Tuesday, 19 April 2011

In which I know of a lawful impediment

To be printed 21/04/11.

Next weekend, I am going to a wedding. It is not - just to clear up the matter now before you start imagining me far horsier and more secretly double-barrelled than I am - the royal one. It is another wedding. You don't know them.

More interestingly, I don't know them either.

I am going as that ever-mysterious and alluring figure, the plus-one. I've always wanted to be a plus one. Partly because it means my company is valued highly by a loved one in the areas of dancing, eating posh food and giving witty commentary on people's hats, but mainly because it means I can spend the whole day trying out variations on my hilarious "oh, I'm just here for the booze" line.

Never having met either of the happy couple puts me lower than the catering staff in terms of relevance to the occasion, but about on par with them in potential to ruin it. There's a whole catalogue of potential faux pas that I'm trying to identify and quash before the big day.

For example I probably shouldn't, I'm guessing, catch the bouquet. This would be better left to someone with a little more claim to the honour, such as a friend who has endured months of bridezilla behaviour and wants revenge. Or the weeping, lipstick-smeared unfortunate in the corner of the dancefloor singing It Should Have Been Me. Besides, I'd go swiftly from mysterious plus one to bonafide stranger, next to a boyfriend-shaped hole in the marquee wall. Not a plan.

I also shouldn't, as a general rule, pull focus from the bride. Nobody should of course, but at least if it's her cousin that turns up in a gold lamé catsuit and three-foot stuffed vulture headpiece it can be bitched about at years of family functions, rather than lamented in photos with a bitter "Who was that?" "Some hag nobody knew."

But as a normal human being, of course my main fear is that I'm going to scream something inappropriate at the top of my lungs during the ceremony. We all harbour this fear, the fear of Sudden Uncontrollable Public Screaming (or SUPS) - anytime we're in a church, or meeting, or school assembly or other generally quiet and non-screamy occasion, a tiny voice in the back of our minds asks "what would happen if I stood up now and yelled something obscene?" It's the same voice that wonders about jumping off railway bridges or spontaneously dumping ketchup down a stranger's white blouse.

"It would be bad," you tell the voice. Because you are sane, and normal. "Yes, it would be bad." replies the voice. "It would be very bad. Let's picture just how bad that would be." And in the midst of the spiralling disaster scenes playing out across our minds, we convince ourselves that we are definitely going to do it. We are going to scream the obscene thing.

So when it comes to the "If any person here present knows of any lawful impediment" bit, despite all my best efforts to be poised and charming and avoid the boyfriend-shaped wall hole, I fear the urge to scream, "BECAUSE HE LOVES MEEE, AND ALSO KILLED THAT MAN THAT TIME" is just going to be too strong. But it's ok, I'm only there for the booze.

And just think of all the colossally dreadful SUPS people will be battling to surpress during the royal one. Good luck, Beckhams. Hold it in.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

In which I officially launch Crotchwatch

Another fashion piece, written last year:

Rules are made to be broken, that’s how the old adage goes. And so it normally is in fashion, where rules like ‘blue and green should never be seen’ and ‘steer clear of horizontal stripes’ have been broken with such regularity that they now exist only in quaint 1930s books and the occasional WI meeting.

We start kicking against clothing regulations early on in life with school uniform, rolling our waistbands over and making our ties short and stubby as a low-maintenance way of sticking it to the Man.

Then later it all becomes a bit more relevant, when we stop earning house points and start earning style points. Fashion rules are thrown at us from all directions, each with the promise it will deliver that magical word, “flattering” (and those even more magical ones, “thin”, “young” and “almost a bit like Scarlett Johansson”).

I say they’re thrown from all directions, but of course it’s largely whatever direction Trinny and Susannah happen to have been standing in – though they’ve fallen off the radar in recent years, to this day I still hear them shrieking “Deep Vs! Three-quarter sleeves! Put DOWN the polo neck!” every time I go shopping.

But this is all a very round-about way of bringing up a delicate topic. Which is, not to beat around the, um, bush or anything: crotches. Crotches seem suddenly to have risen to new prominence in our society, and I think they need attention. No, hang on, the ISSUE needs attention. The crotches need as little attention as possible.

The problem began about four years back, when leggings made their triumphant return to our wardrobes. It was an unlikely lycra renaissance for a generation who remember our mums in them not so long ago, but leggings managed to be one of the most dominant trends of the noughties. Their appeal was based, initially, on coverage; thicker than tights, we could wear long tops as ‘dresses’ and pelmets as ‘skirts’ without shame of reproof. They were the get-out-of-slutty-free card. And they were warm to boot.

But their service to us was part of a fashion deal – to avoid making the same mistakes our mothers did, leggings had to be worn with more caution this time round. The unspoken rule, or at least so I understood it, was this: we had to keep the crotch covered at all times. Whether with tunics, dresses, shorts or skirts, leggings had to stay layered beneath things. It just made good sense. I thought we were all agreed.

Apparently not. For all of a sudden, across the nation, hemlines are rising and crotches are emerging. People are wearing leggings with t-shirts. With blouses. With cropped tops even. Whether it’s deliberate fashion anarchy or just that everybody has forgotten the rule, I’m not sure. Or perhaps it’s because, in these times of recessionista thrift, we can now pass off three millimetres of clingy spandex as “trousers”, like they used to make birthday cakes out of hat boxes in the war. Perhaps.

Either way, I feel something needs to be said. It’s one of those rare looks that is as unappealing on short and tall, curvy and skinny alike. Not that I’m electing myself as the anti-crotch front, running around the streets handing out aprons to protect women’s dignity – if the crotch-bearing is a conscious act, I have no right to interfere.

But somehow I don’t think it IS conscious. I think something has wandered off course somewhere in the grand scheme of trend development, and we need to get it back on course. So I’m going to say it once more, in a very loud, clear voice, and then sit back and hope it takes some effect. Ahem . PUT. THE CROTCHES. AWAY.

(I’d like to apologise for the number of times I’ve had to use the word ‘crotch’ in this article. But it could have been worse. At least I never said ‘cameltoe’)

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

In which I explain the paraphernalia of womanhood

To be printed 14/04/2011.

I am about to make a sweeping generalisation. I always avoid sweeping generalisations*, but for the purposes of this article we're going to assume that the following statement is fact: women have lots of stuff.

We thrive on 'things'.

Not necessarily from an innate inclination to hoard (I like to believe both genders have equal propensity to end up crazed bric-a-brac collectors, eventually dying in a pile of their cack), but because the simple act of being a woman in our society tends to require equipment.

Some of us see it as battle armour, some like Mary Poppins' carpet bag full of magical tricks, while more of us are just continually baffled by the sheer amount of indispensable gubbins we've managed to accumulate. "I don't even BUY this stuff!" we cry, as things fall on our heads from cupboards. But despite frequent attempts of declutter and downsize, the things always creep back into our lives.

In accordance, our bags have evolved from little velveteen pouches for love notes, snuff boxes and other trinkets, to holdalls you can cart a child round in. We've become pack ponies, hauling around our collected life's purchases just so that if anyone happens to have a funny tummy twinge, we can be eternally poised with a Gaviscon.

And while for the most part, we understand the vague original purpose of our things, for outsiders it can be a confusing world. So here, for the uninitiated, is my cheat's sheet to the things – or what I like to call 'the paraphernalia of womanhood':

1. Kirby grips

Women have a special place to keep kirby grips, and that is the floor. Despite buying approximately eight million of the little metal buggers in our lifetimes, we will only ever have about four on the go at once - and all of these we will procure when needed from our bedroom carpets. Despite all attempts to tame them, to keep them in little purses and designated boxes, the truth is that kirby grips just need to roam free.

2. Lip balm

In the interests of thorough journalism, I have googled 'Do women's lips get dryer than men's?' but it hasn't returned any results. So we must venture on uninformed, to learn about the female attachment to lipbalm. It's a particular trademark of my generation, I think, the need to be in a state of permanent lip lubrication. When we were 14, my pals and I carried around so many tubes of sparkly, cake-flavoured goop in our pencil cases that we could line them up the entire length of the desk during English lessons.

Meanwhile in adulthood, we favour balms that make our lips tingle to the point of pain, signifying that they're "doing us good." We have them littered about our rooms, our desks and our person in case of a sandpaper attack - and if none is to be found, we can always resort to a greasy sausage roll.

3. Safety pins

In every woman's life, there will be at least five occasions where her clothes will fail her. Straps will break, seams will rip, garments will cease to perform their proper function and leave her indecently exposed. This is when the surprise presence of a safety pin is so glorious we could cry.

But be warned: they do not always remain where we put them. Safety pins are fickle creatures and love to disappear just when we need them most. Which is probably why Liz Hurley wore a tribute to them down the red carpet – she knew it would pay off to get them on her side.

4. Tampons

It's the obvious one, and despite all the men going spontaneously blind and shaky right now, it must be covered. They are the ultimate womanly accoutrement. The savvy female has them stashed in every conceivable outlet; the unsavvy female must beg them from strangers. We are fiercely loyal to brand and style - if you want to cause a proper ruckus in a group of women, simply ask "applicator or non-applicator?" and wait for the feathers to fly (throw in a Mooncup fan and you've got a civil war on your hands).

And despite only needing them once a month, we stockpile like it's going out of fashion. "Might as well buy another box," we think when we find ourselves in the aisle. "You never know." You never know what? An entire rugby team with bloody noses might stop by and need plugging up?

*This is also a sweeping generalisation.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

In which I won't be dressing to the max

Written last year, but sadly still applicable now.

For about the last five years or so, I have considered any skirt or dress that reaches as far as my knees to be deeply unflattering. Or at least, deeply unflattering on me. On other people they might be elegant, chic, sexy even. But on me, I instantly look like someone dressed as a mum for a school play.
Being top-heavy, my legs are my slimmest part and therefore the bit I want to get out at every opportunity. It deflects from my bulkier bits up top, like wearing a subtle sign that says, “Just so you know, I’m not built like a tank the whole way down.”

So I’ve spent a draughty five years pushing the boundaries of hemline decency. Every dress has been shortened, then shortened even more the next year. My tights have got more and more opaque to compensate, my heels lower and tops more voluminous to balance out the harlot potential. It has been a long work in progress, but finally I’ve found a look that works for me. Hurrah.

The snag, of course, is that saying you’ve “found a look that works for you” is waving a red flag to the fashion bull. It’s like when someone on Eastenders says, “this is going to be the best Christmas we’ve ever had.” As soon as the words leave your lips, a flashing alarm goes off somewhere thousands of miles away, in a big control room, where I like to picture Anna Wintour, Karl Lagerfeld and Alexa Chung all sitting round in massive leather chairs. “Lauren Bravo’s found a look that works for her!” They cry. “Quick, make fashion do the opposite!” And so, summer 2010 became the summer of the maxi dress.

Maxis have been creeping up (or down) on us for years, but up to now I’ve been able to ignore it, dismiss it as a micro trend that will never catch on because Brit girls like to flash the flesh too much. But not so, it seems. Everywhere you look this season, women are flapping about in acres of fabric. And, more distressing, most of them look good. They’re elegant, chic, sexy even.

There is a crucial ‘most’ in the above sentence, though, and that is the deceptive secret of the maxi – it DOESN’T WORK ON EVERYONE. For starters, they cover up a significant portion of our bodies, leaving us only with arms and décolletage on show. Which is great if arms and décolletage happen to be your best bits, but how many of us claim that? And how many of us, alternatively, spend entire August afternoons sweating it out in inappropriate jackets so that nobody sees our bingo wings?
Then there’s the maxi’s lack of shape. This can be a blessing – skimming over your hips and thighs, providing ample coverage for a belly full of fried calamari – or a curse – making you look like someone of indeterminate gender hiding in a shower curtain.

And then there’s the lack of accommodation for, um, ample chests. The vast majority of maxis come in two styles – ruched bandeau or triangle halterneck. Neither are friends to any bosom bigger than a C-cup, with the former looking a bit like two puppies in a sack, and the latter presenting the age old dilemma of cavernous cleavage vs wearing a prudish camisole underneath. And I do not approve of clothes than necessitate extra things worn underneath just to protect your modesty.

There’s also the length issue to contend with. Maxi propaganda states that long, wafty dresses can only be worn by long, wafty people; one of those hideously unfair fashion diatribes like ‘only skinny people can wear skinny belts’ (you notice there are no trends named ‘stout and dumpy’). But it’s a rule made for breaking. The secret to pulling off maxi as a shorter lady is picking your shape wisely and being nifty with a needle and thread if need be. Make sure it covers your ankles, but isn’t sweeping the floor, and fits properly up top so you don’t look swamped. Try to find something relatively slim-fit so that you’re not wallowing around in a paisley marquee, and if all else fails, crank up the heels.

But body issues aside, the real key to maxxing it up is deciding on your style. Are you a Grecian goddess (draping, chiffon, upswept hair), a prairie girl (broderie anglais, denim waistcoat, belt), or an urban hippie (straight jersey t-shirt maxi, minimalist sandals, iPhone)? Or will you, like me, be keeping a firm grip on your minis until Anna, Karl and Alexa come round to prise them out of your hands?

Monday, 4 April 2011

Diary of a Domestic Disaster - in which we have a gas leak

To be printed 07/04/11.

Sunday, 2pm

"I can smell gas in the kitchen," I tell my boyfriend. And in an unusual twist of events, it isn't coming from him. But, as I'm prone to neurosis and hungry, I cook some bacon to cover it up.

Sunday, 4pm

I can smell gas again. This time I decide to take matters into my own hands and test it out - so I get the kitchen lighter, hold it at arms length in the direction of the boiler, and light it. Nothing explodes. So it's probably fine. It's fiiiine.

Sunday, 6pm

Flatmates #1 and #2 have both smelled gas in the kitchen too. One smelled it yesterday and one smelled it the day before. I have a headache, which might be the gas but might also be the afternoon I spent eating raw shortbread dough. "It's probably fine," says flatmate. "It's fiiiine."

Sunday, 7pm

I call the National Gas Emergency Helpline. Because I do love a bit of drama, and my headache has got worse, and although the boiler passed my cunning lighter test, it's still probably best that we can go to bed as sure as we ever can be that we won't be blown up in the night.

"We can smell gas," I tell the lady on the end of the phone.

"Turn all electric appliances and lights off. Turn the gas off at the meter. Open all windows and keep pets away," she briskly instructs.

"Oh, but we've been using the hob. And the lights. And the telly's on." I tell her. "So it's probably nothing. It's probably fiiine."

"Someone will be there within an hour," she says.

Sunday, 8pm

The door buzzer goes (now I come to think of it, another thing we're not meant to be using). "THE GAS MAN'S HERE!" I shout. "QUICK, turn the TV and lights off! It'll look like we're not taking it seriously!"

Gas Man charges in. "Where's the gas meter?" he asks. "Ummm," we say. "We don't know. In the cupboard? Or under the sink? Would you like some shortbread?"

Gas Man doesn't want shortbread, but he does want t know where the meter is. In the end it transpires that the meter is in the yard out the back, which must be accessed through the shop downstairs. So for half an hour we sit in front of River Cottage, occasionally shouting "Are you alright down there?" out of the window and muttering "it's probably fiiiine," to each other.

Sunday, 8.30pm

Well whaddya know, we have a gas leak! A bonafide domestic disaster! Everything is not, as previously suspected, fiiiine - our hob is leaking! Had we not called the emergency helpline, we could have ended up a cautionary tale on a safety advert. I have saved everyone's lives!

"I've had a headache all afternoon," I tell Gas Man, knowingly. "Not from this you won't have," he says. "Domestic gas hasn't been toxic for years." Oh.

Sunday, 9pm

Gas Man has turned the gas off. I may have saved everyone's lives, but as a tedious downside I've also left us with no cooker, heating or hot water. The landlord has been called, and told he will need to replace the hob - pronto, before we all freeze and have to resort to wallowing in our own dirt and licking our plates clean then using them again.

We spend several minutes bemoaning all the food that we won't be able to cook, before Gas Man points out that while our hob is gas, our oven is electric. And therefore fine. "Oh," we say. "Of course. We knew that."

Monday, 10am

Three cold showers and an experimental night with a portable hot plate later, the landlord comes to replace the hob. Except it turns out that the hob doesn't need replacing at all, because the leak is being caused by some old food stuck under one of the gas knobs.

"See?" says flatmate. "I knew it would be fiiiine."