Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Weird dream no 5

I dreamt that all punctuation had been banned. There was a huge task to complete to remove every hyphen, inverted comma and apostrophe from all text everywhere. Missing something was a dangerous business and led to some serious reprimand by murky, invisible authority figures at the best. Editors were responsible for implementing this reign of punctuational terror, but removing the marks that signpost people's way through words was a heartbreaking endeavour for us.

Over time, tinker types would collect the unused punctuation marks and repurpose them into weapons. En dash daggers were a big thing on the post-apocalyptic black market. More sophisticated contraptions could be fashioned from semi-colons, with buttons and levers, but no-one used them for good - only to perpetrate acts of violence in an increasingly sinister state.

Words and people's faces became haggard and tired without the guiding principles of punctuation to show us the way through the opacity of language and our existences. Whispered factions reminisced about the golden days of the Oxford comma. We all lost a bit of our selves and the whole world lost hope.

Monday, 29 October 2012

The constant piling up of things

How much of our everyday is compiled of piles? Piles of bills to pay, piles of recipe cards never consulted, 'to do' piles in every corner, piles of versions of to do piles... Wodges of old log books and lost paper counterparts. A diary and real time stacked with appointments and engagements, a planned pile of timed commitments, of enthusiastic nodding and improvised inspirational talks. Allocated slots for pint-drinking and gin intake, mental schedules of things to do before work. A pile of this is who I am and a pile of self-importance.

I am gathering piles of materialism, iPhone notes of desired interior decor, Post It notes of taste piling up statements to the world about who I am through my aesthetic. Piles of dust gather on my piled-up jewellery, listlessly listing how much I like it but never wear it. A pile of existing somehow more in the world through stuff.

Acquisitively I pile up friends and acquaintances, we must do lunches and sorry I haven't been in touches. I cram my emotional space and make piles of memories recorded and forgotten. I pile on long squeezy hugs and unbridled kisses to a pile of people in closest proximity. A pile of the best stuff where none of the other shit really matters.

And as the years and the wrinkles and the grey hairs pile up, and the wisdom of piles somehow eludes me, somehow it surprises me that time passes and change happens; I look at a photo of myself at 21 and don't feel any different, despite the experiences and friends and things I knew once come and gone. And someone says "Bloody hell, you look so young, I don't even recognise you!", forgetting that beneath the palimpsest of piled up memories, possessions, diary slots and old flames, the fresh-faced Kate is still there, along with painfully introverted Kate, stick-her-hand-down-the-drain-cos-she's-no-girl Kate and vulgar Kate of pub fame.

She's there, being confident and revelling in the fact that she grew her fringe out and learnt to make jokes in public.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Prosaic thoughts interspersed with Lucy

Must get through these emails. Doing so will make me feel more in control of life, aware of my actions, able to prioritise the important tasks according to time urgency and overall importance. It seems a little bit like procrastinating sometimes but there’s some thing satisfying about responding, filing away, flagging and deleting: efficient, officious inbox reduction exercises. I will appear competent and caring.

Lucy Bowen is dead.

The cat is chasing her tail. She looks like a complete nutter. How they brighten up my life these little creatures, with their puzzled faces and their wide eyes, and their total dependence on you. With their mini personalities and their simple pleasedness. I adore them.

Lucy Bowen is dead.

Why does that bloke in the office talk to people like that? He is a bundle of mocking laughter, aggressive criticism, macho lack of self-awareness. He writes emails that read like a stream of consciousness of a computer salesman throwback from Thatcher’s Eighties. He tries to make me laugh along with him at the inconceivable stupidity of everyone who worked here up til now. I want to punch him in the face.

Lucy Bowen is dead.

Somebody has driven into the back of my car and written it off. The guy said straight away it was his fault, and you could see from one look at my vehicle that it was – the boot was all caved in and wouldn’t shut. Anyway he went into the back of me so it’s always going to be his fault. His insurance are giving me the value of my old car but if I get a new one now I don’t want an older one, so I’m going to be out of pocket even though it wasn’t my fault. I think I may have a bit of whiplash but I don’t believe in a claim-blame culture so I’m not going to try and screw him or anything. It’s just really inconvenient because I’m always so busy. I have to give the courtesy car back on Wednesday.

Lucy Bowen is dead.

I went on a date with a bloke who told me “I fancy you but I don’t think we’ve got any chemistry”. He was right. I always thought they were the same thing but they’re not – there are plenty of people I’ve had amazing chemistry with, but never fancied them (which can get you into trouble if they’re a bloke). It made me realise that when you’re looking for a partner, you need three things – chemistry, attraction and timing (CAT!). How the hell do you find this?!

Lucy Bowen is dead.

I can’t stand food pansies – people who throw stuff out after it’s been out of the fridge for a couple of hours, or stick rigidly and naively to use-by dates. Somehow they’re removed from nature, they have a warped view of it. 

Lucy Bowen is dead.

Someone at work sent me some social media guidelines. One of them made me feel sad about the world: “Chat with 3 people you already know. This will help you maintain relationships and keep you top of mind.” I said @davidblowers thanks for the mention! #thisisallbullshit. I thought it was quite witty. I get Facebook for photos and people far away; I get blogs (obv), but Twitter is too self-absorbed and covered in irritating little symbols that look like maths equations. Not pretty.

Lucy Bowen is dead.

I went on Facebook, as I thought of my friend Lucy Bowen, who I went on my gap year with in Jordan in 1999. I knew she was very ill with lung cancer. We had been in touch again before Christmas when I found this out via Facebook. We’d both written each other long letters updating the other on what had happened in our lives since we’d last been in touch ten years ago. How our paths had differed so much, but because we both remembered what pivotal characters we were for each other when we were 18, in a very foreign country, and desperately homesick. I was shy and I had a fringe. Lucy was unbelievably cool and fabulous, confident, glossy-haired, full of herself and adored universally. I grew from being intimidated by this person with whom I didn’t deserve to be friends, from being a retiring shadow trying to get to grips with doing everything with this out-of-my-league surfer chick who wore Tevas, to being her partner in crime, and me being hers. I saw her flaws and fears and vulnerabilities played out in the stark, carpetless bedroom we shared.

We smoked shisha together on our balcony and watched the sprawling, dry city teem below us, with the call to prayer our soundtrack.
We made up stories about people’s lives based on the washing on their line on the roof.
We mopped the floor to the rhythm of Belle and Sebastian.
We went to English pubs underneath hotels and drank ourselves silly, stayed out all night then went into school next day wearing each other’s clothes so that we didn’t look like dirty stop-outs.
We got drunk on beer from the local shop, only to find it was non-alcoholic.
We got addicted to cheese puffs.
We read a Chekhov play to each other in our room. We dressed up as hippies. Every time I put on eyeliner now, I think of Lucy Bowen.
We saw King Hussein’s coffin processed through the streets. We were shocked by the intrusiveness of the foreign media. We met Queen Noor and the royal princesses to pay our respects, having stood in queue of Jordanian women that turned into a crush to get through a tiny door. Christian women and Muslim women chanted at each other angrily. A Bedouin woman with a tattoo on her face showed us a picture of herself with King Hussein.
The ex-pat rugby players chucked us into the swimming pool at the British Embassy. We hung out with the Red Arrows. We were the toast of the ex-pat clique. We looked like we were from an episode of Friends.
We shared tastes and strengths and weaknesses. I cried in the mornings when she was strong and she cried in the evenings when I was strong. We both said we were turning into each other. I grew my fringe out and became tanned.
I went to university and I was Lucy Bowen. I was confident, occasionally crude, cool, wise, popular, well dressed, attractive. Lucy went to university and made friends with a girl with a fringe. I went to visit and watched her rehearse Waiting for Godot under a tree.

I looked on Facebook to see how Lucy was. I found out she was dead.

My morning alarm goes off. I remember afresh that Lucy Bowen is dead.

I walk into a new room.

I remember afresh that Lucy Bowen is dead.

I can’t get my head round it at all.

The view from my eyes this morning

Through the French window, a white apple blossom is backdropped by vivid blue sky, reminiscent of some Japanese tableau. Signs of burgeoning spring are sprouting in the garden; clematis plants casting languishing shadows over the wall as delicious sunlight peppers the outside with its optimism. My fingers smell like eggy bread and music I love reverberates round my walls and the inside of my head. I sink into a crook I am nurturing in the new sofa and experience the curious effect of the blossom image coming to me through a distorting heat mirage, just as fresh, cold, crisp air cools my extremities and nose. I am a panther, or a sloth, or an animal without obligations, away from the emails planning timings perfectionist hum drum rat race corporate bullshit impression managing diarised responsibility fest.

A half hour to just exist, and not live.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Woking: another place, another life

Recently my mate Chappers posted a clip about my hometown, Woking, on Facebook: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ns4J0cpBLDo&sns=fb. Anyone who grew up in a provincial, culturally devoid backwater like Woking will no doubt recognise the jubilant ironic pride with which comedian Rufus Hound advertises modest little Woks as “a place the train goes through” and “where people who can’t afford a house with a garden in London come to rub shoulders with the thick”.

I often think about places and what they mean in the repertoire of locations that form the backdrop to your life. Do people who grew up in places with interesting landscapes – hills and coastlines and big rocks – have a different cognitive functioning to people who spent hours looking at vast expanses of East Anglian sky and flat lines? Which one stimulates the imagination more? What effect does landscape have on your aesthetic sense? How much is the place you became you still in you somewhere?

Although I adored the friends and family that were in my life in Woking, lots of my memories of that place centre around it being a bit of a dive. I spent an amazing gap year in the Middle East, mind being blown by the deafening silence of the desert, whose thick quietude reverberated in my consciousness, and discovering ornate temples and camels and sun-bleached palm trees. But actually, it wasn’t a gap year at all, but a gap six months – the first three of which I spent feeling horridly homesick for mundane Woking, for the dodgy village characters in the Hare and Hounds and the tidy domestication of the Peacocks Shopping Centre. And before I went to Amman, Jordan, I worked in Burger King, Woking for six months – a full-time till drone selling flame-grilled burgers and greasy fries to Woking’s tired shoppers, screaming brats and disillusioned office workers.

I realised during a recent conversation with my colleagues that my Burger King days were rather amusing. One of my managers was a scary lesbian with a mullet who had a bit of a soft spot for me, and would give me my choice of shifts (I didn’t work one Sunday the whole time I was there). On a busy day she’d pair up with me, putting the orders on the tray as I put them through the till and took the cash (I don’t think it was just her who called this set-up “backing”…). On one particularly cringe-worthy occasion, a customer asked for a blueberry muffin, which I will remember for the rest of my life cost 69p. This is because, just after I smilingly said to the customer “That’s 69p please!”, my manager leant over and whispered in my ear “That’s my favourite number”. I hope you are shuddering in horror just as I do every time I remember this.

Burger King was in fact one of the first times I felt professionally competent. It was my first paid job. I had to wear a baseball cap and two badges on each of my bosoms that said “GO LARGE FOR ONLY 30P” and “BIG KING: 100% EXTRA BEEF”. But I was also really good. It doesn’t seem like much to say, but actually learning where every menu item is on a huge till and pressing the keys in the right combination was surprisingly difficult (I had several restless, sweaty dreams about how to put through a chicken royale meal with extra cheese). Once I had this mastered, I was awesome. I felt like a robot, sliding around the tiled floor in fluid, mechanical movements, knowing exactly how far to stretch my arm to reach the coke button and which order to pick things up in to make the transaction fast and perfect. I was a stalwart of till 4 – the one in the middle that needed somebody efficient to clear the queue quickly. And even now I get annoyed when I go into a Burger King and they put the food on the tray in wrong order (drink first, and fries shouldn’t be placed on the tray until the burger is ready. Fries have a larger surface area than a burger so go cold more quickly. I’m serious).

It was also the first time I got loads of male attention. There were a couple a geeky blokes who came in every day and ordered the same thing for lunch. It got to the stage where they’d only let me serve them and I’d say “usual?” as if they were regulars in a pub with their own personal tankard. Then one of them gave me a teddy bear with his phone number written on the label! I even got chatted up by Father Christmas. He sent one of his elves in from his grotto (in the bandstand outside BK) with a card from him with a Polaroid of himself on the front, his beard pulled down and waving, with his number inside. Funny how desperate people assume you must be if you work full time in a fast-food place.

I also got a series of love letters in French from a Moroccan guy I befriended who worked in the kitchen (if you can call it that). They were beautifully written, which was a shame because I had no interest in him whatsoever.

How could someone with a reasonable brain get enjoyment out of such a job, I hear you ask? Well, it proved to me that if a job’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing properly, no matter how ‘beneath’ you it might seem. To me, there is no point in doing a bad job of anything. And doing a full-time job that involved scooping solid lumps of white lard from a metal trolley into a chip fryer, counting the number of wasted burgers each day from the bin, and dealing with customers who bring food back an hour and a half after buying it to complain that it is cold means that you get a proper sense of perspective about what you don’t want to do and where you don’t want to be. It allows you to passionately embrace all the wonderful things about life and relish your more prestigious successes. It reminds you that you don’t want to hang around outside the Firkin smoking weed or hear stories about people committing suicide by jumping off the Toys-R-Us multi-story car park.

Nonetheless, a few years and a first-class degree later, I took a temp job at NRS Direct Care, a company that delivered mobility equipment to disabled and elderly people in their homes. I think I thought I’d be living by my values and helping people. Little did I know that NRS was the most depressing, useless and negligent corner of the Sheerwater Business Park. The company was so bafflingly incompetent at providing a decent service to the most vulnerable people in our area that it made us all bad at our jobs. We’d bullshit and let people down at every turn. The only form of escape was Thursday nights out with colleagues in the eponymous Woking, getting shitfaced in whichever hideous club was popular that month (there aren’t enough people in Woking to keep more than one seedy after-hours joint going at a time). Then we’d all come into the office on Friday hungover to shit, and take turns napping on the Airwave mattress in the showroom downstairs (usually for people with severe bedsores).

Thankfully after six months of genuine stuck-in-a-ruttedness, I realised that this wasn’t ME, and got a job selling books in Waterstones. And Waterstones is in Guildford, a town I could passably associate myself with. A pleasing feeling of being surrounded by knowledge and enlightenment. A pretence that even though it was a retail job, existence could not be vacuous in a bookshop. Creeping away from the bleakness of small town Woking. Just like BK, NRS gave me the impulsion to do something else, to grab life and appreciate it – and that’s when I did my Masters degree, became a part-time editor, and the rest is history.

And now I live in Oxford. A place that feels intellectual and cultural and that I am so proud to call home. Even though I still sometimes call Woking “home”! You can take the girl out of Woking, but…?

So what is ‘home’ anyway? Just a concept of a place, and how you feel you belong or not to it. Not the solid walls and architecture and street furniture and bandstands and Ashmoleans. It’s the life you create for yourself and the things you do to make yourself feel fulfilled. It’s the prospect of a better life. It’s the hope that some day soon, you will do something great that will justify your parasitical existence on this earth. It’s your own imagining of home. It’s created by you.