Monday, 31 October 2011

In which I nearly come a cropper of North African immigration control systems

I mentioned in a recent post that there was an incident some while ago in which PolitiGal and I found ourselves in an alarming situation which looked horribly like we weren’t going to be allowed to leave Tunisia.

It all boiled down to a simple misunderstanding, as these things so often do. But that’s not to detract from the fact that the imminent possibility of a Tunisian jail is a scary, scary thing.

We’d arrived in the country last autumn, fortuitously pre-Arab Spring, for a week of by-the-pool lazing and reading terribly clever and worthy books on policy and aging (PG) and Jilly (me). Having landed in the middle of the night, we queued semi-patiently for what seemed like hours in a stuffy, non-air conditioned customs hall.

Apparently frustrated at his colleague processing the incoming visitors at snail’s pace, one official took it upon himself to chivvy along the ending of his shift by merrily waving us past the desk, no passports checked. Of course, at 1am in a Tunisian airport in close proximity to a bored-looking man with a rifle, one is inclined to do as one’s told and hang the consequences.

Which was all fine until we came to leave, and the consequence was that neither PG nor I had the requisite stamp in our passports to say that we’d been satisfactorily processed into the country.

It all started off happily enough – the customs official took a cursory flick through PG’s passport, and waved her through, and then called me forward.

He looked at my passport, rifled a few pages to find the right stamp and, when he couldn’t, paused. I froze. PG scurried back.

The guard at the desk peered at us.

“Why you not have stamp?”

“We were waved through by your colleague when we got here.”

“No possible.”

“Yes, possible. It’s what happened,” I said.

He motioned for PG’s passport and, on closer inspection, found hers was missing the right documentation too.

PolitiGal cracked out her best I’m English and about to get cross: don’t mess with me voice. “It was very late when we arrived, and your colleague waved a whole lot of people through customs without our passports being checked.”

“You here illegally.”

“No, we’re not. We were doing as we were told by your colleague.” Mine was slightly louder, slightly firmer, and just a touch crosser.


The guard peered again at our stampless passports, got up from his desk and took them with him to converse with a colleague at another station. Some muttering ensued.

He came back. “This no right. You should have stamp.”

“LOOK,” I said, hoping that the crossness masked the utter terror I felt, whilst running a mental checklist of people who’d be able to call terribly good human rights lawyers who’d rescue us at the drop of a hat, à la Bridge.

“Yes,” PG chimed in, slowly, loudly, clearly and firmly. “This is not our fault – we were just following instructions.” Ah, if ever there was an English get-out, it’s that: the ‘reverence for authority’ card . “If there is a problem, could we speak to someone else. Your colleague told us what to do, and you’re going to make us miss our flight.”

The guard took another look at our passports, and looked up at us. Behind us was a long queue of people, and in front of him stood two stroppy English women, getting increasingly vociferous.

He exhaled heavily.

“Pffft… Go, then. But next time…” He eyed us carefully as we snatched the passports back from his grip and ran as fast as is possible in flip-flops to the relative safety of the departure lounge.

Revolutions notwithstanding, I don’t think there’ll be a next time, somehow.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

In which dulce et decorum est

Picture courtesy of the Royal British Legion
Like thousands of schoolchildren the length and breadth of the land, there was a year or so when I was about fourteen in which I was immersed in a curriculum focussed on the First World War. English lessons were spent studying the poetry of Owen and Sassoon, and reading anything war-related from Regeneration to All Quiet on the Western Front. When we were especially rambunctious, the teachers gave up, and let us watch Blackadder Goes Forth instead.

But it was a trip organised by the History department that really touched me and left me with a lifelong interest in the conflict. Deserving of medals themselves for taking on the responsibility of in loco parenting forty girls for three days in a foreign country, the staff spent four days giving us a detailed tour of the battlefields of northern France.

It was one of those trips that’s stuck with me ever since. It’s all very well shedding a few tears as Baldrick’s final cunning plans come unstuck, or sniggering through the terrible sex scene in the library in Birdsong. But it’s quite another to find yourself looking out over a valley of white headstones, some bearing the names of children just a few years older than oneself, and not be able to see anything but graves, right up to the horizon.

And, in a masterstroke that saw a group of, ahem, high-spirited (read: appallingly precocious and horrendously loud) teenage girls pack in their chattering and contemplate a sobering reality, our teachers split us into two groups and made us face, and then walk towards, each other from the two – desperately close-together – sides of the Somme. Suddenly, it hit each and every one girl on that trip just how futile and terrifying that particular Battle would have been.

Which is why, every year, without fail, I buy poppies (yes, plural, because I inevitably lose at least half a dozen by the time Remembrance Day comes round).

I feel an immense and very real sense of gratitude towards the exceptional boys and men who saw, experienced, and did terrible, terrible things in the name of freedom – not only for their countrymen, but for generations that followed.

It’s impossible to know even a fraction of the personal stories, or the tales of individual acts of patriotism and valour that went on in those four horrendous years, and with the death of Harry Patch in 2009, the First World War has now all but passed out of living memory. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be grateful for the collective, incalculable sacrifice that was made so that we’ve got the freedom now to spend our days rushing from pillar to post, or pratting around on Twitter as circumstances dictate.

I have no affiliation to the charity, other than being a huge supporter of their work, but I’d like to remind everyone out there that the Royal British Legion’s poppy appeal launches today, and poppies will be available from volunteers across the country until Remembrance Day, 11th November. They even have clever sticky-backed poppies if you’re too malcoordinated to manage a pin. Buy one – or, if you’re prone to losing things, like I am, cough up and buy lots.

And wear them with pride.

A few facts and figures:

• The Legion spent over £114 million on its work in 2010. They spend nearly £1.4 million a week delivering health and welfare support to Service people young and old, and their families.
• People as young as 17.5 years can be sent on active service, so veterans are often much younger than people realise. Nearly a quarter of those helped now are below the age of 44.
• There has only been one year (1968) since the Second World War when a British Service person hasn't been killed on active service.
• The Legion will be needed for as long as people continue to be affected by conflict. It doesn't advocate war but is simply there to support those who have been prepared to make a personal sacrifice through serving in the British Armed Forces.
• In 2010, the Legion raised £115.2 million - including a record £35 million for the Poppy Appeal. Apart from donations, funds come from legacies, sponsorship, corporate support and fundraising events.
• You can donate online here:

Monday, 24 October 2011

In which being set up is no bad thing, or Men!

Man! the email subject line read.

Even had I been full of Monday morning beans and utterly engrossed in the thrilling prospect of writing my pages-long to-do list which, to be honest wasn’t exactly the case, I’d have been distracted. As it was, I seized the opportunity with an enthusiastic click of the finger to break away from several sides of A4 which mostly read “chase client on…” to read what PolitiGal could possibly have to say that came under such an intriguing headline.

You may recall that I recently went on a date, the email read. I suspect it was very recently but all sense of time has become totally warped of late so I am not a good judge. Time is being warped by the black hole of a new man. Infinite hormonal mass being wont to do that kind of thing. And he is WONDERFUL.

I love PG with my whole heart. I’ve known her now for a very long time and together we’ve been through ups, downs, and a hairy 15 minutes where I thought we weren’t going to be allowed out of Tunisia (did I ever blog that little incident? I really should at some point). Unsurprisingly in that time, we’ve also been through several rounds of mandrama, from my dating gay men to her turning down marriage proposals via my getting so drunk I couldn’t remember which man I’d agreed to date via her thinking she was being chatted up when she was actually being asked for a job.

Thus to hear that 2011 seems to be currently looking as fondly upon her in the man-shaped stakes as it is on me was exceedingly welcome news indeed.

She explained that her new chap is the brother of a colleague before going on to list his very many virtues, including the fact that he sends her text messages containing jokes about Ed Balls.

Who knew, PG continued, that being set up could work?! Who would have thought that the odds of one person who you get on with really well, being able to spot other people you will get on with really well would be higher than internet dating being successful?!

When it’s put like that, and when you consider that my experience of online dating was a guy who took me to Strada and went on to show me a date so bad I genuinely gave up on the whole endeavour for some while (should blog that too); and hers was a man with terrible BO who enjoyed medieval reenactment, it’s a wonder we didn’t consider this route earlier.

The Writer was introduced to me via his ex-housemate who, having listened to us both, independently, extol the virtues of decent balsamic vinegar, decided we should go for drinks as we’d have “the most middle-class friendship ever”. I’m sure that might have been the case, had we not leapt into bed on date one (Rules? What Rules?), and now PG seems to have discovered that one’s friends do seem to be a good judge of character where dateable types are concerned.

Of course, in all the enthusiasm, it is worth considering that success does all rather boil down to the person you’ve chosen to do the setting-up. Otherwise, however good an idea it might be, you might still find yourself dating the gay ones – who’d probably be equally excited about an email bearing that subject line.

Friday, 14 October 2011

In which girls are quite capable of ruling, thank you

So primogeniture is back in the news – and this time, it’s nothing to do with bloody Downton Abbey (I know, I know: I’ll get kicked out of the girl club for saying so, but – whisper it – I just don’t care).

It’s not something that’ll affect the great majority of us, sad as that may be. But I still find it shocking that it’s taken till 2011 for it to come up as a Parliamentary issue. Obviously, it’s not at the top of the priority tree, and it’s only come up now because the situation has forced it, but still doesn’t take away that, at a time when the Nobel Prize-holding President of Liberia can be female, if you’ve got a nice pile in the wilds of Northumberland, you won’t get your mitts on it if your brother happens to be a minute or so older.

Obviously, to those lucky types it affects directly, it can be a heated issue.

I can see there’s an argument for wanting to make sure that, when you pass on an estate that’s been in family for generations, it’s going to stay in one piece, rather than being divvied up into small pieces and lost to the economic winds.

But surely that doesn’t mean that it needs to go to the eldest boy? Frankly, there’s no need for it to go even to the eldest child.

Surely if your concern is keeping it in the family, then it should go to the person most capable of looking after it as a going concern, regardless of someone’s age or gender. If the IQ of Lord Whatever’s three daughters means they wouldn’t look out of place on Made in Chelsea, then inherit their baby brother. But, by the same token, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire hasn’t done too badly with the little place she’s been running for the past few years – and, one might argue, to a rather higher degree of renown than her uncle, to whom her father’s title passed.

And it’s not even that you need fear the place drops out of the family name once your clever daughter runs off and gets married – she is quite permitted to keep her own name these days.

Other than it being tradition – of which we English are admittedly so fond – there’s no reason at all for it to continue. And given that two of the most successful monarchs we’ve had have been women, about bloody time too.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

In which I argue that men should buy more flowers

It was over mezze and pomegranate prosecco with The Writer and his friend Mag Man that I recently found myself extolling the virtues of flowers.

TW had said some very kind things about this blog and my witterings for the lovely chaps over at Blokely which caused MM to ask after the sorts of things I write.

“Well, I’m a bit stuck at the moment, actually,” I said, wolfing down an indecent amount of baba ghanoush.

“You should do some constructive how-to guides on how to make women happy,” MM suggested, diving in to rescue a piece of halloumi before I inhaled that too (God, I love Lebanese food).

Which is how we came to be talking about flowers, and men buying them for girls.

Flowers really are such a winner, I honestly don’t know why men don’t give them on a regular basis, and I remain convinced that an impromptu bunch will do wonders for any relationship, whether blooming, flagging, or somewhere between the two.

There’s something utterly wonderful about receiving flowers that will put me in a good mood for the rest of the day, if not the week, and there isn’t a woman I know who doesn’t like receiving them. Even those who have hay fever love nothing more than a beautiful bunch of something, and they have the added bonus of not making you feel fat (see: wrongly-sized underwear) or guilty (boxes of too-tempting, fattening chocolates (possibly leading to underwear that no longer fits. See above)).

The mere fact that a chap’s bought them shows he’s been thinking about you at some point during the day, and being the vain creatures that we are, I’m almost certain it’s the knowledge of that, more than the present itself, that we really love.

Both boys looked at me slightly bemused as I rattled off a list of dos, don’ts and don’t even think abouts in opinionated fashion, paying particular attention to why flowers should never be given as an apology and why sending them to the office should stand you in the very best stead possible even if you’re about to tell her you’re spending your anniversary on a stag do in an Estonian lap dancing club.

“Well,” MM said, clearly faintly stunned that there could possibly be so much to consider. “Maybe I should do that for my girlfriend. Yes, I think I'll send her some flowers.”

And then, just a day or so later, as I battled my way through King’s Cross at the end of a long day, I saw a man standing on the concourse carrying a single red rose.

Thus, I have my calling: to persuade mankind that the giving of flowers to women will make said women happier, even if I have to do so, one chap, and one single rose at a time.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

In which we talk shop

I was in the pub last night (quelle surprise) with TW (quelle even bigger surprise) and one of his journo friends.

Converstion rapidly quickly found its centre in work and work-related issues, as conversation is wont to do between two or more people who work in the same industry.

I’ve always found this to be the case. Whilst at university, being invited to medics’ dinner parties was always a double-edged sword: yes, the food was likely to be extravagant, and the alcohol – in all its forms – plentiful and potent. But there was the danger you’d been invited as the token non-medic, and the person they were relying upon for conversation about the outside world, and anecdotes about dating people who weren’t medics, because those were the only people any of them ever had time to meet and sleep with. (It didn’t work, incidentally: as a civilian, you might get in a sentence or two about Real Life, only for conversation to swing quickly back to horrible sounding procedures; technical jargon; and rude jokes about nurses.)

Lawyers, as Best Mate will attest, are also appalling for it, and generally pepper conversation with terrible legalese-based puns, and army types are even worse – given that their vocabulary mainly consists of acronyms, it’s exceedingly difficult even to follow the gist of the conversation.

But, being overexposed, as I have been of late, to large groups of journos in confined spaces, I think we might have a winning group, such as that winning is.

Because journalists’ capacity for talking shop seems, as far as I can tell, to be utterly inexhaustible. I’d packed away four double Tanquerays and we’d moved on to a Lebanese restaurant round the corner for a late dinner before there was a lull in the discussion about the New York Times documentary, Page One; the best-dressed men in journalism (sub-section: press freebies and the new Bribery Act); how journos at the FT are the nicest of all newspaper journos; Hugh Jackman and press junkets; why Gawker is evil; and the Best Ever Issue of the New Yorker Ever TM*.

Thankfully, working in the loosely-termed industry that is ‘meeja’, I find the whole thing fascinating – I love a decent debate on the whys and wherefores, and I firmly believe a PR can never know too much about The Other Side and their machinations (I could do with a little less discussion on page layouts and merits of certain styles of graphs, though, if I’m brutally honest).

Which is probably a good thing. Who knows how much gin I’d have got through otherwise.

Monday, 3 October 2011

In which people's bathroom habits should be kept to their bathrooms

 There are some – nay, many – things that are best done in the privacy of one’s own home. Yet this simple fact doesn’t seem to stop a surprisingly large number of people flaunting their inherent British reserve and letting it all metaphorically hang out whilst they’re out and about.

My late granny used to be exceptionally fond of telling me that it was horribly rude to eat whilst in public. No matter how frantic I am running from one place to another, I still can’t bring myself even to eat a sandwich whilst walking down the street for fear of her voice in my ear giving me a thorough ticking-off. (It’s probably wise, to be honest, given my general lack of coordination and inability not to spill food even when I’m sitting still.)

But grabbing a sneaky sandwich on the run seems now to be the least of what would horrify my grandmother were she still here to see it.

I got on the (admittedly early) train one morning last week, to find myself next to someone who seemed to think the 7.13 was an acceptable location to apply her make-up. And not just a bit of lippy and a wave of the mascara wand: oh no – she was doing the whole thing. She reached into her bag, and one by one out came the products: the moisturiser, the foundation, the eyeliner, mascara, blusher…

Now, I know a lot of people use their commute to stick on the slap, and I’m probably going to get beaten down for saying this, but… just get up a bit earlier. It can’t take you much more than 10 or so minutes and it’s far more hygienic to be touching your face if you’ve got clean hands rather than those that have grubbed around for your train ticket and have Metro-print all over them. And frankly, I don’t want to be sitting on the train, minding my own business to have Clinique’s Even Better foundation spilt all over my copy of Time.

But, as commonplace as public transport-based make-up application by girls may be, I hadn’t before come across the male equivalent until last week. Standing at the bus stop near TW’s flat one morning, my attention was largely taken up by the human embodiment of a fake tan disaster that had just walked past, her face and arms bright white and her legs so orange that the respective body parts could have belonged to two different people.

I turned my head as my gaze followed her down the road, only for it to alight on a man standing at the other end of the bus shelter. As first glance, he appeared to be attempting to relieve a crick in the neck by moving his head gently from side to side.

Appearing to do so, that is, until I realised he had a bead-trimmer in hand, and he was shaving. In public. At a bus stop. No mirror, no sink to catch the trimmings, no sense of embarrassment or acknowledgement that this is a weird thing to do on a Monday morning whilst waiting for a bus.

Ablutions, kids, are for the indoors. Please keep them that way.

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