Wednesday, 27 October 2010

This Green and Pleasant Land

This weekend, I escaped from The Madness and headed up north to visit my cousin. The train journey did not disappoint (standing room only and sauna temperatures, all for the bargain price of £66). I arrived in rural Lancashire on Friday night after 3 hours of travelling, decidedly hot and bothered and in need of a drink. But it was a trip well worth enduring, and two days later I didn’t want to go back.
It was lovely to see my cousin and her family (one partner, one child, a dog, a guinea pig and two cats in total). We worked out that we hadn’t seen each other in three and a half years, and her ten year old son couldn’t even remember us. Not even the tickle sticks. I felt a pang of guilt that I hadn’t been back sooner and didn’t really have the space to invite the whole family down to London (my flat is not “Louie-Dog” friendly). However, a glass of red wine later and any awkward long-time-no-sees had been washed away.
Saturday was my kind of a day. A leisurely morning chatting over several cups of tea followed by a country walk to the pub for a pint and something to eat. My cousin leant me a more appropriate jacket (i.e. one that was waterproof) and we headed off over a field to the Strawbury Duck, chatting about what we had been up to and what we hoped for. The views of the hills, the reservoir, the fields and the telltale remnants of the Industrial Revolution in the distance warmed me, despite the chill. The pure air reminded me of the sacrifices I make living in the city, and I found myself voicing my dream of living by the sea and commenting on the idealness of their location for bringing up a child.
We got back several hours later, jolly despite the cold drizzle. My cousin got busy in the kitchen preparing food in honour of my aunt and uncle’s imminent arrival. I helped out, fuelled by margaritas (it was Mexican night, you see) and more stimulating conversation. Before dinner I chin-wagged with my aunt about Strictly Come Dancing and filled my uncle in on what exhibitions I had seen in the capital this year. Several plates of chilli and one too many Corona’s later, my cousin pulled out the evening’s entertainment – a balloon modelling kit. Several burst balloons and a few sausage dogs, swords and slightly ruder sculptures later, we were all hoarse from laughing.
Alas, the following day, after a bacon butty and biccies, it was time to go. I admit, when I said goodbye to my cousin I felt a lump in my throat. Partly because I was sad to say goodbye, partly because it had been such a fun weekend, and partly because I had to head back to London and return to work after a week away from the office. Despite my Sunday Blues, I knew one thing for sure. My need for green and calm had reared its’ cherub-like head once more.
I’ll be back.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Sweaty Betty ot Gym Bunny?

This morning I am sat on my sofa in my pyjamas, wrapped in my blanket with a cup of coffee, and I am feeling a little bit guilty. Why? Well, I usually get up and go to the gym on a Saturday morning, but I have managed to talk myself out of it. You see, I need to go and collect a parcel this morning, call my dad to wish him a happy birthday and speak to my cousin about our planned visit next weekend. Okay, so it is just gone nine am and I could quite easily fit these things in, but, well, I can’t be bothered. I’ll go tomorrow. Honest.
I’ve never been particularly sporty, but do try and look after myself. This year I’ve even started jogging, although I admit I haven’t donned my running shoes for a few weeks. There is an added bonus in taking part in these activities. The gym is a wonderful place to people watch and its’ etiquette is fascinating, as it is in the running world too. Although I don’t think I quite understand it.
First there’s the issue of clothing. Personally I have a selection of baggy jogging bottoms, most of which are too big for me, a couple of oversized scruffy hoodies and a handful of old t-shirts and vests which I have deemed unsuitable to everyday use but passable for strenuous activity. Earlier this year I spend quite a lot of money on some good running shoes, but often rock up to my classes in a pair of grey excuses to footwear I bought from a factory shop five years ago. I am unusual in this aspect. As I chug along on the cross trainer or get vibrated into oblivion on the power plate, I notice the garb worn by the gym bunnies. Although joggers and vests seem a popular choice among the other women, it seems that the gym is the place to show off your athletic physique. In fact, the tighter the better. Hair is immaculately tied back and trainers are sparkling. And they don’t look at all hot and bothered. For the men it is slightly different. Showing off your developed pecs is approved, but the more perspiration the better. It’s manly. Grr.
The thing is, when it comes to exercise, those who are seen to be taking it seriously are given priority when it comes to using space and equipment. A couple of weeks ago I had done all my resistance training bar the leg press (I think that is what it is called anyway – the one where you have to push the weight away with your legs). There was a male gym bunny using the said piece of equipment, and he had been for some time, hopping off it every few seconds to huff and puff for a bit before jumping back on again. During one of his breaks I asked if he had finished using it, hoping he would take the hint. But, alas, he shook his head, huffed a bit more then jumped back on. Giving up, I left him to it, only to see him graciously let a fellow manly bunny share his machine a moment later. Then there are those people who think nothing of spreading out their various weights and other implements of torture over the floor space, not even leaving a small corner for the rest of us to do a few sit ups.
I suspect the same goes for joggers too. My route takes me to the local park, but before I get there I have to clear some busy pedestrianised areas. This can be very hazardous, and a mere run turns into nothing short of an obstacle course, dodging around people who aren’t looking where they are going, jumping over discarded boxes, jolting to a halt as a cyclist cuts you up AGAIN. It is almost as though, as a jogger, I am invisible, and suspect that the general public don’t take my plight to keep going seriously in my oversized hoodie and baggy trousers. I see other joggers out there in full marathon garb, gliding effortlessly down the street, and doubt that they have the same problem. Mmm.
There is another fitness concept that I don’t get either; exercise classes that seem to have no point, other than to get all sweaty. Okay, so I get that you burn lots of calories and stay trim, but they are so BORING. I went to a “Roxy Snow” class this week, thinking it would be fun. Apparently it improves your skiing technique but is also great exercise. I have never skied in my life, but a friend suggested I try it out, so I did. Yes, I got sweaty, and no doubt burned a Mars bar or two, but pretending to snow board around some plastic cones and ice skate on some funny slidy discs just doesn’t do it for me. It felt silly, and, what’s more, stank of hardcore exercise dressed up as something “fun”. Now, my boxercise class, that’s fun – anger management and calorie burning in one 45 minute session. At least when I go for a jog I feel like I am achieving something and working towards a goal, and my body balance class has a relaxation element to it which I often need by a Thursday evening.
So, the question is, do I cave and revamp my gym look to fit in with the bunnies out there, or stick to my casual approach to exercise and accept that spending money on clothes so I look good whilst I get them all sweaty is all a bit of a waste of money? Well, I know one thing for sure. I might one day look the part, but will ever be an authentic gym bunny? I doubt it.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Faith, Hope and Emotional Blackmail

In the last couple of weeks, a few people have asked me how long have I lived in London. The answer surprises me. Over nine years. Coming up to a decade. Almost a third of my life, and my entire life post full-time education. An era. Wow.
These musings make me think of what I have achieved since moving to the capital. Although I have always worked in the public sector I am now on a decent wage, live in a decent flat, have savings (decent flat is unfortunately not my own, hence need to save monstrous amount of money for a deposit) and have almost paid off my student loan. Hell, I am almost grown up. About 18 months ago I set up a plan to pay off my debts and start saving, and I am really starting to see the results when I dare to look at my bank statements.
What I am also proud of is my support of charities. I started off my career working for one and now donate money to three organisations on a monthly basis. Okay, so each one only receives a few pounds, but if I was to tot up how much I had given over the last nine years or so... well, probably best I don’t or I’d cancel them all and demand that they pay for a very luxurious holiday for me somewhere hot.
Please don’t get me wrong – I don’t want a medal or anything, and I know that I am not alone in my monthly commitments. But I like to think I have done my bit to make the world a better place. I buy a poppy every year, wear my rainbow of ribbons with pride on the correlating date and buy a copy of the Big Issue once in a while. I’ve even been known to advise homeless people begging on the street where to go to get the help they need.
My problem, though, is the phone calls I get from the charities I donate to on a relatively regular basis, asking me if I have lost someone to cancer, if I’ve heard about the latest natural disaster, or do I want to help fight for the life of the most recent political prisoner. Of course the answer to all these questions is yes, but at the end of the day I have already pledged my support and can’t really afford to give anything else.
The thing that really bugs me, however, is that the people who phone or write to you have already got you sussed out. They know you care, otherwise you wouldn’t have already signed up. And they know you are generous, as you haven’t cancelled the direct debit which has been flying out of your bank account before the money really has chance to register itself as your own. So they pull at your heart strings. They plead with you. They remind you what that extra pound would mean to others, and what little it means to yourself. They make you feel guilty.
This is what I hate. At the end of the day, you are an easy target, so they milk you, knowing you are more likely to cave in than some hard nut who has never given to charity in their life. In all honesty, I find this quite exploitative. They have my contact details, they know I support them, so they get some ex-salesperson to call me and bombard me with shocking news and statistics that will morally outrage me enough to make me hand over more of my cash.
So, why do I mention this now? Well, last weekend I received one phone call and two letters asking for more money. Yes, within the space of 72 hours. I was quite peeved.
And, let’s face it, a blog about giving to charity in London would not be complete without a mention of those lovely touts on the street who will try every method known to man to get you to sign on the dotted line; flattery, humour, stalking, emotional blackmail. I’ll ever forget the man who tried to stop me in the street whom, after I shook my head politely as I walked passed him, shouted after me, “Don’t you have just one minute for the children?”
Yes, I do have a minute for the children. But I don’t have the resources to help everyone. Maybe when my financial situation has steadied itself I will pledge more money to the charities I support, or even a new one or two. But right now, I won’t. So please stop trying to make me feel bad about this and let me get on with my life without feeling guilty.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Pomp and Power

Yes, I know it’s been a while, but it’s been a busy week. What with writing club, book club, my first ever therapy session (no jokes please, it’s for my counselling course), hair cuts, osteopaths and learning about the rules of American Football in preparation for the Wembley match later this month (which I admit sent me to sleep), my feet haven’t touched the ground. And then my actual weekend was consumed by a lovely cold and a visit from my (lovely in a lovely way) parents.
We had planned it months in advance to fit into our busy schedules – sadly my mother has a more active social life than I do – and my mum had organised tickets for the theatre and I bought tickets for a tour of Parliament. All in all a pleasant weekend, although London’s failure to provide easy to use public transport for those of us with mobility problems posed a bit of a challenge at times. As Him Indoors pointed out, not a good indicator for how we will cope with the Paralympics in two years time. Mmm, could be interesting. The theatre was excellent too (Mousetrap – surprisingly comical with a modern feel for Agatha Christie). Even my dad didn’t seem too stressed by the hustle of the city.
What I found most thought provoking, however, was the tour of the Houses of Parliament. It was fascinating seeing in the flesh what you see on the telly all the time, and the bling in the House of Lords and the areas used by the monarch was awesome. The tour guide gave a potted history of British politics, refreshing my knowledge from my school days, and I couldn’t help but feel impressed at how far we have come, from Oliver Cromwell, to where we are today; a vote for all and the opportunity to sit in both the House of Lords and Commons to watch the action, as well as the right to turn up and demand to see your MP.
But then, on the other hand, we have the pomp and ceremony that still goes on today; the Queen reading a speech (to which she doesn’t even contribute) at the beginning of the season, the gold leaf that seems to cover half of the House of Lords, the hardback leather bound books that hold the minutes of every session in both the Commons and the Lords. The 92 seats in the House of Lords that are still inherited by those with the right name. The use of the word “aye” and the yellow line politicians stand behind when debating to prevent the crossing of swords. Something tells me that Cameron and Mr Miliband don’t walk around with such an impressive bladed article. The airport style security would surely pick it up.
But then I think I could deal with the pomp if the distribution of power was more fairly distributed. The guide touched on the likelihood of a referendum on political reform. Surely a must if everyone’s vote is to stand a chance of counting. The there’s the worrying statistics when it comes to class. The fact that the Prime Minister and his Deputy were educated at Eton says it all. I’m sure their expensive schooling has taught them a lot about the working classes, but I fail to see how they are going to fix our “Broken Britain” if they don’t listen to the voices of those who experience life without privilege.
The tour finished in Westminster Hall where our guide informed us the Pope addressed a crowd only a week ago. Him Indoors and I exchanged a look. We had been shopping in Seven Dials at the time and were both relieved to escape from the drone of helicopters above and hide in a basement restaurant. Having seen nothing on the news other than the Pontiff’s planned tour for the last two weeks, I couldn’t help but wince at the thought of how much money had been spent on a visit by a man who has a frightening amount of power. The power to make homosexuals ostracised. The power to stop a teenage girl have an abortion and live the rest of her life caring for a child that will always be an “accident” and fall into the benefits trap before they are old enough to vote. The power to stop people using condoms and unwillingly killing others by spreading a deadly virus. That’s a lot of power, and a lot of money to spend on someone who has reduced the circumstances of so many.
So, will we see an equal distribution of power as the current government gathers its pace? Or will we see those with power grow stronger and help their peers retain their privilege before dealing with the poorer masses? I know what my cynical side thinks, but, on reflection of how far politics has come over the years, I will try to stay hopeful. And thankful that my liberty has not been compromised by the beliefs of an old man who lives in Rome.