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.

December Reflections 11: ten years ago

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Actually, this drawing is more like ten and a half years old. We got it done in true tacky tourist fashion in Montmartre when we were on honeymoon. I’m not sure it’s a particularly good likeness of either of us, but I like the way that I look like I’m plotting the deaths of my enemies.

Ten years ago precisely, I was a bit of a mess.  2009 was not as rough as 2008, most of which I spent in a hospital basement, next door to the morgue, and which involved two bereavements close to me, but I was still pretty depressed. I was working what would turn out to be my penultimate temp job, and had just failed to get the permanent version of the role. I had pulled most of my eyebrows out (a stress thing).

Things were about to get better. 2010 was really quite a lot better. I admitted that I was probably depressed, which made a hell of a difference in itself. The next temp job was the one that stuck. And my eyebrows grew back. But ten years ago today, I didn’t know any of that.

December Reflections 10: gold

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I’ve had a phrase wandering in and out of my head this year: the documented life. I spent a lot of time in the spring going back through diaries and journals and online spaces locked and unlocked, pseudonymous and otherwise, updates for friends and rambling for myself alone, looking for clues about new (but familiar) exciting (but daunting) developments in my head. There were more of them than I’d remembered. It seemed that over and over again I’d sidled up to these thoughts, and written them down, and shied away again, and forgotten.

If I didn’t write it down, I start to wonder, how can I know who I was?

Then I wrote more, trying to work through the new developments. I forced my realisations into fiction, and rewrote whole sections that suddenly didn’t seem true any more. In my own private writing, I risked more honesty than I remember managing in times past, finding it suddenly important to know what was going on, and what was really going on.

(It wasn’t just text. There were delicate conversations around pints of beer and tears over gelato. But a lot of it was text. Often I think I let people see more of myself in text. Often I think it’s easier to control what people do see.)

In May I started writing in this spiral-bound notebook, trying to collect all my thoughts on one particular subject all in one place. It has worked to a certain extent, though I keep having to retrace my steps across the internet and copy paragraphs, whole entries, sometimes, into an Evernote document. But most of what I have written since on this one particular subject is in this little blue book with the gold spots.

 

December Reflections 9: biggest change in 2019

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What has changed this year? On the surface, nothing much. I haven’t even written a Christmas letter this year, much as I enjoy the process, because there isn’t much to say. We are living in the same flat, doing the same jobs. I did apply for a new job, but didn’t get shortlisted.

But things have changed, none the less. This time last year I wouldn’t have dreamed of applying for that promotion. We have finally scraped enough money together for a mortgage deposit, and possibilities open up. This time next year, all sorts of things may have changed.

And my perceptions have changed. What seemed once to be a straightforward trajectory from past into future now looks more to have been the long, almost circular, track around the edge of a labyrinth, bringing me to somewhere that looks very familiar, somewhere that I thought I’d left behind long ago. And already I think I’m turning another corner, heading out towards the edge again. There’s so much going on and I can only travel one step at a time. But I won’t be surprised, next time I end up in the middle, in territory that seems familiar once again…