Two burly, unsmiling cops barge into my office and stride purposefully to my desk. “Frances Manwaring?” the taller and meaner of the barks at me. “Er … yes,” I say a little tremulously, wondering what… More
Good heavens, it’s December — where in the name of all that’s holy did 2018 go? It seems like only yesterday I was decking my metaphorical halls and boggling about the speed at which 2017 was evaporating. Does any one else experience December a bit like an annualised Grounhog Day? A month when everything seems to repeat itself bringing a sense of déjà vu and some difficulty in separating one year end from another?
It’s the time of year of dementedly cramming in everything that needs to be done in the count down to Christmas. The lure of the holidays beckons like a Siren call and you start to feel a bit over it all. As the weather hots up and the time runs out, it’s so easy to get a bit tetchy and lose sight of age old seasonal calls for peace on earth and good will to all. These become more compelling every year given our current reality and the scary future outlook we’re facing on many counts. Whatever religion or spiritual philosophy you embrace, surely the prospect of peace on earth and goodwill to all should be front and centre of everything we do if we are to leave any sort of joy to the world of our children and grand-children?
But, sometimes it all feels overwhelming. What can any individual do in the context of so much dysfunction? Well, lots actually. There are so many examples of incredible individuals who have changed the world through their inspiring lives. Clearly there’s the holy trinity of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi and their ilk. Amazing as these Titan’s of human rights were, the heroic and very much less travelled paths they walked fell a bit beyond most of us. But there are many less known others throughout history who have shown what can be achieved with vision and compassion. People like Henry Dunant who found the Red Cross in 1863 and whose humanitarian ideas gave rise to The Geneva Conventionin 1864. People like The Tank Man, who stood in front of a column of tanks from the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 armed only with his shopping bags. This unknown hero became an ionic image from Chinese pro-democracy protests which were brutally suppressed through weeks of clashes between with government forces in which thousands of people were thougtht to have been killed.
For sure, not everyone has it in them to show bravery like The Tank Man, but little things matter too and the ripple in the pond effect cannot be under-estimated. I’d say it would be wonderful to inspire those “I want what she’s on” responses and to infuse random strangers with our positive energy. As I said in my previous blog, I am a big fan of the kindness movement and the possibility of step change through benevolent influence. However, in the same vein, it’s the little things that can also be the most irritating and potentially destructive causing a chain re-actions of negativity and aggression, sometimes leading to violence.
I was sharply reminded a few days ago as I was walking briskly along the pavement (or sidewalk depending on where you live), enjoying the sunshine and day dreaming happily about the summer holidays. God was most definitely in his heaven and all right with my world. Then it wasn’t! What is it about people in groups? Do they forget that their group is simply a subset of the rest of humanity? Apparently so! Imagine my irritation when a clump of ‘yoof’ ambled towards me oblivious to my presence, or right of equal passage on the public footpath, forcing me to step into the road to be able to get past them. How inconsiderate I thought. How rude! Channelling Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high”, I swallowed the “screw you” (or other expletive) that was begging to be lobbed at their retreating backs and strode on trying to get my dander levels under control!
I haven’t often felt pavement rage like this since I lived in London. In those years, we used to talk about aggressive walking – i.e. elbows and handbags as weapons being fair game to get through the milling, chaotic melees that were Regent and Oxford Streets in the lead up to Christmas. In bustling metropolitan places like Central London or New York where the populations are in the multi-millions, it’s often impossible to do as you would be done by pavement wise. In places like New Zealand’s capital of Wellington with its paltry 450,000 (and that’s the whole region, not just the city itself), not so much. There really is no excuse for pavement hogging here because we don’t have the rivers of people to contend with and it’s doubly annoying because there’s generally no need for it.
In the busiest places however, necessity is the mother of invention. There is a sort of acknowledged pavement etiquette which is applied by most people for the sake of everyone’s sanity and wellbeing. This is particularly true during the twice daily king tides of people flooding out of the underground stations in the morning and then receding back into them in the evening. Minor decisions about people flow are made intuitively and constantly whilst navigating these human tsunamis. Situational awareness is a critical survival skill.
It’s not just inconsiderate people that cause problems. Artless tourists are another source of rage to locals. When I started sifting around, I was quite entertained to find that there are studies about the walking speeds of locals versus tourists and workers versus shoppers. There are even groups lobbying for the introduction of fast and slow lanes and texting lanes on pavements that are colour-coded to achieve directional flow. Trouble with any sort of pavement regulatory system — voluntary or imposed — is that not everyone’s going in the same direction and you might want to cut across the flow to get into a shop. This can be life threatening at peak times — you’d have more success crossing the Spey River in full spate after the sprint melt.
In summary, when we take to the pavements, forget good will to all, simple good manners, courtesy and politeness all too often disappear faster than you can say Donald Trump. Oops did I mention the ‘T’ word? It seems a shame that the concept of good manners is ow so very much equated with a stiffling colonial past. There’s been a lot of talk over the last months of ‘incivility’ in the political arena. Taking it outside of politics, perhaps incivility is the contemporary articulation of the ancient proverb ‘manners maketh man’? (For man, read men, women, LGBTs and children). Whatever name you give it, I don’t think I’m alone in experiencing almost a soulful longing for a kinder, more considerate society and world. And where better to start than in the way we interact with our fellow humans on a daily basis?
The earliest known reference to the proverb “manners taketh man” was in the writings of William Horman, who lived between 1440 and 1535 and was headmaster of the very famous English schools Eton and then Winchester. Horman’s book ‘Vulgaria’ (translates from Latin into something like ‘everyday sayings’ or ‘common sayings’) is a collection of proverbs that were in common use, so it may have been around for many years, even centuries before Horman’s time. The proverb’s meaning has come to be that your mannerisms and characteristics make you who you are. That people are judged by their manners and conduct. But in its earliest use, it likely had a broader meaning – that manners make us human — that politeness and etiquette are what prevent us from falling into savagery.
Well, it certainly feels pretty savage when a phalanx of people fail to give way on a pavement forcing you to walk on the street. It’s also quite savage when someone crowds you at a check out or tail-gates you in a place where they have no possibility of overtaking. Those shouted cell phone conversations some people insist on having in public that disturb the peace — a legal offence in many countries and most definitely savage. Ditto people who talk through movies or concerts. Call me old fashioned but I’m still a big fan of those very under rated ‘magic words’, please and thank you . And would it really hurt for drivers to acknowledge my courtesy with a wave? So many of them don’t. Barging in front of me in a queue is not a winner either! And please don’t sit at my dinner table texting or checking your social media conversations — I believe that’s called excessive virtual socialising.
I don’t want to go through my days having spasms of irritation and being a victim of these every day acts of thoughtlessness that spoil my buzz. I’d say manners are still a fundamental need of a civilised society. We just need an updated version for our current reality in which we struggle to deal with over-population and resort to smart devices as the universal panacea. Manners might not cure all the evils of the world, but what a different place the world would be if we really could extend goodwill to all — we might even succeed with achieving peace on earth. Amen to that.
Don’t know about you, but I’m sick of the barrage of negativity that bombards us from all the news channels. I want to feel uplifted not besmirched when I think about our species and what we’re capable of. That doesn’t mean I’m for buying my head in the sand — I’m not hermit material, nor do I want to retire to an ashram and … er … I’m not actually an ostrich. In any case, as part of the ‘global village’ it’s my duty to be at least a bit informed about current events and geopolitics and form opinions and be part of the whole thing.
Yet there is just so much vileness, violence and vitriol splattered around these days, it’s easy to get cynical and despairing. Caring detachment is apparently the answer. But it’s hard to stay above the tantalising awfulising that vomits forth from so many channels. It’s all so ‘dialled up’ and following every sensational utterance of the Trumps of the world has become a new sport, if not religion. All that’s needed is an internet connection and a screen of some sort and hey presto, you’re plugged in and the ‘interwebs’ pedalling the good, bad and the ugly is your oyster. Lies, damn lies and fake news abound. We get trapped in our echo-chambers. For us liberals, it’s hard to ignore feeling that the barbarians are at the gates and our legacy to future generations could all too easily be a burned-out world with a broken eco-system.
So what can an individual do that really makes a difference worth a damn … other than vote of course! Well, lots to be honest. The possibilities are endless, but one option that’s really taken off is the concept of creating waves of energy to achieve positive reinforcement. Literally, spreading good vibes. Think about it — we plant trees to offset carbon emissions. Why not apply that thinking to offset hate, bigotry, misogyny, racism and all the other isms that have re-reared their ugly heads so forcefully around the world in this era of uncivility? The idea is that kindness — appreciation and caring for one another — in deed, in word, in thought or intent — changes individual lives. Collectively, it can transform the world.
Clearly, orchestrated action is not a new concept. We apply it in all sorts of practical ways like several people lifting a heavy object on the count of three.. A rapidly growing number of people believe that this type of concerted approach can lift the world. Waves of Kindness is a movement where people take a moment at 8am and 8pm daily to form a complete and tangible wave ring around the world coming from a conscious state of unified kindness.
If that all sounds a bit ‘woo woo’ then perhaps a more accessible option is World Kindness Day that’s coming up on November 13. WKD aims to highlight good deeds in the community focusing on the positive power and the common thread of kindness which binds us. It’s intended to be a day that encourages individuals to overlook boundaries, race and religion and celebrate commonalities. Two thousand and eighteen is the movement’s 20th anniversary — it was initiated in 1998 by a coalition of kindness NGOs around the world and is now observed in a number of countries including Australia, Canada, Italy, India, Japan, Nigeria, UAE, Singapore and the UK.
Embarrassing that New Zealand isn’t yet on this list — shame on us! Having said that our inspiring Prime Minister Jacinda Adern included this sort of thinking in a speech at the UN a few weeks ago, and my home town — NZ’s capital city Wellington — is celebrating its inaugural GKD this year. Better late than never!
People observe WKD in all sorts of ways. In Australia for example, it’s made it onto the school calendar of 9,000 schools and there are “It’s Cool To Be Kind Awards”. Activities include handing out kindness cards, staging flashmobs and concerts. WKD is also on the radar of individual non-profits such as Life Vest in the US and there’s clearly a big appetite for finding the international kindness taproot. Life Vest’s film Kindness Boomerang went viral, receiving more than 100 million views and coverage in serious media outlets such as TED, NBC, CBS and Adweek.
If you’re leaning towards joining the kindness wave, you might also consider becoming a Raktivist — the random acts of kindness movement might be more your thing. Much more of a JFDI individual approach without all the group hugging and collaborative stuff. According to the site, Raktivists are kindness ambassadors who live and breathe kindness, share knowledge and lead by example. Apparently you can tell where they’ve been because they leave a trail of ‘warm fuzzies’ in their wake.
I subscribe to a number of international media. One of them actually has a Week In Good News that you can sign up for and it’s great. Last week, from this and other sources, I learned that lavender is being mooted as providing a natural alternative to chemical anti-depressants, that Chinese workers has managed to save an old bear that had fallen into a reservoir and was close to drowning by scooping him out using an industrial digger, a woman who had been saved from a house fire by her cat and how a blind climber conquered Everest and went on to co-found a non profit to teach outdoor skills to others with physical challenges.
There are plenty of genuinely moving, uplifting, inspirational things going on every moment of every day, everywhere. I strongly believe positivity breeds positivity and the only way we’ll make change happen is if we believe we can and infect others in our orbit with this belief. Positive energy is infectious and it’s a virus we should be keen to share. Hope really can triumph over experience if we let it. Where we are now it seriously needs to! They used to say you need to be cruel to be kind. I’d say it’s more a case of you need to be kind to be kind.
My father died two months ago. He was 89, a sick old man and it wasn’t unexpected. In many ways our little family was glad he didn’t linger on because the last few weeks of his life were not the best of times. He was so very fragile and there was little left of our big proud Scotsman who always had a song in his heart. Despite this, when it comes down to that final good bye, I don’t think you’re ever really prepared. There’s really no way to pre-empt the emotions that are triggered when you realise one of the mainstays of your life is gone. I miss him deeply.
Dad died early on a Tuesday morning and we had the funeral three days later. It was small, intimate affair and a fitting tribute to the man. It truly was a celebration, full of joy and love and laughter. My sister and I gave the eulogies. Preparing these, we reviewed our family story at length and laughed and cried in equal measure while we pondered his life and what he’d meant to us. We discussed how lucky we were to be born to parents who gave us a wonderful and safe childhood. Parents who fed our ‘satiable curiosity’ and opened our minds to how much the world has to offer. They encouraged us to be the unique, creative individuals all human beings should be able to be. Most of all, they gave us the security to grow and experiment with our lives, knowing we could escape from whatever mess we could land ourselves in because there was always a safety net at home. We lived without the taint of violence or intimidation that is the awful reality for so many women and girls.
Of course, we had our ‘moments’ — what family doesn’t? It would also be misleading to sanctify his memory, he wasn’t’ a saint. But how many kids never experience the wonder of a kind, loving father who cares deeply for them and protects them? How many still live in terror as a drunken monster rampages round the house hitting out at anything or anyone who gets in his way? How many go hungry or have their lives and health ruined by their crack- or p-addicted parents? How many orphans simply don’t ever get to know their parents? How many have their dreams and confidence beaten out of them dashed on the rocks of ignorance and cruelty? How many kids are damaged beyond repair by toxic, Wars of the Roses style divorces?
My father was a man of high principles. An honest-to God, good man who loved and respected the women in his life and believed we could be anything we wanted to be. In these #metoo times, we could do with more people like him. While we surely need to ‘out’ the bad apples and find ways of stopping the violence and inequality, it’s important to remember that there are lots of good guys like him around too.
Painting in feature image: William (Bill) Paterson by Joseph Guilford c 2016
I smile a lot. You might even say I’m a positive little joy germ … I’ve even been known to sing first thing in the morning. I see this as a great way to greet the day, others find it annoying. But I can’t help it, it’s just how I am. My rellies call me Tigger after the irrepressible bouncing tiger in the AA Milne’s wonderful Winnie the Pooh stories. Hopefully you get the picture? I’m one of nature’s smilers. Or at least I used to be. Life kind of got in the way for a while there and it felt as if Tigger had bounced up one tree too many and got stuck. Happily — smilingly — Tigger’s back bouncing around on the ground searching for adventure.
But my point? Other than smiling, walking is one of my great joys in life. When I walk I think, I process, I solve problems and dream up ideas. Some people smile while they dial. Me, I smile while I walk. Weird you might say, but why not? Walking makes me feel great, all I have to do is leave my house to do it. I usually walk in glorious places which make my heart sing and, even better, it’s usually free. What’s not to smile about? So what if I look like some scary humanoid version of the Cheshire Cat to the rest of the world?
But I think smiling’s great and an encounter I had a couple of weeks ago is a perfect example of why. Picture the scene. I was striding happily along the waterfront near my home, inhaling the beauty of a glorious day and enjoying the antics of the canines on parade. I’m wearing scabby old exercise clothes, but I figure glam shades, some violent red lippy make up for that … and the beaming smile. Of course, most people scuttle away when this apparition goes past. A few manage a muted ‘Hi’ in response to my breezy greeting — usually this comes with all the enthusiasm that you might put into acknowledging a slimy thing that’s just crawled out from under a stone. Sad … as he who should not be named would say.
Why are people so afraid? That a smile is the façade for an out of control lunatic? That they might somehow get caught up in my life if they smile back? That I’m on the make?Makes me think I need to carry a placard, “Really it’s OK. I’m smiling at you because I’m having a Zip-A-De-Doo-Dah day. I’m high on the sun, the sparkly sea, all those wonderful dogs, the way the rhythms of walking make my body feel and, by the way, I would like to share my joy with you.” Don’t other people feel the same?
Imagine my surprise when I find a kindred spirit in amongst all the avoidance — another happy smiling face. I see her dog first. I love dogs (in case you missed that) but there are some breeds I particularly like and hers happens to be one of them. Patrocles (as I find out he’s called) is a liver spotted Dalmatian that would have given the leads in 101 Dalmationsa run for their money in terms of street appeal. I turn to compliment the women on the gorgeousness which is her dog and ask if I can pat him. That’s when I really clock her. She’s staring out over the water with a radiant smile that would make Julia Robert’s best look dim. I take it she’s as intoxicated by the day as I am. She turns to answer my question … our eyes meet … and we share a ‘moment’ as we acknowledge that we both get it. That whatever else is going on in our lives (and it’s not been a good year on a number of counts in mine) we’re smiling because right now, in this moment, the world is a wonderful place. Even Patrocles is smiling!
Anyway, after mouthing platitudes about dogs and the loveliness of the day, we have that conversation about why people look away when you smile at them. Then, a little reluctantly it has to be said, I walk on. But somehow, I can’t let the moment pass and turn back because I want to tell her she’s made my day with her beautiful energy. It’s the same for her she says. I pat the pooch again and continue on my walk feeling good at having had such a random and uplifting encounter.
It really did make my day and I’m still smiling thinking about it. Was such a good reminder of how much we can influence our world through the energy we bring and the simple gift of an open and genuine smile. So smile people, because nothing shakes the smiling heart and remember that happiness looks gorgeous on you. As Chris Hart said, “All the statistics in the world can’t measure the warmth of a smile.”
So get your smiley face on and dazzle everyone you meet. Tough shit if some people think you’re deranged. You’ll have a great day and hopefully also make those of of the people you cross paths with.
Happy World Smile Day!
(5 October 2018)
I read a great article the other day about a trending topic, ‘The Cult of Thrift’. The gods of this cult are minimalisation, debt-free living, frugality, decluttering and zero waste, gods I’ve been progressively bending the knee to over the last few months. In fact, it was so similar to my own experience, the article felt as if it had been written by a doppelgänger. Hadn’t realised I was part of a new wave — how advanced of me!
The main difference between us was that the writer has consciously embraced the thrift ethos whereas I’ve kind of blundered into it in a necessity being the mother of invention sort of way. In fact, after a couple of financially disappointing business investments, I’ve really had no option other than to pull my belt in big time. Thinking about it, said tightenign of belt was purely metaphorical. As the funds ran out like beer from a leaky barrel, epic levels of comfort eating kicked in meaning that I actually would have had to let out the belt a few notches … if I’d wanted to wear one that is. During this nadir, I pretty much stopped wearing belts or any other clothes with shape given the results of all the snout in trough stuff. However, I’m sure you’ll be as uplifted as I am by the knowledge that not only have I started wearing belts again, I’ve actually clawed back one of the lost belt holes and have confidence a normal waistline is in sight!
So much for metaphor! In any case, what started out as necessity quite quickly morphed into choice and I appear to be well on my way to becoming a paid-up Thrifter and feeling more virtuous by the moment.
So what has given me the keys to the Thriftdom? Unsurprisingly, given the above, a fair amount of it revolves round food and eating habits. For starters, bargain food hunting has become an obsession, if not actually a new sport. This has led to the dark art of cooking proper meals again instead of giving in to the Siren call of endless takeaways after too many stressful and long days at work. Sometimes the new me even cooks a casserole or soup or similar at weekends to stretch over several weekday meals.
I finally get the joy of auction sites like eBay and Trademe although I continue to try and buy as ethically as possible. I can’t exactly claim that Upcycle has become my middle name, but I have looked at a few things and had an ‘aha moment’ about refurb rather than trash. ‘Pre-loved’ clothing shops are very much on my radar. Having moved into a much smaller apartment, I no longer get small space envy whenever I watch a George C Clarke TV programme and I feel positively virtuous for the level of de-cluttering that’s resulted. I can thoroughly recommend this tactic to wannabee Thrifties. When you have limited space, it makes you think long and hard about what stuff you actually want to shackle yourself to. Choices have to be made people! It won’t all fit! In the spirit of transparency, I have to fess up to the fact that I haven’t yet been able to get myself to offload the many boxes of books I’ve been trailing around as I’ve moved into successively smaller homes to a second-hand book seller or book fair, so my sister’s enormous garage is currently multi-tasking as my library.
Limited closet space is also a great incentive to apply some of the anti- clothes-hoarding rules. You know — if you haven’t worn it in the last two years, it’s toast. If you buy a new garment, something must be consigned to the outer darkness of the clothing bin to make room for it. If it doesn’t work with something you’ve already got, put it back on the rack. And how many pairs of shoes does anyone not called Imelda need?
In all seriousness, after the initial trauma, de-cluttering is a very liberating activity. It’s not just stuff I’ve been getting rid of either. The thrift thing can be applied across all the facets of life. I’ve shed one business and stepped back from a couple of other professional involvements so I can concentrate fully on doing one role well. I’m also training myself to say no to all those ‘should dos’ that my inner crowd pleaser sees as obligatory.
Although thrifty has been a virtue since Adam was a boy (actually since around 1300 if you read dictionaries), the Thrift evangelists are out in numbers these days. You’d have to think that’s a direct result of the all the inconvenient truths we’re facing as a society and the fear the we might be going to Hell in a handbasket sometime soon if we can’t get the lid back on our contemporary Pandora’s box. Among the evils unleashed on the world when some fool opened it in this is the spend-thriftery (extravagant, irresponsible spending) that has come to define our consumerist western lifestyle.
But how could it be otherwise? We’re literally bombarded with subliminal and not-so-subliminal messaging carefully crafted to make us dissatisfied and want more, bigger and better everything. But don’t worry, if you can’t afford it, someone will lend you the money, up your credit card limit or provide ‘interest free credit’ so you can keep on consuming and owe a bit more of your soul to the company store. It’s unsustainable on so many levels — personal, community wide and for our equally stressed planet.
Actually, it’s obscene. Or at least in my rapidly de-cluttering life, it seems so. The concept of retail therapy — when the going gets tough the tough go shopping — sits at the centre of the problem. Particularly when the results are growing mountains of recycling that can’t (yet) be re-cycled, oceans stuffed with plastic and other toxic detritus and all the rest. Maybe we should create a new mantra; when the going gets tough, the tough go … on a peace march?
Shopping as our primary leisure time activity is particularly ironic given that we humans have so much innate creativity. Less time spent shopping leaves time for things that so often go on the back boiler. I love writing this blog as it helps me sort out my priorities, worldview and values. But when I get stressed and my life and mind get cluttered, I can’t write. There’s just no headspace to think about anything other than whatever is causing the stress, and I have sometimes gone for weeks without writing anything.
It has to be noted that the cult of thrift is not a judgement on the genuinely poor for whom thrift is not a virtue but potentially a life sentence. Rather, it is being held out as an alternative for people with means who want to get off the consumer treadmill and start living within them, taking responsibility for how their actions affect the present and future. It’s not about austerity, just changing our personal values and thinking more deeply about how we live.
Taking my own recent experiences, while I’m as keen to have the good things in life as the next person, I’ve found a lot of joy in appreciating what is instead of lusting after what isn’t. In this context, less is most definitely more. Getting my thrift on has become a highly creative and engaging new way operating which ironically becomes a much more sure-fired way of being able to afford to do the things I would like to. I feel up-lifted by the challenge not deprived. There’s certainly more time to smell the roses.
On a road trip a couple of weeks ago, my playlist dished up a song by Sting that I hadn’t heard for a while — An Englishman in New York. Glad though I was to be reacquainted with this old favourite, it’s been stuck in my head since like … er … a stuck record.
The Englishman in question was the infamous eccentric gay icon Quentin Crisp, who moved from London to New York in 1981 (incidentally the year I moved to London from Scotland as an starry-eyed post-grad). Crisp – or Denis Charles Pratt as he was born in 1908 — apparently came from a fairly conventional suburban English background. How he then made the leap from that to wearing make-up, painting his nails and including items of female clothing in his ‘look’ is anybody’s guess. Well actually, that’s not quite true. His autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant, which ultimately became a cult TV production starring John Hurt, made him a household name from the mid-seventies and removed the need to guess about his Genesis.
Quentin Crisp was many things in his time; a ‘rent-boy’, a professional model for life-classes in art colleges, a raconteur — his one man show filled theatres for many years in Britain and America — as well as a TV actor and personality. But it was the interviews he gave that fuelled the legend, particularly his take on manners and the cultivation of style, both of which he wrote about at length. He famously labelled himself as “one of the stately homos of England”.
I admired him hugely for his commitment to living life on his own terms in the certainty that everyone has a right to fulfil their true and unique potential. He seemed to accept that flying in the face of convention would not be a comfortable ride, particularly when you don’t evangelise the party line on divisive issues such as gay rights, and openly criticise wildly popular figures such as Diana “the people’s Princess”. While the ‘outrage factor’ certainly added to his allure, it also brought vitriolic criticism and disapproval. Whether or not this bothered him, it certainly didn’t change him. As Sting so elegantly put it, “It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile. Be yourself no matter what they say.”
Thinking about this concept of being yourself, no matter what they say, it’s always been one that’s been very dear to my heart. While I’m no rebel, like Crisp, I’ve always rated individualism and done my best to foster my own. Our human DNA seems to be infused with deep-rooted tribal instincts. In my own case, despite many years as an ex-pat, I still identify strongly as a Scot. But this only goes so far. Much as I like being around my own kind, I’ve never wanted to be one of the pack. For as long as I can remember, I had a highly developed sense of my own individuality which has always seemed to me to be a precious thing that made life fuller and more interesting.
Very early on, I found my own sense of style which I’ve built on through the years. I can remember teetering around the cobble stones of my alma-mater, Saint Andrews University, in the depths of the Scottish winter wearing outrageously precarious shoes and a moss green corduroy pencil-line skirt and jacket which I made myself. That was one of a number of similarly outstanding, if impractical ensembles in my wardrobe. I mention this only because it was a time when most of my peers were content with uniform blue jeans and Guernsey jerseys.
Moving to London post grad was like diving into a cornucopia of opportunities for self-expression. I found my spiritual home working in international media where anything goes, and idiosyncrasy was par for the course. With the natural advantage of statement hair of the blonde cork-screw variety I was the right fish in the right pond. Of course, I hated my hair with a passion when I was a violin-playing nerdy kid, but it became a real asset during those years for its sheer ‘out-there-ness’. I used to festoon this riot of tresses with all sorts of bows, bands and ornaments.
Coming back to Quentin Crisp, it takes courage to keep your faith. It’s much easier to wear the uniform, join a tribe, embrace the jargon. Several times in my life I’ve tried very hard to contort myself into being something I’m not — to conform to the expectations of a partner or to succeed in a job — with all the success of a gaudy tropical fish trying to survive in the freezing waters of Southern Ocean.
I’ve lost my way badly on a couple of occasions, somewhat ironically coinciding with a compulsion to straighten my hair! At one point I took a job in the Masters of the Universe realm of venture capital and attempted to become a ‘suit’. But even on the conservative end of my spectrum while I was trying to be one of them, my clothing selection was severely career limiting. I remember being sat down by my then boss for a talk about dressing for success a little like parent broaching the topic of sex education with their teenage daughter. He underlined his point by giving me a very chic and very suitable briefcase for Christmas the first year. I tried to confirm. I really wanted to. If nothing else, the financial incentives were very compelling. But after three years (I’ve never been a quitter) I did both of us — me and the firm involved — a sanity returning favour by understanding that Corporateland was not my natural habit and I’ve never ventured back.
I started this blog under the title Never Succumb to Beige. That was the best articulation I could find of my belief in the need to embrace our own uniqueness. It seems that as we grow up we’re conditioned out of liking those sparkly jelly shoes and garishly colourful ensembles most kids revel in. After all, they’re tawdry gewgaws that should be consigned to the dress up box as we grow up aren’t they? But who is the ‘they’ that impose the boundaries on our self-expression and creativity? If my sense of self says I lust after purple boots with fringes, what’s stopping me? That would be the crushing tyranny of good taste and what’s appropriate for my age and stage. But seriously, who cares? If a visual cacophony is what does it for you, why not? After all, girls just wanna have fun … even vintage ones like me.
I’ve just returned from another multi-year walk in the ‘who am I?’ wilderness. Every time I come back to my senses and remember the answer, I’m reminded of the Ivy Compton Bennett quote, “A leopard does not change his spots, or change his feeling that spots are rather a credit to him.” Unsurprisingly, my hair’s curly again and I’ve regained the feeling that it’s still rather a credit to me.
Be yourself, no matter what they say!
Late on Friday night I decided to do something I should have done months ago and put an end to a situation that’s been causing me anguish. This has been a trap largely of my own making and one which my sense of obligation has held me hostage to way beyond the call of duty. A number of small things combined as the straw that broke this camels back and forced me to finally take action. Nothing changes if nothing changes!
After this liberating decision, I’d love to say I then slept like a baby. I didn’t! Had one of those terrible, wakeful nights full of churned up thoughts that went nowhere. Eventually drifted off near dawn and slept fitfully for a couple of hours. Late in the afternoon, I took myself out for a walk along the waterfront. The sea was as still as serenity and sparkling like silver-dust. On my way back, in the gloaming, the last of the sun glimmered with such beauty on the mountains at the back of the harbour I stopped to drink it in. A tiny grey warbler landed on a bush next to me, closely followed by a chittering fantail. I stood transfixed for long minutes smiling at the antics of these two little creatures. It was delightful and I finished my walk with renewed spring in my step and warmth in my heart despite the encroaching chill of evening.
Earlier in the day, someone close to me, understanding my distress and the dichotomies involved, reminded me to look for the little joy things when life feels bleak. So true. I slept like a baby for 10 wonderful hours that night.
Thanks to the New Zealand birds website for the stunning cover photo.
A couple of weeks ago I joined a panel discussion after the screening in Wellington of the documentary She Started It as part of NZ Tech Week 2018. The film’s been around for a while but it remains an insightful production that is pretty much a ‘must see’ for women in the tech startup scene. I thought it a riveting piece of journalism covering a range of scenarios that are uncomfortably familiar having co-founded one myself. I was grateful to the organisers Xero because it made me look at my own journey in a whole new light.
She Started It takes a film camera inside the lives of five young female entrepreneurs over a two-year period as they go through the set pieces that are fundamental to any ambitious founder — pitching to Angel and VC investors, building teams and finding ways of getting their products to market. Some of them succeeded, some failed. The film captures their reactions to unfolding circumstances — the tears as well as the laughter. It’s an intimate, sometimes verging on voyeuristic invitation to walk a mile in their shoes.
The real power of the documentary lies in not shying away from the soul shrinking tough times when other people don’t get your vision and you are quite literally living on the smell of an oily rag. She Started It doesn’t pull any punches about the sheer grit it takes to get a new product off the ground. I was glad the directors weren’t tempted to sugar coat the message. It’s said that 99% of new business fail — even the best ideas, from the most determined, visionary and capable people are not guaranteed to make it. Caveat ‘wantrepreneur’ huh?!
As a secondary theme, directors Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed explored the nitty problem of female under representation in entrepreneurship, and the gender-based issues women entrepreneurs have to overcome. That too struck a strong chord with my own experiences. A co-founder of my business was told by a key player in NZ’s investment community not to bother even trying because she couldn’t make it as a woman in tech! When we started pitching the angel networks in NZ eight years ago, there were hardly ever any women in the room, investors or founders, and I believe from the bottom of my soul we would have raised more money initially if we had different chromosomes.
As the film played out, the story that caught me most was that of Thuy Trurong who had made her mark in her native Vietnam founding and running a chain of frozen yoghurt outlets. This intrepid twenty-eight-year-old Vietnamese woman moved herself and her team from Vietnam to Silicon Valley at a week’s notice to join the iconic 500startups program. Her company at the time, GreenGar, produced mobile apps including Whiteboard, a collaborative drawing application. Whiteboard achieved over nine million downloads in its first four years, was used by school students in more than 100 countries and achieved profits greater than a million US. Despite its seeming success, the team failed to bring in the capital required to scale it and the writing was on the wall. Ultimately, she had to go back to Vietnam and compose, “the hardest email I’ve ever written” to GreenGar’s loyal base telling them they were closing down. It was incredibly poignant, and I was drawn into her disappointment, but also her steely determination not to be ground down by the experience as she started thinking about her next venture.
Facing that terrible, gut-wrenching moment when you have to accept that the thing you’ve poured your lifeblood into is just not working is horrible. Really and truly and viscerally horrible. My sister and I launched a satirical magazine in the early 2000s. It was written for women like us who were looking for an alternative to the usual drivel dished up by the ‘glossy’ mags and it sent up the whole genre of outrageous cosmetic claims and superficial crap that they peddle. We called it SHREW Magazine. Conceptualizing and researching it and building the stratospheric business plan which depicted a worldwide SHREW membership spending whopping amounts in our SHREW Shop. It was the most fun I’ve had in my career.
Throughout, we worked like demented beings — I think was writing something like 25,000 published words a month — and my sister and insanely talented (sometimes just plain insane) friend were cranking out idiotic spoof ads and other glorious send ups from our crew of invented and totally outrageous Op Ed contributors. I remember editorial meetings when we were quite literally crying with laughter as we brainstormed things like how you would create the graphic representation of You Really Are What You Eat and Drink. OK, I know, you had to be there. But for us, it was glorious and funny, and we were on the mission we seemed to have been born for with our combined skill set and slightly offbeat take on the world. Of course, we crammed way too much content into each edition, so we would have likely burnt out if money wasn’t a factor, but the inspiration and ideas flowed like ‘Bolly’ in an episode of Ab Fab, and the joy of creation fueled the energy to keep the frenetic pace up.
The day the boxes of our first edition arrived and we were able to see our posters in our stockists’ windows was beyond exciting. And the launch party? Well, that was a night I will never forget. We expected people to be mildly amused but were totally floored after we handed out copies to our guests when the entire theater (we had the party on stage at an opera house) went silent as people started to read … then the laughter erupted, and we knew we’d created something incredible. It wasn’t just us founders who loved it. Our printers raved, the team at the distributor said they couldn’t wait to get at the next edition when it arrived from the printer, and our readers and subscribers … laughed on cue.
So, what went wrong? For a start, our timing was poor. I strongly believe that timing is everything and we were a couple of years too early with our offer. Thinking about it, we also could have been a decade too late. Either way, our timing sucked and the wrong time is the wrong time! If we’d launched even a couple of years later, we’d have created it as an online product and then been able to amp it up through the emerging social channels like Facebook. To us, SHREW was as much a club as a magazine. It would have been incredibly effective in an online environment where we could, with a bit of additional investment, have created the SHREW World that lived in our heads. Taking it online would also have made it a tech startup at a time when angel funding for such things was starting to be available … even on occasion for female founders!
Lacking this scenario, it came into being as a MOFO of a full colour 60-page magazine. We relied on hard-hitting content to and the club-like atmosphere to speak for itself and quickly build a cult following. We believed we could achieve the Holy Grail of the publishing world — a rapidly growing, loyal subscriber base that would remove the need for us to sell our souls to get advertising dollars that might have compromised our editorial freedom to tell it like we saw it. The issue here of course was lack of working capital to promote the bejesus out of our magazine. Not much point having a genius product no one knows about!
This wasn’t quite as random as it sounded. There have been some great publications that have worked on a model like ours. Most of the memorable ones have been primarily targeted at … er … men. And what’s wrong with us women that we’re so spot-welded to celebrity gossip, superficiality and the outrageous claims of pseudo-science? Anyway, we emulated iconic and commercially successful alternative publications like Private Eye and Viz in the UK. We even approached the publishers of Viz to seek backing as we figured our SHREW Magazine would be a perfect stable-mate. They pretty much laughed at us saying women would never go for it. Depressing though that was, it didn’t in any way damp our enthusiasm because we passionately believed there were like minded others out there who wanted something different, if only we could find them. As it turned out, we weren’t delusional in thinking this, we just couldn’t get to enough of them, quickly enough. The monthly print costs were unsustainable and, after five incredible editions — we had the sixth finished ready to roll — we had no choice but to call time because we had run out of runway.
People in the startup community talk glibly about the virtues of the ‘fast fail’. While it’s logical and eminently sensible to remove the life support when the condition is clearly terminal, it completely trivializes the emotional impact of doing it. Like Thuy, pulling the plug on GreenGar, closing our magazine was one of the hardest things any of us ever had to do. We did revisit the concept a few years later and try to take it online but the moment had passed. We were no longer the same people who’d tapped into the sparking, pacy narrative of the original — it was a mistake to exhume the corpse because the magic our earlier selves had conjured up had died with it.
In common with the women in the film, I seem to have some deep-rooted and obsessive need to bring new ideas to the world or to forge my own destiny. I’m not sure which. Maybe both. Since the magazine venture, I’ve been co-founder of two tech startups. One wasn’t commercially successful, but spawned the other . Eight years on, the jury’s still out on this one.
The truth is that most entrepreneurs don’t find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow even after ‘serial’ attempts. The Big Buck outcomes we read so much about, which entice and tantalize and keep you in the game busting stupid hours, sucking up shitloads of stress and sleepless nights are rare. Statistically, most of us are lucky if we make any more than we might had done if we’d stayed in regular jobs, likely less.
So why do we keep on keeping on? I believe it’s not uncommon for successful entrepreneurs to became so hooked on the adrenalin of growing a global business that they resort to gambling as a substitute when they exit their ventures. I understand that. Making something that’s never existed before is one hell of a blast. That burst of creative energy it takes to get it off the ground delivers a better high than any substance I’ve tried. Better even than the endorphins from a good work out. It has to, to make up for the frequent times along the way when you stare into the abyss wondering if you’re really prepared to lose not just one shirt, but your whole wardrobe.
The stakes are most definitely high, but the compulsion to see your dream start come alive holds an allure it’s hard to describe. Of course, if you do achieve the big pay out you’re a visionary and completely vindicated in taking the risks. If you don’t make it … well … you can always sell your soul and resort to dressing it up as a fast fail!
Watch She Started It
Cover Image from Are Female Entrepreneurs Set Up to Fail — great article and worth a read.
As I shivered getting up this morning, I thought about something from my childhood that always managed to bring some warmth on raw winter days in the Scottish Highlands where I grew up.
My family were all fans of the wonderful Peanuts cartoons by Charles M Schultz and we had several books. By a long way my favourite was called Happiness is a Warm Puppy. We were a family of dog lovers and that naturally extended to loving the Snoopy character. I remember someone saying once that anyone who said they didn’t know what happiness is could never have seen a puppy. I’d have to say that has always been bang on the money for me. I don’t currently have a dog but I’m teetering distance from a foreshore walk which is nirvana for our all manner of hounds, their owners and dog obsessive voyeurs like me.
Before you get to thinking I’m totally weird, I actually can’t help myself according to a wonderfully liberating article I just read in the Telegraph archive. Apparently it’s all to do with the hormone oxytocin which spikes in both human and canine brains when a dog is gazing at it’s owner. According to the writer, Sarah Knapton, “Oxytocin is known to play a strong role in triggering feelings of unconditional love and protection when parents and children look into each other’s eyes or embrace.So the findings suggest that owners love their pets in the same way as family members, and dogs return their devoted affection.”
Back in the day when my friends were having kids and I couldn’t join in those endless conversations parents have one-upping each other about the undoubted virtues of their little darlings. Stuck for any way of contributing meaningfully to such conversations, on one occasion, I resorted to referencing my amazing and hugely talented ‘fur baby’ and how well his training was going. I realised quickly and viscerally, as someone handed me my head in my hands to play with, that dogs are just not up there with human children to their parents, however incredible us owners think they are.
All these years later, I feel totally exonerated because it’s proven … by scientists no less … that we humans really can love our dogs as much as our children, something Cat Stevens recognised way ahead of science in his song 70s classic I Love My Dog as Much As I Love You!
If a Martian landed anywhere in the Western World this minute, he or she could be forgiven for believing that “love is all there is”. Bombarded by headlines full of “luvved-up” celeb couples, best-seller lists heaving with love-stories and radio-station play lists top-heavy with “love is in the air” lyrics, the hapless alien could be forgiven for not noticing much else. Love’s young — or not so young these days given the prevailing divorce rate — dream is all around us and we can’t seem to get enough of it. To our Martian, it could well seem as if love really does make this world go round. It is after all, the age-old human obsession. As some wag once said, ‘that old devil called love — if I could find him I’d probably kill him’.
I can just about remember the feeling … you look innocently into a stranger’s eyes, fall hopelessly in love and, in a heartbeat, your life is no longer your own. It’s like you’ve been flattened by a runaway train. One minute you’re your own person, happily putting one foot serenely in front of the other, emotionally un-encumbered and working on a satisfying life plan. The next you’re a quivering mass of lust-infused, hormone-driven confusion, carrying on like some tragic heroine in a third rate bodice-ripper. A force of nature has taken over your life, dominating every waking moment (and most of the sleeping ones too), striding around the windmills of your mind like a colossus on speed.
But is love good for us? According to an article I read recently, apparently the jury’s out. For sure, we talk about “lovesickness”, but this is generally tongue in cheek when we’re taking the piss out of stricken friends or rellies who are moping around and sighing a lot. However, there appears to be growing recognition from the medicine and science that it actually isn’t a joke. As with so many other human afflictions, this isn’t exactly news. If you asked any self-respecting medieval person, they’d be astonished at our cavalier attitude. To be honest they’d also be astonished at Disney’s take on Princesses!
Prior to the 18th century and as far back as written records were kept, lovesickness was accepted as a genuine, common and sometimes fatal condition, on a par with any other self-respecting mental illness. Medieval doctors thought that it was a disorder of the mind and body similar to melancholia, and their training typically included checking for symptoms of love such as the patient’s pulse quickening at the mention of the loved-one’s name. Apparently, obsession was the principle symptom and cause. Treatments varied; baths, good food and wine and sleep were all considered efficacious. Distractions such as as business and sports and games which could take the mind off the obsession were also thought to be worth a go. “Therapeutic sexual intercourse” was the ultimate remedy! But wait, there’s more. If there was no-one in the get-your-leg-over frame, paying for your therapeutic sex was recommended.
It’s only in relatively recent times that the concept of lovesickness lost its currently. The advent of ‘scientific’ psychiatry blew a scientific raspberry at such a foolish notion, and lovesickness was chucked into the medical dumpster in the ‘enlightened’ age that followed. Nowadays the pendulum has swung again; an increasing body of credible research suggests that our ancestors did know a thing or two after all. The belief that many people cannot cope with the intensity of falling in love, or suffer severely from their love being unrequited is experiencing something of a Renaissance.
Symptoms are said to include mania (mood swings, higher than usual self-esteem, extravagant gift giving), depression (tearfulness, insomnia, loss of concentration), obsessive behaviour (preoccupation with checking text messages/emails) and psychologically created physical symptoms (upset stomach, change in appetite, insomnia, dizziness and confusion). A recent Italian research programme concluded that the drop in Serotonin levels in a lovesick person’s brain were similar to those found in people with serious health problems such as compulsive disorders or drug addictions. The good news is that sufferers are not deranged, just madly in love, and love is quite literally making them sick.
Of course, the burning question is what to do about it? The current cure of first resort is counselling. Doesn’t seem a very romantic solution for such a delicate problem. But don’t despair! Now that we know our ancestors weren’t entirely clueless about the illness, maybe we should take their remedies a little more seriously. I’d say long sleeps, bathing and chowing down copious medicinal doses of great food and wine would be a pretty good anti-dote to any sickness, love induced or not. In any case, if all else fails, there’s always the “therapeutic intercourse” option! Alternatively, just grab yourself some good old Love Potion Number 9.
Cover image Lovesick by Canadian artist Keight MacLean — buy here at Saatchi Art.