Wednesday, 29 June 2011

In which I'm quite glad I'm not a Londoner

There’s always been a vague rivalry in Britain between people who live in our cities, and those who inhabit the green spaces outside them. City types see their rural counterparts as backward bumpkins who don’t know that there’s a minimum speed limit on the pavements; those in the country feel superior to the squeamish, superficial city dwellers who, when they visit, leave gates open so that the livestock can get out.

Living in a small market town somewhere between the two (although rather nearer the ‘rural’ end of things), I can see both sides of the argument. Yes, it would be lovely to live in a place filled with myriad new restaurants and cutting edge museums, but quite honestly, I like the fact that I can walk from one side of the place to the other in ten minutes and that everything’s shut on a Sunday.

It might be because I don’t live in London that an ad campaign currently running, supposedly extolling the virtues of the capital and those who live in it, hasn’t resonated with me at all. In fact, it makes me thoroughly glad I’m out in my little backwater with the clean air and ability to see stars at night.

If you’re also not living in the Smoke, or aren’t in the city very often, you’re probably not familiar with the current ads based around the line from the old wartime song Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner.

Maybe it’s because you’re a Londoner, the tube posters scream, that you’re like this, picking something about the city or the population about which its inhabitants are meant to be proud; things that should evoke a warm glow about them and the place in which they’re living.

But, bizarrely, the advertisers in their infinite wisdom seem not to have picked the best things about the place: the cultural opportunities; the architectural beauty; the historical richness. Not South Bank; the National Portrait Gallery; the incredible array of amazing restaurants; the acceptance that Londoners show to people from all over the world; the traditions and quirks – be they Changing the Guard or the good-natured ‘thoughts for the day’ that appear on the whiteboards at Angel tube station.

Instead, what’s been chosen are characteristics that, if we’re being generous about this, don’t wholeheartedly flatter. Because apparently, what makes people Londoners is the breathtaking egocentricity for which the rest of the country thinks they’re prats.

For clarity: there are plenty of Londoners of whom I’m thoroughly fond, none of whom can be characterised by the below, and I wouldn’t dream of tarring them as such. But dear me – who on EARTH thought these were a good idea…?

Maybe you carry a designer handbag with a price tag that could not only feed a family of five for six months but fit one in too cries one ad.

Maybe your idea of dressing down for the pub is loosening your tie and undoing your top button cries another.

Maybe you own hiking boots and a four-wheel drive vehicle, neither of which has ever seen so much as a muddy puddle.

I’m sure I’m meant to be impressed by the fashion-forward, suited and booted, cosmopolitan crowd that the ads are depicting. But frankly, I see the posters and they make me think of nothing other than superficial, uptight, greenery-shy idiots who have no idea that if you don’t know one end of a horsebox from the other, then you’ve no place in the driving seat of a Land Rover.

But maybe it’s because they’re Londoners and I’m not. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because they’re prats.

Monday, 27 June 2011

In which meeting the parents goes horribly wrong

Meeting the family of a new partner can be an exceptionally stressful experience.

Will they like you? Will you like them? Will they think you’re entirely wrong for their loved one and want you out of the picture as soon as possible? Will they go out of their way thoroughly to humiliate you by showing the object of your affection every single picture of you ever taken as a two year-old, including the one they saw fit to put in the local paper on your eighteenth birthday in which you’re wearing absolutely nothing other than a large grin and your late grandmother’s hairnet?

The latter, for clarification, is a favourite of Family Blonde. Or, at least, I imagine it would be, but I’ve not taken a man home to meet the parents since I was eighteen (and even he was shown that photo).

Thus it probably comes as little surprise that I’m in no great rush to introduce The Writer to the parentals. I’m quite capable of humiliating myself enough in front of him by throwing myself headlong into the Soho pavement (as I did on our first date) than to need a slideshow of baby photos reeled out.

It’s a decision about which I remain convinced, having received an email this week that’s been doing the rounds.

The reaction of Social Circle Blonde was one of simultaneous and equal disbelief, horror and glee as they enjoyed a stark lesson in How Not to Meet the Parents…

[Names, places changed to protect… well, everyone. Everything else has been left just as it was. Those of a nervous / I-don’t-understand-the-English disposition should look away now.]

From: Unimpressed Future in-Law []
Sent: 10 May 2011 06:51
To: Persona non grata
Subject: Manners

Persona non grata,

It is high time someone explained to you about good manners. Yours are obvious by their absence and I feel sorry for you.

I am being kept awake – or woken early – by Other Unimpressed Future in-Law who is so profoundly upset by your behaviour on your recent visit that he is depressed and anxious.

Unfortunately for Darling Boy, he has fallen in love with you and Darling Boy being Darling Boy, I gather it is not easy to reason with him or yet encourage him to consider how he might be able to help you. It may just be possible to get through to you though. I do hope so. Your behaviour on your visit to Where We Live was staggering in its uncouthness and lack of grace. Unfortunately, this was not the first example of bad manners I have experienced from you. If you want to be accepted by the wider inLaw family I suggest you take some guidance from experts with utmost haste. There are plenty of finishing schools around. You would be an ideal candidate for the Ladette to Lady television series. Please, for your own good, for Darling Boy’s sake and for your future involvement with the inLaw family, do something as soon as possible.
Here are a few examples of your lack of manners:

When you are a guest in another’s house, you do not declare what you will and will not eat – unless you are positively allergic to something.

You do not remark that you do not have enough food.

You do not start before everyone else.

You do not take additional helpings without being invited to by your host.

When a guest in another’s house, you do not lie in bed until late morning in households that rise early – you fall in line with house norms.

You should never ever insult the family you are about to join at any time and most definitely not in public. I gather you passed this off as a joke but the reaction in the pub was one of shock, not laughter.

I have no idea whether you wrote to thank Other Daughter in Law for the weekend but you should have hand-written a card to her.

You should have hand-written a card to me. You have never written to thank me when you have stayed at Our House.

Other Daughter in Law has quite the most exquisite manners of anyone I have ever come across. You would do well to follow her example.

You regularly draw attention to yourself. Perhaps you should ask yourself why.

It is tragic that you have diabetes. However, you aren’t the only young person in the world who is a diabetic. I know quite a few young people who have this condition, one of whom is getting married in June. I have never heard her discuss her condition. She quietly gets on with it. She doesn’t like being diabetic. Who would? You do not need to regale everyone with the details of your condition or use it as an excuse to draw attention to yourself. It is vulgar.

As a diabetic of long standing you must be acutely aware of the need to prepare yourself for extraordinary eventualities, the walk to Nice Place on the Coast being an example. You are experienced enough to have prepared yourself appropriately.

No one gets married in a castle unless they own it. It is brash, celebrity style behaviour.

I understand your parents are unable to contribute very much towards the cost of your wedding. (There is nothing wrong with that except that convention is such that one might presume they would have saved over the years for their daughters’ marriages.) If this is the case, it would be most ladylike and gracious to lower your sights and have a modest wedding as befits both your incomes.

One could be accused of thinking that Persona non grata must be patting herself on the back for having caught a most eligible young man. I pity Darling Boy.
Unimpressed Future in-Law

Suddenly, the fact that the worst I can expect is a little embarrassment at the hands of Pa Blonde after one too many glasses of Malbec is a huge relief.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

In which I have a few tips for the interns

Whilst still at my previous agency, I had the fortune to spend several precious days trawling through terribly written applications for the position of intern.

Thankfully, the current (paid, just FYI) intern at the London Office was selected by my boss, so I was saved the pain of having to sit through yet more applications for a role in ‘comunications’ (if you want a job in an industry, makes sense to know how to spell the industry. Or have basic proficiency in using the spellcheck. S’all I’m sayin’).

But, although she seems to be perfectly proficient for someone who’s only been in PR the best part of a fortnight, it seems she’s a product of a university careers office that’s not doing its job in telling candidates what’ll be expected of them should they land one of the (indubitably million) positions for which they’ve applied.

If I were the gal bequeathed with the task of spurring the great young minds of our nation’s graduates on to finding gainful employment, I’d like to think that I’d think to give them a few basic heads-ups…

- Turning up half an hour early on your first day is an easy mistake to make, but not one that’ll endear you to the person who was planning on using that crucial time on a Monday morning to make sure she could fend off other work long enough to get you settled in.

- Even if, having spent some time in the office, you come to the conclusion that the dress code’s pretty casual on any days where there aren’t events or meetings happening, it would pay to err on the side of overdressed on your first day. Lumberjack shirts and Converse don’t count as overdressed in the world of corporate PR. Ever.

- However much of a shock to the system it might be to have to get up at a vaguely normal time, commute to an office, and then put in a full day’s work, it really is deeply inadvisable to spend nearly all day not bothering to stifle your many and loud yawns. It will make your colleagues wonder whether you’re really cut out for PR if you apparently find it so crashingly boring, and whether – if the opportunity of a job were to arise – you would really be someone they’d want to take on.

- However much of a shock to the system it might be, you are expected to put in that full day. The occasional slope off at 5pm because you have an unmissable doctor’s appointment is one thing. Doing it every day for a multitude of reasons including letting your boyfriend into your flat, and shopping for your father’s birthday gift won’t curry any favour – even less if your hour of departure starts to creep ever closer to 4pm.

- All that having been considered, it’s worth noting that you’ll be forgiven much if you can make a cracking cup of tea. Just don’t yawn whilst you’re doing it.

Friday, 17 June 2011

In which a guy holding the door isn't sexism - it's manners

Coming from a pushy girls’ school, notions of feminism have always been ingrained in my psyche, without ever explicitly making their presence felt.

With no boys around, it was a non-issue if we wanted to study ‘traditionally male’ subjects – if you were good at physics and IT, off to the labs you scurried. Those of us more adept at winding up the Classics department with our utter failure to grasp the ablative absolute before achieving 100% in several A-level papers did so. We were always led to believe could do what the hell we liked, and bugger anyone else’s opinion, whether that’s winning Olympic medals; writing classic children’s books or being married with babies by the age of 25 (I went to a school for serious overachievers. Quite what they make of anomalous little me, I dread to think).

The point was that we should make whichever choice would make us happy. That’s the brand of feminism that’s stuck: women shouldn’t be held back from doing anything simply because they’re women, and if they choose to take on a more ‘traditional’ role, then that’s okay too. End of. Any ‘feminist’ view I would never, ever subscribe to would seek to belittle men at the expense of women’s equality, because that’s not what it’s about.

So when I was pointed in the direction of an article of frankly ludicrous perspective in The Daily Telegraph the other day, I was incited to fury.

Some utterly eejit authors at the Psychology of Women Quarterly have declared that men holding open a door, or carrying a heavy bag of shopping, are indulging in acts of “benevolent sexism”. We’re to be horrified, apparently, by having a chap offer to do the driving, or show us affection: these are things that are “helping to create a culture of women being seen as the vulnerable sex and encouraging inequality and injustice”.

Oh, are they fuck.

They’re a display of basic manners and human courtesy. As far as I’m aware, men do those sorts of things for other men too (or at least, the ones in my life do). Hell, women do them for other women. It’s less about men being chivalrous towards women, and more about people being nice to each other.

And, quite honestly, I can’t see how men doing well-mannered things is something to be offended by: I very much doubt there’s ever a sexist slur implied when someone holds open the door, a driver lets you cross the road, or a nice man offers to help you with your bag. And if you are offended by that sort of thing, then frankly you need to get over yourself.

“God, all over the world,” The Writer vented as we discussed the article whilst walking down Carnaby Street later that night, “are people with real problems. One would presume the millions of women having their genitals mutilated, being denied basic rights, and dying of things like obstetric fistula would love an open door.”

A point rather emphatically made, maybe, but spot on nonetheless. There’s enough truly ghastly stuff happening to women for us all – men and women alike – to be really, properly angry about.

You can take your pick from the current male-female pay gap; equality in the workplace and the number of women in senior business roles; or the criminally low rate of conviction in rape cases. In some countries, it’s the right to drive a car. Or you can choose from any one of the hundred issues that are rather more basic: the right to safe and legal abortions; access to property, or basic health care, or education; trafficking; sex slavery; rape as a weapon…

Suddenly having a chap open a door doesn’t look so serious, does it?

So whilst I’d absolutely identify myself as a feminist, if I have a door held open for me; a chair pulled out; a bunch of flowers proffered, I’m not going to get crabby and ridiculous, or harp on about notions of oppression and sexism. I’m going to enjoy the gesture in the spirit in which it was intended; smile, say thank you.

And I’m going to be grateful for the fact that there are men around who’re well-mannered, kind, courteous enough to treat me in a way I welcome. Sexism it ain’t – but benevolence it just might be.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

In which Googlestalking is not okay

In a recent, somewhat baffling, tweet, Debrett’s, the last word in all things impeccably mannered, said the following:

If you're going on a blind date, quiz the matchmaker and use social networking sites to gather advance information.

Um, you what now?

(As an aside, this vexes me. Heads up, Debrett’s folk: this isn’t what we’ve loved you for over the years. We’re perfectly capable of having a one night stand – we don’t need to be told how to do it in an socially acceptable fashion (as one of your more recent volumes outlines). But it’s conceivable that, actually, we might want to brush up on quite what the deal is when you’re invited to grand dinners at posh military regiments, or exactly how to address a thank-you note to someone titled AND divorced, which your guides no longer cover, and are the worse for it.)

It’s bad enough that the bastion of etiquette feels it needs to comment – it is, after all, not a matter of manners. But the fact they’ve given the advice they have, and stuck their necks out and sanctioned a pre-date cyber-stalk?! Not okay.

I’d argue that if you really must indulge, the Googlestalk is something to be done furtively, guiltily, and never admitted to, much less spoken of openly, unless to the best friend.

For a start, it removes all and any mystery about the person you’ll be dating. One of the great delights of the early stages of a relationship is getting to know someone; discovering what makes them tick and the tales of how they’ve got from where they were then to who they are now. A good, thorough cyberhunt removes all that.

And, whilst you might think that the information gleaned will give you something to talk about on your date, you’re actually doing yourself out of the simplest, most crucial first date conversations.

It’s less likely you’re going to be discussing your date’s views on Gourevitch’s account of the Rwandan genocide than you are where they grew up and how many siblings they have: don’t preempt a vital twenty minutes in which – if you’re listening – you’ll be able to gauge so much more than just the fact that he’s an only child. And the inevitable glaze that will come over your face when he tells you what you already know and that he spent a year travelling round India isn’t overly likely to endear you to him.

Words on the pages of the internet are also – sometimes dangerously – lacking in context. It might be that the gap of several years on the LinkedIn profile is down to a long period of worldwide travel that he’s not put on the form, or maybe just laziness in filling it in, but those out there (especially women) with overactive imaginations are wont to leap to the wild, worst and wrong – “God, was he in prison?!” – conclusions.

And honestly, who wants to know their life has been checked out online before they’ve even met someone?! Frankly, it’s a bit creepy to know that someone’s run a full credit check on you before you’ve had the chance to have a gin and tonic.

I’m not a total dating luddite when it comes to these things, of course: I’d argue that it’s fine to look ‘em up briefly – after all, blind dates are nerve wracking enough. It’s always good to know at least what someone looks like. You don’t want to be faced with the situation of getting to the bar for a well-deserved Friday night G&T and fighting the temptation to flee before you’ve even acknowledged you’ve arrived.

But nothing more. No knowledge of school awards won; holiday pics or the name of the family dog. It’s just not cool. And it’s definitely, despite what Debrett’s might say, not good manners.

Monday, 13 June 2011

In which an Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one

Over the past few years, I’ve grown increasingly aware of the fact that being British is a big part of my identity. I didn’t particularly feel it at school, where we were all basically one great lump of homogenous, well-brought up gel (hard ‘g’) with an RP accent and horribly precocious nature (other than Curable Romantic, who was all of those things, but with the added frisson of a Middle Eastern-cum-Nordic heritage, which made her exceptionally exotic – but just as highly strung as the rest of us).

My nationality was thrown into sharp relief on my gap year (which, having just read the previous paragraph, I imagine you’re all assuming was a gap yah. I choose to remain silent on the issue). Long-term readers will know I spent it as one half of a pair of wazungu in Tanzania, sticking out very much like the proverbial white chick in a rural African village.

Four years spent at university in Edinburgh weren’t quite so much the culture shock that Tanzania had been, but as the months and years went on, I definitely found that – although I utterly cherish the place, and still think of it as home – almost as profound as the difference between Brits and Tanzanians, there’s a definite cultural chasm between the Scots and the English – and I wasn’t one of the natives (my first sighting of a deep fried pizza slice saw to that).

And now, working for an American company, with close, daily contact with my US counterparts, I feel more English than ever – a colleague’s response the other day to my use of ‘tickety boo’ in a conversation had led to my sending a weekly email of ‘Englishisms’ to the New York office (any you can suggest would be much appreciated).

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – without being jingoistic about it, there’s a huge amount to be proud of about this little island. But though the abolition of slavery, and hundreds of years of parliamentary democracy may be things to be proud of, I don’t think they’re what we immediately think of when we think of England; its icons and its national treasures.

What I do think we think of is more along the lines of…

Stephen Fry. David Dimbleby. (Much to my chagrin) Cheryl Cole.

Boris Johnson. Colin Firth. Brian Cox.

A decent gin and tonic. Jilly Cooper. A great cup of tea.

The Archers. The new series of Doctor Who. In fact, anything written by Stephen Moffat.

Rain during Wimbledon. Rain during the cricket. An exceptional ability to queue.

Stoicism. Fish and chips. Pippa Middleton’s bottom.

Radio 4. The NHS. The impossibility of getting anywhere by train.

Strawberries and cream. Pimm’s. Yorkshire pudding.

The Queen. Will and Kate’s wedding. Prince Philip being hysterically inadvertently racist.

Another cup of tea. The Proms. Utterly awe-inspiring works of literature.

The Beatles. Downton Abbey. Harry Potter.

Getting hammered on a Friday night. A great big English breakfast. And, of course, a bit more rain.

There may not be the breathtaking vistas of the African savannah, nor the furious glamour of New York – but it’s not so bad, really: our little green and pleasant land.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

In which life is pretty bloody good, actually

I am well aware of the fact that, most of the time – on this blog and in life – I bitch, and I moan and I make mountains out of very small middle-class molehills. What can I say? I am my father’s daughter.

But sometimes, and at the risk of sounding a bit too saccharine-American-on-Thanksgivingy, there’s actually not really anything to moan about, because life’s pretty bloody good.

For instance: I recently had dinner at Polpetto, which I can’t recommend highly enough. If you’ve not had their swordfish carpaccio, I suggest you stop what you’re doing and get down there now. Right now. Stat.

Also: after spending the Bank Holiday weekend away from home, I curled up on the sofa on Monday night, to have the cat – for the very first time in our cohabitation – see fit to snuggle into my lap, purr, and go to sleep. AND I was in jogging bottoms, so it didn’t matter about the cat hair. Win.

I recently got to see The Redhead over lunch in the pub: frankly I’d rather give up an arm than be without that girl.

My friends are, without doubt, wonderful people, who constantly amuse. I could do without Hot Flyer Boy faking fatal nut allergies when I’ve just fed him hazlenut and chocolate torte, but at least everyone else laughed.

A week or so ago, I baked a batch of blondies and took them into the office where they were wolfed down in gratifyingly speedy manner – even the froideur of my angriest colleague is beginning to thaw.

I had a thoroughly good time at an event on Saturday, where I was on the arm of, without doubt, the most handsome man in the room.

My commute is probably longer than most people would consider ideal, but it gives me time to read when otherwise I’d only be asleep. Jilly Cooper fills me with joy, and I’m pretty sure reading Half the Sky has made me a better person.

I have a house that I love. One day, I’ll get round to painting it, and putting up more photos, and changing the light fitting in the sitting room. For now, I’m enjoying all the potential it has, without having to do the hard work to make that potential a reality.

As foodie as you might like to think you are, if the company’s right, sometimes there’s no supper more delicious than bread and hummus.

I spend my days doing a job that I enjoy. My boss and I have a whale of a time laughing at all kinds of non-work related shenanigans, and there’s another trip to New York in the offing, giving me a focus in my idler moments as I plan a route from Saturday brunch at Jane on West Houston up to MOMA for a day spent gawping at pieces of art that stop me in my tracks, and then an early evening stroll in Central Park. Pass the passport.

So, y’'know: can’t complain, really.

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