Monday, 28 October 2013

Captain Europe, or, How my British Adventure Began

As threatened promised last week here is the first chapter of my memoir, entitled Captain Europe. I've uploaded it onto the My Memoir page as well.
The year is 1989. I am 20 years old.  It’s a September morning (rainy, no doubt) and I have just arrived in Edinburgh where I have transferred to the second year of a Sociology and Politics degree course.

I’ve spent my first few days wondering up and down the city’s cobbled streets, beaten into a trance of ecstatic submission by the gothic fairytale of its dark buildings, like a foreign princess lost in a petrified forest.  I’ve spent Freshers’ week not descending into oblivion down smoky beer cellars but climbing dusty staircases to introduce myself to tutors with messy offices tucked away in the recesses of old buildings.

I’ve joined the library and experienced the shock of seeing my first computer ever. I’m supposed to search for the books I need on this machine and the wild impossibility of this task temporarily defeats me. For the first and only time I concede to myself I might have made a huge mistake.

I’ve sat in silence and in awe in the massive lecture rooms where professors deliver their lessons from a lectern, with the unheard of (to me) accompaniment of projectors and slides. Finally I have gathered what is left of my courage and my energy and climbed one more set of stairs, to reach the office of the student newspaper - which is economically called ‘Student’….Dum Dum DUUUM! What do you think will happen next?

Anyway, I’m actually heading back to Edinburgh later this week, as it turns out, for a business trip which will segue into a week-end with old friends from Uni, many mentioned in this very chapter, sometimes under their real name. Who knew then that the rest of my life would be spent in this country and that they would very much be part of it still, nearly a quarter of a century later? Not I.

I came for a year, people!

A year is all I intended to stay for. I can’t think what can possibly have stopped me (aside from happiness, freedom, friends, plentiful jobs opportunities and generalized good-time-having) from fleeing these drizzly shores and returning to the sunshine and blue skies of home.

Still, I’m incredibly grateful that Scotland was my gateway to what turned out to me a whole new life in the UK. 

I'm following the independence debate from down south, witnessing the earnest conversations about what kind of country Scotland wants to be, how it wants to position itself in the world and towards its own citizens and my heart swells with pride. 

Martin Kettle put this very well in his Guardian piece last week. To paraphrase: whilst the existence of a distinctly Scottish social democratic consensus is up for debate, it's hard to challenge the fact that a lot of Scots believe their political culture is very different (from the Westminster toff-dominated waffle-fest). I believe they are right. I think it is.

Nowhere does this different political culture manifest itself more starkly, in my opinion,  than in the way Europe and 'abroad' are viewed and discussed. Down in London I increasingly feel like one of those EU scroungers the Telegraph and the Express hand-wring about. You know, the ones who came over here, paid student fees, bought a house and paid tax all their lives and then have the audacity to want to see an NHS dentist. 

But in Edinburgh I always felt and still feel welcome, with no need to intermittently justify my existence and right to be here. I’m not a foreigner – or at the very least I’m not English, which is all that matters really.

And every time I step off the train at Waverley station and look up at the gothic fairytale of the city's dark building (to coin a phrase) I am 20 again, and hopeful, and fearless and strong again, and the world is smiling at me even as the rain and the gale force winds bitch-slap me in the face.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Culture as Cosplay

This is a real, actual job, advertised in the Guardian a few weeks ago: 

"Head of Explorer Programme

Location: Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey KT8 9AU
Salary: £48,557 - £49,801      plus other benefits.
This is an exciting new role that has been created following the endorsement by HRPs Board of new strategy for Learning and Engagement to 2016. The Explorer Programme Team is one of three main cross-palace learning strands." 

I don't know what a Head of Explorer Programme does or indeed what the other 'main cross-palace learning strands' might be. I'm not even sure I understand all the words in that sentence.

I haven't set foot inside Hampton Court Palace for a few years now. My husband and I  walked there from Richmond on a sunny Saturday afternoon only a few weeks ago, as it happens. But by the time we got there we had neither time nor strength left in our legs for a quick tour. I can confirm that it looked exactly as I remembered it from the outside but, boy, things much have changed within.

Had we joined the crowds of visitors, would we have been instructed to don stiff pleated collars 'for him' and velvet over-gowns 'for her' and drag ourselves around a themed 'cross-palace' itinerary? 'Cooking with Swans', perhaps, or 'Off With Their Heads!'? Would we have been goaded into courtly sing-alongs and lavender cushions-sewing tutorials?

This reminded me of the Beatles-style hotel in Liverpool called The Hard Day's Night. We are not talking about some old Viennese guest house making a fuss about having been patronised by Mozart, once. Nor are we talking about the Hannah Montana Pink Lodge of Hotness at Disney World (I'm sure it totally exists). This is themed accommodation for Beatles enthusiasts, commemorating a group of people half of whom are still alive and whose fan base is significantly older than 12 years of age.

I stayed at that hotel the last time I went to Liverpool, to see the Gustav Klimt exhibition. Had Tate Liverpool offered punters Secession-style ottomans inside the gallery itself -and a Sachertorte Breakfast -as part of the package I have no doubt I would have opted for that instead.

We live in a (still affluent, despite five years of rece/depression) society which increasingly mediates every cultural experience through the personal.

If you are a Star Trek fan who loves turning up at special conventions dressed up as a KIingon they call it cosplay.  It sounds like fun, if that's the sort of thing you like and, after all, pop culture is entertainment.

The question that occurs to me is: should all culture be cosplay? Should every cultural experience be 'immersive'(as the BBC jargon goes), a form of entertainment in which we must actively participate and experience in first person- wear the costume, sing along, bake-it-at-home?

It's a question worth asking, I think, if nothing else because, what with the cuts to everything, the worsening education system, the dwindling numbers going to university and the commodification of academic learning itself, we are headed towards a point where only the culture that can be served up as entertainment will survive.

Goodbye philosophy, ancient Greek, lengthy but wizard-free books of any kind, symphonies without short, famous bits that can be harnessed to do a honest day's work as mobile ringtones.

And maybe that's ok. I myself studied ancient Greek for five years at secondary school and I can't remember a single word of it. It hasn't done me any good, particularly, and I don't miss it now it's gone. I actively dislike most classical music and War and Peace is still gathering dust on the back pile by my bedside - the pile of books I should want to read but curiously don't want to read.

That said, 'Culture' is probably a bit more than 'stuff that's interesting to me' or 'stuff I personally want to know about'. It's a piece of DNA of our shared humanity. Knowledge of it is an end in itself, a vessel carrying it forward into the next generation, ensuring it is preserved and, in time, improved upon.

Maybe by giving up on it altogether unless I can 'explore' it through an interactive 'leaning strand' or knit it from a pattern is not such a good idea.

Goodbye Dante. You should have cheered up, mate!

Monday, 21 October 2013

Leaving Azzurro Behind – the journey of a reluctant Brit

In 2003 I was at a crossroads as a writer. 

I had written two novels and for each I had dutifully found, and subsequently lost, an agent after each, in succession, had tried and failed to find a publisher. Precisely two people, beside my minuscule family and my smallish circle of very good friends, had taken the time to read the hundreds of pages I had spent years writing and rewriting. 

I loved writing and believed I had something to say, a little something to add to the centuries’ old recorded human conversation, something that wouldn't be missed if it weren't there but wouldn't make the world a worst or duller place for being in it either. But the thought of subjecting myself to another two years of solitary confinement, for the entertainment of maybe ten people over the course of a week or two was too dismal too bear. 

That's when a sympathetic agent-to-be suggested I use my foreignness and familiarity with storytelling to pen "one of those travelogues about people who have moved to another country with hilarious results". Why didn't I, in other words, do a reverse 'Year in Provence'-job, chartering the agony and the ecstasy, the freedom and the foolishness of abandoning sunnier shores for the grey and the drizzle of this Sceptered Isle? Reader, I did just that, with hilarious results indeed. 

By the time I had finished the third draft no publisher could be cajoled into taking an interest in ‘Leaving Azzurro Behind’. What was fashionable now, I was told, were tales of third generation immigrants from far flung Commonwealth outposts. So there! I had lost another agent but by that stage I had found my future husband and domestic bliss lessened the disappointment and my appetite for rejection in the publishing killing fields. Besides, I had now one more reader on tap, increasing my net readership by about ten per cent at a stroke.

Years went by. People, even people I knew, started publishing their writing online and I myself dipped my toe in the shallow end of the blogging paddling pool. That got me thinking. Whilst I'm not ready for the full blown Amazon-turbo-self-Kindling thing yet, I have lost faith in traditional publishing being the sole arbiter of what deserves to be out there. Thus my lack of success through traditional routes is less inhibiting these days and can no longer repress my desire to share my writing with other people, including those not related to me, not sharing my bed and not invited to my birthday parties, you know, people out there in the world, people I do not know. People like you. 

So I have decided to publish my memoir on this website, a chapter at a time, storing the various chapters as I go on the handily named 'My Memoir' page. I shall alert you with a short post every time a new chapter is uploaded and you can offer your comments and observations at the bottom of the post in the usual way. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. So, here is the introduction to the book. 

Bear in mind, as you read, that although the writing itself has been much revised subsequently, the events described are still seen from the perspective of my 2003-2005 self, the self at the time of writing. I was a TV reporter, single and occasionally lonely in the big foreign city, often still pining for the azzurro sky of home. Little did I know what was to become of me a decade on. I am the perfect unreliable narrator, talking about ‘my life so far’ from a present which is now in the past. Mind-boggling, wouldn’t you agree? 

On a more mundane level the book concerns itself with the stuff of real life anywhere – student friendships, family lore, first jobs, flat-shares, house hunting, cowboy builders, bastard boyfriends, nights out, gym visits, other people’s weddings. I was too young for funerals but if the print version ever comes out there’ll be a chapter on those, I can assure you. You also get to peek into more unusual places : newspaper offices, TV sets, parliament buildings. I take you with me secret filming in Meditarranean zoos, UFO-hunting in Canada’s snowbound wilderness, to citizenship ceremonies and residential writing courses. 

History’s low hum sometimes becomes thunder, the Wall comes down, bombs explode in Madrid, then in London and I wonder what I’m doing with my life, my precious yet meaningless life, so far away from home. But the great financial crash of 2008 and subsequent recession and depression, the Euro crisis, the Arab Spring are not yet even glints in the typesetter’s eye. (I notice now that 9/11 is curiously there and not there, wallpaper already by the time of writing. I didn’t witness it, not even on TV, as I was travelling through Turkey by coach at the time, and it was clearly so huge and all-encompassing an event to have become a fact of life by the time of writing, not worth re-describing by me). 

Last but not least I try to decode Englishness from Britishness, I offer handy tips on how to dress like an Italian and I muse about how language maketh the man, indeed the people. You will discover why you literally cannot patronise an Italian and why taking a shower, instead of having one can be so, so much more invigorating than you thought possible. Have a read and tell me what you think. I hope you like it – even just a little bit.

Friday, 18 October 2013

How I live now / Part Two

So you are a highly experienced professional, currently in a spot of limbo between careers (see Part One).

You eventually find a formula to tactfully remind your contacts that you are free, yes, but free to perform paid work. You have to start thinking of yourself again as a freelancer, a concept which nostalgically puts you back twenty years, but sadly not in the same dress size.

Paid gigs materialise eventually, and you are grateful for them, but they pay just enough to get the job done, not to attend to the politics that go with it, so an act of self-discipline, almost of re-wiring is required. 

My sister, a life long freelancer, calls it 'doing it like a man', meaning: agree some terms, get tooled up, go in, get it done, get out. It sounds weirdly sexual, I know. Apart from the final bit which is: spend ages chasing payment.

What she means (and I must say I totally agree) is that as women we have the tendency to spend a hell of a long time agonising over stuff, particularly feelings, often other people's, and over how things 'will look' and be interpreted. We are - generally speaking and of course this is a massive generalisation - diligent and worried about failure, not just our own but of the overall endeavour we are engaged in, so we end up in bits, directing the traffic blind, troubleshooting, strategising, catastrophysing, taking on all the responsibility for a fraction of the salary of the people actually in charge. 

That's not to say that men are by contrast sloppy. Most professional men are, and this is the crux of the matter, just professional about fee-earning engagements; not maternal, not personal, not emotional nor sacrificial lamb-ish. 

The 'look' Jen gave them this morning during the meeting does not register with them. Fulfilling John's unspoken and ever shifting expectations is not, unless they are salaried employees, seen as their problem. If there are too many balls in the air and some start falling off (again, no sexual undertone here, I assure you), they pick up the ones they were originally responsible for. Maybe. Not someone else's and on no account, ever, every one else's. 

And it's good training too for one's eventual return in the corporate world, as staff on the payroll somewhere, public, private it doesn't matter. The dynamics are often the same.

The other night, after an exercise class, I got chatting to a woman who told me she was on the verge of quitting a job because of tensions with a colleague. Not her boss, not a sex pest-type male colleague, just another female colleague. She has already had to reduce her hours as the stress of the situation was getting too much. 

There is no suggestion that she is at fault. Everyone knows the other lady is weird and fixated with certain ways of doing things. Yes, she has the support of her boss. No, she is has not been humiliated or harangued in public. It's the way this other woman makes her feel and makes her doubt herself

It's crazy, but I see how you could get there, while I doubt men in any job (aside maybe from high ranking Kremlin officials during the Stalinist purges) spend their time second-guessing themselves and their standing among their peers to the point where they voluntarily backtrack towards the exit.

There is a lesson somewhere about resilience, about not being afraid of making a fuss when necessary but not giving a damn when no damn-giving is required. We women can often be, it seems to me, our own worst enemy. 

The patriarchy gets an easy score not only and not just because some of us agree to sing while sitting naked on a breaking ball even if nobody is 'making us' but because most of us run around picking up the falling bits of masonry when absolutely no one is asking us to. 

Am I wrong?

Monday, 14 October 2013

How I live now/ Part One

The best thing about finding oneself in a sudden career limbo twenty years in is the exciting opportunity this offers to brush up one's self-marketing skills and reconnect with the fast paced, highly rewarding world of job-hunting and freelancing. 


Seriously. It isn't. Don't try this at home if you possibly can. 

Ah, the parsing of illiterate job ads, the wrestling with ancient websites to enter all your data - again -to extract fiendishly hidden application forms and upload a CV so jazzed up, carefully chiselled, agonisingly remodelled, rejuvenated, tightened up and vavavoomed it could practically run off with a much older Russian oligarch all on its wee own...

On the 'making-lemonade-with lemons' side I suppose I'm getting another taste of what it must be like to be 22 now - minus the youth, slenderness and sexual appeal, of course. 

It is the start of the rest of my life, a time to explore who I really am and what what I really want to do from now on, I grant you that. And I'm far for unique. A lot of people, including in early middle age, are going through this recalibration and soul-searching as I write. Thirty eight per cent of movies are about this topic, (I've just decided to make this up), one way or another. It's just that this process looks lot more enjoyable in films.  

After a few dramatic scenes of despondency and melancholia the heroine, who's been battling adversity of some kind or other, but mainly has been unable to find herself and what she really cares about, transitions to ultimate fulfilment via a music sequence featuring some or all of these scenes in the following order:

1) heroine smiling in the rain,
2) smelling a blooming flower,
3) painting a wall,
4) falling off a bike,
5) getting paint on herself as the man in her life kisses her,
6) walking on a beach,
7) some vague classroom volunteering shot, smiling children with their hands up, 
8) heroine managing, wobbingly, to stay on a bike,
9) observing the beautifully redecorated room - hand on her hips - still wearing paint-splattered fatigues,
10) opening an important letter, 
11) the obligatory dinner party in the newly done up room with cheering friends toasting the content of the important letter,
12) heroine walking towards the ship that's about to sail/into the corner office where her new desk is/on the stage as the curtains open... you get the gist. Finally she knows who she is and is allowing herself to be that person and to reach for her dreams. 

The main trouble in my case is that I have always known what I wanted to be, have been lucky enough to do it for a few years and now it basically doesn't exist anymore. I didn't have a back-up plan, mime, say, or a cupcake business, in my back pocket. 

The problem is not that I was too timid to pursue my dreams or failed to achieve them: I simply outlived them by about 25 working years. So I'm essentially looking for the Next Best Thing. This is not the agony and the ecstasy of finding romance. This is dating in widowhood.  But I digress.

Another notable difference between myself and - say - my former interns is that, while the 22 year olds are battling the perception of their lack of experience and often find themselves trapped in a revolving-door spin of unpaid internships in order to make contacts, I have tonnes of great contacts, oodles of them.

Some of them do reach out and say the most encouraging things. You are so professional, experienced and lovely, they say, in fact would you be interested in becoming a Trustee, rejoining the Committee, lending a hand in the campaign while you wait for the next big job to materialise? 

Unfortunately in a lot of cases when they ask you if you are free they really do mean, it turns out, would you do it for nothing? There's great social cache potentially attached in going with the flow, but not a great deal of, you know, cashflow.

If only Virgin Media, O2, Transport for London, Sainsbury, NPower and so on  didn't still stubbornly insist to be paid by me for their services. It turns out they don't care that I would make a great contact and that working for me would give them precious experience to enhance their value in the business world (I give great feedback, honest!) so I do not have the luxury to agree to do the same.

This calls for the judicious but decisive deployment of the F word. Yes, I mean 'Fee'. It's ugly, I now, but life ain't that pretty anyway, when all is said and done.

Watch this space.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Even the Kremlin wears Prada now. But can't we be better than that?

I don't know about you, but I don't want to live in a neo-liberal market economy which tolerates grotesque inequalities, despoils the planet and debases standards everywhere in the pursuit of shareholder value whilst ALSO mass spying on, controlling and harassing its citizens and its journalists like it's the Soviet Union on acid.

Not that anyone is asking. It used to be called 'elections' and you voted for the side whose programme you liked better but it turns out none of the real policies are publicly stated in advance (and the 'secret ones', of course, not even afterwards).

It was bad enough under the last Labour government,  with its obsession with curtailing basic freedoms and rights in an Orwellian perma-war against unknown terrorists under the bed and its expensive tab-keeping  and mass data gathering follies, (ID cards, NHS database etc ).

But the current coalition Government manages to be in supine agreement to secret US mass spying, engage in more than a dollop of its own indiscriminate eavesdropping, persecute newspapers and individual journalists who dare expose it and ask questions, set its media lapdogs against them while ALSO libeling the unemployed as scroungers, the immigrants as illegal scroungers, dragging the dying from their beds to sign up for non-existent, sub-minimum wage jobs and outsourcing the feeding of the already working poor to food banks.

I mean, really???

It seems to me that all power generates its own form of ideology - one that requires more and more power to be amassed for reasons too secret for the mere mortals to be entrusted with. 

Once power has tooled up with even more power (for our benefit, remember, so it can serve us better, save us from harm, protect our way of life), it turns out, wouldn't you know it, that the definition of our way of life has been brutally and unilaterally updated.

All efforts towards maintaining a civilised polis, where citizens have rights as well as responsibilities towards each other, is now something on the spectrum from unaffordable to blasphemous - via hopelessly naive/unpatriotic /Marxist-Stalinist, according to which newspaper is reprinting the press release on its front page today. 

In fact power is a lot like the wolf in Little Red Ridinghood - the wig changes occasionally, the lacy nightgown gets the odd fashion makeover but it's still not grandma and it still just wants to eat you! Be afraid, very afraid.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Promised Land

When the scale of a disaster is too mind boggling, too incomprehensible, the eyes takes refuge in a smaller detail, something the mind can wrap itself around.  

This footage of the unfolding Lampedusa rescue ending with the disconsolate sobs of a female rescuer have stabbed many Italians like me in the heart - the heart our political class has done so much to harden and coarsen in the ongoing immigration debate. 

Here is someone whose life I can sort of imagine, whose language and somatic traits I share, who went out to deal with an emergency as a professional and found herself defeated by the challenge as a human being.

On the same day when the scale of the massacre was revealed and my nation belatedly found the strength and the humanity to shed some tears, I went to the Royal Court theatre here in London to see Routes, a  powerful new play by a very talented young playwright, Rachel De-lahay. The play explores the plight of migrants and refugees here in the UK - the dream of escape, the politics of belonging, the lottery of qualifying, of counting, of deserving the application of existing and seemingly universal rights - or not. 

The hardest thing in the play for me was the inability of officialdom, in the shape of an otherwise sympathetic and quite reasonable immigration officer (a struggling mother, a poorly paid worker, a jilted wife) to blink this particular category of human beings into focus and see them as people.

After war, civil strife, terrorism and famine, after the ravages of global warming and droughts and trade sanctions, after perilous journeys, narrow escapes, unbelievable cruelty and exploitation, the final blow, the final strike of the malignant wand that turns desperate people into a despised alien mob - to be fought back, detained, deported, bureaucratically and judicially eliminated - is our profound inability to empathize. 

Aside from a small percentage of particularly dumb Tea Baggers and Ukippers we - by and large - understand the issues, we know facts and stats, we are perfectly able to reason about the whys and whats and the what ifs. We just don't seem to be able to feel what's at stake unless 300 bodies wrapped in plastic can be physically lined up on a western nation's harbour under the gaze of TV cameras. 

Aren't these human-shaped bundles now dead because what they escaped from was in itself worse than death? What else do they need to qualify? How exactly is their desire to survive a way of taking advantage of us, the lucky, ageing, First World few? Why should we, by geographical accident of birth, have more right to feel, be seen and treated as human, whether this means not to be tortured or being able to feed one's children?