Friday, 30 November 2012

In which I am joined in the saddle



The things you relish in life bring far more joy if you’re able to share them with the people you love: food, wine, delightfully bad 90s pop music – all are much better when you can share them.

The Shetland Pony Grand National at Olympia
Photo from Horse and Hound magazine
To say that The Writer has nowhere near the interest that I do in horses is something of an understatement. He was, I think, rather taken aback at the slightly obsessive way in which I followed the equestrian disciplines during the summer’s Olympics (to my Twitter followers, I can only apologise). But, to his enormous credit, he made an excellent go at seeing what all the fuss was about, and even looked up Laura Bechtolsheimer’s bronze medal-winning dressage test on YouTube (admittedly, only once I’d told him she’d performed her Freestyle to music from the Lion King, but I count it as a win).

He’s since listened to me prattle on about various things horsey, along with the weeks of deliberating as to whether to take it up again. But not once has he made any noises that suggested he was interested in getting involved. Rather, the contrary.

“No, it’s dangerous,” he said as we discussed it one evening. “They’re huge animals, and they have their own brains. There’s no way of knowing what they’re going to do next.” Which, to a certain extent I suppose, is true. And when you’re the size of the average NBA player, it’s probably quite unusual to be faced with a living being larger than oneself. It’s rather the opposite when you’re the wrong side of 5’4”.

But then, he seemed to thaw slightly.

“I’m sure it is fun, if you’re into it.”

And then, some while later melting a little further still: “yes, I’d come and watch you at your next lesson if you wanted me to.”

Until, after I’d been raving for days after my lesson about how brilliant the whole thing is, and how I was sure, actually, if TW gave it a try, he’d love it, there was a faint, if still less-than-enthusiastic, “well, maybe I’ll give it a go one day.”

“Would you?!”

“Er, yes?” he said uncertainly, as if he’d made a horrible and irreparable mistake.

“So you’d come for a lesson too, when I have my next one?”

“Um, if I’m free, sure.”

And so, standing outside my office one cold Tuesday morning, I was on the phone to a nice lady who sounded like she was sure I had fallen out of the nearest tree given the overwhelming and not entirely explicable enthusiasm in changing my private lesson to a semi-private so that my riding novice boyfriend could join me.

“He is quite tall,” I explained, hoping that if 6’5” William Fox-Pitt can ride little horses, then my even taller boyfriend would be fine.

“That’s fine,” she said. “So long as he’s not over 16 stone, it’s not a problem. There you go, that’s all booked for you.”

Thus begins The Writer’s foray into horsemanship. Although if he turns out to be better than me, it might be something I regret.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

In which I address the Christmas cards




Over the weekend, I sat down at the dining table to write this year’s Christmas cards.

Some people seem to find writing cards to be one of the more onerous Christmas chores, but I love it. The ritual of seeking out the right cards (they must be aesthetically pleasing, and suitably festive, with just a faint religious overtone; and without animals in Santa hats); looking out and updating last year’s list; and sitting down with a good pen (crucial for non-spidery scrawl) to write what is, to some of the recipients, the annual and only correspondence that we share.

But, amidst the annual shower of glitter which inexplicably ends up everywhere once the cards are out of the box, this year brought a couple of previously-unconsidered concerns.

The first slight pause I found myself at came after signing my name at the bottom of the first card.

“Huh,” I stopped and sat up. The Writer looked at me from the sofa where he was battling with a book of essays.

“What?”

“Well, I. Hmm. I suppose these should probably come from us both this year, shouldn’t they?”

For the first time at Christmas, I find myself not only in a long-term and functional (hurrah!) relationship, but one in which I’m (gulp) living with a boy. And whilst I’m absolutely fine with us living in the same place, sharing almost every element of life, whether that’s tea and films on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon, or one of us not being able to sleep and keeping the other awake for nights on end, the daft and miniscule act of putting both our names at the bottom of a bit of card somehow makes me feel rather grown-up, and frankly a bit fraudulent.

Minor existential crisis was averted when I decided that, actually, it just made sense to split the cards down the lines of life: if the recipients are friends of the both of us, the card was signed by us both. For friends and family who haven’t met TW, or don’t know him well, I had all the space in the world for just my own little scrawl.

But my second sticking point was less easily solved. If you’re in the (yes, admittedly tiny. And yes, I should probably just get over it) section of the Venn diagram where “stickler for form” and “feminist” collide, addressing the Christmas card envelopes becomes something of a quandary.

Because sending cards addressed to the husband is fine if he’s the friend, but to send to a girlfriend under her husband’s name seems just a bit… well, patriarchal, frankly, if not a little rude. Why should something be addressed to him if really, in all honesty, she’s probably the one I’m sending it to? And obviously the answer is “because that’s how things are done”, but still. It grates, just ever so slightly. And the apparently practical solution of addressing it to both and putting lots of initials on the envelope would be fine, if it weren’t so aesthetically cluttered and displeasing.

With nearly 40 cards written, and a stack yet to do, I’ve not yet found a totally satisfactory solution to something which I’m almost certain is the very definition of a First World Problem. Still, I have enough glitter to last me until I have to face the problem next year, so at least I can wallow in sparkles whilst I ponder it.

Monday, 26 November 2012

In which I consider the things I love about Edinburgh

At the end of this week, I shall be on a train to Edinburgh, for what is becoming the traditional trip Oop North to celebrate my birthday next weekend.

Via Peterusa, Flickr

Pipping New York into a very close second place, I have thought long and hard about the situation and come to the conclusion that Edinburgh is my favourite city in the world. I love it, almost unconditionally, and the only slight gripe I have is that the wind in February does make it hard to stand upright when outside. But other than that, it’s almost perfect.

For starters, it’s utterly gorgeous. Anywhere that’s essentially one great big World Heritage site has to be pretty bloody special (and, er, just pretty, I suppose, when it comes to it).

It’s mere moments from the wilds of the Scottish countryside, and there’s a volcano in the middle of the city. Who else can boast that?

The Pentlands, pic from The Sunday Brunch Club

Arthur's Seat, taken by Rebecca Peppiette, Flickr
The food is phenomenal. Yes, there’s quite a lot of deep-frying that happens to Mars bars and pizza slices, and there’s quite a lot of haggis (although, if you can get past the idea, you’ll find it’s actually rather tasty. I recommend MacSween’s). But there are also some world-class restaurants – what’s not to like about scallops the size of your fist?

That the train journey up there is so picturesque it makes your soul ache a little bit.

Did I mention it’s beautiful?

From EdinburghSpotlight, Calton Hill in the snow

The people, although sometimes a wee dour and grumpy, are actually pretty brilliant. And that accent

On a clear day, you can see straight across the Forth to Fife – and bugger me if that isn’t one of the most beautiful things you’ve seen. Oh, we’ve covered beautiful, haven’t we?

Calton Hill, from the Crag

There’s a world-class university. A zoo – WITH PANDAS. Oh, and that little festival that they do in August.

There’s a giant ceilidh the length of one of the main streets just before the legendary Hogmanay celebrations.




There are secret little shops with possibly the world’s most delicious whisky.


And even the occasional man in a kilt.



Happy birthday to me.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

In which an ex tells me he's getting married


I found out yesterday afternoon that my Long Term Ex is getting married.

I had always assumed that hearing the news that he was engaged would be very, very odd, and it was a bit odd, mainly because he’s the oldest of old-school Debretts types, and therefore the last person on the planet I would expect to announce that sort of news by text message.

Because you’re meant to find it a bit weird, aren’t you? Hearing that the first guy you fell love with is getting married to someone else – not because you think you should still be together, but just, well, because. Because he played an enormous part in your life and your emotional growing up. Because there was a point, way back when, when you assumed that it would be the two of you walking down the aisle. Because you assumed you’d be a part of that family, with its quirks and foibles. And now, you won’t be. 

Even after LTE and I split up, there were occasional flashes when I thought we’d get back together – the text messages that suggested there was a lingering sense of something, or that scene at his father’s funeral. And then there was the weekend in 2006 when it looked like it would happen, only for the whole thing to come crashing down and the heart made to feel a bit wobbly all over again. And there were those few months in 2008 when - yet again - things were heading in a back-together direction only for it to fall apart in spectacular fashion.

So the assumption was that when the time and the news came that he was finally getting married to someone else – no matter how far I’d moved on, or who I was with – that it would pinch at the heart a bit. 

And if I’m being honest, the text did surprise me a bit. It came through in the middle of the afternoon, and I was knee-deep in a report for a client; given the enormous out of the blueness of it all, it’s no wonder it made me pause for a second before going back to re-read it.

As I re-read it, I waited for the weirdness to kick in, the sense of adrenaline-like tingling and faint nausea that goes hand in hand with hearing news of a romantic interest’s current romantic state. And I waited. And waited a bit more. And the feeling never came. Instead, just a sense of surprise that he’d told me by text message, and an intense sense of relief that all I felt was genuine happiness.

“I had a text from my ex-boyfriend today,” I told The Writer later that night.

“Oh yes?” He looked up from his iPad, eyebrow raised.

“He’s getting married.”

“Oh. Well, good.”

Which is, surprisingly, how I feel about it as well.

Monday, 19 November 2012

In which I rediscover a passion

Horses are like crack.

I say that never having been in proximity to crack, much less having taken the stuff. But from what I hear, it makes you feel rather delicious and is both expensive and highly addictive. Which makes “horses are like crack” a rather fitting simile.

I’d been slightly concerned that I would have forgotten absolutely everything I learnt during my pony-mad childhood when I turned up at the stables last week for my first lesson in over a decade, or that the love I’d had for everything equine might have left me, and that I’d hop on board and decide the whole process was too terrifying for words.

But, oh! How unfounded those fears turned out to be.

I performed as graceless a mount as you’d expect onto a 16hh beast from someone vastly inflexible, wearing decidedly unforgiving jeans, and who’s still the wrong side of 5’4”. But that was my only wobble.

Once I was on board, the niggles left. Everything felt right: the feel of the horse under the saddle; the way his ears twitched as he tried to make sense of the decidedly rusty signals I was giving him. And once I’d nudged him into a canter, I was completely and utterly at home. At the end of my hour, giving him his head and leaning down to breathe in the heady scent of hotly sweaty horse as I patted his neck, I was in love all over again, re-bitten by the horsey bug, with absolutely no idea what could have possessed me to give up in the first place.

So much of the sheer unadulterated joy comes from the completely unparalleled feeling of making a connection with a horse, but I was reminded that the people involved do their bit too.

I’d not really forgotten it, but my lesson also reaffirmed to me how brilliant horsey people are. It’s a special mix of kind and encouraging, whilst being completely straight-talking and entirely no-nonsense that everyone, everywhere, in all industries and businesses, could learn much from.

“It would just be lovely to get my technique back up to scratch,” I said to my instructor – fittingly, as I happened to be attempting a woefully basic 20m circle (right rein: fine. Left rein: might as well have asked for a half pass on the moon. Still not entirely sure what happened). “It would be great to be able to ride out with friends without being an embarrassment!”

“Oh you’re not an embarrassment,” she said reassuringly, in the most matter-of-fact manner that I’ve heard in forever. “You’re perfectly competent, you’ve just picked up some very bad habits. You sit too far forward in your saddle, and need to keep your legs pushed back. But it’s fine – we can get you out of them. Next time, I’m taking away your stirrups.”

And that was that. Love rekindled. Addiction acquired.

Friday, 16 November 2012

In which I take advice; and stand out


When getting into a new hobby or, as in my case, taking one up again after a break of over a decade, it’s probably wise to seek a little advice before you get stuck in.

And so last week I solicited some guidance from those in the know about the best way not to embarrass myself during my impending riding lesson. Tips on getting back into the saddle were many and varied.

Stepladder. Helpful.

The horse can feel your nerves, so DON’T PANIC. Also helpful.

Put Epsom salts in a hot bath afterwards. Actually genuinely helpful.

Don't forget gloves. Heels down, sit deep, relax!

Deep Heat.

Keep the horse between you and the ground. I was hoping for sophisticated and useful advice from the expert types at Horse & Hound. How wrong I was.

Breathe. Be like a firm jelly, upright but absorbing the movement. If you’ve ever sat on a horse, you’ll know that this image is actually far more helpful and sensible than it sounds.

Shoulders back – put the headlights on full was Best Mate’s offering (there’s an image I’ll never be able to shake), followed by Yes. Sports bra. Them’s wise words.

But whilst I was busy taking all the reminders of technique, clothing and the best possible ways of alleviating the subsequent aches and pains into close account, there was one thing I hadn’t considered: getting to the lesson itself.

Now, Brixton is a hotbed of diversity. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, hipster, elderly, or crazily and shoutily evangelical: SW9 has it all, and rare is the day that you’ll be looked at askance on the street because you don’t fit in.

Rare, that is, unless you happen to be in a gilet carrying a riding hat under the crook of your arm: that day, I have now discovered, you’ll get looked at every which way and backwards.

Admittedly, it’s something I should probably have anticipated, ponies being rather less common on the streets of South London than in the Home County. But if a girl walks into your branch of WH Smiths in a pair of long boots and buys nothing but three packets of Polos, you can leave off the look as if to say she’s 12 hours too early to a Jilly Cooper-themed fancy dress party and instead probably make an educated guess that she’s spending the morning trying to keep a horse between herself and the ground.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

In which I disapprove of a practical present

It’s something of a theme at the moment: first there was my recent struggle for inspiration for a suitable Christmas present for The Writer, and now Pa Blonde has got in on the act by being impossible to buy for, and having an imminent birthday. How unthinking.

Pa Blonde has a very different approach to TW when it comes to presents. Whilst TW is inordinately fussy, he does at least recognise that presents should have a sort of luxurious element – not necessarily that they need to cost a lot of money, but be something that you have a hankering for, and feel a bit naughty or decadent if you buy them for yourself.

Pa Blonde fundamentally disagrees with this principle, instead requiring immense practicality to run through all gifts like lettering on Brighton Rock.  After all, we are talking about the man who, in 2003, bought my mother a Dyson for Christmas, and followed it up in 2005 with a vegetable steamer. Romantic, no? Both years I had to convince him he might as well have gift-wrapped divorce papers, and took him on emergency Christmas Eve trips to buy sparkly things and handbags.

And so, rather than splashing out on interesting spirits, or a nice cashmere jumper that would sit in the wardrobe earmarked as “too expensive for everyday wear” and would thus be never worn, I did what I thought would be most productive, and asked Ma Blonde if he’d mentioned anything that he was after.

A few days later, an email arrived.

Hello Blonde,

You asked your mother for suggestions for birthday presents. Well, I need some new drill bits which you can get from Wickes online. I need 3mm, 4mm and 5mm. Each pack contains two drill bits.

I also need a new claw hammer.

Love,

Pa Blonde
xx

Which, devoid of charm and soulless as the request may be, rather solves the problem of what to buy him. Whether these are any steps up from the Father’s Day wellingtons, I’m yet to work out. Darned sight easier to wrap, though.

Monday, 12 November 2012

In which I think about women in film


A bit like one of Pa Blonde’s infamous “short cuts” on drives through the English countryside, the internet’s a marvellous tool for sending you in the direction of things you had no idea existed.

Recently, one such thing whose existence I had been – really rather embarrassingly – unaware of was the Bechdel Test, and in subsequent conversations about it with friends and colleagues, a lot of people I would expect to have heard about it also hadn’t.

For those who fall into the same category, the Bechdel Test is a quick assessment that can be applied to films to examine the extent to which women are represented, and how well-rounded the roles of those women are.

To pass the test, a film has to:

1. Have at least two named women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something other than a man (and yes, that’s anything, no matter how girly: shopping, shoes, eyeliner. Just not a bloke).

Because, you know, that sort of fits with life as we know it, what with women being allowed to be friends with each other, and vote and have opinions and stuff. Simple enough, no? And, possibly because of its simplicity, it’s one of those things that’s stuck with me, and I now silently apply it to whatever film I happen to be watching – which is an interesting exercise to perform.

Going back over the list of films I’ve seen recently or thinking about my favourite films, most of them completely fail to pass the test. Looper? Nope. 50/50? Nope. The Graduate? Nope. (Interestingly, Closer, possibly one of my favourite films ever, which I assumed on first thought to flunk the test spectacularly, does actually pass, as does Skyfall.)

It’s an interesting test because it focuses less on the number of women in any given film, instead looking at how fleshed out the woman are as real characters, rather than as adjuncts to men and their lives (which we all know, really floats my boat).

Of course, filmmakers are under absolutely no obligation to represent women in their work, and in some cases, shoehorning women into a story for the sake of it would be more of a distraction than anything else. Some historical, or war films, for example, probably wouldn’t benefit from having a couple of token female characters inserted. And, of course, the test isn’t perfect – it has plenty of limitations: passing the test doesn’t mean that a film is necessarily pro-women – or even any good (case in point: Charlie’s Angels).

But those aside, it’s still an interesting benchmark, a starting point to get the brain ticking over about how a multi-billion dollar industry handles women – and sexism.

Because I can’t for the life of me remember the last film I saw in which there were no significant male characters, let alone any which would fail the Bechdel test if it were the other way around.

Friday, 9 November 2012

In which I draw a blank on Christmas presents for the man who has everything


Regardless of what the grinches and naysayers might say, there’s only six and a half weeks to go, meaning the Christmas season is upon us. I’ve bought my cards, and started the shopping for the family. But there’s a Writer-shaped snag in my plans.

Because what the hell do you get for the man who has everything?


This isn’t just a Christmas phenomenon: I’m finding it increasingly difficult to shop for any presents for TW. The most successful gift I’ve bought him was for his birthday some three weeks after we met. He’d lost his wallet a week before our first date, and was storing cash in his travel card wallet, which I noticed in the bar (and then, er, the taxi back to his, and, er, when he bought coffee and papers on the Sunday morning. Am hussy). That was easy: the solution was obviously to buy him a nice, new wallet. So off I trotted to Aspinal on Brook Street and had the project done, dusted and gift-wrapped inside half an hour.

But it’s not been quite so easy since.

Last Christmas’ noise-cancelling headphones and book of Christopher Hitchens’ essays seemed to go down quite well. But the birthday J Crew trench coat was a disaster in being far too small, and then not exchangeable because the bigger sizes had all sold out; and the anniversary tie bar – despite my best efforts in trying it against ties in Selfridges – turned out to be far too wide for TW’s narrow ties.

Which leaves me in a pickle as I now have utter paralysis when it comes to his Christmas present.

Clothes are out because shopping for someone who’s the height of your average professional basketball player is essentially impossible. That, and I’m terrified I’ll get it wrong. He knows FAR more about that sort of thing than I do.

Book, game and DVD reviews are part of his job, so he’s sent preview copies of pretty much everything he could want before they hit the shelves anyway. He has an iPad, on which he subscribes to every magazine you’ve ever heard of, and several that you haven’t.

All easy and obvious options out of the window.

So imagine my glee when, over dinner one evening, TW mentioned that he had a meeting about his publication’s upcoming Christmas gift guide.

“Oh, excellent,” I said, seeing the obvious opportunity to find out precisely what it is he’s hankering after. “What are you going to suggest for inclusion?”

“I have no idea yet,” he said. “I don’t really know what I want.”

Well, that makes two people who have no idea what he’ll be getting for Christmas. And one person who will be studying that gift guide closely when it emerges.
 

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