Lez Miserable: "I'm more Byron Burger than Lord Byron. Is that why I can't get a date?"

Meet our new columnist, Eleanor Margolis, as she takes a frank, funny and cynical tour through life as a twentysomething lesbian. In her second piece, she describes what it's like to fancy women who wouldn’t give you the time of day on their ironic 80s Ca

A bunch of us are round at The Austrian’s, drinking wine. As usual, I’m being boring about my bad luck with women. The Austrian is having none of this:

“Try harder,” she commands.

The others agree. They set me a challenge for the next time we go out: if I say some words to a real life attractive female, they’ll buy my drinks for the rest of the night.

It strikes me that even my best buds have no faith in me. I don’t have to take this hypothetical woman home, I just have to do some talking with her. That is my insurmountable task.

But some lesbians have this really specific way of being aloof. Let me paint you a picture:

Nikki is 25. She’s skinny, gamine and lovely, with a Mia Farrow circa ’68 haircut. She enjoys cups of tea and riding her bike through the ‘queer poetry’ section of bookshops in Hackney. She DJs at a club night called ‘Minge Attack’. She once knitted an entire house and lived in it for a month as an art project. She claims never to have bought a chain store item of clothing in her whole life, although every time she goes into Urban Outfitters on Commercial Street, the staff wave at her.

Yes, I know she’s pretentious, but I still kind of fancy her.

Yet, if she existed, Nikki wouldn’t give me the time of day on her ironic 80s Casio watch. I’m stubby and veering towards moustache-y. And if I took penicillin, I might die.

I run into a lot of Nikkis on the hip ‘n’ happening East London queer scene. They ignore me because I use phrases like “hip ‘n’ happening”. So it goes.

Then again, it’s not like I’ve ever made a real effort to talk to a Nikki. I’m no chatter- upper of women. I’m more Byron Burger than Lord Byron. More of a “watch nervously from a distance” kinda gal. My face even has this special shade of red reserved purely for when a woman catches me checking her out. I call it “Just Go Home And Have A Sad, Quiet Wank Vermillion”. Weirdly, this was rejected by Crayola when I suggested it to them as a new shade. 

So, the night out arrives. We’re going to Club Lesley, a lesbian club night at the tit-achingly cool Dalston Superstore. I put on some Prince and apply red lipstick like war paint.

As we walk into the Superstore, I’m confronted by what looks like a swarm of American Apparel models. I already feel like the complimentary bag of salad that comes with a take-away curry.

And then I clock her, over in the heaving crowd around the bar – it’s Nikki. I find myself veering towards her, leaving my friends behind, looking tense. My feet are moving, while my brain is sending out distress signals:

“What do you think you’re doing, you sad, hairy twit? Do not attempt to engage.”

My feet have other plans and suddenly I’m next to her. I know it’s creepy, but I can’t help noticing how nice she smells – like pencil shavings and CK One. It’s uncanny – she ticks every single Nikki box: the pixie haircut, the Urban Outfitters shirt, the aura of someone who may have once knitted a house. I’ve accepted that my brain isn’t on my side, so I do what I’ve never done before - I listen to my vagina.

“Packed tonight, eh!” I announce, over a remix of some early 00s R&B hit.

She glances over at me. My God, she has pretty eyes.

“Uh-huh!” she replies. We’re both having to shout over the music.

“Ahh, gotta love this song!” I say, while my brain says, “You have absolutely no idea what this song is, you complete and utter wanker.”

“Mmmm. I prefer their earlier stuff, to be honest!”

“Oh yeah, classic!” I reply, while my brain is now screaming the word “arsehat” at me repeatedly.

I spend the next few minutes staring at my feet, while waiting to be served. I order a gin and tonic and flee.

Flustered, I return to my friends.

“There. I did it. I spoke to someone.”

“Yah, and then you ran off like a pussy,” says The Austrian.

I’m not even going to bother fighting her on this one. Technically, I’m owed a night’s supply of drinks, but I know I don’t deserve them.

I spend the rest of the evening dancing limply, while keeping one eye on Nikki and frantically thinking up reasons why I hate her. “Look at her over there with her eyes, and her shoes, and her possible cool job in the media. I loathe her.”

At around two in the morning, I realise that my face hurts from frowning so much. All I want to do is lie in bed, eating a kebab and crying. I head off, leaving the others to enjoy the rest of the night.

The next day, I meet The Austrian for a hung-over brunch.

“You know,” she says, “Zat girl you spoke to last night – she liked you.”

I nearly choke on my eggs Benedict.

“What the..? How? No she didn’t.”

“Yeah, we got talking to her and her friends later on. You know what she said about you.”

“Oh God, what?”

“Your mate is cute. Kind of aloof though.”

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose column "Lez Miserable" will appear weekly on the New Statesman website. She tweets @eleanormargolis

Legs. All the legs. Photo: Getty

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times