Sunday, 28 June 2009

Jack your body

I was buying my lunch in M&S at London Bridge on Friday when I noticed a girl, early-20s but it's hard to tell (when I was in Norfolk recently, a bus driver asked me if I was UNDER 19 and it was the greatest moment of my life), roaming the aisles in black and white face paint.

In my usual open, non-judgmental way, I assumed she was on her way to her first Glastonbury, and demonstrating to all the stiffs staying in London exactly what an anything-goes time she was going to have down there.

Then, when I was queuing up to pay for my Mexican three bean wrap and half-price cherries, I found myself standing right next to her. In a way that was both sheepish and slightly attention-seeking, she shouted to her friend who was being served, 'Will you wait for me? It makes me look slightly less weird.'

We had a moment of catching each other's eyes, and she did a bit of eye-rolling and 'I'm so embarrassed.' I told her what I had surmised about her kerazee Glasto get-up, but she shook her head and said glumly, 'I'm Jack The Ripper.'

She worked at the London Dungeons, as it turned out.

'It's alright for her,' she said, nodding at her friend. 'She's a plague victim.'

I can confirm that the friend did look dramatically, and terminally, fake-ill.

'She gets a costume,' Jack said. [She was right. Plague Victim was working a generic olden-days skirt, and a dowdy blouse item.] 'So everyone knows she's playing a character. I just have to put a big coat and hat on over my own clothes.'

I was interested in the gender politics of a woman playing the prolific murderer of prostitutes. Obviously I didn't say that. I just went, 'But you're a girl. Cool.'

She explained that since she was pretty much covered up, with a scarf across half her face, she could loom out of the shadows and slash away with drama-student abandon, and no one would know that under her coat she had been concealing not just a knife, but also breasts (two).

[Has anyone ever written a horror film set in a chamber-of-horrors re-enactment experience? I went through one at Madame Tussaud's a few years ago, when I was there in the evening for a work party. I honestly thought that was the way I was going to die. Incidentally, the evening ended prematurely after someone spilt red wine on Wax Madonna's white suit. A couple of years before that, I had been to a record launch there [Moments Where My Life Sounds More Exciting Than It is No 64] and the management became quite distressed when one of my colleagues pulled Wax Alan Titchmarsh's trousers down. But really, what do they expect?]

Anyway, I was excited by my brush with grim-faced wearers of horror facepaint. However, not everyone is so easily impressed. We ended up paying at adjacent tills, and her cashier looked her up and down, before saying in a voice of sighing and ennui, 'Who are you today, then?'

Friday, 26 June 2009

In which I am humourless and self-regarding

Longtime readers will know I am a bit funny about death. And by funny, I mean not funny at all.

A few years ago, I was heartily bereaved, and I now believe that if something like that happens to you, you are never quite the same. This is no kind of emotional Top Trumps, with me claiming a win over someone who has never had that happen to them. If you haven't, I am honestly so glad for you. I just know that That Thing cuts through my life like a cheese wire, dividing it cleanly into How I Was Then and How I Am Now. And How I Am Now is so very terrified of That Thing happening again, it renders me a craven victim of superstition and karma-paranoia, who responds to jokes about the demise of the famous and eccentric not with brazen, anarchic laughter, but with a fearful bite of the lip or an anxious furrow of the forehead. How I Was Then hates this about How I Am Now, but How I Am Now has me in quite the aggressive half-Nelson, and How I Was Then is now too weak to fight back. What I'm basically saying is that, when it comes to macabre jokes, How I Am Now is Gripper Stebson, while How I Was Then is Walter The Softy.

Holy intertextuality, Batblog!

Not exactly, critical theory fans. I just wanted to write that.

Another consequence of That Thing is that I am now blindly over-understanding, and an ardent cutter of slack, in the case of anyone messed up and fairly odd, since that has been my default setting since It Happened. Terrible things have been written about Michael Jackson doing terrible things. I have no idea if they're true, and it's not in my job description to decide. But in the matter of his prodigious but wholly legal eccentricity, I'm not sure it's so wildly disproportionate to anyone else's. It's just that the rest of us are working to a slightly tighter budget. If you wanted a chimp, a theme park, your own sweet shop, and you could afford it, and no one was telling you no, you would be spartan indeed not to get Apes R Us straight on the phone.

Personally, I would have an owl sanctuary. I would spend millions on gardeners. I would have a fleet of ice-cream vans. I would probably dress as Katherine Hepburn most of the time, on the days when I wasn't being Henry VIII or Joan of Arc. I would own several robots. Sometimes when I am walking along the street, I pretend I am in a race with all the other pedestrian drones, and I hear BBC commentary in my head, rising to a frenzied pitch, as, after making up 30 metres, I draw level and pass an old lady. Were I loaded, and had I never lived a normal life or learnt that it was unorthodox and profligate, I would rent a stadium and some ringer athletes, and stage my own Olympics, at which I win every event, because I have paid everyone else to lose.

Everyone is just trying to keep the comfort in, and the badness out, in whatever ways they can. And it may seem as though the concept of dignity has had no place in a conversation about Michael Jackson for about 20 years, but the effects that were wrought upon his appearance were, I assume, merely an attempt to create his best version of Jacko, to hold back the march of ageing and decay, to show he was the boss, even if the rest of the world could see this was fallacy; even if the rest of the world was laughing. And that's really no different to any man who's ever bought a toupee, or any woman shoehorned into a dress that's a little bit too small. Everyone has a thing they do or wear because they're desperately clinging on, and because they think it's the thing that makes the difference, to the mystification of The World. You have your thing, and I have mine – we just don't realise that no one else gets it. And I don't think I want you to tell me.

And despite Michael Jackson's costly arsenal of cosmetic procedures and high-strength pain-relief, he was eventually betrayed by his exhausted, mortal heart, like millions of 50-year-old mortgage slaves and middle managers before and after him. And when you see Jermaine Jackson peering over the top of a stockade made of microphones, at the eye of a storm of flashbulbs and clattering cameras, he is just one man, emotionally broken, having to tell a large group of strangers that his brother died an hour ago.

My favourite thing I have read or heard today is an ex-colleague's Facebook status. You'll be unsurprised to learn it is not a joke. It was something like: 'I have danced more to Michael Jackson's records than to anyone else's, and so have my kids.'

[Shit, even I am pondering the wisdom of writing 'Michael Jackson' and 'kids' in the same sentence. Maybe How I Was Then is not entirely a lost cause.]

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Some reasons why I love an illustrated dictionary

[from the The Collins Pocket]

[from The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary]

[from The Oxford-Duden Pictorial English Dictionary]

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Look at what you could have won

Fete season is upon us and I could not be happier about it.

Today, Brockley's Hilly Fields Fete, and a local primary school's giveaway bonanza – in essence a school boot fair where you paid £1 and could then take away as much of the school's cast-offs and clearings-out as you could carry.

Would you like a set of generic, faded green staff-room cups and saucers? An overhead projector? About 2,000 books remaindered from 20 years of PTA jumble sales? Assorted school chairs and desks? Props from a recent production of Oliver!? Old costumes from school plays (handmade)? Dozens of strip-light bulbs which you may use as imitation lightsabers or perhaps to construct an elaborate Jean-Michel Jarre-style son-et-lumiere in your own home? A rainbow-coloured mountain of ring binders? Various unwieldy language-laboratory-style cassette recorders on which hundreds of pupils were recorded passing or failing French and German GCSEs? Comedically jumbo headphones with curly, curly leads? All for your paltry £1 entrance fee? If you know me at all, you already know my answer is 'Yes, a thousand times yes.'

However, I am a victim of my own circumstances. You can't have everything you want. But if I had either a car, or a flat one could classify as anything more than 'smallish', these would most likely have been coming home with me...

Three books on dachsunds. If I ever had laser treatment on my dog allergy, and subsequently bought a dachshund, I would want a balance of information on how to bring him up responsibly. I would not care for a delinquent dachshund on my hands. Or my carpets.

Imitation lamppost for dancing around at home.

Informatively reassuring, yet at the same time slightly creepy/threatening poster.

Theatrical steps, on which to practise accepting awards, reach high shelves, perform step aerobics.

Woodwork bench, on which to work with wood. Also usual for ritual sacrifices, etc. Handy cubby hole below for storing heavy duty tools/children.

Two dimensional pies and eels barrow. Self-explanatory.

Intriguing, emotive tale of aquatic peril.

Finally, Baby Jesus crib, essential for home nativity or actual second coming etc.

Thank you, I graciously accept your compliments on my self-restraint.

Instead I bought home The Oxford Illustrated Dictionary, which is so good it deserves its own post. And an enormous padlock which I felt inexplicably drawn to. I picked it up and couldn't put it down. Which is weird because it is practically the size of a man. Only regression therapy could tell me if I was once responsible for locking away traitors in towers in a previous life. It may also be able to tell me who I lent my copy of The Sound And The Fury to, because it's totally disappeared. Till then, I present a scientific diagram depicting the vast scale of the enormo lock..

Thursday, 18 June 2009


In all the excitement of weekend-break season, I have had no time at all to reflect on my excursion by Thames river boat (on which I pretended I was, by turns, Melanie Griffith in Working Girl and a high-ranking, fierce-but-fair river-cop in a bland midweek TV drama almost certainly called River Cops only I think that is actually a real TV programe, who can run incredibly fast and is some kind of martial arts supremo but also gets seasick – oh! see how she is vulnerable!) to see Britney Spears at the O2 arena.

Let's gloss over the Spears Management Team's cavalier approach to Britney's personal safety, as she is lowered into the arena from a great height.

(It's probably impossible to get Britney any kind of insurance these days – ticking, as she must, the box on the application form marked 'Would people refer to you as a loose cannon?' – so her People have clearly decided that any kind of workplace-related accident may as well be played for maximum drama. Yes, let's put her in tiny sparkly hotpants and trap her in a flimsy, glittering cage high, high up in the rafters – what a Powerful Metaphor For Her Own Life. (Britney's Circus tour is full of Powerful Metaphors For Her Own Life. It should totally be on the GCSE syllabus.)

Let's turn away from the sinister Circus theme, with its dwarf ringmaster (I think he was a dwarf, we were sitting pretty far back, etc etc) and its illusionist who sawed Britney into pieces (hasn't she suffered enough? etc etc. And also: Oh look, another PMFHOL).

Instead, let's talk about snacks. It's one of the all-time great subjects.

I love a gimmick, anyone will tell you that, so I was way excited by the idea of popcorn in a Britney-branded carton. In the years to come, when Britney wins some kind of Nobel prize for, like, Doing A Bunch Of Totally Awesome Stuff, my adopted Vietnamese children will be able to pawn this highly collectable piece of merchandise to fund their university education.

However, by the time I'd found my way to the stand, the conventional, remotely edible flavours of Britney popcorn were long gone. The only options left were salty (I don't think so), Toffee Apple and Toffee Banana. What would you do, readers? With stocks disappearing before my very eyes like sand through one of those timer things that has sand running through it, I rushed headlong into toffee banana. My clammy logic was that I far prefer an artificial banana flavour to the flavour of an actual banana (mmm, delicious banana milkshakes and banana Toffos and foam bananas). 'Keep one hand under the bottom,' the vendor said to me as I walked off with my carton. I did for about five minutes until I forgot, because Britney was descending from the ceiling in a glittery cage. Me and my companion, Ms D, fell into the conventional popcorn feeding pattern of hand-carton-hand-mouth-hand-carton-hand-mouth, like popcorn-eating, Britney-watching automatons.

Five minutes later I became aware that I could no longer feel my tongue. I can tell you that toffee banana popcorn is the sweetest thing on this earth. It is more saccharine than all of Britney's ballads put together, and I'm including I'm Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman in that. Pretty soon, the Britney popcorn was languishing forgotten under our seats while Ms D and I asked each other 'Is this one Womanizer?' every time Britney broke into another vocodered synth-bot anthem, which was pretty much every song.

Poor lonely toffee banana popcorn in need of someone to love it. Just like Britney. PMFHOLs are truly everywhere when you think about it.

I kept the carton though. I don't know what that says about Britney.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Tiny singer

One of the things I was doing in Norfolk was seeing Elton John. Professionally speaking, I mean. Seeing him professionally, and also, at a distance.

Which is, I guess, how professional relationships should work. Some people would disagree with that. Richard and Judy, for example. ANYWAY.

There is not much to say apart from: it was the kind of concert where you have to say 'OhmygodiLOVEthis' at the start of every song, and it was the kind of concert which builds to a tipping point (in this case, Crocodile Rock) where certain members of the audience shrug off the inhibitions of middle age and work out the creases in their slacks with some powerful moves. Shackles broken, their bravery is apparently limitless and they may even chance some direct physical contact.

Here are two sharing a moment during Sacrifice.

Monday, 15 June 2009

The Spector and the feast

I spent the weekend in Norfolk, the county of my later childhood. One of the hotspots I visited was Wells-Next-The Sea, and more specifically Nelsons Coffee Shop (no apostrophe – don't start me). Nelson himself – the admiral, the leader of men, the rumoured haunter of my primary school toilets – is kind of a big deal in Norfolk. But when I saw his image on the cover of the coffee shop menu, I could not think proudly of my forefather in the flatlands. I could only think of Phil Spector.

I like to think of the grainy image on the left not as a historical portrait, but as a preliminary sketch of the get-up Spector is planning for the time he makes parole.

Friday, 12 June 2009

Advertising review

I seem to have gone on a lot about magazines recently, and I'm entirely a creature of habit, so this is an extract from the advertisements at the back of Saturday's Guardian magazine.

Let's temporarily bypass Steve Davis and his jauntily hoisted thumb, and consider the advertiser called 'Ever So Sexy'. Ever So Sexy make underwear and there is a woman in their advert wearing it. She looks Ever So Sexy. 'Ever So Sexy' must be one of the most unsexy ways to modify the adjective sexy in the history of sexy. Still, with their extravagant national advertising campaign, they must be raking it in over their passion-halting rivals Jolly Sexy, Sexy Young Filly and I Am Calling You Sexy But I Am Doing So In A Baby Voice.

Anyway, what of Steve and his 'approval' of the Network Veka windows and conservatories? I will confess to being surprised at the site of his palid yet chipper countenance. When Steve Davis was at his professional zenith in the 80s, he was mocked for his consistency and aura of calm. Boring old Steve 'Interesting' Davis. I always found him very droll, and not at all dull. And here he is, thrillingly outside the repertoire of goods I would expect to find him endorsing, which include snooker tables, snooker balls, snooker cues, waistcoats, perhaps insurance.

Why, then, is Steve Davis so very passionate about windows and conservatories? Well, if one is considering becoming a snooker superpower, one needs a practice room. The average household simply cannot accommodate a full-size table. Most barely have a dining room. It's a little-known fact that the No 1 reason people buy conservatories is so they can recreate the conditions of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield – perfecting their potting, naturally; training their eyes to withstand the glare of the lights by facing off against some fierce, low afternoon sun through the windows; persuading an elderly relative to cough bronchially at crucial moments of concentration or unwrap a Murray Mint at a freakish pitch, until one's nerves become hardened to an iron shield.

As for the windows, well, one of the random facts I have assimilated though a childhood of watching A Question Of Sport and the inferior Sporting Triangles with my dad, is that Steve Davis is fanatical about a certain strand of weird French music. On the cul-de-sac where all retired sportsmen live, Stuart Pearce could barely hear his punk anthems over the Gallic racket emanating from no 6, Casa Davis or, more informally, Steve's. Until, that is, he discovered the joy of double glazing, and everyone could live together in harmony - Roger Black with his James Taylor CDs, Pat Nevin with his mint-condition Joy Division seven-inches.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Sable, spellings and signs

I have returned from a weekend in Whitstable. This is a place with a reputation for attracting gourmands, yet cut me and I bleed Mr Whippee. 

If you read the right magazines (or, like me, occasionally flick through them while you are working for the wrong ones) it is also a mecca for sophisticated young out-of-towners, keen to spend their wealth in the town's hip boutiques and drink their organic wine sitting on cashmere blankets spread over the beach – yet here is the view from the back of the bus that took us from our B&B to the high street.

It was a glorious weekend, spent with some of my oldest and dearest friends. This was brought home to me at dinner, when I took delivery of my dessert – lemon posset with rhubarb fool and sable biscuits. 

(And yes, I know it does look a bit like this. I just have a type, OK?) My friend said to me, 'You chose that purely so you could have those little shortbread biscuits, didn't you?' And I had to concede that yes, she was entirely right. While the part of me that considers myself a Tousle-haired Creature Of Spontaneity And Caprice rails against anyone being able to correctly define my preferences like this, it was strangely comforting to realise she knew me so well. She also knew, of course, that in The Big Book Of Opposites, I am, hair aside, the negative image of that Creature Of Spontaneity And Caprice. 

(Incidentally, posset is one of the all-time great words. One of my weekend companions, Lady C, believes it sounds like sexual terminology. I think of it as a sack in which to carry one's successfully hunted possums).

Anyway, in further menu news, I found it impossible to switch off completely from work. 

Perhaps I have been in the business for too long. Perhaps it is time for a change. But as The Big Book Of Opposites tells you, I fear change. Still, I am open to signs, as I have said so many times before. So now I am wondering why I saw the face of Little Weed from Bill & Ben at the bottom of my glass…

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

My first Cartland

Someone in the Lewisham area has fallen right out of love with their collection of late 70s/early 80s comedy records. 

Imagine them dumping the 12-inch bagful on the counter of the Red Cross shop with a mournful sigh, saying 'We just don't laugh together any more.' 

I, however, was in the mood for love, because I found myself buying my first ever Barbara Cartland novel, enticingly called Journey To Paradise. I felt as though this was a female rite of passage that I was coming to embarrassingly late. 

Also, it was only 80p. Although, considering the original price was 30p, I'm not sure it was the sound investment it initially appeared. 

The opening page reveals something of the female peril ahead – '…he is an experienced husband. He will know how to deal with your somewhat exceptional qualities, Kamala' – but it also reveals a scathing review by a previous owner, expressed in brisk, dismissive and I would say rather mature strokes of biro…

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Divided we fail

I'm spending most of this week pottering, and a whole new world of daytime TV mediocrity is opening up to me. Today: Divided, hosted by Andrew Castle, where strangers are forced into a team scenario and must then overcome their mutual distrust to answer multiple choice questions. Then, they decide how their winnings should be Divided between them, using emotional blackmail, passive aggression and physical combat. Probably. I don't know. I didn't see the end.

One of the first questions asked the team to deduce which of three sentences contained all the letters of the alphabet. 

Option A was a red herring – 'The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.'

Options B and C were brilliantly bizarre (yet one did indeed contain all the letters of the alphabet). 

B Blackbirds love my big sphinx of quartz

C Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs.

These are the kind of imperatives read out by the phone operatives of specialist sex lines.

After the contestants answered correctly, Andrew Castle said, 'You guys are playing great.' 

I'm no fan of Andrew Castle.

Also, I have now dusted my television.

Monday, 1 June 2009

You got me and, Arnie, I got you…

Occasionally, I go into a shop and look at their wall of magazines with an open mind - that is, I attempt to detach the feelings of antipathy and cynicism that have barnacled their way onto my brain during more than ten years of working on/for/with them. It is basically me trying to inject a frisson of excitement back into our relationship – walking into a newsagent, pretending we are strangers, just like the first time we met...

Even more occasionally, I might buy one but actually hardly ever because they are for the most part a) expensive and b) no good.

Yesterday I was cruising the magazine aisle – past middle youth, through teen, tween, crafts, puzzles, homes, health, food, music, men's porn-lite, and eventually 'Sports & Leisure'. I know that things are changing in the magazine industry, but I was still shocked by the unorthodox titles they had chosen to position front and centre, as having mass-market, buy-this-and-your-life-will-be-better bloke appeal. None of your brightly coloured, bromance-fostering football rags. Instead…

On reflection, I don't know why I'm surprised. After all, men, this is exactly the kind of look that chicks dig – a map of Britain's B-roads in veiny relief across the body, a skintone I'm calling My Nan's Dining Room Table, and the knowledge that if we (females, women, chicks) attempt to assume any kind of dominant physical position, we will simply slide off, back into submission. 

It's a little known fact that during his bodybuilding career in the late 60s and 70s, Arnold Schwarzeneggar was managed by Sonny Bono. You can see them captured in their glory days here on the cover of Muscle & Fitness, Sonny's moustache turning upwards in rapturous excitement at feeling Arnie's Arms Of Oak. The pair would sing along to I Got You Babe in the car on the way to competitions. Sonny would throw his voice around to render both his own part and Cher's, while Arnold would honk out the 'ba-ba, ba-ba's in a flat, heavily-accented monotone.