Miscellany and detritus, from the writer of Is This Mutton?com

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Going back a few years, when stamp collecting, Subbuteo and Airfix models were the hobbies of most young boys, most young girls were collecting penfriends. I had another hobby at that time which was sending off for free samples from comics and magazines like Jackie. Linco Beer shampoo and Albion Milk of Sulphur soap stand out, and you could always get free stamps from some outfit in Goole, but they would then pester you for money and you would have to get your mum to write them a letter.

Anyway, back to the penfriends. For some reason the centre of excellence for penfriends was somewhere in Turku, Finland, which was the name of the company or exchange that matched you with appropriate penfriends. They were usually the same age and sex. It was all very genteel.

There was no Internet then, or texting, or even PCs, so having penfriends meant writing in longhand, fortunately not on papyrus, and sending photos.

The good people in Turku provided me with two penfriends, Helga Kunz in East Germany (before the Wall came down) and Cheryl Morris in Massachusetts, US. You couldn't have had two more different girls - you could tell that by their photos alone. Cheryl looked very pretty and wholesome, posing confidently like a trainee cheerleader. Helga stood cowed, her eyes fixed on the floor, flanked by two enormous breasted women, her aunt and her grandmother.

I didn't write to Helga or Cheryl very frequently and the letters were mostly formal exchanges. I was then introduced by a teacher to a penfriend in France called Marie-Claude, but our letters soon petered out because I was supposed to write to her in French and she was supposed to write to me in English. As soon as I had asked her about Johnny Hallyday (who according to my French text book was a teen French idol, but illicited a "bof!" from her) and how you cooked artichokes, I had exhausted my possibilities.

As I got into my teen years, I wanted penfriends who were a bit more like friends, giggly and like minded, willing to talk about boys and pop groups and clothes. Through the auspices of magazines like OK (not the current version) and Hi! I got matched with Karen Walker in Swindon and Julie Cox in Pevensey, Sussex.

Karen was the only penfriend I actually met. We were both about 15, and she and her family came to visit me in Plymouth when they were on holiday in the area. Karen lived in Swindon - I had no idea then what a big role that town was to play in my future life. We used to write quite frequently and she would tell me all about her outings to the Brunel Rooms in Swindon and the boys she'd kissed, and I no doubt did the same, referencing Rees youth club and the Lutheran Church youth club (I didn't go to the church, only the club, honest).

But when we met, it was a big letdown. We were both quite shy. I was newly permed, I recall; it was de rigeur then to have a perm like Kevin Keegan. Our mothers did all the talking, and I don't think a further letter was exchanged after the meeting so you can tell it didn't go well.

Julie Cox, meanwhile, she was a blast. She was freckly with long brown hair. We wrote huge long gossipy letters to each other and sent postcards from holidays. She was 18 months older than me, which seemed a lot then, and she was a huge Queen fan (I didn't see the attraction). She used to tell me all about life in Pevensey with her friend Anita, who lived in Polegate. Her longest letter was about seeing Queen in concert. By contrast, I had only seen Sailor and Andy Fairweather-Low in concert, and for both I had to leave early to catch the last bus.

I was reminded me of Julie Cox recently when J and I drove through Pevensey not long ago. I'd never been there before - it has a very scenic castle. I've often tried to locate Julie through sites like Friends Reunited, but no joy. We had a fairly short lived correspondence, and sadly I don't have any of her letters. But I always remember my excitement when a big brown envelope with her chaotic right hand slanted writing fell through the letter box. Julie Cox, what are you doing now?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Fashionistas make me furious

Yesterday's Sunday Times suggested that even celebrities cringe and cower in the presence of the fashionistas, the predominantly female dowagers who sit glaring and wearing sunglasses in the front row at fashion shows. Demi Moore, Ashton Kuchter and Victoria Beckham were shown looking nervous as they took their place alongside such gorgons as Anna "Nuclear" Wintour from Vogue.

It's not surprising that VB looked so nervous, having been comprehensively savaged for the dozens of outfits she unveiled in the US recently. Having decided she's good at fashion, and that it's to be her new career, poor old Posh wasn't expecting a roasting from the likes of the ascerbic Liz Jones, more famous for being married to a womanising sap than for her fashion journalism.

Every year at this time, the Sunday Times and all the monthlies go fashion mad, exorting us to snap up the latest trends - leopard print shoes, giant handbags, smock coats, waist high trousers, yawn. If you're over 40, it's all a bit "same old" because we wore all these trends, and those of next year and the year after, in our teens. There's nothing new in fashion. At the end of the day, is it really important, compared to the big issues of the world, if we wear A line or tulip shaped skirts? Yes it is in the narrow, cruel and judgmental world of the fashionistas. Woe betide you if you have been safeguarding your health with a normal diet. You need to be a size zero before you can even deign to present these rags to us on the catwalk.

It's enough to send a sane person straight into Marks and Spencer. And it's no wonder M&S is seeing a reversal of its fortunes when you consider how easy it is to go into one of their big stores, try on some of the latest trends which you've seen on models like Twiggy and Erin O'Connor and leave without having been humiliated or sneered at by shop assistants,a practice which is the norm if any normal sized person should go into shops like Chanel, Prada or any other designer boutique.

The world of the fashonististas is so crazy that its role models are people like Kate Moss, a promiscuous drug taking slattern. Sure, a bit of hedonism is fine when you're young, but surely when you're a mother in your 30's you're a bit too old to act so irresponsibly? As for her fashion sense, those skinny jeans and waistcoats she wore all summer were a bit old hat (even Victoria Beckham did it). The only new thing she's doing is carrying a Superdrug plastic carrier. I'm sure it was simply because she nipped out to the shop and didn't take one of her giant designer bags, but to the fashionistas it was a seminal Fashion Direction, and they're probably all now hurrying off to Superdrug. So much for individualism. Long live the Emperor's new clothes!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Goodbye to a wonderful summer

Later this week we're off to a European resort for three nights to enjoy a final roasting in the sun. I won't reveal where exactly because it's been positioned to J as a surprise. All he has to do is fit everything into 1 suitcase (I resolved not to take 2, it's only three days) and drive us to Stansted at an unearthly hour on Thursday.

It's been a wonderful summer and this was an attempt to prolong it. Although it's sunny now as I look outside, there has been an autumnal nip in the air for two or three weeks now. In the mornings, when I leave for Swindon at 6am, it's quite cold, and on the long journey I can see the leaves on the trees changing colour. It's as if summer is holding out her hand but slowly slipping away.

I used to be a winter person and actively looked forward to winter, knowing what to wear (opaque tights, woollies, long coats), being able to stay in and not feel guilty, sitting by the fire, reading, looking at Christmas catalogues.

But now I look resentfully at the approach of winter thinking of the car frosted up at 6am, the rain, the bleakness of the landscape, the tedious boredom of it for the next six months. And Christmas! Don't even get me started.

This summer was wonderful - two weeks in Ischia, Italy; a week's cycling in Wales; a long weekend in Stockholm where J did the Stockholm Marathon; Picnic in the Park with Bjorn Again (and an awesome hamper from M&S), BBQs in the garden with Pimms; the Bolshoi in London.
The hosepipe ban was a bit tedious but give me a long hot summer anyday over our usual excuse for a summer.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Selina was right: TV is deteriorating

Earlier in the week I saw a programme on Five featuring Selina Scott, "Don't Get Me Started," featuring her rant against the poor quality nowadays of British TV.
And she's so right.
I felt quite ashamed after the programme because I did watch Big Brother 7, even though I felt slightly uncomfortable about it, realising that this is the modern equivalent of throwing the Christians to the lions, or, as her show stated, the equivalent of Bedlam where rich people would pay a few shillings to watch the lunatics in the asylum.
But in the last few months I have become increasingly depressed about the standard of our TV, once the greatest in the world.
In the last week, we've sunk to new depths. Charlotte Church, once the voice of an angel, is now the voice of the sewer, overblown and coarse at the age of 20 with a neat line in the f** word. A programme on Five featured the memorable title "F** Me I'm Getting Fat." And coming this week, a new programme on ITV2 featuring three young men whose only claim to fame is that they are lotharios who can't commit to relationships. Calum Best (unemployed, claim to fame is deceased father who was an alcoholic), Paul Danan (was in a little-watched soap a few years ago) and Fran Cosgrove (claims to own a nightclub) travel through the US seeing how they can get by without money.
If you scan the TV listings, it's difficult to find any good quality, new dramas. You can find re-runs of "I, Claudius" and re-runs of good, but old, comedies. Even documentaries have been dumbled down. They come in two flavours nowadays. The first is "big cat/bear/wildebeest" specials, where a shrieking and over-excited team pursue animals relentlessly across the savanna. The animals are always involved in life and death struggles, presumably manufactured with editing. The second is the classic historical documentary, dumbed down with riduculous computer generated graphics - for example dinosaurs, gasp! - chasing TV presenter, or re-enactments with poor acting of the fire of London, Pompeii, etc.
Selina was also right about the trend for cruel TV, where stupid members of the public are ridiculed and disgraced for their poor dress sense or parenting ability. Fortunately, I think the tide is turning on this one. The recent C4 programme "How to look good naked," whilst featuring a gratuitous title, did at least build the self-esteem of the women it featured with kindness and no plastic surgery.
There are a plethora of TV channels, but without exception they show mediocre dross. And yet teenagers seem to lap it up, the cringeworthy US imports of ABC1, the exploits of "rent a celebrity" Jade and Chantelle on Living TV.
My dream would be a channel called "Quality TV," showing programs about art, history and nature without the dumbed-down factor; quality drama; experimental comedy. TV for grown-ups with intelligence. No programmes featuring "The Public" and no revenue-generating telephone scams. Surely there's a market for that?
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