Monday, 21 March 2011

In which I simply can't bear it

Some years ago I sat talking to a man in an office. He was, in a strictly professional capacity, attempting to help me prise loose the nuts, bolts and screws of my nervous system, which I had spent the previous few years winding tighter and tighter until the strain upon it was such I was likely to explode at any moment, showering a five-mile radius with highly concentrated anxiety, neat grief and scraps of singed cardigan.

As a species, he told me, we are more anxious than we have ever been. While the worries of our ancestors were extreme but elemental, he said, today we are constantly assailed by a more complicated and wide-ranging set of risks. And we can't handle it. Specifically, I wasn't handling it. Sociologically, we have evolved at an exponential rate and our sweating, straining biology just can't keep up with these new demands. (See also: fertility – although you may not have heard about the decline in women's reproductive potential in their mid-to-late 30s because, really, magazines and newspapers HARDLY EVER MENTION IT.)

On Saturday, in broad daylight, surrounded by people who would easily have heard my cries for help, I was confronted by A Thing that genuinely terrifies me, that gives my fight or flight response an aggressive poke with a sharp yet gnarly stick.

A person in a costume with a large head. My eyes my eyes MYEYES. I don't care if you are collecting for charity, person inside the bear suit, YOU ARE GIVING ME THE CREEPS.

I have only just recovered from the freakish, beaming, big-headed Mickey Mouse I had to have my photo taken with about a decade ago on a jolly work excursion to EuroDisney. For months, years, after, I would see his huge, hollow black eyes and blank grin looming towards me whenever I turned the lights off and tried to sleep.

Anywhere there is 'family fun', giant costumes follow. And anywhere you find them, you will not find me, as I will be taking cover behind some bouncy castle or other or, in this case, the Paddington station branch of Bagel Factory, panic levels ascending.

I'm not sure whether this counts as a primitive fear, or a modern one. In some senses, maybe this fun, furry Paddington Bear represents the wild beast who is coming to destroy my family and homestead. Yet on a deeper level, I think it tickles some more sophisticated, subtle reflex which concerns enforced fun and not knowing exactly the right way to talk to a person in a giant animal costume.

Also, it just looks really weird and freaky.

I am going to bed now, where I fully expect to slip into a sweet dream about some beloved or other, only to roll over in my bed, stretch out my arm and feel it fall on the scratchy wool of duffel coat. I will open my eyes to see a giant Paddington Bear bearing down on me, about to suffocate me with an enormous marmalade sandwich and then I won't know if it is a dream any more...

Monday, 14 March 2011

In Which I Learn That I Am (Not Quite) A Cult Figure

It's disconcerting to turn around on a busy tube train, in the pursuit of a fresher source of air, to find yourself confronted by a version of... well... you.

On the Jubilee Line last week, one of my fellow commuters had a badge pinned to her bag which bore an uncanny hand-drawn likeness to yours truly, Miss Jones of south-east London. It gave me quite a start. Not
exactly like looking in a mirror – I have a Dickensian pallor, this much is true, but my face isn't actually grey. These are minor details, though. I firmly believed it to be a deliberate portrait of me.

Now, of course, if my life was a film, the camera would pan with me as I slowly turned round to see another badge with my face on it, several feet away, perhaps on the lapel of some emo kid's beaten up blazer. I turn some more, and see myself on a cotton resuable shopping bag. Another 30º, and there I am again, and again, on a bobble hat, on a satchel, on a scarf. I. Am. Everywhere. Everywhere, there is me. The world is me.

Sadly, my life is not a film, and I think we all know that is Hollywood's loss.

Still, someone had seen fit to create a badge with my face on it. That means that the person who I stood very near to last week is attempting to create some kind of Cult Of Miss Jones. It wouldn't appear to be going massively well since, currently, no one else seems to be sporting the official Miss Jones badge, despite the fact that she has almost certainly – no, definitely, most definitely – made 500 of them and, at the time of manufacture, was keenly anticipating a repeat order. Probably there is a box of them in her hall which she bumps into every time she's putting her coat on as she leaves for work, all of an a.m. hurry. Probably she lies awake at night wondering when the others will see the light – and also see her elaborate city-wide poster campaign featuring my face and the words 'She is coming to save us' – and join her. Come to think of it, I haven't even seen those posters, so she really needs to roll her sleeves up and crack on with the mass publicity.

It's probably a good job she didn't turn around and see me. Who knows what would have happened. Exultation? Speaking in tongues? I can barely have a wash and do my own jeans up first thing in the morning, let alone deal with a weeping fanatic falling at my feet in a train carriage somewhere between Westminster and Green Park. What I – and she – would really like to know at this point is this: why EXACTLY isn't the Cult Of Miss Jones catching on? Why does she have 500 unused badges in a box in her hall? Why, as cult figures go, am I a cult figure? I am a cult figure squared, and I don't much like it.

I think I need to perform some kind of miracle to truly build my profile. But what? Hmm. I can't swim, but maybe that's because my natural inclination when it comes to water is to walk on it – and I just never realised before. Do let me know if you have a miracle you would like me to perform in order that I can join the ranks of more high-profile cult leaders. You will win a Cult Of Miss Jones badge, and your chosen feat of amazement actioned.*

To be continued.

*You will not win this.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Fresh fish and garibaldis

I'd like to take a moment to reassure you about a matter concerning our female senior citizens. You could be forgiven for thinking that proper, classic Old Ladies, like the ones you see on telly, don't exist any more. You might think life among the over-70s these days is all pilates and walking the Great Wall Of China and the Open University.

I have had two encounters in the last week that have reminded me this is not the case.

Encounter no 1: It is last Sunday. I am in a small-ish branch of the Co-op, queuing up to pay at a checkout behind a woman who is a good 40 years my senior. I must describe this lady's appearance, since it aces a checklist of elderly-female physical cliches.

Comfortable, heavily worn shoes, bowing outwards, boatlike, in the middle of the foot? Yes.

Plastic see-through rain bonnet, tied beneath the chin? Bien sur.

Bare, mottled legs, despite the month which, by the way, was February? Ja, naturlich.

Those bare legs heavily bandaged around the calf area, in a way that broke your heart a bit? I have run out of languages now, but yes. Basically, yes.

Shapeless mac-style overcoat, that swelled around the top of the back? Yes again.

As we stood next to each other, from the corner of my eye I could see her performing that series of twitches and tics that precedes a stranger striking up a conversation with you. The subtle opening and closing of the mouth that makes up a false start. The looking at my face, looking down at my groceries and looking up at my face again.

Among the healthy and nutritious items in my basket, which collectively showed me to be a woman taking care of her health and aiming to encompass all the major food groups, but relaxed enough to enjoy the odd treat, were some Digestive biscuits (a pure, naked Digestive is so satisfying, don't you think – that lovely wet mulch they make in your mouth...).

'Ooh, where did you find those?' she said, pointing down at my biscuits.

Despite a lifetime of instruction to respect my elders, the sarcasm impulse was extremely strong here. Yet I fought it, as I felt her true goal was chat initiation rather than biscuit retrieval. The biscuits were not hard to track down. It wasn't that I had pressed down hard on a grapefruit in the fresh produce section, whereby the entire shelving unit had swung round, admitting me to a secret chamber where they keep all the fun food.

I mumbled a reply and waved an arm in the direction of the appropriate aisle.

'Oh,' she said. 'Only I fancied some Garibaldis.'


I mean, honestly? Does anyone EVER genuinely fancy a Garibaldi biscuit? Two slices of barely sweetened cardboard, riddled with currents that cling to your teeth with the tenacity of a cockroach.

I was confused by the logic of the next sentence. It sounded very much like she said she wanted something to do that afternoon while she was listening to 'the play'. I ascertained that this was a play on Radio 4, a new series apparently starting that afternoon. But could she really have been planning to pass the entire half-hour chain-eating Garibaldis? I mean, I've met some elderly people who could really put it away when presented with a free buffet, but still, this seemed unlikely. Perhaps she meant she would eat just a couple, then allow high-quality radio drama to soundtrack the arduous task of removing dried fruit from her molars.

After she'd paid for her shopping, I watched her putting her purse away in a pocket that seemed less than secure, then struggle to divide her bags between her hands, and seize control of a complicated stick-slash-crutch that looked more like hassle than help.

Garibaldis, radio plays, rain bonnets, bandages. I left the Co-op feeling as though I had just been to some sort of Senior Citizen Stereotyping Theme Park. Although, in the interests of bursting bubbles, among her shopping was a jar of marinated olives, which seemed slightly racy to me.

Encounter No 2: It is Thursday evening. I have just finished work and I am in the food hall of John Lewis, Oxford Street. Basically, Waitrose. I am looking at the shelves of pre-packed fresh fish. A women comes to stand next to me. Again, elderly, but smarter this time. A long, camel-coloured trench coat and a tiny daffodil in her buttonhole which may have been saluting cancer care, or the nation of Wales. I am ashamed to say I do not know which. There were no false starts to her stranger chat. It was straight in. A kind of stream-of-consciousness babbling of phrases from the old-lady handbook about money and prices and wartime and bringing fish home from the market – among them, this:

'You had bread and a scrape and a bottle of water, and you were in bed before your father got home or you'd get a thump.'

It's possible, of course, she was rehearsing an Alan Bennett monologue.

'And children never used to be obese,' she said. I had to agree with her. I don't know why I'm surprised about that. I'm nearly 40, that kind of thing's only going to happen more and more from now on.

But as she chattered away, only requiring the most occasional nod or non-committal 'mmm' from me to carry on, I'm sad to say I began to look for an escape, my eyes darting around, then alighting on a display somewhere across the shop, which I simply had to visit for a reason I would think up on my way over there.

Neither of these encounters gave me a thrill of inter-generational bridge-building or elderly-eccentrics I-Spy. They made me think, 'If you reckon things are hard now, they're only going to get harder.'