Friday, 31 October 2014

Answering back

You have to answer a great deal more questions as you get older, don't you agree? Of the personal kind. By complete and total strangers.

Of course, they're not being nosy - it's for your own good... For example, over the last few weeks I've been learning much more than I ever thought I would about Mortgage Lending Customer Services (my friend has just become a Mortgage Adviser). I - at a blissful distance from all things mortgage having never been anywhere near getting one - was plain shocked to hear of the really quite intimate, some might argue intrusive, questions they are obliged to ask of customers.

I cannot imagine anything more tortuous than being locked into a 3-hour telephone conversation (or worse, in a room with) one of these dry buffoons (my friend excluded - she really does work with buffoons), having to discuss the many levels of possibilities of me having children over the course of my lifetime. Are we planning on getting married, Dear? Or are we going to split up, do you think that's a high likelihood? What holidays are we considering? a) I think I'd feel like saying it's none of your business, and b) I don't actually know the answers myself!

The niche subject of Mortgages aside, has it always been this way - this weird level of intimacy in customer services? Or is it a new development? It seems like all service staff go through some kind of bizarre programme where they are trained to be overly personal with you whilst managing to maintain a total lack of personality. As a result, any hope of genuine interaction stands no chance, as they are too busy reciting their spiel jargon for the customer to actually get a word in edgeways. At best it's uncomfortable and at worst, creepy line-crossing and it actually ends up being hard work for you the customer, as well as the automaton at the till.

No longer can you just swan up to a cashier with your music still playing in your earphones, smile a hello and pay for your newspaper, say thanks too loudly on account of the music and have the entire achieved with limited verbal communication. Now, we have to constantly be on hand to answer a range of unexpected and always-differing questions depending on the establishment you happen to be in. It's most noticeable in coffee shops, and it is also in these places that the forced level of intimacy gets ridiculous. No, I don't actually want to give you my name - I just want to take my drink in anonymity and get out of here!

Overall I feel slightly tense whenever going to pay for things. It's pot luck whether I'll actually be able to hear what they're saying on account of them reeling their script off so fast without actually engaging with me, plus there is often much-too-loud music playing for no apparent reason, so that most of the time I am literally guessing what I've been asked and attempting responses accordingly.

But the worst form of all this has got to be charity street hawking which for me, provides a loosely professional premise for people to impress their obnoxious, overbearing personalities on unsuspecting, innocent town folk. Under the guise of charity, no less.

I am of the generation for whom shaking the change bucket is a breach of the law. For me, charitable support and giving is a very personal thing. I don't want to talk about it out on the street. I certainly don't just want to pot luck it, depending on what charity happens to be represented that day. So you can imagine how well I (do not) cope with the hawkers. A someone who does actually work in the charitable sector, I am at ease with my charitable giving and do not expect to be hauled to account for it - in public, multiple days a week like I've accidentally found myself in Groundhog Day - by some arrogant squirt working on commission. It's just one more assault on city dewllers trying to get about their day and instead find they have to navigate the gauntlet of forced friendliness. The tactics of these people seem to be clowning and flirting with you - waving manically from across the street. Their palms outwardly spread as if to say oh, come on!

Neither of the above is a meaningful, genuine way to communicate with a grown adult but I suppose it is harmless overall. What is totally unacceptable is the abuse that I and everyone I know has experienced at the hands of these buffoons. I've had f**k you muttered, loudly, behind my back as I've waked away from one of them. My sister even had one follow her down the street after she refused, politely, to interact with them.

I mean, how bloody dare they?

So - questions from my money lender? Yes, I'll answer them begrudgingly, even if I'm having to make up the answers. But questions from jumped-up charity charlatans? Think I'll keep my earphones in, thanks.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Too old for gigs

I did something I haven't done in a long, long time on Friday. I went to a gig. (For a second there, I was tempted to call it a concert.)

I don't know about you, but I've certainly noticed that I have a changing relationship with music the older I get. When I was younger, music was everything. I was totally consumed by it. I defined myself through it - I don't know how I'd have got to be the person I am today without music in my life. I'm not talking about actually making music here - I'm much too lazy for that, even as my younger more energised self. Just listening was enough.

But then you grow up. You work out who you are (ish), come to some kind of resolution. You find yourself settled, stabilised. And in this new, more adult existence, music isn't so central - in fact, it's veritably on the sidelines. Relegated to muzak. Something that gets rolled out only when it's needed, for grown-up social occasions, times when you need to make an impression. Impress on others - and yourself - that you've still got it. I suppose it's maybe easier if you have children - you can live through their music, press them for trendy bands in an emergency. No longer is music the provider of heady relief as it was in your youth. Well, not for me at least.

And it makes me feel very sad. I've still got the tinnitus at least but I mourn those days, that me. I would lie in bed into the small hours with a pair of headphones plugged into my (much-loved) hi-system. It had a multiple CD selector system, so I could load it up with 5 albums, pre-set which tracks I wanted to listen to, and just lay back in the dark and live out a life in my head to these very personal soundtracks.

When it was time for me to go to work (humph) I always had my portable radio with me for the bus rides. Then my cassette player. Then my (wholly unreliable) Sony disc-man. Before long (although a lot later than the rest of the world, I'm stubborn with technology) the iPod made it's way into my life - and has never left, still getting me through my daily commute.

It was all so much effort back then. But it never felt like it. I was at gigs all the time, sometimes more than once a week. And on weeknights. It meant I spent a large chunk of my life holed up inside a massive concrete dive of a building - split over three floors, the old Carling Academy in Birmingham's Dale End (the street even sounds seedy) looked and felt very much like the multi-storey car park opposite, but that was all part of its charm. Many a happy hot, sticky evening has been spent in that dark cave (sadly now closed), and there will always be a special place in my heart devoted to its memory. I've kept all my old gig tickets, pointlessly. I absolutely cannot throw them out.

All the things that would prevent you from actually going to a gig now were not a problem then;  standing for hours, holding your coat, not being able to see anything, sticky floors, pushy people, too loud, too hot, too late. Of course you occasionally toy with the idea, now, of going to see a band when one you really, really, definitely like comes on tour...but you know deep down you're never really going to go. You tentatively suggest it to friends regardless, pretending to yourself, but you know what response is coming - exactly the same thing you'd say if they had suggested it to you. Hmmm, it's a bit expensive, especially with the booking fee too. Oh, it's on a Thursday night?!

But although the flame is somewhat diminished, I hope it never dies out. Recent gig attendance would suggest not. By the way, if you haven't heard of Lucius you should check them out (I've done some of the work there for you, you're welcome). They are amazing. But what made you go to see them, I hear you ask? The clincher - it was on a Friday. That's an acceptable non-school night. And it was in Liverpool - who'd turn down an excuse to visit Liverpool?

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Oh the horror

Is it me or are horror films more, well, horrific these days? There's no denying that classics of the horror canon such as The Exorcist and The Shining are, obviously, disturbing. The teen slashers from my own era, Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer etc, might be a little on the light side but they don't exactly shy away from blood and terror either. But now, something's changed.

I used to love all this stuff, practically growing up on a diet of horror. I couldn't get enough of the Goosebumps books, quickly graduating to Point Horror and then on to Stephen King in my early teens. I'd loiter in the deathly quiet of the (surprisingly well-stocked) Adult Horror aisle of my little local library after school, sometimes for hours. It was a day of pure joy when a new book arrived on the shelves. I remember a particularly gruesome tome about a trucker who turned into a massive human-eating hog who terrorised a small town (note to self - must Google this...).

They were all American, these novels (well, it was the 90s). Big blockbusters of books in a world of highways, dusty towns and malls. And I totally immersed myself in it. I even wrote my own horror stories for a time. Then we got cable TV - hurray! - and I suddenly had access to hundreds of horror films, and that's when my journey became audio visual. Silence of the Lambs, The Blair Witch Project, Rosemary's Baby, Alien, The Poltergeist. My relationship with the genre endured for many happy years.

But then I made the mistake of watching Saw. I'm pretty sure my mother recommended it to me as well (alarming in itself). It was 2004, we had a pirate copy (I know, sorry) - the picture so grainy and the sound so poor that I had to sit on the floor right in front of the TV to watch it. There I was, numb-limbed on the carpet, in the house on my own (classic schoolgirl error, almost as bad as me running upstairs) in a total, stunned, crumpled mess. 

I remained in that position for a good long while after the credits stopped rolling - but I've never fully recovered. I haven't watched a horror film since. Really*. I've tried. I gave The Descent a go (on another recommendation from my mother - you'd think I'd learn), but had to give up ten minutes in.

Of course total avoidance is impossible - sometimes I'll catch bits of films when I'm channel surfing, and immediately wish I hadn't. Unexpected trailers are a struggle. And now horror has started filtering through to my relationship with television, too. I love a good TV drama, especially ones based around crime. But as they too become increasingly more violent, I find I am unable to watch. I literally sit there with my hands over my eyes. Press mute. More recently, just change the channel. It's meant I've had to give up on some series which I have loved for years - Silent Witness and Luther have both bitten the dust.

Is it just me? Have I become a highly sensitive, over-emotional bag of nerves? Or is it the horror? Has horror gone too far? Can horror go too far? Isn't that kind of it's point? I accept that, as with most things, you have to keep upping the game in order to keep things fresh. But to what limits does horror have to go to?

I suppose when I was on my own horror journey I was forever upping the stakes as well - young adult vampire fiction progressed to Stephen King, which in turn progressed to teen slashers, to 70s porn horror, and then somewhere along the line I just reached my limit whilst the industry churned on. Now, as an outsider, I feel the culture of the genre has changed beyond all recognition. What once was niche is now the norm. Human torture games, rape - it's a new kind of horror. Less about giving you chills, making you jump - innocent thrills, almost - more about turning your stomach, throwing you into the cesspit of the human condition. Total depravity on a whole new scale and, for me, beyond the point of watchable.

Although people evidently do go and see them - but who? And why? I know tastes change as you get older - like I never used to like avocados, and now I do. I used to like being scared, but now I don't. Have I just forgotten what it's like?

I understand that within all of us there is a grim fascination with horror, if not an actual enjoyment of it. But I have neither the equipment nor the will to face up to horror any longer - there is enough of it in the real world to deal with, never mind having it confronting you in full-on 3D surround sound after a hard day's work.

As an aside: I accept not all contemporary horror fils are in this violent vein. If anyone has any suggestions of something they recommend, let me know

*I haven't watched a pirated film since either - gold star for me

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Addicted to gel

I have a confession to make - I have become prone to alcohol abuse. Hang on, not the stuff you drink. I mean the slightly alien stuff you slather over your hands. 

I am addicted to hand gel. It kills 99.99% of bacteria. Well, that's just so appealing isn't it - why wouldn't you use it? 

I have never been more germ aware. I go about my daily activities always with the background goal of maximum germ avoidance. You might say that sounds like hard work - it is! But it is part of who I am. It is perhaps a little sad to have a part of yourself defined by your relationship with germs. It's not like I live in a part of the world where each passing day carries a risk of death by infection. I recognise that I am fortunate to live in a pretty sanitised environment. But in my defence I haven't always been this way - it is something that has gradually seeped into my consciousness to the point where, not only do I have a little tub of hand gel on my person at all times, I also find I am using the stuff at least 20 times a day, probably more.

It all started in my early twenties - I was forever catching colds, and I blamed this entirely on the bus. People are disgusting. Everyday I would watch them sneeze all over the place, use their hands as though they were tissues (why don't people carry tissues?! WHY?!), and then clamp these hands all over the railings, stairs and handles. And then I, unless I wanted to hurtle to my death, would have no choice but to touch those handles myself. So I took control with hand gel. The problem is that the more you use it, the more you become aware of potential germs. 

They're everywhere, germs. Door handles, kettles, chip and pin machines, money - the list is, of course, endless. Once you are on the alert it is really quite shocking how much people touch things, often just for the sake of it. Us hand gel-ers, we only touch a surface if we really have to.  

I am loathe to use the word OCD because I don't want to make light of a serious mental health problem. People seem to throw this word around as though it is fashionable, a desirable condition almost. But with that said I do sometimes worry, is my behaviour 'a bit OCD'? No. I don't think so. I'm not distressed when I'm doing it, more embarrassed. But the act has certainly become a compulsion. 

I can't imagine life without hand gel now - and this becomes a problem in that you start to find yourself wanting those that share your life with you to use it, too. Otherwise, what's the point? You can't effectively manage the germs coming into your home if your other half waltzes in from the newsagents with a fistful of germs swabbing at the light switch, the fridge door, your face. You can almost see the fluorescent green blobs - like the kind used in adverts for bleach - lighting up their hands like a Belisha beacon. HAZARD! 

None of this is exactly good news for your relationship, let alone your mental health. It's probably safer to just embrace the germs and put up with a cold for a week - I'm sure your other half would rather that than suffer with your issues for eternity.

Although in my case this isn't entirely true, because I have now passed on my little addiction to him - like a germ itself. He too takes hand gel to work. He too is constantly navigating the gauntlet of the outside world. You'll see us, clumsily opening doors with our elbows, pressing pedestrian crossing buttons with coat sleeves pulled right down over our hands teenagers in new school blazers. You'll find us at cash points using a loyalty card to jab at the keypad instead of our fingers.

All this exertion and contortion results in weird bruises and injuries to places like the side of our thumbs, toes and shoulders. And seems as both of us have had colds this last week I don't think it's worth all the effort... 

It makes me wonder - is it just us? Or, as a society, are we all becoming more germ aware? The very fact that hand gel is sold as a run-of-the-mill hand care product in Boots etc must be proof that it is cemented into the mainstream social psyche now. People must be buying the stuff, there must be a real demand. But when you think back to the Bird Flu masks of recent years and now the Ebola hysteria exploding over the globe it all gets frighteningly dystopian.

I worry that I have placed myself on a slippery slope - am I just a few years away from wearing a mask myself?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The social politics of polystyrene

My last blog post was all about lifestyle aspirations and, since writing it, I find something not-all-that aspirational has been on my mind - the takeaway hot beverage. I remember my first. Well, I don’t actually - but I can imagine what it would have been. A tea, milk no sugar. In a polystyrene cup. 

Hot drinks just taste better in a polystyrene cup, don’t they? Or is that just me. I am always a little thrilled when I get my drink delivered in one. It rarely happens now though. The last time - a time I do definitely remember, it was that significant - was at London's Victoria bus station one chilly Saturday morning. My sister and I were on our way to Chelsea - only via the somewhat scenic and not very glamorous route of The Bus. We couldn't find where the number seven actually stopped. (Has anyone ever been to the Victoria bus station? Nightmare. But marginally better than the coach station.) We were a bit stressed. Then we happened upon a newsagents-cum-cafe, where everything was made better by massive cups of polystyrene tea for 65p. Memorably good value. We went back there especially three years later. It was £1.00. A smaller cup. That’s inflation for you.

You might, rightly, be thinking: what the hell has this got to do with anything, especially lifestyle aspirations? Well - can you remember when carrying a portable hot drink in public became a kind of social statement? When coffee drinking became a 'thing' - a lifestyle choice?

I can recall when the first coffee shops came to Birmingham in this way. I'd been watching Friends for a while so I didn't question it, knew what to expect, and actually wanted to go there. Of course, there was no way in hell my parents would have taken me to a coffee shop - why would we spend money buying a hot drink we could so easily make at home? Cradling it for bloody hours, painfully making conversation with each other. Sounds hellish.

But then I got a bit older and earned some money. I was in sixth form. I was being attacked by Friends on the one front and magazine supplements on the other, so I knew what I wanted to spend said money on. Coffee Republic.

I had some free sessions in my timetable. So I would travel into town on the 46 (always the bus), get one of their hot spiced apple drinks (I hadn't quite graduated to actual coffee yet), and walk over to the ‘city’ to people-watch the suits on their lunch breaks.

And I'd sit on a bench or bit of wall for HOURS, with my (soon) empty cup. It was a real treat. Yet it was also more than that. For me that silly, portable hot beverage symbolised adulthood. It was where I wanted to be. I didn't put it in the bin when I was finished - I wanted to be seen with it. It's bonkers but they talk, those cups. Look at me! they say. I belong here, I'm so city chic! I earn enough money to be frivolously throwing at overpriced drinks that I don't need!

I still do it now. I've got a cappuccino on the go as I type (no polystyrene in sight).

Only now, I feel too aware of what I am holding represents to me, and to others. That Costa branding, Nero or Pret or whatever. Which one you pick is almost as much of a social calling card as the drink itself. Which is probably why I now crave the unidentifiable no-nonsense of the humble polystyrene. It's a statement of a different kind, almost a protest saying I AM NOT RIDICULOUS. OR RICH. I GOT THIS DRINK FROM A VAN. I PAID LESS THAN A POUND. Hmmm.

Social politics aside, if there's one thing that's guaranteed to make you love something it's nostalgia. Polystyrene pulls at my heart strings because it reminds me of growing up, of the first time I wanted to be like the grown-ups. Well, pretend to be one.

That first time you actually want to try a cup of tea. The first time you want to try one on the go, from the ice cream van, instead of getting a Coke. The association is as comforting as a steaming hot cup of tea after a long day.
It's a shame polystyrene has gone out of fashion, but it was of course inevitable. And if the internet is anything to go by - polystyrene could kill both the environment and humans - then maybe it's for the best.

But there'll always be a place in this girl's heart for weird creaky white stuff.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Seduced By Editorial

Ever bought a magazine for yourself as a treat? Of course you have. Perhaps something a little silly, like a celebrity gossip magazine? Yes.

What about a bigger treat something from the next shelf up? No, no not the top shelf. The fashion glossies - big thick spines, richly smooth pages. Most of which are just crammed full of adverts, but gorgeous ones.

Its nice to get expensive magazines every now and again, isnt it to perk up the week. You just need it sometimes. But what if you wake up one morning and realise you have in fact subscribed to all of them?

I am 100% guilty of being seduced by magazines. I am a grown woman who pays through the nose for reams upon reams of things she cant afford, and places she cant afford to travel to. I just can't seem to help myself.

And I really am old enough to know better - I know how real life works now (I think). I consider myself a media savvy girl - I regularly critique adverts out loud when watching the television, much to the annoyance of my fella.

So why the hell am I an Elle Decoration subscriber? I don't even decorate. The bathroom floor is yet to be tiled - thats three years of concrete. Yet here I am, flicking through pages and pages of vintage Moroccan tiles and bespoke marble. I can't even muster the energy to browse through the Topps Tiles website (most tedious experience ever), let alone take up any of the tips and eye-wateringly expensive products featured in those glossy pages.

I feel a little ashamed of my little habit. Like I have revealed I enjoy walking around the flat in my boyfriends pants (I dont. Plus, it doesnt really sound as seedy this way around, does it? More like Im really on-trend and will be borrowing his jumpers next. I have been known to do that. Maybe its a slippery slope? Anyway.)

I know its all supposed to a bit of fun - a guilty pleasure, like chocolates are for other people. Or shoes. So why do I feel so uncomfortable about it?

I think I just dont want to admit the truth to myself - that I secretly still harbour the ridiculous so-called lifestyle aspirations that I did as a young girl. First it was fashion magazines totally standard for a young woman. Fashion is great. But now that Im venturing into home interiors its like I'm subconsciously nesting. And I am annoyed with myself - like a big predictable cliché I am following the path laid out for me by these marketeers. Next itll be Woman & Home. Easy Living. Then food magazines (that concept does sound quite appealing...theyve clearly got me pegged.)

This love affair with magazines all started with the women's lifestyle supplement that came with The Daily Mirror on Monday's. Can anyone remember what it was called? I was obsessed with it. I would painstakingly absorb every inch of editorial for hours and hours. Literally - hours. In my head I would live out the lifestyle portrayed on those pages, contrasting starkly to the realities of my days spent in the classroom at school and then at sixth form. I envisioned that, when I was in my twenties (never in my thirties, too old), I would buy a takeaway coffee on my way to work a publishing house, newspaper or other arts organisation. I would be wearing a shift dress from Topshop, which would transition nicely when I met up with friends for post-work cocktails in a stylish bar, after which I would nip home to my fabulous flat in the city with a balcony.

And now here I am at 31, buying a takeaway coffee in the morning on my way to work at an arts organisation, wearing a shift dress, sometimes (but not as much as I used to) meeting with friends for post-work wine, and living in a city centre flat with a (sort of) balcony.

I should be bloody over the moon! I got what I wanted - so why am I still harbouring all these so-called lifestyle aspirations? Its not like Ive had the imagination to even generate new ones, not really. Its the same meaningless things only on a bigger, more costly scale. I dont just want any old coffee - I want the best coffee available, preferably organic. Ive become complacent in my brilliant job. I want Reiss dresses instead of the H&M ones I can afford. Do you ever stop wanting things? I mean, it's exhausting isn't it?

It must be an addiction, this magazine consumption. You start to crave them as much as the things inside. Its like by reading these things I am somehow living them a little bit. Of course, Im not.

I am not jetting over to Fiji next week.

I am not planning a jaunt round Marylebone this weekend to peruse potential items for a room Im doing up in my Notting Hill townhouse.

I am not even able to justify buying a Smythson diary.

I know at the end of the day it's just frivolous enjoyment and I should just stop over-analysing. Life needs more of the simple pleasures that looking at pretty stuff can offer. The escapism that comes from reading about things that just dont matter. But it is niggling at me now that I've noticed it. I think Im most worried that other people will think I actually want to be like these people who really do live out the lifestyle of Elle Decoration, with their bonkers staircases and friends who own top London restaurants. It all feels a bit ridiculous a pointless, pretend world. I don't want to be like that really.

At least, I dont think I do

P.S. One thing these magazines are an actual source of is absolutely brilliant gift ideas. So if you happen to know me, lucky you – you may not be sitting on a £25,000 art deco sofa suite the next time you come to visit, but you could have a really nice dinner plate coming your way this Christmas.

Contributor Profile

Gemma Corden
After completing a BA in English, Gemma dabbled in freelance writing for a variety of cultural organisations, including Channel 4’s IDEASFactory, before finding Hybrid Arts – a pioneering non-profit creative technology organisation based in Leamington Spa - where she has been Writing & Researching (and nobly keeping post-it notes in fashion) for ten inspirational years. In her spare time, Gemma is a freelance journalist and writes short fiction (foisting it upon patient loved ones). Gemma’s mission is…well, she hasn’t quite got that far yet.

And the rest
Likes to do things in lists, considers herself an exemplary tea drinker, spends most of her life on buses, hordes cheap jewellery and has a somewhat sordid love of Berol pens.

Favourite boy hero
Tintin – the perky quiff, the impeccable manners - just what you need in a crisis.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Thinking it over

I talk to myself. As far as habits go it's not exactly the worst. But it's started to get embarrassing because I find I'm now doing it outside, in public - rather than in inside, alone. Technically, it's not myself I am talking to now - it's the world.

And it's not like I don't realise I'm doing it - oh no, I know exactly what's happening. I just don't care that people can hear me. They probably just assume I'm on a handsfree phone. Or that I'm a bit unhinged (which I am, if I happen to be on the bus or train at the time...)

In reality I doubt anyone ever notices. Which is just as well, as my thoughts aren't exactly censored. Really quite private, sometimes - the kind of things that should actually stay indoors.

So what's going on? Is it just age? This is what happens as you get older isn't it - you go a bit mad, ha ha ha ONLY JOKING. But you do start to care less about what other people think.

It's a bit strange - or maybe it isn't, really - but it has always been essential that I talk things through with myself. Keeping my thoughts inside my head hasn't ever been enough - for some reason I have to actually vocalise them. Like a muscle I need to stretch at least twice a day.

When I was growing up I would really struggle if I didn't get this time with myself. I would run things through preliminarily in my head, thoughts running around my brain all day - at my school desk, when talking with friends, on the walk home - and then I would re-cap out loud in my bedroom later that day. Just to get everything straight. This routine continued right into adulthood.

I suppose when I found myself no longer living with my family (where I had that access to 'my own' space - my bedroom), but began sharing my life with another person, this routine had to be modified.

Of course I still have space (arguably more space than ever) that I can call 'my own' - but not in the same way that having a private space like that of a teenage girl's bedroom offers. That place where you can close the door on the world. So, without realising, I had changed along with my living circumstances.

I toned my musings down - they were weird and potentially embarrassing. Instead, they stayed in my head, were perhaps allowed an occasional whisper. But this policy of restraint obviously hasn't worked because now, five years on, here I am battling daily with thoughts that have pushed themselves to the surface and are bursting out unannounced on the train, at the traffic lights, in ladies toilets, walking down the street... I'm even signing out loud in public now, too. What the hell?

I'm not quite sure what all this says about me. But I suppose this blog is just another (socially acceptable) way of me externalising all those thoughts. And that must be healthy.

I know what you're thinking though - that girl thinks too much. You're right.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Wrong side of the tracks

A lot has been said on this subject but I'm afraid I am going to have to insist on adding my voice to the noise.

Commuting - I do it. I love it. Ok - sometimes I hate it...

I recently read an article in The Observer that struck a chord with me. Although this article was very London centric (as things often are) and therefore not exactly rooted in the reality of everyone's lives, it was also interestingly controversial in that it promoted commuting by public transport as a good thing. An unusual standpoint considering, aside from in environmental journalism, this is probably the first real vindication of public transport use I have come across - in the media or from actual people.

Apparently, some new research (yawn) by The University of East Anglia has found that public transport commuters are happier than those who drive to work. Out of the 18,000 passengers surveyed it was found that, even when other factors that may affect wellbeing were taken out of the equation, commuters who travelled to work on public transport scored lower on feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness and sleeplessness.

Now, I don't need research to tell me how beneficial my 90 minutes-a-day of public transport is for me - I've been reaping the benefits for nearly ten years, travelling cross county from Birmingham to Warwickshire via both bus and train (lucky me). 

I hope my status as a seasoned public transport commuter gives my opinions some kind of weight, because I am now going to rather grandly claim that commuting makes me a better citizen. Hear me out - I've got a list for you:

1. The thing about public transport is that it's all very, well, public. You're thrust right into the path of your fellow planet-sharers in a way that you just wouldn't be in the rest of your life, other than perhaps, say, the supermarket or, if you work with members of the public (brave), at work. So -  getting the bus actually keeps you in touch with reality. Ok yes, sometimes that reality is hearing the ins and outs of someone's argument with their ex-girlfriend, or having a small child throw up on your shoe. But, you know, if we aren't forced to interact with society at it's fullest how can we be fully rounded people? I'd argue I get more of a community (ugh, I hate myself for writing that word, I apologise) from the people I see everyday on the bus and train than I do from my actual neighbours. I don't necessarily like them, but that's not the point
2. Catching the bus-and-or-train builds many key life skills and generally makes you a better person to be around. You are more patient (that's alright bolshy lady, just shove past me with your many bags - I don't mind, I am a good citizen), you can empathise, you are probably quite kind (please do take my seat nice old man)
3. If you travel by public transport you could probably embark on a career-change and become a leading Body Language expert - you have no choice but to learn appropriate personal space boundaries, when and when not to smile, when to make yourself invisible
4. These skills also come in handy on the mean streets - you are sharper than your driving counterparts. You can rate a situation / person in terms of dodgy-ness and accompanying threat level in a matter of seconds

And I do honestly believe that my commute is also essential for maintaining my mental health - here comes another list, ooh:

5. Public travel time equals thinking time. I plan most of my life from the train. I don't know what I'd do without it. I'd probably be a disorganised mess
6. You also get time to be productive (I am writing this very blog post from the 08.22 to London Marylebone). Time to be leisurely - listen to that album you've been waiting to come out, read a book (books, remember those?), watch YouTube (with headphone on, please). Or, if you are a pain in the arse, talk loudly on your mobile phone and then cough everywhere...
7. Travel by public transport also means you get some physical exercise (ish) - which, say the researchers, is the crux of the benefit to your mental health

I know this is all a little tongue in cheek, but I do hope readers recognise some of the above in their own lives. Maybe we public transporters have a better sense of humour too - we have to, really, as we are faced with the 'laughable' incompetence of transport companies that we have no choice but to use, shedding out increasingly large amounts of cash to said companies despite, if anything, a decrease in the standards of our journey. Actually, as I type I find I am becoming less and less relaxed... 

I've obviously been painting too rosy a picture of public transport - on the other side of the tracks (sorry) lies pure, unadulterated RAGE.

Nothing, NOTHING, can make you more angry than public transport. There's obviously the cost. I remember when the bus cost an adult 90p, and that makes me upset. A return train ticket to work is now double the cost it was when I started.

But the real biggie is the cruel way in which public transport reveals the ugly truths of our modern society, and people in general. People are rude. Selfish and rude. A life of public transport has taught me this. As a queue-worshipping Brit, 'pushing in' is probably the thing that gets to me most, the thing that grinds me down and contorts me into the-irrationally-angry-woman-I-hate. It sounds ridiculous and really not worth bothering about, but I have had 30-minute phone conversations purely about something that happened to me in a bus queue.

I have shouted at people. Actually shouted. Pushed and barged. I regularly swear aloud to myself and at others. Is the stress of public transport pushing me to do things that are out of character? Or is it actually revealing what's inside of me?

So we're a split-personalitied bunch, but at least we public transport users are eco friendly. (Although probably not on purpose.) 

Bet those researchers are glad I wasn't in their study group.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Working it

We edit ourselves as we go about life, don't we? Not in the wholly condemnable Photoshop way employed by magazines etc, but we do present ourselves differently depending on the situation. Sometimes we choose to. Other times, we have to.

Now with this in mind, I am about to tiptoe into semi-dangerous territory as I essentially attempt to dole out advice on what people - well, women - should and should not wear. To work. Yes, I am mad.

We (most of us) do, of course, have the right to dress in whatever bloody way we like. Feminism is about the right to choose, after all. But for God's sake ladies - pull it together when you are at work.

Just as we can't be as gobby as we perhaps are in our personal lives, we can't really be as loud with the clothes we wear in the workplace also. There is a time and a place, as they say. Being greeted by a crop top and leather leggings makes me uncomfortable at, say, the doctor's surgery reception. Everywhere else - fine.

I am aware I am coming across as a ragingly conservative anti-feminist, but hear me out. Like it or not, you cannot get away from the fact that how you dress does project an image, a message to others. And at work, the only thing you want to show off is your professionalism.

I feel (relatively) passionate about this subject. On my commute to work I see a lot of other people on their way to work. A lot of young women. And there are times when when I involuntarily tut out loud as I watch one of them topple into an office in Spice Girls-eqsue trainer wedges. Cringe as a I catch a glimpse of the pants of another under a too-short skirt. Too much denim. Sports wear (literally, like they are going to the gym). A lot of skimpy, downright uncomfortable looking outfits that just seem plain incongruous with the workplace.

Maybe I've just been brainwashed by decades of fashion magazines - you know what I mean, those hilarious work wear sections that I'm sure most of us just flick through, yawning. Forever  dispensing the same advice, the same rules. It's all pencils, body-con, shirts, cardigans - basically stuff that makes you look like a sensible grown up in the day, but will let it's hair down with you as you 'transition' into a raucous evening. Stuff that says you're 'serious', 'strong' but still 'feminine'. The language is silly but it does ring true. This style of dressing gives us the flexibility, that armour we need. 

And far as I'm concerned, flashing the flesh hasn't really got much to do with empowerment, other than that you have freely chosen to flash it. But, more importantly, what you have almost certainly chosen is to mark your card as someone who can mis-read a situation.

Look, I'm not deranged - I can see how in some workplaces a relaxed dress code, a controversial one even, is accepted. Welcomed, even. Hairdressers spring to mind (the kind where people have beards and piercings, tattoos a-plenty... not Nicky Clarke). Bars, too. Trendy shops. Some PR companies maybe? I don't know.

But take my place of work, for example - a creative small business founded by an artist who went around for three years in her twenties wearing the same boiler suit everyday. So you can imagine the atmosphere is a little loose - we can pretty much wear whatever we like. However, we are also a training provider, working with vulnerable school children. So, whilst we are not exactly your typical school, we do have a duty to be good role models for the kids. We also have a responsible image to project to our partners in the schools. Plus, there are times we have to look even more grown up for the local authority.

We are also, coincidentally, an all-female team. Each one of us has to re-edit ourselves a bit, depending on who we've got coming in - we constantly have to meet other people's expectations. And, as a tiny company competing with the 'big boys', we have to push even harder to be taken seriously. How we dress plays a part in this. It shouldn't have to be that way, but it is. It's obviously especially true for women, but men do have the same standards and expectations to meet also - a man coming into a meeting in a vest and shorts wouldn't be tolerated in most workplaces.

It would be nice to think we could all just go about life true to our own code, the whole time. But this is not a reality for anyone (well, maybe Kate Moss). Perhaps this is a good thing, anyhow - I imagine we would turn out to be a pretty selfish race if we all did exactly what we wanted to, all of the time.

This mini-rant is brought on by something that happened this week, at work. One of our female students came in wearing a sheer lace corset dress and stiletto heels.

Now, we have a policy where our students are treated as fellow staff members. They are ambassadors for the company. Plus, this girl is just 14 years old. It was genuinely frightening that she had thought it was acceptable to come in dressed in the way she was - that she even owns such clothes. After a frank talking-to about self-worth and choice (my boss actually likened the get-up to that of a prostitute's...not the most pc of strategies but I could see where she was coming from...) we had to send her home.

It can be difficult enough being taken seriously at work as it is. At the end of the day, inappropriate clothes make you look out of place. Not in a 'I'm asserting my individuality' way. But in an 'I've judged it wrong' way. And this does nothing for selling your skills.

I feel quite uncomfortable writing this post. I know it will rankle people. I would probably find myself a little rankled if I wasn't the writer. But I do maintain that you can stay true to yourself as you present different versions of this self to the world. It's not about conforming, or changing yourself. It's about making considered decisions.

I genuinely hope that, sooner rather than later, we get to the point where men and women are finally considered as equal in the workplace, and in society in general. In such a society I imagine men will be able to choose to come into work in a skirt and feel no shame or recrimination. Women could choose to come in wearing an embellished bin liner. 

But I still wouldn't get my hair cut there.