Monday, 24 March 2014

Those Were the Days

For those of you that have been with the blog since I started writing it, or have bought 'Reasons to be Cheerful, Part One', you'd be forgiven for thinking that I had built a pyre out of all of my corporate accoutrements and danced around them as they burned to a pile of cinders.  Not so.

There are days when I miss being in a corporate environment.  Days when I'd love to sit in a big office overlooking a lake, in a tailored dress and some nice heels.  Days when I miss laughing my arse off with colleagues about something that happened at an off-site or comparing notes on the best places to shop when we're in the US 'for work'.  Days when I even wouldn't mind listening to a load of guff in a meeting between a group of people who are paid more than surgeons just to sell IT.

This is not the view I ordered....
This normally happens on the days when it's pissing down with rain, or my neck and back are killing from being sat at a second-hand Ikea desk, or my view is a pile of washing up.  Days when it feels like the house is never tidy because there are two of us working from home and so stuff rotates from room to room creating ever more piles of crap where you can't find things.  Days when I feel aggrieved at being the one that has to use the office in the garden because inevitably I've left something in one of the piles of crap and I have to go back into the house to fetch it.

When I spoke to a group of students recently I was honest about the fact that if you want to earn good money and grab yourself some opportunities then you could do worse than go and work in a large business.  It enabled me to earn the kind of money that I didn't think was possible - forget moaning about paying higher rate tax, it felt like validation that it is possible to break out of what is predicted for young people from low-income families.  I never opened a payslip and worried that it wouldn't cover my bills and it never felt entirely normal - being properly skint as a teenager casts a very long shadow (and stopped me from developing an expensive handbag habit).

Working in a corporate taught me a huge amount about business, industry and people, brought me new friendships and even led to the peculiar incident when I shook hands with a Knight in an office block in Birmingham (I know, doesn't mean that much really but it tickles me silly).  I was coached by athletes and adventurers who had achieved amazing feats, serenaded by the B-52's (but missed Duran Duran - shame!), got to listen to Bill Clinton talk about philanthropy along with about 49,999 other people and went to the Niagara Falls for 'work'. So why the hell don't I stop frothing about it and go back there?

Well the simple fact is we reached the end of the affair - I had gone as far as I had wanted to go and the business had given me all it was prepared to give.  Unless Microsoft was going to provide me with a purple writing lair, a personal sommelier and an in-house band I don't think that anything would have convinced me to stay.  And for the focused, committed folks that were (are) still there, having someone gnawing their stilettos off in frustration at not having a purple writing lair, personal sommelier and in-house band is not good for team morale.  

At the time I felt like I really had broken free of corporate 'ties' but looking back over the three years it has been since then, I think it was more of a process of being completely honest with myself about what I wanted to achieve, and acknowledging what I had to sacrifice if I stayed (health, family time, sleep) or if I left (money, what that money enables you to do, being part of a team).  The three years also provide a little time to mellow down, appreciate what was good and connect the dots between the things I did then and where I find myself now.  Do I hope my children go on to do things that make them feel fulfilled and free - absolutely.  Will I mind if they find that through working for or with a big company - of course not, I just hope I can help them do it with their eyes wide open.  

No, I don't miss this in the slightest!
So to my friends that are still in the throes of their corporate adventures; climbing ladders, leading businesses, sailing seas of big data and unified communication, enterprise apps and endless endless scorecards, I hope that you are still enjoying your journeys and despite the fact that I have 'broken free' and am revelling in being able to do what I really, truly love for work, there are still times when I look back and think "those were the days"!

Soundtrack: Those Were The Days - Mary Hopkins

Monday, 17 March 2014

Irish Blood, English Heart

In a taxi in Dublin quite some years ago, I was chatting with the driver when I decided to try to 'form a bond' with him by telling him that I have Irish roots.  It is possible that he was sick of people who are not Irish laying some claim to his nationality, it is possible that he had had a long day and didn't fancy indulging some excitable tourist.  It's possible he was just a rude man as when I explained my dad's family is originally from Limerick he was less than complimentary.

In truth I'm personally about as Irish as a baguette but the presence of the Irish part of my family was writ large throughout my childhood and continues to this day.  Surnames of Walsh and Daly, first names of Maime and Cornelious, Margaret and Mary and accents that would become impenetrable after a gin or three at the local Labour club.  There was also the small matter of the person we spent almost every Sunday morning with throughout my childhood: my dad's mum, Nanny Walsh.

I can still picture her house today.  Go in the front door and directly in front of you was the telephone table.  Hanging on the wall to the right of the table was an image of Christ on the Cross, a crown of thorns on his head and nails in his hands and feet.  Don't enjoy yourself too much on that call - Christ is watching...  

Above the phone on a hook was a silver whistle, reserved for heavy breathers.  I don't know what it was about the '80s but heavy breathing seemed to be 'a thing' for a while and I find myself wondering now if my poor old nan got enough of them that it caused her to buy the whistle, or if she was secretly a referee...  Whatever the reason if you made the mistake of heavy breathing down her line you were going to get a thousand decibels right down your ear hole in return.

In her living room was a polished dresser, the top of which served to display black and white pictures, including one of my dad and his sister dressed for their first holy communion.  I thought they looked beautiful - just like a wedding!  And in that house, my lovely old nanny would let me and my eldest brother sit and watch Pob and Black Beauty on her black and white television whilst she made us fish paste sandwiches with real butter in her kitchen.  I don't know if there was any other food in there apart from that but they tasted like heaven.  

She had a 'set and perm' and American tan tights that she'd hang in her bathroom to dry and a nice line in neat polyester dresses.  She'd joke about how the postman was "oh right up my street, Toni" and told us tales of working in London as a young woman and how she and her friends would go out on the town after work and not return until the morning. 

We'd watch the London Marathon together so she could coo over the city that she moved
to from Ireland and loved as her home. As we left she'd give us a packet of cigarettes and four cans of Courage Light Ale to take home for our dad (like I said - things were a bit different in was the 80's - or maybe it was just my family..) and she seemed to be always, interminably, incredibly chipper.  And yet she was a widow three times over and had outlived both of her children - my dad and his big sister Mary no longer in her life but captured forever in their communion clothes.  

When she died, I was asked as the eldest grandchild to read the call and response at her funeral and I didn't know how it worked, so the priest had to step in and help me out.  Not only am I not-Irish, I am also not-Catholic but at least I now know how 'and also with you' should be said.  

I wasn't originally sure where this piece would go but having got this far and reflecting back on that cab ride, I think that my clumsy attempts at sharing my heritage with others is perhaps less about jumping on a bandwagon and more about trying to connect with part of my family history that in truth I know very little about.  Maybe it's a bit about trying to find meaning in the absence of knowing all the detail, a way of connecting with some history that I'll probably never really know.

So this St Patrick's Day I will raise a glass (alright have raised a glass!), because whilst my heart may not be entirely Irish, it is in the right place.

Soundtrack: Irish Blood, English Heart by Morrissey

Monday, 10 March 2014

The Future's So Bright

I seem to spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying.  I know it is a parent's right - I mean, when a warm, slippery, wailing bundle has been placed into your arms fresh from your womb it's a pretty powerful way to kick-start your protective instinct - but I hadn't realised until very recently quite how much energy I was investing in it.

Get a group of parents together and it won't take long for the worries to come out - whether it's about friendships, schooling or their ability to tie their laces.  We joke that as children grow older 'the challenges change' and the wild panic caused by attempting to find a toilet when your potty-training toddler "wants poo-poo" will be something you miss when you're faced instead by door slamming and "I hate you!".  And you'll miss it all the more when your daughter tells you she wants her boyfriend to stay the night (and then slams the door and tells you she hates you when you say no).

It had left this latent worry in the back of my mind, concern for what's to come and how to handle it, even dipping into a book about how to raise teenagers when we still have years to go - what on earth am I doing creating worries about problems that don't yet exist?!  And then I visited a couple of schools for World Book Day.  And then I got a wake up call of the most brilliant kind - I got to speak to some children.

The original purpose of my visits had been to read my stories for younger children (as yet unpublished but working on it!) but one of the schools asked if I would consider speaking to their Year 6 class (10-11 year olds) about blogging.  So despite feeling unsure of how it would go, I said "sure, why not?" and arranged to do it at both schools.  It turned out to be the highlight of my visits.

Turns out these ten and eleven year old's are pretty switched on.  Turns out they had lots of really insightful questions about being a writer ("Is it difficult to focus on writing when you have small children?"  "How do you feel when you see a piece you have written for someone else?  Don't you wish your name was on it?" "How do you stay motivated?") turns out that they are interested in the power of words and the power of social media to create movements that promote equality.  Turns out they're pretty opinionated when it comes to the treatment of women in the media.

In the second school that I visited, I was unexpectedly asked to read them an extract of Reasons to be Cheerful, Part One to give them an idea of my writing style.  I read them 'My Beautiful Friend', and it was as moving an experience as it was nerve-racking and I hope I get to do it again.  But what came next was even more incredible: talk over, the children lined up with their text books to show me a short story they had each written to accompany a dialogue-free video they'd been shown and the words spun up from the pages like I had never expected - dragons soared, decks creaked, wood smouldered and the smell of singed sails hung in the air and stung the eyes.  Tears fell 'like bullets' to the ground and a man tried to 'hammer away his pain', love, loss, worlds created and storms tearing them down.  There was movement and rhythm in their writing, and they wrote powerfully, freely, beautifully.  

Like the song says: I gotta wear shades...
I'm sure that behind those children are scores of parents worrying about them but oh my, how their questions and their stories have given me something to look forward to.  I try to always enjoy the moment and am not short on wonderful memories of the past (anyone else got about a million baby photos?) but in the absence of knowing what was to come I had created a big ball of worry about the years ahead.  Now thanks to the children at those two primary schools, I'm about to kick that ball of worry into touch.  They have inspired me to be more hopeful, optimistic and excited about the future and if they're anything to go by, then the future could be very bright indeed.

Soundtrack: The Future's So Bright - Timbuk 3

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

It Ain't What You Do, It's The Way That You Do It

Well there I was in Waitrose today, enjoying the general ambience and still feeling slightly bemused by the introduction of a coffee machine at the front of the store that means grown men and women walk round with 'sippy cups' whilst they do their shopping, causing them to clumsily steer their trolley one-handed and end up with an empty cup with nowhere to put it by the time they're half-way through their shop, when I was stopped in my tracks.

On the newspaper stand, was a front page that showed a woman wearing just a pair of knickers with her arm across her breasts.  Err, what?  Isn't John Lewis a bastion of lovely things and being 'never knowingly undersold'?  Had Waitrose left the partnership and been sold to a petrol station chain?  Were they about to start stocking 'Nuts' and 'Zoo' amongst the houmous and Cath Kidston homeware?  No to all of the above, it was in fact The Sun, a paper that staunchly defends the basic human right of every man, woman and child to see a pair of women's breasts every day.

I paused for a moment to consider what to do.  Part of me quite fancied gathering up the papers in my arms and dumping them in the bin (wouldn't have been able to do that, too many coffee cups in it), part of me wanted to immediately tweet my anger (ooh, digital foot stamping, how very 'now'!) but then I thought actually I might just ask if I could talk to the manager to see what he or she thought.  I asked at the counter and a manager was duly summonsed up who brought another colleague with her; we took a walk to the display and stood in front of it together.

Turns out that the image in question is to promote a campaign that The Sun have signed up to with the charity 'Coppafeel', founded by a woman whose breast cancer has spread and become inoperable. Coppafeel aims to encourage more women to check their breasts regularly, thereby increasing early detection rates and saving lives.  Early detection would have prevented their founder from finding herself in the position she is today. I am well on board with the charity, its message should have greater exposure but the cynic in me can't help but feel that The Sun are using this as a means to justify their continued use of a full page image of a half-naked women to shift newspapers.  And now they can put one on the front cover because, you see, it's about raising awareness of breast cancer.  So that makes it alright, doesn't it?

Except it doesn't.  Because in the course of the conversation between me and the two Waitrose partners (don't you love that they're all partners?), they described how they had been disconcerted when their papers arrived that morning as they do not stock magazines with those kind of images on the front - they know it's not what their customers want.  They noted how the papers were displayed at child-height and we wondered quite how 'sexy Page 3 lady' was a vehicle for reaching out to women and encouraging them to check their breasts.  It was billed as 'Page 3 vs Breast Cancer' - are they going to use their bare breasts to take cancer on?  Are we going to be treated every 'Check 'Em Tuesday'  to a picture of the breasts that Sun readers would most like to check?  It just didn't sit well.  

Turning our back on Page 3 - thank you Waitrose x
"Is there anything you can do?" I asked.  "Well", the manager said, "I can't take them down, because they pay to be on our display, and we have to honour that contract.  But what I can do, is turn them over."  She took both of the stacks on the display and turned them over so the back pages faced out rather than the front.  We couldn't stop David Dinsmore's crusade to keep breasts on the breakfast table but one polite request from me, and some thoughtfulness on the part of the Waitrose staff had taken the tits away from the till.  

There are ways and means of getting your message across; as I found today a quiet word was more effective than shouting the odds or throwing papers in the bin.  So if the team at The Sun really does support the Coppafeel campaign, really does care about the lives and bodies of its readers that are affected by breast cancer, really does want to make a positive difference, then I hope they find a different way to do it.

Soundtrack: Ain't What You Do - Fun Boy Three & Bananarama

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Absolutely Fabulous

Fabulous, darling!
So the other day I went along to Andresa Aesthetics to listen to a talk by Dr DannĂ© Montague-King - a legend in skin-health circles.  He has led pioneering work to develop enzyme treatments that are used for all manner of skin conditions from the trifling crow's feet of wealthy Beverly Hills widows, to the debilitating and sometimes devastating effects of teenage acne (his treatments were featured in the BBC3 documentary 'Dying for Clear Skin'; an account of how for some teenagers, acne can led to depression and suicide).  

I was intrigued to meet him as you would be when you see a photo of a 71-year-old man looking a good couple of decades younger.  He had the luxurious hair of a Bee Gee (but it was definitely his - he grabbed a fistful to prove it after revealing he'd been asked in a hotel "who does your wigs?") and the tinted glasses to match, the svelte stature of Prince, some fine tailoring and one ring on each hand that contained enough bling to make a Big Fat Gypsy happy.  He also had the wit and acid tongue of Joan Rivers and an accent that was truly transatlantic.  He sounded English then American, then a little bit Irish, and had a great line in imitating excitable German aesthetic practitioners.  

That's the look done with, and that's about as long as it lasted because as soon as he started talking I stopped wondering about how he achieved his 'twenty years younger' look and realised that there's one thing his photo doesn't tell you - it's that he has a life force to be reckoned with.  

He spun stories that went from Beverly Hills women requiring special attention for their 'spaniel's ears', to eating random plants in Inner Mongolia, to the beauty hall at Fenwicks, to an invitation to the White House.  Each point he had to make about skin health was illustrated by analogies that included (but were not limited to) breasts and bottoms, public-school boys and pints, the hypothalamus getting on the phone to the endocrine system and people "with more money than God" having to be told they can't buy their way out of ageing.  He also talked about his commitment to the Milk Foundation although I initially mis-heard this so when I asked him to tell me more about this 'Melk' charity, he said "of course, have you heard of Harvey Milk?  He was one of the world's first openly gay government officials.  They made a film about his life starring Sean Penn.  It was called 'Milk'"  I went red, he probably silently prescribed me a treatment for my hot flush and wondered why I had impersonated his accent.      

He was captivating and charming, a gifted story teller and for someone who ultimately would want us to part with our money somewhere down the line, didn't spend much time talking about his products or techniques.  What he did deliver was something very motivational - there was lots of emphasis on doing things that made you happy - not because other people want you to, or expect it of you - he talked of starting over at fifty, of making mistakes and being ok with that, of being true to yourself and of being sincere.  I'd gone in expecting to get a L'Oreal style lecture full of made up scientific words but instead it was like having a pep talk from a gossipy, glamourous friend.   

I went up to him afterwards to say thank you and we shook hands.  I gave him my card and he called me "darling".  I may never meet him again but I certainly won't forget him; he made me think and cheered my spirit.  I came away feeling just a little bit fabulous.  

Soundtrack: Absolutely Fabulous - Pet Shop Boys