Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Vaguely Similar Images

Two innovations I'm truly grateful to live with: the first, Shazam! I'm pretty sentimental, so I appreciate this app which puts to bed the fear of losing a song forever. I once stopped dead on the pavement right next to a man parking his car, to catch the music loud enough to seep out onto the street through his closed windows. The song, E Jibon Choribe Na by Shamim Ahmod, I discovered, had only been matched on Shazam three times before, and it's impossible to find online. No searches result in concise wisdom about who exactly Shamim Ahmod is, and yet Shazam was able to give me the answer, standing on a curb in the dark on Broadway Market. Even though I've never been able to listen to this song, which was my original worry, I am reassured that I have as much as I need to find it, if I really wanted to. How many nuggets of information like this, do we leave by the wayside, when the reassurance of not losing what might have been is enough to sate? To stop the exploration continuing further? Maybe it's the difference between an academic and myself, somebody who could while hours away on Instagram.

The other glad invention, is that Google Image search function that helps to identify an image. It's like having access to your own steely-eyed curator, only without a vast table full of transparents and a handsome little viewer (tools I imagine, archaically and incorrectly, all curators own). The Prada collections I was able to identify,  finally! when I was a hungry fashion blogger and Google first launched this miraculous innovation, instant dot-connecting gratification for a niggling itch.

What's wonderful, is that once your mystery image has been identified, you're presented with this lush long page of 'Visually Similar Images', arranged according to the shades of marigold yellows they share, or because they contain a sheepish cloud, or a dog in a corner. There's always an accidental beauty to the algorithm at hand, whatever it is. At first, I thought this collecrion was called 'Vaguely Similar Images', a name I much prefer.

The question 'Who edits Luncheon Magazine?' > this New York Times article > these words right here, in blue 

> Was the chain that passed through my fleshy brain cells to find this nice page >

Today, I learned that it was Salvador Dali who painted this wonderful loaf of bread, used on the Penguin Modern Classics cover of Plain Pleasures by Jane Bowles, and I am glad to know, to feel that I alone have drawn a thread through something, even if I was just making a use of a seamless design for curious people. I do wonder sometimes why I/we are so hungry for information. I think it makes us feel important, of use, absorbing as much as we can to keep us further away from death, or at least "full of something" when it comes!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Practical tips from friends

We're an amalgamation of all sorts of habits and off-cuts picked up from others, so there's usually a story behind everything we do, even if we don't know it.

A cool thing about being a human is that memories become tied up in smells, tastes or routine tasks, so you can be washing your hands with a particular soap, or clipping the hedge in a certain way and quickly be transported to another time or place. There are certain tasks we do, that halfway through make us think vividly of those who showed us how to do it in the first place.

Maybe you know somebody who receives practical tips they didn't ask for un-begrudgingly, and you could be the person they think of as they approach small daily tasks with a new confidence!


When you rinse an empty jar of mayonnaise there's inevitably one stubborn blob at the bottom, just beyond reach. If your tap is strong enough you might make it budge, but either way, it's good to have autonomy in these moments. My friend Rose taught me that popping a sponge inside the jar, filling it with water before screwing on the lid and giving it a good shake does just the trick. Think of all the uses for a squeaky clean old mayo jar! Or the deep sense of citizenship you'll feel to recycle well-rinsed vessels only. 

My Granny was a marvellous present-wrapper, and she had a few tricks up her sleeve which are perfectly attainable and really down to organisation rather than skill. Her wrapping was neat rather than meticulous, and it looked fun - clashing colours and ribbons curled with a scissor blade. First, there's the matter of owning a wrapping box. You just make one and fill it with whatever you find - that fun pink tissue paper than comes with orders from Zara, silly fruit stickers, bubblewrap offcuts or ribbons from cakes or Lindt bunnies at Easter. Recently my favourite bakery started selling goods in these little bags with line drawings of people having all sorts of fun so I shook out the crumbs and put that in my box too. The other thing: tape. Treat yourself to a proper heavy dispenser. Life is too short to be chasing the end with one hand or hanging it off a table edge while you hold a fold.

To make a fire, start with a bed of paper 'doughnuts'. My Dad showed me how to pull a double page from a newspaper, roll lengthways and fashion into a double knot. Tuck it in on itself nice and tight. For a smaller domestic fire (like in a woodburner for a fireplace) 4 or 5 should be enough. Build a pyramid of kindling on top, and with a match, light the doughnuts, and blow. Place two logs on top. You just completed one of the oldest rituals known to man!

After my last break-up Simran lent me her Nars lip pen in 'Dragon Girl', because it's good to wear punchy red when your heart hurts. I was struck by how generous this was, to just hand over a fabulous lip pen like that. (I'm not really in the habit of lending anything other than books, and even then...) This pen, I learned, is so much better than lipstick because it clings to your lips through meals and drinks, so you can look good without constantly checking whether you still look good. Another thing I learned is that you don't always have to buy something new for your friends, sometimes you just give them a thing that'll tide them over.

I'm sad I spent so many years cooking carrots with such a lack of inspiration! I make a great salad with grated carrot. And of course, there's roasting. But any attempt at boiling spawned these joyless orange things of the school dinner variety. All of this changed two months ago when I saw Henry cut a load lengthwise and throw them into a small frying pan with olive oil, and just enough water to cover them. Some cumin seeds, salt and pepper and a few minutes of steaming under a lid. What emerged were these beautiful, oily carrots - for once a complement, a pleasure to fill a plate with, rather than an shitty afterthought.

When in a public toilet, never fill your hands with soap before checking the water runs first! We've all been there, but there are only so many times one should endure the humiliating routine of wiping handsoap from your palms with thin toilet tissue on a train that's tossing side-to-side. This one's from me to you. Think of me next time.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Spring's sprung

I could practically smell the spring before I'd even yanked the window up. There is was, a low gold over the grass and the banks at the back of my house.

Stripping my bed, I separated the poppers and took apart the two layers of my duvet. A proper spring ritual. In winter, the layers come together to swaddle. In the spring I lie on top of one, and under the other. I blast myself with cold water at the end of a shower, I can be brave enough once again. 

Last night I drank two beers and two shots of Tequila. I never really have shots but I licked that fatty bit in between my thumb and index finger, covered it in salt, took back the tequila, bit into the lime and then danced. Taking it back in one go, and moving to the dancefloor with free hands made me feel purposeful. I felt like I only had two moves and wanted to mix it up. I watched my friends. Gus was doing this really cool thing with his arms, I can't really remember what it was, but it looked like a dance you could do in 1984 or 1996 or 2017 and it would be right for each. Soon I let go and danced and danced and danced, and thank god the music got better after Yas requested Diana Ross. I was so sweaty that when Aisling leaned in to kiss my cheek I lurched back, not wanting to feel anyone else on my wet skin. I was wearing my fake leather green skirt and it was sticking to my legs, I was tossing my hair about, marching back and forth to the free jug of water, sometimes sticking my body under the glorious air vent by the DJ's booth. 

After a sequence of 6 or 7 wonderful Rhythm and Blues songs, the DJ put on Mr Brightside and the whole floor groaned but Joe threw up his hands and shouted to the opening so we followed because we saw it was easier not to resist. Before we knew it we were really red-faced and enjoying this turn of events. 

I hung my washing up in our back yard this morning because it would be rude not to on the FIRST DAY OF SPRING! The air out there smelt like Ecover and June. 

In this week's pottery class we couldn't find any cling film to wrap our wet pots with, and Ben said he needed to go on a "plastic hunt" but it didn't sound like "plastic hunt" when said aloud and we laughed. I laughed and laughed a bit longer. Sometimes my laughter comes out much louder than others' and I wonder if I'm showing off, but I'm not, it just feels really good to let it out. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A bartender's job

The plan was to walk in, pick up the three bottles and get home as quickly as possible. It was one of those days that quickly turns from light to emotionally fraught, but internally so that it’s a fight to make sure nobody notices.

At work someone on my team said something like “You can always look at it again tomorrow, don’t let it break you,” and I could feel myself struggling to pass off an airy smile. That was the context in which I walked to collect the three bottles of Masieri i’d ordered from my housemate at the restaurant.

Of course, I was too far inside myself to remember those are exactly the conditions for which a long counter and a bartender were designed. I had that feeling again, that “who can I call?” feeling, but it turns out ducking in and staying for a drink was the only call I needed to make. One for the road. One for February! Funny February.

My housemate brought me a glass of wine "White, Red or Orange?" and I settled in, watching her walk the room, talking wine with the couples at tables. Every table was couples at tables. It looked a bit weird actually, two by two by two by two. But amidst the self-conscious rituals of St. Valentine's, I felt I had the better deal up at the bar by myself. My housemate looked smart in her apron. Because back at home I sit on the kitchen step and listen as she tells me that 2013 is her favourite year, or gets excited about a new order of White from 2005, I felt excited to watch somebody who fucking loves her job doing it right in front of me.

Behind the bar, the tender did that specific Twenty First Century dance of iPhone disc jockeying while making the barflies feel seen. He reeled off a brewery’s backstory when one of the patrons swigged his beer, nodded and said “sublime.” I tasted the wine in my mouth, attention switching between the bartender's movements and my magazine, committing to neither. The same dance. He poured wine, and flipped lids off beers for sporadic checks from the floor. Bottles of still and sparkling drinking water refilled, but each activity lasted only as long as a cruelly short song. Two minutes and 40 seconds, say. Then he’d be back, head bowed over the iPhone, fading and lining up. The songs were great. I tapped my foot against my stool. Songs that make you want to come back: familiar-sounding but unknown so patrons are sated while tasting something new. A Hot Chocolate song that wasn’t Sexy Thing or Every 1’s a Winner. One that was really smoothing over the edges in my mood, and which I was pleased to learn was a Grace Jones song called “Bullshit.”

But it’s not really stylish, is it, the business of iPhone djing? Even the words iPhone djing lack style. (I wanted to write them differently but there’s not really another way.) Too high a value placed on one part of the room’s elemental makeup, so conversational back and forth was always curtailed a moment too soon. But the dance was familiar. A year ago I was behind a bar too. Not a bar quite as calming as this but still, I was soundtracking the room, steaming my face off the pot wash’s latest litter of hot, clean glasses, trying to recall ingredients for this cocktail, holding forth, holding a poker face with a customer who may or may not press £1 into my palm afterwards.

My housemate laid a thickly folded napkin by my elbow. A free-sized bowl of mussels and a plate of something else small and mashed. Mashed celeriac for the adult babies that need it. My neck relaxed. I felt looked-after, glad. Glad for a city that bestows treats like these beautifully smoky mussels alongside all the barging and dogshit. Glad to have these nice things. It’s so easy to slip into feeling stormy. Sometimes food is nurturing enough to calm the seas so you question what on earth got the wind up in the first place. "The harder bits always soften up in time," a septuagenarian acquaintance told me in a Facebook message this week.

"The order is reversed. The mussels are cooked on the grill first, and then in the sauce," the bartender told me when I asked what made them so bonfireish. “But I don’t know which they prefer first,” He said.

“What the mussels prefer first?” I asked and did an impression of a mussel languishing on a hot grill.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Your Daily Routine

Do you think those "Daily routine" lists, detailing the creative lives of writers, artists and philosophers are real? I got an anthology full of them for Christmas. I suppose it doesn't really matter whether they're real, because as readers we value a confidence in the reporting of consistent routine, it lets us feel we have the key to finding creative success in our own lives. Before sleeping, I always read three entries, which is just enough time before my eyes close. (I don't, but I wrote it with brief conviction. Actually, I scroll Instagram until I realise I have 7 hours my alarm goes off, and panic mildly.)

Carl Jung couldn't start his day without saying Good Morning to his pots and pans and other kitchen utensils. If I was a well-regarded Philosopher, this is the entry my Wife would copy into my diary after my death, just before handing it over to my biographer. 

Rise at 7am when the world just about still feels asleep. Draw curtains (marvel at pink sky or sniff at the rain.) Shower. 
Brush hair and dry it naturally while eating soft boiled eggs and buttery soldiers.
Make a big pot of Lapsang, write at desk until 11am.
No more nitpicking! Leave desk for walk through the park. 
Buy bread. Watch Collies try to round up their owners, children saying funny things to their Dads.
Light lunch followed by coffee. 
Back to the work, which is stop-start after lunch.
4pm, dirty Vodka Martini with three green olives bulging on a stick. Drink, graciously answer fan mail.
Put on pink metallic heels, dance to entire Saturday Night Fever soundtrack played LOUDLY.
Read the day's Internet to stay informed. 
Then, pick a quarter from the Choice Pie: see a film alone. Eat out with a friend. Bathe with a book. Stay in with a lover. 
If latter, eat slabs of cheese and drink cider while they cook an excellent meal and we talk about our days. Share the good bits, but keep the even better bits for ourselves.
Bed at 11pm. 

Friday, January 06, 2017

I think the task is to keep chipping away and finding warmth wherever it can be located

Two head-clearing lunchtime walks to the Barbican this week. It seemed, both times, the thing to do after feeling myself slipping down into a dark one. I think you have to find ways to hang onto the edges before you get sucked under, that you can manage on auto-pilot.

That's usually walking for me. Just getting out into a street and moving forward physically helps to smooth over the edges. No pressures, no need to do anything with your body but put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes a feeling of moving forward mentally follows too.

So on this Dead Eyed Day I bundled up and left the office, and headed quietly to the Barbican, deep in a Thousand Yard Stare. What I really wanted to do was go into the Conservatory and stand amongst warm leaves, burrow into that wet smell of any misty greenhouse. Dip my fingers into a pond, or touch a banana plant, or something. Sadly, the Conservatory is only open on Sundays. I asked one of the security guards, and he said "it's used for private events during the week." I peered inside and saw a small group of women, some moving slowly in twos, the others listening to a person wearing a lanyard, with all that space around them. I walked to the centre of the Estate, and sat on a bench watching the fountains.


The funny thing, and it feels surprisingly hard to type this in a plain way, is that this week i've felt jostled by social media. I've taken visible and even ambiguous signs of other peoples' successes very much to heart, in a way that I didn't used to. And it's left me feeling so glum! That i'm moving so slowly towards to things I want (even if in another week, I may feel differently.) Early January can be so raw! So it makes perfect sense that people want to do things to warm their own hearts a little, to reflect on the tangible successes our society is so obsessed with, and share them online. I do it too. Only standing on the other side it doesn't always feel so good.

There's a line of thinking i've been holding onto. It's this: when you feel things deeply, you get to live the utter euphoria of sheer highs. To experience a sort of giddiness which, for quite a lot of people, gets lost with youth. I felt that a week before Christmas. Listening to this remix of Bamboo Houses by David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and feeling that warmth that comes from deep within when the ride is smooth. I was walking to work, hands shoved deep in pockets, frosty nosed and I had a moment of thinking God, I never want to stop feeling this deeply. I never want to stop feeling like a teenager with a soaring heart when I have music that switches something on coming through my headphones. When you feel things deeply you get to experience all of those layers and that is a fucking gift.

But the point is, with the sheer highs come the utterly glum lows. Of course, how would either one side be sustainable alone. You need to air the whole thing out, to turn between the two. To keep moving, not static. Otherwise you wouldn't recognise soaring, even if it hit you across your frosty nose.

And so it follows. Last week I was building fires in my parents' woodburner on a daily basis, gladly cocooned in Christmas. Back in London, I was giddily sharing gelatinous steamed spring rolls on New Years Day with cute company. It follows that a little wave of grey could come, a sense of battling against a crowd but not being seen. Working in a building with 300 other people who check their phones whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, or the lift to reach the ground. Living in a city of 8.6 million who barge by (like I usually do) on a day when you need to go slow.

I'm writing this to put it somewhere. The fragility of mental health continues to be an absolute revelation to me, with every year that passes. There's still this side of me that thinks Jesus, why didn't my parents warn me? I knew there was something that separated adults and children, I just thought it was something vacuous like paying bills, or occasionally scary like cervical cancer screenings. I didn't realise being an adult involves sometimes turning around to find a fucking large cresting wave coming your way.

Words continue to bring solace, even if it's not always uncomplicated solace. Stringing words together is obviously a labour of it's own, and one that very much takes on the shape of ones mood. It's my day job, and the thing I try to tuck into my other hours too. Not always successfully, sometimes I spend more time admonishing myself for not writing, that my finest moments of eloquence will forever be confined to my Instagram captions. (No wonder Zadie Smith won't buy an iPhone.) But you keep chipping away.

The thing i've been wanting to get to, is swans. This week Helen MacDonald wrote this utterly beautiful piece of writing about swan upping, English national identity and a Stanley Spencer painting. I suppose that reading it was, for me, the equivalent of going to that greenhouse and finding a warm pond to dip a finger into. It is crammed with warmth: of the high July sun on skin, and a tenderness towards complicated feelings. Peppered throughout are dozens of words new to me.

So I think the task is to keep chipping away and finding warmth wherever it can be located, even if it takes a while. The tasks change over time, of course, but this one never feels far from the surface. I'm quite absorbed by the fact that next week marks the two year anniversary of my Granny dying. So my immediate task is wading through that. But this week, reading about the little boy describing the feeling of holding a cygnet threw off some heat of it's own.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Knowing when the thing is done

The Christmas trees are out on the streets again. Some of them lying inches from the front door, so they look as if they've been kicked out arse first like the disgraced cat at the end of every episode of Tom and Jerry.

They make me think, every January, of that Richard Brautigan poem about Christmas trees left in the street. The collective need for a fresh start is almost comical as we haplessly realise how hard it is to dispose of the body after the crime.

"Those sad and abandoned Christmas trees really got on my conscience. They had provided what they could for that assassinated Christmas and now they were just being tossed out to lie there in the street like bums. I saw dozens of them as I walked home through the beginning of the new year."

No real resolutions this year besides the ongoing aspirations I generally have regardless of what month it is. After all that lusty slicing through Beenleigh Blue over Christmas, I'd like to own a good bone handled cheese knife made of Sheffield steel like the one at home. I should bloody well learn to drive! I'd like to go to Rome. I'd like to get better at taming aspirations that involve always needing a bigger pile of money. I'd like to get better at knowing when the thing is done.

Knowing when the niggling thought ought to be put to bed. Knowing when the sentence is done, and the words are fit to stand without more fiddling. Writing is different, it's not always like the end of the meal or the end of a relationship when you can feel it coming. You get stronger in your convictions though, year by year, even if you might not realise it at the time.