By destruction, dwell in doubtful joy

images

This Sunday at 5am, when all sensible people were sleeping off the effects of a high-summer Saturday in the sun, I was lying in bed 200 miles from home squinting at a live stream of a little bit of my heart being reduced to rubble.

I am aware that to most people, the idea of being attached to some cooling towers, concrete monstrosities, and eye-sore on the landscape, seems bizarre at best.

I wrote last year  http://www.in-a-village.co.uk/homeward-bound-i-wish-i-was/ about the sorrow in Didcot when the coal-fired power station was turned off for the final time. Since then, we’ve swapped tower-related gossip and rumour – when are they being demolished? Couldn’t they be saved, somehow, to loom above us as they have always done?(No, said English Heritage. They aren’t ‘unique’ enough to be listed, despite their pleasing aesthetic qualities. Pfft.) And if their days WERE numbered, how could we mark their passing?

There is no doubt that there is real affection for the towers. We even have nicknames for them. The Milk Bottles. The Cloud Makers, after the ways the steam would gather into soft fluffy cotton wool balls and sheepy fleeces, particularly on clear days. The Bumper Cars (no I don’t understand that one either). Didcot Cathedral or the Cathedral of the Valleys.

In fact almost everyone I speak to in the town and the surrounding villages feels extremely fondly about them. Their dads and granddads, uncles and brothers helped build them, sometimes losing their lives in the process. I have heard more than once that ‘my dad’s signature is on one of those bricks’. For many people in the town, there are happy memories of working there, part of a community of workers. They were an unmissable part of the landscape for 40 years and naturally we wanted to be there when they disappeared.

For sentimental reasons, so we could be together when it all ended, but also because bloody hell who wouldn’t want to miss three 100m cooling towers get blown up? That’s not the kind of thing you get to see every day. Also, possibly, we were kinda hoping the debris might squash the neighbouring Daily Mail building, thereby destroying Didcot’s REAL eyesore.

But RWE Npower, who had snaffled up the power station for a bargain price in the great Tory Asset Jumble Sale of the late 20th century, had other ideas. Like a killjoy over-anxious grandma, Granny Npower was determined that we should all just stay indoors in the warm and dry.

‘It will be too dusty! It will be too loud! You can watch it from Far Away on a hill! Oh no, actually you can’t because that would also be too exciting and you will get all dust on your nice clean clothes. Anyway we don’t know when we might demolish it. Could be 2am, could be 3, might be later, look just come after a nice nourishing breakfast, when we’ve had chance to run the hoover round and get the Mr Sheen round the place so it’s spick and span.’

So it was hardly surprising that 3000 people signed a petition to persuade Granny Npower to move the demolition to a later time, so that we could all get up early to watch the towers we had driven past every day come crumpling down.

Granny Npower wouldn’t budge, but then neither would the Didcotians. They DEFIED Granny Npower, dressed in her high vis vest, tutting into her walkie talkie about health and safety; they stood quietly on public roads and footpaths, or sat patiently on deckchairs on high ground in the early morning gloaming to see the old girls finally sink to their knees and film it on their iphones. Anarchy in the 21st century is a blurry video clip shared on Twitter (#didcotdemolition).

Not me, though. I am in deepest Wales, and after bidding a sniffly goodbye on Saturday morning I was forced to watch the gut-wrenching moment on my phone via a live stream with my dodgy rural internet connection.

What the hell am I crying for, though? I only moved here ten years ago but I never found them ugly, only pretty awe-inspiring up close, sometimes taking my breath away like standing under the side of a ship or at the foot of a great cathedral. From a distance, I loved the clouds they made, and (sometimes, excitingly) the Didcot Snow that fell. I particularly loved the way the pinky-mellow evening light would reflect off them like gently curving cliffs.

Most of all I loved the things they represented. The story I hear over and over is that they were a landmark, the first sign of coming home. They certainly meant that for me, but they held another meaning for me as well.

The towers, like the power station, meant the town was connected to the outside world, a living breathing place. Like the factories and pit heads and slag heaps I grew up with, they may not be picturesque, they might even look ugly to most, but for the people who live and work here, this is what makes a community. We might not have a castle or a stately home or a cathedral, but the Cathedral of the Valleys was a place that brought the town together, linked us with one another, made us who we are – the people that made the lights come on when you flicked the switch.

RIP – and if anyone can nick me a chunk of rubble, I am DEFINITELY interested.

Watch the moment of final destruction here (it’s actually pretty coolio).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=j70kiQy277A

Some wonderful photographs of Didcot, including some great ones from this weekend, here:

https://www.facebook.com/SocialLandscapeDidcot?fref=ts

What the towers look like today…

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A fan, not a friend

fangirl

 

Twenty years ago I was having my passport checked in some godforsaken Turkish airport, and feeling more than a little nervous.

I had recently seen Midnight Express and although the strongest thing in my back pack was some spearmint tic-tacs, that didn’t stop the waves of paranoia sending the sweat trickling down my sunburnt back.

Suddenly the heavily armed, scarily uniformed guard leapt down from his stool to embrace me warmly.

‘Forest! Brian Clough!’ he yelled, failing to notice me wincing as he slapped me warmly on the back in a state of high excitement.

He was, unlikely as it might seem, a Forest fan, and he had noticed my place of birth was listed as Nottingham.

That’s what being a fan is about – connecting with other people with whom you have absolutely nothing, and yet everything, in common. Turkish passport guy felt this strong affinity to me because I had been born in a place many thousands of miles away from his own home; he was nothing short of thrilled to feel that connection over a very halting conversation about Archie Gemmell and his ability to be all at once literally ALL over the field.

My first experience of being a fan, though, was not watching Brian Clough’s Red and White Army. I LIKED watching Forest play, but I am not a football FAN. I see the beauty and the poetry of the game but it doesn’t sing in my blood.

Though I like a lot of bands, I was only ever a fan of Queen.

In fact it’s not an exaggeration to say that being a Queen fan defined my teenage years. Being a fan in those days was a pretty serious business. It involved scanning the magazines and the papers to make sure you got all the right clippings. Queuing up outside the record shop (Selectadisc, RIP) for newly released records. Sending off my SAE to the Jackie at the Queen Fan Club – still going strong, incredibly enough, and in the Guinness Book of Records too.

Fandom was – still is – a great outlet for all those raging hormones. When all the boys around you seemed, well, a little dull somehow, there was always Freddie oh and Freddie was never ever dull.

Feeling like you belong to something can be a lifesaver in those dark teenage days when you feel like you are the only one who feels SO ALONE, so disconnected from everything. But it isn’t just a question of belonging, it was a way of being too. Queen weren’t just a band for me, they were the philosophy, the design for life – the camp, the sarcasm, the excess, the lust for life. Over the top, and never taking yourself too seriously – ‘if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.’

These days I am, of course, way too old and sophisticated to be a fan.

Ha.

Fandom is one of the things you are supposed to grow out of, like acne and wetting the bed. Well I have pretty much grown out of both of those (apart from the ONE TIME) – but I haven’t grown out of the desire to connect with something, to be passionate and even fanatical about.

Looking around me, lots of people still feel the same way, still paying good money to go and see – and maybe even scream at – their teenage heroes: Robbie Williams or McBusted. Following a football team is a for many a lifelong commitment; there’s no divorce proceedings that can stop you following the same team. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. (So watch out One Directioners – you’re in this for the longhaul….)

It’s not Queen for me anymore though. My fangirl tendencies now point in an almost comically different, and certainly unexpected, direction.

I liked a lot of bands in the 1990s; The Bluetones weren’t even top of my list. I loved Nirvana, Green Day and Blur; I thought Jarvis Cocker and Thom Yorke were incredible performers. I played Jagged Little Pill till I could mimic every one of Alanis’s annoying vocal catches.

But somehow, when all the CDs started gathering dust, I just kept playing The Bluetones until the lyrics were as familiar to me as the Bible verses I learned as a child and these days much more meaningful.

Like every fan, I am a little embarrassing, even gushing, on this subject; I am ready to tell anyone who wants to listen, and many who don’t, about how the poetry of the lyrics, the delicacy of the melodies and the subtlety of the harmonies all combine to create something magical.

These songs, the poetry of them – well it’s hard to put into words the way that they have accompanied my life, the passionate love affairs, the low moments and the painful, poignant corners.

They give me the feeling that someone else knows what it is like to be my kind of human, my kind of weakness and joy and love. Mark Morriss writes about, sings about, what is in my head and heart.  The feelings that are not always easy to express in words, the feelings that are common to us all but at the same time entirely unique.

But fandom now, for me, is a little different, from the days when your heroes lived in a golden land far far away. (Or in the case of The Bluetones, Hounslow.)

Nowadays my heroes live on my Facebook friends list and my Twitter feed.

I helped to crowdsource Mr Morriss’s last album. We have chatted, awkwardly; I have even bought him a drink (which was, I have to tell you, a high point for a fangirl, even a middle aged one). I know his bar order, and can have a pretty good guess at his neuroses. (Which is not a criticism – if he wasn’t neurotic, then his poetry would not be so excruciatingly resonant.)

But, I am still a fan, not a friend.

And standing in the crowd last night with the other fans, feet sticking to the floor, exchanging glances when he mixes up the lyrics (to be fair, there are a LOT of lyrics), feeling a sense of belonging to something, is still a pretty wonderful place to be.

 

 

A history of Selectadisc here:

http://www.selectadisc.co.uk

 

SCREAM:

http://www.markmorrissmusic.co.uk

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Halfway house

halfway-down-milne-shepard-color

 

This week is – incredibly – half way through TicTacGirl’s degree course.

(Though TicTacGirl is no longer really TicTacGirl; a year and a half of an Oxford education means that she is probably now most aptly known by the Native American name of StinksOfBooks.)

HALFWAY THROUGH?? How did this happen? It seems barely a twinkling of an eye since she was gnawing at her revision notes for GCSE AllTheSubjects, and now graduation is within chomping distance.

And it occurred to me, while I was wondering about the ridiculousness of the passing of time, that maybe right now I am more or less half way through my LIFE.

I am 44 now, 45 this year; in this day and age I can reasonably expect to last till 90, I reckon, especially if I eat a bit more fruit and not just the stuff you find squished in between the mint in a Pimms and lemonade.

And there is something magical, something potent, about being halfway.

The halftime whistle, the interval curtain.

All still to play for, all still to be revealed and resolved.

The best conversations are struck sitting halfway up the stairs, like I had with my friend AngelCake the other day. It’s a liminal space, not quite here or there.

(But halfway is one thing; the middle, well that’s quite another. Middle-aged-spread, stuck in the middle with you, or indeed with myself.)

Without getting drawn into a discussion about whether I am or am not middle-aged (mainly because we all know the answer to that) – I wondered whether this might be the time to take a breather, now the half time whistle has blown, to chew on this orange and think about:

What I have learned in the first half 

I guess the one thing that many women my age talk about, the real thrill about being halfway there, is just not really caring anymore all that much about what people think about you.

I don’t mean not caring about other peoples’ feelings, but rather getting the very clear perspective that other people really really don’t care that much about your bushy eyebrows or if you have a ladder in your tights, and indeed the idea that they WOULD care is really pretty vain and self-obsessed of you. They aren’t looking at you, all those other people – they are thinking about what time the last Tube is and whether they left the straighteners on this morning.

And if, by any chance, they ARE sneering at your semi-monobrow, well what kind of person are they anyway? Petty, sneery and absolutely not worth your attention.

That is real freedom, if you can manage it.

Part of this freedom is not feeling you have to be interested, or pretend to be interested, in things that you really don’t care about.

Especially the things that you think you SHOULD care about. I will never give another thought to, inter alia, tennis, golf, almost all sport actually, anything on the financial pages, anything to do with soap operas, anything written in any woman’s magazine, what clothes/colours/lipsticks are fashionable, almost anything on the telly, and jazz.

This has freed up loads of time to do the things that I really want to do which – it turns out, now I’m half way through, now I have a bit of perspective – is mainly centred around hanging out with my friends in a variety of locations talking about things.

For example, if I was to ever see StinksOfBooks again, in the unlikely event she ever leaves the library, I might remind her of the other thing I have learned – that we are all of us Works in Progress.

I acknowledge that in my teens and twenties I was a bit snarly, a bit hard-edged. Rather intolerant with the faults of others, and even more angry even at my own flaws. Especially the ones that I couldn’t seem to change. (Sorry for those of you who had the dubious pleasure of my company back then.)

I am not quite sure what happened but as the second act unfolded, I started to get a bit softer around the edges.

My wonderfully kind sister, who will surely be sainted one of these days, always says – be kind to yourself.

Sounds simple but once you can manage it, then you can start practising with everyone else too.

You, me, that woman sneering at my monobrow, that man who left his straighteners on this morning (which is a problem because he hasn’t told his mum he uses them).

Recognising the pure and simple humanity in yourself and others, and reminding yourself of it whenever you can. Forgetting what you can, forgive the rest and just move onto tomorrow and try again.

Because the other thing, maybe the last thing for today, is that you don’t really know what’s halfway.

Another 45 years would be wonderful, but one thing you can only really feel the force of from this halfway step is – how many people didn’t make it this far.

Stop fretting about what other people think, stop being so hard on yourself and enjoy every minute and every step.

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And the floods shall prevail

severe drought in flood

 

It won’t have escaped your attention that it has been a bit rainy these last few weeks.

Obviously, grim winter weather isn’t particularly newsworthy when it only affects the horny-handed toilers of the rural ‘idyll’; but this year even Paul Daniels had to get his waders out and soon the Daily Mail was salivating with joyous schadenfreude over photos of half-submerged Range Rovers and exceedingly damp Mock-Tudor Mansions.

Because disaster is always so much MUCH more disastrous somehow when you are extremely rich and within an easy commute of London isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to mock.

(Well, no more than is habitual and unavoidable, for a normal hot-blooded Englishwoman.)

On the contrary – I am here to help! As a reluctant recent* refugee to the countryside, I have plenty of tips for surviving and even enjoying everything that the extremes of winter in the British countryside can throw at you.

So here are Number6’s tips for a countryside winter:

  1. Always listen to the updated list of all the closed roads on the radio in the morning. All the way to the end, including ‘and Dry Lane is still flooded’. This will remind you that you should never have moved to the countryside in the first place.
  2. If you do insist on moving to the countryside then don’t move anywhere that is called ‘Brookside’, ‘Lake View’, ‘Snowy Bank’ or ‘I’ve Never Seen the River So High!’
  3. Or anywhere below sea level.
  4. When you first move to the country you will spend a morning walking round the nearest market town, marvelling at the shop windows full of dun-coloured country wear and wellies that cost more than a weekend break to Paris and you will say in wondering tones – who BUYS these things? And the answer to this question is all the sensible folk who know what the weather can be like and will be quietly sniggering at you in your Per Una ‘water’’proofs’.
  5. Make friends with someone with a Land Rover. Not just a 4×4 Chelsea Tractor with personalised number plates and a cartoon of two rhinos shagging on the spare tyre cover, but an actual possibly-green-underneath-all-the-mud farmer-mobile, that looks like it could take a small volley of close-range fire in an emergency (or possibly already has) and may well have Bambi’s mum, skinned and lifeless, stored in the back. You might think these look a bit, well, ugly, probably drink petrol and are a bit tricky to park. All of this will become somewhat irrelevant when 15 miles of snowy roads stands between you and the emergency dentist one January night.
  6. Ditto someone with a generator. And some water butts. And a boat. Basically you need to move in with a farmer. Offer to help them with some lambing, that will get you on their right side.
  7. Don’t make any jokes about building an ark. They are probably all building an ark round the back of the lambing barn but you, in your suspiciously clean Joules wellies, are not among the righteous, but rather shall perish on the dry land.
  8. If you do find yourself in the middle of some floods, just drive straight through them. Otherwise it’s a long way round, and you’ve got all that Waitrose ice cream in the back defrosting. Nice and fast – just put your foot right to the floor. Go on, just do it! Preferably swearing constantly throughout the process. That will help. Overtake this stranded vehicle! Surely the water won’t come up THAT high? I mean the engine is not THAT close to the ground is it? OH GOD WHAT’S THAT BURNING SMELL?
  9. Make sure you have the phone number of your friend with the Land Rover on speed dial, so s/he can come and tow you out of the flood that you have just driven through and beached your Nissan Micro on a dead sheep. You may have to offer to buy them a new water butt, or to do that lambing thing where you have to skin the dead lamb to persuade the ewe to take on an orphan lamb**. But it will be quicker than getting a garage to come and get it; there are filled with all the other city-idiots who did the same thing.
  10. Keep a snow shovel in your boot at all times. It can help to move drowned sheep out of flood water, or you can sit on it on sodden bank and think about how nice it would be to live a high-rise flat somewhere on a tube line.
  11. If you do ignore all of these, because that really is a lovely new house at a bargain price and surely the government wouldn’t let a respectable house building firm build on a flood plain or chop down a whole load of trees that would have probably absorbed quite a bit of this extra water because we don’t need trees and flood plains and well-drained soil – we need houses, right? Well just in case you might start feeling a teeny bit, well, responsible or cross with the government – don’t worry, it’s OK and definitely not your fault. Pop over to the Daily Mail website to learn how it’s all the fault of the bloody foreigners for making a massive fuss about their natural disasters and STEALING our money. All the money that should have been sent to buy Paul Daniels some more inflatable paddling pools, has instead has being frittered away instead on malaria prevention and providing safe drinking water to the 900m people around the world who don’t have access to it. You can even sign a petition about it, if you are a particular fan of the sleight-of-hand-distraction away from the real issues of environmental mismanagement by the injection of some nasty xenophobic prejudice. Now that’s magic, as poor old knee-deep in flood water Paul Daniels might say.
  12. Don’t move to the countryside.
  13. Seriously, don’t.

*I have ‘only’ been living in the countryside for 16 short years now. An absolute baby-newcomer. My wellies aren’t even muddy yet.

** I know this is a true thing because I heard Debbie talking about it on The Archers.

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Whatever love means

love means

 

Yesterday I had the rather sobering experience of chaffeuring GothicDaughter on her first Valentine’s date, complete with red-ribboned fluffy bear (named, I kid you not, ‘Fluffy’), an anxiety-inducing cinema trip and national-emergency levels of awkwardness.

I am not sure who was more nail-bitingly nervous about this whole occasion– me or the SparklyDaughter; she is always prone to worrying about many things, particularly awkward social situations and my shortcomings as a parent.

‘Shouldn’t you give her some ADVICE mummy? You know, about love and kissing and everything?’ she wrangled in a stage-whisper.

Well reader I confess I didn’t manage it, too overwhelmed as I was with the weight of the occasion.

Maybe today’s a better day to talk about what advice I should give, if only I was some sort of semi-functional parent, about how to handle the perils of Valentine’s Day and whatever love means.

But it’s hard not to talk about Valentine’s Day without sounding a. smug or b. bitter. The smug-coupled were certainly out in force yesterday, with close-ups of over-decorated cup-cakes, Instagrammed-sunsets and dimly-lit jewellery. I saw so many snaps of bottles of champagne and supermarket flowers yesterday that my merged-social-media-platform (where I live these days) looked like a funeral sponsored by Guns and Roses.

The bitter-and-twisteds were not far behind; my favourite Twitter-bitter was ‘I hope I never have a relationship with someone who thinks I will be made happy with a bracelet charm! #fake #fools #vomit’

I see her #point; I speak as a over-sharer myself – there is a undeniable undertone of showy-offness to the bouquet-heaving status updates.

Not that I mind you understand – if you can’t show off to your friends, then what frankly is the point of Facebook?

Social media has undeniably changed the face of Valentine’s Day. When I was a kid, it was about secret admirers, anonymous notes and disguised handwriting. WHO ON EARTH left that packet of Spangles in my desk?

In 2014 Valentine’s Day seems all rather intense and public; a kind of unison bar, when we all celebrate LOVE at the same time, and make sure we are all singing the same tune. And there seems to be a bit of a consensus about what this might look and sound like – flowers, chocolates, home made food or fancy restaurant meal (preferably Instagrammed to high heaven).

But I don’t think there is a consensus about what love means.

Of course we continue to prioritise the finding of The One and Only, the Soul Mate, Who Will Make Us Complete.

(This is all rather complicated by the fact that we can’t seem to meet anyone in The Real Life anymore, perhaps because we don’t really go out, perhaps because we don’t have any money or because we have forgotten how to talk to people unless we have our fingers hovering over a keyboard or perhaps because it hadn’t stopped raining since 2011. Whatever the reason, the stats tell us that more and more of us are ‘finding’ love online – 1 in 5 relationships now start on the internet and 5 million of us are registered to online dating sites according to recent surveys.)

 

But the problem with giving advice about love is this – whilst the experience of love is universally human, it is also incredibly specific to the person and their circumstances.

Of course I know what falling in love feels like, but only for me, and absolutely not for anyone else. If I asked you to name the song that summed up what you love feels like, you would name a different one from me; no two people in a thousand would name the same one love song. Ask someone what love is, or Google ‘what love means’ and see how many different answers you get.

Love defies any kind of generalisation or simplification. I have seen love drive people to acts of extreme selfishness and extraordinary unselfishness. I have seen people saved by love, and people destroyed by it. I have seen the same person ripped apart by the force of their passion, then fall into indifference surprisingly soon. In large part the way we feel and experience love depends on whether we are trying to recreate the model set by our parents, or frantically trying to avoid it.

Don’t tell me some of those aren’t ‘real’ love; who are we to judge what’s real and what is not?

I might say to GothicDaughter – keep your head, keep your dignity, don’t let love run away with you, or run away with love. But she will know that I never took my own advice and I wouldn’t change the path that love blew me along.

I guess what I might say is – don’t worry about finding ‘real’ love, whether you love someone or are IN LOVE with someone. You can waste your life away with love-semantics. It’s pointless.

If you stop trying to define ‘real’ love, you realise love is incredibly commonplace. I saw it three times on the way from Boots to the carpark today, a journey of about three minutes. Two friends tussling affectionately about who should pay for their car parking ticket; a toddler cuddle-wrestling his baby sister to try and comfort her; two young girls giggling over a selfie in M&S (weirdly, in the Per Una aisle – love really IS strange).

Love your lover like your friends, and your friends like your lover. Let love rule, and let love flow.

And next year, see if you can get some chocolates instead of a bloody teddy bear. If he REALLY loved you, he’d buy you some Green and Blacks.

And you can tell him that from me.

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