Sunday, 30 May 2010

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Tomorrow I am off on my jollies. Five days exploring the cultural hub of Berlin. I can’t wait – lots of art for me and history for Him Indoors. By five o’clock on Friday evening I’d got to the point of wanting to murder anyone who dared email me and desperately needed to get away from it all. I wanted a change of scene and a break from the drudgery of my usual nine to five existence. It hadn’t come too soon.
Having said that, even though I am still in my little shoe-box in London, I am feeling much better already. In fact I’ve just had a rather lovely girly weekend. Okay, so it rained yesterday and all I did was potter about at home, but today I went to Greenwich to have a mooch around the market and paint a pot. Yes really. It was all very nice, slapping a bit of paint on a vase and nattering about life, love and everything with one of my girlfriends. Very appropriate considering on Friday night said girlfriend and I went to see SATC2 (she won tickets!) followed by a couple of cosmos. Carrie Bradshaw, eat your heart out.
So yes, lots of lovely girliness. Thinking about it, I really need to catch up with my girls more often. Okay, so I chat to them all the time on the phone and facebook them nearly every day, but actually spending quality time doing nothing but having frivolous fun? Okay, so on Tuesday I met some amazing women at one of “the groups” and the week before it was the ladies book club, but thinking about it, the last time I spent some serious time doing something really girly? I’ve just checked my diary – well over a month ago. This is not good enough.
So, today I am going to make a promise to myself. At least say, once a fortnight, I am going to get together with one of the girls and eat cake, watch Jonny Depp movies, do our nails, drink cocktails, read glossies… it doesn’t matter what really, as long as it isn’t too taxing on the brain or the body.
The housework can wait. The novel will keep. Ladies, it’s time to get busy doing nothing.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Down and Out

Finally. Summer is here. London is awake once more, the streets buzzing with people, parks filled with office workers on their lunch break catching a few rays, pavements scattered with tables and chairs tempting passersby with a refreshing drink as they watch the world go by. Everyone is outside again, making the most of the weather whilst it is here.
And I mean everyone. That means those at the bottom of the socially-acceptable food chain too. It is a shame. I mean who wants a hefty dose of guilt thrown into their day?
Take Monday for example. Whilst enjoying my iced coffee in a popular coffee bar, a woman came in with a shopping trolley, no doubt full of her worldly possessions. Her clothes were worn and mismatched, her hair knotted, her nails black. She looked bewildered. The clientele turned their backs on her, trying to ignore her desperation. A member of staff shouted at her to leave. She scuttled out of the shop, throwing her cup of water in her trolley, seemingly unaware that she was soaking her cargo as she did so. Later that evening a man entered and quietly went from table to table asking for change. Again he was greeted with coldness or pity. The same assistant chased him out of the shop. He left with quietly, his dignity intact – which is more than can be said of a lot of other people in that bar.
The thing is the sunshine brings out the good, the bad and the plain ugly. No one likes to be reminded that there are people sleeping on the streets with nothing more than the clothes on their back, people living with mental illness and addiction, alone in a city crammed full of people.
Last night, after my yoga class, I sat in Islington Green to eat my M&S falafel wrap before one of my “groups”. As I munched through my dinner, I caught up on a bit of people watching. Sat in one corner of the park was an Asian woman of about forty. She sat on a bench on her own, having an animated conversation to somebody I couldn’t see but she clearly could. She gestured as she spoke, covering her mouth in shock at one point, laughing loudly at another. Every now and then she jumped up to touch her toes or perform another such exercise.
People took a wide berth as they walked passed.
Opposite, a man sat on a bench. He was well dressed, middle aged, with a Tesco carrier bag by his side. He drank from a bottle of wine, concealed within his bag, taking quick swigs when he thought no-one was looking. Whilst he did so, he fed pigeons pieces of Gu brownie. It struck me that this was a particularly generous act. But then, I guess if pigeons are your only friends, you are going to share your posh pudding with them, aren’t you?
So why are we so squeamish about seeing homeless people? Why do we choose to ignore those who have fallen into the pit of addiction or been hit by mental illness? I guess a lot of it is because we all know, deep down, that it could happen to anyone. Is it one in four people who have a mental health problem? Quite a scary statistic when you think about it. And, as the Lotto advert used to cheerily tell us, it could be you. And let’s face it, we all know someone who we fear drinks a pint or ten too many on the average night out or seems a little bit too keen to spice up a party with something stronger.
At the weekend I watched Michael Moore’s film Capitalism: A Love Story. The film documented the catastrophic results of the economic crash in the good old US of A. People who had worked all their lives and trusted the banks with promises of financial freedom lost their homes. One family loaded their worldly possessions into the back of their truck, burning anything that wouldn’t fit. They were paid $1000 for clearing their house. Humiliating does not even come close. And again, I know someone who, if it wasn’t for their generous (and well-off) parents was at real risk of having their home re-possessed due to sudden unmanageable hikes in their mortgage repayments. It could happen to any one of us.
The thing is the problem is going to get worse. Apparently the mayor of London wants to eradicate street homelessness by that golden year 2012. How he is going to manage that I do not know, bearing in mind that, were I work at least, hostels are being closed and the criteria for accessing help with your housing is getting tighter and tighter. Those of us who become victims of poor financial advice and bad luck are screwed.
So, when you are disturbed by an “unfortunate” this summer as you enjoy your ice cream or cold beer, please remember they were perhaps once like you and I, happy, comfortable, safe. We will have to get used to their presence, as I predict we will be seeing more of those who have slipped through the net in the near future.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Sin City

When I told my dad I was moving to Brixton in South London, I swear I nearly finished him off.
“What about the riots?” He spluttered. I didn’t have the heart to point out that the events he was describing happened two decades ago, and instead tried to reassure him that I wasn’t moving to that part of SW9. He was even less impressed when I told him I was moving close to Finsbury Park five years later. “What, where that mosque those terrorists went to is?”
Please don’t make the mistake of thinking my dad is racist. Not at all. He has just never lived anywhere where anything happens. He grew up in rural Lincolnshire before a short stint at Loughborough Uni. Then it was Smalltownsville all the way. I don’t hold this against him. Let’s face it, before I moved to London my geographical history was no more spectacular. But blinded by the bright lights of the big city, rather than worrying about its hidden dangers I just put my head down and got on with it.
Nine years on, I still do. To some extent. But that doesn’t mean that I am not aware that London has its shady corners. Only two years ago London was plagued by a plethora of teenage murders. One of them just around the corner from my home. Six months on, a man was shot in a shop about 500 metres from my flat. Just before that a man was stabbed less than 50 metres from my front door.
I’m not going to lie to you. These incidents starkly reminded me of the darker side of London that is literally on my doorstep. But they haven’t stopped me enjoying my life in the big city. Okay, so I carry a personal alarm and keep it in my pocket if I am walking home after dark. But it doesn’t prevent me from going out and making the most of the capital’s delights.
The way I see it is that, at the end of the day, you are either in the wrong place at the wrong time or you aren’t. I am fairly confident that no gangsters are after me personally, but I am not stupid enough to think that innocent people don’t get caught in the crossfire. The odds are surely stacked in my favour. I doubt I am more likely to get shot or stabbed in London than killed in a road traffic accident anywhere else in the country. And as I don’t drive, I hope the two balance each other out. I just keep my eyes open and my wits about me – and hope that fate has not dealt me a duff hand.
In the last few months the violence crept closer once more. Walking home from Kings Cross a few weeks ago I passed a crime scene. Another man, not even in his second decade, had been murdered. Last week I came out of the tube at Finsbury Park to find my route home obstructed by a police blockage. Another stabbing on the bus.
But it isn’t just young men who are at risk in London. I recently met a group of girlfriends in Soho. The evening passed without incident. It wasn’t until the next day that I received an email telling me that a woman was raped that night, metres from where we met. Last week I received an email telling me that two women had been sexually assaulted – yards from where I live. And on my route home. Scary stuff. I thanked the people who let me know about these despicable attacks, but carried on about my business, just without my headphones stuck in my ears.
London is a densely populated city. An in any densely populated place, you also have a higher number of murderers and sex offenders per square mile than your average English town. Sad but true. It isn’t that London is a particularly evil place, it is merely a victim of its own popularity. If it was all doom and gloom, a lot less people would have chosen to live here. Including me. But whilst I may appear flippant about my own personal safety Dad, please rest assured that I will be looking over my shoulder when I walk home tonight.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Location location location

Him Indoors and I had the pleasure of visiting two of our chums who live in Buckinghamshire last night for some rather lovely nosh and entertaining conversation. Wine flowed, I talked shite (the two tend to come hand in hand) and we all ended the evening chilling in front of a movie (which I admit I fell asleep in front of – what can I say, my chair was very comfortable).
On the train home this morning, conversation turned to us moving out of London. This conversation usually makes me anxious, partly because I know compromising on where we end up living is not going to be easy, and partly because it seems like a mammoth task to find somewhere to live that ticks all the right boxes.
Firstly, we have decided that we ideally want to be able to commute into Kings Cross or St Pancras, but are willing to look at other stations too if the pros outweigh the inconvenience of having to travel across London. Secondly, we don’t want our door to door journey to last longer than an hour. So what we have decided to do is print off a map of London train connections and draw a loop around the stations that are within 40 minutes of Kings Cross, or half an hour of other stations south, east and west. We then need to investigate the cost of commuting and the earliest and latest trains into and out of London to accommodate his career and my social life. Then of course it needs to be affordable. And somewhere we both want to live.
There are other things we need to factor in as well. Would we need to buy a car to get to the station in the mornings? What are the local amenities like? Are there any decent pubs, and, dare I say it, clubs? So much to consider, so little time. Not that we are planning to move before the end of this year, but still, that is a lot of research to carry out.
I have made an executive decision on this one. I am letting Him Indoors take the lead on our investigations. Why? Because, due to his awkward working hours, he is the one who needs the most boxes ticking. And he is the one who wants to move out of London. The sad mathematician in me is looking forward to drawing up a comparative spreadsheet of different locations to ease the process. In fact, if it works well enough, you might see me on Dragon’s Den plugging it as an internet business. But other than that, it’s in his hands. Am I deliberately trying to slow down the process? Not at all. But if he fails to get his act together and get the ball rolling, I will leave him to it and make the most of a few extra months in the capital, guilt free.
Having said that, the current political climate might scupper our plans. Cuts to public services could well see me without a job, and, with an employment history that does not really venture out of support work, I may well be pretty unemployable. So, the money I have saved up for a deposit may well and up substituting my income whilst I find a new niche in the employment market. Strangely enough, when I pointed this out to Him Indoors, I did have to admit that although redundancy is a scary prospect, it appealed in some perverse way. Redundancy could be my way out of a job that I don’t really get any satisfaction from and force me to do something different, even re-train. Yes, financially it will be tight, but with a few agency shifts and a little job pulling pints I reckon I could get by. I might even have time to really go for this writing malarkey and become self sufficient with home grown vegetables and handmade clothes.
Who knows what the future will bring, and where it will deliver me. Whatever happens though, and wherever it happens, I think I can live with it.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Carry On NHS

I know, I know, it has been ages since I last blogged. A thousand apologies. Last weekend I had every intention of telling you all about the perfect girly weekend in London. On Friday I went to the Porchester Spa (the oldest spa in London, and a wonderful example of Art Deco architecture) with girlfriend number one. On Saturday I went to see the Photography Prize at the Photographers Gallery before hitting the shops to buy a dress for a 60’s themed Birthday Party with girlfriend number two. And, to round it off, on Sunday I was planning to hit Greenwich Market with girlfriend number three, followed with a bit of pot painting. Happy days.
Alas, I never got to Greenwich, because I got sick. In fact, I didn’t even get to wear my new dress last night at said party, as I got really sick. And ended up in the Whittington Hospital for five days.
I’m not telling you this to gain your sympathy (honest) but because my life has been nothing more than having my blood pressure checked, my stomach prodded (yes, it does hurt doctor!) and needles stuck in me for last week. So I have little else to write about. But rather than tell you the ins and outs of my mystery illness, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about that pillar of the Welfare State, the NHS.
The hospital that I have the pleasure of visiting is, if you don’t already know, under threat. The A&E is set to close and a lot of the other services are likely to merge with those of North London’s other main hospitals, the Royal Free and UCLH. This is something I am not particularly happy about. Okay, so geographically speaking, neither hospital is that far away from me. But the Whittington is a lot closer. Factor in London rush-hour traffic, and I pity anyone who has a heart attack and needs to get to a hospital pronto.
Having said that, I have to say the Whittington is probably a little past its sell by date. When I first arrived in Casualty I could swear the room I was put in was once a cupboard. My bed faced a frosted window, and through it I could see cobwebs, grime and the odd pigeon flying up to its nest in the guttering. Okay, so that was on the outside, but I can’t say it filled me with confidence. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect hospitals to be maintained well on the inside and the outside. I’d rather the windows were clean than see fancy pictures on the corridor walls anyway.
The thing I think the NHS forgets is that the people who visit their hospitals are sick. And therefore surely a little bit of effort should be paid towards offering them reassurance and making them feel comfortable. As an outpatient I hate attending my appointments, not just because you never know what they are going to tell you next, but because the waiting room is so dingy, with poor lighting and grim mustard yellow walls that it makes me want to head straight over to psychiatry for a dose of Prozac.
Okay, so giving the place a fresh lick of paint would cost money and there isn’t a lot of that to go round at the moment. But there are some things that can be done to make poorly, lonely and often scared patients feel a little less anxious about their stay in hospital that cost absolutely nothing at all.
Firstly, smile. Say hello. Tell the patient what your name is. Ask them what their name is. Tell them how things work on the ward; where the loo is, when mealtimes are, when visitors are allowed. Explain what you are doing. Tell them what you think might be wrong with them and how it could be treated. LISTEN TO THEM. Hand over to your colleagues what you have learnt about the patient accurately so that they don’t have to explain their symptoms again. Talk to them with a bit of respect – okay, so they might not grasp all the medical jargon straight away but that doesn’t make them stupid. And if they ask a question or for help, don’t fob them off. Tell them you don’t know or you can’t help, and only tell a patient someone will be with them in a minute if that is really the case. That way, your average patient will at least have their mind partly at rest. And, as we all know, a healthy and happy mind will help a body become healthy and happy too.
In my mind, in an ideal world the NHS and all public services would be built from the bottom upwards again, getting rid of the needless deadwood that floats around services and going back to basics. Sure, learn from what we have done before and recycle the bits that work, just get rid of the bits that don’t. And whist you’re at it, why not stick in a bit of training for medical professionals to develop their bedside manner. Don’t get me wrong, there are doctors and nurses who do a fantastic job and treat their patients with the upmost care and attention. But sadly there are also those who are too busy to bother with the anxieties of the people under their care. I know they are often overworked and underpaid, but how hard is it to smile and explain why you are taking a blood sample from someone yet again? I’d argue, not very.
NHS, I salute you. But I’m afraid you don’t get any medals from me yet.