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.