Sunday, 30 November 2008

The Bleakley Midwinter

I feel sad that Christine has been ejected from Strictly Come Dancing. Her Latin dancing was flaccid, it's true, but she seems like a genuinely nice person.

However, as sweet, committed and gracious as she was, there were stronger forces working against Christine this week. 

1) The acting coach. Strictly afficionados know that when this particular joker is played, a dramatic transformation can be expected from any previously wooden contestant. It worked an actual, true, pre-Christmas miracle for Gethin Jones last year, to the extent where I found myself squealing out loud to no one but myself when he started doing this. Poor old Christine must have felt that finally, finally she could be teetering on the brink of a breakthrough when the producers told her, 'We've got an actress in who's really going to help you invoke the drama, passion and aggression of the tango,' only to feel her anticipation sliding back down into her shoes when the studio door opened and Felicity Kendal walked in. She's a fine actress, of course, who could teach you lots of valuable things about working with a headscarf or how to convince when affectionately scolding your lovably eccentric partner, but this particular lesson may not have seen the perfect meeting of task and tutor. Lady C, whom I watched the show with, quite correctly remarked that this represented a gross missed opportunity to welcome Stephanie Beacham back after her criminally truncated stint on the last series. At the very least, they could have splashed out on Kate O'Mara. 

2) The 'look'. Christine Bleakley is a natural beauty. Who could argue with that? Except, perhaps, the BBC's hair and make-up department who had apparently flicked through their Big Book Of Perversely Unnecessary Makeovers and decided to give her 'the Sarah Brightman'. 

3) The 'pep talk'. I'm honestly surprised Christine had any strength at all to contest the dance-off, having been patronised to within an inch of her life by Tess Daly, who thought it was appropriate to communicate with Christine, her undoubted intellectual superior, in the way an over-eager care worker might encourage a frail but good-natured nonagenarian in a care home. 'Now Christine, my little darling, we love that smile. Don't ever stop smiling.'  I'm not even making that up. It's a direct quote. 

Perhaps they would like to give Tess's job to Lisa Snowdon next year. Just an idea. But a GREAT ONE.

So really, Christine never had a chance. Still, I loved her at the last for breaking into a spot of impromptu Riverdancing during her farewell dance with Matthew. This ritual normally starts as a kind of school-disco slow-dance, and breaks into a slightly fumbled series of lifts before the other contestants can bear the awkwardness no longer and swarm around the ejected pair. I would have liked to see more of Christine and Matthew larking about like two drunken bridesmaids at a wedding reception. Ironically, I can't help feeling that if Christine had shown some of that spark and abandon during the cut and thrust of the competition, she might be dancing next week. 

Friday, 28 November 2008

Winter kitten

Loyal readers will recall my forehead flare-up after an unfortunate mismatch between the cold weather and an itchy hat. You may have assumed, as I did, that that particular chapter in my fascinating dermatological history had closed. However, as I was washing my hands in the ladies at work today, I looked up at the mirror and noticed, under the kind of harsh lighting that illuminates most public conveniences, that flakes of skin were liberating themselves from my forehead, and dropping like silent snowflakes on to my dress. A black dress, of course – all the better to show off the unsightly facial-dandruff blizzard. I was, at this point, relieved I was working on a downmarket celebrity rag this week, and not, say, Elle, where I might have had to hide my hideous physiognomy in the shadows like a Victorian freak as the dewy-skinned, pashmina-wrapped princesses of the style press swished past me.

I am counting my blessings. Imagine if I had to work outside every day. I would literally have no skin left on my face. It is all for the best that I am a soft-skinned, short-sighted, latter-day Edgar Linton who hunches over a computer all day cosseted by the warmth of central heating. My constitution would permit nothing more.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Hark The Herald Angels Singe

It has come to my attention that making a Christmas cake is about as much fun as you can have on your own. Within the lowly four walls of your kitchen, something magnificent is born from the humblest of beginnings. It's basically the Nativity story of the cake world. This must be why Christmas cakes are made at Christmas.

One of the great things about baking a Christmas cake is that it makes your house smell amazing. I'm not quite sure which part of the Nativity story this represents.

But anyway, I followed a star (I actually followed the recipe in the excellent Lost Gardens Of Heligan café cookbook, but there's nothing I like more than a metaphor stretched to the point of collapse, cf the incredible legal wordplay in Blue's All Rise. All together now: 'Objection overruled') and I turned these:

into this:

The astute among you will notice that it is – and this is a technical term – slightly burnt. However, I'm counting on the people I'm serving it to being too drunk to notice. If not, well, I think our Lord was no stranger to criticism either.

Next stop: marzipan.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Drama is conflict

I present to you an urban tragedy, wrought by a clash between old East Dulwich and new East Dulwich.

Lost Cath Kidston wellington boot in Somerfield.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

In which I learn a valuable lesson from Neville Southall

Here is a job I would like on a permanent basis: professional fete stallholder.

This is not the kind of full-time job to fund a wardrobe of couture clothes or serious gambling habit or growing collection of fabergé eggs. It is a job to have as a kind of absorbing hobby, while your investment banker husband works every hour and never sees his children awake, and your au pair makes the organic packed lunches. 

At the moment, what with having to pay my own mortgage, I am only on occasional work experience in the feting profession. After flirting with car-booting, I fell in love with the world of the stallholder in the summertime, helping out my godmother at a community fete in central London, close to several hospitals. Almost all the classic elements were there – ballet display by local youth group, adult-education belly-dancers, stalls selling Reader's Digest Cookery Books and unloved ornaments, and an ageing rock band called Bloodless Coup. All that was missing was a member of the clergy and a guess the weight of the cake competition. To quote Craig Revel-Horwood, I LOVED it.

I am lucky, in many respects, that I work with people who are mostly my own age. In any office situation I go into, it is very unlikely there will be anyone there more than 8 years younger or older than me. By laws of proportion which I have just made up, but which I believe to be basically sound, I will get on with 80% of them, have plenty in common with 60% and could conceivably become properly great, lasting friends with 40%. 

It's an absolute boon for one's social life, of course, but you do forget what it's like to talk to people who are not wearing patent shoe-boots or Converse. But throw yourself into the fete milieu and there you are behind the ramparts of your trestle, one hand on your float, the other gripping a polystyrene cup of grey tea, with the world growing bigger and wider before your very eyes. You're selling jam to chalky-faced old ladies in too-bright lipstick, and discussing cake with father-and-son duos, any one of whom is pushing the other in a wheelchair. It is highly unlikely that any of these people have heard of Agyness Deyn, and you love them all the more for it. Their mere proximity is surprisingly exciting and you find yourself thrilling! to a hitherto unknown sense of community and embracing! the rich diversity of the human race.

Anyway, yesterday I was mostly embracing the rich diversity of middle-class three-wheeled-buggy-pushers in East Dulwich, helping my friend Miss L sell her excellent cards and Christmas decorations from a stall on the main street on the coldest day of the year, for six hours. I spent more consecutive minutes wearing a woolly hat than I ever have in my life before, I believe. And the cruel machinations of time taught me a lesson, which is that my hat is really, really itchy. At frequent intervals, I found myself rubbing it violently across my forehead and down my  cheeks in a manic attempt to relieve the irritation, like a dog gradually rubbing away its own fur. As a result, by about 10 o'clock last night, I had an angry red rash right across the top half of my face, thrown into even more dramatic relief by the regular pallor of the bottom half of my face. In a desperate attempt at remedial action, I went to bed last night with my face covered in a thick white layer of E45 cream, like someone answering the door unexpectedly to their love interest in a romantic comedy. Incredibly, no love interest at all rang my doorbell last night. I'm not sure what this means. Probably it means my doorbell is broken.

What does this mean for my future in feting? It means that I will apply a thick layer of Vaseline all over my face before putting on my hat, like Neville Southall slathering his eyebrows with it before taking to his goal. You never saw his forehead smarting scarletly.

Luckily, things had calmed down immeasurably redface-wise by the time I got the bus to Crystal Palace for lunch with my friend, Nurse W, today. On the way, the bus drove past a grass verge where I saw a grey squirrel in curiously close proximity to a magpie. Ten metres further on, I saw exactly the same scenario once again – squirrel, magpie, proximity. It was like I had stumbled across some kind of animal-kingdom partner-swapping party. It made me feel a bit weird.

Saturday, 22 November 2008


One of the pictures below is a detail from a fashion story in the latest issue of British Elle. One is a detail from Wayne's World. Can you guess which is which?

Extreme close-up!

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Victim Of Geography

It has come to my attention that my expensive new coat, which I believed made me look (from the neck down at least) like Mariella Frostrup at the Hay-On Wye-festival actually makes me look like a middle-aged geography teacher on a field trip. 

Luckily my love of the cagoule and its related garments is sufficiently strong that I can withstand the force of this blow.

And perhaps that is what I'm meant to be doing with the rest of my life. Finally I have glimpsed my future in mirrors and shop windows. I will go forth and spread the gospel of the ox-bow lake.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Female, 34, GSOH, seeks vocation

One of my old friends who I caught up with at the weekend was telling me that he is finding the career break he has embarked upon something of a challenge. He is struggling with the concept of being paid reasonably well for a menial job that barely strokes his brain with a tiny feather, let alone taxes it, and allowing his nervous fibres to gradually cease their twitching and have a lovely rest.

This is a man who has been grafting away in local politics for about 15 years with little break and scant reward because he thinks it matters, not because he wants power, status and shinier brogues. Prior to this, he felt compelled to pursue a career in the church. Now that he is actually taking a break from relentlessly working for the benefit of others, he finds himself unable to settle into what the rest of us might call an easy life. Apparently, in his world, there is simply nothing to be done but help people. Even now, when he is trying his very best to submerge himself in a restorative daily routine of drinking tea and making necklaces out of paper clips, he hears the calling to good works over the jangle of the workplace radio.

What is this calling? I listen for it everywhere, but I only hear train announcements, other people's one-sided mobile phone calls and the bubble of fluid in my ears (I have had a cold). I am a procrastinator and a ditherer, and envious of anyone who feels with utter conviction that they must heal/preach/sing/dance/rescue/sculpt/build/other. I mean, I get annoyed when people punctuate poorly, but I can't say I'd lay down my life in order that the world could finally learn the difference between its and it's. I like to write, but I'm not one of those from whom the words pour out with all the force of molten lava heading downhill to Pompeii. In contrast to my friend, I believe I could quite easily make a career out of taking a career break. In fact that is precisely what I've been doing for two and a half years. 

Perhaps, on my way home one dark evening, I will suddenly notice an old-fashioned streetlamp lighting my way to a vocation. Perhaps I will not. Still, I continue to listen and look out for it. And last night, I dreamt that I was being sold a ukelele by Len Goodman, so perhaps there are some clues there from which I may divine my path.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Next stop: stress-related sick leave

I spent the weekend visiting friends in Leeds. On my outward train journey, we were treated to an impassioned monologue from a ticket inspector who I suspect may have been struggling with his sense of corporate loyalty and job satisfaction. This is a short extract (caps lock indicates booming tones of undiluted Yorkshire):


Friday, 14 November 2008

Three chords and a stick-on ponytail

I cannot help it. I  have a guilty well of fascination for any truly brazen fraudster. I would never suggest they didn't deserve their punishment, or that what they were doing was to be encouraged, but as someone who's permanently apologetic and slightly nervous, their audacity astounds me.

Some months ago, I discovered the extraordinary story of Gene Morrison, who set himself up as a forensic scientist and faked a career from it, having completed his qualifications at the University Of Owning Lots Of CSI DVDs. My favourite part of his scientific methodology was his 'lie detector' machine, which was actually just a normal computer. He would decide himself whether he thought an investigatee was lying, then press a button so the word 'false' would flash up on the screen.

Today, on the way home, I read in London Lite the story of a man who was impersonating Francis Rossi from Status Quo. I am quoting the newspaper directly here, as their words need no elaboration (Is this plagiarism? I don't know, but let me attempt to counter it by saying that the London Lite is a marvellous free newspaper. Of all the free evening newspapers in London, it's in the Top 2):

"The trickster promised Dover's town councillors that he would perform free at their festival with his 'friends' Sir Paul McCartney, Charlotte Church and Queen's Brian May. 

The council was duped into letting him judge a carnival float competition and attend a VIP event at Dover Castle.

There were inconsistencies which could have given the game away. Like why the conman did not possess a Francis Rossi-style ponytail, or why he could not play the guitar. According to reports, the man claimed: 'I can't grow my hair long any more. A fake ponytail is stuck on three hours before a gig.' Asked to play the band's hit Rockin' All Over The World, he declined, saying he had arthritis."

I don't know what lesson we can learn here apart from, if you didn't realise it before, you should never, ever trust a man in matching denim jacket and jeans.

Yes sir, I can be the 34th president of the United States

I had my lunch in Grosvenor Square today with two friends and 794 pigeons. The square is essentially the back garden of the US embassy, and after I had finished my Square Pie from Selfridges (lamb and rosemary, 6.5 out of 10), I saw this statue of Dwight Eisenhower:

Mr Eisenhower's jaunty stance is an unconventional pose for a leader of men immortalised in statuedom. 

Let's be honest. It's a bit camp.

I was half-expecting petrified President Eisenhower to lurch into life and entertain passers-by with a chorus of Yes Sir, I Can Boogie

Perhaps someone could scale his nobel frame under cover of night and drape a pink feather boa around his neck.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

The hardest word

I am blogging from my bedroom, which I'm not allowed to leave until I've thought about what I've done. That is a metaphor. I'm actually in the sitting room. I'm watching Newsnight and I've just had a small bowl of Special K. But I digress.

My mum has told me off for swearing on my blog. She said I am 'doing a Gordon Ramsay'. I know this is not an appreciative reference to my culinary skillz. 

Someone who may or may not be Gary Kemp has told me off for being rude about Gary Kemp. 

To summarise, I have essentially been told by two different people (unless my mum has decided to begin masquerading as the former Spandau songwriter, which would involve quite a lifestyle change on her part) to stop showing off. At my own birthday party (another metaphor, English GCSE scholars), I have been told to go and lie down upstairs with a flannel on my forehead and just calm down.  

I am chastened. Furthermore, I have a cold. This is not a metaphor. But it is, perhaps, karma.

David Crystal, awesomely bearded linguist and writer of at least one of my university textbooks, is discussing apostrophes on Newsnight. He has a very progressive approach to punctuation. I think I love him.  

Sunday, 9 November 2008

'Just another play for today...'

In other Mariella Frostrup news, I caught a glimpse of her on the Sky Arts channel late this afternoon. I was excited to discover that the Sky Arts channel is part of my regular Sky subscription, and not some kind of premium package which requires you to present a dozen used ticket stubs from the Royal Opera House and an empty bottle of new-season olive oil in order to have the signal unscrambled. Amazing, I thought. Perhaps, later this evening, I might enjoy a documentary on Carole King, or a Beach Boys concert from the 70s, or a classic episode of The South Bank Show about Philip Larkin. But no. 

Tonight on Sky Arts, it is Gary Kemp night. 

I've got nothing against Gary Kemp. I never minded Spandau Ballet. They were no Duran Duran, OBVIOUSLY. But I enjoy Gold whenever I hear it played on a commercial radio station in the workplace, and I remember quite the stir about his performance in The Krays

However, as cultural polymaths qualified to curate an evening's high-brow televisual smorgasbord go, he's no Dr Jonathan Miller. He's no Stephen Fry. He's no David Bowie. I'm not even sure he's David Hasselhoff. No offence, Gaz, but come on...

In which I attempt to show some respect but then immediately undermine myself with the usual twee trivia

Two important events on the world calendar which seem to regularly intersect on this day each year are the Remembrance Sunday commemorations at the Cenotaph, and my dear friend Miss R's birthday lunch. Today, as last year, I found myself walking out of Charing Cross Station against the mighty tide of former servicemen, their families, and random respect-payers, all of them engaged in a) taking photos b) effecting some kind of impressive near-march, even when at ease and c) looking extraordinarily proud and dignified. This year, as last year, it was all I could do not to arrive at lunch with my cheeks sluiced with tears and mascara. 

I was momentarily distracted, though, from my feelings of privileged youth, sadness and inadequacy by the glorious sight of a handsome young man arm-in-arm with a very frail elderly serviceman. I know not what their relationship was – grandson and grandfather, younger military man assigned to mind an older one for the day, neighbours perhaps – but, with numbing predictability, it did make me fall in love with Serviceman Jr a bit. 

Let me flailingly attempt to convince you that this should in no way detract from my respect and admiration for Those Who Served. I'm just being honest – which is one of the worst ever excuses used by people who habitually say utterly repellant things.

But still, it did make me think how ridiculously impressionable I am when it comes to such acts of perceived kindness and dotherightthing-ness. I could never imagine buying a calendar with photographs of brawny, built beefcakes, but I would be first in the queue for one that featured skinny/paunchy/balding/hirsute/geeky/freaky/average men involved in acts of charity and compassion. Naturally, I would be inviting today's hero (yes, yes, one of many, of course) to be Mr November, but I'm hastily brainstorming in anticipation of the others. I'm thinking:
  • Man doggedly rattling charity collection tin outside supermarket in driving rain.
  • Man carrying suitcase down very long tube escalator for elderly lady, struggling to disguise the fact that even he is finding it really fucking heavy.
  • Bus driver waiting for infirm geriatric to find a seat and sit down safely in it before flooring the accelerator.
  •  The man who jumped onto the railway tracks at East Dulwich station one morning to rescue my Birkenstock after it had fallen there during a train-boarding bundle from which I emerged very much the loser.
  • Man grinning broodily at stranger's baby on public transport.
  • Man giving up seat on bus/train/other for someone not necessarily over 80/nine months pregnant.
  • Man with cat in vet's waiting room, clearly about to cry at any moment. Actually, this might be a bit weird.
I am thinking a reality show. I am thinking a feature film. Mugs! Tea towels! Christ! I am sitting on a goldmine. But you understand I would obviously be donating all proceeds to charity.

Anyway, after lunch, I can only presume that a residual surge of hormones was responsible for me splashing out a ludicrous amount of money on what I can only describe as a Non-Essential Coat. I had put some money aside for a proper non-H&M, non-Primark, actually warm winter coat. By this I mean I had put the money aside in my head. By this I mean I hadn't put any actual, real money aside at all and had carried on frittering it away as usual on trifles. Real and metaphorical. So there was no money for a Proper Winter Coat, let alone money for a flimsy but incredibly chic mac that was also a little bit like a parka, but was unlikely to stand up to a light shower, let alone snow. But that's what I bought.

In my defence, however, a) I had liked it for ages – like, at least three weeks – and b) it is in no way modish or destined to be totally unwearable next season. Therefore, to invoke Shopping Lies We Tell Ourselves No. 426, it is An Investment. Another boon is that when I am wearing it, I feel as though I am channelling Mariella Frostrup at the Hay-On-Wye festival. All I need is a pair of Cath Kidston wellies, and my own Radio 4 show cannot be far away.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Stratford, Sweden, sweet dreams

I have returned from a few days away in Stratford Upon Avon, with Mrs Jones and David Tennant. Unlikely companions, but welcome, both. I can report that David Tennant has shiny hair, ladies' fingers and enough nervous energy to power most of the developed world. He is also pretty good at playing Hamlet. Patrick Stewart, who we saw leaving the theatre by the back door, may be a colossus of the stage, and one of the nation's most attractive 68-year-olds, but sadly, even he is powerless to resist the kind of leather blouson jacket so curiously beloved of his peer group.

Now I have returned to the capital, as reluctantly as ever. 

Sometimes, like defrosting the freezer compartment or visiting the dentist, there is simply nothing to be done but to go to IKEA. Today was such a day. My windows needed blinds, my pictures needed frames, my heavy heart needed lifting – I felt little optimism about any of the above.

Who are all the people wandering around IKEA in the daytime? They cannot all be like me – driven to part-time work by bereavement and illness, yet now rejoicing in its flexibility, if not its financial rewards. If any of them are unemployed, they should really think about getting jobs in IKEA, then maybe their once-fellow customers would be able to find someone to fucking well help them once in a while, instead of being condemned to wander around like severed souls in purgatory, driven mad by the incessant drumming of rain on the store roof and the repeated grating of one's achilles by the inferior trolley control of whoever walks behind.

IKEA did little this afternoon to alter its reputation as perpetual purveyor of disappointment. In short, and you will not be surprised by this, my windows still need blinds and my pictures still want for frames. My heart remains unchanged, except…

I could not bear a grey, empty-handed trudge back across the tarmac to the tram stop. So I bought a Christmas tree – a declassé plastic number, chemically engineered to engender neither showers of pine needles nor tears of joy and excitement. Its best feature was that it came in a long, oblong cardboard box with a handle down one of its long sides. It made me feel that I might be carrying something wildly more intriguing inside than an ugly IKEA Christmas tree. To begin with, it was a musical instrument (this reminded me of a dream I'd had the night before in which I was dining at The Ivy with my mum and Chris Martin), and I was on my way into town to play at the Royal Albert Hall, or the Royal Opera House, or in fact any of the city's exciting Royal venues. People would almost certainly be throwing flowers onto the stage, and I would receive visitors in my dressing room wearing a silk kimono and a turban. 

By the time I was back at East Croydon Station, I was carrying a lethal weapon, of which I was the sole trained operator, and with which I would single-handedly eradicate a cartel of Really Evil Badness. 

As we passed through Norwood Junction on the train, I was carrying a box containing a tiny Chinese gymnast who I was smuggling away from her inhumanly strict coaches.

I reside in a fantasy world of my own creating, clearly. An hour or so earlier, I had been scolded by the cashier in the IKEA cafe for dreamily dilly-dallying while he was waiting for my pin number, and the bickering couples in the queue behind were waiting to eat their meatballs. 'You're in IKEA now, you know,' he said, with the mildest suggestion of a threat and a faint echo of The Wizard Of Oz (the way you're directed around IKEA by an arrowed path always reminds me of the yellow brick road). 

In the unlikely event that any of my fellow passengers on the journey home had been speculating as to what was inside the cardboard box that actually contained a cheap plastic Christmas tree, the picture of a cheap plastic Christmas tree on the side may have given it away. 

But still, I'm saying that today of all days was a time to rejoice in the power of dreams. 

Saturday, 1 November 2008

You dancin' with me? Who the hell else are you dancin' with?

Tom, Tom, Tom. Your stubble is super. We admire your work with the cape. We love how much you love your new wife. We adore your homoerotic rivalry with Austin Healey. Generally, we thrill to your every dancing step.

But most of all, we are impressed by how long you can hold the face people make when they're doing a bad impression of Robert De Niro.