All of the Terms at St Thomas’s

Around eight months ago I attended a unique course that I came to call St Thomas’s School of Pain. I remember distinctly deciding beforehand that I’d write about it, and multiple posts at that. Through writing this blog and sharing my experiences, I’ve learned that there are people in my life who have gone and are daily going through similar struggles, including some with chronic pain. I’ve received touching messages and had conversations both moving and inspiring off the back of things I’ve written, and have even been told that others have found my writing comforting and helpful. This is so far beyond any expectations I had when I first set fingertips to keyboard on the topics of guns and cake, believe you me. About to embark on a four week residential course to help me cope with chronic pain, I felt I would try to share anything I could; the off-chance that some small snippet would help someone for even one hour of their entire life seemed to make it more worthy of writing about than most of my subject matter. It still does. Thus I resolutely decided I would share my experiences. Given we had a selection of teachers who ran classes according to a weekly timetable, and at various times even used the white boards, with breaks morning and afternoon, and lunch dished up to us by a lovely, warm lady in an apron as we queued in a chatty line with our trays, my ‘school’ analogy felt pretty solid overall. I had even decided on the somewhat twee titles I would use for the posts I had yet to write, an homage to Enid Blyton: ‘First Term/Second Form/In the Third/Last Term at St Thomas’s’.

Eight months later, on the day my final follow up session, and I’ve still not written a word.

Those four weeks living on the South Bank, just over the river from Big Ben, barking at you every fifteen minutes (which I actually loved, incidentally), changed my life irrevocably – and fortunately for the better. As a direct result of St T’s SoP, I moved house, setting those wheels in motion before the fourth ‘term’ had even finished. With my teachers’ support, I’ve reduced my reliance on the NHS to almost nil – the single appointment I’ve had with my GP since October would have seemed unthinkable to the Me of the last couple of years, when I’ve averaged at absolute minimum one appointment a month, an MRI a year, and countless other tests, the two involving tuning forks and electric currents making my hands move among the most bizarre. And now? I haven’t yet been to see a GP in 2016. 
Not unconnected to this, almost (but not quite) the most significant change to my life, as I know those close to me will agree, is that with my teachers’ guiding words ringing in my ears (and letter for the GP in hand), I’ve gradually taken myself off absolutely all my medication. It took over four months, but these last eighteen weeks (and damn right I’m counting!) I have taken absolutely zero prescription medicines. This is the first time in years I’ve not been popping pills daily; three years ago today I was a walking maraca, popping 37 tablets a day including doses I had to take at work. Right now I feel so liberated to have shed my maraca status that I take any multi vitamins and supplements on a distinctly sporadic basis, simply so I am taking absolutely nothing ‘daily’. No antidepressants, no anticonvulsants, no pain meds of any kind. Nada. Zilch. Zero. 

As the dose of meds reduced, the fog in my head started to lift. This has in turn had all manner of catalytic effects. That fog had crept in so stealthily, with such patience and persistence over months and years, that I didn’t even know it was there. The change was so subtle and occurred so gradually that I hadn’t noticed. Yet a week into my new ‘no-meds’ state, and without any knowledge of the changes I’d been making, my old boss commented that my focus had visibly improved, my drive had picked up, my clarity of communication sharpened, and overall I was more on form than he’d ever known me. I smiled and laughed and said thank you. Inside I wept. I was overwhelmed with despair, self-pity and grief that I had been so masked for so long, and with relief, and gratitude and sheer pleasure that ‘I’ was back. The cherry on top; I was unbelievably moved that he’d noticed. I don’t think he had any idea that his passing comments that lunchtime will stay with me forever. 

Forgive the cloying metaphor but in this newly rediscovered, fog-free, crystal clear blue sky, I have found and stretched my wings, and started to fly. Since I ‘graduated’ from St T’s, I was approached about a new job, went for it, and got it. I now find myself happily succeeding (so far) in the most senior role I’ve held to date, in a company I’ve long-admired, with a not inconsequential pay rise, actively looking forward to my upcoming three-month review. I can’t say for sure it wouldn’t all have happened had I not attended the School of Pain, but I sure as hell know where I’d have put my money. 

Finally and by far of most significance to me, I have reclaimed my sense of identity.* Not only has the lifting of the brain fog enabled me to be Me in the truest sense (mostly for better but at a few times for worse) right to the core, I also no longer think of myself as someone with a problem, an illness, or an affliction. This could not be demonstrated more clearly to me than by the fact that no one at my current job** knows I suffer from either HNPP or chronic pain. One of the sales team, currently suffering with a wrist problem, knows I had issues with my wrists that caused me to wear splints on them day and night for a few months, a couple of years ago, but he doesn’t know why. And that’s genuinely the extent of it. I have no need to share it; it’s not who I am when it comes to introductions or getting to know me, and it is simply not relevant to my current job or my ability to do it and do it well. That doesn’t mean there won’t ever be a period where I may need to share the information with them or a future employer – and it won’t be a problem or a failure if or when I get to that point. But the difference in me through even just the interviewing process for this role vs. my previous one was night and day. Interviewing for my last role – during my redundancy if you’re a longer term reader – I felt wracked with guilt that I wasn’t declaring upfront that I had Something Wrong With Me. When I did come to tell them, post-confirmation and commencement of employment, I felt ashamed, as though I’d let them offer me the job and accept my acceptance on the basis of some deceit. This time round, it simply didn’t come up. C’est tout. I’m damned good at my job. If I hurt a bit while I’m being damned good at my job, what does it matter to them?

I didn’t realise until St T’s how much I’d come to think of myself as less of a person as my struggle had worsened, and frankly I’m ashamed of myself for it. I would never think of a friend or colleague who struggled with a similar affliction of being worth any less because of it, so why the hell did I treat myself any differently? The answer I sadly feel lies in us as a society as much as in me as an individual. While very few people would consciously say someone with a medical affliction is worth less/is more hassle, etc. (or so I sincerely hope), there were unconscious, unspoken messages that reinforced my negative self-perception. I remember an employer running their hands through their hair in exasperation when trying to talk about struggling with my workload. Another colleague rolling their eyes in the background as I clutched my head in pain trying not to cry out. An occupational health professional saying “the company probably won’t like that” about things I could do absolutely nothing about, and “you should be very grateful” as though a) I were demanding preferential treatment rather than asking for a small amount of support to enable me to get through a working week, and b) that I weren’t already inordinately thankful I worked for a company abiding by the spirit of the law as well as the letter. I remember someone stepping directly over my twitching body as I screamed silently in pain into the carpet of our office, mascara streaming down my face, struggling to breathe – incidentally a scenario already much more humiliating than those dreams where you appear naked in a crowd, even without someone stepping over you like an inconvenient log. In my case there was also the even less subtle message from Mr #6 and his ‘I don’t want to date you in case we end up together, I don’t want my kids inheriting what you’ve got’***. For the record I stand by my previous post on that: he can fuck right off. 

Personally I’ve found taking fewer tablets and attending fewer appointments to have had a big impact here. It’s easier than I thought it would be to let much of the pain tick along in the background, like a ticking clock on a mantlepiece. Without the pills, I don’t have a daily (or thrice-daily) reminder of my condition. Going to the GP no longer interrupts my life on a monthly basis. I’ve found it easier to focus on the good stuff without these reminders of the struggles. But I wish I could go back to Old Me and tell her to focus on the pub lunch planned for after an appointment as much as possible, or the pleasant taste of the coffee with which I’m taking my pills, more than the appointment or tablets themselves. Focus on the good stuff, and let the rest become background noise as much as possible. This is also something I’m determined to hold on to, as it’s highly unlikely I’ll stay off the meds for good. Still, never say never. 

I realise that even in writing this post, I haven’t shared an iota of what we actually did during the four weeks, and I may be guilty of misleading you, as I’m afraid I’m not going to. It was intensely challenging, personal, emotional and at times made me feel incredibly, uncomfortably vulnerable. I’ve no desire to repeat that experience here for all the Internet to read. But if you know me and want to know more about the course, please feel free to get in touch and I’ll happily tell you much, much more on a one-to-one basis. If you struggle with chronic pain in the UK and feel that you have run out of options within the NHS, I couldn’t recommend strongly enough that you speak to your specialist about the INPUT Pain Management course (as they’re unlikely to know what St Thomas’s School of Pain is) as an option. It may not be right for you, and even if you complete it, for all I know may not work for you, but it has changed my life and I will never stop being grateful to the team there. Their work has a positive impact on me every single day of my life, and has had since I entered their care. It isn’t possible for me to thank them enough. 
If you don’t suffer from chronic pain (or if you do and are bored of it infiltrating every aspect of your life), never fear: normal service here should resume in the not too distant future, starting with more tales of cringeworthy dates… Let the Tinder Tales recommence! 


*As an ex-philosophy student, I feel I should state that I’m absolutely ignoring the ponderings of David Hume et al. on whether such a thing as identity even exists. The man also wrote on mitigated scepticism; if an epistemological sceptic can accept his own refusal to put his hand in an Alsatian or Rottweiler or whatevertypeofdogitwas’s mouth, I’m sure Hume would forgive my commentary on the change in what I perceive as my sense of identity, whether or not it exists. Though even if he wouldn’t, I don’t think I honestly care that much. 
** I love the fact that I blur lines between colleague and friend; if you’re reading this and work with me, that’s fine and this is all stuff I’m happy to chat about it; but please know & respect that it’s not something I particularly want to draw attention to at work, so maybe wait until we’re in the pub rather than the office. Offering to buy a round never hurts either. 

*** for the record I’ve got: brains, wit, practical skills, musical talent, confidence, a good eye for a target, reasonable physical strength, a good palate, sex appeal, good looks and a so-far decent metabolism… And I’d keep that lot over a second PMP-22 gene any day of the week. 

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How to Make Profiteroles For The First Time Ever

Once upon a time, in a land far away[i], this blog was a collection of whimsical anecdotes about baking and shooting. Somehow it has morphed into a general outlet for whatever my internal monologue is concerned with at the time – not least because I am shooting and baking vastly less than I used to. But despite the general downhill trend of baking experiences, a few weekends ago I attempted to bake for the first time this year. More excitingly, it was something I’ve never made before and have always wanted to try; choux pastry. Therefore, in homage to the heritage of After The First Frost (and because I’ve currently no more Tinder Tales to report to you[ii]) I present to you: My Guide to Profiteroles.

The Day Before

    1. Recipe & Ingredients
      The day before you want to make your profiteroles, it’s a good idea to buy the ingredients. If you also have friends coming for Sunday lunch and expecting roast lamb, it’s not a bad idea to buy some lamb too, so head to Sainsbury’s with your wife[iii]. Definitely don’t write any form of shopping list. Once at the supermarket – and only once you are there – look up a recipe for profiteroles. Try to curb your impatience as the 3G coverage in the supermarket flickers in and out, before you realise there’s free Wifi available and get slightly over-excited. Once successfully plugged into the interweb, again Google a recipe for profiteroles. It’s obviously a very bad idea to look this up in advance, check which of the ingredients you have in the cupboard and write yourself a shopping list. It is far preferable to stand in Sainsbury’s trying to remember whether the Kilner jar of flour is self-raising or plain, and wondering what impact it would have on your profiteroles if it turns out you’re wrong. Do this therefore, and decide to risk it.
    2. Mental Preparation
      Remember to put the cream and butter in the fridge once you get home, but leave the other ingredients out on the table, because it’s easier than trying to put them away. When a friend cancels the film night you had planned because he’s still unwell, poor thing, agree to go out for a quiet drink with your housematebestfriendwife to a local beer café after dinner. Have her mix a round of sweet Manhattans while you make dinner, and know that your subconscious is definitely thinking about profiteroles, somewhere in the background. As dinner is almost ready, mix up another round of Manhattans – this time to test whether you prefer a perfect one to sweet. Enjoy dinner, and when it turns out that you do prefer a Manhattan perfect, make a third to celebrate the fact while applying a little make up before you leave. End up in a deep discussion about bourbon with the very educated barman in the beer café, and instead of beer, end up trying two brand new bourbons: Elijah Craig and Basil Hayden’s (BH definitely won.) Fast forward to 1am, where your profiterole and Sunday-lunch-hosting prep should will be taking the form of you trying not to cry over the piano in a bar, distraught that you can’t play from memory the second half of that Bach piece you learned about a decade ago, and that your fingers are turning the opening waterfall of Debussy’s First Arabesque into a discordant tangle of fingers and wrong notes. It’s definitely because you can’t play the piano anymore and music has abandoned you; nothing to do with the booze. Make a mental note to be grateful tomorrow morning that the bar is closed at this hour of the morning, and only the lovely owner and his equally lovely daughter have had their ears subjected to the caterwauling coming from your hands.
    3. Rest Up
      Steel yourself for the unbelievable cruelty that is telling your housematebestfriendwife that the two of you can’t go dancing at 1.30am. Her lower lip will wobble, the heartbreak will be blindingly evident on her face, but you will have to be firm. Even when her eyes fill with tears as she begs to find somewhere still open to dance, stay strong and call that taxi. (Spoiler: it’s fine, she won’t remember in the morning.) Bed at 2am will give you plenty of rest before profiterole-making duties.


      On The Day

    4. Getting Up
      When your body clock kicks in and wakes you up too early, forgive it. On this occasion, you need to be up as your plan to clean the house on Saturday unfortunately fell by the wayside, and thus not only is there last night’s dinner and drinks mess to clear up, but a sitting room and kitchen to clean, lamb to prepare, and, of course, the all-important profiteroles. Lying in bed, drink some water and start plotting out your morning and how you’re going to get things done. Hear a groan from across the corridor as your housematebestfriendwife wakes up too. End up spending an hour sprawling on the bed, nattering together and to a friend on the phone, feeling thoroughly sorry for yourselves. Drink more water. Decide that any preparation can wait, and that coffee and breakfast take precedence. Head to a local Melbourne-inspired coffee shop for poached eggs on smashed avocado on sourdough, not forgetting the prosciutto and of course an incredible coffee. Sneak in a blueberry and lemon friand, because you can, and another cup of coffee. Decide to leave the café. Drink another glass of water. Fifteen minutes later, actually leave the café. Get back to the house just before midday, and don’t start panicking that no prep has been started. Your housematebestfriendwife will start the lamb, and you will definitely not start thinking about profiteroles. Instead, you’ll drink yet another glass of water and tidy the sitting room (read: throw anything that is looking messy up the stairs with the intention of getting it out of sight, but accept right now that you won’t get round to it, and the stairs will simply stay covered in stuff.) Try to ignore your churning stomach, and take two painkillers. No hangover here, promise.

    5. Guests arrive
      When your first guest arrives, have a slight panic with your housematebestfriendwife about whether profiteroles are really the best idea, with less than two hours before you’re due to serve lunch and the veg and mint sauce not yet cooked or made. Dig out an old cookery notebook and use that and trusty Google to look up ‘easy chocolate mousse’. Rule this out completely when you see the words “chill for at least eight hours before serving.” Decide to stick to the original plan and make profiteroles; you know you have the ingredients (ignoring the mystery of the flour); enough time to make them is optional. Hangovers have a magical effect on the laws of time and space and will make it possible.

    6. The Method
      While catching up with your friend, measure out the flour (plain? Self-raising? Only time will tell), sugar and a pinch of salt. In your hungover state, get excited to be using the bamboo salt pot you bought as a souvenir on a recent holiday to Australia, with its swivelling lid. Take a few moments to demonstrate this to your bemused friend. Alternately try to calm and ignore your housematebestfriendwife as she flaps around the kitchen panicking, and start the choux pastry. Melt the butter in the water and bring to a rolling boil. The recipe says wooden spoon – will silicon really make a difference? Decide it’s not worth the risk, and dig out a wooden spoon from somewhere. Hear someone say hello at the precise moment you tip the flour mixture into the saucepan. Utterly ignore the two new guests as you frantically beat the mixture with your wooden spoon. Beat, beat, beat, and feel better about not having done any exercise; this definitely is working the muscles in your right arm, and that’ll do for now. Continue to ignore your guests, and rely on the first guest to entertain the other two while your housematebestfriendwife gets drinks, and you start beating the eggs into the pastry batter. Remind yourself to breathe as the mixture starts looking a little like the pictures online. It’s a passable choux pastry, pre-baking at least. Encourage the guests to move through to the sitting room, speaking over your shoulder while still focusing on the pastry. Scoop the mix into a piping bag, and pipe little round dollops of mixture onto the baking tray. Realise you’ve no idea how much they will puff up – if at all – and prepare yourself that even if, despite all your thorough and rigorous preparation the day before – the baking goes well and the mixture rises, you might end up with a tray of profiteroles joined together like a batch of Hot Cross buns. Too late to worry about it now. Dampen your finger in a mug of water and push down the little pointy tops, and finally sprinkle a little water over the tray, because that’s what Google says to do.
    7. The Cooking
      When cooking profiteroles, it is essential to put them into the oven at the exact temperature at which your leg of lamb is cooking, whatever that may be. Don’t panic about whether they will take on a flavour of roasted lamb and garlic; everyone loves a savoury, meaty note in their profiteroles. Move the lamb down a shelf and slide the baking tray into the top of the oven. Absent-mindedly wonder whether baking profiteroles are affected by opening and closing the oven door while cooking. Close said door. Set a timer for 15minutes.
      Four minutes later, open the oven door to remove the lamb. Close the oven door.
      Check the lamb, decide it needs longer.
      Open the oven door, put the lamb back in. Close the oven door.
      Accept a glass of prosecco, feeling your stomach turn slightly as you do so, and finally turn to greet your guests in the sitting room. After all, it’s only been half an hour since they arrived.
      Moments later, excuse yourself again and dive back to the kitchen. Squeal loudly with excited pride when you see that against all odds, your beloved profiteroles have started to rise. Rejoin your guests.
      Leave the guests again to check the profiteroles again. Still rising.
      After a precise ‘little while’ go back and using a sharp knife, prick a hole in the bottom of each bun. Return them to the oven to dry out slightly.
      Once you’ve removed them from the oven for the final time, collapse back on the sofa with your prosecco in hand, and enjoy official success.
    8. Serving
      After gazing lovingly at your little puffed up choux buns, make the caramel cream. Fill the piping bag, and find that the swirls of once-warm caramel have set a little and are blocking the nozzle of the piping bag. Said nah will then burst its seam on one side. Decide that the filling and drizzling with chocolate sauce is asking too much – after all, how can people be expected to believe your profiteroles rose if there’s cream filling up the lovely little air pockets? Put the caramel cream in one bowl, chocolate sauce in another, and proudly serve your guests Deconstructed Profiteroles. A filled profiterole is so very gauche; assembling them yourself is all the rage right now, don’t you know?

 

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[i] Also known as Oxfordshire.

[ii] This is due to no more story-worthy online dates, rather than the result of a successful one.

[iii] In reality she’s my best friend and housemate, but if even her mother refers to you as her Wife, you kind of have to accept it. Maybe I’ll call her ‘housematebestfriendwife’ from now on.

The Downfall of Mr #6

When I set out to attend St Thomas’s School of Pain, I had every intention of writing a weekly blog post, sharing the ins and outs and, most importantly, any amusing moments here. I even knew what they were to be called – First Term at St Thomas’s, Second Form at St Thomas’s, In The Third at St Thomas’s and Last Term at St Thomas’s. I suppose I may yet get to that last one, as it’s only week three now. However, when I set out to attend said School of Pain, I didn’t really know what I was letting myself in for. Sure, I said ‘oh it’s going to be tough’ and ‘I might keep a diary as I go’ but in all honesty, I had not the slightest beginning of a clue. Even after the first day, curled up in my room in a hospital flat with my bottle of ginger beer, I didn’t have any grasp of what lay ahead.

What I’m now going to do is probably both cruel and frustrating to you, dear reader; I’m not going to tell you about it. This course is not about getting rid of the pain I’m in, or even reducing it. It’s not, as I had thought, about different techniques to soothe the pain or to control it. Rather, what I have to try to get my head around – and to be honest I think it will take a little while yet – is that I suffer from chronic pain, and that it is incurable and will most likely be with me for life. Assuming I’m fortunate enough to live to say, 80, I over have twice the years I have currently lived still ahead of me, and for all fifty two of those years I will mostly likely be in pain. The goal of this course is to teach us is to accept the pain, and help us live a full and fulfilling life as independently as possible with that pain. We were warned that the approach taken may feel “proddy and poky” at times, but I had no idea quite how painful that prodding and poking would become. It’s less proddy and poky in a “you’ve got a bit of a belly” type of poke, and more in a “here’s a really tight, painful knot in your back that this super-duper deep tissue sports massage is going to knead out. And here’s another. And another. And another…” until you are tender as a ripe peach and feeling as bruised as an apple juggled by a fool with poor hand-eye coordination. Nerves have been hit again and again – mostly figuratively – and as such I feel tender, tired, vulnerable and raw, and I have little to no desire to share that. Ultimately, what I’ve been thinking, confronting, feeling, and coaxing out from under the emotional rug in the last two weeks is so very personal that I have little inclination to talk it through with close friends or family, much less write about it here for the titillation of the World Wide Web.

That said, all is not lost dear reader[i]. There are some things that have happened in the last couple of weeks that I can share and which will hopefully provide some degree of amusement to your good self (and in at least one person’s case, your good father’s self to boot.) Some of these Things are related to St Thomas’s – it’s not going to be kept a complete mystery forevermore – but for (my) sanity’s sake I’m going to save those up for another time, possibly when I haven’t had a tearful day in ‘class’ with two more to go this week alone – I am starting to think I should have taken out shares in Kleenex. Instead, for this post, I present to you the dramatic last episode[ii] in the current series,

 

Tinder Tales: The Downfall of Mr #6

Having met Mr #6 one weekend afternoon for a lovely, cultural first date involving the National Gallery and plenty of chatter about art and especially about literature, I was quite eagerly anticipating Date 2. The fact that he proved himself a more than adequate kisser at the end of Date 1 also boded well. I slightly misjudged my walk to the pub where we were to meet, but wasn’t more than five or so minutes late, and to my joy arrived to see him waiting with two glasses of red, and thankfully not both for him. Not that I keep score, but wine waiting on arrival is a good way of acquiring brownie points. Sadly things swiftly tumbled downhill from there. Table acquired, we began chatting. I feel should have a disclaimer or some such here to highlight that while I don’t expect all readers of this blog to agree with my political views, such as they are, your side of the bargain is to accept my political views and acknowledge that if you don’t like what I have to say, you’re probably reading the wrong post, if not the wrong blog.

Ensconced at a table for two, our introductory chat covered a cheerful array of subjects from work to chronic pain, as well as a more literary twist as he was carrying a copy of Charles Webb’s novella The Graduate, the book which brought to the world Mrs. Robinson – and if you’re not humming the Simon and Garfunkel tune now, shame on you. I can’t remember precisely how we got onto the subject, but somehow our conversation ended up venturing towards the dangerous waters of Politics. At the outset however, while I know this is considered an infamously poor choice of conversation topic for dinner parties, I wasn’t too worried. In fact, I was engaged and excited, and though that balloon was soon to be popped, it started its life happily inflated; we both studied politics as part of joint honours courses at university – and had both graduated, so on paper at least didn’t suck entirely when it came to understanding at least some elements of the elephantine subject. We had agreed on other, non-political things so far and during our last date I had come to fairly quickly respect his views on art and literature, even if I didn’t agree on all of them. Incidentally, around the time our conversation took its political turn, I also remember thinking how cute and romantic the couple two tables over from us were, curled up together and scattering affectionate kisses and hand-strokes throughout their little tête-à-tête. The relevance of that small, inadvertent observation shall later become clear.

The start of the conversational rapids was fun in a mild-mannered, gentle way, and suggestive of an exhilarating course ahead. Slowly however, I started to become aware that the waters of the colloquy were in fact far murkier than I had anticipated. Murky and, you know, racist. And sexist. And homophobic.

As I have shared previously, one lesson learned from a previous Tinder Tales date (#2? #3? I forget) was that “You don’t have very long fingernails,” isn’t a great statement to make on a date, even if you attempt to prompt a response from your short-talonned companion by adding “do you?” after a hesitation that would have Nicholas Parsons taking the subject off you to pass to Gyles Brandreth[iii]. To build on that lesson, Tinder Tale #6 teaches us that something to add to the list of Things Not To Say On A Date – at least a date with me – is,

“I voted UKIP. Twice.”

Now, I am not quite naïve enough to assume that I shall end up one day happily settled down with a person who shares every iota of my political viewpoint (not least because I don’t know my own opinions to a level of detail such that I could check), I would at least like to find myself with someone whose political opinions I can respect. And this isn’t as hard as some may think it should be – ‘respect has to be earned’ – because my respect tends to be something a person has by default, in virtue of their being human. That person has to actively do something in order to lose my respect. I shan’t be so cruel as to scar you with every detail of the conversation that followed, but suffice it to say that if you ever try to seriously explain to me not only why the borders of our country should be closed, but how immigration should be “reversed” by sending home people who aren’t British, I may start to struggle to maintain my respect of your political opinions. If you go on to explain how second generation immigrants, whom, if I am to offer a sweeping statement, I take to be as British as myself, should be sent back to “their home country”, I will struggle still harder, and may also begin to call into question your judgment in general. Though to be fair, we would agree that they should live in their home country, just disagree rather strongly on which country that is – and to my mind, I would be 100% right in saying that country is Britain.

Things that will continue to aid you in your quest to lost my respect include then explaining how thousands of years of English heritage grant one a greater right to reside on British soil than those who also live, and have only ever lived, in this country and whose parents travelled here decades ago – especially if you cannot trace your own lineage back despite declaring yourself to be one of those with thousands of years of English heritage. How would your Britain-residing ancestry, claimed to be ‘pure’ over thousands of years, be affected if you were to discover that your grandfather or great grandfather lived the entirety of his life in The British Raj? You also could also strengthen your case for loss of respect by using the words ‘English’ and ‘British’ interchangeably – or does your English heritage grant you a right to live on Scottish or Welsh soil? Are inhabitants of the United Kingdom to consider ourselves interchangeable (as to be (un)fair often seems the case when, for example, Andy Murray, the Brit, wins a tennis match while Andy Murray the Scot loses a match) or are English, Scottish and Welsh forced to be eternally separated by invisible borders; daffodils, roses and thistles segregated in their separate flowerbeds, while the poor Northern Irish are beyond the reaches of even a friendly cross-border wave, separated as they are by that all-too aquatic barrier, The North Channel?[iv]

I digress. Let’s imagine for just one moment that you fear (erroneously) that your views on the importance geographic ancestry and its associated rights aren’t doing the job when it comes to eroding my respect for your political opinions. Why not try another tack; sexism. Raising this topic of conversation is to conversation with Emily as waving a red flag would be to a bull – especially if that bull had a metaphorical soapbox and a history of using it. So things you could say to help your respect-reducing efforts do indeed include suggesting that heterosexual relationships where women earn more money than men are doomed to failure.[v] But if you really want to put your all in and do your damnedest to lose my respect as quickly as possible, I can tell you that there is one simple sentence that will do the trick and do it most succinctly, as it drops down into the chasm opening between us like a tonne of bricks thrown into a river with concrete shoes and an anchor for a necklace;

“Feminism is a trade union for fat chicks.”

 

But what, I hear you cry, if casual racism just isn’t your cup of tea, or sexist undertones, overtones, and steamrollerthroughthemiddle tones just don’t hit quite dickish note you desire? Never fear; there is one more thing you can try: homophobia. Now, remember the cute couple across from us? Well, what will make this all the more potent is if that adorable canoodling couple are both women. To avoid traumatising you with too much detail, I shall cut to the chase. One efficient way to finish your pitch for my incredulous repulsion is to exclusively refer to gay marriage in a derisive tone of voice while using air quotes. Alternatively, the words “gay adoption is abhorrent” will do the trick even more effectively. Or, just to be safe, do both.

Needless to say, despite interesting opinions on literature and an impressive knowledge of art history and how to make it interesting to his companion on a first date, there shan’t be a date 3. I can only hope that the couple across from us heard either none, or all of the conversation held that evening; at least if they heard all of it, they would know quite what a bigoted idiot he was.

When I explained that I didn’t think a third date would work, he was surprised and disappointed in my decision, but stated that morals were important to him (and from my perspective a very strange set of morals they are too) and he was respectful that it was my choice to make. So kind of him not to try to date me by force. He also sent a final text stating,
“Never known a straight person so committed to gay ‘marriage’!”

And that, dear reader, was two inverted commas too far. End of conversation. Number: deleted.

 

downfall of Mr #6

 

[i] It’s not obvious I’ve been reading Jane Eyre, is it dear reader? No, I thought not.

[ii] There may yet be an epilogue, but if it comes into existence it will be in another post. Not this one. Yes, I am being lazy.

[iii] Or Paul Merton. Or Susan Calman. Or one of the many other contestants of Just A Minute. If you’ve not heard it before, you’re missing out (currently on BBC Radio4, 6.30pm on a Monday. Go, now, and download.) And if you want to be absolutely blown away, then first try talking for sixty seconds on the subject of ‘Exit, Pursued By A Bear’ without repetition, hesitation or deviation. Once you’ve most likely failed at this, then listen to David Tennant’s first go on his first appearance on the showand prepare to be amazed.

[iv] Yes, that is indeed a rhetorical, not to mention wordy and long-winded question.

[v] Incidentally, the expansion of this idea on our date seemed to me to be more offensive to the male gender in its suggestion that male egos are quite so fragile. If you read this Mr #6, then I invite you to contemplate whether this is simply a reflection of your own fragility you are mapping onto your gender to avoid any sense of individual ownership?

The Mean Reds

Hello, and welcome back! I said the Tinder Tales would continue, and I did not lie…

Tinder Tales #4

With number four, the awkward moment actually came on our second date. The first date went well; we chatted about ourselves, had a couple of drinks, and there was even a bit of chemistry. He walked me back to my car and – for the first time ever on a first date – we kissed. It was quite a good kiss, and I headed home with a spring in my step.

In fact, Mr #4 threw a spanner in the works that I had never even contemplated. We met for our second date at a restaurant local to me, a chain I believe, called Cleaver. He arrived a little flustered, but kissed me as he sat down – hello butterflies. But from there things got a bit awkward. There was chemistry, oh yes, but conversation was reluctant to flow. I turned to that old fail safe, the menu, and asked if there was anything he didn’t eat. I was contemplating various sharing platters – chicken wings, chilli nachos and the like – or a proper, hefty steak. Decisions, decisions. I knew he had a sweet tooth so was confident that a warm chocolate brownie would be appearing in front of me before we left the restaurant. He paused, menu in hand, and then uttered words I never expected to pass the lips of the 6ft something blonde ice hockey player next to me.

“I’m a vegetarian.”

Such simple words. Such a small thing – no meat. I have friends who are veggie, who eat kosher, and I can go for days inadvertently meat-free, simply because I like vegetarian food. The problem is, I also love meat. Suddenly a potential future together flashed before my eyes; nut roasts at Christmas, steak-free 14th March, no hearty beef stews in winter, or Moroccan pulled lamb shoulder with friends, slow-cooked pork sizzling on a BBQ… I’m salivating just thinking about it. Add in that that I have both shot and manually dispatched game birds, and I’m possibly not his type.

He went to Florida for a while. He may even have got back by now – I know he was due to be away for a few weeks – and while a part of me would like to see him again, I know I care too much about food and cooking. It’s not about what he does or doesn’t eat, nor is it about the reasoning behind it. It is about the opportunities and experiences it would close off to us were we a couple. I want to be with someone who actively enjoys food and cooking, and will be adventurous in what they try, both to eat and to prepare. Vegetarianism had never entered my mind as a possibility.

Sigh. Maybe I’m just too fussy.

 

Tinder Tales #5

First date easily 9/10, absolutely swept off my feet. I’d had some bad news the night before, and wasn’t fully feeling in the mood, but decided to go along anyway. We met by the flower stall outside Liberty’s, and he explained he’d booked a table at a bar nearby – number eight somethingorother road. We found the road. I saw a building with a number 8 on it. Eat. The sandwich chain. I looked next door. Agent Provocateur. Wasn’t sure either of these were really suitable first date material, but I swallowed my bad mood and went with it. What I’d failed to notice was an unmarked doorway between the two. With some irritation, trepidation and hyperbolic visions of underground muggings, gang rape, and murder, I followed him down the dark stairway. Far from the perilous site of a fatal attack, I was presented with a beautiful bar full of nooks and crannies in which one could curl up and sup on nought but exquisite cocktails and mouth-watering desserts. We whiled away hour upon hour – and cocktail upon cocktail – with conversation ranging from school (we went to secondary school fairly close to each other) to Plato (he was reading The Republic, or something like that). We shared a couple of desserts and sipped on cocktails containing liqueurs I’d never heard of, amontillado sherry, peat, and all sorts of other surprising things that tasted incredible. He offered me the chance to play a ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card and leave, and I declined. At that, he kissed me, mid-date. Chemistry? Yes, so very yes. We carried on, dotting our constant conversation with kisses here and there, for hours more. Rather than nearly missing my train á la numéro deux, I actually missed it this time[i], and he hosted me for the night – accepting that I wouldn’t sleep with him on the first date, and not once trying to twist my arm. The second date was less than a week later and involved homemade chilli (cue text to a friend: “He eats meat!”) and a bottle of red with philosophical debates on the sofa. Third date lasted over 36 hours.

Over the next few weeks, we danced, we brunched, we drank wine, debated politics and philosophy, he tried – adorably – to make me breakfast and I subsequently taught him how to poach an egg, we dunked giant Bourbon biscuits into mugs of Earl Grey over a game of Scrabble, we watched Audrey Hepburn eat her breakfast at Tiffany’s while we ate brunch. He seemed funny, respectful, ambitious, hard-working, good fun. Possibly an over-thinker, but let’s face it I am the blackest of pots where that kettle is concerned.

But. But. There’s always a ‘but’. The last of this series of wonderful dates, I had a particularly painful arm on a day we had brunch at Seven Dials. The next evening, he called me to explain that he’d been thinking about the future and wasn’t sure he wanted any potential children we may one day have to inherit my genetic condition. We did talk over it all, but really truly, what it all boils down to is one simple answer: “Fuck You!”

***

I’ve been on one other date since that fiasco, and I hope to see him again so I shan’t jinx it by giving you details here. But Mr #5 has left me with some scars; I’d never before perceived my genetic condition, painful as it may be, to be a barrier to a relationship. Most of the time I have a strong enough perception of my self-worth to realise that it’s his loss, and if he’s flaky enough to turn me down because of the 1 in 20+ chance that any future kids – if we ever got that far ­– would inherit the more painful version of this condition from me, then he’s probably not the best person with whom to entertain the idea of a relationship. I mean, imagine something actually went wrong – not just a ‘maybe one-day’, but an ‘actually now’. What if a pipe burst, or the car broke down, or one of the kids got measles? It’d be a veritable Armageddon! I want to meet someone with whom I can face the challenges life brings hand in hand, all the stronger for having each other. But still, it stung, and on those days when I’m cursed with H. Golightly’s patented Mean Reds, it’s a new, looming spectre in the back of my mind.

“Every cloud has a silver lining” and this cloud was no exception. “Dickface”, as he’s affectionately known by some of my friends, has provided me with a lovely segue to bring me to the next, short but exciting chapter of my life: today was my first day at the INPUT Pain Management course at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. I have fondly nicknamed it St Thomas’ School of Pain, a name that brings with it images of a slightly twisted, Tim Burton-esque version of Mallory Towers. I might even have to get some ginger beer for a midnight feast. My goal is to try and expand the parameters of my life again, to re-encompass into it things I used to love but may have let go, and to do this independently, not having to rely on anyone else to help me cope with the pain. I’ve written before about depression, and I’ve written about the emotional reactions I have to parts of my body when they cause me pain. Those are just two of the experiences that will be covered on this course, and much more, in much more depth. It’s going to be a tough four weeks, but we’ve been told to approach it as an experiment, and in that spirit I shall be documenting some parts of it here. In addition, the philosopher in me is intrigued to see how others with chronic pain refer to themselves and their bodies: as one unit, or as two distinct entities?

Anyway, I digress. Today was Day 1, and in all honesty not much happened: a lot of introductions, to each other as well as to the staff; an outline of what to expect; initial assessments (I had to walk up and down a corridor for five minutes); and not forgetting lunch. Tomorrow is when the fun really begins. That said, it has  already got emotional a couple of times, and I predict that will only increase as we all start to realise we have four weeks ahead of us of facing up to that which we normally try to sweep under the rug. I might buy shares in Kleenex this evening.

And my love life? Well, I intend to see Mr #6 again – and soon if I can – but unless it goes tits up I’m unlikely to write about it for a while. All I hope for is some fun experiences, more intriguing conversation, someone to eat meat with, to feel a few fireworks, and to get through it all without being cast aside as damaged goods. Because I am one hell of a catch – I mean, even as I wrote the first draft of this in Leeds station, the cute barista in Starbucks came over to where I was sitting for a brief natter, then made me a free drink to make up for my train being cancelled.

If only I lived in Leeds…

IMG_1793    IMG_1795    IMG_1870

[i] Note to self: ask for watch for Christmas.

Letting in ‘la vie en rose’

I realised recently that I seem only to have written for this blog recently when I have been particularly down or irritable about things – if indeed any of the last few posts can be called ‘recent’. This was not why I started writing this blog. Or it was, but not as a vehicle to share my woes, but rather as something to distract me from those woes and encourage me to focus on the bright side of life (cue Monty Python whistle) by sharing funny moments and yummy cakes as I learned more and more about country life. The problem with this theory, I thought, was that as I became more acquainted with mud and any terminology associated with it and its world, the fewer and further between the anecdote-worthy moments came. I have realised that I was wrong; in fact, firstly I became less embroiled in country life when I got a job in the wine trade, a distinctly less tweedy industry than the shooting one. I also broke up with Mr Farmer, meaning no more weekend jaunts on Sally the Combine Harvester. Secondly, upon leaving the shooting trade and joining the wine trade, life just got busier. And moving from WineWorld to Unilever only intensified that busyness.

Amid this busyness, life, to paraphrase a postcard I saw recently, is trying not to pass my family and me by so much as to run us over – and then reverse just to be sure. Despite this, I don’t want to turn this blog entirely into a portal of doom and gloom. I think as it evolves, this blog will become a blend of woe and (I hope) wit, of complaint and cake. In short, it will continue to be an outlet for whatever is on my mind. But I want so very much to push and push and keep open the door that life is trying so hard to close, and to let in la vie en rose as Miss Sabrina Fairchild would put it. And as such, I want to refocus on why I started writing here – to refocus my outlook on life, to see the Mississippi pie amid all the mud. As such, I have been wracking my brains to think of something positive or at least humorous to write about, say a scrumptious new recipe I’ve tried, or an amusing anecdote to share. One of the few new recipes I’ve attempted in recent months, I sadly cannot claim as my own – I followed someone else’s recipe, almost verbatim – but it WAS a cake and I DID make it, so I figure it counts. It was also my little brother’s wedding cake. (My ‘little’ brother is in fact a great dangling thing of almost 6ft 4, with arms too long for his already-overly-long self.) That cake was by far the most all-American thing I’ve ever cooked, in honour of the all-American bride. It was baked to welcome Ariel into our family and, at least as far as I was concerned, to cement her role as ‘sister-in-law’ in my life (because let’s be honest; that was the point of it all!) with as much chocolate icing and peanut butter cookie dough as it is possible to fit into one cake. As such, it deserves a post all of its very own – so you can be confident that the future of this blog does still hold some cake.

Since moving to my new cottage in Cobham – yes, Cobham, and no, I can’t afford it – I have noticed that I seem to have succumbed to a Waitrose infection; the only recipes I’ve really tried other than the wedding cake have all felt deliciously middle class. I sometimes feel I should be somewhat ashamed of this, but I’d be foolish to pretend I’m not middle class, surrounded by matching tea towels, oven gloves and apron, with my yoga mat out in the sitting room. So instead I’m choosing to embrace it! I’ve tried cooking quinoa, but as I’ve not yet really created a recipe using it worth sharing, that’s pretty much a dead-end (or more of a cul-de-sac?) I have made rosemary-roasted almonds, which have potential to be absolutely delicious, but I’ve not yet executed them to a standard to make it a recipe worthy of sharing. I’ve made hazelnut granola, but it’s a similar situation there as to the almonds with regard to the standard of execution. This whole non-Aga oven thing takes some getting used to. The homemade granola was attempted partly to avoid the extortionate prices of this newly-fashionable breakfast fodder[i], and partly so – I kid you not – I could add soya powder to the mix to get more protein into my breakfasts. I’ve made peanut butter Overnight Oats as per the minimalist baker’s recipe, fed to me via a friend. In fact, I’ve made them regularly and am about to whip up another batch to take to work tomorrow. I may not be dating a Chelsea footballer, but I am still feeling remarkably Cobham.

At dating footballers I may have so far failed, but at just plain dating I have… well, so far, also failed. My ‘single’ status indicates fairly accurately that every attempt I have made at a relationship has not exactly gone veil-inducingly well. Since Easter however, shortly before the aforementioned move to Surrey, my love life has been as unsuccessful as any moment in my romantic life.[ii]

After my best friend, her boyfriend and I has between us consumed more than a bottle of wine a piece, I decided she was right that after over a year single online dating was a great idea, especially as I was moving to a new area where I knew no one. This moment of enlightenment was followed by the two of us (she and me) composing a lengthy and beautifully written Ode to Me with which to grace my shiny new dating profile. Once done, and thrilled with our masterpiece, we submitted it to be reviewed and edited by her lovely boyfriend. What had been a number of paragraphs of positively stunning prose describing every favourable aspect of myself (at least if read through rosé-tinted spectacles) was streamlined down to about five lines. And while I say ‘edited’ I’m pretty sure our original version didn’t include the line,

“Good brain, good eyes, good abs, good c*ck = a good start!”

But, while it may deceive potential suitors into thinking I have the ability to be succinct (HA!), we decided to go with it. They say ‘in vino veritas’ so I’m not sure what this says about my friend’s boyfriend. However, given that subsequent male friends’ amendments to my profile include clog-dancing, bear wrestling and intergalactic conquest on my list of hobbies, I’m not sure I’ll take any of them too seriously.

While the online dating site in question wasn’t actually Tinder, a friend of mine has taken to posting Tinder Tales on Facebook, and I am going to steal borrow his title for the anecdotes that now follow – so thank you James for being my inspiration. If I’m really lucky, a little extra humour from your original posts may have become mixed up with the plagiarised titles.

Tinder Tales: #1

My first date actually didn’t go too badly. It was spur of the moment – always good – with one of two guys with whom I’d been chatting a day or two. He offered to drive to my neck of the woods – apparently a good start. He could only make it quite late, but as it was near me, I wasn’t too fussed. He said he’d be wearing a red jumper – so I was now only going to be peering curiously at every guywearingred alone in the pub, rather than every guy; a marked improvement. I couldn’t get the pub on the phone, so set out a bit early with a book to secure a table. On walking in, the pub confirmed that they had plenty of tables available – because the kitchen was closed. Sunday trading. Bugger. Never fear, I had an idea; I drove quickly to another pub nearby, and confirmed that they had both space and an open kitchen. Brilliant. I quickly texted my date, hoping to God that he would illegally check his phone while driving.

Installed in a comfy window seat, I wait…

I read my book.

I hope he got the change of venue.

I order a drink.

Please don’t let me have been stood up.

I read more of my book.

Lucky it’s a good book.

The barman comes over. The kitchen will be closing in five minutes.

I order two burgers – you can’t go wrong with a burger, right? Is this confidence or arrogance? Or foolishness?

Please God don’t let me have been stood up.

I read some more.

The food arrives.

Oh god, I can’t eat two burgers.

Well, let’s be fair, I can – but it wouldn’t make it any less embarrassing.

At that moment, a guy with a familiar face walks in. Is that him? He’s wearing a red jumper, and he’s evidently looking around for someone, but he’s not who I was expecting to meet. But he’s not the guy I thought I was waiting for. Didn’t he say he was 6ft 2? Oh shit. Of the two guys I was chatting to, he’s the other one. Hmm. I evidently haven’t quite got the knack of this online dating thing yet.

In fairness, I would still have agreed to meet up with him had I correctly associated profile-to-person, so decide to go with the flow. And – yesss! – he likes burgers. It was purely confidence after all (or so I tell myself.)

We eat our burgers, we chat, we have another (now non-alcoholic) drink (we’re both driving) and we’re getting on quite well. Then they start stacking the chairs upside down on tables around us. Oh yes. Sunday trading. We have now been on this date for less time than it took him to drive to it.

Date 1: 4/10, though not actually in virtue of anything to do with him. Fanciable, easy to talk to, no immediate spark fireworks. Would probably have scored the date a 6 if it hadn’t been for the series of organisational debacles. We have actually stayed in touch, so who knows? As yet, still firework-free, but maybe one day things will change (and we’ll remember to have dinner on an evening when pubs are open normal hours.)

Tinder Tales #2

Having agreed to meet Date 2 in a wine bar in St Pancras on my way back from a meeting in Bradford, I am a bit flustered and hot after rushing around to find the place having got off my delayed East Coast train. But he’s wonderful. We get on like a house on fire, the wine is good – and he’s not put off by my interest in it. The bar lets us order by the carafe – perfect for trying a couple of different bottles without having to get through a couple of different bottles. We venture into the treacherous waters of politics, and survive! We get into philosophical debates that at no point evolve into arguments, and yet are utterly absorbing. He isn’t afraid to disagree with me – bliss – and can actually hold his own in terms of number-of-words-spoken-per-minute – no mean feat. The words ‘awkward’ and ‘silence’ did not feature in our language. I glance at my phone – and gasp when I realise I’m going to miss my train if I’m not careful. We carry on nattering on the tube to Vauxhall. And, upon saying goodbye, I realise the fatal flaw. He’s really, truly great. He’s interesting. He’s attractive. But I’m just not attracted to him. We go to say goodbye, and as he leans down, I find myself figuratively scrunching my eyes closed and wincing, desperately thinking ‘don’tkissmedon’tkissmedon’tkissme’. I spend the train journey home feeling such a bitch – as though I’d led him on my enjoying myself. Turns out enjoying someone’s company does not chemistry make.

After I let him down, I received a message saying that he was already considering me “the one that got away.” Slightly scary. Slightly glad he doesn’t know where I live. Still, a lovely evening. (5/10)

 

Tinder Tales #3

This date could not have been more cringeworthy. I’ll spare you the finer of the details, but after much optimism-inspiring Whatsapp chat, my balloon was burst with a sharp pointy thing. Or, to be more precise, a dull instrument.

He wanted to meet in Wimbledon, because there were ‘nicer bars’ than in Epsom. I’d not been to Wimbledon since a shopping trip at about 16, so I went along with it. On the train on the way there, he asked me if I was “classy”. He also joked that if I wasn’t attractive enough, he’d pretend I was his sister when we were having a drink. Nice start.

We met outside the station. He didn’t know where we were going. Thought All Bar One would be a good place to start. Wasn’t sure where it was. He wasn’t pretending I was his sister. A compliment? With a bit of help from Siri, we got to All Bar One and at the bar, I ordered an Old Fashioned. He didn’t know what it was – ‘cause cocktails are a bit girly for him.

Hmm.

The Old Fashioned wasn’t on the menu, but classic that it is, the barman offered to make me one anyway. I said thank you. The drink I was presented with had bourbon in. That’s about the only resemblance it bore to an Old Fashioned. It also contained fruit juice, a wedge of lime, and a good head of froth after being traumatised in a cocktail shaker. Call me a stickler for the rules, but that just isn’t an Old Fashioned.

I’ll spare you a blow by blow account, but as the evening progressed, conversation proved to be painfully slow moving. But never fear; he’d obviously read some advice on dating, including that it was a good idea to ask your date questions about themselves. Phew! Cue his question:

“You don’t have very long fingernails, do you?”

It’s not often that I’m stumped for words, but that did the trick. At some point, we set off to head to our second bar – somewhere he apparently really liked. We went in, I went to look for seats while he went to the bar. There were no seats. I got back to the bar. He had decided it was too loud, so why didn’t we go back to a pub-y place we’d passed on the way? And without so much as a drink, onto bar three. In fact, bar three/the pub (and yes, the pub-y place was in fact, a pub) brought with it the highlight of the evening – a live guitarist complete with some pretty good acoustic covers. I hummed along as we attempted to make conversation, until a game of Name That Tune evolved. This was going quite well, relatively speaking, until Mr Guitarist decided to play his joker and switch to a medley. I got quite excited with the first couple of lines and explained it was a track from one of my favourite albums (Woodface by Crowded House if you’re interested.) I carried on singing along to the medley, and he said something along the lines of ‘wait, I do know this’ at which point I turned and explained that was because this part of the medley was Rhianna. Mr Guitar continued to chop and change songs and track after track, mostly well-known, passed by prompting no response beyond a frustrated and/or bemused look from my date, who didn’t understand how the guy was getting through the songs so quickly. I tried to explain the concept of a medley. I gave up. I heard a few chords from Wonderwall and thought we were on to a winner. And yes! Sure enough, he says “Wait… I know this one…”

At this point, the guitarist is singing the word ‘Wonderwall’. My date turns to me blankly; he in fact does not have it. I tell him it’s Wonderwall by Oasis. Oh yeah. He paused. Yeeaah I knew I knew it. Silence. Increasingly awkward silence, but thankfully the guitarist continued. My date then made the awkward silence more awkward, if less silent, by saying,

“I really think I’m more intelligent than I’m coming across.”

Lost for words twice in one evening. A record. I told him musical knowledge didn’t equate to intelligence, which is true even if both tend to feature relatively highly in guys in whom I’m interested. But he may have very different musical taste to Mr Guitar. But then again, doesn’t everyone know Wonderwall?

I’d have given him the benefit of the doubt, even if not a second date, until he turned to me and asked rather pointedly “so do you consider yourself quirky?” I don’t know why this got my shackles up, but it really did.

Two days later I get a message from him. There was apparently something he didn’t like about Saturday night. Morbid curiosity got the better of me and I asked what. I wondered which, of the many, many awkward moments had irked him most. His answer was that he couldn’t stop thinking about me. This took me by surprise, and was in a peculiar way even quite sweet. I told him I was surprised, that I hadn’t thought he’d had a great time and that I’d felt he thought I was a bit odd.

“I do think you’re odd. It’s endearing.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was one slightly patronising step too far for me. We haven’t stayed in touch.

Score out of ten: two, because I didn’t go home crying, it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t stick it out for good manners’ sake, and if I’m honest 1.8 of the score is for the guitarist and the fact he included It’s Only Natural in his medley.

At this point I’m going to pause with the Tinder Tales, and shall resume another time. Please be reassured that a) there aren’t too many, b) I will tell you all about the wedding cake just not right now, and c) I actually went hedgerow-harvesting today, and have bowls of ‘hips, haws, sloes and even a few blackberries scattered around my kitchen, so will be playing with those in coming days – and will do my bestest to write about those escapades.

To end my post, I want to gift to you one further dash of la vie en rose, by sharing with you one of the stories that has made me laugh the most in recent months.

Last year, a friend of mine ordered an almond hot chocolate in Starbucks as a treat for himself. He paid, likely chatting with the baristas as he’s a nice guy like that, and knowing him very sweetly thanked the person who handed him his hot chocolate. He took a sip, right there and then… and pulled a disgusted face. As the barista hurriedly queried if anything was wrong with the drink, his expression melted into dejection and disappointment – in himself, as well as his drink. “No, there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said, “I just forgot I don’t like almonds.” The barista, at least in my imagination, tried to hide her smile as she asked if he would like another drink instead. But, never wasteful, he told her he would keep this drink as a punishment to himself, so he wouldn’t forget next time. I don’t know why this anecdote tickled me so much, but it had me in fits when he first told me, and still makes me chuckle every single time I think of it.

[Exit stage right, whistling:]

Quand il me prend dans ses bras…

 
           Slightly overdone Hazelnut Granola   The Wedding Cake   Peanut Butter Overnight Oats

[i] Or lunch. Or dinner. Or dessert. Or whenever you’re peckish, and have a large spoon to hand.

[ii] … except for one misguided relationship towards the tail end of my time at university that included letters exchanged between solicitors, 4am texts to my boss at the time threatening to end the relationship if I didn’t leave work early, being kicked out of the house, buckets of tears, and briefly an unwelcome third party briefly getting involved (a very pretty English Lit student. Not my favourite person in the world) and the hideous moment where you realise HE is breaking up with YOU. Resulting note to self: even doormats have too much self-esteem to put up with that shit. Rinse (very well), but do not repeat.

Dear Leg,

Dear Leg,

You’re hurting me. I know many parts of my body hurt me, but recently you’ve been doing it better at it than the others, more so even than Right Leg, Back or Head. And if the pain wasn’t enough on its own, it and therefore you make me limp sometimes. Like this morning for example. Limping even though I am a fit and (relatively) healthy 26 year old woman. That attracts attention, and even pitying glances, from absolute strangers. I don’t like that. It upsets me. If I’m going to attract attention from passers-by I want it to be because I am happy, confident, smiling, polite, friendly. I don’t mind being sad – it’s natural – but I don’t want to be pitied. It, and therefore you, also make me feel like a fraud, because in five minutes or five hours or tomorrow, I won’t be limping. There are so many people more worthy of pity and absolutely any ensuing empathy. I know I also probably attract at best some incredulity and at worst ridicule; despite your best efforts I’m still wearing heeled boots today. But I can’t really blame my choice of inappropriate footwear on you, even if I wanted to.

I resent you. I resent you for so many reasons. I resent the pain. I resent that even though I exercise, and make extra effort to eat what you supposedly need to recover and cool down and stretch, you still choose to hurt me. I eat within the stupidly small timeframe you give me to do so; it takes me longer than that to shower and dry my hair, meaning I’m often found awkwardly with struggling to get my damp body back into my underwear with a recovery bar clamped between my teeth, or trying to dry my hair with already aching arms and my mouth full. I resent that even though I stretch, and my flexibility is good, you choose to spite me there too. Because while if I don’t do it you hurt more than you have any right to, if I overdo it even slightly, I can’t feel bits of you sometimes for weeks. It’s a very fine line you’re making me tread. I also resent that even when I can’t feel you properly because you’ve gone numb in places, about the only thing I can still feel is the undercurrent of pain flowing up the pathways of my nerves. Nerves that I’m learning to identify by tracing the route pain takes up and down my limbs.

I resent that you make me tired. Yes, this is in conjunction with the rest of Body, but in hurting me worst you are currently therefore you are the most culpable of the despicable lot of you. Even than Face, who has also developed a knack of making me feel stupid (how many people have you heard complain of ‘face ache’?) I resent that even when I let you rest up to, sometimes even more than, ten hours a night, or sit inside on a beautiful bank holiday Monday afternoon so that you can be propped up with no weight on you, you pick and choose whether to feel better depending on whether it suits you. I resent that if I don’t sleep enough, I lose the resilience I’ve learned and still work on and strived to achieve and still strive to improve. And I resent, so very much, that you sometimes you use pain to deny me the sleep I need to cope with that pain you’re so cruelly inflicting.

I resent that you made me sit down all night at my friend’s hen party a few years ago, when I should have been up dancing with her, celebrating how much she was loved by everyone present, her upcoming marriage to her lovely fiancee, their future lives together, and in short celebrating life. I won’t be modest; I know I was an excellent bag-watcher and provided a port in the storm of fun whenever someone needed a five minute breather. But you should have let me dance, even just for a little bit. I even wore flats all weekend, just for you. But you still chose to spite me.

I resent that in the last two years you’ve scuppered me repeatedly, at times so much I’ve had to be helped out of my car into the house in phases, pausing for moments to recover and regather my wits in the garage, then the tack room, then the kitchen before making it to my bed. That you caused me to have to be carried upstairs like an invalid because I couldn’t stand, helped into a bath like a patient in the hope that the heat would ease the torment. You’ve hurt me so much I’ve bitten pillows and screamed into mattresses. I got my own back a few times by digging my fingernails into you, once so hard you bled. But let’s face it; I’m losing out there too. You inflict pain on me; I feel it. I inflict pain on you; I still feel it. It’s a two headed coin when I’ve called tails.

And if I’m shallowly honest, I resent that you force me to go through all of this, and still you cling on to those bloody stretch marks, and hold on to scars like a miser. And of course the hair you grow just has to be dark and noticeable, making regular shaving a necessity. You have dry skin that seems to drink any moisturiser I give you in huge gulps. You are just that bit too long for a Topshop long-leg length and yet also that bit too short for Long Tall Sally trousers – two pairs of which I’ve taken to be shortened, just to try and get trousers that fit me. Being more accommodating would be no fun for you, would it? To be fair, I’d accept all this without a grumble if you’d knock off the whole inflicting pain bit you’ve become so accomplished at, but given that you won’t stop that bit, can you really not drop even just the orange peel patches? Have you not heard of compromise?

But, even as I write this letter to you, while I’m sure that my resentment will cause rifts and barriers between us for many years to come and that you will continue your very best efforts to make life difficult for me, you should know that I still love you. I don’t think – though I’m always not certain – that you do it on purpose. In fact, I am actually proud of you. After all, you are one of just two who carry me around all day long, often in stilettos because though I know they make life harder for you, they make me feel good and smart and the turquoise ones especially are fun.

Last year you proved to me just how much you can do, when I agreed to go on a 5k run with a friend on the proviso that she let me walk whenever we needed to. And you didn’t need to. Not after three kilometres when we got to the viaduct, or after five or even eight kilometres, as we ran through fields and down to the reservoir, over stiles and up hills to breath-taking views, through muddy fields of cows. You got stronger, and faster, and carried me on a hilly 10k race around Petworth Park. Your endurance improved and you carried me, smiling can you believe, over the finish line of the 2014 New Forest 10mile run. And just three weeks ago, you carried me 13miles around the beautiful town of Hastings, making the extra effort to take me across the route to high five small children cheering everyone on from the side lines with their little hands held up on outstretched arms. You kept going while Chest decided to stab me with every breath like it did two summers ago, making me hold my breath for as long as I could before silently screaming through a single inhalation, pain white hot in my chest. Deprived of oxygen when you needed it most, after over two hours and 12miles into the run, you still kept going. And you sped up towards the finish line. Do you realise just how incredible that is?

I choose to make you my friend. I will continue to try and make you stronger, and balance the tightrope of post-exercise non-numbness-inducing stretching, and juggle protein bars and hair driers simultaneously in the gym changing room. I will keep smiling on days you make me hobble around the office, in the hope that people notice the smile instead of or at least before the limp, and as a result I might resent you that fraction less. Being really honest, I’m going to keep wearing stilettos, but I will make sure I stretch Calf of an evening as well as that of your twin Right Leg, even if I haven’t been to the gym. That way you won’t suffer unnecessarily in the way you make me suffer (two headed coin, remember?) And if you’re really, really hurting me I’ll give in and wear the ugly-but-comfy shoes with mattress soles, just in case it softens you up a little. I will try not to mark you with my fingernails when you hurt me. I will try to rest you when I think you need it, even if you don’t hurt me less as a result. I will try to keep sleeping, to let you rest and recover and repair, and I will use everything from chamomile tea and lavender oil to medication to help me sleep through whatever levels of pain you choose to play with at night, so you can rest and recover and repair even if you don’t choose to give me the night off. You won’t play ball; it won’t be quid pro quo, and I accept that. But nonetheless I’m going to keep looking after you, stretching you, moisturising and shaving you, trying to accept the orange peel bits of you as best I can, even if you keep hurting me. I’ll try to forgive you when my trousers are that bit too short or drag on the floor slightly, and try to remember that you keep me up on Feet all day, even if you hurt me while doing so. And in return, I hope you will keep me on Feet for as long as you can, and pain or no pain; that you don’t give up. Together, we’ll keep going and keep running and keep looking good in turquoise stilettos and we will keep living. Not only that but we will enjoying it in spite of the pain.

Yours, always,

Emily

Memento from Hastings Half 2015

Thank you for the ‘compliment’

In case you’ve not read much of this blog before, or in case you do and hadn’t noticed: I like baking. I also like to cook. I know how to wash clothes and iron a shirt, though I’ll admit I’ve not written about that before. I quite like cleaning. The other night I sat in front of the television and tacked up hems that had come down on a pair of trousers and a dress; I did ‘mending’. I know how to darn (if not very well) and embroider (even worse.) I was never great or particularly enthusiastic about sports at school. I get “over-emotional” when I’m tired, often like a cuddle after sex, and sometimes cry when I’m shocked, scared or angry as well as when I’m sad.

I can use power tools. I have a toolbox. I can set up my own speakers, assemble flat pack furniture, put up a shelf, wire a plug. I’ve worked in a professional kitchen and been colourfully sworn over vats of steaming lobster consommé. I lift weights at the gym and eat protein bars afterwards. I enjoy driving. I own a Haynes manual for my car and learned last year how change its oil. I can shoot, and own a gun. I can fight, and own sparring gloves. I have taken things apart to get a better understanding of how they work, and then attempted – with occasional success – to put them back together again. I have an increasingly high pain threshold, and I often hide any pain I’m experiencing. I have felt unable to express my emotions.

I’m listing these traits because society so often defines them as feminine/girly, or masculine/manly, to the extent that it is so engrained in me that it was easy for me to do. Always’ recent videos highlight how in society, ‘being a girl’ or doing something ‘like a girl’ has been generally accepted as being weak or doing something weakly or badly. ‘Manning up’ on the other hand is exhibiting strength.

But I am/can do/have all of things listed above and my being female is in no way causally related.

I’ve spoken to female friends about feminism over past months and have been shocked that a number of them don’t consider themselves feminists. But some also seem to think that feminists somehow consider themselves to be superior to men, or even hate them. The launch of the #HeforShe campaign last year and Emma Watson’s speech at the UN Headquarters has caused the issue of feminism to a ‘trending’ status, and for the sake of furthering the clarification she provided, I’m going to copy and paste her definition here.

“For the record, feminism by definition is: “The belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.””

Being a feminist doesn’t mean hating men. To me, it means simply that I am worth no more or less than the man standing next to me because he has a Y chromosome and I don’t.

The problem is, people do expect and tolerate different behaviours from individuals based on their gender. Last Autumn I mentioned on Twitter an incident of sexual harassment I experienced. Nothing overly traumatic, but it was most definitely sexist and most definitely derogatory. And while I received sympathy in response to my tweet, in the same (virtual) breath I was told – including by other women – to take it as a compliment, because they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t think I were attractive. Now, I have been complimented in the past – genuinely complimented – and at times even by complete strangers. These unknown men and women have generally preceded their comments with words such as “I hope you don’t mind me saying…” or “I don’t mean to intrude, but…” and they have always spoken at a reasonable volume. They have never been shouted at me at top volume or across the street, have never been accompanied by jeering hoots of their companions or car horns. More importantly, they’ve never been overly personal, never included commentary on what they’d like to do to me, and have never, ever involved the words ‘tits’, ‘pussy’, ‘my cock’, ‘fuck’ , ‘suck on…’or anything similar. Comments directed at me by strangers in the street and including these words are not compliments. They are harassment.

Being told to take them as worthy commentary, positive or otherwise, on my appearance suggests that my worth is somehow not the same as that of a person who walks the same street without harassment. Either it is more, i.e. my looks earn me this (unwanted, undesirable and often intimidating) attention, or it is less; because my looks mean that I should be punished with it. Either way, I don’t understand why my face, the size of my chest or length of my legs should affect whether I can walk down a road in peace and more importantly in safety.

But it does. For the record, I have tried to stand up for myself against sexual harassment before. A man in a nightclub put his hand up my skirt, I stood my ground, and told him in a colourful manner to leave me alone. And I got punched in the face. Funnily enough, despite wanting desperately to stand up for myself and my views and tell people who ‘compliment’ me in the street where to go, this experience left me less willing to, and more likely to let things slide in order to protect myself and to avoid any similar or, perish the thought, worse repercussions. I shouldn’t have to endure verbal sexism in the street in the first place, forget tolerating it because I am too afraid to answer back.

A friend of mine is active in online forums, and told me last summer that people online had told her she’s a feminist because she’s ‘fat and ugly so no one wants to fuck her’. The comment was categorically inaccurate; she was pregnant at the time. But any truth or lack thereof to any comments like these is immaterial. Nobody should be subjected to insults like that, regardless of their appearance, weight, gender, skin colour, race, ethnicity, religion or beliefs. But even ethics aside: weight, appearance and sexual desirability have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you’re a feminist.

I grew up with two working parents, which means I had a working mother, one I looked up to, and up to whom I continue to look at twenty six years old. She was and is a great mother, and always had time for my brother and me while maintaining a full-time job and a career with a distinct upwards trajectory. She wouldn’t have achieved everything she has in the way she has without my Dad’s support. I know this right to the very centre of my being, and in that way she was blessed. But she wasn’t supported by a man. Rather, she was supported by her partner, her spouse, her lover, her friend, and the other parent to her children. My father’s gender was and is irrelevant. A slight tangent alert here but for a distinction I think is important. I hear people speaking on the radio about how childcare is an issue for women. It’s not; it is an issue for parents. Women getting turned down for jobs because they might want to have children, when a man in the same situation wouldn’t be; that is sexist and is an issue for women. Rape also is not a female issue: women rape people, and men get raped by people. It’s a people issue. But when we are told that women are encouraging or somehow deserve rape because of their choice of clothing, when a man walking around topless in denim shorts wouldn’t be told the same thing; that is sexist. Somehow ‘men’ and ‘women’ get dropped into sentences when so often what should be said is ‘people’.

“Men cheat.”
“Women make excuses.”
“Men don’t listen.”
“Women nag.”

All of these comments should be gender non-specific. A good test for a sexist comment is to replace the gender with a skin colour or race. If it sounds racist, it was probably sexist. The reality? People cheat. People make excuses. People don’t listen. People nag.

Returning to my pre-tangent thought process: my mother is still a pretty phenomenal woman, and at fifty-four (sorry Mum) she is still achieving and accomplishing. I’m not saying she is without fault – find me a person who is – but I have seen a bit of the world in the past quarter century or so, have met some incredible people, and she is still the woman I admire most, and any faults she does have most certainly aren’t a result of her gender. When I was a child, I asked her – apparently with some trepidation – whether she’d mind if I were a housewife when I grew up. Her response is one of the greatest summaries of feminism that you could give a six- or seven- or however-old-I-was child: she taught me that I could do and be anything I want, and no one should force me to do or be anything else simply because I’m female. If you take anything from this post, please let it be Mum’s message. Whether you are male or female, if you believe that no one should have to

  • do anything;
  • be anything;
  • be subjected to anything;
  • be made to feel anything;
  • be denied anything; or
  • be forced into anything

simply because of their gender, then you are a feminist too.

Thanks for the compliment

Looking Back (and in doing so, climbing out of a rut)

I can’t pretend I’ve been posting on here regularly. But I promise, promise, promise I’ve been writing. I just – and prepare yourself for an excuse here – since starting my new job I haven’t found or made time to go back and edit to a point where I’m happy to post. So I’m going to bite the bullet and post one of the things I’ve written in the past three months without proof-reading it. This means there could be grammatical errors, poorly phrased sentences or other imperfections of a first draft. It also means any references to timings are likely to be well and truly skewed given I’m posting weeks after writing and in a different year. But I want to climb out of this post-less rut, and start writing again. Shamefully aware of the hypocrisy this paragraph is submerged in given my own persnicketiness about grammar, spelling and, only to a very slightly lesser degree, quality of writing, I can only hope that you won’t judge me too harshly.

***

Today was the first I heard about the Duchess of Cambridge’s latest pregnancy. While I wish her and Prince William all the best for the coming months – and years for that matter – the pregnancy of a woman I’ve never met can only ever have a limited impact on me. Someone asked me recently whether I thought I’d had a good childhood. My childhood very definitely had an enormous impact on me, as it I imagine it does on every adult[i]. I told her what I tell you now: I had an idyllic childhood. My family has, as everyone’s has, had its share of difficulties, but I was fortunate enough that all of them occurred once I was well and truly into my teenage years. I can only hope and wish that my children, should I ever have any, have a childhood as happy as mine.

I doubt it will come a surprise to anyone when I say that there is a lot of negativity in the world. Yesterday I was nominated on Facebook to list three positive things about my day for five days running. I quite like this idea – it’s something I did myself, privately, earlier this year, both in linguistic and photographic guises, but never publically. Today is day two, and I will admit that at 8pm today I was struggling to come up with my positive things. But it’s amazing what relaxing with a glass of lovely wine (Brown Brothers’ 18-Eighty Nine Tasmanian Sauvignon Blanc 2013 if you’re wondering), watching a repeat of 8 Out of 10 Cats Uncut, and pondering what to write about for my next blog post can do. What it has in fact done, is:

  1. Made me laugh out loud multiple times, because Susan Calman is just brilliant regardless of whether she’s on Radio 4 or Dave (and the others aren’t too bad either)
  2. Made me want to bake; it happens to be referencing both Dr Who and my favourite series of The Great British Bake Off.[ii] Yes, I have a favourite series[iii]: series 3 from 2012, won by John Whaite if you’re curious.
    I remember curling up on the lovely leather sofa in our old house with my mum during the final, genuinely and honestly holding hands, both as tense as violin strings, praying to a God we don’t believe in that Brendan wouldn’t win (sorry Brendan, but it’s true.)

This memory then made me remember the conversation on Saturday about my idyllic childhood, and to counter just a little of the negativity in the world, I thought I’d share some of that conversation here. There isn’t much in the way of structure about to follow, nor any particular purpose; just flashes of memory from the time between 1989 and this one.
(Note: for those who don’t know, I have a younger brother three and a half years younger than me.)

So here goes: what do I remember?

I remember family holidays, some in detail and some only in flashes: building train tracks in France where there were horrible spiders in the loo and my brother left either Annie or Clarabel behind; wearing my denim sunhat with a sunflower on, looking at duck eggs in a nest by the pond in the garden of our rented house; jumping up to catch the freebies tossed out by the vans following the Tour de France when we went to watch Chris Boardman whizz past in a blur of yellow; eating couscous and steamed veg with cheese on camping holidays, discovering natural hot springs with my brother whilst exploring in Spain, Dad crawling under the camper with a hammer to hit the starter motor and get it going, and playing whist and cribbage in the awning.

I remember graduating from Junior Scrabble (complete with illustrations of a dripping tap and a tyre that sit peculiarly vividly in my memory) to grown-up Scrabble, where Dad took so long we actually started to use the timer that came with our Scrabble set, and we were encouraged to look up words in the dictionary to improve our vocabularies. I also remember playing Cluedo, both junior and full-blown, the Harry Potter game (awful) and Scilly Gold (bizarrely complicated), Careers (like Monopoly but with university and work instead of properties, where Mayfair becomes an Engineering Degree that allowed you to go Uranium Prospecting) and Masterpiece.

I remember going to into work with Dad, getting dressed up in my tartan skirt and red Scottie-dog-adorned jumper for my trip to the BBC. I remember playing computer games from a floppy disc called ‘Lunchbox’ that Mum brought home from work. The many, many boxes of conkers that we collected with Dad from Twickenham Green after school, and the poor man finally having to tell us they were being thrown away – there was almost more mould than conker. I remember the cutting and sticking box my parents kept for us to ‘make things’ (which I know included countless homes for my Teddy), as well as cutting up my Dad’s sweatshirt with my brother to make him cuddly toy Pokémon (what’s the plural of ‘Pokémon’? I’m hoping it’s ‘Pokémon’ just as the plurals of ‘sheep’ and ‘fish’ are ‘sheep’ and ‘fish’) – namely Charmander and Primape.

I remember the huge paper sleigh we made at school one Christmas being pinned to the wall in our first proper family house, the little wooden boat I made with Dad when I was about five or six, and the costumes Mum made me for school productions of everything from Twelfth Night (I was the fairy Peaseblossom) to silver-clad Millie Enium in year six.

The countless birthday cakes my mother baked for us. The few that stick out in my mind are the yellow chick I wanted (no idea how old), a white chocolate cricket ball and following year cricket bat for my brother, the blue teddy bear that she worried so much about outlining in black, the Thomas the Tank Engine made for my brother’s (first?) birthday, the turquoise and purple flower for a 70s themed 14thty, the chocolate cake for my 18th complete with ladybirds, frogs and edible glitter, and the starburst cake, with sparkles and sparklers for my 21st.

The first bunch of flowers I was ever given, from my dad on my 13th birthday. He had to work an early shift on the day – a school day – and left them by my breakfast plate.

The fact that the table was set for breakfast by the time I came down in the morning, just about every day of my years at secondary school. Given that both of my parents have worked all my life until I left home, this is all the more impressive. Added to this, Dad used to slice every bagel before freezing them, making countless breakfasts that much easier. The value of this will only be truly understood by those who have attempted to cut a frozen bagel in half (not recommended if you value your fingers), or worse, attempted to defrost a bagel in the microwave (resulting in a bagel-shaped brick)

I remember birthday parties, from being tiny at Heathrow Gym (from where my overriding memory is Susannah screaming when she caught her toenail in the trampoline), to being a teenager and having a roller blading party where the ‘cool kids’ at school were actually scared of Mum when she confiscated their potato guns (these kids weren’t even scared of our teacher!) I remember helping Dad umpire for my brother’s birthday, when my parents put on cricket or football tournaments for him and his friends. I remember one of his friends crying when he lost at pass the parcel. I remember Mum unfolding what seemed like hundreds of birthday lunchboxes (the cardboard kind, designed to look like treasure chests or similar) to cater for birthday guests, and insisting on making all the sandwiches with half white, half brown bread because kids and adults simply couldn’t agree.

The Halloween parties, complete with costumes, apple bobbing, and decorations including, a cardboard skeleton I made with one of my au pairs. My parents arranged games, including the flour game (a sweet in the bottom of a bowl then filled with flour, packed down and left for a couple of days. Once it’s turned out, the kids have to slowly carve the mound of flour into a tall thin sweet-topped tower using a normal dinner knife. The person who knocks over the flour has to fish the sweet out with their teeth, thus getting a face-full of flour. Hilarious.) and the chocolate game (a large bar of chocolate is in the middle of the circle of kids, next to a knife and fork, a pair of gloves, a hat, scarf and any other random clothes you want to use. One child is armed with two dice, and they take turns round the circle rolling the dice. When you roll a double six, the others keep on rolling while you have to put on the clothes and use the knife and fork to eat as much chocolate as you can until the next person rolls a double six.) Mum once served baked beans – spiked with sterilised plastic spiders and eye balls – out of an old, cast-iron cooking pot that I to this day consider to be a cauldron. These were spooned over baked potatoes by Mum, dressed as a witch, while Dad saw to drinks as our butler dressed in black tie.

Christmasses, unwrapping presents from my stocking, knitted by my Grandmother including my name in the design. When I was small, Mum used to make stunning Christmas cakes with homemade, hand-painted ivy and poinsettia made entirely of sugar. I remember helping peel sprouts on Christmas Eve and mixing garlic and herb butter (though to be fair we do that every year). Dad sometimes had to work early shifts on Christmas, and I remember waiting eagerly for him to get home from work to say happy Christmas, show him what I’d got in my stocking and, of course, to eat. I remember playing board games with Mum’s family, Monopoly becoming infinitely more challenging when my (allegedly) forgetful grandmother muddled the bank’s money with her own. I remember making vinegar and baking powder rockets on Christmas Day on the playing fields with mum, dad, my brother, with my Dad’s sister, her husband and my little cousin.

I remember vaguely making a snowman at my grandparents’, though I was so young I admit I don’t remember much of it. More vividly, I remember the Turkish delight Grandma always had in a silver dish in the sitting room of their bungalow where we sat and watched Mary Poppins, and boiled sweets in the glove compartment of the car. I remember Grandad tying the sofa cushions firmly around my brother and me so that we could attack each other with plastic golf clubs, and Grandma coming into our room late at night to rewind the blue and white plate with a musical windmill that we listened to until we fell asleep in our bunk beds. I remember waking to the hoot of wood pigeons, and flying kites at Ferry Meadows near Peterborough, where many years later my grandfather’s ashes were scattered. It was also at Ferry Meadows that Grandma and I collected feathers around the lake to later turn into a picture of a swan. I remember sitting in bed with my brother, curled up under the duvet while my other Grandmother read Four Seasons at Brambley Hedge to us, or recited poems about sponges (who very much disliked being pronged with cruel prongs) and earwigs (who crawl inside your ears, and stay in there for years and years.) I remember insisting holding the lead for her lovely golden Labrador Zach, no matter how many times I fell over doing so. I remember her teaching me how to hold a golf club, and the wood and putter I got given for my birthday, complete with cut down handles and pretty green grip tape. Grandma made – and still makes – incredibly meringues, and I ate so very many after knitting with her to make an apron for my Teddy to go over the dress mum’s mum had knitted. I remember her partner, whom we called Jimbo, lovingly teasing me about my preference for plain, unbuttered bread (fresh – she makes it herself) and tap water – I was always a difficult guest to cater for.

I don’t remember my parents’ being away particularly, but I do remember Dad bringing back the radio cart from Atlanta that my friends and I used every year for annual Summer picnics. I remember going to meet my mum at the airport, and rummaging through her suitcase for presents, from carved wooden warthogs from Kenya to Mexican marble wind chimes shaped like cacti. Pretty much every country Mum went to, she brought me back a lapel pin for that country’s flag. This has become somewhat of a tradition for me, and I now buy flag lapel pins for every country I visit.

I could go on, but this is already the better part of four A4 pages long and my childhood was rather longer than that. I have also already used the words ‘I remember’ far more than should be acceptable, but I don’t care. I love these memories, as well as many I haven’t described. I could not be more grateful for the childhood my parents gave me, and to get briefly soppy, I love them both so much for it.

My lovely family on my little brother's graduation day

My wonderful family on my little brother’s graduation day

[i] Possibly the first time I’ve described myself as an ‘adult’. Quite proud.

[iii] So far.

Strong Enough.

Walking around London yesterday, the city seemed almost exotic. It shouldn’t;
I grew up here. Admittedly in the suburban outskirts, but I’m no stranger to the city. Yesterday however, with my stilettos safely stowed in my borrowed handbag, I wandered the streets after an interview in Holborn. I met a friend for a celebratory debrief of the alcoholic variety, and then had the afternoon to myself. Claire Balding would have been proud of me as I rambled from Bank to Covent Garden and eventually, hours later, to Victoria, seeing the city entirely through the rose tinted glasses of a child or a lens of a tourist’s camera. I wandered past the Gin Palace (“Gin doesn’t ask silly questions… Gin understands.”) and through the gardens of St Paul’s Cathedral. I saw mounted police (turns our horses exist in central London – who’d have thunk it?) and ate cake in the base of Gherkin. Despite only last week complaining about the crowded, dirty streets in the capital, yesterday I was captivated. The juxtaposition of shiny new Shards and Walkie Talkies of glass with history illustrated in aged stone; suits with creases ironed in by dry cleaners strutting past me, and the dirty back alleys and filthy, graffiti-emblazoned abandoned shop fronts; and people upon people upon people.
Not literally – though I did walk past Coco de Mer on my travels – but as you walk along, everyone you pass is different, a person in their own right, and they have a story of their own, are fighting battles of their own. And some still have the energy to grin back at me when I dare to break the unwritten rule of Commuters, and smile.

I have lost count of the number of times I’ve said in the past few months and years,

“I’m not strong enough.”

Strong enough for what I’m not even sure. Opening up to friends and colleagues about my Depression[i] recently has shown me very clearly that I’m not alone. And I’ve been amazed and honoured just how many people have confided in me about the experiences and battles that they and their loved ones have fought, and are often still fighting, with Depression. I capitalise it because as much as I dislike, hate, loathe it, I have come to respect it. Someone very dear to me once said to me that he knew that there were powers far greater than he out there, simply because things can influence and control him against his will. For me, Depression is one of those things. It saps my identity from inside me and replaces it with a bitter fog. It managed this for weeks on end earlier this year, binding me to my room and my bed with closed curtains, darkness and too many tears. In the past, I have cried literal puddles on bathroom floors, and been unable to leave the house or even my bedroom. While I have thankfully never actually been suicidal, I remember many years ago wishing I had never been born. I have felt overwhelmed by the entire world, getting up in the morning seeming as daunting as climbing Everest. Through all of this, I have come to respect Depression.
Giving it a little room to breathe helps, not least to prevent it getting out of control. Respecting its power over me makes me appreciate and be grateful for every win I manage to achieve, no matter how small. The ability to smile at strangers in the street, amid the cacophony of smells, sounds and stresses London has to offer, is one of those little triumphs. And the person who returns my smile may have just won a battle of their own, as significant or more so even than mine.

While burdened by my Depression, both pre- and post-diagnosis, I have travelled to the other side of the world, trekked through Costa Rican rainforests, dirt-biked around volcanoes and snorkelled with sharks. I have bungee-jumped and learned to safely use a machete. I have achieved a first class degree in a complex subject. I have crossed the spectrum of employment from the Oxfordshire gun trade to dealing with the country’s largest grocery accounts, giving insight on a product that two years ago I knew next to nothing about. Now I have a merit in my advanced Wines & Spirits qualification.

Yet all the while I have continued to say,

“I’m not strong enough.”

I have learned to shoot both clays and game, and bought my first gun. I’ve baked countless cakes, some rosette-winning, and learned the best secret ever about improving any and all pasta dishes ten-fold. I have learned a little bit of Krav Maga and intend to learn more. I argued last year for a promotion and pay rise, and was given more than I asked for and got to choose my own job title. I have written – this blog for starters – and I have read. I have co-founded a literary society to share my love of books with others and widen my literary horizons – and maybe theirs too.

“I’m not strong enough.”

I have toured Burgundy, visiting countless wineries, from one functioning almost entirely by gravity to one built underground, in caves beneath the vineyards. I tasted hundreds of wines, and learned even more than I ate (if you’ve ever been to Burgundy you’ll know what a feat that is. If you haven’t, you like wine and cheese and are not a vegetarian or on a diet then I highly recommend it.) I have run, for more than five minutes at a time. In fact, I have run 5k. I also have run 10k (and a hilly one at that.) And I have run 10miles, with the horse brass on my bedroom wall to prove it.

“I’m not strong enough.”

I have started doing more resistance at the gym, have actually managed a press up (on my fists to boot) and can now pull up over three times what I could when I started. I have lost over a stone over all, including putting on 2kg of muscle. I am quite literally physically stronger than I was this time last year, achieved as much through will-power as physical exertion.

And still; “I’m not strong enough.”

It is only since facing looming redundancy that I have realised my mistake. It’s amazing what writing CVs, cover letters and completing endless job applications reminds you of. Suddenly you are forced it list not your failures, but your successes. I am not weak. I am strong. And the fact that I have achieved everything listed above while facing dramas, demons and traumas with my family; while coming to terms with own genetic medical diagnosis and the accompanying pain and haunting spectre of a degenerative but otherwise unknown future; and while all the time shackled to Depression; well, that just makes me all the stronger.

Sometimes he takes charge and pulls me back down into the gloom. But not for long. However heavy my bitter fog, the sun will rise tomorrow whether I like it or not. A day will always be twenty-four hours and the minutes will always tick past sixty seconds at a time. The fog will pass. I will continue to fight, and I will continue to achieve, to win, to conquer, to succeed. I Am Strong Enough. I will count my wins and learn from my failures, and I will give myself and my Depression the recognition we deserve, being lenient and forgiving and all the while determined. In doing this, I will hold my Depression by the hand and we’ll walk side by side, rather than dragging him by the chain around my ankle, or him dragging me. It makes for a much easier journey.

So if I, or anyone for that matter, smiles at you on the streets of London, or any city, town, hamlet, anywhere, please try to achieve a small triumph of your own and smile back. You never know what smile has cost them.

 

strangersmile

 

[i] In my head, my Depression has an identity: a Glum. A Glum is a creature made up by a friend who wrote a good old fashioned letter to me years and years ago. In fact, he wrote a few letters, and they were generally illustrated. Really rather lovely. While the letter is, I think, in a dusty box, in a cardboard box, in my parents’ attic, I still remember his illustration, and will never forget that “a Glum is small and round and fat and carries a small glumming bat.” This is now how I personify my Depression, as a Glum, and when I’m having a bad time it’s because he’s threatening or worse, beating me with his glumming bat. But on good days, he just sits there on a rock quietly, not getting up to any mischief.

I’m not mad, I promise.

The Good Old Fashioned

Last Sunday I had what was I’m fairly sure not my first Old Fashioned, but definitely the first Old Fashioned I’ve enjoyed sober, and thus fully appreciated and remembered in its entirety. While I am officially qualified in Wines and Spirits – to what I’ve been told is an “advanced level” no less (I’m sceptical on that point but that’s besides the point) – to get to that point you have to taste a very many wines and absolutely no spirits. I was told yesterday that the main ingredient of an Old Fashioned is Bourbon, which instantly had me racking my brains for what I know about Bourbon.

  • It’s generally from America.
  • Not being from Scotland, it’s ‘whiskey’ not ‘whisky.’
  • It has to be aged for at least two years and the barrels it matures in must be new, must be charred, and cannot be reused.
  • The grain mixture used has to be at least 51% maize.
  • It gives its name to a rather nice, simply chocolate biscuit that I loved as a child and can still eat an entire packet of in one sitting.[i]

None of this really gives one an idea of what the stuff actually tastes like. I’ve tried a sip of bourbon on the rocks before, and pulled a rather impressively ugly face in doing so. I’ve also tried Jack Daniels (a Tennessee whiskey, which is basically bourbon that has been subjected to the Lincoln County Process. I won’t bore you with that – unless you wish to be bored, in which case scroll down and read this footnote[ii]) and pulled a really rather similar, equally unattractive face. The honey edition is, I’m ashamed to say, much more to my liking; ashamed only because I’m fairly sure the adding of copious amounts of sugar was done with the express purpose of targeting those people like me, unable to stomach The Hard Stuff. This doctoring of the original product offends me a bit; if I’m drinking, I’d rather be drinking the liquor proper and not be honey-trapped into it.

Enter: The Old Fashioned.

As a whiskey-based cocktail, it’s pretty perfect. It does absolutely everything I need it to: a bitters-spiked sugar cube sweetens the bourbon while extensive muddling with ice dilutes the fierce, funny face-inducing kick. It comes in a short, stocky tumbler glass, granting me confidence that my drink is not overly flouncy and the name also negates any possible feelings of flounce (it’s a proper Old Fashioned cocktail dontchya know.) The orange round the rim is just the icing on the cake, if only ‘cause it smells delicious. Dilution from the melting ice enables me to actually taste – and enjoy – the smoky fragrance of the bourbon usually upstaged on my tongue by the aforementioned offensive kick. In fact, the Old Fashioned achieves everything that JD Honey sets out to, but it leaves me unashamed, un-offended, and contentedly smiling over the rim of my glass; I am officially an Old Fashioned fan.

I’m generally a fan of many things old fashioned. I’m fairly sure I’m breaking no moulds in that, and am in fact bang on a current consumer trend. The abundance of ‘make love not war’, ‘keep calm and carry on’ and other wartime propaganda paraphernalia and similar, the rise of apps that make X megapixel digital photographs look like they were taken on an aged Polaroid, not to mention the slightly sickening kitschness of the Great British Bake Off (I love it) with its faux-retro pastel coloured Kitchen Aid mixers (I want one[iii]) is testament to that. So is the consumer trends report that my company paid many pounds sterling for and which I’ve spent many hours in the office pouring over. The trend is called retro, or nostalgia, and apparently we as consumers take comfort from it, from the past. Only it’s an entirely imagined and in that imagining an entirely idealised past, one that skips over the countless negative aspects of history, focusing only on the very few positives and romanticising them.

To me however, that description has an underlying cynicism and even mocking tone, as those we consumers are foolish in our beliefs. I disagree, wholeheartedly and entirely. Consider products currently available with a wartime feel. We should never forget the sacrifices made for our freedom and the suffering people underwent, but to make it something recreated in our gift cards and crockery would cheapen it, being sickeningly disrespectful. I’m not suggesting that that’s something that would ever be done. However, as the old saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining, and the sense of positivity, of strength in numbers, of pulling together, supporting your friends and neighbours, of pride in our peers and in our country, of gritting your teeth and getting by, of knowing that bad times can’t last forever, taking what you can from life, and of appreciating that there some things are worth sacrificing a lot – even everything – for; those surely are things of wonder and beauty, miraculously arising a thing as horrific as war. They are the poppies on No Man’s Land.

If metal signs stating ‘Make Do And Mend’ or ‘We Need YOU!’ help recreate even a hint of those positive, silver-lining feelings, then why not enjoy them? When I want to bake, I could do it with shiny silver NASA-worthy kitchen gadgetry, or I could do it with a *cough*pistachio green*cough*, probably slightly over-priced but no less beautiful or functional for it, retro-style mixer that makes me smile every time I see it. Or it does in my head at least; until I have saved up enough to be able to afford either of those I have to be truly on trend and stick to Ol’ Faithful, my wooden spoon.

Earlier this year I attended Henley Regatta, being fortunate enough to be invited as my mother’s Plus One as a guest in the Stewards’ Enclosure. I was much panicked, and later, having bought a new dress en route and being able to exhale again, also mildly amused, by the strict rule that ladies’ skirts must be below the knee. There is even a member of staff on the gate checking ladies’ skirt length upon entry, and people are genuinely refused entry if their attire is not deemed appropriate. This is apparently to ensure the continued feeling of an Edwardian picnic. Legend has it, as much as stories from within the last half century can count as legend, that in the 1970s a girl turned up in a long skirt, absolutely and entirely topless, in an attempt to highlight what she thought was the ridiculous nature of the rule. Breasts out on display for all to see, but knees most modestly covered, she was admitted without anyone batting an eyelid. Denied her no doubt much anticipated dramatic scene, she hurriedly pulled a top out of her bag and covered up for the duration of her day at the Regatta.

Bizarre, trivial and old fashioned as the rule may seem, I rather liked it. It was lovely wandering around with my mother, sipping Pimms and lemonade, or flutes of champagne, watching rowing, eating lunch, chatting with our host, one of my mother’s university friends and a Cambridge professor of Philosophy. It was made special not least in virtue of being able to spend the entire day almost exclusively me and Mum. But that in itself was made memorable and exciting by the novelty of being dressed up, and taking a seat on the Umpire’s Launch to watch our very first race, I had little doubt that it would not have felt the same in jeans and a hoodie. All dressed up – a really rather pretty dress if I do say so myself – with one hand on my hat keeping it in place as we drifted through sunshine to the start line, I was unconsciously glad my knees were modestly covered, if only for elegance and decorum’s sake. It must be said that the headpiece was swiftly relegated to being clutched in my hands once the race began, as it would have stood absolutely no chance of reaching the finish line with the rest of the boat. Generous as I like to think I am, I wasn’t willing to gift the ducks of the Thames with my cream fascinator.

Of course there are many old fashioned things that as far as I am concerned should be buried in the past, doomed to exist only in history books as a reminder to mankind not to make the same mistakes twice: homophobia, racism, gender-biased suffrage and sexism to name but a few. The Church’s dated opinions on contraception came up in conversation over tea with a friend yesterday, and to me this is a reminder that habit and tradition should never been stuck to for their own sake. They lose their relevance and thus any benefits they may once have been thought to have. It is so easy to get stuck in ruts because it requires more effort to climb out of them than to continue trudging the old path, regardless of whom we may hurt in doing so. But, where the nostalgic and traditional bring comfort and cosiness, elegance and ambiance, without any hurt or suffering in tow, I raise my short, stocky glass, ice clinking and sugar-muddled bourbon glowing, and say “jolly good show.”

 

oldfashioned-oldfashioned

 

[i] I don’t know why this is, so if anyone can enlighten me as to why a spirit shares its name with a chocolate biscuit, please do.

[ii] The Lincoln County Process (not country process, as my fingers keep trying to type) involved filtering bourbon through charcoal made with maple wood. If you’re really interested, then you can either do your own research or skip the first step and just click here.

[iii] It’s pistachio green I’d like, if you’re feeling generous.