As part of the UK’s approach to tackling Coronavirus, a number of establishments have implemented methods as part of ‘track and trace’.
I get it, makes perfect sense. What I’m less supportive of is how a lot of venues are using as a way to get hold of personal details for marketing cr*p.
Do I really need to informed by your new banana loaf range? Oh, great, you’re offering 2.5% discount because it’s the CEO’s daughter’s 25th birthday BUT ONLY THIS WEEKEND! God, can we get GDPR in to fix this again?
So, in a mark of defiance, I am now now using an alternative email and name on any wifi login that demands my details to register. Just for clarity, if it’s strictly track and trace I am providing accurate information. However, you asking me to set up an account to order a cup of coffee from the counter literally three meters away? Nah, girl ain’t having that.
In those occasions this is what I’m registering myself as:
Yes, that’s right, my name is now Ms Boom Town (although where possible I choose to not identify as a specific gender). I was born on 1st January 1950 (because we all know that was the birth of Boom Town) and my email is a randomised mix of letters @GenericEmailProvider.com.
So there you have it, from henceforth I insist all my food and drink orders sent over public access wifi are made in the name of Boom Town.
You got a problem with that? STOP EMAILING ME YOUR SPAM THEN!! (Thanks.)
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A perhaps more sombre video (pretty blue compared to the stuff I normally produce, I admit), of the four days I recently spent in York. I wasn’t going to do anything, that was until I came back and Mumma B said, “when are we getting the picture presentation?”
So I quickly pulled this together, complete with backing music which I heard whilst watching the world go by in one of the nammed coffee shops below.
Big love to the city of York, big love to whoever controls the weather for giving me sun and zero rain and big love to ‘The North’ for giving me a warm welcome during my visit.
In response to the frequently asked question “hey, Alice, when do we get to read your book?” here is a list of genuine reasons why I haven’t and why I’m not sorry for it.
My manuscript (at time of writing) is c. 70,000 words and nearing 200 pages. That’s a lot, but I want to make it up to the 80,000 mark. My History dissertation back (in 2014) was 10,000 words and took a year of solid research and writing (with no distractions). Go figure.
I realised three weeks ago at least half of it needed rewriting.
I’ve spent about six weeks working on the opening extract (first 5000 words).
I have a full-time job which I have continued to do throughout pandemic.
Up until mid August, I had only take one day off of my allocated annual leave. One day, in all of 2020.
I have to do human things; shop for food, eat, sleep, poop etc.
Shoot me, I get writers’ block/creative fatigue.
Covid-19. Just Covid-19.
I commute frequently from family home to the actual home I pay a mortgage on. A 1.5 hour car journey will just about sap up any energy you got.
Some days I really can’t be bothered to write.
Some days I really write a load of rubbish.
Believe it or not, I do other creative exploits. All writers need the satisfaction of quick-win completion, which is why I’ve also been writing more short stories. I can’t post these on the blog, because then I’d be unable to make money from them at a later date and/or submit for competitions. A ‘short story’ for me is 2000 words. Nine pages (double-spaced).
Mumma B made a coffee and walnut (but not walnut because she only had almonds) cake the other week. It was lovely.
However, very quickly battle lines were drawn when my sister, also in lockdown with us, questioned the fairness of the portion sizes. See some people in the family tend to favour the little and often approach, others the massive slab at a time. Papa Bennett is also a fan of the unheard of fad of ‘breakfast cake’ (still waiting on the proof that coffee cake is a fair substitube to the morning drink).
India, being young and thereby somewhat left of centre, proposed that a system was drawn up and rapidly used the Spode cake cutter (#MiddleClassProblems) to mark out portions on the cake. Putting to one side how badly drawn and unequal these lines were, I was happy to go along with it.
“But how will we know who has eaten what?” Mumma B cried out loud. I just shrugged, Dragon’s Den was on TV and I love that show.
So while I was half-hearted watching a television rerun Mumma B was out planning how to resolve the biggest catering crisis since home bakers having to buy substitute flour during lockdown.
I walked into the kitchen to discover my dear mother had been at it again with the cocktail sticks and PostIt notes.
Oh yeah, AND it was done through the clingfilm, making it a Middleclass nightmare to even gain access to said cake!
Funny thing is, it didn’t even stop people. It’s like the time Papa B was eating a magnum ice cream and only afterwards saw the wrapper had been labelled with a large white sticker saying ALICE. I learnt a lot about our parent/daughter relationship that day…
Anyway, people still ate cake regardless of the little flags, BUT no one complained this time. Who knows, maybe this approach could be here to stay. The battle of cakegate could be the Bennett family’s new normal.
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Every morning I roll out of bed and stumble the 1.5 strides to the bathroom. I look in the mirror and study the damage; one new spot since yesterday, five new eyebrow hairs, a shade darker under the eyes. I toy with the idea of doing something to remedy this, but then sigh and do little more than splash water from the sink lined in dirt and limescale. If it’s a ‘treat day’ I might apply a thin layer of face cream but today, like most others, is nondescript so tepid water will suffice. Pasty skin ready, I grab one of my face coverings from the coat hanger, rubber gloves from the box and go out into the big, dangerous world to stand in a queue. “Just another day in paradise” plays solemnly through my headphones, a Phil Collins track which I long to change, but my unisex latex gloves are two sizes too big and even if I could, touching the screen would only defeat the point of preventing the spread of germs. I leave him be.
Here I am, starting another 24 hours in a string of days that end in the letter Y. Dull, predictable and dragging, welcome to the human face of lockdown.
If you haven’t already got the gist from recent posts, in March (2020) I made the choice to move fully back in with my family, days before the UK went into COVID-19 lockdown.
I own a house, a car and a job in the same location, but with the job reduced to working from home and my ability to travel limited to as far as the curb-side wheelie bin, it seemed more logical to return northwards.
At 27, the novelty of spending an extended period of time with my family felt like a throwback to the days when home was a refuge from exhausting summer jobs or algebra homework. But now the family home represents my safety and my imprisonment. I am denied my freedom and, some days, forgetting what it feels like to be a fully accountable adult at all. I’m turning into a woman-child.
Three weeks I thought this would last, three. But now we’re speedily heading towards twelve and to be quite honest, I fully expect it to last longer than that. I normally work out of an office populated by a large number of employees. I can only imagine what social distancing will look like if I am, ever, mandated to five days a week in that environment.
Can you imagine the first day of everyone being back? A three hour queue to get your pass reactivated, followed by at least two trying to fix some technical fault with laptops (always tends to be that way). Everyone will take an extended lunchbreak (by which point the only option will be a cheese sandwich) and then there’s just enough time to go around hugging as many people as possible before it’s home time. Michelle is given an out of date bottle of wine from the store cupboard for something she won twelve months ago and then it’s off to the car park for gridlock congestion.
That reminds me, I think I left behind a large stash of snack bars in my locker before I left town. Damn.
I’ve gotten slightly off topic, but then again, I always do. Can you really blame me, when one of the few excuses I get to spend time away from my family is to find one of the few quiet spots in the house and type on this blog? Mumma B is forever demanding new blog post, Papa B is forever blissfully unaware of them (but then sending a text to dad has a likelihood of receival on a same level of attaching a letter to a dove in a hurricane).
I haven’t dyed my hair since January. I guess originally I saw it as a form of resistance, the idea that I wouldn’t colour it until we were out of lockdown, but that idea faded as quickly as the shade of my roots. Resistance turned to indifference, colour fading with every wash, and now I’m reunited with a shade of brunette I haven’t seen in years. It could almost pass for stylish, a layered multi-tonal style.
Makeup? What are these expensive alien products of which you speak? I’ve almost forgotten how to apply what little I used to wear. Mascara is a challenge, the smudgy black fluid streaking up my eyelid and smearing across my fingers when I try and rub it off. I’m a toddler experimenting with these curious substances, playing about with pencils and powders that used to mean something to me. The woman I recognise in those summer holiday pictures, how can I look like her? How can I wear lipstick like she once did without turning into a clown? But then, what’s the point?
Now you can’t exit the house without having to cover up. Facial coverings and gloves have swept across the globe, marking the creation of a new religion with its own dress code. The irony, the racists and xenophobics who used to speak against religious coverings are now the same people yelling that face and hand covering should be made a legal requirement. Next they’ll be demanding the use of headscarves to prevent spread, whilst splashing and gargling in the sea. Society has been united (be it on a surface level) by new codes of conducts and coverings. We have no way to object to the world around us, voices blocked by sheets of fabric, we can only go along with the rule of government. By law or by fear, the faith of the fatigued marches on in varying gaps of social distance.
The highlight of my week is now the Saturday morning food shop and the lowlight is getting back from it. That feeling of exhaustion from exerting myself more than at any other point in the days leading up to it. The rub of the fabric mask, the feel of rubber residue that sticks to my fingers long after I’ve taken the gloves off. In the world I live in this is one of the few excuses I have to leave the house, my world is now so tightly tethered to that of my family. I have no friends to see, no places to visit, no errands to run that can’t be handled over the phone.
Fun is now reduced to comparing the length of supermarket queues week-on-week and counting the number of times we’re reminded to keep two meters apart over the tannoy. The buzz when tinned foods are taken off restrictions, the disappointment when when they’re reapplied the following week. Three tins of soup per customer, a luxury. And yet, the Saturday food shop is the one thing that reminds me time is passing at all. Time is reduced to the little-wins, twice daily teeth brushing, hair washes every other day, changing bedding every few weeks. The mundane activities that make milestones of hope; another week towards a vaccine, another week towards normality. And not just a new one, a true one.
The phrase ‘new normal’ has grated on me since first time it was used by politicians who know about as much on what ‘normal’ looks as Chairman Mao knew of peasant struggles during the 1960s famine. New normal implies that this is the first time normal has changed, but what about the invention of the internet? Or the Industrial Revolution? Or when we started hunting with metal spears instead of stone? In which case, what are we headed into? New Normal Version 9999998767.8?
Instead of new normal, I’ve adopted a different phrase, ‘My Normal’. The way I see it, you have to embrace and adapt to what works best and safe for you. In lieu of coffee shops I’ve taken pleasure in making my own coffee and enjoying the views I’m lucky to have. I miss the noise and hubbub of activity, but sometimes I think it’s easy to romanticise an experience. Countless times in life I’d find myself trawling from coffee shop to coffee shop to find space, only to find it too noisy to focus or hold a conversation.
I write a hell of a lot more now than I used to. Whether the quantity results in quality is yet to be seen but regardless it feels, well, good. But I’ve also dropped the stupid targets, I’ve moved away from expecting myself to have produced the next best-seller. I’ve realised that I get bored, I procrastinate, I live with three other adults who seek me out if I go three hours without doing a tea run. I’m human. One day I’ll spend an evening working solidly on a manuscript, another I’ll decide to do something unrelated to writing; I might watch rubbish TV or read my History Magazine. My lunchbreaks I might donate towards researching the publishing industry or even find myself so done with taking myself seriously that I turn to this blog to remember that deep down I am still the kooky person I’ve always have been. No lockdown is going to stop me being me.
Do I scrap with my family? Of course! Even when I was living here as a teenager and my parents were working jobs we didn’t see each other as much as we do now. There have been plenty of times I wanted to get away from it all and return to life where I had my independence and my freedom. But the benefits of being in a space where I feel safe and wanted outweigh having to ‘go it alone’. I am incredibly lucky to have the family I do, even if they do all drive me insane.
And here’s something potentially controversial; I’m actually more content now than I have been in years.
Gone is the pressure to look a certain way or to live in a certain location (e.g. London). I don’t feel the pressure to be in a relationship, in fact, as time has gone on and the faked perfection has slowly disappeared from the internet, I’m left wondering what it must be like those couples, the unstable relationships built on sand and Snapchat filters.
In just under three months my life has, once again, changed enormously. And there was I thinking living in London was the biggest shake-up to happen to me. Moving back into the family abode is shifting my perceptions and five-year goals more than any office manager or two-day Excel training course ever did.
Those lamenting that office work is as extinct as the dinosaurs need to get real and understand that people will always crave social interactions. There will always be a queue for my office car park and when the doors open I will be at the front of it.
Like everyone else I worry for the future economy, my job security and the health of those I care most about. But of all that I worry most about what we will become. More than once I have woken from a nightmare, to discover it was only a more warped version of the life I used to lead before. I fear that when this is all over and the generation moves on behind us, we will horrify or romanticise this event like it’s our version of Vietnam. The youth will never understand, will never appreciate what we went through, when in fact we were the ones who returned to 45-hour weeks, we were the ones who were so desperate to recoup physical loses that we forgot the gains we made on our front door.
But more than this, so much more, is the reassurance that this will not last forever. One day I will return to the town where I live and work. My mum will go back to cooking for two, not four, my sister will teach in schools and my dad will be able to work in customer’s homes without wearing a mask. None of us will be the same, but we will have future hope. One day we will all be reunited and will laugh; back when we thought this would all be over in less than three weeks.
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It’s a strange old world when the phrase “you must have been living under a rock” is more of a compliment than criticism. Because why would you choose to be kept informed on a minute-by-minute basis? Why would anyone take to pointing the blobby face in the BBC’s Coronavirus background just to get through the 10pm news? Why would anyone do that? They’ve to be pret-ty sad to do that.
Like many people around the world who has or is currently going through a version of a lockdown, there are a number of things I feel that I was no prepared for. Most are very typically British and being me, I’m going to take a very Alice-y approach to this. The community spirit, the crazy hoarding, those are commonplace knowledge in the UK. But what about the little things? The small changes to the day-to-day that I really was not prepared for and some I’m really not sure I’m okay with.
Lockdown: 10 Things No One Warned Me About
1. I look good in a mask
Never did I expect to scrub up nicely in a DIY mask. I don’t wear it very often, only the couple of times when I’ve gone out food shopping. But you know what? I kinda like it.
Solves the problem of make up and my fledging career in ventriloquism, as this accidentally taken video shows.
2. I’d be fighting pets for work space
I mean, sure, space can be tight when you’ve got multiple people working from home, and I get having any age of children about can add an additional layer of ‘fun’ to the mix. My cats however, no one seemed to teach them the importance of sharing.
Squeak in particular, she seems to view my presence are a mere inconvenience to her sleeping arrangements and trust me, this lady is not for turning!
3. I’d listen to more questionable radio
I’m not adverse to radio, in fact I listen to a good deal of the stuff when focusing on work or creative projects. But, listening to so much of the same hosts you naturally want to venture out and explore new things, did I however expect to be listening to Heart 90s? Did I ever expect to be researching The New Radicals on my lunch break? And did I still expect for Westlife to not be over their exes? Short answer, no.
Reminds me, I really need to buy more CDs. Also, did you know Cyndi Lauper did a remake of her hit Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1994? Well, you do now.
4. I’d drink more
Coffee, gin, prosecco – they’re all the same, right?
Still, for the first time in my life I’m actually drinking two litres of water a day.
5. People are more demanding
Sometimes it’s household chores, other times it’s life admin, but living with family I cannot get away with dodging tasks in the same way I could when I lived over an hour’s drive away. I feel like I’m six again.
On a similar level, I’m getting constantly asked when my book is getting completed, the expectation is apparently I’ll come out of lockdown with the next international bestseller ready to hit the selves.
I’ll spoil it for you now, it ain’t happening by September 2020.
And then there are some people who use their connections and position to request frequent updates on new blog posts (yes mum, I’m looking at you).
I have more time, but I do also have a job and endless cups of tea to make.
6. Downing Street briefings would become the highlight of my day
The daily updates, usually televised from 17:00 have been a key milestone I structure my day around. Stranger still, I now have favourite ministers who I get more excited by presenting than others. Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, not a big fan.
(Also, I can’t un-see Tom from Tots TV whenever I look at him. Don’t ask me why.)
However, Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, he’s a bit of a political dreamboat. I always look forward to his briefings, which is something because I barely knew the chap before this all kicked off.
At the age of 39 he’s basically 20 years old by political standards and doesn’t he know it? I mean, the man even poses for photos in his socks. Puts the full shirt and tie combo on, but no, leave off the shoes. What a tease!
All I’m saying is that the next series of Love Island needs to watch out.
This leads nicely onto my next point…
7. Having a legitimate excuse for my non-existent dating life
After years of trying to defend my singledom status to an irritating number of people (singletons, you’ll get it), it’s taken a pandemic to stop people asking.
I mean, the apps can give it large by encouraging people to facetime but if there’s one thing I really can’t be handling is the awkwardness of a) making an effort when really, what’s the point? Or b) having to talk through my choice of bedding with someone I’ve known all of five minutes or even c) terminating the ‘date’ because the 17:00 briefing is about to start and Rishi is chairing.
Instead, the phrase I’m not using is “I’m practising this new fashion called social distancing. Very a la mode, it’s all the rage on the continent!”
After all, it worked for the Netflix series Love Is Blind
For those less familiar with the car crash TV series on Netflix…
8. My family are insane
I love them dearly, but with all us temporarily living under one roof for an extended period, a length of time none of us have known for many years, well, the weirdness starts to surface eventually.
Case in point: Mumma Bennett has taken to drawing on a potato.
And I know what you’re thinking…
For better, or worse, Mr Potato is now part of our lives. Mum is very precious about it and gets upset if we says nasty things about it.
Again, we’re all living in the same house.
I’ve now come to embrace Mr Potato; he’s no couch, he’s my mate. He’s pretty sharp on boosting morale.
(But I have had to have words about his unexplained trips.)
9. I’d be using Christmas decorations in Summer
We’re now using seasonal charms on every glass/mug to identify who has been drinking out of what. The only slight difference now is that instead of it being “ho-ho! Wouldn’t want to accidentally drink your wine!” it’s more “DON’T YOU DARE CONTAINATE MY COFFEE, YOU MASSIVE GERM!!”
10. Dad’s legs
Apparently it’s now Summer. Missed that memo; the one which said the weather would be pants for weeks and weeks, but the second we go on lockdown it would improve. But, dad has his legs out so it must be the case. Can’t argue with that, (really, I can’t.)
To finish off, here’s one of the more respectable 90s songs I’ve heard on the radio (it’s a cover of an absolute classic but then, the 90s):
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(Thought I’d kick off – pun intended – with something a bit light-hearted)
With old Charlie Covid doing the rounds, I made the decision to move back into the family home until “this blows over”. I want to say “until this passes through”, but then that would liken Coronavirus to a digestive complaint you have after a dodgy kebab. Funny, in the strange old world we’re in I think a good deal of us would envy suffering with that as opposed to months of quarantine.
So this is where I am now; in the Cotswolds, with family. I brought with me a kilo of pasta, a 24-pack of loo roll and a massive stash of antibacterial wipes. It was the best cop-out of Mother’s Day – I’ve never seen my mum so happy to see a box of max. strength cold and flu relief.
(Papa Bennett was kept satisfied with the 25-pack of Quavers squeezed into the boot of my car.)
The current situation does mean however that I’m starved of a good deal of blog/comedy source material whilst everything is closed. For about a week I lapsed, finding myself viewing articles and videos with little meaning or sense.
From the despair of time wasted I’m never getting back, I thought I’d change things up from doom and gloom and pick out some of the positives of my current living arrangements.
Lockdown in the Cotswolds
My diet has vastly improved
People think I’m joking when I say most of the meals I eat contain three ingredients. I’m really not. Case in point, scrambled eggs: eggs (no milk), toast, butter. Cheese sandwich: cheese, bread, butter. I really could go on, but you get the idea.
Mumma B is amazing in the kitchen so I can only assume my body is going into shock right now with the quality of what I’m eating e.g. I’ve just recently rediscovered this wonderful foodstuff called ‘fruit’.
Alcohol on tap
It’s funny, my parent’s generation often see the sights of drunk brits on the street and moan that we’re the ones with a problem with alcohol.
I go for weeks on end in Swindon not touching a drop, but come back to the Cotswolds and am being frequently plied with the stuff. You’d think the water wasn’t safe to drink!
And as for what counts as a single measure around here…
I’ve got time to write
Just because I haven’t been blogging as frequently, it doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing at all. The time saved not commuting to work, not being able to get out or be tempted to frolic in fields…
…Having that time has been a great push to get me focusing on other writing ventures. Time well spent on researching the publishing industry; learning how to write covering letters, how to sell yourself and your work etc. When it comes to writing, the words on the page/screen are really only half the battle, the other half is convincing people to read them and back you. It’s also why you’ll find me frequently asking lovely people such as yourselves to follow my social media outlets and tell your friends about it.
I’ve also needed the extra time for editing. Not until recently, when I’ve been working on the manuscript for a book, did I quite realise how much crap I tend to produce in my first drafts. God, I’ve been rewriting so much rubbish copy! How do you guys put up with some of the things I must waffle on about? (Don’t answer that.)
More time with the cats
Anyone who has family pets will relate to this. The family cats, Bubble and Squeak, are two furry faces I spent all of my teenage years growing up with. We think they’re now about 15 years old, which makes perfect sense as they’ve taken to constantly yelling at us for food or sleeping.
That said, I love them very dearly and it’s good to be around them. Plus, Squeak and I have started watching TV together.
We’ve really bonded over the complex storylines.
I’m blessed with space
This one shot of my parent’s back garden:
Need I say more?
In short, things really could be a lot worse for me right now. Big claps and respect for everyone working in healthcare, police, frontline or other jobs that can’t be done from home. You are protecting and saving lives or supporting infrastructure, so thank you.
I’m working on a couple of other blog posts in parallel so stay tuned for new content coming soon. We may be under a lockdown but I’m not going to let that hinder me producing or sharing anything less than high-quality!
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It’s been a tough few weeks powering through illness but finally, dear God finally, I can see light at the end of the tunnel. My body is finally kicking out the nasty virus that’s had me confined to my bed for so long.
As I reenter the real world and crack on with life, it seems apt to now find myself reaching the conclusion of this tiny fragment of a life well-lived. Time to reflect and move on.
I awoke on the Tuesday wanting to get on and make the most of the day, but painfully aware of the hot breath of fleeting time breathing down my neck. The final day; when the clock becomes so familiar a sight that it could be better described as an uneasy relationship, a bitter partner always demanding attention.
Before considering anything else there was a more pressing need to address. With my four blueberry muffins now little more than a sprinkling of crumbs in a plastic packet, I needed to get myself a solid breakfast to set me right. From previous visits when my parents had travelled to see me, I knew that Café Rouge did a morning offering (and the one at St. Katharine Docks had a considerably better view, tempting as the Wetherspoons on the main road opposite the hotel was).
I packed the non-essentials in my bag, ready for a speedy get away when I returned and headed out into the bright Winter sun to that familiar place once more.
At Café Rouge I placed my order and happily sunk myself into a History magazine and people watching. I tried to guess where the passers by were heading, what type of jobs they had based on their attire. An easy and difficult game to play; those wearing long black coats, accompanied with pressed black trousers and leather shoes jutting out beneath, well, they were clearly heading off to jobs in The City. To meet clients or handle their valuable assets. Everyone else though, they were harder to work out; their determination and singleness would strongly imply they were going to work, but the clothes varied to such a degree it was possible they could have sat at the bottom or the very top of their respected payrolls.
I flicked through the magazine whilst picking at my fruit-topped pancakes, enjoying the contrast of life in the near empty restaurant and the pedestrian rat-race outside. How enjoyable it was to reconnect with History as a leisurely activity as opposed to spending hours locked in a library.
While I was sat there the odd person came in and out, spending the whole experience glued to their phones. Seldom did they even look up to take in the view. It didn’t surprise me, it certainly wasn’t the first time I’d felt strangely old and antiquated in my solo habits, but I almost felt sorry for them. They’d clearly come by themselves to this establishment for some reason, yet it was hard to see how staring at a mobile for half an hour could constitute as a particularly enjoyable, or memorable, an experience. It’s central London; you couldn’t walk fifty yards without hitting a coffee shop or take out, yet these people wanted to dine in.
Did they want to say they’d been there? Did they want to clear their heads? Or did they simply just want someone to cook for them? Unanswered questions; they departed before I could ever vocalise them.
The day was shaping up to be a beautiful one. The sun was bright, the sky a cool, clear blue and the weather unseasonably mild. Taking a stroll around some of the newest recruits to the yachting ranks, I undid a button on my red coat. It almost felt impossible to even consider this morning to fall under the gloomy banner of ‘British Winter’.
By the time I returned to the hotel and swept up the last of my belongings there was only five hours separating me and my inward journey back to Wiltshire. The hotel’s policy on baggage being a friendly one, I left my weighty case at reception and hacked off on foot in an Easterly direction with large handbag bulging with my fully charged laptop.
Time may have been limited, but for where I was headed it was plenty sufficient. I was returning to the zone two suburb that for over a year had been my home; I was returning to Wapping. Wandering around those old streets with its rich history and Overground line. You could almost say I was Wapping free…
A tenuous link, granted, but certainly catchier than…
…At any rate.
Wapping is, in my opinion, one of central London’s best kept secrets. As any map will clearly demonstrate, the little nub of a suburb is located only a stone’s throw from Tower Bridge to the West, and cradled below the trendy Shoreditch to the north. Via the Overground line you need only devote half an hour of your time and find yourself in any number of well-known spots around the capital.
To paraphrase a well known cinematic quote…
…Everything below the A1203 is Wapping. And that shadowy place? That’s Shadwell and I learnt very quickly that I must never go there…especially in Summer clothing on a hot day.
And yet, despite this, throughout my time during and after living in London, no one ever seemed to know the area. At a push telling people it sat below Shoreditch or Whitechapel, sometimes that jogged the die-hards, but otherwise it just became easier to tell people I lived in East London or by Tower Bridge.
Maybe because it lacks the buzzing night-life, maybe because it’s pumped full of millionaire residential flats and well-to-do families with privately educated children, but Wapping never drew the young professionals or the reputation other, similar, areas had gleamed. Whatever the reason for it’s amolimity, I was fine to accept my lowly status of ‘single professional’ in amongst the converted warehouse buildings.
The community watch reports were always printed on the highest quality paper with the most colourful of photographs. You’d find them stuck harshly next to the old lifts by some local who had access to the lockable noticeboard with brass-coloured pins that were starting to rust. Still, these seasonal reports were reassuring and amusing documents.
“No anti-social behaviour spotted on recent night walk with local police, other than a worrying rise in the number of discarded laughing gas canisters littered in alleyways. Will continue to monitor.”
I many regards it often felt like I was back living in the Cotswolds once more.
Due to youth and circumstance I could only afford accommodation on a single, long street of ugly council and ex-council tower blocks, a street that ran through the heart of Wapping like an artery vein and what I’m sure the wealth of the area would probably rename ‘the embarrassment of Wapping’ if they could. But, if it meant I could both walk to Threadneedle street for work and feel safe and removed from the reputation of other districts then that was fine with me. I’d take the shady looks as I crossed down between the overflowing rubbish dumpsters; we all had the same postcode, I just had it for a fraction of the price.
Below is a great mini-documentary of Wapping that’s nicely pitched somewhere between slow TV and attention-demanding:
After roaming these streets freely in the present climate, the daylight and general lack of other people making the experience all the more satisfying, both feet and shoulder were ready for a break from carrying their heavy loads.
I briefly popped by a place I used to work from a lot as a change of scene, a cafe/eatery that was owned by the local community but rented out to private enterprises, the Turk’s Head. As I stepped inside I was taken with how drastically the interior had changed, I could only assume it was due to a refresh or change of ownership. Gone were the plain white walls, the barrel-top tables, the scratchy chalkboards; now there were normal tables, and stylish green colour pallette. It was busier than I remembered it to be.
I decided quite quickly that this wasn’t the place to stop, but not before I tacked up a business card on the community noticeboard by the door, just as it had always been. I ducked out onto the street just as a member of staff caught my eye and started heading towards me.
Cinnamon Coffee Shop, named after the street it corners, it was the one place that I had been determined to visit on my trip above all else, even before I’d set foot on London soil. Even if I’d put my head through the door and been unable to find a seat, I still wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I hadn’t at least tried.
When I lived in Wapping, Cinnamon was local to the very letter. I could leave my flat on the fourth floor and less than five minutes later be sat on one of the curbside seats watching dog-walkers stroll by as I sipped a hot Americano. If I could compile everything I loved about Wapping (and most of London for that matter) it would be the phrase, “my local is an independent coffee shop”.
In my more navie days of London living I’d fantasized about visiting the joint early one Sunday morning with some imagninery guy I’d have been seeing, taking the bold step of introducing him to a closely guarded secret; the place that serves the best coffee.
Sadly or unsadly (the jury is still out on this one), this fictitious scenario never played out and, in the end, it would only ever be my younger sister that got taken on a ‘date’ to see Cinnamon. Entering the shop around eighteen months after the ever first visit, the feeling now was just the same as it had been then. Nothing had changed and neither had my feelings. I’d finally returned.
I handed my loyalty card to the barista; the little piece of card bent around the edges from having spent the best part of a year waiting to be redeemed. Once produced, I lifted the latte (cinnamon, of course) to my window seat where it joined my laptop and book.
Like any great and all-consuming love, I spent over two hours in the same spot, escaping my bubble only briefly on two occasions; one to ‘freshen up’, the other to order a panini at the counter that was less than a meter away.
Even thinking now to this part of my London trip, it seems strange to picture myself planning a day around a coffee shop, only for the time there to be spent mostly staring at a laptop screen. But I suppose in a sense that’s the very definition of happiness or an appreciation of something, when you take it completely for granted. And in my mind it still seems daft that I love this one little coffee shop so much, in the same way that I got a bit emotional when I went to attach my business card to the bottom of the noticeboard, only to find they still had the old one there.
The original had been placed there little over a week before I moved out of London. A different time, a different frame of mind. I once visited a different coffee shop in Wiltshire only to find a week later the owner had striped away everyone’s adverts, so the unusualness of my card’s presence in Cinnamon after all this time, well, it only reaffirmed my respect.
Cinnamon had seen me through the good and bad times of London living, my unchanging urban rock.
I glanced at my watch and realised that time was nipping at my ankles. I tidied up my belongings and found myself, somewhat painfully, having to walk double-time to make my way through Wapping and back to the hotel where my suitcase was being stored.
From the hotel I made my way to Tower Hill underground to catch a Circle Line train back to Paddington train station. To get cheaper tickets I had booked a very specific train, the 16:04. God help me if I missed that and had to face up coughing up for a same day, weekday rush hour train!
(Oh, and I am very much aware of the parody by Amateur Transplants – but let’s not. This a family show after all. I’ll stick with a song about nuclear Armageddon, thanks.)
No trip to London would be complete without a bit of drama, even if it shouldn’t have surprised me. Major delays. Major delays across the entire Circle Line. If that wasn’t enough, it seemed my usually reliable mobile application Mapper was bailing on me too. On one platform it clearly stated trains from that side were going Westward to Paddington, yet Mapper was adamant that I should board trains on the opposite side of the station. Cue the most manic fifteen minutes of my life as, with suitcase and heavy bag of cactus plants in tow, I went back and forth multiple times while I tried to work out which platform to board from. Because of the delays I only missed one train in that time, although I later questioned if I’d followed my gut and the large signs, I’d have got to my destination a lot quicker and less flustered.
Little time to take in the sights of my old friend, no sooner had I arrived at Paddington than I found myself jumping straight into the open arms of the Great Western train that would shortly carry me home.
My ticket specified a particular seat I was assigned to, yet given the length of the train the logistics of even getting to the coach with my luggage would prove a challenge. Let alone potentially dealing with the awkward conversation if I found someone sat in it already.
Instead I played the risky game I was all too familiar with; sitting in another person’s reserved seat in the hope they didn’t show up. I’d like to say I spent my last ten minutes in London musing on my time spent and idly watching life go by in the busy station, however it became a strangely nerve-racking experience. My phone’s battery power must have taken a hit from the constant time, nay second, checking. Each shuffling person in the gangway a reason to tense up and avert my gaze. Thankfully the seat was never reclaimed; I felt my body relax as the tubular bulk of machinery started to pull away.
The last time I’d left London on a similar train I’d been crying, which seems completely daft given London is only an hour away, but completely sensical given (up until the age of 14) I used to religiously cry at the end of every holiday. At the risk of sounding very middle class, I often wonder if my parents bought the holiday cottage in Devon just to shut me up.
13 months in London was always going to compare differently to a week holiday in Norfolk or a two week vacation to Florida. It had started off as a tick box exercise, a short fling to make my CV look better, but it had turned into something so much more substantial than that. Lustful, if not a bit abusive, at times, but an all-consuming affair nonetheless. A chapter was closing, the future was blurry and the things I loved most (the museums, the experiences, the local coffee shop), their accessibility was slipping through my fingers before my very eyes. Can anyone blame a girl for getting emotional?
Looking back on it now, I can fully understand why I’d been so caught in culture shock on moving back to Swindon the year before. All the young professionals, the culture, the high-flying men tripping over themselves to get to know me. And Swindon…just Swindon. That feeling of deep loneliness.
Over time I got over this. Writing was my saviour (as always). The time I used to spend visiting art galleries or on dates or lying in bed sick with frequent migraines, I started to invest that time into doing what I loved most. I told myself that it was okay to not be constantly booked up, that sometimes I needed to offer myself the luxury of a night off.
‘As long as I remember,’ I thought, glancing down at the cactus in my bag as the train gently hummed.
Our speed was increasing rapidly; another sign that we were escaping the clutches of the capital. It was around the time we hit Slough that I thought about a clip from the hit British TV show The Office…
And reading my humble book I smiled to myself, the idea that London could be a bit of a David Brent character when it wanted to be; full of itself and now irritated. Despite four days of passion I was still going scurry back to that poxy little town in the middle of nowhere, back to Swindon.
I looked up from my book and out across the green hills that distinguished the world outside the M25 motorway, musing on many different things. The sun was shining, its setting rays feeling warm against my skin. I closed my eyes and thought deeply of all the things I’m lucky to have in my life. Health, family, a home, a job. And in there somewhere, deep within the list, the ability to visit London whenever I wished. That I’d had the chance to live it fully and now had the luxury of keeping the city on a tight leash. London could have me, but going forward it would be on my terms and my terms alone.
A song sprung to mind and then, as if from nowhere, I heard myself aloud as I started whispering the lyrics against the cold, cold glass.
‘So-called Mr. rock and roll, is dancing on his own again.
Talking on his phone again, to someone who tells him that his balance is low.
Well things are really not going my way, are they? Just when I think I’m starting to shake this illness off, boom! Tonsillitis.
Given breathing state is a bit wheezy I’ll have to try and not get too ahead of myself when typing in hurried excitement. That’ll be the hardest part, just like when my teachers used to tell me off for smudging ink all over the page and up my hand. They never really did see the other side, that I couldn’t help it. That I was so keen to write everything down in my head, too impatient to let the ink to dry.
Bruise on the leg has near vanished too, so at least my body is still capable of some level of self healing.
It was that very same night as the Sofar Sounds gig that I experienced my minor calf injury. After the meal in Wapping I found myself casually wandering around St. Katharine Docks, a delightful patch of water and wealth next to Tower Bridge. Where rich people flaunt their yachts and people like me walk along raised walkways; enjoying the chance to look down at privilege. It’s also the location for one of my favourite views of London, where Tower Bridge appears from nowhere as a mighty giant of architecture.
At this time the light was lacking, so I decided I’d return another day to take the above photograph.
There had been a steady drizzle of rain throughout the afternoon, causing the paths and walkways to be more slippy than usual. While the Underground stations blared the same warning to passengers over and over again, on a near silent Sunday night in January the message was perhaps less ingrained in my head as I strolled around the Marina.
Eventually the expected happened, walking down a flight of concrete steps in my flat, sodden, pump shoes, my foot skidded on the slippery surface and I tumbled forward. Thankfully I was near to the bottom, my hands jutted out of my pockets just in time to break my fall down the two or three steps remaining of the flight. My calf however suffered their bite, the impact of these remaining ledges grazing their teeth along the bone, from foot to knee.
It was too dark for anyone to see, too quiet for anyone to notice, too quick for anyone to spot; within half a second of me falling flat in a heap I’d hopped back onto my feet and carried on my way. It was only later when I got back to the hotel I discovered the full impact of the fall was more substantial than I’d originally thought. Lesson learnt; I kept my hands of out my pockets and tread more carefully for the rest of the trip.
Monday morning, and now it felt like the time was all mine to play with. Done were the previously agreed engagements, the catch-ups and the pre-booked tickets, now I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted while the rest of the city got back to work.
From my bedroom window I watched the suited men and women in their designer shoes and trainers as they all scuttled in the same direction, towards the heart of the financial district. It drew me back to all those times before when I’d walked the very same path, head down, headphones plugged in.
In amongst the crowd I saw one individual less sure of themselves, less familiar with the route they were taking. They reminded me of myself all that time ago, those first few days where impatient workers would dodge and tut as I stopped frequently to check the direction of travel I was headed in.
Back in the present I knew my place, I would only head out after the walking rush-hour had ceased; after 09:00 when the world was a little calmer on foot.
I’d never been to the Museum of London which had always struck me as odd given it was one of the few tourist attractions I’d seen so frequently day-to-day working in The City. It’s imposing lettering on the side of a large brutalist wall that trailed around a roundabout and off towards the Barbican.
Deciding there is always a first time for everything, I skirted around a large school party waiting outside and dived into the building to get a head start on the exhibits.
The first thing that struck me was the music playing loudly across the speakers. The sound of punk music overflowing into exhibitions on prehistoric London seemed initially a strange pairing, until I realised that it formed part of a temporary exhibit on The Clash’s 1979 album London Calling. The album was playing on a loop to help draw people in. As I walked past staff members I wondered how many repeats of the title track would it take before they grew sick of such an iconic band.
The music stayed in my head long after I left the museum. I may have seen some wonderful artefacts and learnt a lot about London’s rich history, but it would be the feeling of seeing Paul Simonon’s broken guitar in real life that would come to brand the entire city-break. I’d never been an avid follower of the Punk movement, but the first time I understood it a little better. I was able to appreciate it for what it represented; the first act of civil disobedience, the first time youth made a strong impact. “No, we will not be silenced!”
From the Museum of London I skirted on down past St Paul’s cathedral, through the buzzing crowds of tourists and across the Millennium Footbridge to reach the banks of Southwark. In my sights I had my favourite branch of Caffe Nero; one located in Oxo Tower, but before I could reach it I caught myself on an installation placed outside the Tate Modern. A walk in cuboid-like structure, hung with column upon column of white paper cups (save a couple of black columns at the front).
‘We use 5,555 paper cups a minute in the UK,’ the sign read. ‘Oh which only 555 are recycled.’
I took a step back and, like a few of the passers by, were moved by how explicit the instillation was in showcasing the amount of waste in this country. However, what was equally striking was how the majority of people had responded to the stand-alone piece. All around people were scribbling messages onto the paper cups; some were deeply emotive on the destruction of the planet, others as two-dimensional as a statement that someone had been there, like lover’s hearts engraved on trees. Whether or not the artists has intended their work to be graffitied in this way, it seemed there was no stopping it, the piece had only been erected for a matter of days and yet was already covered in human sentiment.
A ballpoint pen burning in my handbag, I walked forwards and scouted out a suitable cup to make my mark. Not entirely sure what to write, I eventually scribbled down some words. I stepped back to admire my work, only to find myself cringing at the terrible handwriting and the surrealness of the wording. It was missing something.
I pulled out one of my business cards from my bad and, with the help of a few drawing pins and some blu tac, I attached the small square of card to the small paper cup. ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘That looks better.’
The final inscription read:
Alice E. Bennett, 27/01/20. Mermaids do exist and they can’t survive in our polluted oceans. Instead they are forced into moving to Swindon!
(After attaching the card I also added the words, ‘get curious’.)
I took a couple of photos before moving on. As I walked away I realised a few people had been stood watching me the whole time as I awkwardly attached my card to the cup. An international tourist was quick to swoop in to give it a read, though I felt quite certain they wouldn’t have the faintest idea what I was on about, I barely knew myself.
Whether I had intended it to look that way or not, I’d effectively sold out on an environmental protest.
I strategically placed one of my ‘duff’ business cards (ones which were printed with a spelling mistake) under the empty coffee cup as I walked out of Caffe Nero, the space somewhat busier than I expected for a Monday lunchtime. I retraced my steps and entered the Tate Modern just as the heaven’s opened and it started to pour with rain.
‘Better take my time, then!’ I thought to myself, making my way into the turbine hall to admire the dramatic water fountain, Fons Americanus, created by American artist Kara Walker.
I strolled around several of the art galleries, in truth I saw this as a mere fill-in experience for old time’s sake. It’s funny how spoilt you can become when you experience something everyday, in that very moment I only sought out a quick hit whereas for many this would be the highlight of their day or even their trip, to London.
A number of the galleries hadn’t changed since the times I’d been there and for me that felt bothersome, like the Tate was being lazy and people were being cheated out of an experience. But then a quick survey of the people visiting at that moment in time reminded me that for most they knew no different, they were just like me that very first time I’d entered the old factory. Just as fascinated, just as keen to photograph. I knew the issue lay more with me than anyone else; so I put my internal-tantrum to one side and took myself to a different part of the establishment.
I will spare you the War and Peace version of how I view art, but on this visitation I seemed to feel a stronger feeling of hate, divide but also a call from artists to remember we are all human. I suppose it’s not a surprise, artists always have had a reputation for expressing more liberal sentiments than other segments of society. But watching Igor Grubic’s video East Side Story where far-right extremists attack a Pride match with bloody consequences, it felt like the message was stronger now than it ever had been before.
(Warning: video below contains strong language, violence, and homophobic language.)
And then there was hope; that if we recognised the contributions of others we could be a part of something much greater than if we work in isolation. Nowhere else did I see this more strongly than in Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library, a room installation which makes the point of showing how fundamental other cultures, notably African, have played a role in shaping English literature.
A room of books, each covered in bold and heavily patterned fabric, all the colours of Heaven and Earth itself. Not in such a long time had I found myself at pains to stand behind the thin bit of wire that prevented me from reaching out to touch, to feel, the books before my eyes.
The rain still coming down in medium sized droplets, I hurried across Blackfiars bridge back onto the Northern bank and then, from there, Northwards to reach Trafalgar Square. When I’m set on an idea I can become really stubborn to it, even if it makes absolutely no logical sense to anyone else. In this instance I’d got my heart set on a visit to the National Gallery before it closed at 18:00. I left the Tate Modern at 15:00 which, factoring in travel time, would give me a safe two hours in the gallery before hitting the Tube to avoid the peak rush hour at 18:00.
Maybe in a bid to avoid the rain outside, the National Gallery was considerably busier than I had expected it to be; an old building full of hot, wet bodies.
I took a quick turn through the galleries, although I found myself stopping and starting multiple times as soon as I came by a suitable seat to perch on. I hadn’t quite factored in how much walking I’d done today, and in fact every other day, until this very moment. Of all the views within and looking out of the building, the best that day came simply from that of a window seat, where I could idly watch people ascend and descend a large staircase built in a recent extension.
Because I’m me, I did find a couple of humourous bites in some of the artworks; including this piece which reminded me of all the times my friends had placed bets on the length of my hangovers:
And this piece which looked like a screen grab from some type of low-budget documentary. Something along the lines of…”don’t tell me how to raise my kids”.
However, when all was said an done I found myself surprisingly keener to leave the gallery earlier than I had originally planned in my head. After about an hour of breezing through the classics, I left the National Gallery, breaking my route back only momentarily to stop off in a nearby Waterstones. I couldn’t resist plunging myself down to the basement level to enjoy one of my favourite sensory experiences; the smell of new books.
That night I returned once more to St. Katherine Docks to enjoy a meal at the restaurant chain Zizzi. The looks people gave me when I walked in by myself! You’d have thought I had a third arm growing out of my waist! Used to these looks of surprise, curiosity and mild judgement, I pulled out a reading book as the staff placed me on the last free table in the house. I settled down for a chilled Monday night with a glass of wine and good company (i.e. food).
As I sat there later, sipping on coffee and making it clear to everyone I was in no rush to leave, I pondered on the art works I’d seen throughout the day. From The Clash, to Shonibare, right through to the classical masterpieces in the National Gallery, they had all been individuals not afraid to make their mark and show off their talent to the world. They would never have considered themselves arrogant or forcing their talent on the world. They may have had rocky patches, but they’d always had a firm belief that the route they were taking was the right one, when The Clash coated brick walls with their posters they wouldn’t have worried about what people said or thought. So why did I still on occasion find myself blushing when friends rolled their eyes at me, ‘putting up another business card Alice? You’re such a sell-out!’
Just then a waiter came by, sensing his chance. I reached into my bag and pulled out a card, tapping it swiftly on the hand-held device to make the transaction and ensure the staff hassled me no more.
I opened up my phone case and pulled out one of my business cards from the inside. As I flicked the small piece of card around my finger, reading and rereading the contact details printed on it, I mused on the idea of all artists being sell-outs. That to be and be regarded and accepted as ‘something’ you have to be prepared to stand out; you have to be a peacock in a field of pheasants.
I lifted myself from my seat, applying my coat onto my back in a sweeping movement. I cried out to the remaining staff who responded with a polite smile.
‘Thank you! Have a good evening!’
And then, just as I picked up by bag from the floor, I placed a business card brazenly on the table before walking out into the darkness with a secret smile on my face.