Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"The Carlyles At Home"

“The Carlyles At Home” by Thea Holme (Persephone, 1965)

At home in their literary shrine. Thomas and Jane Carlyle. The Victorian socialites open their door and reveal what really goes on below stairs.

For someone who has a large amount of time working on the editorial desk at OK! magazine for the past few years, there is a certain irony about a book called “The Carlyles At Home”. I can see the feature introduction now (accompanied by glossy shots of erstwhile Victorian gloom-mongers Thomas and Jane Carlyle scowling away in high-necked collars and tight eyebrows): “As OK! magazine reclined in the Carlyle’s Chelsea living room, gracious hostess Jane poured us tea while her delightful pooch Nero scampered on the hearth rug. And Thomas, looking dapper in a raw silk dressing-gown handmade by his mother, even left his 13-volume creation ‘Frederick The Great’ to join us for a chat. Read on as the Carlyles open their hearts about the trouble with maid servants, the reason why their building works are never ending, and the gritty truth about Thomas’s so-called affair with Lady Ashburton...”

It wouldn’t have happened.

Fresh from our visit to the Carlyle’s Chelsea home a few weeks ago, Big P and I are still keen supporters of the Carlyles (although we can’t quite bring ourselves to read any of Thomas’s turgid books). So I snapped up a copy of the Persephone reprint of Thea Holme’s book - in which she imagines, through Thomas and Jane’s letters, what life must have been like for them at home at 24 Cheyne Row.

The never-ending stream of useless maids, the never-ending stream of rip-off builders, and the never-ending quest for silence as Thomas struggles to finish “Frederick” are all covered. Each chapter is broken down into a different area of their life (clothes, money, the sound-proofed study etc), and into each chapter comes an assortment of wonderful visitors (Charles Dickens, Charlotte BrontĂ« et al).

This is a fascinating and highly readable book about life for a prominent Victorian couple who are trapped in a time that doesn’t suit them. And many of their woes are ones we can still identify with today.

"Avenue Q"

It’s out of synch (being as how I’ve already written about the Tate on Sunday), but Hannah and I went to see the stage musical “Avenue Q” on Friday night - after I’d been desperately trying to find something suitable for an out-of-towner, who hasn’t seen many London shows, and is only up for a flying visit. And “Avenue Q” fitted the bill perfectly.

Personally, I can’t take much on a Friday night - so an adult version of the Muppets, with a bit of blue thrown in for fun, was just the ticket. Cheery, heart-warming songs such as “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist... Sometimes” and “The Internet Is For Porn” were rib-ticklers.

Once you get your head around the fact that there are actors walking around with puppets on their hands, and try to ignore the actors, it starts being really good fun. And the fact that everyone in the audience seemed to be laughing and put in a good mood by it really made the difference.

I’m sure there are many more worthy things to see on the London stage, and I’m sure I would enjoy many of them given the opportunity - but for last Friday, “Avenue Q” was all we needed.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Tate Haulage

Yesterday, Hannah and I went to see the Turner Prize shortlist at Tate Britain. And what a load of nonsense.

VE had a poke around the Turner Prize last year and felt equally baffled. However, last year at least VE was accompanied by Big P and his art teacher aunt - who was able to shed some kind of interpretation on the goings on.

But this year, well, it really is astonishing. That said, I enjoy looking at the Turner Prize for two reasons. 1) It fascinates me how disparate the four artists are from one another - how on earth do the judges reach their short list? and 2) My favourite bit is always the comments board at the end, where visitors can scribble on cards - and create a much more artistic statement than anything the pretentious art school graduates ever could.

This year we had Mark Titchner and his migraine inducing psychedelic swirls; Rebecca Warren and her plastic boxes full of bits of fluff; Tomma Abts and her admittedly quite appealing 3D canvases; and Phil Collins and his video interview (now, how's that art?). Tomma got our vote.

Apparently, next year, the Turner Prize will be taken away from Tate Britain and up pto Tate Liverpool in a bid to make the Turner Prize less London centric. And a good thing too. It'll free up some space for some real talent.

(Apologies for sounding ignorant - but having read the cards at the end of the exhibit, I'm clearly not alone). Wheee!

Friday, October 27, 2006

Lord Longford

Things have been tense lately. Mr VE is languishing in Peru for two-and-a-half weeks; the MA is taking its toll; work takes up too much of my valuable time; and to top it off, I spent 90 minutes hurling heavy weights around the gym last night (grr). So what better way to relax than with a spot of knitting and a two-hour TV fest about child murderer Myra Hindley and ertswhile do-gooder Lord Longford? And that's exactly what I found myself doing last night.

Jim Broadbent, who stepped in as Lord Longford, is one of my favourite actors. It has long been a source of amusement to my family and live-in lover that I have always had a thing for older men: Terry Wogan, Geoffrey Palmer, Michael Parkinson, Jim Broadbent etc. (My live-in lover finds this all particularly amusing as he himself is 15 years my senior). But I digress.

Yes, Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent is one of my favourite actors. It's hard to believe he is only 57 as he has been around so long. And he is so amazingly versatile. He takes on controversial characters and brings them to life, without putting too much of himself in there. In short, he does a damn fine job as an actor - recognising that acting is about being someone other than yourself, a fact many Sylvia Young graduates would do well to remember.

Twice-Oscar-nominated Samantha Morton as Myra Hindley was also very, very convincing. Samantha is another stirling actress and a huge credit to the British acting world. I found myself sympathising for Myra and then suddenly feeling shocked about how this had crept up on me - in exactly the same way as Lady Longford was stunned to find herself sympathising with a woman she had previously described as an evil child killer.

Sadly, it is not very often that TV produces a one-off drama of this calibre. But when it does happen, it's is truly worth the wait.

"Greenery Street" - Denis Mackail

Yesterday I finally finished reading Denis Mackail's "Greenery Street" (needless to say, published by the enduring Persephone Books). This has been such a hot-water-bottle of a book that I dragged it out for as long as possible - but sadly, yesterday I ran out of pages.

And what a comforting book it was. Detailing the first year of married life for the lovestruck Ian and Felicity Foster, who live on Greenery Street (based on the very real Walpole Street - in the house where PG Wodehouse once lived) in Chelsea. While nothing particularly significant happens in the 329 pages, it's gripping nonetheless because Ian and Felicity are at once both helpless and adorable, and you really want them to do well – despite the troubles of grandmother's ghastly pearls and the drunken maid servant. Felicity's problems with the household accounts are one I can well identify with, and Ian's bewilderment as he struggles to understand his emotional wife are one I'm sure many men can identify with.

Although written in 1925, which isn't so very long ago, the book is in some ways very dated. The Fosters live in a five-storey terraced house, but as soon as babies come along, it's time to up sticks and move somewhere bigger. Whereas today, a young couple with a baby would be ecstatic at the prospect of living across five floors in Chelsea - rather than in a pokey two-bedroom flat in zone three. And the fact that Felicity's days are occupied with nothing more than worrying about who to invite for dinner, and picking out library books from Andrew Brown's (a poorly disguised Peter Jones), is a far cry from the current housewive's daily routine of commuting, work, commuting, shopping, household tasks and then some.

Denis Mackail said he wrote the book (and two more on the Foster's non-adventures) based heavily on his own experiences of married life - and it appears that he and his wife Diana had an extremely happy marriage. So much so that when Diana sadly died in her 50s, Denis was so upset that his previously prolific output of novels stopped and he never wrote another one. As the younger brother of the more successful novelist Angela Thirkell - who by all accounts was rather beastly to her younger sibling – Denis was always in her shadow in a literary sense, but evidently rose above Angela's shortcomings to be a success in his own right.

(As an aside, my grandmother was a huge fan of Angela's books and when my mother and I first discovered the joys of Persephone, we wondered if Angela's novels - which we'd never read ourselves – would be in the same vein. Having read about what a nasty character she seemed, I feel rather put off even attempting her books now).

"Greenery Street" ranks alongside Eve Garnett's wonderful books about "The Family From One End Street" as a book to return to in times needing great comfort and reassurance.

Avenue Q

Velvet Empire is off to the theatre tonight to see saucy puppets Avenue Q, with out-of-town friend Hannah. While purusing the website just now, I see that my old mucker David Hasselhoff has already been to see the show. Here's proof:

If it's good enough for the Hoff, it's certainly good enough for me. By the way, have I shared yet that I went on a photo shoot with David in July and had my photo taken with him for The Times. AND... he kissed me on the cheek, AND... he left a little bit of Hoff saliva close to my top lip. AND... he stank of beer even though it was only 10am. AND... he was the nicest person I'd ever met and I fell totally in love with him (even though the boyfriend was there). Long live the Hoff.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

French Fancy

Velvet Empire indulged in fine wine and cake while watching Sophia Coppola's version of "Marie Antoinette" in Covent Garden last night. While many have booed the film and said it is little more than a two-hour pop video, I'd beg to differ. Following on closely in the vein of "The Virgin Suicides", Sophia has delivered a sumptuous two-hour Adam & The Ants video, circa 1982 - and nobody did it better than gun-toting Stuart Goddard, so you know you're in good company.

Kirsten Dunst is perfectly cast as the indulgent Austrian/French queen, as is Marianne Faithful as her snotty mama, although Steve Coogan is rather distracting as Ambassador Mercy - it is still hard to shake off Alan Partridge. And the choice of music to accompany this film is impeccable. The highlight being, without a shadow of a doubt, Siouxsie & The Banshee's "Hong Kong Garden" to accompany a hedonistic masked ball. Velvet Empire will shortly be hunting down a copy of the soundtrack to add to her collection.

Slight grumbles: while the final still of the palace rooms is a fantastic shot, it makes for rather an aprupt end - and while it's good to leave your audience wanting more, I didn't feel it was a satisfactory end (largely because Marie Antoinette was still in posession of her head). And obviously the plot is riddled with inconsistiencies and inaccuracies, but hell - when a film looks this good, surely Mr Kipling is hunting down the rights as we speak to throw in a few E numbers, package it up in a pink box and ship it off to the supermarkets?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Rupert and the Chavvy Disaster

Here is a picture of the much-loved, adventuring animal, Rupert the Bear.

Here is a picture of Rupert with his great chum, the pop singer Paul McCartney. Bum bum bum, baya.

And here is a picture of 86-year-old Rupert, after he was given a modern makeover by his new bosses, Entertainment Rights.

Today, The Guardian has a picture of the re=vamped Rupert wearing a red hoodie and plugged into an iPod. The caption informs us that Rupert's yellow checked scarf was abandoned for making him look "too chav". Thankfully, it now appears to have been returned. With the end result that Rupert now resmbles those salty European bear-shaped crisps, Pom Bears. Good grief.

The Rapid Disintegration Of The English Language

I know, I know, I'm laying myself open to criticism but...

Conversation in the editorial department this morning turned to one of my current hot topics for a rant - my recent discovery that A-level English Literature teachers are allowing students to submit essays for coursework containing the mis-spelling of English words such as '4', 'da', '4eva', 'l8r' and a million other text-speak 'words' that I neither know nor understand. Why doesn't the government do something useful for once and INTERFERE? Can't we get Jamie Oliver on to this? He seems to be a man who gets things done.

Later on I found myself looking up books on Amazon and realised with horror the travesty that is the 'customer reviews' section. I don't know why I've never looked here before. Or rather, perhaps I do. This is an area where – completely without editorial control – ordinary, illiterate members of the public can freely submit reviews of anything they choose. Without the use of a dictionary, apparently. And without the ability to press the shift button to put in a capital letter at the start of a sentence – assuming they manage to construct a sentence at all, that is. Would you care to see some genuine examples? (I couldn't make this up, however hard I tried, so I just searched some well-known titles):

"A Reader" says of "Great Expectations" by Mr Dickens
"if you like literature, do your self a favour and buy this book."

"porridge" says of "Emma" by Miss Austen
"I am studying this for A level English, but there is not really enough to say about it to write a decent essay."

"Minky" says of "A Short History of Nearly Everything" by Bill Bryson
"Hving just finished this book i am amazed how much information there is in this book. Hving just finished my GCSE's and about to start physics for A levels i really recommend this book for anyone interested in science and who wants to extend there knowledge."

"Martin" says of "On Beauty" by Zadie Smith
"i couldnt help but to write something in defence of ON BEAUTY which made my holiday truly enjoyable this summer. i finished the book in two days and i was thinking about the characters as if they are real for another couple of days:-) it is a warm and soulfull book and i would recommend it to anyone."

"charltonsno1fan" says of "Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince" by JK Rowling
"no no no no i cant believe it!!!!!!! the first 5 books were absolutly amazing but this book is just... its not well written it seems like it was rushed it didnt have the class and elegance of the other books i gave it 3stars ONLY COS IT WAS HARRY POTTER but i was very disapointed"

Jesus Christ!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Pen Pusher Three

Last night, Catarina and I popped in to the launch party for the third edition of the Pen Pusher magazine, at The Castle in Farringdon. It was a lovely do, in an ideal venue, frquented by interesting people. (Although VE was a little alarmed that designer Hape knew exactly who I was, despite the fact I'd furnished him only with my first name... and he also told me he knew where I lived. Eek!)

Have I mentioned Pen Pusher before? I think it's a fantastic idea. The two editors, Anna and Felicity, started this self-published, advert-free, gratis literary magazine earlier this year as an outlet for the creative endeavours of themselves and their like-minded friends... and it has rapidly grown. You only need to look down the contributors list at the front of each issue to see that even by issue three, the number has swollen. The paper quality is good, the design is simple and elegant, and the content is stimulating and interesting (aside from the slightly tedious wafflings of an imagined old coffer at the back). In the three issues to date, I've read articles about the fascinating BS Johnson, Persephone book reviews and short fiction by new writers... along with much more. Truly an inspired venture, and Catarina has declared herself a new convert. (Oh, and did I mention that yours truly may well be included in issue four? Blush, blush.)

Check out the website (see the link on the left), pick up a magazine and show your support.

Got Your Lipstick Mark Still On My Coffee Cup

Oh, joy! Could it be magic? Yesterday brought untold treasures and pleasures as deputy-art-director Danny delivered a promo of the new Take That single, "Patience", to my desk. I will never forget that moment.

But, before you say anything, I know, I know. Admitting an appreciation for Take That is hardly cool and, apart from anything else, belies my age. But I don't care. Most of the music I listen to is damn fine stuff, so I'm allowed a little foray into the pop underworld... and between Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Take That, there has been (and never will be) no finer boy band.

"Patience" is hardly up there with "Back For Good" - one of the best pop songs ever written (and I am the owner of a special TT-endorsed coffee cup with a lipstick mark still on it) - but, to be honest, anything that Gary and the boys care to put out will relight my fire. Although by the sheer fact that they've called it "Patience", Gary is hardly managing to shake off the pseudo-George Michael tag. Nonetheless, it's an innocent enough ditty and it won't stop me getting my hands on a copy of the new album when it comes out on November 27. And, if you need further indication of the enduring popularity, Take That's new live DVD currently ranks at No 11 in the Amazon charts - and it's not released until next Monday.

But everything changes and the boys have grown up. The most shocking news is that baby-faced Mark became a dad in August, to the unusally monikered Elwood. This I find deeply distressing as Mark was always the one I hankered after - despite him falling well below my 6ft minimum height restrictions. Gary continues to be a multi-millionaire in his gilded palace, nearly suffocating under the weight of his gold discs. While Jason and Howard carry on keeping the housewives happy. (There was another one, but I forget his name). I saw them live in London in May... and they rocked, big time - I certainly found heaven. I pray that they'll be back for good. x

Thursday, October 19, 2006

I Have No Qualifications!

Shit! In a panic at my lack of English BA, I have just had a look at my undergraduate university's website (Nottingham Trent University, for those interested) and discovered that my BA has been... dropped. It no longer exists. Media & Cultural Studies BA (Hons) now means precisely nothing. Those three years I spent studying Visage videos and the role of Tetris in feminist society were futile. The extended essay I wrote about George Michael's song-writing skills was wasted. And the whole term I spent analysing the social conditions surrounding the opening episode of 'Coronation Street' was an utter waste of time. Thank God I didn't pay tuition fees.


The MA is now in week three. I am rapidly learning that a 'taught research degree' largely translates as 'teach-yourself a research degree' after being informed last night that we only have two lectures a term, and the rest is made up of dicussion-based seminars. This is all well and good, but the lovely, mild-mannered tutor I have was struggling to get a word in between two 30-something women in my group last night who spoke at pretnetious length, using indecipherable language, about modernism - with inane grins on their faces. Not only had they clearly 1) managed to read all the set texts for this week, but they had also clearly 2) understood them enough to 3) compare and contrast and 4) (this one really takes the biscuit) form opinions of their own. Show offs.

While I sat there silently in the seminar, doodling on my pad and wondering if that was a hole in the toe of my shoe, I found myself wondering - not for the first time - if this really is the right course for me. Not only have I never studied modernism before, but I also haven't even done an English degree before... I feel a bit overwhelmed. And those two precocious madams didn't help.

But a few drinks in the student union afterwards led me to learn two useful things. Firstly, the nicer, more normal people on my course feel exactly the same as I do (even though most of them have already done an English BA). And secondly, they all think those two girls were just a lot of hot puff. (One of said girls also came to the bar - and after initially deciding I hated her for making me feel so thick, I changed my mind as I felt she might be a useful person to know. I also learnt that not only is she a sociology teacher, but this is her second MA. I mean, why? Just do a PHD and have done with it. Or maybe she's just not bright enough...)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Barbara Windsor Ruined My Life

The unthinkable has happened. Anyone who has ever met me can tell you that I am an ardent fan of British soap operas. And if push came to shove, if a gun was held at my head and I simply had to choose, my number one soap opera would quite easily be - without a shadow of a doubt - the BBC's flagship show, EastEnders.

For three years I wrote an acidic soap column for my uni's weekly paper; I've also worked at all three of England's soap opera magazines and had the pleasure of asking Gary Lucy what his favourite pudding was. And I've also made a three-panelled screen covered in autographed postcards of the stars of every British soap over a 10 year period (categorised into soap, and then into family groupings). This is an indication of how sad I am, without touching on my encyclopaedic knowledge of EastEnders past and present.

But on Monday night, at 8pm, I was about to switch on the TV and watch EastEnders when I realised... no, I didn't want to! After the horrors and trauma of seeing Scum-Of-The-Earth, Devil-Incarnate Windsor gargling like a cat on fire as she ruined Frank Sinatra's classic hit "My Way" last week... I realised I'd rather not watch EastEnders, possibly ever again, until the wicked old witch has been duly sacked from the programme and forced to apologise to every single licence payer personally for the misery and upset she has caused.

(As further proof of my love for EastEnders, let me share a tale with you from 1996 - a time in my life when I was hankering after a certain GN. It was a weekday evening, I was watching EastEnders, I even remember which episode - Mad Joe Wicks, Mad Christian Sarah and her gay brother Tony, his wannabe boyfriend SImon and Simon's cockney sparra sister Tiff had all headed off to Brighton for a jolly, when Mad Christian Sarah had her drink spiked with ecstasy and Mad Joe Wicks was suddenly made to seem not so mad after all in the face of her increased insanity. Anyway, after the programme finished I went into the kitchen where my mother informed me that one GN had rung - but she'd told him I was watching EastEnders and he'd have to ring back later... and he'd quite understood. THAT is an indication of where EastEnders USED to stand in my priorities. But that was in the days before Witch Windsor took the programme by the neck and utterly destroyed it.).

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Lee Hazlewood - Some Velvet Morning

Richard Hawley’s interview with Lee Hazlewood in today's Observer Music Monthly is the saddest but most life-affirming thing I have read in a magazine for a long time. The magazine industry is an incredibly shallow one, with editorial copy existing largely to fill the gaps between the adverts. But the interview with Lee had me holding back the tears as I read it in my local cafĂ©. I first discovered the music of Nancy and Lee when I was 12 and lolling on an obscure Greek island… that was 16 years ago, and I have spent all of those 16 years devotedly collecting and listening to Lee’s music, and recording it to give to other people. I have had the enormous pleasure of seeing Lee perform live twice (both times at the Royal Festival Hall), and I can easily say that both concerts rank in my top five ever.

I had not known Lee is dying of terminal cancer and I am so sad to read that. But the pull-quote OMM used (“I’ve had 77 years of fun; cancer doesn’t bother me”) is such a positive statement in the face of inevitable death. I can only hope I will feel in a position to say such a brave thing when my time comes. Lee has led an extraordinary life and anyone who needs further proof should read his 2002 book “The Pope’s Daughter” about his experiences with the Sinatras.

But whatever way you look at it, 77 is no age in 2006. I’m listening to a live version of “My Autumn’s Done Come” as I write this, and at the end he simply says, “I’m old enough now”. I’d beg to differ.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Coming Out Of Your Ears...

I don't want to show off - but Velvet Empire has been one busy bunny this weekend. Today has seen the VE team snoop about the fascinating former home of Thomas and Jane Carlyle (Cheynes Row, Chelsea) and become totally absorbed in the writers and prophets who lived there - and counted Charles Dickens as a close chum.

But then we headed over the Kings Road to the Chelsea Cinema and took in the matinee of Alan Bennett's new play-slash-film, "The History Boys". An endearing, heart-warming romp - with a splendid '80s soundtrack - about the extra term eight Yorkshire grammar school boys take as they cra, for their Oxbridge entrance exams. A second crack at nnostalgia for the day.

Tally ho.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Barbara Bloody Windsor

In the current issue of New! magazine, thespian Ross Kemp says: "Barbara Windsor is the sexiest woman on TV. She's a lovely, lovely, sexy lady. And for her age she's doing brilliantly. She's absolutely stunning."

Coming from a 42-year-old queen, should we take any notice that the bald-headed buffoon fancies a 69-year-old harlot who single-handed ruined the once-stirling reputation of EastEnders? No.

By the way - as a licence payer, I was horrified to turn on my television last night and witness Barbara bloody Windsor slaughtring "My Way" on karaoke in the Vic. I want a refund.

Anyone who knows me, will already know my thoughts on the wickedness that is the loose-knickered Barbara-Ann Deeks from Stoke Newington, N16 (who, by the way, should really ask for a refund for that drama school she apparently went to). Outrageous. However, should anyone want further information regarding this loathsome witch, I have already compiled a dosier entitled "40 Reasons To Hate Barbara Windsor", which I have ready for immediate perusual - currently kept in the top drawer of the office of one of the UK's finest soap opera magazines. (Seriously).

Spleen has been vented.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"Bussmann's Holiday"

“Bussmann’s Holiday” at the Soho Theatre

Fresh from a triumphant turn at the Edinburgh Festival, celebrity journalist Jane Bussmann has put together an action-packed, takes-no-prisoners, hilarious hour in which she details not only why Ashton Kutcher turned her to the arms of a White House director of African affairs, but how she nearly found herself killed in an attempt to become Kate Adie and save Uganda from the wicked clutches of its evil army leader – who has been systematically kidnapping in excess of 25,000 boys over 25 years to build his own army.

To make people laugh with a harrowing true tale of AIDS, orphans, kidnapping and near-death experiences is quite a feat – especially for someone who doesn’t profess to be a comedienne. But with Sally Phillips and Chris Morris behind her, and having notched up writing credits for “South Park” and ‘Brass Eye”, Jane is no stranger to the bizarre and the ridiculous realms of humour. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Coldest Feet

Velvet Empire is finally a student again. Having spent the past six years since my undergraduate graduation hankering for the security of the university environment and thinking, “Oh, if only I had the chance to do it all over again”, I’ve finally got the chance. It’s been a year since I first applied, but now it’s freshers’ week and it’s all kicked off. But predictably, I have a few complaints…

Birkbeck, University of London, is not a traditional university in that it is a college for mature students – ie, because everything is done in the evenings, the feeling of community of a more conventional university is absent. But you make of that what you will. However, as a result, the student union is rubbish – as I felt compelled to tell the union president last night (a little more politely – evidently he didn’t entirely hate me as he promptly asked me if I’d like to be editor of the university’s glossy magazine!).

Fresher’s Fair was a damp squib of an event. Having coughed up £10 for my NUS Extra card (as if students don’t have enough strains on their finances), I perused the clubs and societies. Having established there wasn’t even a copy of the student magazine, never mind a representative, I was left to choose between joining either the Fencing Club or the Tory Dining Society… and chose to leave in a huff instead.

But I have my two new friends Paul and Rebecca, who I met at the school disco-esque welcome drinks last week, and we went for a pizza afterwards and expressed our mutual horrors at how shabby the university is in reality and how we were all getting cold feet… but we’re all also hopeful it’ll wear off once we actually find our feet.

And last night I had my first lecture. The first hour was spent sipping warm white wine while the various lecturers introduced themselves, and the second hour was spent being told to introduce yourself to your neighbour… and then to introduce them to the rest of the room (and guess who had to go first). All well and good (apart from the public speaking), until the third hour when guest lecturer Peter Nicholls from Sussex came and spent an hour telling us about the modernist poet George Oppen.

It seemed a bizarre choice of first lecture to me – as Oppen is not on our syllabus, we have had no previous introduction to modernism and Nicholls, who sat at the front so we couldn’t even see him, talked in such an unbelievably dull monotonous drone that it was impossible to listen. I ended up spending an hour practicing my shaky shorthand skills, doodling furiously and watching the hands of the clock go backwards as I wondered if it was all a terrible mistake. (Fortunately, it turns out no one else understood a word of it either).

Sitting on the No 24 on the way home, I was forced to question if I could face ever going back. I’d spent three hours watching the PHD professors who will be my guiding lights for the next two years and on the whole I was led to believe they were a bunch of socially retarded freaks. One guy was even manically stepping backwards and forwards as he spoke to us, with an inane grin on his face and leather patches on his elbows. Is this what I want to become???

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

"The Devil Wears Prada"

The devil wears Prada… and Chanel… and Dolce and Gabbana… and... you get the idea. Sourpuss actress Meryl Streep is currently stealing the show in the silver screen adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s “The Devil Wears Prada” (out on Friday).

There are several implausible notions in this tale of a size-six girl who goes to work among the size-twos for a dragon lady boss, and in the end her love life suffers. Firstly, leading lady Anne Hathaway, who plays editor’s PA Andy Sachs, is hardly plump or dowdy – yet we’re led to believe that simply because wardrobe have concealed her size six frame beneath a frumpy blue skirt, she must not only be ugly but also fat… quite clearly, she’s neither. And having waltzed through the offices of a few high-profile fashion mags myself (albeit in London, not New York), I’ve never seen any of the kind of nonsense Meryl Streep’s OTT editor Miranda Priestly is supposed to demand. But once you leave your reality expectations at the door, “The Devil Wears Prada” turns into an enjoyable enough romp to amuse one on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

The major downside of the film, as far as I was concerned, was the ridiculously predictable sub-plot involving Andy’s doomed relationship with her nice but unfashionable boyfriend, Nate. It delivered nothing and added nothing, neither did the bar scenes between Andy, Nate and their two equally ‘uncool’ friends, neither of whom we saw enough of to garner any kind of character development so what was the point? The screen time would have been far better employed by focusing more on Andy’s relationship with Miranda, or cashing in on the hilarious demands Miranda makes of her staff with that glacial tone, culminating in a chilling, “That’s all”.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Alas, Poor Lady

“Alas, Poor Lady” – Rachel Ferguson (Persephone)

The saga of Gracie Scrimgeour – the thirteenth child of the persistent Scrimgeours (who kept on and on until they had a boy, despite the danger to the mother’s health by having babies well into her 40s), who was born in the 1880s into wealth and rapidly saw a decline in her fortunes as war and a lack of a husband eroded her chances.

A revealing insight into what life was like in the not-too-distant past for women of no particular role in the late-Victorian era. The Scrimgeour girls who were not fortunate enough to marry, were literally left on the shelf – with nothing to occupy their days except needlepoint, flower-arranging and caring for their elderly relatives, while their married siblings looked down on them with embarrassment. “Alas, Poor Lady” tells the story of what happens when you are bred for nothing except marriage, but marriage then eludes you… and it is a sorry tale.

While being thoroughly descriptive and rich in detail, the lengthy “Alas, Poor Lady” never once teeters on being boring, and becomes more and more gripping as Gracie grows older. Her resilience and strength of character in the face of ever more difficult and unsettling times is astounding, and a lesson to us all – who are thoroughly cosseted by modernity. It is horrific to think that all this happened less than 100 years ago.

What is also interesting is the lessons in social manners – ladies not only dress for dinner, but are unable to leave the house until after lunch, and even then not unaccompanied. And the debate about whether male visitors could be offered sherry at 6pm is interminably hilarious… and not intentionally.

New Term

Things are getting tense in the VE camp… as Wednesday finally heralds the start of term for the blessed MA (which has been a year in the offing).

Last Thursday things got off to a slow start when I went for welcome drinks with everyone else who was also doing a humanities course of some description – be it BA, MA, PHD or otherwise. Before I went I’d feared it would be a selection of people who didn’t know each other, stood around the edges, staring nervously into their warm glasses of wine and shifting their feet from side to side in an awkward fashion. And that’s exactly what happened… in a building that bore a harsh resemblance to a school hall. So I downed my wine as quickly as possible and plucked up the courage to make conversation… eventually finding my way towards a group of people also doing English courses of some description. I’m relieved to say that by the end of the evening things weren’t quite so bad and that me and my two new best friends were the last people left in the hall… and we all swapped numbers before agreeing to meet up for freshers’ fair on Wednesday. I wonder if I’ve met my new lifelong best buddies?

And yesterday I had the day off, so took myself off to the library to register and go on an introductory tour. After making my way through several libraries until I found the right one, I realised that a 10-minute library tour consists of little more than a mousy woman in black pointing at some books and saying, “Here are the books”. But using the common sense and basic intelligence that hopefully got me on the MA course in the first place, I worked out where the books I wanted were and set to photocopying the relevant chapters of my highlighted and colour-coded reading list.

Tomorrow I have my official library tour… which this time threatens to last for an hour and a half, so I’m thinking it might be a bit more indepth. And then I meet my new friends to go to the student union, get our NUS cards and join some societies that we’ll never turn up for. And on Thursday I finally have my first lecture. Should I tell them that I ditched “Ulysses” two months ago after losing the will to live?