Wednesday, October 29, 2003

The Demographic Shift - 5

Disaster has struck and it's all Susan's fault. She has inadvertently revealed the truth about the new girlfriend.

It's no wonder my mother wasn't giving me the third degree at the mention of The New Girlfriend. She already knew there wasn't one. It's not as bad as it sounds. The TNG isn't completely fictional. She's actually very real, in a living breathing kind of way, but she just isn't my girlfriend. She is, however, single and I have been working myself up to asking her out. What this actually makes her is Potential New Girlfriend. I was just jumping the gun slightly for my mother's benefit.

This doesn't, however, excuse Susan who told my sister that there is, in fact, currently no girlfriend and, more importantly as far as my sister is concerned, no one to bring to her perfect wedding. I expect more from Susan. Somehow, years of friendship and way too many foreign language movies (not to mention frequently and sympathetically uttering: "Suze, I don't know why he left you, you're perfect") should be worth more than exposing me to such casual ridicule. Some people.

My sister, she of text message birthday greetings, obviously told my mother who probably thinks I'm slight cracked. I can hear her now: "My son with the fictional girlfriend and the falling sperm count, oh vey." I admit it doesn't look good on paper and for some reason she comes across as Jewish, but that could just be my typing.

"I can't believe you told your mother you have a new girlfriend when you clearly don't. That is incredibly sad."

"I'm under a lot of pressure to live up to certain images."

"You're not a child prodigy, you're a 34-year-old single male."

"Depressing when you put it like that."

"Anyway, who is this girl?"

I start to explain to Susan who the Potential New Girlfriend is. That she's a friend of Adam's, that she's very nice, that's she's also 34, but doesn't seem to have considered all the demographic changes she's about to go through.

I only know this as I've had the chance to question her at length in the pub. The things people tell you. For instance, she owns numerous compilation albums, the most recent being the '24-Hour Party People' soundtrack. Now while this is full of wonderful Joy Division, New Order and Happy Mondays songs, it is still a compilation album. You're going to think it's strange that I have a thing about compilation albums... what can I say, it's something I just can't fight.

What is true though is women buy many more compilation albums than men. I've been researching this. They also seem able to justify these purchases with strangely warped logic. One girl I know said it was purely a convenience thing, you know like buying microwave meals -- "they're already packaged for you". So, while in the past, I have discounted pursuing a relationship with people for, now in retrospect, slightly circumspect reasons but which seemed to make perfect sense at the time ("she reads nothing but Russian poetry"), ownership of numerous compilation albums is probably not a strong enough reason.

I ask Susan what she thinks my chances are.

"How old did you say she was?"

"Same age, 34."

"Well she's probably desperate enough to go out with you then."

"When you put it like that you make it sound so appealing."

"Anyway, I seem to remember you saying that you weren't going out with women the same age as you any more."

"I never said that."

"Yes you did. Last summer. Primrose Hill. We had ice cream. It was hot."

"OK, I did say that, but I was going through something at the time."

"What, you mean your extended and ongoing adolescence?"

"What can I say? Women and men at this age seem to have different priorities. It's physical. It's not just about tomatoes and screwdrivers, it's bigger."

"What you mean is women are getting broody and thinking about having children and you're thinking of buying a new bigger than ever TV? You're right, men and women are different."

Things are suddenly less frivolous. The questions you have to ask people before you go out with them are, well, just bigger. No longer is an interest in art house cinema and dirge/jingle jangle guitar music enough.

Now you have to ask if they plan on multiplying in the very near future. See, I find it hard to even get the words out.

"You asked her that, didn't you? I can't believe you. That is so incredibly rude. What did she say?"

"She said I was funny, she just wasn't sure if this was in a good way. We're going out for dinner though."

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Demographic Shift - 4

My mother calls me. She's been reading about the decline of male fertility at 35. As if being thirty something wasn't already enough to think about.

The Daily Mail has a lot to answer for. This is where my mother has been reading all about the new research from America suggesting that male fertility decreases after the age of 35.

I pray for a lot of things. Not in a religious way of course, there's no kumbaya or anything like that involved. It's more in a 'wouldn't it be nice if...' kind of way. The usual things are on my list: world peace, for Arsenal to go bankrupt, for more episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and for my mother to wake up one day and decide never to read the Daily Mail again. I know I should think bigger, but somehow it seems too much to ask for the Daily Mail to close down.

The worrying thing is that when my mother tells me she's been reading about my declining chances of producing offspring she isn't at all worried, which immediately tells me something is very wrong.

Of late, over the last couple of years, okay since I turned 30, my mother's interest in my love life has taken on an increased urgency. Her questioning has become more pointed. Where as before she would say things like 'shame' when I told her it hadn't worked out with girl A or R, this shifted into ever increasing detailed questioning. She'd want to know details about the break-ups, what exactly went wrong, and generally telling me in a Pop 101 therapy kind of way how concerned she was about my future.

This time with the infertility I was ready and fully expecting more of the same. What I actually got was a jaunty, jolly-sounding mother who was gently ribbing me about the waning power of my sperm. Pretty disconcerting at the best of times, but that aside something was definitely off beam.

It's disconcerting to have your mother half laughing down the phone at you and telling you that it "looks like you're time is running out" with a sort of ho ho ho. It's like my mother turned into an evil father Christmas. She even managed to quote me a few choice facts from the Daily Mail. I actually found myself agreeing with the paper, I mean seriously, 'Has the world gone mad'?
Despite my mother's cheery demeanour, I managed to fire back, and quote her some story I'd read on the Bupa website rubbishing the US research. It's not that I'm worried or anything - I just wanted to know the facts.

It struck me that my mother was acting as if she had had some kind of mini revelation. She had absolutely no interest in pursuing the conversation about infertility. It was only then that I twigged she wasn't calling about that, but about something entirely different - and it was worse than I could have ever anticipated: my younger and scarily more accomplished sister is getting married to her perfect boyfriend. Susan will love this.

My mother is ecstatic. She's in total heaven. Her dreams have been answered as she can now bankrupt the family with the biggest wedding Hertfordshire has seen in years or she will at least die happy trying. And I mean that in a nice way.

What it boils down to is that she can basically cut her losses with me and concentrate all her grandchildren ambitions on my sister. Sure, there is a long way to go and she will have to fight my sister's speciality of keeping people waiting, but that doesn't really matter as, finally, my mother can see the road ahead. In case you were wondering, the road ahead has 2.4 perfect children on it.

For me, it'll be like the bicycle incident all over again. Despite happening ten years ago when I was finishing a post grad and my sister was getting ready to start her degree, it has stuck in my mind.

It happened as I cycled off to see a friend. My sister turned to me and said: "Gordon, I can't believe you're 24 and still riding around on a bicycle, you are so sad." Actually, she could have added that you're broke, unemployed and living with your parents as well. She was only able to say this at 18 because she was the proud owner of a Ford Fiesta.

Obviously, this latest episode will be bigger than the bicycle incident. This time it will be

"Gordon, I can't believe your unmarried at 34 and your sperm count is set to drop off the scale", but still. I tell my mother this is wonderful news, but admit surprise that my sister didn't call me herself. Actually, I'm not at all surprised, all I got on my birthday was a text message.
"She's been incredibly busy telling people about it."
"Well I think she could have called, that would have been nice."
"She did say for me to give you a message. She says she would rather you didn't come on your own."
"You're joking, right?"
"No, you know what she's like. She's worried that you'll create an uneven number."

Unbelievable, but that is just what my sister is like. As for the uneven number that is the worst lie I've heard in years. What she's worried about is that she'll have to point me out to her friends. "That's my brother over there, he's on his own and still rides around on a bike."

I tell my mother this won't be a problem as I will be able to bring The New Girlfriend (TNG) with me. My mother doesn't even bat an eyelid when I mention TNG. She doesn't even want to know her name or what her parents do. This is just as well really.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Demographic Shift - 3

I've been trying to work out exactly when it happened. As, apart from music, I've pretty much confirmed that -- give or take, my tastes have frozen in time in the late 1990s.

Music is different it really is. It's true my musical taste has moved on, but my taste in a lot else is completely moored –- frozen -- at some point in the recent(ish) past. Specifically, I think it might have been in 1997.

I've been trying to work out exactly when it happened. I've pretty much confirmed it -- give or take, my tastes have frozen in time in the late 1990s. Specifically, I think it might have been in 1997.

What a year. I mean, really, I don't have a clue, what happened in 1997? I did a survey -- no one can remember anything significant about this year. I'm pretty sure this can't be true. I only remember it as I turned 29, I met a girl called Lauren and had my first Frappacino on a baking hot day in Seattle. This seemed significant, but I hadn't really worked out then, that it was not as significant as being 34.

I double checked. Something did happen in 1997. Tony Blair came to power with a woosh of spin, cheesy smiles and a brand new Labour Party. So new, in fact, that they decided to call it New Labour. I never worked out if that was the official name or just one the press made up. I guess it doesn't matter very much now.

I know at this stage I should feel some leftish urge to make a jibe about Tony being a huge dupe and warmonger who is plotting to put the people of the Middle East through a new round of misery, not to mention raining death and destruction down on the put-upon Iraqi people.

Except I've found that I too am an international warmonger and have nothing but derision for the numerous people I know who recently went on the peace/anti-war demo in London. I told them all this at a recent dinner party at my friend Leon's. This did not go down well. I can't believe so many of them have foolishly hung on to their fashionable leftwing views.

The evening marked a turning point. Well, a novelty at least. It was the first time I'd really been accused of selling out since I was a student (then it was just by members of the Socialist Worker's Party, which doesn't really count due to their general oppositionist outlook on life). My weak protestations, and my attempts at wit, about never having bought-in in the first place and that my warmongering views were simply keeping pace with my party of choice, et cetera, fell on deaf ears. Not to mention that I seemed to be the cause of a major sense of humour failure when I said my thinking had been heavily influenced by playing 'Desert Storm' on the PS2 ("fight the war as it happens!"). It was at this point that I realised that "but it was meant to be ironic" is no longer a justifiable defence. It's true irony is all used up.

It didn't help that people were present who were able to list my previous political crimes like a rap sheet of hundreds of demonstrations, which included marching on several Gulf War I outings with an ex-girlfriend and her cute dog (I can't believe I ever went on a march with a dog!).

Anyway, I know it was 1997 as I did a brand audit. A Gordon MacMillan brand index. That makes it sound a little grand. What I did was check what was in my cupboards, check what I'd bought online recently at Tesco and jog my memory and wrote down just about everything in the kitchen on a very long list. It was pretty short and it was very low on product innovation.

I won't bore you by going into colossal amounts of detail, but suffice to say all the evidence was there to indicate that I'm a complete black hole when it comes to certain product areas in my life. It's true I have all the signs.

The research all points to 35 being the cut-off. I seem to have struck out way too early in a number of areas. From cereal through to cleaning products, there's been no change in years. Apart from pizza, which seems to have been my only ongoing innovation. I've actively tried all kinds and all varieties... even the ones you can make yourself, which I will do occasionally as it sort of counts as cooking. Besides, Sainsbury's don't sell a broccoli and rocket pizza.

The pizza front is a definite improvement on life in 1997. During that period, I was completely wedded to the idea of home delivery. I just never tired of it. My former flatmate Johnny never stopped making fun of the fact that I actually put Sorento's Pizza on our BT Friends & Family list, but failed to put any of my family on it. Guilty as charged.

Actually, talking of Johnny, there has been some quite significant news. I realise I'm awash with significance of late, but this is of considerably more importance than my screwdriver revelation or Susan's tomato plants. Actually, while I'm here there's a latecomer to this crowd. Ellie said that the same thing happened to her (except she's only 30, so doesn't really count) and it was a vacuum cleaner. In particular, she got very excited about the Swiffer Wet Jet, but I think we'd all get pretty excited one way or another about that.

Anyway, Johnny had a sort of demographic blow-up, but more of that next week. BTW, I wanted to say that I bought both the Beck and the Supergrass albums, neither of which are compliations. I just feel the need to say this.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

The Demographic Shift -2

My friend Susan called me and the first thing she said was tomato plants. Well, herb and tomato plants to be fair.

I worry about Susan. I thought she might have picked up that outburst disease. You know where people focus on a particular word and then ring people up or shout it out at people in the street at random: "Tomato plants!"

Fortunately, this is not the case with Susan, but still I worry about her generally, just like the rest of my male friends worry about the women we know. Actually worry is the wrong word. We make fun of them. I know it's wrong, what can I say? We have time on our hands. Thing is, they are getting kind of cross-wired as if their biological imperative has some weird magnetic pull on their essential faculties. I hate to think what they say about us.

Susan is by no means the worst, that's Alison, and by a long way. She's the best also -- best job, best looking, best house -- but occasionally she will flip out and get very emotional about, well, non-emotional subjects. A recent example was the supplanting of the Opal Fruits name by its international moniker Starburst. "It makes me so angry! That's my childhood." To be fair, she was pretty annoyed about the whole Marathon/Snickers thing as well.

Anyway, I digress. Back to Susan.

"It was just the screwdriver thing you mentioned last week. That's so completely a male thing. I've never been attracted to a 51-piece screwdriver set, but a really similar thing happened to me with herb and tomato plants."
"Is that one plant or two?"
"Don't know, possibly one genetically altered plant, but the thing is, I only went in to buy a house warming plant for Rachel and there were these herb and tomato plants there as well. I was looking at them and I started thinking how great it would be if I could grow tomatoes on my balcony. In a look at me, I'm self sufficient now type of way."
"That's heartbreakingly sad."
"I know, depressing, I agree. But then it hit me. I suddenly saw myself as this old woman with a house full of tomato plants. I hadn't been able to stop. I just kept on going back and buying more and more. One plant would never be enough."
"You'd be able to drink tomato juice all the time -- I mean, if you could stomach it. On the downside, you'd probably have cats also."
"Mmm, I'd smell really bad."
"Undoubtedly, and kids would throw stones at you."
"Kids are mean."

After my screwdriver incident, I found this terribly reassuring (sadly) as it confirmed that my demographic shift was not just a male thing. It was happening to women I know as well. Worse, it seems to be happening to them faster. Or rather, it happens to them faster after a certain point. Apparently women go through a change revolution and they go through it very quickly when kids are involved, but that's not all that surprising.

Of course, the prospect exists that this change happens to men just as fast and they are just better at ignoring it -- or hiding it. There are plenty of signs according to the research. Some of the signs are that you simply stop buying new brands and stop innovating. Quite simply, as Young & Rubicam puts it, your tastes become frozen in time. It doesn't just affect the brands we buy, it goes much wider than that and affects every part of our lives from what we drink to what we wear and, of course, what we listen to.

Talking of music, my mention of the compilation CD hit a few nerves last week, Michael's in particular, who revealed himself to be compilation CD man. I know this because he gave me a detailed argument to support his compilation CD buying decisions.

"There are two types of compilations. The first is the type aimed at people who have no taste in music and no desire to expand their knowledge. The second is for people who know exactly what they like and want to hear similar, but unfamiliar, music without having to dig through the 70% of rubbish that most artists' album contain."

I like that and, while honestly not a buyer of compliation CDs, what it suggests is that while the possibility of your tastes becoming frozen exists, it is not an entirely universal process. Phew.