31 May 2011

The City Mouse and the Country Mouse

When I was a child, one of the stories of which I was fond was Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse, a take on the Aesop fable about the City Mouse and the Town Mouse. In this story, a country mouse samples the high life of a city mouse, and the city mouse visits the country mouse to sample his more humble life. In the end, each decides he prefers his own life.

I grew up in a suburb, but a very small suburb, with a population of about 18,000. Its history was, for the most part, fairly rural; I played in fields called 'The Cow Fields' and town institutions included a large farm where you could pick your own strawberries, and a country store in the midst of an apple farm. That country store is long gone, alas, but I can't smell mulled apple cider or feel the sharp bite of a blue autumn day without remembering it.

For these reasons, I always considered myself something of a country gal. I knew I didn't grow up in deepest countryside, but the city always seemed a large, scary place. Boston – the nearest city as I grew up – was always a bit of a mystery to me.

I've lived in London, or the surrounds of London, for the past 20 or so years, but still haven't really thought of myself as a ‘city mouse’ (even though, according to an infuriating newspaper I saw over the weekend, I am of the Sex and the City Generation…but that's a rant for another time).

When I go out into the country, though – like, the proper country – I realise that I am, indeed, a city mouse.

This weekend just gone, a friend and I went to the Hay Festival. Hay-on-Wye is a tiny village on the border between Wales and England, which, once a year, hosts a huge literary festival in which the city mice come to the country. My friend Rachel and I have visited the festival every year for the past 4 years, and very enjoyable it is too. But I always experience a bit of a culture shock when I go.

As we don't have the budget or forward planning skills to book a B&B or hotel, Rachel and I take advantage of the rooms being offered by locals in their own homes. These homes are usually in deep countryside. When I look out the window before bed, rather than seeing my neighbours, I see more stars than I ever imagined possible, shining against a black velvet sky. Instead of hearing the constant hum of traffic, I hear my own tinnitus whining against the silence of night. In the morning, instead of being woken by the crash of dustmen and the roar of commuter trains, I hear sheep and cockerels.

What do you MEAN, ‘no taxis’??!?!
You have to drive in the country. Drive everywhere. If you don't book a taxi a week in advance, you're screwed,or so it seems. The nearest supermarket may be 20 miles away. If you run out of something you can't nip out to a corner shop. You're screwed. If there's a snowstorm or flood, you're screwed.

And the country lanes. Dear god. The country lanes. For someone who grew up in the US – the nation of the car – British country lanes are a thing of true horror.

Allow me to explain to my American readers: country lanes are the width of one car. In fact, not even one car width, at times. My car bears the scars of hedges that reached out from the side of the lane to scratch its paintwork. The country lanes are winding and twisted, hemmed in by solid, towering hedges. The speed limit on these things, which an American might call a narrow footpath, is 60mph. You have no idea what is waiting for you around the next bend, or over the next brow of a hill. It could be another car, being driven by a complacent local at the speed limit; it might be an achingly vulnerable biker; it might be a lorry bearing down on you like Death itself. It might be an innocent animal; a fox or badger; a pheasant of breathtaking stupidity that strolls along the road as though danger is a foreign country. I'd rather have a convoy of tailgating Audi drivers on the motorway, frankly.

‘I feel sorry for you, living in London,’ said the slightly eccentric woman who hosted us this weekend, regarding Rachel and me with genuine pity. She lives alone with 2 cats, a dog, 4 horses and a clutch of hens. Her house is about 400 years old, and rehabilitating it has taken her years. It seems at once bucolic and ideal, and terrifyingly isolated. I mean, her house isn't even on SatNav!

To round off my sense of isolation, I couldn't even get a phone signal, the entire weekend. Addicted as I am to my iPhone and all it offers, it's amazing that I didn't have the shakes by Monday.

There are times when living in an urban environment drives me nuts. Too many people. Too much noise. Too much dirt. I love the gentle British countryside. But after a few nights there, I find myself itching to return to ‘civilisation’ – to a taxi service that doesn't take advance booking; to roads that aren't like a terrifying and life-threatening roller-coaster; to shops that are a 2 minute walk rather than a half an hour's drive.

In the Country Mouse and the City Mouse stories, the conclusion is that the country is altogether a more pleasant place to live. One might have luxury in the city, but one also has cats and mousetraps. For me, though, the life of the Country Mouse has a life that's too slow, and too inconvenient. It's the city life for me, for all its annoyances. The country is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

25 May 2011

Dry Kindling

I'm not what you'd call an early adopter of new technology and gadgets.

CD players, DVD players, MP3 players, smartphones…whatever the gadget, I get one (what seems like) years after everyone's started talking about them, and usually right before something newer, faster and sleeker comes onto the market to replace it. I was reluctant to join Facebook, then got addicted; then I was reluctant to join Twitter, and got addicted to that too.

It's not that I'm a Luddite. I like whizzy, shiny new things. Once I come round to something, I usually embrace it. OK, the mini-disc was a mistake, but generally speaking, I grow to love the new things. I love the internet. I'm devoted to my smartphone, which is one of my favourite toys, and years after the rest of the developed world, am an enthusiastic downloader of music.

I get there, eventually. I'm not afraid. Just a bit slow.

There's one bit of kit I'm not sure I'll ever grow to love, though, and that's e-readers, such as the massively popular Kindle.

Stick it in your e-book, Grandma.
Yeah, I've heard people rave about them. I've heard all the advantages of them, and I can see why they'd be handy. I get all the reasons. I just can't fall in love with the concept, though.

I have what I can only describe as an emotional connection to books. I have done since I first started to learn to read, at the age of 3 or so. Story time was always special.

One of the abiding memories of my childhood is when – mostly to get us out of my mother's hair for a precious few hours – my dad piled my siblings and me into the station wagon every Saturday to go to the public library. He carried a empty bag so large that it would leave Santa envious, and we'd duly fill it with storybooks.

I remember those trips with all my senses and many (always positive) emotions. The slightly musty scent of the old building that housed the library, and the creak of its stairs. The feel of the books in my hands and the paper between my fingers. The anticipation when I cracked open a book I'd pulled off the shelf and saw the words and pictures within, and the thrill when I made the decision and a book went into the sack. The warm fondness for books re-read constantly, and the excitement of the books I was going to read for the first time. The delighted greetings of the librarians, who knew us well and marvelled at our voracious appetite for stories. I can even recall the layout of the rooms. I felt like I had a whole world at my feet when we walked into the library.

Another fond memory from my childhood is the book order. I can't remember how often, but in elementary school we were given the opportunity to put in a mail order for books. A few weeks later, to my immense excitement, a fresh stack of paperbacks JUST FOR ME would arrive on my desk.

This connection to books, tied up in emotions and senses, has stayed with me into adulthood. I've never thrown away or given away a book. I'm reluctant to lend books, and turn down offers to borrow someone else's. I don't like being given books as gifts – not because I'm an ingrate, but because the whole process of choosing my next read is so enjoyable. I still feel the same thrill in a bookshop or when a parcel from Amazon lands on my doorstep as I felt as a child at the library or when a book order arrived at my school desk.

I love picking up a book from my ‘to read’ pile and feeling its heft, the embossed cover, the pages. The smell of them, whether that smell is fresh print or the mustiness of a secondhand book. Flipping through the preliminary pages, running my thumb against the pages across the side of the book. It's all done with the same appetite and anticipation that I'd feel sitting down to a great meal.

I'm going to the Hay Festival this coming weekend and one of the greatest delights of the festival is wandering through the town's many dusty, piled-high bookshops. The rush of anticipation and the rush on my senses are the same as they were in the childhood experiences that made me fall in love in the first place.

I just can't imagine feeling the same about a computer in my hand,as much as I love computers. Sure, a Kindle can hold a gazillion titles, and it weighs less than a book, and you can read it in the dark, yadah yadah yadah. I can see that. Maybe I'm weird for feeling such a sensory and emotional pull towards books. Maybe my middle age is making me old fashioned; maybe I'm just an old fart. But I may never get around to adopting this latest bit of kit. Anyway it would look lonely on my bookshelf.

Image ©Maggie Smith on freedigitalphotos.net

15 May 2011

Fuckwit quotes and opened doors

I've been single for about 6 years of the past 10. Particularly when I was a little younger, I was often out at the pubs and clubs of London, so for an average-looking woman I had my share of chat-ups. And boy I've had some corkers. At one stage I was considering compiling what I called my ‘bumper book of fuckwit quotes’.

Guys, even when drink has been taken, there's no excuse for lines like these – and yes, these were all really said to me.

  • ‘I'm glad you went to the toilet. It's the first chance I've had to look at your arse.’
  • [On an internet date] ‘I've been wanking to the thought of you all week.’
  • ‘I wouldn't want to date you, but I'd love to take you into the loos for five minutes and fuck your brains out.’
  • ‘You've got nice hands. Big legs, but nice hands.’ [then, upon seeing the look of horror on my face:] ‘No, don't get me wrong! I'd love to have those big legs wrapped around my neck tonight!’
  • ‘You're so gorgeous I don't know why I haven't raped you yet.’
  • ‘Do you and your friend want to come back to mine for a threesome?’

I could go on. I have loads more, and there are tons, I'm sure, that I've blotted out of my memory altogether. But you get the idea.

What astonishes me is that in anyone's head, it's ok to say stuff like that, let alone to a stranger you're trying to bed. Even accounting for the fact that drink silences one's internal filter, and even if said in the context of a place where people were openly on the pull, just…how can it ever be appropriate?

We're not in Ye Olde Times, I know. I don't expect to be treated as a delicate flower or have coats thrown over puddles for me. But have we really gone so far the other way? What comes through in remarks like those is an utter lack of respect. It's not cheeky flirting. It's not funny. It's not charming.

I hear men grumble that ‘feminists’ (or as dinosaurs call them, ‘women's libbers’) have killed off chivalry because they shout at any man who holds a door open for them. I've never encountered this myself, and suspect it's apocryphal. I thank anyone, male or female, who holds a door open for me. It's basic manners.

Care for a fuck, milady?
I proudly call myself a feminist, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate a dash of chivalry. Gestures like going around to open the car door for me or walking on the outside on the pavement don't leave me feeling patronised. They tell me a guy is being polite and thoughtful, and I appreciate the thought, even though I'm not at risk of having my petticoats splashed by puddles and I'm perfectly capable of opening a car door myself. They're not necessary, and I'm not insulted by their absence, but they're charming little touches. A guy who shows a little respect is considerably more likely to succeed in getting lucky with a woman than the charmers above.

Some might argue that I want to have my cake and eat it if I expect to be treated as an equal yet appreciate having a car door opened for me. OK, we can have that debate. But when I'm subjected to lines like the above, we may have gone a little too far the other way. Give me too much chivalry over too little respect any day.

9 May 2011

The chicken on the desert island

I'm a vegetarian, and have been so for about 20 years. There isn't a question I haven't heard; there isn't a ‘hilarious‘ quip that hasn't been rolled out already.

I don't mind talking about it sometimes, and certainly don't mind friendly curiosity. The fact that I'm vegetarian sometimes provokes more than curiosity though – for some reason, it makes people a bit defensive, as though I'm judging them, or they can be downright aggressive in challenging me, as though I'm being offensive.

I even ended up in an (admittedly alcohol-fuelled – it was at a wedding) outright, vehement, sweary argument once with a chef that resulted in my storming from the room. A lot of chefs really hate vegetarians, by the way, in my experience, but maybe that's because it's harder to be creative with a vegetarian dish.

It's never a subject I raise myself. I'm not a proselytiser. I'm not trying to convert anyone to a cause. Of course I'd be pleased if more people were vegetarian, or at least made ethical choices about their food and ate less processed, intensively produced meat than they do. But it's your shout what you eat, just as it's mine about what I eat.

It's a personal choice I've made, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't bug me sometimes that I'm cornered and challenged on it when I just want to enjoy my meal.

For the sake of simplicity, I've prepared this handy Q & A sheet which I may hand out in future when people want to spoil my dinner with an interrogation.

Please bear in mind I'm not preaching. These are all questions I'm often asked so I'm assuming curiosity.

Why did you become vegetarian? Was it for ethical reasons, or taste?

A little of both, and neither. My ex-husband was a vegetarian, and I hated preparing raw meat in any case, so I was eating very little except when out in a restaurant. I had an epiphany one day in that Mecca of finely produced meat, McDonald's, in Liverpool Street station. I bit into a burger, chewed on a particularly unpleasant piece of gristle, and decided then and there I never wanted to eat meat again. I must have been working up to that moment, either consciously or below the surface, but that was the moment the decision was made.

The other issues that I'm aware of now such as factory farming, the impact of meat production on the environment, health, etc, came in later, and reinforced my initial decision.

Don't you miss it? You must crave a bacon sandwich!

Nope. I genuinely never want to eat meat again, and have no cravings for it.

I'm told that bacon has been the downfall of many a person experimenting with vegetarianism, particularly in their student days. Occasionally the smell of barbecuing or roasting meat or frying bacon fleetingly seems attractive, because I grew up eating the stuff and it still has associations. But I'd never want to follow it through. I just don't want to eat animals.

Do you eat fish?

This is an ill-informed question, and a personal pet peeve. A fish is an animal, and eating it involves killing an animal. Vegetarians don't eat animals. It really is that simple.

People who describe themselves as vegetarians but then tuck into a fish dinner are on The List. Just so you know. Thanks to them, I get offered fish as the ‘vegetarian option’. If you don't want to eat red meat or poultry, then great – but you're not a vegetarian.

Do you eat eggs and dairy?

Yes, I do. If I'm honest, I wish I didn't, because these products still entail the slaughter of male chickens and cattle, who are surplus to requirements. It's one of the uncomfortable compromises I've made on vegetarianism, because a vegan diet would be the logical conclusion of the ethical grounds of my diet choices. I personally would find it difficult to go vegan for practical reasons, and also because I really like cheese. Some day, perhaps.

Nice shoes. Leather?

Another uncomfortable compromise. Yes, many of my shoes are leather. Good quality alternatives are difficult to find, and expensive. I try to avoid other leather accessories such as belts and bags, where possible and where I can find a good quality alternative.

I've been accused of hypocrisy because of the leather shoes. It's a fair call, and not one I can really argue against, except to show me anyone who hasn't had to compromise on something or other in their lives. I accept the accusation.

Humans are carnivores. We need meat to survive.

No. Humans are omnivores. One of the reasons that the human species is so successful is because we can adapt so well, and can extract nutrition from a wide range of sources.

I'm lucky to live in a country wealthy enough to offer a huge range of healthy alternatives to meat. I accept that if I were impoverished, or in a developing country, meat would be the fastest and most nutritional way to get protein. However, we really don't need as much protein as is consumed in the developed world anyway. I can easily get a balanced diet without meat. About the only vitamin that's tricky for a vegetarian to get from a non-meat source is B12, but that can be overcome with food choices and supplements.

But what about your health? Aren't vegetarians all pale weaklings?

Oh really? Come over here and say that. (Weakly waves feeble fists)

No, really, I am one of the halest, healthiest people I know. I rarely get so much as a cold. And look at this belly. I'm not going to waste away any time soon.

Mm, yummy, I've got some Haribo sweets and marshmallows! Want some?

No thanks. I avoid sweets and other products made with gelatine, or indeed any slaughter byproduct. This also applies to cheese made with rennet, and food or beauty products coloured red with carmine.

(Perusing menu) Do you mind if I order meat?

Of course I don't! I'm not trying to convert anyone. Eat what you like. I hate the smell of fish and seafood though, and can't bear it when it's served complete with a head, so I may quietly move to another seat.

Look! Over there! A chicken!
If you were on a deserted island with a chicken and you were starving to death, I'd bet you'd eat it! Gotcha!

Gotme! Given people have been driven to cannibalisation by starvation, I might just eat the chicken. Is this likely to happen, though? Really? It's not a worry that keeps me up at night. Should it?

POSTSCRIPT: For more information on vegetarianism, there are great resources on the Vegetarian Society website.