Monday 6 December 2010

It's all white with me

I don't snow what all the fuss is about.

London under a grey sky was transformed last week into a glistening jewel: royal blue skies, tree tops begging under the weight of snow, paths lined with winter daisies poking out from a white blanket. It was arctic, but beautiful. Why grumble?

There are two funny things that the winery weather brings: funny hats and funny ways of walking. People who would normally never be seen dead in something resembling a wigwam coloured in by a five year old suddenly transform their usually fashionable selves into hilarious hat models. I love it: the variety, old and young championing the same fashion item (needs must, you understand).

Then there is also the way those same fashionistas refuse trainers/flats/wellies and stick to devilish heels. The pavements become a Disney on Ice parade with John Cleese's funny walks being put to shame. I actually witnessed one woman last week flinging herself between car side mirrors (car owners not to be seen, obviously. They must have been in the shops buying boots with grips).

The unfunny part of this winter wonderland, is of course, people trapped in trains and buses; parents having to go sledging as they kids are off school; broken bones and the media. They whip up a frenzy as much as a blizzard does the snow, and as if this island of ours has never seen anything like it. Airports closed! (Like last year) Train chaos! (Like last year) Small village in Yorkshire down to last crate of milk! (Go next door, they've got fifteen pints) It's as absurd as installing air con for the three days a year temperatures reach 30; the runways melting and Nestle running out of ice cream.

So, we can't do extremes. We panic. My point is, why are we surprised by this? It always happens. Buy yourself some of those crazy winter hats and get on with it. Build a snowman, get your ironing done, write those Christmas cards, make a snow angel.

Because when the sleek white turns to slushy grey, you'll hear them all turn round and say, "Wasn't it prettier before?"

Monday 22 November 2010

Spare change in the European Union's pocket

First of all, I would like to write the following waiver to this post: I am not an economist, accountant or financial guru. I have never studied economics, I don't work in the field and truth be told, I have very little interest in the world of finance and economics, either at home or abroad. The closest I come to an opinion is noticing the rising inflation when buying meat in Argentina; or wondering how people can now afford to fill their cars in the UK.

That was, until last night when I was doing the ironing and listening to the radio. The main news was that Ireland had finally looked to the European Union and International Monetary Fund to help solve their dire economic straits.

Then, this morning there was a debate on the same radio about whether it was right that the £7 billion the UK had saved with all the cuts was now heading over the Irish Sea to help with the bail out. Many Brits were extremely disgruntled about this, while others recognised that helping our Irish friends meant helping us in the long term. Ireland is our biggest trading partner in Europe. Our contribution is part of a package from Europe of around £77 billion in total (source: Telegraph, Guardian, Reuters).

My reaction last night was also a negative one; but not because I think my taxes should stay in the Uk helping myself and my fellow neightbours out. I was angry because, with many European countries in or coming out of a recesion (from my understanding) what I do not see is how, yet again, the EU can search its pockets and find billions of Euros in loose change to bail out floudering countries with breaking banks. And this is when, only on the other side of the Mediterrean, a fraction of this could end hunger for millions.

The United Nation's Food and Agricultre organisation has estimated that $30 billion a year would end hunger in the world. That's a lot less than the cheque heading Ireland's way. This amount would launch agritcultural and food programmes where needed in the world to solve global food insecurity. And once they were underway, the financial support needed year on year would be less and less. $30 billion to build foundations that will last and feed mouths for generations to come: can the EU check it's back pocket for more loose change and send it over there?

It was pleasing to hear that the UK's foreign aid donations were not part of the cuts. We are a country able to help and we should. So then, using those cuts to help save Ireland leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. But again, not because I want it in my pocket, but because a fraction of it could wipe out Kenya's debt to us. Kenya has a total debt of $6 billion and owes the UK £20 million. This is a country with an average daily wage of £1. And our money has gone to a country with an average daily wage of approximately 90 Euros a day (source: figures from and websites). And there are many other examples aside from Kenya. Politically, socially and morally, I can't see a logical argument for this.

I am not living in Ireland right now, and so am not experiencing their troubles. However, I cannot imagine they are worse than the farmers in Pakistan trying to recover from the recent floods and feed their families, or the droughts which affect farmers from Bolivia to Somalia, or the lack of cultivable land in many parts of Asia. When they need spare change, more agencies step in than governments, often including their own.

The next time someone needs some spare change, you could walk on by. You could think of the banks in this rich country of ours which have possibly failed them. You could think of real men, women and children who are far, far away, not asking for it. Or you could just put your hand in your pocket and see what's there to give. It doesn't matter if they don't run as deep as the EU's.

I guess just putting your hand in and not leaving it there is what really counts.

Friday 19 November 2010

While the kid's away, the muse will play

It's been a while since I've written. Well, since I've written here. I've been busy being a kid and letting the inspiration flow in other streams of my consciousness.

Today is the final day of my write-a-thon for Children in Need. I signed up for it on a writers' forum I am part of and the challenge was set thus: November 1st to November 19th, write poems, flashes and short stories using a variety of prompts. I dedicated myself to posting one poem, story or flash every day. If not, how would it be a marathon of writing? The prompts varied from titles, words to be used, dialogue to be included and situations, themes and objects set. I didn't think I would find space and time in those nineteen days of my life to complete it, but I am glad to say that, posting my last write late last night (I know, how geeky, to cross the line before all others!) I fulfilled it. Some stories are better than others, some poems more poignant than others. I tried to accomplish a variety of themes and situations and use comedy, sadness, happiness, death, life and love as broadly as possible.

Something which happened to me during this process surprised and delighted me. Each night, before the write the next day, I would choose and set the prompt I was going to roll with. So, after writing the story The Break (prompt: location is a back alley; theme is hope; a lighter is a significant object) on November 12th, I immediately chose a prompt for November 13th. In that case it was Tell Me Later. That night, the connotations of the words, the situations in which they might be used, all the meanings these combinations could have started sprawling through my brain. What was incredible was how quickly I was able to let my mind wander, after a completely different creative process, into completely different directions. I realised that creativity is something that is living and breathing in us every day. And sometimes it only needs one little word to spill out...

This experience, while rewarding (and I've been raising money for the Children in Need from my kind friends and family as well) has also been an education. I have proved to myself that, even with time constraints, I can write most days around running, working and living. (Actually, they should be in reverse order!) But the bigger picture I see is that the muse is inside me, outside me, everywhere, everyday. These stories, flashes and poems have let me be my inner child again, putting pen to paper and seeing where the stories and words go. The other side of this coin has been interesting, too: putting a completely formed idea down on paper, keeping true to it until the end and then editing it into a readable piece of prose or poetry. Once I was on the tube on the way home from the office and I had to write down the opening paragraph there and then amongst the sports pages. When there is so much inspiration and ideas, you have to find a way to grab one and hold onto it. It's no wonder so many writers sleep with a pad and pen by their bedside. It's cold when you have to get up in the darkness and search for them to get that phrase, title, line down concretely.

Anyway, so now I am free from my write-a-thon, I must stand by the words here and continue letting my muse work its way onto the computer screen in written form. I must let my childish tendencies to play with words and situations be allowed to run riot. And I must keep trying to find an audience.

Invention is all part of a kid's world. For the last nineteen days, I've been there; inventing, concocting and discovering. There has been the pressure of deadline, meeting a personal target, and it's important to remember that. Keeping the flow means movement and when you write, this only happens through time and to time. The result is in the process.

It's not child's play, but it does keep writer's block at bay.

Friday 5 November 2010

Remember, remember

Today is my favourite day of the year to be in England. It is the 5th of November, in all it's crackling and sparkling glory. It even erupted early, with bangs and pops being heard last night and twinkling colours to be seen through the trees in my neighbourhood.

Ah! Bonfire night!

If you try to explain this delightful day to someone from abroad, it is inevitably met with puzzled faces. My explanation usually involves jokes about eccentric Brits celebrating catching the first terrorists and then, true to the times, killing them in a violent and over-the-top manner. Swings and roundabouts and fireworks, it seems.

Anyway, the result, now nothing to do with saving democracy, religious freedom or any other controversial and over politicised topic of our times, is pure human joy: colours, fire and excitement. We have been drawn to fire since the beginning of time; it's danger outweighed by the warmth, food and light it provides. If you put a group of people in a circle, they will probably start conversing. Then stick a fire in the middle of them, and their eyes will fixate on the dancing flames and the only sound you will hear is the crackling and popping.

This is why Bonfire night is special. Because while keeping us warm on this autumnal night, our eyes are drawn skyward to the spectacular of lights and colours which explode among the stars. Our faces and hands are warmed on the ground and our eyes and hearts filled with magic from the sky. Each explosion is another beat of wonder: crescendos of colour, fiery flowers, paintings of diamonds and emeralds and rubies. And we make those collective sounds of appreciation and marvel at each new burst of stars. While the fire is singular and solitary, the fireworks blanket everyone together in their spectacular of glitter.

"Ooooh! Ahhhhh!"

You could take Christmas away from me, and I might not notice (apart from the fact shops weren't telling me Happy Christmas in October); Easter could disappear and I wouldn't miss the eggs which line the shelves from New Year. You might even be able to get away with erasing my birthday (quietly, quietly), but if you took away Bonfire Night; if there was not one explosion waking up the night in silver and red, gold and blue, I might just have to get some gunpowder myself and finish the job planned in 1605.

I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should EVER be forgot.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Happy Halloween

P lump orange head, pretty ugly
U nusually shaped, so undainty.
M ust I look inside to see the
P erson you could really be?
K issing is out of the question
I turn in the opposite direction.
N ever could I ever see past
S uch ugliness - will it last?
O h no it won't. I take the knife
U p to me it is to cook tonight:
P umpkin soup - what a fright!

Saturday 30 October 2010

Crunch time

There's a new sound on the streets of London. It's a sound which has many colours attached to it. It is a sound you can predict as you see it fall through the air and land on the pavement before you step on it.


Autumn is in full swing. When the skies are blue, the reflections in the canal and park lakes are those of jigsaw pictures: a stirring scene of green, yellow, red, amber, orange, chestnut all mingled together against the shining sky and again in the water below. When the skies are grey and churning with rain, those colours glisten in a patchwork quilt on the pavements. Leaves are caught in headlights as they drift down; Autumn's baubles.

There are two things about this autumn in London, my first in England for quite some time, which are having a huge impression on me: firstly, how beautiful it is. Gardeners really have nothing to do right now as they let the trees turn these brilliant shades and create a carpet of colour on the paths and lawns of the city. The second, however, is how cold it is. It is cold enough for toffee apples, bonfire night, for hats, gloves and scarves. And I keep having to remind myself 'It's only autumn!'

There is no doubt that this winter is going to be a challenge. Whereas the plunging temperatures of Buenos Aires were bone chillingly cold, they lasted a mere three weeks at their lowest. Here, we are staring into some four to five months of dark nights, thick duvets and waking up to frosty mornings. It's enough to make you shiver in your cosy apartment.

I have to thank Nature for letting me down gently and rather beautifully. Walking the streets with the crunch, crunch, crunch or swishing through the piles of leaves which have amounted is delightful and exhilarating.

I just have to forget what come after crunch time.

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Losing one's marbles

Last week I popped in to the British Museum. Actually, that's a lie. You can't just 'pop in' to the British Museum. Rather, you have to take a tent, emergency supplies, that stubborn British way of attacking great, enormous things and a camera with long, long, long battery life.

You could be there for weeks. And as I walked round I thanked my lucky stars my dad wasn't with me. He's one of those museum types that reads every little card of information, while my mum breezes through and stands at the end of each room waiting with her pleasant museum smile. She knows she's in a place that's good for her, but why does it have to take so long? And I'm a more of my dad in that respect.

Anyway, I had decided beforehand to attack the British Museum in parts. That day I would 'do Greece'. Having been to Greece some twelve years previously, it was about time I saw the rest of the Parthenon.

There's something very magical and romantic about Greek history (when you ignore all the tragedy). The funny wrestling games depicted on bulging vases; the interesting names; the amount of grapes as amorous food; the fact that many of the men have these beautiful, womanly faces, even the fighters getting attacked by centaurs. There are the gold necklaces, simply elegant and the statues, simply grand. Stepping through each room in the Greece section of the museum and you are hit with the enormity of their culture, intellect and design.

At the very end of this section is the huge Duveen Gallery which houses most of the Elgin Marbles. I was immediately impressed as I slowly followed the marbles and the stories they showed. The explanations help to show what is happening, and the larger statues at each end of the gallery help to emphasise the scope and size of where they came from.

However, another sensation which impacts is that of something is missing. This comes from two avenues: one, that no marble is completely in tact. Heads, bodies, arms, legs, horses, spears have long ago succumbed to weather, movement and age. When you're looking at such things, which are so old and have travelled that far, you hardly expect perfection, but there is still some sadness from their breaks. The second is that they sit here in London, beautifully presented and explained. But you do want to be able to look out of the window and see (pollution permitting) the acropolis hill, connecting the stones, placing them.

I finished my tour of ancient Greece and skipped through the first Egypt room to exit, resisting the urge to walk round that too. Another day, another day.

I sat outside the museum on the steps in the sun, surrounded by French teenagers, German couples, a Japanese tour group and some Brazilians debating whether to enjoy the sun after lunch or go back in and get some more culture and history. I thought about what it meant to bring the marbles here, how the museum has learnt to care for them during those 200 hundred years and the amount of people that can see them for free each year. I also thought about what was left in Greece and how long it took to take the remaining marbles away from the risks of earthquakes and the natural elements. It took until 1993 to remove the last of the frieze to safety.

All things considered, I don't think it's a case of returning lost marbles as much as preserving them. 

Something we should all do.

Tuesday 5 October 2010

The Laughter Revolution

They say that laughter is the best medicine. When you've had one of those belly-bursting giggle fits, you know that's true. You come up for air feeling like your whole body has been thoroughly dusted and vacuumed. It's like having done the downward dog for two hours. Yet you've reached this state of balance through the dizzying heights of, um, simply laughing.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I walked home from the swimming pool. I had done wonders to my body by swimming, then spending time in a sauna and finally the steam room. All of these relax me, and when I'm sitting in those hot, steamy cabins I always feel how good a life I must have to be able to do this.

Anyway, I finished and went to the changing room, which was empty. I started thinking about what I could whip up for dinner, with the Tesco delivery still twelve hours away. As I was drying off, another girl walked in and started getting undressed opposite me. I started moisturising and heard her laughing. I looked up. She was just looking at the wall, putting on her swimsuit. I continued putting cream on my face and I heard her giggling again. I checked myself. Did I have my knickers on back to front? Did I have smears of cream around my nipples? Did I just look . . . bizarre? I seemed normal as far as I could make out. What was making her laugh?

As she stood in front of the mirror, putting on her swimming hat, she kept up her little laughs and I realised her laughing was nothing to do with me. Off she went to the pool and I headed out into the night to walk home. I thought about her. There she was, laughing her head off, seemingly for no reason at all, but of course there was a reason.

This is the great thing about it. That girl was thinking back to something or someone and it made her laugh in the present. It could still affect a different moment with the same delight. It could have been a ridiculous text message, a funny face, a crazy situation or a tried and tested fool proof joke which never fails to bring on a chuckle. Brilliant. This must be the way to not have to do the downward dog for hours on end. Clean yourself out by thinking back and simply laughing at something. And there's a million more things we can laugh at with the power of hindsight. I once took my parents and brother on an off-road adventure in Patagonia. The road was rocky, seriously muddy, as curvaceous as a Brazilian catwalk show and in the middle of nowhere. I had never driven it like that before and the atmosphere in the car turned to one of absolute terror rather than high-spirited adventure. However, if you were to ask my mum about it now, she'd laugh her head off. That's what I'm talking about. Broken bones, now healed: hilarious. Awkward, blush-inducing moments long gone: side-splitting. Wrong turns and hours being lost way back when: comical.

So, here we should start a laughter revolution. Sit on the bus, in the office, on your couch, in the bath and just think of something that's funny and laugh. You'll feel great.

And if you seriously can't think of anything funny, then think about what you're trying to do to make yourself laugh. That's pretty funny in itself and the fact you can't think of anything, more so.


Saturday 2 October 2010

Eat Run Love

I'm two thirds through eat pray love, which we are told is a 'woman's search for everything'. I, for one, don't have the desire, time, money or patience to search for 'everything' and I am pretty sure that 'everything' does not fit under those three words.

I loved Gilbert's gluttony, passion and learning in Rome. I ate most of that food with her and enjoyed learning, as she did, the Italian way of speaking, eating and living. I warmed to her learning to meander, indulge herself (in some ways) and find grandeur in the simplest things: a new phrase, a divine cappuccino, an olive. She captured it magically and amusingly. She kept it real; she kept it human.

Now, I have just come out of the meditation caves with her in part two of the book. I have this strange sensation that parents must get after sitting through a primary school performance of 'Spring'. Children become chickens, songs rhyme for the sake of it, the piano teacher somehow holds it all together and after all that, the cardboard sunflowers fall backwards and all those mums and dads are in serious need of a drink. As she lands in Bali, this is how I, her reader, am feeling. I understand why she needed to mildly self-mock her tree-kissing behaviour, as a wide-eyed citizen of the world. She knows what her friends in New York and those like myself are thinking.

But there is no need to cherry-pick or choose anything. I am not choosing to tie myself to a thread, hoping that at some point before I die, this knot will pull me out of the world's darkness and "into the next realm." The world has many dark corners (mediation caves in India, for one), but what makes them dark is the light, the beauty and the magic which happen every day. These are, as her life in Italy was, amazingly simple: little girls giggling, an honest answer, the first glimpse of the sun over the ocean, kindness, touch, a warm daydream, the list goes on. It seems a shame to look for god so far and painfully deep inside yourself, when so much of his 'everything' is all around us. I am not saying that taking a good look at yourself is bad. To look inside yourself for something other that what and who you are, is.

So I was trying to think what my second part to her book might be, instead of pray. Last Tuesday I had to run after work. It was dark, nippy and sheets of rain belted London. If I was to look inside myself, I would have seen that I didn't want to go. But I did. I went out donned in my 'waterproof' running gear and ran my five miles. My body and legs were quite enjoying it and, after the first mile, my mind caught up. I started smiling. The joy I got from running those miles, alone on the soaking London streets, not caring that the buses drenched me further, or that the hill was full of puddles, was immense. It was beyond having got something done. It was a joy of the whole process, something which I believe was close to Gilbert's tree-kissing euphoria. I didn't see god all around me. I just saw me, in my life, loving it despite the contradictions and dark corners. My joy was raining down, each droplet lighting the dark road as it passed the street lamps. And I had just run it, as Gilbert had run in her meadow.

It's interesting how two completely different experiences, continents, people, moments can capture something which makes them feel the same. I'm waiting to see how Gilbert moves on in Bali and why she calls that section love.

But I know that to complete this tripod of discovery, I would have had to name it something different that encapsulates a search I do every time I put my trainers on. Runners, you know this.

Eat. RUN. Love.

Sunday 26 September 2010

Time to put the pen down and get over it

I've resisted it for so long. Really, I have.

In fact, I was just talking the other day with a friend how it was with her, during the first month of my undergrad, that I created my email account, some eleven years ago. And it's just been that ever since. While another generation has been born under the banners of all things IM, Chat, MSN, Facebook, Flicker etc. and not to mention that they can access all these on their mobile phones at break-neck speed, I have bumbled along nicely with my one email account and a mobile phone you'd laugh at in a movie from 2001. These and my agenda (which is made of paper and requires ink or lead) have served me well and I am happy to report that I haven't missed a birthday and could tell you what I was doing on March 17th 2007 with enough detail to make you go, "Really?" It's not a diary a la Bridget Jones. It's practical, with tidbits of reactions. It's worked for me.

I remember the January just gone, in the heat of Buenos Aires as I sat around the pool with my in-laws. I happily had my feet dangling in the water and I had one little book open next to me while I was jotting in birthdays and anniversaries from the previous year into the latest version. There's no little button for this with a paper diary. It's sheer graft and a little task I love. There's something about it which taps into my paper and pen loving brain: little sparks fly off as I think about how the seasons will pass before it's his birthday or how lucky she is to be having hers on a Friday this year. And all this is to come.

My father-in-law, Sr. G, was mildly amused at me doing this. It seemed a lot of work to him. He is a busy man who has his Blackberry to tell him what he's doing with whom and his wife to let him know gently it's her birthday today. After his good laugh at me and my seemingly Victorian ways, his youngest son came across to the pool and jumped in, splashing one and all. Pages of my agenda got wet. But so did his Blackberry.

The paper dried so much quicker.

So, what have I resisted? I've resisted the need to feed people I'd rather forget with inane bits of information about my life; I've resisted having to check my emails to find out when my brother's birthday is; and I've resisted a mobile with satnav, having more than one email, chatting simultaneously on five different IM services (are they even called that?) and generally, being conspicuous.

Until now.

I'm still going to try and use my great navigational skills to get places. I will continue to write dates and times in my agenda (and choose a different colour for it every year, how nice) and I will not succumb to fake cyber social contracts when deciphering human interaction in a new office is hard enough. But now I will not be so invisible. It's time to put my toe in the water of the world of words that exist beyond the personal and humble pages inside my computer and desk drawers.

A forest bird never wants a cage, Ibsen told us, and he couldn't be more right in terms of where I am right now. My wings are opening and if I don't fly soon someone will come along and clip them. And I'll be stuck in a cage with my ideas on the inside and the world on the outside.

So, here's to flying and writing the view as I do so.