Friday, December 30, 2011

How to do Christmas

Christmas is over.

I can't say I'm not glad. It was something of a disjointed experience that lacked energy from the start. On several occasions and in general I didn't quite know what to do with myself, as if Christmas were a skill that I'd lost! I didn't know what presents to buy people, particularly those who I'm less close to. Latterly, from being on the other end of the deal, I've discovered that what one does is buy chocolates. With no particular relevance to any individual, how meaningful giving chocolates is, is up for debate but they always go down well, as did my home made mince pies which I gave to a couple of people.

Greater spending power would have made it easier to get enthusiastic about buying presents. It's the thought that counts, but money widens the selection and festivities are all about larging it up. Christmas is no time to be poor - not because money is important in itself, but because participation is important and this often costs money.

As well as larging it up, Christmas is about family. It was always going to be a tough nut to crack this year. I'd been away for 10 years so my mum's expectations of a family reunited would be high and my own memories of what Christmas should be would be hard to live up to. Christmas being about family only serves to underline their absence when they're not there, but I was not alone in being alone, my brother and sister both having recently gone through break ups. I could at least talk to Rosey on Christmas day.

My dad has been ill and is still lacking energy due to the TIA he suffered in October. On top of this, his twin brother has a heart condition that is at very least slowing him down a little. They have a history of doing things together! In light of this, the biennial boxing day trip to his house near Guildford seemed particularly low key. With his children long since flown the nest and having their own in-laws to visit on the second day of Christmas, it was just my uncle and aunt, an old family friend and the five of us (I have one brother and one sister). In the good old days when Christmas trees were twice my height and the holidays went on forever, there must have been at least 15 people around the twin tables of Guildford and Brighton. There are as yet no young ones to fill the spaces round the table, leaving my parents in the position of having reached seniority without managing to pass the baton on!

My great aunt, Aunty Nancy made it down from Tamworth, after an initial wobble. Not having seen her for two years, I like to think I had something to do with changing her mind! She was prevented from coming last year by the dramatic icy weather - she can manage long car journeys but at her age the possibility of being stuck on a frozen motorway miles from service stations, as many were, did not sound prudent. Fortunately, the weather was more mundane this year. It's a good thing we changed her mind. They say when you fall off your bicycle, you should get straight back on. Once you give something up, it's hard to start again (except cigarettes).

Aunty Nancy has been old since I was young, though she was never a very old old and back then she was younger than my parents are now. Old people are younger than they used to be as they get old older. She is now a fairly young 90, still living in her own home on two floors. She even still owns a 1970s mini and has driven it within the last year - though this is not to be encouraged. Where she fitted in to the generational mix was always slightly ambiguous due to being born half way between my mum's siblings and her brother, my grandfather but to think that I once considered 65 to be old seems remarkable. Good job if we're all going to be working until we're 70. My parents, hovering around 70, are verging on being elderly but I see them as just a little greyer than before.

So Christmas this year has been a reminder of several things. You have to make an effort. It is about participation and this is a two way street. It is not a good time for those who are excluded (I am not referring to myself here, but I can perhaps empathise a little with those with more serious problems). It has a lot to do with generations and like it or not, my parents and their siblings are now the senior generation with all the considerations that entails, though in my immediate family there is as yet not patter of tiny feet to rebalance the family. Where will Rosey and I fit into this as the first to get married, hopefully in some sense settle down and perhaps build a household with children?

Onwards to the New Year and another milestone, my parents' Ruby wedding anniversary (40 years) on New Year's Day.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Nought shall come of the noughties

On Saturday night while my parents were at a Christmas party, I had a quiet night in with the remote control. Things weren't actually so bad and having waded through the listings I found Catherine Tate's Laughing at the Noughties, the story of comedy in the first decade of the 21st century told through interviews, talking heads, her own scripted monologue and original clips.

I was familiar with much of it. It would be hard not to have noticed The Office or Borat. I used to download quite a lot of TV in Taiwan and there was also a multimedia on demand service which carried quite a lot of British dramas, comedies and even documentaries. I managed to keep in touch to some extent but the show underlined just how much of our shared culture comes through the telly, even in the age of the internet. I'd missed out on programmes that reflected and contributed to the zeitgeist and marked the rise of those comedians who are now the mainstream, making me immune to cultural references and appear even more square than I really am! Now I know how parents of teenagers feel.

It was nice to be able to put names and back stories to the faces I'm getting used to in the media and to weave them into the cultural tapestry that I'm not yet fully embedded in....

As if to underline how much popular culture means to your conception of an era, two weeks later I've just watched Ben Elton's Laughing at the Eighties. Now that's what I call a decade!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Christmas shopping

I went Christmas shopping the other day. Christmas window shopping, to be more accurate. I walked around the North Laine area of Brighton, a slightly trendy cum alternative area of mostly small independent shops and cafes with a few pubs and venues thrown in for good measure. The shops are mostly in narrow streets of two or three storey Victorian terraces and for me typifies what is good about commercial Brighton.

Walking round, surrounded by others trying to get their shopping done on a week day, I felt somehow excluded. Of course, having very little money in a commercial area at a particularly commercial time of year does that to you at the best of times, but I wasn't sure I knew what to do, or if I wanted to join in.

I tried hard. I walked around many different shops - bookshops, clothes shops, junk and curios shops and a flea market. I increasingly felt that, unless your relatives either had an active interest in collecting something or had a clear need for something, all you are doing is buying more stuff to fill up their lives, that hopefully they'll like. I don't mind doing this for kids - they continuously need eclectic new things to build their characters around and the input of older generations is a good thing, but for adults it feels a bit forced.

The only alternative to buying something they actively needed or wanted, was to walk around and hope that something cool jumped out at me. Junk shops are good for that - for the unexpected. I looked around a couple, finding old nicknacks, brassware, toys and household goods from decades past. But nothing really interesting suggested itself to me. In Snoopers Paradise, I rifled through boxes of photos and postcard of up to 100 years old, presumably retrieved from house clearances. I hoped to find an image of something that would have some meaning to me or someone I knew. Unfortunately, the closest I found was a postcard sent from the next village to my own around 80 years ago. I bought it for 30p.

Having failed to find anything, I will be forced to go shopping again next week. Something I genuinely want to give people usually turns up. It's just that like this career thing, it takes a little time to crystallize in my mind.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Early indications....

It's amazing how things seem obvious after the event. Birds are descended from two legged dinosaurs; computing technology (information processing) would converge with communications and media in universal technologies like the iPad;  the girl you "liked" as a teenager actually liked you in just the same way.

I was passing the Churchill Square shopping centre in Brighton on Tuesday. It was a brisk winter's day and both inside and outside were packed with shoppers preparing for Christmas. Seeing WHSmiths at the end of a row of shops took me back to when I was about 7 years old, spending my gift tokens in that same shop in the days between Christmas and New Year.

WHSmiths is something between a newsagent, stationary store and a bookshop - a good choice when giving school kids tokens. When I went to spend mine, I found a Petite kids typewriter, almost exactly like the one below (isn't Google wonderful - I couldn't even remember the name, let alone what it looked like earlier today). I probably bought it because my dad had a grown-ups' typewriter and it looked like fun though whether he thought so when typing up lecture notes, correspondence and reports I don't know. I scraped together all my Christmas money and bought the typewriter. It was not a precision engineered machine, but it worked for a while and gave me some pleasure, albeit at the expense of ink stains on clothes and carpets.

There were other pointers too, like writing a couple of half decent poems, a few stories and keeping diaries when I was around that age. My mum was certainly proud of them - though that is obviously not a very convincing argument in itself!

Perhaps the trouble was that writing seemed like such a normal skill that unless you were going to write novels or be a journalist, how could you use it to make money? It's only now that I realise that behind every well written website, brochure or advert is someone whose speciality is words. And there are many poorly written websites sorely in need of such people.

I can do that. Seems obvious?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Families, stress and showing your appreciation.

The Wilsdon household is becoming an increasingly stressed place, and there are still nearly two weeks until Christmas!

The reason for this tension above and beyond what is normal for this time of year is that I need my parents help to collate the documents necessary to demonstrate that Rosey will not be a burden on the state, in order that she is granted a settlement visa. We have to demonstrate that Rosey and I will have a roof over our heads and if the worst comes to the worst, she will have some means of support to prevent her from starving.

My parents are very forthcoming with this help and they're both very experienced at dealing with bureaucracy. Hence we have compiled a dossier of documents detailing their permission for us to live here, confirmation that the house is big enough for four without overcrowding and enough financial details to demonstrate that none of us is in any danger of starving.

Since the visa application fee is around £800 with no refund if it's refused, we want to get it right first time.With Rosey and my ability to be together and move forward with our lives at stake, not to mention the money - there is a tendency to over-engineer and we certainly have been dotting every i and crossing every t, to the extent of fretting over the exact wording of our letters and statements, just in case the nice people at the UK Border Agency decide they don't like our use of the past perfect indicative and turn down Rosey's visa application on the advice of the grammar police. With so many different variables, some of them more critical than others, three family members working on them at a distance of 10,000 km from where the actual application will be made, tempers can get a little frayed at times.

Of course the stress of separation from my wife doesn't help my tolerance of difficult situations. I can only hope that I am making a good job of biting my tongue where necessary and that when the time comes, I am suitably demonstrative of my appreciation.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Congratulations, you didn't get the job.

A couple of weeks ago I went for an interview for the position of Communications Assistant at East Sussex County Council. The role had elements of Public Relations, marketing, internal communications, copy writing and administration. Right up my street. I was delighted to get the interview, imagining there would have been many far more experienced candidates applying.

I did my research, looking into the work of the particular department, the software they use and their internal publications and approached the interview with the attitude that it would be good experience, I was very pleased to have got this far and would be amazed if I got the job, so needn't be downhearted if or when I didn't.

The interview offered me plenty of opportunity to demonstrate the transferable skills that were my main selling point and show what I knew about the role but I struggled a little on my answers to questions about specific marketing techniques and communications within large organisations, leaving me relying on common sense and broad experience. I took examples of press releases I written in the past as well as publicity I'd generated in Taiwan for a charity bike ride and when my touring bike was stolen, and these went down well.

I left the interview feeling that I'd done the best I could given my experience and though I probably hadn't got the job, it had been a worthwhile experience.

A few days later I got the call. The initial wording and tone of voice were exactly as I've experienced before. "...I'm sorry to say you were not successful on this occasion" but the woman went on to say that from a field of 28, I was their second choice and that I was definitely employable in that position. I was virtually dumbstruck. This was a real job with real pay and the potential for a career using the language skills I hope to use, and I'd come close to getting it.

The real value of knowing that I'd come close is in knowing what kind of jobs are worth applying for. I know if I apply for a job paying £30,000, there's next to no chance of me being considered. But what about £20,000 or £15,000? After 10 years out, I have very little idea what I should expect to be earning in due course.

So a positive experience in more ways than one, though I am now left with a slightly frustrating feeling of having come closer that I expected. Maybe next time the added confidence will make all the difference.


I spent an interesting evening in the pub tonight with a couple who'd recently returned from Thailand. My dad and I walked into The Greyhound, our 500 year old local, and he was greeted by Mel who'd been the original organiser of the Hassocks farmers' market before she and her husband Matt left several years ago.

We hit it off instantly, all three of us having recently returned to the UK after an extended period away. We chatted at length about expat life, differing attitudes to health and safety in Asia as demonstrated by motorbikes that served as either heavy goods vehicles (a live pig strapped to each side) or transport for the whole family (the maximum they'd seen was seven on one bike - can anyone beat that?). If you wear a safety belt, it means you don't trust the driver and so long as you visit the temple before you set off, you won't need a helmet.

We talked of the culture of fear that exists in the west post 9/11, all the while with an unidentified bag sitting on our table teasing us with the notion that it might be... a bomb! Eventually it was taken away and destroyed by the bomb disposal squad.

As the beers flowed, conversation got more philosophical. Inevitably, the story of how I'd cycled from Stoke on Trent to Singapore before ending up in Taiwan came out as did the suggestion that there was an inspirational story to be told and I should write a book about it.

Mel had recently written a book about pre-natal yoga that is set to be published in the next few months. Anyone who's tried to be published will know that it's not easy. Having discussed my situation - unemployed, unsure of which direction to take and having a number of irons in the fire - Mel suggested that we ex-expat writers had met for a reason and if I hadn't got a job yet it was because I was meant to tell my story. I don't believe that any more than I believe that name of the guest ale, Rosey Nosey, was of significance.

If I were a betting man, I'd bet the only reason things happen is cause and effect, without any deeper meaning. From the first moment of creation, we were destined to meet and that has no significance. But that is not to say we cannot give meaning to events. The fact that we, along with the rest of the universe obey the laws of physics, does not belittle our thoughts and feelings or the meaning we give them. Rosey Nosey just happened to be there, but I liked seeing my wife's name on the bar. Science can explain why we fall in love and the chemistry that is going on in our brains when we do, but it will never explain what it feels like.

I came away refreshed in the belief that the story of how four strangers cycled from England to Singapore is one that interests and inspires people and that I am capable of telling it. The first step has been taken..As with the journey itself, the most important thing is to believe it is possible.

The first chapter:

Friday, December 2, 2011

A night at the theatre, a nightcap with my radio, Christmas with my family

We  went to see an Alan Ayckbourn play for my mum's birthday last Thursday. Season's Greetings takes place over 3 or 4 days at Christmas in a household beset with continuous low level warfare between extended family members. A warning of what to expect of my first family Christmas since 2000, perhaps.

Going to the theatre is something I've barely done over the past 10 years, partly because of the obvious language issue, though English drama does exist in Taiwan. But it was also to do with the way you live as an expat. You don't lead the same life, have the same routines, move in the same circles that you would do in your home country.

For the time being, I'm living in my parents house and that shapes how I lead my life to some extent. In Taiwan, our living room was dominated by the TV and being a modest sized apartment with no balcony or garden, the living room was the place to be. Consequently, when I wasn't doing anything else, I quite often had the TV on in the background. I'd stumble out of bed, sometimes hungover, and flop in front of the telly until I felt like doing something.

In my parents house it's the kitchen that dominates. I've readopted my lifelong habits of reading the newspaper, listening to Radio 4 and drinking litres of tea. Much more healthy than vegging in front of the telly, I think. I'd been careless enough to lose my tolerance to caffeine in Taiwan - to the extent that I couldn't drink tea after 10pm. I'm happy to say I've now reverted to taking a large mug to bed every night to accompany Sailing By and The Shipping Forecast - pure poetry, if you haven't heard them, have a listen.

I'm looking forward to Christmas. It will have a freshness that perhaps it doesn't for others here. That's not to say we didn't celebrate Christmas in Taiwan. Every year a group of friends centred around Martin, Jim, Ben and myself would do our best to put on a family Christmas with all the trimmings. Martin always made a particular effort on the process, whereas Jim and Ben were perhaps more concerned with the results. I would spend time and money traipsing around the foreign supermarkets in Taipei looking for Christmassy foods, mincemeat to make my mincepies, an approximation to brussels sprouts (that supposedly nobody likes), quality cheeses, cask conditioned ales. We even managed to get gold of Christmas crackers and one year, a Christmas pudding. At that time of year, they were my surrogate family. I'll miss the expat Christmas as much as I missed the "real" Christmas when I was in Taiwan.

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