Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Stop making scents

One other unexpected side-effect of pregnancy has been the development of a superhuman sense of smell, like a dog. I've always had a good sense of smell, but now it has become preternaturally acute, to the extent that I could tell without turning my head that the man sitting next to me on a recent early flight to Canberra had not brushed his teeth that morning; that the person behind me on the train home from work had just had a cigarette; that the woman who got into the lift in my office building at the end of the week had applied Chanel Allure that day; that one of my colleagues had just enjoyed a cup of coffee; and that D had been cutting coriander from the garden as soon as he entered the room.

As with my other obscure skills (I can tell straight away if someone has had their hair cut; I'm very good at writing questions for pub quizzes; I can recognise an East Kilbride accent; and I can quote entire stanzas of poetry I learned at school as well as fragments of quotes from all over the place), one day I'll be able to make money out of this.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sodade



From Miss Perfumado by Cape Verdean singer Cesária Évora (27 August 1941 – 17 December 2011).

Sodade

Quem mostra' bo
Ess caminho longe?
Quem mostra' bo
Ess caminho longe?
Ess caminho
Pa Sao Tomé

Sodade sodade
Sodade
Dess nha terra Sao Nicolau

Si bo 'screve' me
'M ta 'screve be
Si bo 'squece me
'M ta 'squece be
Até dia
Qui bo voltà

Sodade sodade
Sodade
Dess nha terra Sao Nicolau

Longing

Who will show you
this distant way?
Who will show you
this distant way?
This way
to Sao Tomé?

The longing, the longing
The longing
For this land of mine, Sao Nicolau

If you write me a letter
I will write you back
If you forget me
I will forget you

Until the day
You come back

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The kick inside

There are a few side-effects of pregnancy which I didn't know about before it happened to me:
  1. Insomnia.  Sleep's never really been a problem for me before, even during particularly stressful periods at work, but since I've been pregnant, sleep can be elusive: often I'm awake at 3am, thoughts going round my head as insistently as a headache, with no apparent end in sight. (It's the hormones.)
  2. Kicking. Ah, what a delicate image! It's like butterflies, they (the books) said. No, it's not; it's like having a trampoline inside you with someone periodically jumping on it. Much as I enjoy the signs that he (for it's a boy) is active, and the sheer weirdness of the sensation, let's not be sentimental about it.
  3. Patronising language. According to medical staff (with a few rare exceptions), all pregnant women are "girls"; all doctors are male, and all nurses and midwives are female. The baby is "baby". Sometimes I have to remind myself it's not the 1950s.
  4. Guilt-trip marketing. It would be possible to spend a quite mind-boggling amount of money on equipment, and boy is there a lot of it. There are entire stores (out-of-town, of course) devoted to every little thing you may possibly need for your child, and a whole lot that you don't. And a lot of the marketing is couched in safety terms. Buy this, or "baby" will suffer!
  5. The demon internet. Not that I didn't already know this, but if you have any concerns about anything medical whatsoever, the last helpful place to look is an internet forum. Here, you will almost certainly discover that whatever you are worried about is decidedly abnormal, and will lead in the most terrible directions, all based on what experts (women who have had a baby themselves) are saying.
  6. Gestational diabetes. After a two hour test which involves drinking a glucose juice so horribly sweet I could feel it stripping my tooth enamel, and three blood tests, I've been diagnosed as a borderline case (my age, 43, being the major contributing factor) and am currently on a military-style regime of blood sugar self-testing and strictly timed, weighed and measured meals. If this fails, it's injecting insulin for me. (It's the hormones.)
Despite all the above, which reads like a numbered whinge, I've had a pretty good pregnancy so far, to the point where, prior to the appearance of no. 6 (diagnosed at 29 weeks), I was feeling almost smug.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Shine on

In summer 1988, at the end of my first year at Glasgow University, my boyfriend at the time, who was a medical student, got me a job at Glasgow Royal Infirmary as a domestic assistant (AKA cleaner). "The Royal" was a forbidding, time-blackened Victorian building between the M8 motorway and Alexandra Parade, complete with turrets and long dusty corridors; through the open windows you could see the beautiful, mysterious Necropolis in the distance and could sometimes hear the faint triumphalist piping sounds of Orange marches in the east end streets. A private company had the contract; the domestics, who were almost all women, had to wear a pale purple A-line uniform with white piping. Many of them were hard-bitten women in their forties who instinctively distrusted outsiders; unfortunately I ticked a lot of the wrong boxes, being a student, "English", studying for a law degree, and taking their jobs; I overheard one younger woman hissing to another "I hate that lassie!" as I left the locker room, and another took great pains to tell me that she couldn't afford Christmas presents for the weans this year. Most of them, though, were decent enough towards me under the circumstances; you'd be assigned to a more experienced domestic on each ward, and though a lot of them would set me to Herculean tasks such as cleaning the metal framework under patients' beds, a job clearly done so rarely that it looked like no one had ever attempted it before, and then sneak off to the "domestic services office" (mop cupboard) to stretch out the windows for an illicit fag, I had fun with some of them too and they taught me a lot.

That summer, I learned how popular Neighbours and Home and Away were: they were shown back to back on the BBC and ITV respectively, at lunchtime and just before dinner, and in every ward, even the terrible sweet-smelling burns ward where there were people in pretty bad shape, those who could walk walked, and those in wheelchairs were wheeled, along to the TV room at the end of the ward to watch every single episode, repeats and all. I enjoyed wheeling around the "maxpax machine" and asking patients if they wanted a cup of tea, coffee, hot chocolate or Bovril (a surprising number opted for the latter). I liked talking to the patients. But most of all I loved the glorious moment of clocking myself off at the end of a shift because I really didn't enjoy the atmosphere of fear and distrust, and in some cases bullying from senior managers, that seemed to be endemic within that company. Domestics were regarded by all other hospital workers as being right at the bottom of the food chain and in many cases treated accordingly. Also, the pay was pretty terrible; small wonder that the domestics seemed unhappy. They were doing a pretty important job, but being screwed by the company that employed them and looked down upon by everyone else.

I was pretty glad when the summer ended and I went back to university; I never worked there again, though they offered me a job the following summer. Some skills have stayed with me from that time, though: I can mop like a professional, make a floor shine with the unwieldiest of buffing machines, and leave a sink as clean as new. I also learned to appreciate the unseen, low paid workers who make things clean for everyone else.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The lotus eaters

Melbourne's apparently known as Bleak City, and it's true, it's been raining incessantly all day: but today there was a little hotspot of bright colours, excitement, pop music and, most importantly, excessive consumption at Melbourne Central Mall, beneath the towering, incongruous edifice of the old lead pipe and shot factory. Yes, the CP Biggest Eater Competition was in town.


First up was a strangely innocent performance by a Chinese girl band who apparently are currently no. 1 in the Chinese pop charts.


But then came the main event. The ravening crowd were expertly whipped into a frenzy by presiding MC Sam, who with pinpoint accuracy described the contest to come as being "the battleground on which God and Lucifer wage war for the souls of men" and, realistically, as being the most democratic of contests. There were amateurs participating, but they were, frankly, amateurs; all eyes were on the professionals.

The wontons themselves looked harmless enough, and tasted pretty good:


But in a competition to eat as many as you can, all notions of these wontons as substance, or as food, must presumably be banished in order to get as many past the tonsils as possible.

All three professionals, with the eventual winner on the far right. 307 wontons down, and make-up still largely intact.

Ain't it hard just to live



Written by Randy Newman in the late 1970s, Baltimore is a definite contender for saddest song ever written. I've never heard Newman's original version, but Nina Simone covered the song for the eponymous 1978 album and her version is sometimes almost unbearable: the word "Baltimore" is a moan and a lament, the other lines infused with world-weary sadness. It's a beautiful song, and the imagery is simple and stark:

Beat-up little seagull
On a marble stair  
Trying to find the ocean  
Looking everywhere

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Computer love

I first played what could be identified as a computer game in the 1980s. It was Pong, which made a distinct "bop" sound when the ball hit the paddle. I was a bit contemptuous of it, but not long after that I played a few dungeons-and-dragons style games, using the C-prompt, where you could choose one of several outcomes. I remember standing helplessly watching someone trying to resolve a problem where the computer wasn't responding, and wondering whether I would ever understand how these things worked.

The first game I got really excited about was Wolfenstein 3D. In the early 1990s I played a lot of Wolfenstein, although the crude graphics had the effect of making me travel sick (run down a corridor, look left, look right, shoot a Nazi guard, go into a room, turn 360°, extract a symbol hidden behind a brick, run down a corridor... I lasted about 5 minutes before I started feeling queasy). My next obsession was Lemmings on an early Apple Mac, followed by SimCity (which is still a pretty damn good game, especially the version where you can make city transport decisions such as deciding where the bus stops go, and building ferry ports and subway systems with real-time data on how many Sims are using the system). After that, I played Shadows of the Empire on the N64: the first truly inspiring game I'd ever experienced (I loved the attention to detail and continuity; the way that, walking along a treacherous cliff-edge path to accomplish one task, I could see the moving parts of the next challenge, already engaging far below; and the experience of running round a junkyard with the droid IG-88 in clattering, menacing pursuit was genuinely terrifying).

I'm still playing, but I'm very particular: despite an early attachment to Wolfenstein, a lot of the first person shooter games never really appealed to me; despite the fact that graphics are a lot more smooth and sophisticated than they were when I first started playing, it's the format most likely to make me feel sick: run down a corridor, look left, look right..., and more than that, unless very well done it can be repetitive and dull. I have an abiding dislike of games set on spaceships, "boss" fights (engaging in pointless battle with a large, relentless foe armed with tentacles/fire/thorns/stingers, who has a tiny Achilles heel that you have to die numerous times to discover), fights with robots, and post-apocalyptic landscapes. I don't like my characters to be as thick as mince, and sadly a lot of them are. My favourite weapon is the sniper rifle, followed closely by the shotgun. I like to be behind my character rather then looking through his/her eyes (third-person shooter) and prefer my opponents to be human, or almost human (I don't mind engaging with the undead). I want a proper story in a believable, if exotic, setting: essentially, Resident Evil and Uncharted are perfect games for me. Both even have credible female characters who aren't afraid to wield a gun and never get their kit off. On that last point, it seems pretty clear that most games are designed for men; games specifically aimed at women have tended to be pretty contemptible (with an emphasis on romance, pets, or shopping). I'm perfectly happy to shoot people (hence the tag for this post, "I know how this makes me look"). I know it's not real. And I don't need to be patronised.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Blistering barnacles!

I have very happy memories of reading Tintin books as a child: oblivious to any anachronistic colonial undertones – which delayed the publication in English of Tintin in the Congo until 1991, and now, on re-reading, seem pretty dated – I took it all at face value and loved the stories. My attitude to Tintin himself was not dissimilar to my feelings about the hero of the other omnipresent cartoon books of my childhood, Asterix: I thought both of them were jumped up little squits, too smug for their own good, and in Tintin's case, accompanied by an insufferable little know-it-all dog which didn't even have a proper bark (wo-ah! wo-ah!).

Never mind Tintin: my favourite character was Captain Haddock, mainly on account of his endlessly inventive vocabulary of curses (of which "Bashi-bazouks!" is one of the finest), but also because of his perpetually dishevelled, frequently bemused demeanour, his constant battle with the temptations of booze, and his underlying nobility and capacity for self-sacrifice (see Tintin in Tibet, a particularly moving Tintin book in which my hero (Haddock) offers to die in order to save Tintin). It's because of apprehension about the potential depiction of Captain Haddock (a Scottish accent? I'm still mulling that one) that I find myself with mixed feelings about seeing the new performance capture film, The Adventures of Tintin (although of course I'm excited: who wouldn't be?). Frankly I couldn't care less what they do with/to Tintin; I never liked him anyway.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Look into my eye

I went to see the film Aliens when it first came out (astonishingly, this was in 1986: this film is now 25 years old). My mum was there, and my brother and sister: probably one of the last times I ever saw a film with all of them. I've always had an abiding love for sci-fi, starting with Silent Running, which made me cry real tears for those lonely little robots when I saw it at my Granny's in the 1970s; and the wonderful, mysterious 2001: A Space Odyssey, from the year I was born, which I first saw on a  family trip to Arran in 1977 just after Elvis died, in a village hall, on an antiquated reel-to-reel projector that required a change of reel half way through, to shouts, jeers and moths fluttering across the screen.

My sister's friend Cathy was obsessed with Aliens, and had gone so far as to tape it off a rented video so she could play it in her bedroom. As a result she knew the dialogue by heart. I'd just started at Glasgow University and was very homesick for Edinburgh (this lasted about 6 months, or until I met a Glasgow boy, and after that Edinburgh was dead to me), so I used to come back on the bus every weekend and arrive on a Friday night at Cathy's flat in Gilmore Place. Sharing a bottle or two of (cheap, nasty) QC sherry, Aliens on the video, me and my sister and Cathy and her sister Jackie would get drunker and drunker until we'd start on the Thunderbird (see the Wikipedia entry for "low-end fortified wine"), maybe going out dancing later; idyllic times.

The pedestal upon which I've placed Aliens is, of course, partly due to those memories; but there are a few more reasons why I'd claim that it's the Best Film Ever Made, against which all other sci-fi films must be compared and, inevitably, found wanting:

  • The heroine, Ripley, is one of the few really excellent female characters ever to appear on film. She's neither sexless nor a sex object (the appalling Sucker Punch (2011)  is the antithesis of this: a borderline prurient film, where even in the midst of a lethal kick, the heroine's skirt is flying up to show her knickers) . She's someone to be taken seriously, she can carry and use a gun, she doesn't lose her head and/or scream witlessly under pressure, but she cares about the people around her. A genuine role model for women.
  • The dialogue is peerless. It manages to be serious and funny and believable all at the same time: I've never seen a better encapsulation of the cameraderie between soldiers. These are people you'd want to spend time with; and you know they'd have your back.
  • It hasn't aged. It's set in the future, of course, but there's nothing quaint about it, no silver foil, or over-the-top outfits, or hamfisted teleportation, or any of the other features of sci-fi that date badly in comparison with reality. Instead, the sets are utilitarian and the clothing is practical and unflashy.
  • The aliens are still genuinely scary. Sci-fi films are often a disappointment from the moment the monster appears; the build-up and anticipation is better than the reality, the creatures are often all too human. H.R. Giger created a completely believable, absolutely non-human and completely other creature. A creature with concentrated acid for blood...
  • It works on many different levels. As a really scary horror film; as a believable vision of the future; as both an indictment and a celebration of human behaviour; as a paean to teamwork; as a thriller; and as an action movie.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sweet potato brownies


Behold, pictured above, the results of my first ever attempt (surprisingly, I know, for one so greedy) at making brownies. They were very, very good. I used 70% cocoa dark chocolate, and was slightly nervous about using sweet potato (this makes them less fatty than standard brownies but still very moist), but it worked a treat. Follow the recipe below - double it! quadruple it! - and eat in huge quantities.

Dan Lepard's Sweet Potato Brownies
100g unsalted butter
200g dark chocolate, chopped
200g baked sweet potato, flesh scooped out
125g brown sugar (any sort)
2 medium eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
100g plain flour
¼ tsp baking powder
100g chopped pecans

Line an 18cm square tray-bake tin (or similar) with non-stick paper or foil, and heat the oven to 180C (160C fan-assisted)/350F/gas mark 4.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, then add 125g of the chocolate and stir until that's melted, too. In a bowl, beat the sweet potato flesh with the brown sugar until almost smooth, then mix in the butter and chocolate. Add the eggs and vanilla, beat until thick, then stir in the flour and baking powder until evenly combined. Fold in the pecans and remaining chocolate, then spoon into the tin, smooth the top and bake for about 20-25 minutes, until barely cooked but still a bit soft under the crust. Leave to cool completely in the tin before slicing.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Charmless garments: 5


Slippery, shiny, unwieldy, and uncomfortable-looking: why in their right mind would anyone wear leather trousers? They cling where it doesn't flatter and flare where they want to. They get, presumably, uncomfortably hot. These, from Alexander McQueen, are just the first and worst that spring all too readily to the Google images list. Self-evidently, no one fatter than a stick would even attempt it, but you, yes you Victoria Beckham, should know better too. Black leather is only the acceptable face of leather trousers: any other colour whatsoever is infinitely worse (red, anyone? Are you in Whitesnake?) Creepy, without even trying to be. Leather in any quantity (ie bigger than bag-size), on a bad day, makes my stomach churn anyway: its smell, its texture, the fact that it's something's skin. Leather trousers? No excuse. I confess I've worn them, but in the form of ribbed, protective and padded motorbike pants. I looked, from every angle, like a rhino.

And incidentally, down with pleather: it's the equivalent of vegetarian bacon. Except that at least the bacon this travesty is modelled on looks good to start with.


Saturday, September 10, 2011

A shot at redemption

Stelios (September 10, 2011). Reproduced by kind permission of, and © Shot By Shooter 2011

I've known D since I was at school. He was always the coolest person I knew. He was the year above me at Glasgow University, during which time I really got to know him; he always had great taste in music and a sharp sense of style. He lived in Milan for a while and then London; we shared a flat for a while. I went to his first exhibition of photographs in Hoxton: supermodels, popstars, catwalk waifs. These days he takes street portraits. When I started my street fashion blog Sydney Spy, it was inspired by D's incredible photography. His blog, Shot by Shooter, is so far above the rest, including the over-rated The Sartorialist (the man takes a lovely photo, but often seems to lack any connection with his subjects and all too often seems fixated on superskinny fashion victims). D's photographs, on the other hand, reveal so much about their subject, with the eyes often almost inadvertently seeming to open up a plethora of questions and answers, that sometimes it's almost hard to look. D chooses his backdrops carefully and sequences of photos taken over several days can refer wittily to each other: the most recent sequence has yellow as its theme, whether subtly picked out in Felix's dress or Eric's scarf, or foreground, background and centre stage in Kate's case. D's use of light and shadow is so subtle that it's clear just by the texture whether it's summer or winter.

Over 250 people follow Shot by Shooter, but rarely does anyone comment: I think this is because D's photographs are so peerless, there's nothing more to be said.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Bicycle races

I've been living in Melbourne for nearly three months. Notwithstanding that it's been rated as the most desirable city on earth by The Economist, I must confess that its charms have so far eluded me in comparison to Sydney. Perhaps it's because it feels like a small town masquerading as a big one; perhaps I just haven't given it a chance (and the cold of winter, which is only just beginning to ease, made a big difference to my admittedly petulant sense of aggrieved injustice regarding the place where I currently have to live) - and there's no doubt it looks and feels like a much better place when the sun shines.

One area where Melbourne does outshine Sydney is in the provision and ubiquity of bicycle lanes. The city and inner city are all relatively flat, roads are generously proportioned and laid out in a grid system, and as a result there are a plethora of cycle lanes which get a lot of use every day.

Alongside the light railway line in my suburb (Brunswick) there's a cycle path that runs pretty much all the way into the city. Every morning it's thronging with cyclists, some racing the train to take advantage of green lights at the crossings, which close for the train to pass. There are scores of cool kids in hun helmets (which I believe are more formally known as BMX helmets, and are a far cry from the plastic deformity I have to wear on my head, which is so large it makes me look as though I'm storing some form of foldout tent inside it), and my favourite sight, which is that of two or even three kids packed into a little wooden frontloading cart, speeding along in fine style with a puffing parent behind them, hard at work at the pedals while they sit there, content to be borne along like little nobles. What a great invention! Is it even legal?

Friday, August 12, 2011

In Memory of W. B. Yeats

He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

II

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;
Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

W.H. Auden

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Tears dry on their own

I've never really liked the use of "RIP", containing as it does a hint of mawkishness as well as delusion (the notion that the dead are somehow "resting", with the implication, presumably unintended, that they will also awaken at some uncertain hour). No offence, but there's a whole heap of well-intentioned but nonetheless hopelessly trite remarks that people are prone to use when someone's died: "goodnight" (so will there be a morning?), or even more mawkishly "night night", "sleep well", "rest well", "with the angels" (or, as a Youtube commenter on Amy Winehouse insisted, "with the angles", which is certainly a more interesting take on the situation).

When Princess Diana died, I was working in London and was drawn into an argument with a colleague, Emily (AKA "Enemy", but not to her face). I pointed out, wholly reasonably I thought, that up until the moment when the news of her death became public Princess Diana had widely been regarded, if she was considered at all, as at best an expensively-clad irrelevance and tabloid habituée, and at worst a parasitic waste of space. My forthrightness was foolish, of course, implying that I was contemptuous of anyone who'd buy into, or participate in, the ridiculous cascade of fawning coverage and the awful public displays of "grief" in honour of someone so hopelessly compromised. "Enemy" was terribly upset and angry, for she had been been part of the sleepwalking thousands wasting fresh flowers by leaving them in the park near Buckingham Palace as they "paid their respects". Things were never the same again after that, and I sat opposite her for another year having burned my bridges entirely.

I'm not implying there's any correlation between Amy and Diana, although I suspect the garage forecourts of Camden will be similarly denuded of cheap flowers today; in fact it is a source of genuine regret to me that Amy has died. I just find the popular consensus and public response to be excessive for what is a personal tragedy, which has happened to someone most of us didn't know and now never will.

A shadow covers me



Amy Winehouse, 14 September 1983 - 23 July 2011

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Now that's really something

I was lying awake this morning thinking about Edinburgh and about how certain streets and places connect directly to memories from my late teens and early twenties. The particular street I was thinking of is in the west end of Edinburgh, and connects Haymarket to Fountainbridge.

  • A family from a "community" near Ullapool (in the far north west of Scotland), whose two red-headed sons went to my school, had a flat in the street. (The first time I ever saw the older son, the one who was in my class, he was opening the car door outside the school as we drew up behind - he then bolted away down the street in the opposite direction, which I would also have been doing if I'd had the guts. For both of us, it should have been our first day at that school; it ended up just being mine because, as we were solemnly informed, he had "school phobia"; he didn't appear for another few weeks.) I was a bit intimidated by their flat: the parents rarely seemed to be there, and it was known as a drug hangout and a place to go after the pubs closed. My brother was friends with the younger son and in my prejudiced assessment, if he was drinking hard liquor at the age of 13, it was because he used to go that flat.
  • Me and my friends used to go a rockabilly nightclub (believe it or not such things were very trendy in the late 80s)  in Morrison Street, in the basement of the now long-gone White Swan pub, called "The Lazy H"; there, Edinburgh hipsters kicked the night away to an eclectic mix of "The House Of Bamboo", "At the Hop", and northern soul scene favourites like "Cross the Tracks". To get home from the White Swan, we'd walk along the street in the early hours. 
  • There, after a night dancing  at the Lazy H, I stood in a doorway talking to a friend and watched my much-lamented ex-boyfriend's brother, David (a dark-haired, good looking, insouciant character who first put the idea into my head of studying law; he was a law student at Aberdeen and it seemed very glamorous. Needless to say, when I actually went to Aberdeen, the scales fell away), walking along the street hand in hand with his new girlfriend, a very attractive girl called Louise, who always makes me think of this song. Louise had ringlets, but it seemed to work; she looked like Lisa Bonet. I was madly jealous of her, because she seemed to have everything.
  • When I started my job as a legal editor in 1993, I soon got terrible shoulder and back pain from poor posture while editing (this was in the days before computers, so I was sitting at a desk looking down). I went to a chiropractor and he cracked me around: the pain went immediately, in a rush of relief so powerful that it was almost like taking a drug. His clinic was in the same street. I enjoyed it so much that despite the cost I went back for a second session; he gently told me I didn't need to come back for a third. Not all chiropractors are charlatans.
  • My sister and I went for dinner with a friend of hers who had a flat there. It was in the days when everyone had just discovered woks and lots of people had one, but few people knew how to use them properly (soggy soy broccoli anyone?). My sister's friend had made a stir-fry with ginger, but had sliced the ginger into large chunks. I bit enthusiastically into a piece, thinking it was a nice juicy bit of chicken. This must surely equate to the moment (happily, not on the same evening)when my sister ate a piece of chalk that was nestling in a bowl of peanuts.
  • Me and my sister saw Edwyn Collins there, at Marcos Leisure Centre, in the early 1990s. He wore a checked "western" shirt with silver clips and (I could have sworn) a bolo tie, sat on a stool and played acoustic guitar to a hushed audience of devotees. To my sister's disappointment, he didn't play "The Coffee Table Song" (if you don't follow any other link, follow this one). I was hoping to see someone there who also (as a pseudonym, as it turned out) called himself Edwyn.



The street, of course, is Grove Street, but amazingly, I had such a mental block about the name that I couldn't remember it till I found it on Google Maps.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Kedgeree

Kedgeree is a wonderful thing: so easy to make, so satisfying, comfort food and exotica all in one fragrant package. My mum used to make it, and it still ranks amongst my all-time favourite dishes. Whenever I think of kedgeree I always have a faint image in the back of my mind of a bejewelled Indian servant offering a platter to a mustachioed colonial type - breakfast in the Raj - although apparently the dish may actually have originated in Scotland; haddock being much more popular in Scotland than cod, it's certainly plausible.

I made this recipe recently and was delighted anew with it (the original recipe, © Readers Digest Association, had tomatoes in it, but that would be non-standard and was thus ignored).

275 g smoked cod fillet
1 bay leaf
2 cups (500 ml) diluted salt-reduced or homemade vegetable stock, hot
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 shallots, finely chopped
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon mild curry powder
1½ cups (300 g) basmati rice, rinsed
small strip of lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup (150 g) shelled fresh or frozen peas
2 tablespoons snipped fresh chives
2 eggs, hard-boiled and quartered


Put the smoked cod in a deep frying pan. Add the bay leaf, then pour over the stock. Heat to simmering point, then reduce the heat, half-cover the pan with a lid and poach for 6–8 minutes until the flesh flakes easily when tested with the tip of a knife. (If you prefer, the fish can be cooked in a microwave.)
 
Lift the fish out of the cooking liquid and set aside. Make up the volume of the cooking liquid/stock to 600 ml with water and reserve with the bay leaf.
 
Rinse out the pan, then add the oil and heat over a medium heat for a few seconds. Add the shallots and cook for 4–5 minutes until softened, then stir in the spices, followed by the rice. Stir for a few seconds to coat with the oil and spices, then add the reserved cooking liquid and bay leaf and the strip of lemon zest. Bring to the boil.
 
Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add the peas, cover again and cook for a further 5 minutes or until the rice is tender and nearly all the stock has been absorbed.
 
Meanwhile, flake the fish, removing any skin and bones. Reduce the heat under the pan to very low, then gently stir the fish into the rice together with the lemon juice and chives.
 
Season to taste, bearing in mind that smoked cod is quite salty, then transfer the kedgeree to a warm serving dish and garnish with the egg quarters.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nothing but the tooth

I'm having root canal ("endodontic therapy") tomorrow – surely these are words to strike fear into anyone of a certain age (those I've mentioned this to have all shuddered theatrically). My dentist, who appears to be in his late teens, assured me that it no longer hurts as they're better at the drugs now. The dentist visits of my childhood certainly inhabit a bleak place in my memory: agonising pain, endless bad vibrations, a never-ending desert vista of arid desert and jagged rocks. One dentist told me to stop being a silly cow, but only after my mouth was jammed with instruments, fingers, and the wet rubber sheet of a dental dam. The music playing in the background became the soundtrack to horror and the strains of Vivaldi have a sinister effect on me even now (bolt upright like a Brave New World baby subjected to an electric shock).

Perhaps I exaggerate for effect, and the current dentist does have a TV affixed to the roof for distraction purposes, although this is ineffective due to a combination of poor reception and Ellen de Generes; but I lie there, even though it's relatively painless, thinking of the torture scene in Marathon Man and waiting for it to be over.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

you being in love

you being in love
will tell who softly asks in love,

am i separated from your body smile brain hands merely
to become the jumping puppets of a dream? oh i mean:
entirely having in my careful how
careful arms created this at length
inexcusable, this inexplicable pleasure-you go from several
persons: believe me that strangers arrive
when i have kissed you into a memory
slowly, oh seriously
-that since and if you disappear

solemnly
myselves
ask "life, the question how do i drink dream smile

and how do i prefer this face to another and
why do i weep eat sleep-what does the whole intend"
they wonder. oh and they cry "to be, being, that i am alive
this absurd fraction in its lowest terms
with everything cancelled
but shadows
-what does it all come down to? love? Love
if you like and i like,for the reason that i
hate people and lean out of this window is love,love
and the reason that i laugh and breathe is oh love and the reason
that i do not fall into this street is love.

e.e. cummings

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The pity of war


I was thinking about Anthem for Doomed Youth, the first poem I ever memorised, when I watched Restrepo, a documentary released in 2010 and made by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington (who was recently killed in Libya). Restrepo is the story of a valley in Afhganistan, named by the US soldiers stationed there after their friend and platoon medic, Juan Restrepo, who died there.

The overwhelming impression on watching this film is how young and naive the soldiers are and, ultimately, how futile their occupation is: they refer to fighting for their country without, at first, any reflection on how the battle for a benighted little outcrop in a foreign valley could possibly fit that description; then, as the reality of their situation sinks in, they realise, implicitly if not explicitly, that there is no reason for them to be there, no purpose to the deaths, and no meaning to the sacrifice. It's a profoundly depressing film, in many ways, in the sheer banality of the everyday existence in stultifying conditions, punctuated by brief, fierce skirmishes with an almost unseen enemy; the fear of overgrown children under fire; and the terrible anguish of loss with no gain.

Hetherington and Junger were criticised for their lack of objectivity as embedded journalists; but it's clear from this film that they were incredibly, almost recklessly brave; and they don't need to be didactic (there's no voiceover): terrible events speak for themselves.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Anthem for doomed youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Monday, May 02, 2011

The Hills of Zara


About 15 years ago, on holiday in Madrid, I saw a pair of shoes in a shop window and fell in love with them. The brand was Spanish and its name was Zara. I bought the shoes (black patent leather, vertiginous heels, t-bar, round toe, 1940s style, with a slender ankle strap that fastened with a button) and wore them till they fell apart. Zara came to London and, when I was in Hong Kong, opened there. It became just another shop to me, albeit somewhere you could always rely on finding cost-effective copies of vastly more expensive catwalk designs, with flair and style and always a little in advance of anyone else on the high street. The clothes were well made for the price (often in China of course) but would start to look shabby fairly quickly.

Apart, perhaps, from the opening of a self-appointed supercool store like Bathing Ape in Queen's Road, Central (they're probably still queuing outside it now), and give-aways of bags of rice or free mah jong sets where some poor old character out for a freebie would always get trampled underfoot by ravening crowds, I never saw anything in Hong Kong quite like the hubbub outside the new Zara in Pitt Street Mall. It's Zara's first store in Australia; even so, the atmosphere, and lines of women queuing outside, were astonishing. As I passed by this morning, on a rather miserable cold day nearly two full weeks after the place opened, there were four people waiting outside at 8.50am.

I know I am perhaps being reactionary, and needless to say I would never dream of joining that queue, but doesn't the very fact that everyone will now be wearing Zara mean that any other brand would in fact be more attractive? Sadly, the other stores were failing to capitalise on this concept; one nearby had resorted, in what looked horribly like desperation, to featuring supersized letters spelling "SEX" and (in much smaller letters) "& fashion" in their window display (pictured above).
Lest anyone think, however, that I've turned my back on fashion and, by implication, am sneering at its acolytes, never fear: I am still as interested in shoes as the next woman, and here are some rather attractive sandals by Zara to prove it. Looks expensive, looks like, maybe, Chloé, but costs less than $100? It must be democracy in action.



Saturday, April 30, 2011

The food of love

It's always astonished me, given the incredible range of fresh produce that Scotland can furnish (salmon, mackerel, langoustines, mussels, venison, oysters, beef, pork, lamb...), that we are so notorious for unhealthy eating. The fact that it gets very cold and the weather's often miserable may have something to do with it (as does enough heavy drinking to obliterate the most discerning palate); but somehow over the centuries Scots seem to have been magnetically attracted to anything deep fried (even the vegetarians can join in: I well remember my friend D's love of a white pudding, no doubt soused in animal fat, from a certain chippie in Leith Walk). I can understand the appeal, of course; and I was thinking about it again today, at Fish On Fire, Glebe's finest fish and chip shop.

The first time I went to a fish and chip shop in London, I was astonished to find that there was actually a choice of fish. In any Scottish chippie, it's just "fush", fish and chips is a "fush supper", and the "fush" is always haddock. On the east coast, where I grew up, you ask for, and receive, "saltnsauce" dolloped lavishly across everything. On the west coast, a request for saltnsauce is met with a blank (and frankly insolent) look. The "sauce" is a patented, secret mix, the ingredients of which are closely guarded by every chippie (I can exclusively reveal that it's statistically highly likely to be watered down supermarket own-brand HP sauce), usually kept in an Irn Bru bottle of dubious provenance and advanced years.

Anyone not used to a Scottish fish supper will usually be horrified by it: where there should be crispness, let me bring mush, because the fat, stodgy, barely cooked chips, when you manage to peel them away to eat them, have wholly absorbed the fat they've been cooked in, on account of the fat fryer's connection being a little bit dodgy and cutting out from time to time; where the "fush" should taste of fish, its precious aromas and delicate flavour is drowned in saltnsauce, and besides the batter's hardened to the consistency of concrete by overcooking or, and you have to take your chances, so undercooked it still tastes strongly of flour. But despite eating what is, by any reckoning, a vastly superior version in Australia (chips cooked just so: crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside; chicken salt – oh the sophistication! – used for flavour; fish perfectly white, flaky, and fresh – the pristine example above is, of course, Australian), somewhere in a foreign field, there's a part of me that will still forever long for a proper fush supper. At the end of the day, nothing beats sitting in a car in the pouring rain outside the chippie in a godforsaken little east coast town, bolting down pure deepfried goodness that tastes of nothing.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

World of work

My very first job was in the town where I was born, Haddington, a short bus ride (or, given bus infrequency, a daunting cycle) from my village. I had a Saturday job in an art gallery and coffee shop called “Peter Potter's”, a job my sister had had before me, working alongside a selection of Haddington teenagers, one of whom, a Glaswegian, became my boyfriend for a while. I never met Mr Potter, and know nothing about him, but he did exist, a fact perhaps known to the local kids who used to delight in shouting into the letter box at the front door: “Peter Potter picked a snotter!”

Peter Potter's was a genteel, rather pretentious little place run by elderly ladies who seemed to enjoy playing power games. I was 14 when I started there, and was paid GBP2 an hour (even at the time, circa 1983, this was insultingly low pay, barely enough to get the bus to Edinburgh afterwards) to work in the coffee shop, serving ploughman’s lunches, baked potatoes, toasted sandwiches, coffees, teas and cakes to the good folk of Haddington  (as well as tourists getting out of the rain, and once, excitingly, Ronnie Corbett, who enjoyed a bowl of our cauliflower soup). As ambivalent as I was about working there, I’m sure I sometimes behaved ungraciously in my role as waitress, but there were only two complaints about me from four years of Saturdays: I was taken aside by one insufferable woman and told that I was “scruffy”; and I refused to serve tea to the daughter of some local knight of the realm, because she arrived, demanding to be served, when the place had closed, and I was packing up for the day and no longer on the clock. This was an early experience of imperiousness that I’ve never forgotten.

I remember wearing a particular pair of tight black cords with a broken zip which I tried to fix, ineptly, with lashings of sellotape, only to have some grinning men point out to me that my zip was down. I remember making the best toasties ever for my own lunch, stuffed with grated cheese, ham, raw onion and Branston Pickle. I remember the smell of fresh paint and wholemeal flapjacks. I remember looking out at the rain and longing for my shift to end.

I'm sure lots of things about this job have stood me in good stead: the ability to be incredibly polite (almost to the point of sarcasm, where they're not quite sure you're not being rude, but don't dare suggest it) to people who clearly think you (as a waitress, or a teenager, or a woman, or all three) are beneath them, and, as a corollary, a lifelong appreciation for waitresses; naturally, a distrust of the sort of people who run small-town art galleries; and the ability to make a damn good toasted sandwich.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

It's no game



I associate Scary Monsters, Bowie's last studio album for RCA (1980), with a very tall, dark-eyed, good looking son of a judge - that and Talking Heads' Remain In Light (also 1980) will forever be intertwined with a memory of an impossibly unattainable boy and his friends, hanging out on a sunny afternoon in a spacious Edinburgh flat with tall doors and light glancing in through the windows and the smell of fresh paint and tea, in the part of town where all the embassies are, listening to music, with me on the fringes – intruding by accident on the sounds coming from the living room – of what I understood even at the time (I was 12) to be incredibly cool.

Listening to Scary Monsters now it's readily apparent what an incredible record it is: pushing all sorts of boundaries, full of fascination. The title track is otherwordly: electronic dogs are barking, Bowie's cod-Cockney accent is strong, the lyrics are knowing but obtuse ("waiting at the lights, know what I mean"), and it's all delivered with a chilly dignity. Bowie has a knack of making the most risible lyric sound meaningful, even essential, and of somehow effortlessly tapping into the zeitgeist.

Although I love the title track, "Up the Hill Backwards" ("the vacuum created by the arrival of freedom/and the possibilities it seems to offer"), "It's No Game (Part 2)", and "Fashion", the most wonderful song of all is "Ashes to Ashes". The video is extraordinary - now he's in a clown outfit, pacing solemnly with other outlandish characters in front of an advancing JCB; now he's in a 1950s dream home; now he's in a padded cell - best not to ask, just accept it as it is. It still looks like the future.

The tall, good looking son of a judge became a monk; I last saw him walking down a country road in the place where I grew up, heading for the bus stop in the village. I suppose he left me with the indelible connection with this record, but not much else (I can't even remember his name): perhaps just a sense of longing and not belonging, and something just out of reach.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The White Stone of Lewis

Do not attempt
to lift the white stone.
It is smooth quartzite
and weighs a lifetime.

You would prove your back
could take the strain:
brave, ambitious
you can handle any challenge.

But other strengths are more sustaining:
able to change and take changes
lift old habits from heavy soil
get to grips with the smooth surface
of self deception.

Let others do the heaving and shoving
who shoulder burdens they cannot manage
and set their sights on defeating others
in pointless shows of strength.

You carry the stone with you:
crystal with hope
light with humour
smooth with complete integrity.

Tessa Ransford

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Musée des Beaux Arts


About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood: They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

W.H. Auden

Monday, March 28, 2011

Beautiful and strange

In his blue gardens, [they] came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars...
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

It's hard to believe that Alexander McQueen died over a year ago. His label continues without him, and Sarah Burton, who has taken over from him having worked closely with him for years, seems to have been able to capture exactly what it is that made his designs so unusual: this dress, for example, is beautifully cut and deceptively simple, but as always there's a sting in the tail. At the back, there's a graceful dip of cowl neck:

 Look at it again. There's something unsettling, almost disturbing about the pattern, which seems to contain elements of delicate pale clamshell, but there's also a Rorschach quality to the print, and something insectile, and mothlike, about the pattern.


Alexander McQueen dress, from Net-a-porter. Undeniably expensive, but it's a work of art.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

It's not dark yet


Despite the fact that I grew up with Bob Dylan's music in the background and it holds very good, and/or sometimes sad, memories for me, I confess I've been a bit suspicious of Bob Dylan's more recent releases (as I am, in callow fashion, of the contemporary output of many a superannuated, still-touring, only-in-it-for-the money rock band who should have hung up their guitars years ago - step forward The Rolling Stones; hang your heads in shame, the Sex Pistols). This ambivalence was not helped by having had the misfortune to hear Dylan's ill-advised Christmas record: I know it's for charity, but that's no excuse. If it's a joke, it's a terrible one, and all of us have to suffer for it.

I've been watching Deadwood, which my sister long ago recommended, and at the end of the first episode of Season 2, a recent Dylan song, It's Not Dark Yet, played over the credits. It was so lovely that I forgave him all the Christmas insults. And Deadwood is wonderful.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A certain slant of light


Wandering home after work through my adopted city today, at a certain moment I looked right up and thought "I live in a beautiful place". I love cities, and have lived in a few (Edinburgh, Glasgow, London, Hong Kong and Sydney) but this one still catches me by surprise (double click on the photograph above for the full glory of the vista).

As we are approaching winter here, this view made me think of the first two lines of the Emily Dickinson poem, although none of the rest of it seems to fit:

There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Veil of ignorance

Growing up in 1970s Scotland, I was a rather greedy, forever-hungry child. Hungry as I was, often the food adults liked, and took pleasure in eating, baffled me; my parents would describe something spicy, or bitter, or strong as “an acquired taste”, which seemed to be synonymous with “vile”; olives, whisky, cumin, beetroot, coriander or aubergines. On the contrary, I loved bland food, and dreamed of being given a jar of peanut butter for my birthday. As well as being highly suspect, adult food seemed impossibly exotic to me; on the (fairly infrequent) occasions when someone was coming for dinner, and children were to be sent to bed early, I took a very keen interest in what was being prepared.

My mum seemed to have two key dishes which were her dinner party staples: moussaka, and Danish Peasant Girl with Veil. The latter was based on a recipe of my grandmother’s, and was essentially a dish of stewed apple and bread topped with cream and grated chocolate (recipe here). I remember peeking into the fridge as the Danish Peasant Girl sat there in splendour, cooling for the evening; I can’t guarantee that I didn’t sometimes stick a greedy finger in it to steal some for myself, justifying it with righteous indignation at being excluded from the festivities.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Wall-eyed

From a Sydney local newspaper, a tragic, yet also rather comical tale:

Two men and a woman were charged in relation to an alleged break-in at a derelict hotel in Pyrmont early Saturday morning. About 1.30am, police ... found three intoxicated people - two men and a woman. One of the men sustained a minor injury after falling while attempting to climb a small wall.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Eye of the spider


I'm not someone who's ever been frightened of spiders - chief among their many qualities, for instance, is the fact that they like to eat my mortal enemy, the mosquito. Since arriving in Australia, I've had to accustom myself to the fact that spiders here are a whole lot bigger than the ones I'm used to - and are also potentially more dangerous than the skittery old daddy-long-legs I did battle with as a child at night (although as yet I have never met anything poisonous, and I've shared living space with one or two large huntsmen spiders which seem benign enough). Despite slightly depressing advice to avoid spiders altogether, occasionally I will be stopped in my tracks by a beautiful creature at the centre of a large web, constructed without fear or favour in a little bush in the street: like the one above, encountered in Myrtle Street, which is an orb-weaver (even the name is magical).

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

I am curious orange


I've commented before about having a sneaking suspicion that fashion is a massive joke perpetrated on the gullible – or words to that effect – of whom I am clearly sometimes one. It passed me by in January when it first appeared on the catwalk (how "on-trend" am I? Not very), but this Jil Sander plastic bag (or, to give it its full title, "acetate market bag") is surely another cruel facet of the joke. It's a bag, a plastic bag, and it retails at $150 (if you don't believe me, here it is on Net-a-Porter). I looked, but it doesn't have "I Am A Plastic Bag" written on it.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

I spy

Dresses at V. Lotus

Manic Mannequins at Doug Up On Bourke

Rings from I Ran the Wrong Way

Breakfast at Little Marionette
When I first moved to Sydney, I had some time off before going back to work and so I started the blog A Place A Day. It's quite labour-intensive: I identify a place that is of interest, take around 40 photographs there, distill them down to 20 or so, and write a short paragraph about what I found interesting. Often I would end up covering the place where I had lunch. I put pressure on myself to do it almost every day; and now I'm back at work it's impossible to keep up, so it's more of a place a week (or less) and the title has proved to be fraudulent.
What I learned in doing this was that one of my favourite aspects of the process, apart from photographing and then eating food, was talking to the people who owned the place. Inspired by my friend Davey's Shot by Shooter blog (hands down the best, and most interesting, street fashion blog in operation), I decided to take my camera to work with me and shoot people who catch my eye in the street for Sydney Spy.

Sometimes people say no (older women are often very reluctant, and I lost a beautiful girl in a jewel-coloured gown who said she felt she looked terrible today); sometimes they say yes, then affect an attitude (the only photographs I haven't used so far are of someone who posed petulantly then said "are you done yet?" – why not just say no?). I'm drawn, not to obviously dressed-up or self-important people, but to people who are just quietly going about their day with their own style, and by definition this often means that they're camera-shy.

Someone said to me they'd be too shy to go up to people in the street, but I enjoy the interaction, particularly the pleasure on their faces when I tell them how good I think they look, and I like the idea that they go away feeling good about themselves.


Stefanie
What I've also discovered is that fashion bloggers are very different from food bloggers: for one thing they are almost all women, many of whom photograph themselves and not others: obsessively cataloguing their outfits every day. I'm far happier behind a camera than in front of it.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eggs are eggs

When I was about 14, I learned a new language, one absolutely guaranteed to infuriate anyone who couldn't speak it: egg language. Egg language has a noble history, having apparently been devised in the early 20th century by suffragettes (for some reason it's easier for women to learn). The rules are that you insert an "egg" in front of every sounding vowel (and "y" where it's used like a vowel), so my first sentence would read as follows:

Wheggen eggI weggas eggabeggout feggorteggeen, eggI leggearned egga neggew leggangueggueggage, weggone eggabseggolegguteleggy gueggaregganteggeed teggo egginfeggureggieggate egganeggyweggone wheggo ceggould neggot speggeak eggit: eggegg leggangueggueggage.

My sister Claire and I learned it from a sort-of friend of mine, K, who was rather an annoying sort of girl, a game player, a would be mysterious "witch", a girl fond of affecting to walk about everywhere in bare feet, and as it turned out a plain old backstabber; and we used to speak it in any situation where, essentially, we wanted to discuss something and not be understood by adults and/or the person we were talking about. A plain old backstabber's charter, you might say, except that anyone overhearing us talk in egg language would know with absolute certainty that there were terrible secrets afoot or, worse, that they were being laughed at.

I can still speak it without even thinking. So deeply has it entrenched itself in my brain that I awoke at 3am recently with the firm belief that I needed to start reading the news in egg language for egg-speakers worldwide, and that I must communicate this brilliant idea to my sister with all due dispatch.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Square peg

The other day, hanging some clothes out on the balcony, I mused to myself about the clothes peg: what a simple, yet effective object it is, which in essence hasn't changed for hundreds of years (although life was clearly improved by the invention of the spring-loaded version by David M. Smith of Vermont in 1853). In a flash, the simple act of pegging clothes out to dry connected me with centuries of human beings, and in my own memory, with my younger self, hanging clothes out on a line strung between trees, most now tragically cut down, next to the cottage where I grew up (hoping against hope they'd be dry in time to wear); with a woman glimpsed from a Berlin-bound train in East Germany in 1986, who paused to look up from her wet sheets as we flashed by her green hillside; with, for some reason, and fancifully, pre-Revolution French washerwomen hanging Madame's couture gowns in Paris apartments and Edinburgh housewives draping bloomers over the narrow streets of the Canongate; and finally, and according to Wikipedia, "the little person one drags around in Google Maps" who is called "pegman" because he is shaped like a clothespeg.

There's something so wonderful about freshly-washed, fresh-air-dried clothes: begone the dull, environmentally-unfriendly convenience of the clothes-dryer! Give me a clothes peg and a washing line any day of the week.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bark and bite

In all the jobs I've had, I'm sorry (but not that sorry) to say I've never had much time for the marketing department.

Exhibit A, the marketing team for a small Scottish legal publisher who regularly rushed out leaflets without consulting the legal editors, with resultant howlers like "an excellent guide for practicioners" and "a vade mecum for the tyro" (who even knows what that means? They certainly didn't).*

Exhibit B, the same team, when asked to produce a cover for a book on medical negligence. Their suggestion? A picture of a wheelchair.

Exhibit C, the much larger marketing team for a major London-based publisher. Said publisher's offices near Canary Wharf had been blown up by the IRA and all but destroyed. Two people lost their lives. So when, not long after, we published a book on buildings insurance, what did an inspired marketing team come up with as cover art? Why, a photograph of the bombed-out building.

Exhibit D, any marketing person asked to produce promotional materials for the legal services market. The gavel is not in use by judges in any jurisdiction I've ever worked in. In fact, it's not in use anywhere except in some courts in the US. So what always appears on marketing literature in every jurisdiction? It's a gavel!

Exhibit E, the trailer for a US show on FX called Terriers.



What does the name, and the above picture, which was on billboards promoting the show, tell you? It might be about dogfighting. It might be about... dog shows? It's definitely not a comedy drama with noir undertones, about two mismatched, likeable private detectives. Which it, in fact, was. No matter, the show has now been cancelled after its first season because it didn't get the viewing numbers, presumably, and at least in part, because of the terrible marketing campaign.

In any case, the show's theme song, by Robert Duncan, turns out to be much better than the series, which starts well but peters out somewhat, and is certainly no Breaking Bad (if you have never seen the latter, do yourself a favour and find a way to see it). But the marketing department torpedoed any chance of it finding an audience and finding its way, thus proving that my wild prejudices are in some small way justified.

* "An indispensible beginners' guide" would have sufficed.