The Freedom of Wanting Less

Not so long ago, if I were to have had a week off work I would have felt as though not using it to travel abroad would render it a missed opportunity.  Free time is finite, after all, and so it made sense to put any big ol’ block of it towards journeying further afield.  There’s only so far you can travel during a weekend, so your Annual Leave is what supplies you with that infrequent option to go to those exotic places beyond, and if you want to make the most of life, you need to capitalise on those opportunities.

That was very much the logic of my twenties; before the mortgages and the taxes and the service charges and the insurance premiums and ALL OF THOSE OTHER MISERABLE SOUNDING WORDS that do – regrettably – take a hold of you, enter your daily vernacular.  I knew that buying a property would hinder my ability to live the same kind of lifestyle as I had been able to enjoy previously, and though it filled me with slight trepidation, I knew that it had to be done.  I love my parents very much; but in life one needs- above all else – to be able to live independently; and whilst they allowed me a lot of privacy and we always got on, I needed my own kitchen where I could produce my own dinners, burn my own spuds, and replenish my own bin-bags.  I have absolutely needed the mental struggle of getting used to living alone, and the freedom to paint my living-room wall bright green; and my parents needed their guest-bedroom back and the additional space in their fridge.

I don’t have a lot of disposable income these days; I don’t know many people who do.  Just being alive is incredibly expensive; and when you’re trying to afford all of those boring fundamentals like water and gas on a single salary  – as well as trying to sustain the more emotional of the human needs, like a decent social life – you have no option but to carefully consider the destination of each pound you spend.  You want to make the monthly payslip stretch as far as it can possibly go without having to miss out on the activities that fill you with joy; and much of this is about sacrifice.  You learn to cut back on luxuries like eating out, (“spending twenty quid on something you just shit out the following day”, as a like-minded friend so eloquently put it as we rejoiced our financial epiphanies in unison during a recent car-ride) because you know you’d rather put the money towards a train-ticket to visit a friend.  You learn to see beyond the brand-names and realise that Tesco’s own coconut rice tastes just as good as Mr Ben’s.  You almost encroach Narnia whilst digging out those long-forgotten old clothes at the back of the wardrobe which probably suit you better now anyway, because they at least make you look younger.  Aldi becomes a deity; because if honey-roast peanuts cost you an arm and a leg in Waitrose, then there they’ll cost you a fingernail clipping.  And you do adore the occasional ramekin of some good old honey-roast.

Ultimately it becomes quite liberating.  You realise that many of the things you thought you needed in life you actually don’t, and that by cutting back on those things, you have more financial and mental freedom to focus on the important things: spending time with people you care about.  Sharing fun experiences together.  Just talking.  Moments which invigorate your spirit and soul don’t actually need to cost you much at all, and you can get so much more satisfaction from those than you could an over-priced perfume, or a – let’s be honest here – completely pointless cocktail served in a thimble that makes you pull a face after one sip.  There’s nothing wrong with indulging in a little bit of luxury every now and again; but it’s not something you need to spend your life chasing.

During my latest spell of Annual Leave, I realised I didn’t actually want to go anywhere like I may have wanted to before, even if I had been able to afford to.  All I wanted, was to stay at home and use the free time during the days to make the most of the sweet, humble little town I live in.  To cycle along the river and slip over in the mud.  To walk along the cobbled streets and listen to my favourite songs.  To make small-talk with strangers and pat their little yappy dogs with silly names (no offense to Olive’s owner).  To sit at the duck-pond where I used to go with my Grandad when I was a little girl, and reflect upon the magic of life and time.  I realised that whilst things haven’t felt especially easy in recent months; I don’t actually need as much as I sometimes think I do.

When I think to some of the occasions in my life in which I have felt particularly sad; it has often been because there was something I wanted but was struggling to get: a change in my life of some sort, to move out, a nicer set of teeth, for somebody to like me back, to be better at something… it’s actually of very little surprise that in Buddhism, desire is seen to be the root-cause of suffering.  To want can be – and is –  a great source of direction that should never be dismissed without considering the reasons why; but feeling sad about things you don’t have is a negative energy that won’t help in changing things.  In fact, it will only serve as a further resistance to the possibility of that change.  In an instance of exceptional timing, I came across this quote and it seemed to slot in perfectly with many of the things I have been thinking about recently:

“When you love what you have, you have everything you need”

There is definitely an exciting freedom to be gained; and new, energising lease of life to enjoy, from wanting less, and appreciating more.

Song of the DayWeezer – Byzantine

Weezer are one of my all-time favourite bands; I love the fact that their new album coincided with my week off.  This is such an upbeat song and I love the lyric within, “it’s only complicated if you want it to be”.  Damn straight.

A Lesson from Cats

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Insta: @sophiekemz

Several weeks ago, I started to think about what our social media news feeds may look like if cats were to use it.

And then I acknowledged – not for the first, second, third… or even hundredth time – that I am slightly strange.  I am fine with this.

But it made me start questioning a great number of things.  If cats had the capability to manage a social media page, do we think they’d do it in the same fashion as humans?

Would they apply filters, maybe a set of human ears and lips?  Would they upload photos of a bowl of Whiskas and attach hash-tags like #foodporn, or check-in from next door’s shed?

Would they celebrate life’s major milestones with a status update for their fellow felines:  caught first mouse, had first kitten, neutered?

“In a relationship with: Muffin from number 32”

I thought about this for several minutes, then concluded that I don’t think they would.

I think one of things I like most about cats, is that they don’t really give a toss.  They just live life in the exact way they want, and there is something quite blissful about such nonchalance.

Cats do whatever they feel, and most of the time that means sleeping on whatever comfortable surface they can find, or going out for an explore.  They just live in their own little cat-world and have no real idea of anything that’s going on around them; yet they’re savvy enough to know when there’s a remote chance of getting something to nibble on.  They know exactly what they want from life, and have their priorities in check accordingly.

They’ll just sit blissfully in the sun, legs akimbo, eyes closed in contentment as they feel the rays beating against their paws, until they feel – from several yards – the flutter of a bird.  Then they’ll exhibit more movement within the next five seconds than in the five hours preceding them.  Pounce!

And then, after all the excitement of this, they’ll give themselves a good lick and go back to what they were doing: sunbathing in a garden which to them represents an entire world, with owners who represent its entire population.

I think there’s a lesson we can learn from cats.

Song of the Day:  Aztec Camera – Salvation

I’m struggling to understand how it’s taken me 33 years to appreciate ’80’s Scottish new-wave band Aztec Camera.  This is a beautiful piece of music; a nice one to stroll along in the park to, watching as the aeroplanes scar the dusky skies overhead.

Ten Things You Do When You Live Alone

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Insta: @sophiekemz

1) Lock Every Window and Door Several Times Before Going Out

Leaving my flat takes an age.  In the warmer months, when I’d have the windows open, it took even longer.  There is not a drive away from my block of flats that doesn’t feature some kind of paranoia about whether or not I’ve closed and locked every single window and door, even though the reality is that I checked each about ten times before leaving.

2) Over-estimate How Much Mange-Tout You Will Need

Excess mange-tout seems to be a recurring theme in my flat… and probably my life in general, or so it sometimes feels.

I don’t normally have a lot of things in my fridge at a single time; I try to only buy the fresh groceries I really need and always like to use them up quickly, before they go off.  But mange-tout seems to be a little more stubborn than all of the other vegetables.  It’s flat little pods manage to mislead me frequently.  I always think that the contents of such a small pack should be gone within a couple of curries but… no… there is always a lot left over.  And I always forget, and buy more…

3 Eat Curry Every Day… Because You Can

…And because it helps use up all that mange-tout!  But also because before living alone, I would have to go out to a restaurant if I wanted to eat a Thai curry.  Now, I can make one every week if I so feel, and I can add as much crunchy peanut butter as I wish!  It’s a novelty that has still not worn off even now, after five months.  My stomach mightn’t appreciate it, but the rest of me does.

4) Arrange & Re-Arrange Your Bookshelves Until It Appeases Your OCD

The travel-writing books should take up the entirety of the top shelf, because they’re my favourites, and Bill Bryson should start the row because his surname begins with one of the first letters of the alphabet.  I’m happy if the remainder are just grouped by continent.

The second shelf should be for the various travel guides accumulated over the years, and the bottom shelf is the one for all those books with titles like, “The Little Book of Thinking Big” and “How Not to Worry” that I can turn to for inspiration when I feel flattened and depressed by the realisation that my mortgage, and ongoing need to buy bin-bags, have greatly reduced the possibility of needing the books on shelf two again.  Also includes a couple of anomalies in the form of over-sized journals to scribble in, and the Cilla Black autobiography.

5) Donate Cupboards to Things Others Wouldn’t

The Crisp Cupboard under the sink was quite unintentional but is what I personally perceive to be the jewel in my flat’s crown, and the first port of call after a hard day of work.  At the moment it’s in need of a freshen up; too many bags of Ready Salted left over from a cheap multi-pack from Tesco, but I’ll get there, and replenish without shame, with something a bit more exciting, like erm, Frazzles…

6) Consider a Jar of Pickled Onions a Treat Because You’re So Damn Skint

My philosophy with money since living alone is to try and make it stretch as far as possible by only buying the food and drink which I definitely need so that I can spend the rest of my money on trying to still have a life.  I’m quite happy with this arrangement, but there are still times when I feel completely torn.  I’ll never forget the time I walked around town for ten minutes deliberating about whether or not I should go back to the farm-shop and buy that jar of pickled onions in honey vinegar which cost £3.50 but looked at me seductively from the shelf.  I caved, as I often do for food, and, well,  I’m still enjoying them to this day, so perhaps it wasn’t such a needless purchase.

7) Celebrate Having Your Own Condiments

Never underestimate the power of this.  Your own condiments permit you to squeeze as much ketchup over your chips as you want, and it’s up to you, and you alone as to when you replace the bottle.  You don’t have to put up with that red spray of emptiness if you don’t want to, and if you see that thick, congealed bit of goo round the lid, take comfort in knowing it’s only your goo, a solace you can’t get from those provided in restaurants and pubs.

8) Over-Think

How much longer does the boiler have left?  Should I start saving for a replacement now?  How much will that be? What did that comment mean earlier? Was that a weird tone? Can a common cold be a symptom of imminent death? What am I doing with my life?  *And repeat*

9) Only Properly Clean the Place When Others Come Round

Well, I do like things to be tidy, no matter if it’s just me in the flat.  I’m not one to leave rubbish lying around or let the washing up stack-up.  I do like everything to be put away daily, and detest clutter.

But, clean the floors? Hoover? Polish? Dust?

Nah.  Life’s too short for that kind of nonsense.  I’ll save it for only when the visitors come.  And if I distract them with a Bourbon biscuit and a cup of tea, they probably won’t inspect the place anyway.

10) Assume Every Unusual Sound is a Ghost or an Axe Murderer

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve crept up nervously to the spy hole, convinced that I’ve heard a knock signifying an unexpected visitor, but of all the Ten Things, this is the one more likely to fade over time, once the surroundings have become more familiar.

I mean, I’ll still do the chain and activate the additional three locks before I try and sleep tonight but, I’m getting there…

More to come…

Song of the Day: Weezer – Longtime Sunshine

This is from the deluxe version of the ‘Pinkerton’ album, a disc I remember borrowing from the Library as a young teenager and falling in love with.  Towards the end of this beautiful song, they blend in elements of ‘Why Bother?’ – one of my all time favourite tracks – to create a mind-blowing version of jaw-dropping goodness.  Jaw-dropping if you like this kind of music, that is.  But I certainly do.

Cooking Up Another Year

When you think about it, a calendar year is a bit like a casserole.  The end product contains a lot of ingredients and some of them stand out more than others.  There are some you like, and some you don’t, but you include those anyway because you understand that they’re a staple part of the dish.

Especially on the first couple of occasions, you will always start out with some kind of recipe, an ideal list of what the dish is going to include, but in reality your weights and measurements of each individual ingredient might be all over the place.  Your scales might be broken and Tesco might be out of onions (if you don’t believe this can happen, come to my local Tesco, and walk back out with twenty five per cent of your shopping list unchecked due to the sparsity of the shelves).  You may have no choice but to purchase some alternative ingredients instead.  They’re not what you intended but… you’re up for seeing how they go.  Why not.

When you finally get round to tasting your casserole there’ll be times when you mainly taste the dumpling (yum!), and other times when you might only be able to taste the tinned tomatoes (yuck).  If the latter happens, you’ll probably change your recipe and quantities accordingly, because you don’t want that happening again.  It’s the same thing when it gets to this time of year and you reflect back on the previous twelve months.  Some themes and events will stand out more than others.

Personally, I’m not a massive fan of recipes.  I find them useful in providing a bit of direction at first, but struggle to keep in tandem with them after the first couple of steps.  Maybe that’s why each time I cook the same dish it turns out different, and perhaps in a funny sort of way it’s not far apart from the subliminal reasoning behind why I’ve slowly learnt not to create too much in the way of specific, tangible goals for any New Year.

For all I know right now, 2019 could turn out to be the best year yet, or it could be the worst one.  A lot of that will be in my control (‘energies’ and ‘chakras’ and all that modern day jazz music) but a lot of it also won’t (reality, shit luck, the weather, one’s monthly cycle creating emotional havoc and – dare I mention a topic I loathe to ever mention on this site but – British politics).

Sometimes I suppose the best thing to do is understand and embrace this in advance, maybe stockpile some additional seasoning just in case, and prepare the taste-buds for some brand new flavours…

Song of the Day:  Boogie Belgique – Memory

Latest offering from continental masters of innovative electro-swing music.  This nice, chilled piece is perfect for Winter evenings.

 

Fluorescent Grey: 2018

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Seven years ago I wrote a poem on here called, ‘Finding Fluorescent Grey’.  

It was hardly a piece that was going to see me named as the next poet laureate (poetry is really not my strength), but I’ve been thinking about the message behind it a lot lately; to the point where I wanted to try and express it in a more physical form through the scribbles above.

Neither the poem nor the graphics are anything special; if anything, they would probably be the subject of ridicule by professionals (or most other people for that matter) but… they felt so good to create, and in my opinion that’s what should be the priority for any artist, be it a writer, painter or somebody on stage.

I have come across many people who admit to a thirst for being creative but barely give themselves a chance to execute their ideas under the assumption that whatever they produce will be “rubbish”.  The truth is that there is no such thing as rubbish art.  I denigrate my poem because I have read a million better pieces and recognise that there are many areas it could be improved, but I’m still satisfied that the words are an accurate reflection of something I had an overwhelming desire to express.  Likewise the graphic above required no real talent to produce but I think it represents the meaning I was trying to get at in the poem, so I’m happy.  As long as you are working towards this, it’ll never be bad art.

It’s different if you are being asked to produce, with paints and pens, an accurate depiction of something else.  In these instances, it is somewhat more justified to judge. Take that legendary, less-than-flattering portrait of Mrs Mangel from Neighbours circa 1986 as an example, ha!

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But for everything else, there really are no rules, and I think that’s possibly why I get so much delight from maintaining this blog and uploading my crude cartoons to my Instagram account.  In a life governed by routines, processes and time-slots I relish my time to crawl outside of the cage and get creative, and would encourage anybody else to do so too.  It’s amazing what you can learn from it.

I guess you could say that, seven years on, I’m still in awe of the fluorescent grey…

Song of the Day:  Turtlenecked – Underwear

A sweet, soft little indie-pop song that unfortunately only lasts two minutes.  Really lovely listening, especially for cold Winter evenings.

Living Alone: A Reflection

It had become the topic of a long-running joke and I knew it.  People with whom I hadn’t spoken in a while had gradually stopped asking me if I had managed to move out of my parents’ house, because they would already know that I probably hadn’t:

The retrospectively optimistic sounding, “Ah well, perhaps by the time you’re thirty, though”  comfort-sentence was adapted several times over the years until it basically became something along the lines of “hopefully by the time you’re reincarnated, though”.

I didn’t stay living at home with mum and dad through choice, it’s just that moving out was something that was beyond my financial reach for a very long time, especially given that I was buying on my own.  And because I live in the South East of England, where even the old lady who lived in a shoe probably had to resign herself to a twenty grand deposit and a thirty seven and a half year mortgage for the benefit of cuddling up to a steel toe cap each night.

Everybody knows how expensive it is to buy a place.  I consider myself extremely lucky to have been able to do so, and no matter how many sacrifices I have to now make to the amount of ‘fun’ I can have in order to keep myself fed and cleansed, I am so thankful to finally be here in my very own flat, where the cupboards are full of ingredients to create copious Thai curries, and the decor is dominated by my favourite shade of yellowy-green.

I have been single for an extremely long time and have never felt that bothered about it.  In fact, I am generally quite apathetic about the idea of marriage and children, which is maybe why I have been single for so long.  I genuinely enjoy my own company, and whilst I do, of course, also love being around friends and family, I am also a bit of a fiend for wanting regular access to personal space, and am not too ashamed to attend events alone if I want to go but nobody else is interested.  I have always felt very lucky in this regard, and some of my favourite memories are ones in which I “went alone”.

Because of this, I didn’t think I’d have any issue at all with loneliness when I moved into my own place.  Largely, it’s been as fun as I thought.  I watch whatever I want to watch.  I eat whatever I want.  I don’t need to explain to anybody where I’m going or what I’m doing, and the truth is that by the time I come home from work I’m often so tired that I don’t think I’d be a great conversation maker anyway.  It’s nice to be able to sit in silence without worrying about radiating tired or draining energy towards others.  I’m terrible at concealing my feelings, and can’t feign enthusiasm if the reality is that I feel like a dusty old over-caffeinated broomstick who drastically needs a bath and a mug of Horlicks.

I hadn’t noticed any problems at all, until one day I realised how much more anxious I had been since moving.  Combined with a job which whilst enjoyable also necessitates a great deal of time alone, I have been spending a lot more time in my own head and not around others, and am only just starting to pick up on the thought patterns and behaviours that this  has influenced.  When I’m at home alone, or driving around in the car, I overthink and ruminate about things a lot more than I used to.  I see problems that probably don’t really exist anywhere else beyond within that mass of space between my ears, and then wonder if I’m being overly cynical, yet other times, I think I’m incredibly naive about a lot of people and things.  And then I just get confused and don’t know what to think about what I think.

As soon as I’m back around people, those anxious thoughts vanish.  It’s almost like putting on a pair of spectacles that enable me to read situations more clearly (to be fair I seldom wear my  prescription glasses as I just feel that they make me look like Velma from Scooby Doo).  I either conclude that my thoughts were irrational, or realise that even if they were true and the world really was about to end, I could probably get over it anyway.  Perspective comes flooding back and reminds me of everything that I have spent many years encouraging others not to forget through this blog and other means – that the world is much bigger than your living room, pretty much most problems are only temporary, focus only on those you care about, and that even when times are hard, Frazzles exist to make it all better again.

I know all of those things and have often pride myself on being pretty emotionally aware in many regards (though this has not always been the case), but only since moving out have I really started to understand how much of an influence loneliness has on the way we feel.  I haven’t always felt as strong as I thought I was.  Living alone is different to traveling alone, attending a concert alone, or going for a walk alone.  Living alone is having nobody who really understands or knows about everything you’re going through.  You may have plenty of people you speak to about a lot of things, but there’s nobody that has understanding for absolutely everything that happens on a daily basis, nobody who just knows. 

If I sound as though I’m feeling sorry for myself, then please be assured that I’m not trying to.  I chose this way of living and I don’t regret it.  I’ll happily take a few anxious thoughts every now and then if it means be able to watch retro episodes of Bruce’s Price is Right at breakfast-time, or listening to the same song on-loop for several hours, without causing anybody else any unwarranted distress.

I have always believed that the key to inner peace is knowing how to manage alone – emotionally, practically and financially – and so I see this latest challenge as nothing more than exactly that, a challenge, and a learning curve which will make me stronger.  The anxious thoughts I’ve been experiencing recently may disappear as soon as I’m around other people, but I’d like to get myself into a position whereby I can work through them alone instead, from the convenience of my kitchen table rather than anywhere beyond.

I’m writing this post for several reasons; not just for a bit of helpful reflection of my own situation that may resonate with others who feel or have experienced the same, but largely to be open about loneliness as something which is widely known to cause a great deal of emotional difficulty to many people.  As a society, we have become so much better at understanding mental health over the years, yet still many people suffer from the likes of anxiety and other issues to which over-thinking often contributes, and don’t voice it, for whatever reason.  Perhaps they are afraid of what others might think, or they just don’t know that they can talk about it.  If these people are lonely – be it because they live alone or they just feel alone – then it can be even harder to trace or help.

If you are feeling lonely and are finding that the internal thoughts, questions or worries are making too much noise within, then recognise that that noise is just a scream for release.  Pick up your phone and either make a call or send a text to a friend or relatives to make arrangements to meet.  Let the thoughts out and see how different they now look.  Listen to another person’s perspective on them.

You are not really that lonely, and your worries aren’t really that bad.  You just needed to talk.

Song of the Day:  Proleter – Lullaby

Now this one has definitely been played on loop in my flat at least hundreds of times in recent weeks.  It’s the sort of song that just makes everything seem hilarious if you have it stuck in your head.  Which happens frequently.

Arriving Home

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It’s funny how some places can feel like home even if you’ve never actually lived there.  For me, Faversham has always felt like ‘home’, and now it actually is!

It’s been a long old journey to get here, starting around five or so years ago when I was taking a walk past The Anchor pub one Summer afternoon, looked around, and thought to myself, “this is it, this is home”.  There was nothing particularly extraordinary about that moment, it was probably just a random cataclasm of senses inexplicably cascading together, but there was no denying the feeling.  And no forgetting it either.  To live in this town became the dream.

It’s probably the familiarity of the place.  I can’t walk down Lammas Gate or South Road without lovingly gazing at the houses where my grandparents once lived, and where  – as a family – we would come down from Watford  in the ’80s, ’90s and early ’00’s for those cozy stays.  Some of my earliest memories consist of feeding the ducks at Stonebridge Pond underneath those famed tangerine-blush ‘Faversham sunsets’, or of going for strolls along the creek, and whilst I may live alone here, I am not lonely (living frugally at the behest of relentless, monolithic bills, yes, but lonely, no 🙂 )

Home isn’t just about having a place where you return to each night to kick off your shoes, dump down your bags and cook curry (then spend the next few hours vehemently scrubbing sauce stains off the hob), but about being somewhere where you can recharge yourself from the hubbub of everyday life.  It might be where you live, where you’ve lived, or just a place you keep going back to.  Either way, it’s good to spend some quality time there.

Where is home to you, and why?

Song of the Day: Her’s – If You Know What’s Right

These Liverpudlian guys are one of the best kept secrets in today’s music.  I have been listening to this song pretty much on loop for the past three weeks and am still not bored.  Too ridiculously catchy and upbeat a tune not to love.  You can thank me later.

Personality over Perfection: How I Fell in Love with a Hotel

Opposite one of the main railway stations in the Midlands stands an hotel which has been there since the mid-19th century.  Built to resemble an Elizabethan manor house, there is a certain sense of elegance about the structure, which is probably what makes it an attractive option when considering where to book a room for the night.  It’s also incredibly affordable, particularly at a time when even the most basic accommodation can usually set you back about £70 a night, if you’re lucky!

There’s a saying in life that you only get what you pay for, and the first time I stayed in this hotel, last year – a last minute decision to assist with the logistics of a short stay in the area – I left feeling like I shouldn’t have paid anything at all.  A catalogue of perceived calamities – all occurring within the relatively short timescales of an overnight stay – meant I went away completely understanding why three quarters of its reviews are rated either average, poor, or terrible.

But, there’s also a saying in life that everybody deserves a second chance, and I pretty much believe that’s a sentiment that should be extended to services as well as people, when possible.  So – with a new need to stay in the area, and an even smaller budget to play with this time round – I decided to give it another go.  At £40 a night, I would have been stupid not to, and this time round, I even convinced a couple of friends to come with me.

I told them all about the aforementioned catalogue of calamities observed during the first stay, in 2017 – the uncomfortable beds, the feeble running water, the way the carpet changed to a completely different design halfway up the grand staircase, and the way the rooms were so dated, that the welcome booklets contained explanations about where to locate the nearest cigarette machines (banned from England in 2011).  I also told the tale of the unenthused barmaid, who had kept finding reasons to disappear whilst on duty, and failed to answer a simple question about whether or not we could buy a bottle of wine to take away with any sense of certainty, interest or even – dare I say it – intonation:

“Ah don’t kner. Nerbody has ever assked me that”

What felt like an eternity then passed before I realised that she had no plans to elaborate on her ‘answer’.

“Well, is it something we could find out?”

“Ah’ll have to ask the manager”, she concluded, before disappearing for another fifteen minutes, whilst no doubt making great efforts to succeed at her quest for a resolution to our query.  Eventually we were permitted to take the drink away, but not before noticing that the bottle was covered in dust and was probably as old as the building itself.

Regaling the stories this time round I was asked why I would choose to stay there again and – much like the barmaid I suppose – I struggled to give a clear answer.  I didn’t dislike the hotel by any means, I just found the whole place incredibly bizarre, and yet so alluringly intriguing.  And now I had a reason to stay there again, and I leapt upon it.

When we arrived for stay number two my friend vocalised positive first impressions as we walked in through the grand porch entrance.  The receptionist – a middle aged lady with a messy bun in her hair (not that I’m judging as I often sport the same fashion myself) – was ensconced in conversation with her colleague about how much work she had done that day, and almost seemed to forget that she was still on duty.  She dealt with my friends’ booking and I checked-in with her colleague.

A young girl approached the counter behind us, to ask what time last orders was that night.  It turned out that she was the the current barmaid, and she clearly wasn’t enjoying her job very much, as she seemed very keen on calling them sooner rather than later.

“Make it 11pm” her colleague said, before issuing with me with my key, the flimsy, plastic sort you would normally use to lock an old filing cabinet with.  It wouldn’t have surprised me if it actually did unlock a filing cabinet somewhere within building, probably the one containing all the customer booking invoices from 1973.

“You’re in Room 102”, he said, nudging the key across the reception desk, “turn left as you go up the stairs”.

My friends were staying in Room 100, and so when we saw the sign for rooms 100 – 105 we felt pretty pleased to think that – despite booking several days apart – our rooms were so close together.  Not so.

After dropping my pals off in Room 100, I continued along the corridor to where Room 102 should have been, but alas, it was not there.  Room 101 was.  As were rooms 103, 104 and 105.  But not mine.

“Great, I booked a room that doesn’t exist, no wonder it was so cheap!” I thought to myself, before turning back and double-checking to see whether I’d missed it.  After a bit of wandering, and some help from my friends, we found a sign round the corner that pointed the way to Room 102 specifically, and when we finally found it, it was situated between Room 120 and Room 121.

Of course.

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We could only deduce that whoever designed the building had not been able to count, and then proceeded downstairs towards the bar.

The young barmaid was stood slouched with a facial expression that suggested she had recently swallowed an anchor, and was feeling compelled to call last orders seventeen minutes before the time she had been advised to by her colleague.  We went up to place our orders in the nick of time.  One of my friends asked for a pint of beer and got a half pint of beer and a half pint of froth.  “Ah joost need to let it settle”, said the barmaid, leaping upon an excuse to not have to do anything and disappear from duty for ten minutes, to god knows where.  A sense of deja vu came over me, and I immediately identified who her mentor must have been when she started employment there.

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Once we got all our drinks, and questioning – but being in no mood to challenge – how much we had been charged, we took a seat and noticed a pool table next to us.  We fancied a quick game, but didn’t quite have the right change.

“Excuse me, would you mind changing these coins into a fifty pence piece so that we can play pool?”, I asked Waspy at the bar, in as polite a tone as possible to avoid having a dimpled-glass beer tankard launched at my face.

“No I can’t because bar’s clerzin’ and ya need to go into the lounge now” she said, without any slight hint of regret, eye contact, or diction.  In fact, if she’d had a giant broom to hand I’d have easily imagined her sweeping us along into the lounge, next door, so that she could fetch her things from the cloakroom and head out to meet her Tinder date.  Or whatever important thing she had lined-up for afterwards that made her so keen to end her shift.

My friends and I went to the lounge, as instructed, and took a seat on some black leather sofas, the crevices of which you half expected to find some shriveled up peas from the two for £5 mains special, or a piece of melted chocolate Digestive.  I’m sure you know the kind of sofa I mean – you normally see them against the decrepit custard yellow walls of taxi ranks, or on somebody’s front lawn awaiting collection by the rag and bone man – early ’00’s furnishings that just couldn’t stand the test of time and now feel like sitting on giant cushions of spilled cider and black, and regret.  Yeah, those.

Once we’d finished up our drinks we considered heading out to explore a bit more of the town, and maybe see if there was a place for one final refreshment.  We asked the chap at the Reception desk for any ideas of where we could go:

“There’s not mooch around here to be honest, flower” he said, with an unmistakable Midlands tone, “you’d be better off staying for our night bar” which – he explained – was basically when they keep the lights turned off in the bar except for when staff go in to pour drinks.  We were asked to remain in the lounge area, where a couple sat with some enthusiastic young children who wanted us to join in their game of football, whilst our drinks were being poured.

A grand piano sat on tired looking carpet in the corridor just outside the room and I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the urge to stroke the keys and bust out my inner Mozart… except that this was difficult to do, as the piano was sadly broken, with the lid jammed half-shut.  Without wishing for this to sound like a scene from a blue movie, but uncertain how to phrase it any other way, a wine-influenced version of myself managed to poke my fingers in and play a bum note or two in as melodic a fashion as possible.  Before too long, however, a member of staff advised me that there had been complaints from the bedroom above, and asked that I desist with my musical masterpiece immediately.  Alas, my modern incarnation of Symphony No. 40 was not able to reverberate around the confines of the hotel on that particular night after-all.

I’m possibly not painting the most amazing image of this hotel, but I’m being completely honest when I say I love it, and people like Paul are amongst the reasons why.

Paul – you see – was the senior staff member on duty that night, and the one who had taken to giving us botanical pet names like “flower”.  A tall, silver-haired chap in his early fifties, Paul was the kind of person you’d imagine showing up to an extended family Summer barbeque with a bottle of Tia Maria and some Ferrero Rocher.  He’d be the one keeping an eye on the burgers every time chef went to the loo, and geeing everyone up to have a go at the pinata.  In other words, he seemed to be the sort to know how to please a large swathe of people, and that’s exactly the kind of person you want to come across when staying away from home.

After serving us drinks from the night bar, Paul explained that the hotel had been very busy hosting weddings in recent weeks, and offered to give us a sneak preview of the function room they had spent the day decorating in preparation for a Harry Potter themed service due to take place the following afternoon.  “If you’d ‘ave seen this place a week ago you wouldn’t have recognised it” he started to explain, “the lasst lot that were celebrairtin’ a wedding in ‘ere completely trashed the plairce.  It took us a whole dair to clear it oop”.

Paul was such a sweet, friendly chap that you couldn’t help but feel incredibly sympathetic at this point.  He went on, “We’re not the most modern of places and ya see them writin’ their reviews on Trip Advisor, complairnin’ about the lack of air-con – they forget we’re over a hoondred years old, and that we’re a lot cheapuh than oother plairces they could stair”.

And you know what?  He was exactly right.

As Paul continued to delve into the history of the building, he told us interesting facts and showed us interesting features that most visitors probably don’t give themselves the opportunity to see.  All the whilst they’re busy complaining that the tiny television screen impedes their ability to see the weather conditions anticipated for at home in Maidenhead next Wednesday, they’re missing out on the things that make up for it.

The more Paul spoke about and showed us, the more I began to realise that I liked this hotel a whole lot more than I had initially thought.  It had a character to it that I now knew to be the thing which had ultimately brought me back for a second stay, and it wasn’t letting me down.

In my last blog post, I explained how the ease with which we can ‘perfect’ images completely negates the true value of a genuinely impressive photograph.  With this hotel I find myself thinking something similar.  Have we become so conditioned to believe everything should be flawless, that we immediately dismiss the value of those which don’t – on the surface at least – look as great?  The quirks of this hotel were the thing I loved about it the most, even being able to see the funny side of having a room that overlooked nothing but a bunch of vents and styrofoam take-out containers that no doubt once contained a portion of cheesy chips:

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For various reasons I have needed to stay in a number of English hotels over the past couple of years.  Most of them have been very nice, with crisp bed-sheets, sleek customer service and breakfast menus that would make Dr Gillian McKeith yelp with glee about the responsible amount of nutritional balance on offer.  The problem is, I can’t tell you anything else about those places.  They were nice enough, there was just nothing really that memorable about them.

But, I can tell you tonnes about this hotel – which I have purposely decided not to name throughout this article – but which for me represents everything that an overnight stay in a different part of the country should be all about:  The clutter of Edwardian furniture that’s seen better days.  The sachets of freeze-dried coffee you enjoy with your 2am bath.  The variety of staff attitudes on display.  The trouser press affixed to the wall, the purpose of which you’re unable to explain to a Brazilian friend…

trouser pressAnyone ever actually made use of these since 1989?

…You don’t stay here because you’re looking for a luxurious base from which to send a postcard, you stay here for the experience, and because you know that the money you’ve saved by compromising a bit of comfort can be better spent on a nice lunch out the following day, or a new colander.

One of my favourite contemporary creatives – a lady called Mari Andrew, famed for her Instagram depictions of modern day life – once wrote that if you’re going to be an artist, or anything else where you seek to provide things others can enjoy, you should strive to be more like whisky than water.  Everybody likes water whereas far fewer people like whisky, she reasons, but there are far more die-hard fans of whisky than there are of water.  Nobody treks hundreds of miles to remote Scottish distilleries for a bottle of Evian, but they would for whisky, because it’s different.

This hotel is definitely whisky, and it has me ordering it by the gallon… well I would be, if the barmaid hadn’t disappeared for the fifth time this evening…

Song of the Day:  Alligatoah – Es Ist Noch Suppe Da (There is still some soup left)

Listening is believing when it comes to this one – German hip-hop which samples a song from some kids tv show in the ’60’s.

I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but Spotify recently seemed to think I’d like it, and it was bloody well right.

Flashback to Old Photography #NoFilter

“…And here she is again, pictured with a friend who was unfortunately blinking at the time”

It was sometime in the late 1990’s and my mother was showing some photographs of my sister to my grandma (who was looking progressively bored with every photo that passed through her hands, bless her).

I’m not sure why, but the comment really made me chuckle – perhaps because of the way it was so politely put – and on those rare occasions when we pull out the old and dusty family albums, I still smile when I see that photo.  “‘Unfortunately blinking’. Heh heh.”

Not so long ago, imperfect photos like this were the norm.  The quality of our prints depended highly on a myriad of different things, including having the optimum levels of natural light, sufficient power left in the camera batteries, and whether or not our eyes could hold their own against flashes of extremely bright, whirring light.

There were no options to review, delete and re-take if you hadn’t quite been ready for the photo or if your hair looked a mess, and certainly no way of applying a filter to conceal a rash or wrinkles.  Your choices were a lot more limited, and with an allowance for around only 36 photos on each roll of film, you had to be a lot more restrained on how many you took.  Serial-snapping was not a thing unless you were extremely rich, which certainly wasn’t the case for those of us restricted only to pocket-money funds to buy the various means required to take photos.

You’d have absolutely no idea how the shutter-clicks would manifest until a few weeks’ later, when you’d pick up your prints from Boots, take yourself home, make a cuppa and begin to sift through with eager anticipation, being careful not to let your biscuity fingers touch the gloss.

One thing you were always guaranteed was an element of surprise and a range of reactions as you sifted through.  Some photos would come out great, but a lot of others wouldn’t.  In every roll of film there’d be the token blinking shot, and the mouth wide open shot.  There’d also be the ‘tooclosetotheflashandnowihaveaseriouscaseofmassivemoonfacegoingon’ shot, and the shot where – for some reason – things became a little confused during development and you had either a set of bright squiggly lines running through the middle or just a completely black photo.  Or whatever the hell happened here:

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There wasn’t a lot you could do about the photos you didn’t like, or the ones you didn’t want anyone to see.  Even if you hid them away, there’d always be the danger posed by that person who would take a cheeky look through the negatives to identify those deemed inappropriate for public display.  You could always get some amusement out of that, if not by way of finding something embarrassing, but from the fact that even your most favourite people on earth generally looked pretty damn scary in the negatives:

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Jump forward twenty years or so, and technological advances mean we can all now have a gallery of personal photos made up of the kind of images we once thought we’d only ever see in glossy magazines.  Built-in filters, and drives that can hold thousands of photos, mean you can take a photo again and again until you feel it looks just right, and even if you don’t feel it get to that stage, you can edit it until it does The skill of a good photo is no longer about the person taking it, or even the subject matter, but the equipment being used, or so it seems.

It’s useful in many ways, yet so anticlimactic in others.  Insta-perfect picture after picture is nice for a while but there’s also something somewhat underwhelming about it, not to mention something quite sickly about the culture of vanity it has embedded into a society that used to be way better at laughing-off the permanent capture of its windswept hair or accidental gurn.  When did we start taking ourselves so seriously, and for what purpose?  I’m not sure I feel comfortable with the way it’s so easy to dismiss aesthetic imperfection these days.  I think that’s something far-better embraced, and appreciated.

I do miss looking through photo albums which – when you think about it – mirrored life itself – mixing the good, bad, messy, amusing, wonky, bizarre, the unintentional, and everything else within a combination of purely natural photos.

And I miss the suspense of not knowing what the photos would turn out like, finding one you love, and instantly being able to stick it up on the fridge door so that every time you reached for the milk, you manouevred the smiling wee face of great-grandma back and forth.

I miss the days when a ‘good photo’ was a result of chance, the ‘one shot’ that truly paid off despite unfavourable technology and too much sunlight.  They had more of an impact that way…

…Perhaps it’s time to buy a new-old camera, before I blink-and-miss the opportunity to…

Song of the Day: Sleepwalkers – Reasons to Give Up In You

Catchy pop-rock from Richmond, Virginia.  I fell in love with this track the very first time I heard it.  If you’re still looking for your Summer anthem for 2018 then here it is: