Category Archives: General

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

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.

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.

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.

Fried

I’ve always thought a lot of traditional English dishes merely consist of heating up raw ingredients – the skill is involved in selecting the components of the meal and ensuring they’re all ready at the same time. This last bit of synchronisation seems to be the most difficult part to perfect, as anyone who’s been subjected to a first-time Christmas dinner will attest. The ingredients – decent vegetables and proper meat (if you’re that way inclined) – are often forgotten in the melee as the cook ensures everything has gone the correct shade of brown.

Roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding can be a miserable, flaky, dry dish, with the meat the colour of a rainy November afternoon and tiny, chewy puddings out of the freezer. On the other hand, it can be a delight: rich, tender meat, nut-brown on the outside and dark pink in the middle with fluffy, crispy puds. The procedure is the same for each dish, but one is a rewarding experience and the other is redolent of the Austerity Years: a style of cuisine much loved by the over 50s. Salted butter and instant coffee… I know we are monstrously lucky and gluttonous these days, but doing fake penance by eating plasticky Cheddar cheese is neither here nor there. If you’re worried about agricultural overproduction, the last thing you should do is purchase your local supermarket’s loss-leading own brand slop.

Fry-ups are a fine art in themselves. Unlike a roast dinner, the individual elements must be ready all at the same time or the moment is lost. Whether you’re having a vegetarian, kosher, diet or traditional fry-up, the procedure is the same.

Everyone has a different idea of what should go in the frying pan, although the basics are the same. There should be a tomato-based element, for moisture. Some slice and fry fresh tomatoes, while others heat up tinned tomatoes, and still others have baked beans. Heinz are now doing a baked bean with vegetarian sausages – I can report that the sausages taste the same as the ostensibly meaty ones.

There’s usually a starch section, although no doubt if you’re on the Atkins you would replace this with some horrendous protein-and-aspartame Soylent Beige thing. The tradition is to have a fried slice, but since this is essentially a bready sponge full of oil, I tend to avoid it. Hash browns are nice, but to be honest if you have beans, you can leave this part out.

Onto the proper proteins. I like Quorn sausages, since they’re not oily and one can avoid that nasty nagging worry that they’re not done properly that you can get with ordinary sausages. I like two eggs and I turn them over whilst frying. I know a lot of people don’t do this, but I find this way the white doesn’t go rubbery and burnt on the bottom whilst leaving the yolk completely raw.

Eggs are the home strait. The beans should be bubbling nicely. Heinz always warn you not to let them boil, but I quite like doing that. They bubble and pop sporadically like those hot mud springs that always seemed to feature on Blue Peter when I was little – I haven’t seen the mud springs yet but the beans are something of a consolation.

I like to apply a little artistry to the arrangement on the plates, ensuring all elements remain separate. It is for the diner to mingle the parts together, not the cook. Tomato ketchup or, if you’re common or from Manchester, brown sauce can be provided. No salt, though: I find there’s plenty of salt in there already.

One last word: I know a fry up is a traditional hangover dish, but I won’t stand for that. I am very rarely hungover and when I am the last thing I want to do is cook. Hungover fry ups are generally burnt, greasy and unpleasant – a bit like hangovers themselves.

Bunnies

I feel I should explain some more about the destructive lagomorphs I share my house with: Debbie and Ian. I also have three rats (no, I’m not a goth and they’re not weird pets. Snakes are weird pets). Maureen and Pamela are mink Berkshires, and Agnes is an overweight Agouti Rex.

Rats are intelligent, engaging and affectionate. They actively enjoy and seek out human company, yet I get called a weirdo and am frequently told how rats would be OK if it weren’t for their tails. Yes, and tigers would be OK if it weren’t for their huge fangs and claws. The tail is part of the rat, I’m afraid – it’s semi-prehensile and sometimes a rat will twirl it around my finger or wrist to steady herself. I’ve also seen rats pick up their tail in both hands and clean it, which is nearly as cute as when they stick one of their ratty fingers in an ear, wiggle it around and then have a look at what comes out before eating it. Rats are victims of negative PR from endless horror movies and the Black Death.

Two things about the plague – humans caught it off fleas because of their own mucky habits, and the *black* rats that transmitted the fleas died of the plague first. Then the fleas jumped onto people. One last thing – the next movie you see with a big, squeaky swarm of rats? Nonsense. Rats usually only squeak when frightened or hurt.

Rabbits, on the other hand, are victims of their own fluffy, twitchy nosed cuteness, and plenty of positive PR from Beatrix Potter, through Disney, to nursery decorations, but a visit to any animal sanctuary will reveal dozens of bunnies, abandoned there by disappointed owners.

A rabbit is a popular choice of pet for children: but many adults have childhood memories of a reticent, sometimes cantankerous creature kept in a tiny hutch at the bottom of the garden. A child’s belief that
their bunny will enjoy being cuddled and fed carrots and lettuce is usually dispelled after a couple of days spent with a prey animal that will instinctively resist being picked up (because in the wild, this
generally means you’ve become lunch for an eagle), will kick out with back legs powerful enough to disembowel a dog and which can die of diarrhoea from eating too much lettuce.

Bunnies aren’t particularly demonstrative of affection, unless kept alone. It’s a matter of personal conscience whether it’s better to have a lonely bunny that likes being petted, or a couple of rabbits that prefer their own company to yours.

Debbie and Ian are dwarf French Lops. They are dwarves, despite being about the size of cats – the original French Lop is a meat breed the size of a carthorse. Debbie is a classic fawn rabbit colour, and Ian is black. They were rescued from some idiot who kept them in a teeny tiny hutch on a balcony somewhere near Kensall Green. Both look quite cute, but the best way to look at them is as animated furry cabbages. They are happiest if they have something to destroy and like to steal food, either from the table if they can reach it, or from the bin. If you doubt the destructive nature of bunnies, visit Australia, Hawaii or New Zealand, where their nibbling has endangered many rare species of bird and small mammal.

I think the most you can hope for from a rabbit is a sort of baffled tolerance. They can be housetrained, and persuaded to not despise being groomed, although it takes a while. Whilst I feel affection towards the rats, I mainly feel obligation for the rabbits. They’re not easy to maintain (they like hay, which is dusty and messy, and their larger housing means they’re hard to clean out), they’re not cheap to look after and the experience isn’t tremendously rewarding.

I wouldn’t recommend them as a pet for children: buy them a couple of rats instead. Jack Black, ratcatcher to Queen Victoria, felt a certain admiration for these intelligent creatures and began breeding the more unusually coloured ones to sell as pets in the 1860s:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Black_%28rat_catcher%29

So it’s not weird, OK. Beatrix Potter kept rats too, and it’s a shame Samuel Whiskers didn’t do for Rattus Norvegicus what Peter Rabbit did for Oryctolagus Cuniculus. The rest of Europe has the right idea: they keep rats as pets and have rabbits for dinner. Visit your local game dealer (they would probably appreciate the business) and get some tomorrow.

Pirates. Yarrr.

Sorry, had to post this:

http://www.somethingawful.com/articles.php?a=2320&p=1

“it’s just possibly conceivable that terrorists might include DVD piracy as one of the many, many ways in which they make money.”

If you buy a pirate DVD, you’re an idiot, since you can download them for free. As for having heads in the way, bollocks. I haven’t been to a cinema that tiny with a seat layout that bad for decades.

If film companies insist on hyping a film for six months, why should they be at all surprised when people want to see the movie before it’s released?

Clothing

Due to the robbery, I have been walletless for a week. Carrying around loose change and cards in my pocket or bag became too annoying on Friday night, when I went to see Dodgeball (which is OK, not as bad as everyone says: you have to be in the right frame of mind and like Ben Stiller). The weight of the metal in my pockets was dragging down my trousers, causing me to pull them up every so often like an over-aroused Peeping Tom.

Nick and I went on an abortive excursion down our local parade of shops yesterday, but my quest for a wallet failed. Our local shops cater exclusively for the 40-something Lady Who Lunches. Although they are all independent (good), they stock skin-tight denim, revealing asymmetric tops and shoes that would only suit a prostitute with enormous clown feet, all at astronomical prices.

The LWL in North London is a high-maintenance woman: she has dyed black hair, wrap around sunglasses, and has skin the exact colour of Irn-Bru and the texture of well-worn leather. Ms LWL drives a ridiculous 4-wheel-drive monstrosity which takes up two parking spaces in M&S. Her grooming and general upkeep is so labour intensive that it supports an entire economy in North London: on one street alone, we have four beauty salons, three premium hairdressers, a couple of pharmacists specialising in quack remedies for the bored and neurotic, and a gym.

I knew the quest would be fruitless, but it was a nice day. We went up one side and down the other, and found only bizarre handbags with studs on them costing 200 each for our pains. I wanted a nice, soft, leather Radley wallet like the one I lost. A lovely squashy leather wallet, with plenty of handy slots for my cards and the like, and a little Scottie dog appliqued on the front. I knew I wouldn’t find it here.

Nick hauled me into one shop in the end, and I was faced with a woman in a poncho and her forties. She had enormous hair.

“Do you do Radley?” I said, knowing the answer.
“No,” she replied.

We went home.

This afternoon, I prepared for an expedition to Oxford Street. One of the things that irritates me about London is that I can’t simply walk down to the shops like I used to when I lived in Reading, Hitchin or Hull. I know chain stores are Bad, but I think I’ve explained my situation above. If I want to go to New Look, say, I have to either run the 4WD gauntlet of Brent Cross and battle my way through pushchairs, or go to Oxford Street and run the black cab gauntlet and battle my way through tourists.

I shuttled from John Lewis (a force for Good), and House of Fraser (a force for Gucci), doing price comparisons. House of Fraser not only did “my” wallet in a nice spearmint blue, but also did a Radley shoulder bag in raspberry nylon and leather which was just the right size and had enough pockets to bring me out in a fetishistic flush.

Because of my tiny feet, I am a bag and not a shoe person. There’s no point getting all excited about shoes when you know that they will only come in canoe sizes. If the shop has any 36s at all, they’re either square-toed matronly things, or teetering high-heeled evening sandals. Nun or tart.. some choice. I know I shouldn’t whinge, given my bra rant below, but I really don’t think size 3 is *that* obscure and I resent having to either pay 150 at LK Bennett for suede ballet pumps or 30 at Barratts for children’s school shoes.

Anyway, after my leathergoods success, I went to H&M to return some trousers I had bought for Nick as a present. They were nice, grey linen ones and Nick wore them twice, washed them twice, and then observed a 50p piece sized hole developing nicely in the crotch. Either something was making a bid for freedom or they were made of crappy quality linen.

I had a printout of my bank statement as proof of purchase. I wondered, briefly, about explaining why I had been buying clothes for my boyfriend, and decided it didn’t matter. I showed the cashier the hole, my bank statement, and said that while of course I don’t expect cheap H&M clothes to last forever, I certainly expect them to last more than a month.

She was very nice, and gave me gift vouchers because I didn’t have a receipt. Fair enough, I thought, I don’t mind having 25 credit in H&M.

I had a quick potter around the store, the 25 burning a hole in my pocket. I often like to go to the lingerie department and see what they’re ripping off at the moment: Love Kylie (and the real thing’s not very nice) and Bonds, it looks like. I then went over to the real clothes section, and was reminded of the latest “story” in the fashion magazines – they called it “Secretary”. It was all pussycat bow blouses, tweedy suits and mid-calf pencil skirts in dark turquoise, brown and jade. Now, this stuff would be fine if I either a) were five years younger, b) worked in a City office, or c) weren’t a secretary in Real Life.

Yes, no matter what fancy title I might have bestowed upon me, that is what I am. A fine career, as long as you don’t want to do anything else. I’m what my boss calls “staff”, that is, there’s one of me, I have no reports and am pseudo-senior, but have no upward trajectory. It’s what you’re cursed to become if you didn’t do a marketing degree, can type and know how laser printers and photocopiers work. Because we’re so useful in a world where most communication is by text but most people can’t touch-type, we end up trapped. Our role model is Miss Moneypenny, forever stuck behind a typewriter in a frilly blouse. Although in the newer Bond movies, Moneypenny is portrayed as being a get-up-and-go executive PA type, presenting Bond with all those little essential he needs that Q has overlooked, there’ll always be at least one shot of Moneypenny behind her computer or her little shorthand notebook. I bet she’s wishing she could be a spy – despite MI5 paying their frontline spy staff labout 10,000 a year less than an executive PA can expect in the City.

I heard secretaries described as an office wife once. Nonsense. A secretary/PA/Executive Assistant/Office Manager is an office *mother*. She goes and buys you lunch, she buys your wife a Mothers’ Day gift, she buys you tights when you’ve laddered yours, she makes sure you’re in the hotel you like when you go away on business and she always has a Post-It to hand (Super Sticky). Her encyclopaedic knowledge of the Viking Direct stationery catalogue borders on the disturbingly obsessive, and she *knows* what a DL envelope is. Ah, Tyvek, you are a cruel mistress.

As for The Temp… With the constant random sackings at my office, I keep The Temp neatly folded up in my bottom drawer, just in case I need her.

So anyway, I’m not going to turn up to work dressed like Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Liqueurs

From when I was very small, I’ve been aware of my dad’s drinks cabinet: and it was my dad’s, not my mother’s. I must stress that I’ve only rarely *drunk* anything in this cupboard. I was too young before I left home, and when I was old enough I didn’t find the contents terribly appealing.

It was (and still is) a dark teak freestanding unit that comes up to my shoulders so it’s about one and a half metres high. The design is horrible, or “reproduction” as my mother likes to call it. On the very top, bounded by a little dowelling rail, is a collection of dusty gewgaws and detritus. There’s the oil lamp in the shape of a cottage that was a gift from my German exchange student; the candlesticks that were a present from some Danish choir members that stayed in the house and kept telling my dad about how they would swim in the lakes back home wearing nothing but a hat and a smile. Next to those (before I nicked them for souvenirs) were two mugs with my school badge on, given to all finishers in the Fun Run. No, I didn’t do the Fun Run – Running is not Fun. My dad did.

Also here, gathering dust and fluff, is a collection of warty ornamental gourds. I remember coming to visit one weekend about four years ago, and finding these things fscking *everywhere*. I’d sit down on the sofa, there’s a gourd. I’d be in the bathroom, selecting towels to “borrow” for my house: there’s another gourd. I’d be “borrowing” some books (Cherry Ames: Cruise Nurse) – whoops, a gourd. Upon inquiry, it turned out that my dad had decided to grow some in the greenhouse as a wildly successful experiment. Well, successful if what you want is approximately 50 hideously deformed courgettes.

Like a dresser, the cabinet has a small sub-cabinet accessed by two A4 sized glass doors, where my parents keep their diminishing collection of wine glasses (diminshed by their four kleptomaniac and clumsy children). Below these doors is a shelf, and then two large doors beneath. Opening these reveals my dad’s esoteric collection of rare alcohols.

So, what do we have in the musty-smelling recesses of this “reproduction” cabinet? Ah, the plastic gallon bottle of Bulgarian tequila he bought for one American dollar in Sofia. My friends and I found it one dimly remembered evening, but it was so unpleasant we stopped after about three slammers. Just as well, because my dad had marked the bottle and found out that I’d had some. He was more cross than you’d expect him to be: after all, I’d had only about one-twentieth of the contents and hadn’t thought it very nice at at all.

Hmm… the bottle of Old Navy Rum that comes out once a year for rum sauce. I swear this is the same bottle I remember from when I was just old enough to see over the kitchen worktop at my mum’s making the sauce. This bottle of Creme De Menthe was old when I first discovered it. I didn’t like the sticky green liquid inside and much preferred the ancient jar of olives next to it.

My parents like to keep food until it’s really, really out of date. Only a few weeks ago, I found a tub of dried milk that had a best before date of 1999. This, in case you’re from the future, is 2004. I once cleared out the kitchen cupboards and chucked out a bottle of sesame oil. The teaspoonful of oil in the bottle was rancid, and it had outstayed its welcome by roughly two years. When my mother found out that I’d ditched it, she reacted as if I’d thrown out something valuable. In fact, she reminds me of my heinous crime *every* time I visit. Last Christmas, we were presented with a prawn cocktail starter made from frozen prawns with a sell by date of the *previous* December. I don’t think Nick’s ever been happier to be Jewish, as it meant he could refuse them without appearing rude.

Anyway, that’s why there’s a 30 year old bottle of creme de menthe in there. I ate the olives when I was about 8 with no apparent ill-effects.

Ooh, Gorbachev vodka, which was going cheap when my dad last visited Russia about 6 years ago. I think the Yeltsin stuff was too high-class for him. For paintstripper, it’s not bad. I wonder what the Putin vodka is like…

I remember these bulbous bottles. He bought them during a trip to France. One is mandarin flavoured, and has a mandarin in the bottom. The other is pear and, well, you can guess. Of course the neck of the bottle is too narrow to fit a whole fruit in it. My siblings were pondering this enigma for some time, but I solved it straight away! I had read this fascinating fact somewhere that the liqueur distillers tie bottles onto the fruit when it’s still tiny and unripe. It ripens and grows in the wide bottom and then they fill the bottle with the liqueur. Lo, the family were deeply impressed with my knowledge.

Only that’s not how they did it. Yes, it’s the traditional way, but this is the space age. On examination some years later, I found that the base of the bottle had been glued on.

Onwards and deeper into the musty depths: small bottles of Bols with lurid crystallised deposits around the lids. Triple Sec, Coco and Parfait Amour (made with violets, this is probably the only nice thing in here). They are all at least 15 years old.

Never having had experience of other liqueur cabinets, and certainly not having one of my own, I wonder if the contents here are typical, or a reflection of my dad. For the record, he probably drinks a centilitre of one of these bottles once a month.

Moulting

My hair’s shedding at an alarming rate. There’s hair bloody everywhere. Fortunately I can guess the reason why and it’s another one of those Things They Don’t Tell You about being a Lady. When one starts taking the Pill, as well as proving to the world that one is loose, one’s body is tricked into thinking it’s pregnant. After giving birth, women often find their hair starts falling out. A similar thing happens if you stop taking the Pill – for up to six months (!)

I have decided to start taking it again. It’s bad enough clearing up the shed bunny hair.

Sparks

I was following a vague memory of a Nigella Lawson recipe in the kitchen and had just put it in the fridge to set (Slut-Red Raspberries in Chardonnay Jelly). I pottered into the living room and was about to settle down when I heard a funny noise coming from the dining room, where the rabbits live.

It sounded a bit like marbles falling onto a hard surface. Strange sounds usually mean that they’re out and up to no good, so I went to have a look. Usually they know if they’re doing Bad Things and stop when shouted at. Nobody and nothing can do bemused innocence like a rabbit.

I opened the door, and saw the cause of the noise. There’s an air purifier in the room because the rabbits are quite dusty; they had managed to pull out the cable from what Nick and I thought was a secure place. They had been chewing on it. Chewing on a cable attached to a live appliance. Big blue sparks were coming out of the cable and making the popping noise I had heard, yet both bunnies seemed unconcerned and were hopping around it. I bent down and threw a box to get them out of the way (well, I wasn’t going to touch them at that point) and yelled for Nick to switch the power off.

I was suddenly kneeling in darkness and thinking it rather silly that I have a torch in a sensible place, but that I wasn’t sure where that place was. We both used our phones as torches and tried to find some matches. Eventually some were tracked down and we began trying to unplug the offending cable by candlelight.

This was easier said than done. Our landlady let us an unfurnished house containing lots of horrible white melamine furniture. When we moved in, we had to pile a lot of it up and ‘lost’ some of it in the shed and garage. The socket is behind two cheapo chests of drawers, one on top of the other, and we had to dismantle the whole edifice to reach the socket and unplug the air purifier. All this was by the light of two ornamental candles: one beeswax, the other sandalwood scented.

House bunnies moult constantly so there was a lot of fluff and dust behind those drawers. Once it was safe, we put the power back on in between sneezes. I was about to start to vacuum, but Nick decided to check the vacuum cleaner’s cable too. Just as well – the flex had teeth marks in it and the live wire had been neatly exposed. We did some repairs, cleaned up, and restored the room to normal.

The rabbits were entirely unconcerned throughout. I suppose they didn’t feel the sparks through their thick fluffy coats, but I am amazed neither were electrocuted. Debbie was almost sitting on the cable when I discovered it and was quite unwilling to move: hence the box throwing. There were no burn, melt or scorch marks on the mat or carpet, but I suppose it was just a matter of time. Check the batteries in your smoke alarm today, folks. Mice and rats like chewing cables too…

Later, I went upstairs and switched on my laptop – nothing. I waggled the cable – brief flash of life, then nothing. I swapped the power supply – fine. I had a look at the old cable and little, sharp bunny teeth had tidily severed one of the wires inside.

Nigella Lawson has a recipe called Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor’s Salad. I must have a look at that again.

28 August: the jelly wasn’t very nice. I used Riesling instead of Chardonnay and I underestimated the amount of sugar required.