Thursday, 29 October 2009

WASSUP WASP?





I have completed my six weeks of hypnotherapy for my wasp phobia...so technically I'm pretty much sorted and can downgrade my level of terror to a healthy dislike these days. However, things aren't just as straightforward as this.

I can now look at the word wasp written down without shuddering, I can read about them on the internet without trapping my hands in my laptop in my attempt to get away and I can spend time in a garden either enjoying the world of horticulture or a beverage, but I still can't shake the habit of shrieking and flapping my hands when a wasp flies near me on a lovely autumn day, as 3 British Transport Police officers could attest to after seeing me actually put my neck out trying to get away from a particularly persistent one in Goodge Street the other week...

I'm trying to remind myself that I've come so far, but it's hard not to be demoralised by the fact I still look like a crazy lady in the street, especially as I've taken to talking to any passing wasps, reminding myself that while I would prefer it if the wasp did not touch me, there is no law to say it can't and it won't be the worst thing in the world and thus trying to keep my anxiety at a tolerable level. Luckily I also have a high embarrassment threshold.

I've been buoying myself up by gaining some knowledge about wasps to see if that will take the sting out of the situation. Finding out that they exist to kill garden pests such as caterpillars and beetles makes me feel slightly less hostile to them. But it's discovering why wasps are so tetchy in autumn that has helped me the most so far.

The simple answer is that they are depressed and lonely. The queen of the nest has moved on and the average worker wasp has basically been made redundant, leaving them to meander around looking for a purpose in life. Like the cliche of anyone who has ever been dumped in a rom-com, this seems to take the form of seeking out sweet things to cheer themselves up and moping in a self involved manner, preferably round a bus stop like a disaffected teen. Wasps are in fact the emos of the insect world, right down to the stripy outfits.

Reminding myself that the wasp doesn't want to ruin my day, but is simply looking for attention is keeping me much calmer than normal.  I don't like them any better for knowing this, because who likes an attention seeker? But it does make me feel much better about performing a mercy killing right about now...

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

ALL HAIL ALL HALLOW'S...



 This week sees one of my favourite nights of the year which also happens to fall on a Saturday this year for maximum fun...it is of course Halloween! Night of ghouls and ghosties and all that.

I particularly love this time of year with its crisp fresh air, golden cornflake-like leaves and stunning purplish dusk, so Halloween seems like a excuse to enjoy and embrace the glories of autumn as much as anything. A last gasp of fun before winter in fact.

Growing up in Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s, October 31st was a big deal. There has been a celebration at this time of the year in Ireland since Pagan times when it would have been known as Samhain, and the day has remained relevant as All Hallow's Eve even now. The traditionally English festival of Guy Fawkes' or Bonfire Night on the 5th November was utterly alien to us in comparison, simply something I read about in Enid Blyton books or were briefly taught in school. (Probably wise that in those years of the Troubles, no one encouraged us to embrace a holiday involving treason and high explosives...)

Instead it was all about Halloween. Both Catholics and Protestants seemed to embrace it equally which was unusual in a divided country. It tended to co-incide with half term holidays from school which allowed some serious time for costume prep and a real sense of social occasion when you went to a party as you hadn't spent the whole day together already. There were always bowls of fresh nuts in the house to be cracked with proper nutcrackers and glistening toffee apples wrapped in shiny cellophane waiting to be devoured with greedy gusto on the night.

The great treat on the day was getting to carve the lantern which was not a cheery orange pumpkin in those days, but a grimacing purple turnip (or what the English call a swede.) Being allowed to hollow out this most unforgiving of vegetables with a surprisingly sharp knife for a child and a spoon made you feel very grown up: at least for about the first fifteen minutes and after that it felt positively Sisyphean. Kids these days don't know they're living with the arrival of the pumpkin...




But on the night with the turnip lantern glowing in the gloaming, the real fun would begin. Some years there were Halloween parties at friends' house, or sometimes there would be an organised firework display at school. Both these events required a costume and my mum created some masterpieces for us, including a complete Pink Panther outfit on one memorable year. Made from cosy pink fleece and totally head-turning, it may well be the best outfit I have worn in my life, ever!



Wrapped up against the October elements, the night was ours for the taking. There were small people swaddled in all kinds of garb everywhere you looked, running round with sparklers, or gazing in fascination at the fireworks overhead ( a real novelty since fireworks were illegal the rest of the year due to their pesky explosive nature). But the best fun of a Halloween night out was trick or treating...often your parents lurked in the shadows watching aswe picked our way up a garden path to assail some poor household with a badly recited poem or song in return for a handful of fun sized chocolate bars. For me, the excitement lay less in the song and dance routine, and more in the feeling of freedom that trick or treating seemed to offer to an eight year old who rarely had the opportunity to roam the streets at night otherwise.

Not every Halloween involved going out (I'm guessing the famous Irish weather may have played a part in this) but staying in was equally fantastic as it involved the ritual of indoor fireworks which I looked forward to all year . We would turn down the lights and be hypnotised by such exotic creations as Dragon's Breath, Blazing Bengals and Snakes Alive coming to fiery life in front of our very eyes with only assorted gasps of amazement to punctuate the palpable tension...




Or more accurately two children hopped up on sugar gazed upon a tin tray dotted with bits of gaudy cardboard that managed to emit a brief light and a strange extuberance of ash that generally looked remarkably scatological in shape, interpersed with oversized matches that burned green and mini sparklers that looked slightly like snake's fangs before they were lit. It was to all intents and purposes a slightly flammable anti-climax. But I loved them, probably for their inherent crappiness and the marvellous kitsch factor involved.

After this there would be the traditional Halloween dish of apple dumpling which had been steamed for hours in a cloth til it was stickily delicious and filled with spicy cloves and five pence pieces for good luck. There may have been scary stories or maybe the flickering candle light and feeling of possibility on this night just made me imagine ghosts and goblins as I went to bed on All Hallow's Eve.

I still love Halloween, even though people bemoan its Americanisation and adults tend to use it as an excuse to wear something revealing while getting drunk. The fact that so many Halloween traditions originally came from Ireland (before being imported to the USA with Irish immigrants and then recently introduced to the rest of the UK as an excuse to sell stuff) makes me feel oddly homesick for Ireland in a way that St Patrick's Day never manages.

I haven't done anything specifically for Halloween in a few years now that I spend more time with English people, but this year I'm going to a proper party and need a good costume. I intend to plan it tomorrow as I carve my pumpkin...I'm hoping I'll be as excited as I was as a child come the big night!

Monday, 19 October 2009

MAG HAG



My entire adult life has been accessoried by glossy magazines...a month simply wasn't complete without a knee high pile of shiny smooth spined magazines to entice me. Over the years I have been a voracious reader of Minx, Elle, Marie Claire, Nylon, Grazia and Vogue to name my essentials. I used to look forward to the release date of certain international copies like a small child awaiting Christmas Day and be at the newsagent when it opened. The International Collections issues warranted a Saturday night in to make sure they were scoured from cover to cover. A trip to RD Franks depleted my student loan cheque more than all the boozing I could manage in a term...

Yet I haven't bought a woman's magazine in months, much less flicked through one on a shelf. So what happened to sever this most heady of relationships? A multitude of tiny things; less like a boyfriend cheating on you, more like realising those seemingly cute little habits are in fact as annoying as fuck.

The first to break my heart was Vogue. In about 2005 it went from high fashion to high Heat and started featuring horrors like Erin O'Connor doing a Little Britain fashion shoot. Colleen Rooney began to appear and the more art and trend based articles started to move to smaller slots toward the back of the magazine. Yet the cover price leapt. A piece about Kate Moss's Topshop collection lifted straight from the press release saw me miss my first issue in 10 years. Apart from one dalliance since, we remain estranged.

Then my mum moved house and at risk of seeming like a crazy hoarder I had to get rid of all the magazines from the late 90s that still cluttered my old room. I couldn't ask her to take all my paper memories to her new life. So with a heavy heart and a craft knife for articles and adverts I couldn't jettison, I started to clear them out. And discovered that it wasn't the end of the world to part with them. I didn't become any less knowledgable or trendy, just less dusty.

I began to realise shortly after this that on my benefits-only budget, I really couldn't justify the same haul of magazines a month. No longer working as a make up artist I didn't need to be up with the trends and techniques so intimately. I began to be more discerning in my choices and buy only selected magazines each month. We were growing apart a little more with each issue.

And then came the straw that broke the spine, I discovered Mag Hag on Jezebel.com and the scales were lifted from my eyes in a whole new light toward lady mags. Not only were they shilling products only Victoria Beckham could afford, with expectations of perfection few can achieve, they tended to be badly written, repetitive and boring. The exuberant articles of the 90s and early Naughties were gone only to be replaced by articles that read like a How-to guide to be a Wag or a Sex and the City clone but with a different It Bag each issue.


The glamour evaporated before my eyes and I felt scolded instead. The glossies suddenly seemed like textbooks for materialism rather the interesting lifestyle guides they had once been. Individualism seemed a dirty word in every area. The models seemed incredibly generic with no hope of a face like Alex Wek standing out, the articles were aimed at long haired white girls who wanted a tan and a pair of shoes for every day of the year and only the most photogenic singers, writers or designers got a mention. They had gone from glossy to beige. I had changed, but the magazines hadn't changed with me...

I realised that I wasn't learning anything anymore and for me that meant I couldn't justify the time or price anymore so I stopped my magazine habit cold. These days I only dabble in interiors magazines. I look at the rows of monthlies on the shelves and feel let down. Why isn't there an interesting, intelligent magazine for a variety of women available in this day and age? Why isn't the print media bringing its A-game against the many great blogs out there? It seems like one more arena where women are told what they want, rather than listened to and appreciated. Maybe this explains the size of the recent September issues as much the recession does?

In the meantime, I am glad I stockpiled copies of Vogue from the 1990s to revisit on sleepy Sunday afternoons as it doesn't look like there will be a glossy worth my money for quite some time and some of us just miss the feel of a magazine in our hands....

Monday, 12 October 2009

THE GREAT OUTDOORS...



Thanks to my nasty little wasp phobia, it has been many years since I have seen the great outdoors as somewhere to be enjoyed and experienced. It has simply been somewhere to endure until I can get behind a closed window or door once again. My recent foray into hypnotherapy has quite literally opened the world up to me and I am suddenly finding myself able to get at one with nature again.

This week I have visited Kew Gardens and the lesser known Chelsea Physic Garden, both easily accessible from central London (I may not fear wasps so much, but this city girl isn't quite ready for the open country just yet.)

Both are a delightful way to spend an afternoon. There is something incredibly relaxing and rejuvunating about being outdoors and experiencing all that nature has to offer. My mum and I spent the day pottering round Kew, basking in the autumn sunshine and in my case, reminding myself how interesting and vital plant life can be.

We spent several hours in the beautiful glasshouses looking at plants from all round the globe. It is a wonderful way to feel as if you have travelled to all far-flung corners of the world in one afternoon, without all that tiresome packing and time in airport lounges. As you stroll round, marvelling at the natural world in all its finery, you half expect to hear David Attenborough commentating on each fascinating plant. It is oddly absorbing even if you could kill mustard and cress at twenty paces with your lack of gardening know-how...

The Chelsea Physic Garden was equally as interesting, partly due to the fact it began as an apothecary garden and many of the plants are grown for medical purposes and partly because it is glorious to discover such an oasis of tranquility and greenery in London. The garden is just off the King's Road and has been there since 1673. It is only open for part of the year on certain days of the week which adds to its charm as one of London's hidden gems...(the fact it has a lovely cafe that does exceptional pastries doesn't hurt either!)

Visiting these beautifully tended gardens encouraged me to come home and nuture my own little plot. I have been cultivating a nice collection of hard-to-kill grasses and succulents in pots for a while now on my patio and as they grew, so did my confidence. I felt ready for fruit and veg this summer and was handsomely rewarded with an abundance of runner beans and tomatoes.



Not only has this saved me a fortune on grocery bills, but it has given me a genuine sense of giddy pride in my achievements. I have grown things! Real things you can eat! This has made me ridiculously happy. Not only are my achievements delicious, they have connected me to the outdoors again. At risk of sounding like an earth mother, I'm finding really paying attention to the weather and seasons along with the plants and wildlife perks you up in a way that central heating and carpets can't.

Wasps and weather permitting, I will certainly be spending more time outdoors. I might even have to buy a Thermos at this rate...

Monday, 5 October 2009

TIRED OF LIFE?

I have been somewhat absent from here for a little while I'm afraid. This isn't a case of the novelty of a new shiny thing wearing off, but because I have been tired...

Tired, you say? We all get tired! But without turning it into a modern life pissing contest, I know tiredness. I suffer from chronic fatigue (or CFS), with the result that I spend an inordinate amount of my life in a haze of exhaustion.