Sunday, October 28, 2007

Switzerland, part one

Just got back from Switzerland, where we had a gorgeous time except the last night, which may be the last I ever spend in a dorm room in a youth hostel! At least I learned some new insults in German. Anyone for dumb sow or dumb whore? It was a shame to learn these by being called them by a drunk at 2am, hence the possible future avoidance of such situations. For my next entry, expect stunning photos. Just have to get them put on a CD first.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Things I love about London

You know, I used to give London a bad rap, but I feel it deserves some long overdue appreciation, so here's the list:

Things I love about London

1. The media. Okay, it's famous for its tabloids. And yes, you can buy one for 20p that has a page 4 girl without many clothes on in every issue one of whom is currently posing with 2 10p coins over her nipples on the sides of buses, BUT, there is a RANGE of quality broadsheets, with a RANGE of political outlooks. Murdoch doesn't own them all, though he does own one. but that leaves me with a choice that actually includes a paper that doesn't sensationalise homosexuality or malign all muslims, that DOES have serious commentary, that has an excellent review section where you can learn so much about the writing world AND is actually written in grammatical English!

2. The Pashleys. Okay, just creeping back into fashion now after probably forty years in remission. But black three speed bicycles with a low bar you can step over and wicker baskets on the front. I saw one chained to a railing on the steps of a house on grotty polluted Ladbroke Grove and my heart lifted - it felt like all I needed to do was hop on and I'd be transported to a village, or a car free city.

3. The theatre. Hundreds and hundreds of professional theatres. Old, modern, tragedy, comedy, Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Musical theatre, 'serious' theatre, pantomimes, the possibility of being a groundling at the Globe, opera - several opera companies and opera houses, festivals (there is a mime festival! There is an Australian film festival!) I know you can get this in Melbourne, but you know, you can see a good play or musical any night of any week in London and you could see one every week for a year and not exhaust the possibilities.

4. The parks. Yes, London's crowded and polluted. But big parks. Some wild and rambly like Hampstead Heath, some manicured like Kensington Gardens, all hundreds of years old with enormous old trees with beautiful leaves you can set your calendar by, and people using them all year round, shorts or overcoats, bikes or rollerblades or kites, on foot or on picnic blankets.

5. The buses. Red double deckers with big wide front windows. Need I say more? I catch one to work, when I'm not cycling.

6. The coats. Fabulous overcoats.

7. The seasons, and the way people dress for them. You musn't wear autumn clothes in winter, or spring clothes in Autumn. Autumn fashions are of warm, comforting winter fabrics, but summer styles, like shorts, but with lots of layering, indicating that summer is gone, and winter is on the way, and we can embrace it.. Spring clothes, on the other hand, will be light and floaty materials, keeping warm, but transitioning towards summer fabrics. It's a way to distract yourself from the fact that winter is so long, I get that. But it works.

8a. It's the hub of the world. therefore, half your friends and relations pass through, sooner or later, and pay you a visit.

8b. It's the hub of the world. It's the most racially diverse city in the world. And you see representatives of all those races regularly in professional jobs (okay, I don't want to idealise - there ARE a lot of black bus drivers, for example, and a helluva lot of whitefellas in Meri's company...), but it's not like in Australia. And it's great for me. It shakes up a lot of assumptions I didn't even know I held.

9. The politics. The leader of the CONSERVATIVE party is a big greeny. He has watertanks and a wind powered generator on his multi million pound house. Okay, the windmill had to come down due to planning regs but still. And yet more beautiful, the papers and the electorate are savvy enough to know it's all a big stunt, and to ridicule him for cycling to parliament with a chauffeur driven car behind him, carrying his documents!

10. That brings me to the humour. The irony. The endless self deprication and satire.

11. And back to the media. who really do their job. thouroughly, investigatively, entertainingly, and did i mention in well written English in at least one paper.

12. The accents. I may 'ave mentioned Por'obello mahkit accents? But there's accents from everywhere, from a colleague who says thoomp when she means thump, because she was born in Manchester, to another who speaks broad, rapid, often incomprehensible Glaswegian, to two from France, who really DON'T pronounce their aitches, to the Aussie or American on the street who makes me wince with their broadness and loudness, cos I'm such a snob, to the Received Pronunciation practised by a certain member of staff which makes me wince too, cos I'm such a reverse snob, to my own, which occasionally picks up a London inflection unexpectedly, to Nigerians who also don't pronounce their hs, to, to... It's no wonder English literature, from Bronte to Rowling, is so obsessed wiht mimicking accents in phonemes. Want teh go teh visit 'Agrid anyone?

13. Back to the politics. Did I mention that I was married? And that this is legal? And that it is against anti discrimination laws to stop me and Meri from adopting children.

14. On that same one. I know they went to Iraq. Big scary mess there, no denying it. But, unlike someone else I could name, it led, among other factors, to the end of the PM's premiership.

15. The best kept secrets the local area: yoga classes by donation, no amount too small, in a beautiful space that reminds me of the women's circus, three quid a pop writers' workshops - did I mention we are self publishing an anthology?, the walk along the canal behind a big cemetery with gorgeous trees and vines and plants.

16. Time Out entertainment listings. Totally mainstream, THEREFORE includes a gay and lesbian section every week!

17. The tourists. Weird, but I like 'em, cos they come from all over the world and a surprising number of them speak German, so I can eavesdrop. Plus I get to feel superior for not being a tourist.

18. The bookshops. Everywhere. Notting Hill has the Travel Bookshop and a cookery bookshop on the same street. Another travel bookshop in Covent Garden, two foreign language bookshops in the West End. Gay's the Word in Kings Cross(haven't been there yet.) Also, international newspapers on stands outside every newsagency.

Though I miss the fresh air and sunshine, sometimes I've even found myself comparing Melbourne unfavourably. Not fair, I know. Perhaps I need to make a list of the things I miss about Melbs. But I do feel so LEBENDIG (alive) here. Of course, that may not continue to be the case as the dark half of the year closes in... By the way, I'm sure I could make an equally long list of things I DON'T like about this place. Maybe the lesson is to look for the best bits, wherever you live. Oh, dear, I risk ending on a moral, like an AESOP fable. Maybe I should learn from an earlier moral: don't write really long blog entries!


Friday, March 2, 2007

Itchy wins!

Congratulations to Itchy Fingers who has correctly guessed that the delightfully talented soprano Cafardette Marron is playing the title role in Bizet's opera Carmen.

I would love to put a picture of Carmen up, but I'm at work and I don't think I can.

Hurrah for Itchy!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Cockroach the Second

I won again. Oops. If I'm not careful this blog will become one big cockroach infestation. Especially if this Mama has her way.

The cockroach is hiding. Seek and ye shall find!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Grotty winner

Grot has won, grot has won!
Archie is, in fact, ATTEMPTING the nerve test - he wants to be the first cockroach to survive the jump from one side of The
Nerve Test to the other, via the ledge in the middle. He is just off frame in this pic:

Big congratulations to Grot. It might be easiest if GTG hosts the next round?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Cockroach, hiding

I have been playing a guessing game obsessively, and I have won! This means I now have the honour of hiding the cockroach.

Hide the cockroach has very simple rules.
1. Someone hides a cockroach (in this case, I have)
2. Anybody who wishes to can make guesses as to the whereabouts of the cockroach (that includes anonymous guesses as I have changed the settings on my blog so anyone can comment)
3. At intervals I will provide clues as to the whereabouts of the cockroach. Guess as many times as you like between clues.
4. Whoever guesses correctly wins, and gets to hide the cockroach next.

So. Cockroach hidden. Over to you...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Okay NOW it's cold

I woke up this morning at 7.25 and didn't open the curtains as HF was asleep. It wasn't until I walked out the front door that I saw that outside, it looked like this

I yelled out to the sick HF "Hard Farmer, Hard Farmer", and she stood on the bed, and stuck her pyjamaed top half out of the window and said "Oh My God!"

I was running late, which usually means skip the bus and walk really fast, but there was too much crunching and sliding underfoot, so I caught the bus, sat on the top deck, and peered at the rooves of houses and cars

People had cleared their windscreens only, and left the thick layer of icing on top.

Even though I thought I might be late for work, I felt calm. NOT like me. All day I was accompanied by a sense of enchantment.

By lunchtime, all that was left were huge puddles and a few tiny hard chunks.
Walking home, it was as though nothing had happened.
But I know it had.

Friday, January 19, 2007

See the increasing sunshine

Now I don't wanna plagiarise, so:
Source: (

See the increase in daylight every day (very small print on left hand side)! Eleven more minutes by next Tuesday! things change so rapidly when you're so far from the equator.

Today was blue skies and felt like spring. People were standing outside pubs with no coats on!

Thursday, January 18, 2007


I am increasingly happy. Sometimes I catch myself thinking that london is beautiful! It's amazing what getting to know the place, having some people to talk and laugh with, and a regular job has changed my perspective on the place. I do check myself and say to myself that PARTS of London are beautiful...

Oh, and a lovely holiday with a green texta girl and a flame haired kiwi helped too!

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Winter's not hot

Winter's not hot. Have I learned my lesson not to moan about summer (see prev posting)? I think I shall be nothing but eternally grateful the next time I see blue sky, no matter how much humidity accompanies it. It isn't cold exactly. By which I mean that the dutch overcoat that was far too warm to wear in Melbourne on all but the coldest nights gets outed every time I leave the house and keeps me thoroughly warm, with just a light scarf to help. It's grey, grey, grey. Next Christmas I'm definitely coming home so I can a) complain about the heat or b) make like a pom and head for the beach wihtout sunscreen.

Which by the way, if it were a more common word here in NODNOL, would probably soon join the ranks of words undergoing the great vowel shift in my vocabulary, e.g.

teeach (teach)
yerr (year), hyerr (here)
oh - (oh, but now with a diphthong rather than a pure short o sound)
buke (book)

Not to mention new words:
sortid (fixed)
loads (lots)
sellotape (stickytape)
pritstick (glue stick)
felt tips (textas)
colours (coloured pencils)
lesson (class/period)
break (recess)
register (roll)
ain't (isn't) - I actually said this to a lifeguard at my local pool!
alright? (how ya goin'?) - though I can't bring myself to actually use this one, I have learned how to respond to it - I wasn't sure for a while

And the ones that have to be phased out to avoid incomprehension
crook (which I have been constantly in one form or another since a week before Christmas)
and most of the words above in brackets.

I miss youse lot in Ostralia (I will NEVER pronounce it like that).

Lots and lots of love,

Friday, January 5, 2007

Snapshots of London Part One

GTG left the house at 7.45 this morning and in 20 minutes from now will be taking off to return to Canada. She will be in the air for 10 hours, but will arrive two hours after she left. It is very quiet without her. I have been inspired by her blogging to finally set up my own, as it makes her feel less far away. I didn't go to work today as I still haven't shaken the cold/flu I had the whole time we were away. So, yet another day in bed. This means, finally no excuse for not uploading the London Snapshots I wrote over summer. The first one is all about how hot it is. It's now the middle of winter, of course, but still rather mild. So far I prefer the mild part of winter to the hot part of summer.

One last thing to say about these snapshots is that they reflect, a bit, how alienated and unhappy I felt in those first months in London, being in mild culture shock and having no regular job to go to, and not knowing my way around. I have edited out some of the more nasty comments, and there are one or two I'm not sure whether to post at all - one in particular about how London is an angry place. i don't feel quite like that any more. I have discovered that pockets of it are quite friendly, as long as you belong.

Anyway, without further ado, here's the first installment of SNAPSHOTS OF LONDON

Snapshots of London

#2 – SWEAT – July 26
Oh my days! (London teenagers’ expression, commonly used when asked to do something unreasonable, such as their school work), Oh my days, but London is hot. Nobody told me this. In fact, many people smirked knowingly, and suggested I might never again have full circulation to my fingertips without gloves and a goose lined overcoat.
Last Wednesday the temperature reached thirty-seven degrees celcius. True, I have often experienced higher temparatures than this. Also true, it was the hottest day in London since 1911, so it’s unusual. But even at twenty-six degrees a month ago it was getting uncomfortable. The reason? Sweat.
London is humid. When it gets above twenty-five degrees, as it is has consistently for weeks, I sweat. Every pore becomes clammy, and the best way to get semi comfortable is to bare as much skin as possible. This explains why all the shops were full of the briefest shorts and singlets a few months ago, when I still didn’t believe that London had a summer, or that the trees knew how to grow leaves. Fortunately, sunburn is less severe and rarer here than in Melbourne, more of which in snapshot number 2.
Today I took the sweat experience to a new level. I went to Bikram yoga – yoga done in a hot room. A very hot room. In fact, I have never been in such a hot place before, and if I hadn’t paid £29.00 for thirty days’ unlimited classes, I would not willingly return.
The room has mirrors along the front wall. The other three walls are lined end to end with radiators, all turned up full bore. A large skylight in the ceiling provides more heat. Within a minute of entering the room and lying down, I was sweating. After the ‘warm up’ poses, I was sweating more than I had believed myself capable. Even the pores on my lower legs were weeping hundreds of simultaneous tears. By halfway through the class my shorts and singlet were drenched.
At this point, I caught sight of the clock and was relieved to see there were fifteen minutes left. Until I realised I was looking at the clock in the mirror, and there were in fact forty-five minutes to go. By this time, my heart was beating hard and fast, though the stretches were not strenuous, and we were spending increasing numbers of seconds simply lying on the floor (springing back into a sitting position via a 180 degree turn at the clap of the teacher’s hands). The sensation was something like being poised for forty-five minutes on the edge of orgasm, heart pounding, but without hope of release. During camel pose, usually a mild and pleasant back bend, I had to stop, afraid I would throw up or pass out. The teacher told me I would learn to love this feeling, caused by huge quantities of blood rushing to my heart. I may learn to love it if I don’t have a heart attack first.
At the end of the class, the teacher, who was wearing a dinky little pale blue two piece leotard to bare maximum skin, congratulated me – through her microphone headseat, which had drawn attention to me from the beginning of the class – on staying in the room for the whole ninety minutes. As I scurried to the cool of the changerooms, accidentally clocking a nice view of a naked black man through the doors of the mens’ on my way, another participant congratulated me in an über sincere Canadian accent: he had ‘never seen anyone make it to the end of their first class before without puking.’


Brits are not sun smart. They rarely slop or slap, and they certainly do not slip. In fact, at the first sign of sun they are slipping their shirts off as they race eachother to the nearest park.
Londoners have a park culture to go with their many parks. They need it, because one thing they do not have is a beach. The English girls, therefore, lie in the parks under trees on the grass in their bikinis. For hours on end.
Men and women alike lament if the weather is hot and they fail to get sun burned. At circus, my balance trainer remarks,
“You’re as bad as an English person. You’ve got no soontan.”
To which I reply in words to the effect of
“Cancer. Ozone hole,” which she concedes might be a problem. This is more than I can say for her concession to the idea of a woman being a base in an acro pair. But I digress.
Yes, having no beach, Londoners go to the park. My favourite park is Hampstead Heath, not only because it is vast, woody, meadowy, and hilly, but because it has three bathing ponds, a mixed, a women’s and a men’s.
Having been to the mixed pond before, today I tried the women’s. There, in the privacy of surrounding trees, I found two lawns full of women: young and old, gay and straight, and all shades between. Many of them had apparently gone there with the purpose of taking off the ubiquitous bikini tops and catching some cancer, sorry, sunshine, on their nipples.
I was more interested in the water. I dived in off the concrete jetty and noticed that the women’s pool was cooler than the mixed. Floating on my back, my body learned that floating is like falling endlessly without going anywhere. I listened to the tinkle of the water in my ears. It’s not as clear and free as the tinkle at Willliamstown beach – this tinkle is as brown and contained as the pond water itself.
I had walked past the men’s pond on the way, and observed one major difference (apart from the fact that no man would be able to see the women’s pond, and I could see theirs clearly): the men’s pond has a spring diving board. The women’s, instead, has a scattering of anchored floating rings that we poor weak things can cling to if our strength fades too far from the jetty. Many women made merry use of them too, one friend leaning on either side, having a gas bag. I wasn’t so keen to touch them after I noticed the green algae coating their undersides.
When I got out of the pool, I retrieved my bag from the friendly topless sunbather who was watching it for me. I changed back into my shorts and singlet. The usually blonde, invisible hairs on my chest were dark with brown mud.


A couple of hot nights recently, we’ve caught the bus to Hyde Park and gone walking there and in Kensington Gardens. In this area you find some of the most expensive real estate in London, and therefore probably the world, and you find the wealthy Arab people who own a lot of it.
On arrival in Kensington Gardens we walk past the Italienate Fountains, their ponds laid out in geometric patterns, mediterranean style. It really does feel like being in Italy or Spain, especially now in the drenching heat.
In this weather the parks are swarming with people. A substantial fraction, a fifth to a quarter, are women dressed in black hijab from head to toe, strolling in groups, mostly with other women or with their families. Some are slimmer and shorter – teenaged girls in groups, licking icecreams. Another group might include a wider age range, from a matronly figure down through to teenagers, all in full black, to a younger girl wearing jeans and a purple headscarf. Some groups sit on picnic chairs, gasbagging under the trees as if camping - all in their black, all vibrant, alive, casual.
Some of the invisible women stroll hand in hand with their husbands. HF pointed out one incongruous couple the other night: the woman covered to show only her eyes, her husband wearing blue boardshorts and a Nike T-shirt, carrying his mobile phone.
We walk on towards Kensington Palace, former home to such darlings of the press as Princess Diana and Queen Victoria, prior to her ascension. This end of the park is equally full of people of every colour and creed, many of whom are sitting in identical green and white striped deckchairs, hired for the evening, facing a pond full of white swans and black swamphens.
At this end, dress gets more colourful. I particularly remember two small Indian, or at least Asian, girls in floaty emerald blouses and trousers, the elder with a matching green hijab scarf.
The swans sail across the pond, graceful from a distance, but on closer inspection are bending their necks every minute or so to take small sips off the surface of the water, then smack their bills lightly and repeatedly, letting the water dribble out.
This lake was once reserved for the pleasure of the royals who lived in the palace overlooking it. Now it is overrun by us, the people of London, and Meri is probably right in saying that Princess Diana probably harldy ever walked around it.
Park culture is not confined to these grand royal gardens. Today I was walking in Hammersmith. I passed some people sitting on blankets on lawn under trees, in bikinis and boardshorts, reading books, snoozing and quietly enjoying the sunshine. The nineteenth century tombstones surrounding them didn’t faze them at all. Granted, in the Hammersmith Cemetery there was none of the frisbee throwing, volleyball playing or tightrope walking you might see an a more conventional park, but any patch of green, it seems, is fair game for overcrowded, flat-dwelling Londoners.


In London you are groomed to consume. Silent, motionless men and women in rain coats prop up massive placards reading “Internet £1 ==>” or “Cheap Theatre Tix⇐”. Presumably somebody pays them for this exercise in leg pain and boredom. One corner of Picadilly circus is a two story high convex TV screen, largely featuring moving Coca-cola logos. Beside each escalator in a tube station, following its slope, is a diagonal row of framed posters the size of an above sink mirror. In at least one major station, these have been replaced by silent colour tv screes, in the same configuration and size as the posters. The colour and movement catches even my unwilling eye. I am jumpy about being endlessly surrounded by strangers in London (too often there seems to be someone walking behind me), and I am alert to every peripheral movement.
I quite like the escalator ads that haven’t started moving yet, and the similar ones above the windows in every tube. I find them unobtrusive, undemanding. “Look at me and buy my product (see my musical, read my community education message)… if you choose,” they say. They give you space – the advertising world’s antithesis to a telemarketer.
In London, even homeless people have slicker, more sophisticated marketing techniques than any I’ve seen before. These involve exploiting the good name of the street magazine The Big Issue. If you haven’t heard of The Big Issue it is a professionally written and produced magazine sold by homeless and long term unemployed people in cities around the world. The vendor must be licenced and badged, and buys the magazines from the company at half the retail cost, then sells them in the street and keeps the other half for a wage.
Sadly, variations on the following theme are undermining the magazine’s name all over London. Somebody appears, trying to sell The Big Issue – on a train, at a café, in a station. The magazine turns out to be their ‘last one’, which they then ask you to pay for without being given it. If you refuse, you are asked for a donation, or told that they’ll come back to you if you are the highest bidder! Most if not all of these oppurtunists are in fact not licenced vendors at all, and I’m beginning to be able to spot them (even if I can’t see whether they have a badge). They all have a spiel: the rent is due, I can’t get to The Big Issue office till Monday, I’m homeless. Genuine vendors need no spiel. Their marketing tactics are enchanting: I recently bought the magazine, though my tight summer budget didn’t really allow it, because the vendor was standing silent and still in an arabesque, with the the hand holding the magazine stretching forward to balance the leg suspended behind. He broke the position to make his sale and have a brief conversation. As I walked away, he picked up his next copy, and resumed his attitude.
From the sublime individual to the ridiculous corporation: Sainsbury’s, one of the major supermarkets, who have taken branding for target consumers to new and dizzy heights. Sainsbury’s not only carry the majority of items in their own brand – they divide it into I don’t know how many sub brands. In my fridge and cupboards today I have: Sainsbury’s basics (in no frills white and orange containers – canned tomatos, canned kidney beans, honey, laundry detergent, 17p sparkling water and 88p smoked salmon trimmings), Sainsbury’s Organics (watercress with black, green and orange packaging), Sainsbury’s Free From (soy milk - yellow package, red writing, photo of product), Sainsbury’s Be Good to Yourself (plain yoghurt) and Sainsbury’s Bakery. I lack Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference, because I can tell from the name and packaging, without looking at the price, that that’s the expensive stuff.
Sainsbury’s Basics products come with a caption, to emphasise their inexpensive yet funky nature, for example “No fancy packaging. Just bubbly water”, “Cleans. No added promises,” or “Some peel – still appealing”.
Those oblivious to branding may be caught in the net of cut price upselling. If it’s Sainsbury’s branded, there is bound to be a deal. In my freezer I have not one but two packets of mincemeat, labelled “Buy 2 for £3”. My strawberries were “half price”. Strawberries in Sainsbury’s are always half price. ‘Half of what price?’ my critical faculties ask. ‘Surely whatever price they set is the full price’.
‘Half price strawberries, prominently displayed. Buy!’ responds my id. And I do.
I saw a poster today, on my way to a free circus performance. It had been half torn down but from the parts I could see I think this is what it said.
“If everyone on earth consumed as much as the average American, we would need eight planets to sustain the consumption.” With all my plastic packaged Sainsbury’s food, I’m sure I’m competing with the Americans. At least in London I don’t have a car and don’t need one. I can get anywhere, with minimal waiting time, by public transport.

Today is the anniversary of last year’s bombings. 7/7 we call them, in the American style. The newspaper I bought is full of stories about muslim ‘integration’ and its failure. (I bought The Times, as the shop was out of Guardians and I was embarrassed to display its shameless scaremongering on my lap). In the stations, announcements are prefaced by “during these times of heightened security”. I can recite the next part word perfect, in its precise tone and meter: “Please keep your personal belongings with you at all times. Any unclaimed articles will be removed or destroyed.” The other day at Paddington Station, I saw five police officers standing around a rucksack on the floor near the top of the escalator, peering at it from a cautious distance of over a meter.
As the I bustle through Kings Cross St Pancras Station on my usual way to circus training, through newly refurbished bright concourse, I think of the article I read in The Guardian Weekend magazine about the survivors of the bombs that exploded just outside this station last year. Many have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is a pub nearby where they meet for discussion and support.
Even when it isn’t the anniversary of the bombings, there is an aura of violence in the tube stations. I go to circus training twice a week, via Kings Cross St Pancras, the junction of six tube lines. About once every two weeks, a recorded announcement is played, with the stress on all the wrong words. “Due to A person Under A train, the Picadilly line is suspended between … and …” Do they pronounce it that way to make it sound more important, or less real?
Two weeks ago we heard on the news that The person had Been pushed under The train. Usually I think they jump. On the platform, if I’m at the end where the train first appears, I shudder as it hurtles past. If you jumped in front of it before it slowed down, at the start of the platform or even the middle, you’d be smashed to pieces. Most people stay very carefully behind the yellow lines.


“Can I help you to find something?”
“Yes, please. I’m looking for a soap. ‘______ and ________’ used to make one with a lavendar scent? I’m looking for something along those lines.”
“I’m afraid I’m not familiar with that line. But Crabtree and Evelyn make a lavendar soap. Can I show you their line?”
“No thankyou.” [Nose wrinkles disdainfully] “I’m looking a scent that is unisex, but not too masculine. I need something both my husband and I can use.”
“That’s a very detailed request. I’m new here. I’ll see if someone else can help you,” I said. I was working for the day in Fortnum and Mason. I had woken in the late morning to a phone call from one of the agencies I had signed up to, in the hope of picking up some work over the school summer holidays. My fuddled brain had taken in the information that Fortnum and Mason was ‘the Queen’s grocer’, that I was to wear black trousers and a white shirt, and be paid at £7.00 per hour. (A massive comedown from supply teaching, but then, the customers were highly unlikely to start a riot in the shop, and the same could not be said for a classful of unknown teenagers.)
I showered, washed and blowdried my hair, carefully ironed my favourite white wraparound shirt, put it and my best trousers on, and hopped on the tube.
Arriving at Fortnum and Mason, I entered, as per my instructions, via the back door. This was the staff entrance – all forklifts, and concrete, and white security guards with working class accents. I was taken to Personnel by the Customer Service Manager. He didn’t introduce himsilf to me till I had to him. He just said
“Are you from the agency? Follow me.”
I arrived in Personnel and was greeted by the Australian (Sorry, Austrayan) receptionist, who said,
“They sent you here dressed like THAT? Have you got stockings under your trousers? No? Socks? You’ll have to go to Boots to get some stockings so I can get you into uniform.”
‘Hmph,’ I thought. ‘My clothes are better quality than yours. And they fit me better.’ I smiled at her and set off down the rattly old lift, then across Picadilly Circus, past the middle aged blonde guy on the milk crate with the microphone, and his perpetual spiel about “winners and sinners,” and into the pharmacy to buy the stockings. I wanted nice patterned ones, but thought they would be frowned upon, and besides, I had hairy legs, so the only ones I could possibly buy were the same indestructible black opaque ones I already had five pairs of at home. These were only available in a pack of six.
So, having wiped out nearly an hour’s wage on stockings I had no need of, I returned to personnel, through the dusty back hallway, with its worn carpet, to get my uniform for the day. It was a checked black and grey skirt, black blazer and black bowtie - one of those large floppy bow ties, luckily, because it just managed to conceal that my shirt had a wide open neck and no way to button it up.
In the bathroom, I hurried into my uniform. I didn’t bother going into a cubicle. It was a women’s toilet, and I had several sizes of uniform to try on – I didn’t fancy resting them on the toilet bowl. I was bending over inelegantly to hoik my new stockings over my bum when a fifty something woman, with hair and a twinset that had both seen better days, opened the door and gasped “You can’t get changed here! Go into one of the cubicles.” I blushed, and struggled across the room, stockings half on, coathangered uniforms trailing form my fingers, into a darkened vestibule in the corner. It contained several pieces of broken furniture, a disused shower, and no light bulb, but had the distinct advantage of not being a toilet.
When the woman came out of the loo, she continued lectureing me on my choice of changing place as I did up my bow tie. I interrupted her to say,
“Hello, I’m ___________. What’s your name?” If there’s one thing I’ve learned from supply teaching, it’s that you can’t tell people off before you’ve even asked their name.
Finally, half an hour after I arrived, having spent 45minutes’ pay on superflous stockings, I returned to the cramped Personnel office, signed in, and was taken to “the shop floor”.
Before entering this wondrous other world, beside the wooden door frame, a green A4 page was sellotaped to the wall. It read “Be meticulous, and faboulous.” A second sheet displayed a mindmap, which defined being ‘fabulous’ as, among other things “integrity. ingenuity. knowledge. graciousness.”
“It’s a bit different out here,” said the friendly Australian Personnel girl, as we crossed the threshhold and my feet sank into inches of red carpet, while my nose was assailed with the mingled aroma of literally hundreds of perfumes. I had arrived in Toiletries and Perfumery, where they were short handed, and I was to spend the afternnoon.
Thus my encounter with the American woman, who has an alarming amount of time and money to spend on her soap choices, and the conversation we had, which I recorded exactly as I remember it. Being quite out of my depth on the subject of posh soap, I handed her over to one of the permanent staff, none of whom were in uniform – they were all in black suits of their own choosing.
The soap woman was shown a number of designer surfactants, with brand names I had never heard of, but with which she was clearly familiar. She rejected a number of bars, though happy with their aromas, because they were too small (roughly the size of your average bar of soap, as far as I could see), before finally choosing a bluey grey one half the size of a house brick. She paid about £15.00 for it and left, making doubtful noises about seeing if it was “appropriate”. I felt quietly smug about my own soap choices: three bars of Sainsbury’s Basics for 19p.
I returned to my self appointed task of ‘familiarising myself with the stock’. Other than pointing customers in vaguely the right direction, there wasn’t much else I could do. The staff couldn’t put me on the till, as I needed training, a security card, pin number, and government level security clearance. Okay, I made the last one up.
In my travels, I discovered a number of things about the Queen’s grocers.
1) If the Queen wants to buy a nail file, she is willing to pay twelve pounds for it. (That’s about AU$30.00.)
2) The Queen doesn’t seem to use deodorant or shampoo. There isn’t room for them on the display tables, due to the proliferation of eau de toilette, bath gel, foot refresher, bath pearls, scented candles, and hand painted soaps (exclusive to Fortnum and Mason).
3) Fortnum and Mason stocks monogrammed fine linen hand towels. I didn’t even know there was such a thing till a whitehaired gent in a suit asked for one – I dry my hands on scuffed green bath towels that Meri sent to her Grandparents many years ago.
At the end of the day, despite these thrilling discoveries, I had endured only slightly less boredom than that induced by exam invigilation. I gratefully left, and headed down to the women’s locker rooms, where half a dozen demure black suited, white skinned women were busy changing into their civilian garb. The department manager looked particularly dashing in a lime green tank top designed for the sixteen year old she had not long ago been. I returned my uniform at the staff entrance, as my Austrayan friend had gone home, and smiled politely at the personnel manager, who said that she was expecting to see me the next day. I told her truthfully that I had only been booked for one day, and had another engagement the next. When she started to throw a tantrum, I made no polite noises about eagerness to return.