Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Dear Urban Outfitters...

Dear Urban Outfitters,

We've got a problem, you and I. You might not be aware of it, distracted as you are by the armies of spendy hipsters that march through your doors each week, but our relationship has been deteriorating for years. If indeed, it was ever truly a relationship to begin with. I've hankered after your nostalgic blouses, your vampy skirts and your little strappy dresses for yonks now, while you remain coolly oblivious.

Not to toot my own trumpet, but I'd like to think that on paper, I'm the kind of customer you'd like. I'm 23, I live in London, I work in the media. I throw more of my income than is sensible at the high street, and I'm a sucker for a whimsical trend. If you wanted, you could probably have quite a lot of my money. You'd like that, wouldn't you?

So what's standing between you, me and this beautiful cash-splashing coupledom, then? Well, a zip. Or a few zips. The zips on your clothes that I can't do up, despite wriggling, wrenching, partially dislocating joints and inhaling till I turn puce.

You see, while most high street stores stick to the conventional 8, 10, 12 sizing, up to 16 and beyond, you prefer to keep things rustic with XS, S, M and L. Which might be fine, if my 12-14 figure could fit into the 'M' that I'd expect it to. But it doesn't. Often it doesn't fit an L. Now, I made my peace with not being Alexa Chung many years ago, but I'm still moderately confident that if you saw me walking down the street you wouldn't think 'Hark! There thunders an EXTRA-LARGE woman.'

Have you ever heard of breasts, Urban Outfitters? Of course you have, I'm sorry for being patronising. But did you know that we can't conveniently detach them, or reposition them under our armpits, each time we'd like to wear a garment that isn't made of stretch jersey? It's just that, sometimes, when I'm trying on your clothes, it seems like you're not very familiar with the concept.

Then there are hips. These are like breasts, but lower down, on the sides, and not as squishy. It would be nice if we could contain these in our clothes too, as an alternative to, y'know, carrying them in our handbags or wearing them as a decorative headpiece. A little arse-coverage would be good too, though I realise that might be stretching it (boom boom).

You're not the only ones, of course. I've rarely exited a Zara changing room without tears in my eyes (and bruises on my ribs), or had an encounter with American Apparel that didn't leave me reaching for the gin bottle. Up and down the high street, stores are playing fast and loose with sizes and our gymnastic capabilities. I've been stuck in more impossibly-designed garments than you've had hot dinners.

But before you dismiss this as yet another chubby girl rant, let me assure you that it isn't. It's a piece of sage business advice. You're making money, I'm sure, given that you sell ironic pendants for the price of a weekly travelcard, but you could be making more. Oh, you could be making SO much more - if you weren't alienating a massive portion of your potential customer base.

And yes, I'm wishing I hadn't just used the words 'massive portion'. It was between them and 'huge chunk'. Pass me a biscuit.

We're all here, you see, Urban Outfitters. Look, over here! The ladies with the swinging handbags and great hair. We're not that scary. In fact we're a lot like your other customers, just slightly better insulated against the cold. Our demands are simple - we want clothes that do up properly, don't brand us gargantuan humans when we're patently not, and look foxy.

Are you ready for this jelly, Urban Outfitters? Are you?


Lauren (or 'XL' to you)

Sunday, 18 December 2011

In which we'll have a blue Christmas, and love it

The Bravo family has a broken boiler.

They're soldiering bravely on, according to reports, with portable fan heaters and hot water bottles strapped in strategic places about their persons, but as things-to-happen-a-week-before-Christmas go, it's a fairly bleak one. "You might want to bring your slanket home with you," my Mother has advised, prompting mental images of us all shuffling softly round the house in our fleecy shrouds, like the multicoloured ghosts of Christmas past.

Having existed in a state of almost permanent shiver myself since mid-October (how long does it take to shake off the student notion that warmth is a luxury we can't afford, while organic goat's cheese is a basic right?), I should have been upset by the news. And I was, a bit. Nobody likes to think of their nearest and dearest awaking each morning nervous to see if their drippy nose has grown stalactites during the night. I don't want them having to fill baths with a kettle then all get in together to save water. Because, well, that would be weird.
But part of me, secretly, and please don't tell my parents this if you bump into them on the Morrisons parsnip run, is quite excited. What fabulous comedy material this will make! We'll have hilarious Christmas anecdotes coming out of our EARS! And we were due a refresh, what with The Great Giblet Disaster of '94 wearing slightly thin, having been trotted out every year since it happened.

Everybody loves a Christmas disaster, don't they? One of those moderately vexing but not life-altering incidents that gives everyone a chance to pull together, battle through, keep calm, carry on etc, and forever after remember it as being at least 40 per cent more humorous than it actually was. You'll look back in decades to come through sherry-tinted specs, and say, "Remember that Christmas the dog ate the trifle and sicked up over Aunt Maud's holiday slides? And Uncle Terry threatened to sue? REMEMBER? Those were the days." 

So far as a family, we've not had our fair dosage of potentially hilarious festive catastrophes. I mean, the hamster died on Christmas Eve one year, and Brother #2 went into hospital with pneumonia on Boxing Day another, but neither of those incidents were exactly high on LOLs. A broken boiler, however, has the makings of a proper 'remember the time?' story, so I'm determined to stay chipper.

We will all wear five jumpers like a family of festive Michelin men, and play highly energetic charades to keep our pulse rate up. We can take it in turns to put our underwear in the microwave for toasty-bottomed comfort. When frost forms on the insides of the windows, we'll write our names in it. Such larks! Indeed, if I arrive home tomorrow night to discover that they've fixed the ruddy boiler, I think I'll be faintly disappointed.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

In which I'm bringing tacky back

On Sunday we had our annual faux-Christmas extravaganza in my flat. As usual, we bought our combined bodyweight in meat and trimmings, did a posh breakfast, put our friendships on the line with a round of aggressive parlour games, and fell asleep in front of the telly.

To kick off the festivities, I buy a tub of cheesy footballs. Christmas had begun! I proudly open them and set about the traditional method of biting off the wafer case in two complete pieces, leaving the cheesy centre to savour like a precious truffle. Everybody else gags in horror.

"They're revolting!" one declares. "They smell like cardboard," says another. "They taste like feet," a third. 

"But… but… they're Christmas! Cheesy footballs ARE Christmas!" I protest to a roomful of blank faces. Until this point I don't believe I'd ever paused to consider how cheesy footballs tasted, or whether it even mattered. They were novel, they were bite-sized, and they were as synonymous with my Christmases as the bumper Radio Times or fill-in-the-blanks thank you letters.

The problem isn't that I enjoy synthetic cheese-filled wafer snacks while my peers do not. It's that the cheesy footballs, I feel, symbolise a wider issue - the glorious naffness, or lack thereof, in the average modern Christmas.

When did it all get so tasteful? At some point during the 23 years I've been alive, good taste has crept into the tinsel pile and turned Christmas from a riotous assault of glitter and gaudiness into a refined affair, full of artisan produce and wooden decorations from Muji. I'm not excusing myself - I banished tinsel from the Bravo tree years ago, with such vigour that the law has been upheld even after I left home. Meanwhile my office is bedecked in geometric paper lanterns, the sort that say, 'hip young media agency' rather than 'SQUEE it's Christmas! Pass the cooking sherry'.  It's all just a bit… safe.

Maybe it's because, as a food writer, I spend the three months before Christmas in a mental fug, with organic stuffings and three-bird roasts and expensive bakeware and pine-infused sugar dancing round my head like cartoon tweety birds. Then when the big day arrives, I want nothing more than an Iceland king prawn ring and a tin of Quality Street to plunge my face into.

Or maybe, after a lifetime of Decembers spent trying to tone down and style up the festive season, I've realised that Christmas should be a holiday from taste.

Despite never having existed during them, I secretly yearn for the Christmases of the '70s. When it was all Advocaat this and Blue Nun that, and a trifle with angelica on top was the height of sophistication. So I'm bringing tacky back. I want my Christmas to wear a massive jumper and a cracker hat, win at charades, and hiccup its way through Mistletoe and Wine without irony. I want flashing reindeer earrings and musical ties. I want those plastic trays of differently shaped salty snacks and tiny sets of screwdrivers on every surface.


Merry Christmas, everyone.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Just don't mention the tea

The other day, on my literary travels, I came across an article on wikiHow called How to Avoid Looking Like an American tourist - for American tourists. Among its solemn pieces of advice were 'don't ask for ice', 'don't speak too loudly', and the ever-applicable 'don't wear a fanny-pack', all apparently dead giveaways for the tasteful American hoping to blend into a continental crowd. While I'm not one to join in the sport of American-bashing (whatever the New York equivalent of asking for Ly-cester Square is, you can bet Uncle Sam's corndog I'd be doing it), it still seemed prudent advice.

It also made food for thought on my romantic* trip to Paris this weekend. If there was a guide to avoiding looking like a British tourist, we considered, as we Franglais-ed around the capital like a pair of 'Allo 'Allo extras… what would it say?

1. Don't complain about the tea

You might think you need good strong PG Tips injected intravenously once every half hour to function, but so far no scientific evidence has been produced to prove the physical repercussions of drinking Bad Tea. Besides, if the rest of the world starting making proper cuppas, our international distinctions would be down to Marmite and Pippa Middleton's arse. The first cup of tea I asked for in Paris this weekend was served to me as a tea latte. Extravagantly foamed milk, with a tea bag in it. It was 187ft up the Eiffel tower to be fair, but still this seemed like a cheekily loose interpretation of a classic. Did I whinge, though? Did I harrumph and splutter over its fraudulent composition? No. I marvelled at its novelty. "A tea latte! Whatever next?"

2. Don't be a massive cheapskate

I don't want to make a huge sweeping generalisation about my kinsmen here (I do but we'll pretend I don't), but I'd wager if there was one nationality statistically more likely to walk into a café, sit down, look at the menu, then walk out again because the sandwiches were too expensive, it'll be us.

3. Don't use up all your GCSE French/German/Chinese on one expertly-pronounced sentence, then be surprised when they speak said language back at you and you don't understand a word.

If you really ne comprend pas, it's best to assume the hapless expression of the mute tourist from the off, I find. Then anything that does come out right will be a lovely bonus.

4. Don't take photos of yourself in front of 'hilarious' lost-in-translation shop titles

Except do, obviously. We all LOVE those back home.

5. Don't hold up mundane food products in the supermarket and shriek "Sue! Look! They're the same as back home!"

6. Don't start humming Jerusalem every time you pull out of the Channel tunnel/start to descend over Heathrow/disembark the ferry.

Or am I the only one who does that?

*For 'romantic', read: he got excited by trains, bridges and government buildings, I gorged myself giddy on Nutella crepes.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

In which another F-word is inappropriate

Are you an awesome woman? Do you know any awesome women?

That was the question posed by Ashley Fryer (@ashleyfryer), who kept meeting great, funny, interesting women on Twitter and decided to do what few have attempted - transfer these friendships from the online realm and reproduce them IRL*. It's a notoriously tricky manoeuvre, like moving a cake from tin to cooling rack without it collapsing, but it was worth it. And so, Awesome Women of Twitter (#AWOT) was born.

It spread, too. The awesome women invited other awesome women, and the call of awesomeness echoed across the virtual plains like a hunting bugle. Except nice, and nothing to do with killing animals. Soon there was a potential pubful of witty women all waiting to meet up, so Ashley booked a central London venue that would house them, and lubricate their social cogs with gin.

But it was with a huge collective spluttering of tea over keyboards a day later that we discovered the bar had since decided to cancel the booking. Cancel it, because they decided it would be 'inappropriate' to have a 'feminist or women's lib group' in a bar where other people would be enjoying Christmas parties.

Let's break that down. 'Inappropriate', like a nipple before the watershed. 'Other people enjoying Christmas parties', as in the footloose merrymaking of those unhampered by tedious gender equality. God forbid a group of angry feminist Grinches should stomp in and steal Christmas!

It's understandable, of course. Our bra bonfire would have been a fire hazard for a start, and there was always the chance we'd get tiddly and decide to burn a sacrificial male. Germaine Greer might have turned up and instigated a menstrual blood tasting. We could have daubed feminist propaganda all over the walls, and insisted they play Sister Suffragettes from Mary Poppins on a loop all night or we'd bash them with our feminist mallets. It might have been MAYHEM.

The fact that we never claimed to be a 'feminist or women's lib group', just a loungeful of ladies who wanted to give them money in exchange for cocktails, was apparently irrelevant. Would they have had the same reaction if we'd been a hen party? Or a group called Awesome Wives of Twickenham? Or, to play the unavoidable card, men?

After the initial rage and venting passed (hell hath no fury like 75 lady-bloggers scorned), we were left simply sad, and baffled. It's depressing to realise that to many people, feminism is still a sort of niche hobby, like collecting Warhammer figurines.

To me, saying 'I'm a feminist' is as basic as saying 'I breathe oxygen' or 'I enjoy the work of Dolly Parton'. Of COURSE I do, and OF COURSE I am. How could I not be? But others, it seems, still mistranslate the F-word as 'I hate men' or 'I'm going to ruin your Christmas party.' It's ignorance, and it's frustrating.

But it's ok, because we'll change it - one awesome woman (and hopefully a few awesome men), at a time.

*That's In Real Life, for the uninitiated.

In which I get what I want, at least

I am not a reluctant crier. In fact I've often wondered if my tear ducts would be medically classed as overactive. I'll cry at songs; films; broken computers; dropped food; mouth ulcers; elderly couples holding hands in public; lonely-looking animals; memories of other times that I've cried. And adverts. Of course, adverts. Let's play guess-the-inevitable-direction-of-this-article, shall we?

Yes, when I first saw the John Lewis advert this week, I cried. I cried a little bit at my desk, then a little bit more when I described it to my boyfriend later in a Vietnamese restaurant, and then a whole lot more when I played it at home on my laptop, to see if it was as tear-jerking as I remembered.

It's fair to note, though, that the ad could have been a blank screen bearing the words 'BUY OUR STUFF' and I probably still would have cried, because I would be remembering their last ad. You know, the chin-wobbler with the woman in the red dress and Billy Joel's She's Always a Woman playing over the top. Never knowingly out-blubbed, John Lewis has established itself as the Bambi's Dead Mum of the high street.

There is room for cynicism, of course. Saturday's Guardian included a column moaning that The Smiths' Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want, a song about the pain of unrequited love, should never be used to flog us stuff.

It's surprising, granted, that a band who stood for everything anti-consumerism and anti-establishment that Thatcher's 80s Britain inspired, would give the most middle class of department stores permission to hijack their music. But what writer can guarantee all people will react to their songs in the way they intended anyway? Plus, y'know, it's LOVELY.

While there are shops with stuff to flog, they will inevitably try to flog us stuff - if we can at least convince kids that the joy of giving someone a shoddily-wrapped present we've saved up our pocket money to buy outweighs the pleasure of unwrapping four XBoxes, while introducing them to some decent music at the same time, then that's no bad thing.

The cover version itself is a cause for gripe too, coming as it does from the Janet Devlin school of Pick a Good Song and Sing It Slowly in the Voice of a Wood-Nymph. I don't know if you've noticed, but this love of the twee-lady-cover has become the default approach for advertising agencies during the past year. I blame Ellie Goulding.

But the things is, I'm not enough of a Smiths fan to really care. I think it should be admired, frankly, as a piece of ruddy good advertising. When Twinings gave The Calling's Wherever You Will Go the twee-lady treatment, maybe there were hoards of Calling fans on a forum somewhere, furious that a song about beautiful geographic love should be used to flog us tea. But did the rest of us spare them a thought? Did we?

In a Christmas season where the other retailers are dishing up X-Factor finalists, Jamie Oliver and the Boots office girls (you know! The office ladies who get dolled up in the loos!), I think the John Lewis ad is a breath of real, albeit marzipan-scented, emotion. Although that present looks suspiciously like a big tin of Celebrations to me - if I were the John Lewis parents, I wouldn't get too excited.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

In which we didn't start the fire

As a Sussex girl, I know it's shameful that I'd never been to Lewes Bonfire Night before this week.

Our region doesn't hold that many distinctions - there are the Downs, and that pudding with the whole lemon baked inside it, but generally we don't dish up eccentric traditions in that quantities that, say, Gloucestershire or Yorkshire do. We'll be waiting a long time for The Only Way is Sussex to hit UK screens.

Obviously Brighton's the coolest kid at the party by a mile, strutting around in a multicoloured poncho made from hemp, but otherwise we're a gentle region, not given to attention-seeking whimsy. Just be sure to file us under 'not Surrey', and we're happy.

So it's all the more pressing that I experience one of our few proper, newsworthy events with my own eyes - and ears, as it turns out. Because (and you'll know this, of course, Sussex stalwarts that you are, and be shouting 'should have got some earplugs you townie fool'), Bonfire Night in Lewes is LOUD.

I'm not completely unprepared - I know to expect big crowds, fire, colourfully-dressed locals and the threat of minor to moderate underage drinking-fuelled violence. The website warns that we shouldn't take small children, asthmatics or valuables, and that my attendance constitutes 'violent non fit injuria' (Latin for 'strap a pair on, it's only a bit of blood'). But there is still a part of me that thinks, it's lovely fireworks! How bad can it be?

On the train from Victoria to Lewes we meet a girl who thinks otherwise. "You're planning on getting back to London TONIGHT?" she barks. "It's not going to happen." Then with the knowing, mocking, eminently punchable manner of a proud local, she describes scenes of thousands of people queuing for days around the entire town, performing a Lion King-style hyena stampede towards the station and trading first-borns for a three inch square of standing room on the 22.40 via Haywards Heath. "What they hey, we'll just sleep on a bench!" we shrug, knowing there is no way we will ever sleep on a bench.

In the end, it is fun. We practice for the evening by queuing in Bill's for lunch ("see, this is fine! We like queuing!"), then tap my former local friend Liz for insider advice on the bonfires ("Don't pay for anything"), and secure our spot on the high street for the parade ("Are they… um, allowed to hold fire that close to a baby's face?"). We sing Sussex By the Sea heartily, despite only knowing the four words of the title, and flinch like woodland creatures every time an exploding banger is lobbed our way. Then our political correctness-ometer is given a workout by a round of blacked-up Zulu costumes. It's fine, apparently. It's tradition.

Then to round the evening off nicely we DO get back to London, without having to sell any internal organs or bribe a policeman. We manage this by leaving early, and not making a fuss. The Sussex way.

In which I turn on, tune in and all that

I was thinking about it the other day, and, on balance, I think "I don't really watch TV" is one of the worst things a new acquaintance could ever say to me.* "I voted for Boris," "dinosaurs didn't exist" or "I really love the recording catalogue of noughties indie outfit Keane, don't you?" would all throw a great big spanner into the works of our burgeoning friendship, but I daresay they could be worked through and forgiven in time. A non-TV watcher, however, may as well just stroll on by. We're not compatible. Does not compute.

It's not the lack of interest that bothers me per se - telly is, I'll grant you, at any given time at least 85 per cent cack - but the sweeping dismissiveness. "I don't really watch TV," they say. That's ALL of TV. The whole of it. Not "I don't watch BBC Three," or "I don't watch anything starring Martin Clunes," but the entire blooming, multi-billion pound, been-evolving-since-1925 genre.

For TV is, whether you like it or not, one of the most wide-reaching and accessible art forms we have today. And would Team Smug dismiss another medium in the same way? "I don't really read books"; "I don't really watch films"; "I don't really look at pictures or vases or decorative cushions."  Would they stand on John Logie Baird's grave and say "nah mate, not for me"? Let's ponder that.

And before you say it, watching stuff on DVD boxsets or 4oD DOES count. You're being a discerning viewer, yes, but you're still watching the stuff.

As with many divides in human life, though, I've got to admit this is partly down to lack of understanding. I just find it hard to fathom what a TV-less person would do with their time. What do they do on a Sunday night, or when they've got flu, or while they're waiting for their pasta to cook? Also, as Joey Tribbiani so brilliantly put it, what's all their furniture pointed at?

The smuggery is usually accompanied with a dollop of condescension, and the suggestion that while you're slack-jawed, watching Don't Tell The Bride repeats with one hand in a bag of cheese Doritos, they're reading Baudelaire and serving soup to the homeless. But are they? I ask you, are they? Or are they, in fact, down the pub, with slightly less to discuss than normal people because none of them saw The Apprentice last night?

Then we come to the obvious, overriding argument: TV is brilliant. Not all of the time, but sometimes. Often, even. Take Frozen Planet, the David Attenborough spectacular that had us all gasping over glaciers and sobbing about dead baby seals last week.  It was the most beautiful hour of programming I've seen in a long time, even including Russell Grant's Foxtrot. And Team Smug would have missed it.

*Actually the very worst would be "I don't own a TV", but I'd have realised this out on first seeing the mix of smugness and wanton despair in their eyes, and been prepared.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

In which X marks the spot

You can consider this to be last week's column part two, if you want (what do you MEAN you didn't ready last week's column?) because I intended to cover it in the first one then got so riled up that I ran out of space. So while last week I mused on the tricky intricacies of physical greetings, in a piece I mentally subheaded 'Get your mouth off my face, stranger', today I'd like to turn your attention towards written communication.

It's on my mind at the moment, because this week I received a disturbing email. From a PR I'd never communicated with before, it was a standard 'Hello arbitrary journalist, please plug my product' email. But it ended with three kisses. THREE KISSES. It's virtually tongues. There are people I've known for years, people I've shared houses, bedrooms and ice lollies with, for whom three kisses would still seem gushingly forward. Three kisses basically leaves a trace of saliva on your inbox. I was affronted.

But worse than the three kisses (after I'd wiped my screen down several times with an antibac wipe I felt ready to let go and move on) is the problem of replying. What do you send back to three kisses? No kisses is a virtual blank. It's pulling away with a begrudging shoulder-pat when your date goes in for a doorstep snog. One kiss is worse, almost mocking, while two puts you into dangerous reciprocation territory. What if they reply with four? Then you with five? And before you know it, you've living together in a cottage in Dorset with a cat called Mr Whiskerson.

The trouble is, as with so many facets of modern life, there are no established rules. We need a 21st century Emily Post figure, guiding us firmly in the dos and don'ts of emoticon usage, exclamation mark application and 'reply all' politics. 'Emily Email', we could call her for the sake of accuracy. "Think carefully before you LMAO," she would instruct. "When often a ROFL will suffice."

Back in the midst of Threekissgate, and I'm still reeling. I'm used to over-familiarity at work, of course - maintaining a job in the media being the merry-go-round of mutual bottom-licking that it is - but this is excessive. Besides, journalistic integrity means my affections cannot be bought. Except with food, complimentary holidays or free electrical equipment.

By far the best thing to do, every time you're tempted to pop a little x on the bottom of a work email, is to test it out by doing the kiss out loud. Go on. If you can read "Hi Barry, It is imperative that you send the contract over before the end of the day so that we can secure client approval. MWAH" and feel completely comfortable, then by all means go ahead. If "Maud, you have consistently failed to top up the photocopier toner and been caught stealing post-it notes from the stationery cupboard. Therefore I am afraid we have no choice but to terminate your contract. Hugs 'n' snuggles." seems to fit the bill, then knock yourself out.

But just remember, kisses on a screen can quickly translate into real-life kisses, and then you've got a whole new trauma on your hands. For details: see last week's column.

Monday, 17 October 2011

In which I do not turn the other cheek

You’re meeting someone. Not a close friend, but an acquaintance. Look, there they are! They’re coming towards you.

You have two seconds to assess the situation and decide your plan of attack. They have an outstretched arm. You prepare for arm-on-back contact. But what’s this? Face! Face is heading towards yours at an alarming rate. Where is it going? Shoulder? Ear? Cheek? Left or right? QUICK, manouevre appropriately. BAM, you’ve got lip-on-cheek action. Ok. A kiss.

But while the residue is still wet on your face, you’ve got another judgement call to make. Are they going in for the other? Can you pull away or are they cannoning off to the other side of your head like a puckered guided missile? Is there any danger of nose-brushing? Or worse, have you gone in for a second cheek while they’ve started to pull away? Are you doing the dreaded this-way-that-way face dance? Are you wishing you’d never turned up?

Of all the social minefields we gingerly traverse in every day life, this is a pretty old one. I reckon there were Medieval serfs groaning into glasses of mead, going, "and then I thought she were goeth in for other cheek and I landeth smacketh on her lips." In more formal times the handshake was king - what a man does standing up, a lady does sitting down and a dog does on three legs, as the joke goes - but in our touchy-feely-gropey age, even with perfect strangers you can expect anything on a scale from curt nod to tongues.
Personally, I'm a fan of the one cheek kiss, with optional hug. One cheek is sincere. It can be as brief or as lingering as you wish, and removes all need to spend any time nose-to-nose, the point of a greeting when experts confirm your insides are most likely to shrivel up and die. With one cheek you've got more margin for error - if you make it to shoulderville without any clear statement you can make a vague smacking noise near their ear and hope for the best.

Meaning no offence to our continental cousins, Brits doing the two-cheek thing just looks affected. It screams, 'I saw this once in a film'. We don't do it well. We dither, we hesitate, and can't avoid adding an onomatopoeic flourish every time. You don't have to SAY 'mwah', you just DO a 'mwah' - it's a concept we've still not grasped.

But whatever the outcome of the greeting and however horrifying the mishaps on getting there, one rule stands firm. You must never acknowledge awkwardness. For to cheerily say, "oop, you were going in for another one there, weren't you?" is to destroy your companion with the Sword of Social Discomfort. You have knocked them down when they're most vulnerable. They may not recover confidence for several weeks, reliving the horror every time they encounter a human.

No, you must make the most of whatever dithering, air-smacking, ear, nuzzling, back-patting routine you manage to improvise between the two of you, then swiftly move on. You can always send them flowers later to apologise, if necessary.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

In which Mum is not the word

I worry that the world is getting sillier. You might not think so, given that we no longer ride penny farthings or believe manure cures baldness, but then every so often a story comes along to confirm the theory. One came along last week. The word "Mumpreneur" has just been added to the Collins English Dictionary.

I'll just give you a moment there, to gather yourself, read the word again, say it out loud, and snort tea through your nose. Now mop it up. No, not with your slee- ah well, too late. Are we settled? Good, then I'll go on.

There are several reasons that the news made me do a full-body shudder and a sherbet lemon face. Firstly, as the more astute among you might have noticed, the word simply doesn't work as a pun. It's a syllable short. It doesn't rhyme with the original word. "Mum-tre-preneur" is a slight improvement but still, frankly, stupid.

This pains me greatly, as I'm a big fan of punning - so much so that I've almost managed to build a career on it. The day I used the headline 'Better the Breville you know' on a selection of toasted sandwich recipes was one of my proudest life moments to date. But puns deserve respect, not this whimsical mangling. If we continue casually jamming words onto the front of other words with no regard for true pun power, we'll end up living inside the worst newspaper in the world. What if 'Ladyecutive' becomes a term? Or 'womeeting'? When will people learn that being female doesn't mean we need our own set of special, rose-scented terms to dress up life's more serious facets? The original words will do just fine.

Which brings us neatly to the second reason. It is a pointless word. It means 'a woman who combines running a business with looking after children' - and there is a word for that. It's entrepreneur. Y'know, that word we already have, which makes no specification on gender or parental status in the first place. Not only does labelling women with a twee pretend-title belittle their achievements (both in boardrooms and delivery rooms), but it's also a rough deal for the bog standard entrepreneurs without Mummy-caches to their names.

Why are there no Dadpreneurs? Those businessmen in American movies who walk out of the Big Meeting to race across town to their kid's oboe recital, they never got a special name. Except Chip or Brad or something, I guess.

Lastly, the most immediate of all reasons - it's naff. Use the word Mumpreneur and you have instantly reduced the subject to a Boden-clad mimsy selling organic jams at a farmers' market. It has no dignity, no clout. It suggests you might deliver quarterly reports written in glitter glue, with an unidentified stain in the corner.

Let's just be clear - being a mother is one of the most admirable things to be in the world. Mums can locate a lost PE kit, pay a gas bill and wipe a spitty hanky over your face with one hand while making a fully authentic Roman battle helmet out of papier mache with the other. Mums are terrific. But I'm no more likely to invest in your business because you've given the miracle of life to multiple miniature people. Stop ovary-boasting. It's irrelevant.

Think up a good pun, on the other hand, and we might have a deal.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

In which I'll just Thwazock that

Last week, Google turned 13. It's a strange thought, that the Grandaddy of the internet, that bottomless source of wisdom and answers, is actually nothing more than a fledgling teenager. It will soon, we can only assume, start sprouting blackheads, drinking White Lightning behind a hedge and mooning over the boy down the road in poetry written in the back of our exercise books (who would this boy be? Yahoo? Surely not Jeeves?).

But as all parents force themselves to believe during the door-slamming, sebum-secreting phase, we wouldn't be without them for the world. God bless Google. God bless it for many reasons, but mainly for taking a truly ridiculous word and making it a verb that we all use daily. Imagine if that word had been 'splobble' or 'thwazock'. "Hang on, I'll just Thwazock that." Bonkers.

But the question this milestone really prompts is of course, what did we do before Google? I've come up with some theories:

1. Knew stuff

There's certainly room for an argument that we knew less before Google, not more. It may well be true. I didn't know all the states of the USA or how to properly truss a chicken before Google, though to be fair I was 10 and as such poorly informed in general. But there must be many other things that, before we could search them afresh every time we went on a computer, we just remembered instead. Things like how the Keeping Up Appearances theme tune went, or where Cheshire is. How to spell recommend. Your own postcode. Faced with one of these tricky questions in contemporary times, rather than setting cerebral cogs whirring, it is natural for one's fingers to start itching for a keyboard.

2. Encarta

When the Bravo family first got a computer, it came with one CD Rom. That CD Rom was Encarta. It wasn't the complete version, mind you, just a free limited trial version that probably caused significant gaps in my knowledge every time a search stopped short of the paid-for section. But still, I loved it. It was the source of endless, completely uncensored information, and also my main source of entertainment on the computer after I'd got bored of minesweeper and used up our printer ink on pictures of dolphins for my bedroom wall.

3. Teletext

If you were born after 1994 you may skip this section - it doesn't concern you. For everyone older, the word invokes both a rush of joy and some involuntary finger cramp, in memory of all those hours flicking though pages of yellow text to find out what the weather was going to be, or how much we could get a package deal to Lanzarote for. Teletext taught us patience. It taught us that knowledge is always out there, but sometimes you have to work hard to find it. And it doesn't always load properly, so sometimes you have to translate it from jagged half-words that look like Space Invaders. But once you have that knowledge, oh boy did you appreciate it.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

In which I spurn the Great Indoors

I've never really got on with shopping centres. I know it's hard to believe, slave to consumerism that I am, sitting here in my pink velour tracksuit with diamante dollar signs across the arse, but I would almost rather not shop at all than shop in a  shopping centre. Even Brighton's Churchill Square, which is essentially the village post office of shopping centres, gets me a bit twitchy and flustered. If it wasn't for the soothing scent of Millie's Cookies being pumped out through the vents, I'd barely get past Whittards.

Reasons I don't enjoy shopping centres are largely concentrated on the following:

1. Dehydration. I don't think I have ever maintained a comfortable level of bodily water content whilst inside a shopping centre. They make you moderately sweaty, thirsty, and needing of the loo all at once. This is so that you buy carbonated beverages from any one of their numerous outlets, which we all know make you giddy to the point of wanting to spend £39.99 on a boxset of Rowan Atkinson classics in HMV. It's a scam. Carry your own bottle of weak lemon squash and beat the system. 

2. Temperature confusion. The simple rule to remember is that if it is cold outside the shopping centre, it will be boiling hot inside and you will end up carrying your coat round like a cumbersome child. If it is hot outside, the shopping centre will be air conditioned into oblivion and necessitate the buying of jumpers.

3. Everything's a bit worse in a shopping centre. Nice restaurants suddenly look soulless and bland, overlooked by fake designer handbags and people getting fish pedicures. Hairdressers look like fluoro-lit hellmouths. Even Topshop loses its lustre. Without a breeze in your hair to remind you of the outside world, it just becomes so hard to know what you actually want. Lycra bodycon and heeled trainers might start to look appealing. You lose all sense of self.

But of course, the shopping centre that's got me thinking about how much I dislike shopping centres is the jaw-achingly massive new Westfield in Stratford, East London. Its opening a fortnight ago was the first big hoorah in the Olympic regeneration process (if we can't all be champion athletes, we can at least get our cardio wrestling for the last pleather satchel in a Primark the size of Rutland), and looks set to bring plenty of welcome jobs and pedestrian traffic to the area.

Aside from being baffled that it isn't called Eastfield, I haven't done a mad sprint over to its shiny, hallowed walls. I'm assuming it's probably very similar to the other, deservedly-named Westfield, which I went to for the first time only a couple of months ago. "I don't like shopping centres," I told people as they harped on about it. "You'll like this one!" they trilled. "No, really," I'd say. "They're hot and loud and often make me hate myself." "Not this one!" they'd cheerfully reply. "It's so big that you don't even know you're inside. It almost feels like… outside. But with shops."

So I went. And it is, I will grant you, very shiny. And very, very big. But I only got twitchy and flustered in proportion to its vastness, which means too twitchy and flustered to buy anything other than chilled drinks. And that Rowan Atkinson boxset.

Friday, 23 September 2011

In which everyone gets married

You'll have to forgive the slight streak of cynicism that might ripple through this column, like a bitter coulis in a fluffy sponge pudding. I am watching Bride Wars, you see, a movie that determinedly undoes all feminist progress over the last 50 years in a sweep of frothy white tulle. "You have been dead until now," the wedding planner tells the newly-engaged brides. It's a great message.

But even ignoring influence of Kate Hudson's perfectly groomed idiocy, I think I'm reasonably clear-headed when I say that if one more person on my Facebook news feed gets engaged or married, I will do something terrible with a Tiffany cake slice.

Growing up you always hear about people in this phase of life, where everyone they know is tying the knot in giddy succession and every weekend is spent throwing cash at John Lewis weddings lists and sleeping off hangovers in Welcome Break service stations, wearing a crumpled fascinator. But you think it will hit when you're, ooh, 30.

Never did I think that at the ripe age of 23, half of my also-23-year-old acquaintances would be getting married or popping out babies. We're not old enough to hire a car in most countries, yet these people know who they want to share a toilet with for the rest of their lives. The rest of their LIVES. It hurts my mind.

Perhaps these girls are all far more emotionally evolved than me, or perhaps it is just that no one has taken the time to pin them down and say 'THE REST OF YOUR LIFE' over and over again in a doom-filled voice. Either way, they're doing it. The ring, the hen do, the dress, the cake, the honeymoon, the endless reams of professionally airbrushed photos. They're doing it, only a handful of years since we officially became grown-ups. I still can't commit to a shampoo brand, and they're happily signing up for a lifelong three-legged race. It's amazing.

But aside from humming Another One Bites the Dust each time the squealy engagement status goes up and arranging a small divorce sweepstake (what? who said that? not me), I'm grateful for the diversion that it creates. I am. I love it. I've become fascinated by weddings in the same way an elderly obese man might be fascinated by Olympic gymnastics. I await wedding pictures on Facebook with an embarrassing hunger, overlooking the fact I've only met the lucky lady once, briefly, when we were 15*.

Will the dress be massive/shiny/in danger of falling down? Hair down, up, or curled like crisp fusilli? What's the colour scheme? Hotel, marquee or barn conversion? Will they, the most terrifying bridal trend I've witnessed so far, pose for official photos in their pants**?

And on, and on. It should be noted that so far none of these have been people close enough to actually invite me (I'm pleading closeness as the reason, rather than the chance I might loudly criticise everything then eat all the sugared almonds). But it's only a matter of time before I'm aisle-side, with popcorn. And if Bride Wars is anything to go by, it'll be a hoot.

*Around which time said bride was probably drawing up table plans and beginning on table favours.
** This is a real thing. Two real people I know have actually done it.

In which I find out what Madonna was on about

By the time you read this, I'll be on holiday in Spain. It will be, by some considerable stretch, the longest amount of time my boyfriend and I have ever spent together in one go, and also, at a modest 10 days, the longest holiday I've ever been on. With anyone.

"What will we DO for 10 days?" I asked when we booked it. "Won't we get bored?"
"No," says he. "We will relax. We will talk to each other. We will play cards."

I ponder this. "Can I take my laptop?"

I suppose he is right. I can accept that going away for long enough to be able to send postcards and have them reach your relatives before you get home does make some sense. It will be novel to go on a holiday that actually merits unpacking when you get there. Maybe we'll make friends with some lovely locals, and end up taking part in a flamenco performance at a small rustic taverna!

"I keep forgetting you've never been to Spain," says boyfriend.

The problem is, I don't know how to do a European beach holiday. I know how to do a British beach holiday all too well - buy a Kellogs Variety Pack, leapfrog between tea shops in the rain, visit a museum that is actually in someone's living room - but the finer points of the Mediterranean excursion have thus far alluded me. I'm not sure I've ever lain on sand without an anorak and thermos to hand. Most of my sea-swimming to date has been done in a wetsuit. This will be a learning experience.

For all I'm sure we will have the loveliest if lovely times, there are acknowledged obstacles we'll need to overcome. One of them is my desire to push Easyjet's luggage allowance with enthusiastic purchase of novelty foreign food items and wooden castanets to hang in the loo. Another is not having a TV ("How will we know if a famous person dies?" I protest reasonably).

And another of them is the heat. Mediterranean rookie that I am, I insisted we go in September because I thought this meant it would be nice, breezy, manageable weather. But the last time I checked the forecast for this week, it was 33 degrees. That's hotter than the hottest day here this year, during which I lay on the floor with my head in the fridge whimpering, "I want to die." My feelings towards tiny clothes and sweat gland activity have been covered enough in these columns for you to understand that temperatures like this make me gag.

Boyfriend, being a 'baste me in oil and point me at the sun' sort of chap, is planning to find it hilarious when I spend the entire holiday under enormous hats with three menopausal battery fans, necking water and muttering darkly about melanomas. But then he'll have his own mountain to climb* in the form of Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, which I am providing for his holiday reading.

So while I seek out shade under an ex-pat's lobster-tinted paunch, he'll be battling with the subtle nuances of the female condition - and its live, sweating counterpart, me. Here's to a happy 10 days.

Monday, 5 September 2011

In which I star in The Kindle and I

Oh man, I love my Kindle.

As sweeping romantic statements go, it's not quite up there with "shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" or "it's always been you, Rach", but I must stress that I do mean every word. I. Love. My. Kindle.

It wasn't love at first sight, mind you. For at least a year I was firmly in the paper-fancying, 'it'll never replace books' club. "A screen doesn't feel the same!" I would squawk. "You can't annotate them!" (You can, and I don't anyway). "You can't read it in the bath!" (I haven't had a bath since 2004, and only then because the shower was broken).

But then I reached a turning point, and began to see things differently. That point was: I started reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, and I had to buy a bigger handbag. "Hmm," I thought as I was stood in Urban Outfitters cramming the tome into each bag in turn and trying to do the clasp up. "It sure would be useful to be able to carry this book around in a smaller format. A flatter one. Possibly a flat, grey, digital one, like a big phone… with a book on it." 

After this thought had blossomed, other thoughts joined it. Thoughts like: it would be nice to turn the page on this weighty volume without taking my hand off the tube pole and risking toppling onto a greasy commuter. Say, via a nifty button.

Or: sometimes I'm not in the mood for the book I have in my bag. I'll be in my wry '30s comedy satire mood and I'll be carrying a vaguely political South American saga. Or I'll want slightly confusing magical realism and be carrying a boarding school story I last read when I was 12. Sometimes I just want to read the last two chapters of Bridget Jones's Diary repeatedly until I fall asleep on the night bus, and gosh darnit I don't want to be denied that option.

So, I got a Kindle.

I loved it from the off, in the coy way one fancies a complex, aloof, beautiful boy who ignores you. But the affection only grew stronger as it proved itself an indispensable force for good in my life. I was freer, more educated, more alive. I cemented the relationship a few weeks ago, when I realised I had inadvertently matched my nail varnish to it. I'd thought it was steely storm-grey, but no. It was Kindle-coloured.

But let me not appear blinded by love - I am fully ready to admit that the Kindle has flaws. More precisely, it has two.

Firstly, when it falls onto my face after I've nodded off reading it, it really clunks my nose. Books never clunked, only softly enveloped my schnoz with a blanket of softly fluttering paper. I miss that.

Secondly, nobody can see what you're reading on a Kindle. This is a good thing, of course, on some occasions. The week I read Lady Chatterley's Lover, for example, was a stressful exercise in jacket-bending and concealing-inside-newspapers lest elderly bus users see it and fall down in horror. On a Kindle it would have been fine.

But this does mean you lose the other side, the camaraderie of books. Reading One Day wouldn't have been nearly so enjoyable were it not for the armies of commuters toting the same orange cover round with them, beaming conspiratorially and sharing tissues when they get to the end. And I am not, I'm sure, the only lady to have harboured the Match.com-style fantasy of spying a gentleman reading the same well-chosen, intellectual yet not pretentious, novel that you just happen to be reading too.  Then you fall in love.

Plus, what's the point of reading Ovid or Proust or something, if nobody sees it and thinks 'ooh, get you'? I mean, really?

So in future, I'd like Kindles to come with an optional back screen that could display the book you're reading to the rest of the tube carriage. Or, even better, the book you'd like people to think you're reading. Proust on the outside, Bridget on the inside. That's an e-reading device I could possibly marry.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

In which this fall fan can't be wrong

Autumn is here! Autumn, autumn, autumn!

Ok, it isn't. But it almost is, and the anticipation is sweet enough. Soon there will be coats! And hot water bottles! I bet you're thinking about buying a new pencil case, aren't you? There will be stew for dinner, and we will no longer have to waste 1.5 hours a day staring at the sky and saying 'ooh, I think it's brightening up'. It won't brighten up now, because it's autumn, and that's fine. Have some stew.

My feelings towards summer have been well documented on these pages over the last eight years, so I won't bore you with more of the details (sweat! Smell! Blisters! Flip-flops and their far more offensive cousin FitFlops!), except to say that I've always regarded autumn as the prize for surviving summer. You stagger into it bitten, peeling, frizzy of hair and swollen of feet, wearing a guileless combination of clothing items plucked from under a moist laundry pile with Solero stains down them, and as a reward for your endurance you get showered with brown leaves, in a manner not dissimilar to the confetti you get when you win X Factor. It's refreshing, and lovely.

And speaking of X Factor - well, yay for X Factor! The advent of the wailing unhinged is as sure a sign of autumn (the event that must not be named, Christmas) as crisp night breezes and the faint niggling feeling that there may be some holiday homework you haven't done. It's back, and this year nobody even has the energy to pretend they won't watch it.

But the main reason I'm looking forward to autumn is that our office air con wars can finally end.

For weeks now, we have been embroiled in a silent, highly political battle with The Other End of the Office over our air conditioning. They turn it on. We turn it off. They turn it back on. We turn slowly blue around the lips. It isn't even hot outside. It's raining outside. We turn it off again, and open a window 'for natural breeze'. They turn it on again, and put on bikinis. We close the window, and learn to type wearing double layers of slankets. It does not end.

Naturally nobody has thought to discuss the problem openly with the offenders. That would be insane. Instead we mutter, compare goosebumps and glare at the button-happy blighters through the dividing bookcase. We surreptitiously turn the air con off on our way to the kitchen or toilet, fleeing the scene of the crime immediately so that no one can start pointing fingers.

But thankfully, before I lose a toe to frostbite and the problem has to be escalated to managerial level, it will be autumn! Nature will be on our side. "It isn't right," says Nature, "to have to go to work in August with a cable knit sweater in a carrier bag." Then Nature will drop the temperature to a level only the subhuman could wish to further chill. And the office can unite once more, at a mutually comfortable temperature level.

Hurrah for autumn.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

In which it's not antisocial media

Of all the potential sources of blame for last week's riots (and there have been many, from our consumerist society to the weather being too warm), the one that's irked me the most is social media. As part of the 'Cameron's law' plans currently being considered is the government's right to block and shut down mobile messaging and social networks in a bid to curb troublemakers from organising riots.

As soon as it was mentioned that many rioters were using BBM to co-ordinate their attacks, the technologically ignorant grasped it like it was the official Axis of Evil palm pilot. "What IS this curious magic, which goes only by mysterious initials? Why do not they text? Does it stand for 'Blaggards, Ballyhoo and Mischief?"

It doesn't. It's not even a 'social network'. It's a free instant messenger. It's the exact same things as texting, except you pretend you're having 'a conversation' and you don't have to put kisses on the end of anything. That's it. As a Blackberry owner (I know, I know, the shame) I use it regularly for exchanges about what time to meet at the pub, whether or not there's any walnut oil left in M&S, and 'ooh it's raining in NW1 but not in N10! Isn't weather weird and London big?'. Using it has never inspired me to participate in acts of public violence, or even made me think 'coo, organising an act of mass violence would be far easier on this service than through less specialised means of communication, like texting. Or email.' It really hasn't.

Why we shouldn't blame social media.

1. If BBM is to blame, then are mobile phones? How about just phones altogether? Should Alexander Graham Bell be hauled up from beyond the grave to defend himself? There were riots before phones, we should remember. How the practicalities of organising mass violence through smoke signals or messenger pigeon would work in Hackney I'm not sure, but people would find a way.

2. Maybe we should remind ourselves here that when cinema was first invented people thought it was immoral, because you sat in the dark with strangers. They could steal your popcorn or stroke your hair in an over-familiar manner! Perish the thought! Of course, it's natural for the advent of any new technology to send a ripple of mass hysteria through the ranks, but you'd think by now we would have learned.

3. The benefits far outweigh the damage. As someone on Twitter succinctly put it (I can't remember who or I'd credit them), there were riots before social media. But there weren't clean-up operations organised so quickly, and reaching so far. Watching everyone march out across the internet, in such British fashion, brooms in hand, going "RIGHT, let's tidy this bugger, collect clothes for the newly-homeless, then have a cup of tea" was about as heartwarming as it gets. 

4. For every person who facilitated their rioting through social media, there would have been umpteen more who successfully avoided straying into the path of riots – because of social media. While the incessant Twitter scaremongering was admittedly, a pain ("I heard a siren in Tufnell Park! A SIREN!"), there were plenty more genuinely useful tip-offs and reassurances. Even just for the purpose of telling your entire acquaintance that you're fine, all at once, rather than fending hourly worried phone calls from the south coast, social media earned its keep.

Monday, 1 August 2011

In which the female psyche isn't a piece of cake

I, like several million others of my gender, went to see Bridesmaids last month. We were driven there not by our second X chromosome bleating "Wedding! Weddings! Flowers and dresses!" like a child in a sweetie aisle,  but by the critics' promises that it was a female answer to all the bromance comedies of the past few years. According to the reviews it had hilarious female leads, being funny with no help from men, looking like normal human ladies rather than shiny model-bots and ridiculing the whole elaborate hoopla of the modern wedding. All this was true. It is a great film.

But while Bridesmaids did its best to deftly sidestep every girl-film cliche, it still landed face first in one. If my Twitter feed is anything to go by, I was just one of many people going "great film - but WHY the bloody cupcakes?" Central character Annie is on a downward spiral after her bakery has gone out of business. She seeks solace in decorating a solo cupcake, then refuses to bake anymore because she is sad, then finally does bake a cake when charming love interest Officer Rhodes encourages her to.

Over the last decade, a funny thing has happened to cake. It has gone from an innocent teatime treat, a lovely cosy thing produced in Grandmother's kitchens and Mr Kipling's garage, that you're allowed to eat as a morning or afternoon snack and publicly sink your face into on your birthday, to something wholly more loaded.

Cake, and specifically cupcakes, became first fashion accessories ("they're so cute! The edible glitter matches my earrings!" etc), then status food ("Oh, Hummingbird? Mine is Magnolia Bakery - I had it shipped specially"), then, suddenly, a heavily-frosted projection of all female emotion. I could blame Sex and the City, but that would be lazy. Whatever the reason, cake is now intertwined inexplicably with our gender. I have a uterus, therefore I am a cupcake obsessive.

I'm not sure precisely when starting a cupcake shop became the Plan B career for women, but it seems it has. Every market and food festival I go to (which as a food journalist and more generally a glutton, is a lot) is full of pretty, bunting-bedecked cupcake stalls. Each one believes it is breaking brand new culinary ground ("Ours are vegan!" "Ours have photos of babies on them!") and each one has an air of business doom about them, mingling in with the smell of buttercream.

And the really shit thing in all of this is that I love cake. I adore it. It is probably my favourite food. Visits to Parklife Bakery are one of the highlights of my Worthing visits. I consider my friend Hannah's photographic cake diary one of the most stirring artistic collections of recent years.

But now, 'I love cupcakes' doesn't sound like 'I love potatoes' or 'I love bacon' or 'I love Reece's peanut butter cups mashed onto digestive biscuits.' It sounds like 'I love cupcakes, and also Disney films, and Cosmo quizzes and pedicures and the gender pay gap.'

So while Bridesmaids got a lot of things right, it got at least one thing wrong. Women are not genetically programmed to want to run a little bakery and make sugarcraft flowers all day. We enjoy cake because we are human, and cake is delicious - and we're more than happy to cut the blokes a slice.

A small one.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

And now, the final frame

I found out Amy Winehouse had died after reading a text from my mother, in a pub toilet on Saturday afternoon. "Was she 27?" was the first thing I said. And she was.

I'm not going to attempt a real obit, or a treatise on the tragedy of her death. You'll have your own feelings on that, and anyway with nothing harder than a Nutella habit under my belt, I'm about as qualified to wax lyrical on the subject of addiction as Ashley Cole is on marital commitment. But I'm going to say something, if only to silence the harping adolescents on my brother's Facebook page claiming she doesn't merit comparison to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or any of the other fateful '27 club' members.

Reasons Amy Winehouse will be remembered - by me.

She was a London landmark.

In my first year of uni, just as Amy was getting big (and her hair bigger), glimpses of that famous beehive were a standard feature in Camden pubs - like sticky floors, seatless toilets and the tramp who looks like Brian Blessed. In an area full of vivid characters, even if she hadn't been getting famous, she still cut a dash. Holding court over the pool table, bantering with the bar staff, even out of earshot you could usually tell she was being hilarious. To a wet-behind-the-ears suburban 18 year old, she represented everything alluring about moving to the city.

She stole my friend's pub stool once. We didn't say anything, just let her have it. She definitely could have taken us in a fight.

She was an alternative version of womanhood.

Much has been written about Amy's style - her skill in taking retro references and making them utterly fresh, her knowing way with accessories and her artful way of dressing up and down simultaneously, always with ease. But to me the true brilliance of her appearance was that she was totally sexy, without ever really playing to a male audience. She never danced in her pants, the way every other popstress seems to think she has to. Her cartoonish, exaggerated aesthetic was an antidote to all the flawless grooming alongside her in the charts.

And while it was painfully sad to watch her once voluptuous form whittle away to nothing, with her bodily insecurities broadcast so publicly she still remained an icon for the imperfect girl. Inspiration for every gap-toothed, knock-kneed, grubby-around-the-edges girl to crayon on some eyeliner and feel hot.

She wrote ruddy good songs.

Looking back now it's funny to remember that when Amy first emerged she was lumped into the 'nu jazz' scene with Katie Melua and Jamie Cullum. It became obvious pretty soon that she was too much of an old soul, with an old voice, to be properly new – and basically not moronic enough to be 'nu'.

She was rude, but our Mums liked her. She was British - screechingly, swearily so - but America clasped her to its ample bosom.

Everyone will talk about the way her music was filled with pain, proper, straight-from-the-heart pain, but for me the best thing is that it's filled with so much more – it is uplifting music, raunchy music, party music, if you want it to be. It never demands you weep into a pillow. You can get up and dance.

Monday, 18 July 2011

In which it's nice to be nice

In Sunday's final of The Apprentice, one golden message shone through. The nice guy actually won. It was a particularly glorious victory for Tom, as earlier in the show his inherent niceness had been highlighted as his biggest flaw. "You're a really nice guy, aren't you?" said Matthew Riley. "My wife is probably one of the nicest people you would ever meet, but would I go into business with her? Not on your nelly." Aside from the warm glow his wife has no doubt carried around with her ever since, it was a loaded statement.

WHY can't nice people succeed in business? At what point in life does niceness suddenly go from being the goal ('Do unto others,' 'don't kick little Timmy in the groin,' etc) to a massive obstacle that will keep us out of the shiniest offices and off the top of the pay ladder?

After all, it's nice to be nice. The clue's in the name. It's why nice biscuits and Nice in France and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence are all named after the concept. So when, and why, did niceness' stock plummet so badly? I believe we can blame the following:


It is a sad moment in one's advancing adulthood, the first moment you realise that Grease is morally corrupt. For years you are caught up in the sexy, fluffy, retro faux-adolescence of it all, and then as the darkening clouds of conscience move in overhead, one day you suddenly realise that the message is: if someone doesn't like you for who you are, you should change. Take up smoking, backcomb your hair to dangerous extremes and sew yourself into some gynaecologically threatening trousers. Then dance. Dance fool, dance.

Grease is the ultimate piece of anti-nice propaganda. Yes, it is also pro-fun and pro-singing in public, but that doesn't excuse its dubious conclusion. Grease 2 does exactly the same, it is worth noting, but with a boy instead, who must jump a motorcycle across a ravine before he can snog Michelle Pfeiffer.

Mr Nice

Howard Marks, aka Mr Nice, was a notorious Welsh drug smuggler with connections to the mafia. He wasn't literally Mr Nice, in the same way that Miss England is rarely the embodiment of all that is great about England. Remember the way Curly in Coronation Street actually had very straight hair? It's like that.

"He's too nice"

Popular culture likes to perpetuate the myth that women aren't attracted to nice men. This is sometimes true - if the nice man is also unattractive, has an odious personality or particularly pungent odour. We can also, it is fair to admit, be attracted to complete bastards. But mostly if the bastard is also handsome of face, charming of personality and smells like croissants mixed with fresh laundry. If, however, the man combines favourable appearance, personality and fragrance with being an utterly lovely human, they have basically won the lady lottery. This, I promise, is true.

Nice, boring people

Sadly, niceness and dullness do have a tendency to get confused. Ask yourself this: do I hear the teacher from Peanuts every time they talk? Have they never, in the five years I have known them, ever made me laugh? Do I sometimes forget what they look like and just see a hazy pink balloon where their face should be? If so, they are probably boring. They might also be nice, but one has little to do with the other.

But now, hopefully, nice is on the up again. We can all say 'oops-a-daisy', give lovely hugs and never push in front of anyone in a queue, ever, without fear that it will hamper our careers.

And that will be, well, nice.

Monday, 11 July 2011

In which it's been a hair-raising week

Things I have learned this week:

1) Good hair does not equal good judgement.

If you were watching the phone-hacking scandal unfold purely in picture form, you might be forgiven for thinking Rebekah Brooks was the wronged party. That is because she has the wild, flowing auburn tresses of a pre-Raphaelite goddess. It is simply such Good Hair. It is hair that wants to lie in a meadow like a Flake advert, not cower in a taxi above a face of thunder, in front of a nation's angry media. Like the follicle form of the hypnotic snake in A Jungle Book, a mere swish and we're rendered slack-jawed and confused. As my friend Hannah put it, "I wish she'd show a bit of respect and put it in a bloody ponytail, just to help us keep focus." From this we have had to learn: good hair does not a good person necessarily maketh.

Exhibit B: Cheryl Cole. A woman whose hair, not so long ago, had the nation's collected womenfolk sighing as though over a nest of cupcake-eating kittens. Before it recently, as so many national treasures do, went too far and entered the realms of needing planning permission, Cole's hair was the eighth wonder of the world. It was like a millionaire shortbread woven into locks - creamy, sheeny and caramelly with the tiniest hint of crunch. But following the news that she has moved back in with philandering husband, we must conclude that all that lustrous head foliage can only be compressing the part of her brain responsible for thinking, "hang on, maybe he is not a nice man." 

2) I am very lucky

I am very lucky, to work for a company whose politics and moral code I agree with. Not every journalist has this luxury. For it is one thing to be hacking into the phones of a dead girl, and quite another to be innocently writing about shoes on the magazine that comes with the paper where people are hacking the phone of a dead girl. In an ideal world, journalism jobs would be so plentiful that everyone could pick and choose their company according to a strict code of values, like eHarmony. But for now we should have a little sympathy for the hundreds of newly unemployed hacks who never hacked anything.

3) Rupert Murdoch looks a lot like Professor Farnsworth from Futurama. It took me about five days to put my finger on it.

4) People have absolutely no tolerance of people who spell their names in unusual ways

When the News International excrement storm really got rolling, those wanting something quick and cutting to contribute to the debate largely went for: 'yeah, and she spells her name like a dick.' I kept schtum on pointing out that Rebekah is actually the biblical version, and thus not really dickish but sort of holy (I suspect that were she called Moses and turning water into endless piles of free Krispy Kreme, people's feelings would still lean towards the lynching sort).

Then there's little Harper Seven Beckham, a name spelled so wrong they've accidentally slipped  number in instead. Right now she's probably still getting acquainted with her own limbs in their cashmere babygro, but I hope one day she realises just how much joy she has brought to every wannabe wit on Twitter. Thank you, Beckhams. Monday would have been terribly boring in cyberspace if you'd just called her Emily.

And if your next is called Soda Serenity Now Beckham, I stand to make fifty quid.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

In which there's a mouse loose aboot this hoose

We have a mouse in the house. Apart from alliteration, there is nothing pleasing whatsoever about this statement. And anyway, we live in a flat. Which doesn't rhyme.

I know, before you call come tutting at me with your stoicism and your courage, that having mice is just an inevitable part of living in London. Everyone has mice, irrespective of wealth or hygiene standards. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge probably have mice in their apartment at Clarence House. I bet Kate stands on a chair in her nightie shrieking "Kill the bastard! Whack it like a polo ball!" while William wields a broom.

Indeed, we had mice before - but that was last year, in the infamous Highgate House, the flat that saw seventeen different flatmates, countless unsanitary parties and several major structural incidents* in three years I was resident. That flat had mice by default. It was Club Tropicana for rodents.

But not New Flat! New Flat, with its lovely airy whiteness and clean kitchen and fetching antique end tables, we thought was a haven of calm. There are no plates of festering pizza crusts stacked in bedrooms, like there were in the old house. We have handwash, and fresh flowers. We've got Cath Kidston oven gloves, for frick's sake.

So when Tara starts screaming on the landing on Monday night because a mouse has run out of her laundry, I barricade myself in my bedroom and start to cry. Not because I'm scared of mice - though I am, pant-wettingly scared - but because now I will never be able to properly relax in my lovely home. I will constantly be watching out the corner of my eye, jumping at little noises and inspecting all my food for tiny bite marks.

Thinking he may have crawled into out big walk-in cupboard, we barricade the gaps under the bottoms of the doors with a towel. Because obviously, no mouse could possibly defeat a towel.

We decide to name the mouse Arnold, because as Dumbledore says, fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself. Perhaps if we give him a personality, Arnold and us can co-habit comfortably, respectful of each others' space and domestic rights. Particularly, and this is a point I would beg Arnold to pay heed to, my right to sleep at night without a rodent crawling into my hair.

After two days of nervy living, however, of crowing, "helloooo, Arnold, I'm walking into the kitchen now…" before entering, to give him time to make a discreet exit, we change our minds. We look for traps. But everywhere only seems to sell humane traps. We want inhumane. We want dead.

"It was fluffy," Tara recalls. "Sort of cute, and… fluffy." Supressing all worry that we might be butchering a local kid's hamster, we finally find proper, old-fashioned mouse traps. I bait them with peanut butter. Crunchy, not smooth - mice would prefer crunchy, I am convinced.

And then, we wait.

*Well, someone ripped the bannisters off.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

In which I enter the Bronze Age

I bought some fake tan at the weekend. It was the stuff that masquerades as moisturiser, not the hardcore slap-it-on-with-gloves-and-protective-goggles stuff, but still. Possibly that makes it worse.

I'm still tearing myself apart slightly for the purchase, because I have long been a conscientious fake tan objector. I've been known to carry a placard through Basildon, chanting. My objection to fake tan is threefold:

1. The smell. It seems bizarrely backward that in a world of such advanced technological developments as ours, they can't make a product that turns you a few shades of tangerine darker without reeking out half the top deck of the 134 bus. But then perhaps it goes to prove my long-held belief that the Laboratoire Garnier is not in fact a laboratory, but just an enormous shiny factory full of monkeys pouring goop into bottles while an executive brays "And they'll pay £12.99 for this crap! Audrey, find me an island on eBay." 
The most popular school of thought says that fake tan smells of biscuits. But that isn't quite it. Biscuits, after all, smell pretty darn tasty. It's something else, something more specific and less appealing. And I know what it is. After many years of analysing the scent emitting from mahogany-stained ladies on bus journeys, in nightclub toilet queues and the like, I have pinpointed the exact smell. It is: the dried-on milk left in the bottom of a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, after it's sat in your bedroom for two days.

Biscuity, yes, but also slightly sour and musty. Since the days Egyptian ladies in waiting would hold their noses as Cleopatra wafted down the corridor after a Nesquik bath, womankind has known deep down that it didn't want to smell of milky cereal. Now if only someone would tell cosmetics companies the same thing.

2. Part of the pro-fake tan theory goes, if we fake it then we won't be tempted to sit out in the real sun, leathering our future complexions and cultivating cancerous moles. This is a good theory. It is true. But sadly, the flipside of the issue is that fake tan merely reinforces the belief that to be attractive, we must be satsuma-tinted. And while we all believe that tan is glam, pale is wail, etc, people will still be tempted to sit out in the real sun and do themselves all that damage.

The only way to counter the idea, perhaps, is for them to start making fake-pale creams so that honey-toned girls can look a little pastier. I'm going out tonight; I must go for a spray-pale first," they'll say. "I want to look proper peaky. With a few blue veins, if you can." Then gradually, we might learn to accept the skin tone we were born with as opposed to the one Donatella Versace thinks we're supposed to have.

3. The effort. To tan up before every flesh-bearing occasion, or even daily as a matter of habit, is just adding to the already tremendous list of preenings that is expected of us. In the time it takes to effectively bronze each inch of exposed skin, we could have made a souffle, sorted the recycling or finally unblocked the sink. Not to mention the domestic drudgery saved in not having to wash orange-streaked sheets twice a week.

So in short, fake tan makes us smell of cornflakey milk, robs us of time we could be using to make, then eat, souffle, and reinforces the belief that only sun-wizened skin is hot. But I still bought some. And I must say, my treacherous legs seem to be enjoying it.

Monday, 20 June 2011

In which I camp. The kind with tents.

"Am I hearing correctly?" said a text from my Dad a couple of weeks ago. "YOU want a TENT?"

It was a surprising, but perhaps not inevitable occurrence, that I would one day want to go camping. For all my attachment to hot running water, electrical appliances and garments made of chiffon, there is also the collected effects of a childhood spent reading books about boarding schools and pony treks to combat them. For every voice in my head reminding me how much I enjoy television and dry underwear, there's another shrieking "Let's play sardines in a wood then eat ginger cake under a tarpaulin in the rain - it will be RIPPING FUN."

So when we set off for the campsite in West Hoathly (that's somewhere near East Grinstead), I am feeling prepared. I have wellies (borrowed), a tent (borrowed) a sleeping bag (stolen) and a waterproof parka with a hood (salvaged from my brief 17-year-old period as a mod). Boyfriend has vetoed my desire to bring a pillow, and also forgotten to pack himself a towel.

"You won't need a towel," he says. "We're not going to shower."

"That's not the point," bleats the Hitchhiker's Guide in my head. "I will almost certainly be glad of a towel." In the end, I do not wrap it around myself for warmth as I bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta, but I do roll it up in the place of my absent pillow.

Pitching a tent in the pouring rain, it turns out, is one of those activities that is equally as hilarious in memory as it is un-hilarious at the time. A bit like burning your kitchen down, or breaking a minor limb. Buoyed only by the promise of fish and chips at the end and the vague notion that rain might be an exfoliant, we battle torrential conditions to claim and furnish our corner of field. A family with hardcore, hurricane-resistant style tents and a roaring fire look on, pity in their eyes.

But on the plus side, the fish and chip shop has pineapple fritters! Never underestimate the ability of deep-fried fruit to soothe the soul.

Twenty hours later, we have sung a rousing midnight chorus of Bohemian Rhapsody, slept on a bit of lumpy ground, flicked a slug off the outside of our tent from the inside (satisfying), weed in the woods (also satisfying), played a full two innings of cricket in intermittent rain showers, argued over the merits of chocolate-filled pre-packaged croissants, driven to a pub, driven back from the pub, gone on a three mile hike in the woods, got very, very lost, ended up in Ardingly, and been forced to take a taxi back to the campsite.

I am wearing damp socks, damp jeans, a damp top, with a damp jumper, and a damp coat, and a slightly damp soul. But (potentially inspired by my formative local reporter experience on this paper), my spirit is not dampened. Boyfriend has built a fire, which is obviously awakening some Early Man pride within him. I have smuggled a fire-baked potato into my sleeping bag for warmth.

Another twelve hours or so on, and we have driven through a couple of villages, then back through the same villages, then through them again, and then into something looking suspiciously like a town. Every limb aches. There is an M&S Simply Food on the horizon! Civilisation beckons. I buy an overpriced jelly and eat it in three lavish gulps.

It was though, on balance, dampness accepted, RIPPING FUN.

Monday, 13 June 2011

I which The Only Way Isn't Worthing

I've just had a very interesting taxi journey, from my parents' house to Worthing station. It went like this:

Driver: "So where are you going?"

Me: "London."

Driver: "Why?"

Me. "I live there."

Driver: "Uggh. Why?"

Me. "Um. It's nice?"

Driver: "It's a shithole."

Me: "Oh. Wow. Ok. The WHOLE of London is a shithole?"

Driver: Yes. They need to brick over the whole place and fill it with water."

Me, blinking: "You want to turn our capital city into… a massive pond?"

Driver: "It's a shithole. Why would you live there?"

Me: "The culture? The people? All the, um, STUFF?"

Driver: "Pffffft"

Me: "To get away from people like you?"


Me: "I don't think you've been to the right bits, mate."

Driver: "The whole place is a shithole."

Me, in a tiny voice: "You do know that the Queen lives there, right?"

Driver, tapping meter which reads £3.20: "In London, THAT would say twenty quid."

Me: "True. But I wouldn't be in a cab in London. I'd be on a night bus, chatting to a nice wino."

The exchange continued in this fashion until we reached the station, at which point Mr Awful Taxi Driver did not receive a tip.

The whole thing got me thinking. We all know I would never speak ill of Worthing (well I would and frequently do, but for the purposes of this article we'll pretend otherwise). It produced my father, housed my grandparents and bred me for a happy decade. It taught me what a 'twitten' is, and how to most effectively play 2p machines. It gave me a hefty two-year crush on Preston from The Ordinary Boys. It helped me appreciate beaches, both with and without sand, more than your average inlander.

But even for the sake of giving Mr Awful Taxi Driver the benefit of the doubt, it's pretty hard to pretend that the town has ever equalled London in terms of culture, interesting people, or nice things to do, eat, see, smell, wear, watch and be (it has better fish and chips, I'll give it that). In fact I've always privately thought that an Essex-style spin on my hometown would have to be called Worthing Is One Of Many Ways - Consider All Options First. It's a great place to grown up, because it inspires you to get out and go somewhere better. My friend the Awful Taxi Driver, it seems would disagree.

"So, you think Worthing isn't a shithole?" I innocently asked him. "It wasn't, but now there's too many of your London types here too," he snarled. "Really?" I said, looking around hopefully for someone with a Whole Foods bag and a Blackberry that I could run towards with my arms open, shrieking "Embrace me, kindred spirit!! Let's compare Oyster cards!".  Alas, none to be found.

My theory on the reason suburban people think they hate London, aside from the obvious excessive Mail/Express reading and general belief that every stranger's just a mugger you haven't met, is that they're thinking of the bits they go to as a tourist. King's Cross. Leicester Square. Oxford Street. Places that ooze with a sort of pungent pedestrian soup. But here's the secret that my angry friend might want to know - nobody LIVES in those places. And when we venture into them, Londoners hate them more than you do. It's the equivalent of someone coming to Worthing, spending an hour at Teville Gate, then going back and telling all their friends it's a shithole.

And you wouldn't like that, now would you?