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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

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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?

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?

A lot has been said on this subject but I’m afraid I am going to have to insist on adding my voice to the noise.

Commuting – I do it. I love it. Ok – sometimes I hate it…

I recently read an article in The Observer that struck a chord with me. Although this article was very London centric (as things often are) and therefore not exactly rooted in the reality of everyone’s lives, it was also interestingly controversial in that it promoted commuting by public transport as a good thing. An unusual standpoint considering, aside from in environmental journalism, this is probably the first real vindication of public transport use I have come across – in the media or from actual people.

Apparently, some new research (yawn) by The University of East Anglia has found that public transport commuters are happier than those who drive to work. Out of the 18,000 passengers surveyed it was found that, even when other factors that may affect wellbeing were taken out of the equation, commuters who travelled to work on public transport scored lower on feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness and sleeplessness.

Now, I don’t need research to tell me how beneficial my 90 minutes-a-day of public transport is for me – I’ve been reaping the benefits for nearly ten years, travelling cross county from Birmingham to Warwickshire via both bus and train (lucky me).

I hope my status as a seasoned public transport commuter gives my opinions some kind of weight, because I am now going to rather grandly claim that commuting makes me a better citizen. Hear me out – I’ve got a list for you:

1. The thing about public transport is that it’s all very, well, public. You’re thrust right into the path of your fellow planet-sharers in a way that you just wouldn’t be in the rest of your life, other than perhaps, say, the supermarket or, if you work with members of the public (brave), at work. So –  getting the bus actually keeps you in touch with reality. Ok yes, sometimes that reality is hearing the ins and outs of someone’s argument with their ex-girlfriend, or having a small child throw up on your shoe. But, you know, if we aren’t forced to interact with society at it’s fullest how can we be fully rounded people? I’d argue I get more of a community (ugh, I hate myself for writing that word, I apologise) from the people I see everyday on the bus and train than I do from my actual neighbours. I don’t necessarily like them, but that’s not the point

2. Catching the bus-and-or-train builds many key life skills and generally makes you a better person to be around. You are more patient (that’s alright bolshy lady, just shove past me with your many bags – I don’t mind, I am a good citizen), you can empathise, you are probably quite kind (please do take my seat nice old man)

3. If you travel by public transport you could probably embark on a career-change and become a leading Body Language expert – you have no choice but to learn appropriate personal space boundaries, when and when not to smile, when to make yourself invisible

4. These skills also come in handy on the mean streets – you are sharper than your driving counterparts. You can rate a situation / person in terms of dodgy-ness and accompanying threat level in a matter of seconds

And I do honestly believe that my commute is also essential for maintaining my mental health – here comes another list, ooh:

5. Public travel time equals thinking time. I plan most of my life from the train. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I’d probably be a disorganised mess

6. You also get time to be productive (I am writing this very blog post from the 08.22 to London Marylebone). Time to be leisurely – listen to that album you’ve been waiting to come out, read a book (books, remember those?), watch YouTube (with headphone on, please). Or, if you are a pain in the arse, talk loudly on your mobile phone and then cough everywhere…

7. Travel by public transport also means you get some physical exercise (ish) – which, say the researchers, is the crux of the benefit to your mental health

I know this is all a little tongue in cheek, but I do hope readers recognise some of the above in their own lives. Maybe we public transporters have a better sense of humour too – we have to, really, as we are faced with the ‘laughable’ incompetence of transport companies that we have no choice but to use, shedding out increasingly large amounts of cash to said companies despite, if anything, a decrease in the standards of our journey. Actually, as I type I find I am becoming less and less relaxed…

I’ve obviously been painting too rosy a picture of public transport – on the other side of the tracks (sorry) lies pure, unadulterated RAGE.

Nothing, NOTHING, can make you more angry than public transport. There’s obviously the cost. I remember when the bus cost an adult 90p, and that makes me upset. A return train ticket to work is now double the cost it was when I started.

But the real biggie is the cruel way in which public transport reveals the ugly truths of our modern society, and people in general. People are rude. Selfish and rude. A life of public transport has taught me this. As a queue-worshipping Brit, ‘pushing in’ is probably the thing that gets to me most, the thing that grinds me down and contorts me into the-irrationally-angry-woman-I-hate. It sounds ridiculous and really not worth bothering about, but I have had 30-minute phone conversations purely about something that happened to me in a bus queue.

I have shouted at people. Actually shouted. Pushed and barged. I regularly swear aloud to myself and at others. Is the stress of public transport pushing me to do things that are out of character? Or is it actually revealing what’s inside of me?

So we’re a split-personalitied bunch, but at least we public transport users are eco friendly. (Although probably not on purpose.)

Bet those researchers are glad I wasn’t in their study group.

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