Sunday, 30 January 2011

For the consideration of others, please turn off your phone!

Mobile phones. They have become so ingrained in everyday life that we would most likely not know what to do without them; holding them has become second nature, almost as if they’re an extended part of our hands.

Fiddling with their buttons absent-mindedly, or attempting to crack the various levels of games offers one way to pass time when waiting for a train, a bus, or friends. Issues with dodgy signal, the expense, the inevitable radioactive brain freeze and the weird deep-vein thrombosis feeling in your arm after using them for a decent length of time aside, they are extremely useful and in some instances life-saving.

But let’s all agree for a moment. At times, isn’t it easy to think that they’re the bane of modern life?

They manage to creep into every single facet of life, including places where they are categorically not invited. The theatre and the cinema are two that spring to mind. We’re all familiar with the ‘don’t let your mobile phone ruin the movie’ trailers, but as I’ve experienced so far, they don’t really work. I recently saw Harry Potter in one of those huge Odeon cinemas. Ten minutes into the film a girl four rows down got out her phone to browse Facebook. For crying out loud.

Aside from the fact that the light from her phone was terrifically distracting, who the hell starts social networking when they’re at the cinema? Who is that much of a slave to their cyber social life? And who has the attention span of a gnat to give up on a film so quickly? I personally managed forty minutes of The Wedding Crashers, a film so bad I have had constant nightmares about Owen Wilson’s nose ever since, before walking out. Even then I didn’t resort to my phone for comfort.

Then there’s the theatre. It’s more of a treat to go to the theatre, a little more cultured. Most of the audience will be of your parents’ or grandparents’ generation, so you’re lulled into the assumption that the majority have the decency and manners to turn off their phones, if they even own one.

Not a bit of it. Last night, whilst at the glorious Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, a woman at the back let her phone ring three times before the eventually the actors intervened and gave her a good mouthful. Luckily, the play itself involved mobile phone sounds, so the cast could be fairly good-humoured about it. despite the outraged huffing and puffing from the audience. Unfortunately, the offender didn’t do much to help her fast-growing reputation as public enemy number one by calling out ‘I don’t know how to turn it off!’  Who has a mobile phone they can’t operate? I hope she thanked her lucky stars it wasn’t Shakespeare.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not 100% chaste. I’ve definitely heard mine whirring away in my bag on unsuitable occasions, trying desperately to cough loudly enough to cover the noise up. But I am bemused at the situations in which people think it is perfectly acceptable to use their phone, forcing everyone else to join in on the experience, whether they wish to or not.

We’ve all been next to the guy on the train forcing everyone within the radius of three carriages to know that he was ‘TOTALLY FUCKING WASTED LAST NIGHT’, and the vacuous girl who manages to have a conversation that doesn’t actually involve any real information. ‘I know, I was like totally…yah, I know, I just said to him like, it’s…really?! Yah, I know…I was like…oh my God, I KNOW!’ Why don’t the socially inept and those with little or no manners realise they are just being a plain sodding nuisance?

And then there’s dating. Most definitely NOT the time to constantly fiddle with your phone. We’d all like the person we’re sat opposite to think we are at a least relatively interesting, or attractive. However, here’s a stark warning: there are people out there who, on a date, will not only make you feel invisible by regularly glancing down at their mobile, but who actually have the nerve to text someone else whilst you’re talking to them, as if you’re just an interruption to their evening. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the hat trick: they’ll wave their phone in your face at some point to let you know they’ve received a text message which they are powerless to ignore, and make up some wet excuse to leave. I think I’d even prefer the fake emergency phonecall to that.

So, what to do? We can hardly get rid of them. But, just in case you do come face to face with those who ignore basic etiquette and manners from time to time, make sure you order enough surplus popcorn to throw at tossers in the cinema, and thoroughly enjoy the self-righteous moan you can have in the theatre when the perfect moment of poignant silence is broken. If in doubt, practise your best angry glare, and, if you can, move seats on the train. Better still, keep it in your bag once in a while, to savour the messages when you do finally have a quick peek at work. And most importantly of all? Sometimes, just sometimes – turn it off. Read more by Rosie.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

The icing on the cake? Common sense, apparently...

With Christmas thankfully dispatched for another year and many more weeks of long winter evenings, what better time to take up a new hobby? Combining my love of food and talents more usually associated with your Gran (please see my efforts at mastering knitting), I signed up for class named ‘Cake Decorating for Beginners’ and thus began my first foray into the weird and wonderful world of local authority-subsidised adult learning.

The weekly classes, held in an old, grand Victorian school building complete with the antiquated signs marking boys’ and girls’ separate entrances, began with the inevitable getting-to-know-you ice breakers, the prospect of which makes most civilised people want to groan out loud in sheer dread.

Once the teacher had furnished us all with her life story, the students were encouraged to do the same. As this is all about buzz words like ‘inclusivity’, ‘diversity’ and never, ever, on pain of death, discriminating against anyone at any time, for any reason, we didn’t go round the group à la corporate training courses and most other situations where people have to introduce themselves. Instead we were invited to chip in only when we felt ready to. Nothing so draconian as having to take turns. How wonderfully liberal yet senselessly time consuming, as throats were cleared and everyone looked awkward and shuffled.


The only man of the group began. No surprises there. Sorry chaps, but it’s a known fact that you love to steam roller ahead in such situations. Twenty minutes crawled past as we went through employment history (recently took early retirement from middle management in the Post Office), marital status (was engaged a few years ago but now single) and other interests (learning to cook and gardening). I suddenly felt as if I’d spent more time with him recently than my nearest and dearest.

Next up was a lady who talked at length about a bereavement she’d suffered. Now, I would never gripe about someone needing to talk about their loss as a part of their own grieving process. Unless it had all happened more than 20 years prior and had nothing whatsoever to do with learning to cake decorate. After two such lengthy and personal disclosures an uncomfortable silence fell over the room. No one wanted to be the next person to go. What could you say? How much delicate detail would you have to go into to top that?

It was mild despair that made me suddenly blurt out, a little too loudly: “I’m Rosie. I can bake but I’m not very good at decorating cakes and would like to learn how to do that”. Silence was maintained for a full minute; the clock ticked, possibly even the only bit of tumbleweed in South London blew past outside. Even the teacher didn’t quite know how to respond to my direct, yet highly relevant statement.


The following week, as we practised applying icing to a dummy cake (yes, such things exist), more personal information was traded. The very nice woman at the workstation next to me confided all her medical history and details of the time spent in hospital after being sectioned by Dr Raj off the telly. I didn’t have the heart to ask what her name was again.

Two latecomers joined the class: one heavily pregnant teenager and another woman so obese she couldn’t stand unaided. Should she really be learning how to add more calories to a cake?

All these people from different walks of life had one major thing in common: they were totally incapable of baking. Anything. When asked to bring a cake in to work on the following week panic erupted. The teacher, in a bid to quell the mounting hysteria, recommended buying one from the supermarket. But it didn’t calm the mood in the classroom. 

I suggested looking online for an easy recipe but they were too far gone down the route of out-and-out terror. Only the soothing maternal reassurances from the teacher that she would personally bake them one each and bring it in next week (at a cost) took them from a near-frenzied mob back to a group of adult learning students.

And that was when I cracked. My desire to be an epic smartarse overcame my manners and I had to sarcastically ask what were my fellow students planning on embellishing with their icing sugar and egg white mix on if the act of combining butter, sugar, eggs and flour and then heating was so anathema? Even more peculiarly the same centre ran a course called ‘An Introduction to Cake Baking’ and suggested students consider taking it in conjunction. Of course none of these bake-o-phobes had taken up the offer.

As the only person who had made the logical progression from mastering baking tasty, ugly cakes to wanting to create something prettier, I was genuinely mystified as to why all the other students were there. There is no conceivable reason for learning such complex sugar techniques if your eventual plan is stand poised with a piping bag ready to ice onto a nice eight square inches of nothing at all.

However, it’s slowly becoming clear to me that what I have in fact signed up for is a big, bizarre weekly group counselling session. But, at £90 for a 10-week course, it’s far cheaper than proper therapy and you get the added benefit of learning a few new skills too. Read more by Rosie.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

One is certainly not on work experience!

Like many people, I have a job. I’ve had a job for several years, and before that I had a different job, and another one before that, all the way back to the shelf-stacking I did in Marks and Spencer’s when I was 16. (And there are years of pent-up rage in that one, but for the moment, let’s move on.)

Having a job is something that many people do, and as people go, I think I do fairly well at it. For instance, I arrive at work on time. I sit at a desk and drink cups of coffee and own a stapler. I have an extension number and a professional email address that is based on my real name. I do the tasks I’m paid to do (and sometimes, when I’m in a really good mood, I do things I’m not paid to do, because I’m just that nice).

I don’t insist on turning up to work wearing my pyjamas or a Spider-Man costume or a t-shirt with jam down the front of it - and if I did want to wear any of these items, I would simply do so, and not throw myself on the floor and scream until I threw up to ensure that I was allowed to. (And, to be perfectly frank, I work at a university, so given the presence of hippy students and slightly mad academics I probably wouldn’t look especially out of place. I digress, however.) I even go to meetings, although I confess I’m still not entirely sure what they’re for.

The point is, at the age of 28, I appear to be doing a fairly good job of masquerading as a responsible adult. So why have I noticed certain older colleagues treating me, and talking to me, as if I’m somewhere between six and 16 years old? Put simply, why does everyone seem to think I’m here on work experience?

This annoying phenomenon manifests itself in mainly subtle ways that I suspect go unnoticed by others, even by the people doing it. The tone of voice that people take when they ask me to do something comes laced with the tiniest hint of condescension. The tasks I end up with, more often than not, are closer to “alphabetise these three items” or “break down this box” than to “use your gigantic brain to build a robot”. When my closest colleague (older, and a parent, and a driver, and other things associated with being an adult) goes above and beyond the call of duty, the grateful recipient might bring him a bottle of wine as a thank-you; when I do the same, I’m more likely to get biscuits. (I mean, they tend to be nice biscuits; we’re not talking Rusks here, but still.) 

Sometimes it’s even more explicit: a few months ago I greeted an older colleague as I passed him in the corridor, as one does. He stopped, and turned, and looked at me while half-smiling and frowning a little, as if trying to place me, then snapped his fingers and said: “Of course! You’re Alan’s daughter, aren’t you? How’s the work experience going?” It’s not as if I was still new at that point, either - I had been doing my job for at least a year.

It happened at my last job too; in particular, I noticed that colleagues who were employed to do the same thing as me, sometimes who had started later than me and had less knowledge of the environment, would feel justified in talking down to me and passing on to me the most brain-meltingly tedious work, simply because they were older and therefore “in charge”. Never mind that in many cases I had more experience, better qualifications, and a more thorough understanding of practice.


I’m not the only person I know to have experienced such a phenomenon, either. Take my friend Lisa: she is 28, and a university graduate, and has been in employment for over a decade. She currently works in administration for a research centre specialising in cancer patients. Recently, a new colleague, a middle-aged woman, started working there too. On her first day, she turned to Lisa and with a beaming smile, asked her: “Is this your first job, dear?”

Like Rosie, I’ve been told that I look younger than I am (also like Rosie, I am regularly told I can’t buy that bottle of Fair Trade red wine, despite the fact that no self-respecting underage drinker would choose to drink anything other than White Lightning and nail varnish remover - although I suspect I may be veering off my point). So maybe it’s a simple misunderstanding and these people genuinely believe I need babysitting. Or perhaps it’s some bizarre biological instinct that makes these people talk to me this way; if I’m young enough to be someone’s daughter, then my presence provokes some dormant evolutionary urge, and if I wait long enough then they’ll start regurgitating food at me or something. 

But, deep down, I can’t help worrying that this happens because they’re seeing through me, because I don’t actually feel like a grown-up at all, and maybe they can tell that. Maybe they know that while I sit there and nod and say things like “I’m not sure that’s workable” and appear to take notes during meetings, I’m actually doodling crudely-rendered male genitalia in the margins of the agenda and wondering if it really matters that the name of the committee was changed but not everyone was consulted. And one of these days I’ll be discovered, and I won’t be allowed to have a job any more, and I’ll have to spend all day watching children’s TV and wearing Spider-Man pyjamas.

... What was the problem, again?

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Train Commandments

I am on a train for around 90 minutes in total each day. God, that’s depressing. It’s not the best part of my day. It’s a space in which getting a seat is a highlight, and something you feel a bit smug about even if it’s only for five minutes so, hardly something to shout about.

But, after yet another journey of suffering people who either have no manners, no sense or just no awareness of anything around them other than their nose, I thought it was worth blogging about. And so, without further ado: The Train Commandments. Please try to remember at least one of the points when you next board a train. Or, indeed, any form of transport where other human beings are present. 

1. Thou shalt allow air into the train
I like air. Don’t you? Nice fresh air that wakes you up a little, helps you breathe, you know the stuff. So why, oh dear commuter, must you sit there idly, in your privileged window seat, as we all roast in this cabin of heated hell? If the windows are steamy, it’s not for drawing in it’s sweat and breath and goodness knows what else, so open a window. It won’t bite. If there is not a single window open on your carriage, despite it being full of people sitting and standing in every space available, open a window. I don’t care if it’s raining. I don’t care if it’s snowing. You’re probably wearing a coat. Man up and open it so that we don’t all have to sweat and smell each other’s breath there’s just no need to do that with strangers. 

2. Thou shalt not sit next to your invisible friend
Are you sitting on the aisle side? Look at the seat next to you. Is it empty? Now look around the carriage. Is the train getting full? Are people standing? Are you approaching a station with a platform full of people? Here’s a thought: don’t keep an empty seat next to you for no reason. Someone will see it and they will climb over you to get to it. That will be awkward, they might even touch you a bit with their boot, and given that you like sitting next to empty seats, that can’t be good. Shuffle over to the window side (or the middle if you’re in a row of three, there you go) and let someone sit down without having to negotiate the space between your feet and bags. Oh, and bags on a seat? Don’t you dare.  

3. Thou shalt remember your table manners, or find some
There’s a reason kids are told to chew with their mouths closed: it’s in the hope that they will remember it as they grow older and learn to eat like civilised human beings. None of us wants to see that mashed up Maccy Ds in your mouth. More importantly, none of us wants to hear you as you munch it, followed by a slurp of your drink, followed by more munching and loud exhaling through your nose. We don’t want to see crumbs falling all over the seat. If you must eat food while travelling (we’ve all been there), at least get something that doesn’t stink, doesn’t make too much noise and that isn’t messy. A Twitter friend had to sit on a train with a woman standing up, eating a Wasabi noodle soup. One can only imagine how sickening that carriage was, with its lack of windows open, full of people standing because the seats were filled by imaginary friends, while she slurped on soup. 

4. Thou shalt bend with thy knees
When you’re standing on a train and need to pick up your suitcase/briefcase/Maccy Ds wrapper, remember: trains are quite small. People sitting down are at about waist height. If you then bend over, from your waist, to pick up said item, you are quite possibly going to thrust your backside into someone’s face a little. This is bad etiquette. It is unnecessary. Simply bend at the knees and away you go, with no awkward encounters and probably no back problems because you really should lift with your knees, not your back. Those wrappers can be heavy. 

5. Thou shalt not infect the Metro
We all hate having coughs and colds and flu because we’re British and we still have to go to work and make sure we infect everyone else. But when you’re on a train, on your not-so-merry way to work, and that little tickle comes along, don’t sneeze into your Metro. Don’t cough into it. That is not a substitute for being polite. Use your elbow or hands to catch your grimy germs or, even better, use a tissue. Or even better than that, stay at home. No one wants to touch your germy dribble while reading about the royal wedding.

6. Thou shalt limit yourself to your assigned amount of space
Train seats aren’t luxurious, or wide, or particularly comfy, but they are a certain size. They are all the same size. Which means even if you are reading a newspaper next to someone who isn’t, that does not give you the right to elbow them in the ribs as you do so. Nor does it give you the right to spread your paper across into their space. And if you do, you cannot then get mad that they begin to read it. In fact, they should probably be allowed to turn the page.  

7. Thou shalt not try to get on the train before everyone is off it
Remember Funhouse? Well, in the final part of the game they had to wait for their team mate to come out of the funhouse before they could go in. Like a relay. Apply this logic to trains. Not only do you look like an impatient child when you shove your way past an old lady who is being slow at stepping off the train, but you are actually being stupid. The more people who get off the train, the more space there will be on the train. Let them get off, considering it’s their stop after all, and when you step on there will be more seats to choose from. See?

8. Thou shalt at least pretend to understand how annoying your voice is
It’s fine to have a phone conversation on a train. Really it is. But do you have to be so LOUD? We don’t actually need to know that your best friend has annoyed you, or that you didn’t get a pay rise. We’re not going to sympathise as we are busy trying to breathe in this airless carriage while not slapping the guy digging his elbows into our ribs. At least try to talk a little quieter or keep it short we’ll know you tried, and we’ll hate you less.  

9. Thou shalt not suffocate those who are seated
It is unfair that you have to stand for part or all of your journey. We get that, we have been there. But We, the Seated, do not deserve to be suffocated by your coat. Or your bag. Or your scarf. Or your dreadlocks (seriously, this happened this morning, I felt quite pukey). Remember that the aisle, like the seats, is a certain size, and while those people sitting down may look comfy, it doesn’t mean they can handle having all the air, even the recycled air, taken away because you need to lean. This is no place for leaning. 

10. Thou shalt offer your seat to those who need it
A slightly more serious one to finish, but one that shouldn’t even need to be said. No seats left and a pregnant woman gets on? Get up. No seats and some elderly people get on? Get up. No seats and a disabled person gets on? Get up. Just be nice – it’s not hard. No one will think less of you, even in London. You might even get a smile out of someone – and that is something to shout about... 

The Train Commandments were originally published on Judy’s website, here.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Upselling: how upsetting!

I’m terribly pleased to see that customer service is on people’s minds at the moment; with Michel Roux’s Service underway on the BBC, and Mary Portas: Secret Shopper starting on Channel 4 this week, it’s clear that we’re finally squaring up to Britain’s abysmal service culture and saying “now look here, this isn’t good enough”.

We have put up for far too long with the “there you go” waiter and the “if it’s not on the shop floor, we don’t have it” gum-chewing shop assistant, and we’ve somehow come to accept that on most occasions the person paid to help customers doesn’t see any particular need to stop talking to her colleague to speak to us, or even make eye contact.

And at the other end of the scale, we’ve allowed obnoxiously over-familiar techniques to become standard: the ‘server’ who bounds up to your table and says “hey guys!” as though he’s known you all his life; the shouty and impatient  baristas barking “next, please!” and “eat in or take away?”, trained to get city lunchers out of the way as soon as possible; and the aggressive and manipulative practice of flogging you more things than you ordered, that crude and hateful sales technique known as ‘upselling’.

“Any coffee for you?” asks the barista, breezily, as you stand ready to pay for the sandwich you’ve selected from the chiller and brought up to the counter. “Err, no, thank you, just the sandwich, please,” you reply, aggrieved, wondering why she couldn’t have just waited for you to order the coffee if you wanted it. “Any cookies or crisps with that?” Pause, while you sigh, yet more aggrieved. “No, as I said, it’ll just be the sandwich today. Thank you.” And it feels as though you’re holding up a shield to deflect all the gratuitous muffins, crisps and chocolatey extras being shoved in your face and heaped on top of your order. And you pay and leave with the uncomfortable feeling of having been brazenly manipulated, wondering when on earth it became acceptable to be so openly money-grabbing.

“It irks me because it’s just so insultingly obvious. Do they think they’re Derren Brown all of a sudden?”

The waiter’s once-simple task of listening to a table of customers make their order has turned into an elaborate upselling opportunity. “Any side salads with that? Fries? More drinks?” No, no, and no. I have no problem with a waiter asking a broader, polite question to round off the order, such as “will that be all?” A question of that ilk is useful; it lets the customer know that there’s no rush, there’s still an opportunity to add something else before the order is closed. It’s the offering of specific extras that irks me: salads, fries, muffins. It’s rude because it’s presumptuous; the waiter or barista shouldn’t presume that a muffin is the ideal side order to accompany your sandwich. What if you’re allergic, or simply cake-averse? Gently asking “is there anything else you’d like?” is entirely appropriate, but wading in with suggested bonus items – and let’s get real; it’s so that you’ll spend more, not because they care about creating the perfect meal for you – is intrusive and rude.

It irks me also because it’s just so insultingly obvious. Restaurants and cafes must have a very low regard for their customers if they think we’re going to be taken in by such a blatantly manipulative sales technique. Do they think they’re Derren Brown all of a sudden? That we’ll hear “any muffins with that?” and mysteriously not be able to control our urge to buy a muffin we didn’t know we wanted?  

I’d have thought that the first rule of retail and customer service would be to presume a certain level of intelligence in your customer. It’s charm, flattery and politeness that do the work in encouraging a customer to spend more, not crude retail techniques that she can see straight through. Sadly, customer service in Britain is largely utterly charmless, rude and insulting, and upselling is one of the worst features. It’s got to the point where I’m considering pre-empting it as soon as I get to the counter, sticking my hand up and saying “hold the muffins! I just want this sandwich! This. Sandwich. Alone!” Read more by Maddie.

Best wishes to Michel Roux Jr. and to Mary Portas, both of whom are flying the flag for better customer service – and were right behind their missions.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

Starter for ten: how old are you?

I have a question: since when has it become acceptable to ask a woman her age? Is it just me or is everyone else suffering from this unpleasant change in manners rules? For all your sakes, I hope it’s not universal; that I’m the only one undergoing this new form of intrusive rudeness.

Either way I have personally been suffering greatly. Let me explain. I must look younger than I am. That’s not me being big-headed; it’s based on the fact that the whole world can’t stop asking me for ID. The same supermarket I’ve frequented at least once a week for last half a decade won’t sell me a drop of the hard stuff without first seeing my driving licence.

It doesn’t matter if I’m buying a bottle of vodka and a jumbo packet of condoms or a hundred quid’s worth of tinned tuna, loo roll, satsumas and one small bottle of beer: I’ll be asked either way. Whether in a work suit or super casual in tracky bums and one of those body warmer thingies that fashionistas attempt to justify by calling a ‘gillet’, I don't seem to be able to pass for 18.

I firmly believe that height has a bearing on this misconception. At 5’4”, I’m two inches shorter than the average British woman and, even though not tiny by any stretch of the imagination, a bit littler than many others. A friend of mine who is 5’11” bitterly complains about never being asked to prove her age.

“Come to the pub with me,” I promised. “You’ll be asked then.” And so we were, by a very young person only just old enough to work there. My friend beamed with pride as she handed her ID over for inspection. “What a compliment!” she gushed. Teenage barmaid then thoroughly ruined the moment for all concerned by letting slip the damning remark: “Oh my god, you’re old!” We were 24 at the time.

“They’ll say something along the lines of: ‘You really do look younger!’ Thanks, but I still think you’re a tool.”

That particularly soul-crushing incident aside, now I find the thing about looking younger than one’s years is that your conversation sounds odd to others. People can’t understand why I’m banging on about spending my Saturday nights on the sofa under a blanket handmade by aunt, sipping wine and watching Jonathan Creek on DVD (I have the complete box set) instead of talking about the wild and crazy parties I go to. And this confusion manifests itself in a question to clarify my exact age.

Of course I smile, in a gentle yet patronising way, and reply: “It’s rude to ask a woman her age.” Once upon a time that would have been the end of the matter, but not any more. Now the blighters invariably come back with things like “but seriously, how old are you?” Which forces me to snap back with “but seriously, it’s rude to ask.”

However, I often give in and reveal the much discussed number for no other reason than I want to conversation to move on and it’s clear that it’s not going to without some form of personal revelation on my part. At times like this I feel like defiantly asking: “Is there anything else you’d like to know? My bra size, maybe? Or my income last year as per my tax return?”

Last time I checked with my etiquette guru, the rule was that a lady never mentions figures explicitly. It’s fine to say dinner was expensive, but not exactly how much you paid. Similarly there’s nothing wrong with saying you’ve dropped a dress size but it’s less tasteful to specify which one you now wear. References and allusions are permissible but tricky to get quite right. If you find yourself ending a sentence with ‘if you know what I mean” then you can be confident you’ve got it wrong.

Coming out and demanding an actual number is never, ever acceptable. Furthermore, then refusing to let the matter drop until you’ve got it, is nothing short of conversational bullying. Most of the time the social nemesis is gracious enough to be a good winner once they’ve wrestled me into age disclosure submission.

They’ll say something along the lines of: “You really do look younger!” Thanks, but I still think you’re a tool. Before you berate me for being ungrateful, I do accept it’s a compliment of sorts. Maybe only because I’ve been brainwashed by countless Sainsbury’s cashiers into believing that and now blindly accept it as fact.

Don’t worry, I’m not smug about it. My lifestyle of hard drinking and worrying will soon make deep inroads into youthful appearance and I can then enjoy watching people awkwardly trying not to tell me I look older than I am. Read more by Rosie.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Need to see the doctor, do you? Receptionist says no.

Visiting your GP is never a good thing. It’s either because you have some strange disease that hours trawling the internet have failed to diagnose, or a bleak reminder of what might go wrong.

Routine blood tests which could one day reveal a whole heap of nasties; the lecture on the risk of diabetes and heart disease if our BMI or blood pressure goes on the rampage. Not to mention the review of contraception and that dreaded, three-yearly ordeal, the smear test, enough to send me scurrying off to bed with a hot water bottle and a cup of cocoa.

All the above are necessary evils which, like everyone else, I grin and bear in the faith that it will do me good to get my ailments diagnosed and my various bodily bits tried and tested. Yet, there is one more thing that puts me off picking up the phone and making that all-too-important appointment: The Receptionist.

She really scares me.

Not in a big, henchman kind of way, but in the way that I know that I am not going to get what I want whenever she picks up the phone. I recognise her voice straight away. Her hardened monotonous tone makes my heart sink as I realise that Lovely Other Receptionist is clearly not answering the phone that day.

The conversation usually starts like this:

Her: Medical Centre.
Me: Hello, can I make an appointment to see Dr X, please.
Her: (pause) Dr X does not have an appointment until two weeks on Tuesday. 11.15.
Me: Err, does she not have anything sooner, and first or last thing? I work, you see...
Her: (pause, huff, keyboard clatter) I can do two weeks today at 2.45.
Me: Does she have anything after five o’clock anytime?
Her: (tutting, pause) She has an appointment at 4.30 three weeks on Wednesday.

And so it goes on. The thing is, I know my GP will have an appointment sooner and at a more convenient time, because whenever I talk to Lovely Other Receptionist, the whole rigmarole tends to go a lot more smoothly.

Then, of course, last month I made a fatal error. I ran out of the pill and needed to see the nurse to get another prescription. Like, urgently.

I called the surgery.

Her: You will have to come to the walk-in clinic at 9.30 tomorrow.
Me: (stammering) Can I not see someone at the early morning clinic?
Her: No. Not for the pill.
Me: (humbled) I know this is all my fault, but is it not possible to see someone before 9 or after 5?
Her: (pause) You can see Dr Y next Friday at 5.15
Me: But I really need to see someone before then.
Her: Then you will have to come to the clinic tomorrow at 9.30. (Pregnant pause.) I need to answer other calls. Goodbye.

Needless to say, I ended up late for college after camping outside the Medical Centre from 8.30am the following morning in my quest to be seen first. Luckily Lovely Other Receptionist was on duty and took pity on me, assuring me that I would be seen first and giving me permission to get myself a coffee and bacon butty in the cafe next door before I froze to death.

Today, I had the joy of speaking to her again. I needed a repeat prescription.

Her: We don’t do repeat prescriptions over the phone.
Me: So what do I need to do?
Her: Come into the surgery to fill out a form.

With a sigh I hung up, and, five hours later, rocked up on my way to the gym. She was still there. With a chipper smile, I gave her my request and my details. She printed out a prescription and asked me to tick what it was I required. I obeyed. She looked at me. Coldly. 

Her: It will be ready in two days.
Me: Is that it?
Her: (smirking) Yes.

So, I had to go into the surgery to tick a piece of paper. She couldn’t do that over the phone. She needed me to physically mark that piece of paper. Myself.

I know what you are going to say: I need to be more organised and make my appointments in advance and just get over the fact that I need to go into the surgery in person to get a repeat prescription. Twice. And I accept this. But does she really have to be so difficult? Does getting a medical appointment have to be such an arduous task? Must I fear The Receptionist more than the woman who is going to stick some cold bit of metal up my nether regions once I get past her interrogation?

I just pray to God that the slight tickle at the back of my throat doesn’t turn out to be tonsillitis. Being ill I can cope with. But The Receptionist? She might just be too much for me to take. Read more by Shelly.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Please drink responsibly? Many of us already do, thank you very much!

Ah, the New Year. The calm after the storm, or should that be the slump after the storm? Storm, at least, is the right word, as there always seems to be a certain amount of recovery required. Well, it is assumed that recovery is required, with the finger steadily aimed at us, the young.

It is a special time of year, bringing a sense of hope with the newness of it all, as well as an excuse to celebrate to incapacity. I say excuse; it’s almost a requirement as anything else will simply not do.

I have to make an admission, which may seem like a strange one for a woman my age, so brace yourself but, I barely drink. I can’t say that I’m teetotal, but I’m much closer to that than to the habits of those I hear screaming incoherently as they stagger along my street at three in the morning. I do drink, but not to excess and not that regularly.

If that is the way you choose to celebrate, more power to you. However, that shouldn’t result in the assumption that all of us will do the same. I resent it. In the week before Christmas, at an event I attend regularly, I was told that I didn’t have to come in the following week. Not because the facility was closed, but because it was assumed that I would be the worse for wear. The phrase “on the sauce” was actually used.

I did briefly wonder whether there was something else about me that gives the impression that I’m an irresponsible lush – maybe people just think that I need a drink – but I quickly rubbished that idea. It’s just what’s expected from the young during the festive period. It starts at Christmas and lasts until well into the New Year. We’re all supposed to be drinking on a constant basis in a period when asking for a soft drink earns you a look usually reserved for recently crash-landed aliens.

Alcohol makes me talk nonsense and feel sleepy. I recall a particular occasion in my younger days when I was involved in a full-blown, alcohol-inspired debate about the type of fabrics that shrink and/or stretch in the washing machine – no use, or interest, to anyone.

Of course, the effects wear off, but that just leaves me feeling as though I have spent the night swallowing rocks and stuffing cotton wool into every orifice in my head. So forgive me if I want to avoid it, but I’m perfectly capable of having a good time with little or no alcohol.

This is especially handy when you recognise that the world continues to turn and things still need to be done; things that are infinitely easier when you don’t have to hold your head for fear of it floating away or falling off, or praying to the porcelain Gods.

The tradition of New Year’s resolutions seems to me to be rooted in the need to detox after all the revelry. I can’t help thinking life would be so much easier if people didn’t assume that we are all in the same position of needing hangover cures and calling in sick. And, from what I can see, this tendency is certainly not confined to the young – whether grumpy or not. Read more by Shermaine.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Give up my elasticated waistbands? Pull the other one!

I start this new year with an admission, which I hope you might applaud in the manner of a group therapy session: I’m Maddie, and I wear trousers with elasticated waistbands. I’ve simply never managed to be comfortable in actual trousers. Leggings, yes; tracksuit bottoms, natch. But actual fitted, designed trousers with buttons, a zip and proper seams? Definitely not.

I have a very bad history with trousers. I hate them; they seem to hate me in return. Shopping for them brings me out in a rage that ain’t pretty. And if I do actually buy any and get as far as wearing them, I become so uncomfortable I end up crying ginfully and ripping them off my poor compressed torso which sports the red marks left by buttons and bands that have dug into it all day.

Yes, I’m only 25 and I am already showing a preference for the elasticated waistband. And this is not some sort of ironic ‘young fogey’, geek-chic fashion statement – I don’t live in Shoreditch, you know – but rather a strategy that has come about by necessity and concern for my health: I physically can’t get through a day wearing any of the trousers that are on offer in shops these days. I can’t breathe properly in them, and I can’t sit down without them digging into my reproductive regions. I don’t care enough about fashion (I don’t actually care at all about fashion, truth be told) to give up my right to get through my life being able to breathe, eat, sit down, and one day bear children.

Modern trouser design shows a flagrant disregard for women’s real shapes, persisting in pushing the infuriating notion of the ‘hipster’ waistline, which fits and flatters precisely no woman who ever existed. The anger I experience as I shop for trousers – trying on pair after pair and going up and up and up the sizes, still not managing to get the blighters to go over my hips and actually do up without gaping at the back – is not caused by feeling bad about my own body, but by the outrage that the poxy shops are getting away with flogging us their stupid, unfeasible designs season after season.


I’ve given up attempting to align myself with any sort of retail-friendly dress size, because they’re all bollocks – especially with trousers and skirts and any item that has anything to do with the bottom area. I’m a completely different size from one idiotic shop to the next. Standing in front of a mirror in my birthday suit, I’m not unhappy with what I see; I’ve got some curvy bits and some bulgy bits, quite thin legs and a bit more going on in the upstairs area, but generally I don’t wince or weep or start thinking of drastic diet plans. All in all, I’d say I’m quite slender. This translates, ridiculously, as an 8 or an unfathomably vague ‘small’ in some shops, and a 12 or a ‘medium’ elsewhere. And that’s for the tops and shirts. For trousers, I’ve tried on anything from an 8 to a 14 and still not worked out what the hell my size is supposed to be and, no matter how many sizes I try, I still leave the changing room almost in tears and clawing about for the nearest cocktail.

When are shops, or designers, or buyers, or whoever is responsible for these matters, going to change the sodding record and try something new for us – something that allows for the fact that a woman has an actual stomach, some hips and a reasonable desire not to reveal her underwear every time she sits down? Until that happens, I’m left with no option, if I want to preserve my dignity, my ability to breathe, and my fertility potential, other than schlumping around in leggings with elasticated waistbands. Here’s another admission for 2011: I’m Maddie, and I think modern trouser design for women is a load of tosh. Read more by Maddie.