Tag Archives: Adventures

Salem, A Haunting – September 14th 2015

I can feel them staring at me. There are two, in particular, all sheets of straight glossy hair and designer black clothing. When Ben asks them a question they are sharp and knowing in reply, a caustic sort of flirting. They arch their eyebrows – drawn a little too thin, a little too severe – and answer with careful nonchalance. I have watched girls like this from the sidelines all of my life, have been at the end of their stiletto-point wit. If I had hackles they would be rising right now.

They are the most obvious of the lot, but the room is filled with people hanging on Ben’s every word. He is giving a lecture at the local university, and there is a good turn-out, though it turns out the turn-out is not the music and theatre and writing students, but largely the curious, and the smitten.

I can’t blame them, after all. Ben is just…louder than anybody or anything else in this small town.

It takes a while to extricate ourselves when the lecture ends, so many people have stayed behind to talk to Ben. He is given the fourth t-shirt of our few weeks in Lowell. They like their t-shirts, in Massachusetts. This one is purple, with a bright yellow number 42 embroidered on its chest. Life, the Universe and Everything. Just like that. Ben passes it straight to me.

We are parked across the street from the university building, and the evening is still warm enough to make the insides of the car hot and cloying. Ben likes the windows down when we drive. I don’t, but he opens his without thinking and the air strobes through the car and presses against my eardrums until I open mine too. It’s hot outside – unseasonably so, Ben tells me. The weather has already been hotter this September than the warmest English summer day, and sometimes the air is so thick and oppressive it combines with my jet-lag – both physical and emotional – to make it difficult to move outside. Sometimes my body feels twice as heavy, the air twice as dense. Sometimes I feel as if I have an echo. I am trying to learn the way things are around here.

In the car I am glad to have Ben to myself. There are different Ben’s: one in front of people, one in front of me. I love them both, but the small, silly one I don’t have to share with a roomful of amorous teenagers is something particular special, and makes me feel full up with love like a water balloon, liquid and bursting and warm.

Ben has two days off in a row, so we have designated Monday night as “Date Night”, (which, in turns out, will last just one glorious week). We have booked a night in the Salem Inn, an old townhouse converted into a bed and breakfast. It looks like a courthouse, an imposing red brick facade with steep steps up to a white painted portico, opposite the even more imposing, Tim Burton-esque Witch House, all crooked clapboard and slumping black gables.

The inn is “historic” since it was built in the 19th century. I scoff at it, wondering if it is even as old as my family’s house back in Wales. Even the old things are new in America. We have booked into the Honeymoon suite last minute, which is ridiculously cheap, used as we are to New York and London prices. The bed is huge and raft-like, taking up most of the room. It is gloriously welcome after the tiny bed we have been trying to sleep in for the past few weeks, and went from “snuggly” to “get your elbow out of my face” within about three days.

In the spirit of the First Ever (and last) Date Night, we go out to a raucous Mexican restaurant and get drunk on two cocktails each. Ben’s sense of direction is appalling when sober and non-existent when drunk – which he is, tonight. As the relatively sober of the pair, I navigate us back to our hotel, the long way-round and via the creepy Witch House once more. We climb the narrow wooden stairs to the top floor, and our room.

The suite has one too many doors – some open into other rooms, unnecessary. One opens into someone else’s, though it’s locked tonight. We have a brief test of the hot-tub bath, before deciding that we are about to fall asleep in the water, and the huge bed is a much better bet. As I put my glasses on the bedside table and reach to switch off the light, I think, an idle, fluttering thought, that this room in this old building is a little bit creepy. I lay for a while and listen to the sounds of traffic on the road outside floating through our open windows on the warm night breeze. A man-hole clunks every few seconds as wheels drive over it. Ben snores lightly beside me. And then I fall asleep.

There is a sound, some time later. It is incongruous enough to wake me, but the room is silent while I lie in the darkness, still and rigid and waiting for the sound to come again and make some kind of sense. There are no cars on the road outside anymore. Ben is quiet and still beside me. In my sleep-fugged mind all I can think of is a lump of sugar falling into a china teacup, the scrape and stir and settle of a spoon against the rim.

It comes again. It is somewhere near my left ear. My heart lurches in my chest. I reach out blindly and sink my fingers into Ben’s bare back, where he lies on his side next to me.

Still, I try to think logically. After all, I have grown up in an old house – older than this one – and know the kind of noises it can make when it creaks and settles, when the wind changes direction, when the hollow walls are full of mice. Whoever coined the phrase “Quiet as a mouse” has obviously never lived in an old building, because they are anything but. They gnaw and skitter and scritch, they rustle through old wrappers in wastepaper bins and patter across floorboards.

But there is nothing next to me, only a bedside table and lamp. It sounds like no mouse I have ever heard.

I begin to think I must have imagined the sound, when it comes once more. Before I know it I am bolt upright in bed, blindly scrabbling for my glasses and the lightswitch. A distinct but tiny part of my brain tells me that I am being ridiculous and will feel ten times more so in the morning.

I don’t believe in ghosts. Except for when it’s 2am, at which point I definitely do.

“What’s the matter?” asks Ben, finally awake.

“I know you’re not going to believe me and it sounds stupid but I’m definitely awake and I definitely didn’t dream it but I heard a noise like a teaspoon stirring in a china cup and it really freaked me out and I’m not imagining it…”

“A teaspoon,” Ben repeats. His voice is hoarse and sandpapered with sleep. “Okay.”

“I know it sounds stupid but I def-”

The noise comes once more, distinct, absurd, terrifying.

“Did you hear that?” I hiss, not even waiting for the sound to dissipate before I speak.

“Yes,” Ben says. “Really creepy.” His words slur into a snore as he turns over and falls asleep once more.

Fat lot of good he is. I give up everything I know and move to the other side of the world for him and he can’t even save me from a ghost.

I lay back down, every vertebrae rigid and thrumming, my heart thumping obscenely loud. The lamp casts a halo of light around the bed, but beyond it the corners of the room are pregnant with shadows. I don’t believe in ghosts, I tell myself. But it’s 2am. And I definitely do.

“Still awake?” Ben mumbles after a while. He gets up to use the en-suite, comes back around the bed and closes the windows as he goes. “Better?” he asks.

Not really.

The noise doesn’t come again. After a while I fall into a fitful half-daze. Something creaks in the corridor, I dream the door into the next room begins to open, that the chintzy antique furniture is moving, just slightly. But the noise doesn’t come again.

I am the daughter of a logical father, raised in a house of reason and science and staunch scepticism of anything that might go bump in the night. Somehow though, this has never clashed or contradicted with my flighty imagination, prone to whims of superstition and folklore. Fairy-tales – and not the saccharine princesses and flurry of helpful tweeting birds, ready to tailor me a bespoke ballgown from the scraps of ribbon and the remnants of the curtains, either. The old kind. Gleaming-toothed wolves that look like men, dark impenetrable forests and blood-red cloaks. Shoes that dance you to death, fairy rings that people disappear into and stumble from, a day later and fifty years older. The hearts of virgins and walls of thorns.

But never mind my penchant for mythology and ancient folk stories, because these make a strange kind of sense, to me. They are entwined with place and history, with both the land and the culture of people that live there. The things that really terrify me are written in the pages of National Geographic and A Brief History Of Time. There lies the cold, indifference of space and time. In fairy tales and fantasy there is almost always a way to outwit Rumpelstiltskin, to beat the Big Bad Wolf. To quote Terry Pratchett, misquoting G.K. Chesterton:

“The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed.”

But science is another matter. It is more strange and unfathomable than superstition and fairy-tale. After all, there is no way to outwit a black-hole.

So here I lie, in a hotel in Salem, with a noise I cannot explain, and all I can think about is vast coldness of space and time, about atoms that can be in two places at once, and why is a belief in ghosts any more absurd that that?

And the truth is, that deep down, a small part of me likes to be afraid, wants to believe.

Rationally, I know that because the sound has not come again since the window was closed, it must be something that was caused by it being open. But in the fertile imaginary world that dawns when the sun dips below the horizon, I dream of the previous occupants of this 19th century house, of ladies taking tea in Salem’s parlours just like the one which now makes up the bedroom of the Honeymoon suite in which I sleep.

Enough Doctor Who episodes have told me that time is not a straight line. But what if it is, in fact, a concertina, an origami fold of paper. What if this now, this room, is pressed up against the now of the 19th century, sharing the same space but neighbours in time?

What if you could hear, as if in the next room, the filtering of conversation, of sounds from a time long ago?

My brain star-bursts with the thought. This will make a good story, I think, as I drift into sleep sometime before dawn.

Later, when the sun has risen fully and the cars are click-clacking across the manhole in the road outside, I go to the window to open the blinds.

The little toggle on the end of the blind pull scrapes against the wooden sill.

It sounds just like a teaspoon stirring a china cup of tea.

I feel stupid for the rest of the day, as Ben laughs at my “ghostly teacup”. Absurdly, it seems to make him love me more. But a tiny part of me – the part that comes alive in the darkness, the part that sparks and lights up with fear and imagination and the thrill of a quickening heart – is quietly disappointed.

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London, in reverse.

On warm summer evenings I sit on my bed and hear, through our open windows, the sounds of children having their tea in the houses on my street. It’s a sound both happy and sad, makes me feel comforted and lonely, all at once.

A year ago I moved into my flat in Queen’s Park. The jasmine is in bloom as it is when I first came here, up and down the road. In the morning and evening it is a heavy, heady smell that always seems to be two steps past the mass of little white blooms themselves. I have never seen so much jasmine.

I lived in Hammersmith before then, for four years. The longest I have stayed in one place since my childhood, back in Wales. I grew tomatoes and honeysuckle and lavender on the terrace, cared for them reverentially every night when I came home, stood barefoot on the wooden decking in the warm darkness and smelt the sharp crackle of water on dry soil, the echo of perfume from blooms and growing things. Across the street teenagers gathered outside the fried chicken shop, and shouted and laughed and fought through the night.

In 2009 I moved into a flat of strangers in a beautiful mansion block in West Hampstead, to be nearer to my then boyfriend who lived nearby. We broke up a week before my moving date. There were roses in the communal gardens outside by the street, but I don’t remember ever smelling the flowers. I wasn’t very happy there.

I first came to London aged 23, having unexpectedly secured a job that needed me to begin almost immediately. I moved in with old university friends of my brother’s in a small flat in Stockwell. I hadn’t spent much time in the city before, and my ideas about London were formed from my parents’ memories of life there in the seventies and early eighties. I expected the city to be hot and orange-tinged like my mum and dad’s photos from that time, and London did not disappoint. I clambered out the rickety sash-windows and sunbathed on the too-hot asphalt of the flat roof, and the shop by the tube station played Bob Marley’s “Is This Love”  out loud all summer.

This weekend I move to Watford to stay in the spare room of some friends, and if all goes to plan, before the end of the year I will ship my belongings to America – a bigger move than I have ever made before.

London has been good to me. I have had good times and sad times and every-day times. I have been desperately lonely and surrounded by friends and, usually, somewhere in between.

I am going to spend the summer thinking about why I love this city, and the seven years I have spent here – before I leave it for a new city, and new memories.

It’s The Great 2014 Round-Up!

Photo copyright of Gunnar Guðjónsson

Photo copyright of Gunnar Guðjónsson

This year has been an extraordinary one. A corker. There have been some ups and downs, some round-a-bouts, a see-saw, one of those wheel-of-death jobbies with the motorbikes. I may be getting carried away with myself a bit here, but trust me, it’s been that kind of year.

I’ve traveled more in 2014 than I think I have done in all the years leading up to it – Normandy and Iceland and Paris and New York – with friends where I could, alone if not, in love where possible.

I saw the northern lights with a group of strangers outside a porter-cabin hotel in the Icelandic highlands, and spent an hour under the dancing lights, smiling until the wind had chilled my teeth to a painful hum. The aurora borealis is the sort of thing that makes you want to hug the person next to you or tell someone you love them, and to see it alone was a bittersweet thing, but perhaps it was right. Was it eerie, my friends asked when I came home – was it weird? Gunnar, our guide, had explained earlier that day that the aurora, just like the volcanoes that loomed on every horizon, was a sign that the earth was healthy and alive. A planet without tectonics is a planet that is dead.

But even so, there was nothing remotely eerie about the lights. They were beautiful, and magnetic – they pulled us from our beds to stand in the frozen midnight air, miles from home. It felt….significant. It felt like a sign. Good things, dancing there in front of me. Good things, pole-to-pole. Maybe I’m naive, and hopeful, with a leaning towards sweeping spiritual statements, but I don’t think that matters. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, maybe the act of hoping is as good as getting what you’re hoping for. Maybe.

2014 was also significant – for you all I’m sure – as my thirtieth year on this planet. I know, I know, my youthful face and collection of Doctor Who toys make me seem much younger. But it’s true: thirty bloody years old. I suppose I can concede that I feel more like an adult now than I ever have before, but, that’s not really saying that much, is it?

This year I dabbled in the mucky world of Tinder, briefly. Dating often made me feel like a lone lost astronaut in an alien world, where I understood neither the rules nor the reason for them (“So…okay…you might reply to my text messages – three days later, yep, okay – but we mustn’t speak on the phone? We can have sex with each other….but we mustn’t be facebook friends? O…okay….”). The whole thing ended not with a bang but with a whimper, like a sad little fart in a next-door room. But out from my slightly pathetic foray into the world of internet dating came the desire to keep the momentum going, after years of professional dust-gathering on the shelf. I’d been hammered into shape by this point: I understood that love was about feeling constantly afraid and unsure and unattractive, it was about compromise and hiding, little bits of yourself shoved down the back of the sofa and under the carpet, control underwear and pretence and omission.

Most of all, it was the finger-wagging voice in your ear telling you you can’t have everything, you know.

Until, of course it wasn’t.

This year I’ve learned that love can still be terrifying, but instead of the lost, confused wandering of before, it’s a joyfully overwhelming thing. It’s free-wheeling headlong down a hill on a bike, someone with you, sat on your handlebars – you hurtle along, neither of you ever really knowing how high this hill is or if you’ll crash horribly at the bottom or land safely in a life you’ve built together along the way. And that’s it, isn’t it? You can never really know, no one can, but it’s the trying, that’s the thing. That’s all any of us want, surely? Someone to say they’ll try with us.

And now I’m with someone I would never have expected. Who knows what will happen, and it’s not perfect (living 3000 miles apart is a little inconvenient) and neither are we, but sometimes I look at him and marvel, because it seems as though someone stuck a pipette in my ear and sucked him right out of my brain when I wasn’t looking, three-piece suit and fedora and all.

And of course I haven’t really learned anything about love, because this is the first time I’ve known it, and it comes in many guises, and I’m only thirty. Perhaps when I’m old and grey and eighty I’ll know, or perhaps I won’t.

A week or two before I went on the first date with him, and began the slow, tentative process of falling in love, I wrote a piece about what I wanted in a man and published it on this blog. If I was going to be picky I had a long list of qualities, ending in his looking exactly like the actor Kit Harrington. But I wasn’t being picky, I didn’t want to be picky. I just wanted someone kind. Well, I think I’ve found that. And as he recently told me after coming back with our drinks in a soho pub. “I just stood next to him at the bar. That guy from Game of Thrones. You know, your boyfriend. And I’m taller than him.”

So, suck it, Kit Harrington. I’m off the market.

FUCKING FINALLY.

D-Day 70

Last night I returned home from a  few days in Normandy to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, or in other words, D-Day. I just want to write about it here so that I can get it all down, to remember it later.

I had wanted to go for years to see all of the places that I’ve read about for so long, and to pay tribute to the people who performed such extraordinary actions. It took quite a bit of planning (organising what started as 12 and ended in 9 people) and there were so many issues right up until the last moment that at one point it seemed as though I wouldn’t be able to join my friends there, after all that planning, but in the end everything came together.

I have serious withdrawal symptoms now. Everything seems….smaller. In comparison to the things we heard about or saw or felt over there. It felt like an incredibly privilege to be there, seventy years on. Somehow, I managed to pick us an absolute corker of a campsite,  beautiful, friendly and full of lovely chatty people who were all there for the same reason.

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I can’t put into words how I felt to walk the peaceful, windy Utah beach as the sun came up on the 6th of June, or stand the night before in a field above our beautiful campsite with 30 strangers suddenly become friends, and watch fireworks illuminate the 80 km stretch of landing beaches on the coast laid out before us. 70 years ago to the minute, the paratroopers and gliders were landing, scattered in that dark stretch of countryside, attempting to take key causeways, bridges and roads that were vital to opening up the Normandy countryside and get the troops off the beaches as soon as possible after the landings began that next morning.

Utah beach was a beautiful, peaceful place on the morning of the D-Day anniversary, and it felt surreal to walk there and think about the chaos of the landings (even though Utah beach would have already have been taken by the time we arrived, about 8.30am). There were still quite a few bunkers and fortifications that we got to look at, with out resident military history student Nick to give us a guided tour.

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Walking further up the beach we came across a number of re-enactors (all French), and headed towards the museum at Utah where a ceremony was just finishing. As the few veterans came out and were applauded by the crowd I was very glad that I was wearing sunglasses because I was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to cry.

After Utah we headed to Sainte Mère Église, which was the key objective for the US Airborne in the early morning of D-Day. It’s also famous for the paratrooper John Steele who became caught on the church spire – a dummy paratrooper still hangs there to this day (don’t worry, he survived).

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This was a big deal for me, being a bit of an Airborne fangirl. The paratroopers were the elite and the job they did was a heroic one (imagine parachuting into battle, which incidentally, had never been done before, carrying everything you need with you, often landing right on top of the enemy). There was a great US Airborne reenactment camp at Sainte Mère Église which was brilliant to walk around.

1959313_547598648614_3441081316262783053_nHere is the frenchman dressed as a US 101st Airborne trooper who saw my Camp Toccoa  paratroop training camp t-shirt and said it “fit very well”.


10447076_547583179614_597051926459968413_nHere’s my reaction:

10403421_547583249474_6902248154812243127_nThe Airborne Museum was a busy but brilliant place (containing lots of artefacts and displays, including an original horsa glider) and I’m so glad I got a chance to visit it.

10402855_547598938034_5886257508318494606_nEverywhere you went there were people dressed in period clothing, 1940s music floating out across the countryside, the low throttle of distant engines that rumbled into C-47s and C-130s roaring low over your heads, jeeps and trucks and motorbikes everywhere.

10411775_547608129614_8608924875523143795_nAfter this we stopped off at Grandcamp Maisy, a German trench and bunker system that is still being uncovered and cleared. It was great to talk to the “owner” (if that’s the correct term), a passionate amateur who has dedicated his life to uncovering this little-known (and from what he explained to us, quite a contentious amongst military historians) position.

Also, here I bumped into an actual American dressed as a 101st Airborne paratrooper. He and his buddies saw my t-shirt and clicked their toy cricket (a little metal clicker that was given to the Airborne to identify each other in the dark) and I clicked back, which opened up the conversation. And I didn’t mind at all when he asked to have his picture taken with me…

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After this we returned home hot, exhausted and sunburnt for a great group meal in the barn with the rest of the campers and the owners of the site. There were a couple of birthdays so cake was passed around, and my lovely friend Marie started up a little whip-round for the kids that had been serving us food and wine all night.

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That night there was an awesome lightning storm at about 3am which was, frankly, terrifying. The ground literally shook and it felt like being in the midst of an artillery bombardment, the rumble of thunder and the flash of light was continuous for about an hour. Terrifying, but oddly fitting.

The second day we headed to Pointe du Hoc and Omaha beach, which was another vast sandy beach, though this time with rocky bluffs rather than the dunes of Utah (one of the reasons why it was such a bloody and long battle)

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From there we walked miles down the sand towards the path up to the American Cemetery. Though packed with visitors it was still an incredible place, moving despite the people and the noise and the hot, sunny day. We found the graves of the unknown soldiers particularly moving, and I got especially choked up when I stumbled upon a grave marked with the name of my little brother. It struck me suddenly that he, being twenty years old, would have undoubtedly have been called up to fight somewhere. It was staggering to see the white crosses and stars stretching on into the distance, and despite seeing it in photos and on tv and film nothing could accurately depict the place itself.

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There was so much I would have loved to have seen and didn’t get a chance to, but even this little taster was an incredible experience. Despite being fascinated with all the places that we saw, and the odd experience of being surrounded by re-enactors, it was still a very moving and emotional few days. The hot, sunny days on peaceful beaches and crowded villages both seemed to walk the line between commemoration of the lives lost and the unimaginable heroism of the men and women who took part, and the celebration of a country and people liberated. There were a few things that I felt could have been done better, despite how friendly and helpful the locals and the gendarmerie were – for instance there was so much that we would have loved to have seen but had no idea was taking place as there seemed to be no official website listing all the ceremonies, reenactments and events. But I can’t really complain. I’m in seriously withdrawal now. As my friend Tom mentioned earlier this morning, the things we saw and learned in Normandy for the 70th anniversary puts the details and drama of everyday life into startling perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2013! Keep the change, ya filthy animal!

I can’t really complain. 2013 wasn’t too bad: I wasn’t admitted to hospital once, I didn’t lose my job or get framed for a crime I didn’t commit. However, I also didn’t win the lottery, become the lifetime face of Galaxy chocolate thereby furnishing me with a lifetime supply of Galaxy chocolate, or marry Michael Fassbender, so in summary, 2013 was a total bust.

Nothing much happened to me, but I did make a lot of stuff happen, which is probably better. I went on my first proper grown up holiday all by myself. I sang blues in a band.  I bleached my hair and lost a bit of weight, purely to see if I could, and I liked it, and I felt good. Being blonde is strange – people behave in a different way towards you, which makes you behave differently, and on and one, which is all just a bit strange. Builders and weird men are a lot more shouty, people look at you more, though I’m not sure if that’s something that people assume about blondes or the fact that a girl with short blonde hair and black eyebrows stands out a bit more, and also looks a tiny bit more like Miley Cyrus. And no, it’s not annoying at all when people point that out.

New York was a short but incredible experience. Sick of waiting around for someone to go on holiday with, either amongst my dwindling pool of single friends or one of those mythical  “boy-friend” creatures everyone keeps banging on about, I decided to just do it myself. What’s the worst that could happen? Many things, my compulsively anxious, pteromerhanophobic brain supplied. But none of them actually happened, thank jeebus.

Traveling alone is a funny thing, equal parts soaring pride and bitter-sweetness. New York is amazing, as I’m sure you all know, but every time I saw or did something amazing I wanted to turn to the person next to me and say “Wasn’t that amazing?! But there was no one there. Well, there were thousands of people there, but I was too scared and British to speak to them.

Work has been a funny old thing this year too: it was pretty heartbreaking to leave the studio building I’d worked in for the past 5 and a half years, and even more so to leave the people I’ve worked with for that time too. But our studio went on hiatus, and I was installed in an attic office for one, like Miss Haversham surrounded by mouldering Peppa Pig merchandise. Saying that, I actually love my little office, and my job, and even all the Peppa Pig merchandise which is not in the slightest bit mouldy. Working alone has its low points: the most human contact I usually have in a day is with the night security guard on the desk downstairs, whose name I don’t know but have decided is probably called Marcel, and who sometimes tells me to have a nice evening in a lovely, avuncular security guard sort of way. But on the plus side, I get to sing along to questionable music choices without fear of mockery, and generally just get on with shit. I am master of my domain. Unless my bosses pop in or shit gets heavy, in which case I am merely the caretaker of my domain.

I’ve drawn a lot more this year, developing my style and the sort of things I want to draw. I’ve met some great people on Twitter (another result of minimal human contact on any given day) and some cool people in real life too. I’ve been commissioned for some great little jobs (which reminds me I’ve got to do my buggering tax return) and got to work on some pretty cool projects in my day job too (Peppa Pig Big Egg Hunt egg! Peppa Pig stamp!)

2014 is shaping up too: in an attempt to see me through the post-Christmas slump I’m planning a trip to Iceland (can’t decided between summer or later in the year, to hopefully catch the Northern Lights). I’ve got a couple of projects in the pipe-line, fingers crossed. And who knows what else?

If anyone knows Michael Fassbender, give him my number, yeah?

Remember the old, ring in the new.

Bloody hell – 2013 eh? A year so fantastically futuristic sounding that if we don’t get a move on and invent hover-boards, jetpacks and brain implanted wifi for all (incidentally, my political manifesto) by the end of the year I think the Scientists will need to sit down and have a long, hard think about their behaviour.

But I want to look back at 2012 now, which in itself has been a pretty incredible year. It feels to me as though it’s sped by, but I think that’s just because I’ve packed it full of adventures, new people, and 7-day working weeks. Not that I’m complaining at all: this year I had the unutterably joy of walking in to a bookshop and picking up a book with my illustrations in it. Of course this was then followed by a titanic inner-struggle against the overwhelming desire to shout at the poor till-worker that those there are my drawings! Mine! I know, right?! People have started paying me for that! SO COOL!

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Michael Caine, for Andy Nyman’s book The Golden Rules of Acting.

Then there was the fulfillment of the last of two of my childhood fantasies (practical ones, I’ve realised that the chance of me actually becoming Indiana Jones at this late stage are minimal) when I got to be a bridesmaid to my best friend Bridget at her wedding. Now I just have ‘Be an angel in a nativity play’ to check off the list and I can put those ghosts to rest. But that won’t ever happen, because I was an unfortunate looking child, and am, despite trying, still not blonde, so don’t fit the requirements. (If you’re interested, I was the Narrator. Every. Fucking. Time).

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I also ended up at the Twilight: Breaking Dawn part 2 European premiere, but that’s not really something to shout about. In fact, even though the tickets were free I still feel as though I should be due some kind of remuneration for this. I also did a bit of proper catwalk modeling (for the gorgeous Vivien of Holloway), which was terrifyingly fun, but for which I’m sure the entire audience are also now seeking remuneration.

Then there was the Jubilee, which I – being a ’50s obsessed Royalist sissy-girl with a penchant for bunting- enjoyed hugely.

And of course, 2012 was also the year that we all discovered we actually gave a shit about sport. Being a London resident I of course was fully of the view, prior to the event, that the Olympics were nothing but an excuse for the owners of multi-billion dollar companies to add yet more extensions on to their gold-plated money museums, because I read the Metro and spend a lot of time on twitter, which is often where optimism goes to die. In the run-up, London felt awfully like a grim place where brand-nazi Death Eaters would swoop down with a well-aimed avada kedavra if you even dared to mention, or think of the O-Word, or utter the name of Lord Seb ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ Coe.  But once the opening ceremony began I, streaming it slowly and pixellated on my phone whilst on the train to Cardiff, was besotted. After all, how could anyone not be utterly charmed by an army of Mary Poppins’ drifting down to battle the Child-Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? Or the Queen parachuting into the stadium with James Bond? In your face, organised sport event haters!

I’m sure everyone has something to say about the Olympics, and something that will say it more eloquently than I ever could, but the opening ceremony itself seemed to sum it up so well: it’s great to finally feel that you can be patriotic without needing to be reminded of all the crap that the Empire, the government and our rulers have committed over the centuries. Danny Boyle’s ceremony showcased some of the pretty awesome stuff that people from Britain have done. And flying in the face of Mitt Romney’s “what have the British ever contributed to the world?” comment, we could stand up and say, hey, you misogynistic backwoods twat-face, ever heard of Shakespeare? Elgar? A little something called the Industrial Revolution? Votes for Wom….yeah actually it sounds as though you haven’t actually heard of that one.

And there followed seventeen days of drama, pride, victory and defeat, underdogs and Usain ‘It’s in the bag’ Bolt. People from all walks of life who’ve defied odds, trained, grafted and slaved towards their goals. Men and women with healthy bodies who achieved incredible feats after a life spent striving towards that moment. Which was why it was so disappointing to close the whole shebang with a closing ceremony showcasing the “best” of British. If you take “best” to mean a bunch of alien-thin supermodels famous for embodying the wholly disgusting term “heroin chic” and beating up employees, and the  Spice Girls, precariously balanced atop swerving mini-coopers. Back to reality, eh?

And with the closing of the phenomenal Paralympics it was like being suddenly dumped by all of the sports at once. London ceased to be a quiet, largely traffic-free sunny city with a kind of camaraderie and tender affection for tourists from across the globe, and went back to being the grumpy, bleak city that we all know and love. But, as my Grandmother affectionately barked at me after my ex and I broke up, “Get used to it Jemima, it won’t be the last time!”.

Thanks Grandma, and thanks Seb Coe. Better to have loved and lost the Olympics than to never have loved them at all. And unlike my previous relationship, I’m pretty sure this time the feeling was mutual.

So 2013, sitting there all new and shiny, fat with possibilities – you better step it up and bring those hoverboards if you’re going to even hope to compete.

Small islands – big skies – long memories


I’m writing this on our last evening in Orkney – tomorrow morning we catch the Hamnavoe ferry from Stromness back to Caithness (I can’t call it “mainland” since Mainland is what they call the largest island here on Orkney). I’m trying to get my thoughts into enough of a linear form to fit them into things like words and sentences, while I’m still here, so that time and the city and the resuming of life doesn’t dull the experience of this last week. This seems the sort of place that will drift away, somewhere past the cliffs of Hoy, pulled back to the islands and the sea, not something you can take with you. That’s why people come here once and keep coming back. Or never leave at all.

And everywhere there’s the marks made by people long ago – Skara Brae is the one everyone’s heard of, but Maeshowe stole our hearts. You crawl though a 10 meter long passageway, lined with single 20 tonne blocks, and emerge in the main high-ceilinged chamber, three tombs like box-beds set into the walls. The blocks of the main room are covered with carefully etched graffiti – but no lazy tags or scrawled nicknames – these were made with axes and stones – by Vikings, 1000 years ago. The tomb was already old when they entered, sheltering from a wild snowstorm for three nights. Legends says there were 100 of them in the small space (a bit of Viking exaggeration?) – but they alleviated the boredom by writing messages on the walls: “Ingigerth is the most beautiful”….”The man who is most skilled in runes west of the ocean carved these with the axe of Gauk Trandilsson”….and up high, written by a man surely sitting on the shoulders of another -“Eyjolf Kolbeinsson carved these runes high”. On the winter solstice the setting sun hits the Barnhouse standing stone, aligned perfectly with the entrance to the tomb, shines down the passage and illuminates the back wall of the Maeshowe. Oh, and you can watch it live via webcam every year – 21st of December (about 3.30, when the sun sets on the shortest day in Orkney).

The Ring of Brodgar is a huge stone circle amongst the heather, just across the water from Maeshowe. 104 meters in diameter, with a 130 meter diameter encircling ditch dug into the bedrock. The stones are huge – phenomenally big – and all from different places around the islands. The ditch was dug and the stones erected at the same time, but by different people – 4,500 years ago.

The Ness of Brodgar dig a little way down the road is uncovering a series of buildings of some kind – though they’ve no idea yet what they could be. We walked around, wondering if the people who made them had any possible notion that, 4-5ooo years from then people would be there – that people would even care? Perhaps they thought their society and culture would survive for ever, no mystery to their buildings because they would still be in use.

At the Tomb of the Eagles we handled Neolithic pottery shards. One was decorated with little fingernail crescent grooves. I put my nail in these marks – the same marks made by someone else’s fingernails, 5000 years ago. A sense of vertigo, of incredulity. 5000 years ago.

But this is everywhere here – on every island – practically in every backyard. There are something like 300-odd Neolithic dwellings here, just rough circular marks in a farmer’s field of a garden. Only a handful have been excavated, or ever will. Not much treasure here – the bronze-age hardly even made it to Orkney, most of the people here too poor (and too practical) to ever bother with the expensive, soft bronze.

I’ve spent most of my childhood in the remote hills of Mid-Wales. I know the bees on the brilliant purple heather and the scrubby moorland hills, rocky beaches and constant gales. I know the evening sunlight on the water and the geese skidding in to land. It shouldn’t be new to me, or have this effect on me, but it does somehow.

The sky is just so big here. It’s an odd feeling: being this open, amongst this much space, yet feeling as though you’re right in the clouds, shielded from the mainland and the rest of the world behind a curtain of sky. And there’s so much weather here too – it comes and goes at incredible speeds. It rains (though not as much as the rest of the UK), but the rain doesn’t stay for long. Every evening here has been gloriously sunny. The wind never stops – you don’t want it to, because a gap in the gales brings the midges out like demons. Our faces are red and happy with sun and wind-burn.

All we need now is a glimpse of orca during the ferry trip. Crossing all fingers and other crossable body-parts….