Friday, July 31, 2009

Summer's Back

The other day I saw a promotional poster outside of Starbee. It showcased a pic of one of their iced drinks and a 'Summer's Back' in big letters. I saw this as I was the only person around Wilmslow and as it was pouring cats and dogs. Well, I should have really taken a pic of it, as it was really ironic. The best I can do now is to say that, indeed, summer's back! In all its glory too.

Monday, July 27, 2009


When I look at William, I am always reminded of Snoopy, even though Snoopy isn’t spotted and William doesn’t keep a typewriter in his bed. It’s the flat single brow he has and the black ears, together with his ability to be always camera-ready, that remind me of lovely Snoopy. Victoria’s pics are very much hit-and-miss, one day looking fine, the next scrawny and stick-thin. William does not have one bad shot to his name and smiles for the camera even in his sleep.

A Cooking First

I may not be a chef, but I am well-versed in the kitchen, especially insofar as baking is concerned. I can do multi-layered birthday cakes with ease and I can work with cocoa without breaking into a sweat, not even when alcohol is thrown into the mix at melting point.

Yet, there is one thing that I have never been able to do, and I think I may have mentioned this gripe of mine before: an omelette. Friends and family have always laughed at this claim but I kid you not, every time I tried for an omelette, I ended up with scrambled eggs. I don’t even know what the problem was and, at this point, I do not even care any longer because today I experienced my first omelette, and it seems only appropriate to celebrate on here.

one red chilli
a handful of chives
two large eggs
a tablespoon of cumin seeds
a splash of olive oil
a splash of milk

I do not really need to give you a procedure, as everyone (bar me, up until lunchtime today) knows how to make an omelette. The only thing I need to specify is that the cut chilli, chives and spoon of cumin seeds should fry on low heat on their own before you add the eggs mixed with milk and salt.

I would suggest to serve this with a tablespoon or so of tsatziki or cooling Greek yogurt and, for the love of God, do not make this for anyone who isn’t well-used to eating spicy foods. A whole chilli (with seeds) and a teaspoon of fried cumin seeds can send a spicy virgin to the A&E. You’ve been warned...!

Winds of Change

It is one of those mornings when the garden brings in a new kind of breeze, the breeze of premature autumn. It doesn’t matter that it is all an explosion of leaves, flowers and grasses because a whiff of autumn rides the air long before we can think that autumn is definitely here.

The generally vile summer weather has not helped either. Remember when I was wishing the heat to hell at the end of June, so that we could drop around a pleasant 20C mark? Well, this morning it was 13C, the sort of coolness that made me wonder how soon I will be able to start wearing my long brown coat again, the superb shaggy jacket that I bought in Milan last year, and that makes me look a bit like a pink Yeti, or the soft creamy one that my parents gave me for Christmas.

Ah yes Christmas. On Saturday I received The Bridgewater Hall autumn programme, which also included a Christmas extra. There are lots of fabulous concerts to look forward to but, as I leafed, I also wondered about our inability to enjoy the present. We are always so brainwashed into thinking about the future, from a commercial perspective, that we hardly get to live it once it becomes the present. I do not like Christmas decorations coming down the day after, to be supplanted by those horrid SALE signs everywhere. I’d much rather we actually enjoyed the twelve days of Christmas when it is Christmas, rather than starting three months earlier and finishing in mid-December, before Christmas has even happened.

Then at the end of December there will be a Valentine’s section at John Lewis, and then as Valentine’s approaches there will be an Easter section, then the summer section will hit the store in March. The kids have only just come off the school year around my parts and I have already come across plenty of shops, from JL to Marks, advertising the ‘Back to School’ items. In fact, the signs were already up three weeks ago. Blimey, cannot these kids enjoy the weeks off before we start bombarding them about getting back to school?

And so I think that we are programmed to live in the just-out-of-reach future, eight-to-ten weeks ahead of the calendar, thinking of Easter in January or of Halloween in August. Perhaps it makes us feel better when the present day hasn’t turned out as thrilling as we expected. While it feels like autumn out there, even though it doesn’t look it, it feels somewhat normal to think of it. I am both victim and perpetrator here: one part of me rants that it’s July and why am I looking at the Christmas concert leaflet, and the other says that it’s a good idea they send the programme out so early, so that you can get organised in time. Well, I am a Virgo after all.

But the winds of change may be in the air for me too. There is nothing to tell as yet, but there may be soon enough.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Supermassive Black Hole

Earlier today I wrote to a friend of mine. Now that all PhD-related technicalities are well and truly over, it's like I have got nothing else to think or talk about. Except, perhaps, the dire job situation. It was easy to scrape by and shut the world out as editing was taking up all of my energies, but now that there is nothing pressing left, it seems only natural that I should be on job search 100% of the time, as opposed to 50% as it was up until recently.

This, however, does not make me feel any better about the task, neither does it indicate in any discernible way that I will be 50% more likely to get a job than, say, winning the lottery, or finding the Holy Grail tomorrow morning on the way to Starbucks. And so I sat down at my desk and let my fingers run freely on the keyboard.

The first thing I wrote to him was: 'I don't suppose you know of a place or way whereby I could *find* £ 600?'. What sort of question is that, I wonder now? Yet, it seemed the only relevant thing to ask as I stared out of the window through the blind, munching on a little cheese and Marmite toastie. And of course, that number staring back, £ 600, fascinated me and worried me in equal measure. Blimey, when I used to work, I paid more than that in tax alone.

Even though I was recently trickling through the last of the writing up process, I could already apply to many relevant academic positions. I say many, but we are really only talking four. Still, it sounds like many to me, as they were as far as Brum and as varied as film studies and English. But I did not hear a thing from those.

Neither did I hear a thing from the countless other applications, CVs and letters that I sent since the beginning of the year, some on a spec basis, many replying to adverts. You'd think I didn't post stuff through a red postbox, but through a shredder, as these days nobody acknowledges anything anymore. Maybe it would be ok if I were a high-school drop-out without plans, goals, qualifications, intelligence or good-looks. Maybe it wouldn't sting this much. But considering that my parents spent in excess of £ 20,000 in further education alone, that I have almost eight years worth of business experience, that I am fluent in three languages and have two degrees and an international work/educational background... well... bemusement, anger and pride are stirring within me every time I click 'send' or kiss another letter good luck.

I have to pay council tax, water and house insurance and have no funds to do it with. Like none whatsoever. It is beyond farcical, beyond depressing, beyond grim. You know those people who say that money cannot buy happiness? Sure, it doesn't buy sincerity, immortality or love either, but what it does buy, water and food, shelter and dignity, that, my friends, is good enough for me.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When The Rich Play Frugal

It was sometimes last autumn, as I was dragging my heels in my local Waterstones, newly job-less and rejoicing the advantages of being free, mid-morning and mid-week, that I saw India Knight’s The Thrift Book for the first time. As my eyes darted from cover to author’s name to title and then back again in multiple loops, I felt my lips parting and my brow corrugating itself with the familiar stab of subtle misapprehension. It could not possibly be the India Knight, who pretty much made her name by writing a book (The Shops, n.d.r.) that celebrates the psychologically nourishing effects of blowing your monthly salary on a Chloe bag during your lunch hour, now suggesting that we’d better be thrifty and careful with money, could it?

Yes, that hideous term when connected to money, 'careful', as if money were a two-faced friend praising you one day while out on the coffee run and slagging you off with colleagues the next. As I began to flick, my eyes scuttling across pages filled with romanticised common sense in book form, I became aware of a supernatural presence bursting out of the depths of memory. It was Immanuel Kant, the paradigmatic philosopher of the Enlightenment, rising from the dead, placing a hand on my shoulder and admitting that, really, he was wrong the first time round, we cannot live up to knowledge and action without outside assistance, we need support, we need divine intervention, our reason alone just isn’t enough.

Is this what India Knight was doing, scrapping her entire philosophy of life, and one that sounded as enticing as a siren’s call to young women like me, in favour of thrift, make do and mend, saving and being ‘careful with money’? If so, why? Stuff such as 'save bucks by making your own sarnie and take to work' is as old a pearl of wisdom as sarnies themselves, and sits so much at odds when pitted against Knight’s previous book, a 224-page transliteration of the ubiquitous ‘you’re worth it’ mantra, as to turn The Thrift Book into the stuff of lifestyle nightmares. Even with the author’s earnest confession in opening, a financially reckless life lead on the high wings of overdrafts and loans, all I could muster was an inner quiver and the suppressed urge to reach for my violin and play a suitably tear-jerking melody in the middle of the bookshop.

Snapped back to reality though, I realised that her book was not the freakish outbreak of a public mid-life crisis, but one of many similar offerings, as this trash was already multiplying itself exponentially. There was Delia's Frugal Food, Frugal Living For Dummies, Frugal Living, The Frugal Cook, The Frugal Duchess, Chick Living: Frugal and Fabulous, Frugal Cooking, Frugality, The Frugal Life, The Frugal Gardener, The Thrifty Gardener, Charity Shopping and The Thrifty Lifestyle, The Thrifty Girl’s Guide To Glamour, Thrifty Ways For Modern Days, Thrifty Chic, The Spend Less Handbook and even the phantastically conceived How I Lived A Year On Just One Pound A Day, which should not be shelved within lifestyle or finance but within science-fiction. Blow me right out of the water, the need to be frugal as financial necessity commands had been turned into fashion.

For some time afterwards I became weary of shops in general; what if I came across a beaming cardboard Jamie Oliver next to the battery eggs at the supermarket or Nigella’s latest effort How To Be A Fat-Free Goddess at the bookshop? I knew I would not be able to stand for very long on the precipice of travesty without eventually releasing all of their books to the wilderness in disgust. This has not yet happened, even though a more subtle variation of frugalism has added itself to the equation in the shape of books that shy away from even the mere mention of thrift or frugal while operating a new, underground strategy: convincing the reader that cutting back is better than spending money, no matter your financial situation.

Enters Elspeth Thompson and her deliciously conceited The Wonderful Weekend Book: Reclaiming Life’s Simple Pleasures which laments the demise of the Great British Weekend now usurped by the shopping habit that never ends. No, the author tells us, slow down, festoon the house, wear cashmere, take up photography, rent a cottage. Life’s simple pleasures are the only real pleasures and, guess what, they won't make you skint either! Now that depends on the camera you’re buying and on the cashmere you’re wearing and on where that cottage you’re renting is, but I digress.

I still skipped home glowing and smug, in that spectacularly peculiar and fuzzy way that only a book that tells me things I already know backwards can instill in me. Except as I began reading, I felt something was entirely off. This is because being able to buy a Chanel bag (my own example) is quite a different thing from taking a walk in the park. Even more jarring is the contrast between knitting a Chanel-like bag instead of buying the real thing because I cannot afford to do so. The pleasure derived from making an object, or trying one’s hand at a new craft, is not on a par with the pleasure derived from buying an object because we can afford to do so, no more than can and must can be thought of as operating on the same level. They speak to our subconscious in entirely different ways because they are different entities.

I investigated a little and realised that Elspeth Thompson is an ex World of Interiors editor and successful writer with one house in London and one project house by the sea, a set of Victorian railway carriages she is turning into an eco-home. Let me explain this in context: she used to be an editor of a magazine that celebrates the merits of hand-painted wallpaper at
£ 7,500 a roll and now figuratively tells us that we needn't worry because that wallpaper isn't going to make us happy anyway, a walk in the park will. I took it from there and started looking for other similarly enlightened individuals doing the Frugal and Happy Hippie lark and soon realised that I had been living in my own blinkered version of The Truman Show, as signs of this twisted game were, and are, everywhere.

The free Waitrose brochures stacked at the tills are now wildly more concerned with the 'cost per portion' of the recipes they write about and not so much with the calories/ saturated fat in them, while millionaire model and lingerie pseudo-guru Elle Mcpherson acknowledges from the pages of Tatler that she too is feeling the pinch while wearing a lycra mini-dress that would buy regular people a small car. But then maybe she was referring to tight lycra as it is known to pinch on occasion. And what to make of Liz Hurley who, also from the pages of Tatler, waxes lyrical about the advantages of upping sticks to the country for that gentler pace of life of yesteryear, while wearing £ 10,000 worth of couture?

It all brings me back to that seminal moment in Ab Fab when Edi, her mother and Pats are accidentally locked in the drawing room and the old woman relishes the moment, because ‘it’s a bit like the war’. Except, Edi spits: ‘Without the war!’. A gentler pace of life is a fabricated fallacy that did not exist in the shape and form suggested by today’s authors and pseudo-celebrities. Acting oblivious to the class-rooted differences between those who could play cards all day and those who took four hours on foot to get to the houses they were contracted to clean, they persist in broadcasting a fictitious Pleasantville-like hyper reality of well-fed, well-behaved children who excel at school while their mothers take great joy in scrubbing floors on all fours and setting the dinner on the table with military precision every day at six o’clock for the rest of their lives. Even with my average middle-class background I can assure you that, were my grandma alive today, there is no chance in heaven or hell that she would refer to her weekly donkey-like walk down to the river while carrying two stones worth of laundry and a bucket of ashes for bleach as anything other than a royal pain in the ass.

It does not stop at celebrities or reasonably high-profile authors that churn out fluff though: playing frugal is so much fun that absolutely everyone wants to have a go. Vogue recently published a list of forty tips for fabulous frugality: they included a stay-at-home supper topped with taleggio and truffles and skipping lunch at Cipriani in order to adopt a glamourous cause instead ‘or better still, adopt a cause then talk about it over lunch at Cipriani’. Blog-land is bursting with diarists who write about their pressing need to be thrifty, objectivised by the picture of their receipts spiked on a metal stick next to their computers, and then yap on about their new £ 20,000 car ‘which is so much better for an expanding family like ours’. A friend of mine has been out of work since last year and while lamenting the lack of income, lack of intellectual engagement and lack of someplace to go on Monday morning, he just had a £ 12,000 side conservatory installed. The game is spiralling out of control. It seems so irresistible even I want to try it out, except the pre-requisite is to be reasonably financially secure, and I’m afraid by the time that happens to me, we may well have moved onto another state of play altogether.

Why should I care? Because the proliferation of thrifty titles bestowed upon the little people by those who need not count their pennies is symptomatic of a borderline farcical trend the new incarnation of which has already started to surface on the horizon in the shape of Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights. A model publishing a book about cooking is quite possibly the Ultimate Oxymoron, if we discount that Tony-Blair-As-Ambassador-Of-Peace stunt. What next? A shell-suited chav on benefits writing a style guide? Now that would be rich indeed.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Not Forgotten

Somebody wrote to me the other day, wondering whether 'nothing is happening'. I don't know whether this is the case, but what I do know is that a public diary makes one ponder the daily mundane. Who can be interested about reading my thoughts on the progress of my tomato plant, on yet another edit I am doing, on more non-progress on the job front?

In truth, I have been busy over the past two weeks, so much so as to think about writing all of the time. And let me tell you something: if you are doing a PhD, this is the state you want to be in always. Absorbed by your writing, thinking about your research all of the time, editing, adjusting, making it better. That's why I think that a PhD only really takes ten months. If only we could be In The Zone all the time, we would be done before one calendar year is out.

But I needn't worry any longer as mine is done, a few more red tick marks on the margins of a 250-sheet stack currently plonked on my bed, my thoughts reeling with pictures to include, paper weight, font size. And can you believe it? I will miss the PhD.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

No Words

Today I flipped my diary open to next week. Sunday 12 reads: ‘MJ concert at the O2! 6.30 pm!’. Well, I may as well put a line through that as Michael has thrown the ultimate spanner in the works there.

But there is something that I should add about it because I really think it worth mentioning. At some point this week I came across a news snippet that showed Martin Bashir, the journalist who filmed the Living with Michael Jackson documentary, looking sorry for himself and proclaiming that he never thought anything criminal had happened at Neverland and that Michael's lifestyle was just a bit unorthodox. See for yourself here.

And so let me get this straight Mr Bashir: first, in 2003, you said that it was your duty to uncover ‘what was really going on at Neverland’, and so powerful was your documentary that it led to the criminal case against Jacko. Fine, no problem with that, good investigative journalism, right? Now that the guy has crossed over to where the venom constantly vomited by thousands cannot reach him anymore, now you tell us that he was misunderstood and that you never thought anything wrong ever took place? Which is which? Was Jacko a pedophile or was he a gentle, misunderstood soul? Which reality are you going to choose? Which was, in fact, real?

Prostitutes display a greater level of professional integrity than Bashir. I am disgusted.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Nark Nark Nark

June has finally elapsed as I have crash-landed into July full of narkiness. Yes, narkiness, nark, nark, nark. Only in the very early days of this diary, did I write as little as I did in the past month and I know why that is. I took a bit of a hiatus from everything. Having finished the writing of the PhD, I took mental time off and let the hours turn into days without much thought. What did I do in those days when I did not feel like writing anything? Nothing, I can only presume, and I presume because I can’t remember.

Then this heat wave started and I swear to God heat must be responsible for destroying brain cells because that is how I’ve felt over the past ten days or so, getting up because I couldn’t help it, being unable to sleep because of the deadly combo of heat and light, feeling at odds with the world and myself, shifting from one emotional surge to the next.

Luckily for those really close to me, I have figured out that I am best left to my own devices when the biorhythms plummet underneath the floorboards and so I have pretty much kept myself to myself. This is particularly necessary with Rich, for I think that, deep down, he suffers slightly from a condition that can perhaps be defined as marital inferiority complex blended with a dash of paranoia.

So, say that I explode over something as mundane as a non-working printer like so: ‘It’s broken, this piece of crap is broken! Of course it breaks down when I most need it, *insert earth-shattering expletive here*’. Rich hears: ‘You moron, why did you buy this piece of crap ten years ago? Why not one of those £ 600, library printers?! I bet it wouldn't be broken right now, would it!’.

Or I may say: ‘I don’t know, I have been shouting down the can for months and all I get in return is not even NO, just damn silence *insert discomfited tears here*’. Rich hears: ‘I don’t care what you think about me, you don’t matter’. I could go on and give you another twenty examples off the top of my head. Therefore, as Rich is a bit this way and I do not want to give him reasons to worry about anything, I don’t talk about anything that really matters to me, until I cannot keep the lid on any longer and then God help everyone and his uncle.

June has been a bit like this and so I am really glad that it’s gone. I am two months short of my birthday and I cannot wait for it already. Rich has started his new job and is very happy in it and if he is, then I am and all is well with the world again.
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