Wednesday, 25 July 2012

In which PRs aren't completely stupid, part two

I make a point of not reading the Daily Mail. It’s vile, apparently written by and for scaremongers and bigots. The New York Times summed it up perfectly last week, dubbing its unofficial motto “What Fresh Hell is This?” It saddens me deeply that the Mail has such a large readership, who presumably aren’t put off by its mix of misogyny, xenophobia and apparent editorial directive that once a week, the headline needs to reveal something else that’ll give you cancer.

And ranking even higher in my dislike than the Mail is its columnist Melanie Phillips. If you’re unfamiliar with the Mail (lucky you), it might give you a good idea what the paper’s like if I tell you one of its leading columnists doesn’t believe in global warming or that Palestine should exist as a state, and that being gay isn’t “normal” (that last one’s a link to the site – just a heads up if, like me, you try to avoid adding to their sadly increasing revenues. If that does sound like you, I recommend the very clever Kitten Block. Genius. No Mail, lots of kittens. What’s not to love?).

Hopefully understandably, I normally stray as far as possible from the Mail and Phillips’ writings. But when PolitiGal sent me an email on Monday titled “This made me very angry”, I couldn’t quite resist. Contained within was a link to a piece by Phillips, arguing that we’ve got the politicians we deserve because of society’s obsession with youth.

But that wasn’t what PG had taken issue with.

Later in the piece, Phillips directs her criticism at the leaders of the Coalition. Rather than pick holes in policy, she instead argues that the main problem is that Cameron et al. have no experience of the real world: this is because none of them appears to have done anything much apart from politics and PR.

Apparently, neither of these things is “the real world”. Those of us in these professions live in the gilded bubble of the political, PR and media club, and as such, have no idea of reality, of how businesses work, or what life actually entails.

They never got their hands dirty in the messy tedium of managing or being managed; never sweated over a business needing to break even, she says.

They never had their noses rubbed in the knock-backs and compromises, hopes and fears of those who give barely a passing thought to politics, but who struggle with finding a decent school for their children, or a hospital that won’t actually kill them through incompetence or an absence of elementary hygiene.

Well Melanie Phillips can take her gilded bubble and shove it.

Whilst I am well aware that a job in PR or media isn’t the same as hard, manual labour, it’s 
still valuable - to individuals as well as the wider economyGiven that it inconveniently contradicts her argument, Phillips has ignored the fact that in every PR agency across the country, there are people managing and being managed. Sometimes, they’re wrangling budgets, making sure enough money’s coming in to be able to pay the staff and keep the business going. I know for a fact that PG, working in politics and someone who seems to spend her life working on campaigns that thoroughly get in the way of her social life, has seen her share of knockbacks and compromises.

More than that, these are people in PR and politics aren’t necessarily defined entirely by their profession and might even indulge in a bit of real life: they’re the same people who lie awake at night worrying about finding a decent school for their children, or a hospital that won’t give them MRSA when they need to go in for a knee replacement.

And sitting well inside her own gilded bubble, I’d wager that Melanie Phillips, a journalist for the entirety of her career, doesn’t spend every day managing a large team, or worrying about the nitty-gritty of how the publications she writes for manage to pay her wage.

I’m fed up to the back teeth of ‘PR’ being used as shorthand for ‘inexperienced’ or ‘naïve’ or ‘stupid’. We’re not. We’re well aware of how the world works, how businesses work, how real life works. We have to be – we’re paid to know how to communicate with people, how to relate to them, what will resonate. And maybe a career in PR doesn’t prepare a person to run the country - but what job does? And I’m pretty sure that a well-rounded PR person would make a better job of it than a one-speed hack.

Monday, 23 July 2012

In which I don't love other people loving what I love

This time last year I didn’t have the faintest notion that living in London again would be back on the cards. Before I moved in with The Writer, I was living alone (albeit with Colin, who took up enough space I might as well have had a human-sized flatmate) in my own house in Home County, in the most quietly genteel of quiet, genteel English market towns. But since February, home has been a one-bed flat in the middle of decidedly less quiet and genteel Brixton which – and this has come as a greater surprise to no one but myself – I love.

Because, if I’m brutally honest, I really didn’t expect to.

“Oh. That’s, er, an interesting choice, darling,” said The Mother when I told her the plan over a cup of tea, my having nipped down to the parents’ place – then some ten minutes’ walk – to ask sheepishly whether they would take in my soon-to-be-homeless feline. As someone who comes into London only for the Chelsea Flower Show, The Mother has certain preconceptions about Brixton – preconceptions that were only exacerbated by people helpfully taking to its streets last summer with rioty fervour.

“No, it’s fine,” I said, not wanting to let on that I shared a few of the same concerns. “I mean, it’s brilliantly foodie, and there are loads of great little bars, and restaurants, and I’ll be a 30-minute commute from the office, and it won’t cost an arm and a leg in train fare, and, well, there’s a farmers’ market – it possibly can’t be that stabby, can it?!”

As it turns out, it is brilliantly foodie, and it is a 30-minute commute from the office, and – so far at least – it isn’t stabby in the slightest. We’ve a quiet flat on a leafy street; friends round the corner; and Brockwell Park is a stone’s throw when we need a bit of greenery (or, as I discovered last Sunday, a dog show). Sure, it could do with a few fewer crazies, but otherwise: top marks.

But when it comes to other people sharing my opinion on the place, I have decidedly mixed emotions. On the one hand, it’s great that friends aren’t terrified of coming – gulp – South of the River; that they’re just as excited by the prospect of the rosemary chips in Honest Burger as I am; and I’m excited to frankly indecent levels that I have pulled off a successful lobbying campaign that results in PolitiGal and her chap moving into a flat approximately 90 seconds down the road in the next couple of weeks.

But I’m not so keen on lots of other people being so keen. It’s not that I’m afraid popularity will change the feel of the place, or that I’ve had a childish attack of inverse snobbery and resent “grads and PR girls” moving into the area, with their disposable incomes and support for local businesses [don’t get me started…]. It’s more that I’m desperately selfish, and don’t want an influx of people getting in my way, buying out the choice and bargainous lilies from the stand by the station, or making it even harder to get a table at the Bread Room for a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning.

But it seems that the zeitgeist is working against me, with everyone singing the praises of the place. The Times recently did a piece on Brixton as a foodie haven, and with numerous journalists living in the area, these things are bound to happen: TW was inspired to do a piece on our local cocktail and pinxos bar a while ago, and Jay Rayner has, apparently, been a accused of running a one-man gentrification campaign for the area (we ran into Mr Rayner on the train on the way back from Latitude: whether our attempts to have him not review Cornercopia will be successful remains to be seen).

And now, as the godawful social meeja gurus would say, we’ve gone viral. A source no less esteemed and influential than the New York Times has outed Brixton as the place to eat when you’re in London. If I owned the flat we’re living in, I’d be ecstatic as it watched the people flood in and the rents rocket. As it is, I can only think of the queues outside Honest Burger, and wish to myself that people weren’t so quick to recommend the things they love.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

In which harassment needs to be talked about

On the face of it, there’s a lot written about harassment of women. It’s rare a day goes by on Twitter when someone doesn’t report that they’ve been on the receiving end of some sort of verbal or physical delight from an unreconstructed moronic Neanderthal. Sometimes it’s the focus of whole sites, and sometimes it’s just mentioned in passing as part of life.

But despite the apparent deluge, it’s not yet enough.

The very lovely owner of possibly the best name on the planet ever, Jamie Thunder, recently wrote that his friend was subjected to harassment on a bus. She laughed it off, as many of us do, but the story clearly struck a chord with Jamie:

If it had been me sat on a coach journey with a stranger trying to feel me up I’d have screamed the place down… Why would I make a fuss? Because it’s unusual and very unpleasant. But would I have if this sort of experience was part of my daily life? …it’s quite a shock, as a guy, to realise how pervasive this sort of thing is.

Jamie’s not stupid, and he’s not oblivious to the world around him: he’s a journalist at a major newspaper. If you’re going to paint someone with the clued-up brush, it’s Jamie. But if, up till now, he’s not been aware of the scale of the issue, then how are other men expected to be?

I single men out because I’d be willing to bet that 99 out of 100 women who are reading this are well aware that this goes on with horrid and alarming regularity and have been subjected to it at least once. Talk to any woman you know – friend, girlfriend, flatmate, colleague, sister: they’ll all have a story to tell you about their experience of harassment, whether it’s “only” that they were hollered at from a car or, in more sinister vein, that they were followed around on the tube.

And it’s not that we’re getting our knickers in a twist about nothing; it’s not that women everywhere need to lighten up and learn to take a compliment. None of these instances of harassment are compliments: they don’t make us feel good about ourselves, and they’re not designed to.

What woman do you know enjoys being treated as nothing more than meat? Are you sure that there’s a woman in your life who subscribes to the view that her body isn’t her own but instead public property, to be commented on in public as people see fit? Do you ever think the response to an incident like this would be for the woman in question to turn round and proffer her number and next available Thursday evening for dinner and drinks? No. Because that’s not the aim.

At its least damaging, public harassment is disrespectful and annoying. At its worst, it’s intimidating and threatening, preventing people from being able to go about their day-to-day business in a public space without fear. Which, I’d argue, is a pretty fundamental requirement for life.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

In which I learn at Latitude

I am at least ten years too old to be in the first ten rows of a Metronomy set.

Having a festival companion of some considerable height is useful when looking for him in a crowded field.

Having a festival companion of some considerable height will ensure youre subject to vast grumbles from everyone standing in the six feet of space behind you.

If “media drinks” start in the press tent at 5pm, theyll have been devoured by 5.02pm. Don’t expect there to be any gin and tonic left if you rock up at 5.05pm.

M&S pre-made gin and tonic in a can is STRONG stuff.

Kebabylon might just be the best name for a fast food truck in the history of ever.

Some festivals attract such a certain type of intellectually curious person that there will be more people crammed into a tent to hear a Radio 4-hosted discussion on whether science needs art, and the discovery of the Higgs Boson than to see Tim Minchin. It probably says something about me that I am cheered no end by this fact.

You can pitch your tent in as compact a space as you can find: you’ll still come back in the middle of the night to find a group of grubby boys have found a way to squeeze theirs into the smallest space next to yours, affording you no privacy whatsoever, and ensuring total guy rope entanglement.

Augustus and chums (no, really) will spend a good 45 minutes at 4am discussing - at length - any or all of the following: that they should have brought kindles because reading by torchlight is, like, SO not cool. That Tom has MDMA and ketamine if anyone wants any. The whereabouts of the peanut butter.

Some people will insist on mispronouncing artists’ names even when the artist in question has come out and announced themselves, thus removing any doubt (FYI: it’s Bon Ee-verre, as in French, not Bon Eye-vuh, as in wrong).

Lana del Rey incites teenage screaming the likes of which I assumed was reserved for Beiber.

There is an inexplicably large proportion of any audience that seems intent to experience any set through the medium of their iPhone / camera screen.

Pop-up tents aren’t made to withstand torrential rain.

Once said torrential rain starts coming through the roof of the tent, through the sides of the tent, and leaking in through the seams at the bottom, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to sleep for more than ten minutes at a time due to your sleeping bags resembling dishcloths. Deciding at 6am that you can’t take any more and then having to pull on wet jeans, wet jumpers and wet socks do not a happy festival-goer make.

The Writer has such status and sway at these things that he now has his own bridge.

My future attendance at any festival whatsoever will be predicated on there being sufficient waterproofing. Of everything. And if that could stretch to the bottom of the clouds for the duration of my stay in a field, that’d be grand.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

In which I anticipate getting wet

Tomorrow, The Writer and I head for the Latitude Festival in Suffolk.

In all honesty, I’m not one of life’s natural festival-goers. I’m quite attached to hairdryers and Hungarian goosefeather duvets and, you know, being clean. But every once in a while, the mood strikes and it seems like a good idea to do something a bit out of character. Buck up, the thought process tends to go. You lived in Tanzania for six months without so much as a running shower. Man up, and deal with three Radio 4-less days.

And it seemed like a good idea back in May, when we were throwing the idea around, and the sun was shining and the weather was hot, and TW was offered press passes.

Now, in my sitting room with all the lamps on at 8pm because it’s so grey and dark outside, where the rain is tipping down and people are scurrying back from work under their umbrellas, it seems like less of a good idea.

Next to the dining table, amongst the sleeping bags and tent and more junk food than is probably a good idea, there are two pairs of heavy-duty wellies; two decidedly untrendy but decidedly practical waterproof jackets and two pairs of sunglasses – because if I don’t believe in the slim possibility that they’ll be needed, I might just break down and cry.

But I can at least take comfort in the fact that there is little chance on earth that however wet and cold and grubby and miserable TW and I manage to get, it won’t be as abhorrent as my last festival experience.

My last festival experience which saw me – not one of life’s natural festival-goers – at Reading, the festival for grubby, drunken teenagers. Being, as I was, there for work on a Bank Holiday weekend, not drunk, and far from a teenager, it was wholly and deeply unpleasant.

There were difficult clients – a joy at the best of times, but extra-delightful when they’re muddy, wet and sleep-deprived. There was a tent (corporate hospitality, my backside) pitched just under the all-night funfair, precluding any sort of sleep as the lights and the noise blared until the small hours, only stopping when my colleague and I had to get up to go to work. And there was mud. Oh, so much mud.

And, at what could fairly be considered a real low-point in my career thus far, whilst I was working on a project, there was a photographer from the now-defunct News of the World ogling teenage girls in bikinis as they were hosed down in a makeshift shower on-site, telling them they “needed more soap”. You could practically hear the salivating.

So, all things considered, a bit of wet weather isn’t all that bad. And the goosefeather duvet will feel incredible to come back to.

Friday, 6 July 2012

In which I don't want to Get Ahead of the Games. I want them to Go Away.

As we are being endlessly reminded, the Olympic Games are being held in London. Joys abound. And now, some three weeks out from the Games’ commencement, huge pink signs are being plastered all over stations in the assumption that potential spectators will think to look up at the roof for directions, and chirpy staff are handing out travelcard wallets containing advice on travel during London 2012.

Or rather, they’re handing out what is masquerading as advice, because it’s actually about as helpful as an arts graduate at an explanation of Higgs Boson.

The little booklet, urging us to “Get Ahead of the Games”, is full of singularly pointless inanities. It tells us that it will be exceptionally busy across the transport network. No shit, Sherlock. I assumed it would be a BREEZE to get around – after all, London’s transport infrastructure is so timely and reliable on every other day of the year.

Walking is a quick and easy way to make short journeys around central London. Not when you’re stuck behind a cretinous tourist pointing their iPhone at every passing red bus, it isn’t.

By cycling, you can avoid travel congestion. I could. I might also die. Cycling deaths were up 21% in 2011, and whilst that is – admittedly – from a low base, I don’t want to be one of those fatalities, or one of the hundreds more who suffer a serious injury. I’ve not regularly cycled anywhere since I was living in Tanzania where the most likely road hazard would be a cow coming the other way, and I think it would be more dangerous for me – and those around me – to start now.

Travel at different times, it merrily advises – avoid [travelling] 7 – 10am and 4 – 8pm. You are quite honestly making this stuff up now, right, Transport for London? As someone who quite frankly would rather the Olympics would sod off and screw up someone else’s city (ideally one that CAN cope with it, rather than London, where the timing on traffic lights had to be fiddled for the visit of the Committee), to be told that I should try not to travel to and from work inside any sort of reasonable timeframe is just insulting. I live and work here, I pay my taxes and I pay my tube fares: surely my ability – and that of millions of others – to get to work, and y’know, keep the already-fragile economy in its state of intensive care should take priority over the spectators to a sporting event? Or is someone from LOCOG going to clear it with my agency and our American counterparts and my fee-paying clients that I’m able to work from 11am – 3pm for the six weeks of the Games? And don’t give me the ‘working from home’ crap. If an entire agency working from home was the most efficient means of Getting Shit Done, we’d do it already. It isn’t, so we don’t.

Take a different route… if you travel through a station that will be in a hotspot area. And get to work how, exactly? My office is located smack bang between two of the ‘hotspot’ stations. Taking a different route would involve changing my destination, and that’s not really the point of the exercise of travel, is it?

Avoid unnecessary journeys, it says. Well colour me astonished: I’d not thought of that. Sometimes, I like to spend a Sunday just riding around London on the tube, taking in the sights of empty food wrappers and mice and the walls of the tunnels, and the smell of last night’s drunken vomit. Trust us, TfL: people don’t take the tube for a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. If we’re on the Northern Line, it’s already pretty bloody necessary.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

In which I eat, and am smug about it

I am a big fan of Pip McCormac’s brilliant blog, Cook the Books. It’s a simple enough premise: he takes a cookery book and creates a meal from it, following the recipes precisely as instructed. Which, when you think about it, is actually rather brilliant. Because despite the shelves Chez Nous absolutely groaning with everything from Ad Hoc to Plenty via Saturday’s purchase of Tom Parker Bowles’ latest, as well as the entire back catalogue of cookery books written by The Writer’s mother, including her brand new, imminent (and THIRTEENTH. Clearly the overachiever characteristic is hereditary) release, I can’t remember the time I stuck precisely to a recipe. It rarely happens in our house where, upon starting a new creation, we inevitably have forgotten a crucial ingredient / can’t be bothered to go to the complicated lengths required / think we know better than the experts.

But Pip’s latest post, cooking from Kitchen and Co by French and Grace struck a chord for an entirely different reason.

“I’m just queuing for the latest must-have marshmallow,” people merrily tweet, congratulating themselves on snaffling out the latest fashionable foodie secret, the post-recessionary equivalent of a Mulberry bag.


[French and Grace] are getting write ups everywhere… all lauding them for their skills at combining flavours to create something truly amazing, and for turning their tiny supper club (so now!) into a tiny cafe in South London (even more now!)

Oh holy mackerel.

To say that’s me to a tee might be under-egging the clafoutis.

I’ve been known to tweet pictures of plates of incredible tangy goats’ curd and fresh, crunchy broad beans, eaten at, er, tiny cafés in South London – complete with Instagramesque vintage filters. A typical Saturday morning for TW and I involves a trip to the favourite grocer for vegetables and herbs; to the little wine merchant in Brixton for a bottle of something recommended by David, the owner (this week’s was a “Beaujolaisish” something I have now forgotten. Bloody tasty, though); and then to the newly opened branch of Cannon and Cannon for the week’s cheese (or Paxton and Whitfield if we’re in town).

The less said the better about the fact we now have the number for The Bread Room pinned up in the kitchen: such is the lure of their olive and rosemary bread that we now call ahead first thing in the morning to reserve our loaf before they sell out. I know. I know. And it’s probably not a good thing that I feel a sense of satisfaction when I open the Times on a Saturday to see that Horrid Giles hasn’t yet discovered the current favourite restaurant, thus ruining our enjoyment by making it entirely impossible ever to get a table. Or that office lunch is less often a limp Pret sandwich than it is chargrilled courgette and Parmesan salad with pinenuts or something of its ilk.

Might run out and buy Tesco's bargain sushi out of pure smugguilt, said a friend on Twitter as we shared a “Christ, I do wish people wouldn’t actually put down in black and white how insufferable we are” moment.

She’s a genius: smugguilt is precisely the word. There’s guilt at the levels of smugness achieved by making your own guacamole for lunch, or knowing your artisan baker by name, and more guilt when direct attention brought to the obsession feels more than a little uncomfortable. But then the smug kicks in, and frankly you don’t care because, as Pip says, other than the enchanting sensation of devouring delicious dinners, that smugness is what the new foodie obsession is really all about.


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