Thursday, February 28, 2008

In Life, as in Death ... ?

Oh dear. This one only came out yesterday (the current issue of Venue), but it's already caused a bit of a scrap with Mike, inspired a disparaging email from a colleague and a driven my neighbour to communicate his opinion with a disappointed tut. I'd be very interested to read your comments!

As news of Heath Ledger’s untimely death followed him into oblivion, one plaintive, anonymous comment amongst the plethora of obituaries on an American fan site stood out from all the others: “Even at school, it was clear that he wasn’t ever going to be a nobody, like the rest of us. Truth is, we were just plain jealous of him”. How refreshing. In Britain - in public, at least - we hide any suggestion of envy behind a wall of sonorous self-righteousness, dismissing premature deaths within Camp Celebrity as just another typical report from behind the lines that divide us, the humdrum folk, from just another day in what we sullenly assume to be a paradise that’s ‘not for people like us’. Or, to put it in basic pleb vs sleb terms: “I see another spoilt waster’s gone and topped himself”. Kick ‘em when they’re down? In Britain, ambition isn’t even allowed to get up.

Despite its superficially altruistic aim to create opportunities for no hopers with big ambitions, even the vile, sinister ‘X Factor’ franchise propagates this tradition. From the misshapen, maniacal miscreants that open every season to the dull, derisive conclusion (“bland, talentless oik wins X Factor!”), the show only serves to showcase the real truth at the heart of the matter: the little people are not - and never will be - special in any way, and those who have the tenacity to imagine otherwise will be punished. The ‘who does she think she is?” backlash against 2006 X-Factor winner Leona Lewis began even before she accepted her gong, with former ‘friends’ sneering “she thinks she’s too good for us now” while merrily flogging grubby stories for dirty cash. Damn that uppity Leona to hell? We don’t need to; fame has already guaranteed her a fast-track ticket. When Anita Roddick died last year, one tabloid newspaper published a photograph of the 65 year old Dame, taken three weeks before her death, alongside a feature that referred to her as an ‘eccentric woman’s rights campaigner’ and questioned the effectiveness of the Body Shop skincare range. Humane activist and long-term green issues campaigner? Nope: wrinkled, self-serving feminist. At a recent dinner party, I happened to mention that I still find ‘that’ Russell Harty/Marc Bolan interview – the one where Marc says he doesn’t think he’ll ever see the age of 40 – really poignant. “Why?”, snapped another guest. “If he’d worked on the checkout at Tesco, then yes, it would be sad. But he was a pop star – he had it coming”.

Now I’m not saying that the life of a shop assistant is of less consequence than the life of a Hollywood actor, flamboyant entrepreneur, pop muppet or ostentatious rock star. What irks me is how self-righteous ‘ordinary’ members of the public can be when it comes to spouting supposedly moral judgments on the lives – and even the deaths - of individuals in the public domain. The general consensus seems to be that Heath/Marc/Anita got what they deserved for aiming higher than a badly paid, assembly line non-job, while ‘good wives’ (the ones with husbands who think that the fact “she always put dinner on the table at 6pm sharp” is a loving tribute after 50 years of intimacy) and soldiers who die in Iraq (excuse me, but isn’t the risk of death-by-maniac an almost inevitable part of “just doing my job, ma’am”?) garner reams of sentimental obituaries or are posthumously elevated to ‘hero’ status.

As I write, the results of an autopsy conducted on Heath Ledger have been returned as ‘inconclusive’, and Ledger family lawyers have successfully ordered the media to correct spurious claims that “pills were found strewn around his naked body”. A certain tabloid has run this story under the headline, “Heath: What Are They Trying to Hide?”. RIP talent, ambition and success – the British public have murdered you. Bitterness, drudgery, resentment, mundanity and envy, however, continue to thrive.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Devil is in the ... Wardrobe

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 are wearing DKNY.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

It's a tough job, but ... (etc)

Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy; gardener, dastardly toff, thief. Priests, politicians and pop stars; binmen, ballet dancers and the guy in the Bounty ad – in my capable hands, they become superstuds, one and all. Today I'm in the mood for ripping the uniform off a Coldstream Guard. Last week, I did something very distasteful to a young chef. And on Friday – thanks to all my ‘lovers’ - I’ll be submitting an invoice. Bellle du Jour? Nymph du nuit? Nope, I’m another kind of hooker altogether; my sexploits are literary, not literal.

I write erotic fiction. On the odd occasion I’ve come clean about my cheeky little sideline in ‘polite’ company, I’ve met with mixed reactions, ranging from disapproval to raucous guffaws, often via nervous laughter. Some folk get all twitchy and moralistic; others find it fascinating. One man, following a heated debate about the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of one of the oldest professions (I’m talking about writing, here) lambasted me for being a slut before downing gallons of Jack Daniels and ‘confessing’ his penchant for abusing prostitutes to the assembled crowd - when sex for sale in any form rears its bulbous head in public, the ensuing debate is guaranteed to get steamy. Meanwhile, back at the office …

I contribute to top shelf collections of sexy stories, ostensibly for women who like their men lusty, romantic, willing, able and respectful (ah yes, this is the stuff of good fiction indeed). But despite the ‘for women, by women’ ethos of my publisher, the majority of the books are bought by men for whom gynaecological images of bored housewives or hard-up ‘glamour models’ does nothing. I write for those who like their lovin’ served up with a bit of style - in other words, readers who appreciate the fact that there’s more than one way to stroke a pussy. Is it exploitative? Only in as much as the salary I’m on is pretty meagre – and there’s another myth busted.

I like to think I’m carrying on a tradition started by literary superstars such as Anais Nin, Colette or Marguerite Duras rather than perpetuating the myths served up by Nuts magazine. There’s a distinct art – a craft, if you like – to coming up with yet another euphemism for a hard cock (even DH Lawrence had to resort to the F-word when Oliver Mellors’ ‘raging manhood’ started losing its thrust), whilst at the same time ensuring that characters don’t mysteriously gain extra fingers or tongues en route to the climax, the condom is always politely in place when it comes and the prerequisite orgasm targets (female every 500 words, male every 800) are hit every time. But while I sincerely hope that the end result is as satisfying for those who read my words as it is for me to see them all coming together, I'm never going to have a fan base. I hide myself behind a pseudonym not because I’m embarrassed about what I do but because there are surprisingly large numbers of hostile strangers – both male and female – who don’t think I should be doing it at all These strangers write to my publisher on a regular basis, making their intentions very clear about the terrible things they’d like to do to ‘women like us’. And the flip side to the hate mail is worse: the vials of sperm with letters of thanks attached; the ‘love’ letters; the marriage proposals – I kid you not. The irony here is that the truly sinister, threatening stories don’t come from the fertile imagination of the storyteller, but from the minds of the self-proclaimed morality police or lonely men who are far, far more threatening than the fantasies that I supply people with.

But despite the downsides, it’s a great job. JK Rowling recently said that good fiction should be liberating, challenging and pleasurable, for both writer and reader; good erotic fiction certainly ticks all those boxes. Harry Potter and the Unspeakable Act? I’m working on it …

Saturday, February 23, 2008

(but it doesn't mean I don't love them)

Selected Extracts from the Chef Speak/Plain English Dictionary 2008:

Chef: “My time spent as a kitchen porter was really important to me. You learn your trade at grass roots level”.
Translation: “If I ever peel another potato again, it’ll be too soon. And why exactly is that lazy-assed slacker in the basement still doing the dishes when I sent him out for a packet of fags ten minutes ago?”.

Chef: “Our dishes are very child friendly”.
Translation: “Just feed the little blighters some of yours and keep them quiet – this is a restaurant, not a bloody crèche”.

Chef: “All our food is locally sourced and organic wherever possible”.
Translation: “…as long as we’re not paying over the odds for it, in which case, ‘local’ can be interpreted as the bargain bucket, no frills supermarket down the road”.

Chef: “It’s vitally important to keep the front of house staff informed – they’re familiar with every item on the menu”
Translation: “I talk them through everything I’m plating up. If they’re hungry, there are Pot Noodles in the larder”.

Chef (via the waitress): “I'm sorry for the delay. Everything is cooked freshly to order, and we’re rather busy today”.
Translation (interpreted vocally – and very loudly – to all staff): “Get me an Alka Seltzer and a stiff bloody Mary; I was in the Irish pub over the road until 3am this morning”.

Chef: “I really admire (insert name of local celebrity chef/restaurant owner here). He deserves all the publicity he’s getting; he’s worked very hard to build up a following”.
Translation: “I'm absolutely seething with jealousy. One favourable review from Venue and (insert name of local celebrity chef/restaurant owner here) is suddenly being referred to as revolutionising the local scene! And everybody knows he rips off our menus …”.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Revisiting: Ten Years Younger? No Thanks!

Morning all! Forgive me, if you will, another little bit of archive revisiting, but I had to go back to this one as last night a visitor called CHH left a great comment on my 'Ten Years Younger? No Thanks!' post, and I wanted his/her words to get the spotlight they deserve. I've included the comment straight after the post here, as I wasn't sure if the original comment would carry over if I republished. Thanks, CHH, for your very thoughtful words. I'd love to hear more from you ...

The Original Post:

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 …

CHH said:

I greatly enjoyed reading your post regarding plastic surgery in the modern age. Much of what you said in the blog reminded me of a quote I recently heard. E.E. Cummings once said, "To be nobody-but-yourself- in a world that is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else- means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting." The theorist Raymond Williams once explained that culture is created on two vastly differing scales, the large scale, meaning the high culture ideals that are created by those in power and the small scale, the individual ideals that act to separate each one of us from everyone else. In the first sense, culture can be looked at as a whole, created on a large scale by those who hold power. There are certain "known," facts that are thought to be true and regarded by society as just that, true. For example, Mercedes Benz, while the engines may be no better than Honda, is held in higher esteem than most other car companies. The name is what gives it its worth much like plastic surgery, where only if you are a certain size, do you maintain worth. The second sense, however, the individual sense is what is supposed to separate us as individuals. The idea that you are who you are because of the choices you make. While society continually imposes messages and poster-perfect ideals in every area of life from shampoo to vacation destinations, individuality is a result of the selecting and choosing to represent one's true character. The problem is, however, media and television shows that reinforce what E.E. Cummings quote is all about. Shows like "Ten Years Younger," are only trying to make us look like everyone else, but that post-perfect image is unrealistic and only until you are enlisted as a plastic surgeon patient can you attain that image, an image that will make you look like most want to or already do look like. Such shows everywhere are telling us to fear the natural aging process, to see it as a negative thing and to do anything possible to prevent it from happening to you. The thing that each of us need to keep in mind is that idea that we are lucky that we have enough time in the day to worry about such petty issues. In some corners of the world, that would be a dream come true. For some, they are constantly worrying about the next meal, or pure survival. How then do we convince the world to stop subjecting others to a mere gaze, and start to actually see them for who they are? Is change even possible?

Great stuff! Come back soon, CHH!

Monday, February 18, 2008

'avin a larf

Russell Brand - Hodder & Stoughton £18.99

Ha ha ha, teeheehee, I’m a naughty boy and you can’t stop me ... indeed, we can’t. But then again, why would we want to? The Russell Brand, erm, brand has to be one of the biggest media success stories of the zeroes so far: naughty Satellite TV star, raunchy reality TV host, very funny funny man - and, apparently, sex symbol of the highest order. Gadzooks! The contumacious Goth is a gift that keeps on giving.
But beyond the mouthy persona, fright wig hair and drainpipe jeans, there lies a different Brand altogether - one that he’s not afraid to reveal, in full, frank, literary technicolour glory here.

Brand says that his biggest problem is that he’s lived an autobiography rather than a life. But if he’s been honest in his ‘Booky Wook’ (which I suspect he has – often brutally so), this isn’t a problem at all for those of us who have blithely hitched a ride on his bandwagon; after all, he’s now richly rewarded us for our commitment. While the journey he takes us on is often emotionally draining, excruciatingly embarrassing and at times distinctly uneasy (Brand rather refreshingly recounts more vile, inhumane indiscretions than moments of glory), it’s about as far removed from the usual “Aren’t I Fabulous?” memoirs that line the Waterstone’s shelves

Brand grew up in Essex, the only son of a doting mother and a car crash of a father. But – again, in sharp contrast to regular ‘Before I Was Famous’ bleatings – he’s keen to point out that divorced/dysfunctional parents are not to blame for this child’s ensuing slide into addiction and debauchery. Some who read the passage about the time when Father Brand took young Russ on a hooker-trawling trip to the Far East may beg to differ, but it becomes clear that Brand’s long-term relationship with the classic self-destruction triumvirate of sex, drugs and emotional rock’n’roll was one he forged entirely of his own accord. As a result, there are as many harrowing, sordid and/or depraved yarns from Brand’s pre-‘Big Brother’s Big Mouth’ turning point days as there are humane, gentle redemption tales in the ‘civilised zone’ afterwards. As they seamlessly combine, we’re left with a minor contemporary masterpiece as shimmeringly literate, foppishly ornate and lusciously unique as the man himself: silly, funny and thoughtful.

I know I'm late on the Brandwagon, but now I'm here, I just can't stop myself ...

As we start to look forward to looking back over the events of 2007, three topics are likely to dominate the annual conference: floods, missing Brits … and Russell Brand. The louche, loudmouthed lothario - renowned for his verbose vocabulary, hectic sex life and chaotic hair – has popped up everywhere from reality TV shows to Newsnight as the tabloids merrily bore him aloft on a tide of attention-grabbing headlines, many of which revolved around the few who haven’t shagged him either claiming to have done so or desperately craving his attentions.

Brand must be well familiar, then, with the heady reek of hysteria-fuelled hormones that greeted him as he took to the Hippodrome stage. Dolled up in his trademark, semi-Goth garb – think Robert Smith meets Amy Winehouse on the set of ‘Batman Begins’ – the dandy du jour confidently drolled his way through a 90-minute set, a combination of upmarket sleaze, pantomime dame innuendo and surreal, observational improvisations on the day’s news as presented by the Bristol Evening Post. He’s funny for sure, sexy perhaps and impressively, effortlessly compelling, displaying an underlying complexity far deeper than the cheeky chappie exterior: a confirmed Brand X for Generation Why? and already a much-loved British institution.

(I'll shut up about him now ...)

Friday, February 15, 2008

Chasing Rainbows

This time last week, spring was in the air. The rain stopped, the sun came out, and the local greengrocer was practically begging me to take a sudden abundance of sprouting broccoli, forced rhubarb, the first of the season’s broad beans and the last of the marrow-sized courgettes off his hands. The scouse branch of the family were due to arrive in a week’s time, I had tickets for the National Theatre production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ at the Theatre Royal, work was flowing in at the perfect rate … and then the phone call came: according to the doctors on his case, someone I’ve been close too since the correct positioning of a fake beauty spot was of more importance than where my next meal was coming from wasn’t going to be around for much longer.

My first reaction was total shock. Then, outrage: “ask those doctors to give you next week’s winning lottery lineup seeing as they seem to know so much about what’s going to happen!”. Then panic (“what about meeeeeee?”), the urge to vomit, a craving for a glass of wine (or six) … and the next day, welcome to the void (you know: the blank space of sadness and confusion into which we all have to leap at times like this before eventually emerging with some sort of game plan). Not that I’ve got a ‘game plan’, exactly; I don’t know what to do, how to help (either those directly involved or myself) or what the next couple of years will bring. But then again, we never do know all those things, do we? All we can do is deal with what’s going on as best as we can. As the person at the center of this whole, horrible drama said to me last night (I’m going to call him Bill for now), “I can’t do much about the outcome, but I can choose how to manage the experience while it’s all going on”. And somehow, I guess I can, too. Typically, though, Bill is the one who’s going to lead the way.

After that news, I suppose the week that’s just passed would have felt like it was spiraling down a bit anyway; I just didn’t feel like doing anything much at all, and even the domestic menus turned into a hotchpotch of forgotten-about freezer items and ready meals that tasted like the damp cardboard box they come in.

On Tuesday, I went to the theatre with my dad, only to find our seats were literally as far back as you could possibly be from the stage (the gallery benches – a version of hell up in what theatre buffs refer to as ‘the Gods’). We left before the performance began, and went and got tipsy in GP instead.

I spent Wednesday putting together menu plans and shopping for the forthcoming family trip: salmon fishcakes accompanied by courgettes roasted with rosemary and feta for Friday, Thai fish curry for Saturday, loads and loads of excess goodies – including homemade foccacia and a coffee and walnut cake – in between. Over £100 for ingredients-only? In the light of Bill’s news, who cares? Then on Thursday, another bloody phone call came: my mum had twisted her knee really badly, and there was no way she could make the trip in the car, let alone manage the stairs to my garret.

Now it’s Friday, and drizzle is piddling from the dark grey skies. I should be rushing around making beds now (and vacuuming under them, for once!) in readiness for my guests … but there aren’t any on their way.

But onwards and upwards, yes? As a result of Bill’s news, I’ve chatted on the phone this past week to fabulous people I haven’t spoken to for ages but really should talk to all the time. As a result of mum’s knee, I’ve got a kitchen full of recipes-in-progress and an impromptu dinner party with lovely friends planned for tomorrow (Mike’s delighted because I’m going to turn the pain au chocolat intended for part of the weekend’s breakfast treats into a rather posh bread and butter pudding). I’m going to meet my dad in town this afternoon and give him some ‘quality time’ (I hate that term, but sometimes it just fits) rather than clock-watching as he waffles on - fingers crossed, we’ll end up going for a curry. In other words, life is going on – and that’s exactly what I want Bill to believe, too.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

While my guitar gently weeps

Okay, I've said it before (in the Observer Sunday magazine, Venue and somewhere in the ancient archives of this very blog), but today of all days, why not say it again? Happy V-Day, love cats!

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.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Girl Talk

For me, being a woman in 2008 is fabulous. Sure, the path I've travelled to where I am today has had negative aspects – and to say that men have caused some of my most distressing dramas would be an understatement. But I'm not about to embark on a feminist tub-thumping rant about what beasts men are, because, in my experience, that’s patently untrue. Some of my best friends are men, as are most of my favourite writers, musicians, chefs - and boyfriend.

Nope, a desire to change gender in mid-stream, even temporarily, has never been on my fantasy wish list. To anybody who takes offence at that, please rest assured that I wouldn’t feel affronted by any man who expresses a similar sentiment about switching the other way. While Man’s World looks like a very cold and lonely place to me – under decorated, often insecure, and very hard work emotionally – I'm sure that, to the majority of men, Woman’s World looks equally alien, dominated as they think it is by too much chat, too much pink stuff and, ugh, periods.

Admittedly, it would be interesting to find out what it feels like to have a willy – but that’d only be a short-term novelty. Multiple orgasms as opposed to the one-shot deal? No competition! But then, men aren’t natural multi-anythingers. They tend to concentrate on just one task at a time - crikey, I'd be bored stiff if I had to write a feature, roast a chicken, paint my nails, watch ‘Lost’ and chat to my mum all as a series of single tasks. In fact, I couldn’t bear not being able to ‘chat’ as a pastime at all - and that’s another thing I wouldn’t like about Man’s World: it’s too bloody quiet. No wonder they get all shouty at The Match – they’re letting rip with a week’s worth of non-chatting.

I love – in fact, it’s safe to say I revel in - being ‘girly’. Make up, hair salons, new shoes, glossy magazines, sparkly jewellery, curves, bubble baths, puppies, baking, soft things – they may not be my defining characteristics, but my goodness, the props are excellent. ‘Girl stuff’ provides a natural, stress-relieving comfort zone behind whatever career, social, political and family life women choose to create for themselves. Even the soundtrack is fabulous: I Will Survive? Dancing Queen? It’s Raining Men? Hallelujah! Let’s get shimmying around our handbags, for tomorrow, we’re back to work. In short, I like being girly for all the reasons many men say women get on their nerves. Perhaps, then, I just like being annoying? Ah, that’s women for you.

But I don’t feel I have to forfeit even these clichéd definitions of gender in order to coexist with men, enjoy life as a contemporary woman, or keep the feminist flag flying. I'm all too aware of the injustices still rife in this country, let alone globally, when it comes to the status of women - domestic violence, salary disparity, and prejudicial fear and loathing are still, unfortunately, endemic. But so too are the women who wage a public war on male-to-female weapons of emotional mass destruction, on both a global and a personal scale, every day; in the UK, our feminist heritage is so ingrained that it’s become mainstream – and there are legions of peaceable brothers in arms who are all too willing to support us.

We no longer have to burn our bras in order to prove our devotion to the sisterhood; these days, the feminist who chooses to wear Agent Provocateur underwear is no longer guilty of gender denial of betrayal. Meanwhile, over on Planet Bloke, they’re still coming to terms with the burden of their own heritage: that they’ll never be equipped to appreciate the joys of Dancing Queen, the relief brought about by a two-hour chat about nothing, or the thrill of opening a new bottle of Chanel’s Rose D’Anglais nail varnish. Goodness, the poor dears! What on earth do they fill their days with?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Fit for a Queen

Many moons ago, an apprentice food critic was commissioned to review the Olive Tree in Bath. In many ways, the job represented some kind of ‘arrival’ for the rookie: the restaurant enjoyed established ‘Bath Institution’ status; our fledgling foodie was a mere upstart. And yet there she was in the hallowed surroundings of the elegant but formal Queensbury Hotel, eating fusty food served from domed silver salvers by waiters who strictly adhered to 1950s-era ‘silver service’ standards. It was an experience our tyro would never forget - the point where the whole concept of food representing much more than fuel, the artifice of ‘fine dining’ and the relevance of the restaurant critic came together in one glorious melange. I (for yes, dear reader, that naïve novice was yours truly) didn’t quite have the confidence to say it like it is back then, timidly noting that “the attention to detail is superb but the overall event somehow lacks a certain oomph”. But I knew that, unlikely though it was, the Olive Tree and I had much in common: we each had a responsibility to develop.

Five years on, and boy, have we grown. Not long after I’d relegated the Olive Tree to ‘stuffy old relic’ status, Laurence and Helen Beere took to the helm, dumping the chintz in favour of warm-but-cool minimalist décor, blending a welcoming atmosphere with social and environmental responsibility and capturing the collective imagination of the hip hotel brigade without excluding the old school ties. Head chef Marc Salmon (est. 2005) combines gentle innovation with well-honed tradition to great effect, eschewing gastro-wizardry in favour of creating dishes that sparkle with unpretentious charm. Indeed, dinner at the Olive Tree today is an opportunity for me not only to evaluate where I’ve travelled on my own personal routemap since I first visited, but to assess what factors are moving and shaking the contemporary food scene. Our starters, for example, were all about contrasts: Cornish haddock and creamed leek mille feuille with roasted vine tomatoes, queen scallops with poached ham hock and sweetcorn velouté. Think about it: both dishes combine simple, top-notch, seasonal ingredients with a whisper of sheer luxury, giving familiar comfort zones a wickedly sensual edge. At first glance, menu prices may not be cheap. But at the Olive Tree, you get way more than you pay for.

Next up, my beautifully presented duck breast lounged in plumptous, languid slices alongside a freestyle patty of sweet potato, with thyme tatin and onion marmalade adding depth, tang and/or complexity depending on what components I chose to combine on the fork. Meanwhile, his Cornish seabass with Portland crab and butternut squash risotto – at first glance, a much simpler dish than mine - was quick to reveal equally dextrous hidden depths: the seabass’ crispy exterior gave way to sweet, tender flesh, while robust squash gave weight to a creamy, mild-mannered risotto that itself carried a buoyant supply of very fresh crab hidden within its soporific folds. A shared, mixed vegetable side order further represented Salmon’s textural mastery; wow, this chef is Hot. Throughout it all, the high standard of those all-important peripherals maintained a relentless pace: friendly, fluid service. Oven-fresh bread. An unbidden teacup-sized taster of butternut squash soup. An excellent wine list (and a highly competent guide). As I now have the confidence to say it like it is, I’ll say this for the Olive Tree: it’s pretty darn perfect.

After toffee rice pudding with apple and pear compote and flapjacks and lemon baked alaska with citrus fruits (both – as we’d come to expect – very, very witty twisters on the theme), we signed off with coffee and homemade fudge in the neat, chic lounge. I remember being delighted with that homemade fudge five years ago; some things, it seems, never change.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Cluck cluck!

Mr Loverman has turned traitor. I feed him smoked goose risotto, slow roasted lamb in mascarpone sauce and real roast dinners on a regular basis – ho hum. But if I softly whisper ‘The Colonel’ in the middle of the night, I guarantee that passions will quickly rise. If we pass a roadside billboard advertising a Family Bucket™, he almost crashes the car. He’s not that faithful in his fixation - after five pints, any old McChicken will do. But if he were to nominate his favourite food, I have a feeling that the Colonel’s menu would win over my humble offerings any day. It was time, then, to confront my nemesis, one tough old bird to another.

Plastic furniture, harsh lights, the smell of hot fat, sugar and cleaning fluid wafting throughout – yup, you’re in KFC. In the Bath branch, the staff are friendly in that ‘corporate script’ way and the service efficient in a similar fashion. The Traitor knew exactly what he wanted, and a Colonel’s Meal™ (3 pieces of famous ‘secret recipe’ chicken, a Hot Wing™, a Crispy Strip™, fries and barbecue beans, £3.99) was swiftly dispatched. I, however, don’t speak KFC so fluently, and eventually had to have a Wicked Zinger meal™ (also £3.99) translated for me: a spicy chicken burger, two Hot Wings™, more fries and some coleslaw. We were asked if we wanted to ‘Tower up’™, ‘go large’, and so on, but declined. We did, however, get Diet Cokes as part of the deal (hey, we’re healthy!).

In a way, the fried chicken is actually (whisper it) quite nice … if you just have one bite; any more than that and you start craving a Gaviscon chaser. Still, the pieces were definitely more ‘chickeny’ than my burger, which was floppy, strangely damp and tasted of nothing at all. The ‘Crispy Strip’™ tasted like lukewarm, deep fried skin, the ‘Hot Wings’™ – well, no chicken had ever flown on these sad, scrawny appendages. I was reduced to dipping fries into my coleslaw (again, both quite nice, if a tad synthetic) while reading a nutritional information leaflet (all credit to KFC: they don’t attempt to hide the facts) because I couldn’t watch the inelegant carnage going on on the other side of the table. But then, digesting those facts in the literal sense of the word brought on yet another attack of biliousness. Our meals each contained over 1200 calories and around 60 grams of fat - if you want to scoff your entire recommended daily amount of both in one go, this is the place to do it. But despite not feeling full of anything after I’d eaten, I was ready to throw up. A strangely textured substance coated the back of my teeth, I reeked of Eau de KFC, and next morning’s poo was a Gillian McKeith special: ragged, pale and buoyant, it looked like – well, it like I’d dumped a Zinger meal™ straight into the pan (which in a way, I had).

Westlife, ‘Deal or No Deal’ and Jackie Collins’ novels: these are a few of my favourite things. When confronted with somebody else’s guilty pleasure, mine feel innocent, wholesome and far more tasteful. And my rival? Baby, the gloves are off: