Tuesday, 27 September 2011

In which I spurn the Great Indoors

I've never really got on with shopping centres. I know it's hard to believe, slave to consumerism that I am, sitting here in my pink velour tracksuit with diamante dollar signs across the arse, but I would almost rather not shop at all than shop in a  shopping centre. Even Brighton's Churchill Square, which is essentially the village post office of shopping centres, gets me a bit twitchy and flustered. If it wasn't for the soothing scent of Millie's Cookies being pumped out through the vents, I'd barely get past Whittards.

Reasons I don't enjoy shopping centres are largely concentrated on the following:

1. Dehydration. I don't think I have ever maintained a comfortable level of bodily water content whilst inside a shopping centre. They make you moderately sweaty, thirsty, and needing of the loo all at once. This is so that you buy carbonated beverages from any one of their numerous outlets, which we all know make you giddy to the point of wanting to spend £39.99 on a boxset of Rowan Atkinson classics in HMV. It's a scam. Carry your own bottle of weak lemon squash and beat the system. 

2. Temperature confusion. The simple rule to remember is that if it is cold outside the shopping centre, it will be boiling hot inside and you will end up carrying your coat round like a cumbersome child. If it is hot outside, the shopping centre will be air conditioned into oblivion and necessitate the buying of jumpers.

3. Everything's a bit worse in a shopping centre. Nice restaurants suddenly look soulless and bland, overlooked by fake designer handbags and people getting fish pedicures. Hairdressers look like fluoro-lit hellmouths. Even Topshop loses its lustre. Without a breeze in your hair to remind you of the outside world, it just becomes so hard to know what you actually want. Lycra bodycon and heeled trainers might start to look appealing. You lose all sense of self.

But of course, the shopping centre that's got me thinking about how much I dislike shopping centres is the jaw-achingly massive new Westfield in Stratford, East London. Its opening a fortnight ago was the first big hoorah in the Olympic regeneration process (if we can't all be champion athletes, we can at least get our cardio wrestling for the last pleather satchel in a Primark the size of Rutland), and looks set to bring plenty of welcome jobs and pedestrian traffic to the area.

Aside from being baffled that it isn't called Eastfield, I haven't done a mad sprint over to its shiny, hallowed walls. I'm assuming it's probably very similar to the other, deservedly-named Westfield, which I went to for the first time only a couple of months ago. "I don't like shopping centres," I told people as they harped on about it. "You'll like this one!" they trilled. "No, really," I'd say. "They're hot and loud and often make me hate myself." "Not this one!" they'd cheerfully reply. "It's so big that you don't even know you're inside. It almost feels like… outside. But with shops."

So I went. And it is, I will grant you, very shiny. And very, very big. But I only got twitchy and flustered in proportion to its vastness, which means too twitchy and flustered to buy anything other than chilled drinks. And that Rowan Atkinson boxset.

Friday, 23 September 2011

In which everyone gets married

You'll have to forgive the slight streak of cynicism that might ripple through this column, like a bitter coulis in a fluffy sponge pudding. I am watching Bride Wars, you see, a movie that determinedly undoes all feminist progress over the last 50 years in a sweep of frothy white tulle. "You have been dead until now," the wedding planner tells the newly-engaged brides. It's a great message.

But even ignoring influence of Kate Hudson's perfectly groomed idiocy, I think I'm reasonably clear-headed when I say that if one more person on my Facebook news feed gets engaged or married, I will do something terrible with a Tiffany cake slice.

Growing up you always hear about people in this phase of life, where everyone they know is tying the knot in giddy succession and every weekend is spent throwing cash at John Lewis weddings lists and sleeping off hangovers in Welcome Break service stations, wearing a crumpled fascinator. But you think it will hit when you're, ooh, 30.

Never did I think that at the ripe age of 23, half of my also-23-year-old acquaintances would be getting married or popping out babies. We're not old enough to hire a car in most countries, yet these people know who they want to share a toilet with for the rest of their lives. The rest of their LIVES. It hurts my mind.

Perhaps these girls are all far more emotionally evolved than me, or perhaps it is just that no one has taken the time to pin them down and say 'THE REST OF YOUR LIFE' over and over again in a doom-filled voice. Either way, they're doing it. The ring, the hen do, the dress, the cake, the honeymoon, the endless reams of professionally airbrushed photos. They're doing it, only a handful of years since we officially became grown-ups. I still can't commit to a shampoo brand, and they're happily signing up for a lifelong three-legged race. It's amazing.

But aside from humming Another One Bites the Dust each time the squealy engagement status goes up and arranging a small divorce sweepstake (what? who said that? not me), I'm grateful for the diversion that it creates. I am. I love it. I've become fascinated by weddings in the same way an elderly obese man might be fascinated by Olympic gymnastics. I await wedding pictures on Facebook with an embarrassing hunger, overlooking the fact I've only met the lucky lady once, briefly, when we were 15*.

Will the dress be massive/shiny/in danger of falling down? Hair down, up, or curled like crisp fusilli? What's the colour scheme? Hotel, marquee or barn conversion? Will they, the most terrifying bridal trend I've witnessed so far, pose for official photos in their pants**?

And on, and on. It should be noted that so far none of these have been people close enough to actually invite me (I'm pleading closeness as the reason, rather than the chance I might loudly criticise everything then eat all the sugared almonds). But it's only a matter of time before I'm aisle-side, with popcorn. And if Bride Wars is anything to go by, it'll be a hoot.

*Around which time said bride was probably drawing up table plans and beginning on table favours.
** This is a real thing. Two real people I know have actually done it.

In which I find out what Madonna was on about

By the time you read this, I'll be on holiday in Spain. It will be, by some considerable stretch, the longest amount of time my boyfriend and I have ever spent together in one go, and also, at a modest 10 days, the longest holiday I've ever been on. With anyone.

"What will we DO for 10 days?" I asked when we booked it. "Won't we get bored?"
"No," says he. "We will relax. We will talk to each other. We will play cards."

I ponder this. "Can I take my laptop?"

I suppose he is right. I can accept that going away for long enough to be able to send postcards and have them reach your relatives before you get home does make some sense. It will be novel to go on a holiday that actually merits unpacking when you get there. Maybe we'll make friends with some lovely locals, and end up taking part in a flamenco performance at a small rustic taverna!

"I keep forgetting you've never been to Spain," says boyfriend.

The problem is, I don't know how to do a European beach holiday. I know how to do a British beach holiday all too well - buy a Kellogs Variety Pack, leapfrog between tea shops in the rain, visit a museum that is actually in someone's living room - but the finer points of the Mediterranean excursion have thus far alluded me. I'm not sure I've ever lain on sand without an anorak and thermos to hand. Most of my sea-swimming to date has been done in a wetsuit. This will be a learning experience.

For all I'm sure we will have the loveliest if lovely times, there are acknowledged obstacles we'll need to overcome. One of them is my desire to push Easyjet's luggage allowance with enthusiastic purchase of novelty foreign food items and wooden castanets to hang in the loo. Another is not having a TV ("How will we know if a famous person dies?" I protest reasonably).

And another of them is the heat. Mediterranean rookie that I am, I insisted we go in September because I thought this meant it would be nice, breezy, manageable weather. But the last time I checked the forecast for this week, it was 33 degrees. That's hotter than the hottest day here this year, during which I lay on the floor with my head in the fridge whimpering, "I want to die." My feelings towards tiny clothes and sweat gland activity have been covered enough in these columns for you to understand that temperatures like this make me gag.

Boyfriend, being a 'baste me in oil and point me at the sun' sort of chap, is planning to find it hilarious when I spend the entire holiday under enormous hats with three menopausal battery fans, necking water and muttering darkly about melanomas. But then he'll have his own mountain to climb* in the form of Caitlin Moran's How To Be A Woman, which I am providing for his holiday reading.

So while I seek out shade under an ex-pat's lobster-tinted paunch, he'll be battling with the subtle nuances of the female condition - and its live, sweating counterpart, me. Here's to a happy 10 days.

Monday, 5 September 2011

In which I star in The Kindle and I

Oh man, I love my Kindle.

As sweeping romantic statements go, it's not quite up there with "shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" or "it's always been you, Rach", but I must stress that I do mean every word. I. Love. My. Kindle.

It wasn't love at first sight, mind you. For at least a year I was firmly in the paper-fancying, 'it'll never replace books' club. "A screen doesn't feel the same!" I would squawk. "You can't annotate them!" (You can, and I don't anyway). "You can't read it in the bath!" (I haven't had a bath since 2004, and only then because the shower was broken).

But then I reached a turning point, and began to see things differently. That point was: I started reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, and I had to buy a bigger handbag. "Hmm," I thought as I was stood in Urban Outfitters cramming the tome into each bag in turn and trying to do the clasp up. "It sure would be useful to be able to carry this book around in a smaller format. A flatter one. Possibly a flat, grey, digital one, like a big phone… with a book on it." 

After this thought had blossomed, other thoughts joined it. Thoughts like: it would be nice to turn the page on this weighty volume without taking my hand off the tube pole and risking toppling onto a greasy commuter. Say, via a nifty button.

Or: sometimes I'm not in the mood for the book I have in my bag. I'll be in my wry '30s comedy satire mood and I'll be carrying a vaguely political South American saga. Or I'll want slightly confusing magical realism and be carrying a boarding school story I last read when I was 12. Sometimes I just want to read the last two chapters of Bridget Jones's Diary repeatedly until I fall asleep on the night bus, and gosh darnit I don't want to be denied that option.

So, I got a Kindle.

I loved it from the off, in the coy way one fancies a complex, aloof, beautiful boy who ignores you. But the affection only grew stronger as it proved itself an indispensable force for good in my life. I was freer, more educated, more alive. I cemented the relationship a few weeks ago, when I realised I had inadvertently matched my nail varnish to it. I'd thought it was steely storm-grey, but no. It was Kindle-coloured.

But let me not appear blinded by love - I am fully ready to admit that the Kindle has flaws. More precisely, it has two.

Firstly, when it falls onto my face after I've nodded off reading it, it really clunks my nose. Books never clunked, only softly enveloped my schnoz with a blanket of softly fluttering paper. I miss that.

Secondly, nobody can see what you're reading on a Kindle. This is a good thing, of course, on some occasions. The week I read Lady Chatterley's Lover, for example, was a stressful exercise in jacket-bending and concealing-inside-newspapers lest elderly bus users see it and fall down in horror. On a Kindle it would have been fine.

But this does mean you lose the other side, the camaraderie of books. Reading One Day wouldn't have been nearly so enjoyable were it not for the armies of commuters toting the same orange cover round with them, beaming conspiratorially and sharing tissues when they get to the end. And I am not, I'm sure, the only lady to have harboured the Match.com-style fantasy of spying a gentleman reading the same well-chosen, intellectual yet not pretentious, novel that you just happen to be reading too.  Then you fall in love.

Plus, what's the point of reading Ovid or Proust or something, if nobody sees it and thinks 'ooh, get you'? I mean, really?

So in future, I'd like Kindles to come with an optional back screen that could display the book you're reading to the rest of the tube carriage. Or, even better, the book you'd like people to think you're reading. Proust on the outside, Bridget on the inside. That's an e-reading device I could possibly marry.