Saturday, 5 April 2014

Some Stuff On Stranger Shaming

Photo by chutney bannister
Over the last few months I've noticed an increase in people taking photos of fellow commuters and posting them to various Twitter and Facebook accounts. Usually, the people being photographed are transgressing the unwritten rules of public transport, like eating or having a large bag. Sometimes they're simply asleep, or just wearing something odd while being otherwise totally innocuous.

Yet some people seem to feel it's OK to take a photo of a total stranger without their consent and post it up for abuse and ridicule. Frankly, I think this sucks.

It made me so cross that I wrote about it for Londonist.

Now stop taking photos of people on your train for other people to laugh at.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sunday Video: Curve 'Fait Accompli'

I would have posted the video up here but YouTube doesn't appear to have a linkable copy in the UK. This is one of my favourite songs.

Curve 'Fait Accompli'

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Sunday Video: Dodgy 'Staying Out For The Summer'

Legal Aid, Food Banks And Benefit Sanctions

Photo by @c0unse1
I haven't done this for ages, so the list is actually far longer but here's a few of my recentish Londonist articles.

Walkout over legal aid cuts - Ministry of Justice cuts could leave vulnerable people with little or no legal representation.

356 London jobseekers sanctioned every day - the rise of spurious DWP sanctions and the hardship they cause.

Food bank use up 400% - looking at why increasing numbers of people are being forced to turn to food banks.

The housing crisis and banning overseas investors - would it solve London's housing problem?

Met police numbers down - police cuts, water cannon and empty promises.

Men charged with taking food from skip - the CPS's ludicrous pursuit of three London men caught taking unused food from an Iceland skip.

The huge emergency housing bill - how sanctions, benefit caps and the bedroom tax are costing the taxpayer more.

London's missed and fiddled targets - lies, damn lies and statistics.

Why we can't just change London's roads overnight.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Sunday Video: Hanni El Khatib, 'You Rascal You'

How I Fell Out Of Love With TOWIE

Yes, yes, I watched The Only Way Is Essex. I've seen every episode, even the embarrassing awful 2012 live Christmas special. Go ahead and judge me if you like then bugger off back to watching Celebrity Dancing on Ice.

For the uninitiated Essexites among you, The Only Way Is Essex (or TOWIE) is a reality TV show set in Essex which claims to show real people in modified situations, saying unscripted lines but in a structured way. This basically means the producers get a bunch of people who aren't actors and engineer situations between them while filming the result.

When it was first broadcast in 2010, it caused something of a hoo-ha. People in Essex complained it showed the county's residents in a negative and stereotypical light while everyone else was abjectly horrified at the rich, thick and orange. When it was first broadcast, I rather high-mindedly refused to watch it. In fact, I couldn't watch it and when I once stumbled across it while channel-hopping without realising what it was, I thought my brain would actually bleed. The groups of people in it have changed over the years but they're fairly typical of a certain circle in west Essex. They're young, they're beautiful, they come from families with money and they want to spend it. Preferably as showily as possible.It's tempting to dismiss them as not too intelligent, but many of them have their own businesses so they can't all be quite as hopelessly incompetent as they sometimes come across.

Once I'd got over myself, I started watching it. 

I live in one of the filming locations for TOWIE, and I can absolutely attest that it's had a dramatic impact on the local area. When Lauren Goodger opened her beauty salon in Buckhurst Hill, people came from as far afield as Dublin and Hull just to have their nails done. There are even tours which people can book to visit the various filming locations and when you've seen a Liverpudlian hen party walk into a salon and ask for 12 vajazzles, you know they're on a TOWIE tour. Brentwood, Loughton and Chigwell became a kind of axis of hedonism. 'Gahn Faces tonight' is both a question and a statement of intent (Faces being a local nighclub). There's even a company calling itself (God help them) Reem Lets. Joey Essex shops in my local supermarket where people whisper and giggle and take photos as he picks out his veg.

Anyway, up until the last two seasons, it was kind of amusing to watch. It's not every day you see two women arranging their shivery, saucer-eyed chihuahuas' limbs for dog yoga, or a man in a onesie attempting to walk on water. I enjoyed Lauren pushing the manipulative Mark into a swimming pool at his own party just as much as the next person. I shouted at the TV as Lucy fell back into the arms of the philandering Mario. I cringed as Arg's puppy-like devotion to Mark Wright led him to abandon the long-suffering Lydia in a bar on her birthday so he could 'be there for his mate' who was promoting a party somewhere else. In Essex, every cocky, good-looking guy under 30 is a 'club promoter' which I think basically means they go around encouraging people to go to whatever club is paying them in free champagne.

But it's changed, man.

At some point over the last couple of years, the silly innocence went out of it. The men are rapacious, nasty and desperately immature as they snigger and boast about sleeping with various women. The women are two-faced, dishonest and desperately immature as they gossip and shit-stir. The women and the men both cheat on each other but the women refuse to admit it then go into BAFTA-worthy acts of outrage and injury while the men blame the women for their cheating. Some of the newer characters are just unutterably awful while some of the older ones have turned into parodies of themselves. At the end of every episode of the 10th series, I decided I'd basically thrown away an hour of my life watching people I now actively disliked picking apart their relationships and each other. It wasn't like anything even really happened any more, just strained conversations in gyms, bars and coffee shops. It's like watching a couple who once had a torrid affair and fizzed with excitement regard each other with boredom and something close to hatred as they try to inject that sparkle back into their relationship. The Essex glamour has faded. And I fell out of love with TOWIE.

The 11th series starts tonight. I won't be watching it. Not even a little bit. Life's just too damn short.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Front Doors And The Power Of Invisibility

So today I tried to go and buy a new front door. Because I like to try and support local businesses if I can, I went to the door shop conveniently located in the high street ten minutes down the road.

It didn't go well.

Imagine you have a shop selling something which doesn't attract an awful lot of foot traffic and is really a one-off purchase for most people. Now imagine that two potential customers walk in and start looking at your stock while discussing their requirements for precisely the thing you sell. You'd probably jump up from behind the desk almost entirely hidden behind a wall and ask if they needed any help, presumably? Perhaps you'd ask them a couple of questions about what they wanted and how your business could give them exactly what they wanted? Or at least perhaps say hello and tell them to give you a shout if they needed help? If you had any customer service skills whatsoever, you wouldn't ignore them and stay silently seated behind the desk playing with your phone.

It got worse.

When it became clear that no assistance would be forthcoming unless we actually went and asked for it, I approached the desk and said we'd quite like a new front door, what we had in mind and could they help. I've always quite wanted a super power of some kind and it seemed that I had instantly gained the power of invisibility as the teen behind the desk focused his attention on my husband, who was still standing on the other side of the shop. Rather offhandedly, he told my husband that they could indeed supply and fit a door but it would cost money. How much? I asked, because obviously up until that point I'd assumed it would be free.

'£168 plus delivery, that's fitting all your knockers and stuff too,' he told my husband.
'How much is the actual door?'
'It's on the website. Have you seen our website?'
'Yes, but how much is it?'
After quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, we found out the price of the door, but teen said it was supplied unfinished and we'd have to paint it ourselves because it was too much trouble for them to do it (!). FOUR coats, he told us gleefully. Given that kind of the point of us wanting to pay someone else to supply and fit a door was to avoid this sort of DIY nonsense, having to paint the damn thing ourselves seemed a bit much, frankly.

We sort of gave up at that point and decided that we'd go and buy a front door from someone who actually wanted to sell us one and wasn't going to force us to paint it too. As we left the shop, I suddenly developed the super power of telekinesis and caused all the doors in the shop to slam simultaneously*.

* Not really.

Monday, 27 January 2014

What I Did In My Holidays: Part Arba'a

I've always had a bit of a fascination for the Middle East. I put it down to a combination of having read the Arabian Nights tales as a child and the sense of antiquity one gets from that part of the world. In a peaceful world, I'd love to visit Baghdad and Jordan (for Petra, obvs) is also on my list but as a relatively last minute holiday decision, I chose the United Arab Emirates instead.

The UAE are to antiquity what football chants are to music, but I like them nonetheless. The last time I visited, I went to the emirates of Ajman and its more famous neighbour Dubai so this time I went to Abu Dhabi. While Abu Dhabi is the capital city, Dubai is the financial centre and the place where people from Essex go on holiday.

For those who can't be bothered to consult a map, the UAE consists of seven emirates bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Each emirate is ruled by an emir and one of the seven gets to rule the whole of the UAE too. Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan was the first president - until 1971, the British administered the region (this was a surprise to me too) - and much of the UAE's relative liberal-ness comes from his rule. It's still very much a muslim country, but attitudes towards its western residents are slightly more relaxed than in other Arab countries. For example, in most of the UAE, apart from Sharjah which is dry, you can drink freely in hotels and restaurants. I wouldn't recommend getting lagered up in the street (dying to see how football fans get on in nearby Qatar in 2022) but you won't be slung into prison for enjoying a beer by the pool. Women can walk around in normal clothes without any problems but like nearly anywhere in the world with the possible exception of LA, it's probably not advisable to strut the streets in a bikini.

Upon entering Abu Dhabi (via one of the longest immigration queues at an airport I've ever seen), I quickly realised I was going to have to leave any feminist principles I may have at the border. Everyone is perfectly polite, but it's very clear that everyone from Emiratis to Indian waiters considers my husband to be in charge. If I ask a question, they address the answer to him. It's irritating and there's literally no way I'd tolerate it at home but it's not my job to change the culture of an entire country so I decided to ignore it with aplomb instead. Sorry, but there you go.

The UAE has a huge number of expats. According to Wiki, they make up 91% of the population. Unfortunately, not all of them are treated very well. Conditions for migrant workers can be appalling - this report from the Guardian highlights squalid accommodation, confiscation of passports and low wages. The UAE is possibly the modern-day equivalent to ancient Egpyt - money no object and millions of destitute workers toiling behind the scenes.

The roads are straight and pothole-free, lined with billboard posters showing smiling emirs giving the thumbs up to stuff. The preference for cars appears to be Mercedes and Range Rovers, the more options fitted the better. Our hotel was in a cluster of skyscrapers overlooking a series of sandy islands on the Corniche, which is the main road that runs along the waterfront. It's all beautifully manicured and there is no litter at all. When one is used to dual carriageways decorated with crisp packets and bottles of piss, it's certainly a refreshing change.

So, things to do. We had already heard about the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and decided to visit (the tour is free). It's so beautiful that I nearly couldn't stop taking pictures of it. The only thing which stopped me was darkness and my inability to take decent night shots. Female visitors should note that they will need to wear a headscarf, long skirt or trousers and cover their arms. There's a big sign outside showing what you can and can't wear (skinny jeans are out) so take note of it. The Grand Mosque is the place that Rihanna was asked to leave following an unauthorised photo shoot last year, fact fans. Commissioned by the eponymous first president, Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, it's also the largest mosque in the UAE and the eighth largest mosque in the world, able to hold up tp 40,000 people.True to his liberalish tendencies, the late sheikh aimed to unite the world by using artists and materials from all over the globe. And boy, it's impressive. White marble and gold leaf sparkle, while intricate floral tiles wind across the floor. It's just achingly gorgeous, from its four elegant minarets to its highly coloured gigantic chandeliers. We did a guided tour which is fairly limited - you get to stand in the courtyard and the main prayer hall and that's about it. It's also home to the world's largest carpet (60,570 square feet) and you have to take your shoes off to go into the main prayer hall so you'll get to feel it under your feet.

The mosque is bordered by gardens and pools - the latter which I accidentally discovered while taking pictures project a bluish light onto the walls as dusk falls and I was so pleased with myself that I immediately took about 37 more pictures. We'd wanted to visit the library which we'd been told was open but when we wandered down there, a security guard shooed us away. It's hard to get across how opulent the mosque is - the  96 columns in the main prayer hall are decorated with mother-of-pearl. The 1096 columns outside are decorated with over 20,000 marble panels inlaid with semi-precious stones including amethyst, lapis lazuli, red agate, abalone shell and more mother of pearl.

Mounted on the wall is a prayer clock which shows the sunrise and sunset times and the five daily call to prayer times. I didn't really know a whole lot about this before, but apparently the times vary and it's broadcast out to all the smaller mosques in Abu Dhabi. We heard the call to prayer while we were there and it's haunting in a way I didn't expect.

We decided to give Ferrari World a miss after hearing reports that it was basically just a big car-themed amusement park and not really our bag but we did visit the F1 track at Yas Island. After a brief attempt at selling us a driving experience, the tour guide took us on a bus tour of the main bits of the track. Again, it's clear that no expense was spared in the building of it. It's all very shiny and state of the art and there's a massive hotel smack in the middle of the circuit, its glass and steel canopy curving over the track. But despite being F1 fans, we were rather underwhelmed by the tour without being able to say exactly why. Perhaps it was the lack of cars or indeed anything at all happening which made it seem a bit flat.

Unusually, we were able to go onto the track start line which was quite cool and not something you'd get to do every day. When I watch this year's race at Yas, I'll be able to yelp 'I was there!' as Vettel et al storm away from the grid. We were also allowed to walk around on the corner underneath the hotel and get some decent photos disproving the claims of F1 drivers that they never run over the kerb. Part of the tour included a visit to the north grandstand which even this time of year was swelteringly hot. It did however have a fantastic view of a hairpin corner which according to the FIA website, should be taken in second gear at 70mph before accelerating to 260mph.

Don't get me wrong, if you have any interest in motorsport and get the chance to take a look at the track then you should do it. It's not expensive (AED 120 - about £20) but you will need to book.
If you lack a Formula 1 car - and let's face it, most of us do - you can opt to run, cycle or walk the circuit every Tuesday between 6pm and 9pm. Wednesday evenings are reserved for women and according to the tour guide, all male employees are banned for the evening. 

Getting around in the UAE is best done by taxi, especially if you don't really plan to take any longer trips. They're cheap and plentiful - a 30 minute ride to the mosque, for example, cost about AED 45 (£7.50). We didn't see too much traffic but I remember some hideous jams in Dubai. There is a bus service which was launched in 2008 and apparently costs AED 2-4.Apparently, the UAE has changed significantly in quite a short space of time. My uncle, who was in the Navy about 40 years ago recalled it as 'a series of dusty towns and not much else' was surprised when I sent him pictures of skyscrapers and neon lights. It's amazing what people can do with unlimited dosh and a blank sheet of infrastructure in a relatively short time period. TfL take note.

So, if you're looking for some sunshine in the dismal post-Christmas period then the UAE is a decent choice. With around seven hours flight time from Heathrow it's half the distance to south east Asia so you can easily do a week there without recovery time for jetlag. Abu Dhabi is a lot quieter than Dubai and it's also less pricey. Personally, I prefer it. 

See the rest of my pictures on Flickr here.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Multi-Way Curry

Years ago, I tried to be a vegan. It didn't work out for me, but I did find this recipe which has become one of my go-to dishes. It's brilliant because you can put all kinds of different things in it and it will still taste good. I use prawns, but you could use chicken or make it veggie by using chickpeas and veg instead. Quorn pieces would work or you could use aubergine if quorn isn't your bag.


Two cloves of garlic
Two shallots
Dried cumin and turmeric
Fresh red chilli or two (depending on how spicy you like it)
Creme fraiche or double cream (depending how creamy you want it, you could use yoghurt too)
Tiger prawns (or chicken, or aubergine, or quorn)
About one inch of fresh root ginger, chopped
Green pepper
Mushrooms, sliced
Fresh coriander, chopped
Flaked almonds (optional) - they add a sweet, crunchy texture to it

To make
  •  Chop the garlic and shallots finely and fry for a couple of minutes in olive oil.
  • Add two teaspoons of turmeric and one of cumin.
  • Finely chop the chilli and throw it in. Give it all a stir and allow the spices to mingle.
  • Add in the green pepper and stir.
  • Add the chopped ginger, then the cream/creme fraiche.
  • Stir in the sliced mushrooms.
  • Leave it all to simmer gently for about 10 minutes.
  • Add the almonds (if you want them).
  • Prawns go in at the last minute as they just need warming through, then add the coriander.
  • Leave to stand for a couple of minutes off the heat, then serve with basmati rice.
Seriously, it's easy peasy to make and you can substitute whatever bits you want. It's a very creamy curry so meat like chicken would work well. Creme fraiche gives it a slightly fresher flavour while double cream is obviously much sweeter. I've made it completely veggie in the past too and it works just as well. If you do use chicken, I'd chop it into pieces and then add it at the same time as you put the ginger in. If using quorn pieces, add them in right at the start with the spices so they can absorb the flavour. If using aubergine, add it at the same time as the cream.

Happy nomming.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Switching Off Street Lights And Impending Doom

Last year, the county council launched a consultation on part-night street lighting, that is, switching the street lights off between midnight and 5am. It goes without saying that this is primarily a cost-cutting measure, estimated to save in the region of £70,000 per year. A few people didn't like the idea, a few thought crime and road accidents would increase. In fact, when the scheme was trialled in one area, crime rates didn't change. But, you know, fair enough, people are always worried about the impact of change and we have a right to question decisions made by our elected leaders.

Fast forward to this year when the lights went out. It was as though armageddon had arrived, to be closely followed by anarchy, chaos and probably a zombie apocalypse. Facebook campaigns have been set up, the local newspaper's website has dozens of comments from people who are behaving as though the county's criminals have been lying in wait for the stroke of midnight, and the sense of outrage is palpable.

One commenter believes that anyone supporting the switch off must be male and have no care for the safety of women, another firmly believes rape will skyrocket. To a person, they think burglary will increase. Someone's sister nearly bumped into another pedestrian in the street, another saw a car nearly crash. Another thinks it's weird and dangerous to not have street lighting and drivers may be confused by it. A whole load of people have started taking pictures of their street after midnight to demonstrate how dark it is (yes, this is just as moronic as it sounds). Oh, and someone thinks that campaigners should appeal to the EU claiming that the switch off is a breach of our human rights. Clue: it isn't.

The level of hysteria over the scheme is so out of proportion it's bordering parody. The last time I checked, pedestrians had eyes, cars had headlights, some motorways and rural areas have never had street lighting and criminals can and do work under any lighting conditions. According to the Office of National Statistic (ONS), in 2012/13, 25% of burglaries happened between midday and 6pm while 24% happened between midnight and 6am. I don't even need to go looking for statistics on rape to point out the rarity of cases where someone was dragged off a street or the difference that the presence of street lighting might make to that. The biggest threat from burglars and rapists is the police's unwillingness to investigate and their willingness to misrecord crimes to make their statistics look better.

The single valid objection I've seen against the switch off is the poor state of a lot of pavements. Since starting running, I can attest to maintaining a vaguely paranoid fear of twisting my ankle on a patch of jutting tarmac. And since I have to run mostly at night I spend a lot of time looking at the ground. But if someone can't drive on an unlit road at night even with their headlights on without becoming confused then I'd seriously question whether they should even be on the roads.

Just in case anyone thought that whole towns have been plunged into darkness, they haven't. Town centres, key routes and accident blackspots have remained lit. So if you live in one of those areas and have a street light shining into your bedroom then unlucky. Otherwise, you can get to enjoy a night sky with significantly less of the tangerine glow. And I for one am pleased about it.