A level results day: Why my best lessons at uni had nothing to do with my degree

Image credit: PA / Daily Mail (obvs)

Today is A-Level results day, and apart from the mandatory media photos of pretty 18-year-olds jumping up and down clutching their results (above), there will also be many looking ahead to university and wondering what the future holds.

I’ll be the first to admit that my university experience maybe didn’t look that similar to most people’s.

Like it or not, there is a stereotype that students spend most of their time at uni doing as little work as possible, and drinking more on a Wednesday (and Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday) than most people do in a month.

But not only did I not drink alcohol at university (no real reason, just was never that bothered – although all my friends drank, and I do drink now) I also went to Cambridge, which meant that the apparently-usual tactic of doing absolutely sod all until deadline day every three months wouldn’t quite have worked…

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RIP Sally Brampton: Who could see joy in the ordinary

On my bathroom wall there’s a page torn from the back of my favourite magazine, Psychologies. It’s a column by Sally Brampton, who killed herself last month, after a long and much-documented struggle with terrible, colour-sapping, joy-slaughtering depression.

As I never knew her personally, Brampton’s death came as a shock. I discovered it, as I do most things, by faffing around on Twitter, and it took only a cursory Google to confirm it was true.

That Brampton apparently walked into the sea seems a heartbreaking yet curiously apt method for a woman who had often written of her love of the seaside, the happiness of meeting friends on the beach, and finding meaning in the tranquil ‘boredom’ of her life since moving from London.

Although she was much heralded as a brilliant editor, razor-sharp yet kind commissioner, and the architect of a new style of women’s magazine, I only discovered Brampton through her writing on depression and life in Psychologies.

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Pasties, folk, dogs, and rain: What I learned in Cornwall

In honour of my friend Jenny, who is from Durham and Devon, who I first met years ago at Cambridge, and who has randomly but rather happily ended up living in Cornwall, and who gave me an exceptionally cosy and beautiful place to stay this weekend. 🙂

1. Dogs are awesome. Guys, meet Jimbo

Jimbo!

Jimbo (and sneaky decorative cello)!

OK, so I already knew this. But when you’ve played, walked, fussed over – and shared your bed with (HAPPY FACE) ‒ a straggly, lazy, docile dog, who is there every day, needs attention every day, runs, plays, sleeps, sighs and watches your every move, you can’t stay too depressed.

Even if it’s raining and horrible, you will leave the house with this dog, because seeing his excitement when he hears the word “walk” is worth any amount of rainfall. You will love bed even more than normal (rather than seeing it as a dark place in which to hide from the world) because there is a dog on the duvet, warming it up, waiting for you to get in so he can snuggle (albeit disinterestedly, and only if you’re warmer than the sofa, but still).

Jimbo is a fabulous, wonderful, cute, quiet, non-smelly, clean, happy and watchful Greyhound-Lurcher cross. With the hair of Bob Dylan in his wilder years, he has neither the looks nor the intelligence of say, a golden Labrador, but he makes up for this a million times’ over for his genuinely patient temper, total house-friendliness, ability to entertain himself for a few hours while you’re out of the house, and complete and utter gorgeous ridiculousness.

Playing with Jimbo :)

Playing with Jimbo by the sea, casual 🙂

He can’t eat a snack without taking it to his rug across the room. His neck is seemingly double-jointed, resulting in hilarious angles. He takes rain in his stride but secretly longs for his favourite, quilted coat. He only barks and jumps up when the word “walk” is mentioned, he sleeps like a human, and has eyes for which the description “puppy-dog” was invented.

Although I adore Jimbo, I also hate him, because he proved to me even more than I already knew just how much I’d love to have a dog, and highlighted how much that isn’t possible for me right now. One day, one day…

2. A folk night will make you throw out your fake nails. Yes, really

You can’t sit for too long in a cosy pub behind a door made from an actual barrel, among a group of random but ridiculously talented people playing folk songs and sea shanties, without thinking that maybe, your excuse that you “can’t really play a D chord on the guitar” because of the length of your false nails, might be a tad dumb.

I’ve been trying to learn the guitar – intermittently ‒ for months, and always get frustrated because I struggle with holding the strings down enough to get a clear sound.

Although I’m told this is a normal complaint for beginners, it doesn’t help that for over seven years, I’ve perennially had little bits of plastic stuck to my nails, in the pursuit of beautiful talons where otherwise I have unappealing stubs, ruined by years of biting and false nail glue.

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Look! Accordions! And guitars! And mini pasties!


In that pub – The Famous Barrel in Penryn ‒ where the men and women were unashamedly, ridiculously talented, able to join in to a song together (on the pipe, guitar, mandola, and even accordion) at a moment’s notice, I realised that my desire to learn guitar was stronger than my desire to have perfect nails. I KNOW. Finally.

Even though it’s making me genuinely anxious, today starts Operation Grow My Nails, to the point where they’re long enough to be acceptable in public, and short enough so I can hold down four strings at a time. Let’s see how long I last.

3. You can unlearn months of healthy eating habits within days

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Espressini’s finest (click to go to Espressini’s website) 🙂

I have lost over half a stone in a month and a half (a good amount, given my track record).

I have counted calories, kept a journal, exercised nearly every day, learned about nutrition, which brand of coffee place I can grab a healthy lunch in, where does good low-calorie snacks, and which drinks to have without screwing up my diet. I have restricted my carbs, fat and sugar intake, and learned how to eat this way without feeling horribly unsatisfied.

And yet. In the space of three days in Cornwall, I ate a packet of cookies, a packet of chocolate buttons, a whole pizza with chorizo on it, a big salad covered in dressing, a massive steak pasty with potatoes in it, two roast potatoes in a pub, a massive box of fish, chips and a battered sausage, a bagel with full-fat cream cheese and salmon, two milky cappuccinos, a hot chocolate, a bowl of Shreddies, one cocktail, and more than a few gin and full-fat tonics.

These are all things I generally never eat or drink. And I didn’t even feel that full, or bad for it.

SO. Today, I’ve gone back on the usual diet, because, between you and me, I’m a bit scared of what I’d eat next if I didn’t. Just goes to show, the carb monster in me isn’t dead. It’s only sleeping…

(Meanwhile – let me just reassure you, in case you didn’t know: proper Cornish pasties are EXCELLENT.)

4. London rain has nothing on Cornwall, jeez

It isn't raining here. This was rare :P

It isn’t raining here. This was rare 😛

Of course, it rains in London. A lot compared to some places. But wow. Here, it rains for maybe half an hour, an hour, and then stops. It can stay grey and miserable, and shower on and off, but generally perks up in between. Not so in Cornwall.

One day, it rained for literally hours and hours on end. One day, it was so rainy – and, down the windtunnel-like streets, so gusty ‒ that I actually gave up on the umbrella, and decided to resort to the coat hood, surrendering with stoic acceptance to whatever fate befell such a decision.

In fact, even though I felt damp for days, I saw hardly any umbrellas in Cornwall – everyone’s got sensible coats with hoods and waterproof bits. Clearly, umbrellas are for pansy Londoners. Having said that, it is pissing it down here at the moment, so maybe I’m just in denial. (Update, 10 minutes’ later: it’s now quite sunny here. So nuh.)

5. I don’t mind people – but I do mind when they’re taking up all the space

The Stable - one of my favourite non-London restaurant groups, and one of the places we ate at

The Stable – one of my favourite non-London restaurant groups, and one of the places we ate at (photo from The Stable website)

The most obvious contrast in Falmouth was that going out was SO MUCH LESS EFFORT.

I am not someone who normally complains about crowds in London (like, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen – or you, know, out of my way), but in Falmouth, we went to the pub; restaurants; out for dinner; into shops; cafes – and not once did we have to book ahead, struggle to get a table, worry if there would be space and if we should check out somewhere less good as backup.

We never had to queue, wait, hover around a door, yell over the noise, decide on somewhere and then un-decide ten minutes later when it’s clear we’ll be lucky to even get a hello out of a waiter, let alone a seat.

When we wanted a taxi, there was one, and it cost less than a tenner. None of this bartering, trying different companies, being charged extra because you wanted a cab at the same time as everyone else. It was, in many ways, bliss.

And yet, although it was amazing, it also felt strangely weird. A little like being in a pub on a Tuesday afternoon. A little reckless, a little eerie. Although it was so much easier, it was also so much emptier. The Londoner in me distrusts places without crowds; the lazy git in me adores the calm, the seating, and the space. I can’t decide which I prefer.

[Photo by Luke Gattuso/DogWelder on Flickr.com]

Admittedly, it also made me feel a bit sad about London. This city sometimes feels like the world’s best Christmas tree sat behind thick glass; you can see it, it has presents and lights and wonders and discoveries galore, but you can’t access any of it, because you’ll have to smash something in the process – namely your time, money, elbow space, and, most probably, entire vats’ worth of patience.

I don’t think I’ll ever feel that shutting an entire high-street at 5.30pm is acceptable, though.

Some of us have office jobs, and also like to walk through the street at 6pm without feeling like a character in a murder mystery novel. Long live shops being open till 10pm!

6. My desire to get my own place mainly boils down to having colourful bits of crockery and French-inspired posters on the walls

I have very little desire to get a mortgage – it sounds boring, scary, too-adult, the financial equivalent of straitjacketing myself, and what’s more, bloody expensive (plus, as a single person living in London, I may as well try to launch myself into space, for how attainable it is).

I do, however, desperately want my own space and place, simply so that I can fill it with beautiful things like colourful coffee cups, vintage travel and advertising posters, gorgeous textures, paintings, and fabrics. (The other reason is this place.)

Jenny taught me that happiness lies this way at University, when her room was a design-led, Art Nouveau, blue and white, coffee-drinking haven (compared to my room, which was very lovely and cosy, yet completely Aladdin-meets-Turkish-Indian-French-bazaar-slash-explosion in a junk shop).

Colourful coffee cups make me happy

Although she doesn’t yet own her place, when I finally get the chance to put my mark on more than just a postage stamp bedroom somewhere more permanent than either my parents’ house or a random flatshare, it will be inspired by Jenny, and her colourful coffee cups, posters, multiple coffee machines, exposed brickwork, and…random cello in the corner. Because, why the heck not?

Here’s to Cornwall. Have a pasty and a cider on me.

Jillian Michaels Kickstart: Day 2 – OUCH (and a confession)

Tuesday 16, day 2 of 7

Three words to describe today: Painful, persevering, determined

How easy was the food plan? ✦✦✦✧✧ (One yoghurt is not enough after a workout, Jillian!)

How easy were the workouts? ✦✦✧✧✧ (Always tough using already-sore muscles. Oh and my headache – see below…)

Notable comments? OUCH. DOUBLE OUCH.

Mainly today, I’m just achy. I still feel a bit fuzzy-headed right now, but I’m putting that down to not having had coffee yet today (it’s lunchtime, just haven’t got round to it!), and probably not drinking enough water.

But wow, not sure if it’s the cardio from last night or the after-effects of yesterday’s shoulder and back workout, or today’s thigh and back-work stuff, but I’m stiff as hell and can’t stretch my arms out straight either side without it really hurting my back. it hasn’t been this bad since I went from hardly any exercise to starting the first level of the 30 Day Shred eight months’ ago. Argh.

To be honest, as a Jillian regular, I’m surprised to be feeling sore. Even though her other workouts still kill me while I’m doing them, I’ve generally reached the point when it’s OK the next day. It just shows that this plan’s routines must be working muscles I don’t usually use, or haven’t for a while. Which is great, but man does it hurt!

(ps. the only coconut water you want, seriously, it’s so yummy.)

The food today has been OK, but I confess, I cheated and added some sugar-free coconut water to my breakfast, because I knew I couldn’t cope after a workout with just a small pot of yoghurt. That’s been my only cheat so far though, which I’m bloody proud of (nerd).

It also helps that the food has been *just* enough to stop me from eating my own arm, and the lunch and dinners seem pretty tasty so far, considering. But being properly on the edge of hunger like this all the time isn’t sustainable, not for me anyway (and certainly not every day). It’s too distracting.

But I can really feel the steely determination is beginning to kick in. I’m having to mentally remind myself that having the programme at such a difficult level (by which I really mean the no fruit and two workouts a day thing – argh) is only for a week. It’s started to become an objective challenge I have to complete, rather than simply a personal “lifestyle change”.

The “lifestyle” bit comes next week – and the 3 months after that – which will be bloody difficult, because unlike this week when I don’t have much in the way of evening going out planned (except a dinner on Saturday), next week I have something on nearly every night, a lot of it including food and drink.

I’m in no way complaining about the fact that I have nice places to go and lovely people to see, but wow, it just really hammers home how difficult it is to stick to a proper diet if you actually have a life…

Update, next morning: I have a confession to make. I didn’t eat dinner last night OR do the evening workout (cardio) OR prepare today’s food as planned. I was completely geared up to carry on as usual, but on the train home I was hit by one of my ‘migraines’ and couldn’t do a thing when I got home, except drink water and lie down in a dark room.

I put inverted commas around the word migraines, as the headaches have never been officially diagnosed or anything. Also I only get them maybe 4-5 times a year, maximum. They tend to hit when I’m overtired and have been squinting at a screen too long.

But when they do arrive, they’re pretty bad. It affects my vision – I can’t look straight at things, or focus on something right in front of me. I can’t use a screen or look at bright lights without discomfort. It sometimes stays on one side or moves around, and sometimes resembles a sinus or tension headache, going from the back of the neck to the nose and eye socket. Not good.

Now, I hesitate to blame the diet/workouts. I get these headaches no matter what diet or exercise regime I’m doing – and even if I’m not doing any.

coffee-heart

I am loath to accept that there is such a thing as too much coffee, but maybe two cups in two hours on a not-full stomach is my official limit…

But maybe the underlying stress – even the positive “lets do this” adrenaline, coupled with far less food than usual, and the twice-daily workout, might not have helped. I actually think the main trigger was too much coffee, too late in the day. So that’s a lesson.

But I was so disappointed not to be able to follow the plan. So annoyed with myself. It hasn’t even been that long – how can I be struggling this soon in; how pathetic am I? But I couldn’t fight it. With my headache as it was, I had to just ride it out. A rare case of my desperately wanting to do a workout, and not being able to. Imagine!

In any case, I figure since I didn’t eat dinner (except a little apple, whoops, sorry Jillian, breaking the no fruit rule) missing the workout won’t make too much difference. Instead I went to bed early (rock and roll!).

This morning (Weds) back as usual, with today’s am workout. All good. I’ve made a few tweaks to the meal plan so I can follow it without having done any cooking – eg. Yoghurt instead of eggs.

Encouraging words…

On balance, despite the horrible headache, it has helped. It’s been a reminder that even if you get sidetracked, you can just draw a line under, and carry on. It’s a general tenet of “dieting” – and, well, anything, really – that even if you mess up once, you can choose to *not* say, ‘to hell with it, I’ve ruined it now, I may as well mess up more’, thereby fecking up the whole thing.

Instead, you can choose perseverance, and not beating yourself up. Or as Jillian would say, right when you’re at the point of giving up on a workout move: “Finish it, people!”. Another Jillian catchphrase (gotta love em) is that if you ”know your ‘why’, you can put up with any kind of ‘how’”. So there we go.

Just keeping on keeping on…

Life in lyrics: Giving Monday the Elbow

New-York-MorningSo it’s Monday. *YAY*

It was a beautiful weekend in London (I basically did nothing but lie in, sunbathe, read, paint, watch TV, do a bit of a workout, and eat good food. No, there were no Instagram photos of daffodils or pub lunches or rousing countryside walks (I don’t even use Instagram, I KNOW. OMIGOSH) but it was good all the same.)

But on Monday? GRR. Like pretty much everyone else in the city, you have to get up about three hours before your body naturally feels like it, and get on to a pretty slow, expensive tin can (some people call them trains) packed in with other people’s shuffling and eating and perspiring and sodding breathing. Yes, it’s the morning commute. Gotta love it.
But for the past week or so, I’ve not been struck down with quite the same level of dread as has happened on other days, because (apart from the quiet arrival of spring, which is completely FABULOUS) I’ve been listening to this song by Elbow as soon as I get on the train.

Headphones in ear, I play it first, before anything else, and just breathe and listen.

And so far, it makes me extraordinarily calm and optimistic, even when it’s Monday and I’m tired and running late and some anti-social twazzock is sitting next to me rustling and twitching and eating and drinking and sighing FAR BEYOND what is necessary to get comfy. SIGH.

Also, the pedant in me is also disproportionately pleased by the quiet symmetry held within the idea that, as the bloke next to me elbows me in the side, I am also giving him the Elbow – in the form of beautiful harmonies and mental PEACE. So nuh.

Now, I realise the song is about New York, but the quivering notes and the uplifting lyrics about people coming together to build and lifting their heads towards the sky and being in a city – WELL, I reckon that applies to London just as much as the Big Apple (but also I like the idea of living in NY one day, and I know people who live there, so hey, it’s all good).

Also I love the lyrics. The ones above seem particularly creative and optimistic, even if it’s sadly not quite true that everybody owns the great ideas (otherwise hey, we’d all be quids in on the iPod). HOWEVER I also love

  • The first to put a simple truth in words, binds the world in a feeling all familiar (this is so true)
  • Reaching up into the sky….Why? Because they can… (they CAN, dammit, they CAN!)
  • The desire in the patchwork symphony (just a beautiful line, with a beautiful melody)

I read somewhere [edit: HERE, in the Independent] that the lead singer of Elbow, Guy Garvey, fled to New York after a particularly painful break-up, and just sat and people-watched and felt the spirit of the city nourish his smashed-up heart, and it transformed his song-writing forever.

Now, some of us, sadly, have neither the means nor the time to dash off to wherever whenever anyone decides to be a total dick, and are also (sob) apparently unable to create original and wonderful music from our personal tragedies.

Some of us have to be content with mediocre blogposts. C’est la vie, huh?

BUT TAKE COMFORT. Because here, I’m passing on my morning optimism solution. Yes, I may get sick of the song before too long, but so far, so good. Listen and love. It’s unabashed anthem-writing at its best, confectionery in musical form, but it’s also perfectly created, with echoes and soothing riffs and Garvey’s soulful voice, and it just sounds like something that some cheesy romantic movie director would set to the background of a sunrise when it’s going to be A REALLY GREAT DAY.

And it makes everything feel like it might be OK even when it’s not. Even on Monday. Amazing.

My painting: Colourful coffee trio

[Cups, cafetieres and spoons (c) Hannah Thompson, acrylic with metallic silver pen]

It’s no secret: I love coffee (and I love painting).

Coffee-wise, I’m not *too* addicted – my average is 2 cups a day, sometimes a bit more on a particularly tired day. But for me, coffee isn’t just the caffeine.

Although it’s often a quick Pret A Manger Americano, when the weekend rolls around, and you have time to do coffee properly, it’s a proper joy.

Hmmmmmmm…

Grinding the beans; enjoying the glorious wafts of flavour; spooning it luxuriously into the cafetiere (whatever kind you have), and then either letting it heat on a hob, or pouring hot water over the grains, to let the concoction seep softly before it’s time to pour out the intense, smoky-smelling liquid into your hopefully-colourful, reassuringly large mug.

Even using the Nespresso machine at my parents’ house, once looked at with such suspicion, now proves that you’re treating coffee with the respect that it deserves – and for all the machine’s “sealed capsules”, the Nespresso system still emits a wondrous odour upon production.

Coffee cups like these would quite SERIOUSLY IMPROVE my life

I also love coffee cups themselves. Even before I started drinking coffee regularly, I would lust after dinky espresso cups and matching mug sets and painted cups in complementary colours and artfully clashing saucers. To drink from a colourful, enamelled, quality mug – whether it’s cheap and cheerful, part of a set, or a one-off classic with a slogan or a pattern that makes you smile – elevates coffee drinking from mere caffeine-inhaling exercise to gastronomic pleasure. On holiday in Istanbul a few years ago, I had to be physically restrained from filling my suitcase home with all manner of tea-and-coffee-drinking mugs in a variety of patterns and colours. If I could, I’d buy them all.

These paintings were firstly inspired by colourful crockery, which then mushroomed into a matching trio of coffee paraphernalia.

They’re a homage to the drink…and also gave me a really good chance to practice with my all-new, fairy bright Aladdin’s cave box of shiny acrylic paints (best Christmas present EVER).

Acrylic "Basics" paints, from Cass Art (link to buy)

Acrylic “Basics” paints, from Cass Art (link to buy)

For me, painting is therapeutic, satisfying, pleasingly-frustrating and best of all, it lets me faff around with colour to my heart’s delight. Things rarely look exactly how I’d imagined on the page, but that’s part of the fun.

Coffee, anyone? 🙂