Monday, 23 December 2013

Midwinter solstice

A day of wet grey wind
Lights peeping through rain;
Glove weather, scarf weather
Broken umbrella weather.
Shivering quietly in the din of rain.
Night barely rises and then falls again,
And earth mirrors wetly
The bright darkness above.
Today’s dark pivot is the pause
Before jumping off; the moment
Like all days, when
Feet poised, toes gripping the rock
You brace above the infinite sea.
It’s hard to believe, caught
In slow-moving traffic and
Pummelling rain; everyday
Is the pivot, is choosing, leaping.
But even at the darkest
In the irredeemable grey
Even on the coldest day
The wheel still turns.
That far-off summer sea may be
Invisible now; but still
The year turns, and makes new.
So breach those bleak
Black puddles, take the jump;
Leap in the dark and lift away.

A poem for midwinter; posted a couple of days late, but better late than never.  Miserable weather we're having but not unexpected at this time of year!

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Tenderisation and aging

Did you know that the NHS had effected a downward extension of the age for free mammograms?  Nor did I - until I got called for one. I'm 47 and as of some time last year, I'm in the age range. Yesterday I had my first-ever breast screening appointment.

Stop reading now, by the way, if you are of a squeamish disposition, or do not like thinking about the fact I have boobs, or do not like the fact I'm prepared to mention them in public.  Because this may be a TMI post.

I had been told it wasn't a very nice experience, and I can now agree wholeheartedly with that.  It is very uncomfortable, physically.  But on the other hand, in every respect where they can make it less horrible, they do (or at least Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith do).  I had the chance to choose an appointment date and time that suited me.  When I arrived, I was seen promptly (I had taken a book and a bottle of water and was expecting a long wait, but I was into the screening room on the dot of three o'clock).  The radiologist was female, and was friendly, kindly, sympathetic and chatty - yet at the same time she also managed to be unintrusive and decorous.  That can't be easy when you spend your working day handling other women's tits like so many slices of steak to be tenderised.  She was gentle, she primed me for what the machine would feel like, and gave me tips on what I could do to minimise the discomfort (basically, relax, keep breathing, keep still, and don't hunch your shoulders). 

As those of you who know me face to face will be aware, I have fairly big breasts.  Not huge, but a good size all the same.  A lot for the machine to take into its plastic maw.  As they are also pretty firm for their age, they were very resistant to being squished.  Large firm breasts are apparently the most painful when being screened, I was told.  I've never wished for a pair of droopies, indeed have always been rather proud of my perky pups and how well they were standing up to the joint tests of time and gravity, until yesterday!  

As for the machine, well; speaking in particular to those that haven't ever had a mammogram, everything you've heard is true, I'm afraid.  Two x-ray plates are taken of each breast, and to take them, your boobs are put between two surfaces and then squashed hard.  Really, really hard.  The upper piece comes down and down, pressing your breast onto the lower piece, until you think "Crikey, that's a lot harder than I expected, ouch!" - and then it comes down a fair bit more after that.  It is very uncomfortable indeed, and I was impressed with the fact my boobs sprang back into more-or-less their normal shape afterwards.  I don't seem to have any bruises, either, which was worrying me (I bruise easily).

Results in about two weeks, and I shouldn't be called back for three years.

Then I went to an optician's appointment, after that, to have a light shone in my eyes, and my eyelids turned inside-out (yuk yuk yukk) and be told me new contact lenses seem to be a good fit.  I've now signed up for monthly renewables instead of the long-wear lenses I used to use.  It's going to cost me more, but not an appalling amount - £144 per annum instead of about £110 - and it means I can get a much higher-water-content lens, which apparently is good for older eyes.

I dunno; older eyes, older boobs >sigh< it's all starting to wear out on me...

Well, one of the pluses of being older is being more aware of one's condition, and quicker to spot if one is not in top form.  Coming out of Charing Cross Hospital I realised I was feeling slightly shellshocked, and peculiarly tired for the middle of the afternoon.  Once, I would have given myself a talking-to, told myself to ignore it and tried to soldier on.  But nowadays, instead of doing that I went and sat down for a while, and had a hot chocolate and a slice of millionaires' shortbread in a cafe.  No-one gains, if I try to force myself to conform to some arbitrary external standard of "what one ought to be able to deal-with"; while if I recognise when I'm a bit shaky, and treat it accordingly, everyone gains, starting with me.

I read an interesting article this morning on depression, and thought "yes, I am skirting along the edge of this at the moment - there it all is in black and white, & I am not being self-indulgent and whiny; it's real and I recognise those symptoms".  So I have to sort-out and implement a plan to make sure I look after this older body and older mind of mine.  Plenty of sleep, healthy food, adequate and appropriate exercise, come off the computer an hour before bed, see friends and family from time to time, be kind to myself, and go back onto the earlier-nights-and-Sleepytime-tea in the hope of breaking through the pattern of insomnia that has grown up over the last few months.  And don't nag myself for being inadequate.

To finish on a more cheerful note, last night I totted up the total number of words I've written since last June.  Taking into account the completed "Gold Hawk", the new novel I've just started work on (which is a western - odd, but there you go, the Muse turns as the Muse wills), the fairy tales, a good deal of fanfiction and some other unfinished stuff, I've written over 330,000 words of fiction in the last 15 months.  Not bad, not bad at all.  Even if some of it is drivel, that's still all good writing practice.  

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Well said, sir!

Fabulous blog post on Dan Holloway's blog at the moment.  Really inspiring.  Well said that man!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Two things

One, I have perked up a bit over the course of the day.  I don't exactly feel rambunctiously joyful, but less of the dust-and-ashes here.

Two, for those of you that are interested to read it, there are some new posts up over at my other blogger-blog, ICW aka Imogen's Creative Writing.  Including an extended fairy story which is practically a short novel, and which takes the Lilac Fairy from "Trouble with Bridegrooms" into some very wild adventures indeed, with some very wild company... 

Anyway, if you're a registered user, you should be able to read it all if you are lacking in stuff to entertain you.  If you're not a registered user, ask me, and I'll see if I can remember how to make you one.

Long time...

...and the time keeps getting longer.  The days are getting shorter, true, but I'm still getting older with them.

I suppose I should be grateful that I'm alive to be remarking to myself on my increasing years.  It's a quiet, rather dull grey day here in west London and I have put a load of washing out, so I'm hovering periodically at the window to keep an eye on the weather.  In between drinking large quanitities of herb tea and eating noodles for lunch.  I have also bought a big batch of sensible groceries, had a shower and finished reading "The Help".  Which was terrific; one of those books that really live up to the hype. Gut-wrenching at times, moving, angering, inspiring, and beautifully written.

I've been away, for a week in peaceful, rural, damp and dramatically foggy Cornwall.  That's probably why I'm feeling a little introspective and depressed today; a mixture of tiredness from the journey back and the general post-holiday-slump-plus-concommittant-blues that I seem to get every time I have a decent slab of time off.  God knows what I would be like if I hated the place where I work instead of being fond of it.

Last week I was staying in a place that had wifi, but I didn't have a computer; I was staying with a television-phobe, so there was no tv; and none of us have fancy tech like i-pods and portable speakers, so there was no recorded music either.  A complete brain detox and wind-down, with no sounds except gulls and jackdaws, human voices, the odd fishing boat pottering about in the harbour, and once or twice a helicopter overhead or a larger ship coming in to port.  Plenty of fresh air, albeit rather wet fresh air a lot of the time.  Bit of walking, bit of chilling-out, bit of reading, and a much-needed rest.

I wish I knew why this always happens to me after a holiday.  I should love to come home refreshed and re-energised, upbeat, determined to profit by my time off and the perspective it has given me.  But despite my best efforts, each time, to think optimistically from now on, I still find myself instead feeling like dust and ashes.  Stale, flat and unprofitable...

I looked in the bathroom mirror this morning, and saw a plain, plump, serious-looking woman in her late forties, with her grey-and-brown mixed roots showing as her hair dye grows out, and her spectacles sliding down her nose.  She doesn't look interesting or like someone anyone would bother to get to know.  She doesn't look as though she has a story of her own (much less a whole head full of them) or anything about her to make her of interest to anyone.  She looks tired, even after a week off, and rather grubby and rubbed-about-the-edges, like a beaten-up old recipe book.

I look around my small room in this shared flat, and I see nothing but muddle and clutter; junk I ought to throw away (but don't), half-filled sketchbooks, notebooks on unfinished writing projects...  I think of how many times I have gotten nowhere with something I thought I was doing well at; how many times I have failed, by my own and others' standards.  A sense of my own worthlessness bubbles up in my mind, gradually filtering through the topsoil of confidence until it is saturating every thought.  And I feel, I know, myself and my life to be mere dust and ashes.

It's depression; only mild depression, thank God, but recogniseable nonetheless.  I've had it before, I suppose it's likely I will have it again.  I know it will ease, and then pass (or, my inner voices of doubt and self-condemnation whisper, it will get buried again under a blanket of denial and avoidance tactics).  I will come through it.  It's partly because the journey back from Cornwall to London takes about ten hours and after ten hours either sitting in a car or sitting on a crowded train I am tired and rather stiff.  I know all this.  But I still feel flat.  Stale.  And dust, and ashes, and all the rest of it...

Friday, 23 August 2013

Sheer - and rather hot - mischief...

It's possibly naughty of me, but I'm going to post a link because this is hilarious.  Talk about British Stiff Upper Lip.  It's rather wonderful to see men being so determindly strong and silent in the face of pressure.  Pressure of the chilli-flavoured sort; I'm not making an obscure pun and this is not pornographic at all, rather it's four fine, manly men eating raw chilli on camera - and then going very, very quiet...  Whoever blarneyed them into doing this deserves an award for sheer mischief.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Triggers, sad memories, and robots with guns

It’s funny how sometimes a thing can take you back.  I don’t mean take you back in the violent sense, trigger words and flashbacks; just vivid memories of things past and put behind one, suddenly evoked again.

An online friend has just had a massive upset in her life, one that has thrown all her plans into disarray, and she’s been left feeling pretty discombobulated by it.   I feel awful for her and I'm worried that she is having a f*cking hard time in several areas of her life at once.  I wish there were something I could do to help. Because I know how that feels.  I’ve been there.  I don't mean the exact same things have happened to me; but things have happened that left me in that same situation - the ground cut from under my feet, all my dreams in shreds and tatters and my life-plan collapsing around me.  

It’s absolutely years ago, now, and it’s rather extraordinary to realise just how strongly those memories can be brought back, by my trying to offer support and sympathy to someone else in a similar position.

I was living and working in Canterbury at the time, and to cut a long story short, I teamed up with a friend from college, who was planning to move to London.  I was going to become her lodger, and move back to London too, something I had wanted to do for ages.

I was very, very fond of this friend; we'd seen each other through some tough times.  She was going through a pretty sticky marriage break-up, and I thought this latest battle of hers had brought us closer still.

Eventually we were right on the point of making the move.  She’d left her husband, and given the tenants in her old home notice to leave, and they’d moved out.  I’d quit my job, and was about 75% of the way to being packed.  Our moving date was six days away.  Then I discovered, pretty much by chance, that my friend was planning to commit a crime when she got to London, and that she expected me to give her my tacit assistance by covering for her.  And I thought, WTF??

Given the amount of stress she had just been through I was astonished and horrified that she was casually preparing to do something which could, if discovered, put her in very deep shit indeed.  I knew it was technically none of my business how she chose to live her new life – but then, she was expecting me to aid and abet her, so actually it was my business.  After a lot of careful thought, I just couldn’t get past the fact that I felt very strongly she should stop and think twice and twice more before she took a step like this. 

So I told her so.  I wrote a long and carefully-worded email trying to say "I'm really very concerned about this, I really don't think it's a good idea, have you realised the implications? please understand I say this because I'm seriously worried about the risks you're taking, & please, won't you think again?"

I hope I was polite about it.  I think I was.  I’m not a very combative person to begin with; and she was one of my closest friends, and I knew she had been under a heck of a lot of strain in recent months.  I really didn’t want to appear pushy or rude, or as if I thought my opinions superior to hers.  I actually thought it was possible she might never have realised the implications of what she was doing.  I honestly was trying to help, I thought it was my duty as a friend to say what perhaps no-one else had bothered to; "this is not a good move, and it's also illegal; please don't do it."  I think there are times when it's a friend's job to say the thing they know you will be uncomfortable hearing, because no-one else will (& gods know, my friends have done it to me on occasion, so I do know what it feels like!).

We had a very, very difficult telephone conversation the next day, during which she told me I had no right to have an opinion about anything she did, yelled at me about my arrogance and my appalling betrayal, and demanded an immediate apology.  I tried to reason with her, to no end, and then I pleaded.  I just seemed to make her more angry and more hurt with every word, and in the end I gave up.  The conversation was making one thing very clear that I'd never realised until then; namely, that even if this had not happened, this good friend of seven years' standing and I would never have been able to share a house peaceably.  I simply can't live with someone who expects me to say "Yes, of course, you are right in everything you do, and I have no opinion and no right to one, my only role is to support you unquestioningly."  

This is one of the major reasons I'm single.  I will not, I cannot, live like that. 

When I put the phone down, I knew that our plans were over.  I was not going to move to London with her, and she was no longer my friend.  I was shaking.  

I rang my Dad; and he was a rock.  God rest his soul, he really saved my sorry ass that day.  I had just ripped my entire future apart on what was, essentially, a matter of principle, and I was sitting in a heap on the floor crying my eyes out as the enormity of what I'd done really hit me.

I'm trying very hard to be careful about what I say here, incidentally.  I'm not going to name my erstwhile friend, and all I will say about the things she was proposing to do, and expecting me to abet her in, is that they were fairly serious pieces of fraud.  Honestly; I wasn't being petty about something unimportant like her weed-smoking.  We're not talking about a police caution or a point on a driving licence; we're talking about tens of thousands in fines, and the possibility of prison.

Since we've never spoken again, I have no idea how things worked out for her.  I really hope she didn't get caught; but I'm not sure I want ever to find out.  I don't need friends who need me to be their ronin when they decide they're entitled to commit a crime.

Anyway, that left me, just under a week before I was due to move, with no future, no job, nowhere to go and live, my plans and dreams in shreds and one of my closest friends suddenly gone from my life.  I had a lot of self-doubt and a lot of grieving to do, and a heck of a lot of work to get my life back onto some sort of an even track.

But I did get it back on track, and eventually I did move back to London, under my own steam and not on anyone else's coat-tails.  And I've never looked back with regret on that earlier plan.

I want to be able to say to my online friend, now; look, it will happen, you will get there.  I want to hope that it would help her, to know this story.  Life can kick you flying sometimes and fuck up everything you've got planned.  But the human heart is resilient and the human mind solves problems if given half a chance.  Sometimes the post-disaster solution is better than the original plan.  

You will get back on track, and you will begin to make progress again towards your dreams.  I cannot promise you or anyone else much in life, but I can promise you this, my friend.  Because you are already looking for ways forward, I can say to you with confidence, you will find a way.  "Where there's life, there's hope" became a cliché precisely because it is true.
On to more cheerful things.  How about a movie review?

I went to the flicks last night, and I can report that “Pacific Rim” is great fun.  You won’t need all of your brain to enjoy it, as it doesn’t have the world’s most intellectual script.  But it’s viscerally exciting, the production design and special effects are tremendous, the plot is pretty coherent, and Idris Elba seems to be having a terrific time playing the courageous and world-weary commanding officer.  Otherwise, it just does exactly what it says on the tin; this is a smash-em-up movie about giant robots battling giant sea monsters.  Bam!  Wallop!  Crash!  And all in spectacular 3D.

I’m being a bit unfair here, actually; it isn’t lacking in subtlety by any means.  For once a film that announces right at the beginning “The world came together to try and solve the problem...” does then go on to have a moderately international cast of characters - well, developed-world international, anyway, no-one’s from Bangladesh or Zambia or the Windward Islands – but still, they aren’t all WASPs, and the climactic “last stand” defence is of Hong Kong, not a US city.  So for once it isn’t “America saves the world!” but “America, Australia, Japan, China, Russia and the UK save the world by working together!”   It’s like a subliminal echo of a more innocent age, when it was World War 2 movies that told these “goodies beat baddies” stories, and the mere use of the term “the Allies” instantly implied an international force for good.

 The two scientists are written as classic clichés (nutty-professor mathematician with a limp, excitable geeky biologist in specs), but they’re also written as by far the bravest people in the film, which goes some way to compensate for that. And it’s good to see Burn Gorman getting a decent role in a big budget film; he’s a lovely actor blessed with an extremely quirky face, and makes for a splendid bonkers scientist.   

Another thing that pleases me is that the scriptwriters have the guts to kill off several major characters.  I know it’s a bit silly to grumble about a sci-fi action movie being unrealistic (after all, giant robots and sea monsters...), but the ones where only minor characters ever die do irritate me vastly.   

A final nice touch; there’s an obvious attraction and growing bond between the two leads (brave & handsome American chap, brave & beautiful Japanese woman) but there’s only the smallest inference of outright romance, and all the clichés here - the desperate last clinch, the death-bed confession of love - are completely ignored; it could just as easily be simply an intense friendship, and that is all one ever actually sees.  Hurrah; ship them all you like (& I do) but they don’t kiss on-screen, folks!

And by gum, it looks fantastic.  The jaeger-robots and the monsters look amazing, and so do all the gritty details; clothes and accommodation look lived-in, walls look dirty, metalwork looks rusty, and so on.

So all in all, rollicking good fun, and a perfect relax-and-eat-popcorn movie.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Catch-up, Pt 2: Mayerling 2013 – what a way to go!

One of the most extraordinary things I’ve seen this summer was the retirement performance of Johan Kobborg, quitting the stage with a bang (in every sense) in “Mayerling”. 

I hadn’t made any special plans to be at his farewell.  I’d been meaning for ages to see if I could catch him in action next time the Royal Ballet revived this phenomenally dark and powerful piece, as I’d heard he was a really tremendous interpreter of the lead role of Crown Prince Rudolf.  So; they brought it back this summer, and I booked a ticket; then a very short time beforehand – I think it was no more than a week or two – he announced his retirement, and his onstage and off-stage partner Alina Cojocaru announced she too was leaving the company – and this particular performance was to be their last appearance at Covent Garden.

Getting a seat for a beloved dancer’s farewell can be pretty tricky; getting a seat for two of them leaving at once would I imagine be proportionately harder still.  But I had managed it, by sheer random luck.  Even without that, I would be glad I’d been there anyway, since it was a terrific performance and both leads were on absolutely smashing form (as God knows they need to be – on top of this being a very demanding ballet, some of the lifts in Rudolf’s series of big pas de deux look bloody dangerous to me).  The added poignancy of ending with a long, long sequence of increasingly emotional curtain calls just added to an already dramatic atmosphere.  All in all it was a memorable evening.

And as for Mr Kobborg – well, to be able to retire at 40, and go out dancing this role, possibly the toughest thing in the repertoire for a male dancer (physically and I would guess also psychologically) this well, well, that’s an impressive way to go.  Not sliding off quietly into the shadows, half-unnoticed, but going with a full-on, explosively physical, high-drama thump to the guts to everyone in the audience.  I think that’s called stopping while you’re at the top; good on you, man!

I gather there are wheels within wheels in the background to this story (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor!).  I suppose that’s inevitable sometimes in any large organisation.  Being as I am easily as much of a balletomane now as I was as a little girl, I hope very much that any problems behind the scenes at the company can be resolved sensibly and without ill-will on anyone’s part, since all I want is to go on getting lashings of top-class ballet in London.  I’m not going to look online to see who’s been washing whose dirty linen in public! 

So long as things don’t reach levels of animosity of Bolshoi proportions I’m fairly hopeful...  I don’t really want to know the nitty-gritty of company politics, I’m afraid; I feel it’s rather like wanting to know the ins-and-outs of an actor’s personal relationships.  There’s a reason why it’s called a “private” life, after all.

Just let them do the work, and do it well; just give them the means to go on doing that.  I don’t mind who’s shagging who, or any other personal matters, for dancers, for singers, for actors, or indeed for the people who invent new flavours for Ben & Jerry’s.  I don’t want to know if there are managerial disagreements, or who is misbehaving or exceeding their remit, or anything, and while I’m sorry for anyone who’s losing out or feels hard-done-by (and I’d much rather they didn’t feel that way, simply because no-one likes to), nonetheless, unless it’s ruining their work  I don’t actually mind if I don’t know about it.  

Is that blinkered of me? - or, perhaps, cold and uncaring?  Perhaps it is.  It’s the work I admire them for, these performers.  Okay, I admit occasionally the eye candy aspect comes into it! – but basically it’s the work I love them for, and it’s the work that I want to see going on, long after any individual performer's career winds down; handed-down in good shape, revivified with each new generation.   

Knowing that people are airing their grievances in public leaves me feeling I'm expected to take sides.  And I can never know the whole story, since the most I’d ever see would be twitter messages and the like.  So I don’t want to be called upon to make that judgement.

I don’t want to see established company principals, most of them real heroes and heroines of mine, departing in umbrage, or sticking around but feeling underused and resentful.  That would be simply awful.  I also don’t want to see talented dancers lower down the company feeling under-used, or over-used and taken for granted, for that matter - that would be awful, too.  I’m human, I can feel sympathy for anyone having a rough time at work.  But for me the bottom line is that I want to be able to go on going into the West End and seeing tremendous performances by great dancers in wonderful rep.   So long as the RB (and not forgetting the also-excellent ENB) can continue to supply that, I’m happy. 

I’ve also missed the goodbyes of Mara Galeazzi and Leanne Benjamin.  Big sighs of regret for both of them, as I shall miss them.  I did at least get to see Ms Benjamin one last time, as she was doing a stint with Carlos Acosta’s latest summer venture at the Coliseum last week, Classical Collection; a lovely mixture of high-classical and high-dramatic excerpts, and a cracking cast giving it their all.  So at least the last thing I saw the wonderful Ms Benjamin in was the almost unbearably-lovely “Pie Jesu” from Macmillan’s “Requiem”.  >Sob< - but again, that’s a good way to go.

And as one chapter closes (& Ms Benjamin's chapter has been not only glorious but also splendidly long!) another is near the beginning; and that is right, that is as it should be.  That same evening of excerpts brought me the chance to see Melissa Hamilton dancing the "Dying Swan"; and I honestly don't think I shall ever forget that sight.  By gum, that lass has IT, and in spadefuls.  Oomph, stage presence, pizzazz, grace, command, call it what you will.  I've been a fan of hers for some years now and last week she bouréed her way still further into my heart, and left me crying like a silly kid into my binoculars.  So, so beautiful...