Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Eight things every fresher should know

1)    There will be other fun in your life, beyond this term. I mean, not loads of it. And you’ll never have booze that cheap or hair that shiny or standards that low again. But there will be other fun, it doesn’t all dry up at 19 - so don’t feel you’ve got to consume every bit of fun on offer now, like it’s an all you can eat buffet and they’ve just refreshed the prawn toasts. There will be dinner parties, and office dos in your future. Sometimes strangers will fall over in the street. See, fun!

2)    Seek out your own kind. During my first week at uni, I sacked off a fresher’s party to watch a Fawlty Towers DVD in someone’s bedroom with a group of other alternative thrill-seekers. Those people are still my friends now.

3)    It’s ok to make temporary friends. Really. Everyone does it. I mean, on the moral barometer it won’t put you up there between Mother Theresa and Aslan, but making a few emergency pals as human buffers and then ditching them two weeks in when you discover they’re really into KT Tunstall and making their own yoghurt is just a natural defense tactic. Nobody will hold it against you. Except maybe whatshisname and thingumybob.

4)    It’s good to make friends with some rich kids. University is all about expanding your horizons, and discovering the diverse world beyond your doorstep. For me, as for many students*, this meant associating with rich people for the first time. Not family-gets-an-Ocado-delivery rich, but seriously rich. Doesn’t-have-a-student-loan rich. Daddy-owns-most-of-Wiltshire rich. It was fascinating. Because underneath all the cashmere and acres of glossy hair, they’re really just like us – and nothing proves that more effectively than watching them puke into their own Mulberry bag at the counter of a Chicken Cottage.

5)    Don’t buy all the books. Don’t even buy most of the books. Because there’s this wonderful thing called a library, and another wonderful thing called ‘pretending you’ve read them’. Sadly it took me until halfway through my second year to discover the first, but I cottoned on to the second almost immediately.

6)    You will either get fatter, or thinner. But most likely the first one.

7)    Man cannot live on instant noodles alone. But if you throw in some sweet chilli sauce and a mushroom every now and again, you’re golden. Or you could do what I did, and embrace culinary independence by branching out with your eating in new and exciting ways. I became addicted to peppered mackerel fillets from Tesco. I discovered falafel. I invented 'pstub', the official fourth meal of the day. I once spread ketchup on some rye bread, just to see.

8)    Create a fun fresher persona. To this day, we still fondly remember Embryology Pete. Who he was, how he was significant in our lives or what he’s doing now, I couldn’t tell you, but that’s not important. He was Embryology Pete! EMBRYOLOGY PETE. Legend.

*Unless of course you are rich, in which case you’ll get to meet POOR people for the first time. We’re great, we’re just like you, except when we’re given presents we take the wrapping paper off carefully and put it in drawer so we can use it again.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

In which Page 3's days are numbered

It’s a pretty good rule of thumb, when wanting to test the sense of any life situation, to ask yourself: how would I explain this to a child? If you can’t communicate the logic of something in simple terms a kid can grasp, there’s a good chance it might be completely ridiculous. Extra light mayonnaise, for instance. Or why they let the contestants on Four in a Bed decide each other’s scores.

Now, I’d like you to think about how you would explain the existence of Page 3 to a child who has never encountered it before. Go on – have the imaginary conversation in your head. I’ll wait.

Tricky, isn’t it? Because when you stop to think about it, Page 3 is like an embarrassing old curtain pelmet from the 70s that everyone has somehow forgotten to take down. I like to think that when it finally ceases to be, just like smoking in restaurants, it’ll seem oddly incredible that it was ever A Thing in the first place.

The explain-it-to-a-child reason is just one of many being currently given by people signing the No More Page 3 petition on change.org. At the time of writing, it has over 17,000 signatures. It gained 6,000 just today. The campaign, an open letter to The Sun’s editor Dominic Mohan, was started by writer Lucy Anne Holmes when she noticed, flicking through its coverage of the Paralympics, that despite page after page of awesome achievements, the biggest image of a woman in the whole paper was still the semi-naked one.

“George Alagiah doesn’t say, ‘And now let’s look at Courtney, 21, from Warrington’s bare breasts,’ in the middle of the 6 O’ Clock News, does he?” reasons Holmes. The petition isn’t about restricting the freedom of the press. It’s not about condemning glamour models, or the people who like to look at them. It’s simply about asking, nicely, that they be taken out of the newspaper – because in case we weren’t all clear on this, boobs aren’t news.

Whether The Sun reports ‘news’ at all is a whole other debate, of course. But to write it off as an archaic, ignorant rag is to blithely ignore the influence it still has on a massive chunk of the population – not to mention anyone who ‘accidentally’ reads it on the bus. Page 3 is so entrenched a part of the mainstream media that loads of readers don’t even stop to question it. If we can’t change the whole paper, we can at least try to change this.

And while it’s heartening how strong and swift the response to Lucy’s campaign has been, it’s also been fist-gnawingly infuriating how many idiots still think “you’re just jealous” is an adequate comeback.

One argument commonly touted is empowerment. Or that the women who pose on Page 3 are actually exploiting the punters, as a sort of penance for being so easily pleased by a casual flash of mammary. Maybe they are. But rather than debate the endless intricacies of the power struggle, I want to ask: why does anyone have to exploit anyone? Can’t we just, y’know, take a break from all the exploiting for a while? If two wrongs don’t make a right, surely two exploitations don’t make a real advancement for either gender.

“It’s just a bit of fun,” is another classic. Of course! Fun! Like a naughty seaside postcard! Where’s the harm? The harm is in yet another generation of humans growing up to believe a woman’s worth is measured by how good she looks in her scanties. The harm is in giving these women fake ‘novelty’ opinions, to remind us that, obviously, you can’t be sexy AND interested in the fiscal crisis. The harm is in objectification being sold like a jolly joke over our morning cereal, to people who either can’t or don’t want to recognise it. There’s the harm. LOOK, I’m pointing at it, like a less amusing Where’s Wally.

Besides, isn’t it frankly insulting for a paper to think you only want to read the news if there’s a pair of bouncy breasts on the opposite page, like the proverbial spoonful of sugar, to take the taste away? If you want fun, folks, there are plenty of other places to find it. Go to a funfair. Have an ice cream. Or if you want, look at a publication that’s specially designed to have naked people in it. There are several out there, I’ve heard.

Then let Courtney, 21 from Warrington, put her jumper back on, so we never have to explain to a confused child why she’s there.

In which love is a full inbox

This weekend, it is mine and my boyfriend’s two-year anniversary. True, I pondered the correct grammatical arrangement of that sentence for about the same amount of time as I’ve spent mulling over the significance of the occasion (my boyfriend’s and mine? My and my boyfriend’s? My boyfriend’s and I’s?) - but still, it’s nice to mark the date.

Of course, it will be hard to top our one-year anniversary, where he took me to see Dolly Parton at the o2 and I bought him a dressing gown, but we can still try. We have gone for the ultimate luxury, staying in a posh hotel in the city we already live in – because nothing says, “I love you” like “oh look, complimentary slippers!”

From the time on our second date when he accidentally stood me up and found me drowning my sorrows in Primark, to the moment last Sunday night where we both realised we secretly didn’t hate Coldplay, it’s been a beautiful journey akin to one of the great Hollywood pairings (Laurel and Hardy?).

But the reason I’m telling you all this isn’t simply an act of awful coupled-up smuggery, you understand (though if my 17-year-old self is reading this, I’d like to say: ‘it’s fine, you get one in the end! Oh, and stop wearing that.’). No, it’s actually an affirmation for anyone out there who might be combing cyberspace and concluding that everybody single left is a Doctor Who monster with the personality of unmarinated tofu.

You see, we met on the internet. Or, as I’m planning on having printed on matching t-shirts soon, ‘Tim Berners-Lee brought us together.’ If you’d like specifics, we went for My Single Friend. Because Match.com is for hussies, POF for cheapskates, and eHarmony for people so keen to get married THIS YEAR that they’ve already bought the cake-topper. Plus, the sign-up-your-mate format guarantees that they do have at least one friend – which, call me a fusspot, is fairly high on my list of criteria.

I find it sort of incredible that there is still a stigma surrounding online dating. It just makes such good sense. Why keep on hoping you’ll bump into the love of your life in a pub, or at a bus stop, when you could search and appropriately filter thousands of eligible people from the comfort of your own sofa? Besides, someone you meet at the bus stop is no less likely to be a murderer than someone you meet online, now are they?

So I bid you, singles, go forth! Find yourself a nice new beau while you’re doing your online Tesco shop, safe in the knowledge that I’ve roadtested the path thoroughly, and two years on still not fallen in any potholes.

I’d better not hold my breath though – he hasn’t seen the follow-up to the dressing gown yet.

(He will tell me he loved this column, by the way, because he is in it. And it is the eternal law of the columnist’s life that people say, “I loved that article” when what they mean is “I was in it! You mentioned ME! I’d be famous if it wasn’t in Worthing!”)

Friday, 7 September 2012

Radio Ga-Ga

If it’s ok with you, I’d like to start this week’s column by quoting a relevant song. “On the radio. Woah-oh-oh-oh, on the radio.” You guessed right - I’m going to talk about radio! (That’s the wireless, for the more autumnal among you, and ‘blank telly’ for the yoof). 

Apart from once choreographing a dance to the Archers theme tune, which I would make my dad perform with me in the kitchen in the gleeful rustic manner I imagined they did it down the Ambridge disco, I never really used to be a radio person. There was a brief phase where Terry Garoghan’s Last Bus To Whitehawk on Southern FM was compulsory listening for everyone in Year 10, but largely, radio was just back-up TV.

You imagined if there was ever a crisis in which all the telly in the country was turned off (as, I don’t know, a punishment from the government or a Dalek invasion), the family might be forced to gather round a radio, acting out the scenes for each other to make sure our eyes didn’t grow bored and stop working. It was quaint, that radio was still A Thing.

But then, as I grew older and began the inevitable and increasingly speedy transformation into my mother, I started to understand radio. It’s like a nice friend. The radio is the busy person’s refuge, and the lonely person’s companion. Unlike telly, it doesn’t demand all of your attention – it’s content just to waffle away in the background. And like a real mate, sometimes it annoys you and sometimes it plays rubbish music, but you still refrain from kicking it in the head.

In fact, there’s something morally noble about the radio (bear with me). The way I see it, it’s less selfish than simply putting your own music on, because you’re being forced to share with the rest of the nation – and thus get to feel smug and self-sacrificing afterwards. “I don’t even like Keane. But what did I do? I listened to it anyway! I’m basically a modern day Joan of Arc.”

Having made you sit through this much, I may as well announce now that I’m a BBC Radio 2 listener. Does that disgust you? Are you still there? I realise in radio terms it’s like saying you’re really into Vienetta, or Amazon gift vouchers. It’s a populist choice. But it has musicals and classic pop and jazz and Chris Evans and Moira Stewart and an organist and GOSH DARNIT, it makes me feel cosy inside.

In fact, we’re a Radio 2 flat – especially since I started turning them all on at once in an effort to ward off the mice. Sometimes I’ll shake things up with a little bit of 6Music, or enjoy a session of late night Magic FM with a silent cab driver – but it’s to R2 that my heart belongs. Even when they play the same Amy MacDonald track every hour for a month. Even when Jo Whiley’s on.

I imagine eventually I’ll start blending in a bit of Radio 4 too, to supplement the quality chat with some worldly knowledge. Besides, it would be nice to crack out that dance routine again.

In which I personally state some stuff

My parents are clearing out my old bedroom. Considering I left home six years ago and they’ve been living in a room still semi-bedecked with purple and silver teen tat ever since, I haven’t taken too heavy a hand with the disposal process.

In fact, I have had no opinions on the disposal process at all, which is for the best as I am the worst type of sentimental hoarder. I never throw away birthday cards for fear the sender might subsequently die. I still have my friend Sarah’s Year 8 English project in a cupboard because I couldn’t bear the thought of her heartlessly binning it. Twelve years ago.

I’m aware that there is a magical, elusive point in time between ‘soulless humanoid’ and ‘drowning in pointless nostalgic detritus’ at which it becomes fine to throw stuff away, but I have never been able to clock exactly when it occurs. What, for example, do you do with theatre programmes? To come home, still floating on that happy cultural high, and instantly commit the programme to the bin seems like the behavior of an ice-hearted monster – not to mention a waste of £4.50.

But when it gets picked up years later, covered in a duvet of dust, by someone who is helping you move, and they ask in a condescending tone, “What do you need THIS for?” and you’re forced to explain that you’ve been keeping it as an emergency mousemat despite already having a mousemat and in fact not even using a mouse anymore… well, you feel like a fool.

So yes, they were clearing out and I was staying out.

“We’ve found your personal statement!” my youngest brother declared down the phone last week. “It’s really embarrassing!”

Well, of course it is. It is cripplingly embarrassing. I think I even knew it was when I wrote it, but probably thought at the time that willingness to humiliate oneself on paper in front of authority figures might actually go some way to earning me a place at uni (besides, everything one writes as a teenager is humiliating and naff. I bet Mozart listened back to the early concertos and went ‘OH GOD.’)

I reckon UCAS could, and should, make a really decent toilet book out of the worst personal statements submitted each year. Mine opens with the immortal line, “Some people dream of seeing their name in lights. I’m more interested in seeing mine in print”. BLARRGH.

But writing a personal statement is just practice for applying for jobs as an adult, of course. And anyone doing that know there is another magical, elusive point – this time it’s where the inversely proportional goals of ‘making yourself look like you’d be good at the job’ and ‘not sounding like an arrogant tit’ converge in perfect balance, and nobody in the history of the world has ever achieved it.

If I were High Ruler of the Universe (which I shall never be, because I couldn’t write a decent enough application), cover letters would be done away with in favour of real life tasks that exposed crucial truths about the applicant’s personality. Such as making them watch Steel Magnolias to see if they cried at the correct bits. Or asking them the correct amount of time to hold onto a birthday card before throwing it away.

In which I embrace the 'Burgh

I embarked on my first visit to the Edinburgh festival with a few simple goals: 1. Acquire and consume a deep-fried Mars bar. 2. Don’t accidentally join a comedy improv troupe. 3. Don’t look like a giant tourist. 4. Establish exactly which bits of the festival, if any, are the proper festival and not the Fringe. Because it seemed to be all Fringe and no… rest of hair.

The first of these was accomplished quickly, and easily. Saw a chip shop, went in, handed over two and a half of our finest British pounds and wolfed it, burning my tongue a bit on some melted nougat.

What was it like? Obviously, incredible. I’m disappointed you had to ask. As far as I can deduce, the only thing that could possibly be wrong with a deep-fried Mars bar would be if it tasted of fish. If it was imbued with a haddock essence and doused in a delicate vinegar jus, I might have had problems finishing it (might).

But fish-free as it was, tell me what there is NOT to like about melted chocolate and caramel, squidging out the sides of a crisp batter sheath? I salute the Scots, for looking at a normal Mars bar and thinking, “nahhh…. too cold, too solid and too healthy. Let’s fry it!” That’s the kind of envelope-pushing innovation we all need to be inspired by.

Point two was harder, in a way, because I really wanted to join a comedy improve troupe. But it was easier, in another way, because nobody asked me to.

This is probably for the best, as another thing I discovered during my first fringe was that improvisation makes me incredibly nervous. I worry for them. I worry that they won’t be funny, or that they won’t think of anything to say, or that what comes out will be shonky and a lot less hilarious than if they’d simply scripted it. I sit there feeling like their mum, and each time one of them improvises something good I breathe a sigh of relief for them. It’s a stressful experience, and one that I can’t believe would be eased if it were me on the stage instead, frantically trying to decide what Miley Cyrus would be likely to say at a funfair with Pol Pot.

The third goal died a death before it had even really been set. This was largely Rose’s fault, as she decided to wear a tartan scarf on the train. Then mine, as I decided to buy and lavishly photograph a Tunnock’s caramel bar (“They just taste DIFFERENT up here.”) Then both of ours, as we decided to buy I HEART EDINBURGH bags, eat baked potatoes with haggis and prance about whistling Scotland the Brave. Och well.

Point four, in case you were wondering, was never fully resolved but settled largely with the following rules: if it’s ballet or opera or marching soldiers and we can’t afford it, it is in the Edinburgh Festival proper. Otherwise, it’s all Fringe. Which may not work as a hair concept, but makes for a pretty great weekend.

Ten things to do now the Olympics are over

1.    Eat cake. It’s ok everyone, you can stop clutching the telly hoping Clare Balding will come back and announce we’re doing the whole thing over again, with jazz hands. There’s a new bastion of national pride waiting in the wings to capture our hearts, and that is The Great British Bake Off.

Perhaps it isn’t fully embracing the Olympic legacy to start tucking into the battenberg before everyone’s hamstrings have fully contracted - but when you think about it, beneath the acres of buttercream and Italian meringue, the cake comp actually embraces similar attitudes of discipline, perseverance and personal (or yeast-fuelled) growth of the Olympics. These are people who care so much about their craft that they’ll weep over a soggy-bottomed pie. That’s a dedication I can admire.

2.    Wait for the Paralympics. I am incredibly excited about the Paralympics, due in large part to Channel 4’s brilliant, and steadfastly nur-nur-we’re-not-the-BBC, marketing. Their ‘Thanks For the Warm Up’ campaign is doing a great job of breaking through my post-Olympic gloom and giving me cause to go, “YEAH! BOOM! More amazing humans being amazing!” every time I walk past a billboard.

3.    Start your own Olympics. I’m currently trying to found the Have-A-Go Olympics, for people with little discernable sporting ability who just want to have a jolly good go. Bonus points will be rewarded for additional challenges, such as completing the 400m hurdles with two bags of Sainsbury’s shopping, or in a pair of new sandals.

4.    Get really good at an obscure sport. It’s only a matter of time before speed Macarena hits the Olympic arena, and when it does I intend to be on that podium.

5.    Buy the team kit and stand around nonchalantly in public spaces, stretching, until at least five people have come up, shaken your hand and bought you an ice cream.

6.    Listen to everything Emeli Sande's ever recorded. She's a massive cultural icon, don'tcha know? Oh, you didn’t. Still, when her career has endured for decades and her songs have ascended into the realms of everlasting legend, we shall all look back and say, ‘Why wasn’t there MORE of her in the London 2012 closing ceremony?’

7.    Buy up all the remaining Cadbury’s medals and melt down their foil wrappers to create  your own replica medal. Then eat the chocolate.

8.    Create an Animal Olympics using the pet of your choice. My mother is currently sewing tiny sweatbands for each of our guinea pigs. They’re really more telly-and-a-pizza creatures, but I haven’t the heart to tell her.

9.    Use all the time you formerly spent listening to Olympic coverage on your headphones at work to learn a new language instead. Portuguese might be useful for the next time round.

10.     Inspire a generation. This is a pretty big one, admittedly, but we should all have a go. Start small: teach a child to do a cartwheel. Take them swimming. Race them round the park, and tell them they’re brilliant.

Or if you don’t have a child to hand, cheer on a passing jogger instead.