Tuesday, 14 April 2015

In which blogs got dull

I started blogging ten years ago. It was during the Spring of my first year at university, a self-indulgence, and a way of keeping note of the various scrapes in which I found myself.

Blogging was in its infancy back then. Mainstream media was yet to accept it. Facebook was still in twinkle in the Winklevi / Zuckerberg universe, and Twitter was years away. Which made the blogosphere a much more intimate place, one that was more open and that had a deeply confessional tone - a very different place to how it is today.

It’s great now that you can tell someone you have a blog and they won’t look at you as if you keep dead bodies in the cellar. Everyone and everyone’s mother understands Facebook. A good proportion of people who use it have made honest-to-goodness, real and close friendships on Twitter. But the blogs out there have changed.

There used to be a whole raft of blogs that fell under the category of ‘personal’: spaces people - including me - used as confessionals. Mostly anonymously, we poured our hearts and souls and bad decisions and heartbreaks out onto pages of the internet that other anonymous people would read, and comment on - and they’d do the same in their own corner of the web. It provided a space where through the sheer power of words, there grew a community of people who knew a lot about each other’s lives, and became friends; and it provided huge catharsis for those who found it easier to write down what was going on in their lives than to talk about it.

The world changes, though, and with the popularisation of social media, that personal space has diminished. The blogs people used to write about their love lives, their flatmates, their careers, the neuroses they weren’t willing to vocalise have been taken over by the rather more nebulous “lifestyle” blogs.

And while it’s easy to look at a perfect world through the rose-tinted lens of nostalgia, god the new blogs are boring.

I understand that it’s not 2005, and you don’t want to commit to the virtual page that terrible sexual misdemeanour you made, or what you really think of your boss - because the likelihood is that these days they’ll find it. People being much more cautious about what they put online isn’t a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination, especially given the way the internet has changed (vile comments simply because you’re woman ring bells with anyone?).

But GOD, so many of the blogs out there these days are JUST SO DULL. Marketers have cottoned on to a new audience, and are dishing out “review products" left, right and centre to people who see their little space on the internet as, if not a money maker, then a way to blag free shit. If that’s what toasts your marshmallow, go for it. But it’s so dull to see page after page and person after person parade their free bar of chocolate, or hair straightener, or perfectly Instagrammed shot of whatever today’s freebie is. If I wanted to spend my time reading advertising, I’d buy a print mag, enjoy some properly subbed copy, and keep a few more trained journos in their jobs.

And before the accusation is levelled, I know I’m in a minority. It clearly works for a lot of people, or sales teams wouldn’t be falling over themselves to throw products at the self-styled “lifestyle bloggers” whose readerships and Instagram feeds attest to the fact that their glossy hair and parade of endless designer bags have an audience that can’t wait to be updated (despite their quite blatant, er, flexibility when it comes to ASA guidelines).

But I miss the spaces where people used to flex a writing muscle, to put into written words what they weren’t sure they were feeling until those words hit a page, stories of people’s lives - however mundane - that connected you to a person on the other side of the city, or the country, or the world; someone you didn’t have to know to be able to empathise with, because real words will always be more powerful than advertising.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

In which I go off the radar


“Oh thank GOD, you’re alive.”

“What? Of course I am. What’s up?”

I’d not heard my phone go; it was only as I’d shoved my bag out of the way with my foot as my colleague returned from the bar that I saw the screen flashing from the depths. 

“Nothing. You’re... out for drinks this evening, aren’t you?” The Writer didn’t sound quite his normal self as I accepted a second gin and tonic. 

“Yes - I mentioned it this morning before I left. Is everything ok?”

“I’d forgotten. I’ve had a bad day, and I… er… I might have panicked a bit.”

In a sheepish voice unbecoming to a man of TW’s stature, he ‘fessed up: a vastly stressful day and no reply to a text he’d sent me when he’d left the office had combined to take on a life of their own when he’d got back to the flat that evening to see an ambulance parked in the street, lights flashing, and paramedics slamming the doors.

And, when I’d not arrived home some half hour later, then subsequently failed to pick up my phone, having not heard it from the bottom of my bag, the over-active panic reflex in an already over-active imagination (ah, being married to a journalist) had been hot-wired.

“I didn’t know whether something had happened to you, and the guys wouldn’t tell me who was in the ambulance, so when you didn’t pick up your phone a couple of times…”

“Hah! What do you mean, tell you who was in the ambulance?! Of course they wouldn’t…” I was starting to get the picture that, bless him, my apparent disappearance for all of two hours on a mid-week evening had rattled him rather.

“So I phoned Best Mate, and she didn’t know either.”

“Ok… It is only half eight on a Tuesday, though.”

“I know, but I worry.”

“Clearly.”

“So it might just be worth letting her know. And The Equestrienne, because I think Best Mate called her just to check. Oh, and your mum.”

“YOU CALLED MY MOTHER?!”

“Well no one had heard from you all day.” He paused before laying down his trump: “AND you hadn’t tweeted.”

Once I’d assured him I was live, kicking, and drinking Tanqueray and tonic, I hung up the phone where notifications blazed across the screen: 15 missed calls from TW, a text from BM (“I’m sure you’re fine, but could you please call your husband? He’s panicking.”), and a missed call from Ma Blonde all attested to his apparent conviction that I was lying dead in a ditch somewhere on the way back to Brixton.

As I was putting the phone in my back pocket to avoid missing any more calls, it bleeped with a final confession.

“You might want to let your colleague know: I called the office to ask the person on duty to see whether you were still there, and she didn’t know either…"

realise I sound beyond ungrateful, and it really shouldn’t: it’s absolutely wonderful to be loved, to have someone care enough to worry, to want you to be ok. It’s wonderful that TW feels he can call BM if he thinks there’s a problem. It’s slightly less wonderful to have interrupted four people’s evenings by proxy when you’re minding your own business in the pub. And let’s not get into the fact that, despite my being 30 years old, safe and sound on a Tuesday evening and in possession of a gin and tonic, MY HUSBAND CALLED MY MOTHER.  

Sunday, 29 March 2015

In which I go feral

"So, it's getting pretty drastic. I basically need him to come home immediately."

Over a cup of tea, a colleague and I were stealing a few rare moments from the blurry haze of mania that has been our office of late. It was towards the end of a week during which The Writer had been in the Middle East on a press trip, leaving me at home, alone and left entirely to my own devices.

You would think that, as a grown woman in possession of all her faculties (most of the time), this wouldn't be too much of an issue. That I could be trusted. After all, it wasn't so long ago that, for a number of years, the household was just me and the cat, and I managed not to get scurvy, or (bar the odd houseplant) kill anyone.

You'd think then, that it wouldn't be such an issue to spend a week unsupervised. That maybe I'd use the time to catch up on reading, tidy up, have an early night or two. Basically act like a mature adult.

But it turned out that on the first day of his absence, by the time I'd read the paper, tidied up, and done a bit of washing, I was entirely disinclined to do anything else of worth, and spent the evening catching up on the sort of excellent telly that normally incites TW's acerbic commentary, in the company of a particularly delicious fish finger sandwich.

Which was essentially a blueprint for how I spent the next six days.

When I wasn't at work (which was quite a lot of the time), I was at home in pyjamas and a pair of slippers that TW takes particular exception to, watching Grey's Anatomy, or Fortitude, or Poldark, eating fish finger sandwiches. One particularly memorable evening, a couple of colleagues and I sank a few gins and tonic in the pub near the office and I went home to a supper of wedding cake. Just cake. With a healthy layer of icing. Then went straight to bed. Rock AND roll.

"God, I'm exactly the same," my colleague said, as I confessed to her that I was afraid that if TW didn't return soon, I might never eat a vegetable again, and be found dead in pom-pom slippers under a layer of old Tatlers. "When my husband goes away, I basically go feral."

Reassuringly, she told tales of eating cereal for three meals a day, not getting out of bed in the morning until the last possible second and generally indulging in behaviour that is best kept to oneself. It's good to know I'm not alone in these matters.

Better still that TW came back safe and sound from his trip, and I'm now not alone full stop, really.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

In which the world is a very small place

It is, as the saying goes, a small world.

(I remain to be convinced of this, because the maths suggests otherwise. I have a sneaking suspicion that it's more to do with the fact that privately educated people with degrees from Russell Group universities in a number of selected professions is small enough, but that they are proportionately over-represented in the social and occupational fields in which they move, and that's why both an old university friend and a woman with whom I ride at a yard well outside London both turned up on different floors of my office building a few weeks ago.)

Anyway, to dinner.

Before Christmas, The Writer and I headed into the wilds of north London for a friend's birthday supper. It was lovely: a large group of us took over the upstairs of a small French restaurant, and more red wine was had than is ever advisable on a school night.

There were old university friends, the girlfriends of old university friends, and colleagues of girlfriends of old university friends: lots of people chatting and laughing and having debates and trying to work out what each other actually do and when the last time was that some of us saw each other.

And there, at the end of the table, in the middle of all those people I know well, and some that I know less well, was a shipping lawyer whom I'd met once before. A shipping lawyer with whom I went on one terrible date circa 2008.

Because apparently before I met The Writer, I dated approximately all the men in London, eligible or not.

Said shipping lawyer and I had had one dinner at a tapas bar on Charlotte Street, which started promisingly until, ten minutes in, I realised that there was no sign at all of basic social conversational skills, let alone sparky repartee. Once he'd spent some half hour talking about the recent bathroom refit he'd had done, complete with difficulty of tracking down the perfect malachite bathroom tile, not even a decent patata brava could hold my attention.

When the realisation dawned in all its gory horror, all the claret in the world couldn't save me from the desire to claw my way out of the situation. Fast.

"I, er, I went on a date with that man," I confessed to TW as we made an earlier-than-other-people exit and headed back to the tube later on.

"Which one? Oh my GOD! HIM?!" The whoops of glee were not quite the response I had hoped. "The REALLY BORING one? How did you date HIM?! God, no wonder you love me so much."

The world. Not really that small, in the grand scheme of things. And yet plenty, but plenty, small enough.

Monday, 23 March 2015

In which a hobby isn't universally popular

The fact that I hunt is a bone of contention amongst some family members and friends.

I can understand it: hunting is a divisive issue. I come down on one side of the fence (mercifully so far not literally, but it's only a matter of time), and they happen to come down on the other.

The arguments for and against hunting are well-trodden, and it's one of those subjects that it's hard to change people's minds about once those minds are made up. A lot of conclusions are reached based on emotion and gut and surroundings and way of life and politics and society, and a whole heap of other things that aren't necessarily related to experience.

For Pa Blonde and The Writer, the primary objections are safety-related. It's entirely fair enough: I don't like the idea of my father travelling to dangerous countries with work (semi-retired my FOOT), much like I don't like the idea of TW skiing without a helmet, so I can see why they're not mad-keen on my hunting. Statistically, riding isn't the safest sport at the best of times. They don't ride, and the idea of getting on a horse to gallop at terrifying speed across country, jumping ditches and hedges and whatever gets in the way, with the ever-present danger of, at worst, coming off and having a fatal accident, understandably scares them.

For some friends, it's an issue of animal rights, which is a legitimate stance, and for others, I think, although I haven't discussed it with them per se, it's a matter of politics. They're not perspectives I share, obviously, but they're positions I can respect while not agreeing with.

And I don't know what it says about our friendships that this bone of contention is rarely mentioned. If I was being deeply pessimistic, I'd say that my hunting is so controversial a topic, we dare not talk about it for fear that there'd be a chasm left in our relationship that we'd never be able to overcome.

I choose instead to believe that my friendships are so strong that even the controversial topics - the ones that could come between us - are acknowledged; that differing positions are respected; that life, if we all agreed with everyone all of the time, would be very dull indeed.

Prompt: bone of contention

Thursday, 19 March 2015

In which I consider my comfort zone

In an attempt to be more disciplined in my writing, I've bookmarked a year's worth of prompts. When inspiration fails me, there'll be a word, or a phrase, or a topic to fall back on. And I'll write, whether I feel inspired by the word or phrase or topic or not. Today's was comfort zone: more comfortable with routine and planning, or laissez-faire spontaneity?

Dull and boring and frankly tedious as it sounds - particularly to me - I function much better in a state of at least partial planning.

I would love to be the opposite: a laid-back, go-with-the-flow, laissez-faire, spontaneous kinda gal, carefree enough to drop everything at a moment's notice to jet off to a European capital on a whim, or come home one afternoon with a suddenly-acquired puppy.

It sounds so much more glamorous, so much more fun to be the sort of person not to care what might get thrown into a day, and where you might end up when it's over; the sort who gives no thought that whatever plans they might have had are in disarray around their feet, superseded by something entirely unexpected.

But self-awareness is, I suppose, something to be grateful for, and I'm quite aware that I'm happier when there's a vague shape to a day, to a week, to an idea.

I like to know if I'll have a chance to get to the gym, to see friends, to ride a pony. If I know that I'll spend a Sunday battling the four worst words in the English language (rail replacement bus service), I'll pack an extra novel and a series of snacks. I appreciate knowing that a long day will be buoyed by the friends I'm closest to in the evening, rather than hoping a colleague will maybe have the freedom to hit the pub. It gives me a low-level sense of comfort to know what I'm aiming for in a day, and a small sense of satisfaction if I achieve what I set out to.

But despite knowing all that, despite being a fan of a plan (Stan), I also know that sometimes there's very little better than waking up on a Saturday morning, stretching out in bed and knowing that you've no obligations until you hit the office on Monday. A week's holiday with no more idea of a couple of good books and a sense of 'see what comes' sounds, right now, like unimaginable bliss. There's enormous freedom in not being prescriptive about what's ahead, in being open to possibilities, to saying yes...

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

In which there's comfort in the everyday

It's not the done thing to admit how attached we become to inanimate objects. We're always told that people, rather than stuff, is where we ought to find our fulfilment. And while I absolutely do just that, it doesn't stop me deriving enormous comfort from some of the material goods that I own, and with which The Writer and I have filled our flat.

I won't be alone in saying that the objects I treasure most aren't particularly those with the most monetary value (my engagement and wedding rings notwithstanding...): the trinket pot my grandfather brought back from Christmas Island after the war; the drum my Tanzanian pupils gave me when it was time to come home; and various kitchen implements that belonged to my late Granny all have a special place in my heart.

One thing which sits on our kitchen side that gives me enormous comfort every time I look at it is particularly run of the mill: nothing out of the ordinary, a birthday present from my sister, and not something that I'd ever have bought for myself.

It's a small white porcelain dish, about 6cm across, shaped like a teapot. It's printed with the words "Where there's tea, there's hope", and is quite often piled higher than it should be with teabags that have been there longer than they should have been, cold and damp and crusty around the edges, before someone scoops them into the small green compost bin by the door.

And despite its mundanity, its lack of glamour, every time I look at it and splodge down a steaming bag of cast-off Earl Grey, it represents a familiarity that's hard to replicate or manufacture.

It's something that TW and I both use every day of the week, without thought or consideration, but would both notice if it weren't there. It represents a level of comfort, of moments and days and lives shared. Of home. And because of that, it's priceless.
 

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