Monday, 28 March 2011

In which the general consensus is that a little common census goes a long way

To be printed 31/03/11.

It was much glee that I sat down to fill in my census. I like writing about myself, could you tell? Admittedly I wasn't being paid the princely Herald rate of £15 a week for this one, but still I was relishing the chance for a little self-examination for the benefit of the state.

But here is the thing: I was disappointed that the census wan't MORE invasive. I wanted to be probed, goshdarnit. I wanted it to make me realise things about myself that I never knew I didn't know. Unfortunately, something I already knew I knew was how many bedrooms my flat has. It has three. Next question.

How are the residents of our house related to each other? "Well," I start. "We met in Freshers' Week - you thought I was a loser because I said 'hi' to you in a corridor in a bid to make friends, but then we bonded over a mutual hatred of Ministry of Sound and love of inappropriate footwear and Tottenham Court Road hot dogs. We've lived together ever since, apart from that year you went travelling, which I have largely blocked out of my memory anyway because it was also the year of the Mouse House. We have shared clothes, books, an organic veg box and numerous long nights under blankets watching sitcom boxsets."

"The options," says flatmate, "are husband or wife, same-sex civil partner, partner, son or daughter, step-child, brother or sister, step-brother or step-sister, mother or father, step-mother or step-father, grandchild, grandparent, other relation, or unrelated."

"Oh," I say. "Unrelated."

You see, the truth is that far from being a dazzling excavation of our importance in the intricate meshwork of our society, the census has just made our lives look a bit sad. We are no relation to each other. We have no dependents. We don't own any property, or any vans, or give anybody any care or support.  We've never been married or divorced or in a same-sex civil partnership, and, even for the sake of hilarity, none of us are practising Jedi.

Question 17 is left intentionally blank. This one, obviously, has been thrown in to test us - to filter out the blank among us, if you know what I mean. So I circle it and write "ah, but has it?" in the margin.

How is my health in general? This is a hard one. Specifics I could do. I could fill pages with the intricacies of my dizzy spells, my stomach acid adventures, my neck twinge, my heart flutters, my jippy toe and my grotty tooth. I'd be thrilled to finally tell someone who would listen about how sometimes my kidneys pulsate and my nose goes numb whenever I eat radishes.

But in general? How is my health in general?

I tick 'good'.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

In which I get something off my chest.

(I wrote this in 2009, but will continue to unearth it until busty ladies get their dues)

Fashion is fickle. We all know this. Styles flit in and out of favour on the merry-go-round, enjoying their moment of glory then laying low until they can work their way back into our wardrobes. But while most trends, however unlikely, will get dragged into the spotlight at some point or other (hello, jodhpurs), there are some things that will just never quite manage it. Fleeces. Double denim. Nude tights. And, my own particular burden – cleavage.

Cleavage will never be cool. Despite all of Vivienne Westwood’s sterling efforts, no matter how much burlesque devotees try to bring back corseting, however many times Scarlett Johansson bends over in a movie, cleavage will always be the embarrassing auntie of fashion.

Cleavage takes an LBD from a cocktail bar to the Rover’s Return. A couple of cup sizes can be the difference between sexy and slutty, between Carrie Bradshaw and Carry On.

Of course, cleavage has had its champions over the years. Think of Jayne Mansfield in The Girl Can’t Help It, sashaying her way across that restaurant, her bullet bra leading the way like two guided missiles. But Jayne was about gaudy sex appeal, not style. In an era of elegant icons like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, Mansfield’s extreme proportions were a guilty pleasure.

Likewise, modern day breasts have their celebrity cheerleaders. Of course they’re a varied lot – at the good end of the scale we have Salma Hayek, Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, and the aforementioned Scarlett.

Luscious women who make cleavage look as at home on the red carpet as it does in a Yates’ Wine Lodge. Then there’s the bad end of the spectrum, where we find Jordan, Chantelle Houghton, Victoria Beckham’s gravity-defying melons, and 98 per cent of everyone at the British Soap Awards.

But whether good, bad or ugly, these well-endowed celebs all have something in common: just like their rounded silhouettes, they lack edge. Glamorous, they may be. But trendy? Not really. Ever since Twiggy first found fame, that childlike figure has been synonymous with cool, an antidote to the sexually-charged images of women that ruled the commercial world.

Then what is a chesty gal to do? Dressing big breasts is a constant Hobson’s choice – high collars turn us frumpy, fashioning our assets into a big matronly bosom, while plunging necklines take us into trashy territory quicker that you can say ‘my face is up here’. We can do va-va-voom with our eyes shut, but how about gamine? Boyfriend chic? Layering? It’s a minefield of sartorial no-goes.

Take Holly Willoughby. She’s an exemplar model of how to dress a busty figure, with her range a treasure chest of flattering deep Vs, sweetheart necks and sturdy tailoring.

But with her wardrobe, Willoughby has resigned herself to being cosy, not cutting edge. She’s settling into her place on the This Morning sofa while Fearne Cotton, her flatter-chested counterpart, gets to run round in the sixties shifts and cement her place in all the trend reports. It just isn’t fair.

The conclusion I’ve come to, after a decade of gaping blouses, straining bodices and getting perilously stuck inside dresses in shop changing rooms, is this: designers are scared of breasts.

They don’t know what to do with them. It isn’t even a skinny/curvy issue, though naturally that plays a part in it. But the truth is that, since the days when Thoroughly Modern Millie lamented the way that only flat-chested girls get their pearls to hang straight, fashion hasn’t catered for anything above a C-cup.

Maybe it’s because an impressive d├ęcolletage diverts attention away from the clothes. Cleavage is a scene-stealer, not a blank canvas. There is a glimmer of hope though, in the form of model Lara Stone, who graces the cover of this month’s Vogue.

While her (supposed) 32Ds are still a far cry from my own FFs, it’s the most cleavage the glossies have featured in a long time. As Cornershop once sang, everybody needs a bosom for a pillow. But whether they can reclaim their place in fashion remains to be seen.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

In which the Crazy Frog starts signing on

To be printed 24/03/11.

This week, the Office for National Statistics released its inflation shopping basket for 2011. The yearly update is, really, an excellent large-scale version of snooping in other people's trolleys for fun. "Five cans of ready-made gin and tonic, a tube of primula, marigolds and a radish?" you think, picturing said customer comatose in a litter tray, with cheese goo in their hair.

But the difference is that with the nation's shopping basket, every item is a supposed reflection on YOU; not just the weirdos.

First, the good news: fleeces are out! Out of the basket and promptly out of our lives, one can only hope. If ever there was an item that epitomises the inversely proportional relationship between comfort and ugliness inherent in fashion, the fleece is it. Wearing one feels like being gently caressed by a million tiny winged angel sheep, but makes you look like you should be eating piccalilli sandwiches in a bus shelter with someone called Derek. Fleeces be-gone!

Reflecting the ever-expanding leisure pursuits of the nation, both craft kits and massive LCD TVs are in. We can only assume this is so Britain's womenfolk can make scrapbooks of kittens with doily frills round their heads, at the EXACT SAME TIME Kirstie Allsopp is doing it on the telly.

Next, the collective bowel of the nation will be thrilled (or moved?) to hear that dried fruit has been given its own category. As one of the millions of office workers across the country who spends their days woofing fistfuls of raisins and then pondering what would happen if I'd eaten that many grapes, I feel this is a perceptive addition. Potentially they should take it one step further and give 'apparently healthy desk snacks' its own category, including smoothies, rich tea biscuits and anything being sold in the foyer to raise money for charity (generosity negates calories, everyone knows that).

A slightly poignant swap has also taken place this year, as mobile ringtone and wallpaper downloads have been ousted, and replaced by apps. This is probably only poignant for me, as a Blackberry-rather-than-iPhone user, and an app-less one at that. But I will always fondly remember the short period when a musical ringtone was a conscious display of taste and personality, rather than the tinny bleetings of a moron. Back then my ringtone was Brown Eyed Girl and my flatmate had Bad Guys from Bugsy Malone. We were cool, and everybody on every train knew it.

But the basket addition that has pleased me the most is the one that reflects the true cost of romance in 2011: dating website subscriptions. As a proud beneficiary of the phenomenon (at weekends I can be seen at Speakers' Corner waving a flag and shouting "Six months on, he's STILL not robbed me or harvested any of my internal organs!"), I'm glad that the government is recognising its significance.

Currently the standard response when I tell people how I met my boyfriend is a cheery "Great, great. No stigma, no stigma!" but I hope that, with the hypothetical purchase now made on behalf of the whole country, it will also curb the private assumption that we probably both have unsightly boils and dead pets in our beds. We're just nice, average, normal people, using our apps and eating our raisins and crocheting in front of a 32" TV.

But if I discover he owns a fleece, I may have to reconsider his place in the basket.

Monday, 14 March 2011

In which we discover the garden of earthy delights

To be printed 17/03/11.

I get excited by a lot of mundane things in life. Museum gift shops. Rice pudding skin. When the bus pulls up with the doors aligned perfectly in front of me, as though I've personally summoned it. But until last week, I didn't realise I could get so excited by vegetables.

We've started getting an organic veg box.

A few weeks ago, we didn't even known we needed more veg. Or better veg, or veg we'd never heard of. Vegetables were for putting in stir fries, roasting into oblivion, and routinely throwing out once a month after they turned black and oozed liquid over the bottom of the crisper drawer.

The vegetables of studentdom are as follows:

1. Peppers. Cut chunky and plonked on pasta, with distinct bias towards yellow and red because the green ones taste too much of grass.

2. Courgette/aubergine/mushroom. For the hippies and vegetarians.

3. Butternut squash and sweet potato. Because they're a bit like pudding, but as a first course. You can put honey on them.

4. Onions. Shut up, of course they count.

But during the last year and a half, our ascent into proper adulthood has been marked by becoming fully fledged legume-fanciers. And for the true vegetable proficient, or at least one without the space or inclination to grow the ruddy things themselves, the holy grail is the organic veg box. Ours gets delivered by a man named Simon Bear. He wears a fleece. The whole set up couldn't be more rustic if it put on a hessian jerkin and sang Greensleeves.

"The carrots have mud on them!" I found myself squealing. "Look how filthy the potatoes are!" agreed Flatmate. "That's the dirt of deliciousness. Good, proper, expensive, dirt." "I can't believe we spent so long eating CLEAN carrots. Ugh, Tesco, put away your soulless sponge".

It's worth noting, though, that just as there is always more a little more toothpaste in the tube, you will never quite finish all of the veg you buy. The initial rush of "yay veg!" on day one is slowly replaced by "mm, veg" on days two and three, then "sigh, veg" on days four-six and "bah, takeaway" on day seven. Then you throw away the wilting remains with a heavy heart, and the feeling that you're throwing away a tiny bit of forest and some critters. As well as roughly £4.56.

And of course, it's just another phase in the great middle class mission to hijack everything rustic and muddy that the wholesome, ruddy-cheeked salt-of-the-earth poor have been doing forever, like calling their kids after parlourmaids and dipping their chips in some runny egg.

Back in the olden days (yore, yesteryear, days gone hence), as far as I've learned from books and films and The Good Life, vegetables were organic as standard. That was just how they came. But hey, if reverse aspiration is responsible for bringing Swiss chard, so tenderly steamed and buttered, into our lives, then sign me up now and call me Gertrude.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

In which I straighten up and fly right

To be printed 10/03/11.

As you read this, I will be two days into a Lent without hair straighteners.

"Ye gads!" you're thinking, "the abstinence! The suffering!"  As frequent followers of this column* will know, I take Lent pretty seriously as an opportunity for self improvement, reflection, and lording it over the weaker individuals who crack and break out the secret fag/cake/Gilbert and Sullivan soundtrack stash on day three.

After years of culinary challenges like chocolate, bread, booze and crisps (the infamous Great Mini Cheddar Debate rattles on to this day), this year I'm turning my attention upwards to my barnet. So 40 days in a metaphorical style desert may not sound like that huge a sacrifice - and in many ways it isn't, being that it will actually give me more time for faffing around of a morning and lessen my chances of third degree ear burns. But it will be a trial, believe me.

My straighteners have been a loyal part of my life since the bleak mire of adolescence. They make my hair bend the right way, rather than flicking the wrong. They calm the daily hints of Flock of Seagulls just dying to burst through. They double up as an iron for the creased lady in a hurry. And there's always the reassuring thought that, if necessity dictated, you could probably use them to cook a steak and chips too.

I can pinpoint the exact moment that straighteners took over our hair - it was autumn 2003. I know this because I can make a flickbook of photos documenting my transition from a schoolgirl wearing a hay bale on her head to a girl wearing a shower curtain on her head. We went on a French residential holiday around the time GHD ceramics were launched (for the uninitiated, they're the Bentley of the straightening world), and one girl in our group was in possession. She was more popular than the girl who snuck in a bottle of peach Archers.

In every photo from that holiday, and every subsequent one until the ceramic started to lose its effect and my split ends started to occupy multiple postcodes, I have the swishiest, shiniest curtain of hair imaginable. I look like a chubbier Penelope Tree. After the initial few months of ceramic magic, straightening becomes like any other addiction - something you just do, without thinking, because not doing it feels wrong.

The crucial thing to understand about hair straightening, you see, is that it is not about making hair straight. Pff, no. Plenty of girls who sport curly or wavy or boofy hair will still rely on them daily. It is about changing your hair from something flicky, fuzzy or generally misguided, in short something that looks like it has spewed forth from the human body, into something that looks like it has been spun on a loom by nymphs.

If we look back to the 80s and 90s, hair wasn't required to perform as hard. True, it had to be enormous, permed, possibly sporting a pink visor or distracting from Tom Selleck's moustache - but it was allowed to be hair, not some sort of follicle fantasy by the Haus of Aniston. For the last decade we've been under a straightening spell, and it's only now that we're finally breaking free. So I put down my straighteners with a heavy mane but a light heart, and hope that by Easter I will be stronger.

Or my ends will be, anyway.

*And I'd like to take this chance to say a grateful "how-doody?" to all three of you.