Friday, 29 July 2011

In which women are pretty damned awesome

I find it reassuring that there are people in life who remind us of exactly what would be possible if we’d only put Twitter down for five minutes and apply a little more concentration.

In the time it takes to make a cup of tea (and just the one, as opposed to the five or six that I always seem to end up making when I head towards the office kitchen), it’s pretty easy to think of a few cracking women in particular, who have either left, or are busy making, their mark on the world.

In no particular order, there’s Christina Hendricks: she’s single-handedly reminded us that it’s not necessary to be tiny to be considered sexy. Much as I count myself as a hot-blooded heterosexual woman, Hendricks’ boobs, bum and irrepressible wiggle are more than enough to make me seriously ponder whether I don’t fancy Joan more than I do Don.

Gratuitous pic of my all-time top-one girl crush

Mrs T: whatever you think of her politics, you can’t deny she changed the face of politics in this country. Which, for the daughter of a greengrocer in 70s Britain, is no mean feat.

Caitlin Moran: I’m going to make a confession here – and one that will probably get me chucked off the internet. I don’t like her. I find her irritating, and try-too-hard, and actually not that gripping as a writer. But, a lot of people don’t think that way about her, and if she can do the seemingly impossible by making young women start to think about what it means to be feminist in 2011, then that’s A Good Thing.

Mrs O: an amazing woman who, by knuckling down and working hard, as well as being – I imagine – unutterably supportive of her husband, has found herself half of the hottest First Couple ever (you just know those two are at it like bunnies when he puts down the Nat Sec briefing for the night).

Rosalind Franklin: given she broke the ground for the discovery of DNA, the fact that she’s not mentioned in the same breath as Watson and Crick is preposterous, nay, criminal.

And there’s a whole host of others - the Queen (dignified, composed, still going – and looking like she does – at 85. Amazing); Emily Davison (the fact some women don’t vote in elections makes me truly angry); Dame Stephanie Shirley (look her up – the woman’s incredible); the Duchess of Devonshire; Bronwen Maddox; Christine Lagarde; Kate Adie…

But, as remarkable as those people are – and, don’t be mistaken, they really are – they’re not the first people that really spring to mind when I think of women I look up to. Because, godawful and trite as it sounds, the people I find most inspiring are the women who are part of my everyday life.

The Mother is incredible, and very possibly the nicest person on the planet. Nothing is ever too much trouble, no matter what it is, or whom it’s for. If we’re destined to turn into our mothers, that’s ok by me.

Best Mate starts her day at 5.30am to look after her horse before putting in lawyerly hours at work and then still managing to be thoroughly excellent company during after-work boozing sessions.

The Redhead is just a joy to be around, every time I see her. Warm and witty and brilliant, and can be relied upon come rain or more rain.

A spokesperson for one of my clients has an exhausting job which sees her fly all over the globe for whistle-stop visits, yet is thoroughly gracious when we badger her for PR purposes that aren’t really the most crucial part of her day. Oh, and she still manages to get to her children’s sports days.

PolitiGal is a serious politics type, whose new job (and its impressive title) strikes awe into me. If we don’t see her at the very front of a front bench sooner rather than later, I shall eat the elaborate large hair flower things I bought in lieu of a hat for this summer’s wedding.

There are the women who have helped husbands through cancer and then depression and are still improbably cheery about life; those who’ve turned hobbies into phenomenally successful careers; those who have jacked in jobs to travel the world; those with incredible jobs caring for people and saving lives that I can’t even countenance being able to do…

All of whom serve as people to look up to and attempt to emulate, which can only be a good thing if you’ve started your day by dropping your toothbrush in the loo and tripping over the cat.

Friday, 15 July 2011

In which I consider online dating

One of the myriad brilliant things about being with The Writer is the chance to piggyback his frankly ludicrous magazine habit. Numbers aren’t really my thing, but a little mental arithmetic suggests his weekly outlay is somewhere in the region of News International’s imminent legal bill (any lovely men’s mag / current affairs periodical publishers reading who fancy offloading a subscription or two: you know where I am).

One of TW’s hundreds of weekly must-reads, and thus one of my over-Sunday-morning-coffee-and-almond-croissant-now-reads, is The New Yorker.

A recent piece in the magazine was a long, brilliant exploration of online dating sites, and their successes and failures.

The number of online dating sites out there is mind-boggling (as I say: I don’t have a head for maths). You can decide which characteristic is most important to you in a partner, and start from there. Some make some sense: Jewish? J-Date. Rural? Muddy Matches. Being a bit proactive about life? Doing Something.

Some are rather more niche: massively shallow? Beautiful People. Like men in uniform? Uniform Dating.

(For the sake of decency, we’ll ignore the fact that there are also dating sites purely for those looking for affairs.)

Or, you could put yourself at the mercy of one of the dating sites at the more scientific end of the market, and let maths whittle down your options for you.

The New Yorker article explored – at length – the algorithms that different sites use to pair up compatible users, from the first ‘computerised’ dating service back in 1964, to the eHarmony-type sites today.

It all seems exceptionally clever, and as someone with very little idea how something works if it’s not entirely composed of words, I’m quite in awe. Or, I would be if I weren’t quite so sceptical about it.

Whilst not quibbling that science, in all its forms, is an amazing thing (hell, TW and I were up till the small hours last night talking about quantum mechanics and string theory. Or, at least, he was talking. I just was desperately trying to keep up), I would suggest that there’s a flaw in the plan.

I don’t quibble that clever algorithms are just as good as a bottle of Merlot (or two) for finding you someone you quite like having around. Personally, I know two women who are utterly, blissfully in love with men they met online. The men they’re with seem wonderful, and I genuinely could not be happier for either of them.

But looking at it a little more cynically, surely the sites – a bit like dieting companies – don’t really want you to succeed? I mean, they want you to sign up, and go on dates, sure. But that they want you to go on a few dates, find The One and then end your subscription, I’m less convinced.

Of course, a few success stories are good for giving the majority enough to believe that it works, and hope it’ll happen to them. But taking things to their logical conclusion, ultimately, everyone would be paired up (or skinny) and you’d do yourself out of an awful lot of cash.

Surely what they’re after is people having just enough success – several dates, a few that turn into something a bit more long term, but not permanent – to keep people thinking that it nearly worked with that chap, so I’ll go back and see if I can’t hit the jackpot this time round…

But maybe that’s too cynical, even for our unromantic, digital age. After all, someone has to be the success story. But don’t give up on the Merlot…

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

In which I make a few recommendations

Below: a list of things I have recently eaten and read, and places I have recently been. I liked them all. You might like them too*.

Where: Spuntino (there is no use at all my giving you the link to the site: there’s nothing on it; the place doesn’t take bookings and anyway, it has no phone. It’s at 61 Rupert Street. Turn up early, be prepared to wait)
Pretty soon, I’m sure that the all-conquering Russell Norman is going to be knighted for services to the foodie zeitgeist.
Why: the truffled egg toast and the eggplant fries; the friendly-to-the-point-of-just-flirtatious-enough staff, who are simultaneously amazingly discreet and can arrange for birthday candles to be put into chocolate whiskey cakes without your boyfriend noticing.

What: Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
Why: What The Father’s mashed potato is to comfort food, this is to comfort reading. It’s the literary equivalent of a tartan cashmere blanket and a great big hug. Warning: it’s no less tear-jerking now than it was when I first read it about mumblemumble years ago. Prepare accordingly if you’re reading it on your Kindle on the tube. Ahem.

Where: Yalla Yalla, Winsley Street
Small, laid-back, noisy, friendly, Beirut ‘street food’ café-cum-restaurant.
Why: the baba ghannoujh, the halloumi, the hommos, the shisha. But mostly the baba ghannoujh.

What: Life in a Day
The feature film created entirely of videos shot by real people and uploaded to YouTube.
Why: An amazing, uplifting, wondrous piece of filmmaking that reassures you that humanity is in fact not going to hell in a handcart. Even if some slightly odd individuals get sentimental about the size of flies.

What: the rhubarb gin and tonic, Bob Bob Ricard, Upper James Street
Why: It’s a rhubarb gin and tonic, for crying out loud. AND there’s a button you can push to hail champagne. What’s not to like?

Where: Pollen Street Social
Jason Atherton’s latest place. You get a goody bag when you leave. Brilliant.
Why: The cauliflower and squid with roasted squid consommé. Seriously.

What: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oscar Wilde’s only published, oft-referred to, novel
Why: Like most other people, I’ve always been aware of the story, but didn’t realise the level of dark’n’creepiness of the book itself. The mastery of language is second to none, with a few quotable gems you’ll recognise and some you won’t.

What: The West Wing, series one
Why: Having recently introduced The Writer to the televisual phenomenon, I get to re-watch – for the umpteenth time – the whole lot, from the very beginning. Dust off the first episode of the first series, and marvel at how young everyone looks; the original incidence of POTUS riding his bike into a tree (ah, how life imitates art) and that epic first walk’n’talk.

Where: Gelupo
Ok, so strictly I didn’t go to Gelupo itself, but I did visit their stand at Taste of London, so it counts.
Why: Crimes abound, and I’m sure I’ll be kicked out of the girl club for saying this, but I’m not a massive fan of ice cream: it’s one of those puddings I can take or leave. But the deliciousness of Gelupo’s ricotta and sour cherry gelato should not be overestimated.

What: Trade, Simon Rich
Why: Because any New Yorker article on managing your men as if they were members of a sports team is going to be worth a read.

*But if you don’t, it’s not my fault

Monday, 11 July 2011

In which I give myself a little advice

Dear 16-year old Blonde,

A little advice for the next few years.

There is no way on God’s green one you’ll take any of this seriously, because you are that delightful mix of confident-bordering-on-arrogant that only precocious teenage girls can be. But because, as you get older, you become increasingly like The Father (there doesn’t seem to be any point fighting it. Sorry), I’m going to rabbit on at you now anyway whether you’re listening or not, and eventually you’ll realise I’m right…

Don’t fall asleep on beaches in Spain. DEFINITELY don’t fall asleep on beaches in Spain when you’re not slathered in factor 30. You can be as blasé as you like: there is nothing cool about sacrificing four days of your holiday to the gods of Sunstroke, Sunburn and Not Being Able to Lie on Your Back for a Week Because Dear God It Hurts.

You won’t get into the university you expect to. At the time, it’s a bit of a cat-amongst-the-pigeons moment. But honestly, don’t panic: it turns out to be one of the best things that could ever happen.

That magazine habit you’ve got falls by the wayside in a couple of years. The high heels and tea habits don’t, though – and you pick up one for gin on the way.

Let me save you some time: The West Wing, Mad Men, Grey’s Anatomy, shares in Google and Max Factor Masterpiece mascara.

Don’t panic too much about never being able to buy your own home. It happens – and sooner than you think. It also gives you an appreciation of just how bloody expensive curtains are.

There’ll come a time when you’ll be able to muddle your way through a conversation in Kiswahili. Yes, it still surprises me now.

A few of you will plan on InterRailing round Eastern Europe after A-levels. It is an excellent idea, and you’ll have a phenomenal time. Don’t bother with Bratislava. And, if you’re not going to take Mrs L’s European History module seriously, it’s also wise to be out of the country the day your A-level results come out (see ‘not getting into the university of your choice’ above).

Don’t buy brand-name painkillers. The cheaper-than-chips Superdrug own do precisely the same thing (and it’ll save you hours of painful discussion with The Father).

You don’t get married in the next ten years like you thought you might. In fact, that boy you’re with? It seems unlikely to you now, but he will break your heart. When it comes, it’ll feel like the world’s ending. It’s not. You’ll be just fine. Because – although you’ll have to wait for him – there will be someone else. And, much as you wouldn’t have thought it possible, it’ll be even better.

Grandpa’s funeral will come as a mixed blessing after he’s been so ill. It’s the first time you’ll see The Father cry. It’s an image that will stay with you. You’re a better daughter afterwards.

You will make a variety of mistakes with a variety of men. It’s probably inevitable. Even so, might I suggest thinking twice about that ‘one quiet drink’ in TigerLily in 2007?

Cheap bin bags are a false economy.

Unlikely as it sounds, eventually the list of things you enjoy will include oysters, Bob Dylan, The Archers and a hearty red wine. The latter a bit too much.

It might look like a smart shortcut, but don’t – just don’t – think you’ll save yourself time by nipping into the empty blokes’ loo on the sixth form trip to Greece. Wait and queue with the 30 other girls. However dull it may be, it’ll be a whole lot less embarrassing than having someone rush up to tell the hotel porter that someone’s been trapped in the loo; have him scurry downstairs (into the girls’ loo); be redirected; swear loudly in Greek; trundle upstairs to find a toolbox and then remove the loo door with a screwdriver to let you rejoin your classmates who have now been sitting on a hot bus for 30 minutes wondering where the hell you’ve got to.

You’re welcome.


Monday, 4 July 2011

In which there's something rotten in the fourth estate

Despite my incessant grumblings, journalists are, by and large and other than when they’re making my intern cry, decent people. My carping comes from a professional standpoint: PRs have particularly peculiar relationship with journos – we need each other to get the job done. When our professional relationships work, they really work, but when they don’t, it can be painful to pick up the phone to each other. And a lot of them could do with being less rude (that said, a lot of PRs could do with being better at their jobs. Swings and roundabouts).

But journalists telling outright lies isn’t as common as people in the street would glibly suggest when they spout platitudes about not being able to trust anything you read (although the ensuing apologies that are buried on p17 when inaccuracies are printed are Not Good Enough, and should be given the space the original story had (or even be more prominent), but that’s a whole other rant). If you're so inclined, I recommend reading Fleet Street Fox’s excellent post on just how and why it’s so hard to get a barefaced lie into your paper.

But in the past week or so, facts have been brought to light the fact that show some members of profession seem intent on doing their best to besmirch the reputation of all their kind by indulging in serious breaches of journalistic ethics.

Johann Hari’s bad enough. There are plenty who’ll defend him, saying that he wasn’t really misleading anyone and that his subjects had said the words he attributed to them. I, on the other hand, happen to think that “reportial accuracy”, as Hari puts it, is the first thing I want from my journalists. Intellectual accuracy comes a bit further down the pecking order. A good journo should be able to elicit great quotations from their subject whilst the two are sitting across a table, or at the ends of a phone line: to pass off quotations given to someone else, or written in previous works as something you’ve obtained is, in my view, lying.

The News of the World hacking into the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler is on another, far darker, far more sinister level entirely, and one that I don’t feel particularly well qualified to comment on, other than to say either Wade, Coulson et al either allowed it to happen or were bafflingly negligent; that I have no idea how, as a human being, you could do something like that and sleep at night; and that everyone who was involved - on whatever level - should have to answer for either their actions or their complicity.

But whilst these massive abuses of journalistic ethics and readers’ trust are happening, at the same time we need to remember that there are fabulous journalists out there. There are talented individuals who write beautiful prose; fun and entertaining features; who uncover and publish stories that are, genuinely, in the public interest. Much as I won’t tar all Indy journos with the ‘liar’ brush, we shouldn’t assume that everyone who works at NoTW is morally bankrupt. One imagines there are a few people this evening feeling pretty sick at the behaviour of their colleagues.

At the same time, I don't know that ‘rotten apples’ goes far enough in describing the conduct that some members of the media have recently indulged in. The public, whatever they might say and however savvy consumers they may be, essentially trust the mainstream, established media to deliver factually accurate news – with that news obtained in a way that doesn’t deliver a collective feeling of nausea the length of the country.

It’s not fair to the majority of decent, hard-working journos that their profession has of late been embroiled in two such vicious cases of foul practice. But to paraphrase a far greater writer than I could ever hope to be, all it takes for terrible things to happen is for good men to do nothing.

The majority now needs to make sure their conduct is beyond reproach - but we need to remember that not everyone’s in on it.

Friday, 1 July 2011

In which manners maketh life easier if you know what you're doing

The comprehensive guide to pissing off one’s prospective in-laws email has this week done what everyone in comms wishes their campaign would do, and gone viral. Outed by the majority of the mainstream media, the poor unfortunates involved have had their private bickerings given a thoroughly public airing.‬

Life here has seen the email split opinion, with colleagues heavily backing the beleaguered Heidi, but the majority of Social Circle Blonde coming down firmly on the side of the wicked stepmother-in-law.

But whilst the email provided an afternoon’s incredulous mirth for all those not involved, I can’t help but feel that in sending it, dear Carolyn has rather missed the point.

I’m sure that whatever Heidi’s faults – of which her prospective in-laws clearly think there are many – she’d be far happier knowing that she wasn’t subject to the vast disapproval of her fiancé’s family. And what was required in this case, if feelings were so strongly held, was surely a gentle word here and there; a quiet nudge occasionally that life would be easier for the new family member if she altered her behaviour in a few discreet ways; not putting one’s clear displeasure into a cold, clinical email to be perused in horror for perpetuity – by the rest of the world.

Because it’s true that the English – and, more accurately, a certain class of the English – have a catalogue of behaviours and etiquette, the specifics of which can be utterly baffling if they’re not something you’ve come across before.

But what might seem to some to be outdated and stuffily-held onto manners are, I would argue, like any other culturally accepted behaviours; when I was spending time in Tanzania, I knew it was the done thing in the locality to greet older women – and any man – in a specific way involving a slightly convoluted system of specific gestures and handshakes before I started a conversation, and that I should never accept food with my left hand. In the same way, there’s a certain type of person in England who’ll raise an eyebrow if the port’s going in the wrong direction. You might find it a strange and pointless tradition, but to other people it’s an important cultural nicety, and one to be observed*.

But manners – and especially the elaborate structure of upper-middle class English manners – should be about everyone knowing what’s what and how things are done for the sole purpose of making everyone feel comfortable. A case in point is the brilliant, if probably apocryphal, story about a guy who was invited to attend a grand dinner party. Being unaware of what the finger bowl was for, he picked it up and drank the water. Without batting an eyelid the hostess did precisely the same, leading everyone else to copy her – purely to ensure that the guest wasn’t left embarrassed.

Essentially it boils down to the fact being polite and well-mannered is about adapting your behaviour to your surroundings, whatever they may be. If you were invited to the home of a strictly vegan family, you wouldn’t turn up wearing a fur coat, gnawing on a rare steak; equally, as Carolyn noted in her email, if your hosts are early risers, you don’t stay in bed until mid-morning. It’s about the basic courtesy of abiding by other people’s rules when you're in their houses.

And not getting married in a castle unless you own it. Obviously.

*We’ll leave it there. Arguments about cultural relativism are best left as vague memories from university Philosophy seminars.

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