amateur flâneur

A place for casual observation and comment- Email amateurflaneur@gmail.com with your pieces

Month: March, 2013

Haircuts- Tom Stevenson

Up until this year, I used to get my haircut at a salon. One of those Tony and Guy, Headmasters chains where they cut the air around your head for forty five minutes and a plump woman named Cheryl tells you about her child’s appalling struggle with dyslexia. They then charge you £35 for making you look like a gay medieval prince.

The saving grace of these establishments is the head massage.

The skinny tattooed girl who can’t be trusted with cutting real hair yet firmly, but gently digs her fingers into your scalp, tickles that inexplicably erogenous zone on the back of your head, kneads the shampoo in concentric circles and you sit there wondering if you can keep it all in or if you’ll have to audibly and visibly express the intolerable pleasure you’re experiencing. You know it’s being done to induce pleasure, but you can’t let out a lustful moan. You have to pretend this is how you always apply shampoo at home and it’s just nice to pay someone else to do it for you.

And for those of us who have tried it at home, we all know it’s just not the same.

So bearing in mind the cost, the awkward encounters with the hairwash girl and Cheryl, I decided to just start going to the barbers. The barber alternative to the hair wash is the clean shave. It does not include the intense arousal of the scalpwank, but it does feel pretty good and it made me feel very manly, mainly due to the fact that a man who greeted me with ‘come to the butcher’ was holding a straight razor across my throat. He forcefully pushed and pulled my head from one side to the other, etching away at my facial hair like an archaeologist trying to unearth dinosaur bones. At the end he slapped on some aftershave that I can only assume was pure gasoline due to scent and really quite sharp pain. I just couldn’t yelp or wince. It was a test of my manhood. So I left thinking how in both scenarios, the hair wash and the clean shave, I had paid for a feeling (pleasure and pain respectively) that I was trying my hardest to resist expressing.

I’m sure it’s just a stiff upper life British thing. I reckon in continental Europe the salons sound like brothels and the barbers like torture chambers.

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Catfish- Flora Lenon

So there is a new (ish) show on MTV that I am addicted to.It is called ‘Catfish’ and it follows the love stories of people who meet online but haven’t met in person… yet.

The crux of it the program is that the person featured nine out of ten times does not resemble the pictures they have put up on their profile; mostly it is not their actual name they have been using and very often they use the wrong age and or even gender. The disingenuous nature of online dating or, indeed, the internet, is laid bare.

However, It is more than a precautionary tale. It is more about the so-called ‘catfish’’s personal problems than the heartbreak of the victim; the poor soul who has contacted MTV in order to determine the veracity of their virtual significant other’s persona. The ‘catfish’   is usually incredibly insecure and there exists deep-seated reasons why they are lying about who they are online. This new phenomenon which has arisen in conjunction with social networking reveals something rather dark about the general population: so many of them do not like who they are.

Although the show is entertaining it is simultaneously quite sombre. A catfish is now defined as someone who pretends to be someone else online, but this originated from the idea that when live cod are shipped around the world catfish are put in the tank with them to keep them agile (and therefore delicious upon arrival at their destination). At first it seems that this metaphor is a positive one, envisaging people in society who are introduced to keep the rest of us on our toes. However, the program delves beneath this positive facade,  making us aware of the levels of naivety lonely people possess and even more aware of the freaks who have wifi access.

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Beanies-Per-Head- James Harmer

Apologies if there are some insulting abstractions in here, I haven’t got time to do research where I would have liked to so there may well be – but I think there is some truth to it. Now I think that beanies can look pretty good. Or at least, the people in them can. But something about them has bugged me ever since I noticed some hipsters sweating them, mid summer, a few years back. Then, while recently watching a late night rerun of Rocky, his gym trainer’s pretty Winter/Spring 2013 Collection headwear reminded me that my first exposure to the beanie was actually about twenty years ago during my trips up north to see family.

The beanie was originally adopted by blue collar workers who needed to keep their hair out the way without the visual obstruction of a brim. In fact, in the past many US colleges have forced freshman to wear this mark of the lower class as a badge of humiliation. How things have changed. As far as I am aware, it was not until the grunge/skater crazes of the 90/00s that it started to become heavily adopted by popular culture. Short or shaven hair was popular by this point and I guess I can see how an association with working class lineage made sense to a culture which was decidedly moving away from the happygo- lucky era of the 90s. Trends like this go in circles and it is not surprising the the beanie has returned. It does appear odd though, that this fashion accessory of the 90s grunge movement has reemerged in association with the current surge of electronic music – and been paired with the 80s fashions which emerged with the last great era of electronic rhythms.

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If the classical Hollywood, wealthy family stories of Home Alone (or Richie Rich!) are the epitome of the kind of shit Kurt Cobain and co were rebelling against, it is problematic that the beanie has emerged as the finishing piece for today’s outfits – which are almost identical to the things which our Kevin and co look so adorable in. I would suggest this is largely because both have been lumped in the dubious “retro” category. Beanies and patterned shirts etc. were both present in the early 90s, so both are “retro.”

But they come from very different places. I do not think for one minute that Home Alone or Richie Rich etc. would get made now. There are many well documented reasons for why such wealthy W.A.S.P families are less present on our screens in today’s world. I think the beanie is a way of reflecting this – “sure my clothes look like I’m going for a 1984 picnic in the Hamptons but if that was true I’d have big hair – I am wearing a wooly hat.”

On lengthy reflection, I feel this is where the source of my irk lies. The place I’ve seen (by far) most beanies-per-head is Dalston, where residents increasingly seem to be highly privileged kids who are desperate to appear otherwise – renting a warehouse they barely use at the same annual rate you could buy a house – paid for by their parents as they pursue their artistic inclinations. The problem is that by forcing prices up they and their beanies are forcing others out of their homes – many of whom are the modern-day equivalent of blue collar workers, the lineage of which is being replicated by said beanie. With people wearing them in situations and places which completely defy their purpose, the beanie is a particularly clear symbol for how people pursuing trends can damage the groups they inaccurately assimilate and commodify. There is a dramatic irony invoked by the beanie, which I fear will become increasingly tragic.

They do look alright though.

PS I’m sorry Home Alone, you know I still love you.

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Going Underground- Anonymous Flâneur

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Have you ever walked over a manhole cover or past a decaying door in a busy street and stopped to wonder what might be on the other side? For anyone with a sense of adventure a whole world of opportunity could lie in store.

I caught the bug on my year abroad in Paris.  Beneath the city streets lie nearly 300km of secret tunnel network that runs underneath every single arrondissement of the city. Although unauthorised access is illegal and most of the entrances are sealed, for those in the know there are portals dotted around the city that give unreserved access to every corner of the catacombs, whether through a certain manhole or an entrance in the wall of a train tunnel.

Far beneath the picture postcard boulevards and away from the tourist lens there exists a clandestine community who devote a huge amount of time to maintaining and even rebuilding the catacombs, carving out niches for themselves with highly sculpted furniture and rock features such as gargoyles. During our time in Paris we found breath-taking examples of the magnitude of this cultural heritage, such as an underground art gallery – only accessible after crawling down a chute through a tiny hole in the side of a tunnel wall – which boasted immense and intricate murals on the rock face itself. The real beauty in this art was that the creators knew they would only be sharing their work with those who really made the effort to find it.

After months of exploring the catacombs and having successfully thrown a theatrical dinner party on the platform of an abandoned underground railway station in southern Paris, we started looking for similar locations back at home and realised that if you take the time to look then the opportunity for adventure is endless.

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The foundations of Bristol may not be as extensive as Paris, but can be easily accessible, whether exploring the forgotten Clifton Rocks Railway, dug into the Avon Gorge underneath the suspension bridge and disused since its last mission as a WWII BBC secret transmission base, or the old freestone mines that provided much of the stone for the buildings that give Bristol and Bath their unique façade, complete with intact 19th Century cranes, stone trucks and most impressively, an underground chamber the size of a cathedral hall (no exaggeration).

We recently raised our game with an underground party in the disused Avon Gorge railway: accessed through a tiny derelict doorway in the rock face and buried deep inside the cliff we were hidden from prying eyes and made a historic part of the city our own for a night.

Abandoned buildings, underground tunnels and forgotten places exist everywhere: they are open to anyone with an aversion to the often mundane and recurring nature of any university social sphere and with an appreciation for discovering their city’s real hidden gems.

Channing Tatum- Lev Harris

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I know what you’re thinking.

What. A. Babe.

Rewind back to his first movie appearance in Coach Carter. Those sweaty biceps. That gormless face. Dreamboat.

So now that I have your attention,  I wish to address the big fat fake tanned elephant in the room. Something that all straight guys feel the need to keep hidden; their man crush.

Everyone has (at least) one.

Back to the T-man to illustrate my own point. Forget for a minute that he looks like your quintessential Keez Movies porn star. Maybe my admiration stems from the fact that he’s something of an anomaly in Hollywood; the buffed up action man who can actually act. You look at your Chris Hemsworths and your Sam Worthingtons. What do you think? Yeah you have fucking huge abs but you can’t act for shit mate.

Tatum has proven, albeit in some questionable films, that he does possess real acting chops. Possibly his best performance comes in the little-known indie flick A Guide To Recognising Your Saints, where he absolutely steals the show, and the film feels far less powerful and engrossing whenever he steps out of frame (as sure a sign as any).

I’m not going to start saying that Tatum’s filmography is spotless. He has been in films that I don’t even need to have seen to know that they are terrible. Try The Vow, Step Up and its indomitable sequel Step Up: The Streets (he must’ve got rid of his agent before Step Up 3D came about). But aside from maybe Brad Pitt and Daniel Day Lewis, whose filmographies can you look at and not say are wholly absent of clangers?

So yeah, Tates has also strutted his stuff in a couple of recent Sodebergh flicks Haywire and Side Effects. And, hey, if its good enough for Stevie, it’s good enough for me. And just to show his versatility, he can do comedy too, with roles in 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike. It’s easy to hate someone like Tatie boy, after all he is such a greased up easy target, but I’m not here just to provide a defence for my misplaced love for the guy.

Fundamentally, I’m here to tell all you lads out there that it’s okay to have a male crush. The secret is to be open about it. I know its hard, I know its painful, but it’s okay. Trust me. We’re here for each other. You won’t be laughed at, or shunned, and believe me, getting it out in the open will take the weight of the world off your shoulders. Come on boys, let’s bring it in.

And don’t even get me started on Ben Whishaw.

The Last Straw- Grace Hamer

Whilst watching ‘Give It Up for Comic Relief’, a special in aid of addicts, I began pondering some slightly more far-fetched addictions.

The programme was composed of music and comedy acts, interspersed with celebrity interviews in which they revealed their “addictions”. Many of the responses were sadly predictable (Jo Wiley: shopping (yawn), Robbie Williams: reality TV (hardly one of his most exciting!), Jarvis Cocker: Brick Breaker (gaming = lame), whilst Rob Brydon’s response of “milk and cookies” was a real gem: his earnestness really made the spectator believe that, although perhaps not a serious addiction, he’d certainly sacrifice a few flimsy friendships over forever being denied his hallowed milk and cookies. I don’t intend to trivialise addiction here, just merely peruse a few of the more bizarre and self-evidently less harmless ones.

After a quick cyber gander, the world wide web produced an array of predictable offerings: the internet (modest), tanning, exercise, tattoos, plastic surgery and cleaning (channelling the Andre Agassi circa ‘97 crystal meth vibe) – as well as some slightly more unusual ones: ice chewing (pagophagia), eating dirt (geophagy) and hair pulling (trichotillomania). Having suffered from the latter, I wondered whether I had any further strange addictions to bring to the table. I discounted ‘90s school crazes of Pokémon, yoyos, those gross squidgy alien things (how on earth those caught on is anyone’s guess) and so on and so forth, as well as my daily egg fried rice habit of second year… but one habit I can’t kick is something so seemingly superfluous and yet which brings me an unprecedented amount of joy: THE STRAW.

I brought a supply to a festival upon the recommendation of a dentist. And we have been inseparable ever since. We have survived the credit crunch, a papal resignation and several major natural disasters. It was the first word I learnt on my year abroad in Bordeaux: une paille – which subsequently became my most invaluable French noun. Straws went everywhere with me even drinking wine without one was a serious challenge.

So imagine my shock when a barmaid in Exeter at the weekend informed me that they had run out of straws, with nothing by way of explanation or apology. My reaction provoked a judgmentally furrowed brow and a most unladylike grunt in my general direction. I should, really, have informed her then and there that me being told there were no straws was something akin to telling Tinky Winky that the tubby toaster has gone kaputt and all the rabbits have got myxomatosis. When she thrust me the change, I duly noted the trampy orange tan stains between her spindly fingers. And I subsequently reflected, in impatiently rustling around my cavernous bag to retrieve an emergency straw (purposefully placed there for such emergencies), that I was hardly one to judge. For an addiction, when so trivial as tanning or straws, hurts no one but its owner. Besides, if we’re being serious about it, the rabbits have always seemed a little incongruous and Tinky Winky could do with losing a few pounds.

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Edgy Girl guide: How to fit in at (insert generic house music night)

Edgy Girl guide: How to fit in at (insert generic house music night).

My Conflicting Emotions Concerning The Only Way is Essex- Adrian Choa

TOWIE (I deeply resent using this abbreviation) is a hugely odious show. The mere opening notes of the theme tune is enough to make me feel physically sick as an involuntary, visual shit-storm of terrifying memories suffocate me.

Haggard, orange women, small dogs and greased biceps repeatedly punch me in the face as I try desperately to change the channel.

Yet for some reason I do not.

I cannot.

There is something in this 40 minutes of misery which keeps me coming back.

I believe this to be a sort of morbid curiosity/perversion. An enthralling hatred that causes viewers to continually shout at the screen, letting loose a series of obscenities directed at characters and plot-lines alike.

This latter target brings about the second instance of conflicting emotions I experience whilst watching the show.

We are all fully aware that the entire thing is staged right? Yet, I still find myself saying “why would she do that?” or “wow, he’s such a dickhead”: sentences which are inevitably followed with “well it’s all fake anyway…” just to reassure myself that I haven’t been drawn in. Efforts aren’t even made to suspend our disbelief, with nightclub scenes being personified by full studio lighting and the bizarre, sparse positioning of three of four punters about the large interior. This is a far cry from the immersive night vision and subtitles of such classics as The Hills (Adam DiVello, 2006) or The City (Adam DiVello, 2008).  

I have concluded that the instinct which leads me to watch TOWIE is the very same instinct which leads millions of people to watch a man pummel a woman’s face on the tube after racial incitement. Or watch two women play with and then consume excrement. Or watch one part of N Dubz as the subject of a point of view shot.

This seems to be a shameful curiosity that has come to define the YouTube generation. I feel that this is perhaps a timeless human facet however, from the Gladiatorial Arena to Made in Chelsea. Perhaps it is a form of catharsis. A satisfying expulsion of frustration from afar.

Whatever it is, it fulfils my desire for an activity for those times when I wish to guarantee that 98% of my brain cells are not in use.

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“Did you have a good night last night?”- Tom Stevenson

I’m sure this poorly worded question is up there in the top five most asked on a university campus.

It’s a question reserved for the daytime bump into an acquaintance who you greeted the night before, observed their presence and then didn’t speak to at all because you’re not actually friends with them.

The irony of this question is that you’re not allowed to say no.

You’re supposed to say yes and then recount an amusing anecdote about yourself or a mutual friend that made it a good night. However, if you find yourself struggling to pinpoint such an anecdote, you’re in trouble. Your status as an outgoing fellow clubber is under threat. The acquaintance knows the format. You know the format. If you don’t drum up an acceptable story sharpish, your reputation as an extrovert will be under threat. You’ll be one of those people who had an uneventful night. You can’t be fun if over the course of four hours amongst friends, music and drinks you have nothing to show for it. Well you can, actually, but you don’t want to be that cynical bastard who says, ‘No, not really. It was just like all the other seventeen Thursday night Pam Pams I’ve been to this year: drink, chat, dance, cig (x3), Lion King Medley, Mysterious Girl, home.’

Instead, it’s so much easier to play it safe and respond, ‘Yeah, great night. Fell down the stairs twice and Sophie got kicked out. Classic.’

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How Important is Eating Healthily?- Pete Wormald

Well, here are the maxims that I live by. Too much junk food is probably bad for you. If you try to maintain a healthy diet, you’re probably going to be better off than if you don’t. If you’re overweight, stop eating so much and if you have the body type of an Ethiopian long distance runner, eat some more.

In my ideal society, this would be the extent to which most people bother to think about the relationship between what they eat and their overall health. The healthy section of society (which is the vast majority of those under fifty in contemporary Britain [BBC 2011]) would not preoccupy themselves with no-carb diets and the alleged importance of “5 a day.” They would realise that such things were of little or no use to them, and would get on with what actually matters in their lives.

The society in which we live in is nothing like this. We are continually reminded by a wide range of people from public health authorities and journalists to our uncles and aunts that eating healthily is very important. Doing so will lead to a longer life, will protect us from numerous diseases when we get old, and of course, will make us healthier beings. Such messages have been fully accepted as undisputable “truths” in contemporary society and so it is unsurprising that there is a huge amount of pressure nowadays to carefully monitor what we eat.

The problem with the healthy eating discourse is two-fold. First of all, those undeniable “truths” are not necessarily true, and in the instances that they are, the way in which the evidence is interpreted and acted upon is often obsessive and illogical. Secondly, it represents an irritating and excessive intrusion in our everyday lives.

Having a meal is something to be enjoyed. However, it is nearly impossible to get through my dinner nowadays without someone giving me a five minute speech detailing the exact vitamins the fruit salad contains or the reasons why Tesco’s organic basmati rice is the best thing that’s ever been invented.

The other day, my father actually printed out “Dr Oz’s 100 Healthiest Foods” and stuck it on the fridge so as to make it unavoidable anytime we walked into the kitchen. Everyone (bar myself) studied it carefully as though it was some groundbreaking political manifesto. It was actually a load of rubbish. The point being that the whole subject of “eating healthily” is annoying, excessive and increasingly pervading our everyday lives.

On to my second point. The entire basis of eating “healthy” foods is that doing so is actually good for your health. However, if you look into the science behind this, you will find much of it is remarkably weak. One of the main reasons to eat healthily is based on the assumption that maintaining a moderate weight will lead to a longer, healthier life.

A paper recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2013) has shed serious doubt on this claim. The researchers who covered nearly 2.9 million individuals in their study found that overweight people (BMI 25-30) were actually less likely to die sooner than those of normal weight (BMI 18.5 – 25). Underweight people (BMI less than 18.5) and obese people (BMI 35 and over) died sooner than the overweight and normal people. Contrary to what is commonly thought then, based on these findings, if your eating choices are geared up towards maximising your overall life span, then pushing towards the overweight category is actually your best bet.

Others reasons to follow a healthy diet include ‘helping you feel your best and having plenty of energy…handling stress better…and preventing many health problems and diseases’ (WebMD). Unfortunately, many of these claims similarly fail to stand up under scientific scrutiny. For instance, it has long been claimed – and until recently, rarely challenged – that a low fat diet is good for you because it reduces health risks in later life. However, a $415 million study was conducted in 2010 that involved nearly 49,000 participants and concluded that the diet has absolutely no effect whatever (NY Times 2010). This is an extraordinary finding.

Millions of people round the world had completely changed their consumption habits based around something that they had taken as “fact” but in fact was pure fiction. There is so much misinformation, speculation and phony science in the healthy eating discourse that even its most solid foundations that are (or were once) universally accepted are being dismantled one by one.

Of course, that is not to say that there is no correlation between certain foods and our general health. What is important though is that we scrutinise the “truths” and “scientific claims” that are so often made in this complex and underdeveloped area of science. Until we have a much better understanding of how our bodies are affected by difference foods, we should stop obsessively talking about it, because aside from being an extremely dull topic of conversation, we still don’t really know what we‘re talking about.

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