Something Sinister

•March 17, 2012 • 12 Comments

I work in the NHS. I have done the same job, albeit with several promotions along the way, for over twenty years. I started under a Tory government, worked my way through thirteen years of New Labour, and now find myself once more at the mercy of the Conservative party and its contempt for public services. Yes, yes, I know that technically it’s a coalition, but we all know what the truth is. The truth is that we’re now at the mercy of a hideous chimera, neither of whose constituent parts mentioned anything about dismantling the NHS in their manifesto – in fact one of whom specifically said this: “there will be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS” – but who now seem hell-bent on tearing it limb from limb and feeding it to a profit-hungry private sector.

My job is based very much in the backroom. You won’t see me mentioned in the headlines about nurses’ pay, nor in the British Medical Journal. But I am a qualified professional, with a degree and hard-earned postgraduate qualifications. On my more self-aggrandising days, I award myself a total of 12 post-nominal letters (9 of which have cost me approximately £1500 to date) in all written communications. And my job is not one of those middle-management bureaucrat positions that the popular press love to mock; the work I do impacts directly on patient care and helps families to make – literally – life-or-death decisions. I care deeply about my job. I work many hours of unpaid overtime, because I want the service I provide to be as good as it can be.

Anyway. Enough of the thinly-disguised martyrdom.

In the light of today’s latest public-sector-bashing announcement from our mandateless puppet-masters, I had a conversation with someone on Twitter which made me think. He works in the private sector, though not in healthcare, and often likes to accuse me of being a ‘lefty’. If that means that I believe in fairness and equality, and doing the right thing, then: yes, guilty as charged. But if it means that I’m an anti-Tory, anti-capitalist knee-jerker, then: no. Wrong. Nothing in life is ever that simple.

There is nothing wrong with trying to save money in the NHS, or in any other public sector organisation. Entrusted with the hard-earned money of millions of UK taxpayers – and let’s not forget that, unlike the corporate behemoths cosying up to HMRC, we are taxpayers too – we have a moral duty to provide the best possible service at the least possible cost. But the taxpayer also has a right to expect that he / she is not paying tax so that private companies can profit from running services less well than their public sector predecessors did. To allow public money to go straight into the back pocket of big business, as a reward for providing services driven by cost-effectiveness (aka profit) rather than quality, is a moral crime far greater than that of paying a nurse with 40 years’ dedicated service a slightly better pension than someone who works in the private sector.

In the last two years, the department in which I work has been subject to multiple ‘efficiency reviews’ by multiple highly-paid management consultants, none of which has achieved a single useful thing – not due to unwillingness or lack of engagement on our part, but due to a lack of understanding of the specialised nature of our work on theirs. One company, paid thousands of pounds to conduct an in-depth review, has not even managed to produce a report at the end of the process. It just pocketed the cash and went away, having used up hours of staff time that could have been spent doing something productive. Ultimately, the people best placed to deliver efficiency are the people who understand the job. We do, we can, and we are.

And we, the people who work in the public sector, also have a right to expect that we will not be treated with contempt by our blue and yellow chimeric overlords. Of course the country is in dire financial straits. Of course we need to save money. But it is beginning to feel as though the Government will not stop until it has salami-sliced every public sector worker’s pay and pension down to the absolute bare minimum it can get away with, while it continues to cut taxes for the rich and to waive them altogether for the super-rich. If thinking that this is unfair makes me a lefty, then I’m going to have to change my name to Vladimir.

I Sink, Therefore I Am

•February 8, 2012 • 4 Comments

For many years, I’ve been aware that Other People did a thing called ‘exercise’. They went for ‘runs’, they visited a ‘gym’, or they did ‘yoga’. Furthermore, they often talked about this stuff with the particular degree of enthusiasm that I generally reserve for my duvet or a nice Sauvignon Blanc. Uncomprehending, I would listen to their tales of running ten miles in the snow, of entering marathons, of how much better they feel since doing twelve hours of Pilates every week, and I would smile sadly and wonder how they could bear to waste their lives like that when there were so many great books to read.

And then I had a Big Birthday, and did some running myself. Specifically, I ran smack into the wall of Middle Aged Spread. Not headfirst, obviously, because I was cushioned by a protruding layer of abdominal fat that enabled me comfortably to avoid a broken nose. But still. I couldn’t walk up the two flights of steep Victorian stairs to work any more without needing a lie down and a punkawallah when I got to the top. I told myself I would definitely need to get around to addressing my woeful lack of fitness, just as soon as I finished this birthday cake.

At the same time, Mr SB, being of a similarly indolent disposition and with the same fondness for carbohydrates, was becoming increasingly troubled by aching joints and a spreading waistline. We had a lot of conversations that went like this:

“We really should do some exercise.”
“And go on a diet.”
“We’d feel a lot better for it.”
“Yes. We should do that, then.”
“Do you want some more wine?”

And then we carried on watching the TV.

But one day a couple of months ago, Mr SB took the plunge, and went swimming. Swimming, let’s be honest, was the absolute last thing on my mental list of ‘Things I Could Do To Be Fitter And Smaller’. I come from a family of non-swimmers. When I was a kid, my family’s liking for swimming as a leisure activity was on a par with its liking for do-it-yourself appendectomies and getting arrested. Which is to say, for clarity’s sake, that we never did it. Granted, I had some lessons, but only to the point where I could just about manage a doggy-paddle without armbands. From the age of seven to the age of never-you-mind, I developed a phobia of any body of water deeper than I am tall. My deficiencies in the vertical growth department meant that this effectively excluded me from anything deeper than a medium-sized puddle.


When Mr SB returned, triumphant, from his first visit to the pool, he announced that it Did Not Have A Deep End. Furthermore, it had Two Jacuzzis. I was forced to look up, startled, from my bag of doughnuts, and to consider the possibility that maybe I should give it a try after all. So, the next time, I went with him. And I put a swimsuit on. And I got in the water.

And I instantly became one of those women. You know the ones. The ones who only get wet from their shoulders down, and swim around in pairs at the speed of evolution, holding their heads up like periscopes and getting in everyone’s way. And I hated it. Not because I was scared – after all, I could put my feet on the bottom wherever I was! – but because it caused me actual, physical pain. My neck felt like someone was tenderising it.

Now, you may not know this about me, but some people say I’m stubborn, and this, I have to concede, was a case in point. I decided that, rather than give up the swimming, I would have to get better at it. (If there’s one thing I absolutely hate, it’s that feeling of not being able to do something as well as somebody else can*.) So I bought some goggles, and persevered. It may not seem like much of an achievement, but I am now swimming with my face properly under the water, and not feeling like quite such a hindrance to everyone else. The last time I went, I swam a quarter of a mile. Esther Williams I ain’t, but it’s genuinely nice to feel that I’ve conquered a fear.

Now, about these spiders…

*I gave up writing this blog for a year. You may draw your own conclusions.

Hair Apparent

•March 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It’s very easy to have a pop at the Daily Mail. So that’s precisely what I’m going to do.

This morning, it published an article in which it appeared genuinely appalled that talented, beautiful, Oscar-winning actor Kate Winslet had been seen at a premiere with ‘unsightly peach fuzz’ on her face.

Now, at this point, I was going to insert some quotes from the article, the general tone of which suggested that Ms. Winslet had turned up with, at the very least, a full Dick Strawbridge moustache with matching sideburns. However, when I came to insert a link to the unutterable vileness, I discovered that the article was completely different from the one I’d read with such annoyance at 6 this morning. Gone were the half-remembered references to ‘letting herself down’ and ‘perhaps if she’d put her makeup on more carefully’, to be replaced with a much more flattering piece about how lovely her dress was. I began to wonder if I’d imagined the whole thing.

Thankfully for the sake of my sanity, though, a helpful blogger has posted the original here – every last horrid, grubby word of it. And by way of comparison, for those of you who don’t mind giving the Mail the satisfaction of a click, here’s the updated article.

So the Mail has clearly thought better of its snide little bitching session, but the fact remains that, at some point, someone on its staff thought that the presence of a little bit of downy skin on an actress made for a good news story. It may have escaped the Mail’s attention, but we have just effectively declared war on one of the most dangerous men on the planet, there has been a devastating natural disaster in the world’s third largest economy, and there is a Budget tomorrow. How, then, is the slightest of slight cosmetic faux pas on the part of a celebrity a good use of column inches in any way?

And who cares, anyway? Personally, I find it quite comforting that impossibly glamorous A-listers really aren’t as perfect as they appear; that Julia Roberts sometimes forgets to shave her armpits (which, for the information of any boys reading, is The Most Pointless And Annoying Girly Ablution In The World – have you ever stopped to consider how difficult it is to see properly under your own armpit, or who first decided it was necessary anyway?), that Kate Moss has cellulite, and that La Winslet has better things to do than to wax her face every day lest anyone spot that she is a Real Person With Real Skin. So if newspapers insist on publishing this kind of story, I’d rather they did it with a reassuring, ‘see – famous people are just like you and me, and we still love them because they’re talented and human’ than with a sneering, smirking unpleasantness and a pointing, inky finger.

But the reporters are probably all too busy waxing their own faces and scrubbing their elbows with a pan scourer to think about it as deeply as that. Because I’m sure that every tabloid journalist always makes a very special effort to look perfect in public… aren’t you?

Promise Me There Won’t Be Mud

•March 15, 2011 • 3 Comments

Mr SB and I have done something a bit rash. No, I’m not talking about that brief interlude when we switched from Ariel to Persil, or to the time we accidentally bought tangerines instead of satsumas, or even to all that money we wasted on EuroMillions last Friday.

It’s worse than any of that. Because, you see, what we have done is this:

We have bought tickets for A Festival.

I don’t know whether it was the Big Birthday last year that did it – probably not, because that would make it an Impending Midlife Crisis, which this definitely isn’t, obviously – or what, but I decided a while ago that I really, really want to go to a festival properly before I actually do turn into my mother. At the moment, I can just about still cling to the belief that I, too, can be one of those girls who manage to look glamorous in the mud even though they haven’t had a wash for three days and they’re wearing wellies; but if I leave it much longer, then I will officially be middle-aged and that, I fear, will be that. I will have to invest in tartan slippers and Damart, and you can’t get away with wearing those at a festival unless you’re Kate Moss.

So I persuaded Mr SB that we should go to Latitude (on the grounds that it didn’t seem quite so intimidating or as far away as Glastonbury, and that half of Twitter went last year and seemed to enjoy it). From what I had read, it seemed like it would be a suitably gentle introduction. There would even be ballet, for heaven’s sake.

And then, last night, they announced the line-up, and I suddenly felt quite old. I have heard of hardly any of the bands (do the young people still call them ‘bands’, or have I already made a dreadful error that instantly picks me out as an Unbeliever?), and, with a couple of exceptions, the ones I have heard of are throwbacks to my youth*. So I had to spend the evening typing improbable phrases like ‘Esben And The Witch’ into Amazon, and trying to judge how many of the bands I might be able to listen to without saying, “What’s that appalling racket?” and complaining that I couldn’t hear the words properly.  

And actually, most of them were a pleasant surprise, and I think that, with a few judicious album purchases, I could be rescued from the brink of terminal Radio 4 listenership, and could come to feel that I have as much right to be at Latitude as all those young people at the front who know all the words. Of course, the reality is that I am emphatically not going to be one of those glamorous girls you see on the telly; I am going to be the fat, greasy-headed, middle-aged woman standing at the back moaning that she can’t see, and that the wellies are pinching her calves and making her feet hurt. But at least I might enjoy the music, and even if I don’t, there’s always the ballet.

*I spent a good five minutes bellowing ‘Enola Gay’ across the living room in an attempt to explain OMD to Mr SB, who is just too young to remember them. I’m pleased to say that my rendition, whilst not extraordinary, was sufficiently torturous to make him confess that he had, in fact, heard of them, after all.


•February 27, 2011 • 1 Comment
Mr SB and I met on the internet. Having each convinced ourselves of our own inability to attract a mate in the ‘normal’ ways, most of which involved Actually Talking to Someone, we had both signed up to a dating website in an attempt to shop for a partner in the same way we were accustomed to shopping for CDs, but without the assistance of reviews from previous purchasers.

Back in 2005, it was still a bit embarrassing to admit that we’d found each other at the online equivalent of a livestock auction; but six years later, internet dating seems to attract far fewer raised eyebrows. Regular TV adverts promise a money-back guarantee to idealistic singletons who fail to find Mr or Miss Perfection in six months*, which seems ludicrous; but if the matches are based on compatibility questionnaires and photographs considered rationally in the cold light of day, rather than irrationally in the hot, sweaty light of a nightclub after eight Flaming Sambuccas, then why shouldn’t it work?

I’ll tell you why not: because questionnaires don’t ask the right questions. A typical dating profile will include information about your prospective partner’s taste in music, their occupation, their hobbies, their religious beliefs, their political opinions. None of that matters. Not many couples split up because one of them likes Stravinsky and the other likes ZZ Top, or because one goes flower arranging on a Tuesday night while the other prefers snowboarding at the local dry ski slope. In fact, differences like these can be a good thing.  Who wants to live with someone who brings them no new horizons to explore?

He might look lovely, but do you really want a man who makes you sit on the floor?

What actually matters is not similarities between arbitrary hobbies and interests, but similarities between non-arbitrary, immutable aspects of each other’s behaviour. And so what the compatibility questionnaires should really be asking is:

1. You see a pair of dirty socks on the living room floor. Do you: a) sigh, curse under your breath, pick them up and put them in the laundry basket; b) roll them into a ball, spend ten minutes playing basketball with them, then accidentally leave them in the yucca pot when the phone rings; or c) what socks?

2. You are preparing for a romantic night out with your partner. Would you prefer to: a) go to a smart restaurant with creative, adventurous food and an extensive wine list; b) see something challenging, yet ultimately uplifiting, at the theatre, then have a few drinks at the champagne bar next door; or c) spend an hour and a half rummaging through your wardrobe for an outfit that doesn’t make you look like a premenstrual hippo, then burst into tears, put your dressing gown on, and demand that your partner orders a Chinese?

3. You are booking a holiday.  Is it most likely to be: a) a relaxing all-inclusive break on a tropical island; b) backpacking in the Himalayas; or c) a three week caravanning tour of The Historic Churches Of Northamptonshire?

4. You need to find your driving licence. Which of the following is most likely to describe the search: a) no problem – it’s in the fireproof safe under the stairs, the key’s at the left hand side of the third drawer down in the sideboard, under the Travel Scrabble; b) it might take a few minutes – I had it the other week when I collected that parcel, so it’s probably still in my handbag, or I might have put it back in the box on top of the wardrobe; or c) fuuuckitmustbeheresomewhere?

5. You are grocery shopping with your partner. Are you most likely to: a) take a list printed off from your computer – after all, you buy pretty much the same stuff every week, so it’s easier just to tick the things you need than writing it down every time; b) buy food for the week according to what’s on special offer when you arrive, with a few little treats for the weekend; or c) take the trolley and wander off to look at the electrical items while your partner carries armfuls of toilet rolls and economy carrots round the freezer section like a bewildered, irritable Sherpa?

6. Is your perfect partner: a) a true soulmate – someone who shares my dreams, ideals, and love of nineteenth-century Ukranian poetry; b) someone with the face of George Clooney, the body of Rafael Nadal and the mind of Stephen Fry; or c) someone who doesn’t smell like too much a dead badger and who might be willing to put the bins out sometimes?

See, all you really need is a little honesty.

(*for the record, it took me three years, and Mr SB one week. It’s just possible that one of us is much pickier than the other.)

Pyjamas As An Aspirational Lifestyle Choice

•February 25, 2011 • 5 Comments
Deep down, I am a slob.

In fact, I’m pretty much a slob on the surface too.

In fact, let’s just say that if you cut me into slices, there’s a good chance you’d find the word ‘slob’ written in greasy letters all the way through, possibly in Comic Sans.

I used to think that one day I’d become a proper grownup, with an appropriate respect for housework, tidiness and the importance of a Regular Routine. In fact, at the start of my – eep – fifth decade, I’m beginning to accept that this isn’t going to happen. My bathroom is almost permanently filthy (why don’t they make more grey bathroom suites?). My bedroom floor is usually covered in a layer of clothes and shoes that would keep Time Team happy for months. The kitchen… well, let’s not go there. No, I mean, let’s actually not go there. Let’s get a takeaway.

I am more Bridget than Indiana

Recently, I have taken to blaming the internet in general, and social networking sites in particular, for this; not only because they provide a distraction limited only by the need to sleep sometimes, but also because they quite often say, “Look, we’re all still in our pyjamas too!” – by definition, the people who actually achieve stuff at the weekend probably aren’t spending hours on end arsing about on Twitter thinking of song titles with biscuits in them. So we all provide validation for each other. For instance, one of my favourite tweeters said this the other day and, as a true word spoken in jest, it proved pretty popular. There are clearly many of us out there who feel the same.

But it’s not just that. I’m not sure when it happened, but wearing pyjamas actually seems to have become a Lifestyle Choice. Google ‘loungewear’ and you’ll get over 11 million hits, most of them for sites hoping to sell you pyjamas, not to sleep in, but to Wear During The Day Instead Of Proper Clothes. It has become socially acceptable to go to the shops in them, although the shops themselves might disagree. Seriously – whose life is so busy and stressful that they haven’t got time to put actual clothes on before they hit the supermarket?

What I’d like is if, just occasionally, someone on Twitter would organise an Hour Of Productivity: where we all stop saying how great it is that we’re still in bed at lunchtime, and say instead, “Right. We’re all going to put Twitter down and do something useful until 2 o’clock. Then we’ll meet back here for coffee, biscuits and #animalfilms”. We could call it ‘social houseworking’. And we definitely wouldn’t do it in our pyjamas.

In The Eye Of The Bewildered

•February 21, 2011 • 2 Comments

A report out today suggests that the average woman will spend £133,000 on beauty products in her lifetime. Now, before we launch into the inevitable SB tirade, we should perhaps bear in mind that the report was commissioned by QVC (purveyors of such beauty gems as the 3 Piece Melatogenine Force Radiance Collection – no, search me, I don’t either), and thus may not be quite the objective measure a more rigorous analyst would require, but it makes a good headline, and if it’s good enough for the Daily Mail… actually, that may not be the point I wanted to make, but let’s bash on anyway.

£133,000. Assuming that a woman lives for 80 years, and probably buys very few haircuts or beauty products before the age of ten or after the age of 70 (unless she’s Jane Fonda, which she probably isn’t), that’s an average of over £2200 per year. Every year.

The UK beauty industry is worth £4bn per year. It has a vested interest in making us believe that ten percent of our average income is an appropriate amount of money to spend in pursuit of plump, youthful skin, glossy tossy hair, and immaculate shiny fingernails that shriek, “Look at me! I’ve never had to clean a toilet or sew a button on in my life!”

And so it is that the beauty industry uses ever-more-ridiculous claims to drag us into Boots by our gullible, shiny heads to part with more of our hard-earned cash.

My current favourite is L’Oreal’s Youth Code skincare range, which it says is backed by something called ‘Gene Science’. Just so we’re clear, that’s like calling geology ‘stone science’. Patronising, much? Anyway, a press release claims that smearing this stuff on your skin has been shown to ‘energise the repair gene expression’, a phrase which no molecular geneticist would recognise as English. Youth Code also contains ‘Adenosine, a molecule that is naturally found in skin cells’ DNA, [and] acts as an anti-wrinkle ingredient’ – and which, in terms of reversing the ageing process, is probably about as effective as repointing a brick wall by throwing sand at it.

Hot on the heels of L’Oreal’s ludicrous pseudo-molecular biology comes Olay with AquaPhysics which, it assures us, is ‘Inspired By The Power Of The Ocean’. That’s, presumably, the same powerful ocean that sank the Titanic and busted the Deepwater Horizon, although I imagine we’re intended to think not of oil slicks and icebergs, but of waves crashing majestically on deserted beaches and the fresh salt spray on our face. Quite what any of that has to do with face cream isn’t clear, unless it actually is meant to be the oil slick reference.

What’s most depressing of all, of course, is the fact that women everywhere fall for this crap, because we want to believe in it. Call it ‘snake oil’ and nobody will buy it. Call it ‘rehydrating Plumpitex biospheres with added hexapeptidols’ and we’ll pay fifty quid for a thimbleful. Even my own bathroom cabinet is not completely empty of expensive elixirs. But, girls, we all need to be clear about this: the only actual science being used in any of these products is psychology. That’s ‘brain science’ to you and me.