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.