Sunday, December 31, 2006

He is winding the watch of his wit; by and by it will strike. William Shakespeare

I started reading a new book last night called The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. It's by Haruki Murakami and I can't leave it alone.

This is inconvenient because I'm a guest at Kate's and thus far I am the most incommunicative one here, but in half an hour we are picking Pip up from the station and the three of us will make our way to the cottage in Devon.

Obviously Haruki Marukami's Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the Read of the Day.

What do I like about this book? That I wasn't really looking forward to reading it and a small half-sense of regret that I hadn't brought one of my other Christmas reads with me. That I started it and within two pages I was hooked. The writer is a beautiful story-teller and also a strong and thoughtful writer.

I like the seamless way that the author moves his characters between their own 'real' and 'imaginary worlds' and the way he blurs the dividing line between the two. I like the strong scent of spirituality and soul searching that runs beneath the story.

I like my admiration for the main character, Toru Okada, whose life is unravelling, I like that I was fond of him within the first few pages. I like how simply human and unpretentious and slow and directionless he is. And I like that he is so easily led. In the first part of the book, life seems to be something that is just happening to Toru, over and over, but in Part Two, which I have just started, he is beginning to take control of his life.

I'll probably still be reading it on the stroke of midnight and come to in an abandoned room in the early hours of the morning having just finished it, only to find the revelling has stopped.

Despite not drinking much yesterday to recover from my hangover, I feel oddly lethargic today. Everything is an effort. I hate to say it but I'm even a little bit dreading New Year. I must be old before my time, but all I really want to do is curl up in front of a log fire with a book, a bottle of Baileys and maybe a pretty man, in reserve. Well, I might finish the book and find myself at a loose end.

It's a bummer to feel antisocial on the most social day of the year. Probably worse for the people who have to hang around me though! Here's hoping no one notices.

I hope that all the Daily readers have a great New Year and that the computers are finally struck down with an impossible virus and none of us can go back to work next year, and we all have to become spiritual travellers and journeyers and re-organise the world from scratch.

I would find a cave in the mountains. With a little fire. I'd meditate and sing, and dance and have friends over for hot milk and cocoa every night. And maybe a bottle of Baileys. The old habits die hard.

Three Beautiful Things

1. To err is human

2. Monkey see monkey do

3. Irritation is more powerful than it looks

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Deceitful Rain

Today's image is taken from Black and White, which is also the Read of the Day.

Read of the Day

Black & White: photography from the Chesapeake watershed

I must confess myself to be a huge fan of the photo-blog. Much less wordy that us wordsmiths are, the central message of the day is conveyed through one shot, one image.

What I like especially about Black and White - which I found entirely by chance while doing an image search for the word gibbous on Google - apart from the hauntingly good images (check out 7521 miles from Bethlehem, his Christmas Day post), is that occasionally Bill Emory will do a little bit of both show and tell.

Go to this page in his archive and scroll down to the entry for September 26th. Read this post, which is the first contact I had with his site, about his father's death. This is one of the most beautiful things I've read in 2006.

Tomorrow we head for Devon for the New Year, to stay in gorgeous cottage in Lynton/Lynmouth. On one hand I'm disappointed not to be travelling down today and staying longer, but on the other, I'm rather relieved not to have any expectations of myself with a hangover either!

I've spent the most relaxing first day of my holidays recovering from a hangover. I've been reading Banksy's Wall and Piece, which I highly recommend for your daily shot of urban subversion. Then I decided to update my Links List on The Daily.

When I went to the site, I saw a button that said 'Customise' and I fell down the rabbit-hole into a bit of an Alice in Wonderland experience. Turns out you can do all sorts of cool stuff to your blog, so while I was doing the links........

....I changed everything else as well. In fact, I spent a couple of hours doing just that. I hope you like the new and improved Daily as a result, and apologies that some of the past posts are now a little bit difficult to read, but it will all come out in the wash.

Customising the Daily was almost as much fun as customising Google, but as Blogger doesn't have Frogger (ooh, that's nice...), then Google just wins.

I'm a bit nervous about my twenties style phone-ins of the blog that I have planned while in Devon, but you never know until you try.

Today's Beautiful Things

1. Sleeping late (all the Dr Hook fans go: Doo doo dooo doo doo doo!)

2. Rainy mornings and a mist over the sea

3. Dark falling early

Friday, December 29, 2006

The wisdom, wit and wonder of Miss Sally

This picture is of the Witch's Head Nebula (apparently a nebula refers to cloud of gas or dust in space) which is about 1000 light years from Earth and sometimes goes by the less poetic name of IC 2118.

G got me the book of the Universe for Christmas, which contains hundreds of images just like this one and is, with almost every other one of my Christmas presents, one of my new favourite things.

I'm introducing a new feature: Read of the Day.

It's something that I've read or am reading that I have a desperate need to share with you. One of my main reasons for starting this feature is that I've read less in the last six months than at any other part of my life. This has been partly due to workloads, but also just because I've gotten out of the habit and I think that I should hit myself repeatedly with hardbacks until I get back into it. Because there are few pleasures as pure as reading (or at least few pleasures that don't involve you or someone else breaking into a sweat.)

Today's Read of the Day

Sarra Manning's 'Pretty Things'

One glance at this book would tell you that Sarra's a teen writer, but please do not let that discourage you one little bit from reading this. Pretty Things tells the confusing, funny and touching story of 4 young people: Brie, Walker, Charlie and Daisy as they trip through a summer, a Shakespeare play and one another's beds. It's stylishly written, fast paced and funny. And my sister bought it for me for Christmas because she is naturally cooler than anyone else I know in the whole wide world. Straight up.

Back in the office today for a much better day than yesterday. I think we're all feeling a certain ennui over the whole Christmas phenomena. My stress levels fly up so easily, and I had a long conversation with the wise and wonderful Miss Sally about the stresses of change. The thing I like about Miss Sally is that she always calls it like she sees and feels it. I've never seen Miss Sally blag someone just because it would make her life, or anyone else's, easier. So when I'm lucky enough for Miss Sally to offer me advice, I strap myself in and listen.

"You know my first thought when I'm faced with change?" she asked, "It's: How do I make this work for me?"

Miss Sally gave me a conspiratorial grin, "And believe me, Sarah, there is always a way to make it work for you, no matter what the situation."

I love this piece of advice, mostly because, I realise, it's the dead opposite of what I normally do. What I normally do is get major league stressed out that things aren't going the way I want them to, or that things aren't fair, or that the situation is impossible. In short, I spend a lot of time looking at what I can't change, and what I can't influence and it's much later that I start thinking about the solutions or possibilities. In the meantime, a whole world of pain has usually taken shape.

So with the New Year looming up over us, I have decided that 2007 will be the year of making it work for me.

The rest of the day just kept getting better. I engaged in a little bit of conflict resolution with the Chief, who was a perfect boss at the exact moment it counted. After work we wandered into town to pick up copies of Mizz for the three of us. This isn't a usual ritual for us at the Ministry (we subscribe to more highbrow mags like Heat and occasionally Hello), but a special treat because.........drum roll please.........

Our own favourite Lisa Clark has a double page spread in this week's Mizz for her VERY SOON TO BE RELEASED BOOK


Don't worry because you can order a copy of your very own by clicking on the link above. Awesome. We cooed collectively about Lisa's article over a glass of white wine in Truffles on Castle Road, which is a sweet little place that is fast becoming one of my favourite haunts.

Back at home, I drank a little too much white wine and was asleep long before bedtime. A throughly satisfying start to my holidays.

Quotes Du Jour

There is no nonsense so gross that society will not, at some time, make a doctrine of it and defend it with every weapon of communal stupidity.
Robertson Davies

He may be mad, but there's method in his madness. There nearly always is method in madness. It's what drives men mad, being methodical.
G K Chesterton

Today's Beautiful Things

1. "The imagination in its loyalty to possibility often takes the curved path rather than the linear way." John O'Donohue

2. Live Lounge the Album - cannot get enough of it

3. The waxing gibbous moon

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes. J.M. Barrie

Tonight's picture, 'i liek music' is from Jinx Fulion, over at, which is rapidly becoming as addictive to me as my favourite blogs. An experimental photographer by trade, Jinx perfectly captures the disenchanted ennui that was my day. Check out her site over at DA and the rest of her work while you're at it.

I'm getting rather suspicious about the lurgy that is affecting everyone. I think it may be a new strain of illness released by the government to test our general health. Next will come arguments that the British gene pool is weakening and calls for eugenics measures from the last century.

Or I'm paranoid.

Back to work today and it was a bit of a suck-fest, and I don't mean the good kind.

The day started ebulliently enough with a text message from the Chief.

"Rise and shine, kritter, the holidays are over."

I was - and I know how sick this sounds - really glad to be going back to work. I took my new Christmas wand in and everything (I would love to show this to you, I really would - and as soon as I find a way, Dear Reader......) to share the magic. By midday though, I was having as sucky a day as any other post-Christmas returner, so I decided on the walk home that tonight's Daily would be about good things. Things that inspire me. Things that are new and positive and bright.

After all, my good mood this morning was genuine, I figure. It just wasn't very strong, and quickly overthrown by circumstance. I must beef up my moments of happiness with a kind of psychological steroid, so that they cannot be so easily conquered by things beyond my control. I feel all Hendered now.

First joyful thing is Scott Matthew's Dreamsong video, which I love, both for song and video.

I love this song almost as much, in fact, as I loved watching the solo Maccabee on Popworld's review yesterday - my Gosh, that boy was pretty. And his name's Orlando. You're damn lucky I managed to find him for you. Here's First Love. Oh, yes.

Isn't he pretty and soulful and indie and pretty? I saw the Maccabees last week, too, they were supporting the Delays, who were also fab. The Maccabees reminded me of a cross between the Kings of Leon and eighties punk. I think the lead singer, Orlando, is my new lovepunch.

Which reminds me, my sister and I spent the best part of Christmas day debating the real meaning of Emo - please share your views if you're an indie kid with a stake in this debate.

By luck more than judgement tonight, I found Neil Gaiman (one of my favourite writers and all round cool chap) has his own blog! If you like fantasy and gentle, highly intelligent Englishmen (he now lives in Minnesota), add his blog to your daily haunts.

Ok, I know I said happy stuff, and really this item is for the feminist blog that Shon and I are currently discussing launching in the new year, but I really want to tell you about the article by Julie Bindel in the Guardian from a couple of weeks back. Check the link to read it, and thanks to the ever pioneering Shonagh for forwarding the newsletter of the fabulous Lilith Project, which brought this article to my attention.

Last of all, our quotes du jour:

Anyone who works is a fool. I don't work - I merely inflict myself upon the public. Robert Morley

It is characteristic of all deep human problems that they are not to be approached without some humor and some bewilderment.
Freeman Dyson

Happiness depends upon ourselves.

The secret of happiness in not in what one likes to do, but in what one has to do.
James M Barrie

Today's Beautiful Things
1. Walking home in quiet, dark streets

2. Still the food

3. Thinking of Lofoten

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Let your days be bright


I know I did, in the end! I had the craziest Christmas week, I think, in the history of my life so far. I spent a lot of the pre-Christmas week sobbing, wailing, feeling sorry for myself and generally acting out the harridan banshee. I had my peak on Christmas Eve, preparing for everyone to come to the Heights on Boxing Day, when I smashed my CD rack to smithereens in a fit of frustrated and overwrought temper.

"Everything happens for a reason," G said later as she surveyed the damage, "And I do like the CD's on that shelf."

Christmas Day was the perfect epiphany; the feeling of chaos was swept away as the day unfolded. There was a moment in the evening, when most people had gone home. My family and Kit Kat were half-watching TV, chatting and cooing over the novelty of their presents; Bean was dozing with a smile in his chair. I looked around me, saw for the first time in far too long how much I have, and saw with some embarrassment how hard I've been staring at the things I don't have, can't have, won't have, and, in the process, missing the important things.

Yesterday was another relaxing experience, back at the Heights for Boxing Day fun, catching up with my brother and his girlfriend, who had their own special Christmas in their new home this year. We played DVD games and Articulate - an example of how my brain falls apart in this game:

G: Ok, it's a place where a dog lives...

Me: A Bark!!

I have a Masters degree and everything you know.

Tonight's poem du jour from Massive Attack's hit, Teardrop. If you have a copy of this, find it; if you don't, buy it. Until then, you have the Daily.


[Liz Fraser]

Love, love is a verb
Love is a doing word
Fearless on my breath
Gentle impulsion
Shakes me makes me lighter
Fearless on my breath

Teardrop on the fire
Fearless on my breath

Nine night of matter
Black flowers blossom
Fearless on my breath
Black flowers blossom
Fearless on my breath

Teardrop on the fire
Fearless on my breath

Water is my eye
Most faithful mirror
Fearless on my breath
Teardrop on the fire of a confession
Fearless on my breath
Most faithful mirror
Fearless on my breath

Teardrop on the fire
Fearless on my breath

Stumbling a little
Stumbling a little

And because I am just so damn good to you, here's the video, courtesy of YouTube.

Three Beautiful Christmas Things

1. Home

2. Moments of stillness and silence

3. My God, the food....the food.....

Saturday, December 23, 2006

He who hesitates is a damned fool. Mae West

Today's image from Danielle, AKA VintageBroadwayFemme over at, and is called simply, 'Girl.'

It's been a turbulent day at the Heights, so close to Christmas. Thank goodness that Kate and I decided to do our last minute shopping together. We stayed away from town and frequented only the independents of Palmerston and Albert Road.

Aristia was our last shop and an old favourite of mine. There was a film there that intrigued me but I was too shopped out to buy it and had no one left to buy for called: What the Bleep? Down the Rabbit Hole - looked very interesting and I sort of wish that I'd bought it. However, after splashing out on the second series of House on DVD, it didn't seem appropriate.

The truth dazzles gradually, or else the world would be blind.
- Emily Dickinson

I'm starting to get the hang of Uranus, too, as t'were. This whole unsettled feeling is terrifying, sad and, in the moments I allow it, exhilaratingly free. My thoughts run from the past, to the present, through the future in a heartbeat, and sometimes all three seem to exist together - though when you really think about it, perhaps that's not as strange as it sounds.

I've been thinking about the past and past loves and found this beautiful poem by Frank O'Hara.


Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth

it's no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners

the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn't need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water

I wouldn't want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days

Frank O' Hara

I'm thinking about the present (the now, not my Christmas presents, silly): that this is one of the strangest Christmases I've ever known. My brother is spending Christmas with his friends and partner and won't be home for the first time. I've seen less of my friends this Christmas than I usually would (for reasons that I am mostly at the centre of).

I've spent the last couple of days wishing that everything would resume its familiar course, but what would be the point in that?

I've learnt those things already and I am tired of resisting change. Acceptance is the last stage of grief; and who knows what comes after?

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.
- Carl Gustav Jung

And I've been thinking about the future. I love and fear this the most, the tabula rasa. I had a great conversation with Miss Sally over a glass of champagne on Friday (we glamour girls at the Ministry of Culture don't do things by halves) about the foolishness of making plans.

"Life can turn upside down in a heartbeat," said Miss Sally, and of course she's absolutely right - if you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.....

And I like this idea. Change is in the air for 2007; hell, it's already here, and I'm holding to the thought that anything, anywhere and anyone could happen.

I'm going to Lofoten, Norway. Why? Well, because it's calling me.

This is what I've heard:

Lofoten is a land of excitement, a hotbed of fascination and enchantment. A realm of contrast and paradox, of light and dark, of colour and Nature’s own music.

A paradise for the senses. A delight to the eyes, nose, ears and palate: jagged, precipitous mountains bathed in the light of the Midnight Sun, or set in striking profile against the playful, flickering, mystical backdrop of the Northern Lights.

The smell of dried cod, of birchwood from winter’s smoking chimneys, of flowers on summer’s bright green slopes, of the salty waters. The sound of seagulls returning home from their selfinflicted exile, the chugging of an old fishing smack on the horizon, or the ubiquitous, almost deafening, silence found far up in the mountains.

Three Beautiful Things

1. Laughter through tears, my favourite emotion

The Stone Roses - because they can.

3. You - because you are

Friday, December 22, 2006

Let It Snow

I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation.

George Bernard Shaw

Today's picture is of 'Christmas morning in the Smokies' from Tim Hamilton's webpages - he's from Portsmouth, Ohio, USA, which I always find quite exciting. He's also an assistant Professor of Physics, would you believe, and his website has some great space pictures on it.

Wouldn't it be weird if all the people in Portsmouth, Ohio had the same names as all the people in our Portsmouth, and we were all living out parallel lives? Imagine if Portsmouth, Ohio were like a parallel universe, where each one of those people were living our alternate paths: I would be married to 7 different men with 34 children, Miss Sally would be the classiest showgirl in the city, living in sin with the gangster mayor, and the Chief would be a pikey known as The Chav. Who would you be?

With all the Christmas excitement, the blog has rather slipped from the radar here at The Heights.

I promise this will not continue, and that the usual Daily service will now be resumed, although I am currently trying to work out how I will blog every day when I'm in Cornwall over New Year (we can't even get a mobile signal where I'm staying and I think the village has a definite shortage of internet cafe's!). I think I may have to phone them in at the phone box to my mum and she will have to take my blog posts down each day like dictation and then transfer them to the blog. This is a bit of a pain in the Rudolph (my new festive slang du jour), but on the other hand, it makes me think of the 1920's reporters phoning in their scoops, so maybe it's not so bad. I'll buy myself one of those reporter's raincoats and talk in 20's slang and I'll be fine.

It's only a few days away, but Christmas has certainly arrived early this year. I have already done more than my fair share of Christmas spirits, literally, which is one of the reasons why the blog has not been done this week.......!! I haven't yet been kissed under the mistletoe, but there's plenty of time and if I have to, I will accost strangers.

As things here at the Heights have been a little crazy over this week, I've been trying to spend some time thinking about the true spirit of Christmas (and not the stuff I've been imbibing in ridiculous amounts). This has been very easy today with the help of the Christmas Genius Extraordinaire, Sally Jones, who, with the Eighties Genius Extraordinaire, Lou, have turned a normal working day into a Christmas Extravaganza! The Ministry of Culture is amok with decorations, mulled wine, Christmas songs and fabulous food and everyone is in exceptional good cheer.

I'm reliably informed by Google Stars that my emotional craziness this week is entirely due to the role of Uranus (get the jokes over with now), which was quite a revelation. It did make sense to me to find out that Uranus is the planet of independence, liberation and enlightenment. Astrology on the Web reveal that it brings unexpected changes, and rules freedom and originality. In society, it rules radical ideas and people, as well as revolutionary events that upset established structures. Uranus among all planets most governs genius, which goes some way to explain why I have been so struck with its effects!

Apparently, we have just undergone a transition from Mars to Uranus, and this can influence us in some funny ways. According to CafeAstrology:

"Whichever part of our lives and of our psyches that Uranus touches, especially by hard transit, is an area where we begin to feel restless and dissatisfied with any routine or "status quo" connected to it...the energies of Uranus are electric and crammed with change...Uranus acts to awaken and to make us aware of our feelings of being restricted and constricted.

Uranus surprises, jolts, and stimulates. On the up side, Uranus is associated with enlightenment, progressiveness, objectivity, novelty, and ingenuity. Negative expression of Uranus is rebelliousness without a cause and irresponsibility.

Have you been feeling the influence of Uranus?

Today's Beautiful Things

1. Singing in the office with Miss Sally and the fabulous Lou

2. Mulled wine and pesto dip - no, silly, not together!

3. Ignoring the fact that I know I'm coming down with something buggishly inconvenient

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal. Albert Camus

I never guess. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four

Today's image is called 'The Lost Witch' and is by the awesomely talented Cat Brown over at (which I always misread first of all as deviant tart) - check out her online gallery, she works in a variety of mediums and is, I think, a rather talented individual. But don't take my word for it. Check out the online gallery and make up your own mind!

I've got all my days confused this week and keep finding myself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Time is a notion that haunts me: my life is ruled by it, but it doesn't actually exist. I think my confusion is something to do with the moon. My stars keep telling me of intense emotions that I find hard to control and harder to express (emotional expression is usually fairly normal for a moody Cancerian like moi) and I think it's sending my head a bit Dutch elephant (I'm trying to invent a piece of new slang every day this week - today it's Dutch elephant. Yesterday, it was 'Mind me change of blankets!' - ok, I might be making this stuff up).

There are some points of change in my life where all the major shifts that are happening, happen on the outside - changing jobs, going freelance, travelling, meeting new people, for example. When even the smallest things in my life change, the ripple effect these changes can bring can be more momentous than the original changes themselves. This year has been full of such outside changes, lots of them, in fact, one after the another and I have changed a large amount of my thoughts, ideas and even my dreams as a result.

At the moment, though, I think there are major shifts going on, as it were, 'inside', that is to say, emotionally - maybe fear of the future, changing dreams and shifting expectations. Changes like this are altogether more subtle than the other kind, and, I find, sometimes a little harder to work out. For me, these shifts are evidenced in moments of sudden mood change, from euphoria to despair in 60 seconds - and sometimes in slightly erratic moments of behaviour or unusual choices. The last couple of days have been a bit like this. Maybe it's just end of year madness.

Yesterday, I went to the Aspex Gallery in Gunwharf, with three people that have become very important to me this year, all from the Ministry of Culture: The Chief himself, the glamorous Miss Sally and the luscious Lisa Clark. Aspex was amazing - a fantastic space, and a superb exhibition, the likes of which I have been clamouring for in Portsmouth all year, called Is Britain Great: The Caravan Gallery tour.

We had a lovely lunch (Shon, especially for you, I had a baguette containing roasted vegetables smothered in mozarella cheese, followed by a slice of the most divine carrot cake and accompanied by a latte), in the most ridiculously comfortable chairs, whilst discussing Lisa's Book Launch (could that, as a concept, be more fabulous in itself?) and the aesthetic value of birds on blancmange - Final result on the B on B's: Miss Sally and Lisa felt there was no aesthetic value in them, the chief believed there was, and I could see both sides of the argument. Personally, I was much more taken with the rings with mild obscenities on them, but that may just be a matter for personal taste.

After lunch, the Chief sent me off into the gallery to look at the exhibition, and I would happily have spent the rest of the afternoon there, given half the chance. Pictures of graffiti, social commentary and a huge amount of humour nestle comfortably together in this exhibition, and I was laughing out loud for most of it. Right up until the point where I cried - you see what I mean about the sudden mood swings?!

Tonight I'm off to Southampton to watch The Delays with Glenn. He's insisting we go ridiculously early, even though I know they won't come on until some obscene time in the evening. But there's just no arguing with Capricorns.

Today's Beautiful Things

1. The Cheerful Chief and his Chipper Chirpyness

2. Howling at an absent moon

3. The Aesthetics of the Big Blue Tit

Monday, December 18, 2006

Pictures in the Smoke

A quiet day at the Culture office, and, boy did I have a hangover. I decided to get over it by to having a Dorothy Parker day. I stood outside the Culture office and smoked a cigarette whilst considering the nature of my inner Parker (Dorothy, that is, not the butler/chauffeur - that would be weird. Really).

The thing about Dorothy was her uncomfortably keen sense of observation on human behaviour; her strength in brazening out the darker moments of the human condition, especially her own, looking theose moments square in the eye, and then writing them down. And making them funny and tragic and true, just like real life. If you haven't read any of Parker's short stories, grab them from your local library over the holidays.

The Universe rewarded my bravery in the face of such chemically-induced madness ('And on a Sunday!' said Parker with a dry gasp, as she exhaled a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke, 'Have you no shame!?'). I spoke to many of my close friends (and every member of the Coven!) today, in one way or another, by both chance and circumstance, and at the tired end of the day, I feel a little lost, and a lot cared for.

Miss Sally has been unfortunately detained in the Big Cheese, which has ended our Grease outing. I could have gone alone, but no one can match me glass for glass in wine like Miss Sally, so I decided to stay home with the Parker and the Stone Roses, and just a little hair of the dog.

With Parker so heavy on my mind, it is no wonder she is my choice for today's Poem Du Jour, or more...

Pictures in the Smoke
Oh, gallant was the first love, and glittering and fine;

The second love was water, in a clear white cup;

The third love was his, and the fourth was mine;

And after that, I always get them all mixed up.


My land is bare of chattering folk;

The clouds are low along the ridges,

And sweet's the air with curly smoke

From all my burning bridges.


And if my heart be scarred and burned,

The safer, I, for all I learned;

The calmer, I, to see it true

That ways of love are never new -

The love that sets you daft and dazed

Is every love that ever blazed;

The happier, I, to fathom this:

A kiss is every other kiss.

The reckless vow, the lovely name,

When Helen walked, were spoke the same;

The weighted breast, the grinding woe,
When Phaon fled, were ever so.

Oh, it is sure as it is sad

That any lad is every lad,

And what's a girl to dare implore

Her dear be hers forevermore?

Though he be tried and he be bold,

And swearing death should he be cold,

He'll run the path the others went...

But you, my sweet, are different.

Today's Beautiful Things

1. The best ships

2. The Ministry of Culture as a calm sanctuary

3. Still small voice of calm: love

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

After yesterday's adventures at the Women's Library, this morning I had to face an unfortunate truth.

Christmas shopping.

As of this morning, I had only three presents ready for Christmas and a list of over twenty people to buy for. Is it me, or do couples do better out of Christmas than anyone? They get a present each - at least, they do in my world, it's ridiculous to buy things 'for the house' every year and any present for both of them is going to be crap, because I'm usually only really friends with one of them - but they only have to buy everyone else one present 'from both of them'? That sucks.

I was dreading today. The G and I headed down to Consumer Road in town, which is one of my least favourite places ever, and I was moaning within three seconds (I don't know how she puts up with it - if I was her I'd punch me).

"You know what I hate most about Christmas shopping, that you're forced to choose from so much shit! That's all there is in town to choose from - boxed sets at twice the price the goods normally are and seven times more than they're worth."

The G kept very quiet and interested herself in the pavement. I did about ten more 'And another things' and then got bored with myself. My mother has the virtue of silence well under her belt.

I thought the centre of town would be exceptionally busy, but oddly, it wasn't. I think more people must be taking Miss C's example and shopping online this year. I was right about the stuff being crap though. BHS' Christmas store is to be avoided at all costs unless you have an exceptionally heightened sense of irony and you're looking for a laugh.

I got everyone's present. Everyone's. Ok, not G's but that's not the point, she was with me. I got everyone else's presents, and in one day. I'm so pleased me with myself that I can hardly stop singing Santa Baby.

I intend to spend the rest of the evening drinking white wine with Scott, who has sweetly brought me two bottles of Chardonnay for Christmas. This generosity is only tempered by the fact that he fully intended to drink this wine when he gave it to me, but that's ex-boyfriends for you - every contact post-breakup has its cost. Fortunately this time it won't be the cost of a pregnancy testing kit.

Today's Beautiful Things

1. Enjoying Christmas shopping

2. The good humour of shop assistants (irony much?)

3. I can hear my ex singing in the kitchen. It reminds me why I love living alone.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Until we are truly equal, we are not free to choose. Anon

We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution.
Victor Hugo (author of Les Miserables)

The exhibition today at the Women's Library blew me away. Shon and I spent about 4 hours there, absorbing each aspect of each display and we still did not get to see it all. I would strongly recommend that anyone, man or woman, takes the time to get to London's Women's Library and see it for themselves. I can guarantee that this exhibition will do what every good piece of culture does: entertain, inform and challenge.

Prostitution: What's Going On? is dedicated to Josephine Butler, who was an early campaigner for sexual equality and who led the campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, which gave the police the right to arrest any woman suspected of selling sex. The aim of these acts, believe it or not, was to stop the rise of sexual diseases amongst the military, yes, that's the right - who were men. So who got arrested, detained and subjected to compulsory 'treatment?' The women. Butler said of the Acts:

"They are nothing but an arrangement for catching, examining, cleansing and returning to the street women for the safe enjoyment of men."

And in this piece of history lies a central point in any consideration of prostitution through the ages - more often than not we're looking at women, not men. The buyer of sex stays as a mysterious, undiscussed and predominantly unchallenged figure, whilst the women, as ever, are placed under the microscope, labelled and filed. This remains broadly similar to the legislation on prostitution of many countries now, especially those who have decriminalised or legalised it: the women selling sex are registered and regularly, compulsorily screened, but there is no compulsory screening for the buyers.

Here are some frightening facts included in the exhibition for those of you still labouring under the common misapprehension that the majority of prostitutes or sex workers 'choose' their profession freely:

At the point where they sell sex for the first time:
  • 1 in 2 women are under 18 years
  • 1 in 4 are under 16 years
  • and 1 in 3 have experienced violence or abuse
The issue of prostitution is not an easy one to cover. What I liked most about this exhibition was the variety of ways in which they looked at prostitution and the variety of mediums that were used. The curator has obviously tried to include as wide a diversity of opinions as possible, and also consistently draws the visitor into the debate, asking difficult questions on the displays and encouraging people to contribute to the key discussions.

There are two phone-boxes in the exhibition each of which presents two oral histories taken from two different people: two are prostitutes and two are punters. The dichotomy of experience presented here was at times exceptionally disturbing. In the first phone box, a woman tells of her first experience selling sex at 14 years old. She was given ten pounds by a man who had sex with her in the back of a car. Later, when her mother found out what she was doing, her mother let her use the house to bring clients back to.

Here are some quotes from these women's testimonials:

"The trouble is it's easy money and it's hard to get out fucks your head up. I've never enjoyed sex, never had an orgasm...I hate men."

"I'm never going to get out of this job and lead a normal life."

"Sometimes I'm tired of greasy people, touching and pawing me.....but you've got to be an actress on the mattress."

"It eats away at you like acid."

The reality of listening to these interviews was for me, the moment when I began to discover my core feelings on this issue. Women like me, who have never been in these women's shoes, can stand outside of their experiences and struggle to understand the complexities of her right to sell herself and his right to buy sex as much as we wish; wringing our hands and trying to pass the correct judgement. But for me, the reality of it came down to hearing these women speak: about violence, about lack of choices, about having sex for money when you're 14 - and one other central point.

When you regard prostitution and sexual trafficking as the industry that it is, the ones really bringing in the cash are men. It's an industry owned, controlled and almost exclusively used by men - and if you bring in government, it's an industry that's almost exclusively legislated over by men, too. To give you an example, a trafficker called Luan Plakici, selling women through escort agencies, earned £144,000 from 1 woman in just 2 years. How is that different from a slave owner on the plantations in the 1800's?

The division between the experiences of the sex workers and the men who buy sex was also, at times, bitterly funny. In the Punter's phone box were the accounts of two men who regularly use prostitutes. On one of the displays was a piece of research telling the visitors that sex buyers are almost overwhelmingly male, and in a minority (i.e. comparitively few men regularly use prostitutes). Most interestingly, very few of them have no other sexual outlets, indeed most have long term partners. Here's some excerpts from the men:

"it allows you to be promiscuous without it having to impact at home, like having an affair without the mistress asking you to leave your wife." (That's an interesting comparison, isn't it?)

"there are no thoughts of (the woman) being any less than my equal...and I've met so many nice people."

"It's a good release for them, and it's a good release for me."

Both punters made reference to the women having a 'good time' sexually (yeah sure - how likely do you think that is, really?!?), which considering that both women in the other phone box referenced their relationship and respect for men being permanently damaged, I found fascinating and more than a little contemptuous.

Most frightening of all, for those of us who view prostitution/sex work/sex industry and sexual trafficking as inextricably linked with the sexual objectification of women (there can only be about two readers who have made it to this point, and they're both hardened feminists - anyone else still here, good for you!), is one other fact that I wasn't aware of.

The numbers of women and girls being sexually trafficked globally are growing with every passing decade. Currently, at least 1,000,000 women and girls are trafficked globally every year.

The display on global trends concludes:

"sex industries and trafficking expand considerably in the aftermath of conflict, the arrival of peacekeepers and burgeoning criminal activity."

So, with the UK engaging in military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan at present, we can now quite genuinely lay claim to screwing the world from every conceivable angle. The more the boys bring out their big guns to play with across the globe, the more women paying the horrific, unchosen and - for women in many countries STILL without the vote - undemocratic price.

There are several other aspects of the exhibition we hardly got to spend any time with, for example, a short film about women being trafficked from other countries across the world into the UK. Being in the process of working on slavery and the slave trade, the parallels here were shocking: Guinea, including Sierra Leone, which form the focus of the Chasing Freedom exhibition, is one of the main originating countries in Africa of women for sex trafficking, and the UK is one of the major destinations of trafficked women.

We also didn't get to spend much time with the young women's diaries. This part of the exhibition presented diaries from 6 projects across the UK working with girls and young women who are being abused through prostitution. I think this was one of the main succeses of the entire exhibition - at the end, prostitution no longer seems like a faceless issue, it seems like an infinitely human one.

In my opinion we are a long way from a place where the majority of women can freely make a 'choice' to sell her body for sex, and this is evidenced in the fact that the vast majority of women are not making a 'free' choice. The common denominators for entry into prostitution include: abuse, violence, drug or alcohol abuse, debt, poverty and being in care in childhood. The infinitely intricate and highly organised supporting structure of sexual trafficking, and the fact that the only ones making a profit are, in the main, men, tells me this 'industry' is not about equality, freedom or choice for women at all. Which is not to say that the women who involved in it are merely victims - quite the opposite.

Whether you think you're interested in the issue of prostitution, whether you think it has anything to do with you as a person, or your life or your lifestyle, I would recommend - no, in fact, I would plead with you, to see this exhibition. There is no one who would come away from this exhibition without learning something about the world and something about yourself.

Today's Beautiful Things

1. The Women's Library - just on principle, really

2. Deciding to organise my own exhibition - on 'The Punter'

3. Culture, in all its infinite variety

Friday, December 15, 2006

Hyenas in Petticoats

Today's image comes courtesy of the fabulous Jacky Fleming and is called 'Never Give Up.'

Tomorrow, I'm jaunting up to London to see an exhibition on prostitution at the Women's Library. The exhibition is called: Prostitution - What's Going On? (it's an awful title, but I can understand that it was probably very hard to name) and it examines the issues surrounding prostitution and trafficking, in the past and the present. I have always wanted to visit the Women's Library, so I'm really looking forward to it, and in addition, I'm going there with my best feminist friend, Shon.

One of the sections of the exhibition that I am most looking forward to is some work completed by a group of young women exploited through prostitution, which Kit Kat's project was involved in. I know that for many prostitution is an unpopular subject, but it is also one of the most commonly misunderstood issues in our society, or indeed, the history of our society.

I know also that this exhibition may not be to everyone's tastes, but worry ye not, that's why you have me - to visit the parts of culture others flinch from. I'm the cultural correspondent on the edge, on the streets, on the edge of the streets sometimes when I'm feeling particularly, er, edgy. I'll be lecturing all about it when I get back...

To me, the interesting thing about prostitution from a sociological point of view is what any discussion of the topic reveals about our beliefs on sex (biological) and gender, and sexuality. My beliefs on the subject are underpinned by my long-standing thinking as a feminist, and this exhibition comes at a particularly poignant time, given the horrific murders taking place in Ipswich and the huge attention that is given to the fact that the women being murdered are prostitutes.

Go back to the reports on the Yorkshire Ripper, (hell, while you're there, go back further to Jack the Ripper if you want to) and the rhetoric remains the same as that surrounding the Ipswich killer. What rhetoric, Sarah? Well...
  • When prostitutes are being killed, it's different somehow from 'normal' women (are we really saying 'good' women?)
  • There are repeated warnings for ALL women to 'be careful,' this often accompanies clearer calls to action for women, including don't go out alone, don't engage in dangerous behaviour (which means deviant behaviour, and includes having too much sex, being sexually aggressive or 'asking for it', wearing short skirts, drinking - oh, and especially, it means being a prostitute).
  • There are also repeated reports of how the prosititute 'community' (as if they have an official professional association that feeds them press releases and codes of practice) are repeatedly behaving 'dangerously', many of which reports say just about everything they can without actually saying 'she was asking for it.'
  • There is a subtext that the killer is a monster, not a man. This was the biggest mistake made with Peter Sutcliffe and countless serial rapists: an underlying belief that the suspect will be somehow 'obviously' deviant.

It's as if we have a problem understanding that this is the behaviour of one guy - he's probably married (sorry ring-wearers, but statistically, your favourite institution is often home to some of the major forms of deviance that western civilisation has on offer. That's why we say 'keeping it in the family' and 'behind closed doors'), average, and dull; an unsurprising little freakazoid, one pathetic little man.

He'll be the kind of guy you stand next to in the queue at the supermarket, he opens the door for you at the library, you see him every day at work - and here's the clincher, you'll never have suspected a thing. This isn't as controversial as it sounds, think about it - if serial killers and rapists were easily recognisable monsters, I think we'd find them more easily.

There's another contradiction in the rhetoric, too, because if it's the fact that the killer targets prostitutes that distinguishes these murders, why are the police telling all women not to go out alone?

Now the nights are dark, I think about the 'Ipswich Ripper' every day, when I walk home alone from work. That's how powerful we make these men. One man, whose most notable achievement is to kill women in secret in one sodding English town, who chooses to kill women and then to hide, gets to control a nation of women. And I'm going to go one step further - the way we report these killings encourages that control and feeds that power.

The reality is that the killer is the problem - this freakish little screwed up nothing of a man is the problem, not whether the women of Ipswich go out at night. I'm guessing his mother didn't kiss goodnight often enough or something; whatever - he lost the right to my compassion when he started killing easy targets. And you might be thinking, Uh, yeah sure Sarah, state the obvious, of course the killer is the problem - but then why are we talking about what the 'prostitute community' are doing? Why are we telling women to stay home, to stay sober in order to stay safe?

I say screw that (actually, I'd say something a lot worse, but Lady Drusilla at the Ministry of Culture gets scary mad about swearing and I only just gave her the blog address).

Women should not only be going out at night - all night, every night - they should be going out en masse, patrolling the streets in packs, hanging out on corners as the Prostitute Personal Protection Patrol and praying that they, and not the police, are the ones who will catch this guy and personally punish him. A bit of penile as opposed to penal justice, I think.

In 2003, I wrote a polemic essay for a book themed around the feminist seventies for The Centre for Women's Studies at York University. My essay was about the nature of women's and, more specifically, feminist anger. It was called 'No Longer Reasonable' and in it, I wrote the following, and it still remains true for me today.

"A I write today, a serial rapist nicknamed the 'Trophy' rapist, who has claimed ten victims so far, fills the news. Police are warning women and girls across the southeast of England 'that they should be accompanied and remain alert' (BBC news online), as they have no doubts the rapes will continue. The atmosphere of watchful panic is reminiscent of the fear that spread among women during the attacks perpetrated by the Yorkshire 'Ripper' during the late seventies. Once again, one man sentences the women of the UK to self-enforced curfews and helpless dependency. Once again, one man, portrayed as a monster, reminds women of what we already know: the perpetual awareness of being a potential victim that serves to undermine our autonomy.

I would like to see women stepping out of their houses, together, into the very areas they have been warned attacks may take place. I would like to see large groups of women searching for this man, I would like him to feel hunted and haunted and afraid. Most of all, I would like to see acts of furious and open defiance by women to illustrate that we will not be passively terrified into submission until the burly police force comes to our rescue. In order for this to happen, women would need to link such acts of violence against women with a feminist understanding of women's oppression worldwide. As Solanas fumed in her SCUM Manifesto (1968), women 'could acquire complete control of this country within a few weeks by simply withdrawing from the labour force, thereby paralysing an entire nation...The police force, National Guard, Army, Navy and Marines combined couldn't squelch a rebellion of over half the population, particularly when it's made up of people they are utterly helpless without.'"

This is why they call us Militant Feminists. Let me close today's entry with a Manifesto written in 1975 for International Women's Day by
Joyce Stevens.

Because a Woman's Work is Never Done Manifesto

Because a woman's work is never done.
and is underpaid, or unpaid, or boring, or repetitious,
and we're the first to get fired,
and what we look like is more important than what we do.
And if we get raped its our fault
and if we get beaten we must have provoked it
and if we raise our voices we're nagging bitches
and if we enjoy sex we're nymphos
and if we don't we're frigid
and if we love women it's because we can't get a real man
and if we ask our doctor too many questions we're neurotic or pushy
and if we expect childcare we're selfish
and if we stand up for our rights we're aggressive and un-feminine
and if we don't we're typical weak females
and if we want to get married we're out to trap a man
and if we don't we're unnatural
and because we still can't get an adequate, safe contraceptive, but men can walk on the moon
and if we can't cope or don't want a pregnancy we're made to feel guilty about abortion
and for lots and lots of other reasons
we are part of the women's liberation movement...

Today's Beautiful Things

1. The joyous struggle

2. Solidarity in adversity

3. Never Give Up

"Any clod can have the facts, but having opinions is an art." Charles McCabe

I missed the blog again. I spent last night manipulating the voice of Tom Baker. No, honest! I did. I may need to explain.

I've been emotionally dislocated over the last couple of weeks, and, along with a few other things, it's been bothering me a little. So, I've spent the last few evenings in solitude, trying to reconnect with the Grumpster in myself and have a conversation with her about what exactly is biting my ass so badly that it's turning me into a Blue Meanie.

Last night I had planned to do the same, and I had set myself up nicely with a simple dinner (pig and roasted vegetables) and a bottle of wine (chosen by the Chief, who we bow to in all things tasteful) for some quiet, relaxing reflection and an evening with a good book (but more of that later). As you may already have guessed, and as I have mentioned a thousand times before about my best laid plans, they all fell to the wayside.

My brother turned up to pick up some money I owed him shortly after I came in from work, and just as I was cooking dinner. We chatted for a bit, shared my meal and opened the wine. Then I mentioned a joke (and I use the term loosely) that he had sent me by text message to my landline. I don't know how many of you use this facility, but if you send a text to a landline, a computerised voice reads the message out for you. It's really very clever.

As I explained to my brother, the voice that reads the message has changed, and it's gone from being a highly digitised female who reads everything in a monotone, to sounding like, well, like Tom Baker. Matt swears that on his phone, the voice is a woman from somewhere in India, but on mine, it's definitely Tom Baker. Please feel free to experiment with sending texts to your own landline and let me know your voice.

You'd have to know my brother for this to be obvious, but once he discovered that my phone can speak like Tom Baker, the course of the evening was pretty much certain. We spent the rest of the evening sending texts to my phone and getting Tom Baker to say outlandish things. Obviously a sigificant amount of wine was consumed, but it really was hilarious fun, and before I could say 'Good Lord, isn't that an old fashioned police box?' I was far too drunk to write the blog.

I have considered allowing myself to write the blog when inebriated, but I'm not sure who would suffer more for it, me or you. Anyway, I'm currently trying to work on a way to upload the various messages of Tom Baker onto the blog for you (WARNING: some of them contain swearing and not to be listened to by Miss Drusilla for this reason. Dru, I had nothing to do with the swearing bits, I promise!).

Three Beautiful Things

1. Hi Sarah. It's Tom Baker. Yes, that's right, Tom bloody Baker.

2. Matthias

3. Unexpected evenings and laughing until you're making silly noises through your nose

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The world's as ugly as sin, and almost as delightful. Frederick Locker-Lampson

Tonight's image is courtesy of Liz Cohn. Please have a look at her website, I don't feature artists as often as I should and she reminded me today why it's important! This picture is called Hormonal Sage.

You can't buy it from her website because it's already been sold, but you can buy her diary for next year, which looks awesome and is themed around collage. Anyone looking to buy me gifts, this is a good one!

Rainy Night - Dorothy Parker
I am sister to the rain;
Fey and sudden and unholy,
Petulant at the windowpane,
Quickly lost, remembered slowly.

Yesterday I was a hormonicidal maniac, or as the gorgeous Miss Clark puts it, "wearing my grumpy hat." I find it harder to counteract the effect of my hormonal cycle than I do an average moment of depression. I think this is because there is no rhyme or reason to a hormonal cycle mood swing - one minute you're fine, the next you're sad, then you're fine, then you're angry, then you're fine but you're crying and you don't know why.....

I cried off the cinema last night, which as you may remember, was my night to see the critically slated 'The Holiday' with Miss Lisa, Miss Sally and the ever-dapper Chief. By the time it came to leaving time, though, I knew I wasn't in the right head-space and I went home, tucked myself up and watched about thirty episodes of American Gothic (which I would love to tell you is my new 'House', but, entertaining though it is, isn't. I hope the good side win though, all the same.)

For those of you who still haven't checked out Mark Kermode's review of The Holiday, he opens it by saying, "They say more people commit suicide over the Christmas period than any other time. With movies like these in the cinemas, I can see why."

This adventure in the art of criticism leads me nicely to some examples of my favourite Dorothy Parker's best comments on others, which are guaranteed to make me feel better, even when hormonicidal (the chief called me witty yesterday, btw, and the Dorothy Parker that lives on in my frontal lobe positively glowed):

She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B. (speaking of Katherine Hepburn)

If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

This is not a novel that should be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can't say No in any of them.

Aimee Semple McPherson has written a book. And were you to call it a little peach, you would not be so much as scratching its surface. It is the story of her life, and it is called In the Service of the King, which title is perhaps a bit dangerously suggestive of a romantic novel. It may be that this autobiography is set down in sincerity, frankness and simple effort. It may be, too, that the Statue of Liberty is situated in Lake Ontario.

Today's Beautiful Things

1. Waking in the warm to the sound of a wailing wind

2. Chasing the blues

3. And speaking of blues, here's Glenn (doo do doo doo do do do dooo - oh no, that's Bod, sorry. Lou, you may be the only person to catch this reference...)

Monday, December 11, 2006

The only reason for being a professional writer is that you can't help it. Leo Rosten

This morning started well. Kate’s car wouldn’t start, and we were trapped in an immobile vehicle with the choice of persevering in the attempts to start the engine, or sitting in the car and waiting for the weather to subside so that we could leave. One choice that was definitely not on the books was to brave the weather that had just soaked us through whilst crossing the common to get to the car. Instead, we sat inside, giggling hysterically (and I mean that literally) wishing for the car to start and shouting every so often to Kit Kat’s car, “C’mon Peanut!” (Kate believes in naming her cars).

At 8.45 I had to call the office to let them know that I wasn’t hungover and retiring under my duvet (I was hungover and stuck in a car). Miss Sally answered cheerily, and I explained our predicament. At the exact moment that I told her the car wouldn’t start, Kate turned the key to the engine, and – you’ve guessed it – Peanut roared into life.

“Miss Sally!” I declared, “You’ve magically started the car with the power of your mind!”

“Oh, what hilarious fun! It must be our magical powers!” she replied.

And I think she’s right. Magical things happen when Miss Sally and I are together, like when Eric Twinge (of 29 Acacia Road – remember him? Lou, I know you do…..) eats a banana and magically transforms into Bananaman. Except a bit different, obviously.

The rest of the day passed peacefully and uneventfully enough in the Ministry of Culture. A couple of people gave some good feedback on my culture sermon from the weekend, which I rather liked. It’s interesting how some of my most popular observations are a result of complete inebriation isn’t it?

And talking of culture, did anyone catch the Culture Show over the weekend? It was notable for two particular reasons. The first was the regular slam-dunk of a review that Mark Kermode gave the new Christmas cinema favourite, The Holiday. I’ve heard Kermode give some pretty condemnatory reviews, but this one really held no prisoners. As I recall, at one point, he compared it to spending two hours “wading through vomit.”

Now although I laughed at the review (how could you not? The power of the critic is awesome!), I was thrown into a state of DDD (Deep Down Disappointment) at this condemnation because I have really wanted to see The Holiday. Mostly because it features Jack Black, who I L-O-V-E, admittedly, but I would have gladly tolerated the rest of the cast, too. It is Christmas after all. I was then further confused when doing my daily check of favourite blogs this morning as the gorgeous Miss Lisa gave The Holiday a rave review! Fortunately, thanks to the wonderful Clarky, we are all going to see it tomorrow night and I’ll be able to find out for myself. Watch out Mr Kermode if I disagree with you!

And finally, whilst talking of the Culture Show, you must check out the Christmas Greeting from Coldcut. Incredibly powerful stuff. You can find both Mark's reviews (also of Happy Feet and The Nativity) and the Coldcut Christmas Greeting here

Today’s Beautiful Things

  1. Miss Sally taking extra special care of me when I felt like I was birthing a mule this morning
  2. White chocolate buttons – a special treat for every suffering feminist everywhere
  3. The Chief’s new coat – it’s more than a bit fabulous, you know.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Stars in the mind

On Friday, Bean - who knows my feminist interests well and knows everything I need to know about all things science - told me all about Henrietta Swan Leavitt, an astronomer who lived in the 1800's and who Bean described as the enabler of cosmology.

Leavitt volunteered at the Harvard Observatory for 7 years before they offered her a permanent post in 1907. She was tasked with determining the brightness of all measurable stars, and her work enabled later astronomers to accurately calculate the distance between stars, and thus provided a significant contrinution to cosmology as we know it today. You can find out all about Leavitt here.

Yesterday, I was seeing stars of a slightly different kind, as G and I braved the insanity that is Palmerston Road to attempt some Christmas shopping. At first, I thought I was just in a bit of a shoddy mood. There were too many people around, being all kinds of moody and non-goodwillish to all men, for a start. Then I made the mistake of trying to do some clothes shopping at the same time - not my favourite of all things in any case - and the day was finished off. Tears in the changing room are not a happy sight.

Poor G suffered my craziness with her usual calm distance. I turned into even more of a mood Nazi. By the time we returned to the Heights, we had both had more than enough of me and the Universe rightly handed out some karma by smacking the top of my spine across the fireplace. I cannot describe to you how painful that was, both physically and spiritually. I cried like a small chimp separated from its mother.

G departed to visit my brother round the corner (and probably to search out a human being who could actually smile) and I collapsed into more confused tears on the couch. When I called G about half an hour later to apologise, she asked immediately, "Sarah, what have you eaten today?"

It was five o'clock in the evening and I realised I hadn't had anything to eat since the morning, when I'd had some cornflakes. Apparently, you can really mess with your blood sugar levels this way and your blood sugar levels can really mess with your mind, and by proxy the minds of everyone else around you. We had a lovely dinner (basically pig and potatoes) and I felt much better, mood over.

All of which provides further proof that if at any point I seem unhappy, I should be instantly handed a bar of Dairy Milk. I've been trying to convince many people of this for a long time.

It's hard for me to deal with the fact that I am a brain in a body and that the sense of me as an individual originates in the fact that my brain - whilst being aware of every single part of my body, from the tiniest nerve endings to the entirety of my skin - has no awareness of its own existence. Because of this fundamental fact, we perceive the world as an 'I', rather than perceiving the world as a series of operations being carried out by the brain.

But I explain all this very badly. Should you require further proof of the power of the brain and the body, please read some Oliver Sacks (available at your local library, of course). Start with his neurological adventures in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat

Quote du Jour

A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience.
- John Updike

Last thing today, for those of you who have taken my advice and customised their Google, can I please recommend mysteries of the day. If you're not sure if you'd like it, check out a sample story - this one reminds me of experiments where scientists have created the conditions under which people report feeling spooked with electro-magnetic fields, which was of some comfort to me last week when I went into the spooky collections store at the RN Museum and was repeatedly convinced someone was in there staring at me.

Have you experienced any spookiness lately? I had a very weird dream about a lunatic asylum last night, if that counts. It involved my friend Howard, a large group of people I don't know, the Chief and a cat called Ashantee. I know, not all of my madness is caused by blood sugar.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Culture - it's what we do

Today's picture is courtesy of Maggie Smith, Australian photographer and member of the Melbourne Camera Club.

There's a famous legend linked to my ultimate heroine, Dorothy Parker who lives on in a small section of my frontal lobe and whispers inspiration to me - she is also in sole control of the temptation to drink copious amounts of gin at social gatherings), although this is not the only version of the story in town.

When she was asked to give a speech to the American Horticultural Society, Parker reached the podium and declared, "You can take a whore to culture but you can't make her think..." That was her entire speech. If it's a true story, I doubt she was invited back.

Friday evening, in true Parker spirit, I drank far too much and didn't post - oops! But I did spend a great amount of time appreciating, and thinking about culture (as one does when one has consumed far too much chianti).

I spent Friday evening with The Bean, my uncle. When I came home from work, Bean was watching one of the music channels on Freeview. It was showing the 100 Greatest Mobile Disco Classics (which we both found suitably obscure a chart) and boy, were there some terrible songs making an appearance on there! We spent the evening with the charts in the background, enjoying such classics as: Sonia - You'll Never Stop Me from Loving You; Two Unlimited - Ready for This and DeeLite - Groove is in the Heart.

However, I did enjoy a moment of weakness when Nena's 99 Red Balloons came on and I sang it at the top of my voice. It made me wish that someone had thought to play this as the soundtrack to last week's World Aids Day when the Council released 1000 red balloons into the sky from the Guildhall Square.

As I was howling convincingly along to Nena, I realised what an amazing responsibility the cultural services across the country provide, and how easy it is to forget why the people responsible for providing these services, in one way or another are all here. Here's a sermon I prepared in my mind on Friday night on the topic:

The thing about culture is that it is not an end product. Culture is not the library service, or the museum or the art gallery. It's not a commodity that can be sold (although our access to aspects of it can often be controlled - that even rhymes, dang I'm good). In the western world, where we as individuals have become defined primarily as consumers, this can be problematic. It makes our understanding of culture sometimes elusive. It fools us into thinking we pop down to the Wharf of Guns andbuy some culture in a box to take home. For me, one of the best things about culture is that it defies this categorisation. Culture is as much about the walk to the Wharf as it is about getting there, and the culture that you'll find pre-packaged is often of questionable value.

Culture is, in one sense, 99 Red Balloons (both the song and the moment they are set free into the sky). It's the song that makes you turn the radio to top volume and the bass up to full power. It's the moment the balloons are released and the brief second when the people watching fall silent and simply stare at the sky. It's the book that tells the story of your broken heart back to you and makes you feel as though you're not alone. It's the painting that takes you to the field where you can smell the cypress trees on the wind; and it's the film that sends you home with a head crowded full with just one question, What If?

Culture has the power to change the way we think and feel about issues we thought we had decided upon a long time ago. It can create or steal anger, allow us to cry and make us laugh. And ultimately, I think, culture brings us together in ways we cannot imagine. It's the guy in the desert humming Hey Jude as he plays it on his guitar, while a teenager in Wales plays the same song for the very first time, thousands of miles away. It may be the only thing we have in common with someone else.

I think it is this ultimate power of culture to unite us in considering the complexity of the human condition that makes people join the Culture services in their local authority: whether they love the power of books, the power of a museum exhibition, a play, a poem or a painting (although they may not phrase it like that at interview. They'll probably say something more specific like, 'Oooh, I love books, me.'). We all share the same passion. That's why we go to work each day.

It is too easy to forget this in a local authority, and even in the independent cultural sector, when so much of the work we do is wrapped up in finance and/or politics. I don't know how much most people know about the current crisis (and I don't think this is an understatement) in local government: the alienation of local communities from their local democratic power (exercised in the vote and in their participation in services which are rightfully theirs and belong to them), the swelling deficits that seem to be affecting most local councils, the cuts being absorbed year-on-year by almost every service whilst the demands placed on them to further extend service delivery and scope. You can find out about Portsmouth's financial position here

The knock on effect to the cultural services is that they lose money. When they lose money they lose staff and work doesn't get done that should. People get so overloaded trying to do their daily jobs that stress goes up and innovation, positivity and morale go down. Daily working lives are taken over with an endless list of tasks that is never completed. The power of culture is forgotten.

I'm not writing today with a list of easy answers as to how you get round this, but I suspect the frst port of call is remembering what we are here for. I would argue that I spend a lot of my day thinking about the volume of work I need to get through, the amount of time I have available to complete it and the competing deadlines that working three jobs can tend to create (and don't even get me started in the peanuts I'm offered to do this monkey work). These things become meaningless (and there have been moments the past few weeks where my work has seemed completely meaningless) if I forget why, ultimately, I am doing them at all.

Perhaps we have to look at the current crisis in local authority leisure and cultural services as an opportunity to reconsider why we are here. The sky's the limit!

OK, there the sermon endeth. As you were. Now take some time to examine the new stained glass window underneath the Bell Tower:
Today's Beautiful Things

1. Problem solving in the face of another's moment of madness

2. The mystery of low blood sugar levels

3. My mum - who is the best.