In which I have seen some ads and some theatre

I know, surprising, isn’t it? But the big retailer Christmas ads have been released and then Twitter was alive with comment on them so I had to pop over to YouTube and watch them. I’m not linking to them, neither of them deserve it. The John Lewis ad was almost instantly forgettable, except for the penguins, but the Random Penguins promptly hijacked it with a much better version:

And now that I work in marketing I have to salute their agile marketing and wish that in my day job I could afford their agency.

The Sainsbury’s ad filled me with a slow-burning fury. If you haven’t seen it, in a nutshell it appropriates the Christmas Day truce that happened in some places along the trenches during WWI. Some British and German soldiers apparently came out and played football in No Man’s Land. Some just carried on killing each other, but Sainsbury’s chose not to deal with that bit. The ad is beautifully shot, actual historians were involved in the making, they tried very hard to be historically accurate, blah blah blah. My teeny-tiny objection is that nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies taking a war in which so many people died, and using it to sell stuff. Nothing. In a particularly classy touch, the ad released the same week as Armistice Day. Yes. A fitting memorial to the dead is if we all hightail it to Sainsbos to buy their special reproduction wartime chocolate bars.

I expect some of the Sainsbury’s demographic were at the Haymarket Theatre on Saturday night, watching Great Britain. The play is set in the office of a tabloid newspaper, The Free Press, which could stand in for any of the real red tops. It successfully satirized tabloids in general, but particularly phone hacking. There was a lot of swearing, the jokes came thick and fast and the dubious deals (we’ll put in you No. 10 if you end the BBC’s license fee) and dodgy networking (news editor of paper fucking the Met’s Asst Commissioner who promptly ‘lost’ evidence) are probably pretty close to the mark. I enjoyed the play, while simultaneously thinking that it didn’t add anything to the debate about how ghastly the tabloids are and how culpable the Great British public is in continuing to support them.

I think satire is tough now that we’ve had The Thick of It, and also now that there seems to be a weekly revelation proving that anyone in any position of authority is exactly as corrupt, fucked up and blinded by their own power as you hope they wouldn’t be. The bottom line seems to be that if they can do it they will, whether that’s MPs misusing expenses, or GCHQ listening to conversations that are out of their jurisdiction. It’s no wonder that Marvel can line up superhero movies through to 2018; we all need to think that some wrongs are being righted by someone, somewhere. Or maybe that’s just me, and my crushes on Robert Downey, Jr. and Jeremy Renner.

Still, while the disasters keep piling up, it’ll keep Sainsbury’s in inappropriate Christmas ad material for years to come.

On running. A bit.

For, probably, the fourth or maybe fifth time in my life, I’ve started running. Restarted. Whatever. My ongoing hate-hate relationship with exercise does seem to bring me back to this point, because running is that thing that’s about the easiest to pick up, and as I’ve usually got a pair of trainers kicking about, it doesn’t cost anything. I just head out the door. This time round I was inspired by friends who have both taken up running by using a 0-5k app (5k Runner), and so I downloaded the app and hoped the running I did on holiday would encourage me to keep going.

Somewhat to my own surprise, it has. Ok, so the weather hasn’t gotten cold yet, but I run in the evening when I’m home from work, and it’s definitely dark which is surely disincentive enough. I get in, I get changed, I go out, so I don’t have time to change my mind. Previous experience tells me it’s not the weather that will stop me anyway. I like being out in the rain, and the first time I ever ran 3 miles was through a snowstorm in Connecticut. No, it’s the daily stuff, the being late getting home because of traffic or having dinner plans in the evening scenarios that are the usual obstacles. This last few weeks I’ve run anyway, and more than that, I’ve looked forward to it. This is new territory for me, and I don’t really understand why this time round running isn’t the soul quenching misery that I was expecting.

There are a few street lights in the village, but other than that, it’s dark country roads with the scent of woodsmoke on the air and the wind rustling the hedgerows. I’m obviously deeply unimaginative, because instead of being spooked, it turns out that my preference is to run on unlit, uneven roads where all I can see is the few feet in front of me that the head torch shows. I’d forgotten how much I like being out at night. I also like not being run over, so I’ve got high vis gear and the aforementioned torch.

Let’s be clear, I’m about 6 weeks into the app, so the maximum amount of time I’m running for is 10 minutes at a time, with a bit of walking in between. I’m not out for longer than 35 minutes in total. There’s no real achievement here, unless you’re me and are usually quick to grab at any excuse not to run. Still, I’m on track to be running 5k in a reasonable time by mid-November, and after a challenge was thrown down on Twitter the other evening, I’ve agreed to do the Oxford Town & Gown in May. That’s a 10k. I don’t know what the hell happened.

Poor, neglected blog

I went on holiday and then I came back and work got crazy. So currently I’m in bed by 9.30pm and up at 5.45am and I have nothing coherent to say after 8pm and my weekends are spent doing all the things I don’t have time to do during the week. And napping on the sofa.

My holiday was excellent, though, because I went to the US and mostly hung out with friends in Connecticut and Pennsylvania. I was getting in about 4-5 hours a day of hard relaxing on Marcy’s couch, because jet lag had me up so early that the only sensible thing to do was read and drink coffee. I had a couple of days being a tourist in NYC, and a day being a tourist at Gettysburg, but other than that, I shopped, ate, read and talked. I blasted through a bunch of novels and I think I got my social talking for the year done.

As usual, I started thinking ‘Hey, I could move back here! Commuting into the city wasn’t so bad’, while conveniently forgetting that the mosquitoes made summer a misery and in winter I froze my ass off to stand all the way to Grand Central. Still, it is possible that giving back my Green Card was one of my dumbest moves ever, and that’s against some pretty stiff competition. Ah well.

Since I had downtime and distance from all the junk of daily life, I also had time for a minor epiphany along the lines of ‘When did I turn into this slightly lardy person with bad hair and clothes? This isn’t working for me.’ Clothes shopping was easy, I basically bought out Banana Republic, just with the benefit of dollar prices; getting up at 5.30am to run with Marcy and Tracie was harder, but I did it a couple of times. And on my final day, I walked into a salon and got them to cut my hair off. (I think I have more to say on the whole hair, identity thing but that’s for another post, if I can make it work.)

And this feels like me again, or at least a version of me that I’m happier with.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Due small print, I got a proof copy from Transworld by asking nicely on Twitter.

Rachel is the girl on the train, and she’s an unemployed, recently divorced alcoholic who is getting the train because she used to work in London and that’s what she does. The whole framework of her life has collapsed and she has no idea how to put it back together again, and this is her way of treading water. Rather than paying attention to her own life, she creates a story around the lives of a couple whose house the train passes, and who coincidentally live on the street where Rachel used to live with her ex-husband. I think anyone who has ever commuted regularly will know the idle speculation that goes on as you become familiar with snapshots of other people’s lives, so this way into the story really appealed.

And then the woman from the couple, Megan, disappears, and Rachel thinks she has information relevant to the investigation because one morning, as the train passed Megan’s house, she saw her kissing a man who was not her husband.

But, Rachel is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. Not only does she have blackouts after drinking, but she’s been behaving a bit crazily towards her ex-husband,Tom, and his new wife, Anna. The police have multiple reasons not to trust her, but Rachel is a bit obsessed with Megan and she won’t give up. It’s as if she wants to protect the fantasy life she’s created for her, so she starts her own investigation.

There are some good twists, so I’ll avoid spoilers. I like this as a thriller and also as a character study of someone who has fallen pretty far down the ladder and might just be on her way back up. Rachel isn’t entirely sympathetic but somehow, Megan’s disappearance gives her something to seize onto. Seeing it through offers her some sort of redemption, even as she continues to screw up any remaining friendships along the way. She’s also not the only unreliable narrator; pretty much all of the characters are hiding something and so the reader’s understanding shifts as Rachel starts to piece together the truth and her own part in it.

Guilt-free snacking

The ‘guilt-free snacking’ concept has been kicking around in my head for a while, introduced there by Marks & Spencer. Yes, really. Occasionally, during lunchtimes, I head to M&S for a salad and a small packet of popped crisp type things. I like the popped crisps and I like that they come in small packets. I don’t like that they say ‘Guilt-free snacking’ on the front, and it annoys me every time, so that I wander back to the office gently fuming at the outrageousness of a food retailer thinking it has the right to lecture me about eating habits. I don’t think there should be any relationship between food and guilt, and I think it’s irresponsible and pernicious to suggest that there is. Food is just food, and maybe we should all strive to eat in accordance with this week’s guidance on healthy eating. But if we don’t, then it’s not a moral, ethical or physical infraction that should result in anyone feeling bad about it. And ‘guilt-free’ implies its opposite counterpart. ‘Guilt-full’? ‘Guilt-laden’? ‘Crisps for the self-loathing’? What the hell? Tell you what, M&S, you leave off trying to make me feel guilty about food, and I’ll forget all about that collapsing factory in Bangladesh. Deal?

Oh, and here are a few other guilt-free snacks i enjoy:

Crisps – just, you know, regular crisps. Not low-fat, low-salt baked vegetable chips. Crisps. And Hula Hoops. For a while after I started my new job, my driving home snack was a packet of Hula Hoops and a Bounty, but now that I’ve got a new car I have a ‘no food while driving’ policy. Also, is it illegal? i mean, eating while driving, not eating Hula Hoops and a Bounty together.  Although Marks & Spencer’s probably do think that should be illegal. Unless it’s their own brand, ‘guilt-free’ fake Hula Hoops and  knock-off chocolate and coconut bar. 

Chocolate biscuits – I particularly like chocolate biscuits with my first cup of tea in the morning, when I really have the time to spare to enjoy them. There’s something about the sweetness that gets the day off to an enjoyable, leisurely start and means that however it turns out, there was that good moment early on. This morning’s chocolate biscuits are Jaffa Cakes. However, I think I’d have to say that optimal morning chocolate biscuits are those insanely expensive Leibnitz ones, that we all only buy on special. 

Cheese and biscuits – my go to snack of choice. Half a dozen biscuits with cheese, as a way to fend off hunger while I’m cooking dinner. Or sometimes, not cooking dinner. Sometimes, cheese and biscuits is dinner, with chocolate biscuits for dessert.

Potato wedges – I have managed to create a habit for myself that says when I’m getting the train back from Marylebone, I get potato wedges. They aren’t even particularly good, which is sort of one of the things I enjoy about them. I’ll buy them thinking, ‘Oh, I probably won’t need dinner’, but in fact by the time I get off the train I’ve forgotten all about them, until the next time I’m back at Marylebone. 

When the food police come knocking, I’ll be guilty as charged. 

TBR update

My Blackwell’s curated TBR list is working really well so far, and I totally recommend that anyone who has an amenable local bookstore gives this idea a go. It is such fun to get a parcel in the post every month, and the lovely woman who sends out my books also explains why she has chosen them. This month, making the most of a current twofer, she sent me both Tristram Shandy and Tom Jones. They feel like reads for long winter evenings, so I’m holding back on them at least until I finish my current reading projects. (Faerie Queene is going well but slowly, thanks for asking.)

Of course, my non-Blackwell’s TBR list is already growing apace. There are so many good books coming out to tempt me that I’m simply trying to steer clear of the bookshops in case I run amok and return home with another stack of books that won’t fit in the bookcase.

This is what’s top of the list of wants at the moment. Behold my superhuman restraint!

H is for Hawk – Helen McDonald. Probably then followed up by T.H. White’s Goshawk. It always struck me that the scene in The Sword in the Stone where Wart spends a night with the hunting birds is extraordinarily well done. Now I know why.

The Amber Fury – Natalie Haynes. No brainer for a classics geek.

Long Way Home – Eva Dolan. I saw her at a Stories Aloud event and she was hilarious, if also someone you wouldn’t mess with. She read an excerpt from this and it sounded great, so I’m waiting to stumble across it in pb.

The House in Norham Gardens – Penelope Lively. I never read this as a child, but now I live in Oxford and quite often park in Norham Gardens, so I’m surprised I’ve missed this. I’d have snapped it up last time i was in Daunt’s but they didn’t have it. Boo.

Shotgun Love Songs – Nicholas Butler. So lauded, and sounds so right up my street.

The Soul of Discretion – Susan Hill. Which doesn’t even publish until October but has been on my TBR list ever since I heard that it would be out this year. I have loved all the Simon Serrailler books so far, and I almost wish I had the willpower to build up a bit of a backlog on them.

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton. Which has been personally recommended to me as well being praised by a bunch of people on Twitter whose judgment I trust.

Lost in history

Purely by coincidence, I’ve been immersed in different time periods for the past week. There’s my ongoing project of reading The Faerie Queen to start with. One canto per day hasn’t been working out, but six cantos at the weekend is doable, so that’s the revised approach I’m taking. To start with, I was reading it aloud to myself, to help with rhythm and pronunciation, and I find it oddly hypnotic. I love all the ‘quoth he’ and ‘quoth she’ stuff, the rhymes that are odd to my ear (‘sound’ and ‘wound’). For a couple of days, due to connections I can’t quite place, I also had Donne and Shakespeare in my head as well, respectively ‘And so good morrow to our waking souls’ and mis-remembered fragments of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. The latter we were made to remember at school and then write out, punctuation perfect. I’ve no idea why. I don’t know anything about Spenser, but his language seems older than Shakespeare, so did he go in for deliberate archaisms?

Whatever, it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and there are worse ear worms to have than dear old Donne.

A step further back in time, and I’m listening to Wolf Hall, rather marvelously narrated by Simon Slater. I saw the play back in March, and then Bring up the Bodies late in July, and both were wonderful, gripping pieces of theatre. I know the books are something of Marmite texts and that’s fair enough, but I find them astonishingly rich, detailed and human. And awful too, of course, in the way in which Henry VIII  and Thomas Cromwell become monsters. It’s a shame Wolsey couldn’t stick around for longer, but apparently there’s a great contemporary biography of him, so…

And finally, I read John Williams’ Augustus. I was initially a bit dubious about this, because although I loved Stoner, novels set in Roman times always have I, Claudius to live up to. Or The Memoirs of Hadrian. For me, Augustus takes its place comfortably in that company, giving flesh to the bones of a cast of characters whose names resound, drawing one in so thoroughly to the world in which it’s set that it seems immediate and relevant. The story of the shift from republic to empire I find consistently compelling and tragic, Augustus both hero and villain.

But this is Julius Caesar talking:

How long have we been living the Roman lie? Ever since I can remember, certainly; perhaps for many years before. And from what source does that lie suck its energy, so that it grows stronger than the truth? We have seen murder, theft, and pillage in the name of the Republic – and call it the necessary price we pay for freedom. Cicero deplores the depraved Roman morality that worships wealth – and, himself a millionaire many times over, travels with a hundred slaves from one of his villas to another. A consul speaks of peace and tranquillity – and raises armies that will murder the colleague whose power threatens his self-interest. The Senate speaks of freedom – and thrusts upon me powers that I do not want but must accept and use if Rome is to endure. Is there no answer to the lie?

I have conquered the world, and none of it is secure; I have shown liberty to the people, and they flee as if it were a disease; I despise those whom I can trust, and love those best who would most quickly betray me. And I do not know where we are going, though I lead a nation to its destiny.

(Augustus, p. 19)


Plus ca change…