Thursday, 29 November 2012


The peel comes away in coarse slivers, each strip revealing more of its deep orange flesh. Its earthy coat removed, I pick up a sharp vegetable knife and attempt to attack it. Tough, this knife is obviously not big enough! I use all my force and successfully halve it. Chop, chop, chop into rough-sized cubes. Hoisting the heavy wooden chopping board into my hands and pushing these chunks into the pot with the sizzling onion and spices, then pouring vegetable stock over. Some liquid splashes from the measuring jug onto the work surface. I tut, tut as I wipe it and turn the electric hob down to a simmer. For 20 minutes, I watch mesmerised by the small bubbles that form on the surface. My patience runs out, I cannot wait any longer. I lift off the lid and pierce an orange cube, the knife easily slices through – it's done!
Stage two: improvisation. I grab a potato masher from the drawer and proceed to vigorously squash any remaining lumps until it resembles more of a puree. Phew! With the back of my left hand, I brush a loose strand of hair off my face and assemble my insufficient-for-the-whole-job stick blender. My right index finger selects the only speed, the blades rotate and churn the liquid. A guttural whirring. I reach for the already opened can of coconut milk with my other hand and gently add half its contents. The white swirls swiftly disappear as they're blended with the liquid. Its colour lightening and texture changing; intense orange to rich amber, grainy to smooth to velvet. The blades choke to a halt as my index finger is released from its labour. Perfection!
As the liquid cools, I wash up and inhale the aroma. Periodically sniffing the air as I clean each used utensil. I divide the tepid liquid between two plastic containers and on two identical labels write in permanent marker: Homemade Sweet Potato Soup, peeling these off the backing paper and slapping them round the containers. I seal the plastic lids on and bundle them both into the freezer. My mouth watering as I think how delicious this soup will be when it's reheated and finished properly. A extra pinch of chilli spice, a dash of lime juice and a tablespoon of crunchy peanut butter or creamed sesame. A real winter warmer!
I'm still picturing a bowl of steaming soup as I untie my apron. Folding the garment up, my thoughts turn to my other comfort foods. Those ideal for when I'm craving carbs or suffering from a nasty cold: plain spaghetti or boiled rice with a knob of spread and grated cheese, or a jacket potato with baked beans. At this time of year, simple food is just so soothing.

Thursday, 22 November 2012


Badger Bill, c.1979
Last week I was struck down by seasonal change. Temperatures falling, then rising; rising then falling. In a state of flux like the season. Muffled hearing, sore throat, runny nose, sneezing, sniffling, one evening of aching and shivering. My joints creaking, crying out to be oiled like well-used hinges, and my body leaking from its orifices. None of the symptoms occurring together, but acting independently. A reversed variation of flu as the aches and pains commenced towards the end and not at the beginning. I snuffled my way through interviews, straining my weak voice and struggling to make sense of what people were saying. Confused, yet I needed to appear comprehensive. I'm listening, I'm taking it in, I'm with you. But really I'm not. Words coming out in a rush, none of them planned or expected. My brain was cocooned in a thick fog. This pilot had lost control and was caught in an Bermuda Triangle induced by illness.
Generally I cope with the usual coughs and colds pretty well, but this new sense was frankly baffling. The world smothered, a cloudy view with muffled sounds. Without headphones on, I'd tuned in to a muted frequency. All that remained was the occasional whoosh like the sound of air travelling fast or the tide going back and forth languidly. A shell was being permanently held to my ear, “I can hear the sea! I can hear the sea!” I exclaimed to anybody excitedly. Marooned on British Isles with imaginary sounds and inaudible people.
Pedestrians and vehicles were miming acts I had to decipher. Flapping gums and mumbled tones. Wheels spinning, exhausts sputtering. Closely observing all activity with nothing to alert me. Noise drowned out by the wind and sea. Whoosh, whoosh. I'm trapped in an sound-proofed construction. Interferences bouncing off the glass before they can reach me. The dull wham, wham as people knock into its walls and disoriented, walk in the opposite direction. The world I knew had been temporarily turned upside down and vigorously shaken.
Back at home, this silence was blissful. A flat calm. No hum from the refrigerator. I couldn't hear the kettle click, the microwave ping, or the phone ring. I allowed vast pillows of cloud to engulf me. Let the auto-pilot take control so I could recover.
I awake still blanketed by fog and venture again into the blankness. Wait, I stand on the pavement outside my flat, something is changing. The whooshing is getting faster, louder. Mayday! Mayday! The auto-pilot must have pushed the eject button. I'm being catapulted back to earth without a parachute to slow me. Terrifying surround sound ricochets off my eardrums. “Arrgghhh make it stop! Make it stop!” With my hands instinctively clapped over my ears I run back inside and bolt the door behind me. A huge sigh escapes from my lips, aaahhh muffled bliss once more.

Thursday, 15 November 2012


Operator: Ambulance, Police or Fire?
Caller: Fire.
Operator: Fire service. What's the emergency?
Caller: Two people carriers have crashed in front of me.
Operator: Can you see how many people are involved? Is anybody moving?
Caller: Each vehicle is carrying six people.
Operator: Address please.
Caller: Fleetwood Street.
Operator: Name please?... Caller, are you still there?...
Silence. The caller has hung up on the operator.

The above is based on a transcript of an actual call made to the emergency services. It's not exact, but it was just one of a string of calls in fact. A series of incidents reported involving the same street somewhere in Blackpool. Each time the caller hung up and the fire brigade had to attend the scene. To viewers watching these edited version of events, the details gave came across as vague and it was clear that these repeated calls were phony. It was done for a laugh, to get a reaction. 999 knew this person was a He, making calls from the same public phone, reporting the same locality, and if he didn't hang up on being asked his name gave the name of male celebrities. He was probably observing it unfold behind twitching curtains, laughing sardonically. CCTV eventually caught him in the act and he admitted to it. In the interview he gave to the documentary crew, he said it was a compulsion. In other words, an irresistible urge: he had to do it.
Antisocial behavioural problems with drugs and alcohol cause offences and unnecessary strains to the emergency services. This hoax caller is not the first or the last. Crank calls are happening with increasingly regularity. Maybe in this case his compulsion was genuine, perhaps he has undiagnosed OCD and needs professional help. But should drug and alcohol abuse be accepted as an excuse? Well, that's okay then. Acknowledge the problem and do nothing to prevent it. Create a new one: let them dial 999 and abuse this service just like they misuse other substances. It's what it's there for.
I'm shocked that some people have no concept of what an emergency is. I've broken a nail. My ex has got custody of my cat and I want her back. Now! Others are more conniving, getting the paramedics called out by pretending to be unconscious. They know exactly what to do get an ambulance. Flashing blue lights and wailing sirens. Attention seeking time-wasters. What happened to respecting our emergency services? The job they do, the lives they save, the service they provide every single day, every 24 hours.
Dial 999 to save a life, not endanger it.

Thursday, 8 November 2012


I state my name, address and flash my card. Registered, my details crossed off, I'm handed a white slip. There's no conversational talk, just an uncomfortable silence. I'm dismissed with a single glance. I turn away and approach an empty booth, my footsteps echo behind me. At the front, blue panels close me off from peeking toms, but the back stays wide open. Its structure reminds me of a hospital gown, and yet despite being clothed, I feel exposed. The booths next door to mine stand vacant. I read the instructions pinned up and make a mental note of the most important bit: Mark with a cross, not a tick. I take a deep breath and pick up the blunt instrument left for these purposes. I suppress the urge to request it's sharpened. I study the candidates printed on the white slip, the pencil poised above it. With a shaky hand, I make an 'X' next to my first choice and select my deputy. My hand steadier, the 'X' more definite the second time round. Folding the paper in half as instructed, I exit the booth and return with more confidence to the desk. I give a furtive nod to the presiding officers and post my vote in the box.

After I vote, I'm always hit by a sudden rush of euphoria. My shoulders relax, my arms swing and there's a bounce in my step. I've made a strategic move, my vote will be counted. I don't toe one party line, I cherry-pick. I'm not loyal to one brand, one faith, or one way of thinking. I select views that work for me. The coalition government has re-ignited my interest in politics, but in the past when I lacked interest I still voted. Why? Because exercising that right was given to me. My vote is for the women that fought and the women still fighting for it. I vote as a woman who benefited from the suffragette movement and its tragedies. I vote on behalf of the women who have yet to gain this equality. In the West, we forget that voting for women was/is a luxury. Men will never comprehend this in quite the same way.
I'm saddened that members of my own sex don't seem to care or are unaware of this history. The vote is seen as disposable, just as women are still seen today. The female form is either used up like a dirty rag or thrown away. In the West, we've developed barbaric practices to either accentuate or negate our femaleness. We lope breasts off or pump them up, we have nose jobs, face lifts and tummy tucks. Girls aspire to glamour modelling, women take up pole dancing. Opportunities are taken away if you're a woman of a certain age or child-bearing. Often we do all this to ourselves and call it empowering. We tell ourselves we're pleasing ourselves and at same time pleasing society. Submissive to the male in the word of female.
Is this the subversive route the suffragettes thought women would take? Liberalness and compliance. Leaving the home to conform to an overtly sexual image. Feminists are considered aggressive, others are kept silent. Women are still pieces being moved around in an increasingly sexualised society.
I vote because this is the one true voice afforded to me.

Thursday, 1 November 2012


I lie back in the chair and stare at the monotone ceiling. Closing my eyes, I try to relax and block out the noise in the background: the rustle of new instruments being prepared and the whirr of machinery. The smack of latex gloves and then a damp cloth touches my skin. I hadn't anticipated this wet sliminess, I shiver. Any moment now... I wait... Something is slapped on the surface and held there. Hands clamping it down, prodding its edges and smoothing it into position. Told to stay still for five minutes, the hands are lifted off, and I'm left to think of England. My thoughts turn biblical, medieval, sacrificial. Like a lamb, I've been enticed to to this chamber. Hypnotised to offer myself up to the tribe. To be accepted. Footsteps resound on the wooden flooring – my torturer is returning! My heartbeat quickens as their heavy breaths fall onto my face.
Time's up.” The gruff voice says, “Are you ready?”
I give a feeble nod to consent and squeeze my eyes even tighter. A bead of sweat has formed on my brow and slowly tickles downwards. It reaches the space beneath my nose, above my lip. My tongue tentatively skirts this upper arch and catches this drop of saltiness. My mouth is dry, throat parched. Fingertips brush my skin, nails prising the perimeter of a covering. There's a sudden ripping sound. I flinch. “Don't move!” Another baby rip like sellotape, followed by a foot pressing a lever. I move with the chair into an upright position. A big, burly hand taps my shoulder, “You can open your eyes, you're done.”
I look down at the flat expanse of my navel, to the right the skin is no longer nude, it's coloured. My torturer holds a mirror in front of it. A dolphin has been captured there. “It's beautiful.” I whisper.
My torturer lets out a loud cruel laugh, “Transfers don't last. It will wash off and fade in a few days. Faux body art is my trade!”

Transfers, artwork you peel and apply, adhere to the skin with water. Your first tattoo like your first word or baby tooth. In the late 80s, it was a ritual all kids went through, flicking through the pages of Smash Hits to find them. A rose on the hand, the name of your favourite band, or a weird graffiti symbol. A bit of harmless fun and highly fashionable: art to match your clothes, your shoes, your mood. Like a denim pair of jeans, transfers acquired holes and gradually looked worn and patchy. Adults were mimicked in childish ways, but we didn't progress much beyond it. We decorated our bodies with faux tattoos and painted our faces. We played house and smoked faux cigarettes, puffing clouds of talcum powder in each other's faces. A preadolescence tribe that maintained some individuality.
Tribalism now has intensified, it's more edgy, and its effects are spreading rapidly. Likes and dislikes advertised on skin-coloured canvas. Names engraved, sacred text etched, and symbols carved. Images inked on hips, bums and calves. Every inch covered up, but flaunted.
Has expressing who we are gone too far? Body art is contagious, similar to the town that caught Tourette's, but unlike Le Roy, we haven't investigated what could be causing it. Mass tribalism? Artistic self-harming? An expansion of social media? Is tattooing, once considered a tribal art, now just frivolous branding? Why can't the tribe say: Love the skin you're in, don't permanently mark it!?