Friday, 13 September 2013

Reviews: Autumn 2013 Books


I’ve been pretty slack of late when it comes to blogging. I have no excuses. I’ve just fallen out of the habit of posting. I’ll mark my work in red pen with “Must try harder”.

As it’s starting to feel decidedly autumnal, I feel it’s about time we all snuggled up with the central heating up high and a pile of good books. Maybe the odd leaf kicky, squirrel observing walk would be good too.

Here are my recommendations for the best books that I’ve read recently.

1)    Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter




This is a novel that examines the tricky business of human relations and displacement. In the 1970s Alice has just got married to her boyfriend during a prolonged holiday in India and wakes up the day after her wedding to find that the village she is staying in has been hit by a tsunami and her husband is missing. Her mother, Violet, with whom she has a brittle relationship, is shown back in the 1940s when she has to leave the village, which is the entirety of her world, when the Ministry of Defence take over her home to utilise for army training exercises.

Rossiter handles difficult concepts and the end result is a very astute reflection on emotion and longing that is written in a poetic but very readable style.

2)    Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter



In 1962 in a small island village in Italy a frail young actress arrives by boat and makes a remarkable impression on a young man. She is in exile from the set of the Burton/Taylor epic “Cleopatra” and is apparently dying. The book flits between 1960s Italy and present day Hollywood.

This novel is actually wryly amusing as well as being moving, evocative and atmospheric. The book is part satire, part reflection on love and unrequited desire. It’s well worth the effort to read this engrossing book.

3)    Londoners by Craig Taylor


Craig Taylor spent several years interviewing hundreds of people who live in the capital. This book is akin to the war time mass observation tales where a snapshot of people’s lives were recorded for social research purposes. It’s actually a really compelling read and I devoured this in a couple of sittings. Taylor interviews a huge array of characters including a Tower of London beefeater, a dominatrix, city traders, the woman who is the voice of the underground, a bewildered tourist etc. What results is a very revealing and at times hilarious book.

4)    Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

 

If you aren’t familiar with impish David Sedaris then you definitely need to get yourself down to the nearest bookshop and get the whole back catalogue. American humourist, Sedaris, is an incredibly funny man. This book of essays is a dangerous book to read on public transport, as people will stare at you as you sit chuckling at inappropriate moments.

5) The Greatcoat by Helen Dunmore



Hammer Horror has commissioned a number of famous authors to pen horror/ghost stories. Dunmore has come up with a stunning tale of a woman adrift in post war Britain who is haunted by a dashing airman. It’s a dark and sinister tale that made me feel jumpy and enveloped me in the creepy and mournful scenario. Dunmore is a writer at her peak. It’s a short read (a novella in fact) and one that you’ll probably swallow whole.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Ramblings: Something for the Weekend







I'm trying to be leaner. I don't mean slimmer, more taut or fitter. I'm quite happy as I am if it means I can carry on sitting down a lot. I mean that I'm meaner.

I've recently moved house and my expenses have rocketed out of all control. The cost of moving hasn't just been on my mental health but has hit my pocket quite hard too. My savings have been battered out of existence.

In a spirit of trying to rationalise my finances, I've been loitering round the reduced bread section in the supermarket in the early evening, buying unbranded products and taking my own lunch to work. I'm not exactly poverty stricken but my thoughts are that the less I spend on food then the more I can spend on clothes, DVDs and books. I can eat like a pauper and attend the theatre and the ballet like an aristocrat.

Last week I went a step too far though. I decided to go for a cheap haircut. I'd spotted an unusual looking establishment on the bus to work which advertised 'Any haircut: £5!". I decided that as I was passing I'd give it a go. My hair style isn't complex, just short with a side parting and a bit of grading. What could go wrong? Why do I need to spend £20 or £30?

I walked in, sat down on the grimy plastic sofa and instantly regretted my rash decision. Firstly, it was warm and I was liable to stick to the cheap sofa. Secondly: the pictures on the walls threw me into a state of panic. Displayed on the walls was a picture of Gareth Gates circa 'Pop Idol' with his ridiculous spikes, a fair few thugs sporting mullets and some interesting shaved patterns on the heads of what looked the inmates of a young offenders institute. I was considering leaving when a squat Turkish man frogmarched me into a chair.

"Wha you wan?'

"Well, I like the sideburns trimmed to a number two with clippers and up the sides I like a...."

Before I finished with my admittedly slightly pedantic requests he grabbed a set of clippers and ran them up the side of my head, ensuring there was no going back. I decided to go with it. I felt I'd reached a point where I had no other option. I was certain I was going to leave there looking like some odd 90s throwback or someone with a rare medical condition.

He pushed my head forward and down, in a way reminiscent of a gay porno. He planted his palm on my face and pushed me sideways one way, then the other way. I felt like I was in a wrestling match. He reached for a huge razor and flicked off a used blade into a dirt speckled glass and deftly slotted in a blade and started shaving round my neck and sideburns at an alarming speed.  I wondered just how new the new blade was and considered the fact that Hepatitis B is prevalent in the Borough where I live. I nervously waited for the nick, reassuring myself that like any sensible gay man, I'm vaccinated against Hepatitis B. This reassured me till I remembered about Hepatitis C which there's no vaccine for.

There were no cuts, luckily, but there was a liberal amount of water sprayed onto my head and face. Within less than 10 minutes he'd done and grabbed the gown off me, holding out his hand for the fiver.  Where was the drying of my soaking hair, the showing me the back for approval (I hate that bit actually, I'm 42. No 42 year old wants to see the thinning bit at the back of his head) or the basic pleasantries?

I staggered out of the shop, water dripping down my face, razor burn smarting on my neck and a rising sense of horror at what my hair would look like once I got home. You may or may not be surprised to learn that actually my hair looks great. It's the best cut I've had in ages. Who needs niceties? Its a fiver. I think I'll remain prudent for a while longer. I'll be back there in a month. Stale bread anyone?

Ramblings: What a Drag!




I can remember being fascinated by Danny LaRue. I was a child of six and sat transfixed in front of the TV at this strange looking lady who was actually a man.

I accepted it as a commonplace, ordinary thing and a totally acceptable lifestyle choice. It was on the TV after all. My main ambition was to grow up to be Wonder Woman but growing up to be a drag queen seemed a close second. Of course, I now realise that I could have combined the two options, although my knees are a bit knobbly for satin tights.

I experimented with my mother's make-up as a teenager and quite liked how strangely androgynous I looked in a full face of badly applied slap. I didn't graduate any further and resisted trying on her clothes. This was for no other reason apart from the fact that she had terrible taste in frocks. It was the 80s; everyone had terrible taste in everything. As I grew older I became seduced by the Goth culture and by androgynous gender defying singers. It was the perfect excuse for black nail polish and the odd touch of ghostly pale make-up to make me look like a resurrected corpse. I never considered dragging up though. My drag queen ambitions of early childhood went out of the window and with the advent of puberty and the masses of body hair that accompanied this, i just couldn't have afforded the razors anyway.

As I got older and ventured onto the gay scene, I grew to love a bit of classy drag. I adored David Dale, Lily Savage and Lizzy Drip with their witty repartee and clever routines. I even liked the tacky acts with their cheap innuendo and their caterwauling along to 'It Should Have Been Me' whilst wearing an ill fitting yellowing wedding dress and swinging a dildo. I'd watch the drag queens and think: 'I could do that!' This ill placed confidence in my abilities surfaces whenever I watch any kind of show, whether its a trapeze artist, frenetic tap dancer, ballet or a heartfelt Shakespearean performance; I always think that given a couple of hours tuition I could master that too. I suppose that's the mark of a skilled performer; making it look easy.

I didn't drag up until I was in my late 30s that is very late for a gay, I suspect. Straight men drag up even earlier. They grab every chance they can to pull on a bra and wriggle into a frock, whether it’s pub-crawls, stag nights or just the night the wife is out. My first outing in drag was not at all glamorous. I decided to go as Barbara Woodhouse. For those too young to recall, she was a famous dog breeder who appeared on TV being brusque in tweeds and yanking on poor little pooches leads. I thought it would be absolutely hilarious to tweed up and have a toy dog on elastic that I could vigorously yank around whilst shouting 'Walkies!'

Finding the clothes was a nightmare. I trawled the charity shops and eventually found a tweed two-piece in one shop. I asked to try it on, explaining it was for fancy dress. The woman shouted down the shop: "Enid! Can you get the changing room key? This man wants to try a skirt on. He's going to dress as a transvestite.'

It didn't fit. All I could find in my size was an array of foul frumpy dresses. I thought laterally. Which celebrity looked frumpy? I went as Susan Boyle. There was no depilation involved. One cheap wig, sturdy court shoes and a nylon dress plus a pair of stick on eyebrows and a handlebar moustache and I was SuBo.

My next attempt was a little bit more glamorous. I went to an 80s themed party. As you may have guessed, I loathe the 80s and call it the decade that taste forgot. I really did not want to wear the hideous fashions that make me shudder and recall my unhappy childhood. Again I thought laterally. I wanted a cheap outfit and wanted to go as someone or something I liked. I fired up YouTube and watched Debbie Harry singing along to Atomic in a bin bag. My outfit was born.

The bin bag proved a bit sweaty and the huge blonde wig was heavy. Worst of all was the heels. I almost broke my neck in the heels. I think I may stick to my brogues for now and leave the dragging up to those who have the gene of utter fabulousness. I seem to only have half of that gene.

Ramblings: Starey Mary




 
My partner and I made a rare sortie into a central London gay bar the other evening, on our way to see a play. He was craving a cool pint of beer and the nearest decent bar just happened to be one where the more stylish boys hang out. I’m pretty accustomed to gay bars and am a jaded pub goer, having launched myself on the gay scene at a slightly scandalous 16 years old but my partner has never really partaken in the scene much at all, being a much later starter and having lived in more rural areas. It sometimes takes an outsider to spot something and pinpoint a factor that you take for granted.

My partner noticed the constant staring. Being slightly vain, he loved it. Its normal practice in a gay bar to be appraised and I don’t even notice this anymore. The quick look up and down, the sideways glance and the full on full body scan are all perils that you face when entering a bar. It’s habitual, standard practice and is done without thinking and with no terrible breach of etiquette. In fact, it is the etiquette. I wouldn’t even think it rude were someone to look down pointedly at my crotch to see what I was packing or to perform a lengthy examination of my buttocks. It’s just the way of the gay. It often ends in dismissal (I’m with a partner, I’m over 40 and therefore unavailable/decrepit and not necessarily worth the effort) but can end in a brief eye contact, a mutual appraisal or a mutual disdain.

We talked about it and I explained the code of practice in a gay bar to my partner. I explained that it’s often meaningless; that gay men appraise men, just as straight men appraise women and it’s as much a habit as biting your nails or chewing gum.

I have a thousand sneaky ways of looking attractive men up and down in the street. Lechery has to be a skilful art at times. There’s the brief sideways glance at a hot businessman on the tube, over the top of a paperback novel. The window reflection study of a scantily clad hottie in shorts on the top deck of a bus is a classic manoeuvre. The distracted ‘just casually looking around but my eyes have accidentally taken in the lycra cyclist with the muscles and I’ve noted that he appears to have a massive penis’ is a very retro one which is easy to perfect, provided you can feign the right level of nonchalance.

Let the Starey Marys stare in the bars. It’s not at all intimidating unless you let it be so and is actually, quite flattering should their facial expression register a glimmer of approval or lust. If they dismiss or grimace, then just let it amuse you. They clearly have no class or taste or you’re just in the wrong bar.

 

Ramblings: Turkish Delight



I made an embarrassing revelation recently about my shameless quest to save cash and how I had a £5 haircut that was like total carnage. Recently, I upgraded and went for a £10 haircut. I’ve not only upped but have doubled my ante.

I was feeling slightly sticky after a brisk stroll from work. The weather was hot and stark and I couldn’t face the bus with its heaters constantly blasting out in spite of the 30-degree heat. Walking felt like the better option. Every bus journey of late has left me on the brink of throwing up in the aisle. I stopped off by the station near where we live at a light and airy barbers which looked clean and vaguely stylish. Being greeted by a hot six-foot bloke in his early 30s with olive skin and good arms made me forget the sweat pooling in my crevices.

He was a talkative barber. I never know which is worse: the surly ones who ignore you or the prattling ones you have to make an effort with. This one was entertaining and to be honest, he had such a handsome face that I really couldn’t have cared if he read out the cricket scores. I’m a fool for a swarthy man brandishing tools (or scissors).

He began the snipping and was actually very nifty. My eyes occasionally noted his handiwork although I must admit that he did appear to have what looked like a small mammal nestling in the front of his trousers that drew my eye. I started to feel very warm indeed under the cape type thing.

“I am from Turkey! I am living here one year and I practice my English. Do you mind me practice talk?”

“I’d love it!’ I exclaimed with a smile, like he’d just offered me a winning lottery ticket.

We began to make small talk and I tried hard not to look at the ageing pink thing in the mirror that was being groomed by this Adonis.

“Is very hot in Turkey. Is hot here too, no? For Irish man like you is bad when you are very pink.”
I wasn’t offended. Irish is fine with me. They have great writers there and the drinking culture is great.

“Is also very bad in the day. Turkish people sleep from perhaps 12 till 5. Is 42 degrees there today. For a man like you is very hard to go outside when he has a patch of…what is the saying!...on his head. What is it I say?’

“Bald patch?” I replied, instantly feeling just a little more humiliated.

He nodded vigorously: “Yes! Big bald patch!’

I smiled coquettishly in spite of dying a little inside.

We carried on like this for a while: me getting pinker, him getting more unfeasibly handsome in spite of his casual lack of tact in front of this aging red faced sweat machine: “You have very hairy neck! Do any barber tell you that you have very hairy neck?”

I decided there and then. I’d rather he’d spoken to me in Turkish. I wouldn’t have understood a word, but in my mind he’d have been telling me how beautiful I am and how he wished the men of Turkey were so fair and ravishing.

As it was: it cost me ten quid, I got to glance sideways at a hot man with what looked a massive schlong in his slacks and my hair looks great. Everyone is a winner but my poor pride. I’ll be back for more in a month.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Ramblings: Natural Selection




I was standing outside yesterday (having a sneaky cigarette, naturally) when a flock of parakeets flew past me. I thought I was hallucinating for a moment. I'm not in the Tropics but in South East London. Then I remembered, there are colonies of parakeets all over London. The urban myths are that they originate from a pair released by Jimmi Hendrix or that they escaped from Pinewood Studios during the filming of The African Queen. I prefer the latter explanation and like to think that these parakeets may be descended from a celebrity bird who perhaps had his stomach tickled by the steely Katherine Hepburn.

This is the kind of nature I like. Nature that's close to a 24 hour shop, is in a grimy urban environment and in a place where there's full reception on my mobile. It's much safer that way.

Every morning a heron flies past my flat at about 7am. He's huge, like a creature from pre-historic times. He glides over the courtyard at the back of my flat and I assume he's on his way to work. I think he may be a commuter. He works long hours though. I've seen him returning at 7pm. He needs to get on to the ornithological union about his terms and conditions.

Two minutes walk from us is a little park which is the grounds of an old manor house. The lake is a water bird reserve and contains a variety of newborns at the moment. There are goslings with dense yellow fluff, clumsy little moor hens and a group of miniscule ducklings. These bring out the inner child in me and I can stand and watch them for ages. There's a sign by the lake advising against over feeding the birds and this sign is a picture of a huge rat. This brings out the inner panicked housewife in me. I want to find the nearest chair, jump on and tie the bottoms of my trousers up.

An article in last week's Time Out London did the same to me too. I never respond well to pictures of people holding up over sized dead rodents. I would have mounted the seat for ankle protection and screamed (a perfectly normal response to even the mention of a rat) but I thought that the other people on the train to Charing Cross might think I was odd.

At the weekend I saw a crow attacking a pigeon, pulling chunks of flesh out of its wing. It was a malevolent beast, mean and brooding yet beautiful with it's shiny black plumage; like a pantomime villain. This reminds me of my love/hate relationship with the natural world and why I don't watch wildlife documentaries. I always end up horrified by the expression on the little animal's faces as they get eaten alive by lions and I end up perturbed. Why can't they all be vegetarians? I suppose you just can't get good quality Quorn antelopes in the Serengeti.

Yesterday I saw a dead fox. He was laid out on the window ledge of a big Edwardian house. He was magnificent and would have looked like he was just sleeping were it not for the little trickle of blood pooled around his mouth and the bone jutting out of his back leg. I squirmed a little at the sight but not at the corpse. I was more perplexed and disturbed as to why someone would have placed him on the window ledge. Surely a window ledge isn't the ideal place to lay out a corpse? I'd hate to be that resident when they opened to the curtains. I'm not good with road kill.

The local high street on the way to work is a minefield too. As a child I hated visits to the local market in the Midlands town where we lived. There were always rows of dead rabbits hanging up and my father would show his usual sensitivity by singing 'Bright Eyes': the theme from Watership Down to me. The local high street has stalls with 'boiling chickens' hanging by their feet. These are plucked chickens with their heads still on but with jagged knife wounds through their scrawny throats. I'm not tempted by them.

As a child our house was a place that lacked safety from dead animals too. My father knew a man who knew a man who would provide him with game. I would skip into the pantry only to confronted by a pheasant or a wood pigeon or a rabbit hanging by its feet. One time, memorably, I screamed to see a massive white goose hanging by its webbed feet. I suppose I should count myself lucky to have never walked in to find a deer hanging by its hooves.

I know its all part of the natural plan. The weak and soft get killed by the predators or the hazards. I don't have to try to like it though, do I? I think for now I'll stick to admiring nature in parks and stick to my humus and lentils. It's safer that way.

 

Ramblings: A Moving Story


I've been very tardy on the blogging for the past few months but as ever I have good excuses.

I've just moved house. It's not been a run of the mill move either. Rather than moving a few streets away or to an adjacent suburb, I've left my home town where I've lived since birth, the hospital where I've worked for 20 years and moved down to London (well over a hundred miles away). I've left behind some brilliant friends too.

The preparation was pretty intense with a hideous amount of planning, hours of sorting and sifting, arranging and getting passed around by electronic non-people on telephone systems. It's been a horribly frustrating and disconcerting process. I knew it would be hard work but had underestimated how time consuming and soul destroying the process can be. For someone who likes order and routine, the chaos of moving has been really hard to bear.

My house is now about to occupied by tenants, along with their tortoise. They're a young couple with a baby and typically for me, I forgot to ask them how old the baby was or what her name was. I did find out that the tortoise is called Terry, though.

I had a difficult farewell from my workplace and from my close friends. Wanting to control the whole process, I chose to have one big leaving party rather than have to go for lots of tedious meals out and awkward occasions. It was a fantastic party. I hired the cafe at a local dance centre and had a fabulous 1950s style burlesque singer who belted out some nostalgic tunes.

London is looking good. I miss my friends and colleagues but am in sensory overload at the moment with all the stuff to see and observe. The people watching and eavesdropping here are amazingly good. We're in the slightly less fashionable South East but the flat is roomy and stylish, the neighbourhood is fine and in a great location to get to some lovely places in London with ease. I feel like a child in a sweet shop with lots of delightful things to consume all around me. I've already been to see a comedian, a play and traipsed round the British Library and an Art Deco stately home. I will definitely need to monitor my over active nature.

So, here I am. I'm back blogging. I've survived the removals process (one of the removal men was model gorgeous, so that distracted me) and apart from one or two minor meltdowns I seem to be getting through what has been a very tense process. Expect some tales of my new life.