Sunday Times writer, Matt Rudd, has quite selflessly spent the last couple of years loitering around grubby motorway service stations, dodgy B&Bs and East Anglian dogging hotspots in order to write this splendid book (at least that was his excuse…). Just like Homesick and Heatstruck and many of my lovely readers, Rudd was living as an expat somewhere hot and exotic (Australia in his case, as opposed to the Middle East, but still, considerably more hot and exotic than, say, Bracknell) when he felt the plaintive call of his distant grey and green homeland.
Structured as a journey through those places that define us as a species – The Kitchen, The Garden, The Commuter Train, The Sports Field, The Bedroom – The English whips zippily through the findings of actual research, using personal experiences, experiments and informal case studies to add warmth, humour and humanity to his pseudo-scientific explorations. The result is a playful anthropological investigation of those diverse and mysterious creatures that graze our green and pleasant land (the people, I mean. English people. Not sheep).
Unlike most noble quests, which inevitably begin at Bag End, The Shire, Rudd’s journey starts in discount furniture store, DFS, in Carcroft, South Yorkshire. What follows is a moving eulogy for an Englishman’s best friend – his sofa. Rudd’s portrayal of the life of an average ‘Englisher’ (his chosen appellation) is indeed distinctly average. He positively wallows in the mire of modern Middle England, eschewing those old-fashioned English clichés of tea and cake, a foaming pint of ale, or cricket on the village green, focusing instead on the grimmer, every day realities of motorways, industrial parks and Tesco. And he has a jolly good time while he’s at it. Except when he’s in Blackpool, and who can blame him for that.
Rudd’s adventures encompass such exotic locations as the motel at Newport Pagnell motorway services, as he seeks to recapture the excitement of childhood holidays – that feeling of freedom, disorientation and dizzy anticipation that can only come from ‘stretching the legs’, using the loos and eating a deep-fried snack en route to a camping holiday somewhere in the Peak District. I know exactly what he means. Oh the joy of it when, after a bizarrely named ‘Tenderfoot Breakfast’, Little Chef would gladly swap my empty plate for their lollipop… More recently, my husband and I spent the second night of our marriage in the Travelodge at Podimore. We were on our way down to Coverack in Cornwall for our honeymoon and, still riding the crazy, heady high of pledging the rest of our lives to each other, we checked in as Mr and Mrs Trevor Lodge. The receptionist didn’t flinch.
One of my favourite parts of the book is Rudd’s investigation of queuing. Rather than popping into Wimbledon for the lawn-tennis-and-strawberries-and-cream side of Englishness, Rudd chooses a drier, more ironic approach, staying outside to observe the more subtle sport of queuing. It’s an endurance sport. John and his daughter Charlotte queue for forty three hours to get Centre Court tickets. There’s something soothing about a proper English queue – the calm, shuffling, pleasant order of it; the polite, shoulder-tapping ‘Excuse me, that counter’s free now’ – that’s balm to the poor expat soul who has suffered the angry humiliation of attempting to stick to ‘the rules’ of queuing when nobody else bloody bothers. I nearly flattened someone at the vegetable weighing counter of Lulu Hypermarket today…
The chapter on commuting also strikes close to home. Rudd lists the recorded announcement of stops on the Charing Cross line to Ramsgate: “Ashford. Wye. Chilham. Chartham. Canterbury West. Sturry. Minster. Ramsgate…” It’s a much-loved route I’ve travelled many, many times. Less often in recent years perhaps, due to the jazzy new hyper-quick-rocket-powered-leopard-train from Canterbury to London St Pancras (and the fact that I live on a different continent, of course). But while the list of these stations is nostalgic music to my ears, the announcement of the slow route gives my husband horrible flashbacks to his shell-shocked days of commuting from Canterbury to London every weekday for an entire year when we were newly married. For twelve long months he spent nearly six hours a day on trains. Six hours. The mere suggestion of ‘changing at Ashford for Marshlink services to Brighton’ or ‘moving to the front four carriages as this station has a short platform’ is so traumatic for him he just shakes his head, muttering, “You weren’t there, man. You weren’t there…”
But I digress. The English is witty, original and clever, with a few lovely running jokes, such as the Birmingham retail industry’s unhealthy obsession with ladies’ underwear, and delightful recurring characters such as Mehmet, the ‘Coffee Guy on Platform 1’. Rudd inclines towards positive portrayals whilst resisting the urge to make too many sweeping generalisations. It’s a satisfying and entertaining book and, speaking personally, essential reading for homesick English expatriates who might fall for more sentimental representations of cultural identity, and need reassurance that all is much as it was when we left and we’re not missing out on anything particularly wonderful.
One rather pleasant surprise is that we come across as a much more cheerful bunch that I might have anticipated. A randomly chosen commuter ranks his happiness rating as nine out of ten, whilst standing on a railway platform at 5:32am on a drizzly English morning. NINE out of ten?! Cheerful indeed. Or just barking bloody mad… But I have to say that certain chapters work as really rather effective homesickness aversion therapy, reminding us of those less pleasant aspects of home – the reasons we left the country in the first place: the bit about binge drinking and exploding bladders perhaps, noise-polluting neighbours, or the horrendous phantom traffic jams on the M25… Well, it’s exactly one month until I’m back in England for the summer, and I have to stave off the homesickness a little longer; I might just have to read that bit about Blackpool again…
The English: A Field Guide by Matt Rudd has just been published by Harper Collins and is available online and in shops now.
Brace yourselves. This is going to be a highly controversial post in which I risk alienating myself from my more fashionable readers (that’s you. No, really…). Here it is: I don’t really get designer handbags.
The marvellous Caitlin Moran wrote about designer handbags in her book How to be a Woman. Like me, she couldn’t really see the appeal and, even when she set out on a special shopping mission to find one to buy for herself as a treat, she just didn’t find anything as nice (or indeed as fun) as your average offering in Topshop. The problem of being expected to like and appreciate designer handbags is, I think, worse in Dubai than anywhere else in the world (Probably. Except maybe Manhattan. Or Knightsbridge. Or Chelmsford). The malls are crammed with thin, glamorous women teetering about in their designer heels with several thousand pounds worth of leather dangling off their shoulders. And I just don’t get it. It’s not even as if many of them are that pretty (the bags, I mean, not the women of course – who are groomed to within an inch of their lives) – most of them have got weird spikes or annoying dangly bits, or brash, gold branding all over them (again, I’m talking about the bags here, obviously). Or they are so plain and understated you might as well have bought one in M&S in the first place for all the attention it’ll get you. Perhaps what I really dislike is the unspoken, vicious competition they suggest is going on around us all the time – the ruthless one-up-woman-ship; the exclusive coded club of mine’s-better-than-yours showy-offy-ness that, some might say, undermines both genuine individuality and female solidarity at the same time.
Don’t get me wrong, if you can easily afford such things, knock yourself out (who knows, maybe I’m just a little bit jealous, and perhaps everyone buying expensive handbags will give the Italian economy a boost…). I just feel it’s important to buy and wear things we genuinely like, rather than things retailers or advertisers tell us we should like, or things that we think will supposedly impress other people. It’s this disingenuous, brainwashing nature of high fashion propaganda that irritates me – all young girls must feel free to say “NO! I know that bag is fabulously expensive and that Cara Delevingne (or whoever) has got one, but, dammit, I think it’s ugly! And it hasn’t got enough POCKETS.”
In this respect, posh handbags remind me a bit of expensive, Sex-and-the-City-style high heels. They are an icon of glamour. We are supposed to like them… Now, if the more expensive high heeled shoes were dramatically more comfortable than cheaper ones (as confirmed by a pal of mine the other day when she treated herself to some beautiful Jimmy Choo wedges), that would actually justify the price tag a bit, but that can’t possibly apply to handbags, can it?…”This Chanel bag just sits much better on the shoulder…”; “The new Givenchy Lucrezia really is better at carrying several things at once than cheaper bags…”
I’m going to contradict myself a bit here. Last Christmas, my husband bought me a gorgeous little Kate Spade evening bag – and I love it dearly. It is the first posh handbag I have ever owned and it is perfect for the occasional night out. It does not have any silly spikey or dangly bits and it is a bright, sunshiney yellow colour, which is cheerful and (surprisingly) goes well with just about any other bright colours I happen to be wearing (I recall Caitlin Moran having a similar revelation about yellow shoes. Guard these fashion secrets with your lives, dear readers – they don’t exactly tend to come thick and fast on this website…). But it is not really practical or capacious enough for my daily use. Let’s face it, few bags are…
This is the main reason I can’t be doing with silk-lined designer handbags: I need a handbag to be like a good haggis – substantial and robustly stitched. Like a true Englishwoman abroad (or indeed, a particularly enthusiastic boy scout) – I am always prepared. ALWAYS. For just about ANYTHING (except perhaps an alien invasion. Or an event that required people to be carrying very small handbags…). I take after my mother in this respect. If you ever need anything – you know, the sorts of things people need when they’re out and about – tissues, plasters, a pen, a hardback copy of The Ornithologist’s Guide to Common UK Migrants etc. – just ask my mother. You will not be disappointed.
So, this weekend I decided to do a handbag audit… I have categorized the items within for ease of reference. Are you ready?
Keys (I put these first but, in real terms, they should come last, as they tend to hide in the miscellaneous rubble at the bottom of my bag for at least seven minutes whilst I rummage helplessly outside the front door); phone; travel cards and security cards; tissues; Tic Tacs; an unfeasibly heavy purse (I always carry both UAE and UK currency – largely in the form of loose change, for some reason); more tissues; a plaster; some makeup; a travel-pack of baby wipes; anti-bacterial hand gel; a biro.
Vital in a hot country:
Sunglasses; SPF 15 lip salve; a bottle of water; a fan; Evian water spray; a mini bottle of SPF 30 sun cream; a cotton sunhat.
Miscellaneous rubble (also vital):
Nineteen random receipts from the last two or three years; some old electricity bills; body spray; a memory stick (Lord knows what’s on it); some paper clips; an old pack of chewing gum; two four-colour pens; a propelling pencil; some post-it notes; a small tupperware box of Earl Grey teabags; a mini map of Dubai; two old shopping lists; an unfinished crossword torn out of The Lady magazine; a sandy pair of swimming goggles; a pair of sports socks (washed, but slightly sandy); some shells from the beach (sandy, unsurprisingly); three random business cards… And a packet of oaty biscuits (pummelled into a packet of oaty crumbs from the pestle-and-mortar effect of my unfeasibly heavy purse banging about in the bottom of the bag).
If I’m travelling anywhere on public transport I will also have a book, and, often, a banana, for hunger emergencies. Sometimes I forget about the banana for a few days and only remember it’s in there when my money and tissues start to smell of overly ripe, squashed banana. My husband sometimes refers to my handbag as The Fruit Necropolis – where pieces of fruit go to die: “I think you left The Fruit Necropolis on the sofa.” Or, “Have you put my keys in The Fruit Necropolis again?”
The only expensive designer bags I have ever fallen in love with in a posh shop here in Dubai are made by the Italian company Braccialini. The bags are totally gorgeous and utterly bonkers – just have a look at their page… There are handbags that look like ducks and owls and elephants and cottages and violins and accordions and telephones and clocks and mushrooms and washing machines and snails and rocking horses (I say, here’s fun – why not play a game and try to find all those bags on their page right now?!). They are truly amazing bits of leathery craftsmanship. But even with these works of art, I’d struggle to justify actually buying one. With what would I wear it? (dear Liza, dear Liza…) And wouldn’t a large, beautifully crafted, colourful leather accordion hanging off my shoulder rather upstage the rest of me?
Nope, I think I’m destined to a life of practical and affordable baggage. I shall fashion myself into an icon of scruffy pragmatism. My handbag is always going to be less of a Louis Vuitton and more of a cross between the TARDIS and Mary Poppins’ magical carpet bag… Come to think of it, I wonder how many squashed bananas Mary Poppins must have had at the bottom of her bag? Thousands, I imagine. I bet she takes even longer to find her keys than I do…
MISS PRISM: Lady Bracknell, I admit with shame that I do not know. I only wish I did. The plain facts of the case are these. On the morning of the day you mention, a day that is for ever branded on my memory, I prepared as usual to take the baby out in its perambulator. I had also with me a somewhat old, but capacious handbag, in which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few unoccupied hours. In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I never can forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the basinette, and placed the baby in the handbag…
The perils of a capacious handbag, as depicted by Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895
Do tell… What does your miscellaneous handbag rubble include?
Many an expat blog discusses the foodstuffs, home comforts and edible luxuries unavailable to them in their overseas posting. Sometimes I imagine them all – thousands of variously dispersed blogging Brits – soaking up the sun somewhere suitably exotic, and longingly salivating for a decent pickled onion or a packet of Scampi Fries. In Dubai we are lucky enough to have a wide variety of shops representing the equally wide variety of nationalities living here; we English folk frequently hug ourselves with glee when we remember that Dubai has branches of both Waitrose and Marks & Spencer in which to find comfort and familiarity (or is that just me with the gleeful self-hugging? Oh. I see… Do have a look at my post, The Worldwide Waitrose Web, for a cheery discussion on the perks of aggressive globalisation). The dry foods and frozen stuff stocked in Waitrose are pretty much as they would be at home (with less choice and no alcoholic or pork-based ingredients of course – Christ, it was murder finding a proper Christmas pudding…), but many fresh or perishable goods are locally sourced or imported from countries nearby. This, along with UAE legislation, means that, try as we might, certain items are simply unavailable out here…
The first of these elusive indulgences is a pack of good old-fashioned wine gums. My husband has an actual addiction to wine gums (please see this photographic evidence of his shameful private stash. It’s a sorry situation, isn’t it. And made so much worse by the fact that he stores them in a KFC Binge Bucket). You can’t get wine gums here in Dubai, though there are plenty of ludicrous sugar emporiums in which you can buy just about every other sweetmeat and confectionary on the planet. There can’t be a porky issue here as wine gums are made with bovine gelatine, so we have therefore concluded that the absence of wine gums can only be because UAE customs officials have been foxed by the word wine. Wine gums do not, of course, contain a single drop of alcohol (although, if they did, it might at least go some way towards explaining my husband’s obsession). To complicate this legal quirk further, wine gums are, bizarrely, very popular in Kuwait – a totally ‘dry’ country. Wine gums were invented by Mr Maynard, Junior, in the early years of the 20th Century and were called Wine Gums to make them sound like a more ‘grown up’ sweet for an older target market – the connoisseurs’ candy, if you will. Although it may have been that Mr Maynard, Junior, was just trying to wind up his father, Mr Maynard, Senior, who was a devout Methodist of the teetotal, temperance variety. The red and black ones are his favourites (my husband’s, not Mr Maynard’s) – I think they are called Port and Claret. Thinking about it now, I wonder if wine gums are actually meant to appeal to children who want to play at mimicking sophisticated adult vices… Like those candy cigarillos… or Babyccino ‘coffees’… Whatever next? Champagne Chupa Chups? Caviar Dip Dabs?
For those amongst us who suffer from nasty headaches or backache, it can be tough getting hold of good painkillers out here, as UAE law prohibits the sale of any medicine containing codeine. There are days when I miss Syndol like I miss the company of an old friend (if I had any old friends who were particularly efficacious analgesics, that is). Syndol is an over-the-counter painkiller, marketed in the UK for ‘tension headaches’, as it not only contains paracetamol and codeine, but also a rather jolly muscle relaxant. The result is a couple of hours of pleasant, floppy, pain-free fuzziness. You feel as if you are hiding in a dark, warm cupboard at the back of your own brain. If you’ve never tried it, I can assure you that a weekday afternoon spent curled up on the sofa with a couple of Syndol, a cup of tea, a bar of Fruit & Nut, and a double-bill of Murder, She Wrote is a very special kind of bliss. Maybe it’s just as well you can’t get hold of it in this part of the world, come to think of it – I’d never get anything done…
A somewhat healthier craving I harbour is for fresh, organic veg. When we lived in Canterbury, we would often potter down to the farmers’ market, The Goods Shed, on a Sunday morning, and stock up on local seasonal vegetables for our roast dinner (do have a look at of their website: http://thegoodsshed.co.uk or check out my fellow WordPress blogger’s reviews of some of their amazing foodstuffs on her site A Canterbury Food Love Story. Most supermarket fruit and vegetables here are imported and many are chemically treated and hermetically sealed in cling film – I’ve purchased many sad bananas, tragic avocados and melancholy mangos that go straight from rock hard to rotten without ever being truly ripe. Here in this perpetual summer it’s also hard to keep a sense of what is actually seasonal. I often think about how lovely it was to choose from piles of fresh vegetables just plucked from the earth, the leaves glistening with that morning’s dew. You can’t beat a rummage through a pile of muddy carrots and grubby parsnips. The word ‘organic’ is often horribly misused over here, meaning anything from ‘Vegetarian’ or ‘Containing fresh ingredients’ through to ‘Vaguely healthy. Probably. We haven’t actually checked or anything…’ There are, however, some pioneers of organic farming starting to make a real impact in this part of the world. Heaven knows how they actually manage it in a desert, but if you’re interested in finding out, have a look at the website of these admirable and very groovy people: http://www.greenheartuae.com/
For all those non-perishable items that are legal but still maddeningly unattainable there are some rather wonderful companies who will put together parcels of goodies for you or your expat loved ones. There are quite a few great British websites doing this, and my current favourites are Home Comforts Goods and British Corner Shop. Wowsers – they actually stock wine gums too! For heaven’s sake, nobody tell the husband…
I found it hard to write about being back home while I was actually there. Like a painter sitting too close to my subject, I lacked perspective and context. Much of my writing about England is, of course, idealised, romanticised nonsense, and it’s very difficult to romanticise something when it’s right there in front of you; it’s frankly a bit awkward, too – like gibbering about a person’s ethereal beauty while they look you steadily in the eye. The part of my brain responsible for hopeless sentimentality (the Hallmark Greetings Card Lobe, perhaps?) obviously needs a bit of space to airbrush the flaws and add the requisite imaginative detail.
My visits home are primarily about spending time with much-missed family and friends, but they are also steeped in a selective and entirely self-indulgent nostalgia. And on this trip, not without a hint of self-irony, my chosen reading was Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. I’m my own worst enemy, I know… Just like the time when I actually ate a box of chocolates whilst watching Forrest Gump, I’m afraid it all got a bit ‘meta’… The decision I appeared to have made was to fill my thoughts with nostalgia both as an intellectual concept and literary theme whilst simultaneously wallowing in my own actual, personal nostalgia: it was a sort of experimental double-whammy, just to see if I could make my own brain implode.
Brideshead Revisited recounts the emotional entanglements between Waugh’s narrator, Charles Ryder, and the various members of the aristocratic Flyte family, starting in the golden, hazy summer days of the early 1920s. In his 1959 preface to Brideshead Revisited, Waugh all but apologises for his sumptuous, romantic prose and blames the darkness and uncertainty of the Second World War in which the novel was written:
It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and basic English – and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. (Waugh, 1959)
The opulence of both content and style is at its height in Waugh’s depictions of Charles and Sebastian (and Aloysius, the teddy bear) at Oxford, drinking champagne in the morning, picnicking, getting drunk at luncheon, and dining on plovers’ eggs; or their long, dreamy, drunken summer at Brideshead, tasting wine from the cellars and painting lavish pastoral scenes on the Rococo panels of the colonnade office. One can understand why, writing from such a distant and different time, the blithe freedoms and indulgences of the past would burn so much brighter. When writing about things lost to us, we become magpies – picking out the glittering and jewelled fragments of memory.
Nostalgia and homesickness can, I think, be seen as siblings – one is temporal, the other geographical – but there are significant areas of overlap and both can make the heart ache. So I would like, if I may, to dwell on Waugh’s words of self-criticism and use them in my own defence… I’m not saying that living in Dubai is in any way like living through the Second World War (though it is, for some reason, rather tricky to get hold of a decent bunch of bananas out here), nor am I attempting to compare my own bewildered witterings with Waugh’s magnificent prose; it’s the concepts I’m interested in – the magnetic retrospective, the plaintive echo of ‘how things used to be…’, the similarity between time and place when they exist purely abstractly: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between). It’s all about contrast, separation and wanting what you can’t have. It’s about the grass being greener – whether that remembered greenness exists twenty years in the past or twenty thousand air-miles away. It may not necessarily make my occasionally saccharin prose any more palatable, but it does, I hope, make it more forgivable – the linguistic equivalent of hot, tinned chocolate pudding with custard on a lonely winter’s night, maybe.
But Waugh’s novel is much more than a languid yearning for the heady irresponsibility of youth or an elegiac Paradise Lost for the old regime. It is about profound and lasting change – and we all struggle with that at times. The themes of Brideshead Revisited are complex and, frequently, antithetical: youth and middle age; war and peace; sin and innocence; faith and agnosticism; darkness and light; drunkenness and sobriety…
Perhaps writing indulgently about the things we long for is a bit like a sort of mild, pleasant drunkenness – removing oneself ever so slightly from the here and now, blurring time a little, a romantic softening of the edges of things, simultaneously numbing and warming…
And we would leave the golden candlelight of the dining room for the starlight outside and sit on the edge of the fountain, cooling our hands in the water and listening drunkenly to its splash and gurgle over the rocks.
‘Ought we to be drunk every night?’ Sebastian asked one morning.
‘Yes, I think so.’
‘I think so too.’
Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (1945)
The Rose-Tinted Glasses
Top Ten Nostalgic Puddings
So, for all my homesick yearnings and complaining about how mercilessly hot it is out here, it seems I have acclimatized after all. After three years, my internal thermostat must have recalibrated to Middle Eastern settings, because I was totally, profoundly shocked by how cold it was back home in England.
I don’t mean just “Brrrr – that’s a bit chilly;” I mean literally not caring about what I looked like so long as I was warm enough – frequently resorting to wearing all my clothes at once. Never before have I angrily ransacked my own suitcase, thinking to myself, What’s wrong with me? WHY don’t I own a balaclava? At times I had to improvise by pulling my bobble hat right down to my eyes and nestling my chin into several layers of thick jumpers. My feet were encased in so many pairs of socks that they resembled woolly trotters. Even so, my skin responded to the cold by cracking and peeling off, while my husband’s lungs went into shock and he developed some sort of wheezy, sub-zero-induced asthma. What had happened to us?
In my mind (and idealistic, highly selective memory), British spring days are brisk and blowy – showery perhaps – with brightly changeable weather and fresh, crisp air which promises warmth soon. Spring is a time of optimism: “Though April showers may come your way, they bring the flowers which bloom in May”; a season that is so energetic and cheerful it inspires (allegedly) the urge to spring clean (mercifully, I have never experienced this terrifying phenomenon).
Motivated by this entirely theoretical optimism, on one bleak, sleety morning in Rye, my husband and I set off for a walk in the beautiful Sussex countryside. It really was very cold. VERY cold. Bitter. We cut across the salt-marsh towards the sea and walked past a herd of sheep and their tiny lambs, shivering beside the ancient ruins of Camber Castle. After a few miles it started to rain and we stumbled numbly across a pub in which we sought refuge from the unseasonal weather. We sat beside the fire and sipped hot chocolate, watching the wind whip freezing rain against the window. We decided to walk home via the coast (I don’t know why we decided this. The cold must have dulled our powers of reason) and our spring stroll in the country somehow turned into a grey, eight-mile trudge, leaning into a frozen coastal headwind. Our hot chocolate-fuelled warmth and good humour soon faded. A grim silence fell between us as we both considered the possibility that we actually might die on the snowy wastes of Winchelsea. Like many Arctic explorers before us, we knew that there was nothing to do but keep walking. If only we’d thought to bring a team of trained huskies. We saw no one on our walk apart from one small cluster of hikers who had apparently made the same terrible mistake as us. As we passed them, we raised our eyes and looked into the blizzard, meeting the narrowed, terrified eyes that peered out from beneath their waterproof hoods.
We didn’t die. We caught a bus home. Back in the safety of our hotel room we turned the radiators up to full blast. I decided I needed a hot shower and was startled (not for the first time on this trip) by how brutally cold the water from the cold tap was; in Dubai the tap water never gets any colder than tepid. In the summer months, when the pipes are heated under the baking ground, you don’t even need to turn on the hot water to have a shower, it pours out of the ‘cold’ tap piping hot. This is of course a problem when you are desperate for cool refreshment. Last year I once resorted to putting ice cubes in the wash-basin. Sometimes I think my life has become bizarrely polarized. Back in Rye, I used the hairdryer to warm the bed up and snuggled beneath the piles of extra blankets I had asked for, at last deliciously, luxuriously warm… Until I woke in the middle of the night needing a glass of water. My husband deserves a medal for getting up and launching into the icy air for this selfless quest. He wrapped a thick dressing gown around himself and groped blindly through the frozen darkness, muttering the fatalistic words of Captain Oates – “I am just going outside and may be some time…”
One of the benefits of this unexpectedly cold weather was that it gave us an excuse to do little more with the rest of our holiday than sit in lovely pubs and tea rooms and eat delicious food and toast ourselves in front of roaring log fires. If I were to make a list of the things I miss most about home (other than friends or family of course), a log fire on a wintery afternoon would definitely be in my top ten. We gazed at the hypnotic miracle of the dancing orange flames. We sat in comfy chairs and dozed and did crosswords for hours at a time, sleepily absorbing the luxurious, crackling heat. We became experts at when it was time to ‘put a couple more logs on’. I think one pub landlord thought we had moved in, we made ourselves so much at home.
But the weather did change. One beautiful blue-skied Saturday, back home in Kent with my family, spring finally arrived. I went for a glorious walk with my brother for which neither balaclavas nor bobble hats were required (nor a team of huskies for that matter). There were the beginnings of buds and blossom on the trees. Spring flowers which had been frozen closed in a strange stasis finally decided to risk opening their petals. And high in the blue sky above us, a tiny dot of a skylark sang his little heart out with such zeal that it was as if he himself had banished the winter with his song of unalloyed joy. It seems spring is a time of optimism after all.
Higher still and higher
From the earth thou springest,
Like a cloud of fire;
The blue deep thou wingest,
And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest…
from Ode to a Skylark by Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1820
I’m usually fairly cynical about the phenomenon of the shopping mall. They are, after all, very strange, entirely artificial environments, devoid of fresh air and natural daylight – coldly glittering cathedrals of consumerism. Spend long enough in a shopping mall and the advertising and displays will inevitably brain-wash you: you’ll begin to believe that there is simply nothing else to do with life except shop and eat and shop a bit more. And then get frozen yoghurt. As the temperature here starts creeping up towards its blistering summer zenith, the prospect of several months confined to the apartment, hotels and shopping malls looms before me like a sweaty prison sentence. There is, however, one thing about shopping malls that I cannot be cynical about, no matter how hard I try: I love a wonderful window display.
I don’t mean the usual arrangement of fashionably and expensively clad mannequins – they hold little interest for me (unfashionable and impoverished as I am); I mean those really beautiful, cleverly designed tableaux that take a whole week of artistic endeavour to install. The emerging theatrical secrets are hidden behind hoardings until they are ready to be revealed… And they really are theatrical – that’s why I like them. The really good designs have a lot in common with stage sets in terms of their originality and imagination, their use of colour and lighting. The Harvey Nichols displays are always worth stopping and gawping at. Last month, to mark the beginning of the Chinese Year of the Snake, the Harvey Nichols display featured a huge serpent, weaving its way through the windows and the ceiling of the entire ground floor: the audacious ambition of it was jaw-dropping (part of me always wonders how much such things must cost and what they do with the giant bits of snake afterwards…). This month’s Harvey Nichols display is about spring fashion – so the designers have created a series of windows with an edgy, urban feeling – chic, colourful clothing against an industrial corrugated iron background with huge metal springs appearing to burst through the edges of the tableaux: a playful and energetic visual pun.
The sheer scale and spectacle of these designs reminds me of the wonderful Harrods displays I used to walk past every day when I worked in Knightsbridge a few years ago. Every morning I would emerge from the dark depths of the Piccadilly line like a scruffy blonde mole. I would walk, wide-eyed, past the Harrods windows, clutching my hot, take-away cardboard cup of Earl Grey tea. Every morning, come rain or shine (usually rain, let’s face it), I felt lucky to be there – walking towards a job I loved, in the heart of London, surrounded by these beautiful tall, red-brick buildings and the tradition and opulence of Harrods and its surroundings. My favourite display was the extraordinary celebration of the 70th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, in the winter of 2009. Harrods became an Emerald City, its distinctive high, honey-brown walls covered with squares of sparkling green lights. The windows featured fabulous scenes of Dorothy, the Tin Man and friends, showcasing Harrods’ products in all sorts of clever and artistic ways. But the best bit was at the side of Harrods, just by the Tube station: sticking out into the street were the enormous feet of the Wicked Witch of the East, shod with the iconic ruby slippers – it was as if the whole of Harrods had just plummeted through the air and squished her. It was utterly fantastic.
There’s something about the idea of a fantasy world behind glass that has always fascinated me – ever since I made my own ‘television’ with Neil Buchanan on Art Attack (it was a tissue box with a hand-drawn backdrop of some fields and a few Lego men stuck inside, with cling film stuck over the hole to make a screen). I loved creating child-sized worlds, safely contained miniature theatres, in which I could play God. I would gaze into the swirling snow of a snow globe imagining the chilly little lives of the beings that dwelt within. Our goldfish tank was a glorious fishy-fairy-tale microcosm, subject to my various eccentric, artistic whims: I would arrange the brightly coloured gravel into sweeping contours, position the driftwood and the little painted castle in an intriguing way to create secret nooks and crannies; the elodea would be planted to make a miniature forest for our beloved goldfish (Bergerac, Albery Finney, Axl, and Von Smallhausen) to explore (while Fernando the water snail was generally happy to just cruise up and down the glass, nibbling at algae). I loved sitting and watching the aquatic adventures of our boys in this watery wonderland that I had created.
Talking of wonderlands, fashion store, Étoile, currently has an extravagant Alice in Wonderland display in its windows: it is whimsical and delightful – featuring a huge White Rabbit, mushrooms, floating hats and flowers amongst the label’s spring fashions. Such displays are all part of the glitzy nonsense of Dubai of course, but the work of these window designers and dressers is superior to much of the superficial, showy-offy bling out here: these shopping mall displays are often beautiful and quite brilliant. In the deadening heat and silence of the UAE summer that is nearly upon us, I’ll get my glimpses of Wonderland wherever I can…
Alice opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head though the doorway; `and even if my head would go through,’ thought poor Alice, `it would be of very little use without my shoulders. Oh, how I wish I could shut up like a telescope! I think I could, if I only know how to begin.’ For, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible…
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, 1865)
My mother’s favourite sayings about not doing housework went down rather well with readers last week (you’re clearly all just as slovenly as I am), so here’s another of her wonderful maxims that made me the woman I am today: “Never pass a toilet without using it.” Now, it’s probably sensible to take this one with a pinch of salt, particularly if you’re in a well-facilitated office or shopping mall and have things you actually need to achieve with your day – some of the malls out here have loos every fifty yards or so and if I took Mum’s advice literally it would take me all day to get from one Starbucks to the next. But the essence of the advice is very wise indeed: you’ll never be caught short if you make the most of a convenient convenience.
One is unlikely to be caught short in the average villa or apartment in Dubai. As I mentioned in a previous post about food poisoning, our two bedroom apartment boasts no fewer than four toilets. FOUR! We have two each! We can rotate or alternate, just for fun! It is a blessing not to have to decide who gets to go first on returning home from a long journey, and we don’t have to take turns in the morning when getting ready to go to work (waiting for someone else to finish in the bathroom is a desperately unique and lonely agony).
That’s the private privy, though; the public loos out here are actually quite diverse and their style depends entirely on the part of town you’re in. Some restaurants, parks and malls feature the traditional squatter – a horror that never fails to make the average expat recoil in utter dismay. I’ve seen many a poor woman queue up for ages only to have her anticipatory relief cruelly shattered by the sight of a perilous, porcelain hole-in-the-ground. They stop, reverse and return to the queue; their silent eye-contact seems to say, “Quite frankly, I would rather die.” Such lavatories are of course fine if you’re familiar with the procedure and have a cunning clothing strategy, but I wouldn’t usually choose to use one. Any port in a storm, though, and I have sometimes had little choice when travelling and in a bit of a tight spot… On a trip into the desert last year, the only loo available was a filthy squatter at the back of an old petrol station. I’ll spare you a detailed description of the loo itself – I’m sure you can picture something suitably stinking and medieval – but here’s a photo of the alleyway outside it… I know, I know. I should have been warned. I should have turned back. It doesn’t exactly lead one to expect a glittering palace of hygiene, does it?
I was interested to read in the UK press this week that unisex toilets are increasing their presence back home. Brighton and Hove City Council are pioneering these ‘gender neutral’ facilities for many reasons – partly to make public toilets more family friendly and partly for the inclusion of transgender individuals (for those of you with suitably poor taste, feel free to insert a pun here about coming out of the water closet…). Presumably it’s just a more economical and pragmatic approach too. I understand these arguments, and I’m sure many parents will be delighted that baby-changing facilities are no longer to be restricted to the female facilities, but – am I the only one who finds public unisex loos a bit disconcerting? I once worked in a school that had unisex staff toilets and I have to say, it was simply appalling. It’s easy to get emotive about something so personal, but it felt fundamentally wrong to be washing my hands and straightening my tights whilst standing next to my male head of department. Of course there is also the issue of dignity and privacy – again, I won’t get bogged down with unpleasant details, but, when it comes to strangers of the opposite sex, there are certain sounds and smells one simply shouldn’t have to be subjected to… My measured language here belies my true strength of feeling on the subject: inside I’m screaming, IS NOTHING SACRED?!!! In my humble opinion, unisex public loos could only work if each individual cubicle had its own hand basin and mirror, was self-cleaning, sound-proof and HERMETICALLY SEALED.
Some ‘washrooms’ in this part of the world are dazzlingly high-tech, with toilets that flush themselves, automatic taps and soap dispensers with invisible sensors and those extraordinary air-blade hand dryers that blast you dry in five seconds flat, rippling the flesh on the backs of your hands. It’s easy to get used to these modern facilities and I sometimes find myself in public toilets in Britain, waving my hands about in a vague and confused way, only to experience the extraordinary revelation that I actually need to rotate a handle or address some sort of lever in order to make water and soap happen. On flying home, the contrast between the glossy, automated loos of Dubai airport and the grubby grief-holes of Heathrow never fails to startle me. After disembarking the plane, it’s my first real taste of home and what a vile taste it inevitably is… For prodigal daughters of England and indeed travellers from foreign lands, these airport loos – with their broken locks and toilet seats, dirty floors and absence of toilet paper – are a rather sorry welcome to our green and pleasant land. The toilets on the trains as I complete my journey home are equally awful. Have any of you experienced those strange, large loos with the automatic semi-circular door that slowly rolls open to reveal the toilet within – as if it’s the top prize on Family Fortunes? The system of buttons is horribly confusing for anyone vaguely intimidated by technology, and there’s the feeling of not quite being in control… On a deeply primitive level, one likes to be within leaping distance of a door handle, lest the toilet door should suddenly fly open (is that just me?). In such loos, there is always the horrifying thought that the automatic door might just start slowly sliding open to reveal not only the Family Fortunes prize but some poor, startled punter perched atop.
I was taught to appreciate a good loo from an early age. On camping holidays as a small child, my mother and I would always pop in to inspect the facilities before we settled on a particular camp site for the night. I was never exactly clear about what our objectives were with these missions – there were no rigid criteria – but there were obviously certain complex, unwritten codes of hygiene provision that needed to be met. Many of the facilities in this part of the world would more than meet my mother’s high expectations, I’m sure. Some of the loos here are marvellously ostentatious and luxurious. The Ladies in the posh hotels are simply a joy to behold: they sparkle with gold and marble. There are huge white hand basins with shining taps, softly lit mirrors and beautiful upholstery like a prima donna’s dressing room. No soggy, sagging roller-towel dispensers; these lavish lavs have piles of soft, freshly laundered handtowels. There is something quite blissful about choosing from a range of fragrant soaps and hand creams, sitting in an armchair and doing your makeup with a place to actually put your handbag down without it getting soaked. A really good bathroom isn’t purely functional, it is a peaceful, sanitary sanctuary. Beautiful loos are to be appreciated on both an aesthetic and an anatomical level and can be a pleasure in themselves. So, dear readers, to amend my mother’s advice ever so slightly – never pass a really nice toilet without using it…
From my fourth floor apartment’s balcony I have a spectacular view of… someone else’s balcony. In our particular part of town, the apartment blocks are packed together so snugly that, should one choose to sit on the balcony and soak up some sun (for the seventeen minutes a day when it isn’t eclipsed by other apartment blocks), one can enjoy highly entertaining, picturesque scenes of people hanging out their washing, taking in their washing, or (if you’re lucky) having a fag. What’s more, the mirrored glass of the apartments opposite allows us to observe these same fascinating happenings on the balconies above, beside and below ours.
In the evenings, when lights are switched on, we can watch the goings on in other people’s living rooms. There are so many to choose from, it’s a bit like having split-screen television where you can watch several programmes at once. Incidentally – that’s what most people are doing of course – watching television. Occasionally we see people sitting around and eating together, or children running about. We saw a couple having a big argument once. It’s all a bit Rear Window…
Growing up in Kent in the 1980s, I didn’t know anyone who lived in a property with a balcony. Balconies seemed impossibly exciting and romantic: a part of the house that is outside? That’s virtually Narnia! Balconies spoke to me of fairy tale and romance – dramatic escapes and passionate serenades, stately homes or Romeo and Juliet. After a wonderful summer holiday in Spain in 1985, balconies came to be associated in my mind with sunshine and views over the Mediterranean, and that kind of joyous, penetrating warmth that soaks right into your British bones and melts your cold, tight muscles. Balconies should be slightly tatty, with cracked marble floors and a layer of sun-bleached paint peeling away in the heat; they should be covered with ivy or attractive climbing plants such as, perhaps, wisteria or, in hotter climates, bougainvillea. They should, in my mind, be a place to sit and contemplate, to drink tea or a G&T, perhaps – a place of peace and perspective… Not a noisy, voyeuristic, dust-clad misery-shelf that represents a terrifying health-and-safety hazard for our accident-prone cat.
We used to grow plants on our balcony, but they didn’t last long. We went away for a few days in the scorching summer months and they got cooked in their pots. Like a husband left alone with a tempting sheaf of takeaway menus, plants in pots are incapable of looking after themselves. We tried growing tomatoes, but they couldn’t cope with the unnatural combination of intense heat and little direct sunlight, and the total yield of our six plants was just one small red fruit. It was so pitiful I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. It sat on the windowsill in the kitchen until it puckered, withered and died. Oh, how I long for a little bit of earth!
On the balconies of the building opposite, maids and cleaners have sneaky cigarettes and tearful telephone conversations with their families back home; they beat rugs, sweep the floor and wipe the dust from the balcony railings. When one lives in the desert, wiping the dust from the balcony railings is a task akin to the painting of the Fourth Bridge. I gave up on it long ago. “Where there’s dust, there’s peace,” my Mum always says. And peace would be lovely – but it’s horribly noisy on our balcony: the incessant churning of the generators on the building site opposite, the angry beeping of cars stuck in traffic, the screeching of tyres or revving of powerful engines. As I write this, at 6.26pm, the sun is setting, the traffic is growling and stagnating, and the call to prayer can be heard from the nearby mosque, its resonant, mystical notes soaring above the noise and the heat and the dust.
As I sat here yesterday, a scrap of paper fell onto the balcony, dropped or discarded from a balcony above. It appeared to be some sort of list written in Arabic. In my mind it was something cryptic and exciting but it probably just said: milk, eggs, washing powder. This happens all the time – bits of other people’s lives falling into ours. It’s usually disgusting bits of other people’s lives, like cigarette butts and chewing gum, but occasionally there’s something more interesting – a torn photograph and, last week, a nail file…
There aren’t many birds in this part of town. Regular readers will know that birdsong is one of the things I miss most about home. But sometimes a passing laughing dove will flap at the window, or a common myna will alight on the railing, whistling shrilly, as if to taunt the cat. She sits, rigid, on the other side of the French window, doing a silent, snarly face, opening and closing her jaw, as if she’s biting down on its jugular in her little, tigery imagination. But, because we’re so divorced from nature here (and because I’m a sentimental fool), a brief visit from a pigeon can feel ridiculously symbolic. Like a dove with an olive branch, these rare, feathery messengers tell me that there is life, there is nature, there is hope… somewhere beyond the tower blocks…