Thursday, 24 February 2011

In which the library looks a little lean

One of life’s great joys, along with tankards of gin and finding out that the new shoes don’t give one blisters, is the discovery of a thoroughly great book.

One recent lunchtime, I happened to be browsing in the nearest Waterstone’s (with my leaving date imminent, I’m allowing myself to – gasp – leave the office in my lunch hour), taking in the smell of books. Much as I love the thud of an Amazon package landing on the mat, there’s nothing quite like being able to browse: I’ve unearthed many an unheard-of gem in bricks and mortar bookshops that I would never have discovered on the pages of the internet). It was as I tore myself away from the cookery books before I spent the mortgage money and stood instead in front of the racks of novels that I was reminded that far too many of the great books I love are no longer in my possession.

That evening, a quick scan of Late Granny’s bookcase, currently in what’s euphemistically termed the ‘spare room’ but should more actually be called the ‘room where I keep all the crap that doesn’t have a home anywhere else; laundry; and Christmas decorations that still haven’t made it to the loft’, revealed some desperately large gaps in the collection.

Just from what I can remember, my library is currenly sans the following:

Lolita – currently with Curable Romantic (whatever preconceptions you might have about this, put them aside and read it. It’s darkly hysterical)

The Graduate – The Metrosexual (this disappeared at uni. It’s not coming back)

A Brief History of the Dead – The Metrosexual (ditto)

Polo – Best Mate (I’ve told her that, from my experience, it’s best read either in the bath with a glass of red wine, or laying under a parasol in 35° sunshine in a leopard-print one piece for that real 1983 vibe)

The Hidden Oasis – Best Mate (to be fair, I’ve specifically told her she MUST keep this. Think Indiana Jones written by Dan Brown, with any archaeological and historical accuracy sucked out. It was a proof copy given to me by the publishers: even if the plot, writing and characterisation hadn’t been enough to finish me off (which they were), the horrid, horrid errors in punctuation would have. She loves it, but – as the holder of an MA in archaeology – in ironic fashion)

Letters Between Six Sisters – Best Mate

Riders – The Redhead (she’s only had it a week, and I shall refuse flat out to take it back until she’s read and LOVED it. Never thought I’d be such an unashamed evangelist of the bonkbuster. But there we are)

One Day – Speckled Lad

American Psycho – Speckled Lad

The Quiet American – Speckled Lad

The Go Between – Speckled Lad (sensing a theme?)

Of Love and Hunger – Speckled Lad

Women – Speckled Lad

Lady Chatterley – Speckled Lad

Scoop – Speckled Lad

Bel-Ami – anon (but I can’t find it, and refuse to believe it’s languishing in a Tunisian hotel somewhere. I do wonder whether Speckled Lad has it)

Hangover Square – Speckled Lad

Shake Hands with the Devil – anon (probably some poor soul in my final year African politics class at uni who’ll also want to open a vein at the sheer evil that mankind is capable of – by doing nothing, as much as anything else)

Notes on a Scandal – The Aunt

The Post Birthday World – Liver Bird

On Chesil Beach – Best Mate’s mum

One I’m not going to admit to owning – Liver Bird

I don’t particularly mind – after all, if there’s a book you’ve loved enough to lend, then it’s only right that someone else should get to fall for it too. PolitiGal’s mother is of the opinion that you should only lend a book if you are prepared to give it away anyway, so PG takes it for granted that, once lent, a book’s not coming back.

Which is just as well, as I have one of hers that she lent to me at some point last June that I’ve still not finished, let alone given back.

And, of course, lending things out creates space to buy more. Well, with all those empty shelves – and all those free lunch hours – it’d be rude not to.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

In which friends are worth their weight in lowered blood pressure

There are times in life when things around you are a wee touch stressful. Like when The Father’s just retired and, as flippant as you’ve been about him dropping dead as soon as he has a chance to relax, you’re actually quite concerned as to how he’s going to cope; or you’re about to start a new job that, now you’ve sat down and thought about it properly, you’ve realised is going to be paralysingly terrifying.

And it’s at times like those it’s good to remind yourself that there are people around you who, by the simple act of being there, make things better.

Sometimes, those are the people who’ve not been around very long, but you’ve decided you’d rather not be without, thanks all the same.

JournoGal and The Redhead are both relatively recent acquisitions to Social Circle Blonde, but – by merit of their proclivity for a large glass (or two) of hearty red and non-stop natter that would make Josh Lyman look mute – they’ve both cemented their places on the Dinner Party Invitation list.

A recent dinner at Byron* in Covent Garden with JournoGal resulted in a recommendation for mascara; the loan of what looks to be a cracking book; and much mutual, useful advice on everything from flatmates to racing tips. Drinks with The Redhead resulted mostly in a hangover (but only hers. Smug, moi?) and huge giggles (oh. And my challenging her culinary whiz boyfriend to a pudding-off. This may have been one of my less-clever moves. I have some recipe ideas, but any winners you have tucked away up your sleeves would be hugely appreciated).

There are people who, with just a few words, can totally lighten the load, probably without realising the calming effect they have.

The weekend saw a lovely and long-overdue catch up with Foreign Correspondent, back in the UK between trips to Unstable Climes.

Over coffee and blondies (a flapjack-brownie hybrid that happen to have a rather appropriate name), we chatted and he showed me some frankly unbeatable “what I did on my holiday” snaps on his Blackberry before he had a nose round the house.

“Is that your sister?” he said, pointing to a picture on the wall of me and Best Mate at one of our annual Edinburgh winter barbecue parties.

“Nope,” I said. “The best friend. And that’s the other best friend.” I pointed to a shot above it of Speckled Lad and I in our favourite bar. “Off to War Zone in September.”

“He’ll be okay, you know.” And then FC proceed to rattle off statistics and anecdotes, telling me just how much safer SL’s particular part of War Zone is; how fighting isn’t as bad outside of the summer period; how there’s a huge flatscreen telly at the base camp for showing sport. “He will be fine.”

I know he will - but it’s so good to hear it reiterated from someone else who’s been, who knows what it’s like, who’s seen it. I think I owe FC more baked goods, at the very least.

And then there are those people you’ve known FOREVER.

Best Mate, a total stalwart for the 14 years that we’ve been pretty much inseparable, can always be relied upon to bring a girl down to earth and provide a gentle reminder that things aren’t, in fact, so bad.

In other news, a recent email ran, how do you fancy Mooted Holiday Destination in September? It’s possible to get back by some means if our airline decides to fold. Also, I think the chance of political uprisings there are quite slim.

Perspective: I can haz it. Along with some pretty fabulous friends to whom I’ll always be grateful. Unless their puddings are better than mine, in which case I’ll just be cross.

*Go. I’m a horrible veggie, and I had a great time. Anything smothered in goats’ cheese (as their veggie burger is) is A-OK as far as I’m concerned, but I hear the meaty stuff is pretty good. The courgette fries are a little limp, and just a touch greasy, but the coleslaw is surprisingly addictive.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

In which I have a brief encounter

I was pointed via an email this week in the direction of this rather heart-warming article which appeared in the Guardian at the weekend, about couples who met and fell in love with a stranger on their daily commute.

It’s rather lovely to think in the days of automated, online everything that such old-school romance can still exist.

It goes hugely against the British grain of pretending you can’t see anyone else travelling with you. Interaction with fellow passengers is normally most definitely Against The Rules. You get on the train, and then staunchly ignore everyone, even though you’re pressed together so closely the carriage almost certainly contravenes EU rules on the humane transportation of livestock. I swear there have been occasions when I’ve had sex making less bodily contact than I do on the 07.29 into London. (Though there are people out there railing (if you’ll pardon the pun) against the social more that we should stare through our fellow commuters, like the frankly BRILLIANT People on The Tube blog. Go, check it out. And pray you’ve not been captured on camera.)

But, even if I’m now an expert at making sure my observations aren’t too obvious, I doubt I’m alone in eyeing up particularly hot types as they make their weary way back out to Home County of an evening (though sadly I’ve not seen this chap in a long while). Frankly, if you’ve not fallen in love at least twice on a long train journey, then you’ve not been looking hard enough.

I once had a flirtation with a man I met on the train.

It was many years ago; I’d not long split up from Long Term Ex, and was feeling generally grumpy about the state of mankind (just the men, that is). Sitting on an early train, I was staring wistfully out the window across a particularly bleak Fenland morning. Standing out against the flat, grey vista was the reflection in the window of a pair of bright blue eyes staring straight at me.

The eyes crinkled, and were joined by a smile on the face of a guy sitting a few seats down the train. A really, really hot one. Tousled, dirty-blonde hair; big blue eyes; freckled face. Assuming it had been an accident, I blushed furiously and quickly looked down at my lap. When I looked up, there he was again, grinning away. I meekly smiled back, and for the rest of the journey, we were exchanging glances and smiles via reflections in the window.

“Huh, that was nice”, I’d thought, getting off the train and walking down the platform when there was a tap on my shoulder.

“Hey, how ya goin’?” Ah. An Australian. That explains the tan and the textbook surfery good looks. And the fact you’re willing verbally to acknowledge what just happened.

A short conversation and a divergence in direction down different roads later, and we’d had a quick chat and swapped numbers.

Of course, this isn’t Hollywood, this is me, so it’s less wonderful, old-school romance and more, well, le vie de la Blonde, really. Instead of us falling madly in love, I later found out he was married with two children and they were all about to move back to Australia.


It’s probably not the stuff great films are made of. But it livened up the 08.04. And that, and a seat, is probably all a girl can expect.

Monday, 14 February 2011

In which romance could probably be said to be on its way out

I’m not a woman who professes to hate Valentine’s Day. But, by the same token, nor am I one of those women who goes gooey over the occasion, seeing it as the perfect opportunity to tell a man I’m with how much I adore him. It’s just not a day that particularly resonates with me. I’m more a ‘bunch of tulips on a Wednesday, just because’, or a ‘here’s a little note left on the kitchen side, just because’ kinda gal.

Because, let’s be honest: if all the romance in your relationship comes on one day of the year, and one on which you can’t possibly fail to miss the whacking great big hearts stuck up in shop windows across the nation and pubs yelling about their extra-romantic bargain £10 dinners for two, then there’s probably not so much adoration to be celebrated.

And if anyone needs a reminder that Valentine’s Day actually isn’t the most romantic day in the year, they need merely to look in the direction of the PR industry to give them a short, sharp reminder.

For those of us with clients who can legitimately be said to have products suited to the occasion, Valentine’s Day isn’t just 24 hours in February: we’ve been thinking about and drafting and writing and issuing releases to the monthly titles with three-month lead times since about October. Trust me: it gets old, and quickly.

But apparently, some people are so keen to spend months thinking about the perfect gift for their loved one that they want in on the act.

Anyone following the Daily Telegraph’s consumer affairs editor, Harry Wallop, on Twitter over the past couple of weeks probably won’t have failed to notice the slew of disparaging tweets about terrible releases he was receiving from PRs trying to get their clients a little Valentine’s coverage. And, much as it irritates me to see journos being irrationally irascible about PRs, in this case, I think he had at least one point.

Apparently, according to our esteemed industry, perfect presents for the special someone in your life this year include:

Heart-shaped cheeses

Taps (no, really)

Heart-shaped cucumbers

Equine insurance [“Huh. That’d be quite a good present,” Best Mate said, when I told her. “It’s pretty pricey these days.”]

And the most squirm-inducing, penazzles. (If you don’t know what it is, for the love of all that’s wholesome, don’t Google image it. Oh, and boys? Even as a joke? NO. They're not meant to be sparkly. Gods above.)

It probably says something that when @fwengebola jokingly told me there was a place in Kilburn where you could get heart-shaped kebabs, I wholeheartedly believed him. Shudder.

So, whether you’re bemoaning the lack of Special Someone in your life to spoil this Valentine’s Day or you’re irritated that they didn’t sweep you off your feet, it’s probably best to thank your lucky stars you didn’t receive a hot tap and a heart-shaped cucumber, and remember that it won’t be back again for another year. Unless you’re in PR. In which case, you’ve only got yourself to blame.

Updated: this is a particularly excellent example. Cyncial b’stards.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

In which people go shopping for dates

Because a lot of people have proper jobs and don’t sit about pratting around on Twitter of a day and calling it work, they might not have come across the announcement last week of the launch of a new dating site. By Asda.

Yup, that Asda (they of Walmart fame, for my American friends). Find your perfect partner based on your mutual shopping habits, so the press release would have you believe.

(Or rather, I imagine it would. There was deafening silence from their press office when I asked for a copy, and they’ve not got it listed on the press release section of their site. There’s also no information to be had from the site as the link now goes back to the people they ‘partnered with’ for the service. Not that you should assume this was a piece of news creation by the Asda PR team to gain a little press coverage around about Valentine’s Day. Ahem. I’m absolutely not criticising, you understand. That would make me the world’s worst hypocrite. All’s fair in love and press coverage, and anyway, news creation pays my mortgage. Yes, a lot of people find it distasteful. Bad luck. It’s just the way the media work. You’d have much skinnier (and more boring) newspapers without it. As I said: just sayin’.)

But, veracity of the project aside, I suppose choosing to start a dalliance with someone based on their shopping habits is no worse than any other way of doing it. In my experience, there’s no more science behind choosing the people one dates than blind luck and a bit too much red wine.

And actually, I rather think that what someone chooses to put in their shopping basket can tell you a good deal about them. I dread to think how much someone else perusing the aisles on a Sunday morning can tell about me. Far too much, I imagine.

On an average trip to the supermarket – based on several elderly, scrunched up shopping lists I’ve just retrieved from the bottom of my bag – a basket of mine is likely to contain any combination of the following: aubergines, goats’ cheese, tonic water, rocket, The Times, pillar candles, marinated artichokes, fresh pesto, cat food, cat treats, Arborio rice, eye make-up remover, limes, paté (butternut squash), a nice hearty Syrah, ibuprofen, fresh pasta, tomato purée, olives, pineapple, Earl Grey teabags, chocolate buttons (giant), some product I’ve never heard of that the cleaner has been very specific about and won’t be able to do her job without, and extra-virgin olive oil.

(Gods above, reading that I’m struck that it does, doesn’t it? It just reeks of ‘single girl with cat’. Bollocks.)

But people as judgy as I am are liable to leap, gazelle-like, to conclusions about others based purely on what they’ve chosen to stock up on...

Frozen pizza, 4 pints of (full fat) milk and a ready-meal curry? Male, mid-twenties, cultivating a paunch. Very single, and presumably planning on it staying that way for quite some time.

2 steaks, bottle of plonk, ready-prepped Parmentier potatoes, pre-julienned carrots? Early thirties, bachelor. Eligibleish. Keen to impress but with a tendency to overpromise.

Cigarettes, two bottles of Pinot Grigio, cheese? Late 20s, female, having a night to herself whilst her flatmate’s out and the boyfriend’s playing 5-a-side. Functioning alcoholic. Probably in PR.

Polenta, kohl rabi, blueberries, wheatgrass juice, line-caught wild bass and herbal tea? Female, early 40s, but looks far older. Any time not spent in the gym is spent with female friends, bemoaning the difficulty of getting an appointment with Mr. Best Eyebrow Lifts on Harley Street. Absolutely no fun down the pub.

Of course, whatever’s in someone’s basket, you can also tell rather a lot about them by where that basket’s from. Do a girl a favour: if you’re going to be pulling in the aisles, just make sure they’re Waitrose, would you?

Friday, 4 February 2011

In which I am a fraud

It was an out of the blue text message that I received one recent Sunday evening that got me thinking.

I’m on the prowl for your postal address, it read. Sorry if you’ve told me before. I promise I’ll store it somewhere safe this time!

That, in my experience, is the sort of text or email that people only send before birthdays and Christmases when they realise their address book (/spreadsheet. You know who you are) isn’t up to date. And, in my life, with both those events happening in December, there’s generally only one other reason for it.

“Wedding invitation, do we think?” I said conspiratorially to Best Mate later on.

“Oooh, could be,” she said. “Yikes. Another one.”

If the announcement of a wedding date is forthcoming from the sender of the message, I shall be over the moon. The pair has been together since we were all 15 and getting horribly drunk round the snooker table in her liberal parents’ basement.

But that doesn’t stop my reflex reaction to such announcements being: “Eh?! Really?! That’s a very grown-up thing to be doing. What’s the rush?”

I was exactly the same when I discovered last year that a primary school friend, now living in Mexico with her husband, was expecting Sprog 3. The mere thought of children terrifies me: when faced with a small child, most women coo. My first reaction is to shudder quietly and send up a quick prayer to the Gods of Contraception to keep things working as they have done so far.

Of course, my rather flustered reaction to people’s proclamations that they’re moving successfully through their lives aren’t really rational. Sure, they used to be. Way back when, it was fair enough to raise an eyebrow at the thought of contemporaries tying the knot. But now… Well, it’s not really a surprise: in one’s mid(ish) twenties, wanting to settle down with one’s partner and have a family isn’t really an unreasonable thing to do. After all, biologically speaking, you’re going to be looking down the barrel of the gun sooner rather than later.

Except, for me, getting married and having children are nice things for other people to do.

I don’t feel that I’m anywhere near the stage in my life where I could even contemplate doing it (we’ll leave out the fact there’d need to be someone else around, first, unless I was planning a Helen Archer, which I most certainly am not). I don’t even think too much about the fact there’s a mortgage with my name on it, because the thought leaves me cold.

In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that most days, not only do I not feel capable of parental responsibility, I actually feel like a total fraud. That, somehow, I’ve got this far by masquerading as an adult who’s capable of looking after herself, holding down a job and a house, and managing not to spend her entire paycheck on white mice. Because when I stop to think about it, I’m sure it’s not something I do on a cognisant level.

Which is why I’m happy to don a hat and throw confetti at people I shared a maths lesson with. Just don’t ask me to follow them down the aisle towards planned adulthood any time soon.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

In which I open the ex-box

There comes a point in any new dalliance where the topic of ex-partners raises its awkward head.

Although sometimes a little sticky, the conversation can shine a useful light into murky relationship histories and illuminate the way ahead. You might be able to glean pretty quickly whether there’s a pattern to the behaviour of your intended that’s frankly sub-par, and be able to scarper before the going gets tough (see: Speckled Lad. His favoured relationship-ending technique is simply to leave the country. The Lad flung a quick fling before moving to Germany where he currently resides, and I would be happy to bet the gin money on there being some sort of something with an attractive Fräulein before he takes off for War Zone in September).

My last dalliance, The Northerner, was loathe even to countenance the discussion. During a dinner of quite excellent monkfish and several bottles of red at Colony (a restaurant, by the way, which I wholeheartedly recommend), I had made a quip about his having a few crazy exes in the attic.

“Yup,” he’d said, taking a large mouthful of wine.

“Oh, that sounds intriguing…” I’d replied, wondering quite what his particular brand of crazy entailed.

“Hmm,” he said, making it quite clear that that was the end of the discussion. I never did find out the Berthas he’d battled.

In quite pronounced contradiction, the subject’s come up pretty quickly and openly with The Filmmaker, who’s been quite happy to talk about his previous dalliances. Thankfully, nothing I’ve heard (yet) strikes me as particularly alarming, so I think Colin is safe from being boiled alive for a while (not that you’d find a saucepan that’d hold him these days. The creature is huge).

I, on the other hand, have been slightly more reticent to let on just which skeletons are lurking in the cupboard.

There’s nothing dreadful in the grand scheme of things (says she, clutching feverishly at the hope that, said enough times, the statement might become true). There are just bits and pieces that might be slightly unnerving to hear from the lips of a new dalliance.

Exes who constituted the love of one’s life thus far, for instance. Or exes with fairly grand families whose ancestors changed the course of British history and can claim one of the country’s most impressive castles as the family seat. Or minor sleb exes whose Popbitch and press appearances don’t always make comfortable reading (of course, they don’t always make true reading either, which doesn’t help).

But, I suppose, the conversation is as good a way as any to determine the courage of a man and the strength of his stomach – if he runs away screaming at the first sign of something scary, then there’s probably no future in it anyway (The Father can be a touch terrifying). Which would make another ex to not confess to next time.

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