The Power of a Magnetic Addiction

I’m not ashamed to admit this but I have an addiction! It isn’t dangerous, it doesn’t threaten to plunge me into destitution, nor does it induce the kind of yobbish behaviour that might justify an ASBO. In fact I revel in the ambiguity my habit provokes among my friends. On the one hand they condemn it but because it’s so ridiculously cheap, they’re only too happy to indulge me when I demand a fix. My addiction doesn’t have a name, although I’m reliably informed by Wikipedia that if I lived in Russia I would be called a memomagnetic. It’s a rather grand title to confer on a fridge magnet collector, but who am I to complain?

So when did my addiction start? About eight years ago I was browsing in a London cookery shop when I saw a small pile of fridge magnets stashed amongst rows of pots, pans and food processors. It was a motley collection consisting of plastic quiches the size of a fifty pence piece, portly looking chefs with white puffy hats and handlebar moustaches, and mushroom shaped recipe books. As I had only recently decorated my kitchen and needed something colourful to jazz up the white blandness of the fridge and freezer doors, I opted for a mushroom and a chef. Since then I’ve never looked back and my fridge magnet collection has grown considerably, although it’s nothing compared to Louise J Greenfarb’s of Henderson, Nevada, who in 2002 reportedly had over 30,000 magnets to her name.

That’s a bit excessive even by my standards although I do take pride in owning a collection where some of my most cherished pieces come with their own story. There’s the pot-bellied pink teddy bear with the soulful eyes, a miniature red rose wired around its neck and magnets on all four paws. It was an unwanted gift from a friend who’d got it from the fiancé who then dumped her. She’d suspected that things weren’t right because moments before giving her the bear he’d said there was something he needed to get off his chest. Since I also collect teddies I couldn’t deny this one a home, and he now takes pride of place on the fridge door with an Irish leprechaun, a Belgian beer mug, and a basket of dim sum dumplings for company.

Not all of my magnets are rejects. Some are souvenirs from mine or other peoples’ travels, others were picked up in small job lots at boot fairs, while a friend almost got arrested for getting five of them on my behalf. He’d scored them from a  memomagneticist outside a dodgy bar in South London, during which a plain clothes drugs officer interrupted the transaction. He thought he’d find some Colombian marching powder but he uncovered an egg shaped fridge magnet from Norway, an Austrian boy doll in lederhosen who yodels like a cockerel when the button on his back is pressed, a cocktail glass with a gold stirrer and a poker hand in the rim, a massive pair of scarlet red lips that squeak “I love you, I love you” every time the fridge vibrates, and a Perspex beer bottle with a bottle opener at one end and a plastic dolphin swimming around inside. The officer didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Collecting fridge magnets might not be to everyone’s liking, but for hardcore devotees like me it’s a welcome diversion from some of life’s more disturbing realities. Who wouldn’t laugh at the sight of Henry VIII driving a double decker bus with his six wives on board? Or salivate over a bowl of Chinese noodles sprinkled with herbs? It’s only a matter of time before other people will come around to my way of thinking and join the fun, just as it won’t be too long before a fridge magnet collection appears on the Antiques Road Show for a valuation, (assuming that hasn’t happened already!).

As for me I’m now moving my collection away from objects towards people. I’ve recently acquired a magnetic cut out figure of Lenin – complete with a wardrobe of biker jeans, an Elvis Presley jump suit and studded leathers. I may not know that much about one of the founding father’s of Communism, but he looks pretty cool when he’s dressed as the King of Rock n Roll! Comrades, take note!


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When the boot’s on the other foot

“So would you grass them up then, Yes or No?”

It was the second time I’d heard the question and a killer punch answer was proving elusive. My forehead was dotted with beads of sweat while my legs were shaking so hard I could’ve sworn that everyone in the room could hear the bones rattling. For my young interrogator, who had all but given up the pretence of hiding the larger than life smirk that had exploded across his face, my discomfort was grist to his mill. I had agreed to be interviewed for a student television project and it should have been a walk in the park. Yet here I was being placed on the back foot by someone old enough to be my son:

“It’s not a matter of Yes or No”, I replied, “It’s a bit more complicated than that!”

“You’re wrong”, he countered aggressively “It may be a hypothetical situation we’re discussing here but it’s still the legalities that count! Your mate’s suing a magazine for libel and then tells you the story’s true. Don’t you think you have a duty to report that to your editor?”

“I’m not suggesting you break the law, I’m highlighting a dilemma ”, I retorted, “Supposing it was your Mum and Dad who’d owned up? Would you expose them knowing they could be prosecuted for perjury?”

A glint of mischief lit up his dark eyes, “Do you know in the end I probably would” he said after a deliberate pause, “Because you can’t cherry pick the bits of the law that suit you best, otherwise what’s the point of it?”

I was about to respond with examples of ordinary people who’d broken the law for the good of the majority, but his lecturer ended the session before I could even blurt out a syllable. After I’d congratulated him on an interview technique that almost left me checkmated, we smilingly shook hands. I had narrowly avoided a humiliation of sorts, unlike the countless others who haven’t fared so well! I have never deliberately gone out of my way to trip somebody up on air, but I can now understand the sheer terror a guest must feel when they’re interviewed by a journalist with an axe to grind. The mind goes into overdrive whilst words are spoken with a monitored caution, as there’s always the danger an innocent remark can be turned into something incriminating. Is it any wonder that TV interviews are sometimes compared to being wrung through a contraption invented by the Spanish Inquisition?

But I must be a glutton for punishment as a fortnight after my encounter with the man who would be Jeremy Paxman, I agreed to do another interview, this time on Twitter. I didn’t really think that much about it until the event was less than a handful of days away and I was desperately trying to anticipate the areas where I was likely to be questioned.

“Don’t worry”, one of my journalist friends assured me, “You’ll breeze through it!”

“And you’re tempting fate”, I replied disconsolately, “After what that kid nearly did to me the other day I’m not so sure about anything!”

“Treat it as a one-off”, she laughed, “At least you won’t have a camera pointed in your face!”

Of course she was right but that wasn’t enough to take the edge off my caution. I’ve always been fairly comfortable with newspaper and radio interviews, but Twitter is in a different league altogether. Suppose I wrote something that was unintentionally disrespectful about a person or a place? And how could I stop the cyber flow if I accidentally forwarded a wrong message? But I needn’t have worried as the Twitter community was great, and apart from one slightly awkward question about a former work colleague, nobody asked me anything that was potentially compromising.

So having survived the experience, would I do it again? In a word, Yes! I enjoyed being in the hot seat because I actually felt I had some control over the situation. That’s important as most television interviewees, (with the exception of politicians who are media trained), are normally powerless and that makes them vulnerable to a mauling from a skilled inquisitor. I should know because I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve bypassed the blood on the carpet en route to a studio. Since I don’t fancy the prospect of being another of tomorrow’s victims, then Twitter is definitely the safer of the two options.

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The soup, the tomato, the wind and an exit!

Whenever Harriet comes to see me it usually means that something’s wrong. We’ve been friends for more than thirty years and she’s as predictable as a wet English summer. When she’s with me I know that a few hours of my time will have to be put aside for a lengthy exposition of her latest emotional drama, and last Wednesday was no exception to that rule. The only surprising thing about it was her dogged insistence that a bowl of soup was the cause of all her troubles.

“Joolz …I was just passing and thought I’d drop in. How are you and what’s that lovely husband of yours up to these days?”

Before I could even utter a syllable she had  made her way to the kitchen and was pulling a bottle of wine out of the fridge faster than a greyhound leaving a trap.

“I’m fine and John is too!” I said wearily, “So what’s up? Is Tom giving you aggro or something?”

Her eyes opened wide in astonishment, “Tom? Good grief no. What on earth makes you say that?” she laughed hesitantly after nervously gulping down a mouthful of white wine.

“Because you live 20 miles away from here and there’s no way you could’ve been just passing. And you never drink before mid-day. It’s not even a quarter to yet!”

The smile gradually evaporated from her face and before I knew it Harriet was sobbing hysterically over my kitchen table and talking in a blubbering, incoherent stream. Her husband Tom’s name was frequently mentioned in the same breath as the home made tomato soup she’d cooked for their supper the night before. I was more than just a little bit confused. Harriet can often surprise me with some of the things that come out of her mouth, but tomato soup was a first, “What’s soup got to do with this?” I said.

“Everything”, she wailed, “If I hadn’t made it he wouldn’t have left me!”

For once in my life I felt really helpless and could do nothing except put my arms around her shoulders and reassure her that he’d be back before she knew it.

“He won’t”, she sniffed, “He said I’d done it deliberately and that it would be my fault if he was crippled for life or if people kept away from him because of the smell!”

By now it was obvious that I was still none the wiser about the connection between a late night supper and her husband’s sudden exit, and it was only after some gentle persuasion that I finally got to the bottom of the mystery. Apparently Tom and tomatoes do not get on, to the extent that if he so much as sniffs or eats one, his knees supposedly swell up whilst his bowels erupt in terrific gales of flatulence.

“How could I have not remembered that?” she said pleadingly. “Of all the bloody stupid things to forget!”

A sympathetic “Oh dear” was the best I could offer in her hour of need. Tom and I never really got on that well but along with his mother, I was probably one of the few people who could actually tolerate him. The really amazing thing was that it took a bowl of soup to finally remove him from my friend’s life, even though he’d probably been planning to cut and run for quite some time and the meal was the excuse he’d needed.

Five and a half hours later Harriet was heading for home and looking a lot more cheerful than when she had first arrived. In the time we’d spent together it had slowly begun to dawn on her that she was now a free woman who owed her liberation to her soup. She offered to leave me a copy of the recipe but I declined.

“Well if you ever change your mind you know where I am,” she sighed wistfully.

“Thanks”, I said, “But I think I’ll be okay. John’s in excellent shape at the moment.”

We laughed and hugged affectionately. Afterwards I went back to the kitchen, opened the fridge and discovered some courgettes and a couple of rather sorry looking lemons on a shelf. As it’s beyond my ability to concoct a spur of the moment banquet, I flicked through a cookery book for inspiration. Lo and behold on page 17 was a recipe for courgette soup: unfortunately one of the ingredients was a pound of ripe tomatoes. Suddenly memories of the conversation with Harriet came flooding back, so in the end I decided to play it safe with an artery blocking supper of chicken in a basket.

* Names have been changed to protect the not so innocent!

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Beware of the man in the designer suit

It all started one morning with a polite but firm knock on the front door. Normally people very rarely come to the house so early in the day and it was with some wariness that I ran to the lounge to take a sneaky look at my visitor from behind a curtain. Standing before the doorstep was a tall, young man, with neat dark hair and pale skin.

But it was his expensive, navy blue pin stripe suit that really caught my attention, since something of that quality isn’t usually worn by the double glazing salesmen or mobile phone recyclers who regularly menace my neighbourhood. I was genuinely puzzled who he was until I opened the door and saw the BNP badge pinned to his lapel. I looked into his grey piercing eyes that had the cold, sharpness of raw steel. Neither of us could work out who was the more astonished as both our jaws seemed to drop at the same time! Clearly he hadn’t expected to find a black woman at home, just as I hadn’t thought I’d be eyeballing a man whose politics I disagree with. We parted company without exchanging a word!

Hours later when I analysed the encounter it dawned on me that the reason why I had opened the door to him in the first place was because I had been taken in by his suave appearance. That fact alone was enough to trigger a worrying train of thought. For better or for worse we live in a society that seems to care more about how people look rather than with what comes out of their mouths: which means that anyone with remotely dodgy views who happens to wear Armani accessorised with D&G, could spin a vile sugar-coated message whose obnoxiousness isn’t noticed by a pap obsessed generation. Is it wrong to believe that some of today’s young people are really that shallow? I don’t think so!

A recent conversation with the seventeen year old daughter of a girlfriend confirmed my worst suspicions. As we discussed Michael Jackson’s legacy she admitted that she only accepted the reports of his death when they appeared on People magazine website – even though it had earlier been confirmed by the BBC, Sky and ITV news.

“So why couldn’t you accept it when it was on the television?” I asked with undisguised incredulity.

There was an exasperated sigh followed by an explanation whose crassness would have probably offended a five-year-old:

“Because everybody knows a story’s only true when it’s printed by People magazine!”

“So as far as you’re concerned it can never be wrong?”

“Okay so it might not get it right all the time”, she said after a moment’s hesitation, “But it gets loads of stories about Britney and if she didn’t like People she’d hardly talk to them would she?”

“And I suppose you’d vote for her if she stood for Parliament?”

“Actually I would”, she grinned, “It’s about time they put some glamour into politics”.

I rolled my eyes towards the ceiling in despair bewildered as to how someone who was normally so intelligent could be that dense?

I’m old enough to remember the extremists of the 1970s along with their Nazi tattoos and open expressions of racism. Three decades later those same tattoos are hiding beneath designer clothes while the hate filled rhetoric has been cynically tempered to look reasonable and user-friendly. BNP hopes of a parliamentary seat may have been dashed in the recent elections, but down doesn’t necessarily mean out where they’re concerned. They’re looking for another way in and it worries me that the intellectual vacuum of a section of the younger generation is the potential front door. They may have re-packaged their message but all they need now is a new leader, with a tantalising aura to give the icing to a very poisonous cake. Maybe I’m too cynical for my own good, but I can only hope that tomorrow’s voters won’t leave it too late to wake up and shut the door on men in designer suits.

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My disastrous lop-sided wardrobe

There’s a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach triggered by a sudden twinge of anxiety. In a handful of minutes it snowballs into a massive wave that rises from the gut and into my throat, gripping my windpipe with a clasp that feels like a cold, weighted hand. The panic attack subsides as quickly as it started and I stare at the tape measure that caused it lying uncoiled at my feet on the bedroom carpet.

Surely it’s normal to have a major panic attack when you open your wardrobe, pull out a favourite suit and then discover that it doesn’t fit? That’s bad enough in itself but the fact that it was bought less than a year ago and cost a small fortune, makes it even worse. Having forced myself to count to ten, I did what any woman in my situation would do and went looking for a tape measure. Just as I’d spotted the strands of grey hair littering my scalp, surely I would have noticed if my waist and bust had been gathering a few extra inches? Obviously not, because according to the tape measure I’d gained an additional four! What’s even more infuriating is that I eat sensibly and exercise regularly, so how or where the extra weight came from is anyone’s guess, but what’s not in dispute is that I urgently need some new clothes.

In fairness there are one or two items that still fit, but I can barely get into the remaining dresses and trousers that once slipped on like a second skin. What’s equally frustrating is that although I’m officially a size 12, not all size 12 clothes are cut the same way. Some are too big; others are outrageously small while the rest seem to have a life of their own. One store I visited encouraged me to try on a size 14 dress but since the result was the equivalent of a five-year-old boy wearing his dad’s best suit, I decided to give that idea a miss.

The reality is I will never have a wardrobe that is straight forward and uncomplicated. My arms are too long, which means it’s difficult to find shirts that aren’t short in the sleeve: because I am so tall trouser hems hover ridiculously over the tops of my skinny ankles: and since my feet are as flat as pancakes, I can never wear ballet pumps or stylish sandals that don’t exacerbate their flipper like appearance. The bottom line is that I am getting older and am unable to resist the changes gradually altering the shape of my body.

“Don’t worry”, a girlfriend said to me consolingly over a low-calorie lunch, “There’s always cosmetic surgery!”

“Isn’t that a bit drastic?” I replied.

“Not necessarily”, she smiled, “You can always lose length on your legs by getting your knees readjusted. It’s amazing what surgeons can do these days! I was reading about it in a magazine.”

“Oh really! And what could they do with the rest of me?” I said.

She laughed enigmatically, “More carrot cake?”

I reckon that making the best of the lopsided contents in my wardrobe is probably the better and less painful of the available   options. Having said that it’s going to hurt like mad parting company with some of my favourite items of clothing, including the white evening gown I wore the very first time I clapped eyes on the man I eventually married. But as long as they go to a decent owner who’ll shower them with plenty of TLC, then I really can’t complain. In the meantime the high street had better watch out because I need some new suits and I won’t settle for anything less than a well-fitting size 13.

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Falling in love again…with the beautiful but flawed game

I’ve got a confession to make. For the third time in my life I have fallen truly, deeply, (though not quite madly), in love. It all happened rather suddenly, a bit like the way a lion pounces on a springbok, but with a lot more TLC. Apart from the fireworks at a 4th of July party, there’s nothing that even comes close to matching the intensity of what I’m feeling. So what is it that’s pushed up my pulse rate? English football of course! My romance is at an early stage, but it’s overcome more than its fair share of hurdles so the portents for longevity are already looking good. Nothing can hurt it, not even the fallout from our disastrous World Cup performance against Germany, although their 4-0 demolition of tournament favourites Argentina was some consolation.

It’s not just the army of WAGS and the diehard supporters who have an interest in the national team. Even people like me with a basic knowledge of soccer’s rules, are concerned about a sport invented in this county but in which we’re now lagging behind. How different it was all those decades ago when English football was up there with the greats and when home-grown stars like Sir Stanley Matthews, Geoff Hurst, and Bobby Charlton, dazzled a generation with their talent. Looking back it was an age of innocence and as a young girl I enjoyed a genuine bond with the beautiful game. I used to fight my siblings for the best seat in the lounge to watch the FA Cup Finals, and every Sunday afternoon rushed the household chores so that I could catch Brian Moore and the Big Match on ITV.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment when the relationship turned sour, but for a time soccer and I were like an estranged couple who wanted but couldn’t quite bring ourselves to kiss and make up. Fixtures went unmarked like proverbial ships in the night while I switched affection and turned my attention to tennis instead. And it might well have stayed that way if the old emotions hadn’t been dramatically kicked back into life earlier this year. Why? Because I had bought into the notion that England’s “golden generation” could emulate their 1966 forebears and bring the World Cup back to these shores. Sadly the dream is now dead… along with the hope of seeing the trophy on display at the opening of the 2012 London Olympics.

So why was the England team such a wash out? Personally I don’t think it’s fair to pile the blame on manager Fabio Capello. There’s a major flaw at the heart of English football: talent isn’t nurtured and the interests of the Premiership take precedence over those of the national squad. It’s difficult for the Football Association to do much about the problem as the demands of the Premier League ensures fully developed talent from around the world is recruited and this stymies opportunities for young English players. But at least the FA didn’t cave into the tabloid sports writers who demanded Capello’s sacking. That would have been like sticking a plaster over a bullet wound without removing the projectile.

Maybe the Germans did us a favour when they gave us a 4-1 thrashing. Our lads performed so badly it would’ve been a travesty if the result had been the other way round. Let’s face it English football is on the ropes and in dire need of a turnaround. That means making some tough choices, but it’ll be worth it in the end if the squad that emerges from the ruins of World Cup 2010 equals the achievements of 1966. There’ll be blood on the carpet and plenty of tears, but like a loyal WAG with a Gucci handbag, I won’t cut and run. English football can count on my support and maybe like me there’ll be countless others out there who’ll reconnect with the beautiful game.

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Watching the crowds…yet again!

Hurrah it’s over for another year and I can finally breathe again, after what felt like a week of oxygen deprivation without the prospect of a last-minute rescue. Yet no matter how much I complain about the crowds, the traffic snarled roads, or the debt I’ll run up in the search for something fashionable to wear, I know that I’ll always be drawn back into the irresistible, crazy madness that is Royal Ascot.

So given my obvious cynicism why do I always get edgy with excitement when spring gives way to summer and May switches to June? And why do I put myself through the delicious agony of looking for a standout hat that might get me photographed by a newspaper, or ridiculed by fellow race goers? Because Royal Ascot is to me what a zero fat meal is to a calorie obsessive dieter. In other words it’s the closest thing one can have to an obsession minus the side effects of an addiction.

“Big Brother without the vulgarity but with all the pretentiousness,” is how a close friend of mine once described it, and I’m inclined to agree with that. Okay so there isn’t a house with hidden cameras that’s crawling with back biting contestants, but Ascot has plenty of people worth watching since not all of them are necessarily there for the racing. Were the bonneted cougars tottering past my table in sky scraper stilettos and gravity defying minis genuine horse lovers, or were they prowling the scene for well-heeled, chinless wonder males? Similarly were the young bucks in their grey morning suits, patterned waist coats and silk banded top hats really throwing admiring glances at the women, or were they hoping that the lecherous drool of an undersexed stud would help them score?

Crowd watching at Royal Ascot is a surreptitious pleasure and I appraise my targets with careful discretion, even though I know that what I’m doing violates the rules of etiquette.  As children we’re taught by our parents that it’s rude to stare yet it’s hard not to in an environment where people will stop at nothing to get themselves noticed. Hence the endearing absurdity of Ladies Day or the lengths to which some people will go to challenge the strict code of dress. During a trawl through the Guardian website I came across a 1971 photograph of a man wearing velvet shorts, a matching waistcoat and white knee-high socks, cleverly getting around a ruling that barred women from wearing hot pants in the Royal Enclosure.

I’m the first to admit that what I know about racing cover’s an area of a postage stamp, unlike my husband and the majority of Ascot regulars who share a genuine love of the turf. My winnings at the Tote are usually small, although that’s nothing compared to the size of my observational skills which have grown considerably in the seven years since I first attended. Ascot will always have the comforting déjà vu of a battered old pair of slippers, and as long as it stays that way and doesn’t lose the social climbers, hangers-on or attention seekers who’ve unwittingly entertained me over the years, then I’ll definitely keep on going.

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