Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What's A Pic Worth?

You know the old say ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’? I’ve always thought it a really stupid say because it ignores both writing and picture-taking sub-texts of different media able to express different feelings in different manners. It would be like saying that a movie is worth three hundred pages of a novel or that a painting is worth the real-life experience. What crap.

I have decided to lay off the diary-writing in favour of some very basic picture-taking for the next week. This is because writers are often encouraged to do things differently; Twyla Tharp for example, even suggests to scrap reading for a whole week, and I cannot tell you how scary a proposition that is to me. I’d rather not keep the diary than not read at all; I am not even sure that this not reading business is even humanly possible. It certainly ain’t in my house. So you’ll have to excuse the bare bones of this place while I reduce my memory-keeping to little every-day pictures taken with a very basic camera phone while I concentrate on something else.

Echo and Approval

All individuals depend on one another for self-validation throughout life but I can assure you that creative types feel a greater need than everyone else for echo and approval. Remember the review of Watchmen? It has been accepted, like, formally accepted I mean. I know I perhaps should not have bragged about it as if it were a done deal to begin with, but then, why not? Why are we so inherently scared of hoping to get published, to get recognised, to get paid, to get approved? For once, not being scared has paid off. I must have attracted positivity from the universe as I received the confirmation email a few days ago and, yes, I really am going to have my little name associated, albeit very remotely, with the movie. Whatever it was, it has worked anyway and now I can stop thinking about it and about other things I could have said, should have said, should have thought about before sending it off.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Jerusalem Artichokes Gratin

I am one of simple tastes and a fan of artichokes, even though I do not buy them often. Their look creeps me out a little, especially if you can find them as nature intended, with all of their scary thorns intact. My mum used to buy them like that when I was a child and would use thick Marigolds to peel them. Jerusalem artichokes are a different breed entirely, even though they still retain a distinctively artichoke taste. They are knobbly things that you can cook skin-on; they taste nutty and are particularly nice when thinly sliced and added to salads. Still, my favourite way to cook them is the following one, double-quick and double-tasty, it doesn’t even get the stove dirty. And don't be put off by the humble-looking view below; this is seriously good.

6 Jerusalem artichokes
4 tablespoons of small black olives, in oil
grated Parmesan

Wash the artichokes well and slice thinly. Throw into the waiting oven tray with the olives and their oil. Shake the tray well, grate the cheese on top (generously!) and cook for 30 minutes.

I should specify that it’s really the olives that make this dish. Buy cheapish, tasteless supermarket black gums at your peril on this one... I buy my olives from a Greek guy at a local farmers’ market and so should you if at all possible (and get some feta cheese too. Buy feta from a Greek and you will never buy from the supermarket again).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

First For Spring Frittata

When the weather changes, or tries to, and the days get longer and longer, unfortunately, I always think of frittatas and courgettes, preferably together. It may come as a surprise to some, seeing that I can easily whip out six-layered birthday cakes with filling and piped cream, but I cannot make a decent omelet. And frittata would land me in the same broken place, where it not for the oven. I know that I shouldn't call it a frittata if I don't fry it but, really, I do, it just all happens in the oven so that I do not have to flip anything over anything and I can eat from a plate and not the stove.

4 thin courgettes (zucchini are best really, as always)
1 medium potato
1 tablespoon of mustard
6 medium eggs
olive oil
2 slices of strong cheddar, broken in pieces
shards of Parmesan

Warm the oven at 220C. Wash and cut the courgettes lengthwise, in pieces about one inch long. Peel and cut the potato in small pieces and put in a small oven tray; mine is about 23 cm long and 15 wide. Pour a couple of glugs of olive oil, but go easy on this, as courgettes can become rather slimy when over-oiled. Shake the oven tray to coat well, crack some salt and pepper on top, drop the cheddar in and place in the oven for a good 20 minutes.

As that is going, break your eggs in a suitable container, add the mustard, salt to taste (not too much if I may say, as you have already put some on the veggies) and a splash of milk. Whip lightly with a fork and pour over the veggies once your 20 or so minutes are up. Add the broken Parmesan on top and place back in the oven for about 10 minutes or until you're satisfied that the eggs have solidified and are properly cooked.

Now everyone knows that you really ought to leave a frittata for the day after you make it, as its great beauty and versatility is the acquisition of a symphony of tastes and just the right texture many hours after you've flipped it out of your pan (or indeed tray). I can never do this; I am usually compelled to have a slice right away. Go ahead if you must, but try and refrigerate the rest for another time. It is fantastic to take to work and eat cold and even better when used as filling for a sarnie, preferably in very crusty bread.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Apprentice Can't Be Terminated

A couple of days ago, while flicking through Ravelry’s message boards, I came across a discussion thread about The Apprentice. I don’t have a TV, so I don’t watch The Apprentice. It would be fair to add that, even if I did have a TV, I wouldn’t watch The Apprentice. Or Big Brother. Or Celebrity Big Brother or Dancing with The Stars or any other pseudo-reality show. In fact, I like to think that Big Brother and its ilk are shows only good for uneducated, pig-faced, dim-witted morons who write ‘should of said’ instead of ‘should have said’.

So I read the thread about The Apprentice with second-hand interest which I can muster very well early in the morning when I try to procrastinate two more minutes, just two more, please, clinging to crap, any crap, no matter what crap. The gist of the thread was that this year’s contestants are a bunch of obnoxious idiots only chosen for their egos and not their business capabilities. And there followed comments laced up with quotes from the night before, and so stomach-churning were they, that I’d rather not copy them on here.

Actually, the contestants on The Apprentice are by no means isolated incidents. An isolated incident is a bolt of lightening hitting a person. Neither are they freak occurrences that don’t happen in real life (that’s Pretty Woman or Maid in Manhattan). My real life was infested with such gits to the brim of a hat placed on the head of a ten-foot tall Hulk. Maybe even above that.

There were many managers that never ever said hi or bye; it was uncool to be polite, even at its most basic. There was the one that could not conduct a meeting without swearing every two words, his forehead always pulsating with rage, spraying everyone within spit-each. I’ve never seen anyone whose saliva could travel that far that fast before or since. I always expected him to explode into fucks even when he was laughing, even when he was staring at his computer, at his Facebook page, screen sprayed with a congealed subtle mist, brow as corrugated as the sea in high winds.

There was the other colleague who would always, every single time, cut through what you were saying, just to show her ability to (supposedly) foreshadow your own views. She thought of herself as a mind-reader while she really was no more than a permanently hormonal over-made-up fool who looked like a bulldog with fake lashes chewing on a past-its-sell-by-date wasp. Then there was the guy that would never ever crack a smile, not even a fake one, not even the grimace that people sometimes pull at themselves, when they have realised that they have closed the doc without saving it.

There was the pouting asshole that always used to say ‘shut up please, I’ve got something to say’ to introduce his brain farts (fart being the operative word here). There was the manager that got a call because his son had been taken to hospital and barked down the line that the nanny is with him, so what’s the big deal, I am in a meeting for Christ’s sake, I said only in emergencies, you hear!

The list goes on and on, all thinking themselves as exceptional individuals who consistently deliver on time and to spec, who never ever over-promise and under-deliver, who can paint the room with all of their blue-sky thinking without even needing a brush, future-retroactivating the socialocomotion of the mission critical whose synergistic actionable paradigm shift required their input.

Let me drill that into you: the bunch of morons on The Apprentice are not few and far between, caricatures of a business world that does not really exist. They are real, they are a representation of what happens in boardrooms everywhere and they are not going to go away. They are like Terminators, both as inherently stupid (My database does not encompass the dynamics of human pair bonding) and as consistently blinkered (He'll find her! That’s what he does! That’s all he does! You can’t stop him!). These gits will never stop and I’ve got proof.

A couple of years ago, three youngsters joined my then team on a summer placement. Up until then, I was pretty much unaware that students do that; I had recently been a student myself and if there was one thought never to have crossed my mind it was this: ‘I’ll go on a placement with some multi-million dollar consulting firm working eighteen-hour days seven days a week for five hundred quit and a branded pen for the entire duration of my holiday. Yay!’.

Turns out I am in the minority because I later learnt that there is an increasingly high demand for these summer placements, from undergraduates as relevant to the consulting arena as microbiologists or theologists.
On that morning, they gave a brief eye-watering presentation on who they were and why they were with us, some shining above others as little prissy over-achievers of the 'I learnt three languages and lived in seven countries before I could piss' sort.

People that use blackberries as opposed to eating them, people who switch on the sat-nav to go to the toilet and who use weekend as a verb, as in 'I weekend in the country'. I felt both sad and bitter and I cannot even tell whether I felt more sad for them or myself, knowing that, eventually, these will be the New Breed of Corporate Gits I may find on my path, no matter where I am or what I do. A handful seemed like Perfect Consulting Assholes material and I am sure they'll go very far carried by the unclippable wings of self-importance. Because that’s what they do and we can’t stop them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I have not upped sticks and left cyberworld, although cutting down on net time improves productivity, and everyone knows that. Oh no, I have been producing all right all week, working like an African donkey. All around me there were sleeping dogs,

and there were patient dogs

and there were also two Starbucks and two phone calls, but other than that it has been reclusion. Just me and the Oxford Anthology of Poetry and the Mac.

I cannot quite figure it out but for the past couple of weeks a certain sense of urgency has descended upon me. I have started to stress over the job I haven’t got yet. Can you believe that? I have only put in one application for something that is not due to start for another six months (six months I am telling you) and one should set off tomorrow for a position that isn’t open until well into May. So what am I stressing about? How can I possibly worry that a job, any job, may take precious time away from editing time? Ach, I don’t know, it just feels that way.

Good job a friend of mine is pregnant and can share my current hormonal delusions. She too feels a sense of urgency, even though she ain’t due until the beginning of June and the nursery is all ready and she doesn’t even need to work. So what’s the rush? I don’t know. Spring (or a semblance of it; the weather has been shit this week, there is no other way to convey the truth I am afraid) brings that out in me, a sense of should have done this last week which is completely unrelated to what I am actually doing and to what I need to do. No matter the number of ticks on my to-do list, it’s never good enough.

I don’t even rest at night. My sleep is infested with the most vivid and peculiar dreams. The other night I was being shown around some studio apartment in Knightsbridge by Hugh Grant. Yes, sure, I could see Harrods from one of them (at ground level, as the studio really was a falling-to-pieces cellar and I only had a sliver of gap at eye level between pavement and gutter like in a Tolstoj short story), but it was nothing like the apartment I often day-dream about. I was not impressed: ‘Well’, I said to Hugh, ‘I was expecting something a little more... Knightsbridge-like, you know?’. As I then found myself back in the street, Hugh pointed at a corner townhouse with a double-doored front and bay windows as big as my garage. ‘Like that I presume? Yes that’s one of mine but with your budget...’ and he then did that thing he does, he creased his eyes as his mouth grimaced into a phantom smile, nodding slowly and then finishing with a ‘Yeeeees’ in falling intonation, his eyes darting left and right and his eyebrows scrunched up in the middle as if pinched by an invisible peg. Why was he not inviting me in for coffee?

Bloody hell, why do I dream so low? Why cannot I enjoy ten fabulous minutes at least in my dreams, with a driver waiting by and a squillionaire husband? Hugh would do fine, I don’t even have to marry him. No, my dreams are always exceptionally down-to-earth, even when they don’t look it. Like that time when I dreamt that I was at a Bon Jovi concert in Central Park with a VIP pass which turned out to be good for nothing, as I was at the back of the field anyway, ten thousand people deep, barely able to see him even on the giant screens. Or that time when I entered the Dior store in Paris clutching five hundred euros cash and it turned out that the pair of shoes I wanted cost fifteen thousand euros. Or that time when I was in a Batman movie and when I finally got close enough to speak to him after what felt like the whole night spent hopping from skyscraper to skyscraper in an obvious Spider-man interference, I heard a rising beeping sound and all I managed to say to the Batman was: ‘What is that?’ and he replied: ‘It’s an alarm clock’ and I woke up. Life, in all its guises, is just so unfair right now.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Birthday Ma

Today it is mum’s birthday and how appropriate that it should be a sunny day filled with flowers and spring!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sub-editing Skills Are Tools For Life - PART II

Following my diary entry on the article on sub-editing skills published by The THE, it looks like their supposed argument on how to form possessive of singular nouns ('it's a stylistic opinion') isn't shared by many outside of their offices. I found it peculiar in fact that out of all of the emails I received following my posting, not one suggested that this grammatical rule is in fact a stylistic opinion. Here is a (tame) selection of comments I received:

you're quite right and they are plain wrong


Yeah, they are notoriously bad, although you may like to know that they are improving.

I came across your blog while searching for comments on the editing article on the Times and I had a really good laugh! I teach at [institution] and I correct my students all the time. I still cannot quite believe that the Times persist on getting it wrong. Grammar is not a fucking opinion.

I stick to David Crystal, Harry Blamires and that guy who wrote Quite Literally. It's 'S for singular nouns!

What can you do, you shrug and move on but not so fast. I seem to have irked The THE so much as to be worthy of an email from the editor herself, Ann Mroz, who wrote:

You are entitled to your opinion on grammar, for it is just that. However, you are not entitled to write patronizing and discourteous emails to my staff.

My chief sub responded to your rather ill-tempered and impolite email with good grace and good manners. It is unfortunate that you could not find your way to do the same.

I am proud of my subbing team and the way they deal with corresponding with the external world; I hope your vice-chancellor can say the same about you.

Kind regards

Oh ruffled, ruffled, ruffled, ruffled feathers I see. My original email to them was neither ill-tempered nor impolite. It was curt and to the point, dictated by surprise, not rage, as I already wrote the other day (bafflement I think I called it, if I remember correctly). I wish I could be as quick-witted as some of my friends, always invariably spot-on and always able to say the wrong thing at the right time, a great recipe for wit. I cannot manage it, but I still replied to Ann aided by a secondary email that a friend of mine sent me.

Dear Ann,

As I was discussing this with several academic colleagues only two days ago, I received an email from someone I do not even work with, a director of some centre somewhere. He was talking about my exchange with your chief sub-ed to a friend of mine and wrote:

'only a matter of style'..FFS. I despair.

The dress' colour was blue. yeah, right, that's a matter of style.

My piss' stream was cloudy.

The virus' impact was substantial.

The class' feeling was obnoxious.

The process' mechanics were not clear.

The boss' position was good.

Utter, utter bollocks.

She should send a whole rack of examples

It is not an isolated example either, but I thought I would send you this out of the lot I received, for it best captures what you would perhaps call ill-tempered and impolite responses to supposed opinions. I did not think I would need to share this with you but why on earth should I keep all the fun to myself?

All the best,


Good grief, if only they knew how some academics refer to them, they would not sound so self-righteous. No doubt they will think of me as an idiot, but that's ok too; you're less than a speck of dust in somebody's attic until you piss them off, which brings me to the next, related point.

Many people I know are sending off CVs and letters, applying for jobs or putting article pitches out there for the taking. I have looked at many of these and they are all consistently well-written as decency dictates, with plentiful kindlys, pleases, thank yous, looking forwards thrown in for good-mannered measure. I mean, that's the way it goes, that's the way it is done. Yes, I agree, but they do not hear anything from the people they are writing to, they don't even get acknowledgements slips, you know? It seems to me like being normal and decent does not pay. Forget about the paying part, it doesn't even yield a fake, automated response.

By contrast, isn't it amazing that the day one decides to go down the blunt route, one doesn't get one response but two? I am not suggesting that this is the way job-seekers should follow because, of course, it is ludicrous to think that anyone pissed off with you would offer you a job, but I find it utterly fascinating that sending off an email less hopeful and more down to business, less standard-sugary-sweet and more you-really-ought-to-listen yields responses as relevant as the ones I got on what is, in the grand scheme of things, a minor issue. People are ignored daily, many times over by recruitment consultants, potential employers, council workers and then some; cut to the hypocritical good grace and good manners out and, suddenly, you're not talking to yourself any more, you get replies straight away! Wow.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pittering Pattering to Prada

Early this morning, as I was struggling to get into gear, shuffling from study to kitchen and balancing empty mugs and dirty plates, the phone rang. And it was a real phone call this time, not the whistling type that gets my fax machine to roll out suggestions on how to quit smoking. It wasn't just any odd friend either (sorry friends), it was the manager of the Prada store in London who was replying to my desperate letter (with picture) detailing the disastrous damage to my favourite pair of shoes, these.

It turns out they cannot repair them but know of a fantastic guy, a certain George, who is a wizard at these jobs. I don't need any odd Timpson on this one, I need someone who can materialise a 3 mm strip of purple suede trimmed in gold and sew it on with fairy fingers. While she was talking, I went through an out of body experience and saw myself clutching the mobile, perched against the sink, the wide-eyed look of expectation splattered on my face. I was smiling and nodding and then my brow flickered.

She asked me whether I saw the snakeskin flatties with gems. Oh yes I have. And aren't they absolutely stunning. God yes they are, painfully so. And what do I think of the crushed leather bags and of the foil dresses and of the latest tower heels. Lovely, lovely, lovely, too lovely for words. And is there anything else they can do for me at the moment. Ah, that's what faltering looks like, zippered lips and flaring nostrils. Oh well I am ok for now, thank you so much. And I'll see you again next time you're visiting us in London. Of course yes, I can't wait already.

Yeah well. She doesn't know that I am an in-between-jobs-hybrid who doesn't do Prada at the moment. In fact, I don't even do Marks and Spencer and, really, that's because once you've walked in Pradas (or Diors or Manolos) nothing compares. You've changed things. Forever. There's no going back.

Another week has passed, I've ticked almost all of the boxes on my list, everything is going very well, I am a writing machine currently hopping from Coleridge to diary to letters to Watchmen to Wordsworth at the click of a mouse. Yet... there's always a yet, isn't there?

Begin Digression:

Or a however. I remember sitting in management meetings when the senior manager would very quickly skim on the good, or near-good, things, so that he could get to the crap really fast. In fact, time-wise, the reeling out of the Good Things often took approximately two minutes while the reeling out of the However Things took the remaining fifty-eight minutes. You'd think we were a bunch of morons instead of the team that helped pulling in millions of pounds worth of profits per year.

So, why not doing it the other way round? I would prefer to hear the abuse first, knowing that, by the end of it, my shoulder would be graced with a tiny pitter-patter of recognition just before I leave the room. The way they do it now... well... the Good Things are crushed by a truckload of morale-sapping detail, so much so that, by the time the meeting is over, you don't even remember them any more.

End Digression.

Yet, it still feels like I am doing this for my own entertainment, to fill the time. I know, ludicrous proposition, but applicable nonetheless. And look at this, the postbox has just vomited a Dior/AmEx letter and a Thierry Mugler one too. Is it a conspiracy this morning or what? Wow, I had forgotten I still had £ 6000 to spend on the AmEx... Isn't the world brighter already? But for a start, I am off to send the shoes to George.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sub-editing Skills Are Tools For Life

Despite my talkative, rather exuberant and seemingly fiercely opinionated self, I am an easy-going type who glides through life without major gripes. In certain instances though, even I turn into an animal and those who habitually read my rants about the state of literacy know to what extent the problem irritates me. Some friends have now reached the stage of not sending me emails any longer, just in case I send them back proof-read and with a FOR FUCK'S SAKE DID YOU GO TO SCHOOL in bold at the bottom. As if! That only happened once, when someone wrote pallets instead of palate when talking about food, but of course she deserved the abuse as she really did not know the difference. In general, people need not fear; the animal side of me is only ever released when I come across gross grammatical misconduct in printed reading matter.

I cut plenty of slack to blogs and emails, notes, letters and online diaries. In fact, when I spot my own shortcomings, I always leave them right here, for I feel that editing my own diary would destroy its reason for being. Mistakes and inaccuracies reveal an interesting sub-text regarding my state of mind weeks, or months, down the line, and I would not really want to sanitise that. However, I am always highly strung when I read formal stuff and it was with great pleasure that, just short of two weeks ago, I came across an article by Professor Luckhurst, who teaches journalism at the University of Kent, in The Times Higher Education. The Prof said that

[...] Bell is vehement about the value of sub-editors. He does not lack confidence as a writer and he has not been successfully sued, but he never wants to publish a column that has not profited from a good sub's attention to detail. In the ten years that I worked as a newspaper executive and then as a columnist, I took the same view. Subs are almost always underpaid but they are only rarely under appreciated by the writers whose reputations they safeguard, and then only by fools.


Nothing in a newspaper or on a website should be published without someone checking it for grammatical, factual or legal errors. Editors pretend that they read every syllable published, but I know from harsh experience that such Stakhanovite effort is not possible for every article on every page of every edition. The finest correspondents make mistakes. To err is human and, at least in this respect, journalists are members of the human race, despite what popular opinion contends.


Excellent subs are not disposable relics of a bygone era. They are the keyhole surgeons of journalism; fast, precise and adept at ensuring that prevention averts the need for expensive or embarrassing cures. At best they write attention-grabbing headlines and turn convoluted codswallop into plain, comprehensible English.

A good sub should be treasured, rewarded and respected.

Find the full article right here.

And so I experienced jubilation which was soon after supplanted by bafflement. I mean, how on earth could The THE, with its penchant for the fact that left, right and centre and literally and missing apostrophes possibly publish a piece that talks of the need for sub-editing? Is it a not-so-veiled cry for help? Are they being humorous and self-deprecating? Or do they really think they are up to scratch? Well, exactly. I shuddered at the thought, set fingers to keyboard and wrote to them:

I cannot be the only reader who thought Professor Luckhurst’s piece about sub-editing painfully relevant to the current state of The Times Higher Education.The possessive singular of nouns that end in -s, such as Charles, Keats, Williams, Yeats, is formed with 's, and not with a lone apostrophe, as the regular writers, and some of the occasional contributors, seem to think. Exceptions to this rule are possessives of ancient proper names ending in -es and -is, such as Empedocles, Damocles, Isis, as well as the noun Jesus, which only take the apostrophe.

Cutting down on the misuse of literally when it does not make any sense (I would surely love to see you literally explode with anger), as well as on the misuse of since in place of as would be extremely welcome. And can we please erase the fact that from the written form? It is ugly, clunky, unnecessary and can always be avoided. Finding all of the above, and then some, within these pages is embarrassing and infuriating in equal measure. Surely, you cannot possibly have a sub-editor?

Believe it or not I even got a reply. And it turns out they do have a sub-editor, which really throws a spanner in their works if you ask me. She says:

Many thanks for your comment. I would like to reassure you that the THE does indeed have a sub. Indeed, we have several. We try hard to produce a magazine that is as accurate as possible within the time constraints imposed on us.

As I am sure you are aware, the tradition of using an apostrophe and s with personal names is a matter of style. Some believe that where names end in an s, x or z sound, an apostrophe and s should be used, but this is a matter of style and our style is not to use the additional s. While you may find this usage conflicts with your personal preference, it is not wrong.

I like your oblique reference to Christopher Howse and Richard Preston’s book She Literally Exploded: The "Daily Telegraph" Infuriating Phrasebook. We do try to avoid unnecessary phrases and infelicities where possible and aim to be succinct and accurate at all times.

I hope this will put your mind at rest.

And there, right there, my entire education collapsed into a little heap of grammar sprinkled with a matter of style! Right there, as my eyes gazed over those four little words, it is not wrong. Referring to the grammatically accepted construction of the Saxon Genitive as a 'tradition' where 'some believe' one thing while others believe another as 'a matter of style' is worthy of throwing oneself off a building nothing shorter than the Sears Tower. Oh my God, I went to university for nothing. I studied Old English, grammar, syntax, spelling, punctuation, Latin for a matter of personal opinion. Next thing I know they will be saying that using subjects in sentences is really a matter of personal preference as we can all understand who is talking anyway.

By this stage I got so desperate that I decided to let it die, except the Grammatically Just part of me couldn't let go, dammit. And so I wrote back:

You're right Ingrid, I was indeed aware that there are two ways to denote possession for singular nouns ending in -s, as every experienced academic knows that the one not taking the -'s is only used by tabloids, illiterate bloggers or BBC News Online. It is not a stylistic difference in any shape or form, as this is a grammatical rule which is not subjected to the capriciousness of the writer. Check reputable grammar (and style books), not 'skillswise' lessons by the BBC.

Thank you very much for your reply. My mind is at rest now; you need a bigger, and better skilled, team.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


Lots of people have epiphanies associated with specific sounds or songs. I have mine through smells. I am not thinking about those smells that set people off on a starry-eyed, and awfully generic, wistful remembrance complete with a sigh and a nod, such as: ‘Aaaaah, the smell of fresh snow’, or ‘Oooooh the smell of the ocean...’. No, no, I am talking of very specific smells capable to conjure up very clear, individual, specific memories. Mine always entail toiletries and often hotels or cities and I love how unpredictable their existence and power are, as some smells are potent reminders of certain places, but are not my favourite smells, and others are perfect ways to make me feel emotional on tap.

Take the verbena soap by L’Occitane. I don’t really like verbena, as it is tangy and sharp and very fresh and lemony, but when I used to live at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dublin, that’s what was there and every single time I smell that soap, I am transposed to my then bathroom, a marble room larger than my current bedroom with a deep deep bath and a separate glass shower cubicle.

It’s amazing because my time in Dublin really is a bit of a blur; I was working myself into the ground, getting up at 6.30 am and finishing my days past midnight, often falling asleep with Blackwood Farm, which I had to read for my PhD, on my lap. I couldn’t tell you what the weather was like and I don’t remember the names of half of the people I worked with, but stick a verbena soap under my nose, and I can describe my room and my bathroom down to the most minute fittings, carpet and light-bulbs included. Isn’t it amazing?

Ambra Di Venezia, a body moisturizer that I bought at Takashimaya in New York, is the smell that I associate with the city itself. It’s not bagels or pretzels, though they prickle my memory too, but a mouth-watering blend of amber and spices that comes in a cobalt jar with a black lid and a yellow label that brings up the Big Apple at its most vivid, as if I were watching a montage in a Wes Anderson movie. If I close my eyes and concentrate hard, I can recreate the smell in my mind as my mouth begins to water. It is that good. Then I feel a stab of longing so sharp and so very real that veiled tears start rising.

Thierry Mugler’s Angel, which happens to be what I wear, always transposes me back to Manchester Airport in 1996, when I first sniffed it and bought it. It’s an enduring love affair that has only once come under the fire of the wandering nose, when I came across Tom Ford’s Black Orchid and for a moment I thought that, perhaps, I was secretly harbouring a desire for change. I was not.

Molton Brown’s Seamoss means London (and the now sadly defunct Parkes Hotel, I should tell you), while Space NK’s Compelling bath oil flies me right back to Chicago. I have just finished my last Compelling and I was rather upset to learn that Space NK has now discontinued this blend. I have saved a few drops at the bottom of a very tiny plastic bottle and will hang onto it tooth and nail.

As the potent scent of spices and tuberose used to raise above the warm water, I was not really standing under my shower in my tiny white bathroom; no, I was soaked to my neck in the low bath at The Drake, one afternoon at six o’clock, my face plastered with one inch worth of moisturiser, a much needed respite from the -20C outside I should add, and my glassy gaze glued to the multi-faced glass light fitting above. I should really write to Space NK and suggest they re-introduce Compelling to their ranges even though they needn’t even call it that if they want a change. In fact, I call it Chicago. Who would have thought they could fit so much in such a small bottle?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Trying One's Hand

I like the expression ‘trying one’s hand’. I don’t just like the sound of it, but its meaning too. Sometimes we like the sound of things but wouldn’t be caught dead or alive doing them. I love the sound of ‘galloping in the wind’ but, as I am the sort of rider whose heart still flips at the mere mention of ‘a good canter’, it looks like the galloping part may be destined for wild day-dreams while shovelling horse poo.

Trying one’s hand is instead very democratic and, technically, I could try my hand at something else every day. Isn’t it very fab? Today it was applique embroidery, something that had been brewing within me for almost one year. Seeing how preoccupied I’ve felt, and the downright hysterical state I got myself into only a couple of days back, embroidery seemed like the perfect antidote to further psychological ado. I had never done it before and there is nothing quite like the blend of inaptness and novelty required by the need to remain focused for long periods of time to kill paranoia and anxiety. Honestly people, I cannot recommend it enough.

And isn’t it rather pretty, especially for someone so inapt at even holding needle and thread? It is going to get framed this week, as I made it for my mum’s birthday which falls on the first day of spring, now very much around the corner. It was the product of one solid day of cutting, pasting and stitching and of course I figured out that a piece of embroidery is not something you can whip out in five minutes and all the better for it, despite the repetitive strain injury and the sore curved neck. My mind sweating with finger-pricking effort at every stitch, I have found an effective antidote to my current woes. Knitting will have to wait on this one.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


When I see the word lead in isolation I think of The Polar Express and of the black girl that should lead others. Sometimes I think of pencils too, especially if I am sitting at the table in my dining room, where I keep a red tin full of them. On fewer occasions it makes me think of heavy, worried and sad, and that's how it sprung to mind this morning when I sat at my computer for a spot of work and felt something heavy in my stomach. I wrote to a friend of mine and, in sudden inspiration, I said that it's hard to concentrate on my research when I am agonising with a piece of lead sat in my stomach. Weird, isn't it? It's not like my life has changed since, say, Tuesday, yet, all of a sudden, a gust of terror has descended and hasn't moved, at least not for the past twenty-four hours. I am not even hungry and, dear me, that says more than a thousand words.

I felt vaguely better when I met a friend at lunchtime and was able to talk things through but upon return to my modest house, I realised that the lead was still right here, still grounded and heavy, odious and unnecessary. Part of me feels I am being somewhat unreasonable, as if I decided to suddenly over-react. The other part of me keeps saying that I am not over-reacting and that nobody wants to be jobless and considered a second-rate citizen. And I find it all weird and confusing. I've moved from jet-setting job to PhD to no job in what feels like a whim and now it's all gone doom-and-gloom, all for the sake of a six-month little gap between the present day and my first post. In fact, that's less than six months. It seems like an age though. I should be pleased, as I received fabulous responses from my peers to my review of Watchmen, so all is well in that sense, I can still function, I can still do my work. I should feel double-pleased as I also snatched four tickets to Jacko in the summer. They should pay for themselves ten times over once I decide to sell them. Yet, I am proceeding as if in black treacle, like we do in dreams, when we really ought to run and can't.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sometimes The Magic Works

Yesterday I was all intoxicated and smug, talking about the writing compulsion that grips every writer out there, my review of Watchmen glowing upon its white background, the little words strung together with a modicum of poetry. Today I waded through some piece regarding beauty and the sublime, then I checked my bank account and badly wished I hadn’t. Now I feel like I am walking on eggshells balancing a tray of Bellinis on my head, the whole room watching.

It was fine to plot out an economic strategy between the End Of My Job and the Day I Would Need One Again. The lag between these two points seemed as deep and as wide as a chasm; I couldn’t even see the other side of it. Now that I can, and even too well, I don’t feel so inclined to proselytise about staying positive and concentrating on the writing and doing what I want to do and all the rest of it any longer. In fact, I’ve almost started to draft a script for a call to my bank manager. I could ignore him, of course, but I must admit I’d much rather make that call myself than being 'surprised' by it. That why, I’ll feel in control, even though there is nothing to feel in control about.

So I sat on the edge of my bed discomfited and defeated by the economic situation, by which I don’t mean the recession of course, but my own situation. It felt great to take the plunge just before my birthday, but didn’t I figure out then that the academic year only starts in September and that finding myself out of funds by the middle of March, and six months before the following academic year, would have spelt I S S U E on the sand? And if I didn’t, why on earth not? Anyway, too late now.

As my gaze travelled from white clogs to shelves to books, one little volume came into focus, Terry Brooks’s Sometimes The Magic Works. I am absolutely sure I mentioned this a few months ago, when I promised I would soon talk about it. What happened then? Was it when I went through a phase of recipes? Whatever it was, flipping it open today brought me back to the compulsion issue.

Writing is habit-forming. It is addictive. [...] What is interesting to me now, more than forty years after that first story, is how deeply enmeshed I am in what I do. It is beyond reasonable. If I don’t write, I become restless and ill-tempered. I become dissatisfied. My reaction to not writing is both physical and emotional. I am incomplete without my work. I am so closely bound to it, so much identified by it, that without it I think I would crumble into dust and drift away. One of my writer friends has an ironclad rule about her work. She writes five pages every day, no matter where is or what she is doing. It doesn’t matter if she is sick. It doesn’t matter if she has to get up and write at four in the morning. She does it. I understand why. She is afraid that if she doesn’t, she will lose her identity and her presence and disintegrate. She is the sum of her words. She is her writing.

There, good old Brooks. I never thought much of him (and I only read his Landover books when I was a child), but what I think is completely irrelevant because you have it right here again, picked out of a random page, we write because we are compelled, we write because of writing’s sake, we write because it defines us and is part of our identity. No, writing is our identity. I write therefore I am. Ha, that almost makes me laugh, but you get the gist.

Why am I not sitting in front of Reed or Monster or TotalJobs? Why am I not stringing some ideas together so that I can perhaps start chasing a temp job, in any shape or form, before my bank account starts ringing alarm bells? Well, because it feels better to write, even a meaningless page about the mundane and money and being unable to follow one’s own calling. And you know something else? Sometimes I come across women that say that feminism has given us the choice to do as it pleases us, be it stay-at-home mums or company directors. What fools, what fucking uneducated fools my friends. Feminism may give us the opportunity (not the choice) to have it one way or the other but only an idiot would think that choice and freedom of action were gifted upon us by it. It is our own economic situation that calls the shots, each and every time, and whoever thinks otherwise is someone who doesn’t have to walk on eggshells.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

We Do It Because We Are Compelled

I don’t know how many books and articles about writing and the creative process in general I’ve read and continue to read. When I go to the States I am always intrigued by the number of such books on the shelves and always think, ah, yes, you see, the Yanks really get it. And I know that I often go to New York and that, thank you very much, the big Barnes and Noble near Lincoln Center will have thirty shelves of non-fiction about the creative process and the writing one, but it doesn’t matter whether you’re in New York or in Manchester, whether you've read one hundred books about writing or none, because any writer the world over will tell you that the reason for writing is often a reason onto itself and that one writes for writing’s own sake. Writing is its own raison d'être. We do it because we are compelled to do it.

Consider what Annie Dillard says about it: ‘One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it all, give it now’. I am not one of those who feel great rushes of inspiration exploding onto a keyboard or into a journal but I too do not hold back. When ideas come to my mind I may not be suddenly wide-eyed, scrambling for a pen and a paper napkin, holding onto that thought with all the tenacity of my dog William to a gravy bone but I do, eventually, spend it all. My ideas hover above me for days and it is only when I cannot ignore them any longer that I sit down and start prodding them, usually to see whether I can break the clouds and find something beyond them. And there's always something (sorry, that makes me sound like Violet Beaudelaire, but it's so true, there's always something).

I recognised the usual pattern the other night, when I pretended I was trying to go to sleep while my mind was reeling with imagery and my ears humming like they do post-IMAX experience, as they call it. I was thinking of Watchmen and of my task, and I was partly electrified, partly relieved as I had been stressing for three months about it, worried that it may have been turned into a fizzling pop fest à la Fantastic Four, or perhaps a mishmash of commercial decisions aimed at racking in the billions while desecrating the drama. I am grinning as I write this my friends, for I needn’t have worried.

Today I wrote my review and although I am not pleased with it (and that’s because I am never pleased with anything, except perhaps my shoe collection, which could always do with more and better though), I feel like an enormous weight has been lifted, the hovering, thundering clouds finally dissipated as I return to Edmund Burke, the sublime and ideals of childhood. And actually, I must admit I feel ever so slightly rattled. If you know Burke, you will know how seminal his work is for the Romantic Age but, believe me, after the thrilling film noir-esque fest that is Watchmen, only Milton would do. And maybe that’s what I should do, intertwine Paradise Lost with Rorschach and the Owl and the Dr and the rest of them. After all, I’ve already done Dante and Batman and The Name of the Rose and the Joker, surely I can do no worse than that?

But I digress, as usual. So yes, we write because we are compelled, otherwise why on earth doing it? When I was younger I thought I wanted to write because I had ‘something to say’. God, I shake my head in disbelief at that senseless naïvety, it makes me sound like some fucking hippie who clutches birth stones and wears bangles and flat sandals; if I had ‘something to say’ why not standing at Poets’ Corner in Hyde Park and shout it out? Why not talking to anyone who would listen and to those who wouldn’t as well? Why not just saying it?

Easy to condemn myself, I know, and I probably have no actual reasons to do so, especially when the sub-text of ‘having something to say’ is really ‘I write because I am compelled’. That’s how it felt as I wrote about this latest movie, sparks of novelty going off like little fireworks, as I sat looking out of Starbucks part-glassy-eyed, part-fired-up, transported to a parallel dimension that exists in waves, sometimes as inaccessible as a bunker, others as familiar as my own hands.

I am a little disappointed that I cannot post my review on here but then I should be pleased it is going elsewhere, as this is only a journal. But then journals can be pretty powerful things, can’t they? Read Watchmen (or indeed watch it) and find out.

Monday, March 9, 2009


As of late, I’ve started thinking about my life with ambivalence. I think that we all are a little bit ambivalent about our endeavours, but since I drifted into the land of Those Who Don’t Work, contrasting feelings have washed upon me like crashing washes, crashing being the operative word here.

And so one moment I am all hard-done by, inadequate, deprived, even poor. In reality, I am none of these things and, believe me, I am the first one to recognise the signs of this ironically self-inflicted consumerist paranoia. I am thinking of yesterday for example, swinging a little bag of chocolates (eight) that cost almost seven pounds, on my way to the IMAX screening of Watchmen (ten pounds), which also cost me eight pounds in parking and three pounds on coffee. But as I walked through Selfridges it was easy to feel deprived as the lack of world-wide jet-setting job as mine used to be has put a bit of a downer on the impulse purchases of Christian Dior shoes. I surprised myself walking around shaking my head, telling Rich that not long ago you could buy a decent pair of shoes for just short of £ 250 and now, look at this, you need at least £ 300. Inflation you see.

And that’s the bad side. The good side is the sense of deliverance from the grind. I am not exaggerating on this one but I really do feel like I’ve won the bloody lottery jackpot, even though I haven’t seen a penny in months. When I used to get up at some ungodly hour in order to be at some ungodly office in some godforsaken place, I remember very clearly zooming past in my car, longingly peering at the people perched on the stalls at eight in the morning, mug in one hand, paper folded in quarters in the other at my Starbucks. How many times did I mentally sigh at those who had the luxury of legging it down to their local for the sole purpose of grabbing a leisurely java and reading the latest. Crucially, the Dior shoes did not matter one iota then. Now that I too can do that, and on a couple of occasions last week that’s exactly what I did, walked around Wilmslow when nobody was around yet, stopping for coffee and a read when some whisk in to collect their to-gos and make it back to their sad little offices, it’s all fabulous and electrifying. It’s like discovering that there is life beyond the office walls. It’s a magnificent feeling of independence that, even after six months, feels as novel and crackling as it did on the first day of freedom.

Yet, and here’s the cinch, I shift from deprived to elated, from inadequate to mindless, twenty times a day. Maybe fifty. Maybe even one hundred. And anything could trigger it off. The latest Harrods mag falling through the letterbox (deprived), Louise giving me a ring and inviting me out for a quick coffee (elated) in endless waves. Up and down, up and down, up and down.

This itself however isn’t the crux of the problem. The real problem is this ingrained, puritan and entirely Anglo-American malaise that dictates we should work and that this work should happen somewhere out of the house and should be paid for. I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I do now, what with the latest leg of my research, with the Watchmen review and with another book proposal all on the cards at the same time, yet, as I do not go to an office, it’s like this is not work. Quite frankly, I don’t know how housewives do it; is it possible to work within the home, unpaid, and still feel like a valuable member of, if not society, at least one’s own household? Because, quite frankly, I don’t think it is.

And the truth is, I am on a quest to finding it out how to live happily (and feel elated, electrified, free if not all the time at least most of the time) without feeling deprived and unable to shell out on chocolates/ shoes/ bags/ fill in the blank as I please. There must must must be a way, a way other than upgrading husband which, at the moment, just doesn’t seem feasible. Husband upgrades only really work with middle-aged women who have the guts and the experience to make a bee-line for the guy in the Aston Martin and not to those like me, who barely notice him roaring past and overtaking me on the way to horsey. I couldn’t even tell you what colour his Aston Martin is. Must be because there are so many around here.

And so it was extremely timely that today a friend of mine called and told me a little about her current job search, eventually bursting out with: ‘Oooooh I just don’t want to work Steph’. Well, blow me right down. A woman after my own heart.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Quis Custodiet Ipsos Custodes?

And the wait is over! Yes!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Birthday Girl

Effective today, my girl Victoria is officially senior. I'd say she is holding up rather well, don't you think? I can only hope to look this good when I too am a senior.

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