31st January 2020

Is it a day we expected or pretended wouldn’t happen?

The EU Referendum changed everything in 2016. But what if I said Brexit changed my life for the better? 

The news coverage of the final day of UK MEPs sitting in the European Parliament in Brussels was a strange culmination of the past 4 years of angry politics. There was dignity and fond farewells with our friends in Europe, the singing of Auld Lang Syne. Yet, there stood a man who had dedicated 27 years of his life pushing an agenda of division that he wants to claim as his own victory – I found myself having pity for tyrants. Especially when they are waving tiny Union Jack flags and being cut off from speaking. Pitiful. Couple that with watching a confused Anne Widdecombe not knowing when to stand and what to wave and when to shut up. This was the embarrassing worst of ‘Great’ Britain.  

In 2016 waking up to the sly resignation of Cameron as he stood at No.10 was a shock. We spent the day at a friend’s wedding, me trying to not stare everyone down silently accusing them of being leave voters. This was then just the start of the worst human aspect the campaign and future elections fed on: division. Us and them, leavers and remainers, Britain and the EU, racial, cultural and religious divides were back out in the open. Despite suspecting that they had never really gone away, it was suddenly here in media fury, debated on street corners, in the bile pit of twitter, commented on loudly in pubs and on every kitchen table in the land families were divided (my own included). Families divided not only by opinion but in the scariest way; by questioning their very future in a country they had called home and as of June 23rd 2016 no longer felt welcome in.   

Who knows what forces shift a change in circumstances – sometimes it is a series of things; building up to create momentum and for me the EU referendum came as a warning saying don’t wait. The sudden notion that I would not get to live in Europe was like a midnight lantern flickering, a beacon that went off and for me lit up some dark corners that I’d disregarded in favour of safer options.  The reasons stacked up and making it happen, even temporarily was quite honestly about asking and being brave. We were fed up of the commuter life in London, the endless churn of material goals, steadily filling up a house with things that did not bring us joy or even felt like a reward. What if we couldn’t retire to Europe when we were 65 (or 70?!) anymore, what would we do?  What was it all for? Before the UK left the EU we promised to at least try and after many years of holidaying in Greece it seemed like the right place to start. 

We have zipped between the UK and Greece since 2017, a divided life, the best of both. But always a happy, fulfilled, if sometimes complicated life.  When people ask how we live they are always intrigued. One woman I met on a plane exclaimed to me. “Blimey you’re not daft, that’s the best way to live!” Every day I have been an EU Citizen I am humble and thankful for what it allowed me to explore and experience. I have met wonderful strangers, many that became friends. Some are now grappling with residency, insurance and future red-tape they didn’t foresee after years of just being accepted. Imagine if we didn’t go to explore Greece, that we hadn’t just turned up there to see what happened. That we hadn’t had the freedom as EU Citizens to try a new life – explore new countries, to wander without restriction. That is what future generations will not know – the freedom to try lives and ways of living out. 

Now on the 31st January it is really here. The day the UK leaves the EU – I think it’s sad, emotional, disappointing. Others will pop champagne and sing songs that remind them of a land that never was. We are obsessed with the idea of the UK’s glory. Yet this is such a false romanticism – I cannot celebrate how sh*t Britain was for the generations before me. I am four generations from a poorhouse – three short lines away from a widow sifting tobacco in the docks in Tyneside, three long blood lines away from a family of Irish potato pickers who too poor for the ship fare to the New World came to Scotland in the famine, spreading out across the North East wherever there was work; coal miners, smelt workers, joining a family of itinerant cloth makers all the way from Norfolk, lasses sent ‘in-service’ and lads learning trade in the forge, heavy industry, driving busses. No-one in my family left the country before WW2 – they only ever travelled the across the Channel wearing uniforms and staying alive long enough to see snippits of the world from the bars of a window in a prison of war camp. Oh they were the days, Nigel. Glory days.  

Are the things that matter where you are from or where you are headed to?Migration is happening on global scales previously unknown from one place to the next, whether circumstances are forced, war, famine, persecution or for an opportunity for employment or are tempted by the whimsy and freedom to retire or start over again. These are different parts of the complex debate. At a very human level citizenship and identity are about otherness and belonging – us and them, and complications of offering and being granted freedom – with terms. When you close freedom down, like everything, it is a prison which impacts the poorest in society.

Of course I keep having the same conversation recently and people reassure me I can still move to (insert exotic EU city here) you could get a job there, so why are you worried? Nothing is going to change. But that isn’t what FoM really is about – freedom is a way of crossing borders without question, following opportunity, an idea, a love, a promise of a job, seeing the life offered in other lands, trying them out – seeing what fits. Who all of this affects most are the ones freedom could offer most to. Rich lives don’t have borders like the rest of us. A golden visa in Greece costs nothing; someone said this to me with a flick of the wrist as if £250K was the price of a coffee. True story.

The wealthier you are the more worlds can be opened easily. It is a closing down , a new boundary approach – and it’s scary. Nobody is saying you can’t move here or there – they are saying if you do you must be able, qualified and soluble, able to assimilate. Wealthy, wanted. Like us.

Even a few weeks ago we took the ferry from Dover to Calais – a trip I know now is my last as a proper EU citizen. It was so simple – lunch in Calais and back in time for dinner. We had it so good and never realised. Only history will be able to tell how this one ends. 

I imagine an alternative universe where there is another me walking a different corridor, in another job and in realising tomorrow the UK will have officially left the EU and I never spent that time there, now it’s all too late, I’d probably slyly scan my phone for price alerts for flights to Greece. Wishing, waiting, wanting…

Like I said Brexit might have been the best thing to happen to me.

A year in reading

There are infinite ways to measure how a year has been; it is personal and political, happy and sad, reflective, impatient and meandering, but always full of change. When December rolls around it becomes the time of year we tally up the weight and value of our lives; of what matters, how we live and how the tiny passing molecules of our very being barrel into the world like wild thoughts at 4am in a sleepless half-light. Ideas as brief and fleeting as our lives, only to quietly disappear again into dust. 

What can I say today as we wake to the result of the UK Election? Hope is buried under a stark polemic fought through social media memes and half-truths spun round an axis of soundbites seeming to offer little change. So I say nothing. But even as the 2010’s are ending I find myself thinking it is too early, too raw to grasp what will define this decade and what hope the next brings us. 2024 is a long time. 

So instead I want to reflect on reading this year. What I have enjoyed, devoured, struggled with and unlearned. See if any of my book recommendations resonate so you too can dive into words to not only escape, but to find what holds the fabric of our very human and messy lives together, the universality held in those pages. 

I cannot recommend highly enough the collection of mastery that is Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers; edited by Kit de Waal and features a big contrasting cross section of writers who identify as working class. From the familiar Malorie Blackman, Stuart Maconie, Lisa McInerney and Louise Doughty to new (to me) work from Lisa Blower and Tony Walsh. The great thing is that this anthology offered a few writers their first published pieces so includes new names that you may not have heard of yet but really need to; weep as you read Loretta Ramkissoon’s ‘Which Floor?’ and Riley Rockford’s ‘Domus Operandi’ – amazing unique voices gathered to shatter the middle-class mainstream of publishing. 

Kerry Hudson’s memoir Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns – is a must read for understanding the heartbreaking immediacy of poverty in the UK. Kerry narrates a vivid childhood spent moving around B&B’s and council housing, from Scotland to the North East and Coastal Towns. It is a succinctly crafted narrative that uncovers the deadening effects of austerity policies that have and continue to inflict misery on families. Not an easy tread but an absolutely vital one. If you haven’t read any of Kerry’s writing before also make sure you dive in to her other work, Tony Hogan and Thirst. She is also crafts an excellent Twitter feed as well as masterminding this years’ Breakthrough Festival for all marginalised aspiring writers. 

How to be Champion by Sarah Millican – because sometimes you need a funny woman to tell you it’s all going to be okay and it’s never too late to learn new tricks, like stand up comedy! 

I had a little Sarah Winman phase reading Tin Man which has a beautiful poetry and sense of place to it, it is a short novel about  loss and grief on the changing streets of Oxford. I followed it up with her earlier work from 2011, When God Was A Rabbit. More magical realism than I usually enjoy but still very well crafted and a real decade spanning family saga, with a beautiful narrative following siblings through childhood and adulthood events. Very immersive and well plotted with superb characters. 

Torch by Cheryl Strayed, just because Wild was so good and this is her fiction/memoir-ish novel of her mother’s death. Moving and raw with that spirit lifting prose she does so very well. 

Pat Barker is like a gift of an accomplished writer that keeps on giving. I started with her first novel, Union Street from 1982. Composed of a collection of interrelated narratives of Geordie women living on the same street. It holds nothing back with the brutal opening section detailing the abuse of Kelly, which binds and divides the characters it takes you into the heart of female working class lives, centering on how they cope and keep families together. Yet, contrast this with Barker’s latest offering The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of  Homer’s epic poem focuses on the cost of war to women through the story of Briseis, Achilles’ concubine. Brilliant narrative which lifts the tale into something modern and pressing; how women create their own spaces in times of struggle. Also on a similar theme of Greek mythology is the wonderfully poetic Circe: by Madeline Miller

Other highly things I have loved this year and recommended: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – slick, epistolary narrative capturing a relationship broken by a injustice in a race and class divided contemporary USA. Very now.
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott– intriguing tale of the downfall of Truman Capote, told by the enigmatic women he betrayed. Pretty dazzling and slanderous!
Ordinary People by Sally Rooney; I wanted to love it. And it some ways I loved her way of capturing her generation. But I found it frustrating in parts – still worth a read.

I have read so many brilliant (and some not so,) short stories this year. One highlight for me has been The Hotel by Anne Enright; https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/06/the-hotel

Deborah Myer’s living memoirs parts one, Things I don’t Want to Know and two, The Cost of Living have brought me endless joy and I anticipate reading the third with a thrill- her candidness is to be admired.

Of course there is a Greek theme here too. Discovering Brenda Chamberlain’s writing has been an absolute gem. Her relatively unknown artistic  life and writing deserves much more attention – Rope of Vines has made me realise that there is a real place for women writing about the 60s dream on Hydra. Her version should be read before you think too long about Leonard Cohen and the masculine free-love narratives of artistic freedom. Her voice is of its time and provides a valuable counterpoint  – one of isolation and self-reliance, and holds a spirit of adventure of such rarity in sparse prose making her worthy of much more praise. I have just picked up the first full-length biography of Brenda Chamberlain by Jill Peircy to uncover more about her.

Compliment that with Mabel Bent’s Chronicles; rough sketch diary entries of her travels across teh Greek Islands in the 1890s. Mabel accompanied her husband Theodore on several explorations to then unknown islands. As some of the first travellers to experiencing Greek hospitality, festivals and freezing cold temperatures. The entries cover her perspective of bartering with locals and arranging boat rides, meeting women and ‘introductions’ to many well connected families along the way. It is another world of Empire and her journals are often bizarre and scathing commentary on the food and places they stay; administering medicines, adhering to customs, trading clothes and ideas. An interesting read, especially as it wasn’t written by Mabel with the intention of ever publishing it.   

After my visit to Sifnos I cought up on Sharon Blomfield’s Sifnos Chronicles, in two parts – which are lively, atmospheric pieces capturing her experience of being a Canadian visitor to the island, frequently returning again and again to capture a place she has fallen in love with and wants to call home. A heart-warming meandering immersion in Greek life when you need an escape . 

I have also fallen deeply in awe of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing. It was a book I had on my radar for a while, and for whatever reason had carried it around for longer than I’d wanted (when you are a nomad like me, that takes some doing as I shed possessions like a pigeon does its feathers). It  blew me away. An original narration, unique voice and heartbreaking not-quite-coming-of-age fiction that takes you into her bleak world and spits you out again – changed. 

An unexpected joy was Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, translated from Italian by Alex Valente. A moody and atmospheric tale of a missing girl and a murdered boy, hinged on a domestic drama with psychological implications. Elia lives in the rural Italy of abandoned industry and despair, his father is suffering mental illness and the tale entwines crime-noir and a coming-of-age tale. One to read quickly and devour its twists and turns. 

My list starts building for 2020 reading – still having Ducks, Newbury Port by Lucy Ellman and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments to devour over Christmas. I hold good intentions for keeping my head down in books so send me your top tips to breeze into the new decade!

I was just listening to author Louise Doughty on Radio 4  – she was talking about where she researched the settings of Platform Seven, her latest thriller. She talked about how she inadvertently found inspiration revisiting her past. Stumbling into Peterborough Station at night and finding these crossing places of transport hubs as waiting rooms where we all become anonymous. I thought about how much of my life has been spent in train stations and airports joining passengers staring at information screens silently waiting; all on the way to different places in their lives belonging neither to the place they came from, or the place they are going to. In limbo for a while, I realise now I have for too long been a lone figure waiting for something to happen.

So now I realise I want the next decade to be less waiting and more movement, less indecision and more action. Only now I see that all rests with me. Here is to a beautifully imagined 2020!

To become obsolete

The blinking adverts lining the escalator in London baffle me. They offer things to my door, at a time I choose with a click. Something shiny and decadent. And worthy. A signal wrapped into a monthly package of clothes ‘hand-picked’ and ‘curated’ in my size. A balanced selection of recipe ingredients grant organic wellness wrapped in the shape of breezy convenience. Hand-picked hotels -whose hand picked them anything that bland can be human choice, but assume they must already know. Cookies and algorithms have given my preferences away like drifting thoughts.

Access to cars by the hour, vans by the day, offices by the week. Unrivaled ease of medical tests, private doctors appointments, slick credit cards and contract free flat lettings shout ‘move-in now!’ ‘NO DEPOSIT’. The litany of pedal bikes lying abandoned on streets as if their riders have evaporated into flat white mists and ramen noodle fogs. E-Bikes and E-scooters have joined the racks of Baffoon-Bikes; the former Mayor proudly launched onto the streets during his reign. Oh how we laughed then. Now he reigns over something bigger making the world feel smaller. Claustrophobic – all the phobics racked into this never ending election coverage will drown us. Impale us against the edge.

This isn’t a country I know. It’s a place I am a tourist gawping at the rush and standing still. It smells of packaged food deliveries from a thousand restaurants in the city – the bike-boys swerve as we pool in pulsing crowds around doorways in the rain. The choice is dizzying yet grotesque. In a hypertrophy intersection where tech and money and work are curated to be as womb-like as a home, the signs offer tastes of beer and food to keep the clever children working. An Uber driver speeds up mounting a curve with a pop crack as the tyre bursts making my heart leap like there is a war on. I think there is a war on. A war with noise in a city filled with fumes.

Climate crisis is used over and over like a phrase that is standing in for a sad ‘sorry’. Sorry is the thing I know I shouldn’t say when I have taken up too much in the world. I breathe in and apologise for my space, my time, my words.

I have stopped listening to music on the tube, instead discovered the joy of the smooth hush space packed with bodies but entirely devoid of noise. There is no greater thrill than a silent tube carriage absorbed into a hunger of uncertainty. Do I even want any of these things that are on offer? Who are we if we need to be guided? Told, offered, coaxed out of ourselves and into what?

Kierkegaard was right – Anxiety is the dizzying sensation of freedom. Now slap bang in the centre of opportunity, options worn thick here like fur coats and contoured make up. A mask for living.

Here and there.
Two worlds to choose.

I closed each little window of distraction down and thought about that trip to Ikaria. Even now I’m letting it all sink in although I’m far away in another land of high rise and low skies. 

Ikaria is an island with wide vistas and mythic hills, waterfalls and other worldliness, a mythic place of the Blue Zone study – where populations are long-lived in regards to lifestyle and aging. Whether true or not, much has been written about the unique longevity of island residents. Some disproved, some improved and then marketed like all good commodities. But when we visited Ikaria in August, seemingly in good company with Athenian 18-25 year olds descending there for free-camping, folksy, alternative vibes and festivals. Luckily Ikaria is a big island, two large towns on either side of the mountain range that splits across the centre. We headed for Agios Kyriakos, walking by day and hiding out at night on the hills watching the stars dance around the milky way. It was bliss.

One day we walked to Therma, a sleepy kind of half-town, framed by a narrow bay, a sliver of white gritty beach and tumbling houses. It’s named after the thermal baths that attracted early 20th Century tourists with promises of health and perhaps also that eternal life. What remains is a rather well organised spa pool in the cave and a bath house. Old people wander from houses to the beach to bathe, wearing dressing gowns as if auditioning as extras in a remake of 1980s OAP film Cocoon. I have spent some time going through summer photos recently and what struck me was the sheer contrast. In Ikaria, like many Greek Islands your eyes are drawn to the stunning natural scenes, bluest seas, wild hills with snaking paths and sheer edges of sharp rocks. As if its a warning a reminder of how small we as humans are in the world – don’t ruin it, we are watching the ancient Gods try to warn. Then we keep getting caught by the dichotomy of respect for the natural world against our human desire to control and build, making statues of ourselves over and over as if we have again forgotten we are mortal. We have forgotten that life is short and creating anything takes time as we try trick our own egos by pretense alone. The world is ancient and we are easily obsolete. Often when I see the decaying bones of a house that is when the fragility of this presents itself. No tricks, no secrets to a long lasting shelf of life on this earth – everything we build falls apart eventually. 

Ikaria has plenty of these reminders scattering the hills and towns. Therma has an old tumbling ruin of a hotel flags one side of the seafront, I wandered around its shuttered windows and flaking paint, blocky 60s style architecture. Warning signs hang on intricate ironwork rusting on neat balconies and lights swinging from their last coil of wire.  The beach goers seemed to ignore its dominance of the seemingly pretty place and instead faced their gaze outwards to sea. The crumbling concrete had series of pipes jutting up from underground which could have been where the spa water was pumped from the natural springs, redirected to pools and swimming places next to the bathing platform. Not even a sign remains to indicate what it was called, I couldn’t find any clues.  I was fascinated

I wander in Greece being a different kind of lost – absorbed into streets that curve into whitewashed villages and high skied places that maps are at a loss to explain. Where trees have grown over the ridge land leaving the stones alone to mark out boundaries of such things that long ceased to matter, long since existed. Obsolete as if that were a freedom.

What it smells / sounds like

What does it smell like? I say as we bump into each other in Athens. Swishing across the street one way or another. It’s all chemical and noise.

Smells and sounds travel. They echo back what happened. The last night on the island had jasmine drifting in to bless us through the kitchen window. Such island noises are varied; sheep bleeting, the sweeping of stairs, the ruins of time, the hum burr of the petulant motorbike. But the city is monotone – even in smell. I long for carpet, fabric to muffle and peel down the timbre. The slams and creaks above and below a voice talking in an accent that isn’t mine through the walls like a vapour.

Others like us and others not gather and gaggle, gawping eyes and opening doors designer clothes scent sunglasses mirrored to reflect the gravity keeping the rest of us away. Squawking Monastiraki gleams and stinks at night, first rains of autumn, this new season shines, loosening a slick of filth into the blocked drains. Too late I say. For us. To leave. 

Isn’t that what we share with the sounds and smells? Not belonging. The wrong time, wrong country – wrong skin full of bones that don’t fit and clunk as we run. Heavy weight of bags trapping shoulders making welts. Cohen on repeat. Lost.  

Winter not even in the shadows but people out before it reaches them in the last cold water flats and empty furnaces. Platia Iroon fills with Greeks wearing seasonal clothes; boots shining new and long trousers hemmed, light sweaters. Everyone else is flip flopping in the dirty puddles shorts and sheen sweat faces. Holiday. Snap. 

This city is full of fools don’t let anyone tell you about the crisis while sipping fine 5euro coffee. They rebuild. Abandoned is an idea being swept out with lost people making room for stainless steel shower heads and slender chairs of honeyed wood. Air. Pay to breathe it. B&B. This is for the rich.

Smoke car fumes in my eyes looking like I’ve been crying. City snot. So far from home the kid shouts bedding down in doorways with the funk unwashed stink of lost. Countries or fixed ideas. What good did they do for anyone?  Half here half there we don’t draw lines or marks in sand to say much of anything. Better to drift than pledge allegiance to something solid, cruel, broken. Sit in your tower and holler.

Yet I’m watching us pile into the plane seats, scent of adventure and neon plastic, caught in the idea of how many leave never to return. Land in Luton like me but not; with new lives and jobs to go. Using up freedoms holding hands packing big suitcases with everything they won’t ever need. Just in time to open and let the last smell of home reach them.

Warm. Like fried food and old clothes.

Time

‘Where does the time go?’ she says.

“How have we just finished lunch and snoozed on the beach and it’s now time for the sun to set?”

“Welcome to my world” I am laughing as if there was some explanation to offer of why M’s vacation here on this Island has flown by.

I cannot explain why time seems to pass differently here, why it is a world that is punctuated by meals where we share everything and our arms touch as they reach across plates and tables, and wine glasses are always full, and sleep is sound and deep, adventures offer themselves up and the blue sea of swimming is broken by wandering and wondering. And talking…oh how we talked, and talked. Thank you M. for visiting. That is exactly what a vacation should be – a letting go of time and how it dominates our lives.

Then I think oh, I’m not on vacation all the time and feel that pang of guilt and regret. Time works it’s magic on me as I chide myself for incomplete projects and self-imposed deadlines. Time has ran away from me… When Autumn winks in the distance with it comes that back to school feeling in the air and a slower reflective pace arrives to the island as it quietens. ‘What have you done?’ even the trees seem to whisper. 

Island days ebb and flow as they steal hours, squashing in blank spaces of time spent doing and not doing, measured out by sunsets hurtling the orange light into the darkening sea before us. Days ripening the grapes, mouldering the figs, pears softening too soon as autumn yellows at the edges of summer. Maybe that explains why Ancient Greeks had different Gods and different words for time. Chronos is sequential clock time measured out against a dial and Kiaros is the moment of time, not a measure but a way of seeing the right opportunity of time. Then Aion represented the everlasting eternity of the Greek Cosmos. In some ways these concepts explained humanity’s place in a temporal world but they can’t explain where a week or day dissapears!

Humans are obsessed with time. How long does time feel when waiting? How fast does time seem to fly when in the midst of things? Why are we counting time and yet mourn its passing? Is it not easier to just live as opportunity in Kiaros, breathe it in and let it pass when things are panicked and packed with activities, or lingering in moments being ‘present’ with our ‘best-selves’ (whatever that means). 

Despite this, it has been a happy few weeks of time out, friends and family visitors  – all lovely as I have journeyed around and taken lots of ferry rides, been a tourist and eaten in a lot of tavernas. I appreciate the way that showing people around gives me a new perspective as well. Inspired again by the why; why we stay, why we are drawn back, why there are still mysteries and so much to learn.

Often I have found myself comfortably walking on a wild hill thinking I belong to nothing, to no-one. When people suddenly arrive and remind me where I do belong and they call me back into the roles I inhabit, those I feel comfort in, standing next to them, holding hands, talking endlessly without apology or worry. It reminds me that home is not about places, it is about people. Despite the wishful Kiaros, time is not about what you show for the hours, but becomes about what you take from it. Perhaps that’s enough to keep me going when there is nothing else to offer up.

 As the summer slips slowly from your grasp may it keep you warm through the coldest of winters.