Tuesday, 26 July 2011

And now, the final frame

I found out Amy Winehouse had died after reading a text from my mother, in a pub toilet on Saturday afternoon. "Was she 27?" was the first thing I said. And she was.

I'm not going to attempt a real obit, or a treatise on the tragedy of her death. You'll have your own feelings on that, and anyway with nothing harder than a Nutella habit under my belt, I'm about as qualified to wax lyrical on the subject of addiction as Ashley Cole is on marital commitment. But I'm going to say something, if only to silence the harping adolescents on my brother's Facebook page claiming she doesn't merit comparison to Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix or any of the other fateful '27 club' members.

Reasons Amy Winehouse will be remembered - by me.

She was a London landmark.

In my first year of uni, just as Amy was getting big (and her hair bigger), glimpses of that famous beehive were a standard feature in Camden pubs - like sticky floors, seatless toilets and the tramp who looks like Brian Blessed. In an area full of vivid characters, even if she hadn't been getting famous, she still cut a dash. Holding court over the pool table, bantering with the bar staff, even out of earshot you could usually tell she was being hilarious. To a wet-behind-the-ears suburban 18 year old, she represented everything alluring about moving to the city.

She stole my friend's pub stool once. We didn't say anything, just let her have it. She definitely could have taken us in a fight.

She was an alternative version of womanhood.

Much has been written about Amy's style - her skill in taking retro references and making them utterly fresh, her knowing way with accessories and her artful way of dressing up and down simultaneously, always with ease. But to me the true brilliance of her appearance was that she was totally sexy, without ever really playing to a male audience. She never danced in her pants, the way every other popstress seems to think she has to. Her cartoonish, exaggerated aesthetic was an antidote to all the flawless grooming alongside her in the charts.

And while it was painfully sad to watch her once voluptuous form whittle away to nothing, with her bodily insecurities broadcast so publicly she still remained an icon for the imperfect girl. Inspiration for every gap-toothed, knock-kneed, grubby-around-the-edges girl to crayon on some eyeliner and feel hot.

She wrote ruddy good songs.

Looking back now it's funny to remember that when Amy first emerged she was lumped into the 'nu jazz' scene with Katie Melua and Jamie Cullum. It became obvious pretty soon that she was too much of an old soul, with an old voice, to be properly new – and basically not moronic enough to be 'nu'.

She was rude, but our Mums liked her. She was British - screechingly, swearily so - but America clasped her to its ample bosom.

Everyone will talk about the way her music was filled with pain, proper, straight-from-the-heart pain, but for me the best thing is that it's filled with so much more – it is uplifting music, raunchy music, party music, if you want it to be. It never demands you weep into a pillow. You can get up and dance.

Monday, 18 July 2011

In which it's nice to be nice

In Sunday's final of The Apprentice, one golden message shone through. The nice guy actually won. It was a particularly glorious victory for Tom, as earlier in the show his inherent niceness had been highlighted as his biggest flaw. "You're a really nice guy, aren't you?" said Matthew Riley. "My wife is probably one of the nicest people you would ever meet, but would I go into business with her? Not on your nelly." Aside from the warm glow his wife has no doubt carried around with her ever since, it was a loaded statement.

WHY can't nice people succeed in business? At what point in life does niceness suddenly go from being the goal ('Do unto others,' 'don't kick little Timmy in the groin,' etc) to a massive obstacle that will keep us out of the shiniest offices and off the top of the pay ladder?

After all, it's nice to be nice. The clue's in the name. It's why nice biscuits and Nice in France and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence are all named after the concept. So when, and why, did niceness' stock plummet so badly? I believe we can blame the following:


It is a sad moment in one's advancing adulthood, the first moment you realise that Grease is morally corrupt. For years you are caught up in the sexy, fluffy, retro faux-adolescence of it all, and then as the darkening clouds of conscience move in overhead, one day you suddenly realise that the message is: if someone doesn't like you for who you are, you should change. Take up smoking, backcomb your hair to dangerous extremes and sew yourself into some gynaecologically threatening trousers. Then dance. Dance fool, dance.

Grease is the ultimate piece of anti-nice propaganda. Yes, it is also pro-fun and pro-singing in public, but that doesn't excuse its dubious conclusion. Grease 2 does exactly the same, it is worth noting, but with a boy instead, who must jump a motorcycle across a ravine before he can snog Michelle Pfeiffer.

Mr Nice

Howard Marks, aka Mr Nice, was a notorious Welsh drug smuggler with connections to the mafia. He wasn't literally Mr Nice, in the same way that Miss England is rarely the embodiment of all that is great about England. Remember the way Curly in Coronation Street actually had very straight hair? It's like that.

"He's too nice"

Popular culture likes to perpetuate the myth that women aren't attracted to nice men. This is sometimes true - if the nice man is also unattractive, has an odious personality or particularly pungent odour. We can also, it is fair to admit, be attracted to complete bastards. But mostly if the bastard is also handsome of face, charming of personality and smells like croissants mixed with fresh laundry. If, however, the man combines favourable appearance, personality and fragrance with being an utterly lovely human, they have basically won the lady lottery. This, I promise, is true.

Nice, boring people

Sadly, niceness and dullness do have a tendency to get confused. Ask yourself this: do I hear the teacher from Peanuts every time they talk? Have they never, in the five years I have known them, ever made me laugh? Do I sometimes forget what they look like and just see a hazy pink balloon where their face should be? If so, they are probably boring. They might also be nice, but one has little to do with the other.

But now, hopefully, nice is on the up again. We can all say 'oops-a-daisy', give lovely hugs and never push in front of anyone in a queue, ever, without fear that it will hamper our careers.

And that will be, well, nice.

Monday, 11 July 2011

In which it's been a hair-raising week

Things I have learned this week:

1) Good hair does not equal good judgement.

If you were watching the phone-hacking scandal unfold purely in picture form, you might be forgiven for thinking Rebekah Brooks was the wronged party. That is because she has the wild, flowing auburn tresses of a pre-Raphaelite goddess. It is simply such Good Hair. It is hair that wants to lie in a meadow like a Flake advert, not cower in a taxi above a face of thunder, in front of a nation's angry media. Like the follicle form of the hypnotic snake in A Jungle Book, a mere swish and we're rendered slack-jawed and confused. As my friend Hannah put it, "I wish she'd show a bit of respect and put it in a bloody ponytail, just to help us keep focus." From this we have had to learn: good hair does not a good person necessarily maketh.

Exhibit B: Cheryl Cole. A woman whose hair, not so long ago, had the nation's collected womenfolk sighing as though over a nest of cupcake-eating kittens. Before it recently, as so many national treasures do, went too far and entered the realms of needing planning permission, Cole's hair was the eighth wonder of the world. It was like a millionaire shortbread woven into locks - creamy, sheeny and caramelly with the tiniest hint of crunch. But following the news that she has moved back in with philandering husband, we must conclude that all that lustrous head foliage can only be compressing the part of her brain responsible for thinking, "hang on, maybe he is not a nice man." 

2) I am very lucky

I am very lucky, to work for a company whose politics and moral code I agree with. Not every journalist has this luxury. For it is one thing to be hacking into the phones of a dead girl, and quite another to be innocently writing about shoes on the magazine that comes with the paper where people are hacking the phone of a dead girl. In an ideal world, journalism jobs would be so plentiful that everyone could pick and choose their company according to a strict code of values, like eHarmony. But for now we should have a little sympathy for the hundreds of newly unemployed hacks who never hacked anything.

3) Rupert Murdoch looks a lot like Professor Farnsworth from Futurama. It took me about five days to put my finger on it.

4) People have absolutely no tolerance of people who spell their names in unusual ways

When the News International excrement storm really got rolling, those wanting something quick and cutting to contribute to the debate largely went for: 'yeah, and she spells her name like a dick.' I kept schtum on pointing out that Rebekah is actually the biblical version, and thus not really dickish but sort of holy (I suspect that were she called Moses and turning water into endless piles of free Krispy Kreme, people's feelings would still lean towards the lynching sort).

Then there's little Harper Seven Beckham, a name spelled so wrong they've accidentally slipped  number in instead. Right now she's probably still getting acquainted with her own limbs in their cashmere babygro, but I hope one day she realises just how much joy she has brought to every wannabe wit on Twitter. Thank you, Beckhams. Monday would have been terribly boring in cyberspace if you'd just called her Emily.

And if your next is called Soda Serenity Now Beckham, I stand to make fifty quid.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

In which there's a mouse loose aboot this hoose

We have a mouse in the house. Apart from alliteration, there is nothing pleasing whatsoever about this statement. And anyway, we live in a flat. Which doesn't rhyme.

I know, before you call come tutting at me with your stoicism and your courage, that having mice is just an inevitable part of living in London. Everyone has mice, irrespective of wealth or hygiene standards. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge probably have mice in their apartment at Clarence House. I bet Kate stands on a chair in her nightie shrieking "Kill the bastard! Whack it like a polo ball!" while William wields a broom.

Indeed, we had mice before - but that was last year, in the infamous Highgate House, the flat that saw seventeen different flatmates, countless unsanitary parties and several major structural incidents* in three years I was resident. That flat had mice by default. It was Club Tropicana for rodents.

But not New Flat! New Flat, with its lovely airy whiteness and clean kitchen and fetching antique end tables, we thought was a haven of calm. There are no plates of festering pizza crusts stacked in bedrooms, like there were in the old house. We have handwash, and fresh flowers. We've got Cath Kidston oven gloves, for frick's sake.

So when Tara starts screaming on the landing on Monday night because a mouse has run out of her laundry, I barricade myself in my bedroom and start to cry. Not because I'm scared of mice - though I am, pant-wettingly scared - but because now I will never be able to properly relax in my lovely home. I will constantly be watching out the corner of my eye, jumping at little noises and inspecting all my food for tiny bite marks.

Thinking he may have crawled into out big walk-in cupboard, we barricade the gaps under the bottoms of the doors with a towel. Because obviously, no mouse could possibly defeat a towel.

We decide to name the mouse Arnold, because as Dumbledore says, fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself. Perhaps if we give him a personality, Arnold and us can co-habit comfortably, respectful of each others' space and domestic rights. Particularly, and this is a point I would beg Arnold to pay heed to, my right to sleep at night without a rodent crawling into my hair.

After two days of nervy living, however, of crowing, "helloooo, Arnold, I'm walking into the kitchen now…" before entering, to give him time to make a discreet exit, we change our minds. We look for traps. But everywhere only seems to sell humane traps. We want inhumane. We want dead.

"It was fluffy," Tara recalls. "Sort of cute, and… fluffy." Supressing all worry that we might be butchering a local kid's hamster, we finally find proper, old-fashioned mouse traps. I bait them with peanut butter. Crunchy, not smooth - mice would prefer crunchy, I am convinced.

And then, we wait.

*Well, someone ripped the bannisters off.