Is it time women stopped talking about women?

Recently, I was working with a respected colleague on a content strategy for a female client. Knowing that our client is deeply involved in high-profile forums for women in business and is a regular speaker at high-profile events, I suggested that she might want to build on this.

My male colleague winced, visibly. “The women thing…I don’t know.” His implication was that the subject of women’s inclusion in the industry was old hat. Despite this, in the course of our discussion he went on to  make several references to how male-dominated it was – even mentioning at one point that I was the only woman he’d ever encountered in my sort of role.

During the rest of our conversation, I asked myself: was he right? Having given the matter some reflection, I don’t think so. Here are just a few reasons why.

Talking about women still makes men uncomfortable

When I was born, feminism was already at least a decade past its most violent years. I’m now in my mid-30s now and men still find conversations about women – and female experience – hard to stomach. A week or so ago I had a male colleague tell me that it was TMI to mention periods in the context of an article about a cycle tracking device. Really? This sort of squeamishness is unacceptable. If we want to live in a world where everyone – female, male, gay, straight, cis, trans – can feel comfortable sharing their experience of being a human, we need to shut this discomfort down. And doing so means sharing female narratives and experiences in every context – including the spheres of business and work.

Women still need visibility

The disproportionate male domination of business is not changing quickly enough. While women cute a streak as entrepreneurs, Only 7% of FTSE 100 companies are led by women – and given the fact that more than 50% of the UK’s population is female, we need to keep talking about why that is the case. We can’t keep hiding behind the excuse that motherhood gets in the way either – 20% of UK women never even have children.  We should focus more on the fact that C-level execs are chosen by their peers – and many men don’t understand women enough to see them as peers.  

Women are not an ‘issue’ to be resolved

By implying narratives around women are ‘done’, my colleague was suggesting women have now been successfully absorbed into the male business world and are no longer an ‘issue’ to be resolved. This attitude is problematic because it reinforces the working world as a male space that women have the right to enter but not to change. It also suggests that women need to be pacified – and in the process silenced. Talking about our experience as women is an important way to ensure not only that ‘male’ ceases to be the default, but also that our views and voices shape the world in which we work.

Equality shouldn’t mean being absorbed by men

If we set absorption as the goal for equality, we completely ignore the fact that women’s identity and experience is different – especially in the workplace. As David Parry-Jones has illustrated in his 50 Days of Male Privilege Statements posts, much of what is normal for women is completely unheard of by men. It’s not just a case of being underpaid and overlooked: women frequently have to restructure their careers – either through choice or responsibility – in ways that men don’t. Women rarely have a straight upwards career path and are more likely to make sideways moves. And these experiences have put women at the forefront of developing new ways of working. If we close down narratives around female experience in the workplace, we also close down narratives about, work-life balance, career design and the changing structure of work.

Closing down narratives around women – considering them out of fashion, inconvenient, or already dealt with – reduces the needs and perspectives of a large proportion of the world’s workforce to an afterthought. It also helpfully ignores many ongoing issues that affect people of all genders. As we start to increase our awareness of identities beyond the binary, conversations that challenge the male default are becoming even more vital. And we should all be having them.

Why don’t train companies bother using technology?

It’s 1.30 on Friday afternoon. It’s my lunch hour, but I daren’t consider a sandwich. Instead, I am sat on the floor of a GWR train with my laptop, feeling increasingly queasy as I read and write in discomfort.

This is the second time in a month that I have found myself travelling in this manner. The first was in early March, when, despite clearly selecting a specific train from King’s X to Edinburgh, I ended up with nowhere to sit. What had seemed to me like an opportunity to choose whether I had a preference over the TYPE of seat (aisle/window) was actually a question regarding whether or not I wanted a seat to begin with. Well, of course I did, it takes over 5hrs to get from London to Edinburgh and no-one wants to stand for that long.

I ended up first thinking I’d dropped my reservation – despite not having an accompanying reservation my ticket informed me it was not valid without one – before learning from Virgin I’d never had one in the first place. How was this possible, when I’d chosen and booked for a specific service? I was tired, stressed due to work pressures, and physically not in the best of health – and ended up bursting into tears, crammed into corridor space like cattle with a load of students from ghastly places like Peterborough. What should have been the start of a nice relaxing holiday was stressful and upsetting. Virgin’s team were making no effort to find people seats and their online support suggested I walk up and down the crowded train with my luggage looking for one. To add insult to injury, they had a limited menu and few functioning toilets. The best they had to offer me was a patronising take on “sorry”. I arrived in Edinburgh sullen, hungry, and so exhausted I had to change my plans for the following day.

Getting it better the Great Western way

Today, I actually had a reservation – booked more than a month in advance. However, due to distressing personal circumstances I won’t go into here, I wasn’t able to travel on that train. I booked another ticket this morning- and despite trying several different services, there was no way I could get a reservation unless I travelled First Class for over £200. I tried to get reservations on three different services before starting to worry that perhaps they didn’t make reservations for on-the-day travel – the language was unclear I had no option but to take my chances.

This time, I knew I had no reservation and went looking for a seat. I found one that looked as though it hadn’t been claimed – but that was only because the woman who’d booked it waited – bizarrely – almost half an hour to claim it. By which point all but one of the unreserved or unclaimed seats on the train had been taken.

Unlike Virgin, GWR actually put their staff to work finding seats for passengers, asking passengers to point out spare seats next to them to those without seats and making regular announcements about where seats could be found.

For the first three hours of my journey, I moved between seats that were between reservations (sometimes for only 20 minutes) and the corridor. Sometimes the corridor had up to 15 people crammed into it (GWR assure me there is no legal limit to the number of people that can be carried on a train).

Once I had secured a seat, I wanted some food. To get to the cafe several carriages away, I had to hop over buggies with children in them and step over toddlers playing in the aisles. When I tried to place my order I discovered they had signature-only card machines and as my signature has long been obscured due to the fact that card signature strips seem to accommodate few types of ink, I couldn’t get any food. As I braced myself for the return obstacle course, I changed upon one of their managers: like their Twitter staff, she was charming, calming, kind and accommodating. She listened to me, agreed the journey was terrible and gave me vouchers with which to purchase food. In the 30 seconds it took for me to thank her and hand my vouchers over to the cafe they had closed and I had to wait for a whole new stock to be unpacked. The cafe manager was amiable and chatty and did his best to cheer me up. But it was hard to enjoy my food or regain my seat feeling anything less than extreme anxiety. GWR are compensating for a poor service with great staff – but the stress on passengers remains.

Everyone else is doing it – why can’t you?

There are bigger questions here than simply whether staff help people find seats. For example whether train companies should be overbooking long-distance trains in this way – I can see the sense for short journeys, but very few people will actually want to go without a seat for several hours. Or why aren’t ‘you might have to stand for two hours’ seats cheaper , as they are in theatres? Why aren’t they just marked as ‘standing day tickets’ from the outset instead of making people go through the ‘would you like to book a seat’ charade?

There’s also the question of why – in 2017 – they aren’t making wider use of technology:

  • Why aren’t they showing live booking data – such as which services have seats available to reserve – on their websites like theatres and cinemas have done for a couple of decades?
  • Why – when gig promoters and airlines can manage it – have most train companies failed to discover e-tickets? Only Virgin seem to do this. Travellers shouldn’t have to waste the time they spent getting to the station early so they csn find a seat queuing to collect tickets.
  • Why aren’t they designing their apps so people can see which carriages have the most available seating?
  • Why aren’t they exploring technologies – well tested in other industries – that would allow them to provide an at-a-glance view of where reservations haven’t been claimed, seats are free/about to become free?
  • Why on earth don’t GWR have chip and pin machines when most other places have moved on to contactless?

Any other service provider would either be implementing these measures or would have them in place already. A UK train ticket seems to be just about the only think you can spend over £100 on with no hope of care, customer service, or interest in generating repeat business.

Your B2B Marketing Content is Probably Sexist. Here’s why.

Last week, while watching the video of Mary Beard’s excellent London Review of Books Winter Series lecture on Women in Power, I was struck by her focus on language – in particular on the way in which language which excludes women from power has become part of our everyday lexicon. Women, Beard points out, are often described as “grabbing” or “seizing” power – in other words, taking something that doesn’t belong to them. What’s most striking here is not the use of exclusionary language, but the fact that it is normal enough to pepper the headlines of most popular newspapers, reinforcing at a subliminal level, the idea that women shouldn’t hold positions of power.

As a B2B content specialist, I couldn’t help thinking about how often marketing language operates in the same way. While brochures, web pages and video scripts may not address the issue of women in power, they do often contain language that is subtly – and perhaps even unconsciously – angled towards men. Pick up the nearest piece of B2B collateral and you will probably find several examples of aggressive sporting or military metaphors. Obviously, women play sports and join the military, but such language is defined by and associated with male-dominated culture – and using it is a way of claiming the B2B marketing world as a male dominated space. Professor Raina Brands has explored the way on which such language promotes gender bias in her research.

This problem goes right back to the methodologies we used to define our audience and plan our content. As B2B marketers – particularly for the tech and telecoms industries – it’s easy to fall back on the idea that in a male-dominated industry, the only people we are marketing to are middle-aged, white men. As a result, we frequently craft our content in their image. On a recent client project for example, I was reviewing the first draft of some Day in the Life scenarios and was struck by the fact that all the characters in senior roles were depicted by middle-aged white men. I requested a change – but the creative team came up against a challenge: it’s incredibly difficult to find imagery of anyone other than an old, white male in a setting that lends them gravitas and power. Women and people of colour tend to be represented as youthful and up-and-coming. For our project, we managed to portray a more diverse range of individuals in the end, but the incident stayed with me as a stark lesson in just how strongly we associate business decision-making with one kind of person.

So, what do we do about it? Being more aware of the language we use is the first step. B2B marketers often make it their mission to eliminate industry jargon, so add gendered jargon to your hit-list too. Scan your copy for exclusionary terms and exchange them for more inclusive language: regardless of gender, not everyone reading sees their business as a military operation. When planning what you’re going to write, make a conscious effort to think about your audience. How do you imagine them? If you find yourself imagining a group who all fit exactly the same demographic, think again. Really question yourself and your motivations: are you taking the easiest option? Are you allowing unconscious bias to guide you? As you read, think about how people of different ages, genders and cultural backgrounds might read and react to your copy. It’s important to think beyond the words, too. Does the imagery alongside your content reinforce stereotypes by only reflecting white people, nuclear families, binary gender and heterosexual couples? If so, you could be weakening its impact.

Above all, be brave. Take this thinking to the rest of your team by going back to your stakeholder profiles and questioning their diversity. Start pushing back at suppliers of stock imagery and make it clear that they need to reflect a more diverse range of people at all organisational levels. Addressing these issues isn’t just good feminism: it’s good marketing, too. As we get better at distributing power fairly, we need to think carefully about the choices we make to ensure we’re addressing the B2B audience in its entirety. Which means thinking beyond men in suits.

 

Happy Now?

This is an excellent blog post, much of which is very close to how I, and I imagine many others, are feeling about the mess we are in now. Read it.

Katyboo1's Weblog

It is day four in the Big Brexit house.

I had hoped after Friday’s absolute catastrophe of a day that the country might somehow magically rally over the weekend. I mean, when you plunge your country into possible ruin on the promise of a golden future that will allow it to rise like a phoenix from the flames, you have a plan, right?

As it turns out, you don’t. The only person that seems to have any plan at all, and be acting on it rather than just spouting meaningless Churchillian rhetoric is Nicola Sturgeon, and I can’t even vote for her.

I was distraught and angry on Friday. I had hoped to feel better by today. Instead I am running on barely controlled rage and getting more enraged by the moment.

Here are a few things I am furious about:

Firstly, leave voters telling me to calm down. I’m sorry…

View original post 1,627 more words

So. You want me to be happy?

An excellent blog post by Claire Broadley that really struck a chord with me. Are Johnson and Gove really getting all the blame they deserve? 

On Friday morning, I was given notice that my EU citizenship will be taken away. The house in the sun – the one that I planned to retire to – is no longer for sale. My 2-year-old son wi…

Source: So. You want me to be happy?

Yes, the Leave vote is hostile to foreigners – and you need to come to terms with that

Here’s what the Brexit vote means to me: 52% of the people I share a nationality with think there should be fewer people like me in Britain’s future. And before you object, or make excuses, let me point out that if Britain clamps down on immigration, there will be fewer people like me.

I was born in England. In Hammersmith, to be precise. It’s where my dad was born. And his mum. And her mum before her.

I was born in England, but I am not English. I have roots in London, but that is not the same thing. My dad’s family – his great-grandparents – arrived here as Jewish refugees in the 1880s, ending up as East enders on one side and West enders on the other. My heritage spans the breadth of the city in which the family whose name I bear has lived for a century before I was born. Like I said, I have roots in London.

And yet, in spite of my birthplace, in spite of that heritage, I didn’t grow up feeling British. I grew up feeling foreign. The reason for that is my mother is an immigrant. Worse, she’s a brown immigrant.

Let me give you a flavour of how that feels, because if you tick White British on your census form, you probably don’t know.

When I was little, I lived across the road from a park. It was great park, with pretty flower gardens, a bandstand and a large playground that I could see from my window. All we had to do was cross the road. Except, we didn’t do that, because my mother was scared. Scared because on a regular basis some ignorant xenophobe would call her a ‘Paki’ even though, dear reader, my mother is from the West Indies. It wasn’t that we lived in a rough area: we didn’t. It was quite nice actually. And to be honest the tone of the area doesn’t matter because, when we visited my grandparents in their adjoining and distinctly affluent North London suburb and I went to the park with my aunts, those taunts would come again “Go home, you Paki!” It wasn’t easy to feel welcome.

I was born in 1980. The start of a decade when people from backgrounds like mine were still being treated aggressively for standing out. There were parts of London I only heard of as a child because Afro-Caribbean people were aggressed and killed there. My family were terrified of those places and still, in diverse and gentrified 21st Century London, there are tube stations where I alight with a sudden involuntary stab of vulnerability.

To give you a bit of context, I look white. Ironically, people are always telling me what a lovely, English Rose complexion I have. In the bad old days, people used to tell me that, you know, I could pass for just white and should roll with that. It seems unbelievable, but that used to be an acceptable thing to say.

Is it a surprise, then, that I didn’t feel British for many years? That I grew up in a limbo, feeling the country I was born in somehow excluded me?

Before my mid-teens, London was my place of origin. I could be from London because I could observe people like me there. I knew I couldn’t be English, and I wasn’t sure I could be British either.

I’ve always felt European, though. Because while I wasn’t sure whether the land of cricket and cream teas included or tolerated people like me, being born in Europe conferred upon me the same rights and freedoms as everyone else.

In the 1990s, things got better. Britain became a more diverse and welcoming place. By the time I was 16, British was something I felt I could be. I was glad to be born in and part of a country that welcomed people from all over to join them. It’s one of the few nice things Tony Blair ever did for me, the opportunity to feel comfortable with that identity.

It feels like the end of something

Today, I feel excluded again. Because that 52% – the people we shouldn’t call ignorant or xenophobic or stupid or short-sighted because their views are as valid as ours even if they send all the country’s assets tumbling – doesn’t think people like me have a place in its future.

Well, the thing is, 52%, if you don’t want us in your future, then you can’t expect us to stick with you in the uncertain present. To bring our skills, education and knowledge to bear in support of your economy. To contribute our taxes to your coffers. If you voted Leave, are you aware of how many young people of working age in this country are like me and may not feel they want to be here anymore?

There are other kinds of otherness. Like the fact that for a lot of older people in this country, people who were alive in the 60s and 70s and remember pre-EU Britain, Europe is still just a collection of neighbouring states. It reveals a lack of empathy that they are unable to realise that for most of us born after 1975, Europe is a part of our identity. Whether we call ourselves British, English, Scottish, Welsh, we have always been Europeans too. You’re robbing us of our identity, you pricks!

Poor life choices are poor life choices

For the moment, I am going to exclude protest voters, who, I hope, are educating themselves on the difference between how a FPTP General Election works and how a UK Referendum works so that they never do something like that ever again.

If you’ve voted Leave, the likelihood is that you‘ve swallowed a pack of lies, manipulations and misinformation. I have heard lots of well-reasoned, well thought-out, fact based arguments to Remain (I have heard some porkies too). For the most part, what I have heard from anyone who voted Leave has been inaccurate, preposterous or incredible. I’ve heard the occasional valid reason, too, but they were so niche that I don’t think we should kid ourselves that those are the reasons 52% of those who went to the polls voted the way they did.

Admittedly, here in London it’s quite hard to locate a Leave voter, but here are some of the reasons I’ve come across:

  • I’ve heard a woman I consider fairly well-educated and well-informed tell me that our poor little island can’t cope with more immigrants even though there is no evidence to support claims that the UK is overpopulated and the housing crisis is to do with government policy and development greed not a lack of physical space. Not to mention the fact that the numbers of immigrants aren’t enough to cause that problem.
  • I’ve had a friend tell me about a colleague who voted Leave because they wanted it to be a close result.
  • I’ve had a friend with three degrees tell me that he thinks we should leave because free movement of people in the EU is unfair, that it makes EU migrants feel they don’t have to “make an effort” and that EU migrants are mainly unskilled and don’t bother to learn English.
  • I’ve heard a man tell me he is voting Leave because he is angry about events in another country’s relations with the EU. What the actual fuck?
  • I’ve heard another woman tell me that she thinks things would be better for her son – whose main problem is being a stoner – if there weren’t immigrants taking all the jobs in the area where he lives – which has few immigrants. And probably few employers who want to hire someone who gets off their face every day.
  • I’ve read someone from Plaid Cymru claiming that the Leave vote is about sticking it to the elite. Yet it only takes a few minutes thought to realise that the elite are unaffected by this. The elite have enough money to diversify their investments instead of putting it all in the UK basket. They have prospects and can move elsewhere if the UK goes tits up. If they decide to stay, they can afford private healthcare when the NHS goes tits up. If you voted Leave for this reason, you have ‘stuck it’ not to the elite, but to yourself. You’ve shot yourself in the bollocks, that’s what you’ve done.

Do you think these are valid concerns? Because they read like bullshit to me.

It’s OK to tell people they were wrong

24 hours after the fact, I found myself surrounded by people telling me that Leave voters aren’t racist or xenophobic and it’s wrong of me to refer to them in that way.

No, it isn’t. Racist and xenophobic aren’t slurs – they are ways of thinking and there is a strong correlation between those ways of thinking and the Leave vote:

  1. Immigration is the main battlefield on which this referendum campaign was fought. Anti-immigration sentiment has been a primary motivation factor for Leave voters from all social classes and educational backgrounds. Just look at the comments section of any UK paper.
  2. Within hours of the result being called, people around the country were being subjected to racist and xenophobic abuse which was not a part of their lives 24 hours before
  3. A Leave vote makes the position of every foreigner here uncertain, whether because of their status as an EU citizen or their status as a foreign national who may now be mistreated
  4. Any vote sends a message. Whether you want it that way or not, a Leave vote sends a message to EU citizens that they are not wanted here. It also sends a message to all the bigots in this country that allows them to believe they are in the majority and to feel safe abusing foreigners in the streets and online

It might shatter the cosy world view held dear by some, but xenophobia is a significant reason why people voted leave, no matter how prettily they worded their concerns about immigration. Thinking foreigners are a drain, a negative influence, and that they should be shut out? That, my darlings, is xenophobia.

Why don’t people feel comfortable calling it out? It isn’t abusive or disrespectful to tell people they made the wrong decision when the result has been to send the country into financial disarray and to make huge swathes of the population feel they no longer belong.

I read recently the suggestion that Leave voters might be less likely to be open about their decision. To me, that says that deep down they know it is a poor one.

We need to stop making excuses for people when they get it wrong

The other thing I keep hearing is that it isn’t the Leave voters’ fault. That they were too tired/impoverished/ill-educated to look into the facts. That they didn’t understand how the voting system works. That they are just scared, and we shouldn’t judge people for their fears.

Hypocrites! You’re judging Donald Trump supporters for their fears. So you need to grow a spine and judge these people too. There was no excuse for not knowing how a referendum works – we had one just a few years ago. The media and Leave campaign bear some of the responsibility, but we cannot absolve the adults who made this decision.

For one thing, 52% of voters is too much for the ignorance argument to hold weight. The compassionate lefty middle classes are saying that because, yes, it’s devastating to think that people decided to vote irresponsibly based on emotion and hearsay when they could have obtained the facts.

But they did vote irresponsibly, and without doing proper research or even thinking logically about whether what they were being fed made sense.

As for those people who are too downtrodden to see straight, they are being given far less credit than they deserve. Let’s not lay this disaster at their feet. In most cases they probably did what 30% of the population did and didn’t vote.

As for me – I am a Londoner.

I am a European.

You can’t erase my identity, I will fight you tooth and nail to keep it.

This post previously had an addendum. It upset some people. I generally try to be nice and considerate, so I have moved it.

Murder by Bagel

Coffee - in a box!

Coffee – in a box!

I must begin with an apology: I am sorry, New York. I know you are very proud indeed of your bagels, and have indoctrinated millions – possibly billions – around the world into believing they are superior to all other bagels, but I am not convinced. The bagels I have had so far either lack the chewy deliciousness London’s Jewish bakeries have taught me to know and love, or have the consistency of a hockey puck.

Like doughnuts, bagels are everywhere. I have yet to meet a New Yorker – either abroad or on their home turf – who isn’t terrified of carbs and I am beginning to understand why. In this country, one is assaulted by carbohydrate from all sides, to an overwhelming degree. The result is a city of people who beg for protein while chugging back coffee and diet sodas.

This is not breakfast. These are leftovers.

This is not breakfast. These are leftovers.

Take breakfast as an example: the bakery supplies my office with four bagels, pastries and muffins for each person. Because these items are twice the size I’m accustomed to at home, I eat half a pastry, half a muffin and a bagel with cream cheese and feel slightly sick. The leftovers leer at me from reception every time I head to the loo, making me feel queasy.

The one innovation I do like is the coffee box. Our helpful Baked Goods Partner has brought roughly five gallons of coffee in the sort of cardboard boxes my European colleagues and I usually associate with wine. Or, as the Italian among us says “the sort of boxes I see them drinking wine from in cartoons (because I would never be seen dead drinking wine from a box).” This, I have to try. But only after I’ve had my tea. For one heart-stopping moment, it looks like one of the boxes – the one that’s marked differently – might contain some sacred leaf, but it turns out to be decaff.

Madison Square

MSG – see what I did there?

Today’s delight is the view from the office window, which takes in Madison Square Garden. During our infrequent breaks, I take photographs and wonder how many blocks I need to walk to burn off a bagel.

The only things that are smaller here than in Europe (apart from the number of atheists) are the squares. Every time I go for a walk, I am utterly nonplussed by Google Maps indicating the presence of a “square” where I only see something that looks like the forecourt of St-Martins-in-the-Fields. Herald Square is one of these – it’s also where all the evangelists hang out, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons rubbing shoulders with one-woman cheerleading squads for Jesus.

The view from our office.

The view from our office.

Lunch is another carb ordeal, with salad on the side. 25 ciabatta sandwiches, cut into halves that are each larger than my size 7.5 glove-wearing hands, arrive accompanied by two large drums of green and goat’s cheese salad. My half steak sandwich is delicious, the salad is very nice, but at 12.30pm, the prospect of dinner at 6.30 is already making me queasy. I suggest to my colleagues that we stop off at our hotel and then walk to dinner to pre-empt the assault on our stomachs. We wander across to East 32nd St, stopping off at a Korean cosmetics shop on the way to purchase some cutesy handcream and face masks. window 3I get honey and cucumber cleasners for me, fox and panda moisturising masks for my youngest sister, and pig and cow masks for my middle sister, mostly to make the youngest sister laugh. On leaving the shop, I discover we’re in entirely the wrong part of town (thank you Google Maps!) and one of my colleagues bundles us into an Uber to the Meatpacking District.

Our destination is a seafood restaurant in a trendy area of town that reminds me of Shoreditch, but in a nice way. It’s on the second floor, water drips from the distressed ceiling and the DJ plays tracks carefully selected from the period 1975-1985. The clientele dining alongside us resemble models, the women favour thigh gaps and Botox and the staff appear to have been trained in customer service skills by Parisian waiters. They bring menus for only half the party, it takes them 30 minutes to deliver half our drinks, and they tantalise patrons by hovering nearby but refusing to make eye contact. My colleagues address these by commenting loudly on how terrible the service is, how undeserved the money that will be spent, how clearly they are distilling the gin, filtering the sake, growing the grapes for our wine.

We are instructed not to order starters as these have been selected for us, but to have whatever we like for our main. I skip over the $80-90 grills and select something that looks small: scallops on a bed of sautéed cauliflower. The appetisers arrive: grilled octopus, crispy fried rock shrimp, chicken lettuce wraps, tiny delicious pretzel rolls. I dig in, enjoying the delicious flavours.

The lobster we left.

The lobster we left.

And then they bring the seafood towers: two tiers of lobster, shrimp, salmon tartare, clams, mussels and oysters for every four people present. I nibble a couple of shrimp, enjoy a juicy lobster claw, sample a sliver of salmon and have three mussels before my appetite fails me. For the next 25 minutes I sit looking at the leftovers and wondering whether anyone ever finishes a meal in this place, feeling overwhelmed and slightly sickened by the amount of food being wasted simply for the sake of display (you simply can’t take raw fish home in a doggy bag). The staff, displaying their usual disdain, bring us our plates only once we have finished eating.

By the time my giant scallops and glass of Sancerre arrive I feel a little ill. I eat two scallops accompanied by a forkful or two of cauliflower morsels flavoured with pistachio and tamarind. It’s tasty, but the delicate flavour of the scallops is overwhelmed by rich sauce and in the end I can’t swallow more than half of it. I accept defeat, and offer the rest around. For the next hour I make small talk with colleagues while worrying that I may be about to vomit. The colleague on my left describes himself as “Irish through-and-through” despite being born in Long Island and warns me that Mexico is not a good place to visit, despite never having been there. To my right, my boss’s assistant tells me she things films from the ’80s and ’90s are the best. I disagree and she takes her conversation elsewhere, to someone who concurs with her. leftover lobster 2Unable to decide whether it’s the obscene quantity of wasted food on the table or impending food poisoning making my stomach churn, I suggest to my London colleagues that we leave, and we stroll through the meatpacking district before heading along Ninth Avenue towards our hotel. A stop into Duane Reade for earplugs leads to the discovery of a cosmetic pencil sharpener that’s better than any I have found in London and educates me on the existence of disposable cups with a clip-in compartment for snacks. For those who cannot contemplate carrying both a drink and a packet of crisps. One of the truly fascinating things about America is that there is a product for everything you can imagine.

The walk from 13th St to 36th dispels some of my nausea and walking up the stairs to my hotel room helps even more, but I feel queasy enough that I’m beginning to suspect the food here doesn’t agree with me: too rich, too salty, too voluminous. I consider emailing the colleague who organises breakfast to request a plate of fruit and resolve to drink more than I eat at dinner the following night.

 

 

The Next Michael Phelps Will Not Hail From Manhattan

This morning, having discovered that my epilator doesn’t travel well, I wound up at the concierge’s desk enquiring after the complimentary razors mentioned in their brochure. Of course I may have a razor, and would I like anything else?

“Oh, yes, actually, do you know of anywhere around here that has a swimming pool?” I ask. This is a mistake. “In Manhattan?” Says the member of staff to whom I didn’t address the question, as though I have announced my intention to locate a sheep abuse brothel in the Vatican. “Oh, anywhere easily accessible will do.” This requires more information. Do I mean a public pool? Do I expect not to pay for the use of said pool? I become increasingly aware that I’m being eccentric and foreign and should probably stop right away and give up any notions of exercise.

But seriously, where do Manhattanites swim? Surely they don’t simply refrain? There must, surely there must, be a pool, I think to myself as I scratch away at my legs with a razor so blunt most prisons would be happy to hand it out to their inmates, leaving me with as many incisions as I previously had hairs. A quick consultation with my dear friend Google sets me straight: in New York, public pools ARE free. And outdoor. And only open from 11am-7pm. Apparently the closest thing to what I have in mind is the YMCA. To be investigated tomorrow, I suppose.

Walking around this city is a joy, and I find myself extremely impressed with the local habit of having a pedestrian crossing on every street corner. I feel far safer crossing the roads than in London, which is odd, given the size of the roads in question and the quantity of traffic hurtling along them.

New Yorker

Passing The New Yorker on my way to work

The four-minute walk to my office takes in the HQ of The New Yorker and no fewer than three branches of Dunkin Donuts. Since I am the only person on 8th Avenue without a litre of sweetened liquid in my dominant hand, I duck into one and order an iced coffee. “How sweet?” “Not sweet, please.” “Sweet?” “No, no sugar at all.” While I wait, I learn that the donuts on sale contain between 200 and 550 calories each. I order a coffee roll, which turns out not to be a roll at all but a snail-like donut drenched in icing, and wonder whether I have hit the calorie jackpot.

My office is in an impressive and old-for-the-location building governed over by a security guy who greets women with “Hello” and men with “Hey, brother!” The colleague who greets me shows me the coffee, the pretzels, the flavoured sugar syrup masquerading as hot chocolate and asks if I have any questions. “Do you…have any tea?” Oh, yes, we have tea. They get a large box in specially to accommodate the voracious appetite of London colleagues. I fall upon the little bags of sacred leaf and grab a cup, only to realise that there is no kettle and I will have to settle for that off-the-boil water that is considered acceptable in non-tea-drinking nations. I go back to my desk and consider buying the New York office a kettle as a gift.

The official agenda for our visit has yet to kick in, so I have lunchtime to myself. I have an exploratory wander in search of razors, goggles and lunch. KMart yields the former, swimwear and related accessories are notably absent from all the sports shops I pass, and for lunch I decide upon a 100 year-old diner offering burgers and sandwiches.

Reuben sandwich

The sandwich as big as my face.

I order a Reuben, and because no-one can be hungry while they await their food, I am presented with two gherkins the size of the average British penis,

Giant pickles

Watch out gents!

a bowl of coleslaw and a bowl of Russian dressing to keep me going before my food arrives. I have barely swallowed a mouthful of the coleslaw before my sandwich arrives. It is the size of my face, dwarfing the steak knife I am given to attack it with. I make a valiant effort, manage half, and take the rest back to the office with a vague hope that I will be hungry enough to finish it for dinner.

My Italian colleague, who is also in the office today, suggests we get together in the evening to visit the Empire State, but eventually changes her mind and we end up walking to Times Square for some obligatory photography before tiring of all the tourists and wandering the city looking for something delicious to eat.

NYT

Obligatory photo

At Bryant Park there is an outdoor cinema festival accompanied by a mini food festival with stalls from names like Daniel Boulud. Much of the best bites are sold out, but I secure some Thai chicken wings from a street vendor in Bryant Park and we walk back towards Madison Square Garden to get some Korean bibimbap and a mountain of kimchee, all delicious. I return to the hotel and stuff my unwanted half-Reuben into the bin.

New York – Arriving

My first impression of the USA is the airline. Delta Airlines and its employees are determined that I should not experience the horrors of hunger whilst in their care. It’s not that I don’t think I’ve ever been fed so insistently on a flight – but that I’ve never been fed so insistently full stop. The first hour it’s nuts and pretzels. Next it’s drinks. The US travellers, already versed in the Delta drill, enquire after biscuits – sorry, cookies – but these are not served on international flights.

An hour later, a mere hour into Judi Dench’s deliberations over whether or not to romance Bill Nighy, hot hand towels are brought out and it’s time for lunch: something that looks like curry but is described otherwise; salad, dressing that claims to contain balsamic vinegar, a rubbery substance masquerading as cheese, crackers, biscuits, a bread roll. All the joys of airline food, basically. I notice the various offerings have different names depending on whether they are being offered to Americans (Tortellini, Cobb Salad) or The Uninitiated (generic names like chicken salad, chicken with coconut, pasta). The film finishes and I wonder why Maggie Smith decided to leave what is essentially an old people’s home and therefore equipped for death in order to die quietly in a corner like a cat.

Food and drink are a recurring theme. No passenger must ever have to ask for refreshment on a Delta flight. Once the film is over, I sleep and am gently awoken – how much later? – to be offered bottled water. Doze again, and ice cream interrupts. I sleep through at least one coming of the drinks trolley. It’s as if it would be unthinkable for any Delta guest to actually have to wonder about food before it was offered. 60 minutes before landing I am awoken more definitively to choose a snack, a chicken wrap I regret the moment it touches my lips and discard immediately. Accompanied by a rock-hard tiffin and a mint, this snack would pass for lunch in many quarters I know. The cabin crew tut at my nibbled wrap. The drinks trolley appears again, while Naomi Watts and Ben Stiller make friends with hipsters and learn hip hop dancing.

At Boston’s Logan airport I buy a lobster-patterned gift for my Goth and take a few pictures of the view from the airport windows – sadly the only bits and pieces I will see of the city this visit. The welcome is aggressive. It’s not enough for border control to welcome you to the United States. No, visitors must be welcomed to Boston by a voiceover addressed from “all the people who call this city home.” Boston, visitors must understand, is “the hub of the universe.” It’s the sort of pride I’m used to seeing shot down and beaten to a pulp. How do the other American cities feel about Boston being the hub of the universe? Aren’t they annoyed at it setting itself so high? I think about the bloodshed that would occur if London decided to adopt an ambitious strapline. I’m pretty sure even something as factually correct as “The Seat of Monarchy” would result in a storming of the capital involving axes.

Boston skyline

A s crap of Boston as seen from Logan Airport

The moment I step off the plane I experience the Brit’s fear and panic of unwanted contact. As each person approaches, I brace myself for being asked how I’m doing, making eye contact, replying, trying to conceal my shudder. At security the staff are chirpy even while requesting the handover of my shoes and making me hold my hands up like a captured highwayman for a full-length body scan. I crave the surly air of menace that characterises British and European airport staff, the frowns,  silences, and half-barked commands. British airport staff don’t ask how you’re doing,  they do things like complaining that you  have an unnecessarily long name, as if at the point of naming you 30-odd years ago, your parents had just one object, to persecute airport staff executing random bag checks in 2015. The thing is, you know where you stand when the person frisking you refuses to make eye contact and communicates via grunts and hand gestures.

Lobster

Live lobster for your flight?

The feeding frenzy continues at the airport. The women ahead of me in the immigration queue ask each other if they are hungry, admit they are not and decide they should eat a meal before boarding their flight. They don’t have to look far. Whereas in London you’re winning if at the end of your 20-minute dash to the gate there’s a Costa vending machine pissing out overpriced tepid coffee before you board your long haul flight, in Boston, comfort depends on being constantly assured that refreshments are available. The five-minute amble to my gate encompasses three branches of Dunkin Donuts, several sandwich, vendors, a bar and a seafood restaurant where you can purchase a live lobster to accompany you on your flight. At the gate, Dunkin Donuts is engaged in a face-off with Wendy’s. I’m intrigued by the concept of rich meaty chilli as a side to one’s burger, but I’m sure I’m about to be fed yet another snack by Delta.

I am not wrong. No sooner  are we in the air than nuts and “tea, coffee and Coca-Cola products” are handed out. I am about to blurt out a plea for tea when I remember the last tea handed to me was black and notice that the trolley contains only cream for coffee. Not to worry, I’ll have a tea – several teas – at my hotel. Except that I won’t. Because in my morning hurry, the big glaring error in my packing process was tea. Loath as I am to uphold national stereotypes, this is one I cling to like a shipwrecked child. Morning is unthinkable without tea. I spend the next 5 minutes assessing the severity of the situation. The two London colleagues travelling to London this week are European and therefore partake not of the sacred breakfast leaf. But there must be somewhere in this most global of cities where I can purchase Proper British tea. Our New York office, worked in by at least one British employee, may even have some. I can’t possibly go tea-less for a week, that would be misery. At the end of these brief and panicked ruminations, the pilot informs us we’ll be landing in 15 minutes and cabin crew stand over me until I surrender my empty nut packet and half-empty cup.

Logan airport is positively militaristic compared to La Guardia, where I am immediately assaulted on a arrival by a food hall, for those who find baggage reclaim too hard to face without a meal under their belts. It occurs to me that perhaps we set our sights too low in the UK,  hoping only for the chance of a wee before we go to check whether our worldly goods have successfully joined us at our destination.

Once again, the dread of contact surfaces, but my driver appears to have been briefed on the proclivities of Her Majesty’s subjects. He barely speaks and does not introduce himself. I find out that his name is Pierre from the ID on the dashboard. This is so overwhelmingly comforting that it makes up for the strangeness of a car fitted out with magazines, water bottles and tissues. The airport is more central than, say, Heathrow and in 10 or 15 minutes we’re in East 37th St, crossing over Lexington Avenue, Park Avenue, Madison Avenue and Broadway. The shops on West 37th are often gaudy pageant dress places that wouldn’t be out of place on Fonthill Rd in Finsbury Park. My first impression is that the skyline is immense, and overwhelming, like a constantly repeating Canary Wharf, unbroken by anything small or old-fashioned. The Empire State is a teeny-tiny building compared to its younger brethren, a little dinky tourist charm, the closest thing to a cathedral.

Pierre the driver adds to his charm by sighing loudly as we hit the toll road and not once – never – addressing me. He’s better than most Uber drivers in London at this rate. I hope he has been sufficiently briefed to be aware that I have no idea whatsoever whether or not to tip him, and then I start bracing myself for the hotel staff. They will want to proffer information I don’t need and ask me how I’m doing and it will take all the British brusqueness this weary traveller can muster to allay the assault.

Upon arrival I am handed an incubated chocolate chip and cinnamon cookie – my warm welcome – and handed my passkeys and Wi-Fi code. In my room I am saddened to note the presence of a coffee maker I have no idea how to use and the absence of a kettle, or any tea that isn’t camomile.

Delta Airlines has eliminated my appetite for a full-sized dinner, so I wander down to Lexington Avenue to look at the market and purchase some spicy roasted corn on the cob from a Venezuelan lady. Chrysler BuildingAlso two t-shirts for my niblings. “Boys or girls?” asks the vendor, her hand hovering between a Princess t-shirt and a NY taxi one. “Girls, but I don’t want to give them anything gender-normative,” I reply, feeling like an absolute wanker as I grab one blue tshirt with New York emblazoned on it and one red one with a yellow taxi on the front.

I spy the Chrysler Building and take a quick photo, find Macy’s, the closest museum and my nearest 7-11 and ascertain that Dunkin Donuts is more prolific than McDonalds. It’s barely 7pm, but I think I will save exploration for another day. I have five of them ahead of me, after all.

Jaffa Cake Pancakes

Jaffa cake pancakes

This twist on the humble, tax-efficient biscuit we all know and love is inspired by a young chap named Thomas, whose dedication to Jaffa Cakes not only made me smile but also prompted me to go to the trouble of testing multiple batters and toppings.

Ingredients for the jelly

  • 1 packet Rowntree’s orange jelly
  • 140ml hot water
  • 1 shallow baking tray

Ingredients for the batter

  • 65g plain flour
  • 65g wholemeal plain four
  • 1 tbsp demerara sugar
  • Pinch salt
  • 1tsp baking powder
  • 1 large egg
  • 130ml milk or 60ml milk and 60ml water
  • 2tbsp melted butter

Other important stuff

  • 1 bar dark chocolate, melted

How to do it

Firstly, you need to make your jelly topping. Cut your jelly into chunks, put it in a bowl, pour the hot water on top and stir until the jelly has all dissolved. Then, pour enough of it into a baking dish to make a fairly thick layer (ideally you want it about 1cm thick) and shove into the coldest part of your fridge (I left mine in there for an hour). You should end up with something that looks like this:

jaffa cake pancake filling

Jelly for jaffa cake pancakes

Next, make your batter. Don’t get precious with sieves and things, just toss the flour in first and everything else on top and then smack it about a bit with a whisk until it is smooth and thick. To cook it, melt a small amount of butter (my preference) or oil (not olive or sesame or anything with a strong flavour) in a frying pan on a high heat, and then when it is melted turn the heat down to low and pour in two dessert spoons of batter. These are American style pancakes, not crepes, so it will be small, round and fluffy. Once it starts to fluff up, you can turn it over with a spatula (no flipping for these little babies).

While you’re cooking your pancakes, you also need to melt your chocolate.

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Break it into pieces and put into the microwave in a suitable bowl for 1 minute, then stir. If there are still lumps put it back in the microwave for 15 seconds. Keep repeating this step until the chocolate is smooth and glossy.

Once your pancakes are ready, it is time to return to your jelly! Using a cup or glass, press circles into the surface of the jelly (one for each pancake) and then cut around it with a knife. Using a spatula or palette knife, carefully lift the circles out and place each one on a pancake.

jaffa cake pancake

Once this is done, use a spoon or knife to spread melted dark chocolate all over the pancake, so that it looks like this:

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If you have great willpower, you can wait until the chocolate sets to eat your pancake, otherwise, make sure you have a napkin handy for all the chocolate that will inevitably get onto your face as you gobble!

Finally, if you are in a hurry, just add the juice and zest of half an orange, a handful of dark chocolate chips and orange jelly chopped into pieces straight from the packet to your batter and fry it up. It’s not quite as good as the version above, but it hits the orangey-chocolatey spot.