Saturday, 21 December 2013

Six ways to make your Christmas more like one in a film

1. Be a bad parent!

Not a terrible parent, obviously – don’t go forgetting to feed them or buying them Robin Thicke CDs. But to capture the particular breed of magic favoured by the mid-90s festive oeuvre, you need to practice a bit of low-level neglect. Work too hard, fail to turn up to their nativity play because you’re doing a Big Presentation to the Big Boss for a Big Contract, then shout, “I AM TOO BUSY” down the phone when they call to tell you a Robin Redbreast has just eaten marzipan from their outstretched palm.

And then, THEN, have a heartwarming epiphany and spent Christmas Eve in a madcap adventure finding the perfect toy/travelling halfway across the country in a series of unsuitable vehicles/actually being Father Christmas for the night, thus bringing the family together again and earning your kid’s love and admiration forever. This bit really is quite key. If you only do the first part, you’re just ruining Christmas on purpose.

2. Have an almost implausible disaster!

Continuing on the bad parent theme, you could leave an eight-year-old at home and fly to France by accident. Or your Christmas lights could cause a power cut across the whole city. Or a grotesque creature from a rhyming world could try to steal Christmas. Or you could leave the same eight-year-old (now nine) at home again and fly to Florida by accident.

Whichever you choose, be sure to fix it by midnight on Christmas Eve or it’ll be stuck like that all year.

3. Have some eggnog!

I’ll leave you to make your best guess as to what eggnog might actually be. Or just make a glass of Bird’s custard and put some rum in it.

4. Do a dance!

This is an especially prudent one if you’re a) the Prime Minister, b) a cartoon skeleton or c) Lindsay Lohan.

5. Go to a department store!

If you can get accidentally locked in, sleep in the bedding section and do a montage running riot in the toy department, all the better.

6. Become a better person!

You could sit round waiting for ghosts to turn up and lead you by the hand through the shadowy reincarnations of your past misdoings – or you could speed things up by doing the modern equivalent: flicking though your Facebook albums.

Once you feel suitably repentant, make a big donation to charity and buy lunch for someone who really needs it. Then dance through the snow in a nightshirt while the end credits roll.


Thursday, 12 December 2013

Thank you for the Days

Image: Save the Children

Happy National Pigs in Blankets Day! How many have you eaten? I’ve had eight. It would have been more, but I misunderstood the title and spent half the day trying to get a quilt to stay on a British Saddleback.

It’s actually the UK’s first ever Pigs in Blankets Day, and this I know because along with half the other sarky journalists on Twitter, I’ve had a press release about it. I’ve also learned that in Scotland they’re known as ‘kilted sausages’, and in America they’re wrapped in dough instead - a rare example of us being ahead of our Stateside cousins when it comes to putting bacon on stuff.

Some might say there are too many official days now, that the calendar is drowning in half-baked marketing exercises dreamt up by Tedious, Predictable & Twee PR Ltd. But to them I say, never! For what is a National Something Day if not a reason to make merry, wear something novel and exceed your recommended daily calorie intake?

Tomorrow, if you didn’t know already, is Christmas Jumper Day. Which makes this Christmas Jumper Eve, the day when all the children across the land iron their non-scratchy undershirts in the hope that the magical flying knitting needles will bring them a creation high in warmth, colour AND kitsch.

In recent years it has been adopted by Save the Children UK as a fundraiser – donate £1, go to work wearing something Cliff Richard might reject as a tad too ritzy, and help “make the world better with a sweater”. I’ll be taking part, mainly for the good cause but also because it’s our office Christmas party tomorrow too, and spending the day wrapped in Primark woollies can only serve to make me look better by comparison come evening time.

I’ve been fond of supremely tacky Christmas sweaters ever since the year I unearthed Ol’ Faithful in an antiques shop in Lewes, covered in shiny beads and sequins and authentic 80s dust. It comes down past my bum, meaning it can double as a sort of jolly disco nightshirt when the heating won’t suffice.

This year my boyfriend and I have taken things to the next level, paying the ultimate tribute to our jumpers by wearing them for a photo, turning it into a Christmas card and sending it to all our relatives.

“Does it look enough like a joke?” I asked, as he Photoshopped a border of snow-capped holly round the edge. “I don’t want people to think we’re doing it seriously. I don’t want to be like Ross and Mona in that episode of Friends.”

“People will know we’re joking,” he said, with a look in his eyes that said we weren’t actually joking at all.

Monday, 9 December 2013

What do we want? Christmas! When do we want it? Earlier!

For something that has been happening with pretty dependable regularity every year since at least 1988 (and for a fair while before that, I’ve heard), Christmas doesn’t half sneak up on you.

I’m two days late getting my advent calendar, have only bought three presents so far and I don’t know where my novelty antlers are. I feel like Prime Minister Hugh Grant in Love Actually when he has to fight off America and go to every house in Wandsworth trying to win back Martine McCutcheon.

The mistake we make every year, of course, is to start doing Christmas too late. Whingers the world over will tell you it’s the opposite, that everything comes too early and costs too much and smells too good and oh isn’t it awful, but they are wrong.

If anything, we don’t let it come early enough. They have conditioned us to ignore Christmas until it lands square in our laps like a needy cat, mewing and shedding and demanding attention*.

Then we don’t have time and space to savour the season as it deserves. We just take a deep breath and launch ourselves through each festive hoorah, gathering pace, being loaded up with items like a pack mule, gift receipts and Lindor wrappers crunching underfoot, until we eventually fling them all off in a frantic Buckaroo manoeuvre and land on the sofa, December 27th, face-down in a trifle.

Wouldn’t it be better if instead, we revved up Christmas on about November 6th, free from judgement or mutterings? As the last firework fades in the sky, we could give Noddy Holder a megaphone to kick off proceedings and take it gently from there.

Then there would be plenty of time for lots of nice sitting around, in between all the ice skating and queuing and singing and travelling and wrapping and cooking and high-kicking with Weird Brian from HR. I honestly believe it would be more sensible, like warming up our festive muscles with some light stretching before the marathon.

For example, I found out today that the average person in the UK eats 27 mince pies every Christmas. TWENTY SEVEN. Stuffed with a clammy fist into the space of three short weeks, that’s probably enough greasy pastry to make your insides go see-though like a paper bakery bag. But distributed across a much longer period – six weeks, let’s say – it becomes just another healthy way to achieve your recommended butter and sugar intake!

As I’ve already missed this year’s early deadline, it’ll have to wait till Christmas 2014 - or extend the whole thing to the third week of January. Either way I’ll be dealing with the needy cat of Christmas the way that works best with all cats: putting a silly hat on it.

*I don’t have a cat, can you tell?

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

24 hour party people

On the face of it, the tubes running all night from 2015 seemed rather brilliant news. No more night buses! No more two hour crawls through the backwaters of the metropolis with your sleeping head half resting in a box of Chicken Cottage! No more strategically planning your seating with reference to whoever looks least likely to be sick in the aisle!

With regular tubes throughout the night, people’s departure will be staggered and manageable - there’ll be no more desperately contorting oneself into the human Tetris of the Piccadilly line at 12:30am, as though it were the last chopper out of Saigon. We shall all be warm and safe and civilised as we speed home to bed in the safe bowels of the world’s finest metro system.

But then it suddenly dawned on me: without a last tube to catch, I’ll no longer have reasons to leave parties. The dawning of 24 hour travel means the end of excuses.

Up to now it’s always been easy – you can go out and have a nice time, relaxed in the knowledge that as soon as midnight strikes you can trill, “must catch the last tube!” and skip off like Cinderella. No one can argue with the last tube argument; we all know the alternative is sharing the back seat of the N253 with a gently drooling student vet in a penguin onesie.

But from 2015, what will I say when I want to go home?

Obviously it can never be the truth – “It’s been lovely, but I am the wrong side of 25 now and I’ve run out of small talk and there is a cup of rooibos and an electric blanket at home with my name on them” – so I’m worried that instead we’ll be compelled to think up increasingly extravagant cover stories to get us out the door.

I’ve started compiling a bank of them in advance, so I’ll be ready. “I really must go home and mist my orchids,” is a current favourite. Likewise, “I put a wash on earlier and need to hang it out before it gets that mildew smell.”

Perhaps a new code of party conduct will form. “I make a point of never staying after the guacamole's gone brown. Cheery-bye!” “It's been grand, but I think my software updates will be installed by now.”  “I left the slow cooker on 6 hours ago and my beef shin is about to reach peak tenderness.”

"I need to get home to cancel my free month's trial of Amazon Prime."

"I realised this was the wrong house four hours ago but was too polite to say anything."

Monday, 25 November 2013

In which I go boarding

It’s nice when you suddenly discover you have a hobby. I didn’t try on purpose to get one - in fact I’ve always been sort of hobby-devoid, believing them the preserve of children or people who had lost their TV remote - but it just sprung up suddenly of its own accord one day, like bathroom mould. My new hobby is board games.

Not Monopoly, which I fell out of love with the day I discovered the rest of the world doesn’t play the Bravo family way; gently waiting three hours till you land on your favourite colour, then wandering off to make a cup of tea and never returning. The real Monopoly is an ugly game, exposing everybody’s secret avarice and pedantry. Plus, geographically misrepresentative - I’ve lived in London seven years and never once walked down Vine Street. 

No, the games that have been bringing a flush to my cheeks on these long autumn evenings are distinctly less glam and a lot more, shall we say, nerd-adjacent. There’s Bananagrams, which is like Scrabble for people with anger management issues, Ticket to Ride, which thrillingly involves the building of railways across Europe, and then there’s the one I love most of all: Settlers of Catan.

The premise is thus: you’re on an island, composed of five key materials - wood, brick, sheep, wheat and ore. You must collect the materials to build roads, settlements and cities, conquering new territories and stealing resources off your opponents. Like all good geeky pastimes, it comes with its own special vernacular. “We built this city, we built this city on wheat and oooore,” we sing to the tune of Starship, merrily trading our cards in for tiny wooden cathedrals.

One of the things I didn’t expect to be doing with substantial chunks of my mid-twenties is spending it hunched over a kitchen table pleading for people to swap me a sheep. If you’d told early-twenties me, with her daft shoes and her ‘music taste’ and her going out sometimes more than TWICE in a WEEK that in a few short years she’d derive most satisfaction from building a tiny wooden road into someone else’s wheat field, she’d throw a kebab at your head.

But the thing is, it’s brilliant. Not only are board games largely cheap (I say ‘largely’ because my boyfriend just spent £50 on Game of Thrones: the Board Game, which comes with its own instructional dvd and a, one presumes, a vitamin D lamp), sociable and a good excuse to spend most of your weekend sitting down with a mug of tea on hand, but all that strategic thinking has got to be good for the brain cells. 

Now I just need to make it cool, perhaps by turning it into ‘strip’ Settlers of Catan, or using phrases like, “Hey dude, you boarding this weekend?” to give the whole thing an extreme sports edge. If bored people are boring people then board people are… well, something else entirely.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

In which the boiler is making a noise

The boiler is making a noise.

It makes a lot of noises, generally all of the time it’s on, but this is a new noise. Specifically, a jingly noise. “Did you hear that?” I ask my boyfriend. “The boiler is making a jingly noise.”

He gives me his world-weary look, the same one he uses when he opens my laptop and finds “ear cancer” or “do people still get consumption from tight bras” typed into the search bar.

“Listen!” I say, as it does it again. “Jingly. It sounds like there’s a set of keys jingling about. That’s not normal.”

“Maybe there is a set of keys jingling about in it,” he suggests, ever the pragmatist. I stick my head under the boiler and peer up, silently begging it not to explode on my face. No keys.

“I think it might explode,” I say, at the exact same time he says, “It’s not going to explode.”

But he doesn’t know it isn’t going to explode, he’s only guessing. One of the things that bothers me most in life is not knowing for definite whether or not things are going to explode. And surely, just after saying “it’s not going to explode” is statistically the most likely time for something to explode?

This could be exactly like in my old flat, when I thought we had a gas leak and everyone kept saying, “we don’t have a gas leak,” in exasperated voices, then it turned out that we DID HAVE A GAS LEAK. Neurosis 1: logic 0.

And so we sit – him watching Game of Thrones, me watching the boiler. I have convinced myself that if I stare out the boiler, nothing bad will be allowed to happen.  A watched boiler never explodes; that’s the motto.

The jingling stops, then starts again, then stops again.

I Google ‘boiler making jingly noises’ for reassurance, and am dismayed to find that not a single other person on the whole of the internet has had a jingly boiler. Not one. There are boilers that bump, and bang, and rattle, and wheeze (which now I’ve written it looks like a fantastic dance record from the late 50s) but no boilers that jingle.

Maybe it’s just a matter of phrasing. I try ‘boiler making jangly noises’, and find nothing. I try ‘boiler making tinkly noises’, and find nothing. I try ‘boiler making metallic noises’ and find one post on a forum from a man who seems to think this is A Very Bad Thing, so I quickly close the tab in fear and go back to staring at the boiler.

If I keep staring at the boiler, it can’t possibly explode – that would just be too much of a coincidence. Maybe if I tell more people about it, the boiler definitely won’t explode. Maybe if I write a column about it, the boiler won’t explode.          

Or maybe I just turn the boiler off and put another jumper on.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

In which the awkwards explain

Hey everybody, I have a new theory! 

Gather round, gather round. It’ll be better than my theory about how silica gel is probably utterly delicious but ‘the man’ just doesn’t want us to find out, I promise.


Ignoring the fact that I’ve started to think in booming, paranoid Daily Mail headlines (IS THIS BISCUIT GIVING ME CANCER? QUICK, I MUST FLAUNT MY CURVES IN THE GHERKIN AISLE AT LIDL), I think I might be onto something here.

It came to me in a flash on the tube earlier, after someone had got up and left a vacant seat, which a teenage girl and I had both made a move to sit in. Naturally, the minute I realised I had competition, I got flustered, backed off and walked halfway down the carriage to prove I never wanted the seat anyway.

Meanwhile the girl tried to give me the seat. “No, no, it’s fine.” I said airily over my shoulder as I scuttled away. “No honestly, you have it!” she clucked, leaving it empty. “No, no, haha, you have it.” I shrugged, turning pink. “Seriously! Have it!” she trilled after me. “It’s FINE!” I snapped. And just like that, I was suddenly the rude person.

Things like this happen to me at least three times a week. I hate drawing attention to myself in public, so in an effort not to make a fuss or prolong awkward human contact for any longer than is strictly necessary, I come off cold and grumpy.

I’d like to take this moment to apologise to every cheery shop assistant and waiter that I’ve muttered one-word replies to without looking them in the eye. I’m not a horrible person, I promise, it’s just that unprecedented small talk makes me squirm. Even being asked if I want a carrier bag makes me squirm. Make me wait too long for a receipt I don’t need, and I practically break into a sweat.

But if it happens to me, then maybe it’s happening to lots of you too! Not all of you, of course, because there must be the opposite faction to cause these painful situations to begin with (I like to think of them as “non-awkwards”, or “the selfish friendly”), but plenty of you. If a significant number of you are also out in the world looking accidentally rude on a regular basis, think of all the ways society could be suffering!

The non-awkwards are probably angry at the awkwards for their supposed rudeness, while the awkwards are angry at the non-awkwards for making them feel awkward to begin with. And so we rattle around in the world, the non-awkwards creating loud scenes and the awkwards staring at their feet trying not to get involved.

I’d propose some sort of government-funded initiative to combat social awkwardness and teach smoother public interactions with strangers – but I’m just too shy to suggest it.

Monday, 28 October 2013

In which it ain't over till it's Overs

For every generation there’s a marker that officially means you are getting old. Not old-old, but… established. Seasoned. The moment you realise certain avenues are probably now closed off to you forever.

Traditionally it was when the policeman started looking young; my mother claims for her it was Blue Peter presenters. In the Middle Ages it was probably the man who pulled the corpse cart. I, meanwhile, have just realised that if I were to enter the next series of The X Factor, I would be in the ‘Over 25’ category.

I hadn’t planned on entering the next series of X Factor, obviously, but now all I can think about is how, if a freak accident left me with a miraculous or at least passable singing voice and completely removed the part of my brain that feels shame, I’d be doing it alongside the olds and the weirdoes.

I would be a Steve Brookstein. A Christopher Maloney. They’d put me in a jazzy blazer and make me sway on a podium while the young’uns did cartwheels in hotpants. I wouldn’t even get the regional vote - we’re not like Ireland or Newcastle; nobody from Sussex has ever voted for someone on the strength of them also being from Sussex.

Of course, anywhere outside of X Factor, professional football, baby ballroom and the Daily Mail’s acceptable “phwoar” limit, over 25 is not old at all. It’s sprightly. I still only use the second cheapest Boots under-eye cream. But in the bizzaro world of commercial pop (a world where Robin Thicke is allowed to put on Misogyny: The Musical for three minutes of family entertainment, it’s worth noting), I am now basically Methuselah.

My best friend turned 26 this week - and so we did some friendship maths.

“We’ve been friends for 18 years.”

“No we haven’t, you didn’t like me in middle school.”

“Ok, we’ve known each other for 18 years.”

“18 years!”

“Our acquaintanceship covers three decades. When we met, John Major was still Prime Minister.”

“Our acquaintanceship is old enough to vote!”

“We could have an adult child by now! No… no wait, that doesn’t work.”

However you look at it, it’s a long time. Together we have been through four stages of education, three different cities, many jobs, many flats and at least eight dubious haircuts.

It’s comforting to know, then, that if I do find myself in a freak voice-enhancing, shame-deadening accident and want to go on X Factor, I could just take her with me and enter in the groups category instead. 

"Murjsdjahsgj", she wrote

One of the biggest regrets of my adult life so far is that I still don’t have a proper signature.

Signatures, as everyone who ever spent hours practicing theirs in the back of a biology textbook knows, are one of the defining markers of grown-updom. They should be an instinctive flourish, blossoming naturally from your pen like a natural extension of your personality, as you write a cheque for your brand new jet ski/fax machine/horse.

“Look at me,” a good signature says, “I am a person of substance and understated panache. Look at me flow, like quality port from a crystal decanter.”

But mine doesn’t flow - not even like lukewarm WKD from a mug. It’s stilted and awkward and always gets stuck around the B. Even worse, it has a weird bit at the end that was once a star (oh, the shame) but has now turned into a pointless loopy thing.

I could stop doing the pointless loopy thing, but then my signature would just be “Lauren Bravo”, in boring round letters, not even joined up. And besides, it’s on all my important contracts and bank accounts, so it’s pretty much set in stone now. If I wanted to change it I’d probably have to apply to a bureau or something, and be fined for operating a pen without due care or attention.

Of course, the wider issue here is that handwriting itself, like writing cheques for jet skis/fax machines/horses, is quickly becoming an anachronism. It’s just another thing the Millennial generation are losing, along with our dignity, our muscle definition and our chances of buying a house without eBaying a kidney first.

There are people among my close acquaintance whose handwriting I’ve never even seen - which is unnerving, because it means I can’t do one of those ‘What Does Your Handwriting Say About You?’ features from Jackie magazine to find out if they’re secretly a lunatic.

These days I write by hand so rarely that when I do it comes out all funny, like the first day back after the holidays. All those years of defiance in primary school, fashioning little balloons above my ‘i’s and doing contraband things with the tails on my ‘g’s, just went to waste; while my 98 year old Auntie Elsie still has the immaculate penmanship of a royal scribe, mine looks like it has been danced onto the page by a muddy pigeon.

And so it is reserved only for birthday cards, angry notes and any congratulatory sentiment that can’t just be sent as a lovely warm text message. Maybe at some point handwriting will be a quaint retro hobby, like people who learn jive dancing or crochet doilies.

I’d start a petition for the protection of handwriting, but then I’d have to sign it.

In which love is a hot lasagne

My boyfriend and I have now been cohabiting for three months, and it’s been an exciting voyage of discoveries.

Deciding whether or not I actually care when he leaves the loo seat up (I don’t, as it currently stands); discovering the delightful ways in which our separate tastes in décor can be merged (“how about we put the copies of Modern Railway magazine UNDER the patchwork throw?”); and gently introducing my beloved to the quantities of blonde hair I shed over every surface, for which conventional hoovering poses no match at all.

Then there is the cooking. Before we moved in together, he had five signature dishes: a stir-fry, a curry, a chilli, a sausage pasta and a very good cheese on toast. This was his well-balanced arsenal, the carb and veg and protein that saw him through lonely evenings and special occasions alike.

I wouldn’t call him a fussy eater, because to me that is an insult of the very foulest order - I would rather sit next to a flatulent camel than the type of person who won’t eat a crisp until you tell them what flavour it is - but it’s true that he doesn’t see food in the same way I do.

I see every morsel as a party of happy flavours, shouting “eat me! Have seconds! I AM YOUR BEST FRIEND”, whereas he sees it as a mixed gathering of intimidating strangers, where it’s best to stay in the kitchen with the people you know who definitely aren’t awful. (Incidentally we have the exact opposite approach to real parties).

Thinking that living together was the perfect opportunity to broaden these horizons, and I began by teaching him to make lasagne. Actually that’s as far as I’ve got, because on lasagne he has stuck – possibly quite literally, there’s a lot of béchamel and melted Cathedral City involved. I think I have eaten more lasagne during the last two months than in the rest of my life put together.

Make no mistake, they are very good lasagnes. But they are also very big, which means leftovers, and so we are often eating double or occasionally triple lasagne over the course of two days – which is an awful lot of minced beef and refined starch for even the steeliest stomach to take.

There are lasagnes everywhere. I am seeing them in my dreams; considering them for regrouting the bathroom tiles. He’s like the Dolmio dad, except Scottish and not made of felt.

“We’ve got whojummy and whatsit coming to dinner,” I’ll say. “Shall I do something lovely and light made of vegetables?”

“No,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “I’ll do my lasagne.” And out comes the pasta and the passata and the Gaviscon.

The loo seat I can cope with, Modern Railways magazine I can tolerate. But if cohabiting drives me to vegetarianism, there are going to need to be some serious changes.

In which a title would be giving too much away

Warning: this article contains spoilers. Meaning, it tells you what I think about some things before you might otherwise have found them out.

It has been a week of many spoilers. First came the miserable news that Helen Fielding, in an authorial power trip of George R.R. Martin proportions, has killed off Mark Darcy before the start of the new Bridget Jones book.  Mark Darcy, the perfect non-perfect man. Reincarnated from Austen, clothed in a reindeer jumper, played by Colin Firth in a turn of such solemn, understated swooniness that I carried pictures of him round in my pencil case for most of year nine.

As devoted fans (I tell people my favourite film is Some Like it Hot, but it is actually Bridget Jones’s Diary and probably will be forever) we were already worried about the prospect of a third book. Would we have Bridget tweeting? Bridget twerking? Bridget starting her own fro-yo company and selling it from a van at boutique festivals?

But the idea of Bridget’s happy ending, well, ending all together, is a twist nobody was ready for. Plus it turns out Mark’s been dead for five years already, giving us no proper mourning period - so really it’s just as well that the spoilers emerged a week early, to prepare us before we all sat down with the book and a mug of Chardonnay to have our hearts broken on the first page.

After Darcy’s death knell came a day of Breaking Bad fans shrieking over the final episode – or more accurately, Breaking Bad fans shrieking over other Breaking Bad fans shrieking over the final episode, because they hadn’t seen it yet. “SPOILERS!” comes the siren, each time someone blinks in a way that suggests they might be about to spill some details.

But what is the grace period? A day? A week? Are there still people walking around with their fingers in their ears, humming, because they don’t know who shot JR? Back when everyone watched TV at the same time, remember, there were no spoilers. In fact, people bought TV magazines to get spoilers ON PURPOSE.

Personally, I’m just not that bothered. I still regularly skip to the last page of books to find out who’s still alive – in case I die myself before I finish it. I think there’s something to be said, in an uncertain world, for knowing a bit about what’s going to happen before it does.

After all, when you think about it, restaurant reviews are really just ‘food spoilers’. Doctor’s appointments are sort of just ‘life spoilers’. Traffic reports, GDP projections, utility bills: spoilers, spoilers, SPOILERS.

“I was going to check the weather forecast,” I might say next time I arrive somewhere drenched and wearing inappropriate shoes, “but, you know, spoilers.”