Monday, September 29, 2008

Quote Of The Week

From Liberty's head of fashion buying, Olivia Richardson, on those new-season platform shoes that not even models can walk in without falling over:

(Photo courtesy of Jezebel)

"I don't think practicality comes into it. It's more of an empowering assertion of your own femininity."

Yes. I've always found being rendered unable to walk very empowering. Also, as anyone who's ever had one too many Diamond Whites will attest, falling over is very feminine. Bonus femininity points if you manage to flash your new-season satin-bowed Damaris knickers* while doing so.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Credit Crunch Wisdom

Just surfacing briefly from an enormous pile of nappies, wet wipes and tiny garments to draw your attention to some wise words uttered (or rather typed) earlier by my lovely cousin The Bureauista.

If you're looking for a job at the moment, or if you're suspicious about your employer's long-term prospects, take heed:

'The experience of watching a business disintegrate has taught me quite a few things. If I ever go for another job interview, it won't be the training opportunities and the staff canteen arrangements I'll be asking about; I'll be requesting to see the balance sheets and to have a long chat with the company accountant. I'll be asking exactly how much guaranteed business is coming in in the next six months, what contingencies are in place in case a client drops out of the picture, whether there are savings to cover salary payments in the event of an emergency: all things I would never have considered it necessary to ask before.'

All these things are essential questions to ask at interview, or at your annual appraisal, or you may come to regret it very soon...

Read the Bureauista's complete post here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

How To Write Complete Bollocks (And Still Get Paid)

Emblazoned across the top of today's Guardian front page:

(Picture shamelessly stolen from Andrew Collins's blog.)

Here's an excerpt from Catherine Tate's introduction to the advertised 'How To Write Comedy' supplement (most of which, it turns out, has actually been written by Richard Herring):

'I suppose what I'm saying is I don't feel in a position to give advice about writing, because, technically, I'm not a writer.'

No. Still, no reason not to accept a commission to write a guide on 'How To Write Comedy', eh? Especially as you don't actually have to write it at all!

So, given that one of our 'top writers' admits to not being a writer, what are her three top tips for the country's would-be comedy scribes? Something about pacing, maybe? The best way to format a script? How to create a killer punchline? Ways to convey an idea more economically?

Let's see:

Trust yourself. You have to start with what you think is funny before you can have the confidence to write to anyone else's brief.

Have confidence in yourself...good...good... *makes notes*

Give a gag three chances to work, if after three (separate) attempts they're still not laughing, bin it.

Hmm, perhaps la Tate thought she'd been commissioned to write a guide on 'How To Do Stand-Up'. Still, don't let that stop you taking her expert advice about writing to someone else's brief.

Don't take criticism personally, take from it what's useful. Apply it and move on to something better. And be brave. No one got anywhere by being too scared to open their mouth in case nobody laughed.

Well, there's where I've been going wrong: I never realised that writing was done by opening your mouth. Truly I have learned much about the craft, thank you, Guardian supplement!

The title of this instructive piece, incidentally, is 'Joke's On You'. Hmm.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, Billy takes a methodical approach to critiquing the Guardian's 'How To Write A Novel' supplement...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Patroclus And Mr BC Discuss...Lactation


MR BC: I'm going to the shops. Do we need anything?

ME: Erm...some milk. And some cat biscuits.


ME: And a cabbage.

MR BC: What kind of cabbage?

ME: One with really big leaves.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Not Actually Blue, Or A Kitten

Well, that was quite possibly the most rubbish liveblog in the history of blogging, I do apologise.

Anyway, I am delighted to announce that the Blue Kitten is now in the house, born at 9.06pm yesterday* and weighing 7 pounds exactly. Here's a photo:

She looks a bit gingery there but her hair is actually black.

You can see another pic of the Kitten in ET mode here.

Thanks to you all for your comments throughout yesterday, they were really very encouraging and helpful. Turns out that even the most straightforward birth (as thankfully this was) is a bit of an ordeal, eh?

* Which means she shares a birthday with both Dave and Delirium. Auspicious!

Monday, September 15, 2008

Patroclus Heroically Half-Heartedly Liveblogs Own Labour

Contractions started - most inconveniently, I thought - at 11pm precisely, and have been every 10 minutes for the last three hours. I have a laptop and a supply of chocolate Hobnobs. I expect I'll be here all night.

*Waves to nocturnal blog visitors from exotic timezones*

Don't worry, I'm not going to liveblog any gory details, in fact this may be the last this blog sees of me for Quite Some While...

...unless it all turns out to be a false alarm, of course.

UPDATE 06.55: Not a false alarm, but a bit of a long drawn-out experience thus far. Still, at one point I did make an Excel spreadsheet to analyse the contractions, my nerdiness knows no bounds...

UPDATE 10:08 Ow. Owowowowowowowow. Ow.

UPDATE 11.24: I am 3cm dilated and eating a banana (this is not a euphemism). Fascinating stuff, eh?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Patroclus Reviews A Book, Rants

I'd almost finished Ben Goldacre's new book 'Bad Science' when my cousin popped up to divulge some salacious details of a date she once had with him, which was fortunate, because if I'd known about this earlier my judgment of his oeuvre might have been clouded*.

Goldacre: 'fabulous hair', says source.

But happily ignorant of a number of intriguing snippets of information regarding the good doctor, I was able to enjoy the first 292 pages on an entirely intellectual, rather than visceral, level. Which is good, because Ben Goldacre's entire professional raison d'être is to teach us to use our brains, not our emotions, to assess the science and health stories we read in the media.

I realise I'm probably preaching to the converted here, what with the vast majority of this blog's readers being Guardian-reading (and even Guardian-writing) types who are well aware of Dr Ben's Bad Science column and his apparently single-minded dedication to debunking all those lurid and ill-researched newspaper stories about health scares, miracle cures, fad diets and all the rest.

Anyone who saw yesterday's Guardian front-page story, for example, will know that Dr Ben isn't afraid to explain exactly why so many 'leading' nutritionists and vitamin-supplement advocates are quacks, frauds and charlatans of the worst sort, even if doing so lands him and the Guardian in court.

His book, then, is all about how lifestyle and consumer journalists lack the scientific knowledge and analytical skills to 'see through' pseudo-scientific claims about health risks - such as the supposed 'link' between the MMR jab and autism - with the result that newspapers are full of badly reported, badly researched and poorly-backed-up scare stories that appeal to readers' emotions rather than to their reason.

On a general level, the book not only provides the reader with a battery of critical tools with which to deconstruct and interrogate these so-called news stories - and learning to read between the lines of media stories, as far as I'm concerned, is an essential life skill and one I'll be teaching the Blue Kitten the minute she demonstrates any kind of mastery of the art of reading - but it's also very, very scathing and frequently very, very funny.

For me personally, having worked for several years in PR, I also found a lot of it uncomfortably close to home. Because, as Dr Ben rightly points out, the reason these scare stories end up in the media in the first place is that there's a PR machine behind them, creating sensationalist press releases from 'research' that is at best deeply flawed and at worst completely made up. The aim of this PR machine, usually, is to promote some vitamin supplement, specialist diet or homeopathic remedy as being better than anything suggested by mainstream medicine, the pharmaceutical industry or your own common sense.

Thankfully I've never done PR for any product that actually had a direct effect on life and death - unlike the vitamin supplements promoted by Matthias Rath as being more effective against Aids than anti-retroviral drugs - but I'm uncomfortably familiar with the process by which a press release purporting to be about a piece of research ends up being widely reported by gullible, inexperienced or just plain busy journalists.

I've lost count of the number of press releases I've seen that announce 'important research findings' without mentioning what the research consisted of, how it was conducted, how many people were studied, or who commissioned it whether it was independent or commissioned. And usually, there's no actual research report for journalists and interested parties to peruse, only the press release itself.

This is because very often the research has been conducted by a PR person emailing a bunch of their friends with a poorly-designed survey, and reporting the results as percentages rather than absolute numbers. '65% of Britons have been victims of identity theft' sounds like a good story. But if you only survey 14 people - and only people that you know - then the fact that nine of them have suffered identity theft means nothing. You might have consciously selected people you know to have been victims, for example. Or your friends might consist predominantly of people who spend a lot of time divulging personal information on Facebook, and are therefore pre-disposed to having their personal details stolen.

What amazes me more than the utter lack of any kind of intellectual rigour involved in this PR wankery, though, is the willingness of journalists to report it as bona fide fact. I know that editorial staffs are forever being cut down, and that most journalists don't have time to investigate every story properly. But I don't think there's any excuse for uncritically publishing meaningless statistics as if they were hard evidence of some supposed trend**. It only encourages PR people to put even less effort into their so-called surveys, resulting in an ever-diminishing respect for factual accuracy and an entire newspaper-reading public who think they're being informed, but are actually being fed a diet of made-up rubbish dressed up as fact.

Which, when it's made-up rubbish about identity theft, may not be so bad, but when newspapers report that MMR causes autism, or that vitamin C can reverse the spread of Aids, is not only irresponsible but actively evil.

This post was brought to you by raspberry leaf tea, chocolate Hobnobs, and the continued non-appearance of the Blue Kitten.

* Naturally we're far too classy for kiss and tell on this blog, but I will just say that the phrase 'a bit of public frottage on Greek Street' remains indelibly etched in my mind.

** I read the other day, for example, that according to the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission, only 13.6% of national newspaper editors are female, compared with 17.4% a year ago. Along with many other media outlets, the Guardian - Ben Goldacre's own paper - interprets these figures as illustrative of how the number of women in senior management roles is receding.

Now I'm prepared to believe that the EHRC has ample quantitative evidence for the return of the glass ceiling, but this claim in particular is statistically invalid and can't be used as evidence of anything. There are only around 25 national newspapers in the UK. This means that the EHRC's stats show that there's one fewer female editor now than there was a year ago. When your so-called stats are dictated by the actions of one single person, they aren't representative of a national trend, sorry EHRC.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

This Post Was Meant To Be About Something Else Entirely

My efforts to bring on labour naturally - in advance of a looming 8am Tuesday deadline for induction - have turned, as you might expect, to the increasingly baroque and desperate.

So desperate in fact that I found myself attempting to spur my recalcitrant uterus into action by reading - or at least trying to read - that 'Wife in the North' book by Judith O'Reilly, which is based on her blog about how her husband knocked her up and made her move 350 miles from London to Northumberland and how unspeakably awful and intolerable the whole situation is.

'Wait a minute!', think I, not for the first time. 'My significant other made me* move 300 miles from London, and knocked me up, AND I have a blog - why haven't I got a book deal?'

The answer (apart from all the obvious stuff, like how this blog has no central premise nor narrative arc, and is in fact a fifth-rate ragbag of poorly conceived rubbish), is that I'm not a former journalist, nor am I chums with popular political blogger Iain Dale, nor therefore am I able to pull any 'strings' among the London 'media power elite'.

(Unless you count that phone call I had with BT the other day, during which I persuaded them not to charge me for selling me their BT Vision service because it turns out that our house is incapable of receiving terrestrial television - you see, this is exactly the kind of unspeakably awful and intolerable situation that would never arise in London, why haven't I got a book deal, etc. etc.)

Nor, to be fair, do I whinge very much about 'having' to move to Cornwall, because Cornwall is every bit as beautiful and idyllic as everyone always says it is, and because I'm quite euphorically happy here almost all of the time, and because, unlike Ms O'Reilly, I am capable of putting petrol in the car.

I did find her book better written than I expected, although the quote on the back cover describing it as 'Cold Comfort Farm with booster seats' is not only deeply misleading but also an outrageous insult to one of greatest and funniest satirical novels ever written in the English language. And I did cry at a couple of the more mawkish bits, but blamed this on hormones. And I do feel sorry for her in some ways, as her husband seemingly did make her and the kids move to an isolated spot in Northumberland and then continued to spend most of his own life in London. (You may feel inclined to draw your own conclusions from this, incidentally.)

But when I got to page 67 and to the third time she complains about running out of petrol in the car because her (absent) husband hadn't filled it for her, I lost patience with her CONSTANT WHINING and threw it on the floor.

Betty recently wrote that Ms O'Reilly seems to think that she is in some way representative of women in Britain today**. Personally I would hope that most women in Britain today are capable of identifying when the car is low on petrol (clue: the red light comes on), and subsequently of driving it to the petrol station and filling it. But then Ms O'Reilly is a Tory, and therefore perhaps more inclined than many to view herself as subordinate to her all-powerful, all-decision-making husband. The Tory worldview of women and their role in society doesn't make me particularly optimistic about our next government, I have to say.

Anyway, I couldn't help noticing that not even the physical effort of dashing a paperback to the floor had succeeded in prompting my waters to break, so in desperation I turned to the next book in the pile of '3 for 2' books I'd brought back from Waterstone's, namely Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science'.

Which is actually what this post was supposed to be about, but I got distracted almost immediately. Dr Ben and his one-man Quest for Truth will have to wait until tomorrow.

Unless I'm otherwise engaged tomorrow, of course.

* I wasn't exactly uncomplicit in this terrible act of coercion.

** I've just noticed that Betty took umbrage at exactly the same bit as I did, heh.

Monday, September 08, 2008

My Condition Is In The Same Condition As Yesterday, It Turns Out

I've scoured all the online pregnancy and birth sites, but nowhere does it say that a good way to stimulate labour is to watch a succession of witty, sparky, visually-gorgeous films in which a deadbeat loser becomes accidentally embroiled in a criminal plot through a case of mistaken identity - with hilarious consequences.

I saw that as no reason not to give it a try, however, which is why Mr BC and I recently dug out both The Big Lebowski (which I'd never seen before) and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (which I had).

Now obviously there's nothing I can tell the highly pop-culture-literate readers of this blog about The Big Lebowski that they don't already know, and what with film criticism being very low on my list of skillz, there's nothing much more I can say about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that I didn't say last time.

So I'm just going to point out that both films have excellent soundtracks, and here to demonstrate that fact is one track from each, which - if you don't have them already - I thoroughly encourage you to download and enjoy at your leisure:

From Kiss Kiss Bang Bang:

Felix Da Housecat - Silver Screen Shower Scene (mp3)
(Buy from Amazon)

From The Big Lebowski:

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition - Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) (mp3)
(Buy from Amazon)

In the meantime, I'll just go back to waiting for the contractions to start...

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Displacement Activities

What I have done today instead of having a baby:

1) Went to Truro, had an almond pain au chocolat, lord of all the buns.

2) Discovered there is an archaeological site in Afghanistan called The Minaret of Jam.

3) Decided The Minaret of Jam would be an excellent title for a Fighting Fantasy book:

Deep in the mountains of Northern Afghanistan lies an untold wealth of treasure, sealed in a spindly tower made entirely from fruit-based preserve - or so the rumour goes. Several adventurers like yourself have set off for the Minaret of Jam in search of the fabled hoard. None has ever returned. Do you dare follow them?

Your quest is to find the treasure, hidden high in a tower of pectin, fruit and sugar, populated with a multitude of terrifying monsters. You will need courage, determination and an almost unlimited supply of toast if you are to survive all the traps and battles, and reach your goal - the jam-smeared inner sanctum of the forbidding minaret.

4) Noticed the phrase 'refresh thumbnail' on Facebook's Blog Network app.

5) Added 'refresh thumbnail' to my lexicon of Phrases That Would Have Meant Something Competely Different Twenty Years Ago.

6) Spent a long time wondering how you would go about refreshing a thumbnail.

7) Decided that dipping it in a fingerbowl of icy water and lemon wedges would be particularly expedient.

8) Entertained my friend S. for afternoon coffee and chocolate Hobnobs.

9) Cross-examined my friend S. about her new boyfriend, whom she's been seeing for eight days:

S: ...and we're going to get married and have two kids, so I'm going to have to hurry up and get divorced, and he's going to have the snip reversed...

ME: Does he have a job?

S: Not exactly, but he's designed a chandelier.

ME: Ooh, that sounds good.

S: Yes, it's made of leather and giant penises.


S: Modelled on his own, apparently.

ME: Right.

S: You know, for S&M clubs and so on.

ME: Mm.


S: He's not actually *into* S&M.

ME: Well, he sounds great.

10) Decided the penis chandelier would go really well with that vagina sofa I saw on Craigslist.

11) Had tea.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Dragons' Den

What with the Blue Kitten now being a day overdue, I've been doing what every expectant mother does in the final, impatient stages of pregnancy: playing Dungeons & Dragons.

As far as I'm aware there's no old wives' tale about fantasy role-playing games helping to bring on labour - unlike, say, eating fresh pineapple, going up and down the stairs and tweaking your own nipples (not all at once, that would be dangerous, plus the neighbours can see through the landing window), but that's no reason not to try it out.

I'd never played D&D before now, not least because a) I am female, and b) I spent most of my formative years incarcerated in a posh boarding school where the prevailing leisure activities were limited to flicking one's hair, wearing cashmere scarves, stealing other people's socks and listening to Chris de Burgh.


The nearest I'd got was a brief phase of playing those Fighting Fantasy books in the early 80s, books which Mr BC informs me were aimed at people who had no friends with whom to play D&D; a description that I find almost unbearably sad. My dad banned my brother and me from buying those the minute he became aware of them, but not before we'd gleefully polished off The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, The Citadel of Chaos and The Forest of Doom.

Then we got a ZX Spectrum and discovered text adventure games like The Hobbit, which we played for hours and hours in our isolated farmhouse in the north of Scotland, while our peers in built-up areas were discovering the joys of actual fantasy role-playing games that we - or at least I - had never even heard of.

So anyway, here I am, some 30 years late to the fray. And it turns out that D&D is a sort of highly complex mixture of story-telling, dice-rolling, lego, algebra and chess. Although the lego part is only because we're using lego to represent our characters as they explore an underground cave network. Here is my character:

She's called Iolaire, which, as any fule kno, is Scottish Gaelic for 'eagle'. The ornithologically-astute among you will notice that the bird she's carrying atop her oriflamme is not an eagle but an owl, this is because a) I don't have a lego eagle and b) I don't know the Scottish Gaelic for 'owl'. D&D is all about creative improvisation.

Despite being an elf (actually an Eladrin, but I'm trying to not alienate any readers), surely one of the more amiable of the fantasy species, Iolaire apparently has zero charisma, which makes me like her a lot. Her lack of social skills means she spends most of the game lurking about at the back not talking to anyone, and occasionally taking out the odd goblin with a well-aimed arrow.

Here are Iolaire's companions, mobbing a Dark Elf (the emo-looking chappie) in a corner:

Iolaire was right back out of the way (coincidentally the same position I used to play in hockey) at this point, but she still managed to get in the fatal shot. Hurrah!

Dungeons & Dragons has a dreadful, probably unsalvageable reputation for being the preserve of the stinky, socially-leprous teenage boy-nerd, but having played several games of it, I can see its merits on lots of levels.

It's very creative, for a start, as someone (the Dungeon Master) has to make up an extraordinarily complex story - and backstory - as you go along, and you have to decide what you're going to do at any given juncture, and then whatever you decide to do affects the story, and so on. This means it's like being in a film, rather than simply watching a film, which is quite cool.

It's also good for mental arithmetic, as you're forever having to roll different dice and add things together and add other things to that and then subtract something else and divide the result by your fortitude quotient, and so on.

I think a lot of its bad reputation comes from the fact that it's full of elves and goblins and stuff, stuff that people who think they're quite cultured refuse even to countenance, let alone take seriously. But I can't see why it *has* to be limited to wizards and monsters; the principles of the game can be applied to any scenario. The other morning I had a splendid idea for a teenage-girl version, in which one could choose to play a model, or a pop star, or a girl-geek, or a spy, or a mum, or a scientist, and so on, and see how that unfolded.

(If I had my way, probably in a manner that would reveal 'model' to be the most useless and pointless of roles, and 'girl-geek' to be the bestest and greatest, but it doesn't work like that; everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and the aim is to find ways to combine them to best effect. At the end of the day it's all about friendship, mutual respect and co-operation, which is lovely.)

So now I just need several thousand pounds from a games company to fund its development, and an acre of time in which to develop it.

Which, if the Blue Kitten carries on not appearing like this, it may turn out that I do.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Does My Bum Look Big In This?


I like to think there will come a time, several months from now, when I will have stopped breast-feeding, my figure will have returned to its former, er, 'glory', and I will be able to wear proper fancy French underwear again.

In anticipation of that joyous day I have spent the last hour perusing, the underwear-fancier's shangri-la, in search of impossibly beautiful lingerie.

Among all the balconettes and thongs and jacquard and guipure, my eye was caught by something I'd never heard of before. Apparently you can now buy pants that 'enhance your rear profile' with 'firm foam padding'. To be specific:

This shorty by Huit is designed to enhance your rear profile by giving you sexy feminine curves. Cut in a low rise design from opaque jersey, it has firm foam padding at the full coverage rear.

I foresee a day when we will be able to dispense with every physical attribute that Nature provided for us, and concoct ourselves completely out of collagen, bacterial toxins and foam-stuffed pants. Thus arranged, we will march on the world like an army of zombie Mr Blobbys, all padded curves and blank, expressionless faces.

Later, horrified by the continued wilful appearance of blemishes, wrinkles and folds, we will develop the Physical Airbrush (TM), a device that applies Photoshop-like manipulation to what's left of our real bodies, allowing us to strip our limbs down to sticks, remove our lower ribs and replace our skin with a kind of weird shimmering gauze.

Having thus attained the very apogee of femininity, we will collapse en masse to the ground, consumed by botulinum poisoning and too weak to stand upright.

But at least our arses will look fantastic.