Tuesday, 25 January 2011

In which the buff boys had better beware

To be printed 27/01/11.

We're at the end of what was really a very newsy week. Just as the papers were cracking their knuckles and sitting down for a session of prime punning on their 'Johnson-out-balls-in'-style headlines, the world decided to throw a  bit more (decidedly less punnable) news at them. Then a bit more. Then a bit more, then some more after that.

But amid all the resignations and stepping downs and bowing outs, there was one demise that I'm afraid will go sadly unnoticed. Except by a clutch of under-informed thirteen year old girls looking for torso pictures of One Direction to put in their lockers. Yes, Sugar magazine is going to that great wastepaper basket* in the sky.

A large proportion of you won't appreciate what a sad loss that is. Because, obviously, nobody reads magazines anymore! Do they? Not the yoof, anyway, who we all know get all their information from weekly podcasts transmitted directly into their brains from speakers in the Topshop changing rooms, at a frequency only the under-18s can hear. But for any female alive before 1992, or any male who has ever had  a young female ask him anything about female functioning that they really rather wouldn't answer, the loss of teen mags is a cause for lamentation.
Coming from a family of averagely strict principals (yes to the hair dye, no to the Faliraki holiday), I graduated through  a well-worn chronology of girls' mags. I started on Girl Talk, but wasn't allowed Shout! because it talked about training bras. Then I moved onto Shout! but wasn't allowed Mizz, because it talked about periods. Then I was allowed Mizz, but wasn't allowed Sugar because it talked about kissing boys. By the time I was allowed Sugar, I had realised that far juicier titbits could be got out of my Mum's Woman's Weekly, albeit with a side portion of menopause and hair thinning.

There was one gloriously libertine phase where a dog-eared copy of More found its way into the waiting room magazine pile at my dancing school, leading us all to race to ballet early for a sacred ten minutes poring, goggle-eyed, over the pages. I still consider More a bit too racy for me now if I'm honest. There's no pets corner, for one.

But the joy of girls' magazines wasn't just down to their information, it was also about the participation. I spent a significant portion of my tweens staging humiliating accidents in front of boys (in girl-mag-speak, "lush lads", "gorge guys" or "fit fellas", always alliterative) outside McDonald's, just so I could sell the story to the Cringe page for a £10 Tammy voucher. Aside from flavoured lipgloss, embarrassment was essentially the currency of these publications. If your parents weren't humiliating you, it was your teachers. Or your friends. Or your little sister, who just happens to have a snot attack over new hoodie as a buff boy walks past outside Morrisons.

Then, of course, there was the crowning glory of the girls' mag - the problem page. This was where we learned to outwardly say "eww, what a freak," while inwardly going "phew, glad that's normal." Where practising snogging on the back of your hand was a sane, sensible thing to do. Where the answer to everything, every single thing, was "just be yourself! And maybe phone this helpline." Aunt Sally in the Sunday Times has definitely got the wrong idea.

But the saddest thing of all about Sugar folding? I'll never work there now. And I had a whole folder of Cringe stories saved up, just in case.

*Recycling box, I mean. Sorry, sorry.

Monday, 17 January 2011

In which 2011 is the year of a thousand stars

To be printed 20/01/2011.

"Just got wished a happy new year by Billy Mitchell. 2011 will be the year of my induction into celebrity circles."

I tweeted this at 1am on New Year's Day. Clearly I had my priorities right - after singing an interpretation of auld lang sine composed entirely of the words "schmurrh durr, der dur," and avoiding the advances of the Octogenerian who claims to want a new years' cheek peck but WILL go for the lips at the last minute (I like to call him Old Man Syne), everyone knows that new year is for bettering oneself. And as everyone also knows, thanks to our culture's relentless veneration of flash in the pan notoriety, the best way to better oneself is to make friends with famous people! Hoorah!

I haven't just started, of course - encountering underwhelming celebrities has been a hobby of mine for years, but it's only now I'm going pro. It helps to be living in an area of London almost entirely populated with ageing soapstars. Minty in the corner shop, Michelle Collins in Caffe Nero, Craig Charles helping a drunk lady onto the bus. It's like C-list safari. With Billy, or Perry as I will call him once we're invited to pie and Pictionary parties at his house, we're aiming to slide gradually into a warm but casual friendship based on doing the same pub quiz and breathing the same oxygen for a significant part of the day.

It isn't borne out of a tragic urge to climb the social ladder, you understand (it might be but we'll pretend it's not). Conversely, I actually have a theory that lame celebrity encounters, administered regularly, can be good for the self esteem. It makes us feel better to know that just because someone is on Eastenders, or DIY SOS, or was once the body double for the man in The Brittas Empire, it doesn't mean they don't go to the shop and buy their own Twiglets. When you've seen Tracey Thorn from Everything but the Girl dribble a bit of beer down her chin, you get an overwhelming sense that somehow it's OK To Be You.

But I'm not just sending you off into the world, yelling "Go forth! Rub shoulders, and anything else you want to, with the famous!" Oh no. A self-bettering activity like this needs some structure, and a healthy element of competition to keep it interesting. And so, I proudly unveil the Lame to Fame points system:

2 points -

Anyone you have queued, or paid substantial amounts of money, to meet.
Anyone you have camped out behind railings to scream at for three fleeting seconds.
Anyone so famous that it won't just be your anecdote, but a large-scale anecdote covering an extensive group of people. Like if you ever witnessed Prince Charles ride a bike into the Thames, or something.
Boris Johnson*.

5 points -

Anyone famous who has a conversation longer than 30 seconds with you.
Anyone who has been in both The Bill AND one of our three major soaps (Eastenders, Corrie, Emmerdale).
Anyone famous internationally.
A member of Girls Aloud.

10 points -

Anyone who gets you excited enough to do a little squeal, but whom nobody you're with has ever heard of.
Anyone you recognise purely by voice, or isolated body part.
Any celebrity in a situation that would be considered embarrassing to a normal human. Bonus points if you actually help the celeb, like picking food off their face or pointing out the loo roll trailing from their shoe.

*Everyone has seen Boris Johnson.

In which we enter the age of austerity

I've always had an issue with people hating January. It may be a month entirely given over to grey skies, DFS adverts and images of lycra-clad celebrities next to cut-outs of their flabbier selves, exhaling, but it is also my birthday month, and as such I won't hear a word against it. So while you're supping on your cabbage soup and signing your first-born over to David Lloyd, you can always remember that somewhere, I'm sticking my face in a cake while other people clap. Isn't that a comfort?

And besides my personal felicitations (I can see why this might not be good news enough to redeem the entire month - after all, finding me the perfect present is a chore akin to fighting fat with Kerry Katona), there are plenty of other reasons to love January. Rather than see it as the drill master of months, demanding you better yourself with the help of screechy whistle, you should look at it as a kind of half-hearted warm-up for the year ahead.

Nothing in January has to be done with any real gumption, because anything a bit substandard can be shrugged off with a simple "meh, it's January". January is a dress rehearsal month, where you almost intentionally fail at things, knowing that nobody expected much anyway. And like dress rehearsals, if you actually do the thing brilliantly then it's bad, because the real event will then inevitably be a letdown. The real event in this case being February, and the letdown being pancakes that won't flip, a lenten vow that lasts 40 minutes and a Valentine's Day spent alone in a slanket eating a SaraLee gateau.

Take your lead from the world of fashion magazines (always a trusted source for a real grasp on reality). The September issue of Vogue is always a weighty tome, because that is the true New Year. September is about whipping yourself back into shape, evolving a new look and buying a new pencil case from WH Smith. It always has been. Meanwhile, January's Vogue is always a pitiful slip of a thing, barely enough to wedge a draft out from the bottom of the door. This month's issue has Victoria Beckham on the cover, and even she's wearing a Granny jumper. The jig is up. January operates at half-mast. It's on dial-up, not broadband. Relax, your gluts are never going to look any different.

I only wish that more people could be enlightened on this viewpoint. Because while my new year's resolutions reflect the real pace of the month - "take rubbish out", "tweeze eyebrows sometime before April", etc - everyone else in my life seems to be psyching up for the self-renovation of the century.
New Boyfriend has declared an Age of Austerity and compiled a spreadsheet of all his monthly outgoings (£120 on beer, £8 on Weetabix). 

My mate Pete, formerly the man for whom a hamper of Sainsbury's Basics noodles was a decadent Christmas present, is potentially buying a third of a flat. Just as I've vowed to party more and care less, all of my nearest and dearest are climbing mountains then going to bed at 11 with a copy National Geographic. It's wrong.

And what's more, it's no fun. For me. So with just two weeks to go until my birthday, I'm selflessly devoting my month to helping those less fortunate than myself… to give up and wait till February. Cake for everybody!

Monday, 3 January 2011

In which I am retching even as I write

To be printed 06/01/10.

It's been a weird weekend. Of course, the Christmas period is always a time of general topsy-turviness, what with everybody eating Lindor for breakfast, buying half-price bikinis and having no idea what day it is, but that last weekend was a proper mind-confuddler. Given that New Year's Day always feels like a Sunday, and Bank Holidays always feel like a Sunday, and then there was an actual Sunday sandwiched in the middle that didn't feel as much like a Sunday as the fake Sundays either side.

But my confusing Christmas started two weeks earlier, when I got home and discovered that in my absence, my family have started wearing slippers.

As an adult child moving out of home, there are many things you worry about. You worry that they'll forget your name or give your bedroom to the guinea pigs. You worry that they'll suddenly develop a taste for DFS pleather sofas and start buying ornaments from QVC. You worry that they'll decide Worthing is too cosmopolitan and exciting for them, and move to Bognor. But you never think you'll have to worry about them suddenly taking up a habit as dangerous and perverse as slipper-wearing.

We have never been a slipper family. I'd like to think it's because the Bravos are free spirits, trekking bravely through life on the bare (or sock-clad) feet that God gave them. But more likely it's because we're lazy, and because taking one pair of shoes off, only to put another, slightly softer, pair of shoes on, feels like quite an effort compared to just taking them off and being done with it.

But if I'm honest it's more than just laziness. I genuinely don't get the point of slippers. Maybe it's something that I'll start to understand with age, like slips or valance sheets. If your feet are cold, you want to warm them - this I understand. But surely, that's what big socks are for. Big socks are great, I am a cheerleader for big socks. They offer insulation for your tootsies without losing the feeling of freedom you get from being shoeless. In fact, on the right kind of flooring socks give you MORE freedom. Remember Risky Business? I think you see my point.

Why you'd want to surrender to another shoe instead of the freeing sock is beyond me. Ladies - imagine you come home at night and take your bra off (sheer, comfortable, free-hanging bliss), only to immediately put on something basically the same as a bra, but with a different name and a fleecy lining. You're just cheating yourself.

Plus, there's just something so poncey about slippers. Those proper, towelling mule ones. They produce the same stomach-clenching reflex in me as flip-flops. They instantly render even the most dignified and impressive of persons a powerless, shuffling twerp.

It doesn't mean I love my family any less, of course. But somehow I feel it's driven a wall between us. I'm finding it harder to look at them and see myself reflected back. And in the spirit of family loyalty, I'd like it to be heard: when I find out who has done this to them, there will be hell to pay.

In which it never happened anyway

Printed 23/12/10.

I'm writing this on Saturday, so I have a five-day buffer zone from which to wonder what I'm about to wonder without having to believe it might actually come true. What if I get stranded in London for Christmas?

When Bing Crosby sang about a White Christmas, I don't think he ever took the issue into consideration. Why would he, he had all the natty jumpers and roaring fires and fur-trimmed ladies that he needed right there at the Holiday Inn*. His days would be merry and bright (partly because he was in a film studio).

But for where I'm sitting now - in the window of Muswell Hill Caffe Nero with a hot chocolate the size of my head - it's looking like a distinct possibility. The snow has reached the mid-level milestone of on my gauge of Bad Snowness: when you can no longer see where the pavement ends and the road begins, basically you're in trouble. And the country's rail services being as wussy as they are (I always like to picture Southern as a wheebly girl who doesn't want to get her hair wet), I'm already anticipating an Arctic hell mission to get back to Worthing on the 23rd.

You always assume that in these situations, everything will miraculously work out ok. Your Dad will somehow commandeer a husky-drawn sleigh to zip you down the A24. You'll hitch a lift in a van with a polka band, like in Home Alone. You don't let yourself entertain the idea that you might have to spend Christmas with an M&S stuffing sandwich playing Guess Who against yourself**.

I'm one of the lucky ones, though, as by finishing work on the 23rd I have a whole 30 hours in which to hike, bike and possibly kayak back to my parents' house. But for my friends who are working on Christmas Eve, with every snowflake that falls they edge closer to the possibility of a lonely yule. So they're forming pre-emptive survival plans in case the worst happens, where all the snow victims gather to pool their food stocks and residual body heat, play charades and wrap up things they've found in the flat for each other as poignant makeshift presents.

"My own toilet brush! Used! Aw Billy, you shouldn't have. Pass the turkey twizzlers." Then when the snow finally thaws, they will find that their hearts have melted a little too, and realise that wherever there is love, you can create your own Christmas. 

So I'm praying that the snow will hold off long enough for not just me, but everyone to make it safely home. Partly in the spirit of goodwill to all mankind, and partly because I just know that if they have the DIY lonely London Christmas without me, I'm going to be properly jealous.

*Incidentally, I always picture the Holiday Inn like a lovely version of a Premier Inn, with more seasonal charm and less Lenny Henry. Instead of the little tray of tea bags and biscuits, there might be mulled wine and a tiny gingerbread house. And shampoo actually worth pocketing when you leave. It is also worth saying, I have never watched Holiday Inn.

** Actually I play a mean game of solo charades. So long and elaborate are my mimes that by the end, I've forgotten what the original answer was.