Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Five Stages of Brexit

First, the Denial.

It can't be true, can it? I mean, they've printed those numbers the wrong way round...surely?

Ok, ok, don't panic: so the vote's gone the way of all Leavers, but that doesn't mean we'll actually, you know...go through with it...does it? Cameron doesn't want it, David Beckham doesn't want it, even Boris Johnson seems a little confused about it all. And anyway it's not legally binding. And if the MPs go along with it and we invoke article 50, well...it'll take ages...and we're still European for ages...and perhaps something will happen anyway, we'll vote the Tories out and Labour will still be in a mess so we'll vote in that new Women's Equality Party, that nice Sandi Toksvig looks as if she and Angela Merkel could sort it all out over tea and kuchen, it was all just some giant misunderstanding anyway. And something heavy will fall on Nigel Farage's head.

Next, Anger: Like, what the $%£*??? Seriously? SERIOUSLY??!!!!! You've made me lose my sense of identity completely - I'm no longer European, I don't feel like I belong in my own country, AND this has actually got me feeling some respect for DAVID CAMERON??! Even though of course it's all his fault for capitulating to the media frenzy surrounding Nigel Farage, well OK it's more Nigel's fault really, him and Boris oh and Jeremy's lack of enthusiasm and the continued lies from the Leave campaign and the tabloid press. Not to mention all the people who vaguely wanted to remain but couldn't be bothered to actually, you know, VOTE or anything... and as for those people who wanted to log some sort of protest against poverty and unemployment and that nagging feeling that things were never going to get better but never really expected this to happen, and who spent much of the day after googling 'what is the EU' - well, don't get me started.

Then Bargaining. See, if I just sign this petition, we can vote again. Or this one - it suggests that all you lot could leave, but me and my friends and that sensible woman in Scotland, we can stay...  or if not stay, then at least have freedom to travel without a visa and maybe bring back a bootload of wine... Or, forget England. I'll move to Scotland, just before they tow it out to sea. Or Canada. Or the moon. Or I'll stay here, here in my nice inclusive city where 62% of us voted to remain, and dig a trench round us, and fly the European flag FOREVER.

Inevitably: Depression. Waking in the night not knowing why I feel sad then remembering - they took away my identity, my children's dreams of easy travel and jobs and study, my hope that the world might struggle together to find better solutions to poverty and displaced people and worker's rights and, and, and - they told me to just get over it and accept democracy. Then the endemic prejudice that I have lived alongside all my life - the sentences that begin, 'I'm not a racist, but..' or 'The problem with the Muslims, is...' - seems to explode into bitter and naked racism. Not xenophobia: that would suggest an irrational fear. This isn't fear but a display of ugly, triumphant power. I feel I am in a shrinking minority. I pass strangers and wonder which way they voted. I feel weepy, inclined to hug anyone with a Polish accent. I watch and read more and more news reports, gong back again and again to the source of pain, like feeling a shattered tooth with my tongue, unable to leave it alone however much it hurts.

And soon...Acceptance? Please soon, although it feels far away. I don't want to feel that every second person I meet is no longer on my side. I don't want to be looking out for opportunities to say 'I told you so'. I want my sense of perspective back, and my feeling that most people are, you know, OK, not just those who agree with me. I want to believe that most Leavers are equally appalled by the acts of racism we've witnessed. I want to have hope that we will not just scrape through this by the skin of our teeth but we'll find a positive way forward.  And I want to dislike David Cameron again, and STOP typing in CAPITAL LETTERS all the time.

Perhaps, if you have read this far, you feel it is inappropriate that I based this blog on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' model for the five stages of grief. Dealing with the aftermath of Brexit is hardly the death of a loved one, after all. But I wanted to record how the emotional response feels, right now, four days on; and I recognise in myself and many others a similar pattern to that of the model. Kubler-Ross believed that it was not a linear thing; in grief we circle and whirl through these stages, locked into a particular stage sometimes for weeks, sometimes for seconds. We have little control, at the start; but gradually we begin to find an ability to focus, and accept. She herself adapted it for understanding our responses when faced with the loss of a romantic relationship - and, for me, that is a little what it feels like. It's not politics, or finance: it's love. Sorry if I sound histrionic: but this is my - new - reality. Just give me time to pull myself together, and eventually I'll stop talking politics all the time; although my feelings may take longer to change.

“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”     Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Thursday, June 16, 2016


We used to call it a Continental Quilt, back in the 1970s.

I can still remember the changeover from our very British blankets and eiderdown. My parents had one first: quilts were French, or maybe Swiss - anyway, they were going to make life easier. More modern. More Continental.

Since then we have learned to call them duvets. We have stopped calling every croissant we consume a 'Continental Breakfast' - it's just breakfast. We understand that cheese can be runny, that cream that tastes a bit off might be meant to be that way, and we wouldn't think for a minute that spaghetti grows on trees.

It's something daring, the Continental
A way of dancing that's really ultra-new...

And now we are one week away from the not-very-United Kingdom's referendum on whether to leave the European Union. One more week of vitriolic mud-slinging and quiet desperation; of each side having no idea why the other side feels as it does, despite the fact that we're all parroting the same old line, 'of course I understand your concerns, but...'; because we are arguing with very different approaches, not just different standpoints. The Leave / Brexit camp not only gets the coolest moniker; but it gets to display all the passion, the bravery, and the anger. And the Remain camp? We get scaremongering (however apt), the status quo, and a meek promise to do better.

So here's what I feel: from the moment that the merest possibility of a referendum was suggested, I have felt the nagging possibility that something that makes up part of my identity may be taken from me. I am European. I like the rag-bag of member states, each with its cultural norms and personalities. I like the way we all borrow ideas and nuggets of culture from each other, so much so that visiting any of these countries feels both different and homely. I love that we have a system that ensures that men and women from each nation have to sit down together and struggle to find common agreements - obviously because the picture before any of this was much bleaker, and given to murderyness; but also because it's a little bit funny, no? - trying to make sense of German pedantry and French stubbornness and British awkwardness and so on through the processes of committees that force some sort of uniformity whilst acknowledging our differences. An impossible circle to square. And in that there is a strange sort of hope that we can find ways to tackle some of the huge problems the world faces, and to enjoy each other, and to maybe bring about the next revolution in bedding whilst we're at it.

You'll find while you're dancin'
That there's a rhythm in your heart and soul
A certain rhythm that you can't control
And you will do the Continental all the time

I feel European; but I also feel British. God bless the Queen but it's not the sight of all that flag-waving on the Mall that does it for me. It's the way we slightly tut in the direction of downright antisocial behaviour. It's the belief that tea will always save the day. It's the misplaced annual faith we have in the summer weather that sees the supermarket shelves choc full with barbeque ingredients. It's our universal love of the underdog. It's our strong sense of the ridiculous, and the national sport of self-depracation. None of that is threatened by our involvement in the EU, nor by the Polish and Spanish people I work alongside. Vive la difference, as they say on the Continent.

And please stop with the posts asking me to 'like' if I'm proud to be British; my feelings are far too complex to reduce to that one single word. I love my country, despite. Despite its history, its colonialism, its racism, its belief that it is in some way reduced or fallen on hard times. Despite our inability to truly value and promote the learning of any other language. Despite our whitewashing of past glories and our failure to embrace the new ones - in art, sport, science, music and yes, in politics. Despite recent football thuggery. Despite Boris Johnson and even Nigel Farage.

But please, please don't take my membership of the EU away from me. Or my duvet, for that matter.

Friday, May 27, 2016

School's Out


It's been over 30 years since the last time I sang my school hymn, at my last assembly before leaving forever.

Today it was my youngest daughter's turn to leave school behind; and just to pile on the emotion, it was her father, in his role as Head of the 6th form, who was speaking at her last assembly. It seems about five minutes since I comforted her in the playground as she sobbed at her primary school leavers' day, tying ribbons onto fences and writing her name on friends' shirts. Today I left her to her goodbyes and rituals: time for mothers to take a back seat. Come September she'll be gone, and our lives will all shift a little, perhaps uncomfortably at the start. Between now and then there's exams, holidays, results and getting ready. The deep breath before the plunge - for all of us.

I haven't kept in touch with my school friends, nor even my home town. Until recently I had no contact with anyone; but social media has a way of connecting eventually, and so I find myself making plans to attend a school reunion in September - as we begin the academic year that we all turn fifty. I am mentally scratching my head to remember names, faces, and which exams I took. I don't recall school as a particularly wonderful experience - my children seem to have had a happier time of it; but I am surprised to find the bittersweet pleasure of nostalgia seeping over me as I recall the details of school life. And at the same time I am relieved never to have to revisit some of the everyday horrors of the education system and just being a teenager.

The relationships between girls can be toxic, and I was at an all-girls school. I will never miss the fear of turning up in the wrong style of clothes on non-uniform day; or the knowledge that I would never be as thin, as beautiful, or as talented as those girls at the top of the pecking order.

I profoundly regret that bubble perm.

I wish I remembered useful stuff. Instead I am left with the ability to parrot the duties of a Roman Consul (but only if set to Purcell's trumpet voluntary - thereby revising two subjects at once); and the vague notion that the fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream were 'sensual', but I can't remember why.

I wish I'd never taken physics.

I miss the doughnuts at breaktime; the collection of empty ink cartridges at the bottom of my bag, each with their own plastic ballbearing; the smell of an opened desk; the satisfaction of getting an 'A'.

I wish I hadn't cared about looking red, getting sweaty, and hitting the ball in the wrong direction on the hockey field. And I wish I'd discovered the secret of making your green socks stay up.

I spent far too much time worrying about the width of my thighs, the height of my hair, and my inability to get anything above a C for geography. Oh, and boys. There was a lot of worrying about them.

I don't regret spending every General Studies lesson passing notes and making jokes; it was the first time I felt a true sense of belonging to a pack, which was far more useful to life and well-being than the various talks on Debussy, Paraguay, and the inner workings of the fridge.

I miss the hysteria that could be provoked by one teacher's mildly amusing turn of phrase: we dined out on 'imagine a world without poly-vinyl chloride' for a year. See, I remembered that one.

Most of all I think I miss the sense of possibilities. Even whilst we felt trapped in the school bubble, where each had their allotted place in the hierarchy and the hours were measured and prescribed, there was a sense of choices to be made that were ours to own; that would eventually lead us to where we wanted to be. Admittedly we didn't really know where that was yet, at least for most of us; but they would be our choices, our path to our future. As life goes on we live with the consequences of those options, but there are fewer opportunities for genuinely free choices.

Unless I go and have a bubble perm again.

Thursday, January 07, 2016


 It's an old-fashioned, word, joy.

It sometimes crosses our path in a name; or seasonally, on a Christmas card. At the moment it is a recently released film. And certainly it crops up in Christian speak. But in everyday speech, it doesn't feature much.

Oh, we're keen on a few other words. Happiness is big business; as is satisfaction, whether we can't get none or not. Pleasure, that rather hedonistic term, is popular; as are contentment and its more recent obsession, well-being. But joy doesn't get much of a look-in.

Curiously we're comfortable with discussing joy's antonyms: depression, melancholy, misery, and pain. If joy gets a mention, it is as a momentary thing; a fleeting emotion, responding to an unexpected pleasure. we do not expect to live in a state of joy, it seems.

I have been musing on the Biblical assertion that 'the joy of the Lord is my strength' (Nehemiah 8:10). It strikes me that there are three ways to read this: and that, if you are familiar with this verse, the way you habitually read it is highly indicative of your state of mind.

1. I must develop joy in the Lord in order to have strength.
2. The Lord will give me joy in order that I might also have strength, i.e. I find my strength in God.
3. The Lord is joyful (because of me); and that gives me strength.

Probably there are more; and probably this is all so much semantics. But it seems to me that the least likely version is no.1, because that requires so much of me - a frail and grumpy human being; and yet that is the very one that has been ticking away at the back of my brain for so many years whenever the subject of joy comes up at church. Yes of course we can get into a habit of feeling thankful, and suppressing our inner grouch. But when life throws us a curve ball, or just becomes a bit overwhelming, it is a pretty tough ask to summon our inner Mary Poppins instead (incidentally, rather a grouchy lady herself in the books - not terribly Julie Andrews at all). So it is at these times I have to remember that joy is both a fruit of God's Spirit - a long-term result of us walking closely with God's Spirit - and a gift. Time and again the people of the Bible experience joy in unlikely circumstances, transforming their grouchiness into praise. Sarah, Moses, Joseph, Hannah, David, Zechariah, Mary, Peter, Paul... when we read their backstories, it seems to me that joy is less of a duty or even an imperative; it is a gift and a consequence. The Lord gives us joy. The joy of the Lord is infectious.

So what about no.3? The verse reads 'the joy of the Lord', not 'our joy in the Lord'. Yes I realise this is most likely a translation glitch; but isn't there some truth here, however unlikely it can seem to us? God finds joy in us: 'the Lord takes pleasure in his people' (Psalm 149:4). How different would my feelings about joy be if I stopped trying to manufacture it, and instead allowed the joy that God finds in me to wash over me, melting my grumpiness away?

Monday, January 04, 2016

An epiphany

Yesterday we de-baubled the tree, de-carded the shelves, and de-garlanded the fireplace. The sorry spruce was dragged unceremoniously into the front garden, awaiting the recycling lorry. Today I am luxuriating in space, lack of clutter and the ability to dust - whilst still pausing to pick up errant pine needles and the odd shred of tinsel, like the miniature ghosts of Christmas past.

The Christian festival of Christmas starts as advent ends, as I have been reminded several times during the season. The celebration comes only after the waiting time has been observed. This is not delayed gratification: rather, it is an extended period of self-preparation, not unlike that of Lent, but with the emphasis on expectation rather than penitence. Christmas, that celebration of the incarnation, of God with us, begins when the waiting is over; and yet there is still a sense of waiting, as the arrival of Christ heralds the beginning of God's Kingdom coming to Earth.

And so the celebration of Christmas begins on Christmas Day and continues until Twelfth Night, when Christians move seamlessly into the festival of Epiphany - remembering the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ, those weary wanderers nudged out of their inertia by an irrational star.

Of course, all this bears absolutely no relevance to the reality of our celebrations. Advent does not pass me by; but it is swallowed whole by the relentless juggernaut of Christmas, which seems to have very few incarnational properties in the twenty-first century. Even the Magi are sucked backwards into the vortex, visiting the baby along with shepherds, angels, snowmen and elves. Such is the strength of the whirlwind that, by January 1st, we are ready to collapse into a heap and reject all notion of celebration until at least Easter. The last of the mulled wine is swilled down the sink along with the smears of goose fat. We crave normality, abstemiousness, and silence.

It is probably pointless to try to fight the process, and the seasons of the Church have necessarily absorbed some of the patterns of society. Try explaining to a child why you're not putting up the tree until Christmas Eve; or to the neighbours why attending a drinks party will only be appropriate from 25th onwards. But in the middle of my luxuriating in space and tidiness and lack of clutter, and even whilst trying to eat healthily and get back to the gym, I am trying to continue the celebration of the God made flesh; the God who joined our everyday, so that we might find joy.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Tiny little me

It has become a family joke that I cannot stand near to large representations of the human form without getting more than a little freaked out.

It all started with David. Yes, that David - the rather beautiful statue of a young hero by Michelangelo. Not the original version, on display in the Uffizi in Florence; nor the copy that stands in the Piazza della Signoria - I've looked him in the eye, and did not blanch. In his original setting - under a blue Italian sky - he seems almost to scale; acceptably oversized, if you will. No, it was a plaster copy in the Victoria and Albert museum, on a grey London day, that made me feel rather wobbly.

There he stood, in all his six-packed glory; staring off into the middle distance in an inscrutable fashion (and not particularly as if readying himself to battle with lions and giants and bears, oh my, to be perfectly honest) and all I could think was 'TOO...BIG...FOR..THE... ROOM!' I found myself backing away, too discomforted to turn my back on those blank eyes; but also suddently aware of those other looming presences in the V&A cast room, all of unlikely proportions. My brain had gone into meltdown and was, frankly, beginning to gibber.

Of course, once back out in the drizzly streets of a London Tuesday I felt a little silly. It was just a block of stone - albeit fashioned artistically and realistically. I didn't get spooked by the skyscrapers and other buildings, far taller and more imposing, that surrounded me now. So what was it about David?

A few years ago it happened again only this time the symptoms were far worse. We were coming to the end of a US road trip, an amazing holiday that encompassed the massive sandstone arches of Moab, Utah; the towering mountains of Teton national park; the deep canyon, shimmering geysers and wide lake of Yellowstone; the preposterous volcanic outcrop of Devil's Tower, familiar to anyone who has watched 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'; and now we had reached the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Here the major tourist attraction is Mount Rushmore and its frankly rather ridiculous carvings of four former Presidents. In the daytime, at a little distance, I found them disappointing, and somehow not superlative enough; against the stunning backdrop they seem a little small, parsimonious even. Really not worth wrecking the joint to make these, I thought. We drove past them several times without me giving them much more than a cursory glance each time. But then we went out at night...

At night the figures are illuminated so that they can be clearly seen for miles around. And when you are near them, they seem to jump out at you in an alarming fashion - in particular Washington whose nose, not to appear rude, looms around a corner in a way that can only be described as terrifying.

Even now I don't really want to look too long at this photo. Back then and there, I had to stay in the car - with the doors locked, I'm not sure what I thought Washington was going to do - with my face buried in  my hands, whist my family enjoyed the view. It wasn't an act, or an affectation - I was genuinely freaked out. The head is just too big, too bright, too looming, too everything. The whole mountain? Pah, impressive but non-threatening. But Washington...someone please take a sandblaster to that crazy freaky glowing head.

We thought that was it: the end of the line had been reached as far as my 'that human representation is too big for my tiny human brain to cope' phobia. But no...

Last month we visited Anthony Gormley's iconic Angel of the North. Now I love a bit of Gormley. I have enjoyed his slightly creepy figures, positioned in odd places around the city; and adored his 'Field for the British Isles' installation - the thousands of thumbprint eyes turned in my direction failed to disturb me. And we had passed the A of the N before, driving past Northwards. This time we got up close and personal, and it proved too much. I cowered; I hid my face; I felt sick; my skin crawled. Much as I admired it there was a critical distance - too close and I could not cope.

All this reminds me of my phobia to spiders. I can cope when they are outdoors and in their proper place; and indoors, I can deal with them fine up to to a certain critical size and then wham! - the freaking out, sweating, panicky visceral reaction happens. I am no longer me; I am not in control. My fight or flight mechanism is entirely focussed on the (actually quite small) 8-legged beastie glaring at me across the room.

But why statues? Why something that is essentially humanoid? I guess my brain is struggling because their size makes them 'wrong', in a way that isn't entirely rational; but it's trying to protect me and repel the alien. It's doing a Turing test, only based purely on size rather than wit or wisdom. Category error. Unexpected item in bagging area.

It is often the case that we are drawn to the massive and incomprehensible to find a sense of awe and, ultimately, peace. We find a sense of perspective and in that our own place in the universe by drawing close to the ocean; the mountain; the chasm. I too feel that draw; and whilst the surge of waves or the vertiginous precipice can thrill and unnerve at times, they never cause this level of disquiet. We all need those moments of context, when we feel reduced to the infinitesimally small beings we really are; yet at the same time we feel embraced by the magnificence around us.

Just so long as that embrace doesn't have stony arms, wings, or a very large illuminated nose.

Thursday, September 17, 2015


I have cried for them:
In the night, waking, to find
tears upon my lashes
a sob welling up from the depths.
A film reel flickering frame by frame –
The wailing toddler; the despairing women;
The men, lost to indignity
The young boy, rescued from the waves
too late.
I hold them up to a seemingly dispassionate 
gaze; and remember 
that even Jesus wept.