Monday, 24 October 2011

On the Steps of St Paul's

The last time I sat here, I laughed as my aunt did an awful impression of the homeless woman from Mary Poppins, singing Feed the Birds in a croaky Cockney accent.

Years later and I'm back, sitting on those same steps, the same incredible building. I wish I was sitting here listening to my aunt sing songs from Mary Poppins. Instead it's a man with a guitar singing about soldiers dying, the people suffering in silence and a ruling elite that doesn't listen. The same place, but a different world. For those of you not from London or the UK, the pavement around St Paul's has been taken over by tents, the site of Ocuppy LSX's first camp in the city. And here I am, surrounded by Guy Fawkes masks, signs lamenting the state of the economy, a man playing a penny whistle and several people, like me, who have just come for a look.

Yes, just a look. But this is the second time I've come here in as many days. I feel like I can relate to the people sleeping here day in, day out. Do I understand the ins and outs of global economics? No. Can I suggest an alternative? No. But I do feel angry. I am confused, exasperated and generally fucking miserable with today's society, where little seems to make sense. At least to me. And it's these feelings, I think, that I share with those who have taken up residence in the shadows of the cathedral.

I wish I had a voice. I wish I had somebody to represent me. A government that cared for something other than credit ratings and bankers. A government which tries to protect the nation as a group of people, rather than an economy.

I know it's all interlinked. I know that a booming economy would remove the necessity for many of the austerity measures taken in the name of removing the evil deficit. I understand that. I'm just fucking fed up of it.

And that, my friends, is my deep and meaningful take on Britain in a time of austerity. The best, most perfect words I can find to describe what I feel when I read the news. Fucking. Fed. Up.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

On A Budget

I've been out for cocktails. It's mid-month, so this is a risk as payday is still a long way away. But I've been trying for so long to live within a strict austerity budget in a seemingly endless attempt to reduce the debt I'm in. Initially I viewed it as a challenge: anything the ConDem government (was there ever a more apt abbreviation?) can do, I could do better. I was determined to be financially solvent by the end of 2011. I had purpose.

The summer, therefore, has been something of a damp squib - and not just because of the weather. No holidays, few big nights out, minimal expenditure and old, faded clothes.

Yet now the novelty has worn off. I'm close to breaking point. Close to embarking on a FTW spending spree on credit cards and money that's not mine but that the bank seems more than happy to provide. The end is in sight, but the monotony of my existence has become painful.

So cocktails it was. And despite the ample amount of gin, rum and whisky, I can't shake this feeling of irresponsibility. Unemployment figures are up, but I have a job. I may feel frustrated at being 26 and still living at home, but I have a roof over my head. I have a family, friends and at least some money each month to piss right up the wall.

This feeling is compounded when a homeless person stops and asks me for change. I start my usual "sorry, I haven't any change" response, but it sticks in my throat. I give her a pound, but that seems woefully insignificant compared to the amount I've just spent on alcohol. It doesn't seem right. Maybe this is a symptom of what's wrong with society? My inability to go without, I mean. My feeling so hard done by when really, I am among the better off.

Yes, I am broke, most of the time. But I'm still part of society. I'm not excluded, ignored or kept on the edge. I think back to my time working in local government. I hated the job, it wasn't something I wanted to pursue, but it was hard not to empathise with some of the people I met; many of whom had suffered and still do suffer the exclusion and fear I've thus far managed to escape.

It's partly this experience, I think, that causes the boiling rage inside when I read comments under right-wing newspaper articles, or when I hear the government demonising the 'benefit scroungers' that are supposedly bleeding our country dry. All this, from a group of people who have, I imagine, never known hardship, nor even approached it unless it offers a PR-friendly photo opportunity.

This city - perhaps even this country - is a cruel mistress. London is, in my opinion, an incredible place. Much like an outdated office block giving way to a gleaming skyscraper, she changes her look, her mood. At times the streets seem paved with broken dreams rather than gold. At others she glistens like a huge Christmas tree, beckoning to you, offering her cultural delights, her unrivalled social scene, a feast for someone with the money and inclination to gorge themselves on.

And so I find it impossible. I can't imagine my life without London, but at the same time I can't imagine being of the few with the means to really enjoy everything on offer.

I will settle for the middle ground, which I can, I hope, realistically aspire to. I will try and resist the seduction of happy hours, 2 for 1 offers and everything else that's distracting me from my route to financial solvency. At times, it will be boring. At others, it will be difficult. But the end result will be worth it, I think. There's enough to worry about (double dip recessions, illness, the volcano under Yellowstone National Park) without adding money to the huge pile of woe. So back to the budget, Read, and stop whinging. You could be a whole lot worse off.

Fuck...all that from a mojito...maybe drink is my problem, rather than my budget.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

On a Dilemma

I had planned to start this post with a call for you to refrain from judging me, but I've changed my mind. I want you to judge me. I want to know what you think of what I did, of what I thought.

I shall start from the beginning. I was waiting for a train. A light drizzle, typical of the Great British summer, fell gently over the platform. The overhead wires crackled and fizzed, the raindrops collected in shallow puddles. I felt at ease. I like the rain.

The train pulled up and the doors opened. And elderly couple pushed past, rushing further up the train to get on another carriage. I assumed they just wanted to be at the front.

How wrong I was. As I settled into my seat and the train pulled away, I heard a man muttering further down the carriage. It was a whisper at first but the volume increased steadily. I soon realised that most of what he said wasn't in English. That's not a problem in itself; I am, as you may know, an avowed lover of language. It was Arabic. At least I think it was. A constant monologue that grew from a whisper into a chant, into a shout. It was interspersed with cries of "LIGHT OF THE DAY" and "Your blood is the same colour as mine!" A wee bit sinister for lunchtime on a Sunday. The rest was, quite literally, foreign to me. I thought I could hear the odd "Inc'Allah" which, from repeated listening to an MC Solaar song of the same name, I know to mean "God willing."

So that's why the elderly couple changed carriages. That's why everyone else was shifting in their seats, exchanging worried glances and, at intermediate stations, following the exodus into the adjoining carriages.

And so, I found myself in a dilemma. He who prides himself of being accepting of others found himself itching to get off the train. The crazed liberal inside me was screaming "Look at you! Where are your egalitarian ideals now? What happened to live and let live? What next? Starting sentences with 'I'm not a racist but...', or 'You can sleep with whoever you like but I'll have none of that under my roof!' Daily Mail reader!" But there was another voice, a nagging doubt. A fear building up inside. A desperate call for self-preservation, in spite of my oft-touted liberalism.

What should I have done?

What I did, was stay on the carriage. I did so with my headphones in but my iPod off, a sense of impending doom writhing inside me.

I'm not sure what the above makes me. Was I stupid to stay on a train on which I felt unsafe? Or did ignorance rear its ugly head and prove that I'm not as accepting as I think I am?

I've been thinking about it a lot today. We live in a state of paranoia. You can see it on the tube sometimes, or on trains, at airports. It's exacerbated by what I think is a very British reaction to any public declaration of fervent religious belief; awkwardness.

I know full well that this man was not representative of all Muslims, all British Muslims or probably even all the Muslims on that particular train, who probably don't make a habit of praying loudly on public transport. II don't even know what he was saying - it could have been something really quite pleasant. Nor do I subscribe to the Cameronian belief that multiculturalism has failed. His lifestyle, upbringing and outlook are as alien to me as the beliefs of the man shouting on the train. But that's ok. I wouldn't, for one minute, wish for a homogenous society in which everybody thinks, feels and acts the same.

But I'm still not sure what I should have done, or whether what I did do and did feel, was right.

Monday, 16 May 2011

On the Dark Recesses of My Mind

Surprise! I'm not actually dead, despite my lack of posting.

In the last month or two I've been living life to the full. Inspiration on things to write about, however, has been thin on the ground.

The one noteworthy realisation I was struck with during my prolonged absence was that my brain is actually quite big. Bigger than I ever really give it credit for. Fear not; I am not boasting about my IQ or my ability to remember obscure Eastenders characters from ten years ago. Let me explain.

As you may or may not know, I lived in Italy a while ago. It was a special time that has given me a wealth of happy and not so happy memories to look back on and cherish. And, as it turns out, it gave me more memories than I realised. When I went to Italy at the beginning of March, I was taken aback by the number of forgotten memories that came flooding back. Sights, sounds and smells all triggered recollections that I didn't realise I had.

And that's what I'm impressed with; the huge, unfathomable depth somewhere in my head that holds memories I don't actually remember. God knows how many situations I've been in or conversations I've had are sitting there, somewhere, waiting to be woken up and set free by a trigger it's impossible to predict.

This in turn reminded me of studying Proust in my first year of university. He talks about eating a certain type of biscuit that his grandmother gave him when he was but a petit garçon. Eating the same type of biscuit years later evoked a wealth of feelings and memories of his childhood. They all came back, in glorious 3D technicolour, from a biscuit. For the first time, I think I understand where he's coming from.

I just think it's a shame there's not some cerebral filing system that I can dip into when I'm at a loose end. A talking computer system that I can turn on and say, "I'm bored. Show me something I've forgotten." I want to see all the things I don't remember, the things filed under 'Insignificant' and 'Not Worth Remembering' that my brain backed up nonetheless.

Good on you, Brain. I applaud your hard - and unappreciated - work. You grafter you. And your next mission, if you choose to accept it, is to find me some inspiration for my blog, because I miss that even more than the things I don't remember.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

On Signs

There are roads that I cross everyday, literally minutes from my house, whose names escape me. I have literally no idea what they're called. This makes it incredibly difficult to give people directions; any instructions I give are usually something like the following:

"Go straight on until you get to the pub, turn right onto the road with all the hairdressers then turn left at the second phone box. If you reach a tree that looks a bit drunk, you've gone too far."

Pretty unhelpful, I'm sure you'll agree. It would seem that I've unwittingly developed the ability to completely disregard any signs or symbols that are displayed to make my life easier. Where others see road names, I see a blank space.

I blame this problem fully on the immense amount of information that my tiny brain is expected to handle on a daily basis.

The streets are littered with to let, to rent, for sale signs. Each sign has its own logo, a website and phone number. Double yellow lines indicate no parking, on train platforms they say stay away from the edge. Pound signs, percentages and price tags clutter shop windows that display one of a million possible brands. No smoking, no access, CCTV in constant use. Rallying points, health & safety notifications, planned tube delays.

It's no wonder that, when faced with such a barrage of information, my brain has decided to block it out rather than embark on the troublesome task of working out what I need to know and what's irrelevant.

No; I do not need to know the name of the company maintaining the scaffolding I walk past in the morning. At least not at the moment - if it falls on my head then rest assured that I will track you down.

I don't even want to know which local authority manages the road I'm walking down, what the soup of the day is in a restaurant I can't afford, or what percentage APR a certain bank's best new credit card offers.

I accept that this information is important for somebody else, and that there could come a time in which I need to know something that I've previously ignored, but at the moment my head is too full of stuff to filter the visual assault I'm faced with. It's almost like I'm sleep-walking; I take absolutely nothing in.

At least that's how it was, until three weeks ago when my job took me on a brief trip to Paris. The leafy boulevards of the French capital were littered with just as many signs and symbols as its less pretty British counterpart, but they seemed so much more interesting. Different phrases, different logos and a different language. It forced me to look, to open my eyes, and since I've been back I've found myself looking around again, taking things in.

It's what I needed, I think. A chance to step back and see something new and exciting (including a chance to meet a real live blogger in her natural habitat). It dragged me out of the daze I've been walking around in for so long, and made my days that little bit more interesting. Sometimes it takes being dragged kicking and screaming out of your comfort zone to make you realise how comfy it is.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

On Vocation

I feel like I'm on a train, I don't know where it's going and I don't really remember getting on. And I'm not really sure whether I want to get off or not.

As 'Flubberbean' (or a poorly disguised N) pointed out in the comments to my last post, the all-singing, all-dancing return to the Blogosphere I had planned has failed quite spectacularly.

The thing is, to bring an oft-repeated and increasingly tired excuse out of the bag, work has been taking over my life, again. I think I understand what stress is now. Not stress as in a medically diagnosed condition, work-type stress, you know. The kind that finds you while you're sitting on the train on your way to the office and fills you with dread. That wakes you up in the early hours of the morning with a chilling reminder of all the things you simply must do first thing and absolutely mustn't forget. The kind of stress that's not content to just wake you up, but also leaves you lying in the dark composing emails and studying reports in your head.

My job has started to take a previously unheard of toll on my real life. I suppose it's par for the course as you get older. And I accept that this is something I need to learn to handle, if I'm to climb the career ladder.

The thing is, while I'm grateful that increased responsibility is being thrust into my questionably capable hands, I find myself wondering whether I'm on the right ladder. Is this definitely what I want to do? Is this really for me? Or did I just fall into it?

Many of these questions stem from panic I think - when you take new things on there's a period of transition where everything feels up in the air. But it's also sparked some serious soul-searching.

At work I'm surrounded by creative types. Designers born with an urge to draw, editors with an innate love of words. Looking at them, I can't help but feel jealous. Then there's N, or Flubberbean as he's taken to calling himself, who was born with a mind that works like a computer. I'm sure he sees the world as a sequence of 1s and 0s, of if statements and hidden code.

Could it be that everyone is born with a set of talents perfect for a certain role? Perhaps everyone has something they're good at that, if nurtured in the correct way, will make them perfectly suited to a particular function. But how do you find out what your talent is? How do you know what you're naturally good at unless circumstance lets you find it?

One of my biggest selling points, that I plaster over CVs and cover letters, is that I speak French and Italian. But this isn't something I was born with: I liked it at school, so studied it at university, so feel duty bound to use it professionally so as to justify the horrible amount of money spent on developing it. Circumstance, coupled with choices I made when I was too young to understand the consequences has led me to where I am today, and I find that frightening.

If there were a magic test that could dig out one's hidden skills, where would I be instead? I wish I knew whether I am taking the right road. Then again, I very much doubt that I was born with any useful talents, and chatting, slouching and simming won't get me far at all. Damn shame that, I'd be King of the World if they were sought after skills.

Monday, 7 February 2011

On All This Woe

I've not updated my blog for a while now. I'm sorry about that. The reason for my absence is that as soon as January ended I spent an entire week dancing and singing around its grave. With that now well and truly out of my system, I've returned. With a vengeance.

All apologies aside, back to what I wanted to discuss. I should begin with the admission that I talk too much at work. I can't help it; I'm encouraged, in fact, by the two colleagues I share a desk with, who are capable of chatting just as much as I am. We've come to the conclusion that the days fly by if you fill them with meaningless, inane chatter - so much faster than if you fill them with meaningful, productive work. Yesterday, our topic du jour was mantras; the phrases we live our lives by.

My boss' was something about not wasting time worrying about what other people think of you. The other person offered 'live each day to its full potential' as his choice. I thought both of these efforts were a bit wanky, if I'm honest, and prepared to wow them with the (Shakespearean!) phrase that I have adopted and refer to in times of need:

"All these woes shall serve for sweet discourses in our time to come."

Suffice it to say that my mantra was not greeted with the awe and appreciation I thought it deserved. One argument was that I was just trying to sound cultured and, in doing so, sounded pretentious. The other - and the one that really hit home - was that it suggests that the present is always going to be crap.

And when I say 'hit home', I mean it - it really did. It was a revelation, of sorts. I've realised that living my life like this is like waiting in an airport for a connecting flight - I've left the comfort and warmth of the past, and I'm waiting to arrive in a distant and happy future. In the intervening period, I've resigned myself to putting up with discomfort, impatience and boredom.

Those of you who have persevered and managed to stick with this blog for a while will know that I'm fairly obsessed with the past. This manifests itself in the music I listen to, the fashion I appreciate and the places I feel most comfortable. Give me Motown over dubstep, dusty old books over new technology, a Victorian terrace over a skyscraping penthouse apartment. The past holds an endless fascination to me - both my own history and the histories of the places and people around me.

The future I envision, meanwhile. is a hazy ideal, a land without debt and without trouble. It's what's left after I unpick the tangled mess of issues I convince myself I'm currently burdened with. It's calm and it's peaceful; a Shangri-La waiting at the end of a long and winding road. My vision of a perfect future is also, of course, hugely unlikely, but I wouldn't look forward if I were being realistic.

What this boils down to, I suppose, is that while I place huge importance on what's happened in the past and spend many a wistful moment imagining a warm and cosy future, my present is passing me by. It's sneaking by almost unnoticed while I'm waiting, while I'm looking back or daydreaming. It's as if every day is an obstacle, something to be wrestled with and dealt with as soon as possible. I treat each day as I treat my emails - I can't wait to flag them complete.

I know it's a bit late to be making resolutions, but I'm scared by the fact than if and when I do reach the light at the end of the tunnel, I'll have nothing to look back on except decades of seriousness, concern and worry. I think I want to have some more fun. I'm sorry if the tone of my posts of late has been somewhat tedious and difficult to get through. But there is an end in sight; I've decided that I've had enough of the woe - bring me the sweetness. Now. Please.

PS Congratulations Lauren on being 20sb's featured blogger for January!

Monday, 17 January 2011

On Wordless Gestures

I used to blog fairly often about the books I read, but I haven't done so for a while. This one, however, I can't let pass; it's a book I feel I have to talk about. It's called Silence in October, by Jens Christian Grøndahl, and it's incredible. I think I've mentioned before how if I read a sentence or paragraph that I like, I underline it, or dog-ear the page. Well, I like so much of this book that it's now in very bad shape. One of my favourite parts is the following:

"People kiss each other because they don't know what else to do. You have nothing other than your silly lips, your silly hands that brave the same language while the world changes."

The reason I like this line is that it set me thinking - yes, the rusted cogs in my brain creaked back into action, at last - about body language and gestures. Not handshakes, or nods, or waving. They're all open to different interpretations based on the culture within which they take place, or so I believe. But kissing, and hugging. Things like that are universal, aren't they? They're almost primal. Spoken and written language changes as time passes; new words are created, old ones given new meanings, some disappear altogether. But physical signs of affection remain pretty much the same, don't they? I know that fifty years ago it would not have been wise to eat face in public, but I imagine that face was indeed eaten behind closed doors. And, even if it wasn't, if some pent-up Victorian woman was feeling a bit low, I'm sure her equally prudish friends would have given her a hug to cheer her up. It just makes me wonder how far back these things go. I mean, do monkeys cuddle?

My brain has been out of action for a while, as it's been under significant pressure from a procession of bad moods, so this unexpected activity was a welcome change. It was so welcome, it went one step further, dragging me off on a wild, hippyish tangent. Basically, as far as I'm aware, everyone loves a cuddle, regardless of their nationality or culture*. They are things that we all have in common; they transcend the social and cultural barriers that have grown between us over time. Somewhere, below the civility, the history and politics there's a bond that links us all. Don't get me wrong; I love cultural difference, I think it's fascinating, but it's also nice to be reminded that there is something more basic, something we share.

And as I walked through the City with this playing on my mind, I started to see it as a giant ant nest, home to the thousands who work and play here; linked to hundreds of other ant nests by trains, planes and unspoken methods of communication that predate the societies we know.

[Right...come back down to earth, Tom.]

What sparked this ridiculous post, besides the quote from Silence in October, was the way my Saturday night ended. I had been to a party and, true to form, I had drunk far more than was good for me. In fact, I went to the party knowing that this would be the case; lately I've been feeling like things are unravelling, starting to go wrong left, right and centre. The chances are these things will all pass, but I was desperate to push everything that was pissing me off out of my head and determined to have fun. And I did, until the walk home, during which a stream of drunken and nonsensical words poured forth from my silly lips and created an argument. But there came a point where words failed me, they weren't explaining what I wanted to say. And that's when a hug dragged me back from the brink of drunken despair, quelled my misplaced anger and forced the monster that is That-Drunk-Tom back into its cage.

Really, when you've had too much to drink, and your problems well up inside you so much that you start an argument for no good reason before collapsing into a puddle of misery - when you feel that low - it's the wordless gestures that help the most. Those silly hands and silly lips the book mentions help more than page upon page of beautiful words or hours of well-meant advice. And there's somebody, who may or may not be reading this, that should know that I'm grateful for their patience on Saturday night.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

On London

I got the wrong train today; a mistake for which I was rewarded with a 25 minute wait at a station in an industrial estate in east London. Too tired to read, I had nothing to do but wait. I'd never been to this station before, but I had plenty of time to get acquainted with it as I paced up and down the lonely, rain-soaked platform. I discovered that the time on platform one was two minutes faster than on platform 2 (evidently the station straddles a time zone - who knew?).

After reading a few timetables, walking around and staring at my shoes for a while, I decided to clear out my phone; deleting numbers for cab companies I'll never use, month old text messages and crappy photos. As I was culling the 'Notes' folder I found the beginnings of a post I started months ago while waiting for a friend, but never finished (I think I'd probably had a fair bit to drink, as it sounds pretentious - you've been warned):

I lean against a crumbling Roman wall; to my left a Norman castle. In the distance straight ahead the newest addition to the city's skyline stretches towards the clouds. Cranes flank it, piling floor upon floor; a tower of concrete, glass and steel.

The city I call home. My office, my playground. It panders to my every need like a doting mother, and demands and frustrates like a petulant child. It's old and new all at once; parts still sparkle while others fall into decay.

It's odd that I should find this now, sitting here. After months of it lying forgotten and unread among lists of songs I need to download, ideas for Christmas presents and the code I need to get into my office, it seems incredibly apt. No matter how often I call London my home, I know only a tiny portion of the city. The routes I travel every day I've memorised like the back of my hand (except, it would seem, the train route), but I'll never walk all of its streets, see all it has to offer, know it in its entirety. I'm like a river, following the same course day after day (with the odd tributary leading to pubs, shops and friend's houses) but I've barely scratched the surface. I deviate one stop from the way I normally go, and I'm lost, surprised and transported very far from 'home'.

So thank you, London, for reminding me who's boss, for keeping things interesting. I've much to learn, and even more to discover.

Monday, 3 January 2011

On January

Hello Darkness, my old friend.

I'm not sure how much of this bad mood is due to my impending return to work tomorrow morning. I'd be tempted to lay all of the blame at my office door, but I know better. It's the new year, that's what's making me miserable.

I've never been one to make resolutions - or even plans. I'm not much of an optimist and I don't see the point in struggling to look to the future when I've perfected living in the past. Typically, once the clock strikes midnight on 31st December, I'm struck with the realisation that a new, uncharted set of 365 days lays before me. A hazy, unknown expanse full of hidden treasure and wicked monsters, wild seas and cozy fireplaces. I'm very much of the mindset that planning ahead is difficult in any sense but the most abstract - as I'm completely unsure of the treasure-to-monster ratio and so can't predict which opportunities will present themselves, which obstacles will block my path. I do, however, allow myself a moment after the fireworks, kisses and mumbling of Auld Lang Syne to hope for the best, to consider what it is I'd like to happen.

At the New Year's Eve parties I attend, it's almost unheard of that the night should pass without incident. There is usually a fight, an argument or flood of tears from somebody to distract me from my flight of fancy and reacquaint me with reality. [It's been two or three years since I was at the centre of one of these incidents - that's progress for you. There was a time that I was odds-on favourite to be the cause of any aggravation.]

And really, that's what January is, isn't it? A painful and undignified crash back into real life. A sad and nervous return to the big city, which looks so much greyer and unattractive without its fairy lights and festive decorations. A bleak midwinter to wade through, with little merriment or joy (due to length of time between pay days and the notorious VAT hike). Oh my God, it's grim - and made worse by the fact that it sits stubbornly straight after one of the most exciting, friendly months of the year. It's such a comedown - a 31 day hangover.

January; have you taken note of May's daffodils, July's long days, October's falling leaves and December's festivity? Do you see what other months provide to keep us entertained? Can you not even try to offer us something to cheer us up? There are no parties because there's no money, there are no flowers because there's no sun. If I had to sum you up in three words, they would be drizzle, debt and despair. And no, I don't think despair is going too far. For once, this year, I would like to have a fun January. Can you please arrange this for me?

I'll let you know how it goes. I'm not holding out much hope.

PS Sorry if anyone reading this celebrates their birthday in January. If this is the case, then you are a rare and sought-after example of January making an effort to improve its reputation.