Thursday, 27 August 2009

Fat melting

Life's little luxuries are too much for some of us to give up. During these times of recession, sales of shoes and chocolate have actually increased. In the last six months Cadbury's sales have risen by 12 per cent – apparently its all down to the new stay at home culture, which promotes the ideal of curling up on the sofa with a bar of melted cocoa. Reluctant to buck this trend, I bought a brand new pair of shoes for a friend’s wedding. I have to admit these elegant specimens were not in the sale, but the constant drizzly weather drove me to it. And what’s wrong with a little material pick me up once in a while? Having spent a week in the French Alps walking up mountains, swimming, running and exploring a more frugal way of life, I felt I deserved it. You see walking in the Alps is a whole day event. It’s hard on the thighs going up as you lean into the mountain (for fear a strong wind might blow you off ) and coming down your knees cry out for a bit of relief as you contend with rocky pathways, your eyes squinting in the afternoon sun. Of course, after an all day walk came the obligatory demi (half pint) in local pub followed by an ice cream. It seems holidays and diets clash in my head. Yet on returning to the cooler shores of South Devon I found I had actually toned up - walking all day obviously burns more calories than desk sitting despite the volume of food ingested. Finally free of walking boots, I headed into town hours before the wedding for a handbag only to get sidetracked by shoes. Shoes, I have learnt, can actually help you lose weight. This isn’t some old wives tale which involves eating seaweed and going to bed in your high heels - I’m talking about anti-cellulite shoes. These clumpy looking inventions are a type of footwear intended to change the way you walk by putting pressure on different areas of the foot and leg. Certain muscles that are generally ignored while walking are utilized while one is wearing the anti-cellulite shoes. By changing a person’s gait, these shoes claim to improve circulation, reduce varicose veins, and even melt accumulated fat. Fat melting shoes? They sound dangerous. Aside from claiming to literally burn away fat, the wearer’s posture is apparently also improved so it’s easier to breathe and joint problems can be relieved. So you see it isn’t just weight loss that is encouraged by these shoes. The product of Swiss engineer Karl Muller, anti-cellulite shoes - or Masai Barefoot Technology (MBT shoes) - were invented as a result of vacation inspiration. Muller found his back pain eased after days of walking barefoot around Korean paddy fields. Walking around barefoot down the High Street or across the moors is completely ridiculous, so Muller invented shoes which would mimic this basic of instincts – walking barefoot. Reports suggest anti-cellulite shoes may bring idle muscles back to life, but the only sure fire way of losing weight is more rigorous exercise. So at £150 a pair these boat-shaped shoes will have to stay on the shelf. It was after this allusion of quick weight loss was shattered that I went for a traditional, if not slightly flamboyant, pair of towering satin black heels with a ruffle on the front. They looked much better with my zebra print dress then any pair of MBTs would and they were much more appropriate for a wedding. And anyway, by the end of the evening I was barefoot.

Thursday, 6 August 2009


This week an American newsreader branded the Australian Prime Minister a “serial killer” after he announced £10million plans to control a feral camel plague by culling the mammals. Miss Burnett, an anchor on US financial news channel CNBC, took particular objection to the plans exclaiming live on TV: “There is a serial killer in Australia and we are going to put a picture up so we can see who it is.” The camel lover then brandish a picture of PM Kevin Rudd before adding, “He has launched air strikes - air strikes - against camels in the outback.” Australia is currently struggling to control more than one million feral camels that roam unchecked through the outback. The herds destroy fragile ecosystems and trample over sacred indigenous sites. They are eaten and raced and used to haul heavy loads. Interestingly, the one humped, Dromedary camels or two humped, much hairier, Bactrian Camels, can run at speeds up to 40mph in short sprints and they can maintain a speed of 25mph for up to an hour. Far from being mythical creatures used to market cigarettes, Dromedary Camels exist in Australia (obviously), north America and north Africa. The Irish one, the chatterbox and myself travelled for 17 hours in the aircon-less minibus towards the Algerian boarder with Morocco for a camel ride - the last thing on our mind was hanging out of an aircraft taking pot shots at them whilst chewing on a camel burger.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Slap and tickle

She was clad in multi-coloured clashing Lycra. A tea-towel was wrapped around her head and her small belly strained against her swimsuit, which was layered over a pair of knee length cycling shorts. Ducking our heads to enter the changing room myself and my two girl friends stood in our bikinis ready for the wash-down.
As we stepped across into the bathhouse, or hammam, the Moroccan woman, who had earlier been cleaning our room, waved us back with her arms and motioned for us to take off our swimwear. The intense 45 degree heat, the mayhem and dust of Marrakesh, had led us to the hammam. A traditional Muslim bath, the hammam is a social event as well as a deep, skin-shedding clean.After an initial, very British hesitation, we whipped off our bikinis and shuffled into the tiny tiled room wearing the Emperor's clothes. With three of us to be scrubbed down and only one lady to wash us, everything had to be done in turn. This meant the other two women either played a limited game of 'I spy' with the tiled interior of the hammam or watched the third member of our group being covered in black soap, washed down and then scrubbed vigorously with an abrasive pad while lying down completely naked on the floor.
The scene reminded me of a team of environmentalists leaning over a beached whale rubbing it (or whatever it is they do) and pouring water over them in an attempt to keep their temperature from rising before they roll them back into the sea.
We had opted for the private bath, shying away from the public gathering — hot water is still considered a luxury for many Moroccans and weekly bathing rituals are normally performed in public hammams. Rows of dimpled bums sit waiting their turn while fresh-cheeked ones, half their age, stride confidently across the hammam to collect clean warm water. In our hammam, at the bottom of the riad we were staying in, it was just the three of us and the Moroccan woman dressed like Mrs Motivator.
The giggles started almost immediately, erupting as each of us was woman-handled and scrubbed in full view of the others. Buckets of water are frequently thrown over you as rolls of scrubbed off skin get washed away. Arms and hands, which had been making vain attempts to hide busts and other more private parts, began to relax as the pointlessness of trying to hold onto any remaining dignity became apparent.
Mrs Motivator had seen it all many times before. The comedy of the hammam was further fuelled by our difficulties communicating with Mrs Motivator.
Her attempts to instruct us in pidgin French and Arabic ended up with her physically moving us around the room like puppets with arms often left aloft, hanging motionless in the air while we tried to work out if she was going to scrub our armpits. The last person to wash me like that was my mother — and I was very young.
But the subject of the hammam proved an ice breaker as we travelled around Morocco and swapped experiences with other European faces. One handsome blue-eyed Danish man acted out his hammam experience (unfortunately he was fully clothed) and said in perfect English: "I didn't understand what he was trying to tell me to do and so he slapped me on the backside to try to get me to move." Undeterred by having his bottom cupped by a Moroccan pensioner, he was returning to the hammam the following morning. Despite the hilarity largely brought about by embarrassment, the hammam did leave me with impossibly clean skin which was amazingly soft. Only this week I recounted my hammam experience to my two male housemates, as we settled down for a takeaway and movie night. Far from seeing the embarrassment or the hilarity of the situation they immediately banded about ideas for a new porn show and asked if we could introduce Thursday night bath nights at the house. Perhaps we Brits are more liberal than we think.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


I sheet of dust came off the file as I balanced on the bedside table to reach the shelves. The exercise bike, boxes, picture frames, files, books and a rolled up rug spread chaotically over my old bedroom floor. I was searching for my degree certificates in amongst the junk which had been shifted from other rooms, that were in use, in the house. I stumbled upon my creative writing - a long forgotten stash of poems, plays and short stories handed in for inspection by an ageing professor with spidery hand writing and a posh voice...
Cracked, lined skin.
Grey, wiry hair.
Wrinkled fingers fumble, the crinkling of plastic,
that earthy, musty scent.
Folding and filling the small white paper,
his lips wet it, the fingers working without guidance.
a flame momentarily lights up his face and the lines appear deeper - more troubled.
His brow full of memories.
His strong resonant voice echoes, echoes louder than before.
Smoke collects about him and the tightness returns making it difficult to breath.
the ash hits the tray.
His foot rests heavily, awkwardly.
He drinks the cheap bitter coffee - he's not staying, but he has nothing else to do.
His loose change bounces on the hard plastic.
He stands up and finishes his coffee as if he has business to attend to.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The look policy

A 22 year old law student from west London was confined to the stockroom of a Savile Row shop because management found out about her disability. It seems her prosthetic arm clashed with the company's 'look policy'. Abercrombie & Fitch employees have to pass a veritable fit test to tread the boards of their stores. I walked into their New York City store with my friend and we assumed they were all models. It's a cunning marketing ploy. Women queue up to have their picture taken with actual male models perched in the doorway with buff bodies and winning white-toothed smiles. We found ourselves wondering around the store, full of stunning employees, not sure where to look or what exactly we were supposed to pick up. The look policy dictates that workers must wear a 'clean, natural, classic hair style' and 'look great whilst exhibiting individuality'. In short, it's their job to present the American ideal - an ideal portrayed through TV shows and airbrushed images. Riam Dean didn't fit the American ideal. Born without her left forearm, she has worn a prosthetic limb since she was three months old. Her plight follows that of a disabled children's TV presenter, who was the victim of a campaign by parents who complained she was scaring toddlers. They said Miss Burnell, who only has one arm, was not suitable to appear on the digital children's channel. The fickle world of fashion and showbiz dictating that nothing less than perfect is good enough.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Angel of Iran

Neda and her music teacher had gone to join an anti-government protest as thousands of young Iranians took to the streets. Moments later the 27-year-old philosophy student, who had singing lessons in secret, fell to the ground from a single shot wound. Neda Agha-Soltan was killed on Saturday during a protest in Tehran sparked by the disputed presidential election which saw hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad re-elected. A series of huge rallies have been held in the city by enraged supporters of the more moderate candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. In scenes reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square massacre, rebel Iranians have been bloodily suppressed. A video of Neda's death has been circulated around the world and the apolitical woman has become a symbol of the fight for freedom and democracy. The graphic, hard-hitting amateur footage shows the young Iranian on the ground, her helpless music teacher willing her to stay alive as blood pours from her chest wound and spreads over her face. Within an hour, footage of the video had been posted on You Tube as evidence of the killing of innocent and largely peaceful protesters. Neda's name means 'voice' or 'call' in Persian and already she is being hailed as the voice of Iran. Neda was one of thousands of women who took to the streets to demand a recount of the presidential vote which they believe was rigged by the Government. About 70 per cent of Iranians are under 30 and are growing up in a digital media age linked to the western world by Twitter and social networking site Facebook. Iranian women, who are persecuted for not adhering to strict Islamic dress codes, are blogging, reaching audiences outside the regime. Photos of Neda have been used at demonstrations around the world from Istanbul to Los Angeles. Twitter users have been tinting their profile pictures green in solidarity with Iranians and a Facebook page entitled 'Angel of Iran' has been set up to honour Neda. Nearly 12,000 people have joined the group adding video footage of the moments leading up to her death and her death itself. Discussion boards are packed with messages of support crossing borders, religion and culture. It seems Neda's death is fuelling the passion for democracy in Iran.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009


Last week about 50 people chewed through two foot long stalks of stinging nettles. They had one hour to eat as many leaves as possible and beat the current champion nettle-eater. The winner is the person with the longest length of empty stalk. This wonderfully bizarre English competition stems from an argument between two farmers in the mid-1980s over who had the longest stinging nettles. I know it sounds mad, but stinging nettles make great tea. The first time my fellow vegetarian colleague tried to make me drink nettle tea I was far from convinced - it has an unfortunate smell like sweaty feet and looks like pond water - but the dark green liquid has an abundance of health related properties. Even the Romans used it to cure chronic rheumatism by flogging each other with the stingers. It can soothe allergic reactions such as hay fever and gargled it can heal a sore throat. Nettles are also very useful when suffering from the alcoholic excess of a night before. These soft yet prickly leaves have been used for hundreds of years as a folk remedy, brewed as teas, steamed and eaten like spinach or applied to the skin as a painkiller. I'm not suggesting we all hurry out in search of wasteland to pluck these weeds from the ground and start beating each other with the stalks or chewing them, but there's something to be said for natural remedies.