Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Being Miss Jones

Early last week, I took a large bag of my unwanted books to Oxfam on Drury Lane. I left the bag in the shop's dumb waiter of a lift, as they like you to, and headed off in search of my lunch. I am stuck in a rut, lunch-wise, but that is a different post. I walked past Oxfam a few days later, and there in the window, front and centre of the display, was one of my ex-books (I mean to say it was still a book, I was no longer its owner). 

It was a very proud moment.  

This is because I regularly take bagfuls of my former life to the Mind shop in Dulwich, and in the 10 years or so that I have lived in the area, I have never, ever seen any of my items in the shop, let alone enjoying the prestige of a place in the window. Books, mugs, bags, shoes and skirts have disappeared behind the glass counter, never to be seen again. Over the years, I've spent some long grey afternoons of the soul wondering why this is. Could it really be the case that all my old stuff is a) horrible or b) shit? So much so that people will not even claim it in return for a minimal charitable donation? 

While it's true that I no longer want those things around me any more, I still feel a certain attachment to them, and some near-maternal need to protect them from criticism. Perhaps some items of clothing I have deposited in the Mind shop could be described as a little bit horrible. Some CDs, I will concede, may have been slightly shit. But this is the creed of charity shops and online auctions – one woman's horrible is another's amazing and oh-so-me. And one listener's shit is another's edgy and I've-always-wanted-this. So where, cherry-picking charity-shop staff, fillers of shelves and hangers of hangers, is my old stuff? 

This is what I think. Somewhere in the bowels of the Mind shop in Dulwich, someone is living my life, just a short lapse of time behind me, the genuine article. As I type, they're writing their twee blog about, oh, the last series of Strictly Come Dancing or something, tugging uncomfortably at an optimistically purchased pair of leggings, and realising – in eventual accordance with everyone they know – that the hat on their head should probably have remained in Topshop. Perhaps they are listening to a CD single by Eagle-Eye Cherry and wondering about the ethics of giving away unloved presents. 

I'm flattered, obviously. Perhaps I should be doing something to save them from making the same mistakes as me – from staying in when they should be going out, from choosing the apple crumble instead of the chocolate tart. But while I'm still bumbling my way through more days than I glide, ineffectually striving for poise and serenity and tidy hair, and making ill-judged jokes in socially stressful situations, it is doubtful they could really learn anything. 

At the very least though, I could probably exercise enough mercy to save them from 500 pages or so of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Love's young dream. Now slightly older

Even my current mania for nostalgia has not induced me to watch Pop Goes The Band, Living TV's innovative fusion of memory-lane music programme and makeover show. 

Apart from...

I saw a trailer for this week's episode which featured 911. You remember 911? OK, you don't, but I do. I worked for a pop magazine in the late 90s which means that I can still name all the members of 911, Five, S Club 7 (but not S Club Juniors), A1 and Cleopatra (who also featured on Pop Goes The Band. Yonah, the youngest, is now a wizened 24, so it's probably about time she had some cosmetic surgery). I sometimes wish those facts weren't clinging to the surface of my brain like barnacles, disabling the part that was almost certainly destined to cure mankind's cruellest diseases and write the great SE22 novel. But they are, so let's plough on.

In that brief trailer, I saw something that gladdened my heart. The fact is, relationships between celebrities are inherently spirit-crushing to us civilians. They are sold to us as fairytales, and then the prince and princess split up six months after their hasty and expensive marriage (dear famous people, why not just go out with each other for a few years before you get married, like normal couples do). Billie Piper and Rich from Five are long parted. Shane from Boyzone is now divorced from Easther from Eternal. Hannah and Paul from S Club 7 grew apart. But look – here, in living colour, on Living TV, are pop's own Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Lee from 911 is STILL WITH Lindsay from B*Witched. Ten years after their respective number one records, they are now married and live in what looks like a lovely, modern flat. I would go further and say that they are 'very much in love'. They look at each other in a nice way.

I wonder what they danced to at their wedding. Perhaps it was this:

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Misery has a white spine

A refreshingly frank approach to categorisation in a bookshop on Charing Cross Road.

My favourite line from last night's America's Next Top Model

Former supermodel Paulina Porizkova, judging the results of a photoshoot which took place on board a ship:

'It's sort of piratey but beautiful.'

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Down in one

Snack of the week: a pint of sausage rolls, from the BFI cafe.

While I'm glad to see this kind of out-of-vogue pint glass back in employment (I am so ridiculously nostalgic at the moment. It simply has to stop. It's like at any moment, the chrysalis of my 2009 self will split and fall away, and I will emerge, permed and pre-pubescent, in a grey and pink Dash tracksuit and jelly shoes, pushing pineapples and shaking a tree), I'm not sure it is responsible to be suggesting, in its presentation, that this is a menu item that can be poured down the throat. Flakey pastry represents a menacing choking hazard, surely?

Saturday, 21 March 2009

The girl with kaleidoscope eyes

I have new glasses. I don't feel like myself at all.

I had been living in the dark for a long time. My old glasses had become so scratched and ineffective that I was embarrassed to let anyone get too close to them. They were the glasses of a blinking, short-sighted hermit who fears the outside world; someone who seems to wear a permanent head-to-toe film of dust and has never thrown away an issue of the Radio Times. I am only a few of those things.  Something had to change.

I realised that my old glasses and I could stay together no longer when I was chatting to someone at work, me standing by her desk, her sitting looking up at me. After I had finished my long question about pictures or fonts or similar, she made no attempt to answer the question, but just said with some incredulity, 'Can you actually see anything at all through your glasses?'

If you are any kind of spectacle wearer (of any significant prescription, at least), you will recognise the sensation that comes over you when the optician hands you your new glasses and you put them on for the first time. Suddenly, it is as though you are under the influence not just of opthamological science, but of some powerful dose of hallucinogen, and you must, for the next few hours, behave like someone on drugs in a film. 

'Wow. Everything looks so real. Doesn't it? Doesn't it look real to you?'

'The colours… they're so bright. How can the colours be so bright?'

'I can see the whole world moving all around me. It's ENORMOUS.'

'Your face… it's just… amazing.' 

'I mean it. My God, your face, it's like I'm seeing you for the very first time. You. Are. Beautiful.'

Drugs are, of course, bad for you. Finding yourself in a place that's unfamiliar or threatening can turn the experience into a nightmare. I can tell you that H&M in Bromley on a Saturday afternoon is about the worst place for this to happen. No sooner was I through the door then young fashion's summer palette of neons was making my eyes scream. Giant teenagers were marauding towards me, while I cowered and swayed. Everything was too close and also, far too loud. 

It was terrifying. 

All I could do was run, run through the streets, run down the hill, to the sanctuary of Waitrose. Then everything was alright. Eyes still demented, obviously, but all the better to see the organic rice pudding with.

Monday, 16 March 2009

'Deep, deep chocolate…'

Today there was a late entrant to Friday's bake sale. A Rice Krispie cake cemented not with pure chocolate, or marshmallow and toffee, but Mars Bars. A commendable innovation, I can report, which from a distance almost lends it the paler, more nutritionally innocuous appearance of a flapjack. It is a cholesterol-peddling wolf in oaty sheep's clothing. It is obviously delicious.

You might think it would be over-egging the pudding (you see? there is an egg actually on it!) to pave the top with Belgian chocolate, then add yet more in the form of the Mini-Egg garnish. You would be wrong.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Singing oldies, goldies

I don't think it's a revelation to say that the chill of the recession makes everyone reach for a cosy cardigan of nostalgia. I was reminded of this at work yesterday afternoon when most of the office were out on a training course in negotiation. (This strikes me as an excellent waste of money in The Current Climate – but at least the staff will be better equipped to non-aggressively fight their corner when they're being made redundant.) I don't really know how it happened, but the few of us who were left behind – all coincidentally at the higher end of the age spectrum – felt a collective desire to listen to Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms album. Someone's iPod was able to oblige, and we slipped into a carefree reverie of towelling headbands and electric piano. It was almost as comforting as a 75p white-bread jam sandwich from Marks & Spencer, which should really come with a couple of live wasps in a plastic box which you can release while you're eating, to conjure up the heady atmosphere of 80s childhood picnic. 

Earlier that day, we'd had a bake sale in aid of Comic Relief, which also made me feel like I was still at school – not that anyone at my school could have summoned up the baking smarts to create a Jammie Dodger from scratch, as someone did yesterday...

She cut all the heart-shaped holes out by hand, but then she does work in the art department.

Then today I found myself picking a 5-CD 80s compilation off the clearance shelves at Sainsbury's. I spent a glorious afternoon thriftily selling my old clothes on eBay, and reacquainting myself with Musical Youth, Swing Out Sister and Curiosity Killed The Cat. In 1987, when cooler teens were mourning the demise of The Smiths, I was conscientiously filling two scrapbooks with pictures and interviews of Curiosity Killed The Cat, which I had feverishly cut out of Smash Hits. I've never stopped loving those early singles, but I thought I was the only one – until earlier this week. I was working at a different title, alongside the archetypal Serious Music Fan, with his subscriptions to all the appropriately earnest magazines and podcasts. At about 6.30, after most people had left, he put his own 80s pop compilation onto the stereo. It included Down To Earth, whose opening bars he met with a clenched fist of delight. I naturally responded with an adolescent squeal.

Then I knew I was not alone. You are never really alone, of course. But sometimes, with one's love of critically scorned jazz-tainted white-boy 80s soul-pop, it can feel that way.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The monocled scrutineer

Something exciting happened today. On my way home from work, there was a man on the train wearing a monocle. A monocle! I've never seen one in real life before. It was fatter than I thought it would be, which is the opposite of when you see famous people in the flesh.

He was a late-middle-aged man, but he was not some tweed-strictured* fossil. He was a waterproof-jacket-and-casual-slacks wearer, who was clearly in touch with at least some inventions of the modern age. Gore-Tex, for example. Also, he was reading The Independent. 

I assume he wore the monocle because one of his eyes is much lamer than the other. If I was afflicted in such a way, instead of with tedious old chronic myopia, I might go for a magnifying glass, which I would wear on a chain hanging from my belt.

The monocled eye looked brilliantly googly and looming through the glass, and I found myself hoping he had some young grandchildren or nieces and nephews who would be giddily spooked by it, and grow up to remember its strangeness with an ever-increasing degree of exaggeration.

Today was almost as thrilling as the occasion last year when I saw a businessman wearing an actual bowler hat.

*I may be using this incorrectly.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Sorry, this is kind of a downer

A couple of months after my dad died, I was involved in a hideous day-long work brainstorm, where hours of your life are wrenched away from you, while you attempt to answer questions like 'Who is the reader?' (Answer: Someone who drinks white wine, shops at Topshop – but Karen Millen on payday – and is apparently uninterested in buying the failing magazine we were working for.) I was miserable with grief; insane with attempting to subdue it between the hours of 10 and 6 and understand it in all the other hours. On that day, in those hours, being intensively work-farmed with one side of my face wedged against a flipchart and a magic marker in my hand seemed intolerable. 

Somewhere on the other side of town, George Best was dying a bizarrely public death, at a very similar age to my dad. Every time we took a break from work (and there are many breaks in this kind of day, so much so that you wish everyone could exercise a little more bladder control and a little less of the compulsion to eat so that you could all go home three hours earlier) we were released into a refreshments room which had a big screen tuned into a news channel. There you could escape neither the Pavlovian consumption of at least four bland biscuits at a time, nor the rolling reports on each tiny increment of George Best's expiration, a tireless countdown of his elapsing quota of heartbeats.  'It really is very near the end now.' 'Only a couple more hours.' 'This really is it.'

I remember very clearly how unfathomable it was to me, after my own recent experience of someone dying. The sense of spectacle and expectation afforded to George Best seemed incomparable to the way John C Jones, 61, had quietly left the family home one afternoon, after exchanging with his wife the routine but never less than totally heartfelt pleasantries of a harmonious 40-year marriage – and never returned. Just one man, quietly leaving the world, opening a door, stepping through it, closing it silently behind him, while everyone else carried on shopping or working or watching Countdown. He was a man who didn't care for a fuss, struggled with the burden of small talk, and in the face of attention and acclaim would rather repair to the garage and repair something. It was a wholly appropriate exit. I couldn't equate what had happened to him with what was happening to George Best. 

I wonder now if it was just because I was seeing coldly and starkly, from the outside, the enormity of what it means when someone dies. When you're in the thick of The Bereavement Experience, it's hard to fathom the scale of it. Probably because if you could, it would drive you mad. (It actually did drive me fairly mad, but that's another story). It's like when you go to Paris and you stand under the Eiffel Tower and you can't really see how tall it is, but when you're streets and streets away, you think, 'Look at the size of that.' That was a metaphor, by the way. You're so consumed with getting through the day, and then getting through the next day, and wondering why every part of your body feels so incredibly heavy, and when you might feel normal again, and what did that even feel like anyway, it's hard to conceive of the massive, defining thing that has happened to one of the people you love the most.

Or maybe that's not it at all.

Anyway, now, three and a half years later, working on and around various celebrity magazines who are consumed with the failing health of Jade Goody, and the optimum time printing-schedule-wise for the worst to happen, that sense of strangeness and confusion is creeping back in. Neither Jade Goody nor George Best lived a life that was more giving or worthwhile than my dad's. Why are they different? Because they are famous obviously. Because Jade Goody is young. Because George Best made boys kicking cans in alleys believe they could do anything. But I know from my privileged position of first-degree family member, and also from the letters we were sent, and the stories we were told, that my dad lived most days of his quiet life being determinedly kind and instructive, providing and enthusing and, as it turned out, inspiring in his own small way. When I think about that, I always think of George Eliot, and how he had it right at the end of Middlemarch:

'...the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'

[Miss W, I hope I didn't spoil the ending.]

In praise of Martika (and Prince)

We run a cosy pub disco every month, and on Friday my colleague played Electric Youth by Debbie Gibson, which has aged much better than I ever would have thought. Hearing it made me think of all the now missing-in-action female singers from that time, like Taylor Dayne and Taja Sevelle. Then I remembered Martika, and in particular the single Love Thy Will Be Done, which is one of those Prince songs that he gifted to another artist (like Manic Monday and I Feel For You). I think it's every bit as good as Nothing Compares 2 U, without all the emotional showing off. I'm not sure that the video is holding up so well though.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

In which I realise I should basically just stay at home all the time

Last week I was forced to address my increasing intolerance of anyone who is not a member of my immediate family or one of my close friends, particularly when those people surround me in a confined space. It is all part of my accelerating slalom towards middle-aged cantankery.

I went to see Fleet Foxes at the Camden Roundhouse. They were very good. They arrived in North London garlanded in not just a lot of facial hair, but also all manner of album-of-the-year plaudits. Consequently, it was very busy. The Roundhouse was full of beards, glasses, people who looked like they could do with three weeks in a tropical climate, woman in clothes that I either own or have tried on in a variety of high-street stores and rejected as being too me. Basically, these were my people. But still I wanted to kill most of them. 

This was on account of their committing against me a number of crimes of my own designation. The first is standing too closely in front of me, so I have to spend the evening leaning back at an angle of 30 degrees. I understand we all have to share an inadequate space, but still, back off. Or, in fact, forward off. Worse still is when I have become slightly warm and flustered through idiot proximity, and a woman (or a man, I am an equal opportunities fascist) with long hair that she simply must toss around three times a minute, flicks her ill-conditioned hair so it sticks to my bare arm. There are no words poisonous enough to describe how I hate this. Were it not for the fact that I get claustrophobic in a polo neck, this alone would make me want to go everywhere in some kind of spacesuit, or alternatively live in a bubble, like the man in Northern Exposure who was played by Dr Greene from ER.

I will gloss over the low-level chatting during quiet moments, and the couple who must always stand in front of me in a permanent lip-locked embrace, bending their blissful heads together in a way that utterly blocks my view. Let's move on to the distracting light show happening all around me, created by people attempting to take pictures on their mobile phones – pictures that any idiot can see (particularly the idiots in the 10 rows behind them who are having their view obscured) are going to be shit. 

Were I not consumed with paralysing emotional repression, I would be screeching over the hapless photographer's shoulder, 'YEAH, AS IF THAT'S GOING TO WORK!' 


I've been there myself, or course. I have boxes and boxes of blurry photos, featuring tiny collections of pixels who may or not be The White Stripes at Brixton Academy. Or Eminem at the Carling Weekend in Leeds – who, for all I can prove now, could be anyone dressed in white with short blonde hair. Andrew Flintoff, Anthea Turner... 

And look, here's Take That at the Milton Keynes Bowl on a glorious summer's evening. Probably.

You see? Useless. Don't bother. Just stop.

Really, if everyone could just do what I wanted all the time, I think the world would get along famously.