Tuesday, 8 July 2014

In which I object to other people's bad manners

I’m a fan of manners. Not a stickler, definitely, yet still erring more on the side of Debretts than Danny Dyer. Pleases, thank yous and a general sense of consideration for other people’s feelings do, I find, go a long way. And it grates - in varying degrees - when other people don’t afford me the same basic courtesy.

Given events, The Writer and I recently decided something of an impromptu celebration was in order. We ordered up on the booze, knocked together a few canapĂ©s and opened our doors to the people who would be able to make engagement drinks at our flat with some 72 hours’ notice.

Most people were delight personified. We were overwhelmed with kindness, cards that are still running the length of the bar in the kitchen, presents galore and more booze than we thought we could shake a stick at (spoiler: we can apparently shake a pretty thorough stick).

The night was brilliant - full of fun, friends, shrieking, fizz, people trying on the ring, laughter, more fizz, a small dog, more fizz and a late night round of Cards Against Humanity.

But there was just one thing that left a disappointingly sour taste.

About two thirds of the way through the night, I went to the loo to pee and touch up my eyeliner to find crystalline white powder all over the back of the cistern, and along the seat. I rolled my eyes, dusted it off and hoped for the best.

Then, on repeated trips, I found it again, laid along the length of the shelf in front of the mirror and then, clearly in a fit of decadent, wanton abandon and want of a bigger surface area, all over the end of the bath.

I’m not naive. A lot of our friends are bright young things in London’s politics and media scenes: recreational diversions at parties is not what you’d call unheard of. Hell, those of particularly long blog-reading memory will vividly remember the ex with the rather serious habit. It’s not something that’s new to me.

And yet, it remains something I deeply, deeply dislike; it’s never something that’s become acceptable, and the discovery riled in a way that few other things could.

If other people feel the need to take the stuff - at parties, in bars, at work, on a Tuesday lunchtime - that’s their lookout. But I don’t do it myself, I don’t like it and I really don’t like that other people would do it in my home, at a party to celebrate my engagement, and then, as if that’s not all deeply rude enough, not bother to clean up after themselves.

Manners cost nothing. But coke all over someone’s bathroom can come at the cost of a friendship.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

In which I read through May and June

I slacked off writing these up last month, but this is what I've read over the last eight weeks or so, in one bumper edition.

15. Title: Life After Life
Author: Kate Atkinson
Recommended by: everyone on the planet and bought from Amazon
Read: 30 April - 6 May
Score: 5/10

Much like a sticker announcing a book has been selected by the Richard and Judy Bookclub is an excellent indicator to avoid it, I refuse to read anything that wins the Costa Prize ever, ever again. There was so much hype about this book, and so many accolades poured on it that I assumed it was a sure-fire brilliant read. Essentially Sliding Doors set in the war, it tells the story of Ursula, how she's born and how she dies, over and over again. It could have been brilliant (the film, I adore). It wasn't - mostly, I think, due to the writing which is clunky, and the story and characters are occasionally overly reliant on hindsight, which never fails to get on my tits. I'm in a minority of, at last count, three people who really didn't like this book. Maths suggests you may, but I can't in a clear conscience recommend it.

16. Title: Dept. of Speculation
Author: Jenny Offill
Recommended by: @photogirluk and the lovely Megan at TIME who gave me her copy.
Read: 6 - 8 May
Score: 9/10

This little book contains so much love and grief and insight and originality that it's hard to know quite how to describe it. Essentially the story of a marriage, but written like no other book you've read. Gorgeous, heartbreaking and brilliant. Read it.

17. Title: The Woman Upstairs
Author: Claire Messud
Recommended by: The New York Times last year and bought from Amazon.
Read: 8 - 11 May
Score: 7.5/10

God, this is an angry, angry book. If you liked Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal, this is one for you. Nora is a primary school teacher with an aging father and an unfulfilled desire to be an artist, and her life is upturned by the family of a new student. There are some very valid issues raised in the book - how society treats single women, why it's generally women who have to choose between the role of care-giver and career to name just two - but the sense of anger throughout is so overwhelming that the aftertaste is hugely unsettling. Worth a read.

18. Title: Goodbye to All That
Author: Robert Graves
Recommended by: chosen as the book for May's London Book Club and bought second-hand from Amazon
Read: 11 - 20 May
Score: 8/10

This wasn't a universally popular LBC choice, but I loved it. It's one of the classic war texts, and being so familiar with the books and the films these days, it's fascinating to imagine the effect that the visceral descriptions of trench life that this book must have had when it was published. Graves is a deeply flawed human being, but that doesn't take away from the telling of the utterly dehumanising experiences that he witnessed as a young man, who remains the voice of a lost generation.

19. Title: Easter Parade
Author: Richard Yates
Recommended by: @flamingnora and bought from Amazon
Read: 22 - 30 May
Score: 8/10

Gosh, this is a bleak, bleak book. It focuses on the relationship between two sisters and their tragic lives. The writing is so pure and elegant that the tragedy shines through all the clearer. If you liked Revolutionary Road, this is one for you.

20. Title: Tampa
Author: Alissa Nutting
Recommended by: The New York Times and bought from WH Smith at London Kings Cross
Read: 1 - 10 June
Score: 8/10

Well this was an eye opener. The NYT claimed this book about a young, hot teacher seducing her teenage pupils was one of their 'books to read' a while ago, that it was clever and funny and controversial and a must-read. I would say it's definitely shocking, and maybe funny once you get into it, but if you are going to read it, don't do it on the tube. It's not as clever and biting as Lolita but it definitely has shock value.

21. Title: Wolf Hall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Recommended by: just about everyone and bought from Foyles at Waterloo
Read: 12 - 28 June
Score: 9/10

Despite studying Cromwell for A-level history and having a long-lasting fascination with both the Tudors and Mantel's writing (Beyond Black is a dark and creepy marvel), I've been putting off Wolf Hall for years, mainly because of the size. But, having got through The Luminaries and having a three hour train journey to the West Country to get through for work, I picked this up at the station and got stuck in. And I'm so glad I did. It's gorgeously crafted epic that will leave you wanting ever more detail and intrigue about the court of the tyrant and those who served him. Bring Up the Bodies is next on the list.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

In which I have a really good Tuesday

It was a Tuesday. It didn’t have much to distinguish it from any other Tuesday. Oh, except the fact it was our anniversary.

Most of my day was eaten up on a work trip: I spent hours on a train heading Oop North for a meeting that lasted considerably less than the hours I then spent on a train heading back to London. By the time I’d got back into Kings Cross, I was thoroughly glad we were going out for a celebratory dinner, partially because I’d accidentally managed to spend the whole day powered only by a single fat-free yoghurt.

In the back of the cab to Polpetto, where The Writer and I had our first date three years ago, I deployed the super-power belonging to everyone who attended a girls’ school, and changed seamlessly from work jacket and trousers to dress and heels without showing one’s tits to the driver and half of Soho.

We ate our way through a completely delicious dinner, as is the only Polpetto way, of gin fizzes, toasted focaccia, burrata and samphire, crab linguine,  goats’ curd and beetroot, chocolate flan and more red wine than was probably advisable on an average Tuesday.

I eschewed TW’s suggestion of a cab as too extravagant for a Tuesday, even an anniversary Tuesday, and we got on the tube.

Back at the flat, I unpinned my hair and mad a made dash to wrap up the last of TW’s anniversary presents that had arrived that morning.

“Come over here a minute,” he said, leaning against the sofa as I battled with the Sellotape.

“Hang on,” I flustered. “Just let me finish this.”

“Look, I think you should turn around.”

Something in TW’s voice made me put down the wrapping paper and turn to face him. He reached out his arms and pulled me towards him.

“I love you,” he said, “and want to spend the rest of my life with you. So there’s a question I want to ask you.”

My heart stopped and my eyes welled up as he crouched onto one knee and reached inside his jacket pocked to produce a sparkling sapphire ring.

“Will you marry me?”

I wish I could say I responded with calm and grace and dignity. I didn’t. I cried, shrieked and cried a bit more; threw in a “what the holy fuck do you think you’re doing?!” and kept crying. Smooth as sandpaper, me.

In amongst the tears, though, I managed to utter a “yes” as he slipped the ring onto my finger.

Best. Tuesday. Ever.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

In which what you want might not look how you expect it to

Three years ago my life was turned completely upside down.

I didn’t expect it to be. And I nearly didn’t let it happen.

The first clichĂ© is that love comes crashing into your life when you stop looking for it. The second is that you so rarely know exactly what you want that you’re in danger of not letting it in when it does appear.

I’d been dating for a long, long time. There were some mediocre men and some shockers; some who bruised my heart around the edges and some who didn’t capture it at all; some who turned out not to be what they first appeared, and one who took me on a first date to Strada and made me sit through such a miserable hour that he single-handedly inspired me to give up on the whole sorry project.

When I gave up on dating, I meant it. I was genuinely happy with my own company, and would far rather be by myself than I would waste my time sitting through endless dinners with men I had little in common with and no inclination to get to know better. I had a job, a home, my friends and family, and didn’t feel that I needed a relationship to improve my life. 

And then, out of the blue, The Redhead suggested I go for a drink with her former flatmate - “you both love a good balsamic vinegar,” she said, “you’ll have the most middle-class friendship ever.”

So I did. I didn’t think too much about it, wasn’t wearing anything special… And had the best first date - nay, any date - that anyone anywhere has ever been on. I still have to pinch myself sometimes in order to believe it was real. I fell, hard, in a few hours, for a man I thought I was meeting for a friendly, nothing-else-to-it drink.

But even when I had fallen, hard, for the man who was about to change my life, I nearly missed out because love didn’t look exactly how I expected it to.

I think we all have a picture in our minds of the person we’ll end up with - a rough, pencil sketch even if we can’t picture the details - and sometimes that rough sketch is more guided by what we assume other people’s expectations are for us than those which we hold for ourselves.

The sketch in my mind was tall - but not a foot and a half taller than I am. He was intelligent and articulate and warm and witty and kind. But he wasn’t a journalist (if I’m brutally honest, he had a more lucrative job). He wasn’t allergic to cats (how could he be?!). He read the Sunday Times, not the Observer, and his politics reflected that.  And he most certainly wasn’t younger - much younger - than me.

I can admit now that I had a wobble. Publicly. In front of The Writer, on our second date, halfway up Goodge Street. A wobble about whether this was the right thing to do - and whether it was the right time to do it... Was this really what I wanted, who I wanted, was it the right time to want it?

And then I stopped thinking, stopped letting the wobble in all its total ridiculousness get to me, and went with it. I let myself fall.

And I’ve spent the last 1,095 days being so, so glad I did.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

In which there's absolutely no escape from the curse of football

Football in Britain isn't so much a national game as a national obsession.  It's about as easy to escape as that other British obsession - the weather (the weather itself, that is. Not just the media coverage of it), and it takes up far more airtime, column inches and collective British headspace than any sport has a right to.

I'm not a fan. I never have been. The closest I come to caring about it is when a result one way or the other might put a dampener on The Writer's afternoon. I don't think it's particularly odd that I'm not bothered about it, just as I wouldn't expect everyone to be endlessly fascinated by three day eventing (although why wouldn't you be? These people perfect three disciplines and then persuade a half ton beast with a mind of its own to join in. That's skill).

But the difference with equestrianism in general is that if you couldn't care less about it, you needn't ever be troubled by it. It's restricted to specialist press - sometimes it doesn't even make the sports pages. It certainly doesn't get anywhere near the air time it should given that the British are currently no 1 in the world rankings in all three disciplines.

But I don't appear to have that luxury as someone who couldn't give a plagued rat's ass about the ins and outs and who's bitten whoms and rumours and speculations and transfers that makes up the endless footballing fodder for the British media.

There is not one mainstream media channel I can turn to safe in the knowledge that it won't shove football down my throat. The Today programme was breathless in its fervour to cover the resignation of Alex Ferguson. ITV shows European football on weeknights on their flagship channel. The Times produce whole pull outs devoted to the bloody industry.

And there's no let up. If it's not the season, there's a transfer window. Or a European championship. Or a World fucking Cup from which none of us can hide and even Radio bloody 4 is using as a hook for its summer programming. Surely it can't be so universally popular as to merit such blanket coverage? 

And yes, I understand that there's an industry behind the sport. But there's an industry behind every sport. And as important a business as football might be to the British economy, so is BAE Systems and we don't have them shoved down our gagging throats at every available opportunity.

All I want is one mainstream outlet where I can go to read or listen to or watch the news and current affairs (you know, the stuff that actually matters) where I won't have football thrust at me. Just one. Failing that, I'll just have to spend the summer watching the Weather Channel.

Friday, 9 May 2014

In which I come back from Narnia

I love my life in London. I have a job that I genuinely enjoy and find fulfilling, working with people I like and respect. I live in a small but pretty little flat, with the man that I adore. We both have a short commute (the importance of which isn’t to be understated) into work from an area of the city we enjoy living in.

Matisse's Cutouts at TATE Modern
I have a large circle of friends who are always around for cocktails and parties or lunchtime burritos. I have the world’s best culture on the doorstep - and a dazzling array of the more mainstream culture when we’re in need of that too (thus proved in a week in which The Writer and I saw both Matisse at Tate Modern, and The Other Woman at the Streatham Odeon).

A recent evening food market in Brixton
We have the world’s best restaurants down the street, and we're more likely to have dinner at a local food market than we are to order Domino’s. We can wander through Trafalgar Square at midnight; and my walk to the office takes in some of London’s most gorgeous buildings and the world’s best-known landmarks.

And yet coming back to London on the train from Home County always makes me feel a bit like a Pevensie crashing back from Narnia: a mixture of melancholy and an acceptance of the knowledge that reality isn’t quite as magical as the alternative.

Bluebells at the local manor house
I spent the Easter weekend and most of the following week with Ma and Pa Blonde in their house in the furthest reaches of Home County, and it was a week full of maximum Home County goodness.

There was a mountain of Pa Blonde-cooked food (including an excellent mango cheesecake) and we ate home-grown asparagus half an hour after it was hand-cut from the ground. 

Colin, concentrating on hunting an
erstwhile bit of string
I spent quite a lot of time helping Pa in the garden (shovelling two tonnes of manure onto raised beds was something I could have done without, but the subsequent - and very strong - gin and tonic tasted delicious), and when we weren’t working, we drank a lot of champagne sitting on the lawn and doing the crossword - or just enjoying the sunshine.

Best Mate and I took a trip to the local manor house and wandered around the farm and gardens, taking in big lungfuls of peony and eyefuls of bluebell (and the occasional pig).
British Lop, waiting for elevenses
Most mornings I went up to the yard and played with a variety of ponies: Luna, who challenged me more than most, Delila the hunter who gave me a good fast gallop over the fields, and Pippa the new Connemara with whom I enjoyed far more gentle canters along woodland tracks when I’d coaxed her past the dustbins and Royal Mail vans that clearly contained monsters (quite why the herd of alpacas wasn’t scary, I don’t know).

And when I wasn’t doing all that, I was playing with and hugging Colin, who’s grown fat and contented at the spoiling hand of Pa Blonde.

Pippa's ears on one of our hacks
Whether I was waking up in the morning listening to a cacophony of birdsong, or riding down farm tracks looking at deer and hearing nothing but hooves underneath me, it was hammered home that however fabulous life in London is, however much culture and sparkle and glitz that the city can throw at me, I’ll be beside myself with joy when I can finally step back through the wardrobe and end up in the country - which for me, will always be magic.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

In which you need to ask for someone's number to call them

Flirting with an attractive chap: all good fun*. Having someone ask you for your number: often flattering. Having someone text you having got hold of your number through means other than directly asking you: creepy and stalkerish and just shouldn't happen. If you have neither the guts nor the manner to ask a woman directly, you have neither the guts nor the manners to date her.

Recently, The Redhead went to get her hair cut. She came out of the salon with that very specific, and sadly all too uncommon, feeling that you get when you've found a new hairdresser who's done wonderful things to your hair.

Then, a few hours after leaving the salon, she gets this: 

Which was followed a few weeks later by Nimko Ali, one of the women who's done such incredible work recently campaigning against FGM, tweeting that the taxi driver who had driven her home from an interview with the BBC had since texted her to ask her out.

Both are not only in total contravention of the Data Protection Act, they're completely morally unacceptable.

While everyone might use a Post-it note at work to write the occasional personal shopping list, there's a marked difference between doing so and going through a corporate database of customers' personal details in order to find a number and ask them out.

The discomfort that must come in knowing that someone who finds you attractive enough to make an unwanted advance knows where you live is, I imagine, extreme.

There is nothing wrong with finding someone attractive and asking to get to know them. But how you go about it is critical. And not to have the courage to ask them directly in a situation where they have the chance to see who you are, be able to put you in context, and have a chance to feel safe while they're doing it is horrid and creepy and stalkerish.

It smacks of the same old problem of not treating women as people - as seeing them somehow as 'other'. Shyness is all very well, but it should never be an excuse for the total disregard of someone's feelings and their privacy.

If you want someone's number, ask them for it. Man up. 

(*Not something I'd ever think of doing, TW, in case you're reading. Other than in cases where I need to in order to get something done. See: served at a bar, free coffee at Pret, something tricky from a colleague etc. Obviously.) 

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