In which an irresistible force meets an immoveable object

Get me with the physics reference! (Um, it is physics, right?)

Anyway, I was in London t’other weekend to go to see Electra at the Old Vic. I think Electra is a difficult play, because although the circumstances are terrible, Electra’s blinkered single-mindedness in pursuit of yet more horrendous crimes is unnerving. Kristin Scott-Thomas played her brilliantly, as a deeply emotionally disturbed and unstable woman wrought to high pitch. I imagine her Electra collapsing like a puppet with severed strings once the action is completed, inner motivation spent and with nothing to replace it. Now there’s a story that as far as I’m aware, no one has touched since Aeschylus. What happens next?

On the way to the theatre, I had to do some shopping due to a last minute invitation to a black tie dinner later in the week (this isn’t a humblebrag, it was a work thing and all the important people had dropped out so there were seats going spare on a table that had been paid for). Fortunately, I only needed shoes, and I only wanted cheap shoes because this is the first black tie event I’ve been to in about a hundred years. So, Oxford Street it was.

I managed not to fall down the rabbit hole of French Connection, which has suddenly grown up and had a ton of stuff in a delectable midnight blue that was pleading with me to take it home for happy ever afters. I hear it still, in my dreams. Somewhat unbelievably, I came away from the stores with only one pair of shoes, and then decided to walk to Green Park tube via New Bond Street.

All the shops there are so expensive that I don’t even aspire to shop in them. I view the whole street more like an art gallery, full of beautiful things that are so out of range I can simply admire them as objects. Also, it’s not as insanely busy as Oxford Street and it’s a handy cut through, so I was striding purposefully along when I was stopped by a free handout sample of a hugely expensive moisturizer. I’ve had samples before, it’s lovely stuff but I’d never contemplate buying it. What I did contemplate was following the salesman inside for a sample of the eye cream.

He embarked on the usual attempts to create rapport, and I had a few minutes to spare so I let him. It was the usual ‘Oh but you have such lovely skin, you don’t look your age, let me just pop a bit of eye cream on and honestly, you won’t believe the difference, now, while we’re waiting for that to work let me just show you our moisturizers. These are the only moisturizers in the world that are made with this unique ingredient that penetrates all the layers of your skin to your very soul and yes, that’s right, it moisturizes your soul so not only will you look amazing but you’ll be a better person too, I mean, that’s got to be worth it, hasn’t it, and oh look, the eye cream has worked, can you believe the difference, ooh, it’s knocked 10 years off that eye, I mean not that you needed it really, but let’s be honest, you do have a few crows’ feet and wrinkles, but if you used this eye cream and our moisturizer every day then they’d all be gone in 3 weeks…’

That boy was working it. The moisturizer and eye cream together were £400, which made me laugh out loud. I said I didn’t mind my crows’ feet and wrinkles, I was 43 so of course I had them and actually I didn’t want to be perfect I wanted to look like a normal person and in fact the pressure on women to look 20 all the time was ridiculous and misogynistic.

What if he was a magician and could say a magic word and all my wrinkles would be gone, just like that?

No.

No? Really? One magic word and they’d be gone? Seriously?

No. I like them. They’re fine, it’s not damage, it’s my life.

He didn’t really believe me but he moved on to the extra bit of the spiel for the stubborn ones. This is their entry level product, which is the facial scrub. This we tested on the back of my hand, and sure enough, it scrubbed off a layer of skin and pollution and the back of my hand was soft as anything. The facial scrub was £150, which I think is supposed to seem like a bargain after that £400 price tag, but didn’t. So I said no. (£400? I want it made by Clangers and personally flown in by the metal chicken, with dinner with the Soup Dragon thrown in.)

He didn’t miss a beat in dropping the price to £75 as an introductory offer, because it’s all about building a relationship, not making a sale. I said no, £75 is ridiculous for a facial scrub and maybe try me again in 10 years if I start feeling desperate. He went to get his business card, and possibly to have a chat with the manager and came back with an offer of £49, at which point the encounter tipped from amusing into brand damage.

I wasn’t going to buy it at any price. He’d halved the price and told me that was cost, so already admitted that the mark-up was huge. He then effectively halved it again, at which point he devalued the product entirely. I don’t believe they weren’t still making a handsome profit at two-thirds off the ticket price, which means that for all the hype it’s suddenly no different to my £10 Oil of Olay. Wrinkles versus snake oil? I’ll keep the wrinkles.

Things I can’t be bothered to learn about

I’m sure we all have them, those topics, skills, areas of interest that we’re going to get round to acquainting ourselves with some day. As the years tick by, and I continue to gain precisely no knowledge about things that nevertheless annoy me because of my ignorance of them, I decided it was time to accept what I’ll never know. It’s not that I no longer want the information or ability; if it could be magically implanted in my head then I’d be happy about it. It’s just, I’m too damn lazy to learn it myself, and too damn bored by thinking ‘One day, I’ll …’

1. Car maintenance – I like cars and yet, I find car maintenance so deeply tedious that it makes me frankly incredulous anyone could expect me to engage with it. When I had my old car, it spent enough time in the garage that I assumed they were taking care of tyre pressure and oil levels and ensuring there was enough water wherever it needed to be. Now I have a brand spanking new car, and surely if a car can give you directions (not that I went for Satnav) it can figure out how to top up its own water by repurposing rain or something? If not, then technology is failing us. And by ‘us’, I mean ‘me’.

2. Beauty routines – Prompted in part because I just received the latest issue of a magazine, and it had a special section on the best lotions, potions, elixirs, serums and oils. I quite like reading the descriptions of them. They all need to be used in careful combination according to a complex matrix of factors, and most of them are hilariously expensive (although there’s always the one, cheery ‘High Street Best!’ thrown in for the cheapskates). Unless you are a newborn babe, everything on your face is the sign of damage, and it requires a tiny, £78 pot of life-reversing unguent to undo that damage. I did a quick count once, and if I’d bought all the ‘essential’ concoctions it would have cost me the best part of £500. Let me think about that for a … no.

3. Super foods – What the actual fuck? I just… I can’t. It’s too hard and there’s cheese and Jaffa Cakes between me and the quinoa and goji berry ragout or whatever the arse I’m supposed to be eating to add 10 years to my life and give me the energy of a Duracell bunny. I like tea and biscuits that give me the energy of a lazy sod who spends a lot of time reading on the sofa. And, my weight is fine and my health is fine. So, your point is…?

4. Wine – I like drinking it, I prefer red and champagne, I’d like a wine encyclopedia because I’m a geek. Beyond that, the minutiae of vintages and vineyards, winemakers and   varietals leaves me absolutely cold.

5. Gardening – I really, really like the idea of gardening. I’d like an Elizabethan herb garden, neatly laid out with carefully lettered markers for the different plants. I can picture it in summer, sunlight reflecting off glossy leaves, bees buzzing round the lavender, me drifting around in a floaty, floral number, snipping here and there. What I’ve got is basil in a pot on the window-sill.

6. DIY – D I don’t think so. I can’t hang a picture, or build a shelf and it would never cross my mind to try to put together some Ikea furniture. They don’t even have words on the instructions, just pictures. It’s gibberish. I am, on the other hand, very clear about what I do want and there are plenty of people out there wiling and able to build stuff. It’s their livelihood, not mine, and I’m very happy to support it.

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.