Friday, June 12, 2020

The less I seek my source for some definitive

A little journey story. Because I want to say it out loud. YM, as ever, MV.

When, some years ago, I first started seeing the blunt statement "trans women are women", I baulked at it a bit. I felt it was being thrown at me across the room, no returns, closing down issues and concerns. Pick your side and fight the other, or shut up. As Josie Long said yesterday, I deeply hate this entire discourse. I also felt I had a horse in the race, as it were (and horse racing can kill horses), as second wave feminism shaped my world, my thinking, my identity. It's part of me. A lot of  the older women I grew up reading and was influenced by, the radical feminists who now identify as 'gender critical' (aka TERFs, but that is often used as a slur), don't believe this. I took this seriously. Same with a lot of women my age and a bit younger, mostly (but not all, it's never all), who are now powerful presences in the media, politics, elsewhere. Some of them are my friends, and I always take my friends seriously.

But I could also see that many people younger than me have absolutely no problem accepting this statement, like, of course? Nbd? Why are we even talking about this? And I thought about the slow, gradual unpicking of centuries of misogyny by generations of feminists that gave me the ability to take up space in the world, and the work that still needs to be done there, and the slow, gradual work (with occasional explosions) done by generations of activists fighting other kinds of prejudice, oppression and discrimination. And the relative ease with which younger generations can take some of that for granted, the battles that are (for now, in some places) over, look around and say 'what do we need to do next?' (You can be legit asexual these days, guys! I wish someone had told me that when I was 15. I could have skipped a whole load of UTIs, for starters.) Some of these younger people are now also my friends, and I always take my friends seriously.

So I have done a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, and a lot of talking to people who I feel safe talking to about this kind of thing (which is quite a few, I have some excellent friends, these are the ones I take extra seriously), and I have essentially come to the conclusion that you can absolutely be a feminist (even, maybe especially, with radfem tendencies) and a trans ally at the same time. Put at its simplest, I don't want or need anyone to tell me what being a woman means, so I have no interest in or need to tell anyone else. And we can take the rest from there. You can quote me on that.

That only really fully crystallised with me this week, when I read That Blog Post. Lots of shit things have happened since, not least to the author, and believing she is a) wrong and b) should not have used her platform in this way does not make them any less shit. I deeply hate this entire discourse.

But as Eddie Redmayne responded nice and clearly (and for the record I'm just fine with posh white men saying what needs to be said): trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary identities are valid. I was just going to post that, but I thought some of you might appreciate some of the context in which I am saying it.

I have no interest in, and no energy for, going over the same ground again and again with people who are not for examining their own views, privilege and prejudices, or those who do not even acknowledge that they have those things. You know, at some level, who you are. Don't @ me. But if you're on this journey too, stay with it. It's worth it.

This song has been my friend since I first heard it over 30 years ago. It still does the job. SOUND UP, as the kids say.


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Sunday, December 29, 2019

Breaking the McDonald's seal

Christmas 2003, we went to India for a month. It was one of the best resettings I've ever had, and not just because it was a long one. We did a small group tour with Intrepid Travel, which was organised in partnership with Oxfam Australia, and we visited a bunch of NGO and community projects, including spending a full five days in rural Orissa with Gram Vikas, whose work tilted my world on its axis a little.

Intrepid are an Australian company, and our group included quite a few solo Australians, including three women who bonded with each other pretty quickly and were excellent life and soul value. I generally love the Australian women I have met on my travels. They are hilarious while remaining humane. They don't give a shit, while managing not to be dicks. They drink a lot of beer, and they taught me the phrase 'breaking the seal': it's the first time you go for a wee in a drinking session. Once that's happened, you'll be running to the loo all the time, like a proper girl. It resonated hard. My bladder control is on the excellent side, but only till it's not. Oh mate, they'd say, you're breaking the seal. They'd hold on waaaayyyy longer. But everyone's seal breaks in the end.

I have found it to be an adaptable concept. I didn't eat meat for 30 years, with hardly any breaches - and those were mainly politeness-based. Eventually I was someone who didn't eat meat because she didn't eat meat, even though my reasons for not eating any meat didn't fully hold anymore. I used to argue that the people who don't do something because they don't are important - you have to stand for something or you'll fall for anything etc. And I still think that's true - you need the unbenders in lots of situations, to keep you thinking and keep you honest. But I came up against some of the truly unbending, and my contrary self broke the seal.

And I'd like to tell you that every bit of meat I have eaten since has been pasture-fed and out-door reared and organic and free range, but while a lot of it has, you know and I know that would be a big fat lie. I have had an American Hot. I have had a Steak Bake. I have had a gala pie. But till t'other week, I had gone the entirety of the 21st century without a Big Mac.

Till December 2019, I had, in fact, only once been to a McDonald's in the 2000s. It was at 6.30am in January 2002 in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. I was there on a work trip, it was freezing cold, it was literally the only open place in town, and the project officer accompanying us had no idea why two of us hovered on the threshold, wondering what the Spanish for 'we don't visit McDonald's on principle' was. We quite quickly got over ourselves and had a coffee and an Egg McMuffin, but it felt, even in the circs, unpleasantly transgressive. These guys, these guys are part of the problem, we felt.

But there's problems and problems. I mean, look at the Labour Party. And about a month ago, we seemed to be at it again here in Ecoville. It's a long story, and it's been going on a long time. I have written about it before*, but not for a while, not for years. Mainly this is because I know there are people who don't like me writing about it. Or, possibly, anyone writing about it. Which is a challenge, as it's such good material - so good that we actually got covered by a real magazine this year. Which is a good read, I think. But it might have stirred something. Something did, at any rate, as a little bomb went off.

The timing was unfortunate. To live successfully in a place like this you have to work out how to play the long game. You get knocked down, and you get up again, but it can take a while. It's always been important to me to be making a contribution, and I've always found a way to do that. There are low-exposure and high-exposure jobs (which broadly, but not perfectly, equate to low stress and high stress) and there are jobs that anyone can do, and jobs that only some people can do. A few years ago, while I was still very much licking my Food Wars wounds, I found myself a low-exposure job that needed specific skills (treasurer of the co-op that buys stuff for our on-site food and household goods store). This role is actually Quite Hard, but also Mostly Appreciated, and can, if necessary, be done anywhere there's an internet connection. It was a good fit, but I was getting a bit tired of it: sometimes it involves chasing people for money, and I hate that part; there are some bits that are wildly inefficient, by design; and also I just felt it was all a bit staid. A bit wholemeal. I wanted to be a bit more creative with what we bought and where we bought it from. But no one else was interested, not really. You have to pay attention to that, in the long game. Pick your battles, Jo.

So I was thinking well, things feel quite stable at the moment, we're doing ok. M is currently well, my job is going great, my dad's not been in an ambulance for a bit. Maybe I should be offering a bit more. We are, as one of my neighbours beautifully put it, all crew.

We elect company directors every year - lots of people have done the job (it's a two year term) but it's very much at the high exposure end of things. There are never quite enough people willing to stand - certainly not in recent years. I think we could have up to 12, and there are currently five. So if you decide it's a thing you can do, you're pretty much guaranteed to get the job. So. Hey, I'm a company director! Go me. So is M. Go us. We thought about it a lot, and figured it was our turn to take some of that stuff for the team. He's done it before, I haven't, but when he did, it was all in the house anyway, whatever he was dealing with, so I figured it was worth doing it together. Deep breaths, I thought. We're growing up and growing past and growing on.


(Actually, maybe it was that that was the trigger? It's fine to do the books but not to make decisions about [checks agenda] firewood and trampolines? I don't know).

Also - and this has happened several times - like a lot of people, we're supposed to do a lot more communal meal cooking than we actually do, and it's a point of some contention in our house. I know I should try harder, but how we eat together, or don't, is at the absolute heart of a lot of my own sadness, anger and frustration about living here. It's the main thing I am trying to grow past, so I can focus on the joyful, creative, productive parts. But it takes me actual months to build up the energy and the enthusiasm. And then... just when I do, (and I try, I really do - this time I'd sourced a special ingredient from a kosher deli, ffs), BLAM! Someone says something, someone does something, and I think oh fuck it, I am not giving this a day of my life, and we invite people we like around for sausage pasta** instead.

Instead (and I do get the inherent tension here, so don't even think about explaining it to me, I'm not in the mood, I'll never be in the mood even when I'm in my best mood) there was a proposal for a Saturday morning conversation whose framing included the question "Do you think that a public blog is a useful way to initiate discussion and facilitate change in a community?" No. Of course it's not a useful way to initiate discussion and facilitate change in a community. But hey fellas, neither is a lot of the other stuff that's happened around here, a lot of it more in your face and screamy than that, and some of it pretty gangy-uppy, at least in my experience. Specifically, men claiming exclusive knowledge of the concept of inclusivity really. pushes. my. buttons.

And I have buttons. Your correspondent tried to do all the things she was supposed to do. She joined the teams. She turned up for the discussions. She explained why she was unhappy with the things she was unhappy with. She engaged with every single process at every single point. The above things happened anyway (most of them before she wrote a single blog post about them).

And this time she tried again. She lost a lot of sleep in the build up to the conversation, and did not practise her best self care. She may have drunk too much wine, stridden around the house ranting about 'this fucking place', done some sobbing and wailing and gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, but she got some wise counsel, she calmed the fuck down and she showed the fuck up.

As did around 20 other people, which is pretty impressive for a Saturday in December. She proposed a reframing of the questions, because she thought they were the wrong ones. We need to be talking about how to deal with conflict before it becomes a cold stale deposit in our arteries, congestion in our lungs. We've unpacked the shit out of this, years after the events, and it hasn't really helped, so why dwell?

And we took that forward, the kind, thoughtful people who'd shown up wanting to move this on, and we had four separate conversations about different aspects of the challenges ahead, and it was hopeful and energising and actually, maybe, worth the angst. (Jury's out on that one, I was planning a calm December and did not get one, but whatevs.)

Two hours we were there, and then four of us went to McDonald's. I had a Big Mac Meal with a full fat Coke, and I enjoyed every inch of it. The following week, I went to London for work, and thanked my colleagues for helping me learn more about systems and how they work, and how important it is to ask the right question, diagnose the problem whose addressing will have actual impact.

The last night I was there, I left the pub four pints deep and made my way back to the YHA. I got off the bus outside the Oxford St McDonald's. Yes! I thought, and I ordered a Filet-O-Fish from a machine. It arrived, about 45 seconds later, and I ate it, surrounded by girls from many nations and women of all classes. It tasted like very heaven.

Another seal done gone.


* Links available on request
** One of our very favourite comfort dinners. It's by Jamie Oliver, and the recipe is here. It's not vegan, vegetarian, kosher or gluten free and it has wine in it for extra points.

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Saturday, August 10, 2019

My imaginary friends

My baby's got the bends
We don't have any real friends

Every time I scream this (it can be quiet, but it's always a scream), I wonder if Thom Yorke was thinking well, but there's always the imaginary ones. You know where you are with them.

My first two lived about my person when I was a child: in the creases in my belly, to be exact. I mostly talked to them in the bath. They were Maledores (F8) and Jongomes (M7). They lived in pyjamas (sensible). We would just chat, we didn't argue. They were good company. They understood me, basically, and, like many slightly geeky kids, I felt that nobody else really did. I think they probably disappeared around the time we got a shower and I didn't have so many baths. But I have a bath pretty much every day now and although my creases are in different places these days, I remember them fondly.

My adult imaginary friends are very different beasts. There are currently three of them. The two that have been around longest kind of sit on my shoulders, like angels (or devils), whispering things in my ear. I take their advice seriously, but I don't always follow it. They don't talk to each other. In fact, I don't think they've ever met, and they would for sure get right on each other's nerves if they did.

Ginny has been around the longest. Her full name is Ginny St Clements, like something you might drink on a punt. She's been there in some form ever since I moved to Oxford... maybe even earlier, since Cambridge, when I first encountered the kind of people whose parents held garden parties in the summer, because that's the kind of gardens they had, what else are you going to do with them?

She's gorgeous, is Ginny. She has long curly auburn hair and golden skin. She has lots of freckles and in late summer they kind of join up across the bridge of her nose. She can play tennis well enough to make up a mixed doubles if you need her to, and her French is sufficiently fluent to deal with platform changes and dietary requirements. Not her own though, she eats everything, there's not a single thing she doesn't like, though if pushed she's a bit squeamish about lobster, because she's read David Foster Wallace. She's a handy kind of woman to have around generally: good with kids, can handle the business end of a barbecue, always has a spare tampon. I want to hate Ginny, because she's so damn nice and because she would run a 10k just to keep you (not me, obvs) company, but I can't.

You see, Ginny is the person we could all be, if life didn't regularly cut us off at the knees. She's optimistic, she's at ease, she's pretty much always her best self. I dream of a world where we all get to be our version of Ginny. She's not perfect, that would be weird. She can be pretty moody sometimes, and she had a verruca once and didn't wear a swim sock. But she has every chance of fulfilling her potential without fucking anyone else over in the process, and I love her for that. As Randy Crawford once said about Almaz*, she was born in a world where love survives.

But woman cannot survive on the counsel of Ginny alone, so there's also Tits. Tits McGovern. Before you ask, Tits has no time for your bullshit. She doesn't often even have time for mine. Tits is Scottish, fairly obviously, but looks a lot like 00s Jeanette Winterson. She's short, dark, fierce and butch, and she has been wearing the same biker's jacket since, I'm guessing, the late 80s, though I didn't meet her till well into the 21st century. Life has not been kind to Tits, but she's made from tough stuff and she has read a lot of political theory. She eats structural inequality for breakfast, with a side of black pudding, and your balls for afters. You take her seriously, or... well there isn't really an or. I do really like Tits, but she's hard work. You have to explain yourself A Lot, but that can be a real help when you're not sure why you're doing something, or whether you should be. If Tits is ok with it, it's ok, is my basic strategy. Her bar is very high, and she has the humanitarian rigour I sometimes lack. She's the reason I have stopped buying Italian wine, for example. Tits doesn't drink wine, though. Her poison is single malt. You possibly already knew that**.

And then there's Alice. Alice is the new girl in all of this. There we were, me and Ginny and Tits, getting by, and then something happened that threw both of them. I've written about this already and won't repeat the long version, but there I was, sleepless in Yangon, and something had to happen.

M and I have a jetlag / insomnia strategy that isn't remotely original but works pretty well when there are two of you, which is that you choose a category (eg model of car, country of the world, type of fruit or vegetable) and then try and think of an example beginning with each letter of the alphabet - Astra, Beetle, Capri... Albania, Belgium, Canada... Apple, Beetroot, Carrot etc. It's less effective on your own, but I was desperate, I'd had a full sleepless night and was well on my way to a second. So I popped a Valium, and I worked my way through a few categories, sticking as usual on the N and the X (N is a common letter but not one a lot of words begin with, though I could just have an N block). Then I thought, oh, let's try girls' names. A? Alice.

And suddenly, there was Alice. She looks like she could have been drawn by Tove Jansson, she is as ageless as a Moomin. She has a black bob with a perfectly straight fringe, and wears a pinafore dress with a stripy top. She looked at me, and she said 'sleep, please', and pushed everything else straight out of my head. I slept. I thought her manifestation was a one-off, but interestingly she has joined the gang. She only turns up when I really need to sleep, but while she may have needed a benzodiazepine to emerge, she can come back quite happily by herself. And what she does, she does well. Ginny and Tits give her space. There is a lot of mutual respect in this sisterhood.


*Not recommending this as a life manual or anything, I should absolutely emphasise. 
** Before I published this, M asked what Tits's song was. It's this

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

The art of floating

This tree's story is near the end (sorry)
I'm aware that I've left a pretty devastating post up here for several months now - and you might, if you don't know me IRL or on Facebook, not have had an update since then. So here's one. Short version = I'm still here, it's all a bit better (and some of it's a lot better), but nothing will ever be the same again.

If you want the longer version...

Stories generally have a beginning, a middle and an end, but lives - except in their extremities - aren't so clear cut. We have our milestones, we humans, but it's not always obvious at the time which of them are the start of something, the end of something, or even events of any significance at all.

My NGO X story took up nearly all of my 30s, and most of my 40s. I've been thinking a lot recently about its last chapter. It was about six years long, and in my head now, it started in one South East Asian swimming pool and ended in another.

The first was in Cambodia. At the time I had a manager who pushed me out into a space she thought I might be able to make sense of. My first attempt failed - there wasn't anyone to work with out there - but the second attempt, a year or so later, landed. I got invited to a global IT meeting in Phnom Penh, completely winged it (wung it?) and came out leading a piece of work to design something that wasn't remotely well defined but everyone knew we needed.

Now, I'm ok with that kind of thing, so although this was several levels more politically complex than anything I'd done before, I wasn't a bad choice - indeed, my ability to say 'well I have no idea what to do for this part of it, so better get some help' was a positive asset. But I had a bit of a wild ride on the way - the trip was literally three days after we'd moved north, so I was already spinning with strangeness. While I was there I saw someone get their skull caved in by a moped metres away from me (do not romanticise the lack of traffic regulation in developing countries, do not do that), and then came back to the hotel to the news that my friend W's terminal illness was approaching the terminal part. The last night of the meeting I drank far too much minibar whisky (arguably any amount of minibar whisky is too much) and spent an absolute fortune sobbing incoherently down the phone to M.

The next morning I went down to breakfast a sorry mess of puffy eyes and existential dread. Everyone who'd flown in had been staying in the same hotel, and most of them were off sightseeing in Phnom Penh or flying to Angkor Wat for the weekend. I mean, who travels economy for 24 hours for a three day meeting with vicious jet lag and doesn't take in the sights afterwards, especially in a country with a history like Cambodia's? Well, me, it turns out. I had barely managed to find my passport and update my jabs. Our house was so new it didn't have a postcode yet. I needed to get back to it.

So I was heading to the airport that afternoon, and I didn't even have the energy to visit the, you know, genocide museum. My bad. But I wasn't quite on my own - for a couple of hours that morning I sat with N, a colleague of mine who at the time I barely knew - I'd only met him three days earlier - and he asked me how I was, and I told him, and he listened, and it was the kindest thing anyone could have done. After a while I made my excuses and said I needed to be in the water: there was a swimming pool in the hotel's courtyard, and I went up to my room, got changed, did a little bit of swimming up and down, then just settled for floating on my back, like a starfish.

I remember learning to float like that - it's easy once you know how, but not everyone does. It's all in the breath, like so many things. And you need an empty pool, as you will drift, and they don't come along that often unless you're in the 1%. But once you've mastered it, when you have a place to do it it's profoundly relaxing. And, I suspect, highly beneficial, especially if you are emotionally dessicated.

I remember reading Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation when it came out and being highly irritated by it generally, and especially the parts of it where she would say things like 'I was so depressed that year I have no idea how I managed to win the Rolling Stone college journalism prize'. You can't have been *that* depressed, love, I thought. But you know, I came back from that trip to Cambodia and within a month my mum was in hospital, and within a year she had died. We didn't have broadband for nearly four months, we didn't have an office for 13 months, so we were sharing a desk in our spare bedroom (sitting on opposite sides of it, each trying to use the same 3G mifi - remember mifi?), our house was full of boxes and our lives were upside down. Yet *somehow* I coordinated a team of five (in four countries on three continents, all working part time on this) and a consultant and we held three workshops in three countries and pulled a solid business case together. Which landed on the day of the Boston marathon bombing, and the project sponsor was in Boston. He did not like the business case, but he was also in lockdown. To be fair, I did not like the business case either, but for different reasons. We all learnt something that day.

But we still needed the thing. (The thing is what is now known rather imprecisely as a 'digital workplace' - I could talk about that for days but what the thing is doesn't really matter, it's how it happens, or doesn't happen). And so we went back to the drawing board, we got some more external help - focusing *right in* on the politics of the situation, that was a laser-sharp piece of work - and we reworked it. And we got the go ahead, and we secured not enough budget but a lot more budget than no budget, which is what we had before, and we were off!

Around this time, it became perfectly clear, not least to me, that I was not the right person to lead the project anymore. I am not a technical project manager. I do not sprint. If you want someone to do a politically-savvy-yet-complexity-aware job of prioritising your wish list, I am that woman, but just a few steps down the line of breaking that down into work units, my eyes glaze. And hell, there are people who are *great* at this. That same sponsor (and I remain super-fond of him) yelled at me "are you trying to tell me you've never delivered a global IT project?" and I yelled back "Yes!" He said "Wrong answer!"

Long story short - and man, this is a looooong story, but don't worry I won't be telling all of it - he recruited N to do that job. N was by now a friend of mine - one of the many people who'd supported me through my mum's illness and death, and one of the few who had been there himself. I knew N much better by this point, and I was beyond delighted that he was going to be taking this madly political, essential-yet-vulnerable piece of work forwards. 

In the four years that followed, N would often describe me as the project's "vision holder" - a title I loved to think I might embody, and in return I would say that he kept the project on the rails *and* kept everyone in the tent through some insane in the membrane level organisational weirdness. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was that if you try to run ahead of your organisation's evolution, or to cut across its grain, you will fail. And I agree... though I'd add that even if you don't, then you might still fail, but in a different way. We had some long dark teatimes of the soul. One of the longest and darkest lasted about three months, when a meeting of some Powers That Be decided it wasn't a priority and should be stopped, even though that wasn't the question they were asked, and everything went a bit crazy for a while. Because, man, we still needed the thing. So we carried on, even though we'd sort of been told not to, only we could sort of pretend we hadn't because the minutes of that meeting were never shared. It was that kind of a time.

I absolutely love most of the people who were on that team, and they remain people I would climb mountains for (and I *hate* climbing mountains). And gradually but inexorably, because we simply refused to entertain the idea that it wasn't going to, the thing took shape. It's not the sort of project you can ever call finished, and the place we got to was different in many ways from the one we'd originally imagined, but essentially, we did what we set out to, and now there is a whole excellent team who are helping it grow and making it better and enabling and supporting whole new endeavours and possibilities. I am really so proud to have been a part of it. It is a testament to the power of diverse teams.

But the reason I slogged away for so long with the political heavy lifting was not simply because I wanted the thing. It was because without the thing, I couldn't do what I *really* wanted to do, which was to Solve Knowledge Problems. That, ultimately, is my game. And the technology, in a big global organisation, is necessary but not sufficient. And what we finally had, a couple of years ago, was the potential. We talked about it at conferences, I shared it with the NGO network I was a part of. This is great! people who know how hard it can be to do this stuff on a non-corporate budget said. Well done you.

I mean, not everyone saw it that way. One of the criticisms that is often (and fairly) levelled at me is that I am not very good at showing my workings. Partly because I don't always understand them myself, but mainly because I think writing long documents that no one will ever read is a colossal waste of time and energy. I once spent a month on a piece of work and produced a three page executive summary and slides that everyone *loved*, with a note at the end saying 'full report available on request'. There was no full report, but it didn't matter, because No one. Ever. Asked. But I know why I wrote what I wrote, or designed what I did, mostly, and there are always reasons. I'm not random. But you might not know that, to meet me, and especially not if you don't get how hard it is to do this kind of thing well. It isn't rocket science, but at least if you're a rocket scientist people recognise your expertise. If you're a knowledge manager, not so much.

Which is the deal - a lot of knowledge management / digital workplace people will recognise the 'can't we just' mentality. Um, no? And we could tell you why, but we'd all get bored. Maybe we should put you through it a bit more often than we do, but you know what, I'm boring myself now.

And then there are the people who *should* support you, because they work in the same field and for the same organisation, whose first instinct should be 'tell me how this all works then, so I can understand how we got here' but who don't. Oh, the power plays. Never, as Anne Robinson once said, underestimate the treachery of the workplace. We're not all out for each other's best interests, guys, even when we're trying to change the world. No. Some of your colleagues will break your (metaphorical) knees soon as look at you, if there's a sniff that you might be in their way.

We live, we learn, and there's always another chance to get your heart stamped on, and (bear in mind this is still the short version) that is what happened. I emerged from a bunker with hopes and dreams and a toolbox and the long view - and there was no home for any of it. That was a political failure on my part, for sure, but I thought I had enough currency in the bank to see me through.

And I was wrong. I managed another couple of years on the back of existing networks and relationships, and built some new little pockets of interest in what I had to offer, but it was no substitute for the kind of backing that I would have needed in order to have any significant effect on organisational impact (aka changing the world). It was table scraps, really, and while I am forever grateful to the people who held me close through those times, it maybe stopped me from seeing the inevitable hovering on the horizon.

When I say "the inevitable", I mean inevitable given the way that I played it. I could have been more ambitious. I could have been harder and faster. I could have been working full time these last ten years, and building my empire. My thinking is good. My political acuity is strong. My organisational awareness was excellent. But I had a terrible bullying experience in 2006-7, and it wasn't managed well, and something switched in my head. I still wanted to be working for a better world, but not any longer at the expense of my health.

So... Like so many women before me, though not for the most common reason, when I was approaching the peak of my powers, I "went part time". It was a great life decision, but (though it took a while to manifest) a bad career one.

I don't really know why I thought I could do it any differently, especially after I moved north in 2012 and became both part time and remote. Don't go getting any ideas, love, is what they should have told me. And maybe I only managed it for so long because I am actually *very good at what I do* and because I wanted to keep doing it. (I am saying this as someone whose self-esteem is remarkably good most of the time, I am blessed). And On That Basis, I sought out opportunities, and made cases to follow them up. Some of them were so obviously describing those Knowledge Problems that I had spent years getting ready to be able to solve that I literally jumped up and down in my eagerness to be given the opportunity to work on them. (While spending most of the rest of my time writing turgid, tedious - but still pretty short - papers about my 'offer' that no one ever read).

And, to start to bring this sorry tale to a close, there were two that really got traction - in one case because it was a complex programme in a conflict-affected country (South Sudan) which had a strong learning element, and in the other because there was £ available from a global 'knowledge fund' that was successfully applied for by a country team (Myanmar) with a relatively young programme including a new humanitarian response.

I never got to go to South Sudan - it was a hard programme to support remotely, but we also need to get better at this. I enjoyed the challenge, and the other constraints, and designing something that (potentially) made really good use of the shared platforms we'd spent so long pulling together. I still think that template could be a gold standard for an endeavour with that many stakeholders. I will be drawing on that thinking for a long time.

I *did* get to go to Myanmar, and that is where my story went south. I've covered this already, kinda. But in so many ways that could have been (and in some ways anyway was) SUCH A GREAT piece of work. It had so many good elements - country support, interest and capacity, high quality work, excellent team, specific technology challenges that could be addressed, good connectivity, high interest in learning... It could have been a model in so many ways. And, so far as I know, it succeeded and is still succeeding on its own terms, which I couldn't be happier about, but the longer, wider, broader pieces... I am not sure how you build that culture without someone in a role like mine.

And, as we all know, at the end of my first working day in Yangon I heard that my post was being cut. As I've said, I could have played a different game, but I didn't. I had some faith, and it was misplaced, and well, I'm not the first girl in the world to have that experience, right?

But I do think that it was an experience that has changed me forever - not least because of the way that it was done. Rainy season south east Asia is oppressive at the best of times. It's hot, it's 100% humid always, and about 12 hours a day it's absolutely pissing it down. Add full-strength jetlag and 11 days till you can get a hug from someone who loves you (or even knows you) and you have a little idea of how profoundly weird and lonely an experience my redundancy news was.

It came on the Monday. I did not sleep on the Monday night. I worked on the Tuesday, and Tuesday night I took some Valium and got about four hours (and met my new imaginary friend Alice, more from her next time!). Wednesday I worked, and also got about four hours, because I had to leave the hotel at 5 am to fly to Sittwe. Thursday night, I howled down the phone to a colleague in the UK, then went out with Myanmar colleagues to a restaurant on the coast. It was an almost perfect NGO X experience: principled, interesting, skilled, committed people from all round the world having some beers and eating some food together and having Real Talk. I loved it, but I knew it was probably the last time I'd get to do it, and part of me was hovering above the table, observing, and mourning.

On Friday afternoon, we flew back to Yangon, and I returned to Hotel M, where I checked back into room 207, with its dark wood floors, cool marble bathroom and window shutters. You could hear the rain over the air con, and the air con was pretty loud. Me again, I said. I am hoping I might sleep in you this time.

That night was the first time I'd got a full night's sleep in over a week. I slept through hotel breakfast time (though I drank some instant coffee and ate some leftover pizza that I'd stashed in the minibar fridge because that's the kind of girl I am) and I decided that, although I really just wanted to lie in bed and cry, that I should get out there and do something. Around noon, it stopped raining. I have never really been a very good solo tourist but I gathered my defences and got a taxi to the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Which was a *good* decision. I scorched the bottom of my feet because you have to take your shoes off and when it's not raining, it's very very hot, but I accepted an offer from a private guide, who was tiny and lovely and spoke just about the right level of English to tell me things but not ask me anything, and she showed me the Tuesday corner (I was born on a Tuesday, so she had me do some kind of ritual there, and the Tuesday corner's animal is a lion, which pleased me) and also the palm tree - see above - which has survived everything life can throw at it. All my photos are terrible, as it was so bright I couldn't see what I was doing, and I returned to the hotel a full sweaty mess, but I was proud of myself. And it still wasn't raining, so I decided to go for a swim.

Oh, that pool. I was the only person in it, and I swam diagonally back and forth across it for a while, crying gently, and wondering when I'd been in a pool before with water that tasted like that (it was the pool in Cambodia, but it took me a while to remember). And then I lay on my back, and I floated. When I started to wrinkle, I climbed out and lay on a sun lounger - by some miracle the sun had gone in so I did not immediately burn to a crisp but it wasn't yet raining again. And I slept out there, warm and sad but bolstered by towels (I love towels), till big fat raindrops drove me back in about an hour later.

That was one of the best naps of my life. After it, I thought, well, this is all still terrible and I have no idea what to feel, but I am no longer sleep deprived, so I can see that, eventually, I. Will. Be. OK.

I didn't know how long it would take, or that I would still be so angry about it nearly a year later, but here we are. I have come through it, and I have a new job that I am enjoying hugely, and new colleagues who are just as principled, interesting, skilled and committed - pursuing different ends but ones with which I am no less aligned. In fact, more so, maybe. It's really great and I feel both lucky to have landed it and inspired to be there. I got my heart broken on the way - properly, properly broken, but you know what, you live, and you learn to float.

I needed to write this and I am grateful to anyone who has found the energy to read it till the end! And I think that's me done with NGO X, I don't have to dwell on it anymore. She labels it, she lets it go.


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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Well then, 2018. I mean, what the actual?

Shadow and light on Marine Drive, Morecambe: 8 Jan 2019

I don't think I knew what a bad year was till 1998. That was my first one. I had my fair share of adolescent misery but it was all standard issue (even the Thatcherism was standard issue, as I was unaware that there were alternatives, like a war baby only with more vitamin C, and, temporarily, milk) and I knew it was transient. 1998 was different - everything changed: I split up with my Significant Ex, spent some time living off Spar lager and Bombay Mix, chopped a lot of wood while listening to Ani DiFranco mix tapes, and got a tattoo. It doesn't sound so traumatic, really, does it? And with hindsight, yeah, fair point. But I genuinely did not know why this was all happening to me, at least till I got some therapy, and for a while I was very freaked out that I was not the person I had long thought myself to be.

That new person had to get another job, for reasons, and in early 1999, she did. It wasn't the right job, so she got another one - at NGO X - in early 2000, at which point she felt fairly sure that she had finally found her tribe. This, she thought. This is where I live now.

And you know, ups and downs, squalls and storms, a bit of existential bleakness, but the next 12 years, pretty good on the whole. Most of them are obliquely documented on this here website but tl;dr = when there was adversity, it was generally overcome, and along the way, at the risk of sounding like something someone would put on a cushion, there was a lot of love and laughter.

Then we made the Great Leap Northwards, and *that* year was a whole new deal. New house, new way of living, new dying mum. Same boyfriend, same job, but everything else was swirling strangeness, and much of it not of the good kind. It was another 'shit, who am I?' year, and I did not enjoy much of it very much at all.

When my mum died, I was so sad I didn't know what to do with myself. I also thought I was probably dying myself, of non-specific everything disease (kind of what did for her, to be honest), and I went to the doctor's.

I got the kind of GP that is nearly retired, the kind that wears a cardigan, and has seen a lot of people who think they're dying because their mum just died. He was so lovely to me. He said, well, we'll do some blood tests just in case but I think probably you just need to give this time, and he printed off an A4 page with a list of sensible things to remember to do (eat vegetables, sleep, go for a walk etc). I still have that piece of paper in my bag, and every now and again I pull it out to remind myself of the basics.

Grief does what it does, but it does eventually ease (though it will come back for another go every now and again). The year after, I reached the top of the allotment waiting list, and each season, as we clear a little more and grow a little more, I sit on one of the chairs up there (which belonged to M's late mum) and feel I am coming back to myself, albeit a self that will never quite be the same.

And we live here now, we know how it works. There are aspects of life in Ecoville that I will never love, and we have conflicts that may never get resolved, but no one's accused me of anti-vegan hate crime for a while (indeed the man who did has taken his business elsewhere, much to my relief). And so many things about living here are amazing, and so many of the people are too, and we are all, I think, gradually coming through the forming and storming. Who knew it would take so long? (Oh, everyone who's ever done it, duh).

So I wasn't expecting to step into an avalanche last year, but I did. And just like Leonard says, it covered up my soul.

I guess it started in February, when NGO X had a major crisis. It wasn't something I was directly involved in, but it had a profound effect on me and many of the people I love. It shone light into some dark corners, catalysed some long-overdue conversations and actions, and generally prompted the kind of soul-searching that is hard enough to do in private, and extraordinarily difficult to do in full media (and social media) glare. My faith in humanity did not grow in those months. What grew instead was anger at the horrendous pressure the situation put on the people trying to deal with it - most of them conscientious, thoughtful, compassionate, talented humans who were stretched, some of them, to breaking point. A surprising number of them are still standing, still doing their jobs, and I honestly do not know how. I spent a couple of weeks in March doing some direct support (not even on anything sensitive), and I encountered a lot of thousand yard stares.

The fallout also, obviously, had an impact on funding, and before too long it was clear that if there was reduced project funding, there would need to be a commensurate reduction in the functions supporting them. There was a Change Process. I've been through many of these (including one where they literally forgot about me till afterwards, which was interesting) and they are usually fairly predictable affairs, even those which are financially, rather than strategically, driven. This one was different, in that it was executed largely behind closed doors, with much of the work being done by the very same people who were already halfway on their knees. Most of the rest of us mooned around, feeling a bit useless and a bit anxious, and wondering if it was worth starting anything new.

Not me, so much. I had two chunky pieces of work to do, both of which were providing direct support to programme teams, and one of which involved a programme visit. I hardly ever get to do this kind of thing, and I was really looking forward to it. There's only really me doing the kind of thing that I do, and I have to say no to most of the requests that come my way, so I wasn't feeling too worried. I thought my post might move, I thought it might change, and I could see the logic in both of those things, but I didn't think it would be cut. Specifically, the change proposal was due to be shared with staff on a Tuesday, with those whose jobs were significantly affected to be told on the Monday. The Saturday before that, I flew to Yangon to kick off one of those pieces of work. They surely wouldn't let me fly all that way, I thought, to let me start something they weren't going to let me finish, and to tell me that when I would be on my own for 12 days in a city where I knew nobody. In the rainy season. No, they'd tell me before I left. I even had a meeting in my calendar with my manager for the previous Thursday, and it got cancelled. Nothing to see here. Let's go do stuff.

Yeah. No. I worked a full jet-lagged day in an office where you leave your shoes outside and everyone is *incredibly* polite, got thoroughly drenched on my way back to the hotel because I had no idea how hard it could rain in June and my umbrella was not up to the job, then spent half an hour getting Skype working so I could learn that I wasn't going to have a job anymore. The edict that everyone should be told on the same day was apparently in order that it should be "fair". Fair on whom, I am not sure. It was epically shit for me, and it was probably almost as shit for the person who had to tell me - she had to have that conversation, or a version of it, about 20 times in succession. Whoever wrote *that* slide did not know the difference between equality and equity, and, frankly, fucking well should have. I expected more. Something broke that day.

I have another little post to come about how that experience brought me a whole new imaginary friend, which was useful, because I was powerfully lonely the whole time I was there. People did get in touch with me - indeed I had beery, teary Skype chats most evenings - but there was no one who could actually touch me. I grew some kind of shell. When I got home I couldn't shake it off, and that was before the extra fun of having to answer the 'how was your trip?' question over and over again.

In theory I could have fought to keep my job, or some job, at NGO X. There was a consultation period, there were hypothetical options. But I was done. I knew I was done, although it took me a while before I could say it out loud. Eighteen years is a relationship. And I didn't see it coming, so I had no idea what to do next. It was all very bewildering. And then of course, in the middle of a season of weddings and funerals, M was diagnosed with bladder cancer.

I think September was the worst month. I was having apocalyptic dreams already, then (in real life) my dad ended up in hospital, one of my best friends lost her mum, and Ecoville decided it was finally time to stir up the mud at the bottom of the Great Food Wars pond. It would have been a pretty intense time even in a good year. I gradually realised that I couldn't have proper conversations, couldn't hold thoughts for any length of time, couldn't concentrate at work, couldn't read books, couldn't do anything very much apart from just about stop myself screaming. Everything was very loud and bright and I could not filter anything properly. Jo, I said to myself one lunchtime, as I was crying into my soup, I think you probably need some help.

And, well, I got some. I called up NGO X's 'employee assistance programme', and they sorted me out with some telephone counselling within a couple of days. I also went to the doctor's. And so it was that within the space of a week three people (the initial EAP screening person, the counsellor, and the GP) asked me if I was thinking about taking my own life. I wasn't (I really wasn't), but it was all a bit whoah, is this where this might be going? I will say that I've had 'who am I' times before, but this was my first 'why am I', and it was pretty scary.

However. The counselling sessions stopped me panicking. We took the big old snarled up ball of wool that was in my head and teased the threads out of it one by one. It was helpful. I wrote little notes in pencil in a little notebook. I was allotted six sessions, and after the first three, I spread them out further and further apart, and I could see that every time we spoke, things were more manageable than the last time. That was also helpful. And the GP, well, the GP was great. She did a little test of my anxiety levels (high! But we knew that!) and depression levels (medium) and we talked about what to do. I asked about medication, and she said well, do you think you need the extra help? Yes, I said. Yes, right now I do.

I had never taken any head meds before, and I started on a tiny dose of Citalopram. The leaflet says that it takes a few weeks to kick in, and I'd say that was true for the depression, but it hit my anxiety levels within a couple of days. Maybe I have particularly susceptible neurons, maybe it was a placebo effect, I don't know. And nor do I care. It was a profound relief. I have heard people describe SSRIs as giving them 'breathing space' and that's exactly what it felt like: breathing space, thinking space, sleeping space. Nothing goes away, but you can look at it from a slight distance, with a bit of perspective, from more than one angle. I feel insanely (or maybe sanely) grateful for that space. One of the things I have found most interesting is that I am still having the same textbook anxiety dreams that I have always had - cars with no brakes, losing my passport in a foreign country, accidentally killing people etc - but (still in my dream) *these things are not bothering me*. I just get on and deal with them. It's extraordinary. And it makes waking up a far nicer experience too.

So we get to early November, and I'm not freaking out, and this is very good news. I had a couple of weeks off work while I was dealing with the Citalopram side effects, and a couple more weeks of short days (aka getting to have afternoon naps). I'm eating, I'm sleeping, I'm exercising. But I'm still as flat as a pancake. People keep asking me when I'm leaving NGO X (I don't know - to some extent this is up to me, and I can't decide) and what I'm going to do next (I don't know - this is entirely up to me, and I can't think about it) and how M is (we don't know - and this is largely unknowable). I went back to the doctors for a review.

This GP was the absolute bollocks. I told him my sorry saga and he listened, and asked good questions, and was generally both super-empathetic and super-confidence-inspiring. I'm still feeling pretty depressed, I said. Maybe I should take a slightly higher dose for a while, do you think that would be worth a try? Yes, he said, I think from what you've said it would really just give you that lift. So I left with a new prescription. That was on a Monday.

I work on Tuesdays, and I went into the office and thought, right, time to tidy up my desktop. I was closing Chrome tabs and I saw a job advert that someone had sent me a couple of weeks earlier, saying 'you should look at this, it's a very cool job and I think it would be a really good fit for you' ... and I'd immediately discounted it (though not closed the tab, interestingly) as it was a) full time, b) London-based and c) would have required me to feel that I was someone you might want to work with. I looked at the closing date. It was midnight on that day.

And it *was* a cool job, and it *did* feel like a good fit, and maybe I *was* starting to feel like I might be someone you might want to work with, one day, maybe. So I banged out an application letter in three hours flat, got M to read it, and sent it off before I could tell myself it was a terrible idea.

Two days later, they invited me to London for an interview the following week, and I went. I was still feeling a little like Suzanne Vega's Neighborhood Girl - looking out at people from the back of my mind - but I prepared hard (thanks to an interview preparation course that NGO X offers people who are getting made redundant - I had to do it in a flat rush but it was really helpful) and met up with my friend E for coffee beforehand, which made me feel more like a real human. And it was a friendly interview, there was nothing to be scared of. And I found I had things to say. By the time I left a little hopeful part of me had woken up, but I was a bit worried about that, hope can be a scary thing.

When I got the invite for the second interview, I knew that I really wanted the job, and I knew that I had all of the things they were looking for, but I still wasn't quite in the place where I thought that they might want to give it to me. The brutal thing about depression is you literally stop seeing the point of yourself. I hadn't gone quite far enough down the track that I couldn't see that this was a thing that was happening, rather than being completely sunk in it, but it was still a battle to try and imagine myself past it, rather than paint a 'well I used to be a person who brought energy and enthusiasm to things, those were the days, but I live in a hole now' kind of a picture. There's nothing original about this, I realise, but I have generally found enthusiasm pretty easy to access, and I felt its absence keenly. Also, I had a really shitty cold.

I went down to London the night before, and the lovely E met me again and we went for Thai food. I slept in a huge pile of duvets on her sofa bed, and in the morning she walked me to a little coffee shop by Harringay station, and then waited for the train to Old Street with me. It was pouring with rain, and the train was packed to the gills. I was the last person on, and could literally not move an inch for two stops. I fell out at the other end sweaty and snotty and a little bit tearful, and I thought, no, really, I should just go home now.

They have public toilets in Old Street, and I went into the Ladies, and sat in a cubicle for ten minutes, and gathered myself. I'd had a Lemsip before I left, and I squirted some Otrivine up my nose and held my head back till it cleared. I washed my face, put on some perfume (Jo Malone's Sea Salt and Wood Sage, which I call The Smell of a Simpler Time), had a drink of water, and thought right, get out there and do the thing.

I did the thing. I found my enthusiasm, and later that day, after I'd travelled home and was lying on the sofa listening to Radio 4 and drinking wine, my mobile rang and it was the recruiting manager offering me the job. I squealed with delight for the first time in a very long time, and I am squealing a little bit still. I haven't started yet (I do not technically finish with NGO X till the end of this month) but I am looking forward to it very much.

So there was a very good thing that happened at the end of a very bad year, and I am super-thankful for that. We had a low-key festive season, which we navigated successfully, we have entered Dry January, and I have accidentally joined a gym. There is more energy around, for sure, and there is more light.

And while I don't feel that I'm completely out of the woods - there is still uncertainty around M's prognosis (though he is feeling fine right now), and hey, no one could be unaffected by the geopolitical shitstorm that was 2018 - I have access to most of my usual resources, and I'm doing my best to deploy them effectively. They say that when the shit goes down, you find out who your friends are, and they are of course right. My friends have been amazing, some of them exceptionally so. Multiple little (and bigger) acts of love and generosity have made such a difference this year, especially at times when I have not been feeling very lovable. I've also been surprised by the power of the chance encounter - a few unplanned conversations have shifted whole chunks of my thinking. But they're not quite chance, are they. People must rate you a bit if they suggest things to you, you argue, and that can help you remember that you rate yourself.

I think we can largely thank millennials for changing the conversation about mental health - I don't know that I'd have sought help at the point where I did if that hadn't been a message that had been coming through loud and clear from some very articulate writers. It really doesn't seem to have the stigma that it once did, and that can only be a good thing. But I think I was also very lucky that I appear to have landed with something that worked pretty much straight off, first go, with nothing too bonkers in the side effects department. And I got to see fantastic doctors, and take some time off work, and spend many afternoons curled up in bed with my beloved and the Cat Who Doesn't Live Here, reading and snoozing and waiting for the clouds to lift. I wish we could all be so well cared for.

But me, I am, and I live to fight another year. And, I hope, to be there for other people like they were there for me.


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Friday, September 21, 2018

Three weddings, two funerals, and a tumour

We don't have an anniversary as such, M and I. We've never got married, mainly because patriarchy. I never wanted to be anyone's wife. When I was a teenager I used to stand on street corners on summer Saturdays shouting "DON'T DO IT!" at passing bridal cars. You could argue that we're in a long term monogamous relationship, we *might as well* be married, but it's the principle of the thing. I still don't want to be anyone's wife. I especially don't want to be anyone's second wife - no offence to anyone else in the mix, it's just not a very tail-end second-wave radical feminist move, dude.

I know other unmarried couples who still have an anniversary though... the first date they went on, or some other appropriate milestone. My Significant Ex and I used to have an anniversary, to the extent that my mum used to send us cards on it. But my beginnings with M were messier. If we were going to have a date, it would probably be the night we came out as a couple at the office summer party, by way of me wearing his new green jumper and, later, snogging in the pool.

I can't remember that date, and if I can't M certainly can't, and it's not one we've ever marked. But it was sometime in the late summer of 1998, which means we have been an item for twenty of your earth years now. We've loved each other across two millennia and four prime ministers (technically it kind of started under Major but that was part of the messiness, and we did not declare till Blair), and we're not done yet. 

We've had a lot of stupendously good times, but they haven't all been easy years, and in some ways the last six have been the most challenging. Moving to Ecoville has brought some wonderful things into our lives, but only counts as a walk in the park if the park has several angry men in it who shout at you (and on occasion *specifically at you*) from a range of soapboxes you hadn't previously been aware of. We also now live in the rural north, where the effects of austerity are undeniable. Our MP is a complacent Tory, the majority of our non-Ecovillanese neighbours voted Leave, parts of the local area are spectacularly deprived, and there are even fewer buses than there used to be. Let's just say that on pretty much all fronts I spend a lot more time thinking about the concept, and reality, of entitlement than I used to.

But, you know, this is all mind-expanding stuff - and even at the points where living here has been at its most uncomfortable and conflict-ridden, whenever people have asked me about it I've said 'well, it's never boring'. And it never is. And we've slowly come through the culture shock, both the regional and the hyper-local, finished falling out with the people we were maybe always going to fall out with, got to know and in many cases love a whole load of other people, painted a few walls, put up a few pictures, tamed a wild allotment, built up what can with a fair wind be called a yoga practice, developed a whole new way of cooking and eating*, started reading the London Review of Books, walked up more hills than I ever previously would have countenanced, and generally - finally - just about worked out how to live here. We used to be Team Warneford, after the street that our house was on. Now we're Team Warneford in the North.

So this was supposed to be a different kind of summer. The year started pretty well, with good habits and better intentions. We did our usual Dry January, and M decided to carry on and just be Dry. This was in part so he could apply himself to his Grade 6 piano exam, which he did, and which he passed. I had no such driver, but there was definitely a knock on effect, and I even managed to quit Candy Crush Saga. We read things. We planted things. We planned things. Our little clam shells were more open to passing plankton than they have been in a while.

We also accepted invitations to THREE weddings. This has happened only once before - in 2007, when, if you were my age or a bit younger, it was marrying time. These were all a little different - one getting around to the whole business a little later than usual (but with no dilution of enthusiasm, if anything quite the delightful reverse), one my littlest cousin, and one ex-housemate S's niece - the latter two firmly in the standard marrying time window, but both with the added twist that I was *at both of their parents' weddings*. I am now going to second generation weddings. I old.

If I old then M very old, but we like to think that we can still give good wedding guest, and we duly organised our other summer commitments around these milestones. There were really only two at the outset: one work trip for me, to Myanmar, (which turned into a whole existential crisis of its own, in that I found out I was losing my job while I was there - of which more another time, and it was pretty hellish tbh, but at least I didn't miss any weddings for it) and one trip to visit friends who have bought a shack (technical term) in a naturist resort near Bordeaux. I was still dealing with the existential crisis, but there was a lot to nakedly enjoy about that week, and I also read three whole books. I was going to say novels but they might not all have been... the only one I remember right now is Amos Oz's Judas, which is just heart-stoppingly brilliant. Read it.

But while all this was going on, there were a couple of people in our orbit busy dying. One of them was B's dad P - B is married to M's son, and I didn't really know her dad, but over the last 10+ years I've come to know her pretty well. We have spent many evenings together talking about travelling, growing food, and losing mothers, these being the things we have most in common, aside from the men in our lives, with their big hair and their ridiculous love of the ridiculous and their ability to sail through (almost) everything. My dad is still, at time of writing, with us, so I haven't had the full parental loss experience, but I know enough to know it's a huge fucking deal and *of course* we went to P's funeral.

The other of them was our next door neighbour. He moved here about 18 months ago. He already had incurable cancer, but it was one of the blood ones and there were drugs keeping it at bay. Until they stopped working and (long story short) he died. I have thoughts about aspects of R's journey that I don't think it's fair to write about here, but one thing I will say is that it is properly challenging to live next door to someone as their boundaries are disintegrating. I think we did our best to respect his wishes, and we did go to (part of) his funeral - the interment of his coffin in a green burial site, overlooked by cows. It was not like any funeral I've been to before. The whole thing left me with a lot to think about, not least a very strong reminder that we pass through this world but once. It all matters, or maybe none of it matters.

My dad often quotes Longfellow: into every life some rain must fall. And he's not wrong, but it's a quote that doesn't really account for extreme weather events. Some years, pretty Mediterranean. Most years, classic Lancashire. Occasional years: terminal piss down situation with localised flash flooding.

And this year, despite all the love, is giving us a proper drenching. I am already getting made redundant, remember, and then it goes a little something like:

Wedding #1: M notices bright red streaks in his urine after dancing. Carries on dancing regardless.
The following Monday: M notices more of the same and does about turn on train to visit client Down South in order to see GP asap. Gets fast track urology appointment for the following week.
Funeral #1: tells his kids. I mean, handy to have them all in the same place. But a bastard of a place to have to land (at this point still potential) bad news. 
The week after: M has urology appointment and is advised there is a tumour in his bladder, but it's 90% likely to be 100% sortable (slight paraphrase). This news arrives the day our neighbour dies.
Wedding #2: The post-cystoscopy urine situation is code red. M does his best to carry on dancing regardless, with some success, but it's a little challenging.
Funeral #2: We are waiting for a date for tumour surgery. The funeral seems to take over our entire community for several days. We are not in a good place.
Tiny bit of good news: the date is just after wedding #3, so we can go!
Wedding #3: we stay till the very end and do absolutely all the dancing possible (this is a lot of dancing). The next day, for reasons I don't fully understand, we find our hungover** selves in the Wohl Pathology Museum. Look! I say. They have a bladder with a tumour in it! We look at the bladder with a tumour in it. We look at many of the other preserved body parts gone wrong. We go back to our hotel and go back to sleep. I mean, there was some fascinating stuff in there, but on balance I don't recommend it if you're about to go into hospital.
Tumour #1: is removed. But unfortunately this isn't the end of the story: turns out M is (unusually for him) in the unlucky 10% this time.

We are waiting for the full picture (and it's not my story to tell), but there seem to be options that have a fair chance of dealing with it in a reasonably manageable fashion. Let's say that he seems to be in a much better place, prognosis-wise, than my mum was at this point in her cancer 'journey' (I hate that word. I'm using it reluctantly). But it's not great. It's a lot to process. Whatever happens is going to be unpleasant and uncomfortable at absolute best. And there are moments, like when he puts his (now very old green) jumper on back to front and doesn't notice, that my heart fairly breaks for him.

So we're sitting here, with our newly uncertain future... wondering where all of this will take us, and how, if it's bad, we will cope. I'm quite an anxious person generally - it doesn't take much to get me imagining all of the awful things that are but one misfortune away. And most of them don't happen, but the ones that do can be just as shatteringly awful as you expected, which doesn't, you know, help with the optimism. I've done some work on that, in the past, but I might need to start doing a bit more. We have a lot of good things to build on, and a lot of love around us as well as between us, but honestly. This. Fucking. Year.

So watch this space. In the meantime, I may not be at my most accessible (and sorry if I already owe you an email or similar)... but we will both be doing our best to get this bit right. As a wiser man than I once wrote, it takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.


* New to us, that is, there's nothing particularly groundbreaking about it, but it's very different from the Red Star Noodle Bar days
**  By this point M has started drinking again, and I have reinstalled Candy Crush Saga

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Tentage ventage

When I was a child, we did not go to museums or art galleries, or listen to classical music, or discuss politics and philosophy at the dinner table. I had to work out how (and whether) to do these things for myself, once I'd realised they were options. I spent a while feeling slightly disadvantaged in certain types of company, but then I got over myself. I still can't reliably tell a Monet from a Manet, and anything featuring a harpsichord is just plinky plonky noise in my head, but so what. There are swings and there are roundabouts, and one of the greatest of the roundabouts is that while we did sometimes go on holiday, with very mixed outcomes, we never went camping. I may have lost my technical virginity to a grass seed on a Majorcan beach in 1975, I may still have sunburn scars from a trip to Israel in the years when sunscreen factors only went up to 5, and I may remember the pain of both those events vividly. But my parents never made me sleep in a tent. And for this I will be forever grateful.

I have of course slept in a tent since. The first time was at school, where for nearly three years we had compulsory CCF. I was not as good at getting out of CCF as I was at getting out of netball, though I never did more than the absolute bare minimum. But that was still quite a lot, and one Friday we had to go on an overnight camp. It was in the summer term and we left after an afternoon of athletics, during which ex-housemate-then-schoolmate-S managed to break her own nose doing a Fosbury Flop. So she didn't have to go, and I was deeply envious, but too shit at the high jump to manage such a stylish self-inflicted injury. I can't remember where they drove us on the bus, but I do remember that the tent was triangular, canvas, and primitive - complicated ropes and poles, and a fly sheet that would basically pour water in if it touched the inner tent at any point ever. We cooked sausages in lard on tiny solid fuel stoves. I had recently become a vegetarian and pleaded for a Pot Noodle but instead I had to eat half-burnt, half-raw chipolatas which did their bit to keep me a vegetarian for the next 30 years. We tried to go to sleep but they woke us up for some kind of character building exercise where were in teams and trying to find each other in the dark. My night vision is spectacularly poor and I fell into a ditch. I cried with relief when we got back on the bus the next morning, only silently, so no one would hear. Formative.

The next time was after my A-levels, when a group of us went to the Lake District and camped in a field next to a pub for two or three nights. There are blurry photos of us trying to dry our socks on sticks held over a fire. The rain was torrential, but we did have Pot Noodles. And we were old enough to drink in the pub (actually, I wasn't, but most people were and no one was that bothered in them days). I think my main feeling was happiness that my A-levels were over, and more happiness that I'd been invited on the trip (the cool kids were The Crowd. Ex-housemate-then-schoolmate S and I were Pseudo Crowdists. Our currency varied). And then cider. I don't really remember much else, except that we christened Fairy Liquid Hairy Diquid, and I call it that to this day.

And then there were the festival years. You have to camp at festivals, at least, you used to have to. And I went to quite a lot of them: one Reading, four Glastonburys, six or seven Womads. I wanted to be at the festivals, so I worked on the camping side of things: we got a better tent, discovered Thermarests (a genuine leap forward), ear plugs and head torches, located the showers and the best time to go to them (4 am)… and there is decent food and booze at festivals, even before the music and the other happenings. If you have a bit of cash, you can cope. Or I could till the last Womad I went to, the first on its new site: we drove there through sideways rain, and the sign at the gate said 'welcome to Womud'. The first night I planted my camping chair in the mud and made the best of it sinking six inches and nearly taking my wellies with it. The second night I was pissing in a pint glass in the tent (and bladders hold more than a pint, so this is quite a strain on the pelvic floor) because I couldn't face the journey to the toilets. There was no third night. We aquaplaned out of the car park and counted ourselves lucky. I have not braved a festival since. Though of course we don't have a car anymore (of which more later).

But in all these years there was only one actual camping "holiday". It was towards the end of my relationship with my Significant Ex*, and the time of my life when my behaviour was the most normative. We hung out with other couples around the same age. We went to barbecues. We drank lager in pub gardens and watched football on big screens. It was the fading years of the Major government, all ladettes and Ellesse trainers and Britpop, and frankly I was a bit lost. I can't really see any other reason I'd have agreed to a week's camping in north Wales. I think I must have felt that this was the kind of thing people like me did now.

We went with one of those other couples, who picked up a caravan from a parental home on the way. I can see even less point in caravans than in tents, because you have to drag the fucking things behind you down the motorway and then drag them all the way home, but I've never had caravanning inflicted on me so I won't dwell. We drove to a field pretty close to the middle of nowhere, they unhooked the caravan and we pitched our tent next to it.

And then… I don't know. It basically rained most of the time. The facilities were of the kind where you have to put money in to get a hot shower and it doesn't last very long. Only the female wash block had a washing up sink in it. This made me SO ANGRY. The boys did their share of the washing up in a bucket, and thought it was funny. I didn't think it was funny. There was a lot of smoking dope, playing cards and eating cake around the caravan table, and we ventured the occasional damp day trip. I got to see Portmeirion in the rain, which was interesting I guess, especially as I was feeling pretty trapped myself. I also came to understand that I didn't like playing cards or eating cake, or, really, smoking dope. It occurred to me that I seemed to be spending a lot of time doing things I didn't really like doing (this felt like a big realisation, but then I was pretty stoned). So I took to the tent and read a novel, which came across as antisocial, I knew, but sometimes needs must.

The tin hat on that holiday was the night I needed to wee in the middle of the night, and it was raining. The wash block was a longish walk across a dark field, and we were the only people in our corner, so I decided to venture out in my pants and just wee behind the tent. I unzipped the inner tent and crawled out through the porch, which was held up by two poles. Unfortunately I stood up too early, and flipped the pool of cold rainwater that had been collecting between the poles up in the air and then down onto my naked back. I looked up at the sky as I did my wee, and I swore I would never do this to myself again. 

All these delightful experiences have only served to cement my view that camping is for refugees, masochists, or people who are too off their heads to care where, or even if, they sleep. Why would anyone *choose* to dispense with almost every benefit civilisation has given us - rooms you can stand up in, privacy, mattresses, electricity, kitchens, bathrooms, windows, a degree of climate control, cupboards - for a shit version of the same, which you have to a) buy in the first place despite having the real thing, b) keep somewhere in your house with all the other stuff that you only use once a year, and c) transport to where you will be having your authentic nature experience, assemble, then disassemble a few days later so you can do the whole thing in reverse, quite possibly involving another assembly so it can all dry out. Seriously, you can keep your cool boxes and your gazebos and your sporks and your wet wipes. I do not need them. The world does not need them.

And yet.

I really miss ex-housemate S. I always thought she would move back north too one day, but for various perfectly understandable reasons it hasn't happened. We do still see each other, but not like we used to, not in that easy, mooching around town kind of way that we started in Blackpool in the 80s and refined over several towns and several decades. So a couple of years ago I suggested that we might all go on holiday together one half term (has to be school holidays, annoyingly but also understandably, on account of her a) having had some children and b) working in a primary school).

I did some research, looked at some family-friendly resorts in Spain, Greece and Turkey, made some suggestions. I wouldn't remotely choose a family-friendly resort in Spain, Greece or Turkey myself, you understand, but I was thinking about the collective. Sunshine, swimming pool, beach, mini-marts, cheap beer / tapas / meze / pizza, hanging around in various permutations and combinations doing nothing very much. You get the picture.

This idea didn't fly. I'm still not sure why. I'm inclined to blame the patriarchy, but then I'm inclined to blame the patriarchy for most things. But for whatever reason, chilled out beach holiday went into the washing machine, and by the time the spin cycle had finished we were going camping in the Lake District.

I should have protested harder. I suspected that ex-housemate S actually knew fuck all about camping, and what she did know, she'd forgotten. "It'll be fun!" she said. The last time she told me something would be fun, she was talking about the 72 hour Magic Bus journey from Athens to London she persuaded me to take in 1991. [It was not fun. Nothing about it was fun. It was wildly uncomfortable, sexist, racist, in parts actively terrifying, we drove through an actual war zone, we arrived at Victoria Coach Station with a police escort, and my ankles did not return to their normal size for a week].

But I am not bringing up children, and I have learnt that - generally - if you are making plans that involve them you should defer to their parents, because for some reason children don't want to hang out in interesting little backstreet bars reading Joan Didion novellas, drinking ouzo, and playing backgammon. So eventually (via a plea for Center Parcs - at least they have a spa!) I was ok, fine, camping, whatever, and I found a little campsite that was next to a community swimming pool, near a train station, and had a Co-op and two pubs within walking distance.

No. They wanted to go to the National Trust campsite on the empty side of Windermere... I think again partly because they just didn't think through how fucking far from anywhere that is, and also because they didn't actually own a tent, and they wanted one of those ones that is already there and has beds and furniture in it.

Now they might not have had a tent, but we don't have a car, so then we were getting into serious logistics. We booked a camping spot on the edge of the lake, just down the hill from their megatent, made arrangements for them to pick up the stuff we couldn't carry on their way past, and headed for the 555. I kept saying things to myself like "well, it will be a beautiful wilderness experience".

We got there first, sans tent, and we dumped our rucksacks on the goose-shit covered spur of land we were directed to, sat on them, and wondered if it was too early to start drinking (it clearly wasn't, but then we remembered that we'd left the box of wine with the tent and had already established that National Trust campsite shops do not sell beer).

Our buddies turned up a bit later, cabin-feverish from many hours on the M6 and wearing their winter coats (it was not a warm May) but bearing our stuff, including the organic hot dogs I'd bought thinking they would be easy to cook on an open fire and eat with, I don't know, some nice salads and wraps and things.

Dinner that night was organic hot dogs rolled up in white sliced bread with tomato ketchup. The kids went to bed in the megatent around 8.30, and the adults sat outside drinking wine and shivering gently (despite the fire, it really was not a warm May) for about another hour, then called it a night. We descended to our normal tent and got into our sleeping bags for the warmth.

Being kept awake by goose-honking is a kind of torture, it turns out. Please! you cry, after some hours. Just PLEASE SHUT UP for FIVE MINUTES, I am SO TIRED that if I GO TO SLEEP you will not WAKE ME UP. *honk* they reply. *honk honk* - pause for 180 seconds - *honk*. Around three in the morning I decided a shower was the thing, beat the queue and all that. Three till five I lay awake with a cold damp towel round my head, wondering if it was too early to start drinking. When it got light, the bastard geese went to sleep (I genuinely did not know nocturnal geese were a thing) and so, for a bit, did I.

So Day 1 of the Beautiful Wilderness Experience started with tent hair and sleep deprivation, but nothing too serious. Our pals had some kind of family Lake District experience pre-booked (I'll be honest, this was a slight point of annoyance, but all the earlier points about family dynamics apply, and god knows I would not want to try and entertain kids all day in the Beautiful Wilderness) and M asked me what I wanted to do. The absolute non-negotiable #1 thing was 'buy earplugs', so we walked into Ambleside (four miles? five?), did that, had a nice lunch, bought some nice salads and wraps and things for the next day, got the ferry back, and settled in our sleeping bags (for the warmth) with our books till they returned.

That evening was one of the two nights a week the National Trust will make you pizzas, if you are organised enough to book in advance (we were). They were not cheap, but they were pretty good, if not the hottest by the time we'd carried them across the campsite, and I was working on my optimism. Hey, we have pizza, salad and wine. We also have to go to bed at 9.30 again because it's cold and the kids are asleep in the megatent, but you know what, we're tired, that's fine. And we have earplugs!

The next morning, we awoke to the steady thrum of rain on flysheet. Ah, the joy of the combination of chilly and humid (my towel never did get dry. It retains camping residue to this day). Our co-campers had another day of organised family fun to attend to, so we bid them farewell and basically stayed in our tent till hunger drove us from it. For reasons which I'm sure represent our respective subconsciouses at work, I was reading Toni Morrison's Beloved, and M was reading The Narrow Road To The Deep North. At some point during that relentlessly wet morning, trapped in a confined space with no way of escape that wasn't going to involve getting at best much wetter, we realised we were both reading books about slavery.

Eventually we had to eat, and we made our way up to the empty (and surprisingly dark) megatent, where M fashioned a lunch of nice salads and wraps, including lighting the fire to heat some things up. In the rain. We ate inside, and I had a little cry at the misery of it all, then we returned to our sleeping bags (for the warmth) and wondered if it was too early to start drinking. It clearly wasn't, but we'd finished the wine. Never mind, I thought, our guys will be back soon and we'd agreed that tonight, we would trek to the nearest pub (approx 2 miles) for dinner.

Around 4.30 they returned, and ex-housemate S came down the hill in her cagoule. She brought more wine (yes!) but also bad news - they were cold and tired, and they weren't up to walking to the pub, so were staying put.

Well we had been hanging out for the exotic allure of a pub (Chairs! Ceilings!) All. Fucking. Day. by this point, so we decided that we *were* up to it. And so we got our full waterproofs on, and assembled our walking poles, and set off across the fields in search of the Outgate Inn. It appeared as a beacon through the murk (I may be exaggerating here, it was only about 6.30 when we got there, but that's absolutely how it felt) and as we staggered in through the door my glasses steamed up and I thought, oh, we will be ok here for a while.

We peeled off our waterproofs, and M went to the bar for beer and the menu. He returned bearing two pints, with a glassy look in his eye. Jo, he said, they Have Rooms. I thought he meant in the conceptual sense: imagine if it wasn't half term and/or we'd booked well in advance. We could have stayed here, in the comfort and the dryness, for money! But what he meant was: the Outgate Inn was under new management, and they had not quite finished refurbishing the rooms, so they weren't taking bookings, but if you happened to walk in off the fields and look desperate enough, they could provide you with a bed with a mattress and pillows and sheets and a duvet, and a bathroom with a hot shower and dry towels, and electric lighting and carpets and a *full English breakfast sitting at a table inside*. For money. 

Oh my god, I said, book it before anyone else does.

They laughed very hard at us when they realised we had no luggage (not even toothbrushes) because we were actually supposed to be sleeping in a tent a couple of miles away, but they were lovely - the landlady lent us shampoo and shower gel, and even the house phone so I could let ex-housemate S know we would not be back till morning, as our mobiles were dead. I don't think she took it that well but I also think that was mainly because she'd have loved to have been having a pint and a burger and then getting into a real bed like a normal person.

And honestly, that bed. We stretched out in it like starfish till our limbs unknotted, and then we slept like logs, showered like heroes and breakfasted like kings. We bid our hosts and their kids goodbye (we were the only guests, so it was basically like hanging out in their family room) and marched back across the damp fields fortified by creature comforts and pork products. Only one more day to go! We can do this! We might even get those books about slavery finished!

We burst into the megatent brimming with good cheer, to find ex-housemate S packing things up. I can't do this anymore, she said, we're going home. I didn't have to ask her if she was sure, and I couldn't even pretend to be sorry. She did rather marvellously organise a lift home for us, via her niece R, who was coming out to see us all anyway, and we did all manage a very nice lunch in Ambleside on the way back.

We have never spoken of it since, and (as is often the way with long and successful friendships, and certainly with this one) I suspect it will be at least a decade before we do.

For reasons I do not fully understand, we still have our tent.


* After we split up, people would sometimes ask me how things had worked out (there was an obvious wealth disparity between us). I used to reply 'let's just say that he got the flat and I got the tent'. This was unfair on several levels but funny enough to be worth it at the time.

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