Health · Personal · thoughts

My body is home

When I was 18, I barely ate. It wasn’t that food was the enemy like it is for so many other girls – and indeed, like it was for me through periods of my early teenagehood. It was more that it took up so much energy to cook and depression had a firm hold on me. I started university with good intentions: I’d cook regularly, I’d join the gym. Instead, I found myself in an endless cycle of lectures, Cup-a-Soup and naps.

Without even trying, I became the thin girl I always wanted to be. The one that I felt pushed into being thin by the rigorous body policing that went on at school. I didn’t even notice how unhealthy I’d become, all that mattered was that I was a size 10. I paraded my thinness around my hometown like a badge of honour in the hope that those who had put me down for being chubby and unfit throughout school would see this new, thin me and feel guilty for all the pain they put me through. I was untouchable.

My relationship with my body image fluctuated endlessly throughout university. Finally giving in to the advice that exercise would be some sort of panacea for my mental health problems, I joined the gym in 3rd year and within two months, ran a 5K to raise money for Health in Mind. I finished it in 32 minutes – not the best by any stretch, but my best. I don’t think it was the exercise itself that improved my mental health per se, but rather the fact that I knew I was challenging myself and smashing little goals every day. The knowledge that I was strong enough to do something incredible like that carried me through the next six months.

And then 4th year hit and everything changed. To put it in perspective, I just wrote that it went wrong, but on reflection, I don’t think it was “wrong” – just different. I comfort ate my way through my dissertation, drank way too much cider as a “reward” for my hard work (okay, I’m just making up excuses now – I drank it because I love it, and it’s still like my kryptonite), and gym time was practically non-existent because my workload was just too exhausting. I piled on so much weight and it wasn’t even until I’d graduated and took a long hard look at my selfie that I realised how much of a sedentary lump I’d become.

But recently, I’ve noticed how totally badass my body has become. I truly think it’s all because of roller derby. You never truly shake off mental illness, even if you’re “recovered” in most aspects of your life, and there’s still this voice in my head telling me that I should lose some weight, get those razor cheekbones back, get back into my size 10 jeans. But then, I look at what I’ve become. Would I trade my strength and newfound muscular thighs and DDs just for cheekbones and a sense of pleasing those that don’t matter? On some days yes, but most of the time…no. Because I’m gradually beginning to embrace this lucrative thing called “self-worth”.

My body is home. It’s strong. It can do so many things. I can skate at top speed for five minutes without getting winded. Other things I can do on skates include jumping, weaving really fast around cones, hitting people, getting hit by people and recovering in seconds…the list goes on. I cycle just under eight miles every day. I can power up hills on my bike without getting off to push like I used to. I can run 5k with barely any walking breaks – I’ve not quite beaten my 32 minute personal best, but I’m down to 35 minutes after not running for two years so I’d say that’s awesome, and even more awesome when you consider it used to take me half a 55-minute PE lesson to do the 1600m at school because I’d be so out of breath. I can hold onto my toes without bending my knees. I can leg press over half my body weight and I’m constantly building on that. I am the queen of squats, if I do say so myself. I’m far from ripped, and I’m carrying a bit of belly, and there are so many days I weigh myself and think “how on earth have I gained weight when I exercises SO MUCH?” (muscle, that’s how). But I know I can do amazing things. I refuse to believe anyone who tells me otherwise.

In the end, it’s not what your body looks like, it’s what it can do. Every day I’m amazed by how far I’ve come and I really hope that by striving to do more and more badass things every day, I’ll finally be able to conquer the demon that tells me that my looks and how others judge me are more important than my own happiness.

Our bodies deserve more than to be war-torn and collateral
Offering this fuckdom as a pathetic means to say,
“I only know how to exist when I am wanted.”

Girls like us are hardly ever wanted, you know
We’re used up and we’re sad and drunk and
Perpetually waiting by the phone for someone to pick up and tell us that we did good
Well, you did good.

I know I am because I said I am.
My body is home.

Mary Lambert

very important
December 2012 vs. May 2017
Miscellaneous · Personal · thoughts · Uncategorized

Generation Busy

This post has been a long time coming. I unfortunately lost my job last month, and while I’ve been offered another job, it doesn’t start until the end of the month. What that means is that I’ve had a lot of time to sit around and think. At times it’s been frustrating and boring and, let’s be honest, having an income is nice, but on the other hand it’s given me pause for thought about what it means to be busy.

At the moment I’m listening to Brené Brown’s lecture series ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, inspired by her TED talk of the same name. It’s been one of my favourite TED talks since my counsellor in third year of Uni recommended it to me, but the full lecture series is even better. Honestly, in that classic “who would you invite to a dinner party, dead or alive” scenario, Brené would be top of the list – she’s insanely clever, sassy without being snarky, and I just generally think we’d get on pretty well.

One of the things she discusses is our fascination with being busy. How we get a kick out of being able to reel off a list of things that are taking up our time and attention, how we brag about the hours we’ve put in at work, and how, if we admit that we’re feeling pretty relaxed about life, people don’t seem to know how to respond. In western culture, being busy to the point of meltdown is something of a status symbol. We endlessly compare ourselves to our peers and beat ourselves up if we suspect that we’re not making the most of our time.

It’s something that I witnessed all the time as a student. “How many words have you written yet?” was a hot topic of conversation and people would loudly moan about spending full days in the library and not leaving until they were thrown out at 2am. I don’t think these comments are helpful to anyone. Beneath the complaints is insecurity. Often people say these things not to vent their own genuine frustration or to encourage empathy, but to assess the competition. To find out how hard others are working. To see where they sit in the pecking order. To quell the universal voice of shame that insists we are only worthy of feeling joy if we’ve suffered the hard graft and “earned” it through tangible “success”. The culture of studying to the point of exhaustion is something that’s only going to get worse as Universities like my own introduce nap pods and 24/7 opening hours.

My main cause for excitement upon graduation was the thought that I could finally leave my work at work and have time to indulge my passions outside work hours. For the most part, I’ve been able to do so, but I can’t help but suppress that niggling feeling that I should be doing more. It makes me feel so stressed when I see people my age without an inch of wiggle room in their daily schedule, because I can’t help but compare myself to them. It think it’s a generational thing. There’s much more competition among us millennials to find full-time, emotionally rewarding work, and we must resort to filling every second of our time with activities, projects and courses that will enrich our employability. All this is often on top of paid employment that pays the bills in the mean time. Is it any surprise that, in a recent worldwide study of young people (defined as being 15-21 years old, but probably with similar trends just outwith this age bracket), Britons exhibited the second-worst mental wellbeing?

I’m sure to some, this kind of lifestyle provides good motivation and is perhaps even desirable. But in my opinion, it’s sad that the economy has gotten to the point where this is seen as a normal way to survive. Where’s the time to reflect? To be kind to ourselves? To work smarter, not harder? We often have to push ourselves to exhaustion just to be seen as competent, but with no support system to keep our wellbeing afloat. Mental health services are vastly underfunded, meaning not only a lack of services, but less money put into campaigns that encourage us to be open about our mental health. The vulnerability required to reach out and say “actually, I think I’m overworked” or “I need some time off to get my mind in order” is seen as weakness when really, being able to tap into your own emotions and ask for help is one of the bravest things you can do.

It’s time we stop glorifying this kind of exhaustion. I’m fed up of feeling a deep sense of shame when I’m not “busy enough”, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

Health · Personal

This Girl Can…Kind Of

This post is brought to you by Deep Heat! Well, not really, but it ought to be for the amount they’ve saved my ass (literally) this past week.

The reason for this? I’ve taken up roller derby!

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At least, I’ve joined my local league’s new skaters programme. It’ll be a while before I “play” the sport, but you need to learn the skills before you put them into practice. This is true for any sport, but I’d say it’s a potentially steeper learning curve with derby because, you know, other sports usually involve your feet being directly on the ground – not strapped to eight wheels that will slip out from underneath you with astounding speed if you’re not careful.

I’ve never been “sporty”. I was an incredibly unfit teenager and was always picked last in PE. I had major body confidence issues growing up – I always thought of myself as the “fat one” and I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with food. Basically, I resigned myself to never being able to play a sport. I had no interest, because to me, sport equalled being laughed at by peers and patronised by well-meaning PE teachers who only exacerbated my feelings of “otherness”.

But then I discovered roller derby.

I think, like many newcomers to the derby community, I discovered this wonderful sport through Whip It. Drawn to the film by Ellen Page, I foisted it upon all my friends at my 16th birthday “movie and food and chill” session (I am reluctant to call it a party. A party animal I was not. I am not). Fast forward a few years down the line, and I’m an 18-year-old fresher struggling with a brand new depression/anxiety diagnosis. Spur of the moment, I decide to buy a pair of skates.

I think I wore those skates about once; I totally freaked out because OH MY GOD SKATING IS REALLY SCARY AND THE GROUND IS SLIPPY, and then tucked them away in my wardrobe. I have proper derby skates now, but perhaps when I’m home I’ll take my old Rios out for a spin. After all, skates meant for casual recreational skating are built with much stickier wheels than those on derby skates. If I can skate on derby skates, I’m sure those ones will be easy peasy.

Anyway, after three years of obsessing over roller derby and watching YouTube videos and just generally being a bit of a geek, I finally plucked up the courage to go to my first bout a year ago. It was a bit intimidating, because I went alone and I often feel quite awkward and anxious when I don’t have a buddy to tag along with. What awaited me was something even more amazing than I could have ever imagined.

I immediately felt like I was with family. I remember watching one of my local league’s teams skate out and feeling the music and the exciting, fast-paced, witty commentary pulse through me. I think my jaw hung open the entire time, I was just so awed by the whole experience. I actually cried a little bit at just how overwhelmingly positive the atmosphere was. For the first time, I saw athletes who looked just like me. Chubby arms, wobbly tummies, tattoos, visible muscles, crazy leggings, short women, tall women, women of all ethnicities. All of them offered a unique blend of talents, and the crowd went wild for every single one of them.

I’m not religious, but I assume this is how a spiritual awakening feels. I knew I had to get involved. After all, this was a sport for the girls who grew up feeling like the underdog and, at times, the outcast. There was space for everyone – why couldn’t that be me? Unfortunately, this was not a good time for me to start my derby journey. I was a poor, unemployed student, and I had a dissertation to work on. Besides these fairly legitimate excuses, there was also this niggling voice inside my head telling me that I was like Bambi on skates and it would be ludicrous to even try.

In November, I went along to a full-day of derby bouting, and once again I was overcome with this feeling that I had to be doing this sport. Until then I’d told myself “maybe next time…” and “maybe once I’ve taken my skates at home out of the wardrobe and proved to myself that I can actually do it…” but this time, I realised that if I didn’t commit sooner or later, I was just going to keep making wussy excuses and I was never going to learn how to play my favourite sport in the world. I was never going to be able to create that joyous, exhilarating atmosphere for other fans. I registered my interest in Auld Reekie Roller Girls’ Skate Skills programme in December. Unfortunately, life got in the way, as it is wont to do, and I never pursued it further because I just assumed it would be too difficult to fit it around my work rota (see what I mean about creating excuses just because I’m a wuss?).

And then, one evening at the start of this month, when I was having a really horrible day, an email found its way into my inbox that said there was a space for me on the programme, should I want it. I immediately burst into tears. I had been growing increasingly frustrated with my lack of work-life balance, mainly due to the fact that my anxiety had gotten so bad that I had shunned any notion of having a social life. I wasn’t doing any clubs or activities outside of work because it just seemed like too much effort. I was convinced I had become a boring person. But derby felt like a lifeline, and I decided to grab it with both hands, an open mind, and my heart on my heavily-padded sleeve.

Fast forward a few weeks, and I’ve completed two weeks of the Skate Skills programme. I’m not a natural skater. I still feel like Bambi, especially when I take those first few strides each training session. But you know what? I think I’m getting the hang of it. I’m slow, but I’m motivated. Nothing feels better than getting home after a training session, having a nice hot bath, and reflecting on how much I’ve accomplished in just two hours. Last week, I was the slowest skater, I fell a LOT (my tailbone still hasn’t forgiven me), and I was so convinced I would never improve that I had to take ten minutes out just to have a good blub and vent to one of my fellow freshies about how stressful I was finding it. I can’t knee tap or glide on one skate yet, and my skull crushing is patchy (note to non-derby readers: this is not literal skull crushing. I know derby is a contact sport, but crushing an opponent’s skull would definitely see you sent to the sin bin. Skull crushing is actually just a way of skating without lifting your feet from the track), but since then, I’ve learnt how to pick up some speed, stop in two different ways, fall safely (i.e. on my knees, not my bum!), and recover quickly from my falls. Nothing feels better than jumping straight up onto my feet to continue skating, to continue pushing myself. If I pass no other minimum skills in this block of Skate Skills, I know at least that I am “recovery queen” (a new derby friend’s words!) and will pass that section!

Another bonus of roller derby is that EVERYONE IS SO DAMN NICE. Our league’s motto is “it’s nice to be nice”, and this definitely shows. Even when I think I’m doing the worst job ever, there’s always someone skating past me saying, “hey, that was really good!” and the coaches are incredibly patient. After all, it feels incredibly unnatural to wear skates when you’re starting out, and they really understand this. On top of this, everyone in derby is encouraged to take part in other ways as well, such as helping at bouts or joining a committee. Yesterday I did the music for a bout and it was great fun – plus everyone commented on how much they enjoyed my playlist! It’s something that a few people suggested I could do again in future, which is really pretty exciting! This community feeling extends beyond just the league – there’s a Facebook group for derby skaters (particularly freshies) worldwide, which has been an incredible source of emotional support and practical advice.

In a way, skating feels a like lot therapy. I can go in there each week the most tense, anxious person in the world, and by the end I feel like someone has given my brain a massage. I find I skate best when I employ some of the skills I learnt in therapy last year. For example, I know how to recover when my confidence takes a knock and I just want to curl up in a ball and cry (my solution is to take a quick break to re-formulate my thoughts, take several deep breaths and some water, then keep going with even more vigour – and that’s fine by the coaches, so even better!). I know that to skate my fastest, I need to go into a semi-meditative state, where I’m not thinking about my actions, I’m just staring ahead with deep focus and letting my body take over.

I’ve so far found that derby has reinforced these lessons from therapy more than anything else in my life has. It’s made me realise how to feels to want to persist, rather than doing something out of obligation to an external party.

Who knows where this new mindfulness technique will take me next?

Literature

Whose bookshop is it anyway?

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This morning I read a rather alarming article in The Bookseller about an independent, second-hand bookshop in Yorkshire that appears to be charging a 50p “admission fee” to those wishing to browse its shelves. I say “appears” because when asked to defend his actions, the shop’s owner claimed that he never took any admission money from customers, but rather meant this as a tongue-in-cheek remark to see if people were genuinely interested in buying books and taking the business seriously.

Whatever the truth may be, I don’t know what’s more shocking: the idea of a bookshop charging admission, or the fact that customers supposedly have to prove that they’re “serious about books.”

Whether you’re an avid bookworm or a more reluctant reader, you should always be welcome in a bookshop. Bookshops are supposed to be safe havens and places to discover the secrets of the universe. The number one reason I love books is because they are a way to understand a perspective different from your own. They teach compassion. They are weapons in the fight against the pandemic of ignorance that, more than ever, is infecting our political systems. I’m not saying that books are the best or only way to educate the masses. After all, there are many who don’t have access to books. The ability to read is a privilege in itself, before we even take into account the socio-economic factors that may deter people from picking up a book (more on that later). However, denying someone access to that education is enraging. Implying that some people are not worthy of accessing it is even worse. It makes me want to smash something.

In my job as a bookseller, I’ve encountered plenty of people who feels nervous about visiting a bookshop, and even more who feel shy asking us for help. These are the people to whom we should reach out, rather than pushing them away with the elitism exhibited by the aforementioned shop. Some of my most rewarding moments at work are when people approach me and admit that they don’t read much and need some help picking up books that will get them into the habit. Customers like this have no preconceptions about what “literature” should or should not be, and are often willing to take risks. After all, it takes an enormous amount of trust and vulnerability to rely on a bookseller who doesn’t really have much information about you, and who has to make snap decisions about what you might like. It’s a two-way relationship: the customer trusts and respects the bookseller’s knowledge, but the bookseller must be sensitive to the customer’s needs and really think hard in order to put the perfect book in their hands. It’s simply not enough to simply go into autopilot and chuck the latest bestseller at them. After all, our  Alien Overlord Amazon could do that. There’s a reason John Green once said “You cannot invent an algorithm that is as good at recommending books as a good bookseller.”

One of my stand-out moments at work – for both positive and negative reasons – was when a group of students from a high school in an economically deprived came to visit the shop. For the past few years, this school has received a grant to enable students to choose new books for their library. I’d handled school visits before, but this was by far the most rewarding. One of my colleagues filled me in on the situation: while many of the students at the school enjoy reading, financial strain mean that they can’t always afford to buy their own books. Their families must prioritise other things. On top of that, visiting a bookshop requires paying for buses in and out of the city centre, and many of them are intimidated by the idea of browsing a bookshop. They fear that, as working class teenagers, they may not be respected by other customers and members of staff. Perhaps they’re worried that they won’t come across as “serious about books” (beginning to sound familiar?).

Now, staff-wise, I have never met – or at least worked with – a single bookseller who would look down on these students. On the whole, we’re a friendly, tolerant, respectful bunch who want to see everyone find a book that suits them. We recognise that bookshops are places of self-growth, and that browsing and thinking and engaging with books – and thus tiny pieces of the world around us – is to be encouraged. Other customers are often less kind. I recall one elderly woman who, upon witnessing this particular school group having fun (calm fun, might I add, little more than chatting loudly about what books they were choosing) in the shop, stormed up to me and proceeded to have a rant that went a little bit like this:

Woman: “what are all these brats doing here? Shouldn’t they be in school?”
Me: “it’s a school trip. They’re choosing books for their school library.”
Woman: “well, they’re being incredibly rude. So loud, running around, acting like little brats. It totally ruins it for the rest of us.”
Me: “actually, we’re really happy they’re here. They’re from quite a deprived area and don’t really have access to bookshops, so it’s a real privilege for them to choose their own books.”
Woman: “I don’t see how I can enjoy looking at books or having a coffee with them screaming all the time. makes purchase and turns to leave Remind me to never come back here for coffee!”
Me: “okaybye.”

The sad truth seems to be that many believe there are still certain groups of people that should be denied access to books. The ironic thing is that if you spoke to those perpetuating this damage and addressed this issue head-on, they would most likely deny being part of the problem. These harmful attitudes are so deeply engrained that many don’t even realise that they are part of the problem.

In a certain light, it’s good that this story has made the news. While book snobbery is never cool, perhaps this is the push we need to start the conversation about how we, as a society, have created unnecessary barriers to knowledge, independent thought and compassion. There are so many cultures where certain demographics (primarily girls) are denied an education, and so many of us are quick to criticise the inequality here. In the western world, we are largely privileged enough to access education in basic literacy so it’s not directly comparable, but if we begin stereotyping people and putting them into boxes of who “should” or “should not” read, “should” or “should not” be allowed in a bookshop, we’re creating an educational inequality of our own. It’s undeniably insidious.

Bookshops are for everyone. Let’s stop letting literary elitists monopolise them.

Literature · Uncategorized

My 2016 in books

2016 was a particularly bookish year for me. I started a Booktube channel in autumn 2015, and while I wasn’t that consistent in uploading content throughout 2016 (in fact, I’ve all but disappeared into the ether now, but I don’t have any serious regrets about that – I’m spending my time doing other things that nourish me and make me happy. Maybe I’ll return when inspiration strikes. Maybe not. Either way, I feel I express myself better in writing so it’s probably for the best that I give a bit of love to this blog instead. Anyway, I digress…), being a part of the community motivated me to read often and read widely. Then in June, I became a full-time bookseller. While some might expect that full-time work would detract from my reading time, being surrounded by amazing books and even more amazing people who love books as much as I do has had a tremendous impact on my reading pace. As a result,the number of books I read in 2016 soared.

I read 84 books in 2016, and while I was initially going to condense this down into a top 10, scrolling through my shelves on Goodreads has made me realise that I read way more than ten books worthy of a mention. So, I’ve decided to organise these smashing reads by category in order to simplify a little bit: novels, novellas and short story collections, poetry, children’s and YA, and non-fiction. All books were bought by myself, unless otherwise stated.

Without further ado, here’s my list.

Novels

  1. The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I think its accolade as the winner Man Booker Prize 2016 speaks volumes about the literary merit of this book, but it really is just so damn good. From the blurb, you know that this is going to address the issue of racial tension in the USA in a satirical way and Beatty executes this theme brilliantly and with so much compassion underlying an important political message. You might think that any character who tries to reintroduce segregation and slavery is going to be painted as a villain, but instead, we have a sympathetic, somewhat hapless protagonist fuelled by Malcolm X-esque idealism who just so happens to find himself caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ending had me punching the air while sat on a Vienna U-bahn platform. (Sent for review by Oneworld Publications)
  2. His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. Another Man Booker shortlisted book on my list, this completely defied my perceptions of crime fiction and historical fiction. I rarely read either genre, but picked this one up in an attempt to read all shortlisted books before the results were announced (I managed all of them except Do Not Say We Have Nothing) and also because Graeme is a Glaswegian author with whom I have many mutual connections. His Bloody Project, which explores the motivations and aftermath of a brutal triple murder in the 19th-century Scottish highlands, had me hooked and I devoured it within a matter of days. There were so many fascinating, multi-faceted characters, embroiled in a dark plot with many a twist and turn. I’m still talking about this one – it really is bloody brilliant (pun intended). (Sent for review by Saraband)
  3. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. I completely underestimated this book. The story is nothing groundbreaking – family saga that spans generations, but the unique selling point in this case is the addition of a pesky author who gets far too involved with this family’s life. However, I really loved it. Patchett has the most gorgeous turn of phrase, making even the most everyday moments sound like poetry. I also really enjoyed how this book jumped about in a non-linear fashion with minimal signposting. As I don’t like being spoonfed when I read, this really worked well for me. All in all, understated and sublime. I reckon it’ll be nominated for this year’s Bailey’s Prize. (Sent for review by Bloomsbury)
  4. The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss. Where do I even begin when describing this book? It’s lyrical, yet gritty. It’s political, but encourages the reader to think for themselves. It’s surreal, yet more grounded in reality than many of us will ever realise. It’s the most dazzling blend of contrasts I’ve read all year. In summary, it’s about a family whose teenage daughter suffers from a rare form of anaphylactic shock that causes her to pass out and her heart to stop beating when over-exerted. As her family come to terms with having a chronically ill child, plenty of other relationship tensions bubble up to the surface. I love this book not only for Moss’ stunning prose, but also for its characterisation – Miriam is a badass fifteen-year-old sharp-tongued feminist, her little sister’s behaviours and conversational quirks are spot on for a child of that age, and their father (the narrator of the book) is a stay-at-home dad who relentlessly supports his doctor wife. A big thumbs up from me.
  5. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. My number one favourite book of this year, and definitely in my top five books ever. This one is just heartbreaking. Warm, funny, beautifully written, but totally devastating. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that its protagonist is a nine-year-old dealing with the aftermath of his father’s death in 9/11, but the way that he grows throughout the novel, uncovering a rich family history and battling his inner demons, is amazing. What starts as the voice of a child matures into a young man who understands that life isn’t always simple, that sometimes deception is necessary to protect the ones you love, that some mysteries aren’t meant to be solved, and that ultimately, life goes on. It’s a sentimental subject, but Foer doesn’t go down the often-tread path of mawkish sentimentality to gain sympathy from his readers – instead, he embroils these messages in a web of varying, often quirky, narratives that all paint a complete picture of human empathy without dictating how the reader should feel. This book is just utterly perfect. I’m still thinking about it half a year after turning the final page.

Novellas and short story collections

  1. Christmas Days: 12 Stories and 12 Feasts for 12 Days by Jeanette Winterson. Cosy, perfect, magical, wonderful. I don’t know how much more I can say. All these stories were absolutely enchanting. My favourite was ‘The Snowmama’, which I read aloud to my family on Christmas Eve, but I also really enjoyed the ghost stories as well. Between each story is an essay about and recipe (“ressaypes”, you could say) for a festive food cooked by either Winterson herself or, more often, someone important in her life. It’s one of the purest, loveliest collections I’ve ever read and I’ll be returning to it annually.
  2. Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. This has been on my radar for some time now, but it wasn’t until it was Waterstones Fiction Book of the Month in September that I decided to pick it up. Oh man, some ugly crying was involved with this one. As it is heavily influenced by Ted Hughes’ Crow, I decided to read that first in order to gain a deeper insight into the themes of this gut-wrenching novella – for those not in the know, Crow is a figure in trickster mythology that is present at the scene of all devastation, and in GitTwF, he visits a Ted Hughes scholar and his two young sons in mourning of their wife/mother. I’m really glad I did read both books, although I know plenty of people who read GitTwF without reading Crow and still understood the book in a powerful – albeit slightly different – way. I’d love to do more research into Crow throughout literature and come back to this one, as I really think it could be interpreted in so many different ways.
  3. Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. In this short but sweet collection, Eagleman (also a renowned neuroscientist) posits what the afterlife may be like. In fact, he asks this question a total of forty times, resulting in this wonderfully surreal vignettes that raise the question, “would I want there to be an afterlife if it was like this? What about if it was like this instead?”. One of my favourites was the opening story, in which the afterlife involves repeating every single activity you did in life, but grouped together by category. So you’ll spend weeks waiting for the bus, before years of sobbing over a lost love, or days of looking for missing socks. The other tales in this collection are all equally surreal yet brilliant. I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes to ponder life’s big questions and has a penchant for the bizarre.
  4. Revenge by Yoko Ogawa. I love Japanese literature, but occasionally it can all feel a bit too similar. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed this collection – Ogawa’s dark, magical realist writing was not unfamiliar, but was original and elegant enough to refresh my interest in the genre. Some of these stories I would even go as far to categorise as horror (bodies in the vegetable patch, anyone?). Ogawa uses the classic Japanese poetic tradition of using recurring motifs to bind these stories together and I really felt that it worked well – I especially enjoyed seeing characters pop up outside their own stories, merely a fleeting backdrop to other people’s stories. I’m really keen to read some more of Ogawa’s writing, as this collection really crept under my skin in the best possible way.

Poetry

  1. When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard by Megan Beech. In 2016 I decided I would like to read more poetry, so when exploring the vast poetry section at Waterstones Sauchiehall St in Glasgow in January, I picked up a few collections from poets I hadn’t heard of before. I was drawn to this one as Megan Beech is a fiery, feminist performance poet, and that’s the kind of thing I go out for. I’m so glad I took a chance. It was completely bloody awesome. I could relate so strongly to Beech’s poems, given that she is around the same age as me and faces the same patriarchal, millennial problems that women in their early 20s (and of any age, I suppose) deal with every day. I recommended this one to a few people and it seems to have really snowballed in popularity since, and now it’s popping up all over Booktube – it definitely pays to take chances and champion a fresh poetic voice!
  2. milk and honey by Rupi Kaur. I bought this on a whim to see what the hype was about. I was definitely not disappointed; it exceeded all my expectations. Every time I thought I’d found my favourite poem, another one would come along. Long story short, my phone is now chock-full of photos of these heart-achingly illustrated poems. I don’t know to describe it really, but I honestly think every young woman should read this collection. Its depictions of hurting and healing and love are so utterly perfect and cathartic to boot. Go go go.

Children’s and YA

  1. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. I feel like I’m cheating slightly with this one, given that’s part of a series that I started in December 2015, but The Subtle Knife is definitely my favourite book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I can’t remember what it was that made me love this one so much, but I hazard it was probably the introduction of a multiverse extending beyond that experienced by Lyra in Northern Lights. Everything felt that much richer, and I completely fell in love with all the new characters. Mary Malone meeting the Mulefa has to be in list of my top literary moments ever.
  2. Radio Silence by Alice Oseman. This book restored my faith in YA literature and I gobbled it up in a couple of days. Never have I read a YA novel with a protagonist so similar to my teenage self; I really wish this book had ben about when I was a teenager, as I think it would have been a source of immense comfort. Frances is perceived as being quiet, studious, and – dare I say it – somewhat boring at school. She is still well-liked and has a small core of friends with whom she goes out on a semi-regular basis, but none of them know the “real Frances”. The real Frances is a punky, CONFIDENTLY BISEXUAL (!) nerd who loves nothing more than drawing fan art for her favourite podcast and wears leggings with cartoon characters all over them. So when she discovers that she has actually known the creator of this podcast in real life all along, her life changes drastically for the better. Finally, she has someone with whom she can act like “real Frances”. But, all is not well…A hilarious, poignant debut novel with well-rounded characters and realistic relationships and dialogue, I would heartily recommend this to anyone who needs a new perspective on YA literature. And Welcome to Night Vale fans. Would 100% recommend to Welcome to Night Vale fans.
  3. Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee. A bit like Grief is the Thing with Feathers for 10- to 12-year-olds, Maybe a Fox is a lovely little magical realist novel about grief and how finding the spirit of our loved ones in nature can soothe  heartache. Set in a frozen American landscape, Jules is devastated when her older sister – and best friend – Sylvie disappears into the woods behind their house one day and never returns. But is Sylvie really gone? Her friend’s brother has recently returned from the war, having lost his best friend as well, and their respective grief combines to weave a really moving, compelling tale in which even adults will find deeper meaning. Just a truly lovely book. (Sent for review by Walker Books)

Non-fiction

  1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. You know you’ve hit upon something special when a book climbs its way into your “top books of the year” list on 30th December. A few people had recommended When Breath Becomes Air to me, but I had kind of pushed it to the back of mind – I wanted to read it, but it wasn’t a high priority. That was until I was sent a reading copy of the new paperback edition, and one evening, when I was in the mood for some non-fiction, picked it up on a whim. I regret NOTHING. Telling the story of a nearly-graduated neurosurgeon and aspiring writer diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid-thirties, this isn’t one for the faint of heart. It’s heartbreaking, but it has given me so much to think about. What makes life worth living, especially when you know the end is near? Is death a better option than living a life without self-expression? I know some people have shirked this one off as mainstream misery porn, but it’s really not. I implore anyone to read this and not consider their own life choices and mortality. Definitely one to read with tissues, especially while reading the afterword written by Kalanithi’s wife after his untimely passing. (Sent for review by Vintage)
  2. The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight. Like many, I am not a self-help book person. Without having read any, I have always assumed them to be a bit too preachy and overly simplistic. That’s one of the reasons I picked this one up: it’s almost an anti-self-help book in its irreverence. It doesn’t pander, it doesn’t pussyfoot. Instead, its core philosophy is blunt but effective: if you can’t be bothered, or if it doesn’t make you happy, don’t do it. Become unapologetic about this. Build yourself a “fuck budget” of things to which you can realistically dedicate your time, money and enthusiasm. I honestly do thing this has improved my mindset in many ways. I’m super excited to read Sarah Knight’s new book, Get Your Shit Together. Now go forth, and be fuckless.

Aaaaaaaand thus concludes my mega-list of favourite books of 2016 – congratulations if you read this far. I did say it was a good reading year for me, didn’t I?

I hope 2017 will be another epically brilliant reading year, and that maybe I’ve helped you discover some new books you might like to pick up soon – let me know!

Games

Game review: ‘Life is Strange’

As I write my first ever game review, I have to confess something: I’m not much of a video gamer. Don’t get me wrong, I am a lifelong devotee of certain games – The Sims, Pokemon, Final Fantasy VII. Anyway, my gaming habits – or lack thereof – are something I’m trying to remedy. I know that perhaps that sounds strange coming from a member of the millennial generation that is slowly but surely growing disillusioned, peeling the wool away from its eyes and looking to get away from screens, to live life in actual reality rather than its virtual counterpart. But I enjoy gaming. I just don’t necessarily have as much time to devote to it as I would like. Add on the patriarchal stereotype of video games being the domain of increasingly violent teenage boys, and you can further see why sometimes I feel like I don’t belong and why I feel obliged to say that I’m “not much of a video gamer”.

That was until I recently discovered ‘Life is Strange’ and suddenly a whole new wealth of gaming opportunity was presented to me.

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‘Life is Strange’ (henceforth I’ll refer to it as LiS, because ain’t nobody got time for typing full names repeatedly) is what is commonly referred to as a “walking simulator”, which definitely undersells how brilliant it is. After all, why would you want to play a game that markets itself as a simulator for something that most people can just get up and do anyway? I’d prefer to think of it as a semi-choose-your-own-adventure, story-rich, psychological thriller with elements of sci-fi and a whole dollop of emotional depth (try condensing that into Steam tags). To me, LiS was an extremely rewarding slow-burner full of characters and relationships that you couldn’t help but fall in love with, with plenty of satisfying cliffhanger moments to keep you hanging on the edge of your seat. I must have cried a full bucket of tears at this game.

I suppose I should probably explain what LiS is actually about. You play as 18-year-old artist Max Caulfield (above), who has recently moved from Seattle back to her sleepy Oregon hometown of Arcadia Bay to study at the prestigious Blackwell Academy under the tutelage of esteemed photographer Mark Jefferson. However, all is not right. A local girl is missing, and when she saves her estranged best friend Chloe Price from being shot in the girls’ bathroom through accidental time travel, Max discovers she has the ability to rewind time. Sure, this power is helpful in class – she can rewind and give correct answers to Mr Jefferson’s questions, having already heard him say them aloud – but where it really comes in handy is uncovering Arcadia Bay’s menacing secrets. She teams up with this new punky, deeply troubled Chloe, and together they try to solve myriad local mysteries – where the missing Rachel Amber went, why animals seem to be dying all over town, why good girl Kate Marsh seems so depressed, what school jock Nathan Prescott and his cult-like social elite (known as the Vortex Club) seem to be hiding. Add in some compelling relationships, the everyday struggles of Max trying to break into the photography business, absolutely gorgeous, cinematic graphics and a killer soft-rock soundtrack, and you’ve got a game that will keep you hooked for hours. In my case, sixteen hours.

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As I’ve mentioned, LiS is a choose-your-own-adventure kind of game. You explore the world around you through Max’s eyes, and every interaction – whether it be with a person or an object – can affect the course of the game more than you could ever predict. Some interactions are minor and have no real consequence, while others significantly change the outcome of the game and are quite often literal life-or-death decisions. This really boosts the game’s replayability, as you can go back and play time and time again to see how different decisions influence the rest of the game. One feature I really liked is how at the end of every episode (the game is divided into five episodes, making it seem even more like a TV drama that you have some input in), it recaps the choices you made and compares your choices to those made by players all over the world. It was interesting to see how what I thought was the obvious, moral choice was so often eschewed by others.

There are also plenty of puzzles to solve, often involving hunting for objects in a specific location. This reminded me of the kind of games I used to play as a kid, when collecting certain items boosted your score, so I really enjoyed this element. There are also sections where you need to make full use of your rewind power in order to get the information you need, sneak around without getting caught, and even save lives. While it’s fun to rewind and just see how saying different things can influence conversations, the suspenseful moments when you need to solve puzzles under time constraints are really where this power excels.

The game is not without fault, but its flaws are minor. The synching of dialogue was pretty terrible at times, and I wasn’t a fan of Max’s voice acting (everyone else was pretty good though, especially Chloe). A lot of relationships in the game don’t seem to resolve one way or another, and SPOILERS, Max and Chloe’s friendship is a bit queer-baity at times. Anyway, in my mind, they escaped Arcadia Bay and set up a life together elsewhere. Thousands of fanfic writers can’t be wrong.

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No more spoilers now, don’t worry.

On the whole, I would give LiS a solid 5/5 stars. No game has ever had me this hooked, this willing to give up on all other hobbies and social engagements for two weeks. I was so excited to get home from work every day and play some more. Each episode takes around three hours to complete, depending on how much exploration you want to do. That’s the good thing about the game: while many things are time-sensitive, your rewind power means you can explore your surroundings to your heart’s content because you’re never really going to mess up. There is no risk of doing something wrong and getting a “game over” screen, because even mistakes are useful in the wider context of the game. They don’t give you a “wrong” ending, they just give you a different one.

It’s for this reason that, despite the time travel and the freak weather, ‘Life is Strange’ is one of the most realistic games I’ve ever played.

The first episode of ‘Life is Strange’ is free to download and play from Steam, with the rest of the game currently only £3.99 (RRP £15.99), and is also available for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.

All pictures from Steam and video by Gamespot.

Uncategorized

The original Hygge: Copenhagen travel guide

In the spirit of bringing this blog to life again, I’ve decided to cast my mind back over the year and write about some of the adventures I’ve had.

So today, I’m going to bring you my top travel tips for visiting Scandinavia’s capital of cosy.

“Hygge” (its closest English estimation of prounciation is “hoo-guh”) has become something of a buzzword recently, with sales of books on that uniquely Danish cosy feeling sky-rocketing – especially now we’re in the throes of winter. However, Copenhagen is still as delightfully charming and welcoming in the spring. I visited at the start of April and I cannot complain at all – the weather was mild (occasionally on the chilly side, but hey, I’m a hardy Scot) and it wasn’t too busy.

Getting there and getting around

While Scandinavia is generally considered to be an expensive destination, the flights themselves are surprisingly well-priced and provide a gorgeous view of the Danish archipelago when approaching Copenhagen. I love a bargain, so I found the best way to get there was to book my outbound and return flights with different airlines. I flew with easyJet from Edinburgh for £63.99, and with Ryanair on the way back for £35. I booked a month and a half in advance, so you could probably fly for even cheaper, but all things considered, I’d say I did very well! As for getting into the city centre, there are regular metro trains running from the airport for a decent price (I can’t remember how much exactly, because I got confused by the city map and bought a ticket to a station much further away than was necessary, so paid about four times the price) and it only takes about twenty minutes. Once you’re in the city, you can take the metro around, but to be honest, it’s quite a compact city so I had no problem walking. I hear bike rental is also pretty affordable and can make you feel like a true Dane – if you feel confident enough to understand the traffic flow. Although it’s a city geared towards cycling, I am ridiculously accident prone so decided to skip out on this one.

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Accommodation

The hostel that I stayed in was, quite frankly, the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Sleep in Heaven is located in Nørrebro, about a twenty minute walk from the city centre, and I paid 195Dkr (~£22) a night for a bed in a six-bed female dorm. The downside is that there is no kitchen, but they are 100% cool with you bringing in outside food (even the greasiest of takeaways!) and since I prefer not to use communal cutlery and crockery when I travel, this was totally fine by me. They offered a pay-as-you-go, all-you-can-eat continental breakfast, but as the Danes do breakfast cafés so well, I didn’t make use of this. I think it was roughly £5. However, the best bit about this hostel was HAPPY HOUR! Each evening, there was a happy hour deal where you could get two pints of beer or glasses of wine for only DKK35. THAT’S £3.50, YO. I found it a perfect way to bond with fellow travellers.

Another thing I liked about this hostel was its proximity to lots of lovely parks, cafés, independent boutiques and the Assistens Kirkegård – burial place of famous Danes like Hans Christian Andersen and Søren Kierkegaard. Cemeteries are some of my favourite places to visit when I travel so this was a real bonus for me.

Eating and drinking

Eating out in Copenhagen can be expensive, but if you work it into your daily budget, it is more than possible. I adapted to the krone surprisingly quickly, to the point where I didn’t mind paying the equivalent of £5 on a glass of juice, so I would advise that you go prepared to splash out a little bit! While my lunches and dinners were often quick snacks to munch on the go, my daily breakfasts were a real highlight of my stay.

One of my favourite places to start my day was The Laundromat Café. There are two branches in Copenhagen, as well as one in Reykjavik, and I can definitely recommend the one on Gammel Kongvej. The name of this cute, arty diner is more than simply a quirky moniker – you can actually do your laundry there as you eat! As I was only there for a few days, I didn’t need these facilities, but there was definitely something fun and cosy about sipping a coffee (or smoothie) as a washing machine churned away in the background – like curling up in a good friend’s home. I had the blueberry pancakes and a smoothie, which cost me 100Dkr – approximately £11. As I say, expensive, but it was very filling and if you go in knowing that you may need to splash the cash, the cost is much more tolerable. On top of this, the good folks at Laundromat wear their hearts on their sleeves with their colourful, political decor.

Another great find was Grød, a porridge café with branches across the city. Here you can create your own custom porridge, down the the type of oats used and all. Fancy some quinoa porridge? The Grød world is your oyster. I had some spelt porridge topped with apple compote, nuts, cinnamon and cacao nibs, eaten on a crisp morning in the cemetery, and it was like having my stomach hugged.

However, my favourite breakfast spot came not from a recommendation, but sheer seredipity: The Next Door Café, located in the historic heart of the city. Holy toast, this place was everything I could have wanted in a café – delicious food for a reasonable (by Danish standards) price, chatty, alternative-looking staff, quirky signs, tables decked out with old tickets, flyers and other paper paraphernalia, and a shrine full of cutesy, gaudy treasures. Upon ordering, I was given a plastic horse so they would know where to deliver my pancakes to, which beats a number on a stick any day, in my opinion. And when my pancakes arrived…oh my goodness. They were the most fluffy, perfect, banana pancakes I’ve ever tasted. Not only that, but they gave me a WHOLE BOTTLE OF MAPLE SYRUP. I respect any eatery that doesn’t dictate how much syrup I should or should not consume.

Finally, I feel I should recommend one place for dinner, lest I come across as a breakfast fiend of Leslie Knope standards (not a bad thing!). If you love books – or even if you don’t, but love good food – I would definitely suggest you check out Paludan Bogcafe. While there is a secondhand bookshop downstairs, I was far too hungry to peruse for long and soon treated myself to a lovely, piping hot dish of veggie lasagne, sat at a table surrounded by wall-to-wall bookcases. Lasagne is my favourite food ever, and I was not let down. At all. It cost 89Dkr (~£9), more or less what I would pay for lasagne in a British restaurant, so this is a good place to go if you want something hearty on a budget.

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Sights and attractions

If you want to get a good overview of the city, forget the ubiquitous open-top bus tours that can be found in any city – with Copenhagen’s fantastic canals, harbours and lakes, it would be a sin not to see the city from the back of a boat. There are quite a few companies offering boat tours, but I went with Netto. Compared to other boat trips, this one was the cheapest option at only 40Dkr (~£4.50) for an hour’s trip. Many on TripAdvisor have criticised the scratchy, grimy windows, and I would have to agree, so I’d suggest you wrap up warm and sit in the outside area at the back of the boat. The information on offer isn’t absolutely amazing, but is enough to get a good feel of the sights around you (including Nyhavn and the Little Mermaid), and if nothing else, it’s a relaxing way to spend an hour.

I visited a fair musuems in the few days I was in Copenhagen, from the Court Theatre Museum to the Designmuseum, but my favourite was the National Museum of Denmark. This place has it all, and I could have easily spent a whole day there – at 75Dkr (~£8.40), the entry fee encourages prolonged browsing in order to get the best bang for your buck. There’s Danish history, from the stone age to the Vikings, natural history, art, traditional costume and artefacts (including an extensive musical instrument collection) from all over the world, and when I went, there was even a Japanese cosplay exhibition in which you could learn about the role anime, video games and cosplay play in Japan, before dressing up yourself and having a “digital makeover” in a real Japanese photobooth!

Another favourite of mine was the “freetown” of Christiania. I don’t have any pictures of the village itself as photography is strictly forbidden, along with running. Why are these things forbidden? Well, because Christiania citizens consider their village an autonomously run community and therefore outside of Danish law, so there is A LOT of marijuana for sale. Running and photography are signs of a police raid, of which there have been many over its 47 year history. It’s for this reason that dealers now skulk about in balaclavas, going about their trade from within huts draped in scramble nets and curtains. Don’t let this seemingly creepy image put you off though – the village still retains a fun, friendly vibe, thanks to its colourful murals, chilled music, scrap metal sculptures, jewellery stalls, pop-up vegan eateries, and cute gift shops located in the eaves of buildings that, from the outside, look more likely to host raves than tea shops. If you venture behind the village, you reach the real star of Christiania: the lake. Surrounding this lake are quirky, ramshackled houses that citizens have built themselves to suit their needs and protect the environment. It takes about 40 minutes to walk around the lake, and it was honestly 40 of the most peaceful minutes of my trip. Photography is allowed in this area.

If you are an art lover, then the National Gallery of Denmark is not to be missed. Entry is quite expensive – 110Dkr (~£12) – but not too far off what you might pay for a similar museum in some posher parts of the UK. I spent half a day here, but could have easily stayed longer if there weren’t other things I wanted to do that day. It is HUGE. I particularly enjoyed the Danish surrealism exhibition, as I do love a bit of surrealism and wasn’t aware the Danes had been so involved in the movement so often associated with the likes of Dali and Magritte. On the flipside, I would suggest that you skip Overgaden unless you’re an absolute conceptual art fanatic. I’ve recently developed the ability to attach meaning to conceptual art, even if it’s not particularly aesthetically pleasing. However, I still felt quite alienated by the art on display at Overgaden. On top of this, it’s not a very popular spot with tourists, so I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb when I was there. Coupled with the fact that I sat down for a rest at a bench inside and ended up getting stuck in the middle of a lecture in Danish and having to climb over people awkwardly to escape…Let’s just say it wasn’t the most fun experience. I did like this piece of French concrete poetry though (pictured below).

I could write a thousand more words about all the other things I did, but instead I shall try and condense the other highlights of my trip into a few brief decriptions. Tivoli is expensive, but fun, even if you’re not a big theme park person. Personally I thought it was worth it just to go on the Star Flyer (because despite the fact that I loathe the idea of being turned upside down or dropping down very fast on rollercoasters, I jump at the opportunity to be swung around 60 meteres in the air for a few minutes) and play Gallopen. Unfortunately you do need to pay for the ride tokens seperately, so it’s really only a place to go if you don’t mind splashing out for some oldy-worldy funfair magic. Going up the Round Tower was a spontaneous decision, but a good one, because for only 25Dkr (~£2.75) you get a fantastic view of the city and even of the Malmo skyline in the distance. There’s also a cool art gallery halfway up, which was a nice surprise. The Botanical Gardens are BEAUTIFUL. I regularly walked through them to go between places because they just made me so peaceful. There’s a lovely pond in the centre with ducks and herons and a cute little pier that I sat down on to have a little read. I went to the Carlsberg brewery on my last day, and considering you get two glasses of beer at the end of the tour, the entry fee of 95Dkr (~£10.45) seems quite reasonable. After all, at any other bar in Copenhagen, you’d likely pay that for the beer alone – at least here you get a tour as well. I was surprised at how interesting it all was, from the brand history to the brewing process. And of course, the world’s largest collection of beer bottles (below) is not to be sniffed at either…

Other useful information

  • I was warned by a friend that the exchange rate in all UK-based currency exchanges wasn’t great, and that it was best to take out cash upon arrival at the airport. This is what I did, and it did actually work out to be better value.
  • The Danes (and most other Scandinavians, especially those of younger generations) speak impeccable English, but if you’re like me then you’ll still feel bad for taking advantage of this. If nothing else, a simple “hej” or “takk” book-ending your otherwise English conversation is a nice way to show that you still respect their language and customs.
  • While there are many apps and websites with great travel tips (this one included, I hope), I feel that nothing beats having a good guide book. It gets you away from your phone, saves you expensive roaming data, and is a nice thing to flick through and mark up as you have a coffee and pastry break. I used the Lonely Planet Pocket Guide to Copenhagen, and it met my needs perfectly – lots of information and a handy map condensed into a streamlined format. For stay of a week or less, I’d highly recommend this particular guide! (They also do them for loads of other cities so if you’re an avid city-breaker, they make quite a cute collection)
  • The Danes seem to be big on public art, so it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled and camera handy when wandering the city. One of my favourite arty finds was a photography exhibition installed on some building work that explored what the concept of dreaming means to elderly people (below). Just one more reason to walk rather than relying on public transport!

This has been a fair bit lengthier than anticipated, but I hope that it’s given you a good insight into some fun things to check out in Scandinavia’s capital of happiness – its happital, if you will. Anyway, I would definitely recommend Copenhagen to anyone. The kind of warmth and connectedness with the world that it instills is a feeling unmatched by anywhere else I’ve ever been.

My Danish recommendations:

Rita‘ (Netflix), any book about hygge (I have this one but have yet to read it – I will soon!), Alphabeat, Oh Land, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, a good old Danish pastry (not literally old, pastry doesn’t keep well), and of course, LEGO. You’re never too old to muck about with plastic bricks.

Personal

Reflections on the “university experience”

So. Hello again. I’m back, after not blogging for over a year, but I’ve been having a lot of ~feelings~ recently that I just need to get out. On top of that, I feel that I’ve lost touch with some of my creativity since I started working full time and I need to reconnect with that aspect of my personality. Ideas come to me in fully formed sentences and let’s be honest, it would be a shame to waste that kind of inspiration.

Anyway, enough of my spiel. This isn’t a post about why I should or should not blog. It’s about a subject that I feel deeply passionate about.

I’m talking about the expectations of the “university experience”.

I graduated in June this year, and since then (and for a few weeks before graduating, actually) I’ve worked full-time in a bookshop. When I tell people this, I’m often met with confusion – not so much from my peers, who understand what it’s like to be young and break into the working world, but often from older people. After all, I got a First in my degree. Why on earth would I decide to go into retail? Why am I not doing something more “high powered” or even degree-related? And the truth is: I just don’t want to.

My time at university was full of ups and downs. On the downside, I suffered from (often crippling) depression and anxiety from the very outset. I decided to study music because I had aspirations of being a professional singer, but was soon put in my place by the voice in my head that told me I could never be good enough, that I didn’t have the energy levels to push myself to that kind of ability. And it’s true, I didn’t. I soon learnt that it was causing me far more mental fatigue and damage to my overall experience of university than was necessary. It was for that reason that I decided to pursue music psychology and community music instead. I really enjoyed these elements of my course, and it was definitely that enthusiasm that amounted to my overall success. But I won’t pretend that my experience here was without issue.

Along the way, I faced even more competition than I did when I was more performance-orientated. I had lecturers who would constantly pit us against each other, whether intentionally or not, and to be honest, my whole two Honours years were riddled with bias. It hurt. It really hurt. Constantly getting mixed messages from different faculty members and peers meant I rarely had any idea who to trust. I had lecturers who would pretend to be my friend, support me through my illness, then cut me off with no warning, suddenly ignoring me in favour of louder, more confident students. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. None of us would ever be offered any additional development opportunities, because they would be exclusively offered to the “favourites”. For someone like me, who had aspirations of studying for a Masters in community music and hopefully setting up their own social enterprise one day, it hurt that I wasn’t given the chance to prove myself and gain experience. In fact, when I visited my Masters university of choice to sit in on a day of teaching there, I was astounded at how democratic it all seemed. Of course, it may not have been as wonderful underneath the surface, but it definitely appeared as if all students and staff supported each other on a much more emotional level. Everyone there had different backgrounds and different ambitions, and they were there to learn from each other and develop their own ideas rather than being told, categorically, what “community music” was or was not. There was no “my way or the highway” attitude at all.

Unfortunately, I felt so disillusioned and exhausted by my whole undergraduate experience that any ambition I had to do this Masters soon dissipated. I left my course thinking, “I don’t know if I can ever go back to music if this is what it’s like. I don’t know if I was ever a musician”. Because honestly, I felt so constantly undermined that I felt like a totally different person from who I was when I had started university and had such big ideas for myself. The toxicity around me completely killed my passion.

Of course, there were some real highlights to my university experience that I wouldn’t change for the world. These highlights have made me the person that I am today. My involvement with the music society basically ruled my social life for four years. All my best friends – and the only people from uni that I still see on a regular basis – are music society people or coursemates of music society people. Being on committee for two years proved challenging at times, but gave me employability skills like you would not believe. Similarly, I absolutely adored volunteering at the student advice centre. The camaraderie between volunteers and staff was amazing and I loved going in for my shifts each week, not to mention all the outreach (including therapet sessions! PUPPIES!) I did with them. The advice centre was basically my second home. I actually had quite a few advisor and student support job interviews, but alas, none of them were meant to be. Ultimately though, I didn’t mind because I know that just volunteering did so much for my self-esteem and gave me invaluable transferrable skills.

Which brings me back to my original point. I love my job. I love being a bookseller. Sure, I’ve encountered a lot of red tape and hoops to jump through in the name of bureaucracy, but there is nothing better than talking about books and putting books into the hands of customers who I know will really enjoy them. And my colleagues could not be nicer. I’ve recently moved branches due to staffing demands, and I’m even happier in my new branch, where I’m working in a really small, supportive team. Much as I would like to do a Masters in a year or two (I’m now thinking maybe librarianship), I’m glad I’ve taken time for myself after my degree to really think about what matters to me.

What matters to me is my happiness. What matters is helping people in a way that feels nourishing to me. It’s not about making more money, or doing something “relevant” because there’s pressure to do so. I take great pride in my work and enjoy telling those who scoff about how tough it can be (my God, it can be tiring to be endlessly smiley to customers for 40 hours a week, find books based on the vaguest of descriptions, unload hundreds of kilograms of books every day, take everything off towering shelves to dust every little corner, rearrange toy animals only to have a small child take them out to build a cow army on the floor moments later…The list goes on but the good far outweighs the bad, and the “bad” is never really any more than a bugbear or two). I relished the opportunity to fill out the recent university graduate survey with “yes, I got a First, yes I work in retail, yes, I fully intend to still be in this position in a few months”.

Please, let’s stop perpetuating this idea that university is supposed to be the “best years of your life” and that you’ll come out of it with a comfortable 2:1, immediately be picked up for a lucrative grad scheme, and have a blast earning your first million. University is an experience that will change you and that’s never to be discounted, but it’s okay to not enjoy every little bit. Although I’d still say that my experience was more positive than negative, there’s definitely elements of it than I can categorically say I did not like.

By pretending that university has to be one long party and the best years of your life, we’re silencing students who would benefit from speaking out about their mental health, course concerns and the plethora of other issues that are constantly glossed over by this amped up “UNAAAAY” myth. I’m so happy that students are becoming ever more political, and while many bemoan my own student union’s political moves – never have the words “safe space” been so divisive – I think it’s fantastic that we, as students and recent graduates, finally have decent platforms to make our voices heard. We will never stop shouting out the message that our generation are the generation who want to make society fairer and improve wellbeing, rather than craving power. We are the generation who understand how tough breaking into a career can be, and applaud and recognise the value of hard work of any kind.

The phrase “you do you” has never been so apt.

Personal · Travel

“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life…”: Solo Adventures in the Big Smoke

A few months ago, I decided that I needed to take a break from everything – Edinburgh, my friends, my family, the stress of my (then-upcoming) festival job – and explore somewhere new, where I could completely dedicate my time to doing things that I wanted to do. So on Wednesday morning, I got up at the crack of dawn to set off to the airport…I was on my way to London, after many years of dreaming! I’d been once before, but admittedly it was for a single day in 2009 so not exactly the stuff that lasting memories are made of; my dad and I flew down early, quickly had a look at Buckingham Palace, ate some pizza, saw Wicked, then flew home again. This time, I wanted to try to cram in as much as possible to get the full London experience.

First of all, let me point out that London need not be as expensive as one might think! My flights were around £42 in total with Ryanair (Edinburgh-Stansted, booked three months in advance), my hostel (London Backpackers, next door to Hendon Central) was £12 per night, and £25 on an Oyster card was all I needed to get around without a hitch in the three days I was there. On top of this, many museums are free so there’s no need to worry about losing out on culture either!

Hostel

It was the allure of cheap rates that drew me towards booking in at London Backpackers, an 18-35 hostel in Hendon. Sure, it was a bit out-of-the-way, but to be honest, I quite liked this – personal preference, I suppose, given that there are a few negative comments on Hostelworld about its distance from the city centre (you’d think it was a remote island for the way some people gripe!). For me, I liked being able to go out in the evenings then travel back to somewhere a bit quieter. When I arrived, I was greeted by a lovely guy on reception, who had good banter and offered me a big bucket of sweets that I could pick a little something from. The whole hostel had that cheap and cheerful vibe, with a book swap, games room, quirky London-themed decor and the biggest VHS collection I have ever seen outside of Blockbuster (RIP). However, my one gripe would be the shared kitchen. I am totally anal about washing up standards – as in, if I can’t see my face in a spoon, I will rewash until I can – and unfortunately, the state that some people had left the communal dishes in was enough to turn my stomach. It was easily resolved though by simply getting food on the go instead! Rates at London Backpackers start from £9 per night.

Live Entertainment

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Shortly after checking into the hostel, I took off to explore Foyles (more on that later), but before I could get that far, I stopped off by one of the Leicester Square half price ticket offices to see if I could get a cheap ticket to see Matilda that night…Let’s just say London and I disagree on what “cheap” is, as what was offered as a £31 ticket came up to £48.5 once VAT and fees had been added. Although a bit of an unexpected sting, it was definitely worth it and I would wholeheartedly recommend Matilda to any literature lovers with a sense of fun! The music is so witty (thanks to the magical skills of Tim Minchin) that even those who don’t usually like musicals will find joy in this wonderfully funny, exceptionally British production.

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The next night (Thursday), I went to the BBC Proms! It’s been an ambition of mine for quite some time to see something at the Proms, so when I booked my trip back in June, I was sure to pick up a £7.50 ticket as well. Thursday’s performance came from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, with a programme consisting of excerpts from Nielsen’s Aladdin, the world première of B. Tommy Andersson’s Pan, and Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. It was the Mahler that really sold it to me (I bloody love Mahler), but I actually really enjoyed the Nielsen as well and I’ll definitely be checking out more of the Danish composer’s work. As an added bonus, there were lots of seats left in the stalls so I got a free seating upgrade – result!

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I had anticipated visiting a lot of museums, but as time wore on, I actually only had time for two. On Thursday, I went to the Wellcome Collection, which was quite quiet despite its fascinating array of exhibitions – perhaps it’s one of London’s more hidden gems?! The first exhibition I saw there was Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Objects (on until 18th October 2015), consisting of objects that had been “mummified” (the artist’s choice of words) with thin copper wire; in fact, visitors could take part in this process themselves and as I entered, a couple of people were helping mummify a Mustang. The idea behind Anderson’s work is that “both the making and display of works pose challenging questions about the comforts and consolations of creating and sharing memories.” Years ago, I would have told you this wasn’t my kind of thing, but I have evidently changed a lot as I felt really inspired to reflect on these objects…it even gave me an idea for a short story. I then moved onto Medicine Now (permanent), which explored current medical topics of discussion like obesity and genetics, as well as general anatomical information, and finally The Institute of Sexology (on until 20th September 2015, so be quick!). This finally exhibition not only covered the history of human sex and how it has been viewed in both artistic and sociological terms, but also more modern themes like the AIDS epidemic and what feminism means to young women nowadays. One of my favourite artefacts was a huge spreadsheet that one London artist had kept in the 1970s recording every minute detail of her every sexual encounter – ranging from physical description of her partner and their occupation, to frequency of sexual activity, to orgasm noise! I also quickly scooted around Medicine Man and the Reading Room, but I was short on time so had to cut my visit short.

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Before I left on Friday, I had just enough time for a flying visit to the V&A. Unfortunately, I only had enough time to see a tiny fraction of it (you could easily spend a whole day there!), but what I did see was amazing. My favourite section was theatre design, which featured costumes from performances of all sorts – opera, musicals, Shakespearean comedy, ballet, punk gigs… – alongside stunningly intricate set designs. I’m really glad that I dedicated a bit of time to wandering around this section before I left, as it was right up my street. On my way out, I also saw Jacqueline Wilson on a little day trip with one of her friends – she was my childhood hero and the first author I ever really considered my “favourite”, so I was a bit starstruck! I didn’t speak to her though; staring in awe from afar was enough for me. And of course, I said hi to David…

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Bookshops

Now, as a dedicated bibliophile, I deliberately only took a few items of clothing with me so that I could use my remaining 10kg luggage allowance to bring back a whole stack of books – and indeed, a whole stack of books I did buy! When I arrived, I decided to kill an hour or so wandering around Foyles‘ flagship store on Charing Cross Road. I honestly could have spent a lot longer here, but in an effort to save my money for a proper bookshop crawl the next day, I managed to limit myself to only two books – Sulphuric Acid by Amélie Nothomb and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan.

On Thursday, I ventured out on a proper bookshop crawl. My first shop was Ripping Yarns in Highgate, where the wonderful Jen Campbell works. Jen and I go way back, so it was lovely to finally meet and hug her (after first speaking online when I was 14)! I had intended on only buying a maximum of three books here, but because Jen is such an enabler, I ended up with four: Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith, The Mermaids in the Basement by Marina Warner (my new intellectual crush after hearing her in conversation with Kirsty Logan at Edinburgh International Book Festival a couple of weeks ago), The Finishing School by Muriel Spark and The Day We All Ran Away by Cassandra Parkin.

Next I went to Gay’s the Word, which was super friendly and lovely (and despite the name, good fun for bisexual women as well). Here I bought The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily Danforth, Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Hood by Emma Donoghue. On Jen’s recommendation, I then went to Skoob, one of London’s top-rated second-hand bookshops (and yes, it took me aaaaages to figure out that “Skoob” is “books” backwards). My purchases here were a little more horror-themed, as I bought The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham and Sliver by Ira Levin. I’m particularly keen to read the latter, as I absolutely loved both Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, so I think that will be one for the short-term TBR. Finally, I rounded off my bookshop crawl with the beautiful Persephone Books. It took me a while to choose my books here, as they don’t publish particularly well-known titles so I needed to really read the blurbs and excerpts thoroughly to find out what each book was about. Let’s be honest though, their books are so gorgeous that if I could have bought them all, I would have. For those of you who don’t know, Persephone publish lesser-known titles from primarily 20th century women writers, and my oh my, are their editions wonders to behold. Not only do they feel lovely in your hands, with slightly waxy silver covers, but each one has a unique print on the end papers and a matching bookmark – and because the prints are unique to each book, the bookmarks also feature a blurb for the corresponding book on the back! Anyway, I took some chances with authors I’d never heard of and went with Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey and Still Missing by Beth Gutcheon.

Thirteen books in little more than a day is my biggest haul ever – and best of all, I managed to get them all back to Edinburgh without any problems!

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General shopping

Before heading out to Highgate on Thursday, I spent a couple of hours mooching around Camden, where I got a couple of t-shirts as well as a lovely heather and wild berry scented candle from Camden Lock Market, handmade in the north of England. I honestly could have spent a lot of money here, as it’s possibly the best market I’ve ever been to. Forget the eponymous-yet-tacky Camden Market that you come to first when you get off the Tube, Camden Lock is where the real treasure lies. I got fantastic service from a lovely couple of women selling handmade Arabian perfume, but alas, I couldn’t part with £18 for 6ml of the scent I liked best…I do feel slightly bad about it now, and I wish I’d bought some, because they put a lot of time and effort into matching different perfumes to my preferences. Maybe next time! Camden Lock is also home to a mind-blowing street food market, so I had a curry box from Sonita’s – Sonita (the stallholder) makes multiple types of healthy curry from her mum’s recipes, and you can mix and match them as you like in a box with salad, rice, Indian yoghurt and pickles for only £6.

I saved the rest of my shopping for Friday, when I went to Covent Garden for the Moomin Shop; you may not know, but putting Moomins on anything is a shortcut to my heart. I treated myself to a pen, a coaster, a pretty metal bookmark and some stickers for my scrapbook. After a few more little London-themed scrapbooking purchases from Paperchase, I walked to Oxford Street to visit the world’s largest Lush and sample some of their exclusive products, and let me just say, their customer service was out of this world. I must have spent at least an hour there as the staff gave me so many personal recommendations and sample treatments. I was particularly touched by one sales assistant, Lara, who was so moved by the fact that I lead music workshops with autistic children that she gave me a free bubbleroon as a random act of kindness! I don’t think I’ll ever forget her utter loveliness.

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Other fun London adventures

My final activity before catching the bus back to Stansted was to go for a walk to take in all of London’s classic landmarks. Although I’ve seen Buckingham Palace before, I figured it was a good starting point so sat on the steps of the Victoria Memorial to enjoy some yummy vegetable gyoza soup from a local Japanese café (surprsingly filling for only £3.50!) before wandering along the outskirts of St James’ Park. It was like something from another era; there were pigeons landing on people’s heads and arms, hundreds of cheeky squirrels running around and eating from your fingertips, geese and pelicans (!) swanning around (see what I did there?) in the pond, and cute, anachronistic cottages perched on the water bank. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was dumbstruck – it was really that beautiful, and I couldn’t believe that such wilderness could exist right in the heart of the city. I then turned around to go down Birdcage Walk so I could get a good look at Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, all before walking along to Waterloo Station to catch the tube back to Liverpool Street for my bus.

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So all in all, I had a pretty damn spiffing time in London. In my head, I had built it up to be a buzzing, grey metropolis (for no discernible reason – maybe because I’m still getting over the sour taste Berlin left in my mouth…), so I was amazed at how picturesque most of it was – give me friendly indie bookshops, culture on every corner, ornate architecture, green spaces and efficient public transport, and you’ve won my heart, basically. My only regret is that I didn’t stay another day or two to take in even more – I really wish I could have seen more theatre and visited more museums, especially the Natural History Museum. However, with fares as low as those offered by Ryanair, budget hostels aplenty, and an Oyster card taking up residence in my purse, I have a feeling that future London adventures are calling…

Recipes

Vegan spiced fruit and nut cake, for those bare cupboard days

Whew, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted a recipe on here – you’ll all be thinking I’ve gone books-only! But in the spirit of Bake Off, which returns next week (although let’s be honest, it’s mainly because I have nothing better to do than bake and write all day), I thought I’d share the recipe for the easy peasy fruit and nut cake that I made today. This is a recipe adapted from war time when rationing was in full swing, so uses very basic ingredients rather than anything too expensive, like butter. The recipe I actually adapted it from called it “bare cupboard cake.”

The best bit is that it’s vegan as well so able to be shared with even more people!

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Vegan Spiced Fruit and Nut Cake

Ingredients

200g sugar (I used caster and light muscovado, half and half, but it’s totally your choice)
250g self-raising flour
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 tsp mixed spice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of salt
350ml water
100g raisins (or other dried fruit of your choice)
75g pecans, broken into smaller bits (again, you can use any nuts you like)

Icing sugar (sorry, I didn’t measure this as I tend to do icing by eye – , there should be enough icing, when made up, to cover the whole cake, while retaining a thin but opaque look)
Cinnamon sugar (you can buy this ready-made, but if you don’t have it, you can mix 1 tbsp caster or granulated sugar with 1 tsp cinnamon)

Method

1. Preheat oven to 180°c, and grease and line a rectangular baking tin.
2. Mix sugar, oil, fruit, nuts, spices, salt and water in a large pan (I also added some cinnamon raki that my dad bright back from Crete, but I don’t expect that this is a common thing to have lying around!)
3. Place over medium heat, stirring gently. Bring to the boil and leave for 5 minutes.
4. Leave fruit and nut syrup to cool as you mix together flour and bicarbonate of soda.
5. Once syrup has cooled, beat in the flour mixture, ensuring it’s all fully incorporated.
6. Pour into baking tin and bake for 20 minutes or until the top of the cake is a rich, chestnut brown and a skewer comes out clean.
7. Make up icing with icing sugar and water, adding a dash of the cinnamon sugar.
8. Once the cake is cool, top with the lovely runny icing and sprinkle over cinnamon sugar .
9. Cut into portions of your choosing and enjoy!

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What I love about this cake is that it’s so quick and easy, yet has a lovely, moist texture and warm taste to rival most other types of spice-based cake – my parents both mistook it for the much richer gingerbread that I like to bake around Christmas! It’s incredibly versatile and there’s so much potential to experiment with different combinations of fruit, nuts and spices.

Yummy for everyone!