Feet

One thing I noticed about Melanie Phillips the other night is that she has big feet. Not huge, but big.

I observed this because I have tiny feet. Very tiny feet. This didn’t used to be a problem: I could always find shoes that fitted. However, it seems that these days, small feet are so rare they’re not worth bothering making pretty shoes for.

I spent a very long and boring Sunday afternoon at Brent Cross last week looking for new shoes. Nick is always complaining that I only wear shoes suitable for the most frumpy stereotypical lesbian maiden aunt, so I thought I’d try and find some new ones.

So I went to the following shops: Clarks, Barratts, LK Bennett, Dune, Marks and Spencer, John Lewis and Russell and Bromley. In each I asked what their smallest size was and in each was told “36” and there was a limited collection of those. Size 36s have recently become TOO BIG for my feet, apart from certain styles and widths. So if the shoe has an ankle strap and a narrow fit, it’s OK. I’m sure one could buy shoes in different widths at one point, but now it’s either standard or w-i-d-e.

For a laugh, I tried on a wide fitting shoe in Marks and Spencers. Like Cinderella, the shoe fitted, and I could probably have fitted my other foot in there as well. Wide feet, or just fat feet? I wonder.

Now, I emailed the chap who runs Small-Shoes.co.uk with my feet measurements. In the FAQs, he states that a lot of women like to think they have narrow feet, but they don’t. With the prevalence of shoes wide enough to accommodate the wingspan of an albatross, this isn’t surprising. However, I *do* have narrow feet and they weigh in at an old-skool 3 or 35 in new money.

Back to Brent Cross. In Russell and Bromley, I was ready to give up when the shop assistant sidled closer to me and said in a lowered voice “go over the way to our children’s shop. We all get our shoes from there.”

So I went over the way and got some nice boots that don’t look like wellies (unlike a pair of lovely Boden boots at twice the price) *and* a pair of black patent party shoes with little diamante hearts on them. On me, an adult, in grown up clothes, they look fine. If I were to come over all Grayson Perry, it might be a bit strange.

But still. If my mother could buy a pair of 2 1/2s for her wedding, why can’t I buy them for work?

Sophie Kinsella has written a series of astonishingly bad books about “Shopoholic”, Becky somethingorother who likes to get into enormous debt buying consumer goods. In the only one I have had the misfortune to read (it came free with a magazine), Becky goes into even more debt in LK Bennett when she falls in love with a pair of sandals – in both colours!

I would fsking *love* to be able to do that. But unfortunately I cannot, so Sophie Kinsella’s pisspoor work does not speak to me. I am also very annoyed that someone who can write so incredibly badly (she writes in the present tense and has only a rudimentary understanding of grammar, let alone the crappy plots and cardboard characters) as Kinsella has made that much money.

Hey, you may say, why don’t you do better, then? To which I would reply, I probably could, but she’s already had the idea. I could hardly do worse. On the other hand, my tiny feet are preventing my doing any research in LK Bennett.

Movies: An Evil Empire

I went to a Literary Circle event last night, even though it did involve passing over the threshold of a (gasp) Public School. I think I managed to get away with it. I don’t know where UCS hide the fags, canes and terrified first years, but they do it quite well.

Melanie Phillips and a chap called Zia something were discussing America, imperialism and the usual suspects (war in Iraq, Israel, yadda yadda). Zia says in his book, and said at the debate, that American imperialism manifests itself differently nowadays. Rather than invading and occupying countries and exploiting them for cash, America colonises via films, TV and music. He gave the example of Malaysia, where TV networks prefer to broadcast The X-Files rather than locally made programmes about local issues. He said this was unfair, because obviously the X-Files has higher production values and more people want to watch it.

But I don’t think you can blame the US for that. It’s not the fault of Americans that they spend a lot of money on making movies and TV. It’s one of their major exports and they make a good profit on them. Would you rather drive an American car or watch The Sopranos or Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Quite. If ordinary Malaysians would rather watch Mulder and Scully than local TV, they are not alone. Regional programming in the UK usually has tiny viewing figures as well.

Zia is, I think, being unfair to America and is using his own definition of imperialism. If well meaning Malaysian TV makers aren’t going to provide it, then the networks will simply buy stuff in that many people want to watch. Buying The X-Files is far cheaper than making your own version and it’s not America’s fault: people like bread and circuses.

His argument also falls a bit flat when one looks at Bollywood and the newly emerging Nigerian film industry. Using the Hollywood format, films are produced locally (with lower production values stemming from a necessarily limited budget) that are immensely popular. He may claim that this is cultural imperialism by stealth, but this is unfair. People want escapism. They want the fantasy that a Hollywood/Bollywood/Nollywood movie provides and to decry this as imperialism is to deny a basic human need.

For an intellectual, the idea that an ordinary person enjoys all this dancing about and decadence and actively prefers it to a boring programme about local crafts can be upsetting, but this is daft. Yes, an intellectual may be harder to please, but look at it this way: most academics are middle class, whatever country or cultural background they may hail from. By their nature, therefore, they are comfortable. They do not have to strive to put food on the table, keep their families safe and provide them with clean water. So I would argue that they (and I count myself amongst them) have less need for the bright colours, music and the window onto a different and better world offered by the American entertainment industry. When global poverty has been eradicated, and everyone has access to sanitation and education, then we can whine about the X-Files being popular in Malaysia.

In conclusion, I am confused by Zia’s definition of imperialism as producing a product that people want. There’s no Clockwork Orange forced viewing scenario here.

Hunting

I was listening (not intentionally) to Any Questions this evening. One of the panellists made a relatively mild comment about hunting (suggesting that it wasn’t great for foxes). Suddenly all I could hear was a braying, booing, hissing noise mixed in with incomprehensible shouting. The pro-hunt brigade had clearly been waiting for their opportunity.

In between my digital radio’s pops and crackles, I gathered that the poor toffs are very upset and were claiming that they were being discriminated against. Apparently disliking them is just like being homophobic – they are a persecuted minority. Aww. The panellists were either intimidated or had been advised not to aggravate the hecklers: they made some feeble concilatory comments about how the government had better things to do, and were quickly moved on to the next question.

Now, I used to ride. I used to live near a hunt. Despite invitations, I refused to combine the two. I can understand the attraction of a gallop across the countryside but I can’t see the point of killing a fox at the end. I *do* understand “country ways” – rotting tractors, cesspools, a “beware of the bull” sign on the gate one opens to *leave* the field… As well as having lived there myself, my sister works in the “country” for the Environment Agency and so is well aware of the realities of farmers’ lives. I find it impossible to feel sympathy for these bleating fools.

“You don’t understand our country ways”, they claim. Well, I know it’s not tremendously representative but in my and my sister’s experience most country folk don’t really like hunts. They damage farmers’ land and have been known to charge across school playing fields. Ever seen a playing field after 25 horses have galloped across it? You won’t be playing croquet on it for a while. It’s worse than the damage caused by a public school rugby union team.

As for the claim that hunting is effective pest control: I can’t believe they think anyone will fall for that. Humans invented firearms to avoid having to chase things around. Spending the whole day going after one fox with a bunch of toffs, horses and dogs surely can’t be the most efficient way of dealing with foxes. Fox – gun – bang. All over in time for lunch. The Netherlands has had a hunting ban for over 50 years and I have to say, on my last visit I didn’t notice hordes of foxes rampaging across the Dutch countryside.

Pro-hunters will also declare that the government has better things to do than ban hunting. I must admit, I do agree slightly, but I’d also add that if it weren’t for the Lords, the hunt ban wouldn’t have taken much time at all. The Lords’ banning hunting is like chavs voting to ban fags and TV, so I do understand why they’ve been so obstructive. However, the majority of the UK population disagree with fox hunting. I have a colleague whom I use to get the opinion of the man on the Enfield omnibus – I was surprised to hear him attack fox hunting so vehemently. This is a chap who reads the Sun and doesn’t like “them immigrants” (from a second generation Greek Cypriot, this is quite amusing), not a woolly animal rights lefty.

Hunts might contribute a little to local economies, but I’m afraid since we invented cars, we haven’t needed horses and their accompanying paraphenalia so much. One man claimed that he was going to shoot all his dogs on TV if hunting were banned. That someone so clearly psychopathic was allowed to keep animals at all was quite disturbing. I hope he doesn’t have any children.

I’ve also heard the claim that foxes kill for fun. Clearly the implication here is that a fox is a moral agent and therefore should receive punishment for its actions. We have an urban fox who likes to rummage through our rubbish and intimidate our bunnies – sometimes I leave food out for it because it’s cute and fluffy, yet I know what foxes can do and have lost a pet chicken to one. That’s nature for you. Animals were put on trial in Medieval times, so I assume that the people who make this claim aren’t quite with the times and don’t know that this practice ended at least 500 years ago. I’m ignoring the really obvious point here…

When you get down to it, hunting is about abusing an animal for pleasure. Yes, it’s a fun day out galloping round the countryside, but at the end of a successful hunt a wild animal is ripped to shreds and eaten by dogs. It makes me think of the NAMBLA episode of South Park, where an apprehended NAMBLA member protests about the discrimination he suffers. Kyle repeatedly reminds the man of what it is he actually does.

Unlike any ethnic, religious or sexual minority, hunters choose to hunt. They choose to engage in a pastime that most people find repellent. If I spent my weekends torturing puppies to death, I’d end up in court. If I sit on a horse and watch my dogs torture a fox to death, that is currently OK.

Oh, and the claim that the anti-hunting bill is a tool of class warfare? If it is (and I doubt it), so much the better. Hurrah for class warfare. I’m not jealous of the aristocracy: what would be the point? I can never be a part of it, and not just because I didn’t go to public school. I feel entitled to be jealous of someone wealthy who’s earned their money, since I might be able to do that but clearly haven’t – but to be jealous of someone who earned a fabulous fortune simply by being born? It’s not worth the effort.

“The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable”. Quite.

Thursday evening

We spent Thursday evening wandering around Abano Terme. It’s a very pretty spa town, geared to the needs of affluent, overweight, elderly German tourists. So the only food shop is a very poncey delicatessen, the only souvenirs you can buy are enormous marble statues (“we ship anywhere” boasted the shop window) and all the restaurant menus are bi-lingual in Italian and German.

My sister’s boyfriend lived in Italy for three years, and gave us dire warnings about eating at tourist restaurants. However, after half an hour or so, we’d run out of Abano Terme and there were no other restaurants.

We went to a reasonably salubrious pizza place and discovered that the pizza was just a cunning disguise. It was actually a very nice, reasonably priced restaurant. The pizza menu was hidden away at the back of the proper menu, as if the owners were slightly embarassed to be running what appeared to be a pizzeria.

Not only did we have a nice meal, we also spotted most of the guest speakers who would be at tomorrow’s conference.

Wednesday

We set off from Waterloo at about 2pm on the Eurostar, and wound up on the TrenItalia Excelsior sleeper train in the early evening.

I’m a very light sleeper, so in the interests of Science, we’d bought various things to try and encourage sleepiness. Herbal Nytol, earplugs, lavender vapourisers and wine. Before we began the experiment, though, we had dinner on the train. Europeans wouldn’t put up with the food you get on UK trains – the dinners we’ve had have always been excellent and this was no exception, although they didn’t offer the sea urchin soup that I’ve seen on the French-Spanish Trenhotel.

We went to bed stuffed. I have to report that the experiments failed and I barely slept between lights-out and the steward bringing us breakfast in bed the next morning. Never mind, we were in Venice. We left the train station, and were greeted by the Grand Canal, gondolas, vaporettis and thousands of tourists, even at this ungodly hour.

The train to Abano Terme left at lunchtime, so we decided to take advantage of the left luggage service and wander around the town for a few hours.

Venice is the only city I’ve visited that looks just like the pictures. It’s also the size of a postage stamp, meaning we were able to navigate our way across it in a morning. By some obscure means, Nick had acquired a PDA with a GPS attachment. This was indispensable – we passed by many tourists arguing over pop up maps, tiny credit-card sized maps, fold-out maps in the back of their guidebook, Ordnance Survey style maps with compasses… Nick’s gadget meant we simply had to ask the magical sky pixies where we were, and how to get back to the station.

I caught up on some sleep on the train and we ended up in some bijou little Italian town about 40 minutes from Venice. However, we hadn’t arrived yet. Being 2.30pm, there were no buses, no taxis and no toilets. We walked the three miles to the hotel in unexpected heat and bright sunshine. This would have been welcome, but we were expecting English-style weather and had dressed and packed accordingly.

The receptionist at our hotel couldn’t quite believe that we’d walked all the way – until he looked at us more closely.

Venice, an overview

You know that annoying smug BA advert where some smug businessman hops into a nice double bed in Central Park at dusk, and gets out of his bed in Trafalgar Square at dawn? Well, apart from being covered in pigeon dottles, the advert also fails to feature said smug businessman staggering off the plane at Heathrow and having to do battle with his baggage, the Piccadilly line and/or a minicab driver before he can get anywhere near anything resembling a bed.

Last Tuesday I literally went to bed in Paris and woke up in Venice. Really. A proper bed, mattress, sheets and all. I brought my own pyjamas and I was even able to have a nice shower before I was brought breakfast in bed by an attractive Frenchman. This is because I took the TrenItalia sleeper service from Paris Bercy to Venice St Lucia. Easyjet is marginally cheaper, although you are cutting it very fine when you include the cost of the airport shuttle service from the shed in the middle of nowhere to Venice proper and the extra night’s accommodation.

So, Venice, then. I’ve heard loyal Northerners claim that Manchester has as many miles of canal as Venice. That’s as maybe. However, I got off the train and this is what I saw:

Venice

Manchester looks like this:

Manchester

Burn Update

The burn that I’ve been impressing my colleagues with all week is now a great big crispy scab. However, the colleague that was most impressed with the burn was sacked on Friday.

I knew it was coming, but he didn’t and he sits (or sat) next to me. Throughout the day, his managers were coming in and out of meetings and looking serious. Then I was asked to find some documents relating to the last time they got rid of someone in a similar role.

The afternoon was deeply unpleasant. I wanted to warn him in advance, but I assume that would have got me into serious trouble too. I kept my head down, and when he was asked to go into the meeting room “for a chat”, I tried to look engrossed in some tosspot marketing agency’s website.

He came out about 20 minutes later, put some stuff in his bag and left without a word. I felt so sorry for him, but to say anything then would have been indiscreet and unfair. Nobody else in my desk block knows why he left like that.

It wasn’t until he went that I realised I was shaking. I’ve realised I’m not cut out for HR. It’s bad enough that I know all the company confidential information without the personnel stuff as well. It means it’s really hard to meet colleagues socially because I know tickly things about them.

Poor PT. I hope he doesn’t take this too hard and gets a good dollop of cash out of this. He’s an affable, intelligent chap in a role that maybe didn’t suit him.

Intolerance

I was never forced to clear my plate when I was young. Being quite unwell and with various unpleasant food intolerances (now grown out of), I think my parents were pleased I ate anything at all. So I don’t feel the need to hoover up the obscene amount of food I sometimes get served with.

As a result, I have no patience with people who think they need to “detox” and avoid all alcohol, wheat, eggs and dairy products. Try eating like that not because you’re a bored hypochondriac, but because those things will genuinely make you very unwell. It’s not much bloody fun, especially when you’re a kid that can’t understand why your siblings can have chocolate eggs at Easter, but you have to have a bar of cooking chocolate. I have a friend who’s coeliac. Gluten doesn’t make him “tired” or “run down” – it makes him violently ill.

This link takes you to quite a sensible article on food intolerances and strongly suggests not being silly about it. Cutting out something from your diet shouldn’t be done on a whim as any vegan will tell you – if they have the energy. Arf.

Weights

My friend John Walker has gone on a healthy eating plan.

John’s an intelligent chap, and so of course has no truck with all this Atkins, “my toxins/food intolerances/allergies/feng shui/DNA are making me fat” crap. Diets are simple physics. Your body needs fuel to work. If you take in less fuel than you use, your body stores it as fat. If you use more fuel than you take in, you’ll lose weight. Bing.

So all you need to do is work out how much fuel you need in a day. If your BMI (body mass index) is normal for your height, eat that amount. If your BMI is too low, eat more. If it’s too high, eat less.

To work out the amount, you need to establish your basal metabolic rate (BMR). Add 200-300 to the BMR to get the number of calories you burn in a day. For example, mine’s about 1,400 but then I’m a small moderately active girl.

So if you want to lose weight, work out how many calories you need, and then eat less. Buy a set of accurate scales, pay attention to the calorie counts on your food packaging, and add up what you eat. Nick has devised a little script that does the adding up for you. If you’ve had less than your allowance, you can store up your calories in a ‘bank’ and have a treat.

You can follow John’s progress on his blog. Nick lost a stone without much trouble using this sensible and scientific system.

I’ve found the process interesting to watch. I don’t need to lose weight, but it’s interesting to think like a dieter now and then. It’s quite surprising how calorific some foods are. A Marks and Spencer smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich packs 450 calories into its pyramid-shaped plastic packaging. That’s the same as a Big Mac, or more than a Full English, and that’s not including your crisps, fruit smoothie and Percy Pigs for dessert. Try having some soup and an apple instead.

Coffee People, a slight return

Thanks to a Coffee Person at work, I now have a large blistered scald on my left forearm. I was kind enough to offer to make him a cafetiere of noncey coffee, but I was a little overenthusiastic when I pushed down the plunger and decorated most of the kitchen, my shirt and my arm with boiling water and coffee grounds.

The problem with scalds is that you don’t realise that you’ve damaged yourself until you’ve already told your concerned audience that you’re fine. This has happened before – a malfunctioning kettle incident which led to a burn the size of an old 50p piece was dismissed by me as nothing in front of an old boyfriend’s mother. Following this injury, we all went out on a jaunt to London Town – in my case, gritting my teeth and stealing occasional glances at the flowering wound under my sleeve.

Oddly, this new one is right next to the scar from the last one.

Still, the burn topped off an otherwise very successful day. I volunteered to let an estate agent into our warehouse, which we might be subletting. I borrowed the HR director’s keys, paid close attention to the complicated unlocking procedure, and met the agent outside the office. He had a BMW 5-series with lots of leather and toys and gave me a lift for the 200 yards between the office and warehouse. Most kind.

I approached the door with a level head. The first lock opened fine. However, on trying to do the second, the key broke off in the lock. Then the alarm, which the HR Director had said wouldn’t be set, went off. Fortunately, I had a special fob which was supposed to deactivate the alarm – which it did, for about a minute.

I called and got the PIN. Apparently, the key does it all the time, but today was the first time that pliers became involved.

All in all, a jolly good day.

Token Woman

The term “token woman” was first used, to my knowledge, on Question Time in the early 1990s to describe the single female panel member, put there to show ‘balance’. Token women soon started to appear on other current affairs programmes, and on “Have I Got News for You”. Broadcasters seemed to believe that one woman on a panel of four or five showed diversity and that girls were just as good as boys – this despite the glaring fact that the proportion of women to men in the UK is around 50-50 with a slight bias in favour of the ladies.

But to analyse the hows and whys of token women in TV would take ages and ages. It’s a complex issue, and any discussion about it would involve Germaine Greer at some point.

Anyway, I was thinking about how I’ve frequently ended up as Token Woman, in one way or another. At work, I’m the only girl at a desk cluster of five. Of my best friends, only one is a girl, and she is also a Token Woman. At university, I shared a house with five men. I first noticed this one day, whilst walking down Spring Bank Avenue in Hull. I was going into town with three housemates. Two were over six feet tall, and all looked fairly intimidating, if one were inclined to find three computer science students intimidating.

I realised that, from the back, I probably looked like a small child surrounded by protective uncles. A (female) friend, who’d seen me that day, suggested to me that the reason I hadn’t been picking up as many chaps as I’d have liked was because I was frequently surrounded by what must have resembled bodyguards.

I must stress, Token Woman is not ‘honorary boy’ or ‘honorary girl’. The ‘honorary boy’ is either a fag hag (a noble calling, tainted by “Sex and the City” – now every single independent woman with too many uncomfortable shoes wants a pet gay) or a wannabe lesbian. A “honorary girl” is a non-threatening man who’s shot himself in the foot by being pleasant, friendly and attentive towards his female acquaintances. Effectively a eunuch in their eyes, the honorary girl’s lot is usually a happy one, as long as he keeps his baser urges to himself. Both honorary boy and girl have chosen their situation – the Token Woman (or man, there are some), just seems to have ended up like that. Token Woman can keep her gender identity secure, although she tends to pick up some male traits like “knowing about computers” or owning a set of screwdrivers… and using them.

Token Women have made their mark on history. Apart from the redoubtable Professor Greer, there are many famous women from history and fiction who have somehow ended up surrounded by men with whom they are not sexually involved (this can be an option for Token Woman – sadly honorary boy and girl lose their status if they do). Queen Elizabeth I surrounded herself with male advisors. Deborah, the only female Judge in the Old Testament, is a pseudo-mythical Token Woman, as is Miriam. One could count Mary Magdalene, but let’s not.

Mina Harker in Dracula was one – Elizabeth Bennett, of course, was too busy being feisty in Empire line dresses to be a Token Woman. More recently, Anne from the Famous Five was Token, George being Honorary. Hermione from the “Harry Potter” books is blatantly token and too good to be true.

Hermione brings Token Women up to date and shows the flaw in having just one major female character or personality. Because, rightly, writers and broadcasters want to have positive female role models, the Token Woman becomes overloaded. In real life, unless Token Woman is Melanie Phillips, who takes copious notes whilst her co-panellists are speaking and then talks extremely fast to get everything in, she gets ignored.

Having to represent her entire gender, Token Woman has to be much better than the men she’s with in order to impress. There’s only one of her, and three or four men. Whilst she was playing with dolls and learning to communicate and listen, her male colleagues were shouting at each other and ripping heads off Action Men. So unless she’s Melanie Phillips or Germaine Greer, the Token Woman often ends up sitting quietly in the corner, hands neatly folded in her lap, waiting her turn to speak. Hermione is better than her male friends at everything apart from Quidditch, but she’s not the focus of the books.

In real life, it’s much easier. You soon learn not to bother waiting for other people to finish and allow you to speak – you simply speak over them and increase the volume (and lower the pitch, vv important), until you can be heard.

Keeping up with the Cool Girls

There was a survey in yesterday’s Metro (yes, that’s the Mirror, but I couldn’t find the Metro one) saying that British women spend over 4bn a year trying to look like celebrities. That’s the GDP of an impoverished African country, spent on hair extensions, manicures, fake tans and ridiculous clothes. Apparently women want to look like Sienna Miller. The only things I know about Sienna Miller are that she must be posh, with a name like that, and that she’s shagging Jude Law. Beyond that, I have no idea who she is or what she does. She looks rather boring – I certainly wouldn’t spend 400 on having my hair done like hers.

Back in the mists of time, I remember many short-lived playground fads, started by the cool kids and slavishly followed by everyone else. For a while, everyone was obsessed with Trillions, little tiny sweets that my mother wouldn’t let me have as they were a choking hazard. A few months later, all the cool girls had hideously realistic baby dolls that they would nurse at breaktime. My Little Ponies followed, and we would sit together in little knots, combing their spun plastic hair. Lo-Lo balls, a device consisting of a waisted beach ball with a circular platform on which you stood and bounced, were popular for a while and the cause of many lost teeth. Needless to say, my mother wouldn’t let me have one of those either. When I taught kids myself, Pokemon cards were the thing to have. Genuine distress would be caused if Butterfree went missing.

You may have noticed a proliferation of nail bars and beauty salons in the last couple of years. The grooming business is booming as the celebrity press (OK, Hello, Heat et al) have gradually revealed the secrets of the stars. We discovered that the Hollywood red carpet dresses were held together with double sided sticky tape. We found out that the lustrous golden hair proudly tossed by that singer was in fact someone else’s hair, glued on to her own at vast expense. We realised that the all-year tan that gave that soap star her special glow was in fact fake tan – a chemical sprayed onto the skin that reacts with sweat to make an orangey dye. The cover star of a men’s magazine doesn’t in fact own the fantastically toned thighs she displays. Recently we’ve all learned that Gwyneth Paltrow hasn’t spent the weeks since giving birth doing enthusiastic press-ups and in fact simply wore two pairs of highly elasticated control knickers to hold it all in.

I’m sure the initial intention was for us to mock the stars. Could we still admire them as remote goddesses when it was revealed that the proud cleavage displayed in that complicated dress was in fact an artful construction of blusher, silicon pouches and sticky tape? The celebrity press pulled back the curtain and showed the little man operating all the levers and pulleys.

But instead of realising that celebrity women are, in fact, just like everyone else and can be ignored rather than worshipped, it appears that ordinary women used this information to try and be even more like their heroines. Posh Spice gets her nails done twice a week – off they all go to the salon. Christina Aguliera has an airbrush tan – they obediently schelp off and pay 50 to stand in paper knickers whilst a complete stranger sprays them with some weird smelling stuff that makes them orange. The accessibility makes one closer to the celebrity one aspires to be. You may not have their beauty or their talent, but you can use St Tropez too. Pass me the Lo-Lo ball and Pokemon cards.

I first became aware of all this during the Juicy Couture phase about a year ago. It seemed, for a while, that every celebrity woman was papped (having your photo taken by the paparazzi) wearing a sort of velour leisure suit with a hooded jacket and hipster trousers, displaying the obligatory two inches of firm belly. These outfits cost around 100-150 and whilst not cheap, were certainly in reach of anyone with a credit card. Pretty soon I saw them everywhere: on school run mums in their Challenger Tanks, sorry, 4x4s, on the orange women on Mill Hill Broadway, down the pub… For a while I toyed with the idea of getting one myself. I tried one on and fortunately, being one of the Little People, looked utterly ridiculous, lost in folds and swathes of burgundy velour that cascaded over my wrists and feet.

What happened then is quite interesting, if you’re still following all this. Juicy Couture, the tiny American design house that started the trend, was doing very well out of the tracksuits but losing their celebrity clientele. Madonna and Kate Winslet don’t want to look like the woman on the Edgware omnibus. Without their endorsement, Juicy would soon fade, so they extended their range. Most designers start a “diffusion” range, making their brand accessible to normal people. Juicy couldn’t do that – they needed to appeal to the very rich. So they re-made their signature outfit in cashmere and charged 500 for it, and began making very pricy baby clothes. All they then had to do is give a few outfits away, make sure they were seen on the right person, and bingo. Ordinary women would still buy the velour version, still imbued with the celebrity cachet. Juicy turned the designer diffusion concept on its head.

It’s fantastically cheap advertising for manufacturers and retailers – send Sienna Miller your dress, she wears it, your name is mentioned, the cash rolls in. Sometimes Ms Miller will get to keep the stuff – depending on how much it cost – sometimes she’ll have to give it back. There was a green Chloe dress that was on the front cover of a lot of magazines over the summer and worn by Kylie Minogue at a premiere – I can almost guarantee that it was the same one. Tesco produced a copy that sold out in days, and I’m pretty sure Chloe sold out of the real version too.

Now that we have a surfeit of famous people thanks to soap operas and reality TV, a whole industry has sprung up to exploit the resource. PR companies can use ex-Big Brother contestants as mobile billboards, one step up from adorning Formula 1 drivers’ jumpsuits in dozens of company logos. Soap actresses can take time out from drunkenly falling out of cars to claim they use a particular shampoo or lipstick in return for some free stuff. Stylists on photo shoots in need of something to dress their celebrity in can phone a clothing company who’ll courier round some stuff they’re having trouble shifting, in return for a namecheck.

This self-perpetuating industry will only end either when the burden of debt becomes too great for UK women or when they finally realise that what looks good on Madonna probably won’t look good on them. Yes, they exploit a lot of tricks to make themselves look thin, but they can also afford personal trainers and private chefs to make them genuinely thin. Yes, you can buy the dress Catherine Zeta Jones wore, but you still won’t have her money or her lifestyle, nor will you be in the situation where a designer will design a dress specifically for you. You can use Christina Aguliera’s fake tan, but you probably won’t be able to sing like her.

I think modern British women need to consider what it is about famous people they really admire. If it’s simply the products they use and the clothes they wear, then surely the whole thing is pointless. Newly financially independent, they are being milked for their cash and don’t seem any happier for it.

McLibel and Supersize Me

Supersize Me/McLibel

When I agreed to go to this anti-fast-food double bill, I didn’t realise that it would be on one of the warmest days of the year. So on this rare, sunny day, I was sitting in the dark in the Soho Curzon with about 100 anti-globalisation activists.

As most people will be aware, Supersize Me follows film-maker Morgan Spurlock on his 30-day journey from healthy New Yorker (walks everywhere, slim, lives with a vegan chef) to rapidly expanding all-American super slob – via eating exclusively at McDonald’s. His rapid weight gain and corresponding increase in cholesterol soon leads to health problems and Spurlock is repeatedly begged to stop: by his doctors, nutritionist and girlfriend.

Although his first Supersize Meal leads to indigestion and, eventually, vomiting, Spurlock perseveres against all advice, including that of McDonald’s. At the end of the film, he has gained a stone that takes six months to lose and his liver has gone into meltdown.

McDonald’s has criticised the film, claiming that of course they don’t recommend that people eat at their restaurants every day and that they now offer ‘healthy options’ including salads and fresh fruit. The salads they offer contain, with dressing, the same number of calories and amount of fat as their standard Big Mac, so I’m not sure whose definition of ‘healthy’ they’re using. They are also phasing out the Supersize option, which offers an alarmingly enormous portion of fries (literally enough to feed a family) and about a gallon of fizzy drink (representing around 50 teaspoons of sugar). Anyone who’s visited the States has probably been slightly startled by the gargantuan portion sizes offered can’t help coming to the conclusion that the food’s been exposed to some sort of freakish radioactive expand-a-ray. Being America, it probably has.

But Spurlock’s point isn’t that McDonald’s makes you fat – it’s *how* they make you fat. A few days into the experiment, and he reports feeling exhausted all the time and constantly craving more McDonald’s fare. In New York, McDonald’s deliver and it’s clear how easy it is to get loaded up on hidden calories (particularly in the buns), especially when you feel so tired out. If you were wondering how it is that so many Americans are morbidly obese, this is how. It’s very easy to state, as just about all nutritionists do, that fast food should be a very occasional treat – between once a fortnight and once a month – but when your current junk food diet has made you feel constantly knackered and craving the next carbohydrate high, it’s a big step *not* to pick up the phone and organise your next fix to be delivered to your door.

Supersize Me was followed by a film following the McLibel Two as they defended McDonald’s libel suit against them.

Helen Steel and David Morris were famously sued for libel by McDonalds over 10 years ago. Being two unemployed local activists, they decided to defend the case in what became the longest running trial in UK legal history. Because libel cases don’t qualify for legal aid (had they *slandered* McDonalds, it would have been a different matter), they had to do the work themselves, helped by a growing band of volunteers. At the end of the case, the judge upheld the libel claim on some points, but Steel and Morris were vindicated on several others. For two lay people, this was an impressive result.

Although I know the story of McLibel quite well, having had the mixed fortune to share a house with a “joiner” for several years (a “joiner” is one of those people who likes to join in with whatever anti-thingy is going on at the moment – no bad thing, but they tend to resist analysing whatever they’re against and suggesting alternatives), the film was interesting and at times genuinely gripping.

After the film, Helen, David and the film maker, a very posh young lady called Fran, took questions fro the audience. After some vague whinings about “evil corporations” and the stunning revelation that – gasp! – corporations are run solely for profit, Nick decided to do some agit-prop of his own. He pointed out to the McLibel 2 that everything they were using to promote their cause (the computers, the film equipment, the Eurostar that was shortly to take them to the European Parliament, even the cinema they were sitting in) was the result of corporations and capitalism. Whilst it’s very laudable to protest against the hegemony of large companies that abuse their employees and the environment in the pursuit of profit, one needs to have a clear idea of what one is fighting against and what would be put in its place.

David Morris ummed and ahhed and said that corporations were bad, and that one should act locally. The cinema owner then piped up and said “this cinema is not a corporation” – not true. The Curzon cinema is part of the French owned Curzon cinema chain, which specialises in independent films. Yes, it’s not a PLC, but it is a large company. I got the impression that the definition of “corporation” is somewhat hazy and can be used to mean whatever one wants it to mean.

Morris went on to say how the McLibel case was only a small part of his life as an activist, and that he’d been drawn into it by accident. He apparently prefers to act locally, which is fine. However, he doesn’t seem to recognise the power of McLibel. McDonalds has tried to re-brand. Books like Shopped and Fat Land now detail the damaging power of large food companies and the cost both to our health and the environment. This sort of comment was taboo before McLibel. Due to consumer power (the best weapon the public has in a capitalist society), food companies are trying to change. I do feel that Morris in particular should realise that McLibel has changed the world in some way, and be proud of his achievement.

As we were leaving, I overheard someone say that David Morris sounded like a man unsure of what he was fighting against. I’m inclined to agree.

I await the McLibel sequel with interest.

Muppet

Oh, woe. The Muppets have been taken over by Disney.

There are no words…

Only horrible, horrible images.

Sesame Street was devised as a safe place where children could learn and play. Educational psychologists spent months perfecting a TV programme that children would watch and engage with, unlike cartoons. I especially like the fact that someone invented a device called The Distractor. These days, Sesame Street has gone, cap in hand, to MSNBC and McDonalds, because apparently Americans find publicly funded TV a bit communist for their liking.

For a while, the thought that, while they had Big Bird, they didn’t have Kermit,was a sort of consolation. Jim Henson’s vision to change television from an electrical babysitter to a useful tool and toy for children, has been ended by both his death and the wish by his beneficiaries to exploit his creations for as much cash as possible. Disney is an enormous company, driven like all enormous companies to make profits for its shareholders. Enchanting children is useful only in as much as the enchantment charms money out of their parents’ pockets.

The Muppet Show was clever and funny: a children’s programme that adults enjoyed watching. I don’t know if Disney will bother taking the risks that Henson did with the Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock: I anticipate saccharine, sanitised versions of the originals coming soon.

Poverty Experiment Clarification

I do apologise if anyone read the post and thought that I was being some sort of poverty tourist and all silly and patronising in a Marie Antoinette/Victorian philanthropist way. That wasn’t the intention. It was more to prove (or disprove) to ourselves the constant assertion by those in authority that a healthy diet is available to everyone.

Of course it is, but you’re not going to get much bang for your buck at Waitrose. The reason for going there was, well, I live in North London and go through Totteridge (where all the millionaires, including my boss, live) and Waitrose is the *only* supermarket. Round here they’re as ubiquitous as Morrisons in Leeds.

Anyway, three quarters of the way through and I’m incredibly glad I don’t live on JSA. But at least I’ve proven to myself that I can save money if I want to: and perhaps I should. Lidl has been suggested, but I can assure you that there are no Lidls round here. Marks and Spencer, yes. John Lewis, yes. Aldi, Lidl and so forth…no. I think there’d be panic in the streets of Finchley if such a thing came to pass.

If nothing else, I have learned that being on a low income makes you want to slap Nigella Lawson in the face. Buffalo mozzarella, matured organic beef brisket…arse.

Bra Review

I thought I’d do a couple of these: I think it’s a good idea for the company I work for, but I doubt anyone’s got the time.

We had a Staff Sale yesterday, and I picked up a Panache Atlantis liquid-filled bra for 5 – someone else has worn it and returned it in a condition that wouldn’t be acceptable to the public. Mmm. Anyway, I can report that it does exactly what it says on the tin. It makes a 32b bosom look *massive*. Tops that don’t usually fit, suddenly do. There’s cleavage where there’s usually just ribcage. However, like a empathetic pregnancy pouch, this bra allows me to experience what women with big tits must go through every day. This bra weighs a *ton* – well, as much as two c/d cup breasts, I suppose. Although it fits properly, this bra definitely makes its presence felt in the shoulders and back. One for those special evenings, I feel.

The best push-up bra I’ve ever had is *not* a Wonderbra. Whilst Wonderbras are OK, they can be uncomfortable and feel a bit cheap. I also find the extra sponge padding a bit creepy and weird. Allumette/Simone Perele (the one is a diffusion range of the other) do a padded push-up bra in a variety of styles and they’re all excellent. They look beautiful, are very comfortable, and feel lovely. Mind you, they are about twice the price of a Wonderbra which might have something to do with it. Well worth the extra, if you want a nice, supportive bra that pushes up without giving a cartoon cleavage.

Tea People

John Walker, who is a Christian (such things are important to point out), has often waxed lyrical about Coffee People. I�m a much calmer person than John, and am a Tea Person. Like the red squirrel, Tea People are being endangered by the imported, American Coffee People. I must point out that when I say �tea�, I mean the dried, fermented leaves of the tea bush Camellia Sinesis, and not a gauzy sachet of some flowers and pulverised fruit. The needs of *that* kind of person are amply met by the provision described below.

Coffee is OK in its place, I suppose. There are times (late night driving, meetings and so forth) when it�s important to stay awake and caffeine seems to be the least damaging way of doing so. I�ve tried sticking pens in my thighs, propping up my eyelids surreptitiously and eating endless Polo mints, but coffee seems to do the trick more effectively than tea.

There are many things I don�t like about coffee. I don�t like its pervasive after taste: still being able to taste the coffee I drunk an hour ago at the back of my mouth. I don�t like the jagged, jumpy caffeine feeling it gives. I don�t like the churning stomach ache I get if I have more than a teeny espresso. In particular, I don�t like the paraphernalia and palaver involved in making a �proper� cup of coffee. Indeed, most British people don�t really like �real� coffee, if they�d only admit it to themselves. For a nation brought up on instant, the sudden proliferation of macchiatos, ristrettos, mochas, Americanos, lattes, mocha lattes, frappes and so forth is pleasing, but confusing and ultimately disappointing.

My mother finally had to admit defeat after the last coffee shop in town that would serve instant went out of business and now chokes down stewed filter coffee. She steadfastly refuses to try anything else and freezes in panic if the waiter/barista asks her what blend she�d like.

Nonetheless, she likes coffee, and this is what coffee shops sell. Sometimes it�s very good, sometimes it�s corporate bland and sometimes it�s nasty, but it�s all made the same way and all usually tastes of coffee, at least to me.

Now consider the tea drinker. I go to a coffee shop with a Coffee Person, say John Walker. John orders an Americano, and is asked what bean, blend and grind he�d like. We go and hang around the little tray at the end of the counter. The barista (or whatever they like to call themselves) busies herself/himself, slotting metal things into place in an enormous steel contraption that looks like a Newcomen engine, and starts building up a head of steam. Clouds of the stuff puff out of the top and sides, and the device starts making hissing, whirring, clanking and gurgling noises. Eventually, after all this fuss, a teaspoonful of black liquid is excreted with a “phut”.

But that�s not all. The then barista takes the tiny cup of precious fluid behind a big screen. Lights flash, dials spin. Several minutes later, John is presented with an enormous cardboard cup of steaming brown stuff. He sips and pronounces whether it�s good, bad or indifferent.

Whilst all this heavy machinery has been churning away, I have ordered a tea. The barista goes to the little cardboard box of teabags and grabs one at random. At this point, I will usually ask for a specific tea and get glowered at by the barista. He/she will then perform the incredibly complex task of opening the little paper sachet, taking out the teabag, placing it in a paper cup (if I�m staying in, it�s at this point I will demand a proper mug), ensuring the tag dangles over the rim, and then adding hot water.

The cup of hot water with a teabag in it is then placed on the little tray thing. I have already paid the absurd sum of at least 1.50 for this. I then have to add the milk and sugar myself and pound at the cheap teabag to get some actual tea out of it.

It surprises me that a cup of coffee, which involves complicated technical feats with superheated steam, usually costs only a few pence more than a cup of tea, which is a cup of hot water and a teabag.

Trendy coffee shops (no, not *that* one) display an array of different roasts and blends to choose from, if you�re a coffee person. There are at least as many different varieties and styles of tea as coffee and what do I get? A teabag in a paper sachet. If I were a herbal tea person, I�d at least be asked what scent I�d like my hot water to be.

As for the tea I receive, if it’s in a paper cup, it mainly tastes of paper. If it’s in a china cup, it usually tastes weak and slightly burnt, because of the poor quality tea in the bag.

The HSE standard guidelines indicate that on average a cup of tea contains half as much caffeine as a cup of normal coffee. If you’re drinking espresso (and if you’re a Coffee Person, you will be), then quadruple that at least. Tea People are much calmer than Coffee People and so we put up with our shoddy treatment far more often than we should.

So, Tea People, stand up for your rights. Stand up for the tinkle of a spoon on china cup, stand up for teapots. Demand an end to the infringement by the Coffee and Herbal “tea” People of the tea shelves in the supermarket: refuse to be squeezed into a corner by the demands of these jittery and tasteless folk. Tea is the drink of the British – of Gladstone, of Queen Victoria, of Nora Batty and Thora Hird.

If you would like to be a Tea Person, I recommend the following:

Clipper Organic Loose Leaf Assam for when you want to be woken up
Tea Direct teabags for every day
Clipper Organic Single Estate Darjeeling for when you want to relax
Clipper Single Estate Ceylon for when you want to spend some quality time with the teapot
The Tea House in Covent Garden
Bettys in Harrogate and York
Boston Tea Party in Bath. Despite being full of jittery coffee freaks, they do nice Darjeeling in a proper teapot.
A nice bone china teapot and a little filter basket, available at Whittards, so you can take out loose leaf tea and stop your tea from stewing in the pot.

Avoid the following:
Decaffeinated tea – if you’re about to go to bed, have rooibos.
Ayeurvedic tea, because it tastes like a hippy’s armpit and doesn’t appear to have any Ayeurvedic effects: it isn’t an emetic and doesn’t cause diarrhoea.
Anything with the word “detox” in it

And, if you’re an American:
Orange Pekoe refers to the leaf type, not the tea variety. It’d be like asking for “medium ground” and not specifying what beans you’d like ground in this way.
Tea does not taste nice with cream. Milk, lemon or black.
Tea People bring their own tea bags when visiting America. Infer from this what you will about the quality of tea offered in your supermarkets. In fact, picket them till they see sense.

A commonplace book on the internet.