Friday, 24 July 2009

Dating denial

The concept was born amongst the writers on the show Sex and the City, as one former playboy grew tired of hearing his female colleagues obsess over and justify the awful specimens they were dating. 'He probably couldn't get to a phone... work's so busy right now' ... 'Maybe he fell asleep and then forgot to return my call when he woke up' ... 'Maybe his dog got sick'... 'Maybe he broke the fingers required to adequately dial my number'....


Those liberating words. Like a lot of us, if I had discovered this philosophy earlier, I could have saved myself a lot of time and stress. Not everyone is a perfect match, and of course in a lot of cases the spark dies, or they find someone else, or they change their sexual preference since last seeing you. But any silence on the male part always starts a complete frenzy in the mind of a woman. What went wrong? Am I too fat/thin/old/young? Did I talk about my job/self/dog/manicure too much? Am I sexually repulsive? WHY HASN'T HE CALLED???! And so on. Obviously, this is only the case when we ARE that into him and when we have felt like it's been going well. Then the mind ricochets between anger - 'What a bastard, how dare he, I'm obviously too successful/gorgeous and it intimated him, it's his loss' - and more of the crazy - 'I'm going to die alooooone.'

This could all have been saved with a brief reality check, in the form of the HJNTIY theory. In many, many cases he will not be hurt, incapacitated, being held hostage or suffering from amnesia; he has just realised he's not interested enough to take it any further. When Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo wrote the book based on Greg's original advice in that meeting, they were not only brutal about the rejection in this scenario, they also hammered home the other side of the coin - you deserve to and will find someone that does call you back and does want to see you. Why waste time wondering why the last guy disappeared into the ether?

Of course that won't stop us obsessing, our minds were built for irrationality, but it might give us a shove in the right direction - forward. In this year's film adaptation, there's an 'exception that proves the rule' storyline where it does all turn out right in the end - thanks for the reassurance, Hollywood - but I do think now and again men can be given the benefit of the doubt. But only rarely is a guy truly prevented from getting in touch or paying you attention by work, illness, or that great lie 'being scared of how much he likes you'. Oh, please.

I love this whole concept. I enjoy the directness of it, just like that diet book Skinny Bitch (basic message: if you're greedy and eat loads, you will always be a bit chubby. If you care that much about being skinny, you will watch yourself) it cuts out the crap designed to make us feel better in favour of the harsh reality. If you've ever found yourself consoling a friend by grabbing desperately for excuses ('Maybe he DID lose his phone... and then facebook stopped working, his landline was cut off and he lost the ability to walk to your house') it might be better just to cut straight to the 'you deserve better' pep talk. Let's not give Mr One Date more attention than he needs.

He's just not that into you.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Literary Lemmings

I object to the very concept of the book club. This foul bludgeoning of individual taste and imagination was shoved in my face for the millionth time today, as I was researching Twitter - apparently book clubs have sprung up all over the site as it is a perfect breeding ground for miniature reviews. As with many things spreading fast these days, my advice is catch it, bin it, kill it - before reading becomes a competitive sport.

I love books and I love reading, but what I do not love is being told what you should, or worse, MUST read. Why must I? Does the fate of Western society rest on my absorption of its content? No. Will my life be changed forever because I glanced at a few pages on a busy train? Probably not.

This will probably be controversial because many including my family love to share recommendations and swap titles. I don't mind a casual bit of praise for a novel and if it intrigues me I may well pick it up, but I do not NEED to read it - it crushes the very joy of discovering books to have it lobbed so ferociously in your direction.

Here's how books were meant to be selected: you wander into a charming, dusty, quintessentially English bookshop (or Waterstones), peruse the shelves, glance at some covers and titles, feel a particular draw to one due to illustration, blurb, author or just that inexplicable attraction one sometimes feels - and then buy it. Same goes for libraries, a total haven of choice and leisure. If you're a bookworm, of course. I forget that so many people 'hate' reading; I'm a bit of a romantic when it comes to books. I don't even think you read a book because it's a 'classic'; one man's classic is another man's snoozefest. It's all about your personal attraction and reaction- you would never date a guy just because someone told you you should, would you? Especially if after the first few minutes he seemed pretentious, boring or stupid. So why not apply the same logic to finding books you truly adore?

When I see Richard and Judy, Jonathan Ross or Glamour's book club brandishing some shiny paperback with a 3-for-2 sticker, I run, and I suggest you do the same. Not because these people don't mean well (R&J, incidentally, are absolutely lovely) but because you'd have to be an absolute mug to believe that this is the book of the century. Firstly, the assumption that everyone's book of the century is the same is madness - some love romance, some thrillers, some dialogue and some action. Secondly, these glossy 'from the author of' specimens (often with an insipid cover featuring beaches or fields) are usually the least original tomes ever to hit the shelves. They'd have to be to please every presenter, bookstore boss and magazine. Guess what, folks: these people have met the PRs, they've interviewed the author, they are as biased as you can possibly be.

The books I love have rarely been ones thrust my way by academia, friendly recommendations or media hype. They are the ones I had a quiet, odd fondness for, that I saw bits of myself in or that made me laugh out loud.

So when someone gives you a review under 140 characters of something you've never seen, touched or smelt (love that old book smell), take it with a pinch - a handful - of salt, because no one can tell you what will strike you when it comes to literature.

Naturally, when I find one I do love, sheep and singing are never far behind.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Blonde Ambition

Every now and again, a striking female bursts into the charts with an incredible album and image, creating a media frenzy - and they tend to be platinum blondes. There is something very powerful and brave about sacrificing any claims to natural beauty by bleaching the hell out of your hair. I could never do it, but these high-profile blondes do it for us, and as a result become iconic. Madonna did it in the 80s, Gwen Stefani in the 90s, and now Lady Gaga has come to rock the naughty Noughties. Actually, Gwen ruled most of the Noughties as well, before she ditched the Alice in Wonderland couture in favour of marriage and babies.

These three have something in common that I can't quite put my finger on - all seem to be savvy media machines with a closely monitored 'look' - in Madonna's case this changes every couple of years, while Gwen flits from 50s screen siren to funky ska princess and Gaga sticks with her geometric modern-art creations and sunglasses. They all work with the hottest producers and have a huge element of theatricality about them; Madonna is famed for her crucifix hanging, self-loving, MJ-resurrecting live shows, and the other two are also all about costume, spectacle and fantasy. They are neither really credible nor completely uncool - festival-goers and clubbers love a bit of Gaga (who has a foundation of credibility from her days as a New York performance artist), Madonna has always had a certain aura of re-inventive cool, and Gwen's No Doubt debut and ska/hip-hop influences elevate her above her contemporary pop puppets.

I was listening to Lady Gaga's latest smash Paparazzi the other day, and there's just something inescapably catchy about it. It has all the ingredients for a ballsy blonde hit - powerhouse vocals, ridiculous beats, smart lyrics and a melody that will burrow into your brain and refuse to depart. She sounds very Gwen circa Love Angel Music Baby (an exceptional and more experimental album than Lady G's, I must add).

This isn't bubblegum pop; it's darker than Britney, less try-hard than Christina. Whatever people say about Gaga (especially that she's not much of a looker when off-duty - why should she be? She's an image, a character - there's no claim to model looks there) I personally think her album is a candy shop of perky hits, with a signature style and great production. Madonna may have lost it in recent years (put DOWN the fillers and pick UP a nice M&S frock) but I have every faith Gwen will bounce back with an unexpected album with even crazier inspirations than her Harajuku obsession and Wonderland style.

There is no real category for this type of diva, but I think they should be placed above your everyday female artists for boldly going to bigger, better and blonder places with their music.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Columnist Heaven

Writing is a funny business, and it's hard to pinpoint what it is that makes a great writer. It always seemed bizarre and wonderful to me that someone might pay you to write as a job - especially if it's about something you're interested in. Or if you're a columnist, even just your opinion - now that's nice work if you can get it. While doing some research for a fabulous Polly Toynbee piece on voting which appears in August ELLE - out this week! I'm credited! - I realised that to have your opinion be so valued that the whole nation is reading it each week and in turn forming THEIR opinion is probably the highest accolade you can get as a writer, and a great goal to work towards. Obviously, to be a columnist you have to be someone established, respected and that people can relate to. But it's that X-factor of originality that makes a column I just want to read week after week (it's probably where blogs came from, this sort of following). For me, it's nearly always brilliant descriptive powers, down-to-earth tone and feeling, and very often a sense of indignation that makes these writers so readable.

My absolute favourites (I could never pick just one) are as follows:

Tim Dowling
Tim writes for The Guardian's Weekend magazine. They've put his page up front, which shows what a draw it is for the mag. Tim writes about ordinary life with his wife and kids, very muted stuff, but with such beautiful observations about the little quirks of existence. He sometimes touches on current affairs, but I think Dowling is at his best when waxing on family and home. I particularly enjoyed his recent anecdote of the hunt for their pet snake Mr Rogers, and this one where he helps his son with a school contest, but you should really read the whole glorious lot. Wonderful Saturday mornings for me often involve bed, a cup of tea and Tim Dowling.

India Knight
I've mentioned India before on this blog; I've been a fan for years. I agree with so many of her sentiments (and fiercely disagree with a few) but they are always put across in a way that is somehow simultaneously witty and serious; she isn't afraid to weigh in on larger issues than Dowling, but will often be gracious about others' valid points. She writes a column for the Sunday Times, and a blog about her disabled daughter. I didn't discover her as a columnist though, I read her delightful (semi-autobiographical) book My Life on a Plate in my teens - it is a wonderful, funny, sweet, heartfelt book masquerading as chick lit. When I later read her actual autobiography-come-ode to retail The Shops, I realised how much of the protagonist's life was her life, and immediately understood where all that warmth and eccentricity came from. I have always adored writers who are bold enough to write about their 'ordinary' life; one of the earliest novels I read was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, another was the glorious (and sadly out of print) Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson, and I have always found the oddities of family life fascinating. Knight's passionately expressed points of view and memoirs have made me laugh, cry, and bristle in disagreement. This, surely, is the mark of a great writer.

Charlie Brooker
If you're a fan of TV, humour, or just the sick workings of the human mind, you must read some Charlie Brooker. His masterpiece is Screen Burn, the column that appears in the Saturday Guardian's TV Guide. Most of the time it's Brooker, although now and again you get some poor replacement columnist who just ends up seeming inferior. He dissects a couple of programmes a week, anything that captures his devilish imagination or drives him to despair. One of the high points is his love-hate fixation with reality TV like The Apprentice; he loathes the contestants but expresses this with such eloquent violence that you can't help but keep reading. He also writes a similarly brilliant column in Monday's G2. Brooker famously encourages his fans (having discovered his writing to be a cult hit) to engage in mass protest against things, ring up radio/TV programmes with bizarre requests or participate in delightfully strange challenges. Some of his older Screen Burn columns have been published in a book - read these fiercely funny snippets on public transport, but be warned - you'll snigger like a loon.

These are my favourite three; special mention must go to Marina Hyde (someone once commented that she and Brooker should get together and have tiny satirical babies), Barbara Ellen from The Guardian, who I often disagree with, but she always writes well, and Zoe Williams, who used to write a brilliant column in one of the weekly trashy mags - she was far too witty for them and has moved on to more broadsheet-y pastures.

All of these fine folks seem to have a genuine interest in life and all of its little hilarities - try and stop for a moment in your busy week and read them, it will help you remember the good things.

Do add links to your favourites via a comment, I love being introduced to new columnists.