Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Playing up

Here it is upon us again. New Year's Eve. That went fast didn't it?

Rather than feeling daunted, I find I am quite addicted to the hopefulness of setting goals - something many of you will no doubt be torturing yourselves with today. Why must we make it such an ordeal?

Last year's resolution was to 'be crafty'. I'm sat here now, one year later, guiltily glancing at the Make Your Own Pompoms set that still lies untouched in a Bloomindales bag on the floor - well, at least they have enjoyed a chic 12 months.

I don't know about you, but I don't really have the imagination to be imaginative. I need a tour guide. It was the hardy estate-agent-cum-craftswoman, Kirstie Allsopp, who guided me into the world of pompom crafts. I couldn't have done it alone.

Despite this handicap I think it important, really important, that we let our creativity run free every once in a while - even those of us aren't quite gifted enough to create without a kit. Or without copying someone else. I love copying. I did it religiously as a child and I do it still. But what's wrong with that? All I'm doing is flexing a muscle. And while that muscle gets some exercise, the others in my brain can switch off. With this in mind I think my plan for 2015 will be, simply, To Play. 

We forget to play as we become adults. It's not our fault - we don't have the time when there are so many more pressing, important and boring things to attend to. Things that absorb all of our time and head space. But this is exactly why remembering how to play is so important.

Remember the invigoration that came from childhood play? The total abandon. The thrill at discovery. This is the stuff that keeps us going. Helps to fill the hole that creeps open as we age and the fun sort of dries up, becomes very much expected.

Of course, there are those humans for whom surprise is their raison d'etre. The kind that throw themselves at challenges in far flung locations, like white water rafting in places that have... I don't know... white water? Those who do something noble like volunteering in Africa.

But for the less adventurous and admittedly more lazier and, well, timid of us - there is play. Good old-fashioned messing about. MFI springs to mind. Yes, the furniture store. I've never visited an MFI as an adult, but as a child - oh! The fun my sister and I had! Allowed to roam free around the store as my parents browsed kitchen units stressfully. We acted out mini melodramas in secluded kitchens. Hid from the adults in bedroom wardrobes. Fondled the pretend fruit. Bounced on the beds when no-one was looking. Pretended to be pretend home furniture. It was such a treat, going to MFI. It is within the walls of this store only that I have imagined being a housewife.

Whenever life gets tough, or incredibly dull, I think back to those gentle MFI adventures. Go and hide in the bedroom for a while, behind the door. Play out a little story in my head.

Play must lurk like this in my subconscious somewhere, because without me even realising what I was doing for Christmas this year I got my boyfriend stuff that will enable him to make his own watch. Luckily, he does actually want to make his own watch. Now.

There he is in the corner, soldering wires together. Having a blast. Bigger projects are already emerging - a torch. More ambitiously, a light up table. Who knows where his imagination will take him.

And that's the point isn't it - why not wake up your inner child next year? Play up - you deserve it.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Boy bands never did me any harm

I was unexpectedly reminded of something moving and transporting the other day - the enduring power of the Christmas-number-one-single. 

Not any of this new crap. Sorry One Direction, but I'm going to have to deride you again. For those who have blissfully avoided this year's contender, let me enlighten you: "Everybody wanna steal my girl / Couple billion in the whole wide world / Find another one 'cause she belongs to me"


No, I'm talking about the old crap. The kind we went to great pains to access. Simply clicking your music to your ears from the comfort of your bed / sofa? Pah! Remember the thrill of going into an actual shop and parting with actual cash to get your hands on - literally - a physical thing? Followed by gluing your ears to the radio (yes, radio) on a Sunday afternoon for the Top 40 Chart Show. Waiting breathlessly to learn if your heroes had made it to the dizzy heights of Christmas number one single. (They often did, by the way.) Choosing and buying your Christmas number one single was a real commitment. An event. 

I was reminded of such festivities last week when, out of nowhere (well, ok - out of a YouTube Christmas playlist - but aren't we all doing this now?), I was taken aback by the unmistakeable opening chimes of Westlife's 1999 Christmas hit 'I Have A Dream'. Uncontrollably, I was  overwhelmed by an adrenaline rush. I actually flushed. This was obviously embarrassing - I was a little too old to be enjoying a boy band when the song first came out, never mind 15 years later. It was a genuinely weird moment because I felt so far removed from those emotions, that way of being, that time now. But it was made all the more embarrassing because I was in public at the time. Well, in front of my boyfriend who had so far been spared my reaction to Westlife

But I couldn't help it. That song immediately transported me back to sitting square-eyed in front of the television in my parent's bedroom, where my sister and I would sit for hours and hours watching The Box (the channel...we're not that old) where they aired the video on repeat for a whole hour. They did that with '2 Become 1' in 1996 too. 

Looking back, it was probably one of the most exciting times of my life.

Because - I don't know if this is just for girls - innocently obsessing over a celebrity / band of celebrities / media personality is, for some, a way of being. It certainly was for me in a (long) period of my life. Boy bands probably made me the person I am today. No, really. I was the only one in my group of friends who did this obsessing, but where I was removed from our reality they became caught up in the grotty-ness of it. The fags, the disgusting sex, the vodka, the abortions. There is escapism, even protection in obsession. The pull of glossy media personalities in comparison to the reality of north Birmingham society is obviously irresistible. But, more importantly, the abandon, hope, fantasy, excitement, the romance (in your head) - it all keeps you going. It's hard to get any of that from real life. Unless you're into dangerous sports...which I'm not. Nor drugs. So, imagination it is.

Never did me any harm.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Never had a pet

As the title of this post suggests, I have never had a pet. That's right - never. Not even a goldfish? No.

At this point people usually look at me with raised eyebrows. Friends and colleagues I have known for years are shocked to learn this about me. Some take an involuntary step back, as though this must mean I am a dangerous sociopath.

Because not having had a pet is a little unusual in today's society, isn't it? And with good reason - even I am aware of how the little furries can make our lives better and more bearable. Having a pet can help tackle loneliness and depression. Then there are the obvious benefits that dog walking has on your cardiac health. Not only that, some pets can even warn owners of cancers and diabetes. They can help children (and grumpy adults) develop empathy. Overall, you could argue pets make you a better human.

But I've never missed not having a pet, if that syntax makes sense. Until, that is, last year - when my boss got a dog. Before Molow I was mostly just terrified of dogs. Nearly two years on I am still terrified yet also fascinated by them. I'm afraid this new-found fascination doesn't extend to all pet-animals. Sorry cat lovers and pigeon fanciers. It's all about the dogs.

Growing up, my parents vetoed pets. Having one was never on the cards. My mother's harrowing childhood pet experience with Bingo the rabbit's demise explained it. Not that I knew this at the time. And not that this pet absence bothered me in any way (terrified, remember?) Plus there's the mess, which I hate. And the general sense of responsibility, which I hate more. So, maybe my parents just didn't trust me with a small, helpless, messy animal. Wise.

But perhaps because I had been told I couldn't, the desire to try out having a pet inevitably popped up at several points in my formative years. There was the year I toyed with the idea of wanting a dog - purely because the local library had a picture book all about how to care for your pet puppy. I must have taken that bloody book out more than twenty times in that year. Then there is my enduring favourite of all the Disney films - 101 Dalmatians. Irresistible. I pictured us all living with a bevy of dogs under our roof. The image didn't quite fit. When my friends got dogs, Trixy and Barney, I became chief tummy stroker after my initial terror eventually wore off (we're talking several years here). All this was nice, but I still didn't want one for myself. Very much like my attitude towards children.

Then came Molow. The hairy, climbing, talking, snogging, ball-stealing bitch of the common, as she is affectionately known in her neighbourhood. Molow who looks like an old man but is really a young woman in disguise. Scruffy and actually mad, she confirms that dogs really do take after their owners, and I can now personally vouch for the benefits of having a pet despite never having one. Molow comes into the office on an almost-daily basis. She is a mind-reader and relaxes the team at times of great stress, lifting the mood in dull meetings with timely grunts and sighs. Alerting us back to the important reality of barking at squirrels and ball-throwing at times when we are at risk of getting caught up in the stress.

Once terrified to leave my desk should she mount me, here I am now bringing in homemade smoked salmon and cream cheese muffins for Molow. Still, our relationship so far is confined to the office and it's little garden. When I build up to taking her for a walk (there's a risk she and I will both be elderly by this point), maybe I will find myself making that next step and actually wanting a Molow of my own? Who knows. 

At least then I will finally be able to create an accurate porn star name. Relying on that of your mother's dead rabbit isn't quite right...

That's all, folks

Bingo Pendrey

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lighten up

I am unashamedly moved by Christmas lights. Sometimes to the point of actual tears. Lights in general, really. Street lamps casting their eerie glow in this autumnal (or should that be wintery) fog. The less subtle sugary glare of neon shop signs, arcade games and pencils that light up when you write. The pop of those fairy lights that people string around their gardens. They all provoke a reaction in me. Maybe it's part of growing up in the city. The lights signal home.

So as you can imagine, this time of year is a particularly emotional one for me. Whenever I walk past a ragged municipal pine tree in town - and there are many - there is a song in my heart. Even the most down-trodden Old Bear style trees are brought back to resplendent life with a few glowing baubles strangled around the bare branches. Ahh, lovely.

Since our city's Christmas lights got switched on ceremoniously at the end of November my heart has been going lords a leaping and bells a jingling at every corner. Just this morning I swooned at the sight of one of the Jewellery Quarter's themed lights - a man hammering some steel (or something). It took the chill right off the gale force winds that have arrived out of nowhere. My fellow commuters didn't seem cheered. If only they'd look up at the lights instead of rushing like salmon into the nearest Costa** - you can't be sad at the sight of a be-mittened waving snowman. Or a man wielding a hammer.

It's a different animal at the weekends though. Now that the Christmas-shopping-countdown has commenced I've been witnessing other grown adults reduced to fits of childish emotion out on the streets - however I've got a feeling that's less to do with joy at the lights and more stress at the checkouts....

The fizzy charm of pretty lights must touch most of us in some small way, even if we wouldn't rush to admit it. Judging by the on-steroids manner in which our suburban streets are dressed to the nines with camp glittery reindeer and acrobatic Father Christmases careering down drainpipes all over the nation - and those of us who drive around said streets specifically to ogle this spectacle - there is a real thirst for putting on a light show. It can't all be for the kids...

All those colours. Can't get enough of them. When I think about it, I've always found myself very susceptible to colour - something just switches in my brain when confronted with particular ones. Sometimes I allow my life to be dictated by colour without quite realising what's happening. (I may be sounding a bit hippy dippy now but don't worry, I'm not a wearer of mood rings or anything). I must be an advertiser's dream. They will be the first to tell you about the power of colour - cleverly manipulating it to control us. Well, our spending habits at least.

Which is why I've mixed emotions about going to see the Coca Cola truck. You know, the illuminated van from the adverts? (I was surprised to learn that the first of these was only made in 1995. I say only, although that was nearly 20 years ago...feel old) Anyway, in case you have managed to avoid the constant adverts, Coca Cola are sending their trucks on a UK tour. While I find myself rather abhorred by the idea of going to gawp at a huge multinational brand in the name of Christmas - a shameless marketing ploy, and in a shopping centre just to hammer the message home - I don't think I can resist the call of those famous lights. 

I know I'll basically be looking at a stationary lorry for a few seconds... I mean, I could do that at the back of any old takeaway any day of the week. But, oh! The childhood(ish) memories of pure unadulterated excitement when the advert came on! That catchy jingle!* I am moved to tears by the bloody thing.

Because for many people, people like me, Christmas is a consumerism thing. I recognise it is a little sad to say that, but it is nevertheless true. We were never a religious family. I'm not religious now. It was all about exchanging presents. Well, and spending time with 'loved ones', of course. But mostly the presents. So, maybe Coca Cola is my God after all... There's a thought.

One thing is for sure - as soon as I set eyes on those chirpy lights there will be tears.

*Please let me apologise to those of you who now have the 'holidays are coming' song stuck in your head. 

** I do like Costa's Xmas-themed cups though - very kitsch

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Some things stick for life, not just for Christmas

To those who leave the house - in fact even those who don't, thanks to the likes of Channel 4 - the following exchange won't come as the shock that it really should.

The other day, on the bus, I overhead - impossible not to, they were shouting so proudly - a conversation a teenaged lad was having on the phone with his girlfriend, during which he repeated that well-worn loving phrase; "Do you want to get punched up? Six times, no less. Whilst he ejaculated such insults, his cronies - one of them female - cheered him on, giggling hysterically and gesticulating wildly with pleasure, like chimps.

Who's worse? They boy? The girl who stays with him? Or the society that produced them both?

Such disrespect, such unhealthy relationships, are certainly not something new, but the increasingly aggressive 'front' that I see young boys and men displaying proudly today really is concerning to this girl. Unfortunately, I overhear such verbal abuse daily, working as I do in education, and the mindless, go-to phrases - of which 'do you want to get punched' up is comparatively friendly - often seem to me like a knee-jerk response to the angry culture that has sprung up in our entertainment industry. It's like life has become one long rap video, in which we women really are 'hos'. It's madness - but, maddeningly, a reality.

Maybe I'm overreacting and this routine verbal assault is just another mode, in a long historical line, of exaggerated teenaged expression; for whom it is all or nothing. The thing is though, it's not just words that are exuberantly exchanged in our classrooms and on our streets - what gets me are those slogan / graphic t shirts that seem to be a staple of every young man's wardrobe now. You know the kind I mean. Half (or often, a lot more than half) naked women touching themselves, bending over etc etc. Basically, people are just going about in public with pornography on their chests. The majority of it is especially insulting, considering the woman tend to have their eyes blocked or are wearing sunglasses. It's just breasts. Great message to send out - thanks. And it's not even like we're talking about discerning young men hunting this stuff out in specialist or joke shops either. The following images are taken from products on offer at River Island and Republic, for God's sake. (Apologies for this onslaught - or you're welcome, depending on what side of the sexism line you're on.)

I think I've made my point. I mean really - would  you want your son to turn up to college displaying one of those dismissive, patronising messages? Would you want to be served in a shop by someone wearing an aggressive image of sexual objectification? It's a really quite sinister form of sexism that is being unapologetically shoved in our faces under the apparently harmless guise of fashion.

Of course, at the end of the day this is no different a sexism to subtle inequality, still inherent, exhibited quietly by those more 'civilised' members of society dressed in suits and sitting at desks, rather than in their offensive t shirt on the bus.

I can't decide what's worse.

As feminism campaigns enjoy a media moment of sorts, and the battle for equality reaches more of us, it seems such a cruel and unnecessary affront that, at the same time, our high streets seem intent on pushing more and more of these angry and downright aggressive sexual messages onto our bodies. Our young men have become walking mouthpieces for outdated sexual stereotypes. Worse still, they are actually shelling out money to be ambassadors for this sexism. Are high street designers fuelling the desire for these messages by producing them ? Or are they sating a demand for them from our young people?

This problem was put into a new context last week when Dr Matt Taylor, of the Rosetta space project, caused a media furore by appearing on a video livestream of the European Space Agency's mission to land on a comet sporting an inappropriate - and frankly, ugly - shirt. Covered in a bevy of half-naked buxom cartoon blondes, it looked like something from 1980s Blackpool. There was an immediate Twitter backlash, where the scientist was accused of being sexist. I mean, what was he thinking? Typically, Boris Johnson later waded in with an outdated opinion, claiming that 'if you are an extrovert space scientist, that is the kind of shirt that you are allowed to wear.' Even more alarmingly, he went on to compare the attacks on Dr Taylor to 'a scene from Mao's cultural revolution', where weeping individuals were forced to confess to their crimes against the people...
The thing is, Boris - and other fellow dinosaurs - you must have had your eyes closed, because there is a revolution happening. People are fed up. And if we are determined to tackle casual sexism, one shirt at a time. Women are always being judged on their looks, what they're wearing. It's hilarious to see the  defensive storm that rises after, God forbid, a man is brought to account for his appearance.

No wonder there aren't enough women in science - it's hardly surprising with such a culture of casual sexism - reading, as I did researching this post, about what Dr Taylor said when talking about the mission during his presentation, never mind the offensive shirt, is toe-curlingly cringey and blood-boilingly frustrating; "the sexiest mission there's ever been. She's sexy, but I never said she was easy.

Ugh. Who's at fault? Those who make these things, or those who choose to wear them? I can't decide but, I implore you - give our young men a chance. Don't buy them one of these t shirts as a festive gift. Their message could have an impact for life, not just for Christmas.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

A Batman for polite society

We all have embarrassing habits, don't we? Googling yourself regularly. Slathering on antibacterial hand gel every time you touch someone for fear of their likely germs. Secretly listening to One Direction every morning (the latter not one of mine).

Is there anything worse than admitting an embarrassing habit? Yes - not noticing said habit in the first place, and carrying on doing it obliviously. Which is what I've been doing, subconsciously, for years. Forever. Only last week did I finally notice this particular habit - my saving grace being that at least it wasn't pointed out to me by my boss, my mother, a member of One Direction.

I mimic people. I just can't seem to help it. Not in a comic way - I'm no actress and, anyone will tell you, I can't do an accent to save my life. No, it's more of a social reflex. Something we all probably do to some extent - to demonstrate our apparent attentiveness, to make other people feel special, comfortable (or uncomfortable) - reflecting others back to themselves during conversation. Mimicking their body language, intonations of voice and facial expressions in our own body, voice and face. I know this isn't exactly some kind of breakthrough observation; most of us are capable of doing this when we want to, or when social convention dictates we have to. But the somewhat embarrassing difference with me is that I can't seem to control mine. I wish I could switch it off! But no, I'm mimicking in every conversation I have. If the girl at the supermarket counter happens to be from Yorkshire, my response will slip out in a Yorkshire accent without me even realising I'm doing it. The worst is crying - people are always setting me off.

I've talked before about my attachment to women's magazines. Perhaps being under their influence for so long has affected me. All those articles you read about how your body language betrays your innermost feelings - about men, mainly. Mimicking a potential mate by stroking your face when he strokes his reveals that you fancy him. Cringe! It's as if I've not read these articles properly and have extended this behaviour to all of society...what an indiscriminate hussy I am.

Even now that I'm aware of it, and riddled with embarrassment by it, my face-matching continues. In fact, if anything it's stepped up it's game. I'm watching people even more closely now, as though I've got my own social interaction survey going on - only no-one knows they're being surveyed. Ethics of this survey aside, it is revealing. Because the thing is, when other people do the mimicking thing I'm noticing that they are usually incredibly insincere with it. You can see their face working in a calculated effort to get what they want out of people. Whether that's getting them onside, extracting information, testing out difficult waters. It is embarrassing to watch. Painful, even. I really hope I am not such a ham actor.

I'm considering another little experiment, actually. Using my mimicry as a superpower for social good by tackling the everyday rudeness we all endure from total strangers in our lives, and throwing it back in their faces. A gentle Batman for polite society, if you will. 

Not giving an inch on the pavement when a stubborn individual enters my path, demonstrating just what chaos will ensue should one of us not budge.

Storming, literally, through the bus queue and sending all and sundry flying like bowling balls in my wake.

Hmmm...another embarrassing habit seems to have revealed its ugly head. Getting too angry at things...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

In her shoes

Blog post - Walking in Heels

I've never been able to walk in high heels. Rarely does the powerful click clack of sex and glamour resonate in my wake. I can't even cope with a kitten.

Of course I tried that kind of femininity on for size for a period in my youth, as most of us do. There's that right of passage, the first time we sneak into our mother's wardrobe and trial our little feet in those giant, cartoonish courts. We realise right then how uncomfortable they are, but for some reason we persevere. I gave heels another go in my late teens - I'd managed to conquer a pair of sky-high bright white trainer-wedges, a la The Spice Girls, the previous year. So, I had high hopes. But of course, we all know wedges don't count as a true heel, and my trainers were certainly not a true test of my walking ability. After wearing a pair of not-even-that-high sandals from Select for my 18th birthday jaunt to Pizza Hut, the next morning I vowed never to wear heels again.

I just can't seem to physically master them. I read a hilarious piece in The Telegraph about a journalist - struck with the same affliction - who was sent to some terrifying woman's class on how to walk in heels. I mean, there's a class in everything isn't there. This woman apparently wore high (high) heels all the time. Everywhere. Well, obviously she's insane. And no doubt now riddled with back problems. Anyway, it made me wonder if a class of that ilk would have any impact on me. But I fear it would be futile.

In theory I should have the genetic equipment to walk in heels quite competently. My sister owns more than 200 pair of shoes. Yes, 200. They consumed our verandah in a slow painful suffocation, before spreading their chaos throughout the rest of the house. She used to go to work in them. The library. The dentist. She'd never consider going on a night out in a pair of flats. Heels are just in her psyche. And she didn't need any pricey training sessions to show her how to walk. Here's a flesh and blood relative who can function normally - glamorously - in a pair of stilettos. Surely I can follow in her footsteps?

But whenever I try I just look like Tina Turner gone wrong. And nothing works - plasters, gel cushions, only walking on carpets, being drunk - I've tried them all. Unfortunately I can't afford to pay someone to walk around with a carpet in front of me all the time. So I have to ask myself, is it that I can't walk in high heels? Or that I won't?

I was reminded of this little failure of mine the other week, when I started reading a book said sister lent me: How to be Parisian. There was a line in it that touched a nerve, "What you won't find in the Parisienne's closet - three-inch heels. Why live life halfway?"

Well - what's wrong with being comfortable? And not just in shoes - in your own skin?

It pains me to admit that I'm actually bothered that I can't strut to the shops - how ridiculous, it's just a pair of shoes after all. But that's the thing, it's not about the actual shoes - a heel represents much more. Sex! Power! Glamour! That's what a pair of heels screams. Then there's me, plodding along in my Clarkes boots and coming up short (literally). All in all it makes me feel rather inadequate, like I'm missing a major string in my bow. Killer heels are weaponry in a girl's arsenal. -whether that's power in attracting a mate (because that's what heels are designed to do when it comes down to it - display your childbearing hips). Or whether it's power in securing a high-flying job (assuming most high-flying jobs are male dominated and you've got to try and attract one with your childbearing hips...)

And then of course there are the rest of us, apparently not in high-flying jobs or a bearer of children, jealous spinsters unable to master the skill of walking. And we think, well actually it's all very well looking especially lengthy-of-leg and being tall enough to look boardroom suits in the eye, but - aren't you a bit of a slave to that shoe? That's a friendly torture device you're strapped into there. And you're endorsing it. Suffering. You are in actual pain.

Of course, I'm being way too serious here (that's flat heel wearers for you). I agree, I could accurately be accused of taking the fun right out of shoes. Because I can see that they are a bit of fun for a lot of people. They make us look good. They give us confidence, even if that confidence is based around men and hurts us in the process.

I'd much rather be comfortable. As long as I'm not getting too comfortable... Maybe I'll sneak into my sister's wardrobe the next time I see her, try walking in her shoes for a moment or two.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

TV kills

Blog post - Television kills

Despite myself, I seem to be crying more than one should - at the television. I'm not much of a crier away from the screen. Yet there I am, wailing at the sight of an abandoned dog in one of those harrowing fundraising adverts. Sobbing during a local news item about an elderly war veteran robbed by thugs.

Why is it that I am so ready to open the floodgates in front of strangers I neither know nor care about on the television, but run a mile at the thought of exhibiting an uncomfortable emotion, admitting a vulnerability, to the actual people in my life? Well of course, I'm certainly not unique in this unhealthy behaviour, the roots of which aren't exactly rocket science. It's dramatically less hassle unleashing your inner emotions via some (seemingly) unrelated incident involving a small child and a rare disease on the news, rather than admitting your fears directly to a loved one. This is why counselling is so effective. Well, that and counsellors are trained professionals... your tv isn't exactly going to pipe up with some coping techniques to offer you. 

At home, the tv is always on. Critiquing what we're watching takes on a real importance and, as the years go on, I find I'm over-relating with tv in general. It's like I actually know the characters in The Big Bang Theory, that they really exist. I'll have full-blown conversations about them - sometimes, when I visit my parents, we will speak more about what's happened on the tv than we do about events in our own lives. And with real seriousness.

I consider myself a member of a generation for whom it is still considered a little anti-social, embarrassing - downright ridiculous - to talk so much about something as trivial as the television. It's an admission that you don't have enough to say for yourself, about yourself. Times have obviously changed - look at the Gogglebox phenomenon. And while I maintain that too much tv is prone to make us lazy and insular I would also argue that, contrarily, tv does have a valid role to play in today's society - encouraging connections in its own, very modern, way. 

When an episode of The Apprentice finishes, and we all rush to Twitter to de-brief, we're brought together as part of a (weird) virtual community. And when we say nothing to our partner/parent/sibling in a whole evening other than 'what did you think of Eastenders?', well - it might seem to sad to the older generation (and to me, a bit), but at least it is keeping some lines of communication open!

So really, tv is a way of building bridges that perhaps wouldn't otherwise be crossed, virtual ones and actual ones. Just as it's easier to cry about something you see on the telly when it reminds you of something you hold quietly inside you, it's easier for some people to talk to others in those displaced terms too - an easy, ready-made medium to communicate through, in which we can all contribute. Something we can all use to relate to each other with because, come on, who doesn't watch the tv? (Well, I do know two people who don't have one...) I can't see the situation changing either - judging by the constant chatter of the young people that come into my workplace, it's apparent that tv - well, YouTube actually - is the focus of their days.

I Googled before writing this post and - surprise, surprise - too much television is resoundedly considered bad.
It can shorten your life. 
It can change the structure of a child's brain (?!)
It means DEATH! 

Apparently sitting sedentary in front of a screen for more than two hours a day doubles (yes, doubles) your chance of a premature death. a) I feel genuinely anxious about this alarming statistic. Should i alert my GP? I think I'd need to join a queue, and b) if this is in fact the case, work is definitely killing me.

Of course, there's distinctions to be made between the kind of tv where you sit glass eyed unquestionably watching pointless drivel for three hours straight, the content of which is seemingly made up of repeating what's just happened because, presumably, it assumes its viewers have been rendered stupid by merely watching it. (Perhaps death is preferable here...) But it seems unfair with so many screens in our lives now to blame the biggest, oldest one. Surely some idiot glued to their mobile phone screen whilst driving is much more deadly.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Answering back

You have to answer a great deal more questions as you get older, don't you agree? Of the personal kind. By complete and total strangers.

Of course, they're not being nosy - it's for your own good... For example, over the last few weeks I've been learning much more than I ever thought I would about Mortgage Lending Customer Services (my friend has just become a Mortgage Adviser). I - at a blissful distance from all things mortgage having never been anywhere near getting one - was plain shocked to hear of the really quite intimate, some might argue intrusive, questions they are obliged to ask of customers.

I cannot imagine anything more tortuous than being locked into a 3-hour telephone conversation (or worse, in a room with) one of these dry buffoons (my friend excluded - she really does work with buffoons), having to discuss the many levels of possibilities of me having children over the course of my lifetime. Are we planning on getting married, Dear? Or are we going to split up, do you think that's a high likelihood? What holidays are we considering? a) I think I'd feel like saying it's none of your business, and b) I don't actually know the answers myself!

The niche subject of Mortgages aside, has it always been this way - this weird level of intimacy in customer services? Or is it a new development? It seems like all service staff go through some kind of bizarre programme where they are trained to be overly personal with you whilst managing to maintain a total lack of personality. As a result, any hope of genuine interaction stands no chance, as they are too busy reciting their spiel jargon for the customer to actually get a word in edgeways. At best it's uncomfortable and at worst, creepy line-crossing and it actually ends up being hard work for you the customer, as well as the automaton at the till.

No longer can you just swan up to a cashier with your music still playing in your earphones, smile a hello and pay for your newspaper, say thanks too loudly on account of the music and have the entire achieved with limited verbal communication. Now, we have to constantly be on hand to answer a range of unexpected and always-differing questions depending on the establishment you happen to be in. It's most noticeable in coffee shops, and it is also in these places that the forced level of intimacy gets ridiculous. No, I don't actually want to give you my name - I just want to take my drink in anonymity and get out of here!

Overall I feel slightly tense whenever going to pay for things. It's pot luck whether I'll actually be able to hear what they're saying on account of them reeling their script off so fast without actually engaging with me, plus there is often much-too-loud music playing for no apparent reason, so that most of the time I am literally guessing what I've been asked and attempting responses accordingly.

But the worst form of all this has got to be charity street hawking which for me, provides a loosely professional premise for people to impress their obnoxious, overbearing personalities on unsuspecting, innocent town folk. Under the guise of charity, no less.

I am of the generation for whom shaking the change bucket is a breach of the law. For me, charitable support and giving is a very personal thing. I don't want to talk about it out on the street. I certainly don't just want to pot luck it, depending on what charity happens to be represented that day. So you can imagine how well I (do not) cope with the hawkers. A someone who does actually work in the charitable sector, I am at ease with my charitable giving and do not expect to be hauled to account for it - in public, multiple days a week like I've accidentally found myself in Groundhog Day - by some arrogant squirt working on commission. It's just one more assault on city dewllers trying to get about their day and instead find they have to navigate the gauntlet of forced friendliness. The tactics of these people seem to be clowning and flirting with you - waving manically from across the street. Their palms outwardly spread as if to say oh, come on!

Neither of the above is a meaningful, genuine way to communicate with a grown adult but I suppose it is harmless overall. What is totally unacceptable is the abuse that I and everyone I know has experienced at the hands of these buffoons. I've had f**k you muttered, loudly, behind my back as I've waked away from one of them. My sister even had one follow her down the street after she refused, politely, to interact with them.

I mean, how bloody dare they?

So - questions from my money lender? Yes, I'll answer them begrudgingly, even if I'm having to make up the answers. But questions from jumped-up charity charlatans? Think I'll keep my earphones in, thanks.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Too old for gigs

I did something I haven't done in a long, long time on Friday. I went to a gig. (For a second there, I was tempted to call it a concert.)

I don't know about you, but I've certainly noticed that I have a changing relationship with music the older I get. When I was younger, music was everything. I was totally consumed by it. I defined myself through it - I don't know how I'd have got to be the person I am today without music in my life. I'm not talking about actually making music here - I'm much too lazy for that, even as my younger more energised self. Just listening was enough.

But then you grow up. You work out who you are (ish), come to some kind of resolution. You find yourself settled, stabilised. And in this new, more adult existence, music isn't so central - in fact, it's veritably on the sidelines. Relegated to muzak. Something that gets rolled out only when it's needed, for grown-up social occasions, times when you need to make an impression. Impress on others - and yourself - that you've still got it. I suppose it's maybe easier if you have children - you can live through their music, press them for trendy bands in an emergency. No longer is music the provider of heady relief as it was in your youth. Well, not for me at least.

And it makes me feel very sad. I've still got the tinnitus at least but I mourn those days, that me. I would lie in bed into the small hours with a pair of headphones plugged into my (much-loved) hi-system. It had a multiple CD selector system, so I could load it up with 5 albums, pre-set which tracks I wanted to listen to, and just lay back in the dark and live out a life in my head to these very personal soundtracks.

When it was time for me to go to work (humph) I always had my portable radio with me for the bus rides. Then my cassette player. Then my (wholly unreliable) Sony disc-man. Before long (although a lot later than the rest of the world, I'm stubborn with technology) the iPod made it's way into my life - and has never left, still getting me through my daily commute.

It was all so much effort back then. But it never felt like it. I was at gigs all the time, sometimes more than once a week. And on weeknights. It meant I spent a large chunk of my life holed up inside a massive concrete dive of a building - split over three floors, the old Carling Academy in Birmingham's Dale End (the street even sounds seedy) looked and felt very much like the multi-storey car park opposite, but that was all part of its charm. Many a happy hot, sticky evening has been spent in that dark cave (sadly now closed), and there will always be a special place in my heart devoted to its memory. I've kept all my old gig tickets, pointlessly. I absolutely cannot throw them out.

All the things that would prevent you from actually going to a gig now were not a problem then;  standing for hours, holding your coat, not being able to see anything, sticky floors, pushy people, too loud, too hot, too late. Of course you occasionally toy with the idea, now, of going to see a band when one you really, really, definitely like comes on tour...but you know deep down you're never really going to go. You tentatively suggest it to friends regardless, pretending to yourself, but you know what response is coming - exactly the same thing you'd say if they had suggested it to you. Hmmm, it's a bit expensive, especially with the booking fee too. Oh, it's on a Thursday night?!

But although the flame is somewhat diminished, I hope it never dies out. Recent gig attendance would suggest not. By the way, if you haven't heard of Lucius you should check them out (I've done some of the work there for you, you're welcome). They are amazing. But what made you go to see them, I hear you ask? The clincher - it was on a Friday. That's an acceptable non-school night. And it was in Liverpool - who'd turn down an excuse to visit Liverpool?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Oh the horror

Is it me or are horror films more, well, horrific these days? There's no denying that classics of the horror canon such as The Exorcist and The Shining are, obviously, disturbing. The teen slashers from my own era, Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer etc, might be a little on the light side but they don't exactly shy away from blood and terror either. But now, something's changed.

I used to love all this stuff, practically growing up on a diet of horror. I couldn't get enough of the Goosebumps books, quickly graduating to Point Horror and then on to Stephen King in my early teens. I'd loiter in the deathly quiet of the (surprisingly well-stocked) Adult Horror aisle of my little local library after school, sometimes for hours. It was a day of pure joy when a new book arrived on the shelves. I remember a particularly gruesome tome about a trucker who turned into a massive human-eating hog who terrorised a small town (note to self - must Google this...).

They were all American, these novels (well, it was the 90s). Big blockbusters of books in a world of highways, dusty towns and malls. And I totally immersed myself in it. I even wrote my own horror stories for a time. Then we got cable TV - hurray! - and I suddenly had access to hundreds of horror films, and that's when my journey became audio visual. Silence of the Lambs, The Blair Witch Project, Rosemary's Baby, Alien, The Poltergeist. My relationship with the genre endured for many happy years.

But then I made the mistake of watching Saw. I'm pretty sure my mother recommended it to me as well (alarming in itself). It was 2004, we had a pirate copy (I know, sorry) - the picture so grainy and the sound so poor that I had to sit on the floor right in front of the TV to watch it. There I was, numb-limbed on the carpet, in the house on my own (classic schoolgirl error, almost as bad as me running upstairs) in a total, stunned, crumpled mess. 

I remained in that position for a good long while after the credits stopped rolling - but I've never fully recovered. I haven't watched a horror film since. Really*. I've tried. I gave The Descent a go (on another recommendation from my mother - you'd think I'd learn), but had to give up ten minutes in.

Of course total avoidance is impossible - sometimes I'll catch bits of films when I'm channel surfing, and immediately wish I hadn't. Unexpected trailers are a struggle. And now horror has started filtering through to my relationship with television, too. I love a good TV drama, especially ones based around crime. But as they too become increasingly more violent, I find I am unable to watch. I literally sit there with my hands over my eyes. Press mute. More recently, just change the channel. It's meant I've had to give up on some series which I have loved for years - Silent Witness and Luther have both bitten the dust.

Is it just me? Have I become a highly sensitive, over-emotional bag of nerves? Or is it the horror? Has horror gone too far? Can horror go too far? Isn't that kind of it's point? I accept that, as with most things, you have to keep upping the game in order to keep things fresh. But to what limits does horror have to go to?

I suppose when I was on my own horror journey I was forever upping the stakes as well - young adult vampire fiction progressed to Stephen King, which in turn progressed to teen slashers, to 70s porn horror, and then somewhere along the line I just reached my limit whilst the industry churned on. Now, as an outsider, I feel the culture of the genre has changed beyond all recognition. What once was niche is now the norm. Human torture games, rape - it's a new kind of horror. Less about giving you chills, making you jump - innocent thrills, almost - more about turning your stomach, throwing you into the cesspit of the human condition. Total depravity on a whole new scale and, for me, beyond the point of watchable.

Although people evidently do go and see them - but who? And why? I know tastes change as you get older - like I never used to like avocados, and now I do. I used to like being scared, but now I don't. Have I just forgotten what it's like?

I understand that within all of us there is a grim fascination with horror, if not an actual enjoyment of it. But I have neither the equipment nor the will to face up to horror any longer - there is enough of it in the real world to deal with, never mind having it confronting you in full-on 3D surround sound after a hard day's work.

As an aside: I accept not all contemporary horror fils are in this violent vein. If anyone has any suggestions of something they recommend, let me know

*I haven't watched a pirated film since either - gold star for me

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Addicted to gel

I have a confession to make - I have become prone to alcohol abuse. Hang on, not the stuff you drink. I mean the slightly alien stuff you slather over your hands. 

I am addicted to hand gel. It kills 99.99% of bacteria. Well, that's just so appealing isn't it - why wouldn't you use it? 

I have never been more germ aware. I go about my daily activities always with the background goal of maximum germ avoidance. You might say that sounds like hard work - it is! But it is part of who I am. It is perhaps a little sad to have a part of yourself defined by your relationship with germs. It's not like I live in a part of the world where each passing day carries a risk of death by infection. I recognise that I am fortunate to live in a pretty sanitised environment. But in my defence I haven't always been this way - it is something that has gradually seeped into my consciousness to the point where, not only do I have a little tub of hand gel on my person at all times, I also find I am using the stuff at least 20 times a day, probably more.

It all started in my early twenties - I was forever catching colds, and I blamed this entirely on the bus. People are disgusting. Everyday I would watch them sneeze all over the place, use their hands as though they were tissues (why don't people carry tissues?! WHY?!), and then clamp these hands all over the railings, stairs and handles. And then I, unless I wanted to hurtle to my death, would have no choice but to touch those handles myself. So I took control with hand gel. The problem is that the more you use it, the more you become aware of potential germs. 

They're everywhere, germs. Door handles, kettles, chip and pin machines, money - the list is, of course, endless. Once you are on the alert it is really quite shocking how much people touch things, often just for the sake of it. Us hand gel-ers, we only touch a surface if we really have to.  

I am loathe to use the word OCD because I don't want to make light of a serious mental health problem. People seem to throw this word around as though it is fashionable, a desirable condition almost. But with that said I do sometimes worry, is my behaviour 'a bit OCD'? No. I don't think so. I'm not distressed when I'm doing it, more embarrassed. But the act has certainly become a compulsion. 

I can't imagine life without hand gel now - and this becomes a problem in that you start to find yourself wanting those that share your life with you to use it, too. Otherwise, what's the point? You can't effectively manage the germs coming into your home if your other half waltzes in from the newsagents with a fistful of germs swabbing at the light switch, the fridge door, your face. You can almost see the fluorescent green blobs - like the kind used in adverts for bleach - lighting up their hands like a Belisha beacon. HAZARD! 

None of this is exactly good news for your relationship, let alone your mental health. It's probably safer to just embrace the germs and put up with a cold for a week - I'm sure your other half would rather that than suffer with your issues for eternity.

Although in my case this isn't entirely true, because I have now passed on my little addiction to him - like a germ itself. He too takes hand gel to work. He too is constantly navigating the gauntlet of the outside world. You'll see us, clumsily opening doors with our elbows, pressing pedestrian crossing buttons with coat sleeves pulled right down over our hands teenagers in new school blazers. You'll find us at cash points using a loyalty card to jab at the keypad instead of our fingers.

All this exertion and contortion results in weird bruises and injuries to places like the side of our thumbs, toes and shoulders. And seems as both of us have had colds this last week I don't think it's worth all the effort... 

It makes me wonder - is it just us? Or, as a society, are we all becoming more germ aware? The very fact that hand gel is sold as a run-of-the-mill hand care product in Boots etc must be proof that it is cemented into the mainstream social psyche now. People must be buying the stuff, there must be a real demand. But when you think back to the Bird Flu masks of recent years and now the Ebola hysteria exploding over the globe it all gets frighteningly dystopian.

I worry that I have placed myself on a slippery slope - am I just a few years away from wearing a mask myself?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The social politics of polystyrene

My last blog post was all about lifestyle aspirations and, since writing it, I find something not-all-that aspirational has been on my mind - the takeaway hot beverage. I remember my first. Well, I don’t actually - but I can imagine what it would have been. A tea, milk no sugar. In a polystyrene cup. 

Hot drinks just taste better in a polystyrene cup, don’t they? Or is that just me. I am always a little thrilled when I get my drink delivered in one. It rarely happens now though. The last time - a time I do definitely remember, it was that significant - was at London's Victoria bus station one chilly Saturday morning. My sister and I were on our way to Chelsea - only via the somewhat scenic and not very glamorous route of The Bus. We couldn't find where the number seven actually stopped. (Has anyone ever been to the Victoria bus station? Nightmare. But marginally better than the coach station.) We were a bit stressed. Then we happened upon a newsagents-cum-cafe, where everything was made better by massive cups of polystyrene tea for 65p. Memorably good value. We went back there especially three years later. It was £1.00. A smaller cup. That’s inflation for you.

You might, rightly, be thinking: what the hell has this got to do with anything, especially lifestyle aspirations? Well - can you remember when carrying a portable hot drink in public became a kind of social statement? When coffee drinking became a 'thing' - a lifestyle choice?

I can recall when the first coffee shops came to Birmingham in this way. I'd been watching Friends for a while so I didn't question it, knew what to expect, and actually wanted to go there. Of course, there was no way in hell my parents would have taken me to a coffee shop - why would we spend money buying a hot drink we could so easily make at home? Cradling it for bloody hours, painfully making conversation with each other. Sounds hellish.

But then I got a bit older and earned some money. I was in sixth form. I was being attacked by Friends on the one front and magazine supplements on the other, so I knew what I wanted to spend said money on. Coffee Republic.

I had some free sessions in my timetable. So I would travel into town on the 46 (always the bus), get one of their hot spiced apple drinks (I hadn't quite graduated to actual coffee yet), and walk over to the ‘city’ to people-watch the suits on their lunch breaks.

And I'd sit on a bench or bit of wall for HOURS, with my (soon) empty cup. It was a real treat. Yet it was also more than that. For me that silly, portable hot beverage symbolised adulthood. It was where I wanted to be. I didn't put it in the bin when I was finished - I wanted to be seen with it. It's bonkers but they talk, those cups. Look at me! they say. I belong here, I'm so city chic! I earn enough money to be frivolously throwing at overpriced drinks that I don't need!

I still do it now. I've got a cappuccino on the go as I type (no polystyrene in sight).

Only now, I feel too aware of what I am holding represents to me, and to others. That Costa branding, Nero or Pret or whatever. Which one you pick is almost as much of a social calling card as the drink itself. Which is probably why I now crave the unidentifiable no-nonsense of the humble polystyrene. It's a statement of a different kind, almost a protest saying I AM NOT RIDICULOUS. OR RICH. I GOT THIS DRINK FROM A VAN. I PAID LESS THAN A POUND. Hmmm.

Social politics aside, if there's one thing that's guaranteed to make you love something it's nostalgia. Polystyrene pulls at my heart strings because it reminds me of growing up, of the first time I wanted to be like the grown-ups. Well, pretend to be one.

That first time you actually want to try a cup of tea. The first time you want to try one on the go, from the ice cream van, instead of getting a Coke. The association is as comforting as a steaming hot cup of tea after a long day.
It's a shame polystyrene has gone out of fashion, but it was of course inevitable. And if the internet is anything to go by - polystyrene could kill both the environment and humans - then maybe it's for the best.

But there'll always be a place in this girl's heart for weird creaky white stuff.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Seduced By Editorial

Ever bought a magazine for yourself as a treat? Of course you have. Perhaps something a little silly, like a celebrity gossip magazine? Yes.

What about a bigger treat something from the next shelf up? No, no not the top shelf. The fashion glossies - big thick spines, richly smooth pages. Most of which are just crammed full of adverts, but gorgeous ones.

Its nice to get expensive magazines every now and again, isnt it to perk up the week. You just need it sometimes. But what if you wake up one morning and realise you have in fact subscribed to all of them?

I am 100% guilty of being seduced by magazines. I am a grown woman who pays through the nose for reams upon reams of things she cant afford, and places she cant afford to travel to. I just can't seem to help myself.

And I really am old enough to know better - I know how real life works now (I think). I consider myself a media savvy girl - I regularly critique adverts out loud when watching the television, much to the annoyance of my fella.

So why the hell am I an Elle Decoration subscriber? I don't even decorate. The bathroom floor is yet to be tiled - thats three years of concrete. Yet here I am, flicking through pages and pages of vintage Moroccan tiles and bespoke marble. I can't even muster the energy to browse through the Topps Tiles website (most tedious experience ever), let alone take up any of the tips and eye-wateringly expensive products featured in those glossy pages.

I feel a little ashamed of my little habit. Like I have revealed I enjoy walking around the flat in my boyfriends pants (I dont. Plus, it doesnt really sound as seedy this way around, does it? More like Im really on-trend and will be borrowing his jumpers next. I have been known to do that. Maybe its a slippery slope? Anyway.)

I know its all supposed to a bit of fun - a guilty pleasure, like chocolates are for other people. Or shoes. So why do I feel so uncomfortable about it?

I think I just dont want to admit the truth to myself - that I secretly still harbour the ridiculous so-called lifestyle aspirations that I did as a young girl. First it was fashion magazines totally standard for a young woman. Fashion is great. But now that Im venturing into home interiors its like I'm subconsciously nesting. And I am annoyed with myself - like a big predictable cliché I am following the path laid out for me by these marketeers. Next itll be Woman & Home. Easy Living. Then food magazines (that concept does sound quite appealing...theyve clearly got me pegged.)

This love affair with magazines all started with the women's lifestyle supplement that came with The Daily Mirror on Monday's. Can anyone remember what it was called? I was obsessed with it. I would painstakingly absorb every inch of editorial for hours and hours. Literally - hours. In my head I would live out the lifestyle portrayed on those pages, contrasting starkly to the realities of my days spent in the classroom at school and then at sixth form. I envisioned that, when I was in my twenties (never in my thirties, too old), I would buy a takeaway coffee on my way to work a publishing house, newspaper or other arts organisation. I would be wearing a shift dress from Topshop, which would transition nicely when I met up with friends for post-work cocktails in a stylish bar, after which I would nip home to my fabulous flat in the city with a balcony.

And now here I am at 31, buying a takeaway coffee in the morning on my way to work at an arts organisation, wearing a shift dress, sometimes (but not as much as I used to) meeting with friends for post-work wine, and living in a city centre flat with a (sort of) balcony.

I should be bloody over the moon! I got what I wanted - so why am I still harbouring all these so-called lifestyle aspirations? Its not like Ive had the imagination to even generate new ones, not really. Its the same meaningless things only on a bigger, more costly scale. I dont just want any old coffee - I want the best coffee available, preferably organic. Ive become complacent in my brilliant job. I want Reiss dresses instead of the H&M ones I can afford. Do you ever stop wanting things? I mean, it's exhausting isn't it?

It must be an addiction, this magazine consumption. You start to crave them as much as the things inside. Its like by reading these things I am somehow living them a little bit. Of course, Im not.

I am not jetting over to Fiji next week.

I am not planning a jaunt round Marylebone this weekend to peruse potential items for a room Im doing up in my Notting Hill townhouse.

I am not even able to justify buying a Smythson diary.

I know at the end of the day it's just frivolous enjoyment and I should just stop over-analysing. Life needs more of the simple pleasures that looking at pretty stuff can offer. The escapism that comes from reading about things that just dont matter. But it is niggling at me now that I've noticed it. I think Im most worried that other people will think I actually want to be like these people who really do live out the lifestyle of Elle Decoration, with their bonkers staircases and friends who own top London restaurants. It all feels a bit ridiculous a pointless, pretend world. I don't want to be like that really.

At least, I dont think I do

P.S. One thing these magazines are an actual source of is absolutely brilliant gift ideas. So if you happen to know me, lucky you – you may not be sitting on a £25,000 art deco sofa suite the next time you come to visit, but you could have a really nice dinner plate coming your way this Christmas.

Contributor Profile

Gemma Corden
After completing a BA in English, Gemma dabbled in freelance writing for a variety of cultural organisations, including Channel 4’s IDEASFactory, before finding Hybrid Arts – a pioneering non-profit creative technology organisation based in Leamington Spa - where she has been Writing & Researching (and nobly keeping post-it notes in fashion) for ten inspirational years. In her spare time, Gemma is a freelance journalist and writes short fiction (foisting it upon patient loved ones). Gemma’s mission is…well, she hasn’t quite got that far yet.

And the rest
Likes to do things in lists, considers herself an exemplary tea drinker, spends most of her life on buses, hordes cheap jewellery and has a somewhat sordid love of Berol pens.

Favourite boy hero
Tintin – the perky quiff, the impeccable manners - just what you need in a crisis.