Thursday, October 11, 2007

On my so-called youth

I had training today at work, but as it was the last day before my holiday, I felt slow and tired; unwilling to learn. The woman who was in charge sat next to me, and directed my hand to move the mouse hither and thither, pressing icons of ticks and crosses, tapping in mysterious acronyms, and waiting aeons as I struggled to identify the asterix key on the keyboard ("above the nine; no, the OTHER nine"). At one point, as I faltered in locating the 'save' button on the desktop, she joshed with my fellow trainee that as the 'save' button looked like a floppy disc, it was probably 'before my time' and I 'wouldn't recognise it'. This puzzled me greatly, as in fact I saved all of my university essays on discs back in the late 90s, and she was probably no more than five or six years older than me herself. Why didn't she recognise me as being virtually her peer? I was disconcerted, and wanted to say 'I'm nearly thirty you know'.

A memory from school came back to me earlier, of reading Anita Desai's 'Village by the Sea' in an English lesson when I was about ten, sitting on a rickety wooden chair which overlooked the car park at my private school in Fareham, Hampshire. It was before I'd grown up, before I'd left home, before I'd found any independence, had my heart broken, or lost my Dad. And yet, remembering back to that moment in the classroom, as we all held our identical hardback copies of the novel, I knew that nothing essential about me had changed. I can remember how I felt back then, and it's so little different to how I feel now, a full twenty years on, that it's quite shocking. Perhaps this is what ageing is like - you feel the same age; the same person, the whole way through, and it's other people's perceptions that either lag behind, keep up, or race ahead of you. I don't mind if people think I'm younger than I am, but at the same time I find it rather strange. If somehow I look young, or appear younger than I am, rest assured that in my head, I am at least a thousand, and counting.

Friday, September 21, 2007

On the end and the beginning

I got dumped last night. I'm not sure whether I was expecting it or not, but I certainly didn't enjoy it when it happened, over the phone. I felt shocked and upset, humiliated and sad. I went to the pub for pints of solace, and smoked marlboro menthols to remind myself that I am still me, whatever happens. I threw the bracelet he had given me away. I contemplated sending a vituperative text. I wondered darkly if it was because I wasn't pretty enough, or because I don't have tits as big as Jordan's. I deleted his number, his texts, his voicemails, his photos. I did not cry, but I wanted to.

When I woke up this morning though, somehow, it felt like Christmas morning. The change of rhythm, the different-ness, the slightly giddy sense of the new, added an uncanny sparkle to a morning which found me without him, but with a new chance to get a happy take on myself.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On Shoreham air show

I'd just started drinking a pint of Spitfire at Shoreham air show in the moments before the Hurricane crashed, killing its pilot. In between the third and fourth sips, a little girl who was sitting in front of me, comfortably nestled between her parents, turned round and spoke to me. With the messy beginnings of a FAB all around her mouth, she announced "I'm eating a lolly; it's got sprinkles on it", before turning back to watch the planes in the sky.

The Hurricane came down vertically, and a plume of black smoke billowed up. There was a shocked hush, and then people turned to each other to ask if what they thought had just happened had really happened. A police van set off across the concrete, followed by an ambulance.

"These things happen" someone said.

And we are obliged to notice, and to know, and to go on thinking about what we saw.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On photos

There's a tiny little photography shop in Hove that I walk past most days - the kind of shop that has faded Kodak posters on the walls, and displays of mid-priced cameras in the window. The other day when I was walking past, I saw a teenage girl standing just outside, examining a set of passport photos she had had taken. She was leaning forward, and her long black wavy hair was shielding her face, as she looked down at the quadruplicate of pictures. I was struck by the nervous way she peered at herself, as if looking for something, some feeling, that this face belonged to the person she knew herself to be. Since everyone started to transfer over to digital cameras, there are inevitably less scenes like this outside photo developers - engrossed patrons flipping open the paper wallets of snaps in the doorway, oblivious to everything else momentarily, leafing through to see if there are any good ones, or to check out their double chins. I suppose seeing yourself from the outside is always interesting, and it's not something you stop wondering about. We look at the bits of ourselves we can accept, and worry about the parts of reality we'd rather not know. The teenage girl looked like a language student, but she was on her own and seemed somehow vulnerable in that moment, all imperfections repeated four times over like an error in a document rolling through a photocopier. Be it a genetic or inherited slip, or an unpredictable arrangement of features, it only is and isn't us after all; what we really are cannot be photographed, although character can certainly be transmitted through expression and gesture. But you can never be sure. Photographs are mysterious, fraught, and intriguing, all at once.

Monday, August 13, 2007

On natural selection

I was sitting in a friend's garden the other day, chatting and enjoying some late afternoon sunshine, when her cat emerged from the undergrowth with a newly-caught bird in its mouth. Without even thinking, I jumped out of my seat, grabbed the cat, and forced it to drop its prey. It tried to outsmart me by reaching round my ankles with its swiping paws, and I was forced to lift up the complaining, squirming furball, and lock it indoors. My friend and I investigated the state of the bird, which was lying motionless on the ground, unharmed apart from a few tugged feathers, but clearly deeply shocked. Its blinking eye stared up at the clouds. It's hard to know quite what to do in these situations - I realised immediately that it might have been kinder to let the cat kill the bird, but I couldn't have allowed that to happen. And the bird showed signs of life. We trooped indoors to look on the RSPB website, brushing past the sulking serial killer in the hallway, and whilst Claire scrolled through numerous paranoid FAQs about avian 'flu, I glanced back out of the window to the garden . To my absolute horror, another cat was on the patio, sniffing around the casualty, and I was forced to perform an action-thriller style run down the corridor in order to get to the back door in time to scare it off. I was really upset for the bird by now. I sat on the steps guarding it, marvelling at the formulation of the pretty brown feathers on its back, each individually embedded like an arrow in its quiver.

We put the bird in a shoebox (lined with the Guardian Sport section, which is unread by every female I know,) and carried it to a nearby park, where we left the box open under a shady tree, reasoning that at least no cats would be able to get him there, and that the shock was likely to wear off. Claire wanted to go back later to see what had happened, but I couldn't bear to see how it turned out. It was awful to see an animal lying injured, and would be even worse to feel that I had failed to help it. I know it's childish, but I've always wondered how nature documentary-makers can film animals catching and devouring each other without intervening. I know I would be the one banging on the jeep window, mouthing 'There's a lion in those bushes, Mr Wildebeest! Turn back!'. I realise that we're all animals, but I suppose human beings have the luxury (or curse) of being able to reflect on what they see around them. Consciousness leads to many actions which are far from natural, but are still part of our will to survive, which is ultimately the most important thing. I wouldn't be human if I hadn't wanted to save the bird - and the cat wouldn't have been a cat if he hadn't wanted to kill it.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

On an inventory of girlish clutter

Dusty, framed photos of nights out, or of family members with their arms around each others' shoulders. Beads, necklaces, earrings, opened bills and packets of pills, contact lens solution and lens cases balanced on the width of the radiator, dried flowers in a glass, plastic sunflowers in a vase, shoe-boxes, scissors, framed Klimt photo waiting to be hung, squeezy pink pig, old teddy bear, Marie-Claire, spare buttons in their packets, scarves and umbrellas, perfumes, hair grips, old travelcards, cables, pens, Germolene, sun-block, business cards, cheque books, tea-light candles, old mobile phones, an ipod, hair removal cream, hair lightening cream, postcards, blu-tac, five pence pieces.

On forked tongues

On my way to London, I walk the length of the busy train to find a seat. A ruddy-necked man soon plonks himself down in front of me. As we are pulling out of Brighton station, his mobile rings:

"I'm nearly there, just five minutes away from Victoria", he tells someone, puzzlingly.

I instantly realise that he must be talking to the significant female in his life. The conversation cuts in and out as we go through the tunnels on the outskirts of the Brighton line, yet he is at pains to repeat his lie again. I try to think of charitable interpretations for his casual deceit - he's buying her a special birthday treat, setting up a surprise anniversary party, or trying to ease the suffering of an agoraphobic partner who fears he will never come home. Like I say, I try, but I fail. I glimpse his name, Des Turner, on the illuminated screen of his mendacious mobile, and wish I had leaned forward and bellowed 'Actually, we've only just left Brighton' over his surprised shoulder.

I'm not sure why his casual lying bothered me so much. Perhaps I was just pissed off at being forced to witness it. We all tell lies, and for a multitude of reasons - sometimes over unimportant matters, or to be kind. But this seemed like an ugly, sneaky lie to me. If you're reading this, Des, be assured; us women weren't all born yesterday, and I for one have my eye on you.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Saturday, July 28, 2007

On the artistic temperament

I was in Lewes earlier, checking out an arty shop with my Mum and brother. Some of the stuff was lovely - delicate sheets of copper with elegant fish and bird shapes carved out and standing proud like leaves, cuff necklaces and bracelets made of woven silk yarn, and amazing Lino prints of poppy fields, starlings and gardens, which reminded me of old Sunlight soap posters, and had me regretting the fact that I don't earn a little more. The shop was staffed by an intensely arty, and on this occasion, unsmiling, assistant. She had a long skirt, long hair, neck-skimming dangly earrings, and an expression which revealed a certain distaste for customers. She was the kind of assistant who sits threading beads onto a children's applique of a a boat at sea with Radio 3 playing close to her ear whilst customers struggle to attract her attention. But today, her peace was to be shattered. A couple in the next room had been browsing the few items of small furniture, which included Bauhaus-style coffee tables and chairs. They had selected a table, and they wanted to buy it. I first noticed the man as he guided the miffed-looking assistant through the shop towards the potential purchase. He was intensely English, and made my heart leap in mingled recognition and nostalgia for my own kind. In his mid-forties, with a Bean-like posture, balding head and bad polo-shirt -and-shorts combination, he revealed an educated and faintly humorous voice when he spoke. And he turned out to be a hero. 'Bit further' he said to her as they walked through the shop in single file, she flouncing ahead of him. 'Stop!' he advised as they come level with his wife (who was called Sue), and who had been guarding the table like a good 'un. The assistant drew her face into a scowl.

'Well, I'm not sure if I can let you have this.'

'It says £70' said the man. 'I thought the general idea was that the things in this shop were for sale'.

'I'll have to ring the artist' said the snooty one. 'It could be his last one'.

'Might I suggest that if that turns out to be the case, he could make another one?' countered my hero, with a Cleese-ian patience-in-the-face-of-the-ridiculous tone which was both perfectly measured and punishingly to the point.

Stumped, the assistant permitted the couple to carry the table to the cash desk, and allowed them to pay. I could imagine the note she left for her manager when she closed up today: 'I'm terribly sorry, but I was forced to sell something on Saturday. Hope Glynn won't be too upset. They didn't seem like the right sort of people, but the man was simply dreadful to me, and besides, the Monteverdi Prom was about to start.'

As I pondered the service industry we know and love in this country, I toyed with the idea of asking the assistant to unlock various jewellery cabinets for me with fiddly keys, or of making an obscure request for an outsized crocheted waistcoat in puce. But I didn't. Instead, I picked my favourite Lino print up once more, sighed, and resolved to save my pennies, and to come back.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

On Hove Seafront

Yesterday's rain meant that Hove seafront was utterly deserted for a change; the promenade devoid of joggers, kids with scooters, families and couples. The only other person I spotted was a tramp spread out on a bench, rummaging through a collection of creased shopping bags in search of some oddment, or of nothing. Cleared of people, the beach chalets and handrails to the sea gave the impression of a colourful lido, as still and undisturbed as if at first light on an October morning. Huge, disc-shaped puddles glittered on the pathway, sparkling under a pale grey sky and failing light. Despite being wet and cold, it took a while before I could tear myself away from just watching and feeling the enormous silence. Like walking into an empty church and hearing your footsteps ring on the flagged floor, for a moment I felt like the only person on earth.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

On sex and the single woman

The other morning at work, one of my colleagues suddenly said 'I've just done a count-up, and it's been a year and a half since I had sex'. She is a 25 year-old blonde with long legs and huge blue eyes. The woman who sits opposite her (who is extremely pretty and fun) added that she'd gone for at least five years in her mid 30s without having sex. Another girl confided that before her current fling, there'd been a two year gap, and I was forced to admit to a ten month lay-off from getting laid. Could it be something about the kind of people we were I wondered? I could believe that of myself perhaps, but not of the nice, interesting, fun-loving people who were comparing their stats with me. It was comforting to know just how normal this phenomenon was, and made me wish that people opened up about these things a little oftener. Rather than chucking good money after bad on new lipsticks or clothes to try and improve our flagging confidence in our attractiveness, we might get closer to the truth of the matter by talking about what's really happening. Advertisers would have us believe that sexual attractiveness is a passport to actual sex, but this overlooks the fact that without opportunity, your appearance is quite irrelevant. The reality seems to be that most people don't have as much sex as you'd think, and that society's obsession with it stems more from wishful thinking than from actual lived experience. One of my favourite writers, Dorothy Rowe, satirises society's rules really well:

Younger generations of women...have their own set of Immutable and Absolute Rules for Being a Woman. These are that you must have a very successful career as well as several brilliant, ambitious, beautiful children, all well-behaved but each an individual. You must be a superlatively good cook and hostess. You must have an attractive personality, alwasys smiling, always happy, and you must be slim and dressed in the latest fashions. You do have one choice. You can be very happily married to a tall, handsome, successful man or you can be a sophisticated single leading a glamorous life, but, whichever you choose, you must be a very accomplished and successful lover, never rejected but always under siege from dozens of desirable suitors. Fail to keep ALL of these rules and you are a Complete and Utter Failure.

In this sense society is like a boy eating an ice cream gloatingly slowly, whilst his fat kid brother is forced to make do with a carrot stick. It's challenging enough to be single and stay happy without having to feel that the couples you see around you are somehow superior to you, or have the keys to the only sort of lifestyle worth living. I'm all for busting this myth that not having had sex for a while is some kind of taboo which must be kept hidden at all costs. It doesn't mean you are unattractive - you probably just need to take up an evening class!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

On the Booth museum

I've been past Brighton's Booth museum many, many times, and have often meant to have a look inside. So yesterday I finally went, and was seemingly the only person in the city to have had the same idea of how to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon. Part natural history museum, part petting zoo with disappointingly dead exhibits, and part *League of Gentleman* set, the Booth museum has an unloved and unlovable feeling that is hard to shake. A large, one-storey building, the museum is essentially filled with case after case of dead birds, preserved by taxidermy, labelled and categorised. Perhaps once their feathers were still bright, and their yellow eyes still vivid, but the years have served to make them dull and murky. It reminded me of one of my favourite Alan Bennett jokes; he remembers a primary school friend of his declaring that nature was boring, 'and besides, all birds are brown'.

As I walked around, I realised that it wasn't just birds that had fallen under the taxidermist's scalpel. In one ghoulish display case, a collection of toads of various sizes sat astride seesaws and hung on to doll-sized swings with webbed hands. The note at the side of the cabinet explained straight-facedly that toads were one of the most difficult animals to stuff. Later on I saw a tiny stuffed vole, prone and in the talons of a pouncing Peregrine Falcon.

The museum's centrepiece consisted of a mocked-up colonial gentleman's drawing room, which featured a dead cheetah rug on the ground, a monkey's face attached to the wall, and a stuffed tortoise with a hollowed out shell in which a pipe and some cigars were stored. It was grotesque and horrible, but strangely interesting - like imagining a Roman feast at which people actually ate mice and eels, and cooked live birds into pies. The gentleman's room had so many dead animals in it - from butterflies and stick insects pinned onto the wall in a display case, to monkey-hand ashtrays, that you could begin to imagine what the Colonel would have been wearing too - maybe a tiger skin smoking jacket, a flamingo-feather shirt, and a pair of hollowed-out anteaters as shoes.

Towards the back of the museum, things got a bit more normal, and there was an interesting collection of animal skeletons. I particularly liked the bat, which seemed to have a bone structure as slight as a balsa-wood aeroplane. But overall it was an odd sort of tourist attraction; rather Victorian and austere. Almost like a horror movie, it served to unsettle, and after the dubious fun of feeling its chill, I raced back out into the sunshine, relieved to have left.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Monday, July 9, 2007

On Devil's Dyke

So I was on my way to the supermarket yesterday lunchtime, marveling slightly at the sudden spot of good weather, when I saw the summer season open-top bus to Devil's Dyke pull up at the stop just in front of me. Reasoning that I had a drink in my hand, and a sandwich in my bag, I jumped on, and was soon having my head not unpleasantly buffeted by stiff breezes as the bus hurtled up through Seven Dials and out of Brighton for the Downs. Riding on an open top bus is the kind of simple, happy treat my paternal Grandma would have loved, and I thought of her immediately. She would have been grinning as the wind whistled by her, in the way that she used to hoot with pleasure at the sight of simple things like a jam doughnut in a box, a squirrel racing up a tree, or the tiered stacks of twenty pence pieces at end of pier amusement arcade machines.

Once I arrived, I lay on the grass watching cricketers in the village below Devils' Dyke make muffled appeals to the umpire, and spotted distant motorcycle convoys race down empty roads like flicked, tin beetles. I felt pleased that I could be there to enjoy it, even now that my Nan can't. If there is any continuity in life, it could be in these moments of remembering someone and knowing not just what they would have said, but feeling how they would have felt too.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

On birthday cakes

It was my birthday yesterday, and I celebrated by eating like a king all day long. I had croissants for breakfast, smoked salmon sandwiches for lunch, and beef wellington for dinner at my mum's. I was also lucky enough to receive two different birthday cakes this year - thanks to Ant and my mum. They both produced delicious cakes that would certainly have come first in this competition.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

On me and my moments

I wasn't exactly feeling on top of my game today, so I escaped the office at lunchtime and wandered down to the centre of Hove, to 'the street of the George' as it is known amongst my colleagues. Walking past 'Pet's Corner' I wandered in, half having it in mind to buy Lola some sort of kitty treat, not that she isn't plump enough already. Once inside though, I found myself drawn to the back of the shop, where less customers were, and from which the smell of sawdust and dry pellets of food was evident. Pet shops shouldn't actually sell pets - it can't possibly be right - but of course they always have done, and this one was no exception. Right at the back there were two or three cages of birds, a couple of cages of gerbils, plus hamsters, rabbits, and the odd rat. I stood watching the sleeping rabbits and fat, twitchy hamsters in rapt pleasure, and for a moment all my heavy-heartedness left me. I was toying with the idea of pretending to want to buy a rabbit, just so that I could ask to pick one up, but at that moment I was joined by a middle-aged women with her down's syndrome son, who'd clearly had the same idea as me about looking at the animals. We stood there all together, watching, until the son got upset and had to be reassured that he was safe, and that the animals were firmly in their cages and would not be able to get at him.

When I left work this evening, I had my usual dose of computer-induced fuzzy-eyes, and walked through the town in a daze. An advert for a cruise to the Greek Islands in a travel agent's window appeared to me as a cruise to the 'Geek islands', and a magazine cover boasting 'I lost four stone and can't stop laughing' beamed first into my mind as 'I lost four stone and can't stop lying'. I really must get glasses, although I think I will miss these little moments when I do.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

On repetition

I came across a new word the other day in the course of my work - "Hysteresis". Hysteresis is defined broadly as the tendency to repeat a previous action just undertaken, or more officially as 'the lagging of an effect behind its cause; especially the phenomenon in which the magnetic induction of a ferromagnetic material lags behind the changing magnetic field'. I wonder if hysteresis accounts to some extent for the phenomenon by which, when you get off a bicycle after riding for a while, your legs feel as if they are still pedalling, or when writing your Christmas cards in a repetitive act of signing, sealing and stamping, you write the last person's name on the next person's envelope by mistake. Perhaps it explains why marathon walkers at the Olympic games cannot stop at the finish line, but carry on for at least another half lap; why your radio carries on playing for a second or two even after the plug has been pulled out; or why tonguetwisters trip us all up as the brain struggles and fails to make the mouth form different vowel shapes in quick succession. Perhaps hysteresis accounts for the instances of wafer-less, solid chocolate Kit-Kats, caused by momentary lapses on the assembly line, or explains how, in attempting to delete ten emails and preserve one, your momentum gets ahead of you and you delete them all before you can stop yourself. As explanations go, I certainly prefer it to sod's law, although I think I understand it less well.

Monday, July 2, 2007

On Carol Thatcher

Carol Thatcher's been on tv twice recently - once a few months back revisiting the Falkland islands to reflect upon the 20th anniversary of mummy's war, and other night, back in the Falklands, reporting on the plight of the black-browed albatross as part of BBC 1's 'Saving Planet Earth' series. First time around, she met with a group of Argentinian women whose sons were killed during the Falklands war, and in the face of their loss and ongoing grief, failed to muster one iota of compassion, merely informing them peremptorily that in a war situation, people get killed. In this latest programme, when faced with two dead albatrosses on the back of a fishing boat, she was visibly moved, and referred to the use of unmarked long line fishing reels as the cause of 'this slaughter'. Perhaps it's unfair to take her out of context in this way, but the discrepancy between her two responses made my jaw drop. Caring about animals has always been easier than caring about people I guess, which is probably why the BBC haven't scheduled a prime time campaigning series called 'Saving Homeless Teens' or 'Saving the Economically Disenfranchised', which would doubtless have Radio Times readers choking on their suppers. Programmes about endangered species and their perilous nests and eggs have a twee, travelogue-style feeling, a world (and a species) away from reality. Concern for animals and the environment is all well and good, but it's pretty troubling when we're encouraged to care more about birds that live on the other side of the world than about the kids we walk past every day on the street.

Sunday, July 1, 2007