Birthdays

I’ve always had a bit of an odd relationship with my birthday. It’s on 14th February, which isn’t the worst possible birthday date but does have some drawbacks.

For starters, it’s the cause of a remarkable number of people thinking that ‘I bet you get lots of cards on Valentine’s Day’ is an original quip, the evidence of which truism resulted in some confusion in my first year at University, when everyone else collecting their post from my halls of residence Reception that morning gave me some very odd looks indeed as I wandered back upstairs with an armful of cards and a presents (“Blimey, that woman from E floor’s gone a bit overboard on the pretending-she-has-a-Valentine thing!”).

It’s also a bugger of a day for celebrations when most of your friends are in couples and are therefore quite understandably wanting to be in Couple Mode for the occasion. I might be forgetting one or two, but birthday celebrations of even a modest variety after young childhood aren’t really A Thing.

I can’t actually remember what we did on the evening of that birthday in the first year of Uni – all I can really remember is curling up and reading the whole of The Hogfather while my friends wandered round Meadowhall all day in what I later found out was a rather sweet quest to buy me a present, probably because after mainlining Susan Sto-Helit all day in between wondering where on earth all my friends had vanished to (no mobiles in those days, kids!) I had a bit of a book hangover. And there was the time 13 years ago when I’d recently started work at a company full of fellow young nerdy types who, bless them, insisted on dragging me out for the occasion and so I spent it getting to know new colleagues over cocktails and ended the night in Pizza Hut with a plastic rose between my teeth because Valentine’s Day will out. I also have a vague memory from somewhen of a night out with a couple of other single people which involved us spending the evening somewhere that involved large pink heart decorations and getting irritated by people assuming we must be on the pull and therefore interrupting our conversation with inept attempts to pull us. Those occasions, though, are memorable because they’re the only ones I can bring to mind.

I gave up asking if people were
free-for-a-drink-or-something-sometime-near-my-birthday after hearing ‘can we have your birthday on another day instead?’ a few too many times and with my sister’s similar experience (her birthday is two days after mine) as confirmation, I suppose.

Even when in a relationship, at which point, particularly if you manage to make your anniversary around then too, there is at least one person who is more or less obligated to spend some time with you, evenings are a bit of a minefield of suddenly more expensive restaurants and Romantic Valentine’s Day Things. Not being a particularly traditionally romantic type, I’ve always preferred to go out for the day, maybe go for a walk or something, have lunch and then stay in with a Chinese takeaway and a bottle of something interesting in the evening – just a *something* to mark the occasion.

I suppose it’s silly, really. Plenty of people don’t give a toss about birthdays, and in terms of the whole getting older thing neither do I. I’m not particularly bothered about gifts – things are just things, although a well-chosen thing will always be appreciated for its thoughtfulness. And the urge to celebrate is flagrantly selfish in a way – it’s basically ‘would like to see fun people for fun times’ with a hefty side order of ‘oi! make a bit of a fuss of me!’. But still. That last thing is not something I say very often, and, dammit, I’m *worth* a bit of a fuss once in a while! (I say that; it was really bloody difficult to type that sentence without heaping on enough maybes, modifiers and disclaimers to suffocate the sentiment entirely and I still couldn’t let it stand without this parenthetical waffle. Asking for the things I want is hard, I’m working on it.)

That said, most folk I know don’t really seem to do the birthday gathering thing – especially not for birthdays that don’t end with either a five or a zero. But having attended other people’s yet failed to muster more than one person for my own 25th, 30th and 35th birthdays perhaps all that means is that I should take a leaf out of Lori‘s book and make plans for a 40th bash in a few years’ time?

After all, it’s pretty much impossible to muster people at all when you don’t even try.

Childfree

Maybe it’s the turn of the seasons, maybe it’s the impending onslaught of family occasions, maybe it’s… something else, but at around this time of year my childfree status often seems to get a little poke.

It’s never been a particularly militant status, but it has frequently been a misunderstood one, as I am approximately the thousandth childfree woman to observe.

It’s not, you see, that I don’t like or don’t want to hang out with children – wrong on both counts (as with, oh, loads of other childfree people), although I’ll admit that as the youngest in my birth family, with no nephews or nieces, the lack of practice does render me a bit inept and awkward with the younger ones in particular. It’s not even that I don’t want to adjust my life to fit around them – my career is interesting and enjoyable but it wouldn’t take priority over a person. How could it?

It’s just that quite simply I’ve never actively wanted my own child; it’s not a presence of Do Not Want so much as an absence of visceral WANT! And for me, while I am lucky enough to have a geographical and socio-economic background that means I can make choices about these things, I can’t square the requirement to steward a shiny new person towards a healthy and happy adulthood with anything less than a total commitment to so doing. Child-rearing is important, yo! So while I’ve continued to experience a lack of active want, that’s what I’ve acted upon. I’ve never said ‘never!’, I’ve merely consistently said ‘nope, not my thing’ and can’t really imagine that changing at this point.

And now that I’m 36 rather than 26, or even 30, people tend to actually believe me when they find I don’t want children (which after years of them not doing so comes as a blessed relief) – something about tipping over the 35 mark did that. Of course, you still get the odd person who treats the revelation as an opportunity to play Twenty Questions because They’re Just Interested In Your Reasons (see also: being vegetarian), but by and large I don’t get the You’ll Change Your Mind speech these days.

What I do get, however, is people asking if I like children (This has always made no sense to me. Children aren’t a single unit, I can’t adore or deplore them en masse. They’re individuals. Do you like people in their 50s?) or assuming I don’t, or don’t have any interest in hanging out with them.

Which puzzles me.

I’ll admit to the aforementioned awkwardness-borne-of-inexperience (I will happily read the thing your child has just thrust into my hands, find a flag app on my phone to entertain your flag-obsessed son or answer questions about the YouTube video about earthquakes with which you’re distracting them while you produce breakfast as best I can, but I’m blowed if I can remember any nursery rhymes or games), but that’s it.

People are nuanced. Childfree might apply to my uterus, but that doesn’t mean I expect or want it to apply to my entire life. Likewise, I enjoy my friends’ kids (I hope that’s mutual, but who knows?) but that doesn’t mean I want my own. There’s nothing contradictory in that, though I’ve heard that accusation a few times.

My closest and longest-standing friends all have kids, ranging in age from around a year to 10, and every single one of them is a joy to be around. And the thing that’s most joyous is that when you have a relationship with their parents you get to watch the child get to know herself, the parents get to know the child, the siblings get to know one another – you see a whole web of relationships flex and grow as each child grows. Just as most people who have ever been around kids do, I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of watching tiny babies – and some of them really were tiny – grow and develop into their personalities, further and further over time. I get those vision-upending glimpses of the world through kids’ eyes. And yeah, ok, I get to see a tantrum or two. I find them easy enough to forgive in a tired and overwrought 5 year old.

I recognise traits from women I’ve known for most of my life appearing in whole new people. I watch loved friends find happiness in their choices and demonstrate skills that maybe even they never knew they had.

I see a small tribe of completely awesome young folk forming and figure there’s hope for us human-types yet.

I am awed and humbled to know so many people shepherding folk towards adulthood so compassionately, responsibly and effectively.

Just don’t ask me why I don’t want a child of my own. I haven’t the faintest idea, quite frankly, but I do know that a) it’s not about me, it’s about the kids to whom I don’t think I’d be doing justice without that want, and b) it’s none of your damn business.

Travel: Krakow, June 2013

Krakow Square

It’s taken me over a month to get around to writing this post about my travels to the wonderful city of Krakow, Poland, in June of this year. Oops.

So, Krakow – a beautiful city, centred around a square that’s both vast and architecturally stunning. We went there pre-UK heatwave, and found ourselves experiencing a Polish heatwave (I’m led to believe that countries with more consistent climates than England refer to these weeks of warmth and sunshine as ‘summer’), much to our delight.

The square is lined with places to eat, both indoors and al fresco, and since this is Poland the food is both tasty (seriously, try the Pierogi – Polish dumplings, which can be either savoury and sweet and come with a bewildering variety of fillings. They’re on pretty much every menu and they’re absolutely delicious) and inexpensive. You’ll find it a touch pricier on the square than elsewhere in town, but it certainly won’t break the bank. While we’re on the subject of food, there are ice cream and kebab shops everywhere. Unlike in the UK, kebab shops aren’t merely something into which you stumble after a heavy night – for a couple of quid, I grabbed a mighty, not greasy at all and bloody mouthwatering falafel kebab for lunch one day. If you’re after something a little more sophisticated, though, you really won’t be disappointed – there are excellent eateries all over the place, and while as a veggie I wasn’t spoilt for choice in terms of dishes in each place (but then, I never am!) I never lacked for quality meals.

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First order of business after tipping off the plane was to go forth and fall upon dumplings and a cold drink, and then explore the city.

Since we’d been up since 4am, we figured we’d take it easy with one of the buggy rides around the main areas of the town. You’ll find various vendors around the square (always unfailingly polite and never even slightly pushy), and it pays to negotiate on the price, but if you do the full tour of the old town, the Ghetto, and the Jewish Quarter it’ll take you a couple of hours and give you a good overview of the city and an idea of the places you’d like to come back to on foot. Also churches. You’ll see a lot of churches. Very religious country, Poland, so you will see more elaborate churches than you’d think it would be possible to cram into a few square miles. They don’t call Krakow ‘Little Rome’ for nothing! But of course, it’s not without a synagogue or several either – despite less pleasant recent history, Catholics and Jews lived and worshipped in the same city perfectly harmoniously for many years.

Salt Mine ChurchSome of them are even several hundred feet underground. The church in this picture is in the depths of the Wieliczka Saltmines, and has been entirely carved from rock salt by the miners. Everything. Altar, statues, friezes depicting the Last Supper – all of it is made from salt. Even the beads on the chandelier are pure salt.

This may be the most spectacular part of the salt mines, but it’s certainly not the only thing of note. It’s an extraordinary place to visit – cool, clean air (reputed to be extremely good for the health – there’s a spa hotel on the same site), decorated at intervals with wonderful statues and sculptures ranging from ancient kings to for some reason an odd little woodland scene involving dwarves. Again, it’ll take a few hours (and isn’t suitable for those of limited mobility – there’s a lot of walking and stairs; there is an alternative wheelchair-friendly route, however) with a knowledgeable tourguide.

Worth a visit, too, is Schindler’s Factory over in the Ghetto. It’s a media-rich, densely informative museum to war-era Krakow, and honestly speaking I found that after a couple of hours I simply couldn’t take any more in, between sensory overload of how the messages were delivered and the sheer awfulness of what was being talked about. The reminiscences of people who had been children at the time of being forced into – and out of – the Ghetto were a bone-shocking level of powerful.

Ariel restaurant - Jewish Quarter, KrakowAbove ground and when you’re not steeping yourself in history, Krakow is a fabulous city for fans of al fresco people-watching. The Jewish Quarter is still the site of some beautiful buildings (you’ll get the spiel about how some of them appeared in Schindler’s List), including a bar/restaurant that now occupies the site of what were several tiny shops – the original external signs are retained, a suggestion of brickworks illustrates where the shop walls used to be, and the whole is rather charmingly decorated with appropriate knicknacks. Ariel restaurant, shown here, does indeed feature in the film – and serve rather delicious food!

It’s worth venturing into the main square in Krakow in the evening, too – it has a beautiful vibe, and there’s always the chance that as well as being able to soak up the atmosphere and gaze at the swifts circling one of the high towers at twilight, you’ll catch an unexpected street performance

AuschwitzOf course, we had ultimately come to Krakow for a reason. Auschwitz.

We left it until the day we were flying home, knowing that we didn’t want such a powerful and painful experience to taint our entire break in what is a genuinely beautiful city that is well worth a visit and revisit in and of itself.

And it was horrible. Truly horrible. Words can’t really describe the experience with any justice. As you enter, a sombreness descends. The feeling that you’re in a place of such extensive and systematic vileness is almost tangible and grows more oppressive and upsetting as your guide – and hats off to them for doing a tough job with extreme skill and sensitivity – takes you around the camp.

The scale of massacre was, as we all know, vast – but numbers can be hard to appreciate on their own, as abstracts. Here, you will be forced to see just a fraction of what those numbers meant in real terms. Collected within, in various piles, were the belongings of just some of the lost victims of Auschwitz. A mound of glasses. A whole room of brushes. A collection of baby clothes. A huge, huge expanse of several tonnes of human hair, from the heads of just some of the women.  And two full rooms full of shoes. Flat shoes, heeled shoes, fancy shoes, plain shoes, new shoes, beaten up shoes, big shoes, small shoes. Just piles and piles and piles of shoes stolen from the dead.

And a collection of empty gas canisters.

Only one of the gas chambers survives, at either Auschwitz or Birkenau, and it’s a solemn and silent procession of visitors to end your time at Auschwitz I before heading just a little way up the road to the terrifyingly industrial-scale deathcamp that is Birkenau – Auschwitz II.

It’s a vast and desolate place now. There’s little there but the site itself, an imposing brick entranceway, a railway line that terminates there. Most of the buildings housing inmates were wooden (pre-fab stables, actually) and have not survived but for the eerie brick chimneys rising in neat rows across the fields. Those that remain give just the tiniest hint at the squalor in which the inhabitants must have been kept. Piles of rubble now mark the spots where thousands lost their lives – the gas chambers, where the clinical art of murder en masse was perfected, were blown up before Allied forces arrived.

A memorial, in numerous languages, now stands. Because people should have somewhere to pay their respects to the dead, and events such as these should never, ever be forgotten.

And the birds do fly over Auschwitz, now.

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Flickr set of Krakow.

And now for something completely different…

I recorded this with a view to personality typing, so that should explain the general thrust of this, but I thought it had a lot of relevance to this blog so here you go. Have a video ramble of me talking about my approach to books, bookclubs, and blogging.

Apologies for the light quality – I can always find somewhere a bit less glowy if people like the idea of VideoCat.

Travel: Trainspotting tour of Leith, 1st June 2013

Edinburgh

At the start of June, I was lucky enough to find myself in the rather beautiful city of Edinburgh. Of course, there was whisky and for the 50% of the group that eats meat there was haggis, neeps and tatties.

But on Saturday morning, we strolled out to Leith and met up with the fascinating Tim of www.leithwalks.co.uk to embark on a Trainspotting tour. At this point, I have to confess that I haven’t actually read much Irvine Welsh. In point of fact, I haven’t really read any. No idea why, just one of the many authors I haven’t encountered as fully as I could have done. Two of  my party, however, are avid fans and I am never one to turn down an interesting literary experience. Meeting up with Tim at the Port O’ Leith pub – a familiar haunt of Welsh himself back in the day – it became clear immediately that this is a man who knows his subject inside out, upside down and back to front. His copy of Trainspotting is the sort of battered, patched, post-it noted, much-loved book that can’t help but make a book lover smile at the amount of sheer love it’s received.

I won’t spoiler the details or route of the walk itself for you, as some things are best discovered in person. But if you ever find yourself in the vicinity I really do strongly recommend you try to commandeer a couple of hours of Tim’s time. We’re not talking about a typical ‘and on your left, Welsh once had a coffee in that very bar’ umbrella-following tour here – we’re talking something much more in-depth, personal and fascinating.

Tim took us on a walking tour of Leith that encompassed its socio-economic – and indeed, political – history just as much as it encompassed the physical setting of the streets of Leith and the background to the novels of Welsh. Emphasis was on Trainspotting, but with an expert at the head and two Welsh fans and two fascinated onlookers in the group it was inevitable that Welsh’s other novels feature strongly too.

At every stopping point along the way, Tim explained the background and history, talking eloquently about everything from the way working men’s clubs worked (familiar to us, but must be an interesting thing to explain to those whose culture doesn’t really include such institutions) to the architecture of the old station with a side order of the ravages the 60s’ fetish for concrete high rises on community. And of course, Welsh’s narrative decisions were woven in seamlessly. At every stop, having set the scene with wonderful eloquence and passion, Tim also read us key passages from the novel – and at one point caused much hilarity by encouraging our party to act out a section in their best Sean Connery voices.

Seriously well worth attending if you ever get the opportunity – Tim’s enthusiasm and frankly phenomenal storehouse of knowledge make it something far more than simply a novel way to spend a couple of hours.

And yes, I am finally getting around to reading the book. It’s a lot easier now that I’ve actually heard some of it read in the appropriate accent!

Event: An Evening with the cast of Red Dwarf, The Approach, Nottingham. 02.05.2013

Tongue Tied

It’s not often you head towards The Approach at a little before 7pm on a Thursday evening and encounter a distinctly nerd-flavoured queue halfway down Friar Lane. But since last Thursday involved the venue playing host to an intimate ‘Evening With’ appearance from all four of the crew of the mining ship Red Dwarf, it was perhaps inevitable.

The event was such a resounding success even before it took place that it took just two hours for the tickets to sell out, and from thereonin the sterling work of event organiser, Lee Wallis, guaranteed a coup for both him and the city of Nottingham.

Three quarters of the team took the stage early on in the evening, their longstanding camaraderie immediately evident in both their banter and their poking good-natured fun at the non-appearance of Danny John Jules, whose lateness will be no particular surprise to anyone who’s ever attended a Red Dwarf convention!

Craig Charles immediately commandeered the microphone, cracking jokes and generally getting the ball rolling with some highly amusing anecdotes in which he managed to demonstrate an impressive ability to recall several reviews verbatim (his acting has apparently been described as “like a cheese and ham sandwich without the cheese and bread”) while also extracting belly laughs from the entire audience.

Robert Llewellyn was induced to explain (and demonstrate) exactly how he came up with Kryten’s walk, and the three of them were happy to perform a quick rendition of Tongue Tied, encoring with Danny when he finally arrived to roars of amusement from the crowd and amused resignation from his comrades. Regrettably dancing-free, but as the stage was tiny and they revealed that with the exception of Danny they’d all had to spend a full week rehearsing that particular scene, maybe it was just as well for the safety of the pints in the first row of a distinctly packed Approach!

Tidbits of interest to the show’s fans (of which, of course I have been one since… well, since forever, really, since it started airing when I was 10 and I have older siblings of a sci-fi persuasion) were revealed along the course of the evening: the most pertinent being that Doug Naylor is in the process of writing series XI, and they’re all keen to participate! But we also gathered that Danny’s exits can take some time to perfect, that Craig has a remarkable memory for lines, and that Chris Barrie spent most of a day gesticulating in an assortment of increasingly bizarre ways in order to achieve the full, final Rimmer salute.

But really, the event was all about the boys from the ‘Dwarf themselves. It was evident throughout the entire night that this is a bunch of blokes who like and respect each other and have known one another for twenty-five years. The banter was both hilarious and good-natured, the reminiscing was plentiful and the mood was lively – in a setting as intimate as the well-chosen Approach, it felt a little bit like we’d all been invited to sit around in their living room while they had a natter and threw some jokes around.

RD Full Cast

They indulged the audience freely, slipping into Duane Dibbley, Ace and Kryten trying to say ‘smeghead’ when requested, and while Chris couldn’t for the life of him remember what CLITORIS stood for when asked, Craig’s impressive memory came to the rescue – after the inevitable few jokes. We still don’t know exactly what was on that double polaroid, though. Oh, and, we hate to say it, but Chris isn’t a particular fan of gazpacho soup. Too cold.

When pressed for the real high points, though, the guys came over all serious for once and made it quite clear that it was all about the camaraderie between the boys from the ‘Dwarf, who’ve known each other longer in some cases than they’ve known their wives. Not bad for a bunch of guys that describe themselves as ‘Last of the Summer Wine in Space’.

After a well-orchestrated Q&A session with the crowd, the cast lingered for a signing marathon as the poor bar staff did their best to retrieve the empty glasses left by a happy crowd in a sold-out room. It really couldn’t have gone better.

Given the phenomenal success of this event, I’d strongly recommend keeping your eyes peeled for similar future occasions.

Event Organiser: Twitter. Facebook.
Venue Website: The Approach Nottingham.

Longhand, Shorthand, Typing and Scribbles

PenToPaperIt’s a funny thing, writing. Different types of writing, different moods and different stages of the process all seem to demand slightly different approaches.

My diaries have nearly always been handwritten. There was an experiment with typing them way back when Windows 3.1 was the In Thing, but by and large, I like a good quality notebook and a decent ballpoint pen for my ponderings. I don’t like the restriction imposed by actual diaries – some days there’s nothing much to say and other days there’s pages of it, so a page-per-day format makes little sense in my eyes. Far better to just head the notebook entry for the day with the date, day, and anything else I happen to think significant with regard to my moods and feelings, and just go. Half the time I don’t quite know what I’m going to write about before I sit down at my desk and open the book. I’m not one of life’s ‘got up, put washing on, watched tv’ diarists, though you’ll see a bit of general life-recording in there, but nor am I an angsty stream of consciousness type (Well, not these days. Twenty years ago when I was in my teens, maybe. Mind you, at that point I used to draw cartoon strips in ’em as well from time to time.). It’s reflection, on self, events, others and life, and it requires a medium that allows for a freeform yet easy-reference approach.

Blogs, on the other hand – and I’ve been blogging both personally and professionally for over a decade in various places – are typed straight into WordPress as befits the medium. They’re snappier, not so personal, constructed rather than reflective, and so they suit a style of actually getting the words out that reflects that, and a medium that makes cut, paste, delete, edit, publish, share super simple.

Stories, well, they can go either way. I have an ideas notebook which contains bits of stories, random scenes which may or may not be revisited some other time, listed-out story outlines and character descriptions, event flowcharts and scribbled bubble diagrams to explore the various different ways a particular theme could be taken. There’s always just enough there to get the idea out of my head and onto paper, but no more. I use diagrams if it feels right, if there are several directions a thing could take or themes I want to explore, because spiralling thoughts can’t be pinned into sensible lists.

I’ll often write first drafts, or the start (and by ‘start’ I mean ‘first bit I start writing’, which is of course rarely the actual start of the piece although it might be the start of the backstory that’s later revealed) of them, in longhand – partly because it’s often more convenient if I’m out of the house (although I’ve learnt that writing erotica in your lunchbreak at work isn’t the best idea in the world) and partly because there’s something about the process of physically putting pen to paper, of crossing out words that don’t fit, of scribbling notes in margins and drawing whooshing arrows to swap paragraphs around, that helps me to shape those initial doughy lumps of story idea to a more workable state. Once that initial kneading is done and a touch of further tinkering is added via the laptop, the rest seems to flow much more easily through fingers that can type faster than they can write.