Life

Weekend in the smoke

Mark and I went to London for a couple of days over the May bank holiday weekend. After a super-busy week I was so looking forward to getting away on an adventure.

The main purpose of the trip was actually to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic, which I bought tickets to after seeing Daniel Radcliffe (Rosencrantz) and Joshua McGuire (Guildenstern) on Graham Norton a couple of months ago. It really was excellent: so funny and well done. I love the humour in Tom Stoppard’s plays, it’s so clever.

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After the play, we ambled over the bridge to Embankment for a half-bottle of wine at Gordon’s Wine Bar, before heading just a couple of minutes further up to Charing Cross for dinner at Barrafina, one of my absolute favourite restaurants. We had amazing monkfish tail from the specials board, and a glass of pedro ximenez sherry over dessert. After dinner, we travelled up to Camden to watch a band at the Lock Tavern before heading back south of the river for slumber. Perfect day.

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Sunday morning was beautiful, sunny and peaceful. We wandered over to Bermondsey Street and had a spot of brunch at the Garrison, before continuing on up to the river.

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We were due to meet my parents and sister at the Tate Modern, but we stopped off to see so many things on the way: Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral, the Golden Hinde, Winchester Palace… When we eventually got to the Tate we had a good nose round, and I spent a long time in the Rothko room for old times’ sake (and because it is soothing).

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From the Tate we went for pancakes and all-day veggie breakfasts with the family at the Breakfast Club, then headed for our train home, back to the provinces. It pains me sometimes that I can’t wake up in London every day, but perhaps it’s better to just visit regularly and so always experience the best of it? That way it can never be harmed by the fog of real life…

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Libraries gave us power

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In Wells-Next-The-Sea, on the north Norfolk coast, in the sunny courtyard of a cafe called Bang!, which is rather lovely and serves a decent coffee.  I am reading this week’s Big Issue, bought from the lady on the High Street in Wells rather than our usual chap on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham (unavoidable disloyalty).

The Big Issue has been running a big literacy campaign recently and as part of that have focused on the importance of libraries in improving access both to books and to other essential services that many people would otherwise be left without.

At the very end of 2016, Nottingham City Council approved plans to sell the site of the Nottingham Central Library to developers. To be turned into new, shiny things but almost certainly not to remain as a library or any other kind of public service. There had been a vocal campaign to save it, with many concerned about the impact the loss of such large resource of help, joy and information would have, not only on the city’s most marginalised and vulnerable people, but on all the library’s users.

This all got me thinking about my own relationship with libraries and why they are so important to me. My local library as a child was Henleaze Library in Bristol, which remains open at present. My mother would take me and my sister on a Saturday, before food shopping at the Waitrose over the road. Many of the books I remember from this age were library books borrowed from Henleaze, and some of them became life-long favourites, such as Lucy Boston’s ‘Green Knowe’ series, which, having never owned them, I have had to buy copies of as an adult. I was also rather partial to the Doctor Who spin-off novelisations, although I recall some of these being better than others!

The best part of two decades later, I found myself back amongst the bookshelves at Henleaze, although this time in the grown-up section. I had just moved back to the UK after three years in Australia, and passed a bewildering seven months trying to rebuild a life in a country which seemed no longer familiar. I worked the same part time job I had had as a student and stayed in my old bedroom in my parents’ house. A steady supply of books kept me feeling like I was moving forward, finding new experiences when the real world felt a little like it was moving backwards.

A year or so later, I found myself in Nottingham and Beeston Library became my local. Unemployed, isolated and feeling more than a little bit lost, the library became like a lifeline. It was somewhere that I could go and be a part of despite having no money, and, like Henleaze a year earlier, it gave me the chance to have experiences through reading that were otherwise closed to me. Having access to the latest books despite my sorry state made me feel like I was still living.

Libraries are also great for readers or all ages as they allow you to read outside your usual habits and comfort zone without worrying about having to enjoy it because you have paid eight or nine pounds (or more) for a book. I think carefully about the books I buy, but will borrow books from the library on the basis of cover art or a review quote on the back alone. If it turns out it’s not your thing, you can just take it back for somebody else to try. Because of this, I have had the joy of discovering a wide range of books, their different voices and perspectives, that it is otherwise unlikely I would ever have picked up.

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I am now lucky enough to be a member of a beautiful private library in Nottingham (Bromley House, in the photo above), but I still visit my fantastic new local library in West Bridgford. It makes me feel so happy to see how busy it is, particularly with families at the weekend, and seeing children getting the same experience that I did as a child. I hope a library will always be there for them as they become adults, and for their own children, however they use it and whatever role it takes in their lives.

Becoming vegan

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I watched Simon Amstell’s mockumentary film ‘Carnage’ this week, which is available on iPlayer for the foreseeable future.

Set in 2067, the film depicts a future world in which the entire population is vegan, and meat, eggs and dairy are banned. It tells the story of how we used to live and how and why we changed, reminiscing about the the meat-guzzling decades of the past with a sense of macabre horror: brightly coloured 1990s fast food adverts, depicting smiling, happy families ploughing dripping burgers into their mouths take on a different quality when cut with footage of cows being shot in the head and male chicks being gassed on egg farms. As we move through the decades, vegan activists become prominent figures, the animal rights movement grows force, and environmental issues including widespread, devastating flooding starts to make people think more seriously about the environmental impact of their choices.

Amstell himself is a vegan. If you go and see one of his stand-up shows he will talk about veganism in his usual apologetic, self-effacing way. The film reflects this, being as it is not full of science or facts and figures, and seems quite personal in its experience of changing views. I saw a lot of parallels with my own experiences in it, having been vegetarian now for almost 15 years. Vegetarianism for me started as a gradual phase-out, and I now eat no mammals or birds (I still eat a bit of fish). At first it was quite hard not eating meat, but after a few years I realised one day that I no longer saw meat as food. I would look at a sausage or chicken breast and feel just as I would if I was looking at a stone or a table. It had left my food vocabulary as an edible product.

Some years later, another shift occurred. I was in Tesco and found myself accidentally in the meat aisle, cutting through to another part of the store. On a shelf were whole chickens, piled up in rows, and I suddenly saw them for what they were: the dead bodies of former living creatures, industrially massacred so we can enjoy a cheap and probably forgettable dinner. I have never had a problem with looking at meat in itself and am completely comfortable with the concept of dead flesh (I was a total dissection geek at school), but the concept of filling my body with the commoditised product of a genocide upset and disgusted me. How would you feel if you walked in and saw a shelf piled up with the cling-wrapped flesh of dead dogs for sale? And what is the difference?

Last year I was at a festival and amongst the activities you could take part in was one where you would be shown how to skin and prepare a dead rabbit, before eating it. I overheard a girl complaining about how she loved eating rabbit, but that the idea of preparing it made her feel sick. To me, the idea that you could find the preparation process revolting but willingly put the results inside your own body is completely incomprehensible, and just goes to show how completely detached we have become from a true appreciation of what we are eating.

Watching Carnage also had an impact on me as a non-vegan. Watching footage of cows suffering obvious pain whilst being forcibly inseminated to keep them producing milk made me realise how incongruous it is to continue to consume dairy whilst not eating flesh. So I will be making more effort to cut out dairy where possible.

I will be recommending Carnage to people whenever I can. The film works so well because although its subject matter is hugely serious, it’s not presented in a serious way and is actually very funny. The future depicted in the film features support groups for elderly people who are trying to deal with their meat-eating past, and viral videos from a Farage-esque angry old man who wants Britain to make meat great again. The film doesn’t have an overt, stern education message, but simply shows that cultural norms are not always rational, and attitudes can change. Sometimes I feel i am just quietly waiting for everyone else to cotton on.

How to get married

Step 1: Discover, quite by accident, that the watermill at Houghton in Cambridgeshire, where you often go for Sunday afternoon walks, is a licensed venue.

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Step 2: Decorate the mill with fairy lights, ribbons and bunting.

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Step 3: Wear bright orange heels. Always.

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(…but take them off as soon as you can get away with it.)

Step 4: Hire tipis (try Cambridge Tipi Company!). Put them up in your mother-in-law’s field. Get all your friends and family to help decorate them with bunting, lights, jars of flowers, sheepskin rugs, a 3 piece suite (try Anthology Vintage Hire!)…

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…cut your initials out of huge pieces of MDF and paint them bright yellow!

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Step 5: Drive in your own car together from the mill to the tipis, with the roof down, Suede’s ‘New Generation’ turned up loud.

Step 6: Eat an amazing 4 course meal, entirely meat-free, lots of halloumi (try Tom’s Kitchen!), and an excellent selection of wine (if I may say so myself – I had a bit of help from the ever brilliant Majestic!).

Step 7: Make a speech. If you need a hand on the content, try Louis Jenkins.

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Step 8: Pause, and step outside to watch the sunset over the fields.

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Step 9: Get the village pub to pop up the hill with some booze and run a bar. Feel amazed that almost the entire population of the village, and indeed much of the surrounding area, are now in the field. Try some ramshackle country dancing. Then grab assorted favourite people and put the dance floor to good use.

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Step 10: One last look before rolling back across the field to bed…

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{All photos by my dad, Graham Fellows}

Window seat on Stokes Croft

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When I arrived in the window seat, there was a white van parked in the middle of the road, hazard lights flashing. The driver ducked in and out, checking front, back, underneath but you could tell he didn’t really know what he was looking for. I wasn’t paying much attention until the blue van pulled up behind and suddenly there were several people milling around in the road. The blue van driver then pulls around the white van, parking in front. The two drivers connect the two vans with a red rope. They move off, but the white van without the handbrake on rolls all over the road. But they keep going and eventually I lose sight of them.

Soon things are overshadowed by a man in purple leopard print lycra and a black fur coat pushing a bike. I stare because I fancy him. I catch the eye of people passing in cars, and they are staring at him too. Stokes Croft forms part of the main route out of the city centre to the north: there will always be people passing through for whom the Croft must just seem like a hipster circus to be gawped at. I watch a young man in an Audi whose eyes trail lycra man as he turns into Ashley Road. Perhaps he fancies him too.

The street is momentarily quiet again. I order a vegan sausage roll and a soy chai latte because I am part of this hipster circus after all. Behind me in the cafe is a loud girl with bright red hair. She tells her silent male companion, wearing a Bristol University hoodie, that she feels like he has misunderstood her feelings. He doesn’t reply, or at least not so that I can hear him. A man with dreadlocks, dressed in a giraffe suit complete with tail, comes down Nine Tree hill carrying a guitar on his back, and strolls over the crossing.

The sun is starting to drop. Cars have switched on their headlights. The Polish grocery store opposite has a hatch on the side, where a steady stream of people are ordering and collecting takeaway food chosen from a menu I can’t quite read from here. A toddler in a pink coat is handed something wrapped in paper and she looks overjoyed. Next, a group of teenage girls comes to the hatch, and they talk cheerfully to the shop assistant, pointing at things on the menu.

Red hair girl and silent boy just got up to leave. They are smiling. Two elderly people pass: a woman with long white hair in a bun on her head, carrying flowers, and a man whose hands are entirely covered in tattoos. On the opposite side two joggers pass. Inside, someone behind the counter smashes a glass and a cheer goes up.

Not Going Out

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The Christmas festivities are drawing to a close and it’s back to normality this week. The past week and a bit have provided a wonderful bit of space to breathe and think, relax and enjoy.

Christmas this year began in Cambridgeshire, with the log burner blazing in the farmhouse and mulled wine on the stove. A frenetic Christmas Day with Mark’s family in St Ives (is Christmas with young children ever anything but frenetic?), Mark and I making a brief escape for a quiet walk as dusk fell. Boxing Day calm, and a walk through the village.

Then it was on to Bristol for the tail end, to see my family, to hang out on Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft, relax and write.

On New Year’s Eve I taught my mum how to make sweet potato chips, we all watched Star Wars, then toasted in the New Year with Champagne and the fireworks on the television. A quiet one really, but it’s how I like it. I’m not one for going out at the best of times.

Today I am on the sofa enjoying a final few hours of peace before the new year really kicks in. 2015 was a tough one, but I’m staying optimistic for the future months…

Seasons may change

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As a city dweller it is easy to miss the seasons. Caught up in the rush of daily life, surrounded by buildings and concrete and cars, I don’t always stop to look at the changing of the light or the colours of the trees.

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This year has been different however. With a large part of my time over the past few months spent in the Cambridgeshire countryside, for once these changes have been happening in front of my eyes. It’s been wonderful to feel so aware of what the world is doing around me, renewing and decaying, to renew again, almost entirely of its own accord.

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Now with Christmas over, as we move deeper into winter, it seems the right time to start something new here. So take a mouthful of coffee and a deep breathe, and let’s begin.