Friday, 27 August 2010
This week's lust is Artisan and Vine (the site of my first online dating experience). I already knew they sourced delicious local and specialist wines, but from next week they are starting a new lunch menu which, reading it through, could have been created in my most delirious dream.
Fishcakes with hollandaise? Moules? Goats cheese tart? And all with the know-how behind the bar to set you up with the perfect refreshment. I feel a little drunk already.
It isn’t all bleak though; I really enjoy reading about someone’s connection with a place, and there are some excellent blogs out there, in particular. A friend recently went to Tokyo and wrote a street-style piece about her trip on her great fashion and pop culture blog. A girl on the same journalism course as me this autumn has a great account of her travels through Vietnam, as well as some fab film and music reviews, and for completely unrealistic travelporn, you can’t beat the luxe offerings of the Mr and Mrs Smith blog. It might sound a bit sad to muse about travel heaven when you have neither the time nor the funds, but one day I will and all this inspiration will be put to good use.
I think a lot of people that know me would laugh at the thought of me roughing it on a shoestring in foreign climes, but isn’t that the point of the Big Travel Experience? I didn’t do it at 18 and don’t regret that; I think I would have been overwhelmed, frizzy and subsequently diva-ish for most of it, not especially making me a better person. But while even a week in the med is unattainable travel heaven in my current lifestyle, it’s nice to think that a few years of hard graft and experience could lead to more of an adventure somewhere. I do think it’s important to do it, even if that means sacrificing a hot shower and fluffy white towels in favour of grubby sleeper trains and greasy locks once in a while… what else are dry shampoo and baby wipes for? Granted, I’m not usually a festival type, but I’d do it for the right destination. I also have a split in the places I’d want to hit with a bit of cash (Tokyo, New York, Cairo) and those I’d be happy jetting off to on a budget (Bangkok, Prague, Budapest).
I think if someone handed me the money right now - where’s that anonymous benefactor when you need them, eh? - I would probably head to Asia, as it’s somewhere that I’ve never been and has always fascinated me. Something like Thailand (travelling 101) – Vietnam (history & culture) – Hong Kong (shopping & skyscrapers) – Tokyo (style & sushi) – and then rounding it off with somewhere beachy and glorious like Bali would be heaven. I’ve never been that desperate to hit Australasia; it does look gorgeous but I’d want a more alien experience, but I can imagine it being perfect for a career gap or family trip later on in life. South Africa is a little daunting but also rich in sights and culture; I think I'd need to go with someone I felt safe with and later in my travel life. Another friend recently went to South America for a few months and has been posting endless stunning photos of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Belize and Guatemala amongst others. It helps that she’s as ridiculously photogenic as the scenery itself, but that was definitely my biggest pang of travel envy this year. So that corner of the world is firmly on the list as well. At this rate I’ll have to win the lottery and take a few years off to work through it, but one can and should dream.
Here are the top 10 I’d love to explore:
Southern India (Kerala etc)
Monday, 23 August 2010
Something else that celebrated thirty years of success this month is the excellent film Airplane! which my parents, who have impeccable taste in comedy as well as life partners, introduced me to years ago. The Guardian celebrated it with this article, and even more significant than their hefty praise are the 129 (and counting) comments that come below it. I am a little bit obsessed with reader comments, as you may have realised from my posts about other online press, but I find the comment function a fascinating cyber-addition to the press. You can absorb a massive wave of public feeling, wit, anger or mockery just by scrolling down a little further than the last published line. The Guardian website’s commenters are also very, very funny (although they have competition from the Daily Mail’s less intentionally hilarious readers.)
Obviously with the mention of 30 years of Airplane! came a lot of quotation. It is probably one of the most-quoted movies of all time, and even before I can remember cracking up at the laugh-a-millisecond script, I know my parents were saying things like, ‘…and don’t call me Shirley.’ I caught a bit of Team America: World Police last night – very funny, but still one I can promiscuously channel-flick during – and it struck me how Airplane-ish the humour was, with a much more four-lettered Parker/Stone twist. While the design & puppetry are sheer genius, Team America just feels so heavy-heanded in its delivery, and sacrifices all the lightness and joy of its 1980 predecessor in favour of more accepted obscenities and racial issues. This year one of my favourite nights in included having some good friends round and watching Airplane!, and we still chuckled our socks off at the brilliant disaster movie parody and off-the-wall moments. There are too many sublime gags to pinpoint; it makes more recent comedies just look lazy. Someone commented on the Guardian article that they’d been on a plane recently where a small boy was taken by cabin crew to see the cockpit, and a nearby passenger couldn’t help leaning out and commenting ‘Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?’ These moments just lodge themselves in your funnybone and refuse to leave.
I love how the combination of silliness and deadpan have made this film so enduring, where the swearing, puppet-sex and casual racism might make something like Team America more divisive (the Airplane! team also didn’t need to resort to a five-minute vomiting sequence to pad out their story.) The latter is probably top of my comedy list, and if somehow this cultural gem has passed you by, I suggest you grab the DVD now.
Incidentally, I believe a capacity for silliness and humour is a large part of my parents’ success, and their shared love of films like Airplane!, along with Monty Python’s Life of Brian and these days, everything from The Simpsons to Gavin and Stacey, have made me able to laugh at others and myself in a good way, I think. I can only hope the film-makers of this century’s teens will rise to the challenge and create more stellar comedies that will stick around into their tricenarian years (and if someone wants to stick around with me for that long, I’ll count it as a huge blessing too.)
'Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue...'
Friday, 20 August 2010
I remember being in the toilets of my university department a few years ago, where someone had thoughtfully blu-tacked an advert for a housemate on the inner door of the cubicle, with some foresight as to the maximum time one spends stationary in such situations. They were obviously eager to fill the spare room, and their big sell went as follows:
Two students; one male, one female, looking for a friendly, clean, non-smoking housemate. Recently refurbished house; rent 260 excluding bills; 5 minutes to Tesco; 10 minutes to uni; 15 mins to
At which point the text broke off, and someone had neatly scrawled, ‘ponder the use of the semicolon?’ Granted, this was the English department, but it greatly amused me that someone had bothered to stop (possibly mid-flow) to find a pencil and gently correct a fellow student’s writing.
It's the guerilla tactics and passive aggressive point-making that really makes my day. This was recently re-tweeted by @BadJournalism and shows a similar frustration with everyday errors and typos; it sounds odd, but it can seem disrespectful to misspell something like the announcement of a death. It’s like someone trying to spell ‘Will you marry me’ in rose petals or spaghetti or something and getting it wrong – it just seems careless. As is substituting all punctuation with that most vibrant of symbols, the question mark.
I do recommend BadJournalism if you’re jumping on the Twitterwagon. They find and are sent tips of brilliantly bad-taste headlines, subbing fails and hilarious subject matter. I recently drew to their attention, for example, the Daily Mail’s groundbreaking announcement that 'Nearly 70% of working mothers in the UK are now employed.’Good on them, I say.
Wednesday, 18 August 2010
I didn’t know what to expect when I skipped into the West End to see Hair the musical last night. Hair is one of those unavoidable chunks of culture; you’ve heard the music (even if it’s via the Müller ads), you’ve vaguely picked up on references to the nudity and you probably know more than you think about the premise (hippies/drugs/Vietnam.) The main reason I still felt unsure, despite this psychedelic frame of reference, was that I hadn’t heard any standout songs and the synopsis itself didn’t draw me in hugely. But the iconic nature of the original late 60s production, the hit songs it produced and the buzz this year as the new Broadway revival was brought to London all made me curious about the show. I don’t particularly adore the music that I do know, but I had heard that it was such an infectiously uplifting night out that many friends were going back for more. So last night, just a few weeks before its schedule closure in September, I finally went to find out what all the fuss was about.
My verdict? It was great, but it wasn’t incredible. The music and the story didn’t blow my mind, but the vibrant vocals, colour and energy did. Audience participation is something I’m usually horrified by (my reserved Britishness finds it cringeworthy and my love of storytelling jars with the breaking of the fourth wall) but the rambly chattiness of the charismatic stoners and the weaving of the cast in and out of the audience, stroking hair and giving out flyers, was utterly charming. I would like to be able to say that this would also have been true of a British production, but I do feel the full-on Americana of the cast is what made it the solid, confident and slick spectacle it is. The quality of each singer just launches it into a different league to the rest of the West End.
The part I found baffling in such a hit was how hard it was to follow; I’m pretty clued up on the Vietnam war period, but the speed of the lyrics and the lack of diction (perhaps a conscious decision, but it didn’t work for me) meant I spent much of the first few character ‘snippets’ feeling completely lost, if very entertained. I hadn’t appreciated how much it had clearly influenced Rent, one of my favourite musicals, with its scenes of anarchic camaraderie, shock factor and loveable characters. But the tribe, whilst charismatic as a dancing, chanting, belting whole, did not have as much individual appeal as the bohemians of Rent. Caissie Levy really stood out for me with her honeyed vocals and subtlety of performance, but the limitless riffs of Aquarius soloist Dionne and the soaring optimism of leading man Gavin Creel also took my breath away. The group songs are the lifeblood of the show and the ensemble, most of whom have been together since the beginning of the Broadway revival last year, create a gloriously unified sound.
By the end I was certainly feeling the Love, the twin ideas of Peace and Love being a central part of the show. The air was fragrant with incense, the set lit with rainbow colours, the cast (on a bog-standard Tuesday night performance) seemed fresh as a daisy and high on life. I wasn’t as moved as I thought I’d be by the Vietnam war theme, perhaps due to the surreal ‘bad trip’ sequence that once again entertained and baffled me at the same time. This baffletainment sort of manages to work though, and there are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments. Most of all you just want to be part of the gang, and even as someone who loves a power shower and loathes tie-dye, I had never found hippie life so seductively portrayed. For something less gripping than Wicked and less moving than Les Miserables, however, it is a shame that there is no option for cheap tickets. For £29.50 though, you can get into the Dress Circle, which we soon realised was prime hippie-partying ground. I didn’t have anyone dance along the back of my seat, but a tribe member did take a sip of my coke. So if you’re wandering the cloudy streets of London in the next couple of weeks and feel a bit bleak about life, I suggest you Let the Sun Shine In and bask in the transcendental aural trip that is the cast of Hair.
Monday, 16 August 2010
I would describe myself as a technophobe, yet I am a Tweeter, a Facebooker, I have both webmail and Outlook accounts, an abandoned MySpace page, a Blackberry and a touchscreen phone. I had to be bullied into the latter as I was solemnly told by the 3Mobile goblins that only the touchscreens, Blackberries and ‘smartphones’ (the basic Nokia evidently the D student of the class) were compatible with the best contract deals. I stubbornly resisted for some time, until being coerced into purchasing a touchscreen LG this summer. This phone and I haven’t really settled into a honeymoon period yet; it sends blank and unfinished texts, its predictive dictionary is bizarrely devoid of any useable words and most unsettlingly, the display flips over into landscape from portrait if you so much as tilt the handset. I am clearly not as smart as my smartphone. If it even qualifies as a smartphone, which I suspect it does not. iPhones make me slightly queasy, and although I have a freebie BlackBerry which is very useful for free instant messaging and things like the GoogleMap application, it still has roughly four thousand logos standing for functions I can’t even begin to comprehend. So maybe I am just a technophobe by my generation’s standards.
I often come home from work to find three or four family members and friends perched on our sofas, each engrossed in the laptop in front of them. This remarkable combination of companionship and isolation is surreal to look at, but I know I have joined in on more than one occasion. My own laptop is no longer with us, having hung on admirably through six years, several knocks and drops, and resurrected itself more than once. It lasted its final months with the screen half hanging off, lots of amateur sellotape surgery holding it together and a tendency to simply switch off mid task. So now I watch people’s close relationships with their laptops with a certain detachment, before I rejoin their ranks in a month or so with a much-needed replacement for my impending student year. This woman’s description of her text and email-based relationship with her sons was a bit of a wake-up call, although it’s something I’ve been gradually coming round to for a while. How on earth do you break the cycle of cyber communication?
A couple of my friends have managed it; I may have to call them up via the alien device that is the landline phone and ask them if there is some sort of nirvana at the end of the process. The unfortunate fact is, for those who can’t bear to be out of the loop (and by the loop I mean recent photos of great days and nights out, invitations to future ones, and the general stream of wit and banter that Facebook has to offer) it is a huge step to remove oneself from a social networking site. I fear for my monastic ambitions to really take root, all of my favourite people would have to similarly shun the good ‘book and make a profound pact to call each other or, in a maverick twist, actually MEET UP to share conversation or pictures. There are people I haven’t seen for actual plural years who I consider myself ‘in touch’ with. Would the removal of myself from social cyberspace encourage more real-life contact and more tangible memories? Once something moves down the endless feed of Facebook debate and exhibitionism, it is forgotten. I’m just not sure what these endless options for instant communication are doing for our friendships.
Of course, there are so many advantages, logically speaking. With a Facebook message I can put out an idea of an outing, get everyone’s feedback (visible to all other guests) and summarise with the actual plan. Events are a fine way to get a head count and for people to RSVP easily, and I can’t say seeing people’s feedback on your photos is entirely disagreeable. But it brings out the worst in me and so many others. Trying to get over a break up in dignified silence? The temptation to make him feel bad and elicit sympathy from your friends will prove too much to resist. Getting married/having a baby/moving house? Boring people with the daily details is always a risk. Enraged by an acquaintance? Why not passive-aggressively bash out a generalized rant about ‘certain people’? Because if you drag your gaze away from the screen and glance in the mirror, you will see the distinct glaze of crazy in your eyes, that’s why.
So I’m considering the neo-Luddite route; Lily Allen’s done it twice (or thrice, it’s hard to keep track) but however much she tries, La Allen finds it just too damn simple to announce something like a pregnancy or a ‘retirement’ through a press release or an interview alone. Where’s the fanfare? There’s something deliciously controlling about reporting constantly on your own movements and actions. Even our parents are getting in on the act, if not seamlessly (my mum still asks us to ‘send’ her photos on Facebook, the tagging process continuing to elude her). The UK’s eldest Twitterer, Ivy Bean, recently passed away at the age of 103; greatly missed, if only for the quaint concept of being on Twitter at such a grand age. But I don’t like the fact that if someone’s busy, they can still be ‘in touch’ without having to actually see you. It is harder than it should be to explain why twelve texts and a funny wall post doesn’t constitute having seen someone, but maybe we don’t feel who is really there for us with this bizarre set-up of communication from all angles. Equally, maybe we are not really being there for a friend if we ask them what’s up on Facebook chat or respond to their Tweet. My biggest problems with the world of technology at the moment are the misunderstandings, the unread messages, and the odd frustration at those who are not as communicatively wired up as we are. It is easy to ‘overhear’ other friends planning or discussing a recent meet up on these mediums, and be offended at your exclusion. And in the event of heartbreak, the breaker is maddeningly visible to the breakee if they are not strong enough to hit that ‘remove’ button. Perhaps if we signed off, retired the mobiles and returned to a traditional phone call at least, we might get on a little better, move on a little faster, and say what actually needs to be said.
Of course, the major flaw is that I wouldn't be able to blog (or promote it in any way.) But I also wouldn't care who was reading, what they thought or if I was offending anybody. Today it feels infuriating that I want to do something so entangled in communication and self-marketing. In another life, or maybe a few years down the line, I would unplug everything, get away somewhere less polluted with the buzzing of phones and the pinging of emails, and do something very simple with my time. And maybe have clearer relationships as a result.
Thursday, 12 August 2010
I love being the hostess. I have no idea why; it’s often a stressful, thankless, one-sided thing to open your home and feed and water people, but maybe it’s my own personal control freak thing. I love the triumph of a good night, well thought-out snacks and drinks, themes and celebrations and the sounds of people laughing and talking in the comfort of my home. When I was little and at Brownies, we were set the mammoth challenge of achieving our Hostess badge: this involved putting a small shop-bought cake on a plate, making a cup of tea and serving them to a volunteer ‘examiner’ (the intensity was in no way lessened by the fact that this was my mum.) I think I did fairly well, although I’m not sure what the criteria for failure would have been – spillage, plate-smashing or insulting your guest, perhaps? I remember the task vividly, even though in hindsight you’d think it was a quaint finishing school assignment rather than a 90s after-school project.
When my most exotic relative, my aunt from Switzerland, would come to stay with my family, my sisters and I would often create a ‘hotel’ environment for her; carefully-scrawled menus for breakfast in bed, 24-hour service and welcome notes in her guest bedroom. It is unclear why this generosity was reserved for her alone, but she played along admirably during her stays at the Swan Hotel, even when Weetabix and Coco Pops were the only items offered in the Continental breakfast. So I’ve always enjoyed hospitality, in play if not work – my few stints in catering and bar work were less enjoyable, rude customers, sticky floors, complaints and all. My mum and my grandma both have the inclination as well, in that when people visit there will be premeditated refreshments and a selection of drinks on arrival.
Lots of my food and drink memories are based around this civilised touch – on hot, sticky driving holidays through France, Spain and Italy, we would stay at Eurocamp sites, where you would be met by the reps as you pulled in, taken to their tent and fixed a drink of your choice to unwind from the journey (always exciting). I lived with an excellent hostess in my second year at university (not usually the domain of domestic goddesses), who taught me the grave importance of quality shot glasses, proper coffee and matching your party food to the ambience of the event. I left that flat a much better hostess and full of enthusiasm for full on, fifties-style hospitality. In a less intelligent life I think it might have been fun to be a party or wedding planner, and in retirement I still think it would be incredible to run a sweet little café or tea room.
This isn’t to say I want to abandon all career aspirations, become a WAG and suppress any irritating backchat that might upset the all-important man in my life. But I like taking pride in my hosting skills, love a bit of home baking and definitely think cocktail hour should be reinstated. And never underestimate the joy that a pretty Cath Kidston teapot, a nice cake stand (or if you're not the afternoon tea type, premium vodka and a beautiful set of martini glasses) can add to your social gatherings.
‘We can definately seperate this in one manouver.’
Does the above make you bristle just a little?
The Telegraph reported last week that 'separate' is the most commonly misspelt word, followed by definitely and manoeuvre, according to a study of 3,500 Britons. I have ranted before about how much constant misspelling bothers me, but ‘definately/definatley’ is certainly the blunder that I see the most. I think I’m a good speller for a few reasons: reading a lot (i.e. constant exposure to correctly-spelled words), genes (both my parents are pretty immaculate spellers) and a slightly photographic memory. I tend to be able to memorise phrases and passages word-for-word fairly easily, which made English a natural subject to continue with after school.
Separate is interesting though, as it’s one I remember being corrected by spellcheck and teachers in my teens, by which point I had most words pretty well absorbed. Some words definitely take longer to stick, especially in a language full of exceptions and quirks. It’s usually a phonetic issue, for instance we do say ‘sep-er-ate’, so the logical written form might well have an e where there is an a. This doesn't work for everything - by the same logic, definitely would be spelt 'definutly'. But I had some good teachers who offered me ways to remember the right spelling (I remember someone pointing out that ‘finite’ was the root of definitely, and I never forgot it.) Surprise is another one; we tend to omit the first 'r' from its pronunciation and thus 'suprise' makes much more sense. I am interested in the words in our hotchpotch of a language, I like to know where they come from and how they are linked internationally and to Latin, Greek and Scandinavian roots.
I do sometimes wish I was someone who is blissfully oblivious to the little errors of spelling and speech, I do recognise in an out-of-body way how annoyingly pedantic it is. There is a Mitchell and Webb sketch where David Mitchell’s character casually shoots people in a meeting for referring to espresso as ‘expresso’ and saying ‘pacific’ instead of specific. It’s so true though, for some people it just feels like an itch that needs scratching. I apologise for myself and the others, but let us correct you – we need to – and then go about your business, probably thinking slightly less of us. For now, be thankful you are not this particular young (I hope) Facebooker:
Wednesday, 11 August 2010
However, it does have a nasty side. Once you’re used to people getting sucked into rows it becomes merely boring, but the impersonal side of this sort of blind networking means that people find it very easy to hit out at others. A while back a friend of mine made a benign comment about a flavour-of-the-month popstar, and some deranged fans started hurling very explicit abuse at her and anyone who tried to defuse the situation. This was my first encounter with the saddos that use the site for stalkery and mischief; before then it was all Stephen Fry musings and Ed Byrne chuckles. There is a lot of Outrage on Twitter as well, which can become wearisome – usually Jan Moir related (chill out and stop reading the Mail, people!), at one point leading to people trying to post the writer’s personal details and home address so people could admonish her directly. This is the kind of mob mentality that has started to show a nastier side to the innocent-birdie-fronted website. Obsessive fans gather and start huge campaigns against people; Stephen Fry - one of the site’s most popular celebs - once mentioned that a user had referred to his tweets as boring, and it wasn’t long before his followers were baying for blood. Fry had to swiftly follow up his comment by asking people not to harass the poor guy.
Today Dom Joly, usually fairly jovial or at most a little acerbic, started a row when he dropped in a casual allusion to Keith Chegwin’s joke-stealing ways to his Independent column last Sunday. From the look of Joly’s war of words with his unimpressed followers since then, Chegwin has a crazed army of tweeting fans ready to take down anyone who makes him the butt of their (original) joke. Instead of maintaining a dignified silence, Joly has argued with, insulted and re-tweeted his least literate and most indignant followers, despite constant claims of being ‘bored’ with the furore. This is the fascinating thing about a constant stream of activity available for all to see; reading Joly’s tweets back, it is evident that he is more than a little riled by the negative reaction, not finding it ‘hilarious’ as insisted. Obviously I’m team Dom here – Cheggers is an pilfering little twerp who would clearly sell his granny or sleep with Susan Boyle to cling on to his waning fame. But the ensuing row showed an ugly side of a funny guy for a while there. Perhaps the Twitter backlash is beginning as celebs begin to see the dark side of the public having unfettered access to them. Equally, if you slag someone off on Twitter, you’ll likely use their ‘@’ identity to refer to them, and thus send the criticism in their direction as well as your followers’. This makes every bit of negative feeling public and aggressive, rather than privately aired in frustration.
There are moments of genius though; after Jeremy Clarkson’s book came out with the testosterone-packed tagline ‘Read Clarkson. Think Clarkson. Act Clarkson’, writer Caitlin Moran poked fun at the PR machine by inviting her followers to ACT CLARKSON that day and tell her about. The resulting hashtag (creating a separate feed of tweets on that subject) was pure brilliance. When a large event is happening – the world cup for example, or the final of a reality show – Twitter is filled by witty commentary on the events unfolding. When the BP spill happened, someone took the name ‘BPGlobalPR’ (since taken down) and tweeted tongue-in-cheek ‘official’ comment from the corporation’s HQ. Some genius is posing as the Queen, and flits between describing their gin-induced hangovers, Prince Edward’s cross-dressing and changing song lyrics to include the word ‘one’ (One wants to ride one’s bicycle, one wants to ride one’s bike…)
It’s a funny old invention, really – excellent for raising awareness (my sister’s charity have had their messages and links re-tweeted by the likes of Bill Bailey, Sarah Brown and Lorraine Kelly to their thousands of followers), PR, arts & culture recommendations and instant reviews, as well as just making your daily reading material more diverse. But I don’t enjoy the speed at which criticism of one person can build up and spread, resulting in a sort of grown-up cyber bullying of an individual. I hope anyone who becomes a Twitter convert uses it to educate and entertain themselves, rather than combating their own insecurity and frustration by belittling others (I wonder if my own Anonymous is on there?) But I think it’s essentially A Good Thing as it’s put people’s PR into their own hands and sped up things for the media and communications industries. Let me know if you are pro or anti-Twitter, I find it to be a bit of a cultural Marmite.