Tuesday, 31 August 2010

The tormenting of my toes

I can now say, with considerable authority, that splashing through a deep, vast pool of liquid birdshit in open-toed sandals as you rush to leave the house in the morning isn't the most cheering way to start that gloomy first day back to work after the August bank holiday.

It's been quite the weekend for my feet. It began on Saturday in a local deli, where I was choosing lovely middle-class what-do-you-buy-for-a-man's-40th-birthday-when-he-has-all-the-books-and-CDs-he-may-possibly-want-and-I-wouldn't-know-which-ones-he-would-like-anyway-since-he-is-a-man-of-very-particular-taste gifts for my friend Mr H's 40th birthday. In a moment of high farce, an assistant behind the counter dropped a piece of carrot cake into the savoury chiller cabinet in front of her. In her flailing attempt to save the overboard cake, she up-ended a silver tray of strawberry tarts perched precariously on top of the chiller, which danced and span through the air in perfect slow motion, eventually landing with a skid and a splat on the floor, sending a miniature tidal wave of jelly and crème patisserie all over my tights.

I would like it recorded here – and I don't write this without considerable disappointment – that the cost of our purchases was not waived as a means of compensation.

I was instead offered three bits of kitchen roll with which to dab away at my foot, while I breezily laughed away the apologies of the staff member responsible, all the time thinking, 'WELL, THIS JUST GREAT, ISN'T IT? I'LL JUST SUCK CUSTARD OUT OF MY TIGHTS IF I GET A BIT PECKISH LATER ON, SHALL I? AND ALSO, AT LEAST GIVE US A BLOODY DISCOUNT, YOU CLUMSY IDIOT.'

Thankfully, being extremely uptight, I am rarely without a small pack of Marks & Spencer wet wipes, so don't panic everyone! Lemon-scented sponging ensued, and we all moved on.

Later, at the party, in the host's dimly lit garden, I tripped up some steps in my towering wedge sandals and stubbed my toe like a bastard. I could probably have prevented my toe from enduring quite so much pain, but I was very hungry and trying not to lose control of a very flimsy paper plate sagging with delicious curry. I think you can understand why my priorities lay as they did. The incident was my fault really, despite the unmitigating darkness. My pig-headed regard for my dinner meant I could not really get Claims Direct on to a dear friend.

So much did I whinge about my hurting toe over the rest of the evening that I couldn't wait to get home and take off my toenail varnish to reveal what would surely be the most spectacular toenail bruise the world had ever seen, painted in all the colours of God's beautiful rainbow, but mostly purple, which is to say – in rainbow talk – violet.

But there was no bruise. How could this be? My toenail was as pink and perfect as a baby's. But about 35 years bigger.

It was around this time that I suspected mysterious forces may be at work.

Then today, leaving the house in a hurry, worried about missing my train because the next one is not for 20 minutes and that makes me properly late, I struck out down my path briskly on a beautiful clear, dry, sunny day, only to realise within a few footsteps that one of my feet was cold and wet. You will be pleased to show there is no photographic documentation of this incident. I am choosing to believe the culprit was an extremely large bird. Possibly a pterodactyl. The other options were simply too gag-inducing – a cat with a stomach bug, or a fox who had torn open a bin bag and eaten something that was well past its sell-by date. That is the price you pay, foxes, for living a life of petty crime. You could go straight any time you like. Just look at dogs. They are just foxes who are too feeble-minded to fend for themselves, but who are happy with the life choice they are too stupid to actively have made.

Sadly I had used up all my wet wipes during the strawberry tart debacle, so I had to fall back on the tissues. For public transport reasons previously cited, I could not stop and go back inside for a full footbath. I felt like I – and everyone else on the over and underground networks (by this I mean commuters, not the Wombles) – could smell my shitty feet that morning, all the way from East Dulwich to Marble Arch.

So who has been playing malicious pranks on my feet this weekend? Who was laying increasingly unpleasant traps? Show yourselves, foot foes!

I am anxious about what is coming next. Should I see a ride-on lawnmower in motion at any point over the next few days, I will be extremely nervous. I am very much up to date with…


Mad Men.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Aim high, readers!

Today's pictorial post has been enabled by a photo sent to me by my friend, Ms L (or @spuddington, in the modern parlance). She thought this blog would be a good home for it. Possibly because she remembers this.

It was taken in one of south-east London's libraries, and suggests that a member of staff might have something of a social chip on their shoulder, resulting in a rather divisive approach to categorisation.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Correspondence Part I

Here is a breakdown of my average postal delivery in one week:

4 x letters from estate agents telling me they have just let property on my street. It is an extremely long street. This does not impress me.

6 x assorted loan offers from various financial companies.

1 x article my mum has cut out for me from the
Sunday Times on ways to either a) increase my income or b) meet men*.


Any 2 of the following: bank statement, payslip, bill.

2 x catalogues from smug middle-class, 'quality' clothes companies with adorable, rosy-cheeked children in brightly coloured wellies on the cover, companies I have never ordered from, yet who arrived in my life just as I started ticking the 33 and over age box, as suddenly and unwelcome...ly as back fat and monstrously hard skin on the soles of my feet did at around the same time.

Number of items of genuine, personal, non-financial, addressed-to-me-by-hand correspondence: appoximately 0.2 (based on receiving one item around every 5 weeks).

So you can imagine my giddy excitement when I came home to find a crisp, cream envelope that bore my name and address, written in an elegant hand, waiting for me on the communal shelf in our communal hallway.

I took it into my flat, sat on my sofa and looked at it for a little while, enjoying the promise of genuine human contact contained within. Whatever was inside would inevitably prove to be a disappointment, so I allowed myself to bathe in the potentiality before I uncovered the hollow truth. Life taught me to be pessimistic at a young age, when
Jim'll Fix It did not respond to my letter.

But I was wrong. Inside was a card written to me by a shop assistant who had sold me some perfume in Jo Malone about six weeks before. I had thought the time we spent together discussing woody florals and uplifting citrus meant nothing to her. Oh, foolish, foolish girl.

Aww. R had sat down, after a hard day of spraying perfume on white shards of card for indecisive idiots like me, to write to her valued customers, no photocopying, no Dear Sir/Madam, no automatic franking machine, but instead tender strokes of biro and stamps. Stamps! I was, whatever flippant showing off is to follow, genuinely pleased to receive her card and impressed by her superior approach to customer service (NB: she does not have a Saturday job in Bromley, as far as I am aware, and is over the age of 20).

Now I'm not entirely sure how to respond.

Should I write back?

'Dear R, how lovely to hear from you. I hope you have been well. You must be very excited about the new English Pear & Freesia fragrance rolling out across stores nationwide in September. I know I am! I've had the week off work, so I've been able to up my pitiful blog-post rate temporarily. Too bad no one told the weather I was on holiday! Looking forward to catching up with you soon and don't work too hard! Fondest regards, Miss Jones x'


On the another hand, perhaps I should surprise her by waiting outside the shop until I can see, through the window, that she has her back turned, then sneak in and put my hands over her eyes and say 'Guess who?!' (I may disguise my voice at this point. I do quite a good Loyd Grossman. Or one particular group of ex-colleagues used to love it when I did the voice of the pineapple from the old TipTop advert.) Then when she prises my hands from her eyes – her voice rising in borderline panic/irritation – and turns round, I'll give her a massive hug and ask her if she wants to pop out and get some lunch with me.

Maybe I could take her in a tuna sandwich and a latte.

This is ridiculous, of course.

She might be a vegetarian. I should make it egg mayonnaise.

* I should say that I would be very sad indeed if she stopped doing this.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Picture quiz (difficulty rating TBC)

Blah, blah, GCSE results are out. Babble, babble, best results ever. Ramble, ramble exams getting easier. Bore on and on lazy joke about getting an A level these days just for [insert menial non-academic school-related action here].

But still. Perhaps there is something in this.

In the balmy days of early summer, I went on a south-coast seaside safari. In a junk shop in Hastings, I found this:

It is the BBC Children's Annual 1959. It's a hell of a read. Look!


Yet exciting!

Not to mention challenging! You would not expect a university-educated 36-year-old with an enquiring mind (that's me by the way. I know. I look younger) to struggle with a Picture Quiz in a children's book. But the one below is genuinely, to me, quite tricky. I could not answer any more than two of the questions below with unflinching confidence. Can you? [Click to make it big.] I can't help feeling – and call me one of the baying mob if you must – that picture quizzes in today's children's annuals are significantly easier than this.

(I like the way it non-specifies 'From a Programme for Deaf Children'. Can no one at the publishing house remember the title of the programme for deaf children? ['Oh, never mind. Someone will remember the proper name before we go to press. Just stick that in for now...'] Or is the programme actually called 'a Programme for Deaf Children', in which case a) there are some capital letters knocking about somewhere in search of employment, and b) those children deserve better.)

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Sales-assistant soulmates

I don't think, in this country, that we are renowned for our customer service. If I am served in a shop by someone who cannot even acknowledge me, so busy are they holding an uninterrupted conversation with a colleague about an out-of-order ex-partner, I am seething but unsurprised. When someone offers me true, USA-style, teeth-and-talent-show salesmanship, it seems so contrived or commission-chasing that I have to beat a retreat to some static display in the furthest corner of the shop, where I can hide from anyone asking me if I need any help at all.

However, I am happy to report that on a Saturday afternoon in Bromley, you can experience delightful customer service from an unexpected corner of the population. The youth. The Saturday girls, the college-holiday boys, the McJobbers, the saving-to-go-travellers. Those who should be the most surly and the least giving of any kind of a shit had become, on Saturday, in Bromley, sincere, sunny... flawlessly nice. It was like the Pleasantville of retail. The Stepford of sales. Like robots who have developed genuine thoughts and feelings. Almost like....wait, is it... yes, almost like human beings.

The girl who served us in Starbucks was 5ft9in and 19ish years of enthusiasm and best intentions – steadfastly reiterating her apology that the dishwasher wasn't working and all drinks would be served in paper cups – with no sign of flagging, despite the late hour (4.30pm). No one could blame a Saturday-afternoon Starbucks employee for having an attitude problem. A sunny dispostion can't be too easy to achieve when eight hours of intensive milk-steaming has laid waste to your eyeliner and tireless table-scrubbing has ended your black nail varnish. Also people treat Starbucks really badly. Customers! Why not just crumble your muffin directly onto the carpet. Why persist in the charade that you are actually trying to get it into your mouth. Also, if you take away the risk of actually eating any of it it, it is far less fattening.

In Marks & Spencer, we spent quite some time with a friendly, funny boy-cashier, all frayed wristbands and fringe just made for sulking behind – except he was not sulking at all. He was patient and good-humoured and actually claimed to be enjoying our very lengthy investigation into whether the garment Ms R wanted to buy had been mislabelled at point of manufacture as it 'didn't look right'.

There is a slim chance, of course, that this was because Ms R is extremely attractive.

But still, these were only two among several other immaculately behaved orderlies. And on the way back to the train station, Ms R and I reflected on the good character of Bromley's shop-employed young people. We wondered whether they all hung out together out of office hours, like a really well-mannered casting of Skins. We wondered if Mr M&S and Miss Mochachocofrappuccino knew each other at all. And then we talked about what a sweet couple they would make. (She would take his name when they married, obviously. It would save her a fortune in biros.)

What if they were working away on their separate floors of the Glades shopping centre (preferably, for cinematographic purposes, one directly over the other, a gilded thread of romantic potential running through the floor and the ceiling, connecting the pair of them. Although this is probably impossible as I think this branch of Marks & Spencer has more than one floor, thus ruining my motion picture directorial debut) totally unaware of each other? Passing each other on the mall escalators, one going up, one going down, him with his head in Kerrang!, hers buried in... well, I guess you'd have to say The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. That or The Belljar. Him walking into Pret A Manger while she has her back turned, picking up cutlery to go with her soup. Her spinning round to leave just as he's facing the sandwiches, choosing his lunch.

How could we bring the two of them together? I thought about this on the train back to Denmark Hill. Ms R is excellent at drama. I felt sure we could have fashioned some kind of Glades security uniform and send her into their respective shops, requesting their presence at a vital health and safety briefing at which they would be the only two attendees. Then, under the pretence of showing them the fire escape, we could somehow trap them outside or on a roof, necessitating their cuddling up together for warmth, if not survival, as Ms R and I perched on some ledge above them sprinkling them with rain from a watering can and blasting them with cold air from a thing that produces cold air.

Or one of us could distract Mr M&S, perhaps with another mislabelled prospective purchase, while the other palmed his mobile phone out of his pocket, or slipped his name tag off his shirt, and then abandoned it on a table in Starbucks, knowing Miss Mochachocofrappuccino's sweetness and devotion to duty would lead her to track down its rightful owner.

We had got to somewhere around Nunhead when I realised I had essentially reinvented one of the subplots of Amelie.

I am wondering if there is any kind of a market for Bromelie.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Muppet Monday*

A new regular weekly feature. For this week, at least.

This is one of my all-time, straight-up, no-lying favourite albums.

When I was little, this was one of my favourite tracks from it:

Obviously at the age of 6 I couldn't appreciate its incisive commentary on dating and relationships. I just liked the rhyming and the singing frogs.

*AKA Feeling Slightly Guilty About Not Having Written A Post For Ages And Also Being Distracted By Clips Of The Muppets On YouTube Monday.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

In sympathy

Recently I found myself in the glum position of having to buy an 'In sympathy' card to send to a friend – a friend from university who I don't see so much these days, yet when I do, our relationship is immediately and reassuringly as it ever was. One of those friends.

I am big on trivial outrage – one day I'm hoping that will develop into proper grown-up indignance about Really Important Things that I can expand upon at dinner parties – and one enduring outlet for my contempt is the ugliness of mainstream greetings cards. Yes, of course, there are beautiful, stylish, clever, handprinted-by-artists-in-their-Hackney-studios ones out there if you look hard enough and want to pay £4.95, but on the average high street, in the average stationer nestling between Caffe Nero and Dorothy Perkins, you are assailed by only the ugly, the twee and the retch-inducing. Who buys them all? Someone, anyone, tell me who? It can only be that same mysterious, hidden number who buy the 'gift ideas' stacked by the tills in John Lewis and Borders before Christmas, those poor potential presents sitting there like plain girls in nightclubs, waiting for desperation o'clock to tick-tick-tick around.

One of the ways in which I am turning into my mum is that these days I buy good greetings cards whenever I see them. They live in a drawer as a loose and peaceful Quality Cards Collective, alongside printer paper and bits of Useful Ribbon, until they are called to action. I have not yet purchased a special box to keep the good cards in, like my friend Ms B, but no doubt that day will come.

'In sympathy' cards are, appropriately, the most depressing examples of Card Crime. Of course, if you are the person receiving one of these cards, what it actually looks like is so very much the least of your worries (along with when you last ate a proper meal and what was it like to sleep right through the night) that maybe that's irrelevent. But that doesn't mean we should fob these vulnerable people off with the dregs of card design, like the government planning to surrender the poorest and weakest 10 per cent of children to the aliens in Torchwood: Children Of The Earth, purely because no one was likely to miss them.

In the popular high-street stationer (which seemed such a Palace of Promise when I was little and I would take my Christmas tokens into the Cambridge branch with tiny, trembling hands, and now is home to three-for-two paperback offers and family bags of Wine Gums) where I was forced to buy my card, the choice pretty much ranged from this:

To this:

I would never, ever, ever, I-really-can't-say-ever-enough-times-here buy a birthday or Christmas card from the same school of design as this. Yet this was entirely typical of the sympathy cards on offer. To paraphrase Morrissey, when he was still with the Smiths, they say nothing to me about my life.

But somehow the whole language of consolation seems foreign. What does 'passed away' even mean? Do the phrases 'at this sad time' or 'offer my condolences' skip naturally off your tongue? Not so much. Yet if you are sending a sympathy card, you feel such a responsibility not to make someone who is already feeling desperately upset feel any more desperately upset (it really is the least you can do, etc etc) that you grope around for the safe choices that everyone else uses. If you are the recipient, it is extremely curious to find that everyone around you is speaking in bizarre Tongues Of Grief (those who are not too scared of upsetting you to speak at all, that is). Although admittedly, you are in such a state of high confusion already that this new development is only a subtle shade darker on the Confusion colour card.

So at this sad time (you see!), swathes of vocabulary find themselves newly deployed, words that do not intersect with any other part of the Venn diagram entitled 'Stuff You Normally Say'. Yet funnily enough, no greetings cards exist which say 'I'm really sorry about this totally shitty thing that has happened to you' or 'When I think about the things you are having to deal with at the moment, I want to be sick', which may be more along the lines of what you actually mean.

In these situations, I would normally choose a blank card with some vaguely soothing flora on the front, and a large white space inside where I would agonisingly scratch out my awkward words of support, but even the blank cards presented a harrowing choice. In the end, I went for a more versatile 'Thinking of you' design, in which a cartoon crocodile hurried somewhere carrying a cup of tea.

I am assuming it was tea. Everyone drinks tea when they're upset, right?

Maybe not my finest hour.

I don't even think it was the right 'Thinking of you'. It seemed more to be saying 'I'm thinking of you now and again, like when I see someone else who is also in a plaster cast, or who also has glandular fever, or a woman crying in a restaurant surrounded by four girlfriends nodding sympathetically, with the one nearest her rubbing her upper back and saying that there's someone better for her out there.' A kind of 'Oh, chin up' thinking of you.

I'm not sure that it exactly said 'Thinking of you while I spend 15 whole minutes in front of the cards in WH Smith totally paralysed by remembering the kind of things you might be experiencing.' But it was the most like something I would normally say, or buy, on any other day of the week. Some kind of normality. There is not much of that around when someone you love has died.

It's not just cards, though. I don't know if this is an OK thing to say or not, but the whole aesthetic of commiseration and funerals seems the only area of our lives that has not been awarded some kind of style makeover in recent times. Given the revolution in interior design that has happened over the last 20 years or so, coffins have yet to embrace the same clean lines and tasteful Farrow & Ball-style paint colours on such a sweeping scale. Gloss surfaces and brass handles persist. In death, people are surely being housed in fabrics and finishes they would never have had in their dwellings when alive, but I'm not sure there are many alternatives.

Perhaps this is because, fortunately, we don't have to make these choices very often. And when we do, we are in a state of shock and disconnection. And when they're over, we don't want to dwell on them. We don't look back at pictures of the day. Unless we're really weird.

Perhaps I will open up some kind of supremely tasteful, forward-thinking funeral director's business, with a sideline in stationery. I'm sure they do exist already, but I'm not sure where. I could probably only do the front of house – I wouldn't be too good in the back where the (non-)action happens.

In the week after my dad died, I decided I might like to retrain as a registrar. The one we saw when we registered his death was so businesslike and buttoned up, and her office so chilly and charmless. I understand she didn't want to reduce us to sobbing wrecks with her overwhelming compassion and kindness, but I wouldn't have minded feeling a bit less like I was getting my road tax application stamped in the post office or signing on.

That ambition only lasted a few weeks. I doubt this one will be any different.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Cake-related catch-up

In which I bring you, the reader, up to speed with developments in sweet office-based treats.

Just as the eskimos reputedly have a whole dictionary of words for snow (OK, it is not that big a dictionary), the Scots have a whole arsenal of words for 'impending diabetic coma'.

One of them is Macaroon.

Not the dinky, pastel confections that you might linger over choosing in Harrods, while your teeny-tiny dog defecates in the bottom of your £3,000 handbag. Not the chewy blonde coconut biscuit, but this:

As far as my palate was able to deduce (and admittedly, my palate is not 'exceptional', unlike Lisa Faulkner's on Celebrity Masterchef, just because she once managed to identify the flavour of sage), this is a hybrid of Kendal mint cake, Bounty and some other ingredients that each provide an additional helping of sweetness.

It reminds me of some farcical Neighbours plot strand, where no one thinks anyone's added any chilli powder to the stew that's bubbling away in the kitchen of the coffee shop, so everyone who passes by adds some, leading to red-faced, water-chugging hilarity, and Harold Bishop vexedly opening and closing his mouth several times and saying, 'BAH!'

But with sugar.

In the Macaroon factory, countless conscientious workers are tipping sacks of sugar into a giant vat, congratulating themselves on rectifying the perceived deficiencies of their colleagues.

2) The first mince pies of the season. Is there a horn that sounds at the start of the hunting season? Maybe there is just a horn at the start of every hunt. I'm kind of behind with my blood sports. Anyway. There should be a sound that rings out to mark the first mince pie of the season. Or, rather, the day when food companies start sending out samples of their festive comestibles to magazine offices, which is what we're really dealing with here. It should take the form of a long, loud melliflous belch, to herald the festive excess that will take place between now and Christmas.

I performed a taste test, comparing and contrasting two mince pies with Viennese stylings, one from a well-known high-street pasty parlour. The other is from Betty's, the Yorkshire Valhalla of cake and bake craft (also available by mail order). Here they are, side by side. Can you guess which is which?

You know how sometimes in women's magazines you might read a feature which, through a rigorous process of independent testing on actual, real women who don't work in the beauty industry and have no interest in appeasing valuable advertisers, reveals that a cheap high-street moisturiser is every bit as nourishing and lost-youth-lassoing as something twenty times as expensive, hand-blended in a Swiss laboratory by butterflies using tiny gossamer balloon whisks?

This is nothing like that.

The high-street mince pie was a bit sawdusty and I immediately regretted wasting a portion of pudding on it.

The Betty's mince pie was four mouthfuls of ambrosia, where ambrosia is made, not just of mincemeat and pastry, but also of apple and marzipan.

Were I Gregg Wallace, I would be feeling somewhat sticky in the trouser area just as a result of eating it.

Luckily I'm not. And sorry for the above.

c) My first whoopie pie.

Whoopie pies are the new cupcakes. Everyone knows that, even Marks & Spencer – and as dearly as I love them, they're hardly the sharpest tools in the box. We had some in the office a few weeks ago. Whoopie pies, not tools. According to Wikipedia my extensive research, Whoopie pies got their name from their origins in the Amish community. Wives would slip one into the lunch boxes of their field-working husbands. Come lunchtime, the famished, sweet-toothed menfolk would open their lunchboxes and be so thrilled at the sight of two small pieces of slightly dried-out sponge stuck together with buttercream that they would shout 'Whoopie!' I wasn't aware that the Amish were especially known for their spontaneous and vocal outbursts of emotion. But then I'm basing this on having seen Witness about 15 years ago and not really being able to remember any of it.

I enjoyed my Whoopie pie - despite an excess of buttercream, which seems to be the patisserie crime de nos jours. It is a bit like finding an Oreo at the back of the cupboard that has been left out of the packet and is also a few weeks past its sell-by date. Which, for me, is in no way a deterrent.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Sights That Make Me Want To Go Home, Put On A Cardigan And Some Nick Drake And Think Mawkish Thoughts About All The Needless Destruction In Our World

(No.460 in a brand-new series)

The chopped up piano, pavement-marooned, ready for rubbish collection.

Percentage chance that I would already be wearing a cardigan: 97

Percentage chance that I would already be listening to Nick Drake*: 2

Percentage chance that I would be listening to either The Essential Neil Diamond, The Look Of Love by ABC or the
Footloose soundtrack: 93

*On my iPod, obviously, being out on the street and all.