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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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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?

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.

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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!

It would seem that my local coffee shop is a prime location for a spot of undercover crime detection. And no, I haven’t been watching too many crime dramas on ITV3. (Although, I have).

The last two times I have visited this particular coffee shop I have witnessed a crime – the same crime. Shoplifting. From the same place – a clearly unlucky branch of the popular high street chemist, Superdrug. And on both occasions the thieves were homeless people.

From the sanctum of Pret a Manger‘s first floor seating area I gazed down, over the froth of my cappuccino, at the Sunday morning scene below. New Street’s pavement was being pounded by grumpy families, gaggles of teens and hungover people. I love this – being nosey. It opens fleeting windows into the mundanity of other people’s lives. What they choose to buy for lunch. Where they do their supermarket shopping. How they talk to people on the phone. You learn so much about fellow humans from what they do in presumed privacy. Obscured from view as I was, looking down on everyone from on high in a God-like manner, I revelled in passing unrestrained judgement wherever I saw fit. Tutting at the spitting and litter-dropping. Cringing at the sheer volume of Superdry coat wearers (they don’t seem to fit most humans!) And that’s when I saw two characters huddled in front of a postbox.

I think the only way to describe them is shady. They were scheming. The thrill of covert observation suddenly stepped up a notch. You pray for stuff like this as a people watcher – juicy stuff. Shiftily, they scouted the exterior. One walking off back to the postbox while the other strolls in with an empty Superdrug bag – ingenious.

For me, this was purely entertainment. It felt not so much like real life, but television. I was back on the sofa in front of Lewis. No moral instinct kicked in – it didn’t even cross my mind to intervene. What exactly was I going to do anyway? Don my coat over my shoulders like a caped crusader, hurtle down the (many) stairs at Pret, career across the street and then… what? Alert the Superdrug security guard? Oh, he already knew what the pair were up to. He’s as resigned as the rest of us.

And that’s the thing. Has being a city girl all my life turned me into a lazy, bloated cynic? Largeing it up in a designer coffee shop, tucked up safely in a plush chair on the other side of the street, while this pair of lost souls are nicking a mouthwash to get drunk on. What’s one more theft? I was never going to act because I felt so far removed from the situation – from their desperation. I’d like to say the events released some Robin Hood sense of social justice in me, that I felt sympathy for the thieves and wanted the little man to win over the big. But if anything I was indifferent. Bored. Expecting it.

Am I a bad human? I’d like to think if it was a more serious crime I’d witnessed I would have been compelled to act – but would I? Really? If I’m honest with myself there is a chance I would leave it to someone else. Does my sense of social responsibility only stretch as far as doing the recycling and remembering to vote?

I’ve been giving this some thought and, despite working for a social enterprise for the least decade, embarrassingly I’ve I realised I couldn’t really describe what social responsibility actually means for you and I. In case you need enlightening too, reader, social responsibility is a duty every individual has to perform so as to maintain a balance between the economy and the ecosystems.

Of course, it’s one thing empathising with this message – which I do, in spades – and another acting on it. Which is where I sadly seem to have fallen short. But then, you may ask, where exactly was the thieves’ sense of social responsibility?

On this theme I thought It would be (semi) interesting to Google Superdrug‘s Social Responsibility Policy. One of their objectives is to ‘be fair’, not allowing customers to be discriminated against. They also state that giving back to the communities they serve is a key vision. Maybe I’ve got the security guard all wrong and he was in fact putting this policy into practice by turning a blind eye…

Did they get away with it, the thieves? No. There was something so pitiable about the whole charade, walking right into a pair of policemen as they did on their smug (but very short-lived) bounce down the street. Hardly master criminals. I felt very sorry for them. Instead of only exhibiting sympathy and kindness privately, for the benefit of no-one but me and my ego, perhaps I’ll take it out in public once in a while. Buying the Big Issue seems like a sensible start.

What about you lot? Ever intervened mid-crime? (But please don’t write in saying you saved a baby in an arson attack or anything, you’ll only make everyone feel bad…)

I don’t get spas. The culture of enforced relaxing is something I’ve never quite understood, especially because none of the things one does at a spa seems in any way relaxing. Do you actually know anyone who has been to a spa? Have you been to one?

It’s a very alien concept to me, my aversion to which probably stems from the terror of the unknown – I’ve never been to a spa, and I plan to keep that track record. Besides, I don’t think they’d let me in – spas seem to be a place that welcome extrovert types. Types that actively enjoy being naked around each other. The thing is, some of these people are my friends.
Consequently a spa trip has threatened to materialise on three occasions now. Two birthdays and a hen do. I’ve just got to pray no more of them want to get married before my excuses wear too thin. I can’t afford it. I’m busy – all month. You can’t get public transport there. And, of late, I HATE SPAS!! Of course, the response is always the same – total bemusement.

“What – you don’t like relaxing?!” and the inevitable,

“How do you know if you don’t like spas if you’ve never been to one?”
A valid point. Obviously, there are some things you don’t need to have experienced to know you won’t like them – electric shocks, for example. Being lashed with a rope, clearly not enjoyable. But my poor friends don’t realise they are in fact pressing for me to endure my own form of social torture.

dosney plain croppedI can understand how massages are a good thing. Well, as long as you don’t mind being touched by a stranger. Or being greased like a goose. And thinking of hot ovens, what’s with saunas? Being unpleasantly hot and naked in semi-public? It’s clear how such things appealed to the Egyptians with their general love of oils and balms, and I can forgive pleasure-seeking Romans because, you know, where better to be debauched than in a big orgiastic pool? But for the likes of you and I…eurgh God, it makes me cringe just thinking about it. What if I bumped into the neighbours?

We can learn many useful lessons from history, lessons which could save us a great deal of time and expense. The Romans ruined baths, played with them too hard. Then the Italians made them fashionable again in typical swagger, ensuring they were an experience unaffordable to anyone but the posho’s. While the rest of Europe was living it up, knocking back wine with their thermal water and no doubt singing and stuff, stuffy Brits stuck to strictly medicinal baths, frowning on indulgence of any kind.

And this leads to my bone of contention with the spa. Being laid back and laid bare are two very un-British things. As a result we’ve taken the spa concept and ruined it (but in the opposite direction to the Romans…) We pour Health & Safety all over it. We make it slightly awkward. And we make it really quite expensive. Which leaves us and our spas at a sanitised mid-point which is neither opulent nor all that medicinal. An economic indulgence rather than a true physical one.

Our island seems to have been invaded by these spa hotels, offering semi-indulgence at an either astronomical cost or as a bargain-basement-group-voucher – ensuring that your experience descends into a bit of a hustle to get the next cheques-on-legs through the door. Where’s the relaxation in that?

I wouldn’t mind if the hen parties that flock to these places actually got up to any Romanesque debauchery, but maybe that comes at an added extra top-up price. In my head – and please, feel free to put me straight, actual spa-goers – what you actually get is a brisk rub from a surly masseuse, one glass of fizz in the hot tub, an awkward gossip in the sauna and, more comfortably, a pedicure. Followed by a Michael Buble tribute act in the bar.

Why not just go and have a massage in town after work? Listen to Buble on the drive home? Look, I know I’m missing the point of it all. But when I describe what is relaxing and indulgent for me, perhaps you’ll see why.
Gemma’s Dream Spa Weekend:

Don’t leave the house

Eat cheese. All day. Fully clothed

Have more than one glass of fizz, and have it on the sofa – not in the bath. And don’t bother with the strawberries

Enjoy the healing powers of herbs. In my gin.

Don’t talk to anyone. Watch film/s in silence.
Absolutely zero interaction with a Michael Buble impersonator.
And aaaahhh. I am relaxed.

I have a confession to make – I have become prone to alcohol abuse. Hang on, not the stuff you drink. I mean the slightly alien stuff you slather over your hands.

I am addicted to hand gel. It kills 99.99% of bacteria. Well, that’s just so appealing isn’t it – why wouldn’t you use it?

I have never been more germ aware. I go about my daily activities always with the background goal of maximum germ avoidance. You might say that sounds like hard work – it is! But it is part of who I am. It is perhaps a little sad to have a part of yourself defined by your relationship with germs. It’s not like I live in a part of the world where each passing day carries a risk of death by infection. I recognise that I am fortunate to live in a pretty sanitised environment. But in my defence I haven’t always been this way – it is something that has gradually seeped into my consciousness to the point where, not only do I have a little tub of hand gel on my person at all times, I also find I am using the stuff at least 20 times a day, probably more.

It all started in my early twenties – I was forever catching colds, and I blamed this entirely on the bus. People are disgusting. Everyday I would watch them sneeze all over the place, use their hands as though they were tissues (why don’t people carry tissues?! WHY?!), and then clamp these hands all over the railings, stairs and handles. And then I, unless I wanted to hurtle to my death, would have no choice but to touch those handles myself. So I took control with hand gel. The problem is that the more you use it, the more you become aware of potential germs.

They’re everywhere, germs. Door handles, kettles, chip and pin machines, money – the list is, of course, endless. Once you are on the alert it is really quite shocking how much people touch things, often just for the sake of it. Us hand gel-ers, we only touch a surface if we really have to.

I am loathe to use the word OCD because I don’t want to make light of a serious mental health problem. People seem to throw this word around as though it is fashionable, a desirable condition almost. But with that said I do sometimes worry, is my behaviour ‘a bit OCD’? No. I don’t think so. I’m not distressed when I’m doing it, more embarrassed. But the act has certainly become a compulsion.

I can’t imagine life without hand gel now – and this becomes a problem in that you start to find yourself wanting those that share your life with you to use it, too. Otherwise, what’s the point? You can’t effectively manage the germs coming into your home if your other half waltzes in from the newsagents with a fistful of germs swabbing at the light switch, the fridge door, your face. You can almost see the fluorescent green blobs – like the kind used in adverts for bleach – lighting up their hands like a Belisha beacon. HAZARD!

None of this is exactly good news for your relationship, let alone your mental health. It’s probably safer to just embrace the germs and put up with a cold for a week – I’m sure your other half would rather that than suffer with your issues for eternity.

Although in my case this isn’t entirely true, because I have now passed on my little addiction to him – like a germ itself. He too takes hand gel to work. He too is constantly navigating the gauntlet of the outside world. You’ll see us, clumsily opening doors with our elbows, pressing pedestrian crossing buttons with coat sleeves pulled right down over our hands teenagers in new school blazers. You’ll find us at cash points using a loyalty card to jab at the keypad instead of our fingers.

All this exertion and contortion results in weird bruises and injuries to places like the side of our thumbs, toes and shoulders. And seems as both of us have had colds this last week I don’t think it’s worth all the effort…

It makes me wonder – is it just us? Or, as a society, are we all becoming more germ aware? The very fact that hand gel is sold as a run-of-the-mill hand care product in Boots etc must be proof that it is cemented into the mainstream social psyche now. People must be buying the stuff, there must be a real demand. But when you think back to the Bird Flu masks of recent years and now the Ebola hysteria exploding over the globe it all gets frighteningly dystopian.

I worry that I have placed myself on a slippery slope – am I just a few years away from wearing a mask myself?

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