Friday, 25 March 2011

Rustic Restrictions

I recently spent a weekend with a Lithuanian and Italian girl who were both clearly city chicks unused to the slower pace of country life. After a surprisingly smooth coach journey from Leeds to London, we arrived in Waterloo in perfect time to meet the rest of the Birthday revellers.

Her birthday falling on a Monday (a “rubbish day”), as you do, my sister decided to make up for this by celebrating for two nights in Leeds, one in Kent and two in London. Meeting the rest of the gang in Waterloo marked the beginning of “Day Three”.

With a tight schedule to stick to in order to fit in all the evening's plans, the first hurdle appeared in Waterloo ticket office when a helpful booth operative informed us engineering works meant there'd be no direct trains from London to Staplehurst and that the next train wasn't for another half an hour.

Cue frantic phone calls and texts to those meeting us in Kent to try to reorganise plans. As Tiff panicked away, I almost vomited when I noticed a sleazy man standing across the carriage staring at my legs and making blatant eye-contact with me in order to spark off some uncomfortable eyebrow activity. I was actually grateful for the opportunity for escape that the change of trains in Tonbridge gave me!

Aside from trying to fit in too much, our next mistake was made in Tonbridge. Rather than getting a taxi back from Tonbridge to my parents' house, we decided to get the connecting train and then get a taxi from Staplehurst – and all merely so we could sup on some Birthday champagne.

Anyone who has ever been to Staplehurst or similarly small commuting towns will know that, unlike in London, taxis are scarce. The twenty minute journey between Tonbridge and Staplehurst was packed with unsuccessful phone calls to fully-booked taxi firms who'd be unable to accommodate our booking for another hour and a half.

Arriving at the bus stop was the next surprise for our Kentish visitors. Again, unlike in London, buses are incredibly infrequent. Despite being a Saturday night, buses only run every few hours and of course we'd missed one so would have to wait a further hour and a quarter before we'd be on our not-so-merry way.

Waiting at the bus stop deliberating our plan of action, some of our party actually approached a waiting minibus to ask for a lift but were told our potential fellow passengers were in fact prisoners. In our desperation we also almost contemplated hitching a lift with a young girl similarly stranded who'd contacted a friend with a car. Chatting away on a mobile, our fellow sob-story amusingly seemed to insert “boy” or “girl” after every Christian name she mentioned: “Gary Boy”, “Sarah Girl”...

You may wonder whether we spent the night in The Railway Tavern but I'm pleased to tell you this exceedingly sorry story wasn't our fate. Instead, my dad rung a family friend for us who kindly came to get us, as if we were celebrating a fifteenth birthday, rather than a twenty-eighth! Reunited with another member of our party, who'd been waiting outside my parents' house for over an hour, with a bit of tweaking our evening finally started to come together.

Instead of an apres-meal trip to Tunbridge Wells, we spent a quieter night drinking in the historic market town of Cranbrook. As the chairs were put up and we were put out, I was once again reminded of how alien this way of life is to life-long Londoners and city folk. Living a short drive outside Cranbrook, the only way back from the pub is to get someone to collect you, drive yourself home or walk back. At one in the morning, telephoning my parents shouldn't really have been an option but matters were taken out of my hands and the call was made with the expected outcome. As all of us had been drinking and were without vehicles, there was no lift to be had and certainly no impromptu taxi alternative. Used to this short 30 minute walk, I was amused by all the grumbling from the city kids and their genuine disbelief and amazement at the limited services available in small towns.

Flitting between London, Kent and Leeds I'm used to the differences in the pace of life and availability of resources. In London there's no shortage of different means of transport and few patches of road without an off-license. Unfortunately there's no vendor near Staplehurst station and the lack of alcoholic availability was another cause for concern.

Safely travelling back up to London and civilisation on the Sunday, with less of a plan to follow, our journey back was typically somewhat more smooth-running than our disastrous outbound adventure. And we were provided with hilarious entertainment for much of the journey courtesy of a fellow passenger who clearly thought he was a bit of a geezer, said the funniest things while chatting to a friend on his mobile and had the strangest sounding voice. I'm not much of a stand-up fan but I could envisage myself and a whole auditorium in stitches after paying to watch him chatting on his phone; We all spent the latter half of our journey trying to suppress giggles before each utilising London's varied transport system to return to our respective homes and prepare for “Day Four”.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Recruiting A "Ranked" Dependent

If 2009 was the year of the wedding then 2011 is definitely the year of the baby. When I was travelling I managed to miss the highest concentration of friends’ weddings and since returning a growing number of folk are announcing the forthcoming arrival of another family member.

It took me years to admit that I was old enough to think about buying a house but despite my advancing years, weddings and babies still seem far off - especially the latter! Having said that, last weekend I became a mum, deciding to adopt rather than brave a newbie.

My son is enormous, very hairy and leaves a ginger trail behind him. Merely the responsibility of having my own cat has worried me for some time but since getting the flat last summer and The Boy pretty much permanently residing there, the possibility has become more and more plausible. Coming across Marmalade last Saturday and going to collect him on Sunday has already changed our flat dynamic.

Now re-“christened” Major Richard Parker, combining Catch-22 and Life of Pi references, our son has already shaped and marked his new surroundings and we’ve rearranged certain furnishings especially to pander to his needs. Getting a house cat who will spend much of the day roaming the flat as he pleases means we’ve had to remove certain ornaments that are likely to get easily destroyed.

Despite growing up with cats my whole life, I’ve never actually had my own cat away from my first home – there is clear evidence of this in our paranoid dealings with The Major. The bathroom doors are permanently shut and toilet lids both closed, the flat is now entirely non-smoking regardless of weather and the other day we even removed closed scissors that were lying on the kitchen floor! As The Major’s previous mum was a schizophrenic who didn’t like her three cats anywhere near her, although affectionate, he is a little on the jumpy side so we’ve been closely monitoring his food intake and trips to the litter tray; It is almost as if there’s a small toddler in the house.

When I am away from our Leeds flat, the majority of nightly phone calls are now focused on how The Major is doing, what he has been up to and how he’s settling in. As soon as he does anything vaguely amusing, just like a parent with a child, I’m whipping the camera out to document his every move.

I’m perpetually amazed a particular friend’s children always remember my name and are comfortable around me when they only see me for a handful of occasions every year. Unlike a small toddler, The Major unfortunately doesn’t seem able to remember me and pick-up where we left off so easily. Flitting between Leeds and London seems to make it difficult for him to form a strong bond with me. Having repeatedly licked my hand, after three days apart, he’s now cowering from me under the sofa.

Although we’re already re-thinking future plans for weekends away, as someone still entirely unready for children and a strong contender for “The Least Broody Woman" award, I’m happy with The Major’s ability to look after himself during the day and manage to find his own games to entertain himself. When it comes to the responsibility of having children, it’s definitely one step at a time – I’m more than happy starting with a furry dependent.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Drinking By numbers

The argument over restrictions being put on alcohol producers rages on this week and I'm still silently screaming my own solution. Organisations like Alcohol Concern and the British Medical Association have accused the Department of Health of letting the drinks industry influence health policies.

The aim is to get the drinks industry to agree to a number of pledges like raising the awareness of unit content in alcoholic pub/club drinks and trying to put systems in place to reduce the number of under-age drinkers.

The main beef that organisations involved in the government's Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network have is that these promises are not specific enough or measurable. Personally, I don't think putting unit measures on drinks is particularly deterring or helpful. I know I'm technically allowed 2-3 “units” a day and roughly what constitutes a unit (a small glass of wine or half pint) but never actually think in units when out drinking, who does?

Instead of seemingly abstract measurements, why not talk in calories – after all, we all know that men are supposed to have a daily intake of around 2,500 and women 2,000. I'm confident that labelling all alcoholic drinks, including on-tap pints, with their calorie intake would be a sure way to make a few people think more carefully. Sure there'd still be plenty of folk who have never struggled with their weight or really aren't interested in weight control but I'm sure there'd be a lot of others, surprised by how “fattening” drinks actually are. Some of the most shocking are seemingly fruity must-be-good-for-you cocktails that sometimes actually have a higher calorie content than an entire meal, a Long Island Iced Tea contains a staggering 780 calories after all:

I've been on and off dieting for a while now in my own twisted way and actually sought out the calorie content of some of my favourite ciders but couldn't find this information anywhere, despite Internet searches. If the government forced the drinks industry to print all “nutritional” information on all packaging, they may well get a double whammy, tackling both obesity issues and so-called “binge drinking”.

The only possible side-affect might be the rise in popularity of spirits and no-added sugar mixers – after all, when dieting and in need of kicking back a few vodka and diet cokes are excusable. Certainly spirit manufacturers could initially flourish, but I'm sure in little time whole new ranges of low-fat alcoholic drinks would be on the market at less expense than current brands. According to the Office for National Statistics the number of alcohol-related deaths has climbed steadily since the early 1990s and figures from a study by Datamonitor show a quarter of Britons are obese (a body index of 30 or more) and we're the fourth fattest European country so why not fight both my declaring calorie consumption?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Imagined Youth

One of the earliest memories I have is of a picnic with my mum and dad, eating strips of ham in a white ornate viewing tower in Czechoslovakia. As my sister wasn't born at this stage, I must have been younger than three and a half years-old. As the years have passed, I have started to question whether I actually remember this or have merely seen a photograph of the scene prompting me to think I remember the moment.

A slightly later memory I have is of my leg getting stuck to some splintered wood in the adventure playground at primary school and the teacher suddenly and violently ripping my knee away. Another equally unpleasant memory I've often confidently recalled and regularly planned on querying was the nightmare moment a thread of loose rubber on my yellow wellington boots got sucked into the escalator, terrifyingly almost sucking me into its jaws.

Up until two days ago, I had always unquestioningly accepted this moment as fact but two days ago my shoe lace was almost eaten by a London escalator. The moment this happened, I thought back to my wellington story and wondered how plausible it actually was. Minutes later on the phone to my parents, I discovered neither of them actually recalled my terror.

Now both categorised as “Senior Citizens”, my parents will readily admit their memories aren't as good as they once were and my mum is often confusing my likes/dislikes for other people's. Perhaps the hungry escalator moment is set in history or perhaps it is merely part of an imagined past – I guess I'll never know.

Psychologists believe our earliest memories will extend no further back than our third Birthday and we are likely to only have four/five memories between the ages of three and seven so if I chomped on ham at the age of three, perhaps the memory I carry is real. The inability to remember the majority of our early lives is called Childhood Amnesia. As early as 1899, Mr Freud coined the term when explaining why his adult patients carried so few memories. Freud believed people wiped earlier memories as a means of blocking traumatic urges from the time – the unconscious drives of the ID. Freud also claimed that to protect the conscious ego people create “screen memories” or revised versions of events.

For a long time it was believed that the memory-making parts of the brain were too underdeveloped before the age of three but scientists have since discovered that babies as young as three months old can carry long-term memories but many of these memories will only be retained for a maximum of three years.

It is possible that our earliest memories are blocked from our consciousness because at the time we didn't have the language skills to describe the moment. Being able to verbalise memories helps us to create a past. The way parents verbally recall memories with their children also contributes to the forming of a child's “autobiographical memory”, in turn helping them to describe their own memories. The scientists Loftus & Pickrell, Wade, Garry and Read & Lindsay have all suggested that repeatedly thinking about “false childhood descriptions” or reviewing family photo albums can also cause people to remember experiences that never happened.

Possibly falling after my third Birthday, I'll never know for sure whether I truly remember eating that ham or just recall seeing the photograph. As for the escalator monster, perhaps I was afraid of using escalators and invented the story to justify this fear – after all I've seen plenty of howling children being dragged onto escalators by exhausted rather embarrassed parents. These days I'm pretty grateful to see a fully functioning escalator and feelings of dread are more likely to surface when I see a long stretch of stairs – especially in the heat of the busy underground!