Saturday, 27 November 2010

Timing can be everything when it comes to birthdays

The first thing I have to make clear is that I don’t mind getting old. Yes, I’m a woman; yes, I’ve reached my thirties, but it still doesn’t bother me. Not all stereotypes are true, you know! I can’t see the problem with growing older; I like the idea of automatically gaining wisdom (at least being seen that way) and demanding respect (because I apparently earned it). I fully intend to grow old disgracefully, making use of all the perks (hmm, bus pass?) and making up for the sober years of my youth ... What are you laughing at?

Anyway, the passing of time is not the problem because, much like taxes (for some of us), it cannot be avoided. Besides, I can’t think of anything worse than living longer than necessary. It makes me picture some type of horrible Death Becomes Her nightmare with endless maintenance being necessary after bits start falling off. No, my issue lies with the manner in which the annual event is marked. Or, more specifically and selfishly, my annual event.

I’m convinced that things would be so different if I had been born in the middle of summer or even with the arrival of spring – doesn’t everything look better when trees are blooming and daffodils sprout? I can’t enjoy this benefit – I was born in the dead of winter. Those who know me will be aware that I hate winter. The sun and I are great friends. What use do I have for cold, wind, rain and snow? What delight can be found in leaving home in the darkness and coming home in the darkness? Apart from the benefits to muggers, burglars and similar members of the criminal fraternity, that is.

This is the backdrop to my birthday, the deepest darkest depths of winter when frigid misery is the order of the day – everyday – until the clocks change again. No one wants to celebrate in these conditions. Not only is the most basic journey a hassle, you certainly don’t want to go somewhere that makes you queue outside to get in.

Not only does the season make for a hateful birthday, but it is also right after New Year and, hence, very close to Christmas. This creates the phenomenon that many December- and January-born people will be aware of: the two-in-one present. What is that? We get the privilege of buying them separate gifts while they get to buy just one? This aint Nike; don’t do it! I know everyone’s broke after Christmas and New Year and, yet, I don’t care. I have to make the effort, so should everyone else.

I have a reason to be extra grumpy because I share my birthday with a sibling. No, not a twin, but exactly six years apart. My mum, bless her, always made an effort when we were children, even after all the hassle of Christmas and New Year, which included a cake that comprised half blue and half pink icing. I suspect that has something to do with my hatred of pink. I had only six years of being special, now I only get half the amount of birthday greetings.

Positive spin is an effort; right after the festive season, shared with my brother, a wondrous winter wonderland *sigh*. Yes, it's all so special. Gimme my two presents, dammit! And a whole cake. Read more by Shermaine.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Birthdays are not always a piece of cake

Birthdays. Anniversaries. Christmas. Every year, they come around, and every year, they fill us with expectation. Excitement. Hope. Panic. Fear. Dread, even. Not necessarily in that order, but each of these emotions is sure to creep into our consciousness, despite our best attempts to drink ourselves into oblivion and numb the pain by eating our way through the huge box of chocolates our aunty sent us.

First there is the expectation. You WILL have a good time. And everyone else who shares your birthday celebration with you must have a good time too. No pressure. This Saturday was no exception. A matter of days after the first birthday where I felt compelled to lie about my age, I had arranged a night out in Angel for curry, beer and music. A relatively quiet affair, deliberately designed to be as little hassle as possible for me. It was easier enough to organise but there is still that niggling need to have a really good time. And not just yourself. Everyone else has to have a wonderful evening too. Otherwise you are a social failure.

Almost as devastating as flat conversation over your Korma is a poor turnout. Silently dreading the last minute ‘can’t make it’ text messages that make you feel like a Billy no-mates you sit in the middle of a crowded restaurant with your mum and the office geek. Then, just when you were starting to relax, there is always the fear that your chums from work will irritate your uni mates, your boyfriend will say something totally un-PC to your socialist vegetarian friend and your best mate will end up telling your boss how much you hate them before throwing up all over their Prada handbag. Then someone will get food poisoning. Another person will hate the music in the pub. And your sister from the sticks will get mugged outside whilst having a fag. My God, my hand is trembling at the thought of it as I shove another chunk of birthday cake into my mouth.

Then there’s the morning after. You have a hangover. You’re a year older. You feel pretty crappy. The fact that your chum from Manchester has just bought a new house, your old roommate from uni has just had their first novel published and everyone else has a baby/cat/Mini convertible doesn’t help. You start to question yourself. Where has the last year gone? What exactly have I achieved? Why haven’t I got where I want to be yet? When am I actually going to grow up and get my act together? WHERE IS MY LIFE GOING?

Today is the morning after the night before. Amazingly, I have emerged relatively unscathed. Admittedly it was a relatively tame night, but everyone seemed to have a good time. It did take us half an hour to sort out the bill and the pub was a bit noisy and crowded for some people, but only one person didn’t show up (flu is an acceptable excuse) and no-body got arrested- despite some attempts from the boys to con a free beer out of our waiter.

As for my self analysis? Well, the last year hasn’t been too bad. No, I don’t like my job and am still devoid of any real status symbol (unless my new fandangled digital camera counts – thank you Mum, Dad and Him Indoors), but I have three quarters of a novel and a new qualification under my belt, have nearly paid off my student loan and managed to save almost enough money to pay for a deposit on that oh-so desirable first flat. And, you know what? I have survived another year in this crazy world. And that is something worth drinking to. Read more by Shelly.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Mind your backs! Shermaine coming through

In those hazy, crazy days when I was a teenager, many moons ago, I was in a mad rush to pass my driving test. Like many other teenagers, I thought a driving licence was some type of badge of honour. Like an ASBO is nowadays.

Despite driving with one hand on the steering wheel and one on the gear stick, taking my eyes off the road to check my pager (it was a long time ago) and speeding through a roundabout in third gear, I passed and got my licence but suspect the examiner fell asleep. The precious little laminated card remains nestled in my purse, though I couldn’t tell you where the paper counterpart is. And don't ask me what I do with it.

Does it act as proof of my legal right to operate a vehicle on the highway, I hear you ask. Of course it doesn’t. It is a means of identification when I need it. Like a few years ago when I was asked for it when buying a bottle of Baileys – ah, that was a good day. Anyway, it will remain as mere ID for the time being because I’m a pedestrian. The past truly is a foreign country as I have no desire to be a driver; I like being a pedestrian, walking is part of my exercise routine (blast those calves – or quads, or whatever they are.)

As much as I love it, it’s not always that easy. There are a great many hazards that you need to contend with when opting for a power-walk. For some reason, many of the pavements around where I live seem narrower than most, made worse by the addition of shop boards and furniture, bushes and trees, and on-going construction. It gets even worse when you live on a thoroughfare for drunkards and animals – they really are messy buggers. While one leaves behind broken glass bottles, the other leaves ripped open rubbish bags. Both also like to display their meals, and not always before it’s been eaten. Generous to a fault.

Another recycling box has just arrived adding to those that are already left strewn along the pavement to turn it into a slalom. I’ve heard some people complain that all the clutter from recycling boxes reduces property values – really? – I’m not concerned about that, more about tripping over them and doing myself a mischief.

Apparently, the roads aren’t sufficient for car drivers – they need to park on the pavements. How kind of them to turn a simple walk into an obstacle course that involves squeezing past a car or dodging them when walking in the road.

At least the stationary hazards are easier to avoid: movement causes all manner of problems. Skaters, scooter riders and cyclists have been joined by mini-motorbikes (what on earth is the point?) and moped riders (seriously!) forcing the need to dodge them like a character in a computer game. Isn’t every vehicle on wheels supposed to be in the road?

That solution would also deal with the pushchair, especially with those that like to offer an optical illusion – such as those that you still can’t see after squinting at it for several long minutes. See how they make you think they’re standing behind it, when in fact they are pushing it while standing to one side. See how they block anyone from passing by. It doesn’t get much better when the rugrats start walking as they seem to have no sense of direction; no matter what you do to avoid them when they run along the pavement, they seem to follow you like you’re a target.

Aww, a loved up couple holding lovely. Must they stand as far away from each other as their arms will allow? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of holding hands? More importantly, stop blocking the pavement and get out of my way! Then they have the audacity to tut when a polite “excuse me” is offered by those in a hurry. Clearly, pushing past is much more effective. The trouble you have to go through for a bit of exercise – maybe I’d be better off in a car after all. Read more by Shermaine.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Exploding the myth: not all women are obsessed with shoes

Despite the vicious rumour perpetuated by Carrie Bradshaw, Imelda Marcos and the like, not all women love shoes. Many, including myself, are markedly indifferent to them and endure with a grimace the effects of this popular misconception.

For starters there’s the commonly held erroneous belief that a man can get any woman into bed by complimenting her shoes. I have visions of this new gospel being whispered from one wide-eyed gullible Romeo to the next. Whoever started this falsehood must have brainwashed his disciples with the following logic: praising a woman’s footwear must mean that a) you’re in tune with what’s important to her and b) you’re the sort of bloke who notices the little things and, supposedly, girlies love that.

Well, yes, we do like it when you pick up on small details. However, any headway made is then negated when the best you can offer is: “I like your shoes”. Please, not that old chestnut. When men have made a big fuss over my footwear I have assumed they either had terrible taste or were plain lying; my shoes are routinely the worst part of my outfit.

Chaps, listen, there’s no such thing as a fits-all compliment or holy grail of the chat-up line. Getting it wrong actually makes you look worse than saying nothing, as then we only suspected you were a moron.

But what I really dislike about current shoe mania in popular culture is the tacit subliminal suggestion that any old frump with no knowledge of the matters of style can suddenly become a trendy fashionista by saying “Oh I love shoes, I can’t resist a pair of gorgeous shoes.” Oh, so wrong.

If you don’t believe me, I’ll defer to higher authority. Coco Chanel nicely put it by saying: “Elegance does not consist in putting on a new dress.” Just as sex appeal and instant femininity cannot be achieved by suddenly cooing over the latest creation of Manolo Blanhnik.

Not only that, it’s also becoming the most god awful cliché. We’ve seen it on the TV shows and now accept it as an unwritten lore. Rather than stressing how individual you are it has quite the opposite effect, announcing loud and clear to the world that someone else has to make these decisions for you on what you’re supposedly passionate about.

Call me a fat fascist if you want but I can’t help noticing that this phenomenon is more common amongst larger ladies. I understand that feeling - to some extent. When you’ve gained weight, nothing fits and the shops are full of gamine size six assistants glowering at you, the solace found from a non-judgemental sling-back can be very comforting indeed. But it’s a sticking plaster on a broken limb.

Hiding behind shoes that bolster your confidence won’t give you the impetus to lose a few pounds, which will undoubtedly make you happier when you look in the mirror. It’s fine for Sarah Jessica Parker to prance about drawing attention to her feet as the rest of her body is pretty much perfect. She’s not using them as some sort of diversion. And if that is your goal, think about how realistic it is. Large body, small feet. It’s going to have to be some pair to disguise your entire frame.

So can we, please, all drop the pretence that irrational behaviour around impractical footwear is an essential characteristic of being a stylish woman? I don’t care if this makes me sound like my mother: killer heels, narrow toes and other instruments of podiatry torture aren’t very good for you. They damage your back and in some cases have a most unfortunate effect on posture. Who hasn’t seen that girl walking down the street in incredibly painful looking shoes leaning so far forward it looks like she’s running away from her own bottom? There’s no way that can be beneficial to her long term health.

You only have to open a celeb magazine to see grotesque pictures of Victoria Beckham’s bunions caused by years of wearing shoes which deformed her feet to the point where she needs major surgery to have them removed. While we all wish Mrs B the best when she goes under the knife for the first time, ah-herm, we should remember that this injury is self-inflicted.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting we should all bin our stilettos in favour of a sensible lace-up pair from Clarks to be worn exclusively for the next 20 years of our lives. Statement shoes can be awesome, and glamorous as hell. Worn with a simple outfit, like any eye-catching accessory, they’ll look stunning. But this is the little secret no one tells you, they don’t have the power to miraculously halve your BMI or turn you into someone totally different. Read more by Rosie.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Wrap up warm: there's a nasty bout of underdressing going around

You can just imagine the scene. The sky is a clear ice blue; the trees are stark and bare; your breath leaves your body in a little cloud when you go outside. The first leaf you step on when you leave your house crunches under your heavy boot, rigid with frost. You inhale fresh, icy air and think, with a wistful sigh, ‘at last, winter has arrived.’

At least, you think winter has arrived. You have become quite excited over the past few weeks, thinking about the upcoming annual celebrations, like Halloween and Bonfire Night, and the official start to the mulled wine and firework season (short though it is). Pulling out musty winter clothing from the attic fills you with - well, joy - and you can’t help emitting a little squeal of delight at the thought of ditching your summer clothing and climbing into a new wardrobe altogether. Out come the boots, and the gloves, and the many, many scarves. The possibilities are simply endless.

And then you go for a little walk, or you meet some friends at the pub for a drink. Or, to get the weekly shop, you nip down to Sainsbury’s, dreaming of the delicious winter soups you’ll be making. Hmm, root vegetables. A glance in the wrong direction rudely interrupts these scrumptious thoughts. You screech to a halt in your tracks. A person, around your age, has just walked past you. You quickly glance down at yourself, checking to see that you really have donned thermal leggings, tights, woollen socks and boots (amongst other things), and that you haven’t jumped the seasonal gun. You look up and crane your neck to see the said person walking off in the distance, just to get a second look. No, you weren’t mistaken. They were indeed wearing FLIP FLOPS.

What is it with people who wear summer clothing, and, might I say, the most extreme summer clothing, in the depths of winter? What, I ask you, goes through their minds as they are getting dressed to leave the house? Can’t they see the frost on the pavement outside, or the icicles hanging from the drainpipe?!

I first came across this phenomenon at university, where I witnessed fellow (mainly male) students lolling about the campus in late November dressed in t-shirts, joggers and Havianas. Despite the fact that joggers are hardly the most flattering items for a man to wear at the best of times (can I apply the words ‘swinging about’ here?), it was even more ludicrous for them to have barely anything on their feet. Didn’t they get cold? Didn’t they get wet? Did wearing a selection of coloured Brazilian flip-flops really make them that cool? It’s tempting to think that the reasoning behind all of this is comfort and convenience.

I can understand the need to pop to the corner shop and back for a pint of milk in your pyjama bottoms and sandals, simply because you can’t be bothered to change and they’re the easiest things to slip on. I’ve even owned a few pairs of jogging bottoms in my life, and if they didn’t make me feel like a small, walking bin-liner with a saggy behind, I’d wear them outside all the time. They’re probably much warmer than a pair of jeans. But flip-flops, hot pants and vest tops? Ho-ho, you must be kidding.

It is precisely the thought, rather than the lack of it, that goes into all this that really rattles me. I appreciate the need to look attractive on a night out, but when I’m standing in a queue for a nightclub surrounded by girls in flannel-sized skirts, skin-tight vest tops and absurd heels, I’m torn between shouting at them and running home to grab my duvet in order to cover them up. It’s almost worst when the ridiculously inappropriate summer clothing is teamed with winter favourites; last weekend, on the way to watch a fireworks display, I spotted a girl wearing a t-shirt and a pair of flowery, cotton culottes, which just reached past her bottom. She was also wearing Ugg boots (shudder) and a very over-the-top faux-fur hat, with bobbles. This wasn’t comfort. It was called freezing your knackers off for the sake of fashion. A good combination it was not.

Perhaps my feelings over this issue stem from long-given advice on the part of my dear mother, who, when I was growing up and looking with mild envy at much cooler girls with miniature jackets, assured me that wearing the winter version of a crop-top would inevitably lead to a ‘chill on my kidneys’ and other assorted illnesses. I have occasionally dabbled in risky clothing decisions in the winter just to rebel, look nicer, or be a bit more original, but I’ve always come to the same conclusion. Blue lips, goose pimples, and chattering teeth? No, thank you. I’d rather have my circulation, and feel my toes at the end of the night. Read more by Rosie.

Friday, 5 November 2010

No exit: hell is public transport

I try not to get all snippy about public transport, since, deep down, I deem it a noble endeavour. Sadly, and with increasing frequency, my happy thoughts are being kicked around by newer, meaner, and altogether angrier ones. Why, you ask, could this be? Let’s break it down:

First of all, whilst in transit, you’re pretty much being held hostage (albeit in a mostly voluntary way). Younger people often capitalise on this by sharing their atrocious ‘musical’ choices with the captive commuters. Their motives must be sadistic, since surely they can glean no genuine pleasure from the pitifully tinny echoes of their current top 10. Even the vaguely considerate pod people (the ones who utilise headphones) sometimes turn their mind music up to a level that must hurt them even more than it does us.

Then there are the compulsive phone freaks. There are two camps: the texters and the talkers. I’m not sure which are more irksome. Sure, the chatters are more invasive, but there is something distinctly wrong about people staring at a little screen for the duration of their journey. Clearly, they are so unsettled by the bus and the other people (hideous as we are) that their only escape is to chain-text vapid missives to everyone in their phone book. Lack of imagination is a sorrowful thing to behold.

Let’s not gloss over the talkers. For some unfathomable reason they cannot spend a single moment alone (especially bus moments) without being hooked up to some idiotic acquaintance. I’m not sure if the recipients of these calls even speak; all you can hear is the desperate dialler wittering on about their various woes: their job (but of course), assorted offspring, boring health issues. On and on and on. This is how they prepare for their day.

I was recently privy to a delightful girl who bemoaned her sore throat to a friend for a solid 15 minutes (I shouldn’t be going to work but they won’t let me have time off…). One can only assume she was scheming to hasten her illness in order to better her chances of bussing it back home before 9:30, no doubt treating a fresh batch of commuters to a new joy-laden monologue. And then there are those who engage in fully animated gesticulation, even though the listener (or silenced screamer) is not around to appreciate the performance. This can be especially irksome if you happen to be perched within striking distance of flailing arms.

It’s not just the passengers – oh no. The bus itself comes with certain trappings. Like the omnipotent woman’s voice telling us where we’re going and – repeatedly – not to stand on the upper deck or stairs. Sometimes the drivers get bored with pressing the voice woman button and give the intercom a whirl; these are often special moments where, granted, the distance is still there, but the driver is at least trying to reach out to us, telling one of our number to come back down and pay their fare. If I had access to the mic, I’d use it to inform the other passengers that no, there are not any seats upstairs – if I’m standing on the stairs it’s because my mission to sit down has failed, leaving me stranded. Absurd as it may sound, some people really do seem to think I’m standing there for the hell of it.

Other messages are silent, like when the writing near the front of the bus informs us that we are now on diversion, and that our destination has changed, without ever getting around to letting us know where this mysterious place is. Other bits of communication – the best kind – are usually screamed. Like when the driver needs to override the Voice: one is telling us that the bus Terminates Here, the other tells us, ‘No, she’s lying! It’s okay; I’m going to Tottenham Court Road – please don’t get off the bus!’ But it’s too late. The trust has already been broken; we have been wronged too many times before.

The bus is hard on us all, pushing us towards a special type of madness. I recall one gentleman who didn’t have a phone, but that didn’t stop him muttering into his hand for a long, long time. (To his credit, his use of the hand appeared to be a failed attempt to mask or even stop his outbursts). I discovered a delightful audio story that kept me occupied for a while. It was an open letter to a doctor who engages in an inappropriate phonecall whilst on the bus. I also have a nice recording of The Yellow Wallpaper for especially perilsome journeys.

So what are the rest of us to do? The tube? I think not; the atrocities that occur on the bus are all the more harrowing underground. Walking would involve waking up hours before daylight happens, which leaves cycling. I must admit I have become quite tempted – think of all those jaunty, joyful folk you often see, or perhaps just imagine, astride their bicycles. Sure, I’ll most likely end ending up mangled, perhaps beholding one of my beloved buses from a whole new angle – assuming, of course, that I actually see it coming.

Our lovely London buses are so very apt of dispensing with misguided cyclists – this much has been told. And yet it shall happen: I am crossing over. Today I cycled to work for the first time. Perhaps I got lost more than once, and perhaps my accidental detours meant it took almost as long as the bus, but – for now, at least – it is more fun. Albeit in a not-finding-the-right-roads-and-trying-not-to-get-broken sort of way. Read more by Sam.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Kindly spare me the details

Minutiae, oh how I hate it. I’ve never been one to get bogged down in the finer details or spend an especially long time dotting i’s or crossing t’s -much to the chagrin of my former employers. Instead I tell myself I’m a concept person, all about the big picture, the big idea and the bottom line. Of course there have got to be box tickers lurking around behind the scenes making sure all the various admin gets done, papers filed and so forth. But let’s be honest, who really wants to hear about that?

I doubt you’ll see a new glam TV show premiering soon chronicling the trials, tribulations and love trysts of a bunch of office assistants. Not exactly cliffhanger material; Joe Public is highly unlikely to tune in each week to discover if that stationery order did come in on time and whether in fact there were enough green biros in it. No, instead we want to know about life and death, courtroom dramas and what the thin, pretty, suntanned girls from somewhere wealthy in California have chosen as the theme for their next school prom.

So we’re agreed, life’s little tedious things exist and have to be done but people are not interested in knowing all about them. Or are they? I can only assume the answer to be yes, as everywhere I look, turn or listen someone is either banging on about their lives in mind-numbing detail or worse still, encouraging me to talk about it. There’s small talk which I’m fairly partial to. Life’s too short and too tiring for big talk all the time. A gentle bit of conversation about not very much, especially with someone you don’t know terribly well, is a civilised way of interacting. However, there’s got to be a line or at least a sliding scale. What I’m complaining about here is the minniest, teeny-tiniest of talk. Chatter that makes discussing the weather look positively highbrow.

I’m sure anyone who has ever had the misfortune to work in an office has encountered one of the worst culprits of this horrid phenomenon: one half of an overly communicative couple. This is the person who rings their co-conspirator at lunch time (which they spend sitting at their desk surfing the internet and always look noticeably awkward when you invite them to the pub). The conversation, which is held in a whispery voice (you may well be ashamed of yourself), goes along the following lines: “What are you having?” Pause. “A sandwich.” Pause. “Tuna.” Pause. “Cucumber.” Pause. “Chocolate bar.” Pause. “Kit Kat. What are you having after yours?” Kill me, kill me now, or at least tie my arms so I can’t seize the telephone receiver and batter them to death with it before explaining down the line what I’ve done, blow by blood-spattering blow.

Since when did true love mean recounting the finer points of every morsel of food you’ve eaten that day? Or in fact ever? If that’s not bad enough then there is the person who questions you about the downright mundane, forcing you to come up with something to say about which there is nothing. “How was the supermarket?” this person will ask as you march back in with a carrier bag in your hand. It was a supermarket: irritating in its own right but also handy as it sells food. Then it moves onto: “Did you get anything nice?” Before you know it, you’re going through the plan for tonight’s dinner as if it were a military operation. 19.12: turn oven on to 180˚C, and so on.

And the whole time I’m thinking to myself that the other person cannot possibly be genuinely interested in my responses to these questions and is therefore either buttering me up for some truly horrible favour or having a bet with someone over how long they can keep me gibbering away. Either way, my gut instinct is to get the hell out of there and run for the hills.

If, by some miracle, you’ve survived the whole day of such torment, then it continues on the way home. Get people on a train armed with a mobile phone and they love to ring home (the place they will be in about half an hour) and go through every single tedious, uninteresting thing that happened to them. The outcome of the marketing meeting, how someone double booked a meeting room and what Jo from Accounts thinks of their new hairstyle ... and so it incessantly continues. In short: verbal torture against the eardrums of other hardworking, tired people who do not give a damn about your day.

Small talkers extraordinaire, please, stop invading the commutes of others with information you can easily discuss when in the privacy of your own home instead of instinctively turning the TV on and proceeding to ignore each other all evening. Or, maybe spend your journey reading a newspaper or a book so you’ve actually got something of interest to discuss. Or even better, meditate for a little while on why you’re so empty and needy you have to fill every waking moment with stream of babble about nothing very much. Read more by Rosie.