Sunday, 27 June 2010

Peter Jones: In which I take refuge from the World Cup

Whilst the majority of the British population were parking themselves in front of their televisions to watch England's much anticipated, yet still lamented, defeat by Germany in football's 2010 World Cup last weekend I sought sanctuary in a place I hoped would be empty and calm. London's shops have been a notable refuge during the football matches of late, whilst the pubs, bars and even electrical shops selling plasma screen TVs, have been filled with heaving masses of groaning and yelling. The minority of us uninterested in watching our national over-paid sportsmen chase a ball around a South African field have had easy access to mid-summer sales and peaceful browsing in usually packed shops. Last Sunday, in search of an air mattress to sleep on in my new flat until I could actually buy some proper furniture, I made for the mecca of all things homely and civilised - Peter Jones.
On a visit to this uber-department store I had once overheard an amusing exchange on the escalators. "Do you know Peter Jones?" said one man to another, as if at a cocktail party introducing his companion to President Obama. The companion replied that regretfully he did not. The first man gestured to the six open-plan floors of clothes, electronics, furniture and glassware and continued, "This is it. Well, it's like an up-market John Lewis." I stifled a giggle behind this confident knower of Peter Jones, for in one way he was right but in another very wrong. Up-market though it may be, Peter Jones IS actually a Jones Lewis store. Several years ago when all the other John Lewis stores across the country lost their individual names (farewell 'Jessops of Nottingham', adieu 'Cole Brothers' in Sheffield), to all be known as John Lewises Peter Jones retained its name; so iconic was the store in its own right. It has sat on Sloane Square since the late 19th century, and despite undergoing numerous cosmetic surgeries is still a significant part of the Chelsea landscape.

Each department, from lighting and ovens in the basement to the imaginatively named "Top Floor" restaurant on, er, the top floor, is staffed by polite, well-spoken 'partners'. Due to the partnership structure of the company, in which all employees are share-holders in the business, no one is referred to as a shop assistant here. Displays are clean, bold and unfussy, leading one to believe that a single, vast television with surround-sound and an ipod dock is really all one needs in one's life to be happy. I found my air mattress in a deserted bed department, and no sooner had I found exactly what I was after a partner appeared at my elbow to offer assistance and to relieve me of my money. Had I not had time to browse the other floors I could have left with what I came for in 10 minutes flat - now that really is a score of which to be proud.

A wander around Peter Jones, amongst the yummy Chelsea mummies and daddies and tweedy proper English ladies, is the perfect antidote to World Cup hysteria. High piles of thick towels, huge racks of shiny saucepans and clothing from ballgowns and Ascot-worthy hats to yoga pants and tennis whites. All so calm and quiet, and abundant. There really cannot be much one needs in life that cannot be purchased from Peter Jones. Except maybe a decent national football team.

All the fun of the fair

Every so often, the expensive and glossy area of Hampstead Heath is invaded by a somewhat less glossy phenomenon. Arriving in a convoy of lorries and trailers, Coggers Fun Fair appears each bank holiday, all shining metal, technicolour plastic and canvas covers. At night the covers remain in place, keeping warm and dry an array of steel plates and beams and unlit light bulbs, but during the day something else emerges, like a fairy ring of mushrooms popping up through the grass. Vast metal monsters, unfurling and whirling, flashing lights chase one another along the edges of trailers. Loud foreign voices boom and cajole, drawing in customers to ride and scream, to be tossed and bumped and spun.

(Image courtesy of hampsteadheath.net)
On the last bank holiday an Accidental friend, another friend of hers and I spent a merry afternoon of shrieking and giggling at the fair. We took a ride on the Sky-flier, lifted high in the air and twirled like a majorette's baton. We rode our favourite, the Waltzer, screaming as we spun round, our necks snapping back so fast as to give us minor whiplash. The Accidental friend's sunglasses hurtled off her head and onto the running board, on which the ride's operators balanced like surfers. "My sunglasses! My sunglaaaasez!" she shrieked like a banshee until one running board surfer kindly rescued them. We sat for endless minutes waiting for the Joker to start up and toss us high into the air like a juggler's props. When it finally did however the small child in the car behind us brought the ride to a somewhat unscheduled end as he sobbed miserably for the duration, wedged into the ride between his two oblivious and insensitively grinning parents. Until well into the evening, bumper cars clashed and tiny wooden child-sized vehicles drove round and round in eternal circles. Hoops were tossed over bottles and balls were thrown at targets, all for the sake of winning a suspiciously smelly soft toy or a blow-up dolphin with a perplexing pink appendage.

Behind the flashing lights however is a fascinating culture. The families who tour the country bringing these wild rides to this usually refined corner of our city are part of a long-standing community of British travellers, who proudly live their lives very separately from mainstream society. Their children do not attend mainstream schools, and although they may have more permanent winter quarters, their homes and lives are on the road, or encamped on their fairground sites. They speak their own languages cobbled from ancient tongues and traveller slang. Whilst this may seem a somewhat curious way to live in our extraordinarily interconnected modern world, society might learn something from this unique community. Familial ties are strong within traveller communities, and although they marry very young, and usually always within their small community, divorce is extremely rare.
Maybe if one's work consisted of watching sensible adults descend into hysterical children with the application of speed and plastic safety bars, it is entirely normal to experience a deep desire to flee it all and remove oneself from this strange mainstream society of ours! But for those "sensible adults" among us there can be few things more satisfyingly fun than a regression to childhood, and nothing provides that quite like a funfair.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Ex and the City

From the Staten Island ferry, surveying the isle of Manhattan, one woman turns to another and says, "Who woulda thought an island that tiny, would be big enough to hold all our ex-boyfriends?". The rhetorical question comes from Miranda and the woman who shrugs in agreement is Carrie - two of the central characters of the long-running TV and film series "Sex and the City". (And arguably, despite their fictional nature, some of the most famous city-dwellers ever.) Four impossibly glamorous and moneyed New York women have been searching for a bit more than sex in their city now for over ten years. Their fictional trials and adventures watched by similar girls around the world, have defined an age of dating, sex, relationships, and being female in a big city.

For some reason, London has never countered with its own version of the programme. The closest the BBC has ever got is "Mistresses"; working to a similar "four-women-many-men" formula, but set in the somewhat less glitzy city of, er, Bristol. But here in London we live our own girly dramas, with a vast cast of millions. Many Londoners identify with the lives and storylines of the ladies of Sex and the City. They share their hideous dating disasters, weep over lost loves and relay hilarious stories of their more amusing encounters. And us London girls too feel the claustrophobia of sharing our city with our ex-lovers, and even their friends.

Many a night out with one's own friends can be utterly wrecked by a chance encounter with an ex or one of their closest (and hence likely to report back to said ex) friends. Our own rounds of Cosmopolitans have morphed into hysterical blind panics when one of our number catches a glimpse of someone they had rather not have seen. "Ohmgod, there by the bar! It's James/Ed/Fred/Whoever! Has he seen me? Can he see us? Do I look hot enough he'll regret ever dumping me?"

I have recently had a spate of run-ins with ex-boyfriends' friends - old school chums, gap year travel buddies, former housemates. Wherever I have turned there has been a potential spy observing my every evening out, ready to relay details of how I looked and who I was with. The past month has even seen me creep around the theatre (in a ridiculous manner echoing the classic farce I was there to watch), dreading the intervals in fear of being spotted by an old university friend of a former Accidental boyfriend. Worse still, it later dawned on me, he might have seen me and reported back my peculiar behaviour; walking along staring at the walls or peering nervously around corridors from behind a programme.

London is not merely a playground for the young and single, but also a graveyard full of the ghosts of dead relationships. Any one of our ghosts may pop up when least expected or prepared for; usually when one looks tired and scruffy in the supermarket rather than when one is looking stunning on a night out - sod's law! This is a terrifying and somewhat depressing thought sometimes. Yet as the scriptwriters behind Sex and the City know only too well, occasionally such chance encounters can force us to confront and make peace with our ghosts and our past, and they may even heal longstanding hurts and help us move on. And for those painfully embarrassing incidents where one can see no hope of salvaging one's reputation or personal pride, there are usually a few friends you can round up to listen to your woes. And if they're really good friends they'll feed you enough gin to erase the memory altogether.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

You can never go home again

They say you can never go home again. But last weekend I did. After moving out of the Accidental flatshare three months ago I have not returned, despite keeping in touch and meeting up with the Accidental (ex)housemates. When the unseasonable rain ruined a birthday picnic on Saturday, the party was relocated to my old flat in Putney, and I stepped across the threshold once more. Banging on the door and waiting to be let in, rather than whipping out my keys felt a little odd, but I was saved from an awkward moment by the arrival of another guest.
Once I climbed the same stairs I must have climbed a thousand times, I emerged to be greeted by endless familiar faces, and they all had one question to ask; "Does it feel weird being back here?". My answer was honest and exactly the same each time; "No, not at all." And truly it didn't. Being back in that flat felt familiar and comfortable, but I never once felt that I still lived there, or should be living there once more.
Some people describe a feeling of deep connection to a single place; their "spiritual home". A wise and much loved Accidental great-aunt once told me that everyone eventually finds a place they call home, but it may not actually be a childhood house or even their first place they buy or live in by themselves. Such a place need not even be a dwelling place. It could be a city, a wilderness, a particular building. One will never find this place by searching but will just realise one day, probably when you are far away, that that place is where you belong.
Until I went to university my parents' house, the only one I had ever lived in excepting term-times spent at boarding school (where home was once a room shared intimately with 12 others), was certainly the place I called home. This home is still where my family lives, and will thus always be a type of home for me - a home for family occasions and holidays, a constant refuge where I can always escape frantic, frustrating everyday life. Loved ones make a house a home, wherever that house may be. Someone in love once told me that his home had been where his parents lived until he met his girlfriend - then it was wherever she was.

London as a city is not my true home; as cities go, I feel far more at home in New York, for some inexplicable reason. Maybe a future house or flat here in London could be though. In my current transient state however, living in someone else's flat, not knowing when I will be in my first owned property, home means something else. It is not bricks and mortar, nor is it somewhere which belongs to me legally. Right now home is where I leave from to go to work, and return to after a hard day at work to collapse in front of the TV. Home is where I do my laundry, where I bake; where I release my inner domestic goddess (she doesn't get out much!) Home is where I recharge my iPod, my constant companion in the city, and home is where I sleep off the horrid days and wake up ready to face the new ones. Maybe that is why you can never go home - because home comes with you just when you think you are leaving it.
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