Friday, June 26, 2009


It’s been a hot day. No, not hot in the absolute sense, but in the relative, ‘hot for England’ sense. We barely skimmed 25C in the early afternoon, but considering that only last week we were hovering on and off the 15C mark, I can assure you that even a piece of rotten wood could feel the difference.

As far as I am concerned, I returned home with a very hot and heavy head, with a blocked nose and watery eyes, which is absolutely no surprise at this time of year. Still, as I opened the windows and let the guys out into the garden, I did wonder for a while how on earth I managed when I was younger, and by younger I mean as a child, when summer was spent in torrid places such as the south of Italy or the south of France, where even an evening walk by the sea could not guarantee respite in any shape or form from the day’s violent sunshine and oppressing humidity.

I remember getting ready for going out in the evening, setting foot out of the door after a shower and a change of clothes and reaching the promenade already drenched in a veil of sweat. With heat and humidity come mosquitoes, which I am allergic to and which I hate more than spiders, meaning that early life did not smell of Angel by Thierry Mugler but of Autan. One evening I thought that wearing a thick pair of jeans would at least spare me from spraying my legs but, boy was I wrong! I returned home plastered in red hot rock-hard stings that were sore and swelling by the minute. Even writing about it makes me cringe. I didn’t make that mistake again and started to spray the insect repellent on my clothes, as well as on all exposed patches of skin.

I also recall waking up at about seven in the morning in the Côte d'Azur, in the flat facing sun rise. This meant that, not only had the temperature not dipped below 26C during the night but come six am it was already starting to rise exponentially, so much so that all fuzzy thoughts were already on the crystal pool in the middle of the garden as the drive to the sea, a mere mile from home, was deemed too much hassle.

Now do you see why I developed a passion for North America in the depths of winter? You can always cover yourself up, no matter how cold it gets (cue Antarctic explorers!), but there is only so much you can do when you are stuck in a permanent greenhouse, day and night. And so, back to returning home and opening the windows, I did wonder how on earth I managed it, because I sure as hell did not enjoy it. It’s barely warm now and it annoys me deeply. Perhaps I should up sticks to Alaska. I mean, people live there, don’t they?

My problem is compounded by a house with very low ceilings, something I am still kicking myself over, seven years after buying it. I touch the ceiling with my outstretched index finder, that’s how low we are talking. Ok, I am not a dinky little woman by any stretch of the imagination, but I am not a seven foot tall giant either. So while outside it is a pleasant 20C with a gentle breeze, inside, with or without open windows, I am fighting against a stagnating 26C which sees the guys flopping around and drinking one gallon of water each per hour. Only ten minutes ago William passed me with a belly the size of a watermelon.

So I am a tiny little bit baffled when people tell me that they really enjoy the heat. But then maybe they are only talking about 24C while I am thinking 38C, 78% humidity, no respite day and night, turkish bath-like with no exit. I’ll sleep on my bed tonight and hope that some catastrophic thunderstorm will pass by so that it will be cooler tomorrow and I won’t get all light-headed and fuzzy painting that bloody garage door. In fact, if it does rain... I won’t have to paint the door at all, and that’s even better.

And Miracles Get Undone Too

When I went to bed last night having just heard that, apparently, Michael Jackson had been taken to hospital with a cardiac arrest, I did not think much of it. I thought I would yawn my way to the Mac today and would not even find a remaining line about it. This morning, it was a different story.

I spoke of his music in passing here on a couple of occasions. Once to say that music chooses you and not the other way round, and a few more times in relation to the tickets to the London O2 shows. Only a couple of weeks ago I hailed to a miracle: my date had been moved to March and then maybe I would be able to go then, because as sure as hell I couldn't go in two weeks. I needn't worry now and I feel incredibly sad, but not in that familiar way that death instills in people. No, I feel a sadness that is deeply interlinked with my own personal life and my own personal memories.

Thriller (followed by Bad) was the first album I ever bought. We were practising the Moonwalk at seven. We filled Jacko scrapbooks at ten. We discovered music because of Billie Jean. We put up school performances to his remixes. As recently as last week, I was jiving to myself with The Jackson 5 in the background. You cannot decide what music will become significant in your life; music happens to you.

To know that the purveyor of my most treasured musical memories, memories intertwined with family and friends and pets, is no longer feels unsettling, as if I opened the paper and read that Barbie had died. Now the news are awash with tributes from every dog and its uncle, the same people that loved making fun of his weirdness (easily done) and who adored the spectacle of his slow-motioned fall only a few years back. This too feels unsettling and confirms that it's better to share one's life in the company of wild animals than certain people and that anonymity is highly favourable to celebrity and success.

Besides my own significance attached to my own life, he leaves a monumental legacy to black music, to pop music and to the MTV generation. He was a magnificent choreographer and dancer, one of the most significant black icons of all times, the first to bring black and white audiences together, the top innovator in the field of music videos, the first to utilise computer generated imagery and sound in them and the first one too to blend the tradition of black soul music with the up-and-coming popularity of white funk pop music. At no point over the past thirty years have I ever heard any act that made me question whether Jacko was still the King of Pop, not even in passing. This is because innovation and originality are as important as quality sound.

But he also seemed a troubled man and hard as it is to think of death as the bringer of peace, maybe that's how it has finally worked out for him.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Experience Matters

My friends and I often talk about jobs, mostly because we currently do not work, either by a trick of fate or by personal choice. One friend in particular gets me to think about the job market by casting a gloomy light on it, not because she is negative, but because her experience, combined with my experience and the experience of many others who only graduated a few years back, are opposites and yet yield the same peculiar result.

When we graduated and started to send out application forms, CVs and spec letters, our efforts often plummeted into the Well of Unanswered Queries, whereby we never really knew whether any of the above ever reached its destination. Many job adverts these days state that 'if you do not hear from us by x date, we wish to thank you for your interest and wish you well in your job search'. Not even the old classic 'thanks, but no thanks' applies any more at present (and by present I do not mean right now, but over the past five to ten years). It is not normal anymore to be polite, not even in that detached HR-way that relegated a printed line to a compliments slip, so consider yourself lucky if you are applying by email, for at least you will get an automatically-generated receipt that will confirm that your efforts have at least reached their destination. It does not mean they will be read but they did go from a to b. Expect no more beyond that.

And so it goes that very many graduates take a very long time to land a first job (if at all, and I am not overstating this claim), so much so that they eventually hit the If Only weeping wall. If only I had done nuclear physics instead of geography. If only I had done history of art instead of history. If only I had done dentistry instead of cardiology. If only I were an accountant instead of a teacher. If only day were night. If only the left were in power. If only the right were in power. If only nobody were. And so on. While all these offer interchangeable sub-options according to mood (if only I were a hippie instead of a yuppie at heart, I would not need to work OR if only dad were a count, I would not want to work), one of them eventually befalls every single graduate in the world: if only I had some experience.

We beat ourselves up because job descriptions (that are not advertising graduate schemes), are all about experience. Six months. Two years. Five years. Three days. One hour. To a fresh graduate, anything feels better than no experience to speak of, even though accruing relevant (by which I mean, not in the students' union pub) work experience while studying full-time is impossible. We continue to navigate the job market with this lack of experience hovering above us like a whiff of plague, embedded on our foreheads like a scarlet letter. Yes, I got excellent grades, we say dismissively, but I bet that if only I had some experience, I would get that job, *insert fit of rage and/or tears here*.

Fast-forward by ten years or even twenty, like my friend I spoke of in opening, and you are flying very high on the wings of certitude. You're certain that your efforts are going to pay off. You're certain that you can go for a higher-paid, bigger, better, closer job. You're certain that you're the best manager the world has ever seen. You're certain that Excel will not screw you around any longer... except you're old. Not old for real, else you would be retired somewhere and would not be seeking a new occupation, but just old enough to be discarded in favour of someone else. You're not mathematically old, you're just... old hat.

Why giving a job to you, with twenty years' experience, when we could give it to an intern that will cost one forth instead, no matter how little she knows? But wait a minute, doesn't this potential intern need some experience, the one we spoke of above? In fact, isn't she kicking herself right this minute for having got a degree and now finding herself in the Real World with a piece of paper not even good enough for polishing windows but no work experience to speak of? Hey, so which is which? Is experience good or bad?

I don't have the answer my friends. All I know is that the more I speak to people and the more the job market, in any industry, acquires the aura of a guarded secret held by a sect that lives in some rocky mountains in some country I couldn't pick out of a map if my life depended on that pin. I do not know how people change jobs, let alone careers, and I consider myself, all things considered, super-lucky, for at least I know what I am seeking, a position as lecturer as opposed to anything else. Because quite frankly, job descriptions such as 'creative consultant' or 'director of first impressions' or 'engineering account administrator' or 'strategic client financial control analyst supervisor' mean jack shit, with or without experience.

Friday, June 19, 2009

WHS And Tesco Slammed Over Book

Do you know who Josef Friztl is? You would have to have lived under a rock for the past year not to know. Or perhaps you just have to be one of the Unbelievably Moronic Idiots that work at WHS and Tesco, from store managers down to shelf-stackers. Both of these places suggested a book about the infamous criminal as Father's Day pick for 2009. I do realise that WHS and Tesco are to books what McDonald's is to haute cuisine but still... Full story right here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


When my dog William was born, ten years ago today, I was doing my finals, had just met my future husband, was fatter than I am now (unbelievable and yet so true) and didn't really have a care in the world. Happy birthday William, you're the best of the best and a constant reminder of the girl I was then. Good times.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Lying Very Low

I feel like nothing has happened in my life over the past week. In fact, I feel like nothing has happened since I sealed the writing-up of the PhD, and so that would make it over two weeks. I have tended to really pressing tasks such as re-arranging my Chanel nail polishes, the library books, my books, old VOGUEs and unfinished knitting projects. I have also managed to miss some movies I wanted to watch (Night At The Museum 2, Terminator Salvation, Wolverine, Let The Right One In), to read a truly awful book (Let The Right One In) and a dire manga comic (Vampire Knight) and to rent some spectacularly leaded film (Twilight). But I needed the last three, as I have figured out that a PhD which is predominantly centred on Gothic literature cannot ignore them, even though typing ‘Twilight’ and ‘literature’ in the same line makes me barf.

The nights are shorter and shorter and lighter and lighter. I sleep very badly and long for the depths of winter, when night is night and day is day. I swear I have seasonal affected disorder, except it hits me right now, and not in January. Last night I was still tossing and turning at midnight (not at all like me) and so had a flick through two of my favourite books, The Creative Habit and The Creative License. I love these books. They feel familiar, they smell familiar and I have come to the conclusion that it is because of them that my PhD quickly surged towards completion. This weekend I drafted a couple of courses I am going to teach when I am a lecturer and I have also written a string of essay titles I want my students to tackle.

You're the editor of a new anthology of Romantic poetry and need to write a 3,000-word introductory piece that justifies your choices.

You're the editor that first published Biographia Literaria and have just read Hazlitt's thrashing review of it. Respond with a 3,000-word article.

The Twilight Saga, trash or literature?

Mary Shelley, the Other or her own person? 

I also continued to peruse the shredded pages of Biographia Literaria, promising myself, and the family, that they will go in the bin eventually. What a gripping life I do lead.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Smelling The Roses

One day last summer, as I was trailing a very cute bookshop in Bramhall, a man approached me, saying that he thought he recognised me from the office where he used to work, wasn’t I the girl in the hot pink coat? I was and so he continued to tell me that he had been made redundant a few weeks before, after twenty-four years with the company.

All that struck me at the time was the queer combination of redundancy and twenty-four years. I just didn’t think that long-standing employees (and this one was a high-flying senior manager) would get axed when the going gets a little tough. The best I could manage was what I am sure looked like a mildly perplexed look and a ‘wow’ uttered as my eyebrows eventually rose all the way up to my hairline.

Redundancy announcements are one of those cases whereby you don’t quite know how to react, a bit like the sudden-death news of someone you vaguely knew. What do you do, do you look heart-broken, mock-concerned for those who are left behind or just say ‘sorry, didn’t know him’ and move to the next group of people? Redundancy is very much like that, with the person at the receiving end left hovering above the working colleagues as the infected outsider we don’t know whether to pity or congratulate.

And so I grasped for that age-old cliché, that horrible and pointless, ‘what will you do now?’, as if a job were the be-all and end-all of a person’s ability to actually live. ‘I got a good pay off, so I am taking six or maybe nine months off to stop and smell the roses’. We parted soon after and, believe you me, I have often thought of that man since then and I have kicked myself on many occasions, wondering why on earth I didn’t give him my card so that we could hook up if we needed to. Blimey, with twenty-four years experience he probably has a zillion contacts.

Instead I left the bookshop looking at my shoes and kicking the air, wondering why we don’t smell the roses a little more often. Shouldn’t we smell the roses also when we work, also in the various winters of our lives, when we feel like there is nothing worth stopping for? I spent the last few weeks glued to my PhD, my mind constantly reeling with ideas about Coleridge, Shelley, Frankenstein, Wordsworth in an irrational cauldron stirred up by the vampire, and so I forgot that I crossed a momentous day, May 30. On this day last year, I left what was to turn out as my last work assignment at a client, to then spend the summer working from home, producing minor documents of very minute importance until I left for good. Thinking back on it, I am scoffing at having felt sad on that day as there really was nothing to feel sad about.

When I turned the page in my pin-up calendar a couple of weeks ago, I realised that, in a way, I have not been in a work-situation for one year. I know that my friends say that’s not true, but you know what I mean, doing a PhD is not the same as going to an office or a shop every day of the week always at the same time. Thank God it ain’t. And do you know something perplexing? I’ve never been this relieved. Isn’t that weird that lack of funds could possibly go together with feeling relieved? Isn’t that the other way round? Well, that’s the point exactly. I finally had the opportunity to stop and smell the proverbial roses and it was only without the jet-setting job that I did so. I stopped being tired, run-down and narky all the time, I stopped living so that I could work.

And more interestingly than all of this pseudo-philosophising are numbers which, as is often the case, speak for themselves. In eight months, from Sept last year to May this year, I wrote over two-thirds of my PhD, way over 50,000 words. So maybe my next project should be a postgraduate guide ‘A Part-Time PhD Is Really Only Ten Months Long’. Of course this happened because I stopped and smelt. Not that my roses above smell of anything other than grass and mud but... you should smell that too sometimes...

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Fake Aloo Gobi

If you are one of those unlucky people who loves spices, Indian and Thai cuisine but can never eat it because of various reasons (and mine is Rick, who doesn't do spices), this one is for you, as it re-creates the aloo gobi texture with none of the hot and very little of the fat. It is not the real thing by any means, but if you're pressed by life, this is perfect. This is unbelievably good on its own or with jasmime rice.

You'll need:

4 large white potatoes, peeled and cut into medium-sized pieces
a fistful of basil leaves, cut in thin strips
vegetable stock (250 ml) mixed with
half a can of reduced fat coconut milk (200 ml)
some olive oil
one shallot, finely cut

You'll do it like so:

Warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a large pan (not a frying pan, a casserole pan) on high heat and add the shallot, which you should leave to brown for a couple of minutes. Stir it around as it does so and don't let it go too brown because it quickly becomes bitter.

Add the basil leaves, stir well, add the potatoes and now the vegetable stock and coconut milk. Of course it is infinitely better if the vegetable stock is something you've made yourself but if you haven't got any, by all means use a stock cube and be done with it. I have tried both options and I cannot say that the latter is that bad at all.

Let it come to the boil and then lower the heat to medium-low, so that it all simmers along nicely. Check for salt and add if you need to. You need this to cook for a good 45 minutes, or until the stock has dramatically reduced itself and the potatoes are very soft and break down.

Friday, June 5, 2009

My Little Pony

As I walked up the fields this morning, I was greeted by a loudly snoring Merv who only rose his head when I cleared my throat (for the third time). Now he has a mane, some styling will be de riguer.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Very Busy Bootie

The guys and I may enjoy the warm days in the garden provided they don't last for anything longer than a week. This morning it was sensibly cooler and we all felt better for it, especially the Very Busy Bootie.

Monday, June 1, 2009


I may really dislike this time of year but I must concede that the super-blue sky and the very-green leaves make for one heck of a relaxing spectacle.

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