Tuesday 16 July 2013

The Bikini Delusion

In approximately four weeks time I am going to wear a bikini for the first time in about ten years.  This is not because I have suddenly morphed into Elle Macpherson, but because I have a strange optimistic view of my body, a kind of positive body dismorphia whereby my brain interprets the negative aspects of my physique as "not that bad" and then combines it with a glass-half-full, bullish optimism, which convinces me that four weeks is enough time to hone my abs, cut out the carbs and get rid of the bingo wings.  Clearly I am delusional as none of these things have happened, or are likely to happen.
This is Plan C...

I cannot believe that at the ripe old age of 40 I still believe the crap I tell myself on a daily basis. To illustrate this point, here is a brief insight into my misguided psyche - my top five delusions as it were:

·         If I buy that electric Scholl Pedicure machine advertised on TV, I will have beautiful feet (my mind conveniently glossing over the fact that I have feet that were once described by a chiropodist as “the type of feet one usually associates with dairy farmers ” – I can only assume from this comment that dairy farmers tend to have "Hobbit" feet.)
·         If I buy crap chocolate bars (Rockies / Blue Ribands / Wagon Wheels – I know, controversial) for the kids’ lunch boxes, then I won’t eat them because they don’t taste nice.  This is brilliant reasoning until about 10.30 at night when I find myself with a nice cuppa, Question Time and / or Geordie Shore on the TV and an inexplicable attack of the munchies.  I inevitably end up scoffing the Rockie / Blue Riband / Wagon Wheel just because it is there, and then regretting it instantly because deep down I know I should have held out for something infinitely superior, like half a Cadbury’s Twirl or a few squares of Lindor.
·         If I buy wine in screw top bottles I am more likely to only have one glass because the wine will keep nice and fresh in its re-screwed up bottle.  I think we all know the flaw in this argument!
·         “The healthy living / diet starts tomorrow” – the only time I say this, and actually believe it, is after eating huge quantities of something delicious but very fattening.  It is easy to plan light healthy meals when you are glorying in the golden fug of a carbohydrate / fat coma.
·         Tomorrow I will not shout at my children. I will be the embodiment of nurturing maternal calm….(hmmmmmm!)

Add to this:

·         If I buy a bikini in May (Debenhams Sale) I will be sufficiently “buff” by August to wear it with pride on the beaches of the gayest island in the Mediterranean (I am not being judgmental  / homophobic – this is one of the ways  that Mykonos markets itself, presumably to put off all the Shirley Valentine wannabes coming).

I can only conclude that I must be a bit a little bit mental because in my experience gay men are the harshest critics, especially when it comes to the body beautiful (or “not beautiful” in my case).  Luckily for me I don’t think a forty-something, mother of three, in a Cath Kidston-esque bikini is going to attract much of their attention, I am sure they will be far more interested in my George Clooney lookalike husband (a statement which some might say is further evidence of my delusion), with his English summer tan (white body / brown arms and face). 

So I have turned to the wonderful Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall for some last minute weight loss inspiration.  His “Veg” Cookbook is a revelation for committed carnivores like myself and if I ignore all the bits about adding 7lbs of cheese, then his recipes are incredibly healthy and leave me feeling a little bit virtuous (is this how Vegetarians feel all the time?).  Inspired by Hugh, last weekend I actually picked my own home-grown courgette flowers (so far so good)...and then stuffed them with ricotta, herbs and lemon zest, dipped them in a light batter and deep fried them for a couple of minutes…. You see – DELUDED!!! I had inadvertently chosen the only veg recipe in the entire wonderful book that would go down well in a Scottish fish and chip shop. They tasted bloody lovely though.

Vanity aside and on a more serious note, I should, strictly speaking, be eating healthily to help prevent further MS relapses but for the moment at least, my MS is lovely and quiet (not a twinge, fuzzy leg or sinister weakness in sight).  I feel great and when I feel normal and healthy, I am one of those people who forgets what it feels like to be that poorly.  Two years ago this week I was in a wheelchair and scared that I might not be able to walk again. But the curious thing with the type of MS I have (relapse remitting) is that when things are going well,  I can delude myself into thinking that I will always feel this good – I am not sure if this is a bad or a good thing?

As for the beaches of Mykonos – I am going with Plan B which involves buying a large hat, oversized sunglasses and putting on some bright red lipstick to add some old-school Hollywood glamour and  detract from all the bad stuff going on round my midriff.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Fifty Shades of Grey

Just to make it clear, this is not a blog about Farrow and Ball’s latest colour chart (although you’ve got to love a company which has “Dead Salmon” and “Mouse’s Back” as two of its signature colours). This is a blog inspired by E.L James’s bestselling trilogy and I am writing it about nine months too late; I am certainly not going to win any awards for being most topical blogger. The whole “Fifty Shades” phenomenon is now a distant memory; it belongs to the summer of the 2012, along with the London Olympics and endless weeks of rain. I have reached the stage where I can almost feel nostalgic for Christian Grey with his crisp white shirts, hip-hugging jeans, expensive bodywash and penchant for weirdy sex.

I say “almost” because Fifty Shades of Grey is a pretty rubbish book (and I know that this quality analysis is not going to get me on the review sofa of BBC2’s The Culture Show any time soon).  I made it through the first part of the trilogy (just) and was left feeling like I had been the victim of the biggest marketing conspiracy of the 21st century.  I read it simply because everyone else in the world had read it and I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. This was peer pressure on a global scale.  I can only assume that everyone else fell into the same trap because I cannot believe that this is what 40 million people around the world like to read?

What worried me most wasn’t the casual references to nipple clamps or Christian’s “playroom”, or Anastasia’s bizarrely wholesome cursing (“Holy hell, oh Lordy… my inner goddess is doing somersaults”) - it was the fact that the unprecedented worldwide success of these books serves only to re-affirm the age-old notion that every woman secretly yearns to be dominated in all areas of her life: intellectually, sexually and financially. Bugger the education and career, all us women really want is an alpha male with some deviant sexual predilection and a Jo Malone loyalty card to come and whisk us off our feet.

This is not a scene from Fifty Shades.
Before I start burning my bra, I need to confess that I didn’t totally hate the first book, but by the time I got halfway through book number two I was actually speed-reading through the sex scenes to get back to the important business of imagining what it would be like to live in a big mansion on the ocean on the Pacific Northwest of America. I didn’t even start the third book.

I was quite vocal about how I felt about Fifty Shades – the phrase “badly-written crap” was bandied about for some time in my house. So imagine my surprise when on Christmas morning I discovered that Santa had left me a copy of a book which featured a black and white grainy cover and the slightly dubious title “Eighty Days Yellow”.  (Hint to authors – yellow is not a sexy colour; it is the colour of bruises and custard, not titillation).  Apparently a lady on Huddersfield Market had recommended it as a “good read” to my husband.  This book demonstrates perfectly why the lady from Huddersfield Market will not be heading up the Booker Prize selection committee. 

It was awful, actually it was worse than awful.  Jointly written by an established author under a pseudonym and a first time writer “who works in the City” (don’t give up the day job), it followed/cashed-in on the Fifty Shades theme of BDSM (otherwise known as kinky stuff), omitted the glamorous settings, and just cut straight to the dark business of Submissives, pain and humiliation. The story culminates with a scene where the main female character is practically raped.  I was aghast.  This book is being marketed as “mummy porn” (a media phrase which is just ‘bleurgh’ on every level!). Since when did rape and women being powerless become the stuff of mainstream titillation?

I am an avid recycler but I have to admit that I put Eighty Days Yellow straight in the bin – I didn’t think the nice old ladies at the Animal Welfare charity shop would approve of this particular addition to their second hand book-shelf. But then again maybe I have got this all wrong – perhaps this is exactly what ladies of a certain age, who volunteer to help homeless cats, want.  

Who could forget "Ralph"?
Right or wrong, I suppose what depresses me most is the idea that these are the books that could inform my daughters’ adolescent literary sexual education.  I just have to hope that they discover Judy Blume and Jilly Cooper first.

Monday 11 February 2013


At the risk of turning into Esther Rantzen (but with smaller teeth) I am about to get on my soapbox.  Turning 40 has officially allowed me to indulge the grumpy old woman aspects of my character that have been lurking beneath the surface for many a year. If you don’t like a rant, then I suggest you stop reading.  This post has nothing to do with MS, hair, diets, exercise, chickens or my family.

For illustration purposes only.
There was no roll of carpet in my litter dump.
Today was the kind of February day that makes you happy to be alive.  The first signs of Spring were everywhere: birds singing, snowdrops bobbing in the breeze and glorious sunshine that gives hope that the dreariness of winter is almost over. I decided to get out on my bike to make the most of it and was glorying in snow-capped mountain views and the sparkling bay vista when something caught my eye. That something was a Tesco carrier bag which had been unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road.

On closer inspection I discovered it contained the following: the wrappings of a McDonalds Value Meal, an empty tube of Jaffa cakes, a bottle of Lucozade Sport and an empty packet of 20 Lambert & Butler.  Now to some people this might sound like the ingredients for a good night out (and to be honest I am a Jaffa Cake fan) but it really, really upset me that someone could not see what I could see; a beautiful view, the wonder of nature laid out right in from of them.  That all this gorgeousness didn't make them care enough to not want to ruin it by dumping their rubbish right in the middle of it.

So I did what any woman on a bike 5 miles from home would do.  I picked it all up (they had thoughtfully left the Tesco carrier bag) and rode home with it swinging from my handlebars.

When I was a student in Newcastle there was a man who used to shuffle round the streets of Jesmond with a plastic bag, picking up bits of litter morning, noon and night.  We rather unimaginatively called him the “Carrier Bag Man” and I remember thinking he had some kind of mental health issues.  Twenty years on and I am fully aware that I am now turning into “Carrier Bag Woman”.  My actions on the bike ride today are not unprecedented.  Family walks regularly become litter picks simply because I cannot bear the thought that places of beauty, which can give so much pleasure, are blighted by the lazy actions of some unthinking consumer of junk food, caffeine and crap fags.

I am reliably informed by my husband that the only litter that existed in the pre-junk food days of the seventies and early eighties was the odd top-shelf magazine tossed away (excuse the pun) in the hedgerows, litter which at least provided a valuable educational resource to the nation’s pubescent boys.  It is surely no coincidence that the 500% rise in litter since the 1960s (according to Keep Britain Tidy) is matched by the explosion in the availability of junk food.  Litter is symptomatic of a careless, convenience-driven, throw-away culture.  The same people who are careless about their health (fags, sports drinks, take-away food) clearly have the same reckless approach to their environment.  Someone else will pick up the pieces (NHS in the case of their health, middle-aged mother-of-three with a mild case of OCD, in the case of the litter).

The American Author Bill Bryson who famously loves his adopted UK puts it quite succinctly: "Most people litter guiltily and stealthily, their desire not to have a piece of rubbish with them is now greater than their commitment to society. We need to appeal to people's conscience and say to them, "This is a beautiful country, stop trashing it." Good old Bill is also an advocate of picking up litter when we see it. You see, I am not mad – Bill Bryson is in my camp!

Mayor of London Boris Johnson advocates tackling litter louts head on (and yes, I appreciate the irony of using Boris Johnson as proof of my mental stability). I have tried the friendly confrontation approach with a group of 15 year old girls who chucked an empty can of coke on the pavement right in front of me.  It was a bit scary to be honest, they gave me a bit of lip but they did pick it up and ultimately I am glad I acted, because that is what being part of a community is about. We need to educate our children and not be afraid of confronting people when they get it wrong.

In the meantime I am proud to be my town’s very own “Carrier Bag lady” because I love where I live and I want my kids to be able to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings without a KFC wrapper getting in the way.

Rant over…
Keep Britain Tidy website

Be a Litter Hero!

Thursday 10 January 2013

Who’s that girl?

Next week I will turn 40.  I like to think that it won’t bother me; that I am comfortable enough in my own skin to let my thirties go without a period of adjustment or mourning but I fear that this will not be the case.  Ageing is an insidious thing.  It creeps up on you; weaving its dark magic on your body and face without you really noticing until one day, BAM, you are stood in front of a three way mirror in a harshly-lit Next changing room and your world comes crashing down.  I don’t go clothes shopping very often and on an ill-fated shopping trip to Manchester just before Christmas I remembered why. Badly angled mirrors, nasty lighting, the terror of asking beautiful, pert 17 year-old shop assistants for a top in a size 14 – these were the horrors that lurked inside the changing rooms of the Arndale Centre.

My nemesis - "Deidre Barlow" neck
I always used to get round the three-way mirror back-fat trauma with a combination of squinting and denial.  I would do the pout-mouth that all women do when they try on clothes in front of a mirror and console myself with the fact that I had applied my eyeliner quite nicely that morning.  Unfortunately I cannot escape the fact that first thing in the morning I look like my Dad in a wig.  It’s not that my Dad is unattractive; it’s just that I don’t particularly want to share the facial characteristics of a 66 year old man.  If I was a character in a Jane Austen novel I would be described as having “lost her bloom.” The changes are subtle but they are definitely there – this is ageing.

One of the more depressing events of the past twelve months was being ID’d in my local supermarket when buying a bottle of wine.  Why was this depressing I hear you ask?  Well, after a brief moment of joy, that to the outside world I was still a dewy-skinned 18 year-old, my hopes were completely dashed by the young checkout man giving a little guffaw at his audacity of ID-ing someone who was clearly well past it.  He was flirting with me in the way that young men flirt with old ladies.

Earlier this week I watched a Channel 4 programme about women having mid life crises and there was a lady who had gone down the Botox / surgery route to tackle her ageing demons. Although this woman certainly caught the eye, it was for all the wrong reasons (tattooed eyebrows – what’s that all about?) It only reaffirmed my long held belief that Botox does not make you look younger, it just makes you look like you have had “work done”. Attractive, 42-year old presenter Sharon Horgan revealed that she had tried Botox last year around her mouth after catching herself “looking a bit gummy” when she smiled. “My husband went mad with me” she admitted.  I am with the husband on this one.

Aside from vanity, I have another slightly less shallow reason for the feelings of apprehension surrounding my forthcoming birthday.  I remember my Mum’s forties as being the decade where her multiple sclerosis really took hold.  She had relapse after relapse and was hospitalised several times.  By the time she had reached fifty her walking had been severely affected and she used a wheelchair if she had to walk more than a few steps.  I try not compare myself to my Mum as there is no reason why my MS should follow the same path as hers but in my darker moments it is difficult not to worry that a similar fate (or worse) awaits me.  MS is a mercurial disease and although I feel better now than I have done for two years, I have learned the hard way to never take my good health for granted. I may get distracted by the trivialities of saggy boobs and old lady hands but underneath I know maintaining my general good health is paramount.

So my only course of action after a festive period characterised by sneaky breakfast After Eight Mints and midnight cheese and crackers is to try and be a bit healthier again. It’s time to get out on my bike, start chopping vegetables and have a root around in the freezer for that bag of Quorn I bought back in October. The back fat, eye bags and Deidre Barlow neck can all go to hell.  I am determined to embrace middle age and I have a Good Housekeeping Magazine subscription to prove it.  I am going to celebrate the fact that at forty I am happy and healthy and for the time being am winning my own personal war with this shitty disease.