Her Majesty’s Snipers

Her Majesty’s Passport Office, London Victoria.
It loomed over the posh square it abutted like a moody butler over a rich kid’s tea party. I say loomed; I walked the entire circumference of the square searching for it first before I found it right back where I’d started. That’s only when I noticed it was ‘looming’.

I was early. I’m never early. I started off a lifetime’s habit of being tardy when I was two weeks late being born and hindered myself yet further by trying to avail myself of my mother’s back passage. How can you help but begin a lifetime’s habit of late arrivals if you insist on starting your worldly existence by trying to come out of the wrong hole?

It looked like a government building should look. Dreary, but dangerous when pushed. I was nervous. The forms had made me nervous, and the emergency appointment made me more so. I smoothed my hair to try and make the top of my head look extra respectable for the snipers. I wanted them to know from my parting that I am not the kind of gal to smuggle in any Uzbekistanis strapped under a lorry. (I haven’t got a lorry.)

I entered the impersonal gleam of the reception and promptly started a courtly dance of repeatedly dropping my paperwork in the queue. I wondered if this made me look as undeniably clumsily British as Hugh Grant, or instead like I had been drilled to feign bumbliness by an evil terrorist uncle whose plan to take over the world rested on the success of my passport-getting skills.

I passed through scanners and didn’t get frisked. They didn’t even make me take any clothes off. I assumed they were lulling me into a false sense of security and that all the serious stuff would take place in the interrogation room where they kept the lubed gloves. They gave me a ticket with a number on it and told me what floor I should go to. I wondered if it was the floor with tasers.

I was 5417. They were only on 1208. I wondered if I should have brought my iPad or got pregnant first so I could have been doing something productive like admin or gestating while I waited. Luckily the numbers didn’t go in any sequential order that civvies could understand and I only had to wait AN HOUR. During which I lost a stone through my palms.

When summoned to the counter I was asked to fill in a section I’d missed out. About my parents. My form fear welled up afresh. I couldn’t remember when my mum and dad got married, even though I’d been there in my amniotic sac best, no doubt wibbling around to the number one of the time – Dr Hook’s When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman – the glint of the disco ball shooting its beams through mum’s belly turning her corpuscles into funky lanterns.

I gingerly asked the nice lady at the counter if I had to put my Dad’s name even though he was dead. She stared at me. I wrote it down without waiting for her reply – to show her I was hardened to the necessity of bureaucracy and didn’t at all have a little rush of nausea writing his name and date of birth.

She waved me to the paying desk. During the interminable wait for the payment to go through I wondered if some back-office Kafka droid had paused the phone-line to flick through my life’s misdemeanours before deciding if I could leave the country (or rather, if I could be allowed back in).

Finally it was done.

As I emerged the spring sun shone on the capital as though it had been invented solely for that purpose, forged in the great fires of the Tower of London for a coronation or something. I stilled my eyes, still blinking to the rhythm of the automated syncopated voice that had richocheted ticket numbers round my brain like execution square bullets.

A bird sang, some jasmine bristled in a stiff British breeze. The blue plaque of Winston Churchill’s former residence, 1909-1913, glinted, Britishly. I was British. Most of the time it didn’t matter a jot, but that day it mattered a lot. The nice lady who had handled my forms, who was still within two generations of her African or Afro-Caribbean (but ultimately African, like all of us) roots, saw no reason to doubt me; to doubt the verity of my citizenship, to doubt my intentions, to doubt my character. She passed me through. The older gentleman on the scanners, whose skin glowed more with Bombay sunsets than the electric glows of Croydon or Hounslow, waved me through with barely a glance. The young man on the desk who issued me with my number, whose pretty hue was so gently molten with genetic possibility I could not guess a likely country where the headwater of his heritage had first sprung, handled my dehumanising categorisation – number not person – with perfect boredom.

It was ultimately just a dreary system for keeping everything nice. It failed sometimes but it was better than not having it at all.

I breathed a delayed sigh of relief. Despite the very modern customs of doubt that have sprung from still-raw world events to swamp our old more natural trust, despite my anxious half-assumption that I might have my shoes spliced open by a ballistics expert, my life and family details scrutinised as though I was obscuring dubious facts for dark purposes, my knicker label scanned onto a global database along with my retinas, fingerprints and lipstick kiss, despite all this utter clunk – we were all in it together. And all this processing – bureaucracy’s scary paranoid add-ons, ceremonial cynicisms that slow it all down further- for all its seeming divisiveness, that stuff only really exists to ensure we could stay that way; in it together. Mingling, as we like to do, more like unbiddable waves than the solid dry plates we’re so obsessed with scribbling maps upon.

I moseyed along, for a while not late for anything. Old learnt tunes swelled in my head. Rule Britannia. The national anthem. I hummed. And with a retrospectively Sex Pistolsy anarchic flare wondered if I should yell back “I’M ONLY HUMMING BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW THE FUCKING WORDS, YOU PRICKS”. But I want to go to Milan next week. And I didn’t really fancy being shot in the eyeball. So I didn’t.

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Selfie: Giving The Bird, Not The Woman

I’ve always struggled with ‘the selfie’. The word itself, for starters, is pretty nauseating. From the earliest days of people with webcams lurching their way onto Myspace looking like grainy sex offenders, I have had a problem with it. Sometimes because of the ‘sex offendery-ness’ of it (perfectly nice innocent people looking like they raped your gran once at a party but are trying to reform), but sometimes because it’s quite often the chosen medium of a lot of dicks you want to punch.

Perhaps I struggle on a basic level with the unflattering aesthetics – the fact you can always see an arm trying not to shake in the corner, or the concentration in the eyes of someone trying to remember their angles so their cheekbones look their best and their chin remains un-doubled.

Perhaps I struggle with it because the selfie is supposed to capture the essence of the self, and so rarely does. So often it does the opposite – merely presents something that someone wants you to see. (I am sometimes as guilty of this in pictures as anyone). I feel a bit sad and awkward for them that they’re taking a picture of themselvesI guess. I struggle with a new generation of women being supposedly empowered enough to seize their own moments and take pictures of themselves, while at the same time negating their empowerment by looking – in the most annoying cases – dumb, vain, or desperate.

Perhaps on a deeper level I struggle with seeing the comfort that other people have in their own skin when I seldom feel it in my own. Perhaps I envy the self-snappers. Perhaps I wish I knew how to take a picture that made me like my own face. Perhaps the autonomy of a selfie is kick-ass; something to be admired. Perhaps the directness of cutting out the middle man is a more honest way of saying “hello world!” Perhaps it’s just the newest modern thing in the constant individualisation of people; the latest means of expressing a visual connection to the world that started in cave drawings, proud-titted hieroglyphs, renaissance portrait commissions, the artworks of pomp, vanity and power, stern-faced family sittings at Edwardian photographic studios, blurry 60s Polaroids, 80s photo-booth posings with your permed best mate; tongues, pouting, kissing, fish-face cheekbones, sass, V-signs, cross-eyes, wanting to be sexy, rebellious, attractive, free, to be wanted, understood (or not understood in the slightest); defiance at love, at life; or dare you dare it – vulnerable. All of the human tumbling out in one shot, one fractured moment that somehow captures the ineffable wordless ‘self’.

Anyway. Whatever.

My most recent problem with selfies occurred last week. With the ‘no make-up selfies’ movement that coursed through Facebook as the newest novelty way to raise ‘awareness’ for cancer, like we’d forgotten it existed. I had to quash my initial reaction of disgust, and accept that charities have to use whatever pop culture means they can to part people from their pennies. Fine. I had to stop imagining head-butting the marketing drip who came up with the ‘revolutionary’ idea of getting women to go without make-up. There is a sweetness to wanting to encourage women to be brave enough to go au naturel, to celebrate clean-faced truth, to reaffirm the importance of inner beauty rather than outward display, but coming from the wrong direction, for a glib reason, it’s also fucking irritating. But that was fine too. Sort of.

What was not fine was the atrocious display of poor humanity it engendered. I will never fail to be amazed at quite how happy some people are to be endlessly outwardly despicable to others.

Within a day of these pictures popping up I had ‘de-friended’ three men after I saw bad jokes in their status updates about wishing women would stop revealing themselves as the “munters” they are. They were the negative ones. Directly involving misogynistic nouns and adjectives. Some men were kinder; just benevolently relieved that they could now, thanks to cancer, identify which women they no longer wanted to sleep with. The whittling of wish-lists heard around the country where once echoed the swishings of cloaks across puddles. Sigh.

“Hey ladies, some of us can be struck off the Fuck list of Power! Hwoo! It’s ok – Dermatitis Del from Accounts doesn’t want to jiz in your face anymore because he’s seen you have crow’s feet from laughing at your three kids in genuine familial happiness, so no need to waste your money on the expensive foundation anymore, yeah? Embrace the truth.”

Unfortunately I heard similar casual abhorrences coming out of the actual mouths of men I know and like too. And they will never quite be afforded the same respect from me again.

(Ironically, these men had no idea that with their words they were participating in a verbal version of a selfie movement, giving us a ‘no bullshit’ snapshot of them’selves’, honest and unmade up, that would mean we’d never want to fuck them either.)

The devil’s advocate in me thought, however, “well, if we as a sex will walk around wearing make-up people are bound to notice when we don’t.” I even tried to excuse the real turds on the grounds that that they are pitifully low on brains. Then I realised there is no excuse for bad manners and meanness, so I unfriended them (and probably missed a load more cretins worthy of the same treatment because I don’t go trawling for shit through Facebook, but rather have my eyes assaulted by whatever pops up first, with no further scrolling ensuing). It’s not much of a protest. I doubt they’ll even notice I’ve disappeared from their friend list; they’re probably more obsessed with constantly messaging comedians they don’t know or soliciting women who live in bikinis.

Then I did that thing that I don’t usually do. I scrolled through to see what other people were doing; who else was getting involved.

And though I was disgusted by these ‘men’ I uncovered like mucal slugs from under a paving slab of social woe, I was more offended by the passive-aggressive ‘sisterhood’ that I noticed like a cold current winding through the warmth, in the act of ‘nominating’ someone you wanted to see without make-up. Most women were warm, giving, and celebrating each other’s candid beauty. Even better, some clearly couldn’t give a flying fuck if people thought they were ‘beautiful’ at all. But I am sad to say I saw a few catty, posed “this is my naked face – now show me yours, bitch” pics too. The setting up of women who were maybe perceived as vain, the public stripping of those deemed too attractive, or the humiliation of those who have scant self-confidence – all in Cancer’s good name. How could women say no to being ‘nominated’ as the next recipient of the ‘No Make-up Selfie’ baton? How can you say no to The Big C without looking like another kind of Big C yourself?

It made me sad. The act of nominating someone took away the spirit of the selfie. Women should have been nominating themselves, not responding to pressure from friends, no matter how well-intentioned it was. It should have been a flurry of volunteered spirit, not of contrived obligations. You would hope that women only nominated people they knew would feel happy to do it, but unfortunately that’s not the way of all people. (I also hope everyone that ‘selfied’ actually donated money too rather than simply being part of a new fad for bored people.)

So when I uncharacteristically put up a picture of myself that I took myself (despite the fact I would usually balk at taking a picture of my own face, in any state – even if Max Factor himself rose from the grave and transformed me into something as close to cosmetic perfection as I’m ever going to get) – I don’t mind admitting I got a kick out of including my middle finger held aloft prominently in the foreground. I thought some people deserved to be given the bird more than they deserved to be given the woman.

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The Lost Passport

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gadabout traveller in want of an adventure must be in possession of a passport. It’s a quaint old system. Most countries dig it as a means of controlling the movement of the population, entrenching cultural identities, shackling free-spirits to a culture of bureaucracy, keeping tabs on the sorts that in the 18th century would have been afeared pirates or elusive highwaymen, and, of course, squeezing us for quids. “Administrative costs.” Mostly I’m all for all those things in the name of a good jolly.

EXCEPT WHEN I’M SUPPOSED TO GO SOMEWHERE FOREIGN AND FIND I’VE BLOODY LOST IT.

You’ll forgive me I’m sure for being a bit sullen that I am here with you on a Monday morning in Essex. It’s just that I am supposed to be in Budapest – capital city of Hungary, jewel in the crown of the Danube, a ruddy big river in Europe, a place across the seas. I’m supposed to be in raptures over exotic stuff, sniffing paprika up each nostril at the suggestion of a sausage-wielding bohemian lurking on a beautiful neo-gothic street corner. I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, BLIGHTY YOU BORE.

Wind back to last week when I was snug as a bug in bed, just about to turn out the light when I had one of those ‘bolt upright’ moments. Apropos of nothing I lurched forward like someone had socked me in the gut, reached across to the bedside drawer that normally stows my important stuff (emergency sewing kit, strange notes I write to myself that bear no meaning after five minutes, old theatre programmes, a lighter even thought I do not smoke, AND MY BLOODY PASSPORT), and was met by instant panic. Not there. Five minutes of rustling gleaned no results. Twenty drawers, two trunks, a wardrobe, multiple boxes/whicker cases, endless home surfaces later, and nada. No passport. No where.

I thought back to the last few times I’d had it, as ID in the post office when they’d taken 30 seconds to milk me for seven quid putting a verification stamp on a bit of paper. It was like the Queen hated me. I vaguely remembered a moment of wrestling Matt to the ground of our new flat when he plucked it up from the coffee table in the lounge and threatened to look at the picture. We tussled. I won. My chubby spam-head furrow-faced self of 2004 stayed safely sandwiched between Her Majesty’s maroon. And then what? Then where? WHAT THE FUCK DID I DO WITH IT? I have no idea. But it’s gone.

I don’t mind admitting that when Matt went out I had a little cry. I didn’t think he should have to behold snot and puffy eyes as well as missing out on spicy sausage and dancing ancient folk quadrilles in baroque boozers.

I beat myself up for a good few days. I was so cross. It pervaded everything I did and I kept thrusting my face into Matt’s nooks, apologising for my idiocy. He was stoically resolutely lovely. In truth, I think this made it worse.

And then came the natural juncture when I knew I had to let it go. Stop launching myself across the room into Matt’s lap pouting like a manic depressive duck. Accept it. Stop bitching about myself to myself. Just let it go. It gets harder as you get older to let a bad mood slide away, doesn’t it? Something to be worked on I guess.

I’m sure I’d find it easier to adopt zen-like acceptance if I hadn’t just realised I’ll have to GET NEW BLOODY PASSPORT PHOTOS DONE. THE UNBEARABLE AGONY OF THE UGLIFYING BOOTH.

But that in itself is a fresh new start of a kind. I can let 2004 face go. Finally.

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Doing It

About twenty one months ago or thereabouts, I blurted out something in bed that’s gone on to change my life. I was talking to my best friend (texting, on the phone – she hadn’t just swung by and hopped in to keep her feet warm) – and having a moan about some idiot we worked for. A shambolic cretin who never paid anyone, who – we had just discovered – wasn’t even using his own name such was his checkered past of shady incompetence. We were hacked off. We knew something had to give. So I blurted. “I just want to do plays all the time, like, run a theatre company.” There was a pause just long enough for Hew to type “LET’S F***ING DO IT THEN, WENCH.”

So we did. Or started to. Our complicity in those moments turned our energy from low and despondent to wired and exuberant. It was quite an unceremonious beginning really, I suppose. I was in bed for one thing. But it felt important.

Few things we say in a day actually bring about change in our lives. There are small things, like “But I don’t fancy steamed fish tonight, I fancy steak, a bloody big one.”, but rarely something monumental to altering the progression of your time, thoughts, actions, and priorities for a considerable proportion of your future. Something that in its simplicity and brevity at once casts out all other options.

“I just want to run a theatre company.”
“So let’s do it then.”

Our company Old Trunk will turn two in June. I will turn 34. It seems a good age to have realised suddenly, after a life of drifting from thing to thing, that you know what you want.

We have had, I’m sure, an untypically blessed start for a new company. Since our eureka moment we have produced two plays I wrote which have been very well received locally and in London, been funded by Arts Council England twice in an increasingly difficult financial climate with cuts being made left right and centre, represented the Arts at the House of Commons, and appeared in the Sunday Times magazine. Lots of other lovely stuff we’re proud of.

I know that our success so far is largely down to our defiant determination to work our socks off constantly to the exclusion of most other things, to the amazing talent we are lucky to have in our cast Charlie and Edd, but we also owe the angle of our trajectory to some other wonderful people.

We’ve been lucky enough not only to have wonderful patrons, but also to be mentored by an arts organisation called Metal. They heard of our work, and asked us to curate the theatre tent for last year’s Village Green festival. We were honoured. They mentored us through the Arts Council application, offered invaluable help, introduced us to a whole industry load of thinking that we, being new, simply didn’t know and stood no chance of rapidly discovering for ourselves. They came to see our shows, and spoke up about us to other arts groups who didn’t know who we were. We were nothing but a couple of plays and a big bag of vague wishes that might never have been realised, but then we were given the clarity and support to do something with it. Because of their mentorship we are now being funded to take our two plays to the Edinburgh Festival and we’re so happy and excited we can barely make it to the end of an hour without sighing like girls.

We don’t know what the future will hold. We’ll work hard to keep ascending, doing the things we love, and are actually now bolstered even further by the desire to not let our supporters down.

It took a moment of ‘sod this’, of saying “Let’s bloody well do it”, but it also took people believing in us and opening a door as wide as our own scope to dream.

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Three Days In Bed With A Bloody Big Pork Pie

It’s not an exact science, but sometimes you can tell how much fun you’re going to have by the size of the rustic pork pie you’ve just bought from an artisan bakers. If it’s big enough to break a window from five meters, you can strap in for some serious good times. As I say, not a definitive equation that Hawking would bother expounding with his mouth-jabber at a lecture to collected genii, but something in it nonetheless. Maybe just one of those arcane old unwritten laws from the Olde Englishee booke ofe Olde Factes. Like: Rain = Wet, and Sheep = Bad Gay Farmer Jokes. Big pie = Happiness.

Matt had some gigs up Northish last week so we turned it into a mini break, which essentially meant going to a town we’d not been to before, allowing ourselves to eat twice as much as we usually would in a normal day and then rolling around on a kingsize bed feeling like we’d earned the imminent nap. We did a bit of walking too but didn’t want to undo our good work.

It was on one of these walks around Bakewell in Derbyshire that we stumbled across The Pie. And the Bakewell tart. And the cheese. And the chutney in the cute jar. And the coconut jam pie that looked like the baked dandruff of angels. And the olives, though I’ve forgotten what they had to do with the ‘midlands in February’ theme we were going for. We also, for good measure, bought a bag of mixed salad because as we all know having something green on the plate offsets most of the carbs and saturated fat.

Arms ladening with award-winning country produce, and some wine and chocolate (for emergencies), we tottered dutifully round the historic town, halfheartedly looked at some antique fairs, bought some DVDs from an ageing hippy in a church hall (for emergencies in case all the hills were shut), earwigged upon the burgeoning politics of a second-hand bookshop (new volunteer Des challenging old-timer Jane’s systems – I almost cracked the spine of a Reader’s Digest Dick Francis waiting for that one to play out.), and then went back to our room for the real purpose of the break. Bed.

From the crisp starchy whiteness of our hired cloud we nestled and surveyed the hills stretching out before us. They were, as we suspected, unfortunately shut for activities that day – but from our nest we could gaze over them anyway.

Kingsize beds are brilliant, aren’t they? Duvets are brilliant. Pillows are brilliant. Boyfriends in their pants are brilliant. Views of Derbyshire hills all wavy like a green desert mirage through the radiator heat – brilliant. Spring sun yawning through trees probably planted by Jane Austen when she was taking a break from writing an era-defining classic – brilliant. Church bells at unfathomable times like the village is run by mischievous masons, busybody starlings whooshing in and out of the eaves with gossipy chirrups, nearby pub lights like lanterns switching on with a wink at dusk, calling you back out into the cold. Wellies, tankards, fires, ale pumps, dogs, flat caps, locals, rain, the prospect of rain, the coming of rain, the escape from rain. All bloody brilliant.

England. Sometimes you’re so much a part of it you forget it’s there.

I sighed at the headying intoxicating normality of it all. It was nice to be away. More specifically it was nice to be under the sheets in the afternoon with my boy and a bloody massive pork pie. Three days of this passed like a naptime dream.

When the time came to leave, by way of thanking the cleaning ladies for our lovely stay I did a diligent pre-tidy as an act of respect and left them the bag of salad. I knew they’d know what that meant.

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