Waiting…

In a Greek mid-winter the sun shines and rain pours, each day offers up four seasons of weather. Like the majority of the world Greece is in lockdown until at least January. I’d like to tell you it’s grim and boring, that everything is stressful. But that wouldn’t be true. Lockdown feels kind of normal now when you remote work and live in a place without family or many social ties. But I know we are the fortunate ones, as this crisis has exposed the grim reality of inequality across the globe.

A few days ago I walked from Ano Syros to Kini, as I watched the sunrise and clouds gather I wondered if the sky would clear and how long should I wait. I wondered how much of my life I have spent waiting. Waiting for the rain to stop, the sun to shine, waiting to grow up, waiting to leave, waiting to get the right job, become something, not knowing what it was at all; maybe something soft and slippery just out of reach – undefined. Waiting to fit – waiting to be small, waiting to be big, waiting to care about things, waiting to not care about others. A selfish human trait waiting around for something better.

2020 has been a year of waiting – inaction – I suspect that feeling dogged many of us – sitting on the sidelines waiting for life to return. But these 12 small months have been difficult. Actions and roles that shape our lives around have been swept away quickly. The year has been filled with make-do’s. But it has also been filled with joy. I knew that as I walked along the stone path, hemmed with green clover and delicate crocus in flower – this is precious, the path, the view, the air – the birdsong, the bees buzzing madly on flowering rosemary. 

I have not had a drink with a close friend in person since February. The last time I hugged my parents was in January. I saw them in early March and they were both ill (we can only guess with what but both thankfully recovered). Media coverage of Covid19 was everywhere, given we had returned from London and a weekend in France. I look back now to the Saturday night, us finding the last available bistro table in a French town where it felt like everyone was out to eat, drink and be merry before the ‘end-of-days’. We laid in bed listening to the rain pelt on the window and the news ticker scrolled rising Covid cases across the flatscreen TV. The ferry back to Dover was packed to the rafters with kids returning from ski trips and EuroDisney. In between museums and beer, I spent the weekend looking for hand sanitizer in every pharmacy in Bologne Sur Mer. If hand sanitiser was goldust – then the P&O ferry was the Covid express. Not one person wore a mask. How little we knew. 

When I visited my parents after that trip, we all stayed on opposite sides of the room. Instead of staying at their house we booked a hotel. I guess you can say we were early adopters of what would become social distancing before that was a commonly used term. That same week in March I left a job and I can see it clearly now as the tipping point of many things personally that create a confluence. The centre would not hold. 

In my last week of work, I listened as Government advisors told the company I worked for that crowds were okay and large scale shows could go ahead. These were the same advisors that would 360’ the advice a week later and recommend a national lockdown. People were confused and worried. But there was a sense of optimism –  ‘ah, it will all blow over’ I click-clacked in heels to meetings where we jokingly fist-bumped and on my last day I accepted hugs from well-wishers. On my way out I dumped a bag of office clothes and shoes in a charity shop, symbolic perhaps, brash even. An ending of things, a shedding of skin. 

I was going to take a few months off to travel across Greece. I was going to write. I was completely freelance now with no steady income, I was done with waiting.  I was leaping , I was ready, I was starting a new life. I had a flight booked to Thessaloniki, which soon turned into the place where the first cases were in Greece. Since then I have spent a lot of this year in AirB+B’s and hotel rooms waiting for my life to start. 

My last pint of beer in a UK bar was in a Travelodge in Ashford frantically contacting AirB&B’s trying to find a place to stay before the UK went into lockdown. Next came an accidental 4 month stay in rural Lincolnshire. That Novotel in Heathrow waiting for the PLF form to arrive – watching one sad plane leave the deserted airport every hour. Refreshing the news, waiting every damn day for someone sensible to stop people dying. Waiting to leave, waiting for Greece to open its borders so we could get home or discover wherever home was meant to be. 

I have scrolled Linkedin and Twitter in the early hours convincing myself I will never work again – resigning myself to the scrapheap of career success. Watching people get scared and angry losing their jobs, while other folks flew high posting about their promotions and success. All the while I felt utterly adrift. You see I didn’t realise this at first –  without work as a liferaft, I wasn’t sure who I was. I even missed those bits of work that were sometimes piecemeal and frustrating – my identity was framed around them all. I prided myself on just showing up, no matter what I faced. Gritting my teeth and persevering. I was a stoic. But when I had nothing but a room to sit  in all day,  even if this was all Virginia Woolf said I needed. I was utterly lost. 

I just let my mind tear round itself with what-ifs; what if I was on the road, I’d feel alive, instead of being in this waiting room of life. I’d be writing. Experiencing new things, the vistas, the views, walking a trail, navigating, map-reading, jumping on public transport. I would feel like I was doing – being – having. All those things I had worked and waited for. 

Instead my brain had a million tabs open and I could focus on none.

And what happened mid-way through the year? Externally, the waiting stopped – for a brief flickering moment little glimpses of normality returned. But before that the waiting stopped internally, I started work on my writing – which is by enlarge the hardest, scariest, thing I have ever done. It meant I had to stop just writing in the dark as I call it – some of the finished stuff needed to get out into the light. And so I was lucky/mad/good-enough to have a few things published in online litmags. I know this is not a big deal to many people, but it is for me. I have no confidence in my own ability – if someone says they like it, I wait for the kicker, the criticism, the really, no this is not good enough, you are not good enough, you are not one of us (i don’t know who they are but whatever club it is….). The benefits of lockdown have been the democratisation of participation – online book clubs, online writing courses have offered opportunities for people not in the right place to learn virtually and ways to stay in touch. If lockdown taught the world one positive thing (no, not banana bread!) it is that we don’t have to be in the same room or even the same country to contribute and take part. I am super grateful for the women I have met on the writing course and how we are supporting each other along the journey. And all the writers I know and throughout this year have managed to keep in touch with. 

Of course, I am trying to put a positive spin on the BAT SHIT YEAR, but I don’t think anyone will forget 2020 anytime soon. For me it’s been a journey of bizarre introspection and sometimes distortion; realising it is not about standing still but keeping everything in motion – even if that has meant waiting. I have blogged less this year and focussed on other stuff, freelance work threw up some interesting and challenging projects.  It’s also Happy Blog Birthday – Four years of chaotic travel content and ramblings. I’ll think about what happens with it next year. But now it is almost time to down tools and take a Christmas break. 

This year will be different for everyone, there might be no Tiers here but there are rules. The daily cases hover at the same rate 2k a day and see no sign of reducing yet. Like many countries they have set limits on celebrations, but our 2 person household won’t be affected! Although Christmas is not a big celebration in Greece; each year more and more trees and flashing lights appear – shops selling plastic Christmas tat are becoming more prevalent.  Bakeries are still filled with treats like melomakarona cookies and the tree is up in Maouli Square, even though the shops, bars and taverna’s are closed. We are staying in Ano Syros where the views across town are beautiful, lights twinkle across the harbour and the sunrises are magnificent. Even if the rain makes waterfalls of the marble steps! 

If the sun stays out this afternoon I’ll wander for a swim – sharp and cold with the soothing tang of winter. Nothing quite beats it! 

Let’s not be impatient for 2021. Best to burrow down now in the season of slow and quiet, celebrating kindness and gratitude, no matter how far we are from the people we love.

P.S. Rukeyser’s poem reverberated around my head for a few months in lockdown. Written in 1968 and speaks volumes to the digital life we have normalised, finding ourselves and each other, reaching out, reconciling and making new ways of living.

I lived in the first century of these wars
By Muriel Rukeyser

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

Zen and the art of tomato growing

We came back from Paros on the Artemis. It chugged its way into Ermoupolis just after midnight on Sunday. I couldn’t have been happier – not because we were back in Syros, but I was just happy and thankful to be able to head off on little adventures like that. The boat was quiet and we spent the time on deck watching what must have been a fishing fleet out in a circle formation. It was spooky as we were just able to make out the mast lights, intermittent red and green flashes in the inky darkness of the sea. We just had two nights to explore Pariaka, the islands main town and felt like we crammed a lot in. It was busy and nice to be among so many tourists. We did lots of people watching and idling time in cafe’s hearing voices from around the world, including a lot of young English backpackers as well. On the recommendation of the apartment owner, we went to Pete’s Place on Krios beach on Sunday. I swam in the turquoise sea and found a wallet sinking underwater into the rocks. Luckily it didn’t take much of my detective skills to deduce it belonged to the panicked man going through his belongings on the sand. He looked bemused when I strode over to return the dripping wallet.  ut he was thankful to have it safely returned. I like Paros, it’s a nice island with lots to see, and has some great restaurants and beaches, don’t miss the Panaya of Ekatontapilian – the Byzantine church. And if you are wearing shorts like me you too get to borrow a tartan wrap skirt to preserve your modesty and respect the place of worship. Plus, it kept me nice and toasty in the 30c heat! Although don’t make the same mistake of walking out to the Asclepeion – the Sanctuary of Pythian Apollo on the other side of town, as the site is all cordoned off due to falling rocks. But we did instead get a nice swim at little beach and a tasty lunch instead. 

It’s been a funny few days this week. It isn’t all stand up paddleboarding, gardening and dream making here –  in between work and play, there has been a lot of thinking. It seems to be that worry befriends you in moments of weakness and makes a mockery of each silly and happy thought. I was struggling this morning so I went swimming. I ended up swimming a full length of the bay in front crawl. That doesn’t sound like much but it was to me. Front crawl is my arch-nemesis, I have struggled to master it for years. The trick is in breathing and matching your strokes, with a head turn to ‘sight’ the shore. Today I followed the curved lines mapped out in the sand underwater by waves and the rituals of ocean floor creatures. Through shoals of small silvery fish. Each breath expelling tiny bubbles. My arms gathering strength as they ploughed through the waves.  I felt much better. If everyone went for a swim everyday, I am convinced we’d all be happier, healthier and in harmony.

I think my anti-waste mentality has exaggerated recently – ‘must not let things go uneaten’ I repeated like a mantra baking plum cakes and apricot loaves. Boiling up jars of apricot preserve will last for months. And if life (or a kind landlord) gives you courgettes; roast them, grate them, stuff them and even make cakes with them! Although not all is rosy in the garden plot; the tomatoes are proving tricky – blossom end rot has hit some of my crops, possibly water related or perhaps a fungus? Either way there might be a sad struggle to get some decent fruits this year. I walked back from the field my heart and head were full of doom about the tomatoes. Then I stopped.  

It was early, a morning like any other with the sun just peeking over the hills in the East and started inching its rays through the valley. Soon it would be hot. But now there was a cool damp stillness in the air. I listened to the breeze blowing through olive tree branches and traced the hum of a motorcycle passing a curve on the road miles away.

My fixation on the tomatoes unjust fate was unworthy of such attention. So what if each tomato rotted from the inside, slowly turning from green to brown and withering on the vine. It was something I couldn’t control or change, or worry about. I don’t need the tomatoes to feed me, I don’t sell them for income.  If I was simply annoyed that my energy and patience was being wasted on something frivolous and unfruitful. Yet, it only took a moment to look upwards and take in where I was to remind myself that this was it all. Under a blue sky sits mountains and rocks which will outlive me and all my worries. If this is the worst thing that can happen to me today, I am the luckiest person alive. Acceptance that harvests will fail, change will happen and not everything can be saved and stored away. It isn’t the simple fact of life but a way of giving into a life of simplicity.  

Like anyone I keep googling and looking at my phone for answers – brains turning to mush as we flit from one distraction to the next. There lies a tale of tragic modernity. There is no greater waste than looking for purpose or meaning where none exists. I don’t want notifications and gratification of my worth –  I scroll through Linkedin or instagram it makes me feel lost – not connected. I don’t know what my next step is (guess what, that’s okay!) and feel a need to return to the surface of things. Sometimes the surface of things begins where you least expect it.

In thinking about this I was reminded of a free verse poem penned by Jack Kerouac in one of his letters to his ex-wife. It took me a few readings to get it -I have time, it is #freelancefriday after all;

The world you see is just a movie in your mind.
Rocks don’t see it.
Bless and sit down.
Forgive and forget.
Practice kindness all day to everybody
and you will realize you’re already

in heaven now.
That’s the story.
That’s the message.
Nobody understands it,
nobody listens, they’re

all running around like chickens with heads cut
off. I will try to teach it but it will
be in vain, s’why I’ll
end up in a shack
praying and being
cool and singing
by my woodstove
making pancakes.

I’m not a massive fan of pancakes – but maybe you’ll find me singing in my kitchen baking cakes.

At dusk the tzitzikas will start singing- their presence marks the high heat of the months ahead. It is just a week before midsummer stretches out the daylight hours into evening’s orange glow. In the midst of every day is life. It is not just in adventures and wild ambition. It is nestled between the door that slams in an unexpected gust and the fridges that hum and click. The cockerels that wake up and commence crowing at 2am.  It is in the clocks that tick and the angry silent face of time passing us by. Life is in as much of these daily rituals as it is in the moments of joy and wondrous awe we seek. It is also in the hours we let ourselves get drawn into worry and pain. I’m learning to let each one go.

Growing, growing…gone

I am a gardener, a grower, an experimenter and in all of this I need that most resolute of skills – patience. It is the hardest thing to learn to wait.

But now as I write this after a day of work (and a lunchtime swim), the seeds have been sown. I wait patiently, twiddling my thumbs juggling words and waiting for Spring. I read the news online and see that the UK has been dragged out from the fog of cold. Months of unseasonable temperatures that have stunted plant growth, pushing back the harvest dates, slow sales at garden centres and Easter retail forecast in the doldrums. But this gloom has been replaced by high temps and basking in sunshine. How suddenly nature can change the mood!

But here in Greece, following the later Easter weekend, Spring is trying its hardest to level out the temperatures. We have had hot days, like last Saturday when we, perhaps foolishly, walked to Ermoupoli in the hot 11am sunshine. But we have also had cold nights. Really COLD nights – wearing a fleece, jogging bottoms and socks, and under two duvets! Then yesterday we swam in the sea for a lunch hour dip, the sea is now warming up (or am I acclimatizing to its chill?) – but in 20 mins I had the outlines of my bathing suit beginning to imprint itself on my skin in red lines. These are such rookie mistakes. Yet, we keep on making them. Like spending close to two hours looking at ferry schedules to factor in some trips to nearby islands – a complex mathmatical puzzle that I didn’t have all the clues to or the patience for. Planning is like a guessing game. I had to give up in the end. It’s also feeling rookie the way I am forgetting my Greek. Manolis said to me this morning in the cafe that language is like a tool that rusts up over the winter and needs to be oiled by being practised again. I think was trying to make me feel better about my poor Greek skills by saying he forgets his English when there’s no tourists around to speak to. His English is way better than my Greek will ever be!  

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Practice, practice, patience. These are the lessons of the day. I certainly don’t want to give up on is seeds. I have potted tomatoes, hot peppers, chives, sage, thyme, marigolds and cosmos. Some have popped up in the past 2 weeks, others I am giving the  benefit of the doubt. Perhaps if I just leave them alone with damp compost they will start to find their own little way in the cold frame. Yes! I have access to a cold frame that is the perfect seed incubator. It is bliss to be able to have a place for them to just settle. I have been to the garden centre – oh what an experience, you know there are some women (and men) whose idea of heaven is a shoe shop or perusing expensive homewares. Mine is just a simple garden centre, let me loose amongst the pots and plants, lost in the herb section, going dizzy with the array of seeds. I’d like to say a Greek garden centre is really different, but not really. This one is compact but has a vast array of bedding plants and perennials, typically Mediterranean plants, everything from olives to  fruit trees – as well all the usual storage containers, hoses, and compost. I was with a friend with a car – so naturally got a few items!

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I’m focussing on a small area for growing tomatoes and herbs, potted flowers for the terrace and lots of lavender for the bees. I bought two courgette plans and a chilli pepper as plugs – so hopeful I can either grow them in big pots or find space around us for them to flourish.

One of the things among many that has always fascinated me about Syros is the way the land is still used so productively. It’s fairly similar to most other Cycladic islands large flat terraces exist on nearly every corner of the island, many are so old that it must have been centuries since they were used. In villages the land is still used for small scale farming and domestic agriculture – goat grazing, sheep and cattle, chickens, fields of olives and grapes are most common, but also lots of vegetables in tidy rows. Right now the plots are full of green leaved potato crops grown over the winter and onions waving gently in the breeze ready to be harvested. It’s been a real privilege to be shown around in the village and have a nosy at what people grow, to be given explanations of what is being grown and grafted, when it’s harvested, the types and varieties of fruits, herbs and vegetables. People are rightly proud of their love of gardening, you see it in every window box and on wide swathes of land that’s been worked on by generations of the same family and the sheer toil it takes. It is impossible to walk around without wonder and amazement, given the dry sandy soil and conditions needed to grow require so much water. 

These trees are often grafted as family trees with different varieties of lemons and citrus fruits. A hug array in view like pomegranate, pear, plum, lemon, orange, mandarin, almond and figs..so many fig trees. The olives and vines are probably the most productive – pressing for oil and preserving olives, and making all that deliciously syrupy krasi.

There lies an interesting story about climate change experienced on Syros – I have heard a few versions, so apologies for my ad-hoc interpretation and retelling in advance. During the Second World War’s occupation the islanders experienced a devastating famine – by the 1950s the Dutch horticulturists came with advanced growing techniques promising to increase yields and grow a wider variety of produce. Naturally many were enticed by the promise of growing more produce than just enough to feed their family. As Greece’s post war economy was recovering in the aftermath of war and political upheaval commercial opportunities focussed on domestic markets and shipping fresh produce across the Aegean. As a result, farmers all across the island invested in greenhouses and growing new seeds with wider varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers and other hothouse vegetables. I also heard a story about olives and the loss of a native grown olive from the village in the same period – but I need to save that until I know more. It sounds wistful ‘The last olive tree’ – but I need more time to unearth the tale. In some ways there was probably a short period when Syros became the centre of the horticultural industry in Greece. I have been told, that as far as the eye could see across the bay of Kini there were greenhouses in every plot. This may have lasted 10-20 years – but what happens when land is over-farmed? Not just the effect on soil, as its nutrients reduce, but when commercial scale production starts the sheer volume of water needed is vast. What happened here sounds like a result of not just a changing climate but also some bad luck thrown in too. Apparently by the mid-60s there was less rainfall every year, meaning that the reservoirs and irrigation sternas didn’t fill up. Water is a scarce resource on an island like Syros and especially so as drinking water was still being  brought to the island by boat until 1969 when it was the first Greek island to invest in a desalination plant. But the reducing rainfall problem was only compounded when the wells started to become salinated from sea water seeping into the groundwater course. All spelled disaster for the enterprising growers.

Not much remains of the once booming horticultural enterprise but there are still a few farmers with greenhouses, but most have been abandoned, removed and the earth returned to more small scale farming.

A short-lived but intensive intervention has probably changed the land and fortunes of local life forever. But these long days of patience and productivity remain a beautiful sight on the hillsides where rows of olive trees sit neatly, while the hours of golden sun work to ripen fruit and vegetables.

I tell myself to be patient as I walk around these cultivated corners of paradise, one day…just one day.

The value of reading

Yesterday was World Book Day in the UK. That’s quite a funny concept, rather isolationist as the rest of the world seems to celebrate this in April instead. I have no idea why.  But it got me thinking, not about the awful outfits children wear to school, but about the power of words to inspire and shape our lives.

I am writing this praise of finding the story amidst the rubble of the everyday. The power of reading and having free access to libraries is central to keeping this opportunity for everyone.

I’ve worked in the arts, making sure Government listened about the value of public funding and understanding culture’s contribution to society. But libraries have long been a problem and sadly one that’s only getting worse. Cutting non-statutory services at a local council level mean that libraries are the first services to be changed and absorbed. If you have limited finances how can you value something that doesn’t produce revenue or save lives? This has long been the conundrum of local councillors and battle ground for library campaigners.

I can only start this as the person I am today. The person who walked through Westminster last week and gave a book to a guy who spends most of the days sat outside the Sainsbury’s reading. He likes Lee Child books that are in his words “pretty exciting, I’ve read them all”. He’s homeless. When he’s not in the shelter during the day, he sits and reads. I could describe this act of reading as his lifeline, an escape from an existence on the streets that to most of us would be unbearable. But those aren’t the words he said to me. He just said he liked reading when we had a little chat.  I see him there on these blindingly cold days so I brought a couple of action thriller paperbacks we had on the staff room shelf. They were on the shelf which I assume acts as a bookswap, but doesn’t have a sign telling me what the deal is so I have assumed it is acting like a library of sorts. I leave books there every so often and take the odd one away.

But underneath all the actions of the everyday I am also the person that I started off as. I mean, in that, the child standing in front of the shelves of Crown Street Library in Darlington which is now being threatened not with closure, but something worse – a move into a Leisure Centre involving not just a reduction in stock and archive, but an act that will abandon (and sell) a beautiful building that was given in trust to the town to educate and inspire us all.

It’s a place stacked with books. Those books I gazed on were not mere papers and dusty smelling pages and words I couldn’t yet form in my mind. They were worlds breaking open, doors to push into, to peer into, explore and be part of. More importantly, books offer spaces you can claim as your own. Of course, parents play a huge role in literacy. A reading family is important for a child to appreciate the value of words, literacy and imagination. What do you think happens when a child learns that those shapes on a page formed words and a language that was new and fresh? To me, and to millions of others it was like standing in front of a million possibilities.

If you were a kid that grew up like me in an average school, in an average northern town, what was expected? I imagine not much. The lines between traditional occupations and class are more complex than ever – and I like many of my peers are the first generation to go to University from families that could describe themselves as solidly working class. Yet, I now sit in that muddled place of earnings, lifestyle and education that puts me firmly in the middle classes.  Despite the fact that boards of FTSE 100 companies are now more diverse than ever, we are still are faced by huge barriers to social mobility.  There is less diversity of educational and social backgrounds in more liberal fields like the leaders in publishing, the arts and media.  47% of all authors, writers and translators hail from professional, middle-class backgrounds, compared with just 10% of those with parents in routine or manual labour. But yet, we all read.  It isn’t an act that marks out status, and crucially the UK book industry is thriving.

How this is reflected by published authors? Obviously diversity is still a major issue.   If you listen to Kit de Waal’s exploration of this in a recent Radio 4 podcast it shows, Where are all the working class writers? Writers beyond the white middle-class are not reflected in bestsellers or awards. And yes, it is also important to talk about regional divides and class, as well as gender and race. Newsflash – they don’t need to be grunting stereotypical tales of northern grit and determination, or plotting angry voices of disillusionment.   Read Kerry Hudson or Lisa McInerney to see that being a female working class writer is worth reading and celebrating.

But more needs to be done to allow new authors the time, money and space to write from a place that explores these margins. Possessing talent is not enough alone, having the social capital to network and get the attention of the agent gatekeepers is a challenge.The hallowed privilege of affording to write and earn money stops most talent dead in its tracks.

What would schools and colleges be without creativity and literacy?  They become hollow halls of educational expectations.  Kids now spend so much time with screens and games, swiping mindlessly in a fog of self-obsession. They are tested and told, and tested again. Streamed and taught, not to think and create, but to imitate. I have a distinct memory in junior school, on a summer’s day. The windows are open in Ms Blands classroom and there was an abandoned car in the playground that the police were due to remove. Joyriders had left it there during the night. We were told to stay away and play on the other side of the asphalt playground marked with neon painted lines.  Perhaps I was 8 years old – like a sponge soaking it up. I couldn’t focus on the story Mrs Bland was reading us about Kings and Queens in the middle ages because the real story was unfolding outside that room. The music blaring (kingston town by the fine young cannibals),the battered car, what it meant to be there in that moment, with the wonderment of danger so close and not acknowledged. That’s what good literature and a creative education inspires: inquisitive questioning and imagination beyond the walls you live in.

When I was 15 I walked into a library ready to give up, I mean really give up. I really hated school. As a lost teenager, where do you turn? You discover something edgy like Jack Kerouac’s masculine beat-down adventures, Irvine Welsh’s monstrous drug taking anti-heroes and Anne Sexton’s raw poetry like a rare gem in the dust. Hide yourself in music and fanzines, and all the wild literary ideas your favourite bands quote – these weren’t in bookshops, they were in libraries. Here you find the words that make your life real and devour them. Like good friends you met and since marked the shape your life.

As I teenager I read Plath’s Bell Jar and Joan Didion’s essays – I fell in love with America, politics, cultural history and feminism. But I didn’t see my own experience reflected there. It wasn’t in English books like the Famous 5 or the Secret Seven either, or even in any of the Point Horror trash books me and my mates devoured and swapped as keen pre-teen readers.  All written by and about people far removed from my own world.

I am sat in Bromley Library writing this – contrary to my belief, it is not the quiet place of reflection I was seeking. Every computer is taken and there is man talking loudly on his phone. A man three chairs down from me loudly opens a packet of crisps and starts munching handfuls of them between deep breaths as he studies his books. I wonder if I can say ‘SSSSHHH’?  Is that even allowed? 10 minutes later 20 adults arrive with a variety of bundled babies and toddlers who start assembling in the children’s area for story-time. THEY HAVE INSTRUMENTS! IT GETS VERY LOUD! Although I came here to write – I am still writing yet surrounded by comforting sounds. People use and appreciate this Library. Its shelves are stacked and busy. They apply for jobs on the computer, tapping away on blank pages and writing emails. Retirees, students and writers avoiding the cold and enjoying the warmth here. I value this place for what it is and what it represents; opportunity.

Books are not always escapism, like all good art they helps us find meaning and answers in otherwise unreal times. And that is life-saving.

The trick is to keep swimming

Its not the kind of pool you can dive into, so I walked in to the water at the shallow end and started swimming when it reached my hips. Back when it was built in 1992 it was perhaps designed to emulate a beach with its vaguely nauseating tropical colours. It’s now fading a little and showing its age with tiles missing –  still functional and happy to be open and being loved by the daily swimmers.  Towards the back a wave machine hides behind dark vents in the deep end. Luckily in the 2 hour early morning session, the orange and blue fibreglass slides are switched off and silently snake their way round the high ceilings.  I swim towards the floating lane markers and start charting the waters with slow strokes. Although miles away, this local swimming pool here in a corner of zone 5 is in many ways like the leisure pool I learned to swim in as a child. A little too warm and chlorinated, stubbing toes on tiles and showers that frustratingly switch off after 10 seconds, leaving you holding down the button  to rinse away the bleachy smell.

I don’t think I come from a ‘swimmy’ family – ok let’s be realistic I don’t come from a sporty family. Although my mum swam for the county as a girl (can we verify this?) and my Dad in his retirement is now a fully-fledged-lycra-clad bike fanatic in a cycling club.  My paternal grandma only learnt to swim when she was in her 70s so she could swim with me and my brother.

I think swimming played a big part in my childhood. Water-babies, 100 metre badges, diving classes, life-saving with junior school which seemed to only involve being made to swim a length in your pajamas and dive for a brick made of rubber. We spent a lot of time in that leisure centre as a family and it’s comforting that my nephew learned to swim there 30 years later. Then school swimming galas – breaststroke saw me getting placed last in the heat. Coming home afterwards I sat on the kitchen worktop eating the top half of a white bread bun spread with tomato paste and grilled with grated cheese. I remember feeling sad and sorry for myself for letting everyone down– but I also remember how nice the mini-pizza snack was. The snap of swimming cap, the smell of talc, the humiliation of being forced to the dreaded wear verruca sock and being treated like a leper. I swear everyone had a verruca and those kids that refused to wear the dammed sock were the cause of constant plagues circulating on those wet tiles.

Most people have a similar relationship with exercise. The new year is a time of battles with the body and mind, I have reset my intention and dabbled again with swimming. But its complicated. You love exercise as a kid, because its just activity, fun and freeing, it wears you out. But nothing prepares you when puberty hits like a sledge hammer and the thought of standing in front of your class mates in basically your pants is horrifying. You should have seen the notes I forged at comprehensive school that managed to get me excused from any sporting activity, my fiction was invented here.

I think I stopped swimming at 13 and apart from holidays, didn’t swim properly again until I was 29. By then I was mad enough to sign up for a triathlon and swam in cold water to train at Parliament Lido. That was freezing, in April it was 13c and found myself braced in an expensive (secondhand) wetsuit, neon cap and goggles. Like a superhero armed for the chilly water battle. Slowly in those cold mornings and late evening swims in the lido I learned to fall back in love with the rhythm of swimming. It wasn’t without its humiliation, to be in a lane with the super-triathlon swimmers twice as fast as me, overtaking, splashing their skilled arrogance with arms flying outwards and then under like a pack of wet skinned seals. But I did it, in spite of the mucky smell of the Thames on the day of the race miraculously I didn’t drown or get kicked in the face. The gun set off and 200 people swam like a hungry snapping school of piranhas. I even signed up for other races, even swimming in Dorney Lake smelled much cleaner than the Thames.

I think I had a favourite swim last year. It was on Easter Sunday in Ermoupoli, after sipping hot coffee in Maouli Square. The café owner asked us very sweetly if we didn’t mind just leaving the cups when we’d finished as he wanted to shut up to head home to eat Easter lunch with his family. Who could argue with that? Eventually we sauntered off in the bright sunlight to Vaporia, past the blue domed Agios Nikolaos  church. There is a bathing platform here that gets crowded in summer, but here on an Orthodox holiday in spring it was near empty. Just a handful of others sitting in the sun and a brave lady in a flowery bathing cap swimming slow breast-stroke in the turquoise water. I stripped off to my cossie in the breeze and timidly at first dangled a foot in the water. It was fresh, cold and clear. I felt reborn, baptised – my first swim of 2017 in the Aegean in April. Like lizards warming our cold blood, we laid out drying in the sun afterwards on the concrete of the closed Asteria Café.

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In the summer I swam over the same section of Kini bay most mornings. Day after day, charting laps between the orange buoys until I had memorised the topography of the rocks and sand and could say greetings to the fishes. Breath and rhythm become an underwater meditation. I kept swimming until my arms were tight and felt strung like a bow.  Then I would sit quietly in the beach crunching tiny cracking bubbles in my neck, stretching my legs out on the warming sand.

I think sometimes I have lost my love for  exercise and suddenly surprise myself as I fall back in love with its endorphins every so often.  I need it the most when it takes me away from the fuzz of every day and creates breathing space.

A few days ago after my morning swim, I stood under the unisex showers with shampoo in my eyes. I glimpsed the future…there it was; a bundle of noise – gossiping, putting on swimming caps, snapping costume straps into place. Loud voices talking over the changing room “How’s slimming world, Pat?’ “I’ve lost 7 pounds!”. Then one lady turned to me “Is the water warm, love?” I beamed back “Positively tropical today!” I was a bit taken aback, having spent a few years of my adult life in posh-gyms, crap pay-as-you-go gyms, try-hard gyms,  yoga-death-stare-silence gyms. I hadn’t heard people chat like this in changing rooms ever…well maybe since I was back in the pool of my childhood. This was leisure as it should be – fitness and fun. No pressure.

I longed to stay all morning and hang out with these spirited retirees, all full of life and laughter.  As I was leaving, the Shirelles ‘Will you love me tomorrow’ sang out over the loudspeakers and the instructor shouted “let’s get going girls” Aqua-fit is the future, I can’t wait to be retired.