Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Three hours, forty-five minutes and fourteen seconds

Maybe your brother's running his first marathon. Maybe you're terribly excited about it. Maybe some of the finest athletes in the world will be running right past the spot where you're standing. You love athletes. Maybe you and the city in which you live, whose future together is far from certain, what with your capacity for antagonism and mutual recrimination, will be having a really good day. This, then, would be the perfect time for you to leave the battery for your camera at home in the charger, where you'd remembered to put it the night before, and head out for the day with an empty, powerless camera in your bag, thus surrendering yourself to the inferior photographic skills of your mobile phone.

Excellent. Well done on that, Jones.

Young Miss Jones the Elder played the technology slightly better on Sunday, stationed in front of the computer at home like a pre-teen Uhura, carefully monitoring the digi-chat between the magic timing chip attached to her father's shoe and the internet, and reporting back to the rest of the family at their stations around the course.

Remember when I said I love athletes? I love athletes. While I was waiting to shout enthusiastic non-sequiturs at my brother at the 11-mile marker, I saw the elite men run past some time before him. At least, I think they were running. I couldn't swear to it. Pretty much what happened, I think, as it seemed to me, is that the rest of the world stopped and held its breath, and they floated past in a state of serene composure and physical perfection. It may be that I became incrementally a better person for seeing them, but I wasn't moved to buy a composter on the way home, so maybe the effect wasn't that dramatic.

This kind of thing has happened to me once before, about 12 years ago, on my only visit to Wimbledon (the tennis tournament, not the suburb – although actually, yes, both). We had seats on court number one, where Pete Sampras was playing. My friend was on Centre Court, thrilling to the lawn gymnastics of Becker (I think – it may have been Agassi), so I was sweating pure resentment when 'Pistol' Pete and his fuss-free competence walked on to the court. And then he started playing. That shut me up. 'You know that thing your soul rattles around in all day, the thing with the arms and the legs and the all-over skin?' Pete Sampras imaginarily said to me, in my seat far back in the stands. (Imaginarily, Pete Sampras has a really loud voice. Also, imaginarily, 'imaginarily' is an OK word to use.) 'Well, this is how it really works.'

In two years, London will be full of incredible people like this, and if you don't think this is very exciting you either a) don't live in London or b) would not endear yourself to me at a dinner party if this subject came up in conversation, causing me to sulk through dessert, snapping at accusations I was 'quiet this evening', and lie my way out of attending subsequent dinner parties I knew you would also be attending.

Anyway, at some point between the elite athletes and my brother (which is not such a big distance as you might think, not at 11 miles in any case) were the brilliant but mortal. One of them fell right in front of me, slipping over in the wet, his skin rasping across the tarmac. It was awful. No one knew what to do as he hauled himself up, furious and sore. The terror of saying something idiotic, so insultingly inane and unhelpful was paralysing. The very people who you'd think might have been up to the job, four St John Ambulance persons, remained rooted to the spot, dumbly brandishing a giant tub of Vaseline. Perhaps they are schooled not to approach an elite athlete in peril, in case they set about their finely-tuned muscles with excess enthusiasm and too-heavy hands. I hope that's the reason. I don't know what to say about them if it's not.

It feels hollow and all sorts of wrong to shout 'You can do it!' to someone who probably can, but not the way they want to, when you know that that difference means everything. I felt a bit like this afterwards with my brother, who did brilliantly but not brilliantly enough for him. I am counting on the attrition of congratulations and impressed faces he encounters over the next few weeks to convince him otherwise.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Chain of fools

If you're looking for some beach reading that will give you a break from the intellectual rigours of the latest Katie Price novel, maybe this is for you?

Perhaps at one point they had a budget for picture research, but then they spunked it all away on embossing. Look! We've put shiny bits on it! Like a real book! Oh wait, we need some photos. Quick, let's photocopy that old issue of heat.

Oh Cheryl and Ashley. Can you point to the precise moment your Genuine Real Love started to rot away? For Cheryl, I suspect it was the first time she saw Ashley in that necklace.

The chronic infidelity merely confirmed her worst expectations.

Coming soon: marathon news.

Monday, 19 April 2010

The first rule of Puzzle Club: bring a rug, it gets chilly

Sometimes, I work in Wapping. At lunchtime in Wapping, your 'Things To Do' options hover somewhere between 'few' and 'limited'. This is why I often find myself in the St Katherine's Dock branch of Starbucks, reading an improving book or gazing out of the window, wondering what all the Bits – you can only really call them Bits – are that are floating in the water outside. During a recent lunch hour, I saw two older women at a nearby table, each doing puzzles from a newspaper. Here they are, in some superhero capes I drew on them, to represent their tireless and unswerving commitment to puzzling.

So there they were, riverside Rosemary and Thyme, one with the Express, I'm not sure about the other, maybe the Mail. Not talking, just puzzling in companionable silence. No "7 Across is a stinker today, Barbara"; no "Medieval instrument, 4 letters, something E something something. Any brainwaves?" Just quiet contemplation.

How nice to be with someone and not have to make conversation the whole time, as Harry says – or some variation of it – to Sally.

I am making a presumption, of course. It is possible that this was not the silence of contentment and friendship, but of steely competition. Of training.

Getting old is frightening. How long will you have your friends and loved ones around you? And how long will you have your faculties around you? And if you start to lose your mind, what can you do about it?

Not much, perhaps, but if you believe that keeping an active, engaged, exercised brain could make the difference between remembering the names of your children and not, you would probably go about pursuing the goal of cerebral fitness with the ardor of a person a third of your age.

Imagine if one of your pension-powered contemporaries started up some kind of subterranean puzzle club where, on a regular basis, you could compete in an aggressive, unflinching battle of wits, in a bid to keep your grey matter less, well, grey.

The stakes are high – your independence, your enduring powers of cognitive thought. This is why competition is conducted at the very highest level, and the secrecy of the location must be guarded by darkest oath. The last thing you want is someone who's proud of a half-completed G2 sudoku stumbling in to try their luck and wasting everyone's time. No one in that place has time to waste, and things would soon turn ugly.

Even if you should find them – if you follow the scent of freshly sharpened pencils, lavender and muscle rub like a bloodhound – you must say the password and answer a cryptic clue from the Times crossword in order to gain entry to their hideout.

Inside, a rickety table. Two comfortable chairs in a tiny carpeted arena, dingily lit by a flocked standard lamp. Maybe a footrest. A plastic magnifying sheet on a chain cast to the floor in triumph or bitterest frustration.

Maybe, post-bout, you might see an exhausted puzzler slumped in one of the chairs in a padded dressing gown, feverish with mental exertion, while their mentor pours weak orange squash over their head to cool them down - or warm-ish tea on a chillier day. You lose a lot of heat through your head. There's a constant low-level buzz – of battery-operated medical aids, and people murmuring the names of the canals of the British Isles under their breath.

Then, perhaps, there's a hush. The crowd part in reverence as the Wordsearch WarMachine shuffles into the arena. He is utterly fearless, even in the face of backwards diagonals, which everyone knows are the hardest.

If, like me, you enjoy a puzzle, you might be encouraged to 'age up', to infiltrate the competition, purely for the joy of puzzling. But you would soon get caught out when the sweat of intellectual endeavour causes the 'wrinkles' you've drawn on to your naturally lineless face with an eyeliner pencil to start running down your face. Or you lean back in relief at having completed a Codeword, only to leave a tell-tale silhouette of talcum powder on the headrest of the chair. It would be wrong to suggest you would be strong-armed out of there – there aren't many strong arms at Puzzle Club – but you might be jabbed in the thorax with a walking stick, or chased down by a mobility scooter. These people mean business.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Choir news

I've been looking at clips of choirs on YouTube, hunting for videos to put on the website of the choir I sing in. The P22 Chorus, a group of fifth graders from Staten Island, haven't exactly been starved of publicity, but let's hope they're hungry, because here's some more.

My favourite thing I've seem them do is The Cure's Pictures Of You, which I thought was the most, like, beautiful song, like, ever when I was 16. Who knows what I would have thought of it when I was 10 – but I would have loved to have a school music teacher like this guy...

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Fangs for shopping at Sainsbury's

Vampires, blah blah. All around us, etc etc. We've been here before.

And now they've been in the fruit aisle at Dog Kennel Hill Sainsbury's.

Don't you sometimes crave something sharp to cut through all that haemoglobin? It just makes your mouth so... claggy.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Seasonal confectionary news

If you're the sort of person who is not excited by sticking breakfast cereals together with chocolate and putting Mini-Eggs in the middle to make incredibly lifelike yet delicious bird's nests, then good luck with hauling yourself out of bed every day for the rest of your life.

These were crafted by Miss W for lunch yesterday. You can see that, with commendable attention to detail, she has chosen to use Shredded Wheat for twig veritas.

The nests have been 'styled', as we say in magazines, with chicks I found in one of Lewisham's finest pound shops. And in magazine terms, the lady chicks are luring the Red reader, with their cosy-retro Cath Kidston-style headscarves, while the male chicks are more cutting-edge cool-mag. In fact, they look like they're in some avian Hot Chip tribute band. Also, nice bow ties. And we all know how cool they are at the moment…

Now then, it's been a while since I had a proper, delicious, borderline-downmarket Easter Egg – obviously it's been Green & Black's or nothing since I hit my 30s – but are they all like this now?

How long has the stuff that's not the egg been packaged outside the egg? Where is the element of surprise? What happened to the crashing Easter-morning melancholy of bashing open the chocolate egg to discover a disappointingly small amount of chocolatey things indeed, relative to the size of the cavity? Is nothing sacred?

Sunday, 4 April 2010

With great power comes great responsibility

About a year before he died, my dad – the king of the fad and the fixation, the passion and the preoccupation – decided he would learn to cook. He was roughly 60, giddy with the liberty of early retirement and hungry for the new – or perhaps just hungry. Prior to this resolution, he was like many men of his generation – my mum could not leave the homestead for a few days without a significant investment in Vesta meals and malt loaf to ensure he would actually eat something while she was away.

And so it began. He bought knives and cookery books. He rolled up his sleeves. And for a few months, he rarely arrived at my house without some homemade offering – a batch of oatcakes, a bowl of exotic fruit salad with anxiously simmered syrup, selotaped shut to prevent a slow, sticky seep all the way from Norfolk to South London. That's how I remember it, at least. Maybe this only happened once or twice, but they're my memories and I'll misshape them how I like.

One of the last presents I bought him – and I don't remember if it was the last Christmas or the last birthday – was a kitchen blowtorch. It was the perfect marriage of man and miniature machine – flash, nifty, yet with a considerable capacity for foolhardy calamity. In my childhood, my dad memorably a) fell backwards through the glass of our living room window while trying to secure a rope on his hand-built boat which lived on our driveway, and b) almost perished under the weight of our car when he was working underneath it and the puny power of a sub-standard jack was dramatically exposed.

After he died – and incredibly, in the run-up to this event, he had managed not to set fire to his own eyebrows – my mum gave the blowtorch to me and I buried it deep in one of my kitchen cupboards, where it has been in the intervening four and a half years.

Until today. Today, with an appropriateness that is as pleasing as it is coincidental, the culinary blowtorch was resurrected. I made a Simnel Cake, according to the gospel of Nigella Lawson, to take to Miss W and
Marbury's for Easter lunch. I handrolled the 11 tiny marzipan balls that go on top – as you will know, they traditionally represent the apostles (soz, Judas – you're barred). Mine are of slightly uneven size and randomly spaced which, of course, is of considerable, if indeterminate, religious significance.

'Now for the bit I love,' says Nigella, introducing the notion of artfully scorching the marzipan topping, 'but you can ignore altogether.'

What are you saying, Lawson? That I am not up to a bit of live-action charring? Who do you think you're dealing with? I have won over £3.75 in
high-level baking competitions. Step back, cow eyes*, while I open the throttle and hit the ignition.

(You may guess from this that I am not a driver.)

Just so you know, blowtorching is AMAZING. I have rarely felt more alive. I may have found my inner superhero. She has a blowtorch coming out of the end of each limb and she is called The Caramelizer.

All back to my place for crème brûlée?

*I don't mean this. I love Nigella. I'm just showing off.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Customer service

It is Saturday evening. I am in Marks & Spencer at Victoria station. I am weary. It has been a wearying week. I am buying approximately £7.50 worth of slightly overpriced but reassuringly high-quality groceries. The cashier scans the contents of my basket.

'That'll be £500 please,' he says, delighted with himself.

'Wow,' I say. 'That is
so reasonable.'

We have a little bit of a laugh together, and I pay the £7.50 and get on the 185 bus home.

It is Sunday morning. I am at the Bagel Factory concession in Paddington station. I am weary. It has been a wearying week. I am buying approximately £2 worth of barely toasted bagel and honey. The cashier punches some buttons on the till with his rubbery-gloved fingers.

'That'll be £150 please,' he says, delighted with himself.

'Wow,' I say. 'Is that all?'

We have a little bit of a laugh together, and I pay the £2 and get on a train to Oxford, imagining the memo that went out to all service employees of mainline train stations.

'Your customers are busy working professionals. They may be tired, worried, or just really really hungry. Brighten their day. Create a rapport.
Try a joke. Share a moment together. People will come back for more.'

But are staff at Paddington stealing jokes from staff at Victoria? Is there a bitter dispute about whether Caffe Nero at Kings Cross or Monsoon at Waterloo have bagged the exclusive rights to use 'My assistant manager's got no nose...' Will the staff at WH Smith at Euston be taking it in turns to wear a false nose and glasses?

This may only be the start of it.