Thursday, July 26, 2007

In Your Face?

Like Britpop, ‘24’ and books by Bret Easton Ellis, some bandwagons provide a far more entertaining ride long after the initial furore surrounding them has died down. Last week, I thought I had Yuppie Flu; next summer, I’ll be wearing those vile, ungainly, neon plastic clogs that everybody suddenly seems to be shuffling around in today – that’s how ‘on trend’ I am. So, the current media saturation of professional and personal opinion regarding the thrills, spills and bellyaches of the various available routes through the modern communications maze usually only grabs my attention when it makes me laugh: the bloggers have taken over the (political) asylum, schoolkids have yet again written their exam essays in txt msg 4mat and “my millionaire entrepreneur Internet lover turned out to be a coprophiliac bigamist!” (ah well, at least in the world of dating, some things never change).

But after months spent being equally dismissive about the latest fad to seduce the children of the techno age, I’ve succumbed to pressure from a ‘community’ that’s taken up far more column inches, airtime and energy than the zeroes version of schooldays desktop compass-etching should merit. I’ve spent the past few days being tagged, ragged and poked. I’ve displayed an exhaustive rundown of my likes, dislikes and career history (ha!) for all the world to see, had buns thrown at me, and have been busy erasing the vile personal insults that are regularly scrawled all over my wall. Yesterday, Marc Bolan contacted me from beyond the grave (at last!). Oh yes, it’s all happening on Facebook. Not quite as arty as MySpace and nowhere near as fascinating or resourceful as YouTube and Wikepedia, this time-sapping activity combines texting, MSN messaging and dumbed down pub banter, all dressed up as a self-styled, online ‘social utility’. So why am I filled with an ineffable sense of joy every time a new ‘friend’ attaches themselves to me? Why do I come over all touchy-feely when I sign in in the morning and learn that Lottie is feeling ‘gorgeous’ today, while Kitty is busy cleaning? And why do I feel the need to tell all who stumble across my profile that I’m ‘lovely’?

Because I'm only human. Because, like most people, I want to fit in, be popular, care and be cared about. I want my opinions, observations, worries and plans – however ridiculous, misinformed, humble or grand – to be registered somewhere else other than only in my own head. I've got my work, this blog and a very active social life to keep me busy, happy and fulfilled, but if I don’t want to be alone – at 4am, say, or during that ripe-for-procrastination, mid-morning lull – I no longer have to be; I have instant access to what’s going on, not in the “who’s responsible for how many deaths today” way that the news provides me with, but in my own, immediate orbit. Did my teenage niece have a good night out on the town? Did Lyn finish that script before the deadline? Has William agreed that ‘The Las’ do indeed deserve to come before ‘A Flock of Seagulls’ but after ‘Wah!’ in the top 10 list of ‘Great Scousers in Pop’?

Of course, we could all send each other emails about such pressing matters, pick up the phone and ramble ‘live’ or even – hey! – choose face to face over Facebook. But I'm not going to make lame excuses for my current addiction by saying that that time, distance and energy prevents us all from doing so. I’d rather be honest about it: we’re lazy, we want to be immortal, and Facebook lets us believe we matter.

If you’re of the opinion that hell is other people, neither Facebook nor any member of its extended family is for you. If, however, you’re an ego-driven narcissist with time on your hands, there’s plenty of room on the bandwagon.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Death: in Britain, its a funny business indeed

When news hit the headlines (albeit the internet headlines) that Soft Cell frontman Marc Almond was, by all accounts, “fighting for his life” after a motorcycle accident, I found myself severely shaken: Marc Almond, like Paula Yates, was one of the generation I'd grown up with, a character who had provided some sort of fleeting soundtrack to my life – Marc with his music, Paula with her style. I never personally met either of them, but my reaction to the bad news of both celebrities was something akin to personal grief. I wasn’t part of any of the public displays of sympathy that followed Princess Diana’s death, but I almost had a breakdown on the day that Freddie Mercury died, so who was I to be cynical about the piles of flowers and teddy bears in Kensington Gardens? When Boris Johnson took pop at the ‘sickly, sinister sentimentality’ of the reaction to Ken Bigley’s death up in Liverpool, I agreed with what he said about scousers (I am one, so I'm allowed to) but not what he said about communal mourning or anger. When we mourn a celebrity, privately or publicly, we’re finding an opportunity to vent our own grief.

When a friend or relative dies, we’re duty bound to ‘behave correctly’. The traditional British funeral is generally made up of a crowd who value stoicism over the expression of emotion. A stiff upper lip is called ‘dignified’, uncontrollable sobbing is called ‘vulgar’, a personal speech accused of being ‘phoney’ – we simply don’t know how to deal with anything close
to heart-on-the-sleeve emotion. And yet, death works to the most genuine Equal Opportunities policy of all. Regardless of sexuality, culture, faith or political beliefs, we’re all going to die one day. Given that certainty, you’d think we’d have found a way, by now, to behave in a genuinely ‘proper’ fashion when a loved one pops off.

Remember the Aids Iceberg of the early 80’s? I, and many of my generation, lost several friends to it. I never thought the day would come when I realised the benefits that such sorry circumstances afforded me; those I lost taught me a lot about how life – and death – should be lived. I’ve attended funerals where balloons were tied to the hearse, where everybody was
ordered to wear white gloves, where ‘Love Supreme’ (a tribute band) sang ‘Where Did Our Love Go?’ in place of a sermon. One particularly memorable funeral had ‘Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead’ playing over loudspeakers as the coffin slid into the furnace – we laughed, we cried, and we’ll never, ever forget the day we said goodbye to Brian King (RIP). Call these funerals irreverent, call them vulgar, call them what you will, but I call them life-affirming, despite the circumstances. In Mexico, you can attend a candlelit feast around the grave for 24 hours after the coffin has been sunk. In the Middle East, they wail loudly in the streets. Irish Catholics have the Wake. But Middle-Englanders button-up and bear down, getting congratulated for stoicism or sneered at if we cry. We freely discuss and judge other people’s sex lives, politics and clothes sense, but god forbid that we ever mention the ‘D’ word outside of a church or a hospital word. To do so is gloomy, improper, crude or
tacky; embarrassing, depressing or downright common. But there’s safety in numbers: when a celebrity dies, it’s an opportunity to vent feelings that have been festering away since we last grieved a dearly departed ‘ordinary person’ of our own. If it weren’t for Diana, Freddie, Ken, Paula or their ilk, some of us would never get the opportunity to freely mourn. Never mind what the Spectator tells us; emotion – like ridicule – is nothing to be scared of.

At the time of writing, Marc Almond is, fortunately, recovering. If the situation takes a turn for the worst, check the listings for the 24-hour ‘Non Stop Erotic Cabaret’ vigil in Bath. I’ll be the one on the steps of the Guildhall wailing my way though ‘Tainted Love’ – because let’s face it, I won’t be allowed to display such behaviour next time somebody I really know dies.

God Bless the Goths

Compare and contrast the following two familiar scenes, as spotted on your local high street on any given Saturday afternoon. Standing outside HMV/any ‘vintage’ clothes shop with a reference to spank, spite or kink on the sign above the door/Holland and Barratt (strange but true), we have an assembly of similarly clad teenagers: white faces, lank black hair, blood red lipstick, studded belts, leather trench coats, ‘antique’ silver skull jewellery and fishnet gloves abound, as do oversized Marilyn Manson T-shirts, tight PVC trousers and overpowering wafts of patchouli oil. Meanwhile, a block away, another group of kids meet and greet at their designated spot outside Carphone Warehouse/Argos/McBurgers’r’us. This lot look like walking advertising billboards: every available surface area is emblazoned with sportswear and fake designer logos, Crazy Frog ringtones struggle to be heard above the crackle of manmade fibres and pristine, box-fresh trainers dazzle against the litter-strewn street. Are these two distinct groups worlds apart? No, they’re cut from exactly the same sociological cloth: tribal, ritualistic, desperate for peer approval (ask any psychologist, they’ll explain) – and, as a result, all looking rather silly. But were this scene to take a horrifically tragic turn for the worst – if the fast food franchise crowd were suddenly to be scattered with random bullets, for example – we know which faction of kids would be first to capture the aftermath media attention. CCTV pictures of the skinny boy in the MM T-shirt would dominate the front pages of the newspapers while ‘investigative reporters’ discover Rammstein on his iPod, doodles involving pentagons in his diary and ‘proof’ that his hamster died in suspicious circumstances (possibly sacrificial). Bang to rights! At the heart of every massacre, there’s a doolally goth.

Only in the rarefied, Guardian-reading Naomi Klein world does Satan wear Nike. Fuelled by Coca Cola and chicken nuggets, the Lord of all Hopelessness must be rubbing his hands in glee: shopping is the new religion, possessions are the new black, we worship at the altar of conspicuous consumption and the PC has become our own personal Jesus. His work on earth is done! Meanwhile, the God Squad are still playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ backwards in search of those elusive satanic messages and blaming Marilyn Manson for everything bad. Marilyn Manson! Scrape off the make up, and what have you got? A skinny geek called Brian Warner who reinvented himself as the ‘Antichrist Superstar’, thus earning himself a house in the Hollywood Hills. He’s a self-promotion genius, a master of the marketing campaign and a whiz with the make-up brush: Mr Showbiz, through and through. But when middle America (a state of mind rather than a geographical location) needs a scapegoat, what’s the easiest route to take: face the fact that the latest group of schoolyard gun-toters are the direct result of a society that worships fame, fast food and filthy lucre or blame their actions on the latest ‘shock rock’ pantomime dame?

Alice Cooper, Eminen, Black Sabbath, Anthrax, Entombed et al are all, according to the bible-bashing saddoes, occult-obsessed, Satan-worshipping whores of the devil, a conclusion based on little more than the odd bout of on-stage chicken abuse, a predilection for wearing dusty black clothes, a distinct lack of anything close to charisma and a set-list of really bad songs. If the devil has all the best tunes, he’s pretty lax, these days, when it comes to copyright (although the hard work he put into creating Pop Idol has been duly noted). The old hellraiser’s not that hot on style, either; a couple of tips from Trinny and Susannah regarding what not to wear if you’re hell bent on world domination wouldn’t be a bad idea (all black? So yesterday, dahling!). As for that smudgy eyeliner – it’s not a good look on a guy your age. Get thee behind me, Satan! … at least until you’ve reclaimed your copyright and learnt how to dress properly. This season, your followers have been reduced to shopping at Primark.

Faking Fame

And so it came to pass that there I stood, sweating it out under a spotlight while wheezing through a (bad) rendition of Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’, having been drilled for over an hour on all manner of seemingly futile topics (“If you were a chocolate bar, what colour would your wrapper be?” “Which of the Coronation Street men do you fantasise about?”) by a
jaded researcher before being asked to deliver a three-minute monologue, unrehearsed and direct to camera, about why I love the Beatles (the point being, I don’t). All this in the name of making a nation-sized fool of myself on car crash TV,
desperately hoping that they’d pick me, me, me to turn into someone else entirely after a training period of just one month. I'm not allowed to name the TV show in question, the production company or my possible ‘temporary career’ (when they saw the word ‘journalist’ on my CV I was made to sign all manner of confidentiality agreements, and I'm not rich enough to risk their wrath) but suffice to say, you know the show I'm talking about.

So what led to this rather strange event: cash, curiosity or a genuine belief in capability? In truth, it was a mixture of all three, coupled with a hint of mid-life crisis and a craving for the short, sharp shock that only a really big challenge can bring. In theory, I was the perfect reality TV star: massively insecure, but with an ego bigger than Meatloaf’s arse (which is apt, really, if you read between the lines).

My rivals included several other Reality TV ‘professionals’ (who reeled off lists of unsuccessful auditions for Big Brother - the ‘big one’ - and Survivor and shared tips such as ‘cry when you’re talking about your family’), a snooty boy who came with his mother in tow and a jolly pensioner who “felt she had a lot to offer the viewing public”. The curious motivation behind the twisted urge to live with a camera up your nose for 24 hours a day became clearer as I got to know my new friends: we all wanted to be something much bigger than we already were without having to try too hard. We weren’t, until the recall (yes, I got a recall!), told what our prospects might be. My options had been narrowed down to either a contestant in the Texan ’Forty and Fab!’ pageant or the rather meatier, closer to home alternative of backing singer for a camp, overblown rock legend. I crossed my fingers for meat, only to be pipped at the post by a woman who, in the opinion of the producers, “would be likely to have a much harder time of it all”. This justification somewhat softened the blow of disappointment but still, it was a strange experience to talk away from rejection thinking, “I wish I’d come across as worse than I am”.

Would fake fame have turned out to be more fulfilling than my own reality? I'll let you know after I get the call from The Big One.

The Sad Songs Say So Much

Take a trip along any given high street around Valentine's Day, and you can't help but notice that being in love is a cynical, expensive (big) business. But when it comes to being creative, being out of love is the place to be.

Artists have long since been inspired by the theme of love denied, withdrawn, lost, dead or merely just illusive. It’s a multi-medium, metaphor-mixing theme, too: Nigella Lawson developed a Break-up Cake especially for such occasions, superstar hairdresser Nicky Clarke created the ‘Divorce Court Up-Do’ and designer Jean Paul Gaultier once sent a ‘jilted bride’ outfit down the runway at the end of a show, turning a fascistic fashionista custom on it’s head. Tragedy: when the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on … cash in on it. But even if it hasn’t and you don’t know how, you can’t beat a bit of a wallow in somebody else’s stormy waters to stir the senses in a way that nothing from Clinton Cards could ever do. And when the tides
that govern your own personal love boat turn rough and the forecast predicts a huge and heavy bout of moping, self pity, bitterness and regret on the horizon (sorry, Love Cats – it happens), no amount of sickly chocolates are going to fill the void.

On Planet Pop, ditties that revolve around “everything’s great and we’re really happy” tend to be one hit, witless (no) wonders. But when Cupid shoots a poisoned arrow, love comes alive. Compare and contrast Monarch of the Melodrama Roy Orbison searing his heart on his sleeve on ‘It’s Over’ with amateur dramatist Martine McCutcheon wretchedly retching her way through ‘Perfect Moment’ and tell me which one is more likely to stay on your personal playlist forever. Feeling wistful at the end of an affair? Vulnerable though you may be, beware of barely post-pubescent, heavily marketed pop idol generation kids trying to convince you that they know how being close to crazy feels; nothing fixes you up faster than a darkened room, a glass of Rioja and a quick blast of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Last Goodbye’.

Or maybe you prefer to fight rejection with defiance? Transvestite disco diva Divine’s hyperactive but sublime version of ‘You Think You’re A Man’ is one of the loudest, proudest, “fuck you” break up songs ever. Almost as effective (if a little overdone), the original version of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ still works wonders, too (but in the house on your own, please, and not around the handbags down at McChav’s Nite Club). Meanwhile, the Righteous Brother’s crooning their way through ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, the stark beauty of Carole King’s ‘It’s Too Late’ or the simple surrender of Sebadoh’s ‘Soul and Fire’ provide enough material to convince stale maters that the end is indeed upon them, while Abba’s ‘Winner Takes It All’, Meatloaf’s ‘Not A Dry Eye In The House’ and the whole of Nick Cave’s ‘Boatman’s Call’ album make the ensuing decree absolut party go with a swing.

Regrets? Oh, we all have a few, but The Walker Brothers deny them beautifully (especially when Charlie Rich is on hand to bemoan the loss of ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World’ as a chaser). And when you need to put a bit of perspective on the
exquisite pain that post-split compunction brings, Patsy Cline cracks up in fine style on ‘I Fall To Pieces’, while Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ kicks that awful Houston woman’s corporate greed version of the same song straight to the kerb. And blimey, we haven’t even touched on the ultimate paean to camp, overblown emotional histrionics that is Nilsson’s ‘Without You’ yet!

Hearts and flowers? Indulge yourself in a good old wallow instead. Cheap bouquets eventually crumble to dust, but a three-minute melodrama is a lifelong affair.

Welcome to my Last Supper

It's a good job I’m saving my last supper for when I actually get through Heaven’s Gates, because most of my guest list are up there already: Judy, Colin, Polly, Anton, Brian and Theresa can all be relied upon to get the party going, while my grandma is sure to bring some genuine grace to proceedings. Marc Bolan duets with Jeff Buckley, F Scott Fitzgerald dances with Byron,
Christopher Isherwood is having a smooch with Divine and Freddie Mercury is – well, just being him; what more does he need to do?

Once the dead guys have set the scene (velvet and organza everywhere, champagne flowing through crystal fountains), those on earth get to hitch a lift beyond the clouds with my dog Jazz, who’s grown wings, Pegasus style. And now, here comes The Family, in all their messy glory, with dad and mum reunited for the occasion, putting their double decade of other-partner
duelling behind them (which means she’s allowed to bring her husband). Loved ones - Dalto accompanied by my beautiful man, Michael - arrive bearing chocolate truffles from Rococo (I'm dead anyway – I can eat sugar again) while the heroes - Dave Eggers, Rufus Wainwright, David Bowie, Bret Easton Ellis and Douglas Coupland – all lounge around looking louche. And still, I’ve saved the living best till last: Gordon Ramsay is, of course, doing the food – and he can cook whatever the f*** he likes.

All of life is synaesthetic; death just makes the colours taste better.

By Any Other Name?

Dogging, Piking and Polyamory. Cottaging, Voyeurnaturals and Exhicentrics. Spongeophiles, Cakeshifters and Multifreudianwankers – okay, I made the last three up. Or did I? The latest wheel-reinvention craze involves giving the same old sexual shenanigans a refurb: yer shagging habits have been rebranded.

Take Polyamory, the ‘new’ kid on the all-night party block. What was once called wife swapping or swinging (oh, how adorably retro!) has experienced a makeover: a pinch of academic approval, a topspin of self-help book rhetoric (“we define ourselves as free thinking independent people, freed from the emotional bondage of guilt and restriction”, blah blah), and a whole new language ('frubbly': the 'emotion of joy' experienced seeing partners happy in the company of other lovers) means that you too can shag likeminded, emotionally insecure, egocentric commitment-phobics, secure in the knowledge that your behaviour is fully sanctioned with a blessing from the glossy magazines. Meanwhile, Dogging is another age-old pastime with the eyebags removed: it’s the bad old gang bang scenario with website and mobile phone technology assistance saving the shifty-trousered brigade from wasting long hours in quiet car parks peering hopefully at genuine pooches being taken out for a midnight pee by their innocent owners. Not that I'm calling Doggers guilty, and nor do I want to stop any pleasure seekers in their multi-partnered tracks. And I’m not averse to reading about any of the well-worn practises that keep on dominating the headlines, either; I'm as fascinated as the next perv when given the opportunity to get down and dirty with
those-who-can’t-keep-it-in-their-pants – at a safe, respectable distance, of course. And anyway, who am I to judge the next (hard) man? As long as nobody is getting hurt in the process, I don’t mind what anybody does in order to float their amorous boats. I just can’t help wondering why a rose (or in this case, a few sticky thorns) needs to be given yet another name in order to smell as … well, not exactly sweet, but you know what I mean. I still find it hard to believe, though, that a semi-dressed woman on a picnic table, open (literally) for business with all-comers, or the real life goings on behind the ‘ethical slut’ principles of the academics, have genuinely happy tales to tell once the baby oil dries up – surely the ensuing horror stories will be a case of yet more old whine in new barrels? Anyway …

Sex is A Good Thing. It can be loving, messy, fun, exhilarating, spontaneous, sad, sleazy and regretful in equal measure, at different times and in different phases of the average life. A woman can be Samantha from Sex and the City, Kat from EastEnders or Bree from Desperate Housewives as she sees fit; equally, a man can be Casanova, Mr Big or merely Mr Right Now in accordance with his own whims, too – it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry, as long as the consenting adults rule always applies … and as long as we behave like the adults we purport to be. We’re all familiar with the old wanting cake, oxymoronic adage - so, when one half of a couple confesses to a Polyamory predilection, they’re asking to be absolved for the forthcoming sin of gross misbehaviour. What the rejectee experiences in the aftermath isn’t a cutely-termed ‘wibble’ – it’s a justified bout of insecurity, hurt and jealousy. If someone gets sweet talked (or quasi-science blinded) into believing anything else, they’re not ‘open minded and mature’ – they’re flirting with setting themselves up to be the victim of a confusing and possibly abusive relationship that probably ain’t going anywhere except down.

Okay, I haven’t Polyamored, Dogged, Piked, Cottaged or been moved to Exhicentricism (although I freely admit to a good bit of Cakeshifting in my time). I happily absorb all the info, though – if that makes me a Vicariousist, so be it; we’re all free to take our fulfilment where we find it … and call it what the hell we like.

Posh Problems

Okay, this one is really out of date, but I'm sure you remember all the fuss ...

In a country whose dinner party, playground and even broadsheet debates are based around reality TV shows and public vote ‘celebrity’, little wonder that when it comes to headlines, the real King and Queen of England are going to grab them. Never mind the Euro Referendum or the war in Iraq – Beckham’s golden balls are front page news again, and the kiss’n’tell earwigs are crawling out of the woodwork to talk about just how dirty the King of Ostentania can really play.

For those of you who’ve been potholing in Cheddar Gorge for the last month, Becks has supposedly swapped teams to play with Rebecca Loos, his former PA. I would call Rebecca posh, but someone else has the copyright on that title. But Rebecca is the Real McCoy of snooty, wannabe aristocracy – a very undiplomatic diplomat’s daughter, loaded with inherited wealth and
academic qualifications. Her cut-glass vowels were drummed into her at a Swiss finishing school, Europe is her playground and, for her, Essex is a nightmare away. This Becks is competition indeed for the scrawny former Spice Girl. But the self-proclaimed First Lady of Posh is showing commendable dignity against the kind of adversity that is surely her worst nightmare. She’s behaving like one of our real-life royal family members behave when the shit hits the fan: with her actions-speak-louder-than-words denials, defiant adherence to upper-class celebrity protocol and no-frills stoicism, Posh is, for once, almost living up to her name.

Much vitriol has been unleashed on Victoria Beckham of late. She is, apparently, too thin, too overbearing, too distant, too cloying, too loyal, too tarty, and worse. David strayed because Posh didn’t follow him to Spain; because she ‘forced him’ to have a flashy wedding; because she’s ‘tied him down’ with two kids - the leeches are rolling in shadenfreude as the build ‘em up, knock ‘em down culture continues to thrive. But there’s another age-old pattern in force here: no matter how bad the man’s crimes, it’s always the woman’s fault. David has no doubt devastated his wife, but there’s little sympathy for the victim. The press had a bit of a go at Rebecca at first (well of course they did – she’s a woman, and she’s beautiful); they tried to label her a hooker until her credentials (and, no doubt, an army of lawyers) distinctly proved otherwise. So then it was back to Posh, the easy target. And so it’s been since time immemorial, from abortion laws to Myra Hindley, from Joan of Arc to Lady Diana, for wearing a Burkha or for wearing high heels – women are to blame for everything.

Remember the Ulrika Jonsenn furore? She named and shamed her rapist, and was subsequently blamed for ruining John Leslie’s career. That brave, successful, beautiful woman apparently ‘deserved’ everything she got from Leslie because that’s the price that women should have to pay for ‘having it all’. Sound familiar? But Posh isn’t an Ulrika, with brains, savvy and a real career. And she isn’t a Rebecca Loos, with the understated confidence that a privileged background brings. Posh is just a footballer’s wife, albeit a former teen-idol one with a few million quid of her own in the bank. She’s a mum, a local girl made
good, a young woman who defied her ordinariness and made her fairytale dreams come true. She can’t have expected the world’s ordinary women, let alone the feminist sisterhood and the formerly sycophantic national press, turning against her when the going got tough. Okay, so she probably wasn’t too aware of the sisterhood in the first place, but who is, these days? Feminism sold out long ago, when women started to act like men instead of broadening their horizons. In 2004, Carrie Bradshaw is supposedly a feminist icon and women beware women, leaving Posh to be trampled over as she goes it alone, a victim not only of a philandering man but of national hostility, too.

I never thought I’d see the day when I defended Victoria Beckham – after all, there were no parallels between her life and mine. But she’s a woman whose man has done her wrong; on an in-common basis, Posh should have a whole army of women behind her, not an ever-dwindling team.

When did young people suddenly get to be so middle-aged?

Ironically, this one's another Golden Oldie ...

And so it came to pass that, to herald the arrival of their latest set of tour dates, Darkness frontman Justin Hawkins rode around the stage playing a glass-shattering guitar solo on a floating stuffed tiger. Oh no he didn’t! Oh yes, indeed he did. Like Freddie Mercury, Alice Cooper and dear old Ozzy before him, Hawkins knows the meaning of rock … pantomime. And it’s so good to have the grand old dame back. Never mind who put the ram in the rama-lama-ding-dong: who ripped the balls off rock?

When I was 14, I went to see the New York Dolls play live in a small, sweaty club. There were no brand-name sponsorship deals banner-strung across the stage, the band hadn’t been profiled on Late Review and the politicians wouldn’t have dreamt of inviting Arthur Kane to a reception at Downing Street. My parents had no idea where I was and the media didn’t have a clue about what was happening on Planet Pubescent - and that was exactly how it should have been. But now that The X-Factor, Pop Idols, Fame Academy et al - effectively promo videos for processing and packaging factories – have become compulsory viewing for all ages, rock music has died a sorry death and youth has become middle-aged. And yet, this summer, flickers of hope started flirting around the baggy crotches of our dreary, tedious teenagers. Despite the death of their legendary bass player, the New York Dolls played a set of UK gigs – their first for 27 years – including a set at the Reading Festival. Okay, so most of the kids in the audience had no idea of the great heights that this elegantly debauched gang of sleaze-rockers once scaled. Androgynous glamour, anarchic noise, full-blown theatricality? Such was the stuff that rock and roll (wet) dreams used to be made off made of. But thanks to bands like The Darkness, ‘the kids’ are beginning to understand the heritage that built the foundations of the watered-down, insipid charts today.

Girls: so what if Destiny’s Child wear Versace? Freddie Mercury was the high priest of uber-glamour when Beyonce was just a bouncing baby – the original designer-vintage queen. Ermine and pearls, spandex and tiaras – Freddie out-slutted Christina Aguilera, out-sulked Gwen Stefani and out-pouted bloody Avril Lavigne. And oh, what a voice! Swap Keane for Queen and understand the true meaning of out and proud glamour. Boys: get some real emotion stirring in your trousers - turn off Coldplay and tune into Kiss, ditch Amy Winehouse for some genuine AC/DC action and take that Travis Greatest Hits CD and shove it where it belongs – as a coaster underneath your mum’s tea cup. The Streets don’t have it, The Stooges did. Eminen?
Get thee to the Meatloaf Academy and come back when you’re a grown up. So the White Stripes are hip, cool and fascinatingly sinister? They can’t hold a candle to Sparks. “I’m a raunchy man with a lot of love to give”, simpered Daniel Bedingfield recently. “Get Your Hands Off My Woman (Motherfucker)”, roars Justin Hawkins, in response. Forget political correctness for a moment and ask yourself: which of those two men would you trust to set your knickers on fire for a night? Rock and roll might only be made for one-night stands, but Bedingfield wouldn’t last five minutes.

I might have been sorely misguided in my craving to lie in the gutter that the New York Dolls represented, but at least I wasted my teenage years wisely. For as long as we continue to encourage slick-suited marketing men to churn out generic, TV tie-in pop stars, feeding them song words that are as anodyne as Ovaltine, the current generation of teenagers will have nothing to aspire to or get all existential about. Every generation’s soundtrack should reek of hormones, filthy glamour, confused gender-bending, excitement and danger, not Simon Cowell’s opinion and adverts for endowment mortgage deals.

Pomposity, showmanship, exhibitionism. Endless guitar solos, drum risers the height of aircraft hangars and choruses to match the lead singer’s massive ego: that’s real rock and roll in all its life-affirming, magnificent, high-camp, low-moralled glory. This pantomime season, I believe in a thing called rock.

Talking about Stalking

Last year, Clare Bernal was shot dead on the spot in her place of work: a cosmetics counter in one of London’s most famous department stores. The perpetrator was her ex-boyfriend Michael Pech, himself a former Harvey Nichols employee (a security guard, no less), who made his motivations perfectly clear: “If I can’t have you, nobody else will”, he said, before turning the gun on himself. Bang! Two people dead, in the name of … please, don’t call it love.

Pech was officially a stalker – a term which these days loosely translates as ‘a nutter we can’t do anything about’. Someone, somewhere had at least tried to do something to prevent this horrific tragedy; Pech was awaiting sentencing for ‘inappropriate behaviour’ towards Bernal and a restraining order preventing him from contacting her had been issued. As a result, a few flighty pops at the inadequacy of Britain’s legal system fluttered aimlessly on the aftermath breeze. But by and large, the story grabbed national attention due to the location of the crime (Harvey Nicks: the St Pauls of retail therapy) and the emotionality of the situation: Claire had ‘dumped’ Pech; he felt ‘rejected’ and suffered ‘months of agonising heartache’ – the same feelings I’ve experienced since hearing three separate women coming up with the same response to the Pech/Bernal case: “wow”, they said; “he must have really loved her”.

Just as we’ve all become accustomed to using the term ‘domestic violence’ to soften the blow inflicted on many thousands of women throughout the UK every year, ‘stalking’ has become a misunderstood and misused term, beloved of the Trisha Show and synonymous with glamorous international celebrities. Like most major league spectator sports, stalking tends to be a male activity; sure, there are women who convince themselves that Brad Pitt is sending out secret ‘marry me’ messages via paparazzi photos in Heat magazine, but in the main, the guys tend to put themselves at the heart of the headline grabbing stalking action … and in the main, most of these guys tend to be reeling from a rebuff.

Many women flee to refuges to escape men who claim to be unable to live without her (even though breaking her nose at the same time as he breaks her heart is a bloody funny way of showing it). Of these cases, the vast majority of the men they leave behind have been clearly and concisely ‘dumped’, with good reason and, often, the court orders to prove it. But even if
they’re the dumper, there are many men who don’t allow logic to get in the way of self-righteous self-pity, downright indignation and sheer obsession the moment a woman ‘moves on’. Men and women have different ways of dealing with blows to the ego; that tired old scenario of tearful, Chardonnay-soaked girls having mascara-splattered conversations with their mates about ‘the one that got away’ may be a bit of a cliché, but unfortunately, so too is the image of Pech loading his gun and setting off on the lonely journey that leads to the ultimate ‘romantic’ denouement. And on both sides of the cliché coin, the soundtrack offers further proof. Consider the message behind the wheezing of ‘Every Breath You Take’: it may be soft on the outside, but a truly sinister sting in the tale lurks within – quite possibly the ramblings of a madman, and the closest thing to crazy that you’ll ever hear. Compare that with Gloria Gaynor’s enduring, definitive chickfest anthem ‘I Will Survive’, and we see, in popular culture terms at least, what’s really going on.

Ask a woman in a violent relationship why she stays, and she’ll probably start talking about love. Ask a violent man to state his reasons for his behaviour, and you’re likely to get the same response. So, if love is at the heart of the matter, why is a very violent, blood-splattered battle of the sexes still raging? The United States of Male Behaviour may harbour some extremely self-destructive weapons of emotional mass destruction, but the only way that the Kingdom of Womankind is going to counteract such activity is to reinterpret, once and for all, what they mean by love.

The Best Days of your Life?

According to the latest Higher Education Statistics Agency (and there’s always lots of doom for them to monger at A-level results time), almost 35% of university graduates end up in a McJob, which means that most bar staff, factory workers and care home workers are probably far more qualified than the person they’re skivvying for. And for sure, they’re definitely more qualified than me – for I, dear reader, am ‘qualified’ for nothing.

From the moment I realised that, lurking beyond the school gates, there was nothing but bored, uninspired teachers, schoolyard bullies with not an ounce of wit in their sticks and really, really bad food, I was outa there. Literally. Put my entire formal education attendance record together, and there’s probably no more than 100 days on the register. I spent most of
my formative years watching my mum do yoga, my dad paint pictures and our cats give birth. From 11-14 I tried – honestly tried – to settle into any one of the three schools that the local education authority tried to shoehorn me into. And from 14 until the day the government officially sanctioned my free will, I was deemed ‘school phobic’ and given a home tutor who
came and talked esoteric literature with me on three mornings a week, leaving me to fill the rest of my time with some very constructive, entirely practical versions of daydreaming.

Careers advisors said I’d never work beyond a place behind the counter in Sayers the Bakers, child psychologists said I’d never make friends. Both predictions were so drastically wrong, it’s laughable. But nobody warned me that had I (or rather, my perspicacious gem of a mum) given into pressure and conformed to hamster wheel status, I’d never have read (and then voluntarily punctuated) James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ for the pure hell of it, because there’d have been an army of officials telling me it’s a big, scary intellectual challenge of a book that needs 12 degree-level ‘professors’ to guide you through it. I’d never have learned how to cook, because these days, such a pursuit is called ‘Food Technology’ and real recipes and ingredients are hidden behind a maelstrom of ‘critical control points’, ‘standard components’ and ‘profit margins’. I’d never have grasped the inhumanity of war, or had the majesty of global geography presented to me each time I’ve travelled, or cultivated lifelong friendships with people who are genuinely interesting rather than merely in my class, because such philosophies don’t feature on any curriculum (and the people at the front of the classroom have probably never experienced any such
reality anyway). And I’d never have had the self-respect to voluntarily abandon a highly paid, highly pressured, ‘career’ job in order to pursue what I really want to do (which is write), because our education system rates mortgage eligibility far more highly than imagination.

As a result of all this, Being Me is like being a slightly more sophisticated version of Rain Man, or enjoying a sort of elegant form of dyspraxia. Every day is a voyage of voluntary discovery, during which curiosity is piqued by real-time events and
circumstance. Compare and contrast learning about history, maths, biology or politics because you want to, to having it thumped into you by rote; that, folks, constitutes a genuinely worthwhile education.

No matter what the Bad News Bears who marks the A-level paper deems any individual’s efforts to be worth, they’re worth far, far more than that. All everybody needs to know is out here waiting to be discovered anyway – in books, by example, and through sheer life experience, the like of which doesn’t need any paperwork in order to prove its value (and psst: really ‘good’ jobs don’t require a resume, anyway). So my advice to youngsters trying to gain an entry-level foothold on the ladder to a successful, happy life is to leave the swots to do the pint pulling, while you go forth and give real meaning to the phrase that the dullards fling around as an insult when threatened. Go on, kids - Get A Life.

The real F-Word (sorry foodies, we're talking Feminism)

I dug this one out of the archive because it's something I feel really, really strongly about. I don't think 'enjoy' is the appropriate salutation to send you on your way with, but please do me a favour and read it.

So Ulrika’s alleged rapist has finally been named. At the time of writing, things are still uncertain: did he do it, or didn’t he? Will she talk about it or won’t she? Tongues are wagging: “Who’d have thought it, the one off This Morning - he seemed like such a nice guy!” (because of course, it’s dead easy to spot a rapist, isn’t it?). “He’ll never work again!” (because of course, work means everything, doesn’t it?). And the most disturbing of all: “Well, Ulrika’s always been trouble, hasn’t she?”. Excuse me? We’re talking alleged rape here, not Richard Madeley stealing gin from Tesco’s! Why has the truth about Ulrika’s experience of rape – prefix the word with ‘date’ if you need to make the reality of the act more palatable – become nothing more than a scrap of salacious gossip? Or is it the case that Ulrika – a successful, intelligent, honest and beautiful woman –
merely ‘deserved’ everything that she got because that’s the price that women should have to pay for ‘having it all’? Whoever raped Ulrika left her with internal bruising and the age-old advice from an anonymous ‘friend’ to contend with: “It’s not worth making a fuss about, love – after all, you’d gone on a date with this guy, and you’d had a bit to drink, hadn’t you?”. And the tongue-waggers sneer, “Fifteen years ago? She should have got over it by now”. That’s as good as saying, “oh yeah, well we’ve all been raped – it’s part and parcel of being a woman”. Well get this, sisters: it damn well isn’t.

For me, the most sinister aspect of this whole debate is that the comments quoted above have mainly been made by women I know – women who I honestly trusted to know better. Women are suddenly judging Ulrika as a hard-hearted tart who, working backwards through a very public history, ‘ruined’ Sven and Nancy’s marriage (Sven may be a monosyllabic buffoon, but did he not have any say in who’s bed he chose to take a tumble?) and took a very literal, public blow from
footballer Stan Collimore (his fists were nimbler than his feet, it seems) after working her way up from ditzy weather girl to the erudite, funny woman who stole the limelight from Vic and Bob in Shooting Stars. And now, in her autobiography, she’s told the truth about her life. This woman should be a feminist icon, not the subject of bitchy, jealous speculation!
But what does feminism mean, these days? Nothing more, it seems, than the right of a sad bunch of 40-something girlies to repeatedly whine “I wear lipstick and a G-string for myself, not him”. Meanwhile, ‘he’ comments that ‘she’s let herself go’ if she goes shopping in joggers, and she simpers and rolls her eyes at statistics such as the fact that the average working woman spends twenty seven hours a week cleaning the family home while he spends only three. Emily Pankhurst must be turning in her grave and wondering why she bothered. Meanwhile, Germaine Greer has given up altogether and become a high-brow chat show supremo – and who can blame her? After almost a century of feminism, women have lost the plot and gone back to square one, and the Ulrika situation represents this more than any amount of housework statistics ever could. In a sinister return to Victorian values, Ulrika’s ‘revelations’ seem to be turning into a crime against John Leslie, just like rape used to be a crime against either the husband or the father of the victim. How long will it be before Ulrika is dubbed a witch?

Whatever the truth about this front-page whodunnit, Ulrika should not be derided for telling the truth about her life. Because she had the balls to say “this happened to me”, ‘ordinary’ women everywhere – survivors of rape whose non-celebrity lives are of no consequence to the newspapers - might privately be given the courage and strength to face another day of survival without feeling like a freak with a dirty secret. No woman –celebrity or a prostitute, drunk or stone cold sober – deserves to be raped. If John Leslie is innocent, then I'm sorry for what he’s going through – nobody deserves trial by press, either. But if he turns out to be guilty, he deserves all he gets, and a ruined career is the smallest price he should have to pay. As for Ulrika, I applaud her bravery. She really is going this one alone, with no apparent back-up whatsoever from what was once ‘the sisterhood’. Womankind is in one hell of a sorry state, and for that, we’ve only got ourselves to blame – sisters.

Food? It's an emotional minefield out there!

While most men are happy to scoff whatever is put in front of them, many women go through a whole gamut of emotions, considerations and judgment calls before they raise fork to mouth. Take ‘first date food’: pasta, for example, is a no-no-no – there’s no room for instant bloat in a size 10 LBD, slippery strands of spaghetti play havoc with lipgloss and the fart potential is way too risky to gamble with. Meanwhile, seafood is too salacious, Tex-Mex is common and curry is downright blokeish. Anything French, though, makes us look sophisticated, and salad is a safe all-rounder; we’ll go home starving, but at least we’ll have looked all delicate and pretty while gazing into your eyes.

And what do we go home to? Chocolate - which fluctuates between being a girl’s best friend or a potential WMD. Advertisers are well aware of this: consider the bar of Galaxy stashed in an underwear drawer, the woman who has to flash her co-workers because the calorie count in a bag of Maltesers ‘isn’t naughty enough’ or the iconographic, phallic imagery that promotes a Cadbury’s Flake and tell me that women and chocolate have a healthy relationship?

And the complicated psychology gets even trickier when it comes to shopping. I know women who carry pristine Waitrose carrier bags folded up in their handbags when heading off to shop at Lidl, burn ready meal packets rather than put them out in the Green Box for all the road to see and decant Nescafe into an ancient FairTrade-labelled jar before their friends drop in for coffee. In Girl World, it seems, You Are What You’re Seen To Eat. Bugger that. In my world, beef masala ravioli with a side of chicken wings and a hot chocolate sauce maketh the woman.

Ten Years Younger? No thanks!

Turn back the clock. Roll back the years. Erase those wrinkles for good! The most profitable industry of the modern age has to be the age-defying business - from beetroot to Botox, salmon to surgery, vainglorious ‘miracle’ cures abound. Cue a self-righteous rant of moral indignation or a bitter tirade about ‘what’s so good about looking young?’. Nope, not here. I happily admit that I add my own regular contributions to the rental of the Fountain of Youth, and if anybody happens to think I look any younger than my grand old age of 43, then all well and good. Frankly, though, if someone thinks I look 56, I really don’t give a toss – life is literally far too short to spend it denying the years you’ve been lucky enough to have. I have great sympathy, then, for those of us (the majority of whom will undoubtedly have been women) who received this year’s second biggest Christmas gift after the Xbox 360: plastic surgery vouchers, no less, at the clinic of your choice. Imagine opening that particular envelope on Christmas day: “Darling, here’s the boob job you (or rather, I) have been dreaming about”. “Sweetheart, your nose is no longer going to get in our way”. “Cuddlekins, that spare tyre is going to be sucked out by a man in a white coat”. Okay, if you’ve been bleating on and on about your yen to get under the knife for the past five years, you may have been given what you deserve. But what if the recipient’s apparent thirst for such drastic change was actually a cry for help? A genuinely thoughtful gift for one who feels so bad about herself that she’s prepared to risk her life having her boobs enlarged is a course of therapy – if, that is, some genuine affection and reassurance didn’t work in the first place. Or
consider the worst-case scenario: the voucher beneficiary who didn’t even know that such a ‘surprise’ was under the tree; in this case, to call such a ‘gift’ sinister would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Still, we’ve been led to believe that plastic surgery is nothing more than one small step up from using a decent moisturiser, when in other circumstances a major operation is an outcome we all pray we can manage to avoid. But such is life in the zeroes; the needy, greedy 1980’s and the touchy-feely decade that followed have combined to create the ‘Because You’re Worth It’ generation – but in new millennium terms, that mantra translates as ‘Because You’re Never Going To Be Good Enough’.

In each episode of Channel 4’s ‘groundbreaking’ reality TV show ‘Ten Years Younger’ (which hits our screens again in February, just in case the ritual humiliation of ‘Celebrity Big Brother’ isn’t quite hitting your chadenfreude spot), uber-haridan Nicky Hambleton-Jones – one-part pantomime dame and two-parts cartoon dominatrix (as all our female ‘lifestyle’ gurus tend to be, these days) - takes a lacklustre, downtrodden member of the public and subjects them to the gaze of 100 similarly dull passers-by in order to glean an opinion on how old Mrs Subjugated is. Inevitably, the poll results summarise an estimation of at least 10 years older. Ms H-J then bullies Mrs S through an ‘action plan’ that blithely combines surgery with stylists before throwing Frankenstein back into the plebs lair again. A ‘good result’ is when some unknown bloke in a bar guesses that Mrs S is actually 38, and not her real age of 42. Mrs S then, predictably, cries tears of gratitude. And such is the level of our own self-judgement, self-awareness, self-esteem and pretty much all the other self- prefixed words that we’re forced to swallow when we’re being fed the ‘Because You’re Worth It’ diet – it’s as thought the age of supposed self enlightenment never happened. Turn back the clock? If only we really could …


It’s about as far from an organic, locally sourced, natural ingredient as you can get. And yet, there’s something wonderfully wholesome about a steaming pile of reconstituted dried potato.

Peeling, boiling and mashing a spud has to be the biggest no-brainer kitchen activity there is ... but boiling a kettle and adding a couple of scoops of feathery flakes is even less of a stretch. Okay, the resulting gloop isn’t quite the kind of mash that Nigel Slater is referring too when he talks about his favourite food ever (and he certainly wouldn’t be fooled if a mound of Smash accompanied his Gloucester Old Spot bangers). Still, to some, it’s sexier than Magpie’s Susan Stranks and capable of evoking even more related nostalgia than the Three Degrees singing ‘When Will I See You Again’ - yup, instant mashed potato is the quintessential taste of a 1970s childhood. And, in it’s own very peculiar way, it hits the lazy slob/comfort food spot like nothing else on earth.

For the full-on guilty pleasure experience, reconstitute some onion gravy granules while your faux-mash is fluffing up, serve with supermarket ‘value’ brand chipolatas and do a YouTube search for a clip from the award winning,1974 ‘Smash’ ad campaign, featuring a post-nuclear family of of martian robots giggling hysterically about how ‘earth people’ used to make mashed potato (“And.Then.They. Smashed. Them. All. To. Bits”). Ah, remember the days when food used to be funny? One forkful of Smash is all it takes to take a trip on your own personal time machine. Yum.

Food Psycho

I’m often found banging on - on these very pages and in my personal life - about how easy it is to cook. And it is! There’s no great skill in reading a recipe, buying the ingredients and following the dot-to-dot instructions that have been laid out for you by someone who’s done it a thousand times already - as long as you choose Delia Smith over Heston Blumenthal, anybody can be a Jamie Oliver. What’s not easy, though, is owning up to the real reason behind such an activity. I believe that there’s more psychology going on in the kitchen then there is in any other room in the house; the bedroom may be a minefield of Freud-related anecdotal evidence, but when it comes to what we voluntarily offer to put in other people’s mouths at the dining room table, a sausage is no longer just a sausage.

Cooking for six people, in your own home, involves a right load of faffing about. But I’m not ashamed to admit that, for me, it’s one heck of a power trip - a reliable way of ‘buying’ trust, limelight, gratitude and even a kind of love. For some, having a stovetop full of pots to fuss over is a way of overcoming shyness; for others, the dinner party is a chance to show off how much they can afford to spend. But there’s really no shame in admitting any of this. Rather than fight the invisible tides that carry us back to the kitchen, identifying your personal reasons for throwing yourself headlong into the world of food (and millions of us do it, whether via magazines, books and TV shows, or by regularly cooking up a storm at home) can ultimately only make you an even better foodie; after all, all the best chefs are slightly psychotic.

(First published in Venue magazine, April 2007)

Ah, Bristo!

For a city that purports to be one of the most forward-thinking, all-cultures embracing, right on cities of all, Bristol isn’t half rude to outsiders.

Being from Liverpool, I’m used to attracting attention when the question of birthplace comes up. Like New Yorkers, Parisians, and Sharon Osbourne, scousers always glean a knee-jerk reaction: we’re a loud, opinionated, over-emotional bunch from a globally infamous city, both glorious and inglorious in equal measure (if I wasn’t from Liverpool, I’d wish I was).

But when I find myself in the company of the kind of tediously dull folk who think that the world revolves around the BS postcode (ha! It’s a wonder there isn’t a Bristol campaign to take the obvious pun out of that one), the reaction to the standard “where are you from?” question often translates as scorn, derision or downright rude, misinformed thicko behaviour. It’s fortunate, I suppose, that scousers tend to be ingrained with the kind of confidence that allows the constant, ancient jibes about missing wallets and Gerry and the Pacemakers to roll off their thickened skin. But if, in the name of joining in the ‘banter’ aimed at someone from Merseyside, we jokingly call a Bristolian a Wurzel or suggest that only about 18 people outside of Bristol would recognise a member of Massive Attack, it’s walk the plank time for us. In what appears to be one of the greenest (in all senses of the word) and most pleasant areas of the UK, regionalism apparently reigns supreme.

During the build up to the City of Culture awards, when Bristol and Liverpool went head to head in nominations for the dubious acclaim, I expected there to be some minor debates about the issue. But discussions about the eventual outcome didn’t turn out to be any fun. I came across Bristolians who, completely unbidden, loved telling me how and why my home town didn’t stand a chance (illiterate scousers can’t even pronounce the word ‘culture’, blah blah blah) before going on to spend hours expostulating on the renaming of Broadmead - ah, I’ll leave you to work out the irony there. As it turned out, Bristolians are bad losers, too; the added vitriol spawned when the eventual winner took all was second to none. But how could a city so suspicious of outsiders ever be a capital of culture? If Bristol had won, the ‘keep ‘ee out’ wall would no doubt have been erected already (even if, in true Bristol fashion, it’d be called ‘a contemporary art statement’, built by a multicultural collective, using all-organic materials).

To me personally, this is all rather quaint; I don’t give a fig about such behaviour towards people from Liverpool (as we repeatedly prove, we’ll always be okay). What worries me more is that the Bristol attitude to non-Bristolians isn’t only aimed at scousers. Apparently, you lot can’t stand the Welsh, either, and Brummies don’t fare much better. Even Bath – a mere 12 miles down the road! – is written off as ‘snooty’ (crikey, as a self-styled Bathonian that’s a double whammy for me). And yes, I know that such regionalist attitudes exist elsewhere in the UK, not just in Briz. But still, that doesn’t make it okay – racism never is. Can Britain ever get rid of racism for good when even the city we’re born in still apparently defines who we are?

Having some sort of loyalty to your hometown is all well and good, but where we’re born is an accident of birth. For some, it’s a very lucky one, at that; to many more around the globe, that ‘accident’ turns out to be a tragedy. No matter what your views on fate, karma, destiny or whatever, our roots are random. I’ve a friend who was born on an aeroplane over the Atlantic; I’d love to hear what the regulars lined up at the bar of the Hick and Yokel make of that.

Tasteful Memories

Rose Elliot’s vegetarian cookery book ‘Not Just a Load of Old Lentils’ cost my mum £1.50 in 1972. ‘Fun, practical, easy, delightful!’ reads the strapline on the faded orange cover, the words running around an etched sketch of pulses, cheese, vegetables and wine. There’s a photo of Rose herself on page two; demure, but smiling encouragingly, with a subtle twinkle of fun in her eyes. This is the only photograph in the book - it’s left to the reader/cook to decide how Rose’s recipes should be styled.

‘NJaLoOL’ lived by the cooker in all the kitchens I grew up in, from the semi-commune in Wales to the one where the ceiling almost collapsed just after my family did. But in between the covers of this lovingly battered relic, my family remains totally intact. On page 179, buttery stains from my own childish fingerprints make a flapjack recipe almost indecipherable, while a hundred dinner party preparations have left their mark on the stuffed pancakes recipe on page 94. Potato cakes: served hot, with crumbly Cheshire cheese and a glass of Ribena, they were manna from heaven. Dhal, p108: my goodness, weren’t the Blease family ahead of their time? Perhaps the butterbean curry on the previous page windpowered us along. But why the purple stain on the Spaghetti with Aubergines page? I don’t remember ever eating this dish. Maybe mum tried, but failed - oh Rose, you let her down! Not so me.

Rose nursed me through my very first soufflé. She taught me how to make a croustade, stuff a marrow, handle pastry. This weekend, I’ll be making her vegetarian stroganoff; last week, I made her banana bread. And as I go, I’m adding my own indelible stains to a cookery book that brings back more memories than Proust’s madeleine ever could; 35 years worth so far, and many flapjacks still to go.


Welcome to the Animal Disco - a blog that's been in the pipeline since before such an activity was even invented.

Here you'll find a selection of the rambles, rants, observations and even diary entries (names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent) that assemble to represent my life. Some of these entries have already been published (in Bristol and Bath's entirely yummy Venue magazine - if you don't already read it, you really should), while others have been lying around in notebook form for two decades. Many, though, will be brand new - I finally have somewhere I can officially dump my emotional clutter. So, read, enjoy, share, and tell me what you think at your leisure, but ignore at your peril - above all, life at the Animal Disco is intended to be fun.

Melissa xxx