Curtain call

Hello readers!

Apologies for the radio silence — I had my hen party a few weeks ago and have been suffering from a residual case of The Fear.

Speaking of wedding-related things, it is now three months and counting until the Big Day, so I’m shifting my focus from creative dancing and fencing to table plans and helping the bridesmaids battle through an interminable dilemma – which nude peep toe shoe to go for.

Which brings me to some sad news (for me, certainly — I’m sure the rest of you will welcome a respite from my weekly babblings): Challenged Alix is coming to an end.

I know, I know; I signed up for a year of challenges but I gotta tell you readers, it’s exhausting stuff when you’ve a wedding to plan, a fiance to boss about and are just plain lazy. Plus, I’ve discovered during this process of weekly ritual humiliations that there are some things I clearly have a natural talent for (hip hop dancing and life drawing immediately spring to mind), so I’d like time to explore these further.

But fear not, loyal readers — I have one final challenge up my sleeve; a life-long ambition that I have been saving for last. Watch this space in the coming months and all will be (quite literally) revealed.

Thanks for reading and for all the fantastic feedback since I started this blog last September. You’ve made a talentless gal very happy!

Challenged Alix

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Nobody sat on anyone’s face!

My friend Caoimhe has just asked whether there was a man sitting astride another man’s face during last week’s life drawing class. To clarify, there was nothing lurid about this challenge — I was simply trying to save the planet by using less paper (and clearly have a poor sense of perspective.)

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Week 17: Life drawing

Enough said.

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Week 16: Sewing (sock puppets)

Meet Fassbender. He’s 35, a registered Democrat and a big fan of Chanel. The vision in pink on the right is his lady friend, Chardonnay. As it was wine that facilitated the creation of these fine specimens, it seemed only right to name one of them after the vine.

Fassbender is the glorious result of my most recent challenge to learn how to sew. That’s right, people; until last Thursday, I had yet to master the needle and thread. There were a few vague attempts made during home economics class in school, but such domestic pursuits fell by the wayside when I decided I wanted to become an FBI agent and ought to develop more pertinent skills, such as inconspicuous stalking (which, incidentally, I excelled at. The stalking. Not so much the going unnoticed.)

But with my wedding less than four months away, I reckoned that, if Dex is bringing business acumen and therefore, potential big earnings to the marital table (as a journalist, I’m sure as hell not), I ought to be offering more than just a hot body and excellent interpretative dance moves; it was time to develop some wifely skills.

I enlisted the help of my friend Rachel, homemaker extraordinaire, who conveniently lives at the end of my road. I brought all the necessaries: socks, buttons, a “Barack Obama for President” badge (I wasn’t planning on my sock puppet having any political affiliations, but as the badge was in my miscellaneous drawer along with the buttons, I figured Fassbender may as well be of the left), and wine. Rachel had a sewing box full of coloured threads, scraps of fabrics and some delicious homemade red velvet cupcakes. If this is homemaking, sign me up.

We started by threading the needle. This is not as easy as it looks (though Rach’s wide-eyed incredulity suggested otherwise). It took me several attempts but I got there in the end. Next, I had to tie the ends of the string into a double knot, which I couldn’t do without help as it’s nigh impossible to tie a knot in same place twice. (Again, Rachel begs to differ.)

The actual sewing was rather therapeutic. Working the needle in and out of the sock de-stressed me and I began to feel like I could achieve anything. Maybe I’d ditch publishing and set up a sewing school in the countryside for other women keen to escape the rat race. By day, we would bake scones and milk cows and by night, we would make patchwork quilts and gossip about our menfolk and — ooh, another glass of wine would be great, Rach, thanks.

It wasn’t the most elegant of jobs, and I had to start over several times as the thread kept clumping, but soon I had fashioned Fassbender with a very fine pair of Chanel-style button eyes.

You’re probably wondering why I chose to name my sock puppet after the star of X Men and Shame. I credit my gutter-dwelling friend Nikki with the inspiration. During lunchtime that day, my sister called to tell me that the previous evening she’d been to see Shame, in which Michael Fassbender reveals the full extent of his manhood. She confided that she’d never seen anything so big and was transfixed. (Apologies to my Dad and especially to her boyfriend if you’re reading)

Naturally, I immediately emailed Nikki, who had also seen the film and, though her critique could have put Barry Norman out of a job, at no stage had she mentioned the salient part of the movie — Michael Fassbender, full-frontal exposure.

“Oh, yeah,” she wrote back casually. “It’s massive. But sure, everyone knows that. He got his lad out in Hunger, too.”

We moved on to less earthy matters but when Nikki heard that Rach and I were making sock puppets that evening, she inquired as to whether they were intended as warmers for Michael Fassbender’s member.

And so Fassbender was born.

After making his eyes, I sewed on wool for his hair, a Chanel ribbon around his head and some wonky red lips. I have never been more proud of anything I have created and now I get new parents when they gush about how awesome it is to bring new life into the world. I stuck Fassbender on the empty wine bottle and carried him home down the street to the bemusement of passers-by. He now sits proudly on the dining table, much to Dex’s chagrin. I tweeted a picture of him to the real Fassbender but haven’t heard anything back yet. I decided not tell him what the sock was intended for (I doubt Dex would still want to marry me if I were facing charges of sexual harassment) so I just look like a freaky obsessed fan, which is slightly embarrassing, considering I’ve never actually seen any of the man’s movies. But like I said, stalking is something I’m actually good at. Not so challenged after all, eh?

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Week 15: Literary reading/poetry writing

Some of you may struggle to identify the challenging element of this week’s challenge, but rest assured, staying awake at a literary reading is no mean feat. Also, this blog is not only about subjecting myself to weekly humiliations for your delectation; it’s also about trying new things and until last Thursday, I had never attended a book reading.

So when my friend Laura asked me if, “as one of her most literary friends”, I would accompany her to deepest darkest Camberwell to listen to six established and emerging authors read 10-minute extracts from their latest works, I agreed. (Though not before raising an eyebrow at her attempt to flatter me into going. I read as much as the next person and, while I’m not afraid of tackling meaty subject matters, my preferred bedtime literature so far this year has been the gossip pages on the Daily Mail website.)

Midway through our 20-minute walk from Oval tube station on a baltic February evening, I was regretting my decision to go but when we arrived at The Bear pub, warmly lit by candles and with ample seating to rest wearied limbs, my spirits were revived. Laura’s creative writing classmates were sitting round a table, sipping red wine, eating olives and naturally, discussing cerebral affairs. I ordered a bowl of chips and a cuppa and talked at Laura for half an hour about weddings.

When it was time for the readings to begin, we were ushered into a room upstairs to squat on the floor. Chairs, it would seem, are not the literary way. The first writer read the opening to her recently published book about a Welshman and some bird in a yellow dress, who carries a trifle around with her. I can’t give you any further details on the plot — the 10 minutes were spent describing the yellow dress and the trifle and I think it may have been suggested that the Welshman found the combination of the two rather pleasing, you know, physically.

Next up to read was a poet. Had I known poetry was going to be on the agenda, I would have flatly refused to come along. Call me a Philistine, but I think poetry sucks. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the many hours spent at school trying to figure out what Robert Frost really meant when he said he was “done with apple-picking now”  (“Is it cause apples are out of season, Miss?” isn’t the correct answer), or maybe it was Sylvia Plath’s daddy issues that rocked my sheltered existence, but the fact remains, I have never warmed much to verse. One of my first assignments on my A-level English course was to write a poem about what I’d got up to during the summer holidays. While my classmates related broken hearts and dead grandmothers through reams of rhyming couplets, I thought I’d save time, while also showing off a prior knowledge of poetic form, by writing a haiku — a Japanese verse written in 17 syllables divided into three lines of five, seven and five syllables. It was about my sixth form trip to Majorca.

It’s morning outside.

While reaching for the Peach Schnapps,

I fall out of bed.

I thought it was revelatory. The extra homework I received that evening indicated otherwise.

After that, I came to the conclusion that poetry is truly depressing stuff. Everything is about death and heartache. So when the second reader took to the floor, I was pleased to have my prejudices confirmed. “I wrote this when I was grieving for my grandmother…”

By the time she was done relieving herself of her suffering, I was ready for a bit of light relief or at least a G&T. Perhaps we’d hear something vaguely comedic next — a literary offering from the new Nick Hornby or Douglas Adams maybe? But with the words “Dystopian city state of Brighton”, my will to live slowly ebbed away. This post-apocalytpic thing is huge right now and certainly offers a welcome respite from the My-mother-threw-feces-at-me-and-locked-me-in-a-cupboard-under-the-stairs-but-I-went-on-to-win-a-Nobel-prize genre that dominated bestseller lists in the early noughties, but it’s still a load of a pants and this excerpt was no exception.

It would be unfair to write off the evening completely. I enjoyed the experience of listening to authors read their own work and some books did show signs of promise. I told Laura I’d go again, but only if she reads something from her novel. In return, I decide to give poetry one last shot and reach into the deepest recesses of my soul:

There was a young lady from Ealing, Who had a peculiar feeling, She lay on her back and opened her —

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Week 14: Stand-up comedy

What does a gay horse eat? 


Haaaayy. Get it? Or is it Heeeeyy? Okay, maybe this is more of a visual gag. You’re meant to flick your wrist forward in an exaggerated fashion as you say “hey” in a high-pitched, slightly effeminate drawl. Cause horses eat hay, see? And of course, all gay men do that wrist flick thing when they greet one another. Still not feeling it? I don’t blame you; I’m not funny. I can’t even tell a PG-rated politically incorrect joke without messing it up. Yes, I make people laugh, but more in a “Look at those dance moves. Is that meant to be sexy? Good luck to her boyfriend” kind of way. Laughter has most definitely always been directed at me, not with me.

Over the years I’ve often wished I possessed the linguistic nous required to engage in quick-witted raillery. I’m good craic but my banter has always been more visual than verbal. When my opponent is thrashing me in a war of words, I resort to an impromptu forward roll or calling them a “douche bag”. It’s much easier to win points from behind a computer, as your laptop will never answer you back. So in order to develop the confidence necessary to improve my banter technique, I decided to try a taster class for the City Academy’s Stand-up Comedy course.

The course tutor, Kate Smurthwaite, is a professional stand-up comedian and comic writer. I’d never heard of her before but my knowledge of comedians is rather limited. I know the Geordie guy with the long hair that hasn’t been washed in many years, and the black American guy, who employs the “n word” in every routine because he’s black and therefore he can. Where the comedy lies in “Finding Nemo and n*****s” eludes me, but it seems to work for him.

The class was a real mixed bunch. Either consciously or not, everybody seemed to fit an existing comic stereotype. There was the middle-aged fat bloke with an opinion on everything; the gobby Northern woman; the Indian bloke who thought everyone had an issue with him because he was Indian; the weird indie geek with massive hair and thick-rimmed glasses (clearly channeling Flight of the Conchord’s Jemaine Clement); a geezer in a deerstalker hat, who claimed to be a psychoanalyst but struggled with basic English (He had also never heard of Harry Potter); a few others, and me. My comic persona was the Irishwoman who didn’t have a clue what was going on, bejaysus, begorrah, etc.

The purpose of the 90-minute class is to give you an idea of what to expect on the course should you decide to sign up. The first exercise, to which an entire session on the course is devoted, was to make a “hate” list. Kate said that those starting out in comedy always struggle to come up with material that is funny about so she advises making a list of 10 things you’re passionate about. These can be things you love, hate or worry about. Hate lists usually get people furiously scribbling, so that’s what we went for. The aim is to find the potential comedy in everyday irritations.

So we got stuck in. Being a naturally angry person, I had no difficulties in making a comprehensive list. While I was diligently attending to the assignment, some of the other students decided to try out their material on Kate. I cringed inwardly. I would pay not to see this bunch of freaks perform. By the way, how can you be a teacher and a stand-up comedian? Is this not a bit of a paradox? How can you be supportive of wannabe comedians when your job is to ridicule such delusions? Judging by Kate’s patient encouragement, I’d say she’s more teacher than comic.

After 10 minutes, we were asked to read out one annoyance from our list. “I really hate it when people stand on the left hand side of the escalator in tube stations,” says the first guy. A room full of heads nod in agreement. His neighbour sits up and clears his throat. “So like, I hate it when my flatmate, Russell — that’s him over there — puts empty cartons and boxes in the fridge. Like, the other day, I thought there was some leftover cheesecake and I really wanted to eat the cheesecake and I thought it was there because the box was still in the fridge, but when I went to get some, the box was empty.” Everyone stares at the Russell in disbelief, nostrils flaring. When it’s Russell’s turn to share, his grievance is at his flatmate’s reluctance to take out the rubbish on a regular basis. I wasn’t sure whether it was a comedy course or couple’s therapy this pair needed.

It quickly became evident that everyone had gone for universal irritations. And therein lies the potential humour. People generally find something funny because there’s a truth in it. Everyone gets pissed off at idiots who don’t know which side of the escalator to stand on and morons who put empty cartons back in the fridge. I clearly did not get the brief. “I hate the way my fiance makes porridge. He never gets it right and it ruins my day.” Blank expressions. Clearly no one relates. Feck. “I also hate Keira Knightley’s chin,” I blurt out, hoping to have touched on a mutual bugbear. Eyes begin to narrow. I’ve just insulted one of England’s finest acting exports. A great start to the class.

We moved on to how to deal with hecklers. Kate says a good way for a comedian to keep control of an audience is through status. If you show the crowd that you’re in charge, you’re less likely to get abuse. You can show status in a number of ways: you can use your height if you have the advantage, or pet names, you can give orders or as a last resort, you can freak people out by doing the “creepy sexual thing”. To practise taking control of a crowd, we were asked to do some improvisation work in pairs. Each person had to try to take the higher status. We only had time to watch two pairs perform so volunteers were required. In order to redeem myself after the last exercise, I stuck my hand up. “Okay,” says Kate. “You’re in the dentist’s, you have 60 seconds, Go!”

“Take your pants off,” the diminutive American girl I’ve been paired with orders me. What?! I was going to go for “Hello, do you have an appointment for a root canal next Tuesday?” What the hell am I meant to say now? While thinking of my next move, I mime removing my trousers. “Open those butt cheeks,” my partner barks at me. “I want to see that wisdom tooth.” She’s giving me orders — she has the control! I grab my generous rump and spread my buttocks apart. Yes, in front of 15 strangers, I am holding my posterior while someone pretends to inspect my cavity. The really tragic part is that I’ve a good five inches on her, yet it’s me who is cowering and exposed.

After what seemed like a lifetime, the 60 seconds was up and the rest of the class had the opportunity to tell me exactly where I went wrong. If I thought this course would be a confidence boost, I was sorely mistaken.

After watching another performance, we had time for a quick round of “Good News, Bad News”. Someone has to give a piece of bad news, for example, “I have alopecia.” The person sitting next to them has to turn this into something positive, such as “I’ve been saving money on shampoo and waxing and can now afford to go to Rio in the summer.” The point is to see how you can turn something uninspiring into a potentially humourous situation. There’s no way I can mess this one up, I thought. My turn comes round. The guy next to me says, “The Euro’s going to fail and we’re all going to lose our jobs. ” Me: “No-one likes the euro anyway.” “Oooh, controversial,” someone says. Really? How is that in any way controversial? I’m no Tory but I thought public opinion was generally in favour of Cameron’s Euro-sceptic stance? Typical, that I should have the misfortune of being surrounded by a group of Lib Dem supporters.

By the end of the class my suspicions that I am not a natural comic were confirmed. But that’s fine. I’ll stick to my forward rolls. When they get old, I might mix things up with a crab walk.

Here’s one last joke for the road, courtesy of my friend Fifi.

What d’ya call a nun giving a clown a piggyback?

Virgin on the ridiculous.

Ha ha ha! Oh, wait a minute. Shouldn’t that be… Ah, bugger.

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Week 13: Alternative therapies

Why is it that when you visit your GP, no matter what symptoms you present them with, their diagnosis is invariably stress or pregnancy? A Tibetan monk could walk into his local surgery with a severed arm and his doctor would ask him to urinate on a stick before concluding that his half-mutilated limb is the simply the physical manifestation of General Anxiety Disorder. But, of course — it’s easy to see how all that meditation and inner peace could stress you out.

After several such experiences with various GPs over the past five months, I decided to turn my back on conventional medicine for a while and embrace alternative therapies. So this latest challenge is a combination of yoga and meditation, acupuncture and a consultation with celebrated health guru, Jan de Vries. I’m sort of cheating this week — I actually visited Jan last month and have been meditating for two weeks now, but I think the potentially life-changing results of this particular challenge merit the overtime.

I kick-started the healthy new me with a trip home to Belfast in January to see Jan de Man. A Dutch alternative medicine practitioner, Jan wrote the forward to Alfred Vogel’s The Nature Doctor. Vogel was a Swiss herbalist and, as my mum was very much of the Rub a Leaf on it and it Will Heal school of parenting, The Nature Doctor was her go-to manual when anyone in the family was sick. Everything can be fixed by sticking close to nature, she would often tell my sister and me. We were also frequently reminded that she gave birth to us the natural way — at home, with no pain relief — and that yoga classes had mentally prepared her for the experience. (This was Belfast in the early 1980s. Nobody practised yoga then. In fact, it’s fair to say that yoga was generally believed to be the latest offering from the people behind Petit Foulis). When she was pregnant with me, Mum asked her father-in-law, a man so positively wholesome he made the Werther’s Original grandad look like Victor Meldrew, if she could borrow one of his linen handkerchiefs for a prenatal dance to get her “into the birthing zone”. (No doubt some kind of ritualistic burning of the placenta also took place, but mercifully, Mum has the good sense to deny this).

It’s not hard to see why I was bullied as a child. Alternative birthing methods and organic carob in lieu of birthday cake may be de rigueur among today’s middle classes, but it didn’t wash at primary school in west Belfast. During my teenage years, I naturally raged against the machine and when I left home for university, like most students, I dabbled in things I knew would trouble my parents: painkillers, Rice Krispies, ANTIBIOTICS! But as I get older and (somewhat) wiser, I’ve come to realise that maybe Mum was on to something after all. For the first 18 years of my life I’d been in great nick. Other than the obligatory bout of measles and chicken pox, I had always been in excellent health. Then I started looking after myself and it all went horribly wrong. When my immune system packed up for the third time last year and I found no solace in conventional medicine, I decided to go back to my roots and take a more holistic approach to my health.

So it was off to Jan, a kindly man in his seventies, who runs a monthly clinic above Framar’s health shop in Belfast. As I waited for him in the consulting room, I scoured the titles on his bookshelf: The Optimum Nutrition Bible, A Life in Healing, Inner Harmony — clearly, Jan had dedicated years of study to his chosen field — Emotional Healing, The Making of Pride & Prejudice… (it’s important to have varied interests). Jan patiently listened to my complaints, banned citrus fruits, pork and chocolate for a month, wrote me a prescription for some plant extracts and sent me on my merry way. After three weeks of chorizo withdrawal symptoms and suppressing the urge to vomit each time I took the plant extracts, I started to feel great.

Next up was yoga. I’d taken a course a few years back and loved it, but at £12 a class in London, I was forced to try cheaper forms of exercise when I moved over. After Christmas I managed to find a relatively inexpensive class in my area and signed up for a Fluid Hatha course, a less physical and competitive form of yoga than, say, Brikram. My teacher, a hot, extremely limber Croat named Nazanin, is all about the whale music and the OMMMMMs and the new age speech  — “Your body is talking to you. It wants to start a dialogue. Embrace a conversation with yourself'” — but I feel so chilled after each session, I can ignore this. The only thing that disturbs me about Nazanin’s classes is her “hip-opener” exercise, which requires you to tuck your foot as far up into your groin as possible and hold the position for an excruciating five minutes. “You may feel very emotional in this pose,” Nazanin always tells us. “Observe these emotions, but don’t let them overwhelm you. You are not your emotions.” The only emotion I ever feel in this pose is concern that my foot may get lost in my lady bits if I’m forced to endure it much longer. But that aside, I think yoga is starting to have a positive effect on me.

I’ve also been meditating for 15 minutes every morning. A few times I’ve attracted the attentions of passing pedestrians  — a cross-legged woman staring vacantly out of a window in her underwear can be an arresting sight — but I ignore the startled looks and continue practising my ujjayi breath. It focuses me for the day ahead and keeps me from getting stressed about the little things. In saying that, today I was really irritated by my colleague, who worked her way through an entire packet of biscuits without offering any to the rest of us. It bothered me so much, I was tempted to stick a Post-it on the packet while she was at the loo, imploring her to “Share your feckin Hob Nobs, bitch”. I wondered why I was so annoyed and realised I hadn’t done any meditation in three days. (Hangovers tend to diminish your concentration somewhat.)

Acupuncture was the final part of the challenge. Last weekend, I popped down to the Chinese Clinic in Balham, where I had to fill in numerous forms detailing every aspect of my health, right down to the colour and consistency of my bowel movements. The therapist reviewed my chart then spent three minutes smiling at me in silence before telling me, “Your eyes, they very peaceful. You peaceful person.” No, not really, I said, but she insisted. “No, you calm and peaceful person. You no ill.” I assured her that were I in perfect health, I would not fork out 50 quid for someone to stick needles all over me. She looked at my job title on her form. “Oh, you editor? You very successful lady. Such success so young. ” I was about to tell her that a sub-editor is a vastly different role to editor-in-chief, but she kept going on about success and glory and power that I thought it would be rude to correct her.

Half an hour and six songs into Now That’s What I Call Panpipes 80 later, I left the clinic more relaxed, but needled (guffaw) that I had ended up back where I’d started. The Chinese therapist’s diagnosis? Stress, of course. But at least I didn’t have to pee on a stick.


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