Jane Austen with coquettish husband-chasing, I am just writing what I know*.
And think about it - back in the days of the coquettish husband-chasing, if anything had been wrong with me (gout, let's say, or prolonged swooning), it would probably have taken days for the tear-stained letter to reach my parents, with all the usual threats of highwaymen, diphtheria and road obstruction by peasant folk to stand in its way. Now all that's needed is a regular log-in to check that the words "Checked myself into rehab for nail varnish remover abuse, fml :(" haven't appeared on the screen, and they can rest assured for another day that their eldest offspring is safe and well in the world.

It could be a bit miff-making, that my parents don't see my online absence and think "oh good, eldest child must be off having a fulfilling career and social life," but instead "cripes, maybe she's in a gutter somewhere." But actually, I'm flattered that my Mum considers online silence as a sign that something's wrong with me. It means that I haven't yet become an Chronic Online Oversharer (or COO for short, as in "coo, looks like Susan and Barry are totally breaking up again…").

Oversharing is probably, notwithstanding identity theft, paedophilia and Chat Roulette, the worst thing about the internet.  They're the new bane of society, COOs, to join the list beneath croc-wearers, close-talkers and people who start every sentence with "I'm not being funny, but" (as sure a sign as ever there was that no, they're not being funny).

In the olden days if you got bad news, you'd probably go and shout it off a hill, or quietly bite on a leather strap until you felt a bit better. Now the magnitude of your misery can be measured in slightly awkward comments from people you occasionally bump into in the Guildbourne Centre. Like the old adage about the tree in the forest - if you have a brutal break up or crippling case of cystitis and nobody reads about it on Facebook, do you actually suffer? The answer is yes, but you're saving us from suffering too. Just something to think about.

And while we're here, I'll take this opportunity to say - Mum, Dad? I'm fine thanks. But don't worry - if I lose a leg or anything, you'll read it here first.

*And I'll cheerfully admit that if there's a class full of teenagers in a century's time writing an essay entitled 'Compare and contrast Bravo's views on self-indulgent status updates with the following passage from More magazine, 2010', my work will be done.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

In which Bros had a point.

To be printed 7/10/10.

"I want to be famous," my flatmate Rose has just announced. "Then I want to be less famous, then I want to go on Strictly Come Dancing."

It's as viable a career plan as any these days, where 'judges houses' is more or less akin to 'secretarial college' thirty years ago as a stepping stone to professional success. When I was young, we had three real options for quick and easy fame: 1. Become a Newsround Presspacker (boring, and you had to like news), 2. Go to stage school like the kids from The Biz (expensive, and involved a lot of dancing in canteens) or 3. Settle for getting your picture in the local paper, and bask in the resulting attention from your Grandmother (no comment).

Nowadays though, the tricky part of the plan isn't the fame (when all other avenues have been exhausted, we have a camera and a YouTube account) but the 'getting less famous' bit. There's an art to procuring exactly the right amount of fame. Most of you readers, being sensible, educated people who only use 'at the end of the day' to denote things happening in the evening, would never say that you wanted to be famous. It's tacky and over-obvious, like saying you like white bread better than brown, or that Cheryl's your favourite Girls Aloud.

But if pushed, you might admit that you'd like to be 'well known'. Or 'eminent'. Or 'respected in your field'*. Think of it as Good-Famous and Bad-Famous, if you like. Basically you want to be famous enough to go on Desert Island Discs, but not so famous you get doorstepped by paparazzi.

Famous enough to get to go to the gifting tent awards ceremonies, but not famous enough to have people slagging off your outfit in Heat. Famous enough that maybe, just maybe, they'll put a blue plaque up on your parents' house one day. But not so famous that you ever need to have David Guest at your wedding.

Maintaining your chosen level of fame is like trying to keep two milk pails balanced on your shoulders while dancing a frantic jig. After years of observing celebrity careers the way other people watch birds, I've come to have a special kind of respect for those personalities who manage to go years and years without becoming any more or less famous. Terry Wogan, say, or Linda Bellingham, or Uncle Ben from the rice adverts.

Should you achieve this elusive, cosy, lower rung of fame, that's when the good stuff starts rolling in. You'll get to go to book launches, and charity things in the back of Hello, maybe a little interview in a Sunday supplement from time to time. And if you're super lucky, you get to tan up and shimmy your way through three months of Bruce Forsyth gags, safe in the knowledge that even if you win, you won't really be any more famous at the end of it.

So when Rose reaches the ballroom, which no doubt she absolutely will, I plan to be the token person in the 'YAY ROSE' t-shirt who they interview about her amazing journey. Which is a different brand of fame altogether.

*The natural option for fame-hungry farmers.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

In which the rhythm of life is a powerful beat

To be printed 30/09/10

I have just heard my downstairs neighbour phlegming in the shower. I'm sorry to open a column with such a choice divulgence, but if I had to experience it, you might as well too.

It was my own fault - since moving into New Flat, with its nifty four-flats-backing-onto-each-other design, I've taken to sitting with my window open, listening to the buzz of activity. I can hear people as clearly as if I were in the room with them. If I put on a headscarf and some Dean Martin and squint slightly, I feel like I'm in a downtown New York neighbourhood in the 50s - but instead of Italian Mommas screaming at their sons to stop polishing their Vespas and come in for meatballs, I get a hungover rendition of Steel Panther's Eyes of a Panther. And phlegm.

Still, it's a nice attempt at Proper Urban Living - soaking up the sounds of my surroundings rather than blocking them out, maybe being inspired to write a short piece of ghetto poetry. If I do it for long enough, people might start leaning out of their windows to talk to me. We could start a little inter-flat community, where we rig up a pulley system with baskets on string, and send each other freshly-baked flapjacks. I'd like that.

I know that traditionally, noisy neighbours are meant to be a bad thing. But for the incurably curious and otherwise-bored, they can provide entertainment and a nice feeling that you're not alone, eating Nutella from the jar in your pyjamas, but actually part of a wider domestic narrative, like an Alan Bennet play or suchlike.

It's been interesting, actually, not to be the chief noisemakers in New Flat. In Old Flat, we had the monopoly on noise - mainly on merit of being younger than the rest of the street by several decades, and of having floors so wonderfully precarious that every step was to risk showering plaster on the head of our already-depressed downstairs neighbour (he used to stand on the doorstep with a beer can and cry. We did our best to cheer him up, by putting on amusing puppet shows and tap dancing to Glen Miller on his ceiling.)

Our only noise contenders in Old Flat were the couple next door, Kerry and Darren, who we never met or even saw, but who used to have such spectacular break-ups through the wall that I considered writing them down for a radio serial. One night, we spent several hours listening to Kerry dumping Darren for the third time that month, and the next morning, his clothes were all over the pavement where she'd thrown them from an upstairs window. We had to fight the urge to pop round with some Dairy Milk and a sympathetic shoulder.

But as the silent minority in New Flat, we're feeling a need to bring more to the ghetto poetry potential. Luckily, we have a secret weapon – our angel-voiced, opera singing flatmate Rose is going to be our contribution to the aural landscape. As long as she can do Madame Butterfly in the shower to cancel out the noise of the phlegm, I might not need to shut my window just yet.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

In which it suddenly IS my cup of tea

Printed 23/09/10.

I have recently started drinking tea. It's come as some relief, after years of being a wannabe tea drinker in the body of a non-tea drinker, to actually just drink the stuff. For years I've loved the paraphernalia of tea - all the pretty cups and pots and biscuit-dunking - but I just never actually had the urge to consume it.

It was partly down to a long dalliance with lactose intolerance - or at least my own special brand of lactose intolerance, where milk was outlawed but cheese and ice cream received a special medical dispensation. Meanwhile, I was turned against milkless tea years ago by those Brita water filter ads ("Wrong again, Thomas… it's MY lovely cup of tea," shudder shudder vomit etc). And anyway, I was a hardened black coffee drinker. In theory I drank black coffee because it was fuss-free and I liked the taste. In reality I drank it because, at 17, it seemed like the closest I could get to being a beatnik without resorting to hard drugs or sandals.

So where tea was concerned, I Just Said No, much to the dismay of at least half the country. Because when people are into tea, they really want to give it to you as well. It's like a kind of beverage evangelism. Imagine something bad has happened – once that initial, reflex reaction, to get hot steaming Tetleys down you by the bucketload, is thwarted, people don't know what to do. Pat you gently on the head? Hug you? Put Everybody Hurts on the stereo and quietly back out of the room? As a non-tea drinker I was tolerated, but necessarily understood.

Then, three weeks ago, as you'll know if you follow this column or ever listen to me whinging at bus stops, I moved flat. And after we'd huffed the first load of boxes in, the first thing I did was make tea, and drink it, without even noticing. Because that's what you're meant to do when you've just moved flat. You're meant to put the radio on and drink a cup of tea – I've learned that much from adverts. You're also meant to wear an oversized denim shirt and stand in an empty room looking poignant with paint on the end of your nose, so I did that too.

And, as I suspected, I have discovered that people simply like you more when you drink tea. It's true, they do. As a coffee-drinker, particularly a black coffee-drinker, I aroused suspicion and a little disdain. 'Do you think you're hard or summat?' you could see them thinking. As though I might get wired on caffeine and burn their house down.

But suddenly, as a tea drinker, I'm trusted. I'm safe. I can participate in the office tea round, which is nice, particularly as everyone thought I said no mainly just to get out of making it for anyone else. Which is only half true.

Monday, 13 September 2010

In which it is NOT a euphemism.

To be printed 16/09/10.

In the grand vocabulary of life, there are certain concepts that you have no real grasp of until you reach a certain age. "Fixed rate mortgage", "irritable bowel syndrome" and "making good time" on a car journey are among the ones I thankfully have yet to be initiated in. Ditto making people take their shoes off in your house (It's a FLOOR, what did you think people were going to be doing on it?) and dismissing desserts as "too rich", but there are plenty that I have begun to find myself caring about.

This month's newly-grasped concept is "storage solution". There was a time when it worked the other way round - I bought bits of furniture and attractive boxes and whatnot because I liked them, and then set about acquiring things to put in them. But not now. Now I feel like I'm in a crazed 90s platform game, where I have to run around with a container trying to catch rapidly multiplying accoutrements as they fall from the sky and bury me. It was a defeating moment, on moving day, after I'd decanted everything that I could into my new room's wardrobe and chest of drawers, to stand in a massive heap of tat and realise, like a dunce trying to solve a math's equation, that I had too much stuff and not enough wood to house it.

So I needed storage solutions. A sensible person might have interpreted this as "buy some furniture" - go to Ikea, choose a sturdy receptacle, put things in it. Only in my head did this translate as, "buy a hatbox, an ornamental birdcage and a steamer trunk on eBay".

"Um," said my flatmate, looking at my pile of stuff. "How big is this hatbox?"
"Average hatbox size?"
"So… designed to hold one hat? One."
"Well. Yes, when you put it like that. But I expect it'll be one of those Tardis hatboxes the Victorians were so famed for."
"Tardis hatboxes?"

The trouble with buying quaint antique nik naks as storage solutions is that they didn't just need storage solutions in the olden days. You were either rich, in which case you had plenty of mahogany dressers and roll-top desks to house all of your ming vases and faberge eggs, or you were poor in which case you were terribly chic and minimalist and had one plate, one cup and one pair of good boots, with no ming vases or faberge eggs to speak of. Nobody back then, as far as I can tell, needed eight box files to store all the council tax bills and payslips that they know they're not meant to throw away but aren't sure exactly why.

"What you need," said my Mum, "Is a slut basket." Not, in fact, a euphemism for Chapel Road Wetherspoon's, but the secret weapon of every lazy homemaker. A slut basket is a massive, aesthetically-pleasing basket that you fill with every ugly, awkwardly-shaped thing you own, then put a lid on and pretend it's just decorative. Pandora' box was, I'm pretty sure, actually just the slut basket to end all slut baskets.

And what a revelation it is. I'm a convert. Now my bedroom is more basket than room, but at least I can walk across the floor as nature intended. There's a danger I'm taking the concept a little too far though - I've found myself looking round the rest of the flat and assessing every item as potential basket fodder. Do we really need that there? Would those not be better off In The Basket? In fact,  I'm basically looking a mess myself - would I not be better off in there too, to avoid cluttering up the place?

So I will leave you, with the immortal words: If anybody wants me, I'll be in my slut basket.

In which I hope we've seen the tail end of the WAG.

Printed 09/09/10.

Sigh. Another week, another footballer scandal, another opportunity to score some pun points with the phrase 'playing away'. Of course the surprise lies not in the fact that Wayne Rooney cheated, or even that he found anyone to cheat with (when a friendly green lady ogre is nowhere to be seen, being a multimillionaire is always going to have its uses). But while Coleen proves that her Littlewoods boots range really is made for walking, let us all take heed and hope that this is the beginning of the end for the WAG dream.

It'd be easy, of course, to say that "in my day, little girls wanted to be schoolteachers and nurses and prima ballerinas who visited orphanages on the side". But that's largely bull; I spent most of my formative years wanting to be a professional cheerleader. Actually, an American professional cheerleader. When I was nine I trained myself to hold my fork in my right hand because that was 'what Americans did', and have never quite managed to switch back again.

But still, however flimsy and tinsel-related our dreams may have been, none of us ever planned to make a career purely out of carrying very tiny dogs in very big handbags. I was going to high-kick damn hard for my living, thank you very much. So, just as our mothers before us realised that they could achieve more than taking off their enormous glasses and whipping down their hair to a "Why Miss Jones, you're beautiful!" from a faceless executive, let today's fledgling women learn that being a WAG is probably, all in all, actually quite shit.

My Top 5 Reasons Not To Be A WAG

1) The stupid shoes.

There are heels, there are high heels, and then there's the £400 Louboutin equivalent of those yellow buckets from the Early Learning Centre we used to hold on our feet with string. Just consider all the wonderful, cobbled places that are denied the be-stilted WAGS. You'll never be able to visit the York Shambles in comfort, girls. Think about it.

2)  All that having-to-watch-football

And you never even see them singing the chants, or enjoying the stadium snacks.

3) You must recognise Victoria Beckham as your figurehead, much in the same way the rest of us have the Queen

Sources are as yet unconfirmed as to whether a proportion of each WAG's weekly OK magazine income goes towards keeping Posh in the lifestyle to which she's become accustomed, but I have my suspicions.

4) Having to hold your bag in the crook of your arm.

It aches something chronic, let me tell you. Particularly when you're carrying around the weighty baggage of your unrealised potential alongside the St Tropez top-up wipes.

5) Your husband will inevitably have a dozen tacky affairs, like a massive tedious cliche

And as well as the hurt, betrayal and savage dissolution of a life you built together, you'll have to be photographed coming out of Starbucks wearing a baseball cap. A lot.

Monday, 30 August 2010

In which I proceed to the self-serve warehouse

To be printed 02/09/10.

Things I have learned from moving

1. I don't need any more stuff.

The trouble is, I love stuff. I thrive on things. It's hard to explain, admittedly, why I so badly need to live with a bakelite telephone that doesn't work, a food processor I don't use, some vintage prescription glasses I don't wear or a tailor's dummy that I routinely mistake for a real person in the middle of the night and wake up screaming, but I do. I just do. Sometimes I worry that I measure my life in terms of the sheer volumes of tat I've managed to accumulate. It might be a subconscious desire to perpetuate my memory, so that after I die, there will be vast roomfuls of stuff for my loved ones to sort through for days and days. They can play music, serve snacks; it would be like a big amazing jumble sale where everything's donated by me.

At least, that was how I felt last week. This week, after the heart-, gut- and muscle-wrenching adventure that most call moving house, but I will forever think of as 'Operation Life Dredge', I changed my mind about stuff. I'd like to take this chance to ask: if any of you ever see me buying anything, or even looking like I might be thinking about buying anything, please gently remind me that in three years' time I will be sitting in the middle of the floor, desperately trying to cram said thing into a box, covered in dust, weeping.

2. Start dusting, you slattern.

As Quentin Crisp famously had it, after four years you don't notice the dust. But great though that theory is, it follows the same rule as your hair starting to wash itself if you leave it for three weeks - that is, you will never quite make it long enough to find out if it's true. So after three years of astonishingly slovenly behaviour, my own dust farm had got to the point where it was just easier to move. I'll always wonder how it might have looked if I'd made it that one extra year.

3. There are only so many cheese graters a person needs, and that number is one.

We somehow have three. One is battery powered, one has a special box to catch the gratings and one is a box grater in the traditional style. I plan to spend the next few weeks on an exciting culinary adventure into the logistics of what can and can't be grated. There will be grated toast for breakfast, grated carrot for lunch and grated roast beef and yorkshire pudding for dinner, accompanied by a choice selection of 'graters are great' puns. Until it gets… grating.

4. Ikea hates us all.

You're Swedish and quirky, we get it. We love it. We love that our bookshelf is called Agnetta and our toothbrush holder is called Värgashmargan, and that your meatballs cost less than your carrier bags. We love that if we're a couple, we can hold hands and frolic through the bedding section like in 500 Days of Summer. And if we're single, we can look at the frolicking couples and remember that they break up in the film. There really is something for everyone.

But, for the love of Abba, why can't you just write 'double' and 'single' on your sheets instead of all the baffling geometric diagrams? So that philistines like myself don't get all the way back from Edmonton to find they've bought the wrong size and their bed curls up like a banana. Please. Thanks.

Monday, 23 August 2010

In which the A's have it

To be printed 26/08/10.

It was an odd feeling, last Thursday, to realise that I'm probably never going to get exam results again. Excepting blood tests, eye exams, pregnancy tests, potentially a driving test if I ever learn to steer a Morrisons trolley without causing a pile-up in the cereal aisle, my results-receiving years are over.

This is no bad thing, of course. I can happily go the rest of my years without the crippling nausea, the sweaty palms, the phantom memories of ridiculous answers looming up in your dreams. Did I accidentally answer 8b entirely in reference to Kylie lyrics? Did that HAPPEN? 

It's great prep for all kinds of social awkwardness later in life, getting exam results - all that publicly expressed emotion, walking around with the knowledge that at any moment, for no reason at all, you might burst out and accidentally hug a teacher.

Then there's the diplomatic 'what-did-you-get-no-what-did-you-get' shuffle, a minefield of potential face-palm moments. There will always be one acquaintance who tells you, with a completely neutral expression, that they got two Ds and an E. Always. This leaves you with two choices - either to guess wildly at an appropriate emotion and run with it ("Two Ds AND an E?? Whoooah there, amazing! Wonderful! Congrats! Shall we hug now?") or to just nod, adopt a similarly neutral expression and hope they'll jump in and save you* ("Riiiiight….that's… yeah, cool….mm. Shall we hug now?").

But more than unwittingly insulting people and pandemic hugging, the main evil to be dodged on results day has got to be the photographer. Are you female? Reasonably attractive? Wearing a flimsy t-shirt? Can you jump off a bench? Darling, we're gonna make you a star.

Notwithstanding the excellent publication in which I'm writing (the Herald never stoops to clichés, no siree), newspaper coverage of results days is becoming a cult phenomenon, for all the wrong reasons. There's even a blog,, to celebrate results photos in all their backwards glory. It is fair enough, I feel, to gently remind the media that boys do exams too. They do, I've seen them! Fat girls as well. And spotty girls. And girls wearing loose, high-necked clothing who never feel the urge to leap in the air, throw their arms round each other or make excited faces with their ear clamped to a phone.

It's hard to escape the irony, though – that after years of telling us completely the opposite, the media now seem only to believe that nubile blonde females have a shot at academic success. Do we want our children to grow up believing that only attractive women have brains? What about an attractive woman's right to be thick, if she so wishes? At this rate, all the pretty teenage girls in this fine country will be racing off to do biochemistry degrees, and then where will we find our glamour models and reality TV contestants? Eh?

And it's comprehensive arguments like that, folks, that got me results just about worth jumping off a bench for.

*They won't. But you probably never need to see them again.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

In which I have a tendency to curmudge.

To be printed 19/08/10.

I'm rather scared I might be becoming a curmudgeon. I'm not sure any kind of measuring device exists for curmudgeonliness, but if it did I'd say I was edging worryingly up the scale, somewhere in the Jack Dee region, beyond Alan Davies, heading dangerously towards Bernard Black.

I used to be in favour of fun. There was a time, I dimly remember, before 80 per cent of my energy was expended waving an angry fist at people who take too long at railway station ticket machines. But now, like a permanent case of PMT, everything annoys me. Rarely a day goes by now where I don't have to stop myself thwacking a slow tourist over the head with their own map. When I'm Queen of the World, all tube and train stations will have tannoy announcements saying, "You may not be in a hurry, but everyone else is. So GET A BLEEDING MOVE ON."

I may not have a driver's license, but I pride myself on being a really good walker. I power along like a suede-shod guided missile, bobbing and weaving through crowds with ease. I know how to use my elbows sparingly but effectively and I never wear huge, vision-obscuring rucksacks or stop dead in the middle of Oxford Street to rummage through my bag, causing a ten-people pile up behind me. But striving for this constant level of pedestrian perfection means I am constantly disappointed when everyone else falls short of my exacting standards.

Likewise people who sit down on the outer, aisle-side seat on trains or buses, then insist I clamber over to the inside instead of just moving across, like a decent human being. What baffles me is not the strategic bag-placement - we all try to get away with that one after all, as there is nothing as loathsome as having to share three foot of personal space with someone who might be a) smelly or b) insane - no, it's the determination to remain aisle-side, whatever happens. Do you honestly think I'm going to refuse to let you off? That you'll politely request to be freed for disembarkation, and I'll just turn round and say "Naaah, you're not going anywhere darlin'"?

Am I painting a curmudgeonly enough picture? I have mental files, whole clunking cabinets of peeves and grievances, all accumulating in my head on a daily basis. People who need things repeated more than once. People who try to fish your sentences without any idea what you're going to say. Shop staff who don't give you enough time to get your change back in your purse and your purse in your bag before they move on to the next person. The sign in the window of TK Maxx that says "Always up to 60 per cent less".

But the trouble is, the very act of being irritable has now become irritating. It's the currency of stocking filler books, stand-up comedy and columns like this, harping on about how stupid and ineffectual the world is because people say, "at the end of the day" more often than Wordsworth would have approved of*.

So I am taking precautionary measures before the problem gets out of hand, and putting myself on a strict anti-grump programme. It involves precise dosage of Julie Andrews movies, administered daily, followed by regular sessions of kitten-stroking while listening to The New Seekers' 1971 hit I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing.

Of course, the challenge with this last step is managing to hum along sweetly without replacing the lyrics with "I'd like to teach the world to go about their daily business in an efficient manner without CONSTANTLY GETTING ON MY TITS", but I'm doing my best. Which is all a reasonable person can ask for.

*Actually Wordsworth might have been quite a fan of the phrase, given its suggestions of sunsets and his big love for the natural sublime.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

In which Percy gets a spring clean.

Printed 05/11/10.

You might notice that I'm walking a little more lightly on my feet today. There is a spring in my step, a serenity in my smile. I can see clearly, now the receipts have gone. Because yesterday, readers, was purse clearout day.

I don't know how often you replace your purse/wallet/sporren/velvet pouch, but if your money-storing habits are anything like mine, you'll know that the day you get a new one is a Big Deal. 

Transferring the contents over is like rebooting your life. It's immensely cathartic – you sort through the crumpled remnants of your being and create new order. Purse zen, if you will. I've always liked to think that Eminem's 2002 hit Cleanin' Out My Closet could have worked just as well as Cleanin' Out My Wallet, though his receipts stash might just have been too scintillating for young ears.

Some of you might be reading this, saying "but don't you just move it all from the old purse to the new one?" * The answer, dear philistines, is NO. That would be like buying a new house and filling it with the broken sofa bed, stained rug and half-eaten packet of bran flakes from your old house. New purse day is an opportunity for reflection of a kind that doesn't come along very often, and should be taken full advantage of. Think of it as a much-cheaper therapy session, with a lovely new-leather smell.

Yes, it's a process that produces many different emotions. From confusion ("When did I spend £55 in B&Q?" "Why do I have a business card from a kitchen fitter named Clive?" "When was I ever in Cheam?"), to misty-eyed nostalgia ("Ohhh, the time we bought that cheesecake from Londis then ate it on that bus before that mad bloke weed out the window… good times guys, good times.").

There's a fair bit of self-examination inherent in purse clearing-out as well. You don't want to be doing it in a vulnerable frame of mind, in case you just can't handle the truth. The truth being that the reason you're skint isn't, as you tell everyone, the ruddy government/Student Loans company/rocketing council tax rates, but because you spend £37 a week on Frijj chocolate milk. 

Then there's all the things you bought because the changing room mirror lied, only to stash away in your Wardrobe Corner of Shame as soon as you got them home. You can't hide from them on purse clearout day. You must confront your reckless purchasing and vow to do better (come to think of it, was the Wardrobe Corner of Shame what Eminem was actually talking about? Must google.)

And forget looking at someone's iPod as a window into their soul – I'd rather rummage through the wallet of a potential beau any day. What's this, a Holland and Barrett habit? £62 in Millets? Alas, it clearly wasn't to be. Likewise, anyone with a nearly-full Nandos loyalty card would be worth sticking with. At least until they worked up to the half-chicken.

*Others of you might be reading this saying, "But I throw my receipts and old train tickets and things away as I go." If this is the case, you probably need to find another columnist. There is nothing here for you.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

In which the world is an endlessly baffling place.

To be printed 29/07/10 (which is my half birthday! Get your card in the post now).

Things I Don't Understand (and probably never will):

The Perle de Lait adverts.

First we were meant to gurn because our yogurt was too sour, now we're meant to put it on our faces like moisturiser. Leading me to believe that while French women Don't Get Fat, they do walk around pulling stupid faces and rubbing yogurt on their skin. Which isn't necessarily preferable, if you ask me. I know which I'd rather sit next to on the bus.

Who pays for Odeon Premier seats?

How loaded does one have to be to fork out a whole extra two quid for the pleasure of waggling one's legs about a bit? After much consideration I have come up with three possible answers: 1) That it's people who mistakenly think they're booking with an airline 2) That it's people with piles, who need the extra cushioning, and 3) That it's people trying to impress on dates - in which case they'd be advised to splash the cash on a Ben and Jerry's Wich, the most romantic cinema snack known to man, and not on what's ostensibly another four inches you'll have to reach to get an arm round their shoulders. Think, people.

Does anyone have an internet service provider that they don't hate with the fire of a thousand suns?

I imagine that in the fledgling days of the internet, when it was dreamed that one day we would all have access in the comfort of our own homes, part of that dream was a reliable supply from a company qualified and capable to meet your needs. Not solid weeks spent on the phone to someone pretending to be called Nigel saying things like, "I've plugged yellow cable A into blue outlet C, and the wiggly thing STILL ISN'T FLASHING." And as no one has any story involving their service provider than doesn't begin with a fit of involuntary shuddering, I'm beginning to think that maybe no one is actually capable of this job. It might just be a little too far-reaching for human brains. Maybe we peaked at the walkman.

What a hedge fund is.

My friend Fiona, an investment banker (how great it is when one finally gets to the age where you can refer to people as 'my friend, the investment banker' rather than 'my friend, that one who sicked on Offington roundabout), has tried to explain hedge funds to me numerous times. But as soon as she starts explaining, I am instantly transported to a place where little kittens leap over rainbows, while Good Morning Starshine plays gently in the background. So far I know this: they have nothing to do with shrubbery, but do need pruning from time to time.

How BHS is still in business.

It needs to be shown some respect, really, for sheer audacity - what other company would get away with churning out the same shapeless jersey separates for nigh on 13 years without anybody stepping in and saying, "But wait a minute… by George, this is tat!" It's led me to believe that maybe BHS is a front for something altogether more sinister, maybe a nationwide chain of crack dens. Crack dens with coffee shops.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

In which I want mod cons, not actual cons.

To be printed 22/07/10.

I'm genuinely quite excited about flathunting again. This is naïve, I know, like the way women block out the pain of childbirth in order to be able to put themselves through it more than once, but still I am excited. After three years in the same house, during which I've watched it become steadily more derelict and mold-encrusted, its cupboards more full of unclaimed carbohydrates and its plugholes more full of unidentified hair, it's time to move on. Of course, my "pastures new" are most likely to be a woodchipped maisonette above a takeaway, but it's wistful all the same.

This point of the flathunting process is definitely the good bit. It's the bit where you can still dream of stripped wood flooring and Edwardian fireplaces and a neighbour who just 'happens' to be a Calvin Klein model. When you can say things like, "three floors up with no lift will be fine, we could use the exercise" and actually believe them. Before the estate agent brethren come and piddle on your property parade.

Estate agents are my third least favourite people to deal with, after beauty counter assistants and the men who work in Phones 4U. I can barely recall an encounter with an estate agent that hasn't left me wanting to gnaw my own arm off and drown it in a pool of my tears. This summer's going to be an especial bundle of fun because I get to deal with a double dose of them - one lot trying to find me the new place, and the other lot (let's call them Incompetent, McLiars and Sons) - trying to avoid giving me my deposit back from the one I'm currently living in. 

I anticipate having a lot of conversations that go like this:

Squeaky-voiced youth named Dwayne: "We've got a two-bed in Wapping for £500 a week that we think you'll be very interested in." 

Me: "Really, how so? Because there are three of us…"

Dwayne: "It has a very spacious downstairs loo."

Me: "…and Wapping's about an hour away from where we're looking, isn't it…"

Dwayne: "Excellent transport links."

Me: "…and £500 seems to be stretching our budget to accommodate a moon launch."

Dwayne: "Did I mention the light fittings?"

Me: "What about the light fittings?"

Dwayne: "Well. It has them."

But, like women with their babies, I fully believe that two months of being idiot-adjacent will all feel worth it in the end. When I hold that key in my cradled arms, I will know that I'm home. And provided there's a patio to bury Dwayne under, I think we'll be very happy.

In which even Pavement can't convince me

Printed 15/07/10.

Haircuts. For most, an unremarkable factor of modern life. For some, a terrifying ordeal fraught with anxiety, horror and potential life-ruining. Well ok, for me. 

You'd think that, as a girl who knows her way around a make-up bag (indeed, a girl who once successfully applied liquid eyeliner standing up on the 73 bus), I'd like getting haircuts. Aren't they, after all, the pinnacle of our "pampering" routines? More than that, don't they help us discover who we are as a PERSON? As the holy trinity of female propaganda (magazines; telly; people you overhear in changing rooms) will have you believe, a girl's hairdresser is meant to occupy a special place in your life that no on else can. They laugh with you, cry with you, they can turn you from Brillo pad to brilliant in a few swift flicks of a tailcomb. Thus goes the legend. 

*Not me*
I wouldn't know - I haven't been to a hairdresser since December 28th, 2003. The date is scorched onto my memory like a GHD straightening wound. On that day, leaving with yet another cut that looked vaguely like something an angry six year old might do to a Barbie, I vowed never to return. 

In my 15 years of experience, I had learned the following about hairdressers: They will give you the haircut they want to give you, not the one in the photo. They will give you haircuts that require a full-scale military operation of blowdrying, tonging, swooshing and spritzing every morning to look anything like they did on leaving the salon. When you say "loose waves'" they hear "corkscrew curls". 

And worst of all, they like to lecture you on mistreatment of your hair as though they are social services quizzing an unfit mother. They tut, and tsk, and peer at your split ends, and berate you for doing anything with your hair other than stroking it gently while a Brahms lullaby plays in the background. As far as I can tell, things you're not meant to do with your hair include: straighten it, curl it, dry it, wash it, colour it, tie it up, leave it down, or take it on holiday. Yet, by Jove, these are all the things the hair industry is built on! Where is the humanity? 

So I took matters, and scissors, into my own hands and started doing my own. For seven years, I was barnet self-sufficient, like the Barbara Good of beauty (with less good hair). There were a few mishaps, yes, and a few days that necessitated a Very Big Hat, but by and large I got by ok. My hair remained firmly attached to my follicles, and nobody threw things at me in the street. 

But now I fear the time may have come to skulk back to the salon. For one thing, once you're out of your teens, cutting your own hair becomes a bit like tie-dying your bedspread or putting kooky coloured laces in your Doc Martens. It looks like purposeful kookiness, heaven forbid. Also, to be a grown woman afraid of the hairdressers is stupid. 

And finally, because after seven years of ad-hoc trimming with blunt scissors two minutes before leaving the house, I have created a fringe monster. My fringe has more power over my face than I do. Entire days have been ruined because my fringe has refused to play ball. So if it's a toss-up between being bossed around by a hairdresser or bossed around by an inanimate three inch pelt at the top of my forehead, I know which I'm going to choose.

Monday, 5 July 2010

In which I'm not dressing to the max, thanks all the same.

The long and short of the maxi dress trend

In which my love don't cost a thing.

To be printed 08/07/10.

Here's a question: why does anybody become a journalist? Is it for the sheer joy of communicating vital (or not so vital) information to others? Is it because they read Evelyn Waugh's Scoop and thought it was all true? Is it because the other option was a painting themselves gold and starting a career as a living statue?

No. It's for the freebies. And if anyone claims otherwise, they are lying through their canapé. I have no pension plan, no health benefits, no in-office gym or even a particularly comfortable desk chair, but I do have daily opportunities to blag myself hoards of wonderful tat I never knew I needed.

Things I've been gifted in the last few months include: a playsuit, a handbag, a pair of shoes, a voucher for Specsavers, a selection of condiments, four bottles of wine, a case of chocolate, a silk scarf, a tip to New York that never happened and, by far the best, a diamante-encrusted USB stick. And I'm only a rookie, a journalist of the most amateurish breed it's possible to be while actually getting paid for it. If I'm raking in this kind of booty, people like Jane Moore and AA Gill must be driving around in golden chariots being fed free caviar by winged cherubs.

I'm told that eventually the novelty wears off, but what a sad day that will be. When one is too jaded and professional to treat one's career like a perpetual game of Supermarket Sweep, grabbing everything you can before Dale Winton arrives and demotes you to the post room. Until that day comes, if anyone needs me, I'll be the girl sitting under the buffet table with pastry crumbs down her front, rifling through goodie bags to check they're all 'equal'.

Of course, ninety percent of all the free stuff is either ugly, the wrong size or something you have no use for, like contact lens fluid or a car air freshener. But that isn't the point. The point is that YOU DIDN'T PAY FOR IT. And as Janet and Luther told us all those years ago, the best things in life are free.

There are a couple of downsides though. Firstly, there's the judgement of other, older, more freebie-weary hacks. Nothing spoils the fun of looting more than somebody from somewhere proper, eyeing you up and down with a look that says, "oh lore, actually taking the freebies are we? How vulgar." It makes you feel like the guest at the royal banquet who accidentally drinks the finger bowl.

Then there's the fact that, enormous though your joy is, you aren't really allowed to go on about it. Because unless you're sharing your stash with them, and often even if you are, people find it really irritating when you talk about all your free stuff. I mean, you've just read 400 words about it and I'll bet you're already dreaming about ramming a biro into my gullet, aren't you? A biro you paid for.

In which I will probably lose about half of my friends.

Printed 01/07/10.

The Top 5 Things You Just Shouldn't Tweet (or Facebook)

1. Death

A long time ago, the passing of a loved one from this world to the next would be announced by telegram. Just like Twitter's 140 characters, they too were adhering to a strict limit - yet somehow there is far more emotion in "AUNTIE MABEL SADLY DEPARTED STOP FELL OFF OUTHOUSE ROOF STOP BEQUEATHS YOU BEST HATPIN STOP" than there is in 'RIP Auntie Mabel, may you be the brightest star in the sky, you will be missed :(" written underneath a picture of you playing beer pong in a candy bikini top. Not until there's a dislike button, anyway.

2. Pregnancy

You've got a bun in the oven! A little bundle of joy! Of COURSE you want to share the news with the world, as quickly as possible. So what do you do? Spend a day making phone calls to your nearest and dearest, so they can gush over the news with you? Hire a plane with a banner with your due date written on it to fly over your hometown? Nah, you change your profile picture to an ultrasound and regale everyone you've ever met with thrice-weekly updates on your morning sickness.

3. Break-ups

Now, I know the status-change is an unavoidable factor in a modern relationship casualty. There it sits on everybody's homepage, blaring "Lonely McNeedy is now single" with a little broken heart next to it, just in case people have difficulty envisaging your pain. But even Facebook has an airing cupboard for that dirty laundry, and it's called the 'hide' button. Meanwhile the accompanying status - letting us all know what a cretin he is, and how you'll be crying into a tub of pralines and cream for a month because the love you once thought would never end has now been reduced to a little fractured husk of hate - that's even easier to deal with. Just don't write it in the first place.

4. Weight loss

Reasons for this are twofold; firstly, for those who'd quite like to drop a few pounds themselves, it is irritating in the extreme to read that you've, omg, lost a stone! Particularly if they read it with a Magnum in one hand and a cider in the other.  Secondly, for those unconcerned with weightless, it is embarrassing to have to read about yours. It's terribly un-British, like going on about how much you earn, or your bowel difficulties (prime candidates were I to make this column a two-parter). People then feel compelled to say something, but what to say? A hearty "well done!" may as well read, "about time, you lardy cow."

5. Exam results

I've been over this one numerous times in my head, and I'm sorry to say that I just don't think there's any way one can tweet their exam results with dignity. It's harsh, I know, particularly with degree results, when all you want to do is run throug the streets sounding a klaxon, naked but for a sash saying ALL THE CASH WAS WORTH IT (MAYBE). But self-congratulatory statuses will only counter the warm glow of your achievement with the chilly breeze of everyone secretly hating you. If you really can't fight the urge, change your status in the middle of the night, sit grinning at it for a few hours, then delete it before anyone sees.

Monday, 21 June 2010

In which there's a reason they call it a Bachelor's...

To be printed 24/06/10.

I'm aware that being proud of my university, the one I'm not even a student at anymore, is redundant in exactly the way I hate football fans moping about like cold sick because "they" lost. You didn't lose, eleven men you've never met in a stadium a million miles away lost, and as they get chauffeured home to sleep on their crispy bed of money wearing their diamond shoes, they're probably less gutted than you are.

Meanwhile, any pride I might take in UCL's achievements feels fraudulent. It's bootlegging emotion. For the very reasonable sum of £9000, I paid for the privilege of being smug every time someone in the physics department does something exciting with an atom. It's like the country's most expensive private members' club, but instead of a monogrammed towelling robe and personal maid to warm up my toilet seat, I have four carrier bags full of textbooks I never read, and the opportunity to say "yar, I went there…" whenever it gets mentioned on the news. To the kettle, if nobody else is in the room.

Of course, pride isn't always the issue. When that terrorist tried to blow up that plane on Christmas Day, every single news story found it crucial to mention that he went to UCL. "They've caught a terrorist on a plane to Boston," announced Mum over the turkey. "He went to your uni." YOUR uni. As though I might have cut in front of him in the union once and unleashed a snowballing torrent of rage against the Western world. I think the expected reaction was for me to clutch at my hair and shriek "Not Farouk? He told me he wanted those chemicals for an exfoliating treatment, dagnammit!" 

There was a brief turn up for the books when the Margaret Mountford left The Apprentice to do a PhD in Papyrology at UCL (proving we are a big enough lure to leave Alan Sugar’s jabby right hand for a life buried in bits of dusty paper), then we hit the headlines again last month on the rather less honourable merit of FitFinder, the social flirting network devised by final year computer science student Rich Martell. After creating the site, which allows students to post public messages about hotties they've spied around campus in the hope of initiating an amorous liaison, and which quickly expanded to 52 universities across the country with over four million hits in its first month, Martell was fined £300 for "bringing the university into disrepute."

Whether he should have been charged that much for what is essentially an electronic version of scribbling “The one with the visible bra straps, eight o’clock, I WOULD” on the back of a beermat, I don’t know. What I do know is this: demeaning or otherwise, UCL students probably do need a FitFinder. Our list of noble alumni reads: Ghandi; Coldplay; Ricky Gervais. What we needed wasn’t so much a forum for the casual recognition of attractiveness as a personal cupid with a huge flashing arrow, screaming “There! That one! With the rucksack! If you washed his hair and changed his trousers, he could definitely be a passable seven!” 

But the site itself, I see would very likely ruin your life. Not so much through the “indecent and inappropriate comments” cited as reason for the numerous complaints, but more, I imagine, because nobody could get a degree done while checking at hourly intervals day and night to see if they’d been scoped. Every essay would take a backseat to constantly refreshing the page, winsomely hoping for the post that read, “Blonde girl with the ladder in her tights by the photocopier, I think you are dreamy. Want to go eat houmous together in a meadow?*” Then everyone would fail everything and UCL would slide rapidly down the league tables in a flurry of on-campus romping and exotic STIs. And what would I have to be fraudulently proud of then, eh?

No, my university will remain a place where people go to do things with atoms, look at dusty paper and possibly meet future terrorists. And that is the way I will fondly remember it to my children. 

*This is not a euphemism.