Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Please, not the spa

Help me out here, readers. I don't get spas. The culture of enforced relaxing is something I've never quite understood, especially because none of the things one does at a spa seems in any way relaxing. Do you actually know anyone who has been to a spa? Have you been to one?

It's a very alien concept to me, my aversion to which probably stems from the terror of the unknown - I've never been to a spa, and I plan to keep that track record. Besides, I don't think they'd let me in - spas seem to be a place that welcome extrovert types. Types that actively enjoy being naked around each other. The thing is, some of these people are my friends.

Consequently a spa trip has threatened to materialise on three occasions now. Two birthdays and a hen do. I've just got to pray no more of them want to get married before my excuses wear too thin. I can't afford it. I'm busy - all month. You can't get public transport there. And, of late, I HATE SPAS!! Of course, the response is always the same - total bemusement. 

"What - you don't like relaxing?!" and the inevitable,

"How do you know if you don't like spas if you've never been to one?" 

A valid point. Obviously, there are some things you don't need to have experienced to know you won't like them - electric shocks, for example. Being lashed with a rope, clearly not enjoyable. But my poor friends don't realise they are in fact pressing for me to endure my own form of social torture.

I can understand how massages are a good thing. Well, as long as you don't mind being touched by a stranger. Or being greased like a goose. And thinking of hot ovens, what's with saunas? Being unpleasantly hot and naked in semi-public? It's clear how such things appealed to the Egyptians with their general love of oils and balms, and I can forgive pleasure-seeking Romans because, you know, where better to be debauched than in a big orgiastic pool? But for the likes of you and I...eurgh God, it makes me cringe just thinking about it. What if I bumped into the neighbours?

We can learn many useful lessons from history, lessons which could save us a great deal of time and expense. The Romans ruined baths, played with them too hard. Then the Italians made them fashionable again in typical swagger, ensuring they were an experience unaffordable to anyone but the posho's. While the rest of Europe was living it up, knocking back wine with their thermal water and no doubt singing and stuff, stuffy Brits stuck to strictly medicinal baths, frowning on indulgence of any kind.

And this leads to my bone of contention with the spa. Being laid back and laid bare are two very un-British things. As a result we've taken the spa concept and ruined it (but in the opposite direction to the Romans...) We pour Health & Safety all over it. We make it slightly awkward. And we make it really quite expensive. Which leaves us and our spas at a sanitised mid-point which is neither opulent nor all that medicinal. An economic indulgence rather than a true physical one.

Our island seems to have been invaded by these spa hotels, offering semi-indulgence at an either astronomical cost or as a bargain-basement-group-voucher - ensuring that your experience descends into a bit of a hustle to get the next cheques-on-legs through the door. Where's the relaxation in that?

I wouldn't mind if the hen parties that flock to these places actually got up to any Romanesque debauchery, but maybe that comes at an added extra top-up price. In my head - and please, feel free to put me straight, actual spa-goers - what you actually get is a brisk rub from a surly masseuse, one glass of fizz in the hot tub, an awkward gossip in the sauna and, more comfortably, a pedicure. Followed by a Michael Buble tribute act in the bar.

Why not just go and have a massage in town after work? Listen to Buble on the drive home? Look, I know I'm missing the point of it all. But when I describe what is relaxing and indulgent for me, perhaps you'll see why.

Gemma's Dream Spa Weekend:

Don't leave the house

Eat cheese. All day. Fully clothed

Have more than one glass of fizz, and have it on the sofa - not in the bath. And don't bother with the strawberries

Enjoy the healing powers of herbs. In my gin.

Don't talk to anyone. Watch film/s in silence.

Absolutely zero interaction with a Michael Buble impersonator.

 And aaaahhh. I am relaxed.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

I'm angry. Deal with it.

Being angry is fun. I actively enjoy it (sometimes), although I understand that there must be consequences, as with most things. But I think getting a bit angry is good for us - wouldn't you agree? 

Wider society is impossible - on the one hand it wants us to feel empowered, express ourselves and yet we popularise some means of getting to those places and berate the exhibition of the other, less palatable means. Like anger.

The unavoidable thing is, we all have rage lurking inside us somewhere. We just do. And what is wrong with that? It's a natural emotion, just as the fluffier Love and Lust are. Life is a hot bed of drama. It's silly to think we all go around being happy and compliant all the time, how could we? We each make small compromises daily. Small compromises that build into layers and layers of anger. Imagine the cover of some warped sci-fi book. That's you. There's your anger. There's only one place for it to go if you are to survive - out. (Think Alien. Apologies for another tenuous sci-fi reference). Surely, when that time comes it's much better to unleash it and get it over with, harness that self expression and empowerment, and get back to everyday life afterwards unscarred.

When I think of anger, I often think of modern consumerism. This, it seems to me, is the one place where anger is accepted, expected even, in our culture. And it's training us how to be angry.

As we navigate ourselves more confidently in the commercial world - becoming more consumer savvy, more active - we become more confident at being angry with institutions and their representatives when things go wrong, when we feel let down as a consumer. This trains us to be angry in a controlled way. Yelling on the phone to British Gas (or some other energy company!) (although this did happen to me - I was the yeller) when they mess up your bill for the fourth time and then change your payment amount without your permission is now an acceptable thing to do (ish). They are in the wrong, and you are alerting them to that fact. Better that, surely, than grumbling sheepishly and then you end up somehow apologising to them and as a result feel even angrier about the whole thing, blowing up at your boyfriend three months later when he puts the tupperware in the wrong cupboard. 

Getting angry saves a lot of bother and frees up to time to exercise other emotions, do other things. Life's too short to keep that volcano closed for business. Plus it can be a bit fun - go on, admit it. That adrenaline release. It's like you're on a roller coaster - which you are in a way, a social one.

Of course, it's not ladylike is it? Rage. Such labelling of appropriate emotions for women is exactly the kind of thing that makes this woman, well, angry. There are clearly some of us don't seem able to manage our emotions. Obviously this is the key. I'm not recommending we all descend into abandon and give into murderous urges. But for those of us who are able to exercise a modicum of control maybe it's time to loosen that lip, come over a bit Brazilian and allow yourself to be angry for a day. It could do you some good to let the steam out the volcano.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Winter sun is overrated

At this time of year you can't sit through an advert break without being invited on a holiday. Cheap Disneyland trips for young families. Luxurious tropical retreats for discerning adults. Boat trips only for old people. Many viewers, it seems, are seduced by this onslaught, desperate for a glimpse of some 'winter sun'. For me, these adverts are like watching horror film trailers.

Ok, not quite. But I really don't like holidays. Don't get me wrong - I love having a break. I'm not one of those people who never want to leave the office. But, tell me, what exactly is relaxing about travel, specifically foreign travel? Packing for a 2-week holiday (= 4 weeks worth of your wardrobe) and then hauling a suitcase equivalent to your own body weight across multiple tortuous modes of (delayed) transport. Enduring said transport – sometimes for days – until you reach a strange destination where you are, in effect, an alien. No one understands you, you don’t understand them - and in some painful cases, you don’t even try to. Having to knock around with strange Brits, many of whom are speaking especially loudly, only in English. Having to navigate unknown climes whilst simultaneously not looking like you’re navigating unknown climes so as not to draw attention to yourself and your belongings. It’s all very scary and stressful. And then you’ve got to do it all again to get home. And then you’re back at work – exhausted. Great.

Holidays seem to bring out anxieties in me that never seem to surface in daily life - what if I get robbed / attacked? What if my house blows up / burns down / gets burgled / acquires squatters? It’s hard work going on holiday. I’ll admit, a lot of this travel aversion stems from my total fear of flying. I’ve tried it twice. Never again – because, as Ian Fleming said, you only live twice.

I went to Florida as a child, on one of aforementioned (not-so) cheap Disneyland trips with my family. I remember the two flights in full. I remember thinking my ears were going to explode during take off, and that my stomach was going to jump out of my mouth during landing. I remember a horrendous airport which seemed to be made entirely of palms, prickly and scary. But, in comparison, I don't remember too much of the actual holiday. Then I, persuaded by a family member yet again, found myself flying to New York fifteen years later. The turbulence we experienced when (trying to) make a landing at Newark was like out of an ACTUAL DISASTER FILM. And that was my sister, easy-flyer, talking.

And that’s about as exotic as my travel experiences have extended to. I've been places since - just not by air. This does of course limit where you can go, unless you are a Russian oligarch with bounds of cash to splurge on speedboats. But I can't imagine a Russian oligarch being scared of flying. Or a Russian full stop.

Do I feel like I'm missing out? Honestly? No. Well, maybe a little bit. But we all do the same thing when we get back from holiday, don't we? We miss it for a week, then we go back to our own lives, exactly as we were before - only poorer. We've ticked a box - but that's it. 

Well, for most of us. I take my hat off to the people who really throw themselves into travel, without a map if you will. But I don't want to hear about it. If I were to find myself in a room with such a traveller I would attempt to leave it immediately.

I say, before you go gallivanting off on some foreign adventure, take time to remember what we have on our own global doorstep. Some UKers have never stepped outside of London yet they've carted themselves off to Helsinki, Haiti and Honolulu - what about our South Coast? The Lakes? We've got a good thing going on here - who needs winter sun?

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Playing up

Here it is upon us again. New Year's Eve. That went fast didn't it?

Rather than feeling daunted, I find I am quite addicted to the hopefulness of setting goals - something many of you will no doubt be torturing yourselves with today. Why must we make it such an ordeal?

Last year's resolution was to 'be crafty'. I'm sat here now, one year later, guiltily glancing at the Make Your Own Pompoms set that still lies untouched in a Bloomindales bag on the floor - well, at least they have enjoyed a chic 12 months.

I don't know about you, but I don't really have the imagination to be imaginative. I need a tour guide. It was the hardy estate-agent-cum-craftswoman, Kirstie Allsopp, who guided me into the world of pompom crafts. I couldn't have done it alone.

Despite this handicap I think it important, really important, that we let our creativity run free every once in a while - even those of us aren't quite gifted enough to create without a kit. Or without copying someone else. I love copying. I did it religiously as a child and I do it still. But what's wrong with that? All I'm doing is flexing a muscle. And while that muscle gets some exercise, the others in my brain can switch off. With this in mind I think my plan for 2015 will be, simply, To Play. 

We forget to play as we become adults. It's not our fault - we don't have the time when there are so many more pressing, important and boring things to attend to. Things that absorb all of our time and head space. But this is exactly why remembering how to play is so important.

Remember the invigoration that came from childhood play? The total abandon. The thrill at discovery. This is the stuff that keeps us going. Helps to fill the hole that creeps open as we age and the fun sort of dries up, becomes very much expected.

Of course, there are those humans for whom surprise is their raison d'etre. The kind that throw themselves at challenges in far flung locations, like white water rafting in places that have... I don't know... white water? Those who do something noble like volunteering in Africa.

But for the less adventurous and admittedly more lazier and, well, timid of us - there is play. Good old-fashioned messing about. MFI springs to mind. Yes, the furniture store. I've never visited an MFI as an adult, but as a child - oh! The fun my sister and I had! Allowed to roam free around the store as my parents browsed kitchen units stressfully. We acted out mini melodramas in secluded kitchens. Hid from the adults in bedroom wardrobes. Fondled the pretend fruit. Bounced on the beds when no-one was looking. Pretended to be pretend home furniture. It was such a treat, going to MFI. It is within the walls of this store only that I have imagined being a housewife.

Whenever life gets tough, or incredibly dull, I think back to those gentle MFI adventures. Go and hide in the bedroom for a while, behind the door. Play out a little story in my head.

Play must lurk like this in my subconscious somewhere, because without me even realising what I was doing for Christmas this year I got my boyfriend stuff that will enable him to make his own watch. Luckily, he does actually want to make his own watch. Now.

There he is in the corner, soldering wires together. Having a blast. Bigger projects are already emerging - a torch. More ambitiously, a light up table. Who knows where his imagination will take him.

And that's the point isn't it - why not wake up your inner child next year? Play up - you deserve it.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Boy bands never did me any harm

I was unexpectedly reminded of something moving and transporting the other day - the enduring power of the Christmas-number-one-single. 

Not any of this new crap. Sorry One Direction, but I'm going to have to deride you again. For those who have blissfully avoided this year's contender, let me enlighten you: "Everybody wanna steal my girl / Couple billion in the whole wide world / Find another one 'cause she belongs to me"


No, I'm talking about the old crap. The kind we went to great pains to access. Simply clicking your music to your ears from the comfort of your bed / sofa? Pah! Remember the thrill of going into an actual shop and parting with actual cash to get your hands on - literally - a physical thing? Followed by gluing your ears to the radio (yes, radio) on a Sunday afternoon for the Top 40 Chart Show. Waiting breathlessly to learn if your heroes had made it to the dizzy heights of Christmas number one single. (They often did, by the way.) Choosing and buying your Christmas number one single was a real commitment. An event. 

I was reminded of such festivities last week when, out of nowhere (well, ok - out of a YouTube Christmas playlist - but aren't we all doing this now?), I was taken aback by the unmistakeable opening chimes of Westlife's 1999 Christmas hit 'I Have A Dream'. Uncontrollably, I was  overwhelmed by an adrenaline rush. I actually flushed. This was obviously embarrassing - I was a little too old to be enjoying a boy band when the song first came out, never mind 15 years later. It was a genuinely weird moment because I felt so far removed from those emotions, that way of being, that time now. But it was made all the more embarrassing because I was in public at the time. Well, in front of my boyfriend who had so far been spared my reaction to Westlife

But I couldn't help it. That song immediately transported me back to sitting square-eyed in front of the television in my parent's bedroom, where my sister and I would sit for hours and hours watching The Box (the channel...we're not that old) where they aired the video on repeat for a whole hour. They did that with '2 Become 1' in 1996 too. 

Looking back, it was probably one of the most exciting times of my life.

Because - I don't know if this is just for girls - innocently obsessing over a celebrity / band of celebrities / media personality is, for some, a way of being. It certainly was for me in a (long) period of my life. Boy bands probably made me the person I am today. No, really. I was the only one in my group of friends who did this obsessing, but where I was removed from our reality they became caught up in the grotty-ness of it. The fags, the disgusting sex, the vodka, the abortions. There is escapism, even protection in obsession. The pull of glossy media personalities in comparison to the reality of north Birmingham society is obviously irresistible. But, more importantly, the abandon, hope, fantasy, excitement, the romance (in your head) - it all keeps you going. It's hard to get any of that from real life. Unless you're into dangerous sports...which I'm not. Nor drugs. So, imagination it is.

Never did me any harm.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Never had a pet

As the title of this post suggests, I have never had a pet. That's right - never. Not even a goldfish? No.

At this point people usually look at me with raised eyebrows. Friends and colleagues I have known for years are shocked to learn this about me. Some take an involuntary step back, as though this must mean I am a dangerous sociopath.

Because not having had a pet is a little unusual in today's society, isn't it? And with good reason - even I am aware of how the little furries can make our lives better and more bearable. Having a pet can help tackle loneliness and depression. Then there are the obvious benefits that dog walking has on your cardiac health. Not only that, some pets can even warn owners of cancers and diabetes. They can help children (and grumpy adults) develop empathy. Overall, you could argue pets make you a better human.

But I've never missed not having a pet, if that syntax makes sense. Until, that is, last year - when my boss got a dog. Before Molow I was mostly just terrified of dogs. Nearly two years on I am still terrified yet also fascinated by them. I'm afraid this new-found fascination doesn't extend to all pet-animals. Sorry cat lovers and pigeon fanciers. It's all about the dogs.

Growing up, my parents vetoed pets. Having one was never on the cards. My mother's harrowing childhood pet experience with Bingo the rabbit's demise explained it. Not that I knew this at the time. And not that this pet absence bothered me in any way (terrified, remember?) Plus there's the mess, which I hate. And the general sense of responsibility, which I hate more. So, maybe my parents just didn't trust me with a small, helpless, messy animal. Wise.

But perhaps because I had been told I couldn't, the desire to try out having a pet inevitably popped up at several points in my formative years. There was the year I toyed with the idea of wanting a dog - purely because the local library had a picture book all about how to care for your pet puppy. I must have taken that bloody book out more than twenty times in that year. Then there is my enduring favourite of all the Disney films - 101 Dalmatians. Irresistible. I pictured us all living with a bevy of dogs under our roof. The image didn't quite fit. When my friends got dogs, Trixy and Barney, I became chief tummy stroker after my initial terror eventually wore off (we're talking several years here). All this was nice, but I still didn't want one for myself. Very much like my attitude towards children.

Then came Molow. The hairy, climbing, talking, snogging, ball-stealing bitch of the common, as she is affectionately known in her neighbourhood. Molow who looks like an old man but is really a young woman in disguise. Scruffy and actually mad, she confirms that dogs really do take after their owners, and I can now personally vouch for the benefits of having a pet despite never having one. Molow comes into the office on an almost-daily basis. She is a mind-reader and relaxes the team at times of great stress, lifting the mood in dull meetings with timely grunts and sighs. Alerting us back to the important reality of barking at squirrels and ball-throwing at times when we are at risk of getting caught up in the stress.

Once terrified to leave my desk should she mount me, here I am now bringing in homemade smoked salmon and cream cheese muffins for Molow. Still, our relationship so far is confined to the office and it's little garden. When I build up to taking her for a walk (there's a risk she and I will both be elderly by this point), maybe I will find myself making that next step and actually wanting a Molow of my own? Who knows. 

At least then I will finally be able to create an accurate porn star name. Relying on that of your mother's dead rabbit isn't quite right...

That's all, folks

Bingo Pendrey

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Lighten up

I am unashamedly moved by Christmas lights. Sometimes to the point of actual tears. Lights in general, really. Street lamps casting their eerie glow in this autumnal (or should that be wintery) fog. The less subtle sugary glare of neon shop signs, arcade games and pencils that light up when you write. The pop of those fairy lights that people string around their gardens. They all provoke a reaction in me. Maybe it's part of growing up in the city. The lights signal home.

So as you can imagine, this time of year is a particularly emotional one for me. Whenever I walk past a ragged municipal pine tree in town - and there are many - there is a song in my heart. Even the most down-trodden Old Bear style trees are brought back to resplendent life with a few glowing baubles strangled around the bare branches. Ahh, lovely.

Since our city's Christmas lights got switched on ceremoniously at the end of November my heart has been going lords a leaping and bells a jingling at every corner. Just this morning I swooned at the sight of one of the Jewellery Quarter's themed lights - a man hammering some steel (or something). It took the chill right off the gale force winds that have arrived out of nowhere. My fellow commuters didn't seem cheered. If only they'd look up at the lights instead of rushing like salmon into the nearest Costa** - you can't be sad at the sight of a be-mittened waving snowman. Or a man wielding a hammer.

It's a different animal at the weekends though. Now that the Christmas-shopping-countdown has commenced I've been witnessing other grown adults reduced to fits of childish emotion out on the streets - however I've got a feeling that's less to do with joy at the lights and more stress at the checkouts....

The fizzy charm of pretty lights must touch most of us in some small way, even if we wouldn't rush to admit it. Judging by the on-steroids manner in which our suburban streets are dressed to the nines with camp glittery reindeer and acrobatic Father Christmases careering down drainpipes all over the nation - and those of us who drive around said streets specifically to ogle this spectacle - there is a real thirst for putting on a light show. It can't all be for the kids...

All those colours. Can't get enough of them. When I think about it, I've always found myself very susceptible to colour - something just switches in my brain when confronted with particular ones. Sometimes I allow my life to be dictated by colour without quite realising what's happening. (I may be sounding a bit hippy dippy now but don't worry, I'm not a wearer of mood rings or anything). I must be an advertiser's dream. They will be the first to tell you about the power of colour - cleverly manipulating it to control us. Well, our spending habits at least.

Which is why I've mixed emotions about going to see the Coca Cola truck. You know, the illuminated van from the adverts? (I was surprised to learn that the first of these was only made in 1995. I say only, although that was nearly 20 years ago...feel old) Anyway, in case you have managed to avoid the constant adverts, Coca Cola are sending their trucks on a UK tour. While I find myself rather abhorred by the idea of going to gawp at a huge multinational brand in the name of Christmas - a shameless marketing ploy, and in a shopping centre just to hammer the message home - I don't think I can resist the call of those famous lights. 

I know I'll basically be looking at a stationary lorry for a few seconds... I mean, I could do that at the back of any old takeaway any day of the week. But, oh! The childhood(ish) memories of pure unadulterated excitement when the advert came on! That catchy jingle!* I am moved to tears by the bloody thing.

Because for many people, people like me, Christmas is a consumerism thing. I recognise it is a little sad to say that, but it is nevertheless true. We were never a religious family. I'm not religious now. It was all about exchanging presents. Well, and spending time with 'loved ones', of course. But mostly the presents. So, maybe Coca Cola is my God after all... There's a thought.

One thing is for sure - as soon as I set eyes on those chirpy lights there will be tears.

*Please let me apologise to those of you who now have the 'holidays are coming' song stuck in your head. 

** I do like Costa's Xmas-themed cups though - very kitsch