When your country is in the middle of a hard lockdown it’s sometimes hard to see what life could possibly be like on the other side. Will things ever be the same? What will our human interactions be like?
Here are some of things that have randomly popped into my head as I’ve carried out my day-to-day life trapped in four walls (not limited to just the shower, even if it’s now the highlight of my day).
Will Everyone be Terrible Drivers?
There were enough bad drivers on the road before lockdown, but now everyone has been cooped up for so long without regular driving/commuting, does this mean that the entire driving population will default to their newly qualified status? Will people forget the highway code or which side of the road to drive on?
Will Offices be Full of Zombies?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten dangerously comfortable with rolling out of bed and not having to be quite so concerned with hair and makeup. So when we are eventually asked to return to the office will the change of routine and earlier starts result in a workforce of smartly dressed zombies? Zombies downing coffee like there’s no tomorrow.
Should I Have Embraced Dabbing?
For those less aware, dabbing became a worldwide craze in the mid 2010s. It was a thing young people did to celebrate gaming success in their bedrooms, living rooms and (I think) other places? To be honest, I’m not sure of it’s history (I was having too much fun watching paint dry this afternoon to research it thoroughly), however it looks like this. If you were a unicorn.
I don’t think much more explanation is needed as to how this links to Coronavirus and the spread of viruses.
Should have got in on that gravy train back when it was cool. As opposed to now when it’s Government advice (aka ‘the man’ aka uncool).
Will Vampires Become Fashionable Again?
This sounds wacky, but traditionally economic recessions are often marked by a moodier feel to what we watch on big and small screens (think Daniel Craig in James Bond).
Like it or loathe it, the film series went on to become an icon of teen viewing during the time it dominated movie screens. The last film, Breaking Dawn Part 2, was released in 2012, at the point people were beginning to feel more positive about the economy (and waking up to better fiction). Coincidence? I think not!
If that’s not enough proof, BBC’s Dracula started airing on 1st January 2020 and here we are months later facing into economic turmoil.
So, if the economic and popular culture trends are to be believed, do I need to dig out my CD copy of My Chemical Romance and invest in garlic like this town?
Will we be a Nation of Alcoholics?
Short answer – yes. But there are sweet little pictures on the internet making fun at this so it can’t be all that bad…right?
Will Pets Become Intellectuals?
Now we’re around all day a number of family pets must be feeling very spoiled by attention right now. That’s more time watching how we act, more time listening to us talk and, most importantly, more time of my cat watching money advice like The Martin Lewis Money Show.
How Will I React to Other Humans?
It’s exciting enough returning after Christmas break and reconnecting with colleagues and friends I haven’t seen in about two weeks, so how the hell am I going to get through thirty minutes without bursting into emotional tears and wanting to hug everyone?
I’ll be like Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest when, having spent her whole life in her father’s company, she’s introduced to multiple new men also on the island.
Will I be Expected to do Thoughtful Gifting?
Two reasons I say this. Firstly, the world supply chain will be shaky, so the more quirky things things I might usually buy via China (or in shops…via China), well they might not be available to purchase anytime soon.
Secondly, I rely on human interactions to pick up on people’s interests which then feed into what I buy. You tell me how the stuff I’m meant to do that when I’m only catching up with you over the phone, once a month?
Look, all I’m saying is don’t get Judgy McJudgeFace with me when the best you get this Christmas is a bath bomb in one of my old socks, or a Bic “for her” pen.
Has “The Matrix” Run out of Money?
Our alien overlords were sat around a table.
The Director of Financial Records made an announcement to the board. “We’ve got the shareholders on our back,” they said. “We can’t afford the maintenance of the full-blown software this year. We also need to cut costs elsewhere.”
The software operators thought long and hard before responding. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We will create a killer illness meaning the humans are forced to stay in their homes. We can scrap the complex mountain/exotic beach software, because most will do as we (aka their governments) direct. It also will explain why a number of humans suddenly disappear from the Matrix, no one would question it.”
Truman Show Theory – Have we Become too Boring?
The Chair of Audience Engagement storms into the writing department at Human Watch HQ. She throws the proposed plot lines up in the air.
“Viewers are getting bored of Trump!” She yells. “Our target audience aren’t responding to religious wars like they were ten years ago. The weekly statistics are down and plummeting. Do something better and make it quickly implementable, something that’ll catch people off guard.”
The writers pulled out their previous storylines. “We haven’t used a global pandemic in a while; in fact it’s a centenary since the Spanish Flu affected the richer zones. We could build some great marketing around it.”
There you go, some initial concerns and/or anxieties I’ve introduced into your merry little worlds. Don’t worry, you’re very much welcome.
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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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Cally Beaton, TV Executive and stand up comedian extraordinaire, delivered a powerful presentation recently in my workspace. If that wasn’t an experience by itself, my colleague I and alo had the pleasure of catching up with Cally afterwards to record a podcast. We covered lots of important topics including imposter syndrome, mentoring dating woes and the difficulty of acquiring paracetamol without ID. First world problems, you know?
Unfortunately due to company restrictions I’m not allowed to share with you the audi (trust me, I tried). However, that said, it was an absolute pleasure to interview Cally and write up the subsequent article.
Stop Faffing About and Get on with it!
When Kirst and myself, Alice Bennett, joined this company we never thought we’d have a stand-up comedian instruct us to stop fearing change and become a disrupter. It was a bit forward given we’d only met this woman fifteen minutes prior, but we were prepared to go along with it.
Introducing Cally Beaton; board member, stand-up comedian and single super mum. Cally’s success hasn’t come over night and despite her colourful background, in recent years she’s taken time to strip herself back to her core and purposefully gravitate towards the things that scare her.
An interesting thought. I mean, many people wouldn’t dare venture outside their comfort zone and don’t get me started on imposter syndrome which, according to Cally, affects 97% of us. Could it be our wonderfully unique mindsets are being plagued with self-doubt to the point where we all act and do the same? According to this insightful speaker, they very much are.
Cally turned to comedy only five years ago after realising she had to make space for the things in her life that mattered. Laughing freely, Cally told us she’s never learnt as much from a good gig, as a bad one.
While she’ll be the first to admit it’s not been all smooth sailing, this is a woman who clearly holds no regrets about her life choices. It goes to show, it’s never too late to try something new; one small change today can make a massive difference tomorrow!
There were too many one-liners and stories to detail here but our key takeaway was the need to stay true to yourself and be a driver for change (aka a positive disrupter). The future will be different so, in the words of this charismatic communicator, buckle up!
Kirst and I caught up with Cally afterwards to record a podcast (which truth be told, felt more like a girl’s night in). In doing so we really got under the skin of what makes this vibrant and infectious woman tick (in her own words, ‘no questions are off the table!’).
With everything else going on at the moment, there are a lot of people also talking about mental health (and for good reason, like so many it’s a topic close to my heart).
The way I see mental health, it’s a lot like Mr Blobby’s house. Now, bear with me on this…
(By the way, if you don’t know who Mr Blobby is, he/it was my life in the 1990s and the single weirdest thing to happen to British TV, as demonstrated by Jack Whitehall.)
(My understanding is that to anyone who didn’t grow up with this character it’s the scariest thing you’ll ever come across.)
What’s Mr Blobby got to do with mental health?
The outer bubble
When it comes to how you look and act (especially on the internet), to most of the world you’re like an episode of Noel’s House Party, living this amazing life that people absolutely envy you for. Grand houses, upbeat music, laughing along the way; you’re living the dream!
The secondary bubble
Your friends and family meanwhile, they know you better than that. The flashy estate on TV, that doesn’t exist, that isn’t the real Crinkly Bottom. No, the real CB is somewhere in Somerset, remind me again Noel…?
Gotcha, near Chard.
Those close to you, they see you as being more like Mr Blobby’s house ‘Dunblobbin’. This unique and random construction that is completely random and, to be honest, a bit bizarre. But, they know you’re owning your take on weird and that’s why they love you so.
The inner bubble
But sometimes, it’s really not okay.
Really, things are like Dunblobbin after it was rediscovered in 2014, almost two decades after the park closed…
I.e. in your own head, things are a mess
And deep inside, you don’t even recognise the things you see and feel. And it’s not quirky or unique, it’s scary.
Guess what? Sometimes life is tough.
And I’m not saying that in a ‘they’ve run out of avocados at the supermarket’ kinda way, I mean it’s tough, as in a real challenge.
A short while ago I went through a rocky patch when event after event hit my life like a kick to the shins. While writing was great for getting out the anger (maybe one day I’ll publish the drafts), it wasn’t helping me get out of the rut.
The game changer came when one of my good friends sent me several texts:
Admittedly she’d had a little to drink at the time, but it actually made a massive difference in my mood.
I always harp on about lollipop moments, the idea of recognising someone for the things they don’t see, that I’d never thought about receiving it in return.
(Video for context.)
I realised that while I loved writing, sitting alone in my house and getting pent up over the things I couldn’t change would get me nowhere. So I started going out more, re-engaging with people I hadn’t seen in years. And God did I feel better for it.
There are still things I’d like to change and nothing is ever stable; like all humans I have my good and my bad days. But I just wanted to say that to anyone not feeling entirely themselves that it’s okay. Things can get better.
Never underestimate the power of friendship…and Mr Blobby.
Nb – for anyone interested, here is a great mini-documentary video charting the rise and fall of the Crinkley Bottom theme park.
Update: This post was originally drafted in January 2020, prior to the mass spread of Covid-19 across Europe. Author fully endorses staying safe and being considerate of others in the prevent of further spread. Be kind.
STOP BUYING ALL THE TOILET ROLL!
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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.