Sunday, 31 October 2010

Sticks and stones

Ron Howard ought to send Henry Winkler a gift basket of muffins to say 'thanks'. Because all those years he spent living over the Cunningham's garage must have helped some of the Fonz's effortless 'cool' to rub off on his carrot-topped protege.

Where else would the mild-mannered director have found the internal fortitude to take on the Catholic church when he decided to adapt Dan Brown's turgid potboilers? But when it comes to formidable enemies, the Pope and his pals are a bunch of pussycats.

Ron's newest nemesis is the gay rights organisation GLAAD, and it's going to take more than the artful turn of a leather collar and a couple of finger snaps to cool their jets. They're furious that the trailer for Ron's new movie The Dilemma features Vince Vaughn character declaring "Electric cars are gay. I mean, not 'homosexual' gay but 'my parents are chaperoning the dance gay.'"

The controversy erupted almost instantly, prompting Universal to quickly re-edit the trailer to remove the offending remark. However, in light of the gay bullying that's dominated the news in recent weeks, many felt this was too little, too late, especially since the line will be staying in the film.

Defending the line, Vaughn commented "Comedy and joking about our differences breaks tension and brings us together. Drawing dividing lines over what we can and cannot joke about does exactly that; it divides us. Most importantly, where does it stop."

GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios told The Hollywood Reporter "Unfortunately, by leaving it in the movie, they are now contributing to the problem. The conversations started as a result of the community's response to this slur will help schools, media and parents understand the impact of the word 'gay' being used as a pejorative."

The problem with this debate is that the gay community doesn't own the 'G' word. In fact, we re-appropriated it and changed its meaning to suit our needs. So it's a little disingenuous to complain about the fact that its meaning has evolved yet again. Language is not an immutable entity, it twists and changes to reflect the society that uses it. Innit.

If we want a fairer, more equitable world, we have to support people's freedom to use words we're not always comfortable with. As Howard quite rightly stated, "I defend the right for some people to express offense at a joke as strongly as I do the right for that joke to be in a film. But if storytellers, comedians, actors and artists are strong armed into making creative changes, it will endanger comedy as both entertainment and provoker of thought."

To be fair, the joke itself even makes explicit the fact that Vaughn isn't referring to homosexuality. If 'gay' is going to be used as a pejorative, let's just find a new word to define us instead. We could even get recent Apprentice casualty Melissa Cohen to invent one for us. 

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Euro trash

Holiday romances are great, but since customs are different from country to country, how do you ensure that your sun-drenched dalliance is more Shirley Valentine than Midnight Express?

You could always consult the soon-to-be-published The Single Girl’s Guide to Meeting European Men, by Vanderbilt graduate Katherine Chloe Cahoon. Described by its author as "a unique hybrid of travel/European history and culture combined with dating/relationship [advice]... full of true stories with a chick lit feel and valuable information", it actually sounds like the funniest book since the last Onion anthology.

Katherine likes to maintain that she's in on the joke, but that doesn't excuse her unwittingly hilarious self-help videos that have been popping up on YouTube to plug her forthcoming bestseller. The problem is, Katherine is the least compelling presenter since Amanda DeCadenet attempted to host The Word.

Stiffer than all the Euro-peen she claims to have bagged over the years, Katherine stages a series of increasingly awkward interviews with a variety of hot men, who all seem to be expecting Ashton Kutcher to leap out of the bushes and announce that they've just been Punk'd. Since she's talking about passion and attraction, it's a shame that she musters up about as much chemistry as a homeopathic placebo.

After all, how could a woman with fiber-glass hair and range of headbands that she could have stolen from Marcia Brady, possibly represent the ne plus ultra of cosmopolitan man-eaters? Katherine can't even stand unaided, instead choosing to grab the nearest objet d'art to steady her.

She may well have been fucked from the Baltics to the Peloponnese, but her awkward handling of the world's most phallic microphone suggests she's all stilted talk and no action. There's something off about her speech too, like she's chewing on a mouthful of Rohypnol. Although that might give a clue as to the source of her mystifying success with all those European men.

Then again, just watch how she flicks her hair and dances to attract the opposite sex - the only thing anyone would be likely to erect is a safety barrier. Similarly, she asks one smartly dressed hottie how he would spot men from "your country" (Geographical detail not being one of her strong points). 

He replies "Most men from my country have beautiful blue eyes..." I hate to break it to her, but if her gaydar doesn't even work, what hope does she have of ever snagging an eligible euro-bachelor?

Here's a tip - if you really want to meet European men. Save yourself the price of Katherine's ridiculous book and put it towards the cost of the flight. Simples. 

Friday, 29 October 2010

Make your mark with the perfect gift

With only 57 shopping days until Christmas, I'm sure you're already worrying about what to buy for that special someone. Jewellery is always a great option, but how to be sure that you'll pick out something that speaks to the true intensity, passion and intimacy of your relationship?

Rings can be too formal, and besides, it's hard to surprise someone with a ring unless you happen to know their exact size. Bracelets are fine, but can sometimes seem a little juvenile - like something you made out of beads for your thirteen year-old BFF.

How about a necklace? Delicate, feminine and versatile enough to go with any outfit. Something personal and unique, that shows just how much you're willing to splash out on the lady in your life.

Artist Leah Piepgras has the perfect solution, charmingly entitled 'pearl necklace'. Weirdly though, this isn't even a euphemism - her delightful design is described as "a seemingly amorphous cast silver shape on a chain that is an accurate representation of semen".

Because nothing says 'classy lady' like a decolletage covered in synthetic spangle. Of course, this isn't just a tawdry gimmick, "it is a visual marker of chaos turned perfection through an act of beauty and lust." And it makes you look like you didn't even bother to wash after the last time your coitus was interruptused.

In the interests of accuracy, there are two distinct designs available, one presumably representing the benefits of improved motility. Or at least a half-decent aim.

If you have $420 to spare, you might want to blow your wad on one of these precious pieces. According to Leah's website, each item is handmade, although I'd prefer not to think about how.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Watch the skies

The hateful bigots behind the 'National Organisation for Marriage' could be forgiven for congratulating themselves for their prescience last week, as it looked as though their dark predictions were finally coming true.

In case you haven't been following the news, NOM is a right wing movement dedicated to spreading hate, fear and intolerance. Somehow, they've convinced themselves that gay marriage is the biggest threat to modern life since the mushroom cloud of nuclear war.

According to their skewed logic, two men pledging their love for one another, threatened to undermine the integrity of marriage and render the entire concept obsolete. Although strangely, no such campaign was mounted against infidelity or divorce.

Inspired by the apocalyptic imagery of the Cold War, they ran a national ad campaign last year to highlight the threat to society posed by gay couples choosing to have their relationships publicly recognised in a ceremony of commitment. The ad depicted a bunch of concerned citizens (played by some of the least convincing actors outside of the home shopping network) glancing nervously at the gathering storm-clouds.

It all seemed so preposterously melodramatic, as though a thunderstorm of gay was about to shower the nation. Nonsense right?

Maybe not, at least according to last week's weather forecast for Texas. The meterologists at San Angelo, Texas' KLST station warned of a giant pink wang looming over the region, threatening to put the 'cum' in cumulonimbus and deposit a motherload of God-knows-what on the innocent people of the Lonestar state.

It's unclear whether or not the gigantic cock ever materialised, but I hope that anyone caught in the eventual downpour used the appropriate protection. Otherwise we can look forward to widespread reports of an mass outbreak of pink-eye.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Hard to Miss

When Pretty Woman was released in 1990, not everyone was taken in by its post-modern take on the Cinderella story. Arguing that the film couldn't have been more fantastical if Julia Roberts had faced off against a flaming Balrog, critics accused movie producers of portraying the world's oldest profession in an irresponsibly positive light.

They had a point. Vivian may have been treated to a shopping spree on Rodeo Drive, but for most streetwalkers, real life is decidedly less romanticised. And it's fraught with danger.

As well as STDs, dubious clients and unscrupulous pimps, prostitutes have a whole bunch of other risks to contend with. Thongs can cause terrible chaffing, stilettos lead to all manner of calf and ankle complaints, and then there's the hairspray asphyxiation. As careers go, it's more fraught with peril than mining in Chile.

Over in Spain, another occupational hazard has been identified for those hard-working ladies of the night - rural traffic. Apparently, hookers plying their trade outside of the Lleida city limits are hard to spot and have been told to don the appropriate safety apparel.

The women have a simple choice (no, not in-the-front or round-the-back) - wear a high-visibility yellow vest or face a €40 fine. Local police claim that they're not unfairly targeting the girls, but the policy was necessary because they actually pose a danger to drivers.  If nothing else, it's going to make curb-crawling a hell of a lot easier. 

Still, you have to feel for the women who are now expected to ensnare sexually frustrated yokels whilst wrapped in nylon outerwear seldom seen outside of a building site. Any man who finds the luminous yellow vest sexually appealing probably isn't looking for a comely young lass to spend the evening with. 

Then again, what do I know? The Telegraph reports that a recent survey found that one in four men has paid for sex, so in theory the women could dress themselves in binbags and still not see a dip in trade. And if they decided to add a few bedazzlements to pretty up their work-wear, they'd be even easier to spot on a moonlit country road. Everybody wins. 

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Tough to swallow

Attempting to lose weight in the US must be almost impossible. After all, it's the home of the all-you-can-eat buffet, where competitive eating is considered a viable Olympic sport, and where a 'side order' is so-called because it's the size of a home extension.

Everything's bigger in the States - the portions, the plates, even the disabled bathrooms (which are large enough to execute a three-point turn in a stretch limo without hitting the stalls). It's hardly surprising that there's widespread concern about the childhood obesity epidemic, especially when you see things like the 'world's largest gummy worm' being advertised.

Looking more like something you'd find coiled on the shelf of a Victoria's Secret, the jumbo gelatin treat is a gargantuan python of corn-syrupy goodness. It even boasts a 'ribbed body and a five-inch girth'. Sold yet?

To be fair, it's only available on the website, which offers all manner of 'curiously awesome products', but surely it's only a matter of time before the sugary serpent becomes a mainstay of the pick 'n' mix counter.

There's something deeply disturbing about watching someone trying to deep-throat a gargantuan coil of multi-coloured sweetness. Especially since it closely resembles the scene in Poltergeist 2 where Craig T Nelson disgorges a grotesque vomit monster after unwittingly swallowing the demonic grub in his bottle of tequila.

If the gummy worm doesn't test your gag reflex, viewing the promotional video might. Just try not to wince as the poor actor attempts to chew his way through a rubbery rope of pure calories that took a whole herd of cattle hooves to create.

Remember in Ghostbusters, when Gozer told our heroes to choose their fate? Well, the gummy worm works a little like that. Do you want to die from a sudden intake of 4,000 calories, or the inevitable onset of type 2 diabetes? Perhaps you're more traditional, and just like the idea of a plain old choking hazard.

OK, I admit it. It's revolting, grotesque and offensive. Which is why I'll be spending my money on the world's largest gummi bear instead. It's just as potentially life-threatening, but so much cuter.

Monday, 25 October 2010

I spy, with my augmented eye

For some people, plain old reality just isn't enough. Like the pre-pneumatic chest of a million starlets, we demand augmentation and enhancement.

In an age of 'anything's possible' computer programming, we now have the technology to wrap the entire world in a shimmering layer of 3D gloss. Suddenly, we have the opportunity to see the world as our smartphones see it – liberally splattered with geotags, virtual signposts and downloadable content. Oh happy days.

Finding your nearest fast-food outlet or tube station is one thing, but now the technology (coupled with widespread GPS availability) is taking a somewhat sinister turn. BeenVerified, which proudly declares itself as "America's #1 Background Check", has developed a new app (available on iPhone and Android platforms) which enables you to 'find sex offenders in your neighbourhood'. Maybe sex offenders make better cappuccinos than Starbucks?

In an inappropriately jaunty tone, the company's website says "Sex offenders in the neighborhood? Find out instantly with our easy to use sex offender map on every report!" If someone wants to wander round a children's playground looking through their smartphone's viewfinder on the hunt for virtual nonces, it's probably a good idea that the app be 'easy to use' – anything too complicated would only confuse them.

According to a news article on, the $1.99 app "combines publicly available data from the sex offender registry with geolocation and augmented reality to make that data more useful and accessible to consumers."

The standard street-view displays your immediate vicinity, overlaid with pins and red dots, which then reveal "detailed information about [local] offenders, including their names, addresses, photos (if available) and the offenses they were convicted for." Presumably the inevitable update will also offer directions to the nearest Home Depot so that would-be vigilantes can stock up on flaming torches and pitchforks.

Reading stories like this can sometimes make for a rather bewildering experience – it all seems so plausible, and yet ridiculous at the same time. After all, no-one wants to be caught out believing a bulletin from The Onion. But BeenVerified has partnered with the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) and even pledged five percent of its proceeds to the charity.

But I wonder how much they'll offer to all the people who get mistakenly lynched by dim-witted justice-seekers the first time the app suffers from a glitch. Remember, we live in a world where Daily Star readers firebombed a paediatricians office because they couldn't spell. 

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Bully for you

Being a newspaper columnist must be a piece of piss. Flick through the papers every day, find a few snippets of news to comment on, and then email 800 words off to the editor on a Friday afternoon. Other than that, just stick a bulldog clip on the back of your head every couple of years and pose for a new headshot.

Which explains why Amanda Platell always looks so smug. Every week she gets to round up a few people she doesn't like (it must take her five days just to draw up a short-list) make a few ad hominem attacks, and then laugh all the way to the bank. Not that I imagine hers is a life with much laughter in it.

In today's edition of the Mail on Sunday, the Wicked Witch of West London takes potshots at Wayne Rooney, Cheryl Cole, Paul Gascoigne, Katy Perry, Russell Brand, Kate Moss, Evan Davies, Nick Clegg, Gordon Brown, Charlotte Church and even Ann Widdecombe. It's not so much an editorial as just throwing a handful of darts at a rolodex.

I wouldn't mind so much if the writing showed any kind of incisive insight. Unfortunately, what we get are gems like "Cheryl Cole proudly poses beside her Madame Tussauds’ dummy and says: ‘It’s mind-blowing, it looks so real.' I’m not so sure. One of them’s got lifeless hair extensions, painted-on tan, improbably pert breasts, acrylic nails and an expressionless forehead.
And the other one’s a waxwork." Someone give the woman Noel Coward's dressing gown - she's earned it.

Maybe it's just yesterday's post weighing on my mind, but I can't help feeling that Amanda is just another malicious bully, although with a slightly bigger vocabulary than the average wedgie-giver. As a die-hard conservative, she longs for simpler, more gentile times when people were nice to one another. But she has to admit that she fully embraces all the ugliness and cruelty of what she dismissively labels 'Planet Celebrity'.

Here's hoping that someone takes pity on Cheryl, Wayne et al, and records an uplifting YouTube video for them. Hang in there guys and don't worry - It gets better.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

It gets better

There's a growing controversy in the States this week, as it emerged that retail giant Walmart is stocking a book by Mormon author Janice Barrett, called 'Chased By An Elephant'. Although it sounds like a book celebrating the illegal ivory trade, it's actually designed to make gay kids hate themselves a little bit more, as if they needed the help.

Subtitled 'The Gospel Truth About Today’s Stampeding Sexuality' (hence the somewhat tenuous elephant reference), the book aims to keep kids on the straight and narrow. With the emphasis on the 'straight'.

According to the foreword, "The number of our young people involved in sexual sins has greatly increased in recent years. Some of the most stalwart-seeming youth find themselves involved in pornography, fornication, promiscuity, homosexuality, and the like... This harmful exposure is evident in the lives of many young people through a variety of psychological problems including anxiety, depression, gender confusion, addictions, and even suicidality." 

Graham apparently knows what she's talking about, since she even roped her own son Graham in to write an introduction to Mommie Dearest's book. Tearing himself away from alternating bouts of furious masturbation and violent sobbing, the 'cured' homosexual claims that his faith enabled him to turn away from the “deceitful and predatory nature of the ‘gay’ lifestyle.” Which is silly, because everyone knows that you should never turn your back on a 'predatory homosexual' - that exactly what they want you to do. 

Although he may be trapped in a false existence that denies his very nature, but at least his mother's vehement abhorrence of the 'gay lifestyle' hasn't yet tipped him over the edge into what she (and the FDA) have termed 'suicidality'. 

Sadly, countless other young men and women aren't quite so lucky. The last few months have seen a disturbing wave of teenage suicides, brought about by an epidemic of homophobic bullying. Tyler Clementi, Zach Harrington, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase, Billy Lucas and Cody J. Barker have all made the news in the States recently, by taking their own lives - leaving their despairing families wondering what they could have done to improve matters before it was too late. 

Dan Savage, the sharp-tongued but warm-hearted columnist, decided enough was enough and launched a YouTube campaign called 'It Gets Better'. Although it's only been running for a month, countless celebrities, gay and straight, have added their voices to the project - imploring kids to think twice before doing anything rash. Particularly powerful are the videos uploaded by successful gays and lesbian public figures, who are living proof that acceptance, tolerance and happiness are just around the corner. 

This week, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama added their voices to the mix, in eloquent, thoughtful and sensitively handled pieces. However, given the US government's reticence to act on Don't Ask, Don't Tell and marriage equality, campaigners are concerned that these two prominent politicians are sending out mixed messages - 'It might get better, but don't expect any help from us'.

The real issue is the fact that these videos focus on how to overcome bullying, rather than addressing the source of the bullying. As long as religious bodies continue to fight equality, and argue that homophobia and hate-speech are their God-given rights, then kids will continue to take their own lives.

When Obama tells young people that there are "people out there who care about you and love you just the way you are" he forgets that, in many cases, the parents he has in mind are the worst bullies of all. Parents like Janice Barrett. And sure, kids could go to their teachers if they're being bullied, as long as they don't expect the teacher to be able to show any kind of familiarity or empathy with the situation. After all, Seth Stambaugh in Oregon was fired for explaining to a student that he was gay and therefore unable to marry.

Savage's campaign is a fantastic initiative, and has dovetailed nicely with similar campaigns such as the Trevor Project and GLAAD's Spirit Day on 20th October. Gay kids need to know that it really does get better. But in order for them to believe it, the rest of society has to do its bit in order to keep that promise.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

I'll take a detention

Maybe it was just the school I went to, but the idea of having a crush on a teacher would have been about as socially acceptable as declaring myself a 13 year-old necrophiliac. The time-honoured tradition of fantasising about the hot school teacher, who removed her horn-rimmed glasses and slowly shook out her raven locks, always seemed to be about as reality based as a press release about the stability of the Beckhams' marriage.

Nonethless, the aprocryphal stories of student/teacher couplings continue to proliferate, often finding themselves portrayed in teen TV shows and pop songs. Back in 2002, happy-go-rocky boyband Busted launched themselves off the back of a lusty song about a horny teenager and his MILF-alike teacher. And the otherwise sexless Dawson's Creek saw its first season based around the affair between high school underachiever Pacey and his amorous educator.

This is one cultural trope that refuses to stay behind after school and do its lines. So it's interesting to see that parents in Milan have taken a pre-emptive strike against such extra-curricular activities, by withdrawing their kids from a prestigious school because the teacher was just too damn sexy.

She may have three degrees and be a fully-qualified teacher, but it seems that Ileana Tacconelli was inspiring pupils to use their rulers for something other than geometry. Why else would their parents decide to whip their kids out of the otherwise well-respected Catholic school?

To be fair, not all parents have been quite so incensed by the secondary school sexpot's desk-side manner. In particular, fathers of students at San Carlo Catholic High School "have stood by Miss Tacconelli." Presumably close enough to see down her blouse. 

It probably didn't help matters when it emerged that the erotically-charged educator was also a former model, especially when "racy photographs and video footage" popped up online. Maybe you had a teacher that you'd have liked to see in hot-pants and a bra - my brain turns to stone at the very thought of it. 

Nonetheless, all it took was for one disgruntled house-frau to complain to the headteacher that Ileana was "too attractive and a distraction" for the story to hit the front pages of Silvio Berlusconi's newspaper.

Tacconelli responded to the controversy, presumably whilst spilling crumbs of a Cadbury Flake down her gaping top, by saying "All I will say is that if I had wanted to be a model or a showgirl I would have done it when I was younger and prettier. I have been a teacher here for three years and I have never had any problems. There is nothing really to say and I have the backing of the school and the parents." Well quite. I'm sure many of the parents are right behind her - close enough to put another crease in her skirt. 

According to Osvaldo Songini, head of the upper school, "Ileana passed all the very strict requirements to be a teacher here and we are very satisfied." I guess that means she was able to explain the periodic table in a wet t-shirt. 

Sognini also stated "For us here, from don Geranzani down she is an optimum teacher and she has all the qualifications needed. We knew all about her past as she never kept it hidden." Or her lacy bra straps, for that matter. Moral of the story? You shouldn't judge a frayed textbook by its cover. 

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

My favourite mistake

Just ask anyone who's been shoved into a pair of white tights on the Ricki Lake show - they'll tell you that makeovers don't always work. It's nice to revamp your appearance now and then, but sometimes you just end up looking like Ann Widdecombe in a ballgown

Which is how the brand team at GAP must be feeling after last week's aborted attempt at updating their image fell flat with the public. To be fair, brand overhauls often backfire - remember New Coke? Somebody in Atlanta figured 'If it ain't broke, fuck it up anyway', and changed the formula of a drink that had been successfully flying off the shelves for a hundred years. 

The public reaction was furious, as though their favourite soda had been replaced with a bottle of piss-flavoured mouthwash. Coca-Cola promptly went from backlash to backtrack, and promptly reintroduced 'Classic Coke'. And the world's rapidly decaying teeth were once again clenched in a satisfied grin. 

Perhaps the brand bigwigs who decided to reinvent GAP figured they'd have an easier job on their hands. The products are well made, affordably priced and reasonably stylish, but it's a tough brand to get passionate about. It's a little like adding yourself to the Facebook fanpage for Cash In The Attic or Vileda Super Mops

So everyone was surprised when the company unveiled its new logo last week and the public outcry began. People were horrified that so much of their beloved logo had changed - but then again, with just three letters and a blue square, there was only so much that the designer could do. 

Out went the capitalised serif font, and in came the sentence-case sans-serif alternative. Meanwhile, that all-important blue square got shoved behind the P, like an ornamental plate hanging on a pensioner's wall. 

The public reaction was swift and brutal - this was the branding equivalent of Meg Ryan unveiling her new face. GAP had no choice but to resurrect the original logo and issue a mea culpa to the waffle-sweater loving populace. 

No-one likes to admit that they've made a mistake. But the cynic in me suspects that this wasn't actually the grievous error that the press coverage would have us believe. In the end, the only thing that this exercise has proven, is that even a taupe, loose-fitting company like GAP can have an army of passionate followers. And it's managed to snag a bunch of free column inches detailing just how enthusiastic its supporters are about the brand. Someone give the PR team a pat on the back. 

Monday, 18 October 2010

Sticking it where the sun don't shine

The Hollywood bean-counters are struggling to understand how the 3D second sequel to a movie based on a cable TV show managed to break Autumn box office records this last weekend. I guess nobody was expecting a film about a bunch of middle-aged adolescents abusing each others' genitals, to earn $50 million. The shock was akin to being catapulted into the air in a shit-filled Portaloo - just one of the stunts offered in the latest installment of Jackass.

No-one's ever been able to fully explain the appeal of Johnny Knoxville and his calamitous cohorts, except for that fact they display a singularly unique lack of vanity or restraint in their pursuit of the ultimate thrill.

Snarky commentators have been content to sit back and condemn the boys for their idiotic exploits, but they're missing the point. It may be an oxymoron, but the Jackass gang are knowingly mindless.

Given their propensity for penile abuse and amateur proctology, it's easy to point the finger (sheathed in a rubber glove) and accuse them of having latent homosexual leanings. But it seems that the boys don't so much lean, as bend over willingly.

In a new interview with Vanity Fair, timed to coincide with the new film's release, Johnny and Steve-O were able to take the flatulence out of interviewer Eric Spitznagel's sails, as the journalist attempted to get under the skin of the stars' obsession with man-on-man action.

In a surprisingly articulate response to a question about all the "anal play and nipple torture and testicle touching", Steve-O explained that "We always thought it was funny to force a heterosexual MTV generation to deal with all of our thongs and homoerotic humor. In many ways, all our gay humor has been a humanitarian attack against homophobia. We’ve been trying to rid the world of homophobia for years, and I think gay people really dig it too."

So the next time you see a bunch of men inserting fireworks into each other's orifices and lighting the fuse in fits of giggles, don't be so quick to judge. It turns out, they're making a political statement about close-mindedness and intolerance, as well as recommending a cost-effective solution for anal depilation. And that's something that you can try at home.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Normal service resumes

And just like that, the holiday was over. Our last couple of days were spent ticking the last few items off our 'must see' list for San Francisco, trudging swollen-footed around such notable sights as the Museum of Modern Art and the Palace of Fine Arts. Along the way we made enough return trips to Abercrombie & Fitch to constitute a formal pilgrimage.

But that's all over now - we're home and unpacked, which means two things - a shitload of laundry and about fourteen hours of X-Factor on the Sky+ to wade through. So the washing machine's spinning happily, and so's the disc drive of the PVR unit. But you're already up-to-date with the runny mascara and last-minute changes, so I won't bore you with a delayed reaction to something you've already forgotten.

However, what did strike me, as we sat down to catch up on all the action from the last couple of weeks, was the fact that the press are still falling over themselves to report on every side-eyed glance between the judges, and every potential conflict between the contestants. And it looks as though there's plenty of backstage gossip for them to be getting on with.

So say a big 'thank you' to the TV gods who saw fit to give us the gift of Katie Waissel - a girl who makes Norma Desmond seem shy and unassuming. Demonstrating a flair for the dramatic that made good on her promise to be a star in "music, acting, fashion and medicine", this Lady Gaga/Marie Curie hybrid turned on the waterworks at the judges' home stage of the competition.

Attempting to sing Charlie Chaplin's Smile from under a pair of false eyelashes that looked like something Pepe Le Pew would rape, she broke down because the song was "very emotional". After a mini breakdown, she managed to pull things together to perform it properly second time around. Even Cheryl Cole called her on being a drama queen, and that's someone who thought Ashley was good marriage material.

When she's not strolling through a cornfield twirling Mary Poppins' parasol for her close-ups, Katie is actually a fiercely competitive contestant, and has even roped in her family to fight her corner. Today's Mail features an exclusive story about Katie's mother, a 'boutique owner' from Harefield, Middlesex, who's complaining that Tesco is exerting its considerable might behind frumpy check-out worker Mary Byrne.

Smelling another SuBo-shaped phenomenon, the supermarket giant is backing its home-grown heroine, perhaps in hope that they'll score an another exclusive distribution deal for the inevitable album. After all, those Nadine Coyle CDs aren't likely to fly off the shelves.

According the Mail's coverage, Tesco has sent emails to its 300,000 employees reminding them of Byrne's appearance in the live shows. Although, anyone who's ever read any kind of internal communications messaging knows how desperate they are for content. Getting an employee into the UK's most popular show is quite a coup for Tesco, it's hardly surprising that they'd want to shout it from the service station rooftops.

Always keen to sniff out a scandal, the Mail points out that they were the ones to break the story last week that "a rival chain had complained about the X-Factor's promotion of Tesco. The company was mentioned eight times in just three shows featuring Byrne." Given that the "I work on a till at Tesco" has now replaced "I'm doing this for my dead Dad" in the sob-story stakes, I'm not sure anyone at the UK's number one supermarket would be overjoyed by the coverage.

To hear Mary talk about her day job, you'd think she was forced to fill in for Hercules, cleaning the Augean Stables with her toothbrush for 18 hours a day. Not swiping loose vegetables over a scanner and packing a few bags.

Nonetheless, Tesco has remained upbeat and supportive of Mary, denying it was attempting to influence people's vote, but adding "She has reached the X-Factor finals on her talent alone." Which is more than can be said for Katie, who's yet to find a song that doesn't sound better on the second go-round. Her mother can bitch about Tesco's influence all she like, but Katie's biggest deficit is her like-ability, not a network of supportive work colleagues.

Sour grapes? That'll be aisle five, next to the bananas.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

That's what friends are for

Well, it's been a busy few days, and I'm currently munching from a pack of wasabi peas that feel a little like the US military are firing napalm through my sinuses. At least it means that my nostrils will be hair-free for a few years.

So, what have your intrepid explorers been up to in the last couple of days? Well, with our transit system tickets fully activated, we've attempted to cut down on the amount of hillwalking we've undertaken. Not least because my new foot-gloves (see previous post) feel as though Satan's minions are applying angle-grinders to each of my toes concurrently. It's like elective surgery, without the benefit of a noticeable outcome.

Anyway, yesterday we arose at stupid o'clock to get down to Pier 33 in time to collect our tickets for the Alcatraz tour. I was a little worried that the confirmation email hadn't fully downloaded to my iPhone, but once again, the customer service agent was so helpful that it didn't really seem to matter. So with tickets in hand, we joined the pre-boarding queue, which included a stop-off in a photo area where your picture was taken in front of a blue screen.

This meant that advanced computer technology (AKA Photoshop 101) could insert a background of Alcatraz island and charge you $22 for the privilege. Given that we were just moments away from being able to do the same thing, but for real, this seemed like an unnecessary extravagance. Nonetheless, we grinned like idiots but folded our arms defensively, so that we'd have a good reason for rejecting the pictures when the hard sell began upon our return to the mainland.

The Alcatraz tour was much as I remembered it as an impressionable 14 year-old, the main difference being that the audio tour has been upgraded from Walkman to MP3. It was also noticeable that the main prisoner stories being recounted from the island's 'glory days' make no mention of the 'Murder in the First' years, which saw one prisoner tortured, and ultimately murdered, for daring to fight back againt the inhumane regime. Maybe they just don't care for Kevin Bacon. I can understand that.

We stopped off for lunch at Fisherman's Wharf, where Doug fought his way through a steak sandwich so tough that it would have given Alex Reid a black eye, and I had a clam chowder that neglected to include any clams. But the waiter was cute so he still got a 20% tip. That's just the way we roll.

Today, we insisted on a late start and a low-key itinerary. That meant breakfast at Orphan Andy's diner, a place so authentically retro that you half expect racially segregated dining booths. Thankfully it's a far more progressive place than that, with the friendliest welcome that you could ever hope for without the involvement of hand lotion.

Sitting in that pleather booth, chatting to the proprietors about the finer points of Hitchcock's Vertigo, I suddenly realised how misunderstood the American people are. It's so easy to dismiss them as immune to irony. But that's not the case at all. Sure, they may take themselves a little seriously at times, but ultimately, they see the best in everyone.

If they talk to you on the bus or subway, it's not because they want to steal your bag. And if they ask you if you're "still working on that meal", it's not because they're eyeing up the 15% tip that seems to be mandatory over here. It's because they're genuinely interested.

Wherever we've been, whether it's a wine-tasting in the Ghirardelli, breakfast in a diner or after-work cocktails in the Castro, everyone is keen to include you in the conversation. When everyone's so sincere and friendly, there's no place for sarcasm or cynicism. And that makes for a refreshing change of pace.

Monday, 11 October 2010

We're not in Kansas anymore Toto

Ah, San Francisco. Where Tony Bennett left his heart, and the gays, their underwear. This morning we had a later start than usual, thanks to our gradual acclimatisation to the time difference. So we sat in the Castro to enjoy a fresh orange juice in the warm morning sun. An off-duty drag queen sat darning a costume, happy hand-holding couples strolled up the street with their tiny, overdressed dogs, and an old bear sat in the middle of it all as naked as the day he was born (although, I imagine, significantly more tumescent).

Having gotten the hang of the muni transit system, we decided that today would involve less walking than the previous day. Admittedly, we did overdo it a little, with a packed agenda that would have a triathlete breathing into a paper bag. As if the miles and miles of hillwalking wasn't enough, we even rented bikes and cycled along the sea front, then across the Golden Gate bridge. The official guide suggested that we keep going all the way to Sausalito, but I sensed that Doug's patience was growing as thin as the soles of his overworked shoes. Thankfully, most of the return journey was downhill, and unencumbered by the crowds of gormless tourists that had plagued our outbound slog.

It's Fleet Week in San Francisco, which means that the city is awash with seamen (steady on) as all the naval ships come to the city and give their crews shore leave for a few days. It's a uniform fetishist's idea of heaven.

We watched the airshow from a cafe by the water, and marvelled at how impossible it is to deduce the cost of a meal based on the prices in a menu. Aside from constantly attempting to calculate the equivalent price in sterling, there's the sales tax to think of. Then there's the tip, which here in the US is supposed to be between 15 and 25% of your total bill. On top of that, we discovered a new surcharge called the 'Healthy San Francisco' charge - this was a new scheme introduced by the city's mayor to force bars and restaurants to pay for healthcare for food service professionals. Which is all very commendable, but it does mean that the bill can sometimes run to several pages.

We took the opportunity to have a good mosey around the Castro area, which has a pretty good selection of bars, restaurants and shops. There are some great store names as well, from the 'Squat and Gobble Creperie' to 'The Sausage Factory' pizzeria. Oh, and don't forget the 'Hand Job Nail Spa'. When it comes to naming your business, the smuttier the better. Surely it won't be too long before they stop trying to be funny, and just go for all-out rudeness. Meet you at the 'Fuck Me Harder Pattiserie'.

Where was I? Oh, that's right, shopping. Having marvelled at the extraordinary variety of items available that can be inserted into the human body (not to mention the eye-watering size of them) we moved on to a more mainstream shopping experience.

I was looking for some kind of light walking shoe, and ended up buying a bizarre pair of Vibram FiveFingers. I know that sounds more like something you'd buy in one of the afore-mentioned sex shops, but I promise they're entirely legitimate footwear. They're like clingy, rubberised gloves for your feet and apparently change your entire posture and walking style by "emulating the sensation of being barefoot". I could have just taken my regular shoes off and saved myself a hundred dollars, but figured 'what the hell'. Then I looked down and thought 'what the hell?' From the ankle down I look like an Afro-Carribean hobbit. I'm impressed so far, but no doubt I'll change my mind when I awake in the night with crippling back-ache.

Blame it on the salesman. Unlike a British shop assistant who'd struggle to muster the energy to tut in my direction, the sales people here are so incredibly friendly, you almost feel like buying something out of gratitude. They greet you on your way in, they thank you for your visit when you leave, and they know everything there is to know about every item in stock. Anyone who works in the service industry should be forced to visit the US for a couple of days as part of their induction programme. As a consequence of all this 'super awesome' service, my bank manager and I will be forced to sit down and have a frank conversation when I get back to the UK.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Be sure to wear a flower in your hair

Well, here we are again. Greetings from the gayest place on Earth, other than Disneyland or Living TV. We're now in San Francisco, where the weather is glorious, the flags are rainbow and the vistas are hilly.

Our last day in New York was spent retracing our steps and visiting the last few places we'd missed, lugging our ridiculously heavy carry-on bags with us. In just five days we'd managed to tick off everything on Beth's alarmingly comprehensive itinerary. Our every movement was planned with military precision and we left no stone unturned in uncovering everything that the city had to offer.

For a special treat on our final night, Beth took us to Bobby Flay's Bar Americain for the most insanely tasty steak we've ever had. Everything about the dinner was perfect, from the blue cheese dip served with homemade potato chips, to the buttered spinach and goat's cheese cauliflower that we ordered, if only to remind our bodies what vegetables are. And the waitress was so effortlessly attentive and psychically attuned to our needs, I started to suspect the involvement of dark forces.

Our final moments in New York were spent hammering our credit cards on Fifth Avenue. Not so much retail therapy, as retail rehabilitation followed by a 12-step programme. We spent a particularly long time in Abercrombie & Fitch, thanks in part to the prevalence of semi-naked male models standing around the store with pouts you could rest a coffee cup on.

For a clothing store, there's very little emphasis on buying or selling clothes. There may be five floors in the flagship store, but they only had about eight different items to choose from. Everywhere you turn it's the same red lumberjack shirt, on the staff, on the mannequins and on every display table. A&F has also taken its lead from the supermarkets that pipe the fresh bread smell into their air-con system. Only here, its the overpowering Abercrombie cologne which gradually works its way into your system until you're incapable of breathing without it.

Still, it was with heavy hearts and even heavier suitcases that we took a cab to JFK for the second half of our trip. I was originally dismayed to learn that we would be travelling with American Airlines, since my last experience on-board an AA flight was like being stuck in an airborne rest-home where the daily activity involved getting the residents to serve lukewarm coffee with a sneer.

Maybe it was something in the air (perhaps even those A&F pheremones still seeping out of my epidermis) but everyone on board was in such a good mood. The staff we're falling over themselves to help (not literally, thank goodness) and the passengers were all so friendly and courteous to one another, offering to swap seats, help each other with bags. Even the in-flight movie seemed to have been re-edited for content to make it more upbeat.

Six hours later, and we were settling into our little B&B in the heart of the Castro. That's San Francisco's famous gay district, where even the bins have rainbow stickers on them, and every store has a comprehensive range of porn to suit every taste - irrespective of their main product offering.

Drinking is a pretty expensive business here - where a small glass of wine will set you back about eight dollars. So we were glad to find a bar that offered potent $5 cocktails and appeared to be playing Lady Gaga videos on a loop. It was also only a short stagger back to our accommodation, which was handy.

Today was an opportunity to get our bearings, so that meant more walking. My legs are now three inches shorter than they were at the start of this trip. We visited the port, the TransAmerica pyramid, Grace Cathedral, Nob Hill (that was a disappointment) and a little place called Macondray Lane in Russian Hill.

That's where you'll find a rickety set of wooden steps that played a fundamental role in Channel 4 and PBS's seminal mini-series 'Tales of the City', based on the books by Armistead Maupin. It was incredible to finally see the steps for real, although I'm not entirely sure that Doug shared my enthusiasm for this tiny piece of pop-culture history. Especially not after trudging across half of San Francisco's most unforgiving hills to get there. *Message to the creators of Dorling Kindersley's otherwise excellent travel guides - "Your maps are beautifully drawn and annotated, but please include topographical details next time."

Attempting to shave a few hundred metres off our return journey, I navigated us towards the beautiful sounding, and historically significant 'Tenderloin' part of town. Turns out, it's the kind of place where even Amy Winehouse would be looking over her shoulder nervously. Crack addicts, homeless people and anyone who enjoys standing in piss-soaked trousers yelling at street-signs call the Tenderloin home. Thankfully, so too did a friendly passing bear. Concerned for our innocence, and our highly attractive photographic equipment, he swept to the rescue and guided us back towards civilisation, cameras still intact.

Who know what adventures tomorrow holds. In a city like San Francisco, you never can tell...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

No pity in the naked city

Here's a news flash for the uninitiated - October in New York can be chilly. Bring a jacket, hell, bring two.

Our second day in the city saw us heading downtown (where the lights are bright) to visit SoHo, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown and Bleeker Street - home to the hippy movement. Looking up at the architecture, you're struck by how many fire escapes there are. Ladders, walkways and drop down ramps are stuck on the side of every building, as though the entire city is under constant threat of spontaneous combustion.

Under heavy skies and a constant persistent drizzle, we made our way to Christopher Street and and made a pilgrimage to the Stonewall Pub - birthplace of the modern gay rights movement. It all kicked off in 1969, on the night of Judy Garland's funeral, when the gays decided that their favourite night-spot had endured one-too-many police raids. The bar's regulars decided that they were only going to kneel in subjugation when they felt like it, and thus was born the Stonewall riots. The moral of the story here - never spill a drag queen's drink.

With Beth resigned to a convalescent home for the terminally knackered, we were on our own yesterday, so tripped off to Battery Park to pick up our tickets for the Statue ferry tour. For the cruise across the harour we sat up top, on metal benches so uncomfortable that the Marquis De Sade would have considered them inhumane. The sky was also rolling with grey cloud, giving the entire panorama a rather depressing palour.

We followed the prerecorded instructions about how to disembark the ferry, which seem to be voiced by Reverend Lovejoy, and called in at the visitor centre to pick up our audio tour mp3 players. It's a long time since I took an audio tour, but the experience was not dissimilar to the training level at the start of 'Tomb Raider' - "Walk to the bottom of the steps, take a left and then look at the flagpole." I wouldn't have been too surprised if the voiceover had instructed me to vault over the nearest wall and practice my somersaults.

Although the audio tour felt a little too prescriptive at times (and could have benefitted from a 'yeah, I get it, move on' button) it was pretty interesting. For instance, we learned that Bartholdi, who conceived and designed the Statue of Liberty, was actually just recycling old ideas he'd had for a lighthouse in Egypt, inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes. And there was me thinking that Michael Mann was the first person to repurpose ideas from a lesser work to great critical acclaim.

The voiceover also told us about the challenge of creating a suitable pedestal on which the statue could be displayed. The winning design by Richard Morris Hunt managed to be classic and awe-inspiring, without detracting from the giant green woman that would stand on top of it. As the audio tour explained "It was particularly hard for an architect to design something that would never be noticed". Perhaps Hunt should have tried his hand at copywriting in an agency - producing output so inconsequential, it disappears from your brain before you've even finished reading it.

While the French were busy raising money to pay for the statue, which was their gift to the American people (mix-tapes and friendship bracelets don't have the same impact), the US was facing a similar challenge. Legendary publisher Pulitzer used his newspaper 'The World' to encourage members of the public to contribute whatever they could to the Pedestal Fund, in exchange for a mention in the paper. Suddenly, Peter Jackson's idea of selling credits in the extended editions of Lord of the Rings does't seem like quite such an odd concept.

There's a great display of Liberty memorabilia in the museum, including one startling piece of WW2 propaganda - "That liberty shall not perish from the earth - buy liberty bonds." The image on the poster depicted a decapitated statue. All that was missing was the giant squid/lobster beast from Cloverfield in the background.

Having spent long enough staring up liberty's skirt to qualify as a gynaecological engineer, we took the ferry over to Ellis Island - which during a 40 year period managed to process over 12 million immigrants. Interestingly, the audio tour here directed us to the first floor 'registry room', pointing out that the steps themselves were part of the screening process for would-be immigrants. Doctors would stand at the baloney to observe whether anyone had difficulty handling the stairs. Of course, the helpful audio guide also pointed out that any burger-munchers who couldn't handle the stairs today could always take the elevator.

Our final destination yesterday was Ground Zero, and the 9/11 memorial museum. Although the content was compelling and emotional, there's something strangely distancing about seeing an event you observed in real time, now represented by dust-covered relics in temperature-controlled cases. Only nine years have passed since the towers fell, but the museum concept makes it feel more like a hundred. Perhaps that's what the people of New York need in order for their wounds to heal.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Empire State of Mind

Greetings from the Big Apple, and welcome to a different kind of blog for the next few days. Since the promise of free wireless turned out to be something other than the truth, I'm forced to buy a giant cup of coffee in exchange for an hour of free wireless access. That means that I've got more caffeine running through my system than the Red Bull canning factory, and my internet usage has been severely curtailed.

I'm also doing my best to use the iPad on this trip, and I'm discovering that it doesn't really facilitate my kind of tab-happy web browsing - which means it's tough to keep track of eleventy-three different pop culture stories.

So if you're willing to indulge me, p0pvulture will be your shiny, not-quite-so-orange Judith Chalmers, as I peel back the eyelids of the city that never sleeps.

Our first impressions as we arrived at the Gershwin Hotel is that $300 dollars a night doesn't get you a whole lot of space - the 'Superior Double' may boast stripped wooden floorboards, but there's so little space in the room you have to look under the bed to see them. *Note to self - never look under a hotel bed.

The hotel itself is self-consciously 'arty'; the kind of building that ought to have a giant pair of designer glasses across its frontage (no lenses, natch, just the frames). And maybe it's the close proximity of the 'Museum of Sex', but it looks as though the facade is dripping in giant illuminated sperms. Welcome to the world's foremost bukakke hotel...

Yesterday we hit the town with our friend Beth who rose to the challenge of 'official tour guide' with considerable aplomb, except for the fact that she didn't choose the most appropriate footwear. By mid-afternoon, having walked for about fifty blocks, her feet were red raw - a rookie error for a native New Yorker.

Along the way we visited FAO Schwartz, where we tried out the giant piano from Big. I was half expecting to see a sign like the one in Wayne's World ('No Stairway To Heaven') that said 'No Chopsticks'. Turns out, no such sign was necessary, since it's impossible to make music on a keyboard when five shoeless kids are throwing themselves up and down the keys on their knees.

We also went to the Top of the Rock, a rather exciting-sounding experience at Rockefeller Plaza, which justifies them charging guests $21 per person to ride in a lift. When you work with big banking clients you get to travel to the 50th floor for free. Still, the views were spectacular and I was able to take some great pictures of the whole of Manhattan. Suddenly that new camera I bought in Duty Free at Heathrow didn't seem like quite such an unnecessary indulgence.

The thing that really hits you about New York is the sense of space. It makes you realise that most representations of the city that you see in TV and the movies are studio based - either filmed indoors or on a small-scale backlot. They might be able to recreate the architecture and the major landmarks, but without the sense of vastness that you get with the real thing.

Oh, and here's a tip. When you're trying to balance a budget, stay the hell away from Saks Fifth Avenue menswear department. Some might say that $2,000 is a little pricey for a jacket - until you've felt the exquisitely tailored lamb's leather on your skin, I say you don't know what you're talking about. The only problem is, I have to decide whether I want an Armani frock coat or a new car. Decisions, decisions...

For lunch we took the advice of several friends and visited Carnegie Deli - famous for its gargantuan sandwiches. We ordered the 'Ruben' - a gruesome deposit of sliced pastrami, sauerkraut and melted Swiss cheese that looked like something you'd expect to see on the pavement outside a nightclub. After diligently chomping on it for about half an hour, I got the disturbing sensation that the sandwich was actually regenerating.

There seemed to be more on the plate by the time we threw down our forks in defeat, than there had been when we first began our Herculean undertaking. It's worth a visit, provided your skin is thick enough to deal with some of the most unfriendly service you'll ever encounter. I thought we were going to be put in detention for sitting in the wrong seat.

Today we're going to immerse ourselves in the heart and soul of New York - yesterday was like inspecting the city's hair extensions and nail art. Wish us luck!

Friday, 1 October 2010

Between a rock and a hard place

Next time you have a bad day at the office, remind yourself that things could be a whole lot worse. When the low-point of your day is a tedious conference call or a particularly bitter cappuccino, remember that at least you're not stuck half-a-mile underground, watching 32 of your colleagues shit in a bucket.

Unfortunately, that's the grim reality currently facing the Chilean miners who have been trapped in a collapsed copper mine for almost eight weeks. As the rescue effort enters its third long month, the men are holding up remarkably well.

You could scoff that it's a lot easier to cope with the inherent scariness of being trapped in a confined space when that's your daily reality anyway. Nonetheless, even the most stable mind would find itself tested when stuck in the same place for months on end. I work in a pretty nice office, but if we were all locked in, I'm sure we'd have regressed into a 'Lord of the Flies'-style social order before the first weekend rolled around.

It's not all doom and plenty of gloom for the miners though - the relief workers were quick to drill a 700 metre bore hole to supply the men with a few home comforts. Having said that, looking at the infographic on the BBC news site, some of the items seem a little incongruous, given the situation the men find themselves in.

Syringes and vaccines make a lot of sense, as do the aluminium poles for camp beds and vacuum-packed meals. I just hope none of the miners are too picky about the choice of sandwiches - it's not like they can pop back into Subway and ask for extra red onion on their BMT.

The miners have also been sent toothbrushes and paste, illustrated by the BBC with a pack of Colgate Total Whitening. Although that seems like an unnecessary indulgence - in the dim light of a collapsed mine even the Queen Mother would have had a dazzling smile.

Even weirder is the fact that the men have been sent a batch of signed Barcelona shirts. What if some of them don't support the team? The last thing they need is a fight breaking out between rival supporters.

How about a digital camera? Once they've taken a few pictures to show that they're all OK, what else are they going to photograph? Someone's going to end up with a photo album filled with hundreds of shots of inky blackness, punctuated with a few radiant grins.

However, it's testament to the men's resilience that they're still managing to work eight-hour shifts, despite their dire circumstances. With another Tube strike looming on the horizon, as London Underground workers protest job cuts and working conditions, the Chileans' work ethic throws our pampered lives into harsh perspective. I hope Bob Crow is taking note.