Nothing but a Hound Dog

I love beginnings. In particular, I love the beginnings of books. The opening lines of almost any book tell you something worth knowing about the rest of it: done well, they are fascinating, tantalizing little grace notes that set you up beautifully for the rest of the book, just as an amuse-bouche sets one up for a delicious meal. Of course there are famously compelling opening lines such as those from The Go-Between,[1] Anna Karenina,[2] Pride and Prejudice[3] and so on, but wonderful beginnings are everywhere. My own personal favourite is found in Tom Robbins’s bonkers novel (is it a novel? It’s certainly writing) Still Life With Woodpecker. This book sprang into the world in the same year as I did, and begins thus: ‘If this typewriter can’t do it, then fuck it, it can’t be done.’[4]

Non-fiction has much to offer here too. The Austrian animal behaviourist Konrad Lorenz opens his book Man Meets Dog with a quotation from William Cowper’s ‘The Winter Walk at Noon’ and the following intriguing sentence: ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage.’ Of course this immediately calls to mind sausages themselves, both real and literary (see W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’, as featured in Joining the Dots), but setting meat products aside, ‘Today for breakfast I ate some fried bread and sausage’ is a brilliant opening line, with no obvious connection to Lorenz’s chosen subject (‘the relationship between men and their domestic pets’, according to the back cover) and sets a charmingly familiar tone, even in translation. Lorenz goes on as follows:

Both the sausage and the lard came from a pig that I used to know as a dear little piglet. Once that stage was over, to save my conscience from conflict, I meticulously avoided any further acquaintance with that pig […] Morally it is much worse to wring the neck of a tame goose which approaches one confidently to take food from one’s hand than it is, at the expense of some physical effort and a great deal of patience, to shoot a wild goose which is fully conscious of its danger and, moreover, has a good chance of eluding it.[5]

Similarly, the Tiny Book Hound, Giant Bear and I are doing our best to set the right tone at the beginning of our relationship (see Dog Days). It’s a steep learning curve for all of us: the Hound has eight years of another owner’s priorities, smells and commands to unlearn (plus two confusing weeks in the shelter), and Giant Bear and I have never owned a pet together, although we both grew up with dogs (and lots of other creatures, in my case). Rescue dogs also bring their own unique challenges. The Hound is frightened of loud noises and towels, hates having his lead put on or his feet cleaned, and refuses to sleep in his basket at night. His ideal resting place is nestled against me on my pillow, where I can be conveniently and unexpectedly licked in the face at 3am, but we have compromised on pretty much anywhere else on or in the bed. Occasionally, this means finding teeny-tiny paw-prints on the sheets (‘Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic Tiny Hound!’). He doesn’t smell, sheds very little and snores less than Giant Bear, and is thus a perfectly acceptable bedtime companion, but we both wonder how he will cope with (for example) being on the boat (see Tales from the canal-bank), where he will have to wear his harness at all times, the engine is deafening and the bed is four feet off the ground.

Meanwhile, we all continue to learn about each other, including the following Important Lessons from the last three weeks of dog ownership.

  1. The Hound is the only person in the house not that bothered about food.

I think he eats his breakfast and dinner mainly to please us. He likes cheese, and he likes liver treats, and he likes warm shreds of roast chicken, but I’m using the word ‘likes’ to convey the lukewarm nature of such feelings. When we eat our own dinner, he sits on a chair or a lap, but this is so he can see what we’re doing: our food may be inches from his nose, but he’s not interested in eating it.

 2. The Hound doesn’t like me to attempt anything without his supervision.

As previously mentioned (see all my innards-related posts), I have chronic bowel disease as a legacy of work-related stress, and work from my lovely little blue office at home the majority of the time, which has what amounts to an en suite. I’m hesitant to declare myself expert at anything, but taking a shit is something I can do without assistance. The Hound has other ideas, however: if I shut him out, he barks and claws at the door; if I leave the door open, he sits as close to my feet as he can, gazing trustingly into my face with an expression of great concern and occasionally sneezing in what I assume he thinks is a supportive fashion.

3. After three weeks with us, he is already better behaved than the dogs next door.

The Hound is allowed to bark at the dogs next door, provided he stops when asked. Bearing in mind that when he feels threatened by a bigger dog, the Hound forgets entirely how frightening he finds (say) agricultural noises on the Archers and clearly thinks he is a tiger that could rip the throat out of a Doberman, we have decided that barking at other dogs is a normal behavioural whatnot, allowing him to defend both us and his territory. Once I have hauled him away from growling and scrabbling at the ground when meeting a larger dog on our morning walk, he swaggers off, tail wagging and still barking threats at nothing, to show me what a big brave dog he is: woe betide a stick if he comes upon it in such a mood. The dogs next door are only slightly bigger than him, but in his mind they are the enemy at the gate (plus, I fucking hate the dogs next door. If ever dogs deserved to be barked at, these are they). If they start barking while I’m working in the office, I’ve discovered that opening the window (which is low enough that he can get his front paws up on the sill to see and sniff outside) and allowing him to bark out of it (so to speak) works a treat. When I’ve had enough, I shut the window, congratulate him on some excellent barking and the vanquishing of his enemies, and he goes back to his basket in triumph. It’s harder in the garden when only a flimsy fence separates them, but even here we have breakthroughs, as yesterday afternoon showed:

Dogs next door: Yap yap yap!
Hound: Bork bork bork!
Dogs next door : YAP YAP YAP we’re so fucking annoying YAP YAP YAP!
Woman next door: Be quiet, Shithose! Bad dog! Fuckweasel! FUCKWEASEL! NO![6]
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP! Yappity-yap!
Hound (don’t talk back): BORK BORK BORK!
Woman next door: Bad dogs!
Dogs next door: YAP YAP YAP!
Hound: BORK BORK BORK why don’t you dig a hole, crawl under the fence, come over here and say that? BORK BORK BORK!
Me: That’s enough, Hound.
Hound <immediately stops barking; ignores dogs next door who continue to yap and snarl and hurl themselves against the fence; gives me his ‘I’m the best dog in the world’ grin; and calmly asks to be let back into the house, where I reward him with a liver treat the size of his face>

 4. No amount of poo bags is ever enough.

The Hound is tiny, even for a Jack Russell; in fact, he’s so tiny that we think he might actually be something called a Russell Terrier instead (essentially, a miniature Jack Russell). How is it, then, that he can produce his own bodyweight in poo on a daily basis? Last week I congratulated myself on my foresight in taking two poo bags on our morning walk, and sure enough there were two poos. This morning, I took two poo bags even though he had done a massive knee-trembler[7] before we left the house. More prepared than a Boy Scout, we wrestled briefly over the lead and set off towards the tow-path; I was even thinking that he might not poo at all on our walk (or indeed ever again), so gargantuan was his first offering. Gentle reader, there were three further poos. The Hound is currently sleeping in his basket, a withered husk. So Kam die Literacystrumpet auf den Hound.

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[1] I think it goes something like ‘The past is a foreign country: it takes ages to get there and the food isn’t as good as you remember.’

[2] ‘Happy families are boring, which is why everyone in this book makes terrible choices and ends up sad and alone.’

[3] ‘A man in possession of an unfeasibly large amount of money and a massive house (but no job) simply must get married, because otherwise he might spend his money on billiard tables, waistcoats and moustache wax and really what are women even for otherwise?’

[4] Tom Robbins, Still Life With Woodpecker: A Sort of a Love Story (London: Corgi, 1980), p.9.

[5] Konrad Lorenz, Man Meets Dog (London: Penguin, 1980. Translated by Marjorie Kerr Wilson), pp.9-10. The book was originally published in German as So Kam der Mensch auf den Hund and features delightful Thurber-esque illustrations by both Annie Eisenmenger and the author.

[6] Giant Bear says we agreed to refer to Fuckweasel as Piss-for-Brains, but potato potato.

[7] Frank McCourt coined this expression in Angela’s Ashes to describe his parents having sex against a wall, but I make no apologies for reusing it here. If one is stupid enough to speculate about one’s parents having sex in print, one has to take the consequences.

Tightus Groan: a quest for the barely adequate

hate tights. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that, although I am unaware of having wronged tights in any way, tights hate me.

I go without tights for as much of the year as I can bear, but in the colder months there is no option but to start wearing the buggers again, and thus my hatred for tights (or ‘fucklegs’, as I think of them) crests in a series of little waves throughout the winter, each thicker, blacker and more sepulchral than the last. The Filthy Comma does not often post product reviews (although see my thoughts on the Russell Hobbs 18617 Easy Plug and Wind Iron (With Extra-Long Flex) as described in Iron Get Hot Now). Here we have a case in which brands are largely ignored; rather, the garment itself is called into question. Just as 1066 And All That notes of King John that he had no redeeming features, is there anything at all to be said in favour of tights? Is there such a thing as a pair of tights that actually do the job they were made to do, or are they all bastards? And if they are, how is one to clothe one’s legs in winter? These are the questions we shall seek to answer.

It seems to me that the reasons to hate tights are manifold, various and entirely obvious, but for the benefit of any readers not familiar with the Anti-Christ and His works, my reasons are as follows.

i. Tights do not stay on my body.

This is the minimum requirement for an item of clothing, and tights do not meet it. It is simply not possible to pull a pair of tights up (an operation that is necessary a few thousand times per tight-wearing day) in a modest and dignified fashion. Moreover, having wrestled the stretchy bastards back into place, they waste no time in wriggling back down again; or getting themselves twisted; or revolving quietly as though one leg has decided it would quite like to have a look round the back; or making one swelter and itch in areas that should really be kept as air-conditioned as possible; or squeaking as they brush against each other; or building up a static field between themselves and the lining of one’s skirt so that it clings and/or creeps up one’s legs just as the tights are creeping down; or a hundred other things that one would never tolerate from any other item of clothing. One might as well try to steer one’s legs into a pair of angry pike.

ii. Tights lie.

They do this in two ways. Firstly, they pretend to be sexy (viz. a pair of tights I saw for sale in China that promised to clothe me from ‘crotch to sandalsome toe’), but in fact it is not possible to put on or take off a pair of tights with any modicum of decorum, nevermind sex appeal. In my considered view, for a garment to be sexy, one needs to be able to either a. saucily leave it on during The Act; or b. take it off ahead of time in a way that at the very least doesn’t make one look like an idiot. Tights fail spectacularly on both counts. Worse than this, cheap tights never quite get clean, building up layers of sour dust around the toe area, over-stretching round the heel, and generally deteriorating with alarming speed into limp, over-extended squalour in a way that does one’s legs no favours.

Secondly, they pretend to be useful. For the first few minutes that they are on, and during activities that involve sitting or standing perfectly still (i.e. things that barely qualify as ‘activities’), tights are fine. Yes, they seem to say. We will totally stay where you put us just now, for the entire day. Feel free to walk about! We understand that it is our purpose to stay on your legs, regardless of whether you are using your legs or not! And yet, for anything that involves my legs actually moving around (i.e. being legs), tights are 100% useless. A woman that might need or want to walk for more than a couple of minutes at a time (and I walk for an hour every day) is something of which the manufacturers of tights cannot conceive. After teaching, I once walked from university to where my car was parked in Leigh Woods (about three miles) and had to stop thirty-seven times to pull my tights up. In the end I went into the public toilets[1] on Clifton Suspension Bridge, took the bloody things off and stuffed them into a bin. Then I kicked the bin until I felt better.

iii. Tights are uncomfortable.

The waist elastic is never strong enough to hold the blasted things up, and yet at the same time more than strong enough to squash one’s belly in ways that are deeply troubling. Tights are designed by people who think a narrow waistband predisposed to spontaneously fold or roll over itself into a spandex sausage when one sits down, stands up or otherwise moves about in a perfectly reasonable fashion is the last word in comfort. Such people should be flayed (with tights, while wearing tights).

iv. Tights are unflattering.

Just look at all the new and interesting ways in which your insides can bulge painfully through your clothes! Hopefully, the look you were going for was Stealthily- and Unevenly-Inflating Plastic Woman, because that’s the look you’ve ended up with. And it’s all thanks to Tights, The Bastard Accessory.

v. Tights are instruments of torture for people with bowel disease.

Stretchy stupid tubes that squeeze your bowel, offer no protection against incontinence and can’t be removed in public? What a fabulous idea.

Fucklegs
Exhibit A: some fucklegs

 

vi. The better the colour, the worse the tights.

I own several pairs of brightly-coloured tights, including four pairs with knitted spots. The most impractical pair are a prune colour, with spots the size of egg yolks in green, yellow and orange. Naturally, these are the tights most willing to stay on my body, because they know full well that they don’t go with anything else in my wardrobe (and certainly nothing that makes me look and feel like a grown-up professional woman). Fuchsia tights? Stay up all day and cause only mild embarrassment and indigestion. Plain black ones? No chance.

vii. Tights spontaneously self-destruct.

Were you stupid enough to put them on with your fingers, you utter fule? Did you get within two feet of a wall, chair or doorframe during your exciting day of sitting-and-standing-perfectly-still? Did you spend the day having cats hurled at you unexpectedly, battling death-owls or furtively handling sharply-edged stones? Were you, per Gertrude Stein, climbing in tights? It doesn’t matter whether you did any or none of these things, because you could spend a tight-wearing day in a sensory deprivation tank and still find the buggers had managed to snag themselves on the passage of time itself. You would also have wasted your time and money on a sensory deprivation tank, since tights are so bloody uncomfortable.

viii. Tights cause other people to recapitulate information that you are already in possession of (e.g. ‘You have a hole in your fucklegs’).

Such people, apparently unaware that grown-up women dress themselves, fail to realise that a woman wearing holey tights is doing so for one of two reasons. One, the tights were perfectly fine when she put them on, and have since self-destructed. Two, all tights the same colour look identical in the damn drawer. You put your hand in, you take out a pair of tights. Entire mornings can be lost searching for a pair with either no holes (or at least a pair with a hole that will be concealed by today’s chosen outfit), so you pull a pair out of the drawer and put them on and hope for the best. Why not just throw out the pairs with holes in, you say? Because tights, as well as being flimsy, uncomfortable, unflattering and traitorously unable to stay the fuck up, are also expensive.

ix. The alternatives to tights are crappy.

Leggings provide a solution from crotch to sandalsome shin only; bare legs are no good in the winter; and suspenders are a bad, male joke played on women to make us feel like stupid cold slags.

What is the solution to this Gormenghastly problem? Gentle reader, I have it. Finally, after years in the stretchy, fall-downy, why-the-fuck-did-I-wear-these wilderness, I have it. The solution is twofold. One: covering everything else up, choose a good book and a large hat and tan thy legs so that going bare-legged will be viable (nay, pleasant) for as long as possible. Two: in the few scant months now left in which tight-wearing is necessary, purchase these tights, and these tights only. I bought them in a fit of desperation, and <angel voices> they actually function as garments. They fit. They don’t fall down. They can be worn two days in a row without going baggy. They haven’t gone into holes or ladders. They are sensible colours (one navy, one plum, one chocolate). They are comfortable, warm and soft. They don’t crackle, snag, itch or create static, and they weren’t expensive. In other words, they warm my flinty heart. They meet the bare minimum of what tights ought to do, and I am satisfied.


[1] God bless public toilets! See Getting to the bottom of things.

Getting to the bottom of things

Regular readers will recall that your gentle narrator suffers (the word is chosen with care) from bowel disease (see Busting a gut, Bite me, Home Economics, GAH! Michael Gove! and The loud symbols). I have been laxative about contributing to the blog over the last seven months, after being buried under an avalanche of work from which one arm now feebly waves, soon (I hope) to be followed by the rest of me. These two things may not seem related to each other, but my colitis is caused by work-related stress, which is also called work addiction (see I was flying from the threat of an office life and Exemplum Docet). Thus, I live in a little feedback loop, working at whatever pace I feel I can stand and then accepting whatever reward or punishment my insides see fit to respond with. I am eternally grateful to have the skills to work from home most of the time; a husband who finds my swollen stomach and disreputable underwear (of which more later) quirky and charming; and a toilet right next to my study. Giant Bear has even furnished the upstairs toilet with a comfortable wooden seat, a tasteful selection of bra catalogues and a thing called a Primal Stool that cost £20 but is worth its weight in gold (this is a similar thing: do scroll down to see the unicorn-poo advert). John Keay comments on the internal disorder of George Everest (yes, the mountain is named after him. Also, his name is pronounced ‘Eve-rest’, disturbingly), and notes that his ‘[r]ebellious bowels leant an urgency to the working day’. Yes. Yes, I expect they did.[1]

Bowel disease is misunderstood, difficult to talk about, jolly painful and surprisingly common; and work addiction is just everywhere and awful. While I wait for mountain rescue, therefore, here are some jolly facts about bowel disease and work-related stress.

  1. Bowel disease is the great leveller.

People with small children seem to talk about poo all the time: how often their babies poo; how copious, stinky, firm/loose and frequently produced their babies’ poo is; and how their babies sometimes manage to defecate so heartily that they get poo right the way up their backs in a single movement. I don’t have babies, but having colitis allows me to join in nonetheless.

‘Yup,’ I say, finishing my tea. ‘I’ve done that.’
‘When you were a baby?’ My childbearing friend is momentarily distracted by the menu, or possibly the child. ‘Or do you mean last time you went to China?’
‘Nope’.

  1. Working too much makes you a shitty worker.

My understanding of the strike that junior doctors undertook recently (the first such strike in my lifetime) is that they were protesting against two things in particular, captured (as is so often the case these days) in a hashtag: #notfairnotsafe. This captures two ideas, as follows: one, working longer hours as proposed (for a higher wage, but a lower overall hourly rate) implies that the ridiculous hours and shifts that they already work are not sufficient. Two, working longer hours will exhaust them and make them bad doctors. I don’t understand why there is any discussion to be had about this. We all agree that tired motorists are dangerous. Are exhausted doctors dangerous? YES. OF COURSE THEY ARE: TO THEMSELVES AND OTHERS. I have lost count of the number of mistakes I have made, documents I have deleted and spreadsheets I have cocked up because I was simply too tired to be competent. With the obvious exception of smug health-cunt Jeremy Hunt (Jim Naughtie has established precedent, so this is fine), nobody is stupid enough to think a tired doctor is a competent doctor, but nobody, in any line of work, should be working so many hours that they are too tired to do their job properly. I used to work four days per week; then, to cover for a colleague, I did two months of five days per week. I would have done better to stay at four days per week, because I was so tired that a. I caught a bug and had to miss two days’ work; and b. forgot to save my database and lost another two days’ work. Net gain: nothing.

   3. Number of times I have soiled myself since being diagnosed: four.

Once *just* after a Departmental meeting; once while sitting quietly in a chair, reading a book and minding my own business; once in China after some questionable fish; and this afternoon. When I went to Dublin for a week a few years ago, I packed twenty-one pairs of knickers by the simple method of counting seven pairs of knickers into the suitcase (‘Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday-Friday-Saturday-Sunday’) three times without realising I had done so. Do normal people even *own* twenty-one pairs of knickers? They do not.

  1. Being addicted to work means not being allowed to go cold turkey.

Some addictive substances (drugs, alcohol) are things that we have no physical need of, by which I mean that removing these things from our lives, while extremely difficult, is not damaging, but rather may have considerable health benefits. We may feel the need (physical, physiological, psychological, emotional) for another cigarette (I have written about this elsewhere; see A three-pipe problem), drink, high, win or whatever, but we can live perfectly well without these things, just as we can live without smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling, sex or pornography. The most difficult addictions to deal with, I suggest, are those where cutting the destructive substance or behaviour out of one’s life altogether is not possible. If one is addicted to food or work, for example, one has to find some way of changing that relationship to make it healthy and sustainable: one cannot simply stop eating or working. I don’t think there are many therapists who, confronted with (say) a smoker would suggest that he or she learn to manage his or her relationship with tobacco: the end goal would always and unquestioningly be to give up, totally and forever.

  1. Number of times I have thought, ‘that’s it. I’m going to die on the toilet. Like Elvis, except he had a cheeseburger to keep him company’: three.

Halfway through reading this post, my husband showed me a picture of the thing below (it’s a cheeseburger-shaped anti-stress ball) and said, ‘shall we get one, and keep it in the upstairs toilet?’

52. cheeseburger
‘Not suitable for children under the age of three’

 

  1. Bowel disease makes you feel really, really old

Were I so inclined, I could produce a series of Venn diagrams showing the commonality between my life and that of a woman forty years older than me; let’s call her Daphne. Yesterday’s diagram would show that Jess walked (rapidly, happily) to the train station to catch the same train as Daphne, while Daphne’s great age forced her to make the journey on the bus; Jess has brought a copy of Silent Spring and some knitting to keep her occupied during the journey, while Daphne prefers the Telegraph and crochet; Jess has decided not to bring any food, while Daphne has a packet of mints[2] and so on. Apart from the train itself, the only area of overlap is that both Jess and Daphne will spend a significant part of their day worrying that they are going to disgrace themselves because *there is no toilet at the station*. That’s very annoying, think both Jess and Daphne upon arrival, with enough time to buy their tickets, but not such a long wait that they get cold and cross. The train will be here in a minute, and once we get going I can use the facilities on the train. Imagine the disgust of both our protagonists (Jess says a curse word; Daphne does not, but her lips get very thin) when it turns out that *there is no toilet on the train either*.

My usual train trip is around 50 minutes, and fortunately there *are* facilities at the other end. But, really: good grief. There is a person at the station (sometimes two!) to sell tickets to the Great Unwashed *and* a model railway shop. There must, therefore, be at least one toilet. Giant Bear tells me that there *is* a toilet, but that in order to use it, Daphne and I would have to queue up and then yell through the ticket window that we’d like to borrow the key, please. There is also nowhere for the staff on the train to relieve themselves; at least the ticket inspector can walk from carriage to carriage to distract himself (and maybe do a little poo in the corridor where nobody will notice), but no such luck for the driver. John Pudney said the following about toilets at train stations seventy years ago, much of which still holds today:

For the ordinary run of early railroad passengers, there were no arrangements whatever; and patience was the only necessity. At early morning stops, men were wont to salute the sunrise, as decorously as they might, at the ends of platforms, while women stood in earnest conversation here and there, their long skirts providing cover even though the platform itself offered little by way of camouflage.[3]

  1. Being addicted to work is socially acceptable. 

While I think it could be argued that we have a society with a dysfunctional attitude to many addictive substances and behaviours (food, alcohol and sex spring to mind), the attitude to work goes beyond that into stark raving mad. We all talk about our ‘busy’ lives: it is entirely normal for women in particular to babble on about ‘juggling’ all the things we have to do, on top of earning a living, which somehow takes up far more time and energy than it should. I am no longer surprised to receive (and send) emails at 6am or 11pm; nobody expresses surprise when it becomes clear that I work weekends; and while I was at the university, I once went into the office on Boxing Day and *I wasn’t the only person in the Department*.

  1. Bowel disease has ruined the following words forever: movement, regular, irrigation, stool. On the plus side, Andrew Motion is now a funny name.
  1. Bowel disease makes you feel that nobody will ever want to have sex with you again.

There is swelling (sometimes soft; sometimes tight and hard like a tyre). There is diarrhoea (bright yellow, mostly liquid and excitingly explosive). There is dehydration (headaches, itchy eyes), horrible stomach cramps, massive hair loss, brittle nails, tiredness that mere sleep cannot touch, and endless medical humiliations (pooing into little trays; enemas; strangers inserting Things into one’s special area in the name of Science). There are ruined clothes, from which the physical stains can be removed, but which I can never bring myself to wear again.[4] Finally, there is the terror that every tremor and gurgle in the abdominal region may be about to burst forth into the Bog of Eternal Stench, punctuating yet another day with what can only be described as arse-sneezes: hot, gritty crap that pebble-dashes the inside of the toilet in a splatter pattern strikingly reminiscent of the vomit one sees on the pavements outside student residences, except that this is yellow, streaked with blood and mucus, smells like the devil’s farmyard and CAME OUT OF MY ARSE.

These are the times when the unconditional love (and relaxed attitude to nudity) of an understanding and patient partner is better than all the peppermint oil and herbal tea in the world. Here is a little story I call ‘Disappointment’: the other day, Giant Bear came home from work, and without explanation, silently removed his shoes, tie, waistcoat, braces, shirt, trousers, socks and, with a certain sense of inevitability, his pants. Why, good evening, darling, I thought, ceasing to stir the dinner for a moment, and trying to remember if my own underwear was a. the kind that can be flung aside in a sexy fashion; b. not that kind, but at least stain-free and vaguely respectable; or c. in such a state that I’d have to bundle it up in my jeans and then attempt to kick both carefully into a dark corner. Just as I was about to spoil the moment by talking, my husband had a jolly good look at his pants, turned them round and put them back on again. ‘Had them on back to front all day’, he observed, and went upstairs to get dressed.

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[1] John Keay, The Great Arc (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p.146.

[2] To alleviate what George Sherston calls a ‘railway-tasting mouth’. Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (London: Faber and Faber, 1928), p.299.

[3] John Pudney, The Smallest Room (London: Michael Joseph, 1954), p.75.

[4] Just as I am no longer able to eat English mustard because gaaaaaah.

The loud symbols

This afternoon, having been unexpectedly relieved of an index I was about to start, I finished reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris.[1] This was a Christmas present from me to myself, along with a festive jumper purchased in the post-Christmas sales, when, like a calendar in January, suddenly nobody wanted it. David Sedaris and I are strikingly different in many ways, in that I am not a middle-aged gay man and have so far failed to publish eight books and embark on an international career of signing those books and/or reading them aloud to people. However, on reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, I discovered that we have four striking things in common.

One: we share a mild obsession with owls (see Owl Chess and Strigiphobia). I keep my non-fiction books in my office, and they are (naturally) arranged alphabetically; the fiction is also arranged this way, which means that The House At Pooh Corner lives between Arthur Miller’s solitary novel The Misfits and two volumes of erotica by Alberto Moravia. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is on the bottom shelf, with Scott’s Last Expedition on one side and Suetonius[2] on the other. The owl used as an exploratory device appears in silhouette on the spine, perched on a floating hypodermic as he contemplates the metaphorical diabetic wilderness: a treacherous landscape, all highs and lows. There is also a parliament of owls[3] in my favourite essay of the book, which is called ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’.[4] It opens with a consideration of the phenomenon of the owl-themed gifts that Sedaris and his partner Hugh have amassed over the years:

This is what happens when you tell people you like something. For my sister Amy, that thing was rabbits. When she was in her late thirties, she got one as a pet, and before it had chewed through its first phone cord, she’d been given rabbit slippers, cushions, bowls, refrigerator magnets, you name it. ‘Really,’ she kept insisting, ‘the live one is enough.’ But nothing could stem the tide of crap.[5]

I mention this as a counterpoint to the well-chosen nature of the three Christmas gifts already listed, but I do have some sympathy with the purchasers of the various owls and rabbits, because buying presents is hard. I’m delighted when, in the run-up to Christmas, someone I feel we ought to buy something for (but who already seems to own everything they could possibly need) lets slip in everyday conversation that they like (say) The Very Hungry Caterpillar. We were given an owl for Christmas ourselves: a small white one, designed to perch in the branches of our Christmas tree. In a lovely Biblical metaphor, there was no room in the tree and instead we had to put him on the escritoire, where our tiny knitted magi had completed their arduous journey across the music room.[6] They toiled along the top of the piano, clung to the light-fitting for a few dangerous hours, and finally arrived in safety to stand in a semi-circle with the tiny knitted Mary, tiny knitted Joseph and tiny knitted saviour.[7] Behind them, the owl, a head taller than all the knitted figures, loomed menacingly, while we tried to pretend he was one of the uglier angels.

Two: David Sedaris and I have both had a colonoscopy. He is bullied into his by his father, whereas mine was a medical necessity (see Busting a gut), but a colonoscopy is a colonoscopy. His is described in an essay called ‘A Happy Place’, and mine was so completely uneventful that I haven’t bothered to write about it at all.[8]

Three: neither of us owns a mobile ’phone, as described at the beginning of his essay ‘A Friend in the Ghetto’.

Four: he has a love of subtlety and nuance in words. Here is an example, from an essay about keeping a diary[9] called ‘Day In, Day Out’:

Some diary sessions are longer than others, but the length has more to do with my mood than with what’s been going on. I met Gene Hackman once and wrote three hundred words about it. Six weeks later I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm and filled two pages. And I really like Gene Hackman.[10]

What I like here is his choice of ‘watched’, rather than ‘saw’. ‘I saw a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies to me that he happened to glance across and see the centipede killing the worm, and that (the two-page write-up notwithstanding) the event itself was comparatively brief. ‘I watched a centipede attack and kill a worm’ implies something both less and more passive: less passive in that this sounds like something that went on for some time, and which he chose to pay close attention to, possibly crouching uncomfortably over the battle so as to describe it with accuracy; and more passive, in that he didn’t intervene to save the life of the worm. Giant Bear and I watched A Hallowe’en Party last night, an Agatha Christie mystery in which a girl is drowned in an apple-bobbing basin after she boasts that she once witnessed a murder. Again, the ‘seer’ and the ‘watcher’ are quite different. Compare ‘I saw a murder; I saw him die’ with ‘I watched a murder; I watched him die’. The seer’s glance happens to fall onto or into something (the carriage of a passing train, for example, as in another Agatha Christie story, 4.50 from Paddington), whereas the watcher has stopped what they were doing, and is emotionally (but not physically) involved in what he or she observes. Finally, it seems clear that even though ‘observed’, ‘looked’, ‘noticed’, ‘witnessed’, ‘saw’ and ‘watched’ are very close in meaning, they are still different enough that ‘I observed a murder’, ‘I looked at a murder’ or ‘I noticed a murder’ won’t do.

Some readers may note that the title ‘The loud symbols’ is a play on the words of psalm 150 (‘the loud cymbals’). I have appropriated verse five, which in the King James translation reads as follows: ‘Praise Him upon the loud cymbals: praise Him upon the high sounding cymbals’. Translation is a wonderful place to look for word-related nuance. In the NIV, for example, this verse becomes ‘Praise Him with the clash of cymbals: praise Him with resounding cymbals’; other translations also introduce the word ‘clash’ or ‘clashing’ at various points and use ‘sounding’ or ‘resounding’ rather than ‘high sounding’. This may seem like a small difference, but it is no such thing. The onomatopoeic ‘clash’ is not a word you can sneak into a sentence without anybody noticing; moreover, it suggests a rather pleasing omnivorousness in the tastes of the Almighty. It doesn’t say ‘Praise Him with restrained Church of England cymbals’.[11] The unmusical, splashy word ‘clash’ implies to me that God is more interested in hearing us praise Him, with joy, sincerity and abandon, than He is in how well we do it. As Thomas Merton said,

If there were no other proof of the infinite patience of God with men, a very good one could be found in His toleration of the pictures that are painted of Him and of the noise that proceeds from musical instruments under the pretext of being in His ‘hono[u]r.’

I’ve written elsewhere about nuance (see A bit like the rubella jab), and how a lack of it can mean that we misunderstand events or people, or appropriate a single incident and use it symbolically to make sweeping statements about huge groups. Jane Elliott[12] argues that the insidiousness of sweeping statements about entire groups is at the root of all prejudices, and that these prejudices are learned and perpetuated generation on generation, as shown in her now seminal eye-colour experiment (also called ‘Eye of the Storm’), and that a middle-aged white man who experiences prejudice for fifteen minutes gets just as angry about it as someone who has experienced it since they were born. As I have written elsewhere (see The fish that is black and Punch drunk), it is a natural human tendency to attempt to simplify the world by dividing things into groups, and then making a statement about all the things in that group. It seems to me that such an approach, and its need to over-use and under-interpret symbols is the enemy of nuance. The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, for example, are both specific and symbolic. Charlie Hebdo was chosen as the target because of specific cartoons, but also because the magazine and its staff can be used to symbolise ideas: free speech, freedom of the press, freedom to satirise whomever and whatever we like. In other words, it is an act that encourages us to choose sides: people who think like this, as opposed to people who think like that. As soon as you accept that people can be symbols, hurting those people can start to seem abstract, remote and meaningless, as if two anatomically-correct puppets used in a trial for a sex scandal were jostled around in their overnight container mid-trial, and found the next morning in a compromising position wholly contrary to the testimony of the people they represented. I am not trying to argue that symbols don’t matter; rather, I suggest that they are a means of simplifying (and therefore dehumanising) a particular group, by lumping them together in a way that seems convenient, rather than correct.

Defending a deity (any deity) against satire is a piece of thinking that has become scrambled somewhere. Just as God does not need those who believe in Him to tell Him that He is great (see The uncharitable goat), God does not need those who believe in Him to stick up for Him like a bullied child in a playground. If one follows the thinking of religious extremists whose idea of constructive criticism is to kill a load of people, it seems that they wish others to be frightened into doing like they do, without much caring whether they think like they do i.e. an ‘outside only’ change. That is how the terrorist do; they don’t make a nuanced, cogent argument for their own point of view (i.e. an argument that might persuade people into changing their insides as well, to thinking like they do and doing like they do). I don’t know why this is, but part of my argument here is that, while people are all different from each other (nuance), they also have things in common that help us connect with one another. Terrorists seem very different from all the people I know and their actions are baffling; nevertheless, I think it is important to try to find explanations for them. The best theories I have come up with are as follows. One, terrorists may enjoy the idea that people fear them; it may make people who have hitherto felt like minor characters suddenly feel that they are (and/or deserve to be) centre stage. Two, there may be an element of ‘I am in blood stepp’d in so far’[13]; in other words, once part of such a group, turning back seems as difficult as going on, particularly if the group provides structure, brotherhood, purpose and camaraderie, and if there are penalties for leaving the group. Three, it may give them a sense of power: they may enjoy muttering the terrorist equivalent of ‘By my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you’[14] before embarking on a new and brave mission, like shooting unarmed people or kidnapping schoolgirls. Four, they may genuinely think that fear is a more effective tool than persuasion, and that what you do is more important than why you do it. Five, they aren’t able to make a cogent argument for their own point of view, because their point of view is not built on argument, but their own fear: fear of other large, undifferentiated groups that they understand only dimly, as a series of stereotypes. Terrorists, in other words, are frightened people, and one of the things they are frightened of is nuance. We do, therefore, have at least one thing in common with them.

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[1] Best Book Title Ever.

[2] Best Name for a Steamed Pudding Shop Ever.

[3] I also received A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Christmas. Most of the collective nouns I thought I could be sure of have at least two alternatives, and ‘a parliament of owls’ is no exception: one can also have a wisdom or a sagacity. The book notes thoughtfully, ‘A collective term for owls does not appear in the old books, which as we’ve seen were mostly concerned with game animals. And, of course, owls are solitary creatures’. They then speculate that the term is taken from Chaucer’s poem ‘A Parliament of Foules’, and remind readers of the parliament of owls in The Silver Chair. Best Christmas Present for a Word Nerd Ever. Mark Faulkner, Eduardo Lima Filho, Harriet Logan, Miraphora Mina and Jay Sacher (2013), A Compendium of Collective Nouns (San Francisco: Chronicle Books), p. 142 (see also page 140 for the corresponding illustration).

[4] Understanding Owls is a book, and so strictly I think the title of the essay should read ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’. The typesetter hasn’t rendered it so, but, just as the index I was hoping to do has been outsourced to someone in India who can apparently produce an index for a complex multi-author academic work in a week for less than £250, it may be that the person who did the typesetting didn’t even think the repetition of ‘understanding’ was odd. I freely admit that compiling such an index would have taken me at least twice as long and cost at least twice as much; however, my finished index would actually have helped the inquisitive reader to Find Stuff, and offer some thoughts on how the different topics might relate to one another i.e. it would actually be an index, rather than a glorified concordance and a waste of everyone’s time.

[5] David Sedaris (2013), ‘Understanding Understanding Owls’, from Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (London: Abacus), p. 176.

[6] Both the escritoire and the music room sound very grand, but I promise you they aren’t. The escritoire came with the house, and we eat in the kitchen, thereby rendering what would otherwise be a dining room useless. We call it the music room because we keep the pianos (one real, one Clavinova), all the sheet music and Giant Bear’s collection of trumpets in there.

[7] The baby Jesus is knitted onto Mary’s arm, so he was (of necessity) a bit previous.

[8] I have also never written about my sigmoidoscopy, a similar arse-based medical intervention. That is because, unlike the colonoscopy, for which one is knocked out, the sigmoidoscopy is done without anaesthetic (i.e. they gave me gas and air, which just made me throw up the nothing that my stomach contained). It’s bad enough that I had to go along with a complete stranger inserting a monstrous chilly tube into my Special Area, never mind talking about it as well. I also wasn’t allowed to wear a bra, presumably so that the needle could judder into the red zone over ‘100% Humiliating’ for as long as possible.

[9] Regular readers will recall that I also kept a diary in younger days (see Broken Dishes, The dog expects me to make a full recovery and He had his thingy in my ear at the time), but since I no longer do so I haven’t listed this as something we have in common. The man writes in his diary every single day and carries a notebook with him at all times, for God’s sake.

[10] Sedaris, ‘Day In, Day Out’, Owls, p. 227.

[11] <ting>

[12] See her here in the early 1990s on Oprah. It’s not an obvious place to find her, but she’s magnificent.

[13] Macbeth, Act 3, scene iv, line 135.

[14] I say this to Buy it Now items on Ebay. Also, Best Line from a TV Show Ever (with ‘Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!’ a close second).

‘GAH! Michael Gove!’

Seymour nominated me for the Leibster award, a thing which draws attention to, you know, blogs. WIN. The rules are that I post eleven facts about me (chosen by me); I answer eleven questions (chosen by Seymour); and finally, I pose eleven questions for eleven other bloggers I nominate to do the same exercise. So here goes:

Eleven facts about me

  1. I don’t own (and have never owned) a mobile ‘phone, a microwave, a toaster or a freezer. I have never read a Harry Potter book (because I’m thirty-three, for God’s sake). I will also shortly be without a television, as per the instructions of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I have never watched an episode of Big Brother or any episode of any soap opera. I don’t watch news on the television and I don’t read newspapers, so all of my current affairs-related information comes from Radio 4. I only have the TV at all for films, box sets and televised sport (athletics; gymnastics; figure skating; rugby; snooker if I am ironing; and, in the days when I could still drink, darts, so that I could really enjoy shouting at the TV).
  2. I don’t drink. Sometimes when people ask me why this is, I tell them I’m Amish.
  3. I have a stress-related bowel disorder, caused by working in higher education for ten years. It’s painful and humiliating and is the real reason I can’t drink anymore. Dostoyevsky said the following, which I think describes the bulk of that hellish decade very neatly: ‘If one wanted to crush and destroy [literacystrumpet] entirely, to mete out to [her] the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make [her] do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.’ Now I work for myself, and can’t imagine doing anything else.
  4. I’m scared of daddy-long-legses (or craneflies, if you prefer). They are so much worse than spiders. I don’t much like spiders (except garden spiders – they’re awesome), but at least spiders are sensible creatures with a purpose and a bunch of skills. Plus, when disturbed they tend to scuttle away and are usually amenable to (nay, grateful for) being caught in a suitable receptacle and returned to the outside world. Craneflies, however, are utterly pointless and seem to delight in zooming about rooms that they shouldn’t be in, legs spread and quivering and making a noise that haunts my nightmares.[1]
  5. Bees don’t sting me, even when I pick them up or plunge my hands into their hives. I did this once at the bee place in Portreath. According to the guy there, ‘some people smell like bees to bees’ and don’t need netting or smoke or whatever, a group of freaks that apparently includes me. There was a time when a swarm of bees settled in a garden belonging to friends of mine, where we were peacefully playing croquet, and I was able to pick up whichever ones I thought most interesting (and rescue several from concealed spider-webs) without so much as a suggestion of a sting. I am the Bee Whisperer. The only time I have been stung by a bee was when I found a queen bee in some grass and was so excited to see one up close that I picked her up to have a good look. She was freaking huge, not best pleased to be manhandled, and stung me viciously on the finger. I wonder if some people smell like queen bees to bees?
  6. Where other children might accidentally call their teacher ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’ at school and then be mortified, I called my father ‘Sir’ at regular intervals throughout my childhood (and once or twice in adult life), which we both thought was just fine.[2]
  7. I think almost everyone looks better in glasses, including Superman.
  8. I don’t like mushrooms. I don’t allow them into my kitchen: they linger outside in the hall on top of the boiler to dry out.[3] Then I put the horrid things into jars and give them away to understanding friends.
  9. I was once asked in an interview what my ideal job was. I can’t remember what my actual reply was, because I was putting so much energy into *not* saying ‘I want to be Colin Sell’ (it wasn’t a job that would have involved playing the piano).[4]
  10. I am a tenor, and have been for about ten years. My range is tiny: C3 (C below middle C) on a good day, but most days barely-audible D3, up to C5 (C above middle C). C5 is sometimes called the ‘tenor C’, because it is the upper limit of what tenors are required to sing in standard repertoire, although I must say I’m only rarely asked to sing as high as that. I have sung with the same church choir for fourteen years, and the acceptance and joy I have found from doing so means everything to me.
  11. Some can sing; some can dance. I can make marmalade.

 

Answer eleven questions from Seymour

  1. Tattoo? Yes. I used to have one around my ankle, which read ‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven’ (a quotation from the hymn ‘Praise My Soul The King of Heaven’) during a period of religious enthusiasm. If only I had channelled this energy into something more meaningful than a tattoo. I had it removed when the black ink went green, which hurt like hell but fortunately did not leave much of a scar.
  2. Have you ever collected anything a bit odd? Thimbles.
  3. If you had the time and money to further your education, what would you study? Theatrical costume design.
  4. In the Hollywood feature film of your life, who would you like to play the title role? Jennifer Grey, with her hair as per Dirty Dancing.
  5. What was the last song or piece of music you listened to? Ascendens Christus in altum’, by Tomás Luis de Victoria (I was learning it for Ascension Day). For pleasure, the last song I listened to was ‘Love Has Come For You’ (Steven Martin and Edie Brickell, from their new banjotastic album of the same name).
  6. If you were stuck in a lift for an hour, which historical figure would you most like to have for company? Maurice Sendak.
  7. What is the next book you hope to read? Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’ve read it five or six times, but it’s an infinitely rewarding book that deserves to be read in times of crisis (and at other times, too).
  8. In a house fire, which of your possessions would you most like to save (apart from the house)? My laptop (which contains my novel and all my work) and as much of my fabric stash as I could carry.
  9. What would be your ultimate comfort food? Homemade meatballs with tomato sauce, spaghetti and lots of cheese.
  10. Where do you stand on politicians, from “I don’t vote” to “they are our only hope”? Women died so that I could have the vote. So I vote. But politicians continue to disappoint me, over and over.[5]
  11. Could you summarise how you see your mission in life in a single sentence? (What would it be?) I am deeply suspicious of people who can summarise their mission in life in a single sentence (who has such an uncomplicated purpose?). Maybe it’s my mission in life to teach people the following thing: sometimes using more words is absolutely fine. More words can be clarifying, specific and elegant, while fewer words can mean that a message becomes smeared into something so vague and homogenised that it ceases to mean anything at all.

 

Pose eleven questions of my own for other bloggers to respond to

  1. Is making music purely for yourself and those you make it with and/or for, or should it be (at least a little) for the people that can hear you?
  2. Does a gift that has been made for you rather than purchased still mean more if you really, really hate it?
  3. Wings or a tail?
  4. Stripes or spots (or, most excitingly, both together)?
  5. Night owl or morning lark? Do you ever wish you were the other one?[6]
  6. Name some things that you wash but don’t iron (my list: sheets, duvet covers, underwear, towels, bath mats, flannels, tights, tea towels).
  7. Name some words that you love (my list: frangipani; anaglypta; cocoa; cruciform; crackerjack; anacrusis; circumflex; archaeopteryx; nostril; macaroon; thurible; tangerine; toad).
  8. Name some words that you hate (my list: moist; nasal; douche; boil; pouch; slick, esp. when used as a verb e.g. ‘slick on some lipstick’ argh argh).
  9. I once took four of my young nephews to Bristol Zoo, shuffling them to the front of the crowd around the lion enclosure just in time to see that the lions had decided this was an excellent moment to reaffirm their bond through the physical act of love. As an introduction to sex, what it lacked in intimacy and tenderness it made up for in snarling and clawing at the ground. However, when I thought about it afterwards I was at a loss as to what *would* constitute an appropriate introduction to sex for children under the age of ten. Discuss.
  10. I love textiles and I love music. However, I have a passionate hatred of textiles printed with musical notation. Musicians are always having this nonsense forced on them (‘look! It’s got music on it! And you like music, right?’ Good Lord). Do you have any similar beloved x + beloved y = hated z situations?
  11. Really, what is the point of Just For Men? I would really like to know.

 

Nominate eleven other bloggers

I just don’t read that many blogs, and several of those that I do read (Brainpickings, for example) don’t really need attention drawing to them. So I’ve nominated some that I think deserve to be better known.

  1. Seymour at Seymour Writes (yes, I know he’s already written a Leibster post, and this is my way of making it easy for you to read it);
  2. Emily at Through the Lattice (Seymour has already nominated her, but see above);
  3. Lilian at Bookmouse;
  4. Garden Naturalist, who really ought to blog more often. It’s been years;
  5. Bakingbiologist;
  6. Alex at closetphysicist;
  7. Robin at Robin Coyle;
  8. Alice at Alice Laird;
  9. Andie at andiesplace;
  10. Catt at DECIPHer, although she’s probably not allowed to come out and play; and finally
  11. Mark at many headed monster (ditto, although he could always do this exercise from an early modern perspective).

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[1] That’s what she said.

[2] He’s a teacher, not a knight of the realm. Maybe one day he’ll be both and *everyone* will have to call him Sir.

[3] I think of this as killing them. I know.

[4] I am a splashy pianist at best, so this would not end well.

[5] They also scare me, because (as I said) I get my news from the radio and am therefore prone to starting back in horror when confronted with photographs of public figures I am familiar with, but have never seen (‘GAH! Michael Gove! MY EYES!’).

[6] I’m writing this at fourteen minutes past midnight. Hoot.

Home Economics

This post is prompted by an article by this guy, and a much more sensible post explaining why it is nonsense. I’m not going to recapitulate Aethelread the Unread’s perfectly cogent argument, since you can read it for yourself. However, here are some thoughts I had on the subject of eating and how to do it economically.

i. Planning meals in advance. I have to do this because of my bowel condition (see Busting a gut), and because I’m a pedant. I limit my consumption of sticky stuff (bread, pastry and cheese), and processed meat (bacon, salami and sausages) because they are difficult to digest and (in the case of processed meat) increase my already elevated risk of developing bowel cancer. This is also a strategy for keeping costs down, because otherwise one is trapped into the ridiculous position of buying, say, a lettuce[1] in order to use only a few leaves, while the rest of the damn thing slowly turns into a slimy morass in the ironically-named crisper.[2] Unless one becomes a painfully precise food-burglar, one has paid for the whole damned lettuce, and therefore should plan to eat the whole damned lettuce.

ii. Shopping as little and as quickly as possible. I hate shopping in supermarkets from the depths of my being. I begrudge every single minute I spend doing this. I hate supermarkets almost as much as I hate airports. One should not only factor in the cost to one’s purse and time, but to one’s soul.

iii. Transport. I don’t have a car. Doing lots of ‘little’ shops is time-consuming (people who are financially poor are also time-poor), esp. when you have to walk everywhere, and we’ve already established that I’m planning my meals in advance and hate shopping. So therefore doing one big shop makes a lot of sense. But hang on. I don’t have a car. Can I do a big weekly shop on foot? No chance: it’s too far to walk with heavy bags. Can I do a weekly big shop on the bus? Not easily, no, because of what I’m going to call the ‘shopping via the bus’ problem’.

iv. The shopping via the bus problem. Here is what taking the bus to the supermarket would entail: walk to bus stop; wait; take bus, which doesn’t go direct; get off; walk to supermarket; do shopping; walk back to bus stop carrying bags; wait some more; get back on bus; take circuitous route home; and then, finally, drag shopping through the streets, secure in the knowledge that i. by now, it is the middle of the night and ii. you get to do it all again in a week. I would probably be able to manage the walk from the bus stop to my house while carrying many heavy bags, because the bus stop is right outside my house, and I’m thirty-three years old and in relatively good health, but someone with a small child would have no free hand with which to grasp said child; someone in ill-health, or who was elderly (or weak from hunger) certainly couldn’t manage either the walk or the burden, or might find themselves tempted to buy things on the basis of whether they can carry, say, a bag of potatoes *and* a carton of fruit juice, rather than on what they can afford and/or want to eat.

v. Comparison shopping. This is the biggest waste of time. Have you seen the smug Asda women crowded round their laptop tapping every single price in to see if they have saved themselves four pence by buying a packet of scourers at Asda? Fuck off, smug Asda women. Who has the time for this nonsense? As we have already established, for someone who doesn’t have a car, the fact that the supermarket in the next town is slightly cheaper is information that they can’t do *anything* with, unless they are prepared to do their shopping via an even more inconvenient bus (see iv).

vi. Comparison shopping again. Comparison shopping does not always produce the results you think it might. I once did two identical shops at Waitrose (my closest supermarket at the time i.e. I could walk to it) and Tesco (which was the second-closest, and required a ten-mile round trip to the next town). I bought the same brands in both supermarkets, and whenever I would buy Waitrose’s own brand stuff, I bought Tesco’s own brand. The Tesco shop was £1.50 cheaper. Once I factored in the petrol and my time, it was considerably more economical to shop at Waitrose. I had a car at the time, so the ten-mile drive to Tesco was door-to-door and relatively quick. If I had taken the bus, however, it would have taken over ninety minutes (i.e. an entire evening) *and* cost more than the £1.50 I supposed to be saving.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I don’t think people should aspire to eat cheaply. Food is the only thing you buy that becomes part of you. I have learnt the hard way that it is incredibly important what you put into your body. Don’t fill it with cheap shit: this will not save you money or time in the long run, but will instead make you ill, fat and/or malnourished, and miserable. Think how wonderful food is, and how much pleasure it gives us – way out of all proportion to the purely biological function of sustaining us for a few hours. It matters whether you enjoyed your breakfast today.[3] It matters whether you are looking forward to your dinner.[4] It also matters where food comes from, what’s in it, who grew it/made it/harvested it, and how, and where. Instead of aspiring to eat cheaply, therefore, I think people should aspire to eat economically.

Cheap food is variable in quality and morality (it’s cheap for a reason e.g. it’s made of shoes). It may not have cost you very much, but it cost somebody somewhere. Moreover, eating economically is much more about what you cook and how little you waste than it is about what you bought in the first place. A chicken, for example, is an incredibly economical thing to buy, even if you buy a super-duper organic Happy Chicken, for, I don’t know, £15. You get a roast lunch out of it; then you get a pasta sauce out of the giblets; then you get a curry or enchiladas or sandwiches out of the leftover meat (probably with enough leftovers to have this again the next day, too); and then you get two pints of chicken stock out of the bones, which you can use to make a risotto or soup (contrast that with a pair of chicken breasts, which will make one rather uninteresting meal). I can make a chicken feed two people five times. If it can do that, it damn well ought to cost £15.

If I were ever to write a cookery book, it would be called Leftovers Are Fucking Brilliant and it would consist entirely of recipes called things like ‘Three Things You Can Make Using The Leftovers Of The Thing On The Previous Page. You Know, The Thing With The Beans’. The aim would be to throw absolutely nothing away and each chapter would be about how not to waste stuff (e.g. ‘Things You Can Do With Leftover Yoghurt #95: eat the Goddamn yoghurt’) and how to compost or grow more food out of what little you couldn’t eat.[5] The focus would be on planning to cook sensible, economical things and then buying stuff accordingly; not going to the supermarket, buying whatever was cheap and then throwing half of it away because a packet of hundreds-and-thousands, a tin of kidney beans, a questionable turnip, some elderly plums and a bottle of washing up liquid doesn’t actually constitute a meal, and anyway you had no idea what to do with the questionable turnips that were left over, and, oh dear, you bought eight of them because it was cheaper per turnip to buy eight even though you only wanted one and now where you could have had one questionable turnip that could have been disguised in some soup you have seven that definitely can’t be used for anything and will have gone funny by the end of the day.

Eating economically, for me, consists of doing the following things:

  1. Not throwing anything away. Vegetables that look sad and old? Soup. Unidentified lentils? Soak them just in case and put them in soup or curry. One slice of bacon left? Omelette. Two small hard pieces of bread? Toast, but also, why did you buy such a big loaf, moron?[6] Glut of tomatoes? You could make pasta sauce or chutney, but really, the point is that if you are throwing stuff away because it went funny before you got round to eating it, the problem isn’t just what you’re cooking: it’s the quantities that you are buying.[7]
  2. Growing stuff that’s really expensive. Chillies are really expensive, but easy to grow and taste much better fresh. Ditto herbs of almost all varieties.
  3. Making stuff from scratch. Some things are not worth the effort (consensus reached between myself and my friend KM: pasta, croissants, gnocchi and brioche are Not Worth It). Ice-cream, however, is dead easy, esp. if you have an ice-cream maker to do the annoying churny bit for you; as is custard; as are scotch eggs, pancakes, porridge[8], and pretty much everything else I like cooking.
  4. Planning food based on what I have already that needs eating. This week’s menu, for example, is based around the fact that I have three eggs (eggs and temporary housemate KW’s leftover ham tomorrow night, with toast and fried potatoes); leftover chicken noodle soup (dinner tonight); some bread (toast for breakfast tomorrow); two pathetic turnips (more soup); and some asparagus, which I don’t like (I’ll be feeding this to KW and Giant Bear for dinner on Friday, which means I don’t have to eat any of it but it still doesn’t go to waste).
  5. Using the hob rather than the oven. The oven is more expensive than the hob, so if I use the oven it has at least two things in it. I also cook things that can be hob- or oven-based on the hob (e.g. my amazing white chocolate rice pudding [9]).
  6. Making meals out of other meals. Leftovers are fucking brilliant.

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[1] I never buy lettuce. I hate lettuce. It tastes of nothing and takes up space in a sandwich where there could be more of the stuff that goes in the sandwich that you actually wanted. Plus, it’s not good in soup and is therefore Not Food. It’s only a good example if you imagine someone other than me buying and eating it.

[2] I’m looking at you, Milligan. You bought the whole damn lettuce, didn’t you? Then eat the whole damn lettuce, you cretin, and include the cost of the whole damn lettuce in your patronising calculations. Buying four tons of lentils might be the cheapest way to buy lentils per lentil, but you still need to have enough money to make the initial outlay. And a kitchen large enough to store your lifetime supply of lentils. And some idea of how to soak and cook lentils. And some way of preserving the lentils so that they don’t go funny before you’ve eaten them. And some other stuff to eat with the lentils so that a. you don’t get malnutrition and b. the lentils taste of something. And you have to really, really like lentils, and hope that everyone in your house really, really likes lentils, because you just bought a metric fuckton of lentils, and people who are *actually* worried about the amount of money they spend on food don’t just buy four hundred eggs and exclaim over how cheap this was and why don’t people on benefits do this more. They buy what they can afford, and they eat all of it.

[3] I did. I had toast, with homemade greengage and blackberry jam. It was delicious.

[4] I am. I’m having homemade chicken, courgette and noodle soup. I made it yesterday, so I don’t even have to chop stuff up. Om nom nom.

[5] Things You Can Do With Leftover Yoghurt #96: half a tub of yoghurt you aren’t quite sure about and a handful of dubious carrots can be made into yummy soda bread by simply adding lemon juice, thyme, bicarbonate of soda and flour. Plus it doesn’t require any kneading or proving. It’s essentially bread without the making bread bit.

[6] The point is don’t buy more than you need, even if buying more than you need costs less than buying exactly how much you want. If you wanted two pairs of socks and two pairs of socks cost £4, but six pairs of socks cost £8, you should buy two pairs at £4. If you buy six pairs for £8, what you’ve done is to buy two pairs of socks for £4, and then another four pairs that you didn’t need for another £4 that you didn’t need to spend (plus, the £8 socks are probably cheaper per sock because they’re made from dental floss). If you think £4 is a fair price for two pairs of socks, just pay it, take the socks home, wear them and feel good about it. Even if six pairs cost £3, buying three times the amount you need only makes financial sense if you can think of something to do with the four extra pairs of socks that you now unaccountably own and *knew* you didn’t need before you even left the house. This is why the natural resources of the world are exhausted: uncontrolled consumption of stuff you don’t need, didn’t want and yet felt you had to buy for reasons you can’t explain.

[7] It breaks my heart to throw food away, even when it has gone well and truly funny. The high sausages described in Notes from Nonesuch made me unhappy on many levels.

[8] Scottish food = awesome.

[9] You may want my white chocolate rice pudding recipe, but it’s better for everyone, and your waistline in particular, if you don’t have it.

Bite me

The students that I work with in China are not always reliable correspondents once I have returned to my natal shore, but some of them stay in touch and become friends. Those that do so all comment when they visit me in Britain that I ‘look different’. This is for two reasons: firstly, my Chinese students have never seen me without enormous hair (the humidity of the Asian summer is not kind to curly-haired women: in Britain, I can actually fit my head through doorways); and secondly, they have never seen me without insect bites.[1]

These are not any old insect bites, dear reader. All is quiet for the first few days after I land in the People’s Republic, and I am lulled into a false sense of security. Just as I have convinced myself that this time might be different, diverse alarums are sounded, and insects voracious and poisonous fall upon me with inaudible screams of delight.[2] Nothing can stop the onslaught: repellents are useless, as are long sleeves (they simply bite straight through). Low visibility holds them back for mere seconds, as per a trip to Qingdao a few years ago during which the entire city was shrouded in fog for twenty-four-hour periods at a time and I was bitten so badly that I could hardly walk for blisters and bandages. Somehow, I, an animal designed to find prey via the eyes, could barely make out the local Communist Party headquarters[3], but a bunch of tiny airborne creatures with microscopic brains and compound eyes managed to find something much smaller and easier to chew without any trouble at all.

The bites fall into three distinct categories. Firstly, there are big red ones, probably caused by mosquitoes. This year, two of these bites either side of my elbow developed into hard red patches that were so painful and so firm that I was unable to bend my arm. The patches also enlarged at an alarming rate, such that my carefully-drawn biro line had already been passed by an ironic red tide by the time I had finished drawing it. One of the Chinese staff was kind enough to buy me some kind of eucalyptus gel that came in a tiny white tub with a picture of a Swiss maid on the top, and this not only solved the problem and allowed me to stop gibbering about cellulitis, but made my room smell pleasantly of menthol. Secondly, there are small red ones with a tiny blister at the centre, which are ant bites. We screened Passport To Pimlico[4] for the students in a darkened lecture hall at one of Shanghai’s many universities, and somebody helpfully left the door open. Attracted by the flickering lights and quietly sweating cinema audience, stealthy ant attack ensued. These bites stream with tissue fluid almost constantly, rendering one’s legs itchy, sticky and totally unshaveable. This may sound like mere vanity, but allow me to remind you that a. I am rather proud of my legs, and never more so when in a foreign country as the sole representative of my race; b. it was far too hot for trousers and anyway I hadn’t packed any (nor would I have been able to buy anything that would have come close to fitting me); and c. I was in Asia and therefore already the hairiest woman for thousands of miles.[5] Finally, there are enormous orange blisters, which are spider bites.

The first spider bite I ever got was while walking in Nanjing Park with my dear father and his then girlfriend (now his wife, happily). I had been unwell for a few days with my usual gut-related issues (see Busting a gut) and so the ensuing faintness and enforced sitting down did not strike any of us as special. Later that day, however, The Blister started to appear on my ankle. It grew steadily and by the time I had reached Bristol[6], it was the size and colour of an egg yolk. The following year, my cornucopia of suppurating wounds included two more spider bites, one of which was right next to a scar on the top of my foot[7] and therefore unable to swell into its usual dome, instead forming a sort of kidney shape, uncannily like a giant orange-flavoured jellybean. This bite split during an invigorating sprint through Shanghai Pudong airport in a failed attempt to catch our ’plane home. An unbelievable quantity of liquid ensued, followed by Garden Naturalist applying iodine to the wound (iodine! Sweet merciful Jesus!). Having missed the flight, we were then put up in an unbelievably crappy hotel overnight, where we passed the time by counting (thirty-one), categorising (as above) and dressing my bites.

On my most recent trip to China, my inevitable spider bite was in a rather more awkward spot than usual: the back of my ankle, just above the edge of my shoe. The work is exhausting, the days are long, and the humidity and jet-lag suck any remaining energy out of all staff and students. Imagine my delight, then, on being informed that the last day of teaching was going to be crowned by a fancy dinner with a load of important people who might be able to offer me more work. The fancy dinner was in the usual multistorey building with a deeply unprepossessing exterior and stupendously luxurious interior, and while we waited for our dinner of pigeon heads and unidentified bits of lobster, we were encouraged to hob-nob by drinking cups of green tea and lounging about on a set of what I will describe as loveseats. My chosen loveseat was far too low for me and getting up out of it to walk to the massive circular dining table was an awkward manoeuvre. It was so awkward, in fact, that as I stood up I scraped the back of my ankle against the (razor-sharp) edge of the loveseat, not bursting the blister but rather slicing it off in a single gelatinous piece. This was so exquisitely painful that it numbed my vocal cords and I didn’t even squeak, but scuttled over to the table and sat down, where my ankle then proceeded to bleed gently into my shoe for the entire meal. On returning to the hotel, I soaked my bloody foot in the bath (it had also swelled up and was completely stuck to and in the shoe by all the bleeding, a bit like a window that has been painted shut), removed both shoes, threw them in the bin and asked room service to bring me bandages and disinfectant in the middle of the night.

I notice that Facebook is under the impression that I might like to spend my hard-earned money on a ‘lipstain’ (whatever that is) called Just Bitten. I’m not sure what I have done to give Facebook the impression that I am interested in a. being bitten or b. buying makeup, but apparently this product will make my lips ‘extra kissable’. One can only hope that women unwise enough to purchase something on the grounds that it comes in the form of an ‘adorable chubby crayon’[8] do not wake in the night to find tiny spiders pouring out of the tube and scuttling over their faces (for more spider-related horrors, see Eight legs bad).

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[1] Or in anything other than smart clothes, or in a country where I don’t lose a half a stone every week through sweating.

[2] How do you know there are screams of delight if you can’t hear them, you ask? Because the glee with which I am attacked cannot possibly be expressed any other way. I imagine them whizzing through the air, shouting across to each other like swallows when the gnat harvest is unusually plentiful (‘Wheeeeee! Gnats! Fuck, yeah! Gnaaaaaaaaaaaats!’) at a pitch that might have been described by Flanders and Swann in ‘High Fidelity’ (‘All the highest notes, neither sharp nor flat/The ear can’t hear as high as that/Still, I ought to please any passing bat/With my high fidelity!’).

[3] A building remarkably like a khaki-coloured fridge.

[4] Partly to teach them about British culture, partly to give me something to ask the PPE students about. I asked one of them in a practice interview if she thought that Passport to Pimlico showed that small states were inevitably pushed around by big states, and she replied, ‘no. I thought it showed that the French can’t be trusted.’

[5] Next year, I will be maxidressed to the hilt <swish>

[6] Bristol! Cool, damp, rainy Bristol! Land of friends, gardens, songbirds, pasta and cheese!

[7] The residue of an encounter with a slippery patio and a bicycle chain, recorded in my diary (see Broken Dishes).

[8] Many things are both adorable and chubby (dormice, for example. Man, those things are cute. The one in the picture I have linked to is called Dozey and may be the cutest thing alive), but I venture to suggest that such things are not usually inanimate, or indeed likely to be found in one’s handbag.