“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” – L.P. Hartley
A year ago today, I returned from a London city break and published my first post. I’d spent a year living in the UK capital, so for me it marked a refresh of the best bits of city-living, including art galleries, theatre performances and catching up with old friends.
Days after my return I was left encumbered, battling a mystery illness. Those following weeks I pressed on the best I could, putting it down as another one of those viruses which circulate in densely populated environments. A year later I’m no closer knowing what struck me down; we all have our theories.
Back then, my friends and I had whimsically noted the high-adoption of face coverings being worn by the predominantly Asian tourist base. We mused on the foreign illness that was gripping other continents, but to comprehend the possibility that our own country could already be rife with disease was a step too far. We were better than that, we were British. Instead, we continued to pack ourselves into dense sweats to watch live music, feasted in noisy restaurants and embraced fondly.
If only we’d known.
So, with perhaps a naively romanticised view of what were truly the last days of normality (late January 2020), here are all four parts of London Recalling.
I was recently interviewed by as part of a industry-wide ‘Ones to Watch’ podcast. The resulting interviews were distributed across a large national network of Life Coaches and clients.
The series showcased and promoted creative talent but also encouraged high-performers to pursue development goals outside their 9-5 jobs. It was a great project to be part of and I’m now excited to be able to share the final output.
This week we’re meeting Finance professional and writer Alice E. Bennett (author of comedy blog My Housemate’s a Mermaid).
Having relocated to London for work, Alice provides a first-hand insight into the challenges of renting in the capital, getting onto the housing ladder and how a career in Financial Services is continually helping to shape her success as a creative writer.
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.
Okay, so my cold seems to have moved onwards and upwards…from my throat to my head. God I hate it when I’m constantly full of headache, I feel so useless! The bruising on my leg seems to not be quite so obvious now, although I knocked it against a table leg this evening and am very much reminded it’s still there.
While the painkillers are doing their job I best crack on with giving purpose to my life, before the throbbing returns and I’m back to lying in a dark room with music by Norah Jones being the only thing I can tolerate as comforting.
On parting Cherice at Angel station in Islington, I dashed across London with enough time to check into my hotel near Tower Bridge.
‘I’m going to put you on the quiet side of the hotel,’ the receptionist informed me with a smile.
‘Thank you, that’s very kind,’ I replied, although I felt quite sure it came just as much down to which standard rooms were still free at 18:00 as much as anything else.
I’d already booked tickets to see Matilda that evening, giving me a generous 45 minutes to get back, make a speedy tea and then head out again in time to get to the theatre and collect tickets before the 19:30 start.
I’d stopped by a branch of Doughnut Time earlier in the day and the oversized, over sweetened, Biscoff treat ended up being the perfect solution to my limited time to source an alternative meal. I polished off the item while in the background I stuck the TV onto the only semi-passable, non-committal program basic Freeview had to offer.
‘Why did I ever like this film?’ I pondered as I tried to negotiate the challenges of eating a messy foodstuff out of the cardboard box. ‘What year was this film? 1999? Wow, that would be why.’
No time to change, I emptied my handbag of unnecessary items, grabbed a bag of sweets for the road and headed out into the night.
Once I got to the theatre and found my seat I was pleasantly surprised by the view.
As I later remarked to a work colleague, one of the few benefits of attending on a Saturday night alongside a number of families – no issues with tall people in front!
I won’t bore or ruin the details of the production, but safe to say I could very much see why the show was exported from my beloved home town of Stratford Upon Avon several years before. It felt good to finally say I’d seen it for myself.
Fast approaching midnight; on returning to the hotel, my last scraps of energy were applied to putting on lounge wear and flopping into bed. Sleep came easier to me than swimming to a fish.
The next morning I pulled myself awake with relative ease. I grabbed my watch off the nightstand, 9:00. The downside of thick curtains; the room was just as dark now as it had been in the early hours of the morning.
I already knew where I wanted to go; the Columbia Road flower market in Hoxton only happens on a Sunday morning and I had fond memories of being in the middle of the hubbub of those who flock to the street to buy exotic plants from strange lands far beyond the Thames.
More familiar with the route I used to take from my old stomping ground, Wapping, from Tower Bridge the route was decidedly quicker when taken on foot compared to on Tube…well, in theory it was. Because by the time I’d gone down every side street, studying each passing map like a common tourist, I was the first to accept I was a little lost. But, at only 10:00 most of London had yet to fully wake up and I found myself quite happily riding the wave of confusion as I took in the sights of a slightly less chaotic Brick Lane in the heart of the old East.
When I finally arrived at the flower market (spurred on by the sight of people carrying large indoor palm trees), I joined the shuffling crowds. the smells and sounds taking me back to all the times before, the gruff masculine sellers showcasing colourful tulips just as amusing as always.
At the far end of the long street there was a pianist and tap dancer busking to a large collated group of watchers. They, competing against the tradespeople for attention, the tradespeople doing similar as the two parties fought for hard-earned money. It strangely added to the effect, the lady’s tapping feet on the damp tarmac a mesmerising beat to the cries of “two for five pound succulents!”
I purchased a couple of small cacti from a stand, not because I necessarily needed or wanted them in my life, but because they would look nice next to the one I already had in my home in Swindon. A subtle reminder of a moment whenever I made a cup of tea, a way to relieve a memory without anyone else knowing.
As I reached to pick up one of the items off a rack, another cactus pricked me in envy. With the bag tapping against my thigh, I made tracks to find the nearest shop to stock tubes of Savalon balm. Once this had been acquired and applied, I carried on to one of my favourite coffee haunts.
‘We don’t do blueberry muffins anymore,’ the barista says bluntly.
‘Oh, well, I guess it has been a year since I last visited. Things change.’ I point to a piece of banana bread to indicate my alternative selection. I hand over my loyalty card, the edges battered and stained from a year in the depths of my purse.
‘We don’t take those anymore, manager had a crack down on them a while ago.’
‘That’s shame,’ I say. While the barista makes my Americano I look down at the small piece of card. Four previous coffees, four stamps that had now amounted to nothing. Still, not like this fifth one would help much towards the free tenth coffee. I put it back in my purse, it still seemed too much to throw it away.
I set myself up in the window, one of the few people to chose this particular coffee shop as their location of choice on a mild Sunday morning. I carefully placed one of my purchased plants down on the table, rearranging it slightly just as the barista walked over from the counter with my coffee and cake. Not like either of us were in any rush.
About an hour into a session of typing, a swarm of people poured up from the downstairs cellar. Surrounded by a flurry of voices it was impossible not to learn the subject of interest; an artsy film that had been premiered below. Eventually they all vacated and it was service as usual; just me, a couple of bored employees and the words on my screen.
It took a change of a track on the venue’s carefully constructed playlist to realise how long I’d be stationary in the trend-setting shop. I took it as a sign and made my leave.
Back at the hotel I dodged past the remaining cleaner trolleys to return to my room, thankful of a slightly longer rest bite to unpack my case properly. I flipped open the lid on a four pack of multi-buy blueberry muffins (small supermarket I’d passed) and happily picked away at its spongy texture as I flicked through an outdated Friday issue the Evening Standard I’d grabbed outside Aldgate East.
In what felt like no time as all I was grabbing my red coat and heading out once more, this time powering towards a Sofar Sounds music gig, hosted in block of flats somewhere deep in Shoreditch. Part of the gig’s charm was the secrecy in location right up until the last minute
‘Hey, you!’ I cry out down the street, over the roar of local cars and music blaring from neighbouring flats.
‘Hey!’ My little friend says with a smile, lifting her hood up to expose her dark hair to the rain for the first time. She stares at the metal gate.
‘It’s definitely here, right?’
‘Says so,’ I push the gate open and we enter the complex. ‘Thing is, I have a strong sense of deja vu being here…’
‘You been to many of these things?’ Emily asks, having never attended one of these events before.
‘Sofar Sounds? Yeah, this must be my…’ My eyes shoot upwards as I calculate the number in my head. ‘This is my fourth. Two previously here, one in Swindon.’
I give my name to the lady on the door and she directs us into the block. I recognise the hallway immediately; we’re heading to the same flat I attended before with Cherice.
‘So, what’s the vibe like?’ My friend asks as the lift rattles up four floors.
‘Oh, very friendly. Everyone gets all cosy and watch three acts perform. Some of them are in commercial venues, like bars and galleries, other are like this; people offering up their own homes.’
We knock on the flat door and immediately it shoots open by, I assume, the host. I’d hoped that arriving twenty minutes early would secure us with a greater choice of floor space, however this theory was quickly dashed when the same lady directed us to a large mound of jumbled shoes before permitting us a step further.
We carefully picked our way over several groups before finding a spot to seat ourselves. I laid my coat on the floor and pulled out a bottle of water and snacks, seasoned to the ways of Sofar Sounds.
‘Would you ever offer up your place for this?’ Emily asks.
‘God no!’ I reply. ‘See what people are drinking?’
Emily quickly glossed over the room’s inhabitants, most clutching bottles of beer or small containers of wine. One lady was casually sharing out chicken nuggets between people she’d just met.
‘Now look at the floor,’ I add.
‘I think you’ve answered your original question.’
After a general introduction, three acts were each introduced to the ‘stage’; a tiny space at front cordoned off with a flimsy string of cheap LED lights.
The room was packed, busier and more overcrowded than the time before. In order to fit in an ever increasing number of ticket holders I found myself having to adopt ever more creative positions to fit my body into the Tetris-like gaps that sprung up and closed as others around me did similar.
Within the performance breaks Emily and I had chance to catch up. I’d spent two years living with her during our University days, going through both the good and rough times life as a student can bring.
I’d seen a kindred spirit in Emily when it came to work. For her dissertation I’d often get woken up in the early hours of the week as she headed to the labs to pull her research; whereas for mine it had resulted in weekends spent living and breathing historical archives to try and locate secretive family information. No one could have ever said we weren’t committed to a goal.
I suppose now, as we both sat in this top floor flat, what changed us was the way in which our studies shaped us. I applied elements of my History degree into jobs with no strong bearing on the subject matter, Emily meanwhile was on a conquest to utilise her education in its purest form. She was in the middle of working through a Masters Degree, whilst holding down a full-time job.
When she’d first told me about it almost two years ago I thought she was mad. Now, hearing her speak so highly on her passion for the subject matter, I could only admire her strength of will all the more.
After act one we stood up to stretch our legs, the guitarist tuning his instruments right before our noses.
‘That’s one to take home,’ I observe light-heartedly. ‘”Ma, he has two guitars!”‘
‘Are you on any dating apps?’ Emily enquires subtly, taking a swig of water from her bottle.
‘Back on Hinge. You remember, the one everyone raved about at improv. event?’
I hiss through my teeth. ‘The one with the photo?’
‘Oh, yeah, that one!’
I pop a couple of gummy sweets in my mouth, quickly chomping on them as I offer some more into the palm of my plus one.
‘Basically, and you’re going to love this, I went to a music gig in Swindon recently with a guy…’
‘A date?’ Emily quickly interjects, the story suddenly taking her interest. I lift my hand to stop her.
‘Don’t, I thought that too. Especially when he offered to pick me up and pay for my ticket.’
‘So what went wrong?’
I sighed, it never got any easier to tell the story. ‘He had a girlfriend.’
‘He said I should have known, that it was obvious he was texting her all night. Well, forgive me for being too distracted by the music and, you know, not being a creep?’ I munch down on another sweet whilst looking into the middle-distance.
‘Isn’t it just? But it’s kinda been the closest I’ve had to anything since God knows when and I’ve just reached a stage where I’ve been single for two years, only ever had one relationship…’
‘Was it though?’
I chuckle. ‘Lets not go there. It’ just…just…well, everyone seems to be settling down and it feels like I’m doing anything but. Guys don’t ever seem to be on my level. They all want to worship me or aren’t interested no matter what I do.’
‘Men! But still, what’s wrong with wanting to be worshipped?’
‘Not if it’s suffocating.’
I glanced over the large number of couples in the room and took in a deep breath. ‘I want to be considered an equal, to be with someone who has the same values as me but not afraid to challenge me on them just as much. Sometimes I think I ask too much.’
It was at this point we were encouraged to return to our seated positions for the next act.
About two songs into the guitarist’s set I found my mind drifting on the waves of the music. The man was amazing, make no mistake, but with all music that lacks the presence of vocal chords, my creative mind suddenly found the opening to run free.
I caught myself gazing at a couple sat up against the back wall. Hidden in partial darkness and at the furthest reaches of attention and music; the two were deep in whispered conversation, he with an arm around her shoulder and she clutching his spare hand in one of her own. The world around them were merely the backing dancers, extras in their sell-out performance. They couldn’t care less about the quality and type of music their entry ticket had funded.
Then my mind raced forwards to later; I pictured them leaving the flat laughing and running down the street, jovial in manner but a hidden urgency to get to the Tube.
She yanks him into the train carriage just as the doors close, his jacket narrowly missing entrapment. She holds him there, by the t-shirt collar, held in suspense while the carriage rattles and lurches in sudden, jerky, movements, the tracks screeching its siren call. Staring deep into her eyes, the urge in his body tightens; building and building until suddenly it’s too great a feeling to contain. It floods into her as he leans forward and sharply kisses her against the sliding door, just as the train pulls into the station. The woman pushes him back with a giggle, a slight nod to indicate that this is the stop to alight from.
And when they get to the flat, that little compact and scruffy space that could have been theirs for years or hers for weeks; when they finally tumble in, they interlock like time itself is as fleeting as sand in a glass. Her delicate fingers grapple and skilfully undo her partner’s perfectly styled hair with speed as she slowly steps backward to hit the light’s off switch with her oil-slicked palm.
The things that are enacted next, in that dark space warmed by both body and street light, they are the thoughts that cannot be written. How constraining and insufferable the English language can be at the times we need it most.
It’s impossible to say from this angle if the transaction is love, or little more than a sudden flare of lustful hope, but the conclusion reached is just the same. They lie there, on the collapsed mattress with passion-stained sheets, no words needing to be said to dare risk spoiling this brief moment of euphoria.
Her head rests on his body, a long tangle of jet black hair intertwining with that on his chest. Slowly, but surely, the pair drift off into a deep sleep; they have barely said a word to each other since leaving the event.
Someone suddenly moves in front of me and in a daze I quickly move one my limbs in the opposite direction. Bad decision, I feel something snap at the back of my left leg followed by sharp pain the full length of the limb. Biting my lip hard to prevent a yelp of pain, I look down and see that my leg must have been in an awkward position for sometime, it almost looks dislocated the angle is so unnatural.
Emily gives me a nudge, the performer has finished his set. I clap along, using the chance to curse under my breath and position myself to stretch my leg out. The pain subsides, even if for a short spell.
I glance up and see the couple on the back wall clapping along as well, although theirs seems more out politeness than in genuine recognition for the man’s talent. I slowly blink and return focus elsewhere.
‘When are you going to finish the book?’ Emily asks me.
For those with an interest in producing any form of art having a broad and open mindset is an essential part of our very make up. The ability to see something and pull out a deeper meaning or be inspired to create a new one. When I speak of the Creative’s Curse, I don’t mean to refer to some kind of incurable disease or superstition, more the occasional drawbacks of having a unique skill.
Seeing things you don’t always want to see, creating implausible story lines to fill a void you didn’t even know existed. The sole belief a perfect world lies just beyond one’s fingertips. Sometimes it’s impossible to predict the triggers, sometimes you don’t want to. The irony; my sweet heroin is the thing that keeps me sane. I cannot bear to imagine a world where my creativity, including the occasional bought of Creative’s Curse, was sucked from the very marrow in my bones.
I was sat in the local pub later that night, one I used to frequent regularly when I lived only a couple of streets away. With a hand resting across my lap; watching boats speed up and down the dark abyss of the Thames, I heard a woman muttering in the seat behind.
I’m sat up in bed, feeling incredibly rough with a head full of cold and a nose full of…stuff. Hot water bottle, chocolate bar wrappers scattered all around (not that I can taste anything) and badly wanting to curl up into a ball and sleep (prevented by a sharp pain in my throat – I might be coming down with tonsillitis again). Oh, and my left calf is covered in bruises, but at least not so swollen.
So how have I got to be in this state? And how come, in a strange turn of events, I don’t mind it quite so much as I would normally?
Part One – Straight Lesbians, Like Us
I rock up to Paddington early on Saturday morning. I am sans coffee and already reminding myself what it was like only a few months ago when dragging an over weighted cabin case was the norm.
‘Where are you?’ I text my friend, although the delivered but not received tick says it all. Still hacking across London on the Underground. When we eventually catch up it’s as if only a week has passed since we saw each other. Two long-time friends who, as luck would have it, met in Swindon in different industries but bonded strongly in London working for rival banks. We hop on the Bakerloo line and speed away towards China Town.
‘You know what you’re having?’ Cherice asks me over the top of the menu, a quirky place tucked away behind theatres staging Thriller and Les Miserables.
‘Not sure. Maybe the eggs?’
‘Oh, okay. Because I was thinking the full English…’
‘Thank God you were thinking that as well!’ I exclaim in a garble, just as the waiter comes by.
‘Know what you’re having?’
‘You go first.’ I say to Cherice.
‘Well, one of us has to go first.’
‘Fine,’ I put the menu down. ‘The full English, please.’
‘I’ll have the same,’ Cherice adds, handing the menu over. They’ve put us in the window seat, the best seat in the West-End restaurant, the table where they put the cute couples.
I watch group of tourists in protective face masks walk by. ‘Why is it every meal with you turns into a flirtatious date?’
Cherice laughs her signature laugh, causing everyone to stop for a second to study the source. One of the things I love about her. The waiter agrees with my judgement, rushing forward with my very much needed Americano.
‘You laugh has just brightened my day!’ He chirps, leaving Cherice to squirm under the attention. I roll my eyes.
‘Every time I take you out. Just like the time in Dalston,’ I sigh. ‘When the waitress thought we were on our anniversary. Remember? When you gave me the chocolates for my birthday and she said it was cute of you to treat me to Hotel Chocolat?’
We’ve often spoken at length about how life would be so much easier if we could date. Cherice, with her 100 egg diet and cross-fit, in the old days it was enough to convince me I was the more effeminate one in our pairing. Then London happened and I decided the only thing separating us in that regard was that I was the more decisive one, the one more likely to be more assertive, less caring what others thought. Now, as Cherice literally held my hand on every Tube change my thoughts were scattered again.
‘I know how to board the Tube, Cherice!’
‘You’d have left your case in the restaurant if it wasn’t for me! Do you even know where we are?’
‘You trust me that much? I could have taken you anywhere!’
‘Cherice, a stranger in bookshop could have promised to take me to the British Museum and I would have followed. You said we were going to the Wellcome Collection and here I am.’
I was at this point I directed Cherice to our mutual favourite series, You (FYI – I still can’t bring myself to watch season two, because…well…I am far too drawn to Joe and discovered my online life is far too relatable to Beck’s. Also, I get bad bookshop envy.)
We walked around the collection, idly laughing about the medicinal equipment (knew the GCSE would eventually come in use) and watched children playing around some of the kid-friendly exhibits.
‘Kids don’t have the space to roam like they used to,’ Cherice pointed to a diagram. ‘Me and my brother were allowed to wonder around massive areas growing up.’
‘Yes,’ she says flatly. Our extremes of surroundings growing up has always been a topic of immense bewilderment to the other.
‘I guess it was similar for me,’ I say, looking again at the satellite image. ‘Not the urban environment, but the space to be able to be me. I lived in the middle of nowhere, nothing but fields as far as the eye can see.’
‘Didn’t it ever drive you mad? Having nothing to do?’
‘Not at all!’ I counter. ‘Some people create imaginary friends, I created imaginary worlds to escape into.’
‘Ah, so that’s why you’re like you are?’
‘Maybe. Depends if it’s a good thing or not!’
We pop our heads into an exhibit on the power of water, splitting up briefly before Cherice returns to find me watching a surreal video of a McDonalds slowly flooding.
‘Water is bloody scary, man.’
‘Cherice, pigeons scare you and you’ve lived in London your whole life.’
‘Yeah, but it’s the destruction water can do. Why are you still watching it? It’s depressing.’
‘It’s strangely fascinating though, don’t you think? Slow TV, but with undertones of climate awareness. Makes you wonder, where are the humans? Where is the water coming from? It’s only depressing to you because of the conclusions your own head is reaching. See, it says right here that it was all set up, it’s not even a real restaurant. Wow, the effort that people put into art, eh?’
‘Suit yourself,’ Cherice shrugs as she says this. Like anyone who has ever visited an art gallery with me, you give me an inch…
‘…Then again I used to stare at pieces in the Tate Modern for ages until I was able to force myself into finding some deeper meaning,’ I ponder aloud. ‘Anyway, shall we go somewhere else?’
‘Sure,’ Cherice says gladly as we walk away together.
‘There is one thing though that bothers me about that video…’
‘Well, the description says the only audio is the sound of water. When did water sound like that?’
We next went to a couple of Riverside bars near King’s Cross.
‘There’s more to King’s Cross than the station?’ I exclaim.
‘How the hell did you survive here for a year?’
‘I live off £7.50 a week, maybe £9 at a push.’
‘How are you still alive?’
I ignored the question. ‘This mocktail is almost double my weekly food budget when I was living here full time. You really think I was hanging out at places like this? You think I ever travelled as far out as this for what is effectively a lemon juice?’
‘Besides, I always got the guys to take me to Shoreditch.’
‘Alice Elizabeth Bennett!’
‘What? One of them was a Programme Manager on Crossrail! Not like those guys ever seemed short of money…’
Cherice paid for our drinks, including the service charge, before we both scampered out.
‘Jesus, how much did you just pay on service charge?’ I scoffed. ‘You didn’t even like that drink! The waitress gave us evils the whole time!’
Cherice laughed. ‘I know, what am I like?’
‘No wonder you London lot are all skint, you keep paying for crappy service because you’re too embarrassed to say no.’
‘Remember the time in the Korean chicken place where I told the waitress I wasn’t paying the 12.5%?’
‘Yeah, I admired you so much.’
‘But I also couldn’t go back there again for a few months.’
I sighed. ‘Oh, look, book barge!’
Cherice could see me jumping from foot to foot, like a child desperate for the toilet. ‘Go on…’
‘I know you, you want to photo it for your blog.’
‘No I don’t…I just want it for…personal reasons. It’s a pretty boat.’
I was lying, but we both knew this.
‘Just take the photo and we can move on.’
We ambled over to another cocktail bar, one with an amazing 70s theme and a DJ playing retro tracks to match.
‘I want to be this bar when I grow up,’ I thought, looking around at the interior decorations.
Cherice meanwhile was having a moment with her Old Fashioned.
‘You okay, there?’ I smirked.
‘Question,’ I start. ‘Would you take a date here?’
‘Of course! The drinks are so good!’
‘Agreed, but doesn’t that make it a negative?’ I take a sip on my gin cocktail, the taste swarms around my mouth. I blow out a short stream of air. ‘Like that, right there. I’m having a better time with my drink right now then anything else.’
‘Yeah, but don’t you think it’s a bit of a distraction? Aren’t you meant to talk to people on dates?’
Cherice shrugged. ‘You tell me.’
‘I haven’t dated anyone since I left London in May, youtell me.’
‘The men haven’t changed, Alice! There’s still none!’ She thumped her glass on the table.
‘Woah! That alcohol is really going to your head, huh?’
‘…It is. I think I’m going to go freshen up.’
‘Okay b…’ I stop myself mid-word.
‘You can call me bae if you want.’
‘Really? We’ve reached that level of our relationship?’ I shout across the room in joy. Seeing the general reaction from other consumers I quickly turn around. Maybe I was a little tipsy too.
‘You okay there?’
‘Jesus Christ!’ I shout in surprise at the most retro looking server to have ever existed.
‘Sorry!’ I quickly add. ‘Didn’t see you.’
Ironic, given his orange floral top and beautifully styled beard, he was the most obvious man in the whole bar. He smiled, clearly finding the comment amusing as well.
‘Did you and your friend want anything else?’
‘I think we’re good, thanks.’
I quickly followed suit after Cherice returned, admiring the record covered walls in awe when the retro waiter appeared out of a cubicle.
‘Here,’ he held the door open for me. ‘This one is free.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ I duck under his arm and close the door. I stared at the back of the door and pondered some of the big questions for any woman to consider in her life.
‘Do I like beards now? I wonder what they feel like? Come to think about it, does this count as flirting in the modern age? Did 70s Henry Cavill just flirt with me? And why am I standing here when I need to pee?’
‘Sorry, there was good music playing in the toilet. Was too busy Shazaming the hell out of the space,’ I say as I grab my coat from the back of the seat.
‘Wow,’ my friend replies as she lifts herself from the padded seat.
I do a half-second rain check. ‘I’m both sorry to myself and our entire generation that my statement isn’t nearly what it would have meant ten years ago.’
After that we agreed that there was still time for another coffee, but Cherice couldn’t decide whether to take me to Paddington in West London or Angel in Islington.
‘I think I once got stood up by a guy who lived in Angel…’
‘Angel it is!’
We searched around for a coffee shop, most filling up quickly down the expensive boutique shop-lined streets. I paused outside a wedding dress shop.
‘What are you looking at?’ Cherice asked.
‘That’s an ugly dress,’ I observed. ‘It’s see-through all the way to her crotch! And the bit in the middle, see through again!’
‘Someone will buy it,’ Cherice commented. ‘Take it that’s not you?’
‘Jesus no! Weddings are so expensive. Why not use the money on something like a holiday or a house?’
‘…You already own a house.’
‘You know what I mean. It’s just like Valentine’s day with the overpriced roses that wilt. What’s wrong with other flowers anyway? Or just going out another night? Or even better, nothing at all. I’d rather have a toasted sandwich.’
‘Has anyone ever told you you’d be the perfect girlfriend?’
‘Hah! Bless you. No, I’m not perfect, I’m like bloody Sea Monkeys.’
‘Yeah, you have to keep feeding me or else I will float around. That or literally start burning rice and then end up contracting rickets. It’s not a great look.’
‘Wait, how do you even burn…’
‘I’d really rather not relive the trauma, Cherice. Now bear with me, I need to stick one of my business cards on this noticeboard.’
We eventually found somewhere with enough space to fit us in. Cherice had a tea, I was on yet more coffee. We hung out there for a bit longer, and chatted through my friend’s plans to move to Canada. I suppose for her, having grown up and worked in London nearly her entire life, moving to another continent is just a big a step as it was for me choosing to move to London all that time ago. Still didn’t make it any easier to accept though.
‘How long are you staying in Swindon?’ She asked, putting the focus of conversation once again back on me. I’d rather she didn’t, I much preferred her telling me all the amazing reasons why I should move to Canada myself.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, really, what’s keeping you there, in Swindon?’
‘There are no men, your family aren’t there, your friends…’
‘My friends are all over the world! Some can’t seem to keep still…’
Cherice chuckles. ‘My bad. But really, would you consider moving elsewhere?’
‘I do miss London…’
‘No!’ Cherice cries suddenly, almost knocking her soy milk over. ‘You romanticised this place, that’s your problem! Thinking London is just one big culture trip with nice dresses and fancy men in bars.’
‘Remember how miserable that flat made you? With the black mould? Do I need to make the same sounds as your flatmate?’
‘Please, God, no!’ I jump in, almost grabbing her arm. ‘The only way to make her and her boyfriend stop was to play Baby Shark against the wall on full blast FIVE…TIMES..A…NIGHT. Do you have any idea how much that screws a woman up?’
‘Exactly! No, you don’t want to come here. You’d be better off in Bristol.’
‘Didn’t expect you to say that.’
‘Well, aside from the lack of jobs, everyone is really snooty. I was on a night out there once when, outside a kebab shop, this guy started slating off Swindon. Not a gentle poking fun, but on his high horse level. Asking me why I hadn’t married my brother already or whether I could count to ten.’
‘Anyway, so you know me, when I’ve had a bit to drink I get super friendly or super verbal-sarcastic-aggressive. There was only so much I could take.’
‘Where is this going?’
‘Well, eventually I snapped and said “fine, you tell me all about your three-bed townhouse in the centre of Bath then!”‘
‘My friend had a mouthful of food and from the surprise at my sudden bluntness she covered this smartly dressed toff in half-chewed wrap, complete with halloumi and lettuce. It was beautiful.’
‘We then made a quick getaway. I got to the rank, hailed a taxi and yelled at my friend to get in the car. She followed me in, not realising that it was me until the last second. My own friend swooned with my dominance.’
I raised a hand in mock charm, although Cherice by this stage had become less engaged in the story, trying to pour out the last dregs of loose leaf tea into her cup.
‘…Sorry, what were we talking about?’ She asks.
‘You know what, I can’t remember.’ I paused for a second while my friend kindly paid for yet another round of drinks.
I had been living in Swindon a couple of months, having relocated in the Summer to begin my first job after graduating from Southampton University with a BA (hons) degree in History. I was living in a HMO (House of Multiple Occupancy) with four others; a hospitality worker, an engineer who only utilised the room on occasion when work required him to be in Swindon, a journalist for the local paper and a woman who worked in security. The lady in security also had a unique hobby, in her spare time she liked to dress up as a mermaid.
I was shopping that one night in the local supermarket when I stopped by the toilet roll isle to buy its namesake. I was debating which type and brand to purchase when an idea came to mind. Why don’t I start writing a blog?
The moment resembled something like this:
From that minute, through to the walk back to the house in the drizzle and dark with the heavy shopping the seed of an idea rapidly grew. By the time I’d made it to my bedroom I decided on a name. I’d title the blog after the opener I used when I wanted to make a quick impression on people.
My Housemate’s a Mermaid was set up that very night and I wrote my first ever blog post in eager haste.
I was still living in the same house and working the same job. Both came as a surprise, my original contract of employment had been a nine month maternity cover, so I fully expected to have been given the heave ho after that time and been working/living elsewhere. Not that I wanted to leave or that my old boss wanted me to go, I was such a hardworking and loved member of the team he’d go on to extend my contact length multiple times to keep me on, even when my colleague returned from leave.
The extensions played on my mind, it was flattering that I was wanted but not reassuring that someone along the chain wasn’t prepared to make me a permanent fixture in the team. My mind started wondering to where my future lay in this role…
Meanwhile, outside of work, desperation to meet people and loneliness in a house where people didn’t talk had forced me to try new things to get me out and about. In January I started attending evening classes in pottery at the local college. Although my skills with clay left a lot to be desired (I made more things explode than create)…
…it was a fun activity that got me out the house and chatting to people.
After discovering the society building platform ‘MeetUp’ and being frustrated at the lack of societies for young people in Swindon, in January my Dad offered me the cash to set up a MeetUp group in Swindon. The agreement was that if I made back the £30 I’d pay him back the money he’d stumped up. I accepted the offer but didn’t see how it could possibly come to much.
I founded Swindon 18-30 Professionals on 2nd February 2015, and asked new members to pay a £3 fee to cover the administration costs. Then I set up the first event and nervously waited at what was then a club called Baker Street to see who would turn up. I sat there by myself with a drink, adamant that no one was going to come, but then suddenly people started arriving and things went upwards from there.
By the summer the monthly ‘drinks night’ had been rebranded to ‘First Wednesday Drinks’ and were now starting to draw a sizeable crowd. I’d long since paid off my Dad, the fees for the next six months of operation and was in the middle of negotiating with Baker Street a sponsorship deal that would carry into the present day. I removed the new joiner fee, taking away the last barrier and making Swindon 18-30 truly accessible to all young people in the area.
In November I was in the middle of organising the group’s first Christmas meal at Pizza Express. I was chuffed when I persuaded the venue to offer up multiple bottles wine free of charge in support of the young professional network of Swindon.
As my visiting friend from London said “you’ve really achieved something in a short space of time, don’t shrug it off!” But I still couldn’t help myself, I downplayed the whole thing.
The year wasn’t without calamity though; in the Summer I sustained face, head and leg injuries when I tripped on a paving slab outside a pub (the Gluepot) whilst walking back from a lunch break. Holding a loaf of bread and food shopping, I failed to utilise my hands to break the fall meaning that my right knee and head took the brunt on the impact. I shambled back to the office completely unaware of how bad a state I was in and, when the 111 service finally stopped asking me if the injury was a result of heavy drinking, I was told to head over accident and emergency. A work colleague sat with me for over an hour waiting and checking I didn’t drop off from concussion. She was an absolute saint.
I came away from the medical centre covered in bandage tape and pumped with drugs but luckily escaped the whole ordeal with only a slight scar to my knee which remains to this day. A reminder that while looking forward is important, you’re only as successful as the last step you take.
Blogging kept me sane throughout the year, even if sometimes the content was anything but.
I was still living in the same house as the mermaid, but by now the gripes of living in an increasingly shabby property were starting to grate.
The tenants had moved on and I started becoming aware of how little sway I had in who I lived with. When an older gentleman viewing the property started making me feel uncomfortable, that was when I knew how little input I had in decision-making.
The housemate in the room next to me started seeing a girl who was particularly ‘vocal’ when she stayed over, which was when I realised how fed up I was of being single. From late Spring I started narrowing down my outlook from meeting new people to meeting potential romantic matches. The results were mixed but through it I learnt a lot about myself and Swindon’s dating scene.
I met my first long term partner at a speed dating event in the October of 2016 and things went from there. Naturally I put my foot in it by texting him at the same time as he was texting my friend (who’d he’d also matched with) and then went on a date with his ‘then’ best mate the night after ours, unaware of their connection! He found my horror-stricken face incredibly funny, he laughed it off said no more of the mess-up.
At the grand age of 23 he was my first boyfriend, the first man who had ever taken an interest in me, let alone buy me flowers or take me out for meals or look after me when I was sick. I was completely smitten.
He was smart, considerate and incredibly patient. He never once made me feel the need to rush our relationship.
In March I had moved roles within the same company to a permanent position in a different department. For the time being I was content, moving onto an identical salary didn’t fill me with the same level of keenness compared to when I moved to Swindon originally but a permanent job meant more security.
Throughout the Spring and into the Summer I flogged myself to death organising Swindon 18-30’s first Summer ball in the grounds of Lydiard Park, the town’s fancy country house. I learnt a lot about event planning and it served as good preparation for what would come if I ever got married; organising catering, DJ, venue, photographer etc. all single handed, it pretty much felt like I was planning my own reception!
The event was a massive success and was attended by 60 individuals, a real celebration of the young professional population from around Swindon and the local area.
It even got a feature in local press.
In Autumn I started writing for a local publication called the Swindonian to help build my writing portfolio and in November I took part in National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo), where bloggers around the world attempt to write a post a day. Writing a post a day whilst managing Swindon 18-30 and a fledgling relationship was very hard, but I was proud to say I achieved it.
I had not only moved out of the house with the mermaid but actually bought my own property one door down. The mermaid was no longer my housemate, she was my neighbour!
I carted out as much of the stuff from my bedroom as I could, the massive items of collated furniture sitting at my parent’s home in wait for the destined day.
In March 2017 I officially moved into my house with the help of a Luton van, my parents and my boyfriend. At 6″ 8 and a hobbyist in mixed martial arts, my boyfriend came in a great deal of use when it came to lifting heavy items of furniture up staircases. It was the first time my parents had met him and they were happy enough to have him about, even if it was noticed that we barely said a word to each other.
In hindsight I should have ended my relationship with my first boyfriend six months in, but to my dying day I will not judge the person I was then for holding out hope. Because when you have nothing to compare to how can you make a balanced choice? I’d watch the TV shows, listen to the songs, hear the colleague chit-chat, the theme was all the same. “Men are all useless, men will lie and cheat on you!” Well, my guy wasn’t any of that. He was kind, he cooked food for me, he loved spending time with me. So why wasn’t I happy? Why wasn’t I grateful? Why didn’t I love him? What was wrong with me?
This spiral got worse and worse. In August we went to Prague, during which time I snapped and ended up spending a good deal of time wondering around the city by myself. I went to a classical music concert one evening and cried my eyes out. Those next to me must have thought I was crying because of the music, in fact I was crying because I knew then my relationship was dead.
I swore to myself then that I would leave this man before Christmas. I returned the the UK colder and more distant than I’d ever been in my entire life. Time spent with him felt like a chore, it seems laughable now that we never kissed when we returned from Prague. He was not a bad man, but I was not a good woman for bottling up my emotions, I accept that.
We would stay together for another five months. Even when he forgot my birthday and shoved the bent card and a half price necklace through the letter box (receipt left in the damaged paper bag), when I sat on the stairs with my head in my hands in hollow disbelief. Despite that I stayed; a broken woman, a woman I didn’t recognise.
In September I started a new job for a organisation I’d never dreamt I’d be working for. I couldn’t believe my luck and made damn sure my managers knew I was grateful by the time I invested into learning the role. But every day I spent in my new job only made me feel more weighed down by someone who was on a completely different wave length to me. Was this the same man I’d fallen for? Was I the same woman?
Meanwhile, I started doing a few pieces of writing for The National Student. When the editor of the Swindonian found out he blocked me from publishing my work to his website, effectively kicking me off the team. Given the Swindonian was “Swindon’s third biggest news outlet” (editor’s words) I decided to cut my loses as opposed to grovelling for forgiveness. I was done with producing popular content for their site free of charge.
My family, my friends and my writing, they were the lights that kept me going. My boyfriend never read my blog so through MHAM I had a sense of independence.
I was living in London (Wapping, E1W), had been since May.
I’d broken up with my boyfriend in late January. It had been as awkward as you could imagine, he went from telling me I was the best thing he’d ever had, to begging me to change my mind, to informing me he’d go home to his whiskey and start dating women again that very night. I wasn’t phased, I returned home to find my lovely housemates having bought me wine and pizza only to be more surprised by my casualness over the whole affair.
The next day I went into work and felt nothing for the night before. When I told my manager she suggested I go home if I needed time, but I declined. This was a man I hadn’t kissed in months (and he hadn’t seemingly hadn’t had issue with!!) The relationship had died long before that night. I was able to carry on my life.
I moved to London as part of an internal transfer in May to do a eight month stint working from their Threadneedle Street office in The City. Due to work and rental challenges it would end up becoming a whole year. In that time I was blessed with a Swindon house that required little attention to support itself and Swindon 18-30 having, by now, a leadership team that could organise events while I wasn’t around to be as hands on.
London was a roller coaster to say the least. I loved how all the men around The City wore suits and dressed smart, I loved how romantic dates involved going to art exhibitions and theatre performances. I loved how I my morning walking commute took me past Tower Bridge every morning…
…or how I could hop on the tube and thirty minutes later be in a completely different part of the capital. It was a world away from the encounters I’d had in Wiltshire. Within my family (well, to my Mum), I’d created a name for myself when I made it to the dizzying heights of the BBC News at Ten.
The bars of Threadneedle Street are the only place in the world where a minority controls the majority. When it came to the financial heart of London I quickly clocked on that it was the women who held the real power over men, if they knew how to use it. I took on a certain style, a certain walk, I dyed my hair a different shade, I adopted things to make people see me differently, to stand out from everyone else. It’s a bullish world where to just be feminine isn’t enough, to be treated seriously you have to think like a man, ‘group think’ if you will. So I starting convincing myself I was the best bloody thing to walk into any room, I was a peacock on show and you were going to know it, whether you liked it or not. And you know what? It worked. I started to see myself in a completely different light, just as they did too.
‘Fox’ I branded myself, because that’s how I felt and that’s what I wanted others to feel too. I was young, single and could charm just about anyone into my line of thinking. Sometimes it was an act, but acting got you free drinks, acting got you connections, acting got you a name in writing circles.
A year in London and I learnt that where my power lay was in not being them. Bankers and investors do the same job, day in, day out. Highly paid but highly stressed roles with a high inflation of their self importance. Me on the other hand, I was just a woman with a blog. A comedy blog that was as far removed from their lives as could be imagined and yet somehow touching on relatable. They came to me like moths to a light, the draw of escapism too much to resist.
I was in a cafe in Wapping when I first heard Billy Preston’s song Nothing from Nothing. From that point on it became my anthem of London. You coming along with big ideas? Sure, but you gotta have a spring in your step and something to back it up. Ain’t nothing free in this town and ain’t no one gonna be taken for a ride.
It was also in London that I discovered one of my main weaknesses stemmed from coming across those rare individuals that took a disliking to me. The flatmate who engaged in incredibly noisy ‘activities’ multiple times a night and turned aggressive when I delicately brought it up in conversation. The same flatmate who consumed a lot of alcohol one night which was then projected all over the one toilet five of us shared. This person refused to clean it up, leaving the job for two of us to handle at 3am. She never apologised or showed remorse for her actions, that was the worst bit of all.
When my flatmates ignored the aggressive letters demanding unpaid council tax (a detail which was meant to be paid by the landlord), it was left to me to handle the bailiffs. Bailiffs are scary, especially when you’re silently hiding upstairs while they bang on the door. But the attitude of my flatmates that problems would be fixed by someone else or simply go away by themselves, it screamed a lack of maturity. I ended up sitting for hours in Citizen’s Advice and, when the letting agents ignored my calls, emailing the council myself with countless documents to prove we weren’t liable. The mould in my room, the frequent migraines that suddenly vanished when I wasn’t breathing in air pollution, I could list for hours the issues I merrily overlooked.
These were the unpleasant experiences of London that stick out in my mind, what you have to deal with living at the bottom end of the professional ladder. I got on (and still get on) well with most of my former flatmates on a personable level, but I wouldn’t rush back to a HMO any time soon as a result of my experiences.
London is a city of extremes, whether I spent the evening in a Leicester Square casino or writing in a pub where mice ran across the floor was complete chance. But it was an incredible experience all the same. Waking up to this view every morning reminded me how lucky I was to have such an opportunity, to sleep in the shadow of the Shard.
Ultimately I think this hijacked road works sign in West London sums up my time in the capital perfectly:
I was in Cambridge on my birthday when I heard The Trials of Cato, a three-piece folk group, busking in the city centre. These Are the Things is an anti-Brexit song although you wouldn’t necessarily think it on first listen. In contrast to the big smoke of central London I enjoyed spending time in the quainter spots of the South East I’d never before visited.
In November there was my first solo holiday. Bruges was an incredible city break for so many reasons and I fully intend to visit there again at least once, if not multiple times in my life. Aside from being a beautiful city, it made me realise how strong I was and how I didn’t need to force myself into a relationship to have amazing experiences.
One day during that holiday I was in a large church. I was about to leave when a local man came in and started playing the organ. I was completely stunned. I sat in the empty pews for at least 45 minutes just listening to the beautiful music being played for an audience of one. And then I started to cry, and when I realised I was crying I cried some more. Because in that moment I was so overcome with emotion, reflecting how far I’d come since the little girl who’d sobbed in Prague. I was in a new job, I was living in London, I was on holiday by myself. Above all else, I was happy.
Having donated a sizeable amount into the empty box, I left the church with a different pledge compared to that which I’d set myself a year before. I will never let anyone stop me being me.
By late October I was writing freelance pieces for the Swindon Advertiser and other places here and there, picking up fans from the most unlikely of articles. To name drop a few – the CEO of Royal Society of Arts, Matthew Taylor, Deputy Governor for the Bank of England, Nemat Shafik, and artist and TV personality Grayson Perry. While I was incredibly flattered by their letters and emails, I didn’t let it impact on my writing.
(YouTube search “Bruges Wish You Were Here?” To watch the video)
11th November 2019, where I am today…
The London grind carried as per 2018, I had my second wisdom tooth removed in January and in March I took again to travel, this time to Amsterdam. ‘Why?’ My friend asked. ‘Because I can.’ I replied.
I moved back to Swindon fully in May, full of the cultural confusion one would expect having undergone a year living in the capital. I felt more connected with the work I was paid to do, but it took me longer to reconnect with the local area. Gone were the fancy bars and influential people, nowhere to be seen were the towering buildings and the bold cultural mix that came with the crowds.
In central London being single was completely normal, but returning to Swindon I felt like an outsider in my own town. While I’d been experimenting with vegan cookery classes near King’s Cross and tackling marshmallow challenges in Waterloo pubs, many of my Swindon friends had shackled up or even got engaged. It felt weird, almost as weird as going back on the dating apps to find that I’d cleared through the search parameters in minutes. In London I never touched the sides! When I tried reaching out to guys a little bit further out, cities such as Bath and Bristol, I never got a response. When I told my friend that in London people would travel 45 minutes to for a date she said ‘but Alice, that was London,’ as if it were a valid excuse.
I needed the distraction from reality. In May that I had the best time when a friend invited me to spend a week in her villa in Granada. I’d never met the others she’d invited to join the party, but knowing her personality I put my faith in her judgement. It was trust well placed; I had an amazing time in Spain and made four great new friends out of the process, including photographer Tom who made me see that perhaps one of my biggest assets had been behind me all along.
I started a writing course in June to work on a novel and so far my tutor is loving it. While I started the course fully expecting to get critical feedback, I’m chuffed that the first draft is getting praise from well-established authors. Because of the nature of the course there’s a lot of two steps forward in draft, one step back to amend based on feedback but I’m working at great pace all the same.
26th June – enrolled on novel writing course (0 words)
1st October – 13,500 words
20th October – 28,000 words
11th November – 41,090 words
While there’s no hard and fast rule, general publishing consensus is that anything over 40,000 words could be published as an adult novel. While there’s still a long way to go, this isn’t the last you’ve heard of my novel. Keep watching this space!
In July I started volunteering with the local Samaritans branch and through it learning a deeper understanding around the challenges of mental health, as well as practical skills such as line management (being accountable for retail operations which provides 50% of the centre’s income). The leadership team have welcomed me with open arms and, in the case of the Pride match, with a lot of branded material and face paint!
Swindon 18-30 Professionals
At the time of writing Swindon 18-30 is 912 members strong, a number that would have made a younger version of myself well-up in pride and disbelief.
The hard work goes on, and I’d have struggled if it not for those who have championed the group through sponsorship, organising events, telling their friends or letting me put up posters in their offices/community spaces.
Looking forward toward the rest of this year (and the next five after that) I’d love to see myself doing something which allows me to keep being who I am whilst continuing to add value to the everyday. I want to make sure that no one ever feels that they can’t be awesome or that they have to stay in a box because someone says so.
On 31st October I sat on a Brexit panel for local radio, I came away from the experience proud that I’d been able to voice my views in a balanced way and give a fresh perspective to ongoing debates. In the words of my Mum, “you never would have spoken like that two years ago. You should be proud of yourself.” She was right, I wouldn’t have dared put myself forward for anything so exposing a few years ago.
I want to make money from what I love doing most, writing, even if it’s just enough to cover the cost of some of the many coffees I consume whilst I type or scribble away. The feedback I get each and every day from people gives me the strength to keep working towards that goal. I want to get my first book published and then write some more, and more. My old Secondary School English teacher used to call me her ‘little-novelist’, I want to do my nick-namesake proud.
I’d like to find a partner, but I don’t want to settle and I don’t want to seek it out of desperation. I’m surrounded by friends and family who provide the love to survive, at my fingertips an internet bursting with information on which to thrive. I want a partner, but I need to know if it’s right for me.
Two snapshots, July 2014 and September 2019.
Maybe in another five years I’ll take a completely different opinion on how things have panned out. But honestly? In the past half decade I’ve learnt the most about myself and others through the leaps of faith and the knock backs, more than through the smooth rides. My life has changed so much since I moved to Swindon in 2014, the path to get me where I am today has been twisted and anything but conventional. No doubt it’ll shift about some more in the years and decades to come but I’m more than ready for it. Bring it on!
Below is one of my favourite songs which I discovered just before I went to Bruges. It sums up how I’d want people to embrace me; it’s fun, upbeat and a bit different from the usual (in content and language – it’s sung by French artist Zaz). In essence it’s about the singer asking a prospective partner to embrace who she is above all else.
“Je Veux d’l’amour, d’la joie, de la bonne humeur,
Ce n’est pas votre argent qui f’ra mon bonheur,
Moi j’veux crever la main sur le cœur papalapapapala, Allons ensemble découvrir ma liberté, oubliez donc tous vos clichés,
Bienvenue dans ma réalité!”
I want love, joy and cheerfulness, Your money won’t buy me happiness, I just want to die with a hand on my chest, Let’s go together discover my freedom, let you forget all your stereotypes, Welcome into my reality!
Here’s to the wonderful unpredictability of the events that we call life.
On 11th November I published this post, Five Years Ago Today…
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“29/04/18. My arms are aching, my legs are covered in bruises and I’m completely shattered. I must be in London.”
It has been a week since I vacated my flat in central London and returned once more to Swindon. It almost feels like the past year has all been but a dream, vape steam in the breeze. Invisible, abstract and only memorable by the faint smell it leaves behind.
On 2nd May I left London Paddington station for the last time packed like a loaded Buckaroo: an overfilled holdall case, a heavy rucksack, an additional handbag, a canvas tote filled with redundant bedlinen and a heavy laptop across the body for good measure. I learnt from my mistakes moving out and managed the travel back relatively bruise free, however my body has ached for days from strain. The day before I fully moved I’d completed a separate trip to Swindon with a similar amount of goods and wondered why I couldn’t stop violently shaking. I spilt coffee everywhere at the formal work function, of course. At the time I put it down to the amount of rushing around but now I see it as the culmination of mental and muscular stress.
Other than the short term pains it would be easy to pass off what I’d been through and achieved in just over twelve months living and working in the English capital as nothing more than normal. ‘Business as usual’ as my colleagues would say. But it isn’t. And it’s not just the big things that make me say that, like moving into the flat and travelling solo in Europe for the first time, but it is the little things as well. The events I put myself out of my comfort zone to attend, the weird obsession with finding the cheapest eggs, the men (goodness the men). And as I stood in Brompton cemetery one Sunday afternoon while a random man called Nicolas tried to chat me up I thought only one thing.
Thank God I’m writing this all down.
Seven separate notebooks, all documenting the experience of spending a year in London. Seven books with unique but different personalities as I went through a deeply personal and professional journey. Just glancing over extracts from book one and comparing it to book seven the transformation is really quite something (excluding coffee spilling and egg hunting, those two are deeply trademarked parts of me). Admittedly I haven’t read any of the books in depth since writing, I want to let some water trickle under bridges first. But I remember so clearly picking the first notebook off a shelf in a stationery store and telling myself I would make every effort to record the upcoming eight months in London (as it was then supposed to be) so that I should not forget the experience when I returned once more to Wiltshire. To ensure that I never let this fantastic opportunity turn into little more than a faded dream. And maybe, just maybe, one day I will do something more with my scribbles, that people will know about the time I ended up at a celebrity wedding, when the artist Grayson Perry became a fan of my writing, the time I got screen tested for a dating show. And again, the men.
If two things show how much I’ve changed over the past year then look no further than these separate quotes.
I was in a London bar the other night, relaxing with a book and a medium sized glass of sparkling cranberry juice. There was a nice flurry of activity occurring around me, date night couples, arguing couples, groups of friends, a solo American businessman trying to engage with conversation (bless), all the standard things you’d expect to see in a alcoholic establishment of its sort and location.
I was sat in a booth to myself and taking in the lively scene of human activity mid page (the joy of a gentle anthology) when something caught my eye. At first I thought I was mistaken by what I’d seen but then the dart happened again and again, until my brain finally came to terms with what it was witnessing less than two meters away.
The little pests were so quick and spontaneous with their movements I could barely get my phone out, let alone take a photo, before they dashed back into the shadows or across the tiles into a new crevice. I saw one dash towards the American businessman but he seemed too preoccupied with asking the bartender to hit him with yet another whiskey so I held my tongue.
I’d only just arrived at the pub and settled down, so felt very reluctant to leave. I’d been to the establishment before and saw no sense in hurrying back to the cramped little flat I call home alongside four others. Besides, I’d paid £2.70 for my sparkling cranberry juice.
I knew exactly what to do. I put on my headphones and whacked on one of my most played songs. A classic of a classic, Ralf Vaugh Williams’ The Lark Ascending is as beautiful a composition if ever there was one. And while I can never begin to review it on a note-by-note basis (this girl dropped trombone when she was sixteen) I can firmly say that as a sentient human being it is a song that always helps lighten my spirits whatever mood I am in. I’m playing it right now as I type, listen:
So delicate but forthright and strong. Each time I hear the notes I see a different version of me play out, be it the girl in an evening dress or the girl donning her stick and hanky as she strides towards the city where the streets are paved with gold. And it was listening to The Lark Ascending that night in an average pub with mice running around that I was able to find my inner composure. Don’t get me wrong, mice or any kind of vermin indoors is not particularly pleasant, nor should it be ignored, but just listening to classical music, well, it seemed to transport me somewhere completely different. I could overlook the mice dashing about, in fact I was even able to half smile at their ill fated antics to get any distance before a human made a move of their own.
And then I looked down and saw a mouse sniffing my pump shoe and the bare foot within. Then I freaked the hell out and swiftly finished my juice as a scooted towards the door of a rapidly emptying watering hole. I left the single member of bar staff in the delightful company of the American and a newly arrived drunk local.
And it made me think, when did I start embracing classical music? What were the key tracks that started it? Well bizarrely my love of classical music all started with a free CD that came with a Saturday Daily Express newspaper. Remember those few years where newspapers gave out CDs every five minutes with a random assortment of music? Well in 2004 we got one and it must have been the Euros or something because it was called Football Passion (even though the last World Cup had been in 2002).
Well much to the surprise of 11 year old me and a good deal of other Daily Express readers the CD was purely classical music. Not a sniff of Lighting Seeds in sight. And yet in a very weird way a free piece of plastic came to be the making of me. Playing it in the car for weeks afterwards I was able to formulate my own narratives around each song. The first and strongest story I devised around a song that was around the composition of William Tell Overture. Don’t listen to this and tell me you can’t picture the spectacle of the horse racing?
Picture a scene resembling the Grand National or Cheltenham Races, horses chasing up to hurdles and bounding over. Riders falling to the wayside one by one as proud owners look on to see their champions to the photo finish. So much energy and excitement.
Pavane, the song that flows straight after William Tell Overture on the CD’s playlist, created in my head the sense of disappointment of the losers.
The riders cast aside as failures, the damaged horses piled in heaps awaiting their fate as the rain starts to drop down. That or a general sense of romantic sadness, young boys packing bags and sent off to war when they barely understand what suffering is. The long days of rain and sadness.
And then, several songs later…
The slow build up, the knowing that something is about to happen, something is about to change. And then boom! The base drops and you’re filled with a sensation of happiness and warmth. The rain has stopped, war is over, there is a shining future ahead and all you can see is the goodness in humanity. O brave new world!
As crazy as it would seem, a free CD aimed at a sport I had no interest in would spark a new altogether different fascination in me. Around the same time my Mum got given a compilation CD set for Christmas called Pure Chillout.
Still played around the house some fifteen years later, the album’s selection of modern hits with a feeling of ‘future classics’ was timed perfectly to those early teenage years of trying to make sense of the world under a mountain of coursework. The Heart Asks Pleasure First has strong banking connotations in the UK, but for me I could see only two lovers running around wild meadows, pausing only to catch their breath and the beauty of their company.
How mighty is the piano.
Mum, a now retired teacher, used Adiemus for one of her class’ dance routines.
Aged about nine, I listened to the song repeated endless times in the kitchen while she formulated the choreography for a group of twenty seven to eleven year olds. I remember watching the class rehearsing the performance an thinking it very impressive given my Mum half an hour before had been teaching Maths. However it wasn’t the story I’d created in my head.
In my head I pictured it as a battle scene. The noble and good army preparing for the battle ahead at camp, heading to the field, squaring up with their mighty and evil enemy across the board field. Then the charge with an almighty crash as the two sides interlock for the first time. The bloody battle, the slaughter and long battle, ending with the head of the enemy cut clean off and rolling away. The enemy drop their weaponry and the good Queen proclaims the victory to her humble supporters.
In hindsight I understand why my Mum couldn’t have acted out similar with her students.
Spin things back to the present day and you can find Mozart sitting comfortably as playlist bedfellows to songs such as this where English lyrics start to make an appearance, but only as long as they serve as backing vocals to the main event:
I now find myself frequently utilising the power of the classical genre to help me focus on big tasks or help support and make sense of the creative noise in my head. With no fake beats or confusing lyrics to contend with my mind can make its own conclusions of what it hears. And like any form of artwork, I can listen to it knowing that a distant person on the far side of the world can understand the wordless track just as easily and form their own opinions and judgements.
Were years of classical music the only reason I put up with hoards of bar mice that evening? Of course not. But could I say to you, hand on heart, that without ever listening to a classical music track I’d be sat here today writing the way I do? Now that’s a tougher question to answer. Because classical music forced me to form a story based on no steer whatsoever. It began that process of storytelling that has stuck with me ever since. Without the genre I genuinely do not know if I’d still be able to pull writing topics out of thin air or even if I’d have the confidence to share my ideas for the world to see for themselves.
If it is inspiration you seek, it is classical you must find.