Dear Waterstone’s…

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Going to a bookshop has always been a huge treat: as a child, I would beg my parents to take me to the local bookshop so I could spend hours looking at the stories which I could fill my bedroom floor with – it having long passed the time when I had any space on my shelves.

And while over the years I may have graduated from the Horrible Histories and the Chronicles of Narnia which used to occupy a fair amount of my time, my love of bookshops has continued. I can still spend hours looking through the shelves, trying to decide between a classic or modern novel, a biography or history.

It can take days or even weeks to decide which one to purchase – a complex system which involves several visits to whichever bookshop I have chosen to frequent during that period of time, each time looking at the book and flicking through the pages before – finally – deciding to buy it.

It makes me extraordinarily happy. The smell, the feel, the different covers tempting me from the shelves.

And then disaster struck: my sister bought me a Kindle.

Disaster is probably not the right word. Indeed, the Kindle has probably saved me from being buried alive when my piles of books finally decide God did not mean for books to be piled in such a haphazard fashion.

And it has been a revelation for someone who uses public transport as much as me – I cannot describe my joy at having an entire bookshelf hidden in my handbag.

But it is a disaster for my love of bookshops. An absolute, unmitigated disaster. I still visit them, of course. I would not abandon an old friend quite so easily. And I still get the same thrill.

But I can’t buy the books I have seen and, invariably, by the time I get home I have forgotten exactly which one I want to buy anyway. And let’s be honest, Amazon just isn’t the same anyway.

Then I started to consider the danger for my much-loved bookshops around the country (I have favourites in each town I have lived) if people like myself start not buying directly from them, but from a faceless internet company. What if my Kindle is one drop in an ocean which could drown all these shops? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

And so I have come up with the perfect solution (for me, anyway).

I want all of the bookshops – from Waterstone’s to the very same local bookshop I frequented as a small child – to make friends with technology.

I would like to be able to go into the shop and it to look much as it has for the last 25 years – as this has served me well – but when I go to buy my book at the counter, I simply plug my Kindle in to upload it. It’s that easy. The best of both worlds.

So, if someone in bookshop HQ can hurry up and develop this, I would be very happy. And if it happens to make a bit of money, I wouldn’t mind a cut…

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But why all that jazz?

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Jazz! Courtesy of pedrosimoes7

Jazz! Courtesy of pedrosimoes7

There are certain things I have accepted I will never fully understand: the allure of Jordan for the country’s lad’s mag readers, the life-or-death importance of the latest England football score, and jazz.

Jazz. Now, I know a lot of people like it, but then again a lot of people like Jordan’s surgically enhanced chest, and care about Beckham’s right foot (or left. Unfortunately, I couldn’t care less.). To me, jazz sounds like several instruments playing completely different songs, and quite possibly playing the wrong notes of said completely different songs, culminating in a sort of racket which people far cooler than I bop their heads up and down to. And, if I am completely honest, I’m not really sure what it is (I mean, rock music involves lots of drums and guitars, classical music things like harps, and pop music overpaid teenagers dressed in very little. But jazz? Couldn’t guess.).

But this sort of ignorance is not accepted by my uncle (of Guardian-reading fame – see earlier post), who called early yesterday offering me a free ticket to watch The Bad Plus and an introduction to jazz. They’re very accessible, he promised. Right, thinks I, sceptically, we’ll see.

The Bad Plus - Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and David King

The Bad Plus - Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson and David King

The crowd at St George’s – an ex-church off Park Street, Bristol – were, at first glance, more suited to an afternoon of tea and cake after a quick browse at M&S than watching a band describe by Rolling Stone as “badass” (admittedly, the entire sentence reads “about as badass as highbrow gets” but still, the word “badass” was used). Anyway, the point stands: this group of mainly grey-haired, nicely-dressed jazz-lovers were at odds with a group whose drummer was wearing a beanie with a skull-and-crossbones on it.

That said, the three members which made up The Bad Plus – Ethan Iverson (piano) Reid Anderson (bass) and David King (drums) – were an odd mix in themselves. Friends from their teenage years, Iverson wore a suit while sitting at his grand piano, while Anderson was more casual in jeans, and King wore a t-shirt and the aforementioned skull-and-crossbone-d beanie.

Perhaps though, I mused as the concert, this was part of their appeal and – dare I say it – accessibility. Because accessible they were: yes, they played some classics which the M&S audience got dreadfully excited about, but they also played their own pieces – accompanied by slightly unusual explanations (Thriftstore Jewelry expressed the excitement one feels when you find that perfect something in a charity shop. Now, as someone who likes a bargain, this song in particular was certain to appeal…) and jazz interpretations of more mainstream songs ( last night it was Aphex Twin, as a nod towards their English audience, but a quick glance at their discography reveals many more).

It was also – somewhat surprisingly – incredibly watchable as a performance. At one stage, Iverson’s head had dipped to such an angle it appeared a headless suit was playing the piano of its own accord, while King played the drums in a way which my uncle assured me one could only pull of if one was supremely talented, which – I was assured – King was. I think perhaps it needs to be seen to be believed and –  let me assure you – it is most definitely worth seeing.

And, as the concert ended, and the M&S 50-somethings had stopped whooping and stomping their feet in appreciation (seriously, this was also an exercise in never judging a book by its cover – actual whoop-whooping I tell you!) I understood – and, dare I say it, liked – jazz a little bit more, just enough so that by the time I appear to be just a 50-something M&S goer to the outside world, I will actually be the kind of person who goes to concerts and whoop-whoops, with a full understanding of jazz.

Next week, I may even try to understand football…

The Bad Plus were part of the International Jazz Festival at St George’s, Bristol. For more information on upcoming concerts please go to http://www.stgeorgesbristol.co.uk/showbyseries.php?sid=22

The Bad Plus can be found on Spotify, if you just want to try it out, like me.

The lone parent: source of all evil? Probably not.

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The Conservatives have decided lone parents are the cause of all Britain’s  social ills.

I think they decided this some time ago, but now power lies around the corner, they need an easy scapegoat if any of their proposed plans go awry. Taxes need to rise astronomically? Lone parents. NHS waiting lists longer? Lone parents. War with Mars? Lone parents. See? Easy.

Don't they look happy...

Don't they look happy...

Philippa Stroud, as yet only a prospective parliamentary candidate for the Tories and executive director of the Conservative think-tank  Centre for Social Justice, which appears to be where they find evidence to back up their claims about lone parent families, among other things.

You see, they have discovered children of lone parent families are bad. Just bad. More of this later. My favourite bit, however, of the research done in to this, as discussed on this morning’s Woman’s Hour, was the poll of children asking them whether or not they wanted Mummy and Daddy to stay together.

Um, duh. Of course Little Janey and Titchy Tommy want Mummy and Daddy to stay together. Of course that poll was going to stay that. I challenge you to find a five-year-old who says otherwise. That’s because, lets be honest, Little Janey has no idea that Daddy is bonking his secretary. Neither does Titchy Tommy know his mother is having an affair with the postman. Because, I’m pretty sure if they knew and were old enough to understand, Little Janey would want Mummy to take Daddy for all he was worth in the divorce courts, and Titchy Tommy would set the dog on the postman while changing the locks to keep Mummy-Dearest out. But they’re not, and they don’t, because they are five and don’t need to know this kind of crap happens in the world, so ask them if they want Mummy and Daddy to stay together, the answer is of course.

But this poll is backed by facts which assert the children of divorced parents are 75 per cent more likely to fail educationally, 70 per cent more likely to be drug addicts, 60 per cent more likely to be alcoholics and 35 per cent more likely to be jobless.

At this juncture, I would like to point out I come from a lone-parent household. This means, according to Ms Stroud, I am most likely jobless, not surprising when you consider there is also a high chance I have addled my brain with drink and drugs, not to mention my lack of qualifications.

The fact of the matter is, none of the above applies to me, or my two younger sisters. Neither does it relate to any of my friends who hail from that most-terrible of things: the lone parent family.

But, using these statistics, the Tories want to reward those who are lucky enough to be happily married, and punish those who have been unfortunate enough to be divorced, and – more importantly – the children of these marriages.

I may not be one of the 75 per cent who have failed, educationally (whatever that may mean), nor may I be one of the huge numbers of drug addicts, or alcoholics, or unemployed, but I am someone who knows the importance of the financial support  the government gives single mums and dads. And I do not see how withdrawing it is going to help lower the figure.

But mainly, for me, it is the holier-than-thou this-is-how-you-should-live-your-life tone of voice Ms Stroud uses when discussing the perils of lone parent and unmarried couple households which annoyed me. I don’t, as a rule, like being told what to do.

By the end of debate, I was  sure of two things: firstly, I would not ever be voting for the Conservatives, and, secondly, if that woman was voted in, I would not get married just to spite her.

Ms Stroud: you can take your proposed 20 quid a week for married couples and stuff it.

NHS: The week our grumbling bit back

To be British there are certain things one must do at every opportunity: drink tea (whatever the situation), go on holiday abroad and find an English cafe, and complain about anything and everything British-related, meaning the weather, taxes, and, of course, the NHS.

However you have to be British to do any of the aforementioned complaining. Anyone other than a Brit pointing out our flaws… well, it’s just not cricket.

This rule of British-ness has never been so clear as this week as the Americans rush to criticise Obama’s new healthcare plan, holding the NHS up as a perfect example of everything bad. 

Members of all political parties are flocking to tweet their support, as British diplomats try to quietly correct the mistruths being spread by the American Right, and the Conservatives try desperately to shut up some of the more extreme, and more vocal, of their MEPs. (Cameron, one presumes, must be shaking in his boots. All those he impressed with his cycling and mini-rooftop-windfarm-thing may now be recollecting slightly clearer the events of the early 90s). Hell, even the Daily Mail are running pro-NHS stories, possibly for the first time in their entire history.

But, perhaps even more surprising than the Mail running positive NHS pieces, is the response of well-educated Americans to the proposals.

Reading a good friend of mine’s Facebook status update, I almost fell off my chair (not as hard a task as one might at first assume: my chair is missing a wheel, meaning I fall off it even when not in a state of surprise).

It seems she believed any step towards “socialised healthcare” would be a step closer to America becoming a third world country. As the last time I checked, the UK is still considered a first world country, I felt this was rather an odd statement. 

However, after seeing some of the, uh, “interesting” adverts being bandied around on American TV, one could see how – possibly – a person could get this impression.

Out of curiosity, I asked her to outline her fears of a new healthcare system. Her concerns are outlined here:

  • People not contributing to the system, leaving those in work to shoulder the burden
  • The government dictating how hospitals are run, and how doctors do their work
  • Doctors salaries being cut
  • The governments inability to run anything effectively (does this sound familliar?!)

The adverts seemed to have left her with the impression she would have to pay up to 50 per cent tax, as we do in this country (not true), and doctors would have to pay back the loans they had taken for university on a cut salary (doctors in the UK get bursaries for studying, and so have smaller loans).

She was also concerned the countries leaders would have a different standard of healthcare for themselves. I myself am not sure of what the plans are in the States, but we all know Cameron’s son received NHS care during his short life, and Blair’s son was born in an NHS hospital while in office.

The most interesting point was the government having too much influence over healthcare. If anything, a government being in charge of the healthcare system gives voters more of a chance to influence the running of said system, rather than it being run from behind the scenes by a faceless and, in some cases, greedy pharmaceutical company.

Perhaps one of the reasons we moan so much about the NHS is the fact moaning gets us places, and gets us the changes we want. I’d like to see moaning change how a multi-national corporation works.

But, the bottom line of the argument – and there is, I admit, good and bad on each side – is the 50 million or so people in the US with no access to healthcare. That’s practically the entire population of the UK, all having to worry that if they get hit by a bus, they can’t afford the ambulance ride to hospital.

Quite frankly, I would rather be paying higher taxes, and grumbling about the NHS, secure in the knowledge that if I’m hit by a bus, I’m not going to get the added bonus of bankruptcy.

Baby P, Facebook, and a new sort of apathy

So, the names of Baby P’s parents have finally been released, although, one rather suspects anyone who really wanted to know them knew them months ago, courtesy of Facebook groups – and similar – calling for their torture and murder.

(Apparently, we actually live in a Biblical society, where it is an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. Neither the murder of a young child, nor the public’s response, has filled me with any confidence that we have evolved at all in the past 2,000 years.)

And herein lies what appears to be a slight irony – Tracey Connelly, mother of the toddler Peter, has been attacked through a medium which she herself used. What’s more, it is a medium through which she boasted of her neglectful behaviour to what has been described as an “unknown audience”. 

The Guardian’s background piece on Connelly regularly refers to her use of social networking sites to announce how much she loved her boyfriend, and how much she had had to drink the night before.

So, the sort of posts 99.9 per cent of Facebook users make. Indeed, they are only auxillary evidence after the fact. Because, if announcing your drunken weekend escapades marks you out as someone who will allow the murder of a child on your watch, we need to be really worried.

In no way am I trying to defend this woman: what happened was truly appalling, disgusting, and, well, worrying. And it is surely the worrying aspect we need to concentrate on.

Unfortunately, what’s done is done. Joining a group calling for their torture and death is not going to bring a small child back. Taking an interest in the world around you, however, may do.

An interest in politics beyond groups experimenting with whether or not they can find a million people against the BNP is not going to make sure the BNP make no further gains. A group extolling outrage at social services is not going change social services. 

Pretending to care by joining a Facebook group is not good enough: after all, channelling all your energies anmd concerns into a social networking site is not going to make a difference in the real world.

Making an informed vote at the next election, however, could make a difference. Only 34.5 per cent of elligiable voters bothered to vote in the recent European Elections, below the EU average and, frankly, somewhat embarrassing (it rather makes you wonder how may of the million people against the BNP did anything to make sure the BNP did not get seats).  

Next time, then, instead of joining that Facebook group to express your outrage, do something about it in the real world. I promise, it will be more effective.

Banksy versus Bristol Museum versus General Ignorance

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Graffiti along Park Street

Graffiti along Park Street

Graffiti artist Banksy’s exhibit at Bristol Museum has caused a fair bit of controversy. After all, how can someone who claims to be anti-establishment have an exhibition at a museum, which are, let’s be honest, incredibly “establishment”?

The establishment may have some concerns about their own role in this – it is known Westminster Council would quite happily arrest the man, given half the chance. However, the problem is dealt with by signs dotted around the exhibition, which explain “the museum itself does not support or condone any form of illegal activity, regardless of it’s artistic merit”. (And just to make clear, the “it’s” of the previous sentence is the museum’s mistake, not mine. Establishment it may be, grammatically correct it certainly is not.)

But, regardless of the Establishment debate, there is an exhibition, and it is a pretty good one at that.

I won’t pretend to be an art critic because, quite frankly, I know about as much about art as a monkey knows about the periodic table, but I do know it made me laugh, avert my eyes (pseudo-classical statues in sadomasochistic leather… well), and question the great British public’s general knowledge.

I say the last bit because this revelation sticks in my mind more than the mouse painting over Hirst’s dots, more than the two fat tourists being pulled by a small child, and more than the fishfinger swimming in a fishbowl.

The great British public’s general ignorance was laid bare in front of a piece, depicting apes in the House of Commons. It is, I would say, perfectly clear it is the House of Commons. But it appears I am wrong. So wrong.

The actual House of Commons

The actual House of Commons

Because, according to one woman explaining to her very small children, it is a courtroom, “like in Harry Potter”, with a judge (known to others as the Speaker of the House, but let’s not split hairs), which would mean the other monkeys in the picture were other members of the Wizamagot (I don’t only know my British politics, ladies and gentlemen, I know my Harry Potter).

The question is, if this, a seemingly clear reference to MPs being a bunch of  useless apes, is flying over the heads of the public (on a Hogwarts-esque broomstick, apparently) then are any of the more subtle digs being understood at all?

And if they’re not, it is certainly not Banksy versus Bristol Museum, but rather Banksy versus an incredibly uninformed public…

Should journalism be vindictive and spiteful?

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Girls, it is generally thought, are bitchier than boys. As a gender, we gather in small groups to destroy our fellow females’ characters, attacking, in minute and painstaking detail, every aspect of said females – from their choice of handbag to their choice of man.

And, when faced with this accusation from a member of the opposite sex, even the nicest woman in the entire world cannot defend herself. It is, unfortunately, incredibly hard to pinpoint an exact moment in time where a man behaved in a bitchy way, akin to that of a woman, even though we all know – deep down – men are just as spiteful as women.

But they no longer need to despair… an excellent example of a man’s ability to bitch is available to anyone with internet access.

Bitching is not only a woman's favourite hobby... courtesy of mangpages

Bitching is not only a woman's favourite hobby... courtesy of mangpages

Pointed out by blogger Perez Hilton a few days ago, Alex Bilmes – features director of men’s mag GQ, contributing editor at Vogue, writer for papers such as The Observer etc etc – wrote what can only be described as a rather mean piece attacking Beth Ditto.

For the record, my standpoint is this: I don’t particularly understand why Ms Ditto is a fashion icon, but then again I am also rather left behind as to why people like Pixie/Peaches/Puddle/whateverthehellhernameis is considered a style icon. Indeed, any number of these style icons could be ripped to shreds for what they seemingly represent (in many cases, it appears, a healthy case of anorexia).

Thing is, the man didn’t only insult Ms Ditto (insults: “fat lesbian” and “fashion ‘icon'” and “pathologically exhibitionist”), but the fashion world (all “so stupid”) and feminists (“feminazis”). And all this within the first paragraph.

Problem is, the interesting bit of the article – the conclusion of sorts, drawn from the rant – comes in the second paragraph, but is lost because of the bile Mr Bilme’s spouted in the first, and, subsequently, the third paragraph.

Because many people would agree girls who fall in between the two extremes are ignored, problem being, by Bilmes couching this between such venom, he makes sure the average girl is being ignored as well, thereby completely defeating his own argument.

It is OK for Bilmes not to like The Gossip‘s music, it is OK for him to question the woman’s validity as a fashion icon (although, I would be interested to hear his thoughts on Sophie Dahl pre-weightloss – does she attract the same level of hatred, or is it simply confined to fat lesbians?), and it is OK for him to be quite clear about this.

But it seems a good point has been sacrificed in the name of writing a “shock-blog”. Would the blog have not been as good had some of the vindictive comments been a little less, well, vindictive? Did it actually need to be that spiteful, or hitting that many targets in one paragraph? Mr Bilmes is, after all, an award-winning journalist who, I’m guessing, doesn’t need to resort to these kinds of comments to get people to read his blog.

Anyway, all this will soon be lost in the bitchy blog-war which seems likely to kick off between Bilmes and Perez, after Bilmes wrote a piece in defence of Perez’s “douche” comment on Friday.

As I said, perfect example for any woman to prove that men are just as bitchy as women.

The MPs and the cookie jar: can we trust them?

A leader for the Cardiff Evening News:

The forced resignation of the Speaker of the House of Commons for his role in trying to prevent the list of MPs’ expenses becoming public knowledge can only be the first step in what will now, surely, be a long process of winning back voter confidence.
The revelations over how much MPs have spent in the name of furnishing their second homes, cleaning moats, and ordering manure has left the majority of the country angry.
Understandably, most would say, for as the MPs chose widescreen television which cost thousands of pounds all courtesy of the tax payer, the rest of the population are worrying about rising debt and the possibility of redundancy.
So it seems the Speaker, Glasgow MP Michael Martin, has been offered up to the public as some sort of sacrifice. MPs bayed for his blood, while hoping the spotlight would not be turned on them next.
And when the spotlight is turned on them, revealing what can only be described as their gross misuse of public money, they claim they were simply playing within the rules, and, what’s more, they don’t earn that much anyway.
For, they claim, £65,000 is not a lot of money. They seem to forget the majority of people who voted them in to these once trusted roles earn on average a paltry £22,000 a year.
But how to win back any confidence?
Promises to pay back the money spent on a Heal’s rocking chair, or some other pointless extravagance, are simply not enough. Most people when caught with their hands in the cookie jar would promise to replace the cookies, but there still remains the question of why they had their hand in the cookie jar in the first place. And, it must be said, it is unlikely you would trust them near the cookie jar again.
A complete reform of the expenses system is required, but, then, it needs to be remembered, expenses exist so everyone, not only those lucky enough to already have money, can become an MP if they are good enough.
The only way to win back any voter confidence is for every MP in the country to lay their expenses bare to their constituency, and then be given the chance to decide whether they still want this person to represent them in the Commons.
Brown must call an election. MPs need to be held accountable, and need to realise even though they may be acting within the technical confines of the law, they are certainly not above judgement.

Are pigs really going to be the end of us?

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How could something this cute make us so worried? Courtesy of Brent and MariLynn

How could something this cute make us so worried? Courtesy of Brent and MariLynn

As a seasoned hypochondriac, headlines declaring the imminent death of most of the world from “swine flu” do not make me a happy bunny.

However, I am conflicted: while my inner-hypochondriac says I am definitely going to die, while my inner-journalist says the headlines are simply selling papers and things, let’s be honest, probably aren’t that bad.

The days a journalist gets to write apocalypse-predicting headlines are the days journalists live for. There are stories of editors jumping for joy at the news of a car crash, a fire, and, in this particular case, a global pandemic. Stories like this have given journalists a bad name: reveling in bad news is not, to the average person, a good thing.

But the problem is: bad news sells. Which, quite frankly, is a pretty bad reflection on the average person. Headlines like those from the past few days have sold papers which otherwise wouldn’t have sold.

And that’s why I’m reserving judgment on the whole swine flu issue. Bad headlines = good sales but do they = the most balanced truth? Probably not.

Looking at the stats on the BBC website, I’m not overly worried. Reading at The Sun, I am. At least 150 people have died according to the latter, but only seven according to the Beeb. Hmm.

I did have a slight spike of worry with the announcement a two-year-old had died in the States but common sense prevailed: the death was in Texas. My limited grasp of geography tells me that’s next door to Mexico (isn’t that why they all get so grumpy about illegal immigrants down there?!). So far, so not global.

Indeed, my inner-journalist – and cynic – is rather hoping the raised newspaper sales (and, therefore, profits) may lead to an abandonment of the hiring freeze which most places have imposed (obviously, with no more deaths. I may be cynical, but I’m not a bitch).

Either way, there’s not a lot I can do. For now, I’ll allow my inner-hypochondriac to read everything possible about my impending doom from swine flu, and I’ll allow my inner-journalist to rationalise.

Will I ever be skinny? Uh, no.

As the first warm rays of summer appeared my mind turned, as it always does, to how exactly I plan to lose those few pounds which have crept onto my hips and thighs over the long, and exceedingly cold, winter months.

As, of course, has everyone elses. Fellow JOMEC student Esther Armstrong is detailing her search for the perfect bridesmaid body on her blog, while the magazines and newspapers hand out hints and tips a-plenty to help us all lose those inches.

And I am reading it all, enraptured, hoping someone will give me the perfect recipe for shifting that half stone.

I know I don’t have Esther’s commitment, nor the money the Times quick fix solution requires. I needed something easy and cheap, something that doesn’t take much time, or require me to go to much out of my way.

Looking far less silly than me... Courtesy of BL1961

Looking far less silly than me... Courtesy of BL1961

Skipping, I decided, was the perfect thing. It was cheap – I purchased a rope for £1.99 -, convenient – at the risk of being classed as bonkers by the neighbours, I have been skipping in the back garden -, but it is not easy.

Skipping apparently burns twice the calories swimming will in fifteen minutes. However, after fifteen minutes of skipping, I wanted to die. And after three days of skipping religiously? Well, I woke up and couldn’t walk, my muscles rebelling against the torture I was inflicting.

And then, today, I learn this little bit of trivia from the Times:

A pound of body fat is the equivalent of about 3,500 calories. If you have a calorie deficit of 500 calories (ie, you burn 500 calories more than you eat each day), you would lose about 1lb a week.

Well, it deflated my ambitions quite a lot. You see, I love food. I know the half stone I have put on over the winter is pure Haribo. And I enjoyed every, single sweetie I ate. And I don’t want to give it up. Combined with my own dislike of exercise, the likelihood of me ever managing to burn 500 calories more than I’ve eaten is on a par with Gordon Brown winning the next election.

All is not lost for lazy, greedy people like me though. My morale has been lifted by Liz Jones, writing for the Daily Mail, who worries “women … have had their lives ruined by trying to pummel their bodies into a shape that is unnatural for them” and argues “that making us think about what we ate today and what we will eat tomorrow is a great way of ensuring women don’t have the energy to succeed”.

The latter statement is maybe slightly extreme, however, next time I reach for the Haribo, I am going to remind myself it means I will be successful because the sugar rush will give me the energy*…

*(This, of course, ignores the many surveys which point out skinny, pretty people are more successful… ah well.)