This book would not have come into existence without the help of some very lovely and kind people. Many thanks firstly to my agent Gordon Wise at Curtis Brown and Hannah Black at Hodder, for their wisdom and patience in guiding me through the process and for the encouragement to accept the task to write a book. And most importantly, for the laughs along the way.
Also thanks to Rowena Webb and all at Hodder for their support and generally being a wonderful bunch. Would any other publishing house gallop a mile for Sport Relief in my honour I wonder?
My Mum and Dad deserve a big thank you for allowing me to treat their house like a hotel and putting up with me regressing to a teenage like state when I retreated homeward to get the book written.
And finally, for their advice, comment and input Rose Heiney, Paul Powell, and my sister Alice, who remains patiently at the end of the phone to be asked the constant question ‘Is this funny?’ for anything I do.
Right, that’s enough about you all, back to me and my book . . .
Life, eh . . .?
My Dear Reader Chum, a very hearty hello to you. What an honour and privilege it is to have you perusing my written word. It is nothing short of tremendous to have you to chat to and, I hope, now that we’re on sentence three, you are sitting comfortably. Or maybe you’re lying. Lying, perhaps, on a beach, or snuggled in your bed; perhaps you’ve constructed a small fort out of cushions, in which case I applaud you. Or maybe you’ve thrown caution to the wind, and you’re lying on the bookshop floor having a little breather (if that’s the case, I’m not being rude, but you’re a bit weird). Maybe you’re standing on a commuter train, using this book as a filter between you and a repellent armpit. If so, I’m terribly sorry. That’s no way to start the day, is it? Face in a pit. Commuter trains are the only place you’d not question standing what in any other social scenario would be freakishly and embarrassingly close to a friend, let alone a stranger. But, I welcome all readers standing. Maybe there are others kneeling? Perhaps you’re in church; maybe you’re at a wedding, with this book tucked surreptitiously into the Order of Service.
Whatever position you find yourself in, I hope you are ensconced and comfortable, for we are – can you believe it? – already on our second paragraph, and well in to this little literary journey together. Should you wish to continue, I suggest that you take this opportunity to arm yourself with a cup of tea and a biscuit, or a bucket of cappuccino and a bollard-sized muffin, or a nourishing soup or, if you’re so inclined, just break all the rules and grab yourself a full-on roast. For we’ve got a book, yes, a whole book, to romp through together, and I wouldn’t want you going hungry as we begin a-romping (now stop it, cheeky: you’re making up your own jokes).
What I’d most like to say up front and with all the love that I can muster is that you are very welcome indeed. Whoever you are, however you’ve chosen to arrange yourself, and whatever snack you’ve selected, I clasp you firmly to my writerly bosom. Let there be no confusion about that. You are a much-loved guest in my storybook castle. I applaud you for choosing – and I say this with absolutely no impartiality or objectivity of any kind – such a marvellous book. Of all the books on the shelf, just look what you’ve gone and bought. Give yourself a round of applause, even if you’re in public. I dare you. Actually I tell you what, as this would make me very happy: if you’re in public and see someone else reading this book, why don’t you applaud each other? What a lovely moment that would be. I advocate that as much as I advocate adults galloping, or people randomly wandering into an optician to try on the most unflattering and amusing glasses for no good reason. It’s what I call ‘making your own fun’. Because you have to, really, don’t you? As, let’s face it; life does have a tendency to throw up difficulties, depressions, moments of boredom, loneliness or grind. I don’t know. Life, eh?
‘Life, eh?’ It’s a phrase I’ve heard myself and others say over the years, many times. It’s often only just audible, thrown away over a sigh, or comes at the end of a laugh. A phrase, or tic, or jerk, or (and I beg your pardon) ejaculation reserved for significant moments. Times when you just can’t put into words the emotions and happenings of this weird and wonderful journey of existence. I recently said it on holiday with my friend, Nicky, looking out at a sunset over the sea, when she and I realised we’d known each other ten years to the week. We looked back at all we had wanted then, and all we had achieved. It was a lovely moment, and I heard myself punctuating the conversation with, ‘Life, eh?’ When my little sister had a daughter, we sat with my newborn niece in our parent’s garden, where she and I had often sat as young girls thirty years before. We said together, wistfully, ‘Life, eh?’ It says everything without having to say anything: that we all experience moments of joyful or painful reflection, sometimes alone, sometimes sharing laughs and tears with others; that we all know and appreciate that however wonderful and precious life is, it can equally be a terribly confusing and mysterious beast. ‘Life, eh?’
Those kinds of moments – the big ones, the meaty ones, the births, the deaths, the reminiscences – I can handle. Those kinds of moments I enjoy or endure, much as we all do. There’s usually a sort of road map for them. Traditions. Procedure. But . . . where I feel alone and unprepared is with the less serious but undeniably discombobulating and embarrassing hiccups, nuances and foibles of just . . . being a person.
Let me furnish you with a recent example: has anyone else, whilst negotiating a slippery prawn in a smart restaurant, catapulted said prawn over their shoulder so it hit their next-door diner in the eye? Now it is, of course, at times like this that one should remain very serious. Stand. Go over. Perhaps say to the poor lady, ‘Are you alright? I’m terribly sorry. Could I get you another coffee?’ (the prawn landed in her cappuccino and sank delicately through the foam), and generally make all the right social noises. But in that sort of situation, I get stuck in a helpless state of giggles and can’t communicate at all. I couldn’t help it: it was the noise of the prawn when it whacked her in the eye. A sort of dull splat. Of course I exploded into giggles and called her a bit of a name: Mrs Prawn Eye, to be precise. And to her face. Which didn’t help. Nor did my trying to make her see the funny side by saying, ‘I wouldn’t drink that coffee, it looks a bit fishy, ha ha.’
Her stern look would normally have warned me off, but on seeing a prawn whisker on her lash, again there was nothing to do but laugh.
So, I changed tack and regrettably, as sometimes happens, embarrassment tipped me into rage directed at the unfortunate waiter: ‘Excuse me, good sir. Thank you very much, to you. Now can I just say, on behalf of both myself and poor Mrs Prawn Eye – nay, Whisker Lash, here – that if I order prawns I want them ready to put straight into my mouth, yes? Why should I have to remove the inedible bits and do all the prawn-administration, the “prawn-min”, if you will? What’s that you say? “It’s all part and parcel of eating prawns?” Well, I tell you this, good sir, thank you to you: I quite firmly believe that any activity that is messy enough for a restaurant to provide me with a finger bowl should be carried out by the kitchen staff. Sorry, could you come back, please? What? No, I won’t leave. I’ve paid for these prawns and I’m damned well going to finish them. No, YOU calm down.’
I’m sure you can imagine how the rest of the evening panned out (if you can’t, it involved a security guard, ten minutes hiding behind a wheelie-bin, and an illegally sourced chicken korma). In the grand scheme of things, I can see this experience is not so huge, but in the moment it feels like the toughest thing one will ever experience. I suppose what I’m trying to say is does anyone else have trouble negotiating these sorts of life hiccups: smart restaurants and all the accompanying etiquette or . . . is it just me?
Worse still, is it just me or has anyone else been on a date, thought it was going quite well, gone to the loo to have a breather, looked in the mirror and said, ‘Not too shabby, missus,’ then walked confidently back to the dining area not realising that loo roll was unwinding behind you from where it’s stuck in the back of your tights and swirling over other diners’ heads, adorning the restaurant like a streamer? Then wondered, how on earth does one deal with this?
Where’s the flipping guidebook? There are thousands of years of writing devoted to dealing with birth, death, ageing, love and the meaning of it all; but absolutely nothing to tell me how to handle the indignity of briefly turning oneself into a human party popper, to the immediate detriment of one’s romantic prospects.
Yes, hello? Who’s rudely interrupting my tome, please?
It’s me. Me. Your eighteen-year-old self, Miranda. Don’t you recognise me? Six feet tall, thin as a rail, school-issue straw boater, one red, one green sock, and a lacrosse stick slung over my shoulder?
Oh, well, hello. My dear gangly young self. How absolutely lovely to see you in all your Mallory Towers finery. Why, I was just –
This isn’t a social call.
I’m just a bit freaked right now, as I don’t particularly like the way you’re talking, actually . . .
I think I’m talking jolly good sense, thank you very much.
No, you’re not. So ner. For starters, you’re saying we went on a date and got loo roll stuck in our pants. Please say that’s not true . . . please . . .
Of course it’s not true. (It’s true, reader, true.)
PHEW. Because talk about total mortificato; I mean, I might as well just give up . . .
OK, let’s drop it now . . .
No, but seriously, massivo dweeb alert.
And telling people in a book – not that many people will read this rubbish.
Rude. Can you leave, please?
One mo-mo. You’re basically saying life is a series of embarrassing moments which leave you feeling alone in your confusion and shame. I am not sure I like that.
Well, I’m hoping that by sharing our discomfort with the way life sometimes goes, others will relate to us and we’ll all feel a little bit less alone.
OK, but please DON’T tell anyone that in Maths yesterday when Mr Beckett asked me to define Pi I said, ‘It depends on the filling.’
I think you’ll find you’ve just told them.
Oh . . . bog off.
You bog off.
Consider me bogged . . . *runs away embarrassed, trips over a lacrosse boot and falls into a laundry basket* Meant to do that.
Sorry about her, where were we? Oh yes, messing up romantic prospects . . . Has anyone else ever drunkenly addressed a post box as ‘darling’, certain that it was their stout, red-jumper-clad then-boyfriend? And gone in for a kiss, fully embracing the post box? The real boyfriend was ten feet away, silently looking on at this crazy woman and her post box cuddling antics. Are these – the loo roll, the prawn and, worryingly, many more besides – common occurrences or, well . . . is it just me?
This is the nub of life, isn’t it, dear reader? (Good word, ‘nub’. Say it loud, say it proud; wherever you are, one, two, three . . . NUB. Lovely, very satisfying.) Yes, the nub of life is surely negotiating and avoiding idiocy. Doing your best to hit the pillow at night without, for once, having to go over the day in your head for its one excruciating moment. Last night, I lay on my bed in what I can only describe as my ‘foetal-cringe-ball’ position, as I re-lived my opening gambit to an important man at a formal work do.
I’ll set the scene: a drinks party. I am standing in a group of people I feel relatively comfortable with, no drink has been spilt, I am conversationally fluent, no nibble has landed on clothing causing an embarrassing stain: so far so good. Then my agent comes over to introduce me to an important head honcho who is apparently keen to meet and perhaps work with me. Clearly a risk taker.
AGENT: Miranda, this is Bob.
BOB: Hello Miranda, very nice to meet you.
ME: You too.
I go in for the handshake. He goes in for the kiss. But don’t worry; as he leans in I quickly move my hand before it ends up anywhere inappropriate. I further save the moment by aiming for the correct side of the cheek for the kiss, avoiding that, ‘Oh, we nearly snogged, ha ha’ hideousness. Tick, well done me.
But then here it comes, the hateful post-introductory conversational hiatus. Who’s going to start the formalities and break the ice? Surely my agent will say something? I start to panic: it’s me, I’ve got to say something. Quick.
‘So, Bob . . . how do you pronounce ‘Bob’?’
‘Ummm . . . Bob,’ said Bob, looking perplexed.
‘Right, good, no, I thought so, I just . . . good.’
My agent has never stared at anyone with such disappointment. Bob looks confused, very confused . . . And, of course, I’ve created another conversational pause. We’re back where we started.
My agent quickly says, ‘Bob has just come back from Australia.’ Brilliant save, now we can all say, ‘Oooh, lovely,’ and ask inane questions about his trip, bore ourselves silly with small talk and feel socially comfortable.
So there I am on my bed in foetal-cringe-ball position replaying: ‘HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE BOB?’ ‘HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE BOB?’ It wasn’t even as though it was written down to have to ask; somebody had already introduced him as ‘Bob’: that’s how you pronounce it. But even if it WAS written down, it’s Bob. B. O. B. How could you possibly and in any conceivable way mispronounce BOB? ‘HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE BOB?’
When I was eighteen I was certain that it was just me who regularly came a cropper in life. Any little embarrassment I’d quickly cover up, so as to convince people that I wasn’t really ‘that idiot’. Do a little trip in the street on a jagged bit of pavement, and before anyone could laugh and point the finger, I’d quickly turn it into: ‘Actually, I meant to do that. I’m practising for the triple jump. Olympic triple jump.’ Then follow it with a demonstration. I might even do another triple jump demonstration after a minute or so, to prove it really wasn’t a trip. I was quite the triple jumper, with Olympic ambitions, and practise I must.
I was certain – absolutely certain – that everyone else just breezed through life. For example, I’d walk past a neighbour’s BBQ, hear the familiar, jolly, incoherent hum of a social occasion from afar and hope that someone at that event had sat down to eat a sausage bap and felt the chair sinking into the lawn. Is it just me that regularly experiences the sinking-chair-into-grass scenario? Always awkward. You hope people don’t notice but you invariably slip so far down, and at such an angle, that the chair often tips you up on the lawn as if to say, ‘Don’t sit on me, fatty.’ Rude al fresco chairs.
The trouble was that if at the age of eighteen I had braved the BBQ, I wouldn’t have seen others failing, stumbling, muddling through. I never did. I just looked on with envy, miserable in the assumption that everyone else was happy and uninhibited. That everyone else wanted to be there, and anticipated absolutely no awkwardness with the experience. I would never have imagined that anyone else was harbouring that most devastating secret of all: that they felt a bit self-conscious, and just wanted to be at home watching telly in their pants.
Then, there was the joyous moment in my teenage years when I saw the film Dirty Dancing for the first time, and witnessed the initial meeting of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. If you don’t know the scene I’m about to refer to, then you must watch the film, but for now let me explain. Jennifer Grey’s opening gambit, in a brief conversational pause when she is totally over-awed by Patrick Swayze’s handsomeness, is: ‘I carried a watermelon,’ whilst no longer in possession of it. The Swayz didn’t know that she’d been carrying one, so telling him she carried a watermelon was possibly the weirdest thing she could have said. ‘Yes’ I thought. ‘There’s another idiot. It’s me and Jennifer Grey versus the world.’
That’s why I love watching You’ve Been Framed. Not because it’s the funniest programme on television ever (which it is, closely followed by The Planet’s Funniest Animals – cat falling in a loo, anyone?), but because I secretly play You’ve Been Framed bingo. If I’ve done five of the things on the programme that night, Bingo, and reward with a glass of wine.
I remember in my teenage years thinking, ‘I wish I could do things in life my way.’ I wished I could negotiate the intricacies of this life with a confidence that meant I could subvert conventions, break the rules and get rid of the need to be ‘acceptable’, which had been stamped on me by my very British upbringing. But a maverick I wasn’t.
At eighteen I thought, ‘Never mind. I shouldn’t worry that Jennifer Grey and I are the only idiots in the world.’ Because hope told me that as I got older I would gain the elegance and confidence to breeze over the speed bumps of life in my own special style. But the fact is (and thank heavens that eighteen-year-old Miranda isn’t around to hear this), I am still an idiot. Life still throws up an almost daily, certainly weekly, moment that seems impossible to navigate with grace. I might deal with it better these days . . . The other day, for example, in a café, I leaned forwards to push my chair back before getting up and the inevitable occurred. A really quite significant fart. But I didn’t cover it up: I admitted it, I laughed it off. I coped. We’ve all done it, right? It’s the pushing back motion of the chair, with the slight bend in the leaning forwards . . .? We’ve all done it, yes? Reader? Hello? Moving on . . .
I also used to think that fame might bring confidence. ‘Perhaps fame’s the ticket to freedom,’ I thought: any weird or wrong moments could just be passed off as part of your eccentric famous persona, and thus be beyond judgement. ‘What’s that? Miranda’s got her head in the bin and can’t get it out again? Oh, well. That’s famous people for you. Probably some sort of meditation technique she picked up from Sting.’ You can be whatever you want to be when you are famous, can’t you?
What I’d say to Little Miranda – lying in her dormitory at her all-girls boarding school, dreaming of the bright lights – I’d say, firstly, I am now a tiny weeny bit famous. I know: life, eh? But I also feel duty-bound to say that fame doesn’t bring you freedom from self-consciousness: not a bit of it. Quite the opposite. Recently, I was checking in at an airport and was asked to put my hand luggage in what I elegantly refer to as the ‘hand-luggage-size-measurer-does-your-bag-fit-in-here-hole-cage-bracket-prison’ thing. My bag was a touch on the large side, but it fit; well, more or less. The woman in charge of the desk, a creature so dollishly well-put-together that her only career options must have been ‘air hostess’ or ‘Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds’ said, in her most cloying, annoying, sibilant hiss, ‘No, sorry, it has to fit fully in. All the way, please.’ So I did as any mildly offended Englishwoman would have done under the circumstances, and gave my bag a defiant shove. It now fit very nicely – too nicely. It was stuck. My hand luggage was stuck in the ‘hand-luggage-size-measurer-does-your-bag-fit-in-here-hole-cage-bracket-prison’ thing. I asked a burly stranger – always my first port of call – to give it a yank. He did so, and the bracket fell over with a clatter. I was now, officially, ‘causing a kerfuffle’. (Great word, kerfuffle – it keeps on giving. Almost worth causing one just so you can use it.) Then, the thing happened: the ‘getting recognised’ thing. All of a sudden, I wasn’t just a bolshy lady accidentally making a fuss – I was Miranda off the telly making a fuss. A small crowd gathered, then a larger crowd and, before I knew it, my shame was being held up before a gang of tittering holidaymakers, all muttering things like: ‘Is it?’ and ‘Who’s she?’ or ‘Is she the one who –?’ with ‘No, it’s not, is it?’ and ‘Was she on Grand Designs?’ followed by ‘Doesn’t she look cross?’ and ‘I hope her trousers fall down. I think they might be about to fall down.’ A phone was whipped out. I feared becoming a YouTube sensation, one of the day’s ‘Top Hits’ alongside a video of a fat panda eating a Yorkie bar. Far from easing the pain, the tiniest bit of well-known-ness only magnifies it. You shift from curiosity to accidental freak show.
*eighteen-year-old Miranda charges in, panting, in a green pleated skirt and fetching Aertex shirt* Hiya. What have I missed? What have you been talking about?
Oh, hello you. Aren’t you meant to be playing lacrosse or something?
Nope. Match got rained off.
It didn’t, though, did it? You actually got sent off for putting sweets and cigarettes on the half-time plate instead of oranges.
Who wants an orange when there are Wham bars in the world? So, what’s been going on?
I’ve been continuing to explain to my lovely reader that I’ve often found life rather . . . tricky. As you know, we’re a bit awkward, aren’t we?
Yeah. But don’t worry, we’re going to grow out of that by the time we’re twenty-eight. Life will be sorted by then. I’ll be nearly thirty. That’s REALLY old. By the time I am twenty-eight, I’ll have the love and support of a confident husband, achieved my career goals and be poised for a graceful old age. Hang on, why are you laughing?
Well, it’s not going to be quite like that. It’s still going to be interesting and jolly good, just . . . bumpier. A bit bumpier.
And may I also point out that thirty is very young. Very young, indeed. As indeed is thirty-eight, which I happen to be. In fact, I would say thirty-eight is probably the age when a woman is only just reaching her *lowers voice* sexual *normal voice* prime.
Urh, urh, urh.
Moving on. I have a hunch that life is a bit bumpy, not just for us, but for everyone, so I’ve been sharing our little foibles with my dear reader. I told them about Jennifer Grey carrying the watermelon, and how much we loved that –
We LOVED that.
Exactly. It made us feel that we weren’t alone. And I’m hoping that maybe this book can serve the same purpose. Can help someone feel that they’re not the only one who always sweats the small stuff.
Yeah. That would be quite a cool thing to do.
*getting a bit grand, politician-style* Maybe, just maybe, this book can be . . . someone’s watermelon. Because *even grander now* life isn’t always about the big things, but the little things. The little things we encounter over the years that go to make up the big part of life –
Now you’ve gone too far. You’ve ruined it.
Soz. But I hope that it’ll give you, eighteen-year-old-Miranda, a glimpse of what’s to come. A few pointers because, just to warn you, life might take some unexpected twists and turns.
So, I have chosen eighteen vital subjects to reflect upon: one for each year of your life so far – I know, clever, isn’t it? We weren’t given a rulebook at birth about this whole how-to-manage-life business (there really should be some kind of manual, methinks), but I can at least show you what I’ve learned since childhood. Call it your own personal Miran-ual. Ooh, don’t you love that? A Miran-ual. I am very pleased with that.
But come on – Miran-ual.
Yes, all right. Now, I’ve gotta dash. Me, Bella and Clare-Bear are watching The Breakfast Club in the common room. For the thousandth time. Don’t you just love it? ‘Eat. My. Shorts.’
It’s a quote from The Breakfast Club, you dweeb. Bella’s got a new Swatch watch just like one Molly Ringwald wears. She’ll be showing it off. Bella’s so annoying. Laters. *vanishes*
Bye, Little Miranda.
So, My Dear Reader Chum, whoever you are . . . Whether you are a bit famous or not famous, young or old, tall or short, dark or fair, beanpole or Rubenesque, soprano, alto, tenor or bass – I am hoping you might relate to my tales, rants and musings. I’m hoping it’s not just me. So, let us for now park life’s big issues. You may say to me, ‘But, Miranda, each of your chosen subjects is an innocuous, trouble-free issue – there’s surely nothing to discuss?’ Well, I will say to you this: there is many a muddy, murky, lurk behind my carefully chosen chapter headings. Let’s forget the economy, forget war, forget births and deaths and big, deep, serious gubbins. Let’s buckle down to the nuance-y nub of life on our literary romp. I’m talking the different stages we go through in life. I’m talking dating; I’m talking holidays and all that blooming beach etiquette. I’m talking how to cope with being mistaken for a pregnant lady on the bus when all you’re really carrying is a second-helping-of-pie-and-mash baby. Not that that has ever happened to me. (It has.) I’m talking not feeling awkward having a massage; I’m talking how to use chopsticks with grace. The real coalface of life.
I’m not sure I’ll have all the answers to these conundrums (or is it conundra?). But I’m practically an expert having made every mistake going, and it will be a pleasure simply to get these weighty issues off my chest. (Or issues off my weighty chest. Either works.)
Now, let’s enjoy a brief fanfare, drum roll, excited cheer and a replenished cup of tea or second roast dinner as we turn the page, proceed to chapter two, and confront head-on our first issue . . . MUSIC.
Now, are you settled? Lovely. For it is time you and I have a little chat on the subject of Music. You may be wondering, My Dear Reader Chum – actually, hold on, this is going to get a bit cumbersome as we proceed, My Dear Reader Chum, isn’t it? How about an abbreviation; how about I call you ‘MDRC’? OK with you? Good. So, whenever you read the letters MDRC, in that order, please know that you, My Dear Reader Chum, are being directly addressed with all the love and affection that you deserve.
So, MDRC, I don’t know whether you’re a ‘muso’? Have you always had an ear for the latest sounds? (a ponytailed Status Quo fan would ask, ‘Are you down with the rhythm?’). Are you in your late thirties or beyond, and still aware of what the current Number 1 is? Can you really be that age and stick with Radio 1 and not be drawn solely to Radio 4; or if when feeling ‘a little bit groovy’, Radio 2? Do you actively seek out new bands, or perhaps collect vintage vinyl, whilst keeping cheerfully abreast of the mainstream? If so, I applaud you; because ever since I can remember, I have always wanted to be . . . well, you. You literally and figuratively rock.
I love music, I do, but for some reason I have never really found my groove. Forgot to pay it enough attention, I suppose. And now – and I do hope this isn’t just me – I could blithely walk past most of the world’s pop stars and have absolutely no idea who they are. Though I might assume that any boy aged around sixteen with very, very neat, blown-forward, invisibly gelled hair was some kind of pop force to be reckoned with. What is it with the hair-brushed-forwards-over-forehead-and-cheeks thing? Have you chaps got cheek shame? Or is that where you keep your sweets? Are you hiding something? And if not, why would you choose to have hat hair? Confusing.
I imagine that by now you don’t need much more convincing that I’m old before my time as regards the world of music. And, I confess, this never-finding-my-music groove has led to some awkward social hiccups. Recently, I found myself at a party, and an on-trend muso type approached me. (This was confusing enough.)
‘I really like this DJ,’ he said.
Confidently, I replied, ‘Yup, oh, tremendous. He has some smashing beats.’
‘Do you know Kanye West?’ he went on.
‘Oh, isn’t that near Cockfosters?’
‘Kanye West – I think it’s on the Piccadilly Line. Would you like a tube map?’
‘No,’ said terrifyingly trendy man with a mix of bewilderment and pity. ‘Kanye West – the musician.’
‘Oh, of course, the musician. What am I like?’ (By now I’m nervously doing my over-the-top laughing.) ‘I thought you were looking for a tube stop.’
I hoped this might be endearing until I remembered that my over-the-top laughter to disguise feeling at sea at a social event makes me look like a cross between a horse, a goldfish and Princess Anne. (No offence, ma’am, your good sir-ladyship – well, she is bound to be reading.)
Strangely, the young man scurried away, pronto.
I then got myself terribly muddled in a conversation about Tinchy Stryder. I’d always assumed – and I have a horrible feeling this will just be me – that Tinchy Stryder was some sort of toddler’s walking boot. Come on, don’t laugh, be fair; it does sound a bit like it might be one. So when my friend’s new ‘I’ve achieved everything at twenty-five’ manager said, ‘I really like Tinchy Stryder,’ I said, ‘Oh, yes, lovely – how old are your children?’ Which, of course, would have come across as a totally random segue. Bemused by her scary, blank face, I blindly continued, ‘Are they good for kids’ feet?’ An equally confusing statement. (For my non-muso readers, Tinchy Stryder is a ‘rap artist’, innit.)
‘Sorry, I’m confused,’ she said. ‘I was talking about Tinchy Stryder.’
‘Yes, me too,’ I replied. ‘I think they must look so cute. Nothing sweeter than a grown-up shoe on a toddler.’ We both stared blankly at one another for a few seconds, before moving slowly off, aware that we’d somehow come a serious conversational cropper. Later, I realised my error and rushed over to her, shouting, ‘Rap artist. Not small walking boot.’ Cue the horse, goldfish, Princess Anne laugh.
I tried to claw back some cool by casually sauntering off saying I was going to listen to Kanye West: ‘Yes, that’s right, I’ll be listening to Kanye West, not getting off at him on the Piccadilly Line.’ Which would, of course, have sounded desperately weird, as she wasn’t privy to my previous Kanye mishap. Every single thing I had said to that professional groovester made me look, at best, crazy. I left it there. The evening could not be salvaged.
With all this embarrassment in mind, I think it only fair that I take a moment to give my younger self her first life lesson. It is time to warn her just how things are going to turn out on the music front. So please, bear with, MDRC.
Dear Eighteen-Year-Old Miranda.
Oh, hello. So you’ve deigned to address me. At last. From your big throne in the sky.
I’m not in the sky. I’m on earth. Like you; just twenty years on in the future. It is a tad confusing, I admit, but it’s hardly The Lord of The Rings.
I just assumed that twenty years into the future I’d be dead. From being so old and dweeby and everything.
I told you, thirty-eight is VERY YOUNG. It still very much falls under the ‘late twenties’ bracket in my literal and metaphorical book. And I am very much alive and thriving, thanking you. Which is lucky for you, because I think it’s time we had a little chat. About music, specifically. From my current vantage-point – twenty years your senior (but still young and fresh), looking fondly back at you and eager to spout a few home truths, I can see that you’re in need of some help.
No, I’m not. I know heaps about music. Actually, I’ve just –
*holds up hand, regally* I’ll stop you there. I know what you’ve just done. You’re going through a brief and, I hate to have to tell you this, wholly unique period of being ‘musically cool’. The reason being you’ve just returned to boarding school after the holidays, carrying a cassette of music by a band (or group, or troupe, or ‘combo’ – to be honest, you’re not entirely sure what you should call them) named Talking Heads.
Yeah, I know. Talking Heads. I love them. Well cool. They’re kind of punk rock . . .
Yes, I know. They were of the New Wave musical style and combine elements of punk rock, avant-garde, pop, funk, world music and art rock.
Well, you sound musically cool. I’m not sure we should be fretting about this.
Ah, no, but you see, I just googled them.
Googled . . .?
Oh, yes . . . Umm, it’s like a library on a laptop . . .
Like a what on a what?
It doesn’t matter; I’ll explain later. You have to admit, you don’t really like Talking Heads, do you?
I do. I really do.
No, you don’t. When cool cousin Steve gave it to you, you had to work very, very hard to summon up even the tiniest bit of enthusiasm for this noisy popular music quartet. And you’re rewarding yourself by swaggering round the dormitory loudly saying things like, ‘Yeah, I’m just gonna put some Talking Heads on, OK? What, you don’t know Talking Heads? I’ll just put the Talking Heads on now.’ You’re saying these things in a confident, nay, arrogant fashion, but deep down you’re hobbled by a sense of fraudulence. Crippled with it. Because in your heart, you know that you’re not a music person.
How dare you? I like LOTS of music. I like T’Pau*sings* ‘China in your haaand . . .’
Please, don’t . . .
And, and, I like . . .
Kylie and Jason? I can’t help but notice there’s a Jason Donovan poster on your wall.
You might briefly think he’s gorgeous, but he’s not musically cutting edge. Admit it, Little Miranda, you know absolutely nothing about music. It’s official: you lack the muso gene.
You are totally rude. And wrong. So stop bugging me.
Well, let’s look at the record (PUN. MDRC, pun. Just saying – at ease). You recently participated in what a newspaper report would describe as a ‘horrifically botched sing-along’.
I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Oh, I think you do. A merry band of sixth-formers were on the bus to a lacrosse match (rock and roll). You were all singing ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’. After a chorus or two, the others became distracted and piped down. You, unaware of this, ploughed on through the chorus, revealing to the assembled crowd that you’d been singing the lyrics as ‘feed the birds’ instead of ‘feed the world’.
Yeah, maybe. That might have happened.
It did happen. And it happened, I think, because you’d got the song muddled up with ‘Feed the Birds’ from Mary Poppins. I mean, think about it: why on earth would Bob Geldof have been getting so het-up about feeding the birds? What birds would he have been talking about? He’s staging a massive campaign, Band Aid, for starving birds? What birds? You should be ashamed of yourself.
All right, fine. Why are you reminding me of all this?
It’s for your own good. I want you to know and accept a certain fact about yourself, Little Miranda. You will never, ever, be a music person. You will forge a strong attachment to three songs by Billy Joel, four or five hit Broadway musicals, one song by Dolly Parton (‘9 to 5’, obviously), one album by ABBA and a sort of jolly thing, which may or may not be by Stevie Wonder. And that’s it. You’ll spend the next two decades listening to those same songs on a loop, and you’ll waste barrels of your time and energy feeling vaguely guilty about this.
No. Negativo. This I will not accept. My whole life is going to be like this moment, this Talking Heads moment at school. I’ll forge a niche as a curator of edgy, interesting music, discovering new bands, perhaps trawling obscure gig venues scouting for talent. I’ll be a John Peel figure. A cowboy. A well-informed musical cowboy with the legs of a goddess.
Oh, bless you. No, that won’t happen. Your musical tastes will fossilise, and your record collection will forever be that of a Berkshire schoolgirl in 1991. Sorry.
But won’t I meet bands at gigs?
You won’t go to gigs.
What? Everyone goes to gigs.
Not you, I’m afraid. Actually, I tell a lie. You will attend the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party at the age of twenty-six.
Twenty-six. But that’s untrendy now. At eighteen.
I know, I know. But, my little one, you will go. At twenty-six. And you’ll have quite a nice time in the brief bits where you’re not worried about being arrested. Not because you’d had any reason to be arrested. But because the presence of a policeman there makes you look and feel guilty. (In fact, MDRC, I usually go red in the presence of a policeman and do a kind of bob and say ‘Evening’, whatever time of the day it is. Why, why does that happen?) I also have to warn you, Little Miranda, that you stick out like a giant in a sea of nine-year-old pop fans at the Poll Winners Party. In fact, at one point, when you stand up to dance in a moment of excitement as the boy band A1 do a rendition of A-Ha, you are tapped on the shoulder by a tiny pre-teenage girl behind you, who asks you to sit down because she can’t see.
But don’t worry, gigs-wise, things aren’t that bad. In your thirties you’ll come very close to booking a ticket to see Michael Ball live.
Who’s Michael Ball? Is he alt rock, post-punk or New Wave?
Um . . . sort of.
But won’t I stalk bands? Won’t I be a groupie? I always thought I’d quite like to be a groupie. That’s very me. Loud, wild parties that go on till dawn. Dancing with leather-clad rockers.
I’m going to have to stop you there. That’s not you. You will be a groupie, just not of musicians. All of your stalker-ish energy will be channelled into the aggressive stage-dooring of comedy actors and actresses. And the odd tennis player. (By the way, Goran Ivanisevic is still not our husband. I KNOW. Don’t worry, there’s time . . .) Maybe if Noel Coward had been around in our twenties and thirties, you would have gone to one of his ‘gigs’. Possibly even bought the tour T-shirt and slipped into his dressing room with a flagon of Pimms. But no. No gigs.
Oh, lots of reasons. Most of them fear-based. Fear of crowds, fear of loud noise, fear of sweat. Fear of a festival. You’ve got to have a muso gene to want to spend four days in mud in June in England. Then there’s fear of ‘cool’. Fear of being coerced into dancing, or of dancing when it’s not appropriate to dance. If you have the muso gene, you can just get up and dance wherever. You can be in a slightly arty café at night, no one else is dancing but there’s a bit of room, you’re feeling it, so you get up and off you go. How can anyone be so liberated and un-British, yet still technically British? Unfathomable.
Big Miranda, please tell me I get better at dancing.
Afraid not. Largely because of the fact that you are going to remain tall. And dancing when you’re as tall as we are goes beyond indignity and strays into the territory of health and safety risk. Once at a wedding, I attempted to ‘mosh’, and I got a bit carried away . . . and . . . well, let’s just say that marquee structure clearly wasn’t stable if me clinging on to one of its poles in a brief moment of misplaced exuberance brought the whole thing down.
Oh, Big Miranda, that’s appalls-balls . . .
Can you not call me ‘Big Miranda’, please? And ‘appalls-balls’ . . .?
‘Appalling’. Bella made it up at school last term. She’s so cool.
Right. Well, yes, it was a bit appalls-balls. But I must say, it was very amusing. Aunts swept off chairs by a marquee ceiling swooping down and forcing them into a flowerbed. Much flailing to escape from the billowing, sail-like covering. A swearing vicar. All the stuff that makes life worth living. But, because you have basically decent manners and dislike being the cause of physical injury in others, you’ll never be truly free on the dance floor.
I’ll never dance?
Oh, you’ll dance. But you’ll settle for ironic dancing, which is really where you just dance the finale of Grease, enthusiastically and badly, to whatever music is playing. Over the years you will dance the finale of Grease to everything from hardcore drum’n’bass (no, I don’t know, either) to the Blue Danube waltz. You’ll become known for it. Ironic dancing is, I think I can confirm, the solution to the dancing problem. It’s all very knowing, you get to have a nice time making fun of your five left feet and your limby-ness, but underneath it all you can actually have a jolly good bop. Terrific.
One thing we do get excellent at as regards dance, and that’s watching it. One of our favourite television programmes in our thirties is focused around the art of ballroom dancing.
Granny alert. Were you born in 1912? What about ‘jamming’? Will I ever turn into the person who whips out a guitar at the end of a party like crazy cousin Steve? Make sweet music?
Oh, come on. Firstly, you’re not the person who can stay awake long enough to see the end of a party. Admit it, even now with your insatiable appetite and the lure of a Penguin you can’t stay awake for a midnight feast. Staying up all night has always been a chore and just gets worse as the years go on. (NB: tips for staying up all night: throw a glass of water in your face, rub ice cubes in your eyes, eat coffee granules, do cola shots and lick a 9-volt battery.)
Secondly, you do not want to be that guitar jamming person. Everyone hates that person. The person in the dirty T-shirt who breaks up the party by dragging out a guitar and performing their innovative, minor-key acoustic version of ‘Eleanor Rigby’. (Please note – cool, crazy cousin Steve can now be found working in Greggs on the Waterlooville High Street.) That’s not how an evening should end. An evening should end at 10.45 p.m. sharp with ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’, enjoyed whilst throwing a few shapes, eating pizza with one hand, before falling over sideways onto a bean bag (simultaneously crushing the person whose rendition of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ you’ve just interrupted).
Oh. Actually, that does sound sort of amaze-balls.
If you mean amazing, it is. It really is. It’s the kind of fun you were born to have. Other people may be born to sit around in smoky rooms listening to Radiohead and not washing their hair for six months because apparently it eventually cleans itself but, for you, music’s not meant to be a downer, a conversation-starter or a status symbol. For you, it’s just a reassuring sugar-rush. A bag of Flumps. A choc-ice. Something to enhance . . . jollity.
‘JOLLITY’? It’s sounding dweeby again.
Embrace your inner music dweeb. For by telling you this, and any readers who might also lack the muso gene, you can learn that jollity is every bit as worthwhile as cool. More so, in fact. You’ll defend jollity until you fall exhausted to the floor. You’ll stop trying to join a club that you weren’t born to be a member of. You’ll stop wondering why dancing to Billy Joel is some kind of guilty pleasure, while an undernourished student smoking a spliff to Pink Floyd is somehow acceptable. It’s one area where you’re able to just be who you are, not caring one jot whether or not your neighbours can hear you singing along to Annie.*sings in an embarrassing American accent* ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrowww . . .’
*whispers* That does sound more me.
We are all about the musical, Little M. Now put down that Guns N’ Roses tape you were about to put on (and pretend to love).
I will. And do you know what I am going to do? There’s still time to go to the music block for Miss Everett’s The Sound of Music auditions . . .
Well done. Go, girl.
Yeah. Because knowing all this, I must be in with a good chance of scooping a lead role.
Right, don’t get your hopes up . . . Hello? She’s gone. Oh, dear. We only get the part of ‘Waltzing Man in Ballroom scene’. I am not bitter. It’s fine. No really, I’m over it . . . (it could have least have been ‘Waltzing Woman’). As I say, over it . . .
As I officially lack the muso gene, music isn’t something I could ever legitimately put down as a hobby. (That is, until the musical genre of ‘cheese’ becomes formally recognised.) In fact, announcing what my hobbies are, whether socially, at interviews or on CVs, has always caused more anxiety than it should have in my life. So MDRC (My Dear Reader Chum, lest you forget), together we embrace our second subject and begin another chapter. Are you with tea or some equally reassuring beverage? My current choice is the drinking chocolate sachet. Just add some boiling water and a-yummy-yum-yum – chocolate in liquid form. In fact I might just replenish. Excuse me, as I sashay up to my sachet. *whistles from kitchen whilst sashaying so you don’t get lonely*
I’m back, and Mr Mug is replenished (occasionally I find it a bit o’ fun to preface an object with a title: please forgive, and back to Miss Book). It’s time for a bracing discussion on the world of hobbies.
You might be thinking – really? What can possibly be said about hobbies? Can they really be included in the list of life’s perils where we might come a cropper and feel all at sea? I am afraid I firmly believe they can.
One of the very worst questions you can ask an adult – over and above, ‘When are you going to do something about your hair?’ and ‘In a typical week, what do you eat?’ – is ‘What are your hobbies?’ What are your hobbies? It should be an easy one. You should be able to spring gratefully forth and say: ‘What are my hobbies? Oh, I’m so glad you asked. I’m actually taking my grade 8 bassoon exam at the weekend; it’s been terribly hard to fit it in around all the rock climbing, and it’s going to be a nightmare getting it and the potter’s wheel into the back of the Volvo, but I must cram it all in before I head off with the choir on a chapel tour of Dieppe. Honestly, I’m a slave to my hobbies. Well, when you’re as thrilled by life as I am, who wouldn’t be?’ At this point, you would shriek with laughter, your flailing arms displacing a beautifully alphabetised archive of graphic novels and a bag of snorkelling equipment.
But, no. Who among us – and please say this isn’t just me – when asked that question, doesn’t simply shrug, stare at their shoes and mumble ‘Uh – cinema?’ Only then they remember that they haven’t actually been to the cinema for eight months, and even then they got the wrong time for the film so just wandered into Nando’s and queued there for half an hour before shuffling home with a chicken wing to watch telly. And, no, telly doesn’t count as a hobby, any more than ‘sleeping’ or ‘washing’ or ‘sitting quietly on cushions’ (unless you claim that ‘sitting quietly on cushions’ is meditation, in which case you’re very sneaky indeed).
There are some people born with certain passions, which they’ve happily and confidently carried forwards into adulthood. I envy them because for me, the question of hobbies is a troubling one. As a child, it was easy. Aged ten, you could unashamedly reel off a list of much-loved recreational activities, all of which you enjoyed regularly, and many of which involved some kind of natty uniform and an elaborate badge system. Cubs, Rainbows, gymnastics, roller-skating, kiddie disco, ballet, swimming, trampolining or, in my case, an unwavering passion for the Brownies (hello, Brown Owl, if you’re reading this). If you were a bit more left field, so much the better. You’d have hobbies that marked you out as an ‘imaginative’ child. These might include: playing horses, being a medieval knight in a turret, playing with trains, being a train, climbing trees, being a tree, hosting elaborate tea-parties for one’s stuffed animals (hands up, I was all about that), or putting on matching C&A tracksuits with your friends, pretending to be an army and going to war – which I assure you I never did. (I did.) If the imaginative side of things wasn’t for you, you could be one of the sticker collectors. That was a highly regarded and specialised hobby, aged ten. As an aside, I will share with you this: I was a collector of, wait for it, National Trust bookmarks. Oh yes, rock and roll. I was sixty before I was sixteen. But I could still put that down as a hobby, thank you very much. Whatever your bent, these were all joyous, clearly identifiable and legitimate pastimes. And we made space for them in our lives, sandwiching them in between homework and tea. They were, simply, things we did. As necessary as washing or eating.
Then you become a teenager, and that terrible concept of ‘cool’ makes its way into your life. Suddenly, you’re only able to do hobbies if you’re actually good at them. If you want to be in an orchestra, you have to be able to actually play an instrument: you can no longer get away with screeching blue murder into a recorder and waiting for the grown-ups to clap. Or, in my case, randomly plucking at the double bass: I disregarded the bow, thinking I was instinctively Jazz (and whilst we’re on it, was it really necessary to give people instruments proportionate to their size? I think it would be have been far funnier for tiny Twig Smythson to struggle with a double bass and me to have the piccolo, but there you have it.)
Excuse me, but do you really need to tell everyone about the double bass?
Yes, alas, Little Miranda, I think I do. If only to exorcise its terrible demons from our soul. I thought you were auditioning?
I have been told to go and ask Miss Everett what a basic waltz step is . . . Not sure why . . . Maybe Liesl had to do the waltz . . .
Don’t get your hopes up.
Oh, and if you are telling them about the double bass, at least mention lax. I’m VERY good at lacrosse.
You most certainly are. But that’s why you do so much of it. You wouldn’t do it if you were rubbish, would you? Just do it for fun?
Defo not. That would be so square. *goes off singing ‘I am sixteen, going on seventeen . . .’*
Point made. As a teenager, we suddenly had to get serious about hobbies (which, incidentally, doesn’t include walking around shopping centres in feral packs, buying tops). So, no more gymnastics unless your forward roll is good enough to represent the school at the county championships.
And, by the way, at what age does it suddenly become impossible and terrifying to attempt a forward roll? I don’t know about you, but I always used to be forward rolling. If I wanted to jump on a friend’s bed, I might casually forward roll my way on. I was like a piece of teenage elastic, throwing myself everywhere. We all were, weren’t we? Then, suddenly, in your later years, you might be faced with the prospect of doing a forward roll only to hear yourself saying: ‘I can’t do it. Seriously, oh my goodness, it’s really scary, I can’t, I’ll break my neck, won’t I? My head’s going to fall off. No, I can’t. How did I ever do this?’ Ditto handstands. There was a stage in my life when I was never not doing a handstand of a summer month. There I’d be, walking along; I’d see some open grass, up with a quick handstand, and keep walking. No one would think it odd. Now if I attempted a handstand, firstly everyone would assume I was deranged but secondly, I would assume my arms would break underneath me. Also, it looks an awfully long way down, that grass. What happens if I do a good one, a really marvellous perky handstand, but can’t get down? Or what if I lose control and flip over? That would be truly terrifying.
I’d like to apologise to any older readers who haven’t considered this handstand/forward roll issue, and are now tempted to try one or both. Good luck to you, I say. If you’re reading this in bed, try the forward roll now. Go on. Particularly if you’re with a partner who’s lying next to you. Don’t tell them what you’re about to do. Just get up, stand at the end of the bed and do a forward roll. Wait for the reaction. What pre-sleep larks you’ll have. I’m now imagining couples in various parts of the British Isles, coaxing each other into a forward roll on their bed. It’s a smashing image. Makes me feel I’ve made a real difference.
Now I’ve done what can only be described, in literary terms, as a Big Old Fat digression. So, a Big Old Fat apology needed – sorry, soz, soz buckets, a bucket full of soz to you. Let’s resume.
Yes, so – you’re in your teens. Hobbies can’t be just for fun any more: you have to be good at them. There’s no more lolloping around in a leotard and tights for you, missus. No more collecting stickers. And no more swapping. At the age of ten you’ll swap your last ever sticker at a swapping party: the next time swapping will be even vaguely acceptable is when you’re fifty-five, divorced and exchanging pressed flowers with the ladies from the local Nature Club. Or, if male, when you’re fifty-five, divorced and a member of a very serious Stamp Collectors’ Society of Great Britain (unless, of course, you’re into sci-fi memorabilia. Here, new rules apply – I believe there’s a natty underground scene revolving around the exchange of latex Spock masks and Star Trek phasers. I don’t understand what I’ve just said, let alone what this involves, but each to their own. And if this appeals to you, then may God bless you, and I hope you find a girlfriend soon so you can move out of your mum’s utility room).
The worst thing for me about the teenage loss of hobbies was NO MORE BALLET. It was a sad moment in my life to discover that a six-foot fifteen year old was no longer welcome in the ballet class. Suddenly, it was all about being proficient and ambitious. There was talk of certain members of the class ‘going to college’ and ‘turning professional’.
‘Balls to that,’ I said, as me and my very small, very round friend galumphed on for a few rounds of ‘I’m a little teapot.’ It was going fine until we got to ‘Here’s my handle, here’s my spout . . .’ (the rest of the class were dancing The Nutcracker, by the way). I lost my balance, jarred into my friend, whose excellently placed spout nudged into one of the dancers when she was en pointe, who then fell into the girl next to her, causing a domino effect of collapsing ballerinas. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen, but we were, shall we say, ‘not welcome back’.
How rude is that? What if I – perhaps at age seventeen or eighteen – had suddenly passed through the clunky teapot phase and really come into my own as a ballerina? What if I had suddenly blossomed? What if my gawkiness had fallen away to reveal a truly major dance talent? I could have been Darcey Bussell. That could have been me. I could have re-invented modern ballet with my elongated strides. I now regularly re-invent modern ballet in the privacy of my kitchen and, in my humble opinion, believe it’s a crying shame others don’t get to pay to witness it on a grand stage. But the English National Ballet will never know because between the ages of thirteen and nineteen, you’re not allowed to do anything fun unless you’re immediately and conventionally good at it. ‘Harrumph,’ I say to that. Harrumph.
The abandonment of hobbies in your teens means that by the time you’re in your twenties, the extra-curricular cupboard is bare. You’re doing nothing. And, by some terrible twist of fate, this is also the time of your life when you have to start applying for jobs, and applying for jobs involves putting together a CV, and a CV inevitably involves a Hobbies section. The one time you need hobbies, you are hobby-less. You stare at the blank page, and panic. What do I like? Do I like anything? What are my hobbies? You ask your friends – what do I like? What do I do? What do I like to do? Well, your helpful friends respond, you like drinking pints, you like impersonating certain television presenters like Roy Walker from Catchphrase, and occasionally you like ordering a pizza. Last night you thought it would be fun to see how long it would take you to eat a bowl of popcorn with boxing gloves on. And last week you thought you liked putting the takeaway container on your head and pretending you were a spaceman (but the next morning you changed your mind about that because your hair smelt of korma). You turn forlornly back to the CV and type ‘HOBBIES: Swimming, reading and travelling’: the holy trinity of boringly acceptable things everyone likes. Or no one would admit to not liking, at any rate (‘Travelling? No, hate it. I’m an enormous fan of staying put, actually. I’m happiest within a three-foot radius of my toaster and my pillow. I don’t want my horizons broadened, thank you’).
You arrive at the job interview, your CV in hand. Everything’s going surprisingly well. You’ve got through the strengths and weaknesses section (although I’m not sure ‘height’ does technically count as a strength). You’ve dealt with work experience and now you are at ‘. . . and finally – hobbies’: you’re practically out of the door, until the interviewer’s eye falls on ‘Swimming’. It turns out he swims at county level and is very eager to quiz you on your sporting habits.
This is where things can all go very, very wrong, as they once did for me.
‘So, what’s your stroke?’ the interviewer enquired.
Lovely, safe swimming. Now not so safe.
Of course, I panicked. Because basically I only really swim when on holiday. And even then it’s mostly just splashing about in a rubber ring, and actually I get a bit frightened when the water goes on my face. Stalling, I tried a thoughtful ‘Umm . . .’, rolling back my wheelie-chair reflectively. I was going for smooth, measured and authoritative. And I said, ‘Uh – butterfly . . . Butterfly is . . . my stroke.’
I could have left it there. I should have left it there: silently suggesting that butterfly is so important to me that I couldn’t possibly address my passion for it in the brief time we had left. I could have been enigmatic.
I was nervous. And nerves lend themselves to the babble. I babbled, ‘Well, it’s not MY stroke, ha ha – I didn’t invent it, and if I did let me tell you this, I’d have called it “The Miranda”. What would The Miranda look like, do you think? Probably something like this –’ At which point I gave a very weird, ferocious demonstration involving flapping chicken arms and thrashing legs.
The panel of interviewers looked a bit confused. I began to worry that this wasn’t going terribly well for me. Bravely, I decide to remedy the situation by offering – unsolicited – my views on body-hair removal for streamlining purposes: ‘You’d probably need to shave your legs, though, to get a good head of steam going with The Miranda. I mean, I’m blessed with very little hair; I’m not hairy, no, no, siree, I’m smooth as a billiard ball. But someone like you’ – pointing aggressively at the slightly boggle-eyed county-level swimmer – ‘might need to . . . Sorry, not that you’re hairy – I mean, most men have hairy backs. Do you have a hairy back? None of my business, obviously, but if you do, then –’
Luckily, at that point, the main interviewer concluded the interview. ‘Phew,’ I thought, ‘I’m out of here.’ Not an unmitigated triumph, but it could have been worse.
I stood up and things did, indeed, get considerably worse. It turned out my long skirt had got trapped under the wheels of the wheelie-chair, and so as I rose, said skirt shot down, revealing my pants and legs.
Now, this is one of those situations – isn’t it, MDRC? – when you think, ‘Right, where is the pamphlet on what to do next? Why is there no rulebook?’
I think a lot of people would have quickly gathered their skirt about them and dashed out. Instead, I thought the following would be appropriate: ‘Oh, good. I’m glad that’s happened, actually. I meant to show you my lovely smooth legs. Just what you need to have a go at The Miranda. Might be useful for you to have a look, in case you want to try it for your next swimming race. Go on, have a feel.’
Was it really necessary to get insistent and a little cross? Time passed; a lot of time, it seemed, until the door discreetly opened and I was ushered firmly from the building. The security guard didn’t feel necessary, I must say. I was just a babbling imbecile, not an actual threat to anyone’s security. Maybe The Miranda demo looked hostile. Strangely enough, I didn’t get the job. Your loss, retail section of the Welcome Break service station on the A3 near Waterlooville. I could now be manager there, with a lovely proud grinning photo of me on the staff board, welcoming drivers in for their very welcome break. Your loss, my friends, your loss.
At least in your twenties your need for a hobby is only purely CV-motivated. Your thirties mark another, more worrying shift. Suddenly, you’re going out a bit less, you’re a bit calmer, you’ve settled into yourself. You aren’t necessarily with husband or children yet; in fact most weekends you never leave the house – you have no need, for there is Dominos on speed-dial – then the moment comes, when you’re embarking on your second chicken wing, and the question hits you: ‘What AM I doing with my life? I don’t have a thing. I need a THING that I DO. Something which will make people think of me and go “Oh, yes, Miranda. Did you know, she’s a wonderful diver? Yes, she’s up at five every morning, bouncing about on the diving board. Can’t fathom it myself, but she flies like a swallow, hardly makes a ripple on the pool when she goes in. She says it centres her and gives her perspective. Yes, Miranda’s inspirational. She’s got an incredible work–life balance.”’ Suddenly, just as you’ve given up on ever really having one, it would be good to have a hobby again.
You panic. ‘My life is meaningless,’ you think. ‘I’m just a shallow little pizza-eating wage-slave.’ So you begin to cast around for a hobby. You suddenly appear – for a fleeting moment – at a hula-hooping class. You phone the Martial Arts School then hang up in fear as soon as they answer. You start to pay a little more attention to yellowing cards in newsagents’ windows inviting you to join Nigel and