Monday, 14 December 2009

Christmas is...

Things are officially getting festive. Forget the giant corporate-themed Christmas lights, switched on aeons before anyone's even thought about the holidays. Forget the Starbucks red cups (love their dark cherry mocha as I do), those bloody career-low extravaganza Iceland ads, the early bookings and menu decisions of the Christmas work do. There is a personal point in December where you quietly jump on the Christmas bandwagon and start to really look forward to it. Having spent yesterday singing in suitably frosty locations such as Somerset House, Trafalgar Square and the Royal Festival Hall with my wonderful choir, Accendo (download the Christmas single we feature on here) I was already feeling slightly sentimental in a rosy-cheeked, bobble-hatted sort of way. But this morning, somewhere between the visible breath and some festive Mariah Carey on my iPod, I really felt great about Christmas. So here is my little list of what makes this time of year sparkle for me...

The music
Nothing too 'novelty' or overplayed, but the classics: White Christmas, Sleigh Ride, The Christmas Song etc. There's always room for a bit of Wham and even some Shakin' Stevens in my household though. My abiding memory of Christmas music will always be my parents dancing around the living room to that oddest of Christmas songs, Jona Lewie's Stop the Cavalry. Also carols: while far from religious, I do love the sacred sound of beautifully sung traditional pieces.

The Food
Turkey feast, naturally, but all of the food surrounding the Christmas period delights my tastebuds... smoked salmon served simply on buttered brown bread with a little lemon and pepper, classic champagne, my mum's freshly baked cheese straws (heavenly) and freshly made, creamy chestnut soup (nirvana-ly). A cold meats, cheeses and salads banquet at my Grandparents on boxing day, party food of all descriptions paired with a glass of spicy, sweet mulled wine, and of course those late night cheese and wine moments. I couldn't even begin to go into my love of all things cheese, suffice to say a nice mature cheddar, Welsh Teifi cheese, dolcelatte and an indulgent goats cheese will be on my dairy wishlist this year.

The Traditions
Every Christmas Eve since I can remember, my family have cosied up to watch It's a Wonderful Life before going out for a celebratory, no-one-wants-to-cook-at-this-point curry. If you haven't seen the former, buy and watch NOW: it will give you a much needed laugh and weep and remind you what life is all about in an extraordinary way. Boxing Day, as I have mentioned, usually means a post-feast feast with the family, a quiz and maybe a board game. It also means a rousing chorus of the Twelve Days of Christmas, for which we are all given an individual line in the hope of singing them back in perfect order, but which inevitably collapses into Christmas carol mayhem with confusion over how many maids/geese/drummers and whose line it was in the first place.

The Nesting
Much as I love donning a chunky scarf, jaunty hat and layers and layers of cosy woolies, it's the staying in that really makes Christmas for me. It means drinking at any conceivable time of day, playing music loudly while preparing food, collapsing on the sofa just after a meal with no thought to other plans. Having the tree, the lights, and the cards strung up means you wouldn't wish to be anywhere else. I might break my lazing streak and actually go on this year's 'Christmas day walk' - perhaps this is a sign of maturity? I doubt it will be enough to warrant a promotion from the Kiddie Table on Boxing Day, where I suspect I will remain into my 30s. It's that put down the diary, turn off the BlackBerry, put on your slippers and pick up a gin and tonic feeling that I am looking forward to the most this year.

Feeling even more glowing with Christmas cheer after writing that. You may just feel slightly nauseous - I will probably feel the same reading this back in a few weeks time. But for now I am happy to bask in my Yueltide coma.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Too much information?

Two articles from the weekend caught my eye today; the first, a culture piece from the Observer (where I am currently working) started off as a piece about the possibility of books becoming extinct, something I'm very interested in, as a bit of a bookworm-romantic, but became something deeper and more culturally probing as it went on. Read it and you'll see what I mean, it's somewhat of an epic that touches on everything from the popularity of Nintendo DS and the Kindle to novelist Don DeLillo's typing preferences. But the main issue the writer seems to want to explore is the complex subject of internet identity. Why blog, why facebook, why tweet, why leave your mark on one of the innumerable comment sections on the web? Tim Adams looks at the history of this sort of DIY opinion writing, and attributes the attraction to a sort of 'risk-free interactivity' that becomes addictive. As he points out, 'Any writer who has never come up against an editor, or a reader, can always feel himself a genius.'

As a blogger this is a bit of a lightning bolt. It's true, I use this medium to keep writing and putting my ideas out there, but could it also be a sort of safe haven of vanity, mainly accessed by friends and family, hardly ever questioned or criticized? There's certainly at least a grain of truth in that. Adams describes the boredom with the constant internet oversharing of the noughties, citing Lily Allen as an example after her recent departure from blogging and Twitter. Are we getting over ourselves? Do comment if you're a blogger or have any thoughts on this.

The other piece I read with interest was Lynn Barber's Times interview with Lady Gaga. I am a Gaga fan (not hardcore) and I think she proves every time she is given a stage and a mic that she is much more than your average pop puppet. But a combination of lateness and that sort of Hilton-esque blonde insincerity she displays in interviews - it is infuriating when you can tell she does have a decent and creative brain in there - resulted in a rather scathing write-up. I can appreciate that journalists are busy and stars need the publicity, but she is a pop phenomenon in the eye of the cultural storm right now - surely we can give the Gaga slightly more leeway than, say, an X Factor contestant or Hollywood socialite?

I felt Barber was grasping for negative things to mention (the colour of the hairs on her arms and quality of her 'undernourished breasts' are hardly the personal revelations I was hoping for) in a petty reaction to her PR machine and diva image. She didn't mention the new single, was dismissive of her interesting background and was 'bored' by sneak preview images of the upcoming tour. Why become a celebrity journalist if their quirks and creative plans are tedious to you?

This interview links to the other article in that the comments it provoked were neither restrained nor mature. Some defended La Gaga, some dwelled on the layers of artifice she hides behind and some, as always, scrapped amongst themselves by pointing out comment mistakes and arguing with former posts. A couple bothered to make really lame song title jokes. It made me think about Adams's analysis of people's chronic need to comment online. We can't help ourselves; too many years of witty and bitchy thoughts have been repressed and now we have the perfect way to let them out, we can't stop. I thought the very last post on the Gaga page was a fair comment on journalism:

Quite why the author chose this poorly crafted, snide description of the interview process escapes me, as I'm sure it does most other readers; we don't care if you didn't like her or her arm hairs - ask the questions, observe her and her answers and write it down. If we want to know what YOU like and what YOU think we'll buy a newspaper in which YOU are interviewed.

Still, you don't get to where Barber is without putting your stamp on your interviews. I like to see what seems like people of all ages and backgrounds rising to the Gaga's defence though, it shows her cultural potency. I'm very interested in the idea of everyone becoming a writer and critic; while a bit scary for those actually considering it their job, great in the sense of more than a small section of upper-middle class writers having the monopoly on comment and opinion writing. I think in the big web world of comment boards and blogging, it's striking a balance between mean-spirited, letting-off-steam rants and thoughtful participation in the debate.
Feel free to join this debate with the comment facility below, but perhaps skip any musings on the nature of my arm hair.

Despite her undernourished bosom, Gaga managed to blast the X Factor finalists and even Janet Jackson off the stage with her bizarrely wonderful bath escapades. Although it did sort of look like she might eat Dermot at one point.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

What's Occuring?


I love Gav'n'Stace. I love the menagerie of characters as if they were my own eccentric kin, I love the witty script, the spot-on regional stereotyping and most of all I love the fact that underneath the bizarre comedy there is real, unmistakable heart.

I got into series one quite late, only this year, and it took me a couple of episodes to get into it. I read an interview with Alison Steadman the other day where she described reading the script for the pilot and being won over by a moment where Pam has been upset by badgers crying on the TV. When Gavin questions whether they were really crying, she simply says 'I know what I saw.' I think we all know that woman.

If you've ever lived in Wales or even popped over for a rugby match, you'll also know a Nessa. And a Stacey. And definitely, definitely a Bryn. Bryn is possibly the purest amount of Welshness you could vacuum-pack into one character. I love his slightly-behind-the-zeitgeist jokes that quickly back up into seriousness (today, the Apprentice: 'Gav - you're fired! I'm only joking I am, I don't have that kind of power.') James Corden as the kind of bloke I'd hate in real life still manages to make Smithy loveable, an unbelievable feat.

Having spent three years in Cardiff, their shift of location from Essex to Wales actually made me long for that easy Welsh charm; London with all its buzz and glitz is still a very isolated place at times. Nothing is more important than a commuter getting that train on time, no time for pleasantries. I loved the un-PC endearment 'lovely', although it took some getting used to. Working in a bar with brassy, loud Welsh girls who gave as good as they got with the rowdier customers made me feel like the most uptight Surrey specimen in the world, but I really enjoyed it.

I adored the nightlife and the lack of posing - cheesy music and body con dresses are as important a part of a Cardiff night out as chips on the way home. There is no underdone, relaxed boho chic; Welsh girls go all out with big hair, big heels and fake lashes. Absolutely fine by me, why should we agonise over whether our look is too much? If you want to wear a sparkly dress, wear it.

If you haven't got into Gavin and Stacey yet, beg borrow or steal series one to get a feel for it. It seems like small snapshots of unremarkable lives in some ways, but it's the real things in life - relationships, arguments, humour, human eccentricity - that make this golden, heartwarming, must-see TV.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Into Battle

Love him or hate him, John Mayer is good entertainment. His sultry guitar-led tunes are at odds with his tabloid presence, cemented by years of high-profile womanizing, and post Aniston he sadly seems to be known only for their on/off amour. He courts the press while trying to remain credible, and is famous for filling them in on his love life and generally oversharing, a trait that doesn't usually go with great songwriting and performance. I actually got into some of his older tracks before he hit the glossy pages of Look and Grazia, and I'm glad because Mayer deserves to be on your cultural radar for his soulful voice and masterful guitar skills, or at the very least, his tweeting (he recently reacted to outrage at Britney's miming on Twitter by posting "If you're shocked that Britney was lip-synching at her concert and want your money back, life may continue to be hard for you.") Follow him on Twitter now (@JohnCMayer) for some hilarious 140-character sparring between him and Perez Hilton.

A cocktail of tracks from his 2002 debut album Room for Squares, 2007's Continuum and his live album Where the Light Is add a range of chilled acoustic sounds and witty lyrics to my iPod which soothe my soul and tingle my spine in equal parts. Which is why I was so eager to download his latest effort, Battle Studies (released 16 November). At the height of his notoriety for all the wrong headlines, Mayer's people have obviously pushed for a suitably heartbroken and chastened album in the wake of the Jennifer Aniston affair, hence the title and slightly overstretched metaphor of love as battlefield. Expecting a feast of sensual pop-rock with real depth and honesty, I was sad to discover that Battle Studies is actually a little dull. Scrap that, 80% of the tracks are unbelievably skippable, with cliched lyrics, forgettable melodies and unremarkable riffs.

Mayer has really taken his eye off the ball here; in an effort to channel his gossip-column status he goes for the sympathy vote on Heartbreak Warfare, All We Ever Do is Say Goodbye and Friends, Lovers or Nothing, but they are so interchangeable it suggests a rushed album made to hit the shelves before the magazine pages cool. Half of My Heart featuring Taylor Swift (WHY?) only layers bland on bland, while attempting a cheeky nod at his womanizing ways.

There are a couple of lifelines; the funky Robert Johnson cover Crossroads adds some much needed tempo with its gospel-spiritual flavour and showcases the soul in his distinctive voice, while the jaunty 'Who Says' is mellow and folky with a witty edge. It harks back to some of the old John Mayer magic as he asks 'Who says I can’t get stoned / Call up a girl that I used to know / Fake love for an hour or so / Who says I can’t get stoned?' You can't help wishing he'd hit the ganja a little harder during recording, because the rest of this sober retrospective of his relationship scars is pretty banal.

Download: Who Says, Crossroads, Perfectly Lonely

From Mayer's back catalogue - Waiting on the World to Change, My Stupid Mouth, Your Body is a Wonderland, Stop This Train, Dreaming with a Broken Heart, Gravity, Slow Dancing in a Burning Room

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Scientology? Non merci

Scientology: Pimp my Church

The French legal system proved today that they have the balls to take on the inexplicably popular institution of Scientology, and I must applaud their government for their healthy mistrust of the organization as its prominence has grown over the last few years. After a thorough investigation, six leading members of the Paris branch were today fined over £500,000 and given suspended sentences after being found guilty of organized fraud, following their harassment of potential members and extortion of money from vulnerable people.

While the 'Church' of Scientology has thrived Stateside (every time I read a reference to its founder as a science FICTION writer, I still snigger at the number of idiots taking it all as gospel), its spread in Europe has been met with a few more reservations - backwards and alien-based ideology aside, the main point where the Sci-bots tend to trip up is their unfortunate tendency to drain the life savings of their members. For the greater good, of course.

Many people in staunchly secular France want to ban Scientology outright, leading to heated discussion on whether such a thing is even possible. Legal representatives today said they could not impose a ban as the organization would continue with or without legal permission and would be harder to monitor - it is already officially considered a sect there, and authorities had been keeping a close eye well before two women sparked this case having complained about being swindled out of between twenty- and fifty-thousand Euros each. Two years ago Gloria Lopez's family accused Paris-based Scientologists of brainwashing and intimidating their mother into spending hundreds of thousands of Euros to support their teachings, leading to the deterioration of her mental health and her eventual suicide in December 2006. Lopez was typical Scientology prey - recently divorced, vulnerable, lonely and looking for direction.

It might be a good thing that celebrity mania has brought Scientology to the attention of the public - while they, unlike Gloria Lopez, have the money to fritter, we can all hear their ramblings for what they are: nonsense. Incredible, bizarre, alien-descending, silent-birthing, tax-dodging nonsense. So why do people jump on the bandwagon? You don't stand to gain much, unless you count sci-fi fairytales, but you do stand to lose money, often in the thousands. The celeb quotient might be a clue; while many ultra-famous actors lose perspective and turn to hard drugs or liquor, some have found the same rush in immersing themselves in an alternative or strict faith (Kabbalah was the milder precursor to Scientology in this way). I think drugs actually might be the lesser of the two evils, as while Ozzy, Amy and Lindsay may spend their golden years slightly muddled but glad they got over the phase, where does it end for Tom Cruise and Will Smith? They will just spend more, preach more and refuse to hug their injured children (yes, really) with no real pressure on them to let go of the madness. At least your average celeb junkie has rehab.

There is a lot of darkness behind the humour when it comes to Scientology. This conviction of organized fraud betrays the business behind the religion - wanting to spread your word is one thing, actively targeting the vulnerable and those with more money than sense is no laughing matter. There is also a sinister level of silencing power and intimidation to their spin department - famous for crushing serious accusations and jovial satire with their endless legal funds, they even scared the ballsy South Park creators into crediting only 'John and Jane Smith' for their Scientology episode. They have since meekly agreed not to re-run it in America and it was never aired in the UK.

This financial blow to the Parisian branch of Scientology may simply make its leaders more careful; I can only hope they slip up enough for some serious regulation to be enforced. I think the decision to let them continue practicing in France is the right one, but there should be more information out there, and more warnings about the debt and psychological pressure suffered by many members. As Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time last week proves, sometimes giving such people a platform only exposes their motives and the shaky foundations of their beliefs.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Matters of life and death

In this month's ELLE (out today) is a really interesting arts piece that I helped to compile. It's called The Film That Changed My Life, and features 25 actors, writers, artists and directors describing the moment they saw a movie that opened their eyes to something, inspired them to get into a creative industry or simply became a lifelong favourite. It was really interesting requesting and gathering responses, and seeing what sort of films really affect people.

Some are art-house, some classics, some cult, and a few are pop culture hits that may not be cool, but they've stood out in people's minds. When we were putting it together, some of the ELLE editors were asked for their ideas, and it was actually much more of a thinker than you'd imagine. The thing our contributors found tricky was the 'changed my life' part - sometimes the films that we relate to the most are not favourites because they are profound or make any huge comment on life or relationships. Often they are just obscurely charming, brilliantly scripted or beautifully shot. Most of the responses we got (particularly from directors and film festival presidents) were cult films, groundbreaking or simply daring and quirky. I loved the honesty of those who just cited something more 'pop' that defined their youth, stood out in its mainstream genre, or that they could just watch over and over again. You'll have to buy the mag to see what I mean (it's a fab issue, Cheryl Cole's the cover star and it's a great interview.)

I had a think at the time about what my choice would be, but again, the life-changing criteria really stalled me. I don't know how many candidates from my DVD collection could really be considered revolutionary... Dirty Dancing, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Shakespeare in Love... (yes, I'm a total chick-flick whore.) But I thought of one after I read the feature in all its glory - and that is Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. I have such a connection with this film, as I've been watching it since childhood - every year, once a year, on Christmas Eve. A 1940s classic endlessly parodied and referenced, it is the definitive feelgood film. While the premise may seem corny, it's certainly more charm than cheese, and moments are really harrowing as well as uplifting. It was filmed just before my dad was born, and it seems a delightful little opener to the beginning of my immediate family's existence, as we cosy up together every 24th December and laugh and weep at exactly the same moments. You come away with a fresher view on the world, and that can't be said of many cinematic moments.

'Life-changing' seems an excessive label to apply, but I am one of life's cynics (well, more 50% hard cynic 50% hopeless romantic - a tough combination) and I really need a narrative like this to remind me of what's good now and again.The story of how George Bailey, an American average Joe, touches and alters the lives of everyone in his small community is heart-rending and glorious. The humour keeps the schmaltz at bay, the many charming characters make you wish you lived in Bedford Falls, and the not-quite-perfect courtship of Donna Reed's Mary by James Stewart's awkward George is my absolute favourite on-screen romance. I just wanted to be Donna Reed in that film, she's luminous in black and white and just looks incredible (even when they try to make her look like a spinster librarian in George's alternate reality, she's pretty hot.) I think maybe it's not so much the life-changing function of cinema that's important, but a changing of perspective on life. The small-town hero of George Bailey proves that no matter how much of a failure you think you are, or how bad things seem, there is always a bigger picture. The people you love and who love you are what define you in the end, not how much you've travelled, how rich you are or if you've changed the world.

Speaking of how bad things can get, I must just mention a really sad news story - Matt Lucas's ex-husband Kevin McGee was found hanged the other day after months of depression and drug abuse. The real modern tragedy of the story was the morbid facebook status he wrote hours before his suicide - 'Kevin McGee thinks that death is much better than life' - which will certainly haunt his friends and family. But can a passing post on a social networking site be relied on as a cry for help? It seems more tragic than anything that his depression was made this public. The saddest part of the story in my view, however, is the Daily Mail's choice to use quote marks in their front-page headline today. I could be wrong, but "The Little Britain star's 'husband'" seems like a snide comment on their gay marriage stance, in the poorest possible taste. Although they divorced last summer, the pair's civil partnership lasted for nearly two years (one of the most high- profile gay marriages and the first gay celebrity divorce since civil ceremonies became legal in 2005) and as their friends and spokesmen have referred to it as a marriage, I think it's a bit of a cheap shot by the Mail to demean the relationship when reporting an untimely death. 'Ex-husband' or even 'Ex-partner' would have sufficed. They should leave the politics out of it, and recognise it as a personal bereavement which should be reported in a dignified way.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Mr and Mrs Smug

I watched Mr & Mrs Smith last night, and it's interesting how the whole Brangelina affair has both boosted it (people are desperate to see where the spark began) and slightly ruined it as a film (there's no getting caught up in the plot - we're looking for every glance, every smile, and every adulterous moment of sexual tension. Well I was.) We get practically every magazine, every month in my office, and a common thought is 'How is that love triangle STILL making covers?' Bearing in mind the Brad-Jen-Angelina situation extends to Ange's weight and mood on set, where the two are living, where Brad's been partying, and whether or not Jen is dating, engaged or moving in with a bevy of Hollywood blokes, there is hardly a week when Look, Grazia and even some of the bigger and glossier mags don't give a nod to the decade's biggest man-steal.

Generally speaking, I am on team 'enough, already' - it really is so four years ago, and you've got to feel bad for Jen for forever being painted as this frail, weeping creature who still sits lovingly sketching charcoal pictures of Brad and sticking pins in a tiny Angelina voodoo doll. But somehow those three faces still sell (Aniston's particularly) and people do keep reading. I had been wondering if the 'story' would go on for the next five years, too - I think people are either waiting for a triumphant Jen marriage, or a horrible karmic split for Brange - but I think, after last night, I know why we just can't get them off of our pages. Films are often successful because they offer us our deepest fantasy or worst nightmare, that's what gets the audience the most. And this has bucketfuls of both - who wouldn't want to be a secret assassin? Who wouldn't want to come home to Brad, a chilled Martini and a big white mansion?

But it is the extra seasoning of the actors' private scandal that taps into our biggest fears. While girls may claim to still love Ange, to covet her voluptuous curves (when she had them) and pillowy lips and kickass strength, most of us have that deep-rooted, irrational fear that someone we love will leave us. And not only leave us, but for someone just... better. However much we adore Jen, with her Hollywood sweetheart image and yoga mats, I'm pretty sure people can acknowledge that Angelina is not only the scarlet woman, but the more talented of the two. I think lots of people feel in awe of her just getting in there and grabbing Brad, as easy as picking out a Cambodian orphan. There's the thought that maybe Jen had admired her work, her style, envied her awards and accolades before she blinked and her husband was shacked up with her. And there's the nightmare - there's always that girl that you thought was prettier, more talented, more his type than you (that he probably said 'Attractive? I suppose you might say that' about) and the whole team Jen vs team Ange thing just showed it can happen, and on a phenomenal scale.

So we'll probably keep on hating, loving or pitying them publicly until we get some closure from this relationship worst-case-scenario - here are my favourite possible outcomes:

- Brad cheats on Ange, she and Jen become unlikely comrades and embark on a roadtrip with all the kids in tow.
- Ange steals another Hollywood hubby (Ashton Kutcher? David Beckham?) and Brad becomes an angry drunk, storming the stage Kanye-style at every awards ceremony, ranting about what a devil woman she is.
- Jen loses it and takes Ange's 'rainbow family' of kids hostage, making them watch old friends episodes and brainwashing them into tiny yoga fanatics.
- Jen and Brad are talked into making a movie together, fall in love all over again, and all three move in together to start an unconventional but beautiful three-way marriage, stopping only to grab some Colombian triplets on the way back to the manse.

Insane chemistry like Brad & Angelina in the film that made them only happens very rarely, but I wonder how sexy the reality was once it settled down to house, nappies, school runs and shooting schedules. I guess I am still following the scarytale, like every other celeb voyeur out there. Bring on option two!

Monday, 21 September 2009

Life is beautiful

I try not to weigh in on too many ethical arguments, I believe everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but organ donation is too close to my heart for me to stay out of completely. I think it’s because it’s such an essentially ‘good’ thing to be in favour of, there really isn’t a downside. Obviously your death might be seen as the downside, but that’s pretty much going to happen anyway. My thoughts on the whole subject are fairly simple: you die (fingers crossed reasonably old, quick & painless), you are cremated/buried/mummified depending on your mortal preferences – and that’s probably it. No more breathing, blood-pumping or toxin-ridding required. Even if you believe you’ll be hanging out with Jesus, Buddha, Allah or all of the above, that’s probably the soul part of you, right? Not the flesh and tissue. This may all seem a bit brutal, but who can argue that you need your physical wholeness to enter the next world, achieve nirvana, or just become part of the earth, Lion King style? I haven’t met anyone with a serious philosophical objection to organ removal once you’re pronounced braindead. Here are the scary facts: you are more likely to need a transplant than to become a donor. And although 90% of the population support organ donation, only 25% are on the Organ Donor Register.

However, who’s to say what my opinion on all this would be without a personal link to organ donation? As I’m sure most of you know, my older sister who I’m very close to was on the brink of death three years ago from progressive lung damage caused by Cystic Fibrosis, and was saved only by the generosity of strangers. A family who bravely rose above all the emotional turmoil of a bereavement and chose to make a difference for several people in dire need of an organ transplant (one person donating can save the life of up to nine people waiting). She received her new lungs in January 2007, and has gone from being a wafer-thin, icy pale thing devoid of energy, barely able to draw breath, to being a rosy-pink, energetic, noisy woman able to get married, get working, move into a new house… the difference is indescribable, all because complete strangers opened their mind to the prospect of giving the gift of life.

My sister made an appearance on GMTV this morning talking about a friend she made through a CF support network online, who is now at the point she was three years ago, the point where doctors sat us down and told us to say our goodbyes, as she had no reserve left to fight another lung collapse. Like Emily, Jessica is miraculously fighting through, but after four years of waiting, it is no longer her responsibility to prolong her life. She has kept her end of the bargain – the transplant waiting list demands staying in the country, not working or going out too much, preserving your health as carefully as possible for the operation – and now the rest of the country needs to chip in and boost her odds of survival. If you do nothing else today, please have a look at the facts , and consider signing up to the NHS donor register. Better still, talk to your family, your partner or your close friends about what they would want for their body if their time was up. If you want to spread the word and help Jess have a shot at the wonderful future my sister has been lucky enough

to experience, please repost Jess’s story in your facebook status, Twitter, blog or email the message to your friends or colleagues. The only way we can stop the amount of people dying per year is to pass this on.

Emily pre-transplant

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Going solo

No matter how hard we try to escape her, the Colester is everywhere. I can't help but love Cheryl. I actually think she's become a bit sanitised and Beckham-bland styling wise lately, but you've got to admit that she always looks flawless. I love her Geordie scrappiness, her genuine judging style on the X Factor and while I still feel the girl could use a cheeseburger once in a while, I do love the combo of big hair and tiny cinched waist.

I think TV is where she seems to make the most sense - I do have a guilty-pleasure love of Girls Aloud but she's got the least va va voom in her vocals by far... so I really didnt expect to like her first real shot at a solo single. But actually, Fight For this Love is not just inoffensive, it's got real playlist potential. You can tell it's had's magic touch (I love that a bigtime US producer is a such a fan of a Geordie girlbander) but she sounds good and someone very smart has told her to stick to what she does best: looking slick and sticking to a fairly mid to low range. It could have been more of a club track, I reckon, but we'll blame Will for that - I think the melody lends itself to bigger beats and more production than this sort of Mariah/Ciara clicky thing going on - but I'm sure there will be loads of great remixes before long. It sounds a bit Fergie actually, but slightly falls short because Fergie's main selling point is that she's got this massive powerhouse voice that cuts through all the background stuff. But nevertheless, she's definitely upped her game since the supremely rubbish Heartbreaker.

The only real puzzle for me is the styling... I know from various news stories and The Passions of Girls Aloud that she claims to love hip-hop dance, and the hoods, baggy trousers and fingerless gloves certainly reflect that, but then what's she been doing every other day of the year? This ghetto-fabulous look seems out of place when we see her papped or on TV constantly in demure shifts, waist belts, floral skirts, vests and peep toes. Either her stylist rules her life (there was a distinct point in Mrs Beckham's career where all originality and personality seemed to depart from her wardrobe too) or she's leading some sort of Beyonce/Sasha double life. I suppose you can't record a sultry r'n'b single and perform it in a twinset, but it just seems a completely different image than she's been carefully putting out there the last couple of years.

My overall thoughts on the new single? Surprisingly good, a definite grower, but probably won't set the world alight. I bet she'll be played (albeit remixed) in many a club over the next few months, and I'm quite looking forward to hearing more. But i'm still hoping for a Cheryl chat show more than anything. She's made for TV.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Pyjama Party

So, apparently, pyjamas are officially cool again. The fact that this made national news this morning makes me feel marginally better about the state of the world anyway, but I was delighted mainly because I LOVE PJs.

Lots of people love PJs, actually. Whitney reportedly spent seven months in hers - although perhaps this was less due to love of the garment than the influence of her crack haze. I'm not talking sexy, short-shorts and vest, La Senza seduction pyjamas here, I'm talking full on, floor length, flannel style, preferably with polka dots, clouds or cartoon animals. Nothing is cosier as we approach the autumn than getting home, donning the jammies and enjoying a nice cup of hot chocolate. I'm well aware that I sound like a pensioner, but if you ask around I'm sure you'll find that more than just a few cosy-PJ-lovers walk among us and are not ashamed to say it.

I remember after years of sitcoms and films where women draped themselves around the house in kimonos, negligees and virginal white nighties, watching Friends for the first time in the mid-nineties and seeing all of these young, hot New Yorkers clad in cosy pyjamas (remember Phoebe's onesie?), fluffy robes and their boyfriend's hoodies. It was fairly liberating even as a young teen to think that girls didn't have to be on the brink of a satiny dangerous liason whilst having a night in, and that giant, snuggly loungewear could be just a sexy in a much less clich├ęd way.

In slightly related news, one of my all-time favourite live-TV gaffes this morning on Breakfast as they attempted to stretch the pyjama revival into something resembling hard news - they invited the style editor of Men's Health (for the first and last time, I'll wager) to comment on the story. When struggling for poignant questions on the subject, the male presenter made the mistake of asking said editor if he recalled any men in movies or TV donning old-school pyjamas - making the point that it wasn't very 007 for blokes to be so cosy - and valiantly trying to prove him wrong, the Men's health guy paused and said 'Well there was that film recently, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas?' There was a brief, choked silence from which they moved on with admirable swiftness, but I was both tickled and shocked by his cultural example of pyjama chic. Not that shocked - Men's Health isn't exactly competing with The Economist or anything, but come on, we know a bit about The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and that comparison is so, so wrong on so many levels.

Do comment with your favourite pyjamas, gaffes, or pyjama gaffes.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Confessions on a Dancefloor

I don't usually recommend music because the people I know generally listen to much cooler and more credible stuff than I've even heard of. This is for several reasons....

When I rarely turn on the radio (usually when taking a shower) I head straight for the cheesy pastures of Magic or Heart FM. Sometimes Smooth FM if I'm craving a bit of a sax solo.

When I go to club, a major prerequisite is that it plays some form of soul, pop, 80s rock or disco. Extra points for 90s girl and boybands. We've all got our junk, and Oceana's cheese room is mine.

I do actively try to add new albums and downloads to my ipod in the hope of magically transforming into a devastatingly cool indie chick in the style of Zooey Deschanel or similar - but at the end of the day, I'll always flick past them onto a bit of Queen or Bon Jovi.

The only way I can honestly describe my musical taste is proud-gay-man-meets-karaoke-loving-housewife. I just don't do edgy and complicated. However shamelessly media-hungry, shallow or just downright whorish a pop act becomes (Sugababes' new single, anyone?) their catchy melodies and whiplash beats will always, always get me on the dancefloor. Especially if they reference any or all of my above retro tastes.

Which is why I find myself once again saying 'It's not cool - but I love it' to the new Pussycat Dolls single - It's loud, it's repetitive, it has an overly dramatic slow beginning (I regularly lie in the bath singing sensually to myself) and a funky homage to disco classic I Will Survive - what's not to love? And while La Scherzinger may looking a little drag queen-esque in the vid, I still love her. Her big hair and powerhouse vocals bring out the diva in all of us, and she does it with such flair.

Friday, 21 August 2009

H&M spells Heaven

Since working at ELLE, I have come to some conclusions about me and fashion: we have an odd relationship. I like reading about it, seeing the amazing styling and art ELLE puts together in their fashion pages, but I am much more comfortable in features and their cosy territory of books, films and art, with the odd interview research or social trend thrown in.

I am the antithesis of a fashionista. If you want ahead-of-the-pack tips and lingering odes to silhouettes and fabrics, visit the brilliant Notes on the High Street or Sartoriology; you won't find any style predictions here (although still hoping for big comfy hoodies to become a must-have for this winter). While I can love clothes and fashion fondly from afar, I could never live and breathe it - a tiny voice in my head will always mock me: 'They're just clothes.'

I am a totally erratic shopper - when I first started earning a small part time wage from equally stylish institution Woolworths at 16, I used to love spending it on a cute outfit for that weekend, or saving up for a pair of jeans or shoes which I would proudly don as a trophy of my dreary polo-shirted shelf-stacking.

At university, as with many a female fresher, I was both confused and enamoured by my loan - ever the excellent financial planner, I remember hitting Cardiff's H&M hard that first week - unwise, yes, but I found a pair of uber-flattering charcoal skinny jeans which I have worn ever since (for four cheapskate years) and are only just starting to fray at the edges. But by the end of each academic year poverty forced me to become very creative in order to look fresh in my same old dresses. I have never been a fashion obsessive, but I would definitely have downsized my food shopping to economy pasta and veg for a couple of weeks if it meant I would be resplendent in a jewel coloured dress for the summer ball.

Now is an odd time for shopping - on an intern's wage and working just off Oxford street, I have been very careful not to shop too much these last few months. I wander by Selfridges each morning just to check out the window dressings (an increasingly bizarre sort of reverse museum of fashion), and I often peruse the trends that pop up in every high street window - right now the blazer, the body con dress, the high shoulders, the ankle boots - but I don't feel much moved to cram each trend into my daily life.

Having had a bit of a flat week (cancelled plans, huge to-do list, empty house in the evenings), a combination of self-dissatisfaction and boredom prompted me to have a little wander up Oxford street last night, with a definite urge to buy - and for the first time in ages, not necessities. I felt really tired of my Ugly Betty twinges, my tiny budget, even just caring about it, and I really felt like getting something absolutely attention-grabbing and frivolous. This I found (thankfully for my bank balance) at good old H&M, crime scene of my student spending. For the first time EVER, I think, I saw an entire outfit in the window and thought 'I want that'.

I initially thought it was a dress - black, body con, oh-so-now puffed and raised shoulders (but with a flattering rounded neckline rather than cut straight across - a no-no for women of curvy proportions), short, subtly studded skirt, and rounded off with a pewter waist belt tied at the front. Worn with quite scary S&M-like shoe boots - I plan to pair it with slightly more demure strappy black sandals - it was quite an image. After a lot of searching a nice salesgirl pointed out that it was actually a top and skirt, join covered by the belt, and pointed me in the right direction.

I'm very pleased with my new buy; not only was it under £30 (Did I mention I love H&M and want to have its reasonably-priced babies?) but it's just that little bit harder, sexier and tougher than I actually feel right now. Putting it on makes me walk that little bit taller and feel like I mean business. I can't wait to pair it with hardcore smoky eyes and glossy tanned legs (2 weeks until my holiday!) My random, frivolous, just-for-me purchase ended up reminding me why fashion is such a big deal; it's costume, theatre, enhancing and transforming you - and as long as they keep transforming me for under £50, I will always be a big fan of the high street.

H&M's new season: I didn't go quite this far, but think of mine as a more muted, wearable version (and much, much more flattering on someone with a healthy BMI) of this design.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

A la Mode

I remember hearing about the premise of US comedy Ugly Betty and thinking it sounded awful. Even as someone wanting to get into the magazine industry it didn't grab my interest - small, frizzy, unglamorous, unstylish girl lands a job at the highest profile fashion magazine in the country. Cynical, city-slick Stylebots who work there are mean to her. She wins them round with her ungainly Latina charm. I remember reading all the media hype, the interesting background story of the original telenovela Betty La Fea being picked up by Mexican star Salma Hayek and made into a glossy US sitcom. But the idea of taking a bizarrely-set, unrealistic spanish-speaking comedy and making into TV gold just seemed surreal to me - I couldn't shake the image of the Spanish comedy guy in the bee costume who pops up in the Simpsons from time to time. Ay ay ay.

But in the last couple of weeks a combination of channel-changing laziness and the time I tend to hit the sofa now led me to watch several episodes from the new series (the third, I think), and it really surprised me. Not only do they have the magazine industry dead on - not the hyper-real, icy offices or diva editors, but the gossipy staff, the celeb & fashion chat, and there is definitely a Marc and Amanda combo in every glossy's editorial team - but there is also real humour and heart to each episode.

But you don't see a lot of Bettys in Magland, truthfully. I'm probably one of the more clueless interns, and when I say clueless, this usually means too much in love with my sleep to get up at 5 and start blowdrying and strapping on killer heels. Or too much in fear of debt to blow all my meagre earnings on the latest everything. But obviously, with Betty, it is not so much slacking as having an idea of what looks great that just happens to collide with the fashion industry's idea of what's vile. The layering, the ponchos, the printed shirts, the clashing colours... even I wince at Betty's attire - I must be one of them, after all. What her colleagues actually tend to point out are the frizzy mass of hair, the giant fringe, the red glasses and the braces. I actually think she's pretty cute, facially (google America Ferrera without the get-up and she's an absolute fox) and if she was just handed a beautifully cut black shift and some glossy heels she'd look great.

I like the fact that although some of fictional mag Mode's staff are verging on caricatures (Wilhemina Slater is a botoxed work of genius), their storylines are funny and sweet and genuine. I love Betty's gentle father, her brash homegirl sister, the straight-talking gay nephew, the whole lot. The brilliance of the show is contrasting the warmth and chaos of the Suarez home with the arctic flawlessness of Mode magazine.
But Betty's perseverance is pretty inspirational, and best of all is the show's theory that if you work hard and are nice to people, things will work out for you.

And while some days I do feel like this....

I know that I'm getting to do more and learn more than at a publication like Mode (Vogue. Why don't they just say it?)

Now all I need is a boss like this....

Friday, 24 July 2009

Dating denial

The concept was born amongst the writers on the show Sex and the City, as one former playboy grew tired of hearing his female colleagues obsess over and justify the awful specimens they were dating. 'He probably couldn't get to a phone... work's so busy right now' ... 'Maybe he fell asleep and then forgot to return my call when he woke up' ... 'Maybe his dog got sick'... 'Maybe he broke the fingers required to adequately dial my number'....


Those liberating words. Like a lot of us, if I had discovered this philosophy earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of time and stress. Not everyone is a perfect match, and of course in a lot of cases the spark dies, or they find someone else, or they change their sexual preference since last seeing you. But any silence on the male part always starts a complete frenzy in the mind of a woman. What went wrong? Am I too fat/thin/old/young? Did I talk about my job/self/dog/manicure too much? Am I sexually repulsive? WHY HASN'T HE CALLED???! And so on. Obviously, this is only the case when we ARE that into him and when we have felt like it's been going well. Then the mind ricochets between anger - 'What a bastard, how dare he, I'm obviously too successful/gorgeous and it intimated him, it's his loss' - and more of the crazy - 'I'm going to die alooooone.'

This could all have been saved with a brief reality check, in the form of the HJNTIY theory. In many, many cases he will not be hurt, incapacitated, being held hostage or suffering from amnesia; he has just realised he's not interested enough to take it any further. When Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo wrote the book based on Greg's original advice in that meeting, they were not only brutal about the rejection in this scenario, they also hammered home the other side of the coin - you deserve to and will find someone that does call you back and does want to see you. Why waste time wondering why the last guy disappeared into the ether?

Of course that won't stop us obsessing, our minds were built for irrationality, but it might give us a shove in the right direction - forward. In this year's film adaptation, there's an 'exception that proves the rule' storyline where it does all turn out right in the end - thanks for the reassurance, Hollywood - but I do think now and again men can be given the benefit of the doubt. But only rarely is a guy truly prevented from getting in touch or paying you attention by work, illness, or that great lie 'being scared of how much he likes you'. Oh, please.

I love this whole concept. I enjoy the directness of it, just like that diet book Skinny Bitch (basic message: if you're greedy and eat loads, you will always be a bit chubby. If you care that much about being skinny, you will watch yourself) it cuts out the crap designed to make us feel better in favour of the harsh reality. If you've ever found yourself consoling a friend by grabbing desperately for excuses ('Maybe he DID lose his phone... and then facebook stopped working, his landline was cut off and he lost the ability to walk to your house') it might be better just to cut straight to the 'you deserve better' pep talk. Let's not give Mr One Date more attention than he needs.

He's just not that into you.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Literary Lemmings

I object to the very concept of the book club. This foul bludgeoning of individual taste and imagination was shoved in my face for the millionth time today, as I was researching Twitter - apparently book clubs have sprung up all over the site as it is a perfect breeding ground for miniature reviews. As with many things spreading fast these days, my advice is catch it, bin it, kill it - before reading becomes a competitive sport.

I love books and I love reading, but what I do not love is being told what you should, or worse, MUST read. Why must I? Does the fate of Western society rest on my absorption of its content? No. Will my life be changed forever because I glanced at a few pages on a busy train? Probably not.

This will probably be controversial because many including my family love to share recommendations and swap titles. I don't mind a casual bit of praise for a novel and if it intrigues me I may well pick it up, but I do not NEED to read it - it crushes the very joy of discovering books to have it lobbed so ferociously in your direction.

Here's how books were meant to be selected: you wander into a charming, dusty, quintessentially English bookshop (or Waterstones), peruse the shelves, glance at some covers and titles, feel a particular draw to one due to illustration, blurb, author or just that inexplicable attraction one sometimes feels - and then buy it. Same goes for libraries, a total haven of choice and leisure. If you're a bookworm, of course. I forget that so many people 'hate' reading; I'm a bit of a romantic when it comes to books. I don't even think you read a book because it's a 'classic'; one man's classic is another man's snoozefest. It's all about your personal attraction and reaction- you would never date a guy just because someone told you you should, would you? Especially if after the first few minutes he seemed pretentious, boring or stupid. So why not apply the same logic to finding books you truly adore?

When I see Richard and Judy, Jonathan Ross or Glamour's book club brandishing some shiny paperback with a 3-for-2 sticker, I run, and I suggest you do the same. Not because these people don't mean well (R&J, incidentally, are absolutely lovely) but because you'd have to be an absolute mug to believe that this is the book of the century. Firstly, the assumption that everyone's book of the century is the same is madness - some love romance, some thrillers, some dialogue and some action. Secondly, these glossy 'from the author of' specimens (often with an insipid cover featuring beaches or fields) are usually the least original tomes ever to hit the shelves. They'd have to be to please every presenter, bookstore boss and magazine. Guess what, folks: these people have met the PRs, they've interviewed the author, they are as biased as you can possibly be.

The books I love have rarely been ones thrust my way by academia, friendly recommendations or media hype. They are the ones I had a quiet, odd fondness for, that I saw bits of myself in or that made me laugh out loud.

So when someone gives you a review under 140 characters of something you've never seen, touched or smelt (love that old book smell), take it with a pinch - a handful - of salt, because no one can tell you what will strike you when it comes to literature.

Naturally, when I find one I do love, sheep and singing are never far behind.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Blonde Ambition

Every now and again, a striking female bursts into the charts with an incredible album and image, creating a media frenzy - and they tend to be platinum blondes. There is something very powerful and brave about sacrificing any claims to natural beauty by bleaching the hell out of your hair. I could never do it, but these high-profile blondes do it for us, and as a result become iconic. Madonna did it in the 80s, Gwen Stefani in the 90s, and now Lady Gaga has come to rock the naughty Noughties. Actually, Gwen ruled most of the Noughties as well, before she ditched the Alice in Wonderland couture in favour of marriage and babies.

These three have something in common that I can't quite put my finger on - all seem to be savvy media machines with a closely monitored 'look' - in Madonna's case this changes every couple of years, while Gwen flits from 50s screen siren to funky ska princess and Gaga sticks with her geometric modern-art creations and sunglasses. They all work with the hottest producers and have a huge element of theatricality about them; Madonna is famed for her crucifix hanging, self-loving, MJ-resurrecting live shows, and the other two are also all about costume, spectacle and fantasy. They are neither really credible nor completely uncool - festival-goers and clubbers love a bit of Gaga (who has a foundation of credibility from her days as a New York performance artist), Madonna has always had a certain aura of re-inventive cool, and Gwen's No Doubt debut and ska/hip-hop influences elevate her above her contemporary pop puppets.

I was listening to Lady Gaga's latest smash Paparazzi the other day, and there's just something inescapably catchy about it. It has all the ingredients for a ballsy blonde hit - powerhouse vocals, ridiculous beats, smart lyrics and a melody that will burrow into your brain and refuse to depart. She sounds very Gwen circa Love Angel Music Baby (an exceptional and more experimental album than Lady G's, I must add).

This isn't bubblegum pop; it's darker than Britney, less try-hard than Christina. Whatever people say about Gaga (especially that she's not much of a looker when off-duty - why should she be? She's an image, a character - there's no claim to model looks there) I personally think her album is a candy shop of perky hits, with a signature style and great production. Madonna may have lost it in recent years (put DOWN the fillers and pick UP a nice M&S frock) but I have every faith Gwen will bounce back with an unexpected album with even crazier inspirations than her Harajuku obsession and Wonderland style.

There is no real category for this type of diva, but I think they should be placed above your everyday female artists for boldly going to bigger, better and blonder places with their music.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Columnist Heaven

Writing is a funny business, and it's hard to pinpoint what it is that makes a great writer. It always seemed bizarre and wonderful to me that someone might pay you to write as a job - especially if it's about something you're interested in. Or if you're a columnist, even just your opinion - now that's nice work if you can get it. While doing some research for a fabulous Polly Toynbee piece on voting which appears in August ELLE - out this week! I'm credited! - I realised that to have your opinion be so valued that the whole nation is reading it each week and in turn forming THEIR opinion is probably the highest accolade you can get as a writer, and a great goal to work towards. Obviously, to be a columnist you have to be someone established, respected and that people can relate to. But it's that X-factor of originality that makes a column I just want to read week after week (it's probably where blogs came from, this sort of following). For me, it's nearly always brilliant descriptive powers, down-to-earth tone and feeling, and very often a sense of indignation that makes these writers so readable.

My absolute favourites (I could never pick just one) are as follows:

Tim Dowling
Tim writes for The Guardian's Weekend magazine. They've put his page up front, which shows what a draw it is for the mag. Tim writes about ordinary life with his wife and kids, very muted stuff, but with such beautiful observations about the little quirks of existence. He sometimes touches on current affairs, but I think Dowling is at his best when waxing on family and home. I particularly enjoyed his recent anecdote of the hunt for their pet snake Mr Rogers, and this one where he helps his son with a school contest, but you should really read the whole glorious lot. Wonderful Saturday mornings for me often involve bed, a cup of tea and Tim Dowling.

India Knight
I've mentioned India before on this blog; I've been a fan for years. I agree with so many of her sentiments (and fiercely disagree with a few) but they are always put across in a way that is somehow simultaneously witty and serious; she isn't afraid to weigh in on larger issues than Dowling, but will often be gracious about others' valid points. She writes a column for the Sunday Times, and a blog about her disabled daughter. I didn't discover her as a columnist though, I read her delightful (semi-autobiographical) book My Life on a Plate in my teens - it is a wonderful, funny, sweet, heartfelt book masquerading as chick lit. When I later read her actual autobiography-come-ode to retail The Shops, I realised how much of the protagonist's life was her life, and immediately understood where all that warmth and eccentricity came from. I have always adored writers who are bold enough to write about their 'ordinary' life; one of the earliest novels I read was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, another was the glorious (and sadly out of print) Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson, and I have always found the oddities of family life fascinating. Knight's passionately expressed points of view and memoirs have made me laugh, cry, and bristle in disagreement. This, surely, is the mark of a great writer.

Charlie Brooker
If you're a fan of TV, humour, or just the sick workings of the human mind, you must read some Charlie Brooker. His masterpiece is Screen Burn, the column that appears in the Saturday Guardian's TV Guide. Most of the time it's Brooker, although now and again you get some poor replacement columnist who just ends up seeming inferior. He dissects a couple of programmes a week, anything that captures his devilish imagination or drives him to despair. One of the high points is his love-hate fixation with reality TV like The Apprentice; he loathes the contestants but expresses this with such eloquent violence that you can't help but keep reading. He also writes a similarly brilliant column in Monday's G2. Brooker famously encourages his fans (having discovered his writing to be a cult hit) to engage in mass protest against things, ring up radio/TV programmes with bizarre requests or participate in delightfully strange challenges. Some of his older Screen Burn columns have been published in a book - read these fiercely funny snippets on public transport, but be warned - you'll snigger like a loon.

These are my favourite three; special mention must go to Marina Hyde (someone once commented that she and Brooker should get together and have tiny satirical babies), Barbara Ellen from The Guardian, who I often disagree with, but she always writes well, and Zoe Williams, who used to write a brilliant column in one of the weekly trashy mags - she was far too witty for them and has moved on to more broadsheet-y pastures.

All of these fine folks seem to have a genuine interest in life and all of its little hilarities - try and stop for a moment in your busy week and read them, it will help you remember the good things.

Do add links to your favourites via a comment, I love being introduced to new columnists.

Friday, 26 June 2009

The Curious Case of Michael Jackson

Everyone has something to say about Jacko. Whether you thought he was a bit past it, or chose to cling to his 70s and 80s talent explosion, no one is staying silent after hearing of his death. It is sad, in the way that only a Hollywood death can be. He has been compared to Judy Garland, Anna Nicole Smith and Heath Ledger. Judy I'll accept, there are those 'too much too young' stars who seem to both love and loathe their fame, they can't live with or without it. Heath Ledger's death was shocking because of the surprise element; he seemed together, artistic, just embarking on a successful roll of brilliant, dark movies. I am less shocked by Michael Jackson's death, because it seems a miracle he's held on to life this long - certainly the last ten years or so he appeared to be almost in a parallel universe: socially inept, fragile, erratic. Whatever jokes have been made about the surgery, the chimps, the oxygen tent and the sleepovers, Jackson is a very serious case study about the effects of childhood - or a lack thereof - on the adult mind.

I chose this heading because Michael Jackson does seem to me a sort of Benjamin Button figure; In several biographies and obituaries those who met him as a child have remarked on his mature behaviour and adult energy and discipline - Smokey Robinson described young Michael as "a strange and lovely child, an old soul in the body of a boy", while his own mother had remarked that his singing and dancing talents were "like an older person". Funny, then, that this man would eventually become best known for his childlike voice, his apparent naivety, and the Peter Pan comparisons were unavoidable when he created a dream playground of a home and called it Neverland.

"I never had the chance to do the fun things kids do," Jackson once explained. "There was no Christmas, no holiday celebrating. So now you try to compensate for some of that loss."

Usually a decline into madness or depression is mapped by the face of a star; Judy Garland looked haunted, overly made-up and drug-addled in her last months, and Heath Ledger's sudden ageing and insomnia before his death is well documented. But Michael Jackson had carefully turned his face into a macabre mask of pale impishness, and his expressions lived behind layers of cosmetic surgery, sunglasses and long hair. He had smiles for all his fans at the right times, when making foreign visits and with his children, but no one could have seen him physically circling the drain from his TV and magazine appearances.

His death isn't really what saddens me - I don't really mourn people I never knew - it is that he has become a joke and a piece of public property, when he probably should have died a happy old man with a legendary career behind him. The Jackson family lawyer (who made an odd appearance on GMTV, a bizarre display of awkward emotion that just continues the circus of Jacko's image) has hinted that the case is darker than people know, with the people around him heavily implicated in his demise. I feel sort of a relief that the poor guy wont live to see his life dragged through the mud more than it has been. Hopefully we can go back to loving the music and remembering that bright young showman who gave us so many killer tunes.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

So little time...

I've been wanting to update this blog for well over a week now, and consequently have way too many topics to choose from. So I'll do sub-headlines for each to avoid the contents of my headspace spilling over you like a molten stream of consciousness.

Best bar Nun
Last week I went to see the newly-opened Sister Act musical with my two own lovely sisters. It was the younger one's birthday, and we all had a delicious meal at a little cafe/bar called Libre around the corner - highly recommended. After the nicest Thai red curry I've ever tasted and a passionfruit-champagne cocktail, I was very much ready for some singing nuns. The production was, in the words of its main character, Fabulous. You can tell it has Whoopi's Goldberg touch (I'm sorry, in an awful pun mood today), and effervescent lead Patina Miller has all of her attitude and comic timing, with the added bonus of being a lot more Beyonce-licious. There were hardly any filler songs at all in my opinion (I know some of my musical theatrey friends disagree) as they were all lyrically slick, often hilarious, with a strong theme of 70s disco, soul and funk. There were lots of genius close-to-the-mark rip offs (one VERY Dancing in the Street, one very Barry White, one very Marvin Gaye) but Alan Menken's astonishingly good score also has a few classically Disney moments, which might grate on less of a Disney-lover than myself. Katie Rowley Jones, previously a fab Nessarose in Wicked, does a great job of being the 'straight' character, and her voice lives up to the contradiction of little meek nun/huge voice, which notably had to be dubbed in the film. Overall it was a wonderful night out, with heartfelt, funny, poignant and downright camp moments, and everyone should treat themselves to it this year! In these crunchy times, you never know how long even the greatest West End show will run.

Deal Breakers
Another interesting quirk of humanity that came up over dinner on Monday night, and was in the London paper the following day, as well as popping up in July's Cosmo - those little niggles that can make or break a new romance. Various anecdotes revealed how we (not just men) find those irritations that we just can't live with in the other sex. Some were physical - who can forget Chandler's issues with oversized nostrils: 'When she leaned back, I could SEE HER BRAIN' - some etiquette-related (talking too much about themselves, name-dropping, poor hygiene) and many far more random reasons. Cosmo's Tracy Ramsden has a beady eye for bad accessorizing, citing "dodgy man jewellery" and "a friendship band screaming 'I spent my gap year in Thailand'" as bad omens on a second date. I do despise this kind of walking stereotype, the surfy haired, stoner-voiced, quite-rich-really-but-desperate-not-to-look-it guy, so that would probably be a deal-breaker for me. My own personal ones? Hardcore Daily Mail reading, rudeness to waiters, excessive vanity, drug-addled brain masquerading as 'chilled out', anyone described by their friends as a 'legend' or addicted to the word 'banter' (translation: loud, drunk exhibitionist with an inflated sense of their own brilliance), and fussiness with food. That's not such a colossal list, is it? But I am less tolerant than some; I truly believe I know in the first five minutes of the first date if the guy is a keeper.

The Glad Game
I mentioned in this post that I was coveting some gorgeous gladiator sandals for summery days. After extensive searching (and only one purchase-and-return error) I have found my perfect ancient-history-chic sandals. They're not actually classic glads, more Grecian-goddessy than Spartan-studded, but I love them. Yes, they murder my feet - all sandals do, I have oddly angular feet and ankles - but I'm determined to wear them in and enjoy my summer footwear romance.
And finally...
Funny story of the week: New Yorkers are getting a system of STI identity cards. The idea is that men register with the site, which synchs up to their sexual health history, and by acquiring their STI-dentity code (I really will stop soon), women can access their man's last two STI tests and make sure they're getting a clean slate, as it were.This is responsible, clever, and a little weird - a brilliant reflection on savvy New Yorkers. In one of the early series of Sex and the City, back in the days of the surreal vox-pops-style sequences, a guy remarks that women want a blood test before they'll even have dinner with you (or words to this effect). It seems SATC were way ahead of their time, and in the cynical, 'wise-up-and-get-a-grip' world of the Big Apple, falling in love really can be as practical as checking a bank statement.

Do comment on any or all of the above... I love comments.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Silver Foxettes

I have rarely delved into the world of fashion in this blog, partly because it is everywhere at Elle and this is just for my extra-curricular amusement, and partly because I am a little apathetic about the whole thing. I love reading about designers, trends, shows and the whole glamorous circus, but it doesn't really penetrate my little bubble of comfy jeans, pretty dresses and killer shoes. I prefer the word 'style', because I think the true, lasting style icons have always been the ones that dressed to please themselves and kept to a signature look which suited them. This is true of Marilyn Monroe (curvalicious gowns, halterneck dresses, feminine blouses), Audrey Hepburn (cropped cigarette trousers, androgynous jackets, polonecks and ballet pumps) and Jackie O (classic shifts, tailoring, those enduring glamourpuss sunglasses). The stars of more recent years who get the most 'best dressed' accolades are also people with a signature silhouette, usually from a favourite designer (Keira Knightley in luxe, draped Gucci, Jennifer Aniston in clean, simple Calvin Klein, Sienna Miller in goddessy Marchesa). I think style is something totally undefinable, something personal to you, and something you have to be an absolute fashion athlete to really maintain every single day.

The commute into London is a veritable playground of people-watching; I love, love, love the way London women play with layering, contrast and colour, and the mix of ethnicities, ages, shapes and working environments means a little fashion show is put on for me every day between Waterloo and Bond St. I am particularly admiring of Stylish Older Ladies in the capital; like Stylish Pregnant Ladies and Beautifully Dressed Children, it always puts a little joy into my heart to see them. There was an immaculately put-together SOL next to me on the tube this morning; in a black cotton wrap dress, impossibly soft chocolate cashmere cardi and accessorizing with a classic black Prada bag and sunglasses, perched elegantly atop perfectly Mirren-esque bobbed silver hair.*

I think it can be a challenge, but a fun one, to maintain a sense of style after a certain age. My mother gets more chic every year; she's having fun with finding glamourous workwear and bold accessories as trends change, but never forgets the best way to dress her shape. A lot of women slip into 'comfy' territory - this can be a good thing; my grandmother chooses the best quality materials and workmanship due to her dressmaker's instinct, and as a result is a very stylish septuagenarian - but I am determined to hold on to my style regardless of age and its restrictions. The absolute worst type of ageing is the surgery-stretched, teen-haired, muttony celebs who refuse to accept the inevitable (take note Joan Rivers, Madonna and Donatella). The SOLs I see around West London are passionately clinging to the classics; the camel trench coat, the wrap dress, the cashmere cover-up, the elegant pumps, the pearls, and the short, bouffant blow dry. I think you can be more diverse with your wardrobe than this Mayfair look post-50, but the silhouette is a brilliant place to start. I'm still trying to forge my style on a high-street budget, but it does make me smile to see so many British women working a fabulous Spring/Summer look in the city.

*Helen Mirren is quite literally the Queen of SOLs: gracefully looking her age but keeping her hair and dress daringly Oscar-worthy. I can only hope I have such poise and va-va-voom at 63. Here are my holy trinity of graceful ageing:

Friday, 22 May 2009

Guilty Pleasures

What links Snickers bars, OK! magazine, American Idol, Dr Pepper and David Mitchell?

As readers of this post may have guessed, they are in fact my personal secret indulgences, weird crushes and bizarre cravings. None of them are particularly glamourous or intellectual (except the lovely David Mitchell) but nevertheless, they make me swoon.

Aside from the raptures of peanut, caramel and chocolate combined, the American Idol final came up in the news today for having its worst ratings in the US since 2004. This is supposedly due to gaming and internet use overtaking entertainment shows, but it probably also reflects the talent show formula feeling bit flat after all these years. For all its tackiness, I do love Idol. Even in the rounds leading up to the final 12, all of the US contestants could sing the socks off our 'novelty' Brit contestants (will Ray Quinn PLEASE have the decency to disappear??) and you get some stonking cover versions where they can really showcase their vocal skills. The standout contestant of this season, Adam Lambert, lost out to impishly cute Kris Allen - a bit of a travesty, considering the risks Lambert had taken with arrangements and his sheer vocal athleticism. But back in the guilty-pleasure lobe of my brain, I obviously had a massive crush on shamelessly middle-of-the-road Kris.

At least Allen is conventionally boyband-dreamy; Psychologies magazine this week cast my mind back to that guiltiest of pleasures, the 'Shouldn't but Would'. If you think you don't have one, maybe this will jog your memory: Simon Cowell. Richard Madeley. Paul Merton. Simon Amstell (who cares if you're not his type?) Andrew Castle. Chris Moyles.

Chances are your SbW is a bit wrinkly, nationally unpopular, aesthetically unappealing, chubby or all of the above. Usually humour, power or just that twinkle in the eye are all that keep him out of barge-pole territory. When XFM asked listeners to send in theirs, the hilarious responses ranged from the cradle-snatching (Daniel Radcliffe, Zac Efron) to the political (Boris Johnson, Michael Portillo) and even, disturbingly, to the fictional (Mr Tumnus, Cheetara from Thundercats, and even Simba from the Lion King). If we're delving into Disney, I always had confusing feelings about Robin Hood - yes, the talking fox - and I know I share this crush with at least one friend. You know who you are.

I'm off now to read OK! in front of a One Tree Hill repeat with a can of Dr Pepper - where's David Mitchell when you need him? - but please do comment with your guilty pleasures, be they culinary, carnal or downright cringeworthy.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Beauty vs The Beast

In last week's G2, feminist writer Julie Bindel wrote about how she had never felt compelled to wear make-up , and preached to us moronic L'Oreal-loving traitors about the terrible conformity of having to 'dress up for male approval' with a face full of slap. Now, I am of the opinion that in a perfect world, we would all have flawless, glowing, evenly-coloured complexions which self-moisturised and accentuated our cut-glass cheekbones. In planet reality, I am firmly convinced that the average woman is never 100% happy with her bare face, and that make up is mostly for her, not Him. Some of us don’t even have a Him to impress. And I’m pretty sure that not many (past that teenage preoccupation with how boys are viewing you) are bothered about random builders and barmen analysing their features.

It is a pleasure and a pastime to play with colour and enhance your face; like some women are attracted to gaudy costume jewellery or sharp, bold hairstyles, I am a magpie for beauty products. Little dreamy pots of luscious creamy substances that highlight cheek and brow bones, buttery-soft balms that transform my less-than-generous lips into a Hollywood pout, powdery pink blush for that healthy glow even after four hours’ sleep, and mascara, that wonder product, the path to impossibly long, feathery bambi lashes.

As a romantic when it comes to style and beauty, I resent the hard-nosed accusation that ‘people like me’ are betraying the sisterhood with our desire to entrap men and hide our true character. I have never described myself as a feminist, because women like Bindel have made it an ugly preference (no pun intended). There is no middle ground with these women, you either shun all modern enchantments in favour of becoming hairy, disgruntled and plain (not to mention preachy and outspoken), or you have no feminist leanings at all. What Bindel is essentially saying is, even after years of feminist study and political campaigning, any would-be fish without a bicycle can ruin it all with one slick of a Juicy Tube.

What hope for fairly independent, forward-thinking women who also want the little indulgences that make them happy? I know that personally my make-up habit is for me alone; I like playing around with it and improving my skills, I like the glow certain products give me, and I like it when people say I have nice skin (translation: YSL's touche eclat). Most of all I know it's for me because my boyfriend dislikes cosmetic overload and is constantly hinting that he likes me best first thing in the morning, fresh faced. If anything I'm resisting male pressure by continuing to choose make-up.

When reading the article, I respected her effort to try what she was condemning, but hated the scathing treatment of anyone dabbling in a little Elizabeth Arden. She links stupidity with cosmetic appreciation unnecessarily; the women getting furthest in many industries are the ones who realise that people with the whole package are much more likely to be promoted and valued. People react well to those who make an effort, whether that be the well groomed, fragrant smelling, neatly attired or immaculately manicured. It is subconscious, and yes, perhaps a bit misogynistic. But why is it so wrong to want to be successful and admired? I find it hard to take women like Bindel seriously when they are so ludicrously intolerant of the mainstream.

One of my favourite writers, India Knight, has a completely contrasting ode to cosmetics in her wonderful memoir/gift guide The Shops . If given the chance to make your eyes bigger and brighter, your skin gleam and your lips look plump and alluring, she wonders, why wouldn’t you take it? Knight is fairly mistrustful of make-up-free ladies, which is a little unfair, but what she is basically saying is that those sharply opposed to looking their best are not her type of women. Incidentally, she comes across throughout her writing as a total woman's woman, with sisters and girl friends filling the pages, her books aimed at women who want to treat themselves. Bindel’s only acknowledgement of her fellow femmes seems to be feuds with other prolific feminists such as Julie Birchill, and her constant censure of ‘them’, these terrible normal women who don’t share her views. I know who I’d rather have coffee with.

Bindel and Knight: Not hitting the Clarins counter together any time soon