Writing Exercise

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Met online with my lovely writing group today, and, as we frequently do, we did a picture exercise. This involves finding a random picture* and writing about it for a set time. Peter is a master at this, and usually finds us four or five pictures to choose from. This time Chris joked “Someone will show off by writing a story tying together all the pictures”. Of course I took that as a challenge. These are the pictures, this is the story. It was written in twenty minutes, so it’s as rough as a bear’s bum, but I’m quite pleased with it.

She sits by the open window for most of the day, staring out, head resting on one hand as she dreams her days away.  The other residents of the block wave and smile to her as they pass, or exchange a few words “You good today, ma’am?  You enjoying the sun?”  “How are you today, Mother?  How is your arthritis?”  “Do you need anything, Ma? I’m off shopping, is there anything you want?” If they have time, they stop to rest before dragging their bodies weary from work, their heavy bags, up the winding stair from landing to landing to their apartments.  On the few occasions she leaves her own apartment, she passes the stairs, winding to the top of this big, elegant building.  When she was little, she and her brothers would race each other to the top and then back down again, clattering and shouting until their father or mother snapped at them to be quiet.  When her nieces and nephews were small they would climb up and drop hazelnuts from above, trying to hit the centre of the tiled roundel at the foot of the stairs.  Occasionally they would drop them on the heads of the other residents, prompting complaints.   The memory makes her smile. 

Often the residents have their children with her when they stop on their way home; she hands them sweets from the jar she keeps on the window sill and winks at them “Don’t tell your parents, now!”  And mother or father will smile back at her in the pleasure of a shared joke.  Black faces, brown faces, yellow faces, she beams at all of them and they beam back at her.  When they rest before they climb the stairs to their homes, they often talk to her, sometimes about their days, their troubles, their small joys and pleasures, but often also about their homes, the places they come from.  She sees through their eyes countries she has never visited, animals she has never seen, landscapes foreign and exotic but, she can tell, in the words of those who speak to her of their lost homelands, loved, so loved.  The wide courtyard of the apartment block blooms with flowers, with fish, with birds, with mountains and narrow city streets, with animals and plants, with food, with smells, with long twilights full of insects and bright clear mornings full of birdsong and long noondays drowsy with heat. 

She sees their homes through their eyes, she who has hardly been further than the front door of the building since the day she fell.  Swinging on the cast iron bannisters, her foot slipped and she crashed to the tiles below.  Not a huge fall, not even one storey, but enough to break her back and put an end to her racing days forever.  No more running up and down the stairs for her.  Her brothers left and she remained, first with her parents, then alone, managing round the familiar apartment on crutches, neighbours shopping for her.  At first after her parents died she was lonely, so lonely, except when her brothers and their families came to stay, of course, but then the residential area, which had been smart and desirable when her parents bought this apartment, started to go downhill.  The straitlaced respectable middle-class couples moved out and gradually first poorer people, then immigrants, moved in.  At first she watched from the window in fear at these strange people, concerned that they might harm her in some unspecified way, rob her, or otherwise take advantage of her weakness.  But instead they smiled and waved.  She started to smile back, then to wave, then, after a small Vietnamese woman knocked on her door one day with a gift of fish stew, she opened the window and waited so she could say “Good day”.  And now she has ten, twenty, thirty friends she sees every day, who inquire after her health and fetch her shopping and share their food, and their dreams of their homes so far away.  She has never travelled in her body far from this apartment, but in her mind now she travels everywhere, back to all their homelands, the colours and scents and sounds vivid in her mind while she gazes from her window onto the world. 

*We usually use this site.

In my dream

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In my dream
The office blocks float offshore.
And the red buses
Shuttle along the the promenade below.
And the sea washes
So serenely,
Under the buses
And the office blocks,
As if they were real.
As if they were anything.
As if they weren’t a dream,
The office blocks floating in the air,
And the buses going to and fro below.

Boris at the CBI

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Well, it’s not that topical any more, given the speed with which news moves these days, but it’s a week since our dear* PM’s car crash of a speech at the CBI, which inspired me to finally write something after an embarassingly long time. It was actually written for a small cabaret evening put on by my local AmDram group, so it’s what you might call performance poetry, or, to be more accurate, performance doggerel. I was thinking of this article which my friend Andy Golborne shared in the aftermath of said speech. It’s long, but very entertaining, and well worth a read, because it makes very clear that, whilst Boris’ refusal to get on top of his brief, or to acquire any real in-depth understanding of anything other than his own career and advantage, is genuine, his supposedly breezy and spontaneous responses to being caught out are anything but. And that made me think, if that’s your schtick, what happens when the laughing stops? Anyhow, here it is. Enjoy!

Boris at the CBI

From Downing Street, the limousine
Purred northwards from the London scene
Of funkapolitan** farragos:
Rail snafus, second job embargos.
On pigskin seats BoJo reclined, 
His next engagement on his mind.
"What's next?" he asked his servile SPAD***,
"I can't remember. Whoops! My bad!"
"The CBI" replied the lad.

“Ah, top hole stuff! That’s just the ticket!
Parliament now is not quite cricket,
But these good fellows, they think big!
Tech unicorns!  And Peppa Pig!
I think I’ll have a little nap.
Nudge me when we’re there, old chap.”

For he assumed they’d love his spiel,
These guys who live to wheel and deal,
The ones who built on Thatcher's rot,
The knights of Tory Camelot!
Profiting from deregulation,
To shaft the once-great British nation,
Sold assets off as profits soared
And sent her industry abroad,
To Singapore and to Korea
Where business owners need not fear
Union reps or Elf and Safety,
Or injured workers getting baitey,
A few cents pay is all it takes,
And need not cover toilet breaks.

And unions, that fought day and night,
To safeguard jobs, for workers rights,
Proper protections, decent pay,
Sick leave, time off, maternitay****
Are now Stonewalled and spend their time
Policing pronouns, sex thought-crime.
Now in the North Mcjobs are all,
From Hadrian's to the once-Red Wall,
While once-proud factories decay.
Does Boris give a stuff? No way!
Eyes closed, he snoozed throughout the ride,
A nice warm feeling deep inside.

He can ignore the COVID mess,
The shattered, tottering NHS,
The Red Wall Tories in his hair
Whining about the cost of care,
The hideous decor, snagging yet,
Designed by Carrie Antoinette,
And spend a morning riding high
The star turn at the CBI! 

Upon the podium he grinned
The Brexit hero! Yes, he winned!*****
And now he thought he'd triumph again,
But no. Alas, he looked in vain
For laughter and for warm applause.
In each expectant, hopeful pause
Came tumbleweeds across the room.
He caught a whiff of deepening gloom -
Despite the chummy nods to "Tony"******
All of the faces stared back, stony. 
He tried what had been sure-fire winners 
At other fat-cat black tie dinners:
"David Attenborough! Ferrari! 
Burble! Wind power! Masserati! 
Electric vehicles are crap!"
There barely came a single clap.

Rattled, he stumbled, lost his place,
Murmured “Forgive me”, red of face.
“Forgive me” as he shuffled pages,
The awful silence stretched for ages.  
"Good lord" he thought 
"They've bowled a yorker!
I know! They'll love a fellow porker! 
This speech needs inspo intravenous:
Peppa Pig World - business genius!”
And thus he turned to Peppa Pig,
But Peppa did not go down big,
Hairdryer pig was not a hit.
The media verdict: "It was shit".  

Forgive me....
Not for COVID deaths,
The lonely quarantined last breaths,
Forgive me....
Not for Brexit lies,
For shortages as prices rise.
Forgive me....
Not for grift and sleaze,
A jolly profitable wheeze,
To take tax pounds that we all pay
For BoJo's mates to stash away.
Not the betrayal of a nation, 
But for your own humiliation.
Forgive me....
I cannot see why.
Forgive me....
Peppa Pig might fly.

* ironic
** If there are any words in here which you don’t recognise, chances are they’re a direct quote from the speech.
*** Parliamentary slang for Special Advisor
**** The rhymes don’t always come. So sue me.
***** Past participle of win, obviously.
****** Tony Danker, Chair of the CBI


An Evening Out in the City of London After Retirement During Lockdown, July 2021*

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I walked tonight along St George's Lane
Where thirty years ago I found a pigeon
Dying, on my way to the office in the rain.
I moved it to a spot out of the way
Of predators and well-intentioned fools,
And went on, and thought of it from time to time.
The dying pigeon in St George's Lane.
Tonight there was an empty beer bottle 
On the opposite pavement as I headed home,
And I thought tonight that some time, when I die,
The dying pigeon will die too, again.
But if you've read this poem, you might feel
Its feathery brittle vulnerable warmth,
And my confusion, wondering what to do,
And where to put it, to be safe to die.
And you might think of it from time to time,
And stop it dying, in St George's Lane.

* Pretentious, moi?

Suits vs Skins revisited

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Gratuitous pic of dawn at the lake at Beckenham last October for the purpose of getting attention.

Yep, it’s that subject again! This morning my lovely friend Ruth and I had a wonderful swim around Beckenham Place Park Swimming Lake, and for the first time this year we did two circuits, aka one kilometre, skins, that is, without any neoprene (unless you count Ruth’s neoprene cap and bootees, which personally I don’t). As we swam, we were passed by a fellow swimmer in full neoprene. Now, I don’t care what anyone wears when they swim. They can swim in the total nuddy or they can swim in full evening wear, it bothers me not even slightly, so long as they enjoy their swim. But it did remind me of my cousin’s term for people in full neoprene, of which more later. So, inspired by that, here is a small and very incomplete list of swimmers, categorised by What They Wear.

Skins swimmers. Now, already we have complicated this, because there are essentially five types of Skins swimmers:

Type 1, the Channel Swimmer. These are the guys who do marathon swims and who need to be able to swim for hours at temperatures between 16/17° (English Channel) and 12° (North Channel, and good luck with that) without either getting hypothermic or losing it completely and begging to be allowed out. Channel Rules, which govern all marathon swims, say you have to do it in nothing but one standard swimming costume (no long legs, long arms or high necks, no top half for men) and one silicone cap. Basically, ‘ard. However, generally unworried about what anyone else wears, unless that anyone is training for the Channel or similar, in which case they will helpfully advise.

Type 2, The Naturist. These are the guys (actually mostly gals) who swim for the absolute love of it, almost always outdoors, almost always in nature (what is now called ‘wild swimming’, which, Naturists inevitably protest, ‘used to just be called swimming’). They do a lot of swimming in places like Dartmoor, Scotland, the Lakes, Snowdonia, etc, post many photos and videos on social media of themselves swimming in places with a lot of mountains and snow, and wax lyrical about the joys of feeling the water on one’s skin and how undesirable it is to shut oneself off from this magical sensation. May also speak meaningfully about the role of cold water swimming in mental health. Possibly don’t stay in for very long.

Type 3, The Purist, aka the Pain in the Ass. Usually quite well-covered, generally well able to tolerate long periods at low temperatures, inevitably responds to any query about what sort of wetsuit to buy by telling the questioner that neoprene is a pointless fancy-pants newfangled invention which can easily be avoided by simply swimming through and “getting acclimatised”. Generally completely ignore the fact that they wear their own internal wetsuit (bioprene aka body fat) and that not everyone is either physically able or mentally willing to get absolutely miserably f*cking freezing any time the temperature drops below 17° and they fancy a bit of a longer swim. A pain in the ass because it makes absolutely no difference to tell them that you’re well aware that it’s possible to acclimatise if you swim through but that you still want to get a wetsuit for very good reasons of your own; they’ll still tell you that you don’t need a wetsuit and that it’s perfectly possible to acclimatise if you swim through.

Which brings me to Type 4, The Alchemist. These are people who are ridiculously skinny but also fast, and who want to be able to stay in for a long long time when the water temperature is low. Will ask questions on social media about why the’re unable to acclimatise, citing as evidence the fact that last week they were virtually hypothermic after only an hour and a half at 11° (don’t try that at home, kids!). Will try anything, including eating weird stuff (turmeric, apparently, for some reason) at weird times, jumping around a lot before getting in, deep breathing (see below), you name it, everything except neoprene. Like the alchemists of old, they seek the magical charm that can turn the base metal of a hopelessly uninsulated naked monkey into the gold of a human walrus.

Type 5, The Hoff. Devotee of the Wim method of that ilk. A bit like the Naturist, but with added guru. Does a lot of deep breathing and horse stance (something to do with big muscles). I have no idea if this actually makes any difference. I have heard that if you’re a relatively experienced cold water swimmer your body temperature will start to rise anyhow before you get into the water as the body does its wondrous stuff, unaided by any need for horsing around or breathing theatrically, but we all have our little rituals, so if this works for them, they should fill their boots, say I.

And now, of course, the Suits. Five of these, also, to be fair.

Type 1. The Triathlete. Loves wetsuits, lives for wetsuits, buys hugely expensive gofaster wetsuits and likes to strut around in them before getting in and stand around with them peeled to the waist after getting out. Divided into the ones who are All The Gear, No Idea and the ones who are annoyingly fast. Wouldn’t even think about going in without their suits. Don’t bother to acclimatise because when Covid isn’t messing it up for everyone they only swim outdoors between late May and early September before, like the mice they in no way resemble, migrating back indoors as the nights draw in.

Type 2, The Reluctant Triathlete. Posts a lot on social media about how they’ve entered an event which requires you to wear a wetsuit if the water temperature is below X° and will the temperature be above X°, will it, will it, what will they do if it’s not, will the organisers let them swim without a wetsuit, will they, will they?!? I have no idea, how am I supposed to know? Often wait until the last minute, order a wetsuit online, and then post after the event about how it nearly strangled them, was really hard to swim in, and cut the back of their neck to shreds. It never seems to occur to them to do anything sensible like hire a wetsuit or two in the run up to the event and practice with them to find one that’s comfortable. Instead they prefer to rely on the weather gods, invoked by their own personal oft-repeated incantation of Whatwillthewatertemperaturebeontheday.

Type 3. The Shorty. Has purchased what is basically a bodyboarding wetsuit for a tenner from Lidl or Aldi and wears it happily despite it being tragically inappropriate for swimming and a terrible fit. Bimbles delightedly around head-up breastroke, loving their neoprene and enjoying their swim. Good for them. Would that we were all so easily satisfied.

Type 4. The Gimp (thanks to my cousin for this one). Head to toe neoprene. Full wetsuit, neoprene cap with chin strap, bootees, gloves. Swims like this throughout autumn, winter, and spring. Generally just wants to be able to carry on swimming outdoors when the temperature drops and sensibly uses the correct kit to allow them to do so, but there are probably a few who get a little tingle from the smell of rubber in the morning, and why not?

Type 5. The Narnian. Has a wardrobe, and likes to go through it before every swim. Will it be the full wettie or the sleeveless? With a rash vest or without? Maybe just a neoprene vest? Maybe a vest under the wettie in the colder months. Definitely bootees. Quite probably gloves. And of course a neoprene cap. So many choices – which to pick? Unable to resist kit, so buys it and uses it to the full. Up for a skins dip right through the winter but also dearly loves the snuggliness of a full wetsuit during an event or a longer swim. This one is me. Which one is you?

And don’t even get me started on changing robes……….

I have a desk!!!!!! OMG, OMG!!!!!

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I have a desk!!! After nearly eighteen months without one, I finally, finally, have a desk with proper, working computer equipment. I cannot even begin to explain to you the sheer wonderful transcendent joy of this particular moment. Feast your eyes upon the magnificence of the desk, above. See the way its glorious desky structure stretches across below the window to accomodate all the necessities. See the filing trays, the printer, the monitor, the mouse, the keyboard. THE MONITOR, THE MOUSE, THE KEYBOARD!!!!! I have a MONITOR, a MOUSE and a KEYBOARD, PEOPLE!!! And I’m typing this blog entry with them, right now!!!!

Of course, the last time I sat at an actual proper desk with an actual proper monitor (in fact two monitors), an actual proper mouse, and an actual proper keyboard, I had no idea that it would be the best part of eighteen months before I did it again. Actually, I tell a bit of a lie. Truthfully, it’s been fourteen months since I sat at such a desk, but that was only for four days before it was snatched away again. It happened thusly.

At the end of 2019 I had agreed with my manager that I would take a two month sabbatical and then return to work for fourteen hours a week in March 2020. Prior to that I had been working four days a week in my company’s office in the City of London, where agile working meant that each employee, including me, would not have an allocated desk, but wold book one of a number of identical desks in our location for each day they were in the office. This meant that my morning routine comprised getting my stuff from my locker, heading over to my chosen desk, plugging my laptop into the docking station, getting out my bits and pieces* and arranging them, and starting work. Because our company had done agile working properly, all the desks were identical with excellent equipment which could be easily adjusted and everything worked, so that every desk I booked was a pleasure to work at. The moment my monitor flickered on, I grasped my mouse and started to tap away on my keyboard, that was the moment I really started work each day. It greased my wheels, got my motor running and my brakes off, started me moving smoothly up through the gears, and other similarly dodgy motoring metaphors. Not to put too fine a point on it, I really liked having a decent desk to sit at; it seemed to help me work.

However, by the end of 2019 I was about to turn sixty and felt that, however much I liked sitting at an agile desk in an agile office feeling agile and professional and other super things like that, it was probably time to wind down a bit before retirement, and that I could get quite enough pleasure from sitting agilely at a desk for a maximum of two agile days a week. My manager and I therefore agreed that I would take a break for two months (I was REALLY knackered. Turns out that working quite hard during a long menopause is pretty tiring. Who knew? Hashtag irony) and that I would come back in March 2020 rejuvenated and ready to once more enjoy the delights of agile desking for two days a week. Ho ho, with the benefit of hindsight. By the time I returned, the Big C was looming, and our office shut on Sunday 15th March, a full week before BoJo found his cojones and locked the whole UK down. And that was it for me and desks.

Of course, it wasn’t it for me and working, for, like so many others, I had to rather swiftly pivot to working from home. I was much, much luckier than many in having a job which could be done from home, a laptop, and excellent IT support from a company which had been working flexibly and agilely and remotely for many years, so it was a pretty seamless transition in many ways, except in terms of the desk. I did, in fact, at that time have a desk, a very very old one designed to be used with a tower PC rather than a laptop, in a spare room/study which was, not to put too fine a point on it, a tragic dumping ground for all sorts of extraneous crap.

Eeewwww. Also, at the time I didn’t have the monitor, the printer, the keyboard and the mouse. Those came later. I had a load of nasty old computer stuff instead. Double Eeeewwww.

I decided instead to work at the kitchen table. This wasn’t all bad – the weather in that first lockdown was glorious, and it meant I could have the doors open to the garden. The table was too low, but I raised the laptop on a document box, and I had a surface to my right where I could dump bits and pieces like my notebook and pens. I even had a co-worker. You can see my 2020 workstation in the two smaller photos above – the close up is of my keyboard, mouse and monitor (ie laptop) and my coworker’s bottom. Sorry. She is terrible about purrsonal space. I was lucky in getting a cheap desk chair from a neighbour a couple of weeks into the first lockdown, since working whilst sitting in a kitchen chair was doing nothing for my back. When she posted on the street WhatsApp group early one morning that she’d put it outside her house in case anyone wanted it, I literally ran down the street in my pyjamas to snaffle it. And so that’s where I worked, for the rest of 2020 and into 2021. I retired at the end of 2020 (I went into the office to collect the bits and pieces still in my locker from when I left the building in March, and that was a strange thing to do in December last year, I can tell you, since nobody was in the building who absolutely didn’t have to be and the whole place felt like the Marie Celeste). By this time I’d purchased a Chromebook for personal stuff, which was great in the sense that a Chromebook is fabulous, but terrible in the sense that it has a somewhat different keyboard and mouse pad to a laptop, and using it was not intuitive. I wasn’t consciously not enjoying being at my “desk”, but I found it hard to get on with stuff and had no energy for writing, something I’ve always loved. I hoped that would change when I retired, and I did try to blog a bit, but it never really took off.

And then…. My intention had always been to create myself a study to write in when I retired, and my lovely decorator had painted my spare room a glorious sunshine yellow. My friends Egg and Margy had designed and built a fabulous desk, and I had treated myself to a desk chair the exact same model as the ones we had in the office, but reconditioned and covered with a upbeat bright green fabric rather than dull corporate grey. Everything was set, and I just needed to sort out connecting up the monitor, keyboard and mouse, and printer that I’d prepared earlier (or rather, purchased off the internet earlier after a mammoth hunt to find such things, what with the huge demand for them from all the other people who found themselves in exactly the same boat as me but were a bit quicker off the mark). Because I needed to connect up a Chromebook, which don’t really come with docking stations, I’d also had to buy a USB C hub, and when I’d earlier tried connecting everything up on my old desk (see above, eeewww), nothing worked. I put this down to the difference in levels between the USB hub and the keyboard and mouse, since the latter needed to be on the pull-out shelf and the former on the actual desk, and I assumed that this made it hard for the wireless technology to work, but privately I feared it was more that the whole set up just wasn’t going to function very well, if at all. It was quite scary trying to work out what I needed to buy given the equipment I had, and I did wonder if I’d got it wrong. Hence, once I had my wonderful new desk with my wonderful new chair in my wonderful new study, I didn’t connect everything up and get working straight away, because I was convinced that doing so was going to be difficult and challenging and involve hours of me trawling the internet endeavouring to interpret Geekspeak so I could suss out how to get stuff to work and why it wasn’t working when it should do. I felt I needed to gird my internal loins for a struggle. I needed to be ready for it, and prepared for it to be hard.

And thus we come to this afternoon, when I decided that I was feeling ready enough and strong enough and determined enough to face the challenge of connecting it all up and making it work. I connected everything up. It took about five minutes. And it worked. It all worked!!!! I felt like Josh in The West Wing. I had to do a few emails. I did a few emails. I needed to Google a couple of things. I Googled a couple of things. I was sitting at the desk, typing on the keyboard, mousing with the mouse, staring at the monitor, and it was like a drug. I felt like I’d been given a big, fat hit of something I hadn’t had in a very long time – the sheer joy of working when the physical act of working is made easy and all you need to concentrate on is what’s going on in your head and how best to get it out into the world. It was bloody wonderful. I had planned to spend the rest of the day doing a bit of gardening and reading my book, but I was enjoying myself so very much that I instantly binned that in favour of doing what I really wanted to do – WRITE. Oh, yeah, baby, this is the stuff, this is how it feels, that’s the spot, right there. Three hours of writing about a desk, and this is the result. It’s not much, but in many ways it’s the best three hours I’ve had in a year and a half. And if that makes me sad, I don’t care. Apparently, I still love to write, and now I have a proper desk to write at again. Yippeee!!!!!

*One unexpected joy of agile working is that you once more need a pencil case, something previously not required since childhood. There was a moment or two when we moved to agile working when I considered buying a wooden pencil case of the sort that was very à la mode in Cirencester about 1967, but good sense prevailed and I took my inner child shopping instead for the sort of pencil case which would portray an appropriately professional image in the office when I put it on my agile desk.

It was this one.

Terribly Sad

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My lovely friend Deborah has a lot of necklaces and is currently wearing one a day and posting photos of herself in said necklace on social media. It’s a very good way of noting the passing of the days in lockdown. One of the necklaces is a small locket she bought in Northcote Road antiques market containing photographs of, as she put it, “random baby and random grandad”. My writing group thought this would be a terrific prompt for a story and so it proved – we met this afternoon and wrote four very different stories about the locket. This is mine.

It would be so easy to make it a tragedy.  The baby should be the adored child of an older father, the late-flowering bud of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, born just before he was called up in the war to end all wars.  The locket of course is his leaving gift from his wife, purchased with money saved from the housekeeping, containing a photo of the baby for him to wear against his heart.  It was clasped in his hand when he died in the casualty station and sent home to his grieving widow and her fatherless child by a kindly officer doing his best to find some salve for the unbearable news.  

But wait, that doesn’t work.  If it were that, it would be a photograph of the baby, and one of her mother.  All right, then, he gave his wife the locket before he was called up, placed pictures of himself and their adored daughter within it, clasped it tenderly about her neck, where she grasped it in instinctive fear when she heard the knock on the door heralding the grim telegram and its terrible news.  

It still seems strange that there was a picture of the baby, though.  She saw the baby every day.  Maybe he put the baby in there because that was what he would want.  Or maybe that’s not the story at all.  Maybe it was two pictures of the same person, the baby he was and the soldier he became, placed in the locket as a gift to his dear old mother before he left for the front, solace for her both in her sorrow at his departure and her grief at his death. Yes, that must be the story. Terribly sad.  She was wearing it when she died of a broken heart the very day of the Armistice, the day the guns fell silent, just two weeks after his death, the dreadful telegram clasped in her hand. Terribly, terribly sad. 

She nodded with satisfaction, putting aside the random photographs she’d taken from the box from the house clearance, small circles showing where nameless faces had been cut out.  The locket was……..yes, sold to her by the great niece of the person concerned, after her mother died.  Why’d she sell it?  Maybe it was unlucky? Or maybe the great niece just needed the money.  Yes, that was it.  No need for a bad luck story.  Don’t want to overegg the pudding.  The great niece probably wanted a bit of money to… to…. yes, to give to her son to help him buy a house….. to buy a car….. to go to university!  Jack (bound to be a Jack) had been an intelligent man but of course, in those days, uneducated, had to leave school to go to work, but a great reader, books his comfort in the trenches, he’d be delighted to know his gift to his old mother was bringing in a bit of money to send his great-nephew to university for the education that he’d been denied.  Great-great-nephew.  How many years would that be?  Sounded right.  

She reached for the polish, but decided against it.  Don’t want to make it look too new.  People love to think they’ve discovered a treasure.  “Looked like nothing when I bought it but it polished up beautifully.  I don’t think she knew what she’d got.  She told me a wonderful story about it.  Terribly sad”.  Sixty… no, eighty-five pounds, and she’d let them beat her down to seventy five.  Seventy if she was having a good day.  That would do nicely.  “Terribly, terribly sad.”

On getting around to it….

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The Round Tuit is an old joke, but it encompasses a near universal truth – most of us have long to-do lists of things which we should be getting on with but which mysteriously remain undone. There are all sorts of perils to this approach from the serious to the merely annoying, but however severe the potential consequences, human beings as a species remain master procrastinators. There’s a theory that procrastination may be a side-effect of evolution; our ancestors who stayed in the cave rather than heading out after the bison were less likely to be eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger, and so were able to propogate their genes. I’m not convinced by this, since the dangers of starvation would have been equally present, but procrastination is so widespread that it must serve some purpose (apart from the momentary pleasure of staying sat on your fat arse scrolling Facebook, which to be honest isn’t even all that as a pastime).

Not everyone procrastinates. Tim Urban famously produced a brilliant blog post about procrastination which drew two types of responses: the “But why don’t you just get on with it?” brigade, and the procrastinators, who struggled to explain just why this piece of advice was as helpful as telling your depressed friend to cheer up, and as likely to succeed. If only a Round Tuit was a genuine thing, but until someone invents it all of us hapless procrastinators have to rely on various hacks invented by other procrastinators in the absence of real life Round Tuits such as furious bosses, pissed-off parents, and straight-talking doctors insisting on discussing ominous test results.

This post, for instance, came about whilst I was relaxing in bed today during my purely theoretical* ‘Me Hour’ when I return to bed, after feeding the cats, with tea and porridge and relax for an hour, no more, reading the paper online, connecting with chums via social media and generally readying myself for my day before rising to exercise, drink my coffee and get on with my life admin now that I am retired and potentially able to get totally on top of everything on my To Do list. A WhatsApp chat with some friends led to a discussion of the Pomodoro Technique as a means of getting on with stuff. My own theory about the Pomodoro Technique is that it’s often the amorphous and unknown quantity of a largish task that causes us to procrastinate. We don’t know what it will involve or how long it will take, for which reasons we find it hard to envisage success, so we are reluctant to start in the manner of early man expressing a reluctance to trek off over the ice in a direction nobody has ever been before in the hope of eventually encountering a purely theoretical herd of mammoths which no tribe has ever hunted before, however wonderful said mammoth herd might be if it actually existed (and this theory, which is mine, makes much more evolutionary sense to me). The Pomodoro Technique forces us to stop thinking about the task as a whole and just to get on with it in bite-sized chunks. By the time we’ve completed two hours with a couple of stops for breath we have a much better idea of what the task will involve and how to do it, and, because we’ve just spent two hours getting on with it, we can envisage ourselves continuing. In the same way, I always find, once I’m actually out of bed, it’s really not that hard to get on with my day.

Oliver Burkeman, who I very much like, and I highly recommend that you sign up for his twice-monthly email The Imperfectionist, makes a living out of passing on life hacks with considered comment about why they work, or otherwise. To quote his latest email: “It’s been said that it’s helpful to think about the time it takes to complete a task as including all the time you spend thinking about doing it, or stressing about not having done it yet, as well as actually doing it. That helps clarify that acting immediately needn’t be thought of as a matter of becoming more self-disciplined or pushing yourself harder.” Those of us who have spent all too long in Tim Urban’s Dark Playground know the truth of this; time spent on the Refreshing Phone Email Again and Again Roller Coaster Thrill Ride is never as rewarding as time spent just doing the stupid thing, however hard we find it to believe. I know this from hard experience; every morning I remind myself that once I’m out of bed, I actually find being up and about achieving stuff a lot more rewarding than lying in bed scrolling through The Guardian’s Lifestyle section to see if they’ve uploaded any new articles in the last fifteen minutes, and yet, somehow, I never believe myself……

This week, in particular, I’m in serious danger of over-procrastinating to the point of idiocy. I’m retired, I’m quarantining so I’m on my own at home with absolutely no appointments which necessitate putting on clothes, and the only person who is going to get me out of bed is me. And in fact today I am out of bed – I’ve put the clean washing away, I’ve put some more washing in the machine, I’ve done a bit of tidying up, I’ve had a (pre-arranged) phonecall with a nice person carrying out the National Crime Survey, and I’ve written this blog post. I haven’t done my exercise or had a shower yet, but it’s only 12.30, after all. The day is yet young….. ish……… 🤨.

* The hour bit is theoretical. The lolling in bed dicking about on my phone is, sadly, not theoretical at all and generally lasts for, depending on how disciplined I am on any particular day, two and a half to three hours tops.

Things to do on your birthday

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So this morning Google, which clearly knows everything about me, greeted me on the lock screen of my phone with the words ‘Happy Birthday! Celebration Ideas’. Of course I clicked on Celebration Ideas, and was presented with a page which read, believe it or not, Write your To Do List. You know things are a bit grim when even Google is scraping the barrel like this….. However, I am nothing if not a good Android girl, so I took their suggestion and wrote one. Here it is.

A Birthday To Do List, 14th January 2020

- Go to a coffee shop and order a latte in a china mug and a fresh croissant. Consume whilst reading the paper to the music of the espresso machine and other customers' conversations.
- Take the tube into town and walk about my city admiring the expensive shops, the wealthy houses with their windowboxes, and the great river.
- Meet a friend for brunch and gossip over eggs and muffins.
- Go to a new part of London and walk around the unfamiliar streets. Eat egg and chips in the warm fug of a greasy spoon I've never been to before and will never go to again. Enjoy the way the regulars joke with the woman who takes the orders and the fact that the ketchup bottles have been recently cleaned.

More ambitious tasks
- Visit a gallery or an exhibition and wander through looking at the paintings and artefacts. Discuss them with a friend in the tasteful café over a ten pound sandwich and a bottle of artisanal ginger beer.
- Hug my family, before and after a big pub lunch with all of them.
- Take a train to see someone I've not seen in months, and spill tea over my lap because the pesky fold-down table isn't large enough for both the takeaway cup and my paperback. Mop it up while the back gardens and the fields and the canalboats and the industrial estates go past the window.
- Go camping and drink red wine under the stars. Or under a canopy while the rain pisses down. Either is fine.

Big projects
- Have a friend to stay.
- Go to the theatre and afterwards get drunk and argue about the play.
- Go to a city I don't know where I don't speak the language. Swim in blue water around islands. Have lunch on a boat and breakfast and dinner on a terrace overlooking a lake. Become friends with strangers.
- Go to a party.

Urgent, do NOW
- Appreciate how lucky I am to have the prospect of doing these things one day and people I love to do them with.

Tick.

Dancing on Thin Ice

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Back in February 1984 I, like virtually every other British person, was captivated by Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean and their Olympic Gold Medal winning Bolero routine. It was happy memories of watching them, along with the ever-present hunt for suitably light lockdown viewing, which got me watching Dancing on Thin Ice, a programme which seems to have been made with no other aim than to fill an hour and a half of screen time for ITV. Having said that, it’s actually rather sweet and you could do a lot worse than watch it (although if you do, make sure you have a book handy, because on catch-up there are a LOT of adverts). It’s got some fabulous Alaskan scenery, some excellent huskies and their female musher (an actual word, I checked), and it incorporates a fair bit of climate change information in a super-lite format. It’s true that it ain’t going to set Extinction Rebellion alight, but it’s also going to reach a hell of a lot more Daily Mail readers than Extinction Rebellion, so fair does.

And, of course, it also has Torvill and Dean, who, given that they really don’t do much skating, are a lot more appealing than I’d anticipated. The first thing that’s obvious is that, apart from their extraordinary and unique talents in the field of ice dance, in which they clearly are head and shoulders above, well, pretty much anybody really, they’re basically an ordinary PC and insurance clerk from Nottingham. They don’t have amazing insights, they don’t have big philosophical thoughts, and, whilst the programme is billed as their “quest to skate Bolero on wild ice”, it’s pretty transparent that this is just an excuse to get a couple of decently granny-friendly celebs to Alaska to talk about global warming in a don’t scare the horses sort of way. What they do have is a lot of natural appeal; they come across as decent human beings, they can skate on pretty much anything anywhere, and they have a relationship which is a delight and a mystery to behold.

When they won Olympic gold with their story of doomed lovers climbing to fling themselves into the caldera of a volcano, EVERYONE wanted them to be lovers, except, apparently, them. The newspapers climbed all over everything and couldn’t dig up anything except the fact that they’d once had a bit of a teenage romance and decided to leave it at that. They insisted that they were good friends and skating partners, and no more. Everyone else insisted they should be more. They ignored that and carried on as they were for, as Christopher Dean remarks a trifle waspishly when Jane Torvill suggested to an ice carver that she and he could go into business as Torvill and Brice, “You only need forty-something years”. During the programme they each refer to the other, completely unselfconciously and obviously genuinely, as their best friend. At one point they discuss their relationship, which is, as they put it, “Best friends…. Brother and sister” and, as Jayne Torvill put it, in the nearest they got to eloquence on the subject, “Torvill and Dean stuff”. To me, watching, it seemed closest to the relationship that adult twins have, and I reflected that their respective spouses must have to have a similar attitude as those who marry twins, knowing that there is someone central to your significant other’s life who has been there longer than you, is grown into them completely, and who will be there until they die. It was charming to see, however, and there is one beautiful sequence in which Christopher Dean dives under the ice in a thickly frozen lake. There are two cut-outs in the top of the ice, one for him and his support diver (and the camera operator, presumably) to enter and exit, and one, frozen, but not so thickly as the rest of the lake, close by it. The purpose of the second became clear when they filmed Dean under the ice, watching as Torvill skated on the frozen cutout and seeing from below her skates and the marks they made as she looked down to try and glimpse him under the ice.

The outdoor performance of the Bolero is the climax of the film, but to be honest it’s not all that, lovely as it is. It is of course a pale shadow of its former self, and how could it not be? It was thirty six years ago, after all. I enjoyed more the scenes of them just noodling around on bits of ice in the way that it’s always an enormous pleasure to watch anyone doing anything with complete mastery. Bolero was, in any event, not my favourite routine of theirs, wonderful as it was. I loved their Paso Doble and thought it was as good as Bolero, if not better, and I could watch their Westminster Waltz forever. However, the routine I keep coming back to is the one from two years before the Olympics, with which they won the World Championships in 1982. At that time, ice dance Free Dances were usually divided up into four different pieces of music to show off different steps and moves. Back in 1984 I bought a book about them which was actually a lot better than it needed to be, and which went into a lot of detail about how they’d got where they were. The book has long since gone to a charity shop, but I seem to remember that Christopher Dean, who was the choreographer, spent time at the BBC Radio Nottingham record library looking for music which might be used for their skating. There he came across a recording of the ill-fated 1974 musical Mack & Mabel about the tumultuous romantic relationship between director Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, the star Sennett discovered in the early days of silent movies in Hollywood.

The overture was in four parts and Dean used it as the basis to tell the story of the couple in a silent movie style, complete with villain and maiden in distress, swooning embraces, tap-dancing, and even a train. Michael Crawford joined them for their next routine, Barnum, and it’s been said that he taught them to act, but that’s rubbish, nobody needed to teach them – watch Mack and Mabel and it’s all there. By the time they performed it at the World Championships, the crowd was familiar with the routine, having seen it at previous events, and were smitten; it wasn’t just a completely new departure as a Free Dance which told one unified story, rather than being four separate bits of skating pasted together, but a brilliant routine brilliantly executed. And it’s a joy to watch for an audience – everything about it is a delight, from the music to those over-the-top gold costumes, to Jayne’s prettiness and outrageously talented footwork, to the relationship they were portraying – honestly, if you’re going to skate that beautifully to I Won’t Send Roses, of course people are going to assume you’re in love. By the time they got to the famous train slides, the audience was having the best time, and from the wonderfully cheeky high-kick after the turn it was a triumphal procession to the end, the inevitable gold medal, and another two years of dominating the sport as no-one has ever dominated it before or since. It always made me smile to watch it, and, in the way that you do when you see again your youthful heroes and discover that in fact they don’t have feet of clay and are actually pretty ok human beings, it makes me smile still. As does their friendship; they weren’t in love, but they did love one another, and clearly still do. That’ll do nicely – who needs roses when a venison sausage and a hug will do just as well?*.

*You’ll have to watch the programme 😉.