Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Why you need a WBM*

*Work Best Mate.

My own WBM is on holiday for a few days, so I've been at least 28% more productive than usual, but also 90% less giggly.

If you don't watch Parks and Recreation, you absolutely need to. You can probably afford to skip the first season though.

A few months ago, I felt like I was in a bit of a friendship rut. That sounds bad, but bear with me – I just mean that it felt like it had been ages since I’d made a new female friend. I have a brilliant bunch of girlfriends that I’ve known since school, teenage Saturday jobs and uni, and a brilliant bunch of male friends mostly gathered at sixth form, but once you stumble wide-eyed into the working world, it gets a lot harder to acquire new wine buddies. It also gets a lot harder to keep up with the ones you’ve got, as they tend to scatter. The best long-distance friendships are undoubtedly the ones where you can go months or maybe even years without seeing each other, sending the occasional frantic text or email, and then when you finally do meet up, you just pick up where you left off the last time you were in the same room. I like a low-maintenance friendship – there was one particular ‘incident’ about three years ago where I fell out with someone because he thought I wasn’t making enough effort to stay in touch when we were about 150 miles apart. The fact that I didn’t hear from him for weeks either seemed to escape him rather. I took a dim view of the situation, and that, after receiving some fairly scathing emails that had even my mother gasping in shock, was that.

Anyway. This is not about the mates you hardly see, this is about the mates you see every day. Work mates. Genuine work friendships aren’t as common as you’d think – think of all the colleagues you’ve had in your working life. You’ve probably liked and/or managed to get on with most of them, if you’ve been fairly lucky – but now think of the number of those you’d actually choose to hang out with in non-work contexts. It’s probably a fairly small proportion. But when you do find that person - someone who walks in and just looks like they're going to be your sort of person, and then it turns out they absolutely are - oh, the joy. The relief! Finally, someone to talk to about gigs and books and films and what your real plans are - the plans that tick like a metronome along with everything else you hold in your head. The plans you'll put into action once you're away from this desk, out of this town.

Here's why having a Work Best Mate is the bee's knees...

1) It's lonely being a newbie. Being the new girl in the office is dire. IT haven't set you up properly, you don't know all the office-specific lingo, and worst of all, you don't know who you can moan to and who you can't. I think I cried every Wednesday evening for about a month after starting my job, simply because Wednesdays were always the most stressful day and I didn't know who I could vent to. As soon as you find a Work Best Mate, the clouds lift - or rather, you've got someone to sit under them with you.

2) It's important to have someone who, when the boss brings out a baffling piece of jargon or a frankly bonkers idea, you can share an eyeroll and a "what the fuck? No, me neither" face with.

3) It's also important to have someone to bitch with when things reach the point of intolerability. Under the guise of making tea and getting biscuits, WBM and I hole up in the kitchen for five minutes, vent our frustrations in hissy whispers, and then return to our desks - not necessarily feeling better, just united in rage.

4) Every Thursday Sometimes you need to go to the pub for lunch.

5) Every On the occasional Friday, you need "thank God that's over" G&Ts.

6) You need someone to get the giggles with. I am a terrible, lifelong giggler. As a kid, one of my friend's dads used to try and make me laugh because it amused him so much that once I started, I couldn't stop. It runs in the family - Granny's exactly the same, and once, the Mothership and I made the fatal mistake of catching each other's eye while a relative was telling an incredibly dull non-anecdote. Involving recycling. I had to busy myself with "rearranging the fruit bowl" so that no-one would see my face. I suspect the shaking shoulders rather gave it away.

Inexplicably, your threshold for what you find funny plummets as soon as you're tied to the same desk five days a week. I think it's because you have to get your joy where you can, so whereas outside of work, you wouldn't normally snigger at overhearing someone say something like "gosh, I've never seen one that big before", at work, it's totally normal.

7) Because making new friends is simply one of the nicest things in the world.

I know nothing about these guys, except that I love their electronic-rock-Metric-ish sound A LOT. Have another just to be sure.

Friday, 25 September 2015

In defence of being a massive loner

Greta Garbo. Hollywood icon; professional loner.

Being a newbie in a city where I don't know anyone except the people I live with suits me down to the ground - despite what I've been telling DB. He's not been here very much as yet, due to work commitments and car trouble, and I haven't let him get away with it. Sample quote from most of our recent conversations: "I moved here so we could live together. If I wanted to live on my own, I would be living on my own." Poor boy. It's strange, really - the idea of being on my own does not appeal to me in the slightest, but when it actually happens, I can't deny that I'm in my element.
I just like doing stuff alone. Shopping's a great example; I've never been able to shop with anyone else. When I was 12 or 13, and going into town with your mates was about the only thing to do on a Saturday afternoon, I never managed to actually purchase anything. My friends would happily try on things in Tammy Girl and buy make-up in Claire's, but I would struggle. "Why don't we pick outfits for each other to try on?" was an utterance that put the fear of God into me. Invariably, I'd drag my quietest, most tolerant friend into Waterstones, lose her, and resurface forty minutes later. These days, the idea of clothes shopping with Drummer Boy is just as painful. If he's buying clothes, it goes on for hours, and I become the bored, whiny child who needs a boost of sugar to prevent a full-on tantrum: "Oh God, really? We're going back to TopMan? Can't you just come and find me in Costa when you're done?"

And if it's me trying to buy clothes, well, he's no help. "Try on that hideous dress!" he'll suggest gleefully. "And you have to let me see it on you!" Oh, what fun! Usually, I don't have the heart to tell him that shopping is not fun - it is a serious and often self-esteem-shredding exercise in disappointment, and there is no time for frolics - so off I trot to the H&M fitting room, meek as a lamb, to try on something neon or pleather or made entirely of sequins.

My loner tendencies extend to exercise too. I'm not a team player, and haven't been since Year 9 hockey. My activity of choice is usually running, chosen almost entirely because it involves "not being around other people" (and a little bit because once you own trainers, you don't have to spend any more money if you don't fancy it). I am currently in love with running along the seafront down here - there are loads of people around, but you're all kind of on your own together. It's like a big, silent running club. We pound the promenade and barely make eye contact, but we're all there for the same reason.

A conversation with my brother a few months ago left me perplexed. I'd mentioned going swimming after work, and he asked who I was going with. "Erm... no-one...?"
"You're going swimming on your own? Why would you do that?"
"Why would I go with anyone? I'm going to swim. You know, for exercise. Not fun."
"No-one goes swimming on their own. No-one."
"I think most people go swimming on their own, actually..."
I gave up on the exchange very quickly, as he wouldn't be convinced that swimming was a solo activity and I wouldn't be convinced he wasn't talking utter nonsense.
This article made me so happy - it was quite the relief to have someone else articulate that need for solitude, and the peace that comes with it. DB was absolutely aghast a few weeks ago when I rejected a phone call from a friend, purely because I wasn't in the mood to chat (I'm sorry! I don't make a habit of this!) and only half-understood when I tried to explain it to him. Maybe it's because I spend all day in an office surrounded by other people (who are all lovely, I might add), maybe it's because I'm naturally quite introverted*. Maybe it's that writer thing of always being an observer (no, it's not that, that's far too wanky even for me). I'm just really precious about my 'alone' time. I need it to be able to function the rest of the time. My head clears of petty clutter, and good ideas and plan start to form and rise to the surface, like Champagne bubbles. 

There are still two things I've yet to do on my own that I'd like to: go to the cinema solo, and eat dinner in a restaurant alone. I don't have a problem with doing either of these things, I've just not got around to them yet. Seeing a film alone sounds like heaven - I wouldn't have to share the Minstrels! I'm not sure I can justify dining alone, as it seems rather decadent, but also conjures images of a melancholy woman in a black-and-white French film, tears falling one by one into her bouillabaisse.
Which isn't really the vibe I'm going for, to be honest.

*I'm not sure I'd describe myself as wholly introverted. It depends entirely upon who I'm with and how comfortable I am with them. If I'm with someone outgoing and super-confident, I let them 'lead'. If I'm with someone quieter/shyer than me, I become the loud one.

Don't get me wrong, I do need other people; of course I do. I love my friends dearly and never find it a chore to spend time with them. An evening of wine and cheese and getting steadily more opinionated as the night wears on, gathered at someone's kitchen table, is one of my favourite things. You can't beat the camaraderie that comes when you work in an all-female office and shit gets manic. Dinner with friends from Way Back is a joy, as warm and soothing as candle-light. But sometimes, I'm going to channel my inner Greta Garbo - it's not personal.

On the Bambi bookshelf

I've just finished the brilliant Americanah and would definitely recommend it, if you're in the mood for beautifully-written characters and subject material that a) really matters, and b) is sensitively dealt with. It's a love story - the ending had me in in tears at Gatwick station - but more importantly, it's a discussion of race and its complexities (the protagonist's reaction to Obama becoming president may also jerk a tear or two).

I've come late to The 1975 - and in fact, have only come to them at all because Drummer Boy was playing them in the car - but I am being utterly charmed by them, and they're absolutely confirming my deeply-held theory that the best (and worst) songwriters will always be lust-struck teenage boys. The 1975 are a lot more interesting musically than you might think on first listen - there's stacks of influences in there, layered and slotted like Lego. And while DB and I have been enjoying mocking the singer's Kooks-esque, yelpy vocal delivery, when you write songs like this and this, you can sing them however that hell you like.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Given the choice

After seeing the film Still Alice, I had a recurring dream about being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease (never let it be said I don’t take things to heart). Every time, my reaction was the same – I would run. Out of sheer terror, I would just run. I’m not surprised the film burrowed itself so deep in my head; having seen the decline of DB’s grandparents, who both have different forms of dementia, the worst parts of growing old have been very apparent in the last few months. The violence with which illnesses like dementia tear identities apart – and anyone who’s witnessed it in a family member will know what an utter mauling it is – can’t be hammered home hard enough.

The rejection of the Assisted Dying Bill on Friday was perhaps not entirely a surprise, but it certainly made me do something of a mental double-take. If nothing else, the last few months have taught me that if something horrible and incurable should befall me – if I should permanently lose my grip on reality, or be rendered physically unable to do most of what I can do now – I would very much like the choice as to whether or not I proceed with this life. I am strongly in favour, should the need arise, of a Plan. Calmly made, with love and careful thought.

I understand the reservations that led to the rejection – sanctity of life, the issue of elderly/terminally ill people feeling as though they’re a ‘burden’ on their families, does it mean we’re essentially supporting suicide? Et cetera, et cetera – but in 2015, you’d think we might be doing better on this one. Why is it such a taboo, a place we mustn’t go? If we are ill, and there’s no chance of recovery or cure, and quality of life is draining away hour by hour, and we know that we’re ready – why not? Why must we stay? It’s flippant to trot out the old “we treat our animals better” line, but there’s also some truth in it. If Roly the aging Labrador is looking a bit peaky one day, and the next the vet tells us poor Roly’s riddled with cancer and is only going to get sicker and weaker from now on, what do we do? We take Roly home for one last dinner, lots of doggy treats and cuddles, and then back he goes to the vet for a nice long sleep in the great kennel in the sky (I’m quite hungover, so writing this bit has made me a little tearful. Poor Roly. Poor fictional Roly). The essentials are not miles apart – it’s about not having to live in agony, not having to die a drawn-out, painful death that’s incredibly distressing for everyone involved.

As DB pointed out when we were talking about it (our Friday nights are wild), the survival instinct is pretty ferocious. It takes a lot to overcome it, to make someone decide that they just don't want to live anymore. "I don't know about you, but I'm quite a fan of this living thing. It's pretty good. Can you imagine just not wanting to do it anymore? How bad would your life have to be? How much pain would you be in?" So when someone says they’ve had enough, we should believe them. We should trust them. It’s not a decision you’d make lightly.

Humans have always tried to maintain some control over life and death – there has never not been suicide or abortion. It seems almost cruel that we don't have a legitimate option, a plan we can offfer someone whose quality of life is so poor that they want out. You can legislate to make these things safer and more controlled – or you can make it harder; you can treat all death as shameful and drive it underground, to unsafe, feral territory.

I read this story in another paper a few weeks ago, and it's the words of the coroner that stuck with me - "Part of me thinks, good on you". There's something about the case that's stayed with me - I think of that couple, together for four decades, making the quiet decision to go together, before life became pain and one had to live without the other. And I wholeheartedly agree with the coroner. Because wouldn't we all go like that, given the choice? One last hurrah - Paris, the opera, an exquisite five course meal, a decadent hotel, whatever you like - the person you love, and then nothing at all. We'd toast the years we'd had with the finest champagne and remember all the best times, all the laughter, all the love that shone true and gold.

Politicians have to think in worst-case scenarios - that's how legislation works, I suppose; you figure out what's going to go wrong and work backwards from there. But changing the laws on assisted suicide would be a good thing. No-one's saying they want a free-for-all, they just want an option. The way it's worked in Oregon since 1997 should be used as a model. Perhaps I'm being woefully naive, but I think with the right procedure - having the decision assessed and signed off by two doctors and two psychiatrists, for example - it wouldn't be abused.

It would only ever be an act of love.

Charity singles get a bad rap, and they shouldn't really, because they're actually a great fundraising idea - you pay about a quid, which goes to a good cause, and you get a song out of it. The trouble with most charity singles now is that they're usually a shit cover version of a song that wasn't good to begin with, featuring a hastily-cobbled-together bunch of below-average singers that almost always includes Rita Ora.

Not this song, though - this one's different (and no, it isn't the one you think it's going to be).

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Failure of imagination

On the train back to Brighton on Thursday night (after one of the loveliest evenings I've had in ages), I found myself thinking about the current refugee crisis and trying to imagine the circumstances that might drive me to leave my home, with only the barest of essentials, and undertake a terrifying, life-endangering journey to Somewhere - anywhere - Else. How unsafe would I have to feel trying to go about my daily life before I would risk that leap into the unknown? What would it take to make me abandon this flat and my hopes, and flee?

I have no idea. I couldn’t imagine it. I still can’t - I can’t picture an England, a Brighton, a Horsham that I would fear that much. I can’t picture a situation that would make me so fearful, so truly scared for my own life that the only option would be to run. I vaguely know what it might entail – shadowy images of soldiers, gunfire, bombings, smoke and dust, lives turned to rubble in seconds, sirens, screams, bloodstains. My only ‘experience’ of life in a warzone is an imagining, hastily thrown together using memories of news footage and photographs, novels and films. It is entirely fictional, so I don’t really know how to imagine it.

On the one hand, thank goodness. On the other – it's a failure.

The current refugee crisis is partly down to a spectacular failure to empathise. To imagine. It is a basic human thing, imagination – without it, we wouldn’t have invented anything. Without it, nothing can ever change. Nothing can ever be anything other than what it is, right now, right there in front of you. We would never help anyone, if we could not empathise: “that looks heavy, that must be hurting you, can I carry it?” or “you’re shivering, you must be freezing, have my jacket” or “that looks tricky, how I can I help?” Small sentences, but within each, a tiny, golden spark of understanding that it is good and decent and kind and human to alleviate the suffering of others, if and where possible.

If you can’t imagine what it is to lead a different life, even for just a moment, something has gone very wrong. I think it’s why middle-aged white men across the world deny women access to safe abortions – they fail to imagine what it might be like to have something grow inside you that you did not ask for, or plan for, or cannot support. I think it’s why benefits for the young and the disabled are cut – because someone could not imagine those lives, couldn’t hold an image in their head for long enough for it to mean something. I think it’s why mental health service budgets have been cut – because someone didn’t care to imagine what it’s like when your own mind turns on you. 

The instinct to build a home, have a family, put down roots, is a strong one. The instinct to inhabit that life, once you’ve made it – to protect it, to enjoy it – is just as strong. So when people willingly leave the lives they’ve built, we can assume it’s for good reason. If you have looked at your circumstances, weighed up the costs of staying vs. leaving, and chosen to become rootless, homeless, earthless – you’re clearly desperate. Furthermore, if you’re living under a violent and oppressive regime, and your choices are: being killed, becoming an instrument of that regime, or escape, then by choosing escape, you’re not only saving yourself, but you’re also trying to save everyone else.

It's concerning then that it was the general public who were quicker and more able to empathise, and subsequently act in the face of the crisis, than our government. Not entirely surprising - they have previous, after all - but still deeply worrying. The 'Daily Mail' mentality seems viral at the moment: "we don't have room for them, we can't have them here; why should we help them?" For a start, it's utterly untrue that "we don't have room" - in 2012, the UK National Ecosystem Assessment worked out that the percentage of England that is built upon is... wait for it... 2.27%. And yes, obviously we need green space and farmland and floodplains; as a farmer's grand-daughter, I'm never going to say "pave over the lot". But still: less than three per cent, guys. Don't give me the "not enough room" line.

Like everyone else, I'm glad Cameron's bowed to the pressure to accept more refugees. It's the right thing to do - because not doing so speaks such volumes. Not helping sends an alarming, dark message. It says that we can't empathise. It says we cannot imagine what it is to have a different life. It says: the thought that it could be us one day - by a hideous flick of the wrist and roll of the dice, it could be us, looking for shelter and the kindness of strangers - has never crossed our tiny minds.