Friday, 29 June 2012

In which I take away a poem

One of the advantages to working where I do is that (if I get the opportunity to leave my desk), the South Bank is on the doorstep for a short lunchtime stroll.

So, in a vague attempt at getting out from behind the desk for 15 minutes on Wednesday, I wandered along the river, taking in the grotty, humid weather; the sight of office workers far more conscientious than I out for their midday power-jog; and the fact that it seems there will soon be a branch of Wahaca in stumbling distance from my office (dangerous).

Somewhere between the book market and the Millennium Bridge, nestled amongst the hundreds of tourists with ice creams; the huge signs advertising films and theatre performances and exhibitions; and the rainbow sandpit was a shiny, silver trailer emblazoned with a sign that read “The Poetry Takeaway”.

Being the cynical type, and given the current fashion for street food, I assumed it was probably another overpriced lunch van with a quirky name and was ready to walk on by. But the lettering on the top of the van caught my eye, and I’m glad I didn’t scurry straight past.

Because the Poetry Takeaway is a takeaway van – for hactual poetry. Awesome, no?!

The idea is – like all the best ideas – a straightforward one: you queue up for a brief chat about your “order” with one of the three poets sitting in the van. They ask you a few questions – your name, and who the poem’s for, and whether you’d like your poem to be about anything specific. You wait (or wander off and have a cup of coffee) while they write it; you go back and they read it to you; and then hand over your very own bespoke poem.

When I got there, at about half past one, the queue was far too long to be able to wait for my poem and get back to the office without anyone conjuring the words “dereliction of duty,” so I headed back yesterday with a book, and staked my place in the sunshine.

The concept of an order of poetry clearly caught the imagination of others, as I had plenty of company in the queue: Italian tourists, an older American woman, and a rotund and perspiring businessman in a suit were all there too, waiting for their takeaway.

Eavesdropping on the people who were making their orders ahead of me, the requests were for poems about changes in direction, from ballet to business; apologies for forgetting someone’s birthday; and one for an ex-boyfriend, who’d never get to hear the poem.

Feeling uncharacteristically chirpy (I blame a rush of Vitamin D to the head), I asked my assigned poet, Peter Hayhoe, for something uplifting.

“Are you in need of uplifting?” He asked, scribbling away on his pad.

“No,” I said. “Life’s pretty good. Something to reflect the mood would be nice.”

A short chat followed; Peter made notes; and I headed back to the office.

I dived out later in the afternoon to pick up the finished work and hear Peter read it. Unfortunately, my total technological ineptitude means that the film I shot of his reading isn’t a film of his reading, but instead one second’s worth of my gushing about how brilliant it is. Fail.

But what I do have is an utterly brilliant, unique and handwritten poem, just for me. It’s awesome, and I love it, but it’s mine, so you don’t get to see it.

Instead, I recommend heading down – if you can – to the world’s first mobile poetry emporium, and getting one of your very own.

The Poetry Takeaway is on the South Bank (between the Millennium Bridge and the book market) until Sunday, 12noon - 5pm. All orders are free.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

In which I'll have what she's having

There’s an awful lot of mawkish dross spouted following the death of someone in the public eye. There are choruses – particularly on Facebook and Twitter – about how much individual X is going to miss Celebrity Y – someone they’d never met, and had no relationship with. It’s weird and, frankly, a bit gross.

But the response to the death of Nora Ephron last night seems to have elicited a completely different outpouring. There wasn’t a nauseating gush of overemotional wallowing and proxy grief, but a feeling of genuine sadness that a woman of such enormous talent won’t ever give the world any more of her utter brilliance (I’m not going to draw snobbish conclusions about the type of people who admire writers in comparison to the general populace: I’ll leave you to make them by yourself).

My immediate thought, standing in a damp towel in the bedroom this morning as The Writer shouted the news through after hearing it on the radio in the kitchen, was precisely that: that the world has lost someone whose work made it a better place.

I know an awful lot of people would probably take one look at the cover of When Harry Met Sally and decide that it’s low-grade, chick-flick, rom-com nonsense; the same about Sleepless in Seattle, or even You’ve Got Mail. They’d be wrong – so, so wrong.

I’m no stranger to the run-of-the-mill rom-com: TW and I saw Friends with Benefits on one of our early dates (although I can take no credit for that – it was his choice. What can I say? He’s a great cook, but has a real penchant for a crappy film), and I absolutely bawled my way through A Five Year Engagement on Saturday night (I blame the PMT).

But Ephron’s films aren’t run-of-the-mill rom-com. They might not be considered high screen art – a Citizen Kane or a Maltese Falcon (although Harry is – rightly – often up there in the lists of “best films of all time”) but they’re full of something that so many films aren’t. Even leaving aside the fabulous, fabulous writing, Ephron’s films are packed with utterly universal truths.

I first watched When Harry Met Sally at university, with Best Mate and her little brother, who had come to the flat – as he so often did – to scrounge a cup of tea, followed by some supper and some advice on his latest girlproblem. Every beautifully crafted sentence of the film resonated with me like a bell: most women at one time or another have faked it, or Thin. Pretty. Big tits. Your basic nightmare.

I remember finishing Harry and launching into an involved discussion with the others about whether men and women could ever be friends. We decided, a few extenuating circumstances aside, that they probably couldn’t (I don’t know that I necessarily believe that now, but at the time, in my early university career with the dalliances that entailed, I was a fully-paid up subscriber to the theory).

Ephron’s writing – not just her films – was littered with that same real-world wisdom:

The Wonderbra is not a step forward for women. Nothing that hurts that much is a step forward for women.

Don't be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I've had four careers and three husbands.

I won’t miss Nora Ephron the woman – I wasn’t lucky enough to know her in life. But god, I’ll miss her wit, her talent, her brilliance. Anyone who can write a 3,500 word essay and title it “A Few Words About Breasts” is someone the world is worse off without.

Friday, 22 June 2012

In which I don't introduce myself

After a Wednesday of meetings and reports and meetings and phonecalls, I was thoroughly relieved to escape the office to spend a few enjoyable evening hours at the rather lovely BAFTA building on Piccadilly at a screening of Veep, Armando Iannucci’s latest nose-thumb towards the political establishment (The Writer went in an official capacity; I’m merely a hanger-on and canapĂ©-snaffler at the more interesting of these things he’s invited to).

After the screening and Q&A (dominated largely by the palpable love that Richard Bacon clearly has his own voice), members and meeja types headed to the bar to hoover up the free booze. After barely enough time to gulp down a mouthful of white wine, TW was ushered away by a PR to go and interview the writers, and I stood by the window having swiped a large glass of (rather pleasant) red with my eye on the cured salmon and beetroot nibbles that were making their way round room.

As I crammed a morsel into my mouth, an older chap sitting on the bench next to me started to make conversation. It soon moved on from what we thought of the show (fine, if not brilliant, if I’m totally honest, but still probably half a country mile better than most other things on telly now we’re Game of Thrones- and Mad Men-less) to politics and film and what I did for a living and the play his son is currently in.

Over the space of half an hour, I had learnt the names and occupations of each of his three children; the film he worked on with a Python; the documentary he made on the seminal work of one of the best-regarded film directors of all time; that his wife bought him membership to BAFTA about 20 years ago as a Christmas present; whereabouts he lives in West London; that he doesn’t particularly love technology and that he is currently having difficulties getting his printer to work; that he abhors poor grammar, and thinks accurate use of the colon is a wonderful thing; his precise age; that he used to review films for a Sunday broadsheet and that he’s written books; the type of credit card he used to use; that he loved the West Wing; and that he doesn’t normally eat sausages.

And all that before I had the foggiest clue what his name was. Only when TW came back to the overstuffed and increasingly loud bar having completed his interview with the writers and attempt to recover his lost and lonely glass of white wine did my conversation partner offer his name as TW stuck out a hand by way of introduction.

It seems to be one of those peculiarly British foibles that we’re happy to share all sorts of snippets of really quite personal information about ourselves with complete strangers, and yet pausing halfway through a conversation to say, “by the way, I’m Blonde,” seems to be an awkward intrusion too far.

“I’m not like that – I introduce myself to people all the time,” said TW over peach and apricot yoghurt the following morning as I pondered the theory out loud.

“Well that might be true,” I said, watching him scrape the last vestiges out of the pot with semi-messianic fervour. “But you’re also a journalist, and you’re paid to do this sort of thing.”

“Actually,” he said, licking the spoon, “it’s because I like telling people who I am.”

Well, there’s always one, isn’t there?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

In which horse sense might be lacking

It all started after one of those discussions with The Redhead (the ones where she says something, and I think she’s being a bit daft, but think about it a bit more and then go and do it anyway. Like the time she suggested I meet one of her friends for a drink).

Clearly having as busy a Sunday morning as I was (listening to The Archers in my dressing gown as The Writer, er, wrote, actually), she pondered the following on Twitter:

Twitter, is there any weight to the theory that horse shampoo can make human hair grow faster? A friend is insistent but I'm dubious.

Now, I’m a natural (albeit enhanced) blonde. The result of which is that I’ve spent many years and more cash than I care to remember on all manner of hair products: intensive conditioners; colour-care shampoos; ketchup (a low moment in my haircare career, just after the “Hahah! Your hair’s gone green” incident on holiday, 2002). But never have I heard of using equine shampoo for one’s tresses.

But, with Red’s friend so adamant, there was only one thing to do: text the pony-owning Best Mate.

Debate of the morning, I said. Does horse shampoo do wondrous things for human hair?

Don’t know, she replied, but it does amazing things for horses. I wouldn’t use Pantene on the horse, although lots of people here seem to use own-brand apple-scented, human shampoo…

With incredible timing, she was actually mid-bath for her own horse, and a few minutes later, she’d got the rest of the yard involved.

Consensus here is that we’ve never tried it, but on the basis that it has to be less astringent, it probably is quite good. You could order it online. Try Eqyss from Horse Health, but don’t use it on coloured hair.

“No! Definitely not!” TW said when I mentioned the discussion to him. “I don’t want you smelling like Black Beauty.”

“Other people do it,” I said, sounding for all the world like a small child.

“I don’t care,” he said, as we made our way out of the door for an early lunch. “I warn you now: if you do it, I’ll call you Pegasus from here on in.”

But despite TW’s threats, the idea bizarrely started to take hold. I did a quick Google, and found to my surprise that it’s something that lots of people have contemplated (not that that makes it okay, I know. People on the internet contemplate all kinds of stuff that is completely inadvisable). But then came another tweet from another source which suggested it’s not just the internet crazies who have given the project a go.

And so, when it came to a quick bank account check at lunchtime yesterday to find that I’d been paid, it seemed a worthwhile endeavour to chuck a tenner at a theory if it might result in my having longer, lustrous, er, show-condition locks.

I have just procured, I emailed Best Mate (once I was done sending her pictures of a mocked-up ad for MasterCard featuring Tyrion Lannister), a bottle of each of Mane’n’Tail’s finest shampoo and conditioner.

Oh Lord, she emailed back. Of course you have. I suppose it’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I’ve never heard of Mane’n’Tail?

Delivery is expected at the end of the week. Whether I turn out show-pony or Thelwell pony remains to be seen.

Friday, 8 June 2012

In which I assess the merits of being a grown-up

Inspired by a tweet from TIME magazine writer Megan Gibson, I pondered what my younger self would make of my current, (supposedly) adult existence...

The dream: Eating ice cream whenever I want to, including for breakfast.
The reality: Barely eating ice cream at all. I’m just not fussed by it. Unless it comes with Monster Cracking. Then I’m all over it.

The dream: Growing up to be a champion showjumper, a la John Whitaker (and someone else on whom I had a huge crush, whose name I have now shockingly forgotten. I remember seeing him at Olympia in the 90s, and he had curly blond hair. Any suggestions?).
The reality: Doing a job I had no idea existed until I was 18, having not sat on a horse in several years. Le sigh.

The dream: Homework playing absolutely no part in my life whatsoever.
The reality: Getting home and finding that the final check of the BlackBerry has thrown up a client whim that has me finishing my working day on the sofa, some 14 hours after it started.

The dream: Boys being less mystifying.
The reality: Men being more mystifying.

The dream: Getting to wear high heels and make up.
The reality: Getting to wear heels so high I spend most of my life either sitting down or walking veeeeeeery slowly, and lashings of black eyeliner.

The dream: Having sleepovers with friends whenever I like – even on a schoolnight.
The reality: Having a sleepover every night with a particularly special friend (although the midnight feasts are fewer and further between than Small Me would like).

The dream: Having a tiger as a pet like that woman in the black and white newsreel footage without anyone telling me it’s impossible.
The reality: Not having a tiger as a pet like that woman in the black and white newsreel footage, because it’s impossible. Settling for something that resembles a smallish panther instead.

The dream: Getting everything I ask for at Christmas.
The reality: Realising that Father Christmas has less jurisdiction when you’re a grown-up.

The dream: Reading until it’s well past bedtime without having to resort to a torch under the duvet.
The reality: Reading whenever and wherever I damned well like.

The dream: Being allowed to listen to something other than classical music on the radio.
The reality: Swapping Classic FM for Radio 4. Rock ‘n’ roll, little me: rock AND roll.

The dream: Never having to eat Brussels sprouts.
The reality: Never having to eat Brussels sprouts. Amazing.

The dream: Going to bed as late as I liked, whenever I liked.
The reality: Going to bed at a depressingly reasonable, nay early, hour as often as I possibly can. My 8 year-old self wouldn’t be angry – just deeply, deeply disappointed.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

In which, ahead of the London Olympics, I pen a short guide for tourists wishing to use the tube

 - Don’t even think about approaching the ticket barrier until you’re sure you know what you’re doing. We do not look kindly upon those who are unable to operate an Oyster. If that sentence doesn’t make sense to you, you are as-yet unqualified to use the tube. Do some more research; come back later.

- Yes, “mind the gap” is a real announcement, but no, it’s not played everywhere. If you’d like to hear it, and get excited and screechy, you’ll need to scurry along to the Central Line at Bank, Northern Line northbound at Embankment and Bakerloo Line at Piccadilly Circus. You’re welcome.

- Stand on the right of the escalators. For Pete’s sake, don’t stand on the left: the left is for walking up or down. At best, you’ll piss off someone who’ll tut loudly and continuously, rolling their eyes until you get the message. At worst, the barrage of harassed commuters behind you won’t take into account that you’ve stopped, and will blindly continue on their course, jogging down the stairs at speed, hurtling you face-first towards a horribly disfiguring accident.

- If you must pause anywhere in the network of the Underground to take an inexplicable photo, blow your nose or consult a map, stand well clear of all oncoming foot traffic. See above.

- If you have rubbish, kindly take it with you. Londoners have places to be, and bomb scares that turn out to be half a flappy Pret wrapper make us really cross.

- Respect a queue wherever you see it: always join at the back, and don’t even think about pushing in ahead – it’s the one remaining offence for which you can be hanged at the Tower. Queues are to Brits what cows are to Hindus.

- When the dude tells you to let passengers off the train before getting on, he’s talking to you. Yes, you. Do us all a favour and listen to him, would you? Again, that means you, European teenager with backpack.

- Ref. point 4, above: When you do get off the train, keep moving. It doesn’t matter where, just move -  preferably with the flow of pedestrian traffic. Do not stop just outside the door and ponder your next move from here. You’ll be trampled, and there’ll be very little sympathy.

- The buttons on the tube doors don’t work. Don’t press them.

- Don’t make eye contact. With anyone. Unless you’re in the middle of a heart attack, in which case: play it down, wave off any rare instance of concern from strangers and get off at the next stop. Don’t be the guy who pulls the emergency alarm and screws up the entire line in both directions for the next 20 minutes. No one likes that guy.

- Bugger the woman and children: in matters of seats on the tube, it’s every soul for themselves. There’s no point in fighting a Londoner for a seat – you won’t win. If by some miracle you do, expect Gorgonesque stares of unimaginable hatred until you reach your destination.

- On which note: you’ll notice there are fewer seats than people who wish to sit in them. Reserving one for a backpack is the preserve of the very, very brave. Or cretinous.

- The following are not suitable for use on the Underground (not an exhaustive list): smelly foods; anything that might spill; anyone who’s left the house without a generous application of deodorant; small rodents or dogs that panic in crowds; terrible earphones that leak tinny Euro-pop; large groups of teenagers incapable of using the indoor voice.

- It’s pronounced Les-ter.

- Yes, it’s always this crowded. No, the tourist numbers aren’t helping. No, we don’t know how we do it every day either.

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