Just back from a few days in New York where, among other things, I drank (or tried to) some of the most horrible-tasting things that have – surely – ever come to market. But they were in the name of health, and – following the metric that if it tastes horrible it’s got to be good for you, I decided to try them. I think I thought that if it’s being sold in cute packaging for $10 a pop they’ll find a way to sneak some sugar or no, agave or local Manhattan bee honey, or Connecticut sap, into it to make it just a little fun. In a world saturated with health-food that’s clearly not healthy (like those protein balls that are really just dates and chocolate rolled together, or Atkins bars made primarily of chemicals and glycerol), I just couldn’t believe that these things too – billed as they were as Booster or Gravity or Solar and so on – wouldn’t also be secretly consumer-friendly. Ie sweet and/or good.
I was wrong. Consumerism in New York – always at the forefront when it comes to things people can shove in their mouths – is now so developed that customers have passed from wanting pleasure, to wanting its opposite. Or, suppliers have anticipated that – sated on what tastes nice – New Yorkers are ready for what hurts. The credo of no pain no gain – usually adopted in exercise regimes and the restriction of food in diets – has now landed on the food itself. Yuck.
My first taste of the new climate of consumer de-sovereignty (after all, would a consumer who was king really buy something this horrible?) took the form of a really sexy bottle with a really sexy – minimalistic – label in a really sexy shop that advertised its wares as raw, gluten, soy and everything else free. I marvelled at the raw coconut pie and the raw granola and the mandatory kale. Then I moved to the drinks….they all had Himalayan salt, lemon, myrtle and mint in them. Sounds good, I thought – no sugar, or any of its healthier substitutes, either. I bought one at $6 and while I like to feel that I’m being healthy, and will drink down almost anything in a neatly packaged refrigerated bottle, I was stopped in my tracks after two gulps by the strong sense that I was drinking soap. The liquid was simply not of the kind or type that constitutes the edible. It also, weirdly, managed to taste like the colour brown. Minty brown soap. I hastily switched to a Diet Coke, but later – parched as I trooped through lower Manhattan – I had no choice but to give it another go. I downed it, and that experience forced on me the expression of someone who has just drunk something so gross – cod liver oil, for instance – that regurgitation, or at least a gag or two, are real possibilities. My eyes watered, my mouth drew apart at both ends.
Later, curious about just how bad it could be, but also – secretly – on the lookout for a brew that would transform me suddenly into a sparkly paragon of slim health, I strolled into a store advertising “cold-pressed” juice. Its bottles were also in a trendy rectangular shape with a Dr Hauschka-style labelling thing going on: white background, lots of black letters. I found one with no sugar, called Gravity. It was green though somewhat translucent since, as the Lithuanian-born shop girl said, cold press means the bulk of it settles to the bottom. This bulk was something called algae-c, something very very healthy from Oregon. There was also kale (natch), celery, myrtle (again!), lemon, mint and (again!) Himalayan salt.
It cost $11.
Reader, I bought the Gravity.
And, for my money and for the sheer promise of drinking kale and algae, I was motivated to finish it.
At first, it tasted like salad dressed with lemon juice alone.
That was ok. But then you don’t drink salad undressed with anything other than acid.
My mouth soon caught on to this and staged its revolt. The image of lemony kale leaves marching down my throat, heading straight to my system without the trouble of having to be broken down (as the Lithuanian girl promised) produced a strange simultaneity of self-congratulation and utter revulsion. Worried I’d gag or maybe barf in public, I stopped at half way and put the rest of the drink in my friend’s fridge. She’s a New Yorker so maybe she can handle these things. As of yet, I am not evolved enough to do so. Chocolate milk, please.
The initial conversation happened late on Tuesday night. Joanne was about to close her laptop; she’d only had a couple of messages and they were of the monosyllabic, emoticon variety. Then suddenly: “Hello, you look extremely nice indeed; do you have a moment to chat?” Someone called Richard. Joanne saw that he wasn’t bad himself; short brown hair and no sign of balding, 35ish, rather noticeable blue eyes. She checked his vital stats: employed and over 5’8. Worked at Whitehall in something to do with the environment. Good – not another IT consultant, then.
The chat had been flirtatious from the beginning; it was nearly 2AM when Joanne had extricated herself, and then she’d lain grinning in bed for a time.
They’d agreed to meet two days later, for a drink on Thursday night. She hadn’t heard anything from him on the Wednesday, which didn’t have to be a bad thing but might be. You never knew what men’s silences meant. But they hadn’t decided on a meeting spot, which he’d wanted to suggest.
Then, on Thursday afternoon she’d had a message: short but sufficient, confirming their date, at a pub somewhere hidden near Westminster.
Joanne had been on only two or three internet dates since opening a profile and they’d been absolutely awful. She was fairly critical in general, but really, when it came to dating, who wasn’t critical? You didn’t want someone’s tongue in your mouth who you think didn’t much of. Man One had seemed extremely physically attractive online, even if he was a fairly ordinary communicator. But when they’d met up, he’d been four inches shorter than he’d claimed, far greasier, and very skinny. He was also immensely dull; unfurling one clichéd line after the next about liking to relax and party too; to work hard but not too hard. Man Two had been horrifyingly average all-round – he’d been witty online and looked ok but Jo was learning that online was at best a rough indication of the person. Often it was no indication at all, her friends had commiserated. After promising references to opera and literature, Man Two had suggested meeting at Leicester Square tube station and then, not having any further plan, had agreed to Jo’s idea of a glass of wine at the Cork and Bottle, where she found her attention firmly on the rat scurrying between kitchen and cellar instead of on Man Two’s recollection of a recent holiday in California.
Which was why Joanne felt a mixture of nervous curiosity – could this guy end up in her bed tonight? – and dutiful cynicism. Best not to get excited for these things. But she’d actually felt something during their chat, not the usual sense of “oh, here we go…”
She’d come straight from work, as the sole employee at an antiquarian bookseller lorded over by a slightly too eccentric scholar who considered himself something of a lothario. He’d recruited her straight from Cambridge eight years ago when she’d finished a degree in Classics with a starred first. Together they bought and sold some of the strangest bibliophile treasures of Europe and the Orient, but she had long felt she might prefer working somewhere without an old man, however genius, breathing on her daily.
She did not have to dress up for work as it was the two of them and the only visitors were interested in books, not clothes. So she’d stuffed a pretty shirt in her bag on her way out that morning and had hastily thrown it on in the loo after work, leaving it buttoned fairly low.
There he was, with a beer – a Guinness, a third down. So far so ok – he looked roughly like he did in the pictures, and his expression – that thing which carried so much intuitive force – seemed to have promise. His eyes, for instance, were engaging and their blue was still noticeable even in the fug of the pub. He had thin lips. Ah well. When he saw her he sprang up and pecked her on the cheeks. His accent was pretty middle-of-the-road; not plummy, but perhaps studiedly not so. Voice was sonorous enough; a firm bass; face had a few welcome bits of stubble that prickled on the kisses. Suddenly they had those frantic “hi!” “hi” and “sorry I’m late/sorry I was a bit early” preliminaries out of the way. Joanne wondered if he’d expect her to go to the bar and get her own drink. If he did then this would not work out and she’d spend the rest of the time looking at the clock.
After a pause, a generously furnished hint from Joanne, Richard took the hint and forcefully proposed getting her a drink. She asked for the usual glass of white – small, please. Richard- equally customarily- got a large. Good.
The conversation was good; after all, they had lots to find out about the other. And lots to tell; Richard had done lots for different bits of Whitehall and had switched from a fast-track career in the foreign office to DEFRA after a placement in the Gulf had given him the creeps. Joanne told him about the trip to Oman she’d done after a particularly frantic book hunt in Istanbul; they compared notes on the Middle East and books. Richard didn’t know much about collecting or antiquarianism but he was well read and seemed to have read the entire Victorian canon which was unusual for men.
As the night progressed, Joanne allowed herself to drink several more large glasses of the pinot grigio, and to set up a brisk double-think. While enjoying and responding to Richard’s words, she was feeding his expressions and the cumulative experience into a different part of her mind. Overall she was beginning to absolutely bloody love Richard. She could marry him. He’d be perfect. But wait, wait. First dates are always good. She was drunk. Still, she was going to go for it. Why not. If he was the one then a first-night seduction would be fine. She had several friends in great marriages who’d slept together on the first date.
It was closing time and they’d begun brushing against each other’s hands. Richard lightly took hers at one point, noting that she had some chipped nail varnish on her thumbnail. By then it was as if they’d already decided they were in love; Jo chuckled intimately that she wasn’t very good at things like nail varnish.
They rose to leave. What now? Clearly it wasn’t over.
“Sadly I have an early meeting tomorrow,” said Richard. Joanne felt a thud. Oh. Maybe he wouldn’t even kiss her.
“So as much as I’d like to keep going, I’d better shoot.”
“Oh, really?” allowed Jo, hoping it didn’t sound too angry. “Ok, well it was great to meet you.” She could feel herself getting hurt and angry, all those feelings of rejection tumbling into her soul. It was ludicrous and a sure way to put him off.
They were near a bus-stop; the right one for both of them only in different directions. Please let there be a long wait so that he’d kiss her and re-awaken that exciting sense of future in the present, so magically infusing the beery air in the pub just ten minutes ago.
But her bus came immediately. Hastily he kissed her again on the cheeks and said he’d be in touch.
On the bus she fell asleep and missed her stop. The next day, her antiquarian book-dealing boss barely noticed when she came in two hours late, looking terrible. But later in the day, his bad breath – so close to her face – was too much for her, and she pleaded sickness and went home early. She checked her online account. Nothing.
Too many people, such as Allison Pearson of the Telegraph and everyone who has remained silent, seem to think that Allsop has a point.
Not only does she not have a point, her comments are the sort that bolster massively counter-productive, psychologically harmful pressure on women. Yes, that’s right – was she really motivated by helping women get more out of life? – Allsop has just voiced the carefully managed nightmare of women the Western world over. IE: I might want a child but I’m terrified of the toll it will take. Or: I want a child but I am single.
Here’s the thing. Allsop and her ilk- plumply delectable dollops of wealthy femininity – probably have little experience of the realities facing most educated single women, women who have cultivated both high levels of self-respect and a critical faculty. Women who have disregarded other women’s urgings to settle for Mr Alright (Lori Gottleib) and just won’t want to overcome the repulsion- sexual and intellectual and emotional- that goes with being with someone you don’t respect, love and to a lesser degree desire.
They seem to think that “presentable men” grow on trees, that every woman delaying having babies is solely interested in a false notion of “when the time is right”, rather than the all-too-real fact of the matter. A lot of women delay having babies because they are single, because the men that present themselves are not suitable, or just not there at all – because things have changed, and we live in cities, and women are allowed to get stuck into the non-domestic world, and to stand up for their interests and their integrity outside of the home. Men have not always caught up to this with their own levels of supportiveness or ability to not only handle but be drawn to female ambition; and the ones that have are not necessarily available. And many men are too busy enjoying a porn-fuelled, extended Peter Pan bachelorhood.
Let us not forget that having a child with someone, or – as Pearson puts it so glibly in her own words to young women - “I tell them that, if they have a presentable male on the premises, they should go home that same night and have unprotected sex”- is a rather massive commitment. And that “presentable male” may for these women mean a nice public school-educated banker, but will not for most women be someone she should link both her and a child to forever.
Pearson gets out all the old stuff about eggs dying and drying up after 35; about her feeling that she was “lucky” to get pregnant late.
Lucky? Maybe- but that’s hardly statistical evidence so much as relief for having escaped a giant oppressive myth about female fertility. Just ask sensible American psychologist Jean Twenge, who recently rubbished statistics saying that one in three women between 35 and 39 will take more than a year to get pregnant along with all the other sickening myths put forth to make women feel terrible when life gets in the way of motherly bliss: after all, noted Twenge, almost all these myths are based on statistics are based on data from French birth records from 1670 to 1830. Wonderful.
And now, because of the relentless urge of privileged lady journalists to rubbish feminism’s gains and try to get women back into the home (Pearson recalls with regret her keen-ness to hit her 5pm deadline when she should have been breeding; forgetting the clout and cash her career has won her and how useful it’s been in raising her kids), people like me – 31 and about to start an exciting job – are made to feel like quavering wrecks marching towards a grave of barren hell.
It would be better for everyone to put forth stats that not only reflect reality but the potential for a better, less pressurised inner and outer life, for women. For instance: in parts of Stockholm, the average age of first-time motherhood is 38. Or just personal anecdote: I cannot count on two hands the number of women I’ve met who have had children later, as late as 40, and are blissfully happy with it all. Mown down by exhaustion? Perhaps. Mature, wise and compassionate? Yes – and these are, surely, the best qualities for a parent.
Allsop and Pearson need to change their tune; the world is not populated any more by women swimming through baby boomer privilege, grateful to be admitted to or encouraged to go to university. At last, biology is beginning to follow, not lead, but if people like this keep making their voices heard, a generation of women will begin to doubt it.
I’m having some of those days. Not one. Some. You know? Do you though? I don’t know: it’s been pretty damn annoying and I’m just not sure you appreciate just how annoying.
So hear this. Yesterday I tottered out to the street to grab my bike and cycle to the station, and found that my velo – my lovely funny purple bicycle with red velvet seat – had been stolen. I was now going to miss my train, in addition to being plunged into mourning, so wasted about 20 minutes asking at my local yoga studio if they’d seen it. No. They’d ask, but no. So I walked to the station, angry at the slow boredom of pedestrian travel after the two-wheeled sort, found the next train was not for 45 minutes and the next direct one not for an hour and a half, and began wasting more time, desultorily browsing the uninspiring English-language mags at Relay, and foolishly not buying a sandwich so that later, at my destination, a Polish-border town called Schwedt, I was reduced to bad, bad things to eat. Later that evening, I set out to meet someone, and – viciously tired of walking on terrain I knew so well by bike – I decided to be constructive, not negative, and to rent a Deutsches Bahn City Bike.
Here we go. Are you ready for this?
Had rental gone as planned, I’d have been on time for my next appointment. But it didn’t: after registering thousands of my details twice (one wrong button at the end and I was shunted back to the beginning) and then my card details, I selected a bike. “The bike is unlocked!” said the screen. So I went to get it, but there was no such bike. Machine error. It was obviously a different station or at the bottom of the Spree or being sold off in a drug-squat. So I went back to the machine and chose another one, one I could actually see. “The bike is unlocked!” it chirruped, with me still thinking it had realised it had fucked up, not me, and that I was not going to be charged. I walked to this bike, but it was not unlocked. I went back to the machine, now really running late, and stuck my credit card in again. “! You have no more bikes allowed! ” it read. Suddenly I realised it thought I had taken two bikes, and that – as would become apparent after the 30 minute free period – I had nicked them and would have to pay, probably around €600 apiece.
So I dialled the customer help number written in red on the screen. A very very loud German woman said, in German, something that didn’t sound like: “hello, can I help you? Don’t worry, you haven’t lost all your money on two phantom bikes and a broken machine”. Alas, after trying another 4 times, as well as another number from the website (it was actually the same number), Simon was able to tell me that it was a recorded message saying NOT IN SERVICE. Odd for a system that I happen to know breaks down often, but there you are.
As I was walking to meet him, though, ringing and ringing this number and being told NOT IN SERVICE by the German woman, and becoming ever more stressed at how much money I might lose and how much time I might have to spend in dispute, and why didn’t I note down the false bike numbers, as well as thinking about how I was now running late DESPITE my best efforts…A BIRD SHAT COPIOUSLY ON MY HEAD. I was in the most urban, treeless street in Mitte, but would you believe, the one tree, and the one bird, happened to decide to unload a massive meal on my head at the precise moment I was walking by.
I mean guys, do you really need any more proof that the universe is out to get me?
I think you do. And here it is: TODAY, just one day after the above happened, leaving plenty of time (having no bike) to get somewhere for a 13:30 apt, I set out by foot to a train station. Simple: one line, the S5, to Zoo Station, according to my subway app. Only when I got there, there was no S5. The line doesn’t seem to exist. Still, I bought a ticket (that’s €2.60 thanks), standing on the platform trying to work out where it could be. Then an S1 went by. After walking through a tunnel to the U-bahn and then returning, I realised the S1 was my best option, and went straight to my destination.
There are few maps on platforms in Berlin that show you where trains go. true, different trains pass the same platform. But by the time my slow brain figured out that the S1 was the best bet, there was a four and then a seven minute wait for the next trains – but they didn’t go the right way at all. At last: another S1, OUT OF SERVICE. Time ticked by. I had left lots of time but now…and then, after the out of service train, a seven minute wait for an S2, no S1 in sight.
I had to go and find a taxi, since I had a ten minute walk on the other side, and I predicted- given the past few days- that I”d get lost and go round in circles and that my 3G, which has been loading at the speed of ice melting in Siberia for the past two weeks, would mean my map wouldn’t load at all. I wasted money on a subway ticket, yes. But worst was that I hadn’t been able to zoom in and out and in and out of the subway map, tracing the train to the terminus flashing on the screen to guess its number, in time, and LET THE GODDAMN S1 PASS BY STILL THINKING AN S5 EXISTED.
Isn’t all this so annoying? Do you get me? Now let me say that throughout the deeply irritating sequences of events that have plagued me yesterday and today, I formulated angry descriptions. “When people hear about this”…I spluttered inwardly, “then…”
Then what? Then they’ll feel really terrible for me, of course. And immediately see the way the universe is uniquely predisposed against ME. ZOE STRIMPEL. But as I said the stories to myself that I wanted to unload on others, I could already see their bored expressions. But come on! Couldn’t the sheer annoyingness of all this make for a really good narrative? I mean, there must be novels out there where this kind of thing forms the substance of the plot; the ups and downs of the character, the nucleus for something profound.
But then I couldn’t picture it. I have never read a book like that.
And then I realised: nobody cares, or will care. The levels of irritation and stress caused by these banalities, hitting me as they did at a particularly doubtful juncture in life, are not conveyable through the events that created them. To make a good story there needs to be more; to make an individual feel furious, there’s plenty.
I’ve been spending a great deal of time reading Alexandra Richie’s history of Berlin, Faust’s Metropolis. It’s a sweeping chronicle of Europe’s most fearsome city since its first settlers, a story of countless wars, despots and almost endless violence, in which life is built up and destroyed as regularly as waves crashing on a beach. The desire of Berlin’s (all-male) leadership to conquer, destroy, taunt, control and lie is astounding, from the early Christian conquistadors right through to Erich Milche of the SED. It’s no coincidence that what is now Europe’s most responsible country is run by a woman.
Berlin had ups and downs – times of relative tolerance and cultural glory. But one feature runs through its history with particular tenacity and strength: the thirst for and play of power. Germans clustered around rulers, from heads of state of army generals, hero-worshipping them. In the 20th century they worshipped or died. Dictators (usually short, deformed men with terrible moustaches) are defined by their obsession with power for its own sake. But in few places has the almost erotically-charged fixation with power – personal and military – held such sway as in Berlin.
Well, times have changed in Berlin. Students are more concerned with defending Lampedusan refugees and the rights of sex-workers than imbibing the spirit of the Germanic earth. “Deep” and “house” has replaced “blood and soil” as the rallying call of the youth. Now the “volk” spend their weekends in scruffy clubs, marketed through subversive messages like “love techno, hate Germany”. (This is the slogan of the collective behind About Blank, a club in a post-industrial, former Communist stronghold with a big garden and an amazing sound system, one of Berlin’s most revered clubs.)
But – even when violence is out of the question – some things will never change and the dynamics of power is one of them, with a leader and followers.
Today, during a session of daytime “cappuccino” clubbing at About Blank, the presence of power and worship seemed strong to me. The clubbers were all dressed up in respectful uniform for the occasion: vintage high-top sneakers, square or round sunglasses, very high-wasted faded jeans for the women, bizarre irregular hair arrangements for the men. Admittedly it wasn’t too stringent a uniform: I wore my cycling leggings from Dorothy Perkins and some Nike trainers and looked more like an American tourist looking for Unter den Linden than someone accustomed to getting past bouncers at hidden clubs.
Some had been at this same “party” since Friday night; nearly 48 hours. They swayed and some looked bleary, barely hanging onto awakeness, despite the drugs. But mostly it was a jolly affair, in good spirit. Above all, the power of the DJs in Berlin is phenomenal. People cram into industrial-size clubs all round the city for entire weekends without leaving, first doing anything to get by the bouncer (the Berghain bouncer is so powerful and mysterious, with seemingly random and self-determined decisions, rather like a despot, that he has his own agent), then bobbing and swaying in formation before the Grand Ruler of the Night and the Party – the music-spinner.
The DJ controls the crowd and the crowd cleaves devoutly to the DJ’s mysterious moves – he or she exerts control over their bodies, their mood, their vocal chords, their pockets, their whole weekends.
Furthermore, the culture of exclusive leisure is a ruler in itself, determining who has cultural capital and who does not. The new urban aristocracy are not people born into posh or rich families; they’re the people who know where the best parties are happening, and this means, where the parties are happening with the highest density of people who define themselves by their clothes: either inspired by the cutting-edge art world (the high jeans, the slanty hair); the politically-charged dreadlock wearers; the deeply scruffy-on-purpose; the glamorous. All were there; a very small proportion of clubbers looked neutrally-apparelled, or clad in Zara or H&M.
The tyranny of cool is alive and well; and while DJs, bouncers and exclusive nightclubs have no profound or sinister relation to the politically-powerful power-mongers of Berlin’s long history, the adherence – bodily and financial – that they command from seas of young people bobbing about before is a curious example of how power never disappears, it only shifts, and in this case, gets its groove on.