Inspired by: Women of the future

Back in 1986, when Whitney Houston sang about children being our future, I paid little attention. It was the year I turned 17 and I was busy casting off the shackles of childhood. As far as I was concerned, the future was all about me and what I was going to be in it.

It took thirty years and the words of another powerhouse woman, Miriam González Durántez, before I got the point: I may be the ‘now’ but the future is in the hands of those much younger and specifically those who inhabit our education system. Whilst I’m not interested in being a school teacher, Miriam’s words made me see that there was another way to contribute.

In the weeks that followed, I signed up for Inspiring the Future, an initiative connecting schools with the world of work and before long I was involved as a business volunteer with the Barnet Business and Education Partnership. For the last year, I’ve been in secondary schools supporting programs like presentation skills, interview skills and how to make the most of work experience that help students prepare for life ‘beyond school’. Participating in this way has been really motivating. It’s also got me thinking about how we prepare young adults to tackle life’s challenges outside their academic curriculum.

What other things can we do to help them to be resilient, resourceful and responsible in their adult life?

Earlier this year, I returned to the Inspiring the Future website to tick an additional box flagging my interest in being a school governor. I didn’t know that this would be the right thing for me but I knew I felt passionately about the contribution to be made and wanted to explore this further. In the words of change leadership guru Deborah Rowland (who I met in March)…

” …having set up these initial conditions for emergence, you have to let the change come towards you, not go chasing it.”

Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change by Deborah Rowland

…so I ticked the box and went on with life, continuing to explore a range of other interesting opportunities that had been emerging.

On June 4th, I attended the TEDx London conference and among the lineup of inspiring speakers was Teach First’s Executive Director of Delivery Ndidi Okezie who spoke about ending educational inequality and creating a world where all children have an “equalising educational experience”. Okezie spoke of feeling overwhelmed by the scale of change required but insisted that “a change must come”. Did you know that the proportion of UK children who go on to attend Oxbridge is roughly 1:20 but in poorer schools that this opportunity falls to 1:1,500? Teach First has over 10,000 ambassadors in schools creating equal educational experiences for all children, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances.

As I listened to Okezie speak, I was taken back to my school years where a couple of teachers were particularly instrumental in helping me navigate the path to adulthood. Back then I was preparing to take flight into a world that, despite my insistence to the contrary, I didn’t really know much about. I was embarking on a new phase – just as I am now. I jotted a few notes down as the talk came to a close, thinking that they might come in useful at some point. One of the things life has taught me is that you never know which pieces of the puzzle might eventually come together.

And how timely this was. Less than a month later, I joined the Board of Governors for a local secondary school, becoming part of their Educational Standards Committee and also the link-governor for the school’s performing arts curriculum.

Needless to say there’s a lot to learn and a lot of work to be done. But I’m really looking forward to working with this team of passionate and committed governors and teachers. I’m also excited about ensuring that the student community – these women of the future – are equipped and empowered for the adventure ahead.

I’m stunned by how quickly these pieces fell into place.

I once heard it said that when you take responsibility for your own happiness, life shows up as a gift. I drew deeply on my reserves of resilience and resourcefulness as I struggled to build a new life in London over 13 years ago. And after last year’s work changes, I decided to take some time to explore how I wanted the next stage of my life to look. Whilst the full picture is still emerging, I’m feeling happy, fulfilled and excited to be on the brink of new possibilities.

So I feel passionately about encouraging the development of these qualities through my role as a Governor:

  • Resilience – in the face of life’s challenges;
  • Resourcefulness – in spite of what might stand in the way;
  • Responsibility – for stewarding themselves and the world through tumultuous times and inspiring the generations to follow to be the authors of their own success, whatever that may be.

Three more R’s to supplement the three – reading, [w]riting, and [a]rithmetic – that began their education over a dozen years ago.

My life is undeniably the sum of all of the people and experiences that have left their mark on me and it was another speaker from the TEDx London conference in June – a bloke from the world of policing and forensics no less – that captured this perfectly:

“Every contact leaves a trace.” John Sutherland

Here’s to leaving a positive and worthwhile mark on the generations to follow.

Think Fantastic Try Hope

Inspiration forms part of the window display of the Fendi store in New Bond Street, London (June 2017)

The perfect tonic

Those of you who are Gidday regulars will know that I like a walking tour. I got into them in earnest last year, thinking they’re a great way to indulge my passion for history.  We were also doing the Get the World Moving challenge at work and one’s step count, and increasing it, became the currency of water cooler and photocopier conversations for about three months.

Yesterday I joined Museum of London guide Bridget and twenty committed tipplers for a damp and chilly trawl through London’s links with gin. Here’s how things went.

We began outside the Dominion Theatre on the corner of Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, the site of the old Horseshoe Brewery and the great beer flood of 1814.

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Apparently a large vat of porter burst and flooded the area. With many of London’s poor living in nearby tenements and cellars – Bridget quoted 102 people living in 8 rooms – it’s remarkable that only eight people died. That six of them were at a wake brings new meaning to the saying “drowning one’s sorrows”.

Our next stop was Denmark Street – London’s music mecca – Central St Giles (designed by Renzo Piano, the architect behind the Shard) and the church of St-Giles-in-the-field.

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Here the enormity of gin’s impact on London really took shape. Gin, or jenever, came to London from Holland, introduced by William III who had seen its invigorating effects on his troops in the face of battle. Ever heard of the expression Dutch courage?

In any case, gin was easy to make and accessible to the poor and at one stage, every man, woman and child was consuming 500 gallons per year – that’s more than 2,270 litres if you are metric – or 6 litres per day. As such gin became the root of many social ills, some of which were illustrated by William Hogarth in his etchings below.

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Thuggery, thievery, disease, suicide and murder were all part and parcel for the gin drinker (right) while on the left, beer was being positioned as having a less deleterious effect on the health (see the better dressed fishwives at the front of the picture). The ‘powers that were’ agreed – after all, without the poor masses, who would serve them and fight their wars – and passed several Gin Acts in an effort to stem, not always successfully, gin’s rapacious tide.

We continued around the back of the church and down to Seven Dials, originally the nexus for just six streets rather than the seven of today.

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The area was laid out by MP Thomas Neale in the 1690s to maximise the space available for his housing project. He commissioned Edward Pierce to build a sundial to stand in the intersection but this was destroyed in 1773 in an effort to stop the site, which was showing the effects of the residents’ heavy gin consumption, being a meeting place for ne’er-do-wells. In the late 1980s, it was rebuilt in line with the original plans and in keeping with our Dutch association, it was Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands who attended its unveiling as part of the year-long William and Mary celebrations in 1989.

We set off down Earlham and then Neale Streets to find ourselves at Covent Garden.

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We paused by the back entrance to the Royal Opera House to learn about Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. The list was published between 1750 and the mid-1790s and detailed the attributes and services of each ‘lady’ available in Covent Garden alongside her picture – at one point, 8000 copies were in circulation.

Much business was also done under the portico of the church opposite, the site of Tom King’s coffee shop which was a place not only for coffee but for gambling and drinking as well. It was said that gentlemen emerging from their clubs could ask Tom (and later Moll King) for the services of lady from Harris’s list. A messenger would be despatched and the lady brought to the coffee shop to meet said gentleman.

We walked around the block and into Bow Street – I’ve only ever entered the Opera House from Covent Garden so I was delighted to acquaint myself with its front.

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The BAFTAs ceremony for the film awards – said to be an indicator of Oscars success – is held here every year on February 14th so there was a lot of work going on to prepare the ‘red carpet’ for tonight.

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We turned into Broad Court and paused again to hear more about Henry Fielding, his brother John and the Bow Street Magistrates Court where people like CasanovaOscar Wilde, suffragette sisters Emmeline & Christabel Pankhurst and author Jeffrey Archer have appeared.

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Henry Fielding also established England’s first police force, originally a group of just six men nicknamed the Bow Street Runners, in 1749.

The end of Broad Court brought us out onto Drury Lane, where many gin palaces emerged during the 1800s. These ‘palaces’ employed the latest inventions of the 1830s – gas lighting, silvered mirrors and paned glass windows – to create a brighter and more genial environment to enjoy a tipple although without seating, patrons drank until they could no longer stand. Literally.

Taverns (where beer was served) already had seating so watched, learned and called on the same improvements to provide a much more comfortable environment for their patrons. So the public were drawn back into the taverns and away from gin until the first half of the 1900s when in the roaring 20s and then again during World War II – when it was Churchill’s tipple of choice – gin’s public profile rose again.

We’d been going for about an hour and half at this point and with the promise of a glass of gin at the end of the walk looming, I found my attention taken by this view through the window of restaurant Barrafina…

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…but there was still one more stop to make before our promised refreshment.

Bridget led us along Great Queen Street and up Newton Street to admire the Princess Louise…

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…and encouraged us to duck into the side door to have a quick peek at how the taverns of the 1830s (and onwards) might have looked.

While it was just a short peek, it was really beautiful and inspired me to find a reason to come back for a drink with friends.

Just as well that our final stop and gin-watering hole was not far away.

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And so our tour ended at The Ship Tavern, tucked away behind Holborn Underground Station, with a rather lush gin, grapefruit and coconut concoction.

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For those of you wishing to wander this area for yourselves, here’s a map of our route…

Mother's Ruin route

…but these streets really came to life yesterday with guide Bridget’s extraordinary knowledge and skillful storytelling, only a fraction of which I’ve shared with you here.

The museum runs a number of themed walking tours like this so if you are interested, check out the website. The next Mother’s Ruin tour looks like it’s on March 13th so if I were you, I’d get your skates on (another Dutch reference – see Hans Brinker) and book your place.

It’s bound to be the perfect tonic.

Twinkle twinkle

It’s the first weekend in December and here at Gidday HQ, that means that it’s time to get festive and put up the Christmas tree.

I love doing this, especially as I only do this every second year when my Christmas is a London-based one. It reminds me of living at home in my late teens/early 20’s when, for a few short years, Lil Chicky and I would set aside an afternoon to decorate the Christmas tree at Mum’s together. The tree itself usually needed some MacGyver-like ingenuity to ensure it stood tall and straight for the festive period and bore up under the weight of copious amounts of tinsel and general Christmas bling.

So today I pulled the boxes down from the high cupboards. I tested all the lights and untangled the string of gold beads that I drape in lieu of tinsel. And I laid out all of the ornaments I have collected over the years – from my travels, gifts from friends and family and nods to my Dutch and Australian heritage – and with the jingling bells of Christmas movies on TV in the background, Gidday HQ  got  a dose of Christmas spirit. Here are just a few of my favourite festive things…

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My wreath has had an Aussie update this year

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I bought this fantastic festive tea-light holder in Dusseldorf in 1999

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The tree gets quite full so in recent years I’ve taken to displaying some ornaments separately – the gold and red baubles are personalised ones from Mum and the one in the middle is a nod to sisterhood from Lil Chicky

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Here’s a bauble from a work trip to the Big Apple in 2005  (it had to be done)…

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…and this hand-painted glass bell was purchased in Rynek Glowny (the main square) in Krakow in 2012

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For years my tree has featured this hand-made (not by me!) angel – this year she’s sitting on an apple to keep her upright.

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I love this fabulous shoe, unearthed from a Christmas stocking during one of my bi-annual pilgrimages Down Under (my mother knows me well).

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Lil Chicky snuck this back from our Amsterdam trip in 2013 and hid it in my flat for me to find…

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…and she gave me this one courtesy of her trip to Japan in 2014.

I have A LOT of Dutch ornaments. I just can’t help bringing a little piece of my ancestry back from every visit I make.  You see, there’s a fabulous Christmas shop down by the Singel flower market in Amsterdam – I’m sure I’ve kept them in business – where I spend my last day on each visit working out how to get these fragile purchases a) into my already full luggage and b) back home in one piece.

I’ve managed to restrain myself – here are just two of them…

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Anyway, the deed is done. The tree is up, the lights are twinkling and Alfie Bear has donned his Christmas hat, ready to join in the festive fun. And there are already a few presents under the tree with this year’s Christmas bonanza from Mum arriving a couple of weeks ago.

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Alfie Bear is a fixture at Gidday HQ, having come into my life as part of a redundancy gift in 2008 – he loves Christmas as much as I do.

So if I go missing in action at all, you’ll probably find me sitting on the comfy couch at Gidday HQ  admiring the view…

There are 19 sleeps to go until the big day peeps – are you feeling festive yet?

Men of imagination

I’ve had an extra couple of days off to extend my Easter into a 6-day break and it’s been a lovely mix of lolling about at home and getting out and about to explore more of this amazing city.  As some of you know, the Museum of London is a favourite of mine but this time I went to wander through the Sherlock Holmes exhibition (which finishes on the 12th of April – how did I nearly miss this?)

icons of Holmes

Detective Sherlock Holmes featured in the 4 novels and the 56 short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle trained as a physician in Edinburgh in the late 1800s and also started writing during this period. He had limited success until the publication of Holmes’ first outing in A Study in Scarlet in 1886 with the sequel, A Sign of Four, published in 1890 while Conan Doyle was studying opthalmology in Vienna. He then wrote The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, each comprised of 12 short stories and elevating Conan Doyle to being one of the best-paid authors of the time.

But Conan Doyle was unhappy with the time ‘taken away’ from more serious writing pursuits and in 1893 wrote The Final Problem, plunging Holmes and Professor Moriarty to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls. But Holmes had taken such a firm hold in people’s minds that in response to public outcry, Conan Doyle resurrected his popular protagonist in 1901’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and continued to scribe his consulting detective’s adventures until 1927.

It is worth remembering that Holmes is a man of imagination – the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle created a quirky, impatient and sometimes unlikable character who loved the gossip columns and yet was in equal parts enthusiastic and dismissive of society and its pretensions; who could wax lyrical on criminal method and motivation yet exhibited such anti-social behaviour that at times, you might question how Holmes could have any insight into people at all. I wonder whether there was something in Conan Doyle’s interest in freemasonry and mysticism that brought an extra potency to his complex and quite frankly addictive protagonist.

Anyway, I love these stories and although I have not read them all, I have seen many of the TV adaptations starring the marvelous Jeremy Brett. So it was with Brett’s brooding portrayal in mind that I entered through the bookcase and spent just over 90 minutes wandering though both memories and memorabilia.

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It was fabulous and I am now reading The Adventures of  Sherlock Holmes again.

Then yesterday I went to visit Churchill’s War Rooms. I’ve been meaning to do this for years and so I battled the Easter holiday hordes trundling along Whitehall and descended the steps beneath King Charles Street to the museum below. This underground labyrinth contains both the original War Rooms – left as if someone simply turned the lights off in 1945 and closed the door behind them, leaving everything just as it was – and the Churchill Museum, which covers this charismatic man’s entire life.

Like Holmes, Winston Churchill was a strong and opinionated character who fell in and out of the affections of his public. He was a committed politician and stood for office several times in his constituency and for the office of Prime Minister. He also wrote from the age of 21 to supplement his income and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

I feel devoutly thankful to have been born fond of writing. Churchill, Authors’ Club, London, 17 Feb. 1908

Had World War II not broken out Churchill may have been written off as a failure. Despite early popularity as a war correspondent and his escape from capture during the Boer War, he lost his position as First Lord of the Admiralty following the Gallipoli campaign and his opposition to home rule in India and support of the abdication of Edward VIII throughout the 1930s did nothing to restore his reputation. It was during this period that Churchill raised his concerns regarding the activities of Hitler and continued to warn against the dangers of appeasing such a man. His warnings went unheeded not only because of Churchill’s reputation as a war-monger but also due to Britain’s aversion to embarking on another ‘bloody’ war.

But circumstances conspired to create the right place and time and Churchill captured the public’s imagination by demonstrating his great passion for his country in his speeches – the words he wrote and then delivered into history:

We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, Churchill to the House of Commons, 4 Jun. 1940

There were many other speeches which stirred the nation and in fact the world, and Churchill went on to lead his country both during and for some periods after the war and to continue writing the pages of history until his death in 1955.

I consider that it will be found much better by all parties to leave the past to history, especially as I propose to write that history myself.  Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, 27th Nov. 1914

That two such iconic British characters can cross the divide between fact and fiction is quite extraordinary to me. While we will never know Sherlock Holmes (because he’s not actually a real person), the visit to the War Rooms made me wonder how much of the real man – Churchill – is about the ‘facts of the matter’ versus being inspired by the imagination.

Churchill campaign poster

How do we ever know where the facts end and fiction begins?

Laps(e)

Last August I started swimming again. Not the splashing about or floating around in the resort pool kind but the concerted continuous heart-rate-raising sort.

It has been six years since the last watery bout, the reason for the hiatus largely a combination of busy-ness, injury and just plain laziness. But interestingly, what drove me back was not physical but mental. I was looking for peace.

This might sound strange and you may expect that physical well-ness might be a greater driving force – after all swimming is credited with toning muscles, increasing both heart rate and flexibility and improving breathing all with less stress on the body than many other forms of exercise (quite important when you’re both injured and unfit). But having been promoted into a new job at the end of 2013 with all that taking ‘ a step up’ entails (stretch number 1), some pretty unrelenting spates of overseas travel (stretch number 2) and a general lack of good quality, restful sleep (stretch number 3), my mind was stretched to breaking point and I needed to ‘make it stop’.

So at the end of August, into the pool I went –  a 16m rectangular water bath in the basement of the building at work – and except for my 3 weeks away over Christmas, I have ploughed up and down for 40 minutes, lap after lap after lap, at least once a week.

Every week I climb down the ladder, the water temperature slightly cool against the warmth of my skin. I push off from the end, head down, feet kicking and arms reaching forward rhythmically, hands slightly cupped to gather and pull then reach forward again. My hair slicks back and my body feels buoyant and sleek – like an arrow moving purposefully along the surface of the water – as I knock off the first fast, heart-rate-raising laps.

Then the pulse shifts and there’s a different effort required, one that draws from somewhere deeper in order to calibrate the energy of breathing and body. The constant flow of arms and legs becomes meditative as the techniques learned in the early mornings and swim meets of childhood kick in. My mind wanders then returns to the water then wanders away again. Thoughts tumble around in between limbs and muscles and breath – sometimes from the day, sometimes from longer ago and I let them all trundle about at will with the rhythmic reach-and-pull, reach-and-pull, reach-and-pull in the background.

There’s something about letting thoughts roam without driving for some sort of order or resolution that settles them somehow.

Then my arms tire, my body rolls with fatigue and I focus again on the water. Technique moves to the forefront as I check that my arms stretch forward, that my core draws in to hold my position and that my kick doesn’t slacken its pace. My head swings to the right with every stroke, methodical in its pursuit of air. I count the laps down in my head, the promise of the end driving me on until I touch for the final time. I rip off my goggles and exhale gratefully. One hundred laps – done.

It started slowly – 50 laps with a rest after every ten – and as the muscle memory and fitness has returned I’ve been able to increase the laps I churn out each time. Every swim has a different cadence: sometimes it’s harder to get started, some days there’s a definite dip in the middle (pardon the pun) and sometimes those last laps drag remorselessly. And the day I’ve had seems to have no bearing – I’ve gotten enthusiastically in the water on some days to be met with a feeling of ‘swimming through treacle’ while on others, the water feels like silk and lethargy seems to float away with every stroke.

But more importantly, for 40 minutes each week I stop referee-ing all of the little voices and let my head just sort itself out.  And in all of the reach-and-pull, reach-and-pull, reach-and-pull, I find my very own piece of tranquility.

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On transformation

It’s been busy on the extra-curricular front lately and I’ve experienced such an extraordinary trio of events that it’s actually taken me a while to shape all of the amazing stuff I’ve seen and heard into something more than a rambling discourse.

Let me start at the beginning.

I love Flamenco. I’ve loved it ever since the moment I first set eyes on it in Seville in 2002. I love it deeply and passionately, like the spirit of the dance itself. And a little over two weeks ago I was in the audience for Flamenco Gala, the event that marked the opening of the London Flamenco Festival.

It was an hour and 45 minutes of pure transformation. Each piece was filled with its own essential character: intense sensuality, sartorial elegance, youthful impertinence. (And that was just the three ‘leading’ men.) There were no stage sets and no props, each performance needing only the cast of dancers, musicians and singers to capture its essence and cast it out into the audience. I reached out to grab it and never wanted them to stop.

These people transformed Sadlers Wells with their passion and fierce charm, drawing us in and holding us in their thrall until the very last compás. As the last note faded, the theatre filled with woops and bravos and cheering and my arms ached from clapping for so hard and so long. It was utterly thrilling (and may have had something to do with my insomnia that night).

The following week I went hear Thomas Heatherwick speak on surprise, ingenuity and transformation. This is the man who has hit the headlines here in London with his new London bus design and who alongside Joanna Lumley, has been inspired to transform Londoners’ relationship with the Thames through the Garden Bridge proposal. He is also the man who, during London’s 2012 Olympic Games, transformed the Opening Ceremony: an extraordinary moment in Olympic history that showed how the true spirit of the Games – a coming together of 204 nations in a single endeavour – could be epitomised in the lighting of the flame.

He has been doing many other things and for just over 2 hours, talked passionately about transforming our urban environments through a unique blend of redefining the brief and solving ‘the problem’. I didn’t love every project he showed us but I had a strong opinion on each and for me, that’s what sets this catalogue of innovative design ahead of the rest.

And then last Sunday I went to see an interview with novelist and academic Howard Jacobson. I’ve never read any of his books but I had read articles he’d been quoted in and was curious to hear what he had to say. His new book J, imagines a dystopian future where many ‘Js’ are banned – no jokes, no jazz and no Jews.

The discussion became less about the story itself (excellent, no spoilers!) and more about ideologies and the human need for argument to keep such ideologies alive. Being Jewish himself (the interview was part of Jewish Book Week), he particularly talked about the notion of Christian/Jewish argument being at the source of each of these ideologies and that without one, perhaps the other would not exist. He posed the question that if the opposing view just disappeared and there was no need to defend a position, would an ideology simply run out of steam? I thought about that all the way home.

The theme that has so enchanted me about these three events has been their ability to transform, whether in bringing a passionate past to life, a striking twist to an urban landscape or a thought-provoking version of a possible future. I love that these experiences stimulate my imagination and for days afterwards, I felt inspired creative and somehow emboldened in my day to day endeavours.

And it seems to me that these people and others like them – who keep exploring the what ifs about our world – are the ones who, with every step, design or idea will inspire us to break out of our comfortable cocoons and strive for new horizons.

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Rites of Passage

Today I had a grand plan to complete some posts that have been lounging about in the Gidday pipeline in various states of draft-ness.

But today London is basking in a gloriously sunny 16C and after months of a) commuting in woolly tights (among other items of apparel) and b) weekends snuggled up indoors, I could not resist the temptation to make a quick Plan B – a couple of hours catching up on my Vanity Fair reading on the back patio with sun warming – yes warming! – my bare arms and shoulders.

And it would appear that March is certainly living up to its name as London marches resolutely into Spring. Much to my delight, I found my first daffodils bobbing their merry yellow heads on the patio…

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In other news, after my dual personality nationality status was bestowed upon me back on a grey day in January, last night’s post held another important rite of passage – my first British passport.

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So there was nothing for it but to celebrate with yet another rite of passage – scoffing a couple of Mint Slice biscuits, packets of which have been recently discovered on Ocado courtesy of a helpful tip from fellow Aussie witterer, Vegemite Wife. (Thanks mate!)

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So that’s me sorted. How are you marking the change of seasons?

The Great British Boast Off

You might think that the British are a modest bunch. Not for them the brash competitiveness of the Americans, the super-styled ‘look at me’ of the Italians, the colourful flamboyance of the Brazilians or the voluble national pride of the Indians. No, Brits are self-effacing, stoic types who enjoy a moan through their stiff upper lip much more than a me-moment.

Or do they?

The proliferation of ‘Great British’ television shows might suggest otherwise and whilst singing contests for warbling amateurs demonstrating their vocal chops have long been a fixture of reality TV, a range of more everyday pursuits have found their way into our living rooms.

To my mind, this spate of TV DIY-ness began with The Great British Bake Off.

For the uninitiated, a group of home bakers compete in a flurry of flour, butter, eggs and sugar to win the title of Britain’s Best Amateur Baker. The series began on BBC2 in 2010, when Britain’s recession forced wallets closed and people indoors. Five series on, GBBO has reached both BBC1 and an average viewership of more than 10 million (up from 2.7 million in Series 1). It has spawned spin-offs such as Junior Bake Off, The Great Comic Relief/Sports Relief Bake Off (2 series of each so far – the Comic Relief version is running at the moment) and segued jauntily into 15 other countries – I’m thinking that Denmark’s The Great Baking Joust (Den Store Bagedyst) sounds like quite a competitive arena versus the British Bake Off tent that I know and love. Series 4 attracted more than 10,000 applicants and 2014’s Series 5 was accompanied by An Extra Slice where the latest departures could lament the justice of their elimination.

The series has been credited with reigniting the public’s love of baking and I count myself amongst this number. During said recession, finding a relatively low cost hobby to keep my hands busy and my mind off the financial challenges my circumstances had brought to bear provided many moments of simple and joyful accomplishment. And I find nothing more enjoyable (well, maybe a gutsy red wine with some great cheese) than curling up on the comfy couch after a hard day at the office for a little armchair judgement of a dozen spatula-wielding amateurs.

It would seem that success breeds….well copycats. And every time I turn on the telly, there appears to be yet another amateur home-challenge to be taken on.

2015 has already given us the third series of The Great British Sewing Bee. It’s a similar format to GBBO with ten sewers (yes that’s what they are called – an unfortunate homographic coincidence and should be pronounced so-er) judged by experts from The Women’s Institute and from Savile Row for their worthiness to the claim of Britain’s Best Home Sewer (now remember the pronunciation peeps). Contestants stitch their way through three challenges – Pattern, Alteration and Made-to-Measure – to produce, among other things, necklines, patch pockets, men’s shirts and evening dresses. It appears to be gathering momentum with the number of episodes doubling to eight for Series 3.

Then there’s The Big Allotment Challenge, again from the Beeb. Series 2 has just concluded with nine budding horticulturists taking on six weeks of Grow, Make and Eat challenges in the heart of the English countryside. This enterprise takes a bit more long term planning for the chosen green-fingers-and-thumbs (4 months) – even I know that it takes longer than a few episodes to grow a bounty – and as a bonus, throughout the series you could download each contestant’s plot layouts if you felt particularly inspired to ‘allot’ for yourself. In case you are wondering, I did not, despite my efforts to cultivate a little self-sufficiency with a Gidday HQ patch at a previous time and location.

And then The Big Painting Challenge starts tonight with week one’s theme – landscapes – to be painted at Hogwarts (aka Alnwick Castle, Northumberland). Ten amateurs will pit their paintbrushes against each other to be crowned Britain’s Best Amateur Painter where the glory of winning  the title seems to hold significant appeal. Consider this: the show attracted more than 6,000 applicants against the Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year (previously Portrait Artist of the Year)  which offered the winner a £10,000 commission (and which is added to the National Trust‘s permanent collection) and a previous show, BBC2’s defunct Show Me The Monet, giving the winning artist the chance to sell their works in a London gallery.

So despite the self-effacing stereotypes that abound, these shows suggest that the Brits do like a contest and that the glory of a title is enough to encourage them off their couches and into their kitchens, sewing rooms and the great outdoors. This may not be surprising when you consider that titles still ‘matter’ here and ‘lordship’ is bestowed on those not born to it on what seems to be a pretty regular basis.

Rumour has it that the next in the BBC’s arsenal of challenges is one for the angler – travelling around the world to prove themselves across a range of fishing locations and techniques. It just might be worth watching this – after all what could be more entertaining than to see who will be crowned…

…The Big Fish?

 

How does one become a butterfly?

Yesterday I went to see the movie Selma. It’s about Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement’s defining march from Selma, Alabama to the state’s capital, Montgomery in 1965. It was hard to watch in places – the barbarity of humankind is a confronting thing to see – but at the same time, I also learned a thing or two and was particularly inspired by LBJ‘s involvement in getting the Civil Rights Act of 1968 through Congress. I had no idea that he actually did this thing that made such an enormous difference in his time as President of the United States (1963 to 1969).

Earlier this year, my boss confirmed that I had been selected to participate in our Leadership Development Programme and this week, I received a couple of books to read on Go MAD thinking (MAD stands for Making A Difference) as part of the preparation. Having arrived home from the cinema feeling somewhat sober and reflective, reading something called Go MAD: the art of making a difference really hit the right note.

So I’m reading Principle One: Have a strong reason why you want to go MAD, and on page 38 I read this:

How does one become a butterfly?

You must want to fly so much,

that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.

It pulled me up short. I let my gaze hover over the words and felt my heart swell. It made me think of another quote I read years ago (attributed controversially to Guillaume Apollinaire) that over the years, I have scrawled on the inside covers of notebooks and scraps of paper at speaker events and conferences. It goes like this:

 Come to the edge, he said.

They said, we are afraid.

Come to the edge, he said.

They came.

He pushed them…and they flew.

There’s something about ‘flying’ that provokes feelings of being free for me. I jumped out of a perfectly good plane once – albeit attached to the front of someone more expert at it than myself – and during the exhilaration of the free fall, experienced an overwhelming sense of freedom and peace that I never wanted to end.

You could argue that I did this – flew that is – at least once more when I left my comfortable life in Australia and built this one here in London that I love so much. Strange accent aside, some might not see so many changes but deep down I know myself very differently from the 34-year-old who left Melbourne in 2004.

So how does one become a butterfly?

The butterfly doesn’t know exactly how the world outside its chrysalis will be. It just knows it needs to spread its wings to survive and thrive in whatever lies ahead. Over the last 6 months, I have also had a sense of a change coming. I haven’t known quite what this might be – a bit like the butterfly – but my gut is telling me to be ready. And by ready I really mean being open – to new ideas, ambitions and possibilities.

I’m calling this the Butterfly Principle – this preparing to take flight despite an unknown, uncertain future. It is fluttering gently around my thoughts and making me wonder what path I will carve out next. Will it be a continuation of the current one with a change just around the corner? Or will there be a fork in the road?

So I’m off to explore how I want to spread my wings and take flight. Who knows what’s going to be next? All I know is that I’m looking forward to finding out. And I’d love to hear what inspires you to fly.

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Two tribes

Today marks the 11th anniversary of my arrival in the UK.

Anniversary number eleven means gifts of steel (apparently) – not a flashy or expensive token of my fortitude and faith yet somehow appropriate. Let’s face it – steely determination has been an essential prerequisite in building my new life here.

Today I also became a British citizen.

Well actually, me and about 30 other people from a cross-section of 21 nations: from Africa to Asia Pacific, from the continent to the sub-continent and the Russian Federation (where exactly does this belong now?). A mere slice of Barnet‘s multiculturalism compressed into the Council Chambers at Hendon Town Hall.

So sometime between 10.30 and 11.10am this morning, I made my ‘solemn, sincere and true’ declaration and pledged my allegiance to Queen and country. The Deputy Lord Mayor of Barnet shook my hand and handed me my Certificate of Naturalisation. I warbled my first God Save The Queen as a Brit. And it was done.

Naturalisation

I’ve also retained my Australian citizenship so now, rather than being a citizen of one and a resident of the other, I am a fully fledged ‘member’ of two tribes – the two nations that rule my heart.

And today, my divided heart felt the significance of this morning’s ceremony. But it wasn’t the passionate advocacy of the registrar or the deputy mayor to accept our new British-ness with pride or their heartfelt thanks for choosing a home here that moved me. Rather it was their reference to the ceremony as a rite of passage.

It felt like a small stone marker had been placed into my expat life: in a moment I was taken back to the 21st of January in 2004 when me, my two suitcases and a whole lot of steely determination arrived at Heathrow Airport to stake our claim.

Eleven years on, I stood in a room full of strangers and with a pledge, a song and a piece of paper, stepped over the threshold and into a new chapter as a British citizen.