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A day out at Downton

I’ve never been into period dramas. Maybe it was being subjected to too many Merchant Ivory movies as a child, but the hoity-toity voices and the funny wigs never really appealed. They all seemed to have the same plot; a well-spoken stranger would enter a village full of half-drunk yokels, and before the first advert break there would be an illicit pregnancy, some sort of improbable sub-plot in which a heaving-breasted wench is blackmailed by a butcher, and a bar brawl. By the time the credits rolled, the posh stranger would have wed the village sweetheart, rescuing her from a life of drudgery at the Dog and Duck, and the locals would have gone back to punching one another.

They are always on a Sunday night, and for about three hours, and if you happen to miss an episode, don’t even attempt to try and catch up – the second sister will have died, there will have been another illegitimate baby, and you’ll spend most of the episode wondering why the action now appears to be set in France.

So, no, not a fan. Until…

On a particularly dark night in October last year, when I can only assume I was feeling a bit peaky and couldn’t be bothered to argue, Ben persuaded me to watch an episode of Downton Abbey.

Ben is a Downton fan, and has been for some time. He has a ‘I heart Downton Abbey’ sticker stuck (the wrong way round) in his camper van, and is particularly fond of Mrs Patmore. We watched one episode. Then we watched another. And then we watched the entire six series – all 52 episodes – including deleted scenes and bonus features, cast interviews and documentaries on the making of. I was hooked.

Despite knowing several plot twists ahead of time (having had to comfort Ben upon Matthew’s untimely demise), I was gripped. Maybe because I KNEW Matthew was going to come to a sticky end on a bend in his sporty new motor, it made his and Mary’s all-too-short romance all the sweeter. And because I know Dame Maggie is set to appear in the film (released this September, whoop!), I didn’t have to worry that any time the Countess got a cold there might be a funeral in the offing.

As with Game of Thrones (I’m starting to think I watch too much TV), which started again last week, #DatAbbey has plenty of death, family feuds, and even a fair amount of sex, given the constraints of the period and the Dowager Countess’ steely gaze. It’s highly entertaining, and kept us occupied through a cold, dark winter. And so it was that, upon completing the series and feeling a little lost, we did a bit of Googling and discovered that it is possible to visit the Abbey where the drama is set – or rather, the castle.

Highclere Castle is in Hampshire – an ancient building that has seen much transition, becoming a castle in 1850 – set in 1,000 acres of gorgeous gardens, and home to the Carnarvon family. It’s not owned by the National Trust, and the entry price (plus afternoon tea) is very reasonable – and so with the promise of a jam-and-cream topped scone at the end of the (very!) long drive, off we went, with both mothers in tow (also fans). And it’s amazing. You drive down a very grand, long and sweeping driveway, and glimpse the castle from quite a distance away. It already looks very large and only grows in stature and magnificence as you get closer.

We’d chosen a beautiful sunny day, and the wild flowers were out in force in-between the statuesque and centuries-old cedar of Lebanon trees (the location for the village fete where Edith is cruelly dumped by Sir Anthony Strallan). The folly at the end of the garden (where Anthony Gillingham and Charles Blake both realise they are about to get cruelly dumped by Mary) is another beauty spot, as are the walled and secret gardens where nobody got dumped, presumably because it’s too cramped to walk away in a huff.

But of course the main attraction is the house. Now, I had this wonderful vision of strolling around the rooms in my Lady Mary mask, lolloping on the furniture and taking selfies in the bathrooms. Sadly this is not to be. It was packed with people, photos are not permitted, and not even the real Lady Mary lolloped on anything other than the Turkish attaché (the handy signs throughout the house pinpoint the rooms where other notable characters met their glorious and inglorious ends). I soon got over my disappointment, however, as the house is just stunning. The rooms used in the show are exactly as they were left by the Crawley family when the cameras stopped rolling, with beautiful brocaded armchairs, exquisitely polished tables and chairs, the stately dining room and the leather (leather!) wallpaper in the grand hall. The red-carpeted grand stairs lead up to the bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms of the lords and ladies, as well as the viewing gallery where that strumpet Sarah Bunting got Tom into so much trouble.

Around the back are the stairs leading to the servants’ quarters – sadly, we were not allowed access to these, probably for fear that being in such close proximity to the chambermaids might increase visitors’ blood pressures just a little too much for the village doctor to cope with all at once.

Around a third of the house is open to visitors, with some of the remainder still in use by the family, as well as a good deal closed for restoration. It has over 50 bedrooms (that’s more than Milton Keynes’ IKEA), and countless works of art to keep clean. As in the series, the house was opened to convalescing patients during the Great War, and the family still display the keepsakes from those who recovered there. In the grand cellars below the house lie not racks of wine (at least not in the cellars I found) but replicas of Tutankhamun’s tomb, as the fifth earl of Carnarvon was one of the party that discovered it, in 1922, shortly before dying of blood poisoning. How that storyline, or some variation of it, didn’t make its way into Downton I’ll never know. Maybe it’ll be in the film.

All in all, a grand day out. While we scoffed scones in the tearooms we reflected on the history of the castle and its ancestors, passing the castle from generation to generation. Well no, we didn’t actually, we titted about pretending to be Carson and Mrs Patmore, and tried not to talk in a loud Yorkshire accent. But I’m sure we wouldn’t be the first. The fact the castle was packed on a Wednesday afternoon in April is in no small way down to the fact that a very popular TV series was set in its glorious surroundings, which got me thinking about how other landmarks in need of a bit of money for a leaky roof might follow the same example. Ely cathedral has recently been the setting for The Crown, and Macbeth. Perhaps if an enterprising screenwriter (me?) wrote some sort of clergy-based soap opera, set in a market town in the Fens at the turn of the century, the diocese’s financial troubles would be over forever. Now, who would Maggie play?

The joy of CEX

About a year ago, a friend told me about a show on Netflix (originally the American network, the CW) called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It sounded a bit out there – a musical comedy about a high-flying lawyer who abandons her successful life to move to the other side of the country for a boy she dated half a lifetime ago. But after she’d shown me a half dozen YouTube clips of the songs in the show, I was hooked. I immediately went home and binge-watched the first two series.

Trust me when I say it’s brilliant. And if you haven’t already accepted and embraced this brilliance into your life, look away now because, spoilers.

I laugh out loud at multiple points in every episode of this show. Even during season three, when it all goes a bit dark, there were moments when I was lolling at songs about anti-depressants and suicide attempts. The show’s creators – Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna – have created a character for every thirty-something woman out there who feels a bit doubtful about her life, her looks, her career. They’ve made a woman (Rebecca Bunch) who every single woman can identify with – for every time you’ve had a bit too much to drink and said something you shouldn’t, or eaten too much and hated yourself, for every time you’ve compared yourself to your prettier, skinnier friend and found yourself wanting, for every time you’ve screwed it up with someone you love.

There are so many blogs about this show that I don’t need to gush about its virtues, or tell you about its plot. But after four series and 61 episodes, which finished a couple of weeks ago, I feel bereft. It’s like losing friends you’ve known a long time, who always make you laugh, and sometimes cry. Rebecca and her bunch of misfits in West Covina, California (which I hope has seen its visitor numbers somersault since the start of this show) have created a world in which women (and men – this is a show watched “reluctantly”, but actually eagerly, by fans’ boyfriends and husbands) have found an unlikely hero, who isn’t a size 8 and aged 25, who ugly-cries and regularly wears hideous outfits to send herself up. She spanxes to the max, gurns and grimaces, and still, at the end of season four, has three hot men lusting after her.

A show written by two women should be this way, of course. Rachel Bloom plays Rebecca, so she has literally created herself, and has spoken about reflecting her own life in her character. I am sure there is plenty of Aline Brosh McKenna in her too, and the creators’ mothers, sisters, friends and colleagues have all undoubtedly lent inspiration for some of the characters we see – from the overbearing Jewish mother to the frenemy from school, from the hopeless boss to the mute communications manager, from the basketball playing priest to the forever-hopeful therapist.

And those are just the supporting characters.  

The real joy of this show though is in the songs. Halfway through a lament on loneliness, a character will suddenly burst into song; to emphasise a love conundrum the set will turn into a Broadway stage. In a way that dialogue just can’t (either because it would be too corny or on the nose), a song can lift the drama to another level, making a moment even funnier, sadder, more beautiful or more insane. The choreography has grown in style and substance over the seasons, and the tunes have sent up every single genre from thrash metal to girly pop, from hip hop to classic musicals. If you have just one ounce of the theatrical in you, you will love every moment of the sheer silliness of it all.

But it also takes on a serious subject. The main theme of Rebecca’s life is, undoubtedly, the (many) men that populate it – but the thread that runs through this complex love story is the relationship she has with herself. From the time she was wounded by her father leaving home, on her eighth birthday, Rebecca has struggled with self-worth and acceptance, which has influenced all of her relationships and the way she sees herself. Mental health is explored throughout all the series, particularly so in season three, when she completely loses control. Despite the title (a “sexist term”, Rebecca points out), it’s never glossed over, nor made light of, and there is so much pathos in some of the darker episodes it actually hurts.

But ultimately, it’s joyous. Whether you agreed with the ending or not (and our Crazy Ex appreciation group – or CEX – on WhatsApp was roundly divided on this issue), it was one hell of a journey. I hope I don’t sound too gushing or sycophantic, but the creators (and their team of writers and songwriters) really nailed this show – it’s the kind of thing I’d love to be part of, and Rachel Bloom really is my ultimate girl crush.

But really, this blog is a love letter to Rebecca – for being an entirely imperfect hero, who ultimately gets everything she ever wanted. BLAM.

Addendum: I actually wrote this blog a couple of weeks ago, since which time Rachel Bloom has announced two live dates in London in June. To say this sent our CEX Whats’app group into a slightly hysterical meltdown would be somewhat of an understatement – the outcome being, we have booked tickets and are in the FOURTH ROW FROM THE FRONT. Rachel, fear us. It’s going to be AMAZING.

No small problem


A couple of weeks ago, I received an email from WordPress. It went like this:

Dear (you-call-yourself-a-) blogger

It’s been three years since you last visited your webpage. This is the third year in a row in which we have taken our payment of $12.99 for hosting a site on which there has been precisely zero activity for 36 months.

What have you been doing all that time, huh?


OK, perhaps that wasn’t the exact wording, but I did wonder to myself what I could have spent that precious $39 on, rather than hosting dead air. I should also factor in the Adobe Stock images account I created, of which only three credits were used before the license expired, the remaining 47 still sitting on their shelves, never fulfilling their illustrative purpose.

My last blog was dated 22 April 2016, and it coincides quite neatly with another event. No, my arms didn’t drop off, preventing me from writing, nor did the Brexit referendum render me mute (although I did vow never to blog on the subject). No, I actually started writing. Whilst blogging gave me opportunity to hammer out monthly, sometimes weekly, diatribes about issues large and small (mainly rants about local train companies), it did rather divert my attention from writing anything more meaningful. My two scripts to date remained not-quite-finished, and ideas I had for others stayed in my head (usually for the best).

But in the summer of 2016 I started to write something a bit… bigger.

It started as a joke, written purely to amuse myself, riffing off a favourite film of mine from the 80s. And then it took shape, and people liked the idea, and I saw a comment on a social media post which inspired me to carry on.

“What if Tom Hanks wished himself small on the ZOLTAR machine? I would totally watch a film about that.”

Well yes, so would I. Because I was writing one.

The premise is this:

Tom Hanks, super successful and respected A-Lister, is sick of his life. His movies have become humdrum, he’s getting a little slower and a little greyer, and he thinks fondly back to the days when he was a struggling actor, trying to land a great role. One night when a little drunk, he stumbles upon the ZOLTAR machine from the movie BIG, and accidentally wishes himself SMALL. Waking up the next day as a fifteen-year-old kid, he panics and runs away. He must then spend the rest of the movie trying to get himself big again, without anyone finding out.

Over the course of the next 18 months or so, I wrote this script, sitting at my desk on an almost nightly basis “doing Small”. Writing scenes, editing others, coming up with daft ideas, and replacing them with better ones. In November 2016 I met a woman called Arlene online, a screenwriter and script consultant working in LA, who read the first act of Small and got super-excited about the idea. Together, we’ve created a 112-page script of which I’m hugely proud.

But now what? We’ve written a role in a movie that can only be played by one person in the world. Literally one. And he’s not getting any younger! Consider that I spent all of 2016 writing this script, interrupted on an almost daily basis by headlines revealing the latest celebrity who had died. I spent that year in a state of perennial anxiety, convinced that either a) some other bugger would come up with my idea first, or b) Hanks would cark it.

And this fear wasn’t totally unfounded, either. One of the reasons Arlene was so excited about the script was because she had an ‘in’ to Tom. Years ago she worked for Penny Marshall, the director of Big, and still kept in touch with a colleague very close to her. Our idea was to get it to Penny, who could then pass it to Tom.

Very sadly, Penny passed away in December 2018, a few weeks after being sent the script. Whether she ever read it I won’t know (nor will I accept any responsibility!). But her untimely death did rather kill our dreams of getting it to Tom via a recommendation, which as everyone in Hollywood will tell you, is the best (usually, only) way of getting your script read.

We’ve not given up hope of course. At the last screenwriting festival I went to I shamelessly wore a t-shirt asking “Do you know Tom Hanks?” on the off-chance I might find someone who could give me an introduction. Arlene knows many other people in LA who might be able to pass it along. I like all of Tom’s social media posts, and have even bought one of his son’s handkerchiefs (a Hanks Kerchief – how brilliant is that?) in an effort to endear myself to his wider family. My level of stalking the Hankses knows no bounds and he should probably feel grateful I’m on a different continent.

So, my return to the world of blogging is basically a cynical ploy to find myself a way to the Big Man himself. It doesn’t score highly on the “Ways to get Tom Hanks in your movie” Venn diagram – but it is on there, along with Instagramming missing socks and becoming an expert on typewriters. It’s cheaper than a flight to LA in order to sit outside the Playtone offices until he shows up (also on the diagram) and considerably less illegal than some of the other suggestions I’ve since rubbed out.

If you can help me with my small, yet big, problem, I’d be very grateful. There have been so many remakes and sequels to ‘80s movies lately (not to mention a very recent film called Little) that my fear will no doubt be founded and some other bugger will do it sooner or later. Let that bugger be me!

Fly me a-quiver

Regular readers of my blog will know that I get a fair amount of material out of criticising the UK’s public transport system. All four of you will also, by now, have realised that I quite enjoy moaning about things in general, so it may come as quite a shock to read this particular post, which will be both upbeat in tone, AND complimentary about a certain British transport company. General humanity will reel in their seats when they discover the company I’m talking about is Ryan Air.

Have I taken leave of my senses? Part of the experience of taking a Ryan Air flight is to then moan about the experience of taking a Ryan Air flight, advising everyone you ever known never to take a Ryan Air flight ever again, until of course you take another Ryan Air flight. It has always been this way.


But, over the course of the past six months, I’ve developed a… fondness, shall we say, for this no-frills, no-thrills (please, no thrills) budget airline, which has freighted (and frightened) me a total of twelve successful* journeys in the last half-year.

Let me go back and explain.

I hate flying. Always have. I find it akin to my hatred and fear of the dentist, and in fact the two experiences are not dissimilar. You are led into a cramped, fearful waiting room. You’re then strapped into an inadequately proportioned chair for a human being, subjected to an array of alarming noises, at which point you close your eyes, wrench your hands, and wait for it all to be over. At various points throughout the procedure you will be offered an array of unappealing items to go in your mouth, and for the pleasure of the whole experience you will be charged an inordinate sum of money. The only plus point to flying is that it’s generally a bit warmer when you get out.

But last year Ben was offered some work in Barcelona, and so I had a choice: stay at home and quietly seethe at his Instagram account, or undertake regular hops over the Pyrenees to join in the Catalunyan capers. I chose the latter, and since October last year have travelled about 11,000 miles, spent close to 260 hours in the sky, and approximately £690 on departure lounge Prosecco.

For I now have a routine. I never realised before that there is actually a way to travel successfully, by airplane – even Ryan Air. First you have to choose the right flight. Don’t fly too early. There’s nothing classy about swigging a can of Heineken (to calm the nerves) on the 8.52 Stansted Express, even if you are in good company with at least half of the commuters changing at Audley End.

Better to wait until the airport and chug back a breakfast bellini with a round of avocado on toast, before hitting up HEMA for all your stroopwaffle essentials whilst waiting for your Gate to be called. Then, depending on your Gate number (and if you’re flying with our Irish friends be prepared for a good walk as you find yourself pretty much back on a layby of the M11 where they’ve parked the plane), you’ve just time for a swift wee and another cheeky glass of the fizzy stuff as you wait for the departure board to turn from green to red. Why those people patiently wait in line for a pre-booked seat, only to patiently wait in the pre-booked seat for those not in line, I will never understand. Ok, so sometimes you have to surrender your hand luggage to the hold if you’re last on, but seeing as all I need from my hold bag is money (for booze) and tissues (for crying) this has never particularly bothered me.

As you board it’s important to take a quick glance into the cockpit to reassure yourself there are two vaguely competent people at the flight deck, who at least look old enough to hold a driver’s licence, and aren’t visibly sweating. Then it’s a quick clamber into your chosen seat (12A, in case you’re wondering), and after a panicked rummage in pockets for sweets for take-off, the flight begins.

And this is where I actually love Ryan Air, because for the next two hours you’re so distracted by their relentless tactics to extract money from their passengers (seven different methods at the last count), by the time you touch down at the other end you barely realise you’ve been in the air. Well of course that’s not true, but what with the hot meals and the cold drinks, and the scratch cards and the donations to charity, and the unintentionally comical mispronunciations of safety information by the supposedly bilingual flight attendants, there’s barely enough time to worry about a slow and terrifying pirouette into the Pyrenees, with your last thought being “I paid £10.99 to do this.”

So, thank you Ryan Air, for your safe, efficient and ‘everyone-is-equal’ (i.e. we all get stiffed in the same way) approach to transportation, and I will be using your services in the future (not least because there is little other choice between the two airports). But, I must say this – I will not clap. I don’t get it. Much as I don’t understand people who clap in cinemas (the Spanish, and the over-enthusiastic), I don’t see why passengers clap a safe and healthy landing. That’s what’s supposed to happen. It’s essentially what you paid for, and the triumphant cavalry call pumped through the speakers at the end of the flight (seemingly regardless of whether the flight is on time) is sufficient to announce that the show’s now over.

Well, ok. Maybe a little clap is deserved. As I disengage my seat belt, unclench my sweaty palms, and be thankful that I still have all my teeth, I might acknowledge the two clever souls in the front seats who’ve safely transported me home. But I’ll need to be pissed.


* Successful = I didn’t die.

The glass is half-dry

On an unspecified day in December last year, upon waking with a cracking headache and little recollection of what had happened for at least three hours the previous evening, I made the rash but solemn promise to myself that I would embark upon ‘Dry January’. Later on that evening, whilst chortling over a large Gin and Tonic, I amended that promise to a dryish fortnight, with perhaps the odd glass of wine thrown in when the need arose. And then I realised I couldn’t start from the first of January because I had already organised a Champagne and Oyster Night on the second (my life is unbearably hard sometimes), so together with two other well-intentioned, but sadly deluded friends, we agreed to embark on a ‘fortnight off’ – all vices – from the 4th to the 18th of January.

It seemed pretty simple. We’d start on a Monday, with the intention of still being so hungover from Saturday night’s activities that the last thing we would feel like was an alcoholic beverage. (Mistake 1: Hair of the dog is never so needed when you know you can’t have it.) We thought that by the time Friday rocked around, our bodies would be toxin-free, our minds alert, our energy levels peaking and our determination levels, and willpower, sky-high.

Well, we were wrong. It is 6.30pm on Saturday 9th January, and I would gladly hand over all my worldly belongings for a sniff of something that isn’t lime and soda. It hasn’t helped that I started this enforced sobriety with a cold. A stinking head cold, the kind that doesn’t look too bad from the outside (little snot, minimal mucus) but coated the interior cavities of my brain with a dense, sticky fog, so that I was unable to work, sleep, read, or do much else apart from a fairly spectacular display of moaning, from underneath a mound of blankets on the sofa. To wit, I have been bored. So bored. To the point where I even considered filing my tax return. (That feeling passed.)

I am now ‘well’, but the boredom remains. It’s bearable in the day – I am actually doing adult things now like working, eating, and putting on clothes – but come sundown (or what might count for dusk in these parts if it weren’t already dark by 2pm because of all the sodding rain), my craving for something a little more exciting than a glass of pineapple and coconut juice becomes slightly disturbing.

On Tuesday I hit up the supermarkets for ‘interesting non-alcoholic drinks’. Optimistically, I took a trolley rather than a basket, and then cursed the world that I had to get in a longer queue because I couldn’t take said trolley (with three items in it) through the self-checkouts. I purchased fizzy water, a bag of limes, and some ‘red berry and hot orange’ lemsips, in the vague hope that they might taste a little bit like mulled wine. They do not.

Having discussed the matter with my friends in our What’s App chat group ‘Sobriety Support Clinic’, I was cheered by the rule that it is, indeed, OK to cook with alcohol, as the general principle is that all of the nasty (lovely) alcoholic stuff gets burned off during cooking, just leaving the lovely (middling) taste behind. On Wednesday I made a Spaghetti Bolognese with half a bottle of wine in it. I have the leftovers for tonight, and am worried that there isn’t quite enough for two portions, so thinking I may have to top it up. With wine.

It doesn’t help that my husband has not embarked upon this foolish endeavour with me. Feigning hurt, he asked why he had not been added to the What’s app group. I pointed to the glass of wine in his hand. “Oh I’m not even enjoying it,” he replied, proceeding to not enjoy the remainder of the bottle. What’s worse is that he consistently fails to remember my plight each evening, and, much like Dom Parker in Goggle Box, jovially strolls into the back cabin (our bar) each evening and exclaims “So, what are we drinking?” I have so far resisted the urge to lock him in there, but I am only a week in, and things are getting tense.

Ok, ok, I know I’m being dramatic. I’ve read all of the pisstake articles from the likes of the Daily Mash, that suggest a small army of non-dependent casual drinkers are pretending to have a serious alcohol problem for the month of January, just to get attention, and then feel smug when they complete their ‘feat’. Some are even getting paid by their patient and tolerant friends for the ‘journey’ they are embarking upon. I don’t have an alcohol problem (except not being able to drink any right now – this might be the first blog I’ve written sober). I am being a drama queen.

But I also know that January – officially the most depressing month of the year, in which it rains incessantly, the marina turns into the Somme, my bank balance is one big minus sign, and sodding Easter eggs hit the shelves of Tesco three days after New Year – is not the opportune time to give up something that actually makes life fun, and interesting. Although my body isn’t dependent, my social life is. Sitting on the sofa passing judgement on the BBC’s god-awful period drama is not so much fun when done over a cup of Teapigs Early Grey (yes, I have also bought specialty tea, which is even more expensive than alcohol). The enjoyment derived from a lovely home-cooked meal is marred when in-between mouthfuls of duck and plum sauce you are obliged to sip, not a juicy full-bodied red, but cherry cordial. Even ordering a lime and soda in the pub is depressing – Cambridge pubs will have over a quid off you for that.

That’s not to say that I will rethink my social habits. I fully intend to resume my normal drinking quota come the (stroke of midnight on) 18th January – I don’t wish for Ely Council to regret its decision to install larger glass bottle recycling bins last year. I will however, rethink my rash decision-making process – no sensible life choices should be made when hungover. I have eight more days to go on this fools’ errand, during which time you can find me snarling in the fruit juice aisle in Tesco, or loitering outside the door of the pub, in the hope of catching a whiff of something warming. (Actually, if I wanted that, I should just get on the 7:05am commuter train to King’s Cross.) And no, I don’t want sponsorship. I have a vague intention to bung a twenty quid note in a Cancer UK charity box at some point, to counter what I would have spent (well, at least a portion of what I would have spent – this is January and I have an overdraft) on alcohol over this two weeks. And I won’t get too smug upon completion – it’s hardly Everest. But seeing as I live in the Fens, the flattest part of the country, it is perhaps a small hillock. And on the other side lies a pub. Cheers!


Lessons in Londoning

Today, I finish a three-month temping stint in London. Three months, I’ve decided, is my limit – the 6am alarm call, the astronomical train fare, the pollution, the people – it all gets a bit… much. I’d really rather be ‘not working’. Or at least somewhere within the same time zone. But it’s certainly been educational.

Here are some things I have learnt.

1. The windows at Liverpool Street Station are shaped like willies. Perhaps Victorian train station architects weren’t so anatomically aware back then, perhaps they were just less childish than me and hadn’t seen as many internet memes on the subject, but I thank them anyway for making me giggle every morning at 8.57a.m., when absolutely nothing else will.

2. People in London spend too much money on lunch. Lunch is just food you eat in the middle of the day, rather than 15% of your earnings, and no one within the M25 seems to grasp the concept of making sandwiches at home. An itsu salad costs £5.45. £5.45! For a bit of quinoa (bloody quinoa – the last thing I need on a wet Wednesday lunchtime is a lesson in pronunciation from a 17-year-old barista), approximately an eighth of a chicken breast, some edamame beans and a drizzle of fluorescent orange sauce. A Pret sandwich is £4.95. A ‘slim pret’ (there’s an amazing bit of marketing) is £3. Fruit juice is £2.50 (you can add an extra 15% if it’s raw – no, I like my fruit juice cooked, thanks). £4 for a miserable cheese sandwich, a packet of crisps and a can of coke is neither a meal nor a deal, but as ‘little Waitrose’ won’t allow you out of its doors with change from a fiver for your pasta salad, you start to reimagine the value of a damp piece of cheese on curling bread, and believe yourself to be getting a bargain. And don’t get me started on the latest fad for ‘protein pots’. You’ve got to seriously question the sanity of a world that happily pays £1.40 for a boiled egg and three pieces of spinach.

3. Birthday cakes are taken very seriously. Not for Londoners is it acceptable to pop down to the local Tesco Express and buy a Colin the Caterpillar chocolate swiss roll, to be shared between 15 people. London has cake shops, there for the purpose of expense receipts, and one can choose from any number of expensively decorated and themed goodies, so that Marjorie from Account’s 57th birthday can be celebrated with all the glamour and occasion that the day deserves.

4. There is nowhere to sit in the Square Mile on a sunny lunchtime after 12.30pm. City bankers can be mistaken for Big Issue sellers as they begin to spill out on to pavements and traffic islands in an attempt to find a piece of space where the sunlight is not completely obstructed by a skyscraper that looks like a penis (see above). The concept of personal space is completely redefined in summer. Whereas you cannot normally induce a Londoner to even look in your general direction, let alone make eye contact throughout the rest of the year, raise the temperature by ten degrees and suddenly 15 people are sharing a bench, or sitting quite literally on each other’s laps on the two square metres of grass outside the church of St Botolph-without-Bishopgate (also incidentally the best-named church, ever). And then some idiot will decide to feed a pigeon, and suddenly it’s like a scene from The Birds and not only are you sharing your legroom with ten other Londoners but are also covered in shit and feathers.

5. Londoners are some of the rudest people you will ever meet.

6. Londoners are some of the kindest people you will ever meet. Just watch (don’t push) someone fall over on a wet floor at the train station (literally just next to the ‘wet floor’ sign in my rather embarrassing case) and you’ll see all number of people forget immediately about their imminently-departing trains and rush to help you. They’ll dust you down, offer you water, commiserate that yes, your laptop is most likely broken, and send you off on your way with some cheering words and a Munchie. Possibly they’re only doing it in order to get into Metro’s Good Deed Feed, but hey, it’s still nice.

7. The Metro’s Good Deed Feed is a little ray of sunshine into an otherwise dark and thankless world. The Rush Hour Crush, on the other hand, is faintly disturbing, and the only reason people read it is because they hope to be in it. Frankly, it is made up. I have never once caught sight of the ‘gorgeous hottie in the blue top’, or ‘cute blonde carrying a tennis racket and a banana’. Rather, I’m acutely aware of ‘profusely sweating guy in bulging overcoat’, and ‘shifty-eyed emo with poor personal hygiene’.

8. There is no hotter place on earth than the Circle Line on a July afternoon.

9. If you wish to know who is entrusted with the safeguarding of your hard-earned cash, or pension, look no further than the front doors of Marco Pierre White’s Oyster Bar on Threadneedle Street at around 3pm on a Friday, when you will be mown down by parties of blue-suited, floppy-haired Apprentice-rejects-turned-RBS-employees, as they stumble into the street after a long lunch, and return to their desks for a little more wheeler dealing. Be assured, your retirement’s screwed.

10. Skyscrapers are amazing.

11. However, there is no sun at street level in central London any more.

12. Your Oyster card will always be out of credit when you’re running for a train. It will always be nicely topped up when you leave it on the bus. Train doors shut ‘up to 30 seconds before departure’, no matter how much or how hard you bang on them. There is no quicker way to provoke barely-concealed rage than to stand on the left hand side of the escalator. Just don’t do it, ok?

13. The Evening Standard crossword on a Wednesday is sent from Hell, and is actually unsolvable. An eight-letter word for ‘rush’?! Answers in the comments please.

14. London is a crazy place to work. It’s overcrowded, noisy, smelly and dirty. It’s also beautiful, diverse, alive and welcoming. Everyone should work in London for a while – if only to have something to blog about. Thanks London, I will miss you.

15. But not much.

The box from 1995

Private. Keep out. Not to be opened until December 31st 1999.

Pity the poor teenager (me), who on a rainy Tuesday sometime in 1995 stuffed an envelope (adorned with Britpop stickers) with a bunch of photos, letters and lists, and imagined her future self opening it on the eve of the Millennium to see how much of the ‘Stuff I will have done by the time I’m twenty’ list she could tick off, some four years later.

Back in 1995, at the time of writing this list, I was sixteen years old, and probably couldn’t fathom a time I would be doing anything more interesting on a New Year’s Eve than watching Clive Anderson tell jokes I didn’t quite understand on BBC1, whilst sipping a warm can of coke. As it turned out, what I ended up doing on the Millennium was little more exciting than this, but it did at least involve alcohol, and nothing could have been further from my mind than opening up a dusty brown envelope to tick off the lustful imaginations of a clearly quite introverted and somewhat mad teenager.

To be fair, most of the activity on my ‘to do’ list appears to be boys from my school, or celebrities, most of whom are now married with children, or dead from drug overdoses (I could add the word ‘respectively’ here but the two are actually interchangeable), and my greatest ambition, it appears, as a sixteen year old is to go to Glastonbury and ‘meet Ian from Have I got News for You’. I am quite disappointed with myself.

The reason I know all this is because this weekend I went into the attic at my mum’s house, to see how many of my two-decade old Sylvanians have been massacred by mice, and if there was anything valuable up there that I could sell so that I don’t have to do this tedious thing called ‘work’.

Once I had said a quiet prayer for the souls of the beheaded badger family, and sulked at the lack of Ming vases and first editions Harry Potters, I rummaged through an old box containing files and projects from my schooldays. Imagine my intermingled horror and delight when I found a rusty old metal box, locked but keyless, which I knew for a fact I’d put up there in 1995, and forgotten about ever since. With careful cunning and expertise (for which read an old screwdriver, a hammer, and much brute force) we managed to jimmy it open. If 1995 had a smell, this was it. Nostalgia flooded back as I found my old homework diary (doodles professing my love for Damon Albarn far outnumbering any attempts at writing down homework activity, apart from one notable entry – ‘English: Write something about Chaucer’), a travelogue written during a particularly hormonal week-long school trip to Italy, and, weirdly, a tape measure.

I soon discovered the reason for the tape measure when I unfolded a chart on a sheet of paper, painstakingly filled in, for each month over the course of a year, noting with unnerving accuracy my exact weight, and the various bits and bo(o)bs that sixteen year olds find important to weigh and measure, and agonise over when they don’t go up or down satisfactorily. It seems I was unhappy about weighing eight-and-a-half stone. I’d like to go back to my sixteen-year-old self and shake her. Tell her to write something about Chaucer, stop agonising about her non-existent bingo wings, and attempt an ambition bigger than ‘going to at least ten Blur concerts’ and ‘writing a song’. Although that last one is quite cool. And I think I’ve been to seven.

I’d like to tell her that she will never get off with the ten boys she’s listed as she will “just die” if she doesn’t get off with soon, and that she’s really quite glad about that now, even though most of them have turned out to be quite respectable. Not all, but most. I’d like to tell her that exam results aren’t everything, but that her handwriting really needs some work. And I’d like to rip that chart into a million pieces and tell her that one day she will find the fact she weighed as little as eight-and-a-half stone quite incredible, and to enjoy being a really-not-fat, frizzy-haired, care-free teenager for as long as it lasts, because y’know #YOLO, and soon she’ll learn things she never wanted to about student loans, and rusty old boat steel, and she’ll have far more boring things to write lists about.

She also won’t open that box on New Year’s Eve 1999 (she’ll be getting stoned on hash cakes on a boat in Cornwall), and she won’t for a second regret all the things she never ended up doing. Except for that song. And there’s still time for that.


There is a bunch of flowers on my desk that is slowly dying. The flowers have been there for four weeks now, given to me as a leaving present when I quit my job to go freelance as a writer, and the slowly decomposing petals and leaves metaphorically represent my dreams of being financially solvent ever again. But I really cannot be arsed to throw them out.

Every time I visit the bathroom I stare aimlessly at a growing collection of toilet roll tubes on the floor. There are seven now I think, of various sizes and shapes. They are taking up a considerable amount of floor space in my bathroom, but I really cannot be fagged to scoop them up and deposit them in a bin.

There are lots of other things I am finding myself weirdly reluctant to do. Like admitting I can’t bake. I’ll spend an entire morning painstakingly burning three dozen meringues because my oven just doesn’t have a ‘low’ setting, experimenting with leaving the door half open, and adding extra trays to block the heat, in the hope of making something that isn’t so carcinogenic it’ll lower my life expectancy by several years. But I won’t cheerfully toss the lot in the bin, stick two fingers up at Mary Berry and go and buy a Sainsbury’s pavlova. I’ll forget the whole episode, and then waste another two boxes of eggs a weekend later in an attempt at macaroons.

In the meantime I’ll accumulate a ridiculous amount of Active Kids vouchers (I don’t have kids, and highly doubt they’d be very active if I did) that I’ll never redeem, and box up leftover lasagne and spag bol into tiny tupperware boxes in the fridge, only to throw them out three weeks later when no one’s eaten them and they’re threatening to spontaneously combust. And I’ll click ‘not now’, for the 36th time, when my computer warns me it urgently requires an update or I’ll lose all my work and friends.

So what sits behind my reluctance to do these things? Clearly, the flowers represent a connection to safe, secure income – a time when I didn’t wake up each morning and wonder just what insane part of me ever thought it would be a great idea to attempt to make a living out of blogging – and thus I am scared to throw them away, and be left, flowerless and powerless and staring at a P45, with barely an intelligible or creative thought to put to paper. Plus, I know the water in the vase will really stink.

But the loo rolls? I don’t have an attachment to toilet rolls. Not since I was seven and made a colourful desk organiser at school, with a special little pot for my pencil sharpener and an extra tall tube (from a kitchen roll, and designed to store spaghetti – I had only a hazy idea of what should be organised on a desk, and to be honest, there are times that I’ve wished my writing environment housed some easily accessible carbohydrates) have I had quite such a collection of bog roll inner tubes.

The meringue thing is clearly just stubbornness. That oven was expensive, and I refuse to believe that just because we had to convert it to Calor gas in order for it to run on the boat, it now cannot cook at less than 300 degrees. It just needs fiddling with.

Maybe it’s just apathy. Why do today what can comfortably be put off till tomorrow, and there are quite clearly so many other things to do – like play Words with Friends and watch entire series of The Big Bang Theory, back to back, and claiming it’s educational cos there will come a day when I really need to know about string theory.

But I’d be interested to know if it’s just me. Do other normal-in-every-other-respect people hoard loo rolls because there is a distance of some fifteen feet between the bathroom and the nearest bin? Have stinking foliage blocking the sunlight from their desk? Refuse to accept Paul Hollywood will never wink aggressively and say ‘Good work Davies’ as he tucks into a perfectly risen, char-free meringue? Please let me know. In the meantime I’ll go and water that plant that seems to somehow survive despite my almost pathological refusal to give it any attention, and download an update for Words with Friends. Don’t want that giving up on me.

A degree of equality

It takes a special sort of person to start rowing at five in the morning. By rowing, I mean the sport, rather than arguing loudly, although you could argue (loudly) that there is a certain amount of sport in rowing competitively, and just as vigorous a training regime. But for now let’s stick with the concept of rowing (the sport) and the people who willingly get up before the birds on a cold wintry morning to don an implausibly thin piece of blue lycra and perch three inches above a stretch of river that is only a degree off freezing, with a small person yelling at them for three hours. For such is the training regime of your average university rower, and the lifestyle choice of all those men (and hurrah! women) you’ll see lined up, quietly shivering, on the Thames today.

Rowing, for the main part, is a fairly unobtrusive sport. We only really remember we’re actually quite good at it once every four years (it’s the Summer Olympics equivalent of Curling, only with fewer Scottish shouty people) and on one weekend at the beginning of April when thousands of people pledge allegiance to one of two towns in the south of England that they’ve probably never been to, but imagine is a bit like Hogwarts, only with fewer Scottish shouty people. For the rest of the time, rowing sinks into sporting oblivion. No international rowing stars adorn the front pages of the tabloids, leering blearily into 3am paparazzi lenses, whilst fighting a million pound divorce or a battle with alcoholism. You might get the odd one looking a little dazed and confused on a celebrity comedic panel show, reading lame jokes off an autocue and wondering how they ended up sitting next to Sean Locke, but for the most part, rowing has a good reputation – if you do it well enough you get made into a knight, and they all seem very jolly when they chuck the small person into the river at the end.

Well – let me dispel that myth. Although perhaps slightly unpatriotic to mention it, and I may well lose my membership to Cambridge forever more, may I say that those nice young university students you’ll see being interviewed by the lovely Clare Balding later on today have a slightly tarnished reputation in my eyes.

For that punishing training regime I mentioned, the one that sees them perched atop a carbon fibre banana skin at sparrowfart each morning, is one that I know all too well. I live on a boat just outside Cambridge, and due to our 3mm thick walls, and laughable insulation, what happens on the river at 5am basically happens inside my boat. The laughing. The shouting. The swearing. Trust me, the swearing. Inventive, these university types, in the language they use to describe their oars, their freezing cold feet, their colleagues and indeed these pesky barges that get in their way, being so casually parked at the side of (their) river.

So loud their voices! So screechy their oars, when dragged against the sides of your freshly-painted hull! So pleasant, that rocking motion, caused by the wake from their training boat zooming past at 15 knots. So sudden, that moment between deep night-time sleep and falling out of bed in fright. So relaxing, this boat life.

But I kid, of course. Just like every other Cambridgian on Saturday, I will naturally be cheering on the Light Blues, yelling at the Oxford lot to keep their oars on their own side of the river, and feeling a certain amount of pride (and an even larger amount of amusement) that our County’s finest minds are spending their Saturday splashing energetically on a bit of river around Putney Bridge.

And this year will be even better because, for the first time ever (a fact still slightly unbelievable given it’s 2015, and not the 1970s), the women’s race will be fought along the same stretch of river, and on the same day, as the Men’s. You heard that right. Prior to now, the ladies were entitled to race, but away from all the big crowds (presumably who wouldn’t want to see such an un-ladylike spectacle) and on a day when people weren’t quite so excited by the Main Event that someone with a whistle, and enough interest, could be found to set them off.

So – happy days. As befits the reputations of two of our best, and most progressive, educational establishments, both sexes will now be afforded a degree of equality, and those mums and dads who have packed their kids off to Cambridge and Oxford will now be able to cheer on both their sons and daughters from the same stretch of river on Race Day. And get a glimpse of Clare Balding. It’s a great leap forward for women’s sport, especially one so steeped in tradition, and with such ties to academia, and if the commentators can restrain themselves from making wet t-shirt remarks, it will be a great day.

And if Cambridge does win (they must be on a mission to recover those eleven lost lengths last year), I will give them a cheery wave from my porthole the next time they go past at daybreak, instead of my usual growl. Possibly. Come on you Blues!!

Grinding gears

My friend is a nurse. After working a sixteen hour shift with no breaks the other night, she went to the canteen and asked for steak and chips, and was told that, due to the time of night, she could only get a sandwich. So she said ok, thanks very much, I’ll have a sandwich.

Not very newsworthy, is it? A bit dull. Wouldn’t sell many papers. And it probably happens thousands of times every day – a hardworking person, on a low wage, is forced to eat something insubstantial and on the hoof, before falling into an uncomfortable bed, and waking up to do it all over again.

I expect nurses the world over feel sorry for Jeremy Clarkson. After a hard day’s filming (probably involving some difficult auto-cue reading, a test drive in an expensive sports car, and some casual racism), he was then forced to endure the prospect of some cold meats and salad, rather than the steak and chips he was obviously so hungry for.

Poor bloke. Lucky then that he was provided with a ‘junior member of staff’ who he could shout at for 20 minutes, before punching in the face. Every star needs a punch bag, and if Oisin Tymon didn’t realise what he was getting himself into when he signed up for the role of Producer at the BBC, he evidently didn’t read the small print.

But possibly we’re not hearing the full story. It takes more than one person to have a 20 minute argument, even if that person is Jeremy Clarkson, and the time spent fruitlessly arguing over a steak could have more profitably been spent ordering a takeaway. Maybe the producer had been winding Clarkson up all day, suggesting he redo the take because it simply wasn’t funny, or asking just how much longer the Top Gear team could stretch the same tired old format out for. JC is getting on a bit now. Perhaps he stalled the car, messed up a turn, forgot which gear he should be in (top) or had to redo an entire segment of the programme because he accidentally caused a diplomatic incident. We’ll never know.

What I do know, however, is that if my friend/brother/dad/husband had gone to work one day and come back with a punch in the face from his boss, I’d be pretty incensed. I’d want to know what the company was going to do about it. I’m not sure I’d describe it as a ‘fracas’. I think I’d call it assault. At the least, bullying with violence. Gross misconduct.

And so it has been proven, and Clarkson has been sacked, potentially facing criminal proceedings. It doesn’t matter how good he is at his job. There are rules in the workplace – rules in life, actually – that state that you don’t punch someone in the face over steak and chips. No matter who you are, or what you’ve been doing all day. Even if a million people, the PM and the white Power Ranger still think you’re God’s gift. You’re an idiot.

And on that bombshell…