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.


Labels: , , , , , ,

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

Labels: , , ,

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.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, February 01, 2018


This morning my house's perfume is hyacinth with a base note of devilled kidney. I like both of these smells - though together they are a little challenging - as they remind me that I am still evolving. 
I used to eschew cut flowers, on the basis that they were produced in faraway countries under appalling conditions then flown across the world to become short-lived, shallow gestures of affection, purchased on petrol station forecourts by men who thought that was what women wanted. This is not who I am, I used to say. Do not buy me flowers. 
But what I meant was, do not buy me *those* flowers. It turns out I actually LOVE flowers, and if I had the money I would have them in the house always. I would buy them from British farms or other sustainable places and in summer I would grow my own*. And I got a huge bunch of spring flowers for my birthday and they are bringing me joy. 
There were also many years - several decades even - when I would not have countenanced a kidney. I have already covered my journey from teenage vegetarianism to middle-aged omnivory at some length. And I have more to say, including the extent to which I see it as a one-way thing - but for now, I scan the horizons for organic lamb's kidneys (harder to find than they should be) and I buy them when I see them. I'm not a nose to tail evangelist - I find all that marrow sucking a bit macho, if I'm honest - but I do have a weakness for offal that runs pretty deep, and there's something very satisfying about getting so much eating pleasure from something that is generally seen as a long way from the main event.  It's all relative, I know, but in the current scheme of things I am cool with kidneys. 
* I am trying that for the first time this year. 

Labels: ,

Monday, January 29, 2018

Making it through the rain

Some local snowdrops yesterday

I set great store by snowdrops. They hang out underground all year, then they stick their tiny heads up just when we need them most. Hey! they say. You've nearly done another winter. Well done you. It will get brighter later, but for now, see how much hope you can find in our bursts of tiny whiteness.
Around Ecoville there is abundant woodland, some of which we own and manage. After we moved in, we (not us personally, there are many sizes of we around here) cleared a patch of gloomy leylandii just by our houses and uncovered an old woodland garden stuffed full of bulbs. Some hundreds, if not thousands, of them are snowdrops, and they're almost ready to pop.
And I am so ready for them. I'm actually not minding January too much, it has a minimalism that I can get behind (we're eating a lot of Japanese food, clearing out cupboards, and generally being sober). It's December I'm needing to get over, December and all who sailed in her. 
I meant to follow up a little 'turkey and the patriarchy' rant last month, but I never got around to it, and it went off the boil. But it started simmering again when I heard an item on Woman's Hour earlier this month about the Irish tradition of Little Christmas, also known as Women's Christmas.
Essentially (and I'm not saying I don't approve) this is a day in early January when Irish women go off and do something nice together on their own, to recover from Big Christmas, on the grounds that it is, overwhelmingly, them (us) who take the emotional, logistical and physical responsibility for the Most Wonderful Time Of The Year. 
Hmm. There are things I like about Big Christmas. I like the cards - not the ones you get from hotels you've stayed in or from financial advisors, but the ones you get from your friends, especially when you recognise their handwriting on the envelope from all the letters you used to write each other in the days when that's how staying in touch was done. I like sending them, and I like receiving them. I like carols, especially the ones with descants in, and I have a life-long love of fairy lights. And I remember the excitement of being a child at Christmas, decorating the tree, putting presents under it, staring at them for days
But I'd happily leave it at that, maybe minus most of the presents (I don't actually need anything and neither do most of the people I know). And I've kind of tried to, but I'm not allowed. 
Christmas is relentless - the build up, the pressure, the consumption, the long distance travelling when it's cold, dark and generally inhospitable time, the waste. The energy. You can do it on someone else's terms, as I suppose we all do when we're children, or you can take on hosting and organising yourself, which isn't for everyone, but does give you some kind of control of the situation. 
On the whole, I prefer the latter, and M loves to cook, so for the last n years we've done some version of that*, but the 2016 version wiped me out, and I put in a 2017 bid for ignoring the whole thing. And I honestly tried, but I would have had to have barricaded myself in my bedroom for the duration to avoid every festivity (which, you know, brings its own issues), so I did find myself in various Christmas type situations. 
And overwhelmingly, I observed (with varying degrees of grace) that they represent a shit-ton of work, and that most of that work is done by women. Now you could argue that we could all sit on our hands and eventually the planning, the shopping, the wrapping, the table-setting, the scene-setting, the serving, the clearing would get done anyway. And there are times when I deliberately do this. But I find it really hard, because I can see that there are things that need to be done, and I am amazed at the proportion of men (#notallmen, do not @ me) who somehow don't. 
I absolutely refuse to believe that this is nature rather than nurture, indeed I seem to remember learning it. And if I managed to unlearn it, I would only become part of the problem. 
But my real beef is why exactly are we doing this in the first place? Who benefits, exactly? I think pretty much the whole business is the Emperor's New Jumper, nothing but market-based tinsel-covered displacement activity, covering the gaping hole in our souls. 
And we let it control us, and deplete us, and we watch it happen, and we just somehow don't call it out. Well, I'm over it. I've said it before but I mean it this time.
Well, that's better out than in. Happy January! 
*ok, tbf there was a Christmas in a caravan a few years ago which was lovely. There's a way. 

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Lights are changing

I don't work on Fridays, as a rule. I generally use them to get things done (admin, digging, shopping) but I spent a good few hours of this one lying in bed, interspersing staring at the ceiling with staring at the wall. I associate this kind of lying around with grief, I did a fair amount of it after my mum died. And if I try to untangle the thoughts in my head, I think I am grieving. Not for anyone in particular, though I have read and heard stories over the last few weeks that have had tears rolling down my cheeks, and I have a few (#metoo) of my own. But for all of us who will never express our fullest humanity, never do our best work, because we are too scared. I'm going to be generous and include the men, even the ones who are very much not woke, because we are taught to be endlessly generous to the men, and I haven't run out of that yet. It's like Catholicism, never quite leaves you.

This stuff has been building for a year at least, since the US managed to elect a full strength no filter misogynist to the most powerful office in the world. History will damn them for that, if there are any of us left around to write it, but in the meantime we have to live with it, and the pressure is starting to build. The pussy grabber in chief seems fairly inviolable himself (he is the President, ergo his conduct is presidential, right?), but elsewhere, cracks are appearing in conspiracies of silence that have lasted near-lifetimes. And it's waking up all kinds of sleeping feelings.

(No content warning here apart from general fucking patriarchy, but I know it's been a hard month)

I think what set me off was the Hallowe'en episode of the new season of Stranger Things. It ended with the Ghostbusters song and suddenly (and unexpectedly) I wanted to cry. I was back on an overnight ferry to Rotterdam, in the autumn of 1985. I had just started my A-level Geography course and we were going on a field trip. There was a bar, and a dance floor, and I was a couple of Southern Comforts in (nobody bothered too much about underage drinking in those days) and Ghostbusters came on. And I *knew the moves*. So I was up and out there and giving it my all. Very enthusiastically, as I recall. At some point during the song, one of my schoolmates came and shouted in my ear. She said 'Joella*, stop it, you look like you're for sale'.

Seems weird that I remember this so clearly, but it was a proper Moment in my young life, and I do. I remember stopping my dancing, a little out of breath and a little sweaty, and wondering what on earth she meant. I remember looking down at myself, and I was wearing a white T-shirt tucked into a pair of (I now realise) terrible 80s jumbo cords, and bare feet - I still prefer to dance in bare feet. I probably didn't have a bra on, but I was a late developer and didn't have much to put into one at the time, and I could never really be arsed with them till I did. Then I looked around me, and I realised that everyone else who was dancing was a boy. I think that was her issue. That, and my inelegance maybe. I've never been a smooth mover.

But seriously, I was DOING THE GHOSTBUSTERS DANCE. I was FIFTEEN YEARS OLD. I was dancing with boys my own age, who were doing the SAME DANCE. It was FINE. None of them fancied me anyway, because I was stroppy and had no tits. We were CHILDREN.

I mean, I say that, but I had a Saturday job in a bread shop by then, and I'd already experienced (among other delights) its owner coming over while I was setting out the barmcakes, sticking his erection into my thigh and muttering 'if you were sixteen, I'd rape you'. I knew about the evil that men did, all fifteen year old girls do. I wasn't an idiot. But I was at a fucking disco on a fucking ferry getting a bit pissed and having a laugh, and I got policed by one of my own. That's what stayed with me. They make us police ourselves. Then it's even more our fault if something bad happens.**

I could tell you more about my schooldays but life's too short. I genuinely worry for people who see them as the best days of their life, and suspect most of them weren't girls. But whatevs. We grew on up and we grew on out. And we ended up in a world where versions of this self-policing are entirely normal: don't do this, don't wear that, don't go there.

For example. Some twenty years later, I was completing my plumbing NVQ, and installing a pretend bathroom in a workshop to get the requisite number of points. This required being in college in the daytime, with the apprentices doing their day release. It was educational, though none of them took the slightest notice of me. Apart from the only girl among them, who came to talk to me. How do I get them to leave me alone, she said. They never leave me alone.

Well, I said. I can tell you it gets better eventually, but in the meantime, the only thing I can say is, tie your hair back. Don't wear any make up to college or on site. Wear a crew neck top so they can't look down it when you're bending over, and find workwear trousers that fit you round the waist, so they can't look down those when you're installing your pretend bathroom. Don't flirt, don't giggle, and get the best marks. Basically, don't give them anything to work with.

What I *didn't* say was 'talk to the tutors and let them know you're uncomfortable', because they were my tutors too, and I knew it wouldn't have made any difference. It's on you to manage this, is basically what I said, and you will have to learn how to do it.

I might as well have said, don't look like you're for sale. Don't have any fun, don't play around and explore the power that you *do* have, don't mess with the programme. I thought I was giving sensible advice, and - given that not long before that I'd been squatting on top of an industrial fridge in a pub kitchen drilling holes in the wall for pipe clips and one of the chefs reached up in passing to squeeze the only part of me he could reach - arguably I was. He got my knee, which was his bad luck, as my trousers had kneepads, but seriously, you're out there, you're fair game, even when you're nearly 40, even in a fleece hoodie and steel toecaps and armed with a drill, even when your boss is two metres away.

But it's not the answer, is it. It just makes us all responsible for our own vulnerability, and that fucking stinks. These stories that are tumbling out now, piling up like snowdrifts, are the consequence of that. It's not like we haven't had feminism for decades, it just hasn't been enough. It still isn't. I feel a strange sense of shame that I've internalised all of this, developed my strategies, been grateful to get older and have to deal with it less, while more generations of girls grow up and go out into the world and find themselves needing to work out how to deal with something they should never have to experience, at best, and survive something much, much worse at worst. The stories from women in their 20s and 30s have made me rage. We should have sorted this shit out by now.

But this might be a moment that there's no going back from. We might get to smash a little bit of the patriarchy, finally. I hope I'm not too old to play my part in that. I'm certainly angry enough.


tl;dr: (and related to the title of this post) oh my heart is sore at the moment. If yours is too, listen to this and it might help a little.

* Not actually Joella, but I don't go by the name they called me at school no more. 
** She went on to become Head Girl, and I, despite my "Oxbridge potential", subsequently realised, did not even get to be a prefect. I don't really know why (and at this point I really, really don't care) but I expect it was because of this kind of behaviour. They knocked my school down the other week, and I can't say I was sad. I always had the impression they never really wanted to let girls in in the first place, and they certainly didn't want ones who made any noise. 

Labels: , , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Wearing badges is not enough

All Jeremy Corbyn references entirely subconscious

I'm not a campaigner. I'm too anxious, too cautious, too self-conscious, too easily daunted. But I know a lot of campaigners. They are some of my favourite people. They fight the good fight, and they fight it for a long time, because change, if it comes, is usually incrementally, glacially slow. They have thick skins, boundless energy and creativity, and eternal optimism. They get knocked down and, usually, they get up again. They do it, I think, because they have to, and I have massive respect for them, not least because they throw some of the best parties you'll ever go to.

Campaigners fight for and give a voice to the world's, the country's, the neighbourhood's most vulnerable and disadvantaged people. And over the years, they've made some serious progress. Many of the rights now enshrined in law, at least in the global north, would pop the eyes out of the average Victorian. So much progress on so many fronts, so many opportunities for more progress. Things can only get


I'm descended from travellers, pipe makers and smugglers. Not so many generations back the birth certificates are signed with an X because nobody involved in making the baby could write their own name. Two world wars stirred shit up a bit (short version), and I'm a half immigrant social mobility success story. I am a home owner. I am part of the 'knowledge economy'. I've travelled to five continents. I am vaccinated against all the things*. I have controlled my own fertility since I became sexually active. I have all my own teeth. I've read Infinite Jest (though I wouldn't necessarily recommend it).

I also have a degree in social and political science from one of the best universities in the world, gained in the dying years of Thatcherism. I loved studying the politics of the welfare state: I got a first in that paper. One of the quotes (I've always loved a good quote) I wrote over and over again was RH Tawney's "The most important thing about a man is what he takes for granted."

Isn't it though. I think one of the things I took for granted till just a few years ago was that social progress was irreversible. That we would gradually get more multicultural (whatever that means, but I thought I knew, once), less unequal, with our life chances less defined by our gender or our caste or the colour of our skin. That we would combine our resources and our knowledge and our talents and our energy to tackle the huge challenges facing humanity and the planet, and together we would adapt and survive. The campaigners were out on the front line of that fight, and people like me were in the background, keeping the faith, doing our bit, applying the metadata, caring for the evidence base.

But I increasingly feel that this faith was a product of two things: my own life, spent bouncing between a series of interlinked and mutually reinforcing liberal bubbles, and the era I came of age in. For most of the New Labour years, many of the indicators were moving in that direction, and unless you're a better historian than I am I think you have to live long enough to see things turn back on themselves to realise that actually, this shit isn't linear.

Wearing badges is not enough**, but right now I have no idea what is. I have fantasised about taking all of the post-truthers out in one go with a strategically placed measles germ, but I suspect that would only deal with the stupid ones (and the collateral damage would be unpalatable: I have a heart). It's the clever ones, who foment backlash against 'experts' with the zeal of the architects of the Cultural Revolution while maintaining cutting edge healthcare and offshore banking services for themselves, that we really have to worry about, and they are in the ascendant.

And of course it hasn't just been a terrible year for politics: I've shed tears for the loss of Bowie, Prince, Leonard and George, who all shone a light into the dark places and made them a bit more livable. And then there was Jo Cox (the only person I knew with a name shorter than mine), who was so skilled, so committed, and so clearly on the side of progress, tolerance and love. She was the ultimate campaigner, and she paid the ultimate price.

I'm obviously not alone (just check the MSM!) in proclaiming this a uniquely shit year, and I do believe it has something of the night about it. But I remember a message I got from a friend who lost his mum about five years before I lost mine. I had written something about how much I'd learnt from my mum and how sad I was to have lost that, and he said he had learnt more from his mum since she'd gone than ever before. And you know what, he was right.

So maybe 2017 is the year all us PC SJWs have to reach for our inner campaigners. We got the education. We got the love. We've got to use them.


* Well, not rabies. But pretty much everything else.
** Kind of terrifying how this song has come back around.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

TW: meta-blogging

I woke up on Friday morning - the beginning of my non-working week - wondering what to do with myself. There are some chunky items on the not-so-rolling Big Ticket to-do list. These include
  • Work out what to do with the rest of my life 
  • Turn vague pension-related anxiety into concrete (and therefore potentially actionable) pension-related anxiety. Something to do with SERPS. I have no idea 
  • Finish Marie Kondo'ing. Have got only as far as the fiction plus putting all the non-fiction in a heap, have had a heap of non-fiction for over a month now
  • Paint the entire house apart from that one wall we've managed to paint and buy some blinds for the bedrooms
  • Make a new will 
  • Change the filter in the cooker hood and find some bulbs for it that don't buzz. Doesn't sound chunky but somehow is 
I do know that if I threw myself at any item on the lower end of this list I could make a dent in it. I can be effective. I have skills. But I lack momentum, and am easily daunted at the moment. Well, usually. I need to wait for a gap in the mental traffic and then dart into it. 
And I wasn't feeling very darty so I moved on to the Granular to-do list. This is largely made up of smaller but still life-enhancing items, such as 
  • Make that third string lampshade
  • Make that third and fourth rag rug seat pad for the outdoor chairs
  • Design the Hanging Gardens of Babylon* and go buy the guttering (watch this space)
  • Download bank statements before they disappear forever (am pleasingly ahead of the game here but you only get so many months stored online and it never seems to be quite enough for the tax return)
  • Hassle the plumber about the toilet and the pressure reducing valve on the hot water cylinder (we are binning one of the eco-toilets. It leaks, it doesn't shift solid matter, it means we get through toilet brushes like there's no tomorrow, and it is generally shit. If it wasn't one with a STUPID concealed cistern I could do it myself, but it is. I have the plumbing skills but not the carpentry and tiling skills, and I don't want a bathroom that looks like I would leave it looking. And the cylinder is an ongoing saga. But the plumber is good, which means he's busy, and this is small beans) 
  • Find a home for that extraordinary goth-meets-fuchsia ball dress I wore in 1989 that my mum kept all those years that I can't quite bear just to give to Oxfam
But even this list felt a bit ambitious. I sensed myself gravitating towards the Maintenance of Status Quo to-do list, which includes such lofty ambitions as 
  • Make a plan for that parsley in the fridge
  • Go to the allotment 
  • Laundry
  • Ring my dad
  • Deal with Ecoville email backlog
  • Read books
  • In fact do anything that isn't Candy Crush alternating with Twitter and existential despair
In my defence, all this thinking happened before I even got out of bed. Perhaps less impressively, I didn't get out of bed for quite a while. But just before I did, I settled on a manageable-yet-slightly-stretchy item: write a blog post. 
I love this blog. I am its biggest fan. For its first 10 years it documented many of my best thoughts, and many of my stupidest actions. It's been faltering for its last few years though. This is partly because first Facebook and then smartphones came along, and something that might have developed into a blog post became easier and more immediately rewarding to post as a status update - and when you can post something NOW why would you let it settle and ferment, and who would even read my thoughts on Ken Livingstone fully two days later? But also because the internet has become a nasty place for women who express opinions - I've had only the mildest of these experiences (despite being a holder of some pretty strong opinions) and I know that's because, recently, I've done most of my opinion expressing in a less public space than this. If I've expressed them at all. 
Which is all a bit sad, and I want to do better. But also one picks one's battles, and I've had some others on closer to home. And some of that is why I decided to write a blog post on Friday morning, and it's taken me to nearly midnight on Monday to squeeze one out. I have the words, but I'm a little constipated. 
In between, for the record, I've taken pure pleasure in the appearance of my first asparagus spears and in the progress of the baby blackbirds currently living on our balcony. I've had thoughts about privilege and aggression. I've engaged in, and quickly been exhausted by engaging in, FB conversation about Ken and Israel and antisemitism and yada yada. I've made (partly in response) some proper Israeli-style houmous which I enjoyed with my two favourite cis straight white able bodied middle class men (one of them Jewish, which shouldn't matter, but then none of this shit should matter). I have mopped up the urine of a small dog on steroids who had an accident. I've administered pain relief to a terminally ill gerbil. I've drunk too much red wine. I've danced to Prince and sung Springsteen into the wind. I've spent yet more silly money on deodorant that isn't all chemically but probably won't actually work. I've momentarily overcome my fear of Ecoville communal eating and enjoyed a delicious, spicy dinner and a lot of laughing squidged around the All Foods Table. I've learned more than I thought I'd ever need or want to know about the Peninsular War. I've delighted in Lindy West's latest. I've read the first third of Wool
And I've written this. It may be a new start, it may not even be that. But I'd like to keep it up. 

* I do still intend to write a post about the many good things about living in Ecoville. But not today. 

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, October 09, 2015

On womb linings and associated detritus

At the end of last month, the Guardian seemed to have its own endometriosis week. I wasn't quite sure where the 'news hook' for this came from, and initially I wondered why it was making headlines in a week when surely we should have been talking about socialism. But then my endometrial tissue has taken up far more of my evenings over the last 30 years, so I figured I'd ride the wave while it lasts. 
I quite possibly have endometriosis. I certainly have, or used to have, the level of period pain that would indicate it. For years, I would hide away for hours every month, writhing, sobbing, furious and terrified, waiting for the codeine to bite me, the whisky to dull me, and my sanity to return. Few people ever got to see that, and the ones who did often didn't quite believe it. For each of my university exam terms, I went on the Pill, despite the side effects (weight gain, spots, tits like grapefruit) so I wouldn't be bleeding during the wrong week. Later, it affected my choice of job, the hours I could work, and the length of commute I could contemplate. I can tell if you are experiencing the kind of pain I used to experience. It turns you grey, you can't think straight, and you would genuinely lose a tooth, or a toe, or a family member of medium significance, if it would only just go away. 
The first time I "did something about it" I was 30, and it was because for a year I had a job with private health cover. I felt that the cover meant they could demand more of me, so I should demand more too. I had a vaginal ultrasound and then an investigative laparoscopy in a v swanky hospital in Oxford. I ordered a smoked trout salad which they brought me at 3 am. I remember the genuinely lovely gynaecologist who told me that my uterus was retroverted (no big deal except when it is) and there were a few 'possible endometrial spots' but he couldn't be sure without more invasive investigation and he didn't think it was necessary unless I did. Which I didn't, as I'd handed in my notice because I'd got my job at NGO X and my private health cover was about to cease. 
But it was useful information, and I looked after myself a bit better after that: watch how much you drink when you're premenstrual, watch how you plan your holidays, never make any major life decisions when you're within a week of bleeding (when you're actually bleeding, major life decisions are the least of it, so no worries). If you have to go home, go home. 
Which saw me through, mostly, until I hit my 40s, when shit totally went pear shaped. One of the few good things about my dreadful awful periods was that they were pretty reliable, timing-wise, and they were never that heavy (though of course that could be because the bleeding was happening in other places). I could tell the instant they started, often before anything had appeared. I wasn't one of those people who randomly bled through their clothes. Until I was. They used to come, nearly kill me, then go. Then they started coming, going, then coming back for more. They were slower and darker and heavier and bleaker and, while not so acute, generally just a whole lot worse. 
This coincided with the beginning of our Great Move North, so I would regularly (but not predictably) find myself sobbing in train toilets, improvising san pro from wodges of cheap-as-possible paper towel. There was one long, dark bike ride in the rain, back to a slightly damp room in a house with no warmth, that I will never forget. I took to carrying supplies - pads and drugs and my little microwaveable heat bag, a long-ago present from a long-ago boyfriend - up and down the country, just in case. It wasn't life threatening, but it was unutterably miserable. I can't remember what sent me to my GP, the changes were incremental but something must have tipped me over. She was marvellous - she was always marvellous - but she said that she wasn't the practice expert on 40+ hormones, and I should speak to Doctor Claire. 
Doctor Claire rang me a couple of days later. I was sitting on a bench at Radley station, waiting for a train. Can you talk? she said. Sure, I said. M was sitting next to me. Later, he told me (and he only heard half the conversation), wow, I had no idea. And he had been living with me for over 10 years. Doctor Claire recommended a Mirena coil, but I wasn't keen on that. I have heard about how they get those things in, I said, and let's just say I'm not going there without sedation. I haven't had children, remember. Well, fair enough, she said. We can do that (the sedation, not the children), but maybe we should check out your tolerance to the hormones first. Try this mini-pill for three months. If you have any problems you can stop, and if it helps then we can either knock you out and stick a Mirena up you (I paraphrase), or give you an implant. 
The next week, I went to pick up my prescription. The advice I'd had from Doctor Claire was that this particular pill had a transformative effect in around a third of cases, made naff all difference for another third, and for the final third, would only make things worse. You do not want to read the list of possible side effects. I thought myself a person who did not want to take hormones, having felt the combined Pill's side effects a huge price to pay for admittedly manageable periods. I knew myself to be unlucky in blood. I was not expecting to be in the magical third. But hats off to Doctor Claire, who at that point I had not actually met. By the time I did meet her, I had taken to singing 'Wo-oh, it's only Cerazette but I like it, like it, yes I do'. 
This drug CHANGED MY LIFE. Since I started taking it, over three years ago now, I have not had a period. Not a one. Not even a little bit of one. Not a twinge. No PMS. No pain. This is like being a child. Or a woman without a womb. Or a woman who's had the menopause. Or maybe a man. Someone who feels the same, every day of the month. Who doesn't get taken out of circulation three or four days at a time, and who can trust her own judgement from week to week. I don't shout at people. I don't sob. I don't think 'tonight, I will walk down the middle of the road and see if I get hit by a bus, and if I do get hit by a bus, I will see if it hurts more than this'. 
Full disclosure: I rarely got through my PMS and period pain without accessing other mind-altering substances, mainly alcohol and prescription painkillers, and usually both. If I'd been all about the flower remedies and the homeopathy, I might have handled it differently, but there is still no way on this sweet earth that I would have actively enjoyed riding that crimson, latterly sepia, wave. I made many efforts to accentuate the positives of the emotional rollercoaster (to be fair, I have done some excellent ranting, some of which can be accessed via the anger and hormones tags below), and gained meaningful awareness that one's mental state can be affected by things produced by one's body as well as things one has consumed. But with hindsight that was all set against a feeling that the alternative was weight gain, spots, and tits like grapefruit. And the slightly lobotomised dullness that came with all of that. I thought that this pain was part of the female experience. It was part of the miracle of life. It should, as far as possible, when it's not making you want to cut out your own uterus with a carving knife, be embraced. We're feminists, remember? This is WOMANHOOD. Not long after we met, M bought me a patchouli-scented second-hand copy of The Wise Wound. He meant well, but after much reflection I concluded that the hidden energies of my own moon cycle can basically do one.  
For realz. As one of the lucky third of Cerazetters, what I feel now is only the absence of bad things*. I have to struggle to remember them. I only remembered during the writing of this post what it was that first took me to the GP. I'd had three dreadful periods on the trot and I was beginning to think that I could only wear black pants and trousers and should have some kind of ceremonial bonfire for all the others. I was also getting through so many of those little packs of tissues (mostly for the crying, but also for the emergency san pro improvisation) that I'd started buying the shoebox-sized multi-packs. So I went to the doctor, the excellent doctor, and she said 'how can I help today Jo?' and I said 'I'd like a hysterectomy please, can I get one on the NHS or if not how much does it cost?'. 
So she did her excellent job, and Doctor Claire prescribed the Cerazette, and three months later I went to see her. She said, how are you getting on with it then? I said 'I think this may be the best thing that has ever happened to me in the whole of my life'. She said, well let's not mess with it then. 
And three-plus years later, here I am. I've kept all the empty blister packs as souvenirs (yes, really). Every six months I ask for a new prescription at my new GPs, and they book me in for a check up. My blood pressure is always a bit high the first time they take it, and I explain that it's because I'm worried that it will be too high and they won't give me a new prescription. How are you getting on with it? they say. It's the best thing that ever happened to me in the whole of my life, I say. And they write me a new prescription, and my blood pressure drops. 


*I do sometimes think I may be a little harder than I used to be. But then stopping bleeding is not the only thing that's happened to me in the last three years. 

Labels: , ,

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Me and JC

So, Jeremy Corbyn. I've never been a member of the Labour party, although I've always voted Labour in general elections. And this one was no exception, though they basically had to drag the vote out of me. I wanted to vote Green, because their policies were closest to my heart, but several thoughtful people counselled me otherwise, as this was a marginal Con-Lab seat that Labour could have won. And in the end I went to listen to the candidates, and I liked the Labour candidate the best. I'm sorry she lost and I'm glad I voted for her. I'm sorry Labour lost and I think it's a tragedy for the country. I liked Red Ed, the man and his politics, but I can totally see why many people couldn't see him as prime minister, and it was a pretty wet campaign overall. That stone. That sandwich. That mug. That van. And the whole messaging on the economy. It was there for the losing, with hindsight, and it was lost. And Ed had to go. 
My interest in Corbyn was first piqued by Cat Smith, new Labour MP for Lancaster & Fleetwood (I like to think of her as my MP, as my actual MP says nothing to me about my life), who nominated him straight away, boom. And it's just grown from there really. Ten years ago I spent three years working for NGO X's UK Poverty Programme and I learnt a huge amount about poverty and inequality in the UK. It's appalling, and over the last five years it's only got worse, and over the next five, well no prizes for guessing who austerity will bite the hardest. And since I moved back to the north west from the bright shiny Oxford bubble, with its artisanal sourdough, its Mini-driving students, its insane house prices and its, again with hindsight, extraordinary complacency, I've seen a lot more of that biting happening around me. 
And you know, #poorlivesmatter. Of course you know, you're my friends, you're not dicks. But it's easy to forget, when you're not living it and neither is anyone you know*. I'm ashamed of what this government is doing to people who were barely able to cope *before* this ideology-driven onslaught. There are plenty of economists arguing that there's nothing necessary, or inevitable, about austerity. It's a political choice, and we need to be putting forward better choices, ones that people who can see past the end of their own noses (and that's fucking loads of us, right) can, and will, vote for. 
And that's where Mr Corbyn has come in. Everything he's said on austerity, I've been 'why hasn't the Labour party been saying this all along?'. How on earth did the shadow Cabinet come not to vote against the Welfare Bill? What sort of bullshit opposition is abstention? Jesus. 
So there's that. And then the renationalisation of the railways, which is such an eye-wateringly obvious thing to do I would put it on the Jo Stone. And the buses. The way we run the buses in this country, outside London, is FUBAR. Come ON. It's 2015. We can do better. 
And then there's housing. You don't have to be a Marxist to know that the glorious free market will never, ever, deliver decent affordable housing to people in low paid jobs. Never has, anywhere on earth, never will. And when I stop to think about it, which is often (this being one of the things that *did* affect a lot of people in Oxford, and affects Morecambe in a totally different way) it makes me HOPPING SPITTING MAD that all that lovely housing benefit, which is public money raised by taxing the securely employed and housed, goes, in many cases, to exploitative dickwads who couldn't give less of a shit about the quality of the housing they are providing to the insecurely employed and housed. Market forces can do one here. Get in the fucking sea. 
So Jeremy C is a tick tick tick for me on those things. Other things, I'd say I'm broadly in agreement on the big picture, though clearly more work is needed on a lot of the foreign policy stuff. 
But that brings me to the man himself. I love the collaborative process he used to put together his Northern Future manifesto. I love the way he 'doesn't do personal' (something I totally fail at myself). I love the way he's a Marxist and he uses the royal We. He's not in it for the personal glory, and there seems to be a remarkable consensus, even among people who hate his politics, that has him as a decent guy who is doing this because he's the best person to do it right now, and hell, someone's got to. 
And yet there's been an immense 'anyone but Jeremy' Labour establishment backlash, culminating this week with the whole 'we want to be a party of government not a party of protest' thing.
Well, here's the other thing, If he wasn't standing, I wouldn't be voting. I have never in my whole little life seen anyone galvanise the young and disaffected like this. All those people who didn't vote. All those people who thought mainstream politics had nothing to offer them. All those people who couldn't make time for getting their vote out because they were too busy being ill / disabled / working three jobs on poverty wages and what was the point anyway? I love to vote, I've said so many times, but I get to participate. I get to matter. I am one fucking lucky individual and if there's a credible politician out there who speaks for and will act for the people who don't have my privilege, then that person gets my vote. 
And I don't appreciate the patronising tone of the party grandees and many of the mainstream media commentators with this 'oh you naive things, this man could never win in 2020' line. Really? And the other candidates could? All three of them are basically the same age as me, we have similar-ish lower middle-class public sector backgrounds, we all went to Oxbridge in the era when you could leave university with no debt at all if you drank cider and didn't buy too many books. I should identify with at least one of them. But I don't. They seem to have had a collective charisma bypass, though if you twisted my arm really hard and said I had to go to the pub with one of them, it would be Yvette. Obvs. And if *I* can't warm to them, people I could have read Marxism Today, drunk Newcastle Brown and danced to Free Nelson Mandela with, what hope is there for the rest of the Great British Public? Jeremy doesn't even go to the pub, and he's 20 years older than me, and I still think he's the best woman for the job. 
So Im voting for the politics of hope. I really can't see what else to do. YMMV, and I may eat my hat, but then again, it could be the Best Thing Ever. 
* Speaking for myself here, not making assumptions about anyone reading this. I know people in precarious situations, but nobody without some support from friends and family.