Monday, August 14, 2006

Love is just a click away ....

It is a truth, universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good job must be in want of a gormless twerp she picked up on a dating website.

Sadly, at the time she wrote Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen was unaware of the modern socially accepted norms of picking people up over broadband, and instead subjected her lead characters to a number of demeaning episodes to ensure that love blossomed. Luckily for single chaps in the city it is no longer necessary to hurl oneself headlong into the Serpentine to impress a girl. All they need to do now is to post a personal ad, and Bennett-esque wannabees will come flocking. At least that’s the plan.

Eighteen months in London has led to a certain amount of idle curiosity about the extent that people will go to to find a partner. Having waded through the quagmire of dating on public transport, and beaten off supermarket stalkers with a well aimed bunch of celery, I felt it was my duty to boldly march forth into the world of online dating. It was this I did for you, the reader, to enjoy my exploits, and not to quell my fear of sitting old and alone in a manky wedding dress beside a tiered cake long past its sell-by date. I want to make that very clear now.

Online dating is a bit of an unknown quantity in the wild Westcountry. Where electricity has reached far enough into our little peninsula, some people may sit hunched over an Atari 400 idly batting a pixel back and forth between two lines, whilst raving about the wonders of new technology, but the joys of online love has yet to take hold. Should the farmer want a wife, heigh hi addy oh, and his sister or another close relative is unavailable, he’ll likely advertise in ‘The Farmer’s Friend’: “Ere, Oi needs a strong woman whose not ‘fraid ‘o ‘ard graft, can castrate a ram in under 30 seconds, an’ can lift three ‘ay bales in one ‘and, see? Please send family tree to the farm so’s Oi can check you’m good breeding stock and from the same family as me, see?’. Generally a good partner can be found by consulting the family matriarch and establishing which of your three-headed cousins has yet to marry, and lo a match is made.

Not so in the big city. Up here bemused singletons find themselves barraged with websites promising the promise of eternal love within six months, or you get another six months fruitlessly scraping the barrel for free. What an offer! Online dating has moved on from its early days, where hapless singles could make up 50 words of complete falsification in the hope that someone would fall for it. Now, not only do you get to misrepresent yourself in a series of short sentences, but you can also fib your way through a personality test to ensure you meet your perfect match. However, such a test is by no means straightforward. Entrants aren’t asked a series of pertinent questions: “Have you ever married a farmyard animal/relative/both?” (this is regarded as an ice breaker in Devon), “Have you ever chopped up anyone and buried their remains in your windowbox?”, “Do you own any Gary Numan records?”. Sadly, no, they are asked to answer such brainteasers as “If you wanted to dig a hole to China where would you start?” (about 10 centimetres over the border in Mongolia seems like as good a place as any), “What is happiness?” (not answering stupid questions like ‘What is happiness?’), “Name three Gary Numan tracks in order of preference” (Oh God, Kill Me, Now). Based on your answers to these breathtakingly profound interrogations the website will then search its database to find your perfect match. Now this is where the fun REALLY begins! You are absolutely guaranteed to find love, provided that your ideal partner has an addictive personality, a hygiene problem and a tendency to bend the truth.

We all know that there are various abbreviations and acronyms that are used in dating advertisements: GSOH – must be able to laugh at my one appallingly bad joke in which a man walks into a bar, WLTM – I’m looking for a partner but I’m too cheap to pay for the extra words, OHAC – I have my own fancy trailer and a clapped out Skoda. However, I was unaware of the multitude of hidden meanings behind the ads when first I ventured into online dating. Who knew that people could lie with such breathtaking audacity?! I feel duty bound to expose the lies so that I might save you from a fate worse than mine …

Young at heart’ – on their third or fourth donor organ due to their propensity for drinking cooking sherry and smoking 300 Gauloises a day.
‘Spiritual’ – has a long beard and believes strongly in the power of not washing.
‘Independent’ – has been disowned by family and friends due to an unfortunate incident with a 17 year old, a marrow and a can of Mr Whippy cream.
‘Solvent’ – lists glue sniffing amongst their many and varied hobbies.
‘Youthful’ – 75 or older.
‘Lonely’ – collects stamps, reads comics, has a model railway in the bedroom.
‘Cuddly’ – Pavarotti’s larger brother.
‘Athletic’ – when they were in the running team at school. Now they wear trainers and tracksuits at weekends and power walk to the newsagent to buy the Sunday Telegraph.
‘Affectionate’ – bunny boiler.
‘Professional’ - hooker.
‘Lively’ – needs constant doses of Ritalin and Valium.
‘Fashionable’ – dresses like Jodie Marsh. Usually over 65.
‘Creative’ – compulsive liar.
‘Adventurous’ – thinks that bestiality is a fun game for family pets.
‘Sociable’ – has verbal diarrhoea.
‘Bubbly’ – has a crack cocaine problem.

I hope that this handy guide will protect you from the perils of online dating, and will prevent you from becoming an unwilling participant in an obsessive relationship with a bearded, comic-collecting pensioner with a substance abuse and weight problem. However, should you find yourself in such a predicament, ensure that you carry a file and a teaspoon with you at all times, and in about 20 years you should have been able to dig yourself out of your damp basement cell where your beloved feeds you titbits and croons Gary Numan songs through the bars. See you on the outside.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

'Oh give me a home, where the odd folks don't roam ...'

One thing that letting agents fail to mention in their listings is the matter of neighbours. It is well known that agents tend to gloss over the less salubrious characteristics of their properties, and it would seem that neighbours feature highly in this category. Amongst the eloquently worded paragraphs extolling the virtues of central heating, laminate flooring, double glazing and all mod cons, you’d be hard pushed to find a mention of the dubious characters that will be gently abutting your boundaries .. .. in all senses.

I recently moved into my first sole occupancy property, an event which filled me equally with thrill and dread. Finally I would be able to live the carefree lifestyle I hankered after - leaving the loo seat up (yes, women do that too!), washing up when I wanted to and not when my housemates issued me with death threats, filling the fridge with chocolate and not vegetables. Yet at the same time the prospect of living alone caused no end of apprehension. Who would remove the spiders from the bath? Who’d remember to pay the bills before the red letters arrived? Who’d supervise me with the hot and sharp things that litter an adults’ home? This problem was solved in the most part when I moved into a flat adjoining that of my best friend. In this case I didn’t need to ask the letting agent about the neighbours - I already knew her. I knew that she could be relied upon to still be awake at midnight when I couldn’t get the lid off the Nutella. I knew that she always had milk in the fridge, even if I didn’t. I knew that at 5’10” she’d solve the problem of my inability to change lightbulbs. It was going to be perfect. And in my haste to move into this Stepford-esque world of friendship, cookies and smiles, I made a fatal mistake. So convinced was I that life next to my best friend would be nothing short of perfect, I didn’t bother to ask about the other neighbours.

I should probably point out now that this isn’t going to be a ‘neighbours from hell’ horror story, where I reveal to the world the never-ending cycle of abuse and vandalism I suffered at the hands of those next door. Nor is this a story like Mr and Mrs Smith of 9 Rillington Place would tell -“And that Mr Christie seemed like such a nice man”. In a sense I have been very fortunate. My neighbours don’t chop up people and bury them in the cellar. At least not that I’m aware of. Nor do they stand idly by while their tribe of 14 children wreak havoc on the local amenities. No, in a sense this story is about something much more trivial. But it vexes me nonetheless!
You see, as well as asking about the neighbours, I’ve realised that you should ALWAYS measure the thickness of the walls that divide your small incubated world from that of those next door. I realised this at midnight one balmy Wednesday night, four nights after I moved in. And I realised it at 3 o’clock the next morning. I had another epiphany at midnight the following night. And the night after that. And the night after that. In fact, I’ve been having these semi-religious epiphanies every night since I made the flat my home. The reason being, my neighbour has been having semi-religious epiphanies of a different kind.

In this world of Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity, we are encouraged to give in to our voyeuristic tendencies. The sight of a naked body wouldn’t cause most of us to turn a hair. So used are we to seeing sex on TV that it just isn’t shocking anymore, at least, not when people on telly are doing it anyway. However, when it comes to the nocturnal activities of those you know, the less involved you are the better. I just wish someone would explain this to my neighbour.

Unsurprisingly, the advert for my flat didn’t read ‘bijou one-bed, central heating, newly refurbished, directly adjacent to a sex-crazed Meg Ryan wannabee’. And in some ways I’m glad it didn’t. If I’d chosen not to take the flat, I’d never have discovered the fuzzy and slightly dangerously close-to-the-edge joy of sleep deprivation - who knew how dangerous a tin opener can be in the hands of a woman who had 2 hours sleep?! However, the ‘When Harry met Sally’ pantings of them next door has left me feeling like a protagonist in their sexual relations. I find myself willing her to fake it quickly, just so I can get some sleep. I share in her deep post-coital relief, though for obviously different reasons. I’m genuinely relieved when she’s not in the mood (oh, the elusive joy of sleep!). It’s like having a sexual soap opera enacted through my bedroom wall. The ‘will they, won’t they’ storyline is a veritable rollercoaster of emotion, my insomnia dependent on the outcome of the episode. I just wish someone would sack the writer. And the lead actress. The scripts are repetitive (how many ways is it possible to say ‘Oh my god yes’? Not that many it would seem) and the acting is not so much wooden as just thoroughly unconvincing. I find myself like an Olympic judge, fighting hard the urge to knock on their window holding a card bearing the message ‘7.5 - she demonstrated good showmanship, but it’s clear he needs to work on his technique’.

The fact that irks me the most is that my neighbours upstairs are convinced that I am the source of the ‘Harry Does Herne Hill’ soundtrack. Many’s the night that my neighbour has panted and squealed her way through the early hours, while the woman upstairs bangs loudly on my ceiling with a broom. I find myself assaulted with noise from all sides. ‘It’s not me’ I wail plaintively at the ceiling, but to no avail. Most mornings I am met a with look of disgust from the upstairs window as I flee my flat, suffering pangs of reflective guilt. I wouldn’t mind so much if I was the perpetrator of the midnight Hallelujah Chorus - at least I could wallow in smugness. But instead I spend most nights nursing a tub of Ben and Jerry’s whilst deeply involved with the goings on in the Big Brother house. All I need is a cat, and my transformation into Miss Haversham is complete.
Dates, Figs and all things fruity …

As an outsider I was never able to understand the prolific wail of the single Londoner – ‘But I just can’t seem to meet anyone!’. In a city so diverse and colourful I found it impossible to believe that London dating could be such a trial. Surely singletons were abundant, the streets teeming with beautiful batchelors and spinsters, skinny caramel macchiatos in hand, just waiting to bump into each other and find everlasting love through a series of chance meetings (I’ve seen Richard Curtis films – I know how this works). I was shocked to discover the extent to which dating, or the lack of it, has become central to the existence of many. Speed dating has become a boom industry, as hopeful singletons band together to talk complete rubbish at each other for three minutes, and in turn make personal judgments based on this 180 second diatribe. Matchmaking websites abound, promising everlasting love for anyone stupid enough to lie profusely about themselves in 30 words, and for those gullible enough to reply. Desperate singles join all manner of groups or clubs, in the faint hope of finding love over an existential discussion of the works of Jackie Collins, or in the middle of a cycle of Sun Salutations. London life would be much simpler if singles observed the Westcountry ways …

Now, where I’m from, love is a cinch. Most girls marry their childhood sweetheart; this is mainly because they’re pregnant before their 14th birthday (In Devon, pregnancy is a career option!). However, for those not lucky enough to fall into this trap, Devon dating is a ridiculously simple affair. The Devonian male expresses an interest by slapping his quarry hard on her arse, whilst issuing a phlegmy “Come yere let oi love ‘ee”. A pint of snakebite is then proffered to the lucky lady, who will happily accept (there being few better options, and the snakebite being free). The deal is eventually sealed with a quick fumble behind the Ferret and Radiator(It’s a pub, in case you were wondering. It harks back to the days of yore when radiators made excellent household pets and ferrets were mythological beasts. Probably). And they say romance is dead. Not for the Devonian these complicated metropolitan dating rules … which will sadly land you in a lot of hot water if you move to London!.

In light of this, I firmly believe that all new arrivals in London should be given some kind of welcome pack, which not only outlines the various baffling aspects of public transport, including the species of commuters, but also contains a large laminated copy of ‘The Rules of Dating in the Capital’. It honestly would save an enormous amount of stress and embarrassment to dating virgins. It would probably read something like this …..

1. Never date a man who asks you out on the bus or train
There is a very sensible reason for this. Any man who asks you out on public transport is not being romantic. He is, in fact, completely emotionally inept and buses and trains are the only place that he can get a woman as a captive audience for any length of time. Obviously as a newcomer I was unaware of this, and so when a man with eyes like molten chocolate turned to me on the number 25 bus and breathed ‘You have ze most beautiful smile. I vish to take you for lunch’, I was so utterly convinced that I’d stumbled into the script of Love Actually that I immediately accepted. Looking back I can see that that’s probably where I went wrong.
Mr Chocolate was, in fact, Phil and he was from Germany. We met for lunch, we talked (well, he talked about computers and I just gazed at his melted chocolate eyes), we kissed … on both cheeks. How charming and continental! We met for lunch again, there was more talk of computers, we kissed continentally (oh, how flushed my cheeks were!). Our dates rolled together in a breathtaking blur of binary and cheek kissing, before hurtling towards the tumultuous climax of … binary and cheek kissing. Sadly Phil ze German had not completed ‘ze necessary paperverk to include ze kissing on ze schedule’. Bloody European bureaucracy. Dating Phil was like many things in life - tit tape, those little cushiony things you wear in stilettos, Barry Manilow - utterly pointless and extremely irritating after prolonged contact.

2. Beware the supermarket shelf-stacker.
I’ve always appreciated the level of care you get in the big supermarkets in London. In Devon, your weekly shopping is done by hauling your tractor up to Old Dan’s place and swapping a low loader full of potatoes for 2 cows and a wriggling piglet. Actually I lie, but in fairness we only have Co-Op, and that’s possibly worse! But in London you’re treated to a baffling array of world cuisine, a selection of amusingly shaped vegetables and bread products that sound like sexually transmitted diseases (please, someone, WHAT is focaccia?!). You’re also privy to a fantastic level of customer service - there’s usually someone on hand to lead you to the tinned prune aisle. Granted, they probably can’t speak English, but they can point and gabble loudly to the point that you’re left not really giving a shit about what you were looking for, because you just want to get away from them. Fast!

I was most surprised to discover that a leading supermarket has taken customer service to a new level, providing not only express tills and bagpackers, but also a personalised stalking service. Your supermarket stalker will begin by grinning banally at you as you choose crisps. He will then approach you as you move to the sandwich aisle, asking if you require assistance. Should you venture down the alley of fruit and veg, he will leap out of nowhere, professing his undying love for you, pointing out that your boyfriend doesn’t love you (mine does - as he is a figment of my vivid imagination I can make bloody sure he loves me!), and trying to demonstrate that he also loves bananas, therefore you are meant to spend your lives together.

‘You jest’ I hear you cry! Nay, I jest not. For months I was the bewildered recipient of my own supermarket stalker, who was convinced that my innocent enquiry as to the location of the pine nuts was actually a subliminal message, professing my eternal love and devotion to him. My protestations that I was in love with my (albeit imaginary) boyfriend fell on deaf ears. My declaration that I’d rather gouge out my own eyes with a rusty spoon than go on a date with said food product arrangement consultant were rebuffed. My threats of managerial and police action brought little more than an uncomfortable squirm from my personal psycho. The matter was only resolved when I avoided the shop for six months, underwent a programme of intensive cosmetic surgery and, with the help of the Secret Service, took on a completely new identity. My name is now Jurgen, and I am a stamp collector from Luttgenstein. Danke.

3. The batchelor pad is the gateway to the soul
My Westcountry upbringing ensured that I’m used to the kind of batchelor pad where muddy wellies lie tangled with empty cider cans, takeway cartons and erroneous bits of hay. Clean coffee cups are available on Christmas and birthdays, and loo roll comprises a torn up copy of ‘Farmer’s Friend’. The Devon batchelor’s idea of interior design is a couple of traffic cones and a stolen ‘Cows Crossing’ sign. Not for them the minimal chic look. But you know where you stand with these chaps - their lives are a simple existence of cider, sex and sheep, often together. You are pretty much guaranteed that your relationship will be devoid of bizarre games and petty rules. This is because as the level of physical clutter in a man’s life increases, the level of mental clutter in his life will decrease exponentially. There is a finite amount of clutter that a man’s brain can cope with.

I was taught this salient lesson after a date with David, a lawyer. We met through a friend, and our mutual love of plays, combined with my desperation not to die old and alone, surrounded by cats, prompted us to go on a date. We whiled away a pleasant evening, drinking good wine and eating mezze. I demonstrated my grace and elegance by falling off a pavement, and David had the good manners to laugh loudly (I’m sure men should be made to ignore such failings … or should that be fallings?). We adjorned back to his for coffee - although in my case it was Ribena. It was at this point that the date fell apart. Not only was I suddenly struck by the realisation that he had smaller hands than me, but I was shocked to discover that his expensive apartment had all the soul and character of a Travel Lodge. In a cavernous room, with artfully unplastered brick walls, immaculate Italian leather sofas nestled on a pristine white carpet. A state of the art, scary silver sound system nestled in a sleek walnut cabinet. Original James Bond posters adorned the walls. The kitchen was as bare as a dental surgery. I came close to requesting a bib and a feeder cup, for fear of making a mess. I sat, bolt upright, barely blinking less I knock over an expensive but pointless bit of designer kitsch.

David took out a 12 inch vinyl record (you wondered where I was going with that, didn’t you?!), and gently carressed it to remove the dust. He gently laid the needle onto the record as carefully as a scientist fuses two atoms. As the first notes of Gary Numan’s ‘Cars’ piped gracefully out of the Dolby speakers, David closed his eyes and sighed a deep breathy note of pleasure. And then it struck me - sweet mother of God, I was trapped in a flat with an OCD ridden Gary Numan fan! Only in London could this happen! I could see the future spread before me - a life filled with endless scrubbing, gentle dusting of bizarre phallic objets d’art, drinking Ribena over the sink to catch the drips and the never-ending, nerve jangling monotony of Gary bloody Numan.

It was with great relief that I hurled myself from his third floor window into the night.

Armed with these rules, the hapless country lass should be able to avoid most of the perils of dating in the Big Smoke. If not, she can always find herself a nice padded room somewhere, to while away many happy hours dribbling onto her straitjacket. For that is the effect prolonged contact to dating in London will have. I'm so glad I learned to type with my nose ... these buckles are too fiddly!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Christmastide .. .. .. season of goodwill and joy to all mankind .. .. .. especially true if your definition of goodwill is a psychotic desire to mow down fellow shoppers in a bid to clear the department stores of boxed sets of socks and smellies, and if you believe that the true meaning of joy is the sudden compulsion to participate in ridiculous and dangerous pastimes in an attempt to be ‘festive’. My first Christmas in London proved to be the most bewildering and laughable experiences in my 24 years!!

As soon as the calendar page flips to December 1st madness descends upon the capital. Overnight, sane and rational beings are transformed into psychotic madmen hell-bent on snapping up all the seasonal patterned jumpers in BHS to inflict on a variety of reviled relatives. Supermarkets, normally filled with the basic foodstuffs necessary for survival, are suddenly overflowing with mince pies, hormone filled frozen poultry, super sized string bags of sprouts and steel drums full of Quality Street. Radios blare out Slade and Wizzard in an attempt to induce mass suicide among the populous. Churches suddenly fill with ‘devout’ worshippers, who are prodded out of their year long religious amnesia by the emergence of advent calendars and Christmas cards in their local newsagents. Ice rinks appear throughout the city and people flock to them in droves, full of hopes of traditional winter gaiety and the chance to prove, once and for all, that they could be the next Torvill or Dean.

It is the latter phenomenon that bewildered me the most. I was an ice virgin, having always held the deep-rooted belief that had some divine being wanted us to walk on ice we’d have been born with crampons and snow shoes. However, I’m always game for a laugh and so when my colleagues suggested some winter fun down at Somerset House I happily agreed. We walked into the courtyard and I was breathtaken by the scene before me. Flaming torches flickered in the chilly winter breeze, lighting the way for the beautiful couples who glided in perfect elegant unison across the glistening ice. Works by Haydn and Mozart were piped out from hidden speakers, giving the illusion of a film soundtrack being played out. Spectators huddled together, clutching steaming cups of mulled wine and spiced cider. Laughter perforated the air. I stood watching, spellbound, picturing myself dancing gracefully across the ice as my colleagues looked on in wonder and admiration. I knew it was my destiny to become mistress of the ice.

This deep-set belief stayed with me until a millisecond after I stepped onto the ice. Suddenly, all I knew about physics, kinetics and motion was turned completely upside down, and sane and rational thought was replaced by abject terror and a knowledge that death was just slightly too close at hand.

Imagine, if you will, an elephant. I’m sure you’ll agree that, in the right context, the elephant is a supremely graceful and serene creature, a thing of elegance and beauty. Now I must trouble you to turn that image widdershins, and give your imaginary elephant a pair of ice skates and set it loose on the slipperiest surface on the planet. All sense of elegance and grace is abandoned, and lumbering chaos ensues - the weight and form of the elephant is entirely at odds with the physical attributes necessary for ice skating. This should give you some idea of how well my body adapted to being on the ice.

As soon as my skates made contact with the ice my entire being was thrown into utter fear and confusion. Suddenly the world was no longer stable beneath my feet, and some force of pure evil was ensuring that I was still moving forwards even when I was standing still. In wild panic I grabbed hold of the side with both hands and pulled myself along, one hand over the other, snarling at the smug seven year olds who were gliding past me like mini-Olympians. I made it about 2 feet before I stood, frozen in fear, as behind me a large traffic jam of skaters piled up, waiting to overtake me. I shrieked as I felt a tap on my back, and I gingerly turned to see a very small child tugging gently on my coat. ‘I need to get past’ the child whimpered. I was transformed, beset with red eyes and wild hair, and like mad Mrs Rochester I growled “I ain’t budging kid”, my voice akin to Linda Blair in the Exorcist. The child could clearly see that I was psychologically very wonky, and this spurred her into action. She sped off across the ice, wailing like a banshee, into the waiting open arms of her father who looked at me with a mix of anger and pity. Sobs welled up in my throat, and, like a miserable creature condemned, I made to get myself to my friends who were waiting patiently having done at least three rounds of the ice each.

Twenty minutes later they were still waiting, watching in dismay and disbelief as I pulled myself along, both feet together, swearing like a navvie and shrieking at my friend not to leave me alone to die. ‘Just let go for a second’ coaxed my friend ‘and put your feet in a V position. You’ll stay still’. ‘Are you CRAZY’ I howled at her ‘Let go? LET GO?????!!!! LET GOOOOOOOOO???!!! Clearly you have lost your mind’. She balked and skated a little further away. ‘I promise’ she said, fixing me with a firm glare. I was just beginning to pull my fingers from the railing that they were clawed stiffly round, when a nerve-shattering ‘THWOCK!!’ reverberated around the rink and the ice shuddered alarmingly. I looked round and was faced with a scene of complete carnage. Men, women and children lay piled up on the ice, groaning gently and trying to extract themselves from the heap of bodies. I whimpered and I redoubled my grip on the railing, legs locked in terror. It was becoming abundantly clear that I was unlikely to be chosen for the next Winter Olympics.

A colleague skated over - ‘You’re doing fine’ she said. ‘It’s perfectly bloody obvious I’m not!’ I barked. ‘Errrr .. .. well .. .. you’re .. ummm .. you’re doing fine!’ she improvised. I glared at her, doing my best to look furious at her impudence. The effect was completely ruined, however, by my feet sliding in opposite directions while I stumbled like Bambi and tried to regain my footing. My colleagues placed a hand firmly under each elbow and hauled me to my feet, whence I lurched forward suddenly, arse in the air and feet flailing uselessly as they tried to get a purchase on the ice. As I was once again hauled upright I was aware of a small crowd gathering, no doubt taking advantage of the free slapstick comedy show! My eyes filled with tears and I looked pleadingly at my colleagues .. .. ‘Please get me off this bloody stuff’ I begged.
So began a painstakingly slow journey across the rink, both women supporting either side of my rigid body. One held my hand firmly while the other whispered ‘You’re doing fine, you’re doing fine’ like a beautifully soothing broken record. As the exit hove into view relief rushed over me like a warm shower. In my desperation to get off the ice I tried to break into a run. My colleagues looked at each other in exasperation as they held onto my coat tails, while my feet swung back and forth in a bizarre cartoon style run. In a final desperate bid for freedom I threw myself forwards and landed face first in the changing area, my legs akimbo and my colleagues howling with laughter. I peeled the skates from my feet and staggered up to the desk to retrieve my shoes. The attendant flashed me a wry smile as he handed my shoes over - ‘You did really well’ he chortled. I grimaced at him, and still muttering obscenities I wobbled off to find my sense of humour, vowing that the next time I ventured near an ice rink I’d be one of the laughing spectators, holding tightly to a glass of mulled wine and even more tightly to my dignity. Elephants just aren’t built for skating.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Planes, Trains and Weirdos Part II ......

Commuting in London is a veritable minefield of potential dangers. Not only is the choice of transport fraught with problems, but once you've decided how you're getting to work, you're left to the mercy of the most dangerous and weird group of people in society. Other commuters.

Now, where I come from it is likely that the lady who sits next to you on the bus is probably your cousin, older sister and grandmother (we don't like muddying the gene pool down my way!). She may not be. But you can guarantee that by the time the bus has reached Bovey Tracy you'll know the history of her dismal first marriage to her brother, how her son Seth is serving time for shooting the local gamekeeper whilst poaching, and how her thirteen year old daughter is expecting her third child. If you're lucky you get to see photos of the aforementioned rabble. She'll probably have started planning your marriage to Seth once he's released. So imagine my surprise on discovering that no one travelling on London transport even looks at each other, let alone spark up a conversation. Despite the fact that you're regularly surrounded by hundreds of other travellers, commuting is a lonely and soul-less experience. However, from a sociological point of view, it's one of the most interesting experiences out there ....

Commuters, I have discovered after months of close observation, can be grouped into a number of categories based on the behavioural characteristics they display -

Sleepers - The Sleepers are a group of commuters who find the whole early morning travelling experience so traumatic that they are compelled to sleep for the entire journey. The preferred sleeping method is commonly known as 'the slump', whereby the Sleeper concerned will flop their head onto the shoulder of the person next to them and dribble profusely down their coat. Points can be awarded for the volume of dribble produced. Extreme Sleepers find 'the slump' even more effective in the winter, when not only can they secrete saliva but also snot onto their neighbours. Where no other passengers are available, 'the slump' can be modified to 'the window slump' whereby the Sleeper slumbers with their cheek pressed firmly against the window. This method is extremely satisfactory, as the resulting dribble and snot trail can be left as a lasting testament to a job well done.
Another, more daring, sleeping method is 'the Catherine Wheel'. In this manoeuvre, the Sleeper remains perfectly still, usually with the mouth slightly ajar and the head upright, before suddenly allowing their head to fall in a downwards sweeping motion towards the chest, whence the head will swing violently upright again. The Sleeper may remin motionless for some minutes between 'Catherine wheels'. Some adventurous Sleepers will alternate between 'the slump' and 'the Catherine wheel', thereby showering their neighbouring passengers with flying globules of dribble. I advise all travellers to wear some kind of waterproof outer garment at all times when travelling in London - dribble is surprisingly difficult to sponge off!

Spreaders - Spreaders are a highly suspicious breed of commuter who cannot stand to be in close proximity with other passengers. They are easily identifiable, as they tend to carry multiple bags which they use to viciously defend their personal space. Upon boarding a train or bus, Spreaders will seat themselves and spread all their personal belongings onto the adjacent seats, rendering it impossible for other passengers to sit next to, or opposite them. Spreaders also have the capability to double the length of their arms and legs, making it necessary for them to not only take up the space of one seat, but of the seats adjoining them. Professional spreaders have been known to spread to such an extent that they take over an entire carriage. Most spreaders have an extreme hearing deficiency, and so appear oblivious to the protestations of their fellow passengers. Many spreaders often seem to be accompanied by invisible friends for whom it is necessary to 'save seats'. Oftentimes will a spreader be heard to exclaim 'You can't sit there, I'm saving it for my friend'. But, dear reader, we know this to be a lie, as spreaders have no friends.

Ya Yas - The Ya Yas are the most irritating breed of commuter. Ya Yas are born with mobile phones surgically attached to their ears and a complete disregard for accepted social norms. Ya Yas tend to be male and studies have shown that they usually have 'a lot to make up for'. As such, Ya Yas like the whole world to know how fantastically louche their lifestyles are, and how highpowered and important their work is. Typical Ya Ya behaviour involves bellowing into their surgically attached phone 'Ya, Ya, so I totally told him, I said "Tim, for God's sake, I have a house in Chigwell with a double garage and my own Beemer. I go golfing with Richard Patterson-Syphilis every week. Why the bloody hell would I want to leave my fantastically high-earning job and go and work for you?". Well ... no ... ya ya ... well, I know he owns the whole bank, but I mean, come off it ... no .... ya ya ... no .... fair point old sport .... well, ya ya, got to dash ... no, ya, taking the office totty off for lunch and shag ... ok, ya ...ciao!'. Ya Yas are compulsive liars and usually die young - the most common cause of death among Ya Yas is internal bleeding caused by the vicious insertion of their mobile phones into a place where the sun doesn't shine. The perpetrators of these attacks are on the next Queen's Honours list for outstanding services to the community.

Gropers - Gropers are the most sly and covert of the commuters, a dangerous species of predatory males. A Groper's natural habitat is crowded trains and buses where they can be found standing close to female passengers. Typical Groper behaviour involves standing looking innocent until the bus or train wobbles slightly. At this point the Groper will 'stumble' and will steady himself using the buttocks or breasts of the nearest female. Gropers have an inbuilt incapability to right themselves following a 'stumble' and so have to knead the supporting buttocks or breasts until such time as they are beaten over the head by the irate female Gropee.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Planes, Trains and Weirdos ...
One of the first thing that strikes you about London is the baffling transport system. In my part of Devon there are limited transport options - you can take the bus (on Tuesdays), or the train (on the second Thursday of every month, excepting months with vowels in them. On those occasions the trains come every third Monday, and only if you don't mind a detour to Okehampton via Bideford). In London it is possible to take three different modes of transport in the same journey. Madness, sheer madness. I mean, how on earth do you choose?!
Actually, it's quite easy to choose your method of transport in London. I've completely eradicated buses from the list of choices because I still don't quite understand how people know exactly where to catch your desired bus. Where is bus stop Z?! I've found two so far - one on New Oxford Street and another at Waterloo. So how do you know which one to go for?! Londoners appear to have been born with some kind of genetic intelligence whereby they are able to go to the correct bus stop in an instant, they know that Edgware and Edgware Road are in fact two entirely different places, and they understand the innate differences between an Oystercard and a Travelcard (although I've cracked that one now - an Oyster card is blue and plasticky. A Travelcard isn't).
So, having decided against buses, that leaves me with trains, tubes and the DLR. I think we can rule out the DLR because I work in Central London, so catching the DLR to work would mean I was taking a bit of an extrapolated route. And I've been on the DLR. Once. It was like riding Oblivion at Alton Towers, only about a million-times more pants-wetlingly scary (a train where you can sit right at the front and see what's coming?!?! What lunacy is this? The tracks look like the current state of Southend Pier - not altogether structurally sound!).
Ok, so trains or tubes it is. Here's where the choice is really easy. You can either go by tube, where you'll be squashed into the armpit of a sweaty foreigner whilst having your buttocks groped by a sinister looking man in a suit, or you can go by train, where you'll be squashed into the armpit of a sweaty foreigner whilst having your buttocks groped by a sinister looking man in a suit. The choice is yours. Either way you'll be late for work, and will be left feeling slightly greasy and extremely violated for the rest of the day. Still, at least you don't have to take a detour to Bideford on the way .....
London ... ahhh ... city of opportunities, where the streets are paved with gold. A place where no amount of cliches and mixed metaphors is ever enough. Where people toe the line and think outside the box. Where Big Brother is definitely watching you, yet you can blend into the crowd. A place where you pay through the nose for a cup of tea that vaguely resembles lukewarm puddle water. A place as far removed from the sleepy little Devon town in which I grew up. A place I couldn't wait to get to .....

There's a saying where I come from .. 'You don't wan' go up Lunnun - tis full of nutters. Tis a maaad place. You'm won' be comin' baack from Lunnun I tell 'ee girl'. Well, it's not so much of a saying as something the landlady of my local pub mumbled at me as I bade her a fond farewell. 'Tush!' said I. 'London is surely a marvellous place, where the buses run on time and everybody wears a bowler hat and carries an ironed newspaper under their arm. Tis also said that chimney sweeps dance upon the rooftops. There's nothing lunatic about that! Get thee hence vile crone!'. And, duly ignoring her prophetic words, I hopped onto the next train to the glittering metropolis. Which I had to wait a week for. Public transport down south really isn't what it should be!

And so it was, nearly a year ago, I arrived fresh faced in London. Since then everything that has happened to me has served to proved my landlady right - London really is a mad place .....