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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.

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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?

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