Tuesday, 7 August 2012


If by any chance my high school PE teacher is reading this, or in fact my middle school PA teacher, or anyone who has ever had the luckless job of persuading me to partake in physical activity, I’d like to say first – sorry. All those times I ‘had my period’, I didn’t, and all those times had I twisted my ankle in a sketchily-described incident involving slippery grass and tripping over a kitten, well, I hadn’t.

But it’s all ok! Because now, suddenly, I LOVE SPORT. It turns out you were wrong about trampolining and telling me I was going to die of juvenile heart disease – what it actually takes to get me into sport is £8bn, a shedfull of elite athletes and the chance to cry noisily in public at least four times a day. So inspired am I by Team GB that I checked my trainers for nesting mice and went running this weekend. Twice! In front of people!

Like most of the rest of the country, between weeping and wondering what Michael Phelps DOES with all his medals (coasters? Hands them out to his milkman instead of a Christmas box?), I’ve decided I’m going to compete in Rio 2016. If Helen Glover can set foot in a boat for the first time in 2008 and row her way to gold four years later like a steel-armed goddess, then I can probably work up a passable performance in something obscure like water polo. I just need a tough, wizened old coach with maverick methods and a seriously good training montage.

Plus, if nominative determinism could ring as true for me as it does for Usain Bolt, I’d be really blooming good at it. Or a low-grade cable TV channel.

I realise I’m not a good sample group, being that this is the first Olympics I’ve watched voluntarily rather than because I’m on a family holiday and it’s raining, but London 2012 is the best Olympics ever, isn’t it? My personal highlights have included the Olympic parents (“Tell me what you’ve been going through this last week,” said presenter. “I’ve been laying a patio,” replied Beth Tweddle’s dad), the discovery of endless well of love in my heart for Claire Balding, and inventing a drinking game around repeating ‘Johnson-Thompson, Johnson-Thompson’ until it goes funny.

Then there have been the underdog stories, the bluffing of sporty terminology (I LOVE a good keirin, don’t you?), the listening to every presenter’s careful use of ‘union flag’, the Wiggo-fuelled mod revival, and the fact that almost every single thing I had expected of the Olympics has been proved wrong. The tube has been a veritable floo system of easy transportation, the tourists have been lovely, the rain has been dramatically decorative at worst, and it’s impossible to be grumpy when every third person on the street is wearing a bright pink anorak. 

And if all those things can defy expectation, maybe my thigh muscles can too. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to find some synchronised swimming to cry over.

In which bad manners are in the iPhone of the beholder

In these times of ever-evolving communication methods, it can be hard to know exactly what constitutes bad manners. We’ve just about settled on the fact that exposed table legs are now acceptable, while wiping your nose on the vicar’s curtains still isn’t, but everything in between remains a hazy mess of subjective squeamishness.

I’ve been thinking about modern manners recently, fuelled by several events. The first was the arrival of a press release about the Birmingham Food Fest, at which Michelin-starred chef Richard Turner had reportedly banned mobile phones at dinner tables. “When dining out at a restaurant, four in ten adults would think nothing of using a smartphone, making calls, texting and checking emails,” it sniffed from my inbox, before going on to complain that some people don’t even use their cutlery correctly.  Ye gads! What WOULD Escoffier say?

Hot on the heels of this whinge was the release of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which prompted a slew of articles about how gadgets are making us lonelier people with terrible social skills and overdeveloped thumb muscles. And while I hugely admire the lady for having a name that sounds like a 70s dessert, I have to disagree.

The thing that the techno-killjoys always seem to neatly overlook is that while we’re supposedly being antisocial by treating our smartphones like extra limbs, what we’re actually doing is being MORE social, by means of those smartphones.  If I temporarily absent myself from some tedious dinner chat in order to take a photo of my meal, tweet it, upload it to Pinterest, blog about its relative merits and take part in a hashtag game called #dinnerfilms, am I not in fact widening my social horizons rather than stunting them?

Likewise, (and I have had this exact conversation with my father), despairing because you’ve got no phone signal for an afternoon doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a lonely, addicted web cretin – you just want to reply to that tweet, and text that friend and organise that dinner date within a reasonable timeframe. Which is GOOD manners, surely?

What articles like these are really objecting to, of course, is rudeness. This I can get on board with. I hate rudeness. But rudeness is a different thing to breaking flimsy, unspoken rules that nobody has agreed on in the first place. As with so many things in life – rice pudding, disco dancing, wearing corduroy – it’s not what you do but the way that you do it. A rude person will always be a rude person, whether they’re touting an Android tablet or an abacus (to add up their rounded-down contribution to the bill).

Assuming the role of Emily Post-Millennium for a second, I’d propose that a polite, “I’m sorry, would you mind if I quickly reply to this text?” is more than sufficient cover for a quick bit of at-table phone action. Asking yourself, ‘is this status update really necessary during a dinner/meeting/funeral?’ should be enough to establish whether you’re just really connected, or really a bit of a tool. No. Technology came to make us friends, not lose them. And I put it to you that if the Victorians didn’t spend mealtimes secretly texting under the table, that’s only because it hadn’t been invented yet.

The third thing that happened, by the way, is that I got my first iPhone. Can you tell?