Friday, December 23, 2005

The Please Toffee Don't Hurt 'Em Toffeewomble Winter Tour 2005/2006 Tour News

Gators, the Everglades, yesterday (really).

OK I'm back from the first part of the Please Toffee Don't Hurt 'Em Winter Tour 2005/2006, and as you may have already guessed, I went to look at the wildlife of Florida. There's a bit of it up there.

Apart from maybe a million alligators, I also saw: dolphins, ospreys, eagles, egrets, buzzards, a big black snake, two squirrels, a manatee (how weird are they!?), a pileated woodpecker, pelicans, a grey gnatcatcher, ibises, roseate spoonbills, a family of raccoons, storks, lizards, two terrapins, and a fish. So not bad.

Tomorrow it's the second leg of the Please Toffee Don't Hurt 'Em Winter Tour, so again my blogging will be light bordering on pointless. And again I wish toffeewomblers worldwide a very Merry Christmas. x.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The "Please Toffee Don't Hurt 'Em" Toffeewomble Winter Tour, 2005/6

Where I'm going on Saturday. More slyly gloating pics below.

OK, you funky womblers, I'm off on my travels. In fact I'm journeying to three different places, two hot and one drizzly, over the next few weeks. I shall therefore be gone a month, though I may pop back to the Smoke - and the site - for a day or two in between.

As a result, my blogging might be sporadic bordering on laughable. So, no change there then. Merry Christmas, everyone!

Where I'm going on Christmas Eve...

And where I'm going on January 5th.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Armchair of Love

The famous chair...

Looking for the Armchair of Love

I am loitering in a sex museum in Prague. Amidst the chastity belts and pre-war dildos stands this... thing. It looks like an instrument of medieval torture; or a commode for an incontinent Chinese warlord.

Yet it turns out to be something way more bizarre than this - what I am ogling is the fauteuil d'amour, the famous "armchair of love". It's a chair specifically designed by a top French furniture maker, so an English King could have sex with two or more prostitutes. Looking at the surreal object, it's hard to work out how.

The king was Edward VII: he used the chair when he visited the brothel of Le Chabanais, one of the great bordellos of fin de siecle Paris. Yet the chair in Prague turns out to be a replica. Could the real one still exist?

To find out I take the eurostar to Paris, and trek to the site of Le Chabanais, in the 2nd arrondissement. In its heyday the sober facade of this inner-city townhouse disguised a riotously ornate interior, a world of mirrors and velvet, where beautiful trollops would stand bare-breasted on pedestals, for the delectation of the wealthy punter.

All this was swept away in 1946, when Le Chabanais, and all the other 'tolerated houses', were abolished in a fit of post-war puritanism. The madams, the girls and their clients were scattered. But what happened to the famous fixtures; what happened to the chair?

In the modernist towers of the Bibliotheque Nationale I consult the records. They tell me that the armchair of love miraculously survived La Fermeture, 'the closing', and was bought at auction in 1946 by an industrialist. The chair was then resold at Drouot, another Parisian auction house.

A metro ride brings me to the pukka salons of Drouot. But when I ask the girl at reception about 'the English king's oral sex chair' (and try saying that in French), she has a fit of giggles. Finally she confirms that the chair went under the hammer for a third time.

'Herve Poulain', she tells me, 'auctioned the armchair in 1996.' Eventually I track down M Poulain in his own office. After some cajoling, he makes a call to 'a certain client'. Then he turns, and smiles: Oui, the chair survives.

Huzzah! I have one more question. Is the chair still... used?


I haven't the guts to ask how.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Race, Riots and Rape: the Australian Case

Neo-fascist scum, or defenders of their community taking brutal revenge? Maybe a bit of both? White rioters attack a defenceless victim in the beachside suburb of Cronulla, Sydney, yesterday.

The race riots in southwest Sydney have shocked anyone with the normal view of that country - as a laid-back, contented place, fond of a beer and a barbie, vibrantly multicultural if slighly provincial. Now we see images, like the one above, of mobs and their victims - specifically mobs of 5,000 white Australians parading down a beachfront shouting 'kill the wogs' and beating up any olive-skinned human unlucky enough to pass their way.

Totally disgraceful, of course. But before we all condemn the Aussies as a bunch of neo-Nazi thugs, it may help to understand the underlying problems here - just as we would be asked to do if the rioters had been 'ethnic'.

Without putting too fine a point on it, Muslim immigrants into Australia have trouble adapting to that 'laid back' and tolerant beach-based lifestyle. Lebanese Australians are indicated in gun crime, drug dealing, and gang culture in general. The gangs are known to travel in motorcades of twenty vehicles at a time, menacing ordinary Sydneysiders with pistols and knives, even in the Central Business District. Murders are far from unknown. For years white Australians have complained that the police are too soft on the ganged-up 'Lebs' - the whites complain that the police are too scared to act because of political correctness.

But many immigrant groups in many societies turn to crime; it's often the result of poverty and social exclusion: the only way up the ladder. What marks out the Muslim situation in Australia is the conflicted issue of sexuality and gender; many Muslim men seem to have trouble with the uninhibited attitudes of Australian women, their 'easy' sexuality, their perceieved 'sluttishness' in comparison to modest Muslim women.

The result has been extremely nasty - low level harrassment of white Australian women at best, sexual abuse and gangrape of white Aussie women at worst. I do not exaggerate. Here is an account of one of several Lebanese gangrapes that have occurred in Sydney, in recent years; the account is taken from an Aussie newspaper. Read it and you may understand the oafish and repulsive behaviour of the white rioters - just a little bit; that it's not just ethnic communities that can be stretched and antagonised to 'breaking point'.

Racist rapes: Finally the truth comes out

By Miranda Devine

July 14 2002

The Sun-Herald

So now we know the facts, straight from the Supreme Court, that a group of Lebanese Muslim gang rapists from south-western Sydney hunted their victims on the basis of their ethnicity and subjected them to hours of degrading, dehumanising torture. The young women, and girls as young as 14, were "sluts" and "Aussie pigs", the rapists said. So now that some of the perpetrators are in jail, will those people who cried racism and media "sensationalism" hang their heads in shame? Hardly.

This newspaper was the first to report the story, which had been common knowledge in police and media circles, and it has never censored the race element.

Even last week, with the conviction of two brothers for their part in the gang rape of Miss D, who was 16 when she was held at gunpoint in a Greenacre park, there were media outlets that downplayed the story and air-brushed race from it.

Yet the victims have been crying out for the truth to be told. In court on Friday, one victim gave another a card on which she had written

"Truth is Justice".

In August, when Judge Megan Latham handed out laughably lenient sentences to three men in one gang rape case, which were later more than doubled on appeal, she made a special point of debunking the race link: "There is no evidence before me of any racial element in the commission of these offences," she said. "There is nothing said or done by the offenders which provides the slightest basis for imputing to them some discrimination in terms of the nationality of their victims."

Except that later one of the victims complained her victim impact statement had been "censored" of any "ethnic" references by prosecutors intent on a plea bargain. She was convinced she was raped because of her ethnicity. "You deserve it because you're an Australian," the rapists told her during the five-hour attack.

It's just so inconvenient of the victims to insist on telling the truth.

"I looked in his eyes. I had never seen such indifference," one 18-year-old victim, codenamed Miss C, told the court, remembering one of the 14 men who called her "Aussie pig", gang raped her 25 times over a six-hour period in Bankstown and Chullora, and then turned a hose on her. "I'm going to fuck you Leb style," he said.

Fourteen gang rapists have been convicted, or pleaded guilty, thanks to the courage of seven victims who testified for days in court as their tormentors smirked nearby, the men's families threatened them and defence lawyers suggested they had enjoyed the rapes.

"They're very brave, very strong and very courageous young women," said Salvation Army Major Joyce Harmer, who held the hands of many of the victims through the trials. "They knew this was something they had to do."

Yes, it is unfair that the vast bulk of law-abiding Lebanese Muslim boys and men should be smeared by association. But their temporary discomfort may be necessary so that the powerful social tool of shame is applied to the families and communities that nurtured the rapists, gave them succour and brought them up with such a hatred of Australia's dominant culture and contempt for its women that they think of an 18-year-old girl, dressed for a job interview in her best suit, sitting on a train reading a book, as a slut."

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Toffeewomble: Getting the Attention it Deserves

One day...

This review of Tim Worstall's Blogged appeared in the Observer, yesterday. It gives me a namecheck! Hooray! Etc!

Sunday December 4, 2005
The Observer

2005 - Blogged: Dispatches from the Blogosphere
edited by Tim Worstall
The Friday Project £8.99, pp224

On paper it is a terrible idea: let every have-a-go writer on the planet publish whatever they fancy and give it all away free. No editors, no agents, no fees, no quality control.

But a new generation of diarists, satirists, polemicists and poets have made the idea work precisely because they dispensed with paper. They are bloggers, their medium is the internet and there are around 19 million of them worldwide; 300,000 or so in the UK.

If you do not regularly read blogs it is probably for one of three reasons. First, you do not have access to the internet. Second, you do not personally know anyone who keeps a blog so you have not experienced the voyeuristic pleasure that is the medium's best recruiting sergeant. Third, you have taken a curious look at a few blogs and found them to be facile and illiterate.

In service to the unequipped, the uninitiated and the sceptical there is now 2005: Blogged, a paperback anthology of new British writing online. Tim Worstall, the collection's editor, has sifted vast swaths of web and picked out the gobbets that best capture the spirit of the UK blogosphere. Yes, that is a horrible geek neologism. But the internet has a persistent habit of creating concepts too quickly for language to keep up. Those who seek immersion in the new technology have to arm themselves quickly with a parallel vocabulary. Those who do not then find themselves doubly excluded.

The blog extracts compiled by Worstall are pleasingly free from arcana. They are documentary snapshots from the year that saw, among other things, hunting banned, Prince Charles married, London bombed and Tony Blair's nose bloodied in an election. Of course, these events were also covered by the nation's newspapers and TV stations. But professional journalists are bound by protocol. They are expected, for example, at least to try not to season every word with the sauce of personal experience. Whereas for bloggers that is the point.

'A friend of mine visits a strip pub once a week,' blogged Sean Thomas, in the Toffeewomble, on 8 July, the day after the London bombings. 'Despite the bombs he went along this afternoon as usual and was the only guy with four strippers. But he told me he had to go "otherwise the terrorists would have won".' Short and darkly witty. Not many newspaper columnists managed that in their accounts of Londoners' reaction to an al-Qaeda intervention in their daily routine.

But on that July day, and every other day in 2005, there were millions of blog entries. Most were not so pithy. Most were overlong. Plenty were plain gaga. The internet may have made paper obsolete, but it has not banished the need for an editorial hand to corral what is worth reading into one place for the convenience of time-pressed readers. It is just such a service, the monthly Britblog round-up on Tim Worstall's site, that evolved into 2005: Blogged.

Worstall is an expat businessman based in Portugal. He is also a prolific blogger with a libertarian bent who is on a self-appointed mission to eviscerate every newspaper article that he judges guilty of economic illiteracy. He is not, however, exclusively hostile to old media, nor immune to the charms of ink on paper. He must be at least ambivalent about olde worlde recognition or he would not have published anything so Luddite as a book. But therein lies a contradiction in much political blogging: it rather depends on the very thing it likes ostentatiously to scorn.

So commonplace is the blogger's device of savaging something that has appeared in a newspaper that it has its own word, 'fisking', derived from the name of Robert Fisk, the Independent journalist on whose columns the art was first practised. Fisk was once asked whether he minded that his identity had been co-opted in this way. He replied: 'I don't waste my time with blogs, I don't use the internet, and I don't use email. I work.' His comments were promptly subjected to a brutal online fisking.

But journalists, when they do notice the existence of blogging, tend to give disproportionate attention to its political side. This is because they are first to feel the itch when the gadflies bite, and because anyone who is paid to do something gets anxious when they see a bunch of people doing the same thing for free.

In fact, the polemic brand of British blogging is a small segment of the whole. It is also a style that has been imported from the US, where there is much more animosity between new and old media (the former deride the latter as toothless lackeys of corporate greed); and between liberal and conservative bloggers (the latter excoriate the former as unpatriotic handmaidens of terror).

Vitriol on UK blogs is exchanged mostly in left-wing trench warfare over Iraq. More common and much more entertaining are the tens of thousands of journals in which ordinary folk document their lives with self-deprecating, deadpan irony. It is a tone that one day will be globally recognised as the house style of the British blogosphere. 'Dear My Colonoscopy,' starts an open letter on the blog, Chocolate Covered Bananas. 'Things you don't want to hear as you slip into sedation: "Is this the clean camera"?'

Ambulance drivers, traffic wardens, teachers, police officers - all have blogs. By some estimates a new one is created every few seconds, which means there should be a gradual erosion of the rump 70 per cent of the population that has still never even heard of blogging.

In the meantime, Worstall's book is a decent attempt to box the unruly new medium in the trusted packaging of an old one.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Here's a girl I went out with in about 1990. TV presenter Mariella Frostrup. Sizzle!

This is a lovely girl I went out with in the late 90s, Sarah. She's just started modelling for L'Oreal, she tells me. Here's a cellphone pic of some photos from her first shoot, the other day. Blurry, but you get the idea.

And here's my fiancee Claire, with nice cheekbones. I'm the one on the right.


OK, I still feel depressed, but at least I'm a depressed person who's TUPPED some TOTALLY hot looking BIRDS.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

You Lucky People

Here it is. The cover to my book (well, almost - Bloomsbury Books have changed the subtitle, and made the little women-figures more varied. But you get the picture). At first I hated this cover, but then I was told by a number of expert and neutral people that it was 'extremely commercial' and that somehow changed my mind, like Elizabeth Bennett's opinion of Darcy after she sees the grounds at Pemberley.

Are you excited? Bet you are. If you're not, here's a sample chapter from the book (which is about my lovelife, and internet dating) to whet your appetite. It's the introduction....

Millions on Women are Waiting to Meet You


How do you propose? I mean, what is the best way to propose? What's the right stage in a relationship to do it? Why, how, who? Where? Hello?

I'm stuck. I have this strange feeling that I want to propose to my girlfriend, Claire, right now, right here, on the roof of my flat as we sip warm Spanish champagne. But the momentousness of it is holding me back. I'm 39 years old and it all seems too remarkable, too unexpected and frightening. Frankly I'd come to the conclusion that this moment, THE moment, might never arrive. And maybe I never wanted it to arrive, for such a long time. And yet somehow the moment seems to have sidled into my life like a sweet little kid sneaking in the backdoor of the cinema.

I've been thinking of proposing for a while now, I've even had a few daydreams as to the best place. Last week I had plans to do it in Venice, in a gondola, under the swooning Adriatic moon. The week before that I considered taking my girlfriend to Paris where we could do it walking the Tuileries amidst the lilacs. Then I looked at my bank statement and thought that the local park might be nice, as long as it wasn't drizzling. But here I am sitting on the roof of my flat in London and I have a sudden urge to do it anyway, right now, right here.

My sudden urge to propose, and my scuppering of my Venetian daydreams, is partly perhaps based on the proposal experience of a friend of mine. The other day when I was discussing my plans for popping-the-question, he told me his proposal story.

My friend did it properly. He did this big build up to The Question and took his girlfriend to a beautiful part of Greece. Then he set up a lovely dinner with candles and chilled retsina and moonlit views of the twinkling Aegean. Then when he leaned forward across the crisp white tablecloth and took his girlfriend's delicate hand and said 'I have something to say' his girlfriend started weirdly trembling and then when he said 'My God what's wrong?' she said 'You're going to finish with me aren't you, that's why you've brought me here! You bastard!'

With that she went into a spaz-out, and disappeared into the loos for three hours, and had to be slowly coaxed out, and told that no, her boyfriend wasn't going to finish with her. My friend finally asked the big question in the back of a scruffy minicab on the way back to their Greek hotel.

So what does this tell me? I think it tells me that portentous build-ups to romantic moments can be somewhat counter productive. And so that's one of the reasons I am suddenly thinking: Now. Here. Do it. A further thought that is egging me on is that somehow this is the right place, in a weird way. In the city I have lived in and loved all my life. Next to the loudly humming air conditioner of the Pizza Paradiso restaurant, next door.

Setting down my wine glass I go over to Claire and we kiss a little. We kiss some more. It's a good stalling tactic. I can keep this up for a while, as I work up the courage to DO IT. But then Claire starts gasping for air and so I have to let her go.

But the urge is still with me. The blind groping instinct to ask the fateful question. This urge feels a little weird. It's a bit like knowing you're going to throw up when you are a kid. You want it to happen - and yet you don't. Anyway, here it comes. Stepping back, I open my mouth and...

And I close my mouth again. Because Claire is squinting at me oddly. And this has got me thinking that maybe she's a bit squiffy, after three or four glasses of champagne. That's a concern. Should I propose to her when she's had a fair number of drinks? Won't that nullify anything she says? Will her answer be legally binding?

Worse still, will she even remember my question tomorrow?

What, you proposed?! When was that?

The problems in my head are multiplying. I should have come out with it a few seconds previous, when I had the queasy urge, the nausea feeling. Now it comes to it I can see a host of other complexities. Like: just how should I phrase this telling question?

On reflection, 'Will you marry me?' seems kind of forceful, rather aggressive and blunt. Slightly too close to 'you will marry me!' But maybe that's a good thing? Honesty? Maybe candour and frankness are called for here? Not cold calculation? On that basis, perhaps I should run across the roof terrace and fling my arms open and just say 'Oh marry me!' in a kind of passionate and impetuous outburst.

What am I saying? We're on top of the roof. It's five storeys down to the busy London street, where I can hear the pizza waiters chucking out the prosecco bottles. If I start shouting impetuous stuff as I leap across the asphalt, Claire might topple over the edge in surprise and fall to her death. Which would be a pretty brief engagement.

There's no choice. I've got to build up to it slowly. Start again.

Going over to Claire I smile, and kiss her on her neck. Then I pull back and tuck some stray blonde hair behind her ear, in a vaguely soppy way. I say something in a low whisper. We laugh. I can feel the moment swaying towards me once more, across the disco floor of life. So I take a deep breath and I look at Claire. Her eyes are shiny and languid in the night; the champagne is giving her golden hiccups.


I have adopted a profound, wise and loving expression. The look of a man you can trust, in a lifelong kind of way. Claire squints at me.

'Yep. What is it Babe?'

'.... Claire I've been wondering...'

Her eyes widen.


'And, well....'

I let the words hang in the air, like the scent of flowers in a warm moonlit garden. I am aiming to get my timing right. So I pause for a few more seconds and then I think about opening my mouth. It's going to happen. I'm going to say these words for the first and hopefully the only time in my life; I am going to say the words that will change our lives, that will commit us, that will ennoble our love and deepen our affection. And so I lean forward and I extend a hand and I open my mouth and Claire says:

'Shall we get pizza?'

I stare. She adds:

'Oh sorry. You want Thai, right?'

My mouth shuts. I nod and sigh. Then I turn away and walk across the roof terrace and sit on the ledge that looks over the road. Claire puts a hand to her mouth and says:

'Sorry darling. You were gonna say something?'

'Oh no...'

'No. You were. What?'

'Oh... you know.... Just thinking.... maybe we could get a DVD out or something.'

Claire tilts her blonde, pretty, smart, 29 year old Scottish head.

'... at midnight?'

She is skeptically drinking her champagne, with her arms crossed. I watch her sip that delicately tilted flute. I watch her sigh with contentment in the warm summer air. Then she peers across the Bloomsbury rooftops and with a giggle she says 'I forgot you can see the British Museum from here!', after that she wanders airily over in her nice sexy dress and she sits down close to me.

There is something odd and superior about Claire's demeanour this evening. It is as if.... she knows something, senses something. While I listen to the late night drinkers whooping in my road I wonder if sweet Claire senses what I am trying to do. Could it be? Maybe it's her female intuition? Or maybe I'm being obvious? We've been going out a year and two months: is that when men always propose?

Leaning forward I stare at the gravel of my primitive 'roof terrace'. Then I get another ardent and surprising urge: to get down on one knee. Perhaps if I did that it would be obvious what I was trying to do and then Claire might help me out by just saying Yes before I even have to produce the difficult words, the no-going-back statement. But getting down on one knee seems over-the-top and cliched. Why is it one knee anyway? Why not two? Is that to stop you falling over?

If only I had a ring to hand across. That would give me a prop. Yes. Maybe I should have bought a ring. Or maybe I should have got that tee shirt with 'Will You Marry Me?' stencilled across it. Or.... or maybe I should have got married years ago.

I think that might be the problem. I am 39. It's an age thing. When you are 19 and impulsive you can say Will You Marry Me without a thought because life is nothing but dewy promise and happy prospects. When you are older you see the pitfalls. And the divorces and separations of all your friends. And then it takes more guts. To take the risk. Because you know the risk.

So if it's a courage thing, have I got the guts? I think so. I've done a few brave things in my life. I've spent a Sunday in the Outer Hebrides. I've watched an entire evening of Italian television. I think I have the cojones to do this. Let's do it!

Then I notice that Claire isn't on the roof terrace. It is possible she has fallen off. But then I would have heard the crunch. Going over to the open hole in the roof I lean past the rickety ladder that leads down to the landing.


Her delicate voice floats up.

'Fuck. Have you got any gin that isn't warm?'

'Er... no... erm... Darling??'

Another aethereal reply:

'Bollocks. No ice either.'

'Could you come up?'

'Just getting some more glasses..'

Moments later she re-emerges, her pretty blonde head coming up the ladder, like an albino meerkat scanning the savannah. She periscopes her head, then she sees me and laughs. Then, when she is safely on the roof again we sit down on the ledge side by side together and.. it just happens.
I ask her.

What I say is this:

'Would you marry me?'

I wait. Claire is staring at me. The streetlight is white across her face. She is smiling. Gratified, I sit back. I've done it. I have committed myself. I have made that commitment I have been fearing to make all my life, yet wanting all my life. And it feels GOOD.

I notice that Claire is still smiling. Then she says:


I am taken aback by this. When you ask a girl to marry you there is a very small number of possible answers you expect to receive. 'What?' isn't really one of them.

Claire shakes her head, then she clocks my frown and says: 'Sorry babe - couldn't hear you.' Her head tilts back, indicating the air conditioning unit, which is loudly buzzing as it goes into overdrive. It must be a hot night down there in the pizza restaurant.

She grins. 'Anyway. Whatcha say again?'

OK. To hell with it. I've done it once. I can do it again.

'Claire... what I was saying was.. do you feel... you know....
about....' I close my eyes and then I open them again, '.... about marriage.'

There. Claire looks at me and nods and says:

'Well, I've always wanted to get married. I suppose. But nobody's ever asked me. Ah well!'

She lifts her glass of gin and chinks my glass. And then it strikes me. Oh God. She hasn't understood. I've screwed it up again! 'How do you feel about marriage'? What was I thinking of?

Right. Stapling my manhood to the mainsail, or whatever it is Shakespearian heroes do, I decide to have one last attempt. I think I've got one last bash left in me, and then if that doesn't work I'm gonna seriously hit my flatmate's lukewarm gin.

'No, Claire, what I mean is. Would you marry me?' I pause, and then for emphasis I add: 'What I am saying is: Will you marry me? Will.. you... marry..... me?'

Silence ensues. Even the pizza restaurant air con seems to go into a respectful hush. Claire is staring into space, ahead of her. Her face is blank.

And then it thumps me. Of all the possibilities I have been entertaining, the one, the most likely one, the obvious one, hasn't entered my stupid head. She's going to say No. Of course. Of course she's going to say No. Naturlich. Why the hell should she say Yes? I might love her dearly, and I believe she loves me, but there are so many reasons why she will say No.

Not least, the fact that we met on the Internet. Can you, should you, propose to someone you met via a broadband connection? Can you find true romance in a relationship that was first established through an underground cable? Well, can you?

My heart sinks. I look at Claire. She still hasn't said a word. She looks kind of sad. It's obvious now. She is going to say No. And, as she turns her beloved head and gazes at me I realise I cannot blame her for saying No. I'm ten years older than her. I've had a very checkered lovelife. I'm a man and she's a woman. We're too different. Asking a woman to share her life with a man is like asking a zebra to shack up with a wineglass. What am I thinking?

Suddenly, I'm almost angry. If Claire is going to say no, I wish we'd never met. I almost wish I'd never started seeing girls, become pubescent, got into love. There's just so much pain in romance; so much weirdness and confusion in sex. I could have become a monk, or a lighthouse keeper. So much easier.

Claire is still staring at me. I am thinking of the moment this all began. I am thinking of that meeting nearly two years ago, and everything it led to. I am also thinking about love, and life and sadness and hope. And I am wishing we could just get a Four Seasons pizza.