Sunday, 23 January 2011

Life Without My Man Bag? The Horror, the horror!

'A good size man bag can provide simple solutions to a stressful life'.

I’d quite like a nanny like Mary Poppins.  But then, who wouldn't. There must be children up and down the land- oppressed by the tyrannical techniques of Jo Frost- that long for spontaneity and a spoonful of sugar, rather than a structured routine and the naughty step.  Even as a twenty-something male, I’d rather like to go on days out that consist of escaping into chalk pavement-drawings and having mid-air tea parties. But, the thing I admire most about Mary Poppins: she knows the value of a good bag.

Walking into the Regent Hostel in Montmartre, I felt suddenly akin to Charles Marlow, as I believed I was entering ‘one of the dark places of the earth’.  Had I been hammered- like most of the other guests- I may not have noticed the garish purple walls, the stale stench of Vodka, or the suspect stains on the carpets; I may also have seen the whole ordeal as an adventure, and- like a Texan named Paul whom I met- seen it all as the inspiration for a song. But I didn’t. However, though I may have been kept up all night by a snoring roommate, preoccupations about bed bugs, and desperately trying to plan a strategy to wash in the morning, while avoiding the human detritus that littered the bathroom, I was not worried about remembering my possessions, as they were all tucked away in my bag.

I've been a MBA (Man Bag Advocate) for a number of years, vehemently defending the use of a bag to fashion philistines who argue that it is totally unnecessary, as we have pockets. But, as we live in an age when we must don skinny fit jeans, possess wallets bulging with store cards, and only leave the house when carrying - at the very least- a smart phone, a bag is an absolute necessity.  What’s more, a good size man bag can provide simple solutions to a stressful life. After a nasty fight with the ex, you rustle around and pull out a Marlboro Light; if you have to endure a tedious lecture on Diderot, you reach in and find a copy of Vogue; and if you’ve been kept up by nightmares about bed bugs, you take out your Touche Éclat.  After one particular night of debauchery- involving pensioners from Boston (don’t ask) and copious amounts of wine- I even awoke to find a carton of McDonald’s chips in my bag. 
All of the above reasons, of course, ignore the glaringly obvious- and most important- point: a well chosen man bag compliments your outfit and makes you appear even more chic. No longer should men- confined by the shackles of their masculinity- feel obliged to carry only hideous carbon-coloured Laptop Bags with oversized zips (you know the kind I’m talking about) so as to appear serious and not at all effeminate. The Simple Leather Robbie G bag by Marc Jacobs ($478.00) provides a stylish alternative to the traditional laptop bag, and the exterior straps ensure your possessions are secure. For the more modest budget-like my own- try the Black Leather Shopper Bag from River Island (£79.99). If like me, you are a fan of the tote, check out the Polo Jeans Tote bag by Ralph Lauren (£99.00) and- my personal favourite- The Retro Shopper ‘Melino’ by Hugo Boss (£459.00).

But whichever bag you choose, ensure that it fits your lifestyle. Ask yourself whether you need your bag to carry your iPad and paperwork, or whether- like me- you use it to hold your copy of GQ, and to hide a few cheeky fags.

I may never have a nanny like Mary Poppins, but I’ll follow her example and always carry a practical bag. That way, whatever life throws at me, I’ll be prepared.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

A Belle Affair: My Wardrobe Detox

'I have come to the sad realisation that my wardrobe will never have cognitive function, and will never sort out my clothes for me'.

Flicking through magazines, I am often drawn to adverts for detox retreats. A routine of waking up, slipping on Speedos and going for a revitalising swim in a fjord, before breakfasting on cabbage soup and nettle tea, and eventually emerging cleansed and refreshed- albeit a couple of thousand pounds poorer- is utterly appealing. But I know my limitations, and as I tend to read such adverts while sipping cappuccinos and eating profiteroles, I am shamefully aware that it is unlikely that I’ll head to such a retreat. Ever. 

There are many reasons to be jealous of Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She gets to sojourn in an ensorcelled castle, is served dinner by a talking candlestick and serenaded by a singing teapot. But by far the most envy-inspiring aspect of Belle is this: she has an enchanted wardrobe that selects clothes for her. I have come to the sad realisation that my wardrobe will never have cognitive function, and will never, therefore, sort out my clothes for me. And so- in order to appease my conscience over not detoxing myself- I decided, instead, to detox my wardrobe.

A wardrobe detox gives you the perfect opportunity to rid your closet of items you’ve worn so often that they’re now past their best. And you can ruthlessly throw out items you’ve never worn and-let’s face it- you never will. But it also provides an excuse to get rid of clothing that brings back horrific memories, like that Religion vest that you wore on that night out with the Sangria, Sambuca and freestyling to The Vengaboys. Ahem.  And best of all, wardrobe detoxing is a guilt free process, as it is carried out in the name of purification.

What’s more, clearing out unwanted garments brings greater social benefits. While I may look at my some items with a sense of why-did-I-buy-this bewilderment, they’ll, hopefully, bring in money for my local hospice when I hand them in to the charity shop. A wardrobe detox, therefore, gives you an immediate feeling of self satisfaction and helps others in the process, whereas the most you’ll get from a detox retreat is a Wheatgrass shot and a colonic.

The concept of detoxing your wardrobe, however, should come with a warning. You have to ensure that you are able to replace any necessities that you throw out. Thus, I- in this time of recession and escalating student costs- decided against detoxing my underwear drawer, as it’s far too cold to go commando at this time of year.

Belle may be fortunate enough to have a footstool that is actually a dog, but I guess that I should be thankful that my wardrobe will remain a wardrobe and not turn back into an opera singer once the spell is broken. It saves me a trip to Ikea.

Saturday, 15 January 2011

If Only Cruella de Vil Had Hoovered

'If I really want to give myself a treat, I’ll hand wash my woollens before getting out the iron'.

I’d like to say that my favourite cinematic moment comes from an art house film by Werner Herzog, or from a New Wave picture by Truffaut. Alas, despite classing myself as cultured- as in, I’ve been to the ballet and I like Barolo- my Film knowledge is extremely poor.   I’d love to be able to discuss suspense in Hitchcock, Michel Gondry’s manipulation of mise en scène and the problems with Polanski, but I can’t. And as much as I’d like to have this knowledge to hand, I just don’t have the time to learn- after all, I have box sets to watch.

Instead, I admit that my favourite cinematic scene comes from Disney’s 1961 animated classic, One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Cruella de Vil- quellazaire-clad cigarette in hand- breezing into the home of Roger and Anita Radcliff, demanding the puppies and- most importantly- responding to a cordial ‘how are you’ with the immortal line, ‘miserable, darling, as usual. Perfectly wretched’, should go down in history as the greatest film moment ever. Fact.

My opinion is also shaped by my sheer admiration of Cruella de Vil herself. She’s the kind of feisty strong, independent character that shy and retiring indiduals, like me, look up to. I used, however, to see reflections of Cruella in my own behaviour. When stressed, I, too, gesticulated like a mad man, smoked like a chimney and overused the word ‘dahling.’

Luckily, I have found an outlet for my stress and anxiety and, thankfully, it doesn’t involve contorting my body into odd- and let’s face it, frankly unnatural- shapes, having tiny needles inserted into my skin or knocking back herbal supplements. My stress therapy is much simpler: it’s housework.

Now when I feel stressed, I push aside the Marlboro Lights and get out the hoover. If I get panicky, I eschew the Gin and pick up some Pledge. And it really is a win-win situation: I feel calm and I am left with clean floors and shiny surfaces. And if I really want to give myself a treat, I’ll hand wash my woollens before getting out the iron. You’d be amazed at the sheer joie de vivre that one can feel after successfully ironing a pleat.

While I used to think that it would be nice to be a bon viveur, and imagine myself reclining on a divan in a Lord Henry Wotton-esque pose, I think a lot of my stress is derived from guilt of being idle. Housework relieves such guilt and also means that I am occupied and not, therefore, alone with my thoughts. Thus, I can’t help but wonder whether Sebastian Flyte would’ve drunk less if only he’d offered to dust one of nanny’s trinkets, or whether Emma Bovary would’ve left the arsenic on the shelf if only she’d discovered  the soothing fragrances of Bold 2 in 1. And, yes, I wonder whether those puppies would’ve been safer if only Cruella had bought herself a Dyson.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

A Scrum in Borneo? I'd Rather Have A Box Set

'Together we faced Genocide in Equatorial Kundu, a suicide bombing in Israel by a Palestinian Splinter Group and a shooting in a United Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas'. 

I’d like to get something out of the way. It’s a guarded secret from my dark past, and to this day I wake up in a cold sweat screaming, ‘no, I can’t form the pluperfect in Latin, and I’ll never need to’. The secret: I went to a private school.

I was, of course, the worst- and most unnatural- public school boy ever. I, through claiming to have a variety of illnesses- from flu to Smallpox, and from a sprained wrist to Rickets- managed to get through school without playing a single game of cricket or rugby. To this day, I have no idea what one does in a scrum, nor do I comprehend the meaning of ‘owzat’. My own experience of schooling has also led me to create the C.A.C.C.R. (Campaign Against Cross Country Runs), as it is a ‘sporting event’ so horrific that it must be in breach of the Human Rights Act. Indeed, the only positive thing about it was that you were able to sneak off into the woods and bum a cigarette of old Mr Fernley, who really was a lovely man and an inspiring teacher, despite his drink problem and wandering hands.

Where I did fit in to the private school cast, however, was in what I chose to do after school: I took a gap year.  As much as I dislike admitting that I took a gap year- I seriously question whether anyone needs to find themself at 18- I am more ashamed to admit that, during my year off, I did very little. I didn’t build an enclosure to protect Chimpanzees, nor did I help ease the plight of the Bornean Sun Bear. I couldn’t even volunteer to teach rugby and cricket to children in a developing country (because of my Rickets, obviously). Instead- apart from a few hazy Jägermeister-fuelled weeks in Biarritz- I stayed at home and watched TV box sets.

And, oh, what a time I had! All I had to do was insert a The West Wing DVD and I was in the Oval Office with President Josiah Bartlet. Together we faced Genocide in Equatorial Kundu, a suicide bombing in Israel by a Palestinian Splinter Group and a shooting in a United Baptist Church in Abilene, Texas. And then, with as effortless an action as changing a disk, I travelled to Boston where- alongside Ally Mc Beal- I attempted to sue God, argued that three people should be allowed to marry and learnt how to dance to Barry White.

I will, reluctantly, admit that I- once or twice- turned down nights out because I was dying to watch the next episode of The West Wing, Ally McBeal or Boston Legal. But then, come on, why would I want to be out on the town, knocking back cheap Wetherspoon’s Chardonnay, when I could find entertainment in my own home, sit in my jammies and not have to worry about hair straightening, Touche Éclat-ing or manscaping. 

And the box set brings further liberation: you are free from the restrictions of the TV schedule, and you don’t have to put up with adverts. I was, therefore, able to watch The West Wing at 4am without being asked to ‘Compare the Meerkat’, ‘Go Compare’ or being shouted at by a man named Barry who, apparently, has a ‘Cillt Bang’ (whatever that is).

Despite what this post may suggest, I am not actually a loner, nor do I believe that television should replace interaction with other human beings. But, as the long winter nights seem reluctant to come to an end, and- if the news is to be believed- we are all poor, unemployed (or soon to be) and obese, let’s escape from our problems with a good drama.

So- in spite of my last post- I am making a New Year’s resolution: to buy a new box set. 

Saturday, 8 January 2011

A New Year: Plus ça change

' 2011, therefore, began with neither a hangover, nor a developing cold sore'.

I find the prospect of a new year wildly appealing. I imagine a beautifully decadent blowout- for which I don classy, yet inappropriately tight clothing, quaff Moët and, eventually, find myself completely ratted and draped chicly round a stripper’s pole- followed by a quasi-rebirth on 1st January from which I emerge purer, thinner and spiritually fulfilled à la Liz Gilbert.

In reality, however, my New Year’s Eve was more Bridget Jones than Kate Moss, as I spent it at home in my pyjamas with a glass of wine. I simply had no desire to venture into town on a night when bars are full, drinks are more expensive and you need to remortgage your house to afford the taxi back home. Fortuitously, however, I avoided getting horribly drunk and having to kiss a sweaty randomer at the stroke of midnight; my 2011, therefore, began with neither a hangover, nor a developing cold sore. But just as my desire for the perfect New Year’s Eve is nothing more than a pipedream- influenced by reading one too many editions of GQ- so, too, is my view of New Year’s resolutions.

Case in point: finding myself in the throes of a particularly vicious post-Christmas hangover, I resolved to give up alcohol in 2011. I decided that it was time to release myself from the shackles of Sauvignon Blanc and live life as a teetotaller. I also- and here’s where my resolution really enters into the realm of fantasy- opted to give up coffee. Yes, I was to swap Cappuccino and Pinot Grigio for Green Tea and water with lemon.

Needless to say, it didn’t last. To be precise, it lasted about 24 hours; but then, come on, I can’t be expected to have a glass of Sprite on a date, can I? It was in those abstemious 24 hours that I realised that I like the taste of coffee, and that I like the taste of wine. I also remembered just how much I enjoy the social aspect of both alcohol and coffee; and as I am not- despite what my posts may suggest- an alcoholic, nor do I drink that much coffee, I really have no reason to give it up, other than as a sign of my own will power. And after three years of Anorexia, I can safely say I have a pretty strong will. Thus, my abstinence came to a dry, fruity end.

While I may love the prospect of a new year as an opportunity for a self-renaissance, a change in the calendar does not signify a change in who we are as people. I am no more or less likely to covet a glass of Pinot Noir in 2011 as I was in 2010. And so, while my drinking remains at a sensible level- as in I’m not so desperate for booze that I’m making Hooch out of Co-op mouthwash- I will eschew prohibition in favour of happiness. I am, therefore, cheerfully entering 2011 with the same vices I had in 2010. 

Sod New Year’s resolutions!  Although, worryingly, I’ve just realised that throughout this article I have compared myself to women. Perhaps my New Year’s resolution should be to remember I’m, er, male. 

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Review of On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

'Falling in love was revealing to her just how odd she was, how habitually sealed off in her everyday thoughts'. 

I would like to be clever like Alain de Botton. I am not. I never will be. I imagine that it must be nice to be a public intellectual who writes about Proust, as opposed to a narcissist who occasionally drinks too much wine and pretends to have read Proust to seem more intelligent.  In a recent interview, de Botton revealed that his goal in raising his children is that ‘they will never read a book’, as ‘reading and writing are a response to anxiety’. As an avid reader and aspiring writer, I can confirm that I am almost always anxious and I must, therefore, agree with Alain de Botton. Yes, he’s right. Again.

Dedicated followers of my posts (so that’s probably just my mother and a couple of government agencies), will have noticed that I have neglected this blog recently. This could possibly be because recent developments on the relationship front temporarily quelled my anxiety, and thus my need to write, or because I have been working my way through À La recherche du temps perdu- I shall leave you to decide which is true. The stresses of a family holiday to Portugal, however, gave me a renewed need to read and write, and Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach proved to be the perfect antidote to my angst and the post Christmas lull (for lull read hangover).

The main action of On Chesil Beach takes place in 1962, ‘a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible’. The novel’s protagonists, newlyweds Florence and Edward, have travelled from Oxford to spend their honeymoon in a ‘hotel on the Dorset coast’. Their happiness is, however, overshadowed by wedding night fears, which neither feels able to share. This reluctance to talk about sex threatens to ruin their fledgling marriage.

The story is beautifully told by an omniscient third person narrator. The narrative is focalised through both of the protagonists, thus giving the reader an insight into the minds of both Edward and Florence whilst maintaining critical distance, so that neither character seems more or less sympathetic than the other. This device creates pathos, but also gives way to dramatic irony, as the reader is more aware of the thoughts and fears of the characters than their new spouse and one feels a sense of frustration at their inability to share their feelings.

While the main action takes place in 1962, Ian McEwan deftly uses analepsis, enabling him to depict the upbringings and backgrounds of Florence and Edward and the blossoming of their relationship. This device proves to be particularly effective, as it allows for the narrator to juxtapose the couple’s happy courtship with the ‘unutterable’ anguish they feel due to the pressures of their wedding night. Prolepsis is also used later in the novel to track the events after the fateful night in 1962. The use of flashbacks and flash-forwards not only aids character development, but also allows for wider exploration of the change in social attitudes during the lifetimes of the characters.

Alexander Herzen writes, ‘the death of contemporary forms of social order ought to gladden rather than trouble the soul’.  The actions and attitudes of the characters in this novel, however, show that for those brought up prior to the Sexual Revolution, even marriage may not dispel the social mores instilled in them, to the extent that even discussing sex seems indecent. It makes one conscious of the vast changes brought about by the Sexual Revolution, but also makes one realise that, despite such sociological shift, the beliefs of individuals will not change in an instant.

Despite finding something oddly admirable in Alain de Botton’s aforementioned opinion, I can’t help but think that if anxiety encourages me to read a novel as beautifully crafted as On Chesil Beach, then it is a small price to pay. I remain, however, jealous of Alain de Botton’s mind. Oh, and of Ian McEwan’s talent. All this jealousy is making me anxious.

Happy reading.