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City Girl

“She’s a game bird.” I overheard someone saying this recently. No other phrase creates more nausea within me. Well, aside from the classic “Let’s have a giggle”. Eurgh. It’s worse when you give thought to what such a seemingly harmless little phrase actually means. Game is an ‘object of pursuit’, with fair game being ‘something equally accessible by any legitimate participant’. It derives from the grouse hunter’s expression to identify a bird that is a legitimate target as opposed to a bird that is injured, or too young. When that ‘bird’ in question is a woman, well, there’s the nausea again.

In my mind’s eye I cringe at hawing and hooraying middle-aged men in pastel linens, winding down with a sloe gin in an Agatha Christie-esque parlour of some vast country estate after a long haul on the grouse fields, his eye on the next target – Florence, someone’s cousin. (Must stop watching all this ITV3.) But, naturally seems as I live not in the country but Birmingham city centre, the fella I overhead making the “she’s a game bird” statement was not in fact a middle-age country gent but a lad in his late teens sporting a sort-of quiff. His friend wore red cords and a smart blazer. There was a cravat present.

It’s striking how this trend in young men’s – and ladies’ – fashion has really taken hold of the great British public. First came the renewed thirst to dress like young Sloanes after the success of Made in Chelsea. Cue Jack Wills, ‘outfitters to the gentry’, sprouting up all over the place – yes, even not-exactly-Oxbridge Birmingham. So I suppose it is only natural that we are now seeing this strange rise through the ranks, if you will, to an upper class of aspirational dressing. A movement that is resulting in the incongruous (and really quite humorous) combination of 18-year-old lads dressed in sat round the local Wetherspoons resembling the head of some old aristocrat in neckerchiefs, waistcoats and loafers-with-no-socks. Likely topped off with a quilted jacket, or tweed if you’re that way inclined.

It’s not hard to see why this look is so popular. I should know, I subscribed to Tatler to a year. (Yes, I know – but I was curious). It’s a bit of fun. And it’s nice to see people looking so smart – much preferable to the full-on tracksuit look – even if it is just as equally ridiculous (arguably more so).

But I digress – it dawned on me after overhearing the ‘game bird’ phrase that in all my 32 years I’ve never eaten game meat. Clearly, I’ve led a sheltered life. It’s strange though, as I’m not exactly unadventurous in my eating and I’m often found in a restaurant these days. Game has cropped up on the menu and in my psyche on numerous occasions. But my abstinence is not a conscious decision based on the blatant sexism (and accompanying nausea) that has infected my perception of game meat. But rather, an (until now) unconscious aversion based on what it represents to me about the sticky issue of social class.

pigeon  edit 2Growing up in north Birmingham there wasn’t much call for game. It was a truly alien concept. I remember, not all that long ago, hearing about fashionable restaurants serving pigeon and my immediate reaction was: food has gone mad. Eating pigeon? Never. The worst I’ve done to a pigeon is chase it… I don’t want one on my plate. Most of them are mangled and diseased-looking with one eye and half a leg. Of course, what these restaurants are serving are not the city pigeons we all love to hate, but wild wood pigeon. Thinking about it, what’s the difference? The wood pigeon’s diet can’t be too far removed from that of their city relatives – so what if they supplement their seeds with a bit of our rubbish…isn’t that what pigs do? And my, do we love our pork!

I think I’d rather take a chance with a city pigeon than dice with dental disaster – who wants a mouthful of lead? – and, in the process, continue to not buy into the stale elitism that today’s game ‘sport’ culture represents. Members – provided you understand all manner of weird rules and codes – of a selective club, wealthy enough to be able to shell out thousands to kill birds for pleasure.

It all seems a bit barbaric and unnecessary. While I can understand the argument that game sport isn’t any more barbaric than rearing a bird in a disgusting factory to be killed, the altogether unwholesome social barbarity of fun-seeking toffs paying through the nose to shoot at animals for sport is something this diner just can’t stomach. But ridding our cities of the pigeon scourge – wouldn’t that be a good thing? A useful thing?

We could get them out of the guns out of the grouse fields and into our city centres for public service shoots. Then we could have a Digbeth Dining Club pigeon burger stand, inspired by this Rentokil pestaurant. Can you imagine…armed men in plus-fours running around town? Paying women and small children a pittance (this does actually happen) to beat the pigeons into flight?

No, neither can I.

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It would seem that my local coffee shop is a prime location for a spot of undercover crime detection. And no, I haven’t been watching too many crime dramas on ITV3. (Although, I have).

The last two times I have visited this particular coffee shop I have witnessed a crime – the same crime. Shoplifting. From the same place – a clearly unlucky branch of the popular high street chemist, Superdrug. And on both occasions the thieves were homeless people.

From the sanctum of Pret a Manger‘s first floor seating area I gazed down, over the froth of my cappuccino, at the Sunday morning scene below. New Street’s pavement was being pounded by grumpy families, gaggles of teens and hungover people. I love this – being nosey. It opens fleeting windows into the mundanity of other people’s lives. What they choose to buy for lunch. Where they do their supermarket shopping. How they talk to people on the phone. You learn so much about fellow humans from what they do in presumed privacy. Obscured from view as I was, looking down on everyone from on high in a God-like manner, I revelled in passing unrestrained judgement wherever I saw fit. Tutting at the spitting and litter-dropping. Cringing at the sheer volume of Superdry coat wearers (they don’t seem to fit most humans!) And that’s when I saw two characters huddled in front of a postbox.

I think the only way to describe them is shady. They were scheming. The thrill of covert observation suddenly stepped up a notch. You pray for stuff like this as a people watcher – juicy stuff. Shiftily, they scouted the exterior. One walking off back to the postbox while the other strolls in with an empty Superdrug bag – ingenious.

For me, this was purely entertainment. It felt not so much like real life, but television. I was back on the sofa in front of Lewis. No moral instinct kicked in – it didn’t even cross my mind to intervene. What exactly was I going to do anyway? Don my coat over my shoulders like a caped crusader, hurtle down the (many) stairs at Pret, career across the street and then… what? Alert the Superdrug security guard? Oh, he already knew what the pair were up to. He’s as resigned as the rest of us.

And that’s the thing. Has being a city girl all my life turned me into a lazy, bloated cynic? Largeing it up in a designer coffee shop, tucked up safely in a plush chair on the other side of the street, while this pair of lost souls are nicking a mouthwash to get drunk on. What’s one more theft? I was never going to act because I felt so far removed from the situation – from their desperation. I’d like to say the events released some Robin Hood sense of social justice in me, that I felt sympathy for the thieves and wanted the little man to win over the big. But if anything I was indifferent. Bored. Expecting it.

Am I a bad human? I’d like to think if it was a more serious crime I’d witnessed I would have been compelled to act – but would I? Really? If I’m honest with myself there is a chance I would leave it to someone else. Does my sense of social responsibility only stretch as far as doing the recycling and remembering to vote?

I’ve been giving this some thought and, despite working for a social enterprise for the least decade, embarrassingly I’ve I realised I couldn’t really describe what social responsibility actually means for you and I. In case you need enlightening too, reader, social responsibility is a duty every individual has to perform so as to maintain a balance between the economy and the ecosystems.

Of course, it’s one thing empathising with this message – which I do, in spades – and another acting on it. Which is where I sadly seem to have fallen short. But then, you may ask, where exactly was the thieves’ sense of social responsibility?

On this theme I thought It would be (semi) interesting to Google Superdrug‘s Social Responsibility Policy. One of their objectives is to ‘be fair’, not allowing customers to be discriminated against. They also state that giving back to the communities they serve is a key vision. Maybe I’ve got the security guard all wrong and he was in fact putting this policy into practice by turning a blind eye…

Did they get away with it, the thieves? No. There was something so pitiable about the whole charade, walking right into a pair of policemen as they did on their smug (but very short-lived) bounce down the street. Hardly master criminals. I felt very sorry for them. Instead of only exhibiting sympathy and kindness privately, for the benefit of no-one but me and my ego, perhaps I’ll take it out in public once in a while. Buying the Big Issue seems like a sensible start.

What about you lot? Ever intervened mid-crime? (But please don’t write in saying you saved a baby in an arson attack or anything, you’ll only make everyone feel bad…)

My last blog post was all about lifestyle aspirations and, since writing it, I find something not-all-that aspirational has been on my mind – the takeaway hot beverage. I remember my first. Well, I don’t actually – but I can imagine what it would have been. A tea, milk no sugar. In a polystyrene cup.

Hot drinks just taste better in a polystyrene cup, don’t they? Or is that just me. I am always a little thrilled when I get my drink delivered in one. It rarely happens now though. The last time – a time I do definitely remember, it was that significant – was at London’s Victoria bus station one chilly Saturday morning. My sister and I were on our way to Chelsea – only via the somewhat scenic and not very glamorous route of The Bus. We couldn’t find where the number seven actually stopped. (Has anyone ever been to the Victoria bus station? Nightmare. But marginally better than the coach station.) We were a bit stressed. Then we happened upon a newsagents-cum-cafe, where everything was made better by massive cups of polystyrene tea for 65p. Memorably good value. We went back there especially three years later. It was £1.00. A smaller cup. That’s inflation for you.
You might, rightly, be thinking: what the hell has this got to do with anything, especially lifestyle aspirations? Well – can you remember when carrying a portable hot drink in public became a kind of social statement? When coffee drinking became a ‘thing’ – a lifestyle choice?
I can recall when the first coffee shops came to Birmingham in this way. I’d been watching Friends for a while so I didn’t question it, knew what to expect, and actually wanted to go there. Of course, there was no way in hell my parents would have taken me to a coffee shop – why would we spend money buying a hot drink we could so easily make at home? Cradling it for bloody hours, painfully making conversation with each other. Sounds hellish.
But then I got a bit older and earned some money. I was in sixth form. I was being attacked by Friends on the one front and magazine supplements on the other, so I knew what I wanted to spend said money on. Coffee Republic.
I had some free sessions in my timetable. So I would travel into town on the 46 (always the bus), get one of their hot spiced apple drinks (I hadn’t quite graduated to actual coffee yet), and walk over to the ‘city’ to people-watch the suits on their lunch breaks. And I’d sit on a bench or bit of wall for HOURS, with my (soon) empty cup. It was a real treat. Yet it was also more than that. For me that silly, portable hot beverage symbolised adulthood. It was where I wanted to be. I didn’t put it in the bin when I was finished – I wanted to be seen with it. It’s bonkers but they talk, those cups. Look at me! they say. I belong here, I’m so city chic! I earn enough money to be frivolously throwing at overpriced drinks that I don’t need!
I still do it now. I’ve got a cappuccino on the go as I type (no polystyrene in sight). Only now, I feel too aware of what I am holding represents to me, and to others. That Costa branding, Nero or Pret or whatever. Which one you pick is almost as much of a social calling card as the drink itself. Which is probably why I now crave the unidentifiable no-nonsense of the humble polystyrene. It’s a statement of a different kind, almost a protest saying I AM NOT RIDICULOUS. OR RICH. I GOT THIS DRINK FROM A VAN. I PAID LESS THAN A POUND. Hmmm.
tea thermos edited

Social politics aside, if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make you love something it’s nostalgia. Polystyrene pulls at my heart strings because it reminds me of growing up, of the first time I wanted to be like the grown-ups. Well, pretend to be one.

That first time you actually want to try a cup of tea. The first time you want to try one on the go, from the ice cream van, instead of getting a Coke. The association is as comforting as a steaming hot cup of tea after a long day.

It’s a shame polystyrene has gone out of fashion, but it was of course inevitable. And if the internet is anything to go by – polystyrene could kill both the environment and humans – then maybe it’s for the best.

But there’ll always be a place in this girl’s heart for weird creaky white stuff.

A lot has been said on this subject but I’m afraid I am going to have to insist on adding my voice to the noise.

Commuting – I do it. I love it. Ok – sometimes I hate it…

I recently read an article in The Observer that struck a chord with me. Although this article was very London centric (as things often are) and therefore not exactly rooted in the reality of everyone’s lives, it was also interestingly controversial in that it promoted commuting by public transport as a good thing. An unusual standpoint considering, aside from in environmental journalism, this is probably the first real vindication of public transport use I have come across – in the media or from actual people.

Apparently, some new research (yawn) by The University of East Anglia has found that public transport commuters are happier than those who drive to work. Out of the 18,000 passengers surveyed it was found that, even when other factors that may affect wellbeing were taken out of the equation, commuters who travelled to work on public transport scored lower on feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness and sleeplessness.

Now, I don’t need research to tell me how beneficial my 90 minutes-a-day of public transport is for me – I’ve been reaping the benefits for nearly ten years, travelling cross county from Birmingham to Warwickshire via both bus and train (lucky me).

I hope my status as a seasoned public transport commuter gives my opinions some kind of weight, because I am now going to rather grandly claim that commuting makes me a better citizen. Hear me out – I’ve got a list for you:

1. The thing about public transport is that it’s all very, well, public. You’re thrust right into the path of your fellow planet-sharers in a way that you just wouldn’t be in the rest of your life, other than perhaps, say, the supermarket or, if you work with members of the public (brave), at work. So –  getting the bus actually keeps you in touch with reality. Ok yes, sometimes that reality is hearing the ins and outs of someone’s argument with their ex-girlfriend, or having a small child throw up on your shoe. But, you know, if we aren’t forced to interact with society at it’s fullest how can we be fully rounded people? I’d argue I get more of a community (ugh, I hate myself for writing that word, I apologise) from the people I see everyday on the bus and train than I do from my actual neighbours. I don’t necessarily like them, but that’s not the point

2. Catching the bus-and-or-train builds many key life skills and generally makes you a better person to be around. You are more patient (that’s alright bolshy lady, just shove past me with your many bags – I don’t mind, I am a good citizen), you can empathise, you are probably quite kind (please do take my seat nice old man)

3. If you travel by public transport you could probably embark on a career-change and become a leading Body Language expert – you have no choice but to learn appropriate personal space boundaries, when and when not to smile, when to make yourself invisible

4. These skills also come in handy on the mean streets – you are sharper than your driving counterparts. You can rate a situation / person in terms of dodgy-ness and accompanying threat level in a matter of seconds

And I do honestly believe that my commute is also essential for maintaining my mental health – here comes another list, ooh:

5. Public travel time equals thinking time. I plan most of my life from the train. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I’d probably be a disorganised mess

6. You also get time to be productive (I am writing this very blog post from the 08.22 to London Marylebone). Time to be leisurely – listen to that album you’ve been waiting to come out, read a book (books, remember those?), watch YouTube (with headphone on, please). Or, if you are a pain in the arse, talk loudly on your mobile phone and then cough everywhere…

7. Travel by public transport also means you get some physical exercise (ish) – which, say the researchers, is the crux of the benefit to your mental health

I know this is all a little tongue in cheek, but I do hope readers recognise some of the above in their own lives. Maybe we public transporters have a better sense of humour too – we have to, really, as we are faced with the ‘laughable’ incompetence of transport companies that we have no choice but to use, shedding out increasingly large amounts of cash to said companies despite, if anything, a decrease in the standards of our journey. Actually, as I type I find I am becoming less and less relaxed…

I’ve obviously been painting too rosy a picture of public transport – on the other side of the tracks (sorry) lies pure, unadulterated RAGE.

Nothing, NOTHING, can make you more angry than public transport. There’s obviously the cost. I remember when the bus cost an adult 90p, and that makes me upset. A return train ticket to work is now double the cost it was when I started.

But the real biggie is the cruel way in which public transport reveals the ugly truths of our modern society, and people in general. People are rude. Selfish and rude. A life of public transport has taught me this. As a queue-worshipping Brit, ‘pushing in’ is probably the thing that gets to me most, the thing that grinds me down and contorts me into the-irrationally-angry-woman-I-hate. It sounds ridiculous and really not worth bothering about, but I have had 30-minute phone conversations purely about something that happened to me in a bus queue.

I have shouted at people. Actually shouted. Pushed and barged. I regularly swear aloud to myself and at others. Is the stress of public transport pushing me to do things that are out of character? Or is it actually revealing what’s inside of me?

So we’re a split-personalitied bunch, but at least we public transport users are eco friendly. (Although probably not on purpose.)

Bet those researchers are glad I wasn’t in their study group.

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