Friday, 17 May 2013

The Streets of London

When I published my blog about posing in the nude - still, to date, the only post to single-handedly surpass 1000 page views - I realised that I had probably peaked too soon. At the time, I still had ten challenges to go. How on earth was I going to top getting my kit off? As the days ticked by, I was increasingly troubled by the suspicion that there actually was no way to top it. The closer I came to the end of the process, the more doubtful I became as to the perfect way to round it all up. Nothing felt impressive enough, big enough, bold enough. Despite having been absolutely adamant, my whole life, that I didn't want a tattoo, I started to seriously consider it. I was getting desperate.

Amidst this self-imposed stress, it dawned on me that I was crushing the spirit of the whole experience. It had become about ticking a box and trying to be impressive, instead of about doing challenges for their own sake. I just wanted to give up. I'd lost the magic. I was resenting the deadline, instead of looking forward to completing my amazing challenge.

Then my dad was taken in to hospital, and suddenly, well, I didn't give a fig. The return of perspective is a wonderful thing. My 31st birthday came and went and it was OK. I didn't beat myself up about missing the deadline. I let go. Which is, frankly, a pretty big achievement in itself. I'm generally not too good at letting myself off the hook. I suppose it helped that I knew that I'd sneakily completed significantly more than thirty challenges anyway.

So that was the end of that.

Just kidding. I may be 31 now, but I'm still as stubborn as ever. One more challenge is due, and one more challenge there shall be, come hell or high water.

On May 15th, after work, I cycled to a London underground station and locked up my bike. It's not a particularly charming station, and I gave the bike an affectionate parting pat on the saddle. I've been very lucky thus far, but I never leave it without the vague suspicion that it may not be there when I come back. Anyway, I digress. Having secured the bicycle, I descended into the bowels of the station, in search of some people I'd never met before.

I found them loitering by the sign for Exit 2; two young men and a selection of Bags for Life. I introduced myself, and received a high-five when I confessed that it was my first time. Ten minutes later we were joined by another young man and a second first-time female. I was feeling extremely nervous. What we were about to do was a long way outside my comfort zone. I had no idea how the evening was going to feel, how it was going to work, what I was going to experience, or where we were going to end up. What followed was a profoundly moving, saddening, and yet strangely exhilarating and uplifting experience.

I had joined a Sock Mob. The Sock Mob is a MeetUp group whose mission is simple but very special. Sock Mobbers take clean, new socks, and all sorts of other stuff too, to people living on the streets. On the surface, it's about socks, sandwiches and soap; small things that can make a difficult life just a little more comfortable. But, actually, it's about so much more than that.

So how can you tell me you're lonely,
And say for you that the sun don't shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London
I'll show you something to make you change your mind
Ralph McTell. Streets of London

We started at Exit 1, where a girl in her twenties was sitting cross-legged on the concrete, begging for change. The guys were already simultaneously talking to her and making her a cup of tea by the time I knelt down. The floor of the station was filthy and cold. Her hair looked fairly clean, but her fingers were crusted with dirt. There was a broken handbag wedged under her legs, mostly covered by a blanket. Someone asked her how she was doing, and tears sprang instantly to her eyes. She'd never been in trouble before, she said, but she'd been issued a court date for begging, which she had missed. She was worried that she was going to be arrested, and therefore had moved from her normal pitch, leaving behind her boyfriend, who was begging further up the road in a more profitable spot. She looked forlorn and vulnerable, and she was angry, too, with the people who had reported her for begging. Mostly, she seemed truly upset that she was in trouble. The high-fiver suggested that she could go along to the police station and explain that she'd forgotten the court date. I doubt she'll end up doing this, but she said that just talking to us had lifted a weight from her shoulders.

When signing up for the Sock Mob, I'd asked for a suggestion as to what to bring. The group organiser had suggested toiletries, as he had plenty of everything else. So I'd been to Boots (that's a drugstore, for any non-British readers) and spent, rather appropriately, a little over £30 on supplies. Here is the stash:

We offered the girl a toothbrush and she said "the pink one would be nice." It was the first but not the last time I felt my heart ache that evening. I then proffered the cans of deodorant. She deliberated for some time before choosing, and I was so happy that I'd decided to buy a variety of scents, instead of just getting the most basic product I could find. She chose, and then changed her mind, just like I've done a million times, in shops and restaurants. She asked for some chocolate and we didn't have any. My heart ached again. Next time, I thought, immediately. She gladly accepted a couple of pairs of socks (she prefers the thin ones) and asked if we had any trousers. The group leader promised her a pair that he has at home. Just as we left, I stopped and asked her name.

What happened to me on the Sock Mob happened immediately, with that first young girl. Before that moment I'd known cognitively that homeless people were human beings, just like me. But I'd managed to de-personalise them, in order to make it easier to walk on by. It's not that I'm unkind, I hope. It's just that I didn't know what to do. I never want to give homeless people money because I am afraid to contribute to any kind of habit that could be doing them greater damage, or preventing them from getting a place in a shelter. So the only thing to do was to get my head down and convince myself that I was doing enough by not doing any harm. Suddenly, homeless people became irrevocably real and individual in my mind. It was a very clear and powerful moment.

We walked for around two hours, stopping at every homeless person we met along the way. Only one person, an older man, sent us on our way without wanting to talk. Another asked us politely to stand to the side, so that the manager of the shop he was sitting outside wouldn't spy us talking to him and then ask him to move. "He thinks I'm stealing his customers" he said. I still can't work out the correlation between someone stopping to talk to a homeless person and deciding or not deciding to go into Tesco. Clearly, I am missing something.

A young man from Lithuania sat cross-legged by a set of traffic lights. He was the second person to ask for a razor.  I hadn't bought any razors. Next time, I thought. Tears came to his eyes as we sat and spoke to him. I think he was just happy to be acknowledged. I wonder if he has a harder time because of his accent. Before I could ask his name he looked into my eyes and told me what it was. I'm not putting any names here, because you never know who wants to stay lost, but there is a profound significance to the exchange of names in a circumstance like this. The Lithuanian gave me his name almost as though it was a gift, but with a desperation in his eyes that said "this is my name, this is who I am. I am real. You are seeing me."  I won't forget it.

A little further down the same road we met another young man. He had a large dog, some kind of Staffy cross by the looks of it. The dog was overjoyed by the visit, and I was rewarded for my friendliness with a high speed lick on the face and a serious drumming from his wagging tail. We handed out a selection of supplies; deodorant, crisps, sandwiches, and a cheese and onion pasty that disappeared into the dog with alarming speed. I had just finished stirring a cup of sweet tea when I looked up and really saw the guy's face. He was genuinely good looking. If he'd been clean, and well-dressed, and in the pub behind him, instead of sitting on the pavement, he would have turned more heads than just mine. It surprised me. Why did it surprise me? Why shouldn't handsome young men end up in horrible trouble just as easily as not-so-handsome young men? I'd never thought about it before.

We spent a short time with a man busily sketching grotesque - but very accomplished - heads, with pipes and tubes growing out of the skulls. He had a selection of drawings for sale; lots of his dog, and several of buildings. £15 for the dog drawings, £20 for the buildings. Apparently he'd sold two that day. He also said that he was "on the way up in the art world", and I honestly wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be true.

The most intense conversation of the evening happened with a young man sitting cross-legged under a railway bridge. It wasn't yet properly dark outside, but the space under the bridge was dank and  depressing, and so was the cloud hanging over the young man's head. His left hand was swollen and grazed, where he'd "beat the s**t out of that sign." The offending sign, a large neon affair, was undamaged. When an ambulance went past, he shouted for it to "shut the f**k up." He was so angry, and seemed completely out of the reach of comfort. The story he told us was horrifying. His seven month old daughter was in intensive care, somewhere outside London. She had a serious brain haemorrhage, bought on, he alleged, by physical violence from her mother's new boyfriend. By the sounds of it, the little girl is unlikely to survive, and if she does, she will probably be permanently and heavily brain damaged. The boyfriend had been arrested, but the mother was afraid of him and refused to press charges. The guy under the bridge said that he'd been sober for six months, but that this situation was making him desperate for a drink. Naturally, he was also offering serious violence to the man who had harmed his child. "I don't care" he said, "if she don't pull though I'll kill him, I'll seriously kill him. He'd better hope I don't find him."

When we reasoned that he didn't want to end up in prison he said: "I'd rather be inside than out here." He grimaced with pain as he lit a cigarette with his injured hand. I couldn't argue. I knew that if I was forced to stay outside, in the cold and wet, full of rage and despair, I'd probably rather be in prison too. I'm not saying it's a nice place to be, but nor are the streets. At least in prison you're dry and warm, and someone puts food in front of you. There was nothing we could really do. We asked what we could bring him if we came back, and he asked for a punch bag and a pair of boxing gloves. He took some crisps and a cup of tea, but he wasn't really interested in food or clean socks. The whole thing felt utterly hopeless. When we finally left him, the high-fiver said to me: "You've picked quite a night to come out. You don't normally get stories like that. That was extreme." 

There are lots of other things I could say about my first Sock Mob:
  • It struck me as wonderful that people who are probably pretty hungry will still be picky about the contents of a sandwich. Three people turned down the ham and cheese. 
  • I was impressed by the woman with no home to go to, who nonetheless managed to maintain a pretty extraordinary and multi-coloured manicure. 
  • I love that I seem to like my tea the way the majority of homeless people like it. Super strong, dash of milk, approximately half a cup of sugar. 
  • Maybe the most interesting thing that happened was that the two hours flew, and that - despite everything - I had a really, really good time. I enjoyed myself. I think it's truly awesome that there are people doing this on a regular basis, all over London, and I was so happy to be a part of it.

So that's the end of the Thirty@30 challenge, and what a brilliant end it was. I have to thank my friend Dalia for suggesting the Sock Mob, it was an inspired idea. I'm really pleased that the final challenge ended up being so modest in scale, and yet so profound in so many ways.

I walked back to the tube station on my own, in the gathering dark, thinking about what I'd experienced. I passed lots of restaurants, and I looked in at the windows and mused on what a privileged life I lead. There was my faithful bike, still quietly locked up. I cycled home, where I dunked myself in a hot bath and ate a delicious home-cooked meal, before climbing into my clean, dry bed. I've rarely felt more thankful for those things, and for the incredible support and love of my parents, who not only taught me to make good decisions, but facilitated those decisions, and sheltered me when I messed up and made bad ones.

The next day, two things happened. One is that I told one of my colleagues about my experience, and she said that she would love to come Sock Mobbing with me next time. My mum also said she'd like to have a go. The ripples of kindness are already spreading. The second is that, on the way back from my dance class, which is in a totally different area to the one I'd walked with the Mobbers, I spied the man under the bridge, begging for change outside a supermarket. I didn't even hesitate. I crouched down and said hello, and offered to get him something to eat. He was as uninterested in food as he had been the night before, and only wanted change. I didn't give him any money, as I still wasn't confident of how he would use it, but I told him that I would always stop and offer him something to eat if I saw him. "God bless you" he said. And though I'm not entirely sure about God (and suspect he isn't either), I appreciated the sentiment. For me, the really important thing was that I'd proved to myself that I could and would treat homeless people in a different way from now on.

I recommend trying all and any of the challenges that I've experienced during this process, but if you're only going to do one, I think it should be this one. I guarantee, however awkward and upsetting you might find it at first, you will know for sure that you've done something worthwhile.

Only one more thing remains to be said:

Thirty challenges down, a lifetime still to go...

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

A Little Bit of This, a Little Bit of That

I've got one more challenge and a retrospective to write up before my Thirty@30 project comes to an end. I'm not sure how I'm going to feel as I write my last words and post my last blog. (Or rather, my last blog of this process. Because I'm pretty sure it won't be my last blog at all. I've enjoyed myself too much to give up just yet.) I figure I'll feel very proud, very happy, and, in some ways, very relieved. It's been a joy, but it's also been a struggle. It's bought me distraction and comfort in hard times, but it's also been the cause of hard times.

Anyway. Expect more musings of this kind in my final Thirty@30 post. This post is something different. This post reveals a secret. The secret is this:

I didn't achieve 30 brand new things in a year.

I achieved 42.

These twelve extra things were mostly pretty small, and I was too demanding in my criteria to allow them a full write-up. But each of them contributed to the experience, to the year, and to the general ethos of saying yes. So this is their moment. Some of them have been waiting for their five minutes of fame for almost twelve months.

1: See Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap
There are almost no words for how much I want to break the sacred bond of The Mousetrap and tell you whodunnit. But I won't.

It was the butler.

OK. It wasn't the butler.

Or was it?

2: Take a bath with rose petals
Look, when you've set yourself the challenge of doing brand new things, and then suddenly find yourself with copious amounts of rose petals (long story), it's only natural to have a go at recreating American Beauty. I can confirm that Kevin Spacey did not turn up and that I, alas, did not emerge from the bath looking like Mena Suvari. I can also confirm that it was a pain in the backside dredging soggy petals from the plug hole. It did feel wonderfully decadent though. I'd say I was going to pull a Cleopatra next time and have a bath in goat milk, but knowing how difficult it is to milk those things, I'll have to pass.

3: Get a phone on a contract
Yes, you heard me right. I was Pay As You Go until I was 30 years old. I had an old Nokia with no camera and a strange ridge where I'd melted it on my bedside lamp. It made calls, sent text messages, and cost me less than £15 per month. I couldn't What'sApp, Tweet on the go, find out if a restaurant was any good, or read a book on it. Now I have a new Nokia and, like more or less everyone else, I keep it nice and close, just in case I get lost, forget what day it is, or have the irrepressible need to take a photograph of my food and send it to a friend. I find it extremely useful, and at the same time am oh-so-slightly disappointed with myself. It was a strange point of pride to be the only person I knew who was still PAYG.

4: Go to Romania
I went to Bucharest on a business trip, so I can't say I had the chance to see the whole city. But what I saw (from my chauffeur driven Audi, thank you VERY much) was utterly fascinating. And the people I met were truly lovely. Here's me with my Audi and my beautiful new Romanian friend:

5: Have a hot stone massage
I've never been much of a one for massages. They tend to make me feel uncomfortable rather than relaxed. But this. THIS. Holy Hot Stones Batman. This was amazing. Definitely an experience I would like to repeat. At regular intervals.

6: Be on TV
So, this wasn't an entirely novel experience, because I was in the audience of a children's TV show called Speakeasy when I was about 12. It was presented by Emma Forbes, and I imagined that she was looking right at me whilst we were filming, most likely thinking that I was a particularly impressive young lady. In truth, she was probably wondering why I was staring at her. Since my frizzy hair and dungarees never made it onto the small screen, I'm allowed to have this one too: On my trip to Bucharest I was a guest on a Money Channel TV show about law firms and legal directories. I not only had to speak intelligently about said subject whilst listening to a simultaneous translation, I also had to look pretty whilst doing it.  Which was a serious challenge.

7: Make my own cinnamon buns
I, too, was inspired by the Great British Bake Off. Alas, I don't think the results would have got me anywhere near the first round. The important thing is that I tried.

8: Make my own granola
Unlike the cinnamon buns, the granola was an unmitigated triumph. Despite the fact that I slightly over toasted it, and had to throw away several charred nuts, it still knocks spots off all shop-bought cereals. I even had fancy granola in a posh café the other day, and it truly tasted like cardboard in comparison. I never thought I'd be that person, but it turns out I totally am. I kind of hate myself, but seriously, it tastes so good.

9: Have one of my poems accepted for publication by a poetry webzine
I have a lot of poems knocking about, but am generally reticent about submitting them for publication. Some might say it's because I'm afraid of the rejection, and my instinct to argue about this probably makes it true. I was pretty chuffed when this one was accepted and published.

10: Do an online grocery shop
I genuinely can't think of much to say about this. I'm just not accomplished enough to make doing an online grocery shop in any way interesting. The most dramatic thing about the whole experience was when the delivery driver bought in some bottles of mineral water that I hadn't ordered. I politely turned them away, and a crisis was averted.

11: Indulge my temper, with unfortunate consequences for a piece of technology
I promise you, I am not a totally crazy person. Scout's honour. All I'm going to say is that I DO NOT recommend the Soleus GPS watch. It's not very user friendly. I'm still finding pieces of it in my garden two months after the event.

12: Get myself an emotional MOT.
In contrast with the things listed above, this is something to which I could very easily devote a whole post. In fact, I think I could devote a whole blog to the process. But maybe after reading number eleven, above, I don't really need to explain to you why I've decided to start seeing a counsellor. And anyway, I won't be writing a blog about it, because it is a hugely private experience. I thought twice and three times before revealing it here. But the fact is that I'm not ashamed of it. I actually think it's one of the healthiest, sanest decisions I've ever made in my life. That's all I'm going to say about that.

This whole experience has given me the courage to try all sorts of new things, and I hope I've picked up the habit of being brave. In the interests of honesty, there were also a bunch of challenges suggested to me that I decided not to do. I'll keep that list, and maybe I'll tick them off in the months and years to come. I hope so.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Yo Ho Ho, the Wind and the Waves

A nanosecond before the words "of course I've been sailing" came out of my mouth, I realised they weren't true. Despite spending most of my childhood holidays on a farm perched on an estuary, and having a seriously seafaring uncle, sailing had somehow passed me by.

Julia's eyes lit up. "Then sailing could me one of your challenges! I'm sure Tom would be very happy to take you."  A second later, Julia's eyes filled with regret and resignation. Volunteering her husband's services as skipper was all very well, but she knew at once that he would jump on the opportunity to take her along as first mate. Julia is not big on being first mate. Her idea of a delightful day's sailing involves a maximum of two hours on the water, followed by copious amounts of ice cream. She has embraced Tom's passions of cycling and running with serious style, and has even got me in to both, but sailing is not her thing. When it comes to her husband's other true love, a 20ft yacht called Mirage, she is happy to observe the adage that two's company.

You sail the boat, I'm having a kip.
Julia, however, is not one of my best friends for nothing. True to her word, she signed me up to Tom Upchurch's School of Sailing, simultaneously pledging herself as crew, companion, and official photographer. I count myself very lucky to have a friend like that.

I steal a hug from a non-hugger. Mwahahaha.
First up was an after-dinner theory lesson from the cap'n.

I was given one week to study this diagram, and then it was time for the practical. Why are exams always so early in the morning? It's not often that I see 4.45am. It always surprises me that no matter how early I am up, there are always plenty of other people already out in their cars, waiting at bus stops, cycling around. I resent this. It undervalues my achievement. If I'm going to be up at an ungodly hour, I at least want the smug satisfaction of knowing that I am the only one hardcore enough to not be in bed.

Anyway. Two hours and one appalling cup of Starbucks tea later, we pulled in to the boatyard at Buckler's Hard, in Hampshire. How awesome a name is Buckler's Hard? Seriously awesome.

Here's Mirage, being lovingly uncovered by Tom:

Here's Mirage, being lovingly launched into the Beaulieu River:

Here's Julia, sitting in the car with a book. This more or less says it all.

Can I please just read my book in the car?

There were various things Tom needed to do to the boat, so he suggested that it would be time efficient for me to steer us out of the Beaulieu River and into the open sea, whilst he got on with said things. This seemed like a terrible idea to me, but I had no say in the matter. The basic rules were explained: keep to the right of the channel, move the tiller right to go left, and left to go right, and try not to bump into any buoys. Then Tom started faffing around in the cabin and I took the helm. The motor chugged along and I felt terribly important. I nodded nonchalantly to other yachtsmen and women and wondered just how impressed they were at my clearly wicked skills. When Tom showed me how to steer with my knees I decided I was definitely running away to sea at the first opportunity.

It being a relatively warm and sunny bank holiday weekend, there were lots of other boats out on the water. This meant that we didn't have much room to practice sailing in the nice cozy bit just at the end of the channel. So it was out into the Solent with no further ado. 

Tom is not only a darn good skipper, he's also a brilliantly patient and logical teacher. He didn't overwhelm me with jargon, or too much information, but made sure that I had a clue what was going on. I learnt the following sailing words/terms:

Tiller extension
Main sheet
Jib sheet

As I write this, I still know what all of those are, but I'm not making any promises about remembering. Try me again in a month. About two hours in, and a mere half hour away from the Isle of Wight, I also learnt the meaning of the word Head. I was inordinately thankful for the surprise reveal of the porta-potty, as I had been solemnly informed that if I needed a widdle whilst out at sea it was a question of hanging my bare bottom over the edge of the boat. No one wanted to see that. Except maybe Julia, who was in need of a good giggle, due to the fact that she was extremely cold. In a husbandly effort to warm her up, Tom proceeded to wrap her in a few of his clothes. Seven layers later she looked marginally happier, but a bit like she couldn't move, and a lot like she would have significant difficulty should she need to use the Head.

I taunt Julia with a picnic there's no way she can eat without removing at least five of her seven layers.
Now, I won't say I wasn't cold. It is, unsurprisingly, quite windy out at sea. You can see above that I've added a snazzy headband to my ensemble in order to protect my slightly chilly ears. This turned out to be what you might call a CRITICAL ERROR. The following day I was cursing that headband  - and my utterly stupid failure to apply any sunscreen to my face - for the most astonishingly ridiculous-looking case of sunburn I have ever had.  It was (is) so bad that I cancelled all my bank holiday Monday plans and stayed grumpily indoors applying every home-remedy I could find on the internet/in my kitchen cupboards. For future reference, baking powder compresses are fairly effective. And no, I'm not showing you a picture of the stupid sunburn. Behave.

Back to the sailing. We sailed to Cowes, on the Isle of Wight. Woo yay sailing! With merely the power of the wind, some wood, and some big bits of fabric, we went from one place to another across the sea. Forgive my simplicity, but I think that's pretty cool. Power boats roared past us, making jaunty little waves. Pah! Pah, says I. Who needs a motor when you have wind?

Cowes was lovely. We ate our picnic on a bench overlooking the marina and then wandered down the high street in search of - you guessed it - ice cream. 

We stood and listened to a wonderfully wonky brass band and perused a couple of the local shops, full of sailing stuff. I paused at a display of Breton caps, remembering my seafaring uncle, who died last year. His Breton cap sat on his coffin all through the funeral service. I suspect he sailed the Solent many times, and it was nice to think about him, doing what he loved.

Tom had decided that there'd been enough jollying around. The trip home was all about me doing some serious sailing. Well, as serious as I was going to get on my first go, anyway. We embarked on a tacking exercise, which basically meant zig-zagging back and forth, ideally without losing the power of the wind each time I changed direction. It took me a while to get this, but eventually I started to find the feel of the sails against the wind, and tip the boat in quite an exciting way. I began to wage war on a particularly stubborn yellow buoy, which I'm quite sure someone kept moving further away. Julia was just commenting on my sang froid, and how most first timers freak out and squeal, when I lost control and tipped the boat a lot further than intended. Tom had informed me that it was "basically impossible to capsize Mirage", but at that moment I had powerful doubts. I didn't squeal, but I did swear. Tom however, cool as a cucumber, refused to take back the tiller, forcing me to work through my mini-panic and regain control. I went into an almost hypnotic trance, watching the little strings on the Mailsail that indicated if we were or were not in the optimum position. Only when I was cruising again did Tom take over and give me a break. Well, I say break. What I actually mean is that he took over the helm and me and Julia took over the winching on the tacks. I took back the helm in the last half hour, and steered us home to the Beaulieu channel. Tom was great at making me feel like I was actually doing important stuff, even though we all knew that he was actually the one doing all the hard work.

It was loads of fun. I get why Tom loves sailing so much. I also get why Julia doesn't. It was a novelty for me, and I was mostly really enjoying myself, but there were moments on the sail back from Cowes when it felt like we were making painfully slow progress. Probably due to my inexpert steering. We were tired and increasingly cold and there was nothing we could do but keep going. Head down, hood up, endure. And of course, returning to the boatyard isn't the end. We had to queue for over an hour to get Mirage back on dry land. Then we had to wash her down, park her and pack her up, before heading for London. Start to finish, it was a seventeen hour day. I was completely exhausted when I collapsed into bed.

Left a bit, right a bit

I'd definitely like to sail again, though. It was thrilling, and lovely to be out on the sparkling sea on a beautiful day.  

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) 
it's always ourselves we find in the sea 

Thank you, Tom, Julia and Mirage. You rock.

Twenty-nine down, one to go...

Friday, 3 May 2013

A Rhyme, a Rhyme, and Just in Time.

I don't remember when I wrote my first poem, but it was a long time ago. Relatively confident of future success, I started a collection of juvenilia. I fully expect Poems of Yesterdays (sic) Heart to feature on all respectable English Literature degree courses by 2025.

Nice handwriting, shame about the missing apostrophe.
As you may be able to predict, this collection contains some utterly atrocious poetry. Have a look at this particularly tasty example:

The less said about that the better.

I changed my career ambitions several times during my childhood. Initially, I intended to be a world famous ballerina. Then I decided that being a Hollywood A-lister was more my speed. I later had a moment of sanity when a career as a barrister seemed appealing, before finally settling on 'bestselling novellist' as my ideal job title. Watch this space. I am so on it. My Gothic fairy tale about killer crows is totally going to be the next big thing. I just need to add a couple of chapters of mummy porn. And a wizard.

Throughout all these twists and turns, poetry has been a constant. When I'm down, when I'm happy, when I'm amused, when I'm alone; poetry always finds a place. I learn poems by heart. They help me sleep. They get me though long nostalgic bike rides. I buy big chunky poetry anthologies and obscure little poetry pamphlets. And of course, despite an early lack of promise, I still write the stuff. I mostly write a lot of terrible tosh, but I do write the odd thing that is really not too bad, such as this piece that I wrote for my gorgeous godson.

I once had the immense privilege of studying with Gerard Benson, an original member of the Barrow Poets and co-founder of the magnificent Poems on the Underground scheme. The week I spent on his course in Buckinghamshire was probably one of the happiest of my life. He taught me so much about form and subtlety. One lunchtime, Gerard fell in to step with me on the way to the sandwich shop. "You know you have a gift?" He asked. I have no idea what completely inadequate reply I gave, but I can tell you for certain that his words will stay with me until the day I die. He made me believe that I might have a voice worth hearing.

Speaking of inspiration. It was seeing Scroobius Pip at an Amanda Palmer gig that turned me on to the idea of spoken word. Previously, I had imagined live poetry to be awash with cigarette smoke, beards and berets. Scroobius Pip made live poetry feel vibrant and truly accessible. I saw the glint of a possibility. My early career ambitions signpost a love of performing, and that's something that I have really been missing over the last few years. I have accepted that I'm probably too late to start training as a world famous ballerina, but my soul hasn't quite caught up with the idea that I will spend the rest of my days out of the limelight. It still yearns to show off.

So I popped 'poetry slam' on my Thirty@30 list and figured it would take care of itself.

Three weeks before my final deadline, with four challenges still to go, I discovered that it hadn't taken care of itself. Pesky poetry. So, in something of a panic, I printed out four random poems that I thought were quite good and took them along to my Monday night writers' group for a trial run. Turns out they weren't quite good at all. I could feel them bombing as I read them aloud.

My friend and fellow writer Alex sensibly and tactfully suggested that instead of signing up to Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Café the following day, as planned, I just go along and scope the territory. He also said that if I could wait another week, he'd be able to come along for moral support. Actually, I think his words were "If you do it next week, I can come and throw stuff." At this juncture, two other members of the group: the extraordinarily wise and wonderful Caroline Swain, and Published Author Robin Bayley, piped up with their willingness and availability to come and throw things at me, too. Suddenly, things were taking care of themselves. I had a week, a plan, and an audience.

Off I went to scope out Poetry Unplugged. In many ways, it wasn't too far from the beards and berets I had imagined. There were some very earnest poets, and some very terrible poems. But there was also joy, exuberance, support, laughter. Clever, startling, original creativity. And at least three people who had recently escaped from a local institute for the irretrievably insane. I thought it was great, and I knew I could do it too.

The problem was the material. The poems I had chosen were written to be read from the page. I could feel instinctively that they didn't work as performance pieces. I needed something with rhythm and rhyme, even if the rhyme was pretty basic. At home I racked my brain, and thumbed through the notebook I'd used during Gerard Benson's course. There was some decent material in there, and definitely a few candidates for my next award-winning collection, but nothing that seemed right for unplugged. I flopped down, defeated, in front of the TV. I flipped the channels, feeling my brain start to drip out of my ears, as it often does when I allow the telly to work its catatonic magic. I'm stuck, I thought.

And, as if by magic, the poem came.

Me and Alex, waiting for the night to begin. Note the manic fear in my eyes.

On Tuesday, April 30th 2013, there were probably 60+ people packed into the Poetry Café's tiny basement. My dad and his girlfriend couldn't get a seat and had to watch from the stairs. Alex, Robin and Caroline were all there. I waited and waited for my spot, my heart skipping a beat every time the compere, poet Niall O'Sullivan, announced "the next poetry unplugged virgin." 

The standard and the energy were significantly higher than they had been the week before. Having felt relatively confident that I'd be amongst the better offerings of the evening, I was suddenly full of doubt. When at last it was my turn for ceremonial deflowering, I was trembling almost uncontrollably. But there was a swell of support from the room. Even if everyone secretly hopes that they're going to be the best, no one wants anyone else to fail. This is a gathering of people who love poetry. Even the irretrievably insane get a wild round of applause, beginning and end. Kind of like this...

Looking back on the video, there are loads of things I would do differently. I'd give myself some sort of vocal surgery, for starters. How anyone can put up with the sound of me talking I may never know. I'd also work on my rhythm and actions, and learn the whole thing by heart, which I would have done if I hadn't written it the day before. Oh, and I might also try to remember to breathe next time. But all things considered, it wasn't bad for a virgin. And what a tremendous buzz. What a feeling, not only to be back on stage, but to offer people a little bit of myself, and to hear them laugh where I wanted them to laugh. Fall silent when I needed them to be silent. I loved it. Here's a text message my dad sent me afterwards:

Darling that was great. 
Your eyes were alive for the first time in months. 
More of that and you will be right up there.

I think he hit the nail on the head there. To feel alive I need to write poetry and I need to perform. If I keep putting the two together, I might one day get half good at it. At the very lest, I'll probably have a lot of fun trying. Now then, someone pass me my beret.

Twenty-eight down, two to go...

Sunday, 28 April 2013

My Vegan Diary

I'm the first to admit that I have my fair share of food quirks. For example, I really hate sweetcorn. Why must people insist on adding these devil's testicles to everything? One finds them lurking in otherwise innocuous sandwiches, salads, stews, pies, all sorts. Finding little yellow nuggets of doom in my food really winds me up. This is, perhaps, the one subject on which my dear Julia and I do not agree. In fact, I believe my hatred of sweetcorn has caused her to question my suitability as a friend more than once.

I'd gladly elaborate further, but this isn't a blog about sweetcorn. I might write a blog about sweetcorn one day. It would be relatively niche, but would undoubtedly secure me a dedicated and fanatical following.

Anyway. As you have probably guessed from the title, this is actually a blog abut going vegan. I'd been wondering about having a crack at being a veggie for a while, but it felt too easy. I've been eating a lot less red meat lately anyway. I have, however, replaced this with potentially worrying quantities of eggs and cheese. Lotsa cheese. Mmmmmm cheese. So when another awesome friend, Alex, suggested going vegan, I figured I had a real challenge on my hands. Especially when it came to giving up Nutella. As you can see, I was cultivating my chocolate habit from an early age.

Chocolate? What chocolate?

The first important step, obviously, was to scour Google for vegan recipes. The first link I found was for the Oprah website. Oprah has a 'vegan starter kit'. This sounded promising. Oprah is a guru, right? Oprah can totally tell me how to be a vegan, yes? Actually, Oprah's vegan shopping list is a masterclass in how to pretend you're not actually vegan at all. In includes such delights as Veganaise; Meatless Meatballs; Replacement Cheese; and Ener-G Egg Replacer. I don't even want to contemplate what could be in an egg replacer.

I'm sorry to confess that I became terribly snooty about all this fakery. If I was going to be a vegan for a week, I was going to be a good, old-fashioned, mung-bean-eating, lentil-fancying, tofu-tastic PROPER VEGAN. Then my new boss asked me what I was going to do about my leather shoes. And my leather handbag. I got down of my high horse relatively swiftly at that stage. I don't have any vegan shoes. Well, not ones that are suitable for the office, anyway.

In the end, I tracked down a few relatively appealing vegan recipes and proceeded with an online shop. As it happens, I had never done an online grocery shop before, but I decided it might make for the world's most boring blog-post, so I'll spare you too many details. I will, instead, delight you with a screen shot of a small portion of my shopping list. Don't say I don't spoil you.

A few days later a mountain of shopping arrived. The lemons were significantly below my usual standard, but otherwise I was pretty impressed. As you can probably tell, however, I had rather over catered. Classic rookie error.

But, over catered or not, I was all set for a virtuous week sans animal products. Let us proceed then, without further ado, to Jojo's Vegan Diary. I'm not saying it's going to outsell Bridget Jones.  I'm not even saying it's going to prove more popular than Sadistic Sweetcorn: My Fight Against Satan's BonBons. But  I hope you enjoy it, nevertheless.

Friday, April 19th
I was planning to start my vegan diet on Monday, but Julia made something vegan from Scott Jureck's Eat and Run, and invited me round. Figured I may as well get on with it. Just before I left the house, I ate a large spoonful of Nutella. I love Nutella.

Supper was tempeh and brown rice with an almond curry sauce and stir-fried onions, carrots and pepper. Tempeh is an extra firm form of tofu. It looks like the frontal lobe Anthony Hopkins sautées in Hannibal. It was delicious.

Julia had also bought some vegan ginger snaps. They were seriously addictive. So far, I am rocking at being vegan. Turns out it's really easy when someone else does all the hard work for you.

Now you see it.

Now you don't.

Saturday, April 20th
Breakfast. Hmm. I haven't entirely thought about this. I have vegan-friendly bread, but what do I have with it? You can't have Marmite without butter underneath it. That's just a rule. Peanut butter and jam is a thing, right? Yep, turns out it's totally a thing. A VEGAN thing. It's kind of strange, but I think I like it.

I have friends coming round for supper, so I make a delicious-looking vegetarian Thai green curry. I've just stirred in some water chestnuts when an ominous thought enters my head. Doesn't Thai green curry paste contain fish? Yep. Fail. I hope my non-vegetarian guests don't mind being vegetarian for no apparent reason. I have toast with hummus, avocado and sundried tomatoes for supper. This is delicious, but I suspect not as delicious as the curry. D'oh!

Oh, and one of my guests brings cakes. Homemade, beautiful, miniature Victoria sponges. I've remembered why I wasn't planning to go vegan until Monday, now. Double d'oh! I really want one of those cakes.

Jane eats a delicious mini Victoria sponge.

Jojo does not eat a delicious mini Victoria sponge.

Sunday, April 21st
PB&J on toast for breakfast. I suspect I may end up eating a lot of peanut butter and jam. Which is probably not all that healthy.

The Nutella is giving me the eye. It keeps looking at me and whispering sweet nothings. Eat me, Jojo. Eat me with a spoooooon.

Julia, Tom and I go on a 33 mile cycle ride. Fortunately, the energy sweets I usually have turn out to be vegan. Hooray!

On the way back, we stop for ice cream. This is my first encounter with asking someone in a shop if one of their products is vegan-friendly. I feel massively conspicuous and embarrassed. But that's mostly because I'm wearing padded lycra shorts. They have vegan chocolate and raspberry sorbets, and I have half a scoop of each. RIDICULOUSLY delicious. I will totally have that again. And again.

When I get home, the Nutella looks accusatory. It can tell I've found an alternative chocolate fix.

For supper, I roast a butternut squash with fresh chili and garlic, which I eat with wholewheat pasta. I've made this meal many times, and I absolutely love it. It only requires a tiny adjustment to make it vegan. Turns out, that adjustment is the undoing of the dish. Roast butternut squash pasta is just boring without the bacon.

At the same time as roasting the squash I put together one of the vegan recipes I found online. Sweet potato, tomato, peanut and chard curry. During the initial stages, this looks extremely appealing. With every ingredient I add, however, it becomes less so. I'm sure it will taste fine. But it really looks gross.

Monday, April 22nd
First day of being a vegan at the office. PB&J on toast for breakfast.

During the morning, I eat two apples and have a Lady Grey tea, black. I feel fine.

For lunch, I go to Hummus Bros with two of my new colleagues. I have hummus with guacamole, having first checked that the pitta is vegan. I'm thinking avocados and hummus may become a theme this week.

As the day draws onwards, I find myself dreading the sweet potato curry. It really didn't look appealing. I eat some grapes. I like grapes.

Tonight is the fortnightly meeting of my writers group. I usually eat a lot of biscuits during this meeting. Instead, I eat crisps. Being vegan clearly doesn't automatically mean being healthy. However, I eat enough crisps, and get home late enough, to make eating sweet potato curry unreasonable. Reprieve. I eat two kiwis instead.

Tuesday, April 23rd
I eat some grapes for breakfast. Turns out this is not enough breakfast, and by about 10.15 I am feeling a bit weak and wobbly. But none of the cereal bars available in the office are vegan. They are all packed with butter. Delicious, delicious, buttery butter.

Then, awesomely, my new boss shows up with a tupperware of homemade granola. She made it with her daughter and they jointly decided to send me a sample. I eat it dry, straight from the tupperware. Oh my lord. This might be one of the tastiest things I have ever eaten. It rescues my morning.

My granola. Mine.
For lunch I have a lentil energy pot from Pod. Let's be honest, it does not look very nice.

It's not bad though. A bit heavy, perhaps, and definitely lacking in salt, but not at all bad. I also grab some vegan ginger biscuits from the health food shop. These are a lot like eating cardboard, but they provide a much needed sugar boost in the afternoon. Am I going to brave the sweet potato curry tonight?

Turns out the sweet potato curry is absolutely fine, as long as you eat in with equal parts mango chutney and lime pickle. 

Wednesday, April 24th
When the alarm goes off this morning I am almost instantly awake. Which never happens. PB&J on toast for breakfast.

Mid-morning, I am feeling quite tired. That energy boost didn't last long. I make myself a tomato, avocado and basil salad for lunch, which I eat with oat cakes and hummus. Pretty sure I'm starting to look like a chickpea.

My ginger biscuits are also oat based. I feel a bit like a horse, munching away on my oats all day.

Even though I now know from experience that the sweet potato curry is absolutely fine, I still can't bring myself to eat any more of it. It's clearly going to sit in the fridge until I give in and throw it away. I don't feel good about this, but I just don't want it. More toast, with hummus, avocado and sundried tomatoes it is.

Yum. But, seriously, more hummus?

Thursday, April 25th
Can you guess what I had for breakfast?

For lunch I also had the same as yesterday. And then some dried mango, an apple and a few ginger biscuits. I'm thinking I would have to be a lot more creative if I were to take up veganism full time.

Dad offers to take me out for supper. The funky, salady place in Crouch End is fully booked, so we wander around a bit, somewhat at a loss. We eventually settle on a Mediterranean café, where I have, erm, falafel with HUMMUS. Someone save me from hummus. I mean, I love the stuff, but there are limits. 

I'm glad there's only one day to go. I'm getting a bit tired of having to look up the ingredients on everything.

Friday, April 26th
Last day!! Skipped breakfast, had coffee instead. It felt really naughty for some reason, but was very tasty. I went out for lunch with my boss and another colleague. We went to a restaurant called Haz, where two weeks ago I ate an obscenely tasty chicken dish. This is the first time I have badly craved meat. I ate couscous with roasted vegetables, which was nice, but, you know...

Julia, Tom and I ate at a favourite Vietnamese restaurant, Khoai. I had tofu, rice noodles and salad. I had to have an alternative sauce because the proper sauce had fish in it. Notwithstanding this small alteration, this was the most delicious thing I ate all week. 

DONE! Friday supper to Friday supper. In serious celebration, I have sticky toffee pudding and custard for desert. Oh sweet, sweet buttery sponge. Oh lovely, gooey, creamy custard. HAPPY JOJO.

Celebratory sticky toffee. Bliss.
And that was that. Vegan for a week. All in all, it wasn't as difficult as I'd imagined. But it was a little bit boring. Save a few highlight flavours, I ended up eating a lot of the same things. This says more about me than it does about veganism itself, of course, but it goes to show that in order to have a varied, exciting vegan diet you have to be creative with your cooking. I'd need a lot more practice before I could come home late and whip up a vegan delight from the bits and bobs in my fridge. However, following my dramatic over catering, I do still have quite a few vegan bits and bobs in my fridge.

I had a couple of moments of craving certain things, but in general my body didn't miss animal products. I didn't feel weak or sick, I didn't get bad skin, I didn't turn into a mad, hammer-wielding psychopath. Well, actually, I did, but that's another story entirely, and probably not related to my diet.

Being a fine, upstanding English lady, well-versed in the rules of discretion and etiquette, I shall say no more about veganisim's effects on my digestion than that my digestive system knew perfectly well that there'd been a change of regime. This was acknowledged between us and we came to an understanding. Least said, soonest mended.

In terms of any lasting impact, I'm going to try and keep up with the sheer volumes of fruit I ate during the week, and I'll definitely be eating less dairy in general. And, interestingly, I still haven't had any meat. I just don't feel the need. It might take a while before I want it again. You'll be happy to hear, however, that the Nutella and I had a somewhat joyful reunion.

Chocolate? What chocolate?
Twenty-seven down, three to go...