Monthly Archives: May 2014

Crowded Carriages Are All in Your Head

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Good morning, you marvellous creature.  How’re you doing?

Today I would like you to imagine that your brain is a London Underground tube carriage.  What do you think it would be like?  Is it full of commuters?  Is there a school trip of fluorescently-clad children accompanied by one harassed teacher?  Maybe it’s the last train home, and a few sozzled friends are giggling manically in the corner.  For many of us, it will be the one with a homeless person wandering through asking for change, and a baby screaming at top volume.  In other words, our brains are crowded, noisy, awkward and confusing.

There are approximately 34 seats per tube carriage on London Underground trains, but you hardly ever see a train carriage that’s just neatly filled with 34 seated people, do you? In the same way, our thoughts and feelings do not sit neatly in our brains in a designated space; they run around and confuse us.  For example, the items on your mental to do list are like the school kids on a day trip, who run around and worry you in case one drops off.

Life is difficult , and worrying, and exciting.  It’s also going by very quickly.  Particularly in cities and especially for people who have busy lifestyles, it’s difficult to feel properly connected to one another.  (Like ships passing in the night, perhaps.  I have no idea where this transport obsession has come from, by the way.  I’ll be banging on about the “aeroplanes of ambition” next, I expect.)  It’s so irritating in its self-exacerbation: we get stressed out because we’re so busy and we have no time to see our friends and loved ones, and then we get more stressed out because we haven’t seen our friends or loved ones for ages, ad infibloodynitum.

It’s not easy to do, and for some people social stuff goes completely out of the window when the pressure’s on at work or what have you, but we have to keep connections with people during times of stress.  I’ve got a huge to do list on my desk (and I’m genuinely starting to think that it might be sentient), but I am aware that I’ll go loopy if I don’t talk to a good friend today.  Similarly, my friend Laura is studying all morning in the British Library, and her PhD will make her crazy if she doesn’t switch of from it for half an hour, so to solve both of our problems we are going to drink coffee together and have a chat.

Sounds like I’m encouraging procrastination, doesn’t it?  I’m honestly not.  I believe in working hard and doing something you’ve set out to do, but I also believe that burning out and cutting yourself off from people is an incredibly stupid and damaging thing to do.  Thinking that you are alone with your crowded carriage mind is silly, because everyone feels like that.  Also, when did you last see a train with six empty carriages and one full one?  Exactly.  Now go and ring someone who likes you.

Have a fantastic Tuesday.

Here Comes the Sun

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Good morning and a very merry Monday to you, dear reader.  How was your weekend?

In the grand tradition of Brits overdoing it on the first day of sunshine, I have some very fetching sunburn on my back.  In the equally grand tradition of Brits just after the first day of sunshine, I crossly insisted that I hadn’t been in the sun for very long, and that I “shouldn’t” be this red.  That’s right.  I am so British that I subconsciously imagine a system of justice behind the weather.

Tomato-complexion aside, the sunshine has a lovely effect on lots of things.  I think that there are a few which deserve a bit more attention:

  • The most average-looking places look like movie set locations.  For example, I am not a huge fan of South London, but Kennington yesterday was a delightful sight.  After the new writing night I skidaddled down to a pub by the river for a friend’s birthday, and found my lot on a rooftop terrace.  This would have been fairly glitzy for us on a normal day, but in the sunshine it felt like an industry party in LA, darling.   (Except that we had wine and cupcakes, not champagne and cigars.  Close enough, right?)
  • You feel so much more zen.  It’s probably a combination of things: cloudless skies remind us of infinity, lying on the grass makes us feel more at one with nature and being warm in general makes us a bit sleepy.  I mean, philosophical.
  • Life becomes a window shopping trip.  This might be more for girls than guys, but I love seeing what kind of sandals, sunglasses and pretty summer dresses people turn out in when the temperature gets above 22 degrees.  Also, people are happier and more confident in their nice summer clothes, so if you really like someone’s outfit you can actually ask them where it’s from, and not get a standard “stranger danger” glare.
  • Sunglasses make everyone look amazing.  I really don’t know what it is about sunglasses, but everyone looks really, really good in them.  I have no idea of the psychology behind this (especially given that eyes are meant to be the windows to the soul and therefore pretty important in attraction, surely), but sunglasses make everyone look like rock stars.
  • Sunglasses make everyone feel better.  This one is fairly obvious given the last point: when we know we look good, we feel good.  Instant confidence from something as simple as a pair of glasses is one of the weirdest and loveliest side-effects of weather like this.  Also, sunglasses of different tints and hues give people unique perspectives: for instance, my friend Rob’s sunglasses are a brown-ish colour.  More than once yesterday we were treated to the exclamation “Everything looks like a photograph from the seventies!” I don’t know why that made Rob so happy, but it did, and who are we to judge?
  • Ice cream trucks are everywhere.  Creepy and perturbing music aside, ice cream trucks are essentially vehicles of joy, and their purpose is to deliver deliciousness to all and sundry in a given postcode area.

Have a sensational Monday.

Shameless Plug Alert

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Good morning, you lovely thing!  How’s your weekend going so far?

Life takes you to some very strange places.  For example, my first play was written in a blind panic over two days because we needed a play to perform for an assessment, and we ended up doing it at the Edinburgh Fringe.  A few months ago I sat down in a sulk and started writing a scene that is being performed tonight as part of a new writing showcase.  Who’d have thought that having a hissy fit would be so productive?

It’s not as simple as that, of course.  Life is full of twists and turns and very confusing states of affairs, all of which combine and conspire to get us places.  The scene that’s being performed tonight may have started off as my exorcism of a bad mood, but it’s turned into something very different.  The actors have definitely made the characters their own, and the original source of inspiration is all but obsolete.

It can be very difficult to let your ideas change, but most of the time we have to trust that they are changing for the better.  As time goes by your attitude changes, you hear other people’s opinions, and you adapt to circumstances.  For example, the piece that’s on tonight (and tomorrow and next Sunday, just by the by) is called Irresistibly Drained, which is a reference to a Conan Doyle quotation that sounds a lot more emotionally fraught than it was meant to.  When I originally came up with the title I thought it was fine, but as time passes I feel less and less comfortable about it.  It kind of sounds like I’ve written a romantic melodrama worthy of Mills & Boon.

Letting your ideas change is something that comes up a lot for writers in particular, because you can imagine a line being spoken one way, but then an actor will interpret it completely differently.  Lines that I didn’t realise could be amusing in Chris is Dead (which will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe in August, just FYI) were made hilarious by the actors’ performances, and I loved that.

The main thing about letting your ideas change and develop is that you have no way of knowing how much better it could be.  Letting other people make their mark on your work could open it up to all sorts of possibilities, and you might unlock a huge amount of your own potential.

Whatever you’re up to today, have a glorious Sunday.  If you’re around in Kennington at 6pm, do swing by and see the new writing festival.  Details are here.

Wiggly Priorities

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Hello, and welcome to the weekend!  I hope you’ve had a nice lie-in.

If you’ve read yesterday’s post, you will already know that I decided to turn my phone off for 24 hours.  The main downside of this choice should have been communication issues, but luckily my flat mate tells me where I’m meant to be most of the time anyway, so that was fine.

The hardest part was actually the lack of sound.  I am always listening to music or a podcast, so wandering around without my earphones in felt very odd.  It was also pretty strange to go without the Notes feature on my iPhone for a day, because I use it all the time for blog ideas and so on.  The upshot of this was that I went to bed last night with a load of ideas scribbled down my arm.  These notes have now been partially transferred to my face and one of my pillows.

Embarrassing face-tattoos aside, today I would like to talk about priorities.  Yesterday I managed to work my way through a hefty amount of stuff on my to do list because I wasn’t distracted by my phone, so now my set of priorities has shifted.  Our priorities change all of the time: on a day-to-day basis they adapt to our immediate circumstances, but on a longer-term basis they shift depending on where life has taken us.  A university student’s priorities might be finishing an essay one day and applying for graduate jobs the next, for example.

People are always saying that we need to get our priorities straight, but it’s incredibly difficult to do.  How do you balance your daily duties with your lifelong endeavours?  How do we find a way to get our wiggly priorities aligned with one another?

We prioritise things for two reasons: their immediacy and their importance.  In contemporary life there is an enormous emphasis on immediacy from employers, friends and even the media.  We are constantly being told to believe that sooner is better, and I don’t think that that’s always true.  Good things come to those who wait, even in the simplest cases (like when you’re at a bus stop).

I was having a very deep and meaningful conversation about priorities with a friend the other day, and at one point he said “wouldn’t it be nice to be someone’s priority?”  Oof.  Right in the feelings.  Of course it would, but surely you are the person whose priority you ought to be?

What do you actually want today?  Do you want to feel like you’ve achieved something?  Do you want to spend time with some people who love you?  Do you want to go on an adventure?  Do you, in fact, want to build a snowman?  (Trickier to accomplish in this weather, but not impossible.)

I think that we have to trust that the day-to-day priorities (like work deadlines, essays and so on) will get us where we need to go in the bigger picture, but that paying attention to what we actually want will get us where we’d like to be.  I personally want to see Arsenal win the FA Cup, so my priority is to go to the pub with the boys and shout at a massive television screen.  To each their own.

Carlsberg don’t do Saturdays, but if they did, it’d probably be this one.  Have a cracker.

Phone Off for Friday

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Good morning!  It’s finally Friday!  And it’s sunny!  What did we do to deserve such good fortune?  I don’t know.  Let’s just enjoy it.

I have decided to turn my phone off for 24 hours, as of 9am today.  On the one hand, this is a pretty big decision that will have an impact on my ability to contact people, check the time and look up travel plans, but on the other hand, it’s just a phone and it’s not going to kill me.  Let me walk you through this seemingly random decision, and then see whether you might want to do the same thing:

Distraction
My friend Andy told me recently that I seem to be really, really busy for someone who doesn’t go to work.  And he’s right.  (Let’s brush over the fact that I tend to work in my pyjamas, ok?)  The point is that I genuinely do have stuff to get on with, and having my phone on my desk is just a distraction.  You’re a  busy person with a lot of stuff to do too, aren’t you?  Exactly.  Imagine how much more efficiently you could work without your phone in the corner of your eye.

Responsibilities
Speaking of work, lots of my friends have several email, Twitter and Facebook accounts synced on their phones (because of all the theatre company stuff we get up to, you see), so whenever anything happens on one of those, we feel the need to respond immediately. However, I have made a life-changing discovery: we don’t have to do that.
If your work comes down to email messaging (i.e. you’re not a doctor, fire fighter, etc.), then it’s really not that urgent.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to work at the same speed as technology all of the time.  You don’t have to stop walking in the middle of the street to reply to a message, or halt a pleasant conversation to check your emails.

Social Skills
Which leads me neatly on to the next problem I have with phones: what the crap have they done to our social skills?  It has now become acceptable to get out your phone and tinker with it if you are in a large group conversation, feeling a bit shy or just bored while your friend is talking to you.  (I have a friend who does that quite a lot, and I won’t name and shame, but you know who you are.  Stop doing that.)

Rejection
There’s a bit in the first Bridget Jones book where she complains about the passive-aggressive role of the telephone in dating, i.e. that getting home to find messages on your machine means that you are loved, beautiful and popular, whereas having no messages means that you will die alone and be eaten by Alsations.
Sometimes we have the same problem with mobiles, don’t we?  The immediate response thing is an emotional issue as well as a work one: when our friends and beloveds don’t reply to texts straight away we feel wounded and wronged.  Let’s take a day off from that.

Rebellion
I’ve just started reading the His Dark Materials trilogy, and it strikes me that we tend to see our mobile phones the same way the characters in the novels see their daemons: embodiments of our souls which we cannot emotionally or physically bear to be parted from.  They’re not.  They’re just phones.
I know that mobile technology makes life a lot easier, but I also know that I was perfectly fine for fourteen years before I even heard of mobile phones.  Our phones do not rule our lives or define who we are.  We exist without our phones, and we are actually far more interesting without our faces glued to them.

Have a record-breakingly good Friday.

The Upsides to Unfair Truths

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Good morning, and happy Thursday to you!  I hope you are feeling very well-rested today.

I’m a very lucky girl.  Yesterday I got to spend a sunny afternoon in a kids’ playground, chatting to my lovely mates and escorting my friend’s eighteen-month-old son on his (many, many – seriously, millions of) excursions down the climbing frame slide.  Apparently, some things are not made boring by relentless repetition.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we grown ups still found utter delight in something as simple as going down a slide?

I think that one of the reasons we don’t necessarily have the same capacity for joy as a toddler in a playground is that we know something the little ones don’t: life is full of hard truths.  Here are a few of the most annoying/inconvenient/unfair, each with a little optimistic upside to help us recapture some joy:

Television Shows End
I feel very sad for the people who watch Community, which I hear was cancelled recently.  It sucks to fall in love with a show, invest in the characters, get emotionally involved with the storyline and then discover that the big, bad L.A. producers don’t agree with you.  How very dare they.  The upside here is that new shows come out all the time: when Friends ended, nobody could have predicted that something as fun as How I Met Your Mother was on its way from the same brains.  So don’t panic, Community fans: you never know what’s around the corner (of the television executives’ board room table).

Justice is Unfair
Bad people hardly ever get what’s coming to them, terrible things happen to the loveliest people, and the theoretically just concept “freedom of speech” means that the BNP Youth are allowed to upload horrible campaign messages to YouTube.  We just can’t win.  the upside to this is that our instinctive “that’s not fair” reaction leads us to have interesting debates, learn lessons from bad situations and work out which horrible people to avoid in future.

Feelings Make No Sense
You can know what you love or hate about a person – their sense of humour, their attitude, their hair style – but you can never know exactly why you feel that way about them.  We fall in love with the least suitable suitors, and we cannot bring ourselves to fancy the people with the best emotional prospects.  The upside here is that the lack of logic makes love more exciting, romantic, weird and wonderful.  Wouldn’t it be horrible (albeit slightly more convenient) if a physical trait plus a personality characteristic automatically equalled love?  We’re not robots.

Life is Short
Scratch that: time is short.  I mean, it’s Thursday already; how did that happen?!  As we get older time seems to go by faster, and our to do lists get longer instead of shorter.  We forget to text people back, we miss birthday parties and there is always at least one household task that we’re just never going to get around to.  (Mine is hoovering the stairs.  It just isn’t going to happen.)  Here is our upside: the diem is ours to carpe.  Go on that holiday, take up that hobby and tell that person how you feel about them.  Go on, I dare you.

Wasps Exist
I can’t think of an upside to this one.  Sorry.  Wasps are just mean.

Have a brilliant Thursday.  I hope that this day goes down in your personal history as Unbelievably Delicious Dinner Day.

What Do You Need?

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Good morning, lovely reader.  Can you believe it’s Wednesday already?  I know.  Where does the time go?

My flat mate and I get a lot of stick from our friends because apparently the northern end of the Piccadilly line doesn’t count as “really” living in London.  (It definitely does, by the way.  Zone 4 is still a zone.)  That having been said, we have a lot of house guests from all four corners of the capital city, and we both love having our friends round for cheese, diet coke and ridiculous conversations.

One of our friends came over yesterday for a rehearsal, and she ended up staying late into the evening, which was lovely.  When she left she sent us both a message thanking us for the day, and she said some very sweet things about how spending time with us makes her feel better about life in general.  As two very maternal girls of Irish descent who pride themselves on looking after people, this was the greatest compliment we could have received.

When someone needs a break from reality, a good laugh or just access to an excessive cheese board, they know to come to our flat.  I absolutely love that.  As a friend, the best feeling in the world is knowing that something about you is helpful to the people you love.

We all need different things from different people, and that’s fine.  It’s good to have a friend who is good at distracting you from your problems, a friend who is an excellent listener and a friend who will always be up for blowing off some steam.  It’s also totally fine to sometimes need a good cry, sometimes need a big night out and occasionally just need a massive rant with no input beyond a few sympathetic noises.

Different times call for different measures, and you are absolutely allowed to need people when life throws something weird at you.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help, a chat, or just a cuddle.  Your friends want to be there for you just as much as you want to feel better.  Even if talking about a problem isn’t necessarily going to make it go away, it’s important to let the people who love you try to help.  In fact, the most important time to reach out to people is when you feel totally lost and helpless.  It’s the difference between standing alone on a battlefield saying “This is shit.  What am I going to do?” and standing beside someone who loves you, who will turn to you and say, “Yes, this is shit.  What can I do to help?”

Don’t just have a Wednesday.  Have a Marks and Spencer’s Wednesday.

Tech: No Logic

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Good morning, you lovely thing.  How’s Tuesday treating you so far?

It’s a sleepy, chilled out kind of morning at Bag End.  (Bag End is what Ash and I named our flat, by the way.  We don’t actually live in a hobbit hole.  Which is kind of sad, actually.)  As I write this, my friend Rob is lounging around on the sofa in our living room.  He stayed over after a group of us went to the pub quiz last night.  Ash is lying in bed with her laptop, probably browsing Pinterest  and Facebook messaging people.  I am sitting at my desk (in pyjamas, but still – at least I’m sort-of vertical) talking to you, dear reader.

Bearing in mind that our flat is roughly the size of a shoe box, it seems bizarre to communicate with one another via social media, and yet a few moments ago I found myself offering Rob a cup of tea via Facebook.  It’s not even a laziness issue, because obviously I then had to stand up and make the cup of tea and take it to him, so why did I bother?

Using social media to talk to people who are in the same room (or teeny tiny flat) is one of the weirdest little bonuses of technology, and was parodied in an excellent episode of The IT Crowd called Friendface.  I have a few ideas as to why we behave in this strange and illogical manner:

  • Novelty value: we are still at a point where using social media unnecessarily makes us feel raffish, kooky and hilarious.  This is because we are all gleeful little children deep down, and that’s ok.
  • Illusion: social media and Skype allow us to talk to people all over the world, which is amazing.  When your friends have bogged off to far-flung countries, the technology makes it seem as though they could be right next to you, so using it when they actually are right next to you puts the whole thing on a level playing field.  Basically, it makes it easier to cope when the person you’re talking to actually is in Italy or what have you.
  • Posterity: we are the first generation who will be able to look back at their youth and see our entire lives documented, photographed, liked and retweeted.  Having real conversations is obviously an excellent thing, but we like to keep birthday cards, notes passed in lectures and other bits of memorabilia, don’t we?  We like having a record.

I’m not sure that mine and Rob’s little messaging interchange about a cup of tea will be my most prized memory aide in forty years, but it’s nice to have just the same.  I might go and have an actual conversation with him now.  Have a spectacular day.

Dull Young Things

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Good morning, dear reader!  How was your weekend?

Reality television is a double-edged tennis racket.  On the one hand, shows like Come Dine With Me are very entertaining, and you can get recipe ideas from them.  On the other hand, Made In Chelsea is an abomination before God and our eyeballs.

When we were first exposed to reality television, it was in the form of a socio-psychological experiment that had a few ethical grey areas, but was essentially an educational undertaking: the first series of Big Brother.  That show in particular has become hideously bloated into something that manages to be skull-crackingly boring and criminally immoral and a damning indictment on the state of television.  Almost an achievement, isn’t it?

The ones that worry me most are the geographically specific shows that follow a set of people around: Made in Chelsea, The Only Way is Essex, and now We Are Watford, which makes me want to burn my home town to the ground, just to prevent the show from being filmed.  The participants of these shows have sold their social lives and rights to privacy.  They have allowed a producer to tell them how to conduct their love lives and friendships, and they have the conceit to believe that a soulless, fabricated version of their petty little lives is television-worthy.  The worst thing is that we watch, and we validate them.

In the 1920s, tabloid journalists and photographers made a huge fuss of a group of socialites and aristocrats, referred to as the Bright Young Things (or Bright Young People).  After the huge losses suffered in the First World War, the young people of London decided to take life into their own hands and really, loudly, raucously live it.

The difference between the Bright Young Things and the cretins on reality television is that the 1920s counterparts didn’t sell themselves to producers who then orchestrated their lives.  Bright Young Things is an excellent film (based on Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh) that tells us what we should have learned in over ninety years: other people’s lives are not supposed to be pursued by the media.

Besides, you’re flipping brilliant.  Your life is immensely fascinating and important, and living it takes up quite a lot of your time,  so why would you want to watch a bunch of morons leading their own lives badly?  People tell me that it amuses them and it’s a case of “it could be worse; I could be him/her”, but I don’t think that that’s enough to waste a whole hour of your life on once a week. Have an absolutely spiffing Monday.

Aaaaaaaay Macarena!

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Good morning, and a very merry Sunday to you!  I’ve just put the kettle on.  Do you take sugar?

Last night a friend and I went to a dance performance at Sadler’s Wells.  My friend is a ballerina and all-round dance expert, whereas my knowledge of dance extends as far as the Macarena, so the experience was a new one for me.

When we left the theatre after the show, I genuinely had no idea what I thought of the piece.  I have never, ever left a theatre without having formed a strong opinion on what I’ve just seen, so I was a bit discombobulated by this turn of events.  As far as I could see, the show was an extremely well-executed performance of the bleep test, combined with some energetic writhing.  That is not an insult to the show or the performers in any way; I’m sure that to a fan of dance the piece was extraordinary.  But I am not a dance fan.  I’m a words girl.  I can’t feel anything about a show that doesn’t have any words in it.

Bizarrely, the friend I saw the show with had the opposite view.  To quote her directly, “I don’t want to hear words.  Tell me the story with your bodies!”  This confuses me slightly because she did a Drama degree…the same one that I did, in fact, which is how we met.  And there were, as I recall, a fair few words involved in that.

I love going to the theatre with people whose views are so different to mine.  I have a friend whom I go to the theatre with quite regularly, and we nearly always agree on what we like and dislike about performances, which is great.  It’s always nice to have your opinions validated by someone you like and respect.  But it’s also a lot of fun to expose yourself to the weird and wonderful, and to try to see something you care about (i.e. performance) through someone else’ eyes.  I’m not saying that everyone should love every genre of performance, but it’s good to challenge ourselves a bit from time to time.  Go and see that show you’re not so sure about, or read that book that’s had mixed reviews.

But first, have a coffee and relax a bit.  It is Sunday, after all.