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.