Field Study

Here’s something that I read at a charity event in support of A New Leaf, who do incredible work towards greening the centre of Manchester,   I tried to write in the style of an eminent Victorian Lady Botanist (if I had more time or brains I would give you a specific name) and in this guise, imagine what she would discover on a journey across the city.

Field Study – An Exploration of Shudehill to Cornbrook, April 9th, 2018-04-09

Weather:  Cloudy, inclement showers.  I ascend the tram at Shudehill, a place which seems to be  a bustling interchange.  My first green sighting: a Broadfoot Plantain (Plantago Major) insinuating its way out between two paving slabs beside a small peach doily of vomit which itself lies in front of the ticket machine, as if waiting its turn to purchase passage to Crumpsall or East Didsbury.  I am shocked – was the vomiter unaware as to the supreme medicinal qualities of Plantago Major? If they were, they may have avoided such a distressing and public ejaculation.  I journey past the pile: A large, stately bush of Rubus Fruticosus Aggregate, enmeshed in a merry dance with Leontodon Autumnalis and Glechoma Hederacea  resides spreadeagled behind a wire fence.  I am pleased to see that it is being protected in this way.

I traverse the road and continue towards the eponymous Market Street, a semi formalised trading post, consisting of established stalls selling goods such as communication devices, shoes and something referred to as ‘sportswear’. But I digress, perhaps because there are so few green sightings here until – Oh wonder!  And I would invite all botanical enthusiasts to lift their inquiring gaze up away from potential terranean treasures and seek new bounty from the heavens above!  On the roof of a somewhat brutish building I see a whole shrub, Ligustrum  Vulgare.  It is mostly  leafless and squat, I must confess, yet it is beautiful and unexpected and it reminds me of my own dear mother at my wedding, wearing the most artful concoction of feathers and netting  atop her stern, square, naturally inscrutable face.

So there is nature in the city and it moves me.

Further along, I come to the city’s rich green centre piece – Picadilly Gardens.  Perhaps it is the season and weather (remaining cloudy and inclement)  but there is little of the conventional sense of garden to its presentation. There are trees – bare or brown leaved, there are trees -scattered about, like sobre guests at a drunken party, their feet in concrete.  As to their genus I am confounded.  They defy identification! Is it the lack of foliage that leaves me nonplussed? I request clarification from five different passers by and the responses are enlightening as to the nature of the denizens of Picadilly Gardens but irrelevant to my enquiry.  I will write to the council when I return to my lodging.  I can be sure of a prompt reply.

Exhausted and in need of succour, I return to the tram and continue my perambulation through this elusive city. I’m ashamed to admit that I am in the doldrums, and in a fit of absolute despair I almost slam closed my encyclopedia of trees (travel edition) – when I see it.  White blossom in the gardens of the Art Gallery! The glimpse is fleeting, but whose heart does not quicken at the sight of Purnus Serulata! And in full bloom – nary a petal discarded! I experience the same wonder upon every sighting – it’s transience reminds me again of my own dear mother and I remind myself again to find such wonder in all living things for we, and they, are but passing through.

I am still musing on this as we reach the river, and it gives me, as rivers often do, renewed pause for reflection. I re-open my notebook to record my observations;

Salix Sepulcralis – two fine example genuflecting at a bend in the water

A bridge – one side, framed in Ipomoea Alba, the other Hedera Helix.  A fabulous, verdant conjunction.

And then crowding the far side of the bank, a battalion of fluttering Narcissus Poeticus, craning their necks for better view of the joggers and prams and canal watchers who are out in force on this full and vibrant day!

Nature in its diverse forms and richness has revived my spirit and I arrive at my destination fortified, as demonstrated by the wild flourish with which I close my notebook and nod with firm cheer at my fellow commuters.    As I exeunt, I mark a crowd of Budleia pushing and jostling at the sides of the tracks.  Nature’s lonely trainspotter.  Their flowers are brown and crusted and the leaves are shrivelled and the weather remains cloudy and inclement and yet it prevails and we prevail and will no doubt, revive.  Such is the nature of the city.

 

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Soho Walk Up

The first sign was the handshake at the door.  For a tall man, he had small cool hands and skin as soft and plump as my old home economics teacher’s.  Waterfall: the hand slipped out of my grip before I had made my impression, the one I’d honed on my dad, which told everyone that I was firm, in control, serious about the work.

 

We were in Soho, but not the Soho that I wanted, that I saw my friends and peers getting familiar with:  Bond girl receptionists, fresh flowers, coffee you could look forward to.  I was in the Soho of shimmer curtains and cartoon eyes urging you to ‘look!’, drawn thickly in magic marker on fluorescent cardboard.  Alleyways that you’d swear where not there the week before last.  Shit smells. Not even DVD, but VHS.

 

We were on the first floor above an open doorway next to a Chinese Herbalist’s, teetering on the brink of Wardour Street.  It was scuffed, scraped and cracked, dust trails and polyester curtains lending a sort of dingy glamour if you really searched for it. This room told me everything that I needed to know about the job – and still I was here.

So, I guess that tells you everything that you need to know about my career.

 

Despite not being a car, I made an unnecessary three point turn in to a boxy fuchsia pink bucket chair, so low to the ground that my knees bounced up to my rib cage. Obviously, I felt that this wasn’t awkward enough, so I looked down between my legs in surprise, noticing a big bruise of a water stain on the lower half of the chair as I did so.  What on earth was I doing?  I was seized by the sudden desire to let out a huge vaginal yawn, but I didn’t know what that meant and I doubt it would have led to anything other than an escalation in self diminishing acts from me.

 

He sat opposite, sleepy cat, endless legs crossed and contrived in unfathomable ways.  Sordid, born to it.  One hand cradled his phone, the other caressed a label dangling on a beaded plastic tie from the arm of the chair. Caution: Flammable.  It was the only new thing in the entire room.  A double bed gave a Gallic shrug in the corner.  I could hear Soho outside, so I knew I hadn’t died, but the very air in the room shrunk out all life, charisma and energy.

 

Someone had to, had to, say a something.

 

 

‘Thanks for seeing me.  I really admire your work.’

‘Great.’

‘It’s an interesting job.  Lots of possibilities I think.’

‘I can smoke in here.’  Statement of fact, to himself: the day was looking up for him.  He moved his attention to a pocket in his skinny jeans, pulled out a tin and started rolling a cigarette.  His eyes flicked back to his phone screen.

 

‘Would you like to know about the work that I’ve done?’

My voice was girlish and shrill, creeping higher as I inched my way through the sentence, a trait first observed in me by a bitter choir leader at Brownies, one which had persisted (due to my failure to address) into adulthood.

 

It’s worse when I feel like I’m struggling.   I pulled my skirt down towards my knees –  damn bucket chair – and with no response from him I kept talking, a desperate, rickety Beckett-y monologue which took in and spat out details of my training and first gigs, inspiration and ambition pumping like pistons to cover the cracks in my resume.

 

My voice sank upwards, joining an exclusive frequency enjoyed only by electrical hums and dog whistles.  The clip clop of a phone alert barely made the chorus. I knew it wasn’t mine, ringer off at the door of course, but I did take a break from all the great faces that I was pulling as I sold my tarnished wares to see him glance down to his phone hand.  Glance then stay, rooted, finger twitching over the keypad, tapping in his response.

 

In an audition mate.  This girl’s a dick’.  Probably, probably that, I imagined, all the while teeth and eyes and tiny voice keeping it bright and right.

 

I’d decided to tell him how rude he was, that I’d spread the word about him to others, because I had that much about me, by God I did– until I remembered that I didn’t need to do any such thing. I pressed my hands into the sharp arms of the chair and levered myself up to standing.  My skirt rode up and over my bandy, low-lying gusset, revealing no doubt to the observant eye all those tiny little white elastic worms that wriggle free to escape a dying pair of tights.  It helped – all true warriors wear little skirts, don’t they? Better to take charge in, of course.

 

‘Do you want this job?’ I said.

He looked at me. Then my gusset, then back at my face – he did have lovely eyes. I pressed.

‘Because if you do, put down the phone, take your top off and get on the bed.  The room doesn’t pay for itself and neither do I.’

 

He shuddered, muttered sorry and stood up, stuffed the still smouldering fag butt into his jeans pocket and started undoing his shirt buttons.  I moved over to the bed, opened my toolbox and started laying out the kit.

 

When I turned around he was ready, the shirt stuffed in haste down the side of the bucket chair.  Too brightly he struck a pose, nipples rosy, fingers splayed, hands outstretched.  Ta-da.

I looked at the water stain and gestured towards the bed.

“Let’s get this done.’

 

Sometimes I just need to remind myself that I am, in fact, the boss.

 

 

 

Alright

I never do anything fully, so I never do anything at all.  This phrase popped up in my journal this morning.  It’s a restless day, a day for the stay at home mums (as if any mum is genuinely a ‘stay at home’ mum now – we’re all too busy attending sensory/swimming/playdates).  But it is stay at home today, because of an unexpected and very beautiful snow fall which is now into its fourth hour.  Plus my son (I have a son now, eight months) is asleep in his chair and the house is more or less tidy and yes I’ve changed the TV License so well done me.

 

Stay at home – what sort of image do these phrases conjure up?  Home …comfort, home …safe, home ….sweet home.  Stay ….put, stay …still, stay ….calm.  All lovely and soothing if taken in isolation but far from accurate depictions of my experience.  When I genuinely am a stay at home mum (i.e today), these connotations are kind of soporific; I totally understand how people become sofa-locked when they are ‘stay at home’.. We become children – we work on a task and reward basis and if I ‘stay at home’ too long, the task reward ratio becomes ever slighter.  Day 1: I tidy out the drawers, freeze several meals and sort out life insurance, therefore, I shall meditate for half an hour and make a pot of tea.  Day five: I haven’t watched television for an hour, therefore I shall watch television for an hour.  You see? Who is the bigger baby here? When my son is awake, he is active, engrossed.  Sometimes I lose half a day being ‘stay at home’, dreaming of the things I’ll do when I’m not stay at home in the same way that, out and about, I dream of the things I’ll do when I’m ‘stay at home’ again.  Plus ca change.

This is not self-criticism, but written more in the spirit of acceptance.  The day is busy, but busy in a way that I never thought I would find busy – with dishes and nappies and stacking cups.  Being temporarily sofa-locked, I am going to wildly paraphrase here, but I’m thinking of the section in The Golden notebook when Doris Lessing writes about a change in her heroine’s character, when she moved from appreciating a certain hour as when day turns into night to seeing it as the ‘time to put the vegetables on’.  The day can be meted out thus; but it is no bad thing, it is how things are, for now. Continue reading

Build your beet basket! Build it high!

I’m going through a bit of a change.

No, not hot flushes (I’m always sweaty and flushed, so it will be hard to tell when they begin), nor am I coming out. Things are changing. I am undergoing change. change is upon me, etc, etc.

Like one of my chillis, this has been a bit of a slow burner. In fact, any change that I make is the result of many arduous hours of half-assed research, handwringing and procrastination interspersed with what I like to call the ‘settling process’, which involves many hours of oblivious television watching. Seriously, rocks form faster.

The most important part of any change-making I undergo is listening and subjecting myself to the stereotypes and pronouncements offered up by family, friends and media.

For example, I wore black trousers and a black polo neck consistently throughout my year at drama school. Urged on by my mother (who had never been to drama school), I was pretty much convinced that this was the uniform of all serious students of theatrical arts. I then went on to wear a mood ring during a vaguely hippy phase which culminated in me visiting a a pagan store twice in one week, feeling the relationship was becoming too intense and guilt buying a bookmark before leaving, never to return.

The black theme resurfaced when I moved to London, teamed now with Buffalo trainers and a droll expression, as my friend, who already lived in London and was therefore already always in black with drollface, assured me that this was ‘what Londoners are like’.

Well done, you noticed: my stereotypes are very image led – shallow me! And I think lots of them were formulated during childhood. Most of the time, they’re not bad prejudgements on a group of people or type of living; they mostly aim at being humorous (my family deal almost exclusively in jokes and jokes alone). Some of them are quite strange, specific and could only be deciphered if you belonged to my family (hence the title of this post).

I also feel that my keenness to adopt stereotypes and images when I was younger was because of a desperate need to afiliate (thanks Maslow). I would happily have joined any group that would have had me and if all I had to do to identify was wear a ring, bandana or shell suit, so be it. I was part of the gang – or so I thought. Sometimes the desire to fit in is stronger than the desire to be yourself, after all.

But things have started to change recently. Really change. After years of diddling about, I finally learnt how to practise Transcendental Meditation. My battles with my negative talking mind have been well documented and while my audio fast gave me some respite (as does writing), mindful meditation hasn’t suited me. After reading ‘Catching the Big Fish’ by David Lynch, I was inspired to finally give it a go. I will write more about it at length elsewhere,but suffice to say that I am enjoying the process and wonder whether my shift in perspective has led to other changes.

After one lost Saturday too many, I finally gave up alcohol. This has been miraculous – who knew being clear-headed could be this much fun? Please bear in mind, that I used to get the most God-awful hangovers, like the inside of my head and stomach lining were being peeled back simultaneously. I looked like I had been poisoned. I had been poisoned! Dumb ass that I am, it has taken me this long to realise that maybe alcohol and I didn’t get on too well.

From this point on, the floodgates have opened. I’ve stopped eating all dairy except for goats cheese and most meat as well. Naturally the stereotype dial has just shot past ten and up to eleven, but please, give me a moment of your time. I’m no fan of animals; pigeons are satan’s minions and I’ve no desire to pet a monkey. But recently, when I’ve eaten steak, I’ve heard screams. Not because I’m eating in bad neighbourhoods. I mean mental screams. And I’ve clunked down on far too many of those chewy veins that you get in chicken, the bits that make you gag then spit hurriedly into the nearest receptacle, then spend the rest of the meal wondering what sort of monster is lurking in there. So my reasons are really those of a fourteen year old girl, except I am also aware of the benefits of a plant based diet. If it’s good enough for Prince, it’s good enough for me.

It’s this final change that has led to the most stereotypes. Stereotypes extempore, as I’m about to demonstrate. When I told my mother about my swtich in diet, she responded ‘oh go and build your beet basket, then’.

Beet basket?

I’m not entirely sure what a beet basket is and neither is she, but I love her crystallization of what being a vegetarian teetotaler was. God, it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun. But is eating dead flesh and poisoning oneself?

I can’t guarantee that all these changes will stay (vegan cheese ain’t fooling anyone and tempeh tastes like the devil’s drainscrapings), but they do at least feel like changes from within rather than without. They’re not a mood ring for the soul. And in the meantime I shall continue building my beet baskets with pride.

Make like Patti

I went to New York recently (she says casually like Cindy Crawford would, or a businesslady from the 1990s).  Okay it was April in fact, but it’s been a turgid few months since then, filled with regret and lassitude at no longer being in New York so it has taken me a while to write.  New York is ridiculous; having haunted my imagination since I was of Athena poster buying age, I wasn’t disappointed  by the steam from the drains, the yellow of the cabs or the sheen from the mirrored skyscrapers.  It all felt unreal and familiar.

 

Boozed up and jetlagged, I took notes from every day of my stay, but do you really care what I did?  Does anyone? That’s my business.  From childhood, I vaguely remember ‘slide shows’, where we would formally gather with other families at nieghbour’s houses to have a guided tour, with projected images, of what they did on holiday. You may remember Don Draper singing the praises of the home projector on Mad Men, but he clearly never visited the denizens of Hull, because all I recall of the slide show is the click and the whirr of the machine and Uncle Brian or Aunty Sue telling us the date and time that the picture was taken, where it was taken and normally who had been sick or was about to be sick at the time of execution.To be honest, if I ask you ‘how was your holiday?’  Just say ‘fine’ or ‘shit’ and leave it at that (actually if it was shit, I’ll probably want to know why.  I’m such a schadenfreude freunde). Looking at my travel journal (which I imagined as a full blown epic) I can tell where I got bored of writing about what we did, because it becomes a ‘did list’.  And it’s awful.  If you really want to know what I did, go and read ‘Just Kids’ and pretend that I’m Patti Smith.  That should do it.

 

So now, we’ve established that I’m not going to give you the blow by blow of my trip, what am I going to do?  I’m just going to write about two things that I noticed, that’s what.  

 

New Yorkers have to have the last word, which means, as a Brit, you can get stuck in some serious politeness showdowns.  Here’s an example from a restaurant that we went to.  It’s between a waiter (played by Don Draper), me (played by Patti Smith) and my husband (played by Betty White – why not?)

 

HUSBAND:  I see what you mean about slide shows and i totally agree.

ME:  Great

WAITER:  More water?

ME:  Yes, please.

WAITER:  You’re welcome

ME: That’s great, thanks

WAITER:  Not a problem

ME:  Great job, well done

WAITER:  My pleasure

ME:  Lovely.

WAITER:  Fantastic

ME:  Nice one.

WAITER (running away, shouting over shoulder)  ENJOY YOUR MEAL!

 

As a Brit, I like to patronise waiting staff, to make them feel cared for and listened to, but most importantly I like to seal off the conversation by having the last word.  Every rejoinder takes away from my benevolence!  Really, I should face facts; my platitudes are squat: a damn big tip is worth more than a feigned grin and attentiveness.

 

Unless our visit coincided with a Tresemme conference, the men of New York have hands down collectively the best male hair I have seen anywhere on ths planet!  It is spectacular: lustrous, bouncy and product free.  Curls the colour and density of wet sand, worn long, nestling on shirt collars and flopping over foreheads.  Full white clouds of cauliflower.  A crisp afro.  I had full blown middle aged man hair envy – something in the water, perhaps?

 

Yes: everyone shouts at each other a bit, sandwiches are massive and the skyline is amazing.  But should you visit  New York, I recommend that you check out the pompadours and try to out-polite a waiter.  

 

And pretend your Patti Smith.  But that’s just a general life lesson, isn’t it?

 

Magic Eye Me

Please forgive me; I offer this post not because I think I am inherently more interesting than anyone else.  In fact, once I tell you how i discovered these things about myself, you will probably agree that I am inherently less interesting than you.  

That’s okay.  

I don’t wish to come across as someone who believes that they should be the focus of a column in a Celebrity magazine, called something like “20 questions!” “Get the lowdown!” “The skinny on …”  Good lord no.  I barely rate a mention in my workplace newsletter or all staff email list.

 

That too, is okay.  My brain contains dark workings, too febrile for the general public ……

 

Not really, it’s just that I’ve had a week off and I haven’t done much with it, which has been truly liberating.  I think back to the article in the Onion, headlined, “Area Man disappointed to find that he has failed to sort his life out in week off.” Or something like that, the point is that I work in a job that regularly grants me a week off (no I’m not a spy), so I’m all too aware of the “I will turn my life around” phenomenon that hits and I’m cautious of its effects.  Monday: get a new job. Tuesday: sort out will and revolutionise wardrobe and living space.  Wednesday: Get fit.  Thursday: See all absent friends and family.  Friday: Meditate the shit out of it. Saturday: Sort out finances. Sunday: Repeat Wednesday and Friday.  This is made more challenging if you have any add ons, like seeking a life partner, or the desire to learn to cook or horse ride, or master an instrument for example.

 

Allow me to take on the guise of a salty seadog, propped up at the end of a beer sodden bar, holding a few novices in the palm of my hand and pausing to suck on a cheroot before delivering my credo.  Beware the week off: it fulfills nothing but your well of disappointment and shame!  You will never sort your life out in a week off.  A more believable timetable runs like this: Monday: sleep in.  Feel bad about sleeping in.  Tuesday: Get up with good intentions. Wander into town at midday and feel bereft.  Wednesday: Try to do the things that you set out to do on Monday and Tuesday and realise that it will never happen.  Thursday: Netflix. Friday: Drown out impending doom feeling about work through any available vice.  Saturday: Look at what other people have done on their week off. Sunday: do laundry, cry, drink.

 

Sorry – that’s just how it is.  If you are a novice!  A better option is just to accept that not everything will be achieved and that this isn’t your one-shot at success, anyway.  This week, I’ve been to the gym, watched an entire series of House of Cards, done some writing, done some walking, failed to get Prince tickets.  That’s a good haul, all told.  Well done me.  Through hours of not doing very much I’ve also found out some previously incommunicable things about myself.

 

I am a Magic Eye.  The longer I stare, the weirder the fruit.  For example, through long bouts of not doing much, I now know that:

The default taste in my mouth is parmesan.

I can gauge how stressed I am by how many hair bands I can avail myself of.  The fewer I have, the more stressed I am,

Facially I do have a better side, but I can never remember which it is.

As child, I remember being so bored that I danced full out to the theme tune from Sons and Daughters.  In a room on my own.  Full out.

 

Don’t worry, I’m back at work next week

This is the end, my blue-eyed friend, the end

So I did it. I blogged consecutively for a month.  A major achievement since my output prior to this was as erratic as Scott Carpenter’s (and sometimes as discordant).  Allow me to be a little indulgent here; partly because I am genuinely proud to have turned up every day for 31 days, but also because I have been incarcerated in bed by the snot vines that I reported on yesterday.  I feel we should have something momentous to mark the occasion as I look back on a month of blogging, the highs and lows.  If you’re reading this, maybe drink a glass of prosecco or put on the music from the BBC Sports Personality of the Year to give it a sense of gravitas.  I’m going to do both.

 

There were days when I was genuinely terrified of having nothing to write and they were usually the days when I produced the things that I was happiest with, when I just turned up and let a thought grow on the page, like the post about the Girl from Space.  I think my blog genuinely reflects me, in fact it helps to order the thoughts I harbour about myself privately. I understand myself better through writing.  To my mind, the picture you get is of someone is pretty inconsistent, who wants to be better and who is frequently drawing on memories from childhood and making sense of them as an adult. I don’t think I’ve ver really done this before, and maybe you can’t, not until you are in your mid-thirties and you, if not your life has settled down a bit more.  Still musing on that one….

 

Lest I get too Carrie Bradshaw, I think my most popular posts were recipes and my most sinister was the one where I wrote about spying on people through their front room windows.  The most çreatively bereft’ award goes to my post about Law and Order, probably and any cheeky re-blog that I may have slipped in on nights when there was no time.  

 

What this blogathon has taught more than anything else is that ideas are infinite, and that sometimes it is better to do it and see what happens than procrastinate and die alone.  The blog community is full of positive supportive individuals and I defy anyone not to feel more confident in themselves after turning up every day and writing, writing, writing.

 

Now I am turning into Carrie Bradshaw, or maybe even Doogie Howser, so I shall bid you adieu.  Keep the home fires burning.

Stef