Monday, 22 December 2014

2014 in numbers.

I often look through my diary at the end of the year, to see what I’ve done, and to see where on earth my money has gone!

So this year looks like this:

59 Nights out with friends, either drinks or dinner or both.

5 Dinner parties (hosted)
8 Dinner parties (guest)
12 Trips to the cinema
19 Plays seen at the theatre
5 Ballets watched
16 Book launches or literary events attended
14 Weekends away, staying with friends or family
3 Holidays - New Orleans and Texas 2 weeks; Copenhagen 3 days; Wales 1 week.
4 Visits to the hairdressers
4 Massages
6 Manicures
2 Osteopathy appointments
8 Hospital visits
1 Knee operated on
1 Month post-surgery recuperation at Swiss Spa… aka Mum and Dad’s house in Hampshire

And finally, and you must sing this last line:

And a partridge in a pear tree.

Or rather... and a small mouse stuffed by me!

Happy Christmas one and all, and love and happiness for 2015.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Quite a stuffing!

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in November, most people I know are either lazing in front of the TV, cozied up in a pub, doing the laundry or tidying the house. Yesterday, on this particular rainy afternoon, I was indeed siting in a pub, but in front of me was not a roast chicken with all the trimmings, in front of me, was a dead white mouse and a scalpel.

I should probably warn you now... if you are of a squeamish disposition I suggest you read no further. I would also suggest you don’t read this before you are about to eat, nor if you have just eaten. I understand that leaves you with a very small window of opportunity to peruse this… but so be it.

While most people are beginning to think of stuffing a turkey for Christmas lunch, or stuffing a stocking with presents, I was thinking of stuffing a tiny little mouse. A tiny. Little. Mouse. I know… the guilt began the moment I saw it. But I had considered this particular activity for the last 6 months and signed up for the mouse taxidermy class back in May, so I was prepared for a range of emotions, and had come to terms with most of them. I made sure that the mouse hadn’t died for our sake (that was my biggest worry) and discovered that most taxidermists will only ever take animals that have died of natural causes. Our particular teacher also treated us to the fact that nothing was ever wasted and that her cats would be the lucky recipients of mice leftovers, later that night. Oh God! But I also made sure that the class was being taught by someone qualified and that the mouse would be treated with respect (as much as skinning and stuffing a mouse can be respectful!).

I arrived at a beautiful pub in north London. Exquisite art bedecked the walls, deep luxurious velvet sofas beckoned bottoms, and several, very nervous-looking 30-somethings stood around the bar. A bar tender began hanging black drapes over the windows, informing us that no family wants to walk past and explain to their kids why there are mouse guts on the tables. Hmm, thanks for that. There were 8 of us in total, and after the barman’s comment, 6 people ordered alcoholic drinks. We were led into a stunning conservatory with hanging plants and twinkling fairy lights and on each table was a piece of newspaper, a white mouse, a pair of surgical gloves, and a scalpel. There was no getting away from what we were about to do, and the girl next to me, gave a very loud gulp and took a large swig of her drink.

I expect you are trying to picture what the other people looked like… what sort of twisted, disturbed people would do something like this? Well, there was me (not weird at all!), then there was the girl next to me, a delightful woman from Finland. She was staying with friends in London and had signed up to the class months ago, without telling them. As they all planned to go out for her farewell lunch, she told her friends what she was going to do instead. They were all horrified, even more so, when she told them that her son had asked for a stuffed mouse for Christmas, and that was the reason she was doing it. I laughed… was she sure her son had meant a real mouse, and not some cute fluffy toy? Oh yes, she replied, completely straight-faced, he already had a stuffed hamster, and now he wanted a mouse. O-kay. We then had a hilarious conversation about what would happen if she got stopped in customs, when she flew back the next day… that would be quite a difficult thing to explain, I imagine. The couple to my right – who had bought the taxidermy class for each other, as a gift – were charming, funny and dressed in M&S jumpers. Really, how weird can you be if you’re wearing lambswool crew-necks? Two girl friends sat to the far left of the room, both quiet and studious in thick glasses, not uttering a single word the whole 5 hours, apart from asking if they were doing things correctly. And finally, the only slightly eccentric couple in the mix, were two jewellery designers with more piercings and tattoos than the average Shoreditch hipster. They were the sweetest girls though, very shy and absolute perfectionists, until they made the slightest of slip-ups and then they swore like troopers. Our teacher was in her late 20’s, petite, pretty and patient as a saint. She wielded her scalpel like a brain surgeon, and we were in awe.

We started off with skinning our mouse. Ugh. Now I imagined this to be a very messy business, but if you do it right, you actually don’t see any blood at all. It was like peeling a minuscule satsuma. Actually… if any of you have cooked roast chicken, you know when you put butter or slices of lemon under the skin, and you separate it from the meat… it’s kinda like that but on a teeny tiny scale. Slowly, millimetre by millimetre, you remove the skin from the guts and skeleton. I’m not going to lie and say that it was fine, that it was all very clean, tidy and clinical. It really was one of the most disgusting thing I have ever done, in my entire life. It’s not only the visual horror show, there is the smell. As the mouse starts to thaw, it is highly unpleasant. Everything gets floppier and smellier. My Finnish neighbour made the huge mistake of taking a deep breath through her nose as she turned her mouse inside out, and then gagged several times. I then gagged, seeing her gag, and so it continued like a game of ping pong. Just vile. Whenever there was an exasperated cry or a groan of disgust, one of us would shout, “Just breathe through your mouth!”

Ok… so this is my second warning. The next bit is gross. Grosser than before, because once you have skinned the mouse, you then have to remove its eyeballs, brain and tongue… with tweezers. I just heaved, writing that, the memory flooding back in technicolour. In fact, as we approached the third hour of the class and we had to tweezer out every morsel of flesh from the skull, I had to ask our teacher for help. It was quite exhausting, concentrating for that long on something so gruesome. At the same time though, the process is bizarrely calming. You have to be so precise and accurate with your scalpel and tweezers that you go into a deep meditative state. Chunks of time fly past in absolute silence. And finally… you have just a skin. It looked like a mouse cape! You then wash it and give it a blow dry. Yup folks… you think the skinning process is bizarre? Well, holding your mouse like a glove puppet and giving it a blow dry is even more odd.

Then begins the stuffing. Two hours of wiring the body, filling it with cotton wool and sewing it up again. The wiring is to give the body its skeleton back, so it can be positioned. Again, I would challenge the greatest surgeons to try this at home because it is unbelievably tricky. Our teacher was quite adamant that we took our time, stating that this was when your mice either begin to look like cute mice again, or, if you do it wrong, when your mouse starts to resemble an alien being! My mouse began to resemble a weight lifter, too much padding in the shoulders apparently, but after some adjustment, I didn’t think it was too bad.

I am completely traumatised however. It was a gruelling five hours, and I never ever want to do something like that again. Ever. I also thought I would be quite freaked out with the end result. I mean, my mouse isn’t quite the cute fluffy thing it once was, but it’s not awful either. The question is... what on earth am I going to do with a stuffed mouse? Do I keep it or give it away? Do I put it somewhere in my flat… staring at me from across the room? Would I forget it was there on my bookshelf and see it out of the corner of my eye, scream, and bash it with a broom? But funnily enough, and perhaps it’s because I was so hands-on with the entire process, I have become quite attached to Midge (yes, she has a name) already. Midge sat on my passenger seat on the way home from class, and I had a nice conversation with her. Oh my God.. did I just type those words? Midge then sat on the table in my sitting room and it didn’t freak me out one iota. I do have a shoebox in my cupboard for emergencies, however, for occasions when Midge needs to be put away. This morning, for instance, I have a cleaner coming for a few hours, to do a winter clean, and I thought that a stuffed mouse might not be her cup of tea, so I put Midge in the shoebox. I’m just hoping she doesn’t accidentally knock it off the shelf or have a peek inside. My 5 hours of skinning and stuffing might result in a very squashed rodent!

And now for the finale. I know you’re dying to see Midge, so here she is.

Monday, 20 October 2014

A day out in London for (almost) free.

I have always blown the metaphorical trumpet for the wonders of being a freelancer, rather than being permanently employed – you are your own boss, you can take holidays whenever you want and for as long as you want, you can earn more money working fewer days, tra la la. The downside of freelancing is lack of income when you’re ill. Being a fit and healthy 40-something, my sick days are few, thank goodness, but when surgery suddenly looms, you have to be prepared for a recuperation period, where no money is coming in.

I had knee surgery recently and was off work for 4 weeks. That was fine... I had budgeted (sort of) for that period of inactivity. Although I knew I would lose a months wages, all it meant was a slight adjustment to my normal routine. I have never been a big spender on things – months and months go by between purchases of clothes or shoes; my television blew up over 3 months ago and I haven’t bothered to replace it; I tend to substitute expensive skincare with cheaper, more natural alternatives (hurrah for coconut oil and tap water), and I also embrace the look of darker roots before I have my highlights re-done. My luxury items, the stuff that makes my heart go pitter-pat, are experiences and people – memories if you will – and that is where most of my money goes (after boring things like the mortgage and bills). Trips abroad, theatre tickets, cinema, ballet, lunches and dinners with friends, all put major dips in my bank account, so knowing I had to be very very careful with money until I started working again, I also had to be a little more creative with my entertainment. 

With a free Sunday approaching, and finally being able to walk without wincing in pain, I decided to see how much I could do, for free, in a single day in central London. Here’s what I did.

Sunday 9 am
Eat a hearty breakfast. This I count as free because I already had the ingredients in my fridge.
Cost = 0

10 am
Drive into central London. Driving my car, I also count as free because I already had petrol in the tank. There is no congestion charge on Sunday and also no charge for street parking. 
Cost of travel = 0

11am - 1pm (ish)
Attend my first Sunday Assembly. Now, I’m not exactly sure how to describe this unique experience, this group of people, other than how they describe themselves. On their website, they say they are: A global movement for wonder and good – helping you to live better, help often and wonder more. I love that. I wonder about things all the time (at school, my teachers called it daydreaming), I like to live life to the full and I try and be a good person and help others. So it seemed a good fit. I had read about it a year ago and had always wanted to go but hadn’t had the opportunity until now. The two people that set it up, Pippa and Sanderson (comedians by day, funnily enough), wanted to do something that had all the best bits of church (i.e. singing, a warm community of people, coffee and cake afterwards) but without the religion. Most importantly, they wanted the addition of awesome rock and pop songs, played by a live band, that people could sing along to en masse! So far so good. 

I was a little nervous and got there early, parking outside an old building in Holborn, like a curb-crawling stalker, watching people as they went in. After I had noticed more than a dozen 30 to 40-something (rather handsome and very well dressed) men walking in, I hesitated no longer. I parked my car and walked into the old hall, with a spring in my step. Everyone looked perfectly normal. I don’t know what I expected to see – misfits and oddities maybe – but everyone looked like me. Well, you and me, but better looking. And by that I don’t mean weird clean-cut Mormon good looking, I mean nice clothes, takes care of themselves, good looking. There were a lot of fine bearded, buffed brogue-wearing and twinkly-eyed men. There were shiny-haired, chatty, expensive jean-clad women. Sanderson, ironically (as it’s all about being non-denominational), looked like Jesus (or should I say, how Jesus is depicted in paintings and sculptures): about 35 years old, over 6'3", slim, with light brown shoulder length hair and and an impressive shoulder length beard. He was very funny (expected) and led proceedings with a combination of self-deprecating humour and charm. The 200+ crowd (I so want to say congregation) sang and laughed and cheered and clapped and sang some more. The sing-a-longs were just brilliant… big booming classic rock anthems with lyrics projected onto a screen on stage, and every now and again, the screen would flash up, "Dance break", and the whole room exploded into improv dancing. I tell you what… singing and dancing like a nutter with 200 other people, is not something you usually find yourself doing sober, and in daylight, but I tell you what, it felt good. I had a stupid smile slapped across my face the entire time, and then, when the singing and dancing stopped, there was a male choir called Chaps, 2 hilarious slam poets, a talk about leadership... and then there was coffee and cake! Brilliant. There is no charge for these two hours of life-affirming madness, but donations are welcome, and were placed in a hessian sack that was passed around during a particularly raucous rendition of Starship’s, We Built This City. I watched my neighbours put in various amounts, ranging from £1 coins to £5 notes. I opted for a shiny £2 coin. I know that sounds terribly miserly but I was a trying to do the day for free and bottled it at the final hessian hurdle!

Cost of two hours of joy = 0 if you’re scrooge, £2 if you’re on a budget, any other amount if you have no money issues.

1 pm
Whilst half the Sunday Assembly crowd went to the local pub, feeling a proper drink was in order, I was still trying to spend as little money as possible and felt it was not the appropriate time to try and get a stranger to buy me a drink (sobriety and daylight being another factor), so I opted out and spent my lunchtime sitting on a bench in a small park in Russell Square, amidst falling russet leaves and playful squirrels. Once again, I had most of the contents of my mid-day meal already in my fridge, so I brought along a mini picnic: cheese and pickle sandwich, cashew nuts, banana and a re-cycled plastic bottle filled with ribena (my own holy wine!).
Cost = 0

1:30 - 3 pm
Drive to King’s Cross, park the car and walk to the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel. If you pretend you are a resident in one of these opulent places of rest, no one will pay you any attention if you stroll about the place, gawping at the incredible architecture... which I did. Luckily, I went to a literary salon here a few months ago, so I knew vaguely where I was going as I walked through the maze of hallways and staircases, and no one batted an eyelid! You can also sit in the lobby and have a cup of coffee (again, it's not my fault if they think I'm a guest) and people watch to your heart’s content. Expensive hotels, like this one, are the best places to people watch. With rooms costing £400-£900 a night, there are only a certain few people that can afford to stay here, and they are an eclectic bunch! From Russians dripping in cashmere, fur and gold, to tiny suited Japanese businessmen, bowing at each other and drinking whiskey, to little old ladies that look like Miss Marple… there are all sorts, and if like me, you are terribly nosey and enjoy a bit of eavesdropping, they are also great fodder for writing ideas! 

After my cup of refreshment, I walked out of the hotel and straight onto the Eurostar platform, then over the canal to the newly developed Granary Square at the back of King's Cross. Canals, boats, buskers, water features and the Museum of Illustration make this another great place to visit for free.

I then walked up to St. Pancras Old Church and found the Hardy Tree. This amazing Ash tree is surrounded by spiralling gravestones. It was designed by the architect Thomas Hardy (before he became a writer) when a new railroad was being built, and a 100 graves had to be dug up and repositioned. It was his creative solution and is ridiculously beautiful.

I then walked to the British Library and into the beauteous space of 170 million books, maps, drawings and manuscripts. 170 million items covering 6 miles of shelving! I hate the word but can think of no other. Awesome.

Cost = 0

3 - 4 pm
Drive to the Tate Modern. If it is a nice day, and it was, there is nothing better than being high up with a view stretching across the river Thames to the buildings of St. Paul's Cathedral and the Gherkin (don't know it's real name). Luckily I am a member of the Tate and can catch a lift to the 5th floor and hang out on the roof terrace free of charge. 

I was a little cheeky with my drink options here though, but as I was on a mission to spend as little as possible I rose to the challenge of getting something without paying. Confidence and a smile get you a long way! It is an expensive place to get a cup of tea or coffee, but at the end of the counter is a bucket of ice, some sliced lemons and cups and saucers. So I simply picked up a cup and saucer and asked the waitress if I could have some hot water (they can't charge for water), then took a few slices of lemon and voila… a lovely hot refreshing drink. Am I sounding ridiculous? I know I know… I was blinded by my own challenge! But hot water and lemon on a cold crisp autumn day really is quite divine.

Cost = 0

4 - 5 pm
Drive to the Tower of London to see the poppies. This art installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is something you truly have to see for yourself if you can, because photographs do not do it justice. Thousands of volunteers have been planting red ceramic poppies around the moat of the tower for most of the summer and autumn. Once finished, in time for Remembrance Day on November 11th, there will be 888,246 poppies, each one representing a life that was lost in The Great War, a 100 years ago. It is not only incredibly moving but absolutely stunning. 

I left the poppies and a thousand other tourists and suddenly realised I was in desperate need of the loo. But the one thing seemingly impossible to do in London is to go for a wee, for free. Public loos now charge 50p to go through their turnstiles!! No way José! So I ducked into the nearest pub, pretended to look around for my non-existent friends, and used their water closet instead.
Cost = 0

5 - 6 pm
Drive to Borough Market. I was actually planning on buying my supper as I walked around the amazing food stalls but I soon realised – having been offered everything from tasty morsels of cheese, slices of cured meats and marinated olives, to crumbled brownies, broken cookies and little shots of wine – that I needed nothing more. I was full up. Thank you kind and generous market traders for your little samples. Don’t worry everyone, I have spent absolute fortunes on goodies here in the past, so I didn't feel a jot of guilt at my one-off freebie taster day.

Cost = 0

6 pm
As you can imagine, after walking for a lot of the day, my knee was complaining loudly and I was utterly exhausted, so I toasted my success with another thimbleful of wine and drove home. 
Cost of entire day = £2. Not bad.

There are hundreds of things you can do in London for free; galleries, exhibitions, parks and museums (the John Soanes Museum being my absolute favourite… utterly fantabulous, quirky and 100% free of charge). You can watch buskers in Covent Garden and street dancers in Trafalgar Square; you can flit from market to market and nibble their wares; you can get a free massage or haircut if you don't mind being a guinea pig for a student; you can watch bands, comedy, poetry and book readings for free in pubs, if you check local listings; you can do the salsa or samba with experienced dancers for free in latin clubs; and if you volunteer you can get backstage for all sorts of events. 

I only managed a few of those things in one day, but it really opened my eyes to what is possible, right on my doorstep. I love London and don't think I will ever tire of it. Ok, you have to be fit enough to be able to walk for hours, and you have to like looking at things. It helps if you enjoy people watching and don't mind bringing your own picnic but it is possible to have the most incredible day out and not break a fiver. Of course, it's much more fun if you do it with friends so I am accepting volunteers for my next excursion!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Parent nursemaids and the middle-aged patient.

When I was told I needed knee surgery, my biggest concern was what I was going to do afterwards. Who was going to look after me, where was I going to go? I had had similar surgery before and knowing this operation wasn’t going to be quite so invasive, I thought I may be able to simply hobble out of hospital and manage by myself at home, with supermarket deliveries and visits from friends. My surgeon had other ideas, however, and made it very clear that they would not allow me home on my own, and for at least the first week I should preferably be looked after. Of course, my parents were horrified when I suggested anything other than coming to stay with them and so arrangements were duly made. Some people said how sweet it was, that my parents were going to look after me… others gave me a look of horror and a further few offered sympathy, though wether that was intended for me or my parents, I will never be sure.

On the day of surgery, at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, my parents were going to drive up from Hampshire, visit an old friend for lunch and then make their way to the hospital. One never knows in what order you’ll be operated on, so the staff nurse had taken my Father’s mobile number and said she would phone them as soon as I was in the second stage of recovery. Luckily, I was second in the operating theatre and was out 2 hours later. Amazing. I remember, groggily, hearing the nurse make the phone call and heard her say, ‘Hello this is the staff nurse at Chelsea and Westminster hospital. Juliet’s surgery went very well and she will be ready to leave as soon as you get here’. There was then a long pause and the nurse said, ‘Oh ok, that’s fine… I’ll let her know’. She came over and told me that my parents would be a bit late as they were just in the middle of lunch and the traffic was rather bad. Not one to ever get in the way of people’s social plans, I waited patiently. My Father was rather frazzled when they turned up… traffic was hell apparently, but on the plus side, they’d had a lovely lunch.

We made our way through Fulham and Wandsworth at absolute snail’s pace. Due to one of the main bridges across the Thames being closed, every car, bike, van and lorry in London was heading down the same single lane road. Nightmare. I was sideways on the back seat… leg up, swollen to the size of a big balloon, very drowsy, in pain and just wanting to get flat, knowing there was at least a 2-hour drive ahead of us. I must have drifted off with the heat and car fumes because I woke up, half an hour later, to a furious dispute between my Mother and Father in the front seat. My Father had, inexplicably, taken the wrong turning off the A3 and was going round in circles outside Guildford. Being a man, he refused to stop and ask someone where we were, and relied instead on his internal Sat Nav. His Sat Nav must have been a little faulty that day because we began heading into a small village, miles from the motorway. He decided to finally stop and look at the map. As he was trying to figure out where we were, I pulled out my iphone and in nanoseconds, had looked us up on google maps (how to annoy your Father, example 1). Dad reluctantly conceded that relying on my iphone was possibly better, at this stage, than guessing where we were, and we finally got back on track!!

Just as we were about to join the main road, I realised that I had temporarily lost control of my bladder and desperately needed the loo (how to annoy your Father, example 2). I said I was happy to go in the bushes but not being able to walk was a slight obstacle to going off-road, so Dad had to find a petrol station instead. Thank God, we found one half a mile down the road and pulled in. My Father decided he might as well fill up the car while we were there, but there were no free pumps on the side of his petrol tank, so he reversed impatiently, then drove the car to the other side, hoping the hose would reach. He had forgotten, however, that I needed to go to the loo and he had pulled up so close to the petrol pump that I couldn’t get out. He backed the car up, muttering under his breath, and suddenly there was a loud crunch. Oh dear. The look on my Mother’s face as she surveyed the damage, said it all really. He’d accidentally hit the raised pavement and split the hubcap. At this point my pelvic floor was about to give way, but I managed to get out of the car and hobble on crutches to the loo. And guess what? It was out of order! Nooooo. My Mother pleaded with the garage attendant to let me use it and they said ok, as long as I could pee in the dark, as the electrics had gone. I limped into the darkness with my Mother standing guard outside the door, leaving it open an inch to let in a shard of light. My anaesthetic was making parts of me a little numb but I still think I managed to hover and aim correctly!

We finally got back on the motorway and were greeted with a 2-mile long traffic jam. Stop start stop start for the next half an hour. Every single time my Father accelerated, some idiot would cut in front of him and he would slam on the brakes, resulting in me sliding forward on the leather seat and crashing into the back of my Mother. This was the ensuing conversation (on a continuous loop):

Father: Oh bloody hell!
Mother: Darling!
Father: Well honestly! Stupid _____! (Slamming on brakes)
Me (slide, crash): Owwwww!
Mother: Darling be careful, poor Juliet.
Father: It’s not my fault, stupid _____!
Mother: Darling!
Me: Daddy!

When we eventually reached home we were all mentally and physically exhausted and pretty much zonked out for the rest of the day. The following 2 days were a slight blur but went something like this… breakfast, painkillers, ice pack, physio, hot water bottle, sleep, lunch, painkillers, physio, read, pass out, ice pack, hot water bottle, try to poo, radio, supper, painkillers, ice pack, hot water bottle, read, painkillers, sleep. All this time, I was waited on hand and foot by my wonderful parents but by about day 3, I was starting to realise that my life was turning into groundhog day and put it down to the codeine-based painkillers. Yes, they did help with the pain but they were also turning me into a brainless zombie. I could hardly form a sentence let alone write one and was getting more and more frustrated that I couldn’t concentrate for more than two minutes at a time. So I went cold turkey and stopped the painkillers. I decided pain was preferable to cotton-wool head. By day 4, I was writing and reading, doing puzzles, having conversations and getting outside for some fresh air. All this, of course, was on a silent time schedule.

I’m not sure how many of you have spent a lot of time with your parents as they get older, but you might notice your Mother and Father being a little more set in their ways as the years progress. They might get in the habit of doing things at a certain time, a certain way, to a stricter timetable, as part of their daily routine. Instead of battling against these domestic consistencies, you find that in order to have an easy life, it’s better to just go with the flow. In the past week, I have formed a fairly accurate picture of how my parents operate and have fitted in accordingly, well, tried to. Have no doubt, I adore my parents and their oddities and I know I use them (with humour and affection), as brilliant blog fodder on a fairly regular basis, but to spend 2 weeks with your parents, as a 46-year-old, is the severest test of tolerance, patience, submission and humour.

Breakfast is between 8:00 and 8:30am on weekdays and Saturdays in the Sellars household. On Sundays, breakfast may be later, at say, 9am. Ooh, tardy. On the one day that I accidentally slept until 8:37am (as I had had a particularly painful night and not slept well), there was a loud rap on the door and my Father’s voice woke me up, saying, ‘Darling, it’s past 8:30. We weren’t sure if we should wake you. Did you not want breakfast?’ From then until lunch, it’s newspaper reading, doctors appointments, errands, village-y things, coffee mornings, yoga and pilates classes, flower arranging, shopping and library visits. With me here, the routine is interspersed with hot water bottle filling, frozen pea bags distribution and drink requests. Lunch is at 1:00 o’clock. Usually two courses, usually something deliciously substantial (I could get used to this). After lunch, my Father clears up and stacks the dishwasher. Woe betide you if you dare to help, try and wash up, or go near the sacred dishwasher! My Father has a system and no one, NO ONE, knows how to stack it correctly apart from him, therefore we aren’t allowed near it. Fine by us Pops! My Father then spends time in his study, doing ‘office’ stuff (solitaire?), whilst my Mother goes for a walk. Perhaps a cup of tea around 3:30pm? There also might be some activity in the garden during the day, or perhaps some DIY. Lovely. At some point in the late afternoon/early evening, the dulcet tones of Midsomer Murders or Australian Masterchef (obsessed!) might be heard through the thin wall between the spare room (me), and sitting room (them). This has caused slight angst on my part due to the volume and wall thickness.

My Father has a hearing aid, my Mother’s hearing is perfect. My Father only wears his hearing aid, after he has had his shower in the morning, which follows breakfast. So it’s, ‘Hmm, what?’ and very loud speaking in the mornings, followed by, ‘You don’t have to shout, I can hear you perfectly well!!’ once the hearing aid is in. Despite the hearing aid, the TV can sometimes sound like it’s turned up to concert volume and my head feels like it might implode. Cannot sleep, read, let a lone write. I need quiet, I don’t need to hear violent screams from the other side of the wall as someone else in murdered in Somerset!! Therefore, I sometimes decamp to another room, hobbling down the hallway with hot water bottle stuffed down the back of my pyjamas, book dangling between clenched teeth, heading for the peace of Dad’s study or outside. Sometimes this causes a momentary fright when my Mother spots my empty bed and can’t find me. I’m not sure where she thinks I will go… until yesterday I was only able to limp 20 metres on my crutches so my crazy escape plan would take me to the end of the drive and no further!!

Luckily, the last few days have given us the most glorious weather and I have been able to sit in the garden, listening to amorous pigeons cooing, birdsong, an occasional dog bark, clip-clop of horses and the hum of lawnmowers. My parents’ village is small and rural and everyone knows everyone. The postman doesn’t bother posting mail through the letterbox, he just opens the front door and puts the letters on the sideboard. There is a wonderful trust here that you don’t find many places. Villagers don’t phone or email, they just pop round. And if anyone is ill or needs help, there is an immediate posse of people available to drive, fetch, deliver, and help. It’s very appealing and it’s what I adore about village life and community. I suppose growing up in a village has made me want that same familiarity where I live in London. I have tried to get to know all my neighbours and know their names, I also support my local independent shops rather than the bigger chains. I guess I love, and am, a complete gossip and no one can give you the gossip like your neighbours, or the owners of your local corner shop, coffee shop, café and laundrette. The guy that owns the key cutting and heel bar in Balham tube station, is such an unbelievable gossip that I have to give myself at least half an hour when I visit! So recuperating in a village is brilliant! You have your very own soap opera… a slightly elderly soap opera (the average age here is most probably 68), but soap opera, nonetheless. And also, wonderfully, the gossip is always accompanied by tea and cake! At 7pm, it’s a light supper - soup and sandwich or a salad - and then the daily discussion over what to watch. Never in my life have I had to think about television as much as I have in the last few days. The TV Times comes out, as does the TV guide on sky… it has different listings apparently. I always say the same thing: I honestly don’t mind, you choose, but still get the rundown of everything on between 8 and 10:30pm, just in case. Of course, I'm contrary (no!) and have no opinion until something is put on that I don’t like and then I complain (how to annoy your Father, example 3). 10:30pm is bedtime, usually after watching the news. 

I think you get into a rhythm after a few days, you start to adapt to your new home and things start to become easy. I have been looked after by my parents without one complaint or moan and I cannot thank them enough. In return, I have tried to fit into their routine without a complaint or a moan. I hope I have been successful… I hope I’m invited back, haha.

But look, it’s 10:37pm. Way past my bedtime!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Independence or family?

Every night I have been watching the news and the raging debate over Scottish Independence. The biggest question - after all the political rhetoric and scaremongering - seems to be wether Scots will be voting with their heads or their hearts? Currently, the Scottish people are split down the middle: 50% want independence, 50% don’t. So does the heart always win in the end? Will undecided voters get to the polling booths and go with their gut, with sentimentality, or with hope and courage?

I happened to catch the tail end of the Proms last night and got very emotional when I realised that this may the last time I see the Albert Hall filled with Union Jacks. That anything with the word “British” attached to it, may not include Scotland after next week, and I realised that my heart very much rules my head. I felt terribly sad. I am not alone it seems. A recent poll showed that if the rest of the UK were to vote, more than 80% of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, would not want Scotland to leave us. But are we thinking what would be best for Scotland or being selfish and emotional at what we would lose? It’s complicated. There will be so many changes if Scotland gains independence. It’s not just about the Union Jack and feeling nostalgic, it’s about the currency, the National Health Service, oil, nuclear defence, the EU, tax, education, even what we will call ourselves. We can’t call ourselves the United Kingdom if Scotland isn’t part of us... Maybe we will have to call ourselves the Former United Kingdom, but the abbreviation is slightly problematic, no matter how accurate!

It suddenly feels as if our eldest child wants to leave home. To have its own identity, to discover the world and stand alone. In life, we always welcome our loved ones back, if they’ve run out of money, made a mistake or changed their mind, but if Scotland votes for independence next week, there is no turning back. I have stayed quiet and neutral until now. I didn’t want to force my views on anyone or speak out of turn because I felt being English, I wasn’t allowed, but as I lie in bed with a recently operated knee, being looked after by my amazing parents, visited by my wonderful sister and receiving messages from loved ones, I realise that family means everything to me. And no matter how cheesy it sounds, Scotland is part of the UK’s family and I don’t want to lose it. 

Monday, 18 August 2014

Nudity and the Drawing Theatre.

Take two words. Drawing (ooh I love drawing) and theatre (ooh I loooove theatre), put them together and you have the Drawing Theatre (funnily enough). For me, seeing those two words together caused such a tremor of excitement, that I had my credit card out and the event booked quicker than you can say ‘white rabbits’ on the first of the month.

I have always loved drawing classes, especially life drawing. Back at college, at the tender age of 17, I saw my first naked body. Other than my own body, and a few glimpses of my sister, cousins, friends and parents growing up, I had never seen one close up. And yet, here was a naked woman, draped with a sheet (to protect her naughtier bits), reclined on a sofa, in broad daylight! I couldn’t quite believe it. She sat so still too, that I almost held my breath for her, wondering how it was possible not to itch a scratch or yawn or cough or sneeze. I had grown up being told to ‘stop fidgeting’, so it seemed impossible to sit still for so long. All I could focus on, for those first few hours, was the model moving accidentally, getting a spasm or blushing. Something completely human!! It’s like when you watch a gymnast or a high diver do an amazingly difficult routine… it’s fabulous when they do it perfectly but it’s also a bit exciting when they mess up!! But she never did. As the weeks and years went on, I saw every shape and size of model possible… there were the creative bendy models who could hold elaborate poses for 30 or 40 minutes; there were vast hairy men and women who’s privates lay nestled in thickets, and nipples hung down to their tummies; there were proud bald men, tall sinewy women, short, fat, handsome, ugly… you name it, I drew it. 

When I got to art college, I was so used to the naked form that I thought, well if they can do it, so can I! It just so happened that the life model hadn’t turned up to our class one evening and I thought, how hard could it be, and volunteered? Don’t worry, it wasn’t as if my friends were drawing me… that would just be weird, no, thank God, I knew no one in the class, and the teacher generously allowed me to cover up a little more than the normal models, being my first time and all. I had a single boob on show, and one buttock, but apart from that, everything else was tastefully sheet-covered. Still, nothing quite prepares you for being stared at by two dozen eager artists. Out of the corner of my eye, I would notice someone focusing on my right breast, holding up a pencil, squinting, closing one eye, flicking their focus between flesh and paper back and forth, paper, boob, paper, boob. Others were drawing my nose, my foot or my shoulder, staring so intently that I felt I should have a quick look myself, to make sure there was nothing else there. And the torture of trying to stay still! After 5 minutes I already had itches, ticks and cramps everywhere! I subtly tried to wiggle my toes or wrinkle my nose, trying to relive the agony without moving too much. I remember one man tutting at me, telling me I had moved my hand… could I please put it back where it was. What? Where was it? He directed me, impatiently... right a little, no down a little, fingers closer together, not that much, STOP! I was a nervous wreck! A glorious 5-minute stretch, after half an hour of sitting, made things even worse. I couldn’t remember where my leg had been, what had been crossed over what? Nothing felt quite right. More tuts. The teacher rolled her eyes and re-arranged my limbs herself, to the classes liking, prodding, pushing and sculpting me like a lump of plasticine. And then it was over. Thank God. But after an hour of hideousness, the desire to see what the artists had drawn at the end of the class was too too much. You aren’t supposed to care, of course. All the models I had drawn in the past, had simply got up at the end of the session and disappeared to get dressed, without a backwards glance. I couldn’t help myself though, I had to have a quick peek, and I warn you now, if you have any insecurities at all, and if you ever decide to do this yourself.. don’t look at the drawings. It wasn’t as if the artists weren’t talented, they were, but artists tend to exaggerate features. Some were kinder than others, using pastels and watercolours, softening my flesh, reducing the extremities, but others, the majority, had used charcoal. Dark bold lines emphasised all the things you want to hide. My bum cheeks were like giant black orbs on the paper, my nose shot across the page like a caricature, everything was enormous! Oh my God! Was my head that shape, were my knees that knobbly, did I really have that many rolls of flesh, or those dimples, there!!! It took me quite a few days to recover and I never modelled for a life drawing class again… but did I learn my lesson? No.

In 2004, an artist friend asked me to model for him, for a series of photographs. He was putting on an exhibition in a wonderfully opulent patisserie in Soho and wanted me to pose with a cupcake. He was then going to photoshop it a little, making the light more etherial, whilst enlarging the cupcake on my outstretched hand, so that I resembled a sort of Statue of Liberty, but with a cupcake, not a torch! I arrived in his studio loft early one morning, was immediately plied with champagne and took my clothes off (as you do). Once again, some discreet drape-age was arranged, and only one breast appeared in the final shots, taken from the side. The shoot went very smoothly but after about ten minutes we realised we should maybe shoot away from the window a little, as quite a few office workers, in the block opposite were showing a little too much interest in our goings on! They should be used to that in Soho!! The photographs were quite lovely actually and I still have a copy on the wall in my flat (friends, you have missed that one!), they were so bleached out and softly focused, in fact, that you can hardly tell it’s me! Bonus!

Did I stop there? Of course not. Twice more did I venture into nakedness for the sake of art. Once for my Auntie, a wonderful photographer, who placed myself, my two younger cousins, and my cousin’s baby, on some very cold wet grass, in the woods above our family house in the Lake District, early one autumn morning. Naked? Need you ask? The photographs were beautiful… of my 3 cousins. Slim, young beautiful girls and gorgeous baby Pip, nestled in my cousins arms in the foreground. I meanwhile, am squatting down at the back, looking like I've been caught short, with a slightly embarrassed expression on my face. Awkward. I still love it though, which is a good thing, as it was recently in my Auntie’s photographic exhibition for all the world to see. So people know me just a little better now!

After that, and my final foray into nude modelling, was for another photographer... a friend of a friend in America. I did a whole afternoon’s shoot, fully naked. Fully naked.. sorry I said that twice, but I still can’t believe I did it and still reel from the experience. The shoot was great, the results horrific. I was so upset with how awful I looked, suffering with a large bout of self-consciousness and self-loathing, that I begged the artist to promise never to use a single one of the photographs in her upcoming or any future exhibitions. I felt bad about that but I was so mortified with how I looked that I couldn’t bear the thought of anyone else seeing them. And that was that. The end of my public nakedness. Phew is an understatement!

So, when the man sitting next to me - at the Drawing Theatre class the other night - leant towards me and asked if I had ever done any nude modelling, my first thought was not... well that’s a very odd question to ask a complete stranger, instead my thoughts went back to all the times I had done it. Before I could answer him, however, he began to tell me of his own nude exploits. Now I don't know what you're picturing as I type this, but a hunky adonis this was not. My new friend was mid 40’s, a redhead and very very pale, with a discernible paunch. Nothing wrong with that, in fact, I sound like I'm describing my ex boyfriend, but there was something in his eyes and his demeanour that made me slightly shudder at the thought of him naked. And the fact that as he began to describe his experiences, he stretched out his arms and spread his legs wide, saying how liberating it all was, with a big sigh. Ewwwww. In an attempt to stop myself retching, I turned to my other neighbour to change the subject a little, but it’s hard changing the subject when the subject is about what you're actually doing, and he nudged me and asked me again if I'd done it myself. I replied quickly, that I had, but when I was much younger, leaving it at that. ‘Ooooh’, he said, ‘You must do it again, now that you’re older, you’re probably a far more interesting shape to draw. Far more curves and flesh. I would love to draw you!’ Ugh, creepy icky yuck yuck. Ironically, for years I've actually had a fantasy of meeting a famous artist and becoming his muse, being drawn beautifully, but this was far from that imagining I can tell you. I laughed, sort of, and tried to smile, turning to my neighbour again with a look of, ‘Help me!’ She simply rolled her eyes and shook her head, implying that this was not a new topic of conversation for my ginger friend.

The rest of the evening was amazing though. The class was held in a beautiful interiors shop called Heals, in central London. The organisers aim is to combine stunning architecture, dramatic lighting, music and actors as part of the experience, so I knew this was going to be a very different sort of drawing class. On arrival, we were given wine and nibbles and then let loose on the sets they had designed, able to sit anywhere and draw whatever we wanted. There were tables full of art equipment and we were given leather bound drawing pads to keep, as well as a beautiful glass candle holder and a goody bag!! Not bad for £25. The first scene was very Great Gatsby-esque. The actors posed on the sweeping art deco staircase as the music seared through the vast room. I busied myself with a few collages and was happily cutting and gluing paper, content in my own little world, when I realised an hour had already passed. We broke for another glass of wine (very civilised), and went to the second set. I gasped as I entered the bed department (never thought I would type those words!). It was so beautiful. The actress was dressed like an old movie heroine, reclining on a huge silk-covered bed, with giant fluffy clouds made of gauze, bundles of cotton wool, and oversized lamps. Honestly, it looked like a fairytale fashion shoot, simply stunning. 

But unlike any other drawing class I have been to, the models actually move. They aren't static, holding poses for hours on end, which means you suddenly look up from your pad, having kept your head down for a few minutes, and realise they’ve gone somewhere else. Keeps you on your toes and also makes you try and capture the essence of what you're looking at, rather than a long intense study. I loved every second. They do them every few weeks at different locations around London, and have had classes in crypts and churches, in libraries and art galleries. And after all that talk of nakedness, funnily enough, the models weren’t. They were fully clothed. So I'm not at all sure what prompted me to spend most of this blog talking about naked people. Hmmm. Maybe I should talk to the ginger man again!

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Posh crutches.

In 2003, I had double knee surgery. For those of a squeamish disposition, I promise I won’t go into lurid details but suffice to say, for keyhole surgery, it was fairly invasive. There were ligaments cut, knee caps re-aligned, a lot of scraping, a bit of sanding, bone fragment extraction and then a pretty intense recovery period. Two weeks flat on my back unable to walk, and then 8 weeks of crutches and physio.

The reason both my knees were operated on together, rather than one at a time, was simply because my private health insurance was about to run out. The company where I worked was being sold, so I had to have both knees operated on within that time, therefore, I had no good leg to stand on! Don’t get me wrong, the NHS can do no wrong in my eyes, and I have probably used their amazing services more than my fair share, but when time isn’t on your side, and you do have the insurance or very deep pockets, then having procedures done privately is sometimes the way to go. The NHS waiting list for surgery, of any kind (unless it’s a life or death situation), usually starts at about 3 months. Privately, you may have your initial consultation with the surgeon, follow-up appointments, pre-op assessment and surgery, all within a few weeks. So luckily, I managed to get into the Lister Hospital in Chelsea, for double knee surgery, within 18 days.

The Lister Hospital is a beautiful red brick building, built in the late 1800’s, on the banks of the Thames. It has incredible views over both the river and Battersea park and when I first saw my room, I was utterly gobsmacked. It was, in fact, a 3-room corner suite, consisting of bedroom, sitting room and en-suite bathroom, with large windows on both sides, looking straight down the river and beyond. All the staff told me it was their favourite room in the building and how lucky I was to have it, so I was quite sad to learn that I would only be there for a few days. My Mother, however, undeterred by my short stay, took full advantage of the beautiful sunny room, its stunning location and its facilities, as I was soon to find out. Even thought I was unable to eat or drink before my operation, it did nothing to stop my Mother from making full use of the 5-star service. She quickly found herself on first name terms with all the nurses and found them all very obliging when she needed a cup of coffee, a sandwich, or the like. When I returned to my room post-op, groggy, dry-mouthed and in desperate need of food and liquids, I found my Mother having tea, in the sitting room, with my Godmother. The sun streamed through the window onto the china-laden coffee table, and in my slightly sedated state, the vision before me looked more like high tea at the Ritz, rather than a cuppa in a lowly hospital room. I honestly think my Mother would have preferred me to stay there a little longer as she was quite enjoying entertaining her friends at such a prestigious address. However, reality hit, and we were out of there and back home to Hampshire for my recuperation. 

As well as a very successful surgery and a fine stay in a leading hospital, the Lister did leave me with another gift… a rather fine pair of state-of-the-art crutches. Now, I imagine you are all thinking, what on earth was so special about these crutches, they surely are all the same, aren’t they? No, no, no, lovely people, for there are bog standard crutches out there, and then there are special, magic crutches, and these were those. NHS crutches are grey affairs, heavy and rickety, with hard plastic handles. Private health insurance crutches are blue, lightweight, with soft ergonomic hand grips and thicker squoodgier rubber stoppers on the ends, that make hobbling around sooo much easier. And it wasn’t just me that noticed the difference… people commented on them everywhere I went! Oooh, like your crutches! is not something that you normally hear every day. I found it quite incredible that a simple pair of crutches could be the basis for so many conversations with strangers. I also found them in great demand from friends and family, over the years. In fact, in the last 10 years, I have leant them to 7 different people.

Two friends sprained their ankles and borrowed the crutches for a few weeks each; I also leant them to a work colleague who broke his leg whilst skiing; Another work colleague had similar knee surgery to mine and borrowed them for a couple of months; A broken toe also required a friend to accept them on loan; My father, too, found them very useful after his hip surgery last year; And finally, one of my best friends borrowed them after a terrible bike accident in which he’d badly broken two femurs. I am also about to have knee surgery for the second time (I like to call it a patella facelift), and so will be in need of them once again. Booo. But these simple blue sticks have come in very handy for a lot of my friends and family, and it is such a shame that the NHS can’t work out some sort of lending or rental scheme to their patients, because they do make such a difference. 

The recent recipient of my lovely blue crutches took matters into his own hands one night, in regards to charitable lending. A group of us were in town for dinner and drinks, and we’d been milling around outside before being called in for dinner. My friend (now only using the one crutch), had limped inside about 5 minutes after us and, immediately, I noticed something was a little odd. My one, slightly scratched and well-used blue crutch, was now a terribly scratched, and very well-used grey crutch. I tried to comprehend this bizarre magic trick and was sitting there open-mouthed, when my friend told me he had generously given my crutch to a homeless man with cerebral palsy, and taken the man’s grey NHS crutch in return. A very noble and selfless act, I hear you say. Of course it was, and I’m sure I would have thought it far more noble a gesture, if it had been his own crutches he had given away, and not mine. However, to make this long tale (something my friends and I have referred to as crutch-gate), short, I will simply tell you that my poor old battered crutches, a friend to many, had to be replaced fairly pronto, so that I would have them for my upcoming surgery. 

My brand new blue crutches are pretty much exactly the same as the old ones, save for a few minor design tweaks… it has been 10 years after all, so the designer must have though, eh up, these could do with an upgrade. The crutches are now offered in an array of rainbow colours although I stayed with blue. They are more lightweight, and the soft-grip handles are now spongier with a textured surface to prevent slippage. They have even thicker stoppers on the bottom so it almost feels as if they are spring-loaded. And, the piece de resistance, is an added red reflector on the back of each stick. I can only assume this is for when you are walking down the middle of a unlit road in the middle of the night, and as a car heads for you, they see two glowing orbs ahead of them. The same height as a pair of wolf eyes perhaps. If I saw that, I would swerve off the road!! Why on earth do you need red reflector lights on a pair of crutches? Just odd. But, apart from that absurdity, they really are quite something… and so were the thoughts of the people in my office yesterday, when they arrived as a special delivery. 

I am working in a German design studio in south London. It is fairly strict about time-keeping, lunch breaks and office etiquette. Freelance designers are there to work, and work only. I was slightly worried, therefore, that a large box being delivered to a freelancer, might not be all right, so I went downstairs and whispered to the girl by the main door, that I was expecting a delivery of crutches, and could she keep and eye out, and then quietly come and tell me. Now 99% of the people in the office speak perfect English. Unfortunately, I had chosen to talk to the one percent who had very little comprehension of the English language. When I said the word crutch, she immediately looked down at my groin area. No, I said, balling my fists, pretending to lean and limp, ‘Crutch-es, as in the things you walk on when you’ve hurt yourself’. ‘Crotch is… ?’ she repeated in a heavy German accent, frowning. Oh God. I managed to convey that I was to receive a delivery and to come and get me, and she nodded and smiled, seeming to understand. A few hours later, up she came, carrying a huge long box and not so subtlety, and not so quietly said, ‘I think this is your crotch’. Everyone turned around, of course. So, I then had to explain to the entire studio that they were a pair of crutches and why I needed them etc etc. The girl was still looking puzzled, so I tore off the sticky tape and pulled out the crutches, as way of explanation, but it just went from confused to hilarious. When crutches are delivered, they are compacted to the lowest height and arm length, to save on packaging, so when I pulled them out of the box, they looked like they were set up for a 4 foot dwarf! Teeny tiny crutches. The girl just blinked and looked at them. She must have thought they were crutches for my crotch!!! I can see why she was confused, bless her.

So then I had to take the crutches home. Abandoning the packaging, I was now carrying them loose, on public transport. This, in itself, confuses people. They see crutches, they think you need crutches, therefore you must be in need of a seat. It’s embarrassing. If you say yes to the seat and nod and thank them, you then need to pretend to limp or make facial expressions to show you are in pain, to justify the offer. But in doing this, you are a fraud and karma will come back and bite you on the arse one day. If you refuse the seat, saying, ‘Oh no, it’s fine, I’m just carrying them’ (which I did), they think you are a complete weirdo and have taken accessorising to a whole new level. Maybe I should have bought them in a few different colours, and match them to my outfits, then I could properly accessorise.

I’m just relieved I have finally got them home and safe, knowing they will be there for my hobbling in a few weeks time. But please, lovely friends and family, don’t fall off, stumble down or trip over, anything… you can’t borrow them just yet!!