Ficklish Blog

Monday, February 16, 2009

Dancing Queen

So, I’ve never been a dancer. Sure, I have been known to shake my not-inconsiderable arse in various adult establishments on occasion over the years, but ever in any kind of organised fashion. I was never an adorable three-year-old in a tutu, I never learned how to tap. I did do gymnastics in a fetching purple leotard, and my proudest achievement was winning the handstand competition on one memorable Saturday morning.

Given all this, I’m not entirely sure why it seemed like a good idea to sign up for a Bollywood dancing class.

I know when it happened. I was sitting in a restaurant in Brick Lane, having dinner with a jolly crew to farewell the wonderful MIA, who was on his way back to Merica. I was transfixed by the flatscreen TV in the corner, playing an endless loop of shiny happy Indian folks dancing about in an energetic and stylish manner. I thought to myself, ‘wow. That looks like fun.’

[It later became clear that I was coming down with a nasty bout of flu and was at that particular time suffering the effects of a highly elevated temperature].

Fever notwithstanding, the idea stuck and when I recovered I did a bit of googling. A suitable beginner’s workshop was found, and I rocked up to commence my experiment last Monday evening.

It was raining really hard. The venue took some finding, and I arrived bedraggled, clumsily juggling bag, scarf, iPod and glasses. This inability to coordinate my movements was to set the tone for the rest of the evening. I walked in the entrance and just past the desk was a scene just like every dance movie I’ve ever seen: a giant open room with wooden floors, mirrored walls and a large crowd of people moving in unison. Spooky, and intimidating as hell. It’s a cliché, but everyone there looked like they belonged: lithe, graceful and coordinated in a way that I know I am not. My gut went all clenchy with the nerves.

I sucked up all my courage and walked like I knew what I was doing up many flights of stairs to find the studio I was looking for, only to be told that the changing rooms were in the basement. Of course they were! I trudged all the way down again and enjoyed ten minutes of English Changing Room fun. Why, oh why, do they prance about in their underwear? I will never understand. One woman sat on a bench eating a muesli bar, watching the room, impassively surveying the nakedness as she waited for someone or something or I don’t know what. It was creepy. I scuttled out of there as fast as I could, wondering anew what the hell I was doing there.

As I stood outside the room waiting for the previous class to finish the nerves started to dissipate a little. The class was huge – a giant group of people bouncing about, having fun, making it look so very easy. I started to get a little bit excited. There was a tall, pasty white guy at the back grinning widely, flinging his windmill arms about madly, having the time of his life. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. When their class was finished and our group shuffled in, I was delighted to note that he was wearing thick dark braces with his acid wash black jeans. Spectacular!

As I took off my shoes I noticed that the room was, in fact, about half the size I had thought it was. Oh yes, that’s right. MIRRORS. If there’s one thing I loathe more than exercise it’s having to watch myself while I do it. This was not going to be pretty.

And so, the class began. It was a beginner’s lesson and there were only a handful of us and a perky instructor. She launched into some stretches, boppy ones done to blaring bhangra music. So far, so good. Then she showed us a few basic steps which formed the basis of the warmup routine. By the time the first song was over I was winded and sweating like a bastard.

The rest of the class consisted of learning chunks of choreography and then stringing them together to music. I found that I could kind of approximate the footwork, or the hand movements, but putting them together was chaos.

I had cleverly decided not to wear my glasses. As mentioned above, I tend to perspire somewhat profusely, and I figured that constantly pushing my spectacles up my face would make me look even more bumbling than I was. The advantage of this situation, though, was that I couldn’t make out the instructor’s face in the mirror very clearly. When she repeated instructions, ‘no, not like that! You’re not screwing in a lightbulb! Put your shoulder into it!’ I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me. She probably was. I’m really good at screwing in lightbulbs.

Some of the steps were tricky. She’d demonstrate, we’d follow along and repeat again and again until we mostly got the hang of it. There was one move that caused particular trouble. It was kind of a sliding step followed by sticking your butt out. “Shuffle, then hip”, she would call as we tried – and mostly failed - to copy her movements. “Shuffle, then hip.” This went on for some time until she stopped, a little exasperated, and said, "I’m obviously not explaining well. Let me see if I can make it clearer.'

[Thoughtful pause]

"It’s really kind of a shuffle, followed by a hip.”

I cracked up. Well, when you say it like that…!

Restraining the chuckles was a challenge throughout the class. I decided early on that I didn’t want to be playing the equivalent of hit-and-giggle pool – no-one likes that girl – and that I should try to demonstrate that I was taking it seriously. I really didn’t want to be ruining it for all the serious dancey-types around me.

I tried really hard. The more I stumbled, the harder it got to keep a straight face. When we strung the steps together, I’d keep up initially, then miss something (usually the shuffle/hip) and scramble to catch up, feeling more than a little ridiculous.

I had fun. I really, really sucked. Everyone else seemed to manage fine, obviously dance class veterans of long standing. Catching glimpses of my awkward, lumbering self in the mirror was unpleasant, so I kept my eyes on the instructor’s arse. The music was infectious. There were a couple of (very) brief moments where I got my hands and feet coordinated enough to actually enjoy the movement – actually dancing rather than concentrating on the pattern. I got sweaty, I jumped about. Then, when it was over, I emerged into the rain smiling and exhausted.

Thursday, February 05, 2009


As you may have read there was some snow in London this week. Lots of snow! Okay, not that much snow by the standards of the rest of the wintry world, but the biggest snowfall here in two decades and a pretty big deal. It was spectacular.

It brought the city to its knees on Monday. There was no public transport, the business district was a ghost town. Most of my colleagues who depend on trains or buses to get to work were stranded, but I live so close to the office that I figured I had no excuse, so no snow day for me. Besides, I was keen to get out and see what it all looked like. It has only snowed a little bit on a couple of occasions since I’ve lived here and the novelty hasn't come close to wearing off. This was very exciting indeed.

The first thing I learned is that I really don’t have the right footwear for these conditions. I wrapped up as warm as I could, but shoes were a definite problem. I am, as you will be aware, really not an outdoor type and I don’t own hiking boots, or snow boots, or anything even remotely similar. I surveyed the options available in my cupboard and settled on knee socks with my trainers, rolling the cuffs of my trousers up so they wouldn’t get wet and securing them with clothespegs. I looked a treat, as you can imagine.

What is normally a half-hour walk took me over an hour – slipping and skidding my way across the icy paths with tiny little steps. I only fell on my arse once. It was tough going, but I couldn’t care – it was so beautiful! Grey, dirty London all sparkling and clean and draped with thick white blankets. Everyone out walking was in a festive mood – chatting and laughing with each other along the way. That never happens here, it was amazing. I saw a guy walking along with ski poles, everyone cheered as he went past.

Soft flakes fell constantly all day. The handful of my colleagues and I who made it into the office had a very good time – snowball fights at lunchtime, stomping about in snowdrifts like Godzilla, excellent fun.

We left the office early to try to get home before dark. I skidded my way towards home, and to my amazement happened upon a lone bus going in my direction. I waved at the driver, who stopped and let me on. I gushed my thanks effusively, it felt strange to be so grateful for something that happens on every other regular day. I smiled to myself as I then sat on the bus and heard every subsequent passenger do exactly the same thing, ‘Oh, THANK YOU! Thank you so much! This is brilliant!’, exclaiming their gratitude to the driver for saving them the long walk home. Best bus ride ever.

I know it was pathetic. We were the object of scorn from places like Moscow and Canada and I guess rightly so. But it was freaking brilliant, and I’m so glad I was here for it. As I got home to the Pickle, the guy at the wine shop downstairs was hanging outside his doorway, sprinkling table salt on the icy footpath so that customers wouldn’t slip coming into his shop. I have no idea what – if any – effect it would have had, but it was very charming and it made me smile.

I’ve been so inspired by the snow and my new-found love for stomping in it that I have invested in some genuine outdoor footwear: my first wellies! They are most excellent:

I ordered them online on Monday night and they arrived today. This photo is of me modelling them in the office. I wore them outside for a smoke break and stomped about gleefully in the last patches of melting slush. Now I'm checking the weather report obsessively, waiting for more snow to come along. I'm ready!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

January: Hoxton

Frankie and I have a project for 2009. Each month will have a theme, with corresponding activities, study and excursions planned accordingly throughout the year. The purpose is twofold: firstly, to mark the passage of time so that we don’t get to the end of another year gazing around in bewilderment, saying ‘hey! Where did that one go?’ The second goal is about experience: learning, doing things, going places we’ve never been. I’m going to record our progress here.

January is a tough month, both in terms of energy levels and finance, so we’ve started slowly. The focus this month was our local area: Hoxton.

We’ve lived at the Pickle, on Old Street, for two years now. We have plenty of favourite haunts that we visit regularly. There are plenty of gaps, though, and it’s about time they were filled in.

Hoxton/Shoreditch has a reputation as a too-cool-for-school, super-trendy area, full of bars and clubs and galleries, infested with hipsters. It’s noisy and crowded and as I lie in bed at night the drunken carousing of revellers floats through my window from the street below.

It hasn’t always been this way. Old Street, as the name suggests, has been around for a very long time. Hoxton was an industrial, poor area in the 19th century and has retained a gritty, dirty urban feel. Our balcony looks out over blackened rooftops. The northern part of the area is packed full of council housing, big grey ugly blocks of box-like flats crammed full of people.

As part of the January project, I read a book called Not Expecting Miracles, by Alice Linton. Published by a small local press, it is autobiography of a woman growing up in Hoxton in the early 20th century, telling stories about her poor, working class childhood in the years after WW1. It’s not great literature – she has the dry, no-nonsense voice of an old lady, recounting matter-of-fact memories of her parents struggling to survive, her brothers and sisters playing in the streets, making their own fun, enjoying occasional treats. It was nice to be able to walk a different way home from the bus stops and explore the streets mentioned in her story.

Frankie and I went to the Geffrye Museum one Saturday afternoon. Sir Robert Geffrye was a former Lord Mayor of London who built several almshouses in the area for the widows of former ironmongers, and the museum is housed in one of these buildings. It focuses on homes and furniture throughout the centuries, with each time period represented by a replica of a typical living room from that era. It was interesting to watch the evolution of function and style throughout history. The 21st century room contained lots of Ikea.

We spent an evening wandering around the area, having a pint in several of the bars and pubs that we had not yet visited. In the last pub, we made the acquaintance of a local who happens to be a guide with a London tour company. He was very good company and I’m hopeful he will be a useful resource for future explorations.

To round off the month, this afternoon I went to the White Cube gallery on Hoxton Square. The square is literally a block behind our house and there’s really no excuse for my not having visited the gallery before. I saw an exhibition called Texas Crude, a series of works by American artist Rosson Crow - giant, dark, dramatic paintings inspired by moments in history. I liked them a lot and would very gladly have one in my home, if, you know, the Pickle was about four times larger. Check out the link here – my favourite was ‘New York Stock Exchange After Bond Rally 1919’. The second exhibition was paintings and sculpture by German artist Andreas Golder. They were amazing and profoundly disturbing.

So, there you go. It wasn’t much – a book, a museum, a gallery, some minor exploration and a pub crawl – but better than nothing and very good fun. I’m looking forward to February already.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Very jLo Christmas

Here’s how to have a most excellent Christmas season, jLo style.

Step 1: Make yourself a Christmas tree outfit.

Apparently I have become something of a domestic goddess – since the mince pie endeavour chronicled in the last post, I have done MORE baking (okay, I made a cake) and then embarked upon a mission involving sewing!

I purchased myself a bright green dress, and then hand-sewed many shiny additions of the bauble and tinsel variety. A headband, a star ornament and some gaffer tape combined to make a quite striking headpiece. Adding in some brown tights (for the trunk) and some knee-high boots (for the pot), I was transformed into the most festive mascot you ever did see. There were even lights! Here is some photographic evidence (my friend Dr Evil is being the gift):

We had a Christmas party at the Pickle at which the tree outfit was a big hit. Frankie also dressed as an elf, with green tights and all – he would kill me if I put a photo of that on the Internet, but if you let me know I’ll send you the evidence privately (it was spectacular). My boss and my director were so taken by my costume that they insisted I wear it to the work Christmas party the following week. Despite some misgivings – did I really want to make that much of a spectacle of myself in front of all my colleagues? – of course I complied. The staff at my somewhat conservative workplace were a little stunned, but it certainly injected a little festive spirit into the proceedings. I met LOTS of new people, which will hopefully be helpful when work resumes in the new year. I introduced myself to a group of relatively sombre colleagues and chatted merrily with them for a few moments, and as I walked away one of them was heard to remark to her neighbour “that was the friendliest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen”. Result!

Step 2: Put yourself in charge of the department Christmas activity.

Tired of the boring lunches and realising that nights down the pub really aren’t that special when that’s what you do every week anyway, I devised the Most Awesome Team Christmas Activity Ever. Firstly, my entire department went to the Waldorf for champagne high tea, and spent a very happy afternoon cramming ourselves full of scones and cake. Mmmm, scones and cake in a fancy hotel. Then (and this was pure genius) we went to an evening concert of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain!

You may recall that I first encountered the UOGB during my first year in the UK, and the memory of that incredible evening has remained with me ever since. They didn’t disappoint the second time around – performing some old favourites (Candy Says, the theme from Shaft, Miss Dynamite) and adding in some great Christmas songs. The highlights for me, though, were a version of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights (with the audience shouting ‘Heathcliff!’ in every chorus) and an absolutely rocking ukulele interpretation of Smells Like Teen Spirit. It filled me with indescribable joy.

We were so inspired by the awesomeness of the ukuleles that after the big work Christmas party the following night a couple of colleagues and I went out to indulge our inner show ponies by singing karaoke until 4am. I performed my own version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, growling so energetically that I was literally without a voice for three days afterwards. Good times.

Step 3: Wrestle with an Aga.

A bunch of us rented a big old house in the countryside for Christmas week. It was lovely: the house was spacious and warm and had a fireplace, a piano, a Christmas tree, a ping pong table, lots of jigsaw puzzles and a bookshelf full of holiday reading. Perfect.

It also had an Aga. I’d read about such things in posh English countryside novels, but never really understood what it was. Turns out it’s giant oven that’s on all the time. Back in the day, these were used to heat the house, heat the water, and cook all the food. This house had central heating as well as a fireplace, so while the kitchen was toasty warm having the Aga on all the time seemed a bit of a waste of energy. The weird thing about it was that the temperatures are pre-set – there are two hotplates (with lids) on top, set to a high and low heat, and two oven cavities, one set to 160 degrees and the other to 220. Trying to cook a stirfry on the hotplate was amusing – not being able to adjust the temperature, you can only move the frypan off and on the plate as needed. Slow-cooking lamb shanks in the cooler of the two ovens for Christmas Eve dinner was much more successful. Deliciously successful.

The week was long and lazy – way too much food, way too much drinking, long walks in the countryside, lots of trashy novels. There was much Christmas merriment: a sound-activated Jingle Bird, many mince pies, lots of chocolate money and mulled wine. I discovered that apparently I love ping pong - who would have thought? We introduced our San Franciscan friend MIA to the honourable Australian tradition of a pantsing: any time anyone was beaten to love in a game they had to run around the table with their trousers around their knees. It was very cold but MIA threw himself into the cultural experience with admirable energy.

On Christmas Eve, we went into the tiny town square where a brass band was playing – we stood and sang Christmas carols with all the townsfolk. It was delightful.

The Secret Santa was a huge success, with an unexpected animal theme. Frankie’s gift was all about badgers, DJ Ill received several items relating to her new-found love of narwhals (based on this). I scored a stuffed koala that plays the Large Hadron Rap when you press his arm. He’s awesome – the wonderful MIA battled an epic hangover to go and make him for me at a build-a-bear workshop in Covent Garden, which delights me more than I can say. The bear’s name is King Hadron: Destroyer of Universes and I love him very much. I’ve never really had a teddy bear as a grown-up, but he’s so cuddly that I’ve been sleeping with him every night since Christmas. When I roll over in bed I accidentally set him off, and it’s very strange to be awoken by the disembodied voice of Stephen Hawking.

That is one of the more bizarre sentences I have ever written.

I hope you all had a very merry Christmas. Happy new year, and may there be many splendid adventures awaiting you in 2009.

Late edit
: I now have a photo of King Hadron, and want to put it up here so you can witness his majesty:

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Domestic goddess

I have a cautionary tale to tell, of a woman who tried to fly too close to the sun. What do you get when you mix a cut-throat competitive streak with a good dash of obsessive-compulsiveness? Disaster.

One of my colleagues at work has organised a Mince Pie Competition to celebrate the festive season. Each member of the department has been allocated a date on which to bring in mince pies, which are then consumed and assessed by the rest of the staff according to taste, pastry, presentation and value for money.

Tomorrow is my day. I have spent more time than I care to admit thinking long and hard about my strategy. All participants so far have contributed store-bought pies, so baking them myself seemed a good way to grab an easy advantage in the moral highground department. Further, one of the women I work with is allergic to wheat – so I figured that if I could come up with a pie that she could eat (and therefore rate), I would automatically have access to more points than anyone else. Genius!

I neglected to consider a couple of key factors. Firstly, I don’t bake. Ever. I used to when I was a kid, but I can’t remember the last time I made a cake, let anything involving actual pastry. This should have been evident when I had to go shopping yesterday for every single implement I would need for this endeavour. I purchased many items of baking equipment that I have never owned before and am unlikely ever to use again. I did, you will be pleased to know, draw the line at a rolling pin – why on earth would I need one of those when we have so many perfectly serviceable empty wine bottles lying around?

Last night I chopped all the ingredients for the mince and left it overnight to soak up the brandy (mmm, brandy). The recipe I chose called for an apricot and hazelnut mince which sounded like a winner - friendly and familiar yet just fancy enough to be impressive. There was an incident involving orange zest at one point in which I grated a hefty chunk of thumb into the mixture – but thankfully it was retrieved in time and the mince was done. I made a practice batch of pastry, chilled it and made it into rough draft pies filled with ready-made mince from a jar. They turned out okay, so this morning I got started for real.

I don’t know whether you’ve ever worked with gluten-free flour before, but it is god-awful stuff. Dry and crumbly and with a very strange flavour. I have spent HOURS today trying to make the freaking things. Batch after batch of pastry, carefully rolled and cut and pressed the fiddly little fuckers gently into wee mini-muffin trays. It took forever. My feet and back are still aching from hunching over the bench all day. The pie shells done, I spooned in the stuffing, and topped each one with strips of pastry in the form of a cross (the bases took so long I couldn’t bear to make lids as well). They smelled good when they came out of the oven, and I eagerly tipped them out onto cooling racks and waited for the taste test.

And remembered why I don’t bake in the first place.

They’re AWFUL. The pastry is dry and crunchy, the mince tastes like cinnamony apricot gloop. All that effort, for nowt. Of course, I spent all last week loudly boasting about how my contribution was going to be home made, so now I have no choice but to take them in and make my workmates actually consume them. I’m horrified at the thought. Ambition goeth before a fall, it seems. Next year I’m definitely going straight to Waitrose.

Sunday, September 07, 2008


So, it’s Sunday and I have some work to do. That’s bad news, I know. It’s not bothering me too much, though – because I’m not actually doing the work. I made an executive decision not to go into the office (being at work on a Sunday? A bridge too far) and that I would write my briefing paper in my pyjamas at the dining room table.

Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t yet happened. My capacity for procrastination has expanded and refined since university. I now have tools at my disposal so spectacularly distracting that had they been in my life ten years ago, I would not have a degree today. Actually, it’s not that remarkable: so I’m watching TV on my laptop while surfing various interesting websites, no big deal, nothing out of the ordinary. Still, my paper is really not getting written.

Today I have spent way too much time trying to work out how to correctly pronounce the word ‘hadron’ so that I can talk about this at dinner tonight.

(It’s really nice of my friends to continue to be friends with me).

I’ve also been reading about the history of the Proms. DJ Ill and I went to a Prom last night, first time for both of us. It’s a long and well-loved tradition and has long been on my must-do list of quintessentially London activities.

They’re held at the Royal Albert Hall, another place I’d not yet visited. It’s big and round and beautifully ornate and it was all very exciting. The concert was lovely – the Royal Scottish National Orchestra playing Roussel, Thea Musgrave, Debussy, and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor featuring this guy as a soloist.

The overall experience was just what I hoped for – excellent music in a beautiful setting, a crowd of prommers standing en masse in the middle of the floor and up in the gallery, soaking it up. No clapping between movements, strange chants at particular moments, everyone in high spirits, it was fabulous. That last link? Read it, seriously, it’s brilliant. Englishness at its absolute best:

"What you must never do is push in," says Trueman, a voluble twentysomething in thick glasses. "That's the sin against the Holy Spirit. That will not be forgiven. We queue.

Oh, yes you do. That whole article delights me more than I can say.

DJ Ill and I were a bit pathetic – unsure of how the whole Prom thing worked, I actually booked us seats a couple of weeks ago. While I was very happy to be able to sit in comfort and enjoy the music, I think I’m going to have to go back and try it the other way next year, to have a properly authentic Proms experience - taking my chances in the queue and frolicking with the hardcore.

Going to things like this is part of what I love most about living here. I’m reading this hilarious book at the moment, called - get this - London: The Novel and enjoying it immensely. It’s blockbusteriffic – certainly not the most literary of masterpieces, but a cracking read nonetheless. The historical content is woven into a saga-style story of several families - from Roman times to the present and all the eras in between. It’s helping to fuel the sense of delight that shivers through me as I walk through the streets of the city – knowing that this is where all kinds of fascinating things have been happening for centuries.

A friend and I went to the Tower the weekend before last – she hadn’t been for twenty years, I hadn’t been for ten. It’s been standing there for the better part of a thousand years, which is hard to wrap your head around. In the Jewel House, there are lots of sparkly shiny things that Kings and Queens have worn for centuries. I’m a Republican, for crying out loud. I don’t even believe in the monarchy. And yet, when I’m looking at the coronation spoon and hearing a helpful aide explain how it dates from the 12th century and is used to anoint each monarch with oil (which is concocted according to a special secret recipe known only to the Royal Chemist) after they’ve taken their oath, I can’t help but feel a little giddy.

There’s so much more that I haven’t even seen yet. I can’t wait to find out more. And who can think of writing a briefing paper when there are so many interesting things to read about?

Sunday, August 31, 2008


Everyone goes on holiday in August. It's a phenomenon, the whole city effectively shuts down.

I was told that as a result, August is a great time to get things done. It's quiet and you get a chance to catch up and get things ready for the autumn. I know now that everyone who told me that is a lying liar who lies all the time. It's been busy. I've been working a lot. I'm luckier than most in that I actually really like my job, but still - it's tiring to be there all the time. Also, there's a bar in the building which is really not very good for my liver.

(Incidentally, the event that I wrote about in my last post? Went very, very well).

So, it's boring, but that's mostly what I've been up to since last we spoke. There has been plenty of fun too, you will be pleased to know. In roughly chronological order, the highlights of July and August have included:

- Travelling to Reims for Madam Fox's birthday, where we explored the lovely town and the magnificent cathedral, ate excellent food and – most importantly – tasted lots of very delicious champagne.

- Eating dinner in the dark at Dans le Noir. It was quite a remarkable experience: imagine sitting in pitch darkness, having no idea who else is around you, identifying your friends by voice, hooking your finger over the edge of your wine glass as you pour so that you can tell when to stop. It was oppressive and freeing all at the same time.

- Enjoying visits from the lovely Marie and Mitchell and my brothers.

- Going to the Big Chill festival in Hereford, which was utterly fabulous and where I discovered that if Leonard Cohen was the leader of a cult, I would join it. Our new good friend Miles wrote a very good review of the weekend here.

- Singing my heart out at karaoke, seeing a student production of an absorbing and gruesome Greek tragedy; going to the Churchill Museum (again) and the Tower of London, celebrating the engagement of another good friend (is there something in the air at the moment?), and soaking up as much sunshine as possible.

Apparently I haven’t been spending all my time at work. That’s good to know.