Thank you, and goodnight

Hello, dear readers, and welcome to my last ever column. Ideally I’d like you to have a small glass of whisky on hand, but PG Tips is fine too.

As it's become painfully apparent by now that no small, plucky Sussex-based publishing house is ever going to phone me up and ask to make an anthology of these columns, I’ve decided to simply write my acknowledgements page here instead. I hope that’s ok.

Thank you foremost to the good people of The Worthing Herald, past and present, for taking a chance on an unknown 14-year-old. And humouring her until she was an unknown 26-year-old. Only once in 11 and a half years have you ever refused to print anything I’ve sent you – which possibly meant you didn’t read most of it, but either way I’m eternally grateful.

Thank you to Cassie and Holly, who allowed themselves to be dressed up and photographed for my first ever column, the searingly insightful, ‘Townies vs Grungers: the Big Debate’. I think I paid you both in Milky Bar Buttons, which is more reward than any of my other victims have seen since.

Thank you to every friend who has, knowingly or otherwise, been featured on this page over the past 11 years.  Particularly to those who answered the question “ARGH what shall I write my column on?” with something other than “me” – and especially to the wonderful Hannah Smith, who wrote in to defend my honour on more than one occasion.

Which leads me to thank, sincerely, the two people who wrote to the paper complaining I had offended them; allowing me briefly to think of myself as an edgy cultural commentator pushing the boundaries of civil society. For a few weeks I felt like Worthing’s answer to Russell Brand, and guys, I won’t lie, it was a rush.

Thanks to everyone else who wrote letters, emails or tweets too – it was always touching to remember that anyone outside my immediate family was actually reading my stuff. Thank you especially to the reader who, after weeks of whingey columns about my student overdraft, sent me a letter with £10 enclosed. It remains one of the kindest things anyone has ever done for me, and I’m getting teary in a coffee shop just thinking about it.

Thank you to my relatives, who never complained when I made them sound ridiculous (or rather, when I waited until they made themselves sound ridiculous and then quietly wrote it down) – notably my lovely mother, whose eccentricities regarding cheese, dressing gowns and guinea pigs were always my favourite to document.

Thank you to my boyfriend, Matt, who has only ever been known as “boyfriend” in case I needed to replace him with a new one. As it happens, I knew he was a keeper as soon as he uttered the magic words, “write what you like, just make me sound funny.”

And finally, thank you to YOU, people of Worthing/Lancing/Shoreham/Littlehampton (delete as appropriate), for buying the paper every week and keeping me furnished with a space to say stuff. Thanks for never complaining when I wrote about living in London, annoying though it must have been. You know what they say – you can take the girl out of coastal Sussex, but you can never quite get all the shingle out of her shoes.

At least, I think they say that.

All these things that I (haven't) done

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As this is my penultimate column for the good people of Worthing (what do you mean, they haven’t erected a statue of me outside the Guildbourne Centre yet?), I thought I’d spend some time thinking about all the things I never got round to writing about.

“But Lauren!” you might well cry. “ Surely there can’t be anything left! You’ve written about some things five times! You’ve managed to stretch 500 words out of things that barely deserve a sentence!” Indeed, ’tis true. I am no stranger to the bottom of the barrel. But somehow, after 11 years of sitting down once a week to type “Great topics for newspaper columns” into Google and pray, there are a few things that slipped through the net.

Fishing, for example. Not once since 2003 have I written about Britain’s biggest participation sport. This is probably because I’ve never been fishing, but then there are plenty of things I’ve never done and that hasn’t stopped me putting my oar in (the oar you use to clobber the fish with, right?). I haven’t written much about sport at all, of course, unless you count our high school inventions ‘lunchbox chuck’ and ‘sitty-downy badminton’, or when I went giddy over London 2012.

I never got round to writing about how much I hate massages either, or how green peppers are a government conspiracy, or my theory, nicked from an old flatmate, that every person’s face falls into one of three categories – bird, horse or potato. Try it out, you’ll be amazed. I am proudly potato.

Some things it’s probably for the best I didn’t write about, such as the pointless horror of doing cover letters for job applications (“Oh you’re a motivated, hardworking self-starter with great communication skills? YOU AND EVERY CHUMP IN THIS TOWN”), or how I believe that being given fruit for dessert at a dinner party entitles you to take back your bottle of wine.

You’ve also been spared my three-part series on everything that was wrong with the final episode of How I Met Your Mother, and a 10,000 word treatise on the correct way for men to wear smart shoes with jeans that I was hoping to serialise across several months like a Dickens novel. I can’t remember if I ever explained my vision for a world where we all have beds instead of chairs (at work; at the cinema; on the bus), but if I didn’t then at least Ed Miliband can’t steal it. 

And what will I do now? What will I do next time I hear that they’ve found a new cure for hiccups, or that 87 per cent of people still think it’s pronounced ‘EX-presso’ or some such? I’ll have to go round scrawling my opinions on toilet walls, just hoping someone will see them and agree. Or tell them to my hairdresser, which means I’ll have to start talking to my hairdresser. Either way, it’ll be a big adjustment.

Until next week, folks – which is both the first and last time I’ll say that.

In which Crystal Gale had nothing on me

There are many disadvantages to having stupidly long hair. For all the fun you can have swooshing it about like Marcia Brady and combing it over your face like Cousin It, it’s hard to deny the inconvenience of carting round a large and unnecessary extra body part all the merry day.

It gets trapped under the shoulder strap on my handbag approximately once an hour, and approximately once an hour I yank it out, leaving a few strands behind, and shout “STUPID HAIR”. It moults across our floors at such an alarming rate that I sometimes wonder if my boyfriend isn’t secretly entertaining a troupe of 12 identically blonde women while I’m at work. Put your hand down on any part of our floorboards and you’ll come up with a whole handful – and that’s WITH a fastidious twice-a-year hoover. 

It wanders further afield, too. Friends have reported my hairs turning up their beds, in their clothes and even, memorably, in their nostril. When I wasn’t even there. But by far the worst part of having loads of hair is right now, when it’s hot.

Having kept me nicely cosy all winter, suddenly it’s a giant furry albatross round my sweaty, sweaty neck. I look at the mad people who walk about in tights and leather jackets and such when it’s 30 degrees outside (on Saturday, a day so hot that Satan would need a battery fan, a woman wearing a chunky knit jumper sat next to me on the tube and I stared at her with red-faced incredulity all the way from Vauxhall to Finsbury Park), and then I realise that I am no better. I have gone out swathed in two and half foot of hair, and then wondered why I felt a over-warm.

I know what you’re thinking. And yes, I could just get a haircut. I could have a sensible bob, or even go the whole hog, crop it off and donate it to charity like a noble person. But you see, my stupidly long hair is more than just vanity – it’s a project. It’s the longest I have managed to grow anything.

All my pot plants shrivel up and die, I can’t keep herbs alive to save my life (or my ragu), and nobody ever asks me to look after their pets while they’re on holiday. Yet I have managed to cultivate this extravagant, pointless, over-insulating curtain of proteins for half of my adult life so far, and it would be a shame to quit now.

Besides, all I need to do is grow it about another 10 inches and I could do the full Lady Godiva – which WOULD be cooler in the summer.

How to go on holiday at home

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1.   Never use the word ‘staycation’. The word ‘staycation’ is pretty much the worst thing about staycations. I always find it’s oddly claustrophobic, conjuring up images of people hanging hammocks up between their bookcase and bannister, then trying to use the cat as a cocktail waiter. Also, over the years the word has been hijacked by people who think five days half board in St Ives counts as a ‘staycation’. It does not. It is a holiday.

2.   Use the word ‘holibobs’ by all means, but only when around very close friends.

3.  Dress inappropriately for the weather. It’ll take some restraint, of course, to forget there’s a whole wardrobe of jumpers/shorts only a few feet away, but without being either a bit shivery or a bit over-warm you’ll just never capture the true spirit of holiday. 

4.  Be a shameless tourist. Head out into your neighbourhood and take cheery photos of each other in front of the most innocuous buildings you can find. I, for example, have a photo of myself in front of Worthing Borough Council’s Portland House offices hanging on my bedroom wall. Good times.

5.  Be sure to compare everything to the way it works at home. This will be difficult because you are still at home, but give it a good bash nonetheless. “Ooh, this street looks a bit like home,” you can say, or “this pie tastes just like the ones we eat at home.” If you get lucky, you might even be able to say that something is NOTHING LIKE it is at home. Although if this is the case, check you haven’t wandered into another county by mistake.

6.  Have a lot of sit-downs. If yours are anything like mine, holidays are essentially one long sit-down with refreshments, punctuated by small amounts of standing, walking and looking at things. If you can squeeze in two sit-downs before noon, you’re doing well.

7.  The exception to the above rule, of course, is lie-downs. If you can spend a whole week horizontal then even better, but it does make it harder to eat Mr Whippys.

8.  Be very slightly drunk, all the time. But only on one of the following: ice-cold beer, sangria, lukewarm beer, mojitos, pink wine, ouzo.

9.  Get lost. If you’ve a naturally poor sense of direction then this one is quite easy – just get on a bus you’ve never been on, get off after half an hour and try to walk home (if you’ve a naturally good sense of direction, step eight might need to be implemented first). Once you’re good and lost, try asking for directions using very basic GCSE French.

10. At the designated end of your home holiday, go out of the house, come back in again and express relief at not having been burgled. Then say “ahhh” and put the kettle on.

 

In which I buy a new dress


My boyfriend doesn’t like my new dress.

I know this, because when I appeared in it for the first time doing the purposeful, swishy ‘new dress’ walk, the walk that is an “AHEM” in movement form, he looked up and said, “Ooh. Yeah. It’s nice.”

In the algebra of this scenario, if nice = ‘unfortunate’ and ‘yeah’ = ‘no’, nice x yeah + a fixed smile and enthusiastic thumbs-up = a very definitely disliked outfit. 

“So you like it?” I replied, because he clearly didn’t. “Yes!” He insisted, eyes wide and voice shrill, like someone trying to shuffle their way out of a bear enclosure they’ve accidentally fallen into at the zoo. “It’s very cool.”

“Cool” is not necessarily bad, you understand. Some of my oddest garments he likes specifically for their coolness, as though his 19-year-old self would approve of him having a girlfriend whose clothing would confuse the average Nan. A dress I bought online from Hong Kong and kept guiltily in the cupboard for two months because it looked like bedsheets only got worn in the end at all because he found it and declared it “cool” so enthusiastically.

But cool can also be a consolation prize. In the case of this dress (bright pink, 80s, stripy, mid-calf, elasticated waist, buttons), ‘cool’ is the best it’s going to get. But it could have been worse. It could have been “snazzy”. Or, “what a lovely fabric,” which is basically worse than just retching and leaving the room.

Still, we’re still in the delicate aftermath of rucksackgate, the fateful day I accidentally referred to his well-worn brown Jansport bag as “horrible” when what I meant to say was “functional and sturdy,” so I can forgive him going all Anna Wintour on me. Weeks of cooing, “what memories this rucksack must have… and big enough to fit TWO board games in at once, wow…” have helped us reach a point of acquiescence, but I know there’s still bitterness inside.

Besides, I don’t care as much as he does. Since buying and subsequently discovering he didn’t like the dress, I have worn it five times in nine days. It is my new favourite dress. I love it so much that I’ve gone off three other dresses in order to make room for it in my heart. Every time I have it on, I feel slightly sad for him, not being able to appreciate its artistry. 

Meanwhile, after claiming my zero tolerance stance on flip-flops (they’re an insult to the noble name of feet, a total waste of a shoe opportunity) made no difference to him, he notably hasn’t worn them once all summer. 

So I win, sort of. I am a winner, in a very cool dress.

Good golly, Ms Dolly...

I wasn’t at Glastonbury, can you tell? I have no crown of flowers, no newfound lifelong friendship with a man called Cosmo who I met in a tree, and I have only been sleeping on the floor for the benefit of my back.

I’ll probably never go to Glastonbury, I’ve now been forced to realise, or at least not until I have three children and a camper van (“so nobody can stop you going to bed at 11pm! Well, except the children,” as my boyfriend put it) plus the means to casually spend £200+ on a holiday that leaves you more knackered than you were when you went*.

But if ever I were to go to Glastonbury, it should have been this year. For Dolly. If the queen of country can pull on her whitest rhinestoned pantsuit and get down and dirty in the mud (ok, near the mud) then in hindsight I probably could have sucked it up, bought an industrial-sized bottle of antibac gel and joined her. 

I certainly would have looked more at home weeping along to Here You Come Again in the middle of the swaying crowd at Worthy Farm than I did just now, alone with iPlayer in my bedroom, cry-singing it to Mabel, my disembodied mannequin hat stand. But the truth is Dolly transcends location. The “dirt poor” farmer’s daughter with 11 siblings from the Smoky Tennessee Mountains whose talent can inspire, let’s say, a simple girl from Sussex to follow her dreams all the way to the big city. By which I mean finding a hairdresser who understands the exact shade of blonde highlights I’ve always wanted.

It’s funny that in recent years, the acts attracting the most love at Glastonbury have been so gleefully un-rock and roll. Beyoncé in gold sequins, Stevie Wonder singing Happy Birthday, The English National Ballet’s tribute to the first world war…. and Dolly, a tiny lady with a voice as big as her heart. 

And I’ll have none of this miming nonsense, thank you. When I saw her at the O2 in 2011, her astoundingly pure 65-year-old voice filled the arena with ease for two hours. We danced, we swayed, we laughed, we cried. The souvenir tea towel I bought that night is still among the top three tea towels in my (extensive) collection.

Plus, even rarer among modern artists, Dolly gives between-song chat as great as the music itself - from her famous anecdote about the real ‘Jolene’ to quips about modelling her appearance after “the town tramp”, she never misses an opportunity to display the wit and warmth beneath the wig and rhinestones.  While she’s always joyfully upfront about her penchant for surgical enhancement, Dolly knows how to keep it real.

 

*It’s the ultimate modern luxury, in a way, splurging on weekend breaks that are going to leave you tireder, grumpier, dirtier and probably more in need of another holiday. Give me a festival with a breakfast buffet, several rooftop tours of cathedrals and the chance to sit down and have an ice cream every 20 minutes and we might have a deal.

In which things go off the chart

Distressing news this week, that Juicy Couture – purveyors of the tracksuits we’d previously thought were the 21st century’s biggest battle between comfort and aesthetics, until adults started wearing babygros – is closing all its US stores. You can almost hear velour fans everywhere wailing in anguish. Listen very carefully; it’s quite muffled. 

But we’ll cope without Juicy, because in exchange we are getting back another vestige of the olden days. The pop charts are going to matter again.

The music industry having finally caught up with the internet, online streaming via services such as Spotify will count towards the UK singles charts for the first time from next month. Whether it’s a wise move for the future of the industry or another way to fiddle artists our of their income (or both) remains to be seen, but it’s safe to say it’ll diversify the Top 40 for the better.  

I say that as someone who has, I’ve just discovered, basically no idea what is in the Top 40. “Let’s see how many artists we can guess from this week’s chart,” I announce to my boyfriend, and we set about making a list.

I kick things off with One Direction. Obviously One Direction will be in the charts. In fact the chart is probably at least a third One Direction these days, I reason, because when we unwittingly got on a sweaty Metropolitan Line tube coming from Wembley the other Saturday night, it contained more frenzied pre-teen girls with ‘1D’ written in biro on their foreheads than I thought were left of the entire music-buying public.

“Lana Del Ray,” says my boyfriend, because he has seen her on a poster recently.

“Paloma Faith,” I say. I know she has a single out because Radio 2 plays it once every four minutes. Likewise Sam Smith, who is nothing to do with the cheap pubs (I checked).

“Um. Rihanna?” he ventures, and I laugh in a patronising fashion before sheepishly writing down, “Coldplay.”

“Do Mumford and Sons have an album out?”

“No. Don’t be silly.”

“Is there a band that sounds a bit like Mumford and Sons who has an album out?”

I write it down. 

Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry go on the list for good measure. By the time we reach Gary Barlow, it is clear that we have exhausted our knowledge of current music – not as people who listen to obscure bands that haven’t got famous yet, but as people who most recently listened to a self-compiled playlist called ‘Whistling’, made up of songs that all have whistling in them (it has Colonel Bogey and two different versions of Mr Bojangles on it – and yes, it is awesome).

 I check the Top 40 to see how many we’ve guessed right. Four.

Now it seems our options are either to make some effort and re-familiarise ourselves with the hit parade, or give up and see how many repeat plays it takes to get Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard back in the charts instead. Here’s to the democracy of the internet.

In which the cool don't rule (after school)

Finally, a real scientific study has proved true what we’ve secretly known all along: that being cool in high school does not make you cool in later life. 

Published last week in journal Child Development, the 10-year study on students from the age of 13 up to 23 looked at “pseudomature behaviours” – acting older than one’s age in a variety of romantic, social and delinquent ways. Findings showed that while the rebellious kids were more likely to be popular among peers at 13, all that behind-the-bike-sheds kudos declined over time and actually ended up having an inverse effect, with formerly ‘cool’ teens struggling to make friends by the time they reached their early 20s. 

It’s the kind of news that makes you want to rush back in time and tell your former awkward young self that it’ll all be ok. “Hey Lauren,” I’d whisper to 13-year-old me as she turned down an invitation to drink Bacardi Breezers in a park to spend an evening working on her poetry journal. “It’s fine, those are not your people. Give it a few years and you’ll have legal access to all the sugary booze you could not want; but also legitimately great friends to not drink it with.”

Then 13-year-old Lauren would smile a big, gap-toothed smile (like all the coolest people, I didn’t finish losing my milk teeth until well into adolescence) and we would high-five before I faded into the sunset. It would make a brilliant film. You’d go and see it, wouldn’t you, because chances are you weren’t a cool kid either.

If I’m honest, I’ve never trusted people who were popular at school. Without a good dose of pubescent humiliation, how would you discover who your real friends were? How would you give one of those humble interviews when you’re a wildly successful adult, talking about how the bullies ultimately made you a stronger person? Of course it would be heaps better if there were no bullies at all - but then maybe that would make us ALL popular kids, doomed to failed relationships as soon as we hit our twenties.

And while there’s a genuine argument for encouraging children to stay children for as long as possible, plenty of us non-populars were precocious in our own ways too. In fact I’d say much of my own teenage behaviour was so pseudomature that it skipped right past the drinking and fumbling stages and left me about 38 inside, wryly observing the world from the edge of the party and refusing to engage with anything I deemed a ‘teenage cliché’. Among the clichés I rejected: were recreational drinking, under-18 discos, owning a mobile phone before 2003, and talking to boys. Any boys.

It’s possible, thinking back on it now, that all of this painful cynicism was a much greater effort on the part of coolness than it would have been just to go and sit in the park with the others. So maybe we should cut the popular kids some slack –they probably care far less about it than the rest of us do

In which we're better together

If I’m honest, the thrill of having a Scottish boyfriend has never quite worn off. 

Without, naturally, wanting to regard him as a cultural novelty (I even let him take the tam o’shanter off for special occasions), I’ve an odd sort of pride in having a beau from north of the border.

Growing up as a simple Sussex gal, lacking in accent, cuisine or any other distinguishing features to set me apart from Surrey and Hampshire, I never dared hope I might one day have legitimate reason to throw a Burns Night party. I thought the closest I’d get to regional glamour was a thumping crush on David Tennant and a taste for Irn Bru on a hangover. At best I might manage a nice boy from the Midlands, but a fully-fledged dour Scotsman was a dream as distant as Gretna Green itself.

But, thanks to the internet and internal migration, I bagged one! And now we’re into our fourth year of rich cultural exchange and hilarious linguistic misunderstandings. “Swede? You mean turnip! HAHAHAHA” is usually how it goes. “You ‘amn’t’ hungry? AMN’T? That’s a MUCH better phrase than ‘I’m not’, I shall use it all the time!”  I say ‘orange squash’; he says ‘diluting juice’ - let’s not call the whole thing off. Etc.

So it’s in this spirit of British unity that I’ve begun feeling queasy about the referendum. It feels odd to care so much about something you have no say in. It’s a bit like pleading with someone who hasn’t quite decided whether or not to dump you yet. My own partnership might be going strong, but writing this on Monday, with only 100 days to go until Scotland makes its decision, the threat of a national break-up is looming larger than ever.

He can’t vote either, having long ago chosen the bright lights of the capital over the blanket shops of the Royal Mile. And though independence might not have an instant effect, no waking up to find all the oil and shortbread and boyfriends have been taken away in the night, it would be foolish to think our two countries wouldn’t pine for each other in ways we can’t quite yet predict.

“People living in London may not have a vote, but they do have a voice,” says Alistair Darling in tonight’s Evening Standard. I don’t know how my voice is going to make much difference – particularly as I’m most likely to use it to sing an off-key rendition of Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now, directed vaguely northwards – but I’ll say it anyway. Ooh-oo-ooh, Scotland, please don’t go.

 

 

 

In which it's not for everyone

I’ve just come in out of the storm. The Twitterstorm, that is, which has been raging like a fart in a jacuzzi all day long.

In the centre of the storm, Kirstie Allsopp – she of the handicrafts and househunting – who has suggested in an interview with The Telegraph that women ought to put university off a few years, buy a flat and have babies by 27 instead, because biology is not on our side in these matters. Then we can be “free as a bird” to study and build a career in our 40s.

It’s unleashed a wave of spluttering fury - unfair not least because it makes the interview sound much more exciting than it is when you actually go and read it. Which, these being busy times, most of the furious splutterers haven’t.

There are lots of problems with Kirstie’s proposal of course. It’s built on assumptions, starting with the idea that women a) want children, b) know whether they want them or not by the time they’re 27, c) have found someone they want to have them with by the age of 27, d) can afford to have them and then go to university, e) can afford to have them at all, and a whole alphabet of other conditionals that exclude most women who aren’t in the Allsopp mould. It’s not a universal solution. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t valid. 

The truth is, she’s right that we need to give ourselves a few more options. Choices, guys! We like choices, remember? How can we have a bajillion TV channels and seven flavours of Kit-Kat, but no room for more than one interpretation of female success?

As someone who’s apparently only a year away from my baby-making prime (they can just sleep in a drawer for the first year, right? Although I don’t have any empty drawers, come to think of it) the idea that I should have skipped uni and feathered a nest for infants instead is quite terrifying - but not really any more terrifying than the only option being to build a career, save thousands of pounds, buy a home and pop out a family during the next decade. 

More useful than Allsopp’s rosy view of young motherhood, I think, is the fact that she’s raising it in the name of equality. “As a passionate feminist, I feel we have not been honest enough with women about this issue,” she says on the topic of dwindling fertility. “Women have this time pressure that men don’t have.” It might not look like feminism as many of us know it - probably because it’s not aimed at us - but for women who shy away from the F-word because they still think it means they’re not allowed to prioritise family over career, statements like this could be game-changers.

Kirstie’s views might be the Cath Kidston cardigan of empowerment (cosy and expensive), but we’ll never all manage to be happy if we’re relying on one-size-fits-all philosophies. A few more options, a few fewer pressures and a bit more shouldering the responsibility on both sides of the gender gap, please.

And in the meantime, because I can’t have a break from biology, I’ll have a Kit-Kat.

 

On backs and the future

Like all hypochondriacs, I love a diagnosis. In the wilderness of unexplained symptoms and physiological vagaries, there’s nothing better than a good, solid ailment to hang your hat on. “I HAVE THIS,” you can declare, and nobody is allowed to argue or tell you that you don’t look ill enough, or that you probably just need a multivitamin and a hobby.

Which is why finding out I have a slipped disc was an odd sort of relief. I’m so used to the sort of medical complaints that doctors pull sceptical faces at – weird headaches that come and go like Harry Potter’s scar pain, indigestion caused by all foods except biscuits, a fear of consumption that’s been reoccurring ever since I first saw Moulin Rouge – that being diagnosed with a real condition felt almost like a victory.

It’s only ‘slightly slipped’ and doesn’t need surgery, a fact my stone-faced GP was keen to stress while glancing down at my heeled ankle boots. But I was already mind-shopping for a quilted bed jacket by this point, and mentally listing all the activities it could get me out of. Camping. Sit-ins. Theme parks. Queuing all night for tickets for something. SLIPPED DISC SAYS ‘NO’.

Exploiting my invalid status is only small compensation for the pain, it must be said. It has ruined my favourite activity, which is lounging. I can no longer slump or recline in languid positions on the sofa, just sit bolt upright or lie down flat. Reading a book and watching telly are both significantly less fun now that I have to do them in the posture of the Dowager Countess, and I must try to make ‘taking a brisk turn abut the block’ my new favourite activity instead.

There’s also something particularly sad about the first ailment you get that can’t just be cured or waited out but has to be ‘managed’. At the creaky age of 26, I’m facing the fact that I’ll probably just be a person with a slightly dodgy back forever. It’s a new one for my collection of ageing disappointments, alongside never being described as a ‘wunderkind’ (maximum age: 24, I reckon) and never having successfully worn cut-off denim shorts. This is my lot in life.

Even the term ‘slipped disc’ sounds archaic, because I keep picturing it as a floppy disc that’s been awkwardly ejected from my spine. So I’ll take the excuses and the sympathetic sighs for now, but when I can upgrade to a back complaint for the digital age, let me know.

 

In which he who asks most learns least

Facebook has found a new way of ruining everything. Not content with giving us all body image complexes and diluting the concept of ‘liking’ down so far that we think we like video tributes to people’s dead pets, it’s now introduced an ‘ask’ feature that allows friends to request info on, among other things, your relationship status. 

I say ‘friends’, but of course that’s a diluted concept too. A friend can just ask. A friend already knows. What we mean here is ‘creepy almost-stranger who has run out of socially-approved ways to hit on you’. The formality of it adds an additional level of creepiness – where a flirty message written with actual words would do the job, this takes out any semblance of effort by laying out tick boxes, notably without the option to say ‘err, no comment’. It’s like a Freedom of Information request, but horrible.

To be fair, in recent years things have got trickier for the Facebook romancers (whoever they be). Most of us have stopped listing a relationship status at all, because we learned that there is nothing more awful than changing it back to ‘single’ three months later and watching the concerned sadface emojis flood your wall. By the time a new courtship is solid enough to risk the change, it also seems daft to declare it. “HEY EVERYONE, WE HAD THE ‘WHERE IS THIS GOING?’ CHAT! WE SURVIVED! VALIDATE THIS,” it screams. Besides, everyone who knows you knows you’re a couple anyway and will just write sarky things underneath.

But just asking? There’s something so incredibly un-British about it. Everyone knows dating is meant to be a long, confusing dance of mystery and intrigue where everything is communicated through clues and euphemisms and accidentally turning up at the same events as each other until one day you happen to have three kids and a mortgage.

Asking is cheating. Just as us coupled people have to find the exact right moment to casually drop in the fact we’re not single – too soon and it looks presumptuous, too late and they’ve bought you a monogrammed dressing gown – prospective amours are meant to find better ways of registering interest than simply asking.

Of course, we all know the reason Facebook has introduced the ask feature too. It’s not to help shy people and bored 16-year-olds find eternal love – it’s so they can pass the info on to advertisers. Which begs the question: what would they be trying to sell to me if they knew I had a boyfriend? Spa retreats? Engagement rings? Bicycles made for two?

The adverts on my current Facebook feed are for skin products, bread, Topshop and Foxy Bingo. I definitely liked three of those things when I was single, and the other one I’ve never let myself try for fear I would like it TOO MUCH. Meanwhile my boyfriend’s feed is flogging him cars, glucose monitors, broadband… and, curiously, Foxy Bingo. So maybe Facebook knows we’re compatible after all.

 

In which I use my powers for good

Hurrah for Claudia Winkleman! The magnificently befringed presenter has been given Bruce Forsyth’s Strictly Come Dancing presenting slot, marking an encouraging waltz forward for the BBC’s hiring policy – two women presenting a prime-time show without anyone feeling the need to bring a bloke in.

It also marks an exciting personal milestone, the first time I’ve ever made a wish in this column that has later been granted. At least I think it is, but there are 11 years’ worth of archives to check and I don’t have the energy. Let’s assume it is. Hurrah! 

Assuming this signals a newly-developed superpower and not just a predictable coincidence (I’m sure it does), I now feel the weight of responsibility on my shoulders. What should I wish for next? How can I use this power for good? After at least eight minutes of very serious consideration, I’ve drawn up the following list.

I would like ASOS to bring back their sleeve-length filter for dresses please. Back in the glory days, ASOS.com was on our side in the battle against fabric-stingy designers. Their unique sleeve filter allowed us to eliminate all sleeveless dresses in one swift click, leaving us only with the long-sleeved, the medium-sleeved and the skimpy-but-still-not-requiring-complex-bra-‘solutions’. Of course in practice this eliminated about 80 per cent of all dresses, but it sure made shopping quicker. Until they took the filter away. Bring it back, guys! It was totally ’armless.

I would like Conchita’s Eurovision win to herald a new age of transgender acceptance please. And also the decline of fascist attitudes to facial and body hair. My lustrous blonde moustache has been hidden from the world for too long, and it’s time to stop caring what anyone else thinks.

I would like the Olympics to come back to London please. The Evening Standard reported this week that Rio’s preparations to host the Games in 2016 are so far behind schedule that the International Olympic Committee is considering moving proceedings to London as a plan B. It should be noted that they also called the chance of it actually going ahead “infinitesimally small” - but then I had an infinitesimally small chance of enjoying judo the last time round, and that happened.

I would like Friends to be shown on Freeview again please. Yes, at the point where E4 relinquished the rights to Comedy Central I had seen every episode so many times I’d begun to think Gunther was a man I actually knew. But that was two and half years ago. Two and a half years of trying to kid myself I actually enjoy The Big Bang Theory. And now it’s been 10 years since the show’s finale, Chandler et al are everywhere again, and all I want to do is spend a month under a duvet re-living everything Rachel’s hair ever did. We were on a break, but I’d like it to end now. Please.

What happens at the button factory...

Ah, the noble art of the hen or stag do.

I say ‘do’, but of course we all know that doesn’t mean ‘party’ now so much as ‘do… you want to spend £800 on four days making small talk with the bride’s auntie over a set of inflatable genitals?’ 

My boyfriend having just returned from a stag weekend that saw him abseil down a cliff, climb back up it, fish for three hours and burn half the skin off his forehead while I’ve been signed up for bridesmaid duties twice in the same month, I’ve suddenly realised that it all starts now. We are teetering on the precipice of Wedding Falls, waiting to jump in and be dragged along for the next decade by a current of hilarious costumes and Mr & Mrs games.

Right now, it’s all enthusiastic whooping and looking at impractical cottage lets in the Quantocks – by the time the last friend makes it up the aisle/jetty/path to a fairy-lit yurt, we will be seasoned pros, able to whip together a bespoke weekend of personalised bonding with one hand while the other snaps up the third cheapest item on the gift list. Either that or we’ll be weary, bankrupt husks of people who need hip replacements from repeatedly doing the Macarena drunk.

While we wait to see which is true, I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a few original ideas with which to wow the stags and hens in YOUR life…


Five things to do on a stag or hen party

1.   Take a tour of a biscuit factory! Explain that it’s a special occasion and they might let you stick your faces in the vat where the custard cream filling is made.

2.   Go on a silent retreat at a convent or monastery. This has the combined benefits of de-stressing the bethrothed, ensuring you don’t have to talk to their awful cousin from Kidderminster, and making any “what happens on the stag/hen stays on the stag/hen!” rules both guaranteed and completely pointless. 

3.   Volunteer at a city farm! Your stag might SAY he wants to go paintballing in Slovenia, but you can see in his eyes that what he really wants is to feed a baby goat with a bottle.

4.   Get a private medical check-up! Mediterranean minibreaks are all very nice, but deep down wouldn’t you all rather splurge on finding out if your family history of diabetes has caught up with you yet? Then you can all go to dinner and order cholesterol-appropriate meals to celebrate.

5.   Pretend to have arranged a top-secret surprise celebration that is SO top-secret and SUCH a surprise it doesn’t actually happen until 2025! At which point your wedded friend will either be a) divorced, b) so exhausted from years of childcare and dinner parties and weekend trips to Ikea that even a night in Oceana having party blowers tooted in their face will seem like heaven, or c) not really your friend anymore. Result.

Me First and the Gimmee Gimmees

The recipe for success has apparently been discovered, and it is this: be female, and be born first. 

Published last week, a revelatory new study by Feifei Bu at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, has shown that if you are the eldest child and female, you are statistically more likely to excel in work and education than the rest of your family – followed in second place, 13 per cent behind, by eldest male siblings. It has proven scientifically what firstborn kids have smugly told themselves for eons: that they’re top dogs. 

That we’re top dogs, I could say, because I’m the eldest of three (would I have picked this topic if I weren’t?). I’m in good company; Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Christine Lagarde, JK Rowling and Beyoncé are all firstborns, as are more than half of all Nobel prizewinners and all 12 men who have landed on the moon. 

The majority of my friends are eldest children too, which I’ve always thought was far too disproportionate to be random. Perhaps we’ve been drawn together, unwittingly, by our burning ambition and the sort of delusional self-assurance that comes from never having worn hand-me-down school uniform. 

You can see how it works. For the formative years, eldest children are going to be the best at everything simply because they are also the first at everything. “Look at me, walking!” it’s easy to brag to the sibling who can’t yet hold their own head up. “Got a gold star on my Romans topic book!” you can boast freely when the only point of family comparison is studiously gumming their own toes. 

But then it sticks, and trailblazing becomes a default setting you can’t quite switch off. Once you’re out in the world, without siblings to put you in a headlock or give you a humbling wedgie, that invisible ‘No.1’ badge can become an albatross round your neck. “Go forth! Conquer! Do ALL the things!” shouts firstborn expectation, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like our own. 

If we’re statistically most likely to be ambitious, I’d wager we’re also most likely to suffer from anxiety and fear that things will all go wrong. Or a sense of total failure when they do all go wrong. Being eldest usually means falling out of the nest first, so it’s unsurprising when we end up flapping. 

It’s not all top jobs and PhDs, either. Firstborn children are also twice as likely to become caregivers to our parents – that competitive streak sees us right through to middle age, but it has a nurturing side too – and according to a study by the University of Auckland, we’re more likely to be overweight in later life. Which is probably either from stress eating, or all those state banquets.

Nice to see you, to see you... Claudia

In one of the less surprising news stories of last week, we learned that everyone’s favourite grandpa of the cha-cha is stepping down from his weekly job on Strictly Come Dancing. 

At 86, Bruce Forsyth has been a fixture on British screens for nearly three times longer than I’ve been alive. A consummate professional, still turning out the gags and admirably nimble (William Hill have 25-1 odds on the former hoofer returning as a contestant in the next series), his presence every week was a too-rare reminder of what’s possible past the showbiz pensioner cut-off. 

Sometimes he doddered, yes, but that was good too – far better a doddering Bruce who’s still on TV than to sweep him away at 70 and pretend that people don’t age, minds don’t fade and we all stay taut and glossy forever.

Speaking of taut, glossy people, Tess now needs a new presenting partner. My immediate thought, like any person of sensible taste, was “Claudia! Claudia! LET WINKLEMAN HAVE IT”. 

The panda-eyed presenter has been standing in for Forsyth on the Sunday shows since 2010, and she’s been delightful – a sort of eccentric antihero in a smock dress, the perfect counterbalance to immaculate Tess. You always imagine Tess would just keep smoothly presenting if the four horseman of the apocalypse thundered onto the set and made Brendan Cole do the Argentine tango with Death on a lake of fire. Claudia would do a pun, pull a funny face and run around with rumpled hair screaming “WHOAH! THIS IS MAAAD!”, which is what I’d want to see. 

One bookie’s favourite is Anton du Beke, not least because he will almost certainly look exactly like Brucie in 30 years’ time. If we squint slightly, it’ll be as if nothing has changed. Another is Daly’s husband and telly’s resident margarine-monger, Vernon Kay.

This one makes sense for the BBC because they’ll only have to send one car and pay for one room at the Elstree Travelodge. But Vernon Kay saddens me. He started off so well, all trendy hair and T4 and northern charm, then somewhere along the way traded his personality in for fake tan, whitened teeth and shiny suits and watched his career path veer off to the point where he’s doing the gigs Steve Jones wasn’t available for. Maybe he is the portrait in Dermot O’Leary’s attic.

But despite all my admiration for Bruce’s long career, my main ask is that they don’t bring in another man of advanced years. Because how many times have we seen that combo? The naughty grandpa/glossy young straightwoman double act. Des and Mel. Terry Wogan and Fearne Cotton. Christine Bleakley and basically everyone she’s ever presented with. Yawn.

If the Beeb really want to turn heads, as one of my Twitter followers suggested, they should give the gig to Mary Berry and Joey Essex. Or Reggie Yates and Sandi Toksvig. Or Harry Styles and Dame Joan Bakewell.

Or, forget needing a man in the frame at all and just give it to Claudia. She’s already doing the job, guys, and everyone already loves her. If you don’t, I swear on the metaphorical ghost of Camilla Dallerup, I will be writing to Points of View.

In which it's all in (or half in) the jeans

There is nothing worse than jeans shopping. 

All kinds of shopping have their own particular shortcomings, but nothing compares to the denim aerobics for pain, sweat or tears. Even rom-coms haven’t managed to glamourise jeans shopping; there is no joy in a day spent struggling in and out of one of the world’s least malleable fabrics in a climate best suited for growing tomatoes, punctuated at intervals by the need to staring at a mirror developing an almost academic knowledge of the contours of one’s own thighs. 

So awful is jeans shopping that I simply refused to do it for most of the noughties. Living year in, year out in weather-inappropriate skirts, my legs took on more sea breezes than a Wetherspoons hen do. 

But at least the mega flares of 2002 were quick to climb in and out of – things are worse now, because the advent of “boyfriend” and “mom” jeans means it’s no longer just a matter of fitting or not fitting. They can fit in the wrong way, and not-fit in the right way, and even once the zip’s up there’s a good chance you’ll be looking back at a geography teacher on a field trip rather than 1975 Felicity Kendal.

I need new jeans, because my only pair have a hole in them, and not in the trendy way. In the, “sorry vicar, you weren’t meant to see that” way. 

Were I a more practical person I’d have darned them, but as it was I just said “darn” and headed for the nearest denim merchant. Then the second nearest, then the third nearest, then took a deep breath, knocked back a whisky and headed for Westfield.

If you’ve never been to either of London’s Westfield shopping centres (and why would you, when Churchill Square is enough of a hassle?), they are like very shiny space cities that smell of sugared pretzels, designed to leave you dehydrated and sartorially confused.

“Who is still buying low-rise jeans please?” I wonder as I flick through the racks of 26-inch waists looking for the ones labelled ‘pie and chips’. “Is your belly button that claustrophobic?” Stretch is good. Stretch does up. But then stretch also means oddly velvety, and so clingy you can almost see veins. Hardwearing “authentic” jeans are also good, but they feel like the Tinman’s trousers and I can’t actually sit down. 

Sitting down soon becomes priority no.1. After four hours of enforced plies and zip workouts, my sciatica has flared up and it turns out there actually is something worse than jeans shopping. There is jeans shopping with a bad back. 

On second thoughts, I’ll have a go at darning that hole

Things my mother has taught me

mum-and-i

On how to shop:

A gal needs two great shopping companions; fate and destiny. When dithering over a purchase, put it to the back of the rail and walk away. Then come back in a few hours (exact time is proportional to how much or little you are dithering), and if said item is still there in your size, it is meant to be. You must buy it or spend the rest of your life weeping gently in front of your wardrobe.

However, if it has gone then it clearly wasn’t The One and you must move on, free from resentment, full of purse and happy in the knowledge that someone else now has the problem of trying to match shoes to such a tricky hem length.

Also, nothing can ever be bought unless you can first name at least three items already in your wardrobe that it could be worn with. This has saved me from a fate worse than jeggings on more than one occasion.


On how to contribute to society:

Always vote. Vote because of the suffragettes, and vote because so many other people in the world can’t. Vote even if you are uncertain or unbothered, because otherwise only those with absolute views will be represented – which isn’t representative at all.


On household maintenance:

Dust adds character. And, to borrow from Quentin Crisp, after four years it doesn’t get any worse.


On ageing:

Even numbers sound older than odd numbers, to the extent that bigger odd numbers sound younger than smaller even numbers. So, 27 somehow sounds younger than 26, and 73 is preferable to 72.  

Also, you know you are getting old when the Blue Peter presenters start to look young.


On holidays:

The perfect way to spend the first night of any holiday is eating fish and chips, sitting on a harbour wall, dangling one’s legs towards the sea. The fish and chips can be swapped for pasties or ice cream if necessary; it is the dangling that matters the most.


On mealtimes:

Any time that could commonly have ’12’ in its name is a feasible lunchtime. Meaning 11:35am, AKA “25 to 12”, is a perfectly respectable time to eat a sandwich.


On music:

Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone is the best song ever written. This has been presented simply as fact since I was about eight, and I’ve never found cause to question it.


On marital bliss:

The smaller and cheaper the wedding, the longer the marriage will be. Probably. Britney’s Las Vegas one notwithstanding.


On life:

Things really do happen for a reason. Even if you can’t see it now, or in a month, or in a year, you will eventually look back and realise it was all for the best. In the meantime, have a cup of tea. Or some wine.


And one from my Granny...

On the first day at a new school or new job:

Just find out where the toilets are, and how to get out. The rest can wait.

 

In which the middle is the tops


There are many things to say about inimitable foodie Clarissa Dickson Wright, who passed away on Monday. 

Her boisterous TV presence, unapologetic disregard for political correctness and fondness for dousing things in animal fats, or the way the former barrister recovered her life and built a new career after 12 years of alcoholism left her broke and so full of quinine from her G&T habit that her metabolism had ground to a halt – giving her the famous physique that made up half of Two Fat Ladies, a title she never found offensive. “What do you object to? Are you saying I’m thin?”

But one of the most notable things, at least to me, was the fact that she had 10 middle names. TEN. She was christened Clarissa Theresa Philomena Aileen Mary Josephine Agnes Elsie Trilby Louise Esmeralda Dickson Wright, allegedly because her parents were so glad to have picked at least one name they liked that they got pissed on the way to the church.

Of course the most notable of these is ‘Trilby’, something of a revelation because who knew you were allowed to name kids after hats? I was planning to call mine after characters in Downton Abbey, but now it’ll most likely be little Fedora, Fascinator and Pork Pie instead.

Headwear aside, her enormous moniker is a fantastic tribute to the noble art of the middle name. I love middle names. My boyfriend doesn’t have one at all, a fact that has always distressed me. Such a waste of an opportunity! Plus, it makes it so hard to get a sensible email address. With a relatively common first and second name, he’s forever bound to jamming numbers or awkward underscores in until he finds an option that hasn’t been taken yet.  

Middle names are a fantastic creative outlet. They’re the freebie round; the bonus extra session in the karaoke booth. As long as you give your progeny relatively sensible first names, you can really let rip in the middle without judgement. In fact I’d make a whole separate list of the middle options, and fill it with the sort of thing that will one day prompt a wedding congregation to suppress a small snigger. 

Then if they grow up to be a performance poet or an accordion player or whatever and fancy being known to the world as Marmalade or Obsidian, they can swap their names round and use the special one. Alternatively if they grow up to be a chartered surveyor in Cheam, they can forget the special one ever existed.

My own is Ruth, a middle name just dowdy enough to raise an interest from time to time, but largely unremarkable since the kids in my middle school class realised it was a different word to “roof”.  (At least it’s not Louise. Every second girl of my generation has Louise as a middle name. You meet middle-Louises with such regularity that I’ve begun to believe there was some sort of special promotion on during the late 80s.) 

Still, I have enough to handle in the name department. As my mother has sighed on many an occasion, “so little goes with Bravo.

Bet you feel old now?

There’s a trend on the internet at the moment (I know you love it when I start columns with the words, ‘there’s a trend on the internet at the moment’) that involves flagging up the amount of time that has passed since stuff happened. It’s done not as helpful practice for pub quizgoers, but with the aim of making us all feel old. 

Friends is 20 this year! It’s been a decade since Bennifer split up! The kids from The Cosby Show are all octogenarians now! DON’T YOU FEEL DECREPIT? And then we take a misty-eyed moment to reminisce about what we were doing or wearing or eating at the time the particular stuff happened, and reflect on the way time has been relentlessly marching onward again - as time, the crafty beggar, is wont to do. 

Much as everyone loves a dose of “weren’t the 90s HILAIRIOUS?” with our morning cornflakes (or Lucky Charms if you’re really invested), the “bet you feel old” trend is a smug one because it’s aimed at people who have no pretty much no right feeling old at all. In fact, the less time you’ve been on the planet, the more likely you are to see the 12 years that have passed since Girls Aloud won Popstars: the Rivals as a significant chunk of time worth gawping over. 

Today’s choice piece of the nostalgia pie was: Buffy the Vampire Slayer started 17 years ago! I’ll admit this one took me back slightly - not at how old I am (I’m well aware of this, I recently bought a posture cushion to help with lower back pain), but at how old I was when I first watched it. 

Nine. I was nine. The same year I did my tea-stained topic book on The Romans, I was also watching Sarah Michelle Gellar drive a stake through a vampire’s heart without ruffling her pre-millennial up-do. Probably with one finger on the remote and an eye on the door at all times, of course. 

I’m not even sure I’d persuaded my parents to let me watch Friends by that point – brimming over as it was with the corrupting influences of caffeine, ugly naked people and improper grammar. I don’t feel old, more impressed at how much popular culture I had managed to consume before I was out of frilly ankle socks.

It seems to me there are two ways to counteract the trope. One is to focus instead on how surprisingly young people and things are. DID YOU KNOW Richard Wilson was only actually 54 when One Foot in the Grave started? CAN YOU BELIEVE it’s been a mere year and seven months since the London 2012 Olympics? It feels like CENTURIES AGO! Doesn’t time trundle by at leisure?

And the other is to simply claim not to remember things at all. “Buffy… was she the cartoon rabbit?” I will say, clutching my lower back for effect. Then the internet will leave me alone.