Saturday, 8 November 2014

Remember for Hedgehogs!

My handiwork with whiteboard pens at work this week.
After yesterday's rather serious post, I woke up exorcised of my working-week-demons and felt splendid this morning. I do love Saturday mornings in bed listening to Classic FM and contemplating my two days of free time. It's the weekend! The WEEKEND!!! Let's have some fun!

This week London has been ablaze with firework displays throughout the city and the constant soundtrack of explosions has commenced each night since Monday as soon as the sun goes down each evening. Yep, it is Bonfire Night! Otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Night, the night that commemorates Mr Fawkes' failed attempt to blow up Parliament (and the King) in 1605. Sadly for Guy Fawkes, the endeavor did not go well for him and he ended up being caught, hung, drawn and quartered a year later (luckily this is not how we treat our criminals nowadays). Obviously most of this is glossed over when families take their kids to bonfire parties in local parks and we all gaze into the night's sky and ooh and aah over big firework displays organised by the various city councils. Tonight my husband and I will be attending the big Battersea Park fireworks display and I am very excited. I love fireworks. I just adore them. I go all wide-eyed, mouth hanging open and silent with wonder when viewing a display of rockets and catherine-wheels. I actually quite like fire (not in an illegal arsonist sort of way) and I love a big bonfire. I am always mesmerised by street performers that juggle with fire or blow fire outwards using those stick fire implements and gasoline. I actually knew someone once who set fire to his own face while doing one of those tricks and although I knew that I should not be impressed with such stupidity, I was ashamed to admit I was kind of in awe of him. I called him the 'Fire-eater' from then on, which I think he really liked.

Anyway, Bonfire Night actually takes place on 5th November (not today). But each year it has got more and more elaborate and the firework displays have got bigger and bigger and the celebration has lasted over days and then sometimes over a week or two (and extending from the fireworks popping in people's gardens over Halloween and Diwali the month before), which all means a time period of at least a month during which it sounds like suburban London is under attack. This does not bother me that much but it does bother my mother, who finds it all a bit tiresome after a week or two and then there are the millions of cats and dogs in London who don't understand the reason for fireworks and hate the sound of screeching and popping rockets. One of my husband's friends, who is partially sighted and owns a guide-dog (named Elvis), spends most of Bonfire Night awake as Elvis, a heavy dog (he is part Labrador, part Alsatian, which makes for an interesting guide-dog mix), sits on his head out of fear and stress from all the fireworks going off outside, while he is in bed during the night. This means little sleep for Elvis' owner. When I was a child, my pet cats used to creep about hunched close to the ground, mewing pitifully on Bonfire Night. If I picked one of them up, they would burying their head in my armpit in attempt to muffle the noise of the explosions. I did used to feel very sorry for them. No amount of reassurance, cuddling or petting ever made them feel better. It is not just pets that suffer at this time of year. I read in the news that wildlife charities were asking people to check their bonfires for hedgehogs, since they like to reside in dense wood and foliage.

Illustration by Sophie Corrigan
The British Hedgehog Preservation Society says:

Every year an unknown number of hedgehogs die or suffer horrific injuries because bonfire piles are not checked before being lit. To save hedgehogs and other wildlife from appalling suffering the British Hedgehog Preservation Society (BHPS) urges that bonfires should not be built until the day they are to be lit. This will not only save wildlife from burning to death but will also stop the bonfire from getting soaked should it rain the night before! Fay Vass, Chief Executive of BHPS, said “Piles of bonfire material look like five star hotels to a hedgehog in search of a hibernation site. It is crucial to dismantle and move bonfire material that has been stored in advance on open ground. Move it to another spot just before lighting. Ensure it’s moved to clear ground - never on top of a pile of leaves as there could be a hedgehog underneath, and not too close to pampas grass which can ignite very easily and is another favourite spot for hedgehogs to hide under.”

So check your bonfires people! There is no need for local wildlife to suffer simply for our pleasure.

So other than enjoying the local firework displays, lately I have been up to the following:

  • Knitting! I am attempting to knit again. This time I am actually going to make something useful. I have started like all crappy knitters with the most simple thing I could find: a scarf! I am using a nice bright yellow chunky wool and 10mm needles and hopefully I will end with a nice scarf that I can wear with my new navy blue wool winter coat. I sort of need to get a move on though because the days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder and I will need a woolly scarf very soon!
My yellow scarf in chunky wool
  • I successfully helped my husband buy a new winter coat. This might not seem like such an achievement, but trust me it is an event with massive implications for years to come. My husband hates shopping. He hates it like he hates going to the dentist to have his teeth cleaned or driving on the circular road that encircles Tunbridge Wells. Getting my husband to buy new clothing is probably one of the biggest trials I have ever experienced. It is up there in my list of unpleasant experiences with de-boning a week old rabbit carcass and squeezing the suet off a lamb's liver on Christmas eve to make a seasonal pie (biggest mistake ever). So when we managed to buy a coat that is not only stylish and warm but also looks fantastic on him in less than 30 minutes of shopping, I felt as if shop assistants should come out of the aisles of clothing with party poppers, a brass band and celebratory glass of champagne. Who would have thought it was possible! Best part of the whole experience? Watching my husband walk down the street in his new coat feeling good about himself and his appearance (which is hard for anyone in this day and age) with an extra spring in his step! 
  • I have fallen in Love with Sir David Attenborough all over again. Not that my love for this nature journalist has ever gone away, but it has been a while since he did a documentary series for the BBC and he is back! The new series that he narrates is called Life Story and follows some the unbelievable journeys that animals have to make through life lived in the wild.

It it s a great series full of amazing camera work and lots of interesting species I knew nothing about. There are some hair-raising moments such as the cliff jump made by Barnacle Goose goslings in Greenland:

You have to wonder if mother nature could not have made things a bit easier for this species! David Attenborough's voice is so perfect for wildlife documentary television that I wish he could do all documentaries on everything. In fact I wish he made tapes of him reading poetry so I could play them while falling asleep. He could even do the announcements on buses and London Underground. I seriously think everyone would be a lot less stressed if he did.
  • In the last month I have also started to listen to some new music. Lately I have been listening to a new band called London Grammar. My favourite song of theirs is called 'Strong.'

So the video is a tad weird. A father and daughter engage in some highly dangerous and flammable behaviour in what looks like an industrial estate for no apparent reason (something I would definitely would not recommend adding to your Bonfire Night festivities), but the song is really nice and relaxing and works a treat at keeping my blood pressure down on the Northern Line tube during rush hour. 

Anyway enough rambling! There is knitting to be done! Fireworks to view! Tea to be drunk! Have a good Saturday night everyone, wherever you are :)

Friday, 4 July 2014

The Friday Video

Ever felt like you were being watched by someone or something? This Friday's Video is centred on that theme....

Researchers set up camera.

Kitty discovers camera.

The cat is a Pallas Cat, a wild feline that lives in Central Asia.

Happy Independence Day!

So today is the 4th July! American Independence Day! The 4th July is a federal holiday in the United States commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, declaring independence from the Kingdom of Great Britain. This is an interesting day amongst my circle of family and friends since I am married to a British royalist and I am the child of American republicans who adopted Britain as their home about 20 years ago. Personally I don't believe in empires, so hey, I will celebrate the independence of a nation escaping from the clutches of another one, situated across a giant ocean. Plus it means we get to eat hot-dogs and watch fireworks on the internet. On the other hand I have not in recent years been particularly impressed with America's foreign policy or military decisions so I am not sure I want to applaud the US' day of self-congratulating. And the American idea of 'freedom' does not sit all that well with me either, since essentially, I am really a socialist and believe in such schemes as higher taxation, state-funded healthcare and state-subsidised higher education and state-run transport. So perhaps I should shun the idea of celebrating American values. I supposed I have to wonder what the Founding Fathers would think of today's America. If the country turned out how they would have liked it to?

My facebook feed this morning is dominated by friends one either side of the great pond. British people jokingly put up photos of the British Queen dismissing the US and Americans post memes of the American Bald Eagle smugly declaring his freedom. All of it is very good natured. Even the Welsh tourist board has wished Americans everywhere a happy independence day mentioning:

Did you know one of the memorial stones on the Washington Monument is inscribed with the Welsh words:

“Fy iaith, fy ngwlad, fy neghenedl, Cymru – Cymru am byth”
“My language, my land, my nation, Wales – Wales forever.”

It is said that 20 per cent of the Pilgrim Fathers of America were Welsh and that almost 50 per cent of the signatories to the American Declaration of Independence were also Welsh or of Welsh heritage. And right there is the reason why I should celebrate Independence Day. Because no matter what state the US is in today, it is still one of the largest countries in the world to embrace other cultures and rejoice in the diversity of its own population. Many national monuments or works of art in the US were built to showcase the mixed heritage of the nation. Just think of the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants entering the US from Ellis Island in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The statue, built and designed by the French, is of a robed female figure representing Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, who bears a torch and a tabula ansata (a tablet evoking the law) upon which is inscribed the date of the American Declaration of Independence. A broken chain lies at her feet. The statue is an icon of freedom and of the United States. In 1984, the statue was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UNESCO "Statement of Significance" describes the statue as a "masterpiece of the human spirit" that "endures as a highly potent symbol—inspiring contemplation, debate and protest—of ideals such as liberty, peace, human rights, abolition of slavery, democracy and opportunity." The Declaration of Independence itself contains one of the most fantastic sentences ever written in human history: 

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

And if you ask me, aside from just an excuse to eat a large hot-dog and blue, white and red food colouring in a cupcake, an ideal such as all men (and women!) being created equal  is a great reason to celebrate Independence Day. Because the founding principles of the United States of America are still important and relevant today. If only the US government could adopt free healthcare for all and pass stricter gun control laws....sigh...

Anyway, let's lighten up the tone of this post with a photo of a patriotic hamster:

Enjoy your day Folks!

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The Mammoth Berry

Long time, No write! And I'm back from outer space and on cyberspace yet again with today's blog entry. I have been very busy recently recovering from a chest infection (bleugh! cough! splutter!) and applying for new jobs. I got an interview recently and after some careful consideration, they gave me the job! So in two weeks I will be going to work near the Strand in Central London for a famous University! I am very excited. I cannot wait to start the new job and go to the free public lectures on campus, peruse the local coffee shops, student library and the comfy staff room. I am hoping that this new position will allow me to have a better/work life balance and give me the opportunity to spend more time amongst like-minded people and perhaps even do a course or two at the surrounding colleges.

It is weird to leave my current job though. After three and half years, I only have to give a month's notice and then, bam! I am gone! So I am trying to condense a whole 3 years worth of knowledge into a simple 1 month handover for my colleagues. My whole team are acting quite nonchalant about me leaving, but I do detect some hints of panic under their calm exteriors. I do a lot of work for my team and the students and I am sure I am just a small replaceable cog in a big machine, but in my time at the Business School I do think I have made my mark as a valuable employee. The problem with many workplaces is that they don't make enough of an effort to keep their lower level staff and so they have problems with staff retention and high employee turnover. Sure you can hire another Administrator/Secretary/Receptionist any time you need to. It is an employer's market, there are so many young people out there wanting and needing jobs. But it takes time and money to recruit, hire and train new staff and in the meantime the current staff are run ragged by doing extra work and cover other people's jobs. I have seen it time and time again. Companies losing people who are especially good at their jobs because employers refuse to invest enough in their staff.

I learned a lot working for the Business School. I appreciate the opportunities that were given to me here and the friends I have made, but so much of my life, dreams and ambitions were put on the back-burner in favour of work. I had complained about the lack of work/life balance to my current employers many times and my concerns had always fallen on deaf ears. After one particularly bad month this Spring, I decided it was time for me to move on. And so moving on is what I am doing. I am eternally grateful to my family and friends for supporting me during this time and giving me the confidence boost I needed to believe in myself. I always felt I never fitted in at work (not in all my previous jobs, but I felt ill at ease in this one particularly) and sometimes when you don't feel as if you fit with the culture around you, you can lose confidence in yourself. 
So I'm off! And I am already making a set of new resolutions for my new workplace and all sorts of plans of how I want to develop my hobbies outside of work! 

Anyway, other things that have happened in my life recently are.....
  • Today I ate a Pimm's Trifle. This may not sound like news. But it is. Big news. The catering company on campus had a small food extravaganza based on the theme of Wimbledon. I have no interest in Wimbledon. I enjoy playing the occasional bout of tennis, but I have never really enjoyed watching it on TV, so the tournament holds little excitement for me (sorry Dad!). But food? Now FOOD is something I can get excited about! Photographing food? I get even more excited! Check out the photos below:
Check out that smoked Salmon!

The catering staff very kindly sold me a Pimm's Trifle (I love a bit of custard, cream, cake sponge and jelly) and gave me three huge strawberries. I have never seen strawberries so big!

Of course I immediately took loads of photos with the strawberry in my hand to show the size of the summer strawberries. For scientific reasons of course. To give perspective.

See the size of this thing? I could practically use it as a weapon and throw it at people. Not that I did that. This beast of a fruit went straight in my belly.
  • Anyway, moving husband and I have decided to get a cat. Not any time soon (our landlord won't let us and we might want to have kids in the next few years before we adopt an animal), but having both been raised with pets, we mutually decided recently that one day we will own a cat. I have yet to persuade my husband to agree to a little dog, but I have faith that if I persevere over many years, I will eventually get him to agree to a little mongrel. I will name the cat Athena and the dog Totoro. I would just love to return home from a long hard day's work, put my feet up with a cup of tea and stroke a pet that comes to sit on my lap. Someday, someday.....

  • I have started listening to whole load of new music on my commute to and from work. My favourite at the moment is Ben Howard. I especially like his song 'Old Pine.' He sings about camping in the summer and the trees and I find it really peaceful when I am squished on a crowded tube train or answering emails in the office.

  • So while I listen to Ben Howard on the train, I am also currently reading a really great book called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Gretchen Rubin is a writer living in New York who decided to do an experiment of trying to improve/increase her happiness levels over the course of a year. I have only read the first two chapters but I have already got lots of ideas on how I can make myself happier. She makes it clear that the project was not about making her go from unhappy to happy. She is already relatively happy in life, the point of the experiment is to boost her happiness so that she hits the top of her range of contentedness. I especially like the idea of this theory. I want to be as content as I can be in life!
  • Oh and last but not least. I recently celebrated my birthday. I turned the ripe old age of 31. No wait, I mean I celebrated turning 25 again for the 6th year in a row! My birthday was an interesting experience but that is a post for another day..... 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Mid-Week Video: Saturday Morning Musical Pain

It is that time again! The middle of the week. And what better way to get over the 'hump' that is Wednesday, than with a mid-week video. This week I have chosen a film made by a long suffering father, over a 3 month period, showing his average Saturday morning with his young daughter. The father is at home with his youngest child while his wife takes the eldest to her weekend dance class. Obviously the younger daughter also wants to the most annoying music..ever...made.

Awwww, Dads! Don't we just love our fathers. They have had to put up with so much throughout our lives. Bless 'em!

NB: the father is deliberately pulling bad tempered expressions to make the video funnier.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

When You Are Not At Work, It Is Amazing What You Can Do

Japanese Afternoon Tea
Did I mention I had Thursday and Friday off work this week? No? Yep! I am currently enjoying a four day weekend (lucky me!) and I am soooooo relaxed! A concert and dinner on Thursday and yesterday - what an action packed day I had! (including walking around 9 miles in town)

Highlights include:

  • Waking up, having a cup of coffee in my favourite mug and reading Flow magazine while listening to The Vitamin String Quartet: (a string quartet that does classical string versions of popular songs)

  • Taking my mum for Japanese Afternoon Tea (complete with champagne and green tea - not at the same time!).While sitting in the Hilton London Bridge Hotel, chewing sushi and munching on macaroons (which felt very decadent and rather naughty), who should walk in a sit down beside us at the next table but Max Clifford! My mum gasped and of course this led to a discussion about him shamelessly making a fortune from the PR of numerous scandals and his alleged sexual abuse and harassment of young girls (when my mother and I get together, we can pretty much talk for hours about EVERYTHING. It's the combined talent of two chatterboxes and is pretty awesome to witness, unless of course, you are a person looking for some peace and quiet - then it is just plain annoying). Trust good ol' Max to incite such a conversation and lower the tone of the afternoon.....
  • After Max left and our conversation about his arrest and sexual abuse trial had come to a conclusion, we went for a walk along the river and through Borough Market and there was so much to see:
Playing in the mini city
A City Thrush
A Monkfish in Borough Market....not be confused with Max Clifford, despite the resemblance...
Awesome looking Tomatoes!
Awesome looking Mushrooms!
Origami Street Art - Revolt! Revolt with Paper Craft!
Umbrella Street Art - a great place for a beer if it is raining....
A life-saving London Pigeon
Obviously the Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland went this way.....
Some beloved but abandoned art.
  • Later that evening I ate Pad Thai (I have had it twice in 24 hours - oh the shame!) and went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier at the local cinema. Obviously a review will follow on this blog in the next day or so, after I have formulated my thoughts into some sort of coherent prose. 
It is amazing what you can do when you are not work. Perhaps we should all work less? Perhaps the weekend should be 4 days instead of two? I won't hold my breath, as I know the working week is unlikely to change. Oh well, in around 35 years or so I will finally be able to retire. DEEP SIGH.....

Friday, 4 April 2014

Leaving the Planet and Walking off the Earth

So last night, after a lovely dinner of Thai and Malaysian food at restaurant called Penang! (my husband exclaiming: 'Man! This is good!' while eating a lemon grass flavoured Crème brûlée), I took my husband to a gig at Shepherds Bush Empire for his birthday. It was a complete surprise for him because he had no idea which band he was going to see and I had only seen the band play on YouTube and so had no idea what to expect.

So no expectations. No idea. And what a surprise it was! What a great performance, what a great band and what a great night! Walk Off The Earth became famous because of one little YouTube video, a bit like Justin Bieber, but a lot nicer and more talented. The video that launched them into stardom was a recording of all the members of the band playing the same guitar and singing a cover of Gotye's Somebody I Used To Know

Since then they have done lots of covers and rearrangements of popular songs, but have also recorded their own album with their original songs (which a great and very lively). They play all sorts of musical instruments and constantly swap instruments during a performance, using all sorts of strange items to create percussion and it quickly became clear during the first song that they were very talented musicians.

Walk Off The Earth and their many instruments
There were lots of great fun touches, such as covering the drums (that they beat with abandon) with powdered glitter, so that with each vibration of the instrument, the air shimmered and danced around them. When they finished playing a guitar or trumpet they threw their instruments high into the air and their technical crew rushed on stage to catch them and carry them off stage. As the evening went on, the band threw their instruments higher and higher into the air so that every time a ukulele flew across the stage, the whole audience held their breath and then gasped when someone rushed forward to catch it. Cleverly they had canons either side of the stage that shot glittered paper at the singing and bouncing audience and what a reaction the huge balloons falling from the ceiling caused. The crowd bounced about pushing the balloons higher and higher into the air. And all of this was happening in Shepherds Bush Empire, which is actually quite a small theatre and so the effect was quite magical. It was very exciting and the crowd all singing together and dancing really gave my husband and I are huge buzz. Humans are naturally social animals and that much excitement and joy all experienced simultaneously by a crowd is quite contagious.
Balloons, dry ice, sparkled paper and a fierce drum beat - time to party!
Half way through the gig, the band brought on a young man who was a competition winner. They explained that he had apparently won a prize. He came on stage looking a bit shocked and accompanied by his bewildered girlfriend. 'Wow!' He exclaimed nervously, 'There are a lot of people here tonight!' The crowd roared and cheered in response. 'Sing!' someone in the crowd yelled. Then he turned towards his girlfriend and said 'There is something I want to ask you.' The crowd all gasped. 'I asked your father last week,' the young man continued, 'And he gave his permission and blessing. Jenny, would you marry me?' He took out a ring and the whole crowd went wild. 'Yes!' she cried and nodded emphatically and began to cry and they embraced for a passionate kiss. The whole band jumped up and down on stage and Shepherds Bush Empire was filled with so much sound (laughing, shouting, clapping and cheering) that it felt like we were flying off the earth inside a jumbo jet engine.

After the last song, which was titled: Summer Vibe, during which the whole crowd sang along and wished for summer (something us British desperately need - especially clear skies after all the pollution from Europe and the sand from the Sahara choking up the city this week), the band asked for a photo to be taken with the audience and below was the result:

We are way up on the back level somewhere with our hands up
We all spilled out into the street afterwards and people were so excited that they danced and sang across Shepherds Bush Green towards the Tube station. Right in the middle of the Green are two weird sculptures probably put up by the council called Gaoloid sculptures (whatever that means).

The adult playground that is actually just pretentious public art
On the other side of the sculptures, across the park, is an actual playground for kids, so I think people just assumed that this might be a playground for adults. Plus the sculptures revolve when pushed by a human. They sort spin slowly. Except there are big signs everywhere telling people not to climb on them. So what happens when you mix two big revolving sculptures and a group of excited-semi-drunk-high-on-live-music adults? It was insane! One woman ran around the sculptures pushing them so they revolved faster and faster, while lots of young men (a social group that always seem to be willing to do something physically foolish), hung on for dear life and spun high into the air with their legs flailing outwards. More and more people climbed the supposedly non-climbable sculptures and it looked as if my husband was considering it, until I told him that if he did so and broke a bone, I was not going to take him to A&E. The last time my husband got drunk and did something physically foolish (bowling over enthusiastically while pissed on beer), he managed to damage his back and needed to stay home from work for almost 3 weeks. Quite reasonably, I had assumed he had learned his lesson. Guess not....

Anyway this lead my husband to the idea of creating adult playgrounds. Hey why not? Why should kids have all the fun? It is sort of true that as we grow up, we seem to forget how to play and become all serious. But we still love to climb, to spin and show me a person who does not love to sit on swing? Perhaps I should patent this idea?

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Lisa Lân

The humble yet mighty courgette
Last night I had dinner with my father (which was a first step towards spending less time online and more time face to face with family and friends). We went to a lovely Italian restaurant called Da Mario. The meal was amazing and I made sure to really properly taste it. I had veal cooked in Marsala wine with black truffle, garlic spinach, fried courgettes and roast potatoes. Awww lovely! I was right royally spoiled!

Is there anything more fantastic than fried courgettes? Or garlicky spinach? I could probably eat both every day if I was given half the chance.

Anyway, after a delightful dinner with the fantastic company of my own father, I came home to snooze in bed and listen to Classic FM on the radio and heard the most lovely song: Lisa Lân sung by Katherine Jenkins, a prominent Welsh opera singer. I just thought it was such beautiful tune, both romantic and also sort of melancholy. In my opinion all the best love songs have a melancholy edge to them. After all, love is wonderful but it is also intense and can make a person heartsick with longing.

Lisa Lân is a traditional Welsh folk tune that is actually sung in the Welsh language and being a 1/4 Welsh myself, I am interested in most things Welsh (I am also 1/4 Armenian and Polish and 1/8 German and Swiss and of course flattened over all of it is my American and British heritage - don't worry I give them all equal time and attention, as well as other cultures I am fascinated by such as Japan, Ancient Greece (can I include that?!) and more recently Cambodia (don't ask me why!)). Anyway, I love this song and its spooky tune. And in honor of my dear husband's 31st birthday today, I am going to play it for him while I serve him tea and breakfast in bed.

The lyrics are (translated from Welsh):

Full many a time I came to woo,
Oft, Lisa I came a courting you;
I kissed your lips when we did meet,
No honey ever was so sweet

My dainty branch, my only dear,
No woman comes your beauty near;
'Tis you who with my passion play
'Tis you who steals my life away

When I go walking through the day,
My lovesick heart will turn to clay,
And but to hear the small birds sing,
The longing to my soul will bring

When'er at eve I walk apart,
Like wax will melt my lovesick heart,
And but to hear the small birds sing,
The longing to my soul will bring

Ah, will you come to bid good-bye,
When in the earth my form must lie?
I hope you too will there be found,
When men shall lay me in the ground

The longing to my soul will bring
The longing to my soul will bring

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The Age of The Overload of Information

The coffee and scallop shaped spoon I enjoyed in Streatham
The last week has been a bit of a wash out for me. I was sick with some sort of virus and then I had one long headache that lasted around 6 days. Practically a whole week of what felt like little gnomes attacking my temples with tiny pickaxes. Apart from a brief excursion to take the car for an MOT in Streatham (which took much longer than I had expected and was a lot more boring than I anticipated - although the experience has led to my husband referring to the car as 'our little Silver Steed' and doing horse impressions while driving the newly repaired vehicle. We also did get to have lunch and coffee in a very cute coffee shop called Brooks and Gao) and then on Saturday night to have dinner with my parents (where my dad tried out his new Veal Stew on my stomach), I spent around 5 days indoors in darkened rooms with various damp cloths on my forehead in attempt to cool down my feverish brain.

Yesterday was the first day that I re-entered the land of the living. After several days indoors, everything seems very bright and I feel a little bit disorientated, but it does feel good to get back to active life. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, spring is here and the trees are blooming with blossoms. I still feel a bit unsettled though. I missed a lot when I was off work – two workshops, a meeting, some free cheesecake samples and lots and lots of emails. I have also missed personal appointments such as a photography course session, emails from friends, a dinner date and a bookclub meeting. The fact of the matter is I simply don’t have time for illness. There are no spare days in my calendar reserved for the possibility of me coming down with The Lurgy and having to take to my bed. Staring at the 150 plus emails in my work inbox this morning, I started wondering if I actually ever have enough time for…well…anything. My whole life seems to be calculated down to the minute. My work calendar is filled with reminders and meetings, my personal diary is chock-a-block with tasks and appointments and all my email inboxes are besieged with emails day and night. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the amount of tasks I have to complete on any given day of any given week. That novel I was going to write, keeps getting squeezed aside in favour of a whole host of other important things I need to do first.

In a tiny moment of desperation when I was having trouble getting out of bed on Sunday morning (headache, sore limbs and a feeling of weary exhaustion), I wailed to my husband (who has been suffering from insomnia recently and so not feeling all that well himself) that I felt overwhelmed and that all the things I really wanted to do with my life, I did not have time for. ‘I don’t have time to sit down and read a book! I don’t have time to do any photography! I have not even started doing any creative writing! I barely have time to knit!’

Then he uttered the fateful words: ‘You do spend a lot of time on the internet though.’

I paused. I thought about this for a moment and then said, ‘I think I was happier 5 years ago. I had a longer attention span. I read books all the way through without skipping to the end. I didn't worry so much. My confidence in myself was stronger. I worried less.’

My husband sighed and said: ‘You were on the internet a lot less then. And you didn't have an iPad.’

And I thought about it and you know what, he was right! My husband and I will be 31 this year. We are the generation that have lived through one of the biggest and fastest technological revolutions in human history. When I was born computers were giant desktop machines that used floppy disks and were not present in every home. My parents even still played music using records and a record player when I was a baby. In my lifetime computers have become part of our everyday life and in the last 5 – 10 years technology such as iPads and blackberries have shot into our personal lives with such ferocity and speed that we barely have time to think about how and when we use these items and what effect they have on our mental health. 10 years ago I did not even use a digital camera, I was still processing old fashioned film and I certainly did not have an iPad, capable of dominating my waking moments with all sorts of seductive distractions such as Facebook, Pinterest, BBCIplayer and Netflix. In my defence I did not actually buy the iPad, it was given to me as a reward for working so hard in my job (another profession dominated by a computer on a daily basis). But since I have had the iPad, I have spent an unprecedented amount of time on the internet and I am not sure it has done me any good.

A computer from 1983 - the year I was born....
Obviously I am not against technology, the internet or computers. It would be a bit hypocritical of me to make such a claim since I am currently writing a blog on a computer to publish on the internet. But it is strange that the technology that is designed to supposedly make our lives so much easier, often makes our lives more overwhelming and demanding. We humans have the amazing ability to develop technology (airplanes with giant jet engines, TV, internet, mobile computers), which we then vastly over-use to the extent that they ruin our quality of life and threaten the existence of our planet. I guess we hoped that some of this technology would liberate us and have unknowingly ended up enslaved by it instead. I don’t think it is the technology itself that is the problem, but our misuse of it. Going on Facebook once a week for 20 minutes probably does us no harm, but having Facebook constantly open on your Smartphone 24 hours a day is bound to cause information overload in an individual’s brain and lead to feelings of inadequacy due to them constantly comparing themselves with their online ‘friends.’ Recent studies that came out last month showed that Facebook even had the ability to affect your mood. If you read lots of depressing stories in your newsfeed then you are going to feel depressed and more likely express that on your profile – influencing others also on the site and so on….
...and to think we started out the 20th century riding horses and when many homes did not have electricity and we now have rockets flying people into space and personal computers in our own portable phones that we can check all the time and text people on the other side of the world. The sheer speed of technological change is insane.

Last year, while visiting the headquarters of Ericsson in Sweden with a bunch of business students for work, I was treated to a branding presentation by their marketing team where they excitedly explained that they were working towards building a world where everyone was going to be 'connected' to 'everything and everyone' all of the time via a mobile network or the internet. They showed us a video, which felt a lot like propaganda. They explained that it was a 'human right to have connectivity.' - which I must confess was news to me as I was not aware that having an internet connection was something that we as humans needed to live (unlike the right to marry who we choose or to live without fear of persecution because of our personal beliefs). 'Someday people in the middle of the remote Amazonian rainforest will be able to have instant connectivity to the rest of the world using a single mobile phone!' explained the preppy and excited but deeply serious marketing consultant, while she showed us a photo of a giant telephone mast. I sat there, doodled on my free Ericsson branded pad of paper with my Ericsson branded pen and wondered if anyone living in the remote Amazonian rainforest actually cared about connecting with the rest of the world and if they might prefer not to have a giant telephone mast in their backyard. Ericsson apparently are working for the good of mankind, for the good of 'us'. We should thank them for our instant connections on our iPhones. Everytime we post a photo on Instagram (exercising our human right to share photos of cupcakes and cats sleeping in funny positions), we can thank Ericsson for our ability to send our photos out into the ether. Well done them.

I guess I have a different perspective on constantly being connected. That very same trip to Sweden, I had to constantly compete for the attention of my work colleague, with her two smartphones. And the ironic thing was she was there to do a job and I needed her attention for a few moments every day in order to do mine correctly. I was as important to her, throughout the day, as those two portable electronic devices and she paid far more attention to them than me (the actual flesh and blood person sitting next to her). You can imagine how I felt about 'connectivity' by the time we actually visited Ericsson on the last day of the trip.

So, personally, how do I feel the technological revolution has detrimentally affected me?

1. Rather than easing any burdens I might have, I feel that modern technology and the internet has exhausted me instead.
The problem is that I personally feel that the internet and modern technology in my life does not ease any of my burdens, but exhausts me. Say I want to find a knitting pattern to knit for fun. I go on the internet instead of travelling into town to the haberdashery department at John Lewis on Oxford Street or even just the 5 minute walk to the local library to borrow a knitting book. If the library is closed (say for instance in the middle of the night), no matter! I can just surf the net on my iPad for knitting patterns any time of day or night from the comfort of my own sofa. I don't need to go anywhere. The problem is that I am then besieged with millions of options of knitting patterns and often ideas that will lead me into spending money I probably had no intention of initially spending (because of course I need all the paraphernalia that goes with a pattern etc.). I will be able to see people's photos of their knitting so I can play the comparison game and see how much better their knitting is than mine and then eventually I can see how other people are turning their knitting 'hobby' into an online craft business so that any knitting I might have just done for 'fun' feels redundant and unproductive since I am not actually knitting for any commercial or particular purpose. Information overload, peer comparison, financial pressure and feeling less confident about myself or less enthused about my hobby is a result of extensive use of the internet. Was it really such a burden to WALK to the library or visit the shop in the city to READ a book on knitting patterns and choose from a SMALLER number of choices the one pattern I actually really WANTED? Did the internet actually ease my difficulty or just add to it?

2. Rather than deepening my experience of life, technology has, at times, diluted my all-important relationships. 
I definitely see my friends less. If I saw them face to face as much as we email each other or like each other's statuses on Facebook, then I do believe we would all feel closer and know much more about each other. We would be forging real human bonds and not just communicating one-sidedly with each other. Expelling information at each other like virtual bullets. Downloading our news into each other's inboxes and brains. We seem to 'watch' our friends rather than 'interact' with them or 'make' new friends. If I was online less, I would definitely see my parents more too. I would have more time for them. And at times I do even feel that the computer comes between my husband and I. My husband is a bit technophobic, so he is better at limiting his usage of the internet than I am. But I could easily stay up too late at night surfing the net and reading useless information. It is the information overload from the many emails that husband receives at work each day that makes him tired, irritable and distracted when he comes home in the evening. I know I am not always experiencing him at his best and at times we can both be so stressed that we find it hard to be patient with each other. When we are on holiday (without phones, computers or the internet) we tend to focus on each other more and listen to each other better. We converse in a much more relaxed way and really pay attention to the world around us.

3. By providing so much to consume, modern technology and the internet, has atrophied my ability to create.
Instead of updating apps on my iPad or pinning some picture of a necklace on to my one of my Pinterest boards, I could actually be knitting or writing that novel I have never got round to or using some of my vast collection of art materials and stationary that I have. My creativity has definitely suffered as a result of the internet. I actually knew this fact last year and it has just taken me this long to tear myself away from the seductive lure of the computer and iPad. These devices in themselves promote creativity but do not inspire it or actually lead you to physically being creative and I have to admit to myself that I have not really written a poem or drawn a good picture for a long time now. Even cooking takes a back seat to watching TV or using the mobile phone. I believe technology has provided us with too many distractions, too much information and too much marketed to us to buy, procure and consume, so that we can't actually create anything for ourselves anymore. And I know myself well.....a non-creative Clara without her ability to lose herself in 'flow' is a cranky, stressed and anxious Clara. Technology often renders me passive (with exception of writing this blog and perhaps editing my photos using online software). You can consume information, rather than acting upon it - watch football on TV rather than playing it or buzz out with a cookery programme rather than cooking yourself. The result is that you are viewing a version of reality, but not actually living it. Creativity is important, experiencing reality is important, it is what makes us human. We are spreading ourselves too thin in 21st Century life and I think technology only helps us to spread ourselves thinner, not aid us in living life creatively or deeply.

4. By increasing the speed at which we live, technologies have made us forget how to savour the moment.
There is no denying we live in a fast era. High speed internet, instant text messages, fast food, bullet trains and all the rest. The more we measure time, the more we are determind to fill every moment of it. Plan, plan, plan - that is all I seem to do - both at work and in my personal life. The demands of our daily lives are outreaching and overwhelming our personal resources. We have too much information to absorb and not enough time. This painful imbalance is itself very largely caused by our misuse and over-use of technology. Too many over-long commutes, too many online realities, the constant stream of info, too many late nights and premature mornings. I often wonder what my grandmother or great-grandmother's mornings must have been like compared to mine. I am sure they must have worked hard, but were they so time pressured? Were their expectations lower? Their lives lived more naturally?
I have noticed that since using the internet daily, I struggle to sit still or quietly. I can't commute now without some sort of distraction - be it The Kindle or my iPod. My own thoughts no longer simply just occupy me now and I struggle to read a book all the way through without jumping from one chapter to another. I lose sight of the smells, the tastes, the temperature and air around me. I desperately try to recall what I did last week and I can't remember. My brain is overloading with information and I am always racing somewhere. No wonder I can't sit still. And don't even mention meditation. How am I supposed to clear my mind of thoughts when I can't even slow down on the weekends? I believe that technology has made it harder for us to live in the present and the savour the moment because we are always looking for the next thing and constantly being updated all the time by our mobile devices.
Gemma Correll's excellent cartoon showing how meditation is extremely difficult nowadays. 
It is not all bad. I am not advocating the complete non-usage of technology. After all a high speed train can take you from London to Paris in less than a day, the internet means you can Skype a friend across the other side of the world, who you otherwise might never see and technological advances in medical science means many lives have been saved over the last century. But over-usage of technology is what I object to and what I am going to try to do for myself is to limit my usage of technology on a daily basis. I am going to not 'over-use' it. That means less time on Facebook and the internet. It means only going online each day to write my blog (which I do consider creative in itself) and check my emails....once! It means more time away from a computer and spent outside in the world, more footballs kicked in the park, more letters written to my family and friends abroad, more pictures painted with just my hand, some paint and a brush and more books read using a book with pages and my own god-given eyes. I am not going to buy a Smartphone and I am going to continue to use my old phone that does not have access to the internet. I am going to ration the iPad usage and I am going to comprehensively measure my screen-time usage (that means film watching, internet usage etc.) to see if I can limit the amount of time I spend each day staring at electronic devices. I need to put technology back in its place - as a tool to be used with moderation - instead of the over-riding addiction it has become.

If I had been on the internet instead of taking a walk, I would have missed this. NB. this photo was not taken on a mobile phone and I did not post it on Facebook. I am pretty sure this tree was planted without the use of the internet.
After all, I need time to see the trees blossom, to lie around and stare at the blue sky and daydream, to live in the present and savour the moment. I am going to make time for me. I am going to make time to be sick if I have to be and to converse with my husband, to paint some pictures, send some letters, to visit my friends and finally start that novel! And instead of just listening to music all the time on an iPod, I am going to play it out loud and sing-a-long (whatever I might sound like). Spare a thought for my neighbors!

But of course, this is just my own opinion and I fully expect the digital world to keep turning and my peers to go on being plugged into their Smartphones, regardless of what I preach. I might not be right, there are lots of alternative views and arguments out there, but this is what I FEEL and although it might be harder to walk these days than run in a never-ending race, I am determined to walk....slowly....and the smell the flowers as I go.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

I Know Where I'm Going, And I Know Whose Going With Me.....

"I've never seen a picture which smelled of the wind and rain in quite this way nor one which so beautifully exploited the kind of scenery people actually live with, rather than the kind which is commercialised as a show place." – Raymond Chandler

This year it is the 69th anniversary of  Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's romantic film, I Know Where I'm Going and the BBC is celebrating the milestone by showing the film on BBC 2 and a documentary about the making of the feature. I don't actually own a TV but I do have access to BBC IPlayer so I can watch programmes after they have been broadcast without having to buy a TV licence. (for all of those you who live outside of the UK - in Britain you need a licence to watch 'live' TV).

Anyway I jumped at the chance to watch this film again. I actually already own it on DVD and have seen it a million times, but I love it. Like Casablanca, it is a classic, albeit less well known. The film tells the story of a young woman called Joan Webster (played by the lovely and lively Wendy Hiller), who thinks she knows exactly where her life is headed and has everything planned out for her future down to the minute detail. She is ambitious and independent and has decided that the best thing for her future is to marry a much older industrialist, Sir Robert Bellinger who has rented a small Scottish Island for them to get married on. As she travels up to the island to meet and marry him, she encounters bad weather and is forced to remain on the Island of Mull while she waits for the ferry to take across the bay her to her fiancé on his own little island. While on the Isle of Mull, she encounters the Scottish community and is immersed in their values, which are very different from her own. She meets several local people as well as the local Laird Torquil MacNeil (played by Roger Livesey, who I was surprised to recognise from The Palliser TV series that he starred in many years later) and his free-spirited friend Catriona. As Joan finds herself becoming more attracted to Torquil and the no-nonsense and down-to-earth people of Scotland, she struggles with the weather and constant storms that seem to be against her and her own ambition and thirst for wealth, that she begins to suspect will not lead to her happiness.

Torquil MacNeil: She wouldn't see a pound note from one pensions day to another.
Joan Webster: People around here are very poor I suppose.
Torquil MacNeil: Not poor, they just haven't got money.
Joan Webster: It's the same thing.
Torquil MacNeil: Oh no, it's something quite different.

The wonderful Wendy Hiller flashing one of her intense looks at the camera
You can guess what happens next. Of course she falls in love with Torquil, as he does with her. But being proud, fiercely independent and probably a little scared of emotion and sentiment, Joan is determined to get to the island across the bay and even goes so far as to bribe a young boatman to take her out on to the sea during a particularly bad storm. It is an extremely nasty thing to do, because she knows the boatman desperately needs the money in order to marry his childhood sweetheart and that taking the boat out in such conditions will alienate his father who is a fisherman and potentially end up getting him and Joan drowned. Ah, the course to true love never did run smooth!

Sailing on stormy seas
There is a lot more story contained in the movie, but I would not want to spoil it for anyone who is going to watch it. Suffice it to say, there is an ancient Scottish curse, lots of traditional folk tunes, some bagpipes and amazing dancing, a romantic scene on a ladder and a missing eagle accused of some nefarious deeds. And a big kiss. Don't you just love how people kissed in 1940s movies? Passionate and all consuming, as if their lives depending on kissing. I guess I am just a romantic at heart!

Obviously the entire cast could use a good old fashioned cup of tea while they wait for the storm to pass
And then there is all the scenery, which will make you want to book a holiday in Scotland immediately and the stormy scenes of the sea that are so well filmed and majestically portrayed that you can almost taste the salt spray on your lips. There are also delightfully written ironic scenes such as the three pipers that were hired for Joan's wedding but cannot make it to the island because of bad weather, playing instead at a party during which Joan dances with Torquil and falls even more in love with him. Or the scene where Torquil and Joan overhear locals chatting about the absurd and pretentious actions of her fiancé, Sir Roger - acting like he owns a Scottish island rather than the tenant that he is, building a swimming pool on his island rather than swimming in the sea, buying salmon rather than fishing from the streams on the island that are prolific with wild fish. All the while Joan fights against her doubt over her impending marriage to Sir Roger.

Torquil uses the positioning of a ladder to get close to Joan. Most crafty use of a ladder EVER!
And then there is the weird dream scene set on the sleeper train that Joan takes up to Scotland, during which the folk song, I Know Where I'm Going plays in the background. Weird dream scenes like this never appear in contemporary films. They seem to be a product of old black and white films and are not just but beguiling but also utterly charming.

The lyrics to the song are:

I know where I'm going
And I know who's going with me
I know who I love
And the dear knows who I'll marry.

....all of which is ironic, because Joan does not know where she is going and who she is going to love or marry.

Torquil tries to keep Joan on the Isle of Mull and away from the unpleasant death of drowning, while they both sport rather fashionable weather-proof clothing.
Of course, I am not the only person to think this film is 'a classic.' The Guardian website, famous for its film reviews, also asserts that film is fantastic, although the reviewer finds the tone of the film darker than I do:
But then it is fashionable nowadays for film reviewers to find a dark subversive side to every movie. And indeed a lot of films and TV series do have a cynicism to them that I think was not so fashionable in the films of yesteryear. I love this sweet little film and I could gladly watch it over and over again.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Spring Happiness here we come!

“Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” 

~ Hāfez 

Today is the official International Day of Happiness! What better way to celebrate it than by compulsively smiling at everyone like a crazy person. Funnily enough I have a job interview today, not an especially happy event, but one I am determined to do my very best at. Which is all you can do I guess.

Not only is it an extra happy day, it is also the spring equinox (AKA the First Day of Spring!) As the Independent website stated:

During an equinox, the Earth’s north and south poles are not tilted toward or away from the sun. This phenomena occurs twice a year: on 20 March and on 22 September.

English Heritage have confirmed that, weather permitting, Stonehenge will be open from the start of the equinox at 5:45am until 8:30am, to allow Druids and Pagans to gather and see the sun rise above the ancient stones, according the IB Times.

Druids and Pagans will celebrate the ancient Saxon goddess Eostre, who symbolises fertility and new beginnings.

I must confess I have always been curious about what it must be like to watch the sun come up over Stonehenge. I have never fancied the idea of getting up before dawn and driving down to the country to camp outside the hallowed stone circle. It is not that warm enough this time of year for such shenanigans.

Anyway the internet is filled with happy images today. Everyone is producing cartoons and graphics with groups of smiling people. A lot of these themed days appear to be bigger in other countries than the UK. The British seem to have a cynical suspicion of 'National' or 'International' memorial days, except for St.George's Day, Boxing Day and Remembrance Day or any day that might actually warrant an official Bank Holiday and therefore a day off work. We love a day off work! But I like these themed days. I like International Women's Day, International Happiness Day, National Doughnut Day and British Pie Week.

My favourite happy cartoon of the day is from the homeware company Isak. Isak was created by Sandra Isaksson, an illustrator and graphic designer who grew up in Sweden but now lives in the South of England. I love her graphics and over the years have bought mugs, a bread board and cups with her illustrations on them. Her designs just make you smile and there is such a witty liveliness to her style. They also seem quite Scandinavian to me.

So while I was feeling all positive and happy yesterday, I decided to prepare for my interview and then to cook something special for dinner. Nothing like positivity to make you a little hive of activity. I cooked Scrunchy Crunchy Chicken, which is basically a cream chicken, mushroom, bacon and green bean casserole covered in scrunched up filo pastry (great fun to 'scrunch!') and then I proceeded to make puff pastry marzipan heart shaped fruit tarts. The only problem with my cooking (other than the over large quantities I make and all the kitchen implements I use - huge amounts of washing up), is that it looks weird. It tastes good, but looks....well.....weird, as illustrated below:

Nailed it! Almost! Not at all.....
I am never going to be one of those amazing wives that produces cook-book-worthy visual treats. When I have children I will definitely be a 'slummy mummy' rather than a 'yummy mummy.' Ah well, at least my family will have lots of fun sipping hot tea out of Scandinavian Tupperware and eating marzipan tarts while watching the Spring Equinox sun come up over the dancing druids at Stonehenge.....