The research centre of nursery rhymes

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“Thanks for coming down to our facility, Mrs Dee Point,” the elderly gentleman began, as he gestured her into the workroom.  “I’m Professor Noel Ivan Deer. We would get you some water, but we sent our researchers Jack and Jill up the hill to get some earlier and… well, you wouldn’t think it the hardest thing in the world but poor Jack’s now got a fractured skull.”

“My goodness!” Mrs Point remarked, evidently alarmed by how frantically she was scribbling this down in her notes. “So he’s gone to hospital?”

“With those waiting times in A&E?!” exclaimed Professor Deer. “No, we’ve sent him upstairs with vinegar and brown paper.”

“But…” Mrs Point was thrown for a moment. “Surely that will never work?”

“Well, you’d think so, but that is what we do! Jack’s misfortune has blossomed into a beautiful opportunity for us! Our facility is dedicated to solving the mysteries of nursery rhymes. Restoring the eyesight of the three blind mice was just the beginning! We’re asking the important questions like: why do the bells of St Clements owe five farthings to the bells of St Martins? Why does Aiken Drum live in the moon? Why does the little boy who lives down the lane need a bag of wool from Baa Baa Black Sheep? Sounds to me like that poor chap is being worked than rightfully so for a lad of his years!”

“And what have you found overall?”

“Well Mrs Point, there is an awful lot of jumping in the world of nursery rhymes. Jack jumps over the candlestick, the cow jumps over the moon…”

“And have you found a reason for this, Professor Deer?”

“Not yet, but surely there must be one.”

“So have you achieved anything of value?”

“Well, we’ve found Bo Peep’s sheep, we’ve helped the King’s Men put Humpty Dumpty back together again, and we’ve got our fingers crossed for Jack, otherwise poor Jill’s going to be devastated.”

Suddenly the door opened, and in came a second elderly gentleman. “Ah Doctor Foster! How was Gloucester?”

“Terrible weather, you should see the puddles! I’m never going there again,” grumbled the doctor. “But have you heard the news? London Bridge is falling down!”

“Falling down!” exclaimed Mrs Point.

“Falling down! London bridge is falling down, my fair lady,” said the Doctor.

Sensing something was not quite right, Mrs Point pondered “hang on, is it really falling down, or did you set that up just so the nursery rhyme would work?”

“Are you suggesting all of this is just an elaborate set up for us to make bad jokes using nursery rhymes?!” blustered Professor Deer. “That’s ridiculous! What’s for lunch, Doctor?” he suddenly asked as casually as he could.

“Well, I did catch a fish alive, but then I threw it back again.”

“Why did you let it go?”

“Because it bit…”

“Oh for goodness sake!” shouted Mrs Point. “You’re grown men. Not every nursery rhyme, or any song for that matter, has a literal, deeper philosophical meaning.”

“Heavens, you’re right,” said Professor Deer. “Marry me my dear, we’d be perfect together!”

“Well, as creepy as that is, I have to decline; I’m waiting on my love forevermore bonny Bobby Shafto who’s gone to sea.”

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Coping with night shifts

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Sometimes, I wish the world would shut down overnight. Everything would pause, as if in a real-life mannequin challenge, only to resume upon the sunrise. The times I wish this is before, after and especially during a night shift at the Beeb, because unfortunately, life doesn’t stop and news keeps coming from around the world, so once a month I do a string of them to cover shows across the World Service. It’s amazing what can be achieved with a constant supply of caffeine.

I’ve just finished my fourth run of nights since I started my job, and they are not getting any easier. I had plenty of prior warning about the difficulties of getting through them, but I still didn’t fully appreciate the challenge until the first batch arrived. Granted, most graduates end up as night owls in their final year of university, and I’ve even worked a job that was permanently on late shifts, not finishing till 1 in the morning. But all the way through till dawn? That’s another thing entirely.

Yet the whole issue of catching every one of your forty winks isn’t consigned purely to those who work night shifts. Sleep has been the casualty of a world that refuses to shut down and embraces the 24/7 mentality from all angles. This is rather alarming, considering that rest is a necessity as fundamental as food and drink. For me, the moments of exhaustion in the early hours, counting down the minutes to the end of your shift, do occasionally cause me to worry about the long term effects.

Then again, I am not permanently on nights, and I am also lucky enough to love my job to bits, so at least I am enjoying my work whilst fighting to keep my eyes open. In a way, there is something quite peaceful about the deserted office, only broken when you wander into a darkened room and encounter the deep rumbles of someone snoring through an early morning nap. Then when I work regular hours, I try getting the Underground at half eight- the curse of the commuters- and wonder how anyone can do it Monday to Friday.

One of the main things I’ve learned is that everyone copes with night shifts differently; they’re such an unusual and daunting beast, that you have to develop your own strategy of dealing with them. But over the last few months, I’ve picked up a few techniques that help me prepare for and cope with them better- not so much completely removing the impact, but softening the blow at least. I thought I’d share them below:

  • If you work blocks of shifts like me, staying up late the night before yours first shift works wonders in moving your body clock forward. I usually stay up till around 2 and then sleep in most of the morning, to make the first great push less of a challenge. Remember being a kid and staying up late was the coolest thing in the world? How times change.
  • For me, the hardest part of nights is coming off them the other end. There are a few options: the first is get a few hours sleep, rise around the start of the afternoon, to get your body clock back to normal. The second is to stay up all day and go to sleep in the early evening- quite an endurance as you’ll be up for over 24 hours! The final option is to stretch the process over a couple of days (so you go to bed in the early morning after your first day off, and gradually push your sleeping pattern back a few hours at a time). What you actually do depends on your immediate plans after your last night shift- I prefer the latter option, but usually end up with the first!
  • The F word- no not that one, food. Some swear by not eating at all, and I don’t blame them: your metabolism is greatly reduced during the wee hours, so it’s generally not a great idea to binge overnight. I tend to follow the breakfast-dinner-lunch plan: have my main meal before getting in to work, and then a sandwich in the early hours to keep me sustained. Just be aware of how your body processes food at a slower rate.
  • Pace the caffeine! I try and stay off coffee for the second half of my shift- although I do still have tea, because little else will make me feel warm and comforted at that time in the morning- so that there is nothing to stop me falling asleep the moment I get home.
  • Invest in some decent ear plugs and an eye mask. Trust me, you’re going to want to get as much rest as possible, and the best way to achieve this is to limit factors that can force you awake. Shutting off any sound and light is guaranteed to keep you sound asleep.
  • Try to avoid making plans during the day. Sleep needs to be prioritized! In between nights, I never plan to do anything that can’t be done within the parameters of my flat, or even better, my bedroom (don’t give me that look…) Having said that, I would recommend getting some decent exercise before your shift. I find an evening run is brilliant for waking yourself up for the night ahead. You’d think it would only make you more tired, but actually it’s an ideal way to de-stress.
  • Keep your workplace brightly lit during your shift. It can be tempting to keep them dimmed but in fact, your body reacts to the light and makes you feel more alert. That’s why you can end up staying awake for hours from staring at your phone in bed, because the bright light causes your body to think it’s daytime and you should be awake. Use this during night shifts to your advantage to give yourself an attentiveness boost.

Hopefully these tips will help! If you are tackling night shifts in the future, and reading this article has sent you into a sleepless panic about the consequences, then just remember this: as poor souls drag themselves out of bed for another day at the office, it’s the former that YOU will be going home to. Forget the rest, for your rest will come soon after.

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Reacting to the news…

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Seeing his wife Monica fighting back the tears, Eric grabbed her by the ponytails and held her head gently. He’d been dying to get home ever since he’d heard the news. “Can you believe it Monica?” he whispered to her.

“I can’t,” Monica sniffed, dabbing at her eyes. “Ever since they made the announcement, the world just doesn’t seem real anymore.”

“How did you hear about it?” Eric asked. He couldn’t quite believe it himself. No one seemed happy by the news; no one had ever truly wanted such a thing to happen.

“In the canteen at work,” Monica replied. “I don’t know why it affected me so much, but I just had to come home.”

“I don’t blame you,” Eric mused. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that this truly feels like the end of the world.” He held his face in his hands for a minute, before rubbing his eyes as he stared at his TV. There was nothing on, just a blank screen. “How do you think people will react?”

“There’ll be revolts up and down the country,” Monica replied without hesitation. “No shadow of a doubt. People won’t stand for it. No one ever thought it actually would happen in the first place. To be honest, I think it would be a good idea for us to stop doing anything until we can figure out what the hell is going on.”

Eric was on his feet now, pacing the room as if trying to diffuse some great bundle of energy inside him. “Perhaps…” he pondered, as though what he was trying to say was bold and daring, and he was hesitant to speak it. “Perhaps it might be a good thing. Change can be good for the world.”

“Not like this,” said Monica flatly. “This feels like the wrong kind of change to me. I mean, think what this could inspire within people. They see this happening, they suddenly think that their radical notions aren’t quite so radical anymore. Where do we go from there?”

“I don’t know what we’ll tell the kids,” sighed Eric. “Do well at school, by the book that binds us all… and for what reward? When something like this can happen?”

Monica gripped him by the hands and stared deep into her eyes. “Don’t worry my love,” he reassured her. “We’ll still teach them what is right. This won’t change them one bit.”

They both sat down and stared straight ahead, still taking it all in. “I still can’t believe it though,” Eric wandered aloud.

“Yeah. Whoever thought they’d reduce the size of Toblerone? What kind of world do we live in where such a thing is possible?”

“Whatever happens, we’ll always have the Quality Street. They can’t take that away from us.”

Hoping for a change of tone, Eric reached for the remote. On flicked the latest news.

“Holy shit,” he gasped.

“I can’t believe it,” Monica’s hands were covering her eyes.

“The John Lewis Christmas advert,” they said together.

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Love Underlined: Our trip to the French Riviera

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One does not dream of the French Riviera in October, unless it is already October. Suddenly you’re desperate for a holiday; whether clinging onto the final remnants of summer, wanting to utilise half term, or you just need to “get away from it all,” whatever “it” may be. In any case, I actually had a different reason for going. Philippa, my better half, adores Antibes in particular, having been many times before with her father. This was an ideal incident for bringing us closer together.

The only issue, for me anyway, was that we would fly out a few hours after the last in a run of night shifts. This didn’t seem like such a big deal when we booked the flights, but as the night finally approached I began to anticipate (and dread) how tired I would be. Never have I been more jealous of leaving my bed, knowing Philippa would get a full night’s kip and I would just have to power through. But amazingly, despite only getting three hours kip, I had fully recovered by the time we arrived at Gatwick. It was certainly one way of getting me back to a normal sleeping pattern: just FORCE myself into it!

I can only put my alertness down to adrenaline from the excitement of the holiday, which heightened throughout the flight until we arrived at Nice. Once we were at our hotel, we spent the rest of our first day exploring the streets of Antibes. This was equally exciting for both of us, me taking in all the sights and Philippa becoming reacquainted with her favourite haunts. Cruising through the harbour,was particularly entertaining, ogling the bombastic yachts that were almost formidable in their over the top splendour; I suppose you have to find humour in a situation so depressing with its intimidating wealth.

We began the morning of Day 2 with a brief tour of the town’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, marveling at its awe-inspiring architecture, before heading up to the Picasso Museum. The renowned artist lived in Antibes for quite a while, and there’s an extensive collection of his work available, interspersed with facts about his life. The old fort that houses his work was small, but it was paced well over several floors, with an ideally placed terrace offering stunning views of the western Riviera coastline; it wasn’t difficult to see why Picasso found the place so inspiring.

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Eager to experience as many of the key locations in the region, we spent the afternoon wandering through Cannes, eating crepes on the back streets and fitting our palms into the various movie star hands along the red carpet at the Palais. When you only have an afternoon to get to know a city, to feel like you truly understand it, knowing where to start can be as frustrating as it is daunting. We found it best to choose one stand-out attraction and wind our way towards it; sure, you want some kind of direction, but a holiday is meant to be relaxing!

Day 3 began in one of Philippa’s favourite breakfasting hideaways: a garden café, with a gorgeous outdoor area full of plants and oddball figurines. The tranquil setting was just we needed before our trip to Monte Carlo, across the border in Monoco. It’s allure lies in its ambition; almost smelling of money, it bustles with a brisk pace that would make London proud. With that in mind, we simply had to pay a visit to its renowned casino. Before our holiday, I had no prior interest in the venue, but who doesn’t want to feel like James Bond for a day?

I felt it was cheeky that you had to pay ten euros to get into the main gaming rooms (along with showing your passport, as they don’t actually allow the locals in!), seeing as it’s not exactly a place that’s a bit short of the money front, but gazing over the games it was still easy to embrace the elegance of it all. We went in the middle of the afternoon, so it was clearly a more relaxed slot, with no strict dress code being enforced (one guy sat at the most popular roulette table was in a hoodie and jeans) but it still offers a window into a different kind of living. If you don’t find it repulsive, then it’s worth looking in.

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With the prospect of our evening flight looming over our final day, we opted for a relaxing ramble around the coastline of Antibes to Juan Les Pins, making the most of the best weather we’d had all week to take in the Riviera at a leisurely pace. We had intended to drop into a five star hotel and bask in the glory of its glitz and glamour with a drink or two, but sadly it was closed for off season! This was the latest in a series of fruitless ventures thwarting us for being so late in the year. Still, we got some lovely purchases from Antibes market, and if anything it gave us a reason to return in the summer.

On the food front, the best meal of the trip was on the second night at a kooky intimate venue down one of the town’s many backstreets. I’d love to pretend we stumbled across it, and sing praise to Sir Spontaneity and Lady Luck, but in actual fact we found it on TripAdvisor. Not so much taking a chance as going in with high expectations! I had the most delicious sole with a goats cheese and white wine sauce, but what was also intriguing was the use of edible flowers; not just for decoration, our host went as far as explaining what each one was and why it had been chosen.

It wasn’t just the feeling of peace and tranquility that stood out to me while we were on the French Riviera; it was also its sense of optimism, that something better was worth yearning for because it could be achieved. As Autumn sets in at home and the weather becomes moody at best and downright depressing at worst, that feeling of elation that envelops you from all across the area can be just the right tipple. Antibes, a beautiful town bursting with culture, is a superb spot to start.

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Coffee Shop Gestures, or Random Acts of Kindness

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Why obsess over constructing a perfect moment, when true surprise comes from sudden spontaneity? A few weeks ago, I found myself at an Italian cafe near Trafalgar Square with an absolute gem of a girl. My mind was poring over how to make our weekend unforgettable in every detail, when the waiter approached us out of the blue. I assumed he would offer to take our plates, but instead he crouched down and mentioned that the lady next to us had just paid our bill.

You may be aware of these so-called “random acts of kindness,” such as the Free Hugs campaign, a social movement based on selfless compassion for one another. There’s also the Jewish concept of “mitzvah,” the secondary meaning of which denotes to a moral deed performed as a religious duty; colloquially, a deed done out of generosity. You see these random acts dotted throughout the headlines of news sites, as if such selflessness is a real rarity in this day and age.

Now, it’s impossible to analyse the act without considering the lady in question, who we had no prior connection with. She was by herself, with a programme for the West End production of The Lion King- perhaps she noticed the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory programme on our table, and saw some of her in us? That would mean the act was not truly “random” (the only reason the waiter could provide for the act was that the lady thought we looked like a lovely couple)- yet does that mean it is any less of a selfless act?

The biggest question we had to answer, startled as we were, was whether to acknowledge the lady as she made her way out of the restaurant. Our minds went back and forth, but the waiter had also mentioned that she wished to remain anonymous, so eventually, when the lady did emerge, we decided not to thank her. Sometimes it is nice to have your gestures shrouded in anonymity. Even so, we couldn’t help glancing in her direction as she left, our minds

In truth, random acts of kindness in this day and age really do take you aback. Unfortunately, we are often suspicious of anything being offered to us freely; we always expect to have to do something in return. Furthermore, we all like to think we’d do something selfless on instinct, expecting the best of ourselves on instinct, but how often does that actually happen? When was the last time you did something truly selfless?

Think about it, because honestly, those random acts have such an incredible impact on the bestowed. Our conversations kept going back over it throughout the evening, but it also put us more at ease with one another, as if the lady’s deed was a blessing on our blossoming relationship. So next time you’re struck by inspiration, be it in an Italian café or wherever you are, don’t let it fizzle away; just take it and go with it. It’s amazing how something so random can end up having so much meaning.

“A Tweet Too Far,” or “The Woes of Stubborn Rail’s Social Media Manager”

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TICKET OFFICE

“So tell me,” said Lucy, breathing heavily with the resigned attitude of someone who has been asking the same question all day, “Why do you want to be the social media manager for Stubborn Rail?”

Gary’s smile was almost bursting with enthusiasm. He’d debated wearing a vibrant bottle green tie with pictures of different train designs to highlight his passion, but he’d refrained, rather reluctantly. Instead, he was wearing an aqua blue tie covered in hashtags, with a Twitter logo towards the top. He’d debated not wearing that one either, but in the end he thought it was best to wear a tie and look professional.

“Well… I remember the first time I saw a train,” Gary remarked. “I thought to myself, “I like that.” I also remember the first time I saw Twitter on my friend’s phone, and I thought, “I like that.” Then I saw Stubborn Rail’s account and you know what I thought? I love that.”

He spoke with the pace of a train pulling into its final platform. Lucy smiled, partly because she couldn’t help but admire the sentiment he was aiming towards, but also as it was bemusing to imagine a wave of affection towards a social media page.

“You realise how much responsibility you would have?” Lucy replied, her eyebrows slightly raised. “How many services we run, the hundreds of thousands of followers that rely on our updates? It’s a lot to get into 140 characters.”

Gary took a deep breath. In his mind, he envisioned running onto a platform and boarding a train just as the doors were closing. This was his make or break moment.

“Look Lucy, I’ve managed plenty of social media accounts in the past. Give me a few words and I’ll give you a great hashtag. But you know what I also know? Your service map inside out. How many carriages there are on your peak services. I even know which carriages have those power sockets with the signs warning they are not for public use. And you know why I know these things, Lucy?” At this point, he stood up, thrusting out his aqua blue social media tie as he did.

“Because I care about Stubborn’s train services. I’m a huge believer in public transport. I don’t want to provide just a service to your customers, I want to provide an experience. I’m not just Gary Buffer. I am all-change; the change, that YOU all need to your service.”

Lucy smiled again. It was the second time she had smiled that day, second time she had smiled that week, second time she had smiled that month. Stubborn Rail were all about efficiency; time for smiling was rare. He was easily the best candidate she’d had all day; one of the applicants had never even been on a train, and didn’t realise there was such a thing as “first class.” She stood up and held her hand out to him, like she was helping him onto a carriage. “Welcome aboard, Gary.”

DEPARTURE

Three weeks later, and Gary was slumped at his computer screen. There were just so many complaints. He’d had no idea of the mess he was getting himself into. He’d always worked from home before, so he rarely had to use trains regularly, and never at peak times. He’d never felt so depressed; all of the cancellations in front of him, and there was nothing he could do. Shockingly, the life of a social media manager was not as glamorous as he had expected.

He’d never realised just how much hate could be fitted into 140 characters. He couldn’t even remember the last time he saw a nice tweet. But what made it worse was that he had to personally sign on at the start of each shift, so now he was being singled out as the source of all the commuter’s woes. The insults were getting worse and worse; admittedly some were very creative, but others were borderline sadistic. He’d started a tally of how many users wanted to tie him down to the train tracks.

He was so busy wallowing in his despair that he didn’t even notice his line manager Elliot wandering over. “Bad news I’m afraid,” he said in a voice so nonchalant it made you wonder how bad the news could really be. “Temporary shortage of train crew again at Clapham Junction. Who would have thought it? Schedule some reminders over the next couple of hours.”

Breathing in deeply, Gary readied himself for the barrage of abuse that was about to greet him. His fingers were shaking as he raised them to the keyboard. Sweat began to pour down his face as he stared at his screen; his whole body was beginning to shake. His index struggled towards the first key… but he couldn’t. He turned to Elliot and looked him defiantly in the eyes.

“Is… isn’t there anything else we can do?”

Elliot had to hide his disbelief. His army of tweeters had never questioned his orders before; they just typed.

“Well, I’m afraid not. There is simply not enough staff, not to mention the signal faults further up the line.”

“But what does that even mean?!” demanded Gary, his voice getting stronger with every word. “Engineering works, signal faults, temporary shortage of train crews… these are just phrases bandied about! They have no significance to the everyday commuter!”

He was on his feet now. Most of the office had stopped what they were doing to watch him. Elliot was shuffling awkwardly, quickly glancing around at the bemused expressions across each workstation. “Now Gary, I think you’re being a little over-dramatic.”

“Oh am I?!” Gary spluttered, his eyes popping at the accusation. “I just want some positivity, for once! Is that too much to ask?! I mean seriously, can you remember when trains used to actually run on time? I bet people who haven’t even heard of our company think that we’re useless! It makes me wonder why we’re even running trains at all!”

Elliot was doing his best to remain calm. He had always taken his line manager training very seriously, and one of the underlying principles was never to lose your temper. So he smiled through gritted teeth and asked “well then Gary, seeing as you’re obviously an expert on the operation of railways, what would be your solution?”

“Hire more staff!” Gary proclaimed, raising his arms like this was the most obvious thing in the world. “Get more people out there on the rails! People like trains, people like driving, people can drive trains!”

Elliot laughed timidly, daring not to be too audible less his suppressed rage manifest itself in some way. “Now Gary, you know perfectly well that we can’t just send more people out on the track. We haven’t got enough staff. Where do you suppose these people are going to come from?”

His forced smile suddenly faltered at the mad glint in Gary’s eye. “Maybe…” Gary began, now pacing back and forth. “Maybe… WE could drive the trains!”

Elliot’s smile had now completely collapsed. But his anger had vanished too, replaced by a growing anxiety. Where had this freewheeling radical of a social media manager come from?

“Now Gary, be reasonable. There’s no logic in that kind of thinking. We’re not train drivers, for God’s sake! We’re tweets. We’re hashtags. We’re the soul of new marketing! We ride timelines, not train tracks. Whoever heard of a social media manager driving a train? In this day and age?!”

“But the commuters Elliot! They’re not just angry tweeters in suits and jackets! They’re real, living people that need to get home! We can help them do that! Every time it’s a temporary shortage, but WE can turn that all around!”

“But then who will post our updates Gary?” retorted Elliot, his checkmate response. “Twitter needs tweets. Our audience needs the latest information. You say these commuters are real, living people? Give them what they want- the most efficient announcements known to man!”

“We could do it while driving the trains! You’re the one always telling us to multitask, have you any idea how impressed people would be by a workforce that could send a tweet while driving a train?!” The whole office was captivated by Gary’s performance; it was arguably the most inspirational speech a social media manager had ever given.

“Well maybe one day Gary, but today is not that day. I expect to see that update on our timeline shortly,” said Elliot firmly. He was putting his line manager voice on now; this was not just a statement, it was a warning. He wanted things to return to normal, but as he returned to his desk, he couldn’t help glancing over his shoulder at Gary, who was now back at his computer, his face like shattered glass.

But Elliot was right; Gary was a social media manager, and that was that.

Until lunch break.

ARRIVAL

It wasn’t sandwiches on his mind for once: it was Stubborn Rail’s train depot. Such a stroke of luck that the site was only twenty minutes across town! No one batted an eyelid as he entered the depot; he had a staff badge, surely he was on official business. Common knowledge dictates that no one turns up at a train depot for the sheer hell of it. It was only when he tried to get one of the trains moving that suspicions were raised.

No one accelerates out of their starting position at THAT kind of speed. Security were running for the train, but no one could stop him. Somehow, Gary just knew how to drive a train. It felt like destiny. Before he knew it, he was heading for Clapham Junction, famous for constantly boasting about being “the UK’s busiest railway station,” an achievement that was as depressing as it was daunting.

He was nearly at a platform when they stopped him. He could have got those passengers home. He could have got them back on time. But somehow, conductors had managed to get onto the train, and suddenly the driver’s door was being forced open and a sea of whistles were being blown in his face. Gary would never control social media channels for a train operator again. He wouldn’t be allowed into a station for five years.

But hey, it could be worse. He could be commuting by train in 2016.

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My thoughts on Bestival 2016

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What would be your response to seeing the Chuckle Brothers playing the main stage of a major music festival? Given the crowd’s rapturous response to their seasoned shambolics (complete with Barry miming on the drums), it was a mix of triumph and humored bemusement. This was my second time at Bestival which, ever eclectic, had proposed a “future” theme.  Admittedly the brothers were early on in the day, but the heart-warming nostalgia guaranteed by a set chock full of “to me, to you” and “no slacking” was almost at loggerheads with this.

Oh dear oh dear, you might think. But actually, among a sea of futuristic artwork, glossy spaced-out costumes and (perhaps most importantly) a whole host of new talent, the odd dot of reminiscence in the form of legendary performers- be they acclaimed artists or the silliest of children’s entertainers- was much needed. Heck, 2016 has been a tough year, particularly in popular culture; we need a slice of sentimentality every now and then- not just to remind us of what has been, but of what can be done.

Despite me and James getting there quite late on Friday, we were still able to find space for our tent without having to walk too far into the festival. However, if you go down with more than one after the first day… well, I crave your confidence, your optimistic outlook on the ways of music festivals. Forcing ourselves to set things up properly rather than just dash off to enjoy the music was probably the toughest part of the whole weekend, even more than packing everything up on Sunday morning in the early, hungover stages of a post festival comedown. AND it was a pop up tent.

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Bestival, Chuckle style.

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Bestival and chill.

Maybe my regular attendance of Glastonbury has warped my expectations of other festivals, but the main stage certainly seemed small. For reference, it was on par with the Park stage at the aforementioned Somerset series, and it was much smaller than the main stage at, say, Reading or Leeds. In a way though, you can argue that this puts it on more level footing with the other stages of the festival; that it is on par with the rest, rather than trying to stand out.

Delays on entering the festival meant that we missed Skepta, much to my annoyance and James’s jubilation, but Major Lazer were satisfying Friday night headliners. From the first bounce of “Pon De Floor”, we were treated to all manner of shapes and speeds; even gimmicks like Diplo zorbing across the crowd were enjoyable enough. The only big let-down was the short, acoustic version of “Cold Water,” courtesy of MO, who had played the Big Top earlier. As one of the late contenders for summer anthem, I felt this was a missed opportunity.

After enduring the rain for Chuckle Brothers,  me and James escaped Saturday’s awful weather with a few hours in the Big Top; this is Bestival’s second stage, so more musical tricks than circus treats. My highlight was Beaty Heart, one of the first band’s I’ve heard who truly consider the texture of their innovative electropop, with “Flora” prompting swathes of slow grooves across the tent. Then the rain faded away for Craig David, his comeback continuing to catapult him further into our consciousness with his lively, pure feel-good R’n’B. Another mix of past and future that you can’t explain, but it works.

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The Cure’s Bestival set: “Just Like Heaven,” you may well say.

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The People’s Front Room, Bestival’s best kept secret.

Now, some bands yearn to make their festival slot a special occasion in some way, such as celebrating an album anniversary by playing it from start to finish. Instead, The Cure embraced the best of their back catalog- nearly three hours of it in fact- and delivered a spectacular set that took in all corners of alternative, from psych to disco to indie and back again. From the impassioned jangle pop of “Friday I’m In Love” to the sludgy bass intro of “Just Like Heaven” sending up wistful cheers, the highlights were predictable, but no less enjoyable for being so.

Sunday meanwhile, in the grand festival tradition, was a bit of a blur. Me and James spent lots of it exploring the less-trodden western corners of the festival, wandering through the Ambient Forest to the top of the site to take it all in. Pick of the day had to go to Will Varley on the Magic Meadow’s Invaders of the Future stage. It was a slightly difficult set in a sense because of its close proximity to the main stage, but Varley’s folk was equally rowdy and enthusiastic, doing very well in keeping the crowd with him throughout.

Coming back on the ferry late that evening, drifting in and out of sleep and reveling in the foul-language nostalgia of Teesside Tintin, I reflected that Bestival does feel a bit like a holiday getaway, bowing out the summer in spectacular style. Granted, it WAS slightly smaller this year (as festival organizers openly admitted on social media afterwards), but the festival still felt like it was giving its all throughout. Although I will admit there was a particular hideaway that underlined most of the fun across the weekend: The People’s Front Room.

Fashioned as an otherworldly nineteenth century salon, this tucked-away gem offers a heap of talent across funk, jazz, and all manner of genres for that matter, to be enjoyed from one of the plush armchairs or the Persian-style carpets. Leave your wellies at the door and immerse yourself. Being so close to the artist, it offers an unparalleled level of intimacy- despite the venue doubling in size since last year’s Bestival. It’s easily my favourite find from the fields. For me, festivals are about the hidden delights you stumble into; maybe Bestival is right in pointing to the future, to see what you come across next.

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The Great British Bake Off Referendum (#GBBOR)

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It was an emergency meeting at the Council of Bakers, and Paul Hollywood was bashing his rolling pin on the table. Thankfully, Agent Mel and Agent Sue had arrived just in time to make a cheeky innuendo about it.

“Well!” gasped Mel. “I never thought I’d see the day that Paul Hollywood would get his rolling pin out in front of everyone.”

“I know!” responded Sue. “He clearly means business today.”

“Agent Mel and Agent Sue!” said Paul sharply. “I have just about had enough of your inappropriate innuendoes. Baking was a fine art before you started ruining it with your insinuations!”

“Ooh!” said Mary. “Look at the size of Sue’s buns!”

“NOT YOU TOO MARY! HOW COULD YOU?!” Paul roared, like an injured (bread) lion.

“Paul, I was just referring to the iced buns that Sue has bought along for the meeting,” Mary replied sternly. “I know you’re stressed out, but you need to remain calm. There’s no room for soggy bottoms around here.” She took a deep breath, steadying herself as she did so; it had been a manic couple of days, a real life technical challenge.

“First of all, thank you all for coming to this emergency meeting, and at such short notice. As past winners of Great British Bake Off you have all proven yourself to be important members of the Council of Bakers… Nadiya, and everyone else who came before, I can’t actually remember your names as it’s been so long but we still very much appreciate you coming.

“Now, the reason I have called you here is because the unthinkable has become a reality- the BBC has lost Great British Bake Off.”

There were audible gasps around the council table; it was Baked Alaska all over again.

“Channel 4 has put in a higher bid and won the rights to the programme. The reason we are telling you this is because we, as presenters and judges, have a very important decision to make. We want your advice in this crucial, once in a life time referendum: shall we remain with the programme, or shall we leave? Are we IN, or are we OUT?”

“Why not just let the public decide?” asked Mel.

“Yeah, I know we’re the ones that are part of the actual process, but this sounds like far too important a decision for us to make by ourselves,” Sue added.

“We did debate that, but what if it was a really close result?” reasoned Paul. “Our audience, united by so many things, suddenly split down the middle. Can you imagine the arguing? It would be too much to bear.”

“I believe we should leave!” A mysterious unknown baker had suddenly entered the room. He had a mess of blond hair, and a mad look in his eye.

“Sorry, but who are you?” asked Mary, trying her best to remain polite.

“I am Boris Chelsea Bunson!” declared the baker with great dramatic flair. “I’m one of those unknown bakers from one of the earlier series that you’ve probably forgotten all about. Now I know I have always professed a love for the company that produces our programme, but I say now that we should leave! Take back control… of our production!”

“Outrageous!” interjected Paul. “You just want to be the new head judge on the programme!”

“Nonsense!” Boris fired back. “I am more likely to be reincarnated as an olive-stuffed focaccia than to become head judge on this programme!”

“But have you really considered what it would be like if you were to leave?” spoke up Nadiya. “There is no certainty as to what would happen. We could lose our jobs! The ratings could slump. We are bakers. We should stick with what we know.”

“But Channel 4’s content is all about innovation, experimentation, creativity!” Boris retaliated. “The Great British Bake Off is quintessentially a BBC programme! The BBC has a long tradition of making programmes  that encapsulate our favourite hobbies and show off the best of British, like Strictly Come Dancing, and Crimewatch! If we can’t remain with the BBC, we should look to go elsewhere. We are a valued commodity in the world of television. They need us more than we need them!”

“Enough!” Paul raised his hands, and silence swept round the room. “To aid our discussion, I sent Agent Mel and Agent Sue to find out what will happen if we go to Channel 4. Agents, what have you found?”

“It’s a lot worse than we ever realised,” shuddered Mel. “They are already planning a spin off show called “Come Bake With Me,” where the contestants have to go round each other’s houses to try three courses of baked goods.

“There’s also rumours of a show called “Baked Attraction,” where contestants work out whether to go on dates with one another PURELY on their baking,” Sue added. “Can you imagine anything so objectifying?”

Both agents then looked at each other, and breathed in heavily. Bemused expressions flooded the room; something else was clearly wrong.

“It’s been a tough decision to make… but we feel this is one recipe we cannot follow. We’re stepping down from the show.”

They said this both in unison, tears slowly forming in their eyes as the council stared back with shocked expressions. Paul was the first to respond. “Surely this idea is half baked?”

“No, we’re not taking the pitta,” Mel replied. “Yeah, we’re scone for good. Doughnut try and stop us,” added Sue.

They both knew that deep down, Paul really did love the puns, and all of the other bakery-related wordplay. At that moment of staring into the brink of the unknown, there was only one thing you could say for certain; at least we’ll always have the innuendoes.

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My Harry Potter Cursed Child Book Review

It’s official: Harry Potter is Lord Voldemort. His soul split into many pieces and hidden into books, theme parks and now a West End show, he will never die. But can the script alone do the show justice, and is it a worthy successor to the seven stories that preceded it?

I dissected this and a whole lot more in my Cursed Child book review on my YouTube channel. Give it a watch and see what you think!

 

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The art of walking in London

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Trains, escalators, discarded Evening Standards; London is just the time from one underground station to another. You spend so much time checking what line you’re getting onto, you rarely have the chance to consider what’s going on up above. But London is restless. There is just too much activity to spend most of your time travelling underground. Admittedly, I am incredibly lucky that I live within walking distance of my work in Oxford Circus… well, if you classify an hour as being “walking distance.” For me? That’s the perfect excuse to put on my headphones and stroll through the city centre.

Lunchtime at Tachbook Street Market, ten minutes north of where I live, is bustling with activity, offering food from every culinary corner. As I make it through to the other side, I spot a group of identikit businessmen all in dark navy suits, clutching a white plastic bag in their right hands with whatever delicacy they’ve opted for from the market. The bags mirror each other as they jostle, the group moving in a uniform formation almost eerie to the eye. Only one is without a blazer; it’s nice to see someone who dares to stand out from the crowd, even if it just with your items of clothing for a midday meal.

Then it’s through Victoria, nowhere near as manic as when swamped with miserable Monday morning commuters. There’s a pub advertising afternoon tea, “elegantly served with Pimm’s.” I can’t help but wonder, what makes the service so elegant? The fact that it’s Pimms, or do the bar staff twirl their way across the room like ballerinas, pirouetting as they pour the jugs from a great height and creating a red, fruit filled waterfall? So many questions, creating another of London’s little mysteries.

It might be the middle of the day- one of the better times for commuting in London- but it’s also the school holidays, and there’s a huge queue for tours of Buckingham Palace that stretches round to the front of the building itself. Tourists strain against the railings, scanning the soldiers for the slightest movement. There’s always people there, but in the middle of August, there are a LOT of them. In Liverpool, they’ve introduced “fast walking lanes” for those who are on a mission, not in the mood to dawdle; London could certainly use some of those at the prime camera-clicking locations.

Green Park is equally manic, a mix of lunching workers, fitness fanatics fitting in an afternoon run and school groups stampeding along the paths; the only oddity is a patch of barren earth where a tree used to be, now roped off but full of pigeons. The Pokemon Go craze has slowed down now, but before there were huge swathes of individuals dotted across the green, staring at their phones and occasionally looking up to where they imagined their target to be.

There’s a bloke fixing some kind of box near Berkeley Square, and what you may ascertain to be true workman fashion, there’s a plumber’s crack for all to see. An elderly gent in a suit has slowed his pace to fully take in the sight before him, gazing with an intensity that is bemusing to the point of almost amusing. Maybe he’s gay? Maybe he’s taken with buttocks in an entirely heterosexual way that is just aroused by curiosity? Maybe he also finds it funny? What I’d give for him to laugh out loud right now.

As I near Oxford Circus, there’s a tourist taking a picture of an ice cream advert on the side of a bus. I shouldn’t judge, but an ice cream advert? Tourists seem to take pictures of anything these days; the bus wasn’t even particularly red. And those are just some of the sights that caught my attention on the way to work; palaces, parks, posterior. Maybe I watch others a little too intently, but given the fact that the sheer number of people can be a negative for some- and it can be an annoyance at times for most- you have to find some quality to it.

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My return to Liverpool

 

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Traipsing through the University of Liverpool campus on a bright Saturday in July, I had completely forgotten I was slap bang in the middle of graduation season. Determined to get a photo of Abercromby Square for nostalgia’s sake, I found the gates locked, and had to twist my hands through the railings to get a half decent picture. Inside the square, a vast canopy covered much of the area, ready to welcome the new graduates relinquishing the reins of student-hood; some striding forth, others tottering more anxiously. If anything could make the two years since my graduation feel like a long time ago, it was this.

I was up on the Mersey for two days, just enough time to refresh my memory of the city. Even the train journey up from London Euston, a path trodden so many times in between terms, had a bolstering familiarity for it. You know you need to re-evaluate your emotions when you’re sighing at the nostalgia of a trip with Virgin Trains, a luxury rarely experienced by us luckless commuters in the South East. Before long I’m catching up with my fellow Bido Lito! alumni, music connoisseur and all-round-good-guy Laurie at Bold Street Coffee, and the ball’s rolling like nothing has changed.

There was an actual occasion for us to experience- the Liverpool Biennial, the largest contemporary art festival in the land, transforming the city’s landscape across ten weeks every two years. There were all kinds of exhibits dotted around Liverpool’s centre, but the highlight had to be in the Oratory at the Anglican Cathedral. Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s “Rubber Coated Steel” was minimalist in its approach, a shot of a corridor with hooks dragging forward startling images, the only audio being the cold, blunt mechanisms, and subtitles along the bottom.

 

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But an unexpected treat was to be found in the ABC Cinema on Lime Street; not just in the films on display, but in exploring the Grade II listed building itself. Closed since 1998, the downtrodden exterior can be a bleak greeting when you arrive into Liverpool’s train station, yet inside it truly feels like a capsule from another time. On leaving, the only downside is your longing to restore it to its former glory. Biennial is great at tapping into moments like that, but more than anything it gives you the impetus to explore some of Liverpool’s best kept secrets, with a real sense of the past and the future colliding, especially at the cinema.

The next morning, I decided to check out a few sites I had missed the day before, with Sefton Park being the biggest draw. Ah, Sefton Park. Such a huge open space, so many things to different occasions. Serenity. Open-minded exploration. Slacklining above the pond. Obscure but oh so brilliant reggae bands in the tropical conditions of the Palm House. Any way you want to relax and unwind, it caters for the occasion. Following this, a catch up with my favourite past reviews editor of Bido Lito! (that pink magazine was imperative to shaping my Liverpool experience) did much to prove that no matter how much time passes, friends will always be up for a laugh.

Granted, it was good to see some of the Liverpool landscape is changing for the better- strolling down Penny Lane for sentimentality’s sake, it was a relief to see the long-neglected shelter in the middle of the roundabout is finally being resurrected- something I always thought was one heck of a missed opportunity- and also the school at the top of Smithdown Road opposite Toxteth Cemetery, having been the site of barren patches of nothing for so long. Change, where needed, is incredibly healthy for an area, and it was good to see Liverpool was showing no signs of slowing.

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It sounds predictable, but Liverpool was such a formative experience for me, and not just at university. My first steps into the world of employment saw me pushing leaflets through letterboxes around Toxteth and Kensington; not the most strenuous of work, but you got a decent amount of exercise and I had plenty of time to listen to podcasts or bands I would be reviewing that evening. Working behind the bar at Chester racecourse, or stacking shelves at the Anfield Asda while dabbling in community radio at KCC Live, and the odd street team shift at Juice FM. All of that defined me so much more as a person.

Well, at least I can confirm it’s official: one and a half years away from your university city is enough to make you feel nostalgic when checking out the old haunts. As much as I love my new home of London, there’s an intimacy that gives Liverpool so much spirit. More chummy than cosy mind; excitable to the last, and always up for a laugh. But then, Liverpool was never just somewhere to study; it filled me with confidence that my own independent mind was not something to shy away from. I hope it keeps changing, but only for the better, and never so much that I fail to recognise while I fell in love with you in the first place.

 

I Can’t Give Everything Away: The Art Collection of David Bowie

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Musician, actor, curator.  Artist, icon, Bowie. There is no one word that defines him other than his name; such was the broadness of his interests, his pursuits, his (sound and) vision. Certainly, he will be mostly remembered for his music, and not everyone will have fond memories of the Goblin King, but to encapsulate what a pioneering, influential figure he was, there really is no other option in terms of providing an explanation.

It’s half a year since he’s gone and there’s no sign of his spirit disappearing. The Aladdin Sane lightning bolt atop the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury; a box set “Who Can I Be Now?” featuring songs from his “American phase,” out this Autumn; even a musical based on “The Man Who Fell To Earth,” coming to London in October (although admittedly Bowie co-wrote the show before his death). But his art collection? That truly is a new side to him, one that has only been hinted at before.

This November, Sotheby’s will be auctioning over 400 pieces of work from Bowie’s collection, many by some of the most celebrated British artists of the twentieth century. Before that, it will tour Los Angeles, New York and Hong Kong before a full exhibition in London in the week leading up to the grand sale, which is expected to bring in a cool £10 million- and that’s just the value of the paintings, before you take into account the previous owner.

For now, a preview of the exhibition has opened in the art business’s Mayfair branch, and with the luck of the draw giving me a day off on its opening morning, me and my housemate decided to head down. Thankfully, it wasn’t too packed- this is after all, only a preview, with just over two dozen pieces on display from the full collection- but there was still an excitable buzz as we meandered the halls checking out the pieces.

Not surprisingly, one of the highlights is Damien Hurst’s “Beautiful, shattering, slashing, violent, pinky, hacking, sphincter painting,” what I now know to be one of his trademark “spin” paintings. The vibrancy of so many colours, twisting around the circle in such a wild, enigmatic manner, made it impossible to miss this piece, an explosion of unrestrained creativity.

I also greatly enjoyed Ettore Sottsass’s ‘Casablanca’ Sideboard, another piece that refuses to blend into the background- except that this was a piece of furniture. So often now we pick out sets of matching chest of drawers, bedside tables and the like, almost for want of uniformity and order, but the jutting shapes and bold colours of this piece are entertaining to behold.

Finally, it wouldn’t be the most astonishing revelation that Bowie had an unusual record player, but the sleek, insatiably stylish Brionvega Radiophonograph by Pier Giacomo and Achille Castiglioni was something to behold. Accompanying it was a list of “25 Albums that could “Change Your Reputation,” according to David Bowie,” originally from a Vanity Fair article in 2013. I’m ashamed (but also not surprised, if I’m honest) that I did not have any on the list, but that will also make for interesting listening at some point in the future.

And there, in among the displays, are striking poses of the man himself- constantly reminding you that these particular pieces of art will forever be embedded with a unique context. Why did he buy them? How did they fit into his collection, his style, and his overall outlook on life? The further you look into these things, the more they befuddle you; at its simplest, it offers another definition of Bowie for us to ponder over.

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My first time at the Proms

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A man reaches for a Tupperware of grapes during the interval, as the smell of wine hangs thick in the air. It’s my first time at the Proms- officially as a “Prommer” too- and of all the concerts, gigs, live events that I’ve been to, this is one in particular that is unavoidably informed by the atmosphere. Of course, classical music can be enjoyed anywhere- and maybe likening it to the grandiose architecture of tonight’s venue plays into a certain snooty stereotype – but the ambiance of the Royal Albert Hall really lends to the feeling of the Proms as an occasion, one to celebrate.

And yet, here I am with my flatmate Gavin for the cost of seven pounds. Yes we’re technically standing (though many choose to sit down even during the recitals), but in terms of encouraging people from all backgrounds to experience classical music, the cheap price of the tickets is really promising. There was no queuing for hours either- this is the first year the Proms have started selling these tickets online, on the day of the prom itself. Granted, you can only buy one each, but if you organise it in advance it’s a relatively straightforward process; you really haven’t got an excuse not to give it a go.

The main difference here is that Gavin really knows his classical; he was so determined to hear two of the pieces at this particular prom that he was originally planning to go by himself until I jumped at the chance. I really enjoy classical, but I suffer from a naivety about the different composers, pieces and periods. Sure, I could throw a handful of names at you, but I wouldn’t feel confident debating it. However, your own experience can surprise you at times, and I was happy to find I actually knew the first piece on the bill, Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero;” I just wasn’t aware of its name. Gavin wasn’t a huge fan of its repetitive nature, but I liked the way it built with the number of instruments throughout.

After this came Sergei Rachmaninov’s “Piano Concerto No 3 in D minor,” an early twentieth century composition with the reputation of being one of the most technically challenging of its kind. As the grand piano was wheeled out, Gavin was craning to see who would be rising to the challenge, and was taken aback by the youthful appearance of Behzod Abduraimov. For such a complex composition, it soared and shimmered throughout its forty two minutes, with an abundance of keys giving the effect of a waterfall. Only the back of Abduraimov’s shirt at the end betrayed how difficult it must have been; the fact he returned for an encore was even more commendable.

Neither of us were aware of Ustvolskaya’s third symphony “Jesus Messiah, Save Us!” but given the uplifting nature of the previous two pieces, it bought a curtain of melancholy that felt out of place; sometimes formidable, sometimes sombre, never really welcomed.  It was intriguing, but fell to Rachmaninov’s shadow. But the fourth! It was a suite from Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier,” which revived the merrier mood that had started the night. The melodies swelled and dived at such a pace, accelerating up to the gallery before crashing down again, without ever jerking out of place, that it all flowed rather beautifully.

Somehow, I had not comprehended the notion of an encore at the Proms, but after some frenzied foot stomping from the concertgoers, we were treated to two additional pieces. The first neither of us knew, but the second was an unexpected treat that again I knew by ear and not by name- Bach’s “Air on a G String.” Seeing as I have been trying to find the name of this for quite a while, I was rather chuffed to be able to experience it. For me, it’s always felt like a piece of reflection, a time to consider the events that have just occurred. Somehow I got caught up in the notion of an aftermath of a furious battle; quite a contrast to the gentle, contemplative ending it provided to a fine, varied evening of music.

The main thing that I took away from my first night at the Proms is that, because of a lack of lyrics (well, mostly), classical music is something you feel- there were plenty around us, sitting or standing, with their eyes closed as in meditation, just letting the music flow through them. It provokes such a wide range of emotions, that if you’ve not given it a chance before, I reckon you’ll be surprised. After all, movements, keys and composers are just names- the most basic instinct is whether you enjoy it. I can honestly say, as a Prommer, there’s nothing like it.

My Glastonbury 2016 Food Roundup

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If there’s one thing about Glastonbury that you can’t appreciate on the telly, it’s the food. Granted, festivals can be cruel on the bank balance, as your rumbling stomach forces you to part with astonishing amounts for a meal, but the right stalls reward a ramble. I really admire those who endeavor to cook pot noodles and Ainsley Harriot’s couscous on the campsite stoves, as a fair few of my festival mates did. However, if you’re willing to put some money aside, you can treat your taste buds for several days if you pick the right stalls. And the choice! It’s like a small sample from every corner of world cuisine convenes on Worthy Farm.

However, not all Glastonbury food is created equal. Last year, at the end of one night, our drunken eyes were allured by the 24 hour food marquee near our campsite. Even with our alcohol-soaked senses, it was still one of the worst cheeseburgers we’d ever eaten. This year, we arrived at a different campsite at around midnight, shattered from hiking the final three miles to the site with our entire luggage. There was nowhere else to go; even so, I hoped this 24 hour outlet would be different. Sadly no luck; our only hope was to douse it in ketchup. The fact is, there are too many burgers in the world for you to waste your time forcing down a sub-standard one.

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Thursday went a lot better. Any trip to the Park Stage around lunchtime deserves a stop off at the Lebanese Mezze stand. Along with the standards of falafel, olives and hummus, there were also vine leaves stuffed with feta, sumptuous bean and potato dishes. Over at William’s Green for dinner meant an obligatory visit to the BEST cheesy chips you will have; just the right level of crispiness, and melted mature cheddar that doesn’t overpower the whole product. I also tried a stone-baked pizza from a nearby stand, proudly proclaiming it was courtesy of one of the Great British Bake Off finalists; spicy lamb with onions, on a nice crispy base. If they told me he was Italian, I would have believed them.

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On Friday, we were caught in an almighty grime shutdown on the Pyramid Stage, which meant one thing for lunch… Oli’s deep fried halloumi, served in a crispy flatbread cone with salad and sweet chilli sauce. Even writing this makes my mouth water. Granted, a lot of things taste good deep fried, but the combination of textures is what makes this. The soft, chewy flatbread with the rubbery halloumi and the crisp salad leaves… it has to be one of your “must have Glastonbury lunches.”  That evening, as me Tom and Lavie made our way to Foals, I took a chance on Chapati Man; my masala chicken wrap had just the right level of spice, with a good portion of chicken breast in there among the veg.

SATURDAY

Saturday took us back to the Park area, but as much as I loved my mezze, there was too much on offer to go for anything else. I stumbled upon a Carribean stall serving delicious jerk chicken, with a whole charcoaled chicken wing and a large dollop of sauce amongst the rice and peas. Granted, it was a little bit black on the outside, but otherwise the meat was succulent and very good value. That night, waiting for the wonder of Adele, I stumbled across one of several Le Grande Bouffe stands dotted around the site. There’s a reason there’s a few of them; they’re too good to have just one! I went for a sausage in white wine with a potato tartiflette; honestly, one of the nicest things I’ve ever tasted. Probably the only time I debated going back for a second meal!

SUNDAY

On Sunday, I was determined to round off a weekend of good food (and some decent music besides). This was to be a day of past tradition; round the corner from the Other Stage, I banished my hangover with a “Growler”; a deep filled baguette with bacon, chips and melted cheese, described as a “tribute to Pauline Fowler.” Not sure about the link, but it hit the spot. A late afternoon visit to the old favourite Goan Fish Curries was too good to miss; their mackerel masala dahl, with a whole smoked fish atop it, would make the entire ocean proud, and the fresh herbs made it as fragrant as it was tasty. Finally, right before LCD Soundsystem, so I treated myself to Square Pie- a spot-on steak and Guinness, with gravy full of tang and delicious flaky pastry.

Festival food can be hard to get right- not just because there’s so much of it, but if you’re in a group it can be hard not to just go for what’s in front of you- but there are plenty of decent options among the bland. As a rough guide, try anywhere where they’ve made an effort with the name, appearance, that sort of thing. It sounds trivial but often the generic names that just describe the origin of the food (e.g. Mexican) are often below par, as my friends Tom and Lavie sadly found out with some much maligned nachos and a pessimist’s burrito. I couldn’t help but feel bad as I sat there in curry heaven thanks to Chapati Man. Of course, the headliners will always get the most attention, but if you can feast for five days, why turn down the option?

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My belated Glastonbury 2016 review

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Here’s an important question that needs to be answered: how long can you keep talking about Glastonbury after the event has been and passed? It’s an issue as thought-provoking as how long it is reasonably acceptable to keep your wristband on after the event, considering all the mud you embrace during your five days on the farm. But hey, leaving it a few weeks gives you plenty of time to reflect (plus life’s been pretty manic recently), so here are some of my thoughts on this year’s action on Worthy Farm…

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Who would have thought that London to Glastonbury would take 10 hours? No crazy detours either- our coach troupe set off at half 1 on Wednesday,  and we were just over 4 miles away by half 4. Fast forward three hours and we were only a mile closer. In the end, it was just before midnight that we reached the campsite having abandoned the coach just before 10 with three miles to go. This was my 3rd year at Glastonbury, and the queuing has never been as bad as this.

The only thing worse was the mud. The draining, soul-destroying mud. It doubled the length of every journey across the site, and made it impossible to sit down anywhere, meaning there were deep staring battles for chairs and the one patch of grass left in front of the Pyramid. Granted, it did lead to a few entertaining encounters as the luckless lost their wellies in the mud- followed by admirable demonstrations of camaraderie as we rushed in to help, embracing the true festival spirit. But even so, it was a relief to get back on solid ground once the weekend was over.

Why do I start on such negatives? Well, despite the queues, mud, and queues IN mud, Glastonbury still remains the highlight of my year, unchallenged in its celebration of contemporary music and art. Maybe it’s the sheer variety of bands, comedians and artists on offer that keeps me coming back; maybe it’s the sprawling variety of areas that after three years in a row I have still yet to explore entirely. Or maybe now it’s become a post-university tradition that nostalgia forbids me to break. In any case, Glastonbury amazed and delighted in equal measure once again.

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For musical highlights, there were plenty of well-chosen last minute decisions, such as the Syrian Orchestra, first on the Pyramid on Friday morning, with Damon Albarn leading a brilliant cover of Blur’s “Out Of Time”. Also on The Hell Stage at 2am on Sunday morning, we decided on The Apples, an Israeli funk nine piece who finished with a rousing cover of Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of.” Unexpected surprises such as Gentleman’s Dub Club in the Glade, and firm favourites exceeding expectations (Ezra Furman and The Last Shadow Puppets I’m looking at you)… too many bands to name!

However, I do have to mention my headliners. Firstly, Underworld on West Holts were the perfect frenzy for a Friday, an explosion of dance and light that set a commendable pace for the days ahead. I saw them at BBC 6 Music Festival earlier this year, but far from dissuading me that I had already experienced this set it only encouraged me to return. Then, Adele on Saturday was an unforeseen joy- or at least, I thought I would enjoy it, but I was surprised by just how much I did. It was just the right mix of banter to lift your spirits from the emotional depths that her songs plunged to.

Finally, we had LCD Soundsystem on The Other Stage, bringing us down with the curtain call. I knew this would be the one band I would kick myself the most for missing. It wasn’t just the gaiety of their sharp electronic rock; it was in the way James Murphy and his band performed that made it such an enjoyable experience.  From the pounding chants of “Us V Them,” the dance-punk ferocity of “Losing My Edge” to the final number of “All My Friends,” the piano chords refusing to relent, I felt suitably satisfied at the set and only just missing my friends in a few fields away, most of which opted for Earth, Wind & Fire.

 

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Overall, Saturday night was the maddest of the lot. Somehow, on a high after Adele finished with “Someone Like You,” several of our group made it to the fabled South East Corner, famed for its late night mind boggling madness. Shangri La in particular spins popular culture and the role of the media on its head; the twists to convention enveloping you, particularly after a few bevvies. It was here we saw The Apples, along with Dub Pistols and a DJ set from Mark Ronson and Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, before I conceded defeat and made my way home along the railway line (which, I hasten to add, is covered over).

However, halfway along to home, I realized sunrise was just around the corner (or in this case, just over the horizon), and I was caught up with a few other enthusiastic night owls who were making their way to the Stone Circle at the top of the festival site. We arrived to a chorus of drums, percussion and otherworldly chants as the first rays leapt over the horizon. It was a site to behold, a new day at the festival… and then it was half five, and I realised how  truly tired I was, and I struggled back to camp. Even at six, as I finally got into my tent, there was still so much going on, refusing to give in to tiredness.

Glastonbury is full of experiences like that- maybe not all quite so draining- and even waking up late on Friday morning to the news we were leaving the EU did little to affect the festival spirit. Sure, it was mentioned plenty of times- Damon Albarn strolled onto the Pyramid stage a few hours after the result, and proclaimed “reasons to be cheerful? It’s not raining!” But Worthy Farm is one of those places you stride into, and suddenly all of your problems and woes ebb out of you. All I can say is, if you think the Pyramid looks one heck of a site on the telly, just wait till you glimpse it in the Somerset fields.

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The Half Five Drive

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Considering I’ve always wanted to work in radio, it seems silly that I never foresaw how difficult it would be to get up for work. After all, the breakfast show heralds the start of the day, so spare a thought for those who have to get up BEFORE the start of the day. But two months in to freelancing for local radio, mostly BBC Radio Kent, forcing myself awake just after half four is not getting any easier. However, asides from the bleary eyes, the even-earlier-than-early rise does have its perks.

BBC Radio Kent broadcasts from the Great Hall Arcade in the centre of Tunbridge Wells, on perhaps the most western corner of the county. With the TV studios for South East Today and digital teams also sharing the building, it’s an impressive operation that you’re proud to be part of. Normally the dozen or so miles to the office would be half an hour at peak times, but for me, it’s under twenty minutes. Why? Because there’s practically no one on the roads at half five in the morning, and it’s bloody lovely.

Most adults know the repetitive grind of the nine-to-five commute- endless queues, constant delays, the slog from one set of traffic lights to another. But before everyone else is up, the roads are motionless, a driver’s dream. The number of cars you encounter are so few that you wonder the reason they’re there in the first place. There’s the occasional taxi, a handful of delivery drivers, and others like me who reject the traditional work hours for whatever reason. The easy flow of the journey certainly beats the stagnant congestion and slight panic that you’re going to be late, which greets you every morning.

It certainly helps that the A264 from home in East Grinstead to work in Tunbridge Wells is a very pleasant one. Passing through a collection of sleepy villages at the top of Ashdown Forest, crossing one county into another, there are plenty of serene landscapes bursting with nature along the way. Of course, you get used to them when you make the same journey several times a week, but it still makes you smile occasionally, especially when you catch the different shades of colour striking the fields after sunrise.

Obviously there are a few downsides, some of which you can probably predict. Firstly, the tiredness. No matter how many times you do it, you never get used to getting up to work on a breakfast show. You can be a veteran of the industry, but that just means the bags under your eyes are even bigger. Maybe if I actually went to bed at eight like I said I would, rather than after ten and cursing my procrastination, maybe that would help. But nothing can prevent you from feeling tired at half five in the morning. Just thinking about that time makes me yawn.

But there are other factors to take into account that you might not expect. Deer, for example. Understandably, on the outskirts of an enormous forest, there are scores of the antlered animals, and they do have a habit of bolting across roads in groups. On one occasion, I came round a corner to find several of them lolloping on the tarmac. I’m still not sure who was more surprised at the encounter, but thankfully I was keeping well within the speed limit, or it would have been bye bye for Bambi.

To be honest, whatever your commuting pattern is, chances are it is not something you are likely to consider before starting the job. Okay, you may think about the distance, but not necessarily about the route itself. Rather, it is something that comes with the overall package, rather than being the deciding factor. But as a new driver, I much prefer the tranquil state of the half five drive. I’ll hold my hands up and admit it’s a tired tranquility, but you can’t have everything.

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Working on the 24 Hour Broadcast for BBC Sussex

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Take a moment to consider this point properly- who honestly doesn’t love a radio marathon? The highs of an on-air challenge and the lows of trying to stay awake during the early hours, it’s like a broadcasting roller-coaster that throws all the loops in at the start of the ride but leaves plenty of surprises for the rest of the journey.

I’ve been freelancing in BBC Local Radio for nearly two months now (something I honestly never thought I’d write), and what struck me initially was that from 7pm till 6am the next day, the South East stations switch to networked content (with the occasional exception)- i.e. programmes that are broadcasting on several, or in some cases all, BBC Local Radio stations. With that in mind, I was honoured to be asked to be part of BBC Sussex and BBC Surrey’s 24 Hour Broadcast, from 8AM on Thursday 21st April to the following day.

The celebration of 24 hours in Sussex and Surrey was tied in with the festivities to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday- journalists were out across the counties reporting on all manner of stories, including one lucky reporter who got to be a zookeeper at Drusillas in Alfriston and a producer who got to meet a remarkable woman sharing her birthday with Her Majesty. It was an enormous operation, with so much content being generated across the event that it was difficult knowing where to look next.

Even better was the chance to be part of the station’s online output, as I was one of the social media producers for the event. Given my past experience in managing social media accounts for student radio and a laser tag company, it was something that fitted my skill set while also encouraging me to explore how the content could operate as a distinctive, standalone platform that was in a league of its own, rather than just accompanying the on-air content.

Sitting at the back of the office alongside the station’s editorial team, my shift was an endless cycle of retweeting, sharing and scheduling content across both Sussex and Surrey. Depending on your attitude to social media that may sound like heaven or hell, but you’ll be glad to know it was the former for me! What was even more interesting from my position was being able to watch the producers working alongside the presenters, and watching the shows come together before your very eyes.

Of course, first and foremost it was a rare and distinctive experience for the listeners, but it was also a wonderful chance for the station’s team of producers, reporters and presenters to come together and be part of an exceptional event. Most of the members of staff I hadn’t met before, so it was also a fantastic opportunity to exchange stories of the radio industry. But more than anything, it reminded me that it’s the stories from the people within the remit of a local station that make it worth tuning into.

So all in all, a fantastic opportunity to fine tune my social media marketing skills (creating a gif of one of the reporters dancing was a highlight), and an important learning curve at the same time. Click here to listen to some of the highlights from the broadcast.

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Jack The Lad #6: End of the line for East Grinstead?

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After the news broke that East Grinstead train station could lose its ticket office, only three years after the extensive renovations were completed, I decided it was time to return to the East Grinstead Courier to air my thoughts. Have a read below and see what you think!

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If it’s estimated that over 2000 people use East Grinstead station every day, you think that would prescribe it a certain level of importance. But imagine there being absolutely no human interaction during that process: dull, grey boxes dispensing tickets to get you through stiff, stubborn barriers, before an android on wheels descends along the train making checks, like a cold, contentious C3PO.

Maybe I’m exaggerating things here, but cuts have a habit of sitting at the top of a slippery slope, and the speculation that East Grinstead may lose its ticket office has been greeted with the exact kind of negative retorts that you would expect.

Looking round the current site, you have to admit how immaculate it looks. And it should do, at a cost of £2.1 million. It’s been there just long enough for any memories of its decrepit former host to be banished from the minds of the many commuters who use it.

There was even a ceremony with the Town Mayor and our local MP present at its official opening in March 2013; it was seen as that much of an occasion, something to make a fuss about. So why is it, less than three years later, that there are talks of closing the ticket office? You might as well shut the whole station building; after all, why do these things in half measures?

Before you start to get really worried, if this were to actually happen it would not be for a long time. According to reports, the station has been listed in the third wave with the station to close outside of peak hours after a longer period of re-education, with a threat of eventual total closure of the office.

But given the size of the town and the station’s position at the end of its branch for the Oxted line, the fact that the idea is even being debated is utterly ludicrous. Sure, some of us aren’t always in the mood to talk to anyone else and appreciate the serene silence a self-service machine brings, but just picturing the prospect throws up all kinds of questions.

What about season tickets, renewing railcards, or even just a question that a machine cannot answer for you? And what if those ticket machines malfunction? It’s no good being an expert in pushing the right buttons if there aren’t any to push in the first place.

If anything, some people just like to have human interaction. You can just imagine swarms of perplexed customers piling into the Bluebell Railway office trying to renew their monthly passes, or the staff at Motown Coffee facing bemused commuters trying to jab “delay repay” forms in their faces.

Then again, you can certainly see why they’re doing it. We’re seeing more self-service checkouts at supermarkets every day, and banks are gradually encouraging us to become more machine-savvy. But you can afford a delay when you’re doing your weekly shopping; if a machine breaks down at a train station and there’s no kiosks, that’s rush hour chaos guaranteed, regardless of any cancellations.

At a time when half of Southern’s customers are unsatisfied with the franchise’s overall service, it’s hard to imagine this announcement having any kind of positive effect. The solution is simple: stop prioritizing profits over customer service, and stop trying to put us off public transport at a time when more of us should be using it.

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If you enjoyed this post, give it a like and let me know your thoughts in a comment below! You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and I also have a whole host of videos to enjoy on my YouTube channel. Check them out and subscribe! (please.)

Taking apart the Reading & Leeds 2016 headliners

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Legends of live music or rite of passage for school leavers, monumental in rock history or trying too hard to cover all bases; there are all kinds of views to be found on Reading and Leeds, and as one of the UK’s major festivals it’s likely that most music fans will have one. Reading was my first festival, back in 2011 as A Levels faded into oblivion and the prospect of abandoning the south for University in Liverpool drew closer and closer. And you know what? As an entry level first time festival, it was a lot of fun.

I fell in love with Big Deal and Little Comets in the cramped corner of the Festival Republic stage, and was blown away by the sheer force of Crystal Castles in the NME tent. The Strokes were pretty good, even if Julian Casablancas sang with the air of someone who’s been dragged along to their own birthday party, and Muse played Origins of Symmetry in full to a crowd of mostly bemused students whom the magic was lost on. I see the appeal of toasting albums when headlining festivals, but it just wasn’t the right audience. It wasn’t till Plug In Baby that the crowd fully went for it.

Anyway, I’m dwindling in festival nostalgia territory here, but it’s worth noting that this was the Reading when the only hint of anything other than rock was the Dance Stage on Friday. Now it’s a gigantic behemoth that tries to cover all bases in a Glastonbury-type manner. Glastonbury gets away with it because it IS Glastonbury, but Reading and Leeds’s attempt to become the festival of all trades means it often spreads itself too thin. Bear that in mind as the headliner debate unravels.

I’m going to go through the festival headliners day by day and offer my thoughts accordingly:

 

Friday: Foals and Disclosure

Both of these acts, for me, are a no brainer. Foals’ frenetic, draining live performances have always been destined to steer them to the top of festival bills, and they’ve already proven they’re capable of it, having headlined Latitude back in 2013. What Went Down, while not their strongest album, certainly channels the more ferocious elements of their previous efforts, and will work wonders on the Main Stage.

Similarly, while Disclosure’s second effort Caracal might not have had the same impact as Settle, they certainly have enough tunes in their arsenal to make for a memorable set to finish Friday off. And just think of the number of guest vocalists across their releases! There’s bound to be a few surprises along the way. More than anything, the duo’s style highlights the festival’s desire to expand the sound of the two sites, a trend which can only be healthy for the festival community as a whole.

 

Saturday: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Maybe it’s just me, but having spent my early teenage years basking in the glow of Stadium Arcadium, the follow up I’m With You just didn’t make the same impact. It took five years for that to be released, and five more have passed since then. I’m not disputing their legacy for one moment- one listen of Blood Sex Sugar Magik would dissuade me from ever doing so- all I’m asking is, just what do the Chilis mean in 2016?

Having said that, they also tick a lot of boxes to be headline material at Reading and Leeds; they’ve clocked up enough years to know how to carry a crowd, and they’ve enough hits to pack their slot fit to burst. Finally, maybe my adolescent adoration of Stadium Arcadium is getting to me, but I would argue they also carry enough nostalgia for many music fans to build up the crowd’s endearment as the night goes on.

 

Sunday: Biffy Clyro and Fall Out Boy

Writing this next one is going to be tough. I’ll get Fall Out Boy out of the way first: as much as I wasn’t that fussed about American Beauty/ American Psycho, it was another solid effort from a band who have had an incredibly successful comeback. Their early pop punk gems combined with their new pop rock singles will make for a winning set.

Now, I love Biffy Clyro. They gave me imagination for feeling young, and I still can’t decide whether I think Puzzle or Infinity Land is their best album. 2013’s Opposites had several stellar tracks that were full on alternative anthems, but stripped of the math-rock and post-hardcore tinges that characterised their early releases, it was probably their safest album to date. Yet its success made them all the more capable of stepping up to headline Reading and Leeds.

Three years later, the Biffs are headlining again, and I wonder if enough has happened to warrant them doing so. We’ve been told April or May is when to expect their latest effort, but even if the goods are delivered on time, is that enough time to let the record fully sink in? Hordes of Glasto-goers have criticised the decision to put Coldplay on top for the fourth time, but five years feels more like a suitable gap, and at least they’ve had two albums out in between.

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Overall, I want more of Friday night. There are countless bands that made a mark in 2015 that deserve to be given a shot at headlining status; funnily enough, Latitude, the first to give Foals headliner status, has done the same this year with The Maccabees. More festivals should be following their lead and give new timers a chance to make their debut- we don’t want to be ten years down the line with a serious drought of main stage closers. Or maybe Reading and Leeds will just try and knock us with six in 2017?

“The Beetle,” an amateur radio adaptation by Jack Graysmark

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This has taken far, FAR too long to upload, but as part of one of my final English modules at University, I produced a radio adaptation of the 1897 novel, “The Beetle.” This wasn’t an unusual piece of coursework that saw a dozen different radio productions handed in to our tutor; instead, we had to create something that could demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of one of the texts we had studied for the module, and Richard Marsh’s horror story was little known enough that I could create something without being influenced by other adaptations. Imagine my surprise when Radio 4 broadcast their own version later in the year! I had my suspicions about where they got the inspiration from, but who am I to go around criticising public service broadcasters.

As the novel is split into four parts, each featuring a different narrator, I decided to focus on the first, as if I was adapting it for a four part series Condensing it down to its essential plot points, I adapted the text so it would be suitable for radio, adding sound effects and background music that was formidable enough to evoke a few shades of darkness along the way. It earned a 2:1 in the end, and I meant to upload it soon after I finished my course, but then the relentless anxiety of job hunting set in. It was only this week when it came up on shuffle on my iPod that I remembered it, and thought that having some kind of home on the internet certainly had more purpose as a location than my fading music player.

Massive thanks goes to Alex Ferguson and Liam Hale for coming on board to star as The Arab and Paul Lessingham! Give yourself half an hour’s rest and let me know what you think.

 

Let All The Children Boogie.

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In my mid-teens I made a short lived venture into amateur musical theatre, starting with a seventies’ jukebox musical called Disco Inferno. While I flitted between small roles as an announcer and a priest, I looked on as the lead attempted to blow our minds with a cover of “Starman.” That was my first experience of Bowie: a tribute, although admittedly by someone with a perfectly capable voice, but nothing like the real thing. After rehearsals I dug out The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars just to listen to that track, but by the end of that Thursday night I had listened to the whole thing from start to finish.

The weekend came and I was engrossed in Hunky Dory and Heroes, and was doing my best to learn “Starman” on guitar. Years later I was interning at the Liverpool music magazine Bido Lito!, and I remember scouring gig listings for new additions while Ziggy Stardust soundtracked our afternoon. Bowie had suddenly re-emerged a few weeks before at the start of 2013, banishing firmly anchored rumours of retirement, and music suddenly felt a lot more exciting. Just this weekend I was devouring Blackstar, rejoicing in the sheer versatility of its experimental jazz. And now it’s Monday, and he’s gone. Just like that.

It might seem a tad trivial for a tribute to commence with a few anecdotes, especially as I’ve only really been into Bowie for the last seven or eight years, but this morning’s news was surprisingly upsetting, considering that I never knew him in person. I guess it was even more shocking because we’re still reeling from the impact of Blackstar, and on listening to it again Bowie suddenly sounds even more fragile than I previously registered. For a record so intricately produced, it still exhibits a carefree nature, of not having to satisfy anyone but itself; a trump card for creativity, if anything.

But I wanted to share a handful of memories, like so many others are doing, because those details which have such a huge influence on our mind-set, our happiness, and our lives overall, are often taken for granted. “There’s a star man waiting in the sky,” Bowie first sang many years ago. “He’d like to come and meet us, but he thinks he’d blow our minds.” To say he did just that doesn’t quite do him justice; really, all you have to do is listen to his music. He was the man who fell to earth, gave us a gaggle of dazzling colourful characters, and highlighted the importance of creativity and integrity. More than anything, he showed us just what we are truly capable of.

“And all the fat-skinny people, and all the tall-short people,
And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people,
I never thought I’d need so many people.”

David Bowie

1947-2016

The Twelfth Blog Of Christmas: The End

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The first time I properly considered the Twelve Days Of Christmas, I was quite surprised by a number of factors. Firstly, with all the lords leaping, drummers drumming and ladies dancing, surely your “true love” is going to be sent down for human trafficking? Just something to consider there. Secondly, twelve days of Christmas may sound magical to some, but it is unrealistic to the rest. My family go full throttle with the celebrations from Christmas Eve through to Boxing Day, and by the end of it we are well and truly knackered. And finally, the fact that the twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day itself, and finish on January 6th, surprises me. Surely it’s time to move on once the New Year is here?

Sometimes I think it’s just to allow us some flexibility in getting our decorations down and finishing up all the leftover food (the twelfth day is upon us and we still have several blocks of cheese to get through, plus half of my Mum’s Christmas cake). Another part of me thinks it’s to do with easing the pain of letting Christmas go after all the build-up. One small cynical part of me thinks it’s to allow corporations just a bit more time to shove sales, discounts and must have deals down your throat. Whatever it is, I doubt there are many people who will be continuing the celebrations for a dozen days.

And you know what? That’s a good thing. Everything ends after all, and although that might be a particularly bleak way of looking at it, the beauty of Christmas is that it is an annual constant; it’ll roll back around in its usual fashion next winter, or even October as the retailers continue to push the festive limit. But even the supermarkets have moved on; one of my local branches had all their decorations down by the end of December, and were already pushing the “limited time offer” of the Crème Eggs. Only till April you say?! We better get our skates on!

At the other end of the spectrum, it allows those Scrooges among us room to breathe. It might seem ludicrous to those of us who particularly indulge in the festive period, but not everyone likes Christmas or indeed celebrates it; last year, one of my housemates didn’t even go home for the big day, and spent it alone in our house share. While I find that image horrific, others won’t be bothered, and of course they are entitled to their own opinion. If anything, both sides will stop spouting their opinion of Christmas, and we can all go back to getting along.

Do I have any regrets from the period? Well, apart from the number of mince pies I consumed, I didn’t take as many photos as I could have; I always forgot to beg and plead family members to try and smile for a handful of pictures. While they would have been pleasing trinkets to an extent, the honest truth is that I was simply too engrossed in enjoying myself to even think of it. Christmas is best experienced in the moment itself; besides, photos just would have been too enticing for me to look over at other times of year, when really Christmas should be the last thing on my mind.

So, farewell Christmas. Despite a few bumps, 2015 was an absolute cracker, and 2016’s has a lot to live up to. Bring plenty of festive cheer (and more mince pies) on your sleigh when you come back.

The Eleventh Blog Of Christmas: A Happy New Year?

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New Year’s Eve at Master Osbon’s in 2012; like many outings, full of silly dancing

It is impossible to reflect on 2015 without thinking about how 2016 will be different. What will you achieve? Will you be satisfied this time next year, or does the idea of setting goals fill you with anxiety or dread? And before you even come to achieving the resolutions, how exactly are you going to keep track of them? Some fill jars with small post-its to cement their objectives more firmly in their minds, while others leave a little note on their phone. Or maybe you’ll latch onto one in a moment of inspiration, only to push it to the back of your mind once New Year’s Day comes round; it all depends on how seriously you take the occasion.

Setting targets may seem like the last thing you want to do after all the stresses of the festive season. You’ve just finished clearing up after all your guests and you’ve barely had a moment to breathe, yet you’re already moving on to the next big thing. Can’t you just play the time out card? Well actually, I find New Years resolutions work wonders in helping you move forward and battling post-Christmas depression. Already I’ve decided I want to be driving home next Christmas, or at least be able to, and I’m determined to venture outside of our beloved island and see what the world has to offer. They’re not exactly formidable monoliths of targets, but they’d still be achievements I’d be happy looking back on.

But before all that, there is the act of seeing in the New Year itself. The Hootenanny or fireworks on the telly just isn’t enough for our generation; you HAVE to be out there living life to the full, no question about it. Sometimes the stress of simply having something to do is too much to handle, and it would be a lot easier just to work, or make your excuses and shrug it off at midnight. I headed up to London this year to see the new year in with old uni friends, and there is nothing quite like the hassle of venturing across the Underground with multiple bags. You have to plan it tactically like a top-priority mission; a major first world problem if there ever was one. Was it worth it?

Of course it was. Old acquaintances rekindled, music tastes indulged and a the London skyline ablaze with fireworks as the clock struck twelve. 5 hours sleep and a New Year’s Day that has needed all of my perseverance to get through has been a reasonable price to pay. Honestly, you should start the year as you intend to spend it, and going in with all guns blazing is a good attitude which sets the standard for the rest of the month which, let’s face it, can be pretty bleak. January seems to be the month where the country shuts down; everyone retreats inside to repel the harshness of winter, saving costs wherever they can, and it needs all the motivation you can muster to get through it.

From that perspective, there’s nothing like seeing friendly faces on New Year’s Eve and thinking about what you’ve achieved in the past 12 months. A couple of stand-out memories for me are starting to write columns for my local paper and smashing Ditchling Beacon on my first attempt of the London to Brighton bike ride. So set some goals; after all, you have 365 days to achieve them, and a checklist might just be the stimulus you need in June if you’re pondering where the year’s gone. Only my third outing at Glastonbury is set in stone for 2016, but a new year can mean many things, and the best thing about a clear slate is that there’s plenty of room to fill in.

The Tenth Blog Of Christmas: Thank You For The Music

sackville colleg

“Good King Wenceslas” will always hold a special place in my heart, for in 2003, on the 150th anniversary of the carol’s creation, I sung the carol outside Sackville College in front of the British media. I thought I did a good solo job, and the hundreds of other schoolchildren taking part did well too, taking particular glee in being able to say the word “sod” on national television.

Sackville College, a Jacobean alms-house, had its moment in Christmas music history cemented by one of its wardens the Reverend Dr John Mason Neale. He was a prominent hymn writer, with Good King Wenceslas among his compositions. Whenever I get home for Christmas, I inevitably meander through town admiring the lights, emerging at the top of the High Street to behold the College, and though it may look a little barren in the winter, the spirit of the carol still rouses me.

Asides from the small matter of the nativity, Christmas carols define the crib service at my local church St Swithuns, and with the place packed to the rafters each year, the crooning glides along the robust organ notes to create an ethereal atmosphere. I know carols aren’t for everyone, particularly if you’re not part of a Christian denomination,  but there’s still plenty of festive music to immerse yourself in.

Then there’s the onslaught from the world of retail. Your local supermarket will be slipping the odd “Last Christmas” and “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” by the end of November, before launching a full festive playlist in the last few weeks before the big day (no doubt I’ve noticed this more due to my experience of working in one), and any festive event will have Slade, Wizzard and The Pogues regularly playing out.

But asides from the classics, there are numerous covers and rarities. My godfather’s brother notably has a festive playlist on Spotify with 1001 Christmas songs, sprawling across every genre imaginable, and he makes a new festive compilation every year; my highlight was Earth Wind And Fire reworking one of their classics into “December.” I myself enjoy new discoveries too-  Andy Williams “It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of Year” has been a notable addition to this year’s playlist.

With my house being particular appreciative in all kinds of music, Christmas music has always played a big part in defining the period. Yes, many are as corny and cliché as they come, but they also evoke such strong nostalgia of past Christmases and get my family all singing along to their favourites that I can never discredit it. Me and my Dad are always in charge of music at our Christmas Eve party, and I would be a fool if I said I didn’t immensely enjoy organizing it.

Also, let’s make this clear- I don’t listen to any Christmas music before December for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if it’s overplayed then you’re only going to remove that special feeling of festive cheer you associate with it, and like anything you indulge too much in, it’s only going to annoy you after a while. Even I find my ears grating at the thought of listening to another slow-jam cover of Merry Christmas Everybody- sure, the original has its charms, but the endless covers you hear never quite match up.

As a genre, there’s no denying that Christmas music will always be a guilty pleasure. However, I would be lying to myself if I didn’t underline the power that certain festive tunes have to remind me of home and comfort wherever I am in the world. Lord knows I can’t remember where I first heard “Fairytale of New York” or “I Believe In Father Christmas”; it was probably just at a Christmas party or the big day itself. But it’s how it’s become a staple over time that shows its true importance.

The Ninth Blog Of Christmas: Boxing Day

Boxing Day

It’s rare that you have a family member who has a birthday on Boxing Day, but even rarer when you have two! This is the unusual circumstance that has given my family a second Christmas Day, where we celebrate with my Dad’s side of the family on Boxing Day; a nice contrast to spending the main event with my Mum’s side. The two birthdays are my gran and one of my cousins, and the day involves us all journeying down to my gran’s to have a good catch up. With most cousins around my age, it’s interesting hearing how the year has treated them.

We’ve been doing it as long as I can remember, only changing location and number of family members present each year; we’re a pretty diverse group, so it always makes for an interesting occasion. It’s usually short and sweet, with a few final presents thrown in for good measure, which I think fits in nicely with Boxing Day’s early tradition of giving boxes to the poor; I’m not saying my family are poor for one second, but I can’t imagine spending it any other way.

You may find this surprising, especially considering that for many, it’s just another day; maybe a time to indulge in the sales or go on a family outing. Some European countries hold it as a second Christmas Day though, while Catholics hold it as St. Stephen’s Day, which commemorates the first Christian martyr. Many sporting organizations, such as the Premier League, even hold a full day calendar to entice fans along, and I always find my dad salivating over the listings.

These circumstances can affect my family too; with so many places now open on Boxing Day, occasionally a few of us have to work, but at the same time we never like to let my grandmother down. After all, Boxing Day is much less defined, which I think you need after the big day itself- the downside to so many rigid conventions is that it can be stressful making sure they are all met. Even though it gets harder each year to maintain the tradition, I’m still incredibly grateful to be part of the festivities. It’s still a public holiday after all, so I would stress you make the most of it too.

The Eighth Blog of Christmas: Christmas Day

christmas day pud

From a couple of years ago: debating the pudding choices, while my sister revels in the glory of it all.

When I was younger, the night before Christmas Day would transform me into a full blown insomniac. I would go to bed nice and early on Christmas Eve, only to wake up around 3 AM and see the stocking at the end of my bed and find myself giddy with anticipation at the day ahead. One year, too excited to even think about sleeping again, I filled the time with reading books- that old form of entertainment before we had iPods, iPads and Kindles- until 7 AM where I could finally justify running in to my parent’s room to reap the rewards of the day.

Now, my Christmas Eve is so jam packed that I never have any trouble getting a good night’s kip, but we all still manage to get up in the late morning to open our presents together. My Nan stays round, so there are five of us eagerly opening our stockings to see what Father Christmas has bought us each year, before we spend the morning enjoying our new gifts. It’s never Christmas without a new pair of socks and a toothbrush, and as usual he didn’t disappoint. Even though I’m now twenty two, I could never bear the idea of just giving money to my family; it just doesn’t compare to the moment of opening presents together.

I only ever have a slice of toast for breakfast, as I need to save room for the main attraction. At one, it’s over to my Aunt’s for Christmas Day lunch, where we all have a good catch up with my Mum’s side of the family before devouring what can only be described as the most delicious roast in existence. It’s not just the turkey- the sausage meat stuffing is to die for. If only I could write poems of tribute to the power of the stuffing. Everyone else in my family has tried to repeat the recipe, but no one has come close. Sorry Mum.

After that, it’s time for more presents from the family, before the ominous presence of pudding rears its head; somehow welcome, yet not at the same time. After that, I was in charge of the Christmas quiz, the first we’ve done in many years, and I never believed there would be so much stress from trying to choose the right questions. I changed the music round several times when I realised my “mainstream” choices were a bit too obscure.

It’s not often I realize how incredibly lucky I am at Christmas. The last Saturday before Christmas, dubbed “panic Saturday,” saw scores of shoppers frantically searching for something to encourage a smile from their family members on the big day. The upside of this is that you may just find the perfect little trinket or toy to bring joy to their Christmas. The downside is the cruel hypocrisy that while we go consumerist crazy, there are many who will be in poverty, in debt, or alone. 13 million in the UK alone will be in poverty. In 2015. What a golden age we live in.

I’m sorry if that might seem a rather sobering statement where really, on the big day, the last thing many of us want to think about is the problems that we face in the real world. It’s that reason exactly why we can’t have Christmas everyday, not simply because it wouldn’t be special anymore; the world as we know it wouldn’t be able to function properly if it was. I’m not saying go out and donate all you have to charities either; I’m simply saying you should value what you have each Christmas, and by that I mean those around you and what is intrinsically important in your life.

The Seventh Blog of Christmas: Christmas Eve

st swithuns xmas eve

Waking up to the smell of a succulent Christmas ham is heavenly; it works wonders in encouraging you to get out of bed. It’s December 24th, and my Mum is in military-style preparation mode for our annual Christmas Eve party. There’s just enough time to grab the last chocolate from the advent calendar before everyone joins in with lending a hand- whatever needs cooking or cleaning, the sooner it can be done the less stressed everyone will be.

I find it surprising that some festive schedules carry such flexibility on Christmas Day, when I compare it to the rigid tradition that lies within my family over the three day period. The celebrations start on Christmas Eve with our party, with my Mum providing a delicious spread and easing us into the guilt of eating too much over Christmas. Another part of Christmas Eve that me, my Mum and a few other family friends partake in, is going to our local church St Swithuns for the annual crib service.

It’s fair to say the crib service is one of the biggest gigs of the year for my local church; the vicar always takes time in the service to stress that Christianity is for life, not just for Christmas, which shows how important it is for drawing in new denizens. I’ve been going to the service for as long as I can remember, and I’ve watched scores of shepherds and kings march down the aisle in the same old costumes; I’ve even noticed pages progress to more important roles, and then I wonder how I can remember such things in comparison to revision notes.

Overall, the nativity is the ultimate feel-good story to enjoy at Christmas. Yes, it is the same story every year with the same old carols in-between, but that doesn’t make it any less remarkable with each telling. I have been pondering this year’s crib service more than usual because this year I finally swayed from the awkward middle position of Agnostic to deciding I was Atheist. For me, if God made the universe, surely someone made God, and that you could keep going back in a never ending chain; it would have to start somewhere, so you might as well start with a Big Bang.

But this isn’t a matter for religion. I still highly enjoy the nativity story that provides part of the framework for Christmas, and I would loathe to give up the tradition of celebrating the story, but surely it is quite a contradictory and hypocritical image to see me in a church on Christmas Eve, singing carols praising God on high, when I don’t believe it myself? I suppose the difference is that I do believe in Jesus; I mean virtually all scholars who write on the subject accept that Jesus existed.

The main thing is, you cannot deny that Christmas day itself was partly born out of celebrating the birth of Christ, and in my opinion there are few things more joyful than celebrating the birth of a child. So yes, I will still be attending the church service, before going back to my family party and then on to town, spreading Christmas cheer along the way. Everyone should be allowed to celebrate Christmas in their own way, even if mine walks tenderly between different religious views.

The Sixth Blog of Christmas: The Heroes of Christmas

Christmas concert band

The last thing you expect to be doing on Christmas Day is pacing the corridors of a hospital ward, but that’s what my parents found themselves doing several years ago when one of my relatives had a heart attack. Being one of the youngest, I remained home with a few others, picking through the leftovers and taking our minds off things with a seasonal Vicar of Dibley. I suppose we look forward to Christmas because it seems to exist outside the norms of everyday life, immune to the problems that regularly invade it. That was the first time I fully realized that kind of existence is sadly not true, and also that for some it is just another day at work; yes, things go wrong on Christmas Day try as hard as you might to make it perfect, but you often imagine it to be something trivial. I can’t stress how much I am thankful to the doctors, nurses and paramedics who were working on Christmas Day and helped get my Nan back to recovery.

You often forget those who put in long hours to make sure everyone has the best Christmas possible. After all, Christmas can be one of the most stressful times of year, and there’s even part of me that breathes a sigh of relief once January comes and its over until the next one. The act of buying a present can be highly fulfilling, providing you know what the recipient wants; otherwise, it can be a struggle that only increases in severity as the big day draws near. If your son wants a toy plane, does it have to be a particular model? If you’re buying for your other half, are you going to set a budget on how much to spend? Or what if you think of a special family member, yet nothing springs to mind? It doesn’t take much for the anxiety to bubble over and become hostile.

Also, there is a kind of chaos unique to working in retail at Christmas. Bright lights and merry melodies blur into one coagulated festive mess as you try to finish one of the hundred-odd tasks you need to complete before the end of your shift, except you cannot walk more than five paces without a customer asking you where something is, or if the item that you definitely don’t have out the back IS out the back. I’m not being overly critical here; customers are the life blood of retail, and I want everyone to have the merriest Christmas possible. The only time it really grates is when you’re faced with a negative reaction. You have to remember that Christmas doesn’t happen without the scores of people who work all over the festive period, such as the postmen who get you your much needed present on Christmas Eve, or those who keep serving drinks until the early hours of New Year’s Day.

It’s not just about those who work over the festive period in the more traditional sense; think of the people in your life who really strive to make the Christmas season the best it can be. We have a massive party on Christmas Eve with family and friends which is primarily the hard work of my Mum; I help out as much as I can, but it will never be compared to how much my Mum does. Then, my Aunt hosts Christmas dinner for over a dozen of us on the big day itself, which is a tremendous achievement. Or what about all those events you attend over the festive period? Somewhere at the centre of all of them, someone is dashing around frantically ticking things off on their clipboard while never actually immersing themselves in the event they have put together. So, I’d like to raise a toast to those who work like hell during Christmas, because that’s what the true spirit of the season is. For them, Christmas is a frame of mind where you can’t settle for less.

The Fifth Blog of Christmas: Adventures at Standen

Standen outdoor tree

Memories are what define Christmas. It’s what makes us strive to make each year bigger and better. As the main event approaches, and last minute panic-buying of stocking fillers reaches peak intensity, the best experiences are the ones where you surround yourself with friends and family. You need days out that glitter with festive cheer, that take your mind off everything else you have to do to satisfy the season; events that release you from stress rather than add to it. Apparently I’m not the only one who believes this, as Standen, an arts and crafts home intricately designed by William Morris, was heaving with families as I dropped in for a Christmas tour yesterday.

I have to hold my hands up here and admit that I am a National Trust nerd; as a member, I almost feel like I have a small investment in each of the properties I visit… well, it’s certainly an idealistic vision to imagine, and probably the closest I will ever come to owning a castle. Standen is my local property, and I have visited it enough times that you would think there was nothing more to be gained. But as someone who has always been fanatical about English history, and whose holidays in the UK meant halfway stops at different properties across the country, I always enjoy a visit for the comforting mix of soothing nostalgia and whimsical educational value.

However, it’s one thing to enjoy the property on a normal day, but Standen is truly transformed into a Yuletide treat in December. It’s impossible to miss the courtyard Christmas tree as you arrive, which has a striking New Age design; rather than the usual dashes of red and green, the predominant colours are pink and orange, and really give the conventional paper chains and baubles a vivid contemporary twist. Given the property’s association with a prominent textile designer, it’s refreshing to see this emphasis on innovation in art, especially during a period which is so rigidly framed in our minds.

Standen indoor tree

Having said that, enjoying the splendor of an enormous tree emblazoned with traditional decorations was second to none, as was learning about Christmas throughout the ages in each room. Unfortunately we had come on the wrong day for Father Christmas, who would be dressed up in his traditional green suit, but I feel that I may be a bit out of place in the grotto at the age of 22. I know many bitter fogeys complain “Christmas is for the kids”, and it’s certainly true that there are certain aspects of the festive period that you can only really get away with as a youngster. However, the flip side is that there are other parts that are exclusive to an adult, and I would never go as far as saying it isn’t as magical for grown-ups.

Despite the weather feeling much too mild for winter, visiting Standen was just what I needed. Yes, I’m aware this post has been rather self-indulgent, but I suppose that’s just one side of Christmas. Of course it is a time for giving and selfless goodwill, but it is also for surrounding yourself with the things you love, and not just friends and family. Already I find myself looking back on this visit as one of my favourite from the 2015 season; it doesn’t have to be limited just to the big day itself after all. Get out there and do something worth reminiscing about in the next festive season, if only to inspire you to top that in 2016.

The Fourth Blog Of Christmas: The Christmas Jumper Curiosity

me Christmas jumper

I never imagined that the festive season would ever be defined by a fashion trend, but then I never imagined a fashion trend like a Christmas jumper. No matter how serious someone’s demeanour may usually be, you cannot help but smile at the sight of a festive garment. I was trying out a new local micro-pub the other night, when half a dozen jolly fellows bundled in, all adorning bright bold knitwear with all kinds of winter characters bursting out of them. Heads turned, eyebrows raised, but ultimately the level of merriment was raised beyond that of just the alcohol levels.

I’m an old hand at this fashion trend; four years ago, determined to make the most of my first festive season at University, I chose myself a Christmas jumper. Mine’s considerably neutral compared to the majority you see; it’s not overly bright or with any weird knobbly bits or flashing lights. It’s just navy with hints of red and reindeer and snowflake patterns. Dare I say it, it’s one you would consider wearing on a regular basis throughout December, rather than just as a gimmick for the office party. When I casually bought it three years ago, I had no idea of the phenomenon it would soon become.

Every shop has them too, in every design possible; from the more conventional patterns to even one of a Great White Shark in a Santa hat, and festive parodies of popular culture (how about Drake’s “Hotline Bling” poses in knitted form?). It’s hard not to be overwhelmed by choice, although the other way to look at it is that finding one will never be a difficult task. There’s even a Christmas Jumper Day dedicated to raising money for charity through wearing the ridiculous garment. More than anything, it has to be one of the most unusual fashion trends to have sprung up in living memory.

It doesn’t rely on how the wearer looks, nor is it remotely concerned with achieving some degree of sexiness. Its only purpose is to make the wearer look like a festive numpty, and put a smile on the face of everyone around them. It yells peace and goodwill to all, and very loudly if you buy one of the more outrageous designs. Of course, I have met a few sceptics in the past, but incredibly these are now in a very small minority. Christmas cynics are being rejected for more Christmas cheer, something I wholeheartedly support, with some of my friends even buying multiple jumpers for the festive season.

While part of me wants to indulge further, I admit I feel to confined by the conventions of Christmas, which restrict wearing the jumper to one month a year. I say have one, but make it your own! Have one that is not only a guilty pleasure, but one you lament having to lock away after New Year’s Day. Have one for the days browsing the Christmas markets, or wobbling around the ice skating rinks, or whatever defines your Christmas period. Have one that captures your personality. Embrace the ridiculous nature of the garment; if nothing, it’ll put a smile on your face whenever you catch yourself in the mirror.

The Third Blog of Christmas: Dreaming Of A White Christmas?

White Christmas3

What does a smattering of snowflakes in the air mean to you? A vivid nostalgia for the festive season you used to know? Or perhaps the nightmare of every commuter? It’s very easy and incredibly optimistic to dream of a White Christmas, but a thick layer of snow flies in the face of order, as if this festive season wasn’t stressful enough. Let even a few snowflakes fall in this country and everything falls into chaos; schools close, work is called off and any form of travel is deemed impossible (unless undertaken in wellies and at a snail’s pace.

Maybe people just really want a day off. I remember being thrilled as a teenager if I woke up to see my garden blanketed by snow, and my school’s website was adorned with a “closed due to weather” warning covering every corner. For me, that roughly translated to “hey, take a day off to build a snowman, have a snowball fight with your sister and go sledging down East Court, because snowfall trumps education.” But for many of us, our first reaction is not awe at the glistening blizzard before us, but dismay at picturing the inevitable delays.

Is that a little bit sad, or just realistic? I reckon it’s both. If I’m honest myself, I would detest a White Christmas. On the big day itself, my family makes the pilgrimage to my aunt’s for Christmas dinner in a neighbouring village. It’s no more than 15 minutes in normal weather, but traversing up and over hills with a thick layer of snow in our way would prove impossible. Then you have the crowds who hastily travel home on Christmas Eve, wringing their hands at the sight of train delays or accidents on the motorway; a White Christmas just isn’t practical in 2015.

Maybe a White Boxing Day would be more practical, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it. Of course, everyone wants a picture perfect scene at Christmas, like the ones you see on the big screen. But when you see their faces mesmerized as dots of artificial white blobs descend on their set, you don’t hear their panicked thoughts of how on earth will they reach Great Auntie May to indulge in her brussel sprouts?Real life may not be as scenic, but if you put the effort in it can be just as memorable. I’m happy just imagining a White Christmas, because I think reality just wouldn’t be as joyful, no matter how pretty a Winter Wonderland scene is.

The Second Blog Of Christmas: What Christmas Films Mean To Me

Christmas DVDs 2

How do you rid the stresses that the festive season can bring and banish any depressing thoughts of the long nights ahead? Put on a Christmas film! It’s an instant mood lifter, lifting your spirits in a flash; I mean yeah, ice skating is fun and all, but sometimes you just want to sit back on the sofa, where the most effort you will face is choosing between chocolate and popcorn. (Or both. It’s the one time of year you can get away with it.)

Guides divulging the best Christmas films are constantly thrust upon us, so-called “definitive” lists that can amount to as many as twenty films; enough for nearly every day of the Christmas season depending on how long yours goes on for. Add to this numerous TV specials and suddenly you find yourself spending a lot of your December in front of the big screen, trying to squeeze each out every last drop of festive film magic.

That doesn’t mean you HAVE to watch them all though- there’s still several festive classics that I have yet to see, which means I have a couple of new treats to enjoy each year alongside my core collection. Winter is THE perfect time of year to stay in, when the weather outside is frightful, so why not embrace it? Rather than tell you why each film fits the festive season so perfectly, I thought I would include what each of my regular roster means to me.

 

The Muppet Christmas Carol

A couple of Christmases ago, I got a quaint copy of the classic novel by Charles Dickens in my stocking, and I’d polished it off by the time we set off to my aunts for Christmas dinner. It was interesting reading it with the context of the Muppets adaptation at the back of my mind, but what surprised me was just how faithful the The Muppet Christmas Carol is to the original text. Okay, there weren’t puppets strewn across Victorian London, but asides from that it remains a very faithful adaptation.

I know not everyone warms towards the Muppets, but I’ve always loved their unique, hearty form of comedy, and Michael Caine will always be my definitive Scrooge; he refuses to let his bitterness be overshadowed by the performers around him. It isn’t just a festive classic, but a sterling literary adaptation, and one that refuses to be restrained by the label of a children’s film. One of my old school friends even managed to devise a drinking game, and though I missed the chance to give my liver something to moan about, it reinforces to me how the movie works well for every occasion.

 

Home Alone

As my first university Christmas approached, many of my hall-mates were shocked that I had never seen Home Alone while growing up. This resulted in a large group of us watching it together when it first came on to TV screens, and now it’s a firm favourite of mine. It truly is Macaulay Culkin’s defining role; he can go from tugging at your heartstrings as your heart aches for the poor boy left behind, to putting you in stitches with his juvenile angst, as he pranks the bandits again and again.

What I love most about the pandemonium Kevin pursues is how brilliantly creative it is. Yes, Christmas is a time of year for celebrating, but it’s also one that encourages you to let your imagination run wild, to believe in optimistic myths and perfect winter scenes. Not only will Home Alone have you in stitches, it will stimulate your creativity, albeit the devilish side of it. One for the filthy animal in all of us.

 

Christmas DVDs 1

Miracle On 34th Street

I can’t remember exactly how old I was when my parents casually broke the news one summer evening about Santa (and if you’ve yet to have the news- don’t worry, it’s just about his delivery schedule). For some reason, I remember being particularly devastated while my sister casually shrugged her shoulders. It’s not as if I believed every department store Santa was really the big man himself, but I still clung on to the belief that Father Christmas was out there somewhere. Plus the notion of a job where you only really work one day of the year was a highly exciting prospect.

Miracle On 34th Street, despite a few flaws, can warm the hearts of the biggest Christmas cynics. It emboldens us to believe in all kinds of possibilities, and inspires us to make our own selfless mark on this wonderful time of year. Indulge in spontaneity, and forget the stresses that can come with the season; it’s the moments that you spend spreading goodwill, whether to family and friends or complete strangers, that truly warm the heart.

 

The Nightmare Before Christmas

On my first wander around Camden market, I picked up one of numerous knock off hoodies with Jack Skellington’s wicked grimace adorning the back. Because of the prominence of Halloween characters, you can sometimes forget The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually focused on the festive season instead. Because it straddles two holidays, I believe I can justify watching it anytime between the two, which means I always have plenty of time to enjoy it.
Aside from being an immense technical achievement in the field of stop motion, the film also promotes the idea that anyone can celebrate Christmas in our own individual way; we should not feel forced to be guided by tradition. There are so many things you can do at this time of year, you can sometimes feel a pressure to fit them all in before the season vanishes. Yes, Jack’s plans go a little bit awry, but you can’t deny the heart is there; do what you can, but don’t overestimate your own abilities.

 

There are plenty of others that I could mention- Elf, Meet Me In St Louis, The Snowman to name a few- but the films above are the ones I cherish the most. Amazingly, there are still several that I need to tick off my list for the first time; I’ve had quite a few shocked responses when I mention that I’ve yet to see It’s A Wonderful Life.  This doesn’t bother me as much as some think it should; the way I see it, it means that I’ve got a festive treat to look forward to at some point in the future. After all, it’s the things you do in the present that define each Christmas, rather than reflecting on the past.

The First Blog of Christmas: when does it actually begin?

advent calendar

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas shopping season. Aisles packed with frantic parents trying to remember what size shirt their teenage son is, or frustrated Dads charging past a mechanical reindeer that glides past the shop entrances. With an artificial tree  several floors high and a Santa’s grotto with queues that would make retail CEOs weak at the knees. Crawley County Mall looks just like a Christmas card, albeit one you send in jest to a close friend to bemoan the festive season in the twenty-first century.

I myself was doing a spot of festive shopping a couple of weeks ago, and considering how busy it was then, I dread to think how it is now. But a particular scene in River Island really got to me: I was queuing to buy some clothes  when I heard a young girl ask “Mum, ow many days until Santa comes?” There was a pause while Mum did the maths, before she replied “34.” The girl’s response? “But that’s aaaaaaaages away.”

My God. The little primary school girl had hit the big red man with the long white beard square in the face with a barrage of snowballs. She doesn’t understand why on earth we should be getting in the Christmas mood in November any more than we do, except we just shrug it off and occasionally shake our fists at the retail giants who shove mince pies down our throats at the earliest opportunity.

Believe me, I understand it’s good to get ahead of the game and buy presents now before it gets really stressful, and some retailers only stay afloat thanks to the festive period. But I want to hear “Fairytale of New York” for the first time when I start opening the doors on my advent calendar, not forced upon me by a fuzzy speaker next to a bleary eyed elf who looks ready to drown themselves in eggnog.

I know some stubborn purists and borderline Scrooges who are worse than me and insist Christmas belongs to Christmas Day itself, and not a day earlier. I suppose I sit comfortably in the middle; once the advent calendar has begun, so does my festive spirit. Out comes a colossal yuletide playlist, mince pies are always waiting in my kitchen cupboard, and I’m never seen without my Christmas jumper. I’ve had the same one for three years now, and never felt the need to change it; it has all the festive qualities without the weird knobbly bits that look so unflattering.

A month of Christmas shenanigans is enough for me. In my books, extending the festive season in to November removes some of the magic that makes Christmas so special; that feeling we long for each time it comes round. Yet that only reinforces just how diverse Christmas is, even within your own country. For many in times of hardship, be those economic or personal, Christmas is a constant that we can rely on to come about and spread peace and goodwill. Numerous renditions of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas stress the importance of temporarily forgetting your troubles so that they do not constantly weigh you down.

In fact, the more I think about it, who am I to bemoan a source of comfort to those who really need it? If it really does roast your chestnuts, the best thing to do is to keep it to yourself, like all the other annoyances you deal with on a daily basis. So, if you were to ask when does the festive season actually begin, I guess there are two answers to my question: Christmas Day will always be the main source of celebrations, but otherwise Christmas begins when you want it to. Just make sure you go into it with all guns blazing.

My Mum’s review of Northern Ireland.

What would be the first thing you would notice about Northern Ireland? I ask as my parents are currently there celebrating a friend’s birthday. They’ve checked in to the Canal Court Hotel in Newry for some fancy dress revelry drenched in Guinness and all manner of cocktails. It’s a chance to experience a different culture, to tick another box off on the bucket list, and relax on a well deserved weekend break. I thought I would give my Mum a text to ask her how things are going…

Mums Ireland review

There you have it. No matter where you go, from the rockiest mountains to the largest cities, the first factor that will always strike us Brits is the weather.

Jack The Lad #5: The device that makes saving lives shockingly easy

One of the defibrillators now installed in our town as a result of the Survival Can Be Shocking campaign. Start a cause, make a difference; simple as that really.

One of the defibrillators now installed in our town as a result of the Survival Can Be Shocking campaign. Start a cause, make a difference; simple as that really.

I was lucky enough to attend a training session on how to use defibrillators a while ago, and what really stood out to me was how easy it was to use them. Ever since he was bought back from the brink after suffering a cardiac arrest, Steve Morris has tirelessly campaigned for more awareness of the devices, with two now installed in the town centre as a direct result. Shouting about it myself in my column for the East Grinstead Courier was really the least I could do!

Go on, have a gander.

http://www.eastgrinsteadcourier.co.uk/Device-makes-saving-lives-shockingly-easy/story-28107013-detail/story.html

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If you enjoyed this post, give it a like and let me know your thoughts in a comment below! You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and I also have a whole host of videos to enjoy on my YouTube channel. Go on, take five minutes off and enjoy something different! (That sounds like I’m promoting Greek yoghurt or something, but you know what I mean).

The night Guy Fawkes saw the future

guy fawkes bonfire

Pleasant, cheerful, resolute yet quick to defuse any tension… Guy Fawkes was a man of many enviable qualities, particularly the ones you would want in someone trusted to guard several barrels of gunpowder. One trait you would not usually ascribe to him, however, was doubt; yet here he crouched in an undercroft beneath the House of Lords, counting in the early hours of the 5th November and turning over his plan of action in his head. Of all the times to get cold feet, right before you planned to dispose of the King of England was not the best.

His eyes dozed under the dim glow from the match as time crept by. Almost falling asleep, he shook himself awake and rubbed his eyes. To his surprise, he wasn’t in the undercroft anymore. In fact, Guy had no idea where he was. All he could tell was that he was tied to a stake and was being paraded through a town by a large procession of cheering revellers. Needless to say it was all rather sudden.

As if this wasn’t enough, he then realised the crowd was carrying him towards a colossal pile of wood. Swiftly his stake was being mounted on top and the crowd was retreating, with their eyes on a figure in a bright jacket crouching below; Guy couldn’t see what he was doing, but it’s not hard to put two and two together when the pile of wood suddenly sets alight.

Guy tried to scream, but no one heard his pleas. No one paid attention to the flames that lathered his clothes, reaching higher and higher- and yet Guy felt no heat. Suddenly there was the most stupendous noise- what sounded like a scream followed by a thunderous bang, like a distant cavalry were cutting through the night. Then followed a dazzling light that disintegrated across the sky. Then came another. And another again. Greens that fizzled into cartwheels and blood red shooting stars cascading into the trees.

What surprised him was that instead of panicking, everyone around the bonfire was cheering, their heads tilted back to watch the display with occasional “oohs” and “ahs.” Such an assault of noise Guy had never heard, and he had seen some wonderful executions in his time; nothing like the blood of a religious traitor to get the crowds going.

Gradually Guy began to look around properly, and his eyes were met with even more bewildering sights; astounding contraptions that span round and round, with children sitting on what looked like horses, and an enormous wheel carrying pairs of merrymakers around an enormous loop. Then there were strange things called “Hot Dogs” and “Candy Floss,” the latter of which looked like the aftermath of a hang draw and quarter session.

His eyes were then caught by a brilliant flicker coming from the corner of the door to one of the houses. There were a devilish pair of eyes, a nose and a ghoulish mouth glaring with light, clearly determined to strike fears into passers by… and yet it was stationary. He then comprehended that the face was actually carved into a large round orange vegetable, the likes of which he had never seen before. Guy snorted into the flames at this. Who had enough time on their hands to etch such details into edible produce?

Suddenly, two small figures emerged from around the corner of the house, and Guy was met with the most astonishing sight he had seen so far: a small female witch who could be no more than eight, who judging by her green skin had the most dreadful case of anemia, and a walking skeleton. Both figures obviously possessed great strength, for they were carrying small cauldrons under their arm, bulging with small wrappers of every colour.

Even stranger were the reactions of passers by; Guy and his fellow preachers would do away with a witch at the earliest opportunity (drowning cursed souls had been an important part of their early school curriculum), but many adults were smiling down of them with flows of admiration. Then, the witch and the skeleton knocked at the door of the house. Heaven protect the souls of those within, Guy shuddered; it was obvious to him that they were done for.

But instead, the house’s residents were even more overjoyed than the passers by, and tipped more tiny wrappers into their cauldrons! None of it made any sense! What kind of place was he in? Was this what the righteous efforts of the noble Catholic rebellion, to restore what they saw as holy order and peace, would be rewarded with? Was this what they were fighting for? A future of strange orange vegetables, candy floss, and citizens who held up tiny glowing devices that flashed as they stood in front of the fire?

Loud voices cut through the flames and the fire was gone; Guy Fawkes was awake, and he was back in the undercroft. Surrounding him were around a dozen of government officials, who looked like supporters of King James from the way that their gun barrels pointed at his face. His cheerful demeanor vanished rapidly; there was no way he would be able to resolve the tension surrounding him. He tried to remember his vision as his captors led him away. Gunpowder, treason and plot… there was always so much that could be forgotten.

Twenty two and single with a pass in driving theory

Not just an average Wednesday.

Not just an average Wednesday.

My frantic quest to finally learn to drive has had the unexpected side effect of giving my Mum Tourette’s. As we were practising around my hometown, we turned down a road with cars packed in along both kerbs. I crept along, trying not to notice the torrent of random swear words coming from my Mum as she leaned as far back as she could, with the expression of someone staring death in the face. Thankfully nothing happened, but as my judgement of what is considered enough room to drive through is not completely sound yet, it’s amazing I managed to pass the hazard perception part of my driving theory this week.

Unlike most of my friends, I didn’t start learning to drive when I was seventeen because I was saving all of my money for spending the summer holidays during my A-Levels touring Zambia, Botswana, Namibia and Malawi- in fact, pretty much every country in the south of Africa except South Africa itself. (I suppose we did stop off in Johannesburg on a flight transfer, but that’s another story.) After that, all of my efforts regarding finance were focused on university; I just couldn’t imagine affording all of the expenses that came with a car.

Typically, I felt quite under-prepared as I made my way to the test centre on Wednesday; focusing so much on the Highway Code meant that I had only spent a few days practising Hazard Perception, and my mock scores weren’t promising. In fact, by the time I was sat in my booth and ready to go, the whole experience of sitting an exam felt distinctly alien to me; the days of filing in to an exam hall packed with single desks and twitchy invigilators seemed like a lifetime ago, a period of my life that I had said farewell to.

As I had signed in, a few others around me had remarked that it was not their first time. Now with the first round of questions in front of me, I despondently pictured myself slouching in for a second attempt a few weeks later. I was resigned to a near miss, a valiant attempt where I passed my multiple choice but fell at the final hurdle because I failed to notice a virtual car changing direction; just one of life’s setbacks, I suppose. Considering this, you can imagine how overjoyed I was when I found out I had passed. The acknowledgement from the member of staff weren’t exactly bursting with praise, but then how many must they congratulate on a daily basis?

I know passing your theory test is not the most momentous feat. After all, the majority of people take it and pass it (some eventually), and the practical is going to be the tougher challenge. But as I emptied my locker, I couldn’t help overhearing the frustrations of a young lad who was due to start his test but had forgotten his provisional licence; it seemed that he had been genuinely oblivious to the fact he would need it. In contrast, I felt I had an achievement worth smiling about. An accomplishment is an accomplishment after all.

I bought a sandwich from the new Subway shop. What happened next will change lunchtimes forever

subway restaurant

Ah, Subway. They said it would never come. The East Grinstead high street is adorned with all of the eateries a small town in Sussex could possibly desire, but yet the rumours were rife. The empty site next to the Bath Store had lain bare for so long, that no one thought a shop would ever move back in there; it was just one of those things that was physically impossible.

But then it arrived. Subway, in our little town! No longer were we confined to the pains of choosing between a meal deal from Boots, a pasty from Greggs, or going to the family run Olive Grove which already offered a superb selection of sandwiches, even branching out to paninis and ciabattas for the more adventurous of us. Now, we could choose our sandwiches elsewhere!

It’s Monday. The drabs of office workers still left in the town are buzzing with excitement. I can barely contain myself as I step into the store at lunchtime, and I allow myself an audible gasp at the revelation that they now serve pastrami, mainly because I never buy pastrami anywhere else but I can now see myself as a pastrami man. Like a New York wannabe frustrated by the confines of a small town.

Crowds of literally six people wait patiently ahead of me, eyeing up the vacant seating at the back of the store adorned with balloons. Was anyone there bold enough to be the first person to sit in that hallowed area? Thank god there was a local news reporter on hand; this was something you wouldn’t want to miss.

subway park

I get to the counter and I see it; the fabled mecca of bread that is honey oat. Honey oat.  Many had dared to dream of a day where honey oat would come to the town, but no one ever quite believed that it would ever happen. I felt a tear come to my eye. And I still had to choose the fillings.

By the time I reached the end of the assembly line the news had caught on like wildfire. A bustling queue was now spilling out round to the side of the Bath Store- possibly bought on by the fact that if you bought a drink at lunch you would get your sub for free- and excitement levels were bordering on pandemonium. Concern over whether there would be any meatball marinara left. Flutters of panic from those who saw the “cash only” sign far too late.

Personally, I felt the pressure of eating instore was too much. How could I sit in the window, savouring every bite, while others looked on with envy in their eyes? I fled to the safe retreat of Moat Pond and tucked in. Subway in hand, the world in my hands, the world is a sandwich. Tears came to my eyes; was this euphoria like no other? Possibly, although it may also have been the jalapenos.

Jack The Lad #4: Subway comes to our high street

The future of East Grinstead: good or bad? (Image credit to East Grinstead Online)

The future of East Grinstead: good or bad? (Image credit to East Grinstead Online)

My latest column for my local paper, the East Grinstead Courier, reflects on the sudden arrival of Subway to the town’s high street and weighs up the pros and cons: sure, the less empty shops in town the better, but then we already have a sandwich shop!

Have a read and let me know your thoughts:

http://www.eastgrinsteadcourier.co.uk/COLUMN-Jack-Graysmark-shop-better-shop/story-27862705-detail/story.html

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If you enjoyed this post, give it a like and let me know your thoughts in a comment below! You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and I also have a whole host of videos to enjoy on my YouTube channel. Go on, you might be pleasantly surprised!

The highs and lows of Bestival 2015

With the Reverend of Bestival's Inflatable Church of Rubber Love.

With the Reverend of Bestival’s Inflatable Church of Rubber Love.

After years of asking, I finally said yes to my friend James’s hand in marriage in Bestival’s Church of Rubber Love. I know it might seem sudden, but we were both drunk, it was a one-time offer, and it was a giant inflatable church. In fact, we were actually there for another ceremony; not for anyone that we knew though. Like many other party-goers, we were just gatecrashing one of the numerous services that took place across the weekend. As our arms formed an arch and we toasted the newlyweds to Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love,” I felt myself fully embracing Bestival’s summer of love theme. It’s safe to say it was a wild weekend.

It’s been twelve years since Bestival began welcoming indie and dance lovers to its site at Robin Hill Country Park on the Isle of Wight, and this year was as good as any. The fact you have to get a ferry across to the site even makes it feel like a holiday of sorts! Considering Glastonbury has been my go-to festival for the last couple of years, the first thing that hit me upon arriving is how small the festival seemed to me; I was truly shocked that it didn’t take over an hour to walk from one side of the side to the other.

World's biggest mirrorball. Official and that.

World’s biggest mirrorball. Official and that.

But as you’d expect with an event of this kind, there was more than enough to keep me and my friend James occupied over the weekend. Once into the main arena, you wander across different themed areas, such as the manic dance oriented Port and Bollywood Field, opposite the more chilled out vibes of Slow Motion. Just when you think you’ve seen everything, you suddenly stumble across something different on the umpteenth visit. On the Saturday we stumbled across a cosy psychedelic salon fresh out of the 19th century called The People’s Frontroom; it was so welcoming we spent most of that night and the next in its quarters.

Considering the plethora of dance, guitar and hip hop talent that permeated the line up, the biggest crowd I saw were the masses that squeezed into the Big Top for… the Chuckle Brothers. Over a brisk ten minute set (half of which was splitting the crowd in half so that we could volley “to me” and “to you” back at each other), there was a song focused around their phrase “no slacking,” a dance number featured Paul and Barry miming on keyboards and drums, and their Tinchy Stryder collaboration from last year, featuring the man himself… or at least the music video playing over the track. Like a bubbling pot of surreal and nostalgia, I just didn’t know what to think.

Tame Impala, letting it happen.

Tame Impala, letting it happen.

Overall, the weekend went without any unusual incidents, until I was backstage on Sunday. My friend James’s sister, Sarah, was managing a few of the acts on that day, and had managed to nab us a few backstage passes, giving us some exciting side of stage views and access to the VIP bar. All very enjoyable, but it became a nightmare for me when later on, as I dashed into The People’s Frontroom out of the rain as the heavens opened, I realised I had left my jacket in the VIP bar. What then followed was half an hour of frantic negotiations and exasperated searching, as security had stepped up and I was told I had to use a different entry route, which proved a nightmare to find.

However, I eventually made my way into the VIP bar, and my frantic efforts were rewarded. As I stumbled across the seating area looking highly frustrated, two kind ladies produced my jacket from under the seat next to them. Judging from my reaction, you would think they had offered me piles of gold. My mood was beyond jubilant; it was euphoria of the most blissful kind. So blissful in fact, that I moved off at such a pace that I promptly slipped over and splashed into the thick mud just outside the Big Top. Of course I was wearing jet black skinny jeans! I still haven’t got all of the mud off.

But looking back on it, when I think about how much fun I had across the whole weekend, Bestival was definitely worth the frantic washing session on the following Monday. The fancy dress costume only adds to the sense of making it feel completely separate from normal life, and the world would be worse off if there wasn’t a place where you could wear bright floral shirts, cover yourself in peace symbols and dance away to Tame Impala, The Chemical Brothers and the Chucklevision theme tune as the summer comes to a close.

Just give it a rest: dealing with insomnia

It's like a relationship that only lasts a few hours.

It’s like a relationship that only lasts a few hours.

The first time I had insomnia was truly one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. After all, sleep for many of us is just something we naturally do without thinking about; to suddenly lie down and find yourself unable to, staring at the ceiling as the minutes drag by and writhing under the bedcovers as you attempt to find a comfortable position, just leaves you confused and anxious. Why is it happening to me? What have I done to deserve this? How can I have lost such a basic ability that not only unites all humans, but most animals?

I was freaked out enough to knock on my housemate’s door and ask if they were having trouble sleeping (thankfully, being the night owls third year students are, they were still awake themselves, pondering over notes for an impending essay). It’s never been that bad since; instead, the sense of anguish has been replaced by frustration. The only comfort I take during it is the grim acknowledgement that I am not alone. One 2011 survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than 30% of Britons suffer from insomnia or another serious sleep problem. It’s a habit that seems to be on the rise more and more.

But is it hardly surprising? We live in a world that increasingly refuses to switch off; businesses, media and events go on at all hours of the night. No longer is there an end point where there is nothing on television and shops close up for the evening. On top of that, many of us push our bodies to the limits- some with good intentions to bring their families as much money as possible; others just to hold on to the euphoria of a good night out. It’s amazing how little some people seem to care about a lack of sleep, considering how important it is.

The rest of my family, by contrast, have no issues with their sleep- my Dad and sister even drop off the moment they pull back the blankets. Sometimes, I think if I was a superhero with any power in the world, I wouldn’t want strength or speed- just to sleep on demand. It isn’t just the experience itself that is unbearable though; it’s the aftermath; a day of restlessness as you constantly rub your eyes and squint into the daylight, praying that night will be okay.

My first serious bout of insomnia happened towards the end of the first semester of my final year of university. As if impending course deadlines and job applications weren’t enough, I was also running a student radio station, writing articles for local magazines and trying to update my YouTube channel as much as possible. I was just able to hack it, and worked as hard as I could to get everything done, but I was so focused throughout the day that come the evening, I just couldn’t switch off.

Ultimately, it made for one of the worst weeks of my life. After four days of getting no more than three or four hours a night, I had my first night with no sleep whatsoever. My emotions were already hanging by a thread; my stammer, which rarely makes an appearance nowadays, was at its peak. Thankfully I did manage to get some shut eye that night, but it was still disruptive, and it wasn’t until I’d finished my exams- sorry, exam- in late January that my sleeping pattern returned to normal.

Now, insomnia only rears its ugly head on rare occasions- usually when I’m getting too philosophical for my own good about what it is I’m doing with my life. Thankfully, there are a few things that I have learned along the way that help massively that I thought I would share, just in case you’re going through the dreaded cycle:

1) Switching off. It’s so easy, with the amount of devices at our disposal, to keep checking Facebook or find something on Netflix if you find you can’t get a good night’s kip. Instead, this only makes the matter worse as the light triggers your body into staying awake. I make sure to switch off my devices at least half an hour before bed and leave my phone charging on the other side of my bedroom; this also helps in the morning when my alarm goes off, as I have to force myself out of bed to stop it.

2) The power of exercise. Quite simply, the body needs to burn energy. Doing some form of cardio most days a week, even for half an hour, has worked wonders on my overall health and not just with sleeping. It certainly makes you feel more ready for bed when the evening arrives.

3) Powering down. Once my devices are all off, I usually settle into one of the artefacts of a bygone age called a book. After I’ve knocked off a few chapters, I spend about a minute breathing in and out as slowly as possible; inhale right to the point where you can feel the back of your throat, hold it for about five seconds, then exhale. Do that a few times, just focusing on the action and everything on your mind just evaporates.

4) The bed itself. Sometimes, something as simple as cooling your room by opening a window can make all the difference to nodding off, but it can be hard to realise this when all your efforts are focused on falling asleep in the first place. Take a blanket off (or put a blanket on), open the window… try something to alter the temperature of your bed and see the difference it makes.

5) Embrace it. They say keeping an eye on the clock only makes you more anxious, but if it feels like you’ve been lying there for ages and it really has been half an hour or so, then it’s clear you’re not in the right state to go to sleep. Get up, read a book or meditate or just do something that’s not in your actual bed- change your environment until you start to feel tired again.

I hope this helps somewhat, but remember above everything else; the body has to sleep, and it will do of its own accord in the end, no matter what tricks your mind might play. And while it might be horrible while going through the cycle, it will eventually come to a halt; something I wish I could tell the final year student version of me. In the scheme of things, it’s just another lesson to learn.

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If you enjoyed this post, give it a like and let me know your thoughts in a comment below! You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, and I also have a whole host of videos to enjoy on my YouTube channel. Go on, treat yourself!

An Unexpected Visitor, or “There’s a fox in our bathroom!”

Fox In The Bathroom

“Hannah? Are you awake?”

“For God’s sake Max, it’s two in the morning. Tomorrow, I’ve got to fire someone so I can hire someone else who I will probably end up firing further down the line. It’s only four hours until I have to face the music, so whatever it is, I guarantee I won’t be interested at the moment!”

“Hannah, there’s a fox in our bathroom.”

“Max, I’m really not in the mood for this- did you say there’s a fox in our bathroom?”

“Yeah, like a real wild fox. I could hear something scampering around and when I peaked around the door I saw two startled eyes staring back at me.”

“You sure it wasn’t June and Peter’s cat? The one that got into number 42’s compost heap?”

“Hannah, believe me, I know it’s a fox. Bright orange, busy tail and all.”

“And why are you telling me this Max?”

“Well, funnily enough I don’t really know what to do with it!”

“Since when have I been a fox expert Max? I’ve got enough responsibilities around here as it is!”

“I just thought you might have some ideas… and the thing is… I kind of need to go.”

“Then give him five minutes, knock again and see how long he’s going to be.”

“Hannah, I’m serious…”

“Well honestly Max, what do you expect me to do?”

Middle class suburbia. Sunny south. Gets the Telegraph delivered (except on Sundays). Jobs going well, thinking of starting a family, all the details ironed out. Everything flows like clockwork. Then there’s a fox in the bathroom. This isn’t just an unusual work-up call; this is a test.

“How on earth did the fox get in in the first place?”

“How should I know that?”

“You didn’t have the decency to ask? I’m pretty sure that’s breaking and entering, I don’t care if he has four feet.”

“Look Hannah, I know this might be funny to you, but I just want to sort it out!”

“Oh yeah, because being woken up in the middle of the night to sort out a fox with malicious intentions is a barrel of laughs! Well, what have you done so far?”

“Nothing really, just… gave it a quick Google… I put something about it on Twitter, but no one’s got back to me.”

“At half two in the morning?! I wonder why?!”

Raised voice, flared nostrils, stress levels rising. You wonder if these two are meant to last. Because if they can’t sort out a fox in their bathroom, then what does that say about longevity?

“Look Max, the last thing I want to do at this hour is chase a fox round the house as we try to usher it out into the garden. It’s probably more frightened of us than we are of it. Look, leave it for now, and we’ll call the RSPCA first thing in the morning and get them to sort it out.”

“Why the RSPCA? We’re not asking them to adopt a fox!”

“Do you have any better ideas?”

“Well I’m certainly not letting my privates dangle out in front of a fox if that’s what you’re thinking. That’s a gamble in No Man’s Land that is. I’m not making the charge.”

“Why can’t you just go in the garden? We could do with a bit of fertiliser, just make sure it’s over by the compost heap, or by where the compost heap would be if we had time to make a compost heap.”

“Hannah, are you really asking me to urinate over the flower bed? To defecate over the dandelions? We’re not savages, for heaven’s sake! What would the neighbours say?”

“Oh yes Max, the neighbours! The ones we see so frequently, like the time we popped round for afternoon tea and inane chit chat about how the kids are doing, how good the new kitchen looks, and- oh wow, is that a new lawn mower? What was that, two years ago now? And besides, even if you do happen to talk to the neighbours, are you seriously telling me that you would drop it in the middle of the conversation? I mean don’t be so-“

“Shush… Harriet… I can hear it moving.”

“Well, I hope it remembers to flush. Look, if it’s stuck in there now I highly doubt it will be able to get itself out. Barricade the door if you have to, but I’m going back to sleep.”

An hour passes. A whole blissful uninterrupted hour. Dreams of exceeding targets, satisfied clients, that golden ticket to promotion. Then…

“Max? Where on earth have you been?”

“Round to the neighbours.”

“At three in the morning?!”

“Well, I needed to go didn’t I?”

“I thought I said to go out in the garden?”

“Hannah, I know there’s a fox in our toilet but that doesn’t mean we have to stop being decent! June and Paul were perfectly understanding once I explained the situation. Anyway, you were the one bemoaning the fact that we never see our neighbours…”

“Yeah, but I didn’t mean going over for a chat at this time of night! You know how they love a bit of gossip, everyone on the road will know before long.”

“Ah well, seeing as they even leant me a spade to defend myself against the fox I think that’s a fair compromise.”

“I never thought I would see the day my fiancée would stand over me in his boxers, with a spade at his side, ready to defend us against a blinking fox. Just… try and get some rest, okay?”

Sunrise, birds chirping, morning. Strong cup of coffee, definitely not decaf. Just another day in the office for you madam? Home time, feet up… fox in the bathroom.

“Is that fox still there then?”

“Course it isn’t, I called the RSPCA first thing. Bloke came round and sorted it this afternoon.”

“Thank God you work from home now; I don’t think I could stand another night of it!”

“Yeah well, how often does a fox end up in your bathroom anyway? That’ll be one to tell the kids.”

“How was it anyway? Didn’t cause too much trouble?”

“Nah the guy was straight in and straight out. Wasn’t deterred by the situation at all. Although I did have a fair bit of cleaning to do after they left…”

“Don’t even go there Max, I have NO desire to hear about what that fox got up to in there. I’m just glad you did it.”

“You know I’d do anything for you Hannah.”

“Oh honestly Max, give it a rest.”

“Don’t go breaking my heart Hannah.”

“Don’t you start quoting Elton John on me Max, you know what that does to me!”

“It’s a little bit funny, this feeling inside…”

They laugh, they chat, they reconcile. The night brings well deserved rest without any intruders. Days go by, weeks roll on and months turn to years. But there will always be that night when their relationship was strained. Pushed as it only can be at that hour. Resolved after many a bad word was said. But if you can get past that, then there is hope, and lots of it. But NEVER underestimate the effect of a fox getting stuck in your bathroom.

Lost in the Lake District, or “why you should switch off your mobile phone on your next holiday”

Looking down towards Windermere

Looking down towards Windermere. This photo doesn’t do justice as to how windy it was.

Nowhere in the UK has more of an established identity than the Lake District. Sure, it might not be as boisterous as Yorkshire, but the breath-taking landscapes fill you with a different kind of energy; an enthusiasm that feeds off your sense of wonder. Tucked away in a corner of the North West, it seems to comfortably exist within its own idyllic framework and away from the usual hubbub of day to day life, reacting nonchalantly to events in the rest of England. Even though it’s just off the M6, it seems quite isolated; and while that may be daunting and unfavorable for some, for me it creates the perfect environment for a good holiday.

My parents rented a cottage overlooking the village of Coniston last year, and as they were so enamored with the area and had so much still left to explore, they decided to return this summer. As I’d only gone for a weekend visit due to being on an internship at the time, this year was it for me- a proper rural retreat, the first chance in a long while to have nothing of importance to do. When you’re always busy, you forget the importance of just doing nothing, and switching off for a bit.

It’s fair to say the area is overflowing with pride for its local heritage, and why wouldn’t it be? It’s the Lake District. Even those who haven’t been there still go into a mesmeric trance as they ponder the peace and tranquility that makes the place seem so separated from the rest of the country. Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s countryside retreat, was a highlight for me- cosy and quaint but bursting with character, and I loved the fact that she used it as a setting for several of her stories. It’s a tiny cottage, but given the number of tourists who were trying to peak in, you’d think it was a palace.

Looking down to Grasmere

Looking down to Lake Grasmere; the village that shares its name is hidden from view

We also decided to venture out to Cockermouth to take in William Wordsworth’s childhood home. Only the most naive and idealistic visitors would not be slightly skeptical about how much the house influenced Wordsworth’s work, but it still provided an intriguing insight into life in the 1770’s and a thorough dissecting of Wordsworth’s forming years. As a writer I could only envy the literature Potter and Wordsworth created, and a small part of me harbors an ambition to be renowned enough so that one day, my house is left to the National Trust. One can dream anyway.

But you can’t go to the Lake District without spending most of your time walking; it’s the best way to take in the scenery, one slow step at a time. It never fails to leave an impact, and even though you get used to it after a few days, you can’t help but marvel at it, even when you’re gawp at sheep standing in precariously perilous positions. Although the best views are to be found at the top, it was a gentle stroll along the banks of the Great Langdale valley that proved to be a highlight for me; it was so far removed from anything else that all forms of connection on my phone failed completely.

As our obsession for social media continues to thrive, it can feel like you are never truly immersed in what you are doing if you are constantly checking what everyone else is doing. Sure, you may want to share whatever you are doing with someone else, but can it really be THAT good if you’re able to tear your eyes away from it to add a filter? It’s amazing to consider it, but as my last bar of phone signal cut out and 3G seemed like a distant memory, I did not feel alone or out of touch in any way; if anything, I felt more relaxed, almost free of a burden. I mean imagine it, a life without a mobile phone? It doesn’t sound possible in this day and age.

Wordsworth House

I’m not the only one it seems. The acclaimed band Foals recently played a balloted show at Shoreditch’s Village Underground to showcase their new album “What Went Down,” where there was a strict “no mobile phone” policy; if you bring one along, you have to surrender it on the door. The few who ignored this and tried to grab a few snaps soon realized how seriously the band were taking this measure, as bouncers swooped throughout the set. It’s not so much as a way of encouraging fans to focus on the moment at hand, as laying down a new law and making their feelings on the matter clear.

But dare I say it, this could be a fantastic solution. Recently I watched a stream of a Disclosure set in Ibiza and considering how much emphasis dance music places on movement (not to mention the island’s reputation), the crowd was practically rigid. The drop came, and it barely registered. Really, why should phones be allowed? You wouldn’t send a Snapchat of a cinema trip or a West End show. Why should the standards be different for live music?

I’m not being some kind of culture snob either. I love sharing photos on Instagram and summarizing my weekend in 140 characters as much as the next social media addict. I just think you need to judge if the moment allows you the time to take a picture. After all, some of those who treasure the Lake District as a hill walker’s paradise will also love it for being perfect selfie fodder. But never underestimate the sense of freedom when you switch off. Sometimes, when the older generation say they don’t understand it, they don’t mean it simply from a technological point of view.

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Keep up with my exploits by following me on Twitter and Instagram! For vlogs for every occasion, check out my YouTube channel “ZeppelinG1993.”

Choosing ignorance over reality; why I won’t be reading “Go Set A Watchman”

The author of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee.

The author of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee.

Whenever a teacher forces you to do something in a lesson, you approach it with suspicion. Why would they make you do it, other than if they thought you wouldn’t want to do it in the first place? I remember being told that my GCSE English class would be reading To Kill A Mockingbird ahead of our exams- the only group in my year to be doing so, with Of Mice And Men and Lord Of The Flies being delegated to other groups. Warning signs were evident from the get go, and rumours flew along the tables of the grueling task that awaited us. Then of course I read it, and it turns out I need not have worried.

Saying To Kill A Mockingbird helped me to rediscover my love of reading might sound like some overused hyperbole, but its reputation shows that my opinion is not a lone voice. It wasn’t just the colourful cast of characters that entertained, inspired and intrigued in equal measure, with the mystery of Boo Radley still pervaded ominously throughout Tom Robinson’s trial. Nor was it just how vivid the setting was bought to life, acting as a key factor for particular scenes (such as the jail house) rather than just a backdrop. It was the message of peace, tolerance and acceptance that permeated each page and helped me to fully appreciate the power of literature. Understandably, it has bought its author Harper Lee acclaim and praise of the highest order- all of which has been somewhat tarnished with the release of its follow up, Go Set A Watchman.

But is it really a sequel? Maybe an appendix would be a more appropriate title, given how many have described it as a series of anecdotes and ideas bound together. This is just one of numerous concerns I have regarding the novel’s publication, fifty five years after the original book. Why has it taken all this time, considering she has consistently vowed never to write another book, and that this new book is based on a manuscript that was previously rejected? These questions were enough for me to distance myself from it, and I didn’t think anything of it until some further details emerged regarding one of the book’s central characters.

Atticus Finch is arguably one of the best characters in literature. A beam of positive spirit, greeting everyone with a gentle smile regardless of their background, his direction in life was always towards what was right- not just for his family, but society in general. In To Kill A Mockingbird, he is gentle but firm, calm yet decisive; peaceful, yet commanding a sense of respect and understanding. His attitude wasn’t just demonstrating how we should act; it was demonstrating why we should act in this way. Given the character’s legacy, it was all the more shocking to hear of his transformation in Go Set A Watchmen, where an elderly stubborn Atticus now shares views that are more in line with some of his fellow citizens in the original novel; in other words, a racist.

Now, authors, musicians, filmmakers, anyone creative for that matter, can create a stone cold classic and then stumble on the follow up; hence why “the difficult second album” has become such a common expression among bands. However, this is usually not such a problematic issue because it usually concerns an entirely different piece of work; the acclaimed status of the previous piece remains. Yet here, a classic character of literature has been twisted and warped into a shadow of what he once was. Even his original incarnation is harder to aspire to when you have the full picture in mind.

Thankfully, I see a way out of this, where I can avoid the new incarnation of Atticus Finch from ruining my perception of the character from the original novel. It may not be a popular path of action, and one that I would usually scorn as hopeless and narrow minded, but there are always exceptions to rules. So what is my master stroke? Not reading it altogether. Avoiding the backlash online might be a bit trickier, but if I consciously choose to feign ignorance, my original memories will not be affected; or in any case, the least amount of damage will be done.

Granted, I may be running away from the issue rather than resolving it altogether, and above all Go Set A Watchman may present a series of events more akin to reality; a collection of hard truths that some hastily brush under the carpet when in the public view. I certainly can’t just shrug my shoulders and bemoan “Oh, it’s just a book.” By that same logic, none of the themes present within To Kill A Mockingbird would matter- and though some of the frantic scribbles of analysis may have been instigated by my teachers, the messages still seem clear as ever now.

Personally, I would like to continue to aspire to a figure that champions racial equality and therefore equality in general, so I am determined that my own perception of Atticus Finch will remain as it has been for so many years. It is not as if he is a real person that has suffered a fall from grace; as a character, each reader’s perception of Atticus Finch is a result of their own individual interpretation of him, regardless of how many may share it, and it exists firmly in our imaginations. I was forced to read To Kill A Mockingbird and its impact has yet to fade. Now, with my own choice in the matter, Go Set A Watchman has no place in my mind.

Jack The Lad #3: Savouring the sight of St Swithuns

Always a proud moment

Always a proud moment

My latest column for my local paper, the East Grinstead Courier, looks at the importance of moving a town forward while maintaining its identity- in particular the architecture that defines it.

Can you imagine the news of a familiar locale being torn down to make way for yet more property no longer provoking a reaction? Yet sadly, as such announcements become the daily norm, it is hardly surprising that the reaction has dried up and stagnated.

The Wallis Centre? The Parish Halls? The Rose and Crown? Going, going, and gone before you know it. Outrage becomes grumbling, before grumbling becomes roll of the eyes. Such developments are now taken for granted as part of modern life in East Grinstead.

But one recent proposal particularly caught my attention because of how it concerns our beloved St Swithuns. The proposal would see a property in Cantelupe Road extended vertically, with five new apartments on top. The nagging issue?  The town council is worried it would obscure views of the church.

There’s no denying that as the population expands, so must East Grinstead, and the town’s future will always be an important issue, but as soon as money is on the table, new plans take priority and charge ahead, leaving behind the cherished architecture that defines the town. But can you imagine having the view to such a prominent piece of the town’s fabric blocked by a wannabe skyscraper?

I’m lucky that I can always catch a glimpse of the almighty spire of St Swithun’s from my bedroom; though the church spires are merely a speck in the distance, it is still a beautiful sight to behold. Whether you’re part of the congregation or not, there is no denying that it remains a prominent part of the town’s character.

The town’s development needs to be in a way that does not fragment the overall identity of East Grinstead; that is what keeps people in the area after all. You can start off with the derelict houses dotted about the town’s estates; I passed a ghastly site on Grosvenor Road in Gardenwood the other day that could easily be turned into two apartments. Or what about the old wool shop on Green Hedges Avenue, sold last year but seemingly forgotten?

The big question is, if Cantelupe Road gets the thumbs up, what’s to say more applications won’t be pushed through? Before we know it, St Swithuns could be cowering in the shadows of stocky, monotonous monoliths, heralding a new age where you hear church bells and have no idea where they are coming from.

Such a sight is common in the capital or any city for that matter; but we are not a city. We’re East Grinstead, a small town that basks in the rays of an impressive history. If you keep hacking away at it, it will all seep out, and you’ll be left with just another small town.

Thankfully, the council rejected the proposal, but now the idea is out in the open, what’s to say that I won’t resurface? We moan enough about all manner things in our town as it is; therefore, we should do all we can to nurture the few strands of it we still admire and cherish.

“Illinois” by Sufjan Stevens; a modern classic, ten years on

My battered yet beloved copy

My battered yet beloved copy

Front, back, inside; Illinois from every angle

Front, back, inside; Illinois from every angle

Some music enthusiasts can pull their favourite artist and album out of thin air with astonishing confidence; the epiphany of the first time listen, the fervor that swelled within their heart, what each track truly means to them. I can now count myself one of those lucky few, though the question used to make me break out in a cold sweat, until a sudden moment of clarity earlier this year… Sufjan Stevens, the multi-instrumentalist maestro who makes masterpieces of every genre he delves into. He has to be my choice, and his stunning fifth album Illinois (or “Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise” if you will) is my all-time favourite album.

I was shocked to realize that today, the album is ten years old; although this is hardly surprising for me, given I have only known the album for five of those years. A faux-goth on the cusp of my teenagers, I was not caught in the firing line of over-exuberant critics that hailed Illinois; instead, it was early 2010, several months before the release of Steven’s follow up, Age Of Adz, listening to the album’s title track that my curiosity with Sufjan Stevens began.

With nothing else from Age of Adz on offer, I ventured into Stevens’ back catalogue, and of course the first result was “Chicago”, still his most prominent song thanks to the Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack and a fantastic gateway to the rest of Illinois. I was eager to get my own copy of the album, and amazingly my lucky streak continued; as your average small town, East Grinstead is not regarded as a haven for physical music, and the only option for finding CDs was scouring the pre-owned collections in the various charity shops. Yet as I casually browsed my local British Heart Foundation that week, there it was. Without a doubt, it’s still the best £2 I’ve ever spent.

A whimsical anecdote might not seem like the best way to open a celebration of a modern masterpiece, but I felt my own introduction to the album was the best way to kick things off, given Sufjan Stevens’ fascination with and considerable talent at crafting stories through his songs. The second release in his Fifty States Project- and given that it has now been ten years and a third hasn’t surfaced, probably his last – Stevens uses the state as a backdrop for exploring his own personal anecdotes.

The lyrics to Chicago and Casimir Pulaski Day; one of the best double acts in music

The lyrics to Chicago and Casimir Pulaski Day; one of the best double acts in music

Sufjan Stevens alongside John Wayne... there's something incredibly creepy about this, given the context.

Sufjan Stevens alongside John Wayne… there’s something incredibly creepy about this, given the context.

Regardless of the cities (“Chicago”), superheroes (“The Man Of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts”) and, ahem, its serial killers (“John Wayne Gacy Jr.”), his songs only have a location through dashes of setting; give them a name, and really you could place them anywhere. That’s not to say Illinois is tacked on as an afterthought though; Sufjans actually heavily researched the state, reading around the subject and even going on road trips to broaden his own perspective. But it’s the strength of the narrative, a double assault with the richness of the melodies, which have the most effect; you feel his words could be lifted from works of literature.

But don’t mistake this as Stevens being pompous or patronising; it’s more that Stevens attempts to create as striking a picture as possible, to make stories rather than just songs. Take “Casimir Pulaski Day”, for example, and its opening line: “Goldenrod and the 4H stone; the things I brought you, when I found out you had cancer of the bone.” Considering it’s just Stevens and a guitar that opens the track, the bleakness of that line still leaves your emotions winded. On a day of celebration for many, Stevens finds himself contemplating the loss of his teenage girlfriend, the loss of innocence… perhaps even the loss of his faith, however briefly. “We pray over your body/but nothing ever happens” reads simply, but woven into the sombre melody it is incredibly powerful in conveying Stevens’ doubt in his Lord.

All this, from just one track on the album. You could fill a dissertation on the themes that emerge throughout the album, from his encounter with Carl Sandberg on “Come On! Feel The Illinois!”, what the wasp represents in  “The Predatory Wasps of the Palisades Are Out To Get Us!” and likening himself to a serial killer on “John Wayne Gacy Jr” (a particularly prominent point that is best discussed elsewhere). You don’t find many of the messages on Illinois straightaway, but gradually with repeated listens. The record itself almost acts as a veil unto itself; it’s pleasurable as a background listen, but you have to stop and fully concentrate to understand at the signals it sends. It’s a record that’s able to think for itself, without sacrificing any emotional capacity in the process.

You might not place much importance on nationality, in terms of listening to an album, but compare my first encounter as an inquisitive Englishman in 2010 with the average American in 2005 as can be. I had none of the angst and anguish that those who were shocked by George Bush’s re-election had, nor had I the familiarity with the locales and spirit of the 11th state. Maybe the lack of context meant I had even more to wrap my head around, unravelling the essence of a far-off land that was both similar and alien at the same time… would it be surprising if that made the impact even greater?

Abraham Lincoln is coming to town

Abraham Lincoln is coming to town

Black Hawk. Sauk leader, war warrior, Sufjan Stevens subject.

Black Hawk. Sauk leader, war warrior, Sufjan Stevens subject.

It’s no understatement when I say Illinois is a truly audacious spectacle of sounds, meandering mournfully before suddenly moving into an orchestral gallop. It’s ambitious- there was so much material recorded, that Stevens had enough to release a “sequel” of sorts the following year, featuring outtakes and rearrangements, called The Avalanche–  but what’s even more impressive is that it meets its ambitions, before adding even more instruments to the fro.

A classically trained oboist, Stevens’ knowledge of the classical form is evident in the complexity of some of the time signatures and how each instrument fits into the overall track; Stevens himself played over twenty instruments on the record. Just try and imagine what that must be like to replicate live; it’s virtually impossible to come anywhere close. Because of that, the record feels even more like a unique experience that you can only truly enjoy in one medium.

When it was released in 2005, the reviews were unanimous in their praise; many publications, as wide ranging as NME, Pitchfork and even Amazon named it as one of their albums of the year (the latter two even gave it the coveted top spot). Mentions on “best of the decade” lists later followed, and even as he released his seventh album this year, the phenomenal Carrie and Lovell, the first place for comparison was always with Illinois; because for an artist that dabbles in so many genres, it is hardly surprising that a piece that combines so many has become his signature.

At twenty one tracks and nearly 74 minutes, it certainly requires commitment, but if you give it your time and it will certainly give a lot more back. Illinois is such a rich and varied release that you can easily dip in and out of, but the full experience comes from immersing yourself from start to finish. Many critics make bold claims about certain releases, but as I do not feel I am qualified enough yet to call myself one, I have no qualms in saying this: Illinois remains a triumph for the power of music ten years on, and an album with such an astonishing level of arrangement, boldness and creativity certainly deserves to be celebrated.

Glastonbury’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness

Bags unpacked, showered up, the first proper night’s kip in a week. I’ve now been back from Glastonbury for a couple of days and I’ve just started to rise out of the inevitable post-festival blues. Ah well, only 357 days until the next one and counting.

Glastonbury; always a ten, always worth it.

Glastonbury; always a ten, always worth it.

In any case, I’ve now had enough time to evaluate my experience at this year’s incarnation of the Worthy Farm festival (and watch an unhealthy amount of performances on iPlayer, considering the weather we’re having). This was my second time at Glastonbury, after going last year and vowing to return at every chance I got. I relished each sight as I descended Pennard Hill, from the Tipis and Park area in the south to the cluster of stages in the Silver Hayes and John Peel to the north, and everything in-between. Honestly, the impact was just as powerful as when I first laid eyes on it; only this year, it felt more like a welcome home.

But during your inaugural Glastonbury experience, it’s just enough trying to take it all in and find your way around the site, let alone pin down any clear objectives for just what you want to achieve over the five days you are there. There are many who are happy to go with the flow of the festival, but I am not one of those lucky few. As soon as the full line up was announced, I was analysing every stage to decide on my plan of action for each day; in particular, I wanted to spend much more time at the smaller, more unusual stages, and fully make the most of what Glastonbury has to offer.

If this was, shall we say, a “regular” mainstream festival, say at Reading and Leeds which has eight stages, or even Bestival which has twenty one to its name, then this wouldn’t be such a difficult job. But Glastonbury has over ninety stages. It’s impossible to cover every single one. You can certainly try though; some hurtle from stage to stage, trying to sample tastes of as many acts as possible along the way. Personally, I place a great deal of emphasis on enjoying a set from start to finish and taking it all in, so the idea of adding more stress by trying to see everything is incredibly off putting.

The Palo Voladores, an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony. It's almost "too" Glastonbury.

The Palo Voladores, an ancient Mesoamerican ceremony. It’s almost “too” Glastonbury.

But can you see the problem emerging here? In trying to decide what to do, it can be nerve-wracking just trying to come to a decision. What if the act you finally choose turns out to be a pile of rubbish (enough with the comments about Kanye already!) and you end up missing one of the highlights of the festival elsewhere? Glastonbury’s greatest strength is the sheer variety of things you can do there, but this also acts as the festival’s greatest weakness for the indecisive; there is simply too much to do.

I’m not just talking about bands as well; away from the main stages, all manner of things from Buddhist meditation to Mesoamerican ceremonies and salsa classes tempt your fancy. Considering the breadth of activities available for you to try, are you wasting your ticket if you stick strictly to the main musical trail? The stress truly is real; my parents went again this year, and spent every evening the week before in anguish as they weighed up clashes, even revisiting albums to try and come to a decision.

Yet maybe I am just nit picking; with a glorious balloon that swells with music, culture and celebrations, I have to be the one that looks for the needle to let out some of the air. After all, the sheer variety of things on offer isn’t just a strength of Glastonbury; it is its definitive calling card. To have it any other way would be ridiculous; in fact, what I love about the festival so much is that you CAN have it any way you want it.

Is it him you're looking for?

Is it him you’re looking for?

Call me crazy, but I was one of the few who didn’t witness Lionel Richie’s Sunday afternoon performance. I spent that particular slot with George The Poet in the Silver Hayes, and witnessed an astounding display of lyrical genius. Yes I missed one of the biggest sets of the weekend, but to linger on that minor detail would do George The Poet a great disservice; it wasn’t like I wasn’t enjoying myself elsewhere.

George The Poet was just one of numerous highlights across the weekend; Caribou, Songhoy Blues and FKA Twigs also stand out, but all in all there wasn’t a set that I didn’t enjoy to some degree. Now I’m home, the only stress that remains is whether I’ll be able to get a ticket for next year. Picture a trip to the beach in the height of summer; once you’ve swam around for a while and taken a break, you want to get back in as soon as possible, to explore the reefs and ride the waves. Ultimately, Glastonbury is a holiday unlike any other, and if it wasn’t bursting with too much to do in five days, it simply wouldn’t be the wonder that it is.

Preparing For London To Brighton #3: All The Way To Brighton

Early evening in Preston Park, coming into Brighton

Early evening in Preston Park, coming into Brighton

This time next week, me and James will be near the end of our London to Brighton ride; we may even be tackling Ditchling Beacon, striving to make our way to the top and questioning the very meaning of life and why we would ever choose to attempt such a thing. As such, we have now reached that point in training where we are still keeping active without stretching ourselves too much ahead of the big day; the peak has passed, and now it all rests on keeping motivated.

Over the last few weeks I have been gradually increasing the distance in my weekly rides, to the point where Wednesday’s journey covered over 45 miles. Having become thoroughly acquainted with Cycle Route 21, I decided to branch out and venture down Route 20, which runs from London to Brighton and crosses Route 21 as you approach Three Bridges. Starting on the regular jaunt along the worth way to Crawley, I turned off at Maidenbower and made my way into Tilgate Forest. As the suburbs give way to tranquil, lush woodland, you can’t help but feel relaxed by the general peace and quiet- save the occasional clip of golfers on the nearby course.

The only downside to Tilgate Forest lies south of the M23, where you enter a section dedicated to logging. Suddenly the woodland thins and the path becomes harsh and unrelenting, even boggy in a few places. Sadly, there was even one occasion where I had to dismount as I did not fancy ruining my bike with the big event so close. Apart from that episode, my cross bike just about handled the terrain. A mountain bike would be fine, but it would be a nightmare for a proper road bike.

Route 20 through Tilgate Forest

Route 20 through Tilgate Forest

GOLF! SPORTS! FLAGS!

GOLF! SPORTS! FLAGS!

Well, that sure looks welcoming...

Well, that sure looks welcoming…

This is a shame really, because once you are beyond this section, the rest of the route is beautiful smooth road; the stuff that cyclist’s dreams are made of. The gradient is either downhill or very gradually uphill, taking you through Handcross and the villages of Staplefield, Bolney and Hickstead, before following the A23 to Brighton. There are some truly fantastic views of the South Downs as you approach Brighton, and if you can forgive the occasional din of the dual-carriageway on some of the sections, then it makes for a lovely ride.

Once in Brighton, I briefly took in the marina before making my way to the train station; there is an immensely smug kind of satisfaction as you walk against the general stream of exasperated commuters as you casually walk along the platform. My plan was to get the train to Gatwick Airport, and follow route 21 back into Crawley and along the Worth Way. For some reason I naively believed this would be a piece of cake, but after getting thoroughly lost in the North terminal I had to ask for directions. It was probably quite a remarkable sight, watching a bemused cyclist fully clad in lycra wandering around arrivals and departures, gradually getting more and more desperate.

Once I was finally back on track, the route was relatively straightforward, save the ache in my legs which was gradually intensifying. I’m aware that 45 miles must sound a very daunting prospect to many, but as I have been adding half a dozen miles each week, it only seems a little bit further than my previous ride, and as I finally arrived home that evening, I felt like I could just about handle nine more. After all that cycling, you would probably imagine my body has transformed into an impressively athletic build, but as I used the ride as an excuse to get through half a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, I realize I still have some way to go with my willpower.

Village life, Handcross

Village life, Handcross

South Downs in the heart of Sussex

South Downs in the heart of Sussex

Brighton is love, Brighton is life

Brighton is love, Brighton is life

So far me and James have raised over £300 in sponsors, which we are immensely proud of, but given we are riding on behalf of such a fantastic cause it would be amazing if we could raise even more. On one Christmas Day, one of my close relatives suffered a heart attack, but thanks to the quick response of those that treated her she is still with us and just as jovial, nearly ten years later. Every penny towards the British Heart Foundation goes towards the fight against cardiovascular disease, and would be greatly appreciated- not just by myself, not just by James, but by everyone involved in the British Heart Foundation’s work and the recipients it benefits.

That’s it then; all that lies in between now and the ride is stretching, healthy eating and a bit of light training. Do I feel ready? Bring on the beacon is all I’ll say!

Jack The Lad #2: You’ve gotta fight for your mike

If you were given a moment in the spotlight, how would you use it?

I'm certainly a "vocal hero" of my town at least!

I’m certainly a “vocal hero” of my town at least!

Cities offer an abundance of opportunities for emerging musicians and artists, but for youngsters in the small towns and villages dotted across the country, it’s a completely different picture. As I argue in my second column for my local newspaper the East Grinstead Courier, whenever the circumstances are in your favour, you have to use it and hope with all your might.

The lights flash on and you’re ready to go. Centre of the stage with a guitar in your hand, you step up to the microphone and find yourself staring out across a sea of bemused faces, all ready to be entertained. Forget who’s played before, forget any previous context; the atmosphere, if not the night itself, now rests on you. Does that fill you with horror? Dread? Or perhaps excitement?

If it’s the latter, then perhaps it’s time to start doing some vocal exercises; now has never been a better time to be a musician in East Grinstead. My teenage years in the mid-noughties were punctuated randomly by the occasional showcase of local bands… usually whenever someone could convince the Wallis Centre or the Parish Hall to give them a shot.

Real opportunities for adolescents to demonstrate their musical talents were a rare treat. Who knows how many hidden gems slipped under the radar? Sure, it’s to be expected with small towns and villages, but the sad result is an abundance of proficient youngsters who are unable to utilize their skills and learn the craft of the live setting. After all, there’s only so much magic that can be wrung out of garage rehearsals and bedroom demos.

But now, things are certainly on the up. The Crow’s Nest, already reputable for putting on a diverse assortment of live acts, hosts a weekly Open Jam Night on Tuesdays. You can bring a group, perform solo or even join the resident band; if you’ve got the enthusiasm, there’s nothing to stop you. Or how about The Sussex Arms? Often overlooked, the pub is becoming a prominent location for emerging acts to break in their boots.

And then, there’s Ashstock. Last September saw the inaugural edition of the festival, where over a thousand revelers descended on John Pears field in Ashurst Wood, to enjoy a packed schedule of local acts and twenty kinds of ale from the surrounding area, including a batch brewed especially for the event. Suddenly, a quiet corner of Ashurst Wood was transformed into the most enjoyable event in Sussex; sometimes, the simplest of ingredients work wonders.

But asides from bringing the local community together (and a bit more besides), Ashstock’s aims was to give local youngsters a much needed platform, to give them their own moment in the spotlight. How they use it is up to them; the point is that there was one there in the first place, actively encouraging youngsters to have a go. Now back for a second outing, Ashstock is looking to fill its roster as it did before, and it’s not a prospect to be sniffed at.

Everyone knows how hard it is to catch a break in the music industry, and none more so than the wannabe musicians themselves. But if you can captivate a group of passing strangers, then surely you can take on any crowd that comes your way? And you never know who is going to stumble across your set; maybe someone with just the right connections to help you on to the next step.

It’s a shame there aren’t more of these events often. The buzz Ashstock generated shows that there’s certainly the demand for it. You can never guarantee how long these events will be providing an open door for, or whether that sea of bemused faces will be there in the first place. So, whenever an opportunity like this comes along, you have to make the most of it.

Merriment on Meridian

meridian fm logo

Just a quick post ahead of today and tomorrow’s escapades!

I’ve got a lot of love for my town’s community station, Meridian FM. When I first joined back in 2013 it was teetering on the edge, desperately clinging on for life as it fought against the odds. Now, the station is thriving, with more members and listeners than ever before, and as the station has now overhauled the play-out system, it truly feels like Meridian is moving forward, step by step.

I’m covering the drive show today from 3 till 6, talking to Kathleen Shuster from local amateur theatre company Rising Stars about their latest production Sweet Charity, which opens tonight at Chequer Mead. I’ll also have all the latest local news, weather and travel updates.

Tomorrow, I’m doing my own specialist show from 6 till 8, playing a mixture of more intimate and laid back sounds- from acoustic to electronic and R’n’B, new releases and old. Your favourite new song could be hidden away in the track listing, you never know!

Listen live in East Grinstead and the surrounding areas on 107 FM or via meridianfm.com