Something Changed…

Facebook tells me that five years ago, there was a thin layer of snow on the ground and a hardy robin was bathing in the fresh water I’d just put out in the thawed ground under trees.

Five years ago, the view from my bedroom window – which wasn’t only *my* bedroom window – was very different in more ways than just the colour.

A year ago, I was preparing to welcome old friends to a house that was neither that one nor the one I’m in now.

It’s an odd little feature, the memories one. Flagrant cynical encouragement of further platform engagement, of course – this *is* Facebook – and I can quite see that there are times of which folk may not wish to be reminded, and some they’d rather not think about just yet or at this particular moment.

But I like it. So much has changed in the last two years, and all of it has been so very necessary and so very much for the better. That the upheaval of the end of a long term relationship and the financial, living situation, and life disentanglement that involved was stressful doesn’t negate that there are some nice memories from those years and that there were good times doesn’t negate the fact that drawing things to a close was an essential and healthy process. It’s a nice thing to get a reminder of the way the happinesses in my life have evolved, of the agency I have taken – and continue to take – in shaping my life to include the people, things and ideas that most inspire me.

Of course, three years ago, I also agreed that the Conservative Party should adopt a slogan of ‘putting the n into cuts’. Some things do not change!

Anniversary

The earth was damp; tiny clumps of soil nested under her nails as she worked it.

A day for worms.

Arms slick with dew, decorated with dirt and grass and fallen leaves, she finished as the candleglow of dawn started to waver across the sky. As the sun grew stronger, she shook the debris from her clothes, ran her fingers through her hair, and began to walk back towards the town.

By the time she’d reached it, the sky was clear October grey and folk were scurrying to work. She walked on until at last she was outside the house she remembered so clearly. This time when she pushed the door, it opened easily at her touch.

She found him in the kitchen, startled him halfway through a lunch of leftover pizza.

“I said I’d come back.”

He froze, absurdly, mid-bite, eyes fixed on her face.

“Come with me.”

She held out her hand. He groped for words.

She reached out, took his arm.

“Come with me.”

She hooked his arm through hers and led him through town. She was irresistible.

All the way through and out of town they walked, arm in arm, until they were back at the patch of earth she’d left that morning.

She held him close then, and whispered, “You see? I came back. Happy Anniversary.”

And arms cold as a crypt, smile fierce and strength implacable, she drew him deep into the damp soil in which he’d left her a year ago. After a time, his screams became choked with soil and the churning earth stilled around him.

Above, rain plashed away signs of the struggle and the flurrying wind scattered autumn red and gold over the makeshift grave.

A day for worms.

Out

It’s a strange, brittle and highly personal thing, the Out.

It’s been a week of discussion of outs and privilege and
intersectionality. I’ve talked with polyamorous folk who aren’t out to their entire circles, non-heterosexual folk who are out with nearly everybody except their parents, friends who have fought a thousand fights in other ways.

All of us have our own ways of managing our outedness, our own worlds we protect when we make the choices we make on how out to be about what and with which people, and we may therefore blink and worry if someone unthinkingly circumvents that little raft of calculations we make each time and outs us instead of allowing us to out ourselves. These moments may be no more than a passing comment or a surprising but unproblematic revelation to you, but depending on the potential cost to us if you are less than cool with this part of us, we may be holding our breath and wondering if we will suddenly have to start hefting a defensive conversational axe or, more likely, Dealing With The Inevitable Questions.

Because the thing is, there *are* myriad calculations involved in each revelation to each person of each way in which we colour outside the lines. When we don’t get to make those calculations ourselves we can feel unsettled. Because there is shit at stake for us. We’re risking – every time – the disapproval or withdrawal of a person who makes up a part of our life to a greater or lesser degree. Some of these things may be relatively minor, but some of them, for some people, in some places… well, the flicker of a shutter of disapproval coming down in an acquaintance or colleague’s eyes is hard enough to deal with, but at the more extreme end we can end up losing jobs (oh come on, even where it’s hard to kick people out directly people’s prejudice operates on their interactions and career decisions), losing friends, with splintering families. Losing life and liberty, even, because this global village has some houses that ain’t so fond of certain things.

So even where there’s an assumption that Most People Will Be Cool With It, we may get twitchy when the control is taken from us and we don’t get to assess the threat level ourselves. You might have, all innocent and unknowing, just pitched us unprepared into a battle.

Outing other folk – not cool.

And then there’s the other side of things. The side which says if you *can* be out…

A group, a few drinks into the evening, as the conversational depth increases.

Michelle used to put a fake wedding ring on when she took her child to events with other parents, a decade older than her, because when they clocked it they relaxed around her in a way they didn’t when they thought she was a young *single* mum. Clara is black, and while mostly people aren’t so unaware of the conversational norms in this corner of this world as to be super-blatant in their racism, micro-aggressions are everywhere and she’s developed a thick skin and a tendency to make notes of dates, times and comments and judge when the time is right for more. I was a bisexual kid who was confused only in that there didn’t seem to be a word for me, and that the prevailing rhetoric wanted me to ‘pick a side’ or called me greedy, or worse, and so I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t challenge the homophobic and biphobic comments I heard and so carried on feeling… unsafe, along with everyone else who must have been doing the same thing I was doing. I’m not even sure I told the diaries I wrote as a teenager – the conversation never really snuck outside of my head. At that age so much is an AmINormalShouldIBe dance, and that was one of a few ways in which I felt I must be wrong or broken. Never ashamed, as I know some people were made to feel. Just… like I couldn’t be totally honest about various aspects of myself, and never understood or supported accordingly because how can you be when you’re so hidden? All of that? If you didn’t know what the word ‘othered’ meant, there’s your heap of shifting definitions.

Our experiences are not directly analogous – some of us have privilege(s) that others don’t and have had an easier ride of it accordingly. But we found a degree of common ground in having each had to defend key aspects of our selves from stupid questions, vapid assumptions and hurtful behaviour at one time or another.

The conversation meanders around these things for a while as we each poke at and share the places in which we’ve developed extra layers, and then at some point, Clara asks why I bother labelling my sexuality, since it doesn’t matter. And to anyone in that room, in terms of how we relate with people, it doesn’t.

But. It does matter.

It matters to me, because it matters to other people. The label is needed for (or is it by?) other people, because other people are the ones who make the unthinking assumptions that result in people feeling othered.

I am a white, middle class, well-educated, cis woman in a reasonable position in my career and with the constructive support of my family and the only aspect of that which doesn’t have inbuilt privilege is that I’m a woman. And yes, parenthetically speaking I’ve turned a blind – well, wincing – eye to some of the sexist crap at every workplace I’ve ever worked because when it comes down to it, no-one has the energy to be a warrior all day every day and it’s even harder to find that when you’re young, powerless in one sense and not fully aware of your power in others and at the start of your career with credibility battles to fight as well.

For the rest, though. I have power in ways that some don’t. I work somewhere where although there’s a flicker of surprise and not knowing quite what to do with the information when senior management ask what the pink, purple and blue flag pinned to my handbag is or find out which organisation I’m planning on volunteering for, there is also no negative consequence. Diversity support is coded into my contract and protected by the laws of my country, and I work with decent people and have enough power – both professionally and in terms of personal articulacy, confidence and education – to smash back any lazy assumptions lobbed my way.

And yet. If it comes up in situations where I’m a little unsure about reception, it’s not uncommon for me to begin by saying that I’m not straight – which is problematic because my identity shouldn’t be defined by what I’m not, but it’s a gentler sell to the unaware from ‘presumed straight’ to ‘not straight’ to ‘bi’ and it sidesteps a whole raft of issues around identifying as bisexual vs pansexual vs queer.

But. If I – with all my privilege – can own a label which attracts prejudice, then just maybe it will help just a tiny bit to change the climate for those for whom it’s less safe to be out, and maybe other kids won’t be quite so likely to reach the conclusion that they must be broken in some way and bury vast aspects of their make-up until they’re well into adulthood.

It’s a small and relatively easy thing for me in most of the settings in which I find myself. But it isn’t, for some, and while I’d love for positive social change to be seismic, in reality it’s usually incremental and because of that every tiny way in which I – and people like me, if they feel able – can influence prevailing culture and rhetoric is a tiny way in which I stand against the things that made me, Michelle, Clara and a million other people have to go into battle against the weight of culture in ways people with other sets of privilege never even considered.

So if you didn’t know – and it’s no secret, but the thing with coming out, as anyone who thinks about it knows, is that it’s not a one-time only announcement so much as a succession of conversations – then this is me making it crystal clear, because I am the only person who should ever out me, that I am bisexual.

We’ll save the rest for another day, shall we?

Oh dear, Grantham

Grantham feels like it’s all papered over, boarded up and to let.

There *is* life on the high street, but it’s much reduced. Shops everywhere are closed down, old fitments fading in the sunlight, paint peeling, decorators’ equipment lying around on the floor, collections of post piling up on mats and wedged into letterboxes. It’s not *all* like that, of course, but there are several high street names from my teens which have either been replaced by budget shops or simply left derelict. Even good old Marks & Spencer defected a year or so ago. Though I’m told the new development at the back of Westgate has at least a bit of life.

It’s the scene of my secondary school, and it becomes an increasing cause for sighs each time I visit it as an adult – which is about once per year, since I’ve never bothered changing my optician. It’s always been a tricky space – a linear high street and similar market street, no obvious square like there is in nearby Newark and vehicular traffic versus pedestrian issues because of it. No markets except on Saturdays because they have to close a road to hold it.

These days, it seems to this infrequent visitor to be spiralling further downward. It’s a small town, and the wealth is on the outskirts and in the villages, as it always was, and as they always do the people who have it seem likely to travel increasingly to Newark, whose centre and range of shops and facilities is expanding, or Lincoln which was always larger, and the more they take their wealth away the worse things get for poor old Grantham and the less reason they have to go there and the more likely they are to go elsewhere. Even in my day, we teens in the villages between the two tended to go to Newark for preference – more in it, more flexible bus service to reach it, just a plain nicer place to spend time.

All Grantham had, really, was its schools – themselves a relic of the days when selective education was the norm – and a tiny two-screen cinema (the one thing Newark didn’t really have until the last few years).

And the homes of schoolfriends, which is why when it came down to it, the Grantham pubs got the underage trade.

That for their friendship I may make amends

I’ve tilted a few times, on a few different blogs, over the years at the idea of finding your tribe. But it’s never yet been more descriptive of my life than it is now.

I’ve been delighted to meet folk I can talk geeky with without encountering the corresponding butyou’reagirl raised eyebrows or apparent inaudibleness that often came from the surroundings in which I worked at the time.

I’ve explained the bittersweet relief of finding a world of other women whose attractions and sexual preferences operated similarly to my own, in whom I took emotional refuge when a throwaway comment at my then workplace triggered twenty-year-old tears.

I’ve loved finding folk with specific hobbies in common that weren’t necessarily shared by friends IRL.

And all of that is still true. But since then, life has changed again.

I’ve come to know some of the online folks a little more in person (There will be more of that, right? You lot are fab.).

I’ve had the delight – most recently today, in fact – of having an animated and intelligent conversation about politics at work without feeling my opinion being actually shouted down or quipped away by those who prefer to seize a stage rather than participate in a discussion.

I’ve met some wonderful new friends around whom I can feel my brain happily unfurling.

It’s possible that Mr Blake was feeling rather more cynical than I ever do when he wrote the poem from which I stole this post title. Because actually, I am not. I use humour as weapon, armour, shield and healing potion, and I’m squishy-hearted and I don’t entrust that to many people (but it’s worth it when I do).

And that’s the wonder of finding Your People. The ones around whom you can comfortably unfold yourself, around whom you can stretch and who stretch you. The ones you can start to trust with your squishy bits.

You guys are awesome, and I am indescribably delighted to have found you and still just a little bit confused that you seem to like being found.

Here. Have a bit of squishy stuff.

Birthdays

I’ve always had a bit of an odd relationship with my birthday. It’s on 14th February, which isn’t the worst possible birthday date but does have some drawbacks.

For starters, it’s the cause of a remarkable number of people thinking that ‘I bet you get lots of cards on Valentine’s Day’ is an original quip, the evidence of which truism resulted in some confusion in my first year at University, when everyone else collecting their post from my halls of residence Reception that morning gave me some very odd looks indeed as I wandered back upstairs with an armful of cards and a presents (“Blimey, that woman from E floor’s gone a bit overboard on the pretending-she-has-a-Valentine thing!”).

It’s also a bugger of a day for celebrations when most of your friends are in couples and are therefore quite understandably wanting to be in Couple Mode for the occasion. I might be forgetting one or two, but birthday celebrations of even a modest variety after young childhood aren’t really A Thing.

I can’t actually remember what we did on the evening of that birthday in the first year of Uni – all I can really remember is curling up and reading the whole of The Hogfather while my friends wandered round Meadowhall all day in what I later found out was a rather sweet quest to buy me a present, probably because after mainlining Susan Sto-Helit all day in between wondering where on earth all my friends had vanished to (no mobiles in those days, kids!) I had a bit of a book hangover. And there was the time 13 years ago when I’d recently started work at a company full of fellow young nerdy types who, bless them, insisted on dragging me out for the occasion and so I spent it getting to know new colleagues over cocktails and ended the night in Pizza Hut with a plastic rose between my teeth because Valentine’s Day will out. I also have a vague memory from somewhen of a night out with a couple of other single people which involved us spending the evening somewhere that involved large pink heart decorations and getting irritated by people assuming we must be on the pull and therefore interrupting our conversation with inept attempts to pull us. Those occasions, though, are memorable because they’re the only ones I can bring to mind.

I gave up asking if people were
free-for-a-drink-or-something-sometime-near-my-birthday after hearing ‘can we have your birthday on another day instead?’ a few too many times and with my sister’s similar experience (her birthday is two days after mine) as confirmation, I suppose.

Even when in a relationship, at which point, particularly if you manage to make your anniversary around then too, there is at least one person who is more or less obligated to spend some time with you, evenings are a bit of a minefield of suddenly more expensive restaurants and Romantic Valentine’s Day Things. Not being a particularly traditionally romantic type, I’ve always preferred to go out for the day, maybe go for a walk or something, have lunch and then stay in with a Chinese takeaway and a bottle of something interesting in the evening – just a *something* to mark the occasion.

I suppose it’s silly, really. Plenty of people don’t give a toss about birthdays, and in terms of the whole getting older thing neither do I. I’m not particularly bothered about gifts – things are just things, although a well-chosen thing will always be appreciated for its thoughtfulness. And the urge to celebrate is flagrantly selfish in a way – it’s basically ‘would like to see fun people for fun times’ with a hefty side order of ‘oi! make a bit of a fuss of me!’. But still. That last thing is not something I say very often, and, dammit, I’m *worth* a bit of a fuss once in a while! (I say that; it was really bloody difficult to type that sentence without heaping on enough maybes, modifiers and disclaimers to suffocate the sentiment entirely and I still couldn’t let it stand without this parenthetical waffle. Asking for the things I want is hard, I’m working on it.)

That said, most folk I know don’t really seem to do the birthday gathering thing – especially not for birthdays that don’t end with either a five or a zero. But having attended other people’s yet failed to muster more than one person for my own 25th, 30th and 35th birthdays perhaps all that means is that I should take a leaf out of Lori‘s book and make plans for a 40th bash in a few years’ time?

After all, it’s pretty much impossible to muster people at all when you don’t even try.

Childfree

Maybe it’s the turn of the seasons, maybe it’s the impending onslaught of family occasions, maybe it’s… something else, but at around this time of year my childfree status often seems to get a little poke.

It’s never been a particularly militant status, but it has frequently been a misunderstood one, as I am approximately the thousandth childfree woman to observe.

It’s not, you see, that I don’t like or don’t want to hang out with children – wrong on both counts (as with, oh, loads of other childfree people), although I’ll admit that as the youngest in my birth family, with no nephews or nieces, the lack of practice does render me a bit inept and awkward with the younger ones in particular. It’s not even that I don’t want to adjust my life to fit around them – my career is interesting and enjoyable but it wouldn’t take priority over a person. How could it?

It’s just that quite simply I’ve never actively wanted my own child; it’s not a presence of Do Not Want so much as an absence of visceral WANT! And for me, while I am lucky enough to have a geographical and socio-economic background that means I can make choices about these things, I can’t square the requirement to steward a shiny new person towards a healthy and happy adulthood with anything less than a total commitment to so doing. Child-rearing is important, yo! So while I’ve continued to experience a lack of active want, that’s what I’ve acted upon. I’ve never said ‘never!’, I’ve merely consistently said ‘nope, not my thing’ and can’t really imagine that changing at this point.

And now that I’m 36 rather than 26, or even 30, people tend to actually believe me when they find I don’t want children (which after years of them not doing so comes as a blessed relief) – something about tipping over the 35 mark did that. Of course, you still get the odd person who treats the revelation as an opportunity to play Twenty Questions because They’re Just Interested In Your Reasons (see also: being vegetarian), but by and large I don’t get the You’ll Change Your Mind speech these days.

What I do get, however, is people asking if I like children (This has always made no sense to me. Children aren’t a single unit, I can’t adore or deplore them en masse. They’re individuals. Do you like people in their 50s?) or assuming I don’t, or don’t have any interest in hanging out with them.

Which puzzles me.

I’ll admit to the aforementioned awkwardness-borne-of-inexperience (I will happily read the thing your child has just thrust into my hands, find a flag app on my phone to entertain your flag-obsessed son or answer questions about the YouTube video about earthquakes with which you’re distracting them while you produce breakfast as best I can, but I’m blowed if I can remember any nursery rhymes or games), but that’s it.

People are nuanced. Childfree might apply to my uterus, but that doesn’t mean I expect or want it to apply to my entire life. Likewise, I enjoy my friends’ kids (I hope that’s mutual, but who knows?) but that doesn’t mean I want my own. There’s nothing contradictory in that, though I’ve heard that accusation a few times.

My closest and longest-standing friends all have kids, ranging in age from around a year to 10, and every single one of them is a joy to be around. And the thing that’s most joyous is that when you have a relationship with their parents you get to watch the child get to know herself, the parents get to know the child, the siblings get to know one another – you see a whole web of relationships flex and grow as each child grows. Just as most people who have ever been around kids do, I’ve had the extraordinary privilege of watching tiny babies – and some of them really were tiny – grow and develop into their personalities, further and further over time. I get those vision-upending glimpses of the world through kids’ eyes. And yeah, ok, I get to see a tantrum or two. I find them easy enough to forgive in a tired and overwrought 5 year old.

I recognise traits from women I’ve known for most of my life appearing in whole new people. I watch loved friends find happiness in their choices and demonstrate skills that maybe even they never knew they had.

I see a small tribe of completely awesome young folk forming and figure there’s hope for us human-types yet.

I am awed and humbled to know so many people shepherding folk towards adulthood so compassionately, responsibly and effectively.

Just don’t ask me why I don’t want a child of my own. I haven’t the faintest idea, quite frankly, but I do know that a) it’s not about me, it’s about the kids to whom I don’t think I’d be doing justice without that want, and b) it’s none of your damn business.

Travel: Krakow, June 2013

Krakow Square
It’s taken me over a month to get around to writing this post about my travels to the wonderful city of Krakow, Poland, in June of this year. Oops.

So, Krakow – a beautiful city, centred around a square that’s both vast and architecturally stunning. We went there pre-UK heatwave, and found ourselves experiencing a Polish heatwave (I’m led to believe that countries with more consistent climates than England refer to these weeks of warmth and sunshine as ‘summer’), much to our delight.

The square is lined with places to eat, both indoors and al fresco, and since this is Poland the food is both tasty (seriously, try the Pierogi – Polish dumplings, which can be either savoury and sweet and come with a bewildering variety of fillings. They’re on pretty much every menu and they’re absolutely delicious) and inexpensive. You’ll find it a touch pricier on the square than elsewhere in town, but it certainly won’t break the bank. While we’re on the subject of food, there are ice cream and kebab shops everywhere. Unlike in the UK, kebab shops aren’t merely something into which you stumble after a heavy night – for a couple of quid, I grabbed a mighty, not greasy at all and bloody mouthwatering falafel kebab for lunch one day. If you’re after something a little more sophisticated, though, you really won’t be disappointed – there are excellent eateries all over the place, and while as a veggie I wasn’t spoilt for choice in terms of dishes in each place (but then, I never am!) I never lacked for quality meals.

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First order of business after tipping off the plane was to go forth and fall upon dumplings and a cold drink, and then explore the city.

Since we’d been up since 4am, we figured we’d take it easy with one of the buggy rides around the main areas of the town. You’ll find various vendors around the square (always unfailingly polite and never even slightly pushy), and it pays to negotiate on the price, but if you do the full tour of the old town, the Ghetto, and the Jewish Quarter it’ll take you a couple of hours and give you a good overview of the city and an idea of the places you’d like to come back to on foot. Also churches. You’ll see a lot of churches. Very religious country, Poland, so you will see more elaborate churches than you’d think it would be possible to cram into a few square miles. They don’t call Krakow ‘Little Rome’ for nothing! But of course, it’s not without a synagogue or several either – despite less pleasant recent history, Catholics and Jews lived and worshipped in the same city perfectly harmoniously for many years.

Salt Mine Church

Some of the churches are even several hundred feet underground. The church in this picture is in the depths of the Wieliczka Saltmines, and has been entirely carved from rock salt by the miners. Everything. Altar, statues, friezes depicting the Last Supper – all of it is made from salt. Even the beads on the chandelier are pure salt.

This may be the most spectacular part of the salt mines, but it’s certainly not the only thing of note. It’s an extraordinary place to visit – cool, clean air (reputed to be extremely good for the health – there’s a spa hotel on the same site), decorated at intervals with wonderful statues and sculptures ranging from ancient kings to for some reason an odd little woodland scene involving dwarves. Again, it’ll take a few hours (and isn’t suitable for those of limited mobility – there’s a lot of walking and stairs; there is an alternative wheelchair-friendly route, however) with a knowledgeable tourguide.

Worth a visit, too, is Schindler’s Factory over in the Ghetto. It’s a media-rich, densely informative museum to war-era Krakow, and honestly speaking I found that after a couple of hours I simply couldn’t take any more in, between sensory overload of how the messages were delivered and the sheer awfulness of what was being talked about. The reminiscences of people who had been children at the time of being forced into – and out of – the Ghetto were a bone-shocking level of powerful.

Ariel restaurant - Jewish Quarter, Krakow

Above ground and when you’re not steeping yourself in history, Krakow is a fabulous city for fans of al fresco people-watching. The Jewish Quarter is still the site of some beautiful buildings (you’ll get the spiel about how some of them appeared in Schindler’s List), including a bar/restaurant that now occupies the site of what were several tiny shops – the original external signs are retained, a suggestion of brickworks illustrates where the shop walls used to be, and the whole is rather charmingly decorated with appropriate knicknacks. Ariel restaurant, shown here, does indeed feature in the film – and serve rather delicious food!

It’s worth venturing into the main square in Krakow in the evening, too – it has a beautiful vibe, and there’s always the chance that as well as being able to soak up the atmosphere and gaze at the swifts circling one of the high towers at twilight, you’ll catch an unexpected street performance

Auschwitz

Of course, we had ultimately come to Krakow for a reason. Auschwitz.

We left it until the day we were flying home, knowing that we didn’t want such a powerful and painful experience to taint our entire break in what is a genuinely beautiful city that is well worth a visit and revisit in and of itself.

And it was horrible. Truly horrible. Words can’t really describe the experience with any justice. As you enter, a sombreness descends. The feeling that you’re in a place of such extensive and systematic vileness is almost tangible and grows more oppressive and upsetting as your guide – and hats off to them for doing a tough job with extreme skill and sensitivity – takes you around the camp.

The scale of massacre was, as we all know, vast – but numbers can be hard to appreciate on their own, as abstracts. Here, you will be forced to see just a fraction of what those numbers meant in real terms. Collected within, in various piles, were the belongings of just some of the lost victims of Auschwitz. A mound of glasses. A whole room of brushes. A collection of baby clothes. A huge, huge expanse of several tonnes of human hair, from the heads of just some of the women. And two full rooms full of shoes. Flat shoes, heeled shoes, fancy shoes, plain shoes, new shoes, beaten up shoes, big shoes, small shoes. Just piles and piles and piles of shoes stolen from the dead.

And a collection of empty gas canisters.

Only one of the gas chambers survives, at either Auschwitz or Birkenau, and it’s a solemn and silent procession of visitors to end your time at Auschwitz I before heading just a little way up the road to the terrifyingly industrial-scale deathcamp that is Birkenau – Auschwitz II.

It’s a vast and desolate place now. There’s little there but the site itself, an imposing brick entranceway, a railway line that terminates there. Most of the buildings housing inmates were wooden (pre-fab stables, actually) and have not survived but for the eerie brick chimneys rising in neat rows across the fields. Those that remain give just the tiniest hint at the squalor in which the inhabitants must have been kept. Piles of rubble now mark the spots where thousands lost their lives – the gas chambers, where the clinical art of murder en masse was perfected, were blown up before Allied forces arrived.

A memorial, in numerous languages, now stands. Because people should have somewhere to pay their respects to the dead, and events such as these should never, ever be forgotten.

And the birds do fly over Auschwitz, now.

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Krakow” href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/catfeathers/sets/72157634106083922/” target=”_blank”>Flickr set of Krakow.

Travel: Trainspotting tour of Leith, 1st June 2013

Edinburgh

At the start of June, I was lucky enough to find myself in the rather beautiful city of Edinburgh. Of course, there was whisky and for the 50% of the group that eats meat there was haggis, neeps and tatties.

But on Saturday morning, we strolled out to Leith and met up with the fascinating Tim of www.leithwalks.co.uk to embark on a Trainspotting tour. At this point, I have to confess that I haven’t actually read much Irvine Welsh. In point of fact, I haven’t really read any. No idea why, just one of the many authors I haven’t encountered as fully as I could have done. Two of  my party, however, are avid fans and I am never one to turn down an interesting literary experience. Meeting up with Tim at the Port O’ Leith pub – a familiar haunt of Welsh himself back in the day – it became clear immediately that this is a man who knows his subject inside out, upside down and back to front. His copy of Trainspotting is the sort of battered, patched, post-it noted, much-loved book that can’t help but make a book lover smile at the amount of sheer love it’s received.

I won’t spoiler the details or route of the walk itself for you, as some things are best discovered in person. But if you ever find yourself in the vicinity I really do strongly recommend you try to commandeer a couple of hours of Tim’s time. We’re not talking about a typical ‘and on your left, Welsh once had a coffee in that very bar’ umbrella-following tour here – we’re talking something much more in-depth, personal and fascinating.

Tim took us on a walking tour of Leith that encompassed its socio-economic – and indeed, political – history just as much as it encompassed the physical setting of the streets of Leith and the background to the novels of Welsh. Emphasis was on Trainspotting, but with an expert at the head and two Welsh fans and two fascinated onlookers in the group it was inevitable that Welsh’s other novels feature strongly too.

At every stopping point along the way, Tim explained the background and history, talking eloquently about everything from the way working men’s clubs worked (familiar to us, but must be an interesting thing to explain to those whose culture doesn’t really include such institutions) to the architecture of the old station with a side order of the ravages the 60s’ fetish for concrete high rises on community. And of course, Welsh’s narrative decisions were woven in seamlessly. At every stop, having set the scene with wonderful eloquence and passion, Tim also read us key passages from the novel – and at one point caused much hilarity by encouraging our party to act out a section in their best Sean Connery voices.

Seriously well worth attending if you ever get the opportunity – Tim’s enthusiasm and frankly phenomenal storehouse of knowledge make it something far more than simply a novel way to spend a couple of hours.

And yes, I am finally getting around to reading the book. It’s a lot easier now that I’ve actually heard some of it read in the appropriate accent!

Event: An Evening with the cast of Red Dwarf, The Approach, Nottingham. 02.05.2013

Tongue Tied

It’s not often you head towards The Approach at a little before 7pm on a Thursday evening and encounter a distinctly nerd-flavoured queue halfway down Friar Lane. But since last Thursday involved the venue playing host to an intimate ‘Evening With’ appearance from all four of the crew of the mining ship Red Dwarf, it was perhaps inevitable.

The event was such a resounding success even before it took place that it took just two hours for the tickets to sell out, and from thereonin the sterling work of event organiser, Lee Wallis, guaranteed a coup for both him and the city of Nottingham.

Three quarters of the team took the stage early on in the evening, their longstanding camaraderie immediately evident in both their banter and their poking good-natured fun at the non-appearance of Danny John Jules, whose lateness will be no particular surprise to anyone who’s ever attended a Red Dwarf convention!

Craig Charles immediately commandeered the microphone, cracking jokes and generally getting the ball rolling with some highly amusing anecdotes in which he managed to demonstrate an impressive ability to recall several reviews verbatim (his acting has apparently been described as “like a cheese and ham sandwich without the cheese and bread”) while also extracting belly laughs from the entire audience.

Robert Llewellyn was induced to explain (and demonstrate) exactly how he came up with Kryten’s walk, and the three of them were happy to perform a quick rendition of Tongue Tied, encoring with Danny when he finally arrived to roars of amusement from the crowd and amused resignation from his comrades. Regrettably dancing-free, but as the stage was tiny and they revealed that with the exception of Danny they’d all had to spend a full week rehearsing that particular scene, maybe it was just as well for the safety of the pints in the first row of a distinctly packed Approach!

Tidbits of interest to the show’s fans (of which, of course I have been one since… well, since forever, really, since it started airing when I was 10 and I have older siblings of a sci-fi persuasion) were revealed along the course of the evening: the most pertinent being that Doug Naylor is in the process of writing series XI, and they’re all keen to participate! But we also gathered that Danny’s exits can take some time to perfect, that Craig has a remarkable memory for lines, and that Chris Barrie spent most of a day gesticulating in an assortment of increasingly bizarre ways in order to achieve the full, final Rimmer salute.

But really, the event was all about the boys from the ‘Dwarf themselves. It was evident throughout the entire night that this is a bunch of blokes who like and respect each other and have known one another for twenty-five years. The banter was both hilarious and good-natured, the reminiscing was plentiful and the mood was lively – in a setting as intimate as the well-chosen Approach, it felt a little bit like we’d all been invited to sit around in their living room while they had a natter and threw some jokes around.

RD Full Cast

They indulged the audience freely, slipping into Duane Dibbley, Ace and Kryten trying to say ‘smeghead’ when requested, and while Chris couldn’t for the life of him remember what CLITORIS stood for when asked, Craig’s impressive memory came to the rescue – after the inevitable few jokes. We still don’t know exactly what was on that double polaroid, though. Oh, and, we hate to say it, but Chris isn’t a particular fan of gazpacho soup. Too cold.

When pressed for the real high points, though, the guys came over all serious for once and made it quite clear that it was all about the camaraderie between the boys from the ‘Dwarf, who’ve known each other longer in some cases than they’ve known their wives. Not bad for a bunch of guys that describe themselves as ‘Last of the Summer Wine in Space’.

After a well-orchestrated Q&A session with the crowd, the cast lingered for a signing marathon as the poor bar staff did their best to retrieve the empty glasses left by a happy crowd in a sold-out room. It really couldn’t have gone better.

Given the phenomenal success of this event, I’d strongly recommend keeping your eyes peeled for similar future occasions.

Event Organiser: Twitter. Facebook.
Venue Website: The Approach Nottingham.