Archive for the 'Always the Last to Know' Category


A hefty envelope hit the door-mat of my abode the other day.  I finally start my new job on Monday, and they kindly wrote to apprise me of what to expect.  If I wasn’t so cynical I would almost believe they cared about making this experience as comfortable as possible.  The plan consists of training sessions and seminars for about three weeks before I’m unleashed on unsuspecting members of the public who have suffered serious injustice.

Quietly slid into this communiqué were the words the dress code is business casual.

Oh please, do not do this to me.  My talents don’t extend to decoding sartorial short-hand and applying it to practical contexts.   I always get these things a bit wrong, usually on the side of too casual since I was born wearing denim and Birkenstocks.  Two out my last three jobs had no dress-code whatsoever and I like it that way.

I’ve got enough reasonably smart attire to cope with a two-day working week, but this gig is full time.  For the first day or two I will err on the side of very smart and suss the lie of the land.  Still, we’re going to need a bigger wardrobe.  After extensive research on the myriad meanings of business casual, I biked over to the town’s department store to see what I could find that toes the fine line between Mother Flump and the Sex and the City ladies.











Google’s advice included that business casual means different things in different contexts.  Google also only has US-centric information on this particular topic.  What’s acceptable at Twitter HQ is not necessarily acceptable in the heady world of UK public sector middle-tier flow-chart jobs.  I am lucky to have this job, and I do not want to be reprimanded for inappropriate dress.  I want to be promoted, not ridiculed.   I asked K-man, who works in a big city law firm, and he had no useful advice.  He’s a dude, and it’s easier for them since all rules are designed primarily with them in mind.  Business casual for a dude means no tie, smart shirt, no jeans, and leather footwear – easy.   Apparently, K-man has never noticed what his female colleagues wear.  I should be pleased about this; instead I’m frustrated.  But some information can be gleaned: if the women around him were wearing torture-porn shoes and halter-necks, he would have noticed.

On my first pass around the womenswear section, I despaired.  I had ideas about simple tailored dresses in cotton, and shirts that aren’t tight across the boobs.  Maybe a skirt or two that arrives demurely at the knee.  I was drawing a complete blank: everything is about summer floatiness, or is tailored and comes with a price tag that suggests Alexander McQueen rose from the dead and feverishly cut and stitched just for you.

I lowered my bar.  After all, provided it’s reasonably smart and not distracting from my professionalism, it should be fine, right?

Starting from the bottom: shoes.  I already have a pair of nice taupe vintage French Connection flat shoes which should do.  I’ve ordered a pair of all-purpose black pumps:

For days when I need a heel, I already own these:

And for days when I need to distract someone from my professionalism long enough to win an argument, I have them in blood red too.

Well, maybe I won’t wear the blood red ones to the office, but they look amazing on.

So, yesterday I got this, which is pretty inoffensive:

And this, which I am not 100% sure about.  It looks a little bit smart but mainly casual.  I like it, but I feel in need of a second, third, and fourth opinion on its suitability for work.  It probably depends what you team it with, but still.  Too Kim Kardashian?

This is a nice knee-length skirt I got on heavy mark-down:

And this little wrap thingy – again I am not 100% sold, but I think will be useful for wearing with sleeveless or short-sleeve tops, or the long black dress (see below).  It’s a very fine knit:

This black shirt called to me just as I made the decision to go to the cash desk without spending any more money, and I have not yet tried it on, so it may need to be returned:

I’ve got another white shirt in the wardrobe, and a flowery knee-length white cotton dress that can be teamed with a black cardigan and pumps.  I also own a dress very similar to this:

And another one a bit like this but with less curvature, and a more chocolate brown:

A few items in my wardrobe (a white linen top, a pair of black tailored high-quality trousers, and the above shirt-dress) will fit after I’ve dropped the few lbs I will lose fretting through my first weeks.

Anything in there that you wouldn’t wear for business casual? Advice on the jacket and cardigan is particularly welcome.

Day one will be tailored trousers and shirt combo with medium heels, to be completely safe.  Until I’ve seen what everyone else wears I am not taking any tags off the £200 I just spent.

At times like these, I wish they had just said you are expected to wear a suit.  I would have bitched about arse-clenching uptight self-important organisations, but at least I’d know exactly what is acceptable.


Holy Massage, Batman!

Massage has always been a luxury for me.  K-man occasionally gifts me a massage voucher for a birthday or other celebration, but I would never pay for one myself unless I am in a far-away country where the price of a massage is less than the price of a moccha latte.  Until now.

My massage history has been a long investigation seeking the perfect experience.  I want to feel like something has happened to me, and yet be blissed out.  Here’s a run-down of the ones I can recall:

1.  Aromatherapy massage, North London.  My first massage experience, years ago.  The therapist was strong, applied beautiful essential oils, and didn’t waste any time talking.  I came out of there feeling odd, but happy.

2.  Antigua: reflexology foot massage.  I was expecting to see rainbows and butterflies.  My feet felt good, but there were no lasting effects.

3.  Sri Lanka: a room like an oven, where I spent my time trying not to dribble into the bowl of tropical fish placed beneath the face-hole for soothing purposes.  Less soothing, more worrying.

4.  India: Ayurvedic massage in some back-street room in Udaipur.  Barely any pressure applied, but all-in-all pretty harmless until the therapist asked me to turn over, before proceeding to massage my baps.   Downright alarming.

5.  Thailand: not for me, the overpriced Sheraton spa.  Instead, I walked down the street five minutes to a set of dingy rooms for a true Thai massage.  This is the closest I have come to what I seek – the tiny thai lady certainly applied her bodyweight to the issue.  My favourite part was when she said ‘relax’ before sharply twisting my shoulder and knee in opposite directions.  My spine made beautiful music.  Sadly, I also saw numerous dodgy white dudes hanging about outside, clearly hoping for some kind of happy ending.

6.  Viet Nam: Blind massage therapists, in a dorm room with hospital-style curtains between beds.  Hearing the ladies laugh with each other while they worked was the coolest thing.  Well, that and the super-strong methol heat-up-on-skin oil they used.  Not so cool: the rather insistent customer who wanted a massage from a woman, not a man (not the done thing in Viet Nam).

7.  Home town: Hot stone massage.  Soothing but dull.  No lasting effects.

8.  Home town: Swedish massage.  Basically pointless.

9.  New Zealand: a couple of half-decent aromatherapy massages.  The therapist told me I needed to keep going, but my working hours didn’t permit it.

I have enjoyed the non-UK massages more.  I think the therapists are less afraid of causing pain – UK holistic massage therapists are, in my experience, gentle to the point of barely present.

That brings us to today, and the holy grail of massages.  The Deep Tissue Sports Therapy massage.

I’ve been suffering from tension in my neck and shoulders for years, and have entered each massage with the idea that this would be the one that would make it all go away only to leave disappointed.  I talked to some people in the know, who recommended a sports therapy massage.   Initially I wrote it off, not suffering any kind of actual injury.

Don’t do it, my brother told me, it hurts like hell.  He had a back problem.

Did you feel better afterwards though?  I asked.

Well, yeah, but the pain, oh the pain….

I’m not averse to a bit of short-term pain for long-term gain.  But I am the queen of unrealised intentions, so I let it slide.

About a month ago the pain got noticeably worse.  It’s to do with my desk set-up at work, and if I work more than two days in a row, the pain is pretty bad.  After a full desk assessment it was concluded that I have an unusually long (very disproportionate to my height) shoulder-to-elbow measurement.   I’m a knuckle-dragger.

The only set-up that can truly resolve this (because I am also short, and to get the seat up high enough leaves my legs dangling, and my elbows still at an acute angle) is a height-adjustable desk.  Most places of employment, including my current one, won’t stretch to this expense for part time temp staff who have already handed in their notice.  I’m hoping my new employer will be amenable.

But in the meantime, my goal is to arrive at my new job pain-free.  So, I finally bit the bullet and spent a small wadge on a sports massage.  After an hour of seriously strong pushing, pulling, pressing, and rubbing, I’ve got a dim headache, but I can already see improvement in my (very poor) shoulder flexibility.  When I got up from the table I felt spaced out, not because I’d been relaxing – I’d been grimmacing and listening to chatter from the therapist – but because there was genuine muscle-release.

It did hurt, quite a bit, but nothing I couldn’t handle.  I do wonder how I’ll feel tomorrow, but so far it’s all good.

I think I’ve finally found it.

I’m going back in a couple of weeks for another hour.

The Embodiment of a Cliché

Every so often I extract my Feminist Card from my back pocket and think about what’s important.  This becomes especially vital in times of  Feminist Trial where, like a talisman, the Feminist Card focuses me on my world: a world where hair, make-up, and conformist pressures are alien and viewed from afar with suitable disdain.

This year’s Feminist Trial is not, in the spectrum of Global Feminist Trials, particularly upsetting or challenging.  In the spectrum of Nic’s Feminist Trials, however, it’s in the file marked ‘Extremely Painful’.

I am to be a bridesmaid.

Yes, I agreed to do it.  It’s not the first time, or even the second.  Why did I agree?  How do you refuse someone who is asking you to share in a day that’s extremely important to them?  It’s an honour.

In my world, bridesmaid duties don’t inherently require OMG hair OMG make-up OMG dress panic OMG OMG OMG yay!!!! x 1000 LOL. 

My world, it turns out, isn’t inhabited by much of a population.  A key absentee from my world’s populace is the bride.

I understand bridal desire to be overtly conformist about weddings.  It would be a brave woman indeed who chose the day she is to occupy a significantly heightened, be-pedestalled, centre-of-attention, photographed-for-posterity position to experiment with non-conformity.  I’ve been a bride.  I was spectacularly sucked in to the My Special Day Conflict of 2004, and didn’t emerge with my dignity fully intact.  I get it.

I don’t have to like it.  But I have to participate in it, with a smile and plenty of grace.   Phase 1 was bridal dress shopping, necessitating a weekend trip to the bride’s town and several appointments with openly snooty wedding dress shop assistants.  I nearly said something very sneering indeed to the shop assistant who said the bride’s hair was ‘very greasy’, but I remembered: smile and be graceful.  Phase 1 was completed, and the bride will look stunning.

Phase 2 is bridesmaid dress shopping.  So it was that I was summonsed to central London.  Why oh why do brides choose to inflict pre-Christmas dress-shopping on their bridesmaids?  This is the second time I’ve been through it, and Oxford Circus in mid-December is the tenth circle of hell, yet there I found myself, trying to look like I was smiling and being full of grace rather than hotly grimacing.

My  fear was that we would be unable to find a dress that makes me look even close to attractive, or that the bride likes.  I want the bride to have nice photos – I have no desire to be the person who ruins them.  For entirely selfish reasons, I want to look at least semi-decent.  I’m struggling with that because I thought I’d grown out of it, but it turns out there’s a scratch on my Feminist Card.

Happy days!  The second dress we tried on was fine and the bride liked it very much.  I was imagining a relaxing lunch and some corollary non-dress shopping to ease the last minute Christmas gift panic, when the bride suggested we keep going in case something better should appear.

I smiled, and looked graceful, and agreed.

In a department store a short jaunt away, I finally solved the 127-button puzzle and got into what had appeared on the hanger to be a slinky satin number.  I looked at myself in the mirror.

Maybe I’m slightly overweight; I tend not to think about it very much.  This dress, being made of clingy weird fake satin, stuck to every lump and bump.  Surely, surely I am not really that fat, I muttered.  I shut my eyes and opened them again, because it must have been an optical illusion.  It wasn’t.  The dress is the sartorial equivalent of the fun-fair mirror nobody loves.

Never mind!  I thought to myself, she’ll hate it too.  I cast aside the changing-room curtain with a flourish, expecting her to recoil in horror and demand that I remove all thoughts of that dress from my memory forth-with.

I didn’t even have time to open my mouth before she gasped.  She liked it. No, she loved it.   It’s the one.  Smiling and being graceful, I expressed mild and carefully-worded concern that perhaps this dress makes me look like the Heffalump’s fatter cousin.

All I need, apparently, is some support underwear.  All the celebrities are supported in this way – didn’t I know?  Nobody looks good in this type of dress without help.


I reported to a trusted colleague, who informs me that in addition to being horrifically uncomfortable, support underwear simply serves to re-position the issue from A to B, where B is the under-bust and under-arm region.  Fabulous.

So, I’m going to be eating lentils, salad, cardboard and dust between now and the summer.  And my future features support-underwear shopping.  The bride thinks we might do this together.  I think I might buy it from the internet and then sit in a dimly-lit room, crying.

The World’s Best Potato

Last year I walked into the transmogrifier a bona fides city person, and came out the other side as a suburbanite.

Well, to be honest I’ve always felt affinity with the countryside even though I love the steamy old city.  There was the idyllic childhood in a nearly uninhabited section of central England.  There were the Commune Years, where I spent my time fashioning shoes out of bark and desperately trying to communicate with rabbits.  I can ride a horse bareback to escape marauding holiday-makers who don’t like it when you peer into their caravan.  I know first-hand the velocity required to make it to the other side of the silo without drowning in grain.

The Commune Years came complete with an enormous lean-to Victorian greenhouse, with pits of deep sludge the bottom of which couldn’t be reached with the longest stick you can possibly imagine.  There was a walled garden replete with many varieties of things that I refused to eat.

As all magazine editors know, you can’t call yourself a suburbanite without a Raised Bed in which to grow things that you will ingest after you’ve boasted about their zero carbon footprint, the extra special taste, and the money savings.  OK!  I thought.  Let us get with the programme here, and worship at the altar of the Raised Bed.  I felt sure I had subconsciously imbibed the kind of green-fingered knowledge one requires for such an enterprise from my childhood encounters with horticulture.

It was a shocking discovery (K-man’s) that despite the easy step by step instructions and multiple articles about how simple! and cheap! it is to make your own raised beds, that on a sloping plot it’s like trying to cobble together a space shuttle out of old bits of decking.  A day and around 100 quid later, we had achieved.   What they don’t tell you in those magazine articles is that you better make sure you have a shit load of growing-matter available or you will have to buy compost.

We had some grass-cuttings, some leaves and bits of garden compost at the back in the shitty patch of the garden, but since I had instructed that the Raised Bed should be extra high we were somewhat short of material.  I put around ten bags of shop-bought peat-free compost in there, and uttered the immortal words Fuck It.

Nonetheless, I planted some seed potatoes and settled back.  I did make a tactical error in using raised beds for potatoes though, as it is severely limiting how much you can ‘earth up’ without creating compost carnage.  Here they are, three months down the line.

In other news, we’ve lost the camera.  Until we can buy a new one, iPhone pictures R us.   I bought too many potato plants so there are also some in the bin to the right hand side of the photo.  In the back you can see Fallow Raised Bed 2, currently collecting growing medium for use next year when I shall expand my enterprise and take over farming with industrial-scale cackling and witchcraft.

I have waited, and waited, and my posture has withered, and I have willed potato-flowers to die.  For that is apparently the indicator of potato readiness.  Yesterday, through the haze of one of the worst hangovers of my life, I lost it and started flinging foliage around to unearth these buggers.

So, there were potatoes, yes.  But I had been led to believe by my vegetable-growing tome that there would be lots of medium-sized new potatoes for me to enjoy with my fish supper.  Not so.  Some of the potatoes were akin to pinheads, and others were the size of a Fijian island.

What has gone wrong?  I’ve had to grade my potatoes into ‘pointless’, ‘single-bite’, and ‘mutant’.  There is a sizeable haul I suppose, but honestly we are looking at about a fiver’s worth of spuds (a tenner if you count them as organic, for I don’t do pesticides).  For about a fiver’s worth of investment not including the beds themselves which will last for years.  I oscillated between joy – I grew them! – and despair – they are not as I was led to believe they would be.

That was until I tasted one.  K-man (on chicken-roasting duty yesterday evening) had grabbed two of the more gargantuan potatoes and baked them.  And I tell you, it was the best and most flavourful potato experience my taste-buds have ever had.  Knocked spots off the shop-bought spud.

My graded potatoes are sitting in a cool dark place waiting for my next bout of tuber-cookery.  I think, though, on the whole I use my space more sensibly and go with the bin-only approach next year.  I think three plants in one bin was too ambitious, and I’ll do just one plant and see if I can increase my potato-per-plant ratio.

So, internet, anything else I should know about growing potatoes?


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