Monday, 14 August 2017

Least Favourite Saying


I admit it.  My least favourite saying in England is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’.  I dislike the bumper stickers and embossed cups, the t-shirts and tweets which glorify the passive maxim.  I know that marks me apart as non-English in character (though actually I was born in London) but every time I hear that phrase I think “OMG it’s not the Blitz, can’t you think of something more dynamic to inspire your life?”  I was brought up in the new world – aka Australia, the former colony with post-penal (is that a word?) rebelliousness - so I’m more of a “shake it up”... “only dead fish swim with the stream” kind of girl.  I would suffocate without outbursts of passion.

Ok, keep calm - now that’s off my chest I’m getting to the good bit.

Yesterday I encountered a living example of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ which is to be greatly admired.  Indeed it was astonishing.  And as “there’s always a story” with me, I arrived at the pub in bright sunshine in Clapham Junction and blurted it out to my Irish friend, Siabhra, and most of the bar staff.  (Yes, I also talk to strangers – another non-London trait – with a naive presumption they will be interested in my life... and sometimes they are!).  Anyway another friend, Chun, said “well there’s something to take you back to the blog you’ve been ignoring”.  So BOOM, I’m back.

I’m on a packed 337 bus from Putney and a very young couple try to get on the bus with a toddler and stroller.  The stroller is packed high with renovation materials – tins of paint, primer, brushes and trays.  The curly-haired, chubby kid is wriggling madly and the tiny mum is having trouble, so it seems.  When the dad pushes the stroller into the middle of the aisle it jams.  It won’t go forward or back and, oddly, he doesn’t much mind.  He takes his hands off it in defeat and kind of slumps. The toddler is kicking off.  The driver calls something out and the skinny dad goes back to talk to him.  I presume he needs to swipe or pay.  So I jump up and try to move the pram, as there’s no room to pass and clearly someone needs to help this young mum who’s barely coping.  Yet the stroller won’t budge – too much stuff hanging over the side and banging into poles.  So I unpack it a bit.  I lift a few cans of paint which are strapped around the handles and detach them, resting them on my aisle seat.  I manoeuvre a few more bits and manage to push the pram through the gap and into the wheelchair area.  The conversation at the front of the bus is getting louder but I’m not registering what they’re saying, only that it’s taking a while.  Then I collect the tins of paint from my seat and bring them over to the mum who is now sitting all but one seat away from the stroller; a gentleman having given up his place for her.  In retrospect, when I clearly articulate “these tins need to be secured, I’ve only rested them on the top” the young girl seems vague.  Hindsight is a wonderful thing.  I figure she’ll get him to fix them when he returns.  I sit back down.

The dad walks past me as the bus starts up again, and proceeds to cuss and grumble to his partner about something the driver has said to him.  I don’t make out details as I’m in my own world enjoying the beautiful sun, until she raises her voice in high dudgeon:“ that’s the stupidest f**in thing I’ve ever heard”...“who the f**k does he think he is” etc, by which time I am vaguely gathering that the driver had a problem with the paint being brought onto the bus, they are unhappy about being singled out as unsuitable passengers, while also delighting in the fact they have something to complain about (you know what I mean, it’s in the ‘oh poor me’ tone). 

It’s only background noise so I don’t consciously piece this together, but one presumes their occupation of seat and wheelchair space made it impossible for the driver not to have moved off - well, not without a scene he must have decided to avoid.  So I'm blissfully unaware I have conspired to help them frustrate the driver’s wishes.  Nor am I cognisant of the risk.  After a few short minutes we round the corner past Wandsworth Council toward East Hill.

Disaster.  Bus hits a bump.  Stupid parents have not secured the paint.  BANG.  Tin bounces out of the pram and crashes to the floor, miraculously missing the silly girl and drenching an upper-middle-aged lady sitting next to the wall with multiple coats of paint right down her left leg, ankle and foot.  It is as thick and layered as an applied plaster cast.  Her bag takes a dose too, and the rest flows plentifully across the floor of the bus where masses of people throw up their legs like a Parisian Can Can or scamper out of the way and up the stairs.  Chaos.   Stunned silence.  Chaos again.

The girl screams at her beloved in words starting with ‘f’ and ‘c’, and he defends himself as best he can.  He clearly isn’t very bright.  A fact she keeps cruelly reminding him about.  And the toddler kicks and screams, such that if he doesn’t stop wriggling she is surely going to drop his fat little bottom right into the paint.  (I have to admit that would have been funny.)  But with the weight of him the mum falls back into her chair, putting aside for the moment her desire to choke the stupid ‘f’ and ‘c’; and probably him vice versa. That gives me an opening. 

I am able, thank God, to creep between pram, paint and feuding couple to help the paint-covered lady to stand up and try to delicately move from the position in which she’s most uncomfortably trapped; the excited child and parents still presenting something of a provocative possibility.  Taking one arm and her bag we somehow get her up, the left sandal threatening to slip away at any moment.  We hop, duck and weave to an accompaniment of four letter words until we have her over the massive white puddle near to the exit door.  The soon to be accused don’t even notice.  Can I smell alcohol on him?  Anyway his speech is not clear, and hers all too clear.  Oh dear, I don’t like that kid’s chances.

Back to the lady:  She, I, indeed most passengers, stare at her leg and foot unable to comprehend what has just happened.  A few mutter “ooh, sorry” but noone knows what to do next.  She has not uttered a word.  Her face is calm.  My God it is unbelievably calm.  Perhaps she’s just numb?  That would make sense.  I try to speak:  “I’m soooo sorry”.  “Are you ok?  This is so awful, what can we do... we need to get it washed off”.  As the bus comes to an abrupt stop she replies, “I’ll be fine”.  Seriously?  Fine?  The couple are still arguing, but her face is placid, resigned.  There’s no fight in her, no defeat either.  She is simply calm, stoic.  She knows you can’t get spilt paint back in the tin so what’s the point of making a fuss.  And she didn’t even have to go through a mini-hissy fit to get to that point... she didn’t even let off steam.  Wow. It is a revelation.  

There really ARE people who Keep Calm and Carry On – even in the midst of an unexpected onslaught.   She should have been a pilot!  (Hmm, maybe she is?)

As we slither down onto the curb I adopt her optimism: “Yes, hopefully it’s water based paint, so we just need a tap...”.  She pats my hand, in a way which is both comforting and dismissive, “Oh, I’ll just go home, I’ve not far to go now...”.  The paint is dripping everywhere.  One foot is stepping, the other sloshing sideways like a dead-leg.  “Where do you need to go?” I ask, wondering how in hell she can go anywhere with a leg and foot like that!  I mean, would another bus driver even let her on?!  Then the bus driver appears.

Game on.

He tells the selfish couple how stupid they are and why he tried to avert this risk.  He doesn’t swear.  Everything he says is reasonable, albeit impassioned.  When instructing everyone to get off the bus he adds “you all thought I was mean to ask them to get off the bus... but see what’s happened, now you know why”.  He looks at me accusingly.  (Or that may be my guilty conscience.)  “I didn’t think you were mean” I attempt, “I didn’t hear”... but he’s on to other things.  

When everyone is on the pavement a few passengers get stuck in.  I join the fray: “hey you, don’t just walk away, you owe the driver and this poor lady an apology”.  Lady is still quiet, calm.  The only evidence of her distress is the occasional confused look down at her leg as if she doesn’t own it.  If she is greatly discombobulated it is private.  She simply looks to the driver for advice, waiting patiently until the other actors in this scene all calm down.

“I already said sorry”, he replies pathetically.  “Well, why don’t you say it again so she can hear?” I add, perhaps trying to make up for the lack of passion on her side.  But when he does apologise I figure it’s time for me to shut-up.  And the totally un-contrite mum is still telling him off, so poor lad he really has bitten off more than he can chew with all these responsibilities – when all he wanted to do was make their little flat look better.  Oh dear, bit sad really.  

Nowhere in sight is there a tap.  No front garden with a hose.  I feel culturally discombobulated and useless.  So I apologise to the driver.  I wish the lady well  as she seems content to be left to the driver to get sorted, or abandoned on the pavement I’m not sure which.  And I change buses.  Everyone on the next bus is talking about the incident.  One lady saying: “They should have caught a taxi.  Probably only cost £5”.

Ah, hindsight is a beautiful thing.  But now whenever I see that sign “Keep Calm and Carry On” I’ll be visualizing that quiet lady standing drip, drip, drip on the pavement in Wandsworth.  What a woman.  I do hope she got quickly cleaned up and outside again to enjoy the wonderful sunshine yesterday!

And I promise myself I’ll write to TFL to tell them it really wasn’t the driver’s fault, as no doubt the bus had to be taken out of service.  That’s my next bit of writing. 

Get coffee and carry on. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Big City


Anyone who knows me knows I have to escape the big city sometimes.  Regularly in fact.  Anyone who knows me knows I love Ireland for many of the (opposite) reasons I sometimes find London difficult.  But the fact remains: big cities are often awesome.

After two months away from London I was wandering along the Thames today with glistening light and fluffy clouds over St Pauls.  I chatted to a stranger from the Netherlands I randomly bumped into.  I met a great friend and sat in a coffee shop and talked about a fraction of the things in two hours that we’d like to talk about.  And I went to a Robbie Burns Night Party in Stockwell where the socializing, formalities and recitations were theatrical and satisfying and I even genuinely liked the Haggis!

I confess it’s always hard to leave Ireland after a sojourn (specifically, Westport).  But it’s good to be back in Old London Town, for all sorts of reasons.  In just a few days I’m having meetings about interesting work possibilities, looking at a lovely new house to rent, catching up with mates, and been to a terrific West End show (definitely recommend Kinky Boots for a fun night out).  And though I fear this wee blog may sound like a shameless brag, I simply can’t be apologetic... because it’s too funny.  I must share.

Here’s 4 random conversations from the last few days.

1)
Van does a u-turn, stops beside me on the road near Clapham North tube, young man leans out of window and calls:  

“Hey, I just have to say that you have the most wonderful hair.  It’s really beautiful.”

“Oh wow, thanks, that’s very kind of you. Actually I’ve just been to the hairdresser.“

“I don’t often see hair that beautiful, could I have your number......”

Conversation continues during which I explain I’m just about to go to Australia for a month so probably not much point.
“What about a drink tonight?”

“Sorry I can’t, I’m going to the theatre...”

“How about after the theatre?”

“Ah no, sorry, I have a friend in the show and I’ll be going back stage...”

“Then how about a kiss...........”


Broad daylight. Late morning. Not a bad offer, even if I did – surprise, surprise – decline :) Off I walked with an extra little skip in my step. 

[My hairdresser is good - thank you Toni from https://www.facebook.com/Artoni-The-Hair-Artist-159221227562184/    J ]


2)
That evening I’m going down the escalator at Waterloo telling my girlfriend about the encounter.  As you know my voice carries...  guy below us a few steps looks up and says:

“Did that really happen?”

“Yes, absolutely”

“Did you give him your number?”
“No.”

“Ah well, you can’t blame him for trying.”

Then all 3 of us start laughing.

 
3)
Now I’m at the Robbie Burns Party and in the space of 15 minutes these exchanges with 2 different women I’ve never met before:

“Hey, are you an actress?  Were you on Home and Away?”

“No, the other one.”

She calls out to her guy:
“See I told you.  It is her.  She was on Neighbours.  I knew it was you.  How exciting.  And wow, you haven’t changed at all in 20 years.  Seriously, it’s as if time has frozen.”

False or true (I wish!) I’m feeling a few inches taller when this follows from another woman. Indeed it's her opening line:

4)
 “Hi.  You have great breasts.  Have you had surgery?”

“No!”
“And you haven’t any make-up on.  I think I hate you.”

“Well, I do have some make-up on.  I’m wearing tinted moisturizer and a few hours ago I had a little mascara and lipstick, but probably worn off.”
“I still hate you.  What’s your name?”

 
I think the girls have it, don’t you? 

Too funny.  


#LoveLondon

 

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Topsy-Turvy Terrible Trump



Topsy turvy!
Everything is upsy daysy
Topsy turvy!
Everyone is acting crazy
Dross is gold and and weeds are a bouquet
That's the way on topsy turvy day...... *

                                                  * from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

9/11, 11/9, the world has gone topsy-turvy, Terrible Trump is taking the White House and millions of munchkins are wondering when a massive storm might bring a house of impeachment (or wave of civil rebellion) down on his ooh-too-orange-too-unnatural-scary-head so that the rest of the world can come out from hiding and resume more logical, joyful and humane activities.

But the Dorothy who might have saved us isn’t allowed in the White House because she is a woman.  A woman perceived by the disenfranchised munchkins and a bunch of sexist oompa-loompahs to be too elite to rule.  It makes no sense. But when mercenary media and the FBI conspire in myriad ways to make a heroine look bad, it’s only in Hollywood that she comes out on top; or perhaps in New York.

Don’t believe me? Well – like or dislike our Dorothy – imagine a male replica of this same candidate on the campaign trail and tell me (in these same circumstances) that would not have led to the White House? Many an ‘ism’ is fuelled by resentment. It doesn’t have to be on the surface to be a real contributor. But the red heartland has too many strange lights in their eyes, bullets in their guns, blocks in their brain, and kinks in their kindness to see what’s really at stake.  

Not all the American munchkins have distorted vision of course, near as many despise Terrible Trump as idolise him. But, wish as we might, we find ourselves not on the road to Oz or clicking our heels to return to Kansas, but falling down the Rabbit Hole to a Mad Tea Party most of the world don’t want to attend – unless of course you’re a Mexican munchkin in which case you can’t come in because there’s a big wall keeping you securely in your third-world- who-gives-a-shit-about-anyone-but-ourselves-place.

At the new party there are characters much scarier than the Cheshire Cat... there’s a couple of self-crowned, cocky, foreign ferrets called Fuckwit Farrage and Bastard Boris. There’s Pukey Putin and Terrible Trump, assorted apparatchiks and wicked wannabes, all clapping their hands in glee, wielding Ursula-like tentacles to snatch and grab, reject or wound at whim. This is a party without conscience or compassion, it’s all ego and greed, the terrifying, I-really-do-feel-sick-and-sad, beyond the Twilight Zone, OTHER PLACE .

Yes, the other place we read about in 1984, Animal Farm and Schindler’s List... where ‘the other’ becomes a religion, and the Big Fat Male Pink (aka white) Pig Rules. And it isn’t a dream or a story, it’s real. 

On the upside, in this brave new world we should all be able to go for jobs we have no idea how to do.  I want to be a Nero Surgeon at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Why not, hey?  Perhaps you’d like to be an astronaut? It doesn’t matter if you get vertigo, claustrophobia and fail the sight test, qualifications no longer apply.

In this brave new world the outlaws rob the banks, tie up the sheriff, assault your women, put your children in camps, then get a ticket-tape parade through the main streets of the 1st world to celebrate.

There’s no income-tax. No public-services. No NATO or United Nations or international goodwill.  

In this brave new world no matter what you’ve done (or failed to do) you can get the most powerful job in the land. This White Man’s Club (strangely supported by some women and others who misunderstand what’s going on) is not a step back in time to the vast and glorious Commonwealth, nor is it a Middle Ages Crusade - though it may feel like it - IT IS THE FUTURE!

Or, as has been said, BACK TO THE FUTURE!

But BEWARE, there’s no special car waiting to magically take us all away to safety as lightning hits the clock tower. There’s just an ugly finger hovering over a red button, with keys to The Situation Room, and those fingers belong to a sociopath who stoked the fires of selfishness, racism, sexism, homophobia, in many cases ignorance and poverty, to believe the Wicked Witch was their economic saviour. 

It makes no matter that even his aides thought him too irresponsible to do his own Tweets. In this brave new world recklessness doesn’t stop you from scoring the top job.  And more ironic: this particular Witch has been a multiple bankrupt and tax-avoider, proving the greed and irresponsibility which led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/2009 from which so many voters are still suffering, is far from gone and probably stuck in a sinister loop of circular-reasoning where Terrible Trump has no more idea how to improve his brand of fabulously unfettered Capitalism than thousands of others on The Hill.

Nevertheless in the topsy-turvy world of Terrible Trump, a character Doc Holiday might well call “the Anti-Christ”, is given the keys to our earthly kingdom.  And we are powerless to do anything about it.  (Or are we?!  See Michael Moore’s FB page @mmflint)  But we can’t lick our wounds by saying “oh those silly Yanks”, because only five months ago roughly half of the citizens of the UK gave America the quintessentially xenophobic example of Brexit to feed their isolationist nationalism. 

It seems many nations are caught in a BACK TO THE FUTURE psychosis of one sort or another.  Unless of course you’re lucky enough to be Canadian, God Bless them!

So just for the record: don’t ask me to be moderate in my outrage or concern, or in my judgement or sadness, because the oompa-loompahs who have got us into this mess have not been moderate in their intolerance or bigotry. And that fact remains however you attempt to explain or justify their choice. 

Make no mistake: this was not an election about left or right, Democrat or Republican.  This was not a debate about preferences or even needs.  This was an election about morality - a time in history where our very humanity was at stake.  And anyone who voted for Trump (or UKIP or Brexit) bear a heavy responsibility.

So you can call me arrogant, de-friend me, criticise or ignore me.  I am not afraid of free speech or the normal push and pull of democracy; even if I doubt its efficacy when campaigns are filled with lies and hatred, voting is not compulsory, people lack education or are given too many examples of egoism-gone-mad to see the wood for the trees.  But this election was different – it was crucial - and I make no apology for being devastated or seeing the outcome as grossly immoral. 

Germany and Japan carry their collective conscience with great elegance and compassion, for the writing on the wall they failed to see in the 1930s. They campaign in their daily lives and in their parliaments for rigorous inclusion and munchkin-on-munchkin respect. Bigotry and drums of war are not tolerated.  These countries now stand up proudly for peace and human dignity. And that is why they now take their place as true leaders of the world.

You’ve missed a key moment America. You have blindly but willingly walked into a war of your own making – a war on compassion, tolerance and respect.  So how are you going to wind back the clock and be sure the next Tea Party is less Mad and more Moderate, less Heartless and more Humane? 

Because if you think the economic spoils of victory will be better shared or distributed this evil way, the Terrible Trump way... then you have no-one to blame for finding yourselves on the dark side.

Meanwhile the rest of us munchkins can only pray we find our own Willy Wonka in the merky waters of political leadership, our own transcendent Dorothy, so that you don’t drag us into that ugly abyss.

Oompa, Loompa, doom-pa-dee-da,

If you’re not greedy, you will go far

You will live in happiness too

Like the Oompa Loompa doom-pa-dee-do.


Oompa, Loompa, doom-pa-dee-da,

I have another puzzle for you

Oompa, Loompa, doom-pa-da-dee

If you are wise, you’ll listen to me.


Highly recommended:






#ProtestTrump (in your city)   Don't be silenced!
 
 

Monday, 1 August 2016

#Identity+


Beginnings are important but it’s how a story ends that really counts. 
I’ve just had three glorious weeks holiday in Italy. I reconnected with friends, made new friends, spent quality time with family, read novels, swam in the ocean, drank wine, danced, sang, travelled from Rome to Tuscany to Sicily, and indulged in every form of cultural and culinary tourism. 
When I first landed in Rome I was tired and depressed, bruised by the disappointing EU Referendum result and suffering existential angst (to borrow from Simon Hattenstone @TheGuardian). At first I kept up with all the news, but after a few days I knew that to relax and rejuvenate I was going to have to stop reading.  I did, and was better for the escape.
Nevertheless every person I met or spoke to engaged me in conversation about the referendum result. With only one exception, every person was shocked and anxious about the development, fearing for what it might mean for Europe, now and in the future, for international relations, security and prosperity in general. Some laughed at Britain’s naivety and selfishness, not holding back when they said it would make the once great nation a small shadow of itself. Others cried or shook their heads in disbelief. What has happened to the British character they wondered? I felt their pain acutely.
Repeatedly these conversations moved from the public and political to the personal.  Friends and strangers wanted to know what Brexit meant for me. Yet I could only express something of the discombobulation I felt. I could only ponder the impact on my sense of identity.
[See my post immediately after the Referendum at www.blogjuliearts.com]
 
Since the EU Referendum questions about identity keep coming up. 
They say a swathe of people who voted out were troubled by concerns about identity. They say they felt their national sovereignty was compromised by EU membership, and that open borders and immigration threatened their sense of ‘Englishness’ or ‘Welshness’ as well as their economic opportunity. Whatever ‘Britishness’ is for them, it means something quite different in London and other cosmopolitan centres. But such was the myth and propaganda. While I empathise with feelings of disenfranchisement, there are many reasons why their vote to leave amounts to a misplaced protest vote. That however is not my focus here. What I find ironic (and sad) is that if a crisis of identity and visibility were the reasons for their choice, they have not actually advanced their cause an iota. They have done nothing to redistribute wealth or enhance sovereignty or democracy. They may only think they have - for a limited period before the reality of Brexit (and its domino effect) takes hold.        
I wonder too what Brexit means for the people like me whose identity is built from an amalgam of cultural experiences and loyalties... whose inner multi-culturalism has been formed by existence in an open society which depends for its flourishing on freedom of movement... and whose modern, global self-image, character and history is very much cross-border? 
There are so many people like me!  There are many who have ancestors and DNA from countries other than the one they are living in. But more than that, there are millions of people whose identity has been shaped by different colours and customs, by the arts and by travel, who have deeply embraced new cultures and places in order to survive and thrive in the world, in order to be true to the complexities which make them unique.   
How can we be asked to choose one loyalty over another?  How can we be asked to think, to live, to work, to create, to love, to move within a randomly redrawn boundary of such narrower proportions?  What a cost it will be to suppress our spirit and nature to the new agenda – the change few predicted? 
I am, it must be said, furious about the lies and manipulation of the Leave Campaign.  I am disgusted by the lack of planning, lack of a blue-print for a post-Brexit economy, and the shallowness of their reflection upon the real meaning and consequences of their pseudo-nationalistic lobbying.  I am appalled by the loss of integrity in our politicians, the ruthlessness of their egos, and the degeneration of the media and public life to what feels like an all-time-low.  And I will support every possible project to limit the damage they have done and hold them accountable. 
            #StrongerIn
#BrexitJustice
#LondonIsOpen
#TheGuardian
#TheNewEuropean
 
But I also want and need a new conversation. I don’t want to let myself run away from Britain in despair.
I need to reach out to all the people like me who – beyond politics – feel the need to do something positive and constructive in the face of daunting negativity and right-wing nationalism. In the spirit of Jo Cox (who we simply must remember) I have to believe that once the lies and referendum rhetoric have been uncovered as false and irresponsible, that millions of people in Britain - even those who voted Leave - will reflect long enough to see that there must surely be more which unites us than divides us; from each other, and from our European neighbours and allies. 
If you too feel your identity is cross-border and richly multi-cultural, please lift your voice and resist the manipulative silence of xenophobia, the insidious resentment of racism, and do all in your power to resist your family, workplace and community becoming isolationist, defensive or irrationally suspicious.  Please stop listening to politicians or media who would have us frame the world with ‘us’ and ‘them’, scape-goating ‘the other’ for all that isn’t right in our lives.  Rather be all the more determined to celebrate the richness of diversity and culture which exists in Britain; the Britain that will never be great again unless we do something quite drastic now about the conversations we are having publicly and privately. Because, just like Germany in the 1930s, if we do nothing it could be too late. 
You cannot resist a torrent once it is pouring downhill.  We can only avoid blood on our hands if we recognise the warnings from history and turn the tide now. These are dark times - the large number of hate and terrorist crimes across the world in the last month, concerning and repugnant – and, whatever your view of Brexit, we need to shake ourselves out of despondency or flippancy. We need to take seriously the social, moral and cultural challenges we face, as well as the political. Our humanity and our future depend upon it. This is something we can influence before the next General Election. We can change the conversation so a new spirit informs the political landscape and obliges our representatives to behave with more integrity and conviction, more humanity and intellectual nuance.
Please raise your voice. In conversations and social media share #identity+ and tell your story about the cross-border loyalties which shape your identity... which exist independently of a political party, a vote or campaign.   
..................................
Julie Elizabeth Mullins:
Ø I am more than any temporarily elected minister or government tells me I am.
Ø I can define my own cultural boundaries and identify with many clans, communities, institutions, religions and nation states. 
Ø I am filled with experiences and values that are Australian - black and white – because that’s where I was brought up and educated.
Ø I am British born with Celtic ancestors, red hair and freckles.
Ø My first passport was European and I feel European.
Ø I cannot part with my love and loyalty for Italy, Ireland, England or Australia, nor my need for deep connection to them.
Ø That complex jigsaw is me.
Ø I am multi-cultural.
Ø I am a citizen of the world.
................................
 
In the week between the referendum and my return to Italy (where I lived happily for several years) an incident occurred which touched me deeply. I was in a sports shop in London looking for some assistance. The young man who might have served me was talking to a couple of friends in a language I didn’t recognise. When finally I got his attention he was a little resentful of being interrupted and responded a little abruptly. When he brought me the shoes from the storeroom and I requested some socks he said “no, we don’t have them” and turned away.  A little surprised I said in reflection more than challenge, “oh that’s strange, in Australia they always give you socks to try on with new shoes”.  He replied “then go back to Australia to buy your shoes”.
I erupted.  Every frustration I’d been feeling that week - with colleagues who failed to recognise something monumental had happened and that I couldn’t ‘get over it’ in a heartbeat, and with friends who I hadn’t realised were so differently positioned – bubbled to the surface. I demanded to see the manager. He shook his head and moved toward the storeroom. I insisted: “Get me the manager or this is going to escalate”.  He ran into the storeroom and closed the door behind him. Another young man tried to follow. I stopped him: “If you do not get me the manager and you follow your mate into that room to avoid a customer that is requesting your help, you are also going to be in big trouble. Get me the manager – now!”  
Reluctantly he used his walkie-talkie, where I heard the manager ask “what does she want?”  I saved him the trouble and spoke into it: “if you come here I will tell you what I want face-to-face”.  The salesman backed away.  The only two other people, Islamic ladies covered with a burka, looked on nervously.  I was, it must be said, in full red-headed flight. 
When the manager arrived I prefaced my explanation with: “You better listen carefully Sir, because this will not end here if I do not get a sincere apology. I am very upset about the hatred and racism that is brimming beneath the surface of this country all of a sudden. And I will not accept this rudeness.”  I told him the story. He drew in his breath, paused for a moment, then apologised unreservedly and said he’d speak to the young man concerned. I breathed out. The two ladies nodded in shy (but surprised) agreement. I closed my eyes for a moment, then went back to my shoes.
When the young man returned, suddenly appearing more lanky and vulnerable, he stood beside me and quietly said “I’m sorry Madam I was rude, I apologise”.  “Thank you”, I replied, “I appreciate that very much.  We can leave it there then. Now, please, I’d like to buy these shoes if you’d kindly show me to the check-out”. He seemed taken-aback, not quite knowing how to proceed. 
As we moved slowly toward the til he added: “Madam, I am sorry I was rude, I really am.  I have had a bad day” and the tone of his voice had changed to one of sincerity and humility.  “It’s ok” I replied quickly and thankfully. “That’s finished now. I’m sorry too. I have been very upset this week about the EU Referendum result and sensitive about any attack which seems racially motivated.” He nodded with implicit understanding. “And by the way” I said as an after-thought, “you are very welcome in this country”.  Then the young man hugged me. He stopped between the shelves and embraced me gently but firmly, in what I could only feel was a sign of friendship and relief.   
It was a brief physical moment but a powerful emotional message. We were on the same side again. We were both human, vulnerable and in need of comfort, both wanting to feel welcome in the land we’d chosen to make our home.
As I left the counter the lad was smiling at me, telling his friends what had happened. I still didn’t identify the language. The manager opened the big front doors to let me out, the last customer of the day. He apologised again and said he’d talk to the boy about it. “No” I said, and I reached out to touch his hand. “You’ve said enough, thank you. He understands. And we’re good now. So let us end it here. I do not want him to get into more trouble. This story has had a happy ending, and that is what counts. We’ve all learned something. And after such a difficult week, it means a lot to me it could end this way. Thank you. Thank you very much.”  Then he nodded in recognition. The young man walked forward. We each waved and smiled as the big doors locked behind me – divided not by a wall of fear and resentment but a pane of reinforced glass.        
Walking across the pavement to greet a girlfriend for dinner I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit taller, a little less isolated, and a little bit more intimately connected with humanity.       
#identity+   
We all have stories. We all have hopes. Let’s share them. Let’s change the conversation.
 
 
 
 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Scaffolding



I have seriously neglected my blogs in the last year.  It’s strange how you can totally rely upon, love or need something for an extended period, and then suddenly not have sufficient time or attention for it.  Blogs are a gym workout for writers. They keep us fit, focused and fast.  There’s no time for the finesse of a published article or book, nor is there an editor and multiple drafts, but they are a good discipline and satisfying.  So why did I stop? 

Upon reflection, I realise blogs were the scaffolding for my development as a writer.  They gave me form in an industry which is otherwise unstructured, and I imagine that’s what a regular magazine or newspaper column does for writers; albeit with bigger readership.  It’s not that I don’t still need shaping – artists never stop growing in their craft – but other projects have taken precedence and, rather annoyingly, twenty-four hours in a day is often too short!

A year ago next month I published a book, To Kiss Or Not To Kiss, and I was happy not just because I think the design and narrative came together in a finished product I could be proud of, but because it was the culmination of many years of writing exercises, projects and books which hadn’t made it out into the world. And though my ‘other job’ has kept me busy since, commanding most of my available time and energy, I guess there was also a sense that after being alone in a room for a long time (solitude essential for writing) I needed to rejoin the working population and stretch the other side of my brain. I needed to socialise and put £ in the bank.  And I’m grateful for all professional opportunities – paid and unpaid, creative and corporate.  The challenge is to find the right balance.

That’s what got me thinking about scaffolding.  We rely on it to achieve something else.  It’s a necessary step in construction, in the process of creating something new or different.  But there comes a time when it has to be removed – when the new creation has to be set free, stand on its own two feet.  I was sitting on a hill in the middle of Tuscany once, when a children’s bookseller from Perth was giving me advice about a manuscript I’d asked her to review.  Her feedback was positive, but the upshot was that she felt I’d taken too many pages to prepare the reader... to walk them through the back-story (I paraphrase).  As she talked the truth dawned on me, and I blurted out “I’ve left in the scaffolding!”  “What?” she asked, somewhat surprised.  “I can see it. Yes.  I’ve left in elements of the process that I needed to create the story.  I’m showing the reader the workings.  I have to remove the scaffolding.”   She was delighted with this summary as hadn’t thought of it that way herself.  I went on to explain that actors know well that the process we go through in the rehearsal room has to develop and evolve before we reach the theatre.  We have to change gear. The audience doesn’t want to see why we’ve chosen this or that trait for our character, they simply want the character to live and breathe.  Theatre isn’t an intellectual exercise (though it can be intellectually stimulating).  It is a dynamic, live construct, and it isn’t believable if the actors are living in their heads. Excitement and drama happens in the moment.  I learnt a lot from that conversation about writing, and future drafts of those stories were better. 

Scaffolding then is a stage, a temporary need.  Perhaps parenting is like that too.  Also teaching.  Adults provide a safe haven, with established boundaries, within which a new and very individual person grows and, Please God, thrives.  Then one day they fly the nest.  They come back of course, likely to need you as a regular touchstone, but they are out there in the world, free and ultimately responsible for their own destiny.

I think sometimes we also get into love affairs for transitional reasons.  There’s something we want, consciously or otherwise, to help us get from A to B, and we reach for the support we need at the time.  It is right and normal that we do so, providing of course we’re also honest and respectful.  Something doesn’t have to last forever to be immensely valuable.  

Perhaps we find friends for the same reasons – for fun and spontaneous identification with another human being – but we never know how long they will or won’t be in our life.  It’s organic, uplifting and comforting to make new friends, it makes the world seem smaller and kinder, and that’s a scaffolding I could never give up.  Friends lift you higher than you could ever climb alone and they pick you up when you hit the earth with a thud.  Think for just a moment about your dearest friends, or the new friends who make you laugh or smile, and watch how your heart swells. Friends are surely the very best of life.  (And I count in that, family who are friends and good companions.)

Putting the arts aside for a moment - a business which intrinsically demands vulnerability - what happens in life when the scaffolding falls or gets pulled away before we’re ready for it? Do things get seriously wobbly?  Scary?  Does it test our inner strength? 

Yes.  It does.  But can it also be exciting?  Liberating? Can it open up horizons that we might not otherwise have contemplated?  Yes.  Of course.

Retirement can be a joy to as many as it is difficult.  Separation, after a reasonable gap of time, can be empowering – a rebirth of sorts.  Even unemployment, if you’ve managed to save money or get a payout, can be an opportunity like no other to consider what you really want to do with your life.

The point about scaffolding is that it can be viewed either way.  It can be positive or negative. Perhaps, as with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, it is possible for us to consciously acknowledge fear or discombobulation then let it slide by.  (Yes that is a word, communicative whether or not it’s yet in the dictionary.)  Or as meditation leaders counsel, nod to whatever’s distracting you, then let it go.  Don’t fight or deny it.  Because the point is that wobbly, unfocused, or scary feelings don’t have to confine or define us.  They are just a part of the process of living and moving forward. And in our bravest moments we acknowledge fear and do the thing anyway.

So today, consciously, I’ve returned to the scaffolding of my writing practice.  (I think that could be practice or practise.)  It doesn’t matter who reads this blog.  I just needed to write it.  In a way I can’t explain, simply know that it is authentic, I feel another creative chapter approaching... a period without scaffolding... so perhaps I’ve been not so much ‘off the boil’ but ‘quietly simmering’ while I tasted some of the other things life has to offer and solving some other problems. And actually, that’s exactly the kind of variety and challenge I need and desire.  And that’s just as well, because I don’t know any other way to live.

Ah, I feel better now.            
 
 
 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

A Scowl To A Kiss


How a day can change.

I woke up at 5am one morning recently with a lot on my mind. There was nothing to be done but to get up and jog. Before leaving I checked my email and 20+ emails flooded in with pictures and problems on the house I’m trying (and failing) to renovate and re-let from the other side of the world. It’s been a pain for months and I spent 80% of my Christmas holiday trouble-shooting, scrubbing and organising tradesmen. But here I am again, seemingly mired in issues and hold-ups. This not only frustrates the project manager in me, and the live-events manager who delivers on commitments despite the difficulty of a deadline, but I am bleeding money with no end in sight.    

Meanwhile I am trying to stay focused on a project at work, with the pressure over the last couple of days mounting. I am covering for my boss while she is away too and don’t want to stuff it up. I have analysis to finish and powerpoint slides to prepare for an important meeting and want to get into the office early.

But hell, the time-difference to Australia is difficult with these kinds of things.  The mental disparity is jarring. And twenty-plus troublesome emails at 5am is too much. I really have to jog; jog fast. 

The exercise helps. The Thames is lovely in the pre-dawn, though I nearly slip over a few times on the damp and dark pavements. By 6.15am I am home and showered. Then I chance upon a Facebook message I do not need to see. It pertains to an ex who I do not want to be thinking about. And despite best efforts it gets under my skin. In fact it makes me hopping mad. As he is doing exactly the opposite of a thing I’ve asked him to do. And he’s doing it publicly, either because he intends to cheese me off or because he doesn’t care.  

Negative energy is not the way I normally start the day, but I feel it sucking me in. Murphy’s Law, how these things happen when you’re already feeling sensitive.

In five minutes I swing from the desire to ring him up to tell him what a selfish bastard he is.... to never wanting to see, hear or speak his name again. Oh that’s right, I no longer have his number. I hid it in such a good hiding place I’ve forgotten where. That was a good move. So there’s only bloody Facebook. Don’t you just hate FB sometimes. So I throw my iPad back in a drawer where it’s stayed ever since.  At least I’ve had the sense not to load FB on my phone. That way I can ignore it for extended intervals without effort. I’m firmly of the belief that if people really want to communicate they phone, text, or email (and even those I don’t have on my mobile). So I now need to get that rubbish completely out of my mind. It’s a bad use of my energy and exactly why I’m not waiting around for him anymore.

After rapidly answering messages about my Aussie house issues, I get to the office later than planned and feeling as tired as if I’ve already done a day’s work. I get stuck into the list of things I need to accomplish before 13.30pm.  It’s tight but if I stay focused I should just manage it. Then all sorts of other things come at me – dozens and dozens of enquiries I can’t possibly process in the timeframe of the current project. Colleagues appear at my desk too, various things all urgent in their own way, but none of them directly related to the work I’ve been tasked to deliver that day or by the end of the week. And unlike the damn people who should be looking after my house – the worst being the Body Corporate who after months of lobbying still haven’t fixed a roof leak – if I say I’m going to do something I bloody well do it. Somehow I have to hold back these other requests for attention and stay focused on priorities. Still I feel the pressure mounting. I care about doing a good job. But I’m not coping as well as I usually do.

There’s a moment of relief when I pop downstairs to get some data from colleagues and they notice I’m flagging.  “Anyone would think you have a lot on”, they tease.  “Agh” I reply, “it’s all very well being Speedy Julie... but this week I’m trying to be Speedy Julie and Speedy Debbie and my brain is about to explode”.  (Speedy Debbie is the affectionate name I give one of my bosses, both of them called Debbie and both tremendous women, professionally and personally.)  The image of my head exploding like a manic episode from The Young Ones brings a smile to my face. If I can just get this latest data into the slides in time for the 13.30 meeting, I can ask for guidance about the stuff threatening to derail me.  

I do get the meeting slides together. Just. I grab my lunch and head into the meeting room with piles of print outs. Various managers assemble and my other lovely boss, Quiet Debbie, takes the lead. This gives me a chance to eat. Oh yes. That’s better. Sugar reaches my needy veins. Like a pot-plant starved of water inwardly I start to revive. By the time it’s my turn to talk to a few points, I can structure my thoughts. Then something lovely happens. 

I honestly tell the group, including the Programme Director, that I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by what's landed in my in-box and ask for guidance re how to juggle the unexpected with the week’s agreed deadlines. As I say it, I feel the urge to cry. Nothing bad is going on. I’m just tired (a bit PMT) and can’t absorb anymore. For a change I’m not being Super Woman and ploughing on regardless of the effort to output ratio, I am genuinely asking for help. And I get it. They let me immediately off the hook. Individually and collectively they each give me a strategy for responding and an excuse if anyone complains. They are sympathetic. And seem to genuinely appreciate the work I’m doing – which I didn’t know I wanted to hear, but find myself feeling happy about it. They make jokes too, about the chaos we are collectively swimming through, and the discussion takes a few enjoyable turns as people look for suitable metaphors. It’s a good meeting. We get through the agenda, sharing wisdom, jokes and fears. I feel privileged, especially as a contractor, to have been allowed to make a contribution; to be so welcomed by the core planning team.

Phew.  Back at my desk I breathe. I get back on track with core tasks. And I’m grateful to be surrounded by such a terrific bunch of people.            

The rest of the day is comparatively quiet.  I’m approaching the challenges again with the positive energy which is my default – providing I protect and nourish it.

At the end of the day there is only Quiet Debbie, the Programme Director and myself left in the office. Something has just landed on his desk which is disappointing and they are discussing the pros and cons and ways they might respond. Instantly I recognise how much pressure this lovely man is under all the time – and will be until he/we deliver this massive change programme. How he keeps his cool a lot of the time is as mysterious as it is admirable. The programme is so lucky to have his calm and approachable influence. When he looks over the desk and says “it’s been a bad day”, I feel for him.  It is a moment of quiet sharing, and not the kind of thing you usually hear from him.  “It really has been a tough day” he continues, “one difficult meeting after another since 5am”.  Wow, I am not the only one - an important reminder when we forget that others too might be struggling. Then he smiles at me and says “except your meeting Julie, you make me laugh. I enjoyed your meeting”.  And suddenly I am moved and joyful. Quiet Debbie smiles too.  “What a lovely thing to say” I reply, “well, you took the pressure off me today when I needed it and I am very grateful, thank you”.  Our lunch meeting had been a little oasis, a refresher, in more ways than one.     

By then I’m putting on make-up and perfume so they guess I have a date. Well, I’ve already told Quiet Debbie ‘cause I’m rather looking forward to it. “Have a good time” they call out as I skip down the steps. I arrive in the meeting place first and order a beer. It’s good to have a few minutes to process such a full and varied day, and to get ready for what I think (but can’t be sure yet) is a first date.  We’ve only met once, had a couple of beers together and exchanged a couple of emails. That was a few weeks ago on the other side of the world and he’s just flown in to London. So I’m open and curious as to what this ‘date’ might or might not be. But of course I’ve dressed in something better than regular work gear and feeling a small flutter of expectation. 

Suddenly he’s beside my table and greets me with a warm hug.  In two minutes we are deep in conversation.  Hours pass between drinks, dinner, more drinks, until we are sitting back in the first venue beside an open fire and talking about when we might next see each other. It seems our new acquaintance is of mutual interest.  It is now 1am and the evening has flown. As a first date it is definitely a success. Comfortable. Engaging. Great conversation. Shared interests. Just enough flirtation to keep it interesting. And a lot of fun.    
It’s one of those evenings where it doesn’t matter what it is. It doesn’t matter what’s next. There’s no need to worry about anything. It’s just really nice.

So when we walk to a place where we can both catch a taxi, the goodnight kisses are a bonus. Mmmm.  The Sweet Kiss. Perfectly pitched. Perfectly appropriate to follow the evening we’ve shared. Perfectly given and received. Perfectly sweet. With no downside.

As he puts me in the taxi with another stolen kiss he says “don’t write about me”. This makes us both laugh.  Ah, To Kiss Or Not To Kiss.  I told you I always err on the yes side of that question!

Wow, how a day can change.  Good night and sweet dreams J




p.s. If you’ve read my book To Kiss Or Not To Kiss and haven’t already left me a review on Amazon, please do. You’ll find Author Central pages in the US, Aust and the UK.  Cheers.