Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Writing for work or working to write?

"If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” -Lord Byron.

I hear you Lord Byron, I hear you. This week began in the true style of the eternal struggle I constantly face - the battle between work and personal life (or rather personal ambition). I am, on a weekly basis, faced with the following questions: Do I take a lunch break? Do I have time for a lunch break? Does anyone else in my office take a lunch break? Did someone schedule a meeting advertised as important but that actually has little relevance on my job, during the hours people normally have a lunch break? The crippling culture of meetings to discuss absolutely everything, which seems to be rife in my work place, means that I never actually have that much time during the working day at my desk in order to do the work generated by said meetings. This of course, means I often have to stay late at work and end up watching my personal life and creative ambitions shrink under the ever-expanding hours of a profession I neither visualised myself in nor trained for in higher education. As for a lunch break, no one in my office takes them regularly and certainly never for the allotted hour.

It is not all that bad. I work next to one of the most famous parks in London. But the amount of times I have actually taken a walk in that park in the last year are so few I can count them on one hand. Ironically, my job has got more interesting in the last year than it was when I first started. My salary still remains laughably small, but I am being given writing to do. For the first time in my entire employment history, I am being given messages to craft, copy-writing to edit and webpages to create. I am being creative in the workplace. It is a revelation. Granted I am writing blurbs about students, companies and banks and businesses; things that don’t grab my interest like music, film and literature does, but I do get to write about London and any writing is better than none at all. I got to research cities in Europe today and discovered that it rains 200 days out of the year in Brussels, which is interesting to me, but has gotta suck for the Belgians. That nice, tidy and well-written little fact went straight on to one of our student webpages. (just for the record, I did not use the words 'gotta' or 'suck' in the presence of students or any company web pages. I only write in colloquialisms in this blog because no one pays me to write this. I do it out of the goodness of my own little warm heart for the wider web community)

So I have lots of writing to be getting on with! There are bulletins to write, newsletters, handbooks, mini-student magazines, invites to events, emails to alumni and much more. The problem arises in that I have been given all this ‘writing work’ (which I am good at and for the most part enjoy) but not the time in which to do it. I have my other job (as an administrator) to do, as well as my new job (copywriter), and I simply cannot find the time in the day to do it all. So of course my working day bleeds into my personal free time in the evening, which is deeply frustrating.

I used to volunteer as a cat socialiser at a local animal shelter on Saturdays and after 3 years of dedicated service, of learning about animal behavior and petting hundreds of cats, I gave it up to concentrate on writing. I have always wanted to write. Next to having a family, it has been my greatest desire. The problem is I have never known what to write or really believed in my own ability to put words on paper. Ironically now I am actually doing more writing than ever before and people are telling me that I am good at it, but it is all work-related and not the creative fiction writing I had envisioned. Plus I am always so tired on Saturday mornings from the working week that I never end up getting up in the morning and sitting down to write.

The most serious problem however, arises when, like Byron, I don’t write I do tend to go mad. I feel all stressed and anxious. My thoughts form sentences and I re-write them in my mind again and again until they are perfect and then written down. I must write, simply to empty my head of all the thoughts and ideas that swirl about and build up to breaking point. If only I had the discipline and bravery to sit down and really write properly, no more bulletins, no more event invites, no more carefully composed letters, polite and rigid, but something big, bold and colourful. Something beautiful. Something  I could be proud of.

Quick! Don't Call the Midwife! Bring me a Tissue instead!

Jenny and her bike on a mission to deliver babies and perfect her fifties hairstyle.

So the second season of 'Call the Midwife' is back on TV this week and last night I actually managed to convince my husband (not a fan of period dramas or televised birth scenes) to watch an episode. Good thing I did too, because I needed someone to comfort me while I wept openly at the end of the hour long drama, in which 3 women gave birth and midwives yet again proved themselves to be members of the most amazing profession in the world.
Apart from other professions that save lives (firemen, ambulance drivers, A&E doctors and at certain times of extreme stress, hostage negotiators or social workers), is there a profession any more noble than midwifery? Midwives are there in a mother's hour of most desperate need to offer support and usher new life into this world. And in 'Call the Midwife,' they do all of the above while also riding a bicycle through the busy streets of London's East End in the 1950s and wearing a cute nurse's cap. I can't stand the sight of blood or the idea of witnessing an actual birth and even I want to be a midwife after watching the show.

Based on the memoirs of a 'real-life midwife,' Jennifer Worth, 'Call the Midwife' is produced by Neal Street Productions for BBC Drama and it never fails to amaze me with its production values. The detail in the period costumes and 1950s sets is fantastic. The storytelling is also very good, with the show examining not just the emerging postwar NHS neonatal healthcare and developments in obstetrics but also other social issues of the 1950s such as marriage, poverty, pediatrics and the role of women among the docks of the East End of London. Every episode seems realistic, (probably as a result of being based on a real person's memoirs), good things happen but so do bad things. People die, get sick and even sometimes the babies are born with problems. But then people also fall in love, marry and get on with living their lives despite the difficult circumstances they find themselves in. The show can of course be a bit overly sentimental. Hey, its no 'The Wire' or 'The Killing.' But it's about childbirth and lets, be honest, who wants to take a harsh cynical view of midwives. We love midwives remember? After all, at once point, we all came into contact with one at the hour of our own birth.

Anyway, back to the show. The Christmas Special episode had me bawling so much I had to take a break halfway through to make a cup of tea and get a tissue. The story of the special shown on Christmas Day centered not only on birth, but also on the themes of poverty and social care. An old lady found wandering the streets is taken in by the midwives and the nuns that run the local hospital. As she is cared for, her tragic past is slowly revealed. In her youth (around 1906) she was widowed and unable to care for both herself and her five children, she was admitted to the workhouse and her children removed from her care. Due to disease and neglect in the workhouse, all her children died one by one. The saddest scene of the episode was when Jenny, the main character of the show, takes the old lady to the mass pauper's grave that her children are buried in to try to give her some closure to her grief. It was really heart-wrenching stuff and perhaps a bit too upsetting for Christmas Day, but it pleased me none the less, as I feel that it is the stories of people like Jenny and the old lady that are rarely told in TV and film. Everyday people with small but never the less important lives.

Of course, even the happy stories in the series make me cry. All the babies being born in each episode and the mothers looking so happy, sends me right over the edge and will have me scooting across the living room to grab a tissue. Where is my self control?! I guess I find being sad sometimes a bit cathartic. My husband thinks the whole thing is rather ridiculous, but even he was moved when watching the latest episode. I doubt I can get him to watch it next week however (he shows only a marginal interest in midwifery and childbirth understandably), so I have my box of tissues ready and the kettle set up in case I need a break for emotional relief and an emergency cup of tea.

Cynthia, Jenny and Trixie: Midwives in trench-coats.

Stopping by the City on a Snowy Evening....

Snowy Balham Common at dusk

It's snowing! Yes, we British are obsessed with the weather. It is a constant topic of conversation, the BBC frequently has alarmist weather reports popping up on its news website and any kind of weather, be it hot or cold, is guaranteed to cause a halt to public transport across the UK.

During the summer, even the slightest bit of sunshine results in hundreds of Londoners rushing out in to parks across the city, stripping down to their underwear and baking themselves frantically like hot-dogs in the sun. And snow (!) causes the same reaction (albeit with more clothes on and less heat). Londoners pack on as much fashionable winter-wear as they can find and set about trying to competitively build snowmen on commons and in back gardens throughout the Greater London area.

Maybe, we are so excitable when it comes to the weather because we are an island nation with such changeable weather conditions or maybe we love hot sun and cold snow, because so much of the year we are treated to grey skies and rain. But, whatever the reason for our national obsession with weather, we don't intend to let this chance to have fun in the snow pass us by. And of course, the wintry weather presents an extraordinarily good opportunity to take photos. I was snapping with my camera all weekend, fingers frozen and face stuck to the viewfinder in the cold.

The snow has caused some trouble to my commute to work however. True to my nature (that of an obsessive list-maker), I have made some lists of what is good and bad about snow:

Snow falls even on the tiniest of places 

The reasons why I love Snow:
  • It is fluffy and light 
  • Snow falling and then lying on the ground dampens and muffles the sounds of the city. The streets become calm and a hush descends over London.
  • It inspires wonder in children and adults alike – two of my students from India who had never seen snow before until last week, were so excited they were actually jumping up and down in the Uni office like kids.
  • Snow looks beautiful in Regent’s Park and the green parakeets that reside in the park, stand out in  brilliant tropical green against the snowy whiteness, when they perch on trees and clean their feathers.
  • Snow makes all the trees look like they have been draped with soft white lace.
  • Snow means a lot more cute videos of kids/dogs/cats/people playing in the snow on Youtube.
  • It meant this week, I got to see a white cat padding about in the white snow. A beautiful and weird illusion for the eye.
  • It means that websites publish funny things to do in the snow: http://now-here-this.timeout.com/2013/01/18/13-ways-to-appreciate-the-snow/
  • It is the perfect excuse for mulled cider! Yay!
  • It means I have to wear my green and white polka dot wellies to work. He he.

An inventive snowman in Sainsbury's car park

The reasons why I dislike Snow:
  • It screws up my commute to work even though I spend most of my journey UNDERGROUND where it DOES NOT SNOW. Last Friday it took me 2 hours to get to work and 2 hours to get home. That is four hours to travel approximately 22 miles. I could have crawled the journey quicker.
  • It makes my flat cold. And my flat is always cold in winter. I spent a lot of my time at home in bed….with three layers of clothes on.
  • Snow in London turns into a muddy slush in around a day.
  • The above mentioned muddy slush turns into ice when it freezes overnight and it’s impossible to walk on.
  • Driving is risky. Unless the council has gritted the streets. 
  • London Councils often run out of grit.
  • Snow does not automatically equal a Snow Day (day off work due to difficult weather) unless you work for a school or live out in the middle of nowhere. The rest of us have to battle to work and read about other people enjoying the snow on the internet. 
  • The British media goes ape with panic over weather reports. Declaring 'Red' weather warnings to freak everyone out (including my husband - an extreme weather-obsessive himself).
  • Snow meant I could not get the transport to see a show called Fuerzebruta (http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/fuerzabruta) at the Roundhouse in Camden this weekend….and they won’t refund my tickets! Grrrr! My husband and I compensated with a lovely snowy walk in the wooded area of our local park while pretending we were in Robert Frost’s poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’

Friday, 18 January 2013

The Staves

Lately I have been addicted to listening to The Staves. They are an acoustic folk trio of sisters from Watford in the UK.They seem to be having more success in the US, than England weirdly, but I like them and just downloaded their album this month. It makes great commuting music; nice and relaxing! Perfect as a distraction from a crowded tube train full of harassed commuters invading your personal space.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Song of the Un-experienced Runner

I am awake. I should be in bed. I have to get up at 6am tomorrow and I know I will be tired and that it will be extremely difficult...because....I started my new fitness regime today! Yes! That is right! 4 years after I gave my husband a book on physical fitness written by the British Army (the 'Official British Army Fitness Guide' to be exact - it can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Official-British-Army-Fitness-Guide/dp/085265118X) he actually looked at it and figured out that it might actually have some useful tips in it on getting fit. My husband is actually in quite good shape, but after several years of a sedentary job, I am not. Plus, I like fat...and sugar....and salt. All the things that are bad for you basically. Salami, chocolate, butter, cheese, custard, cookies, burgers, cakes...and anything with custard really. Actually, if given the freedom to eat whatever I want, nine times out of ten, I would chose custard.

So you can imagine my shock, my horror, my speechless surprise when I climbed the stairs at Marylebone tube station last week and found that I was too out of breath to even find my Oyster card and make my way through the ticket gates without worried looks from the Transport for London staff. 'You okay miss?' asked one ticket inspector, as I wheezed past him. I had no answer for him, just a weary smile to reassure him, that no, this was not my asthma. It was couch-potato-eating-too-much-cream-at-Christmas-laziness that had led to the complete inability to climb 3 flights of stairs in one go, without a long and lengthy coffee break in between each 5 or so steps.

So something needs to be done. I can't very well keel over from a custard-induced-lack-of-exercise-death at the age of 35, leaving my husband bereft of company in our badly heated flat in London. Hence, I checked the British Army Fitness Guide for what they recommend for the terminally lazy people of this world. Very nicely, the author, Sam Murphy, referred to poor souls like me as 'sedentary' rather than lazy and recommended a 1 month course of different exercises. At the end of the book (and after 9 months) apparently I should be fit enough to try out for the Territorial Army, which may come in handy if there is ever a zombie apocalypse or London is invaded by aliens. My regime for today was:

Run for 1 minute
Walk for 3 minutes

Do the above five times in a row.

Which is harder than it sounds. Remember I am quite unfit. And not exactly confident in skin tight leggings in the streets of London. And...it is freezing! The air entering my lungs is not only moving around faster than it normally would as I am breathing so hard, but it is also freakishly cold because the weather in the UK has suddenly got a lot more wintry in the last four days (apparently our cold spell comes from wind from Russia. Gee thanks Russia!)

Well, I did it and now I feel pretty good. Of course, I need music to run to, simply because I actually find running really boring. If I could read a book and run at the same time I would. Failing that, the ipod makes the experience a bit more cinematic. I can imagine I am famous athlete while listening to Chariots of Fire or I am fleeing an oncoming army hoard of angry and hairy Vikings (The Gladiator Soundtrack). Currently my favourite tune to run to is 'Run, Boy, Run' by Woodkid (as seen in the below video), it does what it says on the tin...gets you running...

I may not enjoy running that much (especially on the concrete of the urban jungle that is London) but I do admire those who do run and simply for the fun of it. In that spirit, I want to share one my favourite poems:

The Song of the Ungirt Runners

We swing ungirded hips,
And lightened are our eyes,
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
We know not whom we trust
Nor whitherward we fare,
But we run because we must
Through the great wide air.

The waters of the seas
Are troubled as by storm.
The tempest strips the trees
And does not leave them warm.
Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
'Neath the big bare sky.

The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.

Charles Hamilton Sorley

Unfortunately, although the imagery of this poem is glorious, I will have to be satisfied with my own little song for the moment - the Un-experienced Runner, until I have a pastoral landscape to run through. Or when Wandsworth Common dries out after being so waterlogged by the monumental amount of rain we had this Christmas. Until then, I will run, because I need to, through the uneven concrete slabs of South London's pavements and come home...to some nice warm custard.