Cycling home from St Albans

October 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I caught the train as far north as an Oyster card takes you*, and then cycled to St Albans. I associated the town with two things: an atmosphere of extreme Englishness, autumn leaves and crumpets and hockey games; and a bloody battle involving Boadicea. Both things, it turned out, are true. It is pretty and British, with an expensive bakery that will give you buttered toast but only if you plead. And in AD 60 or 61 it was destroyed completely in the last victory for the Iceni before they were re-crushed by the Romans.

It has a Cathedral – something I didn’t know. In the grounds there were wide strips of sunlight and bunches of flowers that had been blown around by a hard-edged wind. Along a path down the side of the building a woman pushed a baby in a pram. Another child, about four years old, ran ahead, over the grass. The woman called her back:

“Because that’s where dead people are lying. And you don’t want to walk on dead people.”
(I think it was because of the mud, really).

Inside, there was no avoiding walking on the dead. The floor is made up of slabs with “Here lieth…” carved at various times and in various states of abrasion. Here lieth – in the vaults beneath the building, or in a grave on that spot. Or literally just under the stone; it is levered up and the body slipped under, then the weight of the slab presses it into the dust. Maybe needs a couple of jumps to get it flush again.

In other places the floor is tiled, the red squares worn in their centres and ridged up towards the edges and the mortar, like the floor is made of soft cloth rather than stone. Wearing cycling cleats, my footsteps clinked and grated; like spurs would have done, I imagine. (Angela Carter also noticed the similarities between knights and cyclists).

Always a sucker for history up to the Wars of the Roses, and beyond, I clinked along thinking of Cadfael and Wolf Hall, and finding a man lying and carved in marble, of The Bishop Orders His Tomb by Browning.

And then how I shall lie through centuries,
And hear the blessed mutter of the mass,
And see God made and eaten all day long,
And feel the steady candle-flame, and taste
Good strong thick stupefying incense-smoke!
For as I lie here, hours of the dead night,
Dying in state and by such slow degrees,
I fold my arms as if they clasped a crook,
And stretch my feet forth straight as stone can point,
And let the bedclothes, for a mortcloth, drop
Into great laps and folds of sculptor’s-work

There were candles, burning and dying. Flowers. A list of names on the wall in copperplate that is going to come into its own if I ever have a son: Willegod, Eadric, Wulsig, Wulnoth, Eadfrith, Wulsin, Alfric, Ealdred, Eadmer, Alfric II, Leofric, Leofstan, Egrid, Fritheric.

On sheets of A4, the printed story of Alban: beheaded in the third century for proclaiming his Christian faith and thereby becoming the first English martyr (writing that I think of 1066 and All That, which my father read to me; both of us often collapsed in laughter and unable to go on).

Legend tells us that on the hill-top a spring of water miraculously appeared to give the martyr a drink; also that moved by his witness the original executioner refused to carry out the deed, and that after his replacement had killed Alban, the executioners (sic) eyes dropped out.

On the other side of the sheet, this opening gambit:

You may think this building is beautiful. You may appreciate its history, art and architecture…But if you don’t understand what’s at the heart of it all, you’ve missed the point.

The church was beautiful though, as I left it, treading inevitably on the dead.

Candle smoke

After coffee and the miracle of toast, I set out to cycle back home. It’s about 20 miles, and as I headed down the hill out of St Albans it began to rain, hard and cold, which seemed for some reason not to matter. I knew the route wouldn’t be pretty; but pleasantness was outweighed by purpose – having somewhere to get to, which can be satisfying just in itself.

The route passed through Radlett, Elstree, over the A1. Then Hendon, which has an incredible view, Mill Hill, Finchley, where my phone died. Mapless, I found my way to the North Circular and across it, turned east, and ended up on The Bishop’s Avenue. The houses, each one worth millions, are extraordinarily awful. Massive, hunkered down on stone thighs, hunched stone shoulders, guarded eyes.

You may think these buildings are ugly, I thought. But if you don’t understand what’s at the heart of it all, you’ve missed the point.

And then the Heath, the flying last downhill. A sky the colour of oyster shells. The last long evening, I realised, before the clocks changed. Home to – I only made the connection when I arrived – St Albans Road; full circle

Marble hands

* NOTE: You cannot get to St Albans with an Oyster card. I tried, had an argument with a conductor who wanted to fine me, went back two stops. You can get to Elstree and Borehamwood with an Oyster card.

Being of comfort

October 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve needed a lot of help and advice so far in my life. I’ve received it from great people (to all of whom I now say: thank you. This is what you make me feel like doing. Some of the below is critical of you, but it’s also critical of things I have done. You are all very good at advice. Or at least, you all have your moments (*smiling*).

In the bleakest times no one could help. But the rest of the time, there are some things which are always more useful than others. So this is a guide to anyone who wants to (or has to!) help someone like me.

Don’t say: “There are people worse off than you”
I’m going to assume – throughout – that the person on the receiving end of this advice is not a moron. They know, rationally, that there are people in much worse situations than them; people going through things they can barely imagine. But we all live our own lives, because we have to, and feel our own feelings. Reminding a person of the suffering in the world at a time when they are also suffering will add to their pain because it will make them feel a) even bleaker b) selfish. The time to think about less fortunate people – to think about them constructively and compassionately – is not when you’re at rock bottom. This strategy will not help anyone.

Do say: “Lots of people go through this”
Knowing your sadness or strife has been experienced by other, however, is useful – particularly if it makes it feel more normal (“I’m not a freak for feeling this!”), or transient (“People have got through this”). Recently I told a friend who works for a private equity company that I was having a stressful time in a long interview process. He said that for finance jobs it is normal to have up to 30 interviews. 30!! That made me feel better.

Don’t say: “You can stop this now”
Leaving, quitting, walking away – yes, they’re all options. But they probably aren’t the best option. Telling the person they can leave is slightly hectoring, because it implies that they’re making a choice to stay and should therefore be happy with it (which they obviously aren’t). It also isn’t constructive; rather the opposite. You might think that your job as an adviser is to remind this person that “there is a world elsewhere”. It isn’t – it’s to help them manage the world they’re in. The decision to pack it all in and go to work on a farm will not come from you, but from somewhere deep within them. You bringing it up is just a bit teasing.

Do say: “There will come a time when this will be over”
In Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut describes an alien race for whom all time – past, present and future – is equally existant*. The idea that the future already exists and the past still exists can be comforting if the present really isn’t working; but in really bad moments it doesn’t feel true at all. What does help is someone telling me that the problem is time-defined (“By this time next week this will be over”) or, at least, probably not infinite (“You won’t always feel this way”).

Don’t say: “I wish this wasn’t happening to you”
It doesn’t help, because it sounds – and is – futile. It makes the advised person feel like a victim, and the adviser seem weak when your friend needs you to be a rock.

Do say: “It’s not you, it’s them (or him/her/the situation etc)”
Presumably you think this is true because you’re talking to someone you love. If you don’t think it’s true – if you think the fault lies squarely with your friend – you will have to have a different kind of conversation. But for someone in need of comfort, a big danger is that they turn everything bad that is happening against themselves, seeing it as proof that they are stupid/weak/cursed/ugly etc. This is a second problem on top of and above – or perhaps underlying – their upset about the event or situation itself.

Don’t say: “That’s weird”
Don’t tell them not to be upset. They already are, and no wonder: XXXX just happened to them! On their birthday!

Do say: “It’s normal”
Anyone would be upset by that. That’s a terrible feeling to have. I hate when that happens. That’s rubbish! That’s hilarious! However you express it, let them know that their reaction is totally rational. Once they’re stopped feeling so upset you can deal with whether that’s true.

Don’t: Lie
Don’t let comforting the person – or protecting their feelings – lead you into lying to them. You went to their ex-boyfriend’s wedding – don’t pretend you didn’t. They’ll find out and the truth will hit them like a cold clod of earth from a catapult. Try to keep them in the loop, as gently as you can, and eventually the loop will be easier to bear. Equally, don’t tell them their behaviour is rational if you think they’re acting like a lunatic. They need help making reality better, not creating a fantasy.

Do: Be careful with the truths you communicate
There is no need to say that the bride looked ravishing, however, or that it’s no wonder they lost their job because they’re a liability. You like them – help them find a path through it.

Do: Learn about them
(This bit is mainly for partners, who have to deal with more mood swings and petty fights than friends do)
Physical and hormonal triggers are massive. Several people I know cannot function when they’re hungry. I am made tragically sad by lack of sleep though only – a fatal flaw – after it gets to the point of chronic and prolonged exhaustion. Periods are a killer; men must, I think, have an equivalent but without the attendant blood loss.

Importantly, with all of these, telling the person will not help. Make them a  piece of toast; put them to bed. If these aren’t an option, wait it out. At least you know what the problem is. Remind them if you like. It won’t help. But you understanding them will help, in the long run.

I don’t have any more don’ts – which is a good thing. There’s no science to comfort (well, obviously there is, but this isn’t a blog for professional therapists), but we all have to do it. Listen to them. Remember what they’ve said before. Try to get them to go outside. Send them texts. Hug them. Tell them about things that have happened to you/your friends, but only if they’re relevant. Tell them they’re looking nice. Resist the urge to collapse and share your problems as well – they’re in no state to handle it. You can do this on someone else, or on the same person, but at a slightly different time.

Also, this can help. Ha ha ha.

*At least that’s how I remember it, having read some of it when I was about 13 and home ill from school. My Dad gave it to me. Also don’t do this! Or maybe, with hindsight, do.

The thin and the dead

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

I bought an Autumn issue of a glossy fashion magazine. I can count the number of times I’ve spent £4.10 on such an article; they always have the same effect, and this was no exception. There is an initial, guilty excitement. As I begin to flick through this is quickly succeeded by a glassy, dead-eyed boredom, much like the feeling most of the models seem to be portraying. After a little time – a very little, perhaps £1-per-five-minutes-worth – I’m done, and I’m left with a feeling that is half feminist anger and half a stirred-up, mixed-up sense of insecurity. It is clever, this feeling; it shape-shifts, and is difficult to describe. It whispers: “You should try to be that – you will never be that, and should not want it – you must try – you have already failed.”

We know, now, that fashion models are not good role models. They are 23% thinner than the average woman, down from 8% thinner 20 years ago. Many lack muscle and don’t eat enough to be healthy. Even if we do aspire to look like them most women are not over 5’8’’ tall and so can’t.

We know this; but we do nothing to change the conversation (This is from Mad Men, Season 4, which I’ve just been watching – and don’t think the irony escapes me).

Being a relative stranger to these magazines – I sit down look at one every few months, though similar images are everywhere – this shocked me all over again. It’s all women. Men’s magazines are also full of women. Where are the beautiful men to look at? Why do all the women on the pages that are meant to inspire make me feel so damn sad?

On every page a woman seemed to be trying to seduce me, dying, or experiencing a debilitating kind of intellect freeze – with a vacant, empty-eyed look such as is never seen in real life, as though aliens had caught her in some sort of ray and beamed up her brain. Or was I just being – god forbid – over-sensitive?

I did some counting.

Of a total 309 pictures of women, 126 or 60% were in the glassy/expressionless category. Far behind, the next highest was pouting/vampish with 46 (some, to be honest, borderline with the aforementioned alien-brain-abduction), and then almost smiling, with 40. Serious got 37, and very serious (like, scowling), 11. There were 18 actual smiles, two silly faces, eight faces too obscured to judge the expression (for example, by an owl), and one kiss.

At the least nice end of an un-fun spectrum, there were 20 images of women who fell into what I called the dead/comatose/drugged bracket. They fell there and they stayed, without will or capacity to move, waiting to be dragged away and buried. Or, for the lucky ones, given a sandwich.

In the entire magazine, there were 25 pictures of men, none of which were the main event on the page, and definitely none of them topless. Thanks, Vogue.

Now, a magazine editor might find this all a bit po-faced, and by god they’d be qualified to judge. It’s aesthetically pleasing, they might say, and we all know it’s fantasy.

The gym chain Fitness First recently sent me an email, though, with some food for thought on that score. Entitled ‘Fitness First Create The Ultimate Model Workout For LFW’, it said:

“With London Fashion Week only a few days away, it won’t be long until the world’s most beautiful people are strutting their stuff along our cobbled streets. Fitness First have created the ultimate full body workout inspired by models, so you too can achieve the model physique. Dave Petersen recommends combining this workout with a cardio session three times a week, alongside a healthy and sensible eating plan. Stick to this and you will be model-ready in time for Spring/Summer 2013!”

(I tried to find a link to this press release online, but it isn’t on the Fitness First PR site. If you think I’m making it up, write and I’ll forward it to you.)

A workout that will make women taller and 23% thinner in – the release seems to imply – “only a few days”! Lucky women.

[As an aside, there’s also Photoshop, of course. Working at a newspaper, I’m aware of the need to credit images when we use them. Photographers should get recognition for their work; but I wonder if this is increasingly because any image can now be created – anyone can be made to appear as if they look like or are doing anything – and we’re trying to keep a hold somehow on reality. Years ago I met a really nice man at a party. We talked about work; his was airbrushing models to make them look better. Wow, was my response. That’s kind of awful. He smiled, blushingly, and looked down. Yeah, he said. It is kind of awful.]

So why does the magazine industry continue to make me angry, when I can cope with other bad industries like tobacco (Mad Men again)?

Another story from a party, this one much more recent:

On Saturday night, late and in a warehouse, I met a woman who I thought was nice. We talked, ultimately, about some fairly intimate things. Later, I found out that she had lied to me – completely, manipulatively, and for her own benefit. I still feel a little sick at the memory.

Why do we hate being lied to so very much? Because it unglues our hold on the world.

The mad perpetuation of fantasy female images isn’t just a game, and doesn’t make us feel bad simply because we’re not as thin or groomed or long-limbed as them. It’s a huge, smooth-skinned, dead-eyed lie, and that, in itself, is terrifying.

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