Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Week 7: I return home

I got back late on Monday night. My lodger, Tom, was very excited about a joke he'd clearly been planning for some time.
"I don't want to make this into a big deal, because it really isn't, but I think I should just get it out of the way now. You know you went to BURNING MAN, right?" he said, breathlessly. "Well it was very nearly BURNING FLAT." Apparently I'd left a candle in a pot alight when I left, which makes me a dimwit, but really, it would have just gone out when it had done its stuff. Still, his pun gave him pleasure and who am I to deny him.

I'm afraid I haven't written a POTW this week. I am feeling bad about it, as it's only Week 7 of my new initiative and I'm already failing. I'm not feeling so bad about it, however, that I'm actually doing anything constructive to improve the situation. Instead I'm just fantasising about my lunch. Anyway. You've got five minutes spare that you wouldn't have had otherwise. I've basically given you the gift of time: please use it wisely. I will return in seven days with pithy insight and other good things.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Week 6: First Degree Burn

Everything I wrote last week was right. Buring Man is a place of immense privilege. But, just like they claimed, it is also the best party on earth, FACT, and it's impossible to attend without it changing you for the better.

Which is not to suggest that my experience was entirely positive. Quite the opposite: I found it an intense struggle at times. I cried more than once, I seriously considered leaving early, I felt desperate self-loathing and profound loneliness. And then, about halfway through, for no reason I can yet discern, things melted into place, and now I'm in Kentucky and I'm so sad it’s all over.

Things that happen at Burning Man:
  • There really is no money. You go to a party at night, you BYOC (where C = cup), you take a contribution of beers or vodka, you drink whatever cocktail they’re serving, you marvel at the effort they've gone to in creating this detailed, fully-functioning bar in the desert, asking nothing in return, and you’re staggered. You recall that a camp realised they had too much booze and so set up an impromptu bar for a night, and the next morning awoke to find they had more alcohol than they’d started with, and now you understand how that’s possible. One hot afternoon, you cycle round the playa and stumble across Chez Andrez, a mobile champagne bar. You comply with their ‘No Tache, No Service’ policy, stick on the furry black mustache they proffer, hold out your cup, sip the ice-cold Californian champagne they pour, and you’re grateful.
  • You cycle out on to the playa late on your first night, and there’s no light except that from the art, the hundreds of structures both fixed and moving that adorn the vast open space at the centre of the city, and you forget not to hoot, you lose any sense of James Dean cool. Just like you’d heard, the amount of time, money, energy and talent that’s gone into creating it all is overwhelming, and yes, it could probably have been better spent on hospitals, but we can’t be do-gooding all the time, and this is indubitably the most unique, breathtaking sight you’ve ever witnessed, and in a week it will be gone – you’re experiencing a matchless and staggeringly brief spectacle, and you’re so, so grateful.
  • And it really will be gone. Unless the playa is left immaculate, the state of Nevada will not allow the festival to continue. Every patch of ground where someone spills a beer and stains the lake bed must be dug up and replaced. In the whole week, you see only a handful of items of litter. One cigarette butt. One feather. One dried-out wet wipe. You go out at night, you drink a can of beer, you put the empty can in your bag and you take it home. There are no bins. Toilets are provided, but they’re maintained by volunteers – volunteers – and they’re immaculate. Toilet paper is almost always plentiful, the floors are clean, the seats are dry. A hundred times, you think about Glastonbury and realise it’s an embarrassment in comparison. You're in a place where all participants respect the event, the surroundings, each other and – mostly – themselves. It’s a rare treat to witness fifty thousand people behaving so sensibly, even if a lot of them are wearing no clothes and taking ill-advised quantities of acid. There is so much love here, you are enjoying new versions of human potential, and you're grateful.
  • You meet your neighbours, a Canadian couple in their forties who give their playa names as Rita and Artichoke. She changes her outfit two or three times daily, wearing a superhero costume with a cape, an elaborate beaded Indian headdress, bunny ears and a dust mask or a padlocked slave collar. He's generally naked but sometimes dons black briefs and a pair of pink muppet fur chaps that, on closer inspection, have clearly been fashioned from a pair of khaki chinos. Like so many others, they seem like a ‘normal’ couple who come to the playa once a year to express their individuality. After two days, you reluctantly admit to Artichoke that you’re struggling, that you feel like you don’t belong, that you’re having to try too hard, that you don’t fit in like the others, that your Marks and Spencer bikini, Primark sunglasses and ubiquitous Havaiana flip-flops are no match for the extraordinary freedom of expression and uniqueness exhibited by so many others. You expect him to look at you with pity, and he says that he woke up the day before and cried like a baby for half an hour, feeling exactly the same thing. You are so surprised, once again, at people’s openness, candour and kindness, and you're grateful.
  • One afternoon, you cycle the mile or so out to the Temple, a massive, ornate, plywood structure, and you read the thousands of messages that Burners have written on its walls for loved ones and for themselves. The Temple is burned on Sunday, the final night of the festival and, in comparison to the heady, slightly frattish burn of the Man on Saturday, it’s a cathartic experience. By Wednesday afternoon, the Temple is already covered in photographs and mementos that people have brought, and it’s extremely moving. You want to say it's cheesy, you want to scoff, but only a bitter old hag would mock these feelings. You sit on a bench outside, sniffling, and a girl in a makeshift toga playing a homemade harp starts a conversation with you that may end up changing your life. She hugs you, her friend hugs you, you feel your desire to scoff eking away and you're grateful.
  • Early on in the week, you realise you’ve brought far too much food and so on several occasions you stand on the corner of 8 and Graduation handing out slices of melon or lollipops. At times like these, other people are grateful. Some stop and chat, and one guy gives you his bike padlock when you tell him your friend’s lost his. The combination of the lost padlock was 1631. The replacement is 1361. You try hard not to get all ‘significant’ about an obviously meaningless coincidence, but you fail. For these few days, you feel – in spite of your firmly-held belief in the rational – that things are happening for a reason. It’s a heady sensation, exciting and peaceful, and you know it won't last, but it's a change in perspective, and for that newness you’re grateful.
  • Just when morning yoga starts to feel a bit competitive, an art car drives by playing dirty, expletive-riddled hip-hop at ground-shaking volumes, drowning out the teacher entirely. And, as you lie in shivasana at the end of the class, it’s tricky to meditate as a guy cycles past, announcing through a loud hailer, “We urgently need more lube.” And the gorgeous bear on the mat next to yours starts giggling too, and you head to the juice bar after practice and he shares his cup with you and tells you about a great-sounding party that’s happening that night at 8pm on the corner of 9 and Anniversary, and you head over there at the appointed time, and there’s no sign of anything which is so often the case because nothing ever works out how you expect, so you cycle round having other adventures until the castle-sized Trojan horse gets set on fire at midnight, and you watch it in a crowd of strangers, all of you talking and laughing, and the fire in the darkness is moving and powerful, and you've never seen anything like any of this before and you're so grateful.
  • And you’re cycling along the Esplanade in mid-afternoon, tanned except your feet and calves which are covered in a thick coating of white playa dust, and a girl hands you a pot of bubbles, and another guy mists you with water. And you pedal past the rollerdisco and the Thunderdome (where the couple got married the day before, their guests hanging off the metal structure above them), past a man playing a flaming tuba, and another guy on a bike is dragging a speaker behind him on a cart, and he starts to play the Star Wars theme tune and you KNOW it’s cheesy, but you can’t help what you love, and you reach into your bike basket and pull out a cold can of beer and hold it out behind you, and he smiles and accelerates to catch up, and he takes it from you like a relay baton. And yes, you’re grateful that he took your beer, because he accepted something that you offered freely, and it feels freaking fantastic.
  • And one afternoon you try to get involved by volunteering at the Lamplighters’ camp. You report for duty at 5pm, first washing and checking the hundreds of metal kerosene lamps with dozens of other volunteers, and then you're robed and your roles are explained. And there are Carriers, who hold a wooden beam across their shoulders, with six lamps hanging from six hooks on each side, weighing sixty pounds in total. And you are a Lifter so, working as a pair, you each use a long metal pole to take a lamp off the carrier, one removing from the left and one from the right so that the remaining weight is distributed evenly, and you walk solemnly over to the wooden lamppost, lift the lantern on the end of your pole high up to the wooden hook at the top of the lamppost, some fifteen feet above you. And there are about sixty lamps along all the four main avenues, and more around the Esplanade, so the whole process for your team (who cover the 3 to Plaza route) takes until 8:30pm, but eventually you’re done and all the other teams are too, and the city is lit, and of course the light from the lamps hardly carries any distance and is far overpowered by the neon brazenness of the art cars and sound stages, but the act of lighting the lamps each night, the theatre of it all, is a crucial part of the civic infrastructure, and although at times it smacks of AmDram lunacy, when so many burners shout, “Thank you lamplighters, we love you!” as you’re walking along in your white robe, you decide – yet again – to park that British cynicism and allow yourself to be swept along. And it's freeing, to allow yourself to just enjoy it even though it's a split infinitive, and for that liberation, you're grateful.
  • And of course, whatever spectacle is occurring directly in front of you, whether you’re having a good day or a bad day (and, without exception, everyone you speak to has had both), there is the desert – the staggering beauty of that extraordinary lunar whiteness, the heat, the wind, the dust, the flatness, the total lack of any vegetation, no trees, no birds, no water. It’s an unforgettable, peaceful, crazy, inspiring place, and anyone who witnesses it is surely grateful.
  • And on your penultimate morning you're doing yoga in a pair of leopard print leggings and a bikini top, and the girl two rows away is wearing skimpy black knickers, red and white striped stockings, black geek glasses and nothing else. You’re trying to feel zen while vaguely wondering how you’re going to get to Reno the next morning to catch the Greyhound back to San Francisco. After class, the guy next to you invites you and your friend back to his camp, introduces you to his daughter and their friends, makes you a delicious fruit smoothie and Vegemite on toast with mashed avocado, the first green vegetable you’ve seen in days. Eventually a plan forms and one of his campmates drives you back to your RV in his truck to pick up your luggage, a 45 minute round trip, for no reason other than to be nice. And maybe because he fancies you, who knows, who cares, you're grateful.
  • And on your last night, after the Man has burned and the fireworks have shattered your already broken mind, you’re wearing a fur coat and an EL wire headdress, handing out cookies by a flaming metal structure, and a girl asks, “Is there any LSD in them?” and you say, “No.” And she says, “Oh well then, no thanks.”
  • And too soon it's the next morning, and you have bruises all over your back from having to break into your RV at 2am to get the last of your possessions, and two men in their seventies drive you the four hours back to Reno and won't accept any money towards gas, but tip the bellboy at their casino hotel $20 to look after you. And the casino is a terrible shock after days without financial transactions, but the swimming pool contains water, and you haven’t been wet for six days, and by god, you’re grateful yet again.

So yes, it’s self-indulgent and it’s absurd and everything I described above is true, but really I've told you none of it. It's not really possible to articulate what it's like and only a real dimwit would try to describe it in a blog. It is by no means a vacation, it’s prohibitively expensive for many, and it is categorically not for everyone. If sex, drugs or deafening dubstep at 7am upset you then it will be a challenge. But in this modern world of overpowering media, fear, uniformity and corporate greed, a week in the desert with no dollars, no advertising, no mobile phones, no labels, no nothing – it’s a life-changing shift in perspective that I can only hope I cherish forever. I apologise wholeheartedly to my two RV campmates who witnessed me at my worst on far too many occasions, but if they looked at the right time, they also saw me at my best and – no surprises here – for the experience I had, the highest of highs and the darkest of lows, I am profoundly grateful.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Week 5: Money to burn(ing man)

When this appears on the internet, I will be far away from computers – or, at least, far away from ones I can access – so I’ve set this to post on a schedule, one of a million minutiae I’ve had to consider in advance of leaving for the States. For, all being well, it is there that I am as you read this, across the pond in the Big Country, on an elaborate bankrupting mission that will take me from San Francisco to Yosemite, Reno, the Nevada desert, Kentucky and Chicago. And, if we've managed to adhere to our itinerary, at the peak of this particular week I’ll be camped on the playa at the Burning Man festival and hopefully having the time of my little life.

When I went to my first festival in 2009, the whole experience left me as wide-eyed as I get, which is not really very much at all, actually, because I am battle-hardened and deep-down-insecure and don't want anyone to catch me exhibiting signs of weakness, of which enthusiasm definitely is one. You wouldn’t catch James Dean hooting with crazed excitement just because he was finally in a place where it’s not just acceptable but positively encouraged to regard a pint of Pimm’s as a healthy breakfast option. If Dean wouldn’t hoot, then I wouldn’t either.

But inside I was delighted. From the word go, I loved the seeming equality of festivals, the freedom and the acceptance, the yes-she's-eighteen-stone-and-wearing-a-tiny-bikini-and-a-tutu-and-that's-totally-cool-ness of it all. Inevitably there were a few grey areas, but basically, festivals appeared to be a brief stretch of time and space when everyone came together for the same reason under the same skies. I took to it like a lonely, fat millionaire takes to internet porn.

And then Andrew, eyes wide, tone wistful, told me about Burning Man: a festival in the Black Rock desert, the second largest flat region in the Northern Hemisphere. It's been going since the late eighties and now has about 50,000 participants, so it’s still a lot smaller than, for example, Glastonbury (which sold around 170,000 tickets this year). But the real difference isn’t size: Burning Man is an experiment in community and “radical self-reliance.” Held in the middle of a fearsome patch of prehistoric lakebed, the festival is off-grid. There’s no permanent infrastructure, there are no roads, no hospitals or shops, and there's no money. It's a city that exists for one week out of every 52, and then vanishes without trace. Any art vehicles have to adhere to the speed limit of 5mph. The one store sells only coffee and ice. Burners have to bring everything they need for the week, all food, drink and shelter, and if you don't have enough water when they check at the gate, they'll make you turn back. It’s too hot to do much during the day except cycle round and look at the plentiful community art, but at night the temperature drops from 40 to 5, people don their crazy costumes and the weird shit continues by the light of the moon and generator-powered neon. There are a lot of extraordinary outfits, naked people, strange sex acts, illegal drugs and dust storms.

From the moment I heard about it, I knew it was a world away from the corporate safety of Glastonbury. In January this year, I booked my ticket.

You can tell I’m a late adopter – 2011 is the first year that Burning Man has ever sold out. I’m following the curve and, since I committed to go, have read many articles discussing the fact that BM’s ideals can’t work quite so well in practice as they do on paper. Even before I left the UK, Burning Man taught me something significant: radical self-reliance doesn't come cheap. I’ve haemorrhaged money on a range of extraordinary items in order to participate fully: a gold catsuit, wigs, a fleece tiger costume, adhesive jewels, metres of glow-in-the-dark EL wire, walkie talkies (there's no phone reception in the desert), goggles for duststorms, neon facepaint, a fake fur coat for the cold nights, a book about palmistry and a billion pairs of earplugs. Then there's my flight to the States of course, and the cost of hiring the gas-guzzling 32 foot RV where my friends and I will sleep. Most people camp in tents but shifting that amount of gear across the Atlantic wasn't feasible so it had to be an RV. We'll no doubt spend hundreds of dollars on supplies and we've also had to rent bicycles so we can get around the vastness of the playa once we're parked up. Trying to argue that this festival is about radical self-reliance is about as silly as claiming that EastEnders is about being a Londoner. Yeah, you need to be pretty organised to get the most out of it but, way more than hot planning skills, you need cold hard cash.

We are three selfish, well-off chancers, leaving one luxurious existence and spending thousands between us to fund the most extravagant camping trip of our lives. I’m under no illusions - this is not reality, it’s not sustainable and, regardless of what the website claims, this week in the dust can't really be about equality. It isn't only us foreigners who are blowing huge chunks of cash on this crazy adventure - take a look here at the effort that's been ploughed into developing one of the numerous theme camps. How many man hours have been contributed by how many skilled, creative individuals? I’m fascinated: who are these people with so much time, talent and money and why are they choosing to spend them on this? Will I get to the playa and feel sick at the waste, the short-termness of it all, or will I be swept along with the extraordinary, rare, raw creativity of it all? Probably both. Of course it's a good thing: it's about love, it's entirely voluntary, it's participatory, inclusive, challenging, free from corporate sponsorship; it's real, it's sexy, it's extreme, it's a one-off. But surely it's also kidding itself if it thinks it's not about the money...? And then again - who the hell am I to say what people should do with their hard-earned dollars? What's wrong with spending hundreds of hours and bucks on an unforgettable life experience? Sure, that time and money could be invested in US healthcare policy or African AIDS prevention - but am I seriously so burdened with middle-class guilt that I think no one's allowed to be selfish and irresponsible once in a while?

Readers, as you scroll down this page, I'll be doing my level best to answer all those questions and more, through a pleasant haze of boxed white wine and playadust. I’m fairly sure I’ll be learning, which - apart from drinking white wine - is pretty much my favourite thing to do. And I’ll certainly have many opportunities to hone my ‘I’m not shocked’ face as some dusty dwarf threeway takes place a few feet from where I’m standing. (They’re big on dwarves at Burning Man, it seems). A while ago, I was chatting online to a guy who’s been to Burning Man seven times, and I asked him if he had any advice for a newbie. He told me to take good, warm fancy dress costumes, buy some EL wire to make sure my bicycle could be easily identified in a pile of a hundred at three in the morning, and to make sure I was unattached when I go. That was in June and I've been his devoted girlfriend since July so, despite his advice, I'll be firmly set to look-but-don't-touch mode. Doesn't mean I can't enjoy myself though: for all the killjoy moralising, I'm still FREAKING EXCITED. Burning Man is allegedly the best party in the world, and I've got a ticket. See you on the other side.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Week 4: I get cross with The X Factor

As you will of course be aware, I am a prodigiously bright woman in my mid-thirties, in possession of an impressive selection of carefully-honed views on equality, race and national politics, as well as all my faculties. In addition to my fierce intellect, I am fortunate to be staggeringly gifted in a wide range of career millieux and more traditional yet impressive pastimes. I also pride myself on my supreme humility. Impossible though it may be for you to accept, however, I am not bionic. Alongside my clear superiority in almost every field of human existence, I remain (embarrassingly attractive) flesh and blood with base needs and desires, just like all you less fortunate weaklings. There are chinks in my armour.

Yes, yes, Libya’s in turmoil, Gaddafi’s gaddafied, there remains much riot fall-out in London, the global economy still looks less healthy than the contents of a festival longdrop, but when it comes to my pulse, nothing else has set it racing of late quite like the prospect of The X Factor 2011. Of course it is beneath me. Of course it perpetuates almost everything that’s wrong with society: the desperate craving for celebrity, money and adoration; the idea that working nine to five in a normal job is for losers; Dermot O’Leary. But, like squeezing a medium sized spot less than two hours before a vital social occasion, even though it is obviously not in my own best interests, I cannot resist.  

And so the new series began on Saturday, and I watched it on Sunday afternoon, and there were the three new judges, all of whom seemed OK, none of whom made up for the loss of Cowell. And the first contestant was a teenager with messy hair so contrived it made Lady Gaga look laissez-faire, and Dermot O’Loveshimself asked him why he was there, and Hairboy said it was because he wanted to be famous, and wanted to get lots of girls, and then it just happened to emerge (because he volunteered the anecdote without any prompting whatsoever, on stage, during his audtion, in front of the judges and 8000 people at the O2 arena, and now the nation) that he’d been on holiday and had the name of seven girls tattooed on his bum, and before you know it, his jeans and boxers are down and he’s showing the judges his frankly odd buttocks, in that there doesn't seem to be much of a cleft and there are definitely too many spots for a national TV airing, but I'm not meant to be noticing that, I'm meant to be looking at the ill-advised black font depicting, yes, the names of seven girls, and no one asks him about the significance of the names, whether these are conquests or fantasies or just maybe moniker ideas for his first daughter. And then he sings and it’s average, y’know, it’s just fine, but of course he gets through to the next round because he’s a cheeky teenager who reminds Louis of ‘a young Robbie’. And I’m sighing and huffing and rolling my eyes and losing faith with the world, and I haven't enjoyed myself so much in ages.

And everything else continues pretty unremarkably (with the brief exception of a certifiable Asian lady with a stomach bug, who stands retching near Dermot for a tantalisingly long time before going on stage, disappointingly never actually covering him with the vomit he so deserves), until we get near the end of the hour, and a doll-like girl walks on stage - she’s Janet, she’s sixteen and from Northern Ireland, and tells everyone who’ll listen that she’s from a really quiet place and there’s not much to do there, as if that fact alone will get her through to boot camp, although it’s clearly the production team trying to pull on our heartstrings, but I am a grown woman from London and it will take a lot more than THAT to manipulate me. And she's impossibly marketable as she bites her lower lip winningly, looks coquettishly up through her eyelashes and tucks her hair behind her ear, and then she tells us she's going to sing Your Song "by Elton John." And I make a gutteral noise indicating utter frustration, and flail about on the sofa with rage at what is about to happen, and then she begins her effort and it sounds like this:

If you were able to stop the bile rising at the ridiculous twee-ness of her performance, which should clearly only be played over footage of a miniature pink unicorn eating vanilla cupcakes at the end of a rainbow, you might be forgiven for thinking that she has an iota of innate talent. Unless, however, you had the misfortune of seeing a John Lewis ad at the end of 2010, which had this as its soundtrack:

Anything familiar here? Something "A LITTLE BIT FUNNY"? Let's all stroke our chins rhythmically while saying, "Hmmmm...", because what Janet has done is to replicate another version precisely, to perform a cover of a cover, changing absolutely nothing except the vowel sound of ‘song’ to something approximating 'sawrng', hamming up her Northern Irish roots so that the TV producers can put the deposit down for a second home in Mauritius. OK, she’s only sixteen and she can clearly sing (if you like that kind of breathy, whimsical, I-believe-in-fairies schmaltz) but they’re meant to be looking for a superstar and I don’t know about you, but in my book, being a superstar is about originality. So throughout her two minute performance, I naively, weakly hope that the judges will mention this, make even a tiny hint that she isn’t quite a musical wunderkind, that they don’t need to call off the search just yet, but no, the song ends and they’re all on their feet, gushing, visibly shocked at her brilliance, and I forgive Kelly Rowland because it’s possible that she doesn't know the Ellie Goulding version, but Gary Barlow surely spends his entire shopping life in John Lewis and listening to Radio 2: the chances of him not knowing that Janet’s just played the CD to death and imitated what she’d heard are zero.

And Janet bites her lip again and looks all emotional as she’s told she’s through to the next round, and all over the UK, grannies wipe a tear away and thousands of reality show hopefuls get the message that originality is dangerous, that imitation is what’s needed, and I switch off the TV in despair and book a return flight to Australia, where I plan to go to the jungle, capture a lyre bird, play it whatever shit ballad is currently sweeping the nation, enter it into next year’s X Factor, and win. Interview that, Dermot.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Week 3: Friends, morons, c(o)untrymen

At the end of the last POTW, I asked whether I should cull those Facebook friends whose views I felt were abhorrent. It is now a few days later and I have been overwhelmed and moved by the intensity of the feedback, with literally five people contributing their opinions.

A whopping 80% of the respondents (four people) said I should maintain my connection with the bigots, although their reasons for tolerance varied. My pragmatic reader, Dalrymple, reminded me that being Facebook friends with irritating people causes increased cardiovascular action and is thus a cheap form of exercise. Matt suggested that, if I really want anything to change, I must stay friends with those I find objectionable and keep writing instructive blog posts in the hope that they might read them and become less prejudiced. And, in a flashback from pretty much every meal we've ever eaten together, my mother also said I shouldn’t defriend, because “everyone is entitled to their opinions whether they agree with you or not.”

The commenter whose advice most made me cock my head to one side in thought, however, was Hannah, who said that if she defriended all the people who annoyed her on FB, she’d end up with hardly any friends. Poor Hannah, I thought. What an awfully sad state of affairs it is when the majority of your online connections are irritating.

Then I looked at my own friend list. And I made a pie.

The best Facebookers by far are those who write funny or inspiring status updates, regularly share photos and post intelligent links to material elsewhere on the internet so that I learn new things. It doesn’t matter whether I know these people in real life or not: they actively contribute to my enjoyment of Facebook, are improving my life and I’m thoroughly glad they exist.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 11

Cull chances: zero. These people are the reason I am on Facebook.

Givers on coke, the Overloader offers so much information that my News Feed becomes plagued by their insignificant ramblings. A well-timed, pithy statement about something current? Yes please. A two paragraph, ill-informed rant about something that happened last week is not so welcome, however, nor is a tepid anecdote about your toddler getting its facepaint on your curtains. And I don’t care that you’re at Heathrow, or that you’re tired, or that you had a totally fabulous weekend!!!!?!!? Either teach me something valuable, make me laugh, or shut up.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 5
Cull chances: low. ‘Hide’ chances, however, are sky high. The ‘Hide’ button is a diplomatic godsend, and I use it liberally. You’re protected from your friends’ dullness AND you avoid having to bludgeon them. Win win.

By far my least-liked category, and also the largest, Takers are those people who are good fun in real life but who, online, are basically mute. They don’t comment on posts, don’t often upload photos and they haven’t clicked ‘like’ on my blog’s fanpage. These are the selfish FB users, enjoying the effort others put into the site but giving little in return.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 39

Cull chances: low. Despite gaining almost nothing from my connection with them on the site and having several alternative means to contact them outside FB, I can’t defriend them as it would be awkward if they noticed. See, I am politeness personified.

Takers but without the real life appeal: like a wheelie bin, I’d consider it an minor irritation to bump into them in the street. I’m basically only FB friends with Mehs because I panic that the moment I defriend them, I’ll immediately need to reach them about some sort of unique job opportunity.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 32

Cull chances: low. There’s no real point ditching any of this lot – they don’t DO anything on FB so they’re easily ignored.

Pity Votes
These are FB friends who I accepted because I felt sorry for them. Includes those with single-digit friend counts and my mother.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 2
Cull chances: zero. I can't be responsible for anyone else self-harming.

A small category of miscellaneous FB users that I’m not sure how to handle. Includes someone’s baby (WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO?) and a deranged German chef.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 2
Cull chances: moderate.

The Exempt category consists of celebrities, and they can do what the hell they like. The sight of their names popping up on my News Feed brightens my day in the superficial way that only a weak-minded idiot such as myself can appreciate.
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 1
Cull chances: zero.

Those of my FB friends that I actively dislike, the Wanker category might include (but is not limited to) neo-liberals, bigots, filterless self-obsessives, those who think skiing is a basic human right, evangelical Christians, blinkered vegans, superficial idiots working in the Middle East, car obsessives, self-aggrandising career pushers and apostrophe haters. I became FB friends with them innocently, thinking we had something in common, but gradually it emerged that in fact they are misguided people with some rank and depressing views, which have at times brought me to tears at the hopelessness of our society’s situation – for how can things improve when educated people spout such tripe?
Percentage of my FB friends who fall into this category: 9
Cull chances: ay, here’s the rub. Yes Mum, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but if I find someone's spurious spurtings objectionable, I don’t have to accept them soiling my Newsfeed. Why should Wankers get the benefit of my friendship on Facebook (for, of course, I am an exemplary FB Giver)? Why should they have the privilege of enjoying my exceptional photos, smirking at my wry status updates and becoming better dinner party guests having read the fascinating links I circulate? Surely they should be punished for their sins: I should defriend. But I know I can't, because to do so would be to ignore reality. I live in enough of a left-leaning bubble already without pulling the velvet curtains tight around me and blocking out all dissenting perspectives; I wouldn't be much of a grownup if I could only bear those whose opinions exactly matched my own. I'm actually a big fan of tolerance and a fully paid up member of the Variety Is The Spice Of Life Society – I know it’s important that I stay abreast of all views, not least as a vital aid to understanding my own father. And Matt's right: maybe, just maybe, one day they'll read something I write and change their mind about something. That would feel pretty freaking good. Preaching to the converted is fun up to a point, but everyone likes a challenge.

And so, we have our answer, and (as always) it is love. Love All The People. The realisation that I only really like being Facebook friends with about 11% of the total is a little depressing, but I also have a newfound appreciation for the Wankers and have grudgingly admitted that my online life would be a lot more narrow and boring without them. So for once it's a pleasingly straightforward solution: do nothing. The cull is cancelled.

Same time next week.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Week 2: I get a bit older but have nothing of note to say on the subject

I promised last week that I wouldn’t always be so serious, but clearly Britain’s youths are early adopters of Peak of the Week. Evidently, they read that blog entry and decided to take me down like a three-legged baby gazelle in the Serengeti, convening to formulate a plan that would scupper my intentions of hilarity. It’s certainly working: these riots are making it almost impossible for me to be my usual egocentric self.

My original intention was to write about aging, for it is that what I have done: since you last heard from me, I’ve left my Hamlet phase and moved one step closer to death, turning 34 last Thursday. Thirty four. They say that women hate getting older, that birthdays make them miserable, that their biological clocks are screaming, that they panic about their lost youth, so I thought I’d have lots to say about my latest annual shift, or at least a few witty paragraphs to elicit knowing smiles and complimentary comments. However, I’ve been 34 for several days now, and my feelings on the subject are uncharacteristically brief: Not Bothered. The truth is, I’ve only become happier as I’ve got older, I’m not that fussed about babies and I certainly look a lot better than I did a few years back. Plus, I had two brilliant nights out to celebrate. At this rate, I’ll be the smuggest person on the planet by the time I hit forty.

So – no conflict there. No stories of early onset incontinence or crows’ feet. No yearning for the distinctly unheady days of my yore. No complaints at all, just one solitary white pubic hair that I think might have always been there, the freak product of an albino follicle.

Alors – so it’s back to the riots, where there’s conflict coming out of our ears. But while many are exhibiting surprise and shock at the events happening all over the UK, I feel distinctly ungobsmacked. Don’t get me wrong: I care, of course I care. It’s awful and terribly sad that anyone thinks that their time is well spent by smashing the window of a small independent florist while the owner looks on, crying and helpless. Innocent people have been mugged, attacked, terrified, shot and killed. Worse, a diner at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Holland Park lost her engagement and wedding rings.

It is very bad indeed. I hate violence of any kind. ANY kind. Burning down businesses, cars, homes; attacking innocent people in the street – it’s disgusting. But I’m not remotely shocked that it’s happening. Our kids have consumption coursing through their blood. They’ve been brought up in a country where education standards are falling, where possessions are all-important; in a society that shows us that owning stuff is all that counts, where no matter what Jessie J tells us, it is mos’ DEFinitely all about the money, money, money, that without it you’re better off dead because you sure as hell won’t get a job in the current climate. And then, over one glorious summer weekend, their total lack of cash suddenly stops being a barrier to having exactly what they want. They’re getting a chance to play supermarket sweep – in all likelihood without recriminations – in their favourite shops. They can smash, grab AND get on TV. It’s not right. It’s not OK. But it’s not surprising.

Britain has one of the widest income gaps in the world. People at the bottom end of our society are desperately poor, often ill-educated, pretty much devoid of role models and utterly hopeless. All around them, they see the rich getting richer. And, if they do read the papers, they'll know that their benefits are being cut, that their chances of getting a job are lower than ever, that they’ll never own a home and that the current government is making huge hacks into the welfare state without raising taxes for the very wealthiest. If I’d had their life experience, I reckon I’d be looting too.

What has upset me way more than the rioting, therefore, is the lack of comprehension shown, not just by stiff people my parents’ age, but by my younger friends, people I know on Facebook, who've labelled all the perpetrators as ‘scum’, who can’t see a better solution than bringing in the army and – longer term – signing an e-Petition that sees all convicted rioters losing all their benefits. Really? OK, let’s get tanks into the streets. Let’s encourage the police to fire at these young men who are heaving flat-screens out of Curry’s. Let’s use tear gas and rubber bullets that are meant to be non-lethal but which have killed nearly 20 people in Northern Ireland, eight of them children. That’s sure to calm the situation down. That will placate the rioters who are genuinely angry about the botched death of Mark Duggan last Thursday, or the teenagers who’re finally able to get their hands on boxfresh trainers for the first time in their lives. What do you want, civil war?

After that, yes, let’s cut their benefits. Let’s leave these miserable, angry, hopeless people with even less than they have now. SRSLY? I mean, I despair. If this is really what educated people think will improve the situation, then we’re all going to the dogs anyway. Head in hands.

Yes, these angry people who are terrorizing our streets need to be stopped, and fast. We’re all upset and ashamed. But these riots aren’t merely the cruel, isolated actions of some lowlife scumbags – these scumbags are the product of our longterm choices. They are OUR scumbags. Contrary to much of what I've read in the press and on social media sites, understanding why they have behaved in this way is categorically not akin to condoning it. It is possible to comprehend how this happened without saying it's OK that it did. Comprehension is not pity, not sympathy - it is not showing solidarity with the rioters.

I do not condone what happened, but I do not believe that mentally segregating off the criminals, seeing them as some freakish other type of Lower Human, is useful or desirable. I believe that the cause of the riots lies on all our doorsteps, that what is happening reflects badly on every single one of us. We get the society we deserve. The only way this is going to stop, long term, is when the income gap is narrowed, when the rich are taxed more, when services are not cut in this brutal way, when those behind this INSANE fiscal policy wake up and admit that it has made ABSOLUTELY NO DIFFERENCE to the limitless greed and ingenuity of City bankers, that the bankers' bank balances are not under threat, when the poor regain a sense of hope and possibility, when community bonds regenerate, when this terrible ‘us’ and ‘them’ culture we’ve created finally becomes more about ‘we’. I know, I know, gag and retch at my disgraceful cheesiness. But then take on board what I say: I’m right.

Now on to the REALLY important question: do I defriend?

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Week 1: I write about feminism

I’m still embedded in a years-long strop with Caitlin Moran, the flames of my one-sided rage fanned constantly by the fact that she is so plainly better at Being Alive than I am, so for several weeks I resisted purchasing her latest book, How To Be A Woman. I finally conceded defeat when the number of women who recommended I buy it hit half a century; I read it on Monday.

There were bits I didn’t like and I vehemently disagree with her about burlesque, but it would be someone far more dense than I who’d begin a new weekly blog by criticising the doyenne of Twitter. So there’s also this: much of the book was quite good and it made me laugh several times. And – unlike so many of the tomes piling up in WH Smith’s – it definitely deserves to exist. Feminism may feel obvious to a lot of us, but nonexistent god knows we still have a way to go.

I recently had the good fortune to be lying poolside in Italy, wings of tanned backfat hanging gently towards the hinge of the conifer-green plastic lounger. Alongside me were several others, all expressing strong opinions about gender equality. Our choir tours are a laugh a minute, I tell you. Rob the tenor made the point that female emancipation in the UK is so good in comparison to many other countries that we should be thanking our lucky stars rather than complaining about our sky-high glass ceiling, like telling someone who’s being violently sick having eaten a dodgy prawn at a cheap Soho takeaway that they can’t complain because there are people in Iran who’ve never even been to Soho.

Context is important, yes. I could be being stoned by an angry mob because I’ve had sex outside marriage. Like millions of women the world over, I could be told to cover my hair with a scarf, or it could be illegal for me to get into a car with any man who’s not family. All these scenarios would seriously impinge on my concept of freedom, and if someone marched in here now and said I had to abide by those rules, I’d laugh in their face and then, if they turned out to be telling the truth, I would cry and then protest, and then possibly go to prison or be executed, which would be a real shame as I’m very excited about my holiday at the end of August. So YES Rob the tenor, OBVIOUSLY it could be worse.

But problems persist. The biggest is awareness: many people don't even know how much unfairness still knocks about. While a lot of us are pretty clear on current inequalities, there's a sizeable gaggle out there that doesn’t seem to be aware of how deeply mismatched things remain. I’m employed by a global corporation where there is not a single woman on the Management Board. In the building where I work, there are no male secretaries. Doesn’t sound like we’re equal to me – but I don’t see any of my colleagues complaining.

Being clear that things are far from equal is only the start, though - the next challenge is knowing how to change things. Like a huge, bemammaried posse of Martin Luther Kings, many of us have powerful dreams of parity, but we know that on a practical level, they’re not going to happen any time soon, and that inflicting Shard-high standards on our nearest and dearest is an easy way to guarantee spinsterhood and a lifetime of being pitied for being a principled bore. So it’s become a case of loudly proclaiming, ‘The status quo sucks: THIS is what should be happening,’ while quietly putting up with the inequalities we face every day, because being a pain in the ass about it would be social suicide.

Most of us know it sucks the way that women are seen as sexual objects. Half-naked females advertise shower gel, cars, coffee tables. Plenty of strippers say they enjoy giving lap dances, that it’s liberating, that they’re empowered by making money from men’s weaknesses. There are enough females out there who act very happy to be unequal – so if you wear normal clothes and have normal skin and normal body hair, if you’d rather your boyfriend didn’t need to watch internet footage of two impossibly thin, tanned, hairless women working themselves into a frenzy in order to get turned on, if you consider anal sex a bit much for a first date, if you’re prudish about anything at all, you’re often perceived as boring, or a lesbian, or – unrecoverable – a boring lesbian.

Most of us want to feel like our bodies are good enough without spending hundreds of pounds on maintenance. But the men we date grew up expecting a certain level of female grooming and learning about sex and women’s bodies from porn. So how can it be THEIR fault when they lose their erection because you’ve got stubbly calves? (Yes, that actually happened to me. They weren't that bad, I swear. But I’ve since spent several hundred pounds on laser hair removal, so who's the dickhead?) We’re left eating from Morton’s fork: either we refuse to tick the boxes that pretty much all men have come to demand, safe in the knowledge that there’s no shortage of girls out there who will. Or we clamber aboard the bandwagon, muttering our complaints, and hope that things will change, in time.

Many of us think it’s absurd that society expects us to change our name when we get married. Why should we be the only ones to alter our identity? Why should our prefix change from Miss to Mrs, while his doesn’t shift? Why should we be tagged with an engagement ring to show that we’re off the market, while our boyfriend wears no visible sign of commitment? But we’ve grown up in a marriage-obsessed society, and many of us still want to be part of a family that has a brand name. The obvious solution: both partners change their names to something new and cool, both partners wear engagement rings. Great in theory – but if you’re planning on waiting ’til you find a Mr Right who’ll agree to those rules, you’ll be twiddling your thumbs for a long time. So we get new passports, grudgingly accept that our children will bear his surname, and we hope things will change, in time.

Most of us know that – in the vast majority of jobs – gender should not affect employability. Given equal work experience, women are every bit as worthy of the top jobs as men and deserve to be paid the same as a man to do them (not an average of 30% less, as is the case at present). But we know that – as things stand – having children changes everything, that the time we take off to bring up our kids means we’re not able to compete in the same ballpark, that time and again the CVs of broody-likely women will be overlooked by employers. We know that, until men take as much leave as women following the birth of a child, until they’re just as likely to ask to go part time, to have to leave at 4pm to do the school run, we won’t be seen as equals in the workplace. We want men to feel free to take just as much paternity leave as women take maternity. We want our partners to feel as though, if they want to spend six months on statutory pay at home with their newborn, they can – that their colleagues do it too, that their bosses understand that it’s a unique opportunity to bond with their tiny child, that society would provably be better for all of us if more new dads got stuck in. We want it to be standard practice. Yet in reality, we fear this is surely decades away, that many millions of dads don’t want to share the load 50/50, that their career is too important to their self-esteem, that we’d have to be certifiable to force our partners to jeopardise their jobs by pressurising them to take the same amount of time off as we do. And more often than not, by the time a kid comes along, we’re already doing jobs that are way less lucrative than our male partner’s, and so to insist they risked that chunk of income would be shooting ourselves in the financial foot. We're trapped. So we have our babies, and we do the lion’s share of the parenting, and hope that things will change, in time.

Like my dad getting out of his armchair, progress with an issue this big is rarely smooth or speedy. I’m confident that things are improving, though. My request? That we all complain loudly and regularly about the many inequalities that continue to infect our society. That we accept neither the status quo nor Status Quo. And that we moan big, moan often, and hire male secretaries.

Don’t worry, I won’t always be this serious.