Monday, 26 October 2009

In which I post this completely by magic.

To be printed 29/10/09.

So, ever to be the first one laying down the blankets and handing out the sausage rolls on the bandwagon, The Guardian is already bidding sweet adieu to 2009. Last Saturday saw its Weekend Magazine decreed the “Noughties Issue”, dedicated to political, cultural, technological, social, environmental and fashion(al) recap of the decade.

The conclusion, ominously foreshadowed by the issue’s solid black cover, was pretty bleak. It went along the lines of “war, war, terrorism, war, Jade Goody died, more war. But hey, we got Wikipedia!” Yes, apparently the world wide web is the sole redeeming feature of the decade. Where the 70s had feminism, the 80s had microwave meals and the 90s had, um, lycra, we have whizzy technology. We may be living in a time of global terror and bomb-happy politicians, but at least we’re doing it with iPhone apps that can make your bed for you. AND Big Brother’s ending!

It’s an idea particularly close to my blackened, 21st Century heart this week. Because as you read this, I will be nearing saturation point in the biggest internet binge known to… woman. I will have RSI in my clicking finger, mild screen blindness and the kind of giddy, racing headstate that comes from reading four gossip site mailouts, doing the British counties quiz on Sporcle, and watching three weeks’ worth of America’s Next Top Model simultaneously. I will have updated enough statuses to recap on every emotion experienced in the greater part of October, and tweeted in a fashion to make Stephen Fry look trappist. I will be OH. SO. HAPPY.

As I write this, however (forgive me blasting that popular myth of modern print journalism, that I am actually IN the paper, thinking aloud as you eat your Shreddies), I am in a different state entirely. I am right at the end of a trial. It has been a test in endurance and deprivation, one that has forced me to actually function differently as a human. Or, as my flatmate put it, “like living in that 1900 house. Without Channel 4 paying us.” You see, we have gone two and a half weeks without the internet. *Gasp, sigh, applaud*.

I do remember, in the vague recesses of late September, that there was a good reason for changing service providers. As far as I can recall, it may have involved: a) mild incompetence, b) gross incompetence, c) my making a nice call centre employee cry, or d) all of the above. But all the logic has since been obscured by the dull, throbbing pain of internet abstinence, Now, as Lou Reed almost sang, I’m waiting for my (Virgin Media) man.

It’s a bourgeois cliché, of course, to pretend that spending 17 days without YouTube has somehow made me a better person. And it hasn’t. It hasn’t enlightened me, or helped me appreciate the simpler things in life, or sent me dashing out to buy a quill to pen letters to my nearest and dearest, which will be all the more full of love for their being written on paper, and never featuring the phrase ‘zomg’. No. It has taught me one thing, and that one thing is this: I really love the internet.

The internet is bloody great. Yes, my life is fine without it, but in almost every possible way better with it (that “almost” accounts for the £7 a month richer I would be if I gave it up, which I would spend on books. To throw at the wall in desperation). The internet is the first thing I turn to in the morning, and the last thing I talk to at night. The internet is awesome. Yay, internet!

* * * * * * * * * *

Ironic career move of the week: Fearne Cotton presenting a mini series of documentaries about unpopular, over-hyped, largely talentless, young female celebs. But her effort was not to waste. From Fearne, we can all learn this lesson – if you want to seem less irritating, stand as near as you can to Peaches Geldof.

* * * * * * * * * *

While we’re on the topic of people we’d all like to punch, I’d like to take this chance to mention the new Kingsmill Little Big Loaf advert. You know the one, the one with the welsh girl and the bloke who wants to cuddle. That one.

My Kingsmill confession? Never before would I have thought it possible to actually develop a wheat intolerance through my television.

Monday, 19 October 2009

I which I bid farewell to the buzz.

To be printed 22/10/09. 

I am giving up coffee.

I am reclaiming control of my own nervous system! Instead of denying tiredness and suppressing it with pretend, caffeinated energy, I intend to learn to accept it as nature’s way of telling me to lie on a sofa with a blanket over my knees. I will enjoy lethargy, revel in relaxation, and maybe take up cross-stitch as an alternative to clubbing.

I am giving up coffee. Because I have realised that, contrary to popular myth, it doesn’t make me feel alive with the glow of a thousand fairies. It makes me feel ill. It makes my heart palpitate, my fingers tingle, and my head turn into the fuzzy reception of an analogue TV screen. I don’t want to feel pre-digital anymore. I want to be HD-ready. 

I am giving up coffee. It has been a long and erratic relationship. We rode together through the highs of Costa’s glamorous debut in Worthing, when caffeine was merely a by-product of drinking from a massive mug like they did on Friends, through the lows of sixth-form canteen char, like chewy engine oil, swilled six times a day under the pretense of ‘A-level stress’ (actual reason: coffee is cool. It’s a bit like drugs, but not illegal), and up to the present day, where a coffee machine run is my favourite diversion from a computer full of public sector ICT strategy and pain.

I am giving up coffee. I renounce my days as a Starbucks bore, with my page-long, soya-ameretto-frappa-crappa order. From now on I will be simple and serene. I will merely say ‘peppermint tea’.

I am giving up coffee. Now if anybody wants me, I’ve gone back to bed.

 * * * * * * * * *
A short play.

October 18th, 16.12pm. The location: The 99p Store, Camden Town, London. The scene: Halloween-themed plastic tat; general plastic tat; shouting mothers; screaming toddlers (one sitting in a vat of alpine fresh shower gel); cockney pensioners wrestling over bags of already-broken digestives. The soundtrack: East 17’s seminal 1994 hit Stay Another Day.

Lauren, from behind a jar of pickled beetroot the size of own head: “Why, it’s East 17’s seminal 1994 hit Stay Another Day. What larks. Though, hmm. This song was a Christmas number one. It is usually associated with Christmas. It is usually played at Christmas. In fact, just hearing it now, I am thinking of Christmas. I suddenly want to drink Advocaat and wear a daft hat.

“Rather odd, then, for them to be playing it today, a day quite patently not during the yuletide season but actually in the middle of October. Even in these times of perpetual commercial opportunity, that would be ridiculous. I thought the unspoken rule was nothing pre-bonfire night. But hey - a noble institution like The 99p Store would never inflict premature Christmas music on unprepared customers in the middle of October. It must be a mistake! Maybe they just really love East 17.”

(Soundtrack changes to Shakin’ Stevens’ Merry Christmas Everyone. Fade to black)

* * * * * * * * * *

Bad people to be this week: Whitney Houston, who, in her comeback appearance on Sunday’s X-Factor, aimed to win over a whole audience muttering ‘didn’t she used to do loads of drugs?’ by pretty much looking and sounding like she… was doing loads of drugs. Good work, Whitters.

And Jan Moir. Who is probably a pretty bad person to be any week, but it’s only this week anyone’s noticed. Moir committed a double crime, of course, by being not only bigoted, offensive and moronic, but also a really bad journalist. My only hope is that her disgrace will cause some sort of Newton’s Cradle effect within the media, whereby she gets booted out and leaves enough space for me to quietly slip in the other end.

As you read this I am adding another bullet point to my CV, just under IT skills. It reads, “Is not a massive homophobe.”

Sunday, 11 October 2009

In which the men of Britain learn the power of a naked ankle.

To be printed 15/10/09

Men of Britain! Have you been experiencing strange urges? Have you noticed changes in your usual behaviour? Have you, completely without warning, suddenly found yourself with particularly strong feelings towards a brand new object of desire? Like, for example, fabric?

    Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’ve been you observing you all closely over the last few weeks, and it’s come to my attention that a new epidemic is sweeping our male population. Where previously most of you were immune, with the exception of musicians, art students and the occasional graphic designer, it seems that the virus has begun infecting even the most unassuming of chaps.

Perhaps you were carriers all along, and just needed an environmental trigger to set loose the symptoms. Either way, you’ve all come down with a bad case of fashion. And just like man-flu, man-fashion is prone to hyperbole, and likely to get you laughed at by women.

    Until these last few months, men’s style was pretty much a picnic. Because crucially men’s fashion, unlike women’s, always stopped short of the ridiculous. In fact, the aim was to get as far away from ridiculous as possible – the rule was: shellsuits, short shorts, shiny cerise suits = bad, while sludgy colours, unassuming shapes and a notable lack of accessories = good.

Not since the days of the New Romantics have men really been expected to do anything interesting with their wardrobes. While we ladyfolk have been wrestling with gargantuan shoulder pads, rollercoaster hemlines and trying to work out whether leggings are just a cruel antifeminist joke, you’ve had time to sample new ales, build a string of endless Ikea products and make sure you still ruddy get paid more than we do (stilettos not as effective a weapon for smashing through glass ceilings as everyone seemed to think).

    But now we have entered a new era of sartorial silliness, and men are the new victims. Even the most timid of male dressers is somewhere, right now, gingerly rolling up his trouser cuffs to flash the world a bit of naked ankle. You go for it, Gavin! Let those ankles see daylight! They’ve been holding you upright for 25 years, don’t they deserve to come out and play? Likewise the male cleavage – in hiding since Tom Jones put the medallions away, he-vage is now being rediscovered, uncovered, and showcased in a range of increasingly skimpy t-shirts. And the deck shoe, once just the preserve of men on yachts in Country Casuals catalogues, have suddenly reclaimed its place in the hipster’s wardrobe. It’s an exciting time to be male.

    Whether the rolled-up trouser thing has quite reached the Sussex coast yet, I’m not sure. But if it has, or when it does, I ask you ladies not to mock. Instead, encourage them. Suggest bow ties, silk scarves, maybe a daring epaulette. Because 1) it’s all really rather sweet, to see them having a go, and 2) while they’re busy musing over heritage prints, it might give us a chance to finally equal out the payroll.

* * * * * * * * * *

And so, the inevitable backlash has begun. “Stephen Fry: the most annoying man in Britain?” asked Christopher Hart in The Times last week. Ye Gads! Oh horrors! Not Fry! Get at Brucie all you want, even have a snipe at Wogan if you have to, but in the name of tea and crumpets, leave Stephen alone.

    Hart’s observation seems largely to be based on that always-accurate barometer of public feeling, Facebook, where there exists a group called ‘Stephen Fry is not a f****** genius’. Harsh, guys, harsh. But when we remember this is a medium that also boasts 233 groups called ‘I’m addicted to cheese!’, the sentiment seems a tad less valid.

Now, my love for the cuddly toff has always been stronger than most. I’ve sung his praises in this column often enough, and owe all of my pub quiz victories (and possibly half of my degree) to everything QI has taught me. However, I am far from blind to his potential faults – being posh, for one, is always to set oneself up for public persecution. Being openly clever is another. And being all over the telly, all of the time, is a crime that not even the most adored of stars can get away with for long (did you hear that, Cotton?).

    But my advice to Fry, in case he’s sobbing delicately into a monogrammed hanky somewhere, is to relish the backlash. It will give him edge. He’s now “controversial”, like a punk PG Wodehouse. God save the Queen.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

In which I'd rather Cheryl Baker had my bed.

Printed 08/10/09 (that's right... you're getting this before Worthing does. Score.) 

I realise that in pop culture terms this story is deader than Danni Minogue’s facial muscles, but I’m still reeling from Keisha leaving the Sugababes. Or rather, being callously forced out of the Sugababes (booo hiss Amelle! You were always too slender-of-thigh to truly do justice to the good Suga name). How do they think it will work with Heidi as the ‘strong voice’ – is every track going to be comprised wholly of those speak-singing middle eights? And how dare they think they can carry on using name without any of the original members? It will be like when authors try to write sequels to Jane Austen, or those Top of the Pops cover albums in the 70s. It will be bad.

For a moment it looked like it might be ok, that Mutya and the edgy ginger one would come back, reform, and force the others to call themselves the Canderelbabes or something equally derogatory. But no. It’s also put the kybosh on my new favourite tradition, watching the babes turn on city centre Christmas lights. Without Keisha, the irony of doing Push the Button before actually pushing the button just won’t have the same triumphant wit.

If it seems I’m taking this a bit irrationally hard, and I am, it’s because the event also has some personal resonance. You see, in our domestic world, I am the metaphorical Keisha. As the only original member of our household, I have stayed put for two and a half years, while 15 other flatmates have traipsed in and out of our doors. I have been the lynchpin, holding the brand together and sorting out the gas bills, while more capricious members come and go, leaving nothing but happy memories and half-full jars of economy pasta sauce. If our student home were a science experiment (and the fridge definitely is), I would be the constant factor. And until Keisha’s ousting, I thought my seat was safe.

But now, logically, I’m living in fear of coming home from work one day todiscover my stuff thrown out in the street and a former Eurovision contestant in my bedroom. I’m not ready to go solo, I’m not ready! I’d have to buy my own washing liquid and learn how to programme the heating timer. They couldn’t get rid of me – just as Keisha is the only one who can sing Freak Like Me, I’m the only one who actually knows what day the bin men come. They would be lost without me.

So this I shall plead: housemates, have mercy. And if you must evict me, please don’t give my room to Gina G. She just won’t appreciate it enough.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Highgate house has moved into a new era. Heralding the transition are two new male flatmates, and, more crucially, one new hoover. Not any new hoover. A hoover to make mothers up and down the country coo with gender-throwback envy. A Dyson.

He’s slick, he’s powerful, and he has blown poor old Henry Hoover out of the water. He’s even worked his magic on my bedroom carpet, a feat so incredible I’m thinking of sending the photos to New Scientist. My bedroom carpet is like the marines assault course for hoovers. It is like a layer cake of thread, hair grips, pennies, more thread, and enough moulted blonde hair to see a small wig factory through the recession. But no longer! Now it is clean and hair-free, and it all thanks to Mr Dyson. We’ve even discovered what colour our grime-grey carpets were really meant to be all along - lighter grey!

Now that he’s in our life, I don’t know why we went so long without him. After all, I’ve always been a keen supporter of Dyson technology. My undisputed favourite hand dryer of all time is the Dyson Airblade – to the extent that I will regularly engineer my outings around public toilets with the ’blade to ensure my hands don’t have to suffer substandard drying. Now that the hoover can be added to my list of Dyson fanlove, I’m wondering what other technological marvels they could bring into my life. Hairdryers? Hover boots? A teasmaid for the 21st century, that judges your mood and makes a bloody mary instead, if appropriate? It’s truly an exciting time to be a geek.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

In which Catholics and Kiki Dee fans have something in common.

Printed 01/10/09.

Guilty pleasures. When did they come out of the closet?

It used to be a simple distinction – good taste, by and large, was what we were aiming for. It was the route to happy personal relationships, good jobs, and generally not ending up alone watching QVC with 12 cats. Taste was the target.

Meanwhile, guilty pleasures were rationed to one or two units per genre, and banished to private quarters, hen nights and wedding receptions. You could listen to Chris de Burgh, wearing legwarmers, eating a pop tart and reading Take a Break, but only in your own bedroom, and only when you’d finished the whole of Dostoevsky. Guilty pleasures were time off for good behaviour. They were the recess of taste, a happy holiday from eating healthily, watching Newsnight and pretending to enjoy jazz.

But then something shifted. The waters got muddied. First Abba started being lauded as songwriting genius by people like Noel Gallagher. Then they started bringing back old Saturday TV, having realised that despite several decades of technological development, entertainment actually peaked around the time they thought to make a quiz show out of televised darts. Then, (and this is the crucial one), then, DJ Sean Rowley started playing 80s MOR hits on his BBC radio slot, started a nationwide club night, and turned Guilty Pleasures into a national phenomenon.

So, when the hottest party in town involves an obligatory Neil Diamond singalong, old-fashioned good taste gets relegated to a dusty shelf. Suddenly anything that doesn’t involve spandex smacks of pretension… on merit of being too, er, good. Because who wants to nod along to somebody earnest with a guitar when you can drink a cherry Panda Pop and do Agadoo without judgement?

The worry is this though: where does it end? I can’t quite believe that the guilty pleasures realm has become the bad taste free-for-all it professes to be – surely there must be rules, secret rules, just to maintain a status hierarchy in the midst of all the chaos? They say bad equals good, and we can all do the power-fist-hair-flick to our (Total Eclipse of the) Heart’s content, but you know that at some point they’ll whip the rug out from under your feet. Possibly when you request Las Ketchup, definitely when you take the school disco vibe to its logical conclusion, and actually start crying.

So when I was invited to a Power Ballads theme night last week, I didn’t reach for my rhinestone Stetson with a whoop of joy. I hesitated. Actually, I thought, while there are a handful of power ballads that I like really rather a lot – T’pau’s China in your Hands, Ultravoxx’s Vienna, Shakira’s Underneath Your Clothes – there is a significantly larger number that I really rather hate. Songs that I’d rather just not have in my evening. Because, and this is the important bit to remember, they’re bad. Some music is a pleasure, some a guilty pleasure, and some is the background music they play in a Harvester restaurant. Which is maybe where it should stay.

* * * * * * * * * *

Achievement of the week: for the first time, I know what Nick Clegg actually looks like.
Yes, lodged carefully in my cerebrum is a clear picture of…no, hang on, I’ve forgotten again. Drat. It’ll come to me in a minute… no, that’s Princess Michael of Kent…Ah, got it. Brown hair and a face. There we are.

* * * * * * * * * *

Awesome pub quiz moment of the week:
“Which bird is also a common office employee?”
“I think it’s Secretary Bird,” say I.
“Don’t be stupid. It’s clearly… Sandwich Boy Bird.”
“Or Temp Bird”
“I really think it’s Secretary Bird.”
“Nahh, Managing Director Bird. Cleaner Bird. Security Guard Bird”.
“Seriously folks. Secretary Bird. I’m writing it down.”
“Vending Machine Technician Bird! Head of Human Resources Bird! BOSS BIRD!”

“Question 14: the answer is… Secretary Bird.”

I am the queen of all knowledge.

In which there is something good on the telly.


Right, so autumn is here, the nights are drawing in, and once again it’s time to abandon our more productive summer pastimes, the visiting of places and the seeing of people and the general doing of things, for that other life, the one we live vicariously through better looking people. We call it television.

Can you hear the call? Once again it beckons us back into its bosom, to hibernate through the cold winter months and forget we ever had a social life. Sure, we once had a friend called Dave. But that Dave never broadcast round-the-clock repeats of last year’s Mock the Week, did he? He just borrowed money for Ginster’s pasties and never paid it back.

Yes, after a frankly lacklustre summer, telly is back on form. There’s the obvious return of Strictly and X-factor to celebrate – not immediately, of course, as first we’ll spend two weeks scoffing over the ageism/sexism/tasteism rampantly displayed in both, while secretly gorging on iPlayer in the dead of night with the sound down. But then we’ll give into the sequins, and it’s all ok because ‘guilty pleasure’ has an even higher place than normal on the fashion barometer this season*.

Aside from the Saturday night tat, though, there are some proper gems in the schedule. Peep Show is back! Of course you know that, you still have the bunting up and you’re drinking out of the commemorative mug. This is excellent news for three reasons - firstly, because after a couple of years spent ferociously becoming the new doyenne of the satirical panel show, I was worried David Mitchell was already about to be fossilised for the national treasures cabinet at the British Museum; secondly, because I reckon Robert Webb deserves a break from being ‘the other one’; and third, because they’re like, still totally zeitgeist. No comedy characters say ‘recession, political apathy and flu’ better than Mark and Jez.

The one notable downside is that the show’s trademark internal monologue is probably going to come back again, just when I’d got rid of it (ok, traded it for the voiceover from Gossip Girl). But if silently asking myself ‘Am I having fun? Is this fun? Am I actually having a good time? Or would I rather go home, eat crumpets and play solitaire?’ at every social engagement is the price I have to pay for Peep Show’s return to my life, then pay it I shall.

Another scheduling treat is Shooting Stars, back on our screens after seven years. The delightful thing about the Vic and Bob revival is that far from being zeitgeist, moving with the times, reinventing the comedy for a new generation of viewers or any of that bilge, they’ve just stayed exactly the same. Even to the extent that Matt Lucas is back as the be-babygro-ed Georgie Dawes, allowing the whole nation to pretend Little Britian never happened. What better gift is there than that?

*I’ve made that up. But maybe it’ll catch on, then I can listen to Showaddywaddy again in peace.

* * * * * * * * * *

A sad thing happened last weekend. I lost one of my all-time heroes. Dame Judi Dench’s interview in the Guardian Weekend magazine looked so promising, with her photoshoot all bleached blonde hair and Debbie Harry styling. “Don’t call me a national treasure”, said the headline. Woop, yeah, go Dame J! Look at you, you cuddly anarchist! But then, a few paragraphs in, it all went wrong when she declared she wasn’t a feminist.

NOT a feminist? That statement riles me up enough when it comes from an ignorant tweenie, but out of the mouth of someone with as much supposed grace and experience as Dench, it’s just plain astonishing. “I do believe in women having a say…”, she added. Not when they’re going to say things like that, Judi.

* * * * * * * * * *

On a happier note, my friend Jo is officially back in the country. For those of you who don’t remember, I wrote a while back about her year abroad in Paris being the real cause of all Britain’s recent troubles. Now she’s home, and while she pines for croissants and accordion players, we can all feel safe in the knowledge that pretty soon, we’ll all get our money back, the Tories won’t get in, and Terry Wogan will take his job back on Radio 2. Ahhh.

In which it must be funny, in a rich man's world.

Printed 17/09/09.

I’ve just had a horrible realisation. I think I have become a boring conversationalist.

This should be of some concern to you, even the four or so of you who aren’t members of my immediate family and thus never get to speak to me face to face. Because logically the next stage after becoming a boring conversationalist is to become a boring columnist (anyone writing to let me know I’m there already will have their house egged). I’m not sure what the next stage after that would be, but I have a sneaking fear it would involve the Readers’ Digest and one of those TV dinner trays with a beanbag underneath. This must stop.

The reason I’ve become boring is that I’ve become poor. Well, actually there are a number of contributing factors - spending two months unemployed, waiting for grainy episodes of Gossip Girl to load up on Chinese websites, is one. Everybody else I know being suddenly absent, on life-changing backpacking trips round Uzbekistan and interning at NASA and starting businesses making their own shoes out of compost and suchlike, is another. But mainly, I blame poverty. I am a boring conversationalist because all I can think to talk about is being poor.

“How about this weather eh?”
“Ugh I know, if only it were raining pennies from heaven… so I could buy a lightbulb instead of just sitting in the dark and pretending to be Victorian.”
“Have you heard about my cousin’s miraculous delivery of triplets in the back of a Leeds to London Megabus?”
“Yes… but have YOU heard that The Guardian only pay me minimum wage? Minimum wage! I earned more at Goring library when I was 15.”
“Can I get you a coffee?”
“No, could I just have the cash value?” And so on.

I think being broke is a bit like being a new mum or a bride-to-be. While plenty of other people are in the exact same position, you somehow believe the situation is unique to you, and only you can really know what it’s all about (obviously the other two get a spouse and a baby out of it, while I just get a big red electricity bill to eat my breakfast with – though it should be noted that the other two also tend to lead to poverty, so I guess we all lose in the end).

Please don’t think, though, that I’m writing about being skint in the hope that I’ll get the same result as last time, when I whinged so much that a lovely old gent sent me a tenner (when I was so filled with gratitude that I wept). No, I’m doing it to see if poverty itself can be my creative subject. I’ve concluded: it can’t. Sorry. But at least now we know, eh?

* * * * * * * * * *

I have discovered the Secret Sandwich Warehouse of Clerkenwell, and it has changed my life. Uncovered one day by my workmate, who followed a hungry-looking office worker, Pied-piper-like, through a gap in a wall, the Secret Sandwich Warehouse is the city’s best-kept bargain. It sells fresh-made sandwiches for 65p.

65p! That’s like, the 80s! Or the North! They’re good, too – Piri piri chicken or salt beef bagels, or falafel, houmous and olive (not so much like the North, then). And they’re 65p. Did I mention, 65p?

Trouble is, part of me suspects the Secret Sandwich Warehouse might not really exist. Perhaps if you went to look for it, it wouldn’t be there at all – like Hogwarts’ room of requirement, it only appears to those truly in need. So tomorrow, I intend to stock up for the week. Because I’m scared that once we finally get paid on Monday, the secret Sandwich Warehouse might disappear forever.

* * * * * * * * * *

The burning question on everyone’s homepage this week: Who will think up the best title for their facebook graduation photo album? The stress! The pressure! I’d like to give special mention to the two runners-up, who both went with classic punnery in their matching titles of ‘Congraduations’. But the standout first prize goes to ‘Clammy Handshake’, for bravely cutting through the glamour to the bare humanity of the situation.

Job well done. (Oh, and on the degree and everything).

In which I try not to fall on the Provost.

Printed 10/09/09.

And now, a musical interlude:

“Here’s to you, Mrs Robinson, Natwest loves you more than you will know. Woah-oh-oh. Where have you gone, student loo-ooan? A bailiff turns his lonely eyes to you… ooh ooh ooh…”

That was a corrupted Simon and Garfunkel, bought to you this week by the good folks of the higher education system of Great Britain. Because this week, I became a graduate.

(That’s a graduate, not ‘the’ graduate, just to be clear. No well-preserved friends’ mothers have ever tried to seduce me.)

Who would have known, though, that the most difficult bit of the process wouldn’t be the crippling sense of emptiness, the questioning of one’s self-worth, the dogged attempt to get to the champagne table before one’s parents, but in fact, the outfit? I know that when the star feature is a robe, you might think what’s underneath is pretty irrelevant. After all, this is a day of academic glory, not to be belittled by trivial things like hemlines and sequin embellishment! And besides, of all Phillip Green’s archive of fashion-forward design, Topshop have almost certainly never produced anything to be worn with a mortar board.

But I promise you, it’s a sartorial minefield. For starters, there are colours to be considered. When I made the choice, back in my first year, to have a UCL degree instead of a University of London one, little did I know I was actually deciding on a purple hood vs a maroon and cream one (so it was justifiable snobbery). But now I have to co-ordinate with the purple. Black would be the obvious safe choice, if not for the nagging worry that I’ll look like a) a raven, b) teacher from the Bash Street Kids, or c) Professor Snape, while anything brighter than a sensible navy threatens to have you remembered eternally as the ‘wacky’ one who would probably become a yoga teacher, and left off the alumni mailing lists.

Heels prompt another dilemma. Will they undermine your intellectual status? Will they clomp noisily across the stage, making you feel like Florence the prize Freesian in a Cumbrian cattle show? Will you do a Naomi? Of course, these are all irrelevant worries because you will wear them anyway. Because if you don’t, and everyone else does, you’ll be the little squat bundle of fabric in all the photos. This is literal one-upmanship. One-up-a-bit-more-ship. Virginia Woolf probably would have done the same.

* * * * * * * * * *

On our first night on holiday, we found ourselves in the middle of someone else’s romance. Ordinarily this isn’t my favourite place to be (snogging couples on tube escalators have learned to watch the backs of their heads), but when it’s a full-blown proposal, it’s fun to have a front-row seat. So half of St. Ives watched as a plane flew overhead with a banner bearing the legend: “GREG WILL YOU MARRY ME”. Then half of St Ives immediately started looking around for a man running, arms flung wide, up the hill shouting “Yeeeeeees!!”, while every man called Greg in a five-mile radius swiftly pooed themselves.

I, meanwhile, was forced to realise that my grammar fascism didn’t die when Lynne Truss stopped being fashionable. Because while everyone else was cooing about how romantic it was, what a lovely gesture, love is a many splendid thing, etc, etc, I was looking at the grand gesture and thinking ‘Where’s the question mark?’

I mean, seriously. It isn’t a hard rule to grasp – you’re popping the QUESTION dear, the clue is in the name. So while I obviously wish Greg and his future spouse all the happiness in the world, I wouldn’t have blamed him for looking up at that plane and thinking “I’ll marry you when you can punctuate properly, chump”.

* * * * * * * * * *

Exciting gastronomical news of the week: Marks and Spencer are going to start doing Pick’n’Mix! While it’s obviously good that in the absence of Woollies, the nation’s kids aren’t going to have to put their artery-hardening schedule any more, you can’t help wondering how they’re going to posh up the humble penny sweet.

This is not just any foam shrimp. This is a line-caught, organically flavoured, individually aerated foam shrimp…

In which I say 'hey, media, leave them kids alone'.

Printed 27/08/09.

Big news! I don’t know if you’ve heard, and don’t spread it around or anything, but apparently A-levels are, like, totally getting easier. It’s true, I read it somewhere.

Perhaps this is an obvious statement (what would I know, my qualifications are all in whistling and colouring-in), but, er… kids don’t set the exam questions.

There. Hardly an A-grade observation, but I feel it needs to be said. They don’t set the questions, they have no say in the syllabuses, they just potter on and have a go. If they got harder, they’d still potter on and have a go. If they carry on getting easier, they’d still potter on and have a go, but maybe in their pyjamas with their eyes closed.

Either way, and whatever bitter conclusion the grown-ups reach, eternity will still be full of teenagers pottering on and having a go. Some will become lab technicians, some will become nail technicians, and nearly all will at some point drink a bottle of Southern Comfort and be pushed home in a trolley.

Just think of it this way – be they a generation of geniuses or degenerates, the simple fact is that none of them have caused a recession yet. And until they do, in the words of Aristotle: er, shut your faces?

* * * * * * * * * *

With Bravo Family vs Cornwall minus 15 hours and counting, I’ve just arrived home. As I stepped out of the station, I was greeted by a lovely Worthing breeze. “Welcome home!” it seemed to say, in a suitably windy way. But unfortunately, as I’m sure Marilyn would have noted if she’d ever graced our south coast paradise, there is nothing like a Worthing breeze for sending your skirt skywards. And while I’d defend my choice of skirt as definitely keeping me decent at least 86 per cent of the time, knicks-on-show is certainly no way to make a comeback. (Actually, it’s my personal belief that the reason Davison High skirts are made so sturdy and excessive is to protect pupils from unsightly exposure on the seafront).

However, if you think that walking home with my dress round my head might have been a touch peeving, you’d be wrong. Nope, indeed it was gratifying to finally have it confirmed that I have been totally right, all along, to keep wearing black opaque tights for the whole of August. Suddenly the seasonal confusion and heatstroke was worth it. Take that, smug bare-legged non-believers!

No, what was peeving wasn’t the unprecedented bum exposure (when you cried during the opening number of Hairspray the musical, you can no longer feel shame). It was the man who felt the need to pull over, actually pull over, in his car and tell me he’d “had a lovely view”. Grrrrr. GRRRR.

I realise now that my reply should have been, to paraphrase Churchill, something like “Sir, I may have my arse out right now. But in two seconds, I shall be covered again. You, however, will still be a cretinous pig.”

I didn’t, of course. I said something much shorter. But, like my skirt, I think it served its purpose well enough.

* * * * * * * * * *

If the above dig at the Davison uniform seemed in any way resentful, rest assured that a) I really genuinely loved spending my most hormonal years in a sexless sack. It made our secondary education so much less about body dysmorphia and so much more about writing witty poetry in the back of our exercise books. And it was a nice surprise to get to sixth form and discover I had a waist.

And b) I had a chance to make up for it last weekend, when I stumbled across filming for the new St Trinian’s sequel in Liverpool Street Station. Watching Tamsin Egerton, Sarah Harding et al parading in their little mini pinafores made me, in turn, jealous, then wish I hadn’t eaten brownie for breakfast, then yearn for the days of the navy pleated sacks. Once a Davison girl, always a sucker for a heavy cotton cover-all.

In which I work at The Guardian. But not like that.

Printed 21/08/09.

Right, so if I really plan on making this my career, this writing-things-in-the-hope people-will-read-them-as-they’re-wrapping-up-some-broken-crockery, I have to accept the reality of the situation. Which is: that I won’t always be writing good things. Or interesting things. Or things I myself would want to read as I’m wrapping up broken crockery.

Sometimes I will even be responsible for writing the things that really annoy me when other people write them. Which, to compile a quick list in no particular order, is: copious use of the word “”; putting “gate” on the end of things to make them sound newsworthy; copying and pasting people’s Twitter statuses under the guise of cutting-edge modern journalism; and most of all, when Heat, Reveal, Cellulite Weekly and similar publish gripping, earth-wobbling front page headlines like “Cheryl Cole dies!” or “Fern Britton runs away with James Corden!”, then it turns out (after a small-scale checkout dither and £1.40 expenditure) that they actually meant “Cheryl Cole dies… or rather, dyes, her hair a vaguely 14-year-old shade of purple”, and “Fern Britton runs away with James Corden… in charity half-marathon to raise awareness for the victims of unsuccessful celeb workout videos.”

But I can sympathise with this last one. Firstly because it sells magazines. If I see “Peaches’ Pregnancy Horror” on the front of something, I will be buying that it. So will you. And we are both incredibly intelligent people. It could be written on a tramp’s face and I would still be giving him 50p to tell me that Geldof was up the duff (in a dream she had last Thursday).

And secondly, because that kind of exceptional, far-fetched spin is the very kind I’m practising myself at the moment. You see, I’ve finally got a job. And here’s the front cover headline: I am working at The Guardian.
Wow! The Guardian! Job of dreams! Omgzzzz! Well, no. I’ve been bandying around this answer at parties, and found that after the beautiful words have left my mouth, I can last an average of three guilty seconds before I have to open the metaphorical magazine and reveal the rest of the story. Because, to quote an ‘unamed’ gossip writer on the subject of Brad/Jen/Ange-gate, “what we tell is the truth… but there are different versions of the truth…”

Technically, I am working at The Guardian. Theoretically, I am. Which makes people coo and look at me with new respect, like they’ve just found out I can secretly fly. But in reality, I am working at Guardian Professionals, the bit nobody knows exists. I am doing the dullest, worst paid, most tenuously connected-to-journalism job in the whole company. And what’s more, I’m doing it in an entirely different building to the shiny one where the shiny journos live. I will never, unless I hack into her documents folder on the intranet and find something juicy, have the opportunity to befriend Hadley Freeman. I’m the lowest common denominator in my dream workplace. I reckon this is how Ringo felt.

But there are compensations. 1) The free newspaper every day (you know, the one I don’t have a hope in hell of ever being in. That one). 2) The free coffee machine that, as we discovered on Friday, also does hot chocolate. 3) The email address. Which I love so much I’m almost scrawling it on lampposts. Because however badly paid, however tedious, however much of an impostor the job is, it is still much better to be me@the guardian than me@the corner shop in my pyjamas. And that is the truth. Or at least, my version of it.

* * * * * * * * * *

My youngest sibling has just returned from a trip to Romania. I am jealous of this on two counts – firstly, because I have reached the ripe old age of 21 and never been beyond Belgium. And secondly, because he has come back with a new found respect for the fullness of life, and derided Facebook as a waste of time.

Good for him, enlightenment and everything, but the philosophy sits rather at odds with my new life as an employed person. When you work in an office, Facebook is gold. Facebook is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. It’s the affirmation that though you spend your days in a relationship with the font menu and regard a trip the loos as passable excitement, there are still people out there who like you. Or at least, “like” you. And until I get the chance to go to Romania, I think Facebook is as close to a full life as I can muster.

In which time plays a sick joke on me.

Printed 13/08/09.

You may remember (perhaps too vividly) that last week I revealed one of my proudest achievements to date: not having been sick in ten years. During a moment of reflection on the subject the other day, my flatmate pointed out that if I can hold out for just four more months, I will have gone the whole of the noughties without puking. That’s the first decade of the new millennium, entirely without my vomit. Does it get much more exciting?

Actually, it does, because then that set me thinking about the passage of time, and all the mystical questions held therein - specifically, what are we going to call the next decade? Of course the obvious answer is “the tens”. But then the obvious answer for this decade was “the zeros”, and look how well that panned out.“ Noughties” was meant to be the joke option, the term Top Gear and Chris Moyles and Nuts magazine would use while everyone else talked properly. Then what happened? It got bandied about a bit too much, we all forgot it sounded inherently ridiculous, and because apparently the whole nation secretly just wants to live in a big long Carry On movie, it stuck.

So do we have a more exciting option to wheel out in 2010? There’s “the teens”, which would give the decade all the glossy promise of an episode of Skins (and probably deliver something more like The Inbetweeners). But teenagers have enough attention as it is, and personally I’d rather not be reminded of my own dwindling youth every time I have to read the term in a paper.*

Particularly as I’ll be feeling haggard anyway. By being born when I was, I am destined to be perpetually slightly older than the century is – in the 2020s, I’ll be in my 30s, in the 40s, I’ll be in my 50s. It’s just so cruel.

Having our own twenties, however, I am very excited about. But that’s largely because I’m picturing it exactly like the last twenties. I know I’m going to be severely disappointed when the clock strikes 12 at New Year 2019 and people don’t immediately start bobbing their hair and dancing a unison Charleston. We could recreate the whole thing, but take all the bad bits out - gin cocktails for everyone, and nobody needs to die of TB anymore! Then roll on the 40s without war, the 60s without Cliff Richard and the 70s without all the polyester.

And if I can even make it through bootleg vodka, powdered egg and fondue without throwing up, I reckon I should get some sort of medal.

* How the Edwardians handled it I don’t know, but they probably had enough of a time having gout and fighting for women’s votes to fret about what we’d call the coming decade in TV nostalgia shows ninety years later. As it happens they got lucky, and we call it the First World War.

* * * * * * * * * *

Bravo family holiday minus two weeks! De-mould the wetsuits, tape the atlas back together, BUY THE KELLOGS VARIETY PACK! Yes, for everyone who has ever uttered the hasty phrase “make the most of it, this will be my last holiday with you people”, why not share in my bowl of word soup (with a nice slice of hat pie on the side)? Because right now, nothing is more exciting to me than the knowledge that in a fortnight, I will be eating a slightly flat cheese and pickle sandwich, punching each brother in democratic turns, and gazing wistfully at a sea. A sea that, in all honesty, isn’t really distinguishable from the sea we left behind several hundred miles ago, but that isn’t the point. Seeing a new bit of sea is always exciting, as are family holidays, and even more so when you know you aren’t paying for it.

* * * * * * * * * *

This week, I had actually intended to unleash all my built-up anger over the tabloid’s ludicrous treatment of Harriet Harman, and give you all to 700 words of my finest feminist ranting. Instead, I rather ran away with myself on the vomit-decade-naming-charleston-dancing issue. This by no means reflects on my priorities regarding gender equality, but rather on which I can type more easily while watching Mock the Week. I hope Harriet understands.

In which I am a topical invalid.

Printed 06/08/09.

I will do a lot for this column. You know that. I am tirelessly committed to the search for fresh, interesting subject matter, even when it involves great personal sacrifice or physical endurance. In the past, I have donated blood, started a fight with an OAP, and done a whole degree, just to give you lot entertaining things to read about with your Weetabix. But even I didn’t think I was as dedicated as this – yes folks, this week, in the noble name of journalism, I have had swine flu.

Things Swine Flu Has Taught Me

1. People don’t like to believe you really have it.

I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, “Did you ACTUALLY have swine flu, or was it just normal flu?”. And I will say, “well, swine flu is the only strain of flu around at the moment.” Then you’re going to say, “Yeah but was it DEFINITELY swine flu, or did you just guess?”. And I will say, “Well nobody knows DEFINITELY, I just did the Tamiflu quiz and got the right answers. I’m licensed. I am not a flu fraud.” Then you will say, “Shouldn’t you be in bed, quietly groaning, not dancing to Katrina and the Waves and making a sandwich?” And I will cough in your face.

2. Even caring chemists will exploit invalids for money.

I am pretty susceptible to advertising at the best of times – i.e., when I don’t have a sky-high temperature or a little man playing steel drums inside my pre-frontal cortex. So when I staggered into the chemists to claim my Tamiflu, and they started waving loads of other medication in my feverish face, I was powerless to resist. “The Tamiflu will make you sick”, they say, “so you also need these anti-nausea tablets. Then if you take Ibuprofen, that will make you sicker. So you also need this soluble paracetamol.” “Ok, ok, whatever you say, medical healthcare professional. Here’s my debit card…” “Did I mention the Tamiflu can also cause nicotine addiction? So you really need to buy this Nicorette inhaler as well. And maybe this Lily of the Valley bath set, just to be sure.”

3. Tamiflu is the drug of the devil.

One of my proudest achievements in life, one that I’d actually quite like mentioned at my funeral if I expire any time soon, is that I haven’t thrown up in ten years. Ten whole years. I am brilliant at not being sick. Food poisoning, ferry rides, crippling hangovers – I’ve made it through them all without breaking my streak. But with Tamiflu I very, very nearly met my match. Incidentally, if anybody wants an (almost) complete box of the stuff, I’m selling it at a very reasonable price.

So, I hear you’re all up in arms over Jim Davidson’s dissing of Worthing. Before you get all worked up and burst a blood vessel, I’d like to stop you and ask, why? He’s JIM DAVIDSON. Do we want his approval? Do we want him to start holidaying here? Get with it, Worthing – this is like when someone really badly dressed insults your outfit. We should be pleased! He’s the poster boy for bad taste! We have Oscar Wilde’s approval; we can definitely do without Davidson’s.

I could even suggest that anyone who still cares what Davidson thinks must be a sexist, homophobic, borderline racist themselves. But I won’t.

* * * * * * * * * *

Being sofa-bound for four days drives one to extreme lengths of entertainment. During my week of pig-pox, I have done every single quiz on I have rearranged my shoes into tidy rows. I have sewn, I have dusted, I have finally thrown away the brown thing in the fridge. And, because laughter is the best medicine, I have revisited MySpace and trawled through pages and pages of old posts from sixth form.
It’s amazing that the internet has effectively fossilised out former selves, like a museum of teenagehood for future study. But while nostalgia is always a great way to kill a Friday night, I hadn’t banked on how depressing it would be to realise that four years ago you were wittier, more interesting, and had much better hair than you do now.

In which I help the aged.

Printed 30/07/09.

This morning, I had a fight with a pensioner. On a bus. An actual fight, not staged for E4 or anything. It wasn’t violent, but it did involve some fairly vigorous finger-waggling and momentary use of an umbrella as a menacing weapon. It was pretty intense. Usually a confrontation-phobe, of the ‘stare intently at your thumbnails until the shouting goes away’ breed, I suddenly morphed into a madly gesticulating Eastenders barmaid-come-Jeremy Kyle guest. There may even have been talk of “respect”.

Perhaps I would have been less forthcoming with the cross-generational rage if I hadn’t had backup, but as it happens, bus arguments are the third most popular form of public diversion in London. It was like the gang warfare in West Side Story, but with fewer pirouettes and split-kicks. I don’t make a habit of verbally attacking the elderly, you understand, but for the record, he totally started it*.

The following is (almost) a direct transcript of the incident, in which the old man shall be known as Fred. “Give me that seat”, says Fred to the woman next to me, on the aisle side. Woman next to me, like a good citizen, gets up to offer her seat. Fred then ignores her, and leans over to me. “YOU”, says Fred, with a jabby finger-point, “should be upstairs!”. “Um, why?” I enquire, the very model of reasonable calm.

“Because you’re YOUNG! Bahhhh! Young people have to go UPSTAIRS!” bellows Fred. “I think you’ll find that’s not actually the rule…” I say, as Fred bellows some more and starts spluttering “Shut your face! You don’t deserve to be sitting down at all, you scrounging, selfish…Upstairs! MOVE!”

“Erm, I’m afraid that’s really quite a lot of tosh, if you’ll pardon my French. I think you’ll find I’m entitled to sit anywhere I like, as long as nobody old, pregnant or disabled needs it…. whereupon, of course, I would give it to them, being as I am a considerate person…”. Fred turns puce and replies with some words that weren’t “tosh”.

I stand my ground. “While you might assume my age means I am insolent, disrespectful and likely to spray-paint rap all over your shopping trolley, I’d like to point out that YOUR age does not entitle you to be rude to innocent travellers. What it entitles you to is ONE seat, and one seat only, and that you have got. Now if you don’t mind, I will continue enjoying mine, until such time as a pregnant, disabled or POLITE elderly person springs up to claim it. Good DAY Sir.” (General angry muttering from both sides of the bus, fade out…)

Bus travel, you see, does not bring out the best in humanity. Or me. Last summer, when I was in the giddy heights of employment and could afford a travelcard, I wrote an article all about Tube Wars. Now that the Northern Line is a mere memory, I realise how lucky I had it. Buses drive good people to the brink of social decency. After Fred got off, to spread sweetness and light among the rest of the travelling public, I sat and fumed all the way from Highbury Corner to Old Street. My index finger really ached from all the waggling. But at least I got to rest it on that nice empty seat next to me.

* Incidentally, the lack of violence was due partly to my being a sweet-natured pacifist, and partly to the fact he had a tattoo and could probably have taken me

* * * * * * * * * *

Finally, because I’m sure the curiosity has been eating you alive for the past 400 words, the second most popular form of public diversion in London is a crying girl in a kebab shop. The first is Boris Johnson trying to tie his own shoelaces.

In which the kids aren't alright.

Printed 21/07/09.

When will we learn our lesson about child stars? Considering the procession of simpering, precocious and increasingly screwed-up junior celebs that have been committed to the hall of fame over the years – from Edward VI via Shirley Temple, to Britney and that crying kid on Britain’s Got Talent – it’s amazing that we continue pushing them into the spotlight. Surely I wasn’t the only one who watched 12-year-old Shaheen Jafargholi performing at Michael Jackson’s memorial and played a quick game of spot-the-disturbing-irony?

I firmly believe that when it comes to fame, we should be following the usual rule; that anything fairly bad for adults is bound to be significantly worse for children. Like whiskey. Or meth addiction. Or saturated fats. Or pneumonia. When we consider what a touch of celebrity does to fully-developed adults, in the marriage-failing, surgery-abusing, scientology-following, wardrobe-malfunctioning arenas, it seems mightily irresponsible to let kids near the stuff at all. (Though I do realise that implementing an over-18s only policy on fame would mean no age-accurate youth performances in any film or TV show ever again, and admittedly that would be weird. Grease was scary enough.)

But aside from all the rehab and head-shaving potential of child stardom, there are also practicality issues. Scouting a cute kid for one film incurs only minor risks, but what happens when you’re signing them up to do seven? Or more specifically, what happens when the kid, who was a fairly average but endearing actor aged 11, gets progressively less cute and increasingly worse as he gets older, until at 19 he can ruin the biggest-grossing blockbuster of all time by turning out the performance of a damp, and slightly musty, flannel? Yes Daniel Radcliffe, I’m afraid I do mean you.

You know I only ever tell the complete truth, so those of you who haven’t seen it yet will believe me when I say this: he is really, really, bad. Which is a shame (not to mention a waste of 250 million dollars), because the rest of the film is really, really quite good. But I suppose it couldn’t be helped; back in 2000, the casting director wasn’t to know that their perfect Potter would turn out squeaky-voiced, stiff-of-jaw and incapable of expressing any emotion beyond what seems to be a mild bout of IBS.

Similar mistakes were made with Emma Watson of course, but we don’t notice as much because at least she has turned out attractive (if still eminently slappable). But poor Radcliffe has started to look like the creepy supply teacher no-one wants to sit next to on the Geography trip. And that is the sad truth of child stars – even when they’re playing wizards, nobody can actually see into the future. Let’s just hope we’re spared the impromptu eighth installment, Harry Potter and the Padded Cell of Celebrity.

* * * * * * * * * *

This week’s philosophical ponderment, up for reader debate: do I have no social life because of my LoveFilm subscription, or do I have the LoveFilm subscription because I have no social life?
Either way, the pressure to get my thrifty fill from the 30-day free trial has reduced me to hermit status, hell bent on consuming as much visual media as my flatmates and sleep cycle will let me. Remember the days where you had to go to a video shop, actively, on two feet? Were we better people then, or just less educated in the ways of crime fighting, medical procedures and Scarlett Johansson’s midriff? Am I getting scurvy? I’m pretty sure the answers to these questions and more all exist somewhere in Gossip Girl season 2, if I can just find them before they start charging me.

* * * * * * * * * *

I’ve recently had notice from a fan/critic of old, my friend Hannah’s hairdresser, who says that I am using too many long words in these articles. I’m sure he realises it’s just the desperate attempts of a wistful graduate to prove to herself that she did her degree for something other than the Topshop discount. But nonetheless, just for him, here is a selection of very short words: if. Tweak. Glob. Clang. Drab. Zoo. Bop. Antidisestablishmentarianism. Pip pip.

In which an inspector calls.

Printed 15/07/09

Two words to strike fear in the heart of any tenant: Property Inspection.

You join me two hours before Armageddon, sitting in a heap of used Flashwipes, beer cans and fear. It’s particularly scary because this is the first inspection our oh-so-conscientious estate agents have deigned to give us in the whole two years we’ve lived here – which is practically asking us to cover the kitchen in floral bunting and do interesting decoupage on the furniture. It’s like the rental equivalent of teachers asking you to mark your own work. In fact, before news of the inspection was sprung, I think I might have reached a point of such denial I’d forgotten the house isn’t actually ours.

I’ve remembered now, of course. Suddenly, with one sweaty session of Olympic hovering, it’s all come flooding back. The dim memories of meetings, and viewings, and tearily handing over lots of massive cheques, are all becoming rather a lot clearer. As are the recollections of signing things; things that promised not to ruin the house too much. Including: by means of explosives, wrecking balls, exuberant parties or blu-tack.

Really, it makes you question the whole practice of contract-signing. It’s just so easy, too easy, to lie. If all it takes to get myself comfortably housed for a year is to write my name on a piece of paper underneath the words “I agree to be careful with this house. I will disinfect everything once a day, polish the toilet cistern until it shines, submit full references for any unauthorised house guest, and definitely, never, ever, affix any item to the wall, door or any other surface using a form of adhesive putty”, then I’ll be the first one to grab the pen.

If what they actually want is a genuine guarantee that we’ll perpetually treat the house as though we were staying at an uptight auntie’s, they need more than paper and ink. They need lie detectors, retina-scanners, perhaps a 7ft man in a black suit with a headset and a gun. They could make it Endemol’s latest reality TV project, perhaps – a side project to Big Brother, in which the contestants are put in a grubby magnolia-painted Victorian maisonette with 45 packets of blu-tack and must see who can last longest without putting anything on the wall. Gripping viewing as each one in turn cracks under the pressure, is discovered covertly hanging a Scarface poster at three in the morning and promptly evicted.

Yes, blu-tack, let’s face it, is a student compulsion. Maybe real adults can live in a house with acres of empty walls about them and resist the urge. Well done them. But just as a dog must mark his territory with systematic weeing, so the student must paper their domain in novelty postcards, pictures of Bob Marley and photos from that time they sat in a trolley. To demand otherwise is to ask us to go against nature.

So I emplore you, estate agents, have mercy. It’s either lie to you or lie to ourselves, and I know which one TV says is worse.

* * * * * * * * * *

You all deserve an apology. Actually, this extends beyond the Herald readership to the wider world in general, so if you see anyone from beyond the West Sussex coast in the near future, feel free to pass on the sentiment. I’m sorry that last week I wrote about summer. You’d have thought I would have realised the almighty power of my pen, and learned to harness it only for good. But no, I continue to underestimate the correlation between Mr Murphy, Mr Sod, and me.

So I’m sorry I wrote about summer, and it being hot, and everyone doing lovely summery things quickly before the weather ran out. Because then it did run out, didn’t it? I also know, however, that by writing this retraction I am tempting Mr M & Mr S to do an about-turn and bring the sun back. So by Thursday, once again, this will probably be totally irrelevant.

* * * * * * * * * *

I’ve recently had notice from a fan/critic of old, my friend Hannah’s hairdresser, who says that I am using too many long words in these articles. I’m sure he realises it’s just the desperate attempts of a wistful graduate to prove to herself that she did her degree for something other than the Topshop discount. But just for him, here is a selection of very short words: if. Tweak. Glob. Clang. Drab. Zoo. Bop. Antidisestablishmentarianism. Pip pip.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

In which I am a disgrace to the noble name of summer.

Printed 09/07/09.

If winter is about hibernation, autumn about Back to School, and spring about new life and cleaning things, then for me summer is characterised by the perpetual, nagging feeling that everyone else is somewhere else, doing something exciting without you.

Particularly so with the British summer, where all normal tasks must be suspended in case the last of the sun is suddenly used up while you’re doing them. I’ve started experiencing Summer Guilt, whereby during everyday mundane activity, like queuing in HSBC, I am suddenly tortured by the feeling I am wasting the weather and should instead be drinking Pimms in a leafy beer garden with a man who looks like Javier Bardem. I’m letting the side down, I know. If you promise it will go no further, I’ll even confess this: I haven’t been to a single barbecue yet.

I suppose the truth must be that I live in fear of intervention from the Summer Police – that Ben Fogle or someone will break my door down, screaming, “Watching the Top Gear with the curtains closed, are we? Quick, get up and go do Tai Chi on a hilltop! NOW, before it all stops for another year! Go!”.

But it is especially true when living in London, where, in the absence of sea, countryside or draught cider for less than a remortgage, we are forced to create our own little pockets of pretend summer to distract us from the traffic, tourists, and lingering smell of feet in every tube carriage. You lot are ok, you have bonafide British summertime on your doorsteps. I don’t remember every having Summer Guilt in Worthing – everything you do is accidentally summery. Anytime you’re not getting your proper fill of sunshiney holiday fun, all that’s needed is a casual stroll past those palm trees by the Lido and you’re topped up for another week.

But here I have to go out of my way to do the weather justice. Like yesterday, for example, when I went to Hampstead Ladies’ bathing pond. That’s right, pond. And that isn’t a quaint urban re-branding, like when we call any part of the city without a branch of Subway a ‘village’, that’s an actual, genuine pond. Green water, ducks swimming, disconcerting brushes of animation against your knee when you least expect it. It was like swimming in a pre-Raphaelite painting; like being a host of otherworldly water nymphs (albeit water nymphs in a selection of M&S tankinis). It was summer to the max.

I feel then, that I am now justified in sitting here, watching Top Gear with the curtains closed, because there is pond slime in my hair. Next weekend, if I just stand with sand between my toes for several hours, I should keep the summer police happy enough for whole days of bank queuing. Just promise me this: next time you’re all enjoying a casual barbecue on Goring Gap of an evening, send me a postcard won’t you?

* * * * * * * * * *

Rupert Grint had swine flu! Everybody’s favourite teenage wizard (sorry Radcliffe, but you know it’s true) is recovering from a “mild bout” of everybody’s favourite pandemic disease. Far from being worrying, this is actually a pretty encouraging story. I particularly like the words “mild bout”, which I am using as evidence to support my theory that actually, I may have had swine flu already and just not realised it (after all, what do I drink so much Berocca for if not to get my immune system in such good shape that I can have swine flu without knowing it?). Presumably a quick administering of the Tamifluiarmus charm set Rupert on the road to recovery.

* * * * * * * * * *

And so, Wimbledon is over for another year. I’m sure you can sense my pain. My two most exciting moments from this year’s competition: 1) finding out that Andy Murray and Andy Roddick are not, in fact, one and the same person. 2) The woman seated behind Pete Sampras’ head during the live coverage of the men’s final, whose blouse buttons came undone on screen, and were not done up again for at least 20 minutes. Folks, I’m practically a sports fan.

In which Michael Jackson died. We think.

Printed 30/06/09

Right, so here we are, the death of a legend. Cue appropriate wailing, and blasts of Billie Jean from shops, pubs and car windows at 12-second intervals. Strange thing is, for my generation, this is pretty much our first one. Our Lennon, our Elvis. It’s our chance to remember where we were when, and then make up a better story to tell at dinner parties years down the line.

I know we had Diana, but to my mind she doesn’t count. Largely because we didn’t ‘have’ Diana - our parents did, the paparazzi did, but to my nine-year-old self she was just a nice lady with fairly dodgy hair, who everyone suddenly seemed to like an awful lot more after she’d gone. In fact, my strongest memory from that day in ’97 was anger that CBBC had been cancelled to make room for identical news broadcasts across all four channels*. Baffling was it that adults could run so many areas of the world so effectively, but fail to think of putting all the identical news into one big broadcast, so that the rest of us could watch Byker Grove in peace.

It seems that the deaths of these legendary figures serve to mark not only cultural milestones, but also the progression of technology – for me, the amazing thing about Jacko’s demise wasn’t that it happened, but just how quickly everybody knew about it. Within the space of 15 minutes on Thursday night, I had four texts, two phonecalls, 10 facebook updates and 106 Google news stories, all proclaiming the same shocked, if hazy statement: “Michael Jackson’s dead! Probably…”.

Because the thing about our media culture now is that quantity and quality are inversely proportional; what we have in abundance, the web posts, social networking hubs, permanently reachable contacts at the push of a few Blackberry buttons, we lack in reliability.

For everyone who heard the news that night, there was no one, solemn, bombshell but instead several hours of high-energy dithering. “He’s dead! He’s not! He is! We don’t know!” shrieked the world’s press, while the assembled audience had to decide which sources they trusted most (most of my friends plumping for national loyalty with “I won’t believe it until the BBC say it’s true”, an option that proved just slightly speedier than carrier pigeon.). Meanwhile Uri Geller’s statement of grief managed to be released even before confirmation of the death was, a coup we’ll attribute to his psychic skills and not just the desire to pip Elizabeth Taylor to the PR post.

So in decades to come, when my children ask me where I was when, there won’t be a romantic answer. No “I was on a bridge at sunrise, and Earth Song just happened to be playing”, or even the far superior “I was at Glastonbury”. My answer will be “On the Mac in the spare room with my mouse poised over the refresh button”. Whether the King of Pop would have considered a million Facebook statuses as a fitting tribute to his life, I don’t know, but it seems that’s just the way we do things now. RIP, Michael.

*Yes, four channels. None of this round-the-clock digital entertainment you kids today have, oh no. In my day, we were content with just a Gameboy, a Babybell and a copy of Live and Kicking magazine to keep us occupied.

* * * * * * * * * *

Oh, the heat! Oh my, oh me! The kind of heat where even naked isn’t cool enough. In an attempt to count my blessings, find a silver lining, turn that frown upside down etc etc, I have realised this: while being unemployed is rather a drag, and the heatwave is turning me into Sweatzilla, I should be glad that both are happening at the same time. Because being unemployed in 28 degree heat means parks, Calippos, and idle re-readings of Look magazine, being employed would mean polyester shirts, ineffective desk fans, and sauna-like tube journeys standing in a fat man’s armpit. So thank you, recession, for giving me a summer.

* * * * * * * * * *

Finally, my favourite overheard conversation of the week. This time from a lady in Brighton’s Sydney Street, with perhaps the most sensitive and touching eulogy anyone could offer:

“I’m so upset about Michael Jackson,” Lady tells Friend. “Yeah? Really?”, says Friend. “Yeah, really cut up,” says Lady. “You see, I’ve had him on my Celebrity Death List for the last four years, then the one year I swap him for Elizabeth Taylor, he goes and dies. Steve got him instead. I could have won a hundred quid.”

“That’s tough”, says Friend. “Yeah”, says Lady.

In which I smell musty, but it's all for charidee.

Printed 25/06/09.

There's a quiet revolution afoot on the high street. Maybe it's a recession thing (isn't everything, now, a recession thing?), or maybe I've just been shopping in flea-bitten vintage emporiums for too long to notice, but something's definitely shifting.

For starters, Dorothy Perkins has got quite nice. After years of being River Island's frumpy sister, full of jersey and smocking and mother-of-the-bride wear for teen mums in later years, Dotty Ps has finally hit on a winning formula. "Let's make the same stuff as Topshop, but cheaper, bigger, and without the whiff of sprightly 15-year-old Skins-alikes to drag you away from that lace cropped top". Applause to Ms Perkins!

And for main course*, there's the fact I've started shopping there again. Which mightn't sound it, but I promise you is conclusive proof of either a total high street renaissance, or a post-graduation identity crisis. Yes, I will hold my hands up and say openly, "My name is Lauren Bravo and I was a highstreetaphobic."
(Hello Lauren).

So deeply internalised was the fear of seeing anyone else in the same stuff as me, particularly if they looked thinner/better/were Mischa Barton, that I spent five-odd years as a strident, second-hand-only shopper ('odd' being, in hindsight, the operative word).

But now, for dessert, comes the irony – just as I'm running, open-armed, back to the high street crying, "Mother H&M, can you ever forgive me?", charity shops are suddenly upping their game. Thanks to Mary Portas and her crisp-shirted brand of retail genius, Chazzer Shops are back on the fashion menu.

But, and here's the catch, only if we keep them alive with a consistent stream of unwanted Mulberry Bags, Jaeger jumpers and trendy young customers. It's great news for the charities, naturally, and for everyone with all that unworn Whistles just bursting out of their wardrobes, but I for one will miss the tat.

Having been born and bred a charity shop devotee, I can sniff out a 75p Jackie annual at 100 paces. Ditto, a C&A ra-ra skirt, commemorative royal wedding milk jug, or Mousetrap, original 70s box, only the little plastic man missing, £1.49. That rummage in the bargain bin is part of the experience, supplying the unique thrill that comes from not knowing if you'll come up with a Fabergé egg or a used fondue set (cheese attached).

*Realise now I've typed it that, actually, that isn't the way the phrase works. But it should be, so I am leaving it.
* * * * * * * * * *

I SUSPECT, though, that there will always be a place for the tat somewhere among the Kurt Geiger boots, because one thing that Mary Queen of Charity Shops served to highlight more than anything else was the unrelenting stoicism of the elderly volunteers.

Did I say stoicism? I meant pig-headed narrow mindedness. For the most part. "Oooh I don't like it… too much change… it isn't like the old days," they chorused every time the shop got a new lick of paint or a pair of tennis shoes had its price upped 25p.

"Come ON!" you wanted to scream. "You lived through a world war! Your generation has endured rationing, nuclear threat, four recessions and the career of Noel Edmonds! You've made it through everything the 20th century had to throw at you, and you've done it all without your hair even moving! Can you really not cope with this?"

"Just put your tabard on and think of England, there's a good pensioner."

* * * * * * * * * *

TO round off my consumerist theme this week, I'd like to issue my congratulations to Worthing for the long-awaited arrival of its new H&M. About time, too, and yar boo sucks to Horsham.

Now, as far as I can see, there are only two notable gaps left in the town's retail landscape, if we are to claim our official crown as the Shopping Jewel of the South Coast (when you can't for whatever reason go to Brighton): Primark, and Pret A Manger.

Once the day comes when I can spend an afternoon bulk-buying £2 knickers and then celebrate with a nice crayfish and avocado wrap, I might just find reason to abandon Oxford Street and visit my homeland more often.

In which there are green shoots. There! No, over there! Nope, gone again.

Printed 18/06/09.

The recession has ended! Apparently. It has, I read it in a paper, and they never lie.

Admittedly I did read only that; those words, “The Recession Has Ended”, before thinking “oh good” then skipping on to a recipe for something involving goat’s cheese, but I know I definitely saw it. And while I accept that it isn’t maybe the most reliable approach, to garner all of my current affairs knowledge from the snippets of headlines I see while I’m looking for Times2, it usually serves me well. I know that Ronaldo is leaving somewhere to go somewhere else, potentially Paris Hilton’s hotel room, I know that the Foxy Knoxy tag is really getting a bit tired now (in the latest pictures she, like, totally has a cold sore), and I know that whatever David Miliband may or may not be doing, he is definitely no relation to the Steve Miller Band, and I know that for sure.

But you see, it wasn’t really laziness that prompted me to flick on and not read the rest of the article. It was an active decision, fuelled by a delicate balance of derision, disbelief, and plain old dread. For one, there is the knowledge that sub editors are crafty weasels, prone to writing promising things like The World is Best it’s Ever Been, Cheryl is Leaving Ashley or Lady Ga-ga Garrotted by Own Pants, only for the full story to reveal a distinctly less exciting, completely tenuous, truth (“the world is the best it’s ever been”, say handicraft enthusiasts constructing ninth model of the solar system out of papier maché; Cheryl is leaving Ashley… for an overnight shopping trip to Roberto Cavalli Kids; Lady Ga-ga actually was garrotted by own pants, but survived and now everyone is doing it.).

So I knew it was pretty likely that if I read “Recession Has Ended”, it would be revealed all too quickly that what they actually meant was that somewhere, far off in the dark reaches of economics (a place I like to think of as the Pie-Chart Pleasuredome), a statistic had shifted. And this little statistic, like a domino, had bumped into a few other statistics, jigged everything round a bit, and put into motion the enormously long train of events that will mean, in perhaps a decade, we can buy chewing gum for a sensible amount of pocket change again.

I knew that was probably the reality, and so I chose the path of blissful ignorance. I can believe it’s all over, if nobody tells me otherwise. Conversely, though, was the acknowledgement that actually I don’t want to know because I sort of don’t want it to be. Not yet. Not quite.

Because, as a fresh-out-of-the-box graduate, the recession was turning into perhaps the most convenient excuse there is. I’ve spent entire evenings sat in student pubs, common rooms, the back of the 43 bus, saying things like “yar, of course I don’t have a graduate job lined up… it’s the recession… I’ll be lucky if Wimpy let me operate the desert carousel…”. But now, if it really is all over, I am forced to face the truth, that recession or no recession, there are no jobs for new journalists anywhere. At all. The media is full.
On the plus side, that goat’s cheese tart was really very good. And if Ronaldo and Amanda Knox ever get together, I promise I will read the article word for word.

* * * * * * * * * *

I must start writing down every fantastic soundbite I overhear on the streets, potentially with a view to turning them into a Christmas stocking-filler bestseller (everyone else in the world having written one already, I feel a bit left out). Here, for you lucky readers, an extract of my favourites:

Man on Bike on Phone, as he whizzed past – “I hope you’ve been to the Doctor’s to get it looked at.”

Woman at Table at Pavement Café – “Actually, we didn’t ask her about the body hair...”

Yummy Mummy in Caffe Nero, Highgate – “I wish I could come, but I have a pasta-tasting session and I don’t want to be late for pilates.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Last week, an unpublished T.S. Eliot poem was discovered. This made me very happy. Firstly, because I am a geek. Secondly, because it makes my degree all seem worth something when I can sigh “ahhh, Eliot” and gaze off into the middle distance in a knowing manner. And Thirdly, because the poem was all about his deep mistrust of cows.

As anyone who has ever seen me try to interact with a dog/cat/goldfish will know, I am not an animal lover, and I can’t help thinking this should be the first in a long tradition of anti-animal poetry, as payback for all the insipid tripe that has been written over the years about people’s ickle fluffy cats. I will write the next one, and it shall be called ‘Don’t You Point that Ferret at Me.”

In which I might revert to Mr and Mrs Red Hat.

Printed 11/06/09.

Reading. One of life's pleasures. I refer you to the conveniently-relevant Groucho Marx, who said: "Outside a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside a dog, it's too dark to read."

Actually, Groucho is one of the very few (two) impressions that I can do with any conviction*, and honing it may have to become my new free-time hobby, now that I have an aversion to reading, and more free time than ever before in which to not read.

(Ladies and gentleman, an emblem for our times – the unemployed graduate! Watch in amazement as she spends an entire afternoon peeling every single bit of white off a tangerine, without ever getting out of bed! Gaze in astonishment as she works her way through every episode of The Wire, while using her council tax bill as a coaster! Step away from the bars, little Jimmy, you're too young to see this..).

Yes, I'm now allergic to books. Like the proverbial busman and his holiday (a sentiment that one can't help feeling died a little with the introduction of air travel), my English degree has succeeded in turning me off literature.

I'm miffed at this, because one of the only things that kept me going through my exams was the promise that when it was all over, I could settle down to work my way through every book I hadn't yet read. Which is rather a lot of them, truth be told, and could probably keep me occupied as I hibernated through this, and several more recessions.

What's more, it would be reading for pleasure. No analysis, no annotation, no pipe-smoking prof at the end of it setting me questions like, "If Eliot's brand of modernism is a reaction against modernity, then how does Chaucer's Knight influence Pope's attitude to sugar tongs?".

I would rediscover the joy of narrative twists that you didn't already know from, of characters that you can fall in love with because nobody has told you they're actually a comment on fascism. I could read poems without my exam-brain-filter on, the one that screams, "Alliteration! Imagery! Trochaic metre! Alliteraaaaation!" at every line and then makes me eat a biscuit.

But, alas, I can't do it. On my first day of freedom, I picked up Virginia Woolf's classic To The Lighthouse. I read a page. Then I re-read the page, because all I had taken in was "Family... beach... lighthouse... blargh... gaagugh... dbafaujshEHFG... gdcbdchdsgcsjhg" then started thinking about a big cheese and pickle sandwich.

After three attempts, I had to admit defeat and buy New! magazine, spend an hour catching up with Cheryl, Jordan, Peter, Britters, Kerry and the gang, and eat the sandwich.

But I should say that I did read all the big words in New! – ok, so perhaps that's my solution. I shall start there, maybe work my way up to Heat, the Grazia when I'm ready, and before I know it I shall be devouring Proust in single sittings and my degree will not have been completely wasted.

In the meantime, when I need some culture, there's always that Groucho routine.

*The other is Miss Piggy, and that's largely in the hair.

* * * * * * * * *

I'm getting home from Paris tomorrow, to find a newbie in my house.

He will be the 13th person (and second Australian) to reside in the place since we moved in two years ago, and now I'm the only original housemate left – a situation that I suspect might soon turn me into a shorter, less hairy Basil Fawlty, in my student hotel.

Of course, New Bloke may well be a domestic whizz, a social superman and an all-round, life-enriching pleasure to know, and let's hope he is.But there's a part of me that can't help thinking, after all the good luck we've had with the other move-ins, we're just about due a psychopath who will steal our salmon, dry his pants in the microwave and murder us all in our beds. Fingers crossed, eh?

But to take a tip from Fawlty in dealing with the new addition – just don't mention Crocodile Dundee.

* * * * * * * * * *

What's a holiday without a trip to a cemetery? Yesterday, I braved torrential rain in a sundress to walk around Père Lachaise, the biggest graveyard in Paris.

While Jim Morrison's headstone elicited the appropriate reaction (to sing The End in my best growly voice to passing mourners all afternoon), Oscar Wilde's tomb was by far the best of the day. Following the example of hundreds of other visitors, I put on my best red lipstick to kiss the monument in tribute to the dandy. It was only afterwards I realised I may have given Mr Wilde an unintentional cold sore.

If you can get Zovirax in the afterlife, Oscar, I will foot the bill.

In which I strive to be a slummy mummy.

Printed 10/06/09.

My friends can always be relied on for existential wisdom and direction. Together we have bushed back the boundaries of Western thought with such gems as “Take the road less travelled, there might not be sick on the pavement” and “If you stomp down the rubbish, you don’t need to empty the bin as often”.
So when Kirsty marched into my room yesterday to announce her plans for the future, they were naturally received with all the reverence they deserved. “The best thing about babies,” she mused, “is the tiny, tiny shoes. They make me happy. So I think I’m going to have a baby and just cover it in shoes.” I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, was this merely a hungover moment of mental abstraction, or actually a strikingly perceptive comment on the materialist exploitation of motherhood in the 21st century?

Now, admittedly our views on maternity are skewed, partly because of Brad and Angelina, and partly because we live in Highgate. Which is like a safari park of fashionable parenthood, where you can watch the yummy mummies in their natural habitat and occasionally throw them bits of gluten-free bran muffin. But while I should be wildly cynical, resenting their latte conferences and Baby Gap discipleship, the only thing I’ve actually got from two years of observation is this: it looks fun.

So while to stand up and say “I’m Lauren Bravo and my new life plan is to find a solvent husband and have a brood of adorable children” would be falling off my sudo-intellectual feminist horse with a big noisy thud (and the bruises would look dreadful at mother and baby yoga), I’ll admit it’s tempting. More tempting, anyway, than the prospective years of coffee-making at Cross-Stitch For You magazine to claw my way into journalism. Or getting a sensible career as an office pot plant waterer. Or getting a cat.

What’s more, children themselves seem to be giving me the signal. Suddenly they approve. Where babies used to look at me and cry, or vomit, now I get coos of appreciation and interesting bus banter with six-year-olds. Perhaps it is because my hair looks like Malibu Barbie, or custard, but there’s a little part of me that thinks the infants of the world are uniting to say “Be a 50s throwback, Lauren! Forget careers and be a hip young mum! Buy tiny ,tiny Converse and go to the Disney Store without being judged!”

So there’s my new plan. I will develop a new breed of yummy mummy, one who doesn’t have to do pilates or have an affair with her personal trainer, or have the personal trainer to have an affair with, but does get to spend her time forgetting her degree and forging new artistic directions in finger painting. It will be great. I have the names picked out already – just to make sure the last three years of higher ed weren’t completely wasted, I plan to have Milton, Ezra and Virginia, tastefully-shod, before long.

* * * * * * * * * *

Just as you were thinking the programme itself was more entertainment than a simple human could handle, I decided to turn it up a notch and invented Britain’s Got Talent Cliché Bingo.

Rules were as follows: one point for, “It’s just so great to be here”, “You’re what this show is all about”, or Amanda Holden’s tears; five points for “You’ve been on an incredible journey”, “I’m going to give it 110 per cent”, or a sob story about a dead relative; ten points for “It’s now or never”, “Anything could happen”, or one of Piers Morgan’s special three-point analogies (“Jenson Button won the Grand Prix today, and he’s like you – he’s fast, he’s fantastic… and he’s… British…”). The time goes by so much quicker when you have your own dream to reach for.

* * * * * * * * * *

It was with great pleasure that we stumbled out of the o2 arena after our graduation ball on Saturday night to find the sun had risen. Having not mustered this kind of superhuman partying energy since first year, or maybe ever, we were thrilled to find that in our last, fleeting days of studenthood, we had finally become hardcore. Unfortunately this was somewhat undermined by the massive bag of flipflops and quilted slippers we took along for the inevitable weary shoe-change.

The inevitable weary shoe-change took place at 11.45.