Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Perhaps it's time to teach the new pups some old tricks...

“All the world’s a stage,” Jaques begins, before going on to define our roles, from puking infant through school-hater, on to woeful lover, hero and slipper’d pantaloon wearer before finally heading toward mere oblivion sans...frankly, if you don’t already know, you don’t want to (however, if you don’t but do, check out act two, scene seven of Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’ - the monologue generally known as ‘the Seven Ages of Man’).

Medad - a man who, despite technically nestling somewhere between sixth and seventh age, still generally chooses to adhere to the syntax of the script he wrote for his own late adolescence - defines the stages differently, and includes “your girlfriend being mistaken for your daughter” before “holidaying in Weston Super Mare”. While describing him as ‘sprightly’ would never be taken as a compliment, it’s better than another remark he’s overheard, which relates to him “always being so clean”. Patronising? You’ve got it. And yet here we have a man who, on a good day, can navigate his way around the less salubrious Paris bistros of his youth faster than I can say ‘encore du vin’ in each, while even on a ‘bad’ day (ie, when he describes himself as ‘a bit knackered’) he dispenses more wit, wisdom and offbeat opinion than you’d find in a week’s worth of Radio 4 schedules. Sprightly and clean he may be, but in his case, a life well lived amounts to far more than good calf muscles and a decent laundry service - and I would suspect that this is true of many of a similar vintage. But in our haste to beat the clock that ticks away inside all of us, the condescending, shortsighted attitudes that prove how carelessly we overlook those older than us only serves to highlight our own denial.

In the UK today, we live alongside more people of pensionable age (18.5% of the population, as it happens) than we do teenagers. As a result of improvements in health care and medicine over the second half of the last century, that figure is expected to continue to rise dramatically throughout this one; play your cards right (because, oh sapling, the only viable alternative to ageing is an early death) and you’ll be bolstering the stats. But when you get there, do you want to be regarded as second class citizen just because you can’t read the instructions on the back of a ready meal box? Will you deserve to be huffed and tutted at when you’ve misheard what somebody said, or need a bit of extra time to take cash from your wallet? Would you want an optician to casually allow your appointment to lapse for over an hour because the flashy upstart ahead of you is discussing the BOGOF on Gucci sunglasses, or have an assistant loudly exclaim “oh, you still like a drop of wine, then - good for you!” when you add a bottle of Chardonnay to your weekly shop? I’m guessing that your answer is no. And yet, these are typical examples of the sort of experiences Medad endures on a daily basis.

Now I can’t claim to be the most patient daughter - let alone citizen - on the planet. But because Medad is also one of mebestmates, I’m hyper aware of how my generation treats his. I’m sorry to report that, despite all our grand claims regarding an eco-friendly/socially responsible attitude to the world around us, we don’t fare well. Are we so trapped by our own egos that we don’t realise that one day, all this - from bus pass to deteriorating faculties - will be ours? As Jarvis Cocker sang on Pulp’s cheerful 1997 ditty ‘Help the Aged’, “behind those lines on their face, you can see where you are headed” - an updated stance, perhaps, on the Bard’s musings on the same subject, all the more relevant today.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

It does tend to make you a bit, erm, windy though....

There’s something really wholesome, satisfying and creative about choosing to follow a meat-free diet. If I’m preaching to the converted, then forgive me for such an obvious statement. But halfway though a seven day experiment to coincide with Vegetarian Week, what I thought was already a fully-stoked obsession has been subject to an intense reinvigoration. I didn’t know how jaded my palate had become until I ditched the familiar flesh in favour of food that was inestimably fresher and far less gory to prepare. The process of rehydrating pulses or grinding nuts coupled with the rekindled realisation that aubergines, courgettes and even the humble cauliflower can provide the thrust of a whole meal, not just a supporting role, has reminded me what real food is all about.

Although a perfect steak, a fragrant sliver of pork or the scent of slowly roasting lamb all offer an appeal that I’m not prepared to give up entirely, taking a week-long break from carving my way around gristle, bone and sinew or justifying my bloodthirsty appetite by paying a small fortune for a dead animal that enjoyed a Brideshead Revisited-style upbringing before it died for me is putting me back in touch with a far more tasteful aspect of my foodie self.

As I was brought up vegetarian, I’m spending many long hours of my flesh-free week experiencing an extended sense of déjà vu, fondly recalling suppers created around potato cakes, homemade hummus, peanut butter and wholemeal bread. I can suddenly remember how weird it seemed to consider eating the real-life version of the toy animals I snuggled up in bed with every night. At the age of 16, a rebellious moment involving a hot dog dragged me off the path of righteousness. Decades on, a hazelnut, leek and cheese burger is leading me back towards the light.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Sunblest loaf and a packet of fags, please

As I mentioned in a previous post, Mike and I recently went for a little wander around the canal one sunny Sunday evening - the Kennet and Avon, to be precise, at the point where it mingles with the city. Gosh, we’re so lucky to live in such a beautiful part of the world! Just a short walk away from the rather concrete carbuncle that is the Travelodge hotel (recently revamped, natch), one finds oneself surrounded by the natural, unforced tranquility that only a canal bank stroll can offer. While Mike busied himself taking photographs of a huge sun setting over the cutesy cottages and rather grander homes that nestle all the way up the surrounding hills nearby, I sat on the riverbank feeding a duck and her two tiny babies bread wedges torn from a 39p Sunblest loaf - brought at the Smile stores for that very purpose (although really, I didn’t have to justify my purchase to the cashier there; like he cared about my apparent bad taste!) - and watching the invisible fish just below the water’s surface feast on the dough balls my new friends missed. A cheap loaf, a Marlboro light and sunset over the canal: the experience was, dear reader, about as good as life gets.

Last Friday, I finally got around to putting a real-life face to the name of Theo, a fellow blogger (and Bath-based architect student, and all-round interesting character) whose blog I can’t directly link to here as I still can’t get to grips with Wordpress (!) but who, I trust, might very kindly add a comment to this post and supply a link to his work. Theo was lovely; one of those people that one rarely has the good fortune to come across, who you just know is authentically, genuinely and effortlessly bright, interesting, charming and funny. Ah, t'internet; it’s not just for researching pornography based on a Lion King theme, y’know.

The next day, I spent from 4.30-10.45pm watching the Next Stage production of the entire Torch Song Trilogy at the Mission Theatre, for Venue review purposes. All three plays have a wonderful script and an enthralling storyline linking the trio together, but even so, such attributes would be nothing without the right theatre company to bring it back to live. Next Stage did, I’m happy to report, turn what could have been a totally arse-numbing evening into 6+ hours of sheer delight. After watching the Trilogy again for the first time in years, though, it did slowly dawn on me that the older I get, the more like Arnold Beckoff I become. Is that a good thing, or is it actually a bit tragic? Ah, what the heck; I never was comfortable walking in flat shoes.

And before I knew it, Sunday had rolled around again, and a lunch that, fortunately, failed to be haunted by the ghosts from the recent past (Easter Sunday’s decomposing leg of lamb - remember?). This time around, we feasted on soft roast pork, butternut squash roasted with sage and fresh corn kernels and the ubiquitous cannellini bean’n’savoy cabbage mash, followed by Portuguese custard tarts…and it was all really, really yummy, especially the tarts (which where actually just fresh custard tarts, but Delia’s recipe says they’re of Portuguese origin, and she’s rarely wrong). As the sun was still shining by the time we’d finished eating, we drove up to the Wheatsheaf and carried on supping rose in their glorious garden, an experience marred only by Medad throwing a really weird, self-indulgent tantrum over nothing at all (honestly, nothing at all!) and refusing to speak for the last 45 minutes of our outing. Way to go, Medad! I hope that when I’m 80, I’m still a teenager too.

PS. The first person to get the connection between the dog in the photo and this post wins a prize.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Happily Ever After...?

According to a recent survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics, fewer British couples get married today than they did in 1895, and 1.66 million children are brought up either by unmarried couples or a single parent.

Predictably, the Daily Telegraph published these statistics under the headline “The Death of the Traditional Family”. Inevitably, knees jerked wildly all over the letters page the following day, while the spasms reached fever pitch in the online comments box. Telegraph readers blamed the ‘state of the nation’ on feminists, lefties, the benefits system and “dirty immigrants”. Ho hum, here we go: “put birth control in the water supply - no antidote without proof of assets and a British marriage certificate!” was one typical response. “Perhaps the Catholic Church and other religious bodies which believe in the family could ask politicians not to recognise children who are the by-product of marriages conducted under the state’s auspices OR OUTSIDE OF THIS COUNTRY!”, ranted another. “Get rid of the man-haters who have been running 'Child Protection' agencies and advising the government on social policy!”, spewed yet another bright spark (adding “they’re the ones who secretely [sic] give children contraceptives and love watching girls have abortions” just for good measure). So far, so stereotypical. Personally, I don’t give a toss if children are raised by a commune of transgendered Star Wars fans as long as they’re given a violence-free upbringing, a good education and decent food. What worries me is a far more sinister element of modern life, also unearthed by the survey but largely overlooked by those who either conducted it or so publicly responded to it.

In 2008, 29% of men under the age of 34 still lived with their parents (52% of these in the 20-24 age group). The ONS survey analysts went to great lengths to explain that men have delayed ‘setting up on their own’ because there’s been a substantial increase in those choosing to remain in education, while the cost of living has risen drastically; as a result, almost a third of them still live with mummy. Meanwhile, the vast majority of women (79% of those aged over 21, according to the survey) have flown the nest - but not, as the knee-jerkers will blindly assume, to live ‘the single life’ on state benefits in a council house with five illegitimate children. Single women aged 22-30 are nine times more likely than men to either live in privately rented accommodation or their own property. And yet, women account for over 55% of university places, while another Great British Tradition dictates that they still earn 17% less, on average, than men of the same age. How did the survey analysts account for the fact that women manage where men can’t cope? They didn’t. Because the real reason so many men live the Timothy Lumsden lifestyle has less to do with the credit crunch (or feminists, lefties, immigrants, etc) than a general inability to grow up. If you’re a man who lives at home, you’ve got more pocket money to spend on boy toys such as iPhones, iPods and XBoxes than your boring, grown up mates have. You don’t have to share the TV or computer in your bedroom with anybody else and, after she’s done your washing, mum might bring you a cup of tea in bed...which you can drink while reading dad’s Telegraph, after he’s gone off to work.

The ‘traditional nuclear family’ may be in decline, but men can’t be decent daddies when they still need their own, doting mummies so badly. You can bet a Masters degree in social history that, when children are on the agenda, women aren’t going to consider a 34 year old toddler for the role of father - and that’s a situation that’s going to have more of an influence on the future of ‘family life’ than immigration figures ever will.

Monday, May 4, 2009

What was formerly a closeted existence, etc...

If I was blessed with the gift of knowing how to use the digital camera I haven’t actually got (a situation that makes this musing is about as hypothetical as musings get), I would have treated you all to an exhibition entitled ‘Images from Inside My Wardrobe: Before and After’. It may not have been as news or cashworthy an exercise as Tracey Emin’s ‘Bed’ turned out to be, but before I launched myself into a major deconstruction on the whole assemblage, there were definitely elements that may have captured Charles Saatchi’s imagination.

Exhibit One: the lurid purple nylon top - easy to mistake for a tacky curtain - that was brought in the Dublin branch of Primark for two quid the day before I heard that Thumper the lizard king was gasping his last breaths, too far away for me to be by his side.

Exhibit Two: an empty Dasani mineral water bottle, as clutched before being glugged in a state of extreme panic at a Canadian airport, years ago.

Exhibit Three: the £79 leather’n’suede country’n’western style boots with stack heels that look like they were made from compressed balsa wood and no visible differential between the left and right boot. No wonder I only wore them once…but then again, at least I gave them a good outing: Paris, two years ago, when we’d rented a quirky, dirty courtyard apartment from a fashion student who left when we arrived without doing her dishes or changing the bed sheets on a bed that was fashioned from fruit pallets and decaying slabs of stained foam. I don’t know what possessed me to buy the boots in the first place, but I do know that I’ll never, ever buy anything from Fat Face in Bath again (or return to that flat).

Exhibit Four: the dusty Birkenstock ripoffs, their leather uppers now brittle with neglect and vitamin D deficiency. Only a hint of their cork and rubber soles are in evidence today and it’s hard to tell if the uppers were ever once navy blue or dark purple, but in their glory days those sandals shuffled along pavements from Hollywood to Toronto, via Liverpool, Portsmouth and the Roskilde Festival.

Exhibit Five: Mike’s best suit - actually, Mike’s only suit; ah, that’s where it was hiding all these years!

Also: several tasteless, unflattering minidresses made from really weird, lurid patterned fabrics; dozens of dusty, badly-cut black cotton/cotton mix (yuk) shirts in various styles, barely worn; a pair of box fresh, cream suede trainers, in a carrier bag with their price tag attached and a receipt that tells me I bought them in Sole Trader for the reduced price of £14.99 over three years ago; the same amount of cobwebs, dust balls and dead spiders that one would expect to find in an ancient garden shed; loads of gorgeous frocks, ethereal tops (including one that looks like it was spun from pure gold) and flouncy skirts, the existence of which I was vaguely aware of but I’d given up all hope of ever seeing again years ago.

Notes: before I embarked on this wardrobe blitz, my past was, quite literally, stopping me from moving into the future - a future such as last night, when it took me five seconds to find the right combination of t-shirt, slouchy pants and sandals to wear for an impromptu trip to the canal (see tomorrow’s post). There was a time - a very recent time - when I’d have ended up wearing Mike’s gym clothes for such a trip because the very thought of opening my wardrobe to find something of my own to wear was just too, too stressful. Not any more. So, the Dorothy House shop will have five bin bags worth of treasure donated to them tomorrow and today, I will be mostly wearing a purple skirt, a brand new white t-shirt (which I’ve had for four years) and gold sandals that haven’t seen the light of day since those horrific FF boots were slung on top of them, years ago. Later on this afternoon, I’m going to launch a similar coup on my underwear drawer; Tracey Emin should be very, very afraid.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Yankel Feather RIP

Ah, Yankel Feather.

I remember him from way back when I must have been around four years old, and he was a good friend of my mum and dad's, and he probably (I say probably because I'm not quite sure) was also an Everyman Bistro regular. 

He was the first naturally camp man I ever met; an elegant, stylishly flamboyant original thinker with a sharp tongue, a lively mind and a gentle, perceptive soul. 

He once gave me a little painting: a 7x5 oil painting of a bowl of fuschias in a beautiful, gold leafed, antique frame. That painting has survived many relocations over more than three decades; today, it hangs on my bedroom wall amongst my collection of framed postcards. The dedication on the back of the painting, etched in thick black marker pen (and written, n'est pas, in a stylised, languid flourish), reads "For Melissa, with love from Uncle Y". Unfortunately, I can't remember the circumstances under which he gave me the painting and nor, oddly enough, can either of my parents. But there it hangs, and there it will continue to hang until, I guess, I've warranted my own obituary.

Anyway, RIP Yankel: may your version of heaven be as beautiful as the one you created - in either oil paints or by blessing those who knew you with your company - here on earth.

Friday, May 1, 2009

What kind of a life is this??? (clue: actually, rather a good one...)

I’m existing in that weird halfway zone that exists between feeling well again but still a bit sick around the edges. As a result, I keep getting bursts of energy and inspiration, only to find myself feeling as though I’ve just gone a round with one of those boxing kangaroos that David Lynch is so found of randomly dropping into the background of any scenes that involve a lover’s tiff if I do much more than manage to remain horizontal for more than 20 minutes a time.

So, this morning, I used up my energy allocation thus:

A trip to the Co-op, made all the more worthwhile for the following conversation I eavesdropped while waiting in the queue at the till:

Yummy Mummy One to Yummy Mummy Two (exasperated): “…but then again, she’s the sort of person that dries all her clothes in the tumble dryer”

YM2: (aghast) “Oh god, really? How dreadful”.

Now what are we to make of that exchange? After much consideration, I decided to go with either (a) that the person they were talking about doesn’t have a garden in which to dry her clothes, or (b) doesn’t own any garments made of silk or cashmere. Either way, the YMs were typically ‘Bath’ and the person they were talking about could have been me.

Aaanyway: at the Co-op, I bought digestive biscuits, butter, condensed milk, eggs and lemons, all of which have now been made into a glossy lemon tart which we’ll tuck in to after the vegetarian lasagne we’re having for supper this evening (‘we’ referring to my best friend, his parents and Mike and I). I made the lasagne last week when I was under pressure to use up the contents of the veg box before the next delivery came, so now it’s in the freezer pretending to be a ready meal. The lemon tart takes 20 minutes to throw together and 20 minutes to bake; I used the ‘baking’ part of the process to watch a re-run of last night’s thrilling episode of ‘Katie and Peter: Stateside’ (and yes, I am indeed disgusted at myself for loving this programme so much…and not in an ‘ironic’ way either). This afternoon, I’m going to use another of my 20-minute energy bursts to wash my filthy hair, then spend the rest of the time rediscovering the joys of World Party’s 1990 album ‘Goodbye Jumbo’ in between bouts of yet more filthy daytime TV.

Lordy, I can’t wait to re-join the human race.