Sunday, 11 November 2012

Blogging again! Strictly half-term report! Trumpets!

No explanation, no excuses, I am easing myself back into blogging with a half-term report on this series of Strictly Come Dancing. I'm not sure how it can be half-term when there are still 10 – 10! – contestants remaining, but from what I can tell nowadays, half-term seems to happen whenever anyone bloody well feels like it over a four-week period, so anything goes, right? If you're looking for quality weekly Strictly blogging, let me recommend my best Olympic buddy Mind Tidying, who is highly entertaining, with the kind of understanding and appreciation of dance skills that I brazenly lack.

My own personal Strictly viewing journey this series so far can be summarised thus:

1) Love: Louis, Kimberley, Richard. Falling for: Dani. Fingers crossed for: Lisa (£5 at 18-1). Want to love but can't quite: Fern, Victoria, Nicky. Don't love: Denise, Michael.
(Terms and conditions: Emotional investments can go down as well as up.)

2) No one should ever make Dave Arch wear a costume. Seeing him dressed up as Dracula at Halloween made me think of a giant bear that's been chained to a post and poked with sticks to make it dance.

3) Despite another duff partner/early exit for Anton, I have chosen to stop seeing him as an object of sympathy. This is a powerful psychological breakthrough for me. No longer do I picture him weeping the sad tears of a clown into a smart lambswool V-neck while other couples march on to Wembley and sodding Blackpool. Instead I think of him as liberated and free, having more time to do the things he loves, which I imagine to be: taking a special lady friend for a picnic in one of the greenhouses at Kew Gardens, 'motoring' down to a classic car rally at the Beaulieu Museum, or caddying for Ronnie Corbett and Bruce Forsyth at St Andrews in an attempt to further infiltrate the upper (well, up-ish) echelons of light entertainment.

4) I feel quite strongly that Strictly may be running out of songs. How can this be? There are more songs in the world than there are rats in London and insects in the rainforest. This is scientific fact.* Yet people must apparently STILL waltz to Kiss From A Rose.

ANYWAY. This week.

Bruce Forsyth and I share many similarities. We both enjoy our morning porridge with nuts and blueberries (I saw this on a documentary once). And he, too, is celebrating half-term. But I imagine Bruce's break – unlike most half-termers – amounts less to a trip to the Harry Potter Studios tour and a Burger King, or spending the whole day in Topshop eating Pick and Mix, and more to quality time with a tartan blanket, some crackers and Stilton, and a DVD of the Ryder Cup. And, awkwardly, I must report to Brucie and the writers of his 'jokes' that this is the first show in recent memory where I actually laughed out loud at something that was intentionally funny (and not just at Michael Vaughan's hair, for example).

Firstly, I love the opening montage. It's got Miranda in it, why wouldn't I? It would be easy for me to mock Su Pollard at this point, but she's the one apparently owning this season's gold brocade trend, not me, so I know which one of us is more likely to be invited to the Balmain Christmas party. (She's welcome to it. I reckon the buffet would be rubbish.) I also love Tess and Claudia back together. Tess no longer has to painfully perform a series of 'reaction' faces to Bruce's hi-jinks and can get on with the business of solidly competent presenting. Claudia can be demented in a safe, controlled environment while dressed as a sci-fi dentist. (Tess, by the way, has come as a bunny girl who's chosen to start dressing slightly more conservatively since having children.)

On with the dancing. First up are Denise and James. I'm not saying James was threatened by the reappearance of Ian Waite (who rehearsed with DVO while James was injured) but their paso seemed to be a lot about Le Jordan. 'Yes, Denise, first of all I have to spend AGES twirling a cape right in front of the camera while you stand behind me and can't be seen. No, a bit longer. No, you see I HAVE to, it's not a proper paso if I don't. And now I'm going to do a knee slide RIGHT INTO THE CAMERA for all my fans.' Their paso is brilliant, of course, and scores four 9s, but I think I speak for everyone who's ever watched Strictly when I say that I really, really miss Ian Waite.

We all love Richard, right? Funny, self-effacing, suitably deferential to Erin (who I like more and more when she's with him, a bit like Taylor Swift when she was dating Jake Gyllenhaal, only Erin and Richard's partnership has lasted longer). His and Erin's Charleston is no Hollins 'n' Ola, but it's great value, and for fans of dance faces, he has some of the all-time best ever. Also, fans of men in their 40s doing Penelope Pitstop runs won't have been disappointed by that either. Richard's little face (©CWinkleman) when he's awarded a string of 7s and 8s is one of my favourite Strictly things in history. I mean it's no Vincent trying to do a roly-poly, but come on...

Louis and Flavia are dancing the waltz. All the dancers, pro and celeb, have their individual crosses to bear – a partner who's too tall/too short/does 'impressions'/does 'jokes'/has no rhythm – and with Louis, I think it's important to remember how weird it must be to be 23, and have lived all your professional life with the discipline and routine of a sportsman, then suddenly have to be all intimate and expressive with an older lady. We can't all be totally down with it like Aaron Johnson-Taylor-Wood. Never mind, Louis's mum has come along to training to make sure no one's mean to him. Too bad she didn't save a mum smackdown for Craig in the studio, who unaccountably gives Louis a 6. He says it was a bit saccharine for him. It's a waltz, Craig. Surely you've seen one before. Entre nous, I think Craig is dismayed by the presence of the Strictly swing, a reappearance that's about as welcome as a coldsore, having propelled Matt Baker to the brink of a nervous collapse (in my own parallel Strictly narrative) almost exactly two years ago.

Fern and Artem are doing the salsa. Artem does have a shirt on again but it's open to the waist. He's put the chest out there now, he can't take it back. Craig immediately erases all my Louis-related bad feeling towards him with the look of utter contempt he gives to Fern coming at his face with a feather duster. Fern gives it some welly and has nice hair. It's the hair that Kimberley had a few weeks ago. I wonder who will have it next week? I'm hoping for Michael Vaughan and I think he is too. After a kindly round of judging, Claudia asks Artem if he's over the moon with their comments. Artem deadpans: 'I am very much so,' like a bored escort crossed with a really sexy Russian droid.

Now. Pendleton. Are we all agreed that the judges have received a memo ordering them not to upset her under any circumstances, in case the subsequent cascade of salty tears melts the studio floor and up from the dark oblivion below surges the angry vengeful figure of Chris Hoy, grown to the proportions of an ogre? Good. Yes, Sir Chris is lovely and charming and benign, AS FAR AS WE KNOW, but who can say how the golden god may react when forced to defend the honour of the queen of British cycling. It's either that or Sebastian Coe has made some dark and terrible pact with the IOC that the UK will only get to host the Olympics again if Victoria Pendleton wins Strictly Come Dancing. On a plinth in his turreted castle sits an eerily glowing GB Pendleton cycling helmet symbolising the pact. What we need, of course, is some young knight – Jason Kenny would do it, or Laura Trott for sexual parity – to battle their way inside on a magic wall-penetrating bicycle, smash the helmet with an axe, and thus break the spell.

It's just possible I've overthought this.

In summary, Brendan wheels (hahahahaha - she is a cyclist! I made a joke) Victoria around and the judges treat her like a frail endangered species. She's improving A LOT but not to the extent where Craig is justified in marking her higher than Louis.

Also important to note: Brendan falls over harder than Philip Hindes, at a similarly critical moment, but possibly with less deliberation. I love Brendan these days.

It's Danni and Vincent. I LOVE Vincent SO MUCH. I like Danni. That means that, on balance and using simultaneous equations, I love (Vincent + Danni). A note from me to the Strictly producers: please stop treating Vincent like a joke and forcing him to wear stupid blonde wigs. You're making us forget that he's awesome and used to date Flavia, who's really fit, and doesn't date just anyone... Oh. Well, anyway, she's really fit. (I'm just joking. She's been dating Jimi Mistry for at least three series). And the good news is that with the Fonzie Jive and the Phone Box Tango, Danni seems to be resuscitating Awesome Vincent. HE LIVES.

Next up, Nicky, who starts his foxtrot with a brilliant solo section which makes me 'Oooh!' out loud. Not as much as when Gethin did the salsa, but still, Nicky's really blossoming. It's as though he is, in the metaphorical language of Westlife, rising up off his stool and walking with purpose and a boyband air-grab to the front of the stage. He is living a key-change. He and Karen make great use of their microphone prop, although it's not turned on. Just like in the Westlife days. I'M TOTALLY JOKING, WESTLIFE FANS. AND ANYWAY, WE ALL KNOW YOU AND YOUR MOBILE PHONES ARE TAKING NICKY TO AT LEAST THE SEMI-FINALS.

During his judges' comments, Cheryl Cole heckles from the crowd. I'd prefer it if she was heckling at The X Factor. Everyone would pay money for that. 'Oi! Scherzinger! WHO ARE YA?'

Kimberley and Pasha are dancing the Viennese Waltz. Kimberley says they are dancing to a beautiful song, and this makes me worry for my potential friendship with Kimberley as I think it's one of the most boring things I've ever heard. Kimberley is clearly the sensible one in Girls Aloud, and I am the sensible one in any friendship group, which should make us so compatible, but now everything I thought I knew has been thrown into question. What would we play at our slumber parties where we have a chocolate fondue and tell Nicola Roberts she should always stick to her natural ginger? However, I do love Kimberley's 'yearning' expression at the top of the stairs, which should see her at least win a part in the next series of that ITV drama about military wives when this is all over and Girls Aloud have a massive bust-up on their reunion tour. It's all nice enough, but doesn't change my opinion that the world could live quite happily without the Viennese Waltz. Viennese Whirls, however = indispensable.

Michael Vaughan has found some good form in recent weeks. This seems to have woken the terrible kraken that is Natalie's competitive streak – a beast that had lain dormant during Michael's lovable but hopeless early weeks. We could see the warning signs earlier tonight when Natalie was caught on camera applauding Louis's waltz with gritted teeth and flashing eyes. It's like Vesuvius, ominously smoking, and primed to erupt. I am aware, by the way, that I am mixing my metaphors beyond salvation in this paragraph. Let's just say that salsa is not really for Michael and move on. Good lifts, though.

Lisa and Robin dance a fabulous razzle-dazzle foxtrot to This Will Be (An Everlasting Love), which is on the soundtrack to While You Were Sleeping, which I love. The film's premise would make a great concept for Romantic Comedy Week (planned for week 9, I believe**). Male dancer starts off lying on faux railway tracks. Female rolls him off and into a coma-themed rumba (all rumbas are coma-themed, albeit inadvertently, for me). In other falling over news, Robin takes a tumble just before the stairs.

Come the results show, it's time for the SHOCK! we all knew was on the cards after weeks of perfectly appropriate evictions. And it's Kimberley and Pasha in the dance-off, which I'm blaming on mid-table forgettability and bland song forgettability, and also Cheryl hanging around in the studio wearing black like a tiny beautiful doomy raven. But ultimately it's Fern who's going home. Artem went topless too early. Like I said, where could he go from that?

See you for the semi-finals! Maybe!

*It's not.
**It's not.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

12 Things I Learnt From The Olympic And Paralympic Games

or 'Yes, I am still going on about this, but so are the weekend supplements, so I think it's kind of OK, especially considering this is not even my actual job.'

WARNING: Long! Really, really long.

Memories... light the corners of my mind. Those aren't my words. They're the words of Marilyn and Alan Bergman. To them I say, 'Alan, Maz, easy for you to say. My mind is jammed full of shopping lists and train times and the birthdays of the individual members of Duran Duran, all languishing under a huge billowing fog of worries, both generalised and specific. How can I possibly fit all those small but significant Olympic and Paralympic memories in there too? All the many things I've learned and the ways I've grown? What if some of them... I don't know... fall out? Because brain specialists tell me this can happen.

Alan and Maz have no answer for me on that. Perhaps it's because Maz doesn't really like being called Maz. She thinks it's disrespectful to abbreviate a triple Oscar-winner. To her, I say, 'You know what, MAZ? Some of the lyrics to Windmills Of Your Mind make NO SENSE AT ALL,' because I don't take rejection very well.

Since Burt Bacharach was no help either, I clearly had to sort this out myself. If only I had some sort of cyber dump where I could record all my favourite strange and inconsequential parts of the last couple of months, things that won't become part of the official Olympic DVD (I've pre-ordered, naturally), before they drift out of my ears and away into the ether? Where oh where could I write about those things and maybe post some photogra.... OH HANG ON.

So here, in no order of rank – which, by the way, isn't a reflection of my views on competitive sport in schools – are the things I learnt from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

1. Cardboard can make you cry.
Oh alright. Anything during the Olympics can make you cry. Or, more specifically, me. Anything at all during the Olympics can make me cry. Any mundane gesture becomes infused with meaning. Any waitress routinely wiping down your café table became a symbol of the clean start we are all making together, a new time of friendliness and warmth and national pride and OH GOD I'M CRYING; any pigeon eating some sick off the pavement somehow represents London's spirit of plucky, stubborn survival and OH GOD I'M CRYING AGAIN. The sign below, which I spotted on a merchandise stand at Eton Dornay, just after Great Britain won their first gold medal, seemed to mark a kind of turning point for me, from the nation feeling kind of indifferent about the Olympics to feeling really very different about them indeed.

2. Be careful what you wish for.
Having front-row seats at the velodrome is amazing! It's a dream come true! All it takes is a lot of cash and many hours spent poring over foreign ticket sites! Look! Show-off photo incoming!

And yet my precious cycling session was marred by nightmarish visions. As I leaned forward to take photos of our two-wheeling heroes, I kept seeing my iphone slipping out of my sweating hand (it is HOT in there), arcing over the barrier and sliding, in sickening slow motion, down the banked track and into the path of Sir Chris Hoy's bike, causing him to wobble, topple and surrender his long-cherished dream of record-breaking gold at his home Olympics, while I crouched down under my seat as the world's media attempted to capture the moron responsible. Oops, sorry, Sir Chris. Butter fingers! Never mind, you've got four other gold medals, right?

3. No One Is Really As Cool As You Think, Not Even Cyclists.
Oh cyclists. You think you're so special with your superhero skin suits and your space age curvy track and your what-is-better-in-the-world-really spectacle of team pursuiters powering along in perfect formation. Look, here they come...

And there they go...

Sometimes I wonder how I can be so amazing at photography.

Still, don't lose heart, mortals. Because my live cycling experience has taught me that the invincible athletes who ride team pursuit for GB like to sit there between rounds in their vests. I'm sure these are very special vests, engineered by scientists to nurture muscle, repel fatigue and, I don't know, do something that really helps with the cycling. But to the uneducated eye, Our Boys look like four elderly men on a hot day at Blackpool sea front, moaning about the sun or the quality of the battered sausages.

Incidentally, if the BBC ever decides to commission a sitcom entitled Last Of The Summer Cyclists, in which elderly characters loosely based on the post-retirement Hoy, Cavendish and Wiggins (or perhaps Clancy, Thomas and Burke in subsequent series) get into hilarious scrapes as they attempt to recreate the team pursuit while riding a tin bath or similar junk-shop find down a steep hill, I would totally watch it.

4. In case there was ever any doubt, I can now confirm that I am emphatically anti-fun.
If you, Olympic-venue public-address announcers, ask me if I'm having a good time, especially in that tone of voice that suggests you are the soul of an over-excited puppy planted into the body of a human, as if in a hilarious inter-species body-swap film comedy that, as far as I know, has never yet been made, but I am totally claiming the idea now if it hasn't because that's box office gold, I am immediately NOT having a good time. Did you never read Just Seventeen? Don't you know that desperation isn't attractive? And, in the five minutes between basketball quarters, I don't want to dance to The Macarena in the hope that a roaming camera may project my mad dance skillz onto the big screen. I just want to sit and talk about the game with my friend, have a drink and, perhaps, go to the toilet (I promise to leave my seat to do this). Similarly, I don't care for playing invisible bongos or even, if I may go so far, actual bongos. NO TO BONGOS OF ANY KIND. This is top-level competitive sport, not Agadoo. What is this obsession with hyping everyone up to the point of nervous and laryngeal collapse, inciting the crowd to cheer louder? No, louder than that. Ooh now, I think you can do better. Now this grandstand. Now that grandstand. Now which grandstand is loudest? NO ONE CARES. IT'S THE OLYMPICS. EVERYONE IS ALREADY PRETTY BLOODY WELL PSYCHED WITHOUT YOUR HELP. JUST LEAVE US ALONE, CAN'T YOU?

I can also personally attest to the awkwardness of sitting next to a male stranger, with whom you have been making pleasant but functional small talk, when 'Kiss Cam' starts roaming around. 'No, it's OK. I've just dropped something down here. Yes, it does look uncannily like I'm hiding under my seat, doesn't it? How funny!' Sodding Kiss Cam! Poor old Pierre de Coubertin must be spinning. (And by this I mean the grave-swivelling outrage, not the exercise class.) Higher, faster, stronger, CRINGIER.

5. You can be patriotic and totally unpatriotic at the same time. Human beings are a rich and confusing species.
Here is a mystery in my life. I, absolutely the least fly woman in Europe, if not the world, can give an impassioned 100% earnest rendition of Grandmaster Flash's White Lines without flinching. I can karaoke the heck out of the most cringeworthy lines of Olivia Newton John's Physical ('I took you to an intimate restaurant... to a suggestive movie') or The Divinyls I Touch Myself without a hint of self-consciousness. Yet I find it impossible to sing God Save The Queen without feeling very uncomfortable and slightly embarrassed. At the same time, when I see a man dressed in this outfit, I want to give him a firm handshake and some kind of military salute.

This, like most things, worries me. I think I'm young enough, at 38, to still contest the following sports at Olympic level: golf, archery, fencing, sailing, shooting, equestrianing and triple jump (Yamile Aldama is 40). I will wear my team kit with huge pride. But what will I do on the podium when I inevitably win a gold medal? I will have to pretend that my lips are totally paralysed by Potent Victory Emotions. And does this anthem-aversion mean I am, like, the new Guy Fawkes or something? Probably not because I really like fireworks.

6. Long-distance mega-lens photos aren't always creepy and invasive.
Oh OK, they are. Having a friend in possesion of a swanky camera with a privacy-encroaching zoom is an absolute boon during the more pedestrian sections of the Closing Ceremony. Those cringey cover versions will simply fly past as you hunt down your favourite athletes and discover which international comrades they are having one final crack at before everyone goes home. In addition, it can transform your view of... oh I don't know, let's say Ryan Lochte, just for argument's sake, from this…

…to this

Photo courtesy of Mind Tidying
Technology truly is a wonderful thing.

7. The memories of merchandisers are short.
London 2012 Megastore! You can't reduce Daley Thompson, he's the greatest! Show some respect!

Mo Farah, some day you too will be in the bargain bin. Deal with it.

8. Volunteering is more like a proper job than any proper job I've ever actually had. 
 I mean, honestly, it was all pro-activity and initiative and concentration and application, and really hardly any sitting around having cups of teas and snacking and dicking around on the internet for hours at a time. Even though my role was a long way out of my comfort zone, Sir Alan, I truly loved being able to walk through the empty ExCel arenas after hours, feet sore, but spine tingling.

I loved being there when the corridors had turned from this…

…to this…

I loved sweet-talking the closing-up food concessions into selling me a late-night cup of tea, because – and I really can't stress this enough – the opportunities for idle tea-drinking were extremely limited, then smugly congratulating myself on my silky people skills, only to undermine any newly fostered goodwill by spilling milk all over their newly wiped down counter and having to slope off to the DLR feeling clumsy and sheepish.

And I'm fairly sure I loved going home so tired that I genuinely didn't know whether this particular sight was real or just a weary hallucination.

9. Always have your excuse handy.
If you are standing in the workforce toilets, wearing your volunteer uniform, attempting to take pictures of yourself in the mirror because you deludedly fancy that in your press bib, under the strip lightning, you bear a marked resemblance to Kate Adie in her flak jacket in a war-torn Middle Eastern country – but purple; really, really purple – it might be good to have some kind of sensible explanation ready in case someone walks in, instead of having to try and turn it into some elaborate hair-grooming ritual involving your iPhone.

I don't know what to do with my uniform now it's all over. Obviously I can't throw it away, or give it to charity or engineer any other parting. That would suggest I am something other than a sentimental, hoarding fool. But there is so much of it. And it's so synthetic (as one particularly maternal employee at the uniform pick-up said to me, in a voice that was pure Thora Hird, 'It doesn't breathe, but it washes like a dream'), it's surely a fire hazard to have it stacked up around the house. I'm hoping that if I put it into the oven, it might become like Shrinky Dinks and reduce dramatically in size until it's small enough that I can thread the individual pieces onto a charm bracelet.

10. It's OK to change your mind. Isn't it?
Not so long ago, the 2012 logo and cycloptic mascots were the worst things I had ever seen. Ugly. Unforgivable. An affront to this country's design industry. And now? Well, I seem to have bought this:

And this:

(As well as two Team GB rucksacks, a T-shirt, a set of Olympic-themed commemorative biscuit tins and two tea towels, but that's not important right now.) I can only attribute this about-turn in affection to what my friend Ms H one termed the Alan Hansen Effect, which dictates that given sufficiently intense exposure to a particular individual or object – say, during the endless TV coverage of a major international football tournament – one can develop profoundly warm feelings, possibly sexual, for them. (I loved Hansen from the start, by the way.)

11. The erotic potential of Greco-Roman wresling has been wildy under-estimated. By me, at least.
Here is what I learnt from watching the sport for the first time. I record my findings without comment.

If there has been no score after the second minute of a three-minute round, one of our two competitors gets to choose whether he goes 'top or bottom'. The wrestler who is 'bottom' gets down on all fours. The 'top' wrestler then mounts his opponent from behind and must attempt to 'turn' him while the crowd become increasingly enthused.

12. I am a pretty good bad photographer.
I love this picture.

Friday, 17 August 2012

A Late And Over-Emotional Response To The Recent Olympic Games, Containing Poor Reasoning And Little Fresh Insight

For well over two weeks now, I've had a heavy stone sitting in my stomach. And it is not just the late-night BK Whopper meal I ate on the way home from the Greco-Roman wrestling. BA-DUM!

It is because very soon [press play on the 100 Most Wistful Ballads In The World That Are Also Suitable For Soundtracking A Sporting Montage… Ever! CD about now] there will be a time when the London Olympics are not on the way, are not about to happen, are not happening. Only 12 days of Paralympic heroics remain between now and Normal Life flatlining ahead of us – a grey time when the person in the cubicle next to me in the toilets at St Pancras at 11pm is not audibly humming the music to Chariots Of Fire; a time when it doesn't seem perfectly run-of-the-mill to see a man eating lasagne and salad in the John Lewis cafe in full red, white and blue face paint and a matching bubble wig with a flag draped around his shoulders; a time when beaming strangers in red and purple manmade fibres do not queue up to high-five you just for sitting in a plastic seat for two hours or walking towards a train station in a peaceful crowd formation.

These four words I might have said in this blog more than any others: I love the Olympics. My heart, my soul, quite a lot of my inheritance… all this and more went into finding tickets. I've rarely worked harder at anything, apart from my Fox And The Hound sticker book in the early 80s (full up, no repeats). It baffles people – I am nothing if not a mercurial yet highly charismatic enigma – but there's really nothing I'd rather have spent my money on. Cars bore me and I have too many clothes (only lately, in moving house, have I come to the startling realisation that this is possible. Nothing quenches a passion like packing 105 coathangers). Australia is nice, so they say; Thailand too, but really I've only ever wanted to go to the Olympics. They're my round-the-world cruise, my all-inclusive five-star getaway with novelty cocktails on a lounger at sunset.

Sometimes people ask me what it is I love so much about the Olympics and I turn to them and say: 'WHAT A RIDICULOUS QUESTION. WHY ARE WE EVEN FRIENDS?'

It's simple: the Olympics has the best stories. Obsession, sacrifice, vengeance, loss, triumph and really attractive people in tight outfits. All happening at a high-pressure, odds-lengthening, last-chance-heavy interval of once every four years. And if you can't buy into that, you might want to ask yourself whether life as a member of the human race is really for you. The Olympics are Star Wars and Moby Dick. They might not quite be Romeo & Juliet – and Jason Kenny and Laura Trott are probably hoping that remains the case – but let's think of showjumper Scott Brash hoping his gold medal would help him pull women, and more epicly (yes, definitely a word, thanks) German weightlifter Matthias Steiner in Beijing, winning the gold medal he'd promised to his wife who died in a car accident a year before. Steiner took a photo of her on to the victory podium – watch, weep and do some GCSE German listening comprehension here.

During any other Olympics, I would have been developing sofa sores and square eyes, bingeing on the BBC, catching each highlights package at least three times until I could turn the sound off and provide the commentary myself verbatim. This time, I was there, Actually Literally There, for loads of it, seeing the Real Thing in front of me and in no other medium. On the middle weekend, and a rare day off, I went to a birthday barbecue where one friend surveyed my hollow eyes, unwashed clothing and sunburnt extremities and enquired whether I had actually been living feral in the Olympic Park. I had not, mostly because of all the excellent and thorough security measures that had been put in place to prevent this and, oh yes, because I HATE CAMPING – but it often felt like it. It was dreamlike. But not quite in the way I was expecting. I'm not sure whether it's an indication of my general grasp on reality, or whether I'm trying to say something profound about our relationship with the digital age – oh wait, no, it's not that; this is cheap sentiment and whimsical comparison; please move elsewhere for penetrating insight – but it's very strange that watching these events live somehow seemed less real than watching them on TV.

I saw a lot of incredible achievement, of the kind it is a privilege to share the same microclimate with, to eat over-priced tiny tubs of Pringles alongside, to shout raucously at in a voice you are surprised to find you own. Pure magic is happening in front of you, but if you have a suspicious nature like me, you doubt that you're really there witnessing it. On August 1st, I was at Eton Dornay watching Stanning & Glover (opticians? solicitors? New Faces double act?) win Britain's first gold medal. But on the way home, I barely thought of them. I did, however, think of the British men's eight crew. I couldn't stop. They had dismissed the prospect of a certain silver medal to gamble for gold, only to fall short and end up with utter despair – or bronze, as the madly competitive sometimes call it. I watched through my binoculars (only a little less creepy than it sounds) as they remained adrift in their boat a good 20 minutes after the event had finished, slumped forward with heads in hands, or lying back, prostrate with pain, eventually crawling on to dry land like they'd fought in a war. That did seem real – horribly so.

(Ideally, all the time Steve Redgrave spent on the water would have triggered a marine metamorphosis after he retired, transforming him into some kind of octopus – thus able to offer one arm to each member of the GB eight crew for hugging, holding up or back-rubbing anyone spewing off the end of the jetty. I guess evolution is not the miracle we all think.)

I know some people believe rowing to be strictly the preserve of poshos who only practise on the river in order to simultaneously do their training and pluck out swans for their servants to roast for lunch, but for me it is the perfect visual representation of the Olympics effort. Rowers are so utterly broken – physically sick and emotionally spent – by the end of their event that it is distressing just to watch. The winners have the perfect tonic of course, but everyone else? Well, if you tuned into the post-race interview with Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter, you will forever be haunted by the terrible, dark things you saw that day – it was, I would say, only marginally less harrowing than the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan. Those few minutes of agony seemed pretty real too. And I think it's because failure is probably more familiar to the majority than triumph. Most of us don't win, not in that way. We lead small lives, in jobs we tolerate, bumbling along. Maybe that's why the defeats resonated with me more than the victories. Or maybe I'm just quite miserable. It's probably that.

Of course, I feel guilty for questioning my experience of the triumphs I was lucky enough to see, for failing to fully absorb their scale and reality when they were right there in front of me. But when you've been waiting for something as long as I have (28 years, since Los Angeles), I think it's hard to make it truly meaningful when it finally happens. How can you possibly, definitively, drink every last bit in? I've heard people say this about their weddings, but I wouldn't know about that as I am an unmarried Daily Mail statistic.

But it's probably not good to over-analyse – which, for me, is like saying, 'Could you just try to ease up on the breathing in and out?' It's important not to examine those loud, bright moments of ecstacy too much in case you somehow rub all their gloss away, but I suppose you just have to know that they will somehow seep inside you and stay there, along with all the other good things that have ever happened in your life, ready to shore you up in grimmer times.

Farah, Ennis, Rutherford, Hoy, Grainger… they are the ones I will remember in 40 years' time, as I watch my worn-out Opening Ceremony DVD on repeat, Havisham-like, in my care home. Those who didn't come first, I suppose I may forget – along with my own name and where I live. Olympians, of course, have known this all along. I am just working it out.

Coming as soon as I get round it: My top xx [to be filled in when I've actually written it and counted them] first-hand Olympic memories, including cyclists in vests, anthem inhibition and references to the Teenage Fanclub song Tears Are Cool.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


I'm going to be taking a little holiday from blogging – not the now-habitual week or two between posts, I mean a proper holiday for a few months. Look on it as the blogging equivalent of going travelling, only I'll still be here in southeast London, trying to sell my flat and buy another one and execute various other tedious chores. I suspect once I've told myself – and you – that there'll be no blogging for a while, I won't be able to help myself, but who knows. Anything could happen. It's a thrill ride, in a flat, uneventful sort of a way

See you in a few months. I won't Forget You. That makes me sound like a cold-blooded, watchful killer, but no need to double-lock the door, it's just an excuse to post this:

When the blog returns, I'm definitely reintroducing Muppet Monday.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

On Marks & Spencer and their self-respect (slight return)

Oh Marks & Spencer. Have you not read my laments for your lost dignity? For your slightly self-conscious slide into twee packaging, alien brands and freshly flipped burgers?

No one even calls you St Michael any more.

A fresh blow, for me, is the latest self-checkout apparatus, where you must hurl your coins down a chute, just as though you were tossing pound coins into a pint glass in the kind of grubby public house I have never been in.

This coin orifice, it should be noted, lights up and flashes, as does the notes slot on the opposite side, like the embellished extremities of a brassiere at the Moulin Rouge.

I imagine.

In the interests of raising awareness of this grim spectacle, I have attempted to photograph it:

I have had to improvise with Photoshop to demonstrate the full effect, as the lights don't flash in synchronisation.

The Marks & Spencer of legend would have been slightly embarrassed about asking for your money, automatedly (yes, I'm totally sure this is definitely a word). The Marks & Spencer that would sooner have closed its doors for ever than allow a box of Kellogg's or a can of Coke into the stockroom would merely encourage the sober placing of cash in a brown envelope (provided) and the opening and closing of a hatch. Or better, the recorded voice of Stephen Fry (Nigel Havers if Fry's busy making a documentary about words somewhere warm and exotic) apologising profusely whenever an unexpected item finds its way into the bagging area. 'Oh, I know this is a terrible bind, but would you be a brick and pop that little soldier through the scanner again. Everything shipshape now? Oh, good show!'

Not this clattering of coins from a great height. Not this vulgar neon beckoning.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Little Crisp That Could… And Then Actually Couldn't

This is the view from my bedroom window.

The first thing you might think on seeing this picture is that our neighbours must produce a LOT of rubbish.

They do.

But another group of you will only have eyes for another part of the frame. Those people are the eagled-eyed potato-based-snack fanatics, and every civilisation has them.

In this instance, the quarry of this unique group of hunters is a Hula Hoop placed on top of the wall that divides us from our waste-profligate neighbours.

Let's stretch the zoom capabilities of the iphone camera to the farthest reaches of endeavour and take a closer look.

There's nothing so remarkable about this. I live on a busy road which, for a great many, is the route from public house to home, or school to leisure. Hula Hoop hi-jinx, you might say, are inevitable in such a situation.

But the wall is about seven feet tall.

And the Hula Hoop has been there for weeks. Petrified, potato-y weeks and weeks.

Quite alone, it has defended its post in the face of driving rain and high winds. On each of January's unforgiving nights, I have looked out of the window before going to bed, observing the frost on the cars, the litter on the driveway and the Hula Hoop on the wall.

And somehow it has stared down the famished foxes and cats of the neighbourhood, who clearly don't believe in not eating where they shit, because this is indeed where they shit.

The fortitude of this tiny, tenacious Hula Hoop only enforced my belief that it is the king of all crisps – its unbroken circle a ready-salted symbol of endurance that, coincidentally, is also perfectly engineered to be eaten off the fingers of five-year-olds at parties.

The foxes of this world are welcome to all the oven-baked, 'gourmet'-flavoured crisp innovations of the last 20 years if they will leave me perfect, plain Hula Hoops.

I see you and your strength, tiny crisp. And I will try to be a little more like you.

Together, I thought to myself, we will wait for the snow.

And then this morning I looked out of the window and noticed that the Hula Hoop had finally moved, just a couple of inches towards my house. And I could see quite clearly that it was a pebble.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Testing, testing...

Eagle-eyed readers will have noted from a previous post that I had a date with gymnastics last week.

Not competing, of course, although my floor routine to (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman is quite something, particularly the star-jump-into-forward-roll sequence, which is so spectacular I essentially repeat it for the duration of the programme. My marks for difficulty are, in general, heavily outweighed by those for performance, but what performance! If your living room carpet is vast enough, I'd be more than willing to pop over and demonstrate. Please ensure I cannot bump my head on the coffee table or similar. I am extremely litigious.

No, this was, of course, one of the Olympic test events at the North Greenwich Arena. Not the O2 Arena. Oh no. The Olympics does not recognise O2 as a valid sponsor. If you say the words O2 repeatedly in the presence of Lord Coe or one of his LOCOG droids, they spin round on the spot as smoke and springs are propelled from their featureless middles while they emit the words 'Happy Meal! Happy Meal!' at ever-increasing pitch and volume until your ears bleed.

Anyway, look, it's a bit like being at the Olympics but with far less people there, they're presumably hoping.

Aren't you wildy excited? Luckily, LOGOC have sought to quell your rabid enthusiasm by lighting the arena so brightly as to remind one of a friend's brand-new kitchen extension, or some kind of deeply unethical laboratory, thus creating all the atmosphere associated with the latter.

Here you can see the competitors for the rings event lining up, along with the lady who leads them on their march into the arena and carries a sign bearing the name of the event. 

Perhaps you think that this lady and her sign look a little blandly presented, and that this is an effect caused by my poor photography skills or the bleachingly harsh lighting? Well, one out of two ain't bad, as Meatloaf initially wrote, before a surer grasp of fractions prompted a rewrite. My photography is, on this rare occasion, not to blame.

No one is suggesting any more money than is strictly necessary should be spent on these events; no one is suggesting this lady should wear a spangly leotard and feather headdress and write out the name of the event in the air with burning sparklers as she enters on stilts, but perhaps we could have aimed a little higher than the look of a volunteer who didn't have time to change her clothes after finishing her temping job at HSBC (luckily she'd found time to print out the signs – Times Roman, A4 – during her lunch-hour).

However, it wasn't entirely a razzamatazz vacuum. There was a brief moment of magic as the gymnasts marched on to music that was Star Wars-esque – or, perhaps, actually from Star Wars. I'm not big on the sci-fi classics. Iconic, rousing theme music soundtracking the parades and presentations at the Games? This is an idea I could get behind, but John Williams is American. We need something resolutely British. Perhaps the estate of the late Ronnie Hazlehurst could licence a reworking of the Are You Being Served? theme tune to introduce all the apparatus as the gymnasts walk on ('Beam, floor and pommel horse; vault and uneven bars; coming up!')

All this would have been entirely lost on the lady sitting two seats away from me, however, who had apparently seen the evening as an opportunity to catch up on her emails. We're all busy people, after all.

Luckily, when the national anthems were being played for the victors, she did have the good grace to stand up and respectfully lower the lid of her laptop slightly. 

Perhaps she and her partner were working on a modern art project where they act out scenes from disappointing romcoms in public places. Here, of course, they are giving their take on the sequence from the US Fever Pitch remake The Perfect Catch, where Drew Barrymore's character takes her laptop to the Red Sox game and, in failing to focus on the game, ends up knocked out by a flying baseball. This, I realise, is unlikely to happen in artistic gymnastics, but at the rhythmic disciplines (taking place on another evening) my seat-neighbour could well have been concussed by a club thrown with impressive strength but sub-standard levels of accuracy. I must confess I would have been sad to miss that.

Maybe she was just bored. Let me tell you, if anyone sitting next to me at the Actual Olympics is doing their admin instead of paying full attention, I am going to KICK OFF.

In other gymnastics news, I have worked out how to make my fortune, and that is by creating a leotard that does not immediately seek out the innermost reaches of one's backside. 

Also, I could totally do this:

I just choose not to.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Oh Christmas tree...

(or 'In Which Old Posts Rewrite Themselves')

Some sights that gladden my heart as I walk across Trafalgar Square on my way to the workplace:

1) groups of tourists circling the strange, bright ugliness of the Olympic countdown clock with a mixture of intrigue and confusion. (I am very adept at reading strangers' faces. It's one of my many gifts, along with being able to guess the phrase on Wheel Of Fortune before they've filled in a single letter.) How did it get here? What does it mean? Who is responsible? Basically, all the questions one might apply to Stonehenge, with any trace of wonder or admiration removed. Had the design been up to me, it would have been a giant effigy of Daley Thompson's face, with his moustache gradually lighting up like a Blue Peter charity-appeal totaliser the nearer we get to 27th July 2012.
2) the snaking queues of cold people (physically, not emotionally – they all look quite approachable actually) hoping for day tickets to the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery. Sometimes I think it would be nice if a security guard just unhooked one of the smaller works of art from the wall and walked up and down the queue with it, giving the waiting punters an insight into the kind of thrills that were going on inside, and how all this standing around outside with mittens and a styrofoam cup of tea would be Totally Worth It. I've seen something like this done with a plate of anipasti outside Jamie's Italian, although it should be made clear to the future patrons of the National Gallery that it's not acceptable to eat the art.

However, on Thursday morning, I saw something that did not gladden my heart. Instead, and I'm paraphrasing the Eurythmics here, it left quite a chill.

Poor, poor Trafalgar Square Christmas tree, naked and fallen. Such an undignified end to a glamorous career. Couldn't they could have smuggled her away under cover of darkness and undressed her somewhere a little more private, instead of stripping her bare at 9.30 in the morning in front of an  audience of commuters, tourists and shivering art scholars? She's like an ageing actress from the golden era of Hollywood whose wig has been snatched away, revealing a lost little old lady underneath. Only greener and pinier. And so thin! A once-full figure now emaciated from a lifetime devoted to entertaining others (or from being urinated on by idiots in the early hours of New Year's Day).

I like tradition as much as the next fool – mince pies are great, for example; also, carols; burning witches, less so – but I think I have identified a fundamental flaw in one of our oldest social rituals. January needs an antidote to its dark hours and back-to-work gloom and dashed resolutions. January needs romance. January needs glitter and promise. So what do we do? In its earliest days, we tear down the decorations and turn out the twinkling lights that help make the previous month so exciting we actually believe red and white fun-fur hats are a valid style choice.

We go out of our way to highlight how drab our homes and streets look for most of the year.
Brothers and sisters, I'm saying to you that I want the Christmas decorations to stay up for ALL OF JANUARY. I might be calling this campaign Keep January Jazzy! Or Keep! January! Jazzy!

I'm probably not.
But imagine that first month being full of looming, lit-up, giant snowmen right from day 1 to 31. Wouldn't this say, 'Look a new year full of fabulous flashing lights and shiny baubles, which you may use as a clumsy metaphor for all the bright, shiny things that could be part of your future' instead of 'Look, once you take the tinsel down, here's a new year just as dark and shitty as the last. And that crack in the plaster over the mantelpiece is still there.'

With K!J!J! (OK, I am), when the decorations do finally come down on January 31st, you can say, 'So, 2012 then. We're already a month in, and it isn't so bad, is it? I actually think I might be able to struggle on.'

I don't know who decreed that the fun should stop on Twelfth Night. I mean, I guess I could look it up, but it's late and I'm tired. Whoever it is, I will take them on. I say this in the certain knowledge that they're dead and can't physically hurt me.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Dear diary

Do you ever feel as though you might be stuck in a rut? That the days are toppling like dominoes, each shaped so much like the one before, and what is going to change? WHAT IS EVER GOING TO CHANGE?

No, nor me. Absolutely not. Shut off the alarm clock because today is a brand new adventure and I can't wait to climb back on the thrill ride! I'm not even going to wear my seatbelt! Will I have blueberries on my porridge? Or will it be raspberries? My god, I have never felt more alive!

And yet. When I bought my 2012 diary several months ago – naturally, I needed to buy early, the sooner to fill in my hectic new-year timetable of risks that needed taking, rulebooks I would be tearing up and cutting edges I was scheduled to live on, as well as book group, of course – it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, the rut had me after all.

Never mind my innate sloth and failure to apply myself. It was clearly my diary, with its ongoing sequels, that was dragging me down.

Year after year, I've realised, I am living with the Police Academy of personal organisers. But it doesn't make the noise of a helicopter when I open it.

I am trying to tell myself, of course, that the latest diary is not totally identical to the others. For one thing, it is a quite different colour, but only because it has yet to acquire a grimy coating of eyeliner, burst banana and other, unindentified handbag excretia. It is only January 2, after all.

But I love the space it gives me. Space is so important in a relationship, don't you think? Just the right amount that my modest number of social engagements doesn't look like a modest number of social engagements. And observe, below, the blank right-hand page, whose lines are just the right distance apart to make your handwriting look far tidier than it really is, on which you can list all your tasks to accomplish during the week ahead.

Then, on Sunday, when you have failed to accomplish any of them, you can turn over and write them out again on the next week's corresponding blank page. It's important to cross each item out as you rewrite it on the next page, as this provides you with the sense that you have actually achieved each of your objectives, a useful shot in the arm for one's self-esteem.

The thing is, it always come back to this. Me and the red Moleskine weekly notebook (pocket size) are right for each other. If that's boring, then call me Steve Davis*.

I bought the new diary in that specialist travel bookshop on Long Acre, a place that reminds you that the world is really very small, with its furthest reaches only a 300-page guidebook away. Still, I only ever seem to go in there for diaries and birthday cards. The lady who served me remarked on how organised I was buying my diary so far ahead. I told her it was my third year with the same make and model, and expressed my fear that this hinted at a fundamental stasis in my existence, but she said I should save the excitement in my life for the really important things.

She was talking about breakfast, right?

I thought so.

(*I love Steve Davis.)