Friday, 28 August 2009

My morning walk to the station: a photographic diptych

Portrait I

Few things in our tiny lives are certain, but this is. No hamster cage was ever abandoned in happy circumstances. Pain and sorrow always go before.

Part II

Nothing says school's out for summer like deserted tennis courts and an empty cider bottle.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Well, it doesn't feel very lucky

I was sitting on the grass outside the Tate Modern at lunchtime, with my book, looking at one of my fellow al fresco readers.

I was thinking how, with her copy of Daphne Du Maurier's The Birds and her empty packet of chicken sandwich, she was pretty much asking to be attacked by pigeons.

Five minutes later, it was I who had been ornithologically shat on, both literally and metaphorically.

That's showbiz, as Alfred Hitchcock would almost certainly not have said.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

And now… some music

It seems like there are a lot of RIPs to be said at the moment. Today, it's for Ellie Greenwich, who co-wrote this:

And this:

Oh, and she produced this:

And all that – which is barely a fraction of it – makes her one hell of a gal in my book.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Italian Shetland

Oh Strictly Come Dancing. My beloved Strictly, what have they done to you? I am cradling your broken form in my arms. Over these past few months, I've watched as the fire in your eyes faded to glowing embers. I've prayed for the day that you would rally.

That day = not today.

We knew the budget cuts were biting. We knew this. We knew that Bruce Forsyth's salary had been cut by 25% and that somewhere in Surrey there is a golf caddy facing up to a chill winter of redundancy. But vraiment, this is Thrifty Come Dancing. This year, more than any other, you would be met by an awful lot of blank faces if you went vox-popping in a shopping centre (vox pops must always happen in a shopping centre, it is the Law Of Vox Pops) with the contestants' photos and held them up in front of the Great British Public. My own Strictly-watching cabal, as media-literate and TV-savvy as they are, could only respond with an indignant WHO? (their caps) to about 40% of the celebrities on The List.

In the past, I may have asserted that the line-up of Strictly is not that important. It is all about the soap opera, and the appropriate shapes simply slot into the gaps in the puzzle. Someone is always Sue-Ellen Ewing. Someone is always Kirby Colby. Now I'm not so sure. God, Strictly, I'm tired. I'm just. So. Tired.

It makes me tired to think of these things:

[Deep sigh] Footballers' Wives actresses Leila Rouass and Zoe Lucker pitched against each other in some clumsily orchestrated Battle Of The Bitches.

[Weary voice, but still getting off on it a little bit] Rav Wilding and Ricky Whittle having their own battle – of the Blandly Buff Physiques; kissing their 'guns'; making pistol hands at each other through the camera lens.

[Definitely not getting off at all on this] Tess Daly leering long and loud over RW & RW (above).

[Unattractive smart-assness] How long is it before Rav or Ricky waggishly incorporates 'the caterpillar' into a dance routine and their partners have to paint on a smile and say 'He really wanted to have an input into the routine so he bought in one of his own moves. WHICH I HATE.'

[Lazy grumble] The tireless stream of police puns pouring forth when Rav is being introduced. I can't even bring myself to think of any.

[Unpleasantly supercilious piece of premature judgement] Ali Bastian is this year's Rachel Stevens. Sweet, highly competent but…

[Whiney carping] If they wanted to avoid another John Sargeant scenario, they should maybe have thought twice about booking Phil Tufnell.

[Tennis-related griping] Martina Hingis is in it. Monica Seles did Dancing With The Stars. She didn't stay in long, but it was properly touching to see her getting excited about putting on ludicrous dresses and attempting to recreate a sense of the Prom, which she had never been to in her school days, since she was probably playing in the final of the US Open, and anyway she had spent about 85% of her life in sportswear. For lots of reasons, Martina Hingis is not Monica Seles.

[Lamely misfiring wordplay] One of the contestants is, like, practically called Jaded.

But wait. Wait. Who is that riding over the Saturday teatime hill to save us? Oh, it's just a child on a Shetland pony. NO IT ISN'T. It's pocket rocket Vincent Simone! And Good Egg (in the Jones Egg Box, at least) Natalie Cassidy. And Vincent's eyebrows!

Look! Just look! He has either spent two thirds of 2009 in a home gym intensively working out those facial muscles, surrounded by inspiring pictures of Roger Moore, with sweat pouring off his face like the end of Airplane! – or he has had some kind of pioneering eyebrowplasty. Either way, he is magnifico.

This blog is not done with Vincent's eyebrows. Not nearly.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

Postcards from the weekend

I found this card tucked into the top of my seat at the Proms on Friday…

I'm in the slow readers' group when it comes to classical music. I don't know a lot. Although I know you're not meant to clap between movements of a symphony as this is a time that is reserved for coughing. I also know that I do not want classical music to be sexed up, solely to pique my interest further. But superheroed up, Lichtenstein-style? Oh yes.

Then there's this card that I found at Tea & Make, a cool craft event in south-east London full of idiosyncratic, wildly creative, quirkily stylish people – the kind I am constantly and disappointingly rediscovering I don't quite fit in with, instead having to content myself with throwing money at their work to try to make them like me, like some bloated Renaissance patron.

The Storkupine is part of a set of amazing animal hybrid creations from Garudio Studiage that also includes, among others, The Badgerigar, The Puffalo and The Stagpie. I like the fact you could tell a small child that this was a real creature that once walked the earth, before evolution dealt it a fatal blow, and they would totally believe you.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Dictionary corner part 836

By popular demand – and by that I mean at least three people, admittedly one of whom is me – I am turning again to the edifying illustrations of the Oxford-Duden Pictorial English Dictionary.

We'll save the diagrams of the Slaughterhouse (Abbatoir) and Machine Tools part 1 and 2 for a rainy day, and instead plump for a subject that is vaguely topical but still about a month behind everyone else – a position I frequently find myself in – with a celebration of the moon landings.

The most illuminating parts of this illustration are obviously no 15: piece of rock, no 40: window, and no 21: access flap, named with intriguing vagueness given its location just below the groin department. There is a further access flap for the 'purge valve'. What is this for? I don't know, but it suggests that the extreme pressure of being a really big deal in space travel may lead to an unhealthy relationship with one's freeze-dried dinner.

You can click on the image to make it bigger. I only recently discovered this. We are on a journey, you and I. Another journey I am on is trying to scan things squarely, but I'm not expecting to arrive at that destination any time soon.

Monday, 17 August 2009


Maybe there are certain traits that you so detest in other people that you simply cannot stand anyone in possession of them, even if that person is otherwise pretty much perfect. Maybe it's their political leaning. Maybe it's their starsign. Maybe it's their fondness for, say, Bryan Adams. (I love Bryan Adams. I'm sorry if that means it's the end for us.) Maybe it's someone who takes their unopened wine home again after a party.

At the weekend I discovered a new one for my own dossier of dealbreakers. Someone who haggles in a charity shop.

Here is the scene that played out across the glass-topped counter:

Softly spoken charity shop worker: That will be £15.97 please.
Angry joyless customer: So we'll call it £15 then, yeah?
SSCSW: No, it's £15.97.
AJC: Yeah, so we'll just round it down to £15, shall we?
SSCSW: No, it's £15.97. It's for charity.
AJC: [Now particularly angry and joyless] YOUR ATTITUDE STINKS.

I gave him the Jones Family Withering Look. It didn't really help.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

How do I love the World Athletics Championships?

Let me count the ways.

I love a quiet weekend with nothing to do except colonise the sofa and regress to school summer holidays where I lived for each round of every event, the tiny victories of beaten British athletes scoring season's bests. And then sometimes, like today, a proper reason to edge forward on the seat and scrunch up the loose material of the cushions in my fists, and get Really Properly Excited.

I love how the male 100m athletes – who used to stand silent and immobile before the race, staring down the straight like lizards on a rock, eyes dead with concentration – now babble incessantly to themselves in self-motivational tongues, like bus passengers you would always try to avoid, or flirt with the panning camera, trying to be a little bit more like Usain Bolt, the coolest kid in 100m school – charming, insouciant, maddeningly gifted.

I love Hazel Irvine wittering misguidedly on about Jessica Ennis and Denise Lewis's six-packs, and then trying to make it OK by wittering on about Colin Jackson's too.

I love the blindly optimistic way the commentary team anticipate Jessica Ennis being on the newspaper front pages tomorrow, and spearheading the Sports Personality Of The Year shortlist come December, neatly forgetting about the speed and heat of Formula 1, and the cinematic potential of the Flintoff Finale, and how little people care about athletics any more. When I was young, summer television was studded with weekly primetime meetings, grand prix from glamorous European cities, fantasies under floodlights. Now, anything that's not a major championships is scheduled like an obscure Open University broadcast.

I love Louise Hazel boasting that she'd predicted the Great British Heptathlon Success via social networking. "I said on Facebook we'd come back stronger." I like to imagine Daley Thompson and Jurgen Hingsen psyching each other out with how many Twitter followers they had.

I love the rounded, balding paps sprinting red-faced, flat-out, just to catch up with Usain Bolt easing down to a jog.

I love the snowy-haired, agitated track official ineffectually attempting to martial the victorious Bolt and the group of photographers swarming around him, flapping his arms like he's shooing a stubborn gang of geese off his front lawn.

I love the BBC playing back the studio's reactions to the 100m as it happened. I'm an idiot for this kind of thing and always have been. I have loved seeing Ian Wright and John Barnes jumping up and down on their studio chairs like over-excited children on the last day of school, just because England made football things happen; I loved Michael Johnson's face today, the perfect expression of Man Witnessing A Miracle.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

What I learnt from a weekend spent in Suffolk's seaside towns

If you've reached the age where your hair is greying and unequivocally in retreat, where people react to the sight of you in revealing swimming attire much as they would to seeing a public marriage proposal being declined, yet you have a Someone to go the beach with in matching-but-different towelling robes, Someone to look out at the endless sea with in quiet contemplation of the unfathomable scale of Things and your ever-diminishing role in them, Someone with whom to wonder what happened to all that stuff you once planned to get round to, Someone to wait patiently for you to meticulously tuck your hair into a see-through shower cap, before you take your regular constitutional swim together…

…well, then I would say that you were doing pretty OK.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

When good words join together to make bad words

There is much talk of make, do and mend at the moment. We are all being encouraged to grow, to stitch, to wash and to weld, in order to extend and reinvent the lives of old things, and deny the need to buy any new ones.

However, I see no reason that this creed of thriftiness should extend to words. It does not, as far as I am aware, cost anything to create new words. It is totally free, and the sky's the limit. There is no need to clumsily drive two old words headlong into each other until the life is crushed out of both of them, and we are left rubbernecking at a distressing etymological accident such as this, which I saw in the classified ad pages of a fashion magazine this week…

I am talking of the 'saress', a garment specially designed to be worn when people called Sarah are playing chess. Sarah Harding from Girls Aloud has the asymmetric version in the neon pink colourway. Sarah Palin has one with the stars and stripes on it, although she is still learning to play chess. No, wait. It's not that. The saress is a wildly practical combination of sarong and dress, and it is enjoying its fashion moment right now*.

The style press are some of the worst offenders when it comes to this type of caper. Their heavy-handed enthusiasm for forcing the suffix '-ista' into an unwelcome arranged marriage with any modish prefix going is exhausting. Fashionista, recessionista, frugalista, always with the istas.

If you are a follower of fashion, as I know you are, this mauling of the language is nothing new to you. You will be sitting at your computer or handheld telecommunication device wearing jeggings (what happens when a pair of jeans and a pair of leggings make fashion love and spawn a garment whose potential for unflatteringness – and that, I can assure you, is an actual word – is significantly greater than the sum of its parts). While you are reading, at the back of your mind you may be wondering if your shboots will hold up for another season, both in terms of the weather forecast, and the style forecast. Heh, I should totally work for women's magazines. Oh wait…

But forget the saress, the jeggings and the shboot. Because this time next year, everyone will be talking about the dungawrong - my own sartorial cocktail of sarong, dungarees and ill-conceived wordplay. When you see some young style pioneer like Rihanna pictured out on the town in a few months in an oversized tea towel held up by braces, a capacious, central two-hander pocket to the front, don't forget where you heard it first.

*No, it is not.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Lunch-hour dispatches

1) You join me in Cos, a place I am increasingly resigned to calling The Shop That Got Away.

Actually, that would imply that there has, at some point, been a connection between us, and my recurring failure to find anything I would like to buy in there is just a melancholy case of faulty timing. The fact is, Cos and I simply have no chemistry whatsoever – and we never have. And sometimes, this just happens between a woman and a merchandiser. On paper, we are nothing but compatible. We should gel perfectly. I am the right age, I have the right job, I have the non-standard shape that should be perfect for its boasts of superior tailoring at mid-budget prices. I even have the mid-budget for the mid-budget prices. Sometimes, though, sometimes the sparks you're desperate for just do not fly, and you are left slumped, alone and unsatisfied, in the changing room with your clothes on the floor, and a fine-knit jersey dress around your ankles, wondering what exactly didn't go right this time.

However, it is important not to take this personally, and be plunged into the deep, deep well of Retail Self-loathing. Instead, I am resolved to look at myself in the fitting room mirror and repeat this self-affirming mantra 10 times:

'I am a special and worthwhile shopper and I am remembering how jealous people are of the really cool stuff I always find in H&M.'

Anyway, this particular lunchtime in Cos, I was met by a dummy whose body language I can only describe as hostile.

It was as if she was saying, 'No. You have to leave. I can't go through it again. I'm just so tired. Leave now and save us from any more awkwardness and heartbreak.'

It's either that or

a) she's consumed with silent fury at having to pose in front of the unflattering backdrop of a yellow skip. Seriously, yellow is really hard to wear. The unworkable clash of my pallid complexion and the joyous colour of sunshine and buttercups and Norwich City is the greatest fashion cross I have to bear. The fact that the sight of me in skinny jeans – if they can even be prevailed upon to stretch up and over my knees – is enough to cause permanent blindness to anyone unfortunate enough to see it is water off a duck's back in comparison.

b) when the sun came up this morning, causing her to freeze in the middle of whatever nocturnal activity she was engaged in (all tailor's dummies come alive at night – you will know this if you have ever seen the documentary Mannequin presented by Andrew McCarthy), she was practising the dance routine to Biology by Girls Aloud.

2) This is the future of the Post Office.

It is a machine that helps you post your letters and parcels without the need to queue up for the best part of an hour to be served at a Actual Counter by an Actual Person. While I am a fan of any benign automaton, I can't help feeling that this striving towards efficiency and swifter customer service will deprive us of the endearing/frustrating foibles of a British institution. In order that these vital minutiae of British life should not be lost, I am hoping that the machine will suffer sporadic 10-minute delays while messages are flashed up saying things like, 'Please wait, a senior citizen is telling me in detail about her ulcer'; 'Would you like to buy a DVD copy of Licence To Drive starring Corey Haim and Corey Feldman for £4.99?'; 'Please wait, the customer in front of you wants to send 20 packages of assorted size to the Philippines'; 'Can I interest you in the post office's pet insurance policy. It's extremely competitive.'

In addition, ambient smells should be emitted from the machine at various intervals, in an initiative earlier adopted by the Jorvik Centre, but in this case conjuring up not the aroma of a viking settlement, but the heady scent of the great British post office queue, including Unsuccessfully Radiator-Dried Laundry, Oniony Sweat and Whiskas.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Stupid posh men

Hello, middle-aged man in navy blazer and pinstriped shirt, standing behind me at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre bar on Friday night, thrusting your vile self forwards by shoulder-barging my mother, 65, out of the way, then lunging your arm over my shoulder and waving your £20 note across my face in an attempt to be served before me, even though I had been standing there an awful lot longer, as evidenced by the fact that I was actually in front of you. Yes, you, calling for the bartender's attention as though she was some deliquent canine. I never knew it was possible to be simultaneously summoning and dismissive. I imagine this to be a source of pride to you.

Hello, different middle-aged man in blazer and pinstriped shirt, same repulsive air of superiority and entitlement, two bouffy-haired, Fauntleroy-style sons in tow, at the door of the Albert Hall on Saturday night, ignoring the queue of rain-blasted people waiting patiently to have their tickets checked, and striding straight to its head. Yes, you, talking loudly to the increasingly flustered but admirably principled usher about how your wife is ONE OF THE SINGERS tonight and you HAVE TO get to Box 3, then responding to their meek and very polite request that you go to the appropriate entrance for that box, or indeed the stage door, with an immediate demand to SEE THE MANAGER.

You are both bastards.