Baby Steps

We all know it’s been… a year. I don’t care who you are, unless you’re a multibillionaire, 2020 has not been kind to you.

It’s felt like it’s piled up here, in my house: I started the year ill (labyrinthitis), got ill again with probable COVID in March, balanced the longer effects of said illness (nine months and counting!) with homeschooling, working as a keyworker and generally trying to keep life going generally in a straight line. All was relatively fine- as fine as it can be during a global pandemic, anyway- until my husband had an accident in June that led to a period of testing and quarantining so he could have operations. Add a child who has an uncanny habit of catching cold and we’ve now done five bouts of isolation, which is about as fun as you imagine it to be.

Throughout all this, it has been very easy to give into the wave of despair. There’s nothing we can do, is there? We have no control over vaccines, or shutting airports, or Brexit, or whether people go on long drives to test their eyesight with their small child in the car. It has all felt so hopeless. And now we’re to be shut down again for how long, because the warning signs of the spring, of Italy, of a pandemic a hundred years before haven’t been heeded. Because, because, because.

I remember very clearly a sunny day in April, where I sat on the bottom step in my house and cried. Not just gentle, Hollywood-feminine crying of a single tear, but full-on ugly snotty crying, with proper sobbing that I suspect the neighbours might have heard had they had their backdoor open. I had had a bad day with homeschooling. I was tired. My sense of smell and taste hadn’t come back yet. I had had enough. I remember thinking I had no idea what to do or how I would change anything. I could feel the anxiety of years building up and threatening to wash over me in a huge, virus-based tsunami.

But then I thought: baby steps.

I couldn’t change the big things, but I could do something small. I could wash my face- that would be a small step towards something like normality. On the mornings I couldn’t rouse myself out of bed, the cat would demand I did so anyway because she needed to be fed and cats don’t care if you’re ill. Time became a soup, rather than a linear thing, so the baby steps became a routine of marking out hours, minutes, even seconds if I needed to get through them to the next thing. It became a game: if I got through this hour, I could do X. If I got through the whole day, I could do Y – which was normally to go to my allotment, which became a very good way to keep track of time because of seasons and squirrels stealing my vegetables requiring my attention.

Slowly, I found I was able to cope. Of course, I couldn’t change the big things but I could manage some kind of control. If I’m honest, all I wanted to do was whatever the human equivalent is of that thing cats do where they lie down with their paws tucked underneath them. I still haven’t managed that. But I managed to bring a sense of calm, most days, to a brain that seems sometimes utterly incapable of doing it by itself.

2020 has also taught me that I’m not quite the fatalist I thought I was. Instead, I was able to find small slices of optimism: sometimes, it was as simple as a nice day meant I could go on a long walk wherever my feet took me. Suburban Brighton isn’t quite Paris, but it’s good enough on a sunny day. Plus everyone planted tulips, so of course I have planted lots for next year. There’s also comfort in the fact that these days will pass, although we don’t know when. I suspect they will be fascinating for future historians and that many books will be written about this period. Politics and history exist in cycles, because humans are driven by them. One day, these politicians, this prime minister, will be a memory and a lesson in how not to do things. Hopefully a change will come soon.

People give me optimism. As a whole, I believe we’re more good than we sometimes think. Yes, there are unpleasant people, but you can’t focus on them. As Mr Rogers said: we should always look for the helpers.

Baby steps.

The importance of being ordinary

I’ve been ruminating lately on what it means to be ‘ordinary’. We live in a society where we’re told, from being very young, that we should strive to be extraordinary: be famous, be beautiful, be clever, be rich. Alexander the Great had conquered half the world by the time he was, what. seven? Why haven’t you written a dozen best-selling novels by the age of 36? Hell, why haven’t you written ONE? Everyone wants to be descended from Cleopatra, but then gets disappointed when they find out that their Who Do You Think You Are moment is back to back Welsh miners and Irish labourers (hiya, ancestors!)

Alexander the Great: extraordinary, with lovely hair as well apparently.

At the same time, we’re told that ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things- especially in a pandemic. Protests, Major Tom, staying at home to combat the virus. But it doesn’t really compare, really, when you’re looking at those 30 under 30 lists and feeling like you’re hurtling towards insignificance. We’re all meant to achieve something before we’re forty, or else (as society puts it) we’re for the scrapheap. Societal gaslighting at its finest.

But what if we rejected this narrative? Embraced just being ordinary, whatever that means for each of us. I grew up in a very working-class, northern family in the 90s, where standing out was frowned upon, where being bullied was thought as probably being partly my fault because I went out of my way to stand out (I didn’t. I was just an eccentric child, a trait that I am noticing is developing in my own child, but which I embrace, rather than squash.) I didn’t pursue my interest in acting because it wasn’t a ‘real job’. I suspect my journalism degree was only tolerated because it might lead to a job and also I needed an A-level in English, which was seen as a proper subject. Ironically, being taught that I shouldn’t stand out meant I didn’t have the guts to try and get an actual job in journalism and that my confidence means I’m always a bit squeamish when chasing writing jobs and rarely think I’m good enough to do so. Tough crowd, your inner critic.

Being extraordinary looks quite tiring and, as I experienced burnout as a teacher, I’m not sure I’m really built for it. Sure, it’d be nice to have some of the things that come with being special. Maybe sometimes I’m a bit jealous. But not so much that I can’t feel pride for my friends when they achieve things I wish I could do. I know a lot of writers who have actually published books.

But. There have been times when I have been grateful for my ‘ordinary’ life. I am immensely privileged to have a nice life, much easier than that I grew up in. I have everything I need and I do not live in fear. I have a job. I am well and my kid and husband are healthy. Everything is in a fine balance and right now the plates are balanced without too much spinning from me. As a lifelong anxiety sufferer, I am always ready for the next catastrophe and 2020 has felt like the Olympics for me. I can’t rest on my laurels for too long.

And 2020 has felt like the year of the ordinary person. It has been them who have stood up when those we are told are extraordinary have screwed up- delivering meals, protesting injustice, helping those who need it. We can’t always depend on the extraordinary to do the right thing, we have learnt this year. We have to stick together, in our ordinariness. If we do that, we can support the quietly extraordinary people who work behind the scenes- not the dodgy politicians spouting about how we don’t believe in experts, but the actual experts- to do what they need to do to help everyone. Nobody is an island. It’s just some islands are less showy than others.

Going back to the ancestors thing- we shouldn’t be disappointed when we learn we’re not descendants of Cleopatra or Edward I or whoever. Think about all those generations who went before you, all the quite probable ordinary lives (unless you’re hugely aristocratic, or something) that led to you being here. All the disease, the war, the mistreatment, the malnutrition that was survived in order to produce you. You are here because of those so-called ‘ordinary’ people who BBC producers would probably think were too boring to produce an hour long show about.

Embrace your ordinariness. There’s a hell of a lot to be said about it.

Writer’s HQ: Brighton Writing Retreat

joancrawford writing

Please note, the author of this post is not as glamorous as Joan Crawford.

I have been trying to write a novel for two years. I have the idea, but I am not very disciplined. Luckily, my friend Jo is better at this stuff than I am and has had loads of success with her writing- and is one half of Writer’s HQ. She suggested that I try one of the monthly writer’s retreats held around the country.

Through writing sprints and goal-setting (and gold stars), the retreats aim to help you unlock your potential and get something down on paper/screen. I bumbled up with the aim of a thousand words and a short story submission for Mslexia magazine. Within an hour, I’d smashed both of those things and started working on something that could later be a novel. By the end of the day- which is also filled with a great lunch and generous servings of tea and cake- I’d written 6,500 words, earned three gold stars AND had loads of goes on the giant indoor swing.

The atmosphere was supportive and no-one read their work out, which was a relief. We all had different goals: writing short stories, plays, screenplays, pitches; editing. I’m pretty sure all of us left with a sense of accomplishment. And everyone was so nice! In the breaks, we chatted about books, babies and all sorts of other things. If I didn’t have pesky commitments (a child and a husband with a Brighton season ticket), I’d seriously be there every month.

Since going, I’ve found a way of working in twenty minute sessions that’s way more productive than trying to work for a solid hour (I can write 1000 words in two twenty minute sprints, whereas a full forty minute session would probably be mostly me pratting about on Twitter.) And although I have yet to get into a solid, regular writing habit, they have a free online course starting in a couple of weeks which I’m signed up for. I’ve previously completed their Seven Ideas in Seven Days course (review here), so I am DETERMINED to finish this bloody novel, mainly because I’d like my brain back for a bit without the characters taking over.

It’s also worth mentioning that you can try all of the courses free for seven days and then sign up for full membership if you want. I can also highly recommend the Writer’s HQ Facebook groups for support, even if I did accidentally make someone cry with a piece I put on there.

So go forth and write. Join a retreat and have fun. I’ll buy your novel at the end of it.

 

Dance like nobody’s watching

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I am not a natural dancer. My hearing isn’t brilliant, so I can often miss the beat. I have the hand-eye co-ordination of a sloth who has had too much caffeine. I certainly don’t look like a dancer. But that doesn’t mean I don’t try. I mean, I watch Strictly! I know the names of certain dances!

I have certainly tried very hard in the past to be a dancer, although I came to it quite late. Much to my mother’s despair, I was never interested in ballet and she never forced it on me (I was much more your dinosaurs-and-motorbikes kind of girl as a preschooler.) But later on, a relatively well-known dance company came to my school and, desperate not to be the pudgy, badly bullied girl with a bad haircut I was, I signed up. I was good at Drama and thought I could put aside my self-esteem issues and become A DANCER! I tried so hard. I went on the outing to the dance studio. I went to see the dance company perform. I can’t actually remember if I performed. Maybe I’ve blocked it out. Oh, I was so bad. I was awkward, from being a teenager. I was awkward because I was picked on by the girls who took to dance more naturally. But by Jove, I can still remember that ridiculous dance and I could still probably perform it, although having gone through puberty proper and childbirth since, it’d be quite a tricky ask. And a  few years ago I used my Christmas money to sign up for jive lessons. I loved it. For about three weeks until I discovered I was pregnant and then my life became one of nausea and exhaustion. I still can’t hear ‘Rock Around The Clock’ without my feet beginning to shuffle though.

I never dance in public- I haven’t been to a club since the Romans were being chased around Anglia by Boudicca- although I’ll have a quick mum-shuffle round the dancefloor at a wedding if I’ve had enough gin and the buffet has had enough vegetarian food to keep me going. I love dancing. But dancing with others is not my passion. No. My passion is dancing around my kitchen, by myself, flailing to something probably from the 80s. Imagine me, dear Reader, only this evening throwing myself about to Bowie’s Modern Love and Wham!’s I’m Your Man, dressed in leggings and a man’s jumper thrown over a dress that resembles a scandalously short monk’s cassock. I looked ridiculous- but I was happy.

Goodness knows, the world is an unhappy place at the moment. My mind is an unhappy place a lot of the time and my body- well, that’s a battleground all of its own. But when I am enthusiastically throwing myself around the ground floor of my house, music turned up, safe in the knowledge that no-one can see me (save my son, who may or may not enthusiastically join in by spinning on the spot so much that I have to boogie away from him in order to not feel sick myself.) It feels good. I’m not judging myself, no one else is judging me; I’m not really thinking. If I did, I’d probably be horrified by the ‘shapes’ I’m ‘throwing’. But it’s my kitchen, my music. I love it. Afterwards, I know I’ll feel tired and a bit daft, but I’ll also feel euphoric, even if only for a bit. I won’t change politics, I won’t change the things that stress me out, but I will have a break from them. Ultimately, it’s an escape from my own brain and that is always welcome.

I’m not one for a ‘new year, new you’, because quite frankly it’s nonsense. But a quick dad dance round the kitchen to old-school Kylie? Sign me up.

Ten years in Brighton

Ten years ago today, I packed a few bags and a couple of small boxes of belongings into my aunt’s teeny tiny hire car and drove from Lancashire (I’d been at my cousin’s wedding the night before) to Brighton, unsure of what would happen to me once there. I’d had a really rough couple of months- the details are not interesting- and had managed to get a compassionate transfer to the Brighton office of the arm of the Civil Service I’d been working for in the six months since I’d left uni. I started applying to study for my PGCE at the Brighton universities. I was certain this was what I wanted.

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Brighton had seemed, to a lot of people, an odd choice. Surely I should have gone to my other favoured city, Manchester? It was near to my home city of Leeds and it was just, well, northern. But I’d been to uni in the North West and, although I’d enjoyed my visits to Manchester and generally loved everything about it, I didn’t know anyone there. I also didn’t know it as well as Brighton, where my aunt had lived for a few years and where I’d been on holiday a few times. I also knew I wanted to live near the sea.

I came down here with a vague idea that I’d stay for six months. I’m still here. I have friends, family (my aunt is still here!) and a whole support network that I’ve made from scratch. I met Benn on my first day in the office and in two weeks we’ll be celebrating being together for ten years. I no longer recognise Leeds when I walk around and feel like a fish out of water whenever I visit; I used to be able to navigate its streets at 3am on a Saturday night with no problem, no matter how much I’d had to drink. I could only do that now in my adopted city.

I’ve lived a third of my life by the sea (although, ironically, I rarely get to go and actually look at it!) and my life has changed completely and utterly. I’m still sometimes as sad as I was when I arrived, but I know that I have so much to help me get through it. If you’d have told me, when I moved here, that I’d be married with a kid, a job I’ve been in nearly nine years and a group of excellent friends, I wouldn’t have believed you.

And although the city sometimes drives me mad and I threaten that I’m going to move back up north, I still love it.

Here’s to the next ten years, Brighton.

 

All quiet…

So this week has been a fairly quiet one, what with generally feeling rubbish and going back to work. It’s just been a bit of a ‘meh’ one, really. But that’s fine, because at least it’s the weekend!

I’ve been busy working on Ladies in Monochrome and today’s picture, I think, is a bit of a cracker:

I’m not sure why I like this, but I think it’s pretty brilliantly put together and looks like the dancers were having a bit of fun. I’ve never seen the can-can, but I’d love to!

I did have a longer post in mind, but I think I’ll just leave the picture and come back to the blog later.

Friday Fabulosity: Josephine Baker

So, I’ve decided that every Friday, I’m going to blog about a fabulous woman who I think is basically brilliant.

Although I’m not old enough to have ever seen anything of Josephine Baker’s work, except a few grainy minutes of film footage on YouTube, I find her endlessly fascinating. I also think she had one of the most radiant smiles ever to be photographed!

Josephine Baker was a lot of firsts- the first African American woman to star in a major film, the first African American performer to successfully integrate a mixed audience at her performances in America and the first American-born woman to win France’s Croix de Guerre for he role in the Resistance Movement of her adopted homeland.

Everywhere you go in Paris, where Baker lived for much of her adult life, her image looks at you from souvenirs, postcards and guidebooks. She renounced her US citizenship in 1937, after living and performing in Paris since 1925. She was most famous for performing the Danse Banane (Banana Dance) at the Foiles Bergere- her perfomances were considered racy, especially as she was wearing very little! Within a few years, Baker found herself being cast as a muse for artists and writers as diverse as Christian Dior, Picasso and Hemingway.

Baker lived a remarkable life- she adopted twelve children of different nationalities and dubbed them her ‘Rainbow Family’. She was heavily involved in the French Resistance in WWII as a spy, using her fame as a cover; she would often be invited to parties with high-ranking officials from the Nazi regime, who would then chat to her. She would pass on anything useful to the Resistance movement.

Despite living in France, she was also heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement in America and attended rallies with Martin Luther King Jr. After his assassination, she was reportedly offered the role of head of the movement, which she declined.

It’s easy to see why Paris is so proud of her!

 

Yet another bullet bitten…

 

You know how, yesterday, I posted how I’d decided to be a bit brave and buy red lipstick? Today, after a bit of Monday morning blues, I decided to sign up to jive classes!

It was either that, or kill somebody. And this way, the shoes are better.

 

An adventure in lipstick hunting.

Yesterday, I bit the bullet. I bought my first ever ‘proper’ red lipstick. This year, I’ll be 28 and I figured that it would be a crying shame that I got through my twenties without ever channelling Rita Hayworth. Yes, it’s a frivolous thing to want to do, but it’s something I’ve never been brave enough to do- I firmly believe that in order to do the bigger things, I need to make baby steps with smaller goals. Plus, Boots had a fiver off No7 make-up.

I’ve long admired Golden Age Hollywood starlets and wished that I could have their hair/faces/bodies, even though I know that Jean Harlow had soap powder applied to her hair, Joan Crawford had her back teeth removed in order to create cheekbones and Rita Hayworth used to be made to shave her hairline. I could at least try and achieve their make-up, right? Maybe it would even make me dress in a more upmarket way. Who knows.

I don’t think a lot of people who know me realise what extent my make-up obsession goes to. I love it. I was a tomboyish little girl who loved beating the boys at computer games and who never wanted a doll. Then, when I was sixteen, I saw the Sugababes video for ‘Overload’. I wanted that eyeliner at all costs. Eventually, I got so good at liquid eyeliner that I could put it on without a mirror at festivals. My mum used to complain I looked like a panda. But I looked pretty cool too..! Make-up is a real indicator of how I’m feeling and is probably more important to me then I would care to admit- and I’ve always wanted to wear lipstick. It’s always seemed grown-up and glamorous. Something which I don’t ever think or believe I’ve been.

Ever since I’d read Sali Hughes’ column on red lipstick in November (if you don’t already read Sali’s column, I urge you to. Even if you’re not a make up fan, she has excellent tips on moisturisers, men’s products and hair stuff. She’s like my distant guru.) I’d been mustering up the courage to wear lipstick at all. I eventually gave in and bought Clinique’s Black Honey Almost Lipstick, which I tend to wear to work and if I’m going somewhere important during the day. It really is brilliant stuff and suits everyone, which is what all the reviews say, but it’s honestly true- even though it’s scary dark in the tube. If I can’t be bothered with lippy, I wear Burt’s Bees’ Tinted Lip Balm in Hisbiscus, which is AMAZING.

So yeah, as you can see, I’ve slowly been working up towards proper lip colour. I’ve always been an admirer of Poppy King’s lipstick lines, so I’ve been eyeing up her range for No 7 for months now. After experimenting, I went with the ‘History’ shade of red, which the girl on the counter described as ‘1940’s recession red’. It felt weird having such a strong colour on my face (which was pitifully make-up free and I felt spotty and embarrassed, wandering round with bright red lips.) When I saw my husband, I asked him what he thought of the colour. “Er, it matches your coat?” he said helpfully. Brilliant. Paddington Bear Chic. Not quite what I was going for, but he didn’t instantly hurl or run away screaming.

Last night, we went to a party. I did my make-up and I wore the lipstick. And I felt really confident! Brilliant! Now I want more lipstick… what have I started?!

 

 

Creative brain freeze

So, today was my first day back at work. It’s interesting how getting back to normality seems to have sparked something in my brain… over the Christmas holidays, I found that a gem of an idea floated into my head, but now it’s sort of crystallising. I find it really hard to discipline my brain, as it scatters over lots of different ideas, which is not great when I’m trying to focus!

It’s really hard to explain how my brain works when I’m trying to write something. Whatever it is, my brain decides to go off on all sorts of tangents. I think this explains my love of researching a topic to absolute death- even as a kid I enjoyed getting every book I could find on a subject and reading it from cover to cover. Dinosaurs, dogs, pandas, Marilyn Monroe,  Ireland- all these things have been subject to my voracious appetite for knowing stuff. I might have no common sense, but I can tell you all about Lewis Carroll or answer a pub quiz question about dinosaurs. My brain just… retains stuff. (It might not surprise you to know that I’m hoarder of things as well as facts. All I can say is thank goodness stuff like Kindles and external hard drives were invented. I don’t think I’d be able to move in the house otherwise.)

So yeah, I’ve started the research on this potentially fascinating thing, but can I write any words down? Can I heck. I tried yesterday and managed a bit, before the evil voice inside started whispering to me how rubbish my idea was and that my sentence structure was all over the place. I even read the Guardian’s guide to unleashing creativity today to no avail. It just won’t come.

I think problem is that I haven’t pinned down the main character. It’s like she’s there, but faceless, like some horrific Doctor Who villain (there was a faceless one, right? Where the features of a person disappeared? Or am I dreaming?) I know all sorts about her, but I don’t have her name. I know how her story sort of pans out, but I can’t go any further until I have a face and a name. Until I can christen her, I’ll have to people watch and pore over photos and think really, really hard. And that’s kind of fun, but also exhausting and frustrating.

Sometimes, I’m asked to write stuff for other blogs/magazines/websites (which, by the way, if you want me to write for you, I’d totally be up for it. Email me!) This can equally be hard, as the ideas bounce around inside my brain and I try and streamline them into something that resembles an article. After all, I did study journalism at a fairly good university, so you’d think I should be able to use the skills.

Can I also add, that because of this stupid way of thinking, I don’t drive? I get too distracted by cows and birds to focus on the road. I have accepted my lot as one of life’s passengers (in the driving way. I’m very proactive otherwise.)