Lost in London

A look at London and life in general through the eyes of someone who sometimes can't bear to watch.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

It's tricky

So tonight is Hallowe'en and all over the country pumpkins are being hollowed out, that horrible cobweb stuff is being hung over doorframes and battered, plastic witches' hats are being dusted off. I've never really 'got' Hallowe'en as an 'event'. We did all about it at school and would draw pictures with ghosts on but that's about as far as it went. Hallowe'en came and went and everybody concerned themselves more with impending Bonfire Night.

Now it seems as if Hallowe'en has turned into a monster much more ghoulish than any of the damned souls supposedly roaming the Earth on All Hallows' Eve. Shops are stocking bunting and costumes way before October kicks in and I've been asked the bizarre question 'What are you doing for Hallowe'en?' more than once. The answer is: fuck all, it's a Tuesday.

The trick or treat aspect of Hallowe'en baffles me: as a child in Yorkshire this part of the night was all but ignored. No eggs at windows, no sugar in the petrol tank, no potatoes in exhausts. This is not to say that all Yorkshire children are angelic. Instead we had a special night set aside for doing these things: Mischievous Night (sometimes known as Mischief Night but more usually wonderfully mispronounced as Mischievious Night). Mischievous Night is on 4 November every year and originated from the practice of stealing other people's firewood from their bonfire stacks. Mischievous Night doesn't bother with the niceties of offering your victim the chance to give you a 'treat' to avoid a 'trick'. It's trick, trick, trick all the way, whether you like it or not. Eggs thrown at doors, windows and people was usually the favourite way to bring out the inner delinquent, but smearing poo on door handles and ordering countless taxis and pizzas were also strong contenders. I could usually never be bothered to take part in most of this, but would rouse myself and step out to throw the odd egg.

I don't know whether Mischievous Night is still going. I think it's all but died out because my younger sister hasn't mentioned it but she has been most insistent on going 'Hallowe'ening'. If I were more of a xenophobe I suppose I'd say something about American culture supplanting British traditions, but I can't be arsed and anyway, taking part in Mischievous Night is likely to land you an ASBO these days so perhaps it's one custom that's best left to wither away.

I do notice, however, that a new film called Mischief Night is about to be released, so maybe it's not over yet. I might just pop out and get some eggs for old time's sake.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

New model army

How do you make a bunch of wannabe models look good? Make Rachel Hunter their mentor, that's how.

There are some reality TV shows I just can't get to grips with. Wife Swap, for example, was a genuinely interesting experiment for the first couple of what TV networks now like to call 'seasons' before degenerating into a battle of the classes. Big Brother was cool until it started to make increasingly desperate attempts to shock and be talked about, like a drunk girl at a wedding who continually shows her knickers until she gets noticed.

Make Me A Supermodel, one of Five's most successful ventures into the genre, following the stillbirth of Back to Reality and lukewarm reception to the second outing of The Farm, has got me engrossed, but probably not for the reasons it would like to have. I've decided that comedy is old hat and all you have to do for a laugh is watch this programme. The premise is that 12 young people of varying age, background and intelligence are in the running to be given a life-changing modelling contract. They live in a house Big Brother style and spend each day doing the most ludicrous assignments, all supposedly designed to test their mettle as the next Kate Moss or Travis Fimmel. The humour doesn't come from the wannabes themselves. They spend most of the time being bullied, slagged off or moaning at how arrogant everyone is, but on the whole they're just harmless people all desperate to escape their dull, pedestrian lives; an obsession I remember having myself in my late teens.

The objects of my ridicule are the 'experts': the motliest crew of clueless fucks I ever did see. The whole operation is overseen by Rachel Hunter. They're calling her a 'supermodel' in the titles and voiceover and keep cutting to a cover of Vogue she was on to convince us further. Funny, but I seem to remember her being nothing more than a swimsuit model and don't remember her giving Cindy, Kate and Christy a run for their money at any time on the catwalk or in the glossies. Perhaps being Rod Stewart's erstwhile common-law wife affords you the ability to rewrite history, but supermodel she ain't. Her role is to mentor these unfortunates and be a source of encouragement. She does this by changing her accent every two minutes, blankly staring at them as they cry hysterically and constantly telling them she wants to take them out of their 'comfort zone'.

The 'comfort zone' seems to be a common theme, with Rachel's fellow panel members parroting the phrase at every opportunity, usually when they're about to humiliate one of the contestants by making them put their cock in a high-heeled shoe or eat a jellied kitten all in the name of being a model. The panel includes photographer Perou, GQ editor and talking head Dylan Jones and Tandy Anderson, the director of Select models who tries so hard to be terrifying she actually looks ridiculous and borderline certifiable. Her 'tough talking' involves Tandy swivelling her eyes and telling the models how shit they are, treating them like lifeless organisms and giving startlingly contradictory advice; one week telling a girl to show more of her personality only to bawl her out days later for, er, showing her personality too much.

What makes the programme so hilarious and essential viewing chez Lost Boy is the show's desperate attempt to make modelling into this high art skill that takes more than beauty and the willingness to be treated like a stray pube found in the tortellini. The experts go on about 'personality', 'dedication' and 'talent' for what seems like an eternity and then as soon as the camera starts to click, spoil it all by telling the subjects to 'give more face' or 'do sex'. It's so fucking ridiculous and the experts are so out of touch with reality and common sense that I can only assume that all those years spent with the vacuous and the volatile has addled their brains. If you haven't caught it yet, you must; it's made me feel like the most sane person I've ever met.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Every little helps

Why can't a company with profits of £2 billion per year spend nothing on a smile?

I am off sick so working from home at the moment. Because I am at home and hungry and there's never anything for lunch in this house, I've found it necessary to go to the supermarket today. I have an on-off love affair with the supermarket. Sometimes I can spend hours browsing the aisles and picking up products as if plucking flowers in beautiful woodland, making appreciative noises at their packaging or fat content. On other occasions, I race round it like a Tasmanian devil. Today was a mixture between the two. I thought that the supermarket would be dead on a Tuesday afternoon, but clearly people on the Old Kent Road either love to take their days off on the same day, are on the sick like me, or just love going to the supermarket and find that having a job interferes with this fascinating hobby.

When I usually go to Tesco- or Tesco's as I delight in calling it, in defiance at its brand name- it's heaving and stocks are usually heavily depleted. Imagine my surprise today when I discovered that this actually is a permanent state and that empty shelves are de rigueur no matter what the time of day.

What I also can't get my head round is that it is incredibly difficult to find what I want. Baffling stock decisions include selling only three variations of pasta, yet in thirteen different brands and three types of garlic salt yet no garlic pepper. I've given up on ever having the juice I like again and if I want to continue with my favourite butter, I must buy it in portions big enough for three rounds of toast. The answer is, of course, to start shopping online again, but then I'm just setting myself up for more frustration and fury, what with delivery charges, missing items, 'substitutions' ("you asked for cod fillets, we substituted cod liver oil"), skipping deliveries, broken eggs and much, much more.

My local Tesco is the most unlovely of all the chain's 10 million outlets. Customer service is but a memory, a long-forgotten fragrance or a stray hair on a pullover i.e. completely irrelevant. Its joyless staff walk around the place as if nipping to the corner shop or queuing in a doctor's surgery; my presence at the checkout an interruption of deep philosophising and my enquiry at the helpdesk a nuisance during a very important phone call to someone called John. I've worked in a supermarket before; not all of it a lot of fun, I admit. We did have to be nice to customers, though. That was kind of the point. I'm always really nice and friendly to them, too, but this seems to drive them over the edge and make them hate me even more. Politeness costs nothing. Apparently.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Only when I laugh

Last night I went to see some comedy. Live. In a theatre. I don't normally do this kind of thing because a) I have a pathological fear of being picked on to do some 'audience participation/ humiliation' b) I'm not the kind of person to laugh out loud if I find something funny; my frown just straightens out at one side of my mouth usually and c) seeing the Edinburgh Fringe year in year out can put you off for life.

Before moving to London, I used to live in Edinburgh. Edinburgh is a very beautiful, stark city where nothing at all happens for much of the year except weather. For a few days over Christmas and Hogmanay, Edinburgh is transformed from blustery, freezing wind tunnel into, er, blustery, freezing wind tunnel with lots of lights on trees and Americans in tam o' shanters wishing you a 'Happy Nu Yeeer'. In August, the city is once again transformed as the Edinburgh Festivals take hold. It can be quite a strange time: all of a sudden, everything is open two hours longer than usual; there are things to do and places to go; most people seem to be in a good mood. It's like living in a different city.

In my capacity as a writer, I've had the good fortune to 'cover' the Festival- the Fringe in particular. This means I got to see loads of free shows, which, on paper, sounds great, but in reality was really quite a trial. Very occasionally, there'd be some fantastic shows, but quite often virtual tumbleweed would blow across the stage as yet another wannabe comedian died on his arse. I even paid to see a few shows, too, after I gave up reviewing; they were all dreadful.

Last night, however, the spell was broken. I admit I had my misgivings: the venue- the Pleasance in Islington- was a sister theatre to one in Edinburgh that has housed some notoriously shocking acts (as well as many good ones which I've never been able to get tickets for). As I approached and saw the familiar yellow livery and 'jokey' handwritten signage, my stomach lurched. Upon being served a room temperature bottle of Grolsch, I began winding my way through the sharp-shouldered students waiting for the auditorium to open. We got a good seat: near the front but not on the front row so I wouldn't get splattered by water or asked to say something. And, thankfully, it was great. The act was Mitchell and Webb, who currently have a sketch show on BBC Two. They were really good, despite that fact it was the first time they'd done this show in front of a live audience. They can verge upon Little Britain territory with the catchphrases- an idiot in a DangerMouse T-shirt kept screaming them out at various intervals- but I really enjoyed it; I surprised myself.

To give you a glimpse of what I saw, here's one of my favourite sketches of theirs, which they performed last night.

Oh and look: I've blogged for three consecutive days. This probably means that I won't blog now for another year; I'll need to rest after all of this output. It's like London buses, isn't it? You wait for ages and then three come along and write a blog. Um. Yes.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Open up

It seems like two minutes ago that I was running faster than I've ever done before towards Camden and away from an explosion which I somehow instinctively knew was a bomb. It wasn't two minutes ago, though; it was well over a year ago. While other people's lives changed for ever that day, mine was only made slightly more awkward: I avoided Tube trains for absolutely ages and got the bus to work and had a nightmare or two. On the journey, which was quite long because I lived out in zone 3 then, I would sit bolt upright scanning every bag and padded clothing I could see for potential explosives. How ridiculous I was.

Gradually, of course, I 'got over' this and life resumed to normal. I hardly ever think of July 7 and didn't even bother commemorating the first anniversary of the event in my blog, which purports to be about living in London. To be fair, information and thoughts about the event were at saturation point, anyway. My attention is only drawn to it when it's on the news and my memory of it was re-awakened this week by the news that male depression charity CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) had used the very bus bomb attack I had witnessed in a poster campaign to highlight the problem of male suicide. The poster (pictured above) states: 'Last year, 4 suicidal British men got our attention. Unfortunately, 983 others didn't'. At first, I thought it was quite good. I guess I'm in the minority because sadly the campaign has been strangled at birth thanks to 25 complaints. I could understand why this might rankle with some people, particularly those whose family members had been on the bus and you could argue that these men weren't 'suicidal' in the traditional sense and couldn't really be compared to more conventional suicide cases, but I thought it was a fantastic way of using something extremely negative and yet powerful to draw attention to a cause long neglected in people's minds. On reflection, however, I began to see how much of a misfire this campaign was. The bombers weren't suicidal, they were murderous. They weren't driven to suicide through depression, but as a means to publicise their cause. Perhaps the biggest parallel to be drawn here is that both the act of being a suicide bomber and producing these posters are quite unpleasant ways of giving publicity to your chosen campaign.

That said, male depression is still what they call a 'taboo' subject and I do believe the campaign's intentions were good. It seems that the caring, sharing '90s taught us nothing and that the 'new man' concept is dead in the water. Despite what comfy TV dramas tell you, many men still don't really like 'sharing' talking about their feelings. By the looks of it, the general public also don't like to talk about men who don't like to talk about their feelings. So, boys, if you do feel a bit down in the dumps, go and talk to somebody about it. It's take a real man to admit he needs a little help sometimes; it doesn't automatically mean that you'll develop a penchant for Barbra Streisand or shopping in Clone Zone. Honest.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Really saying something

I'm sick of Ken Livingstone telling me how great London is. When was the last time he caught a bus?

Unfortunately, they haven't yet invented a way for cities to talk to their inhabitants. It would be fabulous to hear how London really feels about the great and the grimy who tread her streets every day. I can imagine her sounding like a long-suffering mother, sick to death of her ungrateful offspring and just about to call in Supernanny to save her sanity. She would 'tsk' as someone dropped litter and remain tight lipped yet horrified at some of the seedier goings on in Soho took place (unless she was the type of mum who would wear a see-through negligée when opening the door to the milkman).

Until London does find a voice of its own, though, our glorious leader- the mayor Ken Livingstone- is doing all the talking for her. Not satisfied with being on TV or in the papers pretty much every day, Ken has now taken to putting up propaganda in Tube stations and on buses and even on great big billboards, to remind us all that we live in London and how wonderful it is. Some examples:

7 million Londoners- One London
Well, this is such a stupid statement I can't believe it even got past the planning stages. This thinly-veiled attempt to unite the capital's populace so that we won't bomb the shit out of the Tube just doesn't work for me. Of course there's only one London, unless there are parallel universes like that episode of Doctor Who where everyone had zeppelins. Why do we need pointing out how many Londons there are? And anyone with access to Wikipedia can get details of London's population. Pointless. Next!

There are more police officers on the streets than there were last year
I'm paraphrasing this one, but the gist seems to be that we're awfully lucky to have more police out pounding the beat than in previous years. Funny, whenever I see a cop not sitting in a patrol car, they're in front of me in the queue at Starbucks/ McDonald's. I'm not joking when I say I have lost count of how many coppers I've spotted carrying huge trays of lattes and biscuits out to patrol cars this month. God, I should send this to the Daily Mail; I'm turning into Littlejohn. Help!

Transport for London will not accept abusive behaviour towards its staff
I'm all for this one. I really hate to see some emotional/ drunk/ unreasonable commuter screaming at a Tube worker because he's late or missed his train or there's a signal problem. I can't understand anyone who'd want to take out their frustrations on these people; you might as well kick a puppy. But shouldn't it work both ways? Bus drivers can be the most miserable, sarcastic people you're ever likely to meet. I don't know what it is about my usual bus route that seems to enrage bus drivers, but they can be quite abusive and unpleasant at times. I guess they feel they've earned the right after years of petty arguments with passengers without the screen to protect them. Now that they're encased in plastic and padlocked for security, they can talk to customers however they like. I hope they're having fun; nobody else is.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Shut your cakehole

As Boris and Jamie battle it out over school dinners, I can't help but wonder if things aren't moving a little too fast.

It would appear that Boris Johnson has an opinion on everything. Whether he's quacking about Liverpudlians, Papua New Guinea or mums who push pastry-based products through the school fence for their salad-avoiding offspring, when Boris speaks, the country's media decides to listen, for some bizarre reason.

The latest row surrounding the blonde beefburger concerns the country's current obsession with making sure that schoolchildren don't eat all the shit they've been served for the last fifteen years and eat what Janie Oliver think they should be chowing down on instead. Boris reckons that parents should be able to feed their kids what they want and Jamie reckons that parents who give their kids junk food should be shot. How nice that life is so black and white, eh viewers?

I can see both sides of the argument, which isn't unusual for a contradictory motherfucker as me. In the space of just a few months, we've gone from a nation who fed their kids anything just to shut them up to a country seriously attempting to get their infants eating salad. I've for many years expressed concern about the food my ten-year-old sister has been eating at school. I've turned into one of those annoying adults who tries to drag conversation out of children by any means possible so have for years been grilling my sister about what she has for lunch. The story was always the same: smiley face potatoes; deep-fried something; burgers in breadcrumbs (blee!); and best of all spaghetti bolognese with mashed potatoes.

While I agree with Jamie Oliver that 'we' undoubtedly need to feed 'our' children better food at lunchtimes, wrenching sweets out of their hand and replacing it with a carrot while restocking vending machines with apples and water overnight doesn't quite seem the best way to go about it. I think the process has been too quick, with lots of thought about how much it's going to cost, but little about the effect on children. Many children are anti-greens enough without us telling them it's all they'll be able to eat from now on. Wouldn't the situation seem less extreme if the changes had been phased in over the course of a year or so?

At the same time, big blobs of hot air like Boris aren't helping. Of course parents should have a say in what their children eat, but what they don't realise is that children need to be educated in achieving a healthy, balance diet and if the parents aren't willing to do that then they shouldn't moan when the school tries to take the mantle. An old reactionary like Boris wading in isn't going to do much good. Wasn't it his objectionable political party who closed down most of the country's school kitchens and slashed budgets anyway? I wonder if his four children have to sit through turkey twizzlers twice a day. Are we really supposed to believe that someone as bombastic as Boris hasn't bellowed 'Eat your greens!' at the dinner table? Balderdash!