Monday, 26 April 2010

In which we encounter a problem The Drifters never had...

To be printed 29/04/10.

As a strident feminist*, there is little I take more pleasure in than stomping over a few stereotyping myths. I stomp over them, in my non-gender-specific shoes, then I kick back with a… what’s a non-gender-specific drink? Cider maybe? Cider, in a glass, with a bit of ice but not loads. I kick back with one of those, listen to some non-gender-aligned music and enjoy a small moment of pride, for having Proved the Misogynists Wrong.

I was a little overdue a myth-stomping feat this weekend, my last one having been several weeks ago when I correctly named Michael Owen as the youngest British premiership footballer of the 20th century at a pub quiz in the face of opposition from my male flatmates, and I have since been set back by a few spider-catching incidents and some re-runs of Cougar Town. So, to top up the quota, Female Flatmate and I decided to have a barbecue.

It was a small affair – shattering the first myth of the bunch: that barbecues have to be a Massive Deal, involving loads of prepping and muscle-flexing and borrowing of garden furniture from Mrs Down the Road. We blew that myth out of the water, simply by having nobody else we could be bothered to invite round. So it was a nice, intimate, rooftop barbecue for two.

Then we did the shopping. Another opportunity for female reclamation of the sport, by proving that barbecues don’t have to be heaving, carnivorous affairs full of massive hunks of blackened, unidentifiable flesh (besides, barbecued sausage eating was ruled out several years ago by that “When Will I See You Again?” food poisoning advert – thanks, Food Standards Agency). No, we would make a modest feast of vegetable kebabs and some homemade burgers. Veg, protein, carb. Lovely.

There’s something brilliantly decadent about whipping out a barbecue for an everyday dinner. Like making your morning toast with a blowtorch, or spit roasting a Findus crispy pancake. It feels like it shouldn’t be allowed. But now I’ve started, I’m inclined to start barbecuing everything – it could be an era of groundbreaking experimentation, like when the Bravo family first got a toaster and my brothers and I ate every single meal on toast for about three weeks. I ate grapes on toast. Biscuits on toast. Salmon en croute on toast. Now I will barbecue my breakfast, chargrill my cheese sandwiches, warm my Horlicks through on some hot smoky coals. This could have started years ago, but I never knew just how easy barbecuing was before.

Easy, that is, until you melt your roof. After we’d eaten the food, cracked open some beers, and were basking in the contented sense of primal achievement you get having successfully heated some meat and not died in the process, we noticed something. Black, sticky gumph, oozing out from the bottom of our disposable barbecue. It was tarmac. We’d melted the roof.

Excellent timing, then, for Male Flatmate no.1 to come home and successfully override our myth-stomping glow with smug rants about “putting it on bricks” and “watertight ceilings” and “Duuuuuhhhh.” But let it be said, the food was delicious, the roof solidified again, and Male Flatmate no.1 was forced to watch Over the Rainbow to balance out the gender gap. Someone alert Germaine, and pass me that cider.

*Is anyone ever a strident anything else? It seems to be an adjective reserved for that one, very specific, occasion of noun-accompaniment. As such, when I am feeling my most feministy, I stride everywhere. And use Trident toothpaste.

In which fashion lets them eat cake

LINK: ShinyStyle - How fashion and food became friends again

In which we should all shop to the Maxx

LINK: Shiny Style - Unsung heroes of the high street

Monday, 19 April 2010

In which that's why Doctors go to Iceland

To be printed 22/04/10.

It’s not until a volcanic ash cloud swamps half the country that you realise your friends all lead far more exciting, jetsetty lives than you do. I currently know people waiting for flights to America, out of Kuala Lumpur, to Copenhagen, out of France and back from Bangkok. My Facebook wall reads like a who’s-who of glamorous globetrotters, all saying things like, “Looks like another three days in the Maldives for me! Bev, will you please feed the cat?” And while I really do feel pain for all those people whose plans are being scuppered by the thoughtless trantrum-throwing of Mother Nature (my money’s on PMS), it’s just making me more aware than usual that I never go anywhere. I consider a trip to the East Finchley Tesco an excursion of some merit.

The ash cloud has also raised awareness in another area; namely, my complete idiocy in sciencey matters. My first question on hearing about the cloud was “can’t the planes just fly underneath it?” My second was “can’t they put a bit of mesh over the engines, like a tea strainer?” And my third, by far the most sincere of all my efforts to help with the continent-wide crisis, was “What would the Doctor do?”

Because you’ve got to admit it, it sounds like a perfect Doctor Who storyline. It’s the stuff Steven Moffat’s dreams are made of. In the episode, they would climb down into the middle of the volcano and discover it was being operated by Davros. What the people thought was ash would actually turn out to be tiny particles of alien membrane, showered down to imbibe itself into the human race to build its own lava-army, with which they would form a giant set of living toy soldiers, and use them to play massive intergalactic games of Risk against the Sycorax.

The Doctor, on realising this, would be forced to do a bit of soul-searching, staring into the depths of the volcano, while the feisty assistant discovered a big clicky button somewhere that said, “Remove ash”. Then would follow an intense dialogue over whether the Doctor had the right to interfere with the course of Earth’s destiny and Ryan Air’s net profit by getting rid of the ash, during which the Daleks would arrive and surround them. After some witty banter where the Doctor pretended to be trying to get to a stag do in Marbella, they would fly the Tardis into the atmosphere and spin around vigorously enough to disperse the ash across the galaxy. Then would follow a montage where everybody got to go home or get on their planes and greet loved ones, a bit like the end of Love Actually.

Whether the transport secretary has thought of this approach I’m not sure, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to mention.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

In which I'm a fan of Gregorian chanting.

To be printed 156/04/10.

In life, there will always be conversations that cause excruciating embarrassment to all forced to listen to them. One is a couple debating who loves each other more. One is a couple arguing (actually, this one is excruiciating to all but me – I LOVE an arguing couple. They are my sport, I listen with popcorn). And the third is anyone, anyone at all, discussing ‘what music they’re into’.

I’ve always had a strong sensibility of ick where this topic is concerned – anybody asking me the fateful question on first acquaintance instantly earns a black mark next to their name, removable only by careful application of ginger wine or revelation that their uncle is the Sultan of Brunei – but it was only yesterday that I realised quite the extent of the ick.

I was sitting on a replacement bus service from Three Bridges to Brighton*. Behind me, pretty much within a minute of boarding, a middle-aged man in a tweed blazer struck up a conversation with a vaguely trendy young fellamelad, about music. I listened to their conversation the whole way, because it was impossible not to, and because it was such a delicious example of why these conversations are hideous. Tweed Man got stuck in with the obvious question:

“So, what sort of music are you into?” Yeuch, bleuch, blargh.

“Oh,” Young Fellamelad pondered. “I like a bit of everything, really…”


“Mainly indie rock,” he continued. “Some reggae… a bit of hip-hop… electro… folk… blues…” Then he delivered the killer line. “I like anything with a bit of originality, really. That’s what I mainly look for.”

Is it? IS IT? Odd, because last I looked the rest of the music-buying public were crying out for songs that sounded exactly the same as the last one they listened to. “More of the same!” they plead from the aisles in HMV. “For pity’s sake nothing ORIGINAL, heaven forbid…”

Of course, I’m being cruel. Young Fellamelad probably couldn’t help giving those insipid, textbook answers, because they are programmed into all of us. We are all meant to say we “like a bit of everything”, just as we are all meant to say that we “enjoy travelling” and loved Slumdog Millionaire and think Connery was the best James Bond.

It just goes to show that the music conversation is a redundant format. It should be replaced with something much more effective, like just swapping iPods, or playing Boff, Marry, Kill: Paul Simon, Prince, Pete Doherty. Or just shutting the heck up and looking at each other’s shoes. You can tell 80 per cent of a person’s music taste just by looking at their shoes, after all.

So TM and YFM carried on with their conversation in the traditional manner. TM raved about Arcade Fire. YFM rambled on about being big on 60s guitar, “like Hendrix. And Clapton. And… well, y’know, Hendrix.” There was a particularly brilliant segment where TM tried to explain to YFM who Harry Nilson was, without singing I Can‘t Live (if Living is Without You). Then after five minutes he did sing it, and spent another five minutes trying to remember who covered it in the 90s, while YFM interjected “Whitney Houston. Yar, I’m pretty sure it was Whitney Houston. Cos it was in The Bodyguard, wasn’t it?”

Whether the whole bus was yearning to turn round and shriek “It was Mariah Carey you bonehead, and The Bodyguard was I Will Always Love You, and just SHUT UP and let me off this hellwagon!” before throwing a shoe through the back window, or if it was just me, I’m not sure. The conversation then pootled on through punk, Britpop, early Bowie vs late Bowie, Glastonbury experiences, how exactly one should categorise Talking Heads, and then, just outside Lewes, ended up on John Peel.

“I loved John Peel,” said TM.

“So did I,” said YFM.

“SO DID EVERYBODY” the bus silently screamed back. “Plus, he’s dead now, so we all obviously think we loved him even more than we really did.”

We pulled into Brighton. Tweed Man and Young Fellamelad moved on to a pub to discuss music some more. What have we learned here, kids? That rail replacement buses make my nerves a little fraught. And that Talking Heads can’t be categorised, and that is no bad thing.
*Replacement bus services are another topic altogether. Why is there always a screaming baby and somebody who’s drunk? At 10am? Always?

Friday, 9 April 2010

In which everybody needs good neighbours.

Printed 08/04/10.

The other morning as I walked up my road on the way to the bus stop, a woman pulled up in her car and stopped me. “Excuse me,” she said. “Do you live here?”

Nervous that she had outed me as a North London fraud, and was about to declare that I wouldn’t know a superfood smoothie if it bit me on my non-yoga-ed arse then send me packing back to the suburban homestead from whence I came, I said, “Yes. Yes I do.”

“Which road do you live on?” she demanded.

“This one. In that house there. The red one with the Carlsberg can in the plant pot.” I realised shortly after the words left my mouth that I’d just disobeyed the first childhood key rule of successfully being alive; namely Don’t Tell Strangers Where You Live. I don’t remember the picture books ever including an extended section on Not Pointing Out Your Exact House To Strangers When It Is Apparent You Have Just Left It, but then kids aren’t that stupid. Had she offered me sweets I probably would have taken them too.

“And do you find the area safe?” she asked. Aha! Brilliant. This wasn’t, then, the world’s least surreptitious burglary, but in fact an invite to my favourite activity: raving about how great my neighbourhood is. I am a Highgate evangelist. I an wax lyrical for hours about its leafiness, comparative quiet and abundance of good pubs, friendly dogwalkers and families who look like refugees from a Boden catalogue. I even have a special speech prepared for people who think London is hostile and impersonal, all about how the corner-shop staff know our names and sometimes I wave at people in the street, just for the heck of it.

“Yes!” I told her. “Yes, it is safe! It’s safe and peaceful and full of lovely, lovely people. I’ve lived here for three years and never witnessed any crime, ever! I walk back home at 4am and don’t even flinch if a fox jumps out! I mean, sure I hold my keys through my knuckles, but that’s just he accessory of the modern woman isn’t it? The only hostility you get round here is maybe if you recycle the wrong sort of Tetrapack. AND my neighbours who I’ve never even met sent me a birthday card! Move here! Move here! Move here!”

The lady thanked me and retreated before I could whip out my pom poms and my Rah Rah Highgate sandwich board. But that very afternoon the universe laughed in the face of my enthusiasm, and I BECAME A VICTIM OF CRIME. Suddenly my lovely neighbourhood went from Balamory to the Bronx. What’s more, it was one of the bitterest crimes of all: I was scammed by children. In Starbucks.

Being the generous-spirited person I am (and having just spent a shameful amount on a hazlenut soy ponceaccino), when big-eyed children came to my table asking to be sponsored on a 5k run, I gave them a whole fiver, fresh from my overdraft. For three minutes I felt the warm, fuzzy glow of philanthropy. Then a wiser woman than I noticed it was an odd time for charity collecting, being 3pm on a Thursday afternoon, and suddenly it all got very dramatic as the thieving ragamuffins were confronted by a doubtful herd of yummy mummies, Cath Kidston bags a-swinging. They shrieked, the kids ran, I sobbed quietly into a biscotti.

But now, worse than the loss of the fiver, I am haunted by the knowledge that I told a woman to buy a house here. I practically turned her into the hands of Fagin's gang. Let's just hope she's not duped as easily as I am – or that she really was a burglar in the first place.