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.