Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Serpent (Short Story)

It’s there; I can smell it beneath the expensive aftershave and Hollywood smile. It’s lurking under the surface, waiting. Oh so still, poised to strike like a serpent hiding out in a baby’s crib. Who would ever suspect it was there?

Certainly not the girls from his office, crowding around him geisha-style, laughing at his jokes and basking in that perfect gentleman charm. A little wink, some harmless flirting and he’s got them all eating out of the palm of his hand. Now and again, I catch one of them casting a quick glance in my direction. They can’t help it, it’s a mystery to the entire office – how did good old Gav end up with me?

The frumpy dress and lack of anything that even remotely resembles a hair style would be enough to keep them wondering and gossiping but it’s worse than that. I can see it all over their faces and hear it in their polite questions – how did a pinched up, miserable old cow like me manage to bag myself a man like Gavin?

It’s not as if I see them very often and I suppose that’s part of the problem. I don’t like these work dos, I never have. I go to the Christmas one because I can’t get out of it but the others – I usually have a migraine or a stomach upset. Gavin never makes a fuss about me not going out; he says I cramp his style anyway. This one though sneaked up on me. A celebration paid for by management, some sort of reward for meeting targets. “All the big wigs are going to be there,” he said. “And their wives.” So that was that. It wouldn’t do for Gavin to be the odd one out.

I can hear him laughing; that big false laugh, the one he saves for outside and my stomach tightens. Lucy is talking to me, her curls bouncing around her face in time to her words as she moves her head up and down. He’s back. I can smell the serpent even before he drops down into the seat next to me. Alcohol, aftershave and the serpent, brushing up against me as he leans in conspiratorially, “What are you girls nattering on about?”
“I’m just telling Steph how she needs to come out with us more often. We have a right laugh, don’t we? Remember the bowling...” Lucy’s words are lost in bawdy laughter and Gavin joins in.
“Oh Steph’s too serious for the likes of us,” he winks. “She’d rather stay in reading or watching something intellectual on the telly box. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”

I think back to the bowling night, it wasn’t much of a laugh for me. At least I don’t remember laughing all that much when he dished out what was coming to me on the kitchen floor. All that charm and bonhomie used up in the bowling alley. Good old Gav, by the time he got home he had nothing left. His mood had turned sour and I just reminded him of how much he hated his life.

I’m not an idiot; I know where it comes from, all that violence and rage. I get it, I really do. I mean it’s not like I’m living the life I wanted for myself. I keep it in though, I have to. What else is there? I have to keep the family together, for the kids’ sake. My sister can’t even look me in the face anymore, I sicken her with my excuses and empty promises but what can I do? My kids need me and they love their dad.

He’s going for more drinks, I mean why wouldn’t he, it’s a free bar? I can’t help but notice the way his mouth tightens in displeasure as his eyes flick over my bitter lemon, sitting still half full on the table. It’s just a millisecond but I see it. I can feel Lucy’s eyes on me as she drains her Prosecco in readiness for the next.
“Don’t you ever drink?” she asks in that way people have. As if she can’t think of anything more tragic.
“Oh Steph thinks drinking is beneath her. Turns people into idiots. Isn’t that what you said, babe?” Gavin’s back from the bar handing out drinks with his big grin. He pushes his face into mine, his beery breath making me want to turn away. But I don’t. “Look what I’ve got,” he winks, thrusting a cherry speared on a cocktail stick towards my lips. “Come on Steph, loosen up it’s a party.”

I hear Lucy laughing nervously as Gavin mischievously pops the cherry into his own mouth. His lips, cold and wet, smash into mine, “See what I mean, Luce?” His eyes offer up a secret to Lucy, who looks uncomfortable despite her Prosecco fuelled giggles. “My wife’s frigid. It’s like being married to a nun – not even a little kiss.” It’s starting already – the serpent’s moving, getting stirred up as if someone’s poking at it with a stick. It won’t be long and good old Gav will hardly be able to keep it contained.

He’ll fight it though, keep it subdued. At least until the party’s over. Once we’re in the taxi it will all become too much for him and we’ll ride home in a charged, heavy silence. The three of us, me, good old Gav and the serpent. He’ll rally, one last time, as he pays the baby sitter and waves her off with his signature wink and then there’ll be no more good old Gav.

He’ll punch and kick until the poison’s been bled and then the serpent will slither away, back to its hiding place. He’ll go to bed and sleep like a baby and I can get on with sorting out the girls’ things. They’re going to a party tomorrow and Amelia’s counting on me getting all the sequins sewn onto her princess costume.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Recurrent Fictional Characters

I read a really interesting blog post the other day, which suggested that writers tend to recreate different versions of the same character. (If I was really good at this and organised, I would have noted the relevant source so that you could read it yourself. Unfortunately, I'm not and I didn't). Anyway, it got me thinking and I have to confess that I’m guilty as charged. 

The character that appears recurrently in my writing, albeit in different forms, is the feckless mother. When my friend's husband read one of my novels, he offered the observation that the mother in it was her mother. I don't know her mother but my friend assumed that we must have mothers who are very similar. Sadly I had to disappoint her. 

I think I subconsciously created the wild and feckless mother as the one I always wanted but certainly didn't get. My own mother is a very serious woman, who doesn't drink alcohol, eat to excess, or do anything that could point to a lack of control. We have a very complex relationship. Even as an adult, I find it impossible to acknowledge any failings in her presence and I keep so much of myself hidden from her. 

It's a shame because I have a great deal to thank her for. My mother is the reason that both my sister and I are independent, successful women. She valued independence above all and it was at the core of everything she taught us. It's not hard to understand why; my mother married very young and submerged all of her own hopes and dreams into being a wife and mother. She always claimed that it was the only thing she ever wanted out of life but we all knew that she was living a lie. She loved my dad and us kids more than anything but she resented having subjugated her own life for us

A very intelligent and creative woman, my mother can turn her hand to anything. She is a talented artist and dressmaker with a real flair for design. However, she had to make do with a lifetime of hobbies and, no matter how much she tried to pretend otherwise, it wasn't enough. My mother, like so many of her generation, was a woman out of time. Had she been born a decade or so later, I have no doubt that she would have been amazing. 

She’s in her late sixties now and finally achieving some of the things I’m sure she always secretly dreamed of. She teaches literacy and numeracy to adults, who for whatever reason missed out on an education. She runs a women's group, offering a wide range of activities designed to help women feel empowered and in control of their own lives. She’s also the most well read woman I know. All this has been bitter sweet for her, as it was the death of my dad, her childhood sweetheart and the love of her life which propelled her out of the home. 

She always says that she would give up everything she has since achieved in a heartbeat to have my dad back and I believe her. She’s a strong, courageous woman and I’m really proud of her but she is not the recurrent mother figure that I write about. Maybe she should be. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

Do You Believe In Guardian Angels?

I like the idea of having a guardian angel although I can equally understand how the idea might completely freak someone out. After all, most of us probably wouldn't come out of it well if we had to withstand round the clock scrutiny from a celestial being. If this were the case then I fear my own place on the other side would be well and truly scuppered. 

Even so there is something reassuring in the thought that there could be someone other than me steering this often chaotic ship. And there lies the crux of the issue, is it simply our need for reassurance that tempts us to look outwards and latch onto fanciful ideas of other worlds and beings? I am not so sure. 

I would have said yes, until a couple of years ago when my dad died. Since then I have never felt closer to him and have a total sense of conviction that he hasn't gone. Obviously, I understand that this may well be nature doing its thing by affording me something to cling on to, when the alternative seems so unbearable. I think it's more than that though. 

I don’t believe that my dad is in any way guiding my life. If he were, I would be sorely disappointed. Given that he was a gregarious, sociable man in life, I certainly hope that he has more exciting things to do with his time now than spy on me. However, there are times when I feel his presence so keenly, I know without a shadow of a doubt, that he is with me. His visits are not what you would expect, he doesn't check in at particularly meaningful times, when I could maybe do with a bit of help or encouragement. No, they are always random, inconsequential moments which, in consequence, never cease to take me by surprise. 

But does any of it really matter anyway? That is why I choose to believe in guardian angels and the idea that my dad is still around - what would be the point in not? Surely life would just seem bleaker and the world a much harsher place. If it should turn out that this is all there is, none of us are going to know about it anyway so I really can't see the benefit of trying to prove or disprove something that lightens the load on our journey through life. 

Have You Made Your Bucket List?

My friend and I will both reach milestone birthdays this year. The kind that ushers you into another decade and tends to engender a lot of fuss. My friend is eager to embrace it, own it if you will. I could take or leave it - in the words of that long forgotten Eurovision winner, "What's another year?"

Recently, however, my friend came up with the idea of a bucket list whereby we would write down everything we’d like to achieve in our landmark year. A little bit in the style of only having a year left to live. I have to say, I struggled to muster up much enthusiasm, as I anticipated two possible outcomes. At worst, I could end up embarking upon a year of idiotic, daredevil behaviour. The kind designed to reassure people that they still have a little bit of life left in them. And at best I’d be faced with a list reminding me of wasted opportunities and unfulfilled hopes and dreams. 

I’m happy to report that I couldn't have been more wrong and I’m now an advocate of everybody writing their own wish list, regardless of their age. My first surprise was that I didn't really have any unfulfilled burning desires. I love travelling and have travelled extensively but, if it all ended tomorrow, I’m happy with my lot. Likewise with books I would like to read or films I've always wanted to see. If something catches my eye, I pretty much read it, see it, experience it, as and when the fancy takes me. I realised that, contrary to what I’ve always thought, I live in the moment and don't put things off until tomorrow. 

The second surprise came with the actual list. My friend and I compiled two separate lists but they came out spookily similar. There was no bungee jumping, sky diving or mountains to climb but instead just simple, joyful pleasures. We both wanted to perform a random act of kindness for a complete stranger, go dancing, sing as part of a choir, go for a long country walk and learn how to cook. 

Making my list reminded me that it really is the small moments which bring us the most happiness and my life is actually pretty fulfilled. So, if you want to remind yourself how great your life is, I suggest you take an inventory and work on that list right now.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Does Anything Stand The Test Of Time?

It's funny how things seemed so much better when I was a kid. And I can't quite figure out whether it's because I have become more sophisticated and demanding in my taste or, whether it's inevitable that memories become larger than life in the retelling of them over the years.

One of the first TV shows that I can remember really loving was The High Chaparral. This was back when there were only three channels to choose from and everybody tended to watch the same shows. Monday night was High Chaparral night and Tuesday it was all anybody at school talked about. I thought about it often over the years, bemoaning the fact that it had never been repeated. Imagine my delight then when, a couple of months ago, I saw that one of the cable channels was running an entire series. However, my excitement soon turned to disappointment when I realised that it wasn't anything like I remembered it. The theme tune still gave me a jolt of pure pleasure but that was about it. Big John, it turned out, is a controlling bully, Buck and Manolito are more spiteful and mean spirited than I remember and Blue Boy, frankly, seems like he has special needs. 

After two episodes, I had to accept that the version I had in my head far exceeded the reality and it got me thinking about other things that hadn't stood the test of time. Reading Catcher In The Rye as a teenager pretty much blew me away and I held the novel in high affection for years, despite never re-reading it. That is until last year and I was devastated to find that it was almost unreadable and Holden was totally irritating and not particularly likeable at all. 

Likewise, I had such strong memories of Jackie magazine which had a tremendous impact on my life as a teen, when it was the focus of my week. With the trend for all things nostaligic, an old edition of Jackie was recently re-issued and I was shocked by its facile simplicity. I couldn't believe that this had been the highlight of my existence during my early teenage years. 

A couple of weeks ago, I ordered a box set of 21 Jump Street, a show which brings back so many happy memories of spending time in The States and watching it with my friend, whilst drinking hot chocolate with marsh mallows. The trouble is I'm scared to open it because I more or less know what's going to happen. I'll watch one episode and wonder what the hell I was thinking. 

Maybe that's the key, it's not about the show or the magazine or the book, it's about what they represent. A moment in time when, for whatever reason, they provide us with what we need. Something magical that only exists in the moment and, when we try to re-create it, it falls flat and disappoints. For that reason, I'm thinking maybe I'll just leave 21 Jump Street in the box.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

What Is It About Driving?

Let me put you in the picture straight away; I don't drive. I have passed my test and have a licence but choose not to. Although it's not really much of a choice, as I was reminded only this morning during a conversation with two colleagues. 

They are intelligent, confident women, competent in every way except both confess an irrational fear of driving. Intrigued (partly I suspect because of my own secret sense of inadequacy at not being able to master something that others seem to take for granted) I dug a little bit deeper and, I have to say, I wasn't too surprised by what I learned. 

The first woman reluctantly confessed that she had passed her test but her fledgling driving confidence had never been able to flourish due to the constant criticisms of her then boyfriend and now husband. Yes dear reader, God knows why but she married him. Had we been playing poker, the second woman surely had the winning hand, which she revealed to our gasps of outrage. It seems that whilst on a busy road her husband had, in a fit of panic, reached across from the passenger side and pulled on the handbrake. Leaving her so shaken and traumatised that he of course had to take over the driving. 

I learned to drive in Brighton and according to my instructor and the official examiner was safe enough to be let loose on the roads and highways of Great Britain. Returning for a visit to my home town, I foolishly made the now quite obviously fatal error of driving with my dad. Warming to the role of unofficial driving instructor, he saw fit to pronounce me a driving hazard and subsequently destroyed what little driving confidence I had. 

I convinced myself that I preferred the freedom of public transport and banished driving from my thoughts, ignoring the queasy sense of failure I experienced every time the subject of driving came up. Until years later, when it reared its ugly head again. I got a job working for the fire service (a total debacle and surely a whole blog post of its own) and, on my first day they announced that I needed to be able to drive. 

I was sent out every day with a retired fire fighter, who had spent his career driving fire engines. By way of introduction, he proudly told me how he had put his wife off driving so completely that she hadn't driven for thirty years and none of his children would drive with him in the car. It basically went downhill from there and I have never driven since. In fact, when my driving licence recently needed renewing, I didn't even bother, I just let it expire. 

I had always deep down felt that it was something wrong with me. That there was some indefinable weakness that rendered me unable to get to grips with what essentially is a basic functional skill. More and more though, it seems that I am not alone and there are other women like me out there, women who have been bullied into feeling useless by perfectly nice men. Men who just happen to mutate into tyrants once they’re behind the wheel of a car.

Are We Really What We Eat?

Don't ask me how or why but I seem to be following a health guru on Twitter. I’m almost becoming accustomed to the little stabs of fear his tweets evoke, as he expounds upon the dangers of a poor diet and how no amount of water and exercise can counterbalance them.

My diet is shockingly bad, there I've said it. I probably consume my own body weight in sugar on a daily basis. On the plus side, I don't eat fast food at all but that's not so impressive if I add that neither fresh fruit nor vegetables feature in my life on a regular basis either. I do drink lots of water and I exercise regularly. I think if I were to do an audit, however, things wouldn't look too good. 

I'm not a stupid woman, I know that I risk diabetes and my chances of triggering cancer are increased with poor lifestyle choices. My own dad died from cancer at 63 and my genetic make-up isn't exactly what you could call charmed. It's still not enough though to force me to assume responsibility for my own destiny. 

I think the reason for this is that deep down I'm not convinced that life isn't just a lottery and that won’t meet the same fate come what may. Lots of people I know, who do everything that’s supposed to be right, have still ended up with cancer whilst other people drink, smoke and don't give a damn but live to a ripe old age with no health problems whatsoever. 

Is this just a sense of denial, one of the clich├ęs that we trot out in order to avoid making some tough choices? My Twitter guru would no doubt argue a big fat yes and offer up a mountain of proof that we are what we eat and we are all the engineers of our own bodies and health. But who really knows?

All I know for certain is that I am weak willed with an addiction to sugar. My fear of contracting a horrible disease seems to fade into the distance when faced with a bar of chocolate or a piece of cake. The harsh truth is that if I really have a stark choice between living a long, healthy life or chocolate, cake and gin (I know - I forgot to mention my weakness for alcohol), I'm not sure which one I would go for. 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

The Cult Of Motherhood

It’s a strange dichotomy that in our modern ‘anything goes’ way of life – people are happy to cavort naked, have sex and even take their last breath on TV – there are still so many taboos within our society. Try having a meaningful conversation about race, religion, violence or terrorism for example and I guarantee you’ll clear a room quicker than shouting ‘FIRE!’ Surprisingly though there is a more benign, closer to home taboo that can leave you feeling as if you are walking on hot coals. Express an opinion on motherhood that is not the accepted version and you may well find yourself lynched from the nearest child friendly climbing frame.

For those of you who may be from Mars, the accepted opinion on motherhood is that it is the most worthwhile occupation in the world and all mothers are deities to be worshipped. Even Hitler promoted the cult of motherhood and he was off his head. Anyone who fails to perform in their role as a good mother or indeed opts to remain child-free is an aberration of nature to be vilified or pitied.

You’re probably wondering what it is that’s set me off on this line of thought and I’m going to tell you. This week I read a series of articles that challenged all of my previously held notions of motherhood and frankly left me reeling. For those of you who may have missed it, Julie Burchill, the acerbic and fiercely intelligent journalist was rocked by tragedy when her youngest son committed suicide. Sadly for her, the media had a bit of a field day, re-hashing past articles she had written about motherhood. I like Burchill and have often laughed out loud at her take on the world but part of me did think, ‘live by the sword, die by the sword’. After all, no-one has ever been off limits for her own caustic style of journalism.

Clearly she is devastated and deserves privacy and compassion but what has shocked me are the republished articles in which she expresses her thoughts on her oldest son, a boy brought up by his father. Burchill repeatedly writes of her dislike for her child and even states that, when he was fifteen, she sent him a letter saying she no longer wished to spend time with him because he irritated her so much. She justified her cruelty with the comment, “I would rather be viewed as a monster than a hypocrite.”

I have to say her treatment of her child left me shocked to the core but, when I discussed my feelings with my sister, she asked the question – would you feel the same way if she was a man? My gut reaction is that yes, I would, but I have to admit that it somehow seems worse that it’s a mother dispensing such heartless cruelty. Furthermore, I always experience the same mixed emotions whenever I meet children whose mothers have abandoned them.  When I first started teaching, in the early 80s, the only motherless families were usually the result of bereavement. Now, however, there seems to be just as many women walking out on their families as men. Why does this make me feel uncomfortable then when I’m constantly irritated by the way motherhood is used as a yardstick to measure the worth of a woman?

Whenever a tragedy befalls a woman, it’s always deemed infinitely more tragic if she’s a mother. The media love to wring every bit of pathos out of a story with the image of motherless children but, despite our so called gender equality, a father doesn’t have the same impact. Likewise, any childless person will tell you (if they dare) that mothers rule supreme in the workplace. They get first dibs on holidays and days off because, let’s face it, only a monster would stand in the way of a mother spending time with her children. Forget the fact that you may have been looking forward to that mini-break or best friend’s wedding – mothers come first. Ditto when they have to take time off with a sick child, dare to complain about the extra work and you’ll find yourself a social pariah.

We all pretend then that motherhood trumps everything and anyone special enough to give birth deserves our full support and public recognition. I certainly would never dare to express the fact that, actually I think motherhood looks like a fast track to hell, and I’ve never heard a mother say that she fears she’s made the biggest mistake of her life. There must be mothers out there thinking along those lines, after all we read about them in novels and there are enough women on Prozac to stand testament to the fact. However, in real life, no woman dare admit that she doesn’t like being a parent. We are all, mothers and non-mothers alike, trapped by the ‘motherhood myth’.

I have been forced to admit this week that I judge mothers in a way that I don’t judge fathers. Despite their privileged position in our child-centred society, mothers must feel the pressure of our eyes upon them. Maybe if we were more forgiving and open to the idea that our definition of ‘motherhood’ doesn’t have to be set in stone, then women wouldn’t feel so trapped. They might not find themselves blaming their offspring for their own misery or feel compelled to head for the hills. 

Saturday, 4 July 2015

What Would Georgie Do?

I had a strange conversation yesterday with someone who had read my series of books, The Georgie Connelly Stories. However, after the initial thrill of someone actually reading them, let alone liking them had abated slightly, I was left slightly puzzled. You see, this reader clearly thought that the stories are autobiographical and that the protagonist, Georgie, is somehow based on me. As much as I would like to have claimed that they are, after all she is feisty, gorgeous and always gets the job done, I was forced to admit that she is, in reality, just as much my fantasy woman as she clearly was for the reader. 

The starting point for me, when I first embarked upon creating my novels, was thinking about the kinds of books that I love to read. I would hazard a guess that most us read different kinds of books which serve different kinds of purposes. For example, in my life, I have the standard classics which tend to be on the school curriculum that I have read and continue to read until they are coming out of my ears. Despite their familiarity, they still have the capacity to surprise me, when unexpectedly a student offers a new way of looking at the book or I remember ideas and thoughts which were long forgotten. 

I’m also a member of a book club, which meets once a month. Now, I do confess it is a little bit pretentious and the choices tend to be highbrow and not always easy to read. However, I enjoy this kind of reading because it keeps me up to date with literature and often makes for lively and sometimes hilarious discussions with a group of strong, intellectual women, who I'm certain make me feel cleverer than I really am, merely by association. 

There is room in my life, alongside this reading, for the type of books that fall into the category of popular contemporary fiction. It's the section that normally takes up most of the book shop and yet people can be very condescending and sneery about it. Hence the secret and almost confessional appeal of the eReader, your book choices become something sacred between you and your Kindle. It’s this type of fiction that appeals to me the most and from which I derive the most pleasure via escapism.

The problem is even though the writing may be formulaic; it never ceases to amaze me how many times a writer has me in the palm of his or her hand, and then suddenly without warning, introduces some unappealing quality to their protagonist. Or even worse, introduces a character so unattractive, I want nothing more to do with the proceedings. I invariably finish the book out of politeness but wind up feeling let down and disgruntled. 

It was for this reason that I decided I was going to write the kinds of books that I would want to read, with characters who would never make me want to desert them. Georgie Connelly then is I suppose what I would like to be. She never lets people push her around or doubts her own convictions. When faced with a difficult situation, she dives straight in there and doesn't give a damn. 

Over the years, just as I'm sure many of you have, I have bolstered my sometimes wobbly sense of purpose by asking myself, ‘What would such and such person do?’ The person would vary, depending usually on my hero or heroine of the day. However, in Georgie Connelly, I have created something far more constant and maybe she is a better, braver version of me. So from now on, when I am dithering or feeling cowardly, I will ask myself, ‘What would Georgie do?’

Friday, 3 July 2015

Let's Give Being Nice A Go

I have a hair appointment tomorrow and I’m already looking forward to it. Not even the fact that it will come at the end of a long work day can dampen my spirits. You see I believe that I have the perfect hair stylist and not just because he makes me look presentable. He is witty, charming and spending time with him is a hoot. If it wasn't for the fact that he is so bloody expensive, it would be the perfect relationship.

I have a similar relationship with the glamorous women who man the cosmetic counters in department stores. (Everywhere that is except for New York, where they are so Gung ho they put the fear of God into me). As far as I’m concerned, it’s worth the price of a lipstick or two to be flattered and charmed for the ten minutes (okay I'm a sucker, it's probably more like two) that it takes for me to part with my credit card. 

It would seem then that we have a lot to learn from these professions. I'm sure I’m not the only person in the world who responds well to being treated courteously and with liberal amounts of soft soap. If we were to all go about our daily business and dealings with others, putting in the same effort that we might if we were angling for a hefty tip, how much more smoothly would life tick along? It would reduce conflict and I would hazard a guess our chances of getting our own way would increase tenfold at the very least!

Is life ever that simple, however? I’m sure we’ve all been on those hideous courses, where we are told to always use people's names and maintain eye contact or mimic their body language. Frankly all those things just make me want to stab someone through the eye with a pen. The minute someone starts using my name at the end of every sentence, my skin begins to crawl. 

It's not enough to trot out a range of techniques devised by some guru or other to make other people feel good. The trick is in actually liking people and taking time out to acknowledge them. My hair stylist is a people person. I'm sure that there are days when his smile is more forced than others but mostly he is a happy, genuinely sociable person, who enjoys being with people. I am guessing that most of those beauty consultants in department stores are probably the same way too. 

I’m going to give it a go and try for twenty four hours to smile warmly at my fellow man and maybe even toss out a compliment or two. For twenty four hours I’m going to resist every urge to roll my eyes and sneer. As dear old Mr Morrissey once said;
"It's so easy to laugh it's so easy to hate but it takes guts to be gentle and kind."
For twenty four hours, I am going to be a nice person - I'll let you know how I get on.

Do People Ever Really Change?

It's funny how you can look at some people and see exactly what they must have looked like as a child. Whilst other people are totally transformed and barely recognisable as the children they once were. What about on the inside though - do we ever really change?

My friend and I have this conversation regularly and tend to conclude that we haven't changed a jot. And what's more, if we were transported back and allowed to have the same experiences we had at twenty, we would behave just as ridiculously and no doubt make all the same mistakes. 

Believe me when I say that we do not come to this conclusion lightly. We met when we were both exchange students in Texas and behaved in such a way that I still blush and feel slightly nauseous thinking about it. Try as I might though, I can't rid myself of the truth; I have not evolved. My life has, I have enjoyed a successful career, am financially solvent and, to all intents and purposes, am a successful, worldly grown-up. Scratch the surface, however, and I am still the same chump I always was. 

Widening our enquiry, we decided to scrutinise our other friends, wondering if if was just the two of us who are mentally stunted but no, it's almost everyone we know. If you look beneath the glossy veneers, we are all exactly as we were twenty or more years ago and it seems that nobody really moves on from themselves. 

I know only two people, who have reinvented themselves so completely, I barely recognise them. However, looking back even that was on the cards way back when. Both of them were so dissatisfied with what their lives once were, they have successfully eradicated everything from their pasts. 

The great equaliser and test of whether someone has changed is, in my opinion, alcohol. Interestingly my two chameleon friends are both teetotal. It's almost as though they fear that if they let their guards down, their old selves might suddenly make a bid for freedom. 

The rest of us, well let's face it, a couple of glasses of wine and we are back to what we always knew. None of us have a clue what we are doing  and most of our lives consist of lurching from one blunder to another. If by some miracle we do learn from our mistakes, there are always plenty more mishaps to trip us up and remind us that we are ridiculous. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Summertime Blues

I know that British people have a reputation for being obsessed with the weather and I’m about to reinforce that stereotype because -  I really hate hot weather. It's something that I hardly dare say out loud because we get so little sunny weather and it seems as if just about everybody else in the country loves it. A few days of sun and people suddenly seem to have a spring in their step and a smile on their face. It's downright disturbing but that's not why I hate it so much.

I suppose the main reason is I’m not genetically built for spending time basking out in the sun. I don't have the colouring for it, my Irish ancestors put paid to that. Any length of time outdoors, when the sun is blazing, leads to my skin turning a very unattractive shade of red. I also have been known to suffer from prickly heat and once my head swelled to almost the size of a pumpkin. So you see, not only do I hate the sun, the sun hates me right back. 

Quite apart from my own personal discomfort though, every year I find myself unprepared for the assault on my senses that the sun seems to bring with it. First off, I can only assume that some people are on a mission to save water because they most definitely don't shower on a daily basis. In winter, this is obviously less of an issue but, come summer I am left quite literally reeling from the effects of the unwashed. 

Next up there's the noise. A little bit of sun and everybody wants to conduct every bit of their private business al fresco. Frankly, I don't want to listen to people having angry domestics in their gardens. Neither do I want to listen to their bedroom antics or their choice of music, played out at some ear splitting decibel level. Take it indoors I say.

Worst of all though has to be the fashion abominations that the sun springs forth. Now I am no body fascist, believe you me I can't afford to be, but I do not flaunt my love handles for all to see. No, they remain discreetly covered at all times thank you very much. I'm sure we would all agree that a positive body image can only be a good thing, but I'm afraid it only rings true in winter. The sun shines and common decency seems to go out of the window. I’m sorry to sound harsh but obesity and cropped tops do not make good bedfellows and ditto short shorts. 

You may think that my objections to the sun sound shallow and curmudgeonly and they quite possibly are. I will certainly admit that I’m no fun lover and there lies the problem; the first sign of hot weather and people become almost deranged in their desperate pursuit of all things fun. It probably stems from the fact that so much of our climate involves rain, rain and well, more rain. But that's almost preferable to seeing fully grown up people indulging in water fights or pot bellied men wearing no shirts. 

So call me a killjoy but I am already done with summer, and that's after only a week of sunny weather. Give me a stylish winter coat and a pair of boots any day of the week!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

School Reunions - Are They Only For The Insane?

If I can spare just one person the horror of attending a school reunion then my job here will be done. Believe you me, if you are even remotely tempted to attend one, then read on and save yourself some deep emotional scarring.

My own brush with madness occurred several years ago when I first returned to my home town after living and working away for a number of years. In my defence, I don't make a habit of dwelling on the past. Frankly, I had no glory years. And, if they were the best years then I may as well just end it here. However, this particular reunion started to feel almost fated when one of the first people I bumped into on my return was an old school friend, who insisted that I attend the reunion which by amazing coincidence was that weekend. 

Fired up by a strange sense of nostalgia and misguided feelings of bonhomie for friends of yesteryear, I embarked upon what can best be described as a period of  folly. The clue of what was to come should have been apparent in the fact that I had never seen any of these old friends since the day I walked out of the school gates twenty years earlier. I was in a strange place however and in no position to see what was under my very nose.

Thankfully, enough years have since passed that I can almost laugh at the experience. Almost, but not quite. When the organisers misheard me as I said my name, producing a name badge which wasn't mine, I should have probably seen it as a sign that the night was doomed. But no - I took the badge, wrong name and all, and wore it with the creeping sense of shame that not only did nobody remember me, they didn't even notice that I was actually an imposter operating under a false identity.

On nights like this, alcohol is truly your only friend but even that small kindness eluded me. Either the gin was watered down or, my stress levels were so high they were blocking my central nervous system from the numbing effects of the bucket of gin I drank that night. Conseqently I had nothing to protect me from the full horror of watching people old enough to know better gyrating to the worst possible songs from the golden years. I give you Abba, The Village People and the entire soundtrack of Grease. Need I go on?

The women were frenetic and loud, behaving as if they didn't get out much and wanted to drain as much 'fun' as was humanly possible from the experience. The men, whilst quieter and mostly propping up the bar, hadn't fared so well lookswise. I began to doubt my own sense of youth as I gazed upon their sparse, shiny heads and fat beer bellies.

Chatting to what were essentially complete strangers, who inhabited worlds that were as alien to me as Jupiter, I made several unsuccessful bids to escape. Each time I was shepherded back by the hyper, scarily enthusiastic organisers, who had dedicated two years of their lives to organising this event of a life time.

Finally, slumped in the back of a taxi I made it out to freedom, where I spent the rest of the weekend wrestling with the notion of putting my head in the gas oven. I believe there is another reunion organised for next year but, sadly, I'm pretty sure I'm out of the country.