Ebook Available Now!

Dear last year’s blog readers, new blog readers and accidental blog readers: my ebook A Cynic’s Challenge is now available to purchase on Amazon!

Over the course of 2013, I traversed high seas and high skies, snow-capped mountains and murky English ponds; I faced geriatric tango partners, authoritarian crafts instructors, and knicker-clad wrestlers; I ate haggis and became a vegan, gave a speech in Hyde Park and an interview on live radio; I drew a naked man, and found myself naked in Marrakech. And all this in the name of entertaining my readers, and completing a self-set challenge of experiencing one new thing, for every single week of the year.

A Cynic’s Challenge the ebook is the complete chronicle of this quest to prove my inner cynic wrong, and discover whether it really is possible to do all the things I’ve always wanted to – and quite a few I definitely never dreamed of doing besides. In addition to including every blog I wrote during 2013, the ebook has a few extra bits thrown in.

So, if you’re looking for an ideal birthday present, Valentine’s Day present, Bon Voyage present, trapped-inside-by-winter-floods present, then please do check out my ebook, leave a review and pass on to your kindle-owning friends, family, colleagues and passers-by in the street.

It is available to purchase here on Amazon.

Finally, as an incidental bit of breaking news – I am currently developing my new blog, which I hope to have up and running in the next few weeks. Watch this space!

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Week 52: Christmas Volunteering

So it’s finally all over. Pack away the tinsel, take your unwanted gifts to the charity shops, force that last sliver of turkey down your exhausted gullet – Christmas is survived for another year. Let me not beat about the Tannenbaum: I am relieved.

This declaration will come as little surprise to those of my familial circle who have, for many years now, dismissed my yuletide grumbles as those of a “Scrooge”. But if the truth be known: I do not actually dislike Christmas. What I dislike is the pressure to like Christmas, the pressure to agree that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year” or else face social chastisement as the most mean-spirited party-pooper since a bunch of boring generals ordered their troops to stop playing football with the chaps in the opposing trenches and get on with shooting them instead. Yet no matter how many icons of pop will don a hilarious knitted jumper and sing about how happy the inaccurate commemoration of the birth of a possible deity makes them, I cannot accept that Christmas is an undeniably “good” time of year. Nothing is wholly “good”, and our modern Christmas celebrations are more confusingly ambiguous in their relative “good” and “badness” than most events.

Certainly, the time off from work, the mountainous piles of food, the presents, the TV specials, the music (with the exception of anything by Cliff Richard), the company – these are all good. That is assuming you do get time off work, or have work to get time off from, and assuming you can afford food and presents, and assuming a power-cut doesn’t blacken the TV screen, and assuming you have someone or ones by way of company (who isn’t Cliff Richard). Yet even assuming all these blessings count as normalities in your life; I still do not understand why so much pressure is heaped upon Christmas to the point where it inevitably implodes in a soft puff of disappointment. It is after all a festival whose religious basis only a minority of celebrants actually believe in and whose symbol of an obese coke-swilling house-breaker with the parenting advice of rewarding good behaviour with material gain undermines rather than shores up the “Christmas spirit”, drives us to max out our credit cards, thus exacerbating the nation’s debt crisis, and probably bears a lot of responsibility for the fact that the principle of doing something for nothing can be hard to find.

I myself recognise no truth in the festival’s Christian inspiration, not being of that faith. I also however find little solace in its modern manifestation, namely a nigh-on-narcissistic overindulgence in the cause of self-gratification. I might, were this matched by an equally determined effort to live up to the (yes, Christian-inspired) spirits of Peace, Love and Goodwill, in whose names we feast and carouse and shop, but which we, or perhaps more truthfully said – I – actually do very little to transform into reality. Which is my most important, most un-Scroogelike reason for expressing dislike for Christmas, simply: I have failed, at every previous Christmas in my life, to be sufficiently good. Which given that I have spared no efforts in condemning all that is wrong about Christmas, or in enjoying its food and presents and non-Cliff Richard music, makes me a rather awful hypocrite.

I have in the past several times made threats to spend the subsequent winter doing something worthwhile; empty threats along the lines of “I’ve had enough of this – next Christmas I’m going away to be with elephants!”

2013 however was my year for trying new things. Things I’d never dreamed of doing, and things I’ve always wanted to do but have never had the courage or energy to attempt. So, over the past year I have learnt to play the ukulele, become a vegan, and made my first efforts at artistic expression since secondary school. I’ve tested my nerves at speed dating, at an open audition, and by giving a speech at Hyde Park Corner. I’ve appeared on local radio. I’ve pole danced, Zumba danced, tango danced and tap danced. I’ve climbed a mountain, and crewed on a tall ship. What I am most proud of however, what in retrospect is the most satisfying and unexpected outcome of this past year, is that I’ve used my challenge to occasionally be of some use to other people and the world which I have hitherto leeched off but not substantially contributed to. I volunteered for the poppy appeal and for local nature conservation. I’ve raised over £1200 for charity by trekking Ben Nevis and running through Oxford in a Santa suit.

And finally, as a consequence of these happy experiences, I’ve made a commitment to regularly volunteer at a local homeless shelter. For just over a month now I have been trotting along every weekend to provide tea, coffee, soup, sandwiches and company for a couple of hours of an afternoon to Oxford’s homeless. When I realised that the shelter was open over the Christmas period, I saw my opportunity to for the first time do something worthwhile in this big, empty, lazy week that ends our year – and to finally do as I preach. So Christmas Eve and Boxing Day found me doling out food and drink, and being humbled by the Christmasses others were enduring and uplifted by new friendships formed.

I can still ‘Bah-Humbug’ my way through the excesses of Christmas day. But at least this year, instead of just commentating on and condemning the world about me, I actually went out into it; and thereby learnt some surprising things about what this Cynic is capable and incapable of – and about what makes her happy. Which is, in essence, what this whole year’s challenge has been about, really. A challenge which I declare to be, with this blog, complete.

Happy new year everybody, and thank you all so much for reading.

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Week 51: Stonehenge Winter Solstice

Once upon one winter’s longest night, from a shire of soft beds and dry socks, three unwise travellers did rise and step out into the darkness of pre-dawn’s morn, and the driving rain of a solstice storm, to venture westward in search of ancient lands. The realm of druids and mysterious monuments and long-forgotten secrets was their goal, their quest: to see sun rise among standing stones.

No star did guide them, no nor satnav neither; yet their trusted simple steed, a hatchback (less noble than a hump-back, perhaps, but more suited to our questers’ sopping climes), delivered them with steady surety along roads running wild as rivers, and onto the plains which the bones of Britannia’s distant ancestors do hold. Within one hour and thirty, while darkness still enfolded the earth, and prevented us by sight from gauging how far the site still lay, we were assured by orange-coated men that our journey was at an end, and shepherded into line behind the transports of fellow travellers.

20131221_073942Early had we reached our rest, and nigh-on an hour lay ahead before we the stones could enter. So we sat awhile blind in the hatchback, engine and lights off, listening to the thundering rain increase in intensity and wash down the windscreens in tumbling waves, causing us to ponder whether this be the beginning of a horror story, or the untimely end of an ill-fated expedition. And as we thus sat, feasting according to ancient travellers’ custom on bread and chocolate pastries, one of our party, the male thereof, stirred from his sleep (for truly the solemnity of our mission had weighed heavily upon him), and saideth of an orange blur beyond the window-waterfalls: “Is that a druid?”

20131221_071908Sadly it was not so, and contrary to our back-up hopes, it would not be possible to sit and spy solstice’s sunrise and all its devotees from the comfort of a car. Thus as the hour of dawn approached, we left our shelter, and joined the multitudes gathering at the sacred site’s gateway. Here, under rain that had eased to a bare drizzle and wind that had lost its bite, we found new energy, and hopped with anticipation, and passed slow minutes in surveying the disparate gathering of peoples that were exposed beneath the floodlights. Some were, like our little band, simply curious one-off curiosity seekers; others middle-aged former hippies, herding with them their hippy-in-the-making offspring; a large part appeared new age spiritualists on sincere pilgrimage; and much of the rest: druids. These druids clustered on the edges of the crowd, the women in colourful hooded capes, the men in white robes emblazoned with dragon motifs, their white beards prettified with amulets, bearing staffs or swords or tambourine drums in hand. And foremost among the druid gathering, Arthur Uther Pendragon himself, the self-declared reincarnation of the legendary king. Oh! How we longed for a selfie with this self-anointed king of all druids, how tempting the idea of requesting he sign some part of our flesh as an immemorial memento of this day!

Yet as we toyed with such idle fantasies, the chance to accost the king was lost: for the approaching sun lightened the sky to the east, and at last the gates to Stonehenge’s grounds were opened to admit the flood of thousands of tourists, hippies, spiritualists, priests, priestesses, druids, and at least one unicorn. We three travellers shuffled with the rest along the path towards the silencing silhouette of black stones against a dark blue sky, and being not too far near the back of the crowd, managed to nudge our way in to stand among the stones themselves.20131221_075111

The stones surrounding one so close appear larger, more imposing and awesome in the truest sense of the word than in any distantly-taken picture, and the mystery of how and why they were assembled becomes thereby more acute to answer. When we first entered the circle the light was still scant, and the stones stood as so many towering shadows. Over the course of the next half hour however, the sky, although never bright, lightened gradually, almost imperceptibly softening the impression of the stones and bringing the details of her occupants into sharper focus.

20131221_080314These occupants, those that were not taking photographs or smoking weed, were craning to hear the voices of druids in the circle’s centre, reciting barely audible prayers or incantations and giving speeches on the significance of the occasion, battling to be heard over the muttering of their audience and the beating of drums. As druids apparently have yet to unearth the magic power of microphones, their efforts were not very successful, and most of what they said was not heard or misheard by we three travellers (though I think they might have said something about “blessed are the cheesemakers”).

The vital ceremonies did however relay themselves over the crowd to us. Twice we obediently turned upon the spot and saluted east, north, west and south in turn. Several times the cry of “Happy Solstice!” went up, and we gaily exchanged felicitations, hoping, in vain as it transpired, that “happy solstice!” may be followed by solstice cake. And at last, as the official minute of sunrise passed according to our watches – yet with no signal thereof in the sky as the thick cloud concealed the sun, and the change in light upon her supposed rise was no more dramatic than the gradations of the past half hour – we were exhorted to give “three cheers for winter solstice – hip hip – hooray!”.

Which as celebratory effusions go, is a decidedly un-druidy, delightfully quaint way of welcoming in a grey, understated start of a new season. Happy solstice everybody!

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Week 50: Santa Fun Run

Last Sunday, early in the morning, I stood in the centre of an Oxford square looking for a friend. It should not have been difficult to spot her: the square was not unconquerably big, the sunshine under which its yellow stone glowed bright had starched the air clear, and the friend in question has features highly familiar to me on account of the fact that I sit but a few feet removed from them for eight hours a day, five days a week.

SAM_1510And furthermore, she was dressed as Santa Claus. Which should have made her stick out against the plain college walls as conspicuously as a crocodile trying to hide in a goldfish bowl. Except it didn’t, as on this particular occasion I too was dressed as Santa Claus. As indeed were the hundreds of other people assembling in the self-same square, twiddling beards and bumping stomachs, and making spotting my fellow Santa about as easy as reuniting two perfectly matching black socks in a drawer full of black socks, or picking out your favourite penguin from among a waddle of identical penguins (digressionary note: if I have got nothing else out of this year’s challenge, I have at least learnt that the collective noun for penguins on land is the superbly quaint, Rowan Atkinsonian “waddle”).

SAM_1516While ordinarily the coming together of a mass of people dressed identically might be judged a bizarrely coincidental fashion faux-pas, this was no occasion for embarrassed cheeks to blush as red as one’s garish Santa suit. For this was no coincidence, but the orchestrated gathering of 1,700 people dressed as Father Christmas to run two miles through Oxford’s streets for the sake of raising funds for a local children’s hospice. In fact, the only person I knew to be embarrassed by her attire was mater, who’d sportingly dragged herself out of bed before Sunday’s dawn to cheer me on, but in neglecting to don even a jaunty elf hat soon felt herself to be an attention-drawing interloper.

For all that mater bemoaned feeling out of place, I was relieved to have a non-conformist chaperone. First of all, it meant I did not look like a total nutcracker walking to the assembly point. Passing along quiet streets filled with early-morning’s stillness, for the first ten minutes we saw only bemused builders and confused joggers and began to wonder if I’d gotten the day wrong, until eventually we started spotting my bearded brethren, clustered in furtive little groups of two or three beneath clock-towers and down alleyways, their numbers slowly increasing until finally we turned into the last cobbled street and there they were: a swarm of Santas! Which was the point at which mater – her body not being swamped in an over-sized red suit, her face not being muffled beneath a white fluffy beard – turned from teasing my looks to expressing shyness over her own; and it was the point at which I put her dissenting ordinary appearance to some practical purpose.

“You’ll be able to see me,” I telephoned my friend; “I’m the one with a person who doesn’t look like Santa.” It transpired she had in fact taken the same precaution of bringing a muggle escort, and thus we were relieved of the need to resort to pulling the beards off every other Santa in sight in the hope of finding each other’s faces beneath them.

Once together, we swore to stick together to the bitter two mile end. Now two miles may not sound like a lot to an ordinary person; indeed, it did not sound like anything at all to my marathon-aspiring co-Santa. To me however, two miles was a marathon. I lost my gym membership three months ago and have since allowed myself to slide into joyful physical inertness, punctuated only by the short walks I make between my car and office desk.

SAM_1524My chances of keeping up – or even keeping going – were therefore never great, but were diminished dramatically by the “warm up” (or, more appropriately, the “wear down”), in which a hyperactive elf led us through an endless, relentless, crazed Carlton dance, before a posse of her fellow workshop toymakers exhorted us to hop on the spot and wave our arms about like so many drowning lemmings. Then, before I had a chance to catch my breath, the whole mass of over one and a half thousand Santas lurched forward as one and propelled me into a slow jog.

Within metres, I had a stitch.

Within minutes, I was finding it hard to breathe through my beard.

Within a mile, I was starting to calculate at what point I could take a walking break with dignity. I could after all, I reckoned, claim I stopped not because I was tired, but because it is not true to the character of an aged, obese man to run two miles straight without losing even a little puff. And surely if a Santa Run is unrealistic, it is not worth running.

In the event, I did keep going till the end. Three months ago two miles would have been as easy as a sledge ride, and I was reluctant to accept the evidence of my own pleading body that my stamina had unravelled so far, so quickly. More importantly, I was reluctant to accept the indisputable evidence that almost every other body was fitter than mine. For although I may have lost any resemblance of strength, I have stubbornly preserved enough groundless pride in my strength to prickle when overtaken on the run by people considerably older than me. Or by people pushing buggies. Or dragging dogs. Or by children who barely reach above my knee.

Christmas may be all about the kids, and the race may be in the aid of kids. But I’m darned if I’m going to let the little nippers beat me in a two mile race.

I took part in Oxford’s Santas on the Run 2013 on behalf of Helen & Douglas House, a charity providing respite and end of life care to children and young adults in Oxfordshire and surrounding counties. If you would like to sponsor me, you still can at my sponsorship page.

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Week 49: Restyle

Rarely has one reason in life to make a dramatic change to one’s looks, and when such reason arises it is normally bound to professional requirements or life-or-death necessity. So, an actress might change her hair and weight to suit the perfect part. A spy might don a cunning disguise for some undercover detecting, a criminal to escape undetected. A man may decide he can only truly live contentedly if he wears a dress, a woman may bind her breasts to become pope.

As for me? Last week I needed a haircut. And a blog. And thus a perfect opportunity to slaughter two little birdies with one cruel albeit metaphorical pebble presented itself. For while I have on occasion this year devised some slightly peculiar challenges in my quest to do almost anything so long as it was a new thing every week, there is one everyday-to-most-women experience I’ve somehow never had the urge to do hitherto in my life. Which is: dyeing my hair.

In fact, dyeing aside, I’ve never done anything approaching the honour of the term “dramatic” with my hair. I’ve had the same feathered-at-the-front, layered at the back look in varying lengths since my teens. And if you’ve been adhering to the same pattern for over a decade, and if the hair cut to it is too heavy and straight to mould into anything very elaborate anyway, it comes pretty unnatural to one to imagine it being at all different, let alone better. My hair is simply the hair I’ve been given, I’ve never considered myself to have much choice in what it looks like.

However, once the idea of dyeing was planted in my mind, and was fed with the realisation that actually, change mightn’t be impossible, my imagination grew faster than Jack’s beanstalk. If I was to dye my hair, I may as well take the opportunity to attempt a whole new look.

First then, to the dye. My natural colour is light brown and straw-like, tentatively nudging towards blonde after extended exposure to the sun. But as I live on a cloudy grey island it is normally what my Grandmater, when asked for her opinion, deems “indiscriminate”. Which is not a word you see often cropping up in novels– “and then she appeared, the great beauty of Birmingham, strutting into the room on legs as long and firm as the Eiffel Tower, her mouth full and pouting, her hair – a sort of indiscriminate brownish hue”.

Having been topped by an undefinable mop my whole life, I determined that my new colour should be bold. Black was my first thought. This would not only be noticeably different, but would also allow me to attempt to imitate the style I most admired: that of the 1920s flapper.

20131212_190227Or rather, one flapper in particular. On the mirror in my bedroom is tacked a postcard of a photograph from 1928. The woman in the photograph has a short, clipped black bob and fringe, the edges of her cut sharp and clear against her pale white skin. She wears a black dress and stands against a black backdrop, against which, asides from her face, the only thing that stands out is her long string of glistening white pearls.

It was with this coiffure in mind that I walked into the hairdressers: I wanted a short black bob and fringe. And that was almost exactly what I came away with.

My plan only altered in the shade of dye. My hairdresser advised that I would look frankly strange with black hair, as nobody is naturally black, and so after agonising over an overwhelming number of hair samples, fretful lest selecting a shade too light or dark in the wrong direction would result in me needing to shave my hair off or cover it in a shawl for six months, I went for dark brunette. The hurdle of colour over, my nerve again wavered before the cut almost to the point of rejecting a fringe. This was after all to be my first fringe since reaching puberty. And my childhood years hardly tally among my coolest, and are therefore a dubious period to regress too: I couldn’t pronounce my r’s, I hated having my hair brushed, and an awful lot of my clothes had pictures of horses on them.

Yet my hairdresser refused to be dissuaded from hacking in to the front of my hair. That a bob-cut demanded a fringe was in her opinion irrefutable. And although my first reaction upon seeing it form was “Oh good God, I’ve subconsciously asked for a Beatles’ haircut”, I have since grown used to having hair dangle on my forehead where it did not used to dangle. And, as much as I adore the Beatles, I have thankfully also since noticed more feminine resemblances to my new style, ranging from Thelma in Scooby Doo to the slut who seduces Alan Rickman in Love Actually. My sister’s reaction, bless her woolly mittens, was that I looked like a cast member of Chicago; so needless to say I am going to be especially generous with her Christmas presents this year.

Whoever it is I do look like, one thing I have decided on: it is possible to look unlike oneself. And while I haven’t yet noticed my personality alter or changed my name by deedpoll, the consequent implication that it is possible to reinvent oneself, to be more than one person in one life, is tantalising.

Whether this first attempt is a reinvention for better or worse, I’ll leave you to judge from this, the before…

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…and after:

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Week 48: Hat Making

Why is it highwaymen and pirates alike are so disarmingly dashing? We all know they’re naughty men, yet their allure be not thereby diminished. Similarly; why is unhandsome Fred Astaire the most elegant gent to have ever tapped a toe on a studio floor, and Audrey Hepburn the most graceful pauper to ever totter into Tiffany’s? And why did people trust Chamberlain when he declared peace for our time, even though by 1938 any half-intelligent six year old would no more trust Hitler at scrabble than in international diplomacy? The answer is: all these people wore hats.

Will such fine dash, such sophistication, such willing good faith in naïve politicians ever be seen again? Probably not, for the world lost a little of its colour and the everyday a splash of vital zing when hats were thoughtlessly expelled from the wardrobe of obligatory wear. The 1960s bequeathed to us a lot to be thankful for, in its music, activism and liberal counter-culture; yet I cannot forgive it for being the decade which allowed headwear to slide from the status of a clothing item as essential as knickers to one whose appearance elicits almost as much surprise as a person striding down the street in knickers alone.

Personally, I love hats. And in a week that saw Tom Daley come out as gay and Nigella Lawson come out as a cocaine user, that has to rank as one of the least-surprising surprise revelations of all, yet nevertheless, it deserves repeating: I love hats. I believe people, as a collective and individually, look better hatted. And I believe that were headwear still de rigueur, the world would be a slightly better place, and her people slightly more polite. It stands to reason. On the one hand, one’s patience in trying situations lasts longer if one’s ears are not uncomfortably chilly, and on the other, donning a hat offers a far more certain means of drawing instant respect from a stranger than meeting said stranger with a bald pate. Unless, of course, the hat being clad is the ridiculous baseball cap.

These are not recent inconsequential reflections, but firm convictions of several years’ maturation which have inspired me, over the course of that time, to wage a one-woman war to bring the hat back. At its simplest level, this mission requires me to wear my cloche hat every day throughout the winter months (that is, from September through to June). This is neither a burden, nor, as some have suggested, an act of bravery, but in fact a signifier of cowardice; for I realised some time ago that my head simply looks better with something on top of it, and have hardly dared leave the house with crown exposed since. Other manifestations of my mission have included vainly encouraging colleagues to become a hat-wearing workplace by pointing out how nice the hat-stand looks when put to its proper use, generously offering my hat for trial-wears at parties, and nodding comradely to fellow hattees. As well as, of course, buying lots of hats.

Last week, however, I took my mission one step further. It was high time, I decided, that I personally increase the number of hats in the world. I therefore bought a crochet hook and two balls of unostentatious purple yarn and last Monday set about making a hat for the first time.

20131202_002524Which might not have been so difficult, were it not also the first time I had ever tried to crochet. And indeed, learning to crochet might not have been so hard, were I capable of following picture guidelines. As it is, I spent the first three evenings of the week struggling to add loops to an increasingly tight, inflexible, and diminishing chain of yarn that soon barely fitted a doll’s head, let alone mine, before packing the whole thing in, moving to my second ball of yarn and starting again on the Thursday. On which lunchtime I was told by a colleague who spied my nascent efforts in the staff kitchen that I was doing it completely wrong, and no wonder it looked shambolic. So, I unravelled my ten minutes’ work and started again; only to be asked that evening by my house buddy why I was crocheting lines to make a square when surely spirals to make a tube would be easier. After stubbornly continuing with an increasingly lopsided square for a few more hours, I admitted she may have a point.

So the next evening, Friday, I rummaged deep into my first ball of yarn to find the end I had not already begun crocheting. I pulled this out, and began again, determined to persevere this time, as I must if the hat was to be finished by week’s end. This time, things began smoothly. Thanks to my colleague I was crocheting correctly and thanks to my house chum I was improvising an easier pattern than the internet had proffered me. And thanks to my exhaustive practice of the previous five days my pace was (I thought) relatively quick.

20131130_180027However, it turns out that pulling out the yarn’s end from the centre of a ball provides not a shortcut to a fresh beginning but the misleading start to a long, agonising, winding route to the finish. For in the process of pulling the yarn out, the ball fell into several clumps. And in the process of taking the yarn in and out of my bag while on a train, the underground, another train, and a bus on the Saturday, these clumps became hopelessly entangled. With the consequence that by the time my yarn and I were finally stationary at our final destination, I could no more crochet a hat with it than build a submarine.

Yet I was never one to be defeated by my own incompetence. Determined to make a hat should I lose my eyesight, fingernails, and will to live in the process, I sat up late into the night unpicking what to my strained patience looked increasingly like a clump of dead spiders. It was not until the Sunday afternoon that I could finally recommence crocheting proper, though at least by that stage I found the crochet work itself a comparative doddle – a respite even.

Eventually, a day behind schedule, I had used up what I could salvage of both balls of yarn, and found myself with what looked remarkably like a hat. A convincing, fit for service, not-too-shoddy-at-a-cursory-inspection hat. Albeit a hat that was too small for my head. For as I crocheted away into dimmest night, and my sympathy for the blind tapestry-making nuns of Flanders grew, my hat’s circumference shrank beneath my hands.

20131202_225400I would therefore like to offer the first product of my hat-making career to any friend of mine with a small bare-headed child. Which, on reflection, is a surer way of promoting hat-wearing than wearing the thing myself. Because aside from the fact that I would look like a fool wearing it, it’s good to start the kiddies young. I have a fancy now to make many more little hats, and plop them onto the heads of unsuspecting passing infants; for if all children are indoctrinated at an early age with the notion that it is utter depravity not to wear a hat, perhaps in a generation’s time hats will again be in their proper place: upon every adult head.

 

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Week 47: Live Radio

After 46 challenges conquered so far this year – scary challenges and physically tough challenges and sometimes frankly silly challenges – it takes a pretty special ‘new thing’ to set my legs shaking with nerves and my heart beating a little above the national speed limit with excitement. But this week I discovered what that special thing was: guesting on live radio.

Earlier this year (as you will see by peeping back at week 25) I expanded rather passionately, though always sincerely, on why I love the radio: a stage of wisdom, comedy, entertainment, and humanity, the most intimate of all modern media which wakes me up in the morning and whose voice is the last thing I turn off at night. I also lamented, again rather melodramatically, that despite being a loud and proud wireless junkie, the radio had not given me an opportunity to indulge a fancy for getting on the air myself.

Well, now it has. Because this week, I was kindly invited to be a guest on BBC Radio Oxford’s Malcolm Boyden show, to talk to the host about my 2013 challenge. In other words, my year-long enterprise has resulted in the most delightful of outcomes: a chance to fulfil the challenge that I half-secretly wanted to undertake more than any other!

How the interview turned out, I will leave you to judge. My personal conclusion is that I may not have given the best answers in the world, or the wittiest, or even the most coherent – but I had a heck of a lot of fun doing it.

My full radio debut will be available to listen to here on the BBC iPlayer until Thursday 28th November. Jump to the roughly 1 hour 8 minute mark to hear my interview.

Many thanks to Malcolm Boyden and the BBC Radio Oxford team for letting me loose on Oxfordshire’s airwaves!

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Week 46: Tango

Imagine Paris in wartime. Where the mood is as dark as the night that fills her streets and cloaks a threat in every shadow. Where a woman walks quickly, shoulders hunched inside the full-length coat that she clutches beneath her chin, eyes looking to neither left nor right until she reaches her destination: an inconspicuous stairwell that descends to an unmarked door. No glint of light escapes the gap between door and stone, yet the whisper of a strumming rhythm seems to hover in the air, teasing her; daring her. She opens the door, pulls aside the curtain beyond it and purveys a den of men – a who’s who of the Resistance – sitting and muttering in the gloom beneath the duelling swirl of cigarette smoke and a violin’s scratch. She walks to the bar, asks for a drink, sheds her coat to reveal a red dress, and waits. She does not wait long. Soon the curtain moves again, the smoke cloud parts and there he is. Her tall, handsome, mysterious Argentinian rendezvous. As he strides through the room a ripple of suspicion follows, the muttering stills. He stands before her, fixes her with his inscrutable stare and holds out a hand – is he friend or foe? She does not know, she does not care; she could die tomorrow, perhaps by that same hand, but for tonight: they have the tango.

00 Tango1920 Well, that’s about the long and short of what I imagined. As the day of my first tango class approached, I fear I loosened the leash on my childish fantasies just a touch too much, and before Reason could say “now just hang on a second!” Indulgence had bounded across the heath of realistic expectations and gotten lost in the yonder fields of foolishness. Inevitably, reality was not quite the mirror image of my dreams. For when it was finally time to tango, I was not in Paris on a dark night but Oxford on a damp morning. Instead of a secluded underground bar, the lure of the dance drew me to a church hall. And instead of my tall dark handsome Argentinian? A small, old man.

He was just about big enough to peek over my shoulder, not that he tried. He must have been 80 if he was a day, and although self-evidentially still mobile enough to attend dance classes, he seemed disconcertingly unwilling to move his head, which sat firmly and slightly leftward askew on top of a body as stiff and unmoving as a waxwork – or a dalek. As soon as I spotted him shuffling into the hall I knew with a sense of inevitable dread he would be my partner; I saw my future fate as in a flash of suicidal clarity.

Before the partnering however came the steps. The tango at this basic level is essentially walking elegantly and with purpose. When walking forwards (the man’s prerogative) this is achieved by leading with the body, and backwards by leading with the legs, allowing one leg to extend behind in a graceful long line before pushing smoothly back with the other to join it. Our tango master grouped our class at the end of the hall and led us up and down a few times in this delightfully easy exercise before commanding us to continue without him – whereupon we promptly stumbled to a stop and looked uncertainly at each other before a few gingerly ventured a toe forward, as nervous as children cycling for the first time without stabilisers.

Once we had eventually rediscovered our ability to walk, we were asked to form pairs and walk in hold. I tried at first to pretend I hadn’t noticed the little old man hovering behind my shoulder and looked appealingly to the other women, but they closed ranks and the ones that couldn’t find a man resigned themselves to female partners rather than fight me for the last male prize.

As it therefore transpired impossible to avoid my fate I determined at the very least to accept it with dignity. I therefore took granddad’s proffered hand (as low as it was proffered) and made a gallant show of enthusiasm as he grasped me to him. And I might well have kept up the show, had he not proved such a pernickety task master. He fair motored me with surprising speed up and down the hall, never looking directly at me but faulting me at every turn: I was going too fast, I was going too slow, I was resisting him, I was anticipating his steps, I was moving on the wrong foot, I was worrying too much about other dancers, my arm was all wrong, I was looking down too much. Everyone’s a critic, and in case you ever wondered, granddads leading novice women a third of their age around dance floors are no exception. Fortunately, after several minutes of biting down a number of pithy retorts, the command came to change partners, and so I was able to extricate myself from granddad’s clutches without the need for embarrassing excuses. No sooner had I done so when the tango master himself (who, incidentally, is a tall dark-haired Argentine straight from the tango hotbed of Buenos Aires) pointed to me across the hall and – to my utter stomach fluttering, knee-jellifying thrill! – purred in his Spanish accent “I will dance with you now!”

00 tango vintageThe master was an absolute dream. I’ve never danced with a professional before, and doing so for the first time I finally understood what it really means to lead and follow. He didn’t say a word and I didn’t look at my feet as neither was necessary: he led me silently and assuredly with the smallest shift of weight and the softest touch of pressure. The difference between this half-instinctive, natural movement and the apologetic, stop-starting uncertainty of two beginners coupled together is extraordinary. For a few minutes therefore I was happy – happy to be led, happy to realise I was capable of following, and above all happy to hear him say as we separated – alas, out of old granddad’s earshot! – that I was good!

Albeit not good enough to partner him permanently, and I spent the remainder of the class being passed from one partner to the next like an old used book. Mostly these were men – all older than me but all taller as well and, what is more, experienced and a good deal more encouraging than granddad had been. Twice however I partnered women, and although I do not object to this in principle (indeed, when I took ballroom dancing classes in my student days I danced almost exclusively with my girl friends due to a dearth of Viennese beau), I do slightly resent that on both occasions I was made to lead simply because I was the “tall one”. This, asides from being a gross act of heightism, threatened to sabotage my tango education, as barely was I gaining confidence in following or doing the cross step when I had to unlearn it all and try to lead without treading on my partner’s toes or stumbling into other dancers – both of which I did repeatedly, as will not surprise anyone who’s seen me try to drive in a straight line.

These mishaps aside however, I thoroughly enjoyed my first tango. Even granddad’s cascade of critiques couldn’t dampen my spirits as I left the class little less than ebullient. Finally, I thought, a dance that suits me! After all: I’m tall, no hip action is required (I deplore hip wriggling), and I’d defy anyone who’s ever taken a stroll with me to deny I have a purposeful stride. There’s no doubt about it, if there’s a dance for me, that dance is the tango. And even if I have to dance with granddad a hundred times more before I’m any good, I will, so that when I finally come face to face with a brooding enigma of a man in a secluded Parisian bar, I’ll be ready for him.

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Week 45: Poppy Appealing

If only it had been half as hard to volunteer for the army in 1914 as it is to volunteer for the Royal British Legion in 2013, we would probably now have no need to pin their poppies to our coats every November. For I have never known any charity make it so challenging to support their cause; lucky for them that for the sake of completing my own challenge I was determined to volunteer during poppy appeal for the first time if it was the last thing I ever did.

The briefest account of how I eventually came last week to be standing outside on two dark winter evenings, icy fingers frozen to the sides of my poppy box, runs thus: in the beginning, I filled out an online application form. When, after nigh on a month had passed, I had not had a chipolata of a response, I rang up poppy HQ in London. The smiley-voiced lady at the end of the line said my regional office would call me soon. They didn’t, so after another 10 days or so I hunted down the number of my regional office and rang myself. To be told by another smiley-voiced lady that who I should really speak to was the person who organises the people who organise the volunteers. She gave me her number. I rang, and although this next lady’s smiles were lost beneath the rumble of her car, I did at least hear her promise that the local town organiser would call me. Which he did. Over a week later, armed with the apology that he had been too busy breaking up with his girlfriend to call me any earlier. This was evidently a man without smiles – or, indeed, a memory, as when I rang him two days later to ask why he hadn’t turned up at the agreed time to give me my poppies and collection tin, he claimed to have completely forgotten who I was and what I wanted. So doing my best to supress any betrayal of irritation and déjà vu confusion I had to repeat verbatim the conversation we’d had only 48 hours earlier.

Be all that as it may: eventually I did succeed in getting a box of poppies, and did spend two cold evenings after work standing in a town centre as the light dimmed and the crowds, such as they were, diminished, in the hope that the day’s last shoppers would put enough pennies in my tin to make the loss of all feeling in my feet worthwhile. Whether that is the case I do not yet know, I am still waiting to be told what my final total was, but the time was well spent for at least one other reason: it allowed me to observe society, and myself, from a new vantage point. For it transpires that a cunning method for refreshing your view of the world is to assume a new persona within it – that, for instance, of a Royal British Legion volunteer.

Children and the elderly were my best clients. The children would drag their parents to me and through sheer stubbornness (a tactic I ordinarily find highly vexing in a child) guilt-trip the adult into buying a poppy. The elderly would approach stealthily from the side and empty their purses into my tin without taking a poppy, as they already had one or two or a dozen at home. People with poppies on their chests sometimes smiled comradely as they passed and twisted their torsos sideways that I might inspect them; one lady even held up her palm and shouted “already got mine!”. The majority however, the people who weren’t wearing poppies, tended to rush past, perhaps muttering that they “didn’t have time right now”, or perhaps frowning at me as though I were the dirty pile of laundry they had meant to wash days ago, or else assiduously avoided eye contact.

20131104_073232I found this a curious reaction, seeing as it was roused by nothing other than my simple presence. I barely said a word unless in thanks, and then only to those who approached me, as I was not there to sell poppies in a commercial, competitive sense. I was not harassing passers-by like a desperate apprentice, or browbeating them like an East End market haggler, or even winning them over with song – as tempting as it was during the quieter lulls to croak out a tweaked rendition of Who will buy my sweet red roses?

Given that I was making no effort to push my poppies, the evasive reactions of some can I think not be explained simply by a common exasperation with the ‘charity muggers’ we all dodge daily, but by associations drawn with poppy promoters. For it seems that simply by distributing poppies I had raised my banner in support of the media-government conspiracy that is transforming the wearing of a poppy from a voluntary act of remembrance to an obligatory – and thereby potentially devalued – ritual; I had unintentionally become an embodiment of that societal pressure which makes the poppy-less feel guilty for daring to step outside bare-chested on November 11th.

What is more, by taking such an active part in Remembrance Day I risked having people make quite false (yet quite understandable) assumptions about my personal politics and beliefs – about my whole character in fact. This is not mere speculation on my part. Several people did apologise to me for not buying poppies, as though I were some flower-wielding-tyrant holding them to account. My own grandmother fondly declared my actions “very patriotic”. And a colleague who stopped to chat and (thank goodness!) lend me her gloves explained her reluctance to wear a poppy by dint of being “a Guardian-reading lefty type”, an argument I felt compelled to counter with the claim that I too am a “Guardian-reading lefty type”, not because I wanted to persuade her to buy a poppy, but because I was desperate to disillusion her from the implication that I might be a “Mail-reading righty type”.

Besides which, I am a Guardian reader and my politics are left-wing. I incidentally also have no faith, and do not believe in a god. I have an instinctive fondness for “my” country but do not consider myself especially patriotic and regard patriotism as a superfluous – even dangerous – concept in an international world. And finally, I am anti-war, unless the cause is just beyond all dispute, which it only is in exceptionally rare cases such as 1939.

By this account I am not perhaps the most likely attendee of a Remembrance Service book-ended by prayers and national anthems; and perhaps the least likely person you might expect to see selling poppies.

So why did I volunteer?

Well, because, being a ‘lefty’, I believe a responsibility of living in a society is not allowing any part of that society to be neglected: for instance soldiers’ widows. Because I don’t believe in God, and having no faith I have no metaphysical source of comfort to reach to in those dark or tedious moments when one doubts if one’s made the right choices and wonders what all this getting up in the morning and going to work and watching TV is for. In Remembrance Day though I have a yearly reminder that I am darned lucky to have the freedom to make those choices, and to live in a place and time wherein my life is not determined by the evils of war. Because of this – and because I am not devotedly patriotic – I wear my poppy to remember all victims of war. Not just the British or their allies but their enemies too, including Germany, on whose side several in my family served in both world wars.

And finally, I volunteered because I am anti-war. This past century has been the bloodiest in human history. Yet I hope that if we continue to remember the fallen of historic conflicts we might be a little less quick to support war in the future. It is a faint hope, as whenever war is won by the young, old men make the peace and remake the world “in the likeness of the former world they knew” (to quote TE Lawrence). But, so long as ungodly, unpatriotic, Guardian-lefty-types continue to wear the poppy, it shall not be the moral retreat of politicians who send people to war one day and mourn them by monuments the next. Instead, for me at least, it shall be a poppy of peace, and a poppy of protest against all the Melchetts who ever sat snugly behind a desk and reassured the young dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.

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Week 44: Conservation Volunteering

England can be an achingly beautiful plot of land when it puts its mind to it. From the rolling South Downs fields smiling golden beneath an autumn’s setting sun right up to her dark, stark cliffs standing sentinel in the north, undaunted by the furious waves assaulting her feet, this little land packs a heady nature punch, vastly making up in variety for what it lacks in size. So heady that sometimes, when wandering about our great little outdoors, one might even begin to think old Wills was right: Nature built here a demi-paradise. Yet if only our towns had been designed with an eye so attuned to the sublime. For they, poor things, are too often far less pretty than the nature they supplanted – their centres the smoke-stained debris and monoliths of industrial practicality, interspersed with the products of an inexplicable post-war concrete fetish, their outskirts row upon row of identikit box-houses.

And yet placed within just such a town, as though to mock my brash generalisations, I last week discovered, of all unnatural things, a nature reserve. A small sodden bit of wetland, a clutch of ponds and trees, and an unkempt tangle of reeds, weeds and shrubs all squashed inside an enclosing cage of cloned housing. Alright – it doesn’t exactly have the breath-stealing awe-factor of the Amazon jungle or Yellowstone Park, but it is nonetheless a protected site, an honest to goodness nature reserve that on the face of it has as little business forcing itself into an overlooked crevice of an English housing estate as an igloo has popping up in the desert.

Indeed, arguably the only thing more remarkable than that a nature reserve should have tucked itself inside a town was the fact that the town was my town – and I had not previously explored it. The reserve is but a mere two minutes’ walk around the corner from the house my family have lived in for the past dozen years; and yet I can hand on my heart say I have no conscious memory of ever walking through it.

Until last week. When I obeyed not so much the call of the wild as the nag of domesticity, and joined a committed band of conservation volunteers to try and give the place a proper clean up. The recent storm had left it in a right old state of fallen branches and muddy walkways, and so as we dozen or so eco-recruits assembled on a commanding knoll we were given instructions to collect litter, tidy away storm debris and clear new paths.

My first duty of the day was in helping to lay woodchips over the squelching quagmire that was the existing path. Raking woodchips is a task I think I did perfectly satisfactorily, and what is more, I could see a purpose to it: the lives of passers-by were made marginally easier, safer, and at the very least cleaner by my efforts. Yet while the nature of my first task allowed me to feel the unashamed smugness of an underwhelming superhero – fighting for my community against hazardous filth wherever I found it – my next task turned me into a villain, for it seemed to me a bizarre betrayal of nature.

I was asked to help cut out a new path, a back-up in case the existing path flooded. The obstructions to be cut away were mostly fallen trees and dead wood, but I had a gnawing suspicion – perhaps more accurately described as an ignorant fear – that some of the branches I had to remove were still clinging to life; at least the nettles I had to cut away most certainly were, judging by the stings I received for my troubles. As a complete newcomer to conservation volunteering, and with absolutely no claim to any knowledge of horticulture or forestry, I’m hardly in a position to judge whether it is right to cut away life to make life more convenient for man. And given that man has been imposing his order on the natural world at least since the dawn of agriculture, my reservations are a little late in the day – not to say a touch ironic, as this wee pocket of nature in which I worked has only been allowed to survive at man’s grace for the service of man.

Or at least, that is why I assumed it was allowed to survive – for not having spied a tiger or a panda or any other endangered beasty in the undergrowth, and lacking the expertise to pick out precious plants, I was left pondering much of the morning why this particular plot should be protected. Eventually, my impertinent curiosity got the better of me:

“Why,” I asked the gang leader, “is this a nature reserve? Are there any rare animals or birds here?”

“No,” was replied quickly, and then, slowly, as if letting me in on a delicious secret: “but they did find a fungi.”

“A fungi? Really?”

“Oh yes! A rare fungi!”

“Fancy!”

“Not rare nationally, of course. Just rare to South Oxfordshire.”

So there you have it. This unassuming soggy patch of vegetation is home to a rare fungi that you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the surrounding 600 km² or so; and so no more need South Oxfordshire’s adventurers cross county lines, for this tamest, softest, urbanist of all England’s districts has a wild side afterall.

Long may the conservationists keep up their selfless work, and preserve this fungus sanctuary for future generations of South Oxfordshirans! I only hope that in helping them out for a day, I didn’t inadvertently clear away a branch that was that rare specie’s last local refuge. For I would hate to be responsible for sending someone to Berkshire in search of a fungi.

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