Tuesday, 30 September 2014

On doing something for nothing

It's kind of tricky to admit, but I know I can be pretty selfish at times. Certainly no more so than the average twenty-something - I hope - though I do have an aversion to sharing food and drink that borders on the psychopathic. And to make that worse, I am That Girl - the one that won't order her own chips/onion rings/pudding, but will absolutely expect you to share yours with me. I'm sorry. I'm working on it (I'm not).

On Saturday, however, I did a small, reasonably selfless thing - I volunteered at the Cancer Research UK Shine Night Walk. Which meant I chose to spend my Saturday night standing at a pedestrian crossing in Trafalgar Square, from 11.30pm to 7.30am, making sure 16,000 walkers went in the right direction and didn't get run over (I was at about mile 18; it would have been a terrible waste to get mown down at that point). It was, all things considered, a complete and utter blast.

The reason I decided to do it wasn't because I now work for CRUK (though I do enjoy it; but mainly I just like being employed). It was actually because of a wonderful friend of mine, who was walking the walk, in memory of her mother. This friend has been through a fair amount by anyone's standards, and is still one of the loveliest, kindest, most thoughtful and fun people I've ever met. It was kind of a solidarity thing - I thought, if she's going to be walking 26 miles through the night, the least I can do is help out for a bit. So I did.

And what a night it turned out to be. When I arrived at my designated station, I wasn't in the best mood - I was already getting the first wave of tiredness, the one that makes you think wistfully of sinking into bed. And the station manager was the most Scottish woman I've ever met, and she was so loud and enthusiastic that I'm sure she was an American cheerleader in a past life. At 10.30, this was not what I wanted. At 6am, when I had my next proper encounter with her, it was actually exactly what I needed.

I was partnered with Steve - "what a guy!" said Mrs Cheerleader, and they were not the words I would have used to describe Steve - and we were walked to Trafalgar Square and put in our spots. The only memorable thing about Steve was what he said after giving me one solitary fruit pastille: "your sugar levels will probably crash after that". Steve, dude. I've weathered exam seasons fuelled by Haribo Tangfastics, coffee and Mini-Eggs. My tolerance for sugar is second to none. One fruit pastille's just a drop in the saccharine ocean.

So then it was just a case of standing there, in a snazzy high-vis t-shirt and hat, feeling like a lemon - and looking like one, incidentally. The first walkers came by about an hour later, but stormed past like they were in a Liam Neeson film and were on a mission to fuck shit up. And then I waited another hour, and more walkers started to appear. But of course, this was London on a Saturday night, so while I was waiting on Shine walkers, I provided the tipsy revellers of Trafalgar Square with much amusement. "Why are you all in yellow? Do you have to stand there all night? What charity is this for? What are you DOING?" Most people were lovely, and simply curious, but I did acquire a creepy "friend" for a while - he wouldn't leave me alone, and then would wander off for a while, but return ten minutes later and ask if he could stand there all night. Eventually, he realised he'd lost his phone at some point, and I put on my best bossy voice and said "I really think you should go and find it", and he left.

The loveliest drunkard of all though was Eric. He'd lost his friend on their night out and decided to just stay and chat for a while: "So you're standing here all night?" "Yes." "For free?" "Well,  I work for the charity, but I'm doing this for free?" "All night?" "Yes." "For free?" "Yes."


"Have they even offered you a cup of tea?"
I replied that they hadn't.
"I'm going to buy you a coffee!"
"No, don't be silly. And I don't have any change, anyway."
"No, it's fine." And off he stumbled.
I decided that, given the state he was in, I'd be surprised if I actually got that coffee. And I later found out that he had tried to offer it to Steve, who'd helpfully directed him back to me. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a 4am latte more. The price for this was having him stand there, shouting "encouragement" ("come on ladies, only six miles to go!" "Erm, there's men there too, and it's eight miles. You can't tell them it's only six!") and every so often having him try and call his friend to get him to "come to the bright yellow lady!"

So if anyone knows a London-based, half-Finnish journalist called Eric, can you tell him that the bright yellow girl says thanks for the coffee? Cheers.

The night wasn't without its low points - the main one being at about 5.30, when I realised I hadn't seen the tea-coffee-and-loo van at all, and to be honest, quite needed it. I flagged down one of the the volunteer cyclists who were patrolling the route, and he hared off to find it. It was at this moment that a passing French guy chose to ask me about the event. I was almost bent double, as my back was really starting to hurt from the hours of standing, and also my kidneys were beginning to feel like they might explode. "What is this?" he asked. I couldn't be bothered to simplify the explanation, so went with "it's a Cancer Research UK walking marathon".

"Cancer?" he said, with a look of concern in his eyes, and I nodded, and went back to crouching down, trying to ease the pain in my lower spine. So now there's probably a French guy who thinks I have something terribly wrong with me. Sorry.

But then Mrs Cheerleader arrived to pull me and Steve from our positions, and give us tea and biscuits and a sit-down, and her sheer pep was just the thing to get us through the last hour or so.

And watching the sun rise in the Square was possibly one of the most beautiful things I've seen in ages - the sky lightened slowly, gently, and the morning was crisp and clear and pale blue and gold. The best kind of day. There was hardly anyone around by this point, except event staff and street cleaners - peace at last. At the end of the shift, I walked back down the Mall, towards Victoria Station, and wished I could stay up all night in London more often, so I could see things like this:

It was such a great event, and all of the Shiners were truly amazing - so positive, right the way through the night. Good on you, every single one. You were fantastic.

I might have to actually walk it next year.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Long time, no blog

So. It's been a while. In fact, I'd sort of made the decision to abandon this blog - at least temporarily, anyway. I have a real job now, in an office, and it involves spreadsheets and phone calls, and means that there is no better time than 5.30 on a Friday evening. And I'm actually trying to write something... bigger. Which sounds counter-intuitive; who gets a full-time job and decides that their now-limited free time must be spent tackling a sizeable writing project? Oh, that's right, me. Why? Well, because if not now, when I'm supposedly young and fresh and energetic and full of half-thought-out ideas, then when? But more on that another time. I'm going to be testing it out, possibly on a different blog, so if you're interested, watch this space.

Anyway. This post is all the fault of my friend Catherine. She tagged me in one of those "make of a list of things then nominate others to do the same" Facebook statuses, and while usually I ignore them, it's such a lovely one that I couldn't not make that list.

In no particular order, here are ten books that, in the course of my reading life, have seemed terribly important and world-view-changing at some point or another.

1) Little Women by Louisa M. Alcott. Yes, I'm sure I've wanged on about this one before, but I caught the film on TV again relatively recently, and it struck me again how bloody relevant the story is. On the surface of it, you might think that the lives of four girls and their mother in Concord, Massachusetts, at the end of the American Civil War would be of little consequence to the average modern reader, but let's take Jo March, the second daughter. A tomboy, a guy's girl, when girls weren't allowed to be. An aspiring writer, who wanted to do Something Good and Important, at a time when women had very little power. An angry young woman who, upon being left at home after one sister married and another went to Europe, had a massive rant about not fitting in and wanting to run away, and who then took herself to New York and got cracking with a writing career.

And the best part of it is, Louisa Alcott didn't even want to write the book. Her publisher suggested she write something about her own life, and she wasn't keen. And then she only went and created one of the greatest families in literature. Thanks, Louisa.

2) The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. Grosz is a psychoanalyst, and The Examined Life is a collection of patient histories. It's fascinating - I had to ration my reading of it, as each case is brief, so you can sail through the book in a day, maybe two if you're busy. It's astonishing how people will repeat the worst behaviour of their parents and relatives and remain unaware that they're doing it, until they are shown. It's a book that makes the reader more aware of themselves - something only truly good books can do.

3) Eating Myself, Candida Crew. Again, I've mentioned this one before, but it's great for anyone who's ever felt a bit weird about food. Crew explores what she calls "normal-abnormal" attitudes to food, putting forward the theory that the vast majority of [white, Western] women are just on a scale of abnormality when it comes to food and dieting. Some are more normal about it than others, but we all have our "things".

4) Ulysses, James Joyce. No, I haven't read the whole thing - I'm not entirely mad, and I've had stuff I needed to get done, to be honest - but I read bits of it for a uni module, and if James Joyce taught me one thing (other than "maybe don't write a 700-page book") it's that you can make up words that fit what you're trying to say. No-one's going to stop you. In fact, they'll probably ply you with awards and praise.

5) Running Like A Girl, Alexandra Heminsley. I'm not much of a runner - even less so since I rediscovered swimming - but Heminsley's book about how she turned herself into a marathon-runner is genuinely inspiring, and touching, and funny. Worth it for the bit where she completes the San Francisco marathon (I cried, on a bench in town, on my lunch break) and for the line "I decided to be able to". That's how you get things done.

6) Great Expectations, Charles Dickens. Another lofty choice, another hangover from my English degree. Thing is, it's wonderful. I thought it was going to be all grey and grim and muddy, like a long weekend in Yorkshire, but it made me think about society and class and whether social mobility is actually possible.

7) How To Be A Woman, by Caitlin Moran. There was no way I wasn't going to include this. There are better books about feminism, sure, but none that are as funny, or as brutally honest. Moran has helped make it OK to talk about things we previously kept to ourselves. Better still, she made it OK to joke about them. She turned Mother Feminism - originally a stern, scary headmistress-type, full of righteous anger - into the cool girl in the pub who wants to get drunk with you, tell filthy stories and become your best mate.

8) Unsticky, Sarra Manning. I should probably apologise for having something that looks a lot like chick-lit on this list, but I'm not going to. I read Manning's teen fiction when I was at school, and she started writing "grown-up" books as I reached my late teens, so I sort of think we grew up together. Her heroines are always slightly awkward and moody, with good hearts, and her love interests are always intriguing with astonishing bone structure (I think my obsession with cheekbones comes from reading too much Manning). And she's one of the few writers who can write a hot sex scene - which is important.

9) The Equality Illusion, Kat Banyard. For anyone who's ever wondered why we still need feminism, or has ever uttered the words "I don't know what feminists are complaining about" - read this book.

10) I'm agonising over the last slot on this list - I really am. There are so many books that have had an impact on me, and the vast majority of them aren't big and important works of literature. A lot of the books I've returned to, and re-read over and over and over, are just small, simple stories. The "Jill" pony books of the 1960s - a girl and her horses and her friends, living in the country and riding all the time, the worst thing that ever befell anyone was a horse going lame on show day. Anything and everything by John Niven - if I'm ever half the writer Niven is, I'll die happy. I've never come across a writer who's so skilled at making the reader empathise with such vile characters. (I'm also willing to bet that Ruby Ferguson's "Jill pony books" and "John Niven" have never been mentioned in the same paragraph, and probably never will be again.) Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette - because I have a bit of a fascination with the maligned queen, and regularly daydream about Versailles and all its mind-melting grandeur. Chavs by Owen Jones - because it's political and meticulously researched and right, and because Owen Jones is brilliant.

I can't pick one; there are too many. Each book is another little world, that either takes you away from your life for a while, or makes you feel your life more keenly - makes you understand your own "self" a little better. The best books manage to do both.