Saturday, 26 December 2009

Christmas Eve - A Fairy Tale

I almost forgot! A Christmas story or two, just a little bit late...

Christmas Eve
By Sarah McCartney

Eve was born on 24th December and her parents named her after her dad’s grandmother. It was only after they’d signed the birth certificate and the registrar laughed a little and said,
“That’s funny, naming her after Christmas Eve,” that they realised what they’d done.
All through her schooldays people thought it was funny to say, “So it’s nearly Christmas, Eve!” She could stand that, but what she really hated was that although her brother and sister both got birthday presents and Christmas presents from their friends and family, she only ever got one.
“We got you something bigger to combine birthday and Christmas,” they said, but the presents were never twice as big, just around 10% larger. What was worse was that she was never allowed to open them on her birthday; they had to be saved for Christmas Day, so that she wouldn’t be left sitting there with nothing to do while everyone else ripped through the recycled packaging of their Christmas gifts.

One Christmas Eve, Eve was sitting by the window staring at the crescent moon.
“Eve” whispered a clear bell-like voice that she’d never heard before.
She looked down into the garden but there was no-one there, although she was sure the voice had come from outside.
“Eve, out here!” the voice called again. Looking outside she noticed that the moon seemed to be waving an aura of sparkles at her. It was frosty outside and she didn’t really want to get cold, but she opened the window and called quietly,
“Moon? Is that you?”
“Yes! Of course it is,” said the moon and send a shower of sparking moondust down a moonbeam straight into Eve’s bedroom to keep her warm.
“I’ve got something for you,” said the moon, “and it’s for your birthday when everyone forgets about you but me.” The sky turned from cloudy grey to a deep purply blue, the moon itself glowed an amazing bright golden yellow and Eve could smell flowers, even though there were none in the garden. Then a small, glittering parcel shot down a moonbeam right through the window and landed on her bed next to Theo, her teddy bear. It unwrapped itself and revealed a deep blue bar with a golden moon on top; its perfume was a blend of exotic jasmine and calming ylang ylang, just right for melting away all her anxieties and worries about the unfairness of being born on Christmas Eve.
“Put it in the bath, Eve,” said the moon, and every time I see you, I’ll send you another one.”
Eve never actually spoke to the moon again. Sometimes she opened the window and waved, hoping to start up another conversation, but probably the moon was a bit busy talking to other children. But every now and again, when she’d had a bad day, Eve found another magical parcel on her bed.
“Mum, Dad! I’ll just have a bath!” she would shout, and they were delighted that Eve was so keen to keep herself clean, and they never did work out quite where that beautiful scent came from.

Want to Believe
By Sarah McCartney

“Father Christmas is coming tonight” shouted Emily, all excited. She would be awake every hour wondering if he’s got there, running into her brother’s room to see if he was ready to go and look under the tree for presents.
Joe wasn’t so sure. People at school had told him that their parents gave them their Christmas presents and that there was no such thing as Father Christmas, no reindeer, no sleigh and no coming down the chimney. He was sure he had heard him the previous year, but perhaps it was his mum and dad after all.
“Is there really a Father Christmas?” he asked them at tea time and he saw them glance at each other quickly.
“It’s like this,” said his dad, “If you believe in him, then he’ll bring your presents, but if you don’t, then we have to do it for him.” This was a dilemma. Joe was a very considerate boy and he didn’t want his parents to have to buy things out of their own money just because he doubted the practicalities of the Father Christmas myth.
“I do want to believe,” he said and got on with eating his pasta.
He asked his grandmother what to do.
“Gran,” he said, “If I don’t believe in Father Christmas, I’m going to put mum and dad to a lot of expense, but I don’t really see how a sleigh can fly or how a fat man can get down the chimney. What can I do?”
“Hmmm,” said his gran to buy some time, “There is one story that says that if you are good you will get your presents but if you are bad, you will get a lump of coal.”
“I’ve been pretty good, I think,” said Joe, who was quite a good boy most of the time, “So I want to believe that too.”
Joe was confused, but it wasn’t enough to keep him awake. In the morning Emily woke Joe up, leaping around and giggling with delight at the lovely things Father Christmas had brought her. Joe looked and saw a pile of coal at the end of his bed.
“Oh no!” he wailed, “Everything’s gone wrong and it’s all my fault.” Then he picked up the coal and noticed that it smelled sweet; he licked it and found that it tasted of sugar; he bit it and it was delicious! Downstairs he found a stack of presents and they all said, “To Joe, with love from mum and dad.”
“I’m sorry you had to buy them, but I couldn’t believe any more,” he said to them giving them each a big hug.
“That’s OK Joe,” said his mum. “We wanted to buy them for you anyway.”
Then Joe remembered the pile of coal sweets upstairs.
“Thanks for the sweets, too” he said.
“What sweets?” asked his mum and she looked at his dad with her eyebrows raised. His dad gave one of those “don’t look at me” glances and shook his head.
“That was odd,” thought Joe. “Even though I don’t believe in Father Christmas, I definitely believe in something.”

Monday, 7 December 2009

Father Frost - A Morality Tale

Father Frost
Father Frost is a northern European winter tale that turns up with slight variations. Here's a new version, from Father Frost's point of view.


Once upon a time in December, Father Frost was travelling north. He'd spent most of the year camped out at the pointy end of Patagonia where it was as frosty as the frosting on a frozen ice cream cake. He also rather like watching the penguins. Humming his favourite Beatles song, he guided his sleigh with a skilful flick of the wrist so his three faithful reindeer knew just where to set him down in northern Russia. The air crackled as he inhaled the reassuringly cold atmosphere, cold enough to kill any normal man. This was his land, his territory and he was reclaiming his kingdom where he reigned unchallenged every Yuletide.

Each year he hoped to find a worthy companion, someone he could trust, someone who didn't just want to be by his side because he was powerful or rich or famous or dangerous. He was all of these things and old enough to know that they usually attracted exactly the wrong sort of people.

As he glanced around his kingdom he saw something move in the forest, so he headed towards it. It was a girl, a pretty girl who was shivering with cold, and dressed in what looked like last year's summer party clothes, anyway they were hardly adequate for the occasion. In the distance, he saw an old man walking away with his shoulders hunched; he looked as though he was sobbing in pain and misery.

"Here we go," thought Father Frost, "yet another example of the appalling behaviour that I've come to expect from these people." As he got closer to the girl she started to shake with terror as well as with the cold. He had this effect on people as soon as they recognized him. Nevertheless she looked him straight in the icy blue eyes and said politely,
"Good afternoon, Father Frost. I hope that your journey wasn't too tiring."
"It was fine, thanks," said Father Frost, "and how are you? Not too cold out here?" He smiled rather wickedly at this challenge and wondered which of the many lines he'd heard before she would try out on him.
" I'm great!" she said as cheerfully as she could manage through chattering teeth. That was a new one. Usually they begged for his pity, asked us to be wrapped up in his nice warm cloak and attempted to wheedle their way his affections. Sometimes it worked, but he would get bored with them, and gently freeze them to death with one ice cold breath.
"It can't last,” he thought to himself and asked her again but every time she told him she was doing fine even though it was as clear as an icicle that she was about to drop dead with cold.
"Could it be?" he wondered, "that I have finally found a genuinely unselfish human being?" and he decided to reward her for her patience. He wrapped her up in furs (because in those days there were no synthetic fibres and no animal rights campaigners) and whisked her off to his palace, where she had a nice warm bath and found the most beautiful blue velvet clothes waiting for her, some stunning silver jewellery and a great big box of treasure.

"This is really very kind of you, Father Frost," she said, "but I can't possibly accept them. Besides, now that my stepmother has thrown me out of the house, if I go back there I'm sure she'll have my dad put to death and I couldn't bear that to happen, so if it's alright with you, I’ll just take the cloak and a good pair of boots and be on my way."

Father Frost sent the reindeer and the sleigh off to bring her dad back to the palace, then loaded the treasure, daughter and dad onto his magic vehicle and sent them back home. Occasionally he liked to set up a little scenario and watch how it played out but this one was worse than he could have imagined. When she saw all the precious things, the evil stepmother, who had sent our lovely girl out to the woods to die, decided to send her own rather unpleasant, greedy daughter out there too. It didn't go well. The greedy girl complained, moaned, whinged and whimpered until Father Frost was so bored, he exhaled on her and turned her to snow then blew a bit harder and caused a blizzard in Stockton on Tees.

Now that he had finally found someone who could be trusted, he invited his new friend to help him give out all the good children's rewards at Yuletide. He didn't ask her name. He decided to call her Snowflake and asked her always to wear beautiful blue and silver clothes. Even though she was quite an independent minded young woman she decided that this was fair enough, considering the circumstances. From that day onwards she accompanied him around the world and really enjoyed watching the penguins in Patagonia.

Monday, 23 November 2009

To my local council

Dear whoever sent me a letter,

Account number: 4******5

I got a letter from you on 20th October, but I don’t open the post very often as it’s usually quite tedious.
Anyway, it said I owed you exactly £100 in “instalment arrears”.
I pay by bank transfers which I set up at the beginning of each council tax year so I looked it up just now and found that I’d mistakenly entered £98 for September instead of £198.
I’ve now sent you £100 to make up for it.

The letter also says that my instalments will be cancelled and recovery action of the full balance will follow without further notice, whatever that means. However, you can’t cancel my instalments, only I can, so you didn’t. October’s had been paid nicely as usual.

So I hope we are all friends again, as was quite obviously a genuine mistake, and didn’t really deserve an unsigned
letter with red type on it.

I wonder if you might consider sending your people to my writing workshops. I’ve worked with Legal & General and Aviva, among others, to help them write to people in a warmer, clearer way, not using phrases like “recovery action on the full balance” or “in accordance with the scheme notified” or leaving them unsigned, which might give the impression that you are a cold, bureaucratic organisation with no interest in keeping your local people happy.


Sunday, 22 November 2009

Why Brucie Must Go

It's the sheer arrogance of the smarmy old git.
Brucie appears to believe he is the centre-piece of Strictly Come Dancing. He seems to think that the place will fall apart without him. Last week it didn't. Yes, it fell apart, but only because the director insisted on dumping an un-rehearsed (or underqualified) Ronnie Corbett into the space that Brucie usually occupies. In the hands of the delectable Claudia (who only pretends not to be in control) the programme would have run perfectly.
Bruce is now an embarrassment. He overestimates his public appeal. He insists on telling his tedious jokes, irresponsibly holding up the entire BBC1 programme schedule, just because he can, to make a point about how he won't be rushed.
He was once successful and rich, and actually very very funny, and hence managed to snag himself a collection of decorative wives. He's now fooling himself into thinking that he has innate appeal to womankind. He does a couple of nifty steps to keep us interested; instead we fear that he's going to keel over with a coronary.
Ever second that Brucie spends talking could be usefully given over to watching people dance and listening to relatively intelligent critisism.
Take my share of the licence fee and pay him off. Let him not ruin another minute of prime time television.
And while you're at it, please ban Aleysha Dixon from ever speaking in public.
Please join me in a campaign to put him out to pasture and send him off to a golf course. For ever.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Mice's Tail

One more seasonal story.

Once upon a time there were two mice who were getting by quite nicely in a medium-sized house in Bloomsbury, the literary part of Victorian London. They spent most of their time in the basement which was where the kitchen and pantry were, and although the kitchen maid kept everything scrubbed very clean, the cook dropped enough nuts and raisins about the place for them to live really rather luxuriously. They would sleep during the day, curled up behind the fireplace, which had all the modern conveniences including a built-in oven and a place to heat the irons.

At night, when the servants had finished washing all the pots and pans, scrubbing the floors and hanging all the washing out to dry, the mice came out to play. They were fairly careful not to chew through anything important; they realised that it was a very good idea to let the household think there were absolutely no mice there at all. They had observed with horror what had happened next door when they'd brought a cat into the house.

One winter it was terribly cold in the basement at night so they decided to venture upstairs. Squeezing under the living room door, they found themselves in a magical fairyland and were astonished by the beauty of what they saw. In the middle of the room was an enormous tree, as high as a thousand tiny mice. But what really astonished them were the hundreds of little pink mice who were sleeping in its branches. The two London mice had never really stopped to think what colour they were, but once they realised that they were a nondescript shade of dull grey, they began to be a little disappointed.

"Pink mice!" called the first mouse in a shouty whisper but not a single one of them moved so much as a whisker.

The second mouse joined in and the two of them spent a good 20 minutes making as much noise as they could to try to wake up the pink mice so that they could all play together. Nothing! Not a thing. Not even a polite "hello".

"I wish I could be pink,” said the first mouse. "I wish they would tell us how they got to be that pretty colour."

"I would like to live in a tree where everyone could see me," said the second mouse and they both set about jumping up and down shouting again to see if they could get some answers to their questions.

The mice got so tired that they decided to give up and go to sleep, but they were so impressed by the beauty of the big tree with its beautiful glass decorations and its immense pink mouse population that they curled up in a corner of the sitting room instead of going back to the basement.

The next morning the mice were woken up by three boisterous children who bounded into the room followed by their nanny then their mother and father. Watching carefully from their viewpoint underneath the piano, the mice waited to see what would happen. The children are raced over to the tree and all shouted,

" Please, please! Mummy! Daddy! May we have a sugar mouse?"

"Of course you can, my darlings,” said their beautiful mother in a soft voice which was very different from anything they had ever heard in the kitchen. The children raced to the tree and each one of them grabbed a pink mouse from the fragrant branches. Our two little grey kitchen mice were a little bit envious to see the affection shown to their distant pink relatives. Then, horror! They shivered with fright when these apparently pleasant children grabbed hold of their mice and bit their heads off! They retreated as far as they could, pinned themselves back to the wall underneath the piano and stayed there for the rest of the day shaking with fear until it was dark and quiet again.

When they were convinced that there was absolutely no one left awake in the house, and after a few false starts, they crept more quietly than mice had ever crept before, back down to the kitchen and the safety of the little hole behind the fireplace. They feasted on a sultana and thanked their lucky paws that they were grey.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Cinderella - a new approach

The second in a series of new fairy stories; this one is based on a traditional tale.

Once upon a time there was a very beautiful girl who lived in a big old house with her father, ageing stepmother and two older, slightly overweight, overdressed and very badly made up stepsisters. Her name was Helen, and her job was to keep the big old house clean and tidy. This was before the days of Hoovers, Flash and even electricity; what she had to do the work with was a wooden bucket, ice cold water that she had to fetch from the well and a set of brushes that she'd inherited from her grandmother. Suffice to say, the work was never finished. Her clothes were filthy and her personal hygiene was none too good either.

Her stepsisters didn't call her Helen, they called her Cinderella because she slept by the fireplace to keep warm and often got covered in cinders. She hardly ever saw her dad because to be honest he was a bit afraid of his second wife and her two daughters who had made it quite clear that he wasn't to be seen socialising with his daughter. She only had one friend, Buttons, the lad who looked after the horses, the coach, the kitchen garden and all the outdoor house repairs.

One day, the king and queen sent out party invitations to every unmarried woman in the land. They wanted to give their son a chance of finding a decent wife because he was dragging his heels a bit when it came to getting married and settling down. He was one of those 32-year-old commitment phobics who was waiting for "the one". He was familiar with most of the single women in the countryside anyway, and he wasn't looking forward to the ball. The two stepsisters were out of their minds with excitement at the thought of going to the ball and possibly snagging the country's most eligible bachelor. Helen wasn't all that bothered. Besides, she didn't even have a dress and it would take months to scrub all that muck off.

The sisters and the stepmother set off for the ball early, taking the carriage and forgetting about the dad. He arrived down at the kitchen, where Helen and Buttons were sitting in front of the fire, which was glowing red orange and yellow and crackling as the wood heated up. Just as he came through the door, the windows flew open and in floated a rather elegant, grey-haired fairy of a certain age.

"Cinders," she said gently, "would you like to go to the ball?"
"No," Helen replied, "I'm fine here with Buttons and my dad."
"Think about it for a moment," said the fairy, "You could have a beautiful new frock, shoes made of crystal, a golden coach, a whole team of servants and we would do your hair and makeup. The Prince is certain to fall in love with you, you'd get married and live happily ever after."
"Honestly," said Helen, "I’ve met the Prince and he's not all that, although he certainly thinks he is. It wouldn't be long before he decided to look elsewhere and I'd be stuck there pretending to be happy. It would never work out."

The fairy had to think again. This wasn't what was supposed to happen. But as she watched the three of them having a glass of mulled wine and chatting, she thought of a new plan. She quickly flew down to the Palace, stripped off one of the sisters’ terrible makeup and gave her a natural look, put her in a beautiful, simple dress and a pair of killer heels and planted her on the dance floor right in front of the Prince. Ace. Love at first sight. She also fixed up the second sister who was more than content with the Prince’s footman. With her daughters set up at the palace there was no way that their mother was ever going back to the big old house.

Without the ridiculous expense of the stepmother's clothing, hair and personal maintenance budget, Helen's dad found out that he had plenty of money to employ a few more helpers around the place and do up the decorating a bit. Buttons plucked up the courage to ask Helen to marry him and naturally she accepted. Even though they had the choice of some lovely big rooms in the newly restored old house, their favourite place was always sitting by the kitchen fire, drinking mulled wine, watching the flames and listening to the crackling cinders.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A New Fairy Story

Earlier this year, I wrote some new fairy tales for Lush's Christmas products. I thought you might like to share so here's one. If you like them, I'll follow up with some others. Please feel free to read it to any handy children, and to pass it on, just remember to say where it came from. Thanks.

The Star Sweetie

By Sarah McCartney
Once upon a time, before there were so many streetlights in the western world, we could all look up at the sky and see millions of stars every night. (Except when it was raining, when you look up to the sky and just get raindrops in your eyes.) There are more stars in the sky and there are grains of sand in the world, more than we can possibly imagine stretching further away than even the smartest scientists can comprehend. Most of them are enormous balls of fire, bigger than our own sun, but a handful are very small indeed. A long time ago, one night when it was dark, one of the tiniest stars got a bit bored with hanging around in the sky and decided to visit the earth.The physics was rather complicated but to cut a long story short the star floated down towards the Earth's surface and steered itself towards Yorkshire, for no particular reason except it had always rather admired the cliffs at Whitby.

Not having much control over its flight path in the Earth's atmosphere it slightly lost its balance and tumbled through the open window of a seaside sweet factory. Fortunately, it landed softly in a barrel of icing sugar, jumped out, tripped over and fell into a bucket of the most deliciously scented sweet flavouring, specially blended for a batch of sugar candies which were going to be given away at the town hall Christmas party the following evening. After its journey, the little star was a bit tired and it fell asleep.

The next morning all the workers arrived at 6 a.m. start their preparations for the Christmas party. Before the star had had a chance to wake up and remember where it was, it had been put inside a gift box and tied up with ribbon.

That evening, when the Lady Mayoress opened her presents, everyone was very impressed when a sugary star shot out of the box and lit up the whole town hall with its incandescent light. The owner of the seaside sweet factory pretended that he had been planning this all along, but refused to give away the secret. The little star loved all the attention it was getting, but felt a little bit claustrophobic in the town hall after the freedom of the infinite night skies. At midnight when the doors opened to let everyone go home, tired but happy and full of chocolate, the star zoomed out and straight up, off into the sky.

It's difficult to see these days, with so much artificial light coming from the earth, but if you look carefully sometimes you can see a pink star and now a slight whiff of candy in the sky. That's him, swooping in to take a closer look and wondering whether to come back and light up another party.

© Sarah McCartney 2009.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Wake Up and Smell the Roses

This week I was invited to spend a morning working with business students, pushing them to invent a new product to raise money for a good cause, and create the campaign to go with it. Our two hours were organised chaos, just the way I like it, and by the end of the session we had three decent ideas which I can present to the Lush creative team (if the students remember to email them to me). One man was the bounciest, noisiest and most enthusiastic; he got his idea through by sheer determined but good-humoured domination. When I worked as a lecturer, I was always told to make sure everyone got an equal hearing. In real life, if this had been a Lush recruitment session, he would have been the one who got the job.

That evening, I was in the smart end of Victoria, Belgravia perchance, at the delightful little posh scent shop, Les Senteurs, for their 25th birthday celebrations, Marie- Hélène Rogeon of Les Parfums de Rosine and her expert perfumer, François Robert, came to talk about their range of rose scents. Marie- Hélène has a passion for roses which she grows in her own garden. She also has a perfumery heritage; her great, great grandfather made Eau de Cologne for Napoleon III. When she recreated designer Paul Poiret's 1911 perfumery, she invited François - already a respected 'nose' - to develope fragrances to match the widely varying scents of her own roses. As they talked about their different rose perfumes - one that smells of oranges and lemons (and roses of course), another of mint, then ginger, saffrom and even chocolate - a picture developed of their creative process which goes something like this.

Marie- Hélène: I've a rose that smells of lemons.
François: That's impossible. Roses don't smell of lemons.
Marie- Hélène: No really! I'd like you to create a scent that matches my lemony roses.
François: Roses smell of rose.
Marie- Hélène: I'll send you some of them.
François (as he opens the box of roses): OK, I see what you mean.
Result: Un Zest de Rose, a fresh, light lemony rose fragrance.

After going through a similar process with the ginger scented roses, the sand roses that smell of sea salt, the mint ones, the blackcurrant and the ginger ones, François Robert was convinced. Roses don't just smell of roses.

So, after a couple of glasses of Les Senteurs' delicious champagne, I asked M. Robert if his advanced technical training had shackled his imagination. He laughed kindly and explained that in perfumery, there are two rose scents: absolute and essence. Rose absolute is light and fresh. Rose essence is deeper and heavier. Both are excruciatingly expensive. Working with Marie- Hélène had obliged him to accept that the rose's natural fragrance is rather more intriguing and variable than he had imagined. He's off to visit David Austin's extraordinary garden soon but said that his favourite is the simple rose that grows at the roadside in hedgerows. He also thinks that unscented roses are pointless, no matter how beautiful they look.

Marie- Hélène and François make up a creative team which works beautifully. Passion, inspiration and confidence, matched with technical pefection, skill and even more (but quieter) confidence, Marie-Hélène knows what she wants and François Robert knows how to create it. The result: works of art. (IMHO.)

There are three parts of creativity: ideas, skills and the ability to get it done. Sometimes they exist all in one person. Sometimes it's a duo, sometimes a trio. When it's successful it can turn into a whole company. Occasionally creative people are criticised for not having all three. Don't let that put you off. Spot your strengths and find people you can work with who have the ones you lack. Then things start to happen. What you do need, like Marie-Hélène or my bouncy business student is the determination to go get 'em.

Footnote: If you think that wearing scent is a trivial luxury, bear in mind that the world of fine perfumery fills fields with flowers, bees and birds employs Europe's travellers to pick the petals and changes our mood for the better. Put one one your Christmas list. Don't buy a big bottle of the cheap stuff instead; get a small, precious pot of the real thing.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Quoting Mr Jim Alfonso Laurel

I don't usually nick other people's words to fill up my own space - in fact this is a first - but Jim Alfonso Laurel (this may be his pen name) deserves credit. When I'm working with writers my aim is usually to get their work read and acted upon. How can you make your writing interesting enough for your reader to start at the beginning and keep going until the end, then do what you want them to do? In fact, I shan't be doing what Jim Alfonso Laurel wishes, but I couldn't help reading to the end. His is only a slight variation on a theme with which most of us are unfortuantely familiar, but I do like his approach. Back soon with some of my own words. I just hope I can make them as compelling as Jim's.

Don't call him though.

Dear Sir/Madam,

Before I proceed, I must first apologize for this unsolicited letter to you. I am aware that this is certainly not a conventional way of approach to establish a relationship of trust, but I do have limited choice. My name is Jim Alfonso Laurel a Solicitor working with HMCS(HER MAJESTY COURT SERVICES), London United Kingdom. Actually, I got your contact address from the internet while searching for a reputable business partner in your country's public records. My Late client, a business mogul who had casinos and restaurants, lived in Spain for many years, my client, his wife and their one child were involved in an underground train crash in the eastern city of Valencia as Victims of the Tuesday, 4 July 2006, Incident that befall the Spanish You can confirm through this website


Before his death, on my advice as his lawyer he deposited One Trunk Box, containing the sum of $7.3M (Seven Million, Three Hundred Thousand US

Dollars) as a family valuable with a security company here in London, on a highly security form but he did not disclosed the content of deposited consignment to the Security company, for security reasons. The security company has mandated me to present any family heir/next of kin for claims, before the consignment gets confiscated or reverts to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, as unclaimed consignment. So I decided to search for any of my late client's relative which has been very difficult for me, as he did not declare any other person, address, partner or relatives in the official paper works of his consignment deposit. He was my private client.

I will not like you to involve any third party in this transaction, just me and you .Besides I am doing this on my own personal capacity and do not wish t o bring my office into it.

Against this backdrop, my suggestion to you is that I will like you as a foreigner to stand as the next of kin to my client, with my position as his lawyer, I will now appoint and recognize you as the heir/next of kin.

I will obtain every relevant document from the probate to make your claim legal. Note that this process is not risky in any manner and it is completely legal but might not be justified morally.

Once the deposit is released to you, I am proposing 20% of the total sum to you for your involvement.10% would be set aside for any expenses that could be incurred during the transaction. I would retain 50% for myself.

Note that when the whole documents are ready, I will direct you on how to approach the security company and make application for the release of the consignment to you.

If this proposal does offend your moral values please pardon me otherwise reply via my private email address: for further clarification. Please be kind to get back to me if you are not interested so that I can further my search for another partner.


Jim Alfonso Laurel (ESQ)

+44 704 570 4325

+44 704 577 1083

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

When Marketing Turns to the Dark Side

This week I got a text message that said:

FREEMSG: Our records indicate you may be entitled to 3750 pounds for the Accident you had. To claim for free reply with YES to this msg. To opt out text STOP.

So my first question to myself was, "If I text STOP, will they do so?" I thought, on balance, not. They'd already lied to me. I haven't had an accident (let alone an Accident) and I'm not on their records, unless you count them gleaning my number from somewhere public. So, their records can't show I've had an accident so that's lie number one. Would they charge me if I texted STOP? It doesn't say, so I suspect the answer is yes.
Would they charge me if I text YES? They say not, but I'm guessing that they would. All we know about them is that they are liars.

Another question was , "Shall I forward this to my friend Dave in the Met's Fraud Office?" I wonder if the police can do anything about scammers who earn £1 or £5 or who knows how much, by sending out mass texts.

Question number three is, "How many idiots are there in the world who would text back YES in the hope of being awarded 3750 of our British pounds for an accident they haven't had?" Enough to run a company? Or are they hoping to make money from the decent people out there who next STOP in order to prevent the scammers from trying again.

I've had cold calls from people offering to help me claim for "the accident I had recently", from companies who ignore the telephone preference service list that restricts my number. They try to talk me into "remembering" that I have had an accident. If not me, then perhaps a family member has had one, they suggest. A former neighbour spotted a dent in my vintage Saab (done by a large tattooed man wearing a vest and driving a truck) and told me he could get me £3500 compensation for my injury. "But I wasn't in it at the time." I said. "You just say you were," he told me. He said it was a "Win win." For him perhaps. Not for all of us who pay monthly to insure our cars, it's not. Not for me either, because even if I'd had the extra £3500 in the bank, I'd know that I'd stolen it and that would make me feel guilty and hence miserable.

It's calls, conversations and texts like this that tempt us to believe that business is all run by money-grabbing charlatans and marketed by crooks. But it's not. There are many of us out there doing business and being fair, working for organisations we're proud of, Let's not allow the scam artistes to take over marketing. By all means make a profit - how else are you to stay in business and pay the bills? - but let's be fair and honest and hold our heads up high. It's time to reclaim marketing for decent people. If you've got good examples, let me know. In the meantime, I'll report on the ones I spot, on the dark side and the bright, with the occasionally merely murky one along the way.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Wash Your Mind Clean

Last week I finally used up my Christmas vouchers from my lovely in-laws. (Yes, I'm one of those lucky people who married a really great family.) They were for Floatworks, the Southwark centre where you'll find small rooms full of Bond-like pods where you can float for an hour at a time and feel... different.
On a daily basis, I feel as if I start too many things and never end them. I always carry a notebook and a pen with me for when I have ideas and I'm afraid I might forget them. I draw clothes I want to sew or knit, jewellery to make, list chapters for books, ideas for blogs, places to visit and all the normal chores that really ought to get them done at some point in between the interesting stuff. All these ideas are stuffed in, popping up constantly shouting for attention and in need of an outlet. I could do with an office full of assistants. I've got a laptop and a small cat. Unless I keep up the yoga, and particularly the pranayama practise (controlled yoga breath) my head feels like fireworks exploding over a race track on saloon car afternoon, complete with crashes.
So how lovely it is to slow everything down, rinse out the ideas and feel as though I've wiped the slate, giving myself space for new, clean, clear thoughts.
You float in 10" of water, at body temperature, that's full of Epsom salts. It supports your body so you feel as if you're in space. Press one button and the lid closes. Press the next and the light goes off. The music fades out after a few minutes and you've got sensory deprivation. There was one thing I could feel; the cat had scratched my hand and left a tiny graze, enough for the Epsom salts to drive me bonkers with irritation. I flapped about a little while I found the buttons to put the lights back on and open the lid so I could find the packet of petroleum jelly to cover the scratch and protect it. Back in the box I let myself go. I once tried pranayama breathing in a pod but it didn't work. Concentrating on controlling my breath held me back from the deep relaxation you feel if you give in entirely to whatever thoughts fill your head, and then gradually roll away into nothingness.
The music starts again to remind you that it's time to get out. Only 10 minutes! I was robbed. Except that it had been an hour.
I remember a few things. Ideas for a set of short stories. A song about working in an office. A design for wrapping paper. All these things floated into my head. Many others floated off again without distracting me at all. If you don't fancy being shut in a pod the shape of a huge egg, you can keep the lid open. If you're afraid of the dark, you can leave the light on. They'll play music for you if you prefer a bit of background noise. In generally the world divides into those who can't wait to give it a crack and others who hyperventilate just thinking about 1) being naked in salty water 2) being shut in a pod 3) doing nothing for an hour. If you don't fancy it, sod off and stay away and don't make it difficult for the rest of us to get a slot. You just go for a walk in the nice sunshine while we shut ourselves off from the world and its noisesmelllightweightpainwork.

Will I do it again? I just booked myself three-for-the-price-of-two and I can't wait. OK, I'll tell you:

Friday, 25 September 2009

When Marketing Goes Bonkers

One plain white facecloth

I bought a packet of plain white facecloths to take off my mascara because I was tired of throwing out cotton wool. (So very ungreen.) The label did make me laugh though.
Exclusive of Decoration.
Exclusive of Ornamentation.
It says.

How bonkers is that?
I bought them because they were plain white cloths. I could see they were plain white clothes. I didn't need to be reassured that they were free of adornment so why did they write that?

The world of marketing has started to use what's missed out as a way to convince buyers that it's great to buy their products. This started as a good thing: "no added sugar" written on fruit bars to compare them with less healthy versions, "no animal ingredients" for vegan food. After that, once people got accustomed to the idea that "no added" meant "this is a good thing" then marketers started to make meaningless "no added" statements as reasons to buy stuff. As a person who's been trained in marketing, and even used to teach it, I find this shamefully lacking in creativity.

When marketing people can't be bothered to think of something good to say, they make up something that sounds as if it might be bad, then boast that their product doesn't have it. E numbers. Have marketing people convinced you that E numbers are bad? The E means that they have been tested for safety and approved by the EU. It's when a number doesn't have an E that it's dodgy. Safe natural colours and flavours all have E numbers. Safe synthetics do too. Implying that a product is better because it doesn't have something that's harmless is wicked and lazy.

Although in the case of plain white facecloths, it's so ridiculous it's also quite funny.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Free Tuesdays

Observing the Secular Sabbath

It's not my own phrase; I stole it from Jonathan Meades, who was on BBC2 last night in a programme about Scotland and how it's the world's leader in the ancestor business. Or rather, I borrowed it, because it reminded me of a visit to Frinton two years ago.

Mr. 4160 and I spent our wedding anniverary at the seaside in Essex, taking in an ice cream and a wander around lovely little Frinton. Estate agents' windows advertised many small homes with well kept gardens and "no onward chain". Frinton has the smallest church in England (or perhaps Essex) but anyway it's tiny. We went in, as Frinton is the sort of place where churches don't need to lock their doors to keep out undesirables. There aren't any. For the first time in ages I read the Ten Commandements which were painted in gold on wood in Arts & Crafts style, and was struck by very reasonable they are.

That said, I looked them up and found that there are more than ten (27) and that the good old Church of England had decided just to keep the sensible ones. ("The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb" sounds a bit parochial to me. Likewise the bit about driving out the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. No-one else? Just them, the locals? One can't help thinking that there was some artistic interpretation of the Lord's instructions going on there.)

Back to Frinton and leaving out the spare 17 commandments. As it was my first weekend off in as many as I could remember, I lingered over "Observing the sabbath and keep it holy". I do know a few people who regularly go to church, and when they tell their employers that they can't work on Sundays, that's fine. If the rest of us say that we can't work on Sunday because we've just worked Monday to Saturday and we're exhausted, that's not good enough. So for the following few months a colleague and I had a code. "Off to church on Sunday?" "Yeah, I need to do a bit of bible study." How ridiculous is it, that you have to pretend to go to church just to get a bit of peace and quiet, a nice day pottering about doing nothing and having a cup of tea with your mates?

So there was Jonathan Meades, standing in a dull, drizzly, empty, silent street on a small Scottish Island, having a similar thought. Have we made our lives better by opening shops, cafes and entertainments on Sundays so that it's become normal to work all weekend? Or if we're not working, we're dashing around catching up with things we used to do in our lunch hour (remember that?) or when we got home and still had an evening. It's September; I ought to have the back to school, ready to start the new term kind of feeling. But after working through all but two weekends of yet another summer, feeling all worn out, I need a day off occasionally.

I can't do it alone. I can't just put my foot down and decide that it's just me. Now everyone has to be seen to work hard or else they let the team down. If I don't work on Sundays I'll be holding up a load of people who are waiting for my contribution. Collectively we've got ourselves into this state by willingly taking on extra work to see if we can earn more, get on, make progress, be rewarded financially for all the additional effort we voluntarily throw in. We've got emails that chase us home and follow us around the world on our iPhones. We're kidding oursleves that we're doing it because we want to, because it gives our life meaning. I get more meaning from picking my home grown raspberries or knitting a pair of socks.

It never ends unless we decide to end it. At least the rich Victorian mill owners gave their half-starved underpaid workers a day to go to church with the promise that they'd get their rewards in heaven. We're still falling for it, except that we're told we'll get our rewards paid on earth, in a sense of fulfillment that only comes from accepting a challenge and pushing oursleves until we hurt. And we've fallen for it. We're going to have to take our secular sabbath back ourselves. The non-stop generation needs to put its brakes on. So you can use my code if you like. Tell your colleagues that you have to go to church on Sunday then make it your own personal church. Get the papers in, put your feet up and have a chat. You don't have to achieve anything. Achievement is overrated. Just sit. Wait. Ponder. Listen to things you haven't heard in ages. Remember. Imagine.

I'll be going to church on Tuesdays. Come with me. Bring your knitting. I'll get the kettle on. We can have a bit of a natter and see if any brilliant ideas happen to crop up.

PS. The picture. I took that out of the front window one evening Sunday after sitting on the sofa for ages waiting for the right moment.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Free Fruit:

Free Fruit:
Go forth and find it.
For the past few weeks I've been out for a couple of hours each weekend to a patch of wild parkland near the canal in Hanwell, London W7. First it was the blackberries, then the plums, and last weekend more plums - 14lb of them - plus a few straggling brambles, a bag of apples and aother of pears which were just ripe enough to cook. This week, if it's not too wet, I'll get back to the pear tree (you have to clamber under the hawthorn tree tunnel but it's not impossible, just a bit of a challenge.

To be surrounded by more fruit that I could carry, without even having to stretch up on tiptoes, filled me with such fundamental happiness that it took me a while to calm down and start picking. Spending Bank Holiday Monday evening in the kitchen, turning it all into crumble base, puree, compote and finally, by Tuesday lunchtime, fruit leathers, was one of the simple pleasures that you hear people talking about theoretically but find difficult to pin down. So if it's not raining, and you have a patch of wild land nearby (or you know someone with a fruit tree in the garden) go grab some.

Cooking it is not hard. Put a small amount of water in a pan (1cm or so) with a load of fruit and a some sugar if you like. Put the lid on and stick them over a very low heat until it's all gone soft. Watch it or it'll bubble over and put sticky red goo all over your oven. (Did that.) Eat it. You can do exciting things with it involving pastry, syllabubs, sauces or savouries. Be as inventive as you like. In modern life we've lost the plot when it comes to remembering what really makes us content; harvesting is one of the good guys.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Shanks's Pony

I wonder if you've heard about the Nun Study, Dr. David A. Snowdon's research into aging. It's the most wonderful long-term observation into what might happen to us as we get older, carried out amongst a whole convent full of Catholic nuns in Minnesota. What's unusual about it is that all the nuns eat the same food and have accurate, comparable health records from a young age so researchers can rule out a lot of the variables that normally mess up your average health study.

One of the correlations (becasue it's tricky to say what's actually cause and effect) is that people who walk three miles a day stay healthy long into old age.
Current research reckons that longevity is influenced up to 75% by behaviour and attitude, not genetics, by the way. Since I found that out, I've tried to grab the opportunity to walk rather than take a lazier way of getting around whenever I have the time. It's selfishness really: naturally I want to stay fit for as long as I can manage, but I also find that walking has instant benefits for creative thinking. (Yoga too, but that's another story.)

For starters, on foot you have more time to notice what's happening around you. (You can choose not to; I have a friend who always strolls, deep in thought, staring at the pavement with his mind elsewhere.) If you like, you can observe people, buildings, clouds, spaces, faces, your neighbours' front gardens and your own reactions to them. When I'm stuck, really stuck, I love to go for a walk. Even just walking a slightly different route from usual can get you out of your rut. I've got six different direct routes to my tube station and I do like to vary them
just for the fun of it; it's a Edwardian working man's suburb - lots of parallel streets.

Time is a bit of a nuisance - well, absence of time to be more accurate - but if I'm on my way to a meeting or a workshop that's going to need me to delve into my deepest thinking resources, then I like to allow time to get there on Shanks's pony. (Grandma's term for legs.) It really does clear your mind of rubbish and fill it with interesting things - if you allow it, and put a bit of effort it.

My great grandmother made the local papers when she walked three miles to a party aged 92 then refused a lift home and hoofed it all the way back again. I'm rather hoping to follow in her footsteps, so to speak. In the meantime, for a good spring clean of the mental cobwebs, I shall be walking whenever... Machines in gyms don't work by the way. That's not one of Dr. Snowdon's conculsions; that's just what I think. They might help your health, but they don't refill your inspiration tanks.

The kit: for a formal event: Paul Smith brogues. They take a few months to break in then they are like walking on clouds, leathers ones. Informal around town: I've not found a walking shoe to beat my Nike Shox. Muddy: Merrell. Fields: barefoot but watch for cowpats. I've done that. Heels, if you must: Cole Haan G-Series with Nike Air technology. People tell me that Crocs are comfortable, but I wouldn't be seen dead, darlings.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Use it up, wear it out

A few years back, I decided to give up buying things I didn't need for a year long project. I defined need pretty strictly; you can't just say to yourself, "Well I really need a pair of pair of red shoes," when the ones you already own will do. The problem was that I wasn't ready. I was still searching for things I wanted with which to torture myself and I fought the self-imposed restriction, like a dieter who craves biscuits. It's rather like when a new student turns up at a yoga class and says excitedly, "I've given up smoking." It's usually about three weeks before they lapse. If you think that giving up anything - chocolate, tobacco, alcohol or shopping, or even breaking up a relationship - is exciting, then your heart isn't in it. You think about it all the time; it still has its hooks in you and it will reel you back in.

I mention this because I've stopped shopping again but this time I didn't have a start date; I just noticed that it had happened. I found myself not wanting to buy stuff because I slowly realised that I own more things than I need already. I've enough books to read, as many notebooks as I need to write several books and take notes at all the meetings between now and the end of my career, 20 fountain pens and ink enough to fill them. I'm still drawn to lovely new things, but instead of allowing my acquisitive desires to envelop me I've started to remind myself of all the beautiful things I already own. When I want to give myself a present, I don't have to buy one; I can open the box I keep my stash of special things in. Yoga helps, by the way, although you have to have the right attitude to it; I've met people who just become yoga addicts instead. What I really want more of is floorspace so now I'm spending time selling things on eBay and giving them away on Freecycle.

And I mention that because this is where the 4160 Tuesday come in. When you realise you've collected enough writing paper to send thankyou letters to all your aunts, nieces, nephews and minor acquaintainces until all your 4160 Tuesdays are over, it's time for a rethink.

I've an idea that the constraints of using up what I already own will inspire me to creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that. Let's be fair though; I do still have an awful lot of stuff; when I moved flats once, I sent through my list of belongings - musical instruments, boxes of books, fabric, yarn, sewing machines, yoga kit - and the removals company asked, "Is it a school?"

It's fair to say that I'm quite good at shopping; I give guided tours around London's most beautiful shops to visitors from overseas. But isn't it better to spend time creating than acquiring? Instead of opening my craft cupboard doors and wondering when I'm going to get the time to use up all the stuff inside, I'm going to take something out and make it into something else. (Yes, I have a craft cupboard.) Remember this, friends, aunts, nephews and minor acquaintances, when you get a pair of handknitted socks for Christmas.

(The picture: I uploaded it, changed my mind and tried to take it out again, but failed. I know it's not a masterpiece but it was my first attempt at wet-on-wet watercolour and as it does look a bit like a cyclamen and I did enjoy doing it, here it is.)

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Crystal Balls for Business Writers

"Now that we've all gone casual and chatty when we write," said Mr. 4160 last night, "what do you think will be next? Going serious and using masses of jargon?"

So I had a bit of a think.

Based on what happens in writing workhops - the ones I've been in; I can't speak for the others - I'd predict that we're going to be tidying up our English. At every workshop I've run, I've told everyone that they are not in a grammar class and no-one's going to start lecturing about accuracy; on the other hand, when you're in a room full of people who write for a living, and no-one's going to judge you if you've got a question, it's probably a good time to air your worries. I might ask, opening the shutters a little, "Where would you use brackets and where would you use dashes?" Then it all pours out: semi-colons, it's and its, different to, than or from. Just like which knife and fork to start with, it's not life and death, but people want to do it right.

In my experience, there are two groups of people who say they don't care about where apostrophes go. The first: people with masters degrees in languages, literature or linguistics. The second: the deeply insecure who hate being taught and disliked the way they were forced to learn at school.
Greengrocers care deeply where apostrophes go; they just get it wrong.

The first group talk about the Greengrocers' Apostrophe, the one that turns up in "Apple's £1 a basket" or "Fresh farm egg's". There is a common misunderstanding that apostrophes go in plurals, which they don't if you follow the generally accepted, current guidelines. The outstandingly educated people I know put it all into historical context and talk about the evolution of language; if that's the way the common man writes, then that is the way the language will go. Mind you, they wouldn't be seen dead with their own apostrophes out of place. (For the best ever discussion about this read David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster.)

The second group never seem to mind if their spelling is corrected. It's fine for spelling to be unequivocally right or wrong (although any research into Mr. Shakespeare's or Miss Austen's original works might change their minds) but questioning their grammar and punctuation is like suggesting they work on improving their dancing, driving or sexual techniques.

Nope, I think that the greengrocers do care. Why else would they bother to put them in at all? There's a beautiful mix up I've seen in a cafe window: Tea's, Coffees and Breakfast's. What was it that went through the mind of the signwriter as he or she wrote it? What is it about coffees that makes it exempt?

That picture was in New Look's window in York this summer.
Gladiator sandals was £20. Did no-one ever say, "Ahem, shouldn't we say "were" because there's more than one sandal?" Not one person? In the whole approval process from concept to window, everyone thought it was fine to write was instead of were? I'll tell you who would have kicked up a fuss, anyone French, German, Spanish or Italian who had learned English at school. One of my foreign colleagues recently asked me why a native English speaker had made a particular mistake and the best answer I could give at the time was, "He's doing his very best but he's not as well educated as you are." Rude, I know, but what would you say?

For me, taking time to check that your writing says what you mean is simple politeness. You are hoping that someone will read it and understand it, then act on it. New Look were hoping that people would buy the sandals; the cafe wants to sell breakfasts and they probably will. Only the most severe of Trussites would punish errors by withholding their business.
If you want to check that your writing is clear, pass it to someone else to read out loud; if they trip over the words, then it needs more work. BBC newsreaders say they can read anything, live with no rehearsal, as long as it's been punctuated correctly.

For me, getting it right it not about the writer and his or her ego, their past education, their concerns about where they fit into the class system, authenticity or any of the other excuses I've heard. It's about being considerate, kind and polite.

It's like deciding whether or not to use the indicators when you're driving or sticking your arms out when you're cycling. It's making your intentions clear to others so that they can make a decision based on what you are telling them. If you can't be bothered to give clear signals, whether they are hands, flashing lights or semi-colons, then you are being inconsiderate. If you're misunderstood it's your own silly fault.

Life's too short to waste time explaining yourself twice. Once is bad enough.
If you'd like to check the guidelines go for the Penguin Writer's Manual. It's small, light, cheap and easy to read. It sheds light where there is darkness.

Incidentally, Word's built in grammar checker quite often gets it wrong.

If you'd like to come to one of our workshops, get in touch.
If you'd like us to run one at your organisation, same applies.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Writing workshops coming up. Want to come too?
We'll be at the Swedenborg Society in Bloomsbury on 25th September, 23rd October and 20th November, Fridays all.
Do say if you'd like to come along. (They're extraordinarily good value, full of practical and inspiring ways to keep you writing even on your blank paper days, and make you even better at it.
We also have very good biscuits.
We'll be in a fascinating setting with equally fascinating people and you'll bounce out at the end of the session full of good ideas.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

On perfume. (It’s not Tuesday, I know, but I was busy.)

The word inspiration also means breathing in...

When I was a kid, women had one bottle of perfume and wore it on special occasions. You put it on after your best clothes and your earrings. You dabbed it on occasionally until it had turned into something that looked lovely but smelled a bit like vinegar. (We didn't know in those days that scent deteriorated in daylight so our mums would take it out of the packaging and stand it on their dressing tables to impress visitors.)

My mother had one bottle of Chanel No.5 that my French pen-friend's family had given me to bring back to Geordieland for her. It was massive. There is stood on the modernist dressing table, decomposing nicely until it smelled foul, but as we didn't know what Chanel No. 5 was supposed to smell like, she wore it anyway.

For an ordinary Sunday tea with friends or coffee at a smart cafe, you'd wear Avon or Lentheric that someone had got you for your birthday.

When I was 16 I bought my first bottle of proper scent. We were in Dundee, at a department store; we were holiday nearby. I'd just sat my exams and was about to go into sixth form, sufficiently grown up, I'd decided, to wear a beautiful fragrance. I'd saved up; I had cash. Looking back, I appreciate that the saleswoman was very kind to me. (Since then, I've met some apallingly snooty scent sellers.) She enjoyed my excitement and treated me like an adult with opinions of my own. She let me try several scents, gradually finding out what it was that appealed to me and finally took out her Diorella tester.
"I think you'll like this," she said, "It smells to me of overripe peaches." She was right, super-right, more right than I'd imagined possible. She had found me the most overwhelmingly gorgeous scent. It was simply the most beautiful smell that had ever wound its way to my olfactory nerve endings. I wanted to jump into its fragrant cloud and inhale forever. I was totally faithful to it for four years.

After that I was seduced by Chanel Cristalle, Yves Saint Laurent's Champagne (which was surpressed by France's Champagne producers then reappeared years later as Ivresse). Guerlain's Eau de Fleurs de Cedrat distracted me for a while then I dabbled in sundry citruses.
Decades after I found my partner perfume, I went searching for another. I have many fragrant friends, including the one and only bottle of Lynx Sarah McCartney - really - but I found the liquid love of my adult life in Paris, on another quest, at a small shop that my husband found for me. He tells me he doesn't regret it.

Editions de Parfum Frederic Malle is an interesting place. The chap himself invited the world's top perfumers to create any scent they wanted to, with no restriction on cost. Natural materials vary between £5 and £2000 a kilo. Synthetics are cheaper and that's what you get in most of the 21st Century scents you'll be attacked with as you cross the threshhold of a department store perfumery.

There we were in the small, dark, intensely modern shop. To smell the scents, you sniff a column of pure, fresh air perfumed only with the fragrance of your choice. You smell the effect you will have as you waft by. Once you've sniffed, the chamber is whooshed clear, ready for you to smell the next one. Just like my first time, the assistant asked me to describe the scents I usually like and I told her that I wanted one that reminded me of red berries. She filled the tube with Lipstick Rose and I fell for it instantly. Now, I carry it with me everywhere in a small, black metal tube and sometimes I allow other people a bit of a squirt if they ask very nicely. Their Dans tes Bras perfume reminds me of the way I used to smell at the end of a day at the beach: sea water, suntan lotion, skin, damp sand, sunsets, happiness. I'm very fond of that one too.

I still dabble, notably at B Never Too Busy to be Beautiful, where the stunning scents (also made with no limit on materials costs) are the best value for money that you will find in the world of fine perfumery. I love Superword Unknown and Two Hearts Beating as One. L'Artisan Parfumeur has several that I love, including Bois Farine ("Biscuits!" said my goddaughter, Bella) and Vanilia.

The thing about scent is that is it evocative, hard-hitting in an intensely emotional way. The nerve endings for our sense of smell are unprotected from the big wide world, unlike touch where skin is a barrier between the stimulus and the brain, so it deadens the feeling. The place we first detect a smell is close to the emotional centre of our brains so we are vulnerable to the effect of a stray smell that takes us inawares.

Find a scent that makes you smile, lifts you up and takes you to a pleasant place and you'll have yourself an emotional time-travel machine, an instantly intoxicating, inspiring tool. Dab, inhale, wait, create. I think I'll just have myself a quick helping of Lipstick Rose as I settle down to write. That should last me the morning.

Footnote: the film
Seek out a copy of Jasminum, a Polish film about perfume, love and other things. Ignore the badly translated subtitles and use them as a means to indicate what the characters really meant to say. I'm waiting for someone to watch it and bring out a Bird Cherry fragrance.

Footnote 2: the shops
Buying scent is not everyone's idea of fun. If you'd like me to help you, email and I shall. Really. First stop is Liberty, London W1 and head for the Frederic Malle collection on the ground floor. Say hello to Peggy and Albertino and tell them I scent you. Liberty's perfume collection is marvellous, but the service is unpredictable and you do need help. You might find a helpful, knowledgeable chap, but you might not. Ormonde Jayne in the orange Georgian arcade off Bond Street is just lovely too. Department stores are difficult. People are there to sell their particular brand not help you in your quest. The Arabian perfume shop opposite Selfridges on Oxford Street is an experience, and their scents are beautiful too. When you're in Paris, go to Detaille, Rue St. Lazarre. In New York, you want Bond No. 9.

Footnote 3: I mean it about helping you out. When you find the scent you were born to wear there will always be a beautiful place you can go to cheer yourself up, rain or shine. Now that I've found mine, my quest is to help the rest of the world find theirs.

PS By the way, I recently rediscovered Diorella. Although it's slightly different from decades ago (they reformulate now and again) it's still marvellous and makes me feel as though I've just passed all my O levels and my life is just beginning.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

A generous piece of Lush soap... the first person who can tell me where you can find these little men holding up the handrail on a staircase.
Aren't they magnificent?
It's astonishing the number of people who walk by them every day and have absolutely no idea that they are there. We need these beautiful things to make city life entertaining, don't you think. My friend Benoit once sprayed Parisien pavement bollards pink, got arrested, then got released because there is no law in France to say that you can't make the street furniture pink if you so wish. Allez la France!
I'm not advocating vandalism. I am encouraging public art; I'm definitely advocating noticing the trouble that people have gone to to make our urban environment inspiring. This weekend, engage your inner observer; notice something for the first time. Let me know what it is.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

At the Proms

On Sunday night, we were at the Albert Hall to see a Promenade concert with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. We got some Beethoven (4th Symphony - which I'd heard before but couldn't remember). First there was a very modern piece which used three sets of timpani and the biggest collection of percussion I've ever seen, plus two harps which you couldn't hear for the percussion. Fun to watch though. You could observe the action while listening to the sounds, and let your mind wander off to the music and see where it took you. It sounded like a film score, passing through a ghost story, science fiction, a bit of 1950s black and white cowboy film (the bit where they're parched with thirst in the desert) ending with some huge explosions as the goodies triumph in the end. During the interval, we compared notes, and we'd all pictured the same things: Nick, who doesn't normally listen to orchestral music, Alex, (18) who's got a place at the Guildhall and performs classical music, and me, who got grade 8 clarinet in 1978 and was brought up on the stuff.

After the interval we got Berlioz' Te Deum. The choir had at least 300 people in it. 100 boys, 100 men and 100 women that I could count and I couldn't see them all. We'd a huge orchestra, four each of the woodwinds, five horns and trombones, two tubas, four(+?) trumpets, a row of side drums and one of cymbals. Watching the cymbal players was fantastic. Once every 15 minutes or so there'd be a couple of huge crashes, then the four of them would sit down again, carefully placing their kit into their custom-made stands. The trick was to spot out of the corner of your eye when they stood up, when they lifted the cymbals out, lined them up, then wallop!

At the back was a bloke with a substantial stomach who sat perfectly still for at least 40 minutes, then started to twiddle with his cufflinks. Then he opened his book and finally stood to sing. A wonderful tenor voice wafted around this huge space.

The best bit was the loudest; call me crass, but I'm standing by my claim; if you go to hear Berlioz, you want noise. The Bertie Hall organ is not to be messed with. We were way, way up, so high that if we lobbed a peanut off the circle it would take a good few seconds to hit the promenaders on the floor below. When the organ crashed out a huge chord, from bass pipes so massive you couldn't wrap your arms round them, and all 300 voices, basses to trebles, hit their notes, I burst into tears. I always do.

I count things. I think that there were around 3000 people in the audience (400 or so were the choir's mums, dads, brothers and sisters), but there were still some spare seats. I've not been to a Prom for years and yet it's only a 20 tube ride from my house. It's the biggest orchestral music event in the world, it's on my doorstep, each concert is wonderful. Yet along with another several million Londoners I don't shift myself off my office chair to go there often enough. The Albert Hall is glorious in its Victorian opulence, with its red and gold garments and its curiously intimate feel for such a vast space. Human civilisation started in the mud and several billions of years later it comes together in a round hall in SW1. The choir was singing to the glory of God, but for me this was the glory of the Big Bang and aeons of evolution.

Why don't we go? Well, because we've seen the Last Night of the Proms on television, all union flags and prats jumping up and down to Rule Britannia so we think it's for the white middle classes. Or we think it'll be sold out, or we think it's expensive. It's none of those things. We paid £11 each to sit down and Alex stood in the second row from the front for a fiver last Tuesday. It's less than the cinema. You can listen, you can watch, you can panic a bit when the organ player starts to flip his score backwards and forwards and you think he's lost his place! In front of me there were a couple of young teenage boys I bet had never been to a classical concert before; they'd come to watch their brother in the choir. At the very, very end of the final applause, when the choirmasters had been on and off three times and the tenor had been on and off twice, and the conductor finally left the stage and indicated that her orchestra could pack up, one of them clapped and clapped until he was sure he was the absolute last one. I leaned forward.
"You won," I said to him.
"I know!" he said delighted, "I was trying hard."

Which is why everyone should grab the chance to get down there. It'll fill you to bursting with things you've never felt before. It made me want to spring the Symphony 1010 clarinet from its case, make red and gold clothing for winter and unpack the spare speakers so I can have music in my office. Even if it just inspires you to be the last man clapping, don't miss it.