Thursday, 28 July 2011

A Sign Of The Times

I'm walking from my parents' house into the “historic market town” that they live in and go past, an old favourite. As a teenager the “Elderly People” sign would prompt us to mimic the stance of the outlined figures in the triangle. Now, I merely ponder the sign's location.

There's no longer an old people's home nearby so I can't help but wonder why the sign still exists – is it merely to alert us to the possibility of an elderly person potentially living in the vicinity and if so, why isn't the countryside littered with these signs?

As I get further down the road, I can't help but do what I do best and have a good rummage in my bag. I dig out my camera and look around cautiously before snapping away at a new sign I've spotted. “Sensible Equestrian Services” seems like an insane name for a business offering riding lessons and even more so when I later discover through a friend that lessons are carried out on recently tamed horses with troubled pasts. In its obviousness the name is so clunky it's far from memorable or catchy.

A fan of Danny Wallace's “Danny Wallace is a man” column in free men's weekly Shortlist, I've always loved ridiculing stupid signs and was particularly appreciative of Metro's daily tongue-in-cheek page three on Friday 22nd July, entitled “It's turf to see why this sign is needed”. A photograph of a 1m wide patch of grass with a sign warning “Keep Off The Grass” planted on top is the main source of the “article”, padded out by a 9 ½ mph speed limit enforcement sign displayed in a Newcastle construction site.

Less than a week later (Thursday July 28th) and I was able to enjoy yet more “Clear Signs of absolute stupidity”:

  • “Buy one Fish & Chips for the price of two and receive a second Fish & Chips absolutely free!”

  • “Access to telephone 20 yards” right next to a phone.

  • “Caution water on road during rain.”

  • “Elevator is out of service, please use elevator.”

  • “Religion free DVD player.”

  • “Caution: Please be aware that the balcony is not at ground level.”

Of course not all of these signs are linked to lacking intelligence as the headline suggests but are clear evidence of health and safety “gone mad”. The very act of signing “Sensible Equestrian Services” is supposed to reassure potential punters that all health and safety regulations are met to avoid dangerous situations. I mean, think of the connotations of “Irresponsible Equestrian Services”...

Thursday, 21 July 2011

"Private" Paint

As a female, a supply teacher and someone who has previously studied and taught “Language and Gender” I'd like to think I've a reasonable knowledge of vocabulary used to describe the female anatomy. It's well known derogatory terms to describe the female of the species far out-number male-specific vocabulary.

Having just finished Doris Lessing's penultimate novel The Clefts, I found myself recently discussing a range of colourful female-descriptive vocab. Although The Clefts is a slim novel, its subject matter presented me with a challenge and I battled through Lessing's re-imagining of humanity's humble beginnings. In her novel, Lessing creates a world populated solely by females who have no need of men, instead being impregnated by fertile winds, waves or the moon. Although not a feminist novel in that Lessing's society is far from Utopian, The Cleft's lack of any identifiable stand-alone characters or plot makes it difficult to engage with. Even the story's females are difficult to like in their brutal mutilation of male born “squirts” who are then left on rocks to be devoured by eagles.

The book's title of course refers to female genitalia and also the rocky outcrop where this fictional female-only race first live. Personally interpreted Lessing's choice of vocabulary to describe the female form smacks of violence and jagged deformity, in perfect keeping with vocabulary commonly used in everyday society. The biggest grievances feminists have against the dizzying array of vocabulary used to describe the female body are the negative connotations that accompany many of these words and that the majority have a dual purpose, often also used to insult. “Clunge” sounds like a clunky awkward lock, almost suggestive of chastity belts or perhaps an uninviting dungeon-like cavern. “Gash” is often used to describe a cut or deep nasty wound and “Flange” sounds like a DIY tool or process. I could go on...

The most offensive term of all and one I'm going to tactfully star out, has undergone a post-feminist revolution. Animated drink-infused ramblings reveal that there are actually unspoken rules to using the word “c**t” and conscious decisions are made before uttering the unspeakable. The “c” word firmly sits to the extreme end of an insult continuum but like “nigger” is acceptable in certain social settings.

Used between people sharing the same racial background, “nigger” has almost become a term of endearment, indicating a shared history – just think of all the rap and hip-hop tracks the word crops up in. Equally “c**t” seems to be less shocking when used between people of the same sex or actually used literally to describe female genitalia. As an insult, “dick” is used to describe someone being less of a “c**t”, whereas “c**t” describes someone actively trying to be a "dick" who knows that they are being antagonistic.

From this filthy intellectual conversation, I came out trumps surprisingly discovering I was actually more knowledgeable than some of the males in the group. And more amusingly learning about the existence of an unfortunately named paint. Anyone for “clunch” coloured walls?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Unsporty Good Sport

My hands are tied behind my back by one pink and white stripy knee-length sock and a partially drenched imitation Harry Potter scarf blind-folds me as I dunk my head in cold water, almost head-butting the bottom of the container in excitable but doomed repeat attempts to locate my targets; I'm actually at work- not at war or being tortured.

As a child I dreaded Sports Day. I always seemed to wind up in schools that made participation compulsory and remember annually coming in last without fail at the even more torturous termly Cross-Country Run event – always red-faced and heavily panting to the extent concerned games teachers would recommend I stop.

Today I'm voluntarily participating in a school Sports Day as one of the “athletes”, except today is reminiscent of primary school days – a time when I was far too over-weight to be wearing tiny blue shorts but still in the awkward transition between seemingly carefree primary school days and the far more taxing acutely self-conscious teenage years.

Working in the “Inclusion Unit” or “Study Centre” with pupils the school has virtually turned its back on, my colleague and I have been left in the uncomfortable position of having to tell our charges that they are no longer allowed to go to an end of year Summer Sports Day they'd previously been given permission to attend. In order to alleviate the blow of this inexplicable quite unjustified change of plan, we devise an alternative mini Sports Day for the Study Centre pupils.

Unlike Sports Days of my youth, the school I'm working in does not dictate everyone competes so what would have been a chance to finally socialise with peers is now another day stuck with the same two dreary teachers while the rest of the school get coaches out to a nearby stadium.

Naturally when the day arrives, out of our cohort of five only one arrives and chooses to remain in school, adultly coping with her disappointment. With this in mind, my partner in irritation and I have no other choice but to participate to give our one “athlete`' someone to compete against.

Queue me painfully losing every event with the exception of two highly skilled well-known sports – the chocolate game and weaving around the benches holding a full cup of water, with the aim of spilling the least. We've done apple bobbing; egg and spoon; raced like spiders; raced in large plastic postal sacks; hopped on one leg and two; attempted a straight-forward sprint and even started a timed tent-assembling contest.

As the day draws to an end, we retire inside for the chocolate game – although perhaps conflicting with the very nature of Sports Day, I vaguely remember playing this as a child at Birthday parties and recall enjoying it so decide it's a good way to end an actually quite tiring day.

In order to achieve my second and final victory of the day, I dress at speed into tracksuit bottoms, a vest top, a zip-up hoodie, a woolie hat, a head band and gloves while the timer ticks and “Eye of the Tiger” plays out. All this is worn over my work attire, making it even more challenging to neatly cube a bar of refrigerated chocolate with a knife and fork. I'm happy to have won something else but unlike school days, feel little humiliation at accumulated losses throughout the day and wonder if there's any scope for Olympic Chocolate game try-outs for 2012.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Just "Resting My Eyes"

The last two times I went to music festivals were a tad disastrous. The penultimate occasion was after a seriously hedonistic two and a half week sight-seeing holiday in Italy. Despite having pretty heavy drinking sessions every night, we packed in the sights by day, forcing ourselves to vacate the bed. Returning home, we both felt exhausted and in need of another holiday - certainly not a festival. That year at Reading, I felt like I'd aged dramatically and recall craving sleep the majority of the time in a constantly bleary state, forever tainting a festival that had previously been a favourite

More recently I made a doomed return to the V Festival - a festival that I'd found to be seriously disappointing in 1999 in its lack of atmosphere. On this occasion, The Boy had heard about two last-minute tickets for sale and I'd been blinded by the line-up, forgetting how commercially soulless V is. On top of this, I'd managed to foolishly and quite undeservedly dis The Boy to quite a few of our friends when I wrongly assumed he'd decided against the festival but had in fact been waiting to surprise me. We went along with this undercurrent of resentment and guilt, camping alone in a tent, big enough to just about fit a large toddler inside.

It is with these experiences in mind that I nervously approached Hope Farm 2011 - a festival I ended up booking tickets for to substitute a failed attempt to organise a Secret Garden Partygroup. A festival with a bizarre mixture of acts and conveniently close to my parents house with its Paddock Wood location:

As the festival drew nearer, all the evidence suggested it would be another let-down. The Boy decided not to come, leaving only three of us to potentially join another friend's friendship group; the booking fee turned out to be £15 per ticket and another day was added to the line-up at an additional cost of £40 on top of the £160 (£130 for the two days and £30 for weekend camping) we were already due to pay.

I discovered a few outlets selling tickets without booking fees so rung up to ensure there were tickets and went down to the Pigalle in Piccadilly Circus. After handing over £480, I was told I'd have to come back next week to collect the tickets and given a scrappy receipt. Returning the week after, my tickets were still not there and I was asked to come back again but after protests, arranged for a courier to deliver the tickets to work. I spent a few nerve-filled days, eventually feeling considerable relief when the tickets arrived.

The morning of the festival, plans ran equally unsmoothly with little sis running characteristically late and flip-flops breaking. Unable to reach my friend, we resigned ourselves to camping alone and went to pitch the tents but discovered all the poles and pegs missing from one tent bag and the pegs from the other. Throwing the pop-up tent onto the ground, we decided to weigh it down with our bags but were soon taken pity on by an Irish couple opposite with spare pegs.

Naturally minutes after unpacking my friend rung and we were soon once again hauling the tent and our bags across the camp site. However old you are, it seems festivals are a lot more fun in a group of people and despite three of us sharing a two-man tent, the Hop Farm was certainly no repeat of V or Reading. An older more relaxed crowd meant I didn't feel aged and there was a fantastically chilled vibe all weekend.

I couldn't help but notice a change in my approach to festivals. Having been to so many over the years and two every year for much of this time, I've clearly become more complacent, failing to do basic things like check camping equipment. While my trusty festival hair-washing and drinks-cooling bucket is still going strong, my fighting spirit isn't. All of us watched many of the bands from the back or sides of the stage not bothering to force our way through the crowds to get front-row spots. There was a lot less sitting around the campsite, no tape-deck with pre-recorded festival mixes and campfires were banned - good old health and safety!

I may have aged and been forced to recognise this but I can clearly still have festival fun and continued to smuggle my own drinks into the arena, managing to avoid forking out for inflated drinks prices all day. Sure I'm no longer jumping around at the front but I'm actually able to stay awake for the entire day after the festival, rather than returning home to a much-needed shower and bed. But I did have to "rest my eyes" between bands and suffered the consequences...

Friday, 1 July 2011

Leeds Girl

For almost a year I've been sharing a room with my sister in a house I've lodged in for over a year and a half. I pay rent by the day on the days that I sleep there with no other bills to worry about and share with a teacher, card-maker and clown. My sister and I have not only shared a room, but also a bed.

Queue horrified gasps... It's not actually quite as bad as it sounds - the bed we shared was a single bed with a double camp bed frame pull-out and we somehow managed to avoid any major full-outs with only low-level bickering, despite one of us working by day and the other in a restaurant by night.

The house was a strong candidate for Kim and Aggie's attentions, sold to me as "not to every one's tastes" before I even clapped eyes on it. I'd grown accustomed to using the hob cover and bin lid as surfaces to prepare food on, although obviously using a plate or chopping board! Seeing the clown's pants hanging over the bath was a weekly treat, battling with temperamental locks a daily gamble and navigating myself with my weekend luggage through the small cleared pathway in what could be described as "the front room" became a necessary skill.

It was only when my sister moved in that the possibility of a move started being discussed. With such a great location, flexible landlady and cheap rent, I was prepared to continue living in this eccentric environment four or five days a week but little sis was not and craved her own space while continuing to have a rent-sharing partner.

Months after discussing potential relocations, I now find myself sharing a room in Finsbury Park. The flat is minutes walk from the station and located between a butchers and late night "sauna".
The glass in the door looks like it has been headbutted and the flat number is displayed on a piece of card sellotaped to the inside of this panel.

Our new digs come with its own nuances but also two single beds and a considerable amount of floor space. I'm once again struggling with locks, leaving myself an additional five minutes to secure the building on my departure and there's a special knack to using the shower. The room is incredibly light with two large sky lights that wake me up early in the morning with streams of light beaming through. On hot days it's best to keep the windows shut at night as the constant flow of traffic roars straight through the room.

On the first night in the flat, lying awake listening to the sirens, I was instantly reminded of a Grace Nichols poem that I used to teach called Island Man, describing conflicting memories of the subject's home land and his new life in London:

Confronted nightly with the "grey metallic soar" of our Capital and constantly traipsing between Leeds and London, Island Man has taken on a whole new meaning to me. But as the days have passed and my permanent return to Leeds draws near, I know I'll perversely miss these nightly noises and even the locks have warmed to me. Perhaps strangest of all, I might actually miss living with little sis - well, just a tiny bit.