February 28: on boasting

Men like to boast. It is a disagreeable experience to witness. Probably, younger men boast more than older men. It is linked to their libido. In front of women it is like showing your peacock feathers, though at least a peacock shows its own feathers. Women, I sometimes think, quite like men’s boasting. Either, it is proof of men’s energy and virility or it means that  women can feel quietly superior. Women boast less, or they do what is termed a humble brag, which is a form of boasting accompanied by a charitable act to offset it, as in I don’t feel special just because I gave £100 to that charity. I dare say I too can be boastful, although my technique is to turn the whole achievement I am boasting about to derision. That way I have a get-out. It’s an ironic boast, but still valid all the same. I had a friend at school whom we all used to call Stan although his real name was Michael Keane.His were tall tales and we just humoured him as he explained how he had beaten up some men in a street in Manchester city centre. Sometimes you need to blow your own trumpet, although it is invariably ugly. It’s a case of choosing ugliness to get on. The enigmatic modest approach is certainly more attractive but probably less efficient.


February 26: gluten and modernism

It turns out that less than 1% of the population are allergic to gluten, whereas whole swathes of middle-class Britain are shopping in the ever increasing gluten-free departments of the supermarkets. My suspicion is that it is the word gluten that puts them off. It sounds too much like glutinous and glutton. It is too ugly a word to be marketable. A bit like pilchards which bit the dust some time ago. No right minded aspirational family was going to continue buying something called a pilchard, though it might fork out for a wild sardine or whatever it was they ended up changing its name to. This is also part of a phenomenon that John Carey proposed in his book on The Intellectuals and the Masses. His thesis was that at the end of the nineteenth century once people had learnt how to read and write, the upper middle class intellectuals had to push further out by creating modernism, difficult art, difficult writing, so that they could remain ahead of the crowd. I’m not sure I totally subscribe to this, but you can never overestimate snobbery as a motivating force in cultural life. And so it is with gluten-free. The middle classes will always push out further to put distance between itself and the masses. Remember pashmina when it came out. Very fancy and very pricey. Now you can get three pashmina scarves for a tenner on any street market.


February 25: monumental disinterest

We have just survived Bafta and Oscar season. This is a period of the year where I grip the remote of the telly with fevered intensity in case any footage of simpering, whimpering film people suddenly appears on the screen. I turn my head away from the culture sections of newspapers as though fleeing the Gorgon. There are Brit representatives, tasked with enacting all the standard cliches, to be versions of the stiff upper lip, the ineffectual fool, the mannered fop or the rampant jingoist. It could be a modern version of The School for Scandal. All we need are fake beauty spots, mice making their nests in hair-do’s and Keira Knightly arrving as a shepherdess accompanied by a retinue of goats. There are the weepers from I don’t know which Circle of Hell. The dreadful litanies of praise and remerciments. The selfie-itis. The fawning interviewers, dripping with the unctuous, viscid pus of self-abasement. I would find a particularly select zone of the inferno for these characters. The most vibrant fantasy that remains to me is that one day, for whatever far-away reason imaginable, I am interviewed at such an event, in the full glare of the flash bulbs, cushioned by the plush of the red carpet. How I would enjoy exhibiting my  monumantal disinterest, my monumental detachment. I truly believe there would be a market for such a reaction. Please, you neutral and unexcitable hoardes, let me be your champion.


February 18: nutella

The richest man in Italy died the other day. He had a personal fortune of 15 Billion Euros. His name was Mr Ferraro. He made his fortune from two main products: ferraro rocher chocolates and nutella. I suppose it is nutella that is inside the ferraro rocher. Yesterday I noticed there was a reduction on nutella at Lidl, so I bought a jar for the first time in many years. I don’t know whether the reduction was an hommage to the late Mr Ferraro or just a fortuitous coincidence. I’ve had the nutella on my breakfast rye bread yesterday and this morning and just had another slice with a cup of tea. I think the charm has now worn off. It is a nasty glutinous substance. How melancholy it must have been for Mr Ferraro to look at the vats of this stuff and feel his identity subsumed by it. As a seventeen year old on my first trip abroad in a so-called youth camp in Southern Germany where I went to practice my German and helped build a kinderspielplatz (children’s playground) with about twenty 18-30 year olds – I had lied about my age to get in – nutella was on offer at breakfast. It was my first exposure. It was liberating to eat this goo for breakfast. At home it would have been frowned on. To a seventeen-year-old It represented the continent and doing what I wanted. There was also apricot jam, I recall. Mmm. Fancy a bit if that next time I’m in Lidl.


February 8: Tesco and French syntax

More worrying trends at Tesco. On top of all the other problems that Tesco is facing these days comes the issue, which I unearthed this morning, of its clubcards not conforming to models of French grammatical syntactic constructional forms. When you are puting your clubcard voucher in to get your miserly gift (this time it was a paltry £2) and you free points vouchers for, say, a Tesco lemon-flavour washing-up liquid, the question that was preying on my mind and which I had never resolved was: do I deposit these vouchers before or after beeping my clubcard through? It turns out you do it after! I am, to say the least, shocked and dismayed by this turn of events. My only guide to what should have been the corect procedure comes from French grammar. Consider the construction: je ne le lui ai pas dit (I have not told him that). Here all the what I might call addenda (him/ that / the negative element) are enfolded within the warm embrace of the basic verbal clause (the je and the dit, I and told). So if the verb is the clubcard and the addenda (pronouns, negatives etc) the vouchers, it would make sense for vouchers to be posited before the beeping of the warm inclusive mother clubcard. But apparently not. Yet more incompetence from our premier store! Oh, I restrained myself from taking this up with the manager this time. After all, they seemed ignorant of Zola’s depiction of the regular shifting of goods through a store to keep customers confused that Tesco was still perpetrating almost 150 years after Zola’s big store novel Au Bonheur des Dames when I brought up this age-old malpractice. However, I don’t know how much longer this can go on.


February 7: the constant spilling of ball-bearings onto the parquet

My upstairs neighbours were noisy again last night. Every few weeks they have a social get-together and even though they take their shoes off (my request; the clipp-clopping on the wooden floor sounds like a tribe of toddlers parading round in their mum’s high-heels) and don’t do music, they still find a way to keep me awake. What I have found is that as the evening progresses the main man shouts his jokes rather than makes them, his humour being dependent on volume, and his accolytes scream or shout their allegiance back. Listening to the sounds from the floor below give you a strange idea of what goes on up there. The parties, to my nether-ears, feature the shouting of funny stories, the rhythmic slamming of doors (it must be some kind of a parlour game), the dull thuds of large packages or boxes being dropped onto the floor (they must be sorting through their amazon deliveries) and the constant spilling of ball-bearings onto the parquet. If that is what they are really doing till two in the morning, they go up in my estimation. Anyway, in the end, I struggled up from my bed, went off to the little cupboard at the back of the bathroom where I keep appliances, and, as usual, treated them to some fierce shocks with the broom handle on my living room ceiling. The funny story from the main man stopped or must suddenly have been spoken at everyday volume and didn’t seem quite so funny anymore. I went back to bed.


February 2: the misery of the virtual office worker

This is a guest blog from Boxette

The concept of going to the office is a bit 1980s these days. Habitual wearers of Stan Smiths are more likely to be found hanging out in places where the walls are stripped bare of plaster, manfully downing flat whites and broadcasting their achievements on the free WiFi, tweet by tedious tweet.

But what about the non-hipsters who also work virtually? They may not own a pair of rollerblades; they may not like Apple products; they may be sensitive to caffeine. But these refugees from Croydon, Dagenham and Merton still need a safe place to roost.

So it is for me, Nigel and Terry. For several years we’ve held strategy sessions in an eatery on the upper floors of Victoria Station. This café, named after one half of a 1960s pop/folk duo that is sadly no longer on speaking terms with the other member, is arguably the most dismal meeting place of its kind. No natural light; plastic booth seating you have to crawl in and out from; formica tables and wipe-down menus. All the atmosphere of an airport terminal. And service that can best be described as disinterested.

I used to ride the escalator to this place with a sinking heart. Here we would lay out our spread sheets, worry about Euro emissions legislation while I tried to catch the waiter’s eye to ask for green tea. They would never have green tea. Each time I toyed with the idea of bringing my own teabags for the next meeting, but would never remember. Within two hours I would feel lightheaded, suffering from sick-building syndrome, or too much hot chocolate. I would feel grubby. I would be questioning my career trajectory.

And then, one day as I rode the escalator past the mobile phone sellers, gold buyers and accessorisors, I had the shock of my life. The café was being ripped apart. Torn down. Remodelled. The one constant in our working calendar had closed.

At first I felt euphoric. That’ll show them, Terry and Nigel. Now we’ll have to go somewhere they don’t serve herbal tea with milk. Somewhere where we’ll feel in command of our destiny.

Real life isn’t like fantasy. The three of us were forced to traipse through shopping malls outside the station looking for somewhere to sit. Finally we found a popular café franchise with a French name. Magnifique? Non. The table was too small for Terry’s spread-sheets. We jostled for elbow room. The waiter cleared away our cups too quickly and the room was just too popular to hear yourself think.

That’s when I learnt to value what I had lost. The old café was so sparsely populated that you could have the table as long as you liked. It had all the ambience of a tired office building. Then I had an epiphany: an old-style office, with its broken ceiling tiles and tepid water cooler was what we had been subconsciously seeking all along, we peripatetic work-from-homers.

Out of nostalgia I climbed the escalator up Victoria Station the other week. A cosy little bistro had colonised the space, all soft fabrics and amber lighting. The kind of lighting by which you can’t read the small print menu. Background music that would distract from serious conversation, and a waiter with an expression that said ‘Come hither’. Not the kind of welcome I was hoping for.

I suppose they call it progress, but Terry, Nigel and I have been forced into a new kind of Odyssey as we search, in vain, for a new unfashionable space in which to ply our trade.


February 1: default distrust

I was walking near Kensington High St the other day and saw the faces of a young Japanese couple beaming with glee at something behind me. As I turned round to see what they had seen they were both eagerly taking out their ipods to capture the auspicious moment. Behind me was the office, London headquarters maybe, of EMI. And I had been taking it for granted for years! I live with a default distrust that applies especially to corporations. How do you love a corporation when you know that their main aim is to take your money? I get a similar feeeling, often in Kensington too, when in this wintry weather practically everybody with money is wearing a moncler puffa jacket (do they still call them puffa jackets?). Retailing at many hundreds of pounds these jackets are mostly the badge of social standing and disposable income. But, my imaginary interrogator tells me, they’re such good quality.  My lip curls in time honoured fashion. I remember when I lived in France and had to endure the well-worn mantra about how impossibly difficult it was to pass the French teaching qualifications, the Capes and the Agreg, and how you had devote yourself body and soul (corps et ame) to study over many years to pass this exam. And yet, are all teachers in France geniuses? Not by a long chalk in my experience of the matter. I think all the hysteria about these exams tells us more about one aspect of French culture and its thrall to administrative authority than it does about the exams. In the same way, Japanese youth and upper middle class aspiration are what lie under my imaginary microscope rather than the money-generating mechanisms that are EMI and Monclair.