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.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

In which I thought that drone was always there, personally...

To be printed 17/06/10.

Another four years, another World Cup, another month as the Great Pretender. There are loads of us, all across the world. We are the ones in the corners of living rooms standing at the back of pubs, woofing all the crisps and coming in a second too late on our grunts and groans. We're the ones who ask hopefully if "that's it" at half time, make sardonic remarks every time a pundit uses bad grammar and need to be reminded at frequent intervals that David Beckham isn't actually playing.

But at least we're trying. We're not that other network of people, the ones holding poetry readings in basement bars and making posters for craft fayres with "football free zone" on them. Those other people would probably call us cowards, for faking it while they're proud to stand up and be counted, but the way I see it, we're contributing to national morale. Simply by turning up, doing some half-arsed whoops and taking advantage of the chance to drink beer at arbitrary hours of the day, we're adding to the collective positive energy that will swoosh across the ocean and possibly make our boys win (I have it on good authority from a football fan that This Is How It Works).

Besides, we're not total liars. Most of us Great Pretenders practise a form of football agnosticism, flitting between moments of abject dismissal and moments of steadfast belief, when we think, "They've kicked it in the goal! And I feel happy! This must be what pure joy is like."

But when we are faking it, we're faking it for a number of different reasons. The first one is the same reason we lie about having seen Citizen Kane and liking tequila - we don't want to be left out. It is human nature that when there is a room full of your friends, all laughing and cheering and eating greasy snacks, with the possible exception of a World of Warcraft tournament or some sort of ritual cult sacrifice, you will want to be a part of it. They ask, "are you coming to watch the match?", you internally shriek, "what else am I going to do, stay home and knit while you all bond without me??" and say, "yes, lovely. I'll be there with appropriately-coloured bells on."

Then we fake it because we don't want to be a cliché. This applies largely to women, but also, I reckon, to gay men, sciencey men and men with artistic haircuts. I pretend to enjoy football because I already wear pink, have blonde hair and catch a ball like an arthritic platypus. My feminist barometer (or femometer, if you will) doesn't leave much room for such dreadfully girly behaviour as not liking football. So I go, I chant, I cheer, I break a nail during a goal celebration and I say NOTHING about it.

Then lastly, we fake it because, one of these days, there is the tiny niggling chance that we might actually win. Ad wisely, we are well aware that what you don't see in all those pictures of the victorious team in '66 is a little huddle of people, just out of shot, quietly reading books and wondering what all the fuss was about. Before being trampled by a crowd in Chelsea boots with wooden clackers.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

In which I am patient (Train in Vain)

To be printed 10/06/10.

If ever you need proof that compassion and community is alive and well in Britian, get yourself stuck on a stationary train for two hours in the middle of Oxfordshire. We're not yet ten minutes into the promised two-hour delay, and the lady in the seat across from us has already started dolling out the extra strong mints. That's Blitz spirit for you.

When the voice over the tannoy informs you that you're going to be spending a vast, indefinite chunk of your day on a non-moving train in a field with no buffet car of refreshment trolley, the first thing you do, naturally, is assess your fellow passengers. You look at them each in turn and make mental notes on who is likely to a) have emergency food you may be able to buy off them, b) start to smell, c) be fascinating company, possibly resulting in an enduring life-long friendship, and d) become crazed under the pressure of the situation and start wailing, screaming or licking people.

Unfortunately, a specimen for d) is sitting next to me. He garnered immediate attention when we got on the train because he is playing, not inconspicuously, with an iPad – being the first time I'd seen one in real life, naturally I have been staring as though he were playing with a perfectly proportioned, miniature unicorn. Someone with an iPad, surely, will be able to get us out of this fix? After all, it's too small to be a laptop, too big to be a phone and too pointless to be a genuinely impressive possession, so the least it can be expected to do, after all the hoo-hah, is magically getting hundreds of passengers off an enormously delayed train and back to their respective sofas, safe and well and maybe with a frappe latte in their hands.

Attention was quickly deflected from the iPad Man's iPad, however, when I noticed his shoes. At this point the train was still moving and so it all seemed like an amusing diversion rather than the first clear sign that we were in the presence of a psychopath. iPad Man was wearing slip-on rubber shoes, rather like the ones people wear for windsurfing, but with INDIVIDUAL TOE COMPARTMENTS.

Not, to clarify, the slightly freakish shoes with one separate toe on each foot and the rest a four-toe compartment, which I have only just learned to look at without retching, but entirely freakish shoes with five separate toe sections on each foot. Like foot gloves. Gloves for feet. Judging by footwear, the most reliable barometer of human behaviour that we have, he will definitely be the one who goes mental and tries to claw his way out of the carriage with plastic cutlery.

But iPad Foot Glove Man aside, camaraderie is at a high. We are chatting, moaning together, debating what to do when the oxygen runs out and comparing notes on who looks like they'd be good to eat first (NOT me. I'm fleshy but definitely use too many skin products to be considered organic). I volunteer to go on a water-hunting mission, which quickly ends when I start having Evian-based hallucinations. Meanwhile, the tourist group behind us is making no secret of the fact that they have a half-full bag of Doritos about their person, but has made it very clear that they are Not Willing to Share.

"Thank you for your patience", says the driver over the tannoy. It's a nice sentiment, but one I have never quite understood – do we have an option of not being patient? Do they tentatively expect us to start rioting, throwing things and charging into the driver's carriage braying "Fiiiiiine, if you won't drive this ruddy thing WE WILL…"?

Of course not. We sit obediently, we read Sunday supplements from cover to cover, and we formulate conspiracy theories on what might be happening with the people in charge. Then when the train finally begins moving we whoop, hug each other and then resume normal Impersonal Travelling Strangers mode all the way home.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

In which I am feeling Eurovicious.

To be printed 03/06/10. 

If election night was “like Eurovision for straight people”, then this year’s Eurovision was like election night for people who prefer their politicians wearing giant sparkly butterfly wings. And better than election night, the whole thing was over in a measly three hours and we came out of it with one conclusive winner (though a coalition of the German and Greek entries I would definitely like to see).

I’ve long thought that Eurovision, far from being the outdated and irrelevant cultural car crash many believe it to be, is actually a great, albeit distorted, barometer of our times.  It’s like viewing the music industry through a circus mirror, or maybe a haze of morphine. For starters, Lady Gaga references were all over the shop, which was no surprise. It is only natural that the woman who once performed on a giant toilet will find her spiritual home among the Boom Bang-a Bang clan.

Meanwhile the Serbian entry presented a glimpse of a future where Jedward advertise GHD straighteners, while Spain gave us that most glorious of things, a stage invasion far more entertaining than the performance itself. Far more worrying, though, are the acts you genuinely like. Eurovision, draws you in, seduces you to a point where you lose all semblance of personal taste.

It’s just like clothes shopping on holiday, when the oddest items ever committed to lycra suddenly start looking chic and interesting next to all the other dross. You buy them, get them home, hold them up on British soil and realise you’ve purchased yourself  something Sue Pollard might wear to clean the bath. And so it was on Saturday, when I found myself listening to Belgian entry Me and My Guitar, saying “this is EXCELLENT.  I am truly, deeply moved. I might have it as the first dance at my wedding.”

Then there was our offering.  By picking a song titled That Sounds Good to Me, I can only assume we’ve moved beyond national fondness for irony to a point where we’re just handing the continent a ready-made gag-on-a-plate. Up and down Europe, people were sitting in front of their tellies saying “nah…. too easy.” Next year I hope we go with t-shirts reading, “You were right about all the wars, now can we have a piddling point please?”

It didn’t help that they’d dressed him as a first year Durham law student out on the razz (suit, semi-unbuttoned shirt, shiny square-toed clown shoes), or that his backing dancers gave him the appearance of an embarrassed husband who’s been pulled up onstage at Priscilla Queen of the Desert. But the worst crime was choosing a song that just didn’t sound like Britain. At all. There was no whine, no grumble, no shades of grey or threat of a rain shower or tinge of Marmite-infused melancholy. With its cheery brand of BublĂ©-lite pop, it was like watching one’s Dad try to pronounce items off a Spanish menu.  It smacked of trying to be something we aren’t. There may as well have been a bidet onstage.

So until we get to a point where election night features David Dimbleby in a sequinned catsuit, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to play to Eurovision game. But as I like to remind whoever will listen, year after year, it’s ok – we had the Beatles. They can never take that away from us.