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