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A degree of equality

It takes a special sort of person to start rowing at five in the morning. By rowing, I mean the sport, rather than arguing loudly, although you could argue (loudly) that there is a certain amount of sport in rowing competitively, and just as vigorous a training regime. But for now let’s stick with the concept of rowing (the sport) and the people who willingly get up before the birds on a cold wintry morning to don an implausibly thin piece of blue lycra and perch three inches above a stretch of river that is only a degree off freezing, with a small person yelling at them for three hours. For such is the training regime of your average university rower, and the lifestyle choice of all those men (and hurrah! women) you’ll see lined up, quietly shivering, on the Thames today.

Rowing, for the main part, is a fairly unobtrusive sport. We only really remember we’re actually quite good at it once every four years (it’s the Summer Olympics equivalent of Curling, only with fewer Scottish shouty people) and on one weekend at the beginning of April when thousands of people pledge allegiance to one of two towns in the south of England that they’ve probably never been to, but imagine is a bit like Hogwarts, only with fewer Scottish shouty people. For the rest of the time, rowing sinks into sporting oblivion. No international rowing stars adorn the front pages of the tabloids, leering blearily into 3am paparazzi lenses, whilst fighting a million pound divorce or a battle with alcoholism. You might get the odd one looking a little dazed and confused on a celebrity comedic panel show, reading lame jokes off an autocue and wondering how they ended up sitting next to Sean Locke, but for the most part, rowing has a good reputation – if you do it well enough you get made into a knight, and they all seem very jolly when they chuck the small person into the river at the end.

Well – let me dispel that myth. Although perhaps slightly unpatriotic to mention it, and I may well lose my membership to Cambridge forever more, may I say that those nice young university students you’ll see being interviewed by the lovely Clare Balding later on today have a slightly tarnished reputation in my eyes.

For that punishing training regime I mentioned, the one that sees them perched atop a carbon fibre banana skin at sparrowfart each morning, is one that I know all too well. I live on a boat just outside Cambridge, and due to our 3mm thick walls, and laughable insulation, what happens on the river at 5am basically happens inside my boat. The laughing. The shouting. The swearing. Trust me, the swearing. Inventive, these university types, in the language they use to describe their oars, their freezing cold feet, their colleagues and indeed these pesky barges that get in their way, being so casually parked at the side of (their) river.

So loud their voices! So screechy their oars, when dragged against the sides of your freshly-painted hull! So pleasant, that rocking motion, caused by the wake from their training boat zooming past at 15 knots. So sudden, that moment between deep night-time sleep and falling out of bed in fright. So relaxing, this boat life.

But I kid, of course. Just like every other Cambridgian on Saturday, I will naturally be cheering on the Light Blues, yelling at the Oxford lot to keep their oars on their own side of the river, and feeling a certain amount of pride (and an even larger amount of amusement) that our County’s finest minds are spending their Saturday splashing energetically on a bit of river around Putney Bridge.

And this year will be even better because, for the first time ever (a fact still slightly unbelievable given it’s 2015, and not the 1970s), the women’s race will be fought along the same stretch of river, and on the same day, as the Men’s. You heard that right. Prior to now, the ladies were entitled to race, but away from all the big crowds (presumably who wouldn’t want to see such an un-ladylike spectacle) and on a day when people weren’t quite so excited by the Main Event that someone with a whistle, and enough interest, could be found to set them off.

So – happy days. As befits the reputations of two of our best, and most progressive, educational establishments, both sexes will now be afforded a degree of equality, and those mums and dads who have packed their kids off to Cambridge and Oxford will now be able to cheer on both their sons and daughters from the same stretch of river on Race Day. And get a glimpse of Clare Balding. It’s a great leap forward for women’s sport, especially one so steeped in tradition, and with such ties to academia, and if the commentators can restrain themselves from making wet t-shirt remarks, it will be a great day.

And if Cambridge does win (they must be on a mission to recover those eleven lost lengths last year), I will give them a cheery wave from my porthole the next time they go past at daybreak, instead of my usual growl. Possibly. Come on you Blues!!

Grinding gears

My friend is a nurse. After working a sixteen hour shift with no breaks the other night, she went to the canteen and asked for steak and chips, and was told that, due to the time of night, she could only get a sandwich. So she said ok, thanks very much, I’ll have a sandwich.

Not very newsworthy, is it? A bit dull. Wouldn’t sell many papers. And it probably happens thousands of times every day – a hardworking person, on a low wage, is forced to eat something insubstantial and on the hoof, before falling into an uncomfortable bed, and waking up to do it all over again.

I expect nurses the world over feel sorry for Jeremy Clarkson. After a hard day’s filming (probably involving some difficult auto-cue reading, a test drive in an expensive sports car, and some casual racism), he was then forced to endure the prospect of some cold meats and salad, rather than the steak and chips he was obviously so hungry for.

Poor bloke. Lucky then that he was provided with a ‘junior member of staff’ who he could shout at for 20 minutes, before punching in the face. Every star needs a punch bag, and if Oisin Tymon didn’t realise what he was getting himself into when he signed up for the role of Producer at the BBC, he evidently didn’t read the small print.

But possibly we’re not hearing the full story. It takes more than one person to have a 20 minute argument, even if that person is Jeremy Clarkson, and the time spent fruitlessly arguing over a steak could have more profitably been spent ordering a takeaway. Maybe the producer had been winding Clarkson up all day, suggesting he redo the take because it simply wasn’t funny, or asking just how much longer the Top Gear team could stretch the same tired old format out for. JC is getting on a bit now. Perhaps he stalled the car, messed up a turn, forgot which gear he should be in (top) or had to redo an entire segment of the programme because he accidentally caused a diplomatic incident. We’ll never know.

What I do know, however, is that if my friend/brother/dad/husband had gone to work one day and come back with a punch in the face from his boss, I’d be pretty incensed. I’d want to know what the company was going to do about it. I’m not sure I’d describe it as a ‘fracas’. I think I’d call it assault. At the least, bullying with violence. Gross misconduct.

And so it has been proven, and Clarkson has been sacked, potentially facing criminal proceedings. It doesn’t matter how good he is at his job. There are rules in the workplace – rules in life, actually – that state that you don’t punch someone in the face over steak and chips. No matter who you are, or what you’ve been doing all day. Even if a million people, the PM and the white Power Ranger still think you’re God’s gift. You’re an idiot.

And on that bombshell…

In the midnight hour

A few months ago I signed up to an interesting-sounding competition, the NYC Short Screenplay Challenge, which gives screenwriters up to four assignments to write in four 48-hour periods, assigning them a genre, location and object to weave into five-page screenplays. It sounded simple enough, albeit within a very tight timescale, and I looked forward to the challenge.

Of course, when you sign up to something on paper, a few weeks in advance, everything sounds simple.

I didn’t bank on the first challenge landing on the same weekend as the London Screenwriters Festival, during which time I was spending up to ten hours a day immersed in creative writing lectures, seminars and talks (sorry, I think they’re the same thing) and really didn’t have the headspace to write a five page screenplay (nor, for that matter, a desk, staying as I was in my brother’s flat and attempting to balance a glass of wine, a laptop and a Pret sandwich for my tea on his bed). Despite the circumstances, however, I created my first entry, as well as some lasting relationships with other Festival-goers who were also participating in the Challenge.

My first challenge went as follows:

  • Genre: Suspense
  • Location: A running track
  • Object:  A steak knife

I really enjoyed this challenge. Mainly because it was the first one, and I didn’t yet know that I would get more and more stressed each consecutive round, with increasingly less time. I’ve never written anything ‘suspenseful’ before, nor with as little dialogue. I was off!!

Everyone progressed to the second round regardless of how well they did, but this time I felt more pressure. I scored 14 points in the first round, out of a possible 15. This meant I had to do well. The parameters were:

  • Genre: Romantic comedy
  • Location: A graveyard
  • Object: A popsicle

What kind of weirdo would set a romantic comedy in a graveyard? And hello, I’m not American, what the hell is a popsicle and why is it in my graveyard?

In addition, how is it fair that this particular weekend falls between me leaving my old job and starting another, leaving me approximately 12 hours inbetween throwing out my old wardrobe and re-mortgaging the boat to fund my weekly train ticket to create something vaguely entertaining. I ended up abandoning my first idea, panicking and going for something completely different in the final three hours, hating it, cracking open a bottle of wine, deciding it was ok, sweating a lot, until I finally had something I thought was passable.

The challenge is New York based, and runs from midnight Friday, to Midnight Sunday. As we’re a few hours ahead, the challenge for UK writers started at 6am on Saturday morning and finished at 6am on the following Monday morning. My first all-nighter (well, 3am) was pulled during Challenge two, making my first London Monday morning commute quite an experience.

Amazingly, I got through. Challenge 3 awaited:

  • Genre: Comedy
  • Location:  A public library
  • Object: Prescription medicine bottle

My favourite by far. Maybe it says something odd about my psyche but I instantly thought of two old biddies setting up a drug deal in their local library, siphoning off their nursing home fellows’ prescription drugs to two young hoodlums. It wrote itself, and was the only one I enjoyed. Ironically it did the worst of all the challenges, but I scraped through to the final round. The final round!!!

‪So there I was, awaiting my final challenge, and trying not to worry too much about the fact that I had planned a cocktail night on the Saturday evening, and had a four hour choir rehearsal on the Sunday (hangover permitting). Plus a trip to a ski shop to buy new gloves. I got:

  • Genre: Open
  • Location: A zoo
  • Object: A hidden camera

A myriad of ideas sprang to mind. The location and object seemed to work really well together – there could be so many reasons to why a hidden camera would be in a zoo. I sat by the fire on Saturday morning and drew an impressive mind map of ideas, getting thoroughly carried away with coloured pencils and squiggly lines. Most of my ideas revolved around undercover reporters and the birth of an endangered species at the zoo. Then I decided that it was all hopelessly unoriginal and uninspiring, and sat in a funk for a while, before deciding that, if I didn’t know what I wanted to write, I might as well list some ideas that I really didn’t want to write. The first involved talking animals.

I then devised a script in which talking animals foiled a plot by an undercover reporter to film the live birth of a new baby panda at the zoo. Ta dah!

It took a while to finesse, and I wasn’t convinced it was my best work, but during the course of my research I discovered that a baby panda weighs only 100 grams when born, and that the twitter bird is called Larry, so all in all it was an educational weekend, plus I got a really nice pair of gloves.

Two days after submitting my entry, however, I felt a bit depressed, deciding I hadn’t done my best, and it was highly unlikely I would have placed. Then I read a few entries on the forums and realised everyone else felt this way, so decided just to shut up about it. So much so that I nearly forgot about when the results came out, and only realised the evening before – hence a sleepless, anxiety-ridden night in which I dreamt that the results were being announced at the top of a rather steep mountain (I wasn’t even wearing my cosy gloves), and during which I would keep waking up (heart beating stupidly fast, I do rather hope for the sake of my health I never actually get nominated for a serious award) before the results were announced.

At 4am my phone beeped, signifying the results were in. I skim-read the email in the darkness of my bedroom, eyes blurred from lack of sleep and snow-induced nightmares, and realised I wasn’t on it. I wasn’t in the top ten. Gutted.

And then my eyes adjusted and I stopped crying, and realised I had come third. Third!! I was pleased.

Of course I had to check about nineteen times that it was true, including on the main website, Twitter, Facebook, and anywhere I could seek validation. It was true – I was $250 richer, had some lovely free software to boot, and had beaten 498 other people to get there. Through talking animals.

Writing’s a funny old game.

I have subsequently signed up for the next competition (these people know how to do their marketing), which is a longer challenge, producing 12-page screenplays over a week-long period, which should be slightly less stressful and will feel like a luxury after condensing everything into five pages up until now. It has been a great exercise in discipline, and has forced me to write outside of my usual genre, and in a different format. And it has enabled me to test just how sleep deprived I can get, but still function. There’s still time to enter if you fancy competing, and if you wish to read my scribblings, here they are.

Round : Last legs

Round 2: In the land of the dead

Round 3: Alternative medicine

Final: Pandamonium

The word is not enough

Last weekend my sister gave birth to a beautiful baby boy, her second child, making me a proud aunt for the fifth time over. I take particular pride in this ever-growing brood of nieces and nephews, it being the most passive way I can attain praise and congratulations for doing nothing more demanding than being the sister, or sister-in-law, of the people doing all the hard work. My sister has made it especially easy for me this time round, arranging to give birth on the same day as both my mum and her daughter celebrate their birthdays, so I don’t even have an additional date to remember. I applaud her efficiency.

In the interests of efficiency however, I was struck with the notion that, to my knowledge, there was no shorthand way of telling people that I had gained a new addition to my extended family. I appreciate this is probably the definition of a First World Problem, but I could think of no collective word for niece and/or nephew. Whilst a granny can proudly boast she has two grandchildren, or a mother that she has five sons (God help her), poor old Auntie here has to laboriously say she has three nephews and two nieces, whilst screwing up her face in concentration to decide if this is really true or if it’s the other way around. Hang on, three nieces and two nephews. No, wait, I had it right the first time. Oh, you’ve lost interest.

Surely after all these years, I thought, someone must have noticed there is a gaping hole in the market for this collective word, and done something to fill it. If we can come up with a name for someone who creates crosswords (I’m sure everyone has used the word ‘cruciverbalist’ at least once this week), then we must be able to put our literary heads together to find a word for this much-needed term.

So I took it upon myself to solve this pressing problem, and after much deliberation, came up with what I decided was the best word ever for referring to a collection of nieces and nephews – nibling. Do you see what I did there? I took the first letter of both words, and combined it with the word sibling, and in so doing came up with a word that is adorably cute and will create a brand new sub-sector for greeting cards companies.

Satisfied that I had secured myself a footnote in Wikipedia for all eternity, imagining people looking back and saying – “Wow, do you remember when we didn’t have a word for a nibling? Crazy times!” – I wrote up this blog, feeling enormously proud of myself, and my creativity. And then I went on Google.

I am not a journalist, nor do I ever wish to become one, mainly because there is this tiresome thing they are supposed to do called ‘fact checking’ before publication. Imagine my disappointment and despair to learn that there IS actually a collective word for nieces and nephews. And guess what – it’s nibling. NIBLING!

Concerned, I delved a little deeper. I like making up words. Like scimple – for the scab that forms when you pick a pimple. Or belight – for the occasion when you both baffle and delight someone (often by informing them of your brand new word, nibling). I’ve even gone so far as to invent a word to put all these new words in – the alexicon. But they’ve all been thought of before. All of my words, already in the sodding Urban Dictionary. Except for the Alexicon, which is apparently a telecommunications company in Colorado.

I suppose I could feel validated – my thought processes are evidently sound – but rather I feel supremely disappointed that someone else has discovered these words for themselves before me. I suppose the Golden Age of word-mongering, in all likelihood, was many thousands of years ago. I can imagine a particularly distinguished caveman sat in a clearing being presented with objects for his appraisal, scratching his head and proclaiming ‘rock’, ‘bird’, ‘wife’, ‘nintendo’.

And all the local people from the surrounding villages shuffling off to tell the neighbours that henceforth this thing they had been using to poke fires and hit their wives with was a ‘stick’, and being delighted that they could now tell each other they had done so.

I think I would have liked to have been around during these times – I would have had a lot to add (and certainly several more uses for the stick). But I think there is still space in our lives, and our dictionaries, for new words (even if they’re only briefly new to us before we realise some bugger came up with it years ago), and I welcome you all to belight me with yours. The best will assuredly get a place in the alexicon, and be treasured by my many be-scimpled niblings forever more.

Snow way

Travelling to work today on the train, I was most perplexed to awake from my morning nap and discover snow. Unless I had been particularly unobservant on my shuffle to the train station this morning, we have not yet had snow in Ely (disappointingly, no earthquakes either – the Fens is quite dull in comparison to the rest of the UK).

But on leaving Cambridge, as though suddenly ducking through the Wardrobe Door into Narnia, the whole landscape changed to one of thick, velvety snow. And we’re travelling south! It’s like Royston has its own mini micro-climate (if not a magical lion, a witch in a spiky coat, and a dubious religious message) and is taking one for the team, as ten miles later we were back to green(ish) fields, and the usual industrial damp.

But – snow is apparently on its way. If it’s hit Royston, that usually means we’ll get it in a couple of days. “Yay, snow!” everyone will gleefully shout on Facebook, attempting to convince themselves that cold fluffy water that guarantees damp ankles and grumpy husbands is actually a Good Thing, and not just a royal pain in the ass. Snowmen! Snowball fights! Snow angels! Yay winter!

No. Snow is not cause for the word ‘yay’. With snow comes an annual realisation that gloves procured at £3.99 from the Saturday market are just false economy. Coats that smell like damp dog. Boots that thaw into a pool of muddy water, and coal that now weighs an extra five kilos, and doesn’t burn.

Unless you are five, snow is not fun. Even if you are five, snow is only fun for approximately ten minutes, after which it is followed by numb feet, lost mittens, and a crushing sense of failure when your pathetic attempt at a snowman uses up all the snow in your backyard and is still only two foot tall, and your mum doesn’t have a carrot. Or says she doesn’t.

Snow makes living on the boat… challenging. The roof boards creak ominously under the weight of a snowdrift, our skylights blanketed, our portholes frozen in a sticky rime. If the river freezes, a disconcerting ping echoes around the boat, as the ice plates shift and we, with mounting hysteria, agree that having only 12mm of ageing steel between us and impromptu hypothermia is no way to live. The decks of the boat become twenty metres of sheet ice, and, hilarious to the casual onlooker, one has to plant one’s feet at right angles against the sides of the gunnels, hands firmly clutching the roof and the handrails, in order to navigate the six feet of walkway between the hatch and the relative safety of the bank. Watching the cat traverse this hazard is reminiscent of the scene in which Bambi takes a spin on an ice-covered lake, only less graceful. Having embarrassed himself several times, the cat now just stays inside until spring, and pees in the sink.

As for snow and the morning commute? Well. My 12-minute walk to the train station will easily be doubled as I am extra cautious not to career down the riverbank into the water. I foresee major delays as February takes Network Rail completely by surprise and a two-inch drift shuts down the main lines until they can get the right kind of staff. The heating will fail, the train will stop for no good reason next to a field, and there will be panic buying of hot sausage rolls from the buffet cart. (I’m kidding – there is no buffet cart.)

I’m not a killjoy. Snow has its place. That place is halfway up a picturesque mountain, under my skis, and surrounding a hot tub in which I am sat, large gin and tonic in hand. Where I’ll be in approximately three weeks in fact. Now THAT is cause for the word yay.

Commuter says no

So, I have become a ‘commuter’. This is less an activity as a state of mind… I commute, therefore I am (knackered). It’s not a means of transportation, it’s a way of life. No longer is a train journey a simple method of getting from A to B. It’s 25% of my waking day, largely spent in the company of other droopy-eyed, wearily shuffling people, who (like me) barely get past the ‘rush hour crush’ section of the Metro before succumbing to sleep. I’m writing this on the train right now, laptop wedged on the impossibly tiny shelf on the back of the seat in front, next to the laughably shallow drinks cup indentation, from which only the tiniest shudder of the train can cause a paper cup of scalding hot coffee to fly halfway down the carriage.

Without shifting in my seat, I can see at least five people in the land of ‘train sleep’, mouth open, head cricked to 45 degrees, occasionally jerked awake by an uneven train track, with the panicked stare that precedes the grateful realisation that they haven’t yet missed their stop, or given their neighbour a second degree burn from their half-finished Costa, and can wipe the drool from their chins and have another quick snooze before alighting. There is no one yet snoring, but we are not quite past Royston, after which it is non-stop to Kings Cross, and the lack of bing-bong announcements, coupled with the soporific effect of the heaters blasting our ankles, reduces practically the entire carriage to an eerie silence otherwise not experienced outside a long-haul flight, or the mid-section of ‘The tree of life’. I reckon if the train gently pulled into a siding and just sat there motionless for a couple of hours, we’d barely notice (and be grateful for the extra sleep).

Regular readers of my blog (I apologise to both of you for not having written in so long) will know I have something of a fondness for ranting about trains. Whether it’s a diatribe on the unfair and outdated approach train operators have towards the class system, or the fact the wrong kind of sunshine can shut down the train network within minutes, it’s a fairly safe bet that I’ll find something to moan about.

I’m actually *not* going to mention the extortionate train fares that are weekly costing me more than groceries, mainly because the thought of how much hard-earned cash is being fed through that ticket barrier is just too depressing to contemplate. Today, UK train fares have increased by an average of 2.5%, and I am quietly hoping my fellow commuters will be sufficiently inspired by such daylight robbery to have a full-on Russell Brand-esque tantrum about how the annual price hike in fares perfectly mirrors a consistently poorer, later, shoddier service, that not only refuses to take responsibility for its own rubbishness (Abellio thanks its customers for their patience, as opposed to apologising for its own ineptitude) but also demands more money for the privilege of standing nose-to-armpit for four hours a day, on older, more rickety trains.*

Of course, no one is forcing me to daily embark on this epic journey. But until London magics its way 50 miles closer to my boat (I guess, practically, it might be easier to make the reverse true), I can be found in a state of bewildered sleep somewhere around the third carriage of the 6.52 from Ely, clutching a cold coffee and attempting to make a blanket out of the Metro. I will be dreaming about a bright future in which teleportation affords me an extra two hours in bed each morning, where I don’t spend a further fifth of my daily wage at the Little Waitrose recently (ingeniously) installed at King’s Cross station, and in which I can accidentally make eye contact with a stranger without fear of being yelled at for privacy infringement. Don’t wake me (unless I’ve gone past Ely – I really don’t want to end up in King’s Lynn).

*Oh dear, it appears I am.

Tesco’s got its hat on

I love the little green hat over the Tesco ‘O’. When the store first introduced these little illuminated decorations, back in 2012, I was utterly charmed. That hat signified real creativity, showed Tesco had a sense of humour, and was prepared to spend a significant amount of money on making its customers happy at Christmas. I bet all the other supermarket chains were kicking themselves, and their respective PR companies, for not having thought of it first.

In the run up to Christmas last year, I wondered if they would do it again – perhaps the hat would be a different colour, perched jauntily on a different letter, or changed entirely to something else – a snowflake or a bobble hat perhaps. But it remained the same (fair enough – Christmas decorations cost money, and if we’re allowed to dust off the same tired old lights and tinsel retrieved from the attic each year, so too should Tesco). And by doing it two years’ running, it set a precedent, a tradition. You can imagine how the PR person pitched it – suggesting that in ten years’ time perhaps people would look back on their childhoods and say “you always knew it was close to Christmas when the Tesco hat came on”. It was a win.

But this year, I’m a little cynical. The hat went up, as has now become usual, at the beginning of November, signalling to all for miles around that Tesco was open for Christmas business, piling its shelves high with festive goodies that would be bought and eaten before advent had even begun, shining its bright cosy beacon over the competition, who remained sullenly under-dressed – no orange reindeer from Sainsbury, or yellow Ant and Dec cut outs for Morrison’s. And days later, this.

Maybe I’m just a cynic, but when your first thought is ‘that’s a clever marketing campaign’, rather than ‘what a lovely gesture’, surely the campaign in question is a bit of an own goal. The story behind the advert goes that Claire Hannah, a happily photogenic ‘Wigan girl’, tweeted Tesco to express her disappointment that her local store didn’t have a hat. (It wasn’t the only one, there are over 3,000 Tesco stores in the UK and only 700 have hats.) Tesco listened carefully and instead of merely acting upon customer feedback, and erecting a hat on the Wigan store this year, went the extra mile* and staged a full-on light show for 800 of the town’s most photogenic, well-behaved general public. For eight hours. In October. Featuring a 78 metre screen, one million LED lights, dancing elves, and the happy and proud face of Ms Hannah, the advert ‘went viral’ (a spurious notion these days, when ‘going viral’ merely involves the Tesco PR team paying Facebook a fortune to make it appear, unwanted or otherwise, in millions of people’s timelines as a ‘suggested post’) and we were all informed that Tesco had acted on customer feedback and made a fun and useful gesture to the people of Wigan, whose Christmas just wouldn’t be complete without an eight hour photo shoot from the UK’s favourite retailer. Plus, all us living down south got to see what ‘up north’ looked like at Christmas (October).

My apologies for my cynicism. I like the green Tesco hat. It lights up my journey to work on a cold December morning, acting as a reminder that, with four days to go, I really should stock up on sausage rolls and bulk buy aspirin and rennies. But it was its understatedness that I liked – no fuss, no scaffolding, just magically appearing one morning like an early Christmas present. YouTube videos (including the ubiquitous ‘making of’ film) just reeks of ‘look at us, we are so good to our customers, we even listen to what they say’, and you can only imagine the pat on the back, and large retainer, the ‘people behind the 2012 Olympics’ got for their genius idea. It cheapens it, if anything, which unfortunately cannot be said for the supermarket’s approach to its prices this year. You’ve got to wonder how many other tweets were sent, complaining that other stores didn’t have a hat. And how seriously those complaints were taken if no good photo opportunity could be found.

The turf war between the big supermarkets is being hard fought at the moment, and it will be interesting to see if any of Tesco’s rivals use a similar ‘we listen to our customers on social media’ approach in the new year. But I suspect Sainsbury will continue to embarrass itself with leaked employee-only posters, whilst Aldi chuckles all the way to the piggy bank. And I shan’t be sad to see the little green hat go, especially if the contractors who so skilfully and efficiently erected them manage to take them down without making a song and a dance about it (or God forbid, a time-lapse video). Oh.

*every little helps

On a high

If someone had told me, a month ago, that I would be spending my Monday nights singing a Norwegian carol in a draughty studio off East Road in Cambridge, whilst sober, I’d have probably told them they were drunk. Or at least, that I should be.

I’m not hugely musical. I spent a painful three years attempting to learn the flute at secondary school, keeping up the pretence that I was gradually improving, and my mother’s patience whilst sat outside my tutor’s house in a leafy suburb would one day be worth the effort. I gave it up at age fifteen, deciding boys and weekend lie-ins were better.

I’ve had not had much singing experience either. I clearly recall the look of dismay and anguish on my colleagues’ faces as I attempted karaoke at last year’s work’s Christmas party, and noticed the whispered instructions to the barman to not let me near any more cocktails (or indeed the mic).

But I’ve always loved music, and have been told, in sober moments, that I have a passable singing voice. And so, when attending a Christmas concert last year at the Cambridge Corn Exchange, by an outfit called the Dowsing Sound Collective, because a couple of my friends were in it, and I wanted to ‘feel Christmassy’, I got thoroughly carried away during the audience participation, and romped my way through the carols and tunes we were invited to sing along to. I loved it, and wanted to be part of it. But inevitably life sort of got in the way and I forgot all about it, and only remembered again a few weeks ago, and decided to put my name down on the off chance they might need a slightly tipsy second soprano.

Amazingly (for me, less so for them) they did, and so it is that I find myself on a slightly damp Monday evening singing some bizarre Icelandic pidgin, to a tune I definitely recall hearing on almost infinite repeat during the World Cup some years back, whilst voices soar high and low around me.

And what voices! Although an amateur choir, they are gorgeous. High, low, hesitant, proud, rich and throaty, and angel-wing soft. Amongst this cacophony of noise my soul soars and (dear God I’m getting poetic, this doesn’t happen often) I find myself grinning through the la’s, not having a clue what I’m singing but thoroughly enjoying every moment of this shared high.

And we’re doing a gig! Blow me if they’re not letting me loose on a stage, with a band and a sound system, and something like 1500 people in front of me, waiting expectantly to ‘feel Christmassy’. It’s going to be amazing and I cannot wait.

So if you see me wandering around the vicinity of East Road on a Monday evening between now and Christmas, headphones in with absolutely blatant disregard for my surroundings, the general public, and indeed traffic, warbling some incomprehensible high note, don’t worry – I’m not insane, or even drunk. I’m just practising my high C. See you at the gig.

Peril at sea – All is lost vs Captain Phillips

In the past week, I’ve watched two ‘peril at sea’ movies on DVD – the amazing Captain Phillips (a true story of the first American cargo ship to be hijacked in 200 years) and Robert Redford’s one-man-catastrophe, All is lost, the story of a man whose boat hits a shipping container and gradually sinks.

The fact that I’m ‘a bit boaty’ probably plays a large part in my enjoyment of the first, and frustration of the latter. I have no knowledge of cargo ships, Somalian pirates (other than what I’ve seen on the Ten o’clock news), or the US Navy, but everything I saw in that film seemed believable. The sense of claustrophobia that built up in the lifeboat as the pirates’ water ran out and their situation got more and more desperate was totally believable – I got thirsty, and you could have heard a pin drop.

Contrast this to the ridiculous behaviour of the main character (‘our man’) in All is lost, who swears just once in the entire film, and didn’t even attempt to fix the electric systems on his boat (which would have solved all his problems in an instant), and the reason as to why one film experience was interesting and insightful, and the other was two hours of yelling at the screen, is clear. All is lost, whilst beautiful to look at (I believe it was commended for its cinematography – but then so was Tree of Life), had nothing to hold the viewer’s interest. The inciting incident happened right at the beginning, but after Redford had repaired the hole, it seemed the danger was over. Then a crack of thunder rumbled in the distance, and seconds later his boat was pitch-poling through 40-foot high waves – and we had the kettle on.

Captain Phillips employs a similar ‘eek, here comes trouble’ moment, when the pirates first appear on the sonar scan, and then as they creep ominously closer, before being scared off back into the shadows. However, in contrast to the ‘first a hole, now a storm’ plot development of All is lost, Captain Phillips cranks up the tension amongst the characters, who know the danger hasn’t passed, and the pirates will be back.

Plus, there’s no back story. Ok, so Captain Phillips’ back story consists of a highly expositional car ride with the Captain expressing his worries about his under-achieving teenaged son, and a bunch of Somalian guys looking menacing and expressing their need for money. But at least the story-writers gave us something. We knew from the start that Tom Hanks was a good guy, and the pirates were in desperate circumstances. We could empathise, and see what each had at stake.

All is lost opens with our man’s boat hitting a container, and a great big hole opening up in his boat. He looks a bit puzzled, ties a couple of knots, and then sets about a highly improbable epoxy repair to the hull. We have no idea who he is, where he is, what he’s doing there, or why. His ‘message in a bottle’, which we learn he writes eight days later when ‘all is lost’, is written to the only audience likely to ever read it – a faceless ocean.

Ben lost patience almost immediately, when the deep-sea yachtsman seemed to express very little interest in salvaging the important parts of his boat, and was more intent on having a shave and doing a bit of tidying up than repairing the damage or trying to start the engine. I was confident we would soon find out why the character was so lackadaisical. Maybe he’s suicidal. Maybe ‘all is already lost’ I suggested – his wife’s left him, he’s lost his job, all he has left is his boat which he’s sailing to a new life – or maybe his own death. Maybe he wants to get wrecked.

But no, he’s just a bit useless. He bumps his head and flaps some maps about. He eats beans out of a can. He fills up a container with water only to leave the breather cap open so it gets contaminated by seawater (the one and only time he gets a bit cross).

Contrast this to Captain Phillips and his crew, who between them fight off the pirates the first time, then reason, negotiate, and failing that, hurt their adversaries (that glass in the foot looked very painful), in an effort to survive. When ‘our man’ tells us in his suicide note (for that is what it is) “I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried,” he earned not sympathy and pity from the audience, but a snort of derision. I know who I would rather share a boat with.

It’s a shame, because Robert Redford acts, for the most part, really well, and it could have been a great story – if it actually had one. Without giving away the ending, it was pure Hollywood, over-dramatisation, leaving a gaping emotional hole far bigger than the rather incidental damage to the side of the boat. Captain Phillips’ ending, by contrast, had me in floods of tears, cursing Tom Hanks’ name for ruining my mascara.

There is a scene in All is lost in which Redford nearly gets mown down by a cargo ship storming past his life raft. He yells a bit, lets off a flare, and then sulks when it doesn’t see him. I can’t help but hope it was Captain Phillips’ boat, being altogether too busy telling a good story to notice this little guy yelling on his piece of floating plastic. Now that would have made a good film.

You only live once

We unplugged the computer the other night in the midst of a sheet lightning thunderstorm, to avoid a potential power surge taking out it and other electrical equipment on the boat. It was still on standby, however, so the battery continued to drain, and as the computer is quite old, it got itself in a bit of a flap this evening when I tried to boot it up, making all sorts of panicked noises and a brief diversion into the blue screen of death before finally coming-to, making me promise never to unplug it again, and warning me I may have lost vital bits of information. I’ve yet to work out what those bits of information are, or how vital they may prove to be, but an interesting thing I have noticed is that it has reset itself back five years in time – presumably to when we first bought it. The clock now says it’s midday on 20 August 2009.

And it got me thinking about what I was doing at that date and time. Presumably making the mistake of buying a Dell computer, but what else? What was my life like, almost five years ago, and how much has it changed? What would I change? Would I go back and do it again?

As I am four days away from my 35th birthday, the answer, sensibly and unhesitatingly, is hell yes! 35 seems so friggin old. It’s halfway to 70. It’s the latter half of my 30s. It’s when all sensible, normal people are settling down with kids and mortgages, career advancements and pension plans, whilst I still can’t make up my mind between Pinot and Chardonnay, and have yet to settle on a definable hairstyle.

But it’s more than that. Five years ago we were in the Netherlands, just about to cruise into Belgium and then France, where we would live for three-and-a-half years. I had just spent the driest birthday of my life in a town called Tilburg, where we had failed to realise one couldn’t purchase alcohol on a Sunday, and ended up eating our celebratory meal in a McDonalds with a couple and their daughter who had no clue it was my birthday. An inauspicious start to my fourth decade, but it was to get much better. Over the next few years we would travel around France on our boat, drink our body weights in fizzy plonk in the Champagne region, meet some wonderful friends (most of whom, regrettably, we no longer see), learn a smattering of French, get to experience a whole new culture, spend my next birthday on a hill in Montmartre with our boat tucked cosily (if expensively) in the Arsenal below – and a million other experiences we could never have dreamt of when we first made the decision to move abroad.

In the last few years I have become an auntie four times to two gorgeous girls and two hilarious boys. I’ve seen best friends marry, and others split up, made new friends and lost old ones, and begun a whole new hobby – screenwriting – that five years ago I had never even given a thought.

I’ve snuck into a private screening at the Venice Film Festival, camped in the Mojave Desert, tasted a 500 euro bottle of wine, and nearly drowned in a canoe (ok not really but it felt quite dramatic at the time). And I’ve returned home.

I don’t think we ever really meant to stay away as long as we did. When we first bought Freya, and were offered a free mooring, it just seemed like a cool opportunity, to delay coming home for a bit. See a bit of Holland, grow some tulips, wear some clogs. And then we ended up in France, and enjoyed the wine a bit too much, and ended up living the kind of life we were living back in the UK (cosy marina, quiet community, me working on my computer, Ben fixing up the boat) but just in a small town in northern France, where the river froze solid for three months in winter and you couldn’t buy hummus for love nor money.

So we came home (by way of a hefty loan and an anxious three-day wait for our boat to return on a lorry), and it was almost like we’d never left, and now, two and a bit years later, I’m about to turn 35, and wondering where on earth all the time went.

And that little clock on the right hand side of my screen is beckoning me, like a secret little portal. Come back, come back, regain your youth. Relive all those happy memories (and don’t for God’s sake do all the stupid things you managed in those five years too, like attempt to dye your hair blonde, buy a Windows phone, or go and see ‘Tree of Life’. You won’t get those two-and-a-half-hours back, y’know.)

What would those five years be like if I could take the wisdom I’ve gained, the experiences I’ve had, the regrets and the lessons learnt, and the joys and the sorrows? Well – probably quite boring actually. OK, I’d always order the best thing off the menu, know how to win an argument, maybe even make a few quid with some strategic bets (although my memory is so bad, probably not. I had to think for a minute who’s just won the World Cup, and I won the office sweepstake.). But I’d also now know the endings to all my favourite TV programmes before I watched them (Game of Thrones wouldn’t be half as much fun if you knew who was about to be bumped off – it would be like reading the books). All those meetings to sit through again! All that back-breaking work on the boat (which, incidentally, we are doing again, because apparently Dutch steel is impervious to paint and just keeps on rusting). All those hangovers? Perhaps I’d become teetotal.

No, maybe I should leave that little clock alone. It can wink at me as enticingly as it likes, I’m staying firmly in the present. As some great Twenty-First Century philosopher once said, #YOLO, and that’s probably for good reason. No one likes the smart-ass who always gets everything right, who never makes a mistake. And I think, if I did go back and do my 30s all over again, I really wouldn’t have the energy for the next five years. 40! Good God. If I still have this Dell laptop in a further five years time (I find this highly unlikely), maybe I’ll pray for another electrical storm, and see what happens.