December Reflections 21: I said goodbye to…

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I applied for a new job this year. I didn’t get shortlisted, though I did get some encouraging (and also useful) comments on my application. Considering I only decided to apply about thirty-six hours before the deadline, that isn’t bad going.

This happened during a very weird couple of weeks in which a whole load of things shifted in my mind. There had previously been a couple of assumptions in my head which had been stopping me applying for that post: firstly, that I didn’t have enough relevant experience; and secondly, that the grade it was at would be my ceiling, so it would be a pity to get to it too soon. Those assumptions dissolved with a day and a half to spare, and so I wrote an application and submitted it.

And that was just the beginning of a fortnight of unpicking all my perceptions of my abilities and assumptions about my future. Except when I went back and looked at everything I’d written over the past year, it turned out that I’d been tiptoeing around the subject for a very long time. My head had been there for a while. It was just that my heart had caught up. More on that next year, maybe.

Things I did get shortlisted for: two literary awards. The Selfies, and the Exeter Novel Prize. I went to both awards ceremonies, and was struck by how friendly and supportive all the shortlistees were, and by how different the two groups were.

The Exeter Novel Prize group were excited, enthusiastic, mostly first-time novelists with dreams of publishing deals. The Selfies crowd were also excited, pleased to have been shortlisted, but they’d seen it all before and tended not to be impressed by the publishing industry (which was all around, since the awards ceremony took place at the London Book Fair). Self-published authors tend not to give a damn about what anybody else thinks – you might say that it’s a prerequisite for self-publishing in the first place. We ignore the gatekeepers; we climb over the walls, instead.

And so I’m a little bit surprised to find myself open to the idea of walking up to the gatekeepers – a different wall, and a different gate, but it has its gatekeepers nonetheless, and saying, ‘Do you fancy letting me in?’ I’m not there quite yet; I’m still loitering in the road outside. But I’m thinking about it.

December Reflections 20: memorable meal in 2019

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We went to Lille in March: one last (as we thought) chance to go to mainland Europe before it became a whole lot more hassle. As things worked out, that was the last time, and I doubt we’ll manage to get our act together in January, so…

Anyway. We stayed in an apartment in the Wazemmes district of Lille, which felt more like a place where people actually live and work than many other places I’ve been to. Which was great: there was a covered market, and in the mornings our hosts brought us fresh croissants in a paper bag. What it didn’t have so much of – at least on a Wednesday night – was places to eat, as we discovered when we headed down the rue Léon Gambetta (pretty much every settlement in France has a rue Léon Gambetta somewhere or other) in search of food. We walked for quite a while without finding anywhere that took our fancy, and eventually resolved to go a little bit further and then turn back.

That’s an approach that either works for me, or else fails horribly. In this case it worked beautifully. Le Chat Qui Fume was just off rue Léon Gambetta, at the intersection where we’d resolved on turning back. It was a pleasant place, quiet, dimly lit. We had it to ourselves for the first quarter of an hour or so. Maroilles is a very pungent cheese, and a local speciality. It was fantastically good in a gratin with potatoes and bacon. Afterwards, I tried genièvre, and liked it. As the name suggests, it’s related to gin, but it’s harsher and smokier, more like whisky.

It was a good trip for food and drink in general, actually. There were the mussels. There were the crêpes. And, my goodness, there were the beers.

December Reflections 19: cold

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September 2019. A trip we’d been planning ever since we heard the world road cycling championships were going to be in Yorkshire this year.

On most days we went to the finish line in Harrogate.  For the women’s time trial, we went to the start of the route, in Ripon. It was a funny old week, weather-wise. There was one day of blazing sunshine, and then several of rain. This was one of those rainy days.

We went to Ripon and skirted several puddles; ate some lunch; waited for the start of the event, which was delayed due to the weather; visited the cathedral; watched the cyclists leave; watched part of the rest of the course on the big screen; watched part of Labour conference on the big screen when the coverage got a bit confused…

Got cold.

One of the things that I particularly love about cycling – as a spectator, rather than a participant, I mean – is the way that you can, without paying a penny, turn up at the side of an ordinary road and watch some of the best sportspeople in the world pass by within a few feet of you. The World Championships joins a list including the Olympics, the Tour of Britain, the Women’s Tour, and the Tour de France that I’ve managed to see without even having to leave the country. Not to mention the Tour Series, which was so very much right there that I turned up to it by accident, and that’s how I got into cycling in the first place.

Anyway, it’s worth getting a bit chilly for.

December Reflections 18: favourite photo of me

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This year I bought a road bike – my first ever. It took me a couple of years to psych myself up to it. I’ve become a reasonably competent cyclist since moving to Cambridge (I told myself when I moved here that if I couldn’t get used to riding a bicycle here, I’d never do it anywhere) but a road bike, I thought, would be lightweight and flighty and difficult to get on and off. But this year I got there.

Then I started riding it. We have a thing called the Guided Busway near us, and it has a cycleway/footpath running all the way alongside it to St Ives. I have been riding up and down that. Slowly, at first, getting the hang of it, getting the feel of it, working out which way to move the levers to change gear, cursing the toe clips, getting my shoelaces caught in the toe clips, not falling over, thinking that perhaps I might be able to manage cleated pedals one day… But not this day. Not quite yet. I haven’t got as far as St Ives yet (and haven’t met the man with seven wives, either…)

But there I am, sometime in June, somewhere between Cambridge and Impington, wearing sunglasses on a grey day, a bit flushed, not quite sure what angle I’m trying to be at, with concrete and cow parsley in the background, getting the hang of this thing.

December Reflections 17: I said hello to…

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‘Ello, Vera!

Terrible puns aside, this is the first aloe vera plant I’ve ever owned. I brought it home from the pub, the day that Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament. It was one of those informal arrangements where you stick a quid in the charity jar and pick the pot you fancy; except this was the last in the tray.

Often in recent months I’ve been saying to myself, And yet I will not despair. I said it on that evening, when I claimed the aloe vera plant.

And yet I will not despair.

A few weeks later, Lady Hale pinned on her spider brooch and announced that, legally speaking, it had never happened.

I will not despair.

It’s an attitude that works for me: acknowledging the fact that the news is often depressing, often overwhelming, that often I can’t see how things can get better – but I can still trust that there’s a reality that’s bigger than my current perception.

Friday’s election result was the opposite of what I’d hoped for. So many people, believing so many lies. Actually, I don’t know what I’d hoped for, apart from a miracle.

I didn’t get a miracle. I can’t see the way out of here.

And yet I will not despair.

The aloe vera seems to be putting out tiny little leaves.

I will not despair.

December Reflections 16: hot

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The last week of July was the hottest week of the year. Cambridge, my current hometown, was the hottest place in the country. Fortunately (for I don’t deal well with heat) I wasn’t there. I was on the Isle of Wight, which was a good ten degrees cooler, attending Ventnor Fringe festival, and mostly hanging around at the Book Bus.

I did a little better than last year, making it to at least three ticketed performances as well as waiting for the buskers to come to the bus, and to me. But it was also very good to lie on my back in the churchyard watching the swifts high up in the blue sky, and eat chips with my brothers down on the seafront, and watch a thunderstorm from inside the bus, and finish off one of the stories I’d meant to finish off.

In a parallel universe, I sit in Ventnor Exchange and drink coffee and Belgian beer and write books. Sometimes I do that in this universe, too. Maybe I’ll do more of that next year.

December Reflections 15: best decision of 2019

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I’ve made (or received) two fairly major decisions this year, but I don’t yet know the outcome of either of them, so it seems a bit premature to call either of them the best. Not least since they appear to be pulling in opposite directions… It’ll be interesting to see how that all works out.

Taking the first week of December as annual leave, and then doing absolutely nothing in it, is a very good decision, but it’s one I’ve made every year since at least 2014 now, so I’m not sure that I can really count it as a decision of 2019. It’s more a very longstanding tradition.

After growing my hair out to a bob last year, I got it cut short again in May, and immediately felt 500% more like myself. But I wouldn’t say it was the best decision.

Going to the work disco on Friday night was a good decision, since it meant spending the evening with a group of other despondent people, none of whom were going to attempt to tell anybody else to cheer up, but also being able to dance and dance and dance. And staying off Twitter and Facebook was also a good decision. Some people need a good rant/vent/whinge, and I respect that, but I find that listening to or reading other people’s ranting/venting/whingeing just gets me (even further) down, and actively gets in the way of my doing anything to improve matters. So I danced instead. Anyway, that feels too depressing to be the best decision of the year.

But in fact I have had a moment this year where the rightness of a thing seemed to sing and sizzle and settle: of course this is the right thing. And that was the evening when everybody was talking about ‘the real world’, about whether or not they lived in it, about whether or not other people live in it, about whether anybody really lives in it. And I realised that in fact this was the title of my next book. That’s my best decision of 2019. The Real World. More on that next year.

December Reflections 14: floral

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Several years ago I did a 101 in 1001 list, to end on my twenty-fifth birthday, and did 47 of those 101 things in those 1001 days. Then, when that came to an end, I set myself another list. I abandoned that attempt with about a year left to go with the realisation that:

I want to give myself room to grow, and to give my goals time to happen when they want to, not to force them. Some goals need me to be in a different place, a place I couldn’t imagine when I wrote the list. And I never quite accounted for my tendency to develop wild obsessions at a moment’s notice…

So I’m going to quit. Or, rather, I’m going to keep the list as an aide-memoire, but lose the time limits and the sense of obligation.

On my first list, begun in 2007, ended in 2010, I had ‘Become a competent cyclist’. In my mind that was going to involve me riding my bike round and round the park until I had learned to signal without falling off. What actually happened was that in 2012 I acquired a tricycle, then another, better, tricycle, and cycled to work most days. Then I spent 2013 riding my bike round and round the park until I had learned to signal without falling off. Then, in 2014, I moved to Cambridge, where everybody rides a bike, and so do I. 2007-10 just wasn’t the right time for that goal.

If I had been putting a list together last year or the year before, it would probably have included ‘learn more about perfume’. There were three main obstacles to my doing this:

  1. not knowing where to start
  2. perfume being quite expensive
  3. disliking the loud, headachey, crowded, over-scented environment of department stores

Then one of my internet friends posted about The Perfume Society‘s Niche Collection Discovery Box, which contains fifteen perfume samples, with online ‘smelling notes’ so you can begin to sound intelligent, for twenty quid. And that solved all three problems, so I bought it.

It arrived on the 3rd of December, when I had a stinking cold, so I couldn’t get started immediately. I got my sense of smell back on the 6th, and started investigating the contents of the box. So far I’ve discovered that I really like Molton Brown Re-Charge Black Pepper, that Ruth Mastenbroek Dagian mostly comes across as slightly sour grass clippings on me, and that I don’t like oud quite as much as I’d have thought I would.

Then on Monday I was catching the train home from work, as usual, and stopped half-way across the concourse of King’s Cross station to see what was going on with the Citroën 4CV van. It turned out to be Atelier Cologne selling perfume. The assistant gave me the pictured sample as I passed by, and then asked if I wanted to try some… Well, I had the best part of half an hour before my train, and we had great fun spraying samples on slips of paper and smelling them. I ended up really liking a fabulous spicy rose, and tempted to go to their shop to try an incense scent they didn’t have on the van…

So it seems to be the right time to get into perfume. The other thing that I’ve wanted to do for ages, and now might? Learn how to ice skate. When I first wanted to learn to skate, there wasn’t a rink near me. When I lived in Guildford, and there was an ice rink, it didn’t occur to me as a possibility. Now? An ice rink has opened up three miles away from me.

December Reflections 13: five things about me

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1. I am concerned (perhaps unreasonably so) with documenting my life, in words or otherwise.
2. My surname is common in Yorkshire, unusual elsewhere. My family moved south and went soft several generations before I was born.
3. I travel on foot, on bicycle, and by rail.
4. That rainbow stands for at least two things, and so do all the rainbows I wear.
5. Trade unionist, Christian, generally seeking to make more things better for more people, accidental fan of many things.

December Reflections 12: made me laugh

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It started with the tubs. People had birthdays, or other things to celebrate, or they went away on holiday and didn’t have room in their suitcases for exotic delights, so picked stuff up at the station on the way into work instead… And because nobody likes to throw plastic away these days, over the months the tubs accumulated. They were all empty.

The stack got taller. I called it a Tower of Disappointment. One of my colleagues, perhaps more optimistic, saw the potential for a Christmas tree, and spent a lunch hour repurposing some green scrap paper. Over the last few days, other members of the team contributed, too. Paperclips. An impressive star for the top. I cut up an old agenda and made it into those little white stars. Streamers from a Christmas lunch party popper. I suspect there’s more to come…

I feel very grateful for my colleagues. They’re good fun to work with, and yes, they make me laugh.