Monday, March 30, 2009

.... so mind your own!

Excuse me. How are you? You look nice. Yes please, I’d love to. Thank you, that was wonderful. Gosh, just typing those phrases makes me come over all calm, civilised and warm. So I’ll make the most of this moment, because it’s probably the only time today – if not this week, month or year – when I’m going to get the opportunity to consider how even the idea of such polite social interactions me feel.

Walking around Bath – yes, the supposedly gracious epicentre of all things manners-related – last Saturday, it dawned on me that we’ve turned into a nation of free-range pigs. Having been crashed into several times by hoards of marauding teenagers, almost run down by several pot-bellied blokes (their stained, slogan-scrawled t-shirts reeking of BO) and a gaggle of yummy mummies who cared not whose ankles the ugly buggies containing their ugly bug kids smashed to smithereens as long as they made it to Baby Gap before the next feed, I took refuge in the nearest cafĂ©. “Youalrightthere?”, drooled the skinny Neanderthal behind the counter, his jeans tugged so far down his scrawny buttocks that a tattoo bearing the legend ‘up for it!’ was revealed. Behind me, an obnoxious chav belched a lungful of smoke into my hair. The guy in the queue next to me shoved his fist down the front of his track suit bottoms and grated his knuckles across his groin. I left just as the Neanderthal’s co-worker started frothing milk with one hand while picking her nose with the other, exiting via a door that the person who barged in front of me allowed to slam in my face.

I wish I could say that things are better at home, but they’re not. I’ve lived under the same roof as men who regard burping, belching and farting as acceptable means of communication and think its fine to pee in the sink. An overnight guest once alerted me to the presence of a skid mark he’d painted on the toilet bowl with the words, “I’ve left a little reminder of my visit in the loo”. I once had a party, complete with massive buffet and free-flowing cocktails, after which not a single thank you was received. As for plate licking, dragging fingers through gravy, leaving dirty underwear scattered around public spaces and using coffee cups as ashtrays: it’s all going on. The notion of good manners – like decent conversation and a humane regard for the wellbeing of others – seems to have slipped from the collective consciousness altogether; I’m seriously considering taking myself off to a baboon sanctuary in search of some elegant, sophisticated company.

Fortunately, there are still ‘ordinary’ folk who swim against the great unwashed tide. I recently enjoyed dinner with a male friend who not only offered to take my coat and pulled my chair out for me as we sat down, but asked if I was enjoying my food, put his knife and fork down between bites rather than bolting every morsel, sipped his wine instead of swigging it and apologised – yes, apologised! – for the soft clatter his fork made when he accidently allowed it to slip from his grip. But he is, sadly, the rare exception that proves the rule that such behaviour has become as antiquated as turning your mobile phone off when in company.

Social psychologist John F Davidio says that manners are a class-related concept. Feminist hardliners believe that a woman who allows a door to be held open for her is accepting condescension. In reality, such arrogant, supercilious theories do little more than perpetuate archaic notions of class and gender divides – as do bad manners themselves. As novelist, poet and travel writer Maurice Baring said, “Whoever and wherever one is, one is always at a disadvantage if one is rude”. I bet he never peed in the sink.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Withnail...and me

I woke up today feeling healthier and calmer than I have any right to, given that I spent the whole of yesterday in bed with a hangover, only getting up when it was time to smarten up my act in readiness for another night on the town. If the Friday I so blithely wrote off was a tad ‘Withnail and I’ in character, the overall theme running through the two evenings that bookended it combined all the good stuff from ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Sex and the City’ (but fortunately without a hint of ‘Mistresses’) and a bit of Jane Austen/Lewis Carroll thrown in for good measure. Bear with me; I can explain:

When I first moved to Bath (from Liverpool via London and Clevedon, taking in an on/off stint in Canada in the BA2 early days) I didn’t know a single soul in the city other than Medad. Frankly, I’m not sure if I even knew myself. I’d resigned from my full time job as Helpline Co-ordinator for a leading voluntary organisation working to end violence against women to return to attempting to make a living out of writing, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do (although I’ve always maintained a strong interest in hairdressing, too). The job I left held ‘big career’ potential (and a salary that went with such status), but, as ‘worthy’ as it was, the politics of the charity I worked for ironically enough ended up filling me with self-doubt, low self-esteem and serious emotional burn out. So I left. And moved to Bath. And for a while, didn’t have any friends to play with. Looking back, I’d embarked on a journey not of reinvention but of true discovery. If you’re forced to spend a lot of time on your own, you become your own best friend. Eventually, my best friend and I (I can’t help putting it like that; I’m a gemini) carved a nice little niche for ourselves, in a flat with a glorious view (shared with a glorious friend), writing about food and life and what’s on at the theatre for a magazine that even the current financial climate can’t kill.

Today, I still have the flat, the friend, the job (and another couple of creative outlets for which I’m fortunate enough to be paid, including an involvement at the Theatre Royal’s egg Theatre) and a live-in boyfriend who gets more and more handsome by the minute. The rest, as they say, is (personal) history, much which is shared here (and there’s much more to come). But before I started writing about food, I didn’t know what an e’spuma was, and used to say haricot with a hard ‘t’.

Last Thursday evening, I spent a very entertaining five minutes discussing how annoying it is when Bree in ‘Desperate Housewives’ (yup, them again) persisted with the American pronunciation of parmesan (“parmajhan” - aaargh!) with a charismatic, hilarious interior designer. I’ve linked her without even asking her permission, but something tells me she won’t mind; anyway, she’s partly responsible for today’s mellow mood, hence this post - and the connection with Jane Austen. The CHID and her friend reckon that Bath needs a new Jane - and I want to be her. Like me, Jane wasn’t actually a ‘true’ Bathonian. Like me, she was obsessed with who said what to who and what they wore when they were saying it. Unlike me, she hated Bath. But y’know - there could be some mileage in this idea. Later on that same evening, I was topped up with yet more inspiration by GP’s resident soul diva (I’m sorry, Joan, for using you as a live karaoke machine, but I couldn’t resist). And yes, I went on to get ridiculously drunk, but hey-ho, it was, after all, a wine tasting - of which there was another one last night (albeit unofficial).

Now you could say that this post is merely a ramble from somebody who has been having just a bit too much fun lately. But seriously, there’s far more to what I’m trying to say than merely admitting to that. Yes, lots of fun has been had. And yes, there was a lot of daft chit-chat along the way. But in between the lines, the time had come, it seems, to talk of many things. While shoes were probably touched on a bit and ships, sealing wax, cabbages and kings didn’t even get a mention, many other things certainly did.

Last night, I was inspired yet again, firstly by a random encounter with the wonderful Molly Mudd, and later by a new friend who joined my old friends (old in terms of how long I’ve known them; I was actually the ‘most mature’ - ha! - woman at the table) and has made the very most of a situation which would have shrivelled those of a lesser character. I was inspired by my friends who had completed the Bath half-marathon. I was inspired by the philosophy one of them applied to a dreadful experience her sister has just been thought. And all the time I was thinking to myself, “this is what life is about. Not recession and scantily-clad invoices and receding word-counts, but experience, and friendship, and inspiration”.

I want to be Bath’s new Jane Austen. I want to write my friend’s life stories (and my own). I want to be brave enough to say “yes, I’m in love” (rather than resisting the idea, for fear of getting hurt). I don’t quite know how I’m going to go about making such dreams into reality (although the ‘love’ thing is pretty much a done deal between my best friend and I), but I know for sure I’m gonna do it. I have the time. I have the impulse. And - thanks to the friends I have made in Bath - I have the resources.

If you’ve stuck with me this far today, I can’t thank you enough. I needed to get all that off my chest, and I hope I’ve made some sort of sense beyond just rambling. Now may I please ask one small favour of you? If you have indeed got this far, could you leave a little note in the comments box, erm...commenting? I know you’re out there, and I’ve put myself out here. So what do you think?

Have a wonderful weekend, y’all.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

TV, TS, GP, DS and EA

Wow, I can’t believe I haven’t posted here since Hot Leg! That all feels like ages ago now (probably because it is). I also can’t believe that the very lovely Animal Disco fan who emailed me (nb. she could have posted a comment, y’know – hint hint) to ask where I’d disappeared to believed me when I said I’d taken to my bed having been struck down by a serious bout of existential angst. Thanks for virtual chocolates, Helena (yes, such things do exist, and very virtually tasty they are too) but I was, I fear, merely being ridiculous. Existential angst? Far from it! Caught up in the world of updating Venue’s Eating Out West guide, more like. And in between times: making a holy show of myself in the little pub next to the Theatre Royal (Ricky Gervais: I don’t really want your puppies) and getting unhealthily addicted to TV shows such as Paris Hilton’s New British Best Friend (I knew Sam would win), Heston’s various hysterical, historical feasts and the gloriously glamorous ‘Dirty Sexy Money’ (which is swiftly overtaking ‘Desperate Housewives’ as my favourite time-wasting activity). I also watched the More4 ‘True Stories’ documentary ‘Tears, Tantrums and Tiaras’ an unhealthy amount of times, justifying my aforementioned ridiculousness by calling it research for my new summer look. But don’t switch off here! I’m honestly not one of those bloggers who consider sharing what I’ve watched on TV worthy of a stand-alone post. But then again, sharing what I’ve been reading is hardly uplifting either (unless you are – or have ever been – an Adam and the Ants/Stuart Goddard fan).

Aaaaanyway: after a brief moment when the sun came out last week, the weather has gone rubbish again, my agent is seriously on my case re missed deadlines for future projects and I’ve been spending a vast amount of TV/computer-free time in the kitchen, making cupcakes and Easter Biscuits and lots of variations on the cannellini/butter/kidney bean mash theme. Potatoes? Who needs ‘em! I’ve also been rekindling my relationship with Dim Sum, thanks to a special request by friends who are coming to dine at the Animal Disco Bistro (special invitation only) next weekend. Did you know that if you take fresh lasagne sheets and roll them out really thinly, they can be used as dumpling casings? I fill mine with minced pork, prawn and spring onions then steam them for around 7 minutes (not 6, not 9 – 7, y’hear?) and they turn out gorgeous (you need to provide dipping sauce, though). This weekend I intend to perfect a filling for duck gyoza (okay, I know that’s Japanese, so not strictly trad Dim Sum) and fiddle with spring rolls that don’t need deep frying. Hoorah! I’m also going to GP’s Cheese and Wine Event this evening, out with girls tomorrow (Minibar, here we come!) and acting as roadie/project manager for a friend who has just brought a new house. What’s that I hear you say, oh dearest agent? Yes, I’m getting on with it now! Honestly I am! Just as soon as I’ve watched TT&T again so I’m sure to perfect the perfect makeup/updo combo later on. In keeping with the theme, I even intend to wear the Lily Savage-style silver wedges that I found lurking in the Barratt’s closing down sale for a fiver! As a good friend of mine once said, certain items are vastly reduced in the sales for good reason - ie, they’re either tasteless, unwearable or slutty. Such are the three main reasons I love my new shoes.

Existential angst? No, not I…

Thursday, March 12, 2009

University town challenged

I went to see Hot Leg play in Oxford on Tuesday evening - and very good they were too. You can read Stephen’s review here and you might, like me, appreciate the part where he compares lead singer Justin Hawkins to Russell Brand, ‘the nation’s favourite ironic-Byronic dandy’. I wouldn’t have been able to resist putting the word ‘iconic’ in there too, which is perhaps why I don’t write reviews for The Times but Stephen does. Anyway, I suggest you read his review, because he sums the actual experience of seeing the band up perfectly, leaving me to waffle about all the bits around the edges - namely, Oxford itself.

Lots of people go on about how swooningly pretty Oxford is. However - perhaps as a result of living in Bath? - I just don’t agree with any of them. For sure, the colleges are lovely and some of the riverside areas are very picturesque. But the part we visited (Cowley Road) was like a mini version of London’s Camden, all takeaway after takeaway (‘Rice & Peas’ being my favourite - I didn’t take anything away from it; I just like the idea) and student-friendly shops and bars, but without that properly grubby, grimy edge and the endless possibilities for minor-league star spotting that summarise Camden’s main USP. But then again, the students who congregate around Cowley Road are as clean and fresh-faced as the Nolan Sisters were before one of them discovered (and later tried to forget) Shane Richie and another (or perhaps it’s even the same one) turned into a Loose Woman and started Dancing on Ice. Most of them look like they’ve just come off the set for a Starbucks/Gap/Timotei shampoo advert, and the ones at the gig looked very out of place and uncomfortable, which they tried to disguise by trying to look as though they really ‘got’ Hot Leg, and were as knowing and ironic about pomp-rock pantomime as Luscious Justin himself clearly is. The girl immediately in front of me was a particularly annoying example of the genre. When she wasn’t texting (‘the band r gr8 but a bit loud’, etc) she persisted in holding up a really stinky (obviously leaking) Zippo lighter (even as a parody, such an act stopped being funny about 15 years ago). And then she started headbanging, which looked really odd given that she had that Timotei hair ad thing going on too, and as everybody knows you just can’t headbang if you have Very Clean Hair. Anyway, I’m sure she enjoyed herself - despite her, I most certainly did.

We drove back to Bath the way we came, avoiding Oxford city centre and taking straight to the A roads instead. Lovely as the journey was (it was a gert big new moon that evening, and the landscape looked lovely - particularly the bunnies who were at it like, erm, rabbits all along the roadside). But I would have liked to have driven past the Randolph Hotel in town, because I have really fond/strange/bittersweet memories connected to it and a great story which ends with how I once stayed in a Deluxe Suite there (I think it might have been called The Oscar Wilde Suite) for free. But that’s for another time, I guess. This time around, Oxford was all about dirty rockers who don’t look too dissimilar to the New York Dolls and Students With Very Clean Hair. 

Stephen gave the gig three stars out of five. I give the whole evening 11.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

That Sunday feeling...?

Much like the weather, my mood could go in any direction today. On one hand, I'm ridiculously contented: well over halfway though one of the most laborious jobs of the year (researching and compiling listings etc for Venue's annual food guide, 'Eating Out West'), and at about the same halfway house stage with the menu for today's late lunch (smoked mackerel pate on toast followed by roast pork with cannelini bean and kale mash, and fresh strawberry mousse for pud - yum!). I've had a week away from the bar (resulting in a three pound weight loss without much effort at all), one of my favourite people has just announced that she's three months pregnant (huge congrats, M2B!) and according to astrologer Neil Spencer in today's Observer magazine, 'midweek tumult at work offers me a chance to advance my course' (which I think is a rather exciting prediction, despite the 't' word). So what's going on with the other hand?

A recent reappreciation of The Pet Shop Boys - who have been one of my favourite bands ever, since long before their recent Brit Award accolade - has turned me all nostalgic. Is there a better (or more beautifully expressed) paean to insecurity than 'Jealousy' (which put me in mind of a long-lost friend)? Don't you yearn to be engulfed by the feelings expressed so well in 'I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing'? Isn't 'Young Offender', though desperately sad and, erm, a bit desperate, also thrillingly uplifting? I feel strong connections to these three songs, and listening to them again today has made me realise just how much I want, need and yearn for a publisher to allow me to spend my time waffling on and on about life's many contradictions, bittersweet experiences and odd twists and turns along the way in short (or even long) story format. Perhaps Wednesday is going to bring such an opportunity to my door. Or perhaps not. Either way, life does and will go on - and my mood, like the weather today, will adapt and change with the moment.

Please click'n'play below. I'd be interested to hear how these delicious ditties make you feel, too...

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Fast Food Nation?

It’s just been announced that some of the UK’s most well-known fast food chains are set to create over 2000 new jobs across the UK by the end of the year, 240+ of them in Bristol and Bath alone. A spokesperson for a popular high street pizza takeaway chain said that profits have increased massively and expansion is on the near horizon as consumers “abandon the restaurant sector and choose to dine at home”, with similar ‘trends’ reported by supermarkets who are seriously pumping up the (sales) volume in the ready meal aisles, where sales are reportedly up by 110% on last year.

But at the same time as these statistics were released, Channel 4 reported massive viewing figures for their recent Great British Food Fight series, highlights of which included Jamie Oliver campaigning on behalf of British pork farmers and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall putting a big shout out for the wellbeing of our feathered friends. So are we to deduce that when Great British Bums hit their Great British Sofas ready for a lecture from their favourite celebrity chefs, they apparently did so while scoffing a banquet of expensive fast food, mostly made from ingredients with a less than salubrious heritage? If this isn’t one of the saddest indictments on the state of the nation right now, I don’t know what is. But if predictions from the trend forecasters who have managed to hang on to their jobs are correct, the scenario is an indication of the shape of things to come.

“Consumers want great quality food at reasonable prices, and that is exactly what we provide,” said Martin Shuker, KFC’s UK Chief Executive at a recent press conference. Hugh must be tearing his hair out in dismay. I know I am.