Monday, December 30, 2013

Return to Bolgoslavia

8 years ago I went to Budapest. It was a holiday after a fairly exciting/gruelling few months of work. I had an interesting time - especially waking up one morning to discover I'd been copied in to an email from the person I'd left in charge of my project: "So everyone, this has happened. I'm ccing James who'll deal with it asap."

I was in the curious and delightful position of having to apologise for something that had happened while I was on holiday. And sort it out. Asap. From a hotel lobby using very slow internet. Ah well.

Eight years later, and I really was there on holiday, and it was actually lovely fun. There are two kinds of places that you visit on holiday. Firstly, the places where you immediately imagine living there. Secondly, the places that you go "oh, yes, this is fun, but that's fine."

Budapest is a probably a very exciting place to work. But, a bit like Amsterdam, a tourist can have a great weekend there and not feel they need to go back in a hurry.

I did find myself in an Aldi. People who mutter that Aldi is like a third world supermarket haven't lived till they've visited one in Budapest. There wasn't quite a turnip on a plinth saying "this week's star prize", but my god it was dreary.

I came away with a delightful looking salami with sliced mushrooms in it, but my friend Tim refused to let me open it till he'd waved google translate on it. Turned out it was pressed pig brain, and the mushrooms were the spirally bits of... bits of... *retches*. If it had turned up in a posh London restaurant we'd all have applauded. As it was, we left it at the back of the fridge for the cleaner.

One delightful Communist hangover was the service in the delightfully named "Marquis du Salade". Your waiter would take your order. A few minutes later, the owner would appear. "I see you have ordered Number 13. A wonderful choice. Very wise. However, I would recommend Number 15."

"I'd really like Number 13."

"Number 15 is much the better option. I'll bring you that."

Number 15 was, of course, marvellous. And I suspect what anyone walking through the door would have got.

Slightly decrepit elegance clings to Budapest like the mist from the rivers (and yes, that is the river that the Viking River Cruises Sponsors Mystery Drama On ITV floats along). We were staying in a flat that was like a small stately home, with a vast chandelier in every room. Even the bathroom. We made it to the outdoor baths, where, after a barefoot run on subzero marble past ancient statues, you got to plunge into water warmer than a washing machine tackling tough stains. Carved fish blew steam at you. Men with the bodies of trained killers frolicked. Yes, it was marvellous.

Also notable was the RyanAir "departure lounge":

Yes, that really is a shed. With grills, no frills. Your plane awaits you, cattle.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

It's dead gym

My gym just died. It's been a slow and lingering thing. The death of a thousand towels.

When I joined in 2007, it was a fun little gym in the hotel around the corner. It bustled, but with the cosy bustle of a popular newsagent.

A couple of years ago they changed their direct debits. My accountant pointed this out. "What's this?" he asked. "Who are Debt Finance Ltd? Is this a loan?". That was a worrying sign. The recession was partly to blame - they had nearly a 1,000 members, but only about 200 ever came in. This was, it turned out, not an unusual statistic. People happily pay for gym membership because it makes them feel better about themselves. At some point during the recession, suddenly that £30 a month seemed like a luxury.

I offered to put leaflets through the doors on my block, but the gym owner gave me a look. "We don't really want that sort... you know..." as though I lived on an estate full of poor white trash just dying to combine their crack habit with cardio.

Last year, the gym had about 100 members. Which seemed enough to keep things ticking over. But you'd notice a few things. First equipment broke down. Then it started to disappear. Then the soap dispensers went. And finally the sauna became a chilly wooden box (a particular shame, as I was once delightfully molested in there).

A week after the water cooler stopped working, men turned up with tape measures. I've worked in enough doomed offices to know what that means. A week later the personal trainers vanished like memories. First went Costas (huge arms, smelly protein shake poos). Then the nameless hulk with the tattoo of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer on his shoulder (sadly, a naked Buffy). And finally lovely Manel and Daria. And then a notice appeared "We are closing forever at the end of the week".

In some ways this is a sad thing. But change is good. Turns out there's another gym down the road. It's a fiver more, but it's huge and has lots of equipment. And all of it works. Even the sauna (crosses fingers and waits for a prince).

Monday, November 25, 2013


"Seminar" is one of those words. At university it frequently means 8 hung-over people mumbling through Anglo-Saxon translations. But, in the wider world it really seems to mean "Faux Intellectual way of describing a Scam."

We've a "Pop-Up Shop" in our street. It sells nasty perfume and miracle weightloss liquid. Innocuously silly. Until it put up signs saying "FREE SEMINAR: Earn more cash for xmas!". You just know what this means - some poor sods are going to be going door-to-door, plaguing their friends with nasty perfume and diet water.

A few years ago I was looking to buy a flat in Cardiff. One seemed incredibly cheap and I emailed to ask for more details. The next thing my phone rang: "We would like to invite you to a seminar about..." I hung up.

You just know what it is. A small group of earnest people, some taking dutiful notes. A snake oil salesman.

Our local snake oil salesman is at least wearing his nasty perfume. The problem is, it's clearly intended for ladies, so he smells like an aunt's toilet.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

My Fear of Cycling

It's been a bad week to be a cyclist in London. The daily deaths are not just upsetting - they're selfishly frightening. I'm now worried every time I get on a bike. This is not a good thing.

There are two Really Bad kinds of cyclist. There are the 12 rare lycra dicks who sail through red traffic lights, scattering pedestrians while roaring slogans from Gladiator.

And then there are the Timid Cyclists. I'm now one of them. We hesitate at junctions. We hold up traffic with our uncertainty. We dart from lane-to-lane like disillusioned voters. Occasionally (if you're me) we keep up a constant chant of "ohgodohgodohgodohgod.". We're not reassuring to share a road with.

I'm not just spooked by statistics (although the internet tells me this is a thing). I find cycling in London really scary. I've been doing it in London since last century and, despite it getting more popular, it's not getting any nicer.

A lot of it is to do with Junctions. They're terrifying. Here's Bow Roundabout:

Let's have an aerial view of Old Street Roundabout:

It is every bit as terrifying to cycle around as it looks. Bafflingly, a lot of road redevelopment seems to be encouraging turning every junction a bit Hunger Gamesy.

You may well not know what "Euston Circus" is. I always used to call it "the slightly grim bit at the top of Tottenham Court Road". Until they started digging it up to build this:

Ignore the architect's trees. They've taken away most of the lane markings. The bicycle crossing. And replaced them with a free-for-all. Over the last 18 frightening months, I'd assumed this was work-in-progress. Nope, that's it. According to TFL this makes "the area greener, safer and more user-friendly... and improves facilities for cyclists."

Try cycling through Euston Circus. Maybe it'll get easier as traffic gets more used to it. But currently it's four lanes of confused and jostling traffic trying to work out which way is Camden. And somewhere in amongst it are cyclists, desperately hoping they've got the right lane and aren't about to be undertaken by that bus. Oh, no, we are. And now I'm in the middle of the Euston Road in the wrong lane and hello lorries.

I used to laugh when I saw Japanese tourists pedalling Boris Bikes on the pavements of Oxford Street. Now I'm tempted to join them. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Did anything happen in October? I've suddenly realised that I'm having to backfill an entry for a month that seemingly never was.

A lot happened in October, some of it jolly lovely. I guess the oddest thing was, for an event, getting to work at a superclub. You know, one of those London dance barns. Actually, everyone was quite lovely. But still - so chic, so swishy.

I was sat in the soundbooth. Near me was an exotic creature wearing pleather trousers and a peach jacket with hair a few years ago I'd have challenged Mr Topper to recreate. He was filling us in on the difficulties of buying good cocaine in an Italian City.

"They sell all their drugs on roundabouts. They drive round them all night. So you flag them down like a taxi and then you go round and round while you do the deal." A pause long for an eyeroll. "It's exhausting and dizzying."

They then moved on to talking about how another club was trying to copyright a type of music. Which sounded insane, even to me.

Monday, September 30, 2013

The curse of cheap flights

The problem with cheap flights is that they can be so early. This, obviously, seems fine at the time. And then, at some point, you realise that you'll probably need to get up at 4. Which is okay, only your plan of going to bed at 10 with cocoa becomes a little bit midnight with wine.

And then, all of a sudden, your life is what it must be like having a toddler. Only with the horror of getting abroad.

Most of the time it goes all right - but we got Hamburg wrong. We should have napped as soon as we got to the hotel. Instead we wandered blearily around all morning before crashing just after lunch. We woke up at 6, groggy, went out for one drink, then lurched back to the hotel and had an early night, sleeping in so that we missed the chance to go on a boat/bus or walking tour. We walked to a bridge and then left.

At some point, more by luck than anything else, we found the giant miniature railway exhibition. Which was amazing. But we were off our heads on sleepiness so just ran around giggling. Even trains were a bit wasted on us.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

An Important Message From The Police To Women

An important message from the Police - please pass to all the women you know.....

This actually happened a few weeks ago on the NEWPORT PAGNELL SERVICES!!!

It was early evening, and a young girl was watching the television at home. Her parents had left her alone, and she heard a strange noise coming from the television set. Soon she was sucked into a portal into another dimension. When her parents called the police, they told the family "Get out of the house, immediately, as the Beast is coming". This just happened to a girl last week. Please be careful when buying your house, and ALWAYS make sure it is not built on an INDIAN BURIAL GROUND to prevent this from happening to you. Tell others. This may save a life.

Something similar to this happened at the Aldi in Newport recently, but luckily the cashier was a trained spirit guide. Please be aware of what's going on around you.

In light of the recent murders at Grover's Mill, I think it is important to read the following info for your own safety. Things WOMMEN should know to stay safe:

1. if a Martian War Machine confronts you, DO NOT APPROACH IT WAVING A FLAG. It is probably more interested in Pastor Nathaniel than you, and it will go for the priest first. RUN LIKE MAD IN THE OTHER DIRECTION!

2. Tip from HMS ThunderChild: Do not use weapons on the Martians. They are no better than bows and arrows against the lightning!

3. if you are being hunted through a maze in winter, hide by retracing your steps. Jack won't be able to see what you've done. This can save lives.

4. Women have a tendency to go into car parks after shopping, pilates, visiting nail salons, etc. DON'T DO THIS! A predator could be watching you and this is the perfect opportunity for them to ask you to help them carry a sofa into an unmarked van. Do not do this!!! If asked, IT PUTS THE LOTION ON ITS SKIN

5. A few notes about getting into your car in car park:
a) Be aware: look around you, Check the passenger side floor for midgets with knives (this has happened)
b) Do not use your car for having premarital sex. Especially not if it is Hallowe'en.
c) If a man with knives for hands is sitting near your car, you may want to get guard/policeman to walk you back out. They will most likely die first. IT IS ALWAYS BETTER TO BE SAFE THAN SORRY.

6. NEVER say the Candyman's name more than twice.

7. if you're babysitting and the phone rings, DO NOT ANSWER IT. The killer is already inside the house.

8. if the terminator has a gun and you are not under his control, ALWAYS RUN FOR THE NEAREST TRUCK! However, even if you run him over, you will not hit a vital organ and the terminator will only keep on coming.

9. As women, we are always trying to be sympathetic:
STOP IT! It may get your blood drained. Count Dracula, the serial killer, was a good-looking, well educated man, who ALWAYS played on the sympathies of unsuspecting women, He walked with a cane, wore a cloak, and often asked if you could hear "the children of the night".

10. Another safety point:
A woman was recently in an escape shuttle near Nuneaton. She thought she was in there alone and then noticed her cat was behaving strangely. Thinking quickly, she was able to save the life of herself and the cat by ejecting the alien lifeform into space. By thinking quickly and using common sense she was able to save a cat's life.

A candle is not dimmed by lighting another candle. Send this to any woman you know who may need to be reminded that the world is out to get them.
Someone will always send this kind of batshit scaremongering nonsense on thinking that hey, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Also, if you don't forward this on within SEVEN DAYS a creepy Japanese girl will kill you.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Alas, our Underground City is closed

I took my boyfriend to Turkey. This was a test. Of what, I don't really know. There are some places that, once you discover, you can't stop talking about - Glasgow in the rain, the shores of a Loch, a clean toilet in India... and pretty much all of Turkey.

I prepared carefully. I got a Turkish teacher to try and get my Turkish working again. She tried. She failed. I was, as ever, fine in restaurants, if everyone spoke slowly.

But still - Turkey was very Turkey. Our first hotel claimed to have a private beach. It turned out to have no electricity and be a mile inland, so we just wandered around. My boyfriend saw a hotel in the grounds of an old Roman temple. How wonderful, I thought, but not for the likes of us.  "Can we stay there?" he asked. And so we did.

We went to Cappadocia. I'm now too old for a nightbus to Cappadocia and can't believe I used to do this with my parents when they were still in their 60s. The seats are more comfortable, the children are better behaved than ever, but they turn the lights on more. Just when you finally think that some sleep will come, they slam them on, and you're in a petrol station in the 1970s being shouted at by a large woman smoking by a petrol pump. She's your driver. So you get off and go for a walk.

Cappadocia is still the best place in the world. And the oddest. A geographical oddity that is soaked in cash. They have neat pavement. The young men drive sportscars. There's a lidl (only they call it Bim, pronounced "bum"). Travel a few miles in either direction and you get "the real Turkey" - villages where life goes on pretty much as normal, with thousand-year old buildings neatly turned into cattlesheds. But the tiny village of Goreme is still awash with tourists. These are farmers, so they're used to dealing with cattle. Kindly and humanely the cattle are loaded into white vans and taken to wherever they can be milked of some more of their cash.

Numan's hotel was run by Afghan refugees. To think of all the horrors they'd been through in order to sit around listening to tourists discussing which hot air balloon trip to take. We did, by the way, do a hot air balloon. It was a terrifying hour with each of us worrying the other was about to propose. 

Mostly, I just love it there. I love living in a cave. A cave with plumbing and wifi, with a balcony with the best view in the world, that you can sit on at night and read books while the valley gets on with being the most beautiful thing on Earth. "Oh, just try it in Winter," said Numan. Well, I think I'd like to.

Being in my 30s, I now can't go on holiday anywhere without wondering what the property prices are. Turns out, a decade ago, you could buy a cave complex for a steal. Even now, my London flat could get me a 30-room cave. That's room for a lot of trains sets and cats. It's practically an underground city.

Talking of underground cities, I wanted to show my boyfriend one of the ones "off the beaten track". Because that's simple tourist snobbery. The best way seemed to be to go to a town and get a cab. We went to the town. We stood in a car park. We asked where the taxi rank was. The car park attendant shrugged and phoned his dad.

So it was that we became a Family Outing To The Underground City. Dad and Youngest Son in the front. Boyfriend and me in the back. "Do you speak English?" the dad asked in perfect English. This turned out to be the only English he knew. He was taking us to the next village which, last time, had had an undergound city. We got there. Passersby shrugged and smiled "Alas, our Underground City is closed" (to be boring, the Turkish word for "alas" is "maalesef" which does the job very well). And so it was. You can, it turns out, padlock an underground city. Why, I don't know. Maybe the man with the key was on holiday.

It doesn't matter, we said. These things happen. It's all fun. We laughed. But Dad and Youngest Son did not laugh. We can, Youngest said, take you back. Or, there's another underground city... And so we bombed on into the middle of nowhere. Valleys came and went. Street signs gave up. Little ladies toiled in the baking afternoon at empty fields while their husbands sat in tea gardens. And suddenly, carved into the cliffs were a nest of roman tombs. Little perfect temples. Just there. Next to a tea garden. And a handpainted sign saying "Undergound City".

And it was perfect. Being led round an underground city by a man who, by rights, should be running his tea shop, but really wanted to show off his ancient wine press. These things are good.

Travelling with a vegetarian in Turkey was either the best way to get ripped off, or a delight. We gave up on proper restaurants with their oily, thoughtlessly rude waiters and instead were oily and thoughtlessly rude to puzzled chefs in small canteens. Suddenly Turkey stops being expensive. You can still get a meal for two for about £6 and not want to eat for days. And I got very good at quickly picking the meat out of the broad bean stew and giving it to a cat. This is the best thing about Turkey - every restaurant has a cat. If it doesn't, don't eat there. Cats know.

Istanbul I got wrong again. I think if I lived in Istanbul, I'd enjoy it. As a tourist, I get Istanbul wrong like some people get email wrong. Half of it was closed. The other half was crowded - even the Cistern is unbearable now Dan Brown's mentioned it. I can't get it right. I once tried to get a taxi to a chic club near Taksim. I ended up standing on a roundabout. Yes, I'd tried to go clubbing on a roundabout.

When people say "Leaving our holiday was the hardest thing about it" they often mean it fondly. But with Istanbul it's true. They have a direct tram to the airport (you have to change five times). And even then, Ataturk Airport has won an award - it's the least punctual airport (outside China). 38% of planes leave on time. Several hundred flights a week are cancelled. You can buy a bottle of vodka in duty free for the same price as two cups of tea. And it was very, very tempting.

Of course, the boyfriend wants to go back. He fancies studying the sufis, going to a caravanserai, and going along the Black Sea. I think that'll be marvellous. I'm already looking forward to ordering meals very slowly.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The 25 Simple Steps To Buying Theatre Tickets Online

Is there any worse online booking experience than buying Theatre Tickets? It fails the GCSE French usability test. Namely, is the actual experience as easy as it would be in a basic French textbook?

MOI: Bonjour. Avez-vous deux billets por Mercredi?
THEM: Oui. Neuf francs, s'il vous plait.
MOI: Voila. Au revoir.

Here is how it goes.
  2. [a long time later] Congratulations, you've finally found a page about the play you want to see.
  3. [you've had shorter relationships later] You've found the “Book Tickets” button.
  4. You select the night you'd like to see the play.
  5. [You may now find yourself on someone else's website entirely. Lucky you]
  6. Select the type of ticket you want. No, not that type, stupid.

  7. You may not want to select a seat, but don't worry, we've turned our theatre into a flythrough of the Death Star. You must now steer through the stalls in order to find your two seats.
  8. Keep an eye on the colour code. LIGHT GREY means available. SLIGHTLY LIGHTER GREY means unavailable.
  9. Done?
  10. Oh, those seats weren't available after all. TRY AGAIN.
  11. Okay. Would you like to pay?
  12. Fine. We'd need you to register. No, I know you only come here every ten years, but we need you to register.
  13. Uh-Oh, looks like we made you register last time you came to see a play here in 2001. We need you to remember the password.
  14. Don't worry, we've emailed it to you.
  15. Email turned up? Good. Sadly, we'll need you to choose a new password before you go any further. To confuse you next time you come here.
  16. Hello again. You're now registered.
  17. There we go. Now, I'm afraid you'll need to repeat steps 4-11. See you in a bit.
  18. Would you like to receive our email newsletter? It doesn't matter what you click, you'll receive it anyway.
  19. Nearly there. Would you like to contribute to our Dry Rot Preservation Fund? We've thoughtfully added that on top of the ticket price. If you don't want to pay, please play Checkbox Battleships. Meanie.
  20. Oh. And here's a booking fee. Of course there is. We've got to pay for that CG modelled Death Star somehow.
  21. You've not read our terms and conditions, but we're going to make you say that you have. Liar.
  22. And we're done. Now over to your bank and their 3D Security Thing.
  23. Here's your booking code. Copy that down. And bring along your card.
  24. For someone on the night to shrug, ask for your surname and hand you your tickets.
  25. Alternatively, why not spend the evening in with a Take Me Out marathon? It's less painful.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On Being Servalan

I've always loved Servalan. She is the best character ever on television (apart from Special Agent Albert Rosenfeld). Unfortunately, for a long time it seemed that no bugger knew who she was.

When I was handed the keys to the BBC's Cult TV website, one of my first actions was to put up a gallery of pictures of Servalan. Popular as it was, it did not go down well internally. I received an email telling me she was "perhaps a bit obscure". "But it's a site about Cult TV!" I protested. Until the penny dropped that "obscure" was a euphemism. For, uh, well, um... (embarrassed whisper) ... gay.

Anyway, the point about Servalan is that, she's always amazing. She's the Blake's 7 equivalent of Doctor Who's Radiophonic Workshop. No matter how bad the surroundings, she's always making interesting noise.

I once dressed up as Servalan for a party. It was a fancy dress party. I learned a lot of things that night. Firstly, that if you do turn a broom handle into a pair of shoulder pads you will be unable to walk through doors without garrotting yourself.

Also, as no-one knew who Servalan was, most people assumed I was just doing weird drag. Or going as That Man From The Crying Game Who Was In Stargate. There are, it seems some people who should not do weird drag. Or dress up as That Man From The Crying Game Who Was In Stargate. I'm one of them.

My oldest school friend turned up to the party. He was not in fancy dress. Nor were the three Sloaney Girls he'd brought along. They took one look at a room full of people in Star Trek uniforms and Magic Roundabout characters and decided that they'd take their wine elsewhere. Somewhere where it couldn't be got at by large pink cows or men with badly-shaven legs. I rather think I lost a friend that night by being a hideous embarrassment.

Anyway, the important point is that I've now got to write for Servalan. It was a thrilling experience, and apparently the woman herself was very nice about (how disappointing. I'd have preferred it if she'd been thoroughly nasty. In heels).

I will be celebrating by not dressing up as her ever again:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The internet and the library

There's a lovely story here about The British Library wi-fi accidentally blocking Hamlet. Security experts and free speech people are quoted saying that this proves that attempts to block, filter and restrict the internet are useless.

I'm just remembering the mid-90s, when the World Wide Web was new and shiny, and it turned up on 3 terminals in the University library. I was at first baffled by this Information Superhighway. It took me a while to work out where the start of it was (why was the index called Yahoo?).

This being a library, my browsing was furtive and circumspect. I didn't even dream that it would one day be an unlimited source of breasts. I was just terrified that someone would catch me cheating as I used the search tool to find all of the references to "satire" in Horace's Art of Poetry. Surely, I thought, I could get into trouble for not actually reading a book?

No librarian came over and shushed me. I was lucky. So I became more adventurous. I found a web page about The Avengers. Amazed, I printed it out, along with a list of quotes from Press Gang. I didn't print out the Star Trek web pages. There were just too many of them - over a hundred. And anyway, they were organised in the format of a space ship, and each room needed to be explored. It was almost Virtual Reality.

One day, I was even able to look at a JPEG of Mrs Peel, right there on my screen. I was amazed. Even more so when I found the full script for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. I maxxed out my account printing that rare treasure off (in case it vanished, or I couldn't find it again - those Uniform Resource Locators were sometimes very long and took ages to copy down, and sometimes I couldn't read my handwriting correctly).

I started to look at the WWW almost every time I visited the library. Nearly daily did I type into the Yahoo a search term with trembling fingers - of course, you didn't have to search. Yahoo also handily had about a dozen categories and subcategories, so you could find the page you wanted just by a lot of clicking (Entertainment... Television... The Avengers). The internet seemed very neatly organised, if you asked me.

And still no-one told me off. I knew I was doing wrong. Because I was in a library and looking up information for the sheer fun of it.

One day, of course, I got caught. I was staring at a list of ISBN numbers for Target Doctor Who books. I heard a tutting sound over my shoulder. It was my tutor. "Dear me," he said, "How embarrassing."

From that day on, I only ever used the internet for research. Well, until they invented cats.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Undead Neighbour On Demand

I've written before about my slightly ghoulish preoccupation with buying a neighbouring flat when the owner dies. The signs had been good - district nurse, unwatered window boxes...

Today, a Virgin Broadband man turns up and the two are stood on the balcony, laughing, drinking tea and talking about cricket. Damn, and yet, also, good for him.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Curse Of The Freelancer

The freelancer's curse is sending politely chasing emails. You know - when someone approaches you to do something, and at first it's all "GO! GO! GO!" and then fizzles sadly out. Like an amazing one-night stand. Only, after a one-night stand, we all know the rules - you send a couple of follow up texts, cry and then move on.

With freelance projects, that's not what you do. The correct etiquette is to regularly stand outside your potential employer's window at 4am with a Mariachi band playing Mandy. At least once a week you have to send them the awful "Hey, any news?" email. And they have to send you the "No, sadly. Will keep you posted!" reply. It's sadly pointless on both sides. But them's the rules.

As my mother put it: "I don't understand. They'll get in touch at the last minute if they want it." My mother, please note, has never worked in the media. And Yet She Knows All.

Just for once, it'd be nice to say: "Hello! You know that project you said was definite a month ago, and that I should clear my schedule for? Well, I did. And since then, you know, I've heard nothing much from you. I get it. I know you're busy. I know it's probably not happening after all. But that's okay. I've got other work coming in. I'll be fine.It would have been lovely to do. More than lovely - amazing. But, these things happen. So just fire me and I can stop worrying about letting you down when it's suddenly all back on again."

But no. Instead, here I am about to type: "Hey there... any news?"

Sunday, July 14, 2013

There's An App For That

I'm relearning a language before going on holiday. I downloaded an app that promised to help. I spent half an hour on it yesterday while waiting outside a phone shop.

It was bloody depressing. My experience with just like one of the recent Star Wars films.
"Ooh, this is shiny and different."
"Oh, I'm not sure about this."
"I kind of miss the old way."
"Eurgh! Eurgh! Eurgh!"
"Let's pretend this never happened."

There really is no magical secret to language learning. It's just effort and repetition. An app can help. But not when it makes you upload practice examples to a community space, where people can instantly tell you you've got it wrong. Of course I've got it wrong - my iphone doesn't have all the letters in your alphabet. Thanks for sending me lots of imessages saying "Someone has corrected your exercise". Thanks.

Also, thank you for waking me up this morning to ask me if I'd learned any new words today. No, I hadn't. It was 6am. orospu çocuğu.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013


I left it too late to get a credit card. I missed out on the golden age of free money. My first memory of a credit card is when one of Paul's wives on Neighbours got into trouble and he cut up her card for her, thereby solving all her money worries. I think they got a puppy the next week.

I spent the first half of my twenties definitely not having a credit card. Then along came Amazon and it seemed vital to have one in order to be able to get Digital Versatile Discs. The problem was that I had left it too late. Everyone else had got a credit card years ago, if not four of them. My lack of existing debt actually made me a problem for a bank - if I hadn't got one by the age of 24 there must be something wrong with me.

Eventually I persuaded a bank and it was joyous (how I remember the X-Files season 1 turning up like an alien artefact, a bargain at only $150). Nervous of my card, I paid off the balance every month in full, until, of course, that skiing holiday which, in many ways, I feel I'm still paying for (you've never lived till you've eaten 20 euros worth of tepid spagbol on top of a mountain).

After that my credit card became a companion. Now, don't worry, this isn't going to be a terrible story of debt and bankruptcy. I'm just saying that it was chic. The early 2000s was the era when people you'd never heard of would send you credit cards through the post. GET SOME MORE DEBT, the post would scream. The sign of a good holiday was telling friends "We spent so much I had to ring up the bank for more!". And we'd laugh. Because there was something fun, absurd about owing a couple of months' salary. Which, of course, you'd pay off. At some point in the never never. A sign of how successful you were was how much thrilling debt you had.

Even credit card fraud was glamorous. I still remember giggling with someone at the bank after my card had had a wild weekend without me in Monaco. Some day, I decided, I too would like to blow two grand on casinos and lingerie. We all laughed at all this money, money owed by someone to someone. But the good news was that it wasn't us. Or at least, not today.

It all seems so long ago. The bank no longer rings you up after your card's been fiddled with. Now they stop the card the moment they detect you trying to do anything unusual. In the last two months I've tried to book a couple of cheap flights and a theatre ticket deal. In 2005, this would have been the credit card equivalent of a tin of value beans and a panda cola. Hardly lingerie and roulette. But in 2013, alarm bells went off both times.

Banks are no longer Bertie Wooster - they're one of his more Presbyterian Aunts. They're more cautious. Or maybe their fraud systems are better. The nice lady at first direct (sometimes I wonder if, when nice people die, they go to work for first direct) did say something curious about it all; "I'm sorry this has happened. But I'm afraid it's not the bank. It's a problem with society."

She said it in the jolly tones of your favourite teacher shortly before a lesson on making shortbread and the deaths of the saints. But the phrase stuck with me. Even first direct has a training manual. A nice one. And I wondered how often over the last few years we've heard a variation on the phrase: "It's not the bank. It's a problem with society."

Monday, July 01, 2013

ur been used

The mysterious local graffiti about the enigmatic Tracy is back and there's no shifting it. It's everywhere like an over-keen viral marketing campaign for a doomed interactive drama. In the latest episode we've learned that the police are just using her, that she sho
uldn't trust the men she is seeing, that Steven still loves her, and that, if you are planning on going on a date with Tracy you should be careful what you tell her. 

I don't know Tracy, but I'd like to imagine she knows none of this, has moved to Hove, and when told about it, just laughs. But I doubt it.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

I did not see Dracula last night

The great thing, we were saying yesterday, is that in London you can do something AMAZING every night of the week. Why would you want to live somewhere else? For instance, last night there was a screening of the 1958 Dracula in a cool bar in Dalston. How great is that?

The problem, as always, is getting to Dalston. I've finally admitted that the London Overground is basically a large model train set, not a serious railway. It's always broken, as if the trains constantly get pushed from the tracks by a giant toddler called Boris.

When I turned up at the Overground station, there was a woman stood doing a SobShout. It's a London thing. When you've taken all you can, and suddenly something just breaks. She was stood outside the ticket office SobShouting: "I have been waiting an hour <sob> An hour <sob> That's not right <sob> It's not right <sob> An hour. <sob>"

In this case all she really needed was for the person in the office to give her a hug and a jaffa cake. Instead he shrugged and shut the window. None of us offered her a hug after that. She may have had knives.

People kept on filing in, staring at the board and groaning "NOT AGAIN." We did not go anywhere, as if by sheer stubborn willpower, we could think up a train.

It was left up to one TFL worker to man the barricades. "It's my first day," he said through his megaphone, "So imagine how I feel." We nodded. We've all been there. "There's just no trains," he continued. "I'm not sure what else I can say." He then gave people who came up to him directions. Through the megaphone.
"Yes, go down past Sainsbury's and try for a bus there..."
"It's a long walk down the hill but take the second left..."

In the end I got on a bus, which slowly circled around the Overground station as though reluctant to let the idea go. The Overground is a brilliant notion. But it's really just a nice bit of graphic design.

Someone has simply played a lovely game of join-the-dots with things that bear little relationship to each other. I could do the same with Sainsburys, Lidl and Tesco on the grounds that they're all shops. According to the map you can even sail from Euston to Stratford. DO NOT TRY THIS.

Apparently people use the Overground to commute everyday. This proves how brave Londoners are, or, like survivors in a zombie film, how numb they become to the agony of daily living.

I sit on my bus, circling around the station in a crafty sidle like a toddler planning a break away in BHS. Eventually, Caledonian Road happens. Then my phone rings.

"Don't bother," says my boyfriend. "They've got the wrong disc. It's not the Hammer Dracula. It's Bram Stoker's Dracula." Understandably, I get off the bus. I go home. We talk about moving to Scotland.

Monday, June 24, 2013


Years ago I dated a sort-of call centre worker / ketamin dealer / naked cater waiter. Looking back on it, you'll be surprised to know It Did Not End Well.

Anyway, he's now living in Brighton, and is all grown up and marvellous. For many years he's had a lovely boyfriend who has been A Good Thing. It's actually insane to think we ever made pasta together, let alone went out.

And now the odd thing about modern relationships. Social media means that, even though you don't talk regularly, you can intuit stuff from your Facebook timeline. Is there a card for "Sorry he left you for God"?

Monday, June 17, 2013

On owning an e-reader

Last week I bought an e-reader. I also bought a lot of books. Paperback books. The world didn't end.

Yes, yes, how very 2010, but I've spent the last couple of years thinking my iphone was a good enough e-reader. And it is splendid. But, those Nook things are only £29 – how bad can they be?

Actually amazing. They look so much like paper I made three attempts at peeling off the welcome screen. They make consuming books so wonderfully easy – Lady Molly Of Scotland Yard has sat on my iphone for over a year, but she solved her last crime in a little over an hour.

There is a problem – I have never been a monogamous reader. I always feel guilty when there are more than four books by the bed. But my nook has made cheating sinfully easy. After a day I caught myself actively punishing books. If something happens in them that I don't care for then zip! Off to something else. If those nuns are in trouble, then farewell! Too many pages in Italics? Then I'll call you back, Dan Brown.

I'm sure there's a phrase for this phenomenon, but I can see a time when my e-reader is little more than a collection of banished suitors. Thomas Hardy is going to be a bugger to finish on an e-reader. I wonder if I'm alone in this? I wonder if future editors will tell writers “You're going to lose people here...” as readers become channel surfers, bailing on books when the hero does something annoying, or a beloved character dies?

As well as Dan Brown (yeah, I was back within 5 minutes), I've also been reading Jamaica Inn. In paperback. It's a brilliant example of a book that doesn't stand a chance on my e-reader. It's a skilful exercise of the “Don't go into the spooky house, Doris!” variety. When I'm not cheering on the heroine, I'm yelling at her – don't hide in the parlour! Don't go off with him! Don't sell that pony! I wouldn't have finished this book on an e-reader. I'd also have had to buy a new one. My lovely old Penguin has been thrown angrily into a corner twice.

While they're busy changing the way new books will be written, they're a fantastic way of unlocking old ones. I love my classic crime, and there's a whole host of obscure detectives suddenly within my grasp (seriously, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard). But still... searching Project Gutenberg is never going to replace the joy of nosing around a second hand bookshop. Perhaps we'll just get better at deciding what deserves space on our shelve. The physical books we buy will be the ones that proclaim loudly “This is who I am”.

One thing I would change about e-readers would be an option to change the cover on them so that it tells people exactly what you're reading. Perhaps in the style of an old Penguin. Why yes, I am reading that. No, wait, I've changed my mind, I'm reading this. No, oops, now it's 50 Shades.

But it is not my ideal world. I can tell this because cats do not have the vote, steam trains don't run over the grave of Dr Beeching, and it is not compulsory to watch Daleks 2150 AD once a year. So perhaps that's a good thing. And, at the end of the day, e-readers are about people making their own decisions.

I was doing some research into Penguins recently, and was told that, until Allen Lane invented them, ordinary people by and large didn't bother with books. Bookshops were scary places and books were serious things. Then along comes Penguin and books are suddenly all the rage and tremendous fun. So maybe, e-readers are today's Penguins. Just not orange.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Help for Heros

There was graffiti on the Mosque. You get a lot of graffiti in Somerstown. Recently there's been a lot about a girl called Tracy. Apparently she's a no-good grass who hangs around with quite the wrong sort of gentleman.

I'm sure it's all quite upsetting for Tracy and her various boyfriends, but this weekend the graffiti went up a notch.

Someone had graffiti'd on the mosque: "Fuck Islam. Help for Heros. EDL". It's quite a thing when you can't even spell the cause you're appropriating for your own sick ends. But still, away they'd gone, fucking Islam and helping them heros quite a few times.

We walked past it. We were at a loose end (having just missed a play by Aeschylus because we have no sense of direction. Oh yes, we're that gay). So, we decided to do something about it.

We went home and filled a bucket with soda crystals and hot water and grabbed some brillo pads ("After all," I said, "It's good practice in case the kids on the estate paint 'Paedo' on our door someday") and went to work.

We hadn't got very far before we were surrounded by a gang. A proper, quietly intimidating gang. They stood and watched us. "Fuck' em," one said about us, "They're defacing the mosque. That's wrong."
"Wait," said another, "They are cleaning it."
They stood back and watched us for a bit. Then went away.

It only took five minutes.  Someone came out of their house and watched us quietly. A couple of people walked past us into the mosque. They didn't say anything to us. I'm quite glad about that. I'm not really sure there's appropriate small talk for this situation. Clinton's don't do a card for "Sorry about your hate crime".

Anyway, two gays stood scrubbing a mosque clean and then quietly tiptoed home. And maybe, the next time someone says something about poor Tracy and her men, we'll clean that up too.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Making Somerstown A Better Place

I live in a run-down inner city slum (as Beattie from the BT adverts would say, we're very 071). Somerstown  lurks between Euston and Kings Cross. A few years ago estate agents essayed "South Camden" but have now decided we're "St Pancras".

For an inner-city slum, Somerstown is lovely. But it has its problems. Luckily, the National Lottery has given us a shed-load of cash to Do Lovely Things.

Notices went up inviting us to come along to a meeting with ideas on how to spend it. I trotted along. You know on the news when they say "X became Radicalised After Attending A Training Camp"? I became accidentally radicalised because I sat too far from the crisps.

I sat in the meeting for an hour. There were a bunch of genuine residents. Some had brought along bits of paper, including a child's drawing in felt tip. It appeared to show a lot of green lawn and trees. But there were also a lot of people who were Big In Local Politics. The news would call them "Community Leaders". I'd call them Men Who Loved The Sound Of Their Own Voices.

They started talking with each other. Loudly and longly. Acronyms were exchanged. Grudges about differences between Local Forum and Working Parties. There was a lot of disparaging talk about Edith Neville (she sounded rather grand until I realised she was a school) and Plot 10. There was A LOT of shouting about Plot 10.

I put up my hand. "Er, what's Plot 10?"
Mr Love-Voice sniffed disparagingly.
Madly, I got a round of applause. No-one else seemed to know. Turned out Plot 10 was an outdoor gym.

The shouting carried on. After an hour the cowed-looking chair said "So, shall we move on to start the agenda?"

An hour. No-one had asked for any ideas. Just a lot of fat voices talking shop. I stayed a bit longer. Nothing more happened. Felt tip drawings moved from laps to under chairs. More voices.

Eventually I stood up. I'd left dinner on and had to get back to it. I apologised quietly and left.
I heard voices behind me. "Quite right!" and "Disgusting!".

On my way out of the community centre, I glanced back. I'd accidentally staged a walk out. I wasn't alone. Oh dear.

I'd gone along wanting open spaces and lawns and things for kids to do in the evening. All I'd done was sit too far from the crisps.

As I walked through my courtyard, two boys were destroying one of my rose bushes with a lightsaber.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Liz and her Mum

Last year I got to write for Liz Shaw. It was the last thing that Caroline John recorded before passing away. I got to meet her at the recording. She'd brought in jam.

She was wonderful, and I was so very sad when she died.

There'd been tentative plans for another adventure for Liz and her mother, which sadly didn't get very far. Here's the opening:


(SFX: Engine running. It is raining. Car door opens and Liz gets in hurriedly)

LIZ: Drive, mum! Drive!

EMILY: I take it the meeting at UNIT didn't go well?

LIZ: No.

EMILY: And how is the Brigadier?

(FX: Distant thumping noise)

LIZ: He's in the boot...


Anyway. That's as far as it got. No idea if I'd have got away with it. But I'd love to have tried.

Here also is her son's Just Giving page.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Party Politics

I went home early because of a nugget.

I used to be able to *do* parties. Not to A Level, but I could muddle through a GCSE in chatting to strangers in the kitchen, hoovering the crisps, flirting madly with someone else's husband and getting a bus the wrong direction home.

I still can kind of do parties. But not brilliantly. Given that the internet appears to be where people confess to social ineptitude, I've always found parties a bit baffling. I once bought a self-help book called "How To Talk To Absolutely Anyone" but gave up when I realised it was basically "pretend to find people interesting in case they can give you money, either through work or marriage". I've settled into "talk to the fun people and see how that goes".

Last night we couldn't get it right. It was a party full of young gay couples. In theory, brilliant. The hosts were lovely, there was booze everywhere... but my boyfriend and I stood in a corner hissing at each other "we should mingle". Everyone was standing in little covens of four. So we made slow progress.

A kind-of ex was there. Last time I saw him, he was a young Labour activist. Now he works for Theresa May. He was carrying a bottle of Veuve Cliquot and said "Let's bring out the good stuff! Ha ha!". We'd brought along some Mateus Rose. Because it seemed funny. (Always bring two bottles - one you'd like to drink, and one that's silly. But not Lambrinin. Never Lambrini). It's hard making small talk with someone who is still lovely and chatty and friendly while you're thinking "But you work for... for evil". I can only imagine orcs and mages at a mingle:
"So what's Mordor like?"
"Oh well, you know, Sauron's not so bad. Great sense of humour, surprisingly. And summer hours, hey ho."

What capped it though, were the nuggets. A tiny blond thing darted forward. He had hair that aimed for Harry Styles and landed on combover. Blond Thing grabbed a nugget, dunked it in the cheese&chive and trilled, "Ooh, I love a chicken covered in cream."

My boyfriend and I looked at each other. We went home and watched a film.

Thursday, April 11, 2013


It all started when we went out for dinner with a lovely friend who is a lawyer.
"You have got a will, haven't you?" she said.
"No, why?"
"Well, now that you're living together, if you get run over by a bus then your boyfriend will have to move out."

Let's pause for a moment to consider this mythical Bus Of Vengeance. The Bus Of Vengeance seeks out and destroys those with unpaid bills, unmade apologies and unfinished business. In reality, buses only seem to run people over when their drivers are texting or confused by roadworks. You're more likely to be struck down by a lorry - those things are so lethal that even thinking about bicycle-clips increases your chances of being flattened by an HGV by 3000 per cent.

Anyway, it turns out that if a bendy bus should explode near me and I don't have a will, my boyfriend will have about 24 hours' notice to move out, pausing only to collect his cardigans, check the cupboard for any remaining crisps, and say goodbye to the cat. So, my learned counsel argued, I needed to get a will. This seemed a bit drastic.

"Well," my lawyer friend said, "You don't have to have a will. You could just get married."

My boyfriend and I looked at each other.

So, I've got a will now. As a process it's like painless dentistry with sad bits. Here are the things I've learned:

Money is great
Put all together those pensions and that weird life-insurance policy that came with that mortgage all mount up to quite a nice lump sum. If I died tomorrow, I'd never need to work again.

Your friends don't want your stuff
To you it may be a wonderful archive. But start bandying around bequests and you discover that your treasured possessions are mostly crap which would disgrace a jumble sale.

Don't try and leave anyone Lego
The solicitor drawing up my will is a marvellous woman. But even her reservoirs of tact ran out when she reached the Lego. I'd tried to leave it to a named friend. The problem is, it would have to be valued. Which means it would all have to be assembled. And catalogued. And put together in the same room. The last time I tried doing this I got halfway through laying out the train track and very nearly ended up single. I hadn't even touched the monorail or the airport.

A cat is a chattel
They may lord it over you in life, but after death, you can literally dispose of them how you see fit. My will adviser said she once had to execute an old lady's clause that her cats were put to sleep. Luckily they'd predeceased her, but it was still a horrid thing to ask.

Getting rid of the body
This was the stumper. It turned up as a surprise clause - you have to leave instructions as to where and how. Cue awkward email conversation with boyfriend. We've really only just about decided which side of the bed to sleep on and I'm asking him how he'd like to dispose of my corpse. Suggestion #1 was to leave it in the yellow-stickered aisle at Tesco "as that's where you're happiest". Suggestion #2 involved scattering it near a Loch. This is quite romantic, but isn't without its hazards. After all, my boyfriend is quite forgetful. He'll take the wrong tin to Scotland and end up sat on a rock, eating biscuits and sighing. My friend Lee came up with Suggestion #3 which involved a glitter cannon and a gay sauna.

You're going to die
The weird one. I've only just got used to being alive. I'm not sure what I'll do when I'm dead. But I do know one thing - I will be rich.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

A film I hated

Turns out, I hated this film. Alan Bennett summed up Witchfinder General by calling it "degrading" and "morally rotten".

It may well operate on a level that I missed, but it's essentially about Vincent Price burning women. They're toasted, torched, griddled, branded, poached and fried.

When we got to the end of it, I reiterated how much I hated it. My boyfriend (whose favourite film it is) stared at me blankly. "But, it's just like Twins of Evil. You liked that."

"Yes," I replied. "But that had vampires in it."

His eyes narrowed. He may have sneered. "Is a film only any good if it has vampires in it?"

"Well, yes." Vampires are a bit like salt. They'll ginger up anything. The only thing that could possibly, in any way, have improved The West Wing is if they'd replaced the Jewish Mafia stuff with vampires.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

London Morbid

The flat opposite me has a balcony. I would like that flat.

The owners used to keep it immaculate, and neatly-trimmed window boxes would spill out glorious blooms all the year round. Now the window box is full of weeds.

A few years ago, I think the wife died. That's when he stopped coming out to look after the flowers.

One night last year I was woken up by a banging noise. It was the husband, come home late and drunk. He'd locked himself out and was trying to kick his own door down. He looked old and small but he was still hefting away at the door. I helped him jimmy the lock with a claw hammer. He said thank you and staggered in, all without really focusing on me.

I haven't seen him since, but recently a district nurse has started to call on him regularly. I've discovered that London Feeling - a mixture of solid regret that I don't really know him mingled with "I wonder how much that flat is worth? Can I buy it if he goes into a home or something?".

These aren't nice thoughts. But it's all very well to think them. Because this is London, and some day, someone will be looking out their window at my balcony and thinking "oh, the window boxes are full of weeds. I wonder...?"

Monday, February 25, 2013

Single or Double?

Twitter is cross. Twitter is always cross. This weekend it has been cross because a gay couple were denied the chance to sleep in a double bed at a hotel.

It started on twitter. It got picked up by proper media. And, as the BBC journalist started typing the story I wonder they didn't stop and think. Looooong ago, I did some basic BBC journalism training. Two bits of it apply here:
1) Thou shalt not run a story from a single source.
2) Always kick the tyres to see they're sound before buying it

(Mind you, most of the "journalism" I did was about vampires and Bagpuss, so who am I to lob a brick?).

Reading the couple's account does raise some interesting points. They were checking into a central London hotel on a Saturday night. At 11.30pm. And were then disgruntled to find out that their choice of room wasn't available. Well, frankly, I'm not surprised. Are you? 2000 years ago, Mary and Joseph understood the idea of a late check in.

I don't doubt the sincere upset of the couple concerned. Neither does the hotel, who hurried to say "we apologise for the way they feel". But... this really is a single-source story. Ringing up a hotel's PR department at the weekend for a quote doesn't count as verification. That's a reaction.

A clever friend went off and checked the hotel's booking conditions, which is a valid second source. Here we go: "Guests may check-in at any time from 2.00 p.m. on the day of arrival. All rooms that have been secured by credit / debit card or prepaid at the time of booking will be held until 12.00 noon on the following day. Any non-secured reservation will be held until 4.00 p.m. on the day of arrival at which time the hotel is entitled to re-let the room, unless the guest has notified the hotel of a late arrival." and "Rooms are subject to availability".

Sorry for the small print. Research? Yawn. But there we go. Nearly midnight on a Saturday. Central London. Rooms are subject to availability. Uh huh.

Then again, this took place in the Barbican, that famous centre of homosexual oppression. Mind you, as someone said to me on Twitter: "If homophobic, then there's a serious charge to answer, of course.". Yes. And if the hotel had also murdered them for the glory of the Dark Lord, then there'd be a serious charge to answer there, too.

Mind you, the receptionist apparently asked, when confronted by two young men asking for their room: "Are you sure you want a double room or do you want single beds?"

Years ago I was asked the exact same question. I'd been on a rather lovely date which had gone very well, and we were wondering about staying in the hotel above the restaurant. As she made the booking, the receptionist asked if we wanted a single or a double - neutrally - and when we replied "a double", she giggled and said "oh, lovely". But, first of all, she had to ask the question. I suspect a lot of hotels do so when two people of the same sex check in. Possibly because sometimes straight men decide to share a room, make a mistake in the booking, and are quick to take offence. Not that I'm saying all straight men are homophobic. Or that all hotels are. Just saves the trouble of sorting them out another room so they don't accidentally bum each other while reaching for the complimentary shortbread.

Maybe I've got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe I'm leaping to a conclusion without having read all the facts. Well, then I'm not alone. Here are a few tweets, all made, remember, before the hotel has properly had a chance to properly investigate and respond:

  • "I'll make sure no one I know or work with books with you."
  • "How he felt is because of what your employee did. He could sue you. And should."
  • "Boycott is the answer here."

And those are just the nice ones. 
Don't get me wrong - Twitter is often a very useful customer-service tool (especially with Train companies, who seem to reserve their huggy approachableness purely for social media). But this kind of situation, which sees a lot of people getting very cross before the facts have been properly stood up could be very damaging. At the moment it's just damaging for individual companies, but it may rapidly change the way that organisations react to a social media witch hunt.

Finally, I recently stayed at a Thistle hotel. It was rather lovely. Although a chambermaid did keep popping into my room without knocking. I was a bit surprised and mentioned it on Twitter. Oh, and I also mentioned it at reception when I checked out.

Monday, February 11, 2013


My boyfriend has moved in. Properly. As in I've had to email the council and declare that I no longer qualify for "A Single Person's Discount".

We've kind of lived together before, a bit. But it's only really been in chunks of days. Whereas this is like prison. Prison with cardigans.

My boyfriend has a lot of cardigans. And boots. And scarves. In fact, there's a lot of my boyfriend. Everywhere.  I'm having to mentally adjust. Previously, granting him a cupboard, the odd drawer or shelf has been an act of largesse, proving my generosity as a boyfriend. Now, anything less than half looks meagre. I've done my best, and thrown a lot of stuff away - but not enough. He's still confronted by crates of things which I've halfway done. And really will, honestly, get around to. One day.

That's another problem. Perception. If I leave a small pile of paper, string and USB-sticks on the floor, then it is clearly The Best Way Of Filing Important Work. If he leaves a pile on the floor it is obviously proof that he is The Untidiest Man Alive And Should Burn.

Years ago, I read a review of minimalist hotel The Hempel, where the writer had tested out the hotel's zen credentials. He'd emptied his bag onto the bed and gone out. When he returned, the contents of his bag had been arranged on the bed in a tasteful, colour-graded ziggurat. Frankly, we're currently lacking that kind of order. It's reached the point where I'm trying to work out if I should invest in a storage unit. As a temporary measure. For a few years. Ten at the most.

The sadness of stuff is realising how many things you have that you haven't looked at for a while. I have crates of my university course work and old student newspapers. Clearly, I've not looked at them for the five years since I was at uni. Which is okay. Only I left university nearly 20 years ago. The next time I glance at my old copies of Isis Magazine (edited with Ben Goldacre, fact fans) it will be 40 years. The time after that, it will be seen by whoever is doing the house clearance.

It's making me question my routine. For instance my approach to cleaning is to sneak up on it, pouncing on it on a Saturday afternoon during a decent Any Questions. I failed to explain this to my boyfriend, who looked up, bemused to wonder why I was stood in the kitchen holding a carpet, a mop and some paperclips. "Don't you think," he asked patiently, "You'd be better off tackling one room at a time?" I stared at him. He was proposing Change.

Now he has a proper job, he's also done away with my makeshift freelance lifestyle. Out has gone "Book til whenever o'clock and breakfast of yoghurt and crisps at some convenient point." Now the alarm goes off at 7. There's porridge.

It is regimented. It is neat. It is like prison. With cardigans.

Friday, February 08, 2013

An Editing Hangover

Today I have an editing hangover. Don't worry, it's nothing serious. I haven't had to fry a thing.

Several years ago I discovered there were two ways to edit your own work:

1) Leave it for six months and come back to it with icy detachment and a fresh pair of eyes.

2) Do it drunk.

Deadlines and the real world being what they are, 2) is more normal. It's curious. I can't actually write when drunk. I can barely operate a computer. But, get just a little tipsy, and I can almost disapassionately comb through pages of stuff I've written. I'll spot repeated words, factual errors, and even things which, cold sober, I'd let myself get away with. A little switch goes in the brain - it's pedalled to the top of a hill and is now cantering down going "wheeeeeee!".

It's quite nice. There are only a couple of problems. Firstly, waking up late the next morning with the urge for a breakfast of crsips. And second, trying to decipher margin notes. At about 3am I appear to have typed on page 13: "Biscuits. Biscuits. BISCUITS!!"

Perhaps I was hungry.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Bring Bring on the silence

I've decided I pretty much hate all forms of communication apart from a cat's purr. This opinion changes from time-to-time, but there's one constant - I REALLY hate the phone.

If you're reading this and you're a friend of mine, please don't phone me. If you're reading this and you work with me, please don't phone me.

When I was a child, I loved the phone. You could talk to distant friends and relatives. It was magical. Now it's just the equivalent of Claudius dripping poison into old Hamlet's ear.

When the phone rings, I no longer think "oooh!". I think "what now?". At best, it'll be someone trying to sell me PPI. Otherwise, these days people only really use the phone for bad things.

If it's work, it's seen either as a humane way of firing you or for demanding extra stuff from you immediately. If an email says "Great. Can you call me to chat this through?" it's never a good sign either. Similarly, if someone rings me to say "Good news!" on closer examination it's always bad news disguised with a cheery tone.

I was talking to someone who is brilliant at managing computer programmers. He says the trick is leaving them alone. Don't pop over to see how they're doing, don't drag them into meetings every half hour - just leave them alone for nice, long blocks of thinking. If they decide to check Facebook or gmail, that's fine - they've selected to do that. But don't run over and interrupt them. And whatever you do, don't ring them.

It was cheering to hear this. If I'm working and the phone rings, it can often take me about an hour to get back to where I was. By which time I'll probably need another cup of tea. When I had a proper job, I was forever on the phone. It was nice. It was chatty. We were always phoning each other, for advice, for gossip, for setting up meetings. And, at hometime, I'd wonder why I needed to stay late for a couple of hours to get the day's work done.

This is beginning to make me sound like an information hermit. But I am at my most productive at my parents'. They live in a mobile phone blackspot, and the nearest internet is a walk down the hill. I can get days of work done in a morning, and still find time for an afternoon nap.

Currently, I'm researching contact lenses that will beam emails into our eyeballs and drill phonecalls through our skulls. It doesn't just sound like medieval torture. It's also my idea of hell.

I prefer the silence.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Getting London wrong

I am in danger of becoming a shut-in. As the transport links improve, I'm finding London harder and harder to get around. It's my own stupid fault. In the old days, I'd have stuck post-its over my mini A-Z and then got on my bike.

But last night I tried to get to a pub using the new shiny Overground and my iphone. Google told me the pub was next door to an Overground station and there's one a short walk from my house - I should try it. What happened next is a bit of a blizzard. I think there was some engineering work and talk of a replacement bus that didn't exist, and then another bus and a man on the bus who stank like a corpse.

But it all just went so wrong and confusingly wrong. When I was a child I used to have a stammer. It was accompanied by a twitch. Both only nowadays appears at moments of stress. A rail replacement bus really shouldn't qualify.

The stammer is just there as a wall. It's my body's way of saying "Leave me alone, don't ask me questions." It used to be very handy at work, although as a management technique probably up there with electrifying keyboards.

Unfortunately, at this moment, my boyfriend was asking lots of questions. As in "Do you think that's the right bus?", "What does that sign say?" and "Is that tramp wearing someone else's skin?".

When I started jerking and spluttering like a broken Churchill dog, we gave up. It had taken us a bit over an hour to get to one of the Dalston stations. We went home to a warm fire and a film in which Doug McClure fought the warlords of Atlantis because reasons.

Annoying. I really wanted to go out last night. Although quite what social value someone constantly saluting the Fourth Reich would be, I dunno. And this morning, using a different app, I discover I could have WALKED to the pub in about forty minutes.

There's a lesson in here. Possibly about modern technology. Or the death of map-reading. Or that, if you are going to fit your slave workers with gills, remember to hire a really big squid.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

On hoping for a refund

Dear First Great Western

I'm writing to you to ask for a refund. Apologies in advance for the length of this letter. Hopefully you won't roll your eyes at this (I know how tiring long customer services letters must be), but this is just to make you aware of the process I've been through to try and get a refund.

My mistake (and I fully admit it) was to arrive at the station with the wrong debit card by accident. I know it was wrong, but I didn't think it'd be that bad. After all, thetrainline allows you to use “any valid debit/credit card” to pick up a ticket. And, the Paddington ticket machine seemed to agree with me. It said that, yes, wrong card, but I could go to the ticket office to pick up the tickets.

After queing at the ticket office, the man there sent me to the Information Desk, saying the woman there could help me. Her response was to inform me, in an exasperated sigh, that I shouldn't have been sent to her, and that my best bet was to either contact First Great Western to change the booking or buy a new ticket.

I went back to the ticket office and had the good fortune to speak to the same man. He offered to sell me a new ticket and suggested that I contact First Great Western for a refund on my original ticket. “But I am contacting First Great Western,” I said. “I'm talking to you.”

At this point the man in a First Great Western booth, wearing a First Great Western uniform and a First Great Western badge, said proudly: “I am not First Great Western.”

I'm very proud of the fact that I did not at this point lose my temper. I may have gaped, but I think that's reasonable. I bought a new ticket and he went away and eventually came back with a phone number for me to ring.

Sitting on the train, I rang the number and spoke to a very helpful man who told me he couldn't actually give me a refund, but how I could use my laptop on the train to do it. This was partially true. What he did not tell me was that my laptop needed to be connected to a printer. Unaccountably, I had failed to pack my printer, so sadly, could not print out the resulting PDF in order to mail to you.

Not to worry, I thought. I'll do it when I get home. By the time I got home, my session on your website had expired. When I logged back in, it claimed “Aftersales Performed” on that journey, and wouldn't let me print out the PDF.

So I rang the helpline again. Perhaps someone there would tell me how to get to the PDF. I explained my situation. Not a problem, the man said, all I needed to do was to write you a letter and attach the tickets.

I then reminded him that I did not have the tickets. At which point he suggested my best bet was to travel across London, back to the station, with the correct debit card and collect the tickets. Startled, I queried this. Not only did this seem a very laborious process, but I also questioned whether a ticket machine would even issue tickets for a journey now long in the past. He agreed that this seemed unlikely.

He came up with another solution. He suggested that I write this all down in a letter to you and that, once I had explained my case, you might send me a refund request form.

Stunned, I asked him if, perhaps, you'd simply refund me after reading the letter without the added complexity of then sending me a form, me having to fill in a form and then send it back to you. He said he rather doubted it.

And, after the day I've had, I rather doubt it too.