Wednesday, 24 August 2011

In which heartbreak hurts too much for display

Being in London most days a week, the plethora of opportunities never fails to amaze me. Whether you want to have dinner in the dark or take a walk around sites mentioned by Samuel Pepys, you’re catered for.

It was as I was glancing over the Times over tea recently, as I do most mornings, that I came across an article on a new exhibition that’s just opened in London.

So far, so unremarkable.

But what caught my eye was the exhibition’s subject, because I can’t think of a theme that would be much more heartbreaking to showcase. In The Museum of Broken Relationships, each item on display is a symbol of a relationship that’s gone wrong.

Whether it’s a Valentine’s gift from someone who was ultimately cheating on their partner, or a now-discarded wedding dress, I think I’d find the whole thing far too depressing.

I can quite easily see how the collection came to pass. I’m a huge hoarder of sentimental nick knacks; bits and pieces that wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else, but are – for some reason – important to me.

I don’t know why. It’s not as if the receipt from the first-date dinner I had with The Writer is any more important in the grand scheme of things than any of the other receipts from any of the other dinners: the one we had to celebrate his new job, perhaps; or the one that coincided with the first time he told me he loved me – or, actually, anything else that we’ve done since. And yet it’s there, in a little box, along with a variety of other peculiarly mundane objects that have some strange sentimental hold over me.

Whether it’s because they represent something that’s come to be phenomenally important to me, or to act as an aide memoir to my increasingly terrible powers of recall, I couldn’t tell.

Really, there’s not an awful lot of point: I have precious little storage space in my house as it is (the Le Creuset habit needs to come to an abrupt stop before I have to start storing casserole dishes in my airing cupboard), and I’m sure, at some stage, in order to remember what each individual trinket means, I’ll have to start scrawling notes on the back of them like I do expense receipts. Which rather takes the romance out of the whole thing.

But whilst I can squirrel away mementos for no one other than me to ponder over occasionally when I’m feeling particularly sentimental, I don’t think I’d ever want to see a collection amassed by someone else of other people’s keepsakes.

Love, when you’re in it and you have it and enjoy it, is incredible, soul-enriching, life-affirming. But I don’t think there’s anything in the world more painful than the gap it leaves when it’s gone. Hundreds of tokens of that lost love would be heartbreaking to behold. So as moving and beautiful and endlessly curious as it may be, I think this is one of those things that I might leave to the harder of heart.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

In which hot A-level students are hot, and it's not the PR's fault

On any given day, it’s guaranteed there will be at least six things that make me cross. They’re generally wide-ranging, and more often than not, in the grand scheme of things, not worth getting upset over. They range from people not getting out of the bloody way in both mainline London terminals I use on a daily basis to things I read in the papers via Starbucks’ total inability to make a cup of coffee.

This week, amongst several hundred other things I’ve been cross about (the lack of milk in my house, for example, even though there is no one to blame for that but myself), that which has riled me most has been a display of blatant hypocrisy.

Today is, of course, A-level results day [high school final exams, for those non-UK readers]. In time-honoured tradition, this will be celebrated by the nation’s media with cries that the pass rate is up (hurrah), but the exams themselves have got easier (boo), with more people getting into university (hurrah) but also more people being rejected because of unexpectedly high grades across the board (boo).

All of which will be illustrated by pictures of exceptionally pretty, upper middle-class, leggy blondes (for the most part. Occasionally a brunette, if she’s really pretty) jumping in the air, or smiling as they open the brown envelope to reveal straight A* grades. Or posed, uncomfortably, on a desk and a pile of books. Nicely done, The Guardian, 2009:

Like sunrise, or clockwork, or politicians getting it wrong, Hot A-Level Student Day is a perpetual phenomenon. So much so that last year the utterly magnificent It’s Sexy A-Levels! blog was set up, hypothesising that “UK newspapers believe that only attractive girls in low cut tops do A-Levels” and providing pictorial evidence to support the claim.

Clearly, other people have noticed this phenomenon – some of whom happen to work at, or for, the schools attended by said attractive girls in low cut tops.

This week, a journalist on Twitter received an email from school PR about female A-level students who "take a good picture". Even includes posed pics of young blonde girls jumping. #sigh

This is a journo getting snotty that a PR (if, indeed they were a professional PR. My hunch says not: rule 1 is don’t become the story. Sending this email – quite obviously – runs the risk of becoming the story in and of itself) dare suggest his or her school’s pretty students for pictures for A-level results day.

This royally gets my goat.

Because what the PR (for argument’s sake) was actually doing was their job. They were providing a targeted, relevant pitch, in a timely manner, to a newsdesk which clearly had interest in the subject. They were promoting their client, and providing a easy route for the journalist to obtain material that they’d have gone and got for themselves anyway. In most PRy circumstances: top marks.

Because of the subject matter, people naturally feel squeamish. But PRs don’t just represent celebrities and shoes. The reality is that sometimes we’re paid to represent tobacco companies and pharmaceutical giants. That probably makes people squeamish too. But hey, that’s life. Laws, sausages and public relations: you don’t want to see the inner workings of any of them.

To the people who say they feel uncomfortable with schools proffering their pupil thus: sure, so do I. I’m not saying it’s ok that the PRs are pimping out their students. It’s definitely on the border where taste and decency are concerned, given their duty of care to the students; and I’m sure there are parents out there who’d be horrified (although, having been at the type of school these emails are being sent from, my money is on the girls featured in said posed photos not minding too much…).

But the PRs aren’t the people to get snotty at. Part of our job description is to know what makes the press. Sexy A-level students get press. Instead, get snotty at the media photographers who take the photos of the hot young things year in, year out, and the picture editors who choose them. Because once journalists stop putting pictures of nubile teenagers (because that is what they are) on the front of their papers, PRs will stop providing them. An uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have plenty of other things to go and be cross about for the rest of the day.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

In which home is where the overly-active neighbourhood watch is

This post is partially in response to one I read by Amy, who was lamenting on Sunday that she’s finding it hard to see the good in people. I want to reassure her that, if you look for it, it’s still there. I'd also refute Hugo Rifkind's assertion in The Times that today we don't live in, but amongst, communities.

Blonde, read the text that came through at about 10am one Monday morning as I was sitting at my desk, there's a Volvo in your parking space. Do you know its owner or shall I pop a note on the windscreen?

So often I tell new acquaintances where I live, and confirm that, yes, I do commute in to London almost every day, and they pull faces as if to say Good God, you really have just fallen out of the nearest tree, haven’t you?

And sometimes – often when the alarm goes off at Godawful o’clock in the depths of January – I’m inclined to agree. But at other times, like when the next-door neighbour wants to check that the car sitting outside the front door is legitimately parked there, and not some cheeky so-and-so using the private road as free parking, I think I’ve actually got it pretty good.

We’re told so often that we’re living in a ‘broken society’; that individualism is all and that community doesn’t exist any more – and you only need to look at the terrifying pictures to come out of the London riots to make you think that’s the case.

But it’s not – not everywhere, at least.

The text from my next-door neighbour was in relation to a friend of mine leaving his car in my parking space. He and his brand new wife are back in the Home Counties after years spent in other parts of the UK. Living in a small village a few miles away, it’s easiest for him to commute into London for work from my station. So he can avoid the exorbitant cost of parking at the station, I’ve said he can use my (currently vacant) parking space.

Unthinkingly, I forgot to mention this to the neighbour who, doing her bit, was all ready to fight back in the way the Brits know best – with a polite, but firmly worded note.

It’s the small things like that which, although faintly preposterous, make me quite glad to live somewhere where the attitudes wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1950s.

When I leave my keys on the desk in the office, I know I’ll be able to get in, because the neighbour has a set. If I’m staying at The Writer’s for a few nights, she’ll pop in and feed the cat. If we’re both out in the gardens at the same time, we’ll have honest to goodness chats over the fence (at least, we do now. It’ll get harder when the clematis does what it’s been threatening to do for a couple of weeks and take over the county, Triffid-stylee).

Some people might find such an atmosphere claustrophobic and intrusive. I don’t. I like the fact we had a street party for the Royal Wedding (complete with several hundred feet of bunting, currently residing in bags in my shed for the next available opportunity). I like that, if I’m away on a Sunday night, my recycling gets put out to be taken on the Monday morning; and that when Next Door Neighbour is feeling off colour, I can pop round to supply tea and a stack of mindless and enjoyable DVDs to see her through.

So, Amy, don’t panic: the good in people hasn’t disappeared. We just need to give the good the opportunity to happen. And Hugo - communities are there; you need to choose to be part of them.

Monday, 15 August 2011

In which I leave on a jet plane, and am thoroughly unimpressed by the experience

When I tell people about my job, there are people who look at me with a slight touch of envy in their eyes. But honest to goodness, PR for a global company travelling between London and New York is one of those jobs that sounds a whole lot more glamorous in theory than reality – something that was thoroughly borne out by my recent trip to the Big Apple.

Some of the decidedly unglamorous things about air travel that I have had hammered home include:

- It is a terrible idea to fly from Heathrow during the summer holidays.

- Everyone flies from Heathrow during the summer holidays.

- Heathrow during the summer holidays is akin to the last days of Rome. But less organised.

- It is possible to arrive at the airport two and a half hours early, and spend an hour and a half in four different queues before even catching scent of a check-in desk.

- Don’t put your books in your suitcase thinking you’ll remember to transfer them to your hand luggage before you check in. You won’t.

- You will spend the 30 mins you have rushing like a mad thing from one end of the terminal to the other to do bits of duty-free shopping people have requested. It’s only once you’ve done several high-speed laps of the place in record time that it’ll be announced that your flight has been delayed.

- American passengers will insist on chatting during the three-hour delay, seemingly oblivious to the British rule that Strangers Don’t Talk To Each Other.

- If there’s a chap whose opinion of his manhood seems improbably overinflated to the extent he sits with his knees at 180 degrees, he’ll be seated next to you. When he gets on, he’ll delight in telling you how he’s already had four beers and plans to get drunk on the flight.

- Said chap will smell revolting for most of the flight given his propensity for cheeky fags in the plane loos, giving the cabin crew fits of apoplexy about his lax attitude towards Federal law-breaking.

- Aforementioned drunken, smelly chap will persist in his attempts to make conversation for the entirety of the flight. Nothing will deter him, be it your reading a newly-acquired novel; watching a dreadful film; or feigning sleep.

- Any film you do choose to watch will inexplicably have Japanese subtitles. Whether The Adjustment Bureau is any better without them, I don’t know, but it’s certainly deeply mediocre with.

- Despite our technological advances, medical breakthroughs and scientific leaps of unthinkable proportions, it seems that humanity is nowhere nearer identifying the substance currently masquerading as food on planes.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

In which name-dropping is mind-numbing

A recent afternoon at work saw a meeting with a chap I’d previously had no dealings with. Scampering along to it with the Intern in tow, I assumed it would be another run of the mill number, nothing to write home about. But to coin a terribly cringe-inducing phrase, the ‘takeout’ of the meeting was absolutely nothing to do with work at all.

Instead, he reminded me that, whatever the topic under discussion, sometimes a particular characteristic of the person sitting across the table is so distracting that it’s tricky to concentrate on the matter in hand.

Sat in the smart cafĂ© down the road from the office, I was nursing a rocket fuel-strength cup of black coffee whilst he was speedily knocking back a hot chocolate. Most of what he was saying I don’t really remember because whilst he was knocking back said hot chocolate, he was name-dropping with alarming alacrity.

It would be an understatement to say name-dropping is a habit of which I’m not a fan. It’s possibly the one thing that I hate most in any personal interaction, be it social or professional.

I’m pleased to say none of my friends has the truly horrid habit. Sometimes, obviously, people will tell stories in which well-known figures crop up. If they’re well-told, and the person’s appearance in said anecdote is necessary to the story, then it’s usually good fun to hear. PolitiGal’s telling of BoJo riding round CCHQ on a scooter during the last General Election campaign is always worth hearing, and The Writer often comes out with little snippets of info about people he’s interviewed. But they only do so when relevant and interesting.

Presumably the point of name-dropping is to make you look frightfully well-connected and important. But if you’re so dull as not to have anecdotes of your own worth sharing, then a liberal sprinkling of well-known names into conversation isn’t going to make you any more socially appealing.

Or maybe it’s a sign of massive insecurity: name-droppers maybe don’t have enough faith in themselves to be able to hold people’s interests and think that those around them will be impressed by proximity to fame.

But the fact you know Tara P-T or George Clooney or Barack Obama doesn’t intrinsically make you a more interesting person to be around (well, actually, being a close personal friend of Barack Obama probably does, but the point still stands).

Whatever it is, name-droppers are social bores of the highest order. If we’re going to be friends, it’s because you’re a stimulating and interesting person – not because of the people you think I’m impressed by, and all the more so if the names you feel fit to drop aren’t inspirational people who have done genuinely exciting things with their lives, but society brats and self-obsessed meeja types. Sigh.

Society is now one polish’d horde, Formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored.

Monday, 8 August 2011

In which intellect is an aphrodisiac

One of the great things about working from home (other than the fact it’s easier to keep on top of the laundry) is the possibility of listening to daytime Radio 4 – indubitably one of the best things about Britain, and for which alone I’d happily pay the license fee.

A slot on a recent edition of Women’s Hour focussed on the topic of intellectual equality in relationships, and whether relationships are harder to make work if the woman is the intellectual better of her male partner.

(As an aside: if you’ve not heard WH before, you should listen to a programme – an audio version of a WI meeting, it ain’t. There are probably few other broadcasters in the world who’d be happy to hold a debate on female masturbation at 10am on a Tuesday.)

It was an interesting discussion, and the hypothesis was one that the majority of the women interviewed agreed with. The reasons behind it, though, weren’t – as ten-minute slots dictate – fully explored.

It’s easy to posit a couple of theories. I imagine being noticeably less intelligent than one’s partner would be hard, whichever way round the situation occurred. And for men, I imagine that would be tied up with feeling emasculated. It might, for some men, go deeper than that and tap into issues of being in control. I don’t know – I’m not the psycho- or sociologist, or even some hybrid of the two (is psychosociology a thing?).

For me, it’s a moot point. In the intellectual sphere, The Writer is wholeheartedly my equal – frankly, I think it’d probably be more honest to say that he’s my better. Watching him argue a point with an ideological opponent (or even just some chap in the pub) is something to behold – especially if that opponent (or chap in the pub) isn’t well-equipped with the facts. A mutual love of, and ability to, debate is, I think, one of the things that attracted us to each other in the first place.

If things were different, though, I think being with someone of a noticeably different intellect – in either direction – would be quite hard.

Something I enjoy in all relationships – with my friends, colleagues, family, as well as TW – is the ability to have a good debate. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, and it doesn’t need to be high-brow. Sure, it could be a discussion with the boss about whether it’s appropriate for the Archbishop of Canterbury to weigh in on party politics (which, just for the record, it’s not); it could be a debate about hunting with the new office graduate whilst in the pub. Or, more often than not, it could be whether anyone will ever be a hotter Spooks front man than Rupert Penry-Jones whilst on the phone to Best Mate (seriously, has any man ever looked better in Belstaff? Ever?).

Tom, or Adam? A far trickier dilemma than 'Daddy or chips?' could ever be
It’s just one of those things – if it’s really important to you to be able to have a debate with your partner, then their inability to give you that is going to put a strain on things. Equally, might be more important for someone to make you double up with laughter. If there’s a characteristic that’s vital for your relationship, its absence is necessarily going to make things harder. You just have to work out what your priority is: that trait, or your partner.

One thing’s for sure though: show me someone’s aversion to Radio 4, and any relationship is going to feel the strain.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

In which it's Darwinism but not as we know it

Recently, I wrote a post about online dating, which touched on the fact that one is now able, if one so chooses, to select a mate based on a starting point of a specific characteristic – be it religious; country-loving; or what someone wears to work.

Niche enough, one might think. But there’s always one, isn’t there? There’s always someone who thinks it’s a good idea to take the bonkers notion, and run with it, to take it to its entirely illogical conclusion – not just one step further, but a whole marathon away from the starting line.  This person also apparently isn’t in contact with anyone who’s brave enough to say for the love of all that is sane, dear God, STOP!

That’s the only conclusion I’ve come to on making the entirely barking discovery that a sperm bank has been set up allowing women to select their donor based on – wait for it – not intellectual ability; not looks; or shoe size (all of which, I think, are probably sitting at the top of a rather slippery slope in terms of medical ethics as it is) but: dress sense.

(Before anyone leaps to wild theories, no – I am in no way in the market for an anonymous sperm donor. But GQ does have a far more varied selection of articles online than one might expect.)

I’m hoping to high Heaven it’s merely a PR ploy for the clinic. Because, much as I love a guy in a suit and a pair of decent brogues (and I do – oh how I do), I’d like to think I’d want rather more out of a potential father for my children than just the ability to find Savile Row.

But then again, maybe it’s a case of beggars can’t be choosers, and one day I’ll be thoroughly glad that I can select a sperm sample knowing its owner didn’t have a penchant for ‘funny’ t-shirts.

Suddenly the idea of selecting someone based on their intelligence doesn’t seem so bad after all.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

In which silly season is in full swing

Ah, silly season.

It’s a delightful time of year. Normally, when we haven’t discovered mass wrongdoing amongst apparently large sections of the tabloid press, there’s not a lot going on. Parliament is in recess; a good proportion of, well, everyone is away on holiday and the hard news quotient is at a minimum.

As such, the papers are full of stories about cats that look like Hitler (if you’re unaware of the phenomenon that is the kitler, I suggest you rememedy that forthwith); killer chipmunks; and escaped pigs.

Today, though, the silliness of the season seemed to leave the animal antics on the middle pages, and instead focus on something that clearly vexes the sartorially savvy members of Her Majesty’s Press.

The leading article in today’s Times concentrated on David Cameron and his footwear choices. He’s apparently been spotted in Tuscany wearing black leather shoes but no socks. Not on, according to the paper.

Sandals without socks are quite acceptable it says, as are loafers without socks [which] suggest a certain European metrosexuality, but they should be brown, and the trousers (or, as fashion folk would say, “the trouser”) must never be tight. Black work shoes without socks, however, are another matter. This is a look that screams one thing, and one thing only. “I have forgotten my socks.”

As someone who’s been fighting a desperate – and losing – battle for all the years she’s been on God’s green earth, I’d argue that little Florence should be thankful. It might not be the most stylish thing in the world for DC to be wandering round looking like he’s forgotten to pack the vitals, but it’s a damn sight better than the alternative: the sight of one’s dad wearing his socks - with his sandals.

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