Tuesday, 31 May 2011

North Yorkshire toilet etiquette

Proper use of the toilet paper, thank you. You know, for actual toilet stuff. No self-mummifying, no scale models of the Taj Mahal.

You there, having a nice sit down, enjoying a cup of camomile and some peace of quiet. Take your dunked teabag and dispose of it somewhere else.

(I could have called this post 'North Yorksnire Toiletiquette. I chose not to.)

Monday, 30 May 2011

Dispatches from my old life

For the last two weeks I've been working in Covent Garden, in the same building where I spent six years as a full-time employee. I don't come back that often these days, so on my way to the toilets or the kitchen I peer into the windows of the other offices, looking for anyone I used to know, my pallid face at the glass like a ghost.

Those toilets, I can report, are every bit as revolting as they ever were, with a luxurious carpet of ragged paper towels and toilet paper spread across the cubicle floor by approximately 11.30 in the morning, and mysterious sodden deposits of tissue blocking the basin plug holes. Women's magazine employees, it turns out, are far less fastidious about their toilets than they are about their wardrobes. I take a special interest in the toilets of this building as I spent a lot of time barricading myself in there towards the end of my permanent employment, attempting to fend off extreme anxiety-related nausea.

Some notes from my weeks back in Covent Garden:

a) As a freelance employee, I pass many hours sitting at other people's desks while they are on holiday. Alternative, they may recently have vacated their workstation for good, having moved on to a new job, perhaps with a bigger desk and a proper footrest. You can tell a lot about a person
from their desk. When it comes to eating lunch, you can ascertain whether they prefer a sandwich to a couscous salad by the nature of the crumbs trapped in their keyboard. You may be able to glean something of their personal life by the subject matter of their computer's desktop wallpaper. Popular subjects include:

1) Looming face of toddler filling the entire frame with 'adorable' drooling grin.
2) Pet cat.
3) Manchester United posing with trophy.
4) Liverpool posing with trophy.
5) Sunset holiday photo they are particularly proud of (location: usually Thailand), and are considering sending in for publication in a broadsheet newspaper (NB, my mum ACTUALLY HAD ONE OF THESE PUBLISHED in yesterday's Sunday Times, only it's not a sunset or Thailand).

1) to 3) I find offputting. 4) and 5) I can deal with.

I actually know the person whose desk I was sitting at for the last week, so no guesswork was required. She is a sweetheart. Even if I didn't have this prior information, I would still feel a fond affinity with her on account of the way she has worn away the S on her keyboard - which I assume is due to a neurotic and over-cautious tendency to press the apple key + 'S' every few minutes and save her work from the obliterative caprices of computer malfunction.

b) There are two zebra crossings just outside this building, which I have to cross on my way to and from the train station, and to and from somewhere nice to buy my lunch. That's four crossings a day. Over the years, I must have crossed those zebra crossings thousands of times, as well as many others across the length and breadth of England and Scotland (I've never been to Ireland or Wales). But during these two weeks, with their flurry of crossings-and-crossings-back, I've found myself suddenly stricken with doubt about my thank-you-to-stopping-motorists-wave.

Are you a thank-you-waver, zebra crossing-wise?

I like to think I present a veneer of good manners to the world, even if the tutting, scowling cracks beneath are plainly visible to the world. My intentions are towards a course of good manners and consideration. I say thank you to the bus driver as I tap my Oyster card. I'm nice to waitresses. And I give a little wave to motorists who slow down as I hover by a crossing. But this fresh waving anxiety is twofold. Firstly, I have found myself questioning the style of my wave. I imagine this is a long dark night of the soul familiar to Kate Middleton. I seem to favour a 'How!'-style raise of the palm – brisk, businesslike, direct. But now it's starting to feel soulless. I'm considering introducing a jauntier, from-the-wrist action – or even a subtle Mexican wave of the digits. Secondly, and more existentially, I'm starting to wonder if a wave is necessary at all. Is it slightly over-egging things? Now, as I conscientiously salute each motorist, I think I see, in the dead eyes that meet mine, some expression of 'Don't flatter yourself. I'm only stopping because it's the law.' Should I scale down the wave to a nonchalant head-nod or lift of the chin? I don't really do nonchalant though. I mostly do flapping.

c) If you want to get cash out at a lunchtime – or directly after work – in Covent Garden, you have no option but to queue. It's incredibly selfish that everyone else is attempting to withdraw funds in order to eat, shop or enjoy the company of their friends at the same time as you, but that's human nature. I try to fight against this every day, which is why I
say thank you to the bus driver as I tap my Oyster card and am nice to waitresses. Queuing is just part of us. And, for me, it's a time to reflect on the unanswered questions in my life, or else ponder the style choices of the persons queuing in front of me. I'm always in search of regular features to introduce on this blog – perhaps misguidedly I see them as an easy-and-quick way to up my feeble post rate. So *jaded drum roll* I present to you the first ever Cashpoint Couture. Or perhaps Cashpoint-Queue Cool. I don't know. I didn't really think it through that well. Anyway, here's the first entry:

I'm calling this first entry 'Home-knit or hipster?' Not that the two are mutually exclusive, of course, but I hope you see the sociological difference in the generalised stereotyping of these two catergories. To illustrate: many years ago, I went to my company's in-house magazine awards, where one category was jointly won by the employees of Your Horse and The Face. Both teams were rocking tweedily geekish ensembles – one team voguishly, the other
innately – to the extent where it was difficult to tell which was which.

In other alliterative, potential-new-regular-post news, I'm also thinking of introducing 'Bus Bling' - a salute to the jewellery of my fellow bus passengers. Here, on the 185 from East Dulwich Station, I saw these rocks.

Hmm. Contender for most waffly post ever, I would say.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

An open letter to Steven Moffat in which I outline some ideas for Doctor Who monsters, which occurred to me during a recent holiday in Yorkshire

Dear Steven/Mr Moffat/'Moff'

Congratulations on your recent output of high-quality drama. You are a hell of a guy. But, it seems to me, a busy one. Really, it must be all go. Why not relax a little? Take some 'you time'. Put on a pair of comfy slippers and flick through that Bafta awards souvenir programme with a Cadbury's Options while I do some work for you.

First, a small moment of personal regret. I think it's important we can be honest with each other. While I was thrilled to see Kenny from
Press Gang cast in the recent piratical episode of Doctor Who, I must confess I was disappointed not to see Julia Sawalha, aka Lynda Day, editor of the Junior Gazette, cast in the role of the ship's captain – thus denying the world a small fraction of the Press Gang reunion we have been waiting the best part of 20 years for. But I'll forgive you, because a) you didn't actually write that episode, even though you are Da Boss (that's a passing Press Gang reference, which you would obviously get), and b) you must have a lot on your mind.

Anyway. That's enough nostalgia. Let's get to the monsters. Which is like something Doctor Who would actually say. You can have that line for free, if you like.

Monster No 1) Everything's getting smaller these days – Pizza Express pizzas, Wagon Wheels, the number of crisps in a bag of Walkers – right? WRONG. Not everything. Yorkshire puddings are getting bigger. Gastro pubs seem intent on proving their credentials not just in terms of how artfully crumpled their leather sofas are, or how quirkily vintage-looking the wallpaper in the toilets is, but also how ludicrously large their Yorkshire puddings are. I often feel that if you removed a section of one to fit your face through, you could wear it on your head as some kind of officially recognised protective headgear for amateur boxing.

I confess I am often intimidated by the size of the trimmings that come with my Sunday lunch. I am suggesting that, in
Who world, the traditional Yorkshire pudding could be an amorphous, beast of batter that terrorises families as they sit together at the table for their only meal together of the week and torments groups of friends catching up over a pub lunch. It sits silently on their plates, modest in size at first, but gradually growing fatter and more powerful as it feeds off their love and companionship and community until they are hollow, grey and slumped.

It might have tiny mean eyes and an angry, gaping mouth like this:

Monster No 2) Perhaps, like me, you are a sensitive and delicate individual who finds it difficult to sleep in an unfamiliar place. If so, you are probably used to this kind of sight:

The darkness of the foreign bedroom, and the LED alarm clock with its messages of the minutes and hours creeping past in which you are not having delicious restorative slumber. In your head, you perform arithmetic to determine the diminishing amount of time that remains until you must face down a cooked breakfast and tell your host how incredibly well you slept, yes, like an absolute log, thanks.

But what if, through the night, your LED alarm clock is sending you a different kind of message every time you open your eyes. Something like this:

(Apologies for the ropey, wobbly-handed Photoshop.)

Maybe you think your eyes are deceiving you – it's dark, you're tired, maybe you're dreaming. And in reality you're massively short-sighted so all you would actually see would be a soft orange blur. You put your head back down on the pillow and close your eyes. But you feel very strongly that you must open them a second later. And then you see this:

This is ludicrous. You turn over. Pull up the duvet. But you can't help turning back.

Surely turning on the light will solve all this. You get out of bed. You can't find the light switch. You trip over your splayed-open suitcase. Now your foot really, really hurts. You look back at the clock.

Who is trapped inside the alarm clock? The ghost of B&B residents past? And what happened to them? Were they somehow exterminated by demonically overbearing landladies force-feeding them sausages and black pudding before 9am?

Monster No 3) We've established above that the dark can be a bad place. A dangerous place. So you can rely on the light, then? To bring comfort and clarity? To remind you that this is just a cosy room in a bed and breakfast in a small, charming Yorkshire town? Not so much when the light fittings are GIANT SPIDERS descending on silken ropes towards your FACE.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Constance craving

On a recent trip to Yorkshire, I found my new favourite ever name written in a second-hand book.

I'm not sure whether she sounds more like a stern governess with a mania for corporal punishment, or a kindly granny who runs a sweet shop and gives out free treats to well-mannered children, believing that tooth decay is something that only afflicts naughty children and has no direct correlation with sugar.

Or perhaps she was a young hipster cursing her family for giving her a nice, sensible name like Constance in the wild abandon of the late 60s?

Whoever she was, her signature relegates Wendy Bodger, who I discovered in a book in a hotel bedroom in Norfolk a couple of years ago, to second place on the great-names-in-old-books podium.

You can tell that Wendy is from Norfolk by her phonetic attempt to spell the word 'wrote'. 'Root' is closer to the truly authentic pronunciation though, I would say. Just call me Professor Higgins.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

I talked about rowing

What's that? Oh, you're just admiring the sleek, minimalist accessory I am wearing about my tiny, elegant wrist.

It is the wristband from my Olympic volunteering interview/experience/workshop/other, which I attended on Sunday morning.

I've decided I'm never going to take it off, or at least not until it is harbouring a whole legion of bacteria and embryonic illness, and smells really, really bad. I want to be like one of those people you see in February who's desperate to show you, by means of the stinking, frayed rag around their wrist, that they attended the Glastonbury Festival back in the heady days of June. Big wow, hippy. Also, have a wash.

Actually, I've taken my wristband off already. When I said I wouldn't, it was a lie, a conceit, an embroidery (an embroidering?). Another meticulously crafted stitch in the veil that hides the real me from the character you know as 'Miss Jones'. I'm actually a 67-year-old retired school caretaker called Graham whose other online identities include a 17-year-old fashion blogger from Osaka and a country-and-western-singing cyber-evangelist from Georgia, USA. The latter has an even poorer rate of posting than I do, but this is because the staff at the library Graham visits in order to type up the blog entries he's written on the back of torn-up cereal boxes aren't keen on him taking his guitar into the study area and getting all holy via webcam.

So anyway. Sunday morning. There I was. The volunteering. For a role in the press operations team. My interview. At London's Excel building, a massive shed by the Thames, easily distinguishable from other massive sheds by the Thames on account of… nothing actually.

I had expected there to be something of a crowd there – not unlike an X Factor audition perhaps – but I was surprised by the huge number of people leaving the DLR and pouring down the ramp towards the building. I resisted the temptation to start a Mexican wave, or initiate some form of morale-boosting call-and-response chant about how London 2012 was going to be TOTALLY AMAZING. This was probably just as well as quite soon I realised that most of these people were actually going to 'Grand Designs Live' in a different part of the building, while I followed the 'Games Maker' signs around the corner to a separate entrance, pretty much alone.

Inside, it was just like the open day I went to at Cambridge University when I was 17 or so, except with less carved wood panelling and more big screens with Alesha Dixon's face on ill-conjugating her way through some volunteering mission statement. I felt the same inability to speak to any of my fellow candidates at the wandering-around-and-mingling-and looking-generally-interested-in-things stage. I'd like to say this was a case of me keeping my head in the game and focussing on the job in the hand. In fact it was, in both cases, some acute flare-up of adolescent shyness.

On this occasion, though, I was especially intimidated by a girl with a blow-dry and an extensive CV of employment in press offices. Circa 1991, it was an extremely confident girl from Sevenoaks who was doing her A-level English open study on the use of voices in the poetry of Yeats and Eliot.

But what does one wear to one's Olympic volunteering interview? A suit? A leotard? If you are me, you wear a comfortable flat sandal, and bring some heels in your bag and then forget to change into them. If you are me, you do this A LOT.

Judging by my fellow candidates you wear: chinos, shorts, one of those football-manager padded coats, fake tan, real tan, glasses on a chain, glasses not on a chain, slacks, jeans, a skirt, a sari, a leather jacket. No one wore a leotard. That I could see.

You carry: some heels in a bag, a large golfing umbrella, a bottle of water, a battered newspaper, an air of pensioned-but-still-productive ('No, no, I won't sit. I'd rather stand).

After an introductory chat by a women from the press team about the volunteers' roles, which was so unbelievably exciting that I had to work really hard not to start crying like the colossal Olympic sap that I am, and a short film, it was interview time.

I fear that I was undone by the very first question.

It seemed innocuous enough. Easy, even. It was about our favourite Olympic moments.

I started off talking about my love of athletics, naturally – intimating that this ran through me like the words Weston-Super-Mare through a really big stick of rock. My love of athletics, I attempted to express, was such that it almost went without saying. I moved on to talk about the many exciting tussles in rowing at recent Olympic Games. I then found that I literally could not stop talking about rowing. I never realised I knew so much about rowing. I extolled the virtues of the various team sizes. I threw in some chat about Jurgen Grobler.

My internal thought process went along these lines:

Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Help. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Help me. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Shit. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing. I can't stop. Rowing. Rowing. I can't stop talking about rowing. Rowing. Rowing. Rowing.

My interviewer assiduously made notes during my rowing monologue.

When I eventually took a breath, he moved the interview along. The rest really wasn't so bad. I managed to control myself enough not to segue into reciting the full lyrics from Whitney Houston's
One Moment In Time, even though I do feel very strongly that all of my dreams are a heartbeat away, and the answers are all up to me. But I did find it quite difficult to concentrate during the remainder of our chat because all I could see in front of me was the word 'Rowing' roaring at me from the top of the notes on the interviewer's clipboard.

I started to worry that my answer to this question might dictate where I would be placed as a volunteer during the Games.

Don't me wrong. I like rowing. I've never done it, but that's not a barrier to liking something. I've never been to a Chinese restaurant with an Elvis impersonator, but I'm all for that.

But rowing is not athletics. When it comes to the Olympics, and spectator sport in general, athletics is my first and true love. Athletics is the Justin Timberlake to my Britney Spears. The Captain Wentworth to my Anne Elliot. I'm not averse to working near a lake in Windsor, not at all, but I'd rather be working in the stadium.

I tried to think of a way to express this, calmly and articulately, to my interviewer. That I wouldn't want my enthusiasm for the oars-and-water action to overshadow my real passion, but all that came into my head was the inclination to shout out 'NOT ROWING. I DIDN'T MEAN ROWING!'

Instead the interview ended, and I walked away meekly. On my way out I was invited to browse the 2012 merchandise in the shop (I didn't) and to help myself to a bowl of Cadbury's Official-Treat-Provider-Of-The-Games-Please-Snack-Responsibly Celebrations. (I did, I took two – a Twirl and a Caramel.)

I've decided not to dwell on the rowing debacle, and instead to concentrate on the positives. Two free Cadbury's Celebrations and a trip on the DLR – that's a good day out for me.