Tuesday, 30 October 2012

In which I disapprove of a guinea pig in a Santa hat

Much as people might disagree vehemently, something in my inner timekeeper has decided that now is an acceptable time to be Thinking About Christmas.

I used to be wildly against Christmas and the tentacles of its preparation happening too early in the year. I was quite happy to focus on Guy Fawkes’ night, and then the critically important event that is my birthday, without having the focus taken away and redistributed to an event much later in the year.

But this approach has been shifting over time, and where I once made a clear demarcation between the autumnal events and the Christmas season, I now prefer to roll everything together and thoroughly enjoy one long spell of festivities.

So it was that, whilst with Best Mate in Suffolk for a couple of days last week, I happened upon and purchased the bulk of this year’s Christmas cards. Given that I am particularly particular about my cards, I leap at the chance to buy those that meet all my requirements when I happen upon them: tasteful, not gaudy; proceeds donated to charity; and with faintly religious overtones. Whilst not a regular churchgoer, I appreciate that Christmas is an essentially Christian festival, and I like to mark it thus. That, and I see there being very little that’s fundamentally Christmassy about a guinea pig in a Santa hat.

With the cards sitting on the table, alongside a woefully out-of-date address book, The Writer and I lounged on the sofa in front of an excellent episode of Homeland on Sunday night, and I texted several of my nearest and dearest to ask for their addresses.

Clearly, I am an anomaly in Social Circle Blonde, thinking about Christmas before November’s hit, because the majority of the messages I received in reply, whilst merrily giving me what I’d asked for, also contained some variation of the following:


May I ask what this is regarding?

I take it I shouldn’t ask why…

And then The Redhead, who just came out and said what everyone else was clearly skirting around:

Hang on. This isn’t a wedding invitation address request, is it?

(The main exception was Pleasedonteatjo, who asked whether I was sending her a horse, as she’d need a bigger postbox. Top marks, that woman.)

I don’t know whether it’s an age thing, or a living-happily-with-the-boyfriend thing, or just a we-can’t-possibly-countenance-that-she-would-ever-be-that-organised thing, but people find it far easier to believe that I would be getting married than that I would be drawing up the Christmas list. I’m not entirely sure how to take that, to be honest. But I do know that some people should expect a highly raised eyebrow in with their Christmas card. And possibly a guinea pig in a Santa hat in protest.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

In which I get a table at Dabbous

A few weeks ago, an email dropped into my inbox.

Thank you for making your reservation at Dabbous, it said. Your reservation is confirmed.

Which, as any London-based food-fans will understand, was extremely exciting.

Dabbous is possibly the most over-subscribed London restaurant in the history of over-subscribed London restaurants: it opened at the beginning of this year, and within a couple of weeks was subject to a rave review from the Standard’s Fay Maschler, which was precisely the point at which it became completely impossible to get a table.

So impossible, in fact, that when the email above landed, it took me a few seconds to process: it had been so long since I sent a speculative note wondering whether I could book a table that I had clean forgotten I’d done it. And it’ll give you a little more sense of just how sought-after dinner bookings are if I tell you that, although the dinner date is now pencilled into the diary, it’s pencilled into the lovely little “Future engagements” section that Smythson does at the back, because the reservation is for July 2013. Yup, that’s another NINE MONTHS. The Writer and I had met and moved in together inside the time it took for me to ask for a table and the date on which I’ll finally get to eat there.

(And before anyone gets snippy, and says “it’s just not worth it”, you’re entitled to that opinion, and are probably less fussed about eating there than I am. However, I have a hankering to, thus will put up with the absurdly long wait: it’s not as if I’m planning an entire social calendar around this particular occasion, and have no other engagements beforehand to keep me occupied.  When the date in question does roll round, it will merely be a nice thing already planned.)

So you’d think that restaurants at entirely the other end of the scale – those that don’t take bookings – would be my cup of Earl Grey. And you’d be right – up to a point.

When you’ve made an impromptu decision with a friend to catch up after work or are nipping out for a lazy lunch on a Saturday afternoon, it’s highly useful to have a few great places where you know there’s a chance of being able to eat (that, and I won’t hear a bad thing said about Russell Norman, owner and staunch advocate of no-bookings establishments, and owner of Polpetto, where brilliant things happen).

Of course, this approach also has its frustrations: turn up at any time that’s considered meal time, and you’re likely to have to queue for a not-inconsiderable length of time; once word of mouth has spread that it’s actually pretty good, you’ll need an enormous amount of planning – or luck – ever to be able to eat there again (I’m looking at you, Honest Burgers Brixton); and it’s entirely impractical for those who want to eat at a particular place on a particular night for a particular occasion.

Which is why, much as I was wholly underwhelmed by Brasserie Zedel (the food is fine, but no better than that, and if you order cleverly, yes it’s cheap, but – meh), I am in staunch agreement with how they go about things: make tables available to book, and have a policy of holding some back every night for walk-ins: perfect. It’s more democratic, it’s more convenient, and – crucially – it doesn’t rely on my having to buy a new diary to write down my dinner plans.

Monday, 22 October 2012

In which men wear bracelets

“Er, what is that?”

I was standing in the kitchen spooning mascarpone into a lasagna for supper. The Writer, having just got in from work, was leaning on the half-height wall overlooking the hob, watching me cook.

“Um, nothing.” He stood up quickly and put his hands behind his back.

“No, really. What is that?” I put the spoon onto the worktop and walked towards him.

“Nothing! I don’t know what you mean.” There was a small skirmish and the employment of a few dirty tactics (I resorted to tickling) before I could grab and study TW’s arm.

I’ve discussed before where I stand on the topic of jewellery on men. So to see TW’s wrist graced with a daringly green monstrosity was something of a surprise.

“It’s a BRACELET! Oh gods above…”

“Well. Yes. Yes it is.” He snatched his arm away. “But we were given them. And anyway, it’s limited edition.”

“I don’t care. Clearly not limited enough.”

“Well I like it. And my new colleague says I shouldn’t let you dictate what I wear.”

“I don’t!”

“You do. You don’t like my bracelet, and you won’t let me wear my new salmon jumper either.”

Let’s be clear for a moment: it’s not that I won’t let TW wear his new salmon jumper. It’s that his new jumper is less ‘salmon’ and more ‘sort of neon coral-but I don’t know precisely because if you look directly at it your retinas burn-orangeish’ and I fear for the eyesight of those in the capital. And there’s also the salient fact that…

“You said you didn’t LIKE the jumper!”

“And you don’t like my new cargo trousers.”

“Well, that’s true – I don’t like those.”

“Colleague says I’m the sartorial equivalent of this.” He made an Indiana-Jonesesque whipping motion.

“Your colleague is wrong. You are the least whipped man on the planet. But that bracelet is still horrible. It looks like one of those things you’d use to tie a roof rack onto a car with.”

“It is. It’s made of bungee cord.”

I shouldn’t be too surprised, really. Despite my many and vociferous grumblings on the subject, men in the media seem to be alarmingly susceptible to a trend, especially if it’s been covered widely in the US press (religions have their holy texts; so do journalists, ie anything beginning with “New York”: New York Times, New York Magazine, New Yorker…).

And so, one or two trend pieces about how “mangles” – no, I know, I know – are in, and suddenly there’s a glut of, er, trendy chaps around sporting their new and fashionable purchases. And with several pieces earlier this year about “wristwear” (I say if you’re going to wear it, man up and call it jewellery; don’t hide behind a euphemism that doesn’t threaten your masculinity), it was only a matter of time.

I suppose I should be grateful: man-bracelets are, in the grand scheme of things, comparatively discreet. But the second the NYT runs anything on diamond earrings, deerstalkers or wearing your pants outside your trousers, that whipping might be put to the test. 

Thursday, 18 October 2012

In which conkers are better than spiders

Those who know me will tell you that I’m not one of life’s spider fans. Actually if I’m honest, that’s a bit generous: I bloody hate the bloody horrid things. I don’t like the way they look; I don’t like the way they move; I don’t like how they’re quite clearly out to get me. Yes, I’ve read Charlotte’s Web. Yes, it was quite sad. No, it did nothing to quash my total abhorrence of the crawly, scuttling monstrosities.

I’ve felt this way about spiders for almost as long as I can remember. Nothing will elicit screams faster than seeing something scurry across the carpet, legs shuttling unnaturally quickly underneath a piece of furniture.

The reaction they provoke in me is really quite pronounced: whilst I might be able to ignore a money spider if it’s somewhere up in the crevices of our high ceilings, anything bigger tends to turn me into a wibbling idiot. My first reaction is to scream. I’ll then panic, and either freeze from fear, or run shaking out of a room, unable to go back into it until I know the bastard has been Dealt With by someone other than me.

Very occasionally, if I come across a spider in the bath, I’ll be able to muster up the courage (generally whilst sweating gently and retching) to reach for the shower head and run the water as hot as possible until my arachnid nemesis has met a boily end. Yes, I know it’s horrid. It’s also the only thing I can do to get rid of them that doesn’t involve my throwing up all over my feet.

Counterintuitively, spiders were less of a problem when I was living alone. Admittedly, I was in a brand new house which let in far fewer spiders than our beautiful Victorian, yet slightly more perforated, London flat. But when spiders did dare cross the threshold, they were faced with my preferred anti-creepy crawly weapon of choice: a Colin. One scream from me, and he learnt pretty quickly to come running before executing a well-placed jump onto the offending article before wolfing it down, generally whole, but occasionally with a loud crunch for good measure.

Now, however, I live with The Writer who, whilst highly adept at spotting and removing spiders without fuss or faff when he’s at home, well, isn’t always at home. Which causes a problem when I’m alone, cooking, or with a desperate need to pee, and am suddenly barred from a room, held hostage by an evil arachnid until TW returns.

And so, deciding it was time Something Was Done and disinclined to spend an awful lot of money on hypnosis or CBT or other expensive ways of convincing myself to man the hell up, I do what all rational offspring of scientist parents do, and went straight to folklore.

Which is why, a few weeks ago, when back at Parental Home Blonde, probably much to the chagrin of the local primary school pupils, I made a beeline for the horse chestnut tree at the end of the lane, and scooped as many shiny conkers as I could into the pockets of my mac.

These are now scattered liberally around the flat – next to the large gap in the bathroom floorboards; along the windowsills in the bedroom; next to the plants in the kitchen – in the hope that they’ll deter any spidery interlopers planning on spending the winter.

And so far, I’m pleased to report, it’s worked. I’ve not had cause for screaming, or running away, or drowning the horrible things in a vat of near-boiling water whilst I panic and think I’m going to pass out. Which has to be good for us all – even, and I say this begrudgingly, the horrid spiders.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

In which I borrow someone else's boyfriend

A week or so ago, Twitter came up trumps as it occasionally does, and bestowed upon me two money-could-buy-but-only-if-you-were-in-possession-of-an-American-Express-card-and-£85-each-to-spend-on-lunch tickets to an exclusive event they were running as part of the London Restaurant Festival.

“Hurrah,” thought I. “Freebie tickets to an excellent lunch. There’s nothing about this that I don’t like.”

Until began the game of trying to get someone to come with me. I’d have thought free tickets to an excellent lunch would prove rather easy to give away. Eh, wrong again.

I don’t think I’ll have the time, The Writer emailed when I told him. I’m going to be working all weekend.

*Sob*, came the next response, from PolitiGal. I shall be at Conference.

At which point I thought, “well, if my boyfriend can’t come, and my friend can’t come, I wonder whether my friend’s boyfriend might be able to oblige?”

Which is how, at 12.30pm on a Sunday lunchtime, I found myself sitting across the table from The Spectator, a chap for whom I have an enormous amount of time and fondness, yet with whom I spend no time if it’s not with PG. So, for the two of us to be lunching together and without our respective other halves was rather a change in dynamic. And possibly because this was the first time we’d ever pursued a diversion by ourselves, the whole afternoon had a mildly illicit air to it – that feeling you get when you’re doing something you shouldn’t, a bit like bunking off Games.

The whackingly decadent nature of the activity didn’t help.

We sat down at our table at Moro in Exmouth Market, where Jacob Kenedy (of Bocca di Lupo fame) was also in the kitchen, to be presented with a glass of champagne each, and a menu that would put Mr. Creosote to shame. Some five hours, five large courses, and somewhere in the region of several bottles later, we staggered up from our chairs, utterly sated and more than a little bit drunk, to waddle creakingly towards home.

A few thoughts that stuck with me whilst I was doing so were that:

I might not have enough time in my life to stuff a mussel, but I’m bloody glad other people do.

Tortellini and amaretti is a combination of staggering genius. If you see anyone wandering around M&S food in the near future, with an apparently random basket of fresh pasta and some biscuits, you know what’s for supper at mine.

Arroz negro is MUCH easier to eat in a publically respectable manner than squid ink spaghetti.

There is no such thing as too big a scallop.

Sparkling dessert wine might just be the work of true brilliance.

I must eat at Moro more often.

I desperately needed a) to pee; b) a nap; c) not to be wearing heels of staggering vertiginousness.

Sometimes, doing something that feels just a little bit like bunking off Games is an excellent way to spend a Sunday.

Friday, 12 October 2012

In which debate is fierce

Counterintuitively, it’s the least important things in life that seem to spark the most ferocious of debates. You might assume that it would be the rights and wrongs of legally-assisted suicide; stem cell research; or universal rights for women – after all, they’re just a few of life’s Big Questions. And, yes, they are all topics that garner strong opinion. But if you want to provoke someone into a really fierce fight, ask them to pronounce scone.

It’s a phenomenon I’ve been aware of for a while. Almost two years ago now, whilst I was mired in the sinking sand that is London’s dating scene, and working my way through a few truly terrible specimens of mankind, I was on a date with an accountant.

We’d been seeing each other a while, and – his penchant for truly horrid man-jewellery aside – it was all going rather well. Going rather well, that is, until one dinner during which my date declared, over herring and lingonberries, that he was pro-capital punishment.  

Yes, that’s what I thought too.

But, when I blogged about it later, it wasn’t his frankly prehistoric views on retribution that caused a ripple. No, the overwhelming majority of the responses, both those left after the post and those on Twitter, barely raised an eyebrow about his rather right-wing judicial views, and instead focussed on a throwaway comment I’d made about our earlier disagreement about our preferences for skimmed vs. semi-skimmed milk.

Yes, skimmed milk, according to the internet, if not a greater evil than state-conducted killing of its own citizens, is at least a more hotly-contested subject. Go figure.

I was reminded of the same phenomenon last week, when there was a heated debate on Twitter about the names people give to their meals. Lunch, dinner, tea and supper all made appearances for the latter two meals of the day, but in different orders and for slightly different things. The passion with which people defended their linguistic choices was a thing to behold (of course, unless they were arguing for breakfast, lunch and supper, they were wrong).

Much the same happens if you try and tell someone they should put the milk in their tea first (they shouldn’t), or that cats are better than dogs (they are), or whether Jon Snow is hotter than Robb Stark (the jury’s still out on that one).

It’s probably unsurprising, really, that people get wound up to an extraordinary degree about things that – in the grand scheme – really don’t matter. People can relate to a preference for skimmed milk (or otherwise), or a linguistic habit of lunch being in the middle of the day: it takes next to no intellectual capacity to have a view, and whilst the differing opinions are hotly contested, you know you’re on safe ground, and won’t mortally offend someone by rubbishing their deeply-held belief on a topic of real substance leading to a falling-out of Trojan proportions.

All that said of course, it’s pronounced “skon”. And I won’t hear anything to the contrary.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

In which abortion shouldn't be a political issue

Reading the papers doesn’t normally cause me to fly into an apoplectic rage. Sadly Saturday’s Times was an exception.

Jeremy Hunt, our esteemed Health Secretary, given the position in a Cabinet reshuffle having made such a success of his time at DCMS, has come out and said that he thinks the time limit on abortions in the UK should be lowered from its current 24 weeks to 12 weeks.

I just… urgh. I don’t know quite where to begin with this one.

I realise that a lot has been made out of what Hunt said, given that what he was doing was stating a personal opinion, not Government policy. And, given that we bitch and moan when politicians refuse to give a personal opinion on something and instead stick rigidly to the party line, it almost seems mean to criticise him for doing so, because much as we might not like the opinions he comes out with, Mr. Hunt is entitled to having them. None of which leads me towards indulging the aforementioned opinion.

Because, in no particular order:

- Abortion isn’t something you ever plan to have to do. It’s not one of those amazing life events that one’s 16 year-old self sits and dreams about in double Latin – go travelling in Africa; meet and marry great guy; write best-selling novel; have abortion; buy house… It’s not as if there are scores of women out there attempting to get knocked up in the hope of trying out a recreational abortion. The decision to have a termination might not always be a traumatic or even a difficult one (see Caitlin Moran’s brilliant piece on how it wasn't a tricky decision for her), but it’s never one a woman plans on having to make. Don’t take that choice away from us when we need it.

- If Hunt’s 12-week limit is some sort of political shenanigan designed to make Maria (what the hell did we do to deserve her as a Women’s Minister?) Miller’s and Nadine (don’t get me started) Dorries’ calls for a 20-week limit look sane and rational, it’s cynical in the extreme, and he should be ashamed of himself.

- There’s little medical evidence to back up either Mr. Hunt’s or Ms. Millers’ arguments. (See also: Mr. Hunt’s carefree neglect of reasoned medical evidence, below.)

- Hunt himself says that it’s partially his religious convictions that have led him to the conclusion he’s reached. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I don’t want my Health Secretary to make decisions based on religious beliefs – I want my Health Secretary to make decisions based on the best of the available medical and scientific evidence. Espousing opinion based on religious belief is what the Archbishop of Canterbury is for.

- On which note: if it’s his religious convictions that have led him to a conclusion, is there a bit of the New Testament I’ve missed? Admittedly, I’m lapsed as far as my Bible-reading is concerned, and I’m not entirely sure what it has to say about abortion, but I’m fairly certain that there’s no nuanced case for terminations being ok in the first trimester, but no later.

- Also: Hunt is a paid-up believer in homeopathy. Even if he was inclined to base his opinions on medical science rather than religion, I’m not sure we’d be any better off, given that he’d be just as likely to ignore all the evidence anyway. Frankly, I can’t think of anyone less qualified to oversee the health of the nation.

- We’re used to hearing stories from the States about abortion being a hotly politicised issue – but then, that’s the States, where people also have frankly barking ideas about how it’s ok that an entire population be armed, so I don’t take them too seriously on issues of personal liberties. But I’m categorically Not Happy about the fact that something we’ve taken for granted for so long in the UK – as part of living in a civilised and secular democracy – is now seen as fair game with which to play politics. It’s not. Women’s health is not an issue for politicisation; women’s bodies are their own property; and we’re capable of making the choices that best suit our needs in our own particular circumstances. I’d be much obliged if the politicians could kindly fuck off out of it.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

In which I'm a bad guest

Oh bollocks, I thought as I wandered home one recent Friday night, I wonder if she knows…

I don’t usually give a moment’s thought to my eating habits, but there is an intense sense of sheepishness about one’s dietary preferences that emerges some 24 hours ahead of a dinner party if those preferences mark one out as being a fussy eater.

I had enthusiastically accepted The Domestic Slut’s invitation to dinner a few weeks previously, but was then faced with committing the faux pas that is following such an invitation up with a weedy, “Oh, and by the way, I don’t eat this, that and the other...”

Because if you are, like me, one of life’s difficult dinner guests, the unappetising alternative is to be faced with a plateful of something that won’t be eaten, thus mortally offending your host, and resulting in your never being invited back (I’m afraid I’m just not selfless enough to say nothing and eat the stuff with good grace). So a lot of the time I rely on people knowing – and remembering – my dining proclivities.

I’m not as fussy as some people I know. I don’t, for example, eschew all hot drinks and any foodstuff that’s not beige (bacon, or jam being the two notable exceptions. Bacon jam, however, would remain verboten); and cut the crusts off cheap white bread with a pair of office scissors.

I do, however, not eat meat, and haven’t done so for a long time – about 14 years, or something that alarmingly resembles an epoch.

It’s not a moral thing: I don’t believe that we shouldn’t eat the cute furry critters, and it’s not a health thing: I don’t feel strongly about the effect of red meat on a person’s insides. It’s purely – and I know this is something most people will have serious trouble identifying with – that I just don’t like the stuffI don’t like the way it tastes, or its texture (fish and seafood, on the other hand, I love, and am rarely happier than when faced with a really good sautéed scallop). I know I’m in a minority, and that hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of people adore the stuff, and love nothing better than a good bloody Hawksmoor steak. I’d honestly rather have a nice toasted goats’ cheese.

Relying on people to remember this, however, can be a risky manoeuvre, because I apparently I don’t strike people as “veggie” (I know it’s wildly incorrect, before anyone says anything along the pescetarian lines: I just find it useful shorthand) or “horrid veggie” if I’m in the presence of The Writer, who puts up with my fussy eating with admirable good grace, especially considering his foodie provenance.

“Have you told The Domestic Slut that you don’t eat meat?” TW said as we plucked a couple of bottles of wine from the rack to take with us before leaving on the Saturday night.

“I have,” I said, wiping the dust off a bottle with my sleeve. “She’d clearly remembered anyway – she’s doing fish. I think she might be one of the only people who do remember.”

“You don’t strike people as one of life’s natural vegetarians, is what it comes down to,” TW said. “I think you’re just a bit… rambunctious.”

Quite why rambunctious people can’t be vegetarians, or vegetarians rambunctious, I don’t know. Maybe we assume the veggies among us walk around in handmade shoes, reeking of mung bean and anaemia, and as un-put together as I am on any given day, I do at least wash. Or maybe it’s that the beloved fur coat in which I spend Home County winters tends to put people off the scent.

Whatever it is, a veggie in disguise I remain, and with no foreseeable change in taste on the horizon, I imagine that’s the way it’ll stay for some time to come. And no, since you ask: not even bacon.

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