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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To my dreams, nightmares and ex-boyfriends: Please can you leave now?

One of my all-time favourite bloggers, Laura, once wrote a post about bumping into her ex-boyfriend. Although that in itself is a fairly awful situation  (which she dealt with with consummate class, of course) she also spoke about how she’d spent six months dreaming of her ex after he left.

And how she managed to get him (and his new fiancée she’d found out existed within weeks of their breakup, which sounds utterly soul-crushing) out of her repeated dreams about them by quietly telling them, mid-dream, that they couldn’t be there anymore. And it worked.

Apparently, this idea is mentioned in Elizabeth Gilbert’s cheesy-but-truthful ode to heartbreak, Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve read the book many times but I don’t specifically remember that bit. Maybe because last time I read it I didn’t need to.

Well, this time, world, I do need to. It may be undignified to admit it, but I do.

I’ve dreamt about previous boyfriends repetitively, too. In every situation.

I dream that we’re back together; that we’re about to get back together; that he’s there but we’re just friends (and I’m laughing along with the group, being the cool girl, but dying inside).

I’ve dreamt that I’m with someone else, and he appears, ambiguously. I’ve dreamt that he comes back and says sorry and all is forgiven. Then there’s the one where he’s somewhere in a tent at a festival (?!) and all I have to do is find him and it will all be OK (except I always just keep missing him by a minute).

I’ve dreamt he’s in my bed and then he’s not. Particularly lovely, that one.

I’ve dreamt that I’m standing on a podium giving an inspirational TED talk about everything he and the breakup taught me and why I’m a better, more whole person now. I dreamt that we bump into each other, and I behave in a dignified, totally-over-everything fashion.

I’ve dreamt that my mother, family, friends, and everyone else tell me that I really should be over it by now, and that it wasn’t that big a deal in the first place. Not like you were engaged, for god’s sake. Aren’t you finished with all this needy shit already?

I’ve dreamt that I’m being laughed at, and pointed at, and mocked, by everyone in the room – thousands of people, including his friends and other people I know ‒ for believing that I ever meant anything to him, for thinking that he would ever stay, and for being too utterly stupid (or wilfully blind) to notice the signs that he wouldn’t.

I’ve dreamt about him (them?) and woken up feeling broken all over again; I’ve dreamt about him and felt utterly furious that he’d barged in to my brain uninvited, and wondered why he couldn’t just leave me the fuck alone.

When I’m awake, I often try to practice mindfulness, and see my thoughts for the random, but not necessarily-defining, whims that they are. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But when you’re asleep, it’s even more difficult. After all, how can you control your dreams? But I can only try, right?

So next time he appears, behind the rose-tinted, totally-twisted, stomach-wrenching spectacles you always wear in dreams, I’m going to try Laura (and Elizabeth’s?) thing.

I’m going to try and say, politely and calmly: Please can you leave now?

I don’t want you here anymore.

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.

Painting lyrics: On loneliness, solitude, and hells YEAH, SILVER PENS

Whenever I listen to music, I always pick up on some lyrics more than others, and imagine those snippets as paintings. It can be any kind of music, but there are inevitably certain lyrics that resonate more than others, that I long to put down on paper as a backdrop for trying out a new technique, or a new mixture of colours.

Although it’s not exactly from the most sophisticated song I know (early 2000s, hello), I do love this lyric from Pink – Your Whole Life Waiting on a Ring to Prove You’re Not Alone. I especially like the dual meaning. There’s something very sad about the song (Glitter in the Air, above), but this line particularly speaks to me about the idea of loneliness vs solitude. After all, being “alone” is a state of mind, right? If you’re happy with your own space, and enjoying it (as I very often do), then you’re not really alone. Or lonely.

It’s only when you reflect on what else you might be doing, who might have called but didn’t, that you start to feel differently. It’s only when you consider that other people might be calling each other up to go out and do what your paranoid head thinks are impossibly-cool things, that you start to feel alone, when you were 100% fine before.

I’ve always enjoyed my own company, but I find this lyric interesting because it’s talking about “proving” that you’re not alone. It’s looking at it from the outside, from other people’s perceptions of your own loneliness. It’s not a coincidence that being called a “loser”, or “no mates” is such an apparently cutting insult.

People who like their own space and don’t care about being out at every latest thing, are often at risk from people who assume they must be sad and lonely, and missing something. It’s always an interesting balance between making the effort to go out and do things, realising that social interaction can be a wonderful tonic to life, and feeling comfortable enough in your own skin to be at home, alone, singing to your own hymn sheet, doing whatever you feel like, no matter who knows or cares. The latter is one of the upsides of being single, I think, but the wider perception is often more “cat lady” than “alone and happy”. Nice.

Equally, this lyric’s other meaning is clearly that of a “wedding ring”, and society’s still-prevalent perception that if you can’t find someone to marry you by a certain age then you’re probably a bit of an anti-social loser. (Again, that word loser. SIGH.) If you’re single (or simply alone for whatever reason) it can seem like the world is made for two – restaurant tables, hotel deals, double-your-income house prices.

People with the confidence – or shall we say, the don’t give a fuck-ness, to just walk into a restaurant or cinema, by themselves, often have to defend their actions to other people, like: “oh, it’s OK, I take a book,” or “It’s nice not to be distracted, ahem”. In a duo, or a big group of friends, people don’t question you. As one, you’re often seen as a odd, slightly weird, a bit of a loner.

Incidentally, on a slightly different point, I’ve never been one of those people to have a huge group of friends. My whole life, I have never felt comfortable in one of those big, loud, colourful gangs of impossibly-glamorous women, laughing over their cocktails at the hilarious, wild and varied lives they all do lead. I’ve always been a bit envious of people who can affect such insouciance with glorious abandon. I always feel like I’m the one at the back, pretending to have a great time but surreptitiously pulling up my tights, feeling like my hair needs a good brush, and wishing I could just talk to a few of my closest mates over a quieter drink.

[Katzp on DeviantArt – click for credit].

I’m pretty extroverted, but still much better in small groups – or even better – in a trio or duo. Or as a couple, say. There are advantages to being single, but the world likes pairs. It’s easier. It’s cheaper. It’s understood. People know what box to put you in if you’re part of a couple. If you’re not, you’re either probably looking to be in one, or you’re a bit dark and complicated and y’know, probably lonely as fuck.

There’s a balance to be had here – after all, it’s a famous saying that you can feel lonely as part of a crowd, and I can’t imagine anywhere more lonely than as one half of a bad relationship. Sometimes your own company is the best, other times, it can feel like your heart is literally bleeding out into your chest with the loneliness of it all.

In these days of Facebook weddings and holidays and updates from your most sociable friends, it can feel like as everyone else pairs up and hangs out, you’re even more alone. If you only had that ring – the phone call, or the sparkly left-hand diamond – you could “prove” that you’re not alone, that someone loves you. After all, right, if it’s not on Facebook, it didn’t happen. Because no-one posts a photo or status of themselves having a genuinely fantastic night in, painting, watching movies and drinking whisky-tinged hot chocolate, on a WEEKEND (cough). That would be like, so weird, or protesting just WAY too much.

There’s also that idea that unless you’re part of that perfect group – be it a firm Sex-and-the-City friendship circle, or a solid couple – that your life can’t really begin. Like everything before is just a perpetual, temporary adolescence (wtf?). It’s why people have wedding lists, even if they ostensibly have all the things on it already – NOT because they’re out for all they can get, apparently – but because they’re supposed to be “starting life” together. It’s An Established Thing.

And that, my friends, is why I decided to paint this lyric. It made me think of all that, and it’s just one sodding line. It also gave me a chance to mess around with colours, and use my silver metallic pens, and that, we all know, is a glorious chance just FAR TOO GOOD to pass up.

Your whole life waiting

Acrylics with metallic pen… 🙂

Confessions of an instant coffee drinker

Good advice…..

I have a confession to make. It’s shameful, debasing and goes against my principles. But somehow, it’s happened, it’s real, and I have to admit it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am now a regular drinker of…instant coffee. The realisation hit me slowly, recently, percolating not unlike the better quality of its kind, until I could ignore it no longer. How, I asked myself with growing horror, had this happened?

Coffee. Le café. Il caffè. It seems so simple. So evocative. Ever-present; the first thing I drink in the morning, nice and milky to get the day going. Aromatic and black to wake me up in the mid-afternoon; later skipped in favour of herbal tea to signal the winding down of the working day; smooth and decaffeinated in the evening before bed – and on particularly special occasions, short, strong and full-bodied as a sharp end to a good meal.

Caffeine in the evenings has never seemed to bother me. Maybe my actual sleep is disturbed (who knows?), but basically, I go to sleep as soon as my head hits the pillow (it’s getting into bed in the first place without procrastinating for hours on end beforehand that’s my problem). Coffee presents the punctuation to my life, and, aside from the days when I decide that from here-on-in that I’m a solely-green-tea, holistic, my-body-is-a-temple kinda girl (very short-lived), that’s how I like it. But…instant? Please.

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I’m not a cat person, but…

Ok, this isn’t the most edifying thing in the world. And neither would I usually, when faced with that crucial choice between unbelievably cute cats and incredibly cute dogs (a weighty decision upon which, should two people reach a consensus, I solemnly imagine long and happy marriages are made), ever pick the feline option….but, please, I defy you to watch this and not think, on some level that, were you to receive a hug of such epically squeezable and fluffy proportions, even for the most fleeting of seconds, you would depart this world a happier, healthier, and all-round more wonderful being.

I warn you though, should this whet your appetite for ever more 3-minute recordings of sleeping baby kittens, and you are foolish enough to enter said search query into YouTube, cancel all appointments and deadlines you may have looming over the next 48 hours. As the people you were supposed to meet, or the colleagues counting on you, slowly make contact in various states of distress from ticked off to tearful, due to your total lack of engagement with the meeting or task hitherto in hand, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

ps. To redress the balance, ever so slightly, but rightly, in favour of dogs, and to show why they are simply just awesome, I’ve added the video below for good measure (a Corgi dog – my current favourite kind. They look like fluffy little barrels of joyfulness). One day, when I have discovered the secrets of renting my own flat, and unlocked the codes that will allow me to earn enough squids to pay for said flat without having to leave the house to work and generally interact with society for 12-hours stretches at a time, thereby meaning that I will be able to look after a dog properly without answering to prosecution charges from the RSPCA for ten counts of neglect, I will be able to have one of these impossibly gorgeous things for myself, and my world will be, however improbably, immensely improved.

It is, as unfashionable as it may be to admit it, my sincere belief that talking to dogs and cats is sometimes more emotionally useful than engaging with human beings. Serene, available, relaxed, loyal, good-natured, while still retaining a reassuring air of independence – yep, it strikes me that pet-like qualities may not necessarily a bad thing to aim for when deciding whether or not to befriend a person. Despite the pitching of one against the other bringing to mind overtones of tragic old cat ladies and the haunting image of loveless-singleton-Bridget-Jones-played-by-Renee-Zellweger-being-eaten-by-Alsatians-after-death, interaction with humans and pets need not, of course, be mutually exclusive. It’s heartwarming to feel that in the absence of either pet or person, time spent with one could more than make up for the lack of the other. For the time being, though (see my various flat and time constraint issues, above), dreams of said pet regularly interspersed with manageable YouTube snippets of their furry little antics will have to suffice when life is looking decidedly less-than-rosy. Or, you know, when work’s getting really, really dull.