I’ve found myself re-counting numbers recently. Second guessing myself. This morning, I counted the handful of change for my morning cappuccino three times. Three. Clearly, the trust has gone.

Maths has never been my strong suit, but still. It’s starting to verge on the ridiculous. At work I find myself struggling to grasp what the month number for May is (it’s five…isn’t it?). Is this just age? Surely not, I’m barely 32. The years of alcohol? Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling the reason behind this strange emergence of Dyscalculia is because I find myself in, well, a strange period in my life.

calc ageI have begun to question things in ways that haven’t crossed my mind for at least ten years. And it’s really annoying because, with my questions remaining unanswered, I feel lost and discontent. And the other, even more annoying, thing is that it’s only me that can provide any answers.

It’s funny how it is generally acknowledged that you become wiser the older you get and, by default, more confident. But my confidence is no longer the unwavering warrior it was when I was younger and knew nothing. Sure, I’ve got less tolerant of the selfishness of others and I am more likely to say so rather than hush into a corner and somehow blame their behaviour on my faults. And yes, I’ve become openly accepting of those with whom I shall never be friends, who shall never like me and vice versa. We are all different. But am I more confident with age? In a word (well, two) – not quite.

I suppose it depends on what confidence means to you. For some I imagine it’s having the guts to go out on stage in front of hundreds of people. To be able to take a risk, make that scary career change. For me, it’s having the strength of self-conviction – the total assurance that everything will turn out ok in the end, because you are you, and you can handle it.

My self-possession rose and peaked almost out of nowhere between the ages of 24 and 29. With hindsight – something I’m pretty sick of now – I realise this time is The Golden Period. The pressure is off. You become aware, for the first time, how far you have come in such little time. Your twenties bring with them an intense personal growth spurt that you have no real control over – grown-up stuff just happens to you whether you want it or not. You accept this fact, grow from it. You have money. You are young. You sit back and enjoy it for a bit. Uncomplicated confidence. You are going places and you know it.

But then you hit 30. Ouch. All that confidence so flippantly built ebbs away. But this time the subtle change in yourself, so frivolously disregarded when it moved in the other direction, does not go unnoticed. It starts to drive you a bit mad. You get angry with yourself. How could you let this happen? Why did you sit back and relax while youth and all its opportunities passed you by – look at all those chances you were too lazy to take. And now, now you’re just too old to do things. You’ve got commitments.

It turns out my star didn’t rise at the same trajectory and speed (hell, I don’t move at the same speed) as was mapped out in my twenties. I got too comfortable. Smug. Other people are younger than me now. It is annoying. They are annoying. To make matters worse they are more skilled than I both was and am now – they’ve been forced to do more internships than I’ve had hot toddies. They don’t need to do IT training. They don’t even call it IT – to them, technology is just life.

Life is hard enough as it is. And when the total confidence that everything will work out how you want it leaves the room, what do you do? For me, well, I’ve got to work out what it is that I want – it turns out thirty-something Gemma might have different (less ambitious) ambitions from those of ten years ago. And it’s sobering to admit that to yourself.

I think the key is nailing that fine balance between accepting who you are and what you can achieve whilst still treating yourself with the respect to challenge yourself and grow. Maybe once I solve that equation two and two might start to make four again.

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There is one area of my life where I feel a total failure, and that is my performance in The Great Outdoors. I am terrible at being outside. When there is more green stuff than there is concrete it’s like my body doesn’t know what to do, and all my brain can do is panic. Outdoor adventures are supposed to be fun, so friends (and strangers, for that matter) relentlessly tell me. Relaxing, even. But God, if you do eventually get me in a field you’ll soon regret it. Without my city comforts – last buses home, secret back alleys I can hide in for respite, the noise of busy bars that covers any awkward moments or demands for truth – I seem to shut down. I can think of nothing more excruciating than singing around a campfire and sharing intimate stories. Ugh. Can’t we do this in a nightclub like normal people?

Others, they seem to get the countryside straight away – they have the urge to climb trees, swim in lakes. They tune in to their natural instincts, basically. Hmm – I don’t seem to have any? This makes me worry. Am I less, well, human as a result of this total lack of connection to the land? I certainly feel that way sometimes. I am clueless when it comes to nature – blame my schooling. We did have a wildlife ‘area’ in our playground at primary school. I remember them building it – we were all quite curious, considering up until that point there had been little in the way of nature in our lives. Then it became apparent that the wildlife area, on account of costing the school so much money, was going to be kept secure under lock and key – you could only access it if your class had been booked in for a tour by your teacher. Not exactly roaming free.

tent pic edit 2I haven’t really pursued nature since. But now, as a proper adult, I feel sad (and thoroughly embarrassed) that I am unable to name our native birds or identify many flowers and trees. But I think what really did it for me, crushed any hope of communion with The Great Outdoors, were my (limited) experiences of camping. We never camped as a child – not that I’m complaining, I thought I’d escaped. But then, as a young adult, I was forced by friends (the things we do for them) to camp. And those tents have left me scarred.

V Festival 2003. I’ve not long turned 20 and there I am, attempting to pitch a two-man tent on a hill in Staffordshire…with no mallet. Second problem – there were three of us. One of whom had recently been through, by choice, years and years of camping trips with the Outward Bound programme for young people. Sadly, anything she’d learned escaped her that weekend. Once the tent was up, and our cheeks had turned a normal colour again following the patronising reprimand s of the couple of Glastonbury veterans who had to be pitched next to us, the rest of the festival was great. Despite the news that, on the other side of our field, a group of men were watching people go into the toilets and then accosting their cubicle, turning it – and therefore a load of shit, literally – upside down. And despite having to breathe in plastic for three nights on account of the miniature tent (it’s a wonder none of us died). We saw some great bands and it was all good. That was until my friend woke up in the tent, threw up everywhere, then lay back down to sleep again. Morning came and at first we thought it was, as had been the case on previous nights, our own sweat. And then the reality dawned on us. I vowed never to camp again.

V Festival 2007 I am persuaded to a) attend another V Festival, why? and b) camp again. You’d think I would have learned. And I did, at least, attempt not to make the same mistakes as last time.
I got a tent that was big enough. I practised erecting it in the back garden beforehand. So far, so Outward Bound. But then of course my friend and I arrived to the festival too late. And for some reason our other friend, who was already inside the site, had our tickets – not us. Surprisingly, the security staff refused us entry. Trying to get hold of your semi-drunk friend with no mobile phone signal is a challenge even the hardiest Outward Bounder would struggle to overcome. Two hours later the ticket-holding friend finally rolled up to the entrance gates, to find my friend and I polishing off one of the 2 litre bottles of vodka and orange squash we’d wisely brought with us.

Cue two inexperienced campers trying to pitch a tent, blind drunk, on a slope in a space not big enough for our tent, directly next to both the toilets and the designated walkway, in what was soon pouring – POURING – rain, trapped on either side by at-first-obnoxious-and-then-totally-sleazy groups of men campers who insisted on sitting and smoking their weed right outside our tent door, later trying to come inside and stroke our legs. I wish I was making this stuff up.

You’d assume that after such a start things couldn’t get much worse. But then this wouldn’t be much of a story, would it? The rain continued its relentless assault, forcing seemingly all of the festival-goers inside the limited number of tented stages. As a result, there were queues to queue to get inside, and my friend and I couldn’t see the two artists we’d actually wanted to see. We trudged back to the hell-hole (our tent) looking like extras from the set of Saving Private Ryan, packed everything up (why we didn’t just leave the damn tent I still don’t know to this day) and stomped for three miles in the driving rain to the shuttle bus station that, thank God, still had one run left to do for the night when we got there. Bye bye Staffordshire – for good, this time.

What are the morals of this blog post? Well, clearly, drinking in the countryside is both stupid yet essential. But can I just say, Mom and Dad, thank you so much for being wise and kind enough not to subject our family to such horrors. I am forever indebted.

My parents are redecorating their house. So what? I hear you say. Yawn. Quite – I shouldn’t be bothered by this minor event. If anything I should show a little excitement for them, be hopeful that the experience doesn’t prove too stressful. But I can’t help feeling a little put out, somewhat sombre. Because it means the final goodbye to my old bedroom.

Yes, I know – grow the hell up, Gemma. And yes, it might have been a good few years since I could credibly claim that room as mine. But I think we can all agree that a childhood bedroom isn’t just a bedroom – it’s a whole world. A sacred sanctuary in the tumultuous experience that is ‘growing up’.

The passion those walls hold – they are so brave, so bold, so revealing. They reflect the ‘you’ that you aren’t quite yet able to be in the outside world. This is the place you allow yourself to be honest about your dreams and desires – about yourself – in a way you’d never dream of doing with those around you. Your parents watch you grow up through those walls. Look for clues to help them unravel what’s happening to you, to learn new things about the person you are becoming – otherwise impossible, since you stopped talking to them. Communicating only in grunts and through the lyrics of terrible music turned up tortuously high through hi fi speakers.

I am reminded of a surprisingly powerful film that explored the strange worlds of Depeche Mode fans around the globe, made by British filmmakers Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams in 2009. In Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union the band’s music has been treasured ever since it was available in the 1980s – only on illegal bootlegged cassettes. With an equally massive, but secret, fan-base in Germany the band’s music formed the soundtrack to the march to freedom as the Berlin Wall came down. And it all started in the bedrooms.

And so whilst I am (apparently) grown up, I still feel more of a connection to that room than simply using it as a space to stand in and talk to my Mom as she folds up some washing. It’s been torture, this whole extraction process. First, in 1996, they installed net curtains. There was the first gentle nudge. But I’m not a fast mover – 14 years later I finally leave home but, although I remove my physical self, my ephemera remains firmly put. Don’t even think about it, that stuff said, I am still Gemma’s property.

posters came from the walls editBut my parents are clever. They bided their time wisely – for the socially acceptable number of 5-years – before deciding right, that’s it. She’s definitely not coming back, ever, and we are claiming our room back. And although my stuff would remain in the room they used the space for something else. Primarily, to fold washing in. They packed up my stubborn ephemera into bags. Left the bags loose about the room – hinting. I didn’t take the hint… 18-months later I was asked to take the bloody stuff away. Humph. The CDs were the first to go. Then my posters had to come down from the walls – and that was the most harrowing moment.

I collected my wall contents in solitude, just me and my room alone again, as though I was conducting some kind of ritual. The ritual of letting go. Band posters, postcards, gig tickets, train tickets, club night flyers – it all came down and, because I couldn’t bear to throw it away, my wall now lives in a bag in a dark cupboard. I wouldn’t want to display those things now, because they no longer reflect me – but that doesn’t mean I want to forget that girl. This wall is like a photograph album, and more personal than any diary I ever kept.

And, this week, the last step. Mom and Dad have decided it’s not appropriate to have bright purple walls and a lurid green ceiling in an adult house, hence the total redecoration. Fair enough. At least they’ve gone to the extreme pretence of claiming to need to redecorate the whole house rather than just my room. But I am dreading going to see it. With that last bit of me gone my imprint will cling no longer.

Despite the angst, I do feel lucky. I had a very stable upbringing – literally, we never moved house once. And so no wonder I feel such a connection to that space. I wonder who used that room before I claimed it as my own in 1983? Did it once belong in another child’s heart? Were they forced to leave it for a new bedroom, a new home? If you have more than one childhood bedroom do you have one that is truly yours above the others?

It made me laugh and cry taking apart that room. But at least I can still return to it in my mind (and well, in my drawer). And who knows, maybe one day I’ll resurrect it somewhere else.

childhood, memories, nostalgia, bedrooms, music, Depeche Mode, family, parenting, growing up

Our neighbours live behind closed curtains. Curtains, blinds, drapes, boards, sometimes just piles of stuff – anything they can get their hands on, it seems like. And all the time. ALL THE TIME. How can these people survive without daylight? EVER? Their electricity bills must be astronomical.

I hardly ever see these people (obviously), but I imagine they must have a severe vitamin D issue. And be really quite sad. And broke, on account of the bills. I catch glimpses of the occasional shadow or two, but that’s all folks. Is our apartment block a secret vampire society? Or is the more likely answer that our neighbours are incredibly, well, private? You’ve got to wonder how realistic someone’s privacy can really be today, considering the scrutiny we as citizens are subjected to. Nothing is ever truly private any more.

Me profile widgetMe, I live life with the curtains well and truly open. I long for a bay window. If I could, I’d have my nosey face pressed up against one all the time… perhaps I’m the problem. Maybe my neighbours consider themselves terrorised in my constant quest to people-watch. But since when did being observant become such a dirty habit? Don’t the French have a word for it – the flaneur? A sort of voyeuristic stroller about-town. That’s me (although less of the strolling and more of the seated lounging), watching the world go by and exercising my curiosity muscle. Surely looking and watching is just human nature – and, therefore, perfectly healthy!

Windows and I go way back. Some may argue the relationship is a little distasteful. That I obsess over windows. But it’s love and it’s forever. First there was the bird watching from my bedroom window. As the older sister I got one of the larger rooms and enjoyed an unrestricted view over the back garden. I’d be glued to that window for hours, incorrectly identifying birds. Occasionally my sister and I would handwrite messages on sheets of A3 and hold them up to the glass for our friends who lived around the corner – handily, the landscape of the road curved and their bedroom backed into the range of my window. But it turned out A3 paper wasn’t ever going to quite cut it,   they had no chance of reading our messages. It became easier to just yell messages from the back garden. Or, you know, phone them.

Then came the casual glances (ok, spying) in the evenings – as the world got dark I would peer into the rooms of those helpful neighbours who had left their lights on. Nothing interesting happened, not once, but I loved the potential for thrills. On some nights my sister and I would migrate to her bedroom – a tiny box of a room but poised, fascinatingly, at the front of the house and therefore ripe with people-watching potential. We’d play the ‘guess the next number-plate’ or ‘car colour’ game. When that got boring, we’d break out the A3 paper again and surprise unsuspecting pedestrians with illegible messages illuminated by torchlight and tinsel. Mercifully for the people of Perry Barr there weren’t ever many pedestrians out at that time on a winter Sunday evening.

And then annoyingly, a few years later, there was an armed police raid on the house a few doors down from ours. I was getting changed in front of my bedroom window, as I always did, to find a rifleman statue-like in the alley way next to our house. Garbed up in head-to-toe black leather Terminator style, he waited stolidly for the call to attack. And that was that – I can still remember the tragic day we got the net curtains fitted. It was rubbish. No longer was I the covert-but-well-meaning spy. No, the nets rendered me pestering, nosey and rude – a Hyacinth Bucket figure. They made everything darker and life just less, well, colourful.

Thankfully now, in my adult life and adult home, net curtains are banned. Curtains in general are kind of banned too, only used when turning in for bed. It’s windows and I, side by side. I’m that awkward bugger in the restaurant who insists they sit by the window, totally confounded by those who refuse the window seat so preciously offered to them and opt for an aisle table or dark shadowy corner – they can’t all be having affairs.

I don’t consider myself either voyeuristic or extrovert – just human. The entertainment of people-watching aside, it’s a genuine social issue – how can you look out for your fellow man if you can’t see them? When I think about it, being nosey (if that’s what you insist on calling it) makes me a better person. I am able to understand, to empathise. I’m more aware of what’s going on in the outside world and therefore more useful and relevant. I wonder if our politicians always take the window seat? Or are they are the ones in the shadows, conducting their own affairs?

“She’s a game bird.” I overheard someone saying this recently. No other phrase creates more nausea within me. Well, aside from the classic “Let’s have a giggle”. Eurgh. It’s worse when you give thought to what such a seemingly harmless little phrase actually means. Game is an ‘object of pursuit’, with fair game being ‘something equally accessible by any legitimate participant’. It derives from the grouse hunter’s expression to identify a bird that is a legitimate target as opposed to a bird that is injured, or too young. When that ‘bird’ in question is a woman, well, there’s the nausea again.

In my mind’s eye I cringe at hawing and hooraying middle-aged men in pastel linens, winding down with a sloe gin in an Agatha Christie-esque parlour of some vast country estate after a long haul on the grouse fields, his eye on the next target – Florence, someone’s cousin. (Must stop watching all this ITV3.) But, naturally seems as I live not in the country but Birmingham city centre, the fella I overhead making the “she’s a game bird” statement was not in fact a middle-age country gent but a lad in his late teens sporting a sort-of quiff. His friend wore red cords and a smart blazer. There was a cravat present.

It’s striking how this trend in young men’s – and ladies’ – fashion has really taken hold of the great British public. First came the renewed thirst to dress like young Sloanes after the success of Made in Chelsea. Cue Jack Wills, ‘outfitters to the gentry’, sprouting up all over the place – yes, even not-exactly-Oxbridge Birmingham. So I suppose it is only natural that we are now seeing this strange rise through the ranks, if you will, to an upper class of aspirational dressing. A movement that is resulting in the incongruous (and really quite humorous) combination of 18-year-old lads dressed in sat round the local Wetherspoons resembling the head of some old aristocrat in neckerchiefs, waistcoats and loafers-with-no-socks. Likely topped off with a quilted jacket, or tweed if you’re that way inclined.

It’s not hard to see why this look is so popular. I should know, I subscribed to Tatler to a year. (Yes, I know – but I was curious). It’s a bit of fun. And it’s nice to see people looking so smart – much preferable to the full-on tracksuit look – even if it is just as equally ridiculous (arguably more so).

But I digress – it dawned on me after overhearing the ‘game bird’ phrase that in all my 32 years I’ve never eaten game meat. Clearly, I’ve led a sheltered life. It’s strange though, as I’m not exactly unadventurous in my eating and I’m often found in a restaurant these days. Game has cropped up on the menu and in my psyche on numerous occasions. But my abstinence is not a conscious decision based on the blatant sexism (and accompanying nausea) that has infected my perception of game meat. But rather, an (until now) unconscious aversion based on what it represents to me about the sticky issue of social class.

pigeon  edit 2Growing up in north Birmingham there wasn’t much call for game. It was a truly alien concept. I remember, not all that long ago, hearing about fashionable restaurants serving pigeon and my immediate reaction was: food has gone mad. Eating pigeon? Never. The worst I’ve done to a pigeon is chase it… I don’t want one on my plate. Most of them are mangled and diseased-looking with one eye and half a leg. Of course, what these restaurants are serving are not the city pigeons we all love to hate, but wild wood pigeon. Thinking about it, what’s the difference? The wood pigeon’s diet can’t be too far removed from that of their city relatives – so what if they supplement their seeds with a bit of our rubbish…isn’t that what pigs do? And my, do we love our pork!

I think I’d rather take a chance with a city pigeon than dice with dental disaster – who wants a mouthful of lead? – and, in the process, continue to not buy into the stale elitism that today’s game ‘sport’ culture represents. Members – provided you understand all manner of weird rules and codes – of a selective club, wealthy enough to be able to shell out thousands to kill birds for pleasure.

It all seems a bit barbaric and unnecessary. While I can understand the argument that game sport isn’t any more barbaric than rearing a bird in a disgusting factory to be killed, the altogether unwholesome social barbarity of fun-seeking toffs paying through the nose to shoot at animals for sport is something this diner just can’t stomach. But ridding our cities of the pigeon scourge – wouldn’t that be a good thing? A useful thing?

We could get them out of the guns out of the grouse fields and into our city centres for public service shoots. Then we could have a Digbeth Dining Club pigeon burger stand, inspired by this Rentokil pestaurant. Can you imagine…armed men in plus-fours running around town? Paying women and small children a pittance (this does actually happen) to beat the pigeons into flight?

No, neither can I.

Life has begun to feel like I am sort of auditioning for one long YouTube video. I’ll be alone, say, in an empty windowless corridor or in the bathroom. But when I speak and move, I edit myself as though I am being watched, More specifically, I am picturing myself as if I am on film. Even down to my thoughts – often, I’ll be talking to myself in my head and if mid-thought I stumble over my virtual words, or think the wrong word, my brain will go back and re-run the thought as if I were saying it aloud. To an audience. Why can’t I be myself with myself any more?

I’m not quite sure how I let this happen. I’m not exactly a performer, there is certainly no unrealised desire in me to be famous, to be seen. I prefer to be alone. You could argue, quite rightly, that writing a blog is a performance. But clearly the appeal for this writer is that I can always edit.

tv sketch editI’m sure I can’t be the only one who has noticed themselves doing similar. Ringing any bells? Although I’ve been thinking about this only recently, I know it’s something I have been doing for a long while. And I blame the television! A pretty easy target. But, worryingly – or rather, not worryingly at all in this day and age – my TV is always on. It literally is a member of the family, a friend. Well, come on, friends – we have several. And so with 30 years of such indoctrination is it any wonder that we are constantly putting on a show. We’ve been practising all our lives – almost trained to act like we’re being watched. Like it or not, it’s not just the actors behind the screen – somehow, we have all become performers.

It must be even more intense for the younger lot or perhaps – not that they will have noticed. It will have been this way for their whole lives. For this generation TV isn’t so much influential as dictatorial. A guide for a life in front of the screen. Even on the most basic level, there’s always the threat of someone taking your photo. Then there are the bigger, inescapable eyes of Big Brother, watching our almost every move. And now, with social media, we are always being watched.

It’s exhausting! And not just the show, remembering to check your words and your outfits. No, there is the vast mental effort needed to consider, and the impact this performance has on our self-esteem. Our ideas about life in general. With so much visual competition there’s a lot to learn from, to inspire and challenge us to improve and grow, yes. But we have all set up an outer image of ourselves – the persona we want the outside world to recognise us as, the persona we want to convince ourselves that we are, even in private – and how can we constantly live up to that? It’s as though we are measuring up to a hologram.

I recognise this because I know it is something I do in myself. As a teenager I had created a persona that I never let myself switch off from, even once the bedroom door was closed and it was just me (and the TV), because I wanted it to be real. Laughably, that aspirational figure was very much based on Bridget Jones. Somehow, the constant pretence made it more believable. It was comforting to pretend.

Remember those poignant words of William W. Purkey? You gotta dance like there’s nobody watching. I’m wondering, are we actually capable of this anonymity anymore? Or has the mantra turned on its head? You’ve got to dance like somebody is watching, because there most likely is – even if it’s just in your head.

I came across an article recently about what was referred to as the great illusion of the self. Of what little of it I understood, there seems to be a growing argument among psychologists that we – or rather ‘you’ – are not the person you thought you were, underneath it all. And with this in mind, maybe there isn’t any real harm in pretending. Besides, what greater comfort is there?

In a particularly disgusting analogy from Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore, the proposed cuts to the Library of Birmingham have today been confirmed. With the council already having had to “cut to the bone” it was now “scraping away” at the bones themselves. In translation, more than half of the Library’s 188 staff now face the sack and opening hours will be, embarrassingly, reduced from 73 to 40 in April next year.

cropped-birmingham2.jpg

It’s always the libraries isn’t it? Nothing new there. We’ve seen many of our local library services taken from us in cold hard blood over the last few years. The library landscape in my city is one totally and very sadly alien to the facilities, the homes away from home, that I enjoyed as a child. These closures were justified by the very creation of this new super-library. And now we are going to leave it, what, just sitting there on it’s hands half the time, twiddling it’s thumbs? A big sore point? Such a decision seems stark-raving mad. This library isn’t just a library. It’s an opportunity. A first-class and award-winning opportunity to not only make libraries exciting again, but the city itself.

There’s all this talk in the national press recently about an apparent Birmingham renaissance. Which we really should be welcoming and building on. But at times like this it all feels like a joke at our expense. For those of us who live in the city, we are increasingly frustrated.

What is the point of creating such a bold space, a talking point that intrigues and attracts both locals and tourists to the city, only to shuffle back sheepishly after a matter of months. Quickly allowing such a high-profile space to be under-used after less than two years of opening. Talk about bad PR.

The confirmation of these savage cuts seems such a waste. Of time, money and our hopes of finally living up to what we know we can be – a world-beating cultural hotspot of a city. Amazing people supported by amazing facilities.

As citizens of Birmingham we should harness that Brummie pride and fight for our Library!

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