Writing the next volume

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One of the things I wanted to do after moving back to London was to get a book printed of all of the blog posts I wrote while living in Chicago. It’s partly because of a nagging fear that’s been in the back of my mind since a long-ago conversation in secondary school where Sanna remarked that all of my digital backup stuff was all very well and good while we still have electricity but would suddenly become useless if that ever went away. But mostly it’s because it’s really nice to flick through. If you ever showed up in my blog during those years then you now sit on our coffee table, like it or not. And this is sort of an apology in advance for a post which is a bit of a random summation of the past two weeks. One day these days will be showing up in a sequel book, and I wouldn’t like to forget them.

Meet Scratchy. He spends a lot of time in our garden.

Last week began with a family outing to Toy Story 4. I still maintain that the ending of Toy Story 3, where a grown-up Andy puts his arm around the shoulders of the mother who’s now shorter than he is, is one of the most emotional pieces of cinema ever made – perhaps because I had just graduated from uni and was sitting next to my own mum at the time. In comparison I didn’t think the new film was quite as good although it was definitely a fun adventure. At times it did seem that they had completely forgotten about making a film for children, although it was genuinely lovely when some of the few kids scattered among the audience did find things for them like mimicking Forky by spontaneously yelling out “Bo!”.

Flush with being back in the land of legalised gambling I briefly considered putting a fiver on England to beat the US in the World Cup semi-final. But I didn’t, and I still have that £5. Nevertheless Randi and I enjoyed watching the rest of the competition (well, obviously Randi would) and it’s cool how widely enjoyed the Women’s World Cup seemed to be. For example, the other (seemingly much less exciting) semi-final was being projected in the background of the pub where Matt, Laura, Caroline and I whiled away many hours after work on Wednesday evening before we all realised it was time to go home. I was very amused to discover that thirtysomething Londoners (that’s who we are now!) who do actually know how to drive end up wanting to retake driving lessons because they feel so out of practice.

We’ve had a couple of great Friday night get-togethers recently too, including with Randi’s colleague Esther and her flatmate Cass and, last night, some Chicago-style pizza with Steve, Simon and Fleur at Japes. We were all a little unclear why this place picked such a British name but it was actually a pretty good and faithful rendition of Chicago-style pizza, although for my own order I sacrificed authenticity for a ‘carbonara’ variant and then got even crazier by adding sweetcorn. This is when you know you’re definitely not in Chicago.

The table was split very divisively into pro- and anti-olive sides
The table was split very divisively into pro- and anti-olive sides
Me and Sue, a loyal friend of the blog
Me and Sue, a loyal friend of the blog

Last weekend I was at the QPCS Summer Festival, bumping into lots of old teachers (about whom it still feels weird to use first names on this blog) and hanging out at the dual-purpose Alumni / Pride stand which was a very “not in my day” moment. Later in the day we migrated even further north to celebrate the annual ‘Roe Green day’ in Josh’s small, cosy, rural village which just happens to be smack-bang in the middle of Kingsbury. (His dad actually showed me aerial photos of Roe Green in the 1920s when it was completely surrounded by fields.) Josh also inducted me into my thirties, not with driving tests but with a plush Vladimir Putin doll and an inspirational Noel Edmonds book about positivity.

Randi was very excited by our surprise detour to an Asian food court
Randi was very excited by our surprise detour to an Asian food court

From one village to another, I did briefly want to mention the nearby oddity that is Dulwich Village which Randi and I encountered during the first of our new weekend series entitled ‘visit nearby parks and compare them to Brockwell’. (Dulwich Park was nice! Just not quite as nice.) Anyway, while the village is cutesy there was something unsettling about the area, and the discovery that all residents and businesses must pay a forced tribute to a shadowy ‘charity’ which owns the land and disperses funds to local private schools tells you a lot. Tomorrow we’ll be heading in the opposite direction to Tooting Commons which I doubt will raise the same concerns.

As you can see, this week I also waylaid James during this (too brief!) visit from Berlin
As you can see, this week I also waylaid James during this (too brief!) visit from Berlin

Finally, this afternoon I very much enjoyed seeing my first Ibsen play – Rosmersholm – in a new adaptation. Randi and I both suspected that being able to translate a play written in a foreign language does give the director a little extra leeway to make it ‘fit’ for a contemporary audience (although I can’t be sure) but whether that’s true or not it was – even though I feel guilty just using this word – astonishingly ‘relevant’. Maybe one reason why we love so much drama from the nineteenth century is just because so many of the themes of modernity, with its mass politics and mass media, started there. Either way, the performances were absorbing and it’s really great to be getting back into the theatre habit.

I’ve just finished the last episode of Years & Years, the show which so traumatised me (but in a good way?) when I started it a month ago. As the series went on I adjusted to the terrible bleakness of this very-near-future Britain and focused on the momentum of a good old-fashioned story – which was good, because I couldn’t have coped with six episodes at the same intensity of the first – but I do highly recommend if you get the chance.

It was certainly more relaxing and joyful experience seeing Education, Education, Education with Tash on Wednesday night. This was her birthday gift to me and it couldn’t have been a more perfect choice: an education politics-themed play set in a secondary comprehensive with a great 1990s soundtrack and lots of undisguised nostalgia about going to school at that time even if everything was falling apart behind the scenes. (OK, sure, I was still in primary school but I had a Tamagotchi too! A fancy, later-generation 8-in-1 which included an alien and about which Olivia and I got into trouble for discussing during an assembly rehearsal… but I digress.) The German teaching assistant, narrator and breaker of the fourth wall was a particularly funny touch. But it was also heartfelt, with sympathetic characters and a thoughtfulness about education if not an incredibly precise point to make about the path from 1997 to today. I’d recommend this one too.

This weekend we headed up to Norwich for Biff and Christa’s wedding. Randi turned out to be very pro-Norwich, scolding me for not having enough faith in their bus network which, be fair, did deliver us to the right place at a fraction of the cost of Dover’s buses. We had a really good time at what was – for me at least! – largely an excuse for a mini Groupon UK reunion. The Star Wars philosophical poem during the service was also magnificent, while the food – as you might expect from the owners of Biff’s Jack Shack – was top notch. I particularly enjoyed sitting in a group on the grass outside after the sun went down and munching happily on a vegan jackfruit burger which somehow preserved all of the greasy fast-food deliciousness as anything you might hope for from a late-night food van. In truth, it was also a moment of great relief since I’d just managed – on my third attempt – to find a cab company with any cabs left to pick us up. Ah, Norfolk.

Bex, Camilla, Simon, Christa, Siobhan, James, Clark, Biff, Cat, Matt Hull and Matt Montagano. And me, obviously, hiding at the back of what was supposed to be a quick photo but just kept growing...
Bex, Camilla, Simon, Christa, Siobhan, James, Clark, Biff, Cat, Matt Hull and Matt Montagano. And me, obviously, hiding at the back of what was supposed to be a quick photo but just kept growing…

The next day I headed straight to Cambridge for PuntCon, Bill’s annual gathering on the River Cam which I attended for several years running before I left for Chicago and kept begging to be kept on the invite list each year so that I could eventually make it back some day. I finally did, and it was lovely to see Bill, Katie and Max again as well as enjoy the usual stimulating conversations over a picnic which makes the hayfever all worth while. (Although I was not at all pleased to learn that the UK is now home to some kind of evil spider whose bites can rot away your skin. This is not the kind of change we needed.)

PuntConning again!

Having watched both England and the US progress through the quarter finals at the Women’s World Cup last week, Randi and I now have a difficult week ahead. It’s pretty unfortunate that the one-in-a-million sporting event which I happened to watch has thrown up this collision… 😬

On Wednesday morning I received a 30th birthday e-mail from my 19 year-old self. It was sweetly good-natured as well as containing an alarmingly prescient warning about Boris Johnson, and it feels rude not to reply. To be fair, my 19 year-old self was just procrastinating from essay writing so it would probably be a bad idea to distract him even more. To make up for it, I will find some time to write a reply forward in time to my 40 year-old self instead, who I really hope has just enjoyed a birthday at least half as good as the one I’ve just had.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I don’t want to skip over the final few weeks of my twenties which – as promised last time – were all about settling down in our new flat and jobs and building the foundations of a routine. Our move to Tulse Hill was remarkably smooth (thanks partly to my mum who drove down a car loaded with suitcases and boxes!) and although we’re still waiting on some painting before we decorate properly the flat has slowly been filling up with everything it needs to feel like a home. In fact, on the very same day we moved in we also hopped down to IKEA Croydon to fill our backpacks with domestic essentials… and my very first journey on the hitherto mysterious world of London Trams.

In Chicago I really enjoyed my half-hour walk to and from work – not only as a chance to clear my head, but also as the perfect podcast listening time. So I’m really thrilled that I’ve been able to reproduce a 30-minute morning commute walk by heading to Brixton rather than just using the nearest station from our house. And as a bonus, I’ve swapped the industrial vibe of Goose Island (which, to be fair, I now have very fond memories of) for the breathtaking Brockwell Park. We are going to get an awful lot of use out of this park, especially on Sundays when there is an amazing farmers’ market just outside the park at Herne Hill station.

Even on a wet morning commute there are many joyful touches to appreciate in Brockwell Park
Even on a wet morning commute there are many joyful touches to appreciate in Brockwell Park

While Josh has the distinction of being our very first dinner guest, I was shocked to realise that the first people to stay overnight in our spare room would be Chicago’s very own Catherine and AJ! As I discovered when I walked into a pub on Wednesday evening and found them waiting at a table, our ‘surprise birthday weekend’ which Randi had organised for my 30th was actually for the four of us, which was both an incredible surprise and very touching that they would fly all the way here for only a couple of days. That night we joined up with my family for a plate-sharing extravaganza of Peruvian food (I was really hankering for some ají de gallina) before heading home together for the night.

Still feeling overwhelmed by the surprise
Still feeling overwhelmed by the surprise
Randi finds the perfect skyline view from the park
Randi finds the perfect skyline view from the park
Hitting our local pub the next night
Hitting our local pub the next night

On Friday morning we ate a variety of English breakfasts at our new (and currently favourite) local café before catching the train to the coast for a long weekend in a small village near Dover. I have taken the Eurostar along the High Speed 1 route before but this was my first time riding the domestic high-speed service and the incorporation of this particular bit of railway nerdery into the birthday plan seems to have been a happy accident. We were all suitably impressed by how fast it was and as we shared cans of M&S cider and snacked on Percy Pigs it was galling to learn that a similar high-speed rail link connecting Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis very nearly went ahead in 2010 before being scuppered by the asinine Republican governor of Wisconsin.

One day, this will be us on the way to the Minnesota State Fair
One day, this will be us on the way to the Minnesota State Fair
At the edge of the country
At the edge of the country
Walking the cliffs, ignoring the fires
Walking the cliffs, ignoring the fires

I had never been to the White Cliffs of Dover before and we were incredibly lucky on Saturday to get a perfect sunny day for a long stroll along the clifftop. The clear view of France across the channel really does bring home how geographically close the two countries are and, as if to make a point, my phone kept latching on to a French mobile network and pretending it was an hour later than it was. I challenge anyone to stare down at the port of Dover from above and casually opine that the single market is a trivial thing to mess around with. Once we got to Dover Castle we appreciated the usual medieval castle features (such a sentence is much less common in the US) as well as the Roman lighthouse and a tour/exhibition on Dunkirk presented in the ‘secret wartime tunnels’ which are signposted all over the site.

Figuring out a route
Figuring out a route
Beautiful views
Beautiful views
White cliffs!
White cliffs!
Approaching the (poorly signposted) Dover Castle
Approaching the (poorly signposted) Dover Castle
We found ourselves in a National Trust tearoom...
We found ourselves in a National Trust tearoom…

When not walking we did a lot of eating and drinking, from tea to vegan sausage rolls to three different chocolate caterpillar cakes (Charlie, Colin and Connie) which are not a staple of American birthday parties but ought to be. We also binged on Channel 4 (The Secret Life of Kids USA is notably didactic about parenting techniques compared to the UK version) and played an extensive game of Grand Austria Hotel, my board game birthday present from Katie. Predictably I also got upset about the cost, frequency and general demeanour of the very-non-London bus from Dover back to St Margaret’s at Cliffe… but I must admit that they do (finally!) take contactless card payments now, which is a real gamechanger if you find yourself relying on an unfamiliar rural route.

Another coupley photo by the cliffs
Another coupley photo by the cliffs
I didn't win, but I was still proud of my hotel
I didn’t win, but I was still proud of my hotel
Waiting to go home
Waiting to go home

My 19 year-old self couldn’t have predicted how I would be spending my 30th birthday or who I would be spending it with, but he did have a hunch that I’d be enjoying myself. I’m really grateful to everyone who proved him right and made it so wonderful, kicking off my thirties in an exceptionally happy way.

Normal life is about to resume! Next week I’m excited to be starting a new job at eviivo and am just hoping not to alienate my new colleagues by showing too much uncontrolled enthusiasm for commuting, security passes, team meetings and all the other accoutrements of work which I’ve been on hiatus from since November. As usual, I won’t be blogging about work itself, but it is telling of something that I’ve swapped a giant cat-in-a-spaceship for a singing sheep with a song which is now firmly stuck in my head.

And in a spirit of radical efficiency, this weekend Randi and I will also be moving into our new flat!

Mission to the Unknown

As I’ve written before, I really wanted to combine ‘moving back to London’ with living somewhere new and different, and over a few nights the other week we bounced between flat viewings in the vague areas of Peckham, Brixton and Herne Hill looking for the perfect spot. Like an episode of Location, Location, Location (which we’ve been consuming a lot of recently – for the non-UK readers, it’s a reality show about house-hunting) we had to carefully balance transport connections and parks – amongst other things – but I’m really happy about discovering the beautiful Brockwell Park and the soon-to-be-ours flat nearby. Importantly, we will also have a spare room, so anyone reading this and thinking “I can’t possibly visit from California / Chicago / North West London in a day” can set their mind at ease. There’s a bed with your name on it.

In the mean time we are very grateful to our slate of temporary hosts: my aunt, my mum and family friends Susan and Gordon who invited us to house sit (and cat sit) for two weeks while they were away. (OK, technically they invited Tash but you can’t always get your first choice.) This was a great base to finalise job and flat searches as well as feed our aforementioned Location, Location, Location addiction. I’m not joking about this. By the end we were referring to it as “L cubed” to save time. One evening I was curious about how far back Channel 4’s on-demand archives went and we ended up watching the very first episode from 2000. The craziest thing about this was not how young the presenters look, or the insultingly low house prices, or the bizarre home-video filming style and soundtrack but the scene where a prospective buyer is worried about the length of her potential commute from Stoke Newington and Phil calls up the London Travel Enquiries hotline to get the answer. The London Travel Enquiries hotline? I guess this was what people did in the year 2000, but it felt so jarringly absurd.

“Hello? Any way to repair a broken time machine?”

Throwing me into an even deeper funk recently has been Russell T Davies’s new drama Years & Years. It’s along the lines of Black Mirror crossed with Turn Left and, as you would expect, the plot is gripping and the characterisation excellent. My only criticism is that it makes me want to bury my head under a pillow to hide from the world and then plan my escape to a small cottage in the countryside. The New Zealand countryside. In the year 2000, or perhaps even further back before even the London Travel Enquiries hotline got going.

Back in the real world I’ve also caught up with Sanna, walked two more London LOOP sections and hung out with Oliver and Abi at the Natural History Museum and Hyde Park where we watched a succession of poorly-matched young children go head-to-head in goal scoring while their birthday party organiser and/or football coach yelled words of encouragement. Randi and I also saw Rocketman – the new Elton John musical biopic – at the Lexi which I thoroughly enjoyed.

In a final flourish of accomplishment I have even found a way to rescue my stranded 401k (US retirement savings) from the ticking time bomb which started after I left Groupon and had one year to ‘rollover’ my savings into a new type of account which is only available to US residents. “I wish there was a way of doing this all globally” I said to the helpful guy on the phone from Merrill Lynch, who replied brightly that “we’ll get there eventually”. Clearly he hasn’t been watching Years & Years.

This Bank Holiday weekend we gathered this lot:

Friends and family (except Frankie and Anya who arrived later!)
Friends and family (except Frankie and Anya who arrived later!)

into one enormous cottage in the small Essex village of Thorpe-le-Soken:

Perfect weather for mass deception
Perfect weather for mass deception

for my mum’s surprise 60th birthday party!

Tash and Katie deserve the credit for planning this all while I was travelling, and on Saturday morning they drove mum up for their ‘mystery weekend’ together while Randi, Cormac and I hopped on a train from Liverpool Street and joined a bunch of friends and relatives for the surprise. We all then enjoyed a long weekend together of amazing (and plentiful!) cooking, inappropriately early-morning games of Cards Against Humanity, confusing country walks along Essex ‘footpaths’ which are falling into overgrown oblivion, a trip to the seaside (with top-class dodgem driving) and Cormac’s incredible rendition of The Jungle Book’s I Wanna Be Like You on the guitar.

Team Self
Team Self
Randi wished we had just stuck to the road
Randi wished we had just stuck to the road
The beach!
The beach!
Our winnings from a very successful game of Let's Bounce
Our winnings from a very successful game of Let’s Bounce

Oh, and some of us shut ourselves away on Sunday night to watch the European Election results. Others just danced instead.

I took this on the way to bed in our adorable garden caravan
I took this on the way to bed in our adorable garden caravan

My sisters and I also finally got the chance to present our mum with a book of childhood photo recreations. This is a project which we’ve been putting together over the past year whenever we’ve had the chance, and it has been worryingly easy to locate many of the props from photos which are now several decades old, from duvet covers to garden chairs to a fancy dress gorilla hat. But I’m pleased that our inability to throw anything away made it easier to get the perfect matching shot, and we were all sufficiently proud of this book to order extra copies for ourselves too.

Looking through the photo recreations
Looking through the photo recreations
At one point all of the partners formed a support group
At one point all of the partners formed a support group
...you can see why
…you can see why

Just before the weekend we also made very good process on our collective job+flat hunting. But I will save that for the next post 😉