I have been instructed this week to get off my high horse. By Pete, this is, obviously. Though not in a stroppy way. Simply because he’s noticed, these past weeks (past months, truth be known) that my recent modus operandi on waking every morning, has been to whistle a happy tune, yes, as is my personal genetic gift (the birds sing to greet the day, I simply sing to thank them), then to connect with the wider world and get in a complete huff-and-puff.

Doesn’t matter how – it could be television, radio, or the post-modern joy of social media – but there is always something going on that gets my goat.

(Apologies for over-extending the four-legged metaphor, by the way. If I wasn’t so fully in the get-off-my-high horse zone, I’d be inclined to bring sheep in as well.)

He’s right, of course. So much annoying stuff is going on in the world currently. Where do I start? And should I even try? Typing certain words these days almost guarantees annoying someone. So I won’t. If you read me regularly, you’ll already know them.

So to horses, and the getting off of them, particularly if they are high ones. Of which, luckily, I do have some experience.

I got on a very high horse once. In a bleak corner of Suffolk. (Nothing against Suffolk, mind, toward which county I bear absolutely no ill will.)

“Horse trekking!” someone trilled. And why ever not? What’s not to like about horses?

Well, nothing. Gentle animals. Black Beauty was a childhood favourite. And since we were on holiday – at Center Parcs, where such simple joys are relentlessly encouraged – there seemed no earthly reason why I should cast any aspersions on my (yup, name and shame) sister Sherrill’s notion.

They don’t actually keep the horses at Center Parcs. That would be foolish, not least because of the risk of them being mown down by bicycles, or being coerced into attending a ‘Lavender Relax’ class. So off we went, in the ‘transport ‘, to some stable in the middle of nowhere. (Where ‘middle of’ means ‘pretty much anywhere you might fetch up in Suffolk’ and ‘nowhere’, by and large, just means ‘everywhere’.) And the horses, by and large (where ‘large’ translates as ‘all of them’) were huddled disconsolately in the patch of dirt between their noisome stables.

I can gloss over the next part as it consisted of just the following – being hoicked onto a grey one, being briefly instructed in some ‘reins’ stuff, heading out in a clip-cloppy crocodile to a path round a field, walking excruciating slowly round another six or seven fields, spending several moments thinking ‘remind me again why we are doing this?’, having my hand spot-welded to some ‘reins’, by the bitter, bitter cold, putting on a brave face (where brave obviously means effecting an expression that said “no, not at all! I’m not bored!”), then returning, now as disconsolate as our steeds, back into the stable block. Slowly.

Upon which, to paraphrase no quality novelist who ever lived, all hell broke loose. This when my horse – the grey one of no discernable personality – decided, for whatever reason, to fight back. From its meaningless existence? From the pathetic, apologetic, guiltsome kicks I was administering? (Who ever wanted to kick a horse anyway? Not me.) From the existential angst that had plagued it since foaldom? From the tyranny of the Center Parcs-endorsed horse woman who had enslaved him? Who knows?

All I know – and will remember for the rest of my life– is that it broke into a trot. An actual trot. A trot that very soon coaxed itself into a full –on, rebellious canter, off out of the stable block, off out onto the lane, off out almost into the main road.

(Off out – had he been given the chance – onto the frigging M11.)

Which was, of course, thrumming with traffic. Which was where we’d still be now, for all I know, squished under a Transit, had the horse woman not intervened, with some swift, arcane command, which translates from the Equinianese as ‘oiiiiiiiiii!’.

Upon which he stopped. And, with the whip-smart intelligence for which I’m rightly famed, I pulled my feet out of my stirrups and promptly got (where got means ‘fell’) off my high horse.

Probably sensible, in hindsight, that I don’t get on another. What with Politics. State of the nation. State of the Hunt. State of the pound. State of the union. State of the States of bloody America.

Henceforth, I shall be getting high only on kittens.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine,

10th August 2016 

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“We have a secret in our culture, and it’s not that birth is painful. It’s that women are strong.” – Laura Stavoe Harm

 

You have to laugh, don’t you? At the ‘news’ about motherhood. That new mothers (old mothers, tired mothers, all mothers) are the main reason why the gender pay gap hasn’t yet shrunk enough. That motherhood confers not only new human life, but a 33% pay cut compared to men.

You have to laugh. This is news? This is new? This is inexplicable? How can it be, when you remember it oh, so well?

So there you are. 1987. Business Titan of Thatcher’s Britain. Enormous shoulder pads. Decent car. Going Places.

But the clock ticks. And one day the alarm starts ringing shrilly. You are in hospital. Clutching your husband. In a small amount of pain.

And then, suddenly (how come this part wasn’t explained, quite?) in a staggering amount of new and stunning pain. And then, somehow, to your astonishment, you are handed a brand new piece of you. And the pain disappears – poof! – and you are changed.

You remain astonished. Joyful. Tearful. Groping through a fog. “Work?” you think. “Work?” You are already toiling beyond memory. You are with baby. You are immersed. You are your whole family’s baby trailblazer! And you variously waft and trudge, blinking, through an unfamiliar landscape.

But two days in (three, perhaps – day and night have lost meaning) your business partner/fort holder phones you. Muttering “bank”, muttering “overdraft”, muttering “client”, muttering “help!”. And you struggle to process this evil crime against your very soul, and another clock ticks, insistently, and ‘proper’ work beckons once again.

You cry then, bitter tears, because no-one explained that either. That leaving your impossibly tiny 8 week old baby will prove so herculean a task. The sledgehammer of guilt as he wails his desolation, the painful squeak and tug of your newly-minted heartstrings. The sheer physical effort – like being  both a foot-soldier and general in your own personal war – as you dress your baby, oh-so sleepy, and gather baby-clothes, and nappies, and the special breast milk picnic, for ‘while you are away’, while a part of you screams ‘but you shouldn’t be!’.

Then commuting, by car, train and tube, to your office, and wondering how you are going to manage to do this every day without going insane.

Weeks later, you’re astonished to find you’re still sane. And the hated, fetid train is now your friend. The train gives you moments that you never thought you’d have again. To read, doze and study. To feel a bit more like the you that came before.

Yet you’re not. And the feeling is chargeable. It’s paid in guilt, when you get home and the childminder tells you that today – oh, so sweet! – he rolled over.

It goes on. The tooth coming. The shape fitted into the correct hole. The way he pointed. Said “doggie!”. The dark place, especially, when you come home to fetch him and he clings to her, sobbing, like a pale pink koala, and doesn’t want to come home. To you.

And so it goes, your new life, and you work it. Sponge the sick from your power suit before heading out. Mop the milk from it, later, when those heartstrings make you leaky. You in one place, your mind in another place, daily. But eventually you adjust. You make it work.

And the months pass, and the years pass, and you “man-up” to working motherhood – heck, mums do this everywhere, don’t they?

(And the odd father, sometimes, and they are cooed over warmly, a sweet curiosity in Girls’ World.)

But you live now on a knife-edge of necessary efficiency. A veneer of coping, as brittle and fragile as spun sugar. Which snaps in a heartbeat, when the system skips a beat. I don’t feel well. My tooth hurts. I need this for school. There’s nothing for packed lunches. A hamster dies. The dentist. The washing machine is broken. A friendship is shunned. A show’s on. A reading book is lost.

And you think – you can’t help it – that this is no way of living. The heartstrings, though stronger, still often twang and shiver. You rue the school holidays for their nightmare childcare logistics. You weep when you hear of trips enjoyed, outings had, memories made.

Without you. So much of it without you.

And you read about making choices. And how it’s mothers who mostly make them. To fit quarts of precious, precious time into pint pots. Is it any wonder you aren’t CEO of Glass Ceiling Smashers Ltd?

No. You are too busy being all things to everyone.

You’re a mother.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 27th August 2016

 

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So, a bit of a thing turned up in the Guardian last week. Under the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn does a decent thing thing on a train’ (or something) it showed a brief video of the opposition leader making the point that the train he was on was absolutely rammed and so, naturally, rather than come over all ‘I’m the leader of the opposition’, he shunned first class and made himself comfortable on the floor.

All hail that decent man who does decent stuff, was my obvious first thought. But then I thought a little more and a couple of other things occurred to me, neither quite so weighed down with love and awe.

The first being that, dammit, he’s giving a bad name to pretty much everyone who ‘lords it’ up in the big seats. Not saying he means to, but it’s clear from the comment threads (this shot round social media like an atom in the Hadron Collider) that this was serious high-five territory, as comment after comment praised his ‘stand’ as something wonderful, for sticking it so beautifully to The Man, the high falutin’, the over-paid and over-privileged, not forgetting the Tory Toffs at Westminster-On-Alien-Planet, who wouldn’t know a standard class ticket from an artichoke.

All very fabulous and principled. But hang on just a cotton-picking minute, St Jeremy. You might not be the originator of all class-related misapprehensions, but they certainly exist, and you sitting on the floor of a train carriage feeds into them. To shun a first class seat in your position is to suggest it’s at best an indulgence and, if you work in the public sector, and are paid from the public purse, it’s borderline immoral.

No, actually, lets scrub that ‘borderline’. Yet the one thing that defines the average first class commuter is that they tend to work, flat out, for the whole journey. Which is why their employers presumably consider it worth shelling out for the space, privacy and, yes, tea and entry-level biscuits.

I’ve seen all sorts in first class, from Ann Widdicombe to BBC grandees to captains of industry and baronesses and, trust me, it ain’t no crack den or pool party up there. Just the monotonous tap of weary finger on keyboard, with the odd fabulously thrilling (well, to my mind) conversation about the machinations of various executive committees, what the dastardly defence counsel might be up to, whether old Grouseby might be up for the chop soon, or where the £27 million pound grant should be going. (I’ve yet to hear the splish of a Tennant’s can being opened, but when I do, you can be sure I shall report it.)

So while I’m with Corbyn on his heartfelt ‘more and better trains’ thing (our railways are an embarrassment compared to those in Europe, and have been for decades) he should go and get a bloody first class seat, because he’s cluttering up the corridor and perpetuating the whole class myth/divide thing as well.

It was also – for heaven’s sake – the London rush hour. (Could he have timed his journey better? Of course not – this was a sound-bite.) And the London rush hour adheres to a principle we’re all familiar with – that supply and demand dictates that the ones that pay most get the worst customer experience, as he’d surely know if he tried taking his family to Center Parcs at half term.

Bad Commuting (there’s a film there) is something, moreover, that everyone in London’s done their share of, me included. I spent most of my teens and twenties doing Bad Commuting on buses, tubes and trains. And, yes, Jeremy, at this time, they WERE nationalized.

But there’s another reason I’m cringing about this whole sorry nonsense. It’s that image, which I cannot unsee. This is the Leader of the Labour Party, and whatever you think about his leadership, is this honestly how the Leader of the Opposition should BE? Crammed on the floor, suit all rumpled, peering up into the lens – it’s only marginally less wince-making that Neil Kinnock’s timeless pirouette-n-splat on that beach. And, bless him, at least poor Neil didn’t mean to.

Corbyn did. For the entire trip, if the Guardian is to be believed. Just to make a (pretty clunky) point.

But though he might have saved the taxpayer the upgrade on his fare (debatable, since he could have spent that time engaged in useful government work) for me, it’s at the cost of his dignity. We want our leaders to fight for us, always, but not BE us.

Statesmen, not men looking a state.

 

*… a train journey on the floor feels even longer. If it IS spent on the floor. Since writing this column last week, it’s emerged that Virgin trains – not to mention Sir Richard Branson aren’t taking Corbyn’s sit-down sitting down either.See why here…  

 

First published in the Western Mail Magazine August 20th 2016 

 

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Jasione Montana; The diminutive Sheep’s Bit Scabious

I’ve stumbled upon something that’s become a bit of a passion lately – identifying species of wildflower in the Gower, where regular readers will know I spend many a happy weekend. And last weekend, in my new role as unofficial floral ‘birder’, I found a tiny blue plant – apparently the miniature ‘sheep’s bit’ scabious – as well as the climber known as Old Man’s Beard. It was the scent that first attracted me to it – so evocative of my childhood – but it took a while to identify it (many thanks, facebook people) as the wild equivalent of our modern garden clematis.

And so, by extension, to Chris Packham. Also passionate, also wild. Is he now also threatened with losing his BBC tenure?

You might have missed news of the ongoing war between the Springwatch presenter and those with an interest in grouse shooting, including Sir Ian Botham. And though I’ve now read up widely, I’ll let you do likewise, and simply let you know that Packham’s role fronting one of my favourite BBC programmes could, theoretically, be ended.

This follows a comment he made last year in the BBC’s Wildlife magazine, in which he called the hunting and shooting lobby ‘the nasty brigade’, attracting both the attention and the ire of The Countryside Alliance, who, along with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, called for him to be sacked, and prompted a BBC enquiry.

Let’s be clear. I know at least one far–from-nasty sporting gun owner, but when it comes to the sport itself, I’m with Chris. No amount of justification – even from cricketing legends – will change my view that killing animals for sport (as championed by the Countryside Alliance) is unnecessary, anachronistic and cruel. And if doing so endangers wild species (in this case, our rarest bird of prey, the Hen Harrier) then unless such ecological rape can be 100% mitigated, it also becomes indefensible.

But that is not my point.

The call for Packham’s sacking – a PR own-goal, to my mind – is on the grounds that, as a BBC employee, he should be impartial.

But why on earth SHOULD he be impartial on such an important ecological issue? Why should any television presenter of his ilk?

The BBC obviously has a clear, constraining remit. A publicly funded broadcaster has to broadcast for the public, so, as a body, it cannot set its own agenda. Instead, it needs to represent its paymaster’s needs. And, of course, I respect and endorse that. Racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia – none should be given airtime, much less condoned. It’s also why I feel for them whenever elections (or indeed, brexits) come around, and the clarion cries of ‘bias!’ flood in.

But this is not that. This is programming. Filling slots in a schedule. One day baking, another music, another sport, another wildlife. And what do we want from our presenters of such programmes? Expertise. Experience. Enthusiasm. Passion. And, indeed, the BBC usually champions such attributes, particularly where issues dear to many of us are involved. Do they berate Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for lambasting food production practices? Censure Panorama for bringing to light all manner of foul play? (And, indeed, fowl play. Anyone recall their grim 2003 investigation, called The Chicken Run?) Do they tone down David Attenborough for pointing out the decimation of species due to centuries of human spread and ‘progress’?

And so to this. Conservation. Human dominance over other species. The sparking interface where uniquely human desires (aka fun and money) meet planet-saving imperatives.

It’s the place where many of our brightest and most passionate naturalists reside. Yes, it may be that Packham’s comment was considered  intemperate, but, since he’s toiling at that coalface, while many of us merely sympathise, I suspect he has good reason to speak as he does. And its worth mentioning again (I believe he’s already done so) that there is nothing controversial about speaking out against the wilful decimation of a non-human species for sport.

I could be quite wrong. I’m prepared to admit that. It may be that the BBC Charter has a bullet point in it that specifically forbids passion to spill into action, on pain of presenters’ P45s.

Or, to put it another way, that the job of the magic light box in the corner is to re-fashion the wild clematis, in all its rampant glory, into its much showier, more superficially pretty neighbour – nice to look at, but, ultimately scentless and disappointing. Well-behaved, but bland, without heart.

Oh, BBC, I sincerely hope not.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine 13th August 2016

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I saw an interesting quote on facebook the other day. A quote which seemed to perfectly capture the current uncompromising mood in the face of so much global human misery.

‘Policymakers,’ it went, ‘who deny basic scientific truths, should also be denied penicillin, horseless carriages and airtime on the magic box of shadows.’

It’s attributed to a Joss Whedon, a polymath in the film industry. A screenwriter, director, producer and composer, he also co-wrote Toy Story, which is an epic piece of storytelling, so I already know I’d like him.

And, at first glance, what he says connects too. You can’t have it both ways, after all. And since I assume he’s referring to those who would seek to bamboozle us with myths over fact – your average deranged jihadist, white supremacist, and/or creationist – there’s a lot of righteous sense in what he suggests.Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 12.01.41

Indeed, it reminds me of various wars raged via email back in my thirties, when ‘horrifying birth stories at the hands of evil medical overlords’ was a competitive sport. It ended, for me, when I was moved one day to point out that for every ‘they ripped it out of me with forceps when it was NOT in my birth plan’ there were thousands more pre-modern-medicine birthing stresses, such as ‘mostly dying’ and ‘the baby dying too’.

But to the point. On second glance (I do a lot more second glancing these days) I wonder if, in fact, that’s not the way.

Though it does sometimes seem so. We have a lot of terms for validating the idea of ‘come-uppance’, after all. With our friends in distress – be it a vile boss, cheating husband, or a slight from a supposed friend – the post-modern way is to invoke the concept of karma, which will see them rewarded for their sins by making their appearance in the next life as a headlouse.

I’ve always liked karma as a friend-soothing device. It’s kinder, more constructive, more emotionally positive, than suggesting the aggrieved arm up and go slash all their clothes.

Like Karma, the buck-passing device with a heart, there’s also the traditional robust go-to of ‘they shall reap as they sow’. You do right by the world and it’ll do right by you, but those who choose the opposite road will have their bums bitten.

And there’s a comfort in that, isn’t there? In the great ‘told you so’ again being dealt with by the future. You know the drill. Her former husband is a low-life, as everyone knows. But her children persist in loving him, even so. Even when he fails to turn up/breaks their heart by forgetting another birthday. They shall reap as they sow, once those children are grown. They’ll be seen through adult eyes and treated accordingly.

Then there’s the warrior’s chant of ‘live by the sword, die by the sword!!’. Dole out violence, expect the same in return.

I could go on. What goes around comes around. Eye for an eye. Do as you would be done by. Ultimately, they are the same. A belief in the rightness of consequences.

Which is a fine thing to teach a child, vis-a-vis their own actions; to let them take the rap for not doing their homework (rather than you doing it) is to have them learn to take responsibility for themselves.

But to champion the idea of meting it out to others – either directly, or by invoking destiny – that’s the bit I increasingly struggle with.

So, for all that Joss Whedon’s elegant words chime with my little-red-hen instinct, do I want to stand by and watch death by infection? Exclusion from the future? A voice denied free speech? No.

They should be given that rope. Not to hang themselves with, but to help THEM climb out of ignorance too.

 

In other news, I’m having a moment in the sunshine. I hesitate to crow, because I hate to appear immodest, but I share this for all theIMG_7830 talented authors in the world who believe their own day may never come. Tomorrow I am Numero Uno. You won’t see my name (I am the silent half of the author Julie Shaw) but our creation, Bad Blood, is going to be sitting pretty at the top of a certain Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list. Hurrah!

It’s been 21 years from my first published article to this point, and almost double that number of published books. So, if you can stomach it, another homily for the young and impatient. Hard graft can have consequences too.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine, July 30th 2016

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Since I’m writing this week from the glorious alps again, I had thought I’d immerse myself in nature. The natural world – winter fading, spring rapidly burgeoning – is, after all, very giving with its gifts. What were once winter trickles, often hidden beneath the snow pack, are now beginning to appear from beneath their white duvets and rush, gurgling, to join the swelling river. And all around, shocks of green join the growing brown expanses, fertile mud – be it still damp and claggy from its hibernation – from which summer’s rampant growth will soon begin.

Oh, but Glastonbury, dearest Glastonbury, how you’ve brought my mood down. Yes, it’s certainly true, since this is the world of humans, that other enervating ticketing systems are increasingly available – but this, hippest (or hippy-ist, or hipster-ish) of all events? So disappointing.

I refer, since I’m sure there will be many who are not aware of it, to the business, this week (last week, as you read this) of it being time to pay our festival-ticket balances. Yes, the reality following the excitement of paying last autumn’s deposit has finally arrived in tens of thousands of email inboxes.

And what a dispiriting process it all is. Ticket price – check. No problem with that. A slight frisson of irritation at the ubiquitous booking ‘fee’, obviously, as if being allowed to do so was some sort of privilege.

But there you go. Such is modern life, and few seem to question it. As with premium rate phone lines, and a seat on a plane, these anomalies in logic have simply slipped in. And as to parking, well why NOT charge £35 to allow your guests the privilege of parking in a field? (Which, by the way, is the only option for those not going via coaches, and in possession of many kilos of camping gear.) Hell, you have the land sitting there – why not make it pay?

And there again, why not sling in – or, more accurately, have your ticketing partner sling in – a handy-dandy £5.25 per ticket ‘optional’ insurance, and ‘strongly advise’ festival goers to pay for it? Because, naturally, should you suddenly not be able to make it, it’s clearly unreasonable to expect a refund. What are the chances, after all, of selling that ticket to someone else, given that the event is so routinely under-subscribed? And so what that you can insure a fortnight in Spain for just a couple of quid more? £5.25 is such a nice-looking number.

Hey, and why not refuse to accept credit card payments? After all, those nasty, capitalist-society credit cards are just SO non-festival-ethos, with all their grubbing around, making money out of not terribly much. But of course, they offer all sorts of handy user-benefits, like travel insurance, and cancellation insurance, which means – hmm – no £5.25 extra per ticket required.

But, as I say, hey-ho, that’s life. Even festivals, green and of-the-people as they are, have to move with the times. Which is why I presume (I’m nearly done griping here, I promise) there’s the final £7.75 ‘administration fee’ per booking – which pops up, like a marmot from a hole on Mont Blanc, and apparently covers the expense of producing and posting your precious tickets, and which (to my admittedly untutored mind) seems one heck of a lot of cash.

 

Of course, this is normal in the 21st century. This is the price we pay for going out, doing stuff, having fun. This is the remit of the modern-day profitable middle-men – the unseen human army whose business it is to charge to ‘administer’ our pleasure.

And it’s unfair of me to single out a single festival. In fact, almost every event putter-on-er works to roughly the same principles. This is what it costs and, later, this is what it REALLY costs, once the various fees and oh-so-vital insurances have been figured in, and we realise that the best things in life are often not free – not when there are easy co-lateral profits to be made (signing up for PPI, anyone?).

Though it does leave something of an acrid taste in my mouth as I tick the box to sign the Glastonbury Pledge and promise ‘not to pee’ in their field, because it brings me back to my beautiful, not-for-much-longer-alpine playground. To nature and nurture and to the whole idea of Glastonbury, which I still so fondly cling to, along with the fervent hope that the best bits of the festival WILL still be free.

No charge for mud, after all.

*The author would like it recorded that since going to Glastonbury she wouldn’t hear a word said against it, its children, its pets, its wider family and/or any of its – lovely – associates. And would very much like tickets for next year. AT ANY PRICE. 🙂

First Published in The Western Mail Weekend magazine April 2016

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I think I am all angered out. This is probably only temporary (there’s no ‘probably’ about it) but, for now, I’m back to instagramming kittens.

How has it been for you, seriously? I mean, everything. This tsunami of foundation-rocking stuff, collectively. From the first wave of pre-EU Referendum shilly-shallying, to the State of Emergency that has, as I write, just been announced in Turkey.

I could see it. Well, at least some of it, way back. Regular readers will already be aware of my pointless but impassioned plea not to even HAVE this referendum. Surely this was too big, too complex, too constitutionally life-changing to be decided with a simple yes or no? Surely no-one could possibly know enough about global economics to even begin to know where to put their cross?

I fretted big-time about that, I can tell you. Whatever the outcome, about the massive ramifications for our national cohesion. About the outpourings of lies and bile already spewing from the internet. And remember, this was back when I thought we remainers would ‘win’ – and how pyrrhic a victory it might be.

And what powerfully emotive words ‘win’ and ‘lose’ have become. Because this firestorm of argument was just a rehearsal. Turns out it would become even more bitter and divisive than I could have imagined, with the orchestrators of 48% of the voting population’s current misery either betraying, being betrayed, or waving ‘bye-bye, I’m getting my life back’, while their lies were exposed even before cock-crow.

Emotions, running high, both inside and out of Westminster, like the engine on a boy racer’s Fiesta. And down on the farm – I was at Glastonbury – that sense of complete unreality. That bleary-eyed, astonished, ‘what the **** just happened?’ mumblings. What was going to happen to us all now?

And, ‘remain’ or ‘leave’, once the initial incredulity had died down on both sides, we all duly fell into step with our so-called (transient) leaders – becoming grubby, sharp, mean, aggressive, rude.

It was as if the lunatics had taken over the asylum. Whichever way you voted, didn’t you think that? Protests – of course, protests – protests about the protests, previously mild people screaming at eachother from their respective virtual terraces, as if this really was something that lent itself to a primitive ‘you lost, we won!’ rhetoric, or – to provide balance – the similarly reductionist ‘you voted ‘leave’ because you didn’t think!’ response.

I have engaged, even if at all times politely. I’ve signed petitions, written to my MP, done my fair share of questioning our collective ‘wisdom’, fielded too many impassioned cries of ‘****ing grow up! Get over it!’, watched from the sidelines as wars have raged – bloody wars, taking no prisoners – down those same dark virtual alleyways I alluded to back in May.

I’ve heard and believed the warning that here be the seeds of civil war. The 52 versus the 48. The nearness of the numbers. The enormous, scary societal gulf now exposed.

Emotions, running high. Like the boilers in a racing warship. Feeling too much, about too much, a thousand times a day. Feeling the veneer of social cohesion to be worryingly fragile. Feeling the imminence – taking the lead from our imploding political parties – of naked hate. Of violence in the streets.

And into this, violence in the streets. Pre-referendum – remember those days? – it was Florida. Those exasperating, genocidal, bloody gun laws. Another swathe of young lives taken. RIP.

Then Istanbul Airport. Barely a ripple on the argument-filled post-Brexit virtual landscape, but a dagger through the hearts of another swathe of innocent humans. RIP.

And then Nice. Which left everyone stunned into virtual silence. Not in the sense that the communities stopped talking – but that, for a moment there, we were all just too stunned to know what TO say. Except RIP.

How was it for you? This too-close-to-the-bone show of terrorist ambition? How on earth do any of us process such carnage? How do you square the circle, and arrive upon some sort of helpful equilibrium between the part of you that rages, and the part that tells you (ad nauseum, it’s sometimes seemed lately) that only love can conquer hate? That to refuse to engage in hate is the only way to proceed?

Emotions running high, like an overflowing storm drain. And still, despite the sun, the storm clouds keep amassing. My MP says he’ll  meet me. I’m wondering if it’s wise. Or if, for the moment at least, I should pass, get some space. Instagram some kittens.

Quiet the anger. Don’t you feel that too?

First published in The Western Mail Saturday Magazine, July 23rd 2016

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“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.”

– Isaac Asimov

 

 

I did something terrifically avant garde the other day. I sat down with a piece of paper and wrote a letter. Yes, wrote it, with a pen, not a keyboard.

Some of you will find this declaration risible. People have been writing letters to each other for centuries, after all. But, for me, this development is – ahem – noteworthy.

In this case, it was in response to another hand-written letter. I’ve had a few of these in recent months, since the publication of my novel Able Seacat Simon, which, as some of you know, concerns a famous naval incident that happened almost sixty years ago. So as well as the usual tweets and emails, I also get letters, because many of the readers of a book set in the late 1940s grew up in an age when penning them was the norm.

And up to now (to my shame) I’ve been a tad slack in my responses, eschewing the traditional in favour of the modern typewritten missive, on the grounds that my writing is so creative, and so idiosyncratic, and…. Oh, alright, then. Such a scrawl.

Last week, however, finding myself on a long train journey, I decided to fill the time by catching up with correspondence and, without my laptop (left at home because of my irritatingly cronky shoulder), was compelled to go old-school.

And what a revelation the exercise turned out to be. First selecting the paper and matching envelope (I am a martyr to my stationery addiction), choosing the pen (no real choice there; I have a Silver pens in boxBic Crystal fetish) and then the biggie, as I watched the verdant pastures rolling by – selecting what to say and how best to say it.

Again, you might think this is all so much nonsense. I’m a ‘lady of letters’, albeit of narrative ones mostly, which means perfectly formed sentences ought to positively drip from my pen.

But, you know what? It’s not that simple. There is a definite rhythm to hand-writing anything, which is quite different from creating sentences on a screen – or, indeed, for any other form of ‘written’ communication.

When you handwrite, as an adult, there are standards. It’s imperative the words come out perfectly. If I make a mistake in something another person is going to cast their eye over, there’ll be no scrubbing it out and writing the correct word above it. I have to rip it up and start all over again. (Which is why I have such a huge box of unaccompanied greeting card envelopes.)

So ‘think before you speak’ is the order of the day. Think your thought, then spend time pondering how best to convey it – how it sounds in your head, how it flows on the page, how it relates to what’s gone before and is probably coming after. Only then, as with a chess piece, do you commit.

If you write letters often, this process probably happens subconsciously. But it’s a process, even so. And vital, because unlike most screen-based creative processes, there’s no handy cut and paste option.

And isn’t that what makes a hand-written letter such a thing of beauty? That it’s considered. That, assuming it’s not a rushed, ranting missive (which it would hardly ever be these days, because we have so many other tools for that purpose, don’t we?), it’s entirely what it was intended to be.

Which is precisely why it’s so singular and worthwhile. Because, oratory and CVs and suchlike aside, we mostly don’t give our personal thoughts such careful buffing and polishing before sending them out into the world, do we? We ‘fire off’ angry emails, we ‘bash out’ skeins of texts, we tweet (or, rather, dance to someone else’s tedious linguistic tune), and our face-to-face encounters are, by their very nature, often impulsive/reactive in the extreme.

A handwritten letter neatly avoids all those communication complications, which is why psychologists often suggest it as therapy. It reaches its recipient fully-formed, fit for purpose, and, at a time when the click-sharing of ‘facts’ is such a blunt and divisive global instrument, doesn’t lend itself to casual dissemination either.

A hand-written letter has integrity. It is timeless. It is precious. It is sensual. And better still, because it requires effort, it makes you smarter as well.

Better with words. Better at thinking. Fleeter of thought. More creative. And it’s definitely a corresponding workout for the wrist.

Best of all, though, is that receiving one such an unrivalled pleasure, don’t you think?

Answers on a sheet of pristine aqua vellum.

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We’re having a football-themed magazine, they said. We’d like you to write your column about football, they said.

A football column? Me? Don’t I get enough of that at home? And at a time when there is so much else requiring my attention. The ongoing soap opera that is the state of British politics. The ongoing stress that is the disaffection of our precious junior doctors. The ongoing destruction of our NHS.

But I’ll try to, because, if nothing else, I’m always keen to please. Plus it’s not like I don’t know a little bit about the beautiful game, is it? Though, as I’ve often been moved to comment down the long-suffering decades, what’s beautiful about it, I don’t know.

So, having established my credentials as someone amply equipped to say nothing of any note or expertise about football, I shall endeavour to deliver.

But what’s to say? It’s often mooted, disparagingly, that football is nothing more than a bunch of grown men kicking a ball around a patch of grass and that there is little in the way of fun in that. It’s not like there’s any particular point to it, is there? It’s also said (in some quarters – I’ll keep mum to protect the innocent) that a slavish devotion to a football team (yes, that’s you, men) is one of the key precursors to relationship disharmony. And don’t we know it? Women everywhere (well, bar that curious minority who would be watching football even if they were all alone in the house and Sewing Bee/Brian Cox/Downton Abbey was on the other channel) will know precisely what it’s like to get growled at for standing in front of a television set during a goal. (Like – durrrr – we could actually predict such a random event? Seems the teams can’t even do that half the time.) They will also know – this is a cert once you’ve reached a certain age, ladies – the extent of the opprobrium that can be heaped on a fellow human for arranging a wedding, a birthday party, or – heaven forbid – your anniversary, during a key footballing date.

But there’s nothing big and clever about coming over all big and clever. As a gender, we women like decorative cushions, after all. And if you do count a football fan in your circle of loved ones, you will understand that there is no point in even thinking about making changes. As with puppies, a fan’s for life, not just for Christmas.

Unless the fan is made of plastic, that is. This is a new one on me, learned just this very week, and refers, as you’d expect, to the fair-weather fan. To the lightweight. The one who wouldn’t dream of owning a season ticket, much less endure the privations of true football-fandom, such as twenty-seven hour coach journeys, lubricated only by blind faith and Doritos and lager, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous football fortune. The one – oh, the shameless affrontery of such people – who supports a team that’s based a LONG WAY AWAY. Manchester United, for example, when you live in Tunbridge Wells. Or Liverpool, from a small gite in Deauville. The one who pops up, like an opportunistic weed beside a motorway, when conditions look reliably set fair.

Such fans, I’ve observed lately, are currently in abundance. Appearing right, left and centre. Wearing red, clearing diaries, and rearranging their entire schedules, in their zeal to get involved in the action.

Involved in this, the Most Amazing Welsh Moment of Enormous Sporting Historical Significance and General Wonderfulness (or something) in which a modest team of men from a small unassuming country have just proven – so emphatically – that certain things we mostly doubt, given the events of the past fortnight, might still just be true.

That team work, and commitment, and kinship, and courtesy, and hard slog, and talent, and self-belief and respect, have the power to not only prevail and inspire, but to transform the mood of an entire society.

So if you are a true fan, and you’re niggled by all us Johnny-come-latelies (with our pub-clogging, name-muddling, tickets-to-the–capital’s-Fan-Zone-gobbling ways) consider this.

That to unite an entire country, to have strangers hugging one another in the street, to invoke a pride that is national, without being destructive or aggressive, to inspire patriotism in such a way that it’s our hearts, rather than our chests, that have been beating – now THAT’S something to be cherished.

Well done our Wales Team. You have made everyone so proud.

And you have made football beautiful after all.

 

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine, 9th July 2016

 

 

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Given the above title, You’re probably expecting me to talk about the referendum. Let’s face it, it’s pretty gloopy, and who isn’t?

But I’m not. Couldn’t begin to. If I started, I wouldn’t stop. And I’m not going to drone on about Glastonbury either. All that over-excited ‘I was THERE!’ stuff people yell, while you had to make do with watching it on the telly, despite the fact that your view from the sofa was probably considerably better than theirs, given that they were standing on a small hillock three quarters of a mile from the stage.

No, this week I’m going to talk to you about my new fitness regime – which is called Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud.antique mud

I’m an expert at Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud now, having started Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud at 6.30 am a week ago last Wednesday, and continuing to do so till roughly 3 am last Monday morning, apart from the odd mud-scented slumber.

That’s a great deal of Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud, by anyone’s standards. Indeed, a fellow TAIALOMer (I’ll have to work on the acronym for the DVD, obviously) has been on facebook to share his impressive Trudger stats, and in the four days he was Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud, like we were, he walked a cool 102 miles.

I don’t want to crow (I was that woman on the small hillock, after all), but since we were at that place that I’m not going to bore on about for FIVE days, I reckon we’ve topped even that.

Ah, I hear you say. But so what? Of what possible interest can your Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud be to me?

Well, I’ll tell you. Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud turns out to be one of the most life-changing experiences a person can have, particularly when done in tandem with a selection of enhancements, in the same way that you might use weights doing aerobics, say, or those giant elastic band things during yoga.

Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud while dragging a weighty trolley that contains an imperfectly balanced, poorly bungeed cache of everything you need in order to survive for five days, for instance. It burns fat. Engages glutes. Achieves thighs of burning steel! And if you do this as a warm up, in the rain, through a haze of astonishment and consternation, the benefits can be enormous. No matter that the road to nirvana is paved with exploded flagons of cider, disintegrated wine boxes, and the mire-splattered shards of a million broken promises – you are at finally at one with your inner-dream-catcher. Booooooyah!

Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud in the company of forty seven million other people all trying to go the other way is also particularly effective, bringing into play muscle groups you never even knew you had, let alone ever considered planning a workout regime for. And for extra effectiveness, try doing this while carrying a brimming cardboard cup of warm wine, while all about you are smoking the mood-enhancing substance of their choice.

People often underestimate the many benefits of Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud in order to get to a distant bank of long-drop toilets which already have a queue of thirty seven people. One of my personal favourites (ladies! Work that pelvic floor!), this singular form of Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud has much to commend it, not least (assuming you ARE wearing wellies – and, frankly, if you aren’t, you are probably still buried somewhere on Worthy Farm), that, if nature calls, you can just let your wee run down your leg, because the air already hums to such an extent that not a soul will even realise.

The best kind of Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud, however, is that which you do when it’s dark. Trudging Around In A Lot Of Mud in the pitch black is especially thrilling, adding a little extra frisson of excitement to the already clear and present danger of finding yourself unexpectedly sans boot. No, it’s obviously not for the fainthearted or feeble, but, trust me, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. And remember – a mud pack is one of the finest beauty treatments there is.

So there you have it. And yes, I know, it might not SOUND especially pleasing. And, yes, other ways to spend five days of precious time are available.

But would I do it again? In. A. Heartbeat.

First published in The Western Mail Weekend Magazine July 2nd 2016

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