Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Waxing lyrical

When I lived in Hong Kong I had a long-standing relationship with a woman from Beijing called Sarah, to whom I entirely handed all responsibility for care of my eyebrows, as well as the waxing of my legs (if you are ill-acquainted with what this actually means, I won't offend delicate sensibilities by describing it; just imagine the sounds RRRIIPPPP and OUCH). I went to see Sarah once every six weeks or so over a period of 5 or 6 years; she came via recommendation from a colleague and was in turn recommended by me to countless friends. She worked in a rather odd beauty salon on the 9th floor of a commercial block in Central that had seen better days.

Considering its glossy rivals the salon itself was less than glamorous, with browning wallpaper decorated with random swatches of pot pourri, dinky ornaments strewn around the place and ancient peeling posters advertising long-unfashionable beauty treatments, owned by an eccentric  woman who took an uncomfortably prurient interest in the treatments, often barging in to talk to and inspect the work of her staff when, by complete coincidence, their clients were in various states of undress and/or arrayed in the awkward postures required by the waxing process. The unprepossessing surroundings and nosy owner were the price to be paid for being looked after by Sarah, a lovely, happy person who always seemed pleased to see her clients and chattered away in an endearing mix of English and Chinese. We developed a friendship and it was always a pleasure to see her. I used to advise her that if she collected all the hair she’d taken from my body over the years (and I probably went to see her at least 40 times), she would be able to make herself a little coat with it. (This is a truly revolting image, I know, but how we laughed!)

Since moving to Australia I’ve made some half-hearted attempts to find myself a new Sarah. It is a surprisingly intimate relationship however, and I’ve never felt comfortable with anyone else. Care of my eyebrows and the rest has, unfortunately, now passed to me and I look infinitely more shabby as a result.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Vicious cycle

There are some things you have to give up when you become a commuter cyclist, namely:

  •  Your dignity (especially when it rains): the words “high vis” and “elegance” would rarely appear in the same sentence;
  •  Any faith in the ability of car drivers to
a)      Drive;
b)      See anyone on a bike;
c)       Notice bike lanes; or
d)      Act sensibly when it’s raining.

Commuter drivers have already made a selfish decision, which is to take up space on the roads into the city in their cars with (in the overwhelming majority) only one person inside. Sitting inside their cars with the music on, in their own little self-satisfied micro-world, impatient at the lights, they seem to feel they are justified in taking any tiny shortcut that will cut down the length of their journey at the expense of others. This applies particularly to cyclists, against whom there seems to have been an increase in aggression, for which Australian shock jocks like Alan Jones must take some of the responsibility; but also, in their aggressive individualism, no driver likes to see cyclists sailing past them, which unfortunately is the norm in every city centre. My response to this is: every cyclist is one less car on the road, making your journey to work that bit shorter than if I had chosen to drive my car. You aren’t “stuck in traffic”, you ARE traffic. You are driving a vehicle that can kill me. And would you like to explain to my two year old son that you knocked me off my bike because you wanted to shave another two minutes off your journey? I’m looking at you, yes you, eg the driver of the car with the sticker on the back saying “DRIVE IT LIKE YOU STOLE IT”, who this morning went illegally into the left hand lane ahead of me and sat waiting at the lights, blocking the cycle path, in order to get an advantage over fellow drivers at the lights by accelerating past them into the micro-feeder lane (which certainly is not there for that purpose) at the other side of the junction. I hope you got the shock of your life when your car fishtailed alarmingly on the wet road. The cyclist in front of me, just a metre or so away from being hit, certainly did.
3.      
  • Sadly, some faith in fellow cyclists. I have to bite back a comment (“this is why drivers don’t respect us!”) when I see cyclists do all the things I know drivers hate:
a)      Riding through red lights;
b)      Riding on pavements; and generally
c)       Ignoring the road rules.

The fact is, although arguably drivers are collectively unreasonable anyway, and it makes no difference whether you follow the rules or disobey them, I see every cyclist who flouts the road rules as someone who is needlessly angering drivers and ultimately putting my life in danger. For the record, I always follow stop signs. I always try to use hand signals to show my intentions clearly in advance. I rarely go on the pavement unless I’m accompanying a child under 7 – and yes, it is legal then. I wear a bright white jacket and put my lights on. Yet I’ve been in situations where I’ve been beeped at by impatient drivers (I’m in front of you, wait to see what I am doing as you would with any vehicle) – or, frequently, almost side-swiped by someone coming past way too close (as Ken Lay says: if you can’t leave a metre between us, you are too close to pass).

Having said all that, my journey to work is mostly a delight: 30 minutes of cycling door to door, along a dedicated cycle path by the railway for almost half the journey, and then through Royal Park on a  wide road with plenty of space for everyone and usually enough time to get up some speed and freewheel down the road enjoying the green-ness of everything. Towards the end I have a few slightly hairy minutes at Flemington Roundabout (the bike lane goes one way and I want to go another) and some close encounters until I get to my office at the corner of Queen Street and Little Bourke; but it’s generally been a pretty good experience and to my knowledge it’s the fastest method door to door. If I’ve learned that the majority of drivers are fools, and many cyclists are too, these are things that might save my life one day.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Flat out

In the mid-1990s I was working at a small Scottish legal publisher in Edinburgh and struck up a friendship with the PA to the Managing Director. L was smart, funny and irreverent and we became close; I tried as much as I could to support her as she went through a few major life changes: buying a flat in Bruntsfield, splitting up with her boyfriend who had moved out, and finally losing her job with the company I worked for.

I was going through a few life changes of my own at the time: I’d split with my boyfriend of four years, G, which entailed moving out of the flat we shared, a very much un-mutual decision; I was trying to negotiate a move to the London office; a new relationship was in its very early stages. My life was in flux, too. L needed help with her mortgage and had room in her flat; somehow a plan quickly coalesced and I moved in with her.

The whole experience was an utter disaster. Perhaps understandably, L was a very angry and unhappy person at that time: she was upset about being made redundant, heartbroken about her boyfriend, anxious about finding a new job and worried about money. She made a disastrous pass at my ex when he came round to see me and I wasn’t there; he ended up effectively being blackmailed into building a platform bed for her (a baffling sequence of events that I never quite got to the bottom of). She railed against the company and her former boss. She hated having to have someone living with her under those circumstances, and I was about the worst person possible: I had split with G but there was a new man in the picture, who was phoning me late at night and sending me flowers, and I still worked for the company she’d just left; I was happy about my new relationship, had plans for the future, and was positive about getting there. The atmosphere within her flat was poisonous and I couldn’t wait to leave. I was stuck with paying the mortgage for my old flat with no rent coming in and beholden to decision making in London about when I could move to that office and what I would be doing there, so I had to stick it out. 

Weirdly, every time L and I bumped into each other outside that flat – even just down in the street – we got along as well as ever and she was a totally different person. Within the walls of her own flat, however, she was sullen, hostile, and aggressive.

We avoided each other as much as we could, but three particularly terrible episodes stick in my mind from my time there (a matter of months, perhaps four months at the most, but otherwise an eternity).

  • ·         Cats’ feet are so delicate. I broke a wine glass in L’s kitchen (plus ça change) and cleaned up as best as I could. Not well enough for L, however, who left me the following note next to a tissue containing a few remaining fragments she had managed to scrape up: “I found these. Be more careful, the cat’s feet are delicate and you could have seriously hurt her”.
  • ·         Spanish boys are all the same. In September I went on a wonderful holiday to Barcelona and Madrid with my then-best friend Rachael (about whom more some other time). My friend Campbell put me in touch with his sister Jill, who lives in Madrid, and we spent two weeks being escorted around by her friends; we stayed in Pablo’s flat in the centre of Madrid and Jill, Pablo and Jaime drove us on excursions to hidden restaurants and took us to their favourite tapas places. We gazed at Picassos and Miros in the Reina Sofia Museum and attended a packed house party where we learned to cook tortillas and got gloriously drunk on Cava. In Barcelona, we sat on the beach in the sunshine and ate morcilla and blue cheese rolls from a little hole in the wall cafe. Pablo gave us the keys to his flat as a parting gift. It was a perfect holiday. Back in rainy Edinburgh, when Lucy asked me how the holiday had been, I told her how kind the Spanish boys were to us and what a brilliant time we’d had. Her response? “Oh they probably just wanted to shag you. I lived in Spain, Spanish boys are all the same”. I went to work and cried.
  • ·         I’ve hurt my back. In an effort to ingratiate myself with L, I decided to help her get rid of the enormous, mouldering pile of old newspapers that sat in her hallway (at least 15 heavy bundles, most long pre-dating me). I had hired a terrible little car for J’s visit from London and after he had gone home, I humped every one of those bundles of newspapers from her second floor flat to the ground floor, into the back of the little car and off to the recycling centre at Bristo Square. L was at home while I was doing it and I’d thought we could do it together, perhaps even bonding over the task. But instead, she watched me coolly as I huffed and puffed and remarked “Oh, I would help, but I’ve hurt my back”. Did she thank me for completing this Herculean task? Did she hell.

Not long afterwards I got confirmation of my move to London. I left L’s flat at the earliest opportunity, departing for London and then Hong Kong. I’m still in touch with everyone else in this story bar one; but from that day to this I have never spoken to L again. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Laughter and forgetting

I met Ali when we were both 13, when I started at a new school. She was in my class and stood out almost straight away (in my memory she has different coloured eyes, like David Bowie, but that might be a flawed recollection). I always knew Ali was a good person, although she had a temper and an an unpredictable wildness about her too: shouting at Gay Ray Jackson, the art teacher, refusing to take off her parka indoors, cheeking him relentlessly until he lost his silly temper, silly man, and stupidly dragged her across the changing room and she fell and hit her head (I smugly advised him "Physical violence is not the answer", for which intolerable insubordination I was damn lucky not to be sideswiped myself). Ali had a gleam in her eye, and was the first girl to wear stretch jeans when they became fashionable in the early 1980s: she looked better in them than anyone. I thought she was beautiful, skinny but strong, and she never seemed to care what anyone thought. She wanted to know what other people were thinking, and she didn't really see barriers the way other people did; she was friendly towards me, although when I was excommunicated on a school trip to Switzerland by the two most popular girls in the class, the wave was too powerful to stand against and she was washed along like everyone else: she was a survivor as well. Never a great and steadfast friend of mine, then, but someone who I admired and who was funny and kind and probably, underneath, as confused as I was.

Ali left school earlier than the rest of us, because she could, and so she did, and drifted to the Highlands where she ended up marrying one of my brother's friends - someone who I still think of as a child, with no more recent memories to overlay the image; so perhaps that's why I find it almost impossible to visualise Ali's life during the 25 years since I last saw her, although I know she had one, with a marriage and children and a social circle.

My sister emailed me this morning to tell me that Ali died. I don't know how or why yet, but sitting at my desk at work properly thinking about her for the first time in years, and visualising her eyes and her smile and her slightly unkempt curls, I felt that sharp stab of loss which was, perhaps solipsistically, as much about me and my memories of the past as it was about her: the past remaking itself into a place where Ali will always be just as I remember her, beautiful and laughing.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Hearts and minds

When I first saw a picture from Marwencol I was so struck by it that I used it in a post. Incredibly, despite the attention it received and the awards it garnered, it never seemed to be available to rent or buy and it took almost three years since that post before it was available to download via Apple TV. We watched it last night and it was just as amazing as I had expected: a deeply personal and moving documentary about how someone recovering from severe brain injuries after a beating outside a pub creates his own little world based on 1940s Belgium, populates it with dolls and takes wonderful, naturalistic photographs of hundreds of little storylines he enacts with them., often apparently as a way of sublimating his feelings of anger, despair or lack of control. There is no ironic distance in his photographs: he is part of the world he has created and it is part of his. As a result the photographs he takes are like nothing else you've ever seen and a slightly sad story becomes meaningful and even beautiful.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

In paradisum

It's a truism I'm sure, but since having a baby and because my child is a boy, I have become much more sensitive to depictions of terrible things happening to boys - so much so that, although I used to love horror movies, D and I couldn't bring ourselves to watch the whole of the recent horror movie Sinister (and not, or not just, because Ethan Hawke's character is profoundly dislikeable), nor the documentary Paradise Lost (about a terrible miscarriage of justice following child murders in West Memphis), just because children were depicted as being hurt (in the latter case, of course, they actually were hurt). My sister had mentioned this in respect of her two boys and I think I was sceptical; no more though, and I am officially a marshmallow when it comes to this kind of pain.

This weakness, if that is what it is, also holds true when it comes to things of beauty, and the sound of the voices of boy choristers now not only brings intimations of my childhood, and the forever lovely memory of my mum in the kitchen making mince pies on Christmas Eve with the pristine sweet sound of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on the radio: it also makes me think of the innocence of my beautiful boy. This movement from Fauré's Requiem is so pure it brings tears to the eyes.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Portrait of the artist

Living, as I do, a very long way away from my family, I've become quite reliant on Skype to see them - Max has been getting to know his maternal grandparents mainly in pixels. My dad is something of a latecomer but has embraced it enthusiastically; so much so that he felt emboldened to remark to me recently "You look like you've been eating too many chocolates". It's purely by way of revenge for this, and for no other reason, that I now reveal that I was puzzled by his Skype photo which showed him from the side, looking into the near distance, and not particularly heroically.

When I asked him about it he said "Oh, it said 'put your profile photo here'". So he dutifully (and presumably with some difficulty) snapped a photo of his own profile and uploaded it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Blackberry Picking


Late August, given heavy rain and sun
for a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
sent us out with milk-cans, pea-tins, jam-pots
where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
we trekked and picked until the cans were full,
until the tinkling bottom had been covered
with green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
the fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
that all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

Seamus Heaney, 1939-2013

Monday, August 12, 2013

As you lay in awe on the bedroom floor

I was very keen on the Smiths in my teens and bought every record. I plastered pictures of Morrissey, carefully cut from the NME, all over my bedroom door. I saw them live at the Edinburgh Playhouse in 1986, just before The Queen is Dead came out, and on the day of its release I went to Virgin in Princes Street, Edinburgh, to buy it. It had just been delivered and my copy came straight from the box – had it been unpacked they would have noticed it and claimed it for themselves because, as I realised when I examined it in Princes Street Gardens, heart bursting with excitement, my copy had been signed by Morrissey in gold pen. It’s hard to describe the elation I felt and this was my most treasured possession for a long time.

I left the UK for Hong Kong in January 2003 leaving behind the house I shared with J, which even then I instinctively knew I’d never enter again, although there was no set date on Hong Kong and I possibly thought we’d be back in the UK after two or three years. In the attic of that house in North London went all the books, clothes, records, personal papers and photographs for which there was no room in our two suitcases. From time to time I’d wake in the night and feel anxious about what was in the attic. What if the tenants raked through it? What if the house burnt down? 

But ultimately I clearly didn’t care enough about any of it to go back to retrieve it on any of my visits to the UK and so there it all lay for nearly 10 years until the house was sold last year. I asked the estate agent to arrange for the stuff in the attic to be cleared out and put in storage – something that was surprisingly difficult to do from so many miles away since they wanted me to be there in person to sign for the storage unit. The man with a van the estate agent found said there was “a lot of rubbish” in the attic so I blithely gave him carte blanche to throw out anything that met that description.  

What I should have done was specify what I did want to keep; because in a  small cold storage unit in West London, courtesy of the kind and wholly last-minute emergency assistance of my former father-in-law, I found a lot of books I will never read, some I will, and very little else. Amongst the things that I know I’ll miss: hundreds of photographs from the days before digital; an old jewellery box full of adolescent treasures; all of my teenage diaries (read ‘em and weep!); a first pressing of Tigermilk by Belle & Sebastian; and my signed copy of The Queen is Dead. And it’s nobody’s fault but my own.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

In a station of the metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
— Ezra Pound



Above: incredible art/architecture at Solne Metro Station, Stockholm. Picture from The Cool Hunter; follow the link for more.

Barriers to entry

I've always been at best careless, at worst clumsy; since I got pregnant and had Max if anything it's become more pronounced, not least in public (which at least serves the purpose of allowing random drunken strangers to go on about their drunken business feeling satisfied they've helped another human being in need).

We've put a barrier up between the kitchen and the rest of the house, consisting of one side of Max's now-obsolete wooden play pen (gone are the days when he would stay in it). The kitchen is home to all the really interesting/dangerous stuff that he'd love to get his hands on: drawers full of knives, cupboards full of bleach, the bin, the oven, the dishwasher - a cornucopia of delights for small hands. Unfortunately for me, the barrier is just a little bit too high to step over with ease, and I've now had two spectacular falls, in both instances caused by (1) laziness and (2) wearing the lovely furry baffies (slippers) my sister gave me for Christmas some years ago. Cosy though they are, as slippers, they live up to their name and both times the same disaster unfolded in slo-mo before D's helpless sight: I stepped carelessly across the barrier to the kitchen, not troubling to lift my back leg high enough to clear the barrier, the back slipper slipped, and I hit the ground  full length and so rapidly I didn't even have time to outstretch a hand to break my fall.

To D this must have seemed like a combination of high slapstick and endlessly unspooling horror, particularly because both times I lay on the floor humiliated, winded and in some small amount of pain while Max, shocked by the crash and bang and the fact that Mummy was now horizontal on the floor moaning unpleasantly, screamed in fright and stood on the other side of the barrier anxiously.

The second time, my flailing foot caught one of the slats and knocked it clean out and the bowl of sardine surprise I was carrying (after Max had refused to eat most of it) fell on the floor first, in exactly the place my face then subsequently landed.

I now have a large purple bruise on my thigh, about the size of a cauliflower and not dissimilar in texture, and a thoroughly chastened attitude.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Snow

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Louis MacNeice, 1907 – 1963 

Sunday, April 07, 2013

It's a shame about Ray

For any fan of Scottish music in the last few years of the twentieth century, a job at the recording studio in my village would have been a dream. Who wouldn't have wanted to be sitting in reception as Edwyn Collins walked by on the way to record "In a Nutshell"? It could just as well have been The Krankies on their way to "lay down" their immortal (and unofficial, by which I mean there is no trace of it in the official archives and no other mention of it anywhere on the internet) 1982 Scotland World Cup song ("We're goin' tae Spain/Oan an aery-plane"), but the indie glamour was still all there.

Because it's a tiny village I don't think the the owner realised that there were any hiring choices, and he took on a village boy - let's call him Raymond - who was less than enthused by his new career and behaved with slovenly disregard for his employer. Efforts to get him to be politer, and to do, er, his job, were meant with mutinous silence. Eventually he was given notice and told he was not working out in the role. After a silence, he responded slowly: "Aye. It cuts both ways, ken."

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Words to live by

“I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."
Roger Ebert 1942 - 2013

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The moment you know



Even though not every song on the new album really works. Even though the "idea" for the cover could have been envisioned - and then rejected - by a 10 year old and should have stayed on the drawing board. Because it was a surprise. Because I've always loved David Bowie's music, in every phase of my life. Because his German accent is rubbish. Because he makes the banal sound profound. Because this is quite beautiful and perfectly sad.