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At this time of year you can’t sit through an advert break without being invited on a holiday. Cheap Disneyland trips for young families. Luxurious tropical retreats for discerning adults. Boat trips only for old people. Many viewers, it seems, are seduced by this onslaught, desperate for a glimpse of some ‘winter sun’. For me, these adverts are like watching horror film trailers.

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Ok, not quite. But I really don’t like holidays. Don’t get me wrong – I love having a break. I’m not one of those people who never want to leave the office. But, tell me, what exactly is relaxing about travel, specifically foreign travel? Packing for a 2-week holiday (= 4 weeks worth of your wardrobe) and then hauling a suitcase equivalent to your own body weight across multiple tortuous modes of (delayed) transport. Enduring said transport – sometimes for days – until you reach a strange destination where you are, in effect, an alien. No one understands you, you don’t understand them – and in some painful cases, you don’t even try to. Having to knock around with strange Brits, many of whom are speaking especially loudly, only in English. Having to navigate unknown climes whilst simultaneously not looking like you’re navigating unknown climes so as not to draw attention to yourself and your belongings. It’s all very scary and stressful. And then you’ve got to do it all again to get home. And then you’re back at work – exhausted. Great.

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Holidays seem to bring out anxieties in me that never seem to surface in daily life – what if I get robbed / attacked? What if my house blows up / burns down / gets burgled / acquires squatters? It’s hard work going on holiday. I’ll admit, a lot of this travel aversion stems from my total fear of flying. I’ve tried it twice. Never again – because, as Ian Fleming said, you only live twice.

I went to Florida as a child, on one of aforementioned (not-so) cheap Disneyland trips with my family. I remember the two flights in full. I remember thinking my ears were going to explode during take off, and that my stomach was going to jump out of my mouth during landing. I remember a horrendous airport which seemed to be made entirely of palms, prickly and scary. But, in comparison, I don’t remember too much of the actual holiday. Then I, persuaded by a family member yet again, found myself flying to New York fifteen years later. The turbulence we experienced when (trying to) make a landing at Newark was like out of an ACTUAL DISASTER FILM. And that was my sister, easy-flyer, talking.

And that’s about as exotic as my travel experiences have extended to. I’ve been places since – just not by air. This does of course limit where you can go, unless you are a Russian oligarch with bounds of cash to splurge on speedboats. But I can’t imagine a Russian oligarch being scared of flying. Or a Russian full stop.

Do I feel like I’m missing out? Honestly? No. Well, maybe a little bit. But we all do the same thing when we get back from holiday, don’t we? We miss it for a week, then we go back to our own lives, exactly as we were before – only poorer. We’ve ticked a box – but that’s it.

Well, for most of us. I take my hat off to the people who really throw themselves into travel, without a map if you will. But I don’t want to hear about it. If I were to find myself in a room with such a traveller I would attempt to leave it immediately.

I say, before you go gallivanting off on some foreign adventure, take time to remember what we have on our own global doorstep. Some UKers have never stepped outside of London yet they’ve carted themselves off to Helsinki, Haiti and Honolulu – what about our South Coast? The Lakes? We’ve got a good thing going on here – who needs winter sun?

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I was unexpectedly reminded of something moving and transporting the other day – the enduring power of the Christmas-number-one-single.

Not any of this new crap. Sorry One Direction, but I’m going to have to deride you again. For those who have blissfully avoided this year’s contender, let me enlighten you: “Everybody wanna steal my girl / Couple billion in the whole wide world / Find another one ’cause she belongs to me”

Hmmm.

No, I’m talking about the old crap. The kind we went to great pains to access. Simply clicking your music to your ears from the comfort of your bed / sofa? Pah! Remember the thrill of going into an actual shop and parting with actual cash to get your hands on – literally – a physical thing? Followed by gluing your ears to the radio (yes, radio) on a Sunday afternoon for the Top 40 Chart Show. Waiting breathlessly to learn if your heroes had made it to the dizzy heights of Christmas number one single. (They often did, by the way.) Choosing and buying your Christmas number one single was a real commitment. An event.

I was reminded of such festivities last week when, out of nowhere (well, ok – out of a YouTube Christmas playlist – but aren’t we all doing this now?), I was taken aback by the unmistakeable opening chimes of Westlife‘s 1999 Christmas hit ‘I Have A Dream’. Uncontrollably, I was  overwhelmed by an adrenaline rush. I actually flushed. This was obviously embarrassing – I was a little too old to be enjoying a boy band when the song first came out, never mind 15 years later. It was a genuinely weird moment because I felt so far removed from those emotions, that way of being, that time now. But it was made all the more embarrassing because I was in public at the time. Well, in front of my boyfriend who had so far been spared my reaction to Westlife.

But I couldn’t help it. That song immediately transported me back to sitting square-eyed in front of the television in my parent’s bedroom, where my sister and I would sit for hours and hours watching The Box (the channel…we’re not that old) where they aired the video on repeat for a whole hour. They did that with ‘2 Become 1’ in 1996 too.

Looking back, it was probably one of the most exciting times of my life.

Because – I don’t know if this is just for girls – innocently obsessing over a celebrity / band of celebrities / media personality is, for some, a way of being. It certainly was for me in a (long) period of my life. Boy bands probably made me the person I am today. No, really. I was the only one in my group of friends who did this obsessing, but where I was removed from our reality they became caught up in the grotty-ness of it. The fags, the disgusting sex, the vodka, the abortions. There is escapism, even protection in obsession. The pull of glossy media personalities in comparison to the reality of north Birmingham society is obviously irresistible. But, more importantly, the abandon, hope, fantasy, excitement, the romance (in your head) – it all keeps you going. It’s hard to get any of that from real life. Unless you’re into dangerous sports…which I’m not. Nor drugs. So, imagination it is.

Never did me any harm.

We all have embarrassing habits, don’t we? Googling yourself regularly. Slathering on antibacterial hand gel every time you touch someone for fear of their likely germs. Secretly listening to One Direction every morning (the latter not one of mine).

Is there anything worse than admitting an embarrassing habit? Yes – not noticing said habit in the first place, and carrying on doing it obliviously. Which is what I’ve been doing, subconsciously, for years. Forever. Only last week did I finally notice this particular habit – my saving grace being that at least it wasn’t pointed out to me by my boss, my mother, a member of One Direction.

I mimic people. I just can’t seem to help it. Not in a comic way – I’m no actress and, anyone will tell you, I can’t do an accent to save my life. No, it’s more of a social reflex. Something we all probably do to some extent – to demonstrate our apparent attentiveness, to make other people feel special, comfortable (or uncomfortable) – reflecting others back to themselves during conversation. Mimicking their body language, intonations of voice and facial expressions in our own body, voice and face. I know this isn’t exactly some kind of breakthrough observation; most of us are capable of doing this when we want to, or when social convention dictates we have to. But the somewhat embarrassing difference with me is that I can’t seem to control mine. I wish I could switch it off! But no, I’m mimicking in every conversation I have. If the girl at the supermarket counter happens to be from Yorkshire, my response will slip out in a Yorkshire accent without me even realising I’m doing it. The worst is crying – people are always setting me off.

I’ve talked before about my attachment to women’s magazines. Perhaps being under their influence for so long has affected me. All those articles you read about how your body language betrays your innermost feelings – about men, mainly. Mimicking a potential mate by stroking your face when he strokes his reveals that you fancy him. Cringe! It’s as if I’ve not read these articles properly and have extended this behaviour to all of society…what an indiscriminate hussy I am.

Even now that I’m aware of it, and riddled with embarrassment by it, my face-matching continues. In fact, if anything it’s stepped up it’s game. I’m watching people even more closely now, as though I’ve got my own social interaction survey going on – only no-one knows they’re being surveyed. Ethics of this survey aside, it is revealing. Because the thing is, when other people do the mimicking thing I’m noticing that they are usually incredibly insincere with it. You can see their face working in a calculated effort to get what they want out of people. Whether that’s getting them onside, extracting information, testing out difficult waters. It is embarrassing to watch. Painful, even. I really hope I am not such a ham actor.

I’m considering another little experiment, actually. Using my mimicry as a superpower for social good by tackling the everyday rudeness we all endure from total strangers in our lives, and throwing it back in their faces. A gentle Batman for polite society, if you will.

Not giving an inch on the pavement when a stubborn individual enters my path, demonstrating just what chaos will ensue should one of us not budge.

Storming, literally, through the bus queue and sending all and sundry flying like bowling balls in my wake.

Hmmm…another embarrassing habit seems to have revealed its ugly head. Getting too angry at things…

Blog post – Walking in Heels

I’ve never been able to walk in high heels. Rarely does the powerful click clack of sex and glamour resonate in my wake. I can’t even cope with a kitten.

Of course I tried that kind of femininity on for size for a period in my youth, as most of us do. There’s that right of passage, the first time we sneak into our mother’s wardrobe and trial our little feet in those giant, cartoonish courts. We realise right then how uncomfortable they are, but for some reason we persevere. I gave heels another go in my late teens – I’d managed to conquer a pair of sky-high bright white trainer-wedges, a la The Spice Girls, the previous year. So, I had high hopes. But of course, we all know wedges don’t count as a true heel, and my trainers were certainly not a true test of my walking ability. After wearing a pair of not-even-that-high sandals from Select for my 18th birthday jaunt to Pizza Hut, the next morning I vowed never to wear heels again.

I just can’t seem to physically master them. I read a hilarious piece in The Telegraph about a journalist – struck with the same affliction – who was sent to some terrifying woman’s class on how to walk in heels. I mean, there’s a class in everything isn’t there. This woman apparently wore high (high) heels all the time. Everywhere. Well, obviously she’s insane. And no doubt now riddled with back problems. Anyway, it made me wonder if a class of that ilk would have any impact on me. But I fear it would be futile.

In theory I should have the genetic equipment to walk in heels quite competently. My sister owns more than 200 pair of shoes. Yes, 200. They consumed our verandah in a slow painful suffocation, before spreading their chaos throughout the rest of the house. She used to go to work in them. The library. The dentist. She’d never consider going on a night out in a pair of flats. Heels are just in her psyche. And she didn’t need any pricey training sessions to show her how to walk. Here’s a flesh and blood relative who can function normally – glamorously – in a pair of stilettos. Surely I can follow in her footsteps?

But whenever I try I just look like Tina Turner gone wrong. And nothing works – plasters, gel cushions, only walking on carpets, being drunk – I’ve tried them all. Unfortunately I can’t afford to pay someone to walk around with a carpet in front of me all the time. So I have to ask myself, is it that I can’t walk in high heels? Or that I won’t?

I was reminded of this little failure of mine the other week, when I started reading a book said sister lent me: How to be Parisian. There was a line in it that touched a nerve, “What you won’t find in the Parisienne’s closet – three-inch heels. Why live life halfway?”

Well – what’s wrong with being comfortable? And not just in shoes – in your own skin?

It pains me to admit that I’m actually bothered that I can’t strut to the shops – how ridiculous, it’s just a pair of shoes after all. But that’s the thing, it’s not about the actual shoes – a heel represents much more. Sex! Power! Glamour! That’s what a pair of heels screams. Then there’s me, plodding along in my Clarkes boots and coming up short (literally). All in all it makes me feel rather inadequate, like I’m missing a major string in my bow. Killer heels are weaponry in a girl’s arsenal. -whether that’s power in attracting a mate (because that’s what heels are designed to do when it comes down to it – display your childbearing hips). Or whether it’s power in securing a high-flying job (assuming most high-flying jobs are male dominated and you’ve got to try and attract one with your childbearing hips…)

And then of course there are the rest of us, apparently not in high-flying jobs or a bearer of children, jealous spinsters unable to master the skill of walking. And we think, well actually it’s all very well looking especially lengthy-of-leg and being tall enough to look boardroom suits in the eye, but – aren’t you a bit of a slave to that shoe? That’s a friendly torture device you’re strapped into there. And you’re endorsing it. Suffering. You are in actual pain.

Of course, I’m being way too serious here (that’s flat heel wearers for you). I agree, I could accurately be accused of taking the fun right out of shoes. Because I can see that they are a bit of fun for a lot of people. They make us look good. They give us confidence, even if that confidence is based around men and hurts us in the process.

I’d much rather be comfortable. As long as I’m not getting too comfortable… Maybe I’ll sneak into my sister’s wardrobe the next time I see her, try walking in her shoes for a moment or two.

We edit ourselves as we go about life, don’t we? Not in the wholly condemnable Photoshop way employed by magazines etc, but we do present ourselves differently depending on the situation. Sometimes we choose to. Other times, we have to.

Now with this in mind, I am about to tiptoe into semi-dangerous territory as I essentially attempt to dole out advice on what people – well, women – should and should not wear. To work. Yes, I am mad.

We (most of us) do, of course, have the right to dress in whatever bloody way we like. Feminism is about the right to choose, after all. But for God’s sake ladies – pull it together when you are at work.

Just as we can’t be as gobby as we perhaps are in our personal lives, we can’t really be as loud with the clothes we wear in the workplace also. There is a time and a place, as they say. Being greeted by a crop top and leather leggings makes me uncomfortable at, say, the doctor’s surgery reception. Everywhere else – fine.

I am aware I am coming across as a ragingly conservative anti-feminist, but hear me out. Like it or not, you cannot get away from the fact that how you dress does project an image, a message to others. And at work, the only thing you want to show off is your professionalism.

I feel (relatively) passionate about this subject. On my commute to work I see a lot of other people on their way to work. A lot of young women. And there are times when when I involuntarily tut out loud as I watch one of them topple into an office in Spice Girls-eqsue trainer wedges. Cringe as a I catch a glimpse of the pants of another under a too-short skirt. Too much denim. Sports wear (literally, like they are going to the gym). A lot of skimpy, downright uncomfortable looking outfits that just seem plain incongruous with the workplace.

Maybe I’ve just been brainwashed by decades of fashion magazines – you know what I mean, those hilarious work wear sections that I’m sure most of us just flick through, yawning. Forever  dispensing the same advice, the same rules. It’s all pencils, body-con, shirts, cardigans – basically stuff that makes you look like a sensible grown up in the day, but will let it’s hair down with you as you ‘transition’ into a raucous evening. Stuff that says you’re ‘serious’, ‘strong’ but still ‘feminine’. The language is silly but it does ring true. This style of dressing gives us the flexibility, that armour we need.

And far as I’m concerned, flashing the flesh hasn’t really got much to do with empowerment, other than that you have freely chosen to flash it. But, more importantly, what you have almost certainly chosen is to mark your card as someone who can mis-read a situation.

Look, I’m not deranged – I can see how in some workplaces a relaxed dress code, a controversial one even, is accepted. Welcomed, even. Hairdressers spring to mind (the kind where people have beards and piercings, tattoos a-plenty… not Nicky Clarke). Bars, too. Trendy shops. Some PR companies maybe? I don’t know.

But take my place of work, for example – a creative small business founded by an artist who went around for three years in her twenties wearing the same boiler suit everyday. So you can imagine the atmosphere is a little loose – we can pretty much wear whatever we like. However, we are also a training provider, working with vulnerable school children. So, whilst we are not exactly your typical school, we do have a duty to be good role models for the kids. We also have a responsible image to project to our partners in the schools. Plus, there are times we have to look even more grown up for the local authority.

We are also, coincidentally, an all-female team. Each one of us has to re-edit ourselves a bit, depending on who we’ve got coming in – we constantly have to meet other people’s expectations. And, as a tiny company competing with the ‘big boys’, we have to push even harder to be taken seriously. How we dress plays a part in this. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but it is. It’s obviously especially true for women, but men do have the same standards and expectations to meet also – a man coming into a meeting in a vest and shorts wouldn’t be tolerated in most workplaces.

It would be nice to think we could all just go about life true to our own code, the whole time. But this is not a reality for anyone (well, maybe Kate Moss). Perhaps this is a good thing, anyhow – I imagine we would turn out to be a pretty selfish race if we all did exactly what we wanted to, all of the time.

This mini-rant is brought on by something that happened this week, at work. One of our female students came in wearing a sheer lace corset dress and stiletto heels.

Now, we have a policy where our students are treated as fellow staff members. They are ambassadors for the company. Plus, this girl is just 14 years old. It was genuinely frightening that she had thought it was acceptable to come in dressed in the way she was – that she even owns such clothes. After a frank talking-to about self-worth and choice (my boss actually likened the get-up to that of a prostitute’s…not the most pc of strategies but I could see where she was coming from…) we had to send her home.

It can be difficult enough being taken seriously at work as it is. At the end of the day, inappropriate clothes make you look out of place. Not in a ‘I’m asserting my individuality’ way. But in an ‘I’ve judged it wrong’ way. And this does nothing for selling your skills.

I feel quite uncomfortable writing this post. I know it will rankle people. I would probably find myself a little rankled if I wasn’t the writer. But I do maintain that you can stay true to yourself as you present different versions of this self to the world. It’s not about conforming, or changing yourself. It’s about making considered decisions.

I genuinely hope that, sooner rather than later, we get to the point where men and women are finally considered as equal in the workplace, and in society in general. In such a society I imagine men will be able to choose to come into work in a skirt and feel no shame or recrimination. Women could choose to come in wearing an embellished bin liner.

But I still wouldn’t get my hair cut there.

You have to answer a great deal more questions as you get older, don’t you agree? Of the personal kind. By complete and total strangers.

Of course, they’re not being nosy – it’s for your own good… For example, over the last few weeks I’ve been learning much more than I ever thought I would about Mortgage Lending Customer Services (my friend has just become a Mortgage Adviser). I – at a blissful distance from all things mortgage having never been anywhere near getting one – was plain shocked to hear of the really quite intimate, some might argue intrusive, questions they are obliged to ask of customers.

I cannot imagine anything more tortuous than being locked into a 3-hour telephone conversation (or worse, in a room with) one of these dry buffoons (my friend excluded – she really does work with buffoons), having to discuss the many levels of possibilities of me having children over the course of my lifetime. Are we planning on getting married, Dear? Or are we going to split up, do you think that’s a high likelihood? What holidays are we considering? a) I think I’d feel like saying it’s none of your business, and b) I don’t actually know the answers myself!

The niche subject of Mortgages aside, has it always been this way – this weird level of intimacy in customer services? Or is it a new development? It seems like all service staff go through some kind of bizarre programme where they are trained to be overly personal with you whilst managing to maintain a total lack of personality. As a result, any hope of genuine interaction stands no chance, as they are too busy reciting their spiel jargon for the customer to actually get a word in edgeways. At best it’s uncomfortable and at worst, creepy line-crossing and it actually ends up being hard work for you the customer, as well as the automaton at the till.

No longer can you just swan up to a cashier with your music still playing in your earphones, smile a hello and pay for your newspaper, say thanks too loudly on account of the music and have the entire achieved with limited verbal communication. Now, we have to constantly be on hand to answer a range of unexpected and always-differing questions depending on the establishment you happen to be in. It’s most noticeable in coffee shops, and it is also in these places that the forced level of intimacy gets ridiculous. No, I don’t actually want to give you my name – I just want to take my drink in anonymity and get out of here!

Overall I feel slightly tense whenever going to pay for things. It’s pot luck whether I’ll actually be able to hear what they’re saying on account of them reeling their script off so fast without actually engaging with me, plus there is often much-too-loud music playing for no apparent reason, so that most of the time I am literally guessing what I’ve been asked and attempting responses accordingly.

But the worst form of all this has got to be charity street hawking which for me, provides a loosely professional premise for people to impress their obnoxious, overbearing personalities on unsuspecting, innocent town folk. Under the guise of charity, no less.

I am of the generation for whom shaking the change bucket is a breach of the law. For me, charitable support and giving is a very personal thing. I don’t want to talk about it out on the street. I certainly don’t just want to pot luck it, depending on what charity happens to be represented that day. So you can imagine how well I (do not) cope with the hawkers. A someone who does actually work in the charitable sector, I am at ease with my charitable giving and do not expect to be hauled to account for it – in public, multiple days a week like I’ve accidentally found myself in Groundhog Day – by some arrogant squirt working on commission. It’s just one more assault on city dewllers trying to get about their day and instead find they have to navigate the gauntlet of forced friendliness. The tactics of these people seem to be clowning and flirting with you – waving manically from across the street. Their palms outwardly spread as if to say oh, come on!

Neither of the above is a meaningful, genuine way to communicate with a grown adult but I suppose it is harmless overall. What is totally unacceptable is the abuse that I and everyone I know has experienced at the hands of these buffoons. I’ve had f**k you muttered, loudly, behind my back as I’ve waked away from one of them. My sister even had one follow her down the street after she refused, politely, to interact with them.

I mean, how bloody dare they?

So – questions from my money lender? Yes, I’ll answer them begrudgingly, even if I’m having to make up the answers. But questions from jumped-up charity charlatans? Think I’ll keep my earphones in, thanks.

I did something I haven’t done in a long, long time on Friday. I went to a gig. (For a second there, I was tempted to call it a concert.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly noticed that I have a changing relationship with music the older I get. When I was younger, music was everything. I was totally consumed by it. I defined myself through it – I don’t know how I’d have got to be the person I am today without music in my life. I’m not talking about actually making music here – I’m much too lazy for that, even as my younger more energised self. Just listening was enough.

But then you grow up. You work out who you are (ish), come to some kind of resolution. You find yourself settled, stabilised. And in this new, more adult existence, music isn’t so central – in fact, it’s veritably on the sidelines. Relegated to muzak. Something that gets rolled out only when it’s needed, for grown-up social occasions, times when you need to make an impression. Impress on others – and yourself – that you’ve still got it. I suppose it’s maybe easier if you have children – you can live through their music, press them for trendy bands in an emergency. No longer is music the provider of heady relief as it was in your youth. Well, not for me at least.

And it makes me feel very sad. I’ve still got the tinnitus at least but I mourn those days, that me. I would lie in bed into the small hours with a pair of headphones plugged into my (much-loved) hi-system. It had a multiple CD selector system, so I could load it up with 5 albums, pre-set which tracks I wanted to listen to, and just lay back in the dark and live out a life in my head to these very personal soundtracks.

 music notes 2

When it was time for me to go to work (humph) I always had my portable radio with me for the bus rides. Then my cassette player. Then my (wholly unreliable) Sony disc-man. Before long (although a lot later than the rest of the world, I’m stubborn with technology) the iPod made it’s way into my life – and has never left, still getting me through my daily commute.

It was all so much effort back then. But it never felt like it. I was at gigs all the time, sometimes more than once a week. And on weeknights. It meant I spent a large chunk of my life holed up inside a massive concrete dive of a building – split over three floors, the old Carling Academy in Birmingham’s Dale End (the street even sounds seedy) looked and felt very much like the multi-storey car park opposite, but that was all part of its charm. Many a happy hot, sticky evening has been spent in that dark cave (sadly now closed), and there will always be a special place in my heart devoted to its memory. I’ve kept all my old gig tickets, pointlessly. I absolutely cannot throw them out.

All the things that would prevent you from actually going to a gig now were not a problem then;  standing for hours, holding your coat, not being able to see anything, sticky floors, pushy people, too loud, too hot, too late. Of course you occasionally toy with the idea, now, of going to see a band when one you really, really, definitely like comes on tour…but you know deep down you’re never really going to go. You tentatively suggest it to friends regardless, pretending to yourself, but you know what response is coming – exactly the same thing you’d say if they had suggested it to you. Hmmm, it’s a bit expensive, especially with the booking fee too. Oh, it’s on a Thursday night?!

But although the flame is somewhat diminished, I hope it never dies out. Recent gig attendance would suggest not. By the way, if you haven’t heard of Lucius you should check them out (I’ve done some of the work there for you, you’re welcome). They are amazing. But what made you go to see them, I hear you ask? The clincher – it was on a Friday. That’s an acceptable non-school night. And it was in Liverpool – who’d turn down an excuse to visit Liverpool?

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