Category Archives: Ranting

Things I’d ban #1: snacking

Of all the things that make me want to commit murder – and, believe me, there are many – snacking comes near the top of my list. When did adults develop this infantile need to cram Mini Cheddars down their gullets every five minutes? It’s an assault on the senses: the constant crinkling of sweet wrappers in the cinema; the noisy mastication in the train carriage; the synthetic stench of Cheesy Wotsits on the top deck of the bus. Assailed by the intimate sound of all that chomping, squishing, gobbling and gulping, I despair for humanity. Why can’t they all just sit quietly and look out of the window, or focus on the film? Why the constant need to gorge on Pringles and wipe their greasy fingers on the seats, or stuff Maltesers into their horrific, wet, gaping maws?

These days there’s even a supermarket aisle called ‘snacking’, as if it’s a thing that everyone does, like shitting, shagging or sleeping. A quick internet search reveals copious information about the latest market trends in the sweet and savoury snacks industry. And it’s not even real food – just refined sugar and E numbers in bright plastic packets. It’s a huge marketing ploy; a way of getting us to buy more pointless stuff. Am I alone in finding the sector’s carefully formulated marketing terminology repellent? To me, a ‘grab-bag’ sounds greedy and selfish, while the snacking brand Graze calls to mind a herd of lumbering ruminants wrapping slobbery chops around their cud.

Where small children are concerned, I’ll concede that snacks can be handy. An emergency packet of rice cakes isn’t a bad idea with a two-year-old in tow: I’ve experienced at first hand a toddler’s sudden drop in blood sugar and attendant grumpiness. And I’m not the sort of puritanical weirdo who never buys her kids an ice-cream as a treat. What baffles me is that many parents continue to regard snacks as a round-the-clock necessity, even when their offspring have long outgrown the toddler stage. On a recent outing, my friend brought along multiple bumper packs of Skittles and Haribo, and proceeded to distribute them to the children at fifteen-minute intervals throughout the day. Not wishing to come across as a censorious snob or provoke filial meltdown, I suppressed my irritation and allowed my sons to dip in. Perhaps she thought I was tight-fisted or disorganised when I failed to produce my own stash of sugary multi-coloured crap.

Of course, not all snacks are of the sugary or salty variety. Nutritionists tell us to eat lots of healthy nibbles throughout the day – satisfy your cravings by gnawing on a nut or a stick of celery, throw in the odd oatcake, and you won’t even need lunch! Just think of all the calories you’ll save! Well, sod that. Snacking all day long – whether on Oreos or olives – may be a way of occupying our jaws while we gawp at a screen, but it deprives us of the pleasant anticipation of coming to the table hungry. It’s a joyless approach to eating, and one that entirely disregards the social aspect of sitting down to dinner, pouring wine and engaging in conversation; of serving food made with passion and generosity; and enjoying ourselves with the people we love.

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Cataclysm

More than two decades ago, my university tutor poured himself another glass of sherry, settled back in his armchair and observed that I looked like the kind of person who liked cats. I have never forgotten his comment because it’s possibly the most insulting thing anyone has ever said to me. Did he really view me as the sort of person who fills her home with cutesy cat calendars and embroidered cushions depicting winsome kittens? The sort who, one day, would leave her undiscovered, bloated corpse to be nibbled by Macavity and her meagre savings to the Cats’ Protection League?

I can already hear the cat lover’s cry of protest: ‘But cats are such graceful, independent creatures!’ Here’s the thing: I rather admire brown rats for their stealth and tenacity, but if one took up residence in my kitchen, gnawing the electrical cables and crapping on the bread board, I’d have no hesitation in calling Rentokil. So why can’t I do the same when the neighbour’s moggy persists in digging up my seedlings and using my herbaceous borders as a giant litter-tray?

Apparently that would be unacceptable – criminal, even. Instead we’re expected to tolerate, if not appreciate, these destructive creatures. A friend of mine once rang her neighbour’s doorbell and politely asked him to deal with the trail of shit that his cat had deposited on her daughter’s trampoline. He responded with a look of bafflement followed by pure outrage. His rationale seemed to be that domestic cats roam free, so somehow it’s everyone’s responsibility to accommodate them and clean up their mess.

It particularly annoys me when people attribute human characteristics to their feline friends. Intelligence? Come on – have you seen their tiny skulls? As for cleanliness – would you call me clean if I licked my own arsehole? Applied consistently, this anthropomorphic approach would mean branding every cat in the neighbourhood a dangerous psychopath. After all, what sort of person gets his kicks by ripping the heads off baby robins and snapping the spines of wood mice?

Along comes the cat lover again: ‘Oh, but that’s just nature,’ she simpers. If she were talking about a skulk* of urban foxes, she might have a point, but her cat didn’t just turn up one day to leave a trail of carnage. She’s the one who wilfully inflicted this killing machine on her neighbours, turning every back garden into a morgue. Can’t she see the contradiction between her professed love of animals and the mangled frog by the side of my pond? Between her RSPB car sticker and the bloodied heap of feathers on my lawn? My tutor was a clever man, but he misjudged me. I really don’t like cats at all.

* Possibly the best ever collective noun.

Pretty as a picture?

You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Alexander Carter-Silk, the senior partner at a law firm who was taken to task by a strident feminist when he mistook the business networking site LinkedIn for a dating website. It’s an easy mistake to make. In response to a connection request from human rights barrister Charlotte Proudman, he messaged back, ‘I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!!’ The hapless Carter-Silk – whose over-zealous use of exclamation marks surely reveals his benign intent – was promptly outed by Proudman on Twitter for his sexist behaviour. Can’t a lady take a compliment?

Carter-Silk gave his online audience an insight into the subtle workings of his legally-trained mind when he sought to clarify his intentions: ‘Most people post pretty unprofessional pictures on LinkedIn, my comment was aimed at the professional quality of the presentation on LinkedIn which was unfortunately misinterpreted.’ Let’s gloss over Carter-Silk’s sloppy comma splice and incorrect use of a subordinate clause, not to mention his gutless refusal to accept responsibility for the offence he caused. Could he just explain why he acknowledged that it might be viewed as ‘horrendously politically incorrect’ to make what was, after all, an innocent observation about the professional quality of Proudman’s photograph?

As Proudman rightly pointed out in her response to Carter-Silk, comments like his are a means of exercising power over women and detracting from their professional achievements. Objectifying a woman for her appearance is just one example; I could cite many instances of blatant sexism from my own working life. Once, at a job interview, a recruitment consultant enquired as to whether I was married. When I asked why this was relevant, he explained that my husband might be annoyed if I had to work late. On another occasion, a senior civil servant suggested that a post in the Department for Education would be ‘a nice job for a lady lawyer’, the implication being that HM Treasury or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office were strictly for the chaps.

There are a thousand other ways in which women are judged, stereotyped, undermined and silenced at work. Those who say they have never experienced workplace sexism might consider how often male colleagues have talked over them or ignored their presence at a strategy meeting or a client drinks party. When women are sidelined in this way, a small internal voice whispers that it’s because they have nothing interesting to contribute: must try harder. By contrast, the standard male response would be simply to turn up the volume.

The subtle, pervasive nature of the attitudes revealed by such incidents is the reason why idiots like Carter-Silk need to be called out. I’d like to think that he has now been reprimanded by his firm and that his fellow partners will seek to distance themselves from his comment. Knowing how the law works, though, I fear this incident will simply bolster his client following and furnish him with an amusing dinner-party anecdote (cue much male guffawing at the humourless feminist who dared to speak out). In the meantime, he might want to take some advice from a PR consultant on how to frame an apology, as well as a refresher course in the basic rules of grammar.

All aboard the mood elevator!

As a homeworker, I’m normally able to maintain a certain distance from the patronising initiatives that our bosses periodically roll out (their phrase, not mine), so it can be a shock when I’m confronted by the bunkum that my colleagues have to endure. On a recent visit to the office, I was bemused to find myself sitting at a hotdesk opposite a wall of motivational posters, the management equivalent of ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps.’ One of them instructed me to ‘Be here now’, an injunction that, far from achieving its purpose of focusing my mind on the task in hand, created an earworm that led me to waste a good half-hour tracking down old Oasis songs on YouTube. ‘Things turn out best for people who make the best of the way things turn out,’ burbled another. Well, duh, as my nine-year-old would say.

Alongside these pearls of management wisdom was a poster illustrating a vertical scale. The top half was labelled with upbeat words such as ‘resourceful’, ‘creative’ and ‘flexible’. ‘Sense of humor’ had been lobbed in there among the adjectives, demonstrating a cavalier disregard for UK spelling conventions and grammatical consistency, and contributing to the impression that the diagram had been scribbled out on the back of a beer mat five minutes before closing time. The lower half of the scale was reserved for a range of negative emotions towards which I felt myself rapidly gravitating – among them, ‘irritated’, ‘angry’ and ‘depressed’.

This is the mood elevator, an essential tool (so I’m told) for creating a healthy and fast-paced working environment and managing our corporate culture. The premise is that negative thought-patterns generate low moods, which impede our effectiveness in the workplace. It’s a neat solution, absolving employers of responsibility for their workers’ well-being. Never mind that you’re bored shitless on a minimum-wage, zero-hours contract, working for a boss who passionately believes in this kind of crap: just change your way of thinking and – ta da! – problem solved.

Initiatives like this are beloved of senior executives, whose bonuses and sense of self-worth depend on forcing underlings like me to waste our working hours attending culture workshops and goal-setting meetings. I wish I could just do my job, instead of filling out endless self-appraisal questionnaires and 360-degree feedback forms. What’s the appropriate response? To sink into an even deeper depression, or just shrug and go along with it?

One option is to be quietly subversive, playing the system while privately acknowledging its inherent absurdity. In her bestselling critique of French corporate culture, ‘Bonjour paresse’, Corinne Maier advocates various ways of subtly undermining our bosses. One of my favourite tips is: ‘You’re not judged on merit, but on whether you look and sound the part. Speak lots of leaden jargon: people will suspect you have an inside track.’

In the end, though, my ‘sense of humor’ fails me. Perhaps I would be able to laugh if it weren’t all so insidious. Taken seriously, many of these corporate mind-control games strip us of authenticity, turning us into cynics and manipulators. Once I was sent on a networking course, where I was taught various techniques for working a room. So now I know that the person who is rather creepily mirroring my body language has been on a similar course and is trying to establish a rapport, while ‘Can I get you a drink?’ is code for ‘Thanks, I’ve got what I wanted from you and it’s time to move on.’

My company trumpets innovation as a core value, and yet the one piece of blue-sky thinking that it’s not prepared to countenance is the suggestion that these initiatives are a massive waste of time. Another oft-cited value is diversity. Odd, then, that our bosses seem intent on making corporate clones of us all, drumming out the mavericks and weirdos who refuse to modify their ‘behaviors’ and simply want to get on with their work.

There’s no sign of any let-up. Today we received an e-mail encouraging us to create a special break-out zone in the office where individuals can contemplate their emotional well-being and mark their current level on a blown-up, laminated copy of the mood elevator. I think you can guess which adjectives I’ll be circling. Here’s a plea to management: let us be ourselves. We sell you our labour, not our identities; what we do for a living isn’t the sum total of who we are. Who knows, our productivity levels may even benefit from this refreshingly hands-off approach. Perhaps I should present it to our gullible executives as a ground-breaking new management theory.

When worlds collide

In her thought-provoking book ‘Life After Birth’, Kate Figes describes the gulf between the lifestyles of those with and without children, and the naïve assumptions about parenthood that fall away as soon as we reproduce. ‘We delude ourselves that we will be able to socialise as we have always done by organising babysitters or taking the children with us. Then when our children arrive we understand that there are two separate worlds, one with children and one without, which rotate in opposite directions and occasionally collide.’

The planets collided for Figes when she took her two-year-old daughter to lunch at the house of a childless aunt. When she arrived, the joint was only just being put in the oven and there was no snack sufficiently bland to tide over the hungry child. The adults became steadily drunker; the toddler increasingly distraught. As the food finally arrived on the table, the child demanded the toilet. Sitting her on the potty, Figes noticed through a fog of booze that her daughter had already deposited a trail of small turds across the floor. As she attempted to clean up, her child trampled in the shit, spreading it everywhere and ruining the aunt’s white shag-pile carpet.

To any parent of small children, this account will seem comically, horribly familiar. But what strikes me about Figes’s story is that she seems embarrassed rather than apologetic. Serves you right, is the subtle, underlying message. Accommodate my toddler or face the consequences. Figes was in a better position than anyone to anticipate her child’s needs and bring a snack along. The carpet had to be replaced, but there’s no mention of Figes offering to pay. And the next time the aunt invites the family over, she ‘bends over backwards to get a child-friendly lunch on the table by two o’clock’, the implication being that she has learned her lesson.

Last week, during the half-term holiday, I witnessed another small inter-planetary collision in the quiet carriage of an intercity train. I had dropped my sons off at holiday club and crossed over to join the ranks of the child-free for the day. I settled back in my seat, anticipating the opportunity to read the newspaper from cover to cover and doze off for a while. Then, at Bath Spa, a couple with pre-school twins boarded and claimed two unreserved seats across the aisle. Concentration, relaxation, sleep – all the things I craved – suddenly became impossible. The girls’ shrill voices were just as irritating as the incessant trilling of a mobile phone, yet the passengers in carriage A – normally militant to the point of aggression in defence of their right to silence – didn’t say a word.

Perhaps this unusual reticence was due to the fact that the toddlers, although strident, were inquisitive, engaging and (considering their age) well behaved. The middle-aged parents seemed attentive, replying patiently and uncondescendingly to the girls’ endless questions and proferring a small stash of books, crayons and healthy snacks. It would have been unreasonable to ask the children to pipe down – they were too small to comply – and yet it seemed equally unreasonable to inflict their clamour on the occupants of the quiet carriage.

I suppressed my irritation and smiled indulgently from time to time, complicitly signalling my own parenthood. I reminded myself that I knew nothing about the situation. Perhaps the family’s seat reservations had been mucked up, or they were travelling at short notice and there were no other spaces available. At the same time, uncharitable thoughts began to surface. Wasn’t there a hint of smugness in this self-conscious display of modern parenting? The presence of the small group seemed to throw out an implicit challenge to the rest of us: we’re a nice, bookish, middle-class family, so don’t you dare object.

My ambivalence was compounded by the fact that I’ve been in similar situations with my own children. Several years ago, on a long bus journey across rural Wales, my two-year-old son began to wail in frustration. The woman sitting a few seats in front of us flinched theatrically at each piercing squawk, casting disapproving glances over her shoulder, until I went over and politely – but in my best patrician accent – pointed out that I was doing all I could to placate him.

I’m sure I have inconvenienced others – even acted selfishly – in order to reclaim some semblance of a normal life. I recall the occasion when, in my desire to enjoy a civilised Sunday lunch with friends, I let my small sons run around inside a gastropub. They dodged between tables and giggled hysterically, sending their pencil crayons clattering across the wooden floor. Although nobody objected, I now wonder what everyone was thinking. But that’s different; I would never let them make a noise in the quiet carriage, says a small, self-righteous voice inside me. So where should we draw the line?

I don’t advocate a return to the world my grandparents used to inhabit, where women and children stayed at home, out of sight, while the men drank in the pub. Things have moved on; the world is more welcoming to families and undoubtedly a much better place for it. Still, I wonder if these occasional clashes of interests reveal something unpalatable about those of us who choose to reproduce.

Parents consider their small offspring endlessly fascinating, to the point of being unable to see that they impinge on other people’s lives. If we’re honest, it’s all about the nuclear family: most of us don’t care all that much about the children of our acquaintances, let alone those of strangers. So who is more selfish: the couple who remain childless in order to pursue other interests in peace, such as travelling, dining out or going to concerts? Or the couple who have babies because they want somebody to cherish, and then assert their right to frequent restaurants, galleries and quiet carriages with their young family in tow, expecting the rest of the world to put up with the noise and disruption?

Bringing it all back home

When I tell people that I work from home, more often than not I’m met with surprise. ‘How can you do it?’ they ask. ‘Are you not lonely? Don’t you feel isolated?’ In short, I’m regarded as a bit of a freak. I’m bemused by this reaction, because I rather like my arm’s-length working arrangement.

The moment I return from the school run and shut the front door behind me, I feel a sense of relief. Alone in the house with the smell of ground coffee and the child-free hours stretching before me, I can focus on the tasks that matter. It suits my introverted nature, and above all, allows me to avoid an awful lot of the crap associated with the modern workplace.

My would-be office – on the rare occasions when I put in an appearance – resembles a call-centre, with its banks of workstations and fluorescent glare. The hot desks, break-out zones and refreshment hubs are designed to foster collaboration but seem to have the opposite effect. Perhaps it would work better if we were beardy creatives bouncing ideas off each other, or upbeat sales reps making calls all day. But our work is solitary, requiring us to concentrate for long periods, and the people it attracts tend to be slightly mis-socialised.

The physical environment exposes my office-based colleagues to scrutiny, obliging them to be polite and restrained. It’s stifling, exhausting and infantilising to have to work like this, always keeping yourself in check. An awkward silence descends as everyone taps away at their keyboards in enforced proximity; social interaction is restricted to a tight-lipped smile over the water cooler. At home, meanwhile, I can hum, scratch, grimace, gurn, argue out loud with myself, excavate bogeys – even lift a buttock and let rip, should I so wish. Try that in an open-plan office and see what happens.

Another advantage of being based at home is that I don’t have to engage with all the corporate blather. Recently, curiosity prompted me to attend a lengthy meeting at which a group of senior executives talked about innovation, brand perspective and the company’s go-to-market capabilities. We were instructed to ‘own that vision’, engage with our stakeholders and focus on the company’s organic growth strategy. Questions from the audience were designed, not to challenge the speakers, but to demonstrate how on-message (and therefore deserving of financial reward) the questioners were. I understood not a word of it.

How did we get here, to this upside-down place in which management is regarded as a profession in its own right, elevated above all others? How can it be that chief executives are paid two hundred times as much as employees in possession of specialist, technical knowledge – the people who make the product that the customers buy, bringing in the money that pays for the bosses’ big, fat salaries?

They’re like a dungareed tribe of overgrown toddlers, these executives, forever drawing up new corporate strategies with their glittery washable marker pens, and making up nonsense words to denote divisions and directorates within their tinpot organisations. They shift their coloured building blocks around the boardroom table to represent acquisitions, restructurings and redundancies, with no regard for the effect on people’s livelihoods and wellbeing. They strip away our collective bargaining rights and impose performance-related pay to incentivise us, forcing colleagues to compete against each other for a share of a finite pot of cash that amounts to a tiny fraction of the executives’ bloated annual bonus.

Welcome to UK plc. Of course, I’m not completely protected from any of this by my home-working arrangement, nor am I so precious as to suggest that I could never work in an office. I could if I had to: I have in the past, and no doubt at some point I’ll do it again. It’s just that, in the words of Bartleby, that notoriously reluctant office worker, I would prefer not to.

Winterval

I always enjoy the hiatus between Christmas and New Year. As I emerge, blinking, into the winter sunlight, my liver throbbing and my skin an attractive shade of elephant’s-breath grey (™ Farrow & Ball), my main feeling is one of immense relief that our families have departed and I have the house to myself again.

For a control-freak with misanthropic tendencies, Christmas is a difficult time. I can be superficially gregarious, glass in hand, in short bursts of a few hours. The problem is that people pitch up for days on end at this time of year, bringing with them their relentless physical demands and irritating personal habits. My daily timetable is dictated by their round-the-clock need for plates of food, cups of weak tea and sphincter-straining visits to the lavatory. The constant throat-clearing, finger-tapping and inane chit-chat make it impossible to ignore their physical presence, frustrating my attempts to grab a few moments’ peace by reading the newspaper or dozing off on the sofa.

Visitors are programmed to inflict domestic chaos. They can’t avoid it: they pile suitcases at the foot of the stairs, festoon coats across armchairs and balance glasses of red wine within inches of my marauding children. Offers of ‘help’ are designed to salve consciences, not to result in actual assistance. People hover aimlessly at the sink, purportedly searching for the washing-up gloves, just at the moment when the potatoes need draining. Dishes are wiped with the floor-cloth; hands are dried on the tea towel. Pans are extracted from the dishwasher and randomly distributed across every spare surface in the kitchen, while a mountain of empty plastic bags appears overnight on the table like a primary-school recycling project.

Apart from my control-freakery, the fundamental problem is the gaping chasm between the Christmas that I’d envisaged and the one that materialises. The Christmas of my imagination is heralded by the crunch of gravel on a sweeping driveway; a tasteful holly wreath at the front door; and a scent of cinnamon, oranges and pine needles. Radiant friends clad in silk and cashmere step indoors, brushing the snow from their woollen coats, and gather round the hearth to exchange witticisms and gifts. Tree-lights twinkle, candles flicker and silver cutlery gleams discreetly in the firelight.

The reality offered by our downmarket house-guests is somewhat different, involving a wilting poinsettia, sachets of instant trifle-topping and a lingering aroma of sprout-induced farts. Dog poo is trodden into the carpets, while occasional gaps in what passes for conversation are plugged by my mother discussing her forthcoming dental extraction. Don’t get me wrong: I love my family, and I’m secretly grateful that they’re not the kind of pretentious tossers who aspire to a Christmas modelled on the Toast catalogue – which is to say, they aren’t remotely like me. Still, it’s great to have the house back. At least I can be grateful that we aren’t hosting New Year’s Eve.