Poppy Day

Bottom Line: Cheaper than a cheap mattress

Funny, how the newpapers declare us all ‘war weary’. I wonder who they mean. Most of ‘us’ these days – me included – live out our lives far from any battlefield or any real sacrifice at all.

Tomorrow – at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – ordinary people will be asked to pause – and a surprising number will – bowing their heads for the traditional two minute silence. They will have put some money in the tin, received a poppy in return, told their children what it’s for, and remembered Flanders Field – though Lord knows they couldn’t possibly remember 1918. But that’s where the poppy comes in. However you feel about our recent 'adventures' abroad, it means the Royal British Legion can support those who actually  are war weary, soldiers - old, and some not so old - with services like rehabilitation care, pension advice, and counselling. (Contd...)

(...contd.) On my first visit I was flabbergasted to  discover a cache of Caramac bars. I thought they’d disappeared years ago. ‘Caramac!’ I shrieked loudly without meaning to, startling a dapper looking man who it turned out was the shop’s owner, the interestingly named ‘Jigs’. Perfectly accustomed, I feel sure, to a certain amount of hysteria about his merchandise, he took it in stride and told me how he is in fact a second generation sweetshop owner, having founded the business just over a year ago with the aim of bringing good old British sweets, cakes and drinks to America. He is – like all the natty, charming staff – genuinely enthused about all the stuff in his shop – where it come from, what’s in it, how it’s made, and any other niggling detail I cared to pester him with.
This included the beloved Caramac, reports of whose demise had clearly been exaggerated, for here it was, bars and bars of it, as if miraculously resurrected for Easter.​For Americans the shop will possess the​ undeniable appeal of being a bit exotic while trailing behind it the prestigious heritage brand juggernaut that is England and all things English. For British expats, though, it’s still dismaying to wander the shop with a soppy smile on your face and realise the place was not specially created just for you. The company’s name is the obvious tip-off, I suppose, that much like the venerable British concepts of sarcasm and proper grammar, certain things do not translate well from there to here, and I suspect that the ‘C’ word ("candy") merely represents a bit of savvy cultural Realpolitik on the part of the owner. You can’t expect the place to cater entirely to the childish nostalgia of a few misty-eyed foreigners like me, but you might expect that the word ‘sweets’ , with its uniquely British usage, would be a key part of the shop’s brand. I suspect it would be something that Americans would relish, much like the shop itself, precisely because of its difference and its Britishness. 
Amazingly enough I imagine the shop will succeed despite my misgivings about its name. It is perfectly positioned to capture the bulging market of Americans eternally keen to lap up the produce of its former colonial masters. And why not? Piers Morgan aside, some bloody good stuff is Made in England. And with this year’s London Olympics and the breathless chatter about Downton Abbey, all things Anglo are on the ascendant. So I suggest a visit to this magical shop for selfish reasons – that is, to experience the same thrill of discovery that I myself did as a child and can now relive here, through all the lovely and familiar old names and colours and tastes of childhood. And for one more reason, too – that as you survey the evidence of the legendary British devotion to sweets, you might finally solve the mystery that fascinates Americans even more than the third season of Downton Abbey: the state of British teeth.​

Boom Volume Booster App for Mac
Bottom Line: Supersonic, roaring sound

I feel sure that having bagged this app when it was only $4.95 is like buying Intel at 70 cents. Less yachts and racehorses, though. It's pretty simple: you upload Boom to your Mac (and I am assuming most of you lot are Mac users....) and it boosts your sound a whopping 400%. True fact! At first, I feared the supersonic sound roaring from my tiny laptop might blow the speakers. But calm down, Mary, because Global Delight (who debuted Boom at Macworld) assured me there have been no reports of this so far. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? Still, it felt worth the risk as I listened to the World Service from the shower while drowning out the sound of the neighbours’ yapping miniature dog. Worth it at twice the price, in fact – which, at $8.99, it now kind of is. Ha! Or should that be: HA!!'
I've written about camping with wolves, hauling a stretcher through the wilderness, and how to swear with confidence. In my blog, Britical, I examined the pleasures and pitfalls of social politics in and around New York. As a regular guest commentator on SiriusXM radio I got to write my own script for such culturally relevant topics as James Bond, the etiquette of texting, and the curious science and evolution of marriage. Some of the most fun I've had was working as a product reviewer, talking up (or down) all the weird and wonderful essentials people never knew they wanted - from whisky and wine, to luggage t​ags and lip gloss. A selection is offered here.
(...contd.) But it's not at all about smut at the Phallological Museum. In fact it isn't about smut at all. The museum is an earnest project boasting 215 penises and ‘penile parts’ belonging to various mammals, including whales, a ‘rogue polar bear’ and – since I know you’re dying to know – yes, a few penises formerly belonging to Homo Sapiens. (And you can bequeath yours, if you have one, however modest its dimensions, by contacting the museum at: phallus@phallus.is)

It’s a bizarre way, perhaps, to spend your last morning in Iceland. But I enjoyed seeing the different penises peeping out of their jars – in one endearing case, a jar that had apparently once held olives, the label being half still stuck on. I liked the po-faced man sitting at the front desk with his gruff Icelandic greeting, and afterwards, the sub-zero stroll back down Laugavegur for a well-earned bit of cake at ‘Sandholt’. It is a café which came highly recommended, but when we got there we were huffily informed, as if it were entirely obvious, that they had run out of coffee at 10am. Like I said, full of surprises, Iceland. 

Jo Malone Body Cream
Bottom Line: Luxurious, sumptuous, divine-smelling

The Jo Malone brand occupies some magic twilight space between a place that is clean and modern and something your Grandmother might have swooned over. Accordingly, their packaging is rather Art Deco, while on their website you'll notice the word ‘lifestyle’ - and for once this seems right: one precious dollop of their divine smelling Lavender & Amber Body Cream – which comes in a proper glass jar with an elegant cream and black label – and you’ll want to lounge scornfully about in silk pyjamas like Kristen Scott Thomas. Jo Malone don’t say if their ingredients are ‘all natural’ (yawn) or cooked up in a lab at International Flavors and Fragrances in New Jersey, but the stuff feels sumptuous and doesn’t smell like boiled sweets – and that counts for a lot these days.

Tumi Alpha Bravo Frequent Traveller

Bottom Line: Inscrutable, menacing, ballistic nylon. Your solution to the shame of wheelie luggage.

At JFK, the guard took one look and sent me to a completely separate area and my ballistic nylon Tumi and I were whisked through security in about 3 minutes flat. Still, I felt like the bag’s +1. The thing has an inscrutable and slightly menacing air, as if it might suddenly go rogue and kill you in your sleep. Which is why, presumably, it comes with a traceable serial number. For guys especially, the silly and macho sounding Alpha Bravo might be the best bet for getting away from it all, and more important, getting away with wheelie luggage.

Menu Luggage Tag​
Bottom Line: The confusing luggage tag that conceals your identity from everyone but you.

The Scandis have never struck me as a particularly secretive lot. I imagine them more the type who leave their doors open and frolic about naked at picnics. Which is why it’s mildy surprising to find a luggage tag designed by Danish company Menu that’s less open-plan living and more fear-your-neighbour police state: ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’, if you will.

Obviously, if your taste in luggage accessories runs to jaunty pink images of Hello Kitty and ‘hilarious’ slogans like, ‘Nothing worth stealing in here’ and ‘Open with caution: dirty clothes inside!’, then read no further. Judging by their website, Menu’s mandate is comprised one part English-as-a-second language (‘Aesthetic and practical daily surprises that you become happier and happier to look at.’) and one part the fevered 4am plans of Apple's Jony Ive  (‘If some day, someone manages to catch a falling star and turn it into a beautiful source of light with no need for electricity, that someone will be us.’). Who knew that the slim, minimalist lines of the Danish design aesthetic would blend so seamlessly into the slim, wedge-shaped black titanium, stainless steel, synthetic rubber and silicone object before me that is not a miniature sex toy but a luggage tag? Given the confusion, it should be unsurprising that the stated purpose of the tag is not to enable someone to identify your luggage, but on the contrary, to enable that someone to not identify it. Ha! 

Why is this? Beats me. What is the point of concealing your identity from not only all the airport thieves and baggage chuckers itching to make off with your dirty socks and spare cellphone charger  – but also the kind souls who might return your luggage to you if it loses its way? When I myself finally managed to prise open the tag the answer to this riddle was not lurking inside but rather a teeny tiny piece of folded paper was. Was it for my name and address? Maybe. But in my mind it was absolutely gagging for A Secret Message! It was like those shoes I wanted (and never got), the ones with the hollow heel that twisted open – if you knew the trick – to reveal a compass.

Still, because it’s a nifty and good looking device in a guess-what-this-is kind of way I am bound to recommend it. Though I do rather feel for the designers at Menu sitting around in their pale wood office with their functional coffee cups stripped of ‘all unnecessary decorations’ wondering about their security obsessed colleague, Aurelien Barbry, who is the tag’s designer. ‘That Aurelien,’ one of them will remark in Danish, trying once more to get everyone off the thorny subjects of Ikea and Alessi. ‘He designed a luggage tag, but does anyone, like, really know him?’ ‘No,’ someone will sigh, ‘We don’t even know where he lives.’
The Icelandic Phallological Museum

Bottom Line: An astonishing trove of curiosities boasting 215 penises. Visit, or simply pledge your own!

​Iceland is full of surprises. In February, after a few nights marching about in 30 below temperatures on the edge of the Arctic Circle, I finally glimpsed the Northern Lights. Hooray and thank God for that since it was my main reason for going. 
Yet equally impressive are the outdoor geothermal baths. They dot the whole country which is volcanically active, and they are another fine excuse to make the trip. The day I visited they were blissfully empty of people, as they were the day after that, and so it was an extra little pleasure to be able to float there scalding and alone, surrounded by an otherworldly Lunar landscape covered in snow, with hair frosted in Snow Queen ice crystals.

I digress. My other destination lay a short flight South, in Reykjavik, where the unsuspecting tourist out for a stroll and looking to buy a souvenir Eyjafjallajökull or ‘Whales – Kill ‘Em All!’ t-shirt might easily stumble across the only museum in the world devoted to a collection of penises. Put it down to my English love of eccentrics or an early exposure to Potter’s Museum, but I do like to see someone with a passion fully realised, however odd that passion may seem to the rest of us. A teacher of history and Spanish, the museum’s founder is one such person, and Sigurdur Hjartarsone’s Icelandic Phallological Museum is as strange a little place as you might expect.  (contd...)

Brief:  Generate online buzz, traffic and user content for an product review website in beta .  

Wrote:  Reviews of the latest trends in products and gimmicks using a bright, conversational tone and a witty strapline. Covered beauty, travel and tech, plus a few alluring and alarming things in jars (cf: Jo Malone and The Icelandic Phallological Museum, respectively).

Result:  A large social media following of savvy, sophisticated urban consumers.


Of course all this palaver will happen far, far away, thank goodness, in Blighty, which is one of those places – as one famous wag likes to remark – ‘where the history’s from’ , and where people know who Harry Patch is.

American friends over the years have asked me why in November the British insist on wearing these weird paper flowers on their lapels. Now they know. Still, with nary a mattress on sale nor a barbeque in sight to mark Remembrance Day, who can blame them for being confused?

Bottom Line: Free software that will put you to sleep

Does your computer dream of electric sheep? Possibly, though I doubt it ever counts them. Unlike us humanoids your computer goes straight into sleep mode on command. If only we non-android  organisms worked the same way!

Worse, for insomniacs the computer itself might be the culprit. Recent research has established that staring into a computer screen in the evening can leave you sleepless and counting sheep for hours. Not a huge surprise perhaps that exposure to a glaring light source at the blue end of the spectrum of an evening does none of us any favors. It has been found to reduce melatonin, compromising your body’s ability to properly switch off. 

What to do except don sunglasses indoors a la Wintour – and pray no one catches sight of you looking like such a prat? Enter f.lux – free software which notes your location and mimics the onset of darkness, so that as the sun sets outside so it goes inside by eliminating your computer screen’s pesky blue tones.
It seems to work. The orangey glow might be a bit off-putting at first, but I got used to it in no time and in fact found it soothing. There is also a strange pleasure in watching the changing light of the screen as the process starts (you can specify how long this takes, together with the type of lighting you prefer – good old tungsten in my case). You can also read up on the interesting sleep research which the f.lux people have sensibly included on their site. 
As a talented insomniac, made fun of for skulking round at night switching off all the lights (and with the bruises to show for it) I recommend this product as wonderfully vindicating. Sheep – electric or otherwise – begone!​

Kiko Make-Up Milano Eyeshadow

Bottom Line: Smooth, intense, you-can't-have-it chic

​I am the first to cringe when any woman says, ‘I have to put on my face’. Save for an impossibly glam lady I knew in Gibraltar named Sylvie, who rose in the wee hours each day to apply three layers of cobalt blue eyeshadow before her husband woke up, I am leery of faces full of makeup and tend to run the other way. If you trowel on the makeup, isn’t it false advertizing? And then God forbid someone sees you without it! Lucky for Sylvie, she wasn’t married to Russell Brand, who famously Tweeted a photo of some spotty, bleary eyed girl from the Number 49 bus – who turned out to be his wife (at the time) Katy Perry. 

Despite these makeup perils, when a friend gifted me an eye shadow from Milan-based Kiko, I immediately rushed home to try it out (such, you may gather, is the freewheeling excitement of life these days). I was daunted by its blueness, though. Unless you’re Sylvie, blue eye shadow is risky to pull off – and I say 'risky' not in a cool, edgy way but rather one pertaining to female impersonators.

...but surprise, surprise, after gingerly dabbing the stuff on in the mirror I looked nothing like a Real Housewife of New York City - or anywhere else. In fact I looked rather chic – or effortlessly chic, as the fashion editors would have it. Clearly this was due not to my efforts but to the colour, which hovers between navy and a subtly irridescent kingfisher tone. Likewise the quality of the pigment, which is – as splendid things often are – intense and luxuriously smooth- feeling.

Kiko is also reasonably priced. If you can get hold of it. Another draw in the you-can’t-have-it-so-there stakes is that Kiko is available neither here in the US nor online. (Another plus: it is not tested on animals.) I found the design of the compact itself especially satisfying: it opens with the gentlest nudge of the thumb and closes with a soft, almost hydraulically understated click. Sylvie – stealthily putting on her face – would have loved it.

Patagonia Down Sweater Vest
Bottom Line: Surprisingly fabulous

I am a bit cross with Patagonia’s copywriter for using the patronizing term “folks” and for using the word “shop” as a verb – but their quilted vest somewhat makes up for it. Absurdly light, it keeps the chill out, folds to the size of a small sandwich and this winter it even got to “party” at events that otherwise require elaborate ballgown-type ensembles. You'd think that such a get-up would invite comparisons to Edie from Grey Gardens, but I got heaps of compliments so I can't say that I care. This Patagucci (as outdoorsy sorts call them) vest is that fabulous.
Mindfold Relaxation Mask
Bottom Line: I love you but I've chosen darkness

One of the very many sound arguments for separate bedrooms is that for some (ahem) people, bedtime is a real Operation: white noise machine, earplugs, alarm clocks (two), lock the door, check under the bed, teddy, sleep mask. I’ll admit to being a reluctant connoisseur of the latter, and sleeping (or not sleeping) in general. Most sleep masks I’ve tried fall into the itchy, scratchy, hot, let-all-the-light-in variety. and so, like some cheating, dissatisfied spouse, I am always on the lookout for something better.
My newest bit of strange (as it were) comes via Mindfold. And as if the name isn’t sinister enough, it arrived in the post with a little yellow sticker affixed to its plastic baggie announcing: ‘Total Darkness With Your Eyes Open!’ I’ll be the judge of that, I thought, recalling, with a nasty shiver, a man I once saw at Doha airport who had fallen asleep with a glassy, half-fixed stare. Be that as it may, it is in fact essential to be free of not only light, but that uncomfortable, icky pressure on your eyeballs, and Mindfold gets round this by lining their mask with foam which contours neatly around the eye socket and, yes, provides total, utter, complete, impenetrable darkness. Indeed, the mask comes with the ominous disclaimer: ‘ You assume all psychological risk and liability in connection with MINDFOLD’.
Nights one and two I yanked the thing off more from frustration than existential horror. The foam felt scratchy. However, on our third date, though the earth didn’t quite move, I was definitely more satisfied and woke up feeling refreshed. Still, I am not quite sure how the mask might, you know, look to anyone else. It is not a girly come hither in your pink frilly boudoir type of accessory, and with it’s hard, black plastic outer shell it suggests more of a geeky, sci-fi appeal, like a prop from The Matrix. (‘It’s a Relaxation Revolution!’, after all). Neither does it come embroidered with a knee-slappingly hilarious slogan like ‘Wake Me Up for Coffee!’. What a shame.  Mindfold doesn’t do knee-slapping, and their list of suggestions is endearingly keen. Hence, we are told with no irony whatsoever that the mask is perfect as ‘A Blindfold for Games’ and also, further down the list, ‘Headache Relief’. H’mm. Headache relief for your partner when you attempt to engage them in any ‘games’ while wearing it. Unless he’s Morpheus, the God of Sleep. With Mindfold you will fall into the arms of Morpheus quite easily.
The London Candy Company
Sweets for the sweet. Candy for everyone else. Solving the mystery of British teeth.

If you're someone who's still bitter about Kraft’s hostile takeover of Cadbury and its string of broken promises, you have to wonder, why isn’t The London Candy Company called The London Sweetie Company or The London Sweetshop? Could it be that George Bernard Shaw's comment, about England and America being two countries separated by a common language, holds true? But even this, if not forgiven, is almost forgotten as soon as you walk through the shop's doors.
Occupying a sedate corner of Lexington & 94th Street, the The London Candy Co. manages to be jolly good fun without being gaudy or crass. The sweets are brightly wrappered and creatively stacked like so much joyous Pop Art, while the space itself is as high-ceilinged, airy and reverent-feeling as any cathedral should be. Or possibly this was just me, religiously overcome with glee & awe at the sight of row upon row of Lion Bars, Marmite crisps, Twiglets, Maynards Winegums, Crunchies, Galaxy, Cadbury’s Chocolate Eclairs, Minstrels, Curly Wurlys, Dolly Mixture, Jelly Tots, Quality Street, Flake, Aero, Foxes Glacier Mints, and Maltesers, to name just a few. There were also some intriguing items I have never tried, like chocolates by Prestat whose 100 year old history is replete, I was told, with royals and secret rooms. And then there are the dear old favourites my Nan had in her kitchen cupboard, like Lemon Barley Water and the ‘exceedingly good’ Mr. Kipling’s cakes (for which the shop has bagged the exclusive US distribution rights). (contd...)

Trader Joe's Coconut Body Butter
Bottom Line: Cheap, buttery, and worryingly edible

If you’re anything like me, winter weather is a good excuse for a serious body lotion rather than the frothy, airy- fairy concoctions best left to summer. With this in mind I finally got hold of a tub of Trader Joe’s Coconut Body Butter – though at $4.99 I didn’t expect much.
I have in the past been disappointed with so-called ‘body butter’ products. The name is over-used but remains nonetheless frustratingly evocative in that clever marketing way. Predictably, most fall short once you open the lid.
To my surprise, this one was in fact quite a lot ‘like buttah’ – the best sort, left out of the fridge for just a very few minutes – and much as I dislike the word ‘slather’, it is more than appropriate here.
Meanwhile, neurotic types obsessed with ‘chemicals’ will approve of the coconut oil and long list of ‘natural’ ingredients, though I would offer one small caveat: this is one of those body products you feel compelled to taste even though logic (and Trader Joe’s website) tells you not to. I had a few run-ins with chocolate flavoured soaps back in the 90s, so I know what I’m talking about...
Languiole Pocket Knife
Bottom Line: Useful, Beautiful, and Good Enough for Napoleon

I was given my Languiole pocket knife in 1996, a gift from a naive friend. What were they thinking?! Let us say simply that the Languiole is both handsome and useful in many situations - and really, what more could a woman want? Too right. And one more thing about being female: you can believe me when I say that mine is not only strong and beautifully made, but the blade is fully nine inches long. Speaking of size, Napoleon Bonaparte was also given one as a gift, and subsequently affixed his seal of approval to it (this review being my own). Every Languiole knife has his bee symbol on the handle. Made in the French village of Languiole, you can watch a video about all this and the meticulous effort that goes into crafting each one on their endearingly written website.

Vaseline Rosy Lips

Bottom Line: Nostalgia in a Little Tin

Pop open the lid of Rosy Lips and you might feel six years old again, your Mum rummaging in her handbag for a wholly unwelcome scrap of tissue with which she insists on licking and then dabbing on your face. Annoyed and embarrassed, you’re also vaguely conscious it smells of her lipstick, a comforting mixture of English roses and something quite indefinable. 21st century lipstick no longer smells as sweet, but Rosy Lips, a subtle blend of rose and almond oil which lends lips a delicate pink hue, does. Proust's madelaines had nothing on Rosy Lips. Nostalgia, if you dare, in a little pink tin.