Week 43: British Military Fitness

All who fear All Hallow’s Eve, you do quite right to tremble,
if e’er by night upon your way, while crossing heath or field
this will-o’-the-wisp lead you astray: a ring of fire!
Where strange shadows flit ‘neath moonless skies,
and howls of pain on fall’s wind rides–
Fear indeed; for it is not prancing goblins that here assemble
nor witches that cackled spells to their demons yield;
No, thy discovery is far more dire.

’Tis this: mere mortals caught in Dante’s very hell,
defying cold and damp and mud to labour round endless circles of a circus farce.
Short hours ago we sat in soft office chairs, and on soft hummus lunched,
yet now we muster to run and squat and lunge in the dark,
jerking our limbs to the puppet master’s bark–
A Scotch sergeant, a right strict sod: slacking or chit-chatting he would quell
not with civil words for a civvie squad, but a rough tongue (his favoured word was “arse”),
and no respite would he consider, unless sapped of breath,
and nigh-on death,
over your knees you wheezing hunched.

Yet it did not come to this. For an hour he maintained a tortuous pace
without one surrender forcing; for we girls formed a determined crew,
and far nearer was the finish-line once we strength from each other drew.
Sit-ups, press-ups, planks, and squat jumps – countless were our shared exertions, countless times we that faint-lit circle circled, yet no desertions;
many a time our knees in mud dug, our noses hard upon the ground,
my heart praying no dog had earlier there passed his round–
Then suddenly an order: “Don’t help each other – this is a race!”
Thus our band of sisters was disbanded, our camaraderie shot through–
If this is what the army preaches, no wonder we ain’t won a war since 1982.

At last it ended, and drawing to a halt I could at last my state review:
mud bedecked legs, arms, hands; it was my sole medal of a battle fought and won
for to my surprise no sweat from my brow fell, no heavy breath heaved up my chest. “Gadzooks!” I thought “Can this really be? Am I so fit?
Methinks – if’s true – I should enlist!”
Alas! I must have been bewitched: by morning’s light the spell was through–
I awoke with each muscle in such pain stitched, I was no more like to run
than take flight. Which meant – “dash it all!”
I had to resist the fitness army’s call
and instead of capering into darkest night,
rue my naïve zest, as I long hours spent in enforced rest.

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Week 42: Pole Dancing

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a mother in possession of a single daughter must be in want of a husband for her. However little known the feelings or views of the daughter are, the mother regards her right to assist in the appropriation of the object of her offspring’s future happiness as an inalienable right of Materdom – no matter what lengths this requires her to go to.

Disposing of one daughter is a challenge enough, five is positively herculean; but at least Mrs Bennet, although she would no doubt have flatly refused to count her blessings or indeed countenance the possibility that she had any, was lucky to live in a time and place which provided ample opportunity to fling one’s children at unsuspecting male members of society. My Mater is not so fortunate. She suffers, as indeed we all do, the cruelty of living in an age wherein balls no longer exist as virtual department stores for picking up men of good fortune, and has therefore had to be somewhat more creative in her matchmaking than Mrs Bennet, and almost quite as cunning.

Hence what must surely be one of the strangest emails any woman has ever received off her Mater arrived in my inbox a few weeks ago: a suggestion that I try pole dancing.

“Poor old thing” I thought, “she’s finally scraped the bottom of the barrel”. For even Mater must concede that pole dancing is but a pitifully poor substitute for a ball. A woman’s objective at both may be to appear as alluring as possible, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Even had it existed in Jane Austen’s day, you can hardly imagine Miss Bingley including a mastery of pole dancing on her must-have skills list for accomplished young women. And how different the story would have unfolded had her brother chosen to host a party not in the sumptuous surroundings of Netherfield, but in a sleazy Soho strip-joint: a party in which Mr Collins knocks a female partner out cold by swinging around a pole in the wrong direction, and in which Lizzie is mortified when Mr Darcy asks her for a lap-dance. Meanwhile Kitty, despite spending her entire evening dangling off a pole, fails to attract the whiff of a suitor while her older sister Mary, after singing a painfully weak rendition of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies, loses what little sympathy her admirably forbearing audience felt for her by twerking inexplicably against Mr Hurst. When asked the next morning for his reaction to this experience, Mr Hurst simply declared it to be a “damned tedious waste of an evening”.

regency ball

Without a season-full of balls, where are the modern Lizzie Bennets to go a-husband hunting?

Alright, so the story might not have been that different, but the point is I chose to give pole-dancing a shot – in spite of the sometimes condemnatory, sometimes wishful-thinking aura of smuttiness and innuendo that surrounds it, and most definitely not because I shared Mater’s evident expectation that proficiency in this particular art would bring hoards of eligible bachelors rushing to my door.

As soon as I arrived at the class, I realised how misplaced my prejudiced preconceptions of pole dancing were. The atmosphere of the room could not have been further removed from a misogynist’s nightclub paradise; if anything it was akin to the sort of ballet studio that might greet Edgar Degas on a bright and fresh Parisian morning. Floor to ceiling mirrors glinted out from behind fading curtains and wooden ballet railings warping with age hung beneath windows opening onto the Victorian terraced housing crowding below. Back inside, a King Charles Spaniel patted across the oak wooden floorboards that were quickly and quietly filling with a small crowd of young ladies, whose utter loveliness and patient encouragement of this particular raw beginner made her feel more like she was attending a Women’s Institute arts and crafts session than a crash-course in pole dancing.

More importantly however, their sweetness also made her feel like she was not a hopeless case. For if I have learnt one thing about pole dancing it is this: it feels utterly unnatural. What looks graceful or, dare I say, “sexy” to an onlooker feels clumsy and awkward to the dancer and therefore having an audience there to tell you what feels wrong looks right is rather important.

Over the course of the hour’s lesson, under this humouring tutelage, I progressed through several moves. From learning how to walk around the pole, to swinging around the pole with one leg, to swinging around the pole with one leg and then swapping to the other to continue the spin. All this I picked up fairly quickly, even if I did step on my own toes more times than not, and even if my face did portray the worry that most people (especially people who are no strangers to skin-burns) would feel on swinging rapidly and almost out-of-control around a pole. This anxiety, and its resultant facial symptoms, is apparently par for the course for beginners. So common in fact is this teething-stage affliction that it even has a name: “pole face”.

My own “pole face” was particularly acute during the final two manoeuvres which I attempted but, alas, found beyond me. The first required me to loop a leg around the pole and swing with both feet off the ground and both thighs splayed out in an uncomfortable ‘V’. The second was superficially simple: to climb the pole. I get onto the pole well enough but I could only stay there by gripping with my hands rather than my thighs, and the necessity of loosening my fingers to ‘climb’ meant that every time I attempted to go up I very quickly fell down.

No doubt a regular attendance would soon build my thighs up to the breezeblock strength they will need to drag me up to the top of the pole and thence to the amazing, some would say suicidal, hands-free feats being performed by the more advanced dancers. Yet those girls did not just have skill and strength, crucially they had the self-confidence to give their moves conviction. Because for all that pole dancing in a classroom environment is nothing more than innocent exercise, to get over the embarrassment of feeling like a clumsy idiot one must surely start to believe at least a little bit in one’s own sexiness. Which I don’t think I could, not when wearing gym clothes, struggling for breath and falling over my own feet after flinging myself around a metal pole.

Besides, even should these classes increase my allure by a thousand-fold, the key difference between a pole dancing class and a ball is that there are at least men to lure at the latter. Their dearth at the former means that were I to choose to deploy my newfound (or rather: future) talents in the husband-hunt, I would have to display them outside the classroom environment.

Yet I can’t really imagine that swinging from the nearest lamppost the next time a potential Mr Darcy walks by will do very much to endear me to him.

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Week 41: Aerial Yoga

Attending one’s first aerial yoga class is a little like agreeing to appear in an unscripted movie without taking the precaution of agreeing in advance on what kind of movie it should be.

I personally hoped for something in the riotous, acrobatic, adventure vein. Yoga has admittedly never exactly been my natural calling – with limbs this long the simplest position either leaves me looking like a knotted spider stuffed into a box too small for it or a T-Rex desperately struggling to pick something off the ground (you try touching your fingers to your toes when your legs reach up to your armpits). However, when scrolling through a list of fitness classes last week, it was not the word ‘yoga’ that caught my eye, but ‘aerial’.

Now ‘aerial’ is a most intoxicating adjective. If you bung ‘aerial’ in front of an activity that is ordinarily ground-based then that activity automatically becomes exciting or even extreme (just imagine how much more enjoyable cleaning, accounting or even stamp collecting would be if done while swinging from the ceiling). The word ‘aerial’ is so powerful indeed that it’s appearance on said list last week persuaded me to cast aside my aversion to yoga; it is powerful enough even to belie the slightly dull definition of aerial yoga as simply “yoga supported by a fabric hammock”; and powerful enough to send my imagination souring to the point where I harboured hopes of spending my afternoon swooping around a hall as though in a Peter Pan-cum-Tarzan-cum-Chinese Circus romp.

Yet barely had the figurative stage curtains (that is: the community centre door) been drawn back before the quite different, and quite grand, ambition of our flying instructress – the director of our piece – for a restrained performance of elegant lines and graceful flowing movements revealed itself. For beyond that door there awaited a screenshot of a low-budget production of Swan Lake: five women strung upside down in a row, suspended in perfect stillness, each with one leg sticking straight up into the air, like so many candles on a cake. Or so many chickens in a butcher’s window.

The consequence of this conflict of artistic interests between myself and the instructress was inevitable. Over the course of the lesson, her demands exceeded my talents and disappointed my expectations, and we were left therefore with neither hearty romp nor sumptuous ballet, but a clumsy comedic farce.

It started easily enough. Our first airborne exercise was to simply sit in our hammocks with legs crossed, entirely enveloped by the fabric. And so I swayed gently for a good ten minutes, bulging against my dark cocoon like a chubby pupa, happily thinking to myself that this ‘aerial yoga’ lark was a darned relaxing business. It wasn’t until after I had wrestled myself sideways and popped my head outside, sharing as I did so an upside-down grimace of commiserate understanding with my neighbouring pupa, that I realised quite how impossible it is to manoeuvre your body easily, let alone gracefully, when enfolded inside a giant tortilla wrap.

The class from thereon followed a steady projectory of increasing difficulty matched by decreasing dignity, beginning with having to extend my legs out upwards, downwards, sideways and back and culminating in me hanging upside down, my legs entwined in the hammock, my hands dragging across the floor and all the blood in my body rushing down fast to meet it. In between I hopped about trying to achieve a wobbly warrior pose with one foot trapped aloft, swung backwards and forwards from my ankles like an out-of-control metronome with the fabric digging painfully into my armpits, was manhandled into doing a backwards roly-poly, and was repeatedly required between exercises to dangle my torso limply over the side of my hammock in a pose I found far too corpse-esque to be relaxing.

The greatest challenge, the climax of our show as it were, was to attempt the butterfly position, in which your torso looms arched and proud out of the opening of the hammock while your legs extend the fabric behind you to create your wings. If done correctly it does, in the words of a fellow pupa, “really make you look like a butterfly”.

After watching the demonstration, I was determined to get this position right. I had fluffed everything else so far, even the on-the-ground warm up routines, but I owed the butterfly to my five-year-old self who had spent far too little time playing with princesses and other fluffy things and far too much time mucking about as a pirate. The problem is, transforming from a squidgy pupa to a beautiful butterfly requires a surprising amount of strength. You need to simultaneously turn and push yourself up on one leg against the unresisting fabric beneath you whilst forcing your other leg back and upwards against the dense mass of fabric behind you; and all this without being allowed to use your arms.

None of us achieved metamorphosis. For five minutes we struggled against our hammocks, grunting and grumbling and occasionally collapsing onto our bottoms with exasperated exhalations while our instructress looked on, perplexed at our incompetence. In the end I did get as far as heaving myself upwards, an achievement which sent the instructress barrelling towards me screaming “THAT’S IT! THAT’S IT!!”. But it wasn’t it. The effort was simply too great, I had no energy left to complete the manoeuvre, and I shrank back ashamed inside my cocoon.

Despite this catalogue of misattempts and my utter failure to achieve even a semblance of gracefulness, aerial yoga was not a complete failure, nor was it entirely without transformative effect. At the beginning of the class when asked to do a backwards roly-poly I reacted like Robin Williams at the start of Hook. I was too nervous to believe myself capable of pulling off such a stupidly brazen defiance of gravity without ending up with at least one broken bone, and besides, I can’t remember the last time I managed even a forwards roly-poly. By the end of the class however, whether because of a rise in confidence or sheer impatience, I had become a veritable Peter Pan, and somersaulted backwards out of my sling for a triumphant finish. So I got my adventure romp of sorts after all.

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Week 40: Bullfight

It began with a trumpet fanfare to herald the entrance into the ring of a young man got up in eighteenth century finery, complete with pelisse and plumed hat, and mounted on a sturdy grey steed. The crowd applauded his entrance, applauded again as he brought his horse to a standstill in the ring’s centre, and once again after he saluted the trumpeter’s box. Indeed, it seemed our noble cavalier had but to twitch a facial muscle to have the crowd in congratulatory raptures.

Such a finely-clothed, popularly-acclaimed cavalier must, I assumed on sighting him, be the star of the show. But no: his purpose was simply to serve as an over-demonstrative, over-dressed secretary, and summon forth one after another the contingents that would constitute the pre-slaughter parade. Time and again the cavalier would leave his designated spot beneath the trumpeter’s box to gallop through the centre of the ring and (with the crowd applauding him all the while) beckon through the opposing gate the next group that was to squeeze into the fast filling arena.

First there was a file of eight boys dressed (one assumes) as eighteenth-century pages, clutching feathered hats beneath their arms. Then there was a rather unsteady looking mounted band, who treated us to less-than-perfectly synchronised trumpet blasts while their horses threatened to meander apart beneath them. Following them were a troop of grown men with standards, followed by a troop of not-quite-so grown men with more feathered hats. Finally, and most bafflingly, two ornate, cumbersome carriages carrying a full load of barely visible (but undoubtedly extravagantly dressed) passengers, which lurched in for a quick loop of the arena before lurching out again, followed in reverse order by all the men, almost-men, boys and horses who had all since walking in done nothing to entertain us but stand on the spot and be applauded, a fact which did not stop the crowd heartily clapping them again as they exited. Perhaps the Portuguese are simply generously indulgent of amateur performers’ aspirations; or perhaps the standard of modern theatre in Portugal is in a pitiable state, if this sorry parade genuinely passes for a high-quality show.

100_8940Do not ask me the symbolic or practical function of the parade; for if one exists, I do not know it. The best I have surmised from my research is that the traditional dress is in honour of a son of the 4th Marquis of Marialva, who was killed by a bull in the late eighteenth century. This incident seems to be a touchstone in Portuguese bullfighting culture and so forms part of the narrative which argues for the preservation of this ancient tradition. The poor bulls; not only are they therefore the unwitting victims of a nation’s (or rather: several nations) conviction of the vital importance of tradition to their people’s identity, but their suffering is justified with reference to an incident hundreds of bull-generations ago. Bulls, like women, bear the burden of original sin; perhaps that is why I felt so much sympathy for them.

For sympathy was one of my overriding emotions once the bullfighting actually started. Sympathy, mingled with disgust, horror, hypocritical repugnance of the people around me, and not a small degree of self-loathing for implicitly supporting the blood sport simply by turning up.

The fight in brief proceeds thus: a fine, strong bull is released into the ring. This bull is taunted by a horseman (a cavaleiros) with the occasional assistance of pink-cape carrying matadors on the ground, until the animal is goaded into a charge. The horse narrowly evades the charge thanks to its rider’s dextrous skill, but remains close enough for the rider to plunge a javelin into the bull’s back. This taunt, charge and stab routine is repeated a number of times, and each time a javelin is thrust into the animal’s flesh the crowd cheers; each time the horseman misses, he is jeered.

The ardour of some in the crowd was such that one would be forgiven for thinking they had a personal grudge against the bull. They responded as though this were a clash between good and evil, between a sworn enemy and their heroic saviour, between George and the dragon; rather than what it really was: the torture of a once proud and magnificent creature, bred and trained to be maimed for our entertainment.

In Lisbon, bulls are not actually killed in the ring. They are speared half-a-dozen times or so by the cavaleiros until the poor beast is exhausted by pain and the futile chase and the blood pouring down his shoulder is thick enough to be seen from the highest seats in the stadium. Then the victorious rider departs and his place is taken by a line of eight unarmed men (the forcados), the foremost of which provokes the bull into charging him head on. Rather than jumping clear, the man actually jumps onto the bull’s head and is quickly reinforced by the other men in an effort to subdue the animal by brute strength. Only after this final ritual subjugation is the bull herded out of the ring, to be slaughtered out of sight.

Regular readers of my blog will know I have endeavoured when describing previous challenges to identify the humour in my situation, whatever that situation may be. With bullfighting though I cannot. There is nothing funny in the torture of an innocent creature. Nor is it entertaining, which a sport ought to be if it is not competitive. And competitive a bullfight most decidedly is not. If a bullfight were a fair fight it would not be fought: more than 4,000 bulls are killed a year in Portugal’s bullfights and more than 40,000 worldwide. By comparison, no matador has died in the ring since 1985 and only 52 have been killed since 1700. The most harm that probably comes to humans at bullfights these days is blistered fingers from excessive applauding.

I did not applaud at any point during the parading or fighting, and I left after the first of the six scheduled fights for the evening, feeling physically sick from the spectacle. Admittedly, neither of these minute acts of protest are sufficient to wipe away the guilt I feel for actually attending in the first place, nor does the fact that I have invested a considerable amount of my time since that evening researching into the anti-bullfighting campaigns of animal rights groups. Arguably however, by going to a bullfight I did get a more rounded view of Portuguese culture than I had otherwise acquired through a week’s happy ambling through cobbled streets, sumptuous palaces, wonderful art collections, and romantic Moorish ruins. I loved Portugal for its beauty, its friendliness and its rich cultural heritage; which qualities make the perpetuation of this ‘sport’ not only barbaric but almost illogical. This grand, new stadium in the heart of Lisbon; the ceremony of foppery and claptrap; the horsemanship and skill of many years’ refinement; these thousands of people gathered, all the money they give, all their baying and jeering; all this, just to kill a bull?

To support anti-bullfighting campaigns and for campaign news, see CAS International and the League Against Cruel Sports.

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Week 39: Ju-Jitsu

When I walked into the room that was to host my first ever ju-jitsu class, I found it full of men. Just men. But not just any men. Men swathed in martial dress, men flexing themselves into martial postures. Men kicking a football about as a prelude to an evening of kicking each other about. These were men, in other words, who had come together to be men.

My unannounced entrance into a crowd such as this inevitably altered the atmosphere. I felt as exposed as a nudist in church, as out of place as an Amish pacifist at an NRA convention, and about as awkward as a dachshund who finds herself the only puppy in a pet parliament after inadvertently attending a felines-only council for the discussion of domesticated animal grievances. The men, to stretch the last tortuous simile to its painful conclusion, reacted to my intrusion of their sacred man-time as the council of cats would, if those cats – seized by a fit of politeness that is admittedly quite uncharacteristic of cats – decided that rather than humiliating the already bashful pup, they would let her stay. More than that, they would affect a heightened air of relaxation as though to imply they thought there was nothing quite so natural as a canine at a cat council, and some, after chewing the matter over, came to admit, even if only within their pussy-cat minds, that an action-against-owners assembly was if anything more useful to dogs than cats, as a dog, through its greater dependency on the kindnesses of the stronger partner in the pet-man relationship, is so much more vulnerable to exploitation and indignity.

So: I was allowed to stay. For which posterity, or at least the behavioural psychologists of the future, will thank those men. As had I not stayed, and had I not for the full hour of the lesson had one-on-one tuition with the ju-jitsu instructor while the rest of the class tumbled and thrashed unsupervised around us, I would not have been able to form the following simple hypothesis –

     All men on their journey from inexperienced callow youth to suave Bond-incarnate seducer pass through three stages of development:

    1. The boy is shy around all females. He is reluctant to touch one, and above all reluctant to be suspected of wanting to touch one.

    2. The man-child is over-enthusiastic around all females. He is far too eager to touch one, and thus will lunge in whenever an opportunity presents itself, without so much as a fleeting “do you mind if I do?” first.

    3. The man becomes more far-sighted. Seeking more than the mere gratification of stage two he veils his enthusiasm, and masters the three effective f’s: flattery, flirtation and foreplay.

What has this to do with ju-jitsu? Simply: to witness these phases in a conveniently contracted space of time, the female observer of man’s psychology can do no better than to place herself within a male-dominated sphere where she is so unexpected, so unfamiliar, that the males must learn to interact with her again as if for the first time.

Such was the experience of my poor instructor. While his pupils hurled footballs at my head or ignored me, the instructor, having promised to partner me for the full hour, had to grapple with the delicate problem of how he was to grapple me.

The problem, to be blunt, lay with my chest, a chest which my instructor evidently regarded as being in the way of my torso, and therefore in the way of his teaching me certain moves and holds properly. “Being a lady” (he repeated this at intervals, as though I were liable to forget the good fortune of my gender), his arms in various attacks and defences were by necessity positioned higher or lower or further apart than he claimed they would have been were he fighting a man. Indeed, for the first fifteen minutes or so, my instructor gave the whole region of my chest a wide berth – which is hardly the sort of gentlemanly behaviour one would expect from a ruthless real-life attacker. What is the point of learning how to fight off a beastly assailant if your mock attack bears no semblance to reality?

How soon one regrets what one once wished for. For in the second third of the lesson my instructor, with no forewarning, underwent an alarming development: he moved into stage two. Suddenly, learning the easy standing up, arm-lock manoeuvres wasn’t enough. Suddenly, it was absolutely imperative that in my first lesson I learnt how to free myself from a man pinning me down to the ground and – even more imperative – that I learn how to disable a man I am pinning down. Therefore, within barely twenty minutes of meeting him, I found myself straddling my instructor. Which I thought was a bit much, not least on account of the fact that this was a highly unlikely position for me to find myself in were I being attacked. Indeed, I hope any man I sit on top of in the future will be friend rather than foe, and I can’t imagine me wanting to end any such scenario by breaking the poor fellow’s arm.

Fortunately, I have always found it difficult to prevent my feelings from transferring to my face, and it only took a few straddles and counter-straddles for the instructor to realise I was deeply uncomfortable. He thereupon returned to the safer territory of teaching me various ways to escape from someone holding your wrists or throat, during which instruction his occasional patting of my arms and only slightly patronising compliments that I was a very quick mover evidenced the onset of his maturation to stage three.

I must however say that, albeit this was the most acutely self-conscious hour of my life in which I suffered the sort of intimate liberties that would have caused Jane Austen’s heroines to drop their teacups in mortification, I did actually learn some useful tricks. Ju-jitsu, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is the art of self-defence. A ju-jitsu lesson therefore consists of reconstructing all manner of assault situations (kicking, brawling, strangling, punching, and – naturally – straddling) and working out how to defend yourself against them.

To my instructor’s credit, we certainly rattled through the moves. In but an hour I learnt how to force a man heavier than me onto his back, how to knock a man kicking me to the ground, how to release my throat from a stranglehold and my wrists from the tightest grip. And were I to apply these moves with a little more pressure than we did in class, I am now capable of breaking the wrist of a big brutish hairy attacker. At least, that is the theory. Whether I would have the calm clarity of mind to remember and execute any of these manoeuvres should I really be attacked is somewhat dubious, as is the answer to the question: would they actually work? All the tricks are undoubtedly very effective at flooring a man who approaches me very slowly from the front and doesn’t resist. Success is therefore dependent on my opponent being passive or weak or, ideally, both; but passivity and weakness are hardly traits that feature prominently in the personality profiles of many violent criminals.

Be that as it may, learning the basics of self-defence can be useful for women, even if that use only goes as far as boosting her confidence and empowering her to put up a fight should the worst happen.

As for men, after an hour’s keen observation of watching sturdy, well-built, dark-alley-lurker type specimens grappling with each other, I could discern no practical purpose for their leaning self-defence, and no self-evidential attraction in the sport, unless the attraction simply be what I threatened to interrupt by turning up: man-time. Perhaps self-defence classes are after all merely an excuse for men to roll about on the floor with other men, while manfully beating the devil out of each other.


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Week 38: Speech at Speaker’s Corner

This month, the collective lens of Britain’s media has been turned to the party political conferences. Yet as the country’s commentators queued up to scrutinise whatever Nigel Farage dared say and whatever Ed Miliband failed to say, and opine over what it all might mean for the future of British politics, little did they realise that from a soapbox in a quiet corner of Hyde Park, in Speaker’s Corner in fact, a new voice spoke up that hoped to change the face of that politics forever.

Or at least for five minutes.

I may not have the sonorous tones of a Churchill. Or the turn of phrase of a Lincoln. Or the infectious passion of a Dr King. I may not even have a soapbox – I had to make do with the best substitute I could find.

But I do have opinions, I enjoy a rant and I’m blessed with a disposition of righteous indignation which means I can be relied upon to identify the injustice of my situation, no matter what that situation may be. I also have a genuine conviction. My speech on the political, economic and social discrimination of single people is not just empty words strung together for a stunt. I really do think adults living alone – whether they be spinsters, divorcees or widows – are too often overlooked or misunderstood, and are certainly expected to pay out more pennies than their coupled-up neighbours.

Above all though I have remarkable friends. Friends who respond with enthusiastic encouragement to the idea that I do not confine my moaning to them, but go down to Hyde Park and hurl rhetoric at passers-by. Friends who are prepared to accompany me thereto, video camera in hand, to film my first foray into oratory.

I like to think the resultant speech had a little more substance than Ed’s and a whole lot more sense than Nigel’s; but I’ll leave that to you to judge.

The above video was produced by Ekaterina Botziou: friend, writer, actress, film-maker, Greek wife, real-life Greek goddess and blogger on all these things at the wonderful Ekaterina Botziou: It’s all Greek to me!  Be sure to check out more of her recent videos on her site.

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Week 37: Arabic

I learnt German as a child. It went rather well; my vocabulary isn’t always perfect and my grammar never is, but I’ve pretty much nailed the native accent, and that’s what counts in the “sexy” rankings (because it is well known that anyone who can speak a foreign language is automatically sexier than their monolingual chums, especially and definitely not even if that language is German). However, since untangling the Teutonic tongue, oh goodness, a couple of decades ago now, I have struggled to secure another string to my lingua-bow.

I have but two memories of a year’s worth of Italian tuition at school, one is learning to locate the all-important “dolce” on restaurant menus and the other is watching the film Pinocchio. The mass of wild tangled hair that is all I remember of my teacher would however be proud to know that since the discovery of caffeine in my late teens, my Italian vocabulary has expanded exponentially: cappuccino, latte, grande, biscotti… I can certainly fish out more Italian words from the murky depths of my mind than I can for either of her Romance twins, Spanish and French. Both of these I have laid siege to in adult evening classes, in neither case winning tangible rewards.

The closest I came to trilingual-ism was with Chinese. I remember my pride when towards the end of a year in the Middle Kingdom I was proficient enough to hold my own in a ten-minute socio-economic debate with a taxi driver on the relative merits of life in the UK and China and the comparative disposable incomes of her populations (if I remember rightly the conversation went something like: “England – expensive. China – cheap – me – can buy big things”). On the whole though, given that I was in China for a year, was surrounded by Chinese for every day of that year, and had two lessons a week, really, I should have learnt a lot more than I did.

With four failed language-learning attempts behind me, the possibility has occurred that perhaps I’m not a natural linguist. The possibility has also occurred that perhaps therefore I should stop attempting to learn new languages. After all, Albert Einstein allegedly defined insanity as “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Ergo, if you don’t succeed at something, after one, two or perhaps a dozen attempts: give up, lest you be certified a loon.

Well, I may not have Einstein’s genius, or indeed his mastery of the shabby-chic look in hair-dos. But neither have I his defeatism. Since the beginning of the year I have intended for one of my new things to be a new language, or at least an attempt at one: and so once more into the breach it is.

At a little after 7am last Monday morning, I sat down at my laptop to start a free online learning course in Arabic. Yes, Arabic.

petraThe appeal? Well it is deliciously harsh and guttural and considered ugly by many an un-tuned ear and therefore is remarkably similar to German (which, incidentally, as well as being sexy, is beautiful on the inside once you get to know her). Also, after recent trips to Jordan and Morocco I am vulnerable to the odd daydream of starlit desert sands and the occasional fantasy of running thereto with a handsome kohl-eyed Bedouin. Above all though, Arabic, or indeed, any language, must surely be a doddle compared to the tongue-twisting devilry of French.

It was therefore with a good dose of determined enthusiasm that I began my Arabic lessons, an attitude that was rewarded by a rarely well-structured course. It is modular, and designed to lead you on your first visit through the Arab world in simple conversations from arriving at the airport until departure at the end of your holiday, business trip, pilgrimage, or kohl-eyed husband seeking expedition. Through listening to and repeating lines of dialogue again and again, and recording them yourself and hearing them back, and playing games with key words, I had by the end of the week memorised a not insubstantial little bundle of lines useful in small talk scenarios, and had accrued a vocabulary that encompassed everything from ‘grandmother’ (‘jadda’) to ‘departures’ (‘ar-riHlaat-al-mughaadira’).

What is more, I had learnt just about enough to give me the courage to carry on, and see if I mightn’t learn a little more.

With a week’s worth of lessons behind me therefore, I find all my justifications for attempting Arabic borne out. It is guttural but it is melodic. The ability to say ‘husband’ and ‘let’s go’ has not yet helped me fulfil my Bedouin fantasy, but the mere ability to say these two phrases – along with several dozen others after only a few days – has proved that Arabic is indeed easier than French. Which has given me the idea for another new thing I could attempt this year: perhaps an overhaul of the national curriculum for foreign-languages is needed.

For other curious would-be linguists, I heartily recommend learning Arabic through http://www.arabiconline.eu/.


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Week 36: Harmonica

If a factory-fresh gleaming BMW convertible was offered to you for a mere £467 and 59p, cash in hand, you would not dream of buying it. If an old warty hag with dirty fingernails sold you an apple in exchange for a song and then cackled as you took your first bite, you would spit your mouthful back into her face. And if a man in dark glasses, who may or may not be the same man you half-remember encountering through the smoke of a tacky beachside bar, reappears at the airport and attempts to wedge a giant teddy bear under your arm as a parting gift, you would beat him off. Why? Because you would immediately assume that each was, respectively: stolen, poisoned, and stuffed full of cocaine.

If there is one thing that growing up in Britain teaches you, it is that everything has its price, and that price is almost inevitably a rip-off. Therefore, on the rare occasions when we are offered something that seems a shade or two better than a good deal, we Brits become suspicious and guarded and wish that rather than the temptation of cheapness we were being presented with the annoyance yet simultaneous reassurance of excessive expense. At least, that is normally our reaction to too-good-to-be-true deals, and thus far it has protected many a hapless cheapskate from pitiful suicide-by-apple bids after being arrested with a stash of crack in a stolen car.

Yet last week, this defence mechanism failed me. While killing time in a shop, I found a harmonica priced at £2.99. Although I know harmonicas are not generally in the same price range as golden harps or grand pianos, in hindsight I should have questioned whether there was anything odd about the fact that I could purchase a musical instrument for less than the cost of a cup of coffee. Yet I did not. Instead, I thought “£2.99 – bargain!”, and buoyed by my success with the ukulele earlier this year (for success read: the ability to slowly strum one simple melody after a week), I resolved immediately to master the little beauty. After all, I considered as I handed over three pound coins, how hard can it be? All you have to do is blow into the right holes, and music shall blow out. It’s probably no more sophisticated than a toddlers’ toy, I thought, so simple that most adults show off by playing it while also playing another instrument at the same time.

20130915_102009It was only when I got home and searched for harmonica tutorials on the internet that I realised how misplaced my confidence was. For it turns out that the harmonica most beginners start on, the simplest, commonest harmonica, is the 10-hole diatonic model. What I had been cruelly tricked into buying was a 20-hole tremolo harmonica. Which is a devil of an obscure instrument, for which I failed to find a single tutorial or song tab on the web.

Initially I struggled to even make a sound. No matter how hard I blew, not a peep did reward my ears. Eventually I found a video for 10-hole harmonicas demonstrating the correct way to wrap my lips around the Little Devil, which finally enabled me to blow wavering chords of unidentifiable notes. Drawing was another matter. Apparently if you blow and draw, blow and draw over any holes continuously at rapid speed, even the rawest of beginners can soon sound like an authentic ‘bluesy’ accompanist. I however sounded less like a soulful songster from the Deep South, and more like an asthmatic mouse desperately trying to blow up a human airbed. The problem is, I lose all my puff. No matter that I blow between each draw, within four to five seconds of kicking off a bluesy rhythm, my lungs are squeezed of all their air and I come up wheezing like first-time hookah smoker.

20130915_102023So, I can only confidently maintain sound if I blow but do not draw. Which is only a slight bump on the road to my becoming a harmonica maestro compared with the challenges of not knowing what notes each hole of the Little Devil represents, and not having a single song tab to guide me. Yet I was not to be defeated: a song I had aspired to construct and a song I would construct. My solution? I decided to pretend that my 20-hole tremolo was, despite its best efforts to infuriate and suffocate me, a simple harmless 10-hole diatonic.

First, I desecrated my musical instrument by painting it with red nail varnish: one dab of varnish between every two cells to mark out ten ‘holes’. Second, I found song tabs for ten-hole harmonicas and filtered through them for one with a disproportionate number of blows over draws. Third, I ignored the bottom row of the Little Devil’s holes and only blew through the top, which meant I lost the fulsome harmonisation that is apparently the purpose of the infernal instrument, but at least meant I could distinguish what note I was playing.

The result? I can sort of just about very slowly play half of Waltzing Matilda. That is, I can normally get at least half way through before frustration tempts me to chuck the Little Devil across the room. Which is far from my only achievement of the week. I also accidentally picked out the first half of the first line of Blowing in the Wind and stumbled across the first note to Amazing Grace, which note I obstinately keep blowing again and again in the hope that if I do, the following notes will eventually make themselves known to me. Which is not as stupid a hope as it may first sound, for the fact is, I can play all the notes on my harmonica. All I need learn now is how to play them in the right order.

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Week 35: Crewing a Classic Ship

The sea calls to lost souls, to all who feel adrift in their routine-rooted lives, all who tell themselves that one day – one distant but definitely real day – they will succeed in running to the adventure that awaits them beyond the grey horizon. Or haven’t we all at some point stood alone on a beach, our feet crunching on pebbles, our eyes fixed on the diminishing silhouettes of ships against the sky? And what vessel better embodies the promise of the sea than the classic tall ship, an honest-to-goodness living, creaking, wooden hulled, canvas bedecked sailing ship? Because – to quote the authority of J. Sparrow, a.k.a. the sexiest pirate to ever caper across our cinema screens – “what a ship is, is freedom”.

100_8790To crew on a tall ship has been a tomboyish dream of mine for almost as long as I can remember. Or rather, it was the most realistic solution to unrealistic, romantic fantasies of living in a different time, of slinging a knapsack of essentials over my shoulder and running away to sea, of being press-ganged by a bunch of burly sailors, or of roaming exotic shores with loveable if scruffy pirates. As a child at Disneyland, I obsessively (or, one might charitably say: loyally) went round and round the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, queuing up for another go as soon as I was spat out of the end. As a teenager, while other girls got to grips with chick flicks or seductive vampires or whatever it is a teenage girl is supposed to read, I worked my way through every single Horatio Hornblower novel. And as a young adult I decided the person from history most worthy of hero-status veneration was a slight, vain, one-armed, one-eyed love-rat with an immortalising death-wish.

All of which means that my expectations were of long gestation and consequently of monstrous size when I clambered up the side of a 110-year-old West Country trading ketch last week and finally plonked my feet on the deck of a genuine, working classic ship.

100_8750Though I soon discovered it was I who would be working. The wind that morning was set fair and the captain was determined not to waste it, so before we dozen or so holiday-makers could even say “ahoy” we were being corralled by the crew and exhorted to heave on ropes and let ropes run out, and to heave on other ropes, and to make fast, and to heave on yet more ropes, and to duck swinging booms, and to coil up endless ropes only to belay coiling and heave on the blasted things again as we tacked our way down the Cornish coast. Soon the palms of my hands were burning and my back was aching, and every time I bent down to make a rope fast on a pin the undercurrent of nausea that announced itself as soon as the ship leaned into her stride swelled dangerously upwards.

I did not take to the sea like a fish does to – well, the sea. I have neither the strength nor weight to be a first class rope heaver. When invited to climb the rigging, I got half way up before my legs started shaking so much from fear that I couldn’t climb any higher. When asked to take the helm and keep the ship on a straight course I promptly lost my bearings and veered us first one way, then the other. When asked to plot a course, I did; only it took me so long that by the time I had finished the ship had moved far from the position on which my calculations were based, and I had to start all over again. And when squatting in a rubber dinghy to go ashore, for all that I tried to feel like a marauding pirate or a sneaky smuggler, I felt like what I was: a nervous woman desperately clinging to her handbag, hoping not to get her clothes too wet amid an impromptu and farcical beach landing.

100_8755But I loved it. It was exhilarating: to fly along pristine blue waters under a perfect bright blue sky, the prow rising and smacking against the surf as we sought to outpace a sister ship in a race with no finish line. And it was satisfying to work with your hands, to feel a ship come alive, and to perform tasks the essentials of which had been passed down for generations. And above all, the thrill and curiosity of discovering a new place is only felt more keenly when you approach that place from the sea, when you loom up upon an unfamiliar shore and drop anchor in a strange port. Even if the shore is Cornwall, and our purpose in the port was not to trade or to pillage or to map new lands, but simply to buy ice cream on a hot day.

So although I may not have been a natural sailor, my childhood fantasies survive unspoiled, and I returned still daydreaming of a life lived sailing from port to port. Besides, Nelson famously suffered from seasickness. Hornblower stoically battled a fear of heights. And Captain Jack Sparrow shares with me a feeling of being incompletely dressed, unless one is wearing a hat. Perhaps therefore, I may make a sailor after all.


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Week 34: Cushion Cover Printing

Cushion designing is not for the fainthearted. It requires lightning fast responses, calmness under extreme stress, confidence in yourself to push on when all seems lost, and the knowledge of which end of a knife you stick into a person. In other words, it is the ideal hobby for a hardened SAS veteran, and the arena in which it is practiced may have all the appearance of a cute and cosy London crafts shop, but once tempted thereby therein, it proves to possess the austere atmosphere of an army drill school.

I had entered this deceptive den for a ‘Mystery Crafts Evening’. Signing up for a class the contents of which are undisclosed may appear to be a gamble for someone on a mission to do something specifically new. However, not having a crafty character, I was confident the evening would not disappoint my ambition – for unless the craft transpired to be “learn how to construct a papier-mâché flamingo lantern” the chances were high I would be dipping into new waters.

And indeed it was so. For the craft of the evening, our instructress officer announced, would be cushion cover printing. She then proceeded to rattle through the steps by which we would transform our plain covers into marvels of design at a galloping pace, while an instructress sergeant stood behind her shoulder, plucking off and regurgitating the ends of her sentences with a foreboding smile (“If you get the knife the wrong way round, it would be nasty” – “Yes, it would be nasty”).

We’d barely had a moment to digest the fact that cushion covers were our mission before we were being harried into plotting a design onto sticky-back plastic. Action was the watchword of the evening: the officer and her sergeant were determined that we should not take longer than the allotted hour to produce our masterpieces, and under this tight schedule, no time could be spared for careful consideration or the carefree roaming of one’s imagination. A design was demanded and it was demanded immediately. And loudly. “I feel so stressed!” exclaimed my neighbour, ducking beneath the sergeant’s earshot.

My initial vision of producing an exotic Moroccan mosaic was scrapped under this pressure, and after a few minutes of fretting, and more for the sake of being able to point out that I done something rather than to signal the beginning of an exciting new oeuvre in interior design, I drew a square in the centre of my sheet.

20130820_210232No sooner had I put pencil to plastic than the sergeant was prowling behind my row, exhorting us to get a move on and start cutting out our patterns as soon as possible. “Oh, you’re struggling aren’t you?” she said, stopping behind me. Admittedly I was – a single square hardly constituted a design, and I’d already distinguished myself as the fool who would have stabbed herself in the hand with a safety knife had not the instructress officer been so alert – but I nevertheless resented having my status as the class dunce vocalised. The sergeant’s patronising appraisal of my efforts did though at least galvanise me to try harder, and soon I had a sequence of triangles emanating from my square, soon these shapes were cut out (without blood loss), and soon I was pasting my cushion cover with a deep shade of blue.

The resultant design is not exactly the complex and marvellous spectacle that had ever so briefly flashed across my mind’s eye. But at least it looks semi-intentional. Perhaps therefore, if I can take anything away from this mystery crafts evening, it is that I have the spirit of an artist but none of the talent; that is, I can imagine a great end but haven’t the foggiest clue how to get there. In other words, I am the Middle East peace envoy of artists.

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