January is a month which bites and blows in thirty-one short, dark days. It usually feels like a month of coping, a month to get through while the days slowly lengthen and we edge closer to spring. This January is a bit different for me. I’m looking after my mum’s dog for the month and I’ve been distracted from the bleakness of winter by a furry friend. My days have become regulated by feeding times and walks. I rush home to see her and drag myself out on a cold morning to walk her. We’ve walked in the bright winter sun and in rain or sleet slicing down in sheets. We’ve walked in the Peak District and in the streets and parks of south London: Burgess Park, Peckham Rye. She sat next to me while I wrote two essays for my Masters degree, forcing me to take much needed breaks in the fresh air. When I leave the house, she stands on her hind legs on the sofa, watching at the window as I walk away.

Having a dog is an exercise in being needed, depended upon to bring food, and provide walks and attention. I realised that looking after her has acted as what I’d like to call a ‘winterest’; a seasonal occupation that helps to make January more bearable. For me, getting outside in the winter months is crucial. In the short daylight hours, even twenty minutes walking outside can be enough to jolt you from the impending tiredness and low energy that accompanies dark days. I think everyone might need a winterest, whether it’s cooking delicious meals (as promoted by the #cookjan movement on Twitter) or planting hyacinth bulbs ready to bloom in spring–we need these pleasurable activities to help us through.

I have got the dog for company until 31 January. She may have woken me up most almost every night barking at the screeching foxes (January is their mating season) and insist on humping her stuffed toy whenever she pleases, but it’s very difficult to stay cross her at for long. Handing her back will be hard, but it will mark the end of the longest, gloomiest month of the year. And then spring blossoms and light evenings won’t be too far away. I’ll have to find another winterest for February.

Photo credit: Bryony White


On Autumn

On Autumn

Autumn has crept up again, slinking its way into the air on a cool breeze; sliding into bed next to you as you sleep. Those hot sticky nights and fresh morning swims are a distant memory. The lush greens turn to golden hues, radiating the warmth that the days will quickly lose. Conkers are now the rich treasure of the ground, collected on the way home; their smooth surface rubbed lovingly by fingers in pockets.

It has always been my favourite season. When the air is cold enough to wear cashmere and polo necks. Afternoon walks filled with the crunch of leaves. Dusting off the winter coat. Crisp mornings, hot soups and mashed potato. Baked camembert. New pens and the smell of fresh notebooks. Roasted squash and pumpkin. The countdown to Christmas.

Autumn is a season of change and fresh starts, far more than the grey January days when resolutions slip away as soon as you’ve made them. There is an optimism in the brightness of autumn, the light may be fading but it lingers on. I’ve always fallen prey to ‘back to school’ syndrome; marching into September with an army of new ambitions; goals that need conquering; dreams that want fulfilling. In the past, romantic plans made in summer and embarked on in autumn have crumbled as winter comes; a move to Cornwall that never materialised, a career in a classroom that ended abruptly.

So I’m entering this autumn with some trepidation. It’s another new start. I’m going back to university to start a masters degree. Despite good intentions – a tidy desk, new books – I can’t help thinking of those autumns past, which started golden but ended in emptiness. I know that past me would have enjoyed the moment, indulged in my favourite autumnal pleasures and revelled in the possibilities of the season.

I hope the magic of autumn can conjure those feelings again.

On swimming

On swimming

Summer in London is languishing under a white cotton sheet, sipping warm water from the glass by the bed. Writhing through sleepless nights, with windows wide open and street noise roaring into the room. An oppressive heat fuelled by pollution. Summer is a dull headache, insect bites and sunburn. Heat rash. Wearing the same loose-flowing jumpsuit three days running because it’s the only thing that keeps you cool. Dehydration no matter how much water you drink. Summer is sitting inside with the curtains closed.

The tube is hell. The central line is a furnace packed with sweating bodies in fainting heat. Irritation at being looked at as you walk down the street, your legs inspected by men wandering around shirtless and sunburnt. The office which has no air conditioning heats up like a greenhouse, fans churning fruitlessly.

On these hot days I long for water to cover me and steal the stickiness away. The thing to do when it’s too hot to stay in the house is to choose a place to swim. The only time I wished I lived in north London is on burning days, when the Ladies’ Pond at Hampstead Heath is the most sensible place to be – but the hour-long journey in the heat is unappealing. This time, my local leisure centre will have to do.

Over the past few years I have developed a taste for wild swimming, away from the bustle of a chlorinated pool crammed with children or lane-hoggers. I’m not yet a hardened swimmer like Jessica J. Lee whose recent book Turning describes swimming in German lakes all year round, even in midwinter when she has to chip away the ice from the surface. My dips tend to be in the summer season.

There is something deeply thrilling about jumping into an unknown body of water. I get a buzz from surrendering myself. Seas, lakes, and rivers all offer a different sensation: the exciting crash of waves in buoyant seawater, the unfamiliar stillness and unnerving depth of a cold lake, the freshness of a flowing river.

A hot day without a dip feels wasted. I’m gripped by a feeling of emptiness and disappointment at having failed in my mission to plunge into a new pool. I long to leave London and run into a lake somewhere quiet. What is it about water? It has an endless appeal to the imagination, its scale and possibility stretches below and beyond us, irresistible.

I was born in a town on the north-east coast of England and took my first steps on holiday at a beach in Fort William. When we moved away to a city, my parents had my bedroom walls painted with a sea scene, complete with sand and shells. When I said I missed the sea, my dad would hold a conch to my ear and tell me to listen to the waves.

I recently read a beautiful piece in The Guardian by writer and daily recreational swimmer Philip Hoare, who is haunted by Shakespeare’s words from The Tempest, sung by the spirit Ariel: ‘Of his bones are coral made; / Those are pearls that were his eyes, / Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / into something rich and strange’. I too was proccupied with the wonders of the water depths.

At school, I performed the role of a spirit in a production of The Tempest, and later composed a song to Ariel’s words for my GCSE Music coursework. I was bewitched by the romantic potential of water, even in death. In Shakespeare’s song, the body of a drowned sailor does not fade, but is transformed into something beautiful and unusual. And so I became aware of the power that water holds over the collective imagination. It wasn’t just me who was under its spell.


I thought I’d end this post by recommending some related reading for those who need some watery words to distract from the summer heat (although, as I write this it is admittedly raining – finally):

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
Turning: A Swimming Memoir by Jessica J Lee
Leviathan by Philip Hoare
The Waves by Virginia Woolf


On London Bridge

On London Bridge

Stretching from London Bridge down to Forest Hill, Crystal Palace and Lewisham, south east London is a sprawling section of the capital city, rich and full of life. Cultures and communities converge. Delicious food abounds. I love this part of London. It’s my home. When I see the news notifications popping up on my phone on Saturday night, I feel sick. London Bridge is being attacked. Innocent diners, partiers, tourists and theatregoers are fleeing from Borough market, terrified. A pub I had spent many nights in as an undergraduate is being evacuated. People are being ushered down towards Elephant and Castle. I am tucked up in bed, watching events unfold on my phone, powerless to protect those people. A cacophony of sirens whirrs outside our window.

The next day, I hear interviews with bystanders on the radio. People who haven’t slept, who are distraught and haven’t had time to process the tragedy, are being interviewed on national television. Recently, some of those affected by past terror attacks have spoken out about the traumatic impact that intrusive journalists can have. One woman revealed the relentless tactics employed to contact her – hacking social media accounts, calling her parents and turning up at her house. I want the camera crews to leave London in peace. Let these people comfort each other. Let them grieve. Leave them be.

These events are horrific but they are still uncommon. The people who want to commit harm are few, although many voices will try to make you believe otherwise. I feel guilty about being scared and sad on Sunday morning. I wasn’t there at the scene, I tell myself, I don’t have any friends who were injured. I have no right to be upset.

Londoners are tough. We are determined to have a normal Sunday. We go to the pub. We do the laundry. I read on social media that neighbours in my area offered their homes to those fleeing the attack the previous night. The New York Times reports that Britain is ‘reeling’ from the recent terror attacks and a backlash emerges on Twitter as people across the country share mundane details about their Sundays, from taking out the recycling to live-tweeting The Archers omnibus. We are carrying on as normal, they say.

I take the tube on Monday morning, hyperaware that the commuter hour on the Northern line doesn’t feel as busy as usual. I listen more acutely, noticing that no one is talking. No one ever talks on the tube, I remind myself. As I walk home from the station after work, I see a group of women dancing in Burgess Park. I’ve noticed them before with their boombox, dancing together unashamedly, their children hanging around waiting for them. They are brazenly facing the rain, arms raised as if in praise. I love them. I nearly stop to tell them so but I don’t want to interrupt. Instead I watch for a moment, my hair dripping. Then I continue home, rain running down my face.

On Audiences

On Audiences

When we enter a space that has been designated for traditional performance, a concert hall or theatre, a room with a stage, we enter into an unwritten contract that determines how we behave as an audience. There may be announcements asking us to switch off mobile phones – this is always communicated clearly in a cinema environment – but often there is not. We are expected to be attentive listeners, quiet observers, dark-room dwellers observing the action, but this is not always overtly communicated to us. It is an expectation acknowledged through the behaviour of the majority. It is demonstrated by the layout of space itself, by the dimming of the lights, by the quiet hush that quickly sweeps the room, but it is not always announced.

A site such as the Barbican is used for multi-disciplinary performances but no matter what you are watching, the understanding is that you will be a respectful observer. At a recent concert, this behavioural contract was flouted by the woman sitting directly in front of me. She had her mobile phone out repeatedly during the concert, casually scrolling through Facebook, even pausing to take a selfie as the lights dimmed for the start of the second half. This woman wasn’t talking, she was listening and applauding politely when everyone else did. I was enraged by the light from her phone and by her inability to switch off from her digital device for 5 minutes to enjoy the performance by the Academy of Ancient Music.

After the concert, I began to question my own irritation at the woman and her mobile phone. I recalled that there had been no announcement before the concert that devices should be switched off. I tried to think of a reasonable explanation as to why she might think this was acceptable. Perhaps she wasn’t aware of the expectation that one should have a phone switched off during a concert. Perhaps she hadn’t twigged that the gradiated auditorium seating layout meant that the people sitting behind could fully see the illuminated screen of her phone. I wanted to lean forward and tap her on the shoulder, silently gesturing her to put her phone away, but I didn’t. Inhibited by my own social anxiety, and the withering look of my boyfriend who would have been mortified if I had made a scene, I instead fumed internally, occasionally venting my frustration with a shake of the head.

The disruption reminded me of a performance I had been ushering several years ago while I was a student, at an off-west end theatre in east London. The play was a two-hander consisting almost entirely of monologues. Unbeknownst to me, an audience member in the middle of the balcony was using an iPad throughout the performance, their face illuminated by the blue light of the screen. Midway through the performance, the lead actor who was in the middle of a ten-minute monologue suddenly stopped speaking. Breaking character, he looked straight up at the balcony and angrily demanded, “Why are you using your iPad? You’ve had it out for the whole performance and it’s really distracting”. My stomach dropped. The worst had happened. I had failed to notice the distraction this audience member was causing and the actor had taken things in to his own hands, ruining the performance. I watched in disbelief as the audience member calmly replied, “I’m making notes”. The actor was furious. “Make notes in a notebook. You can’t have an iPad out during a play. I’m not continuing until you put it away”.

I was amazed that someone would have the gumption to use a device during a play to begin with, let alone to defend themselves to an actor onstage who had sabotaged his own performance to get your attention and ask you to stop. I imagine I would be incredibly embarrassed, mumble a quiet apology and put the iPad away in my bag. I would then have spent the next several weeks obsessing over the incident. However, this audience member was defiant and protective over their right to make notes, if they wished, using whatever means was easiest for them.

Looking back on it now, I’m not sure whose behaviour was worse, the audience member or the actor. The actor’s job was to perform his part with conviction. The iPad light may have been distracting, but most professionals would ignore it, continue with their performance and rant about it in the pub afterwards. After all, there were bright stage lights shining directly in his face, illuminating him; surely he could have ignored the smaller blue light from the balcony. Perhaps the theatre needed to be more explicit in their notice that not only mobile phones but all electronic devices must be switched off during the performance. I felt certain that if questioned after the show, this person would have defended themselves with “I wasn’t told I couldn’t have it out”.

The refusal to conform to the expected audience behaviours is a fascinating kind of rebellion. It is not criminal; it is irritating. It is not violent; it is disruptive. And it is only through these kind of incidents that I have really become aware of the rigid conventions that govern an audience’s behaviour. I have realised that my attitude to conventional performance is conservative; people should behave as expected, they should conform, they should not question or disrupt the order. One thing is certain, those who are delivering the performance must be immune to these kind of minor disruptions. Perhaps it should be down to other audience members to police them. In which case, I have always failed at my job.

On Lists

In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2009, novelist Umberto Eco referred to lists as ‘the origin of culture’. He argues, ‘What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible’. Eco points out that cultural history is comprised of lists – dictionaries, museum catalogues, encyclopedias. He adds that novels are full of lists. Culture is made up of lists and so too are our everyday lives. We write lists to make life comprehensible, to create order in a world full of chaos.

I am made and marred by lists. I write lists when I’m feeling optimistic. Lists seem tangible; a clear delineation of what needs achieving. The lists I write range from the simple – send an email – to the ambitious – clean the whole house, write an essay, do a job application. I write lists so that I don’t forget to do things but also so that I can have the satisfaction of ticking them off, however small. I love the feeling of reaching the end of the day, all my tasks completed and a deserved gin and tonic in hand. But this doesn’t always happen.

The mistake I make is overestimating what can be achieved in a day. At work, I write a list of everything that needs doing in a week and feel disappointed when there are still 10 items unfinished by the end of Monday. I put ‘clean the house’ at the top of the list forgetting that this will take half a day, leaving little time for me to finish the article I am writing. I fail to acknowledge that the completion of certain tasks invariably depends on others; waiting for sign-off on a piece of copy or an email response to a reference request.

I have discovered that my personal sense of success is in direct correlation with my list-dictated productivity. I become frustrated if things are perpetually unfinished. Regular chores are a constant battle – as soon as they are ticked off, there is more to do. I have spoken to others who experience similar anxious sensations about productivity and needing to have a measure for their personal success on a day-to-day basis.

My solution is this: make achievable lists. It sounds simple but I am still working it out. Think realistically about how much time something will take and ensure you have allowed space in your day for it to take that long. When it is clear that the day is full, draw a line. Anything else that needs doing can wait until tomorrow. Next, prioritise. An application deadline the next day is more urgent than cleaning the bathroom. Accept that you may not have time to clean the bathroom for a few days. Do not punish yourself for this. You could even, god forbid, ask someone else to clean the bathroom this week.

I recently saw an anti-capitalist lovenote emblazoned with the message: You are worth so much more than your productivity. Remember this slogan. Print it out and put it above your desk if you have to. Sure, make a list if it helps you but don’t let it dictate your day. Feel free to stray away from the list; adapt it as the day goes on, cross off things that aren’t important or scrap it entirely. After all, the best days are those when you have space to be impulsive.