Sunday, 31 January 2016

What I read in January

Last year I only read twelve books, and only two of those were fiction. On entering the new year I decided to change that. Like many, I want to read more. It's one place of pure escapism, no distractions, just tunnel vision with the words on the page and the worlds they create. I love it, and it's silly that my reading habits have slipped.

So I created a reading list from everyone's recommendations, tackling the problem I have of feeling so overwhelmed on choosing what to read next. From that plan, I've found some brilliant books. Feeling so unwell recently, these stories have sustained me. I haven't been to the theatre once this year, but I have read eight books. They've distracted me and at times they've dazzled me.

I've decided to start doing a monthly round-up post to share what I've read. So, here's the first - what I read in January:

Hotel World - Ali Smith
Ali Smith is my favourite author, and on reading the first chapter of this it was like coming up for air. Her writing is playful, and this first chapter - ironically from the perspective of a girl recently deceased - felt so alive, I wanted to read it aloud, it felt like something to be performed. And then, I enjoyed reading it but I wasn't gripped - and I felt myself wanting the book to end, which took me by surprise. It dragged a little. But still a fun read!

Grief is the Thing with Feathers - Max Porter
This was a really quick, but really powerful read. A mum has died and a house is left changed, with a grieving dad and his two sons. Each chapter (and they're short) is from the perspective of the dad, the boys, or - the crow, who has joined them to aid their grieving process (go with it). The writing is both poetic and everyday, and I quickly found myself on the brink of tears at how honest this felt. To read at the end that this is Max Porter's first novel felt ridiculous. A stunning piece of work.

Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah tells a story of a young woman living in, leaving and returning to Nigeria - and also living in and leaving America. It explores race, identity, relationships and so much more. It's an easy read that I couldn't put down, with some really beautiful language.

Knots - R.D Laing
For a short book (90 pages), this felt like a long read. On seeing that this book read like poetry and a play, with a focus on psychology, I thought this would be right up my street. It wasn't. It was repetitive to the point of feeling dull and hard to read without zoning out. I know repetitive is the point, the behaviours we repeat, the commonality of relationships and situations that feel unique but aren't, but it didn't feel revelatory or meaningful, just a struggle that didn't quite feel worth it.

The Psychopath Test - Jon Ronson
This was a lot of fun. Jon's writing is really relatable, you feel in safe hands with him - he's funny and curious, and it's so easy to get swept along with his excitement. In this case, it's his interest in madness - specifically, psychopaths. He looks at how we spot madness, but also why we seek it out - with some particularly interesting observations on the media.

The World According to Garp - John Irving
This is my Dad's favourite book and now one of mine too. It's an incredible read that I absolutely loved - the best thing I've read in a long time. Following the life of writer Garp, this covers so much that I'm stumped as to how to sum it up, and so I won't try - I'll just say: read this book.

One Million Lovely Letters - Jodi Ann Bickley
This really is such a lovely book. Jodi's true story is inspiring, uplifting, and written with such genuine warmth that gives a rare kind of reading experience - you feel comforted, and you want to comfort her too. In the midst of her struggles Jodi finds strength through kindness towards others, sending letters to people around the world with words of hope. What really made this book resonate with me was being able to relate to Jodi's situation with my own experience of long term illness. If you're in a similar boat then definitely check this out.

Find Me - Laura Van Den Berg
I was intrigued by the concept of this. Though a familiar idea, the set-up of an illness pandemic held potential, with the protagonist being a young woman who is immune, with an interesting back story. Unfortunately while the concept was strong the execution wasn't, and the book seemed to meander and lose its way. There's some striking prose and interesting moments but overall this felt unsatisfying.

Find me on Good Reads, and let me know any recommendations you have here or on Twitter.

And finally, two reading related shout outs:

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Back to this

I'm back to cancelled plans

Back to
Stand up heart fast sit down
Stand up black out lie down

Back to bed

With ever cold limbs I wait to warm up
I wait for the pain to pass
And for my heart to slow
I wait to stand

Across from my bed is a mirror
I catch my eye as I rise
My vision blurs and I hang on
I survive this one standing
Slowly focus comes through
And we're holding our gaze
And I look quite frail
And a little scary
The lazy eyes and pale pallor
The wobbly gait and the visible breathing
I don't let people see me like this
I try not to

It's all so familiar and yet I'd forgot
So I'm back to finding a way through
And back to grumpy - before I do

Back to hanging onto the little things
To the softness of Sundays and soothing cups of tea

Back to hoping and adapting
(like stories on the page and not on the stage)
And believing - having to believe,
That this will all be ok

Because deep down, I know how to survive
I know how to keep striving, and creating, and smiling
And knowing that I can make this thing small, never my all
Not defined and not held back

I'm back to this: finding my strength, trying, failing, trying some more

So let's do this.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

2015: blimey

A perfect night in Whitstable, pre-swimming in the sea

These kind of posts are everywhere, and quite potentially really self-indulgent, but for me they're worthwhile to write - to take a moment to reflect, and to have something to look back on in the future: a record of a year.

So, 2015 was:

A year of bravery

I took some little and big steps in 2015. One of those was that I started going to the gym. I was nervous, more socially than physically, but again - the fear was out of proportion and I quickly got used to the situation, and even enjoyed it. With limited time, money and inclination - it's not something I've carried on with, but it was helpful in preparing me for - going to Asia!

The day after my 25th birthday I flew to Bangkok by myself, ready to begin an adventure with 30 strangers. I did a two-week Contiki tour through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, and I bloody loved it.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, one of the seven wonders of the world.

Then when I got back I started driving lessons. I only did 10 hours before having to move, but it was scary and I did it, and I should really get back to it.

Oh and me and a friend climbed the o2! It was so much fun and a great thing to do together - I'm sure we'll always remember that day. I also loved it for knowing it was something I absolutely wouldn't have done a few years ago - fear would have got the better of me.

A year of big changes

In July I handed in my notice at work and, after being given a lovely send off, I moved to London - to begin a new job. It felt scary and refreshing in equal measure, and was absolutely what I needed.

Enjoying a perfect leaving present on moving day

I'm loving being in London and the opportunities that provides me - like meeting new people, performing in You Me Bum Bum Train, going to workshops, and seeing so much theatre.

It's silly, but the view from Waterloo Bridge still takes my breath away. I just love it.

A year of (mostly) healthiness

So for most of the year I was healthy. I barely felt like I had POTS at all. Then in October I relapsed and have been feeling pretty rough ever since. But it's important to focus on how for three quarters of the year I was basically symptom free. And that most of the exciting things that have happened this year would not be possible if not for the medication I started on in 2014, via the incredible team at Kings College Hospital London.

I've been getting into eating healthier too. Not in a big determined health kick kind of way, but gradually making changes - prompted by the discovery of Deliciously Ella. Seeing her recipes and realising how few ingredients were necessary and how little time they took was a bit of a hallelujah moment. The first ones I tried, and probably my favourites still, are the Cannelini Bean Stew and the Roasted Aubergine & Tahini Bowl.

A year of creativity

For the past five years (five?! where has the time gone) I've been blogging on here - writing articles about personal experiences, and reviewing theatre now and then. This year, I started getting a bit more playful with form. I wrote some "kind of poems" which I recorded and shared.

In September I took on Cassy Fry's 30 day challenge, responding creatively to prompts, which I really enjoyed. The structure of it was surprisingly freeing and I loved not knowing what, or how, I was going to write.

In November I went to a poetry workshop/masterclass via Outspoken London hosted by the brilliant Andrew McMillan, which was really inspiring.

I want to try and write more poetry and creative writing in general, and to be brave enough to share - which is both exciting and nerve-wracking. So please bear with me as I try things out on here, and let me know any thoughts.

I took more photos than I usually do through getting into Instagram. Turns out there's a lot more to take photos of in London!

On another note - I saw a lot of theatre - and some really great stuff. Here's my top ten.

A year of minimalism

Moving house twice meant it was time for a clear out. I gave around half my clothes to charity as well as almost all my DVDs, and random stuff. Turns out it's so much easier to keep a room tidy when it isn't crammed full of stuff you don't need or even care for.

I think my work in 2014 collecting make-up for women's refuges made me more aware of how much I have. I no longer mindlessly buy beauty products or clothes I don't need, or even want that much.

A year of loss

In August I lost someone really special, and that still feels immensely surreal and sad. Without wanting to tell anyone what to do, or speak in cliches, please - if you love people - spend time with them, value that time, say thank you, and that you love them - if you can. There are people we think will always be there, and yet they won't. There's no certainties, and cancer is cruel: it takes people too soon. I can only be glad to have no regrets, and to feel some reassurance from what my mum said in her eulogy: to know that the pain of losing someone is the price we pay for the privilege of knowing them.

Fun times and looking forward

I had a lot of fun this year. Being at Dreamland's Opening Night Hullabaloo and seeing Marina and the Diamonds perform was really special, I did trips to London Zoo and Chessington Zoo, I swam in the sea in Whitstable at night, and I explored London and fell a bit in love with Greenwich on one perfect Sunday.

And then I partied (in a very tame but wonderful way) with my family on New Year's Eve after a lovely Christmas.

Looking forward, I don't want to set resolutions or put myself under any pressure. I just want to have more good times with good people. I want to be brave and be kind. I want to read and write more.

I hope 2015 has treated you well, and I hope 2016 is even better. Go do all the things you've been meaning to do, but do them because they make you happy.

Happy new year you lovely lot xx

Friday, 1 January 2016

2015 theatre highlights

Photo of People, Places and Things, taken by Johan Persson.

I saw some great theatre in 2015 and I've narrowed it down to a list of ten highlights, all of which felt like, to me, demonstrations of what theatre can do and be at its best.

So, in no particular order...

Clarence Darrow
Because: Kevin Spacey! A masterclass in performance..

The Car Man
Because it was visually stunning and brilliant storytelling. The best Bourne I've seen, and probably one of the best shows I've seen.

This Is How We Die 
Because Christopher Brett Bailey spitting sick stories from a desk is electric. Think Spalding Gray meets Karen Finley meets William Burroughs - but with really cool hair. GOOD COMBO.

Five Feet In Front (The Ballad Of Little Johnnie Wylo)
Because this felt like a dream. This young company (The Letter Room) did something really exciting here. It was foot-stomping, mystical fun. Felt a bit like Miyazaki meets Tarentino.

Ross And Rachel
Because it broke me. This wasn't at all what I expected. Honest about relationships and loss - it hit home real hard. Clever writing and a wonderful performance.

Iphigenia In Splott
Because Sophie Melville acted her heart out. One of the only standing ovations I've experienced at the Fringe and so deserved. See it for yourself at the National soon.

The Wars of the Roses: Henry VI
Because it was impressive and enjoyable and Alex Waldmann as Henry VI was a revelation -  funny, sweet and completely believable.

He Had Hairy Hands
Because it was real good, cleverly constructed silly fun, that you couldn't help but love and laugh at. An absolute riot.

People Places Things
Because I watched with eyes wide open, with a feeling of tunnel vision awe, tears streaming at the honesty and vulnerability of it all - of Denise Gough's incredible performance and Duncan Macmillan's words. One of the best things I've ever seen. You have to go see this.

Oresteia (Almeida)
Because how could it not be? Epic without being distanced - we looked closely at the emotions behind every unbearable choice and situation. We bore witness to something important, and something really bloody (quite literally) cool.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Chronic illness & Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Everyone says your health is the most important thing - that as long as you have good health you can have gratitude and feel lucky. This is something healthy people say. But if you're ill, chronically, constantly, where does that leave you?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs concludes that unless our most basic needs of food and shelter are met, then we can't reach the ultimate goals of fulfillment and self actualisation.

I'd like to challenge that.

image via teach-nology.

Amidst ongoing physical suffering, I've done lots of wondering, or - self-actualising. I've continued to contribute and create.

And yet I know that bad health can bring you down beyond belief - it can get into your thoughts and take you to dark places. Imposter syndrome is rife and self worth is a struggle as you feel like you've tricked people into giving you jobs, or that you're holding friends hostage in a difficult situation. You can feel like a burden and like you don't belong.

Illness gives you space and provides breeding ground for those kind of thoughts - so you have to fight them off, and you need to be equipped to do that. Which is why I think Maslow's triangle needs a new base level, of the the crucial characteristics we need to survive and thrive - even without the most basic of needs (like being able to stand up without losing consciousness).

I would add:

To your self. To know that whatever is happening, you're doing your best, you are worthy and you are loved. And to other people - because if you can keep thinking of other people, and helping in some small way - that will help you too.

To keep going and not give up. No matter what. To cling onto even the smallest of joys. To be resilient - to suffer relapses and find a way to get back up, time and time again.

And I don't mean art. I mean in flexibility and finding new ways. Finding that if you have to make a cup of tea from the floor, you're still getting a cup of tea. This always needs to be combined with compassion so you don't feel like a ridiculous person and experience a wave of sadness. But yes, creativity in its truest sense too, because if you can create something, even if it's not something you would share, I ensure you - your spirit will lift, just a little bit.

Even if it's online or by phone - sincere connections are what will keep you not feeling alone, but part of something bigger. To allow yourself to be vulnerable with those you trust and love - to open up and sit with the sadness. To let yourself have that release when the relationship allows. Or to have a normal conversation, about someone else's day, to reminisce, or discuss television. Just talk. And listen.

Because if you can't see the funny side, then all of this will be so, so much harder.

I'm speaking about illness only here. I'm not saying if you're on the streets that getting a sense of humour will help you out - I know I'm lucky.

So with this in mind - I think everything is harder if there is a physiological struggle, but I do not believe this inhibits us from reaching our potential. That's a really depressing idea that doesn't help. I believe our prospects and practical possibilities shift when we are held back, but that we shouldn't stop dreaming, or making things happen. Even if that happens when we're horizontal, unable to get out of bed.

If we believe life can't be fulfilling unless our basic needs are met, we'd feel worthless and give up. So let's give ourselves a new baseline. Not just those with chronic illness, but all of us - because if we don't stay compassionate, determined, creative, connected and with a sense of humour - then how can we be living life to its fullest anyway?

Why we all love A Christmas Carol, and probably always will

[Originally written for the Rose Theatre Kingston's blog]

I feel like I’ve always known A Christmas Carol. Perhaps that’s the brilliance of the story, that it really resonates and feels so timeless, or it may be the multiple adaptations over the years.

I grew up watching the 1992 classic The Muppets Christmas Carol (which I still love), and I enjoyed the Jim Carrey adaptation in 2009. There are too many adaptations to list, but you can gather the scale from a glance here.

So it struck me as odd that I’d never actually read the book. It’s a short read – less than 100 pages long – and yet I’d not even considered doing so. The familiarity with the story maybe made me feel like I didn’t need to, but that idea was proved wrong when I settled down to read the book on a cold November Sunday.

Within pages, and certainly by the end, it felt even more odd I’d never read this book. I loved it. I knew everything that would happen and yet I was gripped by it. The language is beautiful, and funny too, and you feel Scrooge’s fear so intensely as he cringes looking from the outside in, made aware of his miserly actions and poor reputation.

So it's a great book, but what is it about A Christmas Carol that makes it such a timeless story? (For perspective, the Rose's production is one of seven playing in London this year alone!)

I think, maybe, we all see Scrooge in ourselves. It’s not that we necessarily consider ourselves grumpy or cruel, but surely we have some regrets and none of us can claim to be perfect. The idea of being able to go back in time, and to foresee the future, there’s an innate interest in that – it’s appealing. We also will Scrooge to change – to have that revelatory moment of redemption, and when he does it’s glorious. His energy and the atmosphere of Christmas Day – it just feels so vibrant.

It’s also incredibly relevant. When reading the book I found myself underlining paragraphs of dialogue that could be spoken now – of blame falling on the poor, and responsibilities diverted. That’s why I'm so pleased to say that each week we'll be raising money for a local charity. People are still struggling, and I honestly feel that whatever we can do to help we should. It would feel almost wrong to talk about the issues onstage, have a happy resolution - and not do a cheeky ask at the end.

Watching the dress rehearsal the other day I realised another reason why we love A Christmas Carol, and that's the Cratchits. They're a lovely family for sure, but their scenes also give the same feeling I get from watching a good British sitcom's Christmas special: the perfect mix of warmth and cosiness of a home on Christmas day, with the chaos and craziness that inevitably accompanies any family's festive period. That's the reason why I love watching Gavin & Stacey, Outnumbered or The Royle Family, and yes - the Cratchits - both in the book and onstage in this adaptation, because the families feel real and they reflect us. I think that sense of truth, and fun, is why the sadness of even the hypothetical loss of Tiny Tim feels so hard to bear.

I think seeing a family relationship depicted well onstage as it is here is really impressive - to be able to capture that familiarity, of being completely yourself - of caring, without necessarily saying it but through jokes and traditions, or a simple look or scruff of the hair. It's heartwarming, and it makes me anticipate going home to my own family for Christmas soon.

There's something about a Christmas story too that just gets us. To see those scenes on the streets and in the home, of parties and meals eaten together, you can't help but feel festive. Pantomime will always feel festive to me (growing up with it and having worked on it) but there's something lovely and rare about how genuinely Christmas centric the narrative is here.

A Christmas Carol is a family story full of music and laughter, but it's so much more too. It's a drama - the ultimate tale of regret and redemption; it's a love story - we see the pain that can linger long after an ending; and it's a story of morality - of making choices everyday until they build up to form a lifetime and a legacy. It's about knowing it's never too late to change.

And I think all of those things are why, in 2015, we still love A Christmas Carol, and most likely always will.

A Christmas Carol plays at the Rose Theatre Kingston until Sunday 3rd January.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Why I wish YouTubers had been around when I was a teenager

So today's the 2nd December. The countdown to Christmas has begun but so has something else. Something I'm a little embarrassed to admit to being excited about.

It's vlogmas.

If you've no idea what I'm talking about, fair enough! Vlogmas is when, over the countdown to Christmas, many YouTubers put out daily vlogs where we follow them over their days and festive fun.

And why I'm a little embarrassed about this is because I'm 25 - probably around the same age as many vloggers but about ten years older than their core audience.

Anyway I know we probs don't need another think piece about the world of YouTube, but I wanted to throw my perspective in - what I get from these videos now, and why I wish they'd been around when I was a teenager.

Why I enjoy them now

Even now I find make-up shopping a bit overwhelming - there's so much choice. How do you know which lipsticks stay put and which skincare works unless you try it? Trial and error takes too much money, so it's nice to have recommendations and advice from people who know what they're talking about.

I used to watch a lot of the beauty videos, but now less so as I'm pretty minimal with what I buy - if I really want something I'll get it, but no more mindlessly adding to bright lipsticks that I never wear anyway.

What I really like now are chatty videos, from the likes of Giovanna Fletcher, Carrie Hope Fletcher and Rosianna Halse Rojas, and the weekly vlogs from The Michalak family - which are beautifully edited and a lovely relaxing watch. I also love Louise/Sprinkle of Glitter's vlogs for a genuine glimpse into family life - and she's really funny.

The vlogmas thing I like because it means there's always something to watch, and it's just so festive. I especially enjoy and appreciate this when, like now, my chronic illness is bad and I have a lot of time at home, and not a lot of energy. (also just fyi: Zoella is putting out a video on both her main and vlog channel everyday, for 24 days. Blimey.)

Why I needed them then

As a teenager I had a silly mixture of simultaneously thinking all pursuits of beauty were vain, while also being really insecure about the state of my skin and general appearance.

In reality, maybe I wouldn't have been onboard with the YouTubers I watch now. I was too busy trying to be cynical and serious (while secretly being obsessed with Kristin Chenoweth videos on YouTube and Dancing On Ice on telly). And, like I said, the beauty world didn't interest me at all.

But then, maybe it would have - if I'd understood it. I never would have been straightening my hair or reapplying make-up at school, but if I could have known a bit more maybe I would have felt a little more confident. I'm sure I still would have struggled, because that's being a teenage girl, but it might have helped.

Equally, confidence is something a lot of YouTubers talk about. I really respect Zoe Sugg for often going without make-up in daily vlogs even when her skin is flaring up. She talks about this and reassures her viewers not to worry about their own skin.

Why they're a good thing

Pure entertainment! Because what's so wrong with that? And yes, they are entertaining. Just because people like to talk about beauty, that doesn't mean they're not also funny or intelligent. That's ridiculous.

But also - issues! YouTubers talk about real life difficulties in a way which is relatable. Zoella and anxiety, MegSays and chronic illness, Hannah Maggs and motherhood, etc etc.

It may be someone watching has struggled with the same thing and is too scared to talk about it, then there's someone speaking directly to camera, to them. They feel relieved. Maybe they talk to someone. That's a GOOD thing.

Then there's the book deals, which so many are skeptical of. BUT Zoella's Girl Online may be getting so many reading who don't usually. Then they read other books. And that's great.

What makes me a bit uncomfortable

With many videos focusing on "hauls" and extensive monthly favourites - I worry about the pressures on buying. If teen girls end up spending the little money they have on beauty products, and potentially saving for high-end so they can share favourites with their heroes - that's fine if they love it, but not if they're doing so because of pressure. What's more worrying also will be the girls who can't afford any products at all and may then feel bad about it.

Then the other thing for me was sometimes I used to find myself mindlessly watching these videos, whereas if I would have found a good film/documentary/TED talk or, you know, read a book - I would find more enjoyment and satisfaction. Like anything, it's about balance and moderation, and doing things mindfully. Sometimes all I want to do is be curled up and watch daily vlogs. More often I'll want to be lost in a book. Both are ok.

And there's also the issue of teenagers now dreaming of vlogging as a career, predominantly because of the gifting and the celebrity lifestyle - without necessarily realising the hard work that goes in, or how hard it is to actually earn money from. Still, if people are encouraged to make their own videos - that's a skill. And we don't criticise kids that want to be popstars with no real intention of doing so. Let people have their dreams, just maybe let's try to show the reality too.

The conclusion!

Let people be happy, and do their thing! Both vloggers and watchers.

Not everyone will enjoy watching these videos but they're not for everyone - that's ok. You might think it's vacuous but there's millions of others who don't (or who do and enjoy it anyway). You don't have to watch them so why waste energy criticising.

Also don't pin the whole world on them. They don't have a responsibility to be a feminist hero or talk about the issues you want them to.

But I feel like they are good role models. In an era of female popstars being marketed to young girls while wearing next to nothing with sexually provocative lyrics, I'd feel so relieved if I had a little girl looking up to Zoella.

I think a lot of the criticism that occurs is due to a presumption around lack of creativity, skill and hard work. I'd challenge anyone making that critique to put out the content these vloggers do, under their time pressures, or just at all. Yes some of them earn a lot of money, but they're also very good at what they do. If you don't like that then critique the system, not the creators.

And finally, some recommendations

For beauty & fashion: Zoella (obvs), ViviannaDoesMakeUp, Samantha Maria, FayesFix, LilyPebbles, Fleur De Force, WonderfulYou, LilyMelrose, HelloOctober, ICovetThee

For vlogs: The Michalaks (family life with just the cutest toddler), Sprinkle of Glitter & many of the above too

For lovely/interesting chatty videos: Carrie Hope Fletcher, Giovanna Fletcher, Rosianna Halse Rojas, Estée Lalonde

For healthy food: Deliciously Ella, Niomi Smart