Friday, 20 December 2013

How I feel about Christmas

I'll try and keep this as un-Liz-Jones-like as possible.

A rather fuzzy picture of our tree
I love Christmas. I really do. I'm like a child, almost everything about it excites me - the food, the tree, the fairy-lights, the cheesy films. Mainly the food and the fact that it's ok to start drinking at 11am, but most of it gives me a warm, fuzzy feeling.

I think this is mostly because the Christmases of my childhood were epic. They lasted for weeks, or so it seemed. I lived with my grandmother for the first few years of my life, and even when I was with my mum and stepdad, I still spent most of the school holidays with Gran. She made two Christmas puddings and a huge breeze-block of a Christmas cake every year, and helping her ice it was my job. She wrote dozens of cards, and received dozens back - they'd be hung on string along every wall downstairs, and then we'd run out of room and have to start putting them upstairs. In the last few days before the 25th, she'd drive pretty much all over West Sussex, delivering presents and cards to friends and family. On the day itself, she'd cook one huge turkey, or sometimes two slightly smaller ones, in her trusty Aga (God, I miss that Aga), and there would be at least twelve of us sitting down to lunch. Invariably someone would have to have theirs on their lap, armchair pulled as close to 'the Big Table' as possible.

In the afternoon, we'd open presents - except for my grandfather, who'd be incredibly uninterested in his, and finally get around to opening them in February - and perhaps try and play a game of Scrabble or Monopoly. In fact, about the only thing that did get a response from Gramps was if someone tried to fish the coffee creams out of the Quality Street (I don't think they still do them). That someone was invariably me.

The evening would always find Gran in the kitchen, making people sandwiches with cold turkey or ham, regardless of whether they were hungry or not. She and her younger brother would start on the gin, and that would start them arguing, or energetically 'debating' politics. I always joined them - that's where the ham and cheese were - and sometimes when I'm tipsily debating current affairs with my friends now, I can see exactly where I came from.

So yeah. Those Christmases were brilliant.

Now of course, it's different. A year passes slightly quicker, so it's not such an event - more "oh, it's Christmas again". I've said before that I'm definitely a winter person, so I still have a certain fondness for this twinkly, red-and-gold time of year. I have mixed feelings about it now though - Gran is, naturally, too elderly to be hosting guests and cooking for twelve, and Gramps has been gone nearly ten years. For I think what might be the first time ever, it's just going to be me, the parents and the siblings this year. The last few years, we've had Gran, my aunt and my uncle to ours, but this year, it's just us. In theory, this should mean my mother won't have a stress-induced psychotic break in the kitchen at 11am on Christmas morning - but I know her better than that. In theory, I should be looking forward to it - but as we've never been the kind of family that actually does things together, I don't know how it's going to go. When friends tell me they have plans with their families over Easter, for example, I find myself trying not to look at them as though they're utterly mad. The sheer amount of family-related things most people do over Christmas also baffles me - not because I don't understand that half the point of Christmas is being with one's family, but because the five of us are all so, so different, and rarely do anything as a group. Being with someone who's got four siblings and is part of a very close family makes me both jealous and claustrophobic. (I should note here that his family have never been anything but absolutely wonderful to me.)

On the other hand, though, the idea of being separated from loved ones at this time of year is horrible. I can't imagine being in a long-distance relationship, for instance, or having a relative in the Forces. It must be spectacularly difficult to be parted from those you love at this time, because Christmas brings with it the almost unfightable urge to return 'home'.

I'm quite looking forward to the time when I can look at the Boy in about October and go "OK, where are we spending Christmas this year?" That's going to be good. (And if he ever says "The Maldives, with no-one we're related to" then BONUS POINTS FOR HIM.)

The only Christmas song there is.

I also really want you to hear Thea Gilmore's version of 'The St Stephen's Day Murders', because it's another cracking Christmas song, but I can't find a decent video, so Google is your friend here, I'm afraid.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Girl problems

What's wrong with this poster?
So this is festive.

I wrote about sex & relationship education relatively recently, but in the last week or two, I've stumbled across a couple of articles that only reinforce the worry that our whole attitude to teaching young people about relationships is dangerously out-of-touch. Firstly, there was this, which was found by the Boy when he was doing his thing of reading the headlines on the BBC app on my phone while waiting for me to finish taking my face off and come to bed. As you'll notice, only one of those letters is addressed to a boy.

And last Sunday, the UK media's official troll, the Daily Mail, ran this feature. If you can't be bothered to read it - or as is more likely, you don't want to give them the page-views - I'll summarise: two American women have founded a 'workshop programme' called TRAAP (Teenage Rape Awareness and Prevention), and they're visiting schools over here to talk about sexual violence and personal safety. Here's a couple of quotes from the founders: "[We] want to make things a little bit easier by telling [girls] that it’s always OK to say 'no', whether it’s to a date who’s being too pushy, or a boyfriend who wants you to do things you’re not comfortable with, or a creepy guy at a party..." and: "we don’t want our daughters – or you – to make the mistakes that we did and our friends did". 

You know what? If there is a problem with sexual violence among teenagers, if there is a problem surrounding the issue of consent - and I can believe there is, having been a teenage girl once and having had to explain through gritted teeth that "no" means "stop, and get the hell off" - then women like this are PART OF THAT PROBLEM. Women like this aren't changing things for the better, they're perpetuating them. Why? Because all the time girls are targeted as the gate-keepers, the ones who must be in control, say no, protect themselves, it's not a boy problem.

Newsflash: it's a fucking human problem. (Or, if we're going to be crude, a human fucking problem.) 
By framing the discussion in these terms - by saying girls must protect themselves from pushy, sexually aggressive boys - the underlying assumptions are that a) everyone is heterosexual, and b) it's always going to be that way round - that boys are the aggressors and girls must fend them off. Those assumptions aren't applicable to everyone, so we need to stop using them. Furthermore, by telling girls that they're the responsible ones, that the onus is on them to stop bad stuff happening, you take all the fun out of the good stuff. Sex stops being something glorious and experimental and guaranteed to give you a dose of the warm fuzzies and starts being something that has all the joy of a nasty dental procedure.

Taking this approach - and, while we're here, separating boys and girls for sex education - immediately sends out the message that there are secrets to keep, things not to be shared. That sex isn't a collaborative thing. That our bodies are weird and do weird things and that no matter what, we should protect the opposite sex from that. I get that kids are separated for those lessons to spare everyone's giggles and blushes, but it's a short-term decision that has long-term effects. What would be the harm in teaching everyone everything?

The pressure needs to be taken off girls. So much so-called 'helpful' advice is directed at them - be safe online, be safe with your phone, and most insultingly, be safe if you're out alone at night. Why is that insulting? Because it assumes, wrongly again, that most rapes and sexual crimes are committed by strangers. Newsflash #2: the majority of them are committed by someone known to the victim, someone with whom they have been, or are in a relationship. There's no excuse for not knowing that now; the stats on that one have been out there for a long time.

It's quite simple: respect each other. Be considerate. It's boring but it's true - do unto others as you would have them do to you. Just be nice. Don't be a dick. You're going to be a lot happier that way.

The only explanation I've got for having paid actual money for this track is that it's been a very hormonal week, so I've been more susceptible to floppy-haired boys who write sentimental songs (it is quite cute though).

I'll redeem myself  with this one.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Online comments - who are they good for?

On Sunday, I went to a Guardian Masterclass* for aspiring freelance journalists. It was a fantastic day run by industry professionals who were unbelievably positive and keen to share their knowledge. There was none of that "well, print journalism's a sick, dying horse these days, so if I were you lot, I'd stick to basket-weaving or whatever it is mere peasants do to make a living". I can’t fault the event at all, but there was one little thing that bugged me: a Q & A session with Guardian journalist Marina Hyde was derailed by at least four questions on the issue of online comments, and how writers deal with them. One question on it would have been fine, but four? I just don’t think they’re important enough to warrant half an hour of discussion. (A whole blog post's worth of discussion, yes, but no-one's paying for this. Yet.)

  *well, I say that. In order to be in London for 9.30am, I got to the station at half-7. Whereupon I was told "there's a broken-down train at Gatwick, so nothing's going further than there". Four hours, four trains, a brief car journey and seemingly all the stations in Sussex later, I got to Victoria. By some brilliant stroke of luck, I made it to the Royal College of Medicine - where the event was being held - at the first coffee break, so I didn't have to sneak into an auditorium and make a spectacle of myself.

Anyway, Marina Hyde’s perspective on below-the-line comments was fairly straightforward, and ran something along the lines of: “I don’t care, and I don’t have time to read them anyway… I think they should be there, because if I’m pissing on people’s opinions above the line, then they should be able to piss on mine in the comments” (I’m paraphrasing, but she definitely said “pissing”. You can ask her). She mentioned that some columnists don’t think readers should be able to comment at all, and as an aspiring writer, I can absolutely see why.

In theory, the comments section is a safe space for debating the issue being written about above the line, which is well and good and dandy. In practice, however, it seems to be flypaper for headcases. And I don’t mean the genuinely mentally ill, I mean the people whose opinions are a bit… Daily Mail on steroids. “This country’s gone to the dogs” and “back in my day” and the like. People write because they want to connect with readers, plant ideas, raise a smile, provoke discussion, and so to be a writer who is against online comments can be a bit of a contradiction. The trouble is, in the Venn diagram of “people who have the time and inclination to write comments on newspaper articles” and “people whose opinions are well-informed and logically sound”, there isn’t an awful lot of overlap.

There is a tiny voice in my head – and it’s one I’m working on drowning out – that keeps saying, “Is it absolutely necessary that we can publish our every opinion for all to see?” Yes, I’m aware of how that sounds – it’s a bit anti-free speechy, and a bit rich coming from a blogger. But if you look at Twitter, and the amount of abuse aimed at high-profile writers, then you might see what I’m getting at. It’s a related issue – from the safety of a keyboard, people feel they can say anything, and the notion of having to answer for your actions is forgotten. How else do you explain the bomb threats, rape threats and disgusting language directed at Grace Dent, Hadley Freeman, Mary Beard, India Knight, to name just a few? From a distance, it’s easy to say, “well, the people saying this stuff are clearly arseholes, and too childish to bother getting stressed about”, but if you’re facing it day in, day out, while simply trying to do your job, I should imagine it gets pretty fucking old.

I suppose there are measures in place – comments are moderated, offensive language doesn’t usually get through. But that’s only a small part of the problem; it would be lovely if before you could publish a comment on an online article, you had to answer the question: “will your comment improve anything for anyone today?" 

Unfortunately, there will always be ill-informed idiots, and the internet's just another platform for them. I'm still not sure online comments are a complete necessity, but maybe I'm missing something. I'd say I just won't read them, but everyone likes to feel morally superior once in a while, so I doubt I'll be giving up my Mail Online habit any time soon. Which is sad, really.

Monday, 11 November 2013

On the Brandwagon

...come on, what else was this post going to be called?

Just another excuse for me to ogle Paxman's beard.

I didn't really want to come in on this one. Enough's been said about it - either by writers going "oh, he's so trivial and stupid" but then proceeding to write 1000 words about him anyway, or by other writers going "yeah, you know what? I almost agree". Everyone else has already been far wiser and more eloquent about it than I have, I'm aware, but still. It's been nagging at me over the last week or so. Because the more I read about our current government - the more I hear about disadvantaged, sick, underprivileged people in the UK today having support taken from them - the more I think Brand has a bloody good point.

I don't agree with everything he said/wrote - his New Statesman essay did go on a bit - because for one, I think if you can vote, you should. People have fought bitterly for universal suffrage, so it seems a bit ungrateful to waste it. And what's more, I'm already looking forward to the next general election - I'll be bounding down to the polling station just so I can do my tiny little bit to ensure we don't have to suffer the Conservatives for a moment longer than absolutely necessary. It was telling that following the Newsnight interview with Russell Brand, Jeremy Paxman came out and said that he understood Brand's unwillingness to vote. And then called the Lib Dems' tuition fees U-turn "the biggest lie in recent political history". Mind you, as long as he's sporting a bit of a beard, Jeremy Paxman can say and do what he likes as far as I'm concerned...

Where was I? Oh yes. In short, voting is good. For now.

It's easy to knock Russell. In the past, he has been a bit of a knob, and he's admitted this. It's also easy to be seduced by him - not literally, though I should imagine that's quite easy too; as an automatic fan of anyone who can do skilful things with words, I do love the way he talks. He can go from silly and facetious to angry and impassioned in the blink of an eye, and is clearly in a torrid love affair with a very good thesaurus. But the fact that he raised the issue of "revolution" - or at least ripping up the current political rulebook and starting again - isn't relevant. The real issue is that someone said it, and it was someone "famous". Because it's what's being said everywhere else: what if we could just rip it up and start again? What if we could simply demand more?

I can't tell you the number of times I've sat with friends in the pub, or at someone's kitchen table, and we've all agreed that the people in power are not the ones with the smartest ideas. Or, to put it another way, the intelligent people who would make a decent job of doing the nation's admin wouldn't touch it with a barge-pole. You have to be a bit odd to want to be in politics.

Brand has managed to plant an idea in the heads of people who might not be that politically engaged, and that idea is simple: what if we didn't have to put up with this? What if we could say "enough's enough of this bullshit"? There's not going to be a revolution; of course there isn't. We're British, our upper lips are stiff, we're not about to kick off and party like it's 1789.

But if I have to read one more article about people on job seekers' allowance getting tricked into being sanctioned (quite a way down in that piece, sorry!), or hear one more story about someone too sick to work getting their benefits stopped or reduced to the point where they cannot afford to live, or read one more piece about some ludicrous thing Michael Gove* has dreamt up, then I'm going to lose my mind. And I know I'm not the only one.

*I Googled "Michael Gove sexting" to remind myself of the full story and find a link. You cannot imagine how uneasy that made me.

 So what do we do? I don't know. I do know that anyone who's ever brought about real, necessary change was called insane when they started, and a hero when they finished. I also know that the 10-point "Initial Statement" released by the Occupy London group in October 2011 makes an awful lot of sense, and that the Occupy movement was something that Brand praised in his interview. I do know that as long as people go on saying "ah well, nothing's ever going to change", nothing will change. Funnily enough.

I don't really know where I'm going with this, and given the haphazard way I'm typing here, I'm sure that's obvious. I think the reason so many columnists and commentators jumped on this "Russell Brand wants a revolution" thing is because it hit a nerve. It hit the nerve that feels, deep down, so many things are wrong right now. Corporations not paying billions of pounds' worth of tax, for a start. A generation of well-educated young people looking out on a job market that can best be described as "hideous". The most disadvantaged people in our society being demonised by the media (stop believing the Daily Mail, Mum!). The cold realisation that the people who are currently doing the nation's admin are doing it mainly for themselves. Christ, that's bleak.

How about some music? That usually helps.

These guys are really good.

And the wonderfully sinister-sounding new one from these guys.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

On being stupid and right

Because you can be both, I'm told.

So, I'll cut to the chase, no faffing. This week, I got offered a job. Full-time, slightly more money than I was expecting, at a tiny company about a twenty-minute train journey away - tick, tick, tick. I didn't mean to get the job ("well, fuck you and your accidental job-getting," said a friend - quite fairly - in the pub the other night). I just saw an ad titled "document writer", thought "hey, I can probably write documents!" and sent them my CV. The advert didn't say what the company did, or what kind of documents would need writing, which hopefully explains things a little.

I didn't expect to be asked to an interview a matter of days later - you just don't, do you? Not these days, when all the odds are against the jobseekers. I certainly didn't expect the interview to go well - I'm scared of everyone new people, especially new people who are looking for me to impress them. When they gave me a writing task ("just a 150-word press release, use this one here as a guide"), I freaked out and my brain went Ican'tIcan'tIcan't, and then I realised how feeble it would look to leave them with a blank Word document, so I threw down some sentences and hoped it was a good enough attempt. The tone of it was excellent, the MD said in his e-mail the next day.

(And then he rang me, to let me know he'd e-mailed me, and I'd only just got out the shower and so wasn't dressed, and during the phone call I managed to whack my knee on the corner of my desk and only just managed to stifle a yelp of "Jesus Fucking Christ I think I've chipped my kneecap!")

And yes, it may seem like there's a lot of humblebragging going on here - "look at little me, getting a job by mistake!" - but I assure you, everything about this particular instance of job-getting was pretty much unintentional. I left the interview with a tension headache and a dilemma already taking shape - an odd feeling of "if I don't get this, I'll be disappointed, because I blagged that one reasonably successfully, and if I do, fuck, I'll have a Serious Decision To Make".

Of course I should have taken it. Of course. Because, well - do I want to get away from what I'm currently doing? Yes. It's not paying - almost literally - and my brainpower is slowly, slowly diminishing. Would it have been good experience? Probably. Once you can write press releases and bids and things, you can take that anywhere. Did it make financial sense? Without a doubt. Why did I not say yes?

Because it wasn't right for me. And how much that matters, I'm not actually sure. Given that I'm an arts graduate (an arts Master!), and it's 2013, I'm not exactly in a position to be picky, am I? I'm on the bottom step, I should be grateful for any opportunity that isn't sorting post and making tea. But I was worried that by doing this, I'd be taking myself out of the search for something that fits me better. And, as it's such a small company - and they seemed inexplicably keen on me - I'd feel pretty bad about joining them while the intention to find something better within a few months. They were looking for someone to commit to them for at least a year or two, and I couldn't bank on being able to do that. "But no-one gets their dream job right away," said the Boy's mother wisely, and no, there's no arguing with that.

And I DO feel like a fool for turning down something I know a lot of graduates would jump on, but something just wasn't right, and I can't take a job just because I feel guilty about being offered it. I don't want to say it was "gut instinct" that swung it for me - because it's a bit of a vague concept upon which to be basing life decisions - but there was a voice somewhere in the back of my head going, "there is something better out there for you". Obviously only time will tell if that's the case, but the "Oh GOD, I've made a huge mistake" panic hasn't kicked in yet*.

*Update: it did kick in, about 5pm today, while I was in Boots (which is normally my happy place as I have a make-up buying problem. Still, it's safer than crack, I suppose). I think my panic in the L'Oreal aisle was mainly triggered by the fact that I'd tried to do a whole day of errand-running on one croissant, a piece of cheese and a lot of tea - rather than any real post-decision regrets. Fingers crossed.

On a brighter note: I've been waiting for this lady to make a comeback for an embarrassingly long time. This track is from an album that was meant to be released in 2011. No news yet.

And I am so obsessed with this girl and her new album it's pretty much the only thing I can listen to right now.

Friday, 27 September 2013

It's a bit late in the year for this, but still...

Or, how to REALLY do a festival - a first-timer's guide.

Festivals are like sex – the first time is spent worrying that everyone is doing it more skilfully than you are; the bad times are vastly improved by large amounts of alcohol and drugs, and when the good times are over, you have to fight the urge to share every gory detail with anyone who wasn’t involved. 

I am not a natural festival-goer, by any means. I have a zero-tolerance attitude to having greasy hair and leg-stubble, but I love live music like Robin Thicke loves being an unutterable creep, so for one weekend a year I’m prepared to go from being a massive princess who can’t leave the house without a blow-dry to a slattern held together with cider and dry shampoo. I’m also not much of a festival veteran – I’ve been to two, so far. The first being Oxfordshire’s lovely little Truck festival, which - as I've told you - is attended by about 5,000 people and is farmy and family-friendly, with barn-stormingly good bands (literally. One of the stages is in a barn. The acoustics are exactly as you’d expect – metallic). And the second was this year’s Bestival – attended by 60,000, it was a whole other huge, smelly, rainy ball-game. My companion this time was a total festival virgin, so it fell to me to be the voice of experience, which made me realise that to the uninitiated, the whole event can seem quite strange and stressful. So here’s a handful of things you absolutely need to know before you lose your festival virginity.

1)   The smell. It sounds obvious, but it’s easy to forget. Picture the scene: you wake up on day two or three, and in order to escape the less-than-fragrant scent of your still-sleeping tent-fellows, stick your head outside and gulp some fresh morning air. Except it’s not fresh – the whole site has started to hum with the aroma of thousands of unwashed bodies. This is why if you’re a non-smoker, you become extraordinarily tolerant of smokers over the course of the weekend – if you stand next to one, you can inhale their fumes, rather than the smell of the unshowered people surrounding you. 

2)   And on a related note, the toilets. Back in the civilised world, going to the loo is usually a painless experience – unless you’ve got food poisoning or are naturally prone to constipation. At a festival, it’s an ordeal that doesn’t seem to ease up, no matter how many times you do it, nor how drunk you get. That smell would sober up Pete Doherty after a long weekend in Moscow. Be warned. And take some antibacterial hand gel.

3)   “Festival beauty” isn’t a thing. Magazines are chock-full of this stuff at the beginning of the festival season: how you can channel “Alexa at Coachella” with a handful of bits from Superdrug. Fuck off. You do not need to look your shiny, clean, photogenic best at a festival. It’s not even possible, given that you won’t have access to anything more cleansing than baby wipes. I mean, you can optimistically take your make-up bag, and just keep layering it on, but I personally wouldn’t want to risk the volcanic break-out of spots that will inevitably follow when you’re back in the land of hot running water. Leave the foundation at home and embrace the grime. And if you don’t feel anything but fucking beautiful when you’re hollering along to your favourite band as they storm through their set during a downpour, then I’m afraid I can’t help you.

4)   Sex. Having said all that in point (3), on the Isle of Wight that weekend, I did see a truly remarkable amount of young ladies who had bothered to do a full face of slap. I can only imagine that these young things were on the pull, which is, again, a stupid idea at a festival. You’d imagine that there’s going to be a pretty sexy vibe, with the music, the liberated approach to drink and drugs, the general atmosphere of hedonism. You’d be wrong. If, due a combination of vodka and time passing, you cannot reliably tell me when you last showered, then I don’t want to have sex with you. And tents aren’t the sexiest of locations, unless what really turns you on is a soundtrack of students vomiting and sleeping bags rustling. But if that’s the case, go for it.

5)  You won’t see about half of the acts you plan on seeing. You’ll pay a fair whack for a programme and gleefully rifle through it once your tent is up and you have a drink in hand. “Right, I definitely want to see them. And we can’t miss her. Ooh, they’re playing, I didn’t know that. Oh, and them.” You’ll memorise times and locations, but somehow only manage to actually be present for some of these, due to a sudden tent-collapse emergency, or getting too engrossed in one of those drunken, putting-the-world-to-rights conversations.

In short, music festivals can be hard work. But you’re missing out if you don’t spend at least one weekend of your life living out of a rucksack, laughing brazenly in the face of personal hygiene and going unselfconsciously nuts to your favourite song while it pisses it down. 

One final hint: don’t keep your wristband on past the day of your return to the adult world. No one likes a pretentious festival wanker, so don’t be that guy. 

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Bad education

You know what distresses me? I mean, other than the price of Dermalogica products, the situation in Syria and people to whom the words "please" and "thank you" are alien concepts?

Well, this. (If you can't access it, it's a Telegraph article about the government's proposals to drop sex and relationship education from the curriculum for 11-13 year olds - under which, information on sexual health, contraception, hormones and adolescence would not be taught.)

These proposals do make you wonder if Education Secretary Michael Gove has ever actually been to a school - and I feel now would be the time to slip this in here. Thanks to the Boy for showing that to me. Mind you, Mr Gove also once claimed that if young people did well academically, they were less likely to "indulge in risky behaviours" - which made sense, until he used it as a basis for the suggestion that sex education lessons would no longer be needed. "They're bright and high-achievers so they won't be having sex" is one of the most bollocks assumptions I've ever heard someone make. No, no, no - if they're bright, and over the age of 16, and reasonably mature and responsible, then I bloody well hope they're having some sex.

I have a theory, and it goes thus: if you start educating people early - about anything, really - it becomes normal to them. Standard, everyday, unremarkable. Not a big deal. And as far as sex is concerned, if you teach age-appropriate material throughout the academic life, the chances are you're going to end up with a bunch of well-informed, clued-up, sensible, confident teenagers. Who can talk about sex without getting embarrassed, who feel secure and can communicate well within relationships, and who don't feel judged when they have problems or questions. And all this is a bad thing because...?

I suppose one could quite reasonably argue that it should be left to parents to decide how and when their children learn about sex and relationships. But that would put some kids at a huge disadvantage - there would be the nice, liberal parents that fixed a grin on their nervous faces and got The Conversation started, but there would equally be parents that bottled it and neglected to broach the subject at all. The children of the "bottlers" would have to pick up their info elsewhere - like the internet, or the school playground. Which are, as we know, completely reliable and accurate channels of information... The easiest way to screw up your children is to not address the issues that matter to them - to ignore their worries, either through fear or embarrassment, and to make them feel they can't confide in you. That is precisely how you drive them away, thus leaving them even more vulnerable than they were before. So let's not do that, yeah?

The other line some people like to take on this is the hysterical, "think of the children!" one: "if we teach them these things when they're young, they'll start doing it sooner!" Have these people MET any children? Here's a scenario I may or may not have plucked from the air: an eleven year old hears the term "blow job". He or she asks their best mate what it means. The best mate does their best to explain using their own limited knowledge. The eleven year old thinks "Ew!! That sounds GROSS." End of story. (For a few years, anyway.)

There are also the statistics, though - Britain has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Europe (or has had; it's fallen in recent years), and sex and relationship education is neither comprehensive nor compulsory, while the often-used example of the Netherlands has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world, and educates its youngsters from an early age. In short - people BENEFIT from being taught about sex and relationships from a young age, so it would be nice if the government made curriculum decisions that didn't fly in the face of all the actual evidence.

Maybe a small part of it comes down to that British squeamishness surrounding talking about "feelings". But when matters of health and self-esteem are at stake, we need to lose that squeamishness and get some practice in talking about the tricky stuff. Whether the issue in question is sex, mental health or bereavement - there are so many things that can be incredibly hard to talk about - every time someone says "no, we're not going to discuss that", or only talks about whatever-it-is in hushed, conspiratorial tones, they're taking a huge step backwards. Back to a time when personal things - things that still affected everybody, mind - weren't spoken of at all and people went half-mad with repression and anxiety that they weren't "normal".

Because that's the risk taken when the opportunities for safe, open discussion, and asking questions, are removed. Knowledge, as we all know, is power. Information - the correct information - is confidence. If we make sure that younger generations have all the facts and feel free to ask questions, they will be confident in making their own, well-informed decisions. Why would anyone NOT want that?

This song's rather fun.
And I'm back obsessing over Brontide again, because I saw them last Wednesday and it was wonderful. With their white-hot riffs and dapper drummer* who knows how to pound seven fucks out of his kit, they wouldn't know "boring" if it punched all three of them in the face. Here, have some of this.

*We met him afterwards, and I was able to rectify the impression I made when I saw him on the Tube a few weeks ago. I may have lost what little cool I had when I spotted him at Finsbury Park station, and blurted out "AreyouWilliamBowerman? MyboyfriendandIarehugefansofBrontide!" He took it well, though, and when we chatted to him on Wednesday, he was absolutely lovely. Well, the Boy chatted, while I stood there and tried to decide which one to propose marriage to first. I must have a thing for drummers.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Advice I’m not qualified to give, but am giving anyway

Or, "stuff I wish I'd known sooner - not that I would have listened, in the event of actually being told".

My sister officially became a teenager last Sunday. I say "officially" - emotionally, she's been one for about the last four months. It's come as quite a shock to my mother: "she doesn't talk to me anymore, and she goes off in strops all the time. She's turning into you". Thanks, Mum*. And welcome back to the world of teenage girls. I suggest you buckle up.

*To be fair to our mother, I was a horrible teenager. I still am a lot of the time sometimes, at the age of 23.

I recently read a piece by one of my favourite writers, Daisy Buchanan (to the book geeks, yes, that is her actual name), that made me go "Aww!" It's an open letter and commencement address to her younger sister, who's about our age and has just graduated. Click here, if you're interested. And, in the absence of anything more pressing to write about, I thought I'd do my own, but for my much younger sister. So here's a handful of useful nuggets I have found to be, well, nothing but useful. I'll try and keep it as unpretentious as possible, but you know what I'm like; that won't be easy. I'll give it a go.

So then...

1) Work hard at school. There's no shame in being the diligent, conscientious one. Figure out the things you like and are good at, and get better at them. It really does make life so much easier, both now and later on.

2) Read. Read loads. You'll never be lonely again (well, almost). Getting totally emotionally involved in a story is an unrivalled joy. You'll never be stuck for something to talk about, and you'll pick up all kinds of information - you'll end up like Stephen Fry, basically. It also improves your spelling and grammar with zero effort - the more you read, the more you get to know when a word or sentence looks wrong. Which, while it isn't the most important character trait, does make you a lot less annoying to get e-mails from.

3) Get a part-time job as soon as you possibly can. It will do you the world of good, even if you're pretty ace already. It's the fastest and most effective way to become more responsible and a good team-player (guess who's spent too much time on recruitment sites recently. Eurgh). And, if you're earning your own money, no one can tell you what to do with it - because it's YOURS and YOURS ALONE.

4) Ignore magazines, and indeed anything or anyone that tries to tell you how you should look, or that you should be thinner. (Such as Mum. Please don't follow her example. Please.) The overwhelming majority of diets don't work, so just kind of pay attention to your body - it's quite good at telling you what you need. Unfortunately, a large part of the rest of the world doesn't quite seem to trust women to know what to do with their own bodies just yet, so it's up to you to tell them to bugger off and mind their own damn business.

5) Experiment with your looks. The time will soon come when you have to look like everybody else, and while you've still got the "teen" suffix in your age, it is not that time. Put bright blue streaks in your hair (maybe wait until sixth form to do this, I know what your school's uniform policy is like: militant), try out flicky black eyeliner or neon pink lipstick. Make-up is a good thing - unless you apply it with a tablespoon. It can cover things you don't like and enhance the things you do like. Have fun with it, it's cheaper than clothes.

6) Fancy someone you shouldn't. In a legal sort of way, I mean. One of those boys who thinks they are God's gift to women - you know the type. They’re not, so get this out the way early in life and you’ll save yourself a metric shitload of drama. Then find someone who’s kind (this is underrated, and shouldn’t be) and who thinks you’re wonderful. And makes you laugh til you yelp like a seal in distress. Yes, you can vomit. But it’s important.
     6b) You don’t have to have a boyfriend, either. (Or girlfriend, for that matter.) I didn’t have a proper relationship until I was nineteen, which was... fine. I didn’t absolutely love being the only person in my friendship group who was single, and it can feel especially bad when your best friend gets a guy and suddenly she’s not around half as much, but you’ll do the same thing one day. Plus, relationships are bloody hard work at times - factoring a whole other human being into your everyday life can sometimes be a case of moving from one uneasy truce to the next. You can quote me on that, it's probably the truest thing I'll say for a long time.
     And the majority of relationships that start before university/the age of 20 do NOT last. A rare few do, BUT MOST REALLY, REALLY DON’T. I cannot emphasise that enough, you're just going to have to trust me on it. You might get to your A-levels, look at a couple you know and think, “They’re going to be together forever, and get married and have babies”. Give it two years, love…

7) Learn that being cool is a myth. Or rather, the coolest people are the ones who just do their own thing, like what they like and stand by their opinions, even if those opinions aren't popular.

8) Stay in touch with friends who move away. Take it from someone who is God-awful at doing this. Even if you just drop them the odd Facebook message, it still helps. It's never anything but lovely when you hear from someone you haven't spoken to for ages: "Oh! They were thinking of me? Well, that's made my week".

9) Be nice. Polite. Kind. You know, not a dick. If you find yourself in, say, a shouty situation, or a serious personal disagreement, and manage not to make it worse, then it's a start. Being able to walk away with a clear conscience gives you one less thing to worry about.

10) I've saved the best two things for last, you'll see:
     10a) Always, always, ALWAYS send hand-written thank you notes for presents. ALWAYS.
     10b) If you're feeling down, look up videos of babies laughing on YouTube. Ditto baby animals doing pretty much anything.
Yeah, you're welcome.

OK, now I have a request of any blog-readers that may be out there. I'm planning to enter a feature-writing competition, and I need some assistance. I'd like to write something about mental health in university students - you know, cheery stuff - for reasons you're probably aware of, if you've read previous posts. So, if anyone found that being at uni either triggered, or worsened any mental health/emotional issues/problems they had, and fancies dropping me a couple of lines about it, then please do. Names won't be used in the piece, obviously, and I'm certainly not going to be gossiping down the pub about anything I do get told. I am particularly interested in people who actually managed to use their uni counselling service - did it help? Etc, etc. I will also be writing about my own "I think I'm losing my mind" moments in the feature, too. So, if anyone feels able to share, I would be very, very grateful.

Music time! If I could have anyone write the soundtrack to my life, it would be Gary Lightbody - he just has an unparallelled knack for writing simple songs with all-time melodies; tracks that are effortlessly epic. And he's one of those rare singers who sounds better live than he does on recordings (the Northern Irish accent helps too). This is one of my favourite tracks from the new Tired Pony album - an album that feels like being reunited with an old friend - easy and joyful. And here's another - it starts all slow and yearning, then takes you by surprise about 1:18.

And this lady needs to make a comeback; it's been years. That isn't one of her best songs, by a long way, but it's a fun, playful one.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

I didn't want this to be a list post, but...

...I spent two weeks at Student Beans, in the name of finally getting something a bit writer-y on my CV, and most of the 30+ ideas I pitched to them over the course of the fortnight were list-type posts, a la Buzzfeed. It was a good fortnight though - it turns out being a writer involves spending a lot of time on the internet and then trying to be faintly amusing. I've been doing it right all along.

I managed to break the golden rule, though - the first rule of work experience is you do NOT get ill during work experience. I don't do ill. Aside from the odd migraine and like, one bad cold a year. So to go down with tonsillitis on the evening of my very first day was, to be honest, absolutely hideous. I'd never had it before; does it always reduce its victims to weeping messes who are incapable of anything except drinking tea, sleeping and crying? It's rare that I shamelessly heap praise upon the Boy (Lord knows he's all too aware of this) but that week, he more than earned my eternal gratitude. From not complaining about my 6.30am alarm, to spending five straight evenings marathoning Modern Family* with me - someone give that boy a medal. Or I'm actually going to have to start being nice to him.

*I'm starting to develop some seriously maternal feelings towards Lily. I mean, look. Look!

Since work experience ended, I've felt a bit drained of ideas for the blog. I've got a couple of other writery projects on the go too, but it's been a month since my last post, and if I'm honest, I'm missing seeing those spikes on the page-views graph. Which is sad but perhaps inevitable.

As my friends and I were trying to leave the pub on Monday, we walked into - or rather, through - an argument about what the best super-power is. My friends are geeky enough to have this conversation down to a Really Fine Art, so naturally they decided to weigh in, with amusing consequences. Which got me thinking - no, not what the best power is, it's clearly and unarguably "being able to control people's moods" - but what the best pub conversations are. Because nothing spells conversational gold like being happily drunk and gathered round a table with your best friends.

1) The top one is obviously "if you could have any super-power, what would it be?" As I've said, my friends and I have spent hours debating this one. I always go for mood control, the Boy always goes for something to do with having infinite time, and my friend James just wants to control everything. (I think.) It often takes interesting detours, such as "would you rather have an arm that could turn into anything you like, or be able to make it snow whenever you want?" We must have been a few beers in by the time that made any sense.

2) The lunatic idea conversation. A conversation that genuinely happened on Monday night began thus: "What if there was a pill that could give you an instant orgasm?" I felt really, really sorry for the people sitting at the tables either side of us. We got pretty vociferous over this one - the boys were more concerned about how rich it would make them, and I was sitting there wondering aloud if it would bring about some awful societal decline.

3) The heated debate. Say the word "adoption" to a few of my friends, and watch them turn ashen and start going "OH GOD, NO. Not again, please, no." Last summer, during a cheese and wine evening, we started talking about adoption. (I've no idea why.) Cut to about two hours later, and we were all shouting at each other, going "You're wrong! You couldn't be wronger! Please stop offending me with your utter WRONGNESS."

Shit gets rowdy after too much Camembert, you know how it is.

We've also all agreed to never again discuss who, out of David Mitchell and Robert Webb, is the funniest. And no, don't you start.

4) i) The sexual bucket list one. Where you all end up talking about your "lists of stuff you'd like to try". You have to be quite drunk for this, and often, the weirder and more comical, the better. Can lead to...

    ii) ...the sexual tell-all one. (For cleaner version of this, see no 6.) Often a girl thing. You end up divulging everything you've ever done ever, and asking each other questions you wouldn't dream of had you not drunk an entire bottle of wine and multiple shots of tequila.

5) The character assassination one. One of your friends couldn't make it out, and conveniently it's the one you all find a bit annoying. After a while, you start talking about them. Then talking turns to bitching, and bitching turns to "I know! Let's make up a drinking game based upon their behaviour, and unbeknown to them, play it the next time we're all out together!"

6) The rant. Similar to 3), but it usually involves whisky or wine. I get my feminist rage on - and start saying things like, "when I have my own column in the Guardian" - while someone else I could name but won't once gave us the complete and unabridged history of his love life. With visual aids via the use of Facebook. Recounting this to my stepfather, he said "Aye, whisky'll do that to you."

7) The argument. Again, similar to 3) but much, much more personal. "I didn't tell you this before but I really have to tell you now. YOU REALLY HURT ME THAT TIME YOU -" etc, etc. Often ends with the argument-starter weeping profusely and declaring passionate and undying love to their victim. (I in no way speak from experience.)

Those are the ones I can think of off the top of my head, but I'm sure there's many more, so feel free to chip in (hark at me getting all interactive).

Music time - and what a lovely bunch of stuff it is too...

Just when I think I couldn't want to be this girl anymore than I already do, she comes up with a track that's even more gutsy and soulful and Stevie Nicks-esque than her previous stuff. Oh yes.

And I've not loved everything this band has done, but this song is perfection.

And this too, it's beautiful (and that kid is brilliant).

Monday, 8 July 2013

I'm not crazy, I swear.

A few months ago, I nearly died at East Croydon station.

I didn't really, but as opening lines go, that's not half-bad, is it? With the juxtaposition of melodrama and utter banality - yeah, yeah, English students die hard and whatnot; I'll get on with it.

I thought I was going to die. For perhaps 120 seconds, I was convinced that This. Was. It. I even remember thinking, "Here? Really, here? Of all places?!" To this day, it still frightens me a little to recall just how fast my heart was racing, how I pretty much forgot how to breathe in and out, how I spent a tearful ten minutes in the waiting room between platforms 3 and 4, trembling and trying to calm down.

Panic attacks can be so embarrassing.

I've had this post half-written for a long time, and I'm putting it out there now because 1) I'm having trouble coming up with ideas at the moment, and it's worrying me more than it usually would, because I'm about to do a fortnight's work experience at a student website and therefore need to be at the top of my writing and content-producing game (eek). And 2) in the last week or so, new charity Mindfull has advised that lessons about mental health issues should be a standard part of secondary education.

I don't know many stats about mental health issues off the top of my head - and it really isn't for want of looking - but I can name at least four family members who've suffered depression and/or anxiety (I really won the genetics lottery). Most people know someone who has dealt with issues that are somewhere on the spectrum - from "mild" depression or the odd panic attack, to severe mood disorders. And despite a growing number of high-profile people (Stephen Fry, Catherine Zeta-Jones, my own personal heroine Thea Gilmore) being open about their own experiences of mental health problems, it remains a tricky thing to talk about. I almost think I'd more readily give my nearest and dearest a grim-faced account of a particularly bad bout of cystitis than admit that sometimes - no, often - my brain goes a bit rogue and starts throwing panic-inducing question after panic-inducing question at me.

I wouldn't say I have a serious problem. (You may read this and conclude otherwise, and I wouldn't blame you.) I mean sure, if I have two whole days off in a row I start to freak out a bit - too much time off triggers my "worst case scenario" montages. But if I've worked a six-day week or two, and have ended up relying on coffee in the mornings and a glass of wine in the evenings, it won't be long before the jitters set in. Which turn to tension, which in turn may spark a little panic moment, or a proper "OhGODIcan'tbreathe" attack. Sometimes hormones play a part, sometimes they don't.

There was a time when I would have said I had a problem. I've mentioned it before - "that time I went a bit mad in second year". In, um, my second year of uni, funnily enough. Until then I'd been a worrier, sure, but the end of 2009 saw that erupt, seemingly from nowhere, into a full-blown Thing. A Thing that hounded me for months, like an internal stalker. If depression is "the black dog", anxiety is a Jack Russell, yapping and snapping at your ankles, until you give it the attention and energy it needs.

During those horrible few months, I tried a number of things - saw more than one GP, went home to my mother, confided in one tutor, played a lot of clock patience (there's not much to do at five in the morning when sleep is an alien concept and you need something that's going to occupy your brain and your hands. Don't make it weird), and got as far as the door of the university counselling service. On two occasions. Did I ever make an appointment? No. By admitting that a few sessions of chatting to a trained professional might be a good idea, it felt like I'd be slapping a label on my forehead that read "nutter". I was scared of what other people would think - I'm still not sure why I thought I had to tell them. I think I reasoned that if I had good friends, a reasonably supportive - if not endlessly patient - family, a bemused but caring boyfriend, what was so wrong with me that I needed someone else to talk to? But that's the nature of the beast, I guess - the sense of perspective is the first thing to go.

I spent most of the summer that followed second year with gastritis. I'd literally worried myself sick. Things only started to settle down properly when I began my third year - I was living with a good friend, my workload increased, so I had more stuff to concentrate on, and I think I'd just worn myself out. Being in a constant state of anxiety is exhausting. 

I'm really not sure how to round off a blog post that is a little more soul-baring than I'm used to. Like I said, I don't feel I have a serious problem now - I have a few bad days every month or so, and I know what helps and what doesn't, even if I don't always act upon that knowledge. Would I be rid of my weird anxiety issues? Of course I would. I'd pay good money to be one of those asleep-as-soon-as-head-meets-pillow, whatever-will-be-will-be people. But the chances of that kind of a change happening are slim-to-none - the best I think I can hope for is just to get a bit better at dealing with the waves of panic as and when they roll in, and eventually, they might start to shrink.

If this doesn't haunt your dreams, well, then I'm all out of gothy-sounding country-folk to give you.

And this is cute. I don't know if I've missed the boat with this band - has anyone heard of them? Have they released anything over here? But the video itself is gloriously silly and camp, while the song is basically a shortcut back to the best bits of your teen years - sweet and fun and at times, a little bit sexy (altogether now: "we're going to rattle this ghost town!").

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Checking your privilege...

Apparently, this is a thing at the moment. It started on the internet and is now some kind of zeitgeisty... zeitgeist. As I'm only partially employed*, and easily bored, I spend a lot of time on the internet, so I'm somewhat surprised that I've missed it - but then again, I had to have Snapchat explained to me the other day, and I feel old when I [am forced to] listen to Radio One, so... I'm about as down-with-the-kids as your great Aunt Mildred.

*I say that; having just done a six-day week, I feel like I'm overly employed. Just not in the right job(s).

So, it's something the kids are saying a lot at the moment, in online debates about politics, feminism - the usual stuff. But it seems to have got up in a few writers' grills  - and thanks must go to Lucy from Made in Chelsea for making it borderline-acceptable to use that phrase. Hadley Freeman, Dan Hodges, Hugo Rifkind and Louise Mensch have all devoted columns to unpicking the phrase over the last week or so. Like I said, I hadn't even heard of it until I read the Hadley Freeman piece (possibly the most sensible one out there), but now I have read some of the varying perspectives, I have to say, it's a phrase I like.

Why? Well, because taking the words themselves - before they get lobbed carelessly into a debate about the social issue of your choice - they simply imply that we all need to be a little more self-aware before we judge people that are not us. Which is a concept I am in whole-hearted agreement with. Don't get me wrong, making scathing and witty judgements is fun - join me and the Boy for an end-of-week drink or five and we'll give you a crash course in being smug and superior - but when it's done to score points, make others feel small, start or win a fight, then it's just not cricket.

People are right to be sceptical of fashionable schools of thought that can be summed up with snappy, witty slogans. They often hugely over-simplify the problems they're trying to address, though the intentions are usually positive ("Make Poverty History" - remember that? If only it was - or will ever be - that simple). But if we look at the bare bones, the basic meaning of the command to "check your privilege" (former linguistics students die hard), it's merely a call to remember where you're coming from. It's the self-awareness version of a GCSE history teacher shouting at their pupils, "Look at the source, boys and girls!" - where are your opinions coming from? Your own experiences.

Now, a) that sounds like common sense. People do that automatically, don't they? Pffff, well... perhaps more on that in a sec, I want to make point b), which is this - you can still have an opinion on something if you haven't directly experienced it. You just need to add the self-awareness bit, and stir. Accept that someone who has had personal experience of the topic in question - being on benefits, any kind of discrimination, abortion, to give some topical examples - will probably have a much more visceral response. Which relates back to a) - most normal, rational, smart human beings will do this - they know their view is not the only view.

But some - the people who leave comments on Mail Online, people who demonise everyone claiming some kind of welfare benefit, people who get sniffy when you call them on it and start their comeback with "well, as a taxpayer, I..." - have forgotten to check their privilege. Yes, it usually takes hard, hard work, determination, failure, and trying again to get on to the ladder in your chosen field - now more than ever - but there is almost always a certain amount of luck involved. You might have been blessed with a fearsome work ethic, a pushy parent or two, the right postcode, a ceiling-smashing ambitious streak, or all of the above plus a pony and regular skiing holidays in Val d'Isere.

I'm nowhere near where I want to be at the moment, but I'm ok with checking my own privilege. When I'm raging about the lack of jobs for verbose young upstarts, I remember that at least I'm still employed, and therefore earning. When my mother and I are shouting blue murder at one another, because our house isn't big enough for two high-maintenance females, I'm grateful that she hasn't yet changed the locks with the words, "you're on your own now, princess" (she wouldn't say that; she's not Ray Winstone). When I'm judging the little flock of alcoholics who like to congregate by the fountain a few metres from my workplace, and wondering how it is they haven't got better things to do, I count myself lucky that I have people around me who would intervene without a second thought if I ever fell on the darkest of hard times.

Checking your privilege from time to time isn't a bad idea, because after all, privileges can always be revoked.

This song is like sex in the ears; it also contains the best use of the word "rascal" ever.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

What to do with your free time...

...if you still have any.

I can't remember the last time I fell as completely and utterly in love with a film as I did with Mud, which I saw on Wednesday evening. It certainly wasn't the last time I made it to the cinema, to see Les Miserables - the only bit of which I didn't find glaringly underwhelming being Eddie Redmayne's face. I spent most of that genuinely concerned that Hugh Jackman was going to do serious damage to his vocal cords: "he's not going to go for that note, is he? No, he'll never make it. Oh, he is...? Brave. Very brave."

But anyway. Mud. Set along the Mississippi, in Arkansas, two young teenagers find a man hiding out on an island near their riverside homes. He goes by the name of Mud, and is waiting for a girl - a girl he's been in love with for years, and whose violent ex he killed - and is trying to stay off the radar of the dead man's family, and the authorities. The two boys get drawn into his story, and begin to help him - the sensitive one, Ellis, more readily than his brilliantly-named friend Neckbone. Ellis is having problems of his own; his parents are on the verge of splitting, and he's got a crush on an older girl. He's amusingly given to throwing punches when frustrated in his endeavours - I kind of wanted to ruffle his hair and tell him that in four years' time, he'd probably be needing two sticks to fight off the ladies. And then I remembered he's a fictional character.

It's achingly middle-class to get gushy about cinematography, but Mud definitely warrants it. Thanks to its glorious, wild setting and Steadicam camera work (I've been reading everything I can find about this film; can you tell?) it's a film you want to step right inside and explore. I've also had the soundtrack on repeat for the last few days; it's as country as you'd expect, with some really nice guitar work going on. In particular, the track called "Snakebite" (which doesn't give away any major plot points, not at all), with its spiky guitars and menacing drums, makes whatever you happen to be doing while listening to it feel like The Most Important and Epic Thing You've Ever Done. I was proofreading the absolute shit out of my work on Friday to it... (You can find it on YouTube if you want to see what I mean.)

There is nothing about this film I did not love - the plot feels like it could have been adapted from a classic American novel, and it doesn't descend into cliche. Even Ellis' dad, who could be your standard emotionally-unavailable hard-ass, has his softer moments. Everything wraps up quite neatly, sure, but thanks to the story-telling and really good performances from Matthew McConnaughey as Mud, Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Ray McKinnon as Ellis' father, you don't feel short-changed. And plus, who doesn't love a sort-of-coming-of-age film that ends in a shoot-out?

I mentioned in the last post that I'd wanted to include something about the new Thea Gilmore album, Regardless, but that I'd run out of words. So while I'm on the topic of nice things to see and listen to, here goes. In several reviews of the album, much was made of how Ms Gilmore has reached musical maturity and finally found her "place" in the British talent line-up. Biased though I may be, I think what's actually happened is that British music has finally found a place for her. Presumably she has, more or less, always made the music she's wanted to make, and for any artist, that's going to change between the ages of 23 and 30-something. It's probably true that in Regardless, Thea Gilmore has struck her best balance yet between finely-articulated rage against injustice and apathy, and writing about more universal themes of love, family and loss. Stand-out tracks include Start As We Mean To Go On - my new drinking song, surely - Something to Sing About, and Spit and Shine. And if you manage to listen to My Friend Goodbye and remain dry-eyed, then you're a robot.

And so to reading material. On my desk, there's a stack of things I should get on and read, one being The Second Coming, by John Niven. It's the sequel to Kill Your Friends, a book so sharp you could hurt yourself on it. With a protagonist so vile you finish the book and feel a genuine need to read the Bible - but he has such a strong voice you find yourself slipping into his thought patterns. It's funny, but black comedy doesn't begin to cover it. It's a triumph of a novel, but God, you feel dirty afterwards. I'm both nervous and sceptical about the sequel - it's got so much to live up to.

To lighten the mood, I've also got Hadley Freeman's Be Awesome. It's not a self-help book; it's closer to a more balanced How To Be A Woman. I worship at the altar of Caitlin Moran as much as the next 23-year-old upstart who thinks she's cool, but her first book probably should have been called The World According to Catmo. Freeman writes in a similar way - it's like having a long, putting-the-world-to-rights chat with your best mate - but her arguments seem slightly more measured. And it's worth reading for the chapter entitled "A day in your life in Daily Mail headlines" alone.

That's all for now. Have some... oh God, I'm struggling for musical recommendations... Oh, this is quite Sunday-ish, that'll do.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Not really part of the plan...

It's common knowledge by now that being a university-educated 23-year-old, in the UK in 2013, is no picnic. (And if you're the aspiring-writer girlfriend of an aspiring musician, you should probably face facts and admit that you're totally fucked, really.) Someone - not me - really needs to remind my mother of this; part 436 of the "why haven't you got a proper job yet?" conversation happened the other day, and ran thus:

Me: "[insert girl's name] has just got a job with Easyjet- she didn't get onto the course she wanted to do, so she's going to work for them for a year."

Mum: "Oh that's good. [Pause.] Why don't you try and get in with an airline for a bit? Just for a while, so that you have a proper job?"

I'd like to say I bit back the exasperated, "because about the very last thing I need right now is another job I don't want to do and that doesn't even have anything to do with what I'm good at", but because I'm a mouthy little shit all of the times at times, I didn't.

In a previous post (the ranty Iain Duncan Smith one), I mentioned that a Times columnist had written a light-hearted piece about all the menial, brain-meltingly dull and unfulfilling jobs he'd had in his time, and what they'd taught him. During a particularly long and boring afternoon at work the other day, I started compiling my own list.

My first job, aged 14, was a complete gift, and really brought me out of my shell. I worked here (you'll know it if you're from Sussex), and most of the time it was an absolute joy. Running round after animals and children all day? Nice work if you can get it. I shovelled a lot of shit, chased a lot of goats, looked after, rode and fell off some beautiful but sometimes temperamental horses and ponies. I got chased by a belligerent turkey, chased the odd cow through the car park, failed to get alpacas to go where they needed to go, had to shovel up sheep placenta during lambing season (ewww, that was grim) and judged a lot of people on their parenting skills. I worked almost every weekend and school/college holiday for four years, and then worked one last summer after my first year at uni.

I made some great friends, admired some hot boys from afar, and learned to drink at the staff summer parties (which tended to be when the admiration of hot boys could happen at much closer quarters). And all that shit-shovelling gives you a seriously flat stomach. Even if, when combined with falling off a horse, it also results in being frogmarched to an osteopath, who doesn't believe you're only 17 because "your back is awfully... um, how to put this... stressed. You're going to have to sort this out before you have children." Yeah, but I had abs of steel, who needs a correctly-aligned spine?

Next up was a summer behind the bar at a village pub. Which terrified me initially, as I don't love being the centre of attention (...much...) and when you're serving, you're on display all the time. And when you're not serving, you're probably passing through the kitchen, being shouted at by a chef. (I used to be overly nice to him whenever I saw him outside of work, mainly to kind of disarm him/weird him out. I don't think it worked.) I'm not what you'd call a natural at waitressing, so in my first week I think the only thing I said was "Sorry!" and every time my boss walked past me, he'd say "Kirsten, you look worried."

"No, Alex, that's just my face."

University had me doing the odd strange thing for money. There was the two days I spent sticking address labels on the alumni newspaper, for which I was paid about £100. I'm not kidding; I can't have done more than six hours' work. And they say universities don't have money to burn...

I worked in a university office for a few months - the QUB School of History and Anthropology. That was ok, until the last few weeks, when all the staff began taking their summer holidays and I was pretty much on my own in the History office. Which would have been fine had it not been the end-of-exams and pre-graduation bit of the year, so we were getting a lot of students calling up in a panic about resits and registering for graduation, and all they were getting on the other end of the phone was me. Who didn't have the first idea of what to tell them, because no-one had told me anything. I just used to say, "Erm, yes, I think the best person to speak to would be Frances, as she's the school manager", put them through and carry on faffing about on the internet. And then Frances would come in and I'd have to pretend to be doing something other than going through every comic on this website.

Sometimes I'd be over in the Anthropology office, which was smaller and quieter, perhaps because it was populated by men - one of whom did stand-up comedy in his spare time, which was pretty cool, especially as he'd sometimes leave his gig notes on his desk. While working there, I was having a bit of a trying-to-break-up-with-someone problem, while almost getting together with someone else, via a third person. No, I'm not proud of it. "You should have your own show," said the non-comedian guy once, after I'd given him the full run-down of my romantic situation(s). Well, he asked.

I also worked briefly as a Kumon assistant - I pretty much nicked the job off my flatmate - and I can't think of anything remarkable about that, except having to sneak off to the loo to text the Boy whenever a kid asked me to explain something Maths-related. An actual message I sent him was: "I've forgotten how to do long multiplication. Help!" Luckily for me, he obliged.

Which brings us to proofreading, and tanning-salon-minding. (Oh, the thrilling life I lead...) I remember being jobless and bored out of my skull once I'd come back to Horsham in the post-graduation comedown of summer 2011. I was just getting desperate and staring down the barrel of having to do something waitressy when I got an e-mail inviting me to Uckfield, which I'd vaguely heard of, to do a proof test. I had no recollection of applying for the job, but off I went. And found eleven mistakes on a ten-mistake document, much to the amusement of my friends when I proudly relayed that fact to them later on. "Can you start tomorrow?" said my interviewer.

And I'm still there, when I'm not at the salon. (Except on Sundays, when I refuse to un-cling myself from the Boy, because it's the only day we're both off.) I'm still proofing guide dog obituaries and insurance policies, and overhearing conversations that both amuse and appal me. It's not news, but boys aged between 18 and 21 are disgusting, hilarious creatures.

You get a lot of weird and wonderful characters in a tanning salon - a real cross-section of people. Loads more men than I expected, and what's more, loads more straight men. I've had the line "so, can a man and a woman fit on a sunbed together?" used on me more than once, which is nice, and the creams that we sell to prolong/enhance your tan have names you wouldn't believe if I told you. I've had to try and explain Morris dancing to our lovely Hungarian nail technician, and have acquired an admirer with the most beautiful Scottish accent I've ever heard. As Fran says in that episode of Black Books: "It just... does things to me."

I really need to stop now, this is far longer than planned. I was going to include something about the new Thea Gilmore album, "Regardless", as it's the only thing I've been listening to all week, but I'll be straying into e-book territory if I type any more words, and none of us need that.

Have this. The Boy keeps playing it, and as a result it keeps getting stuck in my head. 

Friday, 26 April 2013

Daily Fail.

It's not easy being the daughter of a Daily Mail reader. On a near-daily basis, I find myself saying things like, "that's a slight generalisation, isn't it?" and "whoa, hang on, that might be a bit racist!" And possibly the worst one of all: "don't say that, you sound like Granny".

This post will contain a couple of ironies - mainly, that by complaining at length about said newspaper, I'll only be further boosting its profile, and secondly, a blog post that bitches about bitchy so-called journalists is in itself a massive contradiction.

Don't get me wrong, I love a good bitch. Some of the best conversations I've had with friends have involved a heartfelt slagging-off session of a mutual frenemy. Part of what brought the Boy and I together was our shared sense of superiority over [most] other human beings. (The other parts were vodka, and a mutual love of cheese. Find someone that really understands when you say, "that is some amazing Camembert" in an almost orgasmic tone, and you're set.)

What I'm not so keen on, however, is coming across newspaper articles that amount to nothing more than inches upon inches of bitterness and spite. Written by people who are in the privileged position - because we all know where print media is headed, let's be honest - of being paid to thrash out their opinions on a laptop and have them printed in national newspapers. Liz Jones, Jan Moir, Samantha Brick, I'm talking (typing?) about you. If I ever have to cast Macbeth, you three will be a shoe-in for the witches. (Note to self: calm down. Deep breaths.)

I am aware that those named above all write for the Daily Mail, and to provide some gender balance, there's Richard Littlejohn - also at the Mail - and undoubtedly numerous other offensive columnists at other papers. It's those three that drive me to distraction though, every time I have the misfortune to stumble across one of their pieces. In the same way that Fifty Shades of Grey was car-crash storytelling, Brick, Moir and Jones deal in car-crash newspaper columns - you read on, because you can't quite believe what you're reading.

On my way home from work on Tuesday (I get most of my blogging ideas on the train, mainly because it's the only time I don't feel bad about spending ages arsing about on Twitter), I noticed there was a lot of Twitter-based outrage at Jan Moir. (Again.) This time, instead of being vile about deceased boyband members, she'd sunk her claws into mezzo-soprano and let's face it, rather pretty lady, Katherine Jenkins. Now, I don't really have an opinion on Jenkins, and admittedly, getting your high-school bitch on is a far lesser crime than putting your vindictive, homophobic attitude down in black and white. My mum has a couple of Katherine's CDs, and yes, her voice is impressive. But I only have room for one girl-crush in my life, so I'm not here to stridently defend the singer.

But the tone of Moir's article was so breath-takingly bitchy, and seemed so utterly unnecessary, that it was hardly surprising that Twitter was buzzing with it and bloggers and columnists were tapping out responses as fast as their fingers would allow. So Katherine was wearing sunglasses when she ran the marathon - it was sunny. So her hair was "pulled back into an immaculate ponytail" - she was running a marathon. I should imagine that's hard enough without your hair flopping sweatily round your shoulders and getting blown into your face. So she might have been wearing some make-up? Jenkins herself did later deny that she was, but it doesn't bloody matter either way - some women I know will put something on their faces to put the bins out, given half a chance. Like I said, who gives a shit? She ran a marathon, raised £25,000 for Macmillan, a brilliant charity that provided help for her father, who died when she was only 15. Based on those things alone, writing such a nasty article just isn't on.

I highly doubt Ms Jenkins will be losing any sleep over it. If you're in the public eye, you must know that you're going to get a fair bit of crap written about you, so I'm not saying famous people should be exempt from having tabloids print that crap. I'd just like there to be genuine justification for it. There's a reason Charlie Brooker - as an example - is a far more pleasing read than Moir et al.; when he's being misanthropic, he at least displays a certain level of self-awareness so his audience knows he's got a heart somewhere.

Maybe this kind of thing comes from laziness. Maybe if you're a columnist on a national newspaper and it's a slow news week, it's easier to pull a name out of a hat and pick that person apart than it is to try and think of something that will give your readers something constructive, perhaps even uplifting, to mull over when they're commuting to work/on their tea-break/waiting for their dentist appointment. But we're not living in slow news times. There are so many things happening, so many things to write about, that people shouldn't need to resort to filling their column-space with venom and vitriol - especially when those at which it is aimed are doing good things. I get that it sells, and that those circulation figures are what the editors are primarily concerned about, but that doesn't mean it should be accepted. Journalists are meant to write "the first draft of history"; in such a jammy position, you'd hope they'd be beyond the playground bitching.

As I said, I'm well aware that posting the links to the offending articles in question only gives the writers more page-hits, but it's mainly so I don't have to paraphrase and thus risk giving an inaccurate synopsis. It's also in the interests of fairness. Of course.

I didn't really like this song the first time round, but I've been playing it non-stop this week.

If you don't have a sentimental bone in your body, you won't like my second choice. But it's very cute, very catchy, and the musical itself is nothing short of fucking brilliant. Click me.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

"Fashion changes; style endures."

Or, "fashion: the only thing so bad it needs changing every six months".

Alas, I can't take credit for either of those.

As the last three weeks have involved two blocks of working 6 days straight, and one three-day migraine (whoa, so many numbers), I took yesterday off, so that I could have an actual two-day weekend. I know, it's not easy being me. I've got so fed up of my clothes recently that I felt that a bit of a wardrobe overhaul was due, so I took myself to Guildford bright and early yesterday morning - because Horsham is God-awful for clothes shopping and Crawley is just God-awful all round.

I have a very on/off relationship with fashion - like most people, I should imagine. I can happily flick through Glamour/Elle/InStyle but when push comes to shove, I don't actually give a shit about trends. There are some things I totally object to, sartorially speaking - why would anyone wear a tracksuit outside of their house/a sporting facility? Why, also, would anyone let their Uggs meet any flooring surface that wasn't their bedroom carpet? Leather-look leggings - just why?

On the whole, I hate to look like I'm trying too hard. Indeed, I have to make a hell of amount of effort to look like I've made any effort whatsoever. I'm just not a fan of "too much". Big hair, dramatic eye make-up, statement jewellery, dresses that are in themselves a talking point - all things that look cool on other people. Just not me. I am not, nor will I ever be, one of those effortlessly elegant women, who always look perfectly put together, even when buying mangoes in Sainsbury's on a Sunday morning.

And traditionally, womankind as a whole is meant to love shopping. We're meant to be good at it, we're meant to be able to do it for hours. But I'm sure I can't be the only one who finds it's a lot like having your photo taken with Keira Knightley - you're never going to come out of it feeling anything but momentarily suicidal. Maybe I'm just getting hugely fussy in my old age, but yesterday's shopping attempt was about the opposite of successful. I just couldn't find anything that made me go, "that is so nice, I need it. Now." And that wasn't for want of trying. I even went into shops I normally won't go near, like Next (which is either too "officey" or too "harrassed-mother-on-the-school-run").

My thought processes went something like this:

Topshop - you have to be a borderline-anorexic sixth-former to suit 97% of their stock. I tried on a big slouchy cardigan, that was quite nice, but they didn't have my size.

Gap & Fat Face - nice enough stuff, but mainly casual. I need stuff that can do office and pub. One of my best friend keeps extolling the virtues of Gap-owned Banana Republic to me, but I think my nearest one would be in London.

Zara - I like the idea of Zara. I go in, and think, yeah, this is very me. Do I ever buy anything in there? No. Also, all the UK branches I've ever been to have been untidy, and I'm a neat freak, so this is a problem.

H & M - often good for basics like t-shirts, everything else is quite hit-and-miss, and I'm never totally convinced by the quality. That said, I have a couple of H & M tops that I wear a lot and they still look perfectly acceptable. If you ignore the odd hole and missing button and fraying seam... what? I wear my clothes hard.

River Island - Topshop on crack. Oddly, their jeans are great.

Oasis - very pretty and girlie, but edging towards too girlie.

Miss Selfridge - again, their jeans are pretty good. They have the occasional nice thing.

Primark - absolutely not. (Yes, I'm a snob, I know.)

New Look - good for inexpensive ballet flats. Everything else, nah, not really.

Dorothy Perkins - the rare flash of "that's actually really nice" - I have a stripey dress that is incredibly flattering and comfortable but also looks like I've made some sort of effort. But it's not often DP excites me that much.

Jack Wills - the only problem I have with their stuff is the price. The clothes are gorgeous.

Hollister/Abercrombie - see Topshop.

Argh. Who does a girl have to sleep with to get some decent clothes on the high street? (Probably a rich man, come to think of it. And then I could avoid the high street altogether. Wahey, a plan!)

Do guys have this problem? Is it just me being monstrously fussy? There is a chance I was slightly hormonal yesterday - I did text the Boy from a fitting room because I was having a hissy fit about feeling fat. Which only opens you up to ridicule when you're mostly a size 8. I didn't feel like a size 8, OK? There's a reason the most fun I had all day was in Boots. You don't have to be thin for make-up.

Right, that is more than enough from me. I was going to put this song up anyway, because it's bloody good - but the first verse is oddly apt. And she's just too talented.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The kids are alright...

I know I said I wouldn't do much topical stuff, as I'm not very good at 'The News'. I'm really only interested in the politicians that are prioritising the further education and [un]employment issues of young people, and as that's basically none of them, it makes things very simple for me. This story, however, had "oh, for fuck's sake!" writtten all over it, so as the Handbook for the Overly-Opinionated Half-Hearted Hipster dictates, I thought I'd blog it out.

Paris Brown and I would never be BFFs, this much I know. She might be into the writings of Caitlin Moran and Grace Dent, girl singers with guitars, quirky little Anglo/Irish indie films and incredibly cerebral conversations about superpowers, but I'm not banking on it. (I sound almost quite cool when I describe myself like that; fear not, I also like Made in Chelsea and a dash of Paloma Faith - I'm not infallible.) But I've felt quite sorry for her over the last few days, as she's been dragged into the merciless sights of the British media and been forced to justify daring to behave like a teenager. A stupid one, yes, but good grief, when's the last time you saw a teenager and thought, "how wonderfully wise and well-informed you are"?

I believe I'm right in thinking it was the Daily Mail or the Mail on Sunday that started this shitstorm-in-a-teacup. If various current affairs blogs are to be believed, a journalist at the Mail on Sunday invited Brown to an interview and used that as an "in" to write a piece detailing her Twitter activities. And sure, she's said a number of things on there that are at best unwise and at worst offensive. And being young does not completely excuse her. But, aged 14-17, it is sometimes hard to see that a lot of what you say and do at this time will affect you later on. It's also a bit of a bitch that when you are a teenager - at an age where you should be free to be a little reckless and experimental - you are asked to make decisions that you're told will affect the rest of your life. There is also evidence to suggest that as well as all the physical shit you go through during your teen years, your brain goes through a bit of a re-wire too. But you're going to have to Google that one, as I can assure you, I am no scientist. In short, I don't think it's too much to suggest that a little bit of slack should be cut. A smidgeon of consideration should be had. I don't even think she put herself up for the job of Youth Crime Commissioner; I think someone suggested it to her.

The point is, judging by this girl's tweets - and indeed, her eyebrows - she doesn't seem like the brightest badge on the cardigan. I also find it hard to believe there are no other smart young people with an interest in youth crime (and a little more internet savvy) in Kent who would qualify for the job, but that's a complete aside. However (and it's a massive "however"), it just seems odd - no, ridiculous, actually - that a young woman is hounded out of a job because of things she wrote on one social-networking site long before she actually took up said post. And really, if we're going to start chasing people out of jobs because of things dredged up by the Daily Mail, then God help us. We're all fucked. There's also some irony in the Daily Mail getting outraged about a teenager's allegedly "racist" comments. Really, DM? Really?

There's no doubt that people should be careful about what they say online, because it can and will be held against you, should the circumstances arise. But that's just basic manners - you should be careful what you say in life. And not everyone has good manners 100% of the time. We wouldn't be human if we did. The internet is a brilliant, buzzing thing - but it's also a record of our stupidity. Once you write something on the internet, it's there permanently and it's find-able. I would cringe so hard I'd headbutt my desk if presented with my Facebook statuses aged 17-19. Hell, let me loose on red wine and then Twitter and it's a similar story now. Even here, on this little blog that averages maybe tens of hits, as opposed to hundreds or thousands, I have to rein it in sometimes, and remind myself that when I hit "publish", what I've said is out there for good, contributing to whatever idea of "me" any readers might have. I've had one particular post in drafts for months now which details the rather dramatic and upsetting demise of a friendship, but I'm not sure when, or even if, I am going to make it public. I don't mention names in it, and nor would I, but because I wrote it when the situation was fresh in my head and I was really bloody mad, it's a heartfelt piece of writing that I'm actually quite proud of (it's amazing how concise I am when I'm angry). I don't know if that post will ever see the light of day, because the last thing I want is to re-hash things from which people have now moved on.

The sad thing is, by Miss Brown deciding not to continue in her role as youth crime commissioner, she's unwittingly handed the Press - or a certain sector of it - more ammunition. They'll rub their hands with glee, and say that young people have no staying power or resilience, and that they knew it was a stupid idea anyway, giving teenagers adult responsibilities. I wish she'd decided to weather the storm, tough though that would have been, and then gone on to throw herself into that job, and make the role a worthwhile and valuable one. That would have made them eat their words.

On the subject of teenagers, have something gloriously bratty with a sing-along chorus. It's been getting me through my commute this week.

I am obsessed with this band at the moment - largely because I saw them live last week, and they were brilliant. Like the other song here, the chorus of this song is nothing short of glorious.