Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Storm Cloud in My Backpack.


boys gutting fish in Essaouira surrounded by birds

The day that I turned twenty we had been in Morocco for almost a month.

After three weeks in frenzy of Marrakesh we had taken a bus to the coast and were staying in the most uncomfortable, most revolting self-catering apartment that we could ever have imagined. We acquired it through a Helpful English Stranger (wheeler and dealer) who lived in the town and whom we'd met in the queue in the pastry shop. We were tired of hostels, of sharing a bathroom with eleven other people and a cockroach, and we were desperate to cook our own meal after three weeks of eating bread and oranges (a diet which, incidentally, almost entirely removes the need to use the shared toilets). We paid a week's rent upfront and heaved our backpacks onto our skinny shoulders. We moved in and I feel asleep instantly on the misshapen shape, draped with a polyester faux fur blanket emblazoned with a lion's head surrounded by leopard print, the kind of which is inexplicably popular in Morocco. Nye bought a bottle of bleach and started scrubbing, desperate to rid the bathroom of the smell of fermenting human waste, a smell so strong that it was impossible to go into the room without gagging and which insisted that we block the crack under the bathroom door with towels in an attempt to stop it escaping into the rest of the apartment. It didn't work.

Looking back it's easy to wonder why on earth we stayed, why we gave our meagre resources to sleep in this stinking pit where no, we didn't have to share the bathroom but where we couldn't actually use the bathroom without tying a wet cloth over our faces. It certainly wasn't the 'cooking facilities' which were a plastic washing up bowl and a gas camping stove which leaked so badly we had to take it onto the roof to use. It was actually just a simple combination of youth and exhaustion. We were young, broke and Having an Adventure, therefore fairly willing to endure squalor (and oh the squalor) but more crucially, we were exhausted. Broken. I was wrung out, I was anxious, I was suffering with chronic fatigue and increasingly relentless abdominal pain. During the week of my period I collapsed to the ground all over Marrakesh, needing help to stumble to a quiet alley and then on to our hostel and bed. It was a small mercy that the painkillers available over the counter were twice as strong as at home. A black cloud had attached itself to me a few months before and while I had tried to shake it off, it was getting darker and more ominous. I cried a lot in Morocco. I fought with Nye and I spent a lot of time in bed, not sleeping. When I did sleep I was rocked by nightmares that I can still see now, as clearly as if I had them last night. I was 19 and I was trying so hard to have an adventure, to Travel.


I'd been saving money all summer, working to fund a solo round the world gap year that I had become too ill to go on. Morocco, until our money ran out, was what it had boiled down to. It was before cheap flights to North Africa were a thing so we had flown to Malaga in Spain, stayed in a creepy hotel opposite a sex shop and then got the bus to Algeciras on the south coast. I thought Algeciras was the saddest, most depressing place in the whole world, but that was before we had made it to Casablanca, a city that tore right into my soul. A town of shipping containers and desperation, Algeciras is Spain's gateway into Europe, its defences against Africa and those who would flee it. We boarded a ferry from which a number of passengers had been removed in handcuffs and crossed the straights of Gibraltar, churning past that weird, unlikely rock beloved of sea birds and tax dodgers. We lurched into Africa at sunset, the lights of Tangier twinkling in the fading orange and navy sky and the smell of hot dust drifting out into the sea. It was magic. It took us two days to get to Morocco and another twelve hours by train to reach Marrakesh. And when we got there it was another world, we had Travelled. And despite my pain and the storm cloud I was lugging around in my backpack it was the most wonderful, the most beautiful adventure.

I turned twenty in the coastal town of Essaouira. I opened the small gifts that had been wrestling with my cloud for space in my backpack on a rooftop overlooking the maze of streets. I ate a lunch of two pence breads stuffed with canned sardines sitting on an ancient seawall, watching the fishing boats come and go and tiny Moroccan children play in the square. We went out for dinner to an actual vegetarian restaurant, an establishment where the vegetable tagine didn't come with a chicken foot or a goat knuckle lurking beneath the squash, and we walked back to our vile apartment through the winding, cobbled streets that whistled with sea air. Those are my three memories of my 20th birthday; the rooftop, the seawall, the restaurant. The next day we left the apartment, a few days before the week we had paid for was up. Nye engaged in a fight with the owner, a puffed up business man in a shiny suit, and attempted to get the rest of our money back. I don't remember if he managed it or not.

We moved a few streets away, to the prettiest hotel that £3 a night can buy, where we were woken in the mornings by the sounds of the orange juice carts rattling down the street and the squawking of seagulls over the town's ancient fortress walls. When Nye went out for bread that day he bumped into the English guy who had brought us to that horrible apartment. He asked how we were getting on and when Nye told him that we had left the apartment early his friend laughed; “I can't believe you took them there,” he said, “that place is a shit hole.” The Englishman had the decency to look embarrassed. He offered to find us somewhere else but we were done with the help of charming strangers. Besides, we were planning to leave Essaouria and travel further down the coast over the next day or two. We'd had a tip from a surfer who worked in the chessboard shop and were planning to head to a village on the sea, one that had been forgotten by both electricity and plumbing and relied on generators and the water lorry that came to fill up the tanks every couple of days. Two days later Nye helped me to lift my backpack onto my shoulders, to settle its weight there on my back where I would carry it with me, 150km down the coast.

That is where I began my twenties, carrying my weight with me on my back. Now, almost exactly ten years later, my weight is spread all around, the dark cloud that I carried so close then has drifted off and is but a tiny smudge on the horizon. I turn thirty tomorrow, something that I've been looking forward to for the longest time. I'm ready to shed my twenties, to say that this decade of struggling, of striving, of being broken down and built back up over and over and over again is done. I know that it's arbitrary, that life on Saturday won't tangibly be any different from life on Thursday and yet when did I care about the tangible? Hardly ever, that's when.  

boys gutting fish in Essaouira surrounded by birds


Photos of young boys gutting fish,  Essaouira, Morocco. Taken in 2004, on a Pentax K1000, with Ilford film.



Monday, January 26, 2015

You guys.

image by Ron Van Dongen 

You guys, thank you so much for your comments on my post about us quitting/ adventuring/ whateverthehellyouwanttocallit. While your words of support and encouragement were nice (really nice) it was your generosity in sharing your own experiences of following your dreams only to realise that oops, maybe they weren't the dreams for you, and of starting over that really slayed me. 

It's not easy to admit that you got it wrong (I know) and it's really not easy to admit that you don't actually have a clue what you want (harder than admitting that you don't want what you've got but you know what you want and you don't know how to get it. Follow?) and I'm so grateful to all of you who did that. It was a beautiful reminder of Ye Olde Blogging Community, with the sharing and the chatting and the commenting, before iphones and instagram came along and ruined it all. 

As soon as we decided to quit wedding photography I started to feel like maybe I could start writing here again, that I could reclaim this space as mine, as more than a marketing tool for the business. For years I have been self-censoring (honestly), worried about what clients might make of a photographer who talks about poo and periods and prozac, chasing my tail wondering quite what image I should be presenting here. Blissfully, I find I no longer really care. 

This stupid blog is approaching its seventh birthday and as many times as I've tried to kill it with neglect (and occasionally with something more aggressive), it's still here. Still with the same crappy name I gave it seven years ago when I had no idea how ubiquitous and then passé both peonies and polaroids would become in the lifestyle blogging world. I regularly dream of starting afresh somewhere else, of coming up with a witty, intelligent title that doesn't make me wince when I'm forced to say it out loud, but it never seems to happen. 

Maybe it's time to embrace that which embarrasses me, to accept that the seven years I've put in here aren't nothing and enjoy that people are still reading, and sometimes even commenting the best comments. Thank you for helping me to get there. 




Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Living Adventurously (aka, Quitting)

Remember way back, oh two years ago, when we moved to London? How it was the most exciting thing in the whole world? Well, it hasn't really worked out for us. I feel like such a flake saying this, but we're leaving.




I had loved it, I really had. Then at the beginning of last year I hit a wall. I spiralled into a bad place and suddenly I hated everything, I mean everything. It was pretty terrible. I spent my days either crying or thinking about how I could leave my family. I swore that the city was the problem and that I'd just feel better if we lived somewhere where every noise, every shout, every mattress discarded in the street didn't cut into my soul. It was really, really no good. I did not leave my family and I did stop crying, but I never felt at home again in London. The city that I had briefly loved felt hard, abrasive, expensive, exhausting. I had neither the money to enjoy the amazing bits that called to me or the energy to find the amazing bits that I could afford. The tiny bit of community that we'd had here had left and I was lonely, tired and worn down. *sad violin* 

We daydreamed of moving, of leaving the city and our jobs and finding a way to live cheaply and happily outdoors. We talked in maybes; 'maybe we could move to France? Maybe we could move to Dorset? Maybe we could move to Alaska?' (that last one was all Nye.) But however deeply we felt the longing to move there didn't seem any way to make it happen while we were running as fast as we could to keep up with the daily get up, get everyone ready, work, get everyone back, feed everyone, work, sleep, repeat, travel at the weekends. There was no energy to talk about making a change let alone the energy to actually do it and while we had been talking about quitting wedding photography for years neither of us could come up with a viable alternative that we could step into.


Sometimes when you're desperately looking for a way out the universe throws you a bone, it's just that it's not the bone you hoped for. Instead of a nice juicy rib that you can chew at your leisure it's a great fucking ox skull hurled through your sitting room window and now you have a way out but there's glass and shit everywhere and a frankly terrifying head staring at you with its gaping, empty eye sockets and you're too shocked and traumatised to move. That's what happened. (Literally. No, not really, but it was close.) 

It was messy and horrible and I shook for days but it was finally clear that we could not keep going the way that we were, we were starting to fall apart at the seams. So we quit, kind of. It was mostly emotional and symbolic at that point; we planned to leave London and we stopped taking wedding bookings and instantly we felt better, lighter.

That was five months ago. At the moment we're starting to pack up the things we want to keep, trying really hard to get rid of as much of our crap as possible, finishing making our house nice so that we can rent it out (one day, one day we'll make a house nice so that we can live in it) and freaking out. Nye, mostly fixing the house; me, mostly freaking out.


'Where are you going?' you ask. Well, that's a good question. How very clever of you to notice that I have not in fact mentioned an actual plan, somewhere we are going to go and something we are going to do. Well, immediately we are going to France, to stay in N's parents' self-catering place. When you're having an existential crisis it helps if someone you know has a spare house in the south of France and is willing to let you ride out your meltdown in it.

We're planning to stay for about three months and for the girls to go to pre-school there while we a) recover from the last few years and b) figure out what the hell we're going to do longer term c) eat cheese, drink wine and get fat/fit (yet to be determined).

After that we are thinking about spending a couple of months in the Western Isles. We also talk about Dorset, Glasgow, Wales and moving to sea. So if anyone would like to start a sweepstake on where we'll end up. . .

I fluctuate between thinking that we're doing something great, we're living adventurously, we're identifying what doesn't make us happy and doing what we can to find what will, teaching our children that life is short and precious and that you need to live it well, that fear shouldn't stop you from trying new paths. And then feeling like a complete and utter failure who has invested eight years in a career that they don't love, who has no idea what they actually want to be (or where they want to live) and who is dragging their children around in their wake while they try to figure it out causing them irreparable therapy-inducing damage. Not to mention feeling like an entitled brat who has the luxury of throwing it all in and moving to France. I have good days and bad days.

At the moment we have no idea when we're actually going to get out of here. We were aiming for February but that's not going to happen. Life and Christmas and the flu saw to that. We run out of money at the end of March that would be a good point by which to have our arses in gear. Wish us luck. 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Favourites.


My favourite instagrams of 2014. (Which may as well be called me 'favourite photos of 2014' because the thought that I took any personal pictures on any other medium is laughable.)

I put together another selection, currently title-less but along the lines of 'the instagrams that sort of define 2014 and why it was good, bad and horrible and nothing like we expected and maybe the most unsettling year of our lives' but I'm still thinking about how much I want to say about all of that stuff so for now you just get my favourites. 

I don't know how much there is to say about them, seeing as I chose them because they're pretty and they make me smile and um, well, that's it. But I know that you like a little more information, so; 

top row

1) Our sixth wedding anniversary. We don't get babysitters unless we have family visiting, so we celebrated with W&P. My mum just reminded me that this wasn't in fact our wedding anniversary, but a lunch she took us for one summer day. I'm losing my mind. I have also started writing at 5.30am, which has its drawbacks, accuracy-wise. We went to The Crystal Palace Market and ate burgers. It's a beautiful restaurant and the food was amazing but the staff were weird and grumpy and utterly unwelcoming so we probably won't go back, which is tragic in the face of such a fucking awesome burger.

2) My Nye, at the Donald Trump golf resort in Ireland, contemplating the ways to murder rubber faced, geriatric Americans who drink Bloody Marys for breakfast and spend their holidays golfing.

3) Puke, on her way to pre-school one beautiful summer morning. Pre-school has been the light of our lives. We live in a noisy, smelly, shitty urban neighbourhood littered with drug dealers and pit pulls and somehow we are around the corner from the most nurturing, most friendly, most happy well-equipt absolutely wonderful council-run nursery school with the most enormous and beautiful garden/play area and the kindest, warmest, most affectionate staff and every day it blows my mind how amazing it is and how lucky we are to have found it and every day W&P sing and dance all the way there. 

middle row

1) My baby. My sweet, quiet, self-contained and beautiful baby. My first born, my friend, my little pain in the ass. 

2) Both of my pains in the ass. On the beach in Nairn, one bloody freezing day, hanging out with our favourite florist who drove from Glasgow to play with us. W&P were dogs that day, they would only answer to Shnitzel Von Krum (with a very low tum) and Bitzer Maloney (all skinny and bony), an identity shift that lasted for three weeks on P's part. Kid has dedication. 

3) Me, Nye, alone in Edinburgh for a wedding. A wonderful day spent visiting our favourite places (The Grassmarket, The Museum of Scotland, Grayfriar's graveyard, Peter's Yard, Under the Stairs) and sobbing on the very spot that eight years previously we had decided we would try and have a baby 
("why are you crying? We had two babies." 
"Yes, but (sniff) it was so hard (sniff) and we DIDN'T KNOW (sniff) when we sat here that it would take (sniff) so long and be (sniff) SO HARD."  
.... " I still don't get why you're crying." 
 hashtag 'scenes from a marriage'.) 

Bottom row

1) P, in Inverness, patting the butcher on the belly. I did the same thing to the same statue when I was a kid in Inverness. I remember walking past him and being awed by his immensity. He's definitely had a paint job since then though.

2) Nye and W, in the hammock in France. A blissful moment in a week of what was, um, let's call it 'turmoil'.

3) Weightlifting. I love these goofs.



Friday, December 05, 2014

Kids, Christmas, Charity.


We have had enough Christmases as a family now that the girls know it's something to get excited about. They remember presents, a tree, lights, absurd quantities of food and being allowed to watch telly during the day, add the social acceptability of drinking alcohol with breakfast and you have all of the things that I love about Christmas too. And yet as they get older I feel more and more compelled to kill the glorious magic of it, just a little.

As a child I spent a not insignificant part of the festive season crying for those who were less fortunate than me. It started at six or seven with the starving children in Africa and as I grew older came to encompass the homeless, the lonely, the poor AND the starving children in Africa. The first Christmas that Nye and I spent together we were sitting on the sofa, watching telly by the light of the tree, and the Oxfam Christmas appeal came on just before the Vicar of Dibley. I sobbed. I sobbed huge, heaving tears, and Nye was (while sympathetic) a little taken aback, 'aren't you used to seeing images like that by now?' he asked. 'Yes, but it's JUST SO SAD.' I wailed. I was 19 and still crying for the starving children of Africa.

When I was in primary school I took part every year in the Shoebox Appeal. Remember those? Each child filled a shoebox for a specific age and gender with small toys, clothes and essential toiletries, wrapped the whole thing in Christmas paper and then they were collected and distributed them to children in need. I hadn't thought about the shoebox appeal for years until last Christmas when I began to feel like my kids really needed to start to understand how incredibly lucky they are and that there are many, many people who are less so. And not just to understand it but to do something, however small, about it. So I looked into the shoebox appeal again and found that a) I was about 6 weeks too late (apparently it takes some time to organise sending 8 million shoe boxes around the world) and b) unbeknown to me, the whole thing is organised by an evangelical Christian charity and the shoe boxes are sent 'in Jesus' name', alongside a pamphlet of evangelical literature. Which. . . I have problems with. So that year I just did what I always do, donated money to Shelter and Oxfam and cried quietly into my laptop as I typed in my debit card number. It felt . . . not enough. And did nothing to teach my children anything.

Yes, they were three years old.  Many people would argue that three is too young to start learning about the injustices of the world and of course I don't want to burden them too young with sadness and worry and guilt (it's too soon to tell just how sensitive to it they will be; normal-child-sensitive, or cry-yourself-to-sleep-sensitive), but I do want to start sowing the seed. I do want them to know that Christmas isn't just about getting new stuff and eating until you hurt. I do want them to understand that as someone lucky enough to be born into comfort and security it is your duty to help those who weren't. But, they're four. There's only so much I can do at this point and the struggle is to find a way that both helps and that they can engage with. It's so easy to donate money and it's very easy to buy a goat or a vaccination kit or a meal for a child on the other side of the world, those things help but they are too abstract for a small child to understand. The shoebox appeal appealed (ha!) to me because it was tangible, something that the girls could get involved with, and yes, that we could mostly do without leaving the house which is always a bonus as far as I'm concerned. There are also some pretty hardcore things we could do, many places we could volunteer as a family (hospices, hospitals, shelters etc) but I know my limits, as an extremely sensitive introvert I'm just not ready to take on the level of emotional and sensory input that volunteering with two four year olds would involve. One day, but not yet.

So that leaves me with my usual donating to charities and a bit of a blank when it comes to my children. My thoughts are that we will go shopping together for the local food bank and that we will go through their extensive bookshelves picking out the books that they no longer read and finding a way to distribute them elsewhere. But more importantly I will try to find a way to talk to them about injustice, about privilege and about the fact that our Christmas is not the Christmas that every family gets. I have no fucking idea how to even begin this conversation.

My questions for you are;

  1. Did/do you teach your children about charity? How? When? At what age?
  2. Do you know of any books aimed at pre-schoolers that explain charity? Or are we just not supposed to shatter their innocense until they start school?
  3. Do you take part in any charity at Christmas? Tangible or virtual?
  4. Did you take part in the Shoebox Appeal? Did you know that you were sending toothbrushes IN JESUS' NAME?
  5. What are you having for Christmas dinner?

Finally, this year I will be donating money to Shelter and Plan UK.

90,000 children will be homeless in Britain this Christmas and a further 1.5 million living in poverty. The government are doing all that they can to protect the rich from the brutality of paying taxes on their massive wealth while royally fucking the poor in a myriad of ways. I believe that 'Big Society' is a bullshit way for the government to sound like they give a damn about the poor while not-so-slowly stamping them into the ground, but in the face of an ever-diminishing welfare system it seems that it is in fact down to the members of our society with even the smallest social consionce to do what they can for those who are being screwed. Shelter is working really hard to offer advice, representation and support to those facing homelessness while campaigning for reforms in housing law to prevent homelessness ever occuring.


PlanUK is a global children's charity helping children in area's of natural disaster and promoting the rights of adolescent girls in areas where female genital mutilation and child marriage are rife. You can sponsor a child with PlanUK here or donate to the Girls Fund here.


* Blogger Fail. I reverse searched the image, I googled 'glitter hands', I seriously spent 20 minutes on it. I gave up. I don't care. Sorry. 



Monday, November 17, 2014

'Dear, you never have it'



Poem for a Daughter
by Anne Stevenson 

'I think I'm going to have it,'
I said, joking between pains.
The midwife rolled competent
sleeves over corpulent milky arms.
'Dear, you never have it,
we deliver it.'
A judgement the years proved true.
Certainly I've never had you
as you still have me, Caroline.
Why does a mother need a daughter?
Heart's needle, hostage to fortune,
freedom's end. Yet nothing's more perfect
than that bleating, razor-shaped cry
that delivers a mother to her baby.
The bloodcord snaps that held
their sphere together. The child,
tiny and alone, creates the mother.
A woman's life is her own
until it is taken away
by a first, particular cry.
Then she is not alone
but a part of the premises
of everything there is:
a time, a tribe, a war.
When we belong to the world
we become what we are.