Here is a link to a gift I might have given you if I were giving you a gift

Let’s face it, Christmas is coming very soon now. Like a giant wave of red and gold glitter on the horizon, it is facing you down, poised to engulf you in a gigantic crash of presents and guilt. It’s getting late to order anything online, and the shops are busy. So if you have a friend you’d like to buy something for, but haven’t, here is a handy list of gifts you could have given them if you had the time, money, energy and/or inclination.

For the friend who likes giant sea creatures and also cuddling: The Giant Squid Comfort Pillow. Or three! Why not three? Look how happy they all are on the sofa together.

Their tentacly cuddliness means you will never need human friends again.

Their tentacly cuddliness means you will never need human friends again.

What about the friend who loves buttered waffles and also wearing clothes? Try the Buttered Sweatshirt. Actually wearing it would probably make you feel ill after a while, or cause giants to attempt to eat you for breakfast. Looking at a lovely picture of it? Free and delicious.

Mmm. Buttery.

Mmm. Buttery.

Now this zombie sculpture would make a great surprise present. Simply arrange it in your friend’s front garden shortly before they’re due back from the pub. Tip: video their reaction, then turn it into a digital video Christmas card. They’ll never forget it!

But remember: a zombie is for life, not just for Christmas.

But remember: a zombie is for life, not just for Christmas.

And who doesn’t want to be eaten, I mean supported, by a giant red crab chair with claws that could tear you into pieces? For a mere six hundred dollars (reduced!) you can create a talking point and also terrify small children into never wanting to visit your house again.

Look at those cute murderous little eyes!

Look at those cute murderous little eyes!

For a friend or lover whose face you don’t really like, try this all-over mermaid onesie . Also good for mermaid fetishists, which I’m fairly sure is a thing, this being the internet.

They're smiling underneath. Probably.

They’re smiling underneath. Probably.

There is an entire website selling rubber ducks in celebrity form, but my favourite is the Dorothy duck. A nightmarish mashup of a beloved childhood film and a beloved childhood toy, its face will haunt your sleep for many a Christmas to come. Which makes it excellent value for money!

Bathtime has never been so terrifying!

Bathtime has never been so terrifying!

Speaking of beloved childhood toys, for the friend with a Nutcracker obsession and very high ceilings, try this gigantic statue. Five thousand dollars, but who can put a price on happiness? And this is definitely happiness. That woman standing next to it definitely looks happy.

No, of course it's not going to come to life and eat you, why would it do that?

No, of course it’s not going to come to life and eat you, why would it do that?

And finally, do you have a friend who loves unicorns but never seems to manage to bag one when you go hunting? Assuage their shame with this inflatable unicorn head trophy and nobody will ever know their shame.

It's ok, inflatable unicorns don't feel pain.

It’s ok, inflatable unicorns don’t feel pain.

Happy Giftmas!

Mentally Unwell Isn’t Less Than Human

Guest post by Sally Brewer, reprinted with permission from a private rant. 

So, I was just reading an article about zoos. It was in the Guardian, it was a very interesting article and I quite enjoyed it. So when I got to the end I thought I’d read the comments left by readers.

The second comment contained this corker of a line:

“To see these types of animals in a zoo when you know them in the wild is like looking in the window of a ward for the mentally insane – they look like humans but much of their humanity is simply missing in some deeply sad way.”

I stopped. I read. I looked again. I read some more.

I had, in fact, read correctly. Apparently if you’re a human being suffering from some kind of mental illness which means you need to be in hospital for a while, ‘much of [your] humanity is simply missing’.

Now, I’ve been in a ward for the mentally insane. They aren’t called that these days, by the way. My ward was referred to as an ‘acute psychiatric ward’. Some of the patients staying there were pretty obviously unwell and walked about in hospital issue gowns saying strange things. Some of them didn’t. One girl got up every morning and put on a different pretty dress (the first day I met her she had a petticoat on underneath a proper 1950s big dress). She used to practice her French with me at breakfast. One woman was too unwell to get out of bed and just stayed there all day, but used to talk to the psychiatrist about her husband and children who she missed.

None of us were lacking humanity.

While I was on the psych ward I wrote poetry (not very good, but no one said talent was a requirement for humanity), I wrote letters and G+ posts and worked hard on making my friends and family laugh so they didn’t worry about me too much. I turned up my nose at the hospital food, and I craved chocolate. I spoke to my much loved boyfriend last thing before I went to bed every night and I looked forwards to a trip we had planned to Alton Towers when I got out. I didn’t stop being human. Not even a little bit.

Sometimes I was unwell, although I was generally one of the best behaved of patients. I am, it appears, a naturally obliging soul most of the time, and the nurses normally seemed to want reasonable things for me, so I tended to turn up to take my pills when told and tried to not get in trouble. But even if I hadn’t; even if I had screamed, or ranted, or run naked down the corridor (no one did that although one woman did walk around wearing nothing but a very colourful pair of pants) I would still have been entirely, completely and comprehensively human.

Being mentally unwell isn’t lacking ‘much of [your] humanity’, any more than you lack humanity if you can’t walk or if you need injections of insulin or if you have a temperature of 104 and can’t get out of bed for a week. Actually, I’ve had that last one happen to me and I felt a lot further from humanity than I ever did when I was on the psych ward. And it depresses me that someone can make that analogy, perfectly casually, in the middle of a conversation about something completely different as if it’s just accepted that people who are on a psych ward (or a ward for the mentally insane, if you want) are less than human and everyone will understand the analogy.




How bad is Kristen Stewart’s poem?

I have no real qualifications to write this post. I don’t know what divides a good poem from a bad one. I do have an English degree, and we probably did discuss that kind of thing, but all that knowledge fell out of my head the day I graduated and then I had children and everything else fell out of my head too, so the only real excuse I have for this post is this: I have written terrible poetry. Mostly as a teenager, but some since. I didn’t know it was terrible at the time but I know it now.

And that’s ok. Writing poetry doesn’t have to be about writing good poetry. It’s a creative release, it’s good for your soul, and if you write a lot of it you probably get better at it, unless you just don’t have any feeling for words and will never develop any, in which case… you’re still allowed to write poetry if you want to.

The big question is, whether you’re going to show it to anyone else. Because that’s when your poem stops being the quivering, ecstatic expression of your inner being and becomes a series of terrible words on paper that your best friend is laughing at. So you’d better be prepared for that.

Kirsten Stewart recently read a poem she’d written out to Marie Claire. (If you haven’t read it, don’t read it yet.) Reactions have been – negative. And it is not a good poem. Bbut how bad is it exactly? So much of poetry is about context: I know I’ll react differently if I’m told a verse is by a famous – or at least published – poet, than if it’s just something I’ve found on the internet. So as a very unscientific test, let’s look at some first verses of poems. Some are by published, though not necessarily famous, poets. Some are from various goth poems a friend and I found online several years ago. A couple are from famous poets and one is Kirsten Stewart’s. I’ll put the attributions in a comment.

I’d love to know which is your favourite and least favourite excerpt.

All these years,
without knowing it,
I’ve been preparing for my rebirth
as a book.


Three green birds
sit in a green tree
in the month of January.


“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—


Beyond the beauty of the external
He is moving his mouth in a strange way
(Girl watches him from the side of her eyes,
She is the “paranoid android”

Stupidly afraid.)


Come upon later,
like a dream recalled at lunchtime.
Dark as deep water, bone cold.
Where is she now;
the woman who poured into a white cup?


I reared digital moonlight
You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black
Kismetly… ubiquitously crestfallen
Thrown down to strafe your foothills


See, see the short sky 
Marvel at its big virulent green depths. 
Tell me, do you 
Wonder why the slug ignores you?


Like a fish trap woven from grasses,
It allows passage of the element
In which it is suspended.


The Softest of beads dribble southward
offering a glisten to dirtied sidewalks
washing away sins of the oppressed cracks
in so many forms she rinses clean


Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.


Instead of panting and gasping from second to second
Like a torrent hurtling from rock to rock with no special merit,
More slowly, without moving, ankles crossed, hands clasped,
Observe, as if it were the whole world at once,
An object, slight and domestic, for example
This cup.


Darkness descended upon me
Like an ancient mistress
And wrapped me in
An uncomfortable cloak of woeful distress.


Skintight virgins in a rush
their red on red sashay
through vines, so plush
their seeds and flesh
all bite-size blush


so much depends upon

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white chickens. <


What we wanted was to watch him silver fall
Cut the surface of the water and leave no bruise
Every earth bound angel who was taught his body was a sin
Calculates in his head equations needed to sculpt the air
As he aims from grim height for the promise of blue


Always covering myself
in clothes or cloaks of words
which only dogs hear: in truth
                    I was nude and didn’t know
which parts to cover or if
I could finally uncover it all.


That crazed girl improvising her music.
Her poetry, dancing upon the shore,

Her soul in division from itself
Climbing, falling She knew not where,
Hiding amid the cargo of a steamship

Having read all these in one go, I find I no longer have any idea what’s good or bad, or what words mean or how to put them together. Someone help me.

Twelve things I now know about gluten

It’s been two and a half years since I found out I had coeliac disease, the treatment for which is never to eat gluten again. (The things I do for my villi.) Here is what I now know.

1. I am sick of the word ‘gluten’ It’s possible that before July 2011 I had never even said ‘gluten’ out loud. Now, it feels like it’s roughly 50% of every sentence I utter. I’m tempted to learn the word in other languages just for variety. Except I’ve just checked and in most other languages it’s also called ‘gluten’. So much for that.

2. Expensive bread-makers with a gluten-free setting (and a partner who likes using them) make life wonderful. Since Christmas, my house has regularly contained fresh bread: white, brown, sundried tomato and Parmesan, cinnamon and pecan. And I no longer spend my free time frantically scouring London for fresh gluten-free bread like some kind of, er, bread junkie.

3. It was almost worth becoming coeliac to have discovered Nature’s Path Maple Sunrise cereal and Amy’s Kitchen rice and bean soup. Ilumi is also worth buying from – their ready meals come in a pouch and last for ages, which means you can carry one with you for emergency dinner situations. (There will be emergency dinner situations.)

4. It’s great when restaurants list which of their dishes have gluten in. Very much appreciated and saves those awful, awkward conversations with staff that leave me feeling like the fussiest customer in the world. But two tips:
- If you’re going to list which choices have gluten in, the important next step is to make sure that some options don’t contain it. I mean, knowing that you have literally nothing I can eat is useful information, but it’s kind of depressing that you care enough to label your menu but not enough to make anything I can eat. If you don’t have a coeliac-friendly kitchen – and I totally understand and appreciate that most places don’t – that’s fine, but don’t lead me on.
- If your menu has small print stating that I can ask your staff for help if I have any allergies, please follow this up by training said staff, or at least letting them know the small print is there and might occasionally be read by someone. It’s a dispiriting experience when you read something at the bottom of the menu implying that you cater for special diets, then ask the staff about it and realise they have no idea what to tell you. I have seen enough glazed, terrified looks in the eyes of waitresses when I say ‘What do you have that’s gluten free?’ I do not want to spend my life scaring restaurant staff.

5. Like someone who’s slightly too good at hide and seek, gluten conceals itself in unexpected places and is sometimes not discovered until it’s too late. My most surprising discovery was that Marks and Spencer put it in their diet cola. Why? What does wheat add to the cola-making process?

6. It’s quite hard to explain to a three-year-old why she shouldn’t have put that slice of bread on your plate when she was just trying to be helpful.

7. Some of my friends have taught themselves to make gluten-free brownies, muffins, cupcakes, cheese straws etc., and will regularly turn up to events I’m at holding Tupperware boxes full of me-friendly deliciousness. I would like to express my eternal, enthusiastic gratitude to them. If you’re coeliac, I recommend my friends, or – more practically – training your own friends up.

Sometime my foods comes in technicolour.

Sometime my food comes in technicolour.

8. Join the National Trust. All of their cafes (that I’ve visited so far) have labelled gluten-free options, which can include fresh rolls, cakes, scones and main meals. Plus, you know, they have nature and stuff.

9. Some central London recommendations:
- Mestizo. Mexican restaurant near Euston. Delicious and very friendly to special diets. Slightly pricey by my standards but worth it as a treat.
- Da Mario in Endell Street, near Covent Garden, is a lovely coeliac-friendly Italian ()
- Selfridges Food Hall. They stock produce from Vozars/WAG Cafe – fresh bread and cakes – and if you’re feeling particularly solvent they also have a gluten-free deli section with tortellini. It looks amazing. I haven’t tried it because it works out at roughly £1 per piece of pasta, but maybe for a (very) special occasion.
- The best chains for gluten-free food are Zizzi, Pizza Express, La Tasca, Las Iguanas and Carluccios. EAT usually has options too. And I had a really good gluten-free curry at Pod near Liverpool Street.
- This Chinese restaurant behind Paddington station is a bit expensive but coped admirably with me, and I had crispy seaweed, crispy fried pork and egg fried rice with no ill effects.

10. Gluten-free bread, pastries, scones etc will almost always taste best after thirty seconds in a microwave. Gluten-free cakes and biscuits, which tend to be crumbly and a bit dry, will almost always taste best when served with yoghurt, cream, ice cream etc. I swear this is not just an excuse to eat more ice cream (although it is also that).

11. The texture of gluten-free things also means that if you eat at your desk, your keyboard will become mostly make up of crumbs. So will your clothes, hair and general vicinity. You might as well just live with it.

12. Vozars in Brixton Village is a magical fairytale of a place where I can eat everything. They are starting to recognise me by sight. Everyone go and eat there to make sure they stay open: try the slow-roasted pork belly, or the pile of roasted vegetables with goat’s cheese. Or everything. It’s all good. Stop reading this and leave now.

Twitter, kangaroo courts and Woody Allen

This is what a kangaroo court is:

An unfair, biased, or hasty judicial proceeding that ends in a harsh punishment; an unauthorized trial conducted by individuals who have taken the law into their own hands, such as those put on by vigilantes or prison inmates; a proceeding and its leaders who are considered sham, corrupt, and without regard for the law.

Suzanne Moore has a piece in the Guardian today in which she refers to Twitter as a ‘kangaroo court’ because many people have tweeted that they believe Dylan Farrow’s accusation that Woody Allen sexually abused her at the age of seven. (That last link contains a description of child abuse.) Her argument – although it’s somewhat incoherent, I thought – is the familiar one that ‘online mobs’ have no right to condemn Allen without knowing for certain that he is in fact a child abuser. Even though, as she herself points out, it is statistically very likely that the accusation is true; and in fact she believes Dylan Farrow herself. (It’s hard to be sure what the stats for false rape allegations are, but even the highest reliable estimates would suggest that nine out of ten accusations are genuine. See here for a discussion.)

Moore’s point, then, is not that Farrow is likely to be lying – she’s very unlikely to be lying – but that Twitter has tried and convicted Allen and that only the judicial process is allowed to do that. Has it, though?

Going back to that definition of ‘kangaroo court’, the key aspect is that kangaroo courts, when they occur, actually do try and convict people. They are impromptu, outside the legal process, probably prejudiced, and have doubtless resulted in many innocent people being imprisoned or killed as a result. But that’s isn’t what Twitter is. Twitter is not a court in any sense, kangaroo or otherwise. The people who tweeted #IBelieveDylanFarrow are not condemning Woody Allen to jail or the electric chair. At the most, they – we – are expressing our horror at the actions we believe he performed, and maybe when his next film comes out we won’t pay to go and see it. Maybe we won’t want to watch any Allen movies again, because it’s going to be difficult to enjoy them now.

But that’s our decision to make. Woody Allen isn’t entitled to our money or our good opinion, and we can withdraw both if we choose. It’s not wrong of us to make a judgment based on the knowledge we have and then act on it in that way. If someone blew up Allen’s apartment or sent him broken glass in the mail or otherwise tried to inflict direct damage on him as a result of all this, Suzanne Moore might have a point about kangaroo courts. As it is, the only thing damaged is Allen’s reputation, and reputations get damaged all the time. It will recover or it won’t.

I can guarantee this: the amount of vitriol being heaped upon Allen on Twitter pales in comparison to the degree of misogynistic abuse Dylan Farrow will be receiving from mostly-men all around the world, who will automatically assume she’s lying because they think women lie about rape in order to get attention. These people don’t care about or don’t believe the statistics: they know what they think, and they think women can’t be trusted. And they have a lot more power, collectively, than the mostly-women who are tweeting their support for Dylan Farrow. Some of them are judges and lawyers and policemen and media owners.

So perhaps Suzanne Moore has aimed at the wrong target here. Dylan Farrow’s bravery will probably cost her dearly, and Woody Allen will probably continue to make films. If the only thing I can do about that is to stop watching them, in the full knowledge that it will make no difference to anyone but me, then so be it. I’m allowed to make that choice.





The Hobbit Regendered

“That would be no good,” said the witch, “not without a mighty Warrior, even a Heroine.”

There’s been an article going round in the last few days about a mother whose daughter insisted that Bilbo Baggins was a girl. Accordingly, she began to read The Hobbit to her recasting Bilbo, and then Gandalf too, as female, and found the results exhilarating.

Various people pointed this article out to me because of my previous work on genderswitching classic novels, and I found I was keen to see what a few chapters of The Hobbit would look like with a full genderswitching. As with my previous attempts, the exercise gave me a whole new perspective on the book. I’ve love The Hobbit (and Lord of the Rings) since I was a child, and as an adult I became aware that it barely contained any female roles; but the books you love as a child feel beyond reproach, and I thought it didn’t bother me.

But I’ve genderswapped the first three chapters and it’s really striking. There are no female characters in those pages. Even the ponies are male. Bilbo’s mother is referenced, but other than that this might as well be an exclusively single-sex world. Of course, in my version, it still is, but a different sex.

And I love this version. The dwarfs especially. I’ve left them with beards, because the beards are so central to their identity, and because (in Terry Pratchett’s canon at least) female dwarfs have beards too; but they don’t feel any less female for that. I can picture Thorina and Balina and the others more easily than I can Thorin and Balin. And speaking of Pratchett, Gandalfine the witch takes on something of a Granny Weatherwax aspect, perhaps: grumpy, certain of herself, not always around but always to be trusted.

The most complicated part was rejigging the songs where a change of gender unbalanced a rhyme.

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gloaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought


For ancient queen and elvish dame
There many a gloaming golden flame
They shaped and wrought

which I’m quite pleased with.

The other striking point, slightly in contrast to my earlier point, is that Bilbo himself is very feminine. The hobbit world in general comes across as (what Tolkien would have seen as) a female world: gossipy, non-violent, concerned with domesticity, contrasted with the masculine, harsh rest of Middle Earth . The story of The Hobbit is essentially that clash: Bilbo becomes more of a ‘man’, and also influences his companions to respect the ‘female’ world more. So the genderswitched Bilba becomes perfectly believable as a young female hobbit who develops into a tomboyish warrior.

Anyway - here is the first part of Chapter One, and here is a Google Drive document with the first three chapters in full. I hope you find them enjoyable.

(Disclaimer: as with all the other genderswitching, this exercise does not claim to be anything profound, and I’m aware it’s quite a binary thing to do, so it doesn’t challenge the status quo to any major extent. But I think it’s interesting, and a fun thing to do, and helpful in some ways.)

Car plasters, unicorn swearing and breakfast floss: a random Christmas gift guide

There are… things you find, when doing online Christmas shopping. Stupid things. Things you might secretly, guiltily want to buy for someone, but you have nobody to buy them for because all your relatives are far too sensible to want the quirky, ridiculous, deeply silly objects that you are involuntarily drawn to. At least, if you’re me. I appreciate you may not be me. But I am, and in order to not buy these objects for anyone and risk alienating my family for ever, I need to put them into a blog post instead. So, well, here we are. I can only apologise.


Christmas Pudding Bin Bags
For the person who: a) loves Christmas so much they need even their rubbish to wear a festive outfit, and b) doesn’t mind spending £6 on a pack of bin bags. Actually, this is very nearly me, and I really want the goldfish ones too. But I am ashamed of it, if that helps.
Drawbacks: Six quid for something you will definitely not use again. The neighbours may mock you.
You could instead buy: Christmas loo roll, which astonishingly has an entire website devoted to selling it.


Captain Hammer felt toy

captain hammerFor the person who: combines devotion to Joss Whedon, and/or Nathan Fillion, and/or hammers, with a love of felt. If you think that’s not a lot of people, you don’t know the people I know.
Drawbacks: Would probably work better with a matching Dr Horrible which takes you up to £20 plus shipping from the US. But then you could make them fight. (Or whatever you want to make them do. I’m not judging.)
You could instead buy: a Malcolm Reynolds felt toy, for an alternative Whedon-universe-captain-played-by-Nathan-Fillion toy experience.


I Want a F*cking Unicorn mug
unicorn mugFor the person who: likes swear words on their mugs and also really wants a rainbowy unicorn. It’s not the world’s biggest overlap, admittedly, but maybe you could buy it for a couple one of whom is a misanthropic grump and one of whom is a happy little pixie type.
Drawbacks: the rules of mugs state that if you own a rude mug of any kind, that is the one you’ll inevitably always get out when elderly relatives or small children visit. You can avoid this by using it as a work mug, if you have that kind of workplace, which I for one don’t.
You could instead buy: this adorable mug with a biscuit pocket. Biscuit pocket!


Inflatable Fruit Cake
For the person who: is on an Inflatable Food Diet. (A concept I have now created by imagining it. Sorry.)
Drawbacks: it has no actual use whatsoever. Even within this blog post, it probably comes out as the least practical item.
You could instead buy: well, sticking with inflatable food, there’s this 15-foot tall inflatable strawberry. Price unknown since it’s really a marketing gimmick, but there’s got to be someone this is the perfect present for. Surely.

Superhero Lounger

For the person who: has always wanted to be a two-dimensional, snuggly superhero. Which is the best kind of superhero. And look at the male models in that picture. You could look like that. If you wanted to. Which you possibly don’t.
Drawbacks: £20 for a blanket is maybe overdoing it. Some people might think you looked silly. (Not me! I would think you looked cool. But my opinion on cool really counts for nothing.)
You could instead buy: a singing cat jumper. A jumper that sings carols in a cat’s voice using your phone. Dark magic indeed.

Car plaster

car-plaster-magnet-1For the person: whose car you dented this year. Or, I guess, whose car you plan to dent next year. It’s important to plan ahead.
Drawbacks: I find that buying people amusing car decor almost never result in them actually putting it on their car, which makes me sad. But on the other hand, it would also be useful if a magnetic giant came to tea and happened to skewer his or her finger on a carelessly placed fork.
You could instead buy: car eyelashes, which when I am in charge will be compulsory on all cars. Diamante eyeliner sadly out of stock.

Kids Bat Morphsuit

For the child who: a) is not claustrophobic, and b) enjoys really, really freaking people out.
Drawbacks: If the wind changes they could get stuck like that and you’d have a child/bat hybrid to deal with, necessitating extra cost in bat food and installing a hook for them to hang off while they sleep. Also there is the possibility that they will further morph into either Batman or a small vampire, each of which could bring its own problems.
You could instead buy: this shiny red bat suit for the enterprising adult in your life.

And finally…
Breakfast Floss
For the person who: has everything else.
Drawbacks: How can there be drawbacks to coffee, bacon and waffle flavoured floss? It’s twisted genius.
You could instead buy: breakfast flavoured liquor (including glazed doughnut flavour, which may be the best idea anyone has ever had). Waffle vodka. Bacon toothpaste. Bacon toothpicks. Bacon-flavoured oxygen. There is, as I’m sure you already know, basically no end to the things bacon can be used to flavour. I wish I liked bacon.

Is Online You The Same As Drunk You?

I was born in 1975. Which means that for the first 20 or so years of my life, I didn’t have the internet, or mobile phones, or even email. It genuinely feels like I’m talking about The Olden Days when I say that, but I’m still under 40. Time is moving very fast.

Anyway. Until a few years ago, almost all of my interaction with friends was through personal contact in pubs and so on, or sometimes phone calls or letters – letters! that takes me back – and then email started up and we all instantly stopped calling or writing to each other, which was a relief, because our handwriting was terrible and phone conversations are weirdly stressful. Hurray for email.

And then the world got virtual. There were message boards, which was very exciting. Then there was LiveJournal, which was like having access to the private diaries of everybody I knew, and therefore the best thing ever. Then social media exploded and now there is Facebook and Twitter, and tumblr and flickr and Spotify, and youtube and Linkedin and Google+ – Google+! that takes me back – and of course texting, and in the middle of all that I had two children and found I was staying in a lot more than I used to. And a lot of my friends were doing the same. But that was ok, because we could all still hang out thanks to the magic online world I now keep in my pocket on the thing I laughingly call a ‘phone’.

It’s odd how the popular trad-media view of Facebook/Twitter is of lonely faceless strangers spending their evenings typing away to other lonely faceless strangers – presumably bonding over their mutual lack of face. In fact, practically everyone on my Facebook friends list is somebody I’ve met in person, and I don’t think that’s unusual. The internet isn’t some separate weird thing. It’s mostly just real life translated into words and pictures. (And in any case, you can be friends with someone you haven’t met in person. But that’s another discussion.)

Anyway. The point is, quite a lot of my contact with friends is now via the internet. And it’s fascinating to discover what your friends are like when you mainly experience them as words on a screen. So, in a world where we experience our friends both as physical presences and as online personas, the question presents itself: is the online version of you ‘really’ you?

My theory about that is that the online version of you is you to the same extent that drunk you is you. In my 20s, when I used to go to pubs more, I also used to drink more.

But never that much, because being drunk just made me go on about how drunk I was (because it was a novelty) or feel sick and fall asleep (which is not a lot of fun at parties). I was therefore often sober when my friends were drunk, and able to notice that when my friend Jim became Drunk Jim he might change in various interesting ways.* Drunk Jim might be exactly the same as Sober Jim – some people can drink and drink and it just doesn’t show. Or Drunk Jim might be Giggly Jim. Or Suddenly Very Sleepy And Somewhat Sick Jim.

Similarly, Online Jim can be quite different to Offline Jim, while still being recognisably the same person. For example:

1. ILoveYou Jim. Some people react to alcohol as though it’s ecstasy. Tipsily clasping you to their bosom, or whichever part of themselves they can manage to clasp you to, they announce that you are the loveliest, kindest, most delectable friend/partner they have ever had, and they never want to let you go. This can be delightful or terrifying depending on how you feel about them, how drunk you happen to be at the time, and how much you enjoy the fragrance of Stella Artois emanating from someone else’s pores.

Online, ILoveYou Jim is usually a late-night phenomenon, and quite possibly involves the magic combination of alcohol and social media. It might be a Facebook post on your wall, or a public Twitter announcement, or a lengthy ramble on tumblr, or a sign held up and photographed on Instagram, but the defining characteristic is that they really, really like you a lot. The advantage of the online version is of course the lack of beery breath in your ear, but on the other hand there is the embarrassment of realising all your work colleagues, childhood friends and in-laws are witnessing the whole thing. Overall, this is quite sweet as a one-off, and less so if repeated on a weekly basis.

2. Hulk Jim, also known as Suddenly Very Argumentative (But Also Incoherent) Jim. This type finds that both alcohol and social media turn them into very angry people who cannot seem to get across the very clear and cogent points they are making owing to other people being too stupid to keep up. Some of them realise, when sober and offline again, that the problem was actually to do with them. Others never come to that realisation. Either way, if you’re in the mood, this can be fun to be around, although more enjoyable if the ire isn’t directed at you. To engineer a Hulk Jim, throw a party full of whisky and people with differing political opinions, or alternatively (and much more cheaply) update your FaceBook or Twitter status on a Friday night to claim that the Lib Dems are just trying to do their best in a difficult situation.

3. Applejack Jim. Applejack was traditionally made by distilling cider down until you got what was basically very concentrated and much stronger cider, best appreciated in small doses. Some people, when drunk or online, become the distilled version of themselves. If they were witty before, they become terrifyingly, sarcastically witty. If they were clever, they become intensely profound. This is often lots of fun, and this type of person tends to enjoy both alcohol and social media because they know they do it well. However, there are dangers. Applejack Jim may be so caught up in their performance that they fail to notice they’ve made several of their friends cry, run away, or defriend them and/or throw DVDs at their head. It should also be noticed that the applejacking process usually falls apart if Applejack Jim is both drunk and online, as then the concentrated wit becomes so distilled it’s no longer intelligible to anyone else, which is probably for the best since it’s almost certainly very insulting.

I like the drunk/online versions of my friends on the whole, but I remain Largely Sober Katy, because there’s only one thing worse than waking up in the morning and remembering your embarrassing behaviour at the previous night’s party. And that’s waking up in the morning and remembering that your embarrassing behaviour on the internet the previous night will be preserved as if in amber for ever and ever. Because friends don’t let friends forget.

*I do not know anyone called Jim. All the characters in this blog post are purely fictional and bear no resemblance to any friends I may have. Unless you clearly recognise yourself, in which case… um.


The other reason I don't drink much is that when I do, I look like this.

The other reason I don’t drink much is that when I do, I look like this.

The Delicious Fudge: a tribute to a plot resolution trope

Resolution is important. You’ve spend all that time getting involved in the characters’ problems, intrigues, romantic complications etc., and you want a properly satisfying climax to all that. When Poirot winds his web of words around the murderer during the denouement, or Rick tells Ilsa to go with her husband – whether it’s a cheerful resolution or a sad one, and no matter the genre or medium, there’s that sense that everything is wrapped up in a way that life so seldom offers. The strands of the plot are tied up and everything, for a moment, makes sense. It’s one of the best things about fiction.

They’re hard to create, though, and easy to get wrong – to make overlong or dull or just unconvincing. Luckily, every now and then, you can get away with a neat trick: you can simply cheat. Providing – and this is important – you’re really, amusingly blatant about it.

Let us take, for example, the 1950s musical comedy Anything Goes. I love the plots of classic musicals. As many of my friends have pointed out to me, they often make no sense.* But then, the plot of Much Ado About Nothing makes no sense, and if Shakespeare can do it I don’t see why musicals can’t.

Anyway, Anything Goes is a perfect example of its genre. Bill (Bing Crosby) and Ted** (Donald O’Connor, who you will recognise from Singin’ In The Rain if you are a decent human being) are two showmen about to star in a Broadway show together. But – plot alert! - they lack a leading lady. Before rehearsals start, they happen to travel to England and France respectively and each signs an actress for the role without telling the other. Oops. They all end up on a ship to New York together, songs are sung, and each of the men falls for the actress the other has signed. But there’s only one role, and both women believe they’re getting it. How can they resolve this without losing their new loves’ affections?

This is how.

After various misunderstandings, arguments, sung expressions of passion etc, Bill and Ted go for a walk on deck and discuss their problem. Bill says he’s suddenly got the answer – a way to use both actresses in the play. Ted asks how. Bill tells him. But in front of Bill are two sailors, talking over him. When we come back to the conversation which is resolving the entire plot of the film, Ted is saying, “That’s brilliant!”

I love this because it’s such a clear, fourth-wall expression of the fact that nobody is watching this film for the plot. It genuinely doesn’t matter how they solve that bit of it – in fact, they’ve probably agreed to rewrite the play somehow, which is obviously what they should have done in the first place. So why bore the audience with five minutes of exposition when you can make a joke about it instead? And suddenly, a mostly-average musical is lifted into a moment of fudgy greatness.***

This means of ‘resolving’ a plot has been named, by me just now, The Delicious Fudge. You wouldn’t want it all the time. But if you earn it, it can be just as satisfying as a proper resolution, with a bit of extra tooth-tingling sugary joy added.

A second and rather more contemporary example is the Simpsons episode Das Bus in which the Springfield children are stranded on a desert island. The point of the episode is the Lord of the Flies-style way the children behave while they’re there, but clearly they do have to be rescued. Therefore, we have a voiceover at the end which says: “So the children learned how to function as a society, and eventually they were rescued by, oh, let’s say…Moe.” It’s probably my favourite line in the Simpsons. Again, it’s an acknowledgement that sometimes it’s more fun just to cut the Gordian knot. And burn it and dance a little dance on its ashes.

I had a third example of this, but I now realise that it isn’t exactly a third example. It’s a children’s book – The Tooth Fairy Book. Now, children’s books are often terrible at plot resolution. Most of the Mr Men and Little Miss books have appalling endings, for some reason, and don’t even get me started on Miffy. (If you want good plot at primary school level, just buy all of Julia Donaldson.) But The Tooth Fairy Book sets a new standard for sheer unadulterated cheating by being its own resolution.

In brief: the book’s heroine, a fairy, doesn’t know what she wants to be. She eventually decides to become the Tooth Fairy, a previously non-existent job (very entrepreneurial of her) but she doesn’t know how to tell all the children of the world that they now have a magical friend who will buy their teeth for money (or in this case presents). Her friend the Rainbow Fairy informs her that the answer to the problem lies at the end of the rainbow, so she goes there. And indeed, at the end of the rainbow is the answer, which is… this book. This book, The Tooth Fairy Book, was allegedly written to tell children about the Tooth Fairy – as a solution to its own plot. This book is how the Tooth Fairy is marketing her new skills to her audience. There follow some instructions on how to leave one’s tooth under one’s pillow, proper tooth cleaning etc.

I finished reading this to my daughter with a sense of precisely mingled irritation and awe. I felt cheated: there was fudge, but the fudge was not delicious. I don’t feel cheated by Anything Goes or The Simpsons. I think this is because The Tooth Fairy Book was not funny. It did not win a delighted laugh from me with its chutzpah. Nor did it earn its postmodern resolution with literary skill, like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which oddly enough may be one of its nearest relations in plot resolution terms.

Well, of course it didn’t; it’s just a book about teeth. But it did help me to clarify my thoughts about The Delicious Fudge. The Delicious Fudge has to know what it’s doing. It has to run into the fourth wall with absolute confidence, demolish it, and stand in the wall’s ruins grinning – which is quite a lot for fudge to manage, but you get the idea. That’s how you get the laugh that replaces the satisfaction of a resolution.

One more point occurred to me while writing this. Why did the Delicious Fudge feel so familiar? And I realised that this trope is also how my partner and I sometimes resolve arguments. Instead of trying to unpick the complex, awkward strands of our discussion, one of us will simply make a joke, or do something funny, and somehow everything is solved, or at least stops mattering so much. Doesn’t work for everything. But it’s a great relationship trick.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to eat some fudge.

*I read a Guardian review of the stage show Top Hat which included as a criticism the fact that the plot was silly. This is up there with the Guardian review of the film Mamma Mia which criticised it for having too many Abba songs in it. Some people just do not get musicals.

** Having realised about the names while writing this, I have now mentally rechristened the film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Musical Adventure.

*** Average is not an insult. I like Anything Goes a lot. I rank musicals from ‘ok’ to ‘life-changingly wonderful’ with no negative scale. Apart from High School Musical 2.

Of Course You Can’t Say…

I tend to find that the internet is not a friend of rhetoric. Like satire, it seems to get taken literally, which leads to rows and angry blog posts and general miscommunication. So I make an effort to try to recognise when something is intended rhetorically and not to overreact to it.

Having said that, can we please make certain phrases punishable by death?* And can I recommend that the first up against the wall be all the variations on this phrase?

“Of course you’re not allowed to say, this, but…”

Also sometimes seen as “I know it’s not politically correct to say so…” and “I expect I’ll get a visit from the Thought Police for this, but…”

Now, sometimes people do say things that are actually illegal, and this might result in a visit from the actual police (rather than the wholly imaginary Thought Police). But assuming that what you’re saying is legal, then I need to tell you something: you are allowed to say it.  It’s possible that there will be consequences for saying it, certainly. People might be angry with you, for example, if you’ve insulted them or a group they belong to. That doesn’t mean you’ve been censored. It means you got to say what you wanted and then so did they. If you choose not to insult someone because you don’t want to deal with the potential consequences of doing so, that’s not censorship either. That’s you making a choice. And probably a very sensible one.

Why do people use that phrase? Because it makes whatever they say next sound pleasantly controversial. It gives them an air of being heroically victimised, as though they’re single-handedly defying a fascistic police state by saying what nobody else has the courage to say. The trouble is, they’re not. Tip: if you’re saying something the Daily Mail would approve of, your opinion is probably not a minority one.

So: if you’re about to say something that is genuinely controversial to the point where the police might actually turn up at your door, I suggest you preface your words with ‘I realise what I’m about to say may get me arrested, but-” That makes it clear that you’re clear-sightedly making a decision to deny the Holocaust or to threaten to assault a female blogger, and we all know where we stand. Preferably some way away from you.

But if you want to say that same-sex marriage is against nature or that disabled people on benefits are scroungers, please don’t claim that you’re somehow banned from expressing that opinion. You won’t get a visit from the Thought Police, or any other form of police. Say it, if you must, but don’t puff yourself up by thinking you’re being daring. You aren’t.

*Rhetoric. Just in case.


Some examples of the kind of thing I mean (not all morally equivalent):

whites paid a bigger price than blacks for the institution of slavery

Speaking the truth makes you a racist

You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays

women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized

Merry Christmas,,oh I’m not allowed to say that anymore

(There are perfectly sensible uses of the phrase, of course: for example here.)